Is it Time to Reassess Religious Zionism?

It's the Orthodox Union's annual Christmas weekend in Los Angeles.

Thursday night. Dec. 21. Beth Jacob. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin gives the keynote address. He's the star of the weekend. Clear. Forceful. Moving.

Friday night. Dec. 22. Bnai David-Judea. A tall elegantly dressed woman walks by trailing toilet paper.

The panel discussion "Is it Time to Reassess Religious Zionism?" features Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Chaim Eisen, and Shmuel Goldin. It is moderated by Rav Yosef Kanefsky.

Religious Zionism means belief in the religious and spiritual significance of the modern state of Israel.

Rabbi Riskin says he's going to say things that he would only say before an O.U. audience.

A lot of speakers say things like this such as David Horowitz, Dennis Prager, etc. I'm not a fan of different messages for different audiences approach.

Rabbi Riskin says he's never heard a sermon in North America promoting aliyah (moving to Israel).

The most entertaining part of the discussion is the battle between Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Eisen. Rabbi Kanefsky keeps edging towards them, smiling regretfully, trying to keep things under control.

Rabbi Eisen appears furious that Rabbi Riskin has misquoted him.

Tall, angular, intense, Rabbi Eisen frequently erupts with fervor. He opposed Israel's disengagement last year from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. He joined the settlers in Gaza for their final six weeks before they were removed by the Israeli army.

Rabbi Eisen says you won't find support for political democracy in the sacred texts of Judaism.

Rabbi Riskin disagrees. He says Jews should give non-Jews in Israel the same rights Jews expect in their host nations.

Rabbi Eisen says that being a Zionist does not mean automatic support for the Israeli government.

Rabbi Goldin regrets a recent O.U. resolution to give the organization more leeway in criticizing the Israeli government. He says we need to stand together.

During Rabbi Kanefsky's closing remarks, Riskin and Eisen kept bickering until Rabbi Kanefsky smiled, "Rabbis hate it when congregants talk during their sermons..."

The bickering stopped.

I doubt Eisen and Riskin would've come to any closure even if they'd spoken all night.

Saturday morning. In his introduction, Rabbi Kanefsky says Rabbi Shmuel Goldin was the only panelist to stay on topic Friday night.

In his sermon, Rabbi Goldin says that America's invasion of Iraq was partly "for us."

"It's not our boys who are dying."

(I wonder if he knows that Jews occupy the same percentage of the U.S. armed forces as they do of the general population.)

Rabbi Goldin says our problems in Iraq have nothing to do with the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

Menachem Fisch, an Orthodox Jew, writes:

...It is not as if Orthodox Judaism's views on the moral issues currently debated in the United States are uncomfortably extreme. Halakah [Jewish law] may not always accord with the most liberal approach, but it hardly ever conincides with the other extreme. And yet, outside Israel, one hardly ever encounters serious Orthodox Jewish involvement in any of the public ethical debates. Such questions are frequently raised in sermons and in the lively responsa literature, and are firmly, and to a great extent unanimously, ruled upon by Orthodox halakists without, however, any visible proselytizing intention of causing anyone else to improve their ways. Orthodox Jews have quite thoroughly absented themselves from the public moral debate everywhere but in Israel -- so much so that it seems inappropriate to describe their attitude to the moral diversity that htey encounter outside Israel as one of toleration. Sheer indifference seems more li8ke it. Orthodox communities in the West, though perfectly welcome as bona fide members of society, tend to keep to themselves politically, and appear to show extremely little if any interest in influencing the public sphere -- other, of course, than to lobby for their own communal needs. It is not as if they would hav eliked to make a stand but refrain from doing so for the sake of peace. It is more as if they simply couldn't care less.

Paradoxically, the level of indifference exhibited by Jewish communities to the moral space facilitated by state law, and to the moral choices made by others, changes as if it were a direct function of their degree of halakic seriousness. The stricter one is, the more seriously one takes one's religious duties, the less, it seems in the Jewish case, is one concerned with how other individuals and communities live their lives. ...[D]iaspora Orthodox Jews largely display an attitude of unconsidered apathy toward the moral choices and lifestyles of all but their very own. ...Typical of very many Orthodox communities throughout the Western world is a deeply entrenched sense of not belonging, of having no responsibility, and of having no desire to be responsible for anything or anyone outside the enclave of their own community.


Dennis Prager Speaks To Orthodox Union

9 a.m. Room is full (about 80 persons) for Rabbi Riskin's talk. He says Iran won't nuke Jerusalem because it won't damage the Al Aksa mosque on the temple mount.

10 a.m. Lisa Aiken says Judaism is primarily about having a relationship with God.

Does anyone aside from a few eccentric intellectuals believe that? I've met few religious Jews who claimed to have a relationship with God. It's just one of those things that speakers say but few people do.

It's like saying, "Jews don't think they're better than anybody else."

I get that obligatory disclaimer every time choseness is introduced. Yes, Jews are God's chosen people but Jews don't believe they are any better than anybody else.

That's nonsense. Of course Jews believe they are better than everybody else, just as every religious and national group thinks it is number one. The only difference is that many non-Jews believe Jews are special, and sometimes hate them for it.

This old man (I think it was the Rabbi Emmanuel pictured here with Richard Joel last month) dressed like a Hasid makes a loud, passionate and incomprehensible speech complaining that he's been forbidden from passing out his flyers, which he does anyway over the next few hours to anyone he thinks is important (Michael Broyde, Dennis Prager, etc).

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb does a good job keeping the yeshiva curriculum discussion moving.

11:30 a.m. Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun lectures on why our youth are leaving Orthodoxy. He says it is not for intellectual reasons.

Rabbi Michael Broyde says it is for intellectual reasons. That the kids see irreconcilable differences between Torah and science. That "being happy and feeling good" is an insufficient reason to stay Jewish.

I wonder how many people leave Orthodox Judaism because so many of its practicioners are fat, slovenly, and unattractive?

A YULA boys school teacher says the reasons were intellectual a century ago but now kids are just giving into their lustful desires.

Fundamentalist religion attracts a disproportionate number of kooks and many of them are dying to speak up and bore us to tears.

Much of the room has nodded off. The sages command us to follow the majority, so I also nod off.

I walk out and past Rabbi Daniel Korobkin posing for photographs.

"Now, let's vary the background," says the photographer.

I make eye contact with a leading Los Angeles rabbi in the hallway. He stares at me, says hello, and then backs into the ladies room.

"Wrong room!" I warn.

Because I've studied Torah, I choose to believe that the rabbi went into the ladies room for the best of reasons.

Still, my soul is troubled. Why do so many of our rabbis go off the derech and into the ladies room? Is it for intellectual reasons or are they just following their lustful desires?

I listen to Rabbi Broyde's instructions on interacting with gentiles. I know more about dating shiksas than this rabbi. I should be giving this talk.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading Orthodox decider of Jewish law in the last half of the 20th Century, characterized American government as grounded in righteousness (he said that in Hebrew, much more impressive sounding). He said we should offer profound fidelity to secular American law.

Rabbi Broyde says we have to careful in selecting those who will do inter-faith dialogue. "I think much harder before speaking to The New York Times than I do to the Jewish press."

Do we want to encourage abortion laws along the lines of what Christians want that could possibly cause a mother to lose her life in a case where Jewish law would prescribe an abortion.

Jewish law is more concerned with the life of the mother than that of the fetus.

Standing up for religious values that are not ours, such as animal sacrifice by cults in Florida, protects our right to practice our religion.

A fat hippie teacher from Shalhevet wonders how Rabbi Broyde can give so much honor to American law when it allowed such terrible miscarriages of justice in the cases of Jonathan Pollard and the Rosenbergs.

"I don't see Jonathan Pollard case as a terrible miscarriage of justice. Nor the Rosenberg case."

The teacher yells at Broyde who replies, "You asked for my opinion. I gave it to you."

That quiets the yelping masses.

Rabbi Alan Kalinsky (West Coast director of the O.U.) holds the full house (about 250 persons) hostage for about 15 minutes to do housekeeping items and bestow some pointless award (a yad aka Torah pointer) on an O.U. functionary (president Steve Savitsky).

Finally, we're allowed the main event -- Dennis Prager vs. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.

The crowd is thrilled to hear Prager. His billboard "Just Right" is all over L.A. for his radio show.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin gives the introduction: "My 21-year old son was looking over the program and his eyes perked up when he saw Dennis Prager's name. 'I'm going to that one.'

"You've all been put in cherem [excommunication] for being here today," says Rabbi Korobkin.

Prager is not Orthodox and a lot of people are upset about him being invited to an O.U. event.

Rabbi Korobkin says the O.U. got a telephone message from a local leader of left-wing Orthodoxy complaining about Prager's inclusion. That Prager was intolerant of other religions because he wants Muslim congressman Keith Ellison to take his swearing in oath on a Bible (in addition to the Koran).

Rabbi Korobkin: "The feeling at the O.U. is that we are sufficiently confident that Torah is emet [truth] and that what we have is emet and whatever deficiencies we have...we have to be prepared to look at someone pointing out our flaws..."

Dennis wears a light blue shirt, an orange and blue striped tie, and a brown jacket. "I was the one who opened the media to Muslims."

That would come as news to the hundreds of journalists who wrote stories about Muslims and put them on the air (radio and television) before Prager ever got a radio show.

"If we Jews think we are secure in America because of the constitution and not because of the Bible, we are fools."

"Of all the ethnic groups in America, we are the most foolish."

"The great majority of serious Jews are Orthodox."

"On the great moral issues of life, you and I are in agreement 99% of the time... Because we both believe the Torah comes from God."

"The average Orthodox rabbi and Reform rabbi share almost nothing [in values]."

"You turned out to be right... I could not argue against it -- the ordination of women. The adding of vast numbers of females to the Jewish and Christian clergy has not helped those religions. Women bring gifts that are different than what clerical leadership need. Women prefer compassion to standards and clergy have to prefer standards to compassion."

"Faith matters a great deal. When I grew up [in Orthodoxy], everything was halakah. About once a year, one of the rabbonim might have a hashkafa shiur where God might be mentioned. In my Orthodox world, the question was never what does God want. It was, what's the halakah?"

"It's hard to argue that God does not women to be able to marry if their husbands refuse a get [divorce]. Why even ask what does God want if my only question is, what is the halakah?"

"My oldest son [David], in a deep rebellion, has decided to become an Orthodox rabbi."

"My brother [Kenny], who is Orthodox, says to me, 'I should've been Reform. Then my kids would be Orthodox.'"

"The eruv is baloney. It is a legal fiction. We're going to fool ourselves that it is ok to wheel our kids to shul."

"I can't believe that God wants a woman [on Shabbos] to be under house arrest because there's not a string around the city."

"I believe that God doesn't want us to look silly in the eyes of the nations. The L.A. Times article [on the Venice eruv] makes Orthodox Judaism look silly. You can't blame the L.A. Times."

"I believe that God wants Pesach [Passover] to be seven days [rather than the eight days now observed by traditional Jews in the diaspora]. That's what he wrote. The Torah's from God."

I can't believe how several Jews have the chutzpah to answer their cell phones during the lecture.

"The siddur [prayer book] is too long. The maxzor [High Holiday prayer book] is too long. Nobody understands the piyutim [which make a Rosh Hashanah morning prayer service last over six hours]."

"Then I have Orthodox friends tell me, 'Dennis, at our hashkama minyan, we do everything in 90 minutes.' Then you have to say the prayers so fast they become gibberish. Evelyn Wood [speed reader] grew up Orthodox."

"I believe that the Torah wants Pesach to be seven days because it recreates creation. Judaism stands on two pillars -- creation and the Exodus from Egypt. When you make it eight days, you lose the whole point of what HaShem wanted."

"Are we a kiddish HaShem in the way we kill animals? We had the most humane way to kill animals...but do we today? I don't think so."

"Kosher veal? It's killed in a painless way but it is raised in a painful way."

"I wish I could say that halakah [Jewish law] makes people good."

Dennis relays a story from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who interviewed various rabbis to become the head of his yeshiva. All of them said that if they ordered a shaver in the mail and the company accidentally sent an extra one, they would keep it, as there was nothing wrong in keeping such from a Gentile. They could even quote some Jewish text to support it.

"Here's a case of halakah making people worse."

"My dad has been Orthodox his whole life. Even though he enlisted in World War II, he noticed all these yeshivot popping up in New York during World War II so Jews could avoid service in the armed forces by studying to become rabbis. All these goyim are fighting Hitler and all these frum Jews are enrolling in yeshiva to not fight Hitler."

"The finest Jews I have known have tended to be Orthodox."

Dennis complained about Orthodox Jews who don't greet gentiles on the Sabbath.

"The Reform conference recently passed a resolution that Washington D.C. should become a state. There's a pressing Jewish issue."

Rabbi Korobkin: "I've never been so glad to see Rabbi Adlerstein. Better you than me."

Rav Adlerstein makes a response (and blogs about it later). "If I score a couple of points for the Ribbono Shel Olam, Baruch HaShem."

"I applaud the O.U. for allowing this despite everyone's lock-jaw. We do have a tradition of being open to criticism."

He recommends an article by Judy Bleich in the Orthodox Forum on Reform doing away with selichot. He says that shorter prayer services don't attract more people to shul.

Rav Adlerstein says the lack of greeting gentiles was not because such persons were Orthodox but because they were from New York.

Rabbi Korobkin says that if there's anything that's bothering you, seek out your rabbi and ask. "There are answers to all these questions."

Dennis: "When I first met Rabbi Adlerstein, he was not the same. He had to get halakic permission to go on Religion on the Line (KABC) and dialogue with non-Jewish clergy. Today he's a leader in Jewish life in talking to Christians and meeting with them and hugging them."

Rabbi Adlerstein: "Just the men."

Dennis: "The tradition with Conservative Judaism is not the non-fidelity to halakah. They are overwhelmingly faithful to halaka... The problem with Conservatism is that they don't believe the Torah is divine."

When Prager speaks, my face angles up and to the side like a puppy towards his master.

Dennis says it is wrong that we have to stand during Neilah (and much of the High Holiday prayer services). "If you had to stand during my talk, all you'd think about is when you could sit down."

"We're stuck with standing up more than any other religion."

"You can't say anything in Orthodox life that something rabbinic is a bad idea."

If you want to become effective at outreach, learn from Chabad in two ways:

One. Chabad doesn't ration its love for Jews on the level of the Jews' observance. Chabad seeks to make Jews Jewish while the mitnagdim (non-Hasidic Orthodox) seek to make them Orthodox.

Two. Chabad emissaries are happy. "A shaliach [emissary] who is not happy is sent back to Brooklyn. A rebettzin who is not good looking is sent back to Brooklyn."

"The best advertisement for religion is when its practicioners are happy."

Dennis says that only two or three people in his yeshiva class did not cheat.

"Joseph Telushkin was a Republican ten years before I was."

A young man gets up and says how disgusted he is that Prager was invited to speak and to criticize the Orthodox. About 15 people applaud him.

Dennis: "Reform does not invite me (because of my politics). Conservative does. I spoke at the Rabbinical Assembly convention."

"My parents went to my Stephen S. Wise minyan Saturday morning for my youngest son's bar mitzvah. They loved it."

Rabbi Korobkin says Dennis Prager thinks more like an Orthodox Jew than most Orthodox Jews.

At the end of the program, a man loudly pleads with Dennis to daven mincha with them. Prager agrees.

As for me, I can't wait to get home to watch some football.

Gadi Pickholz emails (israelfrac@gmail.com) from the Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council:

Did anyone point out in the discussion of why youth depart orthodoxy that it is neither attraction of secularism nor intellectualism, but the recognition that orthodoxy today as practiced today as devolved into nothing more than empty ritual masking rampant materialism and socioeconomic climbing? This is clearly the primary justification heard in Israel for American aliya from parents -- fleeing the Affluenza of American Orthodoxy before one loses the children entirely the other critical issue, which you hinted at in an earlier post but also did not pursue, is that with the loss of all Rabbinic leadership in America to the black hat chareidim (Steven Riskin could no longer exist in America, as an example, much less be Rosh Yeshiva of my daughter's program training female advocates for the Jerusalem Bet Din) there is simply no longer any connection between the true values and hashkafa of the modern orthodox families and their Rabbinic leadership, particularly educational leadership. This seems to be the problem not only at Valley Torah, but also at YULA girls in particular.

There really is no school in LA that would support my daughter electing to do army service over being a nice jewish girl volunteer (American girls dont do that either when they come to Israel, but remain cloistered in the safety of a charedi seminar) before studying far more than simply talmud in a female hesder program designed to create not only female advocates for Bet Din but eventually female Dayanim as well. Rabbi Rakefet's daughter, who is a prominent Jerusalem attorney and to'en rabbani in bet din, could not be tolerated in any educational environment for girls in LA today. Rabbi Rakefet openly states all the time that none of us could practice Judaism and raise our children in the American community of today, and that this is a much stronger pull for all of us than simply Zionism once we realize that American orhtodoxy has gone, to use his football field-goal analogy, "no good, way w-i-i-i-de to the right" This is a far greater turn-off, but no one can express it publicly as no one but the charedim want the career in chinuch in America today. This divergence in values grows annually until reaching a breaking point.

I agree that you should be addressing these issues, because everyone else is simply too scared given the Talibanization of American orthodox leadership to even loyal dissent.

Perhaps it is because, like the catholic church and mafia, much of orthodoxy (and particularly charedi orthodoxy, someone has to be willing to state that openly) have completely divorced ritual observance from basic morality. Our children are not foolish, and comprehend that scandal far better than we --they have not yet invested so much time, effort and money in the system. The cataracts will be removed from our eyes eventually; we can simply elect how painful a process it will be.