Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Exclusiveness and Tolerance by Jacob Katz

Jacob Katz discusses and analyzes the ties between Jews and Gentiles throughout the post Talmudic era and shows an historical evolution of attitudes of Jews toward gentiles and Gentiles towards Jews.  He shows that in the beginning of the Middle Ages when life for the Jews was almost welcomed by the reigning Kings, there emerged a certain tolerance in doing business with the Christian community. The harsh Talmudic dictums about the prohibition in dealing and doing business with Gentiles are halachically foregone. One sees, according to Katz that economic necessity and changes in interpretation of Christians creating a category of Gentile not in the same category as the idolaters of the Talmud and thus permitted with whom to do business.

Nevertheless with the growth of the temporal strength of the Church one witnesses the rising polemics and accompanying tensions between the two communities.  Katz points out that the Jewish community was very dependent on the Christians for its livelihood and thus needed to be flexible in business but he shows quite conclusively that the Jewish community of Ashkenaz were steadfast in their belief of Judaism’s innate worth and stubbornly refuse to commit apostasy.

With the Crusades and the Ghettoization of the Ashkenazim, indifference occurs and an insular attitude develops where the Jewish community is completely indifferent to the Christian outside world.  No real religious controversies are recorded like previously during the time of disputations.  What Katz points out are the unusually tolerant statements of the 13th century Provence rabbinic authority HaMeiri toward Christians and Christianity.  Although Prof. Katz mentions that HaMeiri must have witnessed the Expulsion from France, he does not offer any explanation of why HaMeiri is so tolerant. He clearly expresses the logical process to such an Halachic stance but he never offers possible practical reasons.  The explanation of such positive and tolerant attitudes could stem from fear of the Church as noted by a current rabbinic authority [Minchas Asher] does not occur to Katz. {This is probably because the critical historian is limited to the sources laid before him and his method precludes him to go beyond them}

This study is critical in understanding Moses Mendelsohn’s attitude of tolerance.  He has a very close relationship with Lessing, the leading literary figure of his day.  He also has a correspondence with the Christian theologian, Lavater. He has a live and let live attitude.  Mendelsohn believes, however, that Judaism is a revealed religion based on Reason.  This implies that one could conceive it through thought.  Lavater challenged Menelsohnn to convert to Christianity if religion is based on Reason implying that there are not really any significant differences between the majority religion and the minority religion.  Mendelsohn hesitates to express his true view that he could never convert to Christianity because he is not convinced Christianity is a religion based on Reason.  He actually believes that it is irrational.

Mendelsohn’s attitude may be problematic as we see so many of his followers commit apostasy, yet his vision is nothing short of utopian but it does not come to fruition.  Acceptance of the Jew is never realized and the enlightenment period is short lived.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ally by Michael B. Oren

The former ambassador to the US has written a very engaging sensitive memoir of his days in office. It can be characterized as an odyssey about a man growing up in NJ absorbing all the great values of America, loving America and synthesizing those ideals with a Jewish upbringing culminating in being inspired to make Aliyah after the 6 Day War in 67 through the inspired leadership of Yitzchak Rabin. Being an American and a Zionist for Mr. Oren implies no contradiction.  He sees the only democracy in the Middle East as a kindred spirit of the USA.

Mr. Oren recounts his tumultuous tenure with the tools of a historian (his histories of the 6 day War and America's involvement in the Middle East - Power Faith and Fantasy are outstanding historical contributions) and the sensitivity of one who truly loves the USA.  He recounts how traumatic was the punching of his US Passport symbolizing the irrevocable step of renouncing his US citizenship.
But what makes this contribution significant, I believe, is his attitude towards the US president. Instead of dismissing the President as biased against Israel, Mr. Oren believes that the president believes in the Jewish state but rather forcefully disagrees with the policies of the Likud party and its head, Benjamin Netanyahu. He constantly gives the president the benefit of the doubt when the situation presents itself.  The recent trashing of the book in the press by the President's acolytes belie reading it.  The dismissals of the book are totally off base and misplaced.  The shouting against the book probably testifies to the book's truth. 

The conclusions of the book are troubling.  Mr.Oren squarely places the disagreements and deterioration in the relationship with Mr. Obama.  His tough stance and style with demanding the Israelis freeze settlements that include most of modern Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods for any Israeli government prove difficult.  Mr. Oren claims that the relationship that always implied openness and no surprises changed to Israel being ignored even when its security was at stake like the secret talks engaging Iran.  The Israelis, according to Mr. Oren continue to wonder how knowledgeable or naive are the Americans in understanding how the Middle East ticks! Mr. Abbas was hardly nudged; the lionshare of pushing was against Israel.

Mr. Oren also is troubled by the erosion of American Jewish support of the Jewish State.  Despite the growing support of the non Jewish population in America there seems to be an ever growing divide between American Jews and Israelis.  What once was axiomatic support is now mired with disdain for policies that liberal Jews can not countenance. So called 'settlement activity' is called by the American Jewish community an impediment to peace, however, Arab irredentism is completely ignored!  J Street claims to be pro Israel and Pro Palestinian but one would be hard pressed to cite one pro Israel position!

With a signed Iranian deal that seems to allow nuclear threshold status, Israel must evaluate its next move carefully.  Seeing red lines erode and promises stretched do not bolster confidence in the alliance between the USA and Israel.  The book is a well written engaging romp about diplomacy. Mr. Oren has a great grasp of history and has peppered his memoir with great analogies and insights. He is very aware of the present US policy of disengagement, dissociation and outreach to the Muslim world.  It's a must read in understanding what is happening before our eyes.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

It Happened in Italy by Elizabeth Bettina

The Italian people did not give up for slaughter their Jews during WWII although the Italians needed to create concentration camps and round up the Jews to satisfy the Nazis as their allies.  Elizabeth Bettina has written a report that proves that the so called camps in Italy were not the same as those found in Poland - death camps and work camps where millions of Jews perished.  They were more like summer camps for recreation. She also discovers that many simple Italians protected and hid Jews during the war because of their innate humanity.

Ms. Bettina has written a person discovery about her relatives and friends from the heartland of Italy who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi clutches.  She recounts how growing up in a NY neighborhood with many Jewish friends she becomes curious about Jewish names that popped up in conversation among her Catholic friends or when she visited Italy for summers she would wonder about certain veiled references or esoteric codes about Jewish people.  As a personal mission she begins research about what happened to one of the Jewish people who was named, and discovered that the Italians by nature did not conform to Nazi ways and did the opposite of collaboration. The bulk of the book is a recounting of very moving reunions of Holocaust survivors with their wartime Italian hosts.

Italy did not require a visa for entry during the war and thus many Jews sought refuge.  80 percent of the Jewish people living in Italy during the war survived - an incredible statistic considering 90 percent of Polish Jewry did not! Only when the Germans ended up administering the country after the death of Mussolini did Jews get transported to death camps in Poland.

The book is written from the perspective of a proud Catholic who can stand tall because her relatives and ancestral home did the right thing!  The book is, however, not critical of the Catholic Church's record on saving Jews during the war but rather highlights the anomaly of some parish priests who saved Jews.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock

This history of Orthodox Jewry in America is an outstanding example of what a critical historian does.  Prof. Gurock shows that from the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America, the Jewish citizen wanted to desperately fit in and would go to great lengths at bending the rules of Jewish Law without  abrogating his affiliation to gain acceptance as an American.  Prof. Gurock shows us that those people who identify with the Orthodox synagogue and refuse to compromise in their affiliation to join a Conservative or Reform synagogue do not necessarily manifest a wholly observant life style that the synagogue represents.  These people do not, like so many others, go over to the Non -Orthodox synagogues in an effort to assuage guilt but rather tenaciously hold steadfast  their belief that Judaism has an authentic teaching that cannot change with the vicissitudes of social pressures and morays.  Prof. Gurock presents a thesis that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic sinning Orthodox Jew’(my quotation marks).

The historian presents two types of Jews: the one that makes accommodations to American Life to fit in and another who separates himself from the mainstream of American culture but benefits from the legal rights of all Americans.  The accommodationist is highlighted in this very readable history showing a variety of American cultural phenomena that the Orthodox Jew wants desperately to experience (like mixed dancing).  One can feel the overwhelming pressures of the immigrant experience that bring on the agonizing decision to work or not to work on the Sabbath.  One reads about the painful question does one put Tefillin on the Holiday if one is treating the Holy day as a secular moment since one is working on the day!

After WWII, with an influx of Hasidim, and others with a separatist attitude begin to confront the accomodationists.   The book highlights Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s leadership in leading those who accommodate and those Roshei Yeshiva like Rabbi Aaron Kotler who lead the separatists.  Unfortunately, the clash between these two camps becomes aggressive with the separatists casting the claim of ‘illegitimate’ to the approach of those who accommodate! Prof. Gurock outlines some of the innovations that the accommodationist rabbis allow and shows clearly that the innovations (women's prayer groups, women putting on Tefillin, women being called to the Torah or acting as leaders of prayer and even becoming rabbis) come from the social pressures and values of modernity (like feminism).  These social patterns come from the outside and are not germane to Jewish law or Tradition.  The rabbis are not so much leading as much as they are attempting to keep their flock from straying!

The Prof. concludes that even today outside of New York or other Metropolitan areas where the separatists have claimed victory and authority calling into question anyone who does not lead a wholly observant lifestyle, one still finds in the heartland of America or its outer stretches the type of Jew who feels more comfortable in the Orthodox synagogue but does not lead a complete Shulchan Aruch abiding lifestyle.  One may conclude from reading this history that there are social pressures that are so great that even rabbis do not have the sway to change people's behavior.  The separatists only gain a major following when the immigrant experience has already run its course!  When the social model changes from “melting pot” to “salad bowl”; that to be different is in vogue does the separatist gain momentum and clashes with those who want to “be American”.

What I learned from this critical historian is that people do not necessarily follow their leaders but rather social, economic and societal pressures move people.  In such situations, the leadership has to have the wisdom to condone or condemn or ignore the ignominious or irreligious behavior that is not found in the Shulchan Aruch.