April 16, 2015

Holocaust Survivors in Miami

In 2012 a television series called Magic City appeared on Starz Network and it ran for two seasons. It depicted the glamor and sleaze of Miami around the time of Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Inevitably the Jewish Mafia made its appearance, with its desire to control Miami as a potential hub for gambling to rival Las Vegas. Miami was also going to be a substitute for the loss of Havana as a hub of crime investment. The WASP-ish non-Jewish residents were locked in a battle for Miami’s soul (and their privilege) against the interloping Jews, and then the Cubans. There was murder and prostitution, a Jewish DA keeping an eye on a Jewish hotelier who was caught in the vice of mafia money and struggling to free himself from a noxious Jewish criminal and pervert. References to Jewish life peppered the dialogue, and it seemed every Jewish character was either having sex with or was married to a non-Jewish girl. In other words its depiction of Jews was cringeworthy and embarrassing. Jewish life had absolutely nothing to commend it. A Passover seder was different to any other banquet only in its token matzah. All of this is the setting of Thane Rosenbaum’s latest novel How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is a distinguished law professor. He is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, hosted by NYU Law School. He is actively involved in Jewish life and is popular lecturer, writer, novelist, and essayist. As the child of Holocaust survivors, his earlier work had drawn on themes of dislocation and the ongoing trauma that survivors experienced and passed on to the succeeding generations. He graduated from the University of Florida, and he earned his JD from the University of Miami School of Law, where he was a Harvey T. Reid Scholar and served as Editor-in-Chief of the University of Miami Law Review. So he knows the Miami scene very well, and his familiarity with the local scene is one of the highlights of How Sweet It Is!

Into this setting he brings the familiar personae of Meyer Lansky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Muhammad Ali. All of them were sometime denizens of Miami Beach. Jewish swimming legend Marc Spitz features prominently, and we are introduced to an atheist rabbi who bears as much resemblance to a rabbi as a drunken Cossack on hallucinogens. But we might be inclined to forgive him because he is a holocaust survivor. So too are Jacob and Sophie Posner, who struggle in their different ways to cope with life. Their neglected son, Adam, finds his own way of growing up in a context that bears a close resemblance to Hades, heat included.

Sophie Posner finds relief in gambling, and this leads her into the clutches of Meyer Lansky, who has just been extradited to the USA from Israel (that part, of course, is true). He finds his empire in disarray. He recognizes Sophie’s combination of brilliant amorality and deep post-Holocaust dysfunction. He employs her to knock his aging and incompetent associates into shape. She rises in the organization to become his consigliere. Meanwhile her husband accepts her absence and struggles to survive, himself in his own post-traumatic world. Adam turns to running and baseball, at which he excels. It is a metaphor for his desire to escape. In a scene reminiscent of Philip Roth, he stumbles on a hippy orgy in Flamingo Park the night before the Democratic convention.

I don’t know how much of all this is based on Mr. Rosenbaum’s experience of Miami and indeed parents who survived the horrors or how much on a very fertile imagination. By now you have realized that this book is a comic pastiche—highly entertaining, unpredictable, and an exercise in cross-everything in a multicultural cocoon. As such it is a novel of our times, and yet of course it isn’t because it is set some 40 years ago.

The contrast with today is significant. Miami Beach is not the same, and Judaism is not the same. Both have stabilized and established themselves. Just as the Mafia has turned to white-collar schemes, so Jewish life in America has gotten over its mad rush to escape its roots. More and more Jews now realize that either the religion takes itself seriously or it disappears. This is a requiem for an era gone by that, frankly, offered little of substance.

In satirizing that world, Mr. Rosenbaum has achieved two things. On the face of it he has given us a funny, enjoyable read and a nostalgic look at a place and a time gone by. But on a serious level, he has shown us how empty and valueless it all was. A period of transition, in many ways its aftermath was a cultural dissonance that turned too many Jews into the soulless, hollow version that Woody Allen portrays. Thank goodness we have rebounded and reestablished a Jewish life of study, conviction, and commitment that we can be proud of, instead of being embarrassed by.

This is the season of remembering--Yom Hashoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut--the tragedies and the triumphs. It is a time to remember that defeat and victory, humiliation and triumph, are two sides of the coin of history. For all that this book laughs at tragedy and failure. it also celebrates the spirit of life and survival.

April 09, 2015


According to the Biblical narrative, when the Children of Israel were still in Egypt they were commanded to prepare in various ways for the Exodus (Chapter 12). They had to set aside a lamb to be killed and eaten. That in itself was an act of defiance. Egyptians revered sheep and would have been insulted by such a flagrant breach of their customs. All the more so as it was being perpetrated by their slaves and, even worse, the animal was selected and tied up in preparation three days beforehand, as if to dare the Egyptians to do something.

After having killed the animal, the Israelites were instructed to daub some of its blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:21) to ensure that the imminent destruction the coming plague of the firstborn Egyptians would not strike them too. What was that act meant to signify? Was it an ancient pagan custom to keep evil spirits away? Would the act in itself protect them? Around the Middle East, even today, blue is the favored color to protect homes from evil. Similarly the red band is a very common charm to ward off evil spirits.

It seems to me that the real purpose was to evince a sense of identification. One rabbinic tradition has it that many Israelites assimilated or were ambivalent about leaving Egypt. Which is hardly surprising given the record of biblical Israelites to be incredibly fickle about which gods they worshipped. Now they would have to decide by taking a positive act of commitment.

Many of the actions taken in Egypt at the first Passover were never replicated again. There is no obligation nowadays to sit at the seder in our traveling clothes with our shoes on our feet and our staves and wallets at hand (Exodus 12:11), and we no longer daub blood on our two door-posts (shtey HaMezuzot). But the actual word used in Exodus, mezuzah is used again, twice, later in the Torah (Deut. 6 and 11) in what we now call the Shema. There it says that we should write, not daub, the words of the Torah on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our houses and gates. The connection strikes me as obvious.

The Samaritans and the Kaarites did not take this command as literally as we do. For them it was figurative. The command was that our homes and cities would be committed to Torah and its values. But the Judaism we have today does indeed take it literally. That is why every Jewish home has a mezuzah on its front door and every other room for living in a house or apartment.

Nowadays it is common to see Jews touch or kiss a mezuzah that they pass by. The question is why? You can respect and value something without kissing it. Yet many Jews kiss the Torah or a siddur. And kissing, particularly in the Middle East, is a sign of respect. Is this superstitious?

There are two very different kinds of interpretations as to the function of the mezuzah. The simple rational one is, whether one takes the mezuzah as an object or not, that its function is simply to remind us of the Divine commandments. As Maimonides says in his “Guide for the Perplexed”:
“There are some actions prescribed (including the mezuzah) which serve to remind us continually of God and of our duty to love and respect Him and to keep His commandments (Divine Commandments Chapter XLIV).”
The non-rational explanation is to suggest that somehow the mezuzah automatically protects the home. This is emphasized particularly by those rabbis who make a living checking mezuzot and assuring the credulous that if things do or have gone wrong it is because their mezuzot were not checked and were faulty. The very idea of a mezuzah as a protection in itself makes no logical sense. Otherwise one should be able to discern a very clear distinction between homes with a mezuzah and those without. Nowhere does the Torah say that protection is automatic simply by fixing it on a door. Much later the rabbis did indeed give a list of things that might avert an evil decree: repentance, charity, and prayer. They did not include the mezuzah in that list.

If anything, it is living a good life and following the commandments that gives one a sense of meaning and the confidence to deal with the challenges one faces. A life that is full of spiritual significance. It is true the Torah says in the Shemah that if we behave correctly “the rains will fall in their time.” This does imply a very definite quid pro quo. Nevertheless the rabbis tended not to take this literally or as applying to this world. Quite the contrary, the traditional view is that there is no causative reward and punishment in this physical world; it is all on a spiritual level beyond the material.

The West I was born into was one in which difference was scorned. Minorities tried to hide their marks of identification. Things have changed dramatically. Now differences and ethnic religious signs of identification have become badges of honor. Blacks, native peoples, Sihks, and Hindus do not try to hide their identities or affiliations. Yet so many Jews still do.

Having a mezuzah on one’s doorposts is indeed a sign of commitment, of belonging, as it was in Egypt. We are given the choice to make public our affiliation or to hide it. The mezuzah serves this purpose. We may kiss the mezuzah, if we feel so inclined, out of love or respect. There is no law that we must. But to suppose it is some magic talisman, an automatic kind of protection, regardless of who we are and how we behave, is indeed pure superstition. It might be comforting, and it might be (sometimes) a courageous act of identification, but it is not magic.

April 02, 2015


Every time we sit down to a meal, according to the Talmud, it is an act of religious celebration. The ancient Temple sacrifices were not just a matter of formal communal gifts to God. They were also a system of getting everyone, priest and lay, rich and poor, to share food. Originally all slaughter for food was sacrificial. Only later did it move beyond the sanctuary.

In this day of restaurants and hotels, the idea of sharing ones daily meals has been largely lost. Traditionally every meal had to be shared with the poor, the needy, and travelers. At every meal we were supposed to thank God before and after. At every meal we were expected to study something. Every meal was a symbolic reenactment of a sacrifice on the altar. In fact only on Shabbat and festivals is all of this normally observed nowadays. But at the Seder on Pesach we really “make a meal of it”.

There are the rituals and blessings and customs and, indeed, peculiarities that serve not only as symbols but also as reasons to ask and to challenge. Uniquely amongst religions and customs comes this insistence on everyone participating, of not just sitting passively, but questioning.

The Talmud mentions the questions, four in the Babylonian and three in the Jerusalem, that have to be asked. But interestingly it says that if you were to ask any other kinds of halachic or religious questions you would not need to ask the formal ones. It's the idea of asking that trumps the text. The fours sons who ask theirs are emblematic of different approaches to religious issues and identity. Rebbi Elazar Ben Azaria represents the rabbinic dialectic but also the challenge to authority. He played a crucial part in the rebellion against Rabban Gamliel’s authority. And the rabbis in Bnei Brak remind us of Rebbi Akiva’s controversial support for the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. All of these are expressions of individuals asking and questioning at different times and under differing circumstances.

The Hagadah gives different types of answers. One, “We were idol worshippers” saw us as having broken with idolatry: spiritual freedom. The other “we were slaves” talks instead about the physical freedom from oppression, slavery, compulsion. One is personal, the other personal and national. But the text was only the intellectual hors d’oeuvre. Scholars and students spent the rest of the night in debate and discussion, not just of religious matters but of political issues and the steps to be taken to free one from the cultural and physical slavery of later oppressors. Greece, Rome, Christianity, and Islam.

Equally unusual is the emphasis on involving the children in a religious and educational experience. They are also encouraged to ask questions (rather than “be seen and not heard”), to search for the hidden Afikoman. It was for them that the popular mittel-European folk songs were adapted to the Hebrew or Aramaic.

But in my experience most kids and many adults have nodded off long before they get anywhere near the grand finales. Over time more was added to the Hagadah that might have resonated with mystics or scholars but that now simply leaves most moderns bemused, frustrated, and longing for it all to end as soon as possible so as to get on with the food and drink.

In religious homes time is not an issue. The interest in analyzing the text, bringing other sources and debates from classical Jewish rabbinic literature to bear on complex questions, or coming up with one’s own solutions are all part of traditional table talk under normal circumstances. This is all the more relevant on a night when the greatest of rabbis and their students went on debating and arguing until dawn.

But outside of a traditional religious household, most of the text of the Hagadah has become alien and irrelevant. There have of course been all kinds of creative solutions, from a secular Israeli harvest Hagadah to the inclusion of a wide range of quotes, articles and poems dealing with human rights issues and the wider question of slavery and freedom. And all that is to the good. But, even so, I suspect most guests at the Seder find it hard going and, any way, year after year it all loses its novelty.

It is my belief that the Talmud was aware of this problem and that most people were not scholars. That was why the Talmud says that you should at least say “and God brought us out,” and again says that “every person should try to imagine that he or she has escaped.” We need to imagine, to place ourselves in history. That, they are saying, is the essence of the Seder. They knew that most people would not have the patience to read every word and pay attention all the time. They would need a minimal alternative. Otherwise, why would Rabban Gamliel say that to fulfill your obligation you only have to talk about Pesach, Matza, and Maror?

So if you find yourself amongst or hosting a reluctant group of participants, I suggest paring down the Seder to the core paragraphs and blessings and allowing all the guests to talk freely about their own personal experiences and voyages, of “servitude” and freedom, at home or at work, of being forced to do what they did not want to, of all the issues of personal integrity and morality that lie at the core of Jewish life.

If our freedom from Egypt, whether it was historical or symbolic, was for us as a people to live ethical lives and to set a moral examples (even at election time) I suggest we have plenty to discuss. For that matter so do our rabbis, too many of whom this past year have found themselves accused and convicted of a range of crimes that call their moral integrity into question.

If the Seder Night on Pesach is to be more than an empty ritual, we really need to take it seriously and personally and not hide behind an impersonal text. And if the evening leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth, or a dry one because it had encouraged us to be self-critical, then it will have been worth it, instead of being an experience of ploughing through a text that we read and then ignore for another year.

March 26, 2015

The Cost of Religion

I love Pesach with all its laws and customs and even the preparation of cleaning out rooms, purging the kitchen, unpacking the special crockery, and pots and pans. But one thing really upsets me, and that is the cost!

My issue is that well over half the Jewish people are of very modest means and struggle to make ends meet. Increasingly, Judaism is becoming the preserve of the upwardly mobile and rich. To be Jewish and observant is getting more difficult because the cost of almost everything from food to synagogue membership to Jewish education is prohibitive. But specifically, to observe Pesach nowadays is a seriously expensive matter.

Let me start with the food. I understand that any product that appeals to a small sliver of the population is going to cost more than one that has mass-market appeal. Kosher food is indeed likely in general to be more expensive than non-kosher food. You have to include the cost of all the men and women employed working in stores, hotels, as caterers, slaughterers, butchers, supervisors, and contractors. In a way this is a sort of communal tax because providing employment, particularly for those with no qualifications to work anywhere else, which can be regarded as a mitzvah and communal obligation. But it is unfair that the burden of this should be shouldered equally by rich and poor. Reminds me of how in Medieval Europe rabbis tended to side with the rich and vote in favor of a poll tax instead of graduated income!

The Charedi world, known for its massive poverty and hundreds of thousands of men who study and whose wives earn meager wages, responds magnificently by subsidizing schooling, providing food banks, child support, emotional as well as financial aid, and altogether takes care of its own. Oh yes, and state subsidies, food stamps, and welfare help too. But for the rest, those who do not live in supportive ghettos there are real problems.

I was brought up to go to the supermarket and check ingredients, and if there was nothing un-kosher you could buy it. Later on lists of government-approved additives needed checking because often they included questionable stuff and were just shown as numbers so you might need a list of them. In those days the quantities mattered. So if the amount of a doubtful additive was minute, or if the question was whether the machinery had at one stage been used for something else, or if in the same factory non-kosher foods were present, it could still pass muster. This way you often had a cheaper option to pricier kosher supplies.

It is true that Pesach is a special case. All other forbidden food throughout the year is forbidden only above a minimum amount. But on Pesach any Chametz, however minute, is not allowed. Nevertheless, there comes a point when the law is extended to such a degree that it becomes laughable. Like worrying about microscopic creatures in the air or water. Refinements that were once considered the realm of the mystics have become the minimum. Eating one’s matzah into a paper bag for fear some might drop onto the floor is about as extreme as you could possibly wish for. If anything indicates a severe case of religious neurosis, this must be it. But nowadays some nutcases will tell you it's a halachic necessity. Totally non-absorbent materials, from stainless steel to granite countertops, are said to absorb forbidden matter. If so, you’d need a nuclear powered microscope to discover it!

The Talmud was satisfied with just looking for Chametz in places it was likely to have gone or be found. Now you have to fumigate every corner of your house from top to bottom for fear a spider might have taken a piece of bread into its web for safekeeping. The result is that cleaning for Pesach is so ridiculously extreme it gives Jewish women nightmares and nervous breakdowns. Unless, of course, once again, you are rich enough to pay others to do it for you while you relax reading “Hello”. Terror of infringing the most extreme of strictnesses has made cleaning and purging a massive burden. If a hot water urn is never used for anything but hot water, what forbidden material could ever get inside that would require one to kasher it for Passover?

People are no longer willing to buy food where the possibility that a minute drop or a drop of a drop might could have accidentally found its way into one out of a whole batch of thousands that may have accidentally absorbed a non-kosher smell. Or a drop of non-kosher lubricator from the machinery might have dropped onto one of the bottles of water, or aluminum foil, plastics, or paper towels. So to cover against all this, everything has to be supervised, and approved, and priced up.

Jewish laws states that you need to consume at least an olive’s worth of non- kosher food before you transgress. Or only worry about bugs you can see with the naked eye. Where non-kosher ingredients get mixed in or milk and meat get mixed up, if it’s a dry solid, a majority makes it permissible, and if it’s liquid, one sixtieth. But because we have raised the bar so high, most God-fearing Jews no longer want to take advantage of these let-outs for fear of losing their place in the World to Come.

Supervision itself is too often a sham. There are cases where a supervisory body has declared that for Pesach there has to be different machinery and extra supervision that explained the price difference, when in fact there was no such thing. They simply stuck on to the usual production a different label. Sadly, scams are widespread in the kosher business. Requiring kosher for Pesach water, cola, orange juice, sugar, pepper, coffee, and tea (not to mention detergents and chemicals) only makes sense if there’s a little gnome standing over the process spraying real Chametz into it all year round and you have to pay him to stay away over Pesach.

I do not want to sound ungrateful for all those pious honest supervisors who trek around the most inhospitable of places to bring kosher food to my table. But I do strongly object to the assumption that without supervision you automatically cannot have it. In other words, you have to pay more to be a practicing Jew.

If people are so well off that they can afford a Pesach cruise for the family or a milky and a meaty oven or fridge and two others specially for Pesach, then why not charge them to support religious life? But if you are struggling to support and feed your family, it cannot make sense, in the name of Heaven, to pay $1000 for a ten-day supply of food when it normally costs you $250. But that is the proportion of added costs buying supervised products for Pesach will cost you.

Sure, any basket of foods in New York will cost nearly twice as much as in Mississippi. Rent will cost many times more. But you can make choices. That's what rabbis ought to be telling us; they need to reassure their poorer congregants that they do not have to bankrupt themselves for legal refinements of refinements of refinements and stop scaring those who do not know better and are in fear for their spiritual welfare.

The Sephardi Rabbinate in Israel is very good at that. They have always had to deal with a much poorer but pious clientele. So they look for ways to make being Jewish cheaper and easier for the masses. It is worthwhile visiting Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi’s website for an alternative authoritative Orthodox list of approved products and ingredients and answers to Passover questions, for both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. I wish more Ashkenazi rabbis were so accommodating. And I wish more laypeople knew more about the law themselves so that they could make informed decisions and realize why half the specially marked Kosher Le Pesach products do not need to be!

I have no gripe at all with anyone who wishes to and can afford to be as strict as he or she wants. But for the millions who struggle, we must find ways of making Pesach more affordable and doable. The spiritual beauty and inspiration of Pesach, the instructions of the Torah to be sensitive to the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged, must not be swamped by petty and minute restrictions. If kosher food is big business, religion should not be.

Enjoy the Festival.

March 19, 2015

Israeli Elections

The first Israeli election I experienced was in the summer of 1961. I was in Yeshivah in Jerusalem and heard both Ben Gurion and Begin campaign. There was no comparison. Ben Gurion was dull and uninspiring. Begin was magnetic and charismatic. But Ben Gurion won more than twice as many votes as Begin did. The left-wing socialist monopoly of power in Israel would continue until 1977. I learnt then that elections had little to do with charisma or indeed honest politicians, for there was none as honest and materially modest as Menachem Begin.

Given the Israeli system of proportional representation, there will always be a wide range of parties. And given that no party has ever got over 50% of the votes cast, it would be impossible to govern without coalition partners. Mapai, Ben Gurion’s party, would win around 45 votes and in the early years governed thanks, in the main, to the votes of the left-wing Mapam (around 18) and the National Religious party (12) who naturally were paid their prices. But times change. The old order is out.

The issues that faced Israel then were of the same order as those facing Israel today, even though the circumstances are very different:

  • What place would religion play in the state?
  • How would the government deal with housing its citizens?
  • The economy.
  • What would be the relationship with Israeli Arabs?
  • How could one make peace with the outside Arab world?

Over the years the issues have remained. Although each one has become more complex, the categories remain the same:

  • Whereas once the Charedi citizens were a despised minority, now they are growing exponentially and need huge infusions of cash to support a religious life that despises secular education and in general refuses to shoulder its share of the security issues.
  • Large, state-funded housing and building cheaply on occupied territory once helped provide affordable housing for thousands. But the switch from socialist housing to capitalism has meant that market forces determine prices. Those with money from within Israel or world Jewry want to be in Tel Aviv or nearby Haifa or Jerusalem. But housing there is now prohibitive. The only option is to live further away where housing is cheaper, but then that affects jobs in the center. Demonstrations of mainly middle-class Israelis who cannot afford Tel Aviv life have highlighted the financial divides in the country. The gap between the rich and poor in Israel, is growing wider and more problematic.
  • Relations with the Israeli Arab population are fraught. Most of them say they’d prefer to live under Israeli authority than Palestinian, but even so they feel discriminated against in Israel. They do not have to serve in the army, but this then limits job opportunities and benefits. But they can vote and sit in the Knesset. This year, for the first time, their fragmented parties of the left and right, religious and secular are uniting. Something the Jewish religious parties show no sign of achieving.
  • Once Israel was at war with all the Arab world. Now its conflict is essentially with the Palestinians. But they are divided into Hamas, which wants Israel eliminated, and Fatah, which is divided between those who want accommodation and those who prefer to hold out for more.

The one major difference nowadays is that the Israeli economy has done remarkably well. If the actual facts have changed over the years, the issues have not.

I heartily dislike and distrust politicians. Politicians are an unattractive breed of self-interested wheeler-dealers. No honest, self-respecting man or woman can survive with integrity intact in a system of constant bargaining, disagreement, and shifting alliances. It is the same everywhere of course. Israeli politicians are particularly prone to come and go, rise and fall. Each election a new “savior” arises, and each time he or she shines for a while and then fades.

The fact is that Israel is a very divided and mixed but vibrant country with lots of different minorities and interests. Outsiders like to think elections will lead to rational clear-cut decisions, but they rarely do. Politics are messy. Democracy is messy. But, dammit all, don’t we prefer democracy, inadequate as it is? So why are we such sore losers? When George W. Bush won, the liberals wept and swore to leave the country. When Obama won, the right swore he'd ruin it. Somehow we survive because we have other institutions.

Now that Netanyahu has won, the left wing is ready to up and leave. Obama sent his men to influence the election and then gets petulant like a child because it did not turn out the way he wanted. He is threatening to throw Israel under the bus. Let him, I say. Israel voted. Respect the vote, even if you hate it. Otherwise you cannot argue for democracy. It’s their country, not yours. So they are back where they started--that’s their choice.

Sure Netanyahu scared the electorate against the Left, just as the Left tried to scare everyone against Netanyahu. The Left doesn’t want the religious, the right or the Russians. The Right doesn’t want the left or the Arabs. Each partner in a messy coalition will sap the blood of the others. It’s possible (but unlikely) that Netanyahu and Herzog might form an alliance, but if they do it will only hobble them both. There is no one there who can be a game changer. It’s not completely dissimilar to the Republicans desperately trying to find a presidential candidate who can bring all wings of the party together. Change will only come when both sides want it badly enough.

It’s at moments like this that I can see the sense in the Charedi position that all of this is meaningless, it is all in the hands of the Almighty. Yet ironically the Charedi leadership still insists its people should vote, not so much for the good of the country, but because it wants to get its hands on the money.

Logically, I despair. I see no solution. And I agree, no deal is better than a bad deal. But what can you and I do? We want Israel to survive and be strong. We want peace. But we do not want capitulation. It’s like a bad marriage. Both sides are usually to blame.

It’s the Almighty who got us into this mess. Just as He did when He took us out of Egypt and landed us amongst the Canaanites. I guess He will have to solve it because we do not seem able to.

The Talmud says in Shabbat 32a: “You do not stand in a dangerous place and hope that God will perform a miracle for you.” You have to try to find a solution yourself. But what if you can’t? What else can you do but pray?

March 12, 2015

Marc Shapiro

If I say that Marc Shapiro is one of the most important and influential committed religious Jews alive today, you might think me guilty of hyperbole. I assure you I am not.

He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and directs the Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute at the University of Scranton, and he is the author of various books and articles on Jewish history, philosophy, and theology. His mastery of Jewish texts is encyclopedic. His writings often challenge conventional Orthodoxy. His Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy and The Limits of Orthodox Theology both won awards. He has been waging a battle against the egregious tendency in ultra-Orthodoxy to censor uncomfortable traditional texts and opinions and to exclude references to authors, regardless of how great they were in their day, when their opinions do not conform to current ultra-Orthodox nostra.

In days gone by, censorship was relatively easy. There were limited editions of major Jewish works of law and philosophy, often published generations apart. All religious authorities censored books and banned publications they did not approve of. Even in the UK State censorship continued into the 1960s. In Judaism the famous Rav Moshe Isserles, the Remah, had unconventional response on non-Jewish wine and cheese excluded from some editions of his work. Rav Yechezkel Landau’s collection of response Nodah Biyehudah had an introduction excoriating those who stole anything including copyrights from Jew and non-Jew alike. This was, on occasion, omitted by printers. But in those days of slow and erratic communication such omissions were often overlooked. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, all different editions are readily accessible. So we can compare texts. It’s much more difficult to get away with it. But that still doesn’t stop people trying.

The pressure in the ultra-Orthodox world is so great, the fear of being humiliated, marginalized, or even assaulted is so pervasive, that very few people have the guts to stand up to current convention. Sometimes rabbinic livelihoods are at stake. Marc Shapiro is one of a small group of scholars who actually does this fearlessly. His writings pricking the bubbles of hypocrisy can be seen on the Seforim blog and elsewhere. They are one of the intellectual joys of Jewish life. But more than that, they stand as a beacon of honesty and fearlessness in a world where fanatics everywhere try to silence anyone who stands up to them.

Shapiro's book The Limits of Orthodox Theology examines how the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” that Maimonides formulated were not accepted by everyone at the time, including some of the greatest rabbis of the generation. Nowadays even to question the wording of the Thirteen is enough to invite excommunication. But he shows, with thorough scholarship, how the formulation only much later acquired a sort of canonical sanctity.

He has traced how the magisterial Saul Lieberman, one of the greatest Talmudic minds of the previous century, was accepted as an expert by Eastern European great rabbis, but then was slowly written out of Orthodox publications that quoted him because he went to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary that came to be associated with Conservative Judaism. He has discovered examples of the great first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, a most impressive scholar and mystic, being censored out of ultra-Orthodox sources because he committed the ultimate crime in their eyes of supporting followers of Zionism.

A previous and present target is ArtScroll, one of most impressive contributions that the ultra-Orthodox world has made to general Jewish education in our times. But it is known for excluding anyone or any idea that does not conform to ultra-Orthodox norms.

One of its most controversial acts was in the way it presented the “Song of Songs” in translation. On the face of it, the book is a love song between two humans attributed to King Solomon. For thousands of years it has been regarded, by all traditionalists, as an allegory for the love of God for Israel and vice versa. If the original says “Song of Songs of Solomon” the Art Scroll says “ the Song dedicated to God Him to Whom peace belongs.” Or “Bnot Yerushalayim” in the original, Daughters of Jerusalem, is translated by Art Scroll in accordance with commentary but not literally as “Nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem.” We object to a Christian tendency to translate the prophets in ways that predicted Jesus. But this is just as bad. It dishonestly presents a text in a polemic light as if it were an accurate translation. Translations are meant to be about the accurate meaning of the words, not the ideas they try to convey. This is pure deception.

In a recent blog post, Shapiro has returned to attack ArtScroll for censoring opinions of Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam. In a recently issued Chumash with additional traditional commentators, Rashbam’s commentary to Genesis is included, but some of Rashbam’s controversial opinions are censored. When he excoriated them, their reply was:
“Let us make clear at the outset, ArtScroll has total and uncompromising respect for Chazal and the classic commentators. We do not censor them. Every one of their words is holy, and we have never deigned to tamper with their sacred texts.”
Shapiro, in turn, responed:
“Here we have an explanation from Rashbam that has been discussed and dealt with by some of the greatest Torah scholars for well over a century, yet ArtScroll feels that it knows better than all of them and thus has the authority to simply delete passages from the commentary. If that isn’t chutzpah, I don’t know what is.

Rashbam’s brother, Rabbenu Tam, famously attacked those who deleted or emended passages in the Talmud based on their own understanding. Rabbenu Tam realized that if everyone had the freedom to do with the text as he wished, it wouldn’t be long before the Talmud was irrevocably damaged. As such, anyone who has a suggestion about a mistake in the text is free to add it in the form of a note or in a commentary, but he is not permitted to alter the text itself. The only honest thing would have been for ArtScroll to have included the ‘objectionable’ passages and then explain why they feel that these texts are not authentic.”
Some of you may think that this is small stuff, petty academic infighting. It is not. It is an example of a serious battle for the integrity of Torah. In religious circles we often talk about “Restoring Torah to its Ancient Glory.” Ultra-Orthodoxy is bowdlerizing it. Marc Shapiro is restoring it. Long may he live and help preserve intellectually honest Judaism for the Orthodox community.

March 05, 2015

Purim Torah

In my student days, when I used to campaign for women’s rights, I thought that the Purim story was about the suffering of women. That drunk male numbskulls who got boozed up on excessive amounts of alcohol forced their smelly, priapic, testosterone-fueled bodies on unwilling, disadvantaged women.

King Achashverosh was a typical male chauvinist pig. A lazy slob, a sybaritic cross between an oriental potentate and a parasite, he probably never did a day’s work in his life. He is surrounded by incompetent, sycophantic advisors who come in sets of seven. When he finds himself short of financial liquidity he looks around desperately for an easy source of income. He is impressed by Haman’s scheme to kill and confiscate. He tries to buy loyalty by putting on huge lavish feasts, orgies of extravagance at which he expects his wife, Vashti, to come and perform.

One version is that Vashti had the guts to stand up to him. She risked her life—perhaps even lost it—because she refused to be treated as a second class citizen, as an object, as a beauty queen to be shown off with her body examined like a race horse or a stripper. “Good for her,” I thought, “and shame on the men who think that Vashti’s action threatens their pathetic manhood.” They insist on a proclamation that the men must be in charge of their households and the women must obey them. Achashverosh has no mind of his own. Pussy that he is, he gives in to his pathetic advisors. Reluctantly he gets rid of Vashti (probably literally). Then he misses her, poor sap. Until his young clubbing buddies advise him to gather up all the virgins in the empire and hold a beauty competition. I liked Vashti. She had guts. She is the heroine, and she pays with her life!

Esther, on the other hand, was a poor orphan who had been bullied into becoming a passive wimp and was raised by a rigid, strict, humorless cousin. He, in a Machiavellian way, uses her body to get close to the king to advance his own political career. He’s pimping her, knowing she will have to spend a night with the king with no guarantee that he will call her back. I know, he had no choice. But since when do polemics care about the facts?

Then her fate will be to join the hundreds of other concubines, used, discarded, and wasting away their lives in the seraglio. Mordechai is pulling the strings. He orders her not to divulge her origins. Anti-Semitism is everywhere. Haman was no exception. The 75,000 neo-fascists who were killed in the end amounted to a significant force. Fortunately she wins the competition and is crowned Miss Persian Empire. Even so, the addicted king keeps the virgins coming in. And as Mordechai says, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t be replaced.

It is five years later. Mordechai tells Esther of Haman’s decree and orders her to go to the king. But she can’t if she’s not been called, and she hasn’t seen the king for thirty days. Not much of a marriage if she only gets to see her husband that rarely. But then, he does have thousands of new virgins to try out. Poor Esther has to fast for three days and then risk her life. She has a plan. She invites the king to a banquet. Oh yes, he loves banquets. There she can’t come right out and tell the king what an evil man Haman is, so she uses subterfuge and seduction to titillate his curiosity to the point of bursting. But she also cleverly makes the king jealous. Is Haman a competitor for her affections? He was already wondering if Haman’s suggestion of dressing up in the king’s clothes and riding his horse wasn’t a challenge to his authority. Then when the timing is right, she comes out with it. Haman wants to kill her! The king is furious. Haman goes. Esther saves her people and gets Mordechai a promotion. She has done all this by using devious feminine wiles, whereas gutsy up-front Vashti got shown the door.

Time has passed. In our modern era women get as drunk as men and proposition basketball stars and post nude selfies and flock to see “50 Shades of Gray.” Perhaps Vashti was no idealist after all. She was insulted because only belly dancers, concubines, and girls of doubtful morals attended such drunken excesses where the drink was laced with date rape drugs. Queens had their own sedate gatherings. Or did they? Perhaps they invited male strippers and models, or some sadomasochistic football jocks. The last thing they wanted were fat, drunk, smelly politicians, bureaucrats, or eunuchs for heaven’s sake. She was nothing more than a Kim Kardashian who would do anything for money.

Now I began to see that the real heroine was Esther, who really had to make something of herself. It was not as if she had a choice. The virgins were rounded up because the King commanded. Try turning Putin down, and see where your body ends up! She realized that the way to win the king was not to use gimmicks, gizmos, or aphrodisiacs. She would simply use the God-given gifts she had. She stood for authenticity, for honesty, no games. She put her own life on the line for her people not just for herself.

She might have started off taking orders from Mordechai, but she soon learned to take the initiative. She reported that Mordecai had discovered a plot to kill the king and that halted Haman’s meteoric rise. It was her idea to fast and to order the community to support her. It was her idea to play the king, to intrigue him, to even refuse his insistence she tell him what she really wanted. She played it all so cleverly that she won the king’s confidence and became the one who gets him to do what she wants. She had an eye on power. She distributed favors to Mordechai and then instructed the Jewish people to turn the events into a national holiday and a new feature of the Jewish tradition. That's some achievement for a Jewish women, one that no one can match now, two-and-a-half thousand years later. She’s the poster woman for women’s rights, not Vashti.

Yes, of course, there’s another story here of anti-Semitism, of prejudice and irrational hatred, of what happens when leaders are weak or drunk and abdicate their responsibility to their advisors. It’s about having stupid laws, too, ones that cannot be withdrawn or overturned. And it’s about the right to self-defense. We sensitive moderns might be queasy about killing the enemy, but no one asked them to attack us. The anti-Jews could have stayed at home instead of parading down the streets of Shushan with placards proclaiming “Death to the Jews”. Sometimes you need to provoke your secret enemies and flush out the hidden foe. You need spirit and foresight to win the battle.

Above all there’s a spiritual message that, as Mordechai said, it is up to us to do our best, but if all else fails “help will come from somewhere else.” As it does. Mordechai is no ordinary exile. He has vision, and possibly prophecy, and an understanding of the problems of the empire, the dangers the Jews face. God is indeed hidden in the Book of Esther. He gets no mention. But He is there all the time, in the background and by implication.

In every generation the most unlikely heroes emerge to save us from others and from ourselves. It is not necessarily the great rabbis who make the right decisions. Sometimes it is a good political connection, a loving relationship, a business alliance, or just a person being there at the right moment that turns the course of history. That's the miracle of Purim. Anyone can be a hero.