Category Archives: Synagogues

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.

It’s My Synagogue, But Count Me Out

The synagogue in Brooklyn where our dues go — Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill — co-sponsored an event last week which I did not attend.  The event was entitled “How Do We Talk About Israel:  the Rabbis’ Dilemma,” and was co-sponsored by an entity “Institute for Living Judaism in Brooklyn” (ILJB).

First of all: how and why is Israel a “dilemma” ?  It is not a dilemma for the majority of American Jews (if you can trust the polls), and certainly not for the many thousands who attend AIPAC meetings, attend Salute to Israel parades, and have voted, in their majority, against Finding Fault With Israel (FFWI) candidates, like Bernard Sanders and Jill Stein.  Yes, I know, there are FFWI groups like JStreet and some others, but, to go by the published figures, all these FFWI formations, taken together, are in a minority.  Perhaps a significant minority by now, but a minority nonetheless.

Now back to the “How Do We Talk” event.  The speakers, all described as rabbis, are also described in a Jewish Week ad as “5 prominent Rabbis” (sic), The ILJB website further calls them “leading members of the rabbinate.”  How does one become, after ordination, a “leading” or “prominent” rabbi ?  I never heard of these people before, and neither does an internet search reveal either leadership or prominence for any of them.  At the very best these adjectives are puffery, at the worst they are an attempt to mislead.

On the other hand, an internet search of these five shows that at least four of them are associated with Finding Fault with Israel groups.  Two are listed as part of JStreet;  one is part of the New Israel Fund;  a fourth is part of T’ruah.  None of the five, insofar as I could find, are associated with no-nonsense pro-Israel work.  Would you find any at an AIPAC conference or on a Salute to Israel parade ?  I doubt it.

Now I realize that in my “progressive” part of Brooklyn there are many Jews who are inclined in a FFWI direction, and I would welcome productive and courteous discussion with them.  But when a forum is so clearly stacked, count me out !

A Jew’s Guide to Synagogue Life

A Jew’s Guide to Synagogue Life

It seems like a new development, but of course it has been under way for some time:  a wave of extreme assimilationism, much in the form of anti-Israel agitation, in non-Orthodox American synagogues.  I am writing from Brownstone Brooklyn where this neo-Hellenism seems particularly rampant.

First, there is the extreme form, (still) relatively rare:  “brit shalom.”

Here is a frequently-heard witticism at a brit (or bris), a circumcision ceremony: iz shver tsu zeyn a yid, it’s hard to be a Jew.  But now there are people who have found a way around the problem:  let’s not do it, the circumcision, let’s just say we did. This “non-cutting naming ceremony for Jewish boys”  is disingenuously called Brit Shalom, provided by  the “Jews Against Circumcision.  We are told that there are 216 “celebrants” who will (for a fee) perform the service, among them 132 rabbis, or at least people who say they are.

As it happens, two of these “celebrants” — David Mivasair of Vancouver and Brat Rosen of Chicago —  enjoy considerable  public attention because of their leadership positions in the radical anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace.  Both men hold ordination from the  Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, home of the bulk of anti-Israel rabbis.  But despite each man’s vigorous protestation, there is doubt about the extent to which either can be called Jewish at all.  While Mivasair had his nominally Jewish congregation in Vancouver, he also, at the same time, held the title of Chaplain at the United Church of Canada.  Rosen, while Rabbi of  Tzedek Chicago,  is also, simultaneously, the Midwest Regional Director of the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee,

An explicit embrace of non-Jewish religion, though rare among self-described Jews, is not confined to men like Mivasair and Rosen who affiliate with Christian groups.  The late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the fathers of the Jewish Renewal movement, was also a practitioner of both Buddhism and Sufism.  At the time of his death he held the (modestly named) World Wisdom Chair at the (Buddhist) Naropa Institute of Colorado, and, if that weren’t enough, he was also described as a Sufi shaikh, whatever that means.

But the gravamen of the radical new assimilationism among certain  non-Orthodox rabbis does not lie in any explicit syncretism with other religions.  It lies in the embrace of the trendy new philosophy of “human rights” — sometimes called a movement for “social justice” — which tends to override any loyalty to the Jewish people.   Its organizational exponents, to varying degrees, are the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the New York based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), T’ruah “the rabbinic call for human rights,” and JStreet.  All these groups have substantial adherence by non-Orthodox rabbis.  All have special boards of rabbinic advisors.

No straight-forward parsing of “human rights” or “social justice” will reveal the significance of these terms for  these groups; the terms do not mean here what they seem to mean.  Broadly speaking, the victimology of the new Hellenism embraces Muslims and (sometimes) African Americans.  In the very prolific propaganda literature of these groups, Jews are (almost) never mentioned as aggressed-upon, only, generally, as aggressors.

Take the newly-found sin of “Islamophobia” which the Jewish Hellenizing groups never tire of castigating.  As I have shown for 2008 data, hate crimes against American Jews, proportionately, are four times as frequent as hate crimes against Muslims. The most recent data show the persistence of the trend:  Jews are far more often targeted than Muslims.  Yet none of our Hellenizing groups, insofar as I can see, mention anti-Semitism as an evil.

My attention to Hellenizing rabbis was recently piqued by the reaction to the current intifada by two Brooklyn Brownstone rabbis.

The first of these rabbis was Carie Carter of the Park Slope Jewish Center, a synagogue which I have attended in the past at the invitation of family members.  Someone shared with me the rabbi’s message to her congregation dated Oct. 13.  It contains a listing of violent incidents in Israel and the Palestinian territories, treating the recent knifing attacks against Jews as of the same quality as the loss of life of the Arab assailants.  Assailants and victims are treated equally.  Rabbi Carter sits on the board of JFREJ, and as part of her letter she asked her members to “join me in choosing your favorite organization that works on behalf of co-existence in Israel and Palestine.”  I wrote to the rabbi on October 14, as follows: “Dear Rabbi Carie,Your letter suggests that Jews and Arabs are equally at fault.  This leaves out the root of the problem: the ongoing incitement to violence by the political, religious, and media leadership of Palestinian Arabs.  There is nothing comparable on the Jewish side.Our fellow Jews in Israel need our support, by way of solidarity trips and other action.  They do not need advice from the self-styled “progressives” of Brooklyn “peace” groups.”  My letter has remained unanswered.

My communication with my own rabbi, Samuel H. Weintraub of the Kane Street Synagogue, was a bit longer but, essentially, as one-sided as my correspondence with Rabbi Carter.  Here are some highlights:

On October 16, shortly after news reached us about the current intifada,  I wrote to Rabbi Weintraub to suggest that KSS organize an emergency solidarity trip to Israel for Synagogue members.  I included some details on how such a trip could be organized, and I offered to contribute financially.  This letter has remained unanswered to this day.

On October 20, Rabbi Weintraub sent a message to his members in which he expressed sentiments similar to Rabbi Carter’s.  While he never expressed criticism of the Arab elites that incite violence against Jews, he was careful to find fault on the side of the Israelis:  “We are now in a time when anti-democratic and triumphalist groups are exerting great pressures on political processes in Israel. It is important to also broadcast strongly the voice of democracy, tolerance, diversity and open discourse.’ And, like Rabbi Carter, he urged his members to support leftist groups: “You can also strengthen your support for organizations and groups in Israel which reflect your deepest Jewish values.”

I wrote to the rabbi to voice my concern over his stand, resulting in a brief, inconclusive correspondence between us.

Finally, Rabbi Weintraub once more wrote to his members on December 9.

In this new missive the Rabbi attacks Donald Trump for his allegedly “vile” statements.  I am no supporter of Trump, but the rabbi’s statements here involve the synagogue in partisan political activity incompatible with its 501(c)3 tax status.  Pew has a very detailed discussion of the IRS rules; it is quite clear that KSS is in violation.

But another aspect of this letter is of even greater concern:  the rabbi calls on his members to go into the streets and demonstrate shoulder to shoulder with Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, with the Arab American Association of New York, and with T’ruah.  He could have added JFREJ, which also sponsored this event.

1)  The Arab American Association of New York.  On the surface, an anodyne grouping devoted to social services for its immigrant community.  But a bit of research with google reveals a leadership enmeshed with anti-Israel activity.  This is true of Mirna Haidar, the “Lead Organizer and Advocacy Trainer” of the group, and even more so of Linda Sarsour, its Executive Director.

2) Congregation Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn has been front and center of anti-Israel activity in the New York area for a number of years.  The rabbi is Ellen Lippmann, a board member of JFREJ.  The president of the synagogue is Cyndy Greenberg, a leading member of Jewish Voice for Peace. In Rabbi’s Lippmann’s public statements there is always a certain nod and a wink in her opposition to Israel;  no, she has never publicly said that Israel should be immediately destroyed.  But she has not been able to fool the folks at Mondoweiss, a radical anti-Israel site, which says that Lippmann is “highly regarded.”  There is also some doubt about whether this congregation can be called Jewish at all, at least in the strong sense of the word.  Rabbi Lippmann has a wife,  Kathryn Conroy, who is not Jewish but is nevertheless recognized as the congregation’s “rebbetzin.”  Coroy explains that she will not convert to Judaism because  “I cannot convert to anything because I am already who I am and what I am going to continue to be.”

3) Truah, “the rabbinic call for human rights,” was formerly called Rabbis for Human Rights.  Like JStreet, it is  heavily subsidized by George Soros. (Urgent suggestion:  get the free download of Alexander Joffe’s brilliant, essential monograph “Bad Investment.  George Soros and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”) T’ruah has a very long list of rabbinic “chaverim.” Many are fully supportive of Israel, but the list also contains just about every rabbi who has declared against the Jewish state.  The “human rights” that it champions are not those of Jews.

4)  JFREJ, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.  As I have said in previous posts here and here, there is no more anti-Israel group in the United States, though, as I have also explained, it takes care to veil its character to the casual observer.  But now it has released its 25-year jubileum publication which should lift the veil a bit for anyone who cares to know the facts.  For example, we find certain names among its leadership that are also prominently associated with the Jewish Voice for Peace:  Cynthia Greenberg, Donna Nevel, Marilyn Neimark, and probably others.  Moreover, there is a place of honor for the late Henry Scharzschild, who was given an award by JFREJ some time after he announced  “I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy.”

By way of summarizing my complaint about the Hellenized rabbinate of our days, I present some summary data about a number of synagogues of which I have some acquaintance.  For each, I  give the name of the senior rabbi, followed by the names of any other rabbis associated with the group.  In some cases these are assistant rabbis, in other cases they are rabbis emeriti.  For each name, I supply affiliation, or lack thereof, with five of the groups I have discussed:  Brit Shalom, JVP, JFREJ, T’ruah, and JStreet (which I have not discussed because its chracteristics will be familiar to the reader.  My own previous discussion can be found here and here.) Most of the synagogues are in Brooklyn, but, for reasons of comparison, I also list some that are in Manhattan and elsewhere..

I have placed the synagogues into three groups:  anti-Israel, pro-Israel, and gray area.  I have made these placements on the basis of my own experience with these groups, so to some extent there is an element of subjectivity.  I have been most heavily influenced, on the one hand,  by whether or not I have seen a rabbi at an AIPAC meeting and/or the annual Salute to Israel parade, which would place him in the pro-Israel group. On the other hand, a rabbi’s hostile or questionable affiliations and statements would place him in one of the other groups.

I might summarize the results as follows:  while not absolutely foolproof, a synagogue’s relationship to the Hellenizing organizations is a good guideline for a Jew in search of authentically Jewish community.

The Anti-Israel Synagogues

Synagogue

Rabbi(s)

Brit Shalom

JVP

JFREJ

T’ruah

JStreet

Ahavat Olam

David Mivasair

yes

yes

no

yes

no

Tzedek Chicago

Brant Rosen

yes

yes

no

yes

no

Beit Simchat Torah

Sharon Kleinbaum

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Rachel Weiss

no

no

no

yes

no

Ayelet Cohen

no

no

yes

yes

yes

David Bauer

no

yes

yes

yes

yes

Kolot Chayenu

Ellen Lippmann

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Gray Area Synagogues

Synagogue

Rabbi(s)

Brit Shalom

JVP

JFREJ

T’ruah

JStreet

Mt.Sinai,Bkln

Seth Wax

no

no

yes

yes

no

JosephPotasnik

no

no

no

no

mo

EastMidwoodJ.C.

Matt Carl

no

no

no

no

yes

AlvinKass

no

no

no

no

no

B’naiJeshurun

J. RolandoMatalon

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Marcelo Bronstein

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Felicia Sol

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Park Slope J.C.

CarieCarter

no

no

yes

yes

no

BethElohim,Bkln

Rachel Timoner

no

no

no

yes

yes

Marc Katz

no

no

yes

yes

yes

GeraldWeider

no

no

no

yes

no

Kane St. Syn.

Sam Weintraub

no

no

no

yes

no

Valerie Lieber

no

no

yes

yes

yes

Some Pro-Israel Synagogues

Synagogue

Rabbi(s)

Brit Shalom

JVP

JFREJ

T’ruah

JStreet

Or Zarua

Scott Bolton

no

no

no

no

no

Harlan Wechsler

no

no

no

no

no

Sinai Temple, LA

DavidWolpe

no

no

no

no

no

Town & Village NYC

LaurenceSebert

no

no

no

yes

no

Rabbi Weintraub has not responded to my request for comments on a pre-publication version of this posting.