Unmasking Captain Courageous: A Pre-Purim Memo

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The following confidential memorandum was found by the night janitor in the men’s room at a prominent Manhattan public relations firm. We are indebted to him for bringing it to our attention.

M E M O R A N D U M
To: Rabbi Saul Berman
From: Howard Rubenstone
Subject: Take a cue from Bush — hush Francine Klagsbrun
Cc: Ismar Schorsch; David Teutsch; Eric Yoffie

In recent days, the Bush administration has been nudging Israel in the ribs, so to speak, to tone down its anti-Syria rhetoric, lest the Arab world come to see America’s still-precarious Mideast democratization initiative as just another Zionist-inspired plot. More locally, another major peace, love and unity effort is being undermined by a similarly foolhardy lack of subtlety, and it needs to be addressed posthaste.

I speak here of Francine Klagsbrun’s latest Jewish Week offering, in which she presses “The Gates” (we’re talking Christo and Jeanne-Claude, not Bill and Melinda) into metaphoric service to muse on the most recent biennial Edah gathering at Temple Emanuel’s Skirball Center, which, we are told, largely “revolved around themes of unity.” In what appears to be something of a springtime ritual for her, Ms. Klagsbrun giddily invokes the conference as proof positive that “the Modern Orthodox are opening gates toward the broader community as never before.” She also shares her personal favorites from among the scores of sessions: one blaming Reform’s patrilineal policy on Orthodox rejection of dialogue, another focusing on the propensity of “some Orthodox” for using “Amalek” as an all-purpose term of opprobrium for all manner of disfavored Jews, not unlike what Kleenex is to facial tissues.

Now, Rabbi Berman, you are surely savvy enough to realize the untold damage likely to ensue if a doctrinaire Conservative sort like Ms. Klagsbrun is permitted to gush publicly about the folks just to her right in Orthodoxy. Permit me, as your public relations consultant, to speak frankly: The greatest strength of the Edah enterprise is, after all, its sheer cattiness. I often refer to your group, fondly of course, as the wink-and-nod crowd, whose unstated mission it is to push the envelope, gingerly but steadily, on halachic deconstruction (=destruction+con—hmmm . . .), one conference at a time. Conservative-style innovation, one might say, but on a timetable, rather than in response to the latest Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs survey.

It’s a heady atmosphere at Edah’s gatherings, where the real excitement lies not in the umpteenth session on “When the Letter of the Law Comes In Handy: Creative Women’s Synagogue Ritual” or “The Database Is Your Friend: Tracking Down Minority Opinions in Obscure Medieval Responsa” but, rather, in Blu Greenberg’s Cheshire grin as she demurs once more on the inevitability of women rabbis, where the antinomian whiff hangs pregnantly in the air everywhere, but is none-too-explicit anywhere. Indeed, Edah’s choice of venue is itself emblematic of this sort of brinksmanship: heretofore held at Manhattan hotels, the confab’s site this time was the Skirball Center— not a Reform temple, mind you, merely a cultural site under Reform’s aegis. Has Emanuel itself been booked for 2007? Only Rabbi Berman knows for sure.

Along, now, comes Ms. Klagsbrun, guilelessly rushing to embrace you, and thereby creating, from my Madison Avenue vantage point, an unmitigated public relations disaster.

One can certainly well imagine Ms. K’s strenuous protest: “Do you folks not run a convention worthy of my own movement? Look here: You’ve got incessant, stinging attacks on the Orthodox; speakers exhibiting the religious analog to battered wife syndrome, i.e., blaming the Orthodox for Reform heresies, castigating the biblical patriarch Jacob for brother Esau’s manifold sins (another of Francine’s favorites this year); even, from the looks of this year’s event, dwindling attendance. Why, then, ought I not be agog with pride?” (Truth to tell, she did report on one quite unpleasant experience: one presenter, after using “the strictest sources” [easily located by checking the Shulchan Aruch index under “strict,” “stricter” or “strictest” – Ed.] to ban women’s aliyot on congregational dignity grounds, was asked why female dignity didn’t count and refused to respond. How very . . . haredi!)

All of this is, of course, entirely correct, but also, in terms of Edah’s interests, completely ill-advised. What’s needed to advance The Cause is discretion and the patience to stay the course. Klagsbrunian impetuousness can only result in the broad, uninformed Orthodox masses gaining an inkling of what Edah’s agenda truly is, and, more dangerously, will lead to the haredi thought police bringing out the long knives.

While I’m dispensing organizational advice, kudos to your convention speakers on raising criticism of the Orthodox to new heights with the “Amalek” charge (see above). The fact is, the old, reliable saw that Orthos impugn the Jewishness of all other Jews no longer packs the same punch it once did, now that more and more folks have become aware of statements like that of the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) at his group’s convention that “when I say ‘we,’ as ‘we are the authentic Jews,’ I refer to the two great non-Orthodox synagogue movements of America, Reform and Conservative . . . but it does not include those who act and think today as the Sadducees acted and thought 20 centuries ago.”

The solution? The ingenious Amalek accusation. We can now comfortably concede that the heterodox leadership denies the authenticity of the Orthodox, but no matter. They, after all, merely regard the Orthodox as bogus Jews. But the Orthodox? To them, other Jews are nothing less than Amalek. A true triumph of one-upsmanship!

To retain our credibility, we will, however, need to be able to substantiate this serious charge. My preliminary research into this matter is promising: we have on file, for example, an eyewitness account of a 1998 incident in which one Yekel Zeckeldorfer was involved in a fender-bender on a Boro Park street and was heard to mutter “dee Amulykee, dee!” in the direction of the other driver. The latter, we have learned, has a Jewish father and is an active participant in Jewish life as a UJC contributor and subscriber to Jewish Cinema Monthly, thus rendering him fully Jewish in the eyes of millions of Jews. More work in this regard is needed, of course, and I solicit your assistance.

A final word of caution, however: with so much of your appeal hinging on posturing as a kinder, gentler Orthodox approach, your crew’s enduring fascination with Ortho-bashing is sure to get the more thoughtful among your intended audience wondering. Some rethinking may be in order, perhaps some outreach to right-wingers like the folks at cross-currents.com; they seem to be a temperate, reflective bunch, although they, too, run an acerbic piece now and then.

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2 Responses

  1. David Brand says:

    Fantastic! Biting! Love it! But, please don’t read the post until you see Francine Klagbun’s article. It reads much better that way.

  2. Shira Drissman says:

    I went back and read the Jewish Weekly article that Francine Klagsbrun wrote. How aggrevating and dishonest. Does she truly believe that in the beginning days of Reform back in Germany, that Mendelsohn would have given two hoots what the Orthodox thought if there had been a “dialogue” taking place?! Does she understand that todays Reform is dependent on Orthodox teachers in their afternoon Hebrew schools? If the Orthodox are so against any non-Orthodox, why would we find ANY religious teachers in their schools? Truth be told, and it is quite clear from her article and this memo, that there is an agenda being followed; discredit mainstream Orthodoxy. Every group has what to improve on, as do religious Jews, but to discredit another group while promoting your own is dishonest and exactly the opposite of what her article posits — the idea that all Jews are finally joining together to sing Kumbaya. There is always what to learn from others, we learn that from Torah (not Ms. Klagsbrun), and certainly the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jew ranks right up there. “Ortho-bashing” should hopefully get the opposite effect of what is trying to be achieved; creating division among Jews. I hope that it does bring about honest discussion by religious and non-religious Jews about how we should be treating each other and the future of the Jewish People.