I didn’t fully answer the questions – merely because I ran out of space on the forms. I decided to emphasize conflict resolution in my application for this event, namely between Jews and Muslims in the context of religious elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is a shared enemy right now for European Jews and European Muslims which should be a focus for both religious groups worldwide: anti-religious Europeans and the European far right. When I say “anti-religious,” I don’t mean atheists generally; I mean the movement passing laws against religious rites and rights (know the difference), particularly against kosher & halal meat, public displays of religious affiliation and religious circumcision.
Category: Jews & Judaism
At the onset of Shavuot 5774, we are encountered, again, by the upheaval in the world of Jewish conversion. Calling it a “world” might seem dramatic considering how few people are directly affected by the conversion process and the increasingly fewer amount of Rabbis overseeing such processes, but it is more profound than that. So, as Shavuot celebrates the acceptance of Torah and emphasizes the point with a focus on the convert Ruth, it’s my obligation to try to delve into the topic more this year than I have in the past.
The Arab League is issuing policies refusing to recognize the Jewish status of Israel, the King of Jordan is saying he will prevent further Judaization in Jerusalem and Mahmoud Abbas is saying ‘no’ to more Jewish visitation rights to the Temple Mount.
These aren’t right-wing issues. I didn’t move to Israel to be right-wing. Even living in a settlement bloc in the West Bank – Judea & Samaria – I sometimes feel like the left hand of the right wing. I don’t see things in absolutes. I don’t see Jerusalem, Jewishness or Israel as the exclusive domain of any single branch of Orthodox Judaism, nor only Orthodox Judaism.
I don’t agree with all other movements of the religion, generally speaking. But the lesson of history and lessons of Torah are collectively clear that a Jewish nation that functions together despite its difference and whose members embrace each other despite their idiosyncrasies is a nation that is fortified and confident. It is secure and able. It has the agility to maneuver in the world and durability to adapt or defend itself. It, above all else, has the power to prosper.
I can see splits on certain issues. I can see the differences due to the West Bank or due to how Jerusalem is managed as a city. The style though does not affect the substance. The substance of the matter is that there are real Jewish religious, cultural, historical and practical interests in the return of Jews to the city of Jerusalem as well as access and use of the Temple Mount plaza and its immediate environs.
Orthodox Jews, in my opinion, fail to understand the intrinsic and practical need to remain engaged with non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad. Even if their numbers are small in Israel, they are still fellow Hebrews. Even if they are detached from events here and from the Orthodox viewpoint, they need to be attached and have an intimate inter-communal relationship with Orthodox Jews here.
I think it’s telling that despite the United States’ nuanced stance toward Israelis and Palestinians, which changes from administration to administration, it is still the arbitrator for both parties in whatever peace negotiations take place during those respective, alternating US governments. The reason, I think, is because European countries simply don’t attempt to understand the parties involved in any way. I believe it is related to how the majority ethnic population on the continent looks at both Jews and Muslims, and, consequently, at Israelis and Arabs.
Europe, whatever the reason might be, is a theater where religious practice is not popular, or at least increasingly unpopular. While certainly not giving the issue its due attention, I’ll simplify by saying religion is considered illogical, not provable and a negative wildcard in society. Those sentiments translate to attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only on issues where religion is relevant but also where it is not. The issues of settlements in the West Bank are not merely religiously charged, but also relevant to strategies on borders and defense. The military considerations are ignored often enough that Europeans’ view of events here is harmfully colored by their preconceptions on religion itself.
Religious Rites & Religious Rights
Trying to ban circumcision is a cowardly, under-supported health scam by activists motivated by the coerced secularization of European society; this despite the fact American and global health organizations have repeatedly highlighted that health risks from circumcision are unquantifiable because severe mishaps are so rare and have even called circumcision a boon for global health. Bans on kosher and hallal slaughtering practices rely on the assumption that such practice is inhumane, despite the fact stunning is not common elsewhere in the world. Bans on the public display of religious affiliation simply mean to suppress the expression of religious belief in public.
“During the past few years there have been increasing restrictions on, and efforts to restrict, various forms
of religious expression in Western Europe, particularly religious dress and visible symbols, ritual
slaughter, religious circumcision, and the construction of mosques and minarets. These, along with limits
on freedom of conscience and hate speech laws, are creating a growing atmosphere of intimidation
against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe. These restrictions also seriously limit social
integration and educational and employment opportunities for the individuals affected.”
The legislation and court decisions can only remind historians of discrimination carried out against Jews in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as part of the Enlightenment. While then the goal was to acculturate and assimilate Jews into the European fabric, today the main target seems to be immigrant Muslims around the continent. Despite this, there has been little sympathy for the fact that circumcision and slaughter bans targeting Muslim customs have hit the Jewish community. I can only suspect the same general collaterally damaging attitude would be expressed if the European Union were to have any more influence over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and whatever religious sub-issues exist within it.
There is an assumption in Europe that religion disturbs public order by its penchant for motivating conflict. That attitude is strange because of religion’s lack of involvement in Europe’s world wars. Yet, it is pervasive and tints European glasses when observing other conflicts around the world. So, despite the fact Israelis and Palestinians, even Israelis and Arabs more broadly, have their conflict rooted in issues of controlling land in the unrest that defined the post-Ottoman and post-British Middle East, Europeans see religion’s influence as fueling the conflict further.
That feeds into the tendency to ignore religious parties to the conflict. There is an assumption secular politicians can be rational about things while religious activists would be inherently irrational and uncompromising. European culture has produced leaders that continue to rely on this narrative, a terrifying mistake. Based on that logic, Western powers beyond Europe have ignored religious political parties and major religious public figures from Judaism and Islam who would have a profound impact on any series of negotiations that would resolve specifically religious disputes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I would assert that Hamas is not a monolith without factions of free-thinking members. I know this already for Religious Zionists, presuming that I can justify identifying with that segment of the Jewish community. Even if it were an American Jewish Rabbi and a Saudi Arabian Mufti, their talks would be groundbreaking if allowed to have influence on the allocation of authority, management or sovereignty over religious sites.
Not all religious leaders rush to call for war.
I do not trust a European state, even a collective like the European Union, to have the leadership qualified to understand what I am asserting. Ignoring religious parties to the conflict is to the detriment of a peace process’s potential and to the security of all involved. If a religious solution to these issues were to come about, those population groups would enforce an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims.
There are few things that the Israeli government should adopt as religiously influenced policy. This is one of them. Circumcision is essential to being defined as Jewish according to the Torah. Leaving someone without a circumcision who wasn’t raised religious in a literally painful position and nearly-impossible-to-decide place later on were he to want the procedure done.
I hear the argument that a decision is being made without a baby’s consent to have this done. The rhetorical question commonly asked is, “How do you know this boy would agree to let this be done to him?”
Accepting that argument would place Jewish parents in an absurd position where they would be forced to wait until some other arbitrarily chosen age to ask their son to get this procedure done. Boys of 9, or 13, or men of 18 or 22 would all find that decision impossible to comprehend. Why go through the pain when they could opt not to? But in that lies an illusion of choice. While the pain is temporary, it is still discouraging. There is little chance of a rational, fair election to get a circumcision for males of any age.
In several systems of law, parents are entrusted to make decisions in the best interest of the child. While in certain countries making decisions regarding the religious upbringing of the child are derided, they are taken for granted in places like the United States. Efforts to impose bans on neonatal circumcision in European countries find their motivations in the effort to limit religious expression and not in a debate over personal autonomy (of all the ages, neonatal is the most demonstrably consistent age at which the procedure’s safety has proven itself to be near infallible).
While I don’t want to digress into the health arguments in favor of circumcision , I feel the need to rebuff some of the health arguments against the practice.
Complications from male circumcision are so rare, they are cited by individual cases, according to an analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The majority of severe or even catastrophic injuries are so infrequent as to be reported as case reports (and were therefore excluded from this literature review). These rare complications include glans or penile amputation, transmission of herpes simplex after mouth-to-penis contact by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumcisers) after circumcision, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection, urethral cutaneous fistula, glans ischemia, and death.
I’ll refer to the American Urological Association’s policy statement on circumcision. This policy statement doesn’t try to hide any possible complications, despite its open support for the practice.:
The American Urological Association, Inc.® (AUA) believes that neonatal circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages as well as disadvantages and risks. Neonatal circumcision is generally a safe procedure when performed by an experienced operator. There are immediate risks to circumcision such as bleeding, infection and penile injury, as well as complications recognized later that may include buried penis, meatal stenosis, skin bridges, chordee and poor cosmetic appearance. Some of these complications may require surgical correction. Nevertheless, when performed on healthy newborn infants as an elective procedure, the incidence of serious complications is extremely low. The minor complications are reported to be three percent.
Properly performed neonatal circumcision prevents phimosis, paraphimosis and balanoposthitis, and is associated with a decreased incidence of cancer of the penis among U.S. males. In addition, there is a connection between the foreskin and urinary tract infections in the neonate. For the first three to six months of life, the incidence of urinary tract infections is at least ten times higher in uncircumcised than circumcised boys. Evidence associating neonatal circumcision with reduced incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is conflicting. Circumcision may be required in a small number of uncircumcized boys when phimosis, paraphimosis or recurrent balanoposthitis occur and may be requested for ethnic and cultural reasons after the newborn period. Circumcision in these children usually requires general anesthesia.
When circumcision is being discussed with parents and informed consent obtained, medical benefits and risks, and ethnic, cultural, religious and individual preferences should be considered. The risks and disadvantages of circumcision are encountered early whereas the advantages and benefits are prospective.
Three studies from African nations published in 2005 and 2007 provide convincing evidence that circumcision reduces by 50-60% the risk of transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to HIV negative men through sexual contact with HIV positive females. While the results of studies in African nations may not necessarily be extrapolated to men in the United States at risk for HIV infection, the American Urological Association recommends that circumcision should be presented as an option for health benefits. Circumcision should not be offered as the only strategy for HIV risk reduction. Other methods of HIV risk reduction, including safe sexual practices, should be emphasized.
Board of Directors, May 1989
Board of Directors, October 1996 (Revised)
Board of Directors, February 1998 (Revised)
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Board of Directors, May 2012 (Reaffirmed)
Growing up, it is easy to contemplate religion or choose to move back and forth between secularism and piety. It’s even easier if the hard part is out of the way. It is in the best interest of a child to have this procedure done as soon as possible when the body will be best be able to heal and more importantly at an age that humanity is most experienced in conducting circumcisions. If boys who grow to be men want to choose a non-religious way of life, it is easy either way. For someone who chooses to live religiously though the hardest part is yet to come, then we see how unfair it is to categorize circumcision as something beyond the scope of parents’ ability to decide their sons’ best interests.
For Jewish converts, this is where most of their praise is earned. If they haven’t been circumcised and they get the procedure done, they’re suddenly holier than thou – but not by their own self-aggrandizement. They’ve elected to undergo an optional procedure. Where someone born into the faith is technically obligated, they opted in.
That isn’t to say that the same sort of praise shouldn’t be heaped upon those raised disconnected to Judaism who encountered the dilemma themselves when they were much older. An innumerable amount of Jews from the former Soviet Union have undergone circumcision in Israel, even if they do not live a day-to-day life of piety. For cultural or religious reasons, this was too essential to skip.
There are no risks to neonatal circumcision of any statistical significance and most risks discussed, unfortunately, get most of their airtime in Europe where there is a trend of anti-religious legislation (debate the last point if you wish, but legislation against religious slaughter of animals, circumcision and public expression of religious affiliation spell all that out). Circumcision is critical religiously and eliminates a painful obstacle for people later in life as they make independent decisions about religious practice (and marriage in civil Jewish society). This shouldn’t block their ability to make an honest choice: if they want to be circumcised, that painful decision was already made with their best interests in mind.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is violating the rights of potentially thousands, if not tens of thousands of converts all over the world by virtue of its automatic disqualification policies. While it’s been argued several times over – effectively I might add – that the Rabbinate’s willingness to play politics with Orthodox conversions in the United States is unquestionably infringing on the Torah’s edict to “love the convert,” I want to remind everyone that Conservative conversions cannot be systematically ignored. The variety of observance and authority among Conservative leaders and teachers, especially among those who convene for conversion panels, is staggering. It is impossible to say categorically that all Conservative conversions can be assumed to be ‘unkosher.’
The Conservative Movement’s application of this might vary, but its main issues are with the administrators of conversions. Their personal Jewish practice matters as far as their authority being accepted to oversee a Conversion court.The Conservative Movement is not the US Reform Movement, firstly. The American Reform Movement does not require 1) circumcision, nor 2) immersion in a mikvah in order to be considered a convert. US Reform conversions, without these rites simply are not conversions. I say this with all due respect to those men and women in the Reform Movement who have undergone ceremonies without those elements, nor do I question your commitment to the Judaism you’ve learned and applied in your lives.
There are certainly dozens of nuances to the rules regarding who can serve as a witness or a judge in a court of Jewish Law. Though many of the arguments that would permit someone who is commonly considered forbidden from such permissions are either theoretical or have long not been the common practice. That being said, such theory cannot be applied for fear that the conversion itself really never took.
If we consider the debates within today’s Conservative Movement about observable Jewish Law and then the actual practice of those laws, we see many Conservative Rabbis who are the common overseers of conversion courts 1) do not observe Shabbat and even go so far as 2) to say that the restrictions of Shabbat are not or no longer binding. The first point disqualifies individuals from serving on a court. The second point implies that these individuals do not “accept the mitzvot.” More on that point in a moment.
Conservative Rabbis in the past have not trended this way. Certainly, this has become more common, but it’s still not universal. Thirty years ago, 60 years ago, there could never be a justifiable policy to automatically ignore the viability of Conservative conversions. They would have had to have been considered on a case-by-case basis. That is still, despite the Chief Rabbinate or the RCA or Yeshiva University, indisputable.
Since my own conversion, I have stressed this point tirelessly. To automatically ignore someone claiming to be a convert and throw their past back at them by saying they still are not Jewish is a direct, explicit violation of the Torah. It’s plain and simple. It is assur, categorically prohibited. To do so also risks telling someone obligated to perform certain mitzvot that they are in fact not obligated to do so, violating the law of “do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” Even if the evidence were strong a second conversion were necessary, any degree of uncertainty prevents treating the person in question as a non-Jew.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg. What seems to be happening, a policy of automatic disqualification for a conversion conducted under Conservative auspices, must not be allowed to cement itself in the Rabbinical bodies of the Jewish world. It propagates ignorance at a time we need more meticulous Jewish literacy.
The two countries have had a complicated relationship for decades. In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle abruptly severed his country’s alliance with Israel in favor of ties with Arab countries. The French were suffering after the Algerian War of Independence, so Israel was hung out to dry.
But France is extremely important for Israel internationally on the one hand as a central player in world politics and secondly as the third largest Jewish country in the world (population, 500-600,000). It is essentially the capital of Jewish affairs in Europe like New York is for North America. But because of strong French nationalism and skepticism of religious communities, it also hosts a strongly Zionist-oriented Jewish population. It has been a major source for new olim the last few years.
But nothing characterizes the relationship more than the Gilad Shalit crisis. Shalit’s family is one of those immigrant families. He has dual citizenship between France and Israel, and he got several honorable mentions from the French president during his captivity. France also lent some diplomatic muscle to the negotiations for his release. It went well with what Israelis considered the best option for a French president. The Socialist Party isn’t considered as friendly or lenient to Israeli concerns or policies.
Sarkozy has tried improving the two countries’ relationship in other ways. But French politics make the relationship shaky. The European Union’s policies in the Middle East conflict also make a warmer relationship tough. Just last year, both Sarkozy and Obama were overheard talking about how much they distrust Benjamin Netanyahu. Things haven’t been easy.
But for traditional Jews in France, Sarkozy is a mixed bag. This year’s election has him saying just about anything to get himself votes, mirroring the flops Republican candidates have been making in the primaries. Not even two weeks ago, his Prime Minister very publicly said Jews and Muslims should give up their dietary laws and assimilate fully in “modern” France. This is a country where French nationalists have held public protests demanding true Frenchmen eat pork in recognition of pig’s place as a staple of a patriotic French diet.
The idea that anti-immigrant and anti-minority feelings are mixing with anti-Israeli politics is nothing new, and it worries Israel’s advocates that see it all exacerbating European policy against Israel. Since the Second Intifida started 12 years ago, attacks against Jews grew tremendously. The Anti-Defamation League is not missing this opportunity to again talk about the rise in anti-Semitism on the continent. That includes another high-profile Jewish murder, victim Ilan Halimi, in 2005. In France, Synagogue arson has occurred often. Attacks have becoming increasingly aggressive over the years.
Original Post at New Voices
It’s been a while since there has been a good bit of controversy about Jewish assimilation, but thankfully American Jews and Israeli politics are out of sync just enough to justify talking about it again. The latest blip, I think, challenges American Jews much more than any other public effort since the spread of the internet. The Israeli government wants its citizens back home, and it will take a few swipes at the drawbacks of American life in order to do it:
Grandmother: “How are you?!”
Grandmother: “What holiday is it? Do you know?”
Voiceover: “They’ll always be Israelis. Their kids won’t. Help them come back to Israel.”
The video is a product of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption that has devoted more incentives than ever before to Israelis living abroad to return. Israelis and Palestinians are competing in population, and the demographics of the region might have major implications in the future (if Jews were to lose their majority). That issue, however, is not what I find interesting about the video.
The reactions I have seen have been visceral. Israeli (Hebrew) comments on Youtube have been angry. The reactions in English I see on Facebook have been more refined, but equally opposed to the ideas in the video.
Personally, I am confused. The reality is, despite what people might want to believe, is that the video is illustrating something that has happened in the United States. Growing up, way outside of the Orthodox circles and many non-Ortho but Judeo friends I have today, I couldn’t tell you the honest difference between Christmas and Chanukah. I was probably as old as the kid in the video, but until 10 I was pretty content. “All religions are the same” I thought, “they just check different boxes when asked certain questions.” This was all elementary, but bear in mind I didn’t go to Hebrew School (much less Sunday School), and had to ask my parents to get more into the holidays they passively celebrated. Even at 10, I felt like I was laboring or annoying.
I got into the questioning business later and then chose my path to Judaism. The issues I faced were personal, familial and theological. Never mind the fact I had to break into the Jewish community when virtually none lived in my hometown. The video has a point whether or not Israelis or Americans want to acknowledge it. As an ad campaign, it won’t do much convincing. If Israelis found reasons to leave to a foreign country, they’ll be put off being insulted into returning to their home one.
The reactions I have seen to the video seem naïve to me, though. Some of the more liberal friends I have seem to be appalled by it. We have to appreciate there is a contradiction there, since none of these friends would marry a non-Jew or celebrate Christmas. They are just as aware of the problems posed by intermarriage and cultural assimilation, but just can’t accept this advert. Without pretending to be any more an expert on assimilation or PR than they are, I see a lot of subtopics to debate here. Can we honestly think the United States will preserve our religion and will its culture respect the integrity of our beliefs? Do we know for sure that even at our most conservative, we can trust minority Judaism has a fighting chance to influence our community’s kids when competing with a majority’s culture?
I already find any sort of combo of Christmas and Chanukah to be ludicrous. You should wish someone Happy Holidays, but does it ever make sense to go further than that. Many families mix the two holidays. Chanukah’s popular theme is to resist another culture’s imposing on your own, and Christmas marks a fork in the road between Judaism and a system that nullifies the former’s central tenets. The term “Christmukkah” is a perversion. In my opinion, American Jews spend more time trying to put menorahs in the public eye and barely a second on the actual history or meaning of the holiday.
“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
No. Chanukah is beyond that. Chanukah was first celebrated as a stand-in for Sukkot. The reason it has eight days is honestly debated. It has multiple sources. It’s almost like a comic book reinventing the way its main characters became superheroes. Just as Shamai implies in the Talmud, and as Josephus and Books of Maccabees bring out in the open, Chanukah’s eight days mirror those of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The Seleucid Greeks, who ruled the country, still held control of the Temple when Sukkot came around. By December/Kislev, the ground had been retaken. Even though there was no requirement, the victorious rebels marked Sukkot in a more wintery way – an eight-day festival that the Bible considers a holiday that will one day be observed by the entire world.
If anything, there is something fitting to that description and pegging it to Chanukah. American Jews might find something resonates in that message – I do. Chanukah seems to be a second chance at a holiday that has significant implications for Judaism. It takes the religion out of its tribal, nationalist motif and forces it to be more universal.
Originally Posted on New Voices
Beginning in 2006, I began the process of converting to Judaism – orthodox style. I came from a mixed family (and my Mom eveven converted via Conservative Judaism!), and for me it was probably inevitable after so many years of searching out the Jews. I lived in a pretty goyische town and grew up with little religious content. Even though I was converting just when the environment was becoming politically hotter, I still gave the benefit of the doubt to the Rabbis around me. My Mom had had a Conservative conversion, yet they still felt I should go through it.
They had a lot of views and policies I was not totally secure about, but I was in no position to ask more than just simple questions. “They know better than me,” I told myself, “and if they say I need to convert for myself, I am not about to start questioning their authoritativeness just because it is inconvenient.” Some day, I thought, I might differ in my opinion to the ones that the rabbis of our day are expressing, “but for now,” the thinking went, I will go with the flow.
That was then, this is now. By the end of 2007, as soon as my personal Rabbi told me I was ready, I began to push anyone else involved – particularly members of the Beit Din. I have followed the issue solidly ever since.
I am starting to get more and more cynical about conversion today, or at least being more outward about it. The problem still lies in the fact policy is the concern of people in charge of conversion, not halachah. So, it’s empowering people who are essentially inventing new rules. It’s turning people away just reading about it, almost as if these new rules are being designed as a new tool to push people from converting (the whole turn-away-3-times thing).
The idea that someone actually needs to be pushed away is remarkable. If someone were only pushed away twice when he first asked a Rabbi about it, his conversion is not going to be overturned – it can’t be. Why? Because this is not an essential part of the conversion process. The only essentials are a brit mila (if a guy) and dunking in the mikvah. Beyond that, it gets more complicated, but those are the essentials. There are a number of reasons to turn people away from converting, but actually trying to prevent their inevitable conversion is a stark perversion of this policy. It is the natural evolution of misunderstanding. Turning people away is doctrine to most people, even Reform and Conservative Jews. This is an absurd development.
We have control over what is an ancient act of policy – turning people away – that is, what is not a halachic precedent. There is no need to employ a deterrence system unless we think we need one. We are not obligated to it. Some say we have to prevent people who will not observe Jewish law from entering the community and diluting the seriousness of its members. This is a legitimate concern. But that is not what is driving these policies today. It is not even the emergent “doctrine” of turning away that I mentioned before. It is policy and politics. But the more people actually believe it is required of us to deter people from Judaism, the more difficult it will be for us to accept new members. All the more dangerous, we are scaring away people who have already converted, creating the most serious spiritual crisis Judaism has had since the European Enlightenment.
It is obvious Israel needs a coherent conversion policy. It is also obvious to population planners and policymakers that Israel’s Russian, Ethiopian and American communities need to have the option open to its members. Conversion allows people to be more mobile in Jewish society and opens doors to integration with people they’d otherwise be unable to marry (both observant and traditional Jews unwilling to cross this Jewish-legal boundary).
From the perspective of making policy for the religious community itself, considering the spiritual ramifications, we are watching the disintegration of the Jewish legal imperative to “respect the convert.” Even more frightening, this is one of the many social flaws that God, via Moses, warns us to avoid to the utmost in the Torah. The consequences of abusing converts, immigrants, widows and orphans are dire and impact the entire Jewish people.
A secular person, whether he is a believer or a traditionalist, needs to understand the gravity that it has, that Jewish religious leaders are ignoring these legal and moral principles. It is a fundamental corruption of Judaism. This marks a crisis in leadership.
There are plenty of Rabbis, both young and elite, that oppose the policies I am tearing apart right now. But, their voices are pretty lame. They are not taking the gloves off and especially not accusing the powers that be of the things that I am. Without a fiercer bite, nothing will change and new Jewish leadership will not emerge. A Rabbinical figure that has the guts to both organize a coherent opposition and articulate could save Jews the world over further embarrassment and division. In so doing, he would rescue Jews from the spiritual ramifications of this conversion crisis. And all the more likely, he would not only reverse the trend of people running away from Judaism, but cause a reverse movement of people flocking toward Jewish observance.
Reporters, analysts and even some progressive Rabbis have made literary-styled allusions to the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Hebrews’ Exodus in light of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. I’ve personally found the comparisons either to be token or hollow. It is not necessarily because of the invokation of religious heritage on the revolutionary tidal wave hitting the Arab World. However, there is an importance distinction between the two events worth describing here. By defining that contrast, we can understand what comparisons are right to make.
THIS REVOLUTION BELONGS TO EGYPTIANS. The Exodus does not. From a national or an ethnic perspective, the Hebrews were able to leave the dominion of a foreign power. Even from a religious perspective, which arguably can be said to be in the merit of Muslim Egyptians, the demands Moses made of Pharoah were explicitly for the freedom of worship for the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. That is to say, the “Revolution” of the Hebrews projected a freedom of worship for the Hebrews through which Moses never directly stated to Pharoah the Hebrews would permanently abandon their enslavement in Egypt. Moses, Aaron and anyone else privy to the statements of God as written in scripture, knew that the statements to Pharoah were merely a front and that the liberation the Hebrews would experience was a freedom to worship in their own country.
While the implications of the above paragraph allude to greater issues of freedom of worship and even the freedom to be obligated to that worship, they constitute a completely different topic. For Egyptians, the oppression they face may only be akin to the economic depravity of the authoritarian Mubarak government. However, Egypt is their country, while Egypt was not the possession ofthe Hebrews. Economically, Egyptians (as well as Tunisians and other Arab peoples) live under the remnants of Arab nationalist socialism. Socialist policies, in this case as defined by Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution and reaffirmed by the country’s Supreme Constitutional Council (supreme court) on several occasions, limits and deprives economic rights. In this respect, with the constant adherence to arbitrary policies about business licenses, Arabs could be “enslaved” to their governments.
An Al-Jazeera-published editorial by Tikkun’s Michael Lerner makes the comparison. He expressed a Jewish identification plugged into Jewish experience with slavery in Egypt. But I have to say those words were not meant for the Jewish public, but the Arab public. They were not the wrong thing to say, but they were words of diplomacy and not words of ideology and assuredly not theology. Our Jewish theology takes pains to sever the connection with Egypt, despite the fact Jewish communities have periodically redeveloped there: the alternative temple in Alexandria, the centering of Rabbinical greats such as Maimonides or the Radvaz, and the extant community that fled in the 1940s. Maimonides himself identified himself as a sinner for “going back there” to Egypt, in contravention of the Biblical directive.
BUT THERE ARE diplomatic words worth reaffirming among ourselves. The words of the aforementioned editorial were window dressing, a facade and surface structure. The proverbial deep structure gives us Biblical versus to respect Egyptians (after a gap of several generations removed from the Exodus) precisely for their initial kindness to allow or ancestors to dwell in Egypt to escape regional famine (decades before being enslaved). Egyptians are not relegated to the category of “those whose welfare you shall not pursue:” the Moabites and Ammonites. They are permitted, in a liberal reading even invited, to join the “congregation” of God conceived in the Sinai Desert and implanted in our own country in Israel.
EGYPT’S REVOLUTION IS SIGNIFICANT FOR THEM. The significance to us of their revolution is very different; it is strategic, implicative and political. Their liberation is constituted by economic, democratic and expressive freedoms. It contrasts with our Exodus in that our freedom was religious, the right to own property and dwell freely on our own land. The socialism they will presumably roll back envests all financial power in the state and will consequently disseminate to individuals in Egypt. For us, as the Biblical verses state, the freedom to reclaim our own landed property was given to us as a matter of law forever, turning over from its renters to the original owners on a 50-year-cycle. Our freedoms were dictated by God and provided in the context of his religious worship. Egypt will have to decide how much of a role God will play as they redraw their consitution and reapply the mixed interests of liberal democrats and Islamists.
If we are going to identify with Egyptians in their revolution, it is yet to be defined beyond a possible Biblical permit to seek their welfare. We could come to define a list of mutual interests. They might constitute democracy, the balance of religious obligation with personal freedom, and the balance of communal interests with the desires of an individual (another priority for Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Council).
MODERN ISRAEL AND MODERN EGYPT (and for that matter modern Iran) may be seen in a wider, even if schitzophrenic, attempt to implement democratic principles in religious governance and religious principles in democratic governance. Israel has obviously taken a very different approach than Iran, whereas Israelis only see civil religious rule and on a limited scale, while Iranians experience a harshly interpreted version of religious law applied across their legal spectrum.
Egyptians face choices in jetisoning Western priorities in law and following the direction of Iran. Or they could follow the Israeli arrangement that allows civil theocratic intervention. Or finally, they could conceive a newer advanced concept of Islamic or religious constitutionalism (which could have consequences for how Religious Zionists conceive the possibility of expanding religious influence on Israeli law).
BUT THESE ARE CONSEQUENCES OF THE MODERN AGE and do not at all come out ofphantom parallels between the Exodus on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. There are a lot of interests that come up for both countries from this intellectual exercise, though it should be obvious the ancient liberation of the Hebrews was something apart from the recent liberation of Egyptians. But the message to Arabs in Al-Jazeera was right to be sent, not for its content but for the fact it shows valuable support for their endeavors. Its statements about contemporary politics (and specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) cannot truly speak for all Jews, but it is much better than nothing. there is an opportunity here to create a true dialog between Israelis and Egyptians not present during the rule of Mubarak. May a free press flourish there that lets us communicate with the Egyptian street once impossible, and let our identification with Egypt become real and also mutual.