Thursday, August 31, 2006

Love Me, Love My Dog !

Gerontologists say that older people, especially those who are alone, live longer if they have a dog. They get more exercise. They have someone to care for, someone who loves them unconditionally. I guess that’s true. The gerontologists fail to mention they also become a little bit whacko .When I grew up I didn’t have a dog. I didn’t feel deprived since none of my friends had a dog, nor did my extended family, nor did anyone I knew have a dog. I would conjecture that in the Ultra Orthodox communities in Borough Park or Lakewood or Monsey no one has a dog. I don’t believe there is a rule in the Talmud prohibiting dogs. It’s just not a heimish thing to do.

It took quite a while before I began seeing Jewish people with dogs. By now it has turned into something of an epidemic. On JDate more than half the people have dogs. They say things like ‘Love me, love my dog’. I assume the sentence is a command, dominatrix style:” If you are going to love me, you MUST love my dog! “, and not a plea, ‘Please love me & please love my dog”. All of a sudden a binary relationship has turned into a triangle.

Cat people never say ‘Love me, love my cat!’ I assume that’s because cat people frequently have more than one cat, and the cats being the sort of animals they are, frequently don’t like each other. The owners end up acting like a parent in a house where sibling rivalry is rampant. The cats being catty, standoffish and selfish are not even the owner’s friend. As a result there is a limit what one can ask of a companion

What these dog lovers are announcing is that a potential mate who loves them, but for whatever reason can’t warm up to their dog, will be ruled out in advance; it’s a deal breaker. If you had loved their dog it would have been soul mates forever and forever, but now it’s a non starter, because they can’t stand to be someone who only loves them, but not their dog. I keep on asking myself “Why? What would have been so terrible if their companion loved them, but was indifferent to the dog? Would this indifference take away from the love their lover feels for them?”

It’s not just that the pet mirrors the owner. We know people tend to buy dogs that bear some vague resemblance to how they imagine their own look or their own character. Dogs and their masters over time begin to act in the same way. A frazzled, discombobulated owner ends up with a similar pet. A neat, organized, obsessive- compulsive type usually has a dog that sits when it’s told to sit. Nevertheless, if dogs were only a mirror, people would not be so attached. It also can’t simply be that the dogs and the master are twins. Twins, even identical twins don’t say ‘Love me, love my twin’. It must be, I see no way around this, that the dogs are part of the owner. Their sense of self has somehow merged with their pet, so they are now one. We have a situation where the dog has been incorporated into the owner’s self; to a point if you don’t like the dog you thereby don’t like the owner.

Jewish dogs, or rather Jews with dogs, give new meaning to a remark in the Talmud, I believe at the end of the Tractate Sotah. (I am not getting paid enough to look this up). The Talmud after saying that in pre-Messianic times chutzpah will be on the rise, a prophecy that has been confirmed many times, goes on to illustrate this by saying the faces of the generations before the advent of the Messiah will be like the faces of the dogs. It now all makes sense. In Genesis it says God created man in His image. Before the Messiah arrives there will be generations of Jews who feel their dogs are isomorphic to their own self-image.

Here is an actual JDate profile: “If it is true that a dog is "man’s” best friend, then I am going to try to aptly describe myself in those terms. Consider the following: 1/2 Golden Retriever-(devoted and loyal to family and friends; trustworthy, kind and easy going; warm, playful and fun; well-trained; classic with a twist.)1/4 Lap Dog-(likes to be at home reading, watching movies, listening to music, and yes, napping!)1/4 Unknown/Stray-(loves to travel and explore different cultures, neighborhoods, restaurants, galleries, etc.)”

I rest my case.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Trendy Jewish Cuisines

There was a time in American Jewish life, in the 40’s and 50’s if you wanted to see a Jew you would go to a Chinese restaurant on a Sunday night. Full of Jews. You certainly wouldn’t find them in temple or a synagogue. Even today the most popular food in American Jewish life is Chinese.

A reason why Chinese food is so popular might be that the Jews who were overly fond of brisket have died. Another reason might be because Chinese food is all cut up. The food goes down easy without much chewing. It is similar to the Gerber baby food jars we feed infants, toddlers and hospice people. There is a certain unconscious regression to life when we were very, very young, coupled with a decent amount of fat, salt and cholesterol. Pre –Oedipal regression plus an infusion of the holy trinity of fat, salt and cholesterol is a very Jewish idea, and is part of what makes the Sabbath so very special, so shabusdig. Chinese food enables Jews who violate the Sabbath to acquire a small taste of the holy day of rest, and thereby gain a faint impression of the pleasures that are available in the afterlife that awaits us all. Jewish life owes a debt of gratitude to the secular Jews who were the early adopters of this cuisine. Eventually its popularity spread to all sectors of Judaism, to a point where it has now become natural and part of our Jewish traditions. And why not, if borscht is a Jewish food, why not egg foo yong?

In the 90’s sushi all of a sudden became a must have Jewish food. My sense is that sushi has already peaked and is on the way down in its popularity. The last Jewish groups that are really keen on sushi are Orthodox Jews. As in so many things, the Orthodox came late to the party, and still find sushi to be tres’ cool. “…and did you see the smorgasbord at the chasuna, (wedding) had a special sushi chef? So very elegaant.” The kosher supermarket in Skokie, Illinois, a hotbed of elegance if there ever was one, has a Japanese couple bowing and peddling kosher sushi. ‘Have a good shabus, Reb Chaim San’.

I have been told the new Jewish food in liberal Jewish circles is concept food. There are all these new restaurants that have totally new food. Creation ex-nihilo. Yesterday this type food didn’t exist. Today, POOF, it’s on your plate. The chefs use new ingredients, flowers and plants and what not, and new methods ….it’s all very complicated, and voila there is this shot-glass of vaporized brisket, something you and everyone else on the planet have never heretofore tasted. Here is a description of a dessert from one of these restaurants, Alinea in Chicago. “The flavors of Creamsicle and root beer are combined in Cointreau-spiked sassafras cream encapsulated in mandarin ice with vanilla cream and root beer sauce.” (I don’t know , but this dish sounds awfully close to what New Yorkers called an egg cream.) A 24 course meal, actually 24 dollops, sets you back $175 per person without wine or gratuity. Secular Jews who dine seem to be hot on this style of cuisine because it’s artsy and avant garde, and generally give these places good reviews. Jews who like to eat, hate it. I’ll wait for the kosher stores to hire one of these chemists. Until then I’ll stick to ptcha.

Speaking of ptcha, why is it that after so many years Jewish- American and American- Jewish cooking has not developed a single new authentic Jewish dish? Everything Jewish is from Europe or from sefardi cooking. All the other recipes are appropriated from American and other cuisines. Why is our cuisine so very derivative and unoriginal? What does this say about American Jewish culture?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Zlata Wears Prada

After writing yesterday’s blog I have come to the conclusion the MO/UO dialectic is becoming too intense and convoluted even by my hyperbolic standards. This heart-felt intensity wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I got started. I was thinking more along the lines of trying to write Seinfeld style pieces about nothing in particular plus some philosophical kibitzing on rabbinic politics. It was going to be easy, LSFIAB (=like shooting fish in a barrel). It didn’t turn out that way. I need a few days to think. I offer as a sorbet, a few blogs about nothing very much, unrelated and not sooo intense. I will return to RW MO and LW MO and RW UO and LW UO aka SO in the next week or two.(LOL= laughing out loud at all the acronyms) .

There used to be a joke in the fifties that there was an old woman in Jerusalem by the name of Zlata that determined the religiosity of the entire Jewish world. Zlata was the end of the line. There was no one more frum than her. Compared to little old Zlatala, everyone else could claim to be a moderate. ‘You’re calling me a fanatic? Look at those guys to the right of me .They are fanatics. Me, I’m middle of the road, more than some, less than others.” And in fact most everyone, no matter how religious, thinks of themselves as being in the middle. When have you heard anyone describe themselves as ‘over the top’, ‘off the wall’? Anyway, when Zlata pulled to the right, she shamed Edah Hacharedis who then pulled the Agudists who tugged away at the Mizrachi Modern Orthodox who influenced the Conservatives who challenged the Reform. In this chad gadya style, (“Then came fire and burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat…”), one old woman, Zlata was Queen of Israel.

The ‘Zlata effect’, as we may call it, occurs not just in Jewish life, but in other religions as well. One can think of Arab fanaticism as an example of the same movement, but with different players. In this blog I want to apply the ‘Zlata effect’ to the well known issue of the ideal female body

Asian teenage girls are frequently a natural size 0, 1, and 2.They are built in such a way that without any special effort they fit into the smallest sizes without a visit to a tailor. As a result of increased immigration from Asia there are many such teenagers’ everywhere. Normal American teenage girls who were a size 4 and 6 watched with envy what can be accomplished with Kate Moss types of anorexia. They began thinking of themselves as overweight and did what they could to lose weight: dieting, weight watchers, gym 7x a week and all the rest. We are now in a situation where there is an increasing incidence of teen eating disorders, even in the most charedi of communities. Soon older women with sizes 8-12 were following suit. All this left the women who were bigger than a size 12 in some isolated limbo with no hope of getting with the program.

Our physical standards of beauty have changed to the disadvantage of many Jewish women. Jewish men, especially the segment of Jewish men that are both overachievers and show offs have internalized this new ideal of womanhood. Zaftig is now out; thin is in. Normal Jewish women are subject to three serious challenges. The first is the paradigm of ideal body type has changed. The second is that there are significant numbers of women who can realize this new ideal without any difficulty, the most prominent being young Asian women. The third is the vast amount of capital that supports this new ideal. I have often thought the cable channel E! is implicitly anti-Semitic. Since it is always useful to project our discomfort onto others, I “blame” this paradigm shift on the ‘Zlatas’ of fashion, Asian teenage girls.

At some point in life, say past 55, because of a lower metabolism it becomes almost impossible to lose weight. When the woman is short, there is no place to hide, there is nothing to drape. The weight does not come off very easily even with monthly visits to Canyon Ranch. Single overweight older women are not in an enviable position. It is not unreasonable to think as many as a 100,000 Jewish women in America fall into this category. Many of these women feel it is hopeless and are no longer looking for a male companion. They have resigned themselves to being alone. They are the shiduchim crisis no one talks about.

Young people who don’t marry by 25 are not considered in jeopardy of lifelong unhappiness except by the Orthodox. The average age of the bride and groom in the Sunday N.Y. Times is somewhere in the mid thirties. Most everyone marries by the time they are forty. A crisis begins to develop only when there is a race against a biological clock, and even there medicine has accomplished wonders. In the case of older women that have thrown in the towel, that’s it!

Postscript: I could rework the entire blog but this time singling out older schluby, overweight Jewish men. Here my candidate for blame, since I am opposed to the ideology of self improvement would be buff gays. Ever since gay men started going to the gym, life has gotten a lot tougher for fat older guys. I would need a new title, some new jokes, a paragraph on gays and the ideal male image displayed in the fashion magazines, all of which should not be too difficult. My general point is that the real shiduchim crisis is with the over 55 set whose bodies are below average.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Am I Anti- Modern Orthodox?

Recently two readers of this blog complained, not for the first time, that my views are biased and prejudice against Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Last time they made these criticisms my response was “I haven’t even gotten started.” This time around I would like to speak more directly towards the issues. Because the criticisms are so broadly based, I know of no easy way of responding other than by ranting some without much hope of settling anything. What follows is my response to the criticism of Baalabus, which can be found in the comments on my blog of 8/23/06.

Baalabus- as usual you have posted a sharp and pointed criticism. I fail to see why you find what I have written sooooo upsetting. I am not a posek (legal decisor) or a rav or a spokesman for a group or a denomination. I’m one guy sitting in Evanston yada-yadaing away. So even if I contradict myself or don’t like what you like, it’s not really very important. I write from a subjective position, which is all that I could possibly do. I’m not standing in some neutral place above it all. I am talking out of my subjective experience and life. It is true that I am personally comfortable with Strict Orthodox people, mostly because of a long history of personal friendships. It is also true that I lack the creative imagination and empathy to write in a natural way about what it is to be Modern Orthodox. I can only do what I can do. A quote from The Little Prince says it best: ‘’It’s only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I have never suggested that a MO person ought to be anything other than what he is. Indeed, I did say as an empirical fact MO have Charedim on the brain and not vice versa, but I wouldn’t call that “skewering” anyone. As for my not blaming charedim for anything, I wrote five anti-charedi blogs on the Kolko affair, one anti-bashert blog, and a blog called “Torah Torah Torah!” where I called charedim obsessive. In my discussion of gays, I wrote that in having many children, charedim are bringing about greater numbers of gay children. In my blog called “The Center Moves Left”, I attacked charedim for distancing Conservatives. One reason that I am not up in arms about charedim is that much of what they say goes right past me. As an example, I believe Rebbe Eliyushuv was right in banning Slifkin, but not because I don’t believe in evolution. I have no doubt that evolution is true and I certainly don’t need Slifkin to tell me this. As I hope to argue, I’m opposed to importing evolution into the study of Torah. I have problems with the and in the ideal of 'Torah and Knowledge.'

I wrote a number of blogs defending Charedim from Modern Orthodox criticism. Whether I am right or wrong, these are not to be taken as direct criticisms of MO, but as defenses of Charedim. I do this because NOBODY else does it, except people who are lame. In fact, the Jewish blogosphere is one huge conversation of MO with itself. You certainly can’t have an objection to one blogger writing something outside the party line. It is true that I am not a fan of the philosophy espoused by Yeshiva University. (Torah Umadda). I am also not a fan of their style of learning or of the late Rabbi Soloveitchik. If I can work up the courage, I will blog on this. I point out that not being a fan doesn’t make me an enemy. Second all my objections are intellectual. I have no personal antipathy to the lifestyle or people called MO. In rereading what I wrote I found one glaring negative description. At the end of my blog of 8/15 I said the Strict Orthodox are in many cases more knowledgeable and more sophisticated than MO. If I could rewrite the piece I would omit the entire remark. I have no way of justifying such a claim, and for all I know it isn’t true.

In two of my pro-charedi blogs, I was less than enthusiastic about the political position of religious Zionism. Although I haven’t blogged on this topic, I acknowledge having a big problem with the religious, mostly MO settlers on the West Bank. I was terribly disappointed when Mizrachi went the way of the Gush. I could never understand why the Rav Kook schools of thought, (pere et fils) trumped the more moderate schools of Religious Zionism even in America. I say upfront I am a left-wing person. If somebody wants to read right-wing pro-settler views, they ought to go to a different blog. I think of such a disagreement as political; they have nothing to do with religion as such. I feel Charedim have some affinity with the progressive left. Even in the case of Strict Orthodoxy the situation is not really different. They have for the most part become right wing, but it will be quite some time before any of their children fight in a war. They are in favor of fighting forever provided the troops are supplied by the religious Zionists and the secular. On this particular issue I feel the more extreme charedim are generally less hypocritical.

Your claim that I idealize Conservative Judaism is also not true. I have not written one pro-Conservative blog, and have argued against Chancellor Schorsch’s ideal seminary curriculum. mixed seating, gay rabbis, and the movement of the Conservatives towards Reform. My criticism of Conservatives has not been a religious one but pragmatic. In fact, my entire blog is devoted to seeing how much can be done without appealing to religious arguments. It is therefore particularly ironic that you see me as not different from Charedim who criticize Modern Orthodoxy. They criticize from a religious point of view; to wit that MO are not frum enough. Such words will never pass from my lips.

Moving on to the continuum question…my view is that Orthodoxy is already a continuum. There are four shuls on one block in Boro Park, each minutely different from the other. Somewhere around left-wing MO the spectrum begins to thin out and keeps on getting thinner so that when you get to Jewish Renewal, it is like Montana… you can drive two hundred miles without seeing a soul.

I am in favor of a continuum from left-wing MO until the middle of the Conservative movement because I believe the center has collapsed, Conservatives are moving toward Reform Light, and I am not in favor of building a wall around Orthodoxy. An additional reason, which I haven’t spoken about, is that I believe the place to make a stand against intermarriage is somewhere just left of Conservadox. I leave this for another blog. When one gets to Reform it is totally utopian to talk about a continuum. Reform and even Conservative Judaism are not sufficiently well-defined to be able to speak of a specific way of life, let alone a continuum of many different variants. I will blog on this topic.

In answer to your rhetorical questions…I am not a peace-and-love-unity guy. As far as I’m concerned, MO and Charedim can tear themselves apart from now until eternity. I consider my essays as a contribution to the polemics. Furthermore, I don’t have a problem if the right-wing of MO defines themselves by way of contrast with the wishy-washy left-wing MO. I believe that the bitching on all sides is what makes Jewish life so interesting. The existence of an other serves a constructive function of solidifying a community.Your final question was “who is more tolerant of Edah, etc., the Modern Orthodox or the Charedim?” The term ‘’MO’’ is ambiguous; very left- wing MO IS Edah. As for the Y.U. crowd, I stand by what I said in my blog on Orthodox women rabbis. Of course Charedim are not accepting of Edah, but they don’t interface with them. Not only don’t they accept Edah, they never even heard of them. The polemics in a place like The Jewish Observer is mostly against Y.U./R.I.E.T.S. branch of MO because they are the competition.

One final thought…there are a lot of things that MO can say against Charedim, which would be very effective and are not frequently said. The one thing you don’t want to say is that MO is also really, really frum. Once you get into the “me-too” game, you lost. You end up having the worst of both worlds….you become black and still feel the snobbery of the charedim.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

More And More Orthodox

A topic that people in and around Orthodoxy keep on talking about is why Orthodoxy became so much more extreme and religious. The euphemism is how did it turn so black? Everyone of a certain age remembers when it was perfectly fine to wear panama straw hats even on Shabbus. Today, in many Jewish neighborhoods, it’s a big no-no. One can multiply examples by the dozen. Why did this happen? There are lots of ideas and I’ve already suggested one story in my blog of 8/01/06. It might just be that there are multiple explanations, each being part of a larger story. So there’s no contradiction in giving five- six explanations.

A theory I am partial to is the inflation theory of frumkeit (religiosity). The theory is presented in an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, I guess, somewhere between 1993 and 1998. I am too lazy to go find the article. As I remember the theory, it goes like this: It starts with the concept of signaling which began in anthropology and was applied to economics by George Akerlof. Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his contributions to the understanding of markets with asymmetric information. Here’s an example of signaling. Suppose you go to a job interview and the guy wants to know if you’re qualified. You answer by saying “I have a B.A. from Harvard, an M.B.A. from Wharton and I worked for three years for Mr. Famous Rich.’’ The interviewer goes on to the next set of questions. He doesn’t give you a little exam to see if you are really qualified. He figures if you’re okay by Harvard, Wharton etc., you’re qualified. You didn’t say you are qualified, you didn’t prove it, you signaled your qualification. Another kid comes in equally knowledgeable and says he went to Northern Illinois University. The questioning first begins as to what he knows. When everyone goes to college there is no signaling value in having gone to a third tier school.

The inflation theory has a basic premise that a major function of the extremist overlay of a religious group serves a signaling function. It is a way of showing others that one is really frum. It is show and tell time , without the tell. Why would people do this? Orthodoxy offers major social benefits to its members. If somebody falls and loses their ability to earn a living, others reach out and help. If there’s a crisis in a family because of health reasons, or other special circumstances, a person is not alone. There are in many communities dozens of gemachs, organizations dedicated to specific charitable deeds. There is a bridal gown gemach, where people donate gowns that we used at previous weddings for the benefit of young women who can not afford to buy a new gown. There are multiple small business loans gemachs, where people can borrow money at no interest to tide them over a difficult economic time, and so on. There are in some towns and cities telephone books of gemachs.

Because of this social welfare net, Orthodoxy faces a free-rider problem. There might be people who would like the benefits without the obligations. They enjoy the social networks, the feelings of warmth and community, and the implicit assurance of help during difficult times. The problem is they would like to naash a little bit…perhaps eat food that isn’t so kosher or observe the Sabbath in a more lax way, or do some things that are totally verboten. How’s a community to guard itself from such free-riders. The answer is to demand a person stand up and show that one is committed to the way of life. For example, it is demanded of people that they wear a hat or yarmulke in public. Wearing a hat in public might not be the most serious thing from a halachic point of view; but as a means of signaling membership in the community by willing to undertake something that is at times embarrassing it is of great importance. It raises the cost of membership thereby filtering out potential free riders. Only those who are really frum would be willing to pay the price of membership.

Over time, for a reason that is not perfectly clear, inflation has taken a toll in the signaling process, so the problem of free-riding has emerged one more time. Inflation has caused the original signals to be ineffective. Shirkers of their responsibilities have already picked up the trick of, let’s say, wearing a yarmulke. In a world where everyone is offering the same exact basic signal, we need to take it up a level say to black hats or showing one’s tzitith. If one is interested in signaling membership in some sub-group, additional signs are required…beard, peyot, long frock coats. We all know that a trained observer can pretty much figure out which sub-group an Orthodox Jew comes by looking at the outfit.

Inflation keeps on marching, outfits are not enough, so we now need new differentiating signals. Do you have a television or a VCR (secular culture)? Do you send your children to learn in Israel? In a kolel? Do you eat regular lettuce (bugs)? Do you drink ordinary water (tiny, tiny bugs)? Do you wear sheitlach from India (hair from idolaters)? Do you have two sets of appliances (one for milk and one for meat)? Do you have a separate kitchen for Passover? As we get deeper and deeper into Orthodoxy, more signals are required and as time goes on these signals weaken in their effectiveness and that requires even more differentiating features. Do you have 6 children? Do you have 9 children? Over time it becomes more and more difficult to show that one is really frum.

I think this theory is sort of cute and can be applied in all sorts of ways. Signaling is a powerful concept which has many applications; for example to Palestinian-Israeli relations. The weakest premise is the assumption there are so many pay-offs in being Orthodox there is a free-rider problem. If there are free-riders, they are not necessarily at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Rich people are not trying to freeload off a gemach. On the other hand, the theory can be propped up by considering more and more subgroups. There might be a signaling process to show that one is Yeshivish (slouching the hat) or Heimish (dropping a reasonable amount of Yiddish words) or Chassidish, where the benefit is the status value of membership in these subgroups.

Using the idea that stringencies, (chumras) are signals to establish one’s frumkeit credentials, we can see the similarities with other such instances of signaling. One might being by thinking of Orthodox signaling as similar to the signaling of gangs. Large gangs need ways of identifying members. One gang might rollup the left pant leg while the rival gang rolls up the right. One gang might wear red as their primary color while another gang might wear black. Jerseys with identifying numbers and letters, baseball caps slouched to the left, baseball caps slouched to the right, secret and special greetings, some drive Bonnevilles, some drive Explorers…there is no end to it. There too inflation is rampant. As we say, it’s not easy to be (seh’iz shver tzu sein ) a gang banger.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Burqas, Hijabs And Sheitlach

Most secular people who live normal American lives are shocked when they see Gulf Arab women dressed in burqas , the black garment covering the face and body. Many years ago in Vienna I saw a column of these burqa women walking silently one behind the other. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was shocked one more time when I read a study released by the Gallup Organization. Here are some quotes:

Muslim women do not think they are conditioned to accept second-class status or view themselves as oppressed.

When asked what they resented most about their own societies, the hijab, or head scarf, and burqa, were never mentioned in the women's answers.

A majority of the respondents did not think adopting Western values would help the Muslim world's political and economic progress.

The most frequent response to the question, "What do you admire least about the West?" was the general perception of moral decay, promiscuity and pornography.

An overwhelming majority of the women polled in each country cited "attachment to moral and spiritual values" or religious beliefs as the best aspect of their own societies.

Western perceptions have generally cast Arab women as victims. Women's empowerment has been identified as a key goal of U.S. policy in the region. All this interest in Muslim women's rights has been without much empirical information on "what Muslim women want." It turns out they say they want to be treated pretty much in the way Muslim women are treated. (They didn’t ask anyone’s opinion of the common Muslim practice of blaming the victims of rape. No women can be so foolish as to agree with that barbaric custom.)

The study raises interesting philosophical issues concerning paternalism. Is it right to liberate someone who doesn’t want to be liberated? Is it permissible? In general I think the answer is no. For example, I think it is wrong to explain the academic studies of the Bible to people who have never heard of these studies, and would be shocked to hear the various hypotheses. One has to be very gentle and discerning in such cases, even if one believes some of these academic studies are correct and the believer is living in la-la land.

Even though I am in general opposed to paternalism in religious matters I am very proud of President Bush for raising the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan under the Taliban. A lot of people questioned his sincerity. Bush is not the sort of President we associate with feminist issues. Women were deliberately included from the start in the Karzai government. Afghanis must have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief when the names of these ministers were announced. A year after the Islamist’s defeat, three million children, many of them girls, were enrolled in school for the first time.

A liberal reformation of Islam will be marked by at least two features: the empowerment of women in the Muslim world and the willingness of Muslims to exercise their freedom of conscience. If there was a way to help the women move on towards modernity, they might act as a moderating influence on their more primitive husbands. So far, no one has found a way to split the sexes in the Muslim world. One way might be the radio stations we and the BBC transmit into Arab and Muslim countries should include specific programs aimed at empowering women.

I think charedi life carries some insights on this topic even though it offers no practical lessons. Consider the case of sheitlach (wigs). Many Orthodox women cover their hair, and many of the women who do cover their hair, do so by wearing a wig. To the best of my knowledge women who cover their hair are comfortable and satisfied with this arrangement.

The original impulse for this rule, I would imagine, is the same as for the hijab. It’s an attempt to guarantee the chastity of the women, while the men are given a bit more latitude to roam (e.g. polygamy, but never polyandry). It is part of the honor of a man that his wife is chaste, and in order to guarantee such chastity society must enforce modesty, especially in the dress code. Along comes the modern world and Jewish women want to look good and go out into society, while at the same time, maintaining in some way or other the traditions of our past. What is such a woman to do? We all know the answer; it is to find wigmakers who are capable of creating wigs that look as good as one’s own hair and sometimes even better. Everyone is more or less happy. The women look good, the rabbis can’t complain too much since the women’s hair is covered (by more hair), and, more or less, the original impulse for chastity remains in place. A woman wearing a sheitl, almost always has high standards of virtue and commitment to family life. To a larger extent, this sort of creativity is totally missing in Islam. They are dullards, strict non-creative, almost Karaite in their legal rulings. If there were only some way to show their jurists how to keep their values while moving into the modern world, much would be accomplished. Maybe we ought to invite the Chief Legal brouhaha of Saudi Arabia to the next rabbinical convention.

I was pleased to read in an interview with the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear-Yishuv Cohen where he expresses a similar thought in a more serious way . The interview, sadly only Hebrew, is worth reading just for the biographical material about his father, the mysterious Harav Hanazir, one of the more enigmatic personalities in the circle around Rav Kook. Rabbi Cohen says "I believe that we find ourselves in messianic times, so that the children of all the Abrahamic faiths , that is to say Islam and Christianity …will accept the instruction of the people of Israel to teach them the pure faith." Before we dismiss the idea as a pipedream we should remember that the Nazir predicted the holocaust way before it ever happened. In any event in troubled times like ours it is a consoling fantasy.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Orthodoxy and Feminism

Orthoprax in a recent blog (8/15) lays out the controversy between Orthodoxy and feminism: “Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls? Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic poseket (judge)? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket (judge)? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah (sermon) worth listening? You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places?”

There are a number of responses to these sorts of frequently heard complaints. The first and most straightforward answer is that the Bible, the Talmud, and the subsequent tradition are inherently patriarchal. If there was a solution to the complaints listed above, there would be ten more right behind. A woman or a man who finds this sort of patriarchy unacceptable and an affront to their dignity and self-respect ought to draw the appropriate conclusions, move on and leave Orthodoxy.

Obviously this is not a solution for most Orthodox women because they are as deeply committed to their religious way of life as the men. My point is that the apologetics are frequently worse than the disease, and just lead to total confusion. I have no patience for somebody who tries to tell me there is something essential or necessary in a patriarchal organization, or that women are so constituted that it would be in violation of the laws of nature for them to give a sermon. It is true that when you make a change in one part of the religion there will be externalities, unintended and unforeseen consequences, which will cause changes in other parts of the religion. But one cannot forever say who knows what is going to happen. If we did, we would all be living in caves.

When I was younger, I used to think the feminists who were complaining the most were those who were least successful in the professions and business. Women who were successful and had a happy family life didn’t have the need to fight for the right to put on tefilin. As I have grown older I realize that even if this generalization is correct, and I’m not sure it is, it is irrelevant. If a woman says something bothers her, it bothers her. The burden is never on the discriminated party to defeat these sorts of counterfactuals. The woman doesn’t have to prove that she would find it equally distasteful even if she were successful

A second approach, which many women have adopted, is to organize, lobby and pressure the religious establishment for changes. Over the long run, I believe this approach might succeed in part, at least in Modern Orthodoxy. The changes are slow in coming, and might not happen within our lifetime. To be sure feminists have had a few successes…an assistant rabbi, an enlightened congregation Shira Chadashua in Jerusalem, Talmud classes in a variety of places, and so on. I don’t think, however, that women alone can make these changes occur everywhere without the help of their husbands and sympathetic men. I wish these groups every success.

The bulk of Ultra Orthodox women are not moved by these feminist critiques, and it’s important to understand why. I believe most of the women think of these religious issues as largely symbolic, and their main concern are the substantive issues raised by feminism. On their view what is important is that women have the opportunity to exercise and develop their talents, that the tasks of child-rearing be divided in an equitable way, and that both husband and wife have an equal opportunity for success and happiness. These sorts of issues can only be decided within the context of a family, and depend very much on the particular conditions of the family itself, and the personality and character of the members of the family. A husband and a wife with a handicapped child do not have the same opportunities as the parents of healthy children. The differential earning capacity of the spouses, the number of children, the age of the children, and an endless number of other factors all determine how the duties of family life are distributed. Feminism has very little to contribute directly to this issue, once the basic principal that a woman is entitled to the same life possibilities as a man is accepted.

When it comes to these basic questions most Orthodox women would say their opportunities in life are not affected by their less than equal status in many areas of halacha. Feminists would argue it is impossible to have a patriarchal religious superstructure and real equality of opportunity. I think the Orthodox are right about their own situation, though maybe not in the general case. In Islam the patriarchal legal system has a much bigger influence on the opportunity of Islamic women to develop their talents.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

OMG-D An Orthodox Woman Rabbi

The New York Times (8/21) reported that Dina Najman, “a mother of three and an expert in Jewish bioethics, will become the spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer, a small Upper West Side congregation. She will not be called rabbi; instead, she has been given the title of rosh kehillah, or head of congregation. It is the highest position in the community, and she will be performing many of the functions of a rabbi, within certain limitations that have been laid out by the congregation’s leaders in an effort to abide by Jewish law…While Ms. Najman will be the spiritual leader, because she is a woman she will not be allowed to lead services or read from the Torah. Nor will she be counted toward the minyan, or preside over certain events like baby-naming ceremonies and weddings. What she will do, however, is deliver sermons, answer questions about Jewish law from congregants, teach classes on Jewish texts and counsel people, all traditional rabbinical functions.”

When I read this I thought this was fairly innocuous and unimportant It turns out it is a big deal to the world of blogging. Modern Orthodox bloggers find the entire episode offensive. The distinguished blogger Hirhurim (8/17) sniffed, “this has nothing to do with Orthodoxy.” His reason was that although the congregation abides by Orthodox halacha, the previous rabbi was Prof. David Weiss-Halivni formerly of JTS and Columbia. It is therefore stamped with the original sin of Conservative Judaism even if its practices are strictly Orthodox and it is not a member of any conservative rabbinical organization. The irony here is that Prof. Halivni resigned from JTS when the Conservative movement agreed to ordain women rabbis.

The blogger Cross-Currents says, without any evidence, “It is fine that Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer, in the words of the Times, “functions essentially as a modern Orthodox community, seeking to adhere closely to halakah, or Jewish law. It’s close, it just isn’t all the way there.” I appreciate the pun on ‘close’, but a joke does not make somebody into a Conservative. In fact, the majority of Conservatives, especially the group that is now in charge, would consider this congregation far too religiously extreme. I don’t think Prof. Hauptman will be davening here in the near future.

Reading the comments on the various blogs, the main complaints against a woman leading a congregation seem to stem from two main underlying concerns. Some Orthodox men think a woman rabbi is an oxymoron. They just don’t think it is possible for a woman, whatever her competence in Jewish law, to be the leader of a shul. I think some of this has to do with the imagery in the study of Torah. If the Torah is marked as female, then the acts of penetrating the Torah, mastering its intricate details, clinging to the Torah, and even loving the Torah, seem to be naturally associated primarily with a male. Nature, itself, at least on the Orthodox view, favors heterosexual relations. Whatever the exact underlying psychology, many Orthodox Jews find it impossible to idealize a woman as a spiritual leader.

The second concerns come from Modern Orthodox Jews who feel that if they were associated with these abstruse, vaguely Orthodox groups, they would be exposed to devastating criticism from the right. Charedim don’t have a problem with this woman since it will be a long time coming before Rabbi Najman will be delivering sermons in the Vishnitzer’ Bais Medrash or any similar place. The Modern Orthodox realize they are vulnerable to criticism from charedim on their right because of the porous and somewhat indefinite left flank. They feel it incumbent to differentiate themselves from any changes that have not already been accepted by Modern Orthodoxy. All they have at their disposal, since Hashem didn’t lay down the rules for how to be Modern orthodox is the essentialist gambit: “You call THAT orthodox,” followed by eyes rolling upward. They seem to feel if it isn’t already common practice at Yeshiva University it can’t be Orthodox. These same Modern Orthodox are the first to characterize the Chasam Sofer’s slogan ‘’everything new is forbidden ‘’ as rigid and fanatic.

What we have here is a congregation that is either Orthodox or something in between Orthodox or Conservative, which has yet to be classified into some newly created denomination. There’s a huge space between left-wing Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement, and there’s enough room for a dozen variants. My view is the more the merrier. I think all these organizations, including Drisha, YCT Rabbinical School, the now partially defunct Edah group, The Union of Traditional Judaism, the Jewish Orthodox Feminine Alliance (JOFA) and many others that are in the making are all to be welcomed. In time all these grops may someday coalesce into a new ‘’frum- enough- and- MODERN’’ denomination in Jewish life. If this will force the Modern Orthodox to become more charedi, what can I say … it is difficult to be a Jew.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Men Davening With Men

Orthropax the other day expressed the standard liberal view on the separation of sexes in the synagogue. He says, speaking to a woman commentator: “How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah(partition) is so positioned that women are way in the back? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?”

My response is we should all be so lucky. As we all know the atmosphere in liberal congregations is a far cry from being sexually charged. There is no reason other than architectural convenience that woman must sit in the back of men. Parallel seating, provided there is an appropriate mechitza is to the best of my knowledge equally good.

The sexual attraction of women plays a minor role to what I think is the primary benefit of separate seating. Looking first at the male side of the equation, I believe two things occur when men pray with men. The first is male bonding, which is exceptionally valuable in any marriage. It’s a Jewish version of “Boys Night Out.” It is fun and interesting to sit with your male friends and talk over what happened during the week. We all know there is ample time on a Saturday morning service to do a fair amount of schmoozing, kibbitzing, and kvetching. Friendship between men is an important component of a happy marriage. The alternative is to socialize only in the company of one’s wife. Over time, the absence of male bonding places unnecessary strains on a marriage . There’s a place in life for guys acting like guys with guys. Such bonding is not particularly homoerotic, though occasionally it might play a minor role. It is first and foremost the experience of same-sex friendship. The Greeks knew and wrote of friendship as a virtue. Jews also know how important friendship is in a good life. The quest for piety and the obsessive quality of Torah study prevented the various musar seforim (tractates on ethical and moral improvement) to speak positively about male friendship. They tend to think of males hanging out as a moshav latzim, a meeting for the purpose of joking around. And indeed, many times there is a fair amount of lighthearted banter. I say a certain amount of moshav letzim is uplifting to the human spirit. It is part of friendship.

The second major benefit of separate seating is that it provides a vehicle for a father to be a father to his son. Competency in shul is a religious capital that is built up slowly. When a father has an opportunity to walk to shul with his son, teach him how to function in a shul society, it is a special way of enabling a child to identify with his father. In addition, the existence of all these men around the father who tease and talk and fool around with the young boy enables the young male to have role models other than the father. Each of these models is like one strand in a rope. The more strands there are, the stronger the rope. A self is constructed by having multiple connections to the world around you. As the father’s friends slowly accept the growing boy into their circle, the father’s burden is lightened. Idiosyncratic failures in a father are dampened because there are alternative versions of adult males. When a family is isolated the failures of the parents are accentuated. Living in a community organized around a congregation provides more models for young people than a world that is more individualistic and private. A doxological community, i.e. a community organized around prayer in a church or synagogue, is almost by definition inclusive. The inclusive quality of such communities affects the children and makes growing up much easier. (see my blog of 8/17 on gedolim )

There are similar remarks to be made about women klatching with women and bonding with their daughters. The situations, however, are not completely symmetrical. Women have more opportunities to bond with their daughters than men with their sons. So the increased opportunities that synagogue services provide are somewhat less meaningful. It’s also true that women more easily bond with other women in mid-life, than men bond with men. Men from latency until their forties find it easy to socialize with other men. Over time men have to make an effort to seek out other men. There is a tendency for men to become more isolated, and to rely on their wives for company. It is one of the reasons why country clubs and golf are so popular. It is therefore understandable why women feel less of a need to sit with other women.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Praying With Feminists

Reform and Orthodox Judaism are increasing their membership. Conservative Judaism is getting smaller. What to do? Professor Judith Hauptman thinks she knows the answer. In The Jewish Week article (8/13/06), she says the problem is that the Conservative movement “instead of aggressively promoting equality for women as a grand and welcome new ethical truth, the leaders gave a choice to Conservative synagogues: to integrate or not to integrate women into leadership roles. Both option remained equally valid…If the Conservative movement wants to stop losing members; it needs to clarify its moral vision. It must withdraw the permission to be anything other than fair to women.”

I especially enjoyed her remark that went, “Talmudists like me know with precision that feminist changes, and others on the agenda like the ordination of gays as rabbis, are all doable within the framework of halacha.” She quotes the well-known Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg, “If there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.” Professor Hauptman is indeed a distinguished Talmudist. She is, for those not familiar with her name, a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her work on the Tosefta is challenging and interesting.

Despite her contribution to the academic study of the Talmud her halachic sensitivities, I must say, are less than zero. Using the cynical quote from the noted poseket hador (legal judge), Blu Greenberg illustrates her attitude. Her solution to all problems where there is a conflict between halacha and her values is to throw out halacha. She has little feeling for or appreciation of the post –Talmudic halachic tradition. Her mantra could be ‘if it looks archaic relative to my progressive liberal values, it is archaic. If it is archaic, throw it out.’ Her methodology reminds me of The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. Every time Margaret Dumont object to part of the contract Groucho says no problem and Harpo tears off a piece. Eventually there’s nothing left. It is also clear that Professor Hauptman’s commitment to the relativism of halacha does not also include a sense of pluralist tolerance inside the Conservative movement. Here’s a lady, which if she had her way, would crack the whip, and force everyone into her feminist straightjacket. The only thing that is not relativist in her system of values is the rabbinical right of enforcing top down hegemony. Her progressive values have no place for allowing each congregation the freedom to decide.

What is most wrong with Professor Hauptman’s approach is that she is mistaken about the effect of feminism on the demographics of the Conservative movement. Since its beginning, the movement has been moving towards greater and greater egalitarianism. If one goes to many of these synagogues, they are frequently empty. If one goes to an Orthodox synagogue, where strict patriarchy dominates they are frequently full. Why is that?

I claim that when men and women sit together, synagogue attendance declines. When there is a woman rabbi, synagogue attendance declines even further. When there is separate seating, men hanging with men and women with women, synagogue attendance increases, because more men attend. The connection between the two, on my view, is not accidental. The fact that men do not have to sit with their wives and vice versa, makes synagogue attendance more attractive.

If the question on the table is how to increase membership and synagogue attendance in the Conservative movement, there is no basis in reality for the belief that pushing the egalitarian idea is a successful strategy. I understand the clock can not be turned totally back, but there is no empirical reason to force synagogues where women do not have leadership roles to change.

Historically it was the women who pressed their husbands to attend a synagogue where they would sit together. The husbands agreed, not knowing what they were getting into. Over time, the husbands became reluctant to go to synagogue. Women are in favor for mixed seating for many reasons. Sometimes they think they are less competent than their husbands in following the service. They feel if they sat alone they would be lonely. They think of separate seating as a form of discrimination. Once the egalitarian ideal was set in motion, irrespective of consequences, it was a short step to push it to the next stage and ordain women. No one has gone out and actually measured the effects on synagogue attendance when there is a woman rabbi. I would conjecture that when gay rabbis show up, no one will bother to find out what effect a gay rabbinate has.

Today in many of the great reform Temples in Chicago, the chazzan (cantor) is a woman, or the rabbi is woman, or both. The Saturday morning services are attended mostly by elderly women. A majority of students at the Reconstructionist Seminary are women. Reform and Conservative Seminaries are not far behind. In time the rabbinate will be, in all three movements, a women’s profession like education and nursing. I can’t believe women and gays chanting and preaching to a mostly elderly female audience is the way to attract men away from the golf course.

To be continued…

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What Year Is It?

Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal (8/15/06) created a cute way of sorting out the various positions on foreign policy. There is a need for some such gimmick because in the next election, there is going to be so many slogans we will not be able to keep track. Labels that have already been proposed are “progressive realism,” “realistic Wilsonian,” “progressive internationalism,” “democratic globalism.” His proposal is that where you line up on any foreign policy question depends on your answer to the question “What year do you think it is?” He offers five schools of thought.

President Bush believes it’s 1942. We are in the middle of World War III. We have a duty to fight until victory, Saddam and Zarquawi are our Hitlers and Tojos, and as in time of war, there is ample justification for the suspension of some civil liberties.

The second school is the 1938ists. They believe that the second Lebanon war was our Spanish Civil War, Iran’s march towards nuclear power is equivalent to Hitler’s brinkmanship. We are in the beginning of a much larger conflict with Iran and radical Islam. People that don’t see it are no different than the followers of Neville Chamberlain and his politics of appeasement in the 1930’s. We should have killed Hitler before he got going, and we should have a preemptive strike against Iran. Leading spokesmen are William Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Michael Ledeen, and most neo-Conservatives. Some neoconservatives, however, like Norman Podhoretz, with his forthcoming book on World War IV, are 42ists.

The third school, mostly Democrats, think we are in a Truman era. These 1948ists insist that the relevant historical analogy is the Cold War with its emphasis on containment and multilateralism. The ‘48ers are sometimes ‘38ists who repented and are now skeptical about military intervention. They emphasize the importance of ideas and diplomacy in the long struggle against militant Islam.

Then there are those who believe that George Bush is Nixon, Iraq is Vietnam, and that invading Iran and Syria would be like bombing Cambodia. These anti-war leftists, one might call them the 1972ists, have not been successful in American electoral politics, though they are quite popular in Europe. After all, McGovern is not considered by anyone as a shrewd or successful politician. It doesn’t help much that the leading spokesmen for this view are Michael Moore of Bowling for Columbine fame and the editors of The Nation, a magazine that has seen better days.

On the far-right of the spectrum we have those who feel that President Bush is a Woodrow Wilson figure, an idealist who is going to sacrifice U.S. interest and global stability on the alter of messianic liberalism. These are the 1919ists, the people who believe we never should have entered World War I. A lot of people are migrating to this Patrick Buchanan view, including William F. Buckley and George Will.

Having introduced this nomenclature, it is easy to see how the Democratic far-left and the Republican far-right are bedfellows of sorts. We also can understand how a liberal like Lieberman is an ally of Bush… they are both ‘42ists. So is John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. The Democrats can run as a 38ist, 42ist, or 48ist; their choice. They can not run as a 1972ist if they want to win and they know it.

My view is that the appropriate historical analogy, if any, for Israel and the Jewish people, is the period of the Second Temple. Then as now there are three groups, the Zealots, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. Most Israelis are Zealots. They disagree only on minor points. Most everyone in Israel is agreed about the necessity of fighting radical Islam and defending the state. The majority of Americans are Sadducees. They have bought into assimilation and the integration of secular culture into their life, while nominally organizing around temples and federations. They love Israel and would like it to succeed. They are staying in America for many reasons including the not unimportant consideration that Israel is situated in a bad neighborhood. The last group is the Orthodox adherents of the rabbis who, as we all know, are the successors of the Pharisees. Diaspora Modern Orthodox have internalized many zealot views, but in general their commitments to the Zealots does not extend beyond monetary support.

There is another very important analogy with the Second Temple times. When the Temple was destroyed, the Sadducees, no longer having the Temple as their anchor and having internalized Hellenistic culture, eventually disappeared. The Zealots were successful in removing the heavy hand of the Seleucids on Jewish national life. A century later, when they forced the Jewish people into a war with Rome, the Jews lost and the Zealots were discredited. They also disappeared. The rabbis picked up the pieces and established hegemony over the Jewish people that lasted close to eighteen hundred years.

I would think the lesson to be drawn from Second Temple life is that Jewish life works best if no single group gains the upper-hand. Second, don’t pick a fight you can’t win.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Geriatric Shtetl

There’s going to come a time in the not-so-distant future when the last living person who lived in a shtetl, (the towns of Eastern Europe), will no longer be with us. Even in Chasidic communities almost everyone was born in America. In the Satmar town of Kiryas Joel over 90 percent of the town was born in America. People who were born after the war and returned to Eastern Europe never saw the shtetl because by the time they returned there wasn’t anything left. People who were born just before the war also didn’t see very much, since they were very, very young. Even people born around 1930 never saw the shtetl in all its glory. The time to have lived in a shtetl was before WWI. During the First World War, these towns were frequently ravaged either by the Russian or German armies and life never really returned to normal. This last point is brought out very poignantly in the Noble- Prize winning novels of S. Y. Agnon. Reading these novels, one gets a feeling for the depression and the decay that had already begun to set in. There may still be still a few people who remember the shtetl of old, but sadly they will not be with us for long. At that point, the idea of being from East Europe and heimish will begin to lose its authenticity. (More on heimishin in my blog of 6/21). It will become something of an imaginary home. Overtime, everyone will have been born in America or some Western country. (BTW Russians don’t count. They lived under the Bolshevik rule. They can talk about communism; they can’t talk about shtetlech.)

I am always of two minds about the “old country.” Part of me feels it was a center of backwardness, poverty and cultural illiteracy. The other part feels that even today we live off the crumbs of the shtetl’s table. If it were not for the cauldron of Jewish settlements, our cultural and religious life today as Jews would be severely diminished. We wouldn’t have had Yiddish theater, which means we wouldn’t have had Broadway musicals. We wouldn’t have had Hollywood in the same way, since most of the first generation of Hollywood moguls came from the shtetl. And most importantly, we wouldn’t have Chassidus, the movement that revolutionized Jewish life in the eighteenth century, and gave it new energy and impetus. Groups like the Zionists, Volkists, Jewish Mensheviks (Bundists) and their kin folk the Jewish Bolsheviks, Yiddishists and Hebraists, Agudists and Maskilim are all indebted to their East European origins.

I wonder what’s going to happen to American Jewish life, when there are no more Jews who remember life in Eastern Europe. I remember once talking to a Reform Rabbi, and I let the word “Yiddishkeit”, (the name for the Yiddish-speaking culture of Eastern Europe), slip. Before I could say “Sorry, I mean Judaism”, he snapped back saying “My ancestors were already in America in 1850. Don’t ever talk to me about Yiddishkeit. It’s totally irrelevant in the context of America.” At his end of the Jewish spectrum, where patrilineal descent rules, he had a point. I’m sure some of his congregants came over on the Mayflower.

What I think will happen, and to some extent is happening already, is that a collective fantasy and idealization is taking shape. The realities of the shtetl will disappear, and it will begin to look more and more like Fiddler on the Roof. For example, many if not most Orthodox Jews sincerely but incorrectly believe that Poland and Hungary before the war were predominantly Orthodox. Not true. The Orthodox circa 1940 were already under 40% of the population almost everywhere. One way to see this very clearly is to read the Yizkor books published just after the war by the landsleit organizations as a memorial to their ‘home towns’. There are over a 100 such volumes with detailed essays in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, written by individuals who had vivid, mostly accurate and loving memories of their birthplaces. If you take it upon yourself to work your way through this gold mine of information, it quickly becomes obvious how far secularism, socialism and Zionism had already taken hold.

The towns were complex dynamic places with different shades of Orthodoxy and secularism. They we’re morphing and mutating constantly in a natural organic way, as the Jews tried to come to terms with the modern world. When Hitler came and wiped it all out the memories became frozen. The further transformations of Jewish life which were now happening in America and Israel became more erratic and convoluted. We ended with an assimilation more extreme than anything that would have occurred had the shtetl been allowed to develop. We also ended with a situation where a very, narrow sector of East European Jewish life is remembered and celebrated.

Following Boyarin, if we think of the Jews of Europe as an INTERNAL colony of the Christian nations of Europe, the relationship of American Jews to their colonial home should be understood along the same lines as the attitudes of the children of other post colonial subjects to their imagined home communities. There is now a literature on the subject that is part of the new discipline called post-colonial studies, and it’s worth exploring.

I came across an unbelievably interesting (to me) video of Munkacs in 1933. The movie shows both Orthodox and non religious Jews as integral to Munkacs, exactly as one would expect.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Proust Reads Artscroll

Sitting here in Evanston, far removed from the trench warfare for the soul of Judaism, I am constantly surprised what interests the blogosphere. I write with difficulty a nuanced, sober piece on the Israeli political situation, I get around three readers and zero responses. I pop a piece on Artscroll and wooo …them there are fighting words and my readership explodes? I’ve decided when I write a leftist blog on Yossi Beilin and the future of Peace Now, I am going to call it ‘Why Rabbi Soleveitchik’s Picture Should Have Been Deleted!” or “Artscroll and Hamas.” People have emailed me saying they simply can’t believe I said ‘I love Artscroll.’ Have I lost my marbles, am I teasing? (See the comments to the blog of 8/ and my response.) What is it about Artscroll that makes people so angry?

After I wrote my blog on Artscroll I realized that the a relevant proof text would be Proust. Marcel Proust was the son of a Jewish mother and Christian father, a homosexual and the author of one of the great novels of the 20th century, Remembrance of Things Past. The book is 3,200 pages long, so it’s difficult to give a two sentence summary. Besides the long essays on the Dreyfus Affair and on the relationship between being Jewish and homosexuality, much of the book is about the successive idealization and de-idealization of an aristocratic multigenerational family Marcel encounters as a young man, the Guermantes. This fictional family is a composite portrait of the highest ranks of French aristocratic society at the tail end of the 19th century. Marcel encounters these people as he attempts to make his way through high society. Such an aspiration for a Jewish person from the provinces was exceptional, to say the least. Because of his extraordinary taste, manners, and sensitivity, he manages to ingratiate himself with the crème-de-la-crème of the French anti-Semitic, snobbish high society. Although Marcel has a sharp eye for faults, he is so honored to be accepted into the Guermantes inner circle he can only see aristocratic perfection. He is in snob heaven.

As he gets older and gets to know these people better their faults become apparent. One of them is stupid and unkind, the other sadistic and perverted, a third totally insincere and an adulterer and so on. Finally, as we get to volume five, he begins to encounter the Guermantes in old age and for the first time he sees them realistically for who they are: old, snobbish, inbred, basically unimportant and uninteresting people, who yearn for a society that no longer exists. In the last volume, as I remember it, he heroically attempts one more last time to put it all together…the complete slavish idealizations of his youth with the bitter realizations of his middle-age. He’s not willing to give up on the Guermantes, but all he has to sustain himself are the memories of his youthful delusions. He realizes in a long reverie how the texture and depth of his life is shaped by the merging of successive representations of the people in his world, and how important creative idealizing memories are in determining the quality of a life. The novel as a whole is a long meditation on how to sustain an idealized image of one’s world in the face of a conflicting reality.

I think in America today, one of the biggest problems is the lack of idealizeable figures. We are a celebrity society which pays an enormous amount of attention to a few unimportant people. There are very few people out there in the public eye who are really worthy of admiration. The problem is intensified when the President, the leader of our country, and the group of people around him are so controversial that for many they are models of infamy and confusion. There are many difficulties that arise in a society without idealizeable figures. Young people have a hard time forming clear values and ideals which to pursue. It is a commonplace to see people in their teens and twenties trying to find some ideal profession and yet having no idea what it is or how to go about doing it. Adolescence today ends ten years later than it used to because young people have such a hard time growing up. The same situation didn’t exist in the thirties when times were tough and people had to work hard to stay afloat. Today, in affluent America, the inability to form clear and definitive goals is the biggest social problem for young people and affects all economic classes.

So, when I see Ultra Orthodox Jews manage to pull off this small miracle of finding and sustaining idealizeable leaders, I am in awe. I don’t care if the leaders have flaws or are snobbish or full of themselves. Every aristocracy is snobbish and full of themselves. The basic structure of society has to be democratic and egalitarian, but there’s no particular reason why voluntary associations like religion must have a democratic structure. The place where one can see the benefits of “a gedolim society” is in the young people. Ultra Orthodox Jewish young people end their adolescence somewhere around 20-22. They marry, they have many children, they go to work or they learn, and they get on with their life plans with little fuss and buss. It might be true that the prolonged adolescence in secular society leads to greater highs; more people score home-runs among secular Jews than in Ultra-Orthodox society. There is nothing like liberty and freedom when it comes to creativity. Secular Jews have more great scientists and artists and individuals with outstanding accomplishments than Orthodoxy, even on a per capita basis. While secularism leads to greater highs, it also leads to greater lows. They also have more bust-outs, more anorexics, more drug abusers, and more of all the ills that society as a whole faces. I believe the reason for all of this is the grater availability of idealized parental figures in Orthodox society. These idealizations can then be transformed into more abstract realizable goals and ideals.

A life of meditation on gedolim and their accomplishments provide an opportunity to form a measure of these interesting and great figures over a lifetime. Who they are to you and what you think about them depends on who you are, and where you are in the life cycle. A teenager looks one way, a seasoned ben-Torah another, a secular Jewish scholar a third, and a cynical and experienced man of the world a fourth way. In addition, these gedolim are in some ways like screens where we can project deep feelings about who we are and what we want to become. If they weren’t being used as vehicles for projection why are so many intelligent, smart people getting all worked up by a bunch of story books that are at worst bubba maiysis, old wives tales?

As in the case of Proust, Ultra Orthodox Jews believe a life outside a stratified aristocratic culture is less interesting, less textured and emptier. Whatever one may think of Orthodoxy as a whole, they may very well be onto something when they treat their rabbinical leaders as celebrities.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Shidduchim Crisis

It is commonly said that in the Orthodox community there is what they call a Shidduchim Crisis. Apparently, there is a surfeit of girls who are not finding boys. Pots without lids… what is to be done?

I was reminded about this crisis when I read in the Times just recently (8/08/06) that there was an episode on the WE (Women’s Entertainment Network) documentary series “Secret Lives of Women” about women who fall in love with men serving long prison sentences or are on death row. The series had already dealt with the issue of “Cutters,” women who injure themselves, and was now ready to take on the more pressing question of women who marry cross-dressers and women who are jail brides. The critic who reviewed the show pointed out “Marrying a convict has some advantages: at least you always know where he is.” She went on to say, “Prison marriage seems like the maximum security version of a Harlequin romance: all poetry and distant yearning, and no snoring or dishes left in the sink.” Apparently the shiduchim crisis exists everywhere in the world, and we should be grateful for the blessings we have.

The crisis itself is very puzzling. Normally, when there are buyers or sellers of any good or service, the market clears. Why is there this imperfection when it comes to matching young men and young women? It is not just that there are slightly more women than men. We are not talking a half a percent of the relevant population, but something more like five to ten percent. One reason might be that men marry down, and once a girl gets past a certain age, the men tend to become fewer in numbers. I’m not convinced this is true. The problem is particularly acute in the Orthodox world and men marry down everywhere. Second, if you start out with a hundred guys and a hundred girls, at the end of the day if there are twenty girls left over, there should be twenty guys left over.

I, therefore, conclude there is no shidduchim crisis. There is a status crisis. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Let me esplain.” We start off with a hundred guys and a hundred girls. Of the hundred guys, twenty are fancy and eighty are plain. On the girls’ side, fifty of the girls want a fancy guy and fifty girls are happy with a plain guy. Five years later, the fifty girls who were happy with plain guys plus twenty who wanted and found fancy guys are married, leaving thirty boys and girls without mates. The problem is the same as it was at the beginning. Fancy girls don’t want to marry plain guys. We can make the model more complicated by running it the other way with plain guys wanting fancy girls. Between the two, thirty are left unmarried.

Why would a plain girl particularly need a fancy guy or vice versa? I think the answer is money. It’s very expensive to live an Orthodox Jewish life…very, very expensive. If you just think about day schools alone, five children cost somewhere between forty and a hundred thousand dollars after tax. If you live in New York or some other major city, rents and prices of homes are very high. Kosher food, the cost of living in a congregation, and the desire to have large families, all contribute to making it very difficult to live an upper-middle-class life. Children who start out with an affluent life are very reluctant to give up their lifestyle and marry a decent guy who is not a big money-maker. Conversely, guys who have average prospects for earning a living but have upper-middle-class tastes are reluctant to marry a girl who is middle- or lower- middle- class. It’s a problem.

What is to be done? I read that some rabbis have proposed, in the classic style of Chelm, to abolish eighth grade. The idea is that if they abolish eighth grade, the boys will go to study in Israel a year earlier and come back earlier, increasing the supply of guys. Why do that? I say why don’t the rabbis make a law that no girl can be said to be between the ages of 25 and 30? During those years, she should say she’s 24 for six years, thus, increasing her eligibility. Abolish the numbers rather than the grade.

Economists in recent years have been talking about asymmetrical information as a cause of markets not clearing. The intuitive idea is that all the players should have access to the same information which increases confidence and enables trades to occur. If I believe the market is rigged because the insiders know what’s happening and I don’t, I’m not going to trade the market. Ultra-Orthodox boys and girls have a problem meeting and talking at length. Each of the two players knows lots about themselves and little about their prospective mate. If young people could meet a bit longer without parents and shadchunim (matchmakers) going “Nu,nu, so what’s happening?”, the problem of asymmetrical information would be reduced. It might be helpful to have a dedicated internet site only for young orthodox people, maybe without photos, where some of the preliminary difficulties and awkward moments can be ironed out by e-mails and instant messaging.

On a personal note, it occurred to me to blog when I read the very moving blog of a woman who called herself Shomer Negiah. Her blog which went on for about a year was devoted to the problem she had of being in her mid-thirties and never having kissed a man. Ultra- Orthodox Jews do not hold hands or kiss, etc. before marriage. The blog was so honest and moving that it became almost a metaphor for all people who are alone. What made her blog so remarkable were the clarity of her prose and the lucidity of her self-understanding, despite the fact that she really did not have the benefit of analysis or life experience. The blog ended when she finally decided to kiss a man who she had been dating. I very much hope she comes back and tells us how her life has progressed since then.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is Strict Orthodoxy Strict?

Much of the confusion about Ultra- Orthodoxy stems from the fact that the category is too thick and should be further subdivided. Even though all we are doing is arm chair pop sociology, there is still some need in trying to get clear on what we are talking about. I prefer a sociology that uses three categories: Charedim, Strict Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Strict Orthodoxy is less extreme than Charedim but more extreme than MO. In Israel, they refer to Ultra-Orthodox, as Charedim and the term has carried over to the English-speaking world.

In my mind, Strict Orthodoxy is a fellow traveler of the Charedim, but not a full member of the group. The main distinction is whether someone goes out into the world or not. Charedim, generally, have no serious interface with the secular world. They either sit and learn or are engaged in some Jewish profession, e.g. a teacher at a yeshiva. Even when they have stores or businesses, their relationship with the rest of the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world is very superficial and formal. Not so Strict Orthodox, they go out into the world, they work in the Midtowns and the Uptowns of America, in banks and law firms, and brokerage houses. They interface in a serious way with secular America and they have to find a way to cope. They also have an interest, unlike their charedi co-religionists, in movies, plays and popular culture. They are literally people that dance at two weddings. During the week they live in one world; on Shabbus, in a totally different world. One face at home, a somewhat different face at work. The surprising thing is that it can be done. There are tens of thousands of Jews who learn at the kolel at night and flourish in the world of professions by day. It takes effort, and it certainly has its difficulties and special problems, but it can be done.

Because they feel this deep connection to the charedi world, the Strict Orthodox do many things to differentiate themselves from the Modern Orthodox. For one thing, they support, sometimes with big bucks, charedi institutions that are far removed from their sensibilities. Second, they dress the part. No knitted yarmulkes for these guys. It’s black, black, black, all the way. Third, they frequently daven in (and are members of) the same shuls as Charedim. The pulpit rabbi of these shuls is almost always charedi. It is not uncommon that a rabbinical charedi family and a rich bourgeois Strict Orthodox family find it in their interest to intermarry. The Strict Orthodox all more or less belong to or identify with the Agudah; (the political party Adudath Israel). MO are religious Zionists and never belong to Agudah, a party that has ambivalent attitudes towards Zionism.

The Strict Orthodox have created a subculture and society of their own. They send their children to certain specific yeshivot and bais yakovs (the girl’s yeshivot) both here, in America, and in Israel. It has become customary for middle and upper middle class Strict Orthodox girls to go for a year to Israel before returning to America for college and marriage. Not any old school will do. The list of acceptable ‘finishing schools’ is very circumscribed; the modern ones are strictly verboten. In their minds, and in the minds of all other Orthodox Jews, they are different than the MO. In the end, we are talking three different social sets, Charedim, Strict Orthodox and MO. Just like with country clubs, there could be three clubs all Jewish, but very different…one more formal and German, one more East European and relaxed, and one more trendy and glamorous. If and when you join a country club, it’s important to know who you are. Same for Orthodoxy.

I think when Orthodoxy is attacked in this ongoing competitive cultural conflict, Strict Orthodoxy is frequently conflated with Charedim. In my blogs I have been concerned with defending Strict Orthodoxy. I really am not sufficiently familiar with the inner world of Monsey Vishnitz or the circle around Rabbi Kanievsky in Bnei Brak to cite just two examples. It may be true that in some of these groups, the participants are really 18th century people with no knowledge of the world, living in a dream world all their own. Maybe. I would say however that the bulk of charedi people, certainly in America, have some real knowledge how the world looks and how to function effectively in the modern world.

I think it’s a serious and very common empirical mistake for MO to condescend and characterize Strict Orthodox people as naïve or docile or fanatic or fundamentalist. I believe the same is true for some, maybe not all, charedi people. It has been my personal experience that Strict Orthodox people are as sophisticated and knowledgeable as Modern Orthodox, and in many cases more knowledgeable and more sophisticated. In fact in Strict Orthodox circles one often hears condescending remarks about the naiveté of ‘American’ born MO Jews. ’’Not our crowd’’ is the common refrain. I find the mutual condescension an enjoyable and ironic feature of Orthodox life.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Gadol- Gadol On The Wall

A comment by a R. Shmuel on the blog The Jewish Worker says this: “These rabbis make pronouncements and the Jewish world just walks right by them. Then the rabbis move in lock step, catch up and still want to argue that they're LEADERS?”

My answer is yes. The rabbis get to go first in Jewish religious life, and it is for the rabbis to say we must follow and obey. It is for us, the individuals that make up the Jewish people to do what we must do. Here are some examples:

A woman in good health is platzing because she has too many children. She doesn’t want any more. She would not have a nervous breakdown if she had another child, and although it would be a strain, she and her husband could afford to have another child. They already have many children, including a boy and a girl. Their Rabbi would say they cannot practice birth control. I would say they should do what makes sense to them, and if they don’t want more kids, don’t pick up the phone to ask the question.

The aforementioned R. Shmuel says “When the chips were down the gedolim couldn’t even see 10 years down the road. When Hitler was screaming he was going to kill every Jew he could find, they simply ignored him ("Noch a mishigeneh" they probably thought). In a short span of no more than 13 years or so, from his rise as the leader of Germany until his death, he took down 6 million Jews and erased, probably forever, European Jewry, which had been around for 1600 years.” I say the same deal. It is for the rabbis to have said America is treife, because such was their sincere and firm conviction, and for religious Jews to have listened and thought it over. In the last analysis each and every Jew must take responsibility for himself. Only an idiot would have given up a chance to go to America in the 1930’s. No mitzvah to be an idiot.

There is some conflict between Science and Orthodoxy, or Orthodoxy and Wissenschaft. The rabbis weigh in, and as is their duty issue some Neanderthal opinion. A Jew is obligated to listen and study, weigh all the evidence and in the fullness of time decide what he believes. If he thinks the rabbis are wrong, no big deal. There is no mitzvah to go brain dead just because the rabbis have spoken. The rabbis go first even if when they claim left is right and right is left. If we all then believed left is right and right is left we’d be living in Chelm or dead from a traffic accident.

My opinions with respect to these three examples are not particularly idiosyncratic. I am describing actual practice. Many Orthodox Jewish couples practice birth control, many religious Jews emigrated from Europe and many do not believe every ideological and uneducated opinion of the rabbinical leadership. We are here today because our parents and grandparents didn’t listen to the rabbis, went their own way and came to America. Many of these same parents kept the faith, and after the war attached themselves to these same rabbis. Our parents were clever, sophisticated people. We should learn from them.

There are many other such examples. Without spelling out the details there are many end of life issues where halacha and the rabbis say what they say, and children and doctors do what they feel is best. There are various sexual questions that are frequently decided in a way that had a question been asked the decision would have been different. Some Ultra Orthodox go to college even when their rabbis advise against it. Many an Ultra Orthodox Jew in Israel has voted for Likud and not for UTJ, the charedi party, because they had strong feelings on some particular issue.

There are different ways of saying this: The rabbis get to cut the cake, the laity get to take the first piece. If the ruling is too stringent people won’t accept it. There is a fifth invisible shulcan aruch (there are 4 traditional statute or rule books), which tell us when to ask for a ruling and when not, when to obey and when not. Gedolim rule, but we get to choose which gadol to follow. In accepting rabbinical leadership a Jew need not give up all autonomy and critical intelligence.

It might appear at first glance that what I am describing is true of left wing MO or Conservadox, but not of UO. I say it happens everywhere to some greater or lesser degree. The genius of the UO is to be sufficiently grown up and mature not to go on about these things in a vulgar way. People do what they have to do, and then kvell how wonderful it is to have the benefit of such an exceptional rabbinate. As I said these are clever, grown- up, sophisticated people. The critics who keep on jumping all over the Daas Torah ideology simply don’t appreciate how many frum Orthodox Jews game the system when necessary. And even if there are some sheep who don’t get out of bed without a rabbinical authorization, so what? Does anyone think passive, heteronomous people do not exist everywhere? When was the last time you saw a critical historically accurate biography of Rabbi Kook or Rabbi Soleveitchik? How many Jews are willing to look at right wing Zionism with a critical objective eye?

Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t need any justification for being itself; any more than Conservatives or Reform needs a hechsher, (a kosher certificate) from the Ultra Orthodox. Nobody OWNS the religion, nobody has the authority to legitimize some other stripe, If the MO stopped pining for Ultra Orthodox approval and respect, and simply went their own way and built their own communities they would stop being so defensive. If they were less defensive they would have less of a need to be so angry and aggressive towards Ultra Orthodoxy.

One last point: Underneath all this anti rabbinical tumult is the wish there should be this ideal father, who never makes mistakes and will lead us down the right path provided we are obedient and respectful. It is part of the motivation for being Chassidic. A sad truth about life is that as we age we see that we are now the fathers, and we know all too well our own imperfections. We come to see there are no perfect fathers. Some people react in rage and anger when they realize they will never find the fathers they wish they had. Others use their imagination and powers of idealization to accept and live with the father figures that are available. Some people, secular types generally, become their own fathers. On the internet there is now a fourth possibility, beat up on the other guy’s father figures. If that doesn’t work there is always the old standby …beat up on the guys that write and publish stories cum biographies about the other guy’s ideal fathers.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Daas Torah

The internet blogosphere constantly plays on the ambivalence Orthodox Jews have towards their rabbinical leadership. I want to say something in defense of the rabbinical leadership that is being attacked. Part of the confusion is a result of hagiography that is used to depict the lives of famous rabbinical figures. If you grow up thinking every leader is absolutely perfect, the temptation to find flaws as you grow older is very strong. It’s not very different from teenagers who suddenly realize their parents are human, and have their share of flaws. Some kids go ballistic. Ditto for some bloggers.

As in the case of parenting, the relevant question is never did the parents ever make a mistake? To be human is to make mistakes. The relevant question is always ‘Were they good enough?’ or ‘Did they really screw things up”. The standard must always be whether the leadership was above average, (i.e. good), and not was the leadership perfect. The alternative to total idealization is not depreciation. The alternative should be an empathic understanding of the leadership, their strengths and weaknesses.

The core and most important question concerning this rabbinical leadership are: “Has the collective rabbinical leadership done a good job in steering the growth and development of Ultra Orthodox Jewry in the postwar period?” My answer is unquestionably “Yes”. The proof is in the pudding. Orthodox Jewry has gone from almost nothing in the years following the Holocaust to an aggressive quickly growing church- militant. It ain’t over until it’s over, but if I had to handicap the race I would project the Ultra Orthodox the winner against all comers, and certainly the winner in competition with the Conservatives. (More on this another time).

The internet keeps on focusing on the many mistakes the rabbis have made. I want to mention 3 decisions that I happen to find distasteful, but were strokes of genius for the growth of UO. The first is the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Rabbis. This decision was very bad for the Jewish people as a whole. It was great for the growth of Ultra Orthodoxy. It is much like a third world country that imposes high tariffs initially to protect its domestic industries. Free trade isn’t always the best policy for weak economies. The second was their decision that UO boys and girls are forbidden to serve in the Israeli Army. The decision had no basis in equity and fairness. Why should only the secular risk their lives? It was, however a brilliant move in its time, enabling the yeshiva population to grow exponentially. The decision was instrumental in creating a broadly based charedi culture.

The third was the endless self promotion of the rabbinical leadership. In particular the theological doctrine of the Agudah,(the Ultra Orthodox political party) called Daas Torah ; the view that UO Jews ought to obey the rabbinical leadership because either they know best or they have the sovereign authority to decide or whatever. I myself don’t believe Daas Torah entails rabbinical infallibility. Even if it does, and even if they made their share of mistakes, the promulgation of this doctrine had extraordinary positive consequences. In one stroke it took hold of the leadership and put it in the hands of a small unified elite. It demoted the wealthy lay leadership and the pulpit rabbis to a supporting role. It enabled Orthodoxy to act with one voice. Money for a change ran after the rabbis rather than the other way around. It worked. (For a view that is diametrically opposite to the one expressed here see the lucid and interesting blog by Rabbi Shael Siegel(8/27). The current discussion was initiated by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan in a path breaking essay in a Jack Wertheimer anthology whose name escapes me)

Look at Ultra Orthodoxy as a corporation. The rabbis are the CEO AND COO. Like any CEO the primary responsibility is to the shareholders, who in this instance are the individual Ultra Orthodox Jews. These rabbis are not working on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole. Plain and simple, it is not their job. If a decision of theirs causes some reform rabbi some discomfort it ain’t their problem. When looked at in this way the question comes down to this: If you are a member of the Board of Directors would you fire the rabbis? I wouldn’t.

Many of the examples that are being given to refute the doctrine of Daas Torah are relevant only on certain formulations of this ideology. If one is going to be fair there is no choice but to acknowledge that the doctrine is a 20th century invention that was created by a political party, the Agudah, for the purpose of unifying Orthodox Jews. It is therefore irrelevant to bring up examples from pre- 20th century Jewish intellectual life where the initial opinions of the rabbis turned out wrong. And in any case intellectual disagreements are a special case. Some rabbis didn’t approve of Maimonides, some didn’t approve of kabala, and some didn’t approve of Chasidim.... These opinions over time ended up as minority positions. The Orthodox world today is a big tent place with more than enough room for philosophical dogmas, kabala and chasidus. All of this has little to do with the political doctrine of Daas Torah.

There is one criticism of the Daas Torah ideology that is right on and draws blood. It is true the rabbis as a group were totally wrong about Hitler. They told everyone who would listen not to come to America, when if they were half as intelligent as they made themselves out to be they should have been saying the opposite. Emes is emes . There is no honest way to spin this. In terms of my earlier analogy, if I were on the Board of directors when they met in 1945 I would fire every last one of them. And in 1945 the Jewish people as a whole were pretty much done with the whole shebang, the rabbis, the shtetl and the fanaticism .The Ultra Orthodox at that time were less than 2% of the Jewish people. Had that happened, had the Jewish people chucked the rabbinical leadership, I believe the Jewish people today would be well on the way toward extinction. The same group that was obscurantists and clueless prior to the war became brilliant tacticians and strategists after the war. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Think about it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

I Love ArtScroll, So Shoot Me

ArtScroll is a publishing house that is part of the Ultra Orthodox (UO) renaissance. It is a smashing success. Translations of prayer books and classics of pietistic literature, and its crowning achievement the Schottenstein Talmud, a new, exceptionally good translation and commentary, are widely distributed. They also put out biographies of rabbinical leaders, (gedolim), that are very controversial. These books have become a fault line in the ongoing kulturkampf between Modern Orthodox (MO) and UO.

A comment by Steve Brizel in the blog Crosscurrent (3/27/06) states the issue succinctly: “I think that it is fair to note that ArtScroll's hashkafic (ideological) slant leans towards the Charedi world and rarely has something praiseworthy to say about the Religious Zionists/Modern Orthodox world. Its view of the Holocaust is that despite the fact that 6,000,000 Kedoshim (holy martyrs) died, the yeshivos survived. It has not come to grips with the fact that there is a sovereign State of Israel. In at least one volume, a picture that included RYBS (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik) has been doctored to remove RYBS, despite the fact that RYBS raised funds for Lakewood (the famous yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J.) and Chinuch Atzmai (the Ultra Orthodox school system in Israel). This trend is also present in a recently produced hagiography of Rabbi Aaron Kotler z’’l as well. One sees nothing positive about Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy or Yeshiva University/RIETS. In my opinion that is revisionism of history on a grand scale ... the hagiographies are a long boring drone…the subject was a child prodigy who held from every conceivable chumrah(stringency) and who never told a word of Lashon Harah(gossip). One sees zero about the obstacles within their families or society that the Gedolim(the famous rabbinical leaders and scholars) overcame to become Gedolim."

I am proud to say I am a HUGE fan of hagiographic biographies, including most of the ArtScroll volumes. I enjoyed the biographies of R. Moshe, Rabbi Pam, the Chofetz Chaim. In fact, I can’t remember an ArtScroll hagiography I did not enjoy and I have read many. There is no contradiction between enjoying, learning from and being inspired by such books, and recognizing that these books fail to meet the standards of acceptable historical accuracy. There is undoubtedly a need for critical biographies. The absence of such books doesn’t take away from the value of hagiography. These are two separate genres each with different standards and purposes.

The way these hagiographies are to be evaluated is against other such books within this genre. Using this latter standard, the American ArtScroll type adulatory tomes are inferior to earlier specimens, such as Zevin’s Ishim V’Shitot and Maimon’s Sarei Hameah. I would say Mizrachi writers are far better than Agudah people, and Israelis better than Americans. Three other non critical works that are nevertheless really valuable are Tenuat Hamusar, the multi-volume biography of the Chazon Ish and Rabbi Karlinsky’s biography of the Bais Halevy. And of course in the last few years Rabbi Nathan Kaminetzky’s very important and much discussed The Making of a Gadol. None of the books just mentioned count as critical biographies. They are all hagiography. The main difference between these good “lives of saints” and the more inferior versions is the breadth of information and the assembling of interesting and important details. In some instances a serious attempt is made that the details are established using accepted rules of evidence. All the material, even the most laudatory puff piece in Der Yiddisher Vort, which by the way is a terrific magazine, will be of great value to future historians. Proof: Are historians better or worse off with the hagiographies the Shivchei haBesht, and the Shivchei haAri? The answer is obvious.

A life devoted to Talmudic study requires concentration, an ability to tolerate a fair amount of boredom and a willingness to sit for hours and days on end with a feeling of not knowing where you are or how to proceed. Imagine you are stuck in the middle of some obsessive and strange tractate say Yevamoth or Menachoth, without a clue. Someone who needs instant gratification and external approval gives up…maybe becomes a pulpit rabbi or proceeds to the next page (sugya). A Talmudist stays put, doesn’t panic and tries to work through the sugya, however long it takes. One really has no feel for the Talmud until one has been through the entire work 4-5 times; the first 30 years are tough going. A hagiographic book devoted to a Talmudic master becomes a beacon of light to a struggling Talmudist. These books show that it is possible, that one can be immersed in the sea of the Talmud and arrive victorious and safe on the distant shore.