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60A Spade to Dig Withhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/11/a-spade-to-dig-with
Thu, 01 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0400 For a large part of the past school year, my daughter and her classmates went to school under police protection. The border patrolmens assault rifles juxtaposed with pigtailed girls and their Dora the Explorer backpacks no longer seem as jarring as they did last September. No, the police were not protecting them from the danger of Palestinian terrorism, like so much of the security apparatus here in Israel, but from other Jews”in particular, a group of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) associated with the extreme Edah Haredit. This is not what I thought I had signed up for when I cheerfully immigrated to Israel some two decades ago.
In retrospect, one can see the troubles in Beit Shemesh started years ago, when a group from the Edah Haredit stopped the construction of a shopping mall not far from my house. After determining that the mall would lead inevitably to mixing of the sexes and immodest behavior in the increasingly ultra-Orthodox city, they smashed the windows and vandalized the construction site. The buildings unfinished frame remains abandoned at a local intersection, a silent testimony that intimidation can be effective.
The incident should have been a warning sign that our city was in trouble, but there was little reaction, and the abandoned construction site has become an unnoticed part of the citys landscape. Shortly after the vandalism, the city elected its first Haredi mayor, who ran on a platform of moderation, insisting that a temperate, Sephardic Haredi rabbi could and would serve all constituencies equally.
Almost immediately upon taking office, the new mayor attended my synagogues annual fundraising dinner. He described from the podium a beautiful, symbiotic relationship between the segments of the citys population: The non-Haredi community contributes its municipal taxes to support the Haredi communitys full-time Torah study, and the Haredi community contributes to the spiritual well-being of everybody rather than paying taxes.
He wrongly thought that this message would echo positively with the hardworking, middle-class, observant congregants. Since then, many bus lines in the city have become gender segregated, with men and boys in the front and women and girls in the back. Municipal information pamphlets, in addition to advertising circulars and some local newspapers, refuse to print pictures or even drawings of women.
With this changing atmosphere, no one was particularly surprised when members of the Edah Haredit protested the opening of a modern-Orthodox elementary school for girls not far from their neighborhood. The little girls who would attend the school and the mothers who would drop them off do not dress up to Haredi standards of modesty. In the late summer, the group threatened violence should the school open, and, assuming that the generally quiet modern-Orthodox community would continue its pattern of political passivity, the mayor decided that the school should relocate.
The parents (including my wife and me) and the school administration refused. Police chained the doors of the school shut, but agreed to let us remain in the schoolyard. Teachers, administrators, and parents remained there around the clock, setting up concerts, activities, and trampolines for the children. City officials threatened to shut off the electricity to our extension cords, but one of the parents, an administrator at the electric company, was able to pull rank.
We organized protests, signed petitions, attracted national and international media attention, met with government officials, and threatened lawsuits. Representatives of the religious-Zionist community formed alliances with activists from other segments of Beit Shemeshs multicultural population, such as Russian immigrants and secular student activists. Eventually, with the help of some reporters and the minister of education, the school opened in the original location.
Not to be dissuaded, groups of Haredi men continued to congregate around the building, screaming at parents while spitting on the girls and calling them sluts. Someone spread manure on the walls of the school, and rocks were thrown at the playground. The school could not have functioned without active police protection, at times through the night. Problems still flare up periodically. As I write, the media are reporting that a group of Haredi men have attacked a young woman with uncovered hair as she posted advertisements in a Haredi neighborhood, smashing her car windshield with a brick before police arrived to whisk her away.
Some Haredi newspaper editorials, rabbis, and public activists have spoken out against the violence, calling it a violation of Torah, but others have not. Even those who do condemn the violence generally spend most of their energy blaming the secular press for inciting hatred of the Haredi community, insisting that the whole community should not be treated as if they were all extremists.
But the mainstream Haredi community, normally fantastically adept at rejecting and expelling those it does not like, has taken little or no concrete action to combat the violence. They could, for example, threaten an economic boycott of the kosher certification that pays for so many Edah Haredit activities. Yet when a neighbor, a prominent medical doctor who had worked in the Edah Haredit parts of town, met with the citys leading Edah Haredit rabbi, the rabbi asked her, If you dont like it in our city, why dont you just move?
Needless to say, the battle over the school has little to do with the presenting problem, that the eight-year-olds dont wear socks in the hot Israeli Septembers and that their mothers dont all cover their hair. This is not about the allure of nine-year-old ankles or the eroticism of the graying locks of a middle-aged mother, but about power and real estate. Some of the Haredi population, which has many children and a shortage of classrooms of its own, cannot stand to see a new, well-supplied school building go to another group.
A school in which girls are encouraged to gain top-level religious and secular educations so that they can go on to be learned and confident mothers, diplomats, or Torah scholars, threatens Haredi attempts to limit womens social roles and educational possibilities. Also, a religious-Zionist institution on the edge of the Haredi neighborhood threatens to stop the expansion of that neighborhood.
No doubt, part of the problem is unchecked religious extremism. Another is the unhappy merger of religious fervor and violence. But the problem really stems from religion being used as what the Talmud calls a
kardom lahfor bo
, “a spade to dig with,” a tool for worldly self-interest. And this is true not only of the Haredi extremists but, in a softer way, of all the players involved. This situation is an example of self-interest disguised as sanctity.
I certainly do not mean to imply moral equivalency between attackers and victims, but each set of players in Beit Shemesh, convinced that Gods will is on its side, has acted in ways perfectly consistent with its short-term political interests. The Edah Haredit sees its immediate political needs met through violence, and the mainstream Haredi community would lose a great deal were it to publicly split the camp by rejecting the Edah Haredit. The Haredi mayor, who will never again get any votes from non-Haredim, has joined sides with his own natural consistency.
Secular politicians joined the fray when presenting themselves as crusaders against Haredi imposition served their interests, and the media was happy to sensationalize everything in order to sell newspapers and increase television ratings. Even my own community failed to react when the Edah Haredit stopped the construction of the shopping mall or committed other early acts of violence, springing into action only when violence extended into our own communities and schools.
Given the realpolitik of institutional self-interest, what does doing the right thing have to do with it? Religious Jews have long imagined and hoped for the possibility of religion emerging as a force for justice and good in the Israeli public sphere, something that certainly has been realized in some contexts. But the events of the past year have made me too sad and doubtful for such optimism.
Yoel Finkelman lectures in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of
Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy
Geeks with Gunshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/01/geeks-with-guns
Sat, 01 Jan 2011 00:00:00 -0500 The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah
by Joel Chasnoff
Free Press, 288 pages, $25
]]>A Prayer Book of One’s Ownhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/10/a-prayer-book-of-ones-own
Thu, 01 Oct 2009 00:00:00 -0400 Theres a buzz in the air in the Orthodox Jewish community, and its about the publication of a new prayer book. The Jewish blogosphere is bubbling with enthusiasm, and I overheard the proprietor of a well-known bookstore bragging that he had already sold hundreds of copies. More than one friend has stopped me in the past few weeks to ask excitedly, Have you seen it? Its great! And several high-profile synagogues have pledged to buy hundreds. A new experience of prayer, Love it, Weve been waiting a long time, declared various voices in the Jewish press and on the Internet. The exuberance, I must admit, seems disproportionate.
After all, for Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic (European) origin”and almost all North American Orthodox Jews are Ashkenazic”the liturgy is pretty fixed. You might mumble the words unthinkingly in your living room before running off to work, or listen to the operatic performance of a professional cantor, or dance ecstatically in the newfangled, neo-Chasidic services that have popped up of late, but, at the end of the day, the words are the same. The differences between varying traditions amount to a word here and a word there, at most an occasional paragraph that gets moved a page or two earlier or later. When I glanced around my synagogue this morning, the first eight people I saw were each using different prayer books, and nobody seemed the worse for it.
So whats the big deal that Jerusalems Koren publishers have teamed up with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks”the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and one of Orthodoxys most articulate spokesmen”to produce yet another Orthodox prayer book with an English translation?
Granted, the book”
The Koren Sacks Siddur: A Hebrew/English Prayerbook
by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Koren, 1280 pages, $29.95)”is a fine volume. The layout is attractive, the translation elegant, the typeset clear, and the commentary readable and insightful. The choice to line up many of the prayers in short, poemlike lines, rather than in paragraphs, and to place the translation of each phrase next to its corresponding Hebrew line, is certain to help readers whose Hebrew is not quite fluent enough. And the introduction is superb, causing several of my acquaintances to wonder how it is possible that, having said these words daily for decades, we had not noticed some of Sacks observations about the structure of the liturgy. Indeed, Sacks points out that the prayer book continually reiterates the basic principles of Jewish faith. This leads him to identify and articulate some of the themes of prayer: the celebration of both particularism and universalism, the dialectic between individualism and collectivism, history as a central sphere in which the God“man encounter plays itself out, the intimate connection between prayer and a life of Torah study and observance of the commandments, and the triad of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. These are recurring themes in Jewish prayer because they stand at the center of the Jewish life and worldview.
But is this enough to justify the eagerness and fervor with which this prayer book is being received? After all, there are already quite a few perfectly functional and aesthetically pleasant prayer books with English translation on the market, and one does not, after all, pray from an introductory essay.
To make sense of this seemingly misplaced enthusiasm, we need to understand the subtext. One single prayer book has dominated the North American Orthodox Jewish market for a quarter century: the siddur produced by the Brooklyn publisher Artscroll-Mesorah. And this new Sacks-Koren siddur is most decidedly not the Artscroll siddur. The new prayer book symbolizes a confident, unapologetic alternative to what Artscroll has offered the Orthodox public.
The Artscroll siddur appeared in 1984 to an enthusiastic audience. It was, and still is, aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, and it offers precise and clear instructions for proper performance of the rituals associated with prayer. Before long, it became hard to find an Orthodox synagogue in North America that did not offer it as the primary option for synagogue goers. And it made a perfect bar mitzvah gift (I got two).
But the ease of use and clearly printed words came bundled with the Artscroll publishers religious ideology, which its many critics perceive as narrow-minded and dogmatic to a fault. Artscrolls publishing enterprise”with its thousands of titles of popular literature”preaches an isolationist religion that discourages observant Jews from having extensive contact with people or ideas from outside the Orthodox enclave. The publisher advocates strong rabbinic authority, does not view the State of Israel as having much religious significance, gives little room to women in public religious life, and discourages the acquisition of general education. The tradition viewed through Artscrolls lenses is monolithic and authoritarian: The best a person can do is to humbly submit to the tradition as interpreted by the great rabbis.
In short, Artscroll represents the voice of the so-called
, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, a voice that is out of line with the values and concerns of many in the Modern Orthodox camp, who prefer a more open-minded and less dogmatic approach.
Yet, somehow, when these North American Modern Orthodox Jews looked for a prayer book for their synagogues and homes, they turned most often to the Artscroll siddur, not out of agreement with its worldview, necessarily, but because it was clear, user-friendly, and available. This seemed to be the attitude of, for example, the Rabbinical Council of America when it decided in 1987 to offer a prayer book for the use of synagogues associated with its members. Why spend the money and effort producing our own prayer book from scratch, the council seemed to ask, when the available Artscroll siddur
is so user-friendly? Well replace their introductory essay with one of our own and insist that they add the prayer for the State of Israel.
And Artscroll agreed. Sure, the publishers seemed to say. Well gladly ship you thousands of our prayer books and even more gladly cash your checks. Well include your introduction, and well even swallow our anti-Zionist pride and include the prayer for the State of Israel. But the rest of the siddur stays, and the rest of the siddur, with its authoritarian religious instructions and commentary that reflects our values, will carry the day.
For many, this decision from the Rabbinical Council of America to use an edition of the ultra-Orthodox Artscroll siddur seemed like selling out. By stocking synagogues throughout North America with Artscroll prayer books, Modern Orthodoxy had, the claim went, gone to Canossa and had bowed to ultra-Orthodoxys authority. In the ongoing dispute between these two Orthodox camps, the success of the Artscroll siddur in penetrating Modern Orthodox synagogues seemed symptomatic of emerging ultra-Orthodox victory and hegemony.
That is, until Rabbi Sacks and Koren came along with something new. The prayer book includes a prayer for the State of Israel, not as an afterthought or a way to sell more books, but because this siddur celebrates Zionism. Where Artscrolls commentary cites only those commentators deemed adequately kosher, Sacks unabashedly cites the decidedly un-Orthodox Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (who first used the expression Creation, Revelation, Redemption to describe the central themes of Judaism). While Artscroll remains silent about the Talmudic dictum that allows women to lead the grace after meals, Sacks mentions it proudly. Where Sacks includes a ceremony for welcoming a newborn female baby, no such ceremony appears in Artscroll.
Compare the introductions. In both, fear plays a role in religious life and in prayer. For Artscroll, the religious person is fearful of various forces that mount attacks on his faith. Prayer provides the inner strength to fend off those attacks. For the new Sacks siddur, fear is inherent in the religious experience and in prayer, since one approaches God despite the inadequacies in ones personality, despite the inadequacy of language, despite the inadequacy of what we can offer God.
According to Artscrolls introduction, the Jewish liturgy is fixed in an unchanging text because the mystical juxtaposition of words and letters has a profound and inscrutable influence on the supernal worlds. Individuals have little room for self-expression, since they do not understand the mystical and cosmic power of the fixed liturgy.
Sacks offers more room for individual self-expression. The established liturgy is only one part of a dialectic between the fixed and the spontaneous that must always live in tension in religious life. Genuine spirituality requires spontaneity, but spontaneous spiritual expression will be richer if grounded in an equal measure of discipline and consistency. The challenge is to let discipline feed spontaneity and spontaneity feed discipline.
And so, the Sacks and Koren volume has a clear agenda to be the
-Artscroll, to celebrate Judaism as the Modern Orthodox see it. But it would be a mistake to read the book as a polemical work. In fact, I think that the lack of polemics is precisely why the siddur is being so widely celebrated among Modern Orthodox Jews. Everyone”at least everyone within the Orthodox community”understands the subtext. They know that much of what is important about this prayer book is what it is not. But the prayer book itself seems blissfully unaware of the polemical context. It is as if, despite Artscroll hovering in the background, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks did exactly what he would have done even had there been no Artscroll. He produced the kind of prayer book that Modern Orthodox Jews can use without looking over their shoulders at what the ultra-Orthodox would think.
As a proud Modern Orthodox Jew, I find that worth celebrating.
Yoel Finkelman teaches Talmud and Jewish thought in Jerusalem, where he is director of projects and research at ATID, a foundation that provides resources and training for Jewish educational leadership.