Standing Up To Bullies, Here And In Israel
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Standing Up To Bullies, Here And In Israel

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Lately I have this feeling that the world is increasingly out of control. Most obvious are the frightening terrorist attacks from ISIS and its allies around the world, and growing tension and violence between blacks and the police here, underscoring a deep racial divide.

We are afraid to glance at the latest headlines as we careen from learning of the ambush shooting of policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge to the slaughter by truck of scores of innocents in southern France.

There’s a global sense that we are losing our deeply humane equilibrium of tolerance and logic, a feeling that faith in our social fabric has turned to frustration, and that hope has given way to fear.

What can we do about situations that seem beyond our sphere of influence?

For starters, as Americans and as Jews, we need to stand up to the bullies who would turn us against each other and who advocate building walls between us rather than bridges to connect us.

I’m thinking of the Republican presidential candidate who has embraced the isolationist concept of “America First,” who expresses racial bias against “the other,” including Mexicans and Muslims, and who demeans women, the disabled and those who don’t share his views.

We will have the opportunity, come November, to approve or reject a candidate who exploits dissatisfaction among the electorate and flirts with fascism.

I’m also thinking of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, whose goal is to raise the standards of halacha so high that sincere, would-be converts seeking to join our people are discouraged from even trying. By keeping hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israelis from the conversion process, the rabbis are creating an existential threat to Israeli society. And they send a message to the great majority of Israelis that the Torah is only for a select few,  an obstacle to Judaism rather than a tree of life.

The fact that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a leader for decades of Modern Orthodoxy, was deemed untrustworthy to conduct a valid conversion by two religious courts in Israel in recent days — first the Petach Tikvah Beit Din and later the Chief Rabbinic Court — is more than an outrage to his dignity. (See Rabbi Lookstein Opinion piece HERE.) It indicates that the Chief Rabbinic Court has no respect for the Modern Orthodox rabbinate in the U.S., as it has none for the liberal branches of Judaism.

In this case, we have a chance to make our voices heard, to let the government in Jerusalem know that our love of Israel cannot blind us to indignities that undermine the essence of Judaism.

Rabbi Lookstein is a major figure within the Rabbinical Council of America; under pressure, the two chief rabbis of Israel vouched for him last week. But they were, in effect, overruled when the grand court insisted that the American woman whose conversion was directed by Rabbi Lookstein had to repeat the conversion process. She is due to be married soon and, as Rabbi Lookstein told me the other day, he does not care about the swipe at his reputation but is deeply pained that the woman has to endure this embarrassment at “what should be the happiest time of her life.”

In his Opinion essay, he wrote of the Israeli court members: “How could they treat this woman, who has done nothing wrong and everything right, in such an insensitive and abusive manner?”

He asserted that the court’s decision is not about him but “about the convert, and it is about a broken system whereby rabbis are more interested in gatekeeping than in welcoming sincere converts. They are looking for flaws and disqualifications rather than saying to a woman: ‘We are proud of you. We welcome you to Israel. We want to help you get married.’ Instead of this, there is rejection and humiliation. It is, indeed, outrageous. And the perpetrators of the outrage are learned rabbis. What a chilul HaShem — a desecration of God’s name.”

He and others have called for “objective criteria” to determine the validity of conversions, as set out by our sages in Jewish law. The fact is that its basic requirements are followed by many non-Orthodox rabbis as well. It is time to curtail and redirect the power of the Chief Rabbinate to reflect a Judaism based on what keeps us together as a people, not what drives us apart. Rabbinic bullying must stop.

Here at home, with attention focused on Cleveland this week and the coronation of a candidate few took seriously at the outset of the campaign, we see the results of allowing a bully to virtually hijack a proud national political party. 

Over the last few months, as the divisions in our society have deepened and as Donald Trump defied the political experts, gaining popularity even as — indeed, because he has — broken every rule of political civility, my thoughts kept returning to a film that captured America’s attention 40 years ago.

The Academy Award-winning 1976 film, “Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky, featured a television news anchor named Howard Beale who rants against society, encouraging his viewers to open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

His show’s ratings skyrocket and his network exploits his success until an act of planned violence ends Beale’s reign, and his life.

The Beale character was dangerous because he tapped into an inchoate but powerful sense of frustration and exploited it among the masses.

But that was fiction. This is real-life, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The trouble is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between fact and fantasy in our culture, hyped by technology. Trump’s transition from TV reality host to Republican presidential candidate underscores the problem. How fitting that Pokémon Go has become the sudden rage, inserting illusory figures into real situations.

Will Americans elect this one to the highest office in the land? 

Gary@jewishweek.org

 

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