Friday, February 25, 2011

Shiksa Fiancee Saves the Day

Since last time, there have been a lot of developments towards Operation Tying-the-Knot. Among the more exciting were:

A- Looking for caterers and freaking out over outrageous prices (the best moment had to be when one gave us a quote that was more than our total planned budget for the entire wedding, including rings and invitations);
B- Finding out our venue was too small;
C- Frantically looking for a new venue;
D- Fighting with my parents about how, no, we did not want to re-visit the damn clubhouse (at this point I think I'm going to be banned from ever using that word; future mini-Yids will have to play in a "kiddy-shack");
E- Suffering through some heated conversations with Huldah, SF's Mom, in which she implied I was forcing my preferences and timetables on our wedding, as well as future plans about where we might live or how our kids might be raised (fun times!);

and F- Finally finding two new venues- an economy hotel for the ceremony and a restaurant for the reception.

Oof. It's been a hectic month. (Being sick for the last three weeks and having Huldah sleeping on our couch didn't make things easier.) The saving grace turned out to be SF's new employer.

Let me explain: After graduating college, SF worked in a toy store for two years. Since she had a degree and wasn't incompetent or a thief, she climbed the ranks fairly quickly and became a GM at their flagship store. Unfortunately, her boss was crazy, was constantly interfering in daily operations of the store, and made her so miserable that she spent most of her time fantasizing about poking customers' eyes out and stacking them in the antique Matryoshka dolls that no one ever bought. Clearly, this was not a recipe for long-term success. So a year ago, SF quit. Given that the economy still sucks and we live in an expensive city, this was not exactly a stress-free decision. To take her mind off the crushing anxiety of being unemployed, SF enrolled in a year-long accelerated Master's Degree program in Human Resources, as those elements of her job had been the most satisfying. And, after many months of job hunting, she secured a nice position in her new job during the summer, where she has quickly risen up the corporate ladder again, and is now their resident HR Gaon.

The upshot of all this? Well, SF's company (which, for extra-cool points, I will refer to as CIA) isn't just one store; it's a secret consortium, kind of like the mafia. In a clever attempt to confuse and attract even more tourists, they operate five or six stores in one very popular tourist area, all under different names and catering to slightly different client bases (one store focuses on middle-aged customers, another is geared towards teens, one, bizarrely enough, is vaguely nautical-themed, etc...) And it works, obscenely well. Despite the economic woes affecting everybody, CIA is making a killing. (Apparently when jeans cost $100-plus back in the UK or Germany, $60 sounds like a steal-- so why not buy some for every member of your family?) And guess what else CIA owns? Its own Italian restaurant, conveniently located, staffed by employees that have been hearing nothing but great things about their corporate wunderkind for the last seven months.

So, we decided to see what they could do for us. A lot, it turns out. Not only are they giving us a great break on the meal, they're also comping their banquet room rental and champagne for our guests. And all because, as they put it to SF and Huldah when they went to talk with her, "We like her so much." Mazel Tov, sweetie. You're a star.

Oh, and the rabbi is secure. (As are commemorative yarmulkes! Hooray for the Internet.)

Next up, finalizing wedding invitations and getting rings.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Get your story straight

We know that theodicy is a fun pastime for Haredi leaders, as it is for loyal blog frenemy Lazer Brody. But while some of these gedolei hador are holy enough to get daily personal communications from God explaining why he's doing the crazy things we read about in the news, it seems that he's been two-timing them.

Lazer says:

The prophet Zecharia tells us in Chapter 14 of his prophecy that in the end of days, all the nations will gather to attack Jerusalem. The same prophecy appears in Micah 4:11 and in Psalms 2:1, according to the Malbim's elaboration of King David's question, "Why do the nations tremble?" 
...How can anyone turn a blind eye to the fact that the whole world is changing, both politically and geophysically? The volcanos, yesterday's earthquake in New Zealand, the heavy blizzards in North America, the typhoons in the Far East, and the shakeup of governments around the globe are all wakeup calls from Hashem. The more one ignores the alarm clock, the louder it gets. Only a fool puts his head in the ground like an ostrich... 
The Arab world will continue to become more radically Islamic. This past Friday, two million people gathered in downtown Cairo of "moderate" Egypt to chant for the "liberation" of Jerusalem, claiming that they're all ready to become shahidim, or suicide bombers. This phenomena will only spread. But, with Hashem's loving grace, our prophets and sages have prepared us.

In other words, the massive protests in the Arab world are happening because God wants Muslims to become a unified front opposing Israel, the better to serve his love of black-and-white end-time scenarios.

But wait! The leaders of Israel's Litvish community got a different God-memo. While R. Chaim Kanievsky seems to agree with Lazer that the Arab protests are part of a God-and-Magog showdown, R. Aharon Shteinman's got a different drash.
"Recently it appears that there is a powerful effort to destroy and agitate the world of the Torah, through various attempts to prosecute kollels and yeshiva students," Steinman said. "When you try to agitate the world of the Torah, God agitates the world."
Got that? It's not Armageddon, it's that God's pissed about secularists in the Knesset trying to limit stipends to kollel students. Psht. You actually thought God cared about anyone outside Bnei Brak? What are you, some kind of universalist?

Whatever the "real" message behind the Arab revolutions, one thing is clear- God needs to work on his communication skills.

Hat tip to Failed Messiah.

Godwin Watch 2011

In the spirit of being even-handed, I present: left-wing idiots abusing and exploiting Holocaust imagery.

Behold, they exist. And, just like Glenn Beck, Steve Cohen, and Bill O'Reilly, I wish they'd shut the hell up.

Hat-tip: Jeffrey Goldberg.

Defender of the Jerk

Glenn Beck has come out apologizing for his stupid comments about Reform rabbis on Tuesday. Being Beck, of course, there is a lot of rambling and meandering around what should be a rather simple admission (I screwed up, it was wrong, I apologize). First he pats himself on the back for being honest enough to admit his mistakes, unlike the New York Times (because that's relevant). He moves on to, first, blaming his comment on an unnamed friend (?) who he "trusts on things like this". So apparently Glenn Beck has an idiot Ortho-friend who he's tapped to be his Secretary of Jewish Affairs. Awesome.

Beck admits he made "one of the worst analogies of all time" and says he realized it even as he was making it but still "kept going," for reasons he doesn't bother to explain. I'm guessing it's either because he just didn't care, or because he thought it would get him more attention, and he likes that. He goes on to say that he's on radio for four hours a day and therefore, I don't know, should get a free pass for being a dumbass. Hmm, maybe if 4 hours a day results in making you say stupid crap on the radio, you should ask for a shorter show, Glenn. This is like a pilot continually crashing planes and blaming it on the fact that their route is too long. Beck finishes by talking about Abe Foxman, with whom he doesn't "agree with on, I think, anything." This is funny, given how pro-Israel Beck talks about being, and given that Israel advocacy is something Foxman has been on a tear about for the past decade-plus. I guess Beck's Jew Secretary has been slacking off.

So there it is, Beck is "sorry." Sorry for what, exactly? His comparison to radical Islamists. Not that he suggested Reform rabbis aren't real rabbis. Certainly not for his Holocaust rhetoric which he was getting criticized for in the first place. Nope, just the Islam thing. Typical.

But if you think Beck's comments were frustrating, you haven't seen anything yet. At almost the same time that Beck was apologizing, the Jewish Week posted an anti-Reform diatribe from its Associate Editor Jonathan Mark (since removed, replaced with an apology. It's nice, but I'd personally prefer to keep the post up so Mark's stupid column could be seen and ridiculed by all).

When Glenn Beck says that Reform Judaism is like radical Islam, insofar as both are more about politics than faith, he’s being unfair to radical Islam. 
Yes, both are deeply involved with politics and confuse their own politics with God’s. 
But radical Islamists seems to be much more serious about their religion. 
Reform rabbis often lead congregations whose overall culture is indifferent to Shabbat and kashrut, indifferent to daily prayer and intermarriage, and indifferent to religious literacy.

It wasn't a huge shock to hear this crap from Mark, who's not only a political conservative but also an experienced Reform-basher. Mark has criticized Reform Judaism previously, both for accepting "illegal aliens" in the ranks of the Jewish people (Jews of patrilineal descent) and for condoning gay marriage. And yes, he still seems particularly bothered about the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

Only a Reform rabbi would officiate at an intermarriage on Shabbat itself, as did Rabbi James Ponet at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. A Radical Islamist wouldn’t do that. 
Not even the Ten Commandments are as important to a Reform rabbi as intermarriage. The integrity of Shabbat (Commandment Four) was considered so meaningless that the ceremony couldn’t even wait until sunset. With a Reform rabbi, officiating for Clinton, a political figure, was more important than Shabbat, faith.

Not that Mark cares about things like details, but there actually is some data on this issue showing that, rather than the blanket approval he pretends was magically passed by the Great Sage Eric Yoffie shlita, the Reform movement has basically left the decision to officiate at intermarriages up to their individual rabbis. Reform rabbis thus run the gamut from people who will marry a couple if one partner is Jewish, regardless of what the other's beliefs are, to those who will only marry a couple if the partner makes a commitment to raise Jewish children and/or convert, all the way to those who won't marry anyone unless both partners are Jewish. It's a spectrum and depends entirely on the rabbis in question. Where there has been a top-down approach has been in how the movement has chosen to respond to families that want to join synagogues in which one parent is not Jewish. And, not that Mark wants to hear it, but Reform is not alone in paying attention to facts on the ground and noticing that marrying a non-Jew does not automatically mean that one is abandoning one's Jewish identity.

In response to this loss, Conservative Judaism has gradually begun including non-Jewish parents in life-cycle events. Rabbis might not officiate at mixed marriages, but they will often refer couples to someone who does and will provide prenuptial counseling. They will integrate the non-Jewish spouse in synagogue life after marriage. 
Even Orthodoxy has responded to the challenge of intermarriage. The haredi Eternal Jewish Family project actively encourages the non-Jewish spouse of a mixed marriage to convert to Judaism if he or she is willing to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle. This marks a departure from a more stringent position in Orthodoxy that rejects the possibility of conversion for the spouse of someone who has chosen to marry outside the faith.

Haredi rabbi and ex-Shas MK Chaim Amsellem has also waded into the pool with his book Zerah Israel, which argues that there are tangible ways for a person with Jewish heritage who is not halachically Jewish to demonstrate their "seriousness" and solidarity with the Jewish people, effectively establishing a third category apart from Jew and Gentile. According to Amsellem, this approach builds off traditional halachic sources.

It’s hard to imagine a Reform rabbi who didn’t frequently take political positions. Among their political positions is that we shouldn’t be Islamophobic; we should know that jihad is a spiritual struggle, not a violent one; that imams are moderates until proven otherwise. OK, all the more reason Beck is right. Reform rabbis themselves say that Islam is first a religion of peace, more than politics. 
It’s had to imagine a Reform rabbi who isn’t infatuated with the great Reform legends of fighting for Darfur, being part of the (imaginary) black-Jewish alliance, advocating for gay and transgender rights, hating Bush and Sarah Palin, cheering Obama’s pressure on Israel, all of which these Reform rabbis will attribute to their faith but it sure sounds like politics.

And it's really hard to imagine a Jonathan Mark column where he doesn't just aim his rear towards his computer and let loose.

First, what this boils down to is that Mark has done zero research into sussing out how many Reform rabbis are politically active. Zero. Not that this stopped him from opening his mouth. Second, like Beck, he conveniently focused his attention exclusively on Reform rabbis, pretending as if Orthodox Judaism (or its rabbis) was somehow apolitical. That would be very interesting news, considering how active Orthodox activists, politicians and leaders are in America, certain communities in Europe, and particularly in Israel. There are five explicitly Orthodox political parties sitting in the Knesset right now (nine, if you count all the single-MK parties that make up the National Union coalition). I don't see Mark attacking any of them for political activity. I don't see him criticizing Hasidic rebbes for playing king-maker in New York elections, or going after nutjobs like Yehuda Levin for making the rounds of Fox News and MSNBC. This is a double-standard, pure and simple. And while Mark has the right to disagree with the political positions or orientation that a movement or denomination supports (explicitly or implicitly), intellectual honesty requires him to take a good look at his own spiritual home as well. For every Reform rabbi who advocates for GLBT rights I bet you can find an Orthodox one who opposes them, for every one who is anti-Bush or Palin you can find one who supports them (and vice-versa with Obama). As Mark said, you can call these positions faith, but there's no question they're political as well. Why is it ok if you're Orthodox? Why is it ok if you're a Republican?

Radical Islamic leaders don’t go around saying that religion just means being ethical and good and voting for Democrats, the way most Reform rabbis do. Radical Islam believe that faith demands personal service to God, not just service to each other. 
Radical Islamic leaders don’t define their faith so singularly with one political party, as do most Reform rabbis, who seem to believe that Judaism never, ever, says no to liberal dogma. Their Reform Jewish faith, to hear so many tell it. is indistinguishable from their Reform Jewish poliitics. To many Reform leaders, the left can disagree with the Torah but the Torah can never disagree with the left. When in conflict, the Torah must adapt.

Reform Judaism teaches that part of service to God involves focusing on people, too. And they didn't invent in in Germany or Cincinnati, it goes back to the Ten Commandments.

And not to belabor the point, but imagine Mark's frustration if someone were to write a hit piece about Orthodox Jews, much less rabbis, with the same cavalier stereotyping he's employing. There are plenty of nasty things one could say about Orthodox rabbis elevating certain parts of the Torah (such as tzniut) over other values both secular and religious (such as human rights) but the implication is that that's ok because Orthodox Jewish politics come from the Torah.

Like Beck, Mark tries to talk out of both sides of his mouth:
There are many Reform Jews that I love and greatly admire. These are my people. I’d rather be the worst Reform Jew than the very best Islamist.
Uh huh. As I've said before, I'm pretty sure these friends don't actually exist. If they do I doubt they'll be friends much longer.

The last salvo really says it all:

Beck’s a better man than George Soros, and he’s a better Jew, too. If something bad, God forbid, ever happened to Israel, I’m convinced it would bother Beck more. One guy cares about me and the two countries I love. One guy doesn’t. 
I don’t like it when someone who cares about us so much is hated, is laughed at, because his caring is imperfect.

There you have it. Beck explicitly lied about Soros and accused him of being a Nazi collaborator, and Mark defends him. Ridiculously, he even says he's a "better Jew" than Soros, which is pretty funny given that you're comparing a religious Mormon to a secular Jew. I'm not sure exactly what High Priest Jonathan based this analysis on, but I suppose it's by virtue of the fact that Beck likes Israel and isn't Reform. (No word on whether Beck would count as a better Jew than a Reform rabbi, though-- I'm particularly curious about how he would stack up compared to this guy.)

Mark says he doesn't like it when someone cares about Jews and is hated and laughed at for it. Which is pretty funny considering how much ahavat yisrael this column is dripping with. If that's caring, Mark and Beck deserve each other.

Glenn Beck and the Rabbis

School's off and I've had some time to kill, so I decided to take a closer look at the ongoing mess involving Glenn Beck and the Jewish community. While you can go back and forth as to whether Beck is actually anti-semitic or merely just part of a long history of conservatives tapping into (coincidentally Jewish) cabal motifs when it serves their purposes, what I find much more interesting is his latest response to being called out on his flagrant violation of Godwin's law.

A brief timeline (abridged for short attention spans, including my own):

November 2010: Beck has three-part show attacking George Soros as a "Puppet Master." Among other odious comments are the claim that Soros was a Nazi collaborator who helped confiscate goods from Hungarian Jews and then later felt zero guilt about it. In reality, what Soros had said in interviews was that since he hadn't been party to any confiscations, he had nothing to feel guilty about. Beck also claimed Soros "helped send Jews to death camps," which there has been no evidence to support. In response, Jewish Funds of Justice and the ADL criticize Beck as being either ignorant or insensitive. Beck then turns around and suggests Soros doesn't really count as Jewish.

January 2011: Jewish Funds for Justice publishes their letter from 400 rabbis to Rupert Murdoch criticizing Beck's mischaracterization of Soros, his hundreds of comparisons of political opponents to Nazis, and Roger Ailes' dismissal of Jewish concerns about it. Full text here courtesy of signatory Rabbi Jason Miller. Breitbart-run Big Peace is one of the earliest critics, claiming the letter is the Jewish equivalent of "the race card" and is politically motivated. Another Breitbart affiliate, Big Journalism, runs a post from Jeff Dunetz, which attacks JFJ for its liberalism and slanders all 400 signatories for not seeking proof of Beck's actions or getting his side of the story before signing the letter. Jonathan Tobin of Commentary has similar remarks. Fox News issues a short dismissive statement of their own:  
"We haven't seen the ad, but this group is a George Soros backed left-wing political organization that has been trying to engage Glenn Beck primarily for publicity purposes."

February 2011: In an interview discussing Beck's comments, Soros compares Fox News' programming to Nazi propaganda. Right-wing commentators have a field day. Jewish conservatives attack the Rabbi Letter as one-sided again. Deciding that no one engages him for publicity purposes and gets away with it, Beck decides to poke the proverbial hornets' nest again for good measure and says this:

BECK: ...When you talk about rabbis, understand that most -- most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the Reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just -- radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the Reform Judaism, it is more about politics... It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single Orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all Reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.

Not surprisingly, Beck has been slapped down by the Reform movement, ADL and various other Jewish groups. To his credit, conservative Jonathan Tobin was quick to note just how ridiculous the statement was.
It’s true that most Reform rabbis are political liberals, just as most American Jews are liberals, a reality that COMMENTARY has been known to lament. And it is also true that a standing joke about Reform has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. But if that jibe hits home about the core beliefs of many Reform Jews, it is erroneous to put down the movement per se as a purely political entity. However much many liberal Jews have come to see their faith in terms that have tended to merge their political beliefs with their religious identity, Reform Judaism is a venerable religious movement above and beyond political activism that is due the same respect that any other denomination of one of our country’s great faiths deserves. Many of its rabbis are, and have been, political activists (including many who are ardent Zionists), but that does not justify putting their faith down as mere politics. To do so is to manifest the sort of disrespect for religion that is more usually associated with the left than the right.
Well put.

Since the names are all public, I decided to do some Googling. In the process I started realizing just how wrongheaded Beck's position on the rabbis-- and Jewish discourse in general-- is.

The letter was supposedly signed by 400 rabbis (see below for the final count). I tried to find out where each one fit denomination-wise. While the lion's share were ordained in the Reform movement, there was a big chunk from the Conservative movement as well, with some representation from the smaller Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. But things were also more complicated than that. There were rabbis who were raised Orthodox who became ordained in more liberal seminaries. Several rabbis were ordained in one movement and now work in synagogues affiliated with another one. Some of their synagogues were unaffiliated with any movement. And there were at least ten who were ordained in "trans-denominational" seminaries like the Academy of Jewish Religion in NY or Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

The more I read up on the backgrounds of the rabbis involved, the more I read about the energy, scholarship, and hard work that each of them has put into their profession-- all the more significant given the trend of Jews to turn away from organized community life in the past 50 years-- the more I started getting angry. I was really bothered by the idea that these people's "Jew-cred" rested on whether they got their degree from Hebrew Union College or Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or Jewish Theological Seminary or Yeshivat Bat Ayin or had a private ordination through Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Shlomo Riskin, or Nechamia Goldberg-- as if Beck had ever heard of any of them!

Never mind that about half the signatories were female, which necessitates that they would have to come from a non-Orthodox stream of Judaism. Never mind that several of the rabbis on the letter are from Latin America, which has its own historical influences from Sephardic Judaism that, depending on your perspective, make traditional Conservative Judaism closer to the "authentic" approach practiced by the communities there for hundreds of years than the increasingly Haredi push of today's Orthodoxy. God knows what Beck would make of Rabbi Aaron Katz, who was an Orthodox rabbi for most of his adult life, then came out as gay, and now works within the Reform movement. Tell me, Glenn, how shall we "count" him? (Technically he has Orthodox smicha...) Never mind that quite a few of the Reform rabbis were members of the Reform Zionists of America, or that some of them have even served in the IDF, putting the lie to Beck's tired line that "nobody is more pro-Israel or pro-Jewish" than him.

Beck knows nothing of this. And he doesn't care. He has no knowledge of the complexities of denominationalism in Jewish life, nor any apparent awareness that Orthodoxy has a left wing. He doesn't even appear to know that there are other Jewish denominations besides Orthodox and Reform. I would hazard a guess that Beck's view of Judaism could be boiled down to- "the Orthodox are conservative and like me, so they're real Jews. Everyone else is a liberal faker." Beck's transparent attempt to exploit the divisions and labels used within the Jewish community not only serves as another wake-up call as to how complicated-- and in many cases, outdated-- these identities have become, they also show that he has no idea of what he's talking about.

At a certain point, I started feeling like merely doing the bean-counting exercise was giving some sort of credence to Beck's argument, as if politically liberal Jews needed to justify their religious bona fides for the likes of some schmoe who probably couldn't tell you the difference between halakha and hamantashen. Who is Glenn Beck to dictate who is a "real rabbi?"

While there are lots of points and arguments that could be made about Soros, Beck, or the rabbis' letter (for instance, if the goal was to present a united front, why not try to get more Orthodox names on it?), what is undeniable is that Beck's ignorance about the realities of Jewish life and faith should disqualify him from making any public comments on issues facing our community, much less attacking the legitimacy of our clergy or denominations. If he wants to get attention for being a twit and comparing every liberal under the sun to Hitler, he should have the integrity to take the criticism on the chin if people get upset. If he wants to disagree with the rabbis, then do so. But don't sidestep the issue by implying that the rabbis aren't real rabbis. If nothing else, this tactic shows just how dishonest-- and cowardly-- Beck is when it comes to taking criticism.

For the bean-counters, here are the final stats: (Note- it appears that the original ad only contained 240 names. Not sure whether it reached 400 afterwards or if nobody at JFJ or the news media knows how to count.)

Reform- 125
Conservative- 70
Reconstructionist- 24
Renewal- 15
Orthodox- 6 (YCT- Sam Feinsmith, Shmuly Yanklowitz [second smicha from R. Shlomo Riskin] , Yeshiva Bat Ayin- David Jaffe, YU- Chaim Seidler-Feller, Jay Weinstein [second smicha from R. Zalman Nechamia Goldberg], smicha from R. Riskin- David Kalb)

For one rabbi's personal response to Beck's latest shot, see this post from Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz.