Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Historical Consequences of Austritt

In Germany, in Frankfurt, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch made a momentous decision in 1876 to secede from a Reform-dominated “Main Community” (Grossgemeinde). It was a culmination of his 25 year rabbinical career in Frankfurt, where he had created a separatist Orthodox congregation. Myth has it that when he came to Frankfurt, there were only ten Orthodox Jews left and, under his leadership, the congregation grew to five hundred families. I believe, in fact, the number of Orthodox Jews in Frankfort at the time was far greater than ten, but that’s neither here nor there. The secession (Austritt) he advocated involved creating a parallel community to the Grossgemeinde. Wikipedia correctly says, “His contemporary Joseph Dov Bamberger, Rabbi of Würzburg, argued that as long as the Grossgemeinde made appropriate arrangements for the Orthodox element, secession was unnecessary. The schism caused a terrible rift and many hurt feelings, and its aftershocks could be felt until the ultimate destruction of the Frankfurt community by the Nazis.”

I’m not a particular fan of Austritt. I think it was a mistake then and, had I been alive, I would have sided with either the southern charedi Orthodox or the more academic Hildesheimer Berliners. I think the Agudists who have copied the idea and spirit of secession gained short-term benefits for Orthodoxy at the expense of long-term losses for the Jewish people as a whole. I have already argued (7/31, 8/01) that when Orthodoxy develops in isolation, everybody loses. Conservatives begin to float towards Reform. Orthodoxy itself becomes excessively “black” (charedi).

Since this whole topic is becoming complex very quickly, I’ll start again. Austritt for the Yekkeshily-Challenged…In the Middle Ages, and up to the late 19th century in Germany and elsewhere, everyone had to belong to some particular religious congregation or other. Everyone was either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. There was a communal organization, a gemeinde that represented the entire Jewish community. Along came reform and, in a short period of time, dominated these communal organizations all over Germany. They were generous, however, and were fully prepared to create a separate Orthodox section within the gemeinde. Rabbi Hirsch said, “No way. We need a totally separate official communal organization.” Hence, Austritt. It’s a bit like the AFL-CIO splitting into two separate labor organizations because the head of the CIO decides to walk. A Reform Jew might see analogies to the Civil War.

Here are my reasons why I think Austritt was a failure then…

Frankfurt, itself, would have been a lot better off had it remained in continuous contact with both 18th century charedi Judaism to the south and academic Orthodoxy in Berlin. The sixty year polemical disagreements did no one any good. It drove Berlin closer to Conservatives. The southern Germans, admirable as they were, remained attached to a simple faith that did not benefit from the modernization of Frankfurt. Frankfurt style synthesis of Orthodoxy and modernism (Torah im Derech Eretz) developed, in my opinion, in an eccentric way leaving a legacy of major disagreements as to what it was all about.

Secession was never a hundred percent. Ost-Juden (East-European Jews living in Germany) were not members of the Samson Raphael Hirsch/Breuer gemeinde. When they died, they were buried in the Orthodox section of the main Reform community. Being chassidish, they weren’t exactly chalishing to wear top hats and spats. They preferred davening in their own shteiblech. They had their own rabbis, the last being the Hundtsdorfer (sp?) Rav, and Rabbi Noble, I believe, before him. But they did not like the idea of being buried in the communal cemetery, and they didn’t much care for the yekkes’ snobbism and condescension either. Why the chassidic Jews were not invited to join the Orthodox yekkes is anyone’s guess. In this regard, it is interesting to note that because of the way Orthodoxy was reestablished there was a serious disconnect with the glorious history of the Frankfort rabbinate. I am being a bit mean here, but I believe it is fair to say that a typical Orthodox German yekke had a far greater knowledge and appreciation of Goethe and Heine than he had of the Hafla’ah or the Pene Yehoshua and Rav Nasan Adler. Torah im Derech Eretz produced few, if any, great lomdim, mekubalim or poskim. I believe Austritt was responsible.

Austritt, itself, would not have been idealized to the extent that it was if the only people who copied it were the Hungarians like Satmar. It became a model for American Orthodoxy because a member of the Austritt congregation, Morenu Reb Yaakov Rosenheim, was the major player in founding the Agudah. He was the organizational genius who figured out how to form an alliance between Polish chassidus, Lithuanian yeshivas, and Frankfurt yekkes. All of a sudden, Frankfurt is in, Berlin is out, and southern German Orthodoxy languish in limbo.

Austritt was born and maintained out of a sense of desperation on the part of the Orthodox that unless they separated and developed their own community, without any contact with the Reformers, they would over time be overwhelmed and disappear. The attitudes of suspicion, depreciation, and withdrawal from the rest of American Jewish life are admittedly first rate tools to strengthen a community when it is small and lacking in confidence. Today, the situation is very different. Orthodoxy is not about to be overwhelmed by anybody. It is sufficiently strong and interesting to be of great benefit to all of Jewish life. A confident Orthodoxy would see itself, as do most observers, as the most cohesive and together of all the denominations.

The problem is that the complex of attitudes involved in a secessionist philosophy have been reinforced in so many different ways within the charedi community it has become an almost natural reflex, not just with respect to secular and Reform, but also Conservatives and ultimately, difficult as it is to believe toward Religious Zionists and Modern Orthodoxy. More on this last point in future posts.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Slippery Slope of Tznius

My post (10/16) "Sexy Sheitls" with all the comments was reprinted on a charedi women’s site, The only difference that I can tell is that instead of my ‘sexy’ they wrote 's-xy', and they refused to use an upper case S even when appropriate. There were many comments on that site by serious and intelligent women that I found fascinating and very worthwhile. (Who knew the acronym DH is used for DARLING HUSBAND?) There is also an interesting discussion of sheitels on the much needed right of center blog Mishmar The following discussion is partially my way of trying to understand the various comments.

There are three concepts under the general heading of tznius or modesty that are different and as a result causing some confusion. The common rubric is the maxim ‘if you got it, don’t flaunt it’. The first involves the topic of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife. A tzniusdig (modest) woman never ever discusses what goes on sexually between her and her husband, not even to her best friends. It’s out and out untzniusdig to talk about marital sexual relations and by extension about sex in general. Some people obviously feel that even writing /saying the word ‘sex’ and its cognates ‘sexy’, ‘sexual’ is immodest because it refers ultimately to having sex, and that is verboten as a topic of discussion. It is important to understand that this voluntary inhibition does not show or indicate anything one way or the other about the nature of actual sexual relations, or the degree of intimacy and free discussions between husband and wife. It is a restraint on public discourse.

The second concept involves dressing provocatively. It is spelled out in detail and widely recognized. Long sleeves, skirt over the knees, hair covered etc. The point is that a woman should not act in such a way that is provocative to men. It doesn’t depend on a women’s demeanor or actual men’s reactions. It is defined by external standards, not by the subjective reactions of men. Even if 95% of men would not be aroused by a blouse that is only a centimeter over the elbow it is still not tzniusdig.

Having satisfied the first two constraints it is still possible for a woman to dress provocatively. Here are some examples: 1) belted skirts and tight fitting clothes that accentuate the female shape.2) Sheitlech that are very difficult to differentiate from normal hair and are done up so they look sexy. 3) Stylish clothes, very high heels, overly made up faces, and obviously- seductive looks and flirty demeanors. 4) ‘Carrying oneself’ in an undignified and unrefined way and ‘giving out un-tznius’ vibes. I assume this last concept is defined ostensively by pointing to relevant examples, since I know of no rabbinic pronouncements or videos on how a woman is to carry herself. There are more than enough Orthodox women who wear skirts over the knees, long sleeves and yet dress provocatively in one or other of the ways outlined in this paragraph. The issue whether this is permitted is an important part of the debate.

Assuming for a moment that a woman does not dress provocatively in any of the ways outlined above, there is still a third sense of tznius that is operative that must be satisfied according to some people. Tznius is now understood as not calling attention to oneself. Green sheitels not tznius, very trendy clothing not tzniusdig, black lipstick, multicolored fingernails, red dresses, pierced, punk and goth clothes all no good because all draw attention to the woman. Dresses that drag along the floor, dresses from a different century, grungey clothes, frumpy, dirty or unkempt are unacceptable. Modesty requires not drawing attention to oneself.

I assume that a woman is permitted to draw attention to her mind. A female consultant, doctor or lawyer is permitted to say something intelligent or even brilliant. It is the attention that is directed to a woman’s body and by association with her dress and makeup that is frowned upon, not the attention directed to her person. Similarly it is the marginal attention that comes from doing something that causes one to stand out that is prohibited. A woman who’s beauty is so ‘outstanding’ she can do virtually nothing to ‘mask’ it is not required to stay at home, or at least I hope not. I also think that if a ‘woman does not stand out’ she need not consider the attention of very sensitive or easily aroused men or else burkas are next.

I think the big problem for this view of tznius is how to go about not calling attention to oneself. One issue is that if one prohibits attractive or all sheitels you can end up drawing even more attention. Here are examples. Older women tend to have sagging jowls. Short hair compensates for this effect of aging in a way that is impossible for a kerchief or snood. Women whose eyes are located higher on the forehead, women with larger noses, women with no chin can all use specific hair styles to create a more appealing look. By ruling out these ‘tricks’ one causes these women to draw even more attention in a particularly painful way. Their physical faults are accentuated. The chumrah (more strict ruling) has the opposite effect. There is a reason why women with long sheitels don’t wear their hair in a pony tail or bun.

The way a woman doesn’t stand out is not easy to predict, and is something of a tricky business. Consider the typical chasidish outfit. Hat on some shetelette, dark, heavy nylons, sensible lace up klutzy shoes, heavy fabrics year around are a guarantee to draw attention anywhere other than in a chasidic community. Not drawing attention, blending into the background requires the outfit not be much brighter or darker than the day; darker grey outfits on rainy days, lighter pastels and white on sunny days. Not too modern, not too old fashioned, not too out of the ordinary, not too elegant …just the right sort of Goldilocks plain. When everyone wears a string of pearls, not to wear one means standing out; when no one wears a string of pearls and you do wear pearls you stand out like a sore thumb.

I’ll close with general concern. The ideal of tznius has correlates all over Jewish life. Vulgar bimbos are frowned upon everywhere. What makes tznius special is the energy and concern that is spent in refining and maintaining the ideal. Over time concerns about tznius tend to the obsessive. The problem, as with all obsessive behavior is that it doesn’t stop. Obsessions keep on spreading. The rules become stricter and more confining. A man who washes his hands ten times a day will over time keep on increasing the number. The recent developments in Israel are an indication the quest for tznius is about to go to a new never heard of level of stringency.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The CEO's of American Judaism

Haaretz (6/23) had a report of a conference between the heads of large Jewish organizations and various intellectuals and heavy thinkers on the topic of the future of the Jewish world, or as the hysterics like to frame it THE SURVIVAL OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE !

We know for certain that as individuals our days are finite; nevertheless, except for a few we manage to buy green bananas. Even if the threat of Islam is serious and the situation in Israel is dire this is not exactly earth shattering news. Muslims have been on the march since their origins in Arabia, and the situation in Israel has been alarming, pretty much since Herzl had his light bulb moment over a century ago. We recognize that Yogi was right as always, and it ain’t over until it’s over.

Haaretz reports one of the main conclusions of this major conference was that the future is unclear and some but not others believe there are many risks ahead. Results such as these are reassuring and should help the rest of us go about our ordinary activities. The basic premise of the ’’executive branch’’, the 15 heads of the large Jewish organizations seems to be that if there is no future their organizations would not have a point. Since they are convinced their organizations have a point, the Jews must have a glowing future. This reasoning alone explains why one might be a bit more pessimistic. Not every people on the planet are privileged to be led by leaders so astute. The intellectuals and thinkers however saw risks, pitfalls and obstacles in years ahead.

Some felt it was not strategically clever to get all the Jews of the world moved to Israel. One never knows, accidents happen, etc. Others, following the inverted logic that permeated the conference, argued that giving official legitimacy to the Diaspora would be the end of Zionism as we know it. Since it would be out of the question to modify any of the basic tenets of classical Zionism, the Diaspora must move to Israel, and we must conclude such a move would be the best strategy for the survival of the Jewish people. In Chelm, the reader might remember, they discovered the important scientific law that when a piece of bread falls on the ground it always lands on the buttered side. One day a piece of bread fell and landed on the unbuttered side. There was a conference held, very similar to this one, attended by all the heads of the town’s major Jewish organizations and many of its leading intellectuals. After a 3 day all expense paid conference and the appropriate rounds of golf, the leaders concluded the bread was buttered on the wrong side.

For the most part there was agreement among the participants, and they did manage to define aims and goals for the future. These goals included:

Investing in education for the young generation
Lowering the price of access to Jewish life, e.g. the cost of synagogue membership, Jewish schools.
The importance of drawing those on the fringes of Jewish civilization inward. (I love the word ‘civilization’ in this context. Are Jews who intermarried steppe people, nomadic warriors, Germanic barbarians?)

As usual there was a shortage of concrete proposals, an agreement that further study was needed, and a decision to meet again next year. Everyone seemed to feel the very gathering itself was an achievement. “It is the first time the heads of Jewish organizations have sat down round the same table and sought ways to cooperate, pushing aside the competition, suspicions and sometimes even latent hostility.” I am confident I can speak for everyone in saying we are very proud of our leaders for being so broad minded and inclusive.

Haaretz offered a very concrete example of such cooperation. Tzvi Weinreb, an Orthodox Rabbi and head of the Orthodox Union, had no problem calling the head of the Reform movement, David Ellenson, up to the Torah, even though the week before President Moshe Katsav, the President of the State of Israel upon meeting Ellenson refused to attach the title “Rabbi” to his (Ellenson’s) name. President Katsav, the very same man who has been accused of molesting if not raping multiple women plus various other unsavory activities could not allow the word ''Rabbi'' to escape from his lips when addressing the head of the Reform movement.

Words are inadequate at moments like this. If you are in any doubt I made all this up read the article.

At the rate our leaders are moving there will be no real need for any serious planning. By the time they decide to move, a large percentage of World Jewry with the exception of Israel will have left the fold.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

American Jewish life is a tale of two cities. The Orthodox city is akin to one huge kindergarten, the liberal Jewish city to a moshav zekanim (an old age home). Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s getting close. I’ll give a few examples.

In an Orthodox Jewish world, especially in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, the birthrate is very high. It is not a rare occurrence for a pregnant mother, or a mother of an infant, to marry off her child. When a young Orthodox couple marries, it is very likely that one or both have unmarried siblings. After a few years of marriage and a few children, it is not unnatural for parents to begin thinking of their own children’s marriage. As they age, their own children and the children of all their siblings are marrying, only to be followed by another generation that before you turn around, is beginning to think of marriage. The upshot of all these babies and marriages is that the thought of shiduchim is never absent in traditional Jewish life. Someone or other just got married, is about to get married, looking to get married, hoping to get married, or divorced/widowed and dating again. Jane Austen, the great chronicler of the world of shiduchim would be in complete ecstasy had she grown up Orthodox. It’s Pride and Prejudice day in and day out. Because young children are so lovable, and because marriages are simchas (joyous occasions) their abundance gives Orthodox Jewish life the feel of a comedy in the classic sense that everything is going to end well.

When you look at the Orthodox Jewish community and you see the day schools and yeshivas opening up by the handful each year, it becomes apparent that there are many new young children each year that require education. Because of the growing demographics, the kolel and other rabbinical types have found it relatively easy to find employment. There’s almost an elastic demand for teachers at these schools. Since it is becoming increasingly difficult to find excellent yeshiva teachers, salaries are bid up accordingly. Once the birthrate levels off, and level off it will, and considering that yeshivas are like graduate schools that when going full blast tend to outstrip the demand for their services, Torah people over time are going to find it harder to land jobs in Jewish education. Meanwhile the Jewish education business is booming.

The second city is predominantly non-Orthodox, and almost 75% are living without children at home. According to the 2001 NJPS Survey and I quote” Among all Jewish households, 30% are comprised of a single adult living alone, 37% consist of two adults living with no children, and 7% are comprised of more than two adults with no children. Children (defined as age 17 or younger) reside in 26% of all Jewish households, in most cases with two adults. Approximately 3% of all Jewish households are composed of a single adult with one or more children.’’

The North Shore of Chicago, from Evanston all the way up to Lake Forest, is a Jewish place, so to speak. There are 125,000 Jews on the North Shore and many of them are congregated near the lake. If you drive up at night along Sheridan Road and look at the homes a significant percentage are dark. The reason they are dark is that there are either one or two people living in the homes, empty nesters and widows, not a child in sight. The entire area is what HEW calls “a naturally aging community.” People bought the houses when they were young and are waiting to be carried out. The homes are empty because the birthrates of the children are below replacement level. The kids marry in their thirties, have one or two kids, and intermarry at an astonishing rate, only to be followed by the next generation that repeats the process one more time. Despite the absolutely gorgeous homes, many of these communities have a gothic feel. Here we have left Jane Austin behind and entered the Bronte sisters world of ‘’Wuthering Heights’’ and the ‘madwoman in the attic‘. For example, I have never ever seen a couple with children walk in the streets of Kenilworth, the ritziest of the ritziest of these towns. Similar stories can be told about Jewish communities in Scottsdale, Palm Springs and many towns along the Florida coast, both on the Atlantic side and on the Gulf .

The differential birthrates of the two communities have other interesting effects on Jewish life. If you read the Jewish magazines aimed at the general Jewish population, there’s more than a fair amount of ads for assisted living communities, old-age homes, private nurses, and undertakers. Doctors love to advertise. There is a small army of people servicing older Jews. It’s just a fact of life. Liberal Jewish life has ultimately a more tragic feeling tone.

With a little optimism and hard work the trend in liberal Judaism can be reversed. I sincerely believe young liberal American Jews want larger families. For all sorts of reasons we need not discuss today they need to be told what to do. Here is a simple idea: Every year for the next ten years on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liberal rabbis should stand in front of their congregations and say the following in no uncertain terms: Every Jewish man and woman of childbearing age has a solemn religious duty to have at least three children or Judaism as we know it will disappear. The only exceptions are the health of the mother or child, infertility, dire poverty or mental illness. Anyone who puts personal careers or interests ahead of their duty is a shirker.

What are the chances of this ever happening?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Prism of the Holocaust

In an earlier post, in the context of how Orthodox Judaism started in America (10/29), I differentiated between refugees and Holocaust survivors. My confidence in this distinction was recently shaken by an experience I had at a shabbus meal at my friend’s house. The guest of honor was a charismatic and well-known left-wing Israeli artist. Her lifelong fight for civil liberties and decency made everyone sympathetic to her talk. She spoke passionately throughout the evening and kept the other ten participants spellbound. Her thesis was as follows:

“My parents are Holocaust survivors and I am a second generation Holocaust survivor. I feel the trauma of the Holocaust in my very being. I have never been as pessimistic about Israel as I am today. Here I am, growing up in a home which never stopped talking about the Holocaust and how our relatives and friends were murdered. And now, when I look forward to the future, I see an Iran that is threatening to destroy me with a nuclear bomb. I believe those Shiites are actually crazy enough to do it. For the first time since I’ve been born, there’s a threat of a Holocaust in front of me. Where am I to go? Which country will take me and my fellow countrymen? And who wants to leave? I have lived in Israel my whole life. I don’t want to become a refugee. So my life comes down to this…a Holocaust in back of me and a prospect of a Holocaust in front of me.”

Everyone was somewhat taken aback, and people began chipping away at this dark vision. The first point that was established was that her mother was already in Israel by 1939 and her father escaped from a work camp in the middle of the war, but never was in an actual concentration camp. When the suggestion was made that perhaps she is not a second generation Holocaust survivor, she became so overwrought that no one had the courage to pursue the suggestion. Someone then asked how a country that didn’t have an optimistic future could survive. Someone suggested looking at religious people who are generally optimistic. The word religious triggered a diatribe about her fellow citizens. Charedim are impossible because they are all shirkers. Who can talk to a charedi if he doesn’t go to the army? The right wing is impossible because they are all flirting with fascism and ethnic cleansing. Anyway, they have accepted the idea of fighting forever. The religious Zionists also won’t do since they are religious and, as a left-wing Israeli, she is deeply committed to secularism. In fact, she emphasizes this was the first Shabbat meal she had ever attended that was conducted in the traditional Orthodox manner. After hearing this last tidbit, everyone realized perhaps the comparison to the Orthodox was not the way to go.

People tried one last gambit. It was suggested that Jewish life needs some other basis than survival and the Holocaust. There has to be something positive about Jewish life; something to celebrate and enjoy, which provides meaning and purpose. Some Jewish traditions and culture have to be celebrated or else all one has is a sort of dog eat dog world. She was not appeased. After a while, it began to dawn on me that the woman actually enjoyed the pessimism and hopelessness. It was precisely this darkness that gave her courage to go on. The Holocaust was, for her, a sort of beacon of meaning through which she could interpret the world. Take away the Holocaust and you just have capitalism, selfishness and a normal boring life. This Israeli version of anti- religious secularism, held together by a defeated labor Zionism, holocaust consciousness and the constant fight for survival has become unyieldingly pessimistic.

It is frequently said that any Israeli government must prevent the emergence of an Iranian atomic bomb because of the memory of the Holocaust. It is also frequently said that anything less than the most vigorous aggressive response to the “axis of evil” will yield the same result as appeasement of the Nazis did in the thirties. In fact, the Muslim religious fanaticis engaged in terrorist activities are labeled Islamo-fascists in order to bring out the similarities to Nazis.

Neither I, nor anyone else, have any clue how the future is going to play itself out. No one can say, with any certainty that bad things will not happen. What is fairly certain is that it won’t happen the exact same way it happened in the Holocaust. Even if history repeats itself, as it sometimes does, it is never as a clone of the previous period. There is something wrong, mistaken, foolish to analyze the future in terms of a rearview mirror of the past. If everything is going to be fit into the prism of the Holocaust, details are going to be missed, possibilities are going to be overlooked, and in a strange way, because of a repetition compulsion, the events that are most dreaded are more likely to occur. Sometimes traumatized people act in such a way so as to bring about the events they most fear.

Why is a politician like Netanyahu saying “It's 1938, and Iran is Germany. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state." What does he expect people to do? If it is the holocaust why isn’t he encouraging people to leave? I can only conclude that he, and Lieberman and Efie Etam don’t exactly mean what they say, and are frightening people in the hope that they will turn to the hard right for a solution. It is even scarier to watch Olmert cover his right flank by essentially repeating the same thing. The rhetoric itself will force Israel to bomb Iran. I don’t want to enter into the very serious question what is the correct policy towards Iran. What I am saying is that the government should retain maximal flexibility and not allow an analogy to Hitler to force it to adopt a policy that might be unwise.

In my opinion, the strongest antidote to using the Holocaust as a basis of foreign policy is to create a Jewish cultural and religious life in Israel that is life-enhancing and gratifying. The best reason for defending Israel and fighting for its survival IMHO is to protect a way of life that has independent value and meaning. Using the holocaust for political or foreign policy goals is not a good way to proceed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Spiritual but Not Religious

On the internet dating sites there is this interesting category for religious preference called ‘’spiritual but not religious’. There is no category called ‘’religious but not spiritual’’, nor have I ever seen anyone ever describe themselves this way. An Orthodox Jew not into musar, kabbalah, or chasidus might very well describe herself as religious but not spiritual. In the liberal/secular Jewish world such a category does not exist.

Some Jews who write spiritual but not religious are simply responding to the way the question is framed. They are no choices labeled secular. They don’t want to write atheist, or agnostic, when all they really want to say is that they have no business with organized Judaism. So they check as a default mode the only remaining alternative ‘’spiritual but not religious.’’ Others however mean something very definite. Most members of the ‘’spiritual but not religious’’ category are women. Men on the internet mostly say straight up they are not observant. They don’t suddenly become spiritual. Why is it that when a woman is a non-observing Jew, she feels the need to graduate to a new religion called Spiritual but not Religious? I don’t know the answer

Here are some examples of what it means for a Jew to define him/herself as ‘spiritual but not religious’.
I was born into a Jewish family but am not religious. I am culturally and racially Jewish. I have the foundational values that many Jews have; exercising the intellectual muscles, interest in ethics and justice, and good old dark and ironic humor.

Here we have a sophisticated attempt to deal with being Jewish but not religious. In fact, I am sympathetic to the secularized version of Reform Judaism that is being presented: intellectualism, an intense moral consciousness with a universalist flavor, and what he calls “good old dark and ironic humor.” There are two ways of understanding this humor. The first is that it’s a leftover from the shtetl. Jews were ironists and humorists because it was a natural way of coping with their political condition. The second is that there’s a special dark and ironic humor attached to being conscious of being Jewish but not religious. Woody Allen is an example. (I actually believe that Jews with no background in historical yiddishkeit who are spiritual but otherwise not self identified as Jews, lack humor to the same degree as more traditional Jews.) A sad fact about the American Jewish culture is that the personality type this person represents has not survived into this century with any great numbers. In the forties and fifties, people used to say of themselves they were cultural Jews. You hear the phrase less and less. Now it’s spiritual all the way. I wonder if this is because of the New-Age spiritualism that has overtaken California and the spa world. Or is it because American-Jewish culture is in the dumps? The non-stop assimilation of American Jewry has brought about a dumbing down of American Jewish life.

I am Jewish but not religious. I have an interest in Quantum physics from a spiritual perspective. My other interests are eclectic... Buddhism, therapy, integrating the psychological and spiritual for the present moment.

Here we have a classic example of a spiritual but not religious smorgasbord and it illustrates both its strengths and its weaknesses. We’ll take them one at a time. I know what the woman is talking about when she mentions Quantum mechanics from a spiritual point of view. There is this very weird, but real, phenomenon called quantum entanglement which we now know to be true because of Bell’s Theorem. Some people, even physicists, have suggested it has some implications for spirituality. The Chafetz Chaim used to say, “If they sneeze in Paris, they feel it in Radin.” Maybe so, but as of now no one has shown any interesting application of quantum weirdness to spiritual life. As it stands, this woman can have an interest in quantum mechanics for the rest of her life, nothing will happen spiritually.

On the other hand, the combination of Buddhism, therapy, and the various techniques for integrating the psychological and spiritual in some practical way can’t be dismissed as nonsense. The program is roughly this…you do an hour or two of yoga a day, workout in the gym, run two- three miles, eat organic foods, stay thin, meditate for an hour, see a therapist three times a week, and repeat for the next ten years. It does make a difference. When you compare such people with those who work sixty hours a week, are overweight and bent out of shape, sedentary, consume copious amounts of junk food, and live such a frenetic life that there is no time for introspection and contemplation, it is hard to say there is no difference. It’s not a particularly Jewish way of achieving spirituality, but even here there have been various attempts to combine this sort of rigorous discipline with Jewish symbols and culture. These attempts are varied and sometimes go under the general names of Jew-Bhu and Jewish Renewal. (An easy way of getting started as a Jew-Bhu is to begin with Rodger Kamenetz’s sweet little book The Jew in the Lotus). I plan on taking a closer look at Jewish Renewal.

I feel a connection to my Jewish heritage. Spiritually, I am always aware of the miracle and absolute sacredness of life and I take seriously our role as brother's keeper and earth's caretaker.

The last quote is an example of the ecology branch of Jewish spirituality. Here the quest for purity and wholeness is projected out onto the environment. Almost every spiritual person is anti-Bush on environmental issues. The concept of a market in pollution rights is foreign to their way of thinking. Almost like eating chazir. We might call this stripe Green Jew- Bhus.

I have two complaints against “spiritual but not religious” Jews. The first is that frequently they are devoid of any nationalist feelings or appreciation of our history. So even if they can fill the void that comes with secularism, they still lack a strong sense of being part of a continuous historical community. It is difficult to raise children on a steady diet of yoga and gym. My second complaint is that many people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” refuse to discriminate between various occult sciences and disciplines. Monday’s the therapist, Tuesday’s the astrologer, Wednesday’s the gypsy palm-reader, Thursday is homeopathy, rolfing and alternative medicine, while Friday is the day to experiment with the new products and services that constantly come to market. In my mind, it frequently degenerates into a counter culture mush that doesn’t make much sense.

We are talking about a large group of Jews who are looking for something and have given up on Judaism. When a Jew is spiritual but not religious they are announcing they do not have a serious Jewish religious identification. They are dead to Jewish life even if they still frequent the local deli. They are a classic example of what the Protestants call “un-churched.” A special place in heaven is reserved for somebody who can figure out a way to reach these people.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Reform Liturgy

Orthodox Jews living in Orthodox areas tend to like the shul they daven in. If they don’t like the place, they move on to the next shul. As we move left towards Reform, the generalization no longer holds. Many people are dissatisfied with their congregations and temples, but for one reason or another don’t do very much other than not attend. I am convinced that the problem, to a large extent, is caused by the decisions the Reform movement made close to two centuries ago when the first temple was opened up in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, one of the complaints of the Reformers was that there was no decorum in Orthodox synagogues. There was too much talking and too many children running about. It lacked the seriousness that is appropriate for a place of worship. They proceeded to install an organ, a choir, a formal cantor, a liturgy in German and an atmosphere of reverential decorum.

I would conjecture that the decorum in liberal synagogues is a function of the decorum in the concert and opera halls. During the eighteenth century, when Mozart was creating his great operas, the operas and symphonies were not treated with the respect and attention they subsequently received in the next century. People talked with each other; flirted, moved about, breastfed their infants all the while the opera singers were performing. In the early nineteenth century, the attitudes changed. Some genius got the idea to call the music “classical,” even when it was written three weeks ago and had nothing to do with classical antiquity. All of a sudden, the concert hall became a serious place where you weren’t allowed to speak or, God-forbid, eat or cough. Only the most reverential silence and attention was accepted. It then became model for what a synagogue ought to be.

The Reformers, also internalized the Lutheran model of church service. It was as if Johann Sebastian Bach was the shining light of our exile. They were convinced that when they got to heaven there would be organ music, angels with wings just like in the paintings, and a heavenly choir singing perfect baroque cantatas. Many believe this until today. The bulk of the Reform musical liturgy has this angelic feel to it. Somehow they believe that Jewish choral “masterpieces”, boring and derivative as they are, are absolutely necessary to sit through if we are to make our way to heaven. For many years I heard Canadians go on about the spirituality of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. When I finally visited Holy Blossom for some public event, I found a high Reform liturgy, formal, boring, and mired in a musical style that flourished somewhere around the time of Elgar and the late British romantics.

The main problem with this whole approach is that it requires the congregation to do absolutely nothing. You sit back and you listen to the performance, just like in the concert hall. If you don’t want to read responsively, no big deal, the chazan and choir will move the service forward. Because there’s no serious participation by the congregation, and because the music is so “tasteful,” the mind wanders, people begin to yawn, which is contagious, and the whole thing feels like cod liver oil.

Some Reform rabbis have recognized this problem. They have tried, to the best of their ability, to create a more low-church atmosphere. There are guitars, folk singing, in the style of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger circa 1960’s, and a generally more relaxed ambience. The movement has not spread to all Reform temples. Some remain wedded to chazanim belting, choirs chirping, and organs bellowing, but many have changed. But once you’re into boring, it’s hard to change. Many of the Reform synagogues that have gone over to the kum-sitz model are still boring. The era of guitars, Birkenstock, “let’s sing ‘Kumbaya’” is over. As usual, Reformers are the last to find out.

It is ironic to see the Reform movement turn into something of an orthodoxy. They frequently believe together with their Ultra Orthodox brethren that "everything new is forbidden."Given the anemic attendance at so many reform congregations, it might be time to reform Reform Judaism. I believe the way dying Reform and Conservative congregations ought to go is the Carlebach model…continuous singing, lively fairly simple Jewish tunes (nigunim), no operatic chazan, no choir, no guitar, just the congregation carrying the service on their shoulders by singing with feeling. When a congregation is responsible for the service, such that if they don’t sing nothing happens, everyone, all of a sudden, perks up and, if possible, participates. The active singing itself, full-throat, creates a special spiritual feeling. It is true that the transition from a chazan oriented model to a Carlebach service is difficult. The Hebrew liturgy must be transliterated into English, and the congregation must be taught the tunes. It has to be done gradually over time. But once accomplished, the congregation is energized and the service is enjoyable. The only downside is that it might require rounding up all the chazanim and shooting them, since they will fight tooth and nail never to give up their entrenched positions. A less radical alternative is to either get the chazan aboard or force early retirements. I see many chazanim are beginning to find work on Caribbean cruises.

Carlebach style davening is flexible. It can be adapted to Modern Orthodoxy, very Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, and all the rest. It can be combined with a string quartet and dancing as in Bnei Jeshurin on the Upper West Side. Each congregation can decide for itself the exact mix. They can also bring in new tunes from the ever lively Jewish music scene. What’s important is that the congregation is involved in the style of davening and not musical committees run by the chazan and the organist. As in so many areas in life, participatory democracy works best.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Humanitarian Jews

A college activist Mark Hanis was interviewed by Haaretz not so long ago (8/25/06.) He is a founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, a voluntary organization that has quickly become a major player in the struggle to prevent genocide in Darfur. Hanis says he is determined to enable other nations to avoid the tragedy that his own people experienced. All his grandparents died in the Holocaust. He wants to prevent similar situations occurring elsewhere. He regards his actions as a way of expressing his Jewish identity.

Hanis does not attend synagogue regularly nor does he identify with any of the religious streams in Judaism. Like most young American Jews, he defines himself as "just Jewish." In 2001, he visited Israel. Unlike his first encounter with Africa, the visit made no particular impression. Israeli society's burning issues do not worry Hanis. Although he vaguely cares about the Jewish state, he has other idealistic causes on his mind.

The Haaretz article goes on to say Hanis' story demonstrates that the Holocaust can drive the Jewish identity of many young American Jews. The author concludes in this way, “It also shows that Israel and its problems are irrelevant to their liberal agenda. Programs that bring young non-committed Jews to Israel have yet to prove that they can arouse in them any feeling of commitment toward the Jewish people.’’

I am not as pessimistic as the interviewer. There is an implicit assumption here that requires some discussion. The assumption is that either a Jew is religious, or is committed to Israel in the way Diaspora Jews express such commitments, or is committed to the Jewish people whatever that might mean in a practical way. When a Jew finds some non-Jewish cause and in his mind feels it expresses his Jewish identity and his feeling of being Jewish, even if the cause is noble, he is somehow not quite up to par as a Jew .A Jew, however idealistic, who devotes his life to some non-Jewish humanitarian cause is on his way to being lost to the Jewish people, even if he feels the cause gives expression to his Jewishness.

I disagree with the evaluation. Here is a young person trying to prevent genocide in Africa and in his mind finds a connection between his work and his family’s history during the Holocaust. He sounds like a wonderful humanitarian. Why is it appropriate to ask what is he doing for the Jewish people? If a Jew goes to Israel and oohs and aahs and coos how wonderful everything is, goes home writes a check for a few dollars, no one complains. A Jew who comes to Israel says ‘’very nice but I have other things on my mind,’’ goes home and saves 25,000 Africans from a horrible death, it triggers a complaint of being lost to the Jewish people. Something isn’t quite right.

How is one to give an account of such a situation? In deciding whether what a person is doing is good or worthwhile. I would suggest it is a category mistake of sorts to think strategically. In evaluating whether a Jew is a good person we need not just focus on what the person is doing for the Jewish people or Israel. If what he is doing is good in general, and there are no countervailing bad activities then everything else equal the person is a good person. Second, although he can still be a bad Jew the fact that he is a good person counts to his credit in deciding if he is a good Jew, while still allowing for the possibility that a good man can be a bad Jew. Even though we might all be soldiers in God’s army, even if apostasy is a form of desertion, we need not always evaluate everyone in terms of what they are doing for the success of the army.

Two doctors, one doctor cures a disease Jews suffer from; the other cures a disease that only affects other peoples. The doctor who helped the Jews gets a bigger yasher- koach, an appreciation of gratitude from his fellow Jews. Both were not equally good for the Jews. I still say ceteris paribus both are equally good people, though not necessarily equally good Jews. Nevertheless the doctor who benefited mankind in general but not the Jews gets credit towards being evaluated as a good Jew.

If you consider ‘what has he done for us lately?’ as part of the answer to whether someone is a good person, you end up in a morass. A self interested used car shyster salesman and Mark Hanis are both not immediately useful to the Jewish people…so are they equal? Hanis is doing good deeds and is clearly the better person. So I propose the kiddush Hashem test. If what a person does is a sanctification of God’s name, if we the Jewish people are proud of his activities, then everything else equal he is a good person even if he is not doing anything on behalf of the Jewish people.

Following Rawls I define a good man as someone who has qualities above average that are rational to desire in a man. A good Jew is someone who has qualities above average that are rational to desire in a Jew from a Jewish perspective. From a moral/human perspective it is rational to desire a quality such as humanitarian compassion. Mark Hanis has this quality to an exemplary degree. Since he is a good person engaged in good deeds I would say that in and of itself gives him an initial exemption of sorts from working on behalf of Jewish causes. I am suggesting a secular version of the Talmudic dictum that someone who is engaged in one mitzvah is free from performing another competing mitzvah.

One final point. Going in the other direction the situation might not be symmetric. A bad man can’t in general be a good Jew. A guy who steals a million dollars from the US government and gives it to the poor of Judea and Samaria or to the Mirer yeshiva is not a a good Jew ….it’s a mitzvah habaah baevirah type deal. He committed an act of intended benevolence to Jews through doing something morally wrong. He gets no Jewish credit, at least not in my book. It’s Goldstein redux. I would think Reform Jews believe part of what we mean when we say someone is a good Jew is that he is a good person. I myself don’t rule out a priori the possibility that a bad man might be a good Jew because there might be cases where he is below average in the virtues we desire in a human being, but above average in the virtues we desire in a Jew. I am reminded of the Samuelson quip that if someone goes from MIT to Harvard the average IQ goes up in both places (i.e. below average at MIT is above average at Harvard.) My post is beginning to resemble a philosophy lecture, and I’ll stop.

Moral philosophy from a Jewish perspective is a neglected area in Jewish thought. No one has tried to work out denomination by denomination what a good Jew is and what are the virtues that make someone a good Jew. I realize the ideas in these last three posts need more work, but this is the best I can do right now. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to at least make a start.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reform Charity 2

In my last post I brought up the topic of Millennium Park, and how Reform Jews made a major contribution to the project. A Jew with a Torah, Torah and more Torah ideology cannot accept big time Jewish money being spent on (gevald) a park. The money could have been spent on Jewish education and the Jewish future, and was spent on flowers. My view is this: Charitable impulses are not easily divisible. The feelings of benevolence, responsibility, and a desire to leave a permanent legacy are virtues that find different outlets, depending on the person’s culture and history

The Pritzker family was one of the more prominent donors. Let’s just say hypothetically a significant percentage of the money the family donates to charity each year goes to non Jewish causes. The existence of a counterfactual….they could have, might have, should have given the money to Jewish causes does not diminish what they do. The money is not any Yeshiva’s money, and they have taken nothing away from any Jewish institution. Their donations are good and charitable deeds, even if ‘we’ know they might have done something better with their money. The money was used for charities that are noble and good, be they culture, medicine, the environment. And for doing a good deed they deserve our praise and admiration. If all or almost all of a donor’s money goes to non-Jewish causes, then I would say what the donor did is a good act, though he did not do anything special for the Jewish people and is lacking in his commitment to the Jewish people with respect to his charitable donations.

By way of contrast with the Millennium Park case was the announcement by Moshe Hier of the Wiesenthal Center in L.A. that he was going to raise $700 million dollars to build a Center for Tolerance in Jerusalem. Most of the money was to be spent on a magnificent building, created by the world famous architect Frank Gehrie. I say even if the $700 million would have been otherwise spent on private trinkets, once the money has been donated it is now tzedakah (charity) money, and Rabbi Hier is the trustee. Does any rational person believe we should first spend $700 million of tzedakah money on a building as a hakdamah, a prolegomena to bringing together 20 Arab and Israeli kids in a room to talk about tolerance and peace? Even if he raised some of the money by promoting the building, it is his responsibility to use the money to benefit the Jewish people by actually promoting peace and tolerance between Arabs and Jews. The Arabs will undoubtedly find the ultra- opulent hyper- modernist building inappropriate, and one more example of Western cultural imperialism and the megalomaniac grandiosity of American Jews. They would have a point.

The situation with Jewish humanitarian charity would be different if the following were true: It is morally wrong for a Jew to give a substantial amount of money to non- Jewish humanitarian or cultural causes. Even if halacha would say it is wrong, it is irrelevant to Reform Jews who do not accept halacha as sovereign. A case must be made that it is morally wrong. I am not certain, but I don’t believe it is morally wrong. On three of the leading secular moral theories, utilitarianism, Kantian forms of social contractualism and virtue theories using money for universal type charities is permitted and maybe even required.

The Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margalit has tried to sketch a set of universal moral principles that might entail it is morally preferable for a Jew not to spend his charitable contributions on the art museum or world hunger, while recognizing the duties we all have to our neighbors, countrymen and fellow human beings. His philosophy is a working out in a more abstract and universal way of the Talmudic dictum that the Jewish poor of your city take precedence over the poor of some more distant city. His idea is to single out the kinds of "thick" relations we can call truly ethical from thin relations that we call moral. Thick relations, he argues, are those that we have with family, friends and neighbors, our tribe and our nation--and they are all dependent on shared memories. But we also have "thin" relations with total strangers, people with whom we have nothing in common except our common humanity. Even if such a view is accepted, the most that could be said is that Jewish charities can have a certain precedence. It is permissible to give greater weight to the needs of one’s own tribe over those of more distant tribes. It would take a special kind of Puritanism to condemn a man for doing a good deed, because he might have done an even better deed.

A N.Y. Times reviewer of the coffee table souvenir book Millennium Park did voice an implicit and cutting aesthetic criticism of the sort of public charity involved in building the park. He said ‘’…a park financed by donors given the power to select objects and artists will look very different from one in which aesthetic or social concerns predominate from the first. It will tend to be less a unified landscape than a series of detached vignettes - in effect, naming opportunities.’’ He is right on. At the same time it is unrealistic to expect a small group of donors to give so much money without asking for some recognition. I believe most Chicagoans are delighted with the new space, even if it means having to say ‘’Meet you at the Pritzker Pavilion. We’ll walk through the Lurie Garden, over the BP Bridge and on to our destination The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance.’’

Here is one last example: Margo Pritzker has sponsored and funded a new scholarly multi - volume edition of the Zohar. I am impressed with Mrs. Pritzker’s dedication to Torah and kabbalah. In comparison to the totality of the Pritzker family charity I would conjecture the sums involved are small. Yet the benefit to the world of Torah and scholarship is immense. I can’t exactly say why, but I find this particular project an especially happy development. Perhaps it is related to the historical connection between the spread of esoteric ideas and the arrival of the Messiah (kehshahyafutzu mayonosechaw chutzah). The Assyrian Dictionary Project at the U. of Chicago took close to a hundred years before it was completed. I hope the Zohar project under the able direction of the co-chairs Rabbis Arthur Green and Yechiel Pupko and the heroic diligence of the translator Daniel Matt will be completed quickly and in our time. Here we have an example of Reform charity that does not directly benefit the material needs of the Jewish people, but furthers the more abstract ideal of knowledge of Torah.

I say JUF, Millennium Park, the Zohar Project are all praiseworthy, all acts of charity and beneficence. I will try to offer a more philosophical argument for my view that charity to non-Jewish causes is praiseworthy even from a Jewish point of view in tomorrow’s post.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reform Charity 1

I want to spend some time discussing Reform Judaism. I begin, since we are talking reform, with praise, and I’ll end with some critical thoughts.

Rabbi Selig Starr, a gadol from the early days of American Orthodoxy, used to say: Remember to embrace equally all the three fundamentally Jewish loves: Ahavas(love of) Hashem, Ahavas Torah and Avahas Yisroel (greater Israel). Remember not to minimize any one of them in anyway whatsoever. I would describe American Judaism as made up of three kinds of participants: daveners (love of Hashem,God), learners (love of Torah ) and machers (love of fellow Jews). These participants are found in all the denominations. I have already had occasion to talk about those whose primary relation to Jewish life is learning in my posts on Geeks and on kolel people (6/28, 6/30,7/05.) Today I want to concentrate on a subset of machers, Jews who work on behalf of the Jewish community, the upper tier of the Reform movement.

Some of the most important work of the Reform movement continues with or without temple attendance. Reform Jews are very active in the Jewish United Fund campaigns. The JUF raises close to $800 million annually. The JUF campaigns are frequently just the tip of the iceberg of the charitable and communal activities of Reform Jews. Reform Jews have a special sense of public responsibility for the entire Jewish community. They receive very little in return. Their children don’t attend day school, they don’t live in Israel or Russia and in general they have little need for Jewish social services. They give because they are concerned with klal yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. The Orthodox, by contrast receive far more from the JUF as a community than they contribute. The bulk of Orthodox charity is to their own community. I say this as a fact, and not as a criticism. Reform Jews receive religious sustenance from these caring and giving impulses. Today, not necessarily 100 years ago, the Reformers are one of the least narcissistic groups in American Jewish life. (see my posts of 10/22, 10/23) The pintele yid, the core spark of spirituality in the soul of the Reform Jew draws on the attribute of chesed or loving kindness and motivates him to give back. As they modestly put it, they have this need to give back to the community.

Have you ever seen a society matron, a woman who does lunch, three weeks before “her” charity ball? These women are driven, motivated, and maniacal that the affair should be a huge success. No detail is too small to be left unattended. Where do they derive this energy, interest and drive? What is it to them if the floral centerpiece is a bit clichéd? After the first two martinis who will notice or care? They are driven because the ball is their ball, they are on the board or committee, they take their responsibility seriously .The voluntary nature of their work creates for them an even greater sense of concern than if they were giving the party as part of their job or because they wanted to entertain their friends. You need a tradition to act this way. You have to see this in your family or in your peer group. This tradition is nourished and developed by the many high bourgeois families that are part of the reform movement.

I think it is correct to say that in many respects reform and secular Jews are not very different. In general people drift from one group to the other. A family joins a temple when the children are young, thinking it would be a good idea for the children .As the children grow up they become less active, and drop their temple membership. At that point the statistical measures count such a family as secular. They are the exact same people. All that has occurred is that they have tired of paying a few thousand a year for a membership in a temple whose services they don’t attend. The major difference between secular and reform Jews is not in frequency of synagogue attendance, or in the level of Jewish scholarship or culture or even in the rate of intermarriage. The main difference, in my opinion is the sense of responsibility they feel for the Jewish people, and their willingness to contribute time and money on their behalf.

I want to give one small example of the current work of Reform Jews. The city of Chicago undertook the development of this magnificent space downtown called Millennium Park. There was Federal funding, but there were cost overruns and there was a need for private funding. Rich individuals and some corporations stepped up to the plate, and their names are displayed at the entrance of the park. I once made a quick calculation, and according to my estimates 40% of the hundreds of millions of dollars came from Jewish sources, and most if not all of those donors were Reform Jews. There is this powerful tradition of responsibility to their community that has been the trademark of the Reform movement for 200 years. These people are not particularly daveners and shul goers. They are not scholars. They are powerhouses of charity and public service. A big tent theology of the Jewish people ought to recognize and value this sort of chesed (beneficence), whether or not the donors keep mitzvoth.

(to be continued)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

McMansions and McJews

There is a phenomenon that is happening all over Chicago, and in many other places as well, where people build elaborate homes on small lots, thus leaving little room for landscaping. These homes are ubiquitous in Lincolnwood and Skokie, and are being bought almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews. A critical definition of a McMansion is the following: “McMansion (n.)-A pejorative term for a particular style of housing that, as its name suggest, is both large like a mansion, and relatively (compared to real mansions) cheap and widespread like McDonald’s fast-food restaurants. McMansions are characterized by traditional features without an understanding of those styles’ underlying logic and purpose.”

Are McFrums a little McCrazy for buying McMansions? Are McMansion communities becoming the trailer parks of the wealthy? I think not. Over time, I believe these homes will go up in value and will be recognized for the unique turn-of-the-century genre that they are. I personally find McMansions a bit much, and would rather live in some other type of home, but I recognize how subjective preferences and tastes can differ. My own preferences have been influenced by an interview a relative of mine gave to a design magazine a few years ago.

He said, “A McMansion is like street theater. It ignores its immediate environment, abandons any idea of decorum or appropriateness and, in taking its message to the street, interrupts your day and aggressively asserts its own agenda, right in your face. For example, ‘‘don’t be fooled by these other houses in this neighborhood; you really are in France, stupid, and this is, indeed, Versailles.’” A McMansion says that Versailles can be next to a Tudor mansion, which can be next to a Windsor castle. “It’s like Halloween-everyone in costume, in their own reality, but at the same party.” It says, “In a more perfect world, I would truly be king and live in this Tudor castle, so why wait?”

He emphasized in the interview that the front door of a McMansion is your welcome mat. It’s your old-time Loretta Young entrance. It screams, “You have arrived!’’ The raison detre of any McMansion is to elicit the biggest ‘oooooh!’ from your guests the second they arrive on your doorstep, before they even come inside. Desired response? "Oh, honey, I’m sure we’ve got the wrong house; this is obviously the French embassy." In response to the question, “What place does a McMansion have in the scheme of modern architecture?’’ He said, “It is form following function, the function being to accommodate one’s psychological needs within a physical structure. Since it is unabashedly artificial, it is one of the least pretentious genres of architecture.” How’s that for an elitist twist?

I believe the issue of McMansion is similar in structure to the question of fancy sheitels and designer clothes. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being farputzed, and somewhat in your face. Orthodox Jews are not Italians who build courtyards within courtyards, so as to hide the glitz from the public. In any event, whether or not one considers such homes tasteful and appropriate, I feel it’s a mistake to attribute any moral or spiritual fault to their owners. Jewish life is on a learning curve. Many families came from areas of Eastern Europe that were not known for their avant-garde sensibility in design and decoration. Everyone is rowing as fast as they can, and if Orthodoxy does not meet the standards of shabby chic WASP sensibilities, it’s no tragedy.

I believe the reason there are no original modernist McMansions is not due to any deep spiritual considerations. A modernist home involves a risk, would stick out even more in a neighborhood like Skokie, and requires a very strong sense of design. Jews who own McMansions generally have large families, are busy in their work, and have other things on their mind than to make original architectural statements. (For a contrary view, see the comments here 10/26/06.)

In secular Jewish society aesthetic disagreements or more correctly aesthetic preferences that are seen as unacceptable are treated much more harshly. People take aesthetic decisions much more seriously. Walk in to any high end design place and watch couples conferring over some object. You’d think they are deciding whether to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Orthodox society is generally more forgiving when it comes to decoration and appearances. There is still a feeling that simplicity and modesty are virtues, and therefore it is improper to complain about the quality of the art or interior decoration. Compared to the hardscrabble aesthetics of secular Jewish life, I find the Orthodox approach refreshing.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Femme Fatale Bais Yaakov Girls

In the comments on my post on Sexy Sheitels (10/16/06), a wide variety of new issues were raised concerning the topic of “Sexy Dress and the Yeshiva Girl,” including the perennial favorite Beauty Fades, Stupidity Lasts Forever. Some commentators even claimed that the raison d'etre for many graduates of Orthodox girls High Schools is to look sexy so as to catch a suitable mate. The core complaint is that looks have become over-emphasized to the detriment of other qualities. In my consultations with female members of the Vaad (Committee) for the Preservation of Tzinius (Modest Dress) in Downtown Evanston, a number of salient counter-points were brought up.

Some argued, "Looks will get you the first date, but no more—the rest is your personality, etc. Most young women have bigger goals in life than becoming a "Barbie doll"; if not, than they have much bigger problems to deal with.” Others said to my great surprise that “the top tier girls are smart enough and determined enough to buy clothes that can be found in Elle and Vogue, and will obviously end up looking great. Such girls are going to be intelligent in many other ways as well. It might not be apparent to the yeshiva bochur, but then that’s his problem. Some of these great looking women may be very competitive, ambitious and bright. It takes a considerable amount of effort, organization and taste to look that way. They usually do well in all other endeavors. "

The view of the Vaad was that the top tier girls that are the most attractive are either from rich families or from families that aspire to marry into rich families. The mothers of the boys that these types are looking for are themselves farputzed to the max, and are looking for girls that have the knack and taste to dress fashionably. The second tier of girls cannot reach these stylistic heights. They generally come from poorer, less upwardly mobile homes, or very,very frum homes and can’t or won’t compete. They have some taste; they are bright, obsessively neat and frequently have great midos (character). Their weak point is they tend to overmatch outfits. They coordinate, and then they coordinate some more. The third tier is everybody else.’’ It is difficult for me to tell if the Vaad are trained informants and astute anthropologists or totally biased and catty. My guess is they know what they are talking about, and have some understanding of the fast track shiduchim world. I would therefore conclude that the complaints about provocative dress are masking in some instances, deeper resentments about differentials in wealth and income.

It was also suggested in the comments that there’s a difference between a chassidish/heimish elegant look and a provocative litvish bais yaakov look. In chassidic families, no matter how much is spent on looking good, they insist on a draping effect so that the woman’s body is not displayed in an exhibitionistic or provocative way, whereas in the Americanized Strict Orthodox high schools, the parents allow the young women to cross the line from elegance to a high style/ designer/ fashion magazine look that may appear somewhat provocative to the untrained eye. The Vaad agreed and scored a point for the heimish chasidish crowd. The Vaad felt that the schools in general were not to blame. ‘’As far as chinuch (education) goes -- We don't think schools are giving off the wrong idea -- they have rules/guidelines uniforms, mussar. They try to show how important modest dress is. They are trying...the problem could be they are trying too hard and cause the girls to rebel in the future -- but does this cause a higher divorce rate? We think not."

Additional observations from informants in the field are required before any firm generalizations can be drawn. I am particularly interested in ascertaining if there is a stratified shiduchim market. Is it true that shadchanim (matchmakers) favor fashionable girls over equally pretty but plainer dressed girls? How many tiers are there? Many such questions come to mind, and enquiring minds want to know. My suspicion is that the 'shiduchim crisis' as it is called is partially caused by a sort of winner take all competition. Some girls/guys in the so called first tier get as many matches as they want. Others get few or none. Much of the anguish comes from families being unaware or unwilling to accept the somewhat arbitrary segmentation of the shiduchim world. I would think shadchanim benefit from acting dumb. ('' I am doing my very best, Mrs. X…You know, it’s not so easy…call me after the Yom Tovim…'')

Wherever the exact line of appropriate behavior will eventually be drawn, enormous credit has to be given to the Orthodox community for maintaining, not only the standard of tzinuis, but even more importantly, the standard of dressing up on a regular basis, what I called in a different context, “being farputzed.” I don’t know of any other community in America where people continue to dress formally for dinner on a regular basis. Orthodox and other traditional Jews, dress up for shabbus every week. There is a tradition in America of dressing to the nines, but frequently it is not a high bourgeois sort of dress. If you go to Vegas, you can see a lot of women wearing their finest, but it frequently has a trashed out quality. The men walk around in khakis and jeans. Similarly, you can go to a Latino nightclub where the women are over the top (stilettos, halter tops, low-cut or backless shirts in the winter, glitter), but the guys are wearing jeans and gel. The bourgeois tradition lives on at opening nights at the opera, fancy dress balls, weddings, funerals and the like. If the base line is late nineteenth century aristocratic English dress of tuxedoes and gowns, Orthodox Jewry is closer to that standard than any other group in America. One might think of the black, black, black/ white shirts of Ultra Orthodoxy as the heimish version of a tuxedo.

I, myself, find the tradition of dressing up very valuable. I think the closer one gets to high bourgeois life and the farther one gets from Birkenstock socialist aesthetics, the more attractive Jewish life becomes. As I understand the situation, some Modern Orthodox believe it’s the other way around. They believe if I understand it correctly, that the tradition of high European bourgeois culture has been corrupted, especially because of the Holocaust and the horrible years that led up to it. They feel it is far better, depending on the context, to dress up for shabus and yom tov by adopting a kibbutz, open-collar, sandal look, or a suburban casual look than to emulate the stiff formality of Budapest 1910 or London 1890. Interesting disagreement. We might even have an example of a contra- Heilman situation where the Holocaust had a greater effect on MO than the charedim.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Upcoming Agudah Convention

I want to talk about the symposium devoted to blogging at the upcoming Agudah convention. Many have expressed concern that they themselves or the Jewish blogosphere will be strongly criticized. (Rabbi Maryles and DovBear, 11/02/06 and comments) I myself look forward to the convention with equanimity. I usually agree with their pronouncements. I know two months later there will be a new issue of Der Yiddisher Vort with tons of photos, which enables me to see what the gedolim look like, how they are aging, as well as the most important question ‘’Who’s a gadol , who’s not.’’

I would not be upset if they singled out my blog for disapproval. I wouldn’t want them to get into a snit, but if perhaps they could say something like, “Evanston Jew, not-so aiy, yai, yai.” When an elephant swats a fly, the fly doesn’t say, “I’m so angry. She should have asked me out for a date.” The fly says, “It’s my lucky day, the elephant noticed me.” It would be a kavod (an honor) to be noticed even legnai (disfavorably). Charedim rarely acknowledge anyone outside their world. Condemnation by an organization like the Agudah would quadruple my charedi readership, which would improve the conversation. In this day and age, and with respect to the Internet, condemnation by political parties and rabbinical establishments would drive traffic to a site. The Agudah realizes that if they say ‘don’t read blog X…X is full of lashon harah ( gossip)’, many will rush to read X. It’s sad but true. Such is life.

I expect the Agudah to say, “Using the internet not for business is forbidden.” It is a waste of time, where one could have been studying Torah. They would be right. The production and consumption of blogs eats up an enormous amount of time.

They will say blogging leads to a depreciation of the gedolim and ultimately the Torah itself. They will disapprove of blogs that do not tow the Agudah line, as they should. The Agudah is a political party with a rabbinic leadership, and like all political parties they are not fond of the competition. Nor should they be. Macy’s doesn’t take out ads for Bloomingdales. Do we blame Republicans for not being crazy about Democrats? When the Agudah invokes Daas Torah, it is, amongst many other things, a way to support the rabbinical leadership’s aspiration for hegemony over the Jewish people. The hegemony can be earned by convincing everyone. In the present context, it would involve stepping into the ring of bloggers and presenting their view point in the intellectual marketplace. I am delighted to see Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudah is beginning to do just that. When the option of competing in an open-market is not available, there is the tried and true method of condemning those who are a threat to their hegemony by invoking the sanctity of the Torah. And from the Agudah’s point of view, they are right to do so. They feel the rabbinical leadership that is loyal to their party is worthy of leading the entire Jewish people. Anyone who stands in the way of this goal is a threat to the Torah-true way of life as they understand it.

If the Agudah began inviting critics of its viewpoints to address their convention they would no longer be the Agudah. They would have morphed into a tolerant, liberal organization. Next thing the Conservatives and Reformers will be clamoring to present their points of view, and then what will we have? The League of Women Voters. A pluralist Agudah will lead to their gedolim appearing at RCA conventions. Who knows what will come of that? Help for agunot, kashrut reform, women tefila (prayer) groups. The Agudah of Kattowitz, Marienbard, Wien and the other classic conventions was an organization of fierce ideological infighters. Who could possibly want them to go all soft and liberal? Does Jewish life lack in moderate, pluralist liberal Jews?

I expect special condemnation of those bloggers that are most threatening, even if they raised important and timely issues. UOJ is the leading candidate now that he is no longer posting. It would be a pleasant surprise if they coupled their condemnations with some action on rabbinical sexual predator issues and other areas of rabbinic corruption. The elephant in the room in all the scandals of the last few years is who will control the narratives that shape our evaluation of the rabbinical leadership. Would any political/rabbinical leadership give up control over the story line voluntarily? I think not.

Finally, the Agudah will express concern about young people. They are right. Young teenage yeshiva bocherim don’t belong on the internet blogging sites. They should learn, exercise and hang out. Unsupervised internet use for frum teenagers can lead to no good. My view is that a charedi Jew needs a college education to develop his critical powers so as to discern the quality of the arguments. If that is impossible, he needs some life experience.

As usual, Daas Torah knows what it’s talking about. It is especially astute at knowing what is good for Daas Torah. (Also see my posts of 9/20/06 and 8/13/06)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Post-Yeshiva Yeshivaman

Anybody who went to yeshiva and has internalized its ideals, feels it’s important to maintain those ideals throughout life. Many people have remarked that, in an important sense, no one ever leaves the yeshiva; a yeshiva education is permanently embedded in one’s consciousness. I want to address the question of how can a post- yeshiva yeshivaman (the ‘an’ is pronounced like the ‘on’ in Ludwig von Beethoven), away from the actual yeshiva and in the world, maintain yeshivish values? I want to concentrate on the value of life-long learning and education.

The problem is of interest only to a minority of Orthodox Jews. Many Orthodox Jews don’t have time to breathe, let alone to be confronted with questions about what to read and what to study. As a background condition, I’m assuming a person has the good fortune to be able to fulfill all of his duties and obligations and still have time left over to learn. My question is when a yeshivaman faces a long life ahead, post-yeshiva, how is he to organize his intellectual studies? Since we’re talking about yeshiva educated people, one fixed point will obviously be the study of Torah, and here, I think, there’s a general consensus that there are three main books in Jewish life, the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar. A person who doesn’t study any of these books, especially the Talmud, can not be described as yeshivish.

There are three other potential libraries that might have to be integrated into Torah study. The first is Jewish studies, which include both books about the history and culture of Jewish life and other books that may be relevant to the understanding of the three core texts. If you have a “Torah, Torah, Torah!” view, the question doesn’t come up because all the time will be spent in Talmudic study and the like. Nevertheless, it is true that many yeshiva people, as they get older, take an interest in Jewish Studies, and the question arises how they should go about their reading.

There’s also a library of secular knowledge that is interesting for its own sake, beginning with art history and ending with zoology. Each of these disciplines could take a lifetime to master. What is one to do? Next, there are areas of studies that are relevant to one’s special duties in life. Lawyers have to keep up with the law. Doctors have to study developments in medicine and so on. There are also bodies of knowledge that are associated with one’s particular existential situation. A family in which somebody is sick will eventually learn all there is to know about the illness.

So here is the grown-up yeshivaman potentially faced with four almost endless libraries: a Torah library, Jewish Studies, interesting secular knowledge, and practical secular knowledge. Can anything be said about how one is to go about integrating all of this? I want to offer two principles; not rules, principles. The first is that curiosity is the surest guide of what to read. There can be no better motivator than natural interest. Learning should not be like taking cod liver oil. It should be more like licking the honey off a page. A study program devoted to material that a reader finds uninteresting will not endure for any substantial period of time. Everything else equal, a yeshivahman should allow his natural curiosity and desire to know more to organize his studies.

The second principle is coherence that leads to depth. At the end of a life, all this study should amount to something. The person would have found a way to connect the various subjects and interests. The studies should reinforce each other and enable the person to get past the exterior level to something deeper. In yeshiva jargon, it is a bkeius that leads to an amkus, an encyclopedic knowledge of many different subjects that leads to a deeper knowledge that is so integrated that the whole is more than the parts. At the end of a life a person should be able to say, “I now understand, in a deep way, what I did not understand but very much wanted to know when I set out on my intellectual journey.”

The view I’m offering is in contrast to an idea popular in secular Jewish life. People frequently say a person ought to be a “Renaissance man.” They say it’s important to know a little bit about everything, so that at a cocktail or dinner party, one can always speak up and offer an intelligent opinion. Too detailed knowledge of any particular subject makes for a geek or a nerd, but not for an attractive dinner party companion. I don’t like this view because it frequently leads to a sort of “culture vulture” type of consumerism. Did you see? Did you read? Did you go to? I loved it, I hated it, so-so. At the end of life, all this vulturing doesn’t add up to an organic, unified whole, and frequently doesn’t push the person to greater depth and wisdom. I am not opposed to participating in a culture. I am opposed to a sampling ‘wine tasting’ approach to culture.

On my view, what is true for a yeshiva bochur post-yeshiva also holds true for the general issue of Jewish literacy that affects all Jewish denominations and groups. I say the fixed point is Torah, followed by Jewish Studies and secular knowledge and special knowledge, in some combination, governed by curiosity and coherence. As to the exact way to travel down the road from curiosity to depth, the answer differs for each of us. We have different interests, life experiences and therefore different lessons to learn and roads to travel. There is no guarantee of success, and it is easy enough to go down a path that lead to nowhere. The possibility of failure and the promise of success are all part of the excitement and glamour of being a yeshivahman.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Heimish Chasidish

Heimish Chasidish (HC) doesn’t get the credit that it deserves. If you’ve been asleep and haven’t noticed, the Jewish blogosphere is almost totally dominated by Litvisher guys, who self-identify as litvish because they either are the children of Lithuanian families or were students of yeshivas that teach in the Lithuanian style of studying Talmud. These self identifying litvish are everywhere. YU is Brisk incarnate. Hesder yeshivas are all litvish. Lakewood, Baltimore, Scranton, Philadelphia, Denver, RJJ, MTJ, Mir, Telshe, Skokie, Lakewood community kollels all over the country are all litvish, litvish, litvish. Many of the newer yeshivas in Stamford, New Haven, New Jersey, the Rockaways, the Catskills, Miami, L.A., more litvish, litvish, litvish. The situation gets worse as we move along. YCT… litvish. JTS…was litvish. Bais yaakovs…litvish. Israeli finishing schools for girls… litvish,litvish,and more litvish. It seems these litvisher have the heimish chassidish crowd surrounded. For such a small Baltic country they such know how to replicate.

For my readers who have no idea what I’m talking about, the place names I mentioned in the last paragraph are the handles, nicknames and acronyms of the various yeshivas. Heimish chassidish refers to the groups of Orthodox Jews whose primary self-identification are with the chassidic families from which they come, and with the chassidic subgroups that are part of their heritage. As part of this identification they have learnt how to internalize the feeling tone, graciousness and culture so as to be similar in important respects to other Jews who came from these chasidic areas ;hence the heimish part. When you are with them it feels like you are with someone from der alter heim, the old home where these chasidim lived. To bring everyone up to snuff I should add that within Ashkenazi Jewry, ever since the arrival of Chassidus as a movement in the late 18th century, Orthodox or rather very traditional Jewish life has been divided between chasiddim and misnagdim (the opponents [of chasidim]). One of the leading mithnagdim communities was centered in Lithuania and Belarus (Lita). These misnagdim were called litvaks and their style of learning and being is litvish.

I am using HC in a minimalist way to describe any Jew who achieves a way of being Jewish that does not self identify as litvish and a misnagid but rather as a chassidish person and carries on chasidic customs, culture and ways of being in the various areas of Jewish life other than Talmudic studies; and has also internalized these ways of being to a point so that being with him feels like being with someone who acts and is the way people were in Eastern Europe. A baal teshuvah can certainly be chassidish. It takes a while before he is heimish. A person can be heimish and not frum, maybe, but that is complicating my story. A non-frum person can’t be chassidish even if he wears a shtreimel and bekishe. Within Ultra-Orthodoxy these HC groups are very important and count for a substantial percentage of the population. On the internet, they are almost invisible.

It’s not very easy to do the phenomenology of Heimish Chasidish Man because the term is now being used in a big tent sort of way. First of all, there are HC people who trained in litvish yeshivas versus others who went only to a chassidisher yeshiva. The situation is more complicated because some chassidish places have adopted litvish ways of learning. Second, there is the question of degree. It’s difficult to compare a Satmar guy in Kiryas Yoel with a college educated yuppie who self identifies as HC, but is already clean shaven, etc. And finally, litvisher guys can be haymish, they just can’t be chassidish heimish . (For a different use of heimish in terms of being heimish with see my post of 6/21. Also relevant is my exchange with the reader ‘’anonymous’’ in yesterday’s post.)

Describing HC is a bit like describing the un-Cola. I’ll take a stab. I would say the core characteristic of HC Man is that he’s not pretending to be a litvak, even if he attended a litvisher yeshiva. The phonology of his Yiddish is not litvish Yiddish but Polish or Hungarian or Romanian Yiddish. He is especially fond of and attached to the rhythms and ways of expressing oneself that are found in these European Yiddish dialects. It’s a bit like a Southern drawl. Southerners like to talk southern. Chassidish heimish like to talk in a chassidish heimish way. The language, in turn, is intimately tied to a ways of thinking and feeling. Humor and wit are built into the phonology, syntax and semantics. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Dzigen and Schumacher and Dzigen comedy tapes. There is a whole world, 500 hundred years of history embedded in Dzigan’s lilt. I giggle every time I hear Dzigen ask a question with an upward lilt and stop, leaving the listener hanging. HCers are determined not to lose those worlds. HC types daven sefard, have chassidic customs like the prohibition of gebrochets on Passover, and as we move towards charedi life have an active and deep relationship with a chassidic rebbe.

Litvish people, especially those sweet on musar (traditional pietistic and ethical discourses), can be dour. It’s difficult for HC Man to be as coolly intellectual, analytical and emotionally pinched as some litvish people. I would say that although he is not as high-brow analytical as litvish intellectuals, HC Man is frequently more street smart and better in business, because his or her intelligence is infused with an emotional intelligence and with a laser beam focus on the goal, unencumbered by hyper-intellectual ideas and doubts. (I understand that others will undoubtedly differ on this last point. Where science fears to tread, bloggers trash out with ease. In fact it is a stereotype that would be impossible to prove, and which is only based on a hunch on my part on the relative distribution of wealth at the high end of Ultra Orthodoxy.) When an HCer is trained in a litvish yeshiva and there are secondary identifications, the ideal type I called HC Man begins to blend imperceptibly into some generic American yeshivish type.

HCers have inherited to a greater or lesser degree the popular and religious culture of chasidim in general and a relevant specific chassidic sect in particular. A complete phenomenology would require a working through of the idiosyncratic personality traits of each chassidic group, not the easiest of tasks. I’ll leave that task to Professor Heilman.

In the case of the less acculturated HC types there is a peculiar swagger, a mojo that is unique to chasidim. It’s not just that they wear black, any yolt can do that. They wear it with aplomb, an assurance that is truly cool. They walk, they slouch, they inhabit their space with an insouciance that is…what can I say, heimish chasidish. If you click here you’ll see a little heimish chasidish swagger from one of the two Satmar Rebbe weddings of last week , which b’’h were on two successive nights. Beautiful and inspiring.

If he were frum and if he were (more) chasidish and heimish, Kinky Friedman, hopefully the next governor of Texas, would be heimish chassidish. Eliott Spitzer whatever his origins is Litvish. If I were really mean I would say Ann Coulter is Litvish, Al Franken is HC. Since I try not to be too mean, scratch the last sentence. I mentioned these names jokingly to give readers who have never met either a litvish or HC person some small feel of what I am talking about.

The future of college educated HC people is not bright. It’s going to be hard for them to instill the values they learned from their European parents in their children, especially when the common language becomes English. I believe it will depend on second and third generation HCers achieving a deeper understanding of what is unique to their subculture and how to show these special traits to their children. Taking their American acculturated children on a trip to Jerusalem or Williamsburg, pointing at some chasidim and telling the children ‘we’re them’ might be inadequate.

I don’t feel I’ve gotten to the inner nitty- gritty of my topic, but sitting in Evanston, this hotbed of Torah and chassidus in the American heartland, it’s the best I can do right now. I know one thing, to be called heimish are words of high praise. It is an ideal worth striving for.