Home


 


 

February 24, 2007

Sitting in shul, I raced through Edward S. Shapiro's (the father of historian Marc B. Shapiro) 2005 collection of essays -- We Are Many: Reflections On American Jewish History And Identity.

Here are excerpts of Shapiro's essay in the Summer 2002 edition of Judaism magazine:

The tensions within Modern Orthodoxy were exhibited on a local level in the 1990s in Congregation Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob and David of West Orange, New Jersey, the leading Orthodox congregation in Essex and Morris counties. I have been affiliated with the congregation since 1969 and, as an academically trained historian and an observer of the sociology of American religion, I have closely watched and thought about its growth. Indeed, much of my writing on American Judaism has come from viewing developments on the ground, so to speak, in West Orange. The evolution of the West Orange Orthodox community has, I believed, been a microcosm of important trends in the history of American Orthodoxy in general and of suburban Orthodoxy in particular. (15) AABJD had been moving slowly to the right during the past three decades. The square dances and concerts with female singers of the 1970s had disappeared from the congregation's social calendar. Mixed dancing at the synagogue's annual dinner ended in the early 1980s. The prayer books and bibles used by the synagogue reflected this rightward move. In the 1970s the synagogue used the Birnbaum siddur and the Hertz chumash. These were replaced in the 1980s by the siddur and chumash produced by ArtScroll. ArtScroll specializes in printing prayer books, biblical commentaries, hagiographic biographies, children's books, and other works which reflect the anti-modernist mentality of sectarian Orthodoxy. These books are written in an execrable manner and edited by persons who disdain or are unaware of modern Jewish scholarship. Few of AABJ&D's members seem to recognize the incongruity of a congregation of college graduates and professionals using such fundamentalist religious literature. The Rabbinical Council of America, the major rabbinic spokesmen of Modern Orthodoxy, even commissioned ArtScroll to produce a prayer book suitable for their congregations. "There is no small irony," wrote the historian Jack Wertheimer, "in the fact that the RCA thus commissioned its opponents in the Orthodox world--traditionalists who do not accept the legitimacy of centrist Orthodox rabbis--to provide its official prayer book."

...By the early 1980s, however, most of the nominally Orthodox had either left the congregation or their children had grown up, and the congregation closed its Hebrew school. In addition, many observant Orthodox families had moved to West Orange. This winnowing process had changed the nature of AABJ&D's membership from "fellow- traveling" to "card-carrying" Orthodox. Rabbinic tolerance of religious transgressions was no longer considered so virtuous. And, as the historian Jeffrey S. Gurock noted in 1998, congregational Orthodox rabbis "no longer feel the pressure to accommodate, or turn a blind eye towards the activities of the minority of graying non-observant members."

Here are excerpts of Shapiro's essay, "Orthodoxy in Pleasantdale" (a version of this was published in the Spring 1985 issue of Judaism):

It is not surprising that many of Pleasantdale's Orthodox population are scientists because science poses less of a threat to traditional Judaism than do the humanities. One wonders whether religious fundamentalists gravitate to the sciences or whether science-oriented individuals find it easier to accept the intellectual demands of Orthodoxy. The scientific orientation of the Orthodox is responsible, in part, for the community's intellectual flaccidity, a characteristic that...afflicts Yeshiva University...

The social background and religious commitment of Pleasantdale's Orthodox determines the character of their children's religious education. Actually, "education" is a misnomer. There is very little desire for education per se. Instead, education is viewed in its most pragmatic and instrumental sense. For the Orthodox, the university is a place where their children can be trained in a profession as expeditiously as possible. There is little understanding of the university years as a time for playing with ideas, for intellectual challenges, and for ideological dialogue. In fact, education, in contrast to professional training, is suspect since it is seen as a threat to religious pieties and could lead to intermarriage. This anti-intellectualism is strengthened by the social background of many of Pleasantdale's Orthodox, which leads them to place in inordinate importance on financial success. Thus, many of Pleasantdale's young end up at Touro, Stern College, or Yeshiva College, the triad of New York's Orthodox colleges, where they will be safe from intellectual contamination...

...Status among the Orthodox comes in part from being more religious than one's neighbor. This results in continual religious bickering...

...The laity are constantly on the alert for rabbinic religious transgressions that can be a source of status for themselves ("I am even more religious than the rabbi"). (pg. 146)

...If support for blacks is an ineluctable result of Jewish values, then one would expect that the most Jewish of American Jews -- the Orthodox of Brooklyn -- would be the most sympathetic towards blacks. The exact opposite, however, is true. Secure in their Jewish identity, they do not require close relations with blacks to define it. Their Jewishness rests on more substantial grounds.

...If the most Jewish of Jews are the least receptive to blacks, the Jews most supportive of blacks have often been alienated from Jewish culture and religion. (pg. 240)

...One can imagine the psychological impact on blacks of Eric Hoffer's comparison of blacks and Jews. The example of Jews, Hoffer wrote, "shows what persistent striving and a passion for education can do...even in the teeth of discrimination. This is a fact which the Negro vehemently rejects. It sticks in his gullet... The Jew impairs the authenticity of the Negro's grievances and alibis. He threatens the Negro's most precious possession: the freedom to fail."

...Jews needed blacks to authenticate their image of themselves as liberals, but blacks did not need Jews to authenticate their image of themselves as blacks. (Pg. 243)

Blacks have resented Jews not because they did not do enough for them but because they did too much. (Pg. 244)

In academia there is not one black scholar, apart from Julius Lester, a convert to Judaism, whose major field of interest is Jewish studies.

March 26, 2007

I call Dr. Edward Shapiro (author of Letters of Sydney Hook: Democracy, Communism and the Cold War, We Are Many: Reflections on Jewish History and Identity, The Oys of Yiddish: Essays on Yiddish Culture in America, Clio from the Right: Essays of a Conservative Historian, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since WWII).

We discuss his essay "Modern Orthodoxy in Crisis: A Test Case" in the Summer 2002 issue of Judaism magazine:

...The third and successful candidate presented a third rabbinic image: that of the communal rov, halakhic decisor, and defender of religious truth and dogma. Although a graduate of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, candidate (3) had gone on for further study at a right-wing yeshiva and had married the daughter of the head of the yeshiva. His dress and demeanor projected a more right-wing outlook. In contrast to the incumbent who was clean shaven and wore a skullcap during prayer, candidate (3) had a short beard, wore a black hat during prayer, was always dressed in the dark suit and white shirt common to the yeshiva world, and sent his oldest son to study at a right-wing yeshiva.

The interview of candidate (3) with the synagogue's members revolved around whether he threatened the prevailing religious ethos of West Orange and how he would relate to non-Orthodox Jews. While in West Orange, he was asked specifically whether he would be willing to become involved in the local federation, and whether he would send his children to the local day school, a centrist institution, or whether he would opt to send them to more right-wing institutions. He stated from the beginning that he would not enroll his children in the local Modern Orthodox day school. It soon became clear after he assumed office that he was far less tolerant of non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism than his predecessor and less interested in being involved in the larger Jewish community. His view of his role as rabbi was indicated when he affixed to his office door a sign stating that he was mora d'asrah (teacher of the town), implying that he viewed himself as West Orange's ultimate authority on matters of Jewish law.

...During the interview process, he was asked his opinion of women's prayer meetings at which they would read from Torah scrolls (he opposed them), and of women wearing slacks within the synagogue building (he hoped they would wear appropriate clothing when meeting with him). The feminist disquietude was not alleviated by the new rabbi's first pre-Yom Kippur sermon. Here he emphasized the duty of husbands to buy their wives pretty clothes for the High Holy days. This offended some women in the congregation who felt they had more important roles than being the recipients of their husbands' largesse, and it reinforced the sense that he did not understand why so many Orthodox women believed they were not being taken seriously as Jews.

Luke: "How did you become Orthodox?"

Edward: "When we moved to New Jersey [in 1969], I became more traditional. I wanted more Jewishly and I felt that the only way to do that was becoming Orthodox. I was 31."

Luke: "Did you think about Orthodoxy being more true?"

Edward: "I didn't think about it theologically. I thought about it more in sociological terms. If you want to lead a vibrant Jewish life and raise your children that way, you have to be in an Orthodox setting."

Luke: "What was the feedback you got on your essay on the search for a new rabbi?"

Edward: "The rabbi of West Orange was incensed. He went ballistic. He got up publicly and berated me from the pulpit. It was one of the factors that led to his resignation. He couldn't get a job elsewhere in the United States"

"There was one thing after another with this rabbi. He came in 1998. He was ill-suited for this position. In the Spring of 2004, he said he wouldn't continue serving in the pulpit. The synagogue gave him a one-year buyout."

Luke: Did you have any qualms about publishing this essay?

Edward: "I checked with a prominent sociologist about publishing it and he couldn't understand why there'd be any objection. I checked with the Editor of the magazine Judaism and other people... This rabbi went off halfcocked. It was irrational."

Luke: What did the rabbi object to?

Edward: "First, that he shouldn't be discussed at all because he's above such discussions. That no one should talk about him. It's unworthy that he should be subjected to any kind of analysis.

"He's an arrogant person.

"When he got up and berated me [in front of the entire synagogue], he mentioned the fact that he was far more learned in certain things than I am and who am I to discuss these issues."

Luke: "Did he mention you by name?"

Edward: "Oh yes. Because the article was going around. Everybody had read it.

"I got a call in 2005 from somebody at this Melbourne synagogue who asked me about the fellow. I was very truthful. His impression was my impression -- that the guy is very arrogant.

"They selected him anyway."

Luke: "Did he make any move to kick you out of the synagogue?"

Edward: "No."

"I found out he was angry. I was in Florida. I wrote him a long three page single-spaced letter explaining the circumstances, what academicians do, that this was not a personal attack on him, it was about certain paradigms of rabbis, in an attempt to mollify him. I said, 'I'd welcome the opportunity to talk to you. Please get back to me.' He never called me back.

"I called him on three or four occasions. I always left my phone number. He never called me back.

"I washed my hands of the whole thing."

"This all got wrapped up in the renewal of his contract in the early winter of 2003. Then he had his diatribe against me in March.

"The thing festered for six months, creating turmoil here in West Orange until his contract was bought up."

Luke: "What was the turmoil?"

Edward: "He received an initial three-year contract in 1998.

"In 2001, the congregation voted to renew it for three years.

"In December of 2003, his contract was coming up again. They had a vote. He didn't like the idea that he had to be voted on. Why don't they just give it to him? He's above all this."

"He won the vote but 38% of the congregation voted not to renew his contract.

"You know the old story about the rabbi being visited in the hospital by the president of the board of directors, who says, 'The board, by a vote of 12-8, with three abstentions, wishes you a happy recovery.'

"After that vote, he was wounded. When he went around talking to people, he found out that some of the most influential people in the community, people he thought were his allies, were against him.

"In January 2004, he brought his wife and his son to a board of directors meeting and he said he regretted he ever brought them to this horrible place in West Orange and that he begged forgiveness from his wife for doing this and after that, his goose was cooked.

"That's the kind of guy he was."

"We've always had an assistant rabbi. When the Rabbi left, they promoted the 27-year old assistant rabbi [Eliezer Zwickler] for one year. They liked what they saw so they made him full-time rabbi. They didn't want to go through another search. This was a divisive and bitter event and they didn't want to repeat it.

"He's done a good job. People like him. He's got this big pulpit and he's paid a lot of money."

Luke: "How much?"

Edward: "His predecessor was making about $180,000 a year."

"I tell people he had the best training. He knew exactly what not to do. He antagonized a lot of people on a host of issues. It was his way or the highway. He wouldn't listen to anybody.

"They established a group of people to counsel him. He completely ignored them."

Luke: "How did the other rabbis in your essay react?"

Edward: "I didn't hear from any of them."

Luke: "What did you think of the book The New Rabbi?"

Edward: "One of the persons mentioned in the book is a friend of mine -- Alan Silverstein, who's a rabbi in Caldwell, near where I live. I said to him once, 'I saw this book where you're mentioned.' He said, 'It's not really true. They mentioned it to me once, but it was never serious. Nothing came of it.'

"Then I started thinking about the book. The guy [Stephen Fried] has long verbatim quotations of things for which there are no records and no corroborating witnesses and I think therefore that a lot of it is simply made-up."

Luke: "Wow. You think he made up sections of the book?"

Edward: "I think he paraphrased it. There's no authentication of a lot of those quotations. I spoke to some people in Philadelphia who said it is not reliable.

"I don't think it's that reliable. It might be great journalism..."

Luke: "How could it be great journalism if it is not reliable?"

Edward: "Well, it's not great scholarship. There are no footnotes. I think a lot of the quotes are what he thought he heard... There's no original transcript. I just don't think it's reliable. But it's a great story."

Luke: "Do you not see many parallels between this book and your essay on this theme?"

Edward: "Oh yeah."

Luke: "I'm struck by how angry so many rabbis get at a dispassionate published analysis of them."

Edward: "There are several reasons. One, they don't appreciate scholarship. Their rabbinic training has not equipped them to deal with the nature of scholarship. Some people think that as soon as you choose to talk about someone, you're choosing sides. In Judaism you're not supposed to talk about anybody. It's lashon hara."

Luke: "It's the first refuge of scoundrels in Jewish life."

Edward: "My son Marc has had the same thing. He gets a lot of heat."

Edward has another son, a lawyer, who lives a mile from me.

Marc B. Shapiro teaches at Chovevei Torah.

Marc's first book was Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966.

Edward: "People were scandalized that an Orthodox rabbi could be civil and have a friendly relationship with a Reform rabbi. Second, people said, even if this is true, how dare you make this public? Weinberg would not have wanted this made public.

"These things are ridiculous."

"My son Marc is coming out with a book on censorship in the Jewish world. He shows how some of the Orthodox are like Russia where you just erase the picture of a person who's fallen out of favor with the Kremlin. It's happened here in New Jersey where this Reform rabbi published a book ("One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them") with an Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood [Yaakov Yosef Reinman]... They forced the guy to recant. He cut off all contact with the Reform rabbi. These people are just comical."

Luke: "Part of the reason that rabbis react so poorly to disinterested writing on them is that they are used to being in complete control of their own image."

Edward: "Absolutely. That's what happened in West Orange. Somehow they're not political figures who can be discussed in print. They're higher than that."

Luke: "In the way Orthodox Judaism is practiced, there are so many values that are held to be higher than truth."

Edward: "Absolutely. And maybe rightly so. I remember Arthur Schlesinger when he wrote his books on Roosevelt and Kennedy eliminated the salacious stuff. He felt it was not relevant. He wanted to focus on the public personae of the individuals. He knew some of these stories intimately."

"When the Lubavitcher rebbe was a student at the Sorbonne in engineering and there were photographs of him [bareheaded]. These photos were subsequently doctored by his disciples who airbrushed in a kipa."

Luke: "Have you changed your assessment on Orthodoxy's intellectual vibrancy?"

Edward: "No."

"For these people, it's training, not education. College is a means to an end, to get a good job. I don't see any playfulness with ideas. If anything, it's gotten worse."

"George Bernard Shaw once said that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms. I've come to the conclusion that maybe an Orthodox [university] is a contradiction in terms."

Luke: "So what is it like for you as an intellectual in Orthodoxy?"

Edward: "It's very lonely.

"It's the old saying, 'The people I pray with, I can't talk to, and the people I talk to, I can't pray with.'

"The intellectual life in a typical Orthodox synagogue is dismal. But that's where you choose to raise your family. You take the good with the bad. Socially, it's wonderful. The divorce rate is low. Delinquency is nonexistent. Drug addiction, alcoholism is nonexistent. People care for one another. If you are sick, people come to your assistance. If you have a tragedy, you have a support community. But intellectually it's barren. The rabbis, intellectually, I don't think some of them have read a book."

Luke: "Isn't the key reason that Orthodoxy is intellectually barren in these ways is that a disinterested pursuit of truth would lead you outside of its theological boundaries?"

Edward: "That's one thing."

"It wasn't always this way. Eighty years ago, anybody who wanted to stay within the Jewish fold and were interested in the world of ideas, you went into the rabbinate. But now there is another place to go -- academia. You have a lot of bright, traditional, Orthodox-orientated people who are college professors. They live in a different world than these rabbis being churned out by these seminaries. Part of the angst of the rabbinate is that there is this challenge from academia for supremacy. This might be another reason why so many of these people are so down on secular education."

Luke: "A disinterested pursuit of truth leads to conclusions different from Orthodoxy. What are the implications of that? A disinterested pursuit of truth says that the Torah is a composite post-Mosaic work, that the events in the Bible did not occur as depicted..."

Edward: "Yeah. These questions don't come up. They don't come up in yeshiva where things are just assumed. The Orthodox don't talk about [these problems]."

Luke: "They are not talked about because the only way they can be dealt with [and remain true to Orthodoxy] is by deception."

Edward: "That's true."

Luke: "How can they get up there and say the Pentateuch is a unitary work from 3200 years ago?"

Edward: "It's difficult."

"The rabbis are not equipped to deal with higher criticism. Their education is totally Talmud. They are not dealing with the historical, philosophical, theological and sociological questions that you and I have been talking about."

Luke: "How can Orthodoxy deal with these questions?"

Edward: "By anathema."

"[Academia] has a system of criticism, of checking of professors. If you write a book, the books are reviewed. They can be condemned harshly."

Luke: "I know a professor who told me that when a colleague gave him a bad review on a book, he never spoke to the guy again."

Edward: "I refused to wear a button with any political message on it or to put bumper stickers on my cars. I felt it wasn't my role. Dispassionate scholarship is where it's at."

"American Historical Association condemned the war in Iraq. I didn't think it was the role of the Association to do that."

Luke: "Your essay on Herman Wouk is overwhelmingly disinterested and then suddenly you'll say, 'But Wouk was wrong to support Nixon.' How do you decide when to inject an opinion?"

Edward: "I was asked to be a guest editor for a special issue of American Jewish History [circa 1997]. I had to find a topic. I chose Jewish identity. When it came out, my friend Stephen Whitfield said the article was too dispassionate. When it came time to put the essay in the book, I decided to put Shapiro in the essay."

Luke: "What depresses you about Jewish life?"

Edward: "The intellectuality of it. Rabbinic sermons drive me up the wall. It's gotten to the point that I have a Pavlovian reflex. Whenever a rabbi gets up to sleep, I doze off.

"Their sermons are too elementary. They'll talk about the same topics over and over.

"It drives me up the wall when rabbis talk about topics which they have no qualifications to talk about. They'll talk about what's happening to Jews in America and they don't understand history or sociology. They'll talk about the Holocaust but they have no training to discuss this. They always like to delve into things beyond their capacity.

"I'll find a sermon deadening and irrelevant and I'll talk to people and they'll say, 'Wasn't he brilliant?'

"Maybe they know their audience better than I do.

"I'm depressed by what's happening within Conservative Judaism. The movement is dissolving before our eyes. They've lost 25% of their members over the past decade.

"I predicted this. I wrote a book in 1992, A Time for Healing. I have a chapter on religion. I said that Conservative Judaism has lost its reason for being. That its right-wing would move to Orthodoxy and its left-wing to Reform. It's lost its sense of being a moderate halachic (Jewish law) institution. With this issue over gender and gays, they've given up halacha. If halacha doesn't agree with them, too bad for halacha.

"There's talk now about Conservative synagogues in Canada withdrawing from the movement.

"There's Reconstructionism hanging around like a vulture, waiting to pick up some members.

"Rabbi Alan Silverstein's son is an Orthodox rabbi. It used to be that the sons of Orthodox rabbis became Conservative rabbis. We have a distinguished teacher of Talmud at Yeshiva University and in Passaic. His father was a Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia."

Luke: "What do you find inspiring about Jewish life?"

Edward: "The vibrancy of Orthodoxy. The movement into the university. You have a lot of first-class minds doing first-class research publishing first-class books. Judaism has made its mark on America, as something to be taken seriously. Jewish scholars are considered by non-Jews as serious scholars. They are part of what Richard Neuhaus calls the public square."

"Another thing I'm excited about is Jewish philanthropy. A lot of wealthy people are paying a lot of money for Jewish causes."

"Somebody should do a sociological study of kosher restaurants -- the kind of food, the acculturation of the Orthodox, the eating of nontraditional food which shows upward mobility...

"Los Angeles is at the frontier of Jewish life. There was an Orthodox synagogue that was being renovated, Bnai David, so the members were meeting at the Workmen's Circle on Robertson Blvd. I said, 'This is unheard of.' The Workmen's Circle was an anti-religious organization. Only in America would that happen. These people wouldn't be caught dead in a synagogue..."