Monday, March 29, 2010

Who's Irrelevant to Whom?

I was following a Dov Bear discussion the other day and was suddenly overcome with a real sense of amazement. DB was discussing the concept of a Jewish Reformation to counter the Haredi wing of Orthodoxy, and several commentators were agreeing with him. One writer took exception and wrote this:

In 2010, any Jew that does not like the Chareidi world or way of thinking is free to leave, to become MO, Conservative, Reform, or nothing. And yet, in the vast majority of cases, Frum Jews are remaining Frum, and are not attracted to Modern Orthodoxy, while MO kids embrace Frum Judaism all the time, to the chagrin of their parents. Why is this? Simply beacuse Modern Orthodoxy has a bankrupt point of view, one that the vast majority of its adherents recognize is nothing more than a way station from Emunah to Kefirah. They embrace it because of its relative convenience, but they know in their heart of hearts that it is a just a resting place in their (or their children's) journey from Avoidas Hashem to Orthopraxy to Conservative Judaism to complete assimilation.

The MO posters, of course, were annoyed by this. But reading through the discussion, I found that I suddenly had a hard time caring about this squabble at all. Here's why:

One of my first introductions to the frum world was reading Robert Eisenberg's Boychiks in the Hood. An intriguing travelogue focusing mostly on Hasidic enclaves throughout North America and Europe, Eisenberg was a great writer but not necessarily the most critical sociologist. One claim he made over and over again was that by the year 2100, "practically the only Jews still identifying as Jews will be Ultra-Orthodox." I've seen this statistic repeated in one form or another in quite a few Jewish sociology books in the past decade, and parroted quite often on the Jblogosphere by triumphalist Ortho-Jews proclaiming their numerical supremacy.

But here's the thing. Assimilation has proven to be more complicated than people gave it credit. Because as much as there are still Jews who are walking totally out the door, there are also plenty of Jews who are still keeping one foot in the room, or hovering by the doorway, or just leaning against the wall, waiting for someone to invite them back in. There are non-Orthodox Jews who are active in shuls, who send their kids to Jewish Day Schools, who are involved in Jewish activism, whatever. The path isn't as important as the fact that they have, and are continuing to find, a way to stay self-identified as Jewish, and perhaps even more important, seem interested in perpetuating that identity to future generations. In short, the assumption that non-Orthodox Judaism doesn't have enough substance to keep kids Jewish has been busted. Yes, there is certainly the possibility-- and the statistical reality-- that Jews will keep leaving. But there are also many more ways for Jews to re-engage, on an individual or communal level, with various aspects of Jewish history, religion, culture, or identity.

Now here's where things get interesting. What Orthodoxy likes to ignore is that when you look at the global Jewish population, the majority is not Orthodox. Even this tripe Ortho-apologetics site admits it, albeit indirectly:

The worldwide Jewish population is 13.3 million Jews...The present estimate for Orthodox Jews in Eretz Yisrael is between 900 thousand and one million; in North America, between 550-650 thousand; and in the rest of the world between 120-150 thousand, making for a total of between 1.67-1.8 million.

If you missed it, that means that percentage-wise, Orthodox Jews make up a whopping 14% of the world's Jewish population. Significant? Sure. But that's not a majority. Hell, that's not even a sixth. Get some perspective, guys.

Not only that, the vast, vast majority of these non-Orthodox Jews have no interest in becoming Orthodox. The dirty little secret of the Jewish demography game is that the authority of the Orthodox world is mostly in their heads (except, embarrassingly, in Israel, which is one big reason, IMO, that non-Orthodox denominations are so muted in their encouragement to their congregants to make aliyah on any large scale). No matter what happens between the Haredi or MO wings of Orthodoxy, the truth of the matter is that the majority of the world's Jews have long since stopped caring.

Usually, the standard response to this matter-of-fact point is to say something like, "Well, they don't count anyway." Someone may make a reference to the "Tinok Shenishbah Bein Ha'Akum"-- kidnapped Jewish children raised among Gentiles, who therefore "know not what they do." But the simple truth is that in places where Orthodoxy has not been handed control over Jewish life by the state (cough cough Israel), they are simply not that important. Not that they aren't valued. Not that they aren't an important part of the landscape. But Orthodoxy is not nearly as dominant as people inside that world seem to think (or pretend). I just can't decide if that's funny or sad.

At the end of the day, it does not matter whether Haredi-ism subsumes Modern Orthodoxy-- because the non-Orthos are still going to be here, and regardless of what new chumras come out of Haredi land about what it means to practice Judaism or what it means to be Jewish or who is a Jew or what bleach you can use on Passover, it will matter not a whit to them. They will keep doing as they like, and, at least outside of Israel, the frum world can't do a thing about it. Some may want to cheer about Haredi-ism's possible victory over Modern Orthodoxy, but the reality is that most of us just don't care. It doesn't matter if the Godol Hador is Elyashiv, Yisrael Meir Lau, or Yitz Greenberg (or Steve Greenberg, for that matter), non-Orthodox Jews are going to keep on being non-Orthodox Jews, and whatever people like the dope from Dov Bear may like to believe about "assimilation," they're not disappearing anytime soon. And, ironically, the crazier the Haredi world gets, and the weaker the Modern Orthodox world gets, the only place you're going to be pushing dissatisfied Ortho Jews is right into our liberal Jewish ranks.

...Now if you'll excuse me, my Shiska Girlfriend and I need to start prepping the sushi rice for our Seder.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Funny Exodus Story

I posted the Maggid section of my and SG's Haggadah over at Too Cool for Shul. Check it out, you know you want to.

Nontraditional Seders

Mother Superior Yid sent me a link about Obama celebrating a seder last year, and describing the plans for this year's at the White House. I liked the tidbits about the President acting like a normal guy, and the attempts to make the White House seder as informal as possible-- to the irritation of staff and secret service folks.

Ms. Tubman and Desiree Rogers, then the White House social secretary, tried to plan an informal meal last year, with little or even no wait staff required. White House ushers reacted with what seemed like polite horror. The president and the first lady simply do not serve themselves, they explained.

Why the hell not? When did the White House become Buckingham Palace?

Some people may dismiss this as a fluff or PR piece, particularly giving Obama's present stand-off with the Israeli government. But I rather like the idea-- which may be partially the result of spin, certainly-- of Obama being both intellectually curious and wanting to share with the rituals of other people. As described in the NY Times, Obama's seder has a feeling of actual engagement that I never got, for instance, from Bush's Hanukkah celebrations. And of course, it's nice to see Jewish content getting some national exposure. I personally think the concept of "The White House's first seder" is a very cool one, and the fact that Obama and his aides are choosing to do it because they feel like it, and not as a heavy-handed cattle-call to prominent DC or national-level Jewish leaders, actually makes it feel authentic. It doesn't matter that Obama isn't Jewish; he's interested in Passover and he's going to celebrate it his way, with friends and family. I think there's something quite touching about that.

Anyway, hearing about Obama's seder was quite timely, as Shiksa Girlfriend and I are getting ready to host Passover for the third year in a row. We've even written a new version of our Haggadah. I'll post my Maggid section next.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kabbalah plus Geology equals Hillarity

Tzvi Fishman has important news. Previous updates included letting us know that being in the Diaspora is like living in a "sci-fi prison" (or cross-dressing), and Tzvi's hilarious Purim shpiel blog post that (intentionally?) included a pretty vile bit of racism:

At a rally Friday afternoon outside the Jerusalem police station, one of his longtime fans, Moses Black from Dimona, said that even if Fleshman is convicted, he is going to continue reading his blogs from prison. “Tzvi is my man,” the half-illiterate, Brown Hebrew told us. “Dat website, ‘jeweeeshsexualiteee’ saved my life. I wasn’t makin’ any mony, and all of my kids were messed up in all kinds of sh**t, and then I read what Tzvi was teechin’ about bein’ holy with one’s wife, and not lookin’ at pooorn, and all da peeces of da puzzle felled into place. I got my act together and I’m livin’ on eezy street now, thanks to Tzvi.”

Hmm. A guy named Moses Black living in Dimona, home of the "Black Hebrews," speaking like Amos-n-Andy. It's like a minstrel show on my monitor. I don't know if Tzvi thought this was funny or what, but it's pretty sick even if done in the name of humor.

Anyway, the real topic of the day is the weather. Specifically, how being anti-Israel (as defined by Tzvi of course) leads to the very oceans turning against you. Yeah, I bet you didn't know Poseidon vacationed in Gush Katif, did you? Now he's pissed.

Lay it on us, Tzvi.

If I had to predict, I’d guess that California will be the first state to disappear. Unless the King of the World decides to first bring a colossal tidal wave straight up Chesapeake Bay and obiterate WDC right off the bat.

Wow, going right for the jugular, eh? Ok, so my state is underwater. Good to know.

As we mentioned on several occasions, Hashem orchestrates the universe via spiritual agencies called “sefirot.” The operational arm in this world is known as “Malchut,” which means kingship. Earthquakes, tsunamis, economic crises, plagues, wars, and massive brain strokes, all fall under the jurisdiction of “Malchut.” When Hashem decides to punish mankind for its misdoings, the vehicle He employs is the spiritual agency of “Malchut.”

Um, no. Since when does Malchut have anything to do with tsunamis or strokes? I'd love to see the spot where the Zohar says that.

While “Malchut” manifests itself in the management of the world we live in, in all of its various forms, the geographical heart of “Malchut” in the world is the Land of Israel. And the center of this heart, and thus the center of all the world is Jerusalem, the city of "Malchut," where the Kingship of G-d is most clearly seen in the world.

Sigh. Ok, Tzvi. So the invisible, intangible elements of the universe manifest in physical form and just happen to concentrate in Jerusalem? Wow, how lucky that the center of Jewish focus happens to also be the center of the physical universe. Tzvi, you used to be a writer. Did you ever happen to hear of a little thing called subjectivity? How about perspective? This dopey argument reminds me of a a French teacher I had who once tried to use longitude lines on a globe to "prove" the world actually revolved around Paris. It also makes me think of the Chinese. The Chinese word for China means "Middle Kingdom" because the Chinese though their country was the center of the universe. (As a matter of fact, it seems to me that there are still quite a few Americans who still feel similarly.)

Therefore, when America exerts pressure on Israel to freeze building in Judea and Samaria, and even more so in Jerusalem, the inner heart of “Malchut” experiences this hostile affront as an act of strangulation. Because Hashem is long-suffering in His patience, He doesn’t allow “Malchut” to strike back in immediate revenge. Rather, He draws the springs of “Malchut” backward, little by little with each act of abuse, until the mechanism is coiled with enormous pressure, like an arrow pulled back in a bow, waiting for the archer to release the taut and vibrating string.

Wow, so Malchut is like an ethereal pressure-building machine, slowly waiting to kill us all? Thanks, God. Also, I like how Tzvi now has a bulletproof explanation to counter the rather obvious point that natural disasters/heart attacks/economic disasters often don't seem to follow any particularly egregious anti-Israel root cause. I suppose when G.H.W. Bush finally dies at the ripe old age of 102, Tzvi will be there to gloat that ol' 41 could have lived to 120 if he hadn't tried to pressure Shamir back in the 80s. (Who knows what that terrible Malchut has prepared for Clinton-- perhaps, say, some sort of massive heart trouble? Wow, he was always in such great shape. It must have been Divine intervention! You know, just like with that fitness freak Ariel Sharon.)

What we have to understand is that the Master of the World has set the Redemption of His Nation Israel into high gear with the resettlement of the Land of Israel in our time, the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the ingathering of the exiles, and reemergence of Israel as a world power in a mere handful of years. All of this is to establish “Malchut” – the Kingship of G-d over the world.

Um, Tzvi, no offense, but at this point Malchut doesn't sound like the Kingship of God (or at least not any God I want to meet)-- the way you're carrying on it's sounding more like some sort of evil demon space monster. Like this guy. Or these.

This enormous history spanning, world-shaking Divine Redemption is like a powerful locomotive speeding forward at an incredible velocity. The locomotive won’t be stopped. Anything which tries to stand in its way will be demolished and smashed.

Uh... Hallelujah? Mommy?

Believe me my friends, 9/11, the flood in New Orleans, and the latest stock market crash are merely gentle warnings. The real blow is on the way.

Wow, Tzvi, you really know how to spread that Love of Hashem around. Good thing you're on a blog and not in a mitzvah tank. If Nachman were here I think he'd give you a whack. (To say nothing of what Moshe de Leon or Isaac Luria would do...)

So Californians, and residents of WDC, my advice to you is to move somewhere else. As far away from America as you can. Far away from Europe, and from Russia, and from Korea, and Iran and Libya, and just about everywhere else in the world. In fact, ironic as it may sound, pretty soon, the only safe place in the world will be in Israel.

Hmm... go to Israel and be safe... but be surrounded by Tzvi Fishmans...

Screw it, I'll split the difference. Mongolia here I come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

For the record...

Dear Uncle Milt,

It was very nice to see you and the family this weekend for Rivkie's Bat Mitzvah. The whole weekend was so great it was hard to pick out the best parts. Highlights definitely included being harassed by the photographer you hired no less than five times in a two-hour period as he begged us to pose for him, having my eardrums blasted out by an obnoxious DJ while watching 13-year-olds freak dance to Lady Gaga's "Pokerface," and dealing with you being an overbearing toolbag who insisted on introducing me to every person you knew who has anything to do with the education industry to help me "network."

I particularly enjoyed the last night when you insisted we all go out to dinner at a Hawaiian themed Mexican restaurant (not even sure how that works). The best part had to have been when you forgot Grandma's wheat allergy, then got pissed at her for refusing to order a "taco-less taco" and announced loudly to everyone that you had "lost your appetite" and spent the whole dinner sulking like a three-year-old. Fun times.

But there is one thing that's been bothering me. Apparently the morning of the service when I was in the bathroom you took the opportunity to mention to Abbot Yid that you were absolutely not going to loan me a tallis because, to paraphrase, "He didn't have a Bar Mitzvah, so he shouldn't wear one."

Let's just be clear, Uncle Milt. I do not mind that Aunt Maureen is as WASPy as a mayonnaise sandwich and never converted. I do not care that you belong to an uber-Reform temple or that your primary Jewish activity seems to involve marching in lockstep with anything that comes out of AIPAC's rear mouth (despite the fact that the Rabbinate in Israel would consider your kids as Jewish as a ham sandwich). I'm willing to ignore your racist comments about Arabs and your ostentatious use of Sephardic-accented Hebrew around us ("Hey Abbot, do you have a tallit?" "What the hell is that?") I pretended not to be bothered that you made me take off my awesome Bukharian yarmulke (which your rabbi really liked, BTW) for family pictures because it looked too ethnic.

I don't even care that you had Rivkie's Bat Mitzvah in a godamn country club, or that you probably spent more on that giant masturbation session than she ever collected for her mitzvah project to help out starving blind orphans in Zimbabwe.

But just so we're clear...

The actual custom regarding tallitot is to start wearing them when you turn 13. I.e., reach the age of majority per halacha. So you can, you know, start fulfilling mitzvot. Whether or not you were technically Bar Mitzvahed or not has nothing to do with it. As long as you're going to start pulling random chumras out of your ass, you might as well go with one that actually exists and follow the opinion of Rabbi Yaacov Mollen from the 1400s.

According to another custom, men only start wearing the Tallit after they get married. Rabbi Yaacov Mollen (1356-1427), also called the Maharil, based his explanation of this custom on two verses in the Torah. Deuteronomy 22:12 states the commandment of wearing a tzitzit and the next verse, Deuteronomy 22:12 says ‘If a man takes a wife…’. However, this custom of not wearing the Tallit until marriage is not widely practiced as it prevents one from fulfilling the commandment in the years before the wedding.

This whole thing reminds me of when some random schmoe on the Internet told me that I wasn't "really" circumcised because mine happened in a hospital rather than at an actual bris. I almost felt bad about it until a Rabbi I knew told me that the idea of me needing a hatafat dam brit was like being "a little bit pregnant." Needless to say, I don't worry about it anymore.

So let me put it this way, Uncle Milt. If I'm not going to take stupid crap from Orthodox crazies who actually know what they're talking about, do you really think I care about your totally arbitrary not-even-Reform rules about tallises?

Next time I'll just bring my own.