Category Archives: lerner michael

The Clergyman’s Aura

The Reverend Al Sharpton preached his first sermon at the age of four.  But he was not formally ordained a clergyman until much later, when he was nine.  The alleged rabbinic ordination of the “spiritually progressive”  Michael Lerner of California (like our new President, thrice married) cannot be verified at all.   Moreover, a few minutes spent on Google will present anyone so minded with many opportunities for achieving rapid clerical ordination, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Other,  with little effort and at little or no cost.  On the other hand, the more demanding New York based  Rabbinical Seminary International” (under the same management as the “All Faiths Seminary International”) does require three long days of in-house training and a fee of $5000 for full, presumably legal ordination as rabbi.

Such aberrations within the clerical calling are not the norm for the whole profession.  But they point to more general problems.  First, not everyone can tell the impostor from the real thing.  Second, as is true in the medical profession, the most harmful of the charlatans often carry legitimate credentials.  And third, the line between the specious and the genuine is not always easily ascertainable.

The basic, insurmountable problem with the clerical profession lies in its borderless area of alleged competence.  True, the major religions all have a body of scripture and a further body of ritual that its clergy is expected to master.  But this core of expected competence is just the beginning.  In and by themselves these core subjects may qualify a person as an expert, perhaps a scholar of religion.  Ordination as clergy, on the other hand, involves something much larger, viz. the assumption of a spiritual aura which is never explicitly delimited.

In Roman Catholicism, this aura comes closest to being precisely defined.  A Catholic priest is said to have such supernatural powers as the forgiveness of sin and the  power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In other religions the clerical aura is more implied than expressed, but my Conservative Jewish denomination holds that a local rabbi, alone, has the power of mara d’atra, the power to decide on Jewish law in his locality.

More broadly, the aura of the clergy is generally understood to involve overall wisdom and righteousness.

Wisdom:  there seems to be an expectation that a clergyman’s advice is somehow superior to that of a random acquaintance.  Clergymen are known to dispense advice on how to lead better lives in their sermons and in private conversation, even though there is nothing in the training or background of a clergyman that would lead us to assume that, qua clergyman, his wisdom is more reliable than, say, your mother’s.  Often the clerical advice is wildly inappropriate to anyone with specialized experience.  I remember an occasion some years ago when I was present at a rabbi’s exhortation to his flock to be more productive in their professional lives.  No doubt aware of the fact that there were some academics in his audience, the rabbi opined that one should work on and complete “that paper you are working on.”  I noticed a junior professor who gave a knowing smile.  How apt, how true, how helpful, she seemed to be saying to herself.  But to anyone with some experience in academia, the urge to publish, while perhaps helpful in furthering a career, is more often than not an urge to perpetuate intellectual malfunction.  A more thoughtful advice would have been to study more, to do better research, and to refrain from publishing until you have something important to say.  In short, the rabbi’s advice was conventional, careerist, and basically unethical.

Clergymen are also presumed by those who respect them to lead exemplary lives.  The ones I have encountered have as many failed marriages, narcissistic behavior, and inadequate people skills as anyone else.  And yet we are expected to show them more deference than we show the waiter in a restaurant.  Why ?

Righteousness:  here I address myself particularly to the do-gooders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, but also to the liberal Protestant groups, the Unitarians, the Universalists, the (liberal) Presbyterians, etc., although conservative groups have their own forms of such sanctimony.

The job descriptions for rabbis that I have found on the websites of the Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries all include references to a rabbi’s obligation to advocate tikkun olam, i.e. healing of the world;  to work for social justice;  to be, in short, a political and social activist.  But the curricula of these schools do not include any in-depth study of social or economic problems, and certainly no technical tools — for instance social statistics — to analyze the social problems of the day.  In other words, these clergymen are required to be dilettantes.  Go ahead, they are told, you must ceaselessly opine on social issues, but never, ever, must you learn anything about, say, multivariate analysis.  I have sat through many an ignorant discourse by clergy, citing mangled statistics and misinterpreted bits of social data, all delivered in tones of officious self-righteousness.  Does this kind of social discourse serve the cause of social betterment ?  Or rather, as I would argue, the very opposite ?

We are left with the problem of aura.  By virtue of his anointment or ordination, a clergyman is often presumed to have powers of intellect and character that he obviously does not possess. Of course we also encounter a certain ambivalence.  Perhaps for the very reason of the presumed aura, there is sometimes a tendency to be hypercritical of clergy.  The minister or priest or rabbi when perceived to fall short  may be judged more harshly than would someone not expected to have the aura.

Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the clerical aura that comes with ordination, originating as it did in an earlier era, causes misapprehensions, false expectations, and foolishly sanctimonious social action.  At least outside of the Catholic Church, we would be better off without the institution of ordination.  Protestant and Jewish congregations could hire religious professionals on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and skills, without any presumption of extraordinary wisdom or righteousness.  Insofar as there may be a need for “spiritual” leadership beyond professional skill, this would have to be demonstrated in each case by action and behavior and examined critically and skeptically,  rather than deduced from pieces of paper issued by a seminary.

"Progressives" on the Shalit deal: Israel is the moral equivalent of Hamas

Arab terrorists, 2011
Some of the discussions by Jewish “progressives” and their allies have used the Shalit prisoner exchange to propose a moral equivalence between the Israeli justice system and the Hamas abductors.
First, there is a relatively mild version.
Mr. Ralph Seliger, writing a blog for “Partners for Progressive Israel,” has the following musings on Shalit:

There’s a lot more that can be said on this, of course. For example, the diverse reasons that so many Palestinians have been imprisoned, some justly and others not: from participating in heinous mass murders to offenses that should not be cause for  imprisonment, e.g., merely being a member of Hamas.

In other words, the Israeli system of justice is sometimes just, to be sure, but at other times it is unjust, when, not to put too fine a point on it, it functions on the moral level of the Hamas abductors.  Mr. Seliger insists that there are “so many Palestinians” who may have been, or have indeed been, imprisoned for “offenses that should not be cause of imprisonment.”   How does he know this ?  He speaks, by way of example, about “mere membership” in Hamas as too trivial for punishment.  But what were the details in cases that he would consider instances of unjust imprisonment ?  Were these cases of Hamas membership with or without criminal conspiracy to commit murder ?  What does he know about actual cases ?  If he knows he will not tell.  We are just asked to trust him that “there is a lot more that can be said” about the Shalit matter, namely that Israel acts unjustly.
If Mr. Seliger’s musings are annoying and pretentious, his colleague Ashley Bates on “Tikkun” (to which Seliger also  contributes regularly), is more than a bit over the top. 
Now, we know that the boss of Tikkun is person whom his supporters and he himself call Rabbi Michael Lerner, but who has steadfastly refused to disclose how or by whom he was ordained, apparently on grounds of freedom of speech or some other important democratic principle.  I have had occasion to write about him before; since then,  I have found nothing on his on-line publication that detracts from my impression of him as someone implacably hostile to Israel and the Jewish people.
Ms. Bates, in her contribution to the Lerner blog, complains that media reports on Shalit have given the impression that only he was a victim when, in fact, according to Ms. Bates, there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who suffer just as much.  At least many of these imprisonments, she suggests, are as unjust as that of Gilad Shalit.  On these general matters she resembles Mr. Seliger, but then she does something that Mr. Seliger does not do:  she goes into detail.  And she does this with such surprising clumsiness that any attentive reader is bound to catch her various distortions.
1)  how many Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ?
Ms. Bates maintains that since 1967, “about 20 percent of the Palestinian population have served time in jail.”  How does she know this ?  Her data come from the link that I have reproduced here, i.e. Addameer, a Palestinian support group.  Not perhaps the most unbiased source.  But be that as it may, the very source that Ms. Bates here quotes does not support her allegations of 20% having “served time in jail.”  What it in fact says is that

Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967, over 700,000  Palestinians have been detained by Israel. This forms approximately 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

So Ms. Bates goes from the “have been detained” of her source to “have served time in jail.”  “Detained” by police can mean detention of a few minutes or hours to much longer.  Not a distinction that Ms. Bates will entertain.  This switch — from detention in her source to imprisonment in her text — is enough to destroy any and all credibility of her piece.  And, we must conclude, this is not a matter that the learned Rabbi who is in charge of Tikkun would care to investigate.

There is also something breathtakingly vague about the computation of that twenty-percent figure.  A percentage computation requires a numerator — in this case the number of prisoners — and a denominator — in this case the population.  When Addameer speaks of the Palestinian population “since the beginning  … in 1967,” just which population figure does it have in mind ?  In the last forty four years many have died, many were born.  Does Addameer include in its population the total of all these lives and births and deaths ?  Or only the population at one point in time ?  If it is the latter, as the context suggests, then the denominator is artificially diminished, leading to an artificially inflated percentage figure.  Of course all this asumes that we can trust the original raw figures, which we cannot.  But even if they were trustworthy, the computational errors would vitiate the results.

Does either Ms. Bates or her self-styled rabbinic supervisor care about such detail ?  Apparently not.

2.  The case of Ameer Makhoul

Most of Ms. Bates’s piece is taken up by the case of Palestinian convict Ameer Makhoul.  Ms. Bates’s take on the case is that it is a matter of unjust imprisonment for strictly political reasons, citing Amnesty International and a variety of pro-Palestinian sources.  She writes about 500 words on this case, charging forced confessions and other such matters.  She also reports that Makhoul is now involved in a hunger strike, etc.  But nowhere in her piece does she mention that Makhoul in fact agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted espionage against Israel.  The facts were reported in Haaretz, and were certainly available to Ms. Bates.  Why does she suppress them in her reporting ?

Ms. Bates suggests that Makhul was victimized because he supports a boycott of Israel, and she cites the recent anti-boycott legislation in Israel as somehow relevant to his case.  Like others, she distorts this legislation (see my blog on this, and also that of NGO MONITOR).

But her overall charge is really against the Israeli system of justice as a whole:  it is unjust, period.  To believe this proposition, which is also endorsed by Mr. Ralph Seliger and other Jewish “progressives,” one would have to be so biased against Israel (and the Jewish people) as to simply overlook the internal inconsistencies and obvious distortions of those who advance it.

JStreet: the Gentle Facade and What’s Behind it

Not since the days of the Communist Party — the quarter century that began about 1930 — has there been a comparable spectacle of methodical disingenuousness in American political life. The communists, smack in the days of Stalin and the Moscow Trials, proclaimed to one at all: Communism is the most American doctrine of them all; it is, in fact, “twentieth Century Americanism.” The American communist contingent to the Spanish Civil War was dubbed the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” The Communist night school on 16th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York, where the works of Marx and Stalin were taught, was called the “Jefferson School.” And certain secret members of the Party, like Paul Robeson, denied to the end of their lives that they even were communists. Robeson was corrected on this after his death by the comrades themselves. (I have told this story here and here).

But all the time that the communists were explicit in their lip-service to democratic values, they strictly averted their eyes from the Gulag. Their facade of being gentle democrats (“peace” was a major slogan, until the Soviet Union was attacked in 1941) hid an ugly engagement for Stalinism.

As was the case of the Daily Worker, circa 1940, you can read the “policy statements” of JStreet and find little on the surface that is amiss; things are, by and large, American as apple pie, Jewish as chicken soup. There is talk of being “pro-Israel, pro peace,” and, indeed, much of what is said seems unexceptional. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Yes, Hamas is violent, and must be criticized. What is really bad, so JStreet, are the “occupation” and the “settlements.” Even here there is no hateful language, and the sentiments, by themselves, are not far from mine. Nobody likes the occupation, and there is general Israeli and Jewish consensus that much of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank is dispensable. We do not need JStreet to tell us that. What is exceptional, and exceptionable, is JStreet’s essential one-sidedness, portraying Israel as the major barrier to peace. JStreet’s scattershot agitation — relentless but not always explicit — goes as follows: 1) failure to achieve peace has been the fault of Israel, essentially only of Israel; 2) dismantling all West Bank settlements will bring lasting peace. (I will not here dwell on what happened each time that Israel unilaterally did withdraw its army and its settlements, in Gaza, for instance). It is in these unilateral demands by JStreet on Israel — radical, mindless — that the facade of cheerful peacefulness becomes pierced.

Take the punitive campaign for boycotting Israel that we hear from left and right-wing fringe groups. What does JStreet say ? There is an official answer: we do not participate in that. But there is also an unofficial answer, expressed more in action than in explicit words. At the last JStreet conference in Washington, one session was devoted to the question: shall we participate in boycotts of Israel ? The session was off record, but according to bloggers who attended ( see here and here), it seems that much of the membership is in favor; one observation was that the membership is to the “left” of the leadership. At the very least, the punitive boycott of Israel is an option very much alive in the corridors of JStreet. Moreover, five rabbinic supporters of the boycott organization  are members of JStreet’s “Rabbinic Cabinet”: Rebecca Alpert, Michael David, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, and Bryan Wall. In short, the boycott movement is in fact supported, or at least partly supported, or at least supported by many who are active in JStreet. And this does not even take account of Michael Lerner, another adornment of JStreet’s Rabbinic Cabinet.

Speaking of this Cabinet: what exactly is it ? The term suggests a leadership or policy-making or “spiritual guidance” function. None of this seems applicable. As I read the invitation to join, it would appear that anyone who says he or she is a rabbi or a cantor can sign up and be in the “cabinet.” In at least several instances in what is claimed to be a membership of 600, individuals appear to be self-ordained. In any case, the “cabinet” is far from being representative of American rabbis. Of the first ten names in the list, seven are women, only three are men; eight appear to be graduates of a Reform seminary, one is Reconstructionist, and one, well, let us say she is “other.” There are no Orthodox rabbis in this small sample of the “cabinet,” although there may well be a sprinkling in the whole group.

In a word, the “Rabbinic Cabinet” is a piece of puffery. It seems to be almost exclusively Reform and Reconstructionist, largely female, in an American rabbinate that is overwhelmingly Conservative and Orthodox and male. Like the old-time functionaries of the Communist International, JStreet here presents a facade of benign normalcy, seeking to hide a reality that is much more marginal.

The financing of JStreet seems to flow largely from a number of billionaires, not all of whom are Jewish. The secret contributions from George Soros were at first denied by the group but were then shamefacedly admitted when a leaked document surfaced. The story has been widely-reported; one article about it can be found in the Washington Post. It does not seem likely that JStreet could at all exist — certainly not in its present lavish form — without these millions pumped into it by wealthy “angels.” It is a glaring example of how the ultra-wealthy in this country, if possessed with enough will to impose their views, can distort ordinary democratic process.

One of the most striking aspects of JStreet’s propaganda is its regular and repeated dismissal of criticism as “right wing.” Here are some instances, from its website:

Since our founding, accusations about J Street and our leadership have morphed from whispered lies to stated fact in attacks on J Street in various right-leaning publications, organizations, and blogs. Right-wing bloggers continue to assert J Street is somehow “tied” to Saudi Arabia…

Some right-wing bloggers and opposition researchers engaged in a fear-and-smear campaign attempt to tarnish J Street because – among its thousands of donors are a small handful who have worked in some capacity with Arab countries or are themselves Arab Americans….

Far right-wing blogs have accused “J Street co-founder” of saying Israel’s creation was an “act that was wrong”…

Right-wing blog claims that Daniel said that “Israel really ain’t a very good idea” are debunked here by Jonathan Chait…

Despite a false report in the right-wing Washington Times, J Street did not set up meetings for Judge Goldstone on Capitol Hill, as JTA reports….

If and when critics are wrong about JStreet, of course they need to be answered. But why this persistent label of “right wing” ? How does JStreet, in its wisdom, determine who is right wing and who is not ? Or does disagreement with JStreet, by itself, make a critic right-wing ? And even if all the critics of JStreet were right-wingers in some sense, would that make their arguments wrong ? Here again, by its persistent use of argument by vilification, JStreet resembles the CP operatives of former years. And, if I may say so, it doesn’t sit well for a group whose constant complaint is that it is being “smeared” by nasties on the “right.”

Finally, there is an issue that I find particularly galling. JStreet publishes polls of American Jews, which, it says, prove that American Jews have opinions similar to those of itself. Briefly put, these polls are essentially fraudulent.

Noah Pollak of Commentary magazine has pointed out that the ostensible JStreet independent pollster, Jim Gerstein, is actually JStreet’s vice president, thus suggesting that the polling results are slanted to suit the organization. But since the technical sampling faults in these polls are so glaring, it hardly matters whether the questions were deliberately worded so as to yield a biased response.

In response to Pollak, JStreet has stated that, whatever Gerstein’s affiliation, his scholarship is exemplary and beyond criticism, and that, moreover, he has fully disclosed the methodology of his study. And indeed, there is a disclosure from Gerstein of sorts, which reads as follows:

Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications designed the questionnaire for this survey of 803 self-identified adult American Jews, conducted March 17-19, 2010. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent; the margin of error in the split samples is +/- 4.9 percent. Gerstein | Agne contracted the research company Mountain West Research Center and Opinion Outpost to administer the survey by email invitation to its web-based panel, which is regularly updated and consists of nearly 900,000 Americans. 

For anyone interested in polling, this disclosure is worse than useless. The problem of adequate sampling in polling research includes the following issues, at the least:

a) What is the operational definition of the universe, in this case the whole of the American Jewish community ? Ideally a universe is a list of names that can be sampled. Since there is not and cannot be a total list of all the Jews in America, some reasonable facsimile needs to be fashioned. This is not easy, and certainly not cheap. But responsible polling scholars, for instance the National Jewish Population Survey, have successfully grappled with this problem. A perusal of the NJPS methodological discussion makes it clear that JStreet-Gerstein is totally innocent of any scientific approach to the problem of the Jewish universe, at least insofar as Gerstein has deigned to disclose his methods.

b) Once we have defined the universe, we need to find a scientific, i.e. a random way of sampling it. Again, this is not easy, and certainly not cheap. Again, according to Gerstein’s descriptions, it is obvious that the JStreet surveys fall far short of scientific standards. Moreover, Gerstein’s talk about “margin of error” is worthless because no such statistic can be calculated for non-scientific samples.

Regarding a), the problem of universe, it appears that JStreet has employed some definition of the total American population, rather than of the Jewish population. As I have shown elsewhere, this procedure is much cheaper and is used by some news organizations, but it leads to gross distortions of Jewish opinion. In particular, it under-represents Jews who live in relatively dense Jewish population centers, and it over-represents Jews who live in relative isolation from other Jews. It cannot give a valid picture of American Jewish opinion as such.

Regarding b), the sampling problem, it appears that there were “email invitations to a web-based panel.” So those who accepted such “invitations” were asked questions by the good folks of JStreet. How were people chosen to be invited ? And of those invited to serve on these “panels,” how many accepted ? And how do we know that those who accepted are typical of all those who were invited, let alone of the universe from which they were ostensibly drawn ? We do not know, not from Gerstein’s explanations. What we end up with is a group of essentially self-chosen respondents, drawn from a list that is biased in favor of individuals who live outside of major Jewish population centers.

All this is a text-book example of polling malfeasance. It is an insult to an intelligent reader to be told that he is presented with a valid report on Jewish public opinion. The New York Times has published its own (useful) standards concerning public opinion polls. JS’s Mr. Gerstein violates just about every one of these.

To sum up. JStreet’s facade is one of a gentle, peace-loving, rational, honest, intelligent bunch that wishes to make the world a little better. Behind the facade there is a determined propaganda to endanger Israel, using techniques that include misrepresentation, secret money, vilification of opponents, puffery, and, in the case of its opinion polling, something akin to outright fraud.

Read also Ron Radosh, on how JStreet’s David Saperstein teaches his followers to speak with a forked tongue.

UPDATE June 5:

The closer one examines JS’s “Rabbinic Cabinet,” the more curious this body seems. The Rabbi David Mivasair who is listed as resident of State College, Pa., is listed in other online sites, many of them anti-Israel, as having a congregation in Vancouver, Canada, and another one in Seattle, Wash. But he also is pleased to list himself not only as a rabbi of these congregations but also as a clergyman of the (Christian) First United Church of Vancouver. Well, after all, why can’t this person be part of a Rabbinic Cabinet ? In the reign of Tammany Hall, lists of eligible voters included dogs, children, and the dead. As for State College, Pa., the congregation there tells us that Mivasair left them in 1996.

Concerning the opinion polling, so-called, conducted for JS by their vice president and ostensible polling expert Jim Gerstein — I sent him my analysis of what I consider his faulty polling methods (see above). Who knows — perhaps I was mistaken in my take on his work ? I wrote to him some days ago, requesting his comments. If I was in error, either of fact or interpretation, I would certainly like to make amends. Well, Mr. Gerstein has not responded at all. Does this mean that he is happy with what I had to say ?

A JStreet “rabbi” supports Hamas bombings of Sderot

More than eighty of JStreet’s rabbis are active against Israel

Read Alana Goodman’s revealing reportage of the 2011 JStreet meeting