Monday, 11 November 2013

Let's be honest...

this article is by Dr Harris Bor. He does not have a blog, or is on facebook, and so I am hosting his response to Rabbi Alan Kimche's recent missive about Limmud. This is not by me, but make no mistake, I wish I had written it. I agree with every damn word. 

LET’S BE HONEST ABOUT THE ORTHODOX JUDAISM BEING ESPOUSED IN A RECENT ARTICLE (I have tried to keep faithful where possible to the wording and style of the original article. It is recommended that this article be read together with the original.)

Dr. Harris Bor

By all accounts this Orthodox Judaism offers an amazing experience. It survives by perpetuating the myth that Judaism has remained constant for over 4000 years and is warm, friendly, interesting and engaging -it's clearly all this and more. But there's one thing it most definitely is not. It's certainly not a Judaism which would be recognised by Jews of the distant past. This Orthodox Judaism is not anything like the Judaism of the ancients, and so would certainly not be recognised by Ezra or Hillel, by Rashi or the Rambam, or indeed by the grandparents of most of Orthodoxy’s adherents. History applies to Judaism as it does to everything else. Let's be honest. 
In this Orthodox world you will hear a Rabbi from Hendon or Golders Green speaking about how wonderful it is for a wife to stay at home, while her husband learns all day, even though he has no aptitude, ability, or desire to learn or teach, explaining that there is no truth but the truth of Torah, which accords only to his interpretation; or from a fellow from a certain yeshiva castigating any approach to Jewish learning which takes account of historical realities or empirical research, calling this dangerous, subversive and insisting that it must be shunned, and who suggests that the only answers that you are entitled to are those which this Orthodoxy sanctions, as any other insight will inevitably lead to sin. --it soon becomes crystal clear that the Orthodoxy being espoused is essentially built on fear and the desire to keep the masses in ignorance.
As for the social aspect of this Orthodox programme, it is effectively one of isolationism, where all who subscribe to the same doctrinal narrowness come together to reinforce the correctness of their own outlook and the error of anyone else’s. Despite the purported message of ahavat yisrael (love of Israel) and kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (all Israel are responsible one for another), the real programme amazingly has at its heart the belief that Orthodoxy is the she’erit yisreal (remnant of Israel), and all those who find Orthodoxy troubling or inadequate to tackle the questions of the day are apikorsim. It takes only a little thought to realise that the true motivation is control, the invention of structures and beliefs, to ensure that without the sanction of the rabbinate nothing goes. 
In this Orthodoxy you will often be told that there are only immutable Truths no personal narratives, yet it soon becomes apparent that no one can agree exactly what those truths are or justify their immutability. The Exodus from Egypt that we love to recount on Seder Night must be taken literally, heterosexual marriage is just perfect, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have no poetic or mythical value whatsoever other than that which the traditional commentators ascribe to them. Those who espouse this type of Orthodoxy are often neither articulate nor lucid, which explains why many of the things they say have little appeal to those looking for authenticity or truth.

Let's be honest. This has always been the agenda of this particular type of Orthodoxy, created in reaction to Haskalah and Reform Judaism, it has no genuine creative source of its own. Its’ task is to oppose by force, not win by persuasion. Since its creation in the 18th/19th centuries it has encouraged generations of Jews to adhere to a belief in Torah-Min-Hashamayim, but has failed to explain what it means by “Torah”, “Min” or “Shamayim” in this context. It has held to the mantra that a Jew with Rabbinic Halacha, with mitzvot, with Talmud, with Shabbat, with tefillin, with the mikva, and with Emunah, has everything to withstand the inducements of assimilation and still transmit his or her faith to the next generation. History is yet to judge. The mantra of course also ignores the possibility that assimilation is not the main problem, but the type and quality of the Judaism that survives.

But I have heard it asked, why are these particular Orthodox rabbis not going to Limmud, surely we live in a world of choice, in a supermarket of ideas? Indeed, and these particular Orthodox rabbis cannot compete.   

Let’s be clear. These Orthodox rabbis believe passionately in the Divine Origins of the Torah, the commitment to Rabbinic Halacha, the sanctity of marriage and family life and the divinely ordained connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. However, they cannot recognise that these principles have developed and changed, taken on different hews and can even now be shaped further while preserving orthodox practice. These Orthodox rabbis believe they alone are the exclusive guarantors of Netzach Yisrael, the indestructible sanctity of the Jewish People. When they promote a systematic denial of all beliefs other than those which they espouse, they undermine their own credibility and simply make lots of people think they are ridiculous. This type of Orthodoxy celebrates a rejection of much that is precious to thinking human beings. For this reason, there is also a subversion of Judaic principles in this approach.

It is agreed that it is absurd to claim that arrogance or fundamentalism drives certain Orthodox leaders to denounce Limmud. This is not the case. Instead, it is their fear, need to retain control, and inability to rise to the challenge. The suggestion that their refusal to participate involves “clarity of vision” and that their “objective is only to defend everything that is precious and vital to Jewish continuity and authenticity” is pure hubris and convinces no one. “Leadership” is also not a real factor. To be a leader, you need followers, and relatively few actually agree with these so called leaders, not even many of their congregants who often humour them and do their own thing. It would be enlightening for someone to take an anonymous poll of those communities over whom these Orthodox leaders claim to have sway. Why do they think so many Orthodox people go to Limmud? They clearly do not respect their Rabbis half as much as their Rabbis might like to think. Let’s be honest.

And it’s not only traditional religious principles that are being abandoned by these Orthodox leaders, they also wrongly assume that to be Orthodox is to support Israel on any issue and no matter what it does. It is asked, what about the passion that Anglo Jewry has had over the years to support Israel? The answer is that passion remains, but ,many have now matured beyond youth group propaganda and are able to take a more nuanced approach to these issues, as many Israeli’s have done. We can admit Israel’s mistakes as well as take pride in its miraculous existence, its acts of righteousness, its strengths, its creativity. We are no angels, and neither is our State. Many attendees at Limmud, are grateful to encounter messages that are different to the ones they might receive each week which tend to tow a certain line, in an environment where people’s underlying sympathy is generally supportive.

Only someone who has had no decent secular education would listen to a far-left pro-Palestinian speaker and suddenly direct all of his or her sympathies to the suffering Palestinians in Gaza and consider it a terrible a crime of human rights has been perpetrated by building the Wall. Only a fool would have his or her indignation ignited against the so called human rights violations of the checkpoint searches of the IDF, and alleged Zahal war crimes by going to one talk. But it is right to be challenged, to be confronted, by these alleged wrongs. If we really are the Am Segula (treasured people), a Mamlechet Kohanim (holy nation), a Goi Kadosh (Holy Nation), we have a duty to absorb criticism, to sift truth from fiction, and where we have acted wrongly to say salachti (forgive me) and to put things right. How else can we fulfil our divine mission? So screening a far-left film like ‘Poisoned’ about four young men enlisted into the IDF and how it impacts destructively on their lives, is important. 

It is said that no speakers at Limmud can be found to talk about the systematic incitement to jihadist hatred of Jews which is commonplace in Palestinian schools and universities. There is also a complaint that there are no speakers to talk about the “high-calibre” moral code of Zahal, the rapid economic growth rate of the Palestinian economy or Palestinians treated in Israeli hospitals, or the increasing number of East Jerusalem Palestinians in a 2011 survey who greatly prefer being citizens of Israel rather than a new Palestinian state, because Israeli Arabs have more civil rights than anywhere else in the Middle East. 

Let’s be honest. What this complaint really amounts to is that Limmud is not promoting a 100% pro-Israeli agenda. Why should it? Is it not also the case that the proper way to redress any perceived lack of balance is to become part of the “Limmud agenda” rather than distancing oneself from it? The argument works for attending, not rejecting, Limmud. 
The article asks is it a part of Jewish teachings to promote LGBTQ? (Why also does the article not state what that means- fear that these things may be catching?) The answer of course, to date, is no, but it’s not the promotion that is the issue but how Judaism deals with the modern readiness to be honest about ones sexual orientation, rather than to suppress it as in the past. This failure to adequately deal with this issue is particularly problematic for many Jews, regardless of their sexual persuasion. If Orthodoxy does not offer sensible answers and practical solutions to these real issues, another type of Judaism will. It really is that simple. Let's be honest.
It is stated that one particularly eye-catching form of non-authentic Judaism is the bogus mysticism of ‘’ teachings, and that the profound teachings of genuine Kabbala were designed to deepen our grasp of the mystical truths of the Torah and to enhance the practice of mitzvot by a rich symbolism and transcendent meditations. The assertion completely ignores the strong antinomian tendency inherent in all forms of mysticism, including Kabbala. It is simply wrong to pretend that Kabbala was designed for a single purpose, or to suggest that this is the only purpose for which it has been used within earlier Judaism. 

For sure, there is also much nonsense in the popularisation of mysticism, but it is astonishing that an article written by someone who should want to draw people towards faith, does not view the current interest in mysticism as a yearning for dvekeut coming from deep within the human soul, and to seek to capture the wave by directing that interest in a more traditional direction, rather than mock what is of course a straw man. 

It is also important to recognise that much of the so called authentic Kabbala taught in popular Orthodox classes on hasidut and even in some yeshivot is a million miles from what might be called “authentic Kabblala”. Is this nonsense better than that nonsense? Probably not. Let’s be honest.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Orthodoxy does not have a powerful attractive force, but what I am suggesting is that the type of Orthodoxy espoused in the article is massive turn off for many who might otherwise call themselves Orthodox. 

The patronising description of the sincerity of the Chief Rabbi and the other Orthodox leaders who attend Limmud is hard to take seriously, as is the comment that the attendance of Orthodox leaders “creates confusion in foundational matters that require certainty and clarity”. How exactly is that confusion caused? We are not told. Perhaps the idea is that the mere attendance at an event where someone espouses a different view will be taken by some half wit as an indication that the attendee accepts all of the myriad views being espoused? 

This is a common fear expressed by a certain type of orthodoxy. However, if this were a real concern, it would be dangerous for the opposition to attend Parliament unless people felt that they were about to agree with the Government, and no barrister could attend court for fear of being seen to agree with the other side. This type of fear emanates from a community which is unused to difference and genuine dialogue, because where there is dialogue, as in Limmud, it is understood as a matter of course that different people are likely to hold different views. No one would assume because someone attends a talk, he or she will agree with what is being said.

We then reach the “short personal anecdote”. I have a number of my own. I have met Orthodox Jews who consider that the whole of Tanach presents a perfectly consistent picture of Jewish History, deny that before the 18th century there were many Jews who were not orthodox, who think that modern science to a significant degree is fundamentally flawed and that the Rabbis of the Talmud still lead the way in this regard, and that there is no truth outside the Torah. We do not need to ask these Jews where they get these views.  They can only have been inculcated in them by a certain narrow Orthodoxy, which allows many questions to be asked, but only few answers to be given 

One of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Jewry for generations has been to push the boundaries of mainstream orthodoxy in a respectful fashion, without wholeheartedly embracing Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements. In doing so we have consistently and unswervingly succeeded to ensure that the core of Anglo Jewry is affiliated to Orthodox Judaism while creating an environment of sincere questioning which has led to a new generation of thinking and committed Jews who meet at events organised by Limmud, an achievement that other countries observe with envy. Even a brief look at the line-up of presenters and titles at Limmud shows this to be the case. Limmud opens vistas, while respecting boundaries that have been so jealously protected in the UK for centuries.

So why indeed are several orthodox speakers so opposed to other Orthodox speakers teaching there? We have already said: fear, control, and having nothing themselves to say. 

So what is it exactly that I am advocating? To shut down Orthodoxy? Absolutely not. I believe firmly in it. However, openness must be at the spiritual vision.

Let's just give this conference its true name “Limmud”, which means simply learning. As for a certain segment of the Orthodox community, we need to recognise that it will no more attend such an event than it would join a Reform or Liberal or Masorti synagogue on a Shabbat morning. On the basis of current statistics, this type of religion is likely to survive, but will it be productive or attractive to many intelligent, spiritual Jews? Not in its current form. Let's call a spade a spade. Let's be honest.

Dr Harris Bor is currently a commercial barrister. Harris has a PhD in History from Cambridge University and an LLM from London University (QM&W). He has been a visiting scholar at UCL and a teaching fellow at Harvard University. 


Daniel Eilon said...

I also agree with every word, as well as with some of the punctuation. Kol hakavod Harris.

danny shine said...

My conclusion is dont mess with Harris Bor. I wouldn't want to be up against him in court!