On Belief, for Elul

Accounting of the soul

Yesterday began the Hebrew calendar month of Elul, the month of spiritual accounting and preparation for the High Holidays.

The journal Sh'ma dedicated its September 1993 issue to the month of Elul, with five essays about belief.

Bonus: it is traditional to hear the shofar after morning prayers every morning of Elul. Here is the sounding of the shofar during Elul 5766 (2006) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

Download the full publication.

 

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Tishah B'Av 5771

Hayez

(Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez)

For Tishah B'Av today, excerpts from "Temple and Synagogue" by Rabbi Neil GIllman, from Sh'ma in June 2007:

The Bible knows two models of sacred space. On one model, what may be called “intrinsic sacred space,” God chooses one point on earth to reveal God’s presence. That point becomes axis mundi, the center of the world, around which the rest of the world is structured in descending levels of sanctity. The
source for this model is... the binding of Isaac. Abraham is dispatched to “the land of Moriah,” to offer Isaac as a sacrifice “on one of the heights which I
[God] will point out to you.” Subsequently, in II Chronicles 3:2, Moriah becomes the spot on which Solomon builds the Temple...

...The second model may be called “extrinsic sacred space.” Here, any spot on earth can become the center of the world. In the Bible, this model is illustrated by the Israelite encampment during the desert wanderings. The camp could be located at any place in the wilderness, but wherever it stood, the sanctuary was at its center...

...The Temple, intrinsic sacred space, could only be in Jerusalem. But the synagogue could be wherever a minyan of Jews with their Torah scroll chose to settle. God sanctifies intrinsic sacred space; the community sanctifies extrinsic sacred space.

Jeremiah 29 contains the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the community of exiles in Babylonia. It is an extraordinary document. In it, God counsels the exiles to “build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat their fruit, take wives and beget sons and daughters; . . . multiply there. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Then, “When you call Me and
come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you. You will search for Me and find Me. I will be at hand for you and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations, and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

This letter... affirms the religious legitimacy of extrinsic sacred space. Its theological basis is a statement about God. God’s power is not bounded by geography... One of the traditional names for God is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” But according to the rabbinic understanding of that name, God is “the place” of the world, not the other way around. God does not inhabit space. The exiled community can flourish but it cannot have a Temple; that is reserved for Jerusalem. But it can still worship God without a Temple, without sacrifices, through the words of prayer. “Instead of bulls, we will pay [with] the offerings of our lips.” (Hosea 6:3)

This pattern goes a long way toward explaining the ambiguities of our relationship to Israel, both land and state. For centuries, we prayed and dreamed of a return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple; we worship facing Jerusalem; we conclude Yom Kippur and our Passover sedarim with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Yet we remain here. Ironically, it is precisely our religious structures that make it possible for us to live an authentic Jewish religious life anywhere on earth. We carry our religion on our backs. Halakhah enables us to worship God at every moment of our lives, wherever we may be...

 

Gov. Christie: Shari'a Concerns Are "Crazy"

The video below demonstrates that not every popular Republican has jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, best known for his (to put it mildly) bluntness, reacts to criticism of his appointment of a Muslim judge to the state bench:

We've had something of an anti-anti-Islam theme going on this Jewish policy blog for the past few weeks, but I think that's appropriate. It's not only that Muslims and Jews share key values, as the JTA reported this week. It's also, naturally, that American Jews have a strong communal knowledge of what it's like to be a vilified religious/ethnic minority. The fact that our two communities are so bitterly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues makes it all the more important to recognize these and other points of commonality.

Background:

BJPA Publications on Islam
BJPA Publications on Jewish-Muslim relations
BJPA newsletter on Jewish-Muslim relations, September 2010

Other recent Islam themed blog posts:

July 18
July 28
August 1

Publications for Ramadan

Hodesh tov, it's Av. And Ramadan mubarak, it's Ramadan.

Here are a few highlights from our publications relevant to the Muslim community and Jewish-Muslim relations:

See also Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Ramadan greeting:

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.

Jewish Text for Shavuot

Wheat harvest

Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuot, an agricultural festival which also commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

In honor of this celebration of the Jewish Urtext, why not browse our holdings of over 800 publications on the topic of Jewish Text?

Chag Shavuot sameach!

Mount Sinai

Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem

Happy Yom Yerushalayim! On this day in 1967, Israel captured and reunited Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

 Here are just a few of many BJPA publications having to do with Jerusalem:

San Fran Circumcision Ban: Cutting Down on Cutting

Circumcision

Despite all the demonstrable health benefits of circumcision, San Francisco will vote in November to decide whether or not to ban circumcision in the city, without any sort of religious exemption for Jews and Muslims.

The JTA Archive's blog takes a fascinating look back today at JTA articles from the 20th century on the topic of circumcision. With a hat-tip to our friends at the JTA, and a reminder regarding the old adage about imitation and flattery, here is our own round-up of a few circumcision-related BJPA holdings, all of them from the past three decades:

Perhaps the real motivation for the San Francisco circumcision ban is precisely to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities in opposition... Or not.

From the J-Vault: Kids for Peace

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The year was 1915, and the Great War (World War I) was devastating Europe. An ocean (and then half a continent) away, The Chicago Hebrew Institute decided to enlist their Sabbath and Sunday school students to promote the ideal of peace.

This week, from the J-Vault: A Peace Movement Among Children (1915)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, Philip L. Seman used terms for his school's initiative which, in modern times, would be criticized as an unacceptable form of indoctrination of the youth:

The children of the Peace Society are recruited from various classes conducted at the Institute, particularly from the Sabbath and Sunday school. The main effort is to saturate the children's minds and hearts against the horrors of war, and in favor of universal peace. At a recent meeting of the teachers of the Sabbath school, we have made clear that the teachers, in instructing the children in Bible history, should underestimate the heroism, too often made much of in the Sabbath schools, regarding the wars the Hebrews fought in early days, and to draw ethical lessons in favor of peace. In other words, our teachers were instructed, not as has been the fashion heretofore, to encourage young Judea to emulate the militarism of the Maccabees, but rather to hope for the realization of the human peace prophecy of Isaiah.

Read more...

Browse the BJPA for publications on War and Peace, or search for "indoctrination".

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Video: Building a Passionate Middle Ground

In a video interview, Dr. Micha Goodman of Ein Prat tells BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen that religious Israelis are too closed, and secular Israelis are too disconnected from tradition. We need a passionate middle ground, he says. Watch on YouTube, or below.

 

Interview: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, President of the Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation, sat down with BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and discussed his vision of an American Jewish community in which it is expected that Jewish young adults will give one or two years of service, either to the Jewish community or to a population in need.

Watch on YouTube, or below:

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 2: Jewish Education Beyond Denominational Boundaries

In Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1, we found that issues of Jewish conversion and Jewish peoplehood in Israeli governmental context seemed to be immune to pluralism, because there are well-populated positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum from whose perspective the application of pluralist concepts to these issues would be impossible -- that is to say, to acquiesce to pluralism would constitute an abandonment of these positions on the spectrum.

Yet there are other pluralistic activities, taking place across Jewish denominational divides, which appear to be more successful. Many of these are educational institutions, from yeshivot like Jerusalem's Pardes, to community day schools like New York's Heschel school.

It is easy to see why education might be the ideal setting for pluralism. After all, education seeks knowledge, and knowledge can be separated from values and judgements. To know something is not to endorse something, and so people with divergent values can learn together, even if they disagree about what they are learning. Writing in  the summer 2005 issue of Contact: the Journal of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundarion, Rabbi Arthur Green quotes Rabbi David Hartman on the potential for pluralist, trans-denominational Jewish learning: "As long as we are learning, we can all be together. As soon as we start davening, we go off into separate rooms." This quote comes from R' Green's article about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, "the first full-time, trans-denominational Rabbinical school in Jewish history", of which he is Rector. "Rabbis will be better trained for having sat in classes alongside others who disagree with them on almost every issue imaginable," writes R' Green. "How better to sharpen your understanding, to hone your own point of view, than by looking at the sources in a mixed group, where opinions and readings diverge across a wide spectrum?"

The same issue of Contact contains an article by Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School at the New Community Jewish High School in greater Los Angeles, on the success of the community day school model. "[C]ommunity schools are about ideas," writes Powell, "not ideology. They are about an honest and open dialogue on Jewish practice, philosophy and history... [W]hereas denominational schools might mandate a particular mode of prayer, a community school... might offer multiple minyan options where students can explore a plurality of spiritual modalities."

But is pluralism in education really so picture-perfect? How far apart can learning and values be pulled before one or the other is weakened? To their credit, both R' Green and Powell acknowledge that education, especially in a religious context, involves values as much as ideas. Both also describe approaches for meeting these challenges. R' Green writes:

Don't rabbis have to stand for something...? And doesn't that mean that my viewpoint is  right and yours is wrong?... Yes, a program of rabbinic studies does have to stand for something, and we clearly do. Ahavat Torah, the love of wisdom and the pursuit of Jewish learning, is the hallmark of our program. We find that it brings us together, even as we argue over the meaning of a passage... [T]here are two more areas where denominational differences have little place. One is in the growth and development of spiritual life... The same is true for activism. There is little difference between Jews when it comes to what are called mitzvot beyn adam le-havero, the good deeds we do toward our fellow humans. We all believe in reaching out to the poor, the sick and the needy. We care about the elderly and the disabled, and want to help.... Learning, spiritual work and human kindness. (Might one call them Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim?) These are areas where our rabbinical students, for all their diverse viewpoints, can work together and build a single Jewish community.

Powell writes:

Creating a non-denominational school is rife with challenge. Among the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “Upon what do we agree?” Creating a single track for prayer is hopeless; setting standard policies for the wearing of kippot, Shabbat observance, kashruth, student attire and modesty, and holiday celebrations stretches the notion of inclusivity often to a point of vagueness and uselessness. Board agreement on admission policies, especially regarding “who is a Jew” and whether or not non-Jews (whoever they may be) ought be admitted, breeds tension, at best, and dissolution in the worst cases... [T]he greatest advantage of a Jewish community school is also its greatest challenge: how to avoid trying to be everything to all and ending up with nothing — no strong views, weak knowledge base, vagueness of purpose and mission, blandness of identity, and graduates without a place to go...

The community school faces a tough order. It needs to establish clear goals and missions across a broad fabric. It needs to have a sharp and clear identity without alienating its constituents, yet be true to its pluralistic macro purpose. It needs to create trans-denominational Jews who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins and who can move with comfort and competence throughout the rich diversity of Jewish secular and denominational life. This Jewish community school challenge is, from my view, the single most invigorating and transformational moment in recent Jewish memory. It forces those of us dedicated to this awesome business of “touching the future” to once again become “God wrestlers,” grapplers, idea entrepreneurs. It causes us all to sharpen our visions, to ask if and how we ought to disturb the universe.

Both authors acknowledge, then, that Jewish education requires the articulation and promulgation of values. Interestingly, though, both also write that the way for a pluralist Jewish educational institution to meet this challenge involves the creation of something new -- in R' Green's words, to "build a single Jewish community," and in Powell's words, "to create trans-denominational Jews".

And this begs the question: if something new is being created, then is this model really a pluralistic cooperation between groups, or is it simply the creation of a new group?

Creating a new group does not require the dissolution or abandonment of the old denominations, nor the establishment of a new one. Rather, it means drawing a new line, a line that cuts across denominations, between those for whom denominational differences exist, but can be surmounted, and those for whom denominational differences are so great, and so important, that they make cooperation impossible. Those "inside the line", no matter to what denomination they belong, are members of the new group.

The mechanism used to draw this line is self-selection. Only rabbinical students who already believe in this pluralist form of learning and community will choose to enroll in Hebrew College's rabbinical program. Only families who believe in (or at least, do not object to) this kind of pluralism will enroll their children in community day schools. This element of self-selection is critical in explaining why these institutions are so conducive to pluralism while issues of peoplehood and conversion in context of Israeli policy are not: the group of Jews who wants to be involved with the state of Israel is much broader than the group that believes in pluralistic approaches to these issues. In other words, pluralism is only more "successful" in these educational contexts than in the Israeli conversion context because self-selection excludes the group for whom pluralism is impossible.

This kind of pluralism really does bridge divides between groups to some degree. But it also exposes pre-existing divisions within groups, and creates a layer of new groupings which overlaps the old.

"Why not build a mosque at ground zero?"

The sentence quoted in this post's title is not related to the ongoing fracas about the Cordoba House initiative to build an Islamic community center three blocks from Ground Zero. In fact, this quote is from 2001, in an article written for CLAL by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner entitled "A Religious Shrine at Ground Zero?"

 Some highlights, which (in my humble and non-BJPA-representative opinion)  are quite relevant to the current kerfuffle:

"Religious groups and organizations were among the first to respond to the attack. Moreover, in the days following the attack, Americans flocked to their synagogues, churches and mosques in record numbers...

"But while those services were articulations of America’s common spirit, they also spoke to our religious particularities. As an American I listened intently to all the clergy who spoke, but as a Jew, I cared most about what the rabbis had to say. I imagine that this was the case for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists, all who were represented in those services. America is great because we not only allow for the freedom of religion, but we have a public square that can encourage our religious diversity at the right moments.

"For this reason, I would ask, why not build a mosque at ground zero? And a church, and a synagogue as well? Why not erect a vast inter-religious center on the premises as a supplement to the secular, cultural, and artistic elements that will figure in the blueprint for the site’s reconstruction?...

"Building a mosque on the site would also send a message to the Islamic world about America, and our commitment to the freedom of religion... Maybe a few misguided Muslims would go there to praise Allah for his great victory in destroying the towers - but I imagine the vast majority of American Muslims would go to simply offer prayers of gratitude that Allah, in his mercy, has created a place called America, where both freedom and faith can flourish."

 I think there is a lot of merit to Rabbi Brenner's argument. (And I'm not just saying that because he wrote on his blog that "NYU Wagner's Berman Policy Archive Rocks!")

It is worth noting, however, before anyone decides to deputize Rabbi Brenner's argument into the Cordoba House wars, that there are some differences between this proposed center and Rabbi Brenner's vision. The vision was an interfaith center, which would be (to my mind) the best possible repudiation of the jihadist ideology; the actual proposal here is only Islamic. Though its primary concerns will be culture and community rather than religious practice, it will not be a pluralist institution. Then again, neither will it be at Ground Zero; it will be near Ground Zero, and not even overlooking Ground Zero. Of course, neither is its proximity to Ground Zero accidental.

I do not intend to advance a position on Cordoba House here; only to call attention to the (limited, but substantive) applicability of Rabbi Brenner's 2001 argument to the current Ground Zero Mosque Affair.

And to use this question to launch a larger question: what are the limits of pluralism? What does it mean to hold both universal and particular identities? And if our particularist commitments are real commitments -- if they are worth our very lives -- then how, in any context, can we embrace pluralism? This is a question to which I hope to return very soon with a blog post focusing on Jewish community day schools and interdenominational Jewish relations. Stay tuned.

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