Not Your Father’s Catholic Church

“There has never been a Pope with as deep an understanding of Jews as Pope Francis” states Rabbi Rosen candidly. “Of course Pope John Paul II had a unique childhood experience of the Jewish community in Wadowice. But by the time he was a priest, there was little living community left to talk of, so his engagement was not as a developed adult.

Francis, on the other hand, has not only nurtured lifelong friendships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, with whom he has had “a vibrant interaction”, says Rabbi Rosen, but has co-authored a book with an Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka, “thus addressing issues face to face with Jewish self-understanding and experience. This profoundly shapes his sensitivity and his commitment to the Jewish-Christian relationship.”

Source: Pope Francis and the Jews: the first six months – AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy

The Jewish-Catholic relationship is still on the mend after well over a millennium of anti-Semitic dysfunction that ranged from the dismissive to the the implicit countenance of genocide. It’s a large wound.

That said, since the “Nostra Aetate” declaration at Vatican II, the progress has been measured, but consistent and meaningful, and that looks to continue apace under Pope Francis, who has now taken the unprecedented step of calling upon all Catholics to cease the effort to evangelize Jews. We would do well to recognize that this is a controversial move for the Pope among his own flock, and that it was made in the effort to provide a comfortable “space” for interfaith discussion.

There are certainly good reasons to draw the line in that discussion at interfaith dialogue on doctrine: our beliefs should never be the subject of negotiation. At the same time, we must recognize – as did Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L, the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that there are commercial, philanthropic, civil, and economic issues of mutual interest about which there must be open channels of communication. And that proscription against dialogue on doctrine should never constrain leaders from either faith from dispelling real and often slanderous misconceptions held by one group of the other.

There is still much to be discussed in an effort to find a way to live together in a world where all faiths find themselves navigating a world with deeper and deeper sees of relativism. It is good to do so during a time when the attitude about Jews and Judaism projected by  most Catholics, lay and clergy, to be far more enlightened than has historically been the case.

 

 

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Should Jews Live Apart Again?

Hebrew Union College Campus

One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?

)And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)

We Are Used to Being Apart

Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.

Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.

There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.

But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.

This is Urgent in Europe

We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.

The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.

What about the U.S.?

In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.

We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”

And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.

And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.

At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.

History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.

Judaism and the Benedict Option

As described by conservative commentator Rod Dreher, who is both an expert in and advocate of the practice. the “Benedict Option” refers to the voluntary withdrawal by contemporary Christians from the wider society into segregated, or even cloistered communities, much in the way that Benedictine monks did during the more unsettled parts of the middle ages.

These modern Benedictines have, in Dreher’s words, “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

Dreher continues:

“Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who “accept [Alistair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

The public discussion among observant Christian communities around the Benedict Option reached a crescendo during the latter half of President Obama’s second term. At the time, it was possible to foresee America living for decade under a government that was unsympathetic to the concerns of Americans shaken by the speed and magnitude of change in public mores. It has since dropped off, but one gets the feeling that observant Christians are waiting to see how far Trump is – or is not – willing to go to reverse that trend, or even to slow the pace of change.

The logical question when reading about the Benedict Option is to ask whether there is a Jewish version. Are observant Jews in America as alienated by the changes in American society as are observant Christians? And are they ready to change the structures of their communities to address them?

Few who read this would disagree that they already are, and have been for centuries. Indeed, as Dreher and others have noted, the most relevant model for the Benedict Option in the context of a modern society is not the original Benedictine communities themselves, but observant Jewish communities. The place of worship becomes the center of the community. Communities establish religious schools offering different mixes of secular subjects and religious teachings as an alternative to public schooling. They build social institutions designed to support observant life. And they are serious about weekly communal activities.

Two questions emerge from this, then.

  1. How are we as Jews – as individuals and as a community – to respond to Christian communities taking the Benedict Option?
  2. Is it time for Jews of all denominations – Conservative, Reform, and Deconstructionist as well as Orthodox – to begin rethinking our physical assimilation into wider society?

I’ll address each in separate posts in the coming weeks.

German court justifies synagogue attack 

Source: German court justifies synagogue attack – Europe – News –

The echoes of approaching jackboots haunt the streets of Wuppertal, Germany at night. You can almost see the flicker of the torches.

Make no mistake, my friends. The surrender of Germany to the Allies on May 8, 1945 did not end anti-Semitism, racism, or Naziism in Germany. It just drove those things underground, where they lie dormant.

We are watching the black shoots of hatred sprout anew from the European soil.

This time, let us not go gently.

Fight the darkness with light.

My Jewish No-Read Zone

B”H

I am, as I write this, 52 years old and, thank G-d, in good health. I estimate that, between work, family, scouts, writing, and sleep, I probably have time left to read about 1,000 books in my life, at the very most. Confronted with that figure and the realization that my library already has thousands of unread volumes, I have by necessity become quite picky about my reading.

One filter I have added to my quest for erudition has been the resolution to avoid writers who were openly anti-Semitic, or who had the reputation of being so in their private lives. For these reasons, I will not be spending any more of my increasingly precious hours reading the works of T.S. Eliot, Roald Dahl, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Edith Wharton, Kingsley Amis, Ezra Pound, GK Chesterton, or others similarly biased.

People I respect tell me that in doing so, I am closing off a large and important swath of literature, and that is true, but only to a limited degree. When I was younger I read widely, and I spent time with the works of many of these authors. I’ve sampled the wares, as a good reader should, and I would never urge my son or any other student to shy away from any author because of their beliefs.

But the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world today makes it necessary to filter out what I can. What is more, I am blessed in this age to have access to such a massive scope of works that I can readily go through life avoiding anti-Semitic writers (and any hatred that might seep into their words) and still have a full literary life.

And, oh, the choices make it simple. I shan’t miss GK Chesterton when I’ve yet to sample the oeuvre of Primo Levi. Why bother with Kingsley Amis when Bernard Malamud beckons? And do I need bother with Roald Dahl beyond Mr. Wonka when the late Elie Weisel’s Souls on Fire and Night both taunt me, unread, from my bookshelf?

And that’s before I even bring up Martin Buber, Adin Steinsalz, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the raft of brilliant sages dating back to the Rambam, the Ramban, Rashi, and beyond.

You get the point. It is hard for a quinquagenerian Hebrew to justify spending time on anti-Semites when so many great Jewish authors and works lay waiting on the shelves.

A Pause

I have of late (and all too frequently) found myself drawn in this space into impassioned posts concerning Israeli politics, the international relations of the Middle East, and anti-Semitism.

While these are issues of profound import to me, I have discovered that they draw me away from the core purposes of this blog. Worse, the frustration they incite frequently drags me into the gutter of rage.

There have also been times where I have believed that my learning and wisdom are so insignificant that I have no business addressing matters of Torah, and that I am better off fighting the political battles to which I am better qualified to speak.

I will, therefore, try to avoid such discussions going forward. Teshuvah is the light I wish to follow here, not anger.

I pray to Hashem that this is the correct path.

What about Justice for Jewish Refugees?

Some 900,000 Jews from Arab countries have fled their homelands since 1948; they left behind an estimated $30 billion in property, including buildings in dozens of Jewish communities.

Source: No solution for Palestinian refugees without justice for Jewish ones – Israel Opinion, Ynetnews

Lest we forget – this gigantic injustice has been ignored and buried for six decades.

Equally important – this is the treatment the Jews and Christians of Israel could expect if the “Palestinians” achieve their ultimate aim.