Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Rabbinate for a Jewish and Democratic Israel

In the spirit of Groucho Marx (" I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member,") I have been giving a lot of thought to the institution of which I will be a defacto member when I complete my Rabbinical studies in a few years.  The Israeli Rabbinate is not really an institution with which I identify.

Rabbi Riskin, in a op-ed early this week in the Jerusalem Post, talked about some of the practical failings of the Rabbinate.  Rather than seeking halachic solutions to the real problems people bring before it, the Rabbinate has consistently made life harder for the supplicants who come before it, be they those wanting to marry, those wanting to divorce, those wishing to convert or even those wishing to give their loved ones a Jewish burial.  The behaviour of the Israeli Rabbinate has made them a target of hatred and disgust by large parts of the Jewish world, both in Israel and abroad, among both religious and secular.  Should not our Rabbis be sources of inspiration, not disgust?

While many attribute this to the "Haredization" of the Rabbinate in recent years, it is not clear to me that this is the real cause.  One cannot always assume that attitudes towards women and towards converts are always more positive just because the Dayan (Rabbinical Judge) has a knitted kipa rather than a black one.  The problem runs much deeper.

By giving the Rabbinate a monopoly on Jewish religious life in Israel, the State has created an institution with no checks on its power, which is always a dangerous situation in a democracy.  The Rabbinate has the power to impose matters of faith in key areas of life in ways that are inconsistent with democratic rights.  It can decide who can marry, and who cannot.  It can decide what converts to accept, and which to reject.    How can it be, in a democracy, that a man and a woman who love each other, and are not bound in previous marriages to others, cannot marry without leaving the country to do so?  Most of the Western world is debating whether single sex couples should be allowed to marry, while we in Israel are preventing even marriages between men and women in many cases.

I am a halachically committed Jew, but I cannot accept that my own religious views should be imposed on all of society.    I cannot ask the whole country to live by my rules.

I believe, therefore, that the best solution would be to separate the Rabbinate from the State.  As in most Western countries, any clergy person or secular judge could perform marriages, which would then need to be registered with the Interior Ministry.  Divorces would be a secular affair, with those wishing to, for their own religious beliefs, going to a religious court for a get.  Laws would have to be passed requiring men whose wives asked them for a get, after receiving a secular divorce, to grant one or face secular penalties.   It would need to be structured so that the get could not be used as leverage by the man in the divorce proceedings.   

In such a system, competing Rabbinical organizations would emerge, and they would need to be responsive to the public's needs in order to survive and remain relevant.    I am sure Rabbinical courts would emerge that would institute a practice of nullifying marriages in cases where a get is being withheld unreasonably, as has been proposed by Rabbi Riskin in the past, but not implemented.  There would certainly be rejectionist groups who would not accept divorces from these groups, and therefore consider many children mamzerim, and refuse to have them marry in.  This is unfortunate, but I do not think we can therefore let these groups hold the rest of us hostage to their ideas.  For that matter, it is my understanding that already these groups would not easily allow their children to marry Jews from the general population, so the cost has already been borne - just not publicly.

The objection I often hear is that this would weaken the Jewish character of the State of Israel.  I believe that if the Jewish character of the State needs to be enforced on the people, then we have already lost.  The Jewish character of the State is embodied in the culture, calendar, language and literature of the majority.  By imposing strict Jewish law on the general population, we only alienate more and more people from that heritage.  We need to strengthen the Jewish character of the State through love of Torah, and an appreciation for its many faces, not by shoving our interpretation of it down people's throats.

The problems described in Rabbi Riskin's article are, in my opinion, the last throes of a dying system.    As more and more people are disenfranchised from the Rabbinate's policies on marriage, divorce and conversion, they will vote with their feet.  This is already happening.  The Knesset will have no choice but to address the matter.  Even if initially this may be by clamping down harder, eventually a coalition will form that will have no choice but to disband the official Rabbinate, and allow true freedom of choice.

The sooner the better.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parshat VaYera - Making sense of Abraham

I have never understood Abraham.  At the beginning of the Parsha, he is told that a city of evil-doers will be destroyed, and he argues with God, challenging him to find another way.  His challenge to God: השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט - Will the Judge of all the Earth not do justice? - rings as perhaps the most powerful truth to power moment in human history.

Yet, when asked to sacrifice his son, he silently acquiesces.  No argument, no challenge, no question.  How about a little pleading?   Why does he just saddle up the donkeys and set out to fulfill the mission?  How can this be the same Abraham who challenges God's verdict on Sodom?  How can this be the Abraham who is known to God as the one who will "instruct his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice"? (Gen 18:19)

There is a beautiful poem about the Akeda that part of the Sephardic Rosh Hashana liturgy that describes Abraham and Isaac's experience of the three day trip to Mount Moriah.  The eight stanza of the poem describes the following:

דָּפְקוּ בְּשַׁעְרֵי רַחֲמִים לִפְתֹּחַ
הַבֵּן לְהִזָּבַח וְאָב לִזְבֹּחַ
They pounded on the gates of mercy to open 
The son who was to be sacrificed, and the father who was to sacrifice                

The poet seems to share my feeling - how could it be that Abraham and Isaac did not challenge God's command?   The text must have left it out, so the poet adds it back in.

While the poet's question resonates with me, it is hard for me to believe the text would leave such an important detail out.

Tradition holds that this the final of Abraham's ten trials.   The interpretation that makes sense to me right now is that Abraham failed this last one.  God chose Abraham to found the Jewish people because he passed 9 out of 10, but he did not get a perfect score.  He should have challenged.  He should have fought.  I have no sources to back this up, but it seems to me to be the only interpretation I can live with.  I cannot believe, given  Abraham's behaviour earlier in the Parsha, or for that matter, Moshe's behaviour when told the Israelites will be wiped out, that God wants us to accept his decrees passively.  My own moral compass cries out against Abraham's acquiescence.

The interpretation is very problematic.  The text seems to contradict it completely.  Abraham is blessed, because he did not withhold his son from God. (Gen. 22:16-18).  However, the text uses a very strange phrase: כִּי, יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ, אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ.  I am still looking, but I can't find its parallel anywhere else in Scripture.  Why כי יען?  Why not just כי?  The root verb ענה, means to answer.  It indicates a counterpoint.  Perhaps we could read it, instead of כי יען meaning "because", but instead כי יען, meaning "despite." God chooses Abraham despite his failure to argue on behalf of his son.  However,  by hearing the voice of the angel telling him to stop, and by immediately bringing another sacrifice of a ram to atone for his sin, he has shown that he is still the right man for the job.  He missed his chance here, but he understood the message, and will not make the mistake again.

The Akeda stands as an icon of all the sacrifices we have had to make as Jews over the centuries.  It embodies our willingness to give our lives, and sometimes our children's lives for our faith.  I understand that theme, that message.  The selichot prayers make it clear that this is how the Akeda was seen at least through Ashkenazi eyes of the middle ages, as the Crusades forced them to sacrifice their children over and over.  I myself expect to send my children to risk their lives in the IDF.

However, I don't think we need to accept this sacrifice willingly or without question.  I think we need to fight it until we have no choice.  We have to challenge and question and look for alternatives.

Perhaps Abraham did eventually have to get to the top of that mountain and sacrifice Isaac. Maybe that is what is demanded from us in the face of a direct command from God.

But he should have at least argued first.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Echo chambers and thoughts on Yitzchak Rabin Z"L Memorial Day

Sixteen years ago I was in New York, having spent Shabbat at a friend's apartment when we heard the news.    My immediate assumption, quickly confirmed, was that it was a Jew who murdered him.  My wife was surprised.

Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that I had spent the previous year in Israel, living in Gush Etzion.  I had felt the boiling level of emotion around the peace process, and the visceral anger of the Israeli right, especially the religious right, towards Rabin.  I had been called traitor more than once for my support of the Oslo process.  I was at the edge of this world, but I could observe the echo chamber of resistance that allowed Yigal Amir to believe what he was doing was justified.

Since then, I have seen echo chambers in many contexts.  When I lived in Texas, I would listen to Rush Limbaugh, and while what he said was difficult to listen to, what was harder to believe was how normative he was considered in Texas.  In other contexts, as a liberal, I have been in conversations where hatred of Israel and belief that Hamas is a pure expression of Palestinian oppression are voiced without caveat.

It was easy in the 1990s to live in a world where your assumptions are not questioned, where your worst fears about the other are reinforced by everyone around you.  All news from the "mainstream media" is assumed to be false and biased, but you assume that everything coming out of your side is the gospel truth.  It is acceptable to "joke" about violence to others, but any criticism of your side is malicious slander, or, if coming from someone you should be in the group, treason.  Anyone even attempting to understand the other side, or God forbid, to work with them, must be ostracized.

Sixteen years later, we had hoped the internet would help us break out of these shells, but social media has tribalized us even more.  Facebook and Google filter our news sources to cater to what we already believe, never opening us up to challenge or other points of view.  We have to make more of an effort to get out of our echo chambers and hear the other than we ever had to before.  There is no more "mainstream media" where we can even expect even-handed treatment of issues.

I hate to pick on the right wing - there are echo chambers on the left - but right now, with the current government in Israel, I am frightened by what I hear around me.   Judge Goldstein was not even allowed to go to his son's Bar Mitzvah, for the "crime" of sitting on a UN commission investigating what happened during Cast Lead in Gaza.  Human rights organizations like Peace Now, B'Tselem and NIF are regularly demonized and are under threat of government investigation because they do not toe the current party line.  Obama is assumed to be completely anti-Israel, without any real basis. Any criticism of Israeli policy in the territories is considered out-of-bounds.  

The echo chambers on the left are equally closed off.  They assume the worst about everything Israeli, mistrust every statement from the Israeli media, and make ridiculous comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa.

On both sides, the other is demonized and whole groups are painted with the brush of their most extreme elements.  All Palestinians are terrorists.  All settlers are violent.  There is no nuance,  no attempt to condemn the extreme behaviour while trying to work with the moderates.  Conversely, any external attack on your own extreme elements is considered maliciously attacking the whole group.

These echo chambers are dangerous to democratic debate.  They do not allow reasoned arguments about the merits of positions, because no one can even agree on the facts.  At the extremes, they nurture people who believe so strongly in their cause and in the evil of their opponents that they justify violence against them.  Palestinian suicide bombers grow up in an echo chamber of hatred against Israel, where they can even justify the murder of innocents.  Yigal Amir lived in a world where hypothetical discussions of "din rodef" became justifications in his mind for killing a Prime Minister.  

This is the message we need to internalize from Rabin's death.  Argue, vote, protest, take a stand, but try to periodically stand outside the inevitable echo chamber your activism creates, and try to understand the other side, and look at things from their perspective.  It won't necessarily change your positions, but it may allow you to have a more reasonable debate, and to remember the humanity of your opponents.  Ideally it may help us reach "win-win" solutions, where we synthesize the requirements of both sides to find a solution that works for everyone.  At the very least, it can prevent the debate from descending into an exchange of bullets.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Abram Ha'Ivri - Connected or alone?

As my family embark on our journey to a mountain in the north, Parshat Lech L'cha has particular resonances for me this year.  We know what we are leaving, but we do not know what the future holds.  We are making plans as best we can, but trusting in God that he will show us the way.

It has always struck me that the midrashic interpretation of Abram's title of העברי - the Hebrew - is much more well known then the plain sense meaning.  If you ask your typical Jew, even those well educated, what the plain sense meaning of this title is, they will quote the midrash brought down in the name of Rabbi Yehuda:

כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד, והוא מעבר אחד

"The whole world on one side, and he [Abram] on the other"

However, the pshat or plain-sense meaning is that he was called עברי (Ivri) because he was a descendent of עבר (Ever) - the great-grandson of Shem (Noah's son).  Once this is pointed out, it seems quite obvious.

It seems to me that the midrashic interpretation and the pshat point to two opposite but complementary aspects of Abram's character and journey.  On the one hand, Abram is unique in his time.  He is separated out from all others to found a new nation under God.  He is the iconoclast who first confronts the idolatry in his father's house then leaves to be on his own in Canaan.  He is the עברי - on one side, when all the world is on the other.  This is the aspect that Rabbi Mishael Zion is talking about in his Dvar Torah this week on the BYFI website.

On the other hand, Abram is the עברי - the descendant of עבר, who continues to be deeply connected to the rest of the עברי family who remain in Haran.  Although he could easily have interpreted the command of לך לך - Go for yourself - as לך לבדך - Go by yourself - this does not even occur to him, as he takes his wife, nephew and household with him.  He maintains a connection with his family, and makes sure that his son and grandson maintain that connection, even marrying within the family.  As Menachem Leibtag points out, Abram is not singled out by the אלה תולדות - these are the generations - structure of the book of Genesis, but his father Terach is. Abram's brothers are not rejected from the covenant, but brought in through their daughters and granddaughters who are chosen to be the foremothers of the Israelite people.

Abram is both alone and connected, leaving home but not disconnecting from his family.  All of us who have made aliya can appreciate the difficulty of this dichotomy.  I feel it strongly as we make our next step north.  Forging one's own path while remaining deeply connected to the world is the challenge of Abram.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Concentrations of Power

Watching the past few years unfold, and now the Occupy Wall Street protests, it strikes me that our democratic institutions, across the free world, need some major reform.  Despite being Canadian and Israeli, I will focus mostly on the US, with some comments about Israel at the end.  However, a lot of these trends are true in Europe as well.

Liberal democracy requires separations of powers between lawmakers, the executive branch and the judiciary.  This is what we all learned from Schoolhouse Rock.

Separation of powers guarantees that no branch of government is ever dominant.  The theory is that each branch will check and balance the others.

But what happens when the powerful group is no longer government, but in the private sector?  How does its power get checked?  What happens when government becomes its servant? In the 1950s President Eisenhower warned of the "military-industrial complex", a growing powerful group of defense contractors, working with their colleagues in the military to exert undue control over US foreign policy.  In the 2010s, I think we need to update to the "financial-corporate complex", which may be more dangerous than the "military-industrial complex" ever was.

We have a situation where financial power is controlled by a smaller group of people than has ever been the case.  The 1% that OWS talks about is generous, as Paul Krugman has pointed out.  Really it is the 0.1% who are the problem, and they are almost all in the financial sector.  Their lobbyists have essentially taken over the government, and they own big parts of the media.  They have killed any efforts to regulate their activities, even after taking down the world economy with their shenanigans.

It is even worse, because these wealthy individuals sit on top of massive financial corporations, and have those resources at their disposal as well to make sure that the system never gets changed.  The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United allowed corporate money to be used in unlimited amounts to influence the political system.  This means that the few people in charge of these large corporations have an enormous megaphone to push for their interests, and it is very hard for the public (who own the corporations) to do anything about it.

I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I don't think there are a group of fat cat bankers sitting in a room planning how to take over all the wealth in the world, and oppress the 99%.  What I do think is that the incentives are all skewed towards having them act as if they were.  The capitalist, free market system is set up such that everybody has an incentive to maximize their profits.  The problem is that in any market, this means that it pays for players to try to monopolize their market.  As long as they don't succeed, competition keeps the market free.  However, once they get undue market power, it snowballs.  The system eats itself and the market may remain capitalist, but it is no longer free.

If I were a Marxist (which I am not), I would say that at this point the proletariat needs to rise up and overthrow their capitalist overlords.  Since I am not, what I think is that balance needs to be restored so that the free market can function properly.  The right-wing in America will have you believe that any government intervention by definition makes the market less free.  I would contend that it takes government, as imperfect as it is, to regulate the free market, and guarantee that it remains free.  (I also think the government has a role in making sure that externalities and public goods are paid for, but that is a post for another day.)

It seems to me that anti-trust legislation, which is still in place, is to economic concentration of powers what the separation of powers is to government concentration of power.  Breaking up the "too big to fail" banks would not only prevent the need for another bailout, it would also reduce their power.  I am not an expert, but it seems to me that if any player in a market (any market) is so big that its failure would bring the whole market down (and in the financial sectors case, the whole economy down), then it should be a target for anti-trust action, even without any new legislation.  We just need an executive with the guts to do it.  This is not the full solution, but would certainly be a good start.

In Israel, it is not only the financial sector that is too concentrated, it is the whole economy.  The few families controlling most of the banks, holding companies, investment houses and media in Israel are good people and patriots, I am sure.  However, there are too few of them, and the structure of Israeli holding corporations allow them to leverage their control over vast publicly held companies as well.  There have been some good moves in this direction recently, but the proof is still in the pudding.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playing to the home crowd

I didn't post today because I wrote a piece for Jewneric about the Israel-Palestinian peace process.