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Archive for February, 2011

Spreading the Word

My mother sent me the following joke the other day:

There was a knock on the door this morning.  I opened it to find a young man standing there who said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.”  I said, “Come in and sit down.  What do you want to talk about?”  He said, “Beats the hell out of me; I’ve never made it this far before.”

I’ve heard jokes and stories about door-to-door missionaries for years, some of them real, some apocryphal.  A woman I once knew would allow missionaries to come in on one condition: they could talk about their religion for 10 minutes, and she would talk about hers for 10 minutes.  A former religion teacher of mine in Catholic school was a former monk, and missionaries used to leave his house utterly disillusioned after a cup of tea and a serious theological dressing-down.  My brother once claimed to have opened the door to missionaries wearing nothing but a Frankenstein mask.  But my favorite story is of a friend who got a knock at his college dorm room door while he was studying.  Did he want to participate in a Bible study in the lounge?  Never one to miss an opportunity to learn some Torah, he grabbed his chumash and joined the group.  When they began reading from their English translations, he looked up in mock horror.  “You study the Bible in ENGLISH?!”  And with that, he snapped his book shut and went back to his room and his books.

I sometimes wonder why people are attracted to cults that peddle God as others peddled vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias in the old days.  I suppose they start out as lonely people, and the kinds of people who find them sitting alone on park benches or smoking dope in alleys offer them some sense of belonging, of friendship, of security.  I have compassion for such people as far as that goes.  I have a little less for the kind of people who go to churches where they claim Catholics aren’t Christians, or anyone who doesn’t go to that particular church is going to burn in hell for all eternity.

Over the years, I have found Christianity disturbing on a number of levels, and one is its general departure from the lessons contained in the Hebrew Bible.  Once, when I was learning with my rabbi before my conversion, he asked me why the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Eve instead of with the Exodus.  It’s a question that has come up periodically throughout my years of hearing sermons.  The answer is that the story of the Jews is the story of all people.  We are all created in God’s image, and we all share a portion of life on earth, as well as a share in the world to come.  God cares about all people, not just the Jews (though the Torah indicates that God has a greater stake in the Jews than in other people, for good and ill).  We are not to rejoice at others’ misfortune, either by rejoicing at the drowning of the Egyptians or by keeping plunder upon conquering cities in Canaan (unless expressly told to do so).  By the same token, how others treat the Jews is supposed to determine in some part their own fortune.

Perhaps this is why, when I was approached by a couple of starry-eyed evangelical Christian undergraduates in the middle of my conversion (and a dual master’s degree) and invited to a Super Bowl-pizza-Bible study party, my blood pressure rose.  What the Bible has to do with American football and pizza utterly escapes me, and when I politely declined, despite promises that it would be “fun,” they asked, “Well, aren’t you a Christian?”  I answered, no, as it happens, I am not.  And they got that look such Christians always get, like they’re talking to someone who deals drugs, eats cockroaches, or murdered someone (which, as a Jew, they probably thought I had).  But didn’t I want to be a Christian?  And this is where my patience gets seriously tried, because I can’t help thinking to myself, you’d all be better off spiritually as Jews, and you could enjoy your Super Bowl and kosher pizza without having to canvass weary graduate students to join you.  But I don’t say that.  I firmly but politely decline, and refrain from telling them that their religion is a lie, a farce, and a bill of goods, and that the path to salvation, redemption, God, and the world to come is a lot simpler for them as non-Jews than they could ever imagine.

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Poppies

I’ve been enthralled by the volume of snow dumped on the US (and New England, in particular) this winter, and have posted several times on the subject.  But Wednesday, my inbox had an unexpected treat for spring, a photo taken by Yehoshua Halevi of poppies in the Ela Valley (taken 2007), near Beit Shemesh where I used to live.  I always loved spring in Oregon and New England, where first the snowdrops would appear (in February, yet), then the crocuses and daffodils, followed by the tulips and irises, and finally the lilacs would give one splashes of color and sometimes heady scents carried on the breezes.  But early spring in Israel has its own charm, with almond trees blossoming, cyclamen bursting forth from the rocky soil, and anemones and poppies dotting the fields and roadsides.  This lush photo of poppies is Israel at its greenest and most luxuriant; take it in while you can, because once the hot winds hit in late March and April, things begin to dry out again and the green is gone for the next seven or eight months.  (A word about the Ela Valley: The winery there puts out the most magnificent chardonnay I’ve ever tasted.  Most chardonnay doesn’t appeal to me because of its sharpness, but the Ela Valley chardonnay is smooth, fragrant, and mellow.  I highly recommend it.)

Thanks to Yehoshua for letting me post the photo here.  You may notice I have added his weekly photo blog to my blogroll; I encourage you to click on it periodically to see what gorgeous images of Israel, the holidays, and the people here he has on view.

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Rethinking peace with Syria

It’s easy, given the leitmotif of Middle East peace rhetoric, to look at the possibility of peace between Israel and Syria as being inextricably tied to a hand-over of the Golan Heights to our Arab neighbors in exchange for a deal.  That’s the way it’s been ever since 1967, it’s all the Assad dynasty has been able to think about (in the hope of restoring the face they lost in the war they also lost), and it’s what the Americans, Europeans, and Israeli Left think is involved.

I’ve also been stuck in that rut for some time, thinking that if that’s the price of peace with Syria, then we’d better learn to do without.  The strategic value of the Golan to Israel, the water rights that come with it, and the fact that, while the Druze on the Heights say they’re spiritually citizens of Syria, they’ve easily done their share as valuable citizens of Israel, and will probably continue thus, are part and parcel of Israel’s possession of that patch of land.

And then I read JoeSettler’s post on the Muqata blog, where he shakes the foundations of that line of thinking.  Starting from the position that peace-making with dictatorships is risky, he goes on to take a close look at the benefits that Arab nations have received in exchange for peace with Israel (including American aid for Egypt and water for Jordan).  Egypt got back the Sinai, but Jordan did not request (or, likely, even want) Yehudah and Shomron back under its umbrella.  Land is not an essential element in peace-making, after all.

JoeSettler writes, “Israel will not give up the Golan, that is the price Syria must pay for peace with Israel and for the benefits that peace with Israel will bring them.”  In addition, he writes, “Israel must demand that regime change takes place and democracy is introduced so we can make sure that any treaty we sign is (relatively) stable.”

I often find myself resistant to the land-for-peace mantra, and this post clarified why that is so: “Israel needs to stop thinking that only Israel gains from peace.”

And that goes for the rest of the world, too.

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The other day, Carl posted a short rant on his blog, IsraelMatzav, on the lack of widespread support among US Jewry of America’s veto of the “settlements are illegal” resolution vote at the UN.

One of Carl’s readers, a self-avowed Renewal Jew, commented that the Renewal movement’s spiritual leader, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is not expected to state an opinion on the subject.  This person asserted that it is alienating to shul-goers (especially those not politically active) to hear about politics from the bima, and it got me thinking.

On the one hand, I like to feel like Israel is really the People United we like to think it is.  And it’s nice to feel like there is support for Israel and its interests expressed by Jews abroad, especially on issues which challenge Israel’s very existence, as those at the UN seem increasingly to do these days.

But then I think some more.  Not all American Jews feel connected to the State of Israel.  For many, just being Jewish is challenge enough when faced with the pull of non-Jewish culture and the ease of assimilation.  And about a third of younger American Jews said in a poll in the last couple of years that the loss of Israel (presumably through a second Holocaust) would not be a particularly emotional event for them.  It’s a lot to ask Jews who don’t feel connected to Israel at all to take an interest in the protection of the settlement enterprise, something that not all Israelis support, and which most people outside Israel don’t understand, much less give their backing.

And Carl’s Renewal reader also said something that resonated with me: there is nothing more irritating than hearing a rabbi rail from the bima about politics.  It took me back to my mid-teens, when we lived in a small town in California that had one Reform synagogue and a rabbi with an abrasive personality.  We rarely went to synagogue, and when we did, the rabbi would greet my family at the door with the comment, “Well, hello, strangers!”  If that wasn’t bad enough, he spent every Friday night ranting about the PLO (this was 1982 and he had a lot to say), to the point that I began to wonder if Hashem hadn’t made a covenant with the PLO rather than the Jews, and whether the rabbi actually knew any Torah at all.  At a time when I was desperate to learn something about Judaism and trying to figure out who I was as a Jew, my rabbi (the only Jewish authority I’d clapped eyes on in years) was no help.  He taught me no Torah at shul, and he taught me no Torah at the teen class he taught on Wednesday nights that my parents forced me to attend.  When I finally found out that only the Reform movement accepted me as Jewish, I was not encouraged.  (By the way, I have met more learned Reform rabbis since then, but this was a poor start to my acquaintance with Reform Judaism.)

So while I understand Carl’s discouragement at a lack of American support (which Israelis feel increasingly these days as the peace process seems to disappear over the horizon and is replaced by initiatives to invalidate Israel’s existence), I also understand why American Jews weren’t queuing up to protest the latest vote on the threadbare theme of “settlements are the Antichrist.”

Besides, a source of consolation for me in all this was that, unlike the current Secretary of State (who calls the settlements “illegitimate” and expansion of the settlements “illegal”), America’s Yidn didn’t take to the streets to support the Arab-backed resolution.

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Cannibalistic cake

Since beginning my illustrious career as a transcriber and editor, I haven’t had much time to keep up with other blogs (including my own).  Instead, I take advantage of occasional snatches of time between finishing a file and picking up Bill, while the kids are coloring in the playroom after school, or late at night, to go on blog-reading binges.  We were in this Shabbat and I had a light cooking day on Friday, so I thought I’d catch up on Cake Wrecks.

Like me, those who agree with Jen that cake says it all (including things that would be better left unsaid) will be fascinated to hear her speculative history behind the evolution of baby butt cakes into pregnant torso cakes, and then into, well…read for yourself.  It’s rare that I find myself yelling at the computer screen (because I’ve found from experience that it doesn’t really help), but this was one of those occasions.  Enjoy.  (And then, to cleanse your palate, check out one or more of her Sunday Sweets pages.)

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A couple of days ago, I posted a few comments about the recent Egyptian revolution and a video of a song by Sandy Cash on the topic.

One of my commenters, Rivki @ Life in the Married Lane…, made the following observations: “While listening to the media coverage, it was pretty frustrating how certain news sources (mainly NPR) continually downplayed the M[uslim] B[rotherhood]’s opinions on terrorism, martyrdom, connection to Hamas, etc. It was a big love-fest for revolution with few references to a potentially bleak future.  I hope that the Egyptian people get a democracy which will serve them (and us) well.”

Rivki’s comment about NPR could go for many other Western media outlets (and Facebook) as well.  I have shared many people’s hope for the country and for a smooth transition to a more representative government dedicated to elevating the status and economic situation of the country’s population.  But the attitude of many Americans, and several media sources, has been much less moderate and guarded, and I’m forced to conclude that the emotional needs of the West drive its media coverage of the world’s events.  It helps explain the absurd distortions and total certainty Westerners feel (even when there is no legitimate certainty to be felt) about the outcome of tumultuous events like those in Egypt.  Americans love nothing more than watching the huddled masses struggling to be free, and want to see everyone end up with the same outcome America got.  Their ignorance of Arab culture makes it hard for them to accept the guarded optimism or outright pessimism people feel who actually live among Arabs and are directly affected by what happens in the Arab world.  Thomas Friedman’s harsh criticism of Israel‘s muted response to the revolution and concern about the toppling of a government that maintained the 30-year peace between Egypt and Israel shows Friedman (usually a fairly responsible journalist) to be out of touch with the realities of the region (both for Israel and for Egypt) and just as guilty as NPR of being swept along by the tsunami of revolution euphoria. (Here are two utterly rational responses to Friedman’s detour into Israel-bashing madness from Ynet, by Eddie Yair Fraiman and Martin Sherman.)

The downplaying of the Muslim Brotherhood’s designs on the government is probably due to the MB’s astuteness in keeping to the sidelines (for now) and the West’s inability to accept the very real possibility that Egypt will fall to anti-Israel, anti-Western Islamist forces.  The fact that Iran’s revolution resulted in a “balanced” cabinet between Islamists and moderates, but after 8 months (when the world was no longer so focused on Iran) Khomeini forced out the moderates and replaced them with like-minded Islamists, is a historical tidbit most people don’t know about or can’t bear to face happening again.

Countries have the right to govern themselves, and while Israel may have its peace with Egypt in its best interests, it does not mean that we would dream of interfering in another country’s politics.  The last country that should accuse others of meddling in other countries’ politics is the United States, and the twentieth century in southeast Asia and Latin America is all the support I need to say that.  It seems unwise to me to abandon reason for unchecked emotion, to ignore history in favor of wild hope, to adopt an attitude of absolute certainty at the expense of a cautious, wait-and-see attitude, and to lash out viciously against people who harbor legitimate fears that the outcome may not be as rosy and wonderful as you are convinced it will be.

Just a thought.

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No-frills Judaism?

On Friday, February 4, 2001, the Jerusalem Post carried an article in the “In Jerusalem” section entitled “No-frills Judaism.”  In it, Peggy Cidor (the Post’s maven on all things yerushalmi) described how a small movement of Israelis who call themselves “secular humanistic Jews” are building communities of like-minded secular Israelis, rewriting Jewish life cycle events to eliminate reference to God, and ordaining rabbis.  (I apologize in advance for not providing a link to the article; the Post requires a paid subscription to access this article online.  I’ll quote from it to provide necessary highlights.)

Now, I used to be a secular person.  I was never an atheist, but ignorance of Judaism for me also meant ignorance of the nature of God’s relationship with humankind.  The frummer the observance, the more based in tradition, the more connected to God, and the less comfortable I was with it.  And I understand that there are people in the world who cannot bring themselves to believe in a thing if they haven’t seen it with their own two eyes.  (I’m related to many such people.)

So I can’t say I am surprised to see such a movement afoot in Israel.  Inspired by one Israeli woman’s experience of a Yom Kippur service in Chicago in 1980 which made no mention of God throughout the entire service, and in which there was “no ark, but instead a kind of pedestal with the inscription ‘Adam’ [man] engraved on it,” it’s been slowly built up and marketed to Jews in Israel who don’t affiliate with their religion other than living on the Jewish calendar and living among other Jews.  According to Cidor’s research, the people ordained as rabbis for this new movement “learn and experience various aspects of typical Jewish life from a cultural perspective: Jewish history, education, ethics and philosophy, and culture.  They also receive special training in spiritual counseling.”  Rabbinical training also “includes community work and public leadership in education, and also training in promoting change in public opinion about the need for a Jewish secular alternative.”

This is not the first effort by secular Jews to reclaim their cultural and intellectual heritage.  Other groups of secular Israeli Jews have gathered together to study the Talmud and other Jewish texts, while others have chosen to pair themselves with a religious chevruta (study partner) in order to share their opposing perspectives with one another and enrich the other’s learning.

I find a number of factors interesting about this particular group of humanistic Jews.  One is their core belief that man is the center of spiritual life.  From my perspective, this is exactly what avodah zara is defined as, i.e. removing God from the center of theology and worshipping something else: money, ambition, or in the case of humanistic Jews, man.  To remove the foundation of Judaism, which is mankind’s relationship with the Divine, is to leave the trappings of Judaism (law, commandments, peoplehood, connection to the Land of Israel, the whole basis of the Torah) loose and ungrounded.  As a letter-writer to the Post observed, it’s like boiling water and never adding the eggs.  They may study what they call Jewish wisdom, but they must be  highly selective, since I’m sure that Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles (which includes belief in God) is not among the things they study.

Another interesting thing is the labeling of their leaders as rabbis.  I’m not quibbling so much with the title, which has stricter definitions, such as wordiQ’s definition,  “a religious Jewish scholar who is an expert in Jewish law”, and looser ones, like “a Jew trained and ordained for professional religious leadership” (Merriam-Webster online).  The former obviously does not describe a secular humanist rabbi, while the latter very well could.  But in a larger sense, from my experience, people who facilitate communities, do community work, and counseling, are social workers, not rabbis.

Everyone is not cut out for Orthodoxy.  It demands broad knowledge of ritual and practice that most people do not care to master or implement.  It is also pointless without a belief in God, so I have never maintained that Orthodoxy is for everyone.  But what I would miss, if someday Orthodoxy were to disappear and I was left with secular humanistic Judaism (or nothing), is a feeling of foundation for my practices.  Those who choose to see Judaism as a culture and not a religion make a conscious choice to embrace that culture.  But without God as its foundation, it becomes no different from any other culture.  And if Jewish culture is comprised of Jewish food, Jewish dancing, Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish ethics, then those things can be preserved or not by people with no loss to their identity.  Personally, I prefer Italian food, ballroom dancing, Spanish, and English history (it’s less depressing), and civil law works fine most of the time.  So why be Jewish?  These are all just options anyway, to be rewritten and observed (or not) as people wish.

Liberal Judaism has tried for hundreds of years to make Judaism more palatable to people who want to play an active role in the secular world.  In that sense, Judaism has been full of experimentation, from the Reform movement’s abrogation of kashrut and Sabbath observance, to the Conservative movement’s attempts to re-install some of the rituals dispensed with by the Reform movement (which, for the most part, were only embraced by their rabbis and a handful of congregants), to Modern Orthodoxy which attempts to straddle the gap between traditional Jewish living and full participation in the world of science and modernity.  (Haredi Judaism, too, is an experiment to see if Jews can live in the modern world while pretending that there is no such thing.)  And now secular humanistic Judaism seeks to find a way to live as Jews in the modern world, disavowing the Torah, ritual, God, and all but a select group of superficial elements.  Time will tell if this will really provide the alternative to the Orthodox hegemony in Israel that has alienated so many non-religious Jews.  My guess is that for many secular Jews here, who may eat cheeseburgers and drive on Shabbat, but still believe that a child born of a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish (even if the father is), it will appear too superficial, and not take root.  It’s like pulling a handful of petals off a living rose bush and gluing them onto paper, saying that that’s a rose.  Those petals may live and give off their fragrance for a few hours, but in the course of time will brown, wither, and die.

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