The Unmasking

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Note: This is the little-awaited sequel to “Who Is That Masked Fundamentalist?,” which I posted on May 8 (and what a master of suspense am I!)

So who is that masked fundamentalist? Why, it’s the same fellow who unabashedly said this in full view of the Jewish Agency plenary:

There is nothing in all of Jewish history to suggest that a Jewish community anywhere, including in the Land of Israel, can sustain itself without G-d and Torah. Torah-free civilizations have no staying power. . . . There is no reason logically or historically to think that Israel could not find itself fifty years from now populated by Hebrew-speaking, once-Jewish goyim who are perfectly content to separate themselves from the Jewish people around the world.

But one moment, that quote was even more sharply fundamentalist than the first one, so that doesn’t help matters at all.

Well, how about this: He’s the same person who said the following, and at the very same JA meeting:

Judaism is also threatened by . . . those who immerse themselves in the minutiae of Jewish ritual while retreating behind ghetto walls — who are so focused on every jot and tittle of the law that they banish from their heart the living and breathing concerns of their people and of the Jewish state.

So now you know that he isn’t quite the fundamentalist. Yet, despite dumping here on “Jewish ritual” as the province of the morally insensitive, he has written elsewhere that

In the past, we rejected whole elements of our tradition. For example, we tended to accept what we saw as ethical and reject much of what we saw as ritual. More recently, we have come to understand that the distinction between ethical and ritual is spurious and that there is beauty and power in many aspects of ritual that we previously had put aside.

We can keep going back and forth like this, and eventually award the speaker the 2007 John F. Kerry Prize for Excellence in Vascillation and Sustained Inconsistency, but, for cryin’ out loud, who is he ??

Envelope, please: He’s Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and he’s apparently conflicted and frustrated.

On the one hand, he’s clearly well-intentioned, not only by Reform lights, but even from an Orthodox perspective. Yes, I know, what he means by “Torah” and “mitzvot” — much like “kollel” and “outreach” and other recently co-opted terms — ain’t what we mean by those terms. Nevertheless, he clearly wants what’s best for the Jewish people and has a sense that the way to achieve that is through the primacy of the spiritual over the material. Of course, good intentions must ultimately be coupled with good deeds, else they turn into excellent substitutes for asphalt and other road-paving materials.

But, judging from his remarks cited in my previous post, President Yoffie is also clearly frustrated at his movement’s inability to get young people to adopt truly Jewish role models and say “no, thanks” to the role models the surrounding culture offers them. But who can blame them? Consider his following remarks to the 2005 convention of NFTY, the Reform youth organization (call this post a veritable Yoffie-fest!):

And now my third and final challenge. I challenge you to believe in God. Not in God the way others define it, but in God the way Jews define it. I worry that too many of you do not believe in God, not because you are incapable of belief, or even unwilling to believe, but because you do not know what it means for a Jew to believe in God.

To find the answer, of course, you need only look in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 10:18 it states: “The Eternal your God upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”

There you have it. It couldn’t be simpler. For the Jew, to believe in God is to care about God’s special children: the poor, the homeless, the widow, the stranger.

So there, as President Yoffie put it, you have it. Indeed, he says, it couldn’t be simpler. But Yoffie has failed to abide by Albert Einstein’s trenchant admonition to the effect that “things should be made as simple as possible — but not simpler.” Yet the latter is precisely what he did in that speech.

Put aside the fact that he then segued into yet another liberal Democratic talking point, about how “[w]e live at a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. We live at a time when 45 million Americans have no health insurance and no way to provide basic medical care to their children.” Yada, yada.

And put aside that from the rarified heights of “caring for G-d’s special children” he wasted no time ripping into “fundamentalists of all varieties (could that phrasing be coming l’rabos us Orthos? -EK), who claim to believe in God, [yet] spend all their time telling other people what they should or should not be doing in the privacy of their bedrooms, but don’t seem to care a whit about what happens to the poor in their midst.”

The biggest problem, however, with what he told those NFTY kids, and the reason why so few of them stick around to lead adult Jewish lives even by Reform standards is, that by reducing the G-d of Israel, of 613 mitzvos, of the Exodus and Sinai, from an infinitely complex and mighty Creator and intimately involved Father in Heaven to a concept called
“car[ing] about G-d’s special children” is to strip Judaism of its precious uniqueness.

Any intellectually honest kid in that NFTY audience had to have been thinking to him or herself: “You mean that’s it, that’s the entire message that Judaism has bequeathed to the world and the whole of its potential meaning for my life — as if the whole rest of humanity is incapable of and/or uninterested in caring for G-d’s special children? Is this Rabbi Yoffie some sort of bigot?

The same reaction, in other words, as a nice Jewish boy would have when, upon returning home from college with a gentile fiance on his arm, his parents — at least once upon a time, although, sadly, no longer –went ballistic, invoking the Patriarchs, Maimonides, kasha varnishkes and everything in between to fulminate about the shiksa: “But Mom and Dad, for as long as I can remember, you taught me how wonderful the whole world is and that we’re no different from anyone else; so is this just unvarnished racism on your part?”

But the NFTY teen, having perhaps been exposed to the tip of Judaism’s iceberg, might have further questions:”Has Judaism nothing to say about marriage, about parenting, about how to relate to those who don’t qualify as “G-d’s special children,” about business and medical ethics, about the relationship between the physical and spiritual in food, at work, in relationships, about the soul and the afterlife, about what fills countless thousands of pages of the Talmud and the myriad other works of Jewish genius?”

How surprising that the spokesman for a movement that prides itself on appreciating the complexities, the multivariegated nuances and textures of life, should opt for such one-dimensionality. Is Torah about caring for G-d’s special children? Without a doubt. But it’s also about the fact that they’re all his special children.

And it’s about the fact that platitudes and generalized prescriptions and society-wide panaceas (yes, even universal health insurance) won’t accomplish that goal; building ethical societies from the bottom up, one individual’s character, one life of 24/7/365 immersion in Judaism at a time, will. Judaism’s uniqueness inheres in teaching man how to actually create (if only we’d follow its directives) the ideal society that everyone else in history has left at the level of verbiage.

And, finally, it’s about there being something beyond doing good, and that’s becoming holy, transcending the this-worldy finitudes to become as close to angelic as man dares, by entering into relationship with the Divine.

In a word — one with which Eric Yoffie might agree — to be a Jew is to eschew the simplistic and the soundbite, to think and live deeply, to harness and extract meaning from every iota of the human experience, the better to serve G-d and his children. That’s what those kids needed to hear.

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16 Responses

  1. HILLEL says:

    Ori:

    The Tehillim “MizMor Shir LeYom HaShabbat” dates back to Adam, the first man. The book of Tehilim is a compilation of psalms by King David containing many psalms written by his predecessors–“Bnai Korah,” etc.

    Perhaps, you ight consider the possibility that the other nations copied these Psalms from us, rather than vice-versa.

    p.s. The “PiYuTim” that we insert into our prayers on Rosh Hashanna and holidays are intentionally written in a very difficult allegorical style precisely for the purpose of excluding imitation and copying by other religions.

  2. Eytan Kobre says:

    Koby’s (nice name there!) reference to Hillel’s retort to the prospective convert is a wonderful proof-text to the point I sought to make in this post. Hillel, after all, didn’t simply say: “Here’s the be- all and end-all of Torah” and left it at that. Crucially, he said “This is the end goal of Torah; the rest is the commentary that explains how to achieve that goal, so go and study it.” I trust I don’t need to substantiate any further that Hillel believed there was an immense Torah out there to fulfill beyond what he told the convert that day.

    Of course there are overarching organizing principles in Torah,such as Hillel’s or Chazal’s statement that the Torah was given for the sole pupose of refining mankind or numerous others. What sets Torah apart and makes it an eminently achievable system, however, is the Torah She’b’al Peh’s highly detailed and practical explication of those principles. Else, one is left with bromides that not only don’t facilitate achieving the larger goal(s), but may actually hinder that by giving one a self-satisfied sense of moral superiority without doing the hard work necessary to make one truly superior.

    Sadly, contemporary heterodoxy mimics early Christianity in settling for simplistic platitudes, based on Scriptural verses, while rejecting the the Sages’ detailed explications of these laws.An example is the recurrent invocation of verses like “Love your neighbor” and “He created man in His image” to attack those who decline to twistedly interpret the prohibition on homosexual acts out of existence.

    Anyone who tried analogously simplistic arguments in a first-year law school class would be laughed into embarrassed silence by his prof (assuming the latter was a more charitable sort!), and I’m personally familiar with many cheder kids who could handle such arguments as well as that prof. Yet suddenly when it comes to Torah, the exceedingly deep and complex mother-source for these legal systems, it’s the Wild, Wild West, with anyone who has an indexed, English-language Bible on hand being regarded as an halachic scholar.

    How very ironic that movements claiming that traditional Judaism is outmoded in today’s complex, complex world are themselves peddling gradeschool truisms to well-meaning but Jewishly uninformed people who in other areas of life are so accomplished and sophisticated.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Hillel: The RAMBA”M, in his “Guide to the Perplexed” presented a method for people who were confused by Greek materialsitic philosophy to extricate themselves from atheism.

    Ori: I concede this point, at least temporarily. I was working on second hand information about the RAMBA”M (such as here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1775&letter=A ), and I don’t have time currently to read the book and find out for myself.

    Hillel: The RAMBA”M did NOT combine Greek phlosophy and Judaism. The Greeks were the major antagonists of the Jews and their religion, and we celebrate our victory over the “YeVonIm and their Jewish lackeys every year on ChanuKah.

    Ori: The Greeks (or Helenised Syrians) were major antagonists. That does not mean that they produced nothing of value. Tehilim (Psalms) is written in the same literary style used for idol worship in Ugarit centuries earlier. The medieval Piyutim are based on Arab literary styles.

    Aren’t we supposed to believe in wisdom among the gentiles when we find it?

  4. Jacob Haller says:

    At the risk of digressing from the point here’s a brief “State of the Household” report.

    I live in the NY/NJ Metro area and my taxes are quite high and expected to to go even higher. The strain on the finances is palpable.

    The 30-something lady we hired to clean our home is not a U.S. citizen, pays no taxes, and resides in my town. Her daughter, through unique legal loopholes, is a citizen and benefits from her public school programs that includes free breakfast and lunch, free field trips, free afterschool programs including music lessons etc.

    There are those, mostly Democrats running for the White House, saying that “not enough is being done” for this “gap” and other sundry issues.

    Could someone please explain what more is expected, just what is the plan, why is this plan necessary and who is going to pay the tab?

  5. Charles B. Hall says:

    “Can you be of help on any of this?”

    Rather than hear my probably inaccurate interpretation, you can listen to Rabbi Dr. Tendler himself:

    http://www.yutorah.org/showShiur.cfm/716090/Rabbi_Moshe_D._Tendler/Time_of_Death:_Brain_Death_in_Jewish_Law

    There is an extensive introduction from Dr. Ed Burns and Dr. Fred Rosner before Rabbi Dr. Tendler himself speaks. The section relevant to my comment begins about 20 minutes into the recording.

  6. noclue says:

    The United States of America does provide basic health care for persons who can not afford it; it is callled Medicaid, and under it poor persons get some of the most advanced medical care in the world.

    Nothing in the Torah mandates either the Democrat Party Platform nor that everybody be provided with free health insurance. Further there is no health care crisis; that is unless you see a lot of people dying for lack of basic medical care in the U.S..

    And do we really live at a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater? Indeed, do we really care about the “gap” between the poor ande the superrich (which is what Joffe is apparently talking about) or do we care about how the poor are taken care of and how big the middle class is?

    The superrich are not a Torah concern, at least to my knowledge (and do not forget that Bill Gates is probably one of the biggest philanthopists in history).

  7. HILLEL says:

    ORI:

    The RAMBA”M did NOT combine Greek phlosophy and Judaism. The Greeks were the major antagonists of the Jews and their religion, and we celebrate our victory over the “YeVonIm and their Jewish lackeys every year on ChanuKah.

    The RAMBA”M, in his “Guide to the Perplexed” presented a method for people who were confused by Greek materialsitic philosophy to extricate themselves from atheism.

  8. Koby says:

    Eytan is correct, “Eric” indeed makes it all sound so simplistic, why almost as simple as “Hillel” who famously summed it up thus, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow…”

    As to the great enigma regarding Rav Tendler’s sources, need we look further than “Lo saamod al dam raecha” and “V’chai achica imach?”

    Maybe it’s not so complicated after all…

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Hillel, a thousand years ago you could have said that Greek Philosophy and Torah Judaism were mutually-exclusive opposites. The Pagan Greeks were even less influenced by Torah than the post-Christian Moderns. Today you won’t say that Greek Philosophy and Torah Judaism are mutually-exclusive because the Rambam combined them.

    I’m not saying that Eric Yoffie is at the Rambam’s level, religiously or intellectually. But what he tries to achieve is not necessarily impossible either. Of course, it will require rejecting parts of modernity, just like the Rambam rejected parts of Greek Philosophy.

  10. Eytan Kobre says:

    Mr. Haller expressed precisely what my intention was. Heaven forfend that I would regard NFTY kids as enemies; indeed, mycroft, I’d say I’d be proud of the young man you spoke of before he ever went to Israel, for his sincere desire for a connection to Jewishness, something too rare among our youth.

    I thank Mrs. Shapiro for her kind comments.

    Re Mr. Hall’s comment re health insurance: The statement he quotes is interesting; I’d like to know more about it: 1) What’s the attribution? 2) What are Rabbi Tendler’s sources? 3) Is his opinion unanimously agreed to by halachic authorities? 4) What does he mean by “society” and “all who need it”. Can you be of help on any of this?

  11. Jacob Haller says:

    To mycroft,

    I’m puzzled how you reached a conclusion that Mr Kobre portrayed NFTY as the “enemy”.

    The part about “exposed to the tip of iceberg” meant that the typical member of NFTY through no fault of his/her own knows little of Jewish liturgy yet he/she is still equipped to spot the intellectual dishonesty of their self-appointed mentors and ultimately due to their exposure of a skewed portrayal of Judaism end up discontinuing their involvement.

    If anything, Mr Kobre portrayed NFTY members more likely to be idealistic youth with a yearning for Judaism but what they end up hearing leaves them cold.

  12. HILLEL says:

    Yoffe is trying to combine two mutually-exclusive opposites: secular modernity and Torah Judaism.

    It doesn’t work.

    As Elijah the Prophet said to the Jewish People at Har haCarmel: “If you believe in the Bal Idol, then follow him; if you believe in HaShem, follow Him. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can follow both.

  13. Sarah Shapiro says:

    This piece is entertaining, funny, informative, comprehensive, and suddenly — at the end — an inspiration.

    I appreciate the compassionate, balanced appraisal of Eric Yoffie, and of the inner contradictions which he, along with so many other Jews, are facing.

  14. Charles B. Hall says:

    “We live at a time when 45 million Americans have no health insurance and no way to provide basic medical care to their children”

    This should be an Orthodox talking point as well. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler was quoted last year as saying that the Torah requires society to provide basic health care for all who need it.

  15. mycroft says:

    Put aside the fact that he then segued into yet another liberal Democratic talking point, about how “[w]e live at a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. We live at a time when 45 million Americans have no health insurance and no way to provide basic medical care to their children.”

    Liberal Democratic talking point-read the Neviim-and especially the haftarot for fast days-including Yom Kippur-I can hear the Neviim saying those statements.

    But the NFTY teen, having perhaps been exposed to the tip of Judaism’s iceberg, might have further questions

    NFTY is not the enemy-I know of a formaer President of Nationwide NFTY-who because of NFTY went to Israel-went to Ohr Sameach-and now Eytan would be proud of him.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    We Orthodox must be popular, seeing as that others so eagerly appropriate our language and symbolism for their purposes.