We will never find our synthesis

Times of Israel 12/9/16

Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on ‘the new Jewish Question’ has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.

Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.

Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links- the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.

That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heart ache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.

While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the Shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.

While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.

Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.

Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.

For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.

In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.

Orthodox Jews have failed in our duty to welcome converts

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 10/30/14

When I was a teenager, I had a family-friend who was going through an Orthodox conversation. Born into a Liberal Jewish family, he wished to be Orthodox and upon finding out that his mother had converted under non-Orthodox auspices he went to the Beth Din (rabbinical court) and applied for an Orthodox conversation.

About seven years later, after much humiliation and delay, my friend completed the process.

Hearing stories of his experiences during the conversion process scarred me. Born to a religious family, I was brought up being told you should not oppress the stranger (Exodus 23:9) and that you were actually commanded to love the stranger. (Deut 10:19). The rabbis’ interpreted the word stranger, “ger,” to mean convert. While I understand the rabbinical courts need to be sure that conversation are real, my friends’ experiences seemed to go well above and beyond that threshold.

One example is a painful story my friend once recounted to me: He was made to wait for months on end for a particular examination, only to be invited in before one of the key Jewish holidays. The Beth Din asked him hundreds of questions about the customs and traditions of the upcoming holiday, all of which he answered correctly. Toward the end, they asked him about a story that is told about one of the traditions.

The story is normally told to children in Hebrew school before their bar and bat mitzvahs. My friend, having never attended Hebrew school, did not know the story. The Beth Din humiliated him, saying any child would know this story, and dismissed him without telling him when he would next be called back in. Though he answered all the substantive questions correctly, he was left in this liminal state unsure and unaware of where he was up to in this seven-year process.

One thing that I never knew growing up was that converts were not being welcomed into the Jewish community. When joining any school, shul or camp, their papers are demanded, they are treated with suspicion and very much are not being loved, as the Torah commands.

I thought of my friend when I heard the news of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. Freundel had been one of the main rabbis in America to conduct Orthodox conversations. The secret filming of people in the mikveh, which Freundel has been accused of doing, makes every convert a victim of abuse.

When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it might retroactively annul the conversions carried out by Freundel, I was appalled. Doing so would have constituted a failure of spectacular proportions for the global Jewish community. What if these converts were victims of the rabbi’s alleged voyeurism? Would we be willing to let them get punished for their abuser’s abuse?

Fortunately, after furious lobbying by many groups, including Itim, the Rabbinate came to its senses and stated that the converts had nothing to fear, and that it would not reevaluate their conversions.

While many in the Orthodox community can justify why a long and arduous conversion process is necessary, the fact that many converts can be held hostage to the good graces of the rabbis who oversee their conversion is a scandal. There is nothing further from the Torah’s commandments to love the convert than to hold their Jewish identity hostage to the good behavior of those they have no control over.

I can’t imagine how distressing it must have been for Freundel’s converts, who have been failed on so many levels by a community they are desperate to belong to. One such convert is Bethany Mandel, who says was converted by Freundel. She has taken this opportunity to advocate a converts’ bill of rights.

Among the rights she includes in her proposal are providing converts with a timetable that indicates on what date they should expect to complete their conversion, an ombudsman, a welcoming committee, and a guarantee that once converted, converts’ Jewishness can’t come into question.

Neglecting to give these rights to converts already shows we have failed in our duty. Jewish tradition doest not make clear what is needed for conversion. The seminal story is that of Ruth, who merely made some declarations and followed her Jewish mother-in-law into poverty. Without strict legislation to guide us, we have inflicted angst and pain on those seeking to be part of us.

We need to implement the acts listed in Mandel’s bill of rights in order to get reach a place where we can love all those who join us. We must demand change and ensure that the converts among us are treated, at the very least, equally to any of us who were lucky enough to be born Jewish.

It’s time to make being Jewish affordable

Haaretz 8/27/13

The Religious Services Ministry has decided to raise the cost of all of its services for the first time since 2003. As of September, marriage, burial, kashrut and ritual immersion will become a lot more expensive.

At a time of belt tightening, price hikes across the board mean that many Israelis who were already not keen on the dominance of religious practice on their rites of passage will be even less pleased.

Meanwhile, as Jews throughout Israel suffer from these price hikes, we Jews in the United States continue facing our own financial problem: education.

In footnote four of his book “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik z’l presents a two-page mini-essay on why being religious is hard. Spiritual greatness requires complexity and risks, he writes, not just a desire for solace and happiness. To students, this footnote holds a special meaning, for while the challenges the Rav was referring to were moral and intellectual, for students, they can also be financial.

The prohibitive cost of being religious is not a new concept. Lulavs, tefillin and kosher food are anything but cheap, but yet they are somewhat manageable. The amount of money one needs to allow their child a formal or informal religious education, on the other hand, is unsustainable.

Depending on the city one lives in, Jewish day school can cost between $15,000-$40,000 a year per child. A month at Jewish summer camp can be between $4,000-$6,000 dollars all said and done.

I never knew how blessed I was in the United Kingdom with state-funded faith schools. It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned to appreciate it. The financial commitment of Jewish education here is a crippling cost to both American families and the communities that endow the schools themselves.

The U.S. Jewish community may be the richest Diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, but the high cost of education has created generations of Jews with only a cursory knowledge of their traditions. Jewish education here concentrates on the Orthodox, while the rest of the community does what it can without the state support that so many other Jewish Diasporas rely upon for their educational survival.

Peter Beinart, most famous for his views on Israeli policies in the West Bank, finished his book “The Crisis of Zionism” with a plea for the U.S. Jewish community to reverse its support of school vouchers in order to fix the educational crisis it currently faces. Yet, while the other arguments in Beinart’s book have spawned debates, roundtables and community soul searching, debate on school vouchers has yet to take place.

With the United States’ absolute commitment to a separation between church and state, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Yet, whether it is a reversal of the U.S. Jewish community’s long-held public policy position of embracing school vouchers (seen as mainly a standpoint of the Republican party) or perhaps taking advantage of the growth of online courses, the community needs to stop talking and start acting.

There is literally no greater Jewish value than providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and so our community must stop turning a blind eye to its failure to create an affordable system – be it formal or informal.

As we start to take account of our actions in the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, we also must take into account those whom we are pricing out of our tradition.