Thursday, December 01, 2011

God or Religion - what takes precedence?

I found this article particularly insightful and compelling, not least in light of the internal debates here in Israel over various religious issues (not mentioned below).  I’m not weighing in on the US presidential candidates but certainly do agree with the fundamental principle here: religion is meant to serve God and/or a higher purpose, and clearly is distorted when it seems to become MORE important than God or those moral values it is meant to promote.  Or as he puts it, “the religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve God and instead worships his or her religion…”.


Are Mormons any weirder than the rest of us?

I don't believe Joseph Smith found ancient tablets in upstate New York. What has that got to do with electing politicians?

I have been close to Mormons ever since my days at Oxford, when Michael Taft Benson became a member and then an elected officer of our L’Chaim Society at the University. Benson’s grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was the prophet of the Mormon Church at the time. Thus began a lifelong friendship that continues till today, with many visits to lecture for Mike at Southern Utah University and other mostly Mormon academies of higher learning in the majority Mormon state.

I have thus watched with mild amusement as the debate surrounding the beliefs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have gained steam. Aren’t the Mormons weird fanatics? Should we trust people with such strange beliefs with high office? 

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of God, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected. With all due respect, that’s not exactly the most rational belief, either.

The criticisms are equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam, and the sun stood still for Joshua.

But it is equally strange coming from evolutionists like Richard Dawkins who have said, without a single shred of evidence, that life on our planet may have been seeded by space aliens. Even those evolutionists who reject Dawkins’ faith in extraterrestrial life have a belief system of their own; namely, that intelligent life somehow evolved capriciously and accidentally from inorganic matter, even though the possibility of complex organisms evolving without guidance is mathematically nearly impossible.

Julian Huxley, who stemmed from the world’s most famous family of evolutionary proponents, described the probability of the evolution of a horse thus: “A proportion of favorable mutations of one-ina- thousand does not sound much, but is probably generous... and a total of a million mutational steps sounds a great deal, but is probably an understatement....With this proportion, we should clearly have to breed a million strains (a thousand squared) to get one containing two favorable mutations, and so on, up to a thousand to the millionth power to get one containing a million.... No one would bet on anything so improbable happening...and yet it has happened!” 

Yes, even men of science can believe things that can be construed as highly irrational.

NOW, DO believe that Joseph Smith found ancient tablets written in reformed Egyptian in upstate New York, that Jesus Christ appeared to the people of South America as recorded in the book of Mormon, or that when a Mormon dies he becomes a god and gets his own planet? No. Respectfully, I do not. Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

Misguided attacks on groups like the Mormons stem from a willful desire on the part of many to fraudulently identify people with a different faith system as fanatics. Therefore, a brief discussion of religious fundamentalism is in order.

The most confusing story of the Bible involves God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. What was the God who would later declare that all human, and especially child sacrifice, to be an abomination, thinking?

The most insightful commentary I have seen on this story comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who said that the key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual but as a religion. Who was Isaac? He was Judaism. He was the person who would continue Abraham’s belief system. With his death, everything that Abraham had taught in terms of his rejection of paganism and the belief in one God would be lost.

The test, therefore, was this: would Abraham follow God’s commandment to kill off his religion or would he put his religion before God’s will? What really mattered to Abraham? God, or Judaism? And if they were to be put in conflict, what would he choose? The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve God and instead worships his or her religion, turning their faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for God it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it.

In this light we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly, prepared even to go against God’s express commandment not to murder. He is prepared to kill not in order to strike a blow for the glory of God, but of Islam.

Hence, our concern need not be with a person’s faith in public office. It does not matter if they are Jewish, evangelical, Mormon, or Muslim. What does matter is whether their faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God’s children. Do they see the purpose of their high station being to promote their particular religion? 

It is easy to identify the difference. People who are in a relationship with God are humble and do their utmost to refrain from judging others. Their proximity to a Perfect Being reminds them of their own fallibility, and their experience of God’s compassion leads them to be merciful and loving.

In contrast, those who worship a religion are arrogant and think they have the only truth. They are dismissive of other people’s beliefs and maintain that advancing the cause of their religion is more important than life itself. The Israeli rabbi who recently made the strange comment that soldiers should choose a firing squad rather than listen to a woman sing is a classic example of this heresy.
Those who worship religion evince the classic characteristic of cult members. Whereas a real faith system is empowering and makes one strong and capable of operating outside their own faith community, cult members can only identify with other members of their group and require the environment of the cult in order to function. They don’t have beliefs. Rather, they take orders.

I see none of these characteristics in Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman – who graciously hosted me along with my guest Elie Wiesel at the governor’s mansion in Utah a few years back – or any of my countless other Mormon friends. All should be judged on their merits as people and politicians, whatever their faith and whatever their beliefs.

The writer has just published of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself, (Wiley), and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on his website and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

For all those who don't understand ENGLISH, this is a pretty funny, short video about English Accents:

Friday, May 20, 2011

'B+' on democracy, 'D'- on Israel-Arab conflict

Truth is there's something for everyone in President Obama's MidEast speech: support for reform, commitment to Israel, Palestinian state, opposition to Iran & Syria.

But at base two things must be recognized: They're beginning to understand democracy; they still don't understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.

First, the Obama administration understands the issues relating to the desire for freedom in the Middle East, including the dangers - and should get credit for supporting and promoting democracy and reform in the region. Obama has started to talk the talk - not only applauding, but demanding that regimes in power, including Syria and Iran, stop killing their people and start responding to the legitimate demands of the governed. And walking the walk - in steps, and a bit late, but still important - by giving massive aid ($2 billion in funds and debt-forgiveness to Egypt alone!). What a message to the protesters in Syria and Yemen (and Gaza and Iran): overthrow your governments and not only will you be free, we (the West) will help you financially. That's worth an A. Telling Syria to stop repressing its people, and voicing support for all those struggling for freedom everywhere, is worth an A+.

His verbal support for 'universal' freedoms is important; but he needs to be more pro-active, and his call for 'reform' in Syrian and insistence on respect for 'universal rights' in Iran, were weak and passive. And the fact that he didn't even mention Saudi Arabia or Jordan or Lebanon is irresponsible and short-sighted. For all this, he deserves a B-. So put together: B+

Second, it's clear the Obama administration still doesn't get the Arab-Israeli conflict. They're learning - not only history and law, but the importance of nuance and language - and Obama's references to Israel as a Jewish State and national homeland for the Jewish people, to Hamas and its rejection of Israel, and to Palestinian (and others') efforts to delegitimize Israel, are important landmarks demonstrating this. President Obama would get an A for this. And his little-noticed reference to the Palestinians 'walking away from negotiations', thereby signalling that he recognizes, and holds them accountable, that they have made excuses for refusing to return to talks, is worthy of an A+.

And while many are suggesting that his reference to '1967 lines' is problematic, I somewhat disagree, and rather agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that there's little new here; as a 'basis' this has been understood for decades, and the words 'with agreed swaps' is code for negotiating the towns and neighborhoods which the Bush letter acknowledged - and all negotiations as well - are realities on the ground' which will be under Israeli sovereignty in the end. I could tweak the sentences to better reflect reality, and/or Israeli preferences, but that's not the point. And none of this, nor the below, has any bearing on whether one supports immediate withdrawal from the disputed territories (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") or eternal Jewish control of them; this is not about politics, this is about logic, history, law and morality.

No, my main and significant disappointment with President Obama's speech, and the reason I note they still don't understand the conflict, is the framing he sets, and the suggestions he offers as next steps.

As so many do - wrongly, based on a combination of visceral support for the 'underdog', mis-reading of history, politically-led misunderstanding of international law, and mostly the success of Palestinian propaganda permeating public discourse - Obama views "the occupation' as the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and that Israel is 'in the wrong' at base, and his speech repeatedly reflects this, from references to Palestinian suffering to territory to effects on other countries in the region. He remains captive to the idea that this conflict is a border conflict, rather than a national conflict where one nation - the Arab nation and Palestinians in particular object to and refuse to accept the existence of the Jewish nation in this land.

But more, Obama opined that starting with borders and security, we could move on to what he called "emotional" issues, Jerusalem and refugees. Here too he misstepped, not recognizing Israel's absolute right to Jerusalem (under law* and history, not as a 'pro-Israel' stance), and not calling clearly for Palestinian refugees to return only to a Palestinian state. And moreover, he could have used this platform both to note the fundamental responsibility of the Arab world FOR those refugees, and to recognize the similar number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands (who have never been compensated nor recognized, but rather were simply absorbed into their country as so many millions of other refugees were over the past half-century).

All this deserves at least a C.

But here's the rub: he didn't even mention, let alone focus on, the real primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, the continual rejection of any Jewish connection to this land, and hence of the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, by a century of Arab, Muslim, and then Palestinian leaders. This is what makes this a national conflict, not a simple border dispute; this is where the Obama administration once again has flunked the class.

Obama himself said, " people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible." But he did not note - nor insist - that Arab leaders, and in particular Palestinian leaders, have continually taught their people that peace is not only not possible, but not desirable with Israel and the Jews. In fact, instead, he repeated the old mantra (and not very strongly at that) that Hamas (or Hizbollah, or Al Quaida, take your pick) are the bad guys, rejecting Israel's existence, instead of boldly demanding of Palestinian and all Arab leaders to finally accept Israel, as a Jewish state, and to cease attacking Israel and the Jews not only with missiles and bombs and threats of destruction but with textbooks and speeches and TV shows and statues dedicated to 'heroic martyr' terrorists.

This is not propaganda; had Obama and his advisors taken the time to notice, the events of Sunday underscore this very fact. Demonstrations on May 15, the date of Israel's founding, commemorated/mourned by Arabs (Palestinian and other) as "the Catastrophe", were organized throughout the region. These are not against 'the occupation'. (Were they so, they would be held on June 4 or 6, ie. commemorating Israel's advance into the territories.) In fact, in the disputed territories and Palestinian Authority (Judea/Samaria, the "West Bank") protests were decidedly muted - as most Palestinians living in the territories are aware that they are on their way to establishing a State there, are ready to live with Israel in peace, and are interested in protesting mainly against their own corrupt and authoritarian leaders. The demonstrations which made the news (and in which people were injured and killed, mostly by Lebanese forces it turns out) were on the borders of Israel, not in the "occupied" areas - and the calls were for Israel's destruction, not withdrawal from the territories.

President Obama does get that in a non-democracy, leaders focus on an external enemy to justify their own repression - he referred to Arabs' criticism of Israel being their only 'free speech'. He just doesn't get that this focus on Israel and the Jews as being responsible not only for all Palestinian suffering but for all the ills of the region (and often the world) is coordinated and propagated and allowed by all Arab and Muslim regimes, to a greater or lesser degree, and not at all least by the Fatah 'moderate' leadership of the PLO and PA. And he doesn't get that this - and nothing Israel actually does, even when it makes mistakes - is the real thing preventing peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

This is the crux of the matter; these are the facts, and they are not disputed at all by the majority of Arabs and Muslims and especially their leaders, with a few enlightened and courageous exceptions. The Obama administration doesn't get it; they deserve an F, and to be kicked out of the class.

Had the Obama administration understood this, they could and would never focus on 'borders and security' as the first steps in any potential renewal of the 'peace process'. Nor would they ignore the demands of the quartet for Hamas to recognize Israel, renounce terror, and abide by earlier agreements - none of which Obama mentioned. Referring to Hamas, while ignoring the evidence that Fatah and Hamas (and the rest of the Arab world's leaders) are different only in style and degree, he says Palestinians have to find a 'credible answer' to the question "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" But he offered no demand for what that answer is, which goes directly to the heart of the matter. You can't; America wouldn't; Israel won't, either.

The larger picture is still clear: Israel has negotiated, and continues to call for a return to talks, with those Palestinians who at the very least make the pretense of accepting our right to be here and renouncing violence, and who at least seem to be more interested in creating their own state than destroying ours.

Unfortunately, even a 'peace agreement' and the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the disputed territories, won't bring real peace to our region; only leaders and people in the Muslim and Arab world who truly want peace, and not merely a pause in the centuries-old war against the Jews, can make that happen.

If the Obama team wants to really help bring peace to this area, they have a great deal of homework to do. Otherwise, they're receiving a D-, and are pretty close to failing the class.


*Professor, Judge Schwebel, former president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague writing inWhat Weight to Conquest [1994]:

"(a) a state [Israel] acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defense;

"(b) as a condition of its withdrawal from such territory, that State may require the institution of security measures reasonably designed to ensure that that territory shall not again be used to mount a threat or use of force against it of such a nature as to justify exercise of self-defense;

"(c) Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully [Jordan], the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense [Israel] has, against that prior holder, better title."

"As between Israel, acting defensively in 1948 and 1967, on the one hand, and her Arab neighbors, acting aggressively, in 1948 and 1967, on the other, Israel has the better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taking back the banner of Human Rights - Sharansky article in NY Times May 17

A Moment of Moral Clarity

How many protesters must a regime murder before it is no longer fit for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council? How many thousands of dissidents must it jail? How many acts of international terrorism must it instigate?

The line is invisible — but Syria, having too openly crossed it, has now been forced to vacate its candidacy in the May 20 elections to the council.

It is good that Syria has been removed, just as it is good that Libya has been suspended from membership.

But what was Muammar el-Qaddafi’s blood-soaked regime doing on a human-rights body in the first place? What separates it and Syria from Cuba, China and the other dictatorships that make up the council majority and brazenly sit in judgment on the human-rights record of others? Why has the free world remained largely silent? In the run-up to the elections, such questions are more urgent than ever.

Something very important and very dramatic is happening in the Arab-Muslim Middle East. The peoples of the region are deciding to stop living in fear, and are risking life and limb to rid themselves of one seemingly immovable autocracy after another.

In so doing, they are simultaneously repudiating the unspoken agreements that the West has reached over the years with their dictators, agreements that bartered the people’s freedom for a facade of stability.

But while masses of people in the Middle East are demonstrating in the streets for freedom, the free world itself, led by the United States, has responded in classic realpolitik fashion, calibrating its response to each regime’s perceived chances for survival.

This is understandable. After so many years of supporting Hosni Mubarak, it was difficult to acknowledge him for the corrupt dictator he always was. After convincing itself that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, a White House wishing to engage the regime on “the day after” was incapable of saying what Syrians already knew: that he was a barbaric tyrant and murderer.

But silence and confusion have exacted a price. To the people in the streets, to the millions who have crossed their own line from fear to freedom, the signal has been sent that America is not with them, that the world’s beacon of freedom is indifferent to theirs.

In the face of regime turmoil, many have insisted that Washington must choose between the two stark alternatives of engagement and disengagement. This is a fallacy. Engaging with a dictatorial regime and engaging with its people are two different things, and the same goes for disengagement. The United States engaged with and subsidized the dictatorship in Cairo, and America is cordially hated by Egyptians; the United States and the mullahs in Tehran could not be more disengaged, and America is loved by the Iranians.

When Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” the partisans of Western engagement were horrified, but throughout that evil empire Reagan’s truth-telling brought courage to dissidents and a surge of hope to hundreds of millions desperate to escape the bonds of a fear-permeated society.

Reagan did not thereupon cease negotiating with the Kremlin. At the same time, however, his administration encouraged the struggle of ever-growing numbers of Soviet and East European dissidents — with results that, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, shook the world.

There may be no evil “empire” in today’s Middle East, but there are more than enough evil regimes to go around. It is past time to start delegitimizing them. What, indeed, must a dictator do to lose the respect of the international community, or to trigger action against him?

It is not a matter of sending troops — another straw man. It is a matter of saying, not softly but loudly and in the clearest possible terms, that those who violate the human rights of their people cannot be our partners in building a world safe for human rights.

It may be necessary to deliberate the pros and cons of engaging with a dictatorial regime, but there is no need to deliberate engaging with its people.

To those millions crossing, or waiting to cross, the line into freedom, we can send a simple but thrilling message of support and solidarity: We are with you. No dictator is a legitimate representative of his people. “Human rights” are not a phrase to be cynically parroted by the world’s worst violators sitting on a grotesquely misnamed Human Rights Council, but a real and universal criterion of decency. We are with you.

At this moment of moral clarity, when the free world is being challenged to cease turning a blind eye to tyranny, surely it is not too much to affirm full-throatedly the aspirations of the Arab and Muslim peoples to live in freedom, to choose their own governments, to be protected in their right to dissent, and no longer to be ruled by guns.

At the very least, we, who would never choose differently for ourselves, owe this much to them, and to ourselves.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner, is chairman of the Jewish Agency and the author, most recently, of “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Converted to the Conversion Bill

Converted to the Conversion Bill

By Aryeh Green

I’m a moderate, traditional Jew. I’ve been following and supporting the progress of Natan Sharanky’s efforts to find a solution to our society’s conversion issues for over a decade, and was very excited when the Neeman Commission proposed its conversion courts. Here was a moderate, practical, Halachic forum to move quickly ahead to enable the conversion of immigrants from the FSU (and others!) who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish people by coming to live in (and defend, and die in) the Jewish State. Over the past two weeks, I have given talks at and spoken to Jewish leaders and communities in 8 cities across America – and I am quite frustrated at the misunderstandings rampant, and even more so at the unnecessary wedge being driven between non-Orthodox Jews abroad and Israelis (of all sorts).

Even if (if) the Rotem conversion law was perhaps flawed before the recent excising of the section affecting the Law of Return – and I’m not sure it was all that bad – at this point I suggest simply that all who care for Judaism and Israel simply announce ‘victory’ and support it. All of us – Reform and Conservative rabbis and leaders in the US, modern Orthodox leaders there and in Israel, and all the rest of us who crave a ‘normal’, classical approach to Judaism – can feel satisfied that, with the amendment separating this internal-affairs bill from any treatment of conversions abroad and the ‘who is a Jew’ issue regarding the law of return, this is an effective and long-overdue bill.

Personally, I wish Rotem would have waiting until Sharansky (now head of the Jewish Agency and specifically tasked by the prime minister recently to help iron out an agreement) had been allowed to negotiate a solution. Politically, Rotem deserves our wrath. But the law is a good one, one which actually promotes the kind of more open, welcoming, tolerant Judaism and a cessation of control by the ultra-Orthodox which the non-Orthodox streams have been supposedly seeking for years. I’m not sure Sharansky’s efforts wouldn’t have led to the same law, or one very similar.

Those Diaspora leaders declaring that this law is “divisive” should be told in no uncertain terms: they are the ones who are causing a potential “schism” in the Jewish people, rather than blaming this law for it. They were successful in removing the offensive elements of it – now it’s time to declare victory and move on.

A close reading of the law (which it appears many Reform and Conservative leaders have not done, it seems, if judged by their rhetoric) demonstrates it does exactly what it’s supposed to: enable local, community rabbis to streamline the conversion process and to make it more welcoming, and, while Halachic of course, easier. The law, while codifying certain elements of Israeli practice already in place, allows much more freedom for more ‘modern’ rabbis like Shlomo Riskin and the Tzohar moderate rabbinical movement to move ahead with the conversions of FSU immigrants who want them – not to mention many others. This can – and in practice will – break the monopoly over conversions of the Haredim.

The Jerusalem Post editorial was inaccurate; it said the bill would give “the haredi-controlled chief rabbinate ‘responsibility over conversions’”. It already has that, even if not codified in law. Of course we should support it – it’s (part of) what we’ve been working towards for decades. (Yes, it’s a partial solution, but it’s a beginning. And mainly, it’s finally an answer to the issue of immigrants from the FSU who aren’t Jewish and want to be but either who won’t convert through the Rabbinate or whom aren’t being accepted by that Rabbinate.)

Moreover, we must understand the significance of rhetoric and the language used in debates like these. Those abroad who suggest that this law would be ‘divisive’ or ‘destructive’ (as did the recent Post editorial) are mistaken, as it does nothing to affect conversions abroad. It is they who are stoking the fires of division and a crisis in Diaspora-Israel relations. These leaders are making this a discordant issue when in fact they should be celebrating it as the first step towards liberalizing Judaism in Israel ever, and towards eliminating the control of the Haredim over our Judaism.

We – all of us who look to a more moderate version of Judaism which is open and liberal (dare I use that term, as an “Orthodox” Jew practicing what some might call “classical” Judaism?) – should simply claim victory with the recent amendment. We should explain to the liberal streams abroad just why this is a good law, even for them and their interests. The SF Jewish newspaper, The J Weekly, wrote that the bill puts more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate. This is incorrect, that power exists there today and it is strangling the Neeman and Druckman – and Riskin and Tzohar rabbis – approach to conversions. This bill will enable local rabbis to take the power away from the haredim, including the more modern, tolerant rabbis. The Diaspora leaders who’ve led this fight, for years – Reform, Conservative and otherwise – can be justifiably proud of it, and of their success in removing the one, small, admittedly mistaken clause which was offensive.

I propose we declare victory with the recent changes, support the bill and its liberating effect on conversions in Israel and its ending of Haredi control and coercion – ‘we’ including the Diaspora leaders who can now climb on board, communicating this clearly, and as forcefully as they’ve opposed it – to their flocks.

The writer is director of MediaCentral (, and was an advisor to Natan Sharansky as Diaspora affairs minister. He has been talking to Jews across America since July 8, including in Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, Mountain View (CA), Aspen, Rochester (NY), White Plains, Manhattan, and Washington DC. Much of the above is a distillation of these conversations. (

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Where is Orthodox aliya?

I have been asking this question for years; as usual, Michael Freund puts it more articulately than I:

Where is Orthodox aliya?

By Michael Freund



Earlier this year, a crisis erupted among American Orthodox Jewry, one that sent shock waves hurtling from coast to coast.

At the speed of broadband, word spread quickly from one community to another about the budding calamity, which threatened to cast a pall on Jewish life as we know it. Various organizations rushed to issue statements, the Internet was abuzz with rumors and parents from Staten Island to Seattle naturally went into a panic.

And just what, you might be wondering, lay at the heart of all this drama? Well, it had to do with raisins.

Yes, you read that correctly: raisins.

On January 27, New York's K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a prominent Orthodox congregation also known as KAJ, published a statement billed as an "important kashrus notice," which warned readers in grave and no uncertain terms that "due to bug infestation, no raisins of any brand... may be used at the present time, whether eaten plain or used in cooking or baking." The notice was then hoisted onto the Internet, setting off alarm bells for many Jews because of the Torah's prohibition (in chapter 11 of Leviticus) regarding the consumption of insects.

Obviously, the blanket nature of the ban imposed by KAJ was unnerving, and left many observant Jews wondering if they could still reach for their Raisin Bran in the morning.

But the chaos was short-lived. The tempest in a teacup, or shall we say the racket in a raisin box, quickly proved to be overblown.

As the predicament reached a fever pitch, the venerable Orthodox Union stepped into the fray and reassured the raisin-eating Jewish public "that raisins packed and stored under normal industry conditions do not pose a halachic infestation concern and may be consumed without further checking on the part of the consumer."

The Vaad Harabanim of Queens, an esteemed rabbinical body, also calmed the waters when it declared that the problem of infestation concerned raisins being sold by three specific companies and was not an across-the-board problem.

Now don't get me wrong. I am all in favor of the meticulous observance of Jewish law, which dictates how I live my life from the moment I awaken until I go to sleep. And the Torah's ban on eating bugs or insects is in fact quite serious, with the Talmud in Tractate Makkot (16b) noting that it can involve numerous prohibitions.

But this entire incident says a lot about the present state of American Orthodoxy, where a welcome trend toward greater observance nonetheless often leads people to lose sight of some larger and no less compelling issues of paramount importance.

IT IS TRULY wonderful that Orthodox Jews in America are sincerely concerned about upholding the intricacies of Jewish law. Maintaining the integrity of Halacha and preserving the rites and practices of our ancestors is what Judaism is all about. But what I fail to understand is the selectivity which many American Orthodox Jews seem to apply in this regard.

On matters great and small, from Sabbath observance to raisin infestations, it is common practice for religious Jews to ask their local rabbi a question seeking halachic guidance on how to proceed. This is done to ensure that the demands of Jewish law are being met.

But I have yet to meet an observant Jew in New York, London or Paris who has bothered to ask their rabbi a similar question about whether or not they should live in the Diaspora or make aliya. If a person is committed to living according to Halacha, how is it possible not to ask one's rabbi a question of such paramount importance? This "oversight" is especially difficult to grasp given the significance which Jewish sources attach to living in Israel.

The Sifrei on Deuteronomy, for example, states unequivocally that "dwelling in the Land of Israel is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah." And the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot declares that "he who lives in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a God, while he who lives outside the Land is similar to one who has no God."

Centuries later, Nachmanides, the great medieval commentator, ruled unambiguously that the commandment to live in Israel is incumbent upon every Jew, and applies even if the land is under foreign control. The Pitchei Teshuva, in his 19th century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, notes that all the earlier and later authorities agree with Nachmanides that there is a positive Torah commandment to live in Israel.

Israel is described in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:12) as the land "which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year." And, as the Ohr Hachaim noted in the 18th century, "There is no joy other than in residing in the Land of Israel."

In light of all this, one can not help but wonder: Why isn't there large-scale Orthodox aliya? Sure, Orthodox Jews are said to make up the bulk of new immigrants arriving here each year from the West. But the numbers remain small - just a few thousand annually - and most religious Jews in the Diaspora seem content to remain where they are.

This situation brings to mind the words spoken by Joshua to the people of Israel more than 3,000 years ago, when he asked, "How long will you be remiss in coming to possess the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given to you?" (Joshua 18:3).

Indeed, it has never been easier to move to Israel, now that we have been blessed with the existence of our own sovereign and independent Jewish state.

I don't mean to stand in judgment of anyone's personal decisions. But I do mean to suggest that Orthodox Jews in the West at least need to start asking themselves, and their rabbis, the question. After all, if they seek halachic guidance about what they put in their mouths, isn't it time they also ask about where they put their lives and bodies as well?

This article can also be read at /servlet/Satellite?cid=1239710872635&pagename=JPArticle%2FShowFull.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Waltz with Bashir - Dirty Dancing against Israel

[It's been a while since I've posted; and this wasn't even written by me. But Katie wrote a strong condemnation of the extremely damaging repurcussions of the movie "Walt with Bashir" so I wanted to get it up here. Published on The Jewish Week on February 18.]

Please, No Oscar For `Waltz With Bashir'
by Katie Green

Jerusalem -- The other night, I watched on TV as various leaders in the Israeli film industry partied at an event held in honor of Ari Folman's documentary, "Waltz With Bashir".

"Wouldn't it be great if we got the Oscar?" asked a beaming Channel 2 presenter after the footage was shown.

My answer is that, no, it would not be great. It would be terrible. This film has done enough damage already, and after the Oscars it is going to do a lot, lot more.

The film is by any standards a magnificent piece of art. If Ari Folman had climbed into a time machine, gone back 20 years, and taken a professional cameraman with him into the Lebanon war, he could not have come back with more emotive and meaningful material than what he has recalled from memory and projected onto the screen. And his film is a work of great emotional depth and sensitivity. For the purposes of internal national debate, this is a film that every Israeli should see.

However, a glaring omission is immediately apparent at the film's beginning, which intensifies as it progresses: no reason, rhyme or context is given for the war. No enemy is depicted to speak of.

Although the faces of Israeli friends, soldiers, therapists and politicians are lovingly illustrated in close-up all the way through the film, the enemy being engaged has no name and no face. Only once in the film is a teenage boy with an RPG on his back, brought into focus, and it is not clear who he belongs to, or what he is fighting for.

The eerie backdrop against which the film plays out is that the enemy hardly exists at all, or that he is a figment of the Israeli imagination. Soldiers are cut to pieces by sniper fire, but who are the snipers? Gunmen shoot down from balconies and roofs, but which army or political faction do they represent? Palestinian terrorists are sought in streets, orchards and refugee camps but why are they relevant to Israel, if they are operating in Lebanon? A viewer who knows nothing of the background to this conflict could be forgiven for believing that thousands of Israeli soldiers simply woke up one morning and decided to go to Lebanon to kill people.

For this reason quite a lot of Israelis have serious issues with his film and do not think it should be screened at all, let alone win an Academy Award. A friend of mine who watched the film at Cinemateque Jerusalem overheard viewers in the rows behind her say they were appalled by the film's lack of context. An Australian Christian told me even more bluntly, "The film confirms for Australians what they already know: Israelis are warmongering murderers."

Ari Folman must have known when he made "Waltz with Bashir" that films do not get screened in a vacuum. This film is up for an Academy Award at a time when virulent hatred of Israel, constant comparisons between the IDF and the Nazis, purposeful omission of the moral and military background to our wars, and a deliberate disregard for our civilians and their safety, have begun to flourish across Western Europe, Scandinavia and North America. The film plays into the hands of the worst of our detractors, depicting us as mindless invaders who care little for human life.

The success of the film can therefore not be wholly attributed to its brilliance as a piece of art. It is linked to the delighted glee with which those who hate us take it as evidence of our perfidy. Perhaps Mr. Folman did not understand this when he made the film. Israeli filmmakers are after all remarkably naive when it comes to how Israel is perceived abroad and the power of the new malice that has been unleashed upon Israelis and all Jews everywhere.

Many will argue that Folman's creativity should not be hampered by political and cultural considerations. I say this is nonsense. All of us who function in the adult world, have to weigh up the implications of everything we do before take a course of action. None of us are exempt from this arena of human ethics. Not even documentary film directors

And why is there an ethical question here? Because Israel is, in this decade, not just fighting a war with Hamas, a war with Hezbollah and by extension a war with Iran. It is fighting a war of ideas. A war in which it is being depicted as the sole cause of misery and suffering in the Middle East, a war in which the justification for its existence has been called into question. A war which is being felt by every European Jewish schoolgirl who is no longer safe coming home on the bus, and every American Jewish student coping with hostility and violence on campus. Even if Ari Folman cares nothing for these things, they will affect him in the end anyway. By the time the next generation of Israeli kids in Folman's family is considering their options for university, most of the campuses in Europe will be probably out of bounds to them. And it will only be a few years before Mr. Folman himself, as an ex-fighter of the IDF, will be prosecuted for war crimes if he so much as touches down in a British airport.

We will be debating over the next decade whether Ari Folman has, with his film, done his country a great service or caused it irreparable damage. My vote is for the latter. With all due to respect to him as the gifted filmmaker he is, it would have been better for him to deal with his Lebanon ghosts in the psychotherapist's office. I am not being sarcastic or disparaging here, God Forbid. As I have both a son and a daughter now serving in the IDF, no one could be more respectful (and more fearful) of the emotional damage done to Mr. Folman than I.

But if I could meet him in person I would ask him if the artistic expression of his feelings on film are worth all the rage and hatred that will be stirred up against Israel as a result.

Katie Green is an independent film director in Israel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Story for Yom HaZikaron/Yom Ha'atzmaut - By Katie Green


I would like to share with you a “coincidence” that happened in our family just before Pesach, as I believe the story has relevance to Yom Ha’atzmaut and the miracle of our living here. The hours of Yom HaZikaron will are dark ones, so I am hoping this story will offer some comfort.

A few weeks ago, I got a phonecall from my parents’ friend Becky. Becky is now in her seventies, but my family first came to know her in 1939 when she and her parents and sister fled Germany and came to live in rented rooms on the upper floor of my grandmother’s house. My grandparents lived in Stamford Hill, London, which even then was a very Jewish area, but my grandparents were not observant Jews, not even traditional Jews. My grandpa had a grocery store and I am not even going to tell you what kinds of foods were for sale in that shop!

My grandparents loved the refugee family living upstairs, and a warm friendship sprung up between them. Similarly, my father who was then seven years old and had no sisters, welcomed little Becky, also seven, and included her in his circle of friends. But although my father bestowed upon Becky the gift of friendship, Becky had an even greater gift to bestow upon him, the gift of Yahadut.

Becky’s family were devoutly religious and staunch Zionists. Every Shabbat, Becky dragged my father to the local shul for Bnei Akiva meetings. (In those days, Bnei Akiva was called “Torah Ve’Avodah”). What did my father learn at these weekly meetings? It was not much, but it was everything. A little of the weekly Torah portion, some geography and history of Palestine, a few songs, a few dances.To this day my father loves to sing those Zionist songs of the 1940's, songs about clearing away the rocks in the Galilee, songs of the muscled young pioneers working in the fields. My father became a dentist and never did get to Israel himself, but you can see when he sings those songs today, how he would love to have drained a swamp or two.

My father's introduction to a Bnei Akiva altered his life forever. He developed a longing to become religiously observant. After the war was over in 1945, and when Berlin was divided into four parts, my father would listen on the radio to the Jewish army chaplain of the American forces stationed in Berlin. This Rabbi, whoever he was, sang the entire Seder service on radio about a week before Pesach. My father memorized the tunes to "Ma Nishtana" and "Dayeinu", and held the first family Seder in his home when he was about fourteen.

Becky and her family emigrated to the newly formed Jewish State in 1948. Although they could not attend each other's weddings, Becky and my father stayed in touch over the years. To this day, Becky and her husband Walter run a Judaica store in Haifa. My parents visited Becky on their first trips to Israel in 1968 and 1969, and the two families have visited each other on many occasions since. Becky and Walter's children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are all living in Israel.

Becky's son Abie was one of the earliest settlers of Karnei Shomron, where he and his wife bought their home about twenty years ago.A few weeks ago, Abie's son looked around him at Friday night minyan to see if there were any soldiers who would like to be invited for Shabbat dinner. Soldiers from the nearby base are always welcome at the table of Karnei Shomron families. Abie's son approached a young soldier and asked him if he would like to come back with him for Friday night dinner. This soldier was my son, Yonatan.

That evening at Shabbat dinner, my father's grandson and Becky's grandchildren sat around the table together,laughing and talking and singing zmirot. Never at any point did they make the connnection. It was only after Shabbat, when Abie was on the phone to his mother, that Becky said: "This boy has an American father and an English mother? His name's Yonatan and he lives in Bet Shemesh? I think I know who this must be!"I didn't want to tell Becky, when she phoned me with such excitement in her voice on Motzei Shabbat, that her "clues" fit the description of about a hundred boys living in the Bet Shemesh area! It was irrelevant, anyway. Bckey's sixth sense had told her that this was Peter's grandson, and indeed it was.

Yonatan was invited again to Abie's homefor Shvi''i of Pesach, and this time was Becky was there. You can imagine what a very festive meal that was.

On that same shvi'i of Pesach, my daughter Moriyah spent the afternoon taking her group of twelve year old Ethiopian girls. Moriyah is a madricha in the special snif set up by Bnei Akiva for Ethiopian children. What does Moriyah teach her chanichot on Shabbat and Chag afternoons? A little of the weekly Torah portion, some geography and history of the Land of Israel, a few songs and dances.

It is not much, but it is everything.

Chag Ha'atzmaut sameach to all the family of Israel, and may we blessed with peace and besurot tovot.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day - A Personal Perspective

My wife Katie wrote this for Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 1 ’08) and I thought it worth sharing. I stood on our balcony with my daughter Michal that morning as the air-raid siren brought us to a stand-still. We listened to it as the birds, apparently unaware of the tradition to stand silently, sang and flew all around the garden – and as I looked out over the hills and valleys and houses around us, I thought “this is the best way to memorialize the millions – making Israel a vibrant, passionate testimony of ‘never again’….”




It is Yom HaShoah today - Holocaust Day.

Last night I lit a memorial candle and placed it in my kitchen window. My tiny street was completely dark. The light from the candle flickered and bounced over all the doors and windows of the houses opposite. Such a little light, for such a big thing.

I grew up in a community almost entirely comprised of German Jews. They were refugees who came over to England either before the war, or after it. The surnames of my little friends at shul were all German names: Frei, Beigel, Faber, Nussbaum, Hirsch, Schwarz, Felsenstein.

I knew, internalized long before the story of the Holocaust had been verbalized to me, that the people I davvened with in shul had undergone unimaginable suffering. Some of then had been orphaned as children, and had arrived in England on the Kindertransport. Some had been in the worst of the concentration camps as teenagers. Most of my friends at shul had no grandparents. Most of them were named after their grandparents.

But the person who attracted my attention in shul was Mrs. H. Mrs. H., a very attractive woman with an impressive black sheitl, had two adopted children. This was unusual in those days. There were a good number of childless couples in the community then - it was before the days of fertility treatment. But not many religious couples adopted. It was difficult to find Jewish children available for adoption, and the adoption of non-Jewish children was a halachically complicated process.

Infertility is an agonizingly private issue, but everybody knew why Mrs. H. couldn't have children of her own. She had been experimented on in the camps. She was a teenager at the time, fifteen or sixteen years old.

Every week in shul I looked and looked at Mrs. H., who sat at some distance away from me and my mother. Mrs. H. had a grave, quiet face. She was a devout woman who prayed with composure and focus. For 51 weeks of the year Mrs. H. was always there, in my peripheral vision, taking three steps back, three steps forward into G-d's presence at the beginning of the Amida prayer.

On one day of the year, Yom Kippur, Mrs. H. moved into central view. On that day Mrs. H. was no longer quiet. Her suffering was terrible to behold. She wept and wept, was bent double with weeping. As a small child I watched her. To this day I remember the feeling of my mother's hand on my head, tilting it downwards towards my siddur, teaching me that people's tears on Yom Kippur are their own affair. But I did not feel that Mrs. H.'s tears belonged only to her. Even then, at ten years old, I understood that her tears belonged to all of us.

The English are restrained and polite about grief. Don't shout, don't scream, don't sob. And if you are an observer of grief, don't look, don't touch and don't give away that you have noticed, as this would be an invasion of privacy.

In all the years that Mrs. H.'s body crumpled agianst the mechitza with weeping, I don't recall that anyone ever reached out to her. No one hugged her and no one held her. "I want to give her a cuddle", I used to say to my mother. "Can I go across and cuddle her?"

"No, darling, you can't", my mother would reply. "I'm not sure how she would feel about it." And indeed. It would not have been the done thing.

I think that Mrs. H., stored somewhere deep in my hard disc, is one of the reasons I'm living in Israel today. Israel is that one big hug I could never give to Holocaust survivors. It's also the hug I give to myself, as I walk across Safra Square on a beautiful Jerusalem day - Holocaust Day - in May. I look up at the huge flagpoles of the Jerusalem municipality and I see that they are flying at half-mast.

Half-mast for you, Mrs. H.. And all the other women of the Shoah.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bush's Mideast U-Turn - By Natan Sharansky and Bassem Eid

Bush's Mideast U-Turn

Wall St. Journal - February 11, 2008; Page A19

On June 24, 2002, President Bush presented his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. That we both would have greeted Mr. Bush's speech with the same enthusiasm may come as a surprise.

One of us is a former Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the Gulag and, after joining his people in Jerusalem, spent a decade in Israeli political life, serving as a cabinet minister during most of that time. The other is a Palestinian who has devoted his life to exposing human rights abuses perpetrated against his people, regardless of whether the government committing those abuses was Israeli or Palestinian. One is a Jew convinced of his people's just claim to the Land of Israel. The other is an Arab convinced of his people's just claim to the same land.

Yet while we have real disagreements that would make an historic compromise very difficult and painful, we are fully in agreement that the only path to peace lies in building a free Palestinian society -- a path Mr. Bush boldly laid out in his historic speech.

Unfortunately, encouraged by short-sighted Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Bush administration, now entering its final year in office, has resuscitated the failed policies of the past that have brought nothing but tragedy, terror and war and that have only pushed peace further away.

The real breakthrough of Mr. Bush's vision five-and-a-half years ago was not his call for a two-state solution or even the call for Palestinians to "choose leaders not compromised by terror." Rather, the breakthrough was in making peace conditional on a fundamental transformation of Palestinian society: "I call upon [Palestinians] to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. . . . A Palestinian state will never be created by terror -- it will be built through reform. And reform must be more than cosmetic change, or veiled attempt to preserve the status quo. True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism."

Many critics argued at the time that linking the peace process to a transformation of Palestinian society was a radical departure in peacemaking. It was. And it was long overdue.

What had guided policymakers for the previous decade was the idea that a "moderate" Palestinian leader who would fight terror and make peace with Israel needed to be "strengthened" at all costs. Yasser Arafat was their moderate. He was given territory, weapons, money and a warm diplomatic embrace.

Completely ignored was what was happening within Palestinian society. As Arafat was hollowing out civil society, handing control of the economy to corrupt cronies, squirreling away billions of dollars into his private accounts, trampling on the rights of his own people, and using PA-controlled media and schools to indoctrinate a generation into a culture of hatred, the international community's bear hug only tightened. Indeed, Arafat's emerging dictatorship was seen as an asset in the peace process. Here was the "strong" leader, it was argued, who could make a deal. Nothing should be done to weaken him.

Mr. Bush's speech was supposed to change all this. It was supposed to shift the focus to where it should have always been: on helping Palestinians build a decent society that would protect the rights of their own people and promote peace with its neighbors. It was supposed to begin the hard work of helping Palestinians reconstruct their civil society, build a free economy, establish real courts, reform their security services, and revamp their educational system.

President Bush deserves much credit for placing a spotlight on the issues of democracy and human rights and for his firm belief that the advance of freedom is critical for international peace and stability. He made this idea a focus of his second inaugural address and reiterated it last June in Prague at a conference of dissidents from around the world. Last month, President Bush did not flinch from speaking about freedom and human rights in the heart of Arabia.

But the past few years have shown that when it comes to dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, the vital link between freedom and peace is almost entirely ignored. True, the administration is not doing anything against the wishes of the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership. But just as the Oslo peace process of the 1990s was a disaster that Israeli and Palestinian leaders wholeheartedly embraced, the current peacemaking round will prove equally disastrous because it ignores what is most important.

Rather than begin the long and difficult process to transform Palestinian society and ultimately pave the road to peace, the administration has consistently supported quick and foolish solutions: from crafting a "road map" that only paid lip service to reform; to backing a unilateral disengagement that by its nature ignored Palestinian society; to pressing for snap elections that preceded rather than followed reform and thereby brought Hamas to power.

When Arafat passed from the scene, we hoped that the Bush vision would finally be given a chance. But all that has happened is that President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and Prime Minister Salam Fayad have become the new "moderates" who need to be strengthened at all costs. Rather than establish a clear link between support for the PA and reform, and openly embrace the genuine Palestinian reformers who are the democratic world's true allies, Abu Mazen is promised billions despite having done nothing. With the media entirely under his control, incitement continues and no one raises serious objections. He is, we are told, too "weak" to take action.

A few weeks ago, in a meeting with a high ranking official responsible for European foreign policy, one of us (Mr. Sharansky) spoke about the need to support the work of the other (Mr. Eid) in promoting democracy and human rights in the Palestinian territories. After the European leader expressed his deep commitment to peace, democracy and human rights, he asked the all important question: "What is his [Mr. Eid's] relationship to Abu Mazen?" After hearing that it was strained because of constant criticism of Abu Mazen's failure to reform, the official's enthusiasm quickly evaporated. "That will be a problem. We cannot do anything that will undermine Abu Mazen." This new-old attitude reminds one of the absurdity of those who refused to support democratic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain because they were undermining their leaders.

President Bush should spend his final year in office helping Palestinians begin the transformation of their society so that the vision he once spoke of so eloquently will have a chance to come to fruition some day. We have wasted too much time strengthening leaders and reaching for the moon. Let's start strengthening Palestinian society and begin a real peace process once and for all.

Mr. Eid is executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Mr. Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.

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