Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Can’t Believe Everything You Read in the Newspaper: The SY Empire, Part II

You can’t always believe what you read in the newspaper. An Anonymous commenter who has a fair amount of experience with the Syrian community took exception with my previous post, and wrote:

First of all, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about the prevalence of the "tribal" attitude based on Jakie Kassin's comments. The author of the article clearly had an axe to grind, and perhaps the comment was not understood properly in context. And in any event, your piece basically accuses the entire Syrian community of a racial attitude as reflected by the edict, and this is simply not fair. Also, I don't know if it's true that this community "emphasizes the exclusion of converts." This exclusion is practiced, but I wouldn't say it is emphasized, it is not a central part of their attitude and lifestyle. I have heard literally dozens - perhaps hundreds - of derashos (sermons –c.s.) from Syrian rabbanim, and read lots of their literature, and the only time I heard the edict mentioned was in the precise opposite context - a prominent Syrian rabbi made the point of how Judaism recognizes the potential of every human being for greatness notwithstanding the Syrian minhag (c.s. – custom) not to marry converts.I generally like your blog very much, but in this instance I believe you are wrongly condemning a large community and disparaging their talmidei chachamim based on one clearly-biased article. I think you should get to know some Syrian Jews more closely before casting such harsh judgment and calling them racist.

In another post, s-he continues:

Just to clarify a bit more my complaint against this post:The Syrian takana (edict –c.s.) was made as a "migdar milsa" (to fix a problem – c.s.) in response to what was perceived as a wave of pseudo-conversions for marriage purposes. The takana is NOT what you make it out to be - a reflection of a fundamentally different attitude towards the Jewish people whereby we are Jewish by blood and race rather than conduct and so on. Personally I'm not comfortable with the takana, but I am honest enough to see it what is, and not turn it into an expression of racism…….

I would add to the commenter’s remarks that s-he is correct, that on the issue of intermarriage the reporter, Zev Chafets, does have a personal axe to grind.

I also agree that I have limited first hand knowledge of the Syrian Jewish community. And I apologize if my own piece was perceived as imputing racist thoughts to the entire Syrian community. (Indeed, I avoided the explosive term “racist” because I didn’t think it was fair.) That was not my intent.


Let’s be serious about this. Jakie Kassin’s remarks were not made in a vacuum. And here, I’m not talking about Syrian Jews. I’m talking about all Jews. There is way too much tribal thinking in Jewish life. I have heard different versions of it from different people – from a stray remark from a chassid about whether or not non-Jews have the same souls as us, to the nearly secular Jew who has no interest in religion, but can’t imagine his child marrying a non-Jew because “they’re not the same”. Yes, tribalism is a philosophy that a smallish minority of Jews still maintain – but it is still a serious problem, whether you live in Flatbush or Montreal or Israel. I was simply using the Times’ article to highlight an issue that is significant for all Jews.

And to reiterate, tribalism is dangerous for the Jewish community. Aside from the fact that tribalism will at times morph in racism, tribalism is a philosophy that will eventually fail. Jews need to know why they’re Jewish. If we decide to base our identity on being part of tribe, we will forget exactly what it is that made us Jewish in the first place. And a tribe without a higher purpose simply cannot survive.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What Makes a Jew Jewish? (A Response to "The SY Empire")
It is now the most famous Rabbinic proclamation in New York. An 1935 edict issued by the Rabbinate of the Syrian Jewish community was the focus of an article in the New York Times last week. As the article explains:

Most American Jewish communities in those days (and many today) viewed intermarriage as a taboo. Conversion, however, was a loophole. The Edict intended to close that loophole. It proclaimed, ''No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.''

A 1946 clarification added specifics: ''The rabbi will not perform Religious Ceremonies'' for such unkosher couples. ''The Congregation's premises will be banned to them for use of any religious or social nature. . . . After death of said person, he or she is not to be buried on the Cemetery of our community . . . regardless of financial considerations.''

With these words, Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin effectively excommunicated any member of his flock who married a partner with gentile blood….

I mean no disrespect to any of the 225 rabbis who have signed onto this edict. But this edict is absolutely wrong, period.

I’m sure a hundred sermons have noted the proper Jewish attitude towards conversion. Included in the responses will be references to multiple sources, such as Rashi’s statement that says that Abraham and Sarah our ancestors were missionaries and that “Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women… (Gen. Rabbah 39:14)”. Or Maimonides’ explanation, in a letter to Obadiah the Convert, that the pedigree of converts is greater than that of a natural born Jews:

Let not your ancestry be insignificant in your eyes. Because if we trace our ancestry to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then you trace yours to the Lord Himself.
And of course, any discussion of conversion must cite the Mishna that says it is a sin to discriminate against a proselyte on the basis of their origin (Bava Metzia 58b).

But forget questions of human dignity and/or political correctness for a moment. This edict gets to the heart of a fundamental question: What makes a Jew Jewish?

This edict, (as it is now percieved by some*), defines Jewish identity as having Jewish blood. As Jakie Kassin, the grandson of the edict’s author explains:

''Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert,''…. ''Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don't want gentile characteristics.''
Here you have a simple, chauvinistic explanation of Jewish identity; Jews are Jewish because they have Jewish blood. Jews are a tribe apart, genetically destined to be different than everyone else. Surprisingly, this tribal vision is often subscribed to by marginally involved Jews; they turn their nose up at anything related to Torah, but still expect their children to marry a member of the tribe.

I believe tribalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of the Jewish people**. A Jewish identity that is fixated on tribalism must marginalize spirituality. The tribal consciousness worries about one thing: keeping the tribe together. So, instead of focusing on the Jewish mission to transform the world, tribal Jews seek to build walls to hold others out.

But authentic Judaism was never about genetics. What makes a Jew Jewish is a unique spiritual outlook. Central to this outlook is the desire to transform the world. Ido Hevroni explains the covenantal sign of circumcision this way:

…we find a position represented throughout the Hebraic tradition, from Genesis to the prophets to the rabbinic tradition. This position is unwilling to accept the world as it is, and is therefore characterized by a restless, uncompromising desire for improvement. This view takes on symbolic application with the severance of the foreskin, the marking of the most impulsive organ of the human body with an open and blunt statement: Man is not an animal. Man shares with God the ability to stand outside of and apart from nature. Man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. Man wants to change, even to create, the world.
Circumcision, like the rest of the Torah, is about transformation. We can change nature, we can change history, we can change the world. Indeed, the greatest Rabbi of the Talmudic era, Rabbi Akiva, transformed himself from ignorant shepherd into insightful teacher. It is no surprise that according to one tradition, {R. Nissim Gaon, Berachot 27b}, R. Akiva is the descendent of converts. Akiva, like Abraham, reinvents himself and refuses to accept the status quo. Akiva is such an effective teacher of Torah because he embodies spiritual transformation, the very attribute the Torah is founded on.

The best rejoinder to the philosophy of tribal Judaism is the fact that tribalists could never have accepted or appreciated a Rabbi Akiva. But today, tribal philosophies of Judaism may be facing a greater challenge: America.

21st century North America is the graveyard of tribes. Various groups, from the Greeks to the Italians to the Armenians, have tried valiantly to hang on to their culture. But the allure of being assimilated into the mainstream has been too strong a force to hold off assimilation.

Jewish tribalists may try to build walls to hold everyone else out. They may find short term success in doing so. But in the end these walls are fated to crumble; no wall is strong enough to stop the onslaught of the American melting pot.

Jewish continuity will only succeed if we can inspire our fellow Jews and all of humanity to embrace the values of the Torah. Each of us must light a fire within that will spread to those around us, transforming ourselves and the rest of the world.

Which is exactly what Abraham envisioned, right at the beginning of the Jewish people.

**(Please note I am not arguing whether or not the Syrian community has been successful in holding off intermarriage. But this community, with a deeply religious, tight knit and committed base, probably could have been equally successful without ostracizing converts or embracing chauvinistic misunderstandings of Jewish identity.)

* (please see the next post)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What’s on Your List?

You need to make a new list. In fact, your soul depends on it.

Human beings are listmakers; it’s what distinguishes us from the animals. (No, that’s not a joke!!).

We make lists for:

Phone numbers
Phone calls
Sermon ideas (I’m a Rabbi, ok!!)

Sometimes we need a list to keep track of all the lists.

There’s one list I’m working on now. And it’s the most important list anyone can make.

There is a story told about a Chassidic Rebbe and a beloved disciple. Chassidic practice is that the disciples of the Rebbe bring him a kvitl, a note. On this note is a list of things the disciple wants his Rabbi to pray for. One day the loyal disciple visits the rabbi with a kvitl that contains a long list of requests, for every possible wish.

The Rebbe took a long look at the list, and pushed the kvitl back. He looked at the disciple, and said: “you’ve thought a lot about what you need. But have you thought about why you are needed?”

Despite the apparent rejection, the disciple was ecstatic. His friends were puzzled; why was the disciple so happy? After all didn’t the rabbi just reject him?

The disciple explained that from his perspective, the Rebbe had taught him something precious. The Rebbe had implied that he, the simple disciple, was needed in this world.

The disciple got it right. To be needed is the greatest joy. And to find out why we are needed is our greatest obligation.

The 18th century Italian Rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzzato, begins his classic work, the Path of the Just, by saying that the most fundamental idea in Judaism is to know what our obligation in this world is. To live a meaningful life requires a different type of list, one that lists all the reasons why the world needs us.

In our consumer driven culture, people work hard, and shop hard. Yuppie life has become a well oiled machine, where lists organize our time around commerce and consumption. But there’s barely a moment for the soul, and the most important list remains empty: an answer to the question “why am I needed?”.

I am making this list for the first time. It’s a frightening but exciting process. Why are we needed? To call Mom? To hug the wife and kids? And to accomplish this….or is it to accomplish…that? Or maybe something else…..hmm…I’ve got to figure that out.

You are needed – that’s why God put you on this earth. So make the list. You’ll find it intimidating, exhilarating and confusing.

It will be the only list you ever really need.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Christmas, Salmon, and Jewish Continuity

I’ve been annoyed since Christmas.

Cindy Chupack, the executive producer of “Sex in the City”, is Jewish. And last Christmas, in an article in the New York Times, she declared that she was celebrating Christmas.

Chupack blames the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for her heterodoxy. Overwhelmed by a desire for Christmas Decorations, Stocking Stuffers and Gingerbread Houses, Chupack surrendered to the temptations of kitsch.

Now, I have nothing against gingerbread houses. What disturbed me deeply about the article was the assumption that being Jewish was about having fun.

Chupack repeats the mantra of her childhood: “eight nights is better than one.” Child after child was urged to observe Chanukah instead of Christmas, because Chanukah has more nights, and more gifts. In other words, Chanukah, and Judaism, is more fun.

Actually, the “fun theory” of Judaism is quite widespread. It can be found in multiple books, touting Jewish practice as a multi-purpose tonic, useful for family dysfunction, financial success, and even sexual prowess.

The “fun theory” of Judaism also has deep roots. Maimonides explains the kosher laws as health regulations, topping off his discussion by noting that that Jews don’t eat pigs, because they are unhealthy, dirty animals.

But Maimonides and the “fun theory” are wrong. In fact, Chupack’s article unintentionally unravels the fun theory of Judaism. What if pig is healthy? What if Christmas is more fun? Isn’t Judaism about the fun?

No, it isn’t. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Jewish History knows that Jews didn’t always have fun being Jewish. Yet we remained Jews because it was, and is, the right thing to do. Indeed, the Torah explains that God chose Abraham in order “that he may command his children…after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, and do righteousness and justice”.

Too often, we employ “fun theory” types of projects in the service of Jewish continuity. A fashionable and fun event for young Jews is organized without a shred of authentic Judaic content. As laudable as the intent behind these projects is, we need to realize that good fashion will not sustain Judaism. No matter how fashionable a Jewish project may be, there’s always a Pottery Barn catalogue about to arrive with even more fashionable Christmas decorations.

With materialism eroding our spiritual values, and assimilation pressuring a minority community like ours, fun theory is futile. I believe that the answer to Jewish continuity is found in the salmon.

Yes, I said salmon. Why? Because salmon instinctively swim upstream. We need to learn from the salmon that continuity is a difficult, upstream battle. And we need recognize that only an authentic Jewish instinct for justice and spirituality will sustain the Jewish people.

We don’t need better Chanukah decorations to ensure Jewish continuity. Rather, what our community really needs is a greater emphasis on Jewish content and practice, and a few good salmon, willing to swim upstream.