Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.

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