Jewish observance

From the 2018 Tel Aviv, Israel. GA convention website

Israel: No Need for a GA Makeover

The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of America, to be held this coming week in Israel, has created a bit of a ruckus here in Israel. For one thing, the Tel Aviv venue is thought to betray an agenda. Important gatherings like this should be held in Jerusalem, in order to underscore the idea that the Holy City is the capital of the Jewish State. There’s a feeling that the choice of Tel Aviv over Jerusalem is meant to be “in your face” to President Trump, who moved the United States embassy in the opposite direction, something much desired by both Israeli and American Jewry up until now. Writer Caroline Glick believes the entire event is meant as an anti-Trump protest.

But there are other concerns. The GA has billed the event as “Israel and the Diaspora: We need to talk,” going on to describe what the organizers apparently see as a rift between Israeli Jews and American Jews. This rift, as they define it, seems to be about the liberal views of American Jews versus the conservative beliefs of most Israelis; the religious pluralism of American Jewry versus the Orthodox status quo in Israel; and finally, the desire of American Jewry for a two-state solution, something both Israelis and Arabs have rejected.

Do these issues really need discussion? If American Jews are liberal, believe in religious pluralism, and tolerance, why should there be any rift at all between the two communities? In a tolerant, liberal culture, is there not room for other beliefs, conservative or otherwise? And if not, is it really a tolerant, liberal culture that shuts out all other viewpoints?

If one believes in religious pluralism, shouldn’t that person believe that Israelis have a right to choose how they wish to run their religious affairs? If the shul that Israelis do not attend is Orthodox, is this something that liberal American Jews are unable to tolerate? Israel provided an egalitarian prayer space at American Jewry’s request/demand. The space is almost always empty of people. But the regular Western Wall Plaza, with its separate spaces for men and women, is packed, day and night, with prayerful Israeli Jews.

Would the organizers of the GA have us believe there is something wrong with Jews coming to the Wall in throngs, and praying according to Orthodox custom? We aren’t stopping them from praying as they wish. So why are they so bothered by our pervasive orthodoxy by choice? Do they wish us to be more religiously diverse? If so, is this not a form of coercion? Are we incapable of making our own religious choices that we need to be Big Brothered by American Jewry?

As for the two-state solution, none of the actors in the region want this. It’s an unworkable idea. Yet American Jews keep telling us we need to do this, as though we are incapable of formulating our own ideas about the things that directly affect our quality of life and security. It’s paternalistic. And simplistic. Because they are unable to even adequately explain why they demand we do this thing, since it makes no sense. Adherents of the two-state solution would seem to be ignorant of the fact that no one in the region wants this “solution.” And they just continue to repeat the idea wherever they are presented with a platform.

Why can’t the Federation come to Israel and appreciate that we have our own society and say vive la difference and live and let live? Are we not a sovereign nation to which they have pledged their support? And speaking of support, my personal bugaboo with the Federation is its refusal to fund projects in areas over the Green Line that Israel won in a defensive war in 1967.

Judea and Samaria are indigenous Jewish territory. Judea, where I live, takes its name from the Jewish people. The territories are our ancestral heritage. How can a major Jewish organization take the stance that Jews have no right to settle in their indigenous territory? It’s not only an affront to history and our biblical narrative, it’s the complete opposite of what it means to be a liberal.

Liberals are supposed to fight for indigenous land rights, are they not? Instead, liberals tell Israeli Jews they are somehow in the wrong for building homes in these areas. They tell them that the area must remain Jew-free, because settling the area is a provocation to Arabs, or unhelpful to a nonexistent peace process with a declared enemy.

How does it conform to the liberal standards to tell any group of people that it is wrong for them to live in this place or that? Would you tell Baptists they have no right to live in Ohio? Or blacks that they have no right to live in Boro Park? These directives would be deemed politically incorrect, intolerant, illiberal. Yet the Federation has no trouble telling Jews that they have no right to live in Judea. That it is somehow evil for them to build homes and lives on land that belonged to their ancestors.

The truth is, there is no rift, and nothing to talk about. American Jews must realize that in order to be true to their liberal ideals, they must support Israel not just with money, but for its views in all spheres, especially those that are at variance with their own. This is the truest expression of liberal values: to appreciate that at 70 years old, Israel is quite capable of deciding its societal norms and beliefs.

We’ve grown up. And we’ve earned the right to live our truth.

Come to Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem if you must. But note that Israel is in no need of a makeover. We ask you instead, to open your (liberal) hearts and minds to the reality and beauty that is Israel, and like us just the way we are.


Tikkun Olam: What’s God Got to Do with it?

Tikkun Olam. It’s an obscure Jewish concept which translates to “repairing the world” and is often bandied about by liberal Jews to mean something it doesn’t.

What it means: perfecting one’s observance of the commandments.

What it doesn’t mean: you see things that bother you and try to make them right according to your personal compass.

Nope. Doesn’t mean that. It means every Jew doing his share to repair the world by doing his best to do the commandments as prescribed by God as set forth in the Torah.

It means: not turning lights on and off on Shabbos.

It means: not eating pork and shellfish or meat and milk.

For instance.

And now I’m going to say a bunch of things you won’t like. When liberals twist Jewish concepts to support a personal agenda, religion has nothing to do with it. They’ve taken something created by God and recreated it in their own image. Which makes no sense.

Religion is theist. It’s God-centric. If you can make it into anything you want, then it is no longer created by God, no longer divine. It’s man made.

Now Jews are allowed to interpret God’s word, as set forth in the Torah. But not everyone is allowed to do that. Only the people who received the tradition in an unbroken chain from Moses at Sinai and onward get to decide things for the rest of us peons. They get to decide, for instance, what foods we can and cannot eat.

The reason they get to decide these things is that they are the closest thing to God when it comes to understanding what God meant when He transmitted the Torah and made the Jews the beneficiaries of His word. What’s important here, you see, is carrying out the commandments the way God intended and not as we’d like them to be.

So, I might really like cheeseburgers, but I don’t get to decide it’s okay for me to eat them and that the really important thing is gun control. These are not the kinds of decisions that are in our hands as Jews.

Face the facts: I am never going to be allowed to have that cheeseburger. It is not ever going to be in man’s hands to say that the cheeseburger thing isn’t as important as how we, for instance, treat gay people or black people or Arabs.

See what I mean? You’re really not going to like what I’m saying here.

Tough. This blog is going to be truthful. Painfully truthful at times. And here is the truth:

The reason we were given the commandments, as Jews, was to make us “holy.” But “holy” is a poor descriptor for the Hebrew word, “Kadosh.” Kadosh doesn’t really mean “holy.” It means “separate.” When we do the commandments as set forth in the Torah, we Jews separate ourselves from the other nations of the world.

We wall ourselves off by, for instance, not eating cheeseburgers.

That is what makes us different from other people. And it is this difference, understand it or not, that we strive for in our observance. Not to be more like other people, more diverse, more tolerant, more open, more gender fluid. No.

We are striving to be separate from society, separated out of society by dint of observing the mitzvot, the commandments. It is what has preserved us as a people. It is what made us outlive all our enemies, Philistines, Canaanites, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, and so forth, down through the ages.

Think of us as being in a bubble, one big Bubble Boy. And when we’re exposed to stuff, we get contaminated and die.It is being separate that has kept us Jewish.It’s what makes us God-centric, rather than me-centric, or Western norms-centric. And it means marrying Jews and having Jewish children if we are so blessed.

It means continuity.

Because the word of God is immutable. And I will never taste a cheeseburger or a lobster.

Like diamonds, these things are forever.

They ain’t never gonna change.

Because some things cannot be interpreted to mean anything else, cannot be twisted to suit. Not even by liberal Jews.

They just are. Because God made them that way. The commandments, that is.

Now here’s another phrase I’ve seen/heard tossed around by at least one prominent liberal: sinat chinamwhich translates to “baseless hatred.” The Temples were destroyed because of “sinat chinam.” The three weeks that lead up to the 9th of Av when it all went down are sad and bitter and we try to do our “tikkun” by being gentler with others and working on ourselves as people. That time is now.

So we avoid gossip and speaking ill of others. We try to avoid indulging in Sinat Chinam.

But Sinat Chinam, like Tikkun Olam, means something specific. It does not mean hating people for the color of their skin, or their religion, for instance. It doesn’t mean hating people because of the way they look or because of their sexual orientation. It means hating them for no reason at all.

We hate them baselessly. Needlessly. It’s hatred for the sake of hate.

If I say, “I hate gay people,” or, “I hate blondes,” that is the opposite of baseless hatred. The opposite of Sinat Chinam, because I have described a reason for my hate. I hate someone because that someone is gay, or blonde, or whatever descriptor I have chosen.

Again, we don’t get to just make stuff up and stick it onto the Torah. The Torah IS NOT A STICKER ALBUM. Baseless hatred is hating someone for no reason.

It isn’t whatever you decide it is. It is whatever God decided it is, as interpreted by the people He decided could make that interpretation. Sinat Chinam is about indulging in hatred for hatred’s sake. It is about forgetting our higher purpose as human beings, about forgetting the commandments.

It’s about forgetting to do Tikkun Olam.

And Tikkun Olam, applied, means that when I wake up in the morning, I’m going to wash my hands a certain way and say a bunch of blessings. Because the Torah says so and I’m a Jew. And I’m going to do those things meticulously, and with love. Because it is what will keep my children and my children’s children, Jewish.

Tikkun Olam means I’m going to do my share to fix the world by keeping kosher and not cooking food on Shabbos (as opposed to fighting for gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, gun control, and whatever social justice issue floats your boat). Because these social justice issues have nothing to do with Tikkun Olam just as hating blondes has nothing to do with Sinat Chinam.

It is our personal observance of the commandments, refraining from ingesting pork or not touching a scissors on Shabbos, that makes us holy and separate. Along with the fun stuff like giving charity and cooking a meal for your neighbor when she’s just had a baby.

But when we twist concepts like Tikkun Olam and Sinat Chinam into unrecognizable pretzels, trying to make them fit particular social justice issues and situations, we have completely removed God and Judaism from the equation. And that is a wasted effort. It’s about trying to squish God into our own very limited human construct. And in so doing, we’re no longer doing God’s will and separating ourselves out from the nations of the world. We’re no longer kodesh, holy.

As Jews we are supposed to believe that the Torah, which represents God’s word, can be used to understand any and every situation we encounter throughout time. At the same time, we are supposed to acknowledge that the Torah is immutable. We don’t get to bend or twist it to suit a personal agenda. Because that would make it man-made and rob us of the possibility of striving for the divine, of striving to be godly.

And robbing ourselves of that would rob us of all purpose and make our lives, here on this earth, utterly pointless.