Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last Straw

I've been struggling for the last few years with my continued membership in an Orthodox synagogue here in Hartford. There is absolutely nothing bad about my synagogue: I literally love my Rabbi, and enjoy the company of my fellow congregants, many of whom are personal and lovely friends. Of all the Orthodox synagogues in town, this one is closest to my less-than-absolute engagement with the halakhic tradition. There is no doubt that politically I am far to the left of most of my fellow shul-goers, and I've always had the feeling that while there are profound disagreements with my political stands, my politics and presence are not only tolerated, but actually sought out. On the local level, I am reminded of a quote attributed to the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: "I pray with people I can't talk with, and I talk with people I can't pray with." This quote only partly applies to my synagogue, but I am certain that it would be more so the case were I a member of one of the more right-wing Orthodox synagogues in my town.

Two things happened to me last year that shook my ongoing half-assed membership in an Orthodox synagogue, and neither had a thing to do with my synagogue. First, I spent 2-1/2 months on sabbatical in Tel Aviv, surrounded by sabra friends and colleagues from Tel Aviv University, the bastion of secular Israeli elite culture. I discovered that I had more in common with what I have termed "secular-knowledgeable" Israelis than I do with "religiously committed" American Jews. By "secular-knowledgeable" I mean intellectually curious human beings who have a deep and abiding interest in Jewish history and Jewish texts of all ages and provenances, who take these texts seriously, and use them to construct a progressive and humane worldview. I don't think I'll find very many "secular-knowledgeable" American Jews here in Hartford, certainly not amongst the Conservative and Reform synagogues in town. When I returned to Hartford after my sabbatical, I sat down with my beloved rabbi and told him of this new recognition of affinity with "secular-knowledgeable" Israeli culture. I looked him in the eye: "Rabbi, I've come to realize I am not Orthodox." His answer, said with a knowing smile, was perfect: "We've known that for years!" It was the perfect answer to hear in the moment, for it conveyed what I enjoyed most about my synagogue and my rabbi -- "We accept you and your craziness just the way it is. No pressure, no judgmentalism -- just keep hanging in there." And so despite my pronouncement, I made no effort to leave my shul.

Then came the Postville, Iowa, kashrut scandal. I wrote a piece for Religion in the News about the May 2008 ICE raid at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughtering plant and its aftermath. As a result of my research, I came away deeply troubled by the application of kashrut in modern consumer culture. Back in 2004, I had watched online the videos of the slaughtering of animals which had been surreptitiously recorded by PETA activists. For more than 2 decades I had taught in my courses that kosher slaughter was somehow humane and caused minimal pain to the animals, because that was what Jewish apologists uniformly reported. The PETA tapes showed something altogether different. I was dismayed but ultimately unsurprised when national rabbis from the Orthodox OU defended Agriprocessors. I had quit keeping kosher out of the house a long time before 2004, but the cumulative effect of the Postville story caused me to question why I should continue the effort in my kitchen any longer.

Habits die slowly. Neither of these 2 events caused me to give up on my synagogue. I have barely attended synagogue this past year, but I still imagined that this Orthodox synagogue, a member-in-good-standing of the national Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, was still my Jewish home.

This morning however my Twitter application delivered what for me is the last straw. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story today entitled "Vatican teaching Hezbollah how to kill Jews, says pamphlet for IDF troops." The news article explains how a pamphlet has been distributed to thousands of Israeli soldiers by the IDF which is a supposed eyewitness account of a former Hezbollah senior operative who has converted to Judaism. The story has been circulating on Habad and American Orthodox websites for months. This supposed convert claims that the Vatican sends Hezbollah emissaries to Poland so they may look at Auschwitz and learn how to kill Jews. Says the pamphlet: "Every real Arab, deep inside, is kind of a fan of the Nazis." The article further explains that the IDF has now suspended distribution of the pamphlet. Go read the article for yourself.

But here is the kicker: Who paid for this piece of drivel, distributed by the IDF itself to its own soldiers? The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the selfsame OU), the national umbrella synagogue group to which my synagogue belongs.

I know that my rabbi and most of my friends at shul would never knowingly participate in the funding of such a racist and fabricated piece of shit. But I can no longer live with the fact that the synagogue I am a member of is aligned, even through the indirect means of "belonging" to this Union, with a document that encourages Israeli soldiers (young, uneducated teenagers with automatic weapons) to see the world in this kind of perverted, demonic fashion.

With deep sadness for the bonds of friendship I will be severing, a letter of resignation from my synagogue will be going out later today.


  1. (For the information of your readers:
    1. Said rabbi has from the beginning taken a strong, public stand against the abuses committed by Agriprocessors.)

    Concerning the anti-Vatican propaganda handed out to IDF soldiers: it would have been far more useful to have brought the matter to the attention of your fellow congregants and rabbi and to call upon them to protest vehemently to the OU.

    I'm wondering who at the OU authorized sponsoring the pamphlet. Were the senior leadership of the OU aware of the matter? (Not knowing does not necessarily absolve the leadership.)

  2. The OU has a statement about the publication. It says in part:

    Upon investigation, it has been ascertained that this endorsement was made by staff at the OU’s Israel branch office, and was never submitted to, nor approved by, senior Orthodox Union management.

    While the Haaretz report certainly sensationalized the book’s contents, there is no doubt that some of what it contains is antithetical to the well-known views of the OU regarding respect for other faiths and their leaders. The OU rescinds the endorsement of the book and disavows any connection to the views expressed in it.

  3. The mind is an excellent tool for rationaliizing decisions made by the heart. You probably left Orthodoxy ages ago, and for some reason held on to membership in an O synagogue.

    A dumb political decision 5000 miles away isn't your real reason for leaving Orthodoxy - major Torah sages make politically dumb decisions often. R' Ovadya Yosef's politically tone-deaf pronunciamenti, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi being R' Elyashiv's lapdog, rather than a representative of Religious Zionism, etc. didn't drive you away? Come on, be honest with yourself and us.

    And regarding anti-Vatican propaganda, it's milder than stuff handed out every day to our enemies by their governments, and even in the US, religious groups fund lots of hate-propaganda about Jews and Muslims every day. That Israel does so - so what? Our troops need encouragement to fight the crusade/jihad/milchemet mitzvah every bit as much as our enemies do. Wasn't Israel supposed to be "a nation like the other nations"? Well, there you go: it is.

    (referred by R' Jay Lapidus)

  4. We (I) would still like you to continue as an active member of our unique congregation. You add color and keep us informed and updated. Let's hear a post-kiddush talk about the reasons you feel closer to the secular knowledgeable Israelis. It's easy to adhere to the party line. But to be challenged by other views helps us grow intellectually and personally. Please keep us challenged!