Thursday, July 19, 2007

The death of heresy

How do we define the parameters of
our civilization without
creating 'mutually exclusive Judaisms'?

The first heretic I encountered was an instructor who taught introductory philosophy at Brooklyn College. "There's no way to pass this course if you believe in God," he announced on the first day of class.

My cloistered yeshiva life barely behind me, I found myself in 1972 sitting in the same classroom with girls and goyim, and an atheist for a teacher.

The memory came to mind when I heard that another former Brooklyn College professor of mine, historian and Orthodox rabbi David Berger, was in Jerusalem. Berger, who will be assuming a new position at Yeshiva University this Fall, was here to lecture at a symposium entitled "Defining Heresy: The Shifting Boundaries of Religion" at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University.

Berger's presence at Brooklyn College was immensely reassuring. He was a modern Orthodox Jew (by which I mean strictly observant, yet seeking to engage with modernity). Whether he knew it or not, he was a role model for many of the yarmulke wearers on campus.

Unlike the philosophy instructor, whose name I no longer remember, Berger wasn't all flash and no fire, but a scholar of substance. He came to class prepared and his lectures were lucid. To this day I've kept my notes from his courses on ancient and modern Jewish history.

I MET UP with Berger, who is also a leading expert on Catholic-Jewish relations, intending to ask him about Pope Benedict XVI's decision to make it easier for a minority of Catholic priests who want to celebrate the Tridentine Mass to do so. This mass, recited in Latin, was the prevailing custom from 1545 until 1962.

The Catholic mass is more than just a series of prayers; faithful participants believe they are literally experiencing Jesus's sacrifice.

The problem with the Latin mass, from the Jewish perspective, is that it once contained a reference (removed by Pope John XXIII) to "perfidious [or faithless] Jews."

The Good Friday liturgy of the Tridentine Mass includes, according to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the following prayer: "Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: 'Almighty and everlasting God, You do not refuse Your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of Your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness.'"

Foxman argued that reciting this supplication would be "a body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations."

BERGER TOLD me he still wanted clarification on whether the prayer would indeed be included. If it's in, he would prefer the courteous lobbying approach spearheaded by the International Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which had already sent a letter of inquiry to Walter Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican's emissary to the Jews. It was signed by AJCommittee's Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Richard Marker, an academic, and veteran Jewish leader Seymour Reich.

Berger, who articulates his words in measured, thoughtful and precise phrases, isn't comfortable with the idea of telling Christians what to believe about their own religion. In a recent New York Jewish Week op-ed, he wrote: "While Christian revision of teachings that contain the potential of spawning anti-Semitism is very much the Jewish interest, Jews need to be cautious about making demands that can create resentment and backlash and even legitimize Christian demands for reciprocal revisions in Judaism."

Berger went on to argue that the "imperative of self-defense allows Jews to pursue a carefully formulated argument that Christians should refrain" from proselytizing. But just where to draw the line, he says, is something to agonize over - not yell about.

WHY IS the Latin mass important to Pope Benedict? It's because he wants theologically conservative Catholics, of which he's one, to feel spiritually at home in the Church.

A tiny schismatic faction led by the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre split from Rome in 1988 because it felt the Church was pursuing a wide range of heretical reforms - jettisoning the Latin mass being just one instance.

For the ultra-conservatives, making it easier to conduct the Tridentine Mass is too little, too late; while for theologically liberal Catholics the decision is seen as a capitulation to the Lefebvrists. Liberals worry that the Vatican is embarking on a journey that could reverse 40 years of innovation.

Today's mass is recited in the vernacular, priests face worshipers, there is congregational participation and various forms of religious music are allowed.

To add to his troubles, Pope Benedict has come under criticism from Protestants for proclaiming last week that there were "defects" in their beliefs. The Vatican holds that while Protestants are part of the "Christian community" they are separated from the true Church - meaning from direct lineage to Jesus's original apostles claimed by Rome.

BERGER AND I didn't talk much more about the Latin mass. His being in town lecturing on heresy led to the subject of Chabad. His book The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is the most powerful polemic against what's become of the Lubavitchers.
As Berger sees it, their theology is distinctly at variance with the established religious beliefs of Jewish Orthodoxy.

Here's the rub: The Lubavitchers' beliefs are a problem for Berger precisely because he's a true believer himself. He takes to heart the Thirteen Principles of Faith, in which Maimonides (1135-1204) summarized Jewish dogma. Were Chabad not viewed by so many as "Orthodox," Berger would be less anxious about their inroads into Jewish life; the Lubavitchers would be just another schismatic group. The problem is that Chabad looks Orthodox, walks Orthodox, quacks Orthodox.

I asked Berger why the Chabad issue hardly makes any waves in the Orthodox world. His answer was that the Orthodox delude themselves into thinking that only a minority of Chabadniks are messianic - when a majority is. To the extent that there is a minority in Chabad, it is the faction that worships the Rebbe as an outright deity.

"The Orthodox are also insensitive to the key point that recognizing messianists as Orthodox rabbis legitimates this belief within Orthodoxy irrespective of the number of believers," he said.

Faced by Chabad's extraordinary theological assault from within, Orthodox leaders pursue the path of least resistance. Their approach is to avoid acrimonious confrontation (I suppose they save that for gays, Russians who want to convert, the secular, and the other major streams of Judaism).

Maybe, Berger surmised, the Orthodox tell themselves: This Rebbe-messiah business is a passing fad. Anyway, each Orthodox sect looks after its own interests, and there is no advantage in taking on Chabad. Conversely, the Orthodox world is interdependent. To openly challenge Chabad across the globe would be an undertaking of immense proportions and debilitating to Orthodox interests.

So when Orthodox people see Chabad doing good deeds, working with drug addicts, feeding the hungry, providing low-cost day care and bringing kosher meals and holiday services to places off the beaten track, there is no incentive in asking: But in the service of what religion are they doing all this?

No incentive that is - absent theology.

Berger has argued that Orthodoxy forbids the belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1994, will return to redeem the Jewish people. There is no Second Coming in Judaism.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to detach Berger's efforts to sound the alarm in the Orthodox community about Chabad from his own Orthodoxy. What Berger is saying is that, even putting aside the Chabad issue, Judaism has a creed.

And for him, Maimonides's Thirteen Principles best provide the parameters of Jewish faith, although reasonable believers have differed about the application, interpretation or inclusion of one or another of the Thirteen.

Berger told me that while Halacha can be arrived at by consensus, dogma can't. You either accept that God dictated the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, or you don't; that He is incorporeal, or He isn't; that God knows everything we think, or He doesn't; that there is reward and punishment, or there isn't; that the Messiah will come, or that he is a myth; that there will be a resurrection of the dead, or that they will stay as they are.

To be a genuinely Orthodox Jew, according to Berger, it isn't enough to "do"; one must also "believe" in the doctrine.

Not surprisingly, there are other modern Orthodox scholars who disagree with Berger on the importance of Maimonides's Thirteen Principles. Marc Shapiro, a Judaic Studies professor at the University of Scranton, argues in The Limits of Orthodox Theology that Maimonides's principles never enjoyed universal acceptance in the rabbinic world - the implication being that even traditionalists can't agree on a clear expression of dogma.

University of Haifa professor Menachem Kellner in Must a Jew Believe Anything? goes further in arguing that not only doesn't Judaism have a dogma; we shouldn't go down that road because it could create a future of mutually exclusive "Judaisms."

IT'S HARD not to admire Berger's spiritual integrity and his fidelity to classical Judaism. I share his concerns about Chabad - not because they've shifted from Orthodoxy (so have I), but because they're starting to look too much like the competition. At the same time, I'm not comfortable with the idea of a Jewish catechism.

My hunch is Berger realizes his brand of modern Orthodoxy, which insists on blending modernity and dogma, is not on the ascent. If anything, it seems to be losing ground - to the progressive streams, which have modified (or discounted) classical dogma, and to the ultra-Orthodox world which, arguably, emphasizes ritual over theology.

There is, however, a larger issue at stake. It may well be that heresy is dead. Boundaries, as Prof. Kellner aptly cautions, would pave the way toward a world of "mutually exclusive Judaisms." And that's a disquieting prospect.

Yet the demise of dogma is not just a setback for true believers like David Berger. It poses a challenge for the rest of us in defining the parameters - maybe not of the Jewish faith, but of Jewish civilization.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Why living in Israel
is like being a
recovering alcoholic

This will be my 10th Fourth of July as an American expatriate living in Israel. Compared to my colleagues, friends and neighbors, I'm still a greenhorn. Nevertheless, 10 years - and two weeks - is something of a milestone.

When people from the Old Country ask me what I miss most about my former Manhattan life, I can't give them a straightforward answer. Sure, I miss easy access to Manhattan's bookstores, bicycling along the East River, and above all else going to sleep on a Saturday night comforted by the knowledge that next morning is Sunday.

In other respects, fulfilling the Zionist dream - assuming you find work - scarcely demands much deprivation.

Most American Jews have never visited Israel, so I often get asked about the dangers of life here. The threat of violence concerns me, but only up to a point. There were years in New York when stepping outside the door involved a leap of faith. The worst was 1990, when 2,262 denizens of the five boroughs were murdered. Compare that to 2002, the worst year of the second intifada, when 451 Israelis were killed.

New York is a lot safer these days, but there are still rapists loose in Prospect Park and murderers on the Q train.

As for the mullahs, their rapacious appetites will hardly be satiated by an attack on Israel alone. In a clash of civilizations, it almost doesn't matter where you live.

I CAN'T profess to miss New York's unparalleled cultural attractions - theater, ballet, concerts and museums. Who had the time? Fact is, I've enjoyed more of these as a visitor than I did as a resident.

I do miss the water. The Big Apple is spending $700,000 on an advertising campaign to encourage locals to drink its tap water. Meantime, I've gotten used to lugging bottles of mineral water up the three flights to our apartment.

Which reminds me - I miss having an elevator.

There's plenty about Israel that's uplifting. Take electrical power. The Israel Electric Company generated a record 9,670 megawatts of power, an all-time record, during last week's heat wave. To its credit - and good fortune - the air-conditioners kept humming. (Oh, I also miss not having air-conditioning at home.)

At about the same time New York was experiencing its own heat wave, but Con Ed couldn't keep up with demand, forcing the utility to pull the plug on parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had to be evacuated and the Lexington Avenue subways were brought to a sudden halt for hours.

JERUSALEM is hardly immune to the frustrations that make urban life a challenge. Traffic congestion can be maddening. Hebron Road, a main north-south thoroughfare, is frequently bumper-to-bumper during my morning commute; the boulevard's been dug up, repaved and dug up so many times, locals are convinced the work has no real purpose other than to vex commuters and enrich contractors.

Forget about bringing a private car into the municipal center. City fathers have come up with "new traffic patterns" to keep motorists driving in circles. As for public transportation, don't get me started about all the time I waste waiting for the No. 7; or about Egged drivers who, with lead-footed acceleration and precipitous braking, seem to derive a perverse pleasure from keeping elderly passengers airborne.

If the Big Apple has kinder and gentler bus operators, its traffic is anything but. I'm reliably informed that the Van Wyck Expressway was so backed up last Thursday it looked like one very long parking lot. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing for an auto congestion charge (like the one in London) that would make driving in Manhattan even more brutish.

SO IT'S not the supposed deprivation, or the hassles of daily life that make living in Israel a pressure-cooker for me, but rather being out of tune with the Israeli psyche. Had I come at a younger age and gone though the army and college, I'd have been better acculturated. Instead, I'm often left perplexed. In New York, I was street-wise; here I'm a freier.

The biggest disappointment is the realization that Israeli Jews aren't just like their Diaspora cousins.

When someone behaved in a loutish manner on the F train, or carried on inappropriately, I would remind myself that "they" weren't Jewish; what could you expect?

Israel has cured me of that prejudice. Here the yobs are almost exclusively Jewish. In the Diaspora we felt a bourgeois responsibility to deport ourselves properly "in front of the goyim." Living in Israel, in contrast, is like living with a large dysfunctional family. No one, and I mean no one, is embarrassed to behave in a boorish manner.

THERE IS also the discomfiture that comes with not having native-level Hebrew. The other day, I needed a chest X-ray and could've sworn the technician mumbled something about whether I was a fox.

I later figured out she was inquiring if I had a cough.

The inscrutable Israeli psyche is particularly in-your-face on the roads. Signaling before switching lanes is frowned upon, and I'm still not culturally attuned enough to comprehend why someone with a "Peace Now" bumper sticker won't trade a car-length for peace, or why a fellow with "A Jew does not expel another Jew" anti-disengagement sticker has no compunction about forcing this Jew off the road.

Bottom line? The hardest part about living in Israel is adjusting to the mores of the natives, and remembering that I would be setting myself up for endless grief to expect native-born Israelis to embrace the values I brought with me.

Which is why making aliya is a little like being in a program for recovering alcoholics - you've gotta take life one day, one Fourth of July, at a time.

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