24 July 2009

24 July 2009

Two seemingly opposite Jewish events have been in my thoughts lately: Tisha B’Av and weddings.

The usual way these two are connected is through the breaking of a glass at the end of the ritual, preceded by the groom reciting “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…” While inappropriately followed by applause from the audience, the symbolism here is a reminder that the world and we as a people are not complete as we await redemption, even on such a joyous day.

In this case, a friend of mine is getting married in several months and are looking for a rabbi. She’s from a family with a converted mother, went through an Orthodox conversion herself, and is being denied the right to be married by several rabbis because her fiancee is a Cohen (Cohens are not supposed to marry converts).

While I usually blog this time of year about how much I like Tisha B’Av, I wanted to link the day with something that’s always fascinated me: Cohens. The family name and its derivatives (Kahan, Kogan etc.) refer to those who descend from the Cohanim, the priests who tended to the daily sacrificial rite in the Temples. With their destruction (on Tisha B’Av), their priestly roles have been relegated to certain rituals and traditions. I can remember wondering what was going on when the rabbi would ask the congregation to lower their heads, at the risk of seeing what was happening on the bimah: Men, with their heads covered by their tallit, were reciting the Priestly Blessing while holding both of their hands like the famous hand sign of Mr. Spock. I always wondered if Mr. Spock was allowed to do that on national TV, why were we supposed to not look directly at the guys onstage?

Maybe I have an inferiority complex, as I’m considered “just” a commoner Israelite, or maybe the problem is that I think in such terms. Why do we need more boundaries between us Jews when the purpose of Rabbinic Judaism and Hasidism – not to mention Reform and Conservative Judaism as well – is to tear down such boundaries? In the absence of the Temple, whose rebuilding would require a massive physical ritual purification of Jews – not just Cohanim – why should theses title persist to the level they do?

Without disrespecting this and other Cohen- related rituals, it seems incredibly out of place in Rabbinic Judaism. The revolution that came with the founding of synagogues was that anyone who learned enough could be considered a community leader, potentially becoming a rabbi. The Pharisees, whose descendants are mainstream Jews, are the ones who outright rebelled against the Cohanim’s authority, claiming become too enmeshed in pomp & circumstance and less in the spiritual welfare of the people.

The same seems to be happening to a friend of mine, a tragic and maddening story. God Forbid they should build a Jewish house and family together, countering the rates of intermarriage that these same rabbis will happily rail against; and God Forbid two people so clearly in love with each other should want to marry each other if it risks the groom losing his ancestral title. Since when are rabbis in the business of preventing two Jews from getting married?

As always I’m inspired by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who writes in his weekly commentary on the Torah portion that the longing for the Temple’s rebuilding is also (more so) about building ourselves as the light unto the nations we are charged to be by the prophet Isaiah. Jews haven't been in the business of listening to priests over prophets for a long time, why should we start now?

With that, with talk of weddings and to end on a slightly more hopeful note, here's a beautiful video sent to me today which put me in a great mood. Shabbat Shalom.

UPDATE: After thinking about it over Saturday, I decided to post the letter my friend wrote to explain her situation. It's best in her words, and I'm honored that she'd want it posted on my blog.

A seemingly simple question I posed recently to a friend getting married soon. “Who is performing the wedding?” I asked. “Oy, what a question,” she responded.
It all started more than 30 years ago, when my friend, we’ll call her B, well it all started when B’s parents, met, fell in love, from two different religio-cultural worlds. B’s father was Jewish; her mother was not. They decided, perhaps foolishly, that two religions and identities were invariably better than one, and that they would allow their children to determine their own identities.
Fast forward 15 years. Lo and behold, B did go on her own spiritual-cultural-identity quest as a teenager, embracing her Jewish heritage, upbringing (not to mention her Jewfro and Yiddish inclinations) and at the end of her journey, she embraced traditional Judaism, which eventually concluded in a dip at the mikveh and a certificate confirming her status as a Jewess. She was free to marry and flourish as a full-fledged Jew!
But alas, many years later, the foolish decision of her parents crept in to haunt B. She had been warned by rabbis that despite her piece of paper signed by the Orthodox Beit Din guaranteeing her status as a Jew, there were still restrictions: mostly, she could not marry a Cohen, and if she did, he would lose his status as such within the community.
But a Cohen is who she fell in love with. And though B warned her Cohen love interest of this potential gliche, he assured her, “it’s not a problem for me or my family! Is that even a rule anymore?”
Indeed it is still a rule, a black-and-white, unbending rule according to many. Shortly before B and Cohen became engaged, they started looking for a rabbi who would agree to bless their union. B started with the rabbi who had overseen her conversion process. His response, “I am sure the person you have chosen [as your future spouse] is a very worthy one; good luck.” Next, Cohen reached out to his family rabbi: “My hands are tied; there is nothing I can do.” And so proceeded conversations with another 30 “progressive” Orthodox rabbis, if such a thing really exists.
So what happens now?
Perhaps the most tragic occurrence to result from this situation is that two passionate, committed, educated Jews have now been turned away from the Jewish community in which they had hoped to raise a family one day. They now question in what kind of Jewish community they belong, and where their children will belong.
I know some of you reading this may think, well, according to Halacha (Jewish law), this is a forbidden marriage, so it is the right thing for these rabbis to refuse to marry the two.
In B and Cohen’s journey to find a rabbi, they met with many Torah-versed men, learning a great deal about this issue. In fact, one rabbi pointed out that according to some commentaries, B is considered “m’zera yisrael,” or, “of Jewish blood.” The next rabbi they spoke with helped to further this line of thinking, discovering a Tshuva by Rabbi Uziel, the First Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, which stated that the marriage between a Cohen and a giyoret who is m’zera yisrael is indeed permitted since the real problem with a Cohen marrying a giyoret is that a Cohen must marry a woman of Jewish blood. B and Cohen presented this Tshuva to a few rabbis who all commented, “Well, that is interesting! Sorry, still nothing I can do.”
If this line of thinking still holds no appeal or credibility for you, I will leave you with a few thoughts to consider. The intermarriage rate in the United State nears 50%, and according to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, 47% of all identifying Jewish students on North American college campuses have only one parent who is Jewish. So while B and Cohen find themselves without a solution for their upcoming nuptials, and now begin a new Jewish journey together as displaced Jews, I doubt that B and Cohen will be the last young Jewish couple to grapple with this issue. And if the American Modern Orthodox community fails to grapple with the reality of the American Jewish community’s makeup, they will not be the last young couple to find themselves without a Jewish home, at a time when numbers increasingly dwindle.

22 July 2009

22 July 2009

I went to see the new Harry Potter film last night in Tel Aviv. True, the humidity there was so awful that the moment one gets off the bus from Jerusalem all the moisture in one’s skin ends up soaking one’s clothes, but I had to see it. Despite admittedly not having read the books, the movies have progressively addicted me to the series – so much so I invariably watch one of the movies each week.

I tend to become engrossed in film criticism and finding symbolism between the frames, but I think the Harry Potter series has something invaluable to teach. The whole series is about a group of humans who are considered different from the rest of humanity. They lead different lives, though otherwise act and look just the same. They invariably fight among one another over who more rightly carries the mantle of tradition and authority, not to mention who truly is part of the community. At the heart of this intra-communal struggle is one wizard who’s left feeling even more isolated from his surroundings because of his disconnected family and people's assumptions about him. Yet in spite of this, he knows he has to carry on his family’s tradition and that of his school’s, ultimately bringing the redemption from the evil lurking all around his loved ones.

The idea of Self vs/ Other, fights over authority and tradition, deciding who is included and who isn't....the movies are so Jewish that the Hebrew subtitles from the Tel Aviv screening were superfluous.

An article published in the LA Jewish Journal, and carried by Haaretz.com, completely missed this angle and instead focused primarily on the Jewish identity of several actors in the film. While the article starts off talking about the films' dichotomy between full-bloods and half-bloods, that it proceeds to talk about the Jewish "heritage" of the actors makes this Jewish geography article out of touch with Jewish heritage itself. The themes prevalent in the series, when connected with Jewish identity, have the potential of connecting otherwise disconnected Jews to discussing their identity; instead, it's about who's "out" with their Jewishness, thus more connected with the antagonists' obsession than with the positive messages of the protagonist. As soon as the thesis is done, I'll start reading the books.

11 July 2009

11 July 2009

After the incentive of having an out-of-town friend free on a Saturday afternoon, we wandered over to one of the sites of the weekly riots. Ever since Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat decided to emerge from his cloister since being elected in November, his agenda has been primarily occupied by the opening of a parking lot in the center of the city to ease congestion caused by tourists and out-of-towners looking for parking. That this parking lot was to be the municipal lot under City Hall and to be open on Shabbat caused several of the ultra-Orthodox factions to protest. After enough threats, political and physical in nature, caused the mayor to close the lot, a solution was found by having the Supreme Court to issue an injunction to open a private parking lot close to the Old City. The protests continue, quickly becoming riots.

As we got closer to the lot, under the shadow of the Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, the din of the protestors was already echoing through the valleys surrounding the Old City. The scene was more comical than incendiary: Crowds of ultra-Orthodox men in their Shabbat garb, bedecked in crème satin robes and topped in sable shtreimels, ebbing and flowing with each pushback from what few policemen were there. Shouts of “SHAAAAAABBESSSSSS!!” bounced from the protestors on the street to their kin cowardly perched above, cheering them on but reluctant to join the spectacle. As they congregated near the parking lot entrance spectators were to be found all over, from tourists busily snapping away with their cameras along with photojournalists; Arab kids, laughing away at the scene while sipping from soda can and performing daredevil feats on their bikes; and Shabbat-observant families trying to reconcile their otherwise-peaceful afternoon walk with the noise of repressed ultra-Orthodox youth whose bottled-up energy manifests itself into shouts of “Nazis!” at police. Their tactic was to lie down in front of passing cars, causing the police to hurriedly drag the protestor to the sidewalk. This would go on for some time, with an occasional escalation like someone standing in front of a bus filled with tourists while another would climb under the bus to disrupt it.

It was more sad than anything else, especially after I fixated my then-hypnotized stares at one particular protestor. Fully bedecked in the finest of heat-absorbing garb, the sandy side-locked boy was slowly keeling over from shouting for hours on end. He was more in a trance than I was, yet determined to vent his frustration to whoever would hear it while being surrounded by his community. Here is a boy, who may very well be good at his studies in Yeshiva, but nonetheless due to familiar and communal pressure will remain in Yeshiva and collects welfare checks from the State, instead of making a living from him and his family. His only source of teenage-fueled energy goes into protest like this, lest they be spent in less wholesome way. Once Shabbat ends, the hordes go back to their beighborhoods and light garbage cans on fire, causing extensive damage and whose cleaning is paid for by the municipality (i.e. non-ultra Orthodox taxpayers, as ultra-Orthodox who study in yeshiva get their municipal taxes paid off in full).

The results of David Ben-Grion's decision at the advent of the State, when he allowed the then-miniscule ultra-Orthodox community to receive welfare and continue studying, ends at the parking lot adjacent to the Old City walls. An impasse for the State, now beholden to their political parties to keep coalition governments stable, and an impasse for Judaism, as these same protestors have a monopoly on the Rabbinate (and thus control over which resturants receive a certificate confirming they're kosher; whose overseas conversion is acceptable; and who gets to marry whom and when).

There's nothing wrong with being ultra-Orthodox, nor is there anything wrong with being ultra-Orthodox and working at the same time (West 47th Street in Manhattan, for example); but this form of ultra-Orthodoxy, and halachic Judaism as well, leaves little over which to celebrate, much less emulate. It's only too ironic that we've just entered the Three Weeks, a period of religious mourning which culminates with the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples (traditionally destroyed due to senseless hatred among Jews) on that most existential of Jewish days, Tisha B'Av. Albeit a jumbled-up view of Jewish history, my mind invariably has created an image of these protestors knocking down the walls of the Old City, only steps away from City Hall, much like the Babylonians and Romans of long ago. A truly sad occasion for a Jew to have such thoughts of fellow Jews.