March 21, 2013

Passover At Home

What do we mean by a family? There are so many new definitions and variations. Too often people who, for circumstances beyond their control, cannot offer a conventional family life feel somehow inadequate. It needn’t be that way. I take my clue from Pesach.

Pesach is special in the sense that it the most home-centered of our festivals. The highlights of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur are the services. But on Pesach the focal point is the Seder, at home. And, of course, completely cleaning out and preparing the house can involve lots of preparation beforehand.

It is true that in general Judaism gives us much more to do at home than in our places of worship. It commands all the laws and ceremonies that govern home life, from the kitchen to the dining room to the bedroom. At every festival, every Shabbat, we come together to eat in our homes. On Pesach the rituals of the Seder go a stage further than usual. They include complex combinations of different foods and ways of eating them. There is the obligation of studying together, getting everyone involved in asking questions, in trying to understand the significance of the ceremony and our very existence as Jews. No other Biblical festival involves the children, the whole of the family, in the readings and customs as does Pesach and the Seder night. But is it the family or the home that matters most?

At a time when we tend to talk about “family life” in all its varieties, it strikes me as significant that the Torah on Pesach talks mainly about households rather than family. Generally speaking, the language of the Torah describes the building blocks of a healthy moral society. We would expect it start with Mishpacha, family. Then would come the Beit Av, the extended family. From there we expand to Shevet, tribe, and finally arrive at Am, people. The implication would be that if we build healthy parts the sum of the parts will be a healthy one, as well. There are, incidentally, two exceptions to this sequence. In the Book of Esther, verse 9, “family” extends to “state and city”. And in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29, family comes after the individual: “A man or a woman or family or tribe.“

Perhaps then it is not the family but the person. The relationship between individuals is the essential defining characteristic of family. If so, the conventional family is not the crucial building block of society. After all, there are plenty of unconventional families. There are single-parent families, couples of all varieties, families reduced by war, death, and sickness. What really matters is the nature of what goes on in those different structures and relationships. It is what goes on in the house, as a haven. The home is a place where there is security and love, an educational and moral laboratory. That is crucial for healthy human development.

What intrigues me about Pesach is the way the Torah in laying out the festival and its obligations stresses Bayit, house, rather than Mishpacha, family, which doesn’t get a mention. Passover is after all the first command that was given to the people as a whole. In Exodus 12:13 it says:
“On the tenth day of this month, every one of them shall take a lamb, according to each household of their fathers, a lamb per house. And if the household is too few for a lamb, let him and the neighbor near his house share it according to the number of the souls.”
It is the household that seems to be the essential element here. They come together not by family, but by household, and most importantly, the souls within. Each household had to put blood on its door posts so that the Almighty would pass over their homes and not kill their firstborn. That, of course, is where the festival gets its name. Passing over the homes.

There is a tendency in religions to downplay the issue of individuality in favor of conformity to the community. But there is creative tension between them. We need both to be balanced. We tend to be self-centered. It is the individual who makes up the community, after all. That is why our tradition forces us into communal association, concern for the welfare of the community, charity in all its forms, and communal prayer to counterbalance the solipsism. But on the other hand, without an individual experiencing the beauty of the tradition, without a personal, existential pursuit of a connection with God, we would be left with empty routines and just social affiliations.

That is why we have developed the idea of “Deveikut”, of reaching out to try to touch, feel close to God. Our mystical tradition has called on us to preface each mitzvah with a meditation on it with the words “Hineni Muchan uMezuman”, “Here I am ready and prepared to perform this act.” It is this personal commitment that lies at the core of our tradition, and it is this which is the essential building block, the atom of our structure.

That is why the Seder requires each one of us, as individuals, to imagine what it must have been like to be enslaved and then freed. But we cannot live only for ourselves, without a household, or without a people.

One is constantly assailed nowadays with the failure of families, abuse, cruelty, and violence. When relationships collapse suffering ensues. And one wants to shake people and ask them if they fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. But we can rebuild in different ways. We are redefining family here to mean something very different to the idea previous generations had of families. And that is all well and good, so long as the responsibility of caring human beings is preserved. In other words, no matter how we define families, what really matters is what is going on in the house, the home. Love and respect is what defines a good relationship. That is what children need, no matter what kind of home it is or who the loving caregiver is.

Happy Pesach.

March 15, 2013

The Great Divide

On March 7, David Brooks published an article in the New York Times about the rising presence and confidence of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Here are some of his points:
“Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.

“For them the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order. The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality. The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being. But there are still obligations that precede choice. For example, a young person in mainstream America can choose to marry or not. In Orthodox society, young adults have an obligation to marry and perpetuate the covenant and it is a source of deep sadness when they cannot.”
He concludes:
“Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”
That is correct, in that they are the one sector of our people that does not worry about survival or whether their children will remain Jews. Of course, this idyllic picture disguises multiple flaws. Nevertheless, throughout the Jewish world today this is the new reality. It must be galling for the vast majority of Jews, who dismiss Orthodoxy as irrelevant to their Jewish identity, to witness in their lifetime this seachange in Jewish life. The pressures on Jewish identity are so great, the opportunities to simply leave through default or companionship are so easy and available, that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point in which there will be two Judaisms: one of practice, that puts community over individuality; and the Judaism of sentiment and casual affiliation, which is rapidly losing touch with both Judaism’s religious experience and the commitment to peoplehood and homeland.

It is so sad to see so many people abandoning our heritage and our people because they have simply lost interest and commitment. And it worries me more that the most intense core of our people does not seem to care. Apart from a few evangelical Orthodox movements who try hard and often do wonderful work, there is a complete disconnect, as wide as the gap between Catholics and Protestants, except in matters of fundraising.

Judaism has never been more secure. The current fad of extremism will wane as it always has. It is the divide between those who practice at whatever level and those who do not which is becoming the faultline in our people.

Despite the valiant efforts and deep pockets of men like Felix Posen to support rigorous secular Judaism, it is a struggling underdog both in the diaspora and Israel. It is not entirely a lost cause, but it’s a weak one. There is a lot of creativity on the fringes, and academic Judaism offers another paradigm, but none of it has created a vibrant alternative Jewish life. The alternatives are buoyed by talented individuals, but with no communal hinterland, no significant religious or cultural institutions. For literature to flourish, it needs committed readers and writers who actually do read and do write. For a vibrant Judaism at any level, you need people who study and practice.

A similar divide exists in relation to Israel. Once it appealed to almost the complete spectrum. Now the non-practicing are becoming less and less committed to the Land or State of Israel. The recent AIPAC conference in Washington was dominated by the more traditional, while its competitor, J Street, is in the hands of the secular.

This divide is not new. Consider the two kingdoms nearly three thousand years ago. Judea was dominated by the tribe of Judah and led, for better or for worse, by its kings of the House of David. The Ten Northern Tribes of Israel turned their backs on the Jerusalem sanctuary and in the few hundred years of their existence they struggled for an identity and a religious core. Inevitably, it disappeared after the Assyrian conquest. Judea was not at all a completely religious ghetto. But it had a religious core that enabled it to regroup in exile, recreate itself both in Babylon and when it returned, in part, to Israel. The religiously committed of both kingdoms survived. Those who cared less did not.

Or consider the Talmudic era. There was a massive divide between the Am Haaretz, the Jew who had no knowledge and little commitment, and the religiously motivated community of scholars and practitioners. They usually lived apart, rarely ate together or even married each other. Both were infected by irrational nationalist zeal. But it was the scholars who rebuilt after the destruction.

In the Talmud itself there was a debate between those who wanted to include the Amei Haaretz, the ordinary Jews, and those who wrote them off. On the one hand there are over a hundred different references to not associating with an ignorant or non-observant Jew, and on the other hand there is the repeated declaration that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh” (San. 27b, etc.).

I deeply regret the divide and have tried all my life to help bridge it, largely ineffectually. The Orthodox world has been preoccupied with its own survival. But now that the tide has turned, it is time to look beyond the ghetto. The exclusionary attitudes towards conversion, towards concessions on rigid standards, and the refusal to come halfway to meet the needs and challenges of the other side simply exaggerate differences and push the others further away. It is time to reverse this trend. If we have a winning ticket, we should have the confidence to share it.

March 07, 2013

Women and Children in War

I have been invited to speak at a forum to be held at the United Nations on the suffering and abuse of women and children in war zones, specifically but not exclusively, in Africa. When I tried to find out why I had been invited to speak altogether, and particularly on a subject I have no expertise on, I was told that they needed someone who would actually speak his mind in the face of diplomats and United Nations professionals who either spout hot air or press personal agendas. I was flattered by the realization that my tendency to say what I thought regardless of the consequences might not be the self-destructive handicap people have often warned me it was.

So I was beginning to feel a little bit smug, even fancied myself as following in the footsteps of the illustrious Biblical prophets who got into trouble all the time for saying the unpopular thing and criticizing establishments. But then an awesome, heavy, and very depressing burden, close to despair, descended upon me. For I started to recall the cases and situations in recent years of women raped as a tool of war, of children recruited to maim and kill other children and adults. I thought of countries where as we speak children are being tortured and mutilated and murdered simply for belonging to families that oppose the regime or the local Mullahs; Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, The Central African Republic, Sudan and Congo. I saw again in my mind the images from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Darfur. I came to feel that humanity was so overwhelmingly evil that it was simply pointless to speak out against the enormity of the crimes.

There are indeed Just Wars. But there is no such thing as good war. No fighting without mutilation or death. No bombing without collateral or incidental mayhem. Yet we have become so inured to suffering. We see it every day on our screens of every sort, size, and dimension. We just look and carry on munching our snacks or drinking our tea, very much as T.S. Eliot (no mean hater himself) said in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” But “in the room the women come and go, talking about Michelangelo.”

Forget war zones, children are abducted off the streets of apparently civilized, law-abiding states and disappear. Many are kidnapped and many more have run away from abusive homes. Who knows how many survive? Children are raped in front of cameras for the pornography industry. More than we care to acknowledge are sexually abused by close relatives. Drug gangs torture and kill. Teenage toughs shoot randomly at innocent city dwellers. The violence and crude sex that flood homes with televisions and computers simply beggars imagination, and is exponentially greater than anything one could see fifty years ago. What could I say that had not been said? What was the point, if not empty self-congratulation?

Perhaps the Catholics are right. It is original sin. Ever since humanity “fell” in the Garden of Eden, we are all basically evil. Except that as a Jew I believe the Biblical narrative merely tells us that humans are capable of making the wrong choices with disastrous results. With guidance and self-discipline we can overcome that part of us that inclines to evil. It is not that we humans are essentially evil.

In a recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker has argued that we are indeed getting better. He points to tremendous advances in health, agriculture, and technology. It is true many of the war zones of Africa have been calmed. But new ones sprout all the time. Rape is endemic in South Africa and female mutilation widespread. Pinker is not persuasive. It is his most disappointing book to date. The essential human mentality still seems stuck in the Neanderthal period. I often hear it said that the Law of Moses is out of date, but I think it is even more relevant than it ever was.

It has infected religions too. The very forces that we expected to offer an antidote now show all the signs of moral decay. Every religion is guilty of sexual abuse. Power, it seems, corrupts religions every bit as much as politics. You cannot compare humiliation to torture, but I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have encountered good Jewish women humiliated by religious courts of males who have no sensitivity whatsoever and wash their hands of responsibility by falling back on the law. Men and would be converts too. Yet, as the Bible says in Exodus 21:21, “You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child. If you afflict them in any way and they cry to Me, I will surely hear their cry.”

I wonder if we Jews are not so preoccupied with our own survival that we do not pay enough attention to what evil is being done elsewhere. What are we doing about it? What can we do about it all?

Shall we protest to our religious leaders? Like Kremlin dictators, they hide behind their walls and their bureaucracies. Pass UN motions? Hundreds have been passed and not one has done anything. Press our governments to act? They cannot even solve their own administrative problems or see beyond their own self-interest. And we watch it all placidly in front of our screens and tut-tut as we return to our popcorn and coke. This surely must be the times the Mishna referred to “the generation is like a dog”. It defecates in public; it returns to its own sick; and is led by whoever offers a bigger bone.

What can we do? The one thing we cannot do is to remain silent. You surely know Edmund Burke’s famous phrase: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for a few good men to do nothing.”

The mystics amongst us know that no breath, no word is uttered in vain. How or where it all helps I do not know but I believe it must. I, we, need to find and take whatever opportunities we can to cry out, to howl into the wind, even if the wind blows our tears back in our faces. Do not be silent good men and women. “For the sake of Zion, I cannot remain silent.” And neither should you.