Why don’t the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) in Israel honor Memorial Day?

Rarely do we have a chance in the American Jewish communities to hear a Jewish point of view that many of us would  frankly find offensive. Yet, in the interest of communication, it is imperative we understand the words of the ultra-Orthodox critic–if for no other reason–because  he forces us to think about what he is really saying. Oftentimes, it is the hidden and unspoken message that speaks louder than the audible one. Let me tell you about a story that happened this past week in Israel ….

In an interesting article that appeared in the YNET News from Israel, a Haredi rabbi attempts to explain the perennial question people in Israel always ask around this time of the year, when Israelis and Jews all around the world remember Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror: Why don’t the Haredim (the Ultra-Orthnodox and Hassidic) communities observe Israeli Memorial Day or Independence holiday? Why don’t they stand up during the siren?” “Why are they so indifferent towards Independence Day?” And so on.

Without missing a beat, the writer explains, “The Haredim simply don’t care … this day symbolizes nothing to them.” Unlike the Neturei Karta of Jerusalem, who mourn on this day much like many Palestinians do–howbeit for altogether reasons. In their eyes, all Jews must wait for the Messiah and not place their trust in a secular Jewish State.

The real reason Haredim do not celebrate this holiday is because, “they feel no connection to them. Most of them have never served in the army, and their parents did not take part in Israel’s wars. Very few are the fallen, the injured or the combatants among the haredi family or neighborhood. So who have they got to remember and commemorate?”

A true believer of the Haredi community would probably admit that another reason why he cannot feel anything but ambivalence during this time of the year is because the secular Jew in Israel feels equally apathetic toward the traditional Jewish holidays that mark the destruction of the Temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 C.E. Moreover, during the period between Passover and Shavuoth (a seven week period), Jewish law proscribes any kind of joyous celebration; such a religious ruling would prevent a Haredi from celebrating these holidays in earnest.

And the writer concludes, “So, dear seculars, get off our backs on memorial and Independence Day. We truly have nothing against them. We have no reaction to your grief, and we do not despise your joy, but however – they mean nothing to us.” Think if it as a tit-for-tat type of philosophy.

What the rabbi neglected to mention is that the flowering and resurgence of Jewish life within the Haredi community would never have been possible were it not for the ultimate sacrifice those pathetic “secular” Jews have made so that they might be able to spend their lives studying God’s holy Torah. They also fail to realize that were it not for the sacrifices made by the secular, non-Orthodox, and Modern-Orthodox Jews, the Arab world would have prohibited any Jew from living in Israel altogether, as the Palestinian leaders have pledged to do time and time again. Jewish tradition stresses the importance of gratitude, and as one can see from the above story, the Haredi Jewish sector is remarkably deficient.

There is a one more point we must not gloss over; the Haredi writer admits this particular point but he really doesn’t understand the implications of his confession. There can be no love between whether it be between persons, or even with  the State, if one has given nothing to enrich a relationship. For those who give their lives so that everyone else might be free in this country, or in any country, such people understand the true meaning of freedom for they have paid for that gift by making the ultimate sacrifice. Put in the simplest terms: we get what we put into a relationship.

As the philosopher/psychologist Eric Fromm writes in his best-selling book, “The Art of Loving,” true love requires labor and sacrifice. Anything else will not do. Perfunctory giving lacks depth and feeling. The more one gives of oneself, the more bonded two people become because there is a personal investment. We love what we labor for because the loved object becomes in a mystical sense, intertwined within our own innermost being. When a person fails to give themselves in love toward the Other. the relationship becomes flimsy because the couple never had anything invested in the first place; they literally have nothing to lose. This is the real cause of the Haredi ambivalence–and that is why their story is so tragic.

The Religious Politics of Swine Flu

Government discussions come and go; often people seldom care what is being discussed; political channels like C-Span are not known for their high ratings. However, in Israel, government discussions at the Knesset are often the kind of material that a Jay Leno or a Saturday Night Live or Mad T.V. comedy writing team would definitely consider using as a part of their programming. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

The defacto Health Minister, MK Rabbi Yakov Litzman, went on public record saying that the “Swine Flu” would be from here on in referred to as “Mexico Flu,” as pork is non-kosher and considered unclean under Jewish law.  Was he being serious? Of course! We need not look at Saudi Arabia or Iran for religious or pontifical declarations—all we need to do is look in our very own backyard!

According to an editorial in the Ha’Aretz News, ‘Haredi government minister gone wild’ comment that makes for great office banter, the truth is that it’s just one more in a series of state-sanctioned declarations by a government official that serves only to further humiliate Israel in the eyes of the world.” Yes, let’s give our kudos to Netanyahu—that’s what happens when religious fanatics are allowed to be a part of the government.

Politics and religion is a lot like meat and milk in the Torah; each one by itself is permitted, but when mixed, they become a forbidden mixture! Politics and religion functions much the same way. By itself, religion is fine as is politics (when the politicians behave themselves!), but when we mix religion and politics–we end up with a draconian combination that only serves to oppress the people! And the writer further explains:

Such is the system that produces a government where a party representing a community whose media cannot print the word sex, airbrushes women out of photos, and binds them into a strict second-class status, can be put in charge of the Health Ministry, a ministry legally bound to protect the well-being of all Israelis, regardless of gender, race or religion. How can a man whose usage of the Hebrew language is governed by his own interpretation of Jewish law, deal with issues like teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or post-natal care for women?

As I read the article, I found myself laughing at the Rabbi’s lack of wisdom. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that swine is “treif” (attacked by an animal of prey);  it is simply “ta’me”  (”unclean”) and even this kind of designation does not make it an evil creature. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel once had a similar reaction once when they found out they were getting porcine insulin that derives from pork derivatives. Continue reading “The Religious Politics of Swine Flu”

An Email from God concerning the Holocaust

Here is a letter from my friend Rachel, who wrote the following piece of creative Midrash, which I call: A Letter  to Humankind from God Concerning the Holocaust. The theological message is priceless and this is a letter any Sunday School class can easily benefit from.

Hi Linda,

God here. I got your email. Oy vey.

Obviously, you humans have very inaccurate information about how I work. I’m going to try to set the record straight. Why, I don’t know. It’s not like I haven’t set it straight before, but I’m an eternal optimist (ha ha), so here goes:

1. I did not cause the Holocaust–not because of Zionism, and not for any other reason. I don’t know who started that rumor, but I’d like it to stop immediately. As in, right now.

2. I am an incorporeal being and thus cannot take Xanax, which is actually completely immaterial (ha ha), because I don’t *need* Xanax. See my next point for details.

3. I basically set things up so that human beings would make good choices, but when they don’t, I grieve. I don’t get mad and destroy entire civilizations, although when I was younger, I definitely felt the impulse. Now that I am older, I do not try to evade my grief with anger and destructiveness. I just grieve and try to keep the world going to the best of my ability. You humans would be well-advised to follow my example.

4. Please love whomever you want. Really. It gives me no pleasure to watch you humans writhe around in abject misery.

5. My name is not really Rachel, but she was nice enough to let me use her wireless connection so that I could send you this message.

Have a nice day,


The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus. Continue reading “The Sins of Swiss Neutrality”

Questioning the Limits of Rabbinic Authority

One of the most important issues being debated today is the matter of rabbinical authority; nearly every conflict between the Haredi/Hassidic rabbis and the non-Ultra-Orthodox rabbis revolves around one issue: Who has the right to speak for the Jewish people? Historically, every rabbi spoke for his own community;  an attitude of polydoxy prevailed  and each community respected the decisions of the other neighboring city.

Dissent always was and will forever remain an essential feature of rabbinic debate. However, there are rules of etiquette where each opinion must respect but not necessarily agree with the viewpoint of the Other; we must agree to sometimes disagree with one another. Controversies for the sake of Heaven can be passionate, but they must always lead to an attitude of peace among scholars. When debates serve the ego, often the outcome can become ugly and lead to factionalism within the Jewish community. Factionalism is the Original Sin of rabbinical discourse. Creating a consensus is a slow process; no rabbi has the right to rule by fiat alone.

Historically, Jewish law has long recognized the importance for new generations of rabbinical thinkers must occasionally take issue with the decrees established by the earlier rabbinical authorities. This is one of the main reasons why the first generations of Talmudic scholars deliberately left certain critical case studies in the Talmud remain unresolved, so that the future generations might come to their own conclusions. Minority viewpoints are always important because sometimes the circumstances of the future may require that a minority view become the appropriate law for its time. Rabbinical law is not inherently static, it is flexidox and not purely “orthodox.” Continue reading “Questioning the Limits of Rabbinic Authority”

How do I know whether there is an Afterlife or not?

I have a friend named Rachel who is slowly dying of cancer. She is very bright and we often have stimulating intellectual conversations together. Although Rachel does not consider herself to be very “bright,” she is one sharp cookie! Rachel is slowly coming to terms with her mortality, as we all will, sooner or later. Here is a copy of an email  correspondence I had with her. Perhaps others who are reading this little article of mine, might find some solace to the pastoral and spiritual issues it raises:

“Now with respect to your latest question regarding reward and punishment, I personally believe in an afterlife; the “near-death experience” offers what may be a glimpse of such a reality; indeed, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in his Republic (507b–509c) was probably a Greek depiction of such an experience; I think God’s revelation to Job may have also been such an experience.

So, to answer your question more clearly, Ecclesiastes 12:7 says it best, “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” as well as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever ” (Psa. 23:6). Yes, we are more than mere worm food, but I have often wondered: What if there is no Afterlife? Some religious systems in Buddhism and Hinduism subscribe to such a concept; I present the problem to my dying congregants in the following terms–a classical Talmudic mah nafshach with a dash of  Pascalian logic:

If there is an afterlife, which I strongly and personally believe, you will certainly know about it soon enough. If there is NO afterlife, then you will never know the difference and simply exist as a thought of the Divine Mind. Some religious and mystical systems might think of that as Nirvana or B’tul HaYesh (nullification of the Self–according to Hassidut), either way I am at peace with whatever the prospect may be–you should too. Frankly, I expect to see my father and mother, along with many relatives and friends I have known over the years. In the Yizkor (Memorial Prayers) of the holidays, I often see them coming to me in an aura of light. If we exist as a thought of God, then I believe we are never anything less than what were here–in this world–at our very best.

Think you are not such an intellectual? I personally admire people who have an insatiable desire for knowledge, along with folks who really have a reverence for life, who treat people with kindness for the most part. I suspect you are a deeply religious person from this perspective, and in such an individual–there you will find true wisdom. The German philosopher Heidegger (despite his brilliant intellect), was still a creep– an unapologetic Nazi till the end. Yom HaShoah teaches us that “First Philosophy” to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, must not be based on metaphysics as the philosophers of old believed, but upon ethics, as Emmanuel Levinas stresses over and over again. Levinas, I might add, was a survivor who lost many family members to the Nazis. He’s also my favorite modern Litvak, while Buber is my most modern favorite Hasid.

Also, please, don’t sell yourself short. For me, it is time to davin and reflect upon some of these issues I have raised with you, as well as to myself.”

“Seduced by a demon?”

Rabbinic material isn’t always dull reading; in fact, more often than not, it  contains some very fascinating and entertaining cases about life in the medieval era. Jewish folklore continues to enchant many Hassidic and Sephardic Jews, many of whom, still believe in the stories about demons in rabbinical tradition.  Keep in mind that Maimonides wrote his Mishnah Torah and “Guide for the Perplexed” to help wean the Jews of his time away from believing in such superstitions. Such a position did not make Maimonides very popular among the mystics of the Kabbalah.

R. Joshua Tractenburg writes in his “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion”:

“Was a man or woman who had been seduced by a demon to be regarded as an adulterer? And if so, was such a woman to be “forbidden” to her husband? If, today, the issue strikes us as grotesque it is only because we have lost faith in the realities of the medieval world. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, in the thirteenth century, considered this question at length and solemnly concluded that a person who had been seduced by a spirit was not to be held guilty of fornication.

In substantiation of his decision he recalled a legend of a pious man who was sorely grieved because a demon in human shape had enticed him into an indiscretion. The prophet Elijah appeared to him and consoled him: since this was a demon he had committed no offense. “If he had been guilty,” R. Isaac deduced, “Elijah would not have come to him, nor spoken with him, nor would he have acquitted him.”

Three centuries later a Polish rabbi was consulted in the case of a married woman who had had relations with a demon which appeared to her once in the shape of her husband, and again in the uniform of the local petty count.

Was she to be considered an adulteress? this rabbi was asked, and was she therefore to be “forbidden” to her husband, since she might have had intercourse with this demon of her free will? The judge absolved her of all guilt and “permitted” her to her husband” (Or Zarua, I, §124, p. 22c;—Responsa of R. Meir b. Gedaliah (Maharam) of Lublin).

I suspect that Maimonides and Sherlock Holmes probably would have offered a much simpler explanation, as would Sigmund Freud for such cases.

Emailing as a Moral Challenge

How did our ancestors regard the spoken word? What does the Torah say about the word and its power as well as its possibilities?

Biblical writers regarded the Divine Word as a cosmic force reverberating throughout the created order. According to Psalms 33:6, the Word of God animates the cosmos: בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made.” To the Hebraic (as well as the Semitic) imagination, words are powerful—it is the stuff reality is made of. In Biblical Hebrew, among its various nuances, דָּבַר(dabhar) connotes a “thing” (Exod. 35:1); or a “promise” (Deut. 15:6); and a “decree” (Jer. 51:12) or “affair” or “history” (1 Kgs. 14:12). [1] In each of these examples, the term connotes something substantive and real. Everything that exists in the world is viewed as a manifestation of the Word of God that animates it.

The intuitions of primal cultures never cease to fascinate and intrigue me. The spoken word was often used as a supernatural weapon; the curse of a soothsayer was believed to be powerful enough to invoke the forces of death itself.  One of the most well known biblical stories found, the book of Numbers relates how King Balak of Moab, hires the mighty soothsayer Balaam to curse the approaching Israelite people (Num. 22:6). From a modern perspective, one could describe Balaam as a motivational speaker; he is skilled in the art of inflaming the masses. Anti-Semites in the Middle East perform television documentaries on how Jews use Muslim and Christian blood to make their Passover matzas (see Memri.org for hundreds of examples).

Despite our modernity, in many ways we fail to appreciate the impact that words have on our lives, as well as on the lives of others. As a result, the word in contemporary society tends to be devalued, yet their impact on peoples’ lives has not diminished to the least. There are many practical reasons for this phenomenon. Since the invention of the printing press, the world has become more literate than at any other time of recorded history. Along with the proliferation of literacy, the word has become increasingly more secularized due to advances made in human technology. The telegraph, telephone, television, radio, email, the Internet, and other forms of electronic digital media and telecommunication devices have inundated modern humans with a continuous stream of words—wherever they go—twenty-four hours a day.

Since words tend to be all the more diminished in light of the Internet, people will often rush through their written communications without giving much attention to what they are saying, or for that matter, how they are saying something. The imagination, when left unchecked, can often take two people or more to a unexpected places that create anger, resentment, not to mention—humiliation especially if the email has been sent to multiple receivers, many of whom the original writers do not even know. A reputation of a person can be destroyed with a single keystroke. With complete unanimity, an angry or spiteful posting can be effortlessly circulated for countless of other lurkers to read. Continue reading “Emailing as a Moral Challenge”

Maimonides as a Postmodern Jewish Philosopher

Some of my congregants often ask me: Who is your favorite Jewish philosopher? Typically, I answer that it depends upon which time period we are talking about. I am very fond of Philo of Alexandria, the celebrated Jewish philosopher, who was the first person to create a synthesis of Jewish and Hellenistic thought. Then again, there is Saadia Gaon, whose theological arguments and understanding of religious metaphor is strikingly modern. But of all the Jewish philosophers I enjoy the most, it is by far Maimonides. Maimonides believed  that as a faith, Judaism must do constant battle against the false ideologies that undermine true authentic faith.  In an age  such as ours, religion is often the source of considerable bigotry and intolerance. Here are  some other amazing features one discovers in Maimonides’s works:

(1) He attempted to replace the confusing arguments of the Talmud, many of which were never resolved, with his Mishnah Torah, but unfortunately forgot to include his footnotes!

(2) Maimonides also introduced a philosophical and coherent approach to Judaism in an age of religious narrow-mindedness

(3) He loved Greek and Arabic wisdom, often correcting these two traditions with superior or alternative ideas of his own; by modern standards he promoted interfaith dialogue.

(4) Maimonides fought against the proto-Haredi movements within the Judaism of his time

(5) For the most part, Maimonides did not care to take controversial stand when it came to criticizing Talmudic Aggadot (folklore), and the rabbis of his era who interpreted these stories literally (e.g., like the passage where “God wears phylacteries”). Unfortunately, toward the end of his life, Maimonides probably grew tired of people arguing about his theological ideas, and many considered him an heretic for denying (what seemed) the rabbinical doctrine of resurrection; finally he caved in to popular pressure and wrote an epistle to the Jews of Yemen that of course he believed in resurrection. I suspect he understood the doctrine as a metaphor for the afterlife, i.e., the soul is reborn into the realm of Eternity. Continue reading “Maimonides as a Postmodern Jewish Philosopher”

The real meaning of “Chosenness”

The Reconstructionist theologian Mordechai Kaplan tried very hard to dismiss the notion of “Chosen people” because he felt it was an antiquated idea thatis “morally untenable”, because anyone who has such beliefs “implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others” (Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E. ).

1. Kaplan and I have never seen eye to eye on any theological issue–except for his concept of the right for a Jewish community to define its own ideation and philosophy–which could even paradoxically include the Haredi, and their right to define the rules for being a member of their community (hardly something he would ever have imagined).

Yet, “chosenness” need not be defined in such a narrow bandwidth; Jung explains that “chosenness” in terms of individuation, i.e., the process of each us realizing our own unique potential; practically every people who has ever inhabited the planet believes that they are “special” or “chosen” or “destined” for something great (e.g., the Chinese, the Japanese, the American concept of Manifest Destiny, Marxian view of Utopia, the Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu views of salvation). Unfortunately, mean religious systems around the world view “chosenness” in terms of racial superiority and even some foolish rabbis in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community sometimes think in those terms.

Could “chosenness” also pertain to Christianity or Islam from a Judaic perspective? Certainly according to Maimonides; less so according to Franz Rosensweig, whose “Star of Redemption,” i.e., the Magen David symbol represents the special relationship between Judaism and Christianity; at the center of the star is Judaism, while the rays represent the teachings of Christianity that spread out throughout the world. This is a novel interpretation, one that I actually like and use when working with members of the Christian community. Both Judaism and Christianity stress the importance of ethical monotheism, whereas in my opinion, Islam only stresses the importance of absolute monotheism. Muslims will obviously call this an oversimplification, but the lack of democratic rights and respect for the rights of the individual reveals a religious philosophy that is essentially totalitarian in nature.

Historically, Christianity subscribed to a doctrine known as supersessionism, which believes that Christian believers have replaced physical Israelites as God’s chosen people. The Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, according to this view, has resulted in God’s “rejection” of the Jewish people’s chosen status. Fortunately, many liberal Christian thinkers and even evangelical theologians recognize that Christian “chosenness” means to be “grafted” to the people of Israel and their destiny. Organizations like Bridges for Peace and other evangelical communities I personally know of certainly feel this way.

Personally, I think that in biblical terms, Israel is called to witness the just and ethical God to the world–a point that I think is still relevant even today–could you imagine the British sending food staples to the Nazis during WWII, yet, Israel provides the people of Gaza with so many of their needs, despite the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel. If you want to know what “chosenness” means try thinking about that for a moment!

Maybe, too many of us are like Kafka’s story about the messenger who forgot the message; nevertheless, the best way to envision “chosenness” is to see in as noblese obligese, not unlike the kind of behavior the knights of the medieval era who were expected to uphold and live by the highest values of moral decency and nobility, which is in keeping with the prophetic message of Second Isaiah, who describes the spiritual vocation of Israel as, “a light unto the nations” (Isa. 49:6).