November 17, 2018

In a Secular Passover, Jews Are Nothing Special

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

There is a great crisis currently occurring in the American-Jewish community — a crisis of identity. What are Jews here to accomplish? Are Jews special? Or are Jews just a group of socially active members of the political left, with no specific religious inclination or mission beyond mirroring the priorities of the Democratic Party?

That debate takes center stage each year around Passover, when we hear revisionist lectures about the nature of the holiday. Each year, we hear from secular-leaning Jews that the story of the exodus from Egypt is more representational than real, that it is more universal than specific. “Let my people go!” has an admirably vague power to it; no one wants to be victimized by an arbitrary power structure. Thus, members of the Jewish left use that slogan from the Passover story to push for everything from transgenderism to same-sex marriage, from boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel to environmental regulation. The Passover story becomes a story about President Donald Trump or about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or about the restrictiveness of traditional lifestyles.

But the Passover story isn’t vague. And it carries a universal message — but that message doesn’t stop at freedom from tyranny. The question posed by the Passover story extends beyond mere absence of external force. It extends to another question: What’s the purpose of freedom? Does liberty have a rationale, beyond mere absence of force?

That question becomes more important day by day — because, as we’ve seen, there are widely disparate interpretations of the nonaggression principle in modern politics. The same people who invoke “Let my people go!” to push same-sex marriage have no problem coercing religious Americans into participating in ceremonies that they feel violate their religion. The same people who point to the exodus from Egypt as a sort of moral imprimatur for anti-Israel activity are perfectly fine with Jews being thrown from their land in the Gaza Strip.

The Passover story isn’t vague. And it carries a universal message — but that message doesn’t stop at freedom from tyranny.

Passover isn’t just a story of exit from. It’s a story of movement toward. The entire passage in Exodus carrying that famous slogan doesn’t end with Pharaoh’s release of the Jews, it explains why God cares whether Pharaoh releases the Jews. God tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go, that they may serve me.’ ” The story of Passover doesn’t end with the Jews leaving Egypt or with God parting the Red Sea or with the Egyptians perishing beneath the waves. It ends with the Jews standing before Sinai, saying the words “na’aseh v’nishmah” — we will do and we will hear. And it ends with the fulfillment of the promise God made to the ancestors of the Jews: to inhabit the land of Israel.

These dual promises are connected — and should inform how we view Passover. Judaism is not Christianity, nor is it secular humanism. Its goal is not abandonment of the particular for the universal. Judaism makes a specific and unique claim: In serving God in a land promised to the Jews by God, the Jews act as a beacon of light to the world. God doesn’t tell Moses that his mission ends in libertinism or self-defined morality — God says he’s freeing the Jews to serve Him.

Once Jews lose the particularism of their religion, there is no point to celebrating Passover. Passover becomes just another symbolic story that has nothing to do with Judaism per se; Israel becomes just another land; the morality of Judaism just becomes warmed-over Kantianism. Jews become secular humanists, with the added benefit or drawback of carrying ethnic minority status. And nobody is going to stay up two nights running to retell that story. The glory of the Jewish people and the glory of God are inseparable in the Exodus story. If we Jews define ourselves as free from God, we define ourselves out of the story of human history.

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Separate but equal? Egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall makes Israel similar to Iran

A plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold gender-mixed services was approved by the Israeli government on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

While being hailed as a historic landmark for Jewish pluralism and the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, the cabinet's decision does little more than legitimize denomination-based segregation.

Leave it to the leaders of a Jewish democracy to support discrimination against the Jewish majority! A sad but constant historical truism is that governments have tended to pass and enforce discriminatory legislation against minority segments of the population.

Israel however is an exception to this historic pattern of tyranny of the majority.

Jewish Israelis, who comprise over 80 percent of the population, must live within a legal framework that discriminates in favor of one Jewish stream at the expense of all other denominations, as well as against Jews who are altogether secular.

Sunday's decision codifies the same prejudicial thinking that guides the 'Mehadrin' bus lines, in which gender segregation rules as observed by some ultra-Orthodox Jews are applied to public transportation.

Israeli women have a plethora of equally valid and accessible transportation options to choose from. Yet the very existence of separate bus lines where men sit in the front and women in back is anathema to the pluralistic values on which Israel was founded and on which the country has thrived.

From its inception the Jewish state has been governed by the rule of law as drafted by a democratically-elected legislature that guarantees non Jewish Israeli citizens the right to practice religion without external, state-sanctioned, coercion.

Yet while Israel has no state religion the country's Chief Rabbinate imposes its religious interpretations ‎upon any Israeli citizen who dares identify as a Jew.  If you happen to be a Jew living in Israel you must contend with constant intrusions into your personal manner of religious observance, reason being that there's nothing personal about it.

The Rabbinate has jurisdiction over everything from Jewish marriages to Jewish divorce, Jewish burials, conversions, Kosher certification, Jewish immigration to Israel and of course the supervision of Jewish holy sites.

And the Chief Rabbinate doesn't limit its scope of operations to internal Israeli affairs. In December 2015, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau lambasted a visit by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to a Jewish school in the United States that is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

Lau called the visit by Bennett, “unacceptable…since it granted recognition to those who have distanced themselves” from the People of Israel.

Bennet also happens to be Israel's Diaspora Affairs Minister.

At its core, the religious intervention in secular society is fueled by a nagging self-doubt that Jewish Israel cannot possibly remain Jewish if left to its own devices.

Yet any system of beliefs that relies on threats instead of persuasion is intellectually suspect and morally bankrupt, only surviving by resorting to strong-arm political tactics.

How strange that in the only Jewish country on earth debate is stifled. As far back as the Mishna, through the 2,000-year Jewish Exile, there were lively discussions regarding the interpretation of Halacha between the more liberal Beit Hillel and more stringent Beit Shamai schools. 

As such, the Israeli government's decision on to validate the Haredi-controlled Rabbinate's discriminatory policies is an affront to Jewish tradition, which upholds the centrality of robust discourse within the Jewish community. 

With the cabinet's approval, Israeli society took one step towards the empires of darkness in Tehran and Riyadh and one step away from its own glorious founding creed.

Israeli rabbinical group to host 55,000 secular Jews for holiday services

The Tzohar rabbinical organization will host more than 55,000 people at 295 locations throughout Israel for Yom Kippur services.

In addition, the group for the first time will host the “Listening Together” shofar program for Rosh Hashanah in community centers and schools.

Participants will be provided with a prayer book to make it easier to follow along, as well as with an explanatory pamphlet written by Tzohar about the customs, prayers and meaning of the High Holidays to help guide the participants throughout the services.

“Going to a religious synagogue can be an intimidating and sometimes off-putting experience for someone who doesn’t regularly attend or associate with that particular community,” said Rabbi David Stav, co-founder of Tzohar. “We have seen such an outpouring of desire for Jewish connection by the secular community, especially relating the High Holidays, that we knew something had to be done to accommodate them. By moving these important Jewish lifecycle events to neutral locations – such as community centers or event halls – it becomes more much inviting and accessible for anyone interested in connecting with their Jewish tradition.”

The organization of religious Zionist rabbis started the Yom Kippur “Praying Together” program, which organizes the explanatory Yom Kippur services, 16 years ago.

Breaking (NOT): GOP hopes Jews vote for GOP

There may be chaos in the world, with an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the specter of war in Ukraine and a seemingly endless cycle of violence in Gaza, but the earth continues to turn, the sun continues to shine, and Republicans continue to think Jews are about to turn Republican. Some things never change.

The Hill newspaper trots out another installment in the longrunning series suggesting that this may finally be the time that Jews break with the Democratic party. In fairness to The Hill, the frame it presents is, no doubt, quite accurate — “Republicans believe that the deepening crisis in Gaza could ultimately loosen the grip that the Democratic Party has traditionally held upon American Jewish voters.” And to prove it, they proceed to quote a number of Republicans (two, to be precise), saying that this may indeed be the time that Jewish voter disgust boils over about Israel and sends them into the Republican camp. (Surprisingly, neither of these Republicans is Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose never-diminishing optimism typically makes an appearance in these stories. Perhaps he was on vacation.)

To be clear, I don’t doubt that many Republicans believe that Jews will, indeed, start voting Republican. By the same token, I’m sure my rabbi believes I’ll start showing up regularly for services and my wife thinks I’m going to start cleaning around the apartment. Hope springs eternal.

And, to be sure, it is indeed possible that Jewish votes may start to go Republican. As the article notes, from the 2008 to the 2012 presidential elections, Obama’s percentage of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls, dropped from 78 percent to 69 percent, a more significant drop than in his overall level of support. It’s also the lowest percentage of the Jewish vote to go Democratic since 1988.

That said, there have been false dawns before — when George W. Bush ticked up from 19 percent to 24 percent from 2000 to 2004, some observers hailed it as a sign that the long-awaited shift was under way. Before that, between 1976 and 1988, the Democratic candidate only broke 70 percent once. But the long trend persists — no Republican has reached 40 percent of the Jewish vote since Warren G. Harding in 1920. As Tevi Troy, the former Jewish liaison to the younger Bush administration ruefully tells The Hill (well down in the story), “I have been around many blocks and I’ve heard it so many times: ‘Now is the point that it’s all going to change.’ And it never happens. It’s like ‘Waiting for Godot.’”

Conservative columnist Philip Klein, of the Washington Examiner, dispenses with the latest outbreak of GOP optimism quite nicely: Jews don’t vote only on Israel, Jewish views on social and economic issues are more aligned with the Democratic Party, and Jewish views on Israel actually line up pretty well with the priorities of Obama and most other Democrats (i.e. support for a two-state solution).

He also points out, quite rightly that the factor most likely to push Jews towards the GOP is not Israel but demographics — Orthodox Jews vote Republican at a much higher rate than non-Orthodox Jews and are also growing at a much faster clip than any other portion of the Jewish population. (I would, however, quibble with his point about intermarriage — studies have indicated that intermarried, unaffiliated Jews vote just as Democratic as other non-Orthodox Jews.)

So someday, Jews may indeed start to vote more Republican. But if that happens, it probably won’t be Israel that drives the shift. And it probably won’t become apparent for many years to come.

B’nai Mitzvah: War, politics, bonds enliven a basement rite-of-passage

This is a report on a bar mitzvah, although you may not recognize it as such.

Among the elements common to today’s celebrations, it did not include: a bird molded from
chopped chicken liver, a “theme” (no Darth Vader masks or Titanic imagery) or a waterfall of liquid chocolate for dipping. There was no bar, no five-course meal and no klezmer band.

It did include gifts from the sisterhood and the men’s club, a modest post-bar mitzvah luncheon, handfuls of hard candies, a number of relatives, a few special guests, some interesting political overtones and a very nervous bar mitzvah boy. I know he was nervous, because the only thing I remember about the event was my certainty that I would forget all of the Hebrew I had memorized in the preceding months.

And it all took place in the basement of a Conservative synagogue, for which there were no funds to construct the rest of the building.

The year, 1940, was a very difficult one for Jews. Hitler conquered France and other Western European countries, Mussolini entered the war and this country was divided into those who favored aiding the Allies and those who said that Europe’s wars were none of our business.

Forest Hills, Queens, where my parents had bought a home the previous year, had not yet become Tel Aviv West, and its Jews were a small and unloved minority. Jews were not admitted to membership in the Forest Hills Lawn Tennis Association, home of championship tennis matches, nor could they purchase homes in much of the surrounding neighborhood.

My parents were secular Jews whose involvement in the Jewish community deepened as Germany spread out across much of Europe. My father was a businessman and my mother an attorney (family legend claims that she was the first woman in America to be a labor lawyer), and that led to the political overtones at the ceremony.

At various times, she represented the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (David Dubinsky, president) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (Sidney Hillman, president). Both men attended the bar mitzvah of their attorney’s oldest son and carefully sat on opposite sides of the room, glowering at each other throughout the morning.

Judging by their politics, Dubinsky probably sat on the right, Hillman on the left. After the synagogue president announced the coming events (one practice that hasn’t changed over the years) they both departed, taking care to exit by different doors.

My father, born and reared in Poland, once told me of his bar mitzvah. It involved reading from the Torah, a d’var Torah and a small celebratory luncheon afterward. It was, in his estimation, no big deal, and in practical terms, all it meant was that he was now eligible to be counted in the minyan, an honor he declined throughout all the years that I knew him.

I came away from my moment of glory with some economic gains. In 1940, if your family supported the Allies, it was almost a certainty that instead of cash, you were given U.S. Defense Bonds (later War Bonds), bought for $18.75, redeemable in 10 years for $25.

By 1950, I was a resident of Jerusalem and had forgotten all about my treasure trove. Twenty years later, when she moved into an apartment in Manhattan, my mother discovered them in a trunk. By then, I was living in Los Angeles with a wife and three children, all of whom required food and clothing on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the $500 the bonds were now worth bore no relation to their value 20 years previous, so I kept my day job and gave up all hope of early retirement.

The synagogue, I should add, survived my bar mitzvah and many others. Today, in a different location and no longer confined to a basement, the Forest Hills Jewish Center is one of New York’s bastions of Conservative Jewry and, for all I know, is probably hosting bar and bat mitzvahs for which $500 would not pay the bar bills.

In a few years, I will reach the age when it is customary to have a second bar mitzvah. I only hope that we will not be living then in a time when War Bonds will again become fashionable gifts.

Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.

Humanistic Judaism Trods Different Path

Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham Temple in Detroit founded
Humanistic Judaism in 1963. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews involved with
Humanistic Judaism in North America, including 1,000 in the greater Los Angeles

He was named Humanist of the Year for 2003 by the American
Humanist Association in recognition of 40 years of professional service that
have benefited the Humanist community. Past recipients of the award include
Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Margaret Sanger. He spoke to The
Jewish Journal about Humanism.

Jewish Journal: What is Humanism?

Sherwin Wine: Humanism is a philosophy of life which
believes that the basic power for solving human problems lies within human
beings. And Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life which maintains that the
basic power for solving human problems lies within human beings and is enriched
by the history and culture of the Jewish people.

JJ: How does Humanistic Judaism differ from regular Judaism?

SW: On a practical level, it means that our services and
instruction of both adults and children is different. Most of traditional
Judaism and even liberal Judaism is a God-centered Judaism, and we are a
people-centered Judaism. So the conventional prayers that would be said in
traditional synagogues are not part of our services. Our services consist of
different writings, poetry and music that are consistent to a people-centered

JJ: What sort of tenets does Humanistic Judaism have besides
these services?

SW: The heart of a good philosophy of life or religion,
whether it is Orthodoxy or Humanistic Judaism, is ethics. So for us, the
foundation of our teaching is ethical, and those are the same ethical norms
that all the great philosophies of life and religions of the world maintain.
Character training is the most important thing that we can do, and that is the
heart of it. All the other rituals are secondary to ethics. In addition, since
the history and culture of the Jewish people is for us a reinforcement of our
Humanism, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but we celebrate them in
accordance with our people-centered philosophy. We do not believe these
holidays were announced on top of a mountain. We believe these holidays were
created by the Jewish people over many centuries, and the themes of the
holidays are not about miraculous power, but the themes are, for us, about
human ethical values.

In addition, we have the full panoply of lifecycle
celebrations, which are birth ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings. We
have all of that, and we spend a lot of time studying the history and
literature of the Jewish people. For us, the literature of the Jewish people
includes the Torah, but not only the Torah. It includes all the literature of
the Jews until modern times.

JJ: Was Humanistic Judaism established because traditional
Judaism did not have enough focus on ethics?

SW:  The reason why Humanistic Judaism came into existence
was surveys indicated that close to 47 percent of the Jews in North America
identify themselves as secular, which means that they don’t find any meaning in
a God-oriented Judaism. Their main orientation to Judaism is cultural and

We are trying to reach out to Jews who are not Orthodox,
Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, but who want to connect themselves
to the Jewish community, but haven’t been successful in doing that, because
they haven’t found a community where their beliefs and their desire to be Jews
come together.

We are not saying that traditional Jews don’t have that [ethical]
emphasis. Rather, we are saying that we don’t want to be part of saying prayers
we don’t believe in and asking for divine power that we don’t believe in.

Our job in life is not to train ourselves to depend on
divine power — for us, our job in life is to make ourselves strong in order to
deal with a difficult world.

JJ: What are the five main points of Humanistic Judaism?

SW: 1. Humanistic Judaism believes that Judaism is the
historic culture and civilization of the Jewish people.

2. It believes that the highest ethical goal of life is the
creation of dignity for all human beings.

3. That the basic source of power for solving human problems
lies within human beings

4. That the culture of the Jewish people — its literature,
its holidays — are the creation of the Jewish people over many centuries

5. That the meaning of Jewish history, given the experience
of the Jews in particular over the last few centuries, means in the end, we
Jews, like all people, have to find the power within ourselves and to develop
our own strength to meet the challenges of life.

Rabbi Wine will address Adat Chaverim on Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Center, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills and will also speak on
Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,Los Angeles.
For information, call (818) 623-7363.