Monday, August 27, 2007

Newspeak comes to Israel

Time for a Vocabulary Quiz. Which of the following acts is illegal?

A: The existence of a crematorium for the consensual (and paid-for) job of helping deceased Israelis fulfill their last wish of how they wish to rejoin the earth after death.

B: The burning of said crematorium to the ground by a crazed mob.

Let's ask Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA founder, Neturei Karta asskicker, and former Shabbes-warrior:

Yehuda Meshi Zahav told Israeli Army Radio he thought an arson attack on the crematorium would be justified.

"It was an illegal activity, a desecration of the dead and I applaud the destruction of this building, which was destined to disappear in flames."

You know, it's nice that every once in a while in the jaded blogger world, I can still be surprised. Thanks, Yehuda.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Thought Experiments

Courtesy of Dennis Prager.

This week, we have a real treat- a double-Dippy-Dennis-Feature. First up, did you know excitement and happiness are mutually exclusive? I certainly didn't. In fact, if I'm honest, I guess I even thought they sort of went hand-in-hand, you know, "Oh my god, you got me a pony? Wow, I'm happy AND excited!"

But according to Dennis, people like me are dicks. Not only dicks, but we're also screwing up the kids of the future. Let's try and follow this burning wreck of a logic train:

If you want your children to be happy adults and even happy children – and what parent does not? – minimize the excitement in their lives. The more excitement, the less happy they are likely to be.

If you can, it's best not to even let them go outside. Did I mention I'm selling an exciting new brand of head-shaped plastic bags? Now in child-size!

Ok, so if having a million dollars is my goal, does that mean I can't pursue that goal and also have a simultaneous goal- say, wearing pants?

When we give our child a present, he experiences excitement, and we are delighted when we see how happy he is. When done occasionally – a holiday, a birthday – this is perfectly fine and even beneficial. Children should have those special moments and remember forever that wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah or birthday present.

Yeah, I know, I skipped Kwanzaa. Don't bother writing in, it was intentional- up yours, Ron Karenga. There, I said it. Also, I refuse to acknowledge that Muslims exchange gifts- and in fact, if Keith Ellison was any kind of American, he would dress up in a Santa outfit right now just to prove his loyalty. Sorry, what was I talking about?

But because we parents so delight in the excitement we see in our children at those moments – because they seem so happy then – we can easily fall into the trap of providing more and more exciting things to keep them seemingly happy at just about every moment. And they in turn come to rely on getting excited to keep them happy and to identify excitement with happiness.

Luckily, Dennis hit on a brilliant way to bridge the gap years ago: giving his children the same gifts over and over- "You're giving my puppy back? Thank you so much, Daddy?"

Even better, some years he gives them broken toys! Sort of a reverse-psychology excitement thing.

But beware, parents, if you think you can buy your children's happiness with mere excitement.

But excitement is not happiness. In fact, it is the ultimate drug.

Well, sort of. Actually there continues to be a range of discussion over exactly what constitutes the "ultimate drug." The hippies were pretty happy with LSD or shrooms, and of course Woody Harrelson likes hemp in all its forms. And you just can't beat cocaine if you're a washed up 80s hair band. Apparently when asked, James Brown still stood by his original answer that "God" is a great drug, but then he was asked to leave the focus group.

It is excitement that people seek when engaging in any destructive addictive behaviors. Excitement is a major part of what people seek in doing drugs, in having sex with multiple partners, in gambling (from slot machines to risky stock purchases) or in having an extra-marital affair. And even for many criminals, excitement is a major lure of criminal behavior.

Kind of, sort of, I guess? Maybe? But, like, aren't they also seeking excitement when they, say, learn a new talent (ballroom dancing?) or go on vacation (ohmigod I'm going to Hawaii!), or learn to skydive? Sorry, Dennis, but I'm finding it a little hard to condemn hangliding as "destructive."

Also, people are also seeking money when they steal, or gamble. Does this make money automatically bad? People doing drugs are also looking for a sense of euphoria. Does that make any instance of "feeling good" bad?

It is argued that we are programmed to desire excitement. But we are also programmed to be lazy, to be irresponsible and to eat unhealthy foods. And just as these other natural instincts do not lead us to happiness, neither does excitement.

Wait, WHAT? Whose ass did you pull that out of? Early man couldn't afford to be lazy or he starved to death, between bouts of running around to avoid getting stepped on by woolly mammoths. And I'd love you to point me towards this "attraction to French Fry gene." Help me out here, Dennis, pretend I'm stupid. Hell, just pretend I'm a fan of yours, that should do it.

Today's young people have the ability to experience excitement more than any generation in history. Outside of school, excitement is available almost 24/7. MTV is exciting (MTV has done far more damage to this generation than has the tobacco industry); video games are exciting; the nearly all-pervasive sexual stimuli are exciting; MySpace (largely a human cesspool) is exciting; getting tattooed is exciting; piercings are exciting; many pictures and videos on the Internet are exciting. The list of exciting things many children experience is as long as there are hours in the day.

Sons of bitches, I bet my kids are home getting excited right now! Hey, kids, get your asses in the box right now! Don't make me break out the Prager-bags!

But all this excitement is actually inhibiting our children's ability to enjoy life and therefore be happy. All this excitement renders young people jaded, not happy. To cite a simple example, many children today would refuse to watch a black and white film – "It's boring," they say. They would even refuse to watch many of the greatest color films if they lacked the amount of excitement – usually meaning violence but also frequently meaning foul language and sexual content – that they are now so used to seeing in films. Plot development is "boring"; blowing up people and buildings is exciting.

Dennis, yet again, you have demonstrated yourself to be a moron. Excitement is in the mind of the beholder. Kids being lazy and having short attention spans has to do with the fact that they've been exposed to dreck and find it attractive, not that excitement=dreck. If you raise a kid away from TV, he's going to think books are exciting. If you raised him without books, he'd think animals were exciting, or trees, or rocks. Someone finding something exciting is not an indication that this something is flawed. What crack have you been smoking? And how little confidence do you have in today's children to have the slightest bit of taste? From the way you talk, we could assume that the last best movie was made in the 70s. I've got news for you Dennis: not every black and white film is timeless. Some actually are boring, and some are simply overrated. That doesn't mean today's kids are Philistines or midget excitement junkies, it means, shock of shocks, that they have different tastes than you. This argument is like arguing that somebody that prefers red to blue has brain damage, or perhaps is under demonic possession from the color red. People have different preferences, Dennis. Deal with it.

That is why the frequent complaint of "I'm bored" is often a sign of a jaded child, i.e., a child addicted to excitement and therefore incapable of enjoying life when not being excited.

Dennis, get over yourself. Children have short attention spans. Somehow I doubt even you were so supposedly content as a child that you got through long car trips by reading your Weekly Reader version of the Wall Street Journal.

All this excitement in their lives bodes poorly for the future happiness of millions of American children. Real life, let alone daily life, will seem so boring to them that they will not be able to enjoy it. And more than a few of them will opt for lives of constant excitement, often in ways destructive to themselves and others.

My God! And instead of dealing with it like their parents, they just... won't! They'll be juggling flaming chainsaws while waiting on line at the DMV, and when they run into traffic jams, instead of just stewing in the car and slowly developing ulcers like good little boys and girls, they'll probably climb onto their roofs and start an Ultimate Frisbee tournament/pizza party! The Apocalypse is at hand!

The solutions are as simple to offer as they may be difficult to enforce. Limit the amount of excitement in your children's lives: the amount of video games, the amount of non-serious television,

So, does that mean only PBS? Or Fox News?
the amount of music whose only aim is to excite.

Could lead to dancing, you understand. Damn that Elvis and his seductive hips. Only funeral dirges and Gregorian chant CDs in this house, young lady!

If they are bored, they will have to remedy that boredom by playing with friends, finding a hobby, talking to a family member, walking the dog, doing chores, reading a book or magazine, learning a musical instrument or foreign language, memorizing state capitals, writing a story or just their thoughts, exercising or playing a sport, or just thinking.

Except what if they start getting excited from that, Dennis? What then??? What if they start engaging in unhealthy "x-treme" dog-poop related sports? It's a vicious, vicious cycle.

Next up, Dennis shows us just what a partisan, shit-for-brain hack he can be, as only he can. Inasmuch as Dennis has a point this week, it seems to be that the Democrats rely on various minority groups to be pissy in order to garner votes, totally unlike, say, any other party. Because, you know, the way to get evangelicals to vote for Republicans isn't to rattle them up with gay marriage, it's to remind them how nice America is. Yeah, let me know when they start that campaign.

Hey, give us some moronic examples, Dennis!

If African Americans come to believe that America is a land of opportunity in which racism has been largely conquered, it would be catastrophic for the Democrats. The day that most black Americans see America in positive terms will be the day Democrats lose any hope of winning a national election. Whatever one believes about the extent of racism in America, one cannot deny that the Democrats need black Americans to feel victimized by racism. Contented black Americans spell disaster for the Democratic Party.

Uh huh, what else?

If women marry, it is bad for the Democratic Party. Single women are an essential component of any Democratic victory. Unmarried women voted for Kerry by a 25-point margin (62 percent to 37 percent), while married women voted for President Bush by an 11-point margin (55 percent to 44 percent). According to a pro-Democrat website, The Emerging Democratic Majority, "the 25-point margin Kerry posted among unmarried women represented one of the high water marks for the senator among all demographic groups."

After women marry, they are more likely to abandon leftist views and to vote Republican. And if they then have children, they will vote Republican in even more lopsided numbers. The bottom line is that when Americans marry, it is bad for the Democratic Party; when they marry and make families, it is disastrous for the party.

Wow, that was pretty stupid. Surely you can't top that one.

If immigrants assimilate, it is not good for Democrats. The Democratic Party has invested in Latino separatism. The more that Hispanic immigrants come to feel fully American, the less likely they are to vote Democrat. The liberal notion of multiculturalism helps Democrats, while adoption of the American ideal of e pluribus unum (out of many, one) helps Republicans. That is one reason Democrats support bilingual education – it hurts Hispanic children, but it keeps them from full assimilation – and oppose making English America's official language.

Concerning the economy, the same rule applies. The better Americans feel they are doing, the worse it is for Democrats. By almost every economic measure (the current housing crisis excepted), Americans are doing well. The unemployment rate has been at historically low levels and inflation has been held in check, something that rarely accompanies low unemployment rates. Nevertheless, Democrats regularly appeal to class resentment, knowing that sowing seeds of economic resentment increases their chances of being elected.

The most obvious area in which this rule currently applies is the war in Iraq. The Democrats have put themselves in the position of needing failure in Iraq in order to win the next election. And again, perceptions matter more than reality. Even if America is doing better in the war, what matters most for the Democrats are Americans' perceptions of the war. The worse the stories from Iraq, the better for Democrats.

...The list is almost endless. Thus, when pro-American foreign leaders – such as Nicolas Sarkozy in France – are elected, even that is not good for the Democrats. The more the Democrats can show that America is hated, the more the Democrats can argue that we need them in order to be loved abroad.

Oh Dennis, you always manage to rise to the challenge. Any parting thoughts?

I am not saying that in their hearts all Democrats want black America to regard America as a racist society, or want Hispanics to remain unassimilated, or Americans to feel economically discontented, or fewer families to be formed, or America to lose in Iraq, or foreign nations to hate us.

But what most Democrats want in their hearts is not the issue. The issue is that if Democrats want to win, they can do so only if bad things happen to America.

Fascinating thesis, Dennis. Let me try one:

The only way Dennis Prager can get ideas for his column is to have some sort of severe brain tumor. I am not suggesting that Dennis' fans, or even Dennis himself want him to have a brain tumor that affects his mental capabilities along with his ability to construct simple logical arguments as well as basic sentence structure, but what he wants is not the issue. The issue is that if Dennis wants to have dipshit ideas by the time the press deadline runs around, he either has to be stoned out of his gourd, or poke his tumor with a pencil until it starts jiggling around in his brain and starts generating some "ideas." Good column = bad brain.

So I guess what I'm saying, Dennis is, I want you to get help. Medication, maybe some surgery. Hell, if we had socialized medicine, you wouldn't even have to pay for it.

But I understand why you wouldn't go for it. Got to make those house payments and all. Well, I, at least, appreciate your sacrifice.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

In Defense of Sherwin Wine

This isn't really about Sherwin Wine the man. I'd only heard of him a few times, and it was only in passing. It's more about Humanistic Judaism as a concept. One of the things I was surprised to see in the Jblogosphere after Rabbi Wine's death was some pretty harsh comments about what a terrible person he was for leading people away from Torah. With all due respect, I think those people don't really understand who Wine's audience was and who he was appealing to.

I've used the term before, but I really believe it's apt- I, and I think many, Jews today, are essentially post-modern Jews. We don't believe in absolutes, and especially not on the big issues. I for one am not an atheist, but a rather a convinced agnostic. For me, agnosticism isn't about humans being so great and superior, just the opposite, actually: from what I've seen of humans while I've been on this planet, I'm pretty sure that if God's out there, we sure as hell aren't the ones who can know one way or the other. My father, brother, and a lot of other people I know are in the same boat, if not more extreme towards atheism.

So how can I practice Judaism? I get this question a lot. Sometimes it's with disdain, and sometimes even with outright anger by people that can't understand how me, a smart guy, an intellectual, who lights Shabbat candles and prays to a God that isn't there?

For me, the God issue is secondary. I don't pray for God, I pray for me. I do what I want and what resonates with me. Part of that is the traditional(ish) liturgy and the concept of a God. My bottom line is that I do the practice for its own sake, not because I think it's linking me up to the grand poo-bah. He could be up there, he could be nowhere, there could be no him and be a giant Martian named Buzz. It doesn't matter. I'm in shul to be a Jew, not to talk to God. Maybe that doesn't compute for some people, but that's the best way I can explain it. I know it's a contradiction, but I don't mind.

For others, though, the God thing is too much a barrier for them to get past, and they get stuck, on the one hand maybe being curious about Judaism or wanting to be able to do more, but just not being able to move beyond the basic contradiction.

That's where people like Sherwin Wine come in.

Like I said, I don't know much about Rabbi Wine. I don't know the specifics of his theology. I don't know exactly how he got around the issue, one of THE biggest issues for modern Jews in our time. I don't have to believe Rabbi Wine was RIGHT to know that what he was doing was important. "Jews without Torah?" you might ask. Optimal, maybe not. But better than nothing. It's the old "ride to shul on Rosh Hashanah or don't go at all?" quandary. For me, whatever keeps alienated Jews connected to being Jewish is nothing but good.

Is there no God? I can't say. But, to me at least, that doesn't matter- it shouldn't matter. The beauty of Humanistic Judaism, of someone like Rabbi Wine, is the ability to give articulation and representation to that group of Jews who look up and can't see what everyone else sees- or says they do, or make themselves believe they do, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Rabbi Wine gave those people a voice, and gave them an option beyond merely keeping their mouths shut or walking out on Judaism forever. To me, that's a wonderful thing. I'm biased, I happen to like Judaism, at least the way I do it. It works for me. I think it's very sad that people like my father and brother are so dead-set against God and religion in general that they're closed off from seeing anything positive there, anything in philosophy, ritual, or community. I wish there were more people like Rabbi Wine. People that could show them it doesn't have to be all or nothing.

Rabbi Wine, if nothing else, was a brave man. He looked up, and wasn't afraid to say that he didn't see anything. That wasn't the brave part, though. The real bravery was in moving forward, going past that, and saying, "We are more than this. Judaism is more than this. We don't have to forgo our heritage just because we can't relate to one part of it. We can keep going. There is still a place for us."

Rabbi Wine created a Judaism that wasn't afraid to be focused inward, and which didn't force people to keep quiet about what they knew, what they believed, to be real.

The people that say Rabbi Wine led people away from Torah are dead wrong. If anything, it's the opposite. Him, and people like him, helped keep alienated Jews tethered to a community, to their heritage. Whatever his faults, whatever his flaws, he can only be praised for that.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Triumphalism Pisses Me Off

It's my 400th post (wee!), and seeing as how a lot of my ire seems to get focused on Haredi Jews, I thought I'd try to amend this by pointing my lens over at the other end of the spectrum: Reform. Now, ideologically, I'm pretty close to Reform Judaism. I like that it's honest about picking and choosing mitzvot and customs, and that it isn't afraid to say so. I also like that it hasn't shied away from reversing itself when it was proven wrong (its shift from anti-Zionism to Zionism is one example, its return to more traditional Jewish ritual and education is another). And I think that the pioneers of Reform Judaism, especially in America, were fascinating individuals who accomplished a lot for their communities.

But here's the rub: deep down, it's hard to escape the stereotype that Reform is:

A) Convenient, by which I mean designed to be convenient, not necessarily meaningful or deep, and

B) Elitist. A big part of that is its history- long the movement of the rich and acculturated Germans, there's still some significant cultural baggage there for good ol' shtetl-descendants like me. As Reform has become increasingly political, this subtle sneering has seemed to increase.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like other denominations don't do this, too. But it's particularly tricky for me because, in a perfect scenario, there wouldn't be so many details about Reform Judaism in practice that turn me off and thereby prevent me from yelling loud and proud, "I'm Reform! Where do I sign up?" Instead I seem to be stuck between Conservative, whose theology I disagree with but whose everyday worship and scholarship seems to resonate with me, and Reform, whose theology I like, but very little else.

Whatever the answer to my personal dilemma, I'm sure of one thing: guys like Robert Heller, head of Board of the Union for Reform Judaism, aren't helping.

Heller is right in identifying that today Judaism demands active identification, and that Reform Judaism has more to offer people than merely "not Orthodoxy."
They -- we -- are choosing Reform Judaism because it stands for something and enables us to engage in Jewish prayer, study and action that has meaning and relevance for us in today’s world, not because it is not Orthodox Judaism.
Amen. But there's a problem. Heller goes on to articulate six points of "attractive" Reform tenets- none of which are exclusive to Reform. Let's take them one at a time, and out of order for dramatic effect.

1: Egalitarianism. A wonderful thing. But it's not new, and it's not just Reform. These days, any place that isn't Orthodox is egalitarian, and even some Modern Orthodox folks are trying to test the boundaries, for instance, by having women sing psalms during Friday night worship.

2: Inclusion. Also great. Also not limited to Reform. Conservative has a ways to go on the gay thing, but for the most part, this is an issue of degrees, not principles. And incidentally, it's a little weird to hear about the inclusiveness of Reform while they're simultaneously trying to nudge non-Jewish spouses to convert. Just saying.

3: Pluralism. Here I admit that Reform is in pretty good standing, but part of that is because it's the most liberal denomination. Unless it's going to say, "halacha is bullshit and you're all idiots," it's kind of a given that they're going to be the ones championing a many paths to God mantra. Also, Heller's reference to people being made in the image of God seems to be a total nonsequiteur. Everyone is made in the image of God, that doesn't mean that every path or position is legitimate (ex: Jihadism).

4: Prophetic Voice. Again, Reform has been at the vanguard of social justice, and I for one appreciate the fact that they extend their gaze beyond "Jewish only issues." At the same time, while relevance to the outside world and putting your faith into practice is great, a critique I've heard is that a Reform bar mitzvah is more about volunteering at soup kitchens than learning Hebrew. I'm not saying tikkun olam isn't a good thing, just that it can't (or shouldn't) be the only thing.

5: Lay people. Where has Heller been? What community or congregation DOESN'T have lay people involved? Even Orthodox communities do this. I don't know who Heller's comparing himself to here.

And lastly, the big H.


Proper role of halachah: We know that halachah is a set of man-made rules (and I mean man-made – women have not been a significant part of their development). We respect that tradition and understand its evolution over time in different places, but we also understand that halachah was not handed down from on high at Sinai or anywhere else. Hence, we give it a voice, not a veto, and we interpret it in light of modernity and the realities of human experience.

Ok, I totally love the vote not veto thing, but it seems to be undermined by the fact that the general trend among Reform is to eschew a lot of traditions and mitzvot automatically. If Reform is as committed to "personal choice" as it likes to say it is, there should be a larger spectrum of practices within the movement, and the synagogues and rabbis should be the ones encouraging this exploration. Heller's drash of halacha seems more contemptuous than anything else. I don't care much for it myself, but I'm also not constructing a whole belief system here. Heller would be better served here by at least cherrypicking a few mitzvot he finds meaningful and talking about the beauty in Reform allowing people to freely choose how to live their lives with a clean conscience.

In fact, a lot of my issues with Heller aren't so much the things he's saying as how he's saying them- the construction of his 6 points seems to be almost along marketing lines: "Don't directly attack your competition, just talk about how good you are!" That'd be fine for a brochure, but it doesn't work so well here.

Heller ends with an appeal towards the countercultural trend embedded in Jewish tradition itself, which I like. But I'm still suspicious that the average 3rd or 4th generation Reform Jew is cognizant enough of tradition itself that they can make informed choices, particularly in regards to creating their own adaptations and modifications. I guess one of the things I want from Reform theologians and leaders is for them to "show their work," to show the starting-point from Orthodoxy (there's that old tricky fallacy of contemporary Orthodoxy as the gold standard!) to where they are now, and explain how we get there and why. I want some guarantees that people in Reform are there because they actually believe it, and not just because it's convenient.

Maybe that's too much to ask. But I think it's a legitimate question, and a serious one. You only get to claim authority from tradition if you actually know the tradition in the first place. Without that, Reform loses its "no BS" legitimacy with me. Radicalism plus time becomes stagnated traditionalism of its own, and is nothing to cheer about.

Edit: Poop, 400th post technically, only 389th posted. Well, back to work.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Aliyah Guilt Trip

There's been quite a lot about aliyah in the news lately. All three of the major US denominations issued statements encouraging aliyah back in 2003, but some recent developments suggest this may be more than the same ol' lip service.

In July, Rabbi Avi Weiss spoke about making aliyah with his entire congregation:

Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, says the question of his having not yet made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) is one he asks himself every day. “I only feel very alive in the Land of Israel. I don’t feel that alive - in a Jewish and emotional sense - in the exile.”
Hang on, this is the rabbi that's been trying to create a whole new niche in American Orthodoxy, who founded a brand new yeshiva less than ten years ago in New York? For someone supposedly agonizing over how he can call himself a real Jew in the exile, Weiss hasn't exactly been a slouch.

“The only place where we can fully express the mission of the Nation of Israel is the Land of Israel. For me, Israel is not only important as the place that guarantees political refuge, not only as the place where more mitzvot can be performed, not only the place that, given the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the exile, can guarantee continuity – it is much deeper than that. The Land of Israel is the only place where we have the potential to carry out our responsibility as the chosen people. In the exile we are not in control of our destiny. It is only in the Jewish state that we have the potential to be a beacon of light to the larger world.

Which must explain why the Haredim in Israel have been doing so much to deal with global issues like world poverty, AIDS, and the Darfur crisis!

Amazing how us all clustering together in a place the size of Jersey somehow translates into us being a light unto the nations. I guess I get it, but I also don't get it. Is this the same principle as a laser? Someone help me out here, I flunked physics. Is the idea that the concentration of Jews in one place will have an uplifting effect, thereby improving us and supposedly making us an excellent example for everyone else? Doesn't that run counter to everything we know about Jewish dynamics? And besides, how will the outside world even know about us? If the Haredim get their way, the only form of communication will be pashkevils. We'll become a Jewish Shangri-La.

A Zionist is someone who lives in Israel,” said Rabbi Weiss. “Who is a talmid chacham? The man or woman who is versed in Torah. A benefactor of a Torah institution is very important, but is not a talmid chacham. Similarly, a Zionist is one who lives in the State of Israel, who lives in the Land of Israel. I take the position that I am not a Zionist. I am a strong supporter of Zionism - a doresh Zion – seeker of Zion.”

Well, if that's how you really feel, Rabbi, then by all means, head off.

Weiss spoke more about the subject in a drash, where he comes to the crux of his argument:

But whether or not one maintains that Rambam believes it is a mitzvah to live in Israel, doesn’t this commandment, as certainly understood by Ramban, fly in the face of our mission to be an or la’goyim? How can we be a light to the nations of the world if we don’t live amongst Gentiles and are ensconced in our own homeland?

Good question. Rav?

One could argue however, that the mandate to live in the chosen land of Israel is crucial to the chosen people idea. Being the chosen people doesn’t mean that our souls are superior. Rather it suggests that our mission to spread a system of ethical monotheism, of God ethics to the world, is of a higher purpose. And that can only be accomplished in the land of Israel.

...In exile, we can develop communities that can be a “light” to others. But the destiny of the Jewish people lies in the State of Israel. Israel is the only place where we as a nation can become an or la’goyim. In the Diaspora, we are not in control of our destiny; we cannot create the society envisioned by the Torah. Only in a Jewish state do we have the political sovereignty and judicial autonomy to potentially establish the society from which other nations can learn the basic ethical ideals of Torah.

As we near Tisha B'av... this position reminds us of our obligation to think about Israel, to visit Israel, and, most important, to constantly yearn to join the millions who have already returned home. Only there do we have the potential to be the true am ha-nivhar (chosen people).

So... the answer is to put the emphasis on Jews being as good Jews as they can possibly be vis-a-vis mitzvot, and the goyim just sort of take care of themselves or absorb our good vibes via osmosis? That's quite a plan. Now tell me, how do we deal with issues like antisemitism or anti-Jewish prejudice when, after mass aliyah, most of the rest of the world will have little to no contact with Jews? Or will we not need to care because we'll be in Israel and have the IDF to protect us? Just curious.

I have a few issues with Rabbi Weiss' argument. First, the suggestion that the dividing line between authentic and inauthentic Zionists is voting with your feet seems to be a major shot across the American Jewish community's bow. I consider myself a Zionist though I've never even been to Israel and have no intention of making aliyah, at least no time soon. I suspect, though, that my Zionism and the Zionism Rabbi Weiss is speaking about are of two different types. I am a Zionist because I support Israel and care about what happens to it and its people. Even more than that, I identify with it. Out of all the countries in the world, what happens in Israel matters to me. But that's not the same thing as longing for Zion. My "longing" amounts to little more than the fact that I'd like to go sometime and visit my cousins. Oh, and that people would stop dying there.

So on a personal level, the not-so-subtle accusation that anyone in Exile is not a real Zionist isn't that big of a deal. But I think that on a national level, it's a pretty big shakeup in terms of Jewish consciousness. Zionism has long been a central prism through which the majority of American Jews, or at least Jewish movements, have conceived of their Jewish identity. To pull that out from under them is a big shock, to say the least.

This kind of rhetoric, while sensationalist, isn't too surprising from Modern Orthodox circles. Modern Orthodoxy has long been one of the most involved groups in sending kids to Israel and making aliyah themselves. There is no question that Israel is a priority for them. AFAIK, most of the few hundred North American immigrants that go every year are MO. What's really interesting is the new push from the other movements, particularly Reform, which has traditionally not put a very big focus on aliyah.

Currently, less than 5% of North American immigrants to Israel, or olim, identify as Reform Jews, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, but the movement hopes to grow that number. In recent months, Reform organizations have launched several initiatives aimed at increasing the movement’s grass-roots presence in Israel, including a concentrated recruitment drive, conducted this week, aimed at bringing 10 Reform families to the booming Israeli city of Modi’in.

The efforts are intended, in part, to increase the power and influence of Israel’s fledgling Reform movement, which in recent years has fought in the Israeli courts to win the official recognition and funding traditionally reserved for Israel’s Orthodox institutions. At the same time, the new attention to aliyah reflects the increasing traditionalism of the American Reform movement, the country’s largest Jewish denomination.

Even secular Jews are trying to make aliyah attractive:

today, for the most part, the Jew living in America or Europe is under no physical threat. Yarmulke-wearing Jews can live comfortably throughout the Western world while enjoying the perks of a first-world lifestyle.

Today, it is the secular Jew living in America who is in cultural peril. And assimilation is the imminent threat to his or her Judaic existence.

In Israel, if a youth rebels against his or her traditional upbringing, wanting to pursue a more secular life-style, he or she can escape to Tel Aviv. There they might not keep Shabbat or kosher anymore. But they'll be present when the siren goes off on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will speak Hebrew. They will still take off work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - even if it's to take a three-day cruise to Turkey.

And chances are they'll marry another Jew.

In Israel, being Jewish is organic; in America it is not.

In America, a cosmopolitan Jew who is completely secular and not culturally connected to a Jewish community has no connection to our people. So in New York City, Los Angeles or London, such a Jew would have little reason to have a Shabbat dinner or take off work for Rosh Hashana.

Falling in in love with a non-Jew is a very real possibility. And, over the generations, those Jews' lineage would likely come to an end. Thus, the secular Jew, no longer attached by faith, also risks detachment from tradition and peoplehood by living in America.

BEING JEWISH in America requires a special effort. Although most of the Jews making aliya from America today are affiliated with some branch of Judaism, it is secular Jews who need Israel the most. Only Israel can save them from long-term cultural decline. Only in Israel can they redefine what it means to be a Jew.

Now, I understand, and actually support, the idea that more non-Orthodox Jews making aliyah is a good thing. I would love to see Israeli Judaism be a more open system, and to end the Orthodox monopoly on state funding and services. And I also acknowledge that the only way this can happen is by getting more feet on the ground (same principle as settling the land, really). I get all of that. I also get the fact that, no matter how Israelis feel about Reform Judaism, more Jews means a larger population buffer against the Arabs, Israeli and otherwise. But for some reason, maybe because this sounds so much like a sales pitch ("we need you, we love you, it's yours, come home"), it doesn't quite sit well with me. (Damn my distrust of marketing!)

On the other side of the coin, as much as I'm wary of the all-smiles, "Israel loves you and wants you here" of the Reform article, the secular aliyah op-ed from the Jerusalem Post makes me downright recoil. In some ways, it's even more grating than the religious language of Avi Weiss. Saying that any Jew who isn't in Israel is somehow deficient rubs me the wrong way. So does suggesting that aliyah is the only way to safeguard one's Jewish identity, of course, with the obligatory specter of intermarriage and "what about grandchildren" handwringing. One is a guilt trip, the other a scare tactic. None are good enough arguments to encourage me to go to Israel.

I like America, I'm comfortable in America, and, sorry to say it, but America seems a lot saner than Israel, in a whole bunch of ways. As a pseudo-secular Jew, I can be content to appreciate Zion from afar. As someone with a strong Jewish identity who's also in a relationship with a non-Jew, the threat of intermarriage, and assimilation, both seem laughable. I've seen the enemy and it's me, and it's not going to change if I jet-set over to Tel Aviv.

The real irritation I feel with the aliyah push, though, is the inferiority complex it assigns to American Jews and Judaism. It resurrects the question of what the center of Jewish attention, thought, etc, should be: Israel, Diaspora, America, etc? I have no ill will towards Israel, but it's not the center of my universe, Jewish or otherwise, and I resent the implication that it should be. Israel is a real country with real people and real problems. My moving there is not going to cause a mystical transformation that redeems the world and magically replaces two Mosques with a giant Temple. I appreciate the dream, but I have a real problem with undermining and downplaying the accomplishments and struggles of the reality of millions of Diaspora Jews, past, present and future. Furthermore, there seems to be a real undercurrent of abandoning Diaspora life as being "too hard," which is particularly ironic given that a longstanding element of Israeli culture has seemed to be a smug satisfaction at how much more authentic and yes, challenging, life they were leading in Israel compared to the "comfortable" Americans in exile.

But as the guy writing the secular aliyah piece pointed out, being a Jew in Israel isn't hard. It's natural. If anything, Israel is conceived as an all-purpose safety net. "Maybe he won't be religious, but he'll speak Hebrew. Maybe he won't give a fig about the holidays, but he'll have to take Rosh Hashanah off." Why is speaking Hebrew some great accomplishment? Why is Israeli culture and identity, no matter how watered down, somehow seen as the equal of, or superior, to being a committed Diaspora Jew?

If some people want to make aliyah, go for it. I wish them the best and hope they lead wonderful and fulfilling Jewish lives, and that they make Israel the better for their being there. But Israel is not the be-all and end-all of Jewishness, and those of us who choose to stay put should not be chided for that decision. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to choose to go or stay, and it'd be nice not to be pitied or written off as soon-to-be-extinct branches of the Jew tree (which, incidentally, seems to be how a lot of people see the intermarried these days). Like it or not, most of the accomplishments of the Jews in the past couple thousand years have been in the Diaspora. Most of the rabbis we study today were Diaspora Jews. Are Maimonides' or the Baal Shem Tov's accomplishments any less because they never made it to Jerusalem?

Diaspora Jews, and specifically American Jews, have a lot to be proud of. While Israel is important, we shouldn't elevate it at the expense of our own achievements, and we should challenge those who do.

We are not inferior. We are not defective. We are Jews too, regardless of where we choose to plant our feet. Long for Zion all you want, but don't forget about (or ignore) the people right in front of you.