Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Settlements

With the entry of Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli journalist and TV personality, into politics, there's been growing talk of fresh elections in Israel. Naturally, the left/center-left opposition to the present center-right/right governing coalition has been working overtime to stoke the fires of voter dissent, discontent and despair in order to unseat the present Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And while it's too early to tell whether his coalition really will fall, it may be worthwhile to take a look back and examine Netanyahu's performance over these past three years in power.

First, let's consider the Netanyahu's handling of the settlement issue, which has so defined his term, with implications for Israel's domestic politics and international posture.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Promoting Healing Between Jews

A friend is writing an article for a prestigious publication about the recent flare-up over the segregation of women in the public space in a few Haredi neighborhoods in Israel. His main point is that while Judaism has strict guidelines on separation of men and women, these injunctions are internal - meant to guide individual action, not shape policy in the public sphere. His focus on individual action is key, because the Jewish faith places considerable emphasis on freedom of choice. Any government-enforced limitations on women in public which go beyond common sense (e.g. the restroom) or an individual's private choice, he goes on to say, to paraphrase, have no grounding in Jewish law (halacha) and constitute unbearable coercion tilting towards oppression. He asked me for my comments before publishing. It just so happens that I've been thinking about this very issue. My response to him is posted in full, as I feel it may be of some use to myself and others in how we think and write about such topics. Please excuse the more informal context of an email. Discussion is welcome, as always.

When you write such articles, keep in mind that you are an observant Jew, writing for an audience of mostly non-Jews, or non-observant Jews, about what they already perceive to be "ultra-radical-extremist-orthodox" Jews. Make sure you understand the intent of your written work, and how it will be perceived by the audience. I am confident you are not writing this with an antagonistic frame of mind. You're trying to explain to your audience that gender segregation in the secular, public space is not supported in Jewish law. What you're also doing, though, however unintentially, is feeding ammunition into your audience's existing animosity towards those they already fear and consider alien.

Think of it like this: Certainly the haredim in Israel who subscribe to gender segregation on the sidewalks and buses believe they are acting in accordance with Jewish law. Maybe they're wrong, but they believe themselves to be acting consistent with Jewish law. They won't read your article, and no one is actually engaging and challenging them on why they believe that public gender segregation is Torah-authentic.

Now you come along, and tell the secular Jews and non-Jews that actually the haredim are NOT acting consistent with Jewish law. By the way, it's a classic anti-semitic trope that Jews are not acting consisted with Jewish law (they're not being "good Jews", they way "G-d wants them to be"), and therefore deserve punishment. The issue is very similar: in the mind of the seculars, you're creating a license to punish the haredim, because "they're not even observing their own laws properly!"

We now have two communities who are sure that the other is breaking Jewish law, who already fear each other, and are inclined to physically force that change on the other, while resisting it themselves. Do you see what I'm saying? You didn't intend this, but you're actually contributing to the conflict and division.

None of what you said is wrong, so far as my limited knowledge goes. But as a chassid of the Rebbe, more is expected of you. You have to find a way to heal division between Jews, not to strengthen it. It's fine to highlight that the haredim are not acting within the normative frame of Jewish law. But you can't just stop here, leaving it to the imagination of scared, fearful seculars how to "solve this problem", because their solution will be to oppress and punish the haredim, to dehumanize and ridicule them.

It's not a simple issue. You have to think about it. How can you promote connection and healing between Jews?

If you were to ask my opinion, I would say that there are meta-halachic issues involved here. Removing women from the public square is not consistent with observant Judaism as I have experienced it through Chabad, or for that matter the other orthodox and chassidic streams in America. We have to ask, why is there no gender segregation in Brooklyn, but there is in Bet Shemesh (or wherever)?

If it's not a matter of law and custom, then it must be a sociological issue. Why are some of the haredim acting like this? Why are they creating these new restrictions? What are they trying to protect themselves and their communities from?

When you consider the fear and anxiety that must exist to have moved the haredim to impose this change in the public sphere... in other words, their segregation of women is an attempt to exert control where they feel they have lost control. For them, the world is spinning out of control, and they're trying to stop it, to force it to stand still. So then "enlightened" Jews like you and me pair up with the seculars and start attacking them for it. They're not going to intellectually engage with us. They're frightened people desperately holding on with clenched fists. For them, the survival of Judaism is at stake because the barbarians (that's us) are at the gate.

Just think about this for a bit. How do you educate secular Jews about these issues without feeding them ammunition for a culture war? How do you contribute to easing the fears of the haredim, to helping them unclench their fists and showing them they can lead full Jewish lives without trying to impose control over their environment. Because this segregation of women in public is not the end. For people who feel they've lost control... segregated sidewalks are just the beginning. It doesn't solve anything; it don't really give them back control. So they are already thinking of the next restriction, the next way to exert control over their lives, which are spinning out of control faster and faster.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Necessary Exclusivity of Male Jewish Ritual

This post is third in a series on Jewish Men, Women, Ritual and Spirituality. You can read a summary of earlier articles in this series, and visit them directly, by following the previous link. This is strongly encouraged.

There is an entire flip-side to the issue of Jewish women increasingly taking up traditionally male Jewish ritual which never gets addressed. It relates to the frail egos of men. Women don’t really get this, but we men feel inferior to women. It’s true. Actually, we don't just feel it, we are inferior to women! Some, included among them my loyal readers, may take issue with this statement. However, the Torah, Talmud and commentaries are quite clear about the respective spiritual position of men and women. I'll briefly paraphrase a few points to give you an idea - it is not an exhaustive list by any means, and each point could be expounded upon at length:

  1. In the order of creation, women were created after men. G-d created the world from lowest to highest importance: space, time, inanimate matter, plants, fish, birds, beasts, man, woman, shabbat. As woman comes later in creation, she is considered closer to G-d's mind, to perfection, because everything created earlier is primarily a foundation for what came later. 
  2. When men were created, G-d said "it is not good that you are alone..." When women are created, G-d looks at creation and says, "it is very good".
  3. Women were actually created by a different process from men. Men were formed. Women were built - the Hebrew word for build has the same consonants as the word binah, which means understanding. From this we learn that women have greater spiritual intuition/understanding/intelligence than men.
  4. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are considered greater prophets than their husbands - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  5. The Jewish people survived Egypt only on account of the women, for several reasons. Go read your Chumash with Rashi for more.
  6. Women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai.
  7. The men were afraid to conquer the Land of Israel but the women encouraged them, and so on.
  8. And I almost forgot, women are able to give birth to life. In this they resemble G-d more than men do.

I'm only summarizing here, as there is a lot of material on this subject. Of course, men and women are complimentary - they're designed to work together, and men have important duties to perform also. But from the standpoint of spirituality, in Jewish tradition, women are considered elevated to men.This is primarily why they are not obligated in time-bound commandments. Men need to be kept busy. They have set times for prayer and follow very specific rules. They are goal oriented. They need to complete a series of tasks to feel good. If you leave them alone they might start looking at the cows and the clouds and rape camels or something. Women can be trusted to pray whenever they want, for however long they want. They don't need to be constantly monitored with a series of tasks like men. This is why they are not obligated in the time-bound commandments.

Now, Victor, you may say, what you've said is all good and well, but let's get real here. All this is a sweet veneer for a patriarchal faith that oppresses women under cover of exalting them. In truth, one could say, there is no practical expression, no proof to the claim that Jewish women are spiritually superior to men. Aha! You've got me... almost. The proof exists, but to find it and understand it requires a certain level of self-introspection and maturity.

The real proof that men really do feel inferior to women is that we like to do things that are "for men only".  Men love the ego-healing camaraderie of brotherhood, because it's the one place we feel we aren't judged relative to women! By creating our “in” club, from which women are excluded, we create a preferential hierarchy – we elevate ourselves over others, artificially. In truth, we’re merely compensating for our inherent (i.e. built in, and out of our control) sense of inferiority as compared to women. Boys-only clubs are our way of psychologically leveling the playing field. If we men can’t give birth to human life, to give an analogy, then you women can’t play golf on our course.

In an absolute sense, it doesn't seem healthy, and that's precisely right. It’s a reality of imbalance at the core of our being that we men feel a need to redress; enter the boys-only club. When denied it, we will create it in whatever way we can. G-d, as the One responsible for creating us, understands us perfectly. He gave men the mitzvah of tefillin (among others) to heal our bruised egos, to allow us to compensate for our deficiency in a healthy way. If He hadn’t done that, we might have invented our own compensatory mechanisms for our inferiority complex – say, beating women as a matter of course, G-d forbid. (Certainly, that would explain the evolution of other cultures.) And we, well, we like that kind of special attention from G-d. It helps us forget that, you know, (*gulp) women are better.

I’m joking around a little, but this is a serious issue. The consequences of taking away the “boys-club” from Jewish men in divine service are consistently bad, and increasingly studied, if not entirely understood.

So, while the cover of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Winter 2011-2012, features a beautiful photograph of two women, their arms wrapped in tefillin, holding hands, the very first editorial, on page 8, by Rabbi Charles Simon, starts off like this, "There have been numerous articles and discussions about the growing disappearance of Jewish men from today's synogogue life." He then offers nothing, nothing even remotely approaching a dress-down of the problem, much less its rectification. The connection, obvious to me, between the front cover and the first editorial, goes entirely unremarked.

Nor is the problem limited to Conservative Jewry, according to the Hadassah-Braindeis Institute:
A new study published by The Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute finds that as the liberal Jewish community empowers its women, its men appear to be losing interest in their Jewishness. 
According to a report in JTA, which published parts of the study, "outside the Orthodox world, men are becoming less and less engaged in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations. Numerous studies show that fewer boys than girls go to non-Orthodox youth groups, religious schools or summer camps, fewer go into the rabbinate and cantorate, and fewer serve on synagogue or federation committees.
In the words of Sylvia Barack Fishman, later on in the study:
Today American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age, from school age children through the adult years. The descent of male interest is evident not only in domestic Judaism, as expected, but also in public Judaism, religious leadership, and secular ethnic attachments.
That terrible sound you hear is fifty years of feminist theory, which did so much to break the filthy iron cage used to enslave women for millenia, now rudderless, running roughshod over the spiritual health of Jewish men. Because once the boys-club of divine service is broken, once the spiritual tools G-d created for men to preserve their self-worth and dignity were misappropriated, there is no longer a reason for men to stay.

This requires some sensitivity and maturity on your part to understand what I’m trying to express: I’m not arguing for keeping women from Jewish ritual to which they are entitled, just so that men can feel better about themselves. But if a ritual, such as tefillin, was designed specifically for the spiritual health of men, and part of its usefulness is that men are obligated in it (made feel special), and women are not obligated in it, we should consider what could happen to the spiritual health of Jewish men, what is happening, when Jewish women insist they are also obligated in it.

Or, to really break this down, do Jewish women care enough about Jewish men to give them a spiritual space they can call their own?

Jewish Men, Women, Ritual and Spirituality

I am ready to present the third installment in a series examining a growing trend among women within some streams of Judaism to take on traditionally male Jewish ritual practices. However, before doing so, I thought it would be helpful to take a look back and summarize, to the extent possible, what was written in the first two posts. This is only a summary intended to refresh minds; I encourage you to read the earlier posts in full to get at my intent and message in its entirety.

Feminine Spirituality and the Role of Ritual first broached the discussion, describing "the male-driven glorification, exotification and, indeed, fetishization of Jewish ritual, to the point where, somewhat absurdly, Jewish women feel unjustly deprived of it." "Clearly," I wrote, attempts by men to strong-arm women out of male Jewish ritual are part of a "brilliant strategy to ensure that Jewish women will demand participation in Jewish ritual." I then implied that long before Jewish men begin instructing women how they should "be", we need to devote serious effort to educating men how to speak to women.

We returned to the subject in the much delayed Jewish Ritual, Feminine Spirituality and Tefillin, where the focus shifted from the general to the practical - the mitzvah of tefillin, and the growing propensity of some women to incorporate it in their spiritual service. I opened with a halachic framework which, while seeming to discourage women from wrapping tefillin, certainly does not forbid it. Seeing as how, from the standpoint of Jewish law, there's seemingly little harm in women wearing tefillin, this should act to deescalate the discussion and help inoculate us from the counterproductive rhetoric of certain, self-appointed zealots.

We then moved on to thinking of tefillin as a spiritual tool of divine service; a tool created (by the Creator) with an end-user in mind - this being a Jewish man. However, as we've learned (see above), trying to prevent the misappropriation of this tool by forbidding women to use it is the the one certain way to ensure they do so. What, then, is a Jewish man to do? "Whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin," I wrote, "the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit, because this isn't about denying women a precious instrument of divine service."

First fetishizing male Jewish ritual, and then excluding women from it, is how we've arrived at this sorry state of affairs. This is nothing less than a failure of male and female spiritual education, and men are most to blame. It is only natural that women would seek to emulate the only model for connecting with the sacred they are exposed to, and all the more so when this model is glorified above all else by their fathers, brothers and communal leaders. What is needed is an education for both men and women as to their important but different spiritual roles in divine service. Women must be empowered to understand their vast potential, even as men take a more honest appraisal of their own, more limited but still important, even vital role.

I am certainly not qualified to instruct Jewish women. What I can do is share the perspective of a Jewish man, with whatever honesty and self-introspection I can muster, and ask for understanding from Jewish women. In that capacity, I present the next, third installment in this series - The Necessary Exclusivity of Male Jewish Ritual.

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