On “Protestant” and “Catholic” Jews

An American Jewish visitor to our Israeli (NCT Base East) home wondered why, if there are so many non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, there are so few Reform ‘temples’ (sigh).

In fact, an immigrant from Antwerp came up with the best response: “American Jews are protestant Jews — Israeli Jews are Catholic Jews”.

What?! You say. No, his response made perfect sense. Allow me to elaborate.

In Catholic countries, there is one church — the Roman Catholic (literal meaning: universal) church. There is no competing ‘Liberal Catholic Church’ (okay, on the other side of the spectrum there are small traditionalist breakaway groups you could compare to the chareidim). The population spans a spectrum in observance from those who piously and diligently attend to every daily and weekly observance, via those who come to church once a week and otherwise may say some prayers, via those who come on a semi-regular basis, to the “twice-a-year Catholics” (Christmas and Easter), to those who only show up for life-cycle events. All of them are considered ‘Catholics’, good, bad, or indifferent.

In Protestant countries, if you had a fundamental disagreement with the established church (C of E, Lutheran,… depending on the country) and you found enough people who agreed with you the default option was to start a new prayer house of your own, which might grow into another denomination. At one level, this ‘unity in diversity’ has been a fount of strength for protestantism; at another level, it has been a source of fragmentation.

About half of the Jews in Israel (or their immediate ancestors) immigrated from Muslim countries. (They are often misleadingly named ‘Sephardic’ — as many of these communities are closer in ritual to the Jews of the Spanish Expulsion than to Ashkenazi Jews’ — but a more accurate term would be Yehudei Artzot haIslam [Jews from Muslim Countries].) These communities always operated on the ‘Catholic’ model: there was one  ‘denomination’, it was religiously Orthodox, but was very tolerant of less-than-perfect observance on a personal level. As long as you respected the rabbi and the community elders, driving to the soccer game after Saturday synagogue services was/is no big deal — but nobody would think of packaging this as a new form of Judaism. Tell Jews like that about Reform Judaism — be it in Israel or in France — and the response will be basically ‘huh?’

In contrast, the birthplace of Reform Judaism was a very different country: Germany. It arose there in the early 19th Century as one response to a phenomenon that largely passed by the Islamic countries: the Enlightenment and its (mostly Ashkenazi-)Jewish counterpart, the Haskala. In response to its perceived early excesses, two new movements arose: on the one hand, modern-Orthodoxy — which combines Torah Judaism with an openness to secular learning — and on the other hand, Conservative Judaism, which as a movement tries to steer a middle course between Reform and Orthodoxy. While Reform- and Conservative-like congregations sprang up in other countries (e.g. the Neolog movement in Hungary, which in Israel would be called Masorti, see below), by far their biggest success story was the United States. Why? The first major Jewish immigration wave (post-1848) came from German-speaking lands, and thus (although a few Orthodox synagogues have existed in the USA since Colonial days) the “establishment” congregations became first Reform, later a mix of Reform and Conservative. When the Great Jewish Migration from Eastern Europe hit American shores 30-40 years later, the newcomers did set up their own Orthodox and chasidic congregations, but especially the Conservative ones quickly gained a following among immigrants eager to acculturate.

In other words, just as the US diaspora is a sui generis  success story, so is the blossoming of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the USA a unique success story born out of circumstances and ‘being in the right place at the right time’. But just like the predominant non-Jewish religion in the USA, protestantism, American Judaism is a multidenominational affair, even though the differences between Jewish denominations are more about observance than about points of theology.

There is a flip side to the phenomenon of non-Orthodox denominations. In countries where these were strong,  Orthodox communities felt conflicting impulses: ‘go with the flow’ to keep their flock, or rather become more rigid to offer a clear alternative? By and large, the second won out, and typically American Orthodox congregations will expect you to actually be observant at their level to join, or make a good-faith effort to be so. Even in the age of the ba’al teshuva (‘born-again Jews’) movement, the latitudinarian approach of a Moroccan- or Algerian-born Orthodox rabbi (mixing fairly strict ‘official’ doctrine with great personal indulgence) will typically not be theirs. Which is only natural: after all, if people want to live as Reform or Conservative Jews, they have those other places to go to?

Back to Israel now. So we have a bit under half the Jewish population that  was either born in, or descended from, Islamic countries with a ‘Catholic’ Jewish community. Most of the recent Russian immigrants had no religious exposure at all (and a purely ethnic/cultural conception of Jewishness). Israel’s “founding fathers” by and large all immigrated from the former Pale of Settlement (spread over present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, …) — places where effectively religious pluralism was not between Reform and Orthodox, but between competing streams of Orthodoxy. The “yekkes” (German Jews) and “anglo” immigrants were the only two major(-ish) groups that came out of a ‘Protestant’ Jewish ambit.

As a result, Jewish religious life in Israel quickly acquired its ‘Catholic’ character: denominationally orthodox, in varied shades of observance. Significantly, an Orthodox Jew is not said to be ortodoksi (a loan word to begin with) but dati (religious) or shomer mitzvot (observing the commandments), with chareidi (lit: “trembling” [in awe of G-d]) reserved for the ultra-Orthodox (“blackhats”). A Jew who mostly keeps the ritual commandments but not all the way will self-identify as masorti  (“traditional”): in practice, in an Israeli context (with often still a 1-day weekend), that means somebody who keeps the dietary laws quite strictly (at least at home) but may engage in recreational use of electronics and motor vehicles on the Sabbath. But even somebody who self-identifies as chiloni (secular) may in practice still be more observant of Jewish law than 90% of US Reform Jews: they just may never set foot in a synagogue except for a family event. As an Orthodox wag had it: tell an Israeli secularist to come to an Orthodox synagogue, and he’ll say ‘no!’; tell him to come to the Reform synagogue, to the Russian Orthodox Church, or to a Hare Krishna center, and the answers will be the same: ‘huh?’.

The first Reform congregation (Har-El in Jerusalem) was founded in 1958, and despite massive efforts by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (the Reform federation), Reform has remained a marginal movement in Israel that is (among those who even know it exists) widely regarded as a foreign import.  The degree to which the Israeli Reform movement has allowed itself  to be politically identified with the far-left Meretz party (which represents mainly the Haaretz readership, enough said) does not exactly help matters. From what I have seen of Reform services in Israeli, they are more traditional than US ones (admittedly a very low standard).

Masorti Judaism (which is what Conservative Judaism calls itself in Israel) has had somewhat greater success attracting “native” Israeli congregants. In part this is due to (deliberate?) semantical confusion with the broader meaning of masorti (see above), but another main factor is its indeed decidedly traditional orientation. By US standards, the Israeli Masorti movement would be ‘conservadox’, and at least one such synagogue which I attended semi-regularly was using the mainline Orthodox prayer book (Siddur Rinat Israel) as recently as 10 years ago, and the corresponding High Holiday prayer books as recently as last year. Masorti Judaism has some following among Israelis who seek a more (gender-)egalitarian experience than is possible in a mainline Orthodox congregation (a few experimental congregations like Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem aside). Still, it has shown no signs of ever becoming anything other than a niche player here.

As an aside, it should be remarked that both the Hebrew Union College (Reform) and Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) maintain satellite campuses in Jerusalem where they expect their rabbinical students to spend at least one year.

Finally, there is a native-grown “secular yeshiva” movement where secular Jews meet in groups that study biblical and rabbinical source texts together. While a parallel can be seen to the havura phenomenon in the USA, it also reminds me of groups at the edge of the established  church in some historically Catholic European countries.

So, are Israeli Jews setting up altars and burning candles to saints? Heck no! But are they, sociologically more similar to the observance continuum in Catholic countries than to the denominational quilt of the USA or Canada? Sure, I’d say so.

Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions

The front page of the Yediot Achronot had a story (sensationalist as is the wont of that paper) about a family tragedy.

Briefly: The head of the hematology department of a large hospital (I will not spell out his name out of concern for the privacy of the family — bad enough that the gutter press chose to do otherwise) was faced with a 34-year old daughter (he himself was 66) who struggled with cancer for over 3 years. Eventually she gave up and insisted that he put her out of her misery, which he did, and subsequently committed suicide, leaving a wife and two more children behind.

It is written “do not judge your fellowman until you have stood in his place” (Avot 2:4). I have not (G-d spare me) stood in this doctor’s place but have been in a closely related situation, which made me lose all respect for the (euthanasia-happy) medical establishment of the European country involved. (For the political establishment of said country, I lost none since I had none left to lose by then ;-)) Suffice to say that the participants in this “Greek tragedy” have suffered, and continue to suffer, enough without me shooting off my mouth on this specific case.

However, now the usual suspects (hyper-secularists, as well as those emoting rather than thinking) are calling for a law permitting active euthanasia — notwithstanding that Israel calls itself ‘a Jewish state’ last time I checked, that Jewish law prohibits active euthanasia in the strongest terms, and that it is also utterly incompatible not just with the Hippocratic Oath but with the Jewish versions thereof. (The situation regarding passive euthanasia is rather more complex, as has been recognized by a 2005 law.)

There is a well-known legal maxim in English: “terrible cases make for bad law”. Sometimes, moved to pity from a few individual heart-rending cases, lawmakers create laws, or judges legal precedents, that would have addressed these specific cases but have unintended consequences hundreds or thousands of times greater in magnitude for years or even centuries to come. Furthermore, dark forces can manipulate public sentiment on a few such terrible cases to generate public pressure for a change of law that suits their nefarious ends  — in this manner, somewhere in Europe, a nation was made to set the first steps on a slippery slope that led first to mass euthanasia of the mentally ill and special-needs children as having “lives not worth living” and “being too great a burden on those caring for them”, which then turned out to be the dress rehearsal for the murder of one-third of my people (plus an even larger percentage of Roma gypsies, as well as millions of Slavs).

It is, incidentally, interesting that the “T4-Aktion” (as the Nazi euthanasia program was known after the address of the headquarters of the program, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin) stands alone in the history of the Third Reich as an example where a widespread public outcry (backed, admittedly, by some prominent Catholic and Lutheran clergy) forced the regime to back down and discontinue it at least publicly.

It would be a tragedy on a cosmic scale if, moved by the Greek tragedy of a few individual families, the Jewish state of all countries would set the first steps down this “road to Hell paved with good intentions”. Fortunately, I would imagine that public support for such a law is mostly limited to the ‘Haaretz readers’ audience among the secular public, close to zero among the traditional public and the minority religions, and zero full stop among the Orthodox public.

Ayatollah Ghilmeini on “Pillar of Cloud and Pillar of Fire”

At Correspondence Committee, commenter “Ayatollah Ghilmeini” has some reflections on mivtza amud anan/Operation Pillar of Cloud (a.k.a. Operation Pillar of Defense) that need sharing:

I had wondered how many more rockets were going to hit Israel before there would be response.  It was clear the recent escalation, right after Obama was elected, stemmed from multiple needs of the people shooting rockets: Iran and Syria needed international community pressure off of them while they murder the Syrian people into submission, the radical Islamists in Egypt and Gaza, flush with the belief that Obama would protect them wanted to get the shooting started, lastly, and most importantly, all of these radical organizations and governments are committed to jihad against the Jewish people.  The jihadis are in political ascendancy throughout the region and they only know one way, permanent war until victory.

In blessing the rocket assault the triggered this war, they made one supreme political miscalculation.  They believed, that the Israeli government going into elections would be afraid to respond for fear that there be political backlash at the polls.  This fundamental misreading of the Israeli body politic is the reason for this war.  When Israeli political leaders acknowledged that 1 million Israelis were within missile range of Gaza, it was clear to me that any politician wishing to get elected that did not speak to this continuing and unacceptable situation faced certain defeat at the polls.

[…]Looking back over the last few days it was clear that the silence coming from the Israeli government as it checked its fire and the enemy kept shooting rockets was the implementation of the modern war plan.  The operation is currently called Pillar Of Cloud, and anyone who remembers their Bible, remembers that with the pillar of cloud [by day], there was also a pillar of fire [at night].  It is my belief that, unless the rocket fire diminishes immediately, Israel will shortly begin ground operations in Gaza on a major and significant scale.  Unlike the inconclusive war 2006, this time, they will go all the way.

[…] If a bunch of New Jersey separatists were firing rockets into New York demanding back Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty because they are part of the sacred religious property of the New Jersey people, the people of New York, and the United States for that matter, would shut that crap down in about a day.  But in the bizarre double standards of the modern world, Israel is expected to tolerate this. When the situation finally got so unbearable that they had to act, Israel’s leaders finally acted.  […]

I pray for her soldiers and people […] I also pray for the Palestinian people to be freed from the tyranny of the bunch of psychotic religious terrorist maniacs.  May this war be short and end in a complete and total Israeli victory. Am Yisroel Chai!

Amen. Go read the whole thing.

UPDATE: “Anne in Petach Tikva” has updates from the scene here and here. The named of the town in central Israel where she lives, fittingly, means Gate of Hope.

Healthcare — free, top-quality, available, pick any two

In response to a commenter here I wrote the following:

Healthcare — free, top-quality, available, pick any two. I have lived under multiple healthcare systems. If the price for “free” and “available” is involuntary euthanasia of the elderly, I’ll pass. If “free” and “available” means “7th-rate”, so will I. If “free” means “whoever has the best connections gets the best quality care”, it’s just “inequality” in a different way. (Except, of course, that the “deserving” New Class of bureaucrats, academia, and “helping” professions think they will get first dibs in a system run by them.)

Israel comes the closest to a workable socialized medicine system (thanks to an unusually healthy age pyramid) and even their system is increasingly becoming two-tier: gold-plated for those able to afford private care and bare-bones for everybody else.

Old Maggie had it dead to rights: “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” It was 0bama’s misfortune (but also his innumeracy — a common characteristic of “wordsmith intellectuals”, in my experience) to try and implement more socialist schemes just as the state ship was reaching the shoals of bankruptcy. [I couldn’t resist the Monty Python reference :-)]

0bama and Bloomberg: case studies in defense mechanisms of incompetent managers #Omustgo

Like all of us who have dealt with managers and/or work(ed) in management ourselves, I have witnessed on numerous occasions two defense mechanisms of incompetent and/or out-of-their-depth managers. Both of these are on ample display in the political environment today.

The two mechanisms are seemingly opposite but in fact closely related — both are misdirection/displacement/”red herring” tactics.
The first is: faced with large and seemingly unsurmountable problems, the outclassed manager instead focuses on some detail problem that (s)he judges manageable and declares this THE top priority, so that (s)he can “solve” it and declare victory. For example, the pathetic joke of a president suddenly declaring that not the $16T and swelling federal deficit, not the crash-and-burn of an Islamo-appeaser foreign policy, not an on-paper employment of 8% (out of an ever shrinking labor force), but… bullying or homosexual ‘marriage’ are the most important issue of the day.
The second mechanism takes an opposite tack: it instead redirects attention to some super-issue in comparison to which all other problems become trivial — so why waste time on them? For example, in Israeli politics, the agenda of the day is understandably dominated by the issue of ‘hamatzav’ (the [security] situation) — and any politician who wants public attention without the thankless hard work of writing and passing legislation that deals with mundane things like roads, crime, still pervasive oligopolies,… can instead pontificate about ‘the situation’/’the peace process’/… (Another such ‘super-issue’ there, albeit a distant second to ‘hamatzav’, are synagogue-state relations.)
Similarly, the pathetic joke of a New York mayor, rather than deal with the bed bug epidemic, a city that isn’t as safe as it was under his predecessor, or the vulnerability of the city’s infrastructure to man-made or (most recently) natural disasters — starts pontificating about ‘global warming’, and declares that we have to re-elect the Worst President In Living Memory because he has the ‘correct’ position on global warming.
I’ve dealt with incompetent managers who applied either tactic: more commonly they engage in both, like Bloomberg who also finds it necessary to regulate the size of sodas. They may be people that never belonged in any managerial role of any kind but wormed their way into one based on superficial, glib manipulation skills — like our president whom we at last have a chance to fire come next Tuesday.
Or they may actually be people who, based on their success at one managerial task, get appointed to one where they are manifestly out of their depths: Bloomberg’s manifest success in creating and building his financial news company clearly did not translate to anything resembling success in the unrelated field of running the municipal services of a metropolis. Here we actually see Peter’s Principle in action: people competent at lower-level managerial jobs (or those merely able to pass as such) eventually get promoted to their level of absolute incompetence.
But in private business, when a manager is clearly not delivering, (s)he gets sent packing. And Clint Eastwood was quite right in pointing out that it doesn’t matter that (s)he is a nice person or has a desirable social profile: “when somebody does not do the job, we got to let them go.”On Tuesday we have an opportunity to let go a chief executive whose main ‘achievement’ has been to stop the hapless Jimmy Carter from being the worst president in living memory. And #dontgetcocky, but… the polls suggest we have a very real chance of doing so — if we show up in numbers to do it. Let us do so in great numbers and send the fallen-upward empty chair back to the shady Chicago furniture store where he belongs.UPDATE: Walter Russell Mead:

Admittedly, getting public support and finding the money for flood protection would be hard, but it is exactly that kind of hard job that governments are supposed to do. Leadership is getting the important things done, not looking busy on secondary tasks while the real needs of the city go quietly unmet.

The problem with nanny state governance isn’t just that it’s intrusive. It isn’t just that it stifles business with over-regulation, and it isn’t just that it empowers busybodies and costs money. It’s that it distracts government from the really big jobs that it ought to be doing.

Mayor Bloomberg has done an admirable job under great pressure as the city reels from Sandy’s attack. But an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure. The city needed flood protection for its subways and electricity grid—and it didn’t get it. If the Mayor had spent less time and less of his political capital focusing on minutiae, this storm could have played out very differently.

Bibi gives 0bama a Mideast history lesson (video)

Must-see (via Gateway Pundit):

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead analyzes the non-Israel parts of 0bama’s speech, and says he’s (however reluctantly) embracing the Bush doctrine. (Here is a roundup of more reactions.)

Just minutes ago I got an Email from a Washington acquaintance (and Jewish 0bama supporter) who appears to be even more confused than I am. Is 0bama really throwing Israel under the bus, or did he seriously think he could bully Netanyahu (no slouch at dirty politics himself) into doing his bidding? Or do both sides know that a return to 1967 borders (read: pre-Six Day War borders, since I assume for Israel to reoccupy the Sinai is not the idea ;-)) is not realistic, but staged the disagreement just for show?

In any case, Netanyahu, whatever my misgivings about him as an actual leader are, has always been an impressive spokesman for his people, and together put in possibly the best performance of his career. Without benefit of teleprompters, may I add.

Richard Goldstone retracts Israel genocide accusation after damage done

Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic reports that Richard Goldstone has retracted his accusations against Israel (emphases mine):

This is as shocking as it is unexpected: the South African Jewish judge Richard Goldstone, who excoriated Israel for allegedly committing premeditated crimes against civilians in Gaza — contributing, more than any other individual, to the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state —  now says, well, Israel didn’t actually set out to target Palestinian civilians, unllike Hamas, whose plainly-apparent goal was to murder Israeli civilians.

It is not clear, reading Goldstone’s mea culpa in The Washington Post, that he fully understands the consequences of his work:

Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and “possibly crimes against humanity” by both Israel and Hamas. That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted [by Israel] as a matter of policy.

Well, I’m glad he’s cleared that up. Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to retract a blood libel, once it has been broadcast across the world.

This is, indeed, roughly the judicial equivalent of the New York Times making an outrageous accusation on the front page above the fold, then running a correction/retraction on page A20 months later. The damage is done and can never be wholly undone.

His retraction now may be rank opportunism or the beginning of teshuvah (repentance). Repentance (as Jews understand the concept) has three steps (actually four): (1) recognizing the transgression or iniquity; (2a) expressing remorse and (2b) trying to undo the damage insofar as possible; (3) taking steps to ensure it can never happen again. If Goldstone’s step is genuine, it is only a baby step and it now falls upon him to go out and speak everywhere with a loud, clear voice.