The Price of Belief

The meaning of [the] Indiana [Religious Freedom Restoration Act decision] was that this was the first time corporate America took sides in the culture war — and it sided dramatically, powerfully, and consequentially with pro-LGBT activists, against the cause of religious liberty.

Source: How Bad Is The Benedict Option? | The American Conservative

I have issues with fundamentalist proclamations that we should adhere to the letter of the Bible on homosexuality. Abrahamic faiths generally walk a delicate line on LGBT issues, but the consensus that appears to be growing out of modern Jewish discussions on the topic (leaving the rulings of Haredi poskim out for a moment) is that the problem is the act rather than the individual. There shall be no stoning.

But I have equally fervent issues with the libertine proclamations that to believe that any consensual act between two mentally competent adults is wrong and deserving of legal censure. The reason I supported the RFRA was purely defensive: I should never be told what not to believe, and if the law as it stands is not sufficiently protecting my Constitutional right to freedom of belief and practice, then the law needs to be bolstered.

The Indiana RFRA was imperfect legislation at best. But its faults should not be conflated with the rightness of the core position around which it was based. We need a better RFRA, or, better yet, more vigorous protection of our Constitutional guarantees, even in the face of a vocal plurality who disagree.

I am willing to accept being socially ostracized for my beliefs. But I will not accept persecution, and in an era of social media, there is a fine line between being ostracized and being persecuted.

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.

 

 

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.

A Question on Aristotle

Aristotle apparently didn’t believe in either creation or evolution.

Does that make all of his work worthless?

The Rambam would certainly not have suggested as much.

If that is the case, what standard should we, as faithful Jews, use to delineate those ideas and thinkers who stand outside the pale?

Alternately, should we place no limits on such study, provided that the student is first fortified with a deep knowledge of Jewish thought?

I lean toward the latter, but I am painfully aware that there are some lines of thinking that lead only into dark swamps, not enlightenment of any sort.

The Yiddishe Interface

Judaism needs people within the faith who are capable of and disposed to interacting with ha goyim. We as a people cannot, either practically or (in the context of our assigned role on Earth) morally withdraw from the world around us.

We can certainly have groups or kehillim who can and should do so. Our strength, I believe, lies in our diversity, and such communities are part of our mantle; there will always be among us souls of profound tenderness who can only thrive in places of refuge from the conflicts within the world.

But to survive as a people, as an am, we will need men and women of great faith who can still serve as our interface to the other nations of the world on at least partially common ground. Others need not believe what we believe, but they must know the truth about our beliefs and why we hold to them, not the lies that others might manufacture in our absence.

Seven Reasons I’ll Be On Trump’s Muslim Registry

Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.

Source: Donald Trump team ‘discussing plans for Muslim registration system’ | The Independent

If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.

As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States.  I will do it:

  1. To remember the Holocaust. We will not feed our fellow Americans into that same kind of nightmare.
  2. To remember all of the brave souls who, at the risk of their position or their lives, resisted Nazi oppression to help save Jews from the Holocaust.
  3. As an act of peace toward all Muslims everywhere, to show that whatever our disagreements, we are all brothers.
  4. Because in doing so we openly defy a government act that is at odds with the Constitution.
  5. Because I need to show my son that we are never powerless in the face of injustice.
  6. Because if we don’t, we’re next.
  7. Because G-d is Great.

 

Standards

Another person, a Christian, said to me, later, “I’m sick of churches these days. Everything is geared towards ‘meeting your needs.’ They have so many ministries and programs for every possible group, and don’t get me wrong, a lot of them do real good. But the overall effect is to train us to expect to be catered to. If somebody isn’t meeting our needs, then somebody is failing us. That’s the mindset. But that’s not Christianity. It’s supposed to be hard! It’s the Cross!”

Source: ‘You Can See It All Over. It’s Unwinding’ | The American Conservative

This from Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher.

A question for my fellow Jews:

Raise your hand if you see this same sort of tendency in your synagogue, yeshiva, or shul.

Yep.

A religious leader should not pander. A religious institution should not lower itself.

A religious leader should lead. And a religious institution must aspire to the highest standards while offering help to everyone to reach those standards.

Evangelicals, Interfaith Dialogue, and Literalism

Evangelicals Are Losing the Battle for the Bible. And They’re Just Fine with That”
Jim Hinch

The Los Angeles Review of Books
February 15, 2016

While I recognize that this may represent to some of my more frum friends and mentors something of a heresy, I do read religious texts from other faiths. I find doing so essential for two reasons.

First, because any other faith contains an implicit – or in some cases, an explicit – rejection of Jewish belief, I see in those texts an opportunity to hold up a mirror and examine the edifice of Jewish belief and thought. We are our own harshest critics, but we are not the only ones, and being the stiff-necked but self-critical faith that we are, outside perspectives can be essential guides to understanding our own issues.

The second reason is that it helps us to explain Judaism to others in a way that they will understand. For those of us who do not live our lives in the warm embrace of a Torah-based community, interaction with the goyim is a fact of life. When a Jew of even moderate observance comes into contact with a curious atheist or member of another faith, we are often called to explain – or defend – Judaism, and often to explain how and why our beliefs cannot be lumped willy-nilly together with those of other religions. We can only do this when we know those differences.

The question of Biblical literalism is a matter that affects us all. Many fellow Jews whom I admire deeply, not least great modern poseks like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hold fast to the idea that the only history of the world before the arrival of the Tribes in the Promised Land is the one in Torah. I know of other sincere and observant scholars who hold the view that Torah is the moral history of the universe rather than a natural history. Both the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban (Nahmanides) support a non-literalist view of Torah. Nonetheless, the debate continues, and I believe that we are better for it, just as Judaism was strengthened by the constant to-and-from between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

it is, therefore, fascinating to watch Evangelical Christian thinkers move beyond the theological cul-de-sac of Intelligent Design as a means of reconciling science and faith. Any Jew who struggles with these questions and who lives among the goyim would do well to read Jim Hinch’s fascinating article.

Prayer Our Way

Here is what the Christian Gospels have to say about prayer:

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” [Matthew 6:5-6]

Jewish law and tradition holds that while all prayer is good, praying as a part of a minyan, a group of 10 or more, is an act of special holiness. Not everyone who prays in the presence of others is a hypocrite, and not everyone who prays alone is holy.

Skepticism should work both ways

“Their [Lewis’s opponents’] skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.”

— C.S. Lewis

Source: Abolition of Man

Many thanks to the MACAT project for sussing this little gem out for me. From the grave, Lewis reminds us that too many ardent unbelievers believe their own ethos to be above debunking.

And he reminds the faithful that our own first obligation is to ask of ourselves and our faiths very hard questions, and to acknowledge the limits of our beliefs.

 

Is Outreach to Muslims the Answer?

Let us call the terror in Paris what it is: Islamic violent extremism. But in doing so, Deborah Lipstadt writes, let us engage the vast majority of Muslims who are the key to stopping this scourge.

Source: Best Way To Stop Islamic Terrorism? Reach Out to Muslims. – Opinion – Forward.com

Lipstadt has a point, provided that:

  • The Muslims with whom we engage are prepared to take an active stand against violent extremists rather than simply pay lip service; and
  • That we are not afraid to engage with righteous Muslims who are both dedicated to the cause of peace and whose voices carry weight among the faithful.

There are Muslims like that. HRH King Abdullah II of Jordan leaps to mind…

Tears for Mecca

The contrast is provocative. On the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, a rainbow appears over Ground Zero, and a bolt of lightning strikes a crane above the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing over 100 people.

The rainbow was beautiful and made for a moving natural memorial for the victims of that horrible day.

But it pains me to think that some people might take a dose of schadenfreude at the deaths in Mecca. It is one thing to take relief in the demise of one’s enemy: even the Psalmist does so. It is another thing altogether to be cheered by the deaths of what appear to be innocent human beings in the act of peaceful worship.

We must mourn the dead of Mecca as we mourn the loss of refugees crossing the Mediterranean or the dead in the blast in India: as innocent victims of a tragedy.

G-d has his reasons for everything. It is not for us to presume to know or understand his reasons.