How can Jews be ‘Orthodox’ without living in Israel?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-11

I just experienced a classic American Jewish cultural phenomenon – the deluxe, kosher-for-Passover hotel. For eight days, a New Jersey hotel became a Yiddishe Club Med, mostly for the tzitzes-and-snood set. Consuming mounds of flanken, schools of gefilte fish, cartons of matzoh, our spirits soared. Our hearts gladdened. Our waistlines expanded. Our arteries clogged. Yet it seemed a great inversion has occurred. The Torah does not just dictate what to eat but where to live. Although to some traditional commentators the mitzvah, commandment, of living in Israel outweighed all other mitzvoth combined, the behavior of many Orthodox Jews today suggests that many trifling mitzvot trump living in Israel. I wondered: How can Jews be “Orthodox” without living in Israel? Rather than singing so passionately about “Next Year in Jerusalem,” why don’t they simply make it happen?

I regret being ungracious because the experience was beautiful. The seders enabled far-flung families to reunite, consecrate the moment, and reinforce their bonds by embracing enduring values while reenacting meaningful rituals. And this time, someone else did the dishes.

In creating this temporary, luxurious, Jewish village, the guests expressed that characteristically Jewish need to consecrate a Jewish space. Living in Jewish time is not enough – which is why Golden Ghettos have sprung up worldwide. The contrast between the temporary kosher zone we rented in Central Jersey and the chametz-filled Newark Airport we encountered upon leaving was striking. Part of this year’s seder magic came from our parallel experiences in our artificial Jewish space: hearing the echoes of Dayenu resounding through the hotel’s halls; peeking into other family seders; noting who wore white kittels and who did not, who prepared shtick for kids and who did not, who continued past midnight and who did not, while all singing from the same hymnal, er, Haggadah.

As a sensual, 24/7 religion, involving tastes, smells, sounds, and as the religion of one historic people, Judaism functions best in a Jewish space. But suburban New Jersey is not our natural habitat; the land of Israel is, being the Jewish people’s historic homeland. That is why the Bible made Judaism a homeland-based religion. That is why so many commandments are bound up in the land. That is why the exile was so painful for millennia. And that is why – at two of the most popular, profound Jewish religious moments – ending Yom Kippur and climaxing the seder – we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

I am not a Zionist fanatic. I understand why non-Orthodox Jews, especially those who do not take the Torah literally or believe in God, might live elsewhere, even if they acknowledge the upside of Jewish sovereignty, even if they love Israel. And these secular Zionists, of course, are the minority. Most American Jews have never visited Israel. They love the land they were lucky enough to be born in. As modern Jews they easily balance their Jewish and non-Jewish selves outside Israel. Most have no problem supporting Israel without ever living in Israel. I applaud Zionism for maturing beyond its original negation of the Diaspora. I particularly love the United States and Canada, being grateful for the welcoming home these two, safe, flourishing, prosperous democracies provide to millions of Jews.

But Orthodox Jews are, well, Orthodox! Anyone who feels commanded to live fully as a Jew should acknowledge Israel’s centrality in that mission. Moreover, Orthodoxy seems to be particularly rigid these days, with fanatic rabbis turning ritually autistic, blurring minor and major commandments, demanding blind observance to all religious dictates equally, passionately, fully. The traditional seventy fences placed around each mitzvah risk becoming seventy prison walls, with the most restrictive interpretation triumphing.

This rigidity is often curmudgeonly. Before Passover, the New York Times’ front page covered the quinoa controversy. Many Ashkenazi Jews have embraced this South American grain during Passover to expand their gastronomic repertoire. Yet some rabbis have banned it, although it was unknown in Biblical times, in what seems to be this Ashkenazi compulsion to disdain anything new and make Passover another trial to endure.

Given that, how do so many rigidly pious Jews ignore the commandment to live in Israel? How do they reconcile this contradiction? And why do their rabbis, who hector them about the most minor kashrut questions, avoid this subject in sermons?

My mother, despite being Jewish, teaches that “guilt is a wasted emotion.” I do not raise this question to make Orthodox Jews feel guilty. I acknowledge how deeply Zionist the Orthodox community is, having made the pre-college year studying in Israel a given for most Orthodox youth. But this mass violation of the commandment to settle the land, in an era when the land is accessible and appealing albeit challenging, demands debate.

A fuller discussion might help religious Jews see other compromises they make too. That recognition might encourage the often-ignored Jewish value of humility, which could improve relations with less-Orthodox Jews. This humility could encourage greater flexibility on minor matters such as micro-bugs in lettuce as well as major matters such as conversions and the need to consider compromising with Palestinians, who actually live in the land of Israel and whose own nationalist longings should be respected – if they choose to be peaceful and recognize Jewish nationalism.

At its worst, Orthodoxy today risks making Judaism into what traditional Christian critics claimed it was – a pots-and-pans religion obsessed with form not substance, more concerned with superficialities than spirituality. Three decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the guts to read Torah in his Manhattan synagogue, follow its dictums and move to Israel with a small committed minority. Are other rabbis at least brave enough to broach the subject with their congregants? Or are these supposedly Orthodox rabbis and their professedly pious followers actually reformers, having magically made the Israel-based mitzvoth optional?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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Remember the Victims of Terror at the Seder 5771

REMEMBER THE VICTIMS OF TERROR AT THE SEDER:

LEAVE ONE EMPTY CHAIR AT THE TABLE
Note: Unfortunately, this is the tenth year in a row that I feel compelled to circulate this call (the text is updated…)

By GIL TROY

Once again, during this year’s seders, we will celebrate our joyous holiday of liberation with heavy hearts. Even as we revel in our freedom as Jews in the modern world, even as we marvel at Israel’s strength and tenacity in the wake of a terrorist onslaught, too many of our brothers and sisters in Israel are in pain. This year, in particular, as we think of Hamas’s hostage, Gilad Shalit, and his family, truly in a Mitzraim, in dire straits, and as we think of an entire region, the South of Israel, held hostage, we must rise to the challenge to reclaim our symbols, to remember our losses, to reaffirm our commitment to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to a true peace.

Since the bloody, unnecessary war begun back in 2000 when the Palestinians turned away from negotiations toward violence, too many have died, too many have been injured, on both sides. Israel has won that war by learning to be proactive in its fight. Even though the violence has lessened, too many seders now have empty chairs — missing husbands, fathers, brothers, sons; missing wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

The power of the seder — which remains one of the most popular of Jewish ceremonies — comes from its ritualization of memory. It is a most primal, most sensual, most literal, of services. The seder plate — with its representations of the mortar used in building, the charoset, and of the tears shed by the slaves, the salt water — helps us visualize the trauma of slavery.

The physical acts of reclining, of eating special foods, of standing to greet Elijah the prophet, help us feel the joy of Yetziat Mitzrayim, of leaving Egypt. And, in an affirmation of the importance of peoplehood, we mark this special moment not as individuals but as a community.

In that spirit, we cannot proceed with business as usual during these difficult times. We must improvise a new ritual that marks our present pain, that illustrates the vital interconnectedness of the Jewish people in Israel and beyond. Let each of us, as we gather at our seders, intrude on our own celebrations by leaving one setting untouched, by having one empty chair at our table.

Let us take a moment to reflect on our losses from this deadly decade, for even as stability has returned, terror attempts continue, freshly dug graves pockmark the Holy Land, and the mourning for those lost persists.  And as we reflect, let us not just remember the dead as hundreds of nameless and faceless people, but let us personalize them. Let us take the time to find out the name of one victim of the current conflict, one Jew who cannot celebrate this year’s holiday, one family in mourning.

Let us call out the name of Gilad Shalit, a 24-year-old with a shy smile, kidnapped by Hamas on the Gaza border in July, 2006 – despite the fact that Israel had disengaged from Gaza, uprooting Jewish settlements in the hope for peace. “This year we won’t celebrate Pesach,” Gilad’s father Noam said during the family’s first year in hell.  “Pesach is about freedom, and we don’t have that in our hearts. We want Gilad to return from imprisonment to freedom. It’s been nine months, and we’re not giving up.” After more than 1750 days – more than 250 shabbatot – the Shalit family, and good people around the world still refuse to give up.

Let us call out the name of Daniel Aryeh Wildfich —  a 16-year-old hovering between life and death because Hamas terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at the schoolbus he was riding in, in the South.

Let us call out the name of Mary Jean Gardner, aged 59, killed in Jerusalem bus bombing – a non-Jewish British woman living in Jerusalem for a year to study Bible, whose murder in the recent Jerusalem bus bombing reminds us that this kind of terror targets Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Arabs, who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let us call out the names of the Fogel family – Udi, age 36; Ruth, age 35; Yoav, age 11; Elad, age 4; Baby Hadas, age 3 months – butchered to death on a Friday night, in a mass murder that should have elicited worldwide revulsion but triggered celebrations in Gaza.

Let us call out the names of  Hani al-Mahdi, 27, of Aroar, a Beduin settlement in the Negev, Irit Sheetrit, 39, of Ashdod – a mother of four — Warrant Officer Lutfi Nasraladin, 38, of the Druze town of Daliat el-Carmel, all killed by Hamas rockets smuggled into Gaza, then launched into Israel’s pre-1967 borders in separate incidents on December 29, 2008. The different communities, religions, and yes, skin colors, of the victims, remind us that Israelis are a diverse, multicultural, multiracial lot, further disproving the ugly lies that Zionism is in any way racist.

Acknowledging the bravery of the IDF soldiers who fought reluctantly but heroically to defend their country in Gaza, let us call out the names of Major Eliraz Peretz, 31, of Eli, and Staff Sergeant Ilan Sviatkovsky, 21, of Rishon Letzion, killed by Hamas terrorists on the Gazan border on March 26, 2010, four and a half years after Israel voluntarily disengaged from Gaza, inviting and challenging Palestinians to build their own civil society rather than trying to destroy Israel.

Remembering previous victims, let us call out the name of Yaniv Bar-On, the 20-year-old son of a South African father and a Canadian mother, ambushed while trying to save Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev from Hezbollah’s clutches in 2006, of Roi Klein, 31, a father of two, who jumped on a grenade crying “Shma Yisrael,” Hear O’ Israel, sacrificing his life to save his troops from certain death during the Second Lebanon War, and of Benny Avraham, age 20, one of three young Israelis murdered by Hezbollah in a failed kidnapping in October 2000, whose bodies were kept frozen as the sadistic terrorists toyed with the emotions of the three grieving families – and people of conscience throughout the world.

Let us call out the name of Koby Mandell, age 13, a young American immigrant brutally killed in May, 2001, whose father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, talks about the empty seat at his Shabbat table and shares the pain of watching other boys grow up, watching their voices deepen, their shoulders broaden, their gaits quicken, even as his son lies dead.

Let us call out the names of Ernest and Eva Weiss, aged 80 and 75, residents of Petach Tikvah who survived Nazi concentration camps only to be slaughtered while sitting down for the Pesach Seder at the Park Hotel exactly nine years ago, Pesach, 2002.

And as we condemn modern-day Pharoahs in Iran and elsewhere, as we recoil from the worldwide scourge of anti-Semitism this terrorism also unleashed, let us call out the names of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew cellphone salesman kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a Parisian suburb by anti-Semitic thugs, and of Daniel Pearl, the 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped, then murdered, in Pakistan almost exactly four years earlier.

As we call out these names, let us vow to do what we can to bring Gilad Shalit home. As we call out these names, let us commit to some action, to embrace the families of the victims – more than a thousand who have died and the nearly ten thousand who were injured. As we call out these names, as we also celebrate the redemption we will mark as we celebrate Israel’s 63rd anniversary, let us commit to building a  friendship with Israel and Israelis which is not just about politics, and not solely about mourning and memory.

And as we call out these names, unlike too many of our enemies, let us not call for vengeance; let us not call for more bloodshed. Instead, as we mourn, let us hope; as we remember the many lives lost during this crazy and pointless war, let us pray ever more intensely for a just and lasting peace.

Information about many of the Israelis killed in the current violence can be found at the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website.

Ideas about how to help families of victims can be found from the Jewish Agency’s Fund for the Victims of Terror.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

My soviet seder from hell

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-25-10

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1985, I had the seder from hell in the world’s largest prison – the Soviet Union. My friend Danny and I landed just before Passover in Novosibersk, emboldened after meeting in Moscow with the legendary Yuli Kusharovsky, a man the KGB secret police targeted for teaching Hebrew. Seeing his and his fellow “refuseniks'” courage, watching them carve out meaningful Jewish lives amid great oppression, made us confident we would complete our mission to make seder with Jewish professors fired because they applied to emigrate to Israel. Alas, we were wrong.

In those bad old days, a new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had just emerged. We assumed he was no better than his dictatorial predecessors. Anatoly Sharansky’s name was on everyone’s lips, but we were sure it would be years, if ever, before he would be freed. Kushavorvsky and others seemed particularly worried about their heroic young friend Yuli Edelstein, recently jailed on false charges and ailing in prison. Many feared he would not survive.

From Novosibersk, in the heart of Siberia, we traveled 20 kilometers to Akademgorodok, the academic suburb. We approached an apartment building, laden with matzot and other gifts, ready to swoop down as heroic angels from America and the Jewish people on the professors who awaited us. In Moscow, we had knocked on doors, said “Shalom Aleichem,” then been embraced by strangers who instantly became brothers. But here a menacing man sporting a huge Russian fur hat blocked us. We said we had come to visit a friend. He said, “This building is not for ‘foriginers,'” comically mispronouncing the word with a hard g. We insisted, but he was adamant – and intimidating.

Devastated, we returned to our hotel just before the holiday – with no seder, no seder plate, only the first-time understanding in our American-charmed lives of what it meant to feel unfree. Scrambling, we improvised a seder plate. Finding an egg in the hotel’s breakfast room, we charred it using the cigarette lighters we carried to burn the messages we wrote each other when we wished not to be overheard. The “shank bone” was kosher salami brought from New York, ripped to look rectangular, not circular. Karpas, the green vegetable, was fittingly, dried fruit, because there was no spring in still-snow-covered Novosibersk – nor any sense of renewal. We made charoset from the dried fruit and some nuts – an awful concoction tasting more like mortar than my grandmother’s sweet mush. But we hit a wall with marror, the bitter herbs. Finally, we realized we were so bitter about how the Communists treated our fellow Jews and human beings we needed no more marror at the table.

During this, the smallest, most pathetic, depressing, homesick seder of my life, never before had the words and rituals so resonated. When we said shebechol dor va’dor, that in every generation enemies rise up to try knocking us down, we instinctively raised our voices and looked up, not at the Lord above, but at the KGB microphone we assumed was hidden in the ceiling vent; during the trip we were followed frequently and would be detained once.

The feast of freedom, the human yearning for freedom, took on tremendous meaning for me in the pathetic hotel room at what felt like the end of the earth. Still, I lacked faith. I did not believe the redemption the Haggadah promised would come. The names of Sharansky and other heroes had been etched in the bracelet on my wrist – and in my heart – for so long, I assumed they would stay there forever, just as every academic expert I knew assumed the Soviet Union would last. I never believed that within a few years Sharansky, Edelstein and other Prisoners of Conscience would be freed, the Soviet Union would crumble, a million former Soviet Jews would live in Israel, our national homeland, or that today, I, a kid from Queens, would serve so casually on Jewish community committees with these giants.

From this celebration of freedom in the land of the unfree, I learned that Jewish tradition is renewable. In every generation we experience the ancient rituals differently, even as we connect to each other and our proud past. In 1985, I considered the Soviets the modern Egyptians. Today, I read the four sons as mapping out modern Zionist challenges, with the Wise Ones – from Left, Right and Center asking “what are our principles,” “who are we,” “who will we be”; the Wicked Ones disdainfully disassociating themselves from our collective Zionist project, saying “yucch”; the Simple Ones mystified by the craziness swirling around Israel and Zionism today, simply saying “duh,” and, the vast majority at least, not being able – or not even bothering – to ask.

From this little taste of oppression – which lasted only three weeks and was blunted by the power of the precious American passport tucked safely in my money belt – I learned that history is correctable. I never thought the Soviet Union would fall even as I witnessed the beginning of its end. Similarly, a few years ago, many of us thought Palestinian terror would never end – and were so dumbfounded when it petered out we never even mounted the victory celebration Israel deserved for smashing Yasser Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure.

And from my Siberian Seder I learned that peoplehood is redemptive. We have great power in our solidarity as a people, as a nation. My membership in the collective enterprise called the Jewish people sensitized me to Soviet oppression when many of my professors were still enthralled by Communism and appalled by America. Moreover, by belonging to the Jewish people I had a small role in the great historical movement which resulted in Communism’s collapse.

For too many of us, the seder is a rote ritual, done on automatic pilot to discharge some family and ancestral obligation. May this seder instead be like my Soviet seder in hell was – ironically, a seder of renewal and relevance, part of a great historical correction, a seder of redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.