Empowered Judaism, 1956 Edition

 This month's newsletter and Reader's Guide will feature religious denominations other than the big three. Among the authors featured in that guide will be Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Mechon Hadar, an institution on the forefront of the independent minyan movement (I mean, emphatically non-movement!).

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Rabbi Kaunfer is also the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. To his credit, Rabbi Kaunfer recognizes that the approach he advocates is not actually new. "[T]his book is about a vision of Jewish life in the twenty-first century and the opportunity we have of bringing that vision to fruition," he writes (page 1). "In this vision, the future of Jewish life is dependent on Jews--not just rabbis--taking hold of the rich, challenging, surprising, and inspiring heritage that makes up our texts and traditions. It is not about a new 'big idea' or innovation for its own sake, but a recognition that the big ideas in Judaism were laid out clearly by our ancestors thousands of years ago."

 In this installment of the J-Vault, we see that similar calls to renew Jewish lay empowerment, rethink synagogue institutions and communal prayer, and reconsider the nature of the rabbinate, can also be found in the world of the mid-20th-century Jewish institutional world--a milieu usually criticized for being stilted and thin in substance. But voices of dissent, of course, challenged the community to aspire to more.

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 From the J-Vault: The Jewish Community and the Synagogue in Perspective (1956)

 "I am less impressed by the thousands of students in the Sunday schools, the magnificence of the facilities, and the pageants," said Judah J. Shapiro, "than by the sterility of curricula and the limited time spent by the child at the school." Shapiro was speaking at the 1956 annual meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service. Excerpts:

The rabbi in eastern Europe existed in an informed, and frequently learned, Jewish community... in the eastern European Jewish community, the average Jew had learned sufficiently to know what was expected of him as a Jew and could answer most of his questions out of his own learning... because of his learning, the layman knew at what point to turn to the rabbi who then delved and pondered and was in turn, checked and perhaps corrected by the layman in defining a position. Compare this with our own situation!

Rabbi [Emanuel] Rackman adds weight to this description when he says: "Rabbis derive their authority as interpreters of the law from the people, but this authority can only be conferred by a public literate enough to recognize who is worthy of it. '' How many people affiliated with the synagogue are able to deal with the questions of practice and observance on their own, without the directive of the rabbi? How many know when to ask a question?...

[T]he synagogue has become the cover of ignorance, for once affiliated, the individual is no longer questioned on Jewish identification and no longer requires the thoughts and convictions that must be derived only out of understanding...

In Chelm, it is told, the inhabitants realized how difficult it was to search for something lost in the dark. Accustomed to deal with all problems that presented themselves, they finally decided to hang a large sign on the synagogue, boldly illuminated at night, on which was inscribed in big letters: "All searching done here." In this way, when anyone lost something in the dark at night, he found it much more comfortable to do his seeking by the light of the synagogue. I fear that our synagogues here are not assisting the individual members with the resources and tools to face the questions which arise in the home and in the office and on the street but rather call out, '' All searching done here, in the synagogue." There the rabbi sits with the answers. Our problem in this area is to give the Jew the Jewish resources and outlook which will permit him to function Jewishly wherever he finds himself and on whatever terms he has formulated his Jewishness...

My first point, therefore, is that there is an absence of knowledge and that the increase in enrollment in Jewish schools, in synagogue and temple affiliation, and in rabbinical direction has not, and is not a symbol of, increased Jewish knowledge...

[E]ven where the Jew knows little of Jewishness and even where he derives little learning from his synagogue affiliation, he nevertheless finds reassurance from the learning of the rabbi. The rabbi may be more or less successful in enlightening his congregants, but they associate themselves with his Jewish learning. Someone, it seems, must be actively Jewish, and if the member is not, or cannot be, he at least derives satisfaction from the paid employee who is, on his behalf...

If there is no Jewish context to any of our services, I hope that you will agree that they are not Jewish communal services. Jewish communal services are not identifiable by their service to Jews, for that makes the doctor, the psychiatrist, the barber, the theatre, the manicurist, and taxi driver a Jewish communal worker at the moment that these serve
Jewish clientele. Jewish communal services are what they are called, only when they serve the Jewish client in the context of his Jewishness and on behalf of a Jewish community...

Our present American Jewish community is increasingly the product of these public schools where subtly and painlessly we have been severed from the nourishment of a previous Jewish culture. Add to this the urge to be integrated in the total society, especially strong in an immigrant group, and we can see how far we have come from a pre-dominating Jewish cultural pattern. Today, therefore, any discussion of Jewish culture invariably suggests something of the past, something irrelevant, something unknown. To mention Jewish culture is to summon up a picture of Jewishness drawn out of another social and economic context...

From the wealth of what Jewish culture can mean, we have endless resources for living Jewishly and being integrated in the whole of the society in which we find ourselves... It is the successful search of a meaning in Jewish culture that can hopefully establish such goals and values which can govern Jewish communal services by re-establishing a cultural concept of community...

Shapiro, too, by the way, affirms that "I have said nothing new in this paper".

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Slope-Slippage, Patrilineality, & Conservative Judaism

In the Forward, David A.M. Wilensky, a patrilineal Jew, shares his story of undergoing a Conservative movement conversion so his Conservative congregation would accept him as Jewish, and argues that he ought not to have needed to do so:

...It’s an intolerable, unsustainable situation. I don’t begrudge Orthodoxy its understanding of Jewish law — it is what it is. Conservative Judaism is another story. If Reform Judaism weren’t the largest denomination, the argument that it has irreparably torn asunder the Jewish community in accepting patrilineals might carry some weight. In the real America, though, Reform is the largest movement and the majority of American Jews don’t belong to any Jewish denomination. In my experience, these harder to categorize Jews couldn’t care less about my mom.

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

Essentially, Wilensky makes the classic slippery slope argument, but from the pro-slip side. It's a powerful argument, the basis for which accords (as Wilensky acknowledges) with an Orthodox understanding of the ideological topography. I don't envy Conservative leaders who want to maintain status quo -- they have the task of persuading their right flank in the movement that the slope won't slip, and their left flank that it oughtn't.

Browse Conservative/Masorti Judaism on BJPA...

Our Reader's Guide to Conservative Judaism...

Could Beit Shemesh Happen Here?

Conversations about of the place of Jewish law in the regulation of public space will always, naturally, be radically different in Israel than in America. But isolated American Haredi communities can and do pose similar problems.

A case in point: Rethinking Secularization Theory: The Case of the Hasidic Public Square.

Kiryas Joel is a legally recognized municipality about fifty miles northwest of New York City composed almost entirely of Satmar Hasidic Jews... The community operates according to a strict code of halakhic observance and modesty norms... and total social segregation from the surrounding towns and villages of Orange County is considered essential to the preservation of the community... Inasmuch as Kiryas Joel is a community that brooks little dissent or deviation from the norms enunciated by its religious leaders, it fits into this tradition of illiberal religious groups in the history of American religious sectarianism.

Also on the subject: Sh'ma's February 2007 issue on Haredi Judaism.

Halloween: What's a Jew to Do?

The traditional halakhic answer, finds Rabbi Michael Broyde, is: nothing. Well, maybe hand out candy. But certainly neither trick nor treat. As he writes (reprinted at MyJewishLearning.com):

Based on this [preceding halakhic analysis], in order to justify candy collection on Halloween, one would have to accept the truthfulness of any of the following assertions:

1)  Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2)  The conduct of the individuals "celebrating Halloween" can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3)  The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations con be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.

I believe that none of these statements are true... Applying these halakhic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations--which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume--is prohibited... The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one...

Writing for CLAL in 2000, David Nelson argues that American Jewry ought to create a new Jewish holiday in order to co-opt Halloween:

Halloween is such a strange time for many Jews. Rabbis, educators, and day school directors remind their constituencies constantly about how un-Jewish it is, how pagan and Christian it is, how we shouldn't participate... Meanwhile, these pronouncements are ignored by thousands of Jewish children who enjoy Halloween!...

...About 20 years ago, a friend and teacher of mine, Rabbi Everett Gendler, told me that in his shul they make "Ya'akov lanterns." At the time I chuckled and filed the tidbit away without further thought, but the time has come to dust it off and think it through. We Jews have a long history of borrowing customs and rituals from the culture in which we live...

...The Jewish quality of these rituals, objects and customs comes not in their uniquely Jewish origins, but in how we have adapted them to function as vehicles for uniquely Jewish meaning. So, for example, we borrowed a child's spinning top from our Christian neighbors in medieval Germany. On the four sides of the top were written abbreviations for instructions on playing the game: nicht - nothing, ganz - everything, halb - half, and stell - put. On our tops we wrote the letters in Hebrew: nun, gimmel, hay, shin. But they still provided a digest of the rules of the game. Then we transformed the whole thing into a vehicle of Jewish meaning - nes gadol haya sham - a great miracle happened there.

Can we perform a similar transformation on Halloween? It is, after all, a well loved holiday for many people, and would thus be a highly attractive means of communicating some Jewish message. Let's see what happens when we try.

Nelson lays out a possible vision of the new Jewish Halloween, which he entitles "Chag Or Habayit--the holiday of the light of home."

These suggestions may sound tongue-in-cheek, but I intend them as a challenge. We who live in an open society, who no longer must fear the Evil Others among whom we live, must now begin to think through what elements of the ambient culture can enrich us. I am honestly not sure if I'm ready to carve a Ya'akov lantern, but I'm certainly willing to consider it. Are you?

You may agree or disagree with Nelson's argument, but it seems to me that his analogy linking medieval cultural fluidity with the modern design of a new holiday fits well into the conceptual model explained by one of my favorite quotes, from Harvard Biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson, on page 7 of this book:

The suppressed or forgotten past provides precedents helpful in dissolving the current consensus: historical criticism is invaluable to the venerable liberal (and, in my view, illogical) argument that the inevitability of unwilled change legitimates willed change, that the historical reality that the tradition was, de facto, always changing validates, de jure, contemporary efforts to alter it.

Whatever traditions you do or don't alter, have a happy Halloween... or, if you're a traditionalist, have a happy but altogether normal day on the 31st.

Random Publication of the Day: Beach Mechitzah

In the spirit of enjoying the summer while it lasts, a little beach reading:

The Rise and Washout of a Jewish Beach (Lionel Sasson, Sh'ma, 1978)

Rabbi Lazar Kahanow of the Young Israel of Long Beach Synagogue... approached members of the city council with an idea to attract Orthodox residents during the summer months. He asked if it was somehow possible to modify one of the city's twenty eight beaches so that there might be separate bathing areas for men and women. He explained that "lighdy attired men and women bathing together is a'violation of the Orthodox laws of modesty." He stated that at least one thousand of the city's residents have been disenfranchised from the beaches by the presence of mixed bathing. He cited the city of Boston which built separate bathing facilities for men and women which are utilized chiefly by the large Irish Catholic population...

...The City of New York, bowing to public pressure, recently unofficially designated a part of Riis Park in the Rockaways for nude bathing. The segregationists' viewpoint was that if the nudists could have a nude bathing beach, it was downright obscene not to permit others a place to bathe in modesty...

...Local controversy, much of it within the local Jewish population had dampened Rabbi Kahanow's plans. There was fear that vigilantes, who could only be asked voluntarily to leave since the beach remained a public one, would invade the women's section. The males feared that their section might become a loitering place for homosexuals. Outside J.D.L. factions threatened that they would come to keep the peace. Others voiced fear that the beach would become a target for antisemitism. Rabbi Kahanow maintained that if the congregants ignored the invaders and trouble makers, the trouble would leave the way it came...

...At 8 o'clock on Thursday, June 30, a small yellow bulldozer from a private contractor rambled onto Lincoln Beach and started digging out sand from
under the boardwalk to create a new beach entrance. Few realized what was going on until Rabbi Kahanow appeared on the boardwalk to give his blessings to the construction. Alex Safer, a local builder and advisor to the Rabbi, explained the drawing card aspect of the project to one irate bystander concluding vehemently, "We are not moving, we are going to fight." Replied the bystander, "Mentals or the religious, so what's the difference?"...

...When installation was nearing completion, Tom Daly, Asst. to the Chief of Lifeguards, arrived to inspect the proceedings. Upon wishing the Rabbi well, he insightfully pointed out that unless holes were cut into the fence to relieve water pressure that would build up with the pounding of the waves, the wall would be knocked down. The Rabbi protested saying that additional holes would subtract from the privacy of the fence. After some discussion the fence foreman decided to cut small 1" holes into every other slot. For this he needed a small generator which he insisted on the Rabbi procuring. Several phone calls later the Rabbi announced that one could be borrowed from the city. The fence installers boarded their truck saying they were going to get the generator and were never seen again...

...Hostility increased as more fence went up. Shouts of 'Tear it down," and "Burn Fort Zion," brought patrol cars much of the day. City Council President Harvey Weisenberg, unaware that the beach was actually being built, was alerted by numerous phone calls at his residence and came for a first hand look. Waved to from the beach, he yelled back angrily, "No, no, no, not here." For a moment it looked as though he was going to descend to the beach and tear it down board by board. At City Hall complaints jammed the switchboard...

...The tide started rising at four o'clock. A weak low pressure front clouded the skies and started sending in small swells. On the beach a lone patron chatted with the lifeguard while the crowd on the boardwalk became larger and more belligerent. At four thirty five a loud cracking sound was heard. All heads turned to the middle of the beach where the first waves from the incoming tide had reached the stockade. Like wind whipping through wheat, the fence swayed with every passing wave. The bulge of the wave traveled from one end of the fence to the other, the pieces popping out to permit the flow of water. The bottom of the fence loosened first, the nails pulled out from the wooden piling. The wood sections flapped in the wind for a second before the next wave pulled them down. Large holes appeared in the fence as sections dropped into the water and floated in the surf. The crowd cheered. At the breaker line the ominous humps of several outside large waves could be seen building. They moved in with tremendous speed. The first ones shook the remaining wall. The middle ones crashed into the piling with tons of water. By the last waves the wood was smashed to splinters...

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From the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din

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Yesterday we noted Presidential candidate Herman Cain's objection to the practice of Islam in America because Shari'a is a system of laws -- just like Halakhah. Today, a closer look at a publication that was linked in that blog post, demonstrating that American religious communities have been engaging with religious law alongside secular law for generations.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din (1938)

Writing in Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service), William I. Boxerman describes the establishment of a Jewish court of arbitration in Baltimore:

Perhaps never was the need greater for eliminating from the regular courts such controversies as tend to bring discredit upon the Jewish people as a whole. For, with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, our defamers seize readily upon incidents which support their stereotypes of the Jew as an undesirable citizen...

...Furthermore, a Jewish court meets other definite needs in the community. Often the problems presented should not come into the regular courts because they concern Jewish tradition, religious observances, etc., which cannot be understood easily by a non-Jewish judge or jury... Sometimes, too, the courts offer no relief for the aggrieved individual because the offense against him is not punishable under the law; whereas in the Jewish court, which is not limited in its scope by the statutes, he may find a ready remedy...

...The value of the Jewish Court in providing an emotional outlet for individuals who feel themselves wronged should not be overlooked. The award actually entered in a case is sometimes not nearly so important to the client as the opportunity for expressing his feelings, for having himself declared to be in the right and thus vindicated before an impartial body...

...Because of the expense involved, many individuals with rightful claims cannot file suit in the established courts... The cost of the litigation in such a case would be prohibitive. Many clients cannot even advance the necessary attorney's fees. These claims, however, may be heard in the Jewish Court without charge...

...The procedure is informal; the arbitrators in each case may make and adopt their own rules. This individualized treatment has worked very satisfactorily. Litigants and their witnesses testify under oath; it has been found that the psychological effect of taking, an oath is even more important when the rest of the proceedings take place in an informal atmosphere. During the progress of the hearing, the arbitrators may interrupt as often as they wish in order to ask questions, to clarify points, or to elicit pertinent facts from the witnesses... The participants may speak either in English or in Yiddish... Since the hearing is not open to the general public, an individual need have no hesitation about discussing details which he would be reluctant to relate before outsiders.

The court does not adhere to the rules of evidence. This adds to the informality. Hearsay evidence, unsupported statements, and beliefs, all of which are taboo in the law courts, may be introduced. Lawyers may represent their clients before the court, but the absence of legal "red tape" has sometimes proved annoying to them. In one hearing, an attorney coud hardly control his wrath because the arbitrator repeatedly reminded him that he could not "object" to hearsay evidence.

Boxerman goes on to provide examples of cases brought before the court. Download the publication if you want to hear the description beginning:

"Galician swine, trying to cheat us on the dead!"
"Roumanian schnorrers! We don't owe you a cent!"

Download this publication.

 

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Herman Cain Would Ban Mosques; Why Not Synagogues?

Herman Cain

"Let's  go back to the fundamental issue," said Herman Cain, while arguing that localities have a right to ban mosques. "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

Mr. Cain, does traditional Judaism count as "any one of our traditional religions"? If so, you've got a problem.

Cain apparently defines "religious purposes" as being inherently different from legal purposes. This conception of religion, however, carries a blatantly Christian (not to mention Protestant) bias. For many religious believers, true religion requires submission to Divine law, and for these groups, establishing a religious community requires establishing local religious courts.

This is certainly true of traditional Judaism, in which Halakhah (Jewish law) regulates every detail of Jewish life -- ritual, ethical, economic, civil, and quotidian. Not a single moment of the traditional Jew's day, no matter how seemingly trivial, is free from countless strictly defined mandates. Since disputes are bound to arise, the rabbinic court (bet din / beis din / beth din; pick your transliteration) has been a central institution for thousands of years. This has held true even in modern America. While the separation of religion and state has required the abandonment of the European model of state-supported rabbinic institutions, rabbinic courts operate on a voluntary basis in all American cities with significant Orthodox Jewish populations, and many Orthodox Jews make use of such courts to settle disputes within the community in accordance with Halakhah. The New York-based Beth Din of America, for example, handles not only ritual and family issues such as conversion, marriage, and divorce, but also civil and economic cases, all in accordance with Torah injunctions.

Nor do these institutions operate with complete independence from the secular legal system. Parties to rabbinic cases can enter into binding arbitration agreements, mandating compliance with rabbinic decisions by force of secular law. New York and Maryland have both instituted secular laws intended to help Jewish women avoid becoming agunot-- a problem which exists only within the framework of Jewish law -- "wall of separation" notwithstanding.

In the first half of the 20th Century, some Jews sought out rabbinic courts specifically in order to avoid prejudice in the secular legal system. That was an era during which being Jewish was seen as being foreign, and Jewish religion was seen as inherently sinister. Today it is Islam which is seen, quite unfairly, as being inherently foreign and sinister. (Yes, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but lumping the world's billion Muslims in with a tiny, extremist fraction is foolish.) At a time when Presidential candidates score points by demonizing Islam, some American Muslims must see local Shari'a courts and local Islamic communal institutions as being more necessary than ever.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written that "If the religious community cannot define itself, cannot set rules for membership, including rules of behavior, then it is not, in any realistic sense, a religious community. This implies that protection of religious freedom requires a high degree of deference to the definitional process within that community..." (God's Name in Vain, 176.) Herman Cain and others who support anti-Islamic legislation are free to argue that Prof. Carter is wrong, and that religion must be prevented from operating as a legal system in any form. But if they wish to maintain that their position is not motivated by an unfair demonization of Islam, then they must apply this principle consistently, across the board. They must be willing to take a stand against Jewish legalistic practice and Jewish legal institutions as well. They must protest outside the Beth Din of America, and rail against rabbis sneaking Halakhah into the secular legal system.

If they will not do so (and I cannot imagine that they will), their supposed concern for the separation of religion and state will stand revealed as a fig leaf for simple prejudice.

International Agunah Day

Today is Ta'anit Esther, and also International Agunah Day, a day recognizing the struggles of agunot, "anchored/bound ones," Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant their wives a get (religious divorce), even though the two no longer live as a couple -- preventing the woman, according to traditional Jewish law, from remarrying.

A few resources: Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and anti-get-refusal activist, has articles on International Agunah Day in both the Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) also has a page of resources and links on the agunah issue. (In 2007 they placed this six-page advertisement in the NY Jewish Week on Ta'anit Esther / International Agunah Day.)

BJPA holdings include many publications touching on this issue. Among them are: