Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.


Anonymous said...

You must have egg on your face. Glenn Beck had R' Riskin on his show last Friday.

Friar Yid said...

Thanks for commenting, Anon.

Kudos to Beck for having a rabbi on his show. I would certainly take him interviewing rabbis any day over beating up on Holocaust survivors.

That said, I am still quite skeptical as to his knowledge on the intricacies of Jewish theology, culture or politics-- though clearly visiting Israel demonstrates that he's interested in learning some of the nitty-gritty. Beck's entitled to say whatever he wants, obviously. However I continue to think that it's not particularly smart to sound off on complex issues involving religious communities and sub-groups when you don't really know what you're talking about. It's sort of like how I would think twice before promoting one Anabaptist sect over another. Sure, I could dump on the Beachy Mennonites (men not wearing their own home-made clothes? A shandeh!) but... WHY? That's basically how I feel about Beck proclaiming that Orthodox rabbis are great and Reform rabbis are fakers. It's so beyond his jurisdiction it's just absurd.

So tell me, was the Riskin show worth listening to? Any highlights?