Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Orthodox atheist rabbi speaks out

The blogosphere has had its share of honest, sometimes too-honest, rabbis and rebbetzins writing about the challenges of their work, and more often than not carping about their congregants (fair enough, most congregants spend quite a lot of time carping about their rabbi). Mostly, they have elected to stay anonymous, aware that much of what they write could get them fired.

Well, we now have a new contender for the most revelatory rabbinic blog. The Orthoprax rabbi is billed as "The Musings of an Atheist Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation":

I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue. I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids). This is all pretty unremarkable. But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not. I don’t believe in any of it. I am an atheist. I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.

How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple. A rabbi is a job like any other. No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client. Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons. Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in. Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky. Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons. I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff. My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise - so what’s wrong if I don’t believe. My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance. I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied. So do my beliefs matter?

So, assuming this is all bona fide, a few points.

-- Strictly speaking, this is not an Orthoprax rabbi - ie someone who practises Orthodoxy although he does not really believe in it - because he says he doesn't really keep much of Jewish law. He is really just an atheist with an inappropriate day job.

-- Blogger Harry Maryles and many of his readers seem very shocked by this man's existence. I don't see why. Over the past few years, the blogosphere has clearly shown that the Orthodox world is packed full of people with less than perfect faith. Indeed, there seems to be a massive range of beliefs and compromises - from outright sceptics living fully observant lives to people steeped in doubt, right through to those leading double lives, sinning in private while maintaining a 'frum' cover, often for the sake of their children. The internet has shown many of these people to be highly educated Jews, capable of very serious discourse on God's existence and other philosophical issues, biblical criticism, historical analysis etc. Very often they remain fully committed to Jewish life. Why should they not be rabbis? (As one of Harry Maryles's commentators pointed out, there are certainly equivalent Christian clergymen; I am also told that there is a new series on BBC2, Rev, which portrays the life of one such vicar with doubts.)

-- Personally, I think this rabbi's beliefs do matter. I would have had no issue had he declared himself to be someone who struggles with faith, or someone who has had rare moments of faith, and lives his life trying to get back to those points. These seem very natural and normal statements which are surely true for many religious people (as I have written before, we have done ourselves a great disservice by making it almost taboo to admit any spiritual wobbles). Even if you are struggling with God, you are in a relationship with Him. But this rabbi is not saying that. He is a complete atheist, who does not believe in God, period. And yet, he is preaching God's word. He is reducing religion to a charade, which is frankly an insult to his congregants.

-- Just to be clear, I don't think that being an atheist precludes you from living a fully ritually observant and Jewish life. There are clearly many such people about, all with their own reasons for continuing to practise. I do think it precludes you from being an Orthodox rabbi.

-- Anyone who thinks that tending to the spiritual needs of others is a mechanical function equivalent to plumbing needs to switch jobs.

So, what do you think? How would you feel if you discovered your rabbi was an atheist? And is this a bigger or smaller problem than Orthodox women rabbis? (Ok, I was just being facetious with the last one.) I am particularly keen to hear from the small number of rabbis I know read this blog - anonymously, of course....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Israel test

According to the Guardian,

The British and Irish governments were today investigating allegations that members of a suspected Russian spy ring living under deep cover in the US had travelled using false passports from their countries.

It will be interesting to see whether they expel a Russian diplomat over this.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Gaza's life expectancy

Here's a riddle.

According to the CIA World Factbook (2009), life expectancy in Lebanon is 73.66. Egypt's is 71.12. Turkey's is 71.96. Iran's is 71.14. Pakistan's is 64.49.

What is life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza?

(Answer here.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The real problem with writing novels about the Holocaust

Over the past few weeks, the literary world and Holocaust scholars have been engaged in two rows over fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust.

One is Annexed by Sharon Dogar - a novel written from the point of view of Peter van Pels, the boy who was in hiding with Anne Frank, and suggesting that the two teenagers had a sexual relationship. Some Holocaust charities, in particular, have taken exception and claim that fictionalising the story risks trivialising Anne's life. The other is Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel, which concerns a taxidermist writing a play about the Holocaust. It has been absolutely savaged in the reviews, and some have apparently suggested that Martel, as a non-Jew, had no business writing about the Holocaust, leading him to publicly state that "Jews do not own the Holocaust".

Personally, I have no problem with the Holocaust being fictionalised. No subject should be out of bounds and a good book on the Holocaust can be worth 1,000 Holocaust ceremonies in terms of bringing the horror home to those who know little about it (see: Sophie's Choice). I certainly have no problem with non-Jews writing about the Holocaust. The Jewish community spends a lot of energy working to raise awareness of the Holocaust in the general population, how can they possibly complain when non-Jews treat it seriously?

No, the real problem in both these cases is entirely different. Would anyone have complained about Martel had his new novel been able to offer some powerful new insight, some memorable images? Would anyone have complained about Dogar had she not included the unnecessary - and some might say slanderous - sexual angle?

Their real "crime" is not to have fictionalised the Holocaust - but to have done it badly.

With friends like these...

I have a piece in the Forward this week about the kinds of friends Israel does not need. It has already generated some heated responses:

Israel needs friends in Europe, but there are some friends that it could do without.

In June, the English Defence League, a thuggish anti-Muslim group known for its raucous (and sometimes violent) street protests, launched a Jewish division, attracting at least a handful of Jews among the 500 fans on its “Jewish Division” Facebook page. The EDL had previously brandished Israeli flags at demonstrations to taunt its Muslim opponents, and even announced its intent to join a pro-Israel rally organized by Britain’s Zionist Federation following the recent Gaza flotilla crisis. (The rally’s organizers distanced themselves from the EDL, which has been condemned by mainstream Jewish communal groups; ultimately, EDL members weren’t much in evidence at the rally.)

While the EDL may be a fringe group, its embrace of Israel activism is part of a growing trend. Over the past few years, a string of politicians and factions on Europe’s far right, particularly those with anti-Muslim agendas, have taken to expressing strong support for the Jewish state.

Read the rest, and please come back here to comment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why Jews love Chinese food

A comment by Elena Kagan, the American Supreme Court nominee, has set the Jewish blogosphere and Twittersphere (??) on fire.

As part of her confirmation hearing, she was asked where she was on Christmas Day last year. She answered: "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant" - provoking much laughter.

So what is it with American Jews and Chinese food on Christmas day?

The obvious answer (as Senator Chuck Schumer helpfully pointed out amid the general hilarity following Ms Kagan's remark) is that there are very few restaurants, other than Chinese ones, open on Christmas. But the Jewish romance with Chinese food goes much further.

I always understood that part of the attraction was that many Chinese are lactose-intolerant, and therefore Chinese food does not involve a lot of milk products, making it easier to reproduce if you are kosher.

Hanna Raskin, who wrote a book about Jews and Chinese food, adds that Jewish immigrants to NYC thought that Chinese food was 'sophisticated' and adopted it as part of their assimilation process; they also felt more welcome in many Chinese restaurants than in mainstream, WASPish ones. But perhaps most importantly,

Location, location, location. Chinatown butted up against the Lower East Side, which made it easy for Jewish residents to grab dinner at a dumpling house. And, as Schumer would point out, those neighborhood restaurants were open even on Sundays. But here's the real importance of geography: The vast majority of American Jews trace their roots to the Lower East Side, meaning New York traditions became Jewish traditions. While Italian and Irish immigrants in New York certainly enjoyed Chinese food too, their brethren in Boston and Milwaukee and St. Louis didn't pick up the same habit -- or decide it was central to their ethnic group's identity. Jews eat Chinese food largely because that's what early 20th-century New Yorkers did.

Hey, that's good enough for me....

Worm-shaped berries and blue bananas, only in Israel

The LA Times reports:

If Willy Wonka had a farm, it would fit right in here in Israel.

Want a lemon-scented tomato or a chocolate-colored persimmon? How about some miniaturized garlic cloves for the home chef who doesn't have time to chop, or a purple potato that tastes buttery when cooked?

There are no chocolate rivers or edible teacup flowers on Israeli farms, but you will find carrots shaped like potatoes, strawberries shaped like carrots, star-shaped zucchini and "watermelon" tomatoes — dark green on the outside with a juicy red flesh.

There are also specially bred red peppers with three times the usual amount of vitamins, and black chickpeas with extra antioxidants. Not to mention worm-shaped berries and blue bananas.

Though some mock such colorful crops as "frankenfruit," an Israeli tomato breeder, Hazera Genetics, has created a boutique crop worth more than its weight in gold.

Not sure about the blue bananas. But read the whole thing here.

Gaza's food problem

Media Backspin links to some recent AP and AFP pictures of Gaza, showing buzzing markets and well-stocked supermarkets, backing up what the JC's own stringer in Gaza, Moeen Elhelou, wrote a couple of weeks back. While not all foods may be available, there is no food shortage per se.

As a side-note, it is interesting to see how many of the products in the pictures are labelled in Hebrew and are clearly imported from Israeli suppliers. If the Israelis are out to starve the people of Gaza, as its enemies allege, they are going about it in a very strange way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bloom's restaurant, you were awful but we'll miss you

Forget the flotilla, and the increasing mess of admissions to Jewish schools. The real story for British Jews this week is the closure of Bloom's restaurant in Golders Green, an Anglo-Jewish treasure if ever there was one. And not in a good way.

As food critic Jay Rayner put it a couple of years back: "Bloom's is an institution. Mind you, so is Broadmoor [prison], and nobody ever went there for dinner."

Read the rest of his classic review. It is hilarious.

But then we all have outrageous Bloom's stories. One of my favourites concerns friends of my husband's family, who both ordered chicken legs. Much to their annoyance, the waiter kept on pushing the husband to try the chicken breast instead. Finally, he confessed that because so many people ordered chicken legs and 'not enough' people were ordering chicken breasts, they instituted a policy of one chicken leg per table.

The couple got up and left. But years later, they went to Bloom's again. Remembering what had happened last time, they sat at seperate tables and both ordered chicken legs. Once they were safely served, they greeted each other like lost friends and moved to the same table....

Another friend of the family ordered lemon tea. Having been there before, they told the waiter to make sure they used a clean glass. When the waiter finally came out with several drinks he couldn't remember who had ordered what, so he yelled out to the entire restaurant: "Who ordered the clean glass?"

Feel free to share your own memories below......

Hey, liberals: Palestinians need 'tough love' too

Bret Stephens poses an excellent question:

What does it mean to be a friend of Israel? What does it mean to be a friend of the Palestinians? And should the same standards of friendship apply to Israelis and Palestinians alike, or is there a double standard here as well?

It has become the predictable refrain among Israel's liberal critics that their criticism is, in fact, the deepest form of friendship. Who but a real friend, after all, is willing to tell Israel the hard truths it will not tell itself? Who will remind Israel that it is now the strong party, and that it cannot continue to play the victim and evade the duties of moral judgment and prudential restraint? Above all, who will remind Israel that it cannot go on denying Palestinians their rights, their dignity, and a country they can call their own?

The answer, say people like Peter Beinart, formerly of the New Republic, is people like . . . Peter Beinart. And now that Israel has found itself in another public relations hole thanks to last week's raid on the Gaza flotilla, Israelis will surely be hearing a lot more from him.

Now consider what it means for liberals to be friends of the Palestinians.

Here, the criticism becomes oddly muted. So Egypt, a country that also once occupied Gaza, enforces precisely the same blockade on the Strip as Israel: Do liberal friends of Palestine urge the Obama administration to get tough on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as they urge him to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? So a bunch of "peace" activists teams up with a Turkish group of virulently anti-Semitic bent and with links both to Hamas and al Qaeda: Does this prompt liberal soul-searching about the moral drift of the pro-Palestinian movement? So Hamas trashes a U.N.-run school, as it did the other week, because it educates girls: Do liberals wag stern fingers at Palestinians for giving up on the dream of a secular, progressive state?

Well, no. And no. And no. Instead, liberal support for Palestinians is now mainly of the no-hard-questions-asked variety. But that is precisely the kind of support that liberals decry as toxic when it comes to Western support for Israel.

Read the rest here. It's one of the best pieces on Israel/Palestinians I've read in ages. (If you come up against the paywall, click on the first link here.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bummer, that

The New York Times has stopped Jeffrey Goldberg using the word 'tuchus' in print (forcing him to say 'tush' instead).

They're very conservative in New York....

The Ironic Orthodox generation

Across the pond, there seems to be an emerging consensus that something is changing in Orthodoxy, particularly on its left wing. The problem is that no one is exactly sure what. Over the past year, there have been several attempts to define this new breed of Orthodox Jew, loosely labelled - thanks to Hirhurim - 'post-Orthodox'. To me this definition has always seemed a libel, a malicious attempt to push those on the left of Orthodoxy out of the movement, and I reject it entirely.

Now, courtesy of the great ADDeRabbi, comes 'Ironic Orthodoxy' (a group of which he generally approves, and to which he says he partially belongs):

The Ironic Orthodox generation is the generation that comes after the Great Post-1967 Orthodox Awakening. The Ironic Orthodox are largely day-school and yeshiva educated. With their grandparents they share a certain comfort in their own Orthodox skin; to them, Orthodoxy is familiar, natural, and organizes their lives. With their parents they share a familiarity with the world of Jewish learning and are even able to access that learning to a large degree.

The Ironic Orthodox generation does not buy into the apologetics: not about the status of women, not about the integrity of the transmission of the Oral Law, not about the "timelessness" of obviously time-bound religious laws, customs, and ideas, etc. This generation is hard to inspire; its demeanor is skeptical and ironic, somewhat aloof and dispassionate. Their irony is not a dramatic irony - like Statler and Waldorf observing the and criticizing the show yet remaining very much a part of it - but a jocular or sarcastic attitude or perhaps even a post-irony that simultaneously adheres to and mocks traditional religious structures. Yet it's not a bitter or angry mocking. It seems to be more of a taking-for-granted of life's absurdities and of the failure of ideology to explain or animate the full gamut of practice. It does not necessarily advocate or seek change.

The acclaimed Israeli TV show "Srugim" is an example of Ironic Orthodoxy - from the camera lens's perspective, even if it does not necessarily describe any character in particular. The lens captures both the familiarity and the absurdity of contemporary Orthodox living. In an odd way, despite the fact that, as Shai points out, the only "normal" character in the show is hiloni, its portrait of contemporary Orthodox life is far from unsympathetic. Blogs, especially those that combine deep literacy, adherence, and irreverence - are examples as well.

What he is describing here is not limited to the left-wing Orthodox, but those who do belong to this group have two characteristics in common: they have a good secular education, and a good Jewish education. A good secular education, because this gives them the 'ironic' attitude; and a good Jewish education, because what they are engaging in is a sophisticated critique of the system (indeed, it takes a certain level of education to understand that it is a 'system' in the first place). The majority of ADDeRabbi's commentators, who seem to assume that the 'ironic Orthodox' are ignorant, at least Jewishly, have it the wrong way round.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fast-roping 101

Via Abu Muqawama, a blog on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies hosted by the Center for a New American security. Take a look also at this post, particularly the bits about Israel's loss of deterrence and its army's loss of standing amongst other military personnel.

Giving Hamas a chance

Nick Cohen, in the Guardian, has written an impassioned and generally excellent piece on the real reason the Arab states attack Israel, and the effect this has on Western liberals. Read it in its entirety.

Towards the end, however, he makes the following disturbing suggestion:

Israelis are not being irrational [about fears of Hamas re-arming if the blockade is relaxed - MS]. The same fears persuade the Egyptian government to blockade Gaza from the south, although we rarely hear about that. But the way to handle hypocrites is not to say as Israelis do that "the world will condemn us whatever policy we follow" but to call their bluff. If Israel were to relax the import restrictions and Hamas were to rearm, reasonable opinion, including reasonable Palestinian opinion, would see it for what it would be: a declaration of war.

This is extremely naive. Look what happened in southern Lebanon after the second Lebanon war in 2006. The international community fully guaranteed that Hizbollah would not be allowed to re-arm with UN Security Council resolution 1701. Did that stop Hizbollah building an even larger stockpile of illegal weapons than before? No. Did anyone see that as a declaration of war? No. The West has turned a blind eye, preferring an easy life to fulfilling its difficult commitments.

The result: growing chatter in Israel about the increasing likelihood of another northern war.

The idea that the international community would behave any differently if the Gaza blockade was relaxed is frankly laughable.

In any case, who exactly is 'reasonable opinion'? And do they have any influence? So far I haven't seen much evidence....

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The question Israel's accusers have failed to answer

A confused editorial, I think, in the Times today.

The bulk of the leader is spent explaining why the passengers on the Mavi Marmara were a "lynch mob" who were clearly out to kill Israeli soldiers, there not to deliver aid but to gain publicity. It also asks some difficult questions of the Turkish government and its role in this episode (though in my opinion, not difficult enough).

So far, so good - in fact, so refreshing.

What I have a problem with is the first and last paragraphs. They read:

The Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza, which left at least nine dead, was a disaster. It was poorly conceived, incompetently executed and entirely counter-productive.

Israel has a right to defend its borders, but also a responsibility towards its citizens and friends to remain a beacon of civilised conduct in the Middle East. When it fails in this responsibility, the problem is not its alone. Israel’s friends believe in Israel because they believe in the ideals that it represents. On Monday morning, Israel fell short of these ideals....

None of this is to provide an apologia for Israel’s cack-handed actions, or to diminish the tragedy of those who died. But Israel’s greatest mistake, in behaving as a villain, has been to create an environment in which its enemies can be portrayed as not villainous at all. The truth is very different.

The problem is that the Times has singularly failed to show how, exactly, Israel behaved as a "villain", failing to show "civilised conduct". The the operation was "Poorly conceived, incompetently executed and entirely counter-productive" - yes. But how exactly does this add up to uncivilised conduct? To some kind of moral stain?

This is nothing more than a slur, which The Times (whose Israel editorials are often extremely balanced and fair) has lazily recycled from conventional wisdom.

The question I would like the Times (and all those accusing Israel of immoral behaviour on deck) to answer is this. After spending over 40 minutes being stabbed, thrown off decks, confronted with explosive devices, hit with metal rods, having their guns snatched and turned against them, seeing their helicopter tethered to the deck - being, as the Times itself admitted, met by a "lynch mob", and in fear of their lives, what exactly did it expect the Israeli soldiers to do?

Why Israel is unlikely to get a fair press in Europe

I could hardly bring myself to read the accounts of the raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in the British press on Monday. It was simply too painful.

First, it was obvious that by opening fire Israel had committed a fatal strategic error, walking into a trap set by the so-called “peace activists”. How could it have been so stupid?

But beyond that, it was the media’s demonisation of Israel — its insistence Israel was evil in intent, not merely inept — which felt unbearable.

Israel was routinely accused of enforcing an “illegal” blockade (though it was legal), and of targeting saintly aid workers (ignoring the terror connections of many passengers). Multiple outlets blasted Israel for attacking passengers with “primitive weapons” (ignoring the metal bars, knives, explosive devices, and guns snatched from the soldiers), and mocked its claims that it was forced into violence (though the soldiers’ main weapon was paintball guns). Then Israel was accused of “kidnapping” British citizens.

Is it any wonder that, according to a YouGov poll this week, only 18 per cent of Britons believe the Israeli forces acted out of self-defence?

Israeli analysts have tried to figure out whether the media strategy could have been better handled. But it seems unlikely that the tone of the coverage would have been substantially different if only the IDF had released its footage a couple of hours earlier.

Facts did not seem to matter — because the battle for the hearts and minds of the West is no longer about facts. It is about values. And the values which Israel must live by are increasingly incompatible with some of the key values shaping the West.

European citizens, in particular, are anti-warfare and anti-military; many are practically pacifists. Israel, continually fighting for its citizens’ physical safety and indeed its own existence, can never meet this standard.

During conflict, the underdog is always favoured. Rich Israel will never be perceived this way as long as it fights poor Palestinians, no matter how many enemies surround it, how many of its citizens are killed or how often it offers to settle the conflict.

Nationalism is passé in Europe, busily trying to subsume its individual countries into the EU project. But it is the very basis of Israel’s existence.

Most of all, Europeans appear to want to appease Islamists. Israel does not, and cannot, if it wishes to survive.

Now, I am convinced that it is Israel which holds the moral high ground here; that the European attitudes are redolent of a declining continent, too lazy — intellectually and physically — to fight for true liberal values.

But ultimately, this is cold comfort. It doesn’t matter how right Israel is. As long as it remains out of step with the zeitgeist, it will remain on the path towards pariah state.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Why dictionaries should be allowed through the blockade

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators, again, show a limited understanding of the word 'peaceful':

Protesters demonstrating against the Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid ship have attempted to storm the BBC in Manchester.

More than 800 people marched through the city centre
and down Oxford Road, where the crowd surged at the BBC's entrance,
smashing its front doors.

One man climbed to the top of the building to plant a Palestinian flag and there were at least three arrests...

Talat Ali, 40, organizer from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign said:
"This is a peaceful demonstration against the attack that has taken
place on the Gaza flotilla."

Wonder where they got their definition from?