Thursday, December 27, 2007


Watch out, Amos Oz and David Grossman, I'm propheysing too

British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Haaretz last week that when visiting Israel he prefers to spend time with what the paper termed the new prophets of the Jewish people. "I've tried to begin a serious conversation with Amos Oz and David Grossman, either of whom would have been prophets if they were religious," said Sacks.

This leads me to reveal here (for the first time) that along with Grossman and Oz, I too have prophetic talents. With the New Year just around the corner, and with a tip of the hat to Jeane Dixon, here are my own predictions for 2008.

January: To the surprise of some and the chagrin of others, Mahmoud Abbas tells the London-based Asharq al-Awsat that the Palestinian Arabs indeed recognize the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in Palestine.

"Let us share the land in harmony; we in our state and you in yours. Just as Arabs live as citizens in Israel, I invite Jews to stay in their West Bank communities and enjoy dual citizenship. You have returned to the heartland of your civilization. Whatever our differences over this disputed land, we can work them out."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad declares that with the billions Palestine is receiving in international aid, his goal is to turn the West Bank and Gaza into "the Singapore of the Middle East."

Several hundred thousand Palestinians demonstrate in Nablus under the banner: "A Demilitarized Palestine." Rally organizers say the people want Palestine's leadership to pour the bountiful resources provided by the international community into building civil society, blending Islam with modernity, creating representative democracy and inculcating tolerance and pluralism.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, along with top Islamic Jihad, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and Popular Resistance Committee chieftains, complain that Israel is moving too slowly to process the tons upon tons of collected weapons, bombs and ammunition now decommissioned.

An exasperated Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO foreign minister, tells reporters: "We need to tear down the refugee camps to build permanent housing, but our efforts are hampered because of the vast stores of weapons and explosives in every nook and cranny. Let us be rid of these instruments of bloodshed. Sixty - no, 100 years have been squandered!"

February: Speaking with an upper-crust British accent, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist in London, admits to the BBC's Zeinab Badawi that his country has long been engaged in a campaign to destabilize Lebanon. "We're awfully sorry for the assassinations and bombings and for robbing Lebanon of its sovereignty. Dirty pool. Bad business. That's done with."
Were Assad in Israel's shoes, Badawi inquires, would he give up the strategic mountain ranges of the Golan Heights?

"Heavens, no." Assad replies. "That's why I propose that Israel 'return' the heights to us then we will immediately lease them back to the Jewish state for 100 years. Assuming things go smoothly, the next generation can sort things out."

March: London's Independent breaks the story that Peace Now, founded in 1978 to uproot every vestige of Jewish presence in Judea, Samaria and those areas of metropolitan Jerusalem liberated in the Six Day War, is finally closing its doors, grounding its spy helicopters and ceasing operations.

Peace Now has come under increasing scrutiny from the Israeli tax authorities for having accepted millions of dollars over the years from foreign governments and foundations who want to influence Israeli security policies. Several Peace Now leaders seek asylum in Norway.

April: Israel Radio reports an announcement by Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar that they are jointly stepping down as Israel's chief rabbis to devote their lives to Torah study and good deeds.

The Degel Hatorah party newspaper, Yated Ne'eman, reports that Metzger and Amar "are obviously correct in pointing out that the mixture of politics, patronage and Judaism has undermined yiddishkeit and created one desecration of God's name after another."

In an editorial headlined "Goot G'zooked" - well said - Hamodia, the hassidic daily, praises the two outgoing chiefs for advocating the separation of "synagogue from state."

"Opposing pluralism and tolerance," Hamodia writes, "has been bad for the Jews. It's time to end the rabbinate's control over marriage, divorce and over defining 'Who is a Jew' for purposes of immigration and naturalization. Away with both hegemony and dependency."

Yom L'yom, the Shas newspaper, adds: "The two chief rabbis are paving the way, baruch Hashem, for more Ashkenazi haredim to serve in the IDF or do other forms of national service. It's about time."

May: The Jerusalem Post reports that a Haifa truck driver began a better driving movement that's spread like wildfire. Rafi Shaked placed a notice in the windshield of his lorry declaring that he would "yield the right of way - absolutely."

A grandmother in Beersheba, Ludmilla Chertok, noticed the sign while driving on Route 6 and promptly put a large notice on the door of her car: "I will always signal."

A tipping point was reached when an Army Radio personality persuaded upwards of 350,000 motorists to stop their cars for one minute during the Thursday evening rush-hour in support of "always giving pedestrians the right of way at a crosswalk."

Traffic police say that if the "sanity on the roads continues into 2009, it will be necessary to shift resources into other areas." By the end of 2008, failing to signal, not yielding the right of way, and driving above the speed limit is frowned upon as "un-Israeli" behavior.

June: reports that an increasing number of students in secular schools are insisting on calling their teachers Mr. or Ms. or "teacher" instead of by their first names. Such deference has long been the tradition in the national-religious system.

Meanwhile, Finance Ministry officials insist that the education minister accept a 20 percent increase in funding. The new moneys come from funds heretofore earmarked to support avant-garde art, alternative filmmaking and other cultural projects that ministry officials now claim are heavily laden with post-Zionist messages.

September: The Islamic Republic News Agency reveals that after returning from the haj in Saudi Arabia some eight months ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told aides that he experienced an epiphany and now believes that Islam forbids terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Jew-hatred.

After months of behind-the-scenes consultation among the country's leading mullahs, Ahmadinejad was authorized to appear on television to tell the nation: "In the name of God the almighty and merciful, when I was on haj, I saw a light around me. I was placed inside this aura. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and as I was performing tawaf around the Ka'aba, my eyes were opened. The Jewish people are not our enemies, they are our brethren. They must not be harmed. We must provide Israel - may her years be many and serene - with free petroleum. All praise is to Allah."

November 4, 2008: In the US, presidential race exit polls indicate that the independent ticket's Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama have been elected president and vice president.

I'M ALSO predicting these less earth-shattering, but still consequential events in the course of 2008:

• HOT, the Israeli cable provider, brings back CNN. CEO David Kamenitz explains, "Let's be frank. We're raking it in. We can't just cut out a popular and essential station and not reduce our charges. So, CNN is back."
• Rabbi Eric Yoffee, head of the Reform movement, embraces Sufi Islam and takes the name "Cat Stevens."
• Meteorologist Robert Orlinsky is named chair of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in appreciation for making the language more accessible to new immigrants.
• Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei retires as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and takes up a senior leadership position at Lighthouse For The Blind in New York City.

FINALLY, in December 2008, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks authors an "Open letter to Amos Oz and David Grossman," which London's Jewish Chronicle publishes.

The chief rabbi thunders: "What has systematically derailed Israel's efforts for peace is the fact that every concession it has made, every withdrawal it has undertaken, has been interpreted by its enemies as a sign of weakness, and has led to more violence, not less.

"The Oslo process led to suicide bombers, Ehud Barak's offer led to the so-called Al-Aksa intifada. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza led directly to the onslaught of Katyushas and Kassams. How does any nation make peace under these conditions?"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Celebrating skepticism

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of
Louis Jacobs's 'We Have Reason to Believe'

Who could disagree with Pope Benedict XVI's statement in his just-released second encyclical that "a world without God is a world without hope"?

Well, I suppose there are some, but for most of us balancing modernity and its intrinsic absence of absolutes with religion, which demands belief in a divine power, is what struggling with God is all about in the 21st century.

Isn't it paradoxical that in our post-modern world the search for God continues? A recent survey by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute reveals that most native-born Israelis consider themselves either traditional or religious. Younger people nowadays, more than older folks, identify themselves as religious. So there's little question that Israelis are searching for God and hope.

Yet, how are we to reconcile the hard data with our intuitive sense that Israelis are mostly non-practicing Orthodox or altogether secular; that the average Israeli (like his American Jewish cousin) is so unfamiliar with the liturgy that if thrown into a Shabbat morning service, they'd be clueless.

Part of the answer, I suppose, is that while some Israelis reject organized religion which they associate with the corrupted official rabbinate - Israel's established church - many retain a deep cultural need for traditional customs in marking life-cycle milestones, thereby keeping God (however defined) and hope in their lives.

ONE MAN who was ahead of his time in this great effort to balance faith with modernity was Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who died in London last July at 85. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his We Have Reason to Believe.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jacobs was at the epicenter of a hullabaloo for - what seems in hindsight - his rather diffident attempt to coax Orthodox Judaism into the 20th century.

For his troubles, Jacobs lost a shot at becoming chief rabbi of Great Britain, but his imagination gave further impetus to the development of centrist Judaism worldwide and, in Britain, of the Masorti movement.

On December 2, some of his admirers gathered at the New London Synagogue on Abbey Road in St. John's Wood, which Jacobs founded and where he held the pulpit for many decades, to inquire whether there is still reason to believe.

What set off the "Jacobs Affair" half a century ago was the rabbi's suggestion that maybe, just maybe, not every word and every letter of the Pentateuch was literally dictated by God to Moses. This audacity cost Jacobs his Orthodox pulpit in the late 1950s, and by the end of 1961 he was also forced to resign his position as "tutor" at London's Jews' College, then the training ground for Orthodox ministers, rabbis and cantors.

Here is what Jacobs said in bidding farewell to his students: "Doubt is the source of inquiry. Yet large sections of Jews live in self-assured ease. Their religion was part of their contentment, but who wants a life of contentment? Religion throughout the ages has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable..."

DEBATING WHETHER the Torah is min hashamayim (from Heaven) may seem oddly esoteric from the vantage point of the 21st century. On the one hand, for today's Orthodox (and certainly among the thriving numbers of the newly religious), Torah min hashamayim isn't debatable - it's dogma. A strict-constructionist interpretation of God-given texts, and belief in divinely inspired precedent, continues to propel the Orthodox approach to Jewish law and custom.

On the other hand, for most non-Orthodox Jews - meaning the majority of Jewish people - there is no debate about Torah min hashamayim. That's because the Jewishly illiterate, the secular and the assimilated are oblivious to the issue. At the same time, practicing Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews continue to grapple with the Torah min hashamayim dilemma in their own ways.

Generally, Reform Jews say that the Torah is a compilation of both the divine and human; Conservatives say that the Torah is divinely inspired; while a Reconstructionist might fudge matters further by saying, as Rabbi Arthur Green does, that there may not be a Force out there, but there is a "deep consciousness" that underlies our existence.

ALL THIS matters, because Jewish civilization and with it our raison d'etre - for being Jews and for being Zionists - cannot reasonably be detached from Judaism's religious legacy. We either wrestle with this issue or we cease being Jews.

In his day, Jacobs was denounced as an apikoros by the Orthodox establishment. His so-called heresy, however, was in practice an authentically Jewish approach in struggling with God. Not everyone can or wants to take the leap of faith which unvarnished Orthodoxy demands. Take the highly educated - the Guttman survey showed that the more education people have the less religiously inclined they tend to be. It needn't be that way - perhaps we should redefine what it means to be "religious." We need to give people legitimate and enlightened options apart from Orthodoxy.

Reading Jacobs today, he hardly strikes me as much of a radical. Where Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist philosophy saw "Judaism as civilization" and God as a sociological construct, Jacobs argued that we ought to avoid, "when thinking of God, the extremes of both anthropomorphism and 'de-personalization.'" God can never be comprehended, Jacobs insisted. His creatures will find Him if they seek Him.

That reads pretty traditional to me.

FOR THE middle-of-the-road Jacobs, Conservative Judaism came with a small "c." He believed in God and in the possibility (at least) of an afterlife. As best as I can tell, he opposed abortion (with some exceptions), capital punishment, homosexuality and, perish the thought, even smoking. He acknowledged the validity of the theory of evolution, and he was said to champion women's rights.

Without question, however, some of his message was and remains radical. Jacobs argued that belief in the literal resurrection of the dead was not central to Judaism (Maimonides thought otherwise). He appeared not to subscribe to the idea of a personal messiah, nor did he hope for a concrete rebuilding of the Third Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifices.

Perhaps most iconoclastic of all, Jacobs - like many of today's observant non-Orthodox - understood mitzvot as binding only to the extent that they serve as a pathway to Godly behavior.

In some ways, it may have been easier to embrace centrist Judaism in his day than in our own. Today defining the middle ground - to the right of Reform and the left of Orthodoxy - is increasingly difficult. Certainly, the Conservative movement's inability to articulate a unified centrist dogma has been costly in membership and prestige.

And yet, precisely by not defining absolute parameters the movement is being true to itself. In Emet v'Emunah, the 1988 statement of principles of Conservative Judaism, proponents of centrism argued that "given our changing world, finality and certainty are illusory at best, destructive at worst. Rather than claiming to have found a goal at the end of the road, the ideal Conservative Jew is a traveler walking purposefully towards 'God's holy mountain.'"

In the quest for God and hope, centrist Judaism has had little choice but to emphasize observance over dogma, and in so doing has doubtlessly moved to Jacobs's left - even as Orthodoxy has lurched to the right of where it was when it ostracized him.

Still, if you ask me, we do have reason to believe. Whatever our doubts, prayer and ritual give us an essential framework for living spiritually. And that's vital because for all its heterogeneity, Jewish civilization cannot survive absent God and hope.

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