Showing posts with label Issues in Judaism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Issues in Judaism. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sarah Silverman's Election Videos and the Exchange with Yaakov Rosenblatt

Comedian Sarah Silverman can be quite raunchy and sometimes downright offensive.  But some of her publicity stunts in connection with this year's upcoming Presidential election have generated quite a bit of hype.  In one video, Let My People Vote, she agitates against voter ID laws that were actually put forward in some U.S. states.  The campaign against these laws has apparently achieved partial victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.  In another video, an Indecent Proposal she offers Republican donor Sheldon Adelson sexual favours if he would only be willing to contribute his $100 million to Obama instead of Romney. 

The videos have attracted quite a bit of attention.  In an Open Letter in the Jewish Press printed on October 11, 2012, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt attacked Silverman for using "biblical language" in her campaign.  Although the initial focus of Rosenblatt's letter was, ostensibly, Silverman's use of crude language, he shifted to the real purpose of his attack on Silverman - her failure to marry and have children.  If there was any basis for criticizing Silverman's admittedly crude videos, it was so dramatically undermined by Rosenblatt's transparent attack on Silverman as a career minded woman rather than on any other aspect of her productions, that the thrust of the attack was rendered impotent.

Numerous letter writers skewered Rosenblatt.  But most forcefully, Silverman's dad wrote a letter back to Rosenblatt which was printed in the Jewish Press.  He included this statement:

"Hey asshole: Daughter #1 is a rabbi. Not by your standards. She's reform. How dare she, a lowly woman think god wants her to be a rabbi, created from a mere rib. Her hubby, three times nominated for a nobel peace prize was listed by the Jerusalem Post as the 49th most influential jew in the world built the worlds largest solar field in israel. By the way, Sarah was also on the list. I missed your name. Oldest granddaughter is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. I'm sure you also served.Oh I forgot the orthodox don't do that. You don't fuck with my family."

Although Mr. Silverman's choice of language was an illustration of some of what Silverman might have learned at home, the criticism was biting and spot on.  The reference to Silverman's sister was a reference to Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem.  Sarah Silverman herself visited Israel for the first time last year and performed at a number of clubs.   More poignantly, Mr. Silverman exposed the bitter misogyny that was the root of Rosenblatt's open letter to Silverman.

In an October 18, 2012 piece in the Tablet, Liel  Leibovitz responded with a partial defence of Rosenblatt.  Attacking the vulgar nature of Silverman's comedy, Leibovitz asserts that Silverman has simply "turned the electoral process into a spotlight with which to illuminate her own oversized and cartoonish personality for fun and profit."  Like Rosenblatt, Liebovitz misses the mark in his assessment of Silverman's bitingly satirical videos which have apparently served their purpose, at least partially.  In Let My People Vote, for example, Silverman draws attention to the fact that some of the new Voter ID laws permit residents to use gun permits but not veteran cards or student IDs, by suggesting that Americans should get guns and gun permits for their grandparents and students - to ensure that they can vote.  It is unfortunate that Liebovitz can only call this "self-centred" on Silverman's part.  Judging from the tone of the majority of responding letters in The Tablet, readers seem to be siding with Silverman rather than Liebovitz and Rosenblatt.

Satirical comedy has a role to play in election campaigns. Saturday Night Live has often left a lasting impression about particular candidates, sometimes more indelible than the persona that the candidates themselves have tried to present.  Just look at the effect of SNL on the public perception of of Sarah Palin.  

While crude, potty-mouthed humour is not for everyone, I can't remember anyone attacking Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor for failing to focus on their own domestic lives and focus on having children.  While I don't attribute the same misogynist motivation to Liebovitz as I do to Rosenblatt, it seems to me that satirical videos like these, even if they are vulgar, have a role to play, either politically or in the world of comedy, whether the comedian producing them happens to be a woman or a man.  In Silverman's case, both videos provide a sharp message, the essence of which should be carefully considered even if the vehicle is viewed as flawed. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Latest Arrests of Women at the Kotel

Israel continues to serve as a crucible for the multi-layered clash between freedom of religion, gender equality and freedom of expression.  As a liberal democracy with a Jewish religious character, Israel is constantly wrestling with the boundary between state-sanctioned Judaism and the liberal democratic values of gender equality, freedom of expression and tolerance.

In the most recent instance, Jerusalem police once again arrested Anat Hoffman, leader of the group Women of the WallShe was arrested for "disturbing the peace."  Her crime was reciting the Shema, out loud, while wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) at the Kotel (the Western Wall).  In other words, she committed the offence of praying out loud, while being a woman.

 Tuesday night was the start of the new month of Cheshvan (or perhaps, more aptly "Mar Cheshvan" - the bitter month of Cheshvan - since it does not feature any Jewish holy days).  But it also coincided with the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which was celebrating the occasion with a convention in Israel.

Ms Hoffman was arrested for the sixth time over the course of her twenty years of advocating for women's equality at Judaism's holiest prayer site.  On this occasion, she was treated in a much more brutal fashion than in the past, she claims.  She was handcuffed, strip searched and detained overnight.  She was eventually released by a judge on condition that she stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.

I have previously written blogs about this topic - (See Women Arrested for Wearing Tallith At Western Wall) but the issue continues to percolate and  to attract a great deal of publicity.  How is it that a free country like Israel can prohibit women from praying out loud at the Kotel

Essentially, the State of Israel has ceded authority over the Kotel to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.  In doing so, it has excluded all non-Orthodox forms of Jewish workshop, which comprise quite a significant proportion of world Jewry (other than at the Southern Wall -the Davidson Centre).  The creep of this gender-exclusive Orthodoxy has found its way into other public spheres in Israel, some of which I have also written about previously.  (See:  Jerusalem Not Tehran and Gender Equality In Israel).  This is all under the guise of protecting and promoting religious rights in Israel - indeed minority religious rights - since the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox are still in the minority.  But unlike other western countries grappling with these tensions, Israel's pendulum has swung over to the side of religion at the expense of other liberal democratic rights.

Though the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox characterize the issue as one of respect for their Orthodox practises, at what they see as an Orthodox worship site, the flip side is significant disrespect for everyone else and particularly for women.  The Kotel  is a holy site that belongs to all of Israel and should not be viewed as an exclusively Orthodox Synagogue, even though that is the status that it currently has.

The issue is not about a group of women trying to disrupt Orthodox men by praying at the Kotel  provocatively, though that is how it has been characterized by supporters of the status quo.  Rather, it is about a the rights of women to pray and sing out loud, in public.  It is about the rights of women to be heard in Israel and to be treated as equals, religiously and otherwise.  It has implications far beyond what occurs at the Kotel itself, as we have seen in Israel over the past few years.

It remains to be seen whether anything will change as a result of Israel's upcoming elections, though that appears unlikely at this point.  The Orthodox parties are likely to continue on as an integral part of any new government and the status quo at the Kotel is likely to remain in place.  This battle for gender equality and religious freedom is likely to continue on for some time - just as other battles between religion and gender equality are  likely to be played out in liberal democracies around the world. 



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Indian Restaurant in Jerusalem Loses Kosher Certification For Selling Vegetables From Non-Approved Places

Only Kosher vegetables may be served in Kosher restaurants, according to an increasingly large number of rabbinic authorities around the world.  Although for our parents and grandparents, vegetables and fruit were all considered kosher, that has changed over the past number of years as Kashrut authorities have concerned themselves with whether there might be microscopic bugs hiding out in some of the vegetables.  This has affected Kosher restaurants and caterers around the world, many of which have been prohibited from using romaine lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus tips and many other green vegetables.  

I noticed this two years ago in Israel when eating at the Kohinoor restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.  The restaurant did not have aloo ghobi on the menu (a common Indian dish of potato and cauliflower) since cauliflower had been banned by the rabbinic authorities.  Other vegetables dishes were also missing.  I have also noticed this repeatedly when ordering Kosher meals on airplanes.  I look at my tray and wonder why I have not been served any healthy vegetables.

Now, according to YNet news in Israel on October 15, 2012, the Kashrut authorities have caused the Jerusalem restaurant Ichikidana to give up its Kosher certification.  Ichikidana is a small,vegetarian Indian restaurant in Machane Yehuda, the large Jerusalem market.  The restaurant is known for only using fresh local ingredients.  It does not use canned, processed or frozen food and does not serve sugary drinks or alcohol.  The restaurant does not use a microwave and serves its food on recycled plates only.  It is considered one of the few restaurants in Israel that serve authentic Indian food.

Apparently, the Jerusalem Kashrut authorities have now begun to insist that Kosher certified restaurants only buy their vegetables from specific approved stores.  This was simply too much for Ichikidana which elected to opt out of Kosher certification.

It is quite disappointing to see this spread of extremism which is evident not just in Israel but around the world.  In many of these situations, the only solution will be for competing Kosher authorities to emerge and offer more rational alternatives.  But for now, as many of these monopolistic Kashruth councils are dominated by increasingly extreme rabbis, they try to outdo each other by coming with more and more stringent rules.  The results are terrible for Kosher consumers, particularly those who would like to eat healthy green vegetables.

I plan to visit Ichikidana as soon as I have the opportunity over the coming weeks.  I hope to enjoy some fresh vegetables when I'm there, wherever they happen to have been bought.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Day of the Girl: Israel and Gender Equality

According the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011, published by the World Economic Forum, Israel was ranked 55th in the world in gender gap issues.  This was more than 50 places higher than any other country in the Middle East/North Africa region, though the report notes that this is the worst performing region in the world in these issues.  So Israel was quite far ahead of an otherwise ignomious group.

Since today is the "International Day of the Girl," I thought I would add a few comments about this issue.

According to the report, the gender gap in Israel has widened over the past few years with respect to pay differential (for equal or comparable work), political participation and even educational achievement. 

A number of events have taken place in Israel over the past year or so that have raised awareness of some of these issues.  I have written other blog articles about some of them.  Receiving the highest publicity, Israel's past President, Moshe Katzav, is now sitting in jail after having been convicted of sexual harassment/ assault offences.  Other politicians have been investigated and or charged with similar offences.  While it is very troubling that these kind of occurences would be taking place in the Israeli President's office and other high level offices, at least some Israelis will see the positive side of this for Israel as a country governed by the rule of law and will take some comfort in the fact that Katzav was convicted and sent to prison.

There have also been a number of protests in Israel relating to "the exclusion of women," something that has been implemented in certain areas of Israel, primarily by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their followers.  Whether in Meah She'arim  or in areas of Beit Shemesh, there have been efforts to keep women on a different side of the street, bar women's images from being used in public billboard advertising and bar women from singing or speaking publicly at certain events.  Although these  types of events are limited to certain sectors, primarily the ultra-religious, the number of incidents, as reported by various media, has been increasing and has reached other public spheres.  Organizations such as Be Free Israel and Women of the Wall have been fighting for gender equality in different ways, though it would be hard to say that Israel's current government has taken very many concrete steps to respond favourably.

In the religious sphere, most Israeli Conservative synagogues (called "Masorti" congregations in Israel) are fully egalitarian, providing equal opportunites for men and women to lead services and read from the Torah.  This is certainly the case for our shul, Hod v'Hadar in K'far Saba.  This is in marked contrast to the vast majority of traditionally Orthodox synagogues in Israel.  In the Orthodox Synagogues, women are seated behind a Mechitza (a barrier) and do not participate in leading services, reading from the Torah or playing any kind of active role in the religious services.  The nature of religious worship must play a role in how participants view gender equality issues more generally.  Masorti congregations are making active contributions towards reducing the gender equality gap.

In the military sphere, Israeli women are drafted to serve in the army just as men are.  Israeli women serve as pilots, officers and in many other capacities including some as combat soldiers.  I have not seen studies about this, but it seems likely that Israel's army is somewhat ahead of the armies of many other countries in the area of gender equality and participation even though the Israeli army, as with other armies around the world, tends naturally to be male dominated.

In the educational sphere, the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011 cites a significant gap between male and female educational achievements in Israel.  This was somewhat surprising and disappointing.  Certainly my experience to date in this regard is that my daughters, attending primarily secular schools, have been as actively encouraged to pursue studies in math, science and technology issues as has my son.   But this is only a limited experiential point, and I haven't had the chance to look at detailed gender educational statistics in Israel.

So as we mark the U.N's declared "International Day of Girl," the report card for Israel is somewhat mixed.  Hopefully, Israel will get back to its position in the top 35 countries in the world, a position that it held just a few years ago.  But this will require signfiicant progress in a number of these areas and it will need Israel to move towards a leadership position in addressing gender gap equality issues.  This will be a difficult challenge, particularly in light of the nature of the current Israeli government.   But with Israeli elections coming up shortly, there are a number of parties interested in pursuing these issues more vigorously.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Israel to Draft Ultra-Religious and Arab Israelis

The debate over universal, mandatory military conscription in Israel is heating up.  It is a very important debate, which may change the character of the country quite significantly.

Israel has in place universal military conscription for its citizens, men and women, at the age of 18.  Until now, there have been a number of categories of exemptions.  Military service in Israel is of great importance.  Aside from the existential threats that Israel faces on a continual basis, the military plays an important rule in developing networking, leadership skills and employment opportunities for many of Israel's young adults, across class lines.  This is discussed at length in Start Up Nation, which I reviewed recently.  Those who do not serve in the military or some other form of national service likely face reduced employment prospects and opportunities in Israel.  Hence, the development of greater equality in Israeli society, across various lines, is hindered by the large scale exemptions, which have existed until now.

One category has been the ultra-religious ("Haredi") community.  At Israel's inception, Israel's founding government agreed to provide an exemption from military service for a limited number of ultra-religious Yeshiva (a Jewish seminary) students, who would devote all of their time to the study of Torah. There was some basis in Jewish law for the institution of this type of arrangement on a limited scale.

However, over the years, the exemption became broader and broader as the Haredi community grew and came to be viewed as a general exemption from military service for all young Haredim who attend a yeshiva.  Over time, the effects of this exemption have been dramatic and extremely harmful to Israeli society.  The exempt Haredim who choose to study full-time rather than perform national or military service have wound up with significantly limited employment opportunities.  This is not only a result of their exemption from national service but also because of the lack of a general studies curriculum in the schools at which they attend.  This combination of non-integration with Israeli society and the failure to develop employable skills has led to toxic levels of poverty in the Haredi community.  Yet Israeli governments have continued to fund this system due to the nature of Israeli coalition politics and, particularly, the fear of alienating the Ultra-Religious parties. 

Recently, Israel's High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting the Haredim and held that equality in Israel would require a completely different apporach.  A committee was formed, the Plesner Committee, to institute a replacement law and conscript the Ultra-Orthodox.  Yet the religious parties have continued to hold substantial power in Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very reluctant to upset the Haredim by changing the conscription law to include the Ultra-Orthodox community.  The media has been filled with reports of extreme statements from members of the Haredi community about intended civil disobedience in the event of mandatory conscription.  On-line news channels, such as Ynet News - Op-Ed have printed guest editorials attacking the idea of forcing this change on the Haredi community.

Yet, there is nothing in the Torah, the Talmud or other Jewish sources that would exempt all observant Jews from serving in the military.  To the contrary, Jewish sources, historical and biblical, are filled with stories of military events and of the necessity of defending the people and the nation.  As the Haredi population continues to grow, its members simply must recognize that they are as responsible for national defence as any other Israelis.  They are also responsible for economic self-sustainment and these goals will intertwine. Haredi veterans of the Israeli Defence Forces are almost certainly going to be much more employable than those who are exempt.  This will benefit the Haredim and the rest of Israel.

The other broad category of exemption has been Israeli Arabs.  Israel has historically recognized an exemption for its Arab citizens due to security concerns and other related issues.  But this is also a matter that must be reexamined.

The discussion here is about Arab Israelis, that is Arabs who are citizens of Israel. These Israeli Arabs enjoy the right to vote, access to full health care, education, freedom of speech, religious freedom and all of the other aspects of a free, open, democratic country that is far ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbours by any measure in any of these areas.  There are Arab Members of Knesset (MKs - members of Israel's Parliament), Arab judges  and Arab Israelis in high level positions across the country.

To be sure, many Arab Israelis have certain grievances and concerns, many of which are legitimate.  They would like to see equality of funding for health care, education, housing and other areas.  They would like to see employment prospects improve. They would not want to be forced to fight against their cousins  or family members in Gaza or the West Bank.

These are all legitimate concerns and should be addressed as mandatory universal military or national service conscription is instituted.  But for the same reasons that apply to the Haredi community, Israeli Arabs who are citizens should face the same obligations as other citizens.  Military service will improve relations between young Israelis and young Arabs.  It will improve employment prospects and will lead to greater equality.

This week, it was Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who led the charge to institute full conscription for everyone including Haredim and Arabs. Though he has dragged Prime Minister Netanyahu towards this goal kicking and screaming, it is Lieberman who has taken a principled, equality-oriented approach, regardless of the political intentions that Lieberman may have.

The reaction from the Israeli Arab community has been as shrill and rejectionist as the reaction from the Haredi community.  According to Ynet News, One MK, Jamal Zahaka, called the attempt to force compulsory service on Arab youth a "declaration of war on the Arab sector."  MK Ahmed Tibi urged the government to talk about "equal infrastructure, education, land allocation and employment" rather than military service.  To which Netanyahu responded that this is all "solvable."  There should be little doubt that universal military or national service conscription would lead to greater equality for Israeli Arabs who would come to be viewed as partners in Israeli society (like the Druze community currently) rather than as a potential fifth column.

Since the Kadima party, now lead by Shaul Mofaz, joined the current coaltion government, there has been a sense that some changes can be made to Israeli law in a number of areas.  One of these key changes, is a more equal approach to military and national service for all Israelis.  This is something that Lieberman is pushing very hard and that Mofaz seems bound to support (with his Kadima party).  Once it is addressed properly, the government can begin to address the even trickier issues of religion and the state, the electoral system - and of revised economic priorities.  These kinds of changes will only be possible with a broad governing coaltion in which the constituent members are all willing to stand up to the pressure from minority Haredi and Arab parties and to act for the benefit of all Israelis.  We will soon see if Prime Minister Netanyahu's current government can meet that test.

Postscript (Added July 3, 2012):  Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday announced that he was dissolving the Plesner Committee - and essentially caving in to the pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox.  It is unclear what will happen as a result of the High Court's decision, which mandated a change to the Tal Law.  However, it has become clear that Netanyahu will not readily support, at this time, a universal conscription bill that would include Ultra-Orthodox and Arab recruits.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Woman Arrested for Wearing Tallit at Kotel

 A woman was arrested yesterday at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and questioned for wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) in the women's section of the Kotel.  According to a Jerusalem Post report, the woman was fingerprinted, photographed and detained for three hours for wearing a men's Tallit.

The incident occurred during a monthly Rosh Hodesh (New Month) prayer service organized by the group Women of the Wall, an organization in Israel dedicated to fighting for religious equality of women and in particular, the right of women to conduct a Torah service at the Kotel.

According to an Israeli law from 2001, it is illegal for women to perform practices at the Kotel that are normally performed by Orthodox men.  This is includes wearing a men's style Tallit or putting Tefillin (phylacteries) and it also includes a ban on women reading from the Torah.

As part of a "compromise" the Israeli government has allowed mixed events including mixed prayer and Torah reading at the Davidson Centre - at the south wall of the Kotel.

But the actually Western Wall is overseen by  Orthodox religious authorities.  This means that the Kotel is divided so that it has a women's section and a men's section.  Women are not allowed to bring  a Torah scroll into the women's section or to pray or sing out loud.  Effectively, in a society in which only a minority of the population are Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government has ceded control of a site that is holy to all Jews to a minority Orthodox population exclusively.

It is time that the Israeli government reviewed the way it oversees religious affairs in Israel.  Perhaps this new governing coalition (with the addition of the centrist Kadima party led by Shaul Mofaz) will try to address some of these issues.  After announcing last month that it would begin funding Conservative and Reform Rabbis (to a limited extent and with limited roles - while still not recognizing their rights to perform weddings or funerals), the time has come for the Israeli government to review the rules pertaining to the Kotel along with a range of other rules and laws relating to religious affairs in the country..

For starters, the government should implement a three section solution at the main wall instead of the current two section division  - the Kotel should have men's, women's and mixed sections;   The government should also overturn all of the laws relating to women's prayer at the Kotel - in the mixed or women's sections - whether out loud, in groups, while wearing a Tallith or Tefillin.  As a compromise, the Orthdox and ultra-Orthodox should be able to continue to control part of the Western Wall area and to conduct prayer as they see fit in that area.

Some Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox have argued that this is a holy place and that, as the most rigorous adherents of Orthodox Judaism, they should be able to oversee the Kotel and should have the right to bar practices that they view as inappropriate and otherwise dictate the site rules.  They argue that the Women of the Wall are simply being "provocative" by wearing their prayer shawls in public and that women should not be able to pray out loud anywhere near the Kotel.  But the Kotel does not and should not  belong to the Ultra-Orthodox or even the Orthodox.  It belongs to Jews of all denominations and of both genders. And all of these Jewish people should have the right to access the Kotel even without following ultra-Orthodox practices.

The public observance by the Women of the Wall of Rosh Chodesh is not something that should attract police attention, arrests or other forms of public humiliation.  Rather it is those who would prevent women from praying in public who should be monitored.  A Kotel divided into three sections would be the best way of dealing with this as it would be a compromise that all sides could complain about equally.  A pluralistic approach to Judaism at this important symbolic and holy location would be a key message for a more pluralistic approach to Judaism throughout Israel.  This would be a significant step towards improving gender equality in Israel generally.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mezuzah in Connecticut Causes a Stir: Condo Board Backs Down

There is a you tube video making the rounds about an incident in Stratford, Connecticut. A condo resident, Barbara Cadranel, was ordered by her condo association to remove her Mezuzah from her door or face a fine of $50 per day. Other condo residents had crosses and Easter decorations on their doors, but they claimed that the Mezuzah had to be removed because it was actually on the door post rather than the door. Isn't it incredible how petty and nasty some people can be? Is there really any reason for insisting that someone remove a religious object from their door other than anti-Semitic or some other Xenophobic prejudice? At least in this case, the matter was resolved without litigation about one week letter. Various sites, including have reported that Ms Cadranel was able to keep her Mezuzah on her door without any further issues.

In Canada, a more complicated issue went all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago. Can condominium residents put up Sukkahs on their balconies during the festival of Sukkoth, despite a condominium rule that prohibits balconies from having any kind of structure? Incredibly, there was so much hostility in the condominium complex that the parties fought this issue out at three different court levels. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Sukkah dwellers lost in the Quebec Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal. It took a narrow 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to find that people have the right to carry out a week long religious practice provided that it does not cause any interference or problems for the other condominium dwellers.

The majority of Canadian Supreme Court judges provided a practical and reasonable explanation of their decision. If the minority religious practice causes minimal disruption and does not create any harmful effect, then the rights of the members of the religious minority should trump any other right such as "private property rights." This will permit them to practice their religion and feel welcome in the country, even as a minority. Of course if the condo members wanted to erect a permanent structure or carry out a disruptive, noisy or unruly practice, the Court might have seen things differently. There are limitations as to what one can do on the basis of minority religious practice.

In a bitter dissent, the minority of the Supreme Court judges argued that a person who moves into a condo unit should be bound by whatever rules that condo happens to have in place. This logic raises more than a few questions. If they have a rule that says "no vehicles or moving objects of any kind in the condo" does that mean that residents confined to wheelchairs must move out? Can the condo board have a "no hat" policy? Or can the condo simply say no Jews, no blacks, no gays or whatever else it wishes to put into its condo rules? Not in Canada. In Canada, unlike most U.S. jurisdictions, human rights legislation is intended to govern some places that might be considered "private." So a golf club, condo board or other quasi public institution must not operate with discriminatory rules or even rules that have a discriminatory effect.

The real issue that both of these types of cases raise is the juxtaposition between minority religious practices and the rights (or prejudices) of the majority. Every liberal democracy that has a significant minority population is wrestling with and will continue to struggle with this issue. In France, one example has been the rule against the wearing of religious symbols in schools. In Israel, Jerusalem has seen a great deal of public debate over the use of gender-segregated buses, operated by ultra-religious groups or that run through ultra-religious communities. Other countries have enacted or tried to enact bans of Kosher slaughter of animals or of ritual circumcision.

There may well be some disputes that are not easily resolved. Some religious practices may well have a significant effect on others. These issues are the difficult ones that will make their way through various court systems. But prohibiting someone from putting up a Mezuzah on their doorpost? That should certainly not be seen as an issue that requires any serious reflection. Fortunately, the condo board in Connecticut agreed without having the matter percolate through the court system.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kitniyot or Lo Liyot (To Eat or Not to Eat Legumes on Passover)

As another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone, I have continued to reflect on the issue of kitniyot eating during the holiday.

I discussed the issue briefly just before Pesach in one of my blog articles. Observant Jews are prohibited from eating any kind of “chametz” during Pesach. Chametz was traditionally defined, under Jewish law, as any of the five grains – wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye – which came into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. These products were all strictly forbidden and still are among all Jewish communities.

However, from the beginning of the 13th century C.E. in France, according to Rabbi David Golinkin (See Responsa OH 453:1 5749), a custom began, among Ashkenazi Jews of adding a whole range of legumes (“kitniyot”) to the list of prohibited items. The practice spread in certain communities and became widespread among Ashkenazi Jews in many parts of Europe by the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. The list of prohibited foods grew to include peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and even peanuts. Even today, some rabbis are determined to continue adding food categories to the list. Quinoa is an example of a food that some rabbis have recently banned without a really coherent justification.

Interestingly, Sephardic Jews and Yemenite Jews never adopted this custom of prohibiting kitniyot. They considered the Torah prohibitions against eating chametz sufficient and followed those prohibitions strictly. Some Jews mistakenly believe that this means that Sephardic Jews are more lenient about Pesach. But that is not really the case. They simply never accepted that the prohibition against eating chametz should be extended to a whole range of foods which were never really chametz. Some rabbis, even Ashkenazi rabbis, have called the custom “mistaken” and even “foolish.”

Legally speaking (at least regarding halacha – Jewish law), it is not strictly forbidden to eat kitniyot on Pesach. But it has now become a custom that has been followed for hundreds of years by Ashkenazi Jews. As with many other customs, it is very difficult to draw the appropriate line between maintaining religious practices and customs on the one hand and modernizing these practices where appropriate and permissible. The main argument that is usually presented by non-kitniyot eaters is one of tradition – that this has been the practice in our family and our community for hundreds of years – and who are we to end our family traditions?

Like with many other practices, these are not easy decisions. Many observant Jews are worried that changes to tradition and continuity are slippery slopes. When I spoke about this issue with a close relative, she said “well if you are going to eat rice and beans, I guess you will no longer need to change over your dishes on Pesach.” The implication was that adopting a different practice with respect to kitniyot was part of a leniency that would lead to more liberal practices in other areas.

Since we attend a Conservative synagogue, we have certainly accepted the need to change, modernize or review certain practices. For example, one could argue that it has been a tradition for many years in the Orthodox Jewish community to prevent women from playing any active role in the prayer services. Most Conservative synagogues have now accepted fully or at least partially egalitarian practices that mark a change in traditional practice. Should we not accept this same type of argument with respect to kitniyot? Of course, many observant Jews are opposed to these changes, which they also view as part of a slippery slope. They point, particularly, to U.S. Conservative and Reform synagogues and claim that once you allow for an egalitarian service, you will soon make many other wholesale changes to the traditional service, so much so that it will no longer really resemble a “traditional” service. I have to admit that drawing the line can be very challenging in dealing with these issues.

Living in Israel, there is another reality as well. The majority practice is now clearly one of permitting kitniyot during Pesach. The supermarket shelves are filled with products that are marked, in tiny letters, “for kitniyot eaters only.” Restaurants are open across Israel, mostly “for kitniyot eaters.” It is not just Sephardic Jews but Ashkenazi Jews as well, even those who are Orthodox and very observant. In Israel, not eating kitniyot during Pesach has come to be viewed as an extreme practice, limited to some specific Ashkenazi communities, mostly ultra-religious or immigrant Jewish communities (from the U.S., South Africa etc.,). As a result, it is extremely difficult to find many products during Pesach that are kitniyot free. Products like oil, margarine and even tomato sauce usually say, in small letters, that they are for kitniyot eaters only.

Walking along the streets of Ra’anana during Hol Hamoed, the intermediary days of Pesach¸ it was very interesting to see the range of food places that were open for business and strictly kosher for Passover during the holiday. Some hamburger places were open and were using corn flour to make the buns. Some pizza places were open (one was actually kitniyot free and used potato flour). Two falafel shops were open, using corn flour to make the pita breads. Lavan, the popular yogurt place was open, with a slightly changed list of toppings (no granola this week). And of course, the coffee bar Aroma was open for business, with bourekas and other pastries made from corn flour. All of these places were labelled as strictly kosher for Passover, but for kitniyot eaters only. And they were all being frequented by observant Jews, many of whom were Ashkenazim.

In his 1989 responsa, Rabbi Golinkin addressed some of the reasons for doing away with the custom. One of the reasons that he cited is to eliminate the custom because it “detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.” This is a point echoed by a friend of mine from Ra’anana, who reminded me that Pesach is a holiday about celebrating freedom from slavery and about redemption. It is not supposed to be a holiday of suffering. So many of the rules that Ashkenazim have followed during Pesach have unnecessarily limited our food choices and made it very difficult to enjoy the culinary aspects of the holiday. Not to mention the effects on regularity of eating matzah every day without eating enough of these other kitniyot products.

As someone who has always followed the kitniyot prohibitions during Pesach, I am not sure that I would feel comfortable sitting down to eat a bowl of rice on Pesach despite all of the arguments set out above. But, as Rabbi Golinkin suggested in his responsa, even for those uncomfortable eating rice and beans, there should still be little reason to avoid peas, green beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, canola oil and the many derivatives of these products.

I guess I still have another year to think about it but I’m inclined to change my practice. If we are in Toronto celebrating Pesach, we may have to reconsider to ensure that non-kitniyot eaters feel comfortable eating at our house over the holiday. But otherwise, I'm likely to say "pass the kosher l’Pesach humus so I can spread some on my corn tortilla."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kitniyot, Passover Preparations and Other Random Observations

I hope everyone enjoyed my April Fool’s column about the pigs in Beit Shemesh. Hopefully no one was too offended.

This time, I thought I would provide a few different observations about the frantic few days before Pesach (Passover) as Israel prepares for 7 days (this year 8) of Hametz free eating. This might be a bit more thematically disjointed than some of my other blog entries.

During Pesach, all around the world, observant Jews follow the biblical prohibition against eating Hametz, leavened foods made from five species of grains. Many people are extremely meticulous in their Pesach observance. They clean their houses completely to rid them of all traces of Hametz and then change over their dishes, kitchen utensils and other kitchen items to use only items that are “Kosher for Passover.”

As if this weren’t strenuous enough, many Ashkenazi Jews follow an additional prohibition against eating kitniyot, a whole additional category of prohibited products on Pesach, which derives from a rabbinical ruling from around 700 years ago. Sephardi Jews did not follow the ruling and continued to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Ashkenazi Jews followed it and continued to expand their list of prohibited items on Pesach. There is enough controversy about this issue to provide material for a lengthy essay. However, for reasons mainly of tradition, we have continued to follow this Ashkenazi custom, for now, which means no rice, beans, corn, or a range of other products on Pesach.

In Israel, where the combination of observant Sephardi Jews, observant Yemenite Jews and secular, non-observant Jews (of all different backgrounds), all of whom happily eat kitniyot during Pesach, vastly outnumbers the observant Ashkenazi community, it has become logistically more and more difficult to even follow the custom of avoiding kitniyot. For example, it is extremely difficult to find Kosher for Passover, kitniyot free margarine. One place in Ra’anana that I know of, Meatland, sells it – and there may be other places – but it is not sold in any major supermarket chain. All of the margarine is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” It is virtually impossible to find non-kitniyot cooking oil. Again, Meatland sells some – but it is palm oil – which, of course, is dangerously high in saturated fat content, as opposed to the Canola Oil that everyone else is using – which is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” You can get some olive oil – but it is quite pricey and it really changes the taste of some baked goods. I asked someone at Meatland if the margarine was kitniyot free. “All of our products are,” he answered, “we will never sell kitniyot during Pesach, God Willing” he added.

As another example, most of Ra’anana’s Kosher restaurants are open during Pesach but most are certified as “for kitniyot eaters only,” like the pizza places that use corn flour or the yogurt place that apparently has evil kitniyot in its yogurt. I suppose that by now, it probably makes sense to follow the old “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…,” on this issue, which is supported by relatively recent Conservative and Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish Rabbinical opinions (modern opinions), but so far we have resisted, out of deference to a silly family tradition that we continue to observe. There's even a Facebook page - the "kitniyot liberation front" dedicated to having Ashkenzi Jews eliminate the practice of prohibiting kitniyot during Pesach. But let’s face it; Judaism does have many traditions, derived from Rabbinic rulings, which are often not entirely logical.

Turning to another unrelated issue, I was reminded of the directness of Israeli society when I visited the local butcher. He asked what I wanted. I asked for some boneless chicken thighs. He told me that they were now all out and reminded me that there would now be no fresh meat until after Pesach, because of the holiday. He suggested I get some chicken breasts instead. He told me they were cheaper and lower in fat. He looked at me and told me that I look like a guy who should probably be worried about my cholesterol and so I would be better off eating the chicken breasts instead. I’m not necessarily saying he was wrong – but where else would you hear that from your local butcher, who I didn’t even know?

I also saw the Israeli economic system in action while I was in the supermarket. The woman ahead of me had a bill of about 780 N.I.S. That would be about $210. She negotiated a deal with the cashier (everything is negotiable in Israel) whereby she paid 180 N.I.S. in cash, 100 on a credit card and five post- dated cheques, each for 100 spread over the next 2 months. This was a supermarket bill!... Yet, Israelis pay in “multiple payments” everywhere – at the gas station, the local convenience store (the “makolet”) and other places. It seems like it must make things extremely complicated for both merchants and consumers. People can be paying in June for a supermarket bill from March, while making a new order that they will continue paying until October.

Yet somehow, with the pressure-filled preparations for detail oriented holidays (like Pesach, Sukkoth and others) throughout the year, the Israeli in-your-face directness and even the crazy state of the Israeli economy, Israel still managed to rank 14th in the 2012 World Happiness Report, 4 spots ahead of Great Britain and only 3 behind the United States. Not bad at all for a country facing existential threats from many of its surrounding neighbours, internal religious-secular tensions and chilly relationships with many of the world’s countries. Imagine how happy Israelis would be if we had peace!

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

More Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel: Swine Let Loose in Beit-Shemesh

A new organization has waddled into the religious-secular debate in Israel by stirring up a great deal of mud. HAZIRA (Chilonim Zazim – Yisraelim Rotzim Herut) (Secularists on the Move – Israelis Want Freedom) has taken responsibility for the strange incident in Beit Shemesh early yesterday morning. Somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m., a white cattle truck (M’sait bassar l’vana) stopped right near Beit Knesset Ohalei Ohavei Nashim and dropped off three large hogs. One witness reported that the van quickly sped away after letting the animals loose. It is unclear how the vehicle made its way into the area, which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic on Shabbat.

Congregants who were arriving late to Synagogue noticed the pigs meandering around just outside the synagogue doors. Since it was Shabbat, no one was able to contact the police or remove the swine. The pigs were apparently well groomed but were nevertheless a major affront to this very Orthodox Jewish community. One hog was wearing a sign that read “even pigs have rights.” Another pig was draped in a blue and white blanket.

At about 10:30 a.m., a crowd of 15-20 onlookers arrived, most of whom appeared to be secular Israelis. Some tried to take pictures which created tension since the use of cameras is forbidden for observant Jews. Worshippers were forced to pass by the pigs as they made their way out of the shul after services ended. One shul member was apparently so shocked at the sight of the three pigs that he passed out. Two other congregants, Lazar Wolfe and Moshe Tzayad, reportedly became ill. Wolfe later told Yidiyot Ahronot that the idea of seeing pigs in a blanket just after having eaten at the Kiddush made him sick.

About an hour after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Menachem Hayim Moshe Yisrael Reuven, commonly known in Beith Shemesh as “the Mahmir” provided a statement to the press. Calling this one of Israel’s most insidious and provocative acts in the ongoing dispute between religious and secular Jews, he referred to Torah passages from Vayikrah (Leviticus) calling for the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for this type of the desecration of the Sabbath. He called for immediate arrests and speedy prosecution.

The chair of the newly formed organization, HAZIRA, Izzy Boten, issued a press statement late Saturday evening, responding to the attacks by Rabbi Mahmir. “Pigs are not illegal in Israel and should have the right to dignity and fair treatment. Although this might have offended some, we chose to drop the pigs off near the synagogue as the quintessential expression of the fight against religious coercion. Pigs are rarely seen or heard in Israel, which is symptomatic of the power that the religious hold over the secular in Israel. Our aim is to free Israeli society from this oppression.”

In a strange twist, the incident created an unusual coalition of Arab and Jewish Knesset Members who issued a joint statement calling for greater religious tolerance, mutual respect and a continuation of the “status quo” as it pertains to pigs and pig products. They proposed that the Knesset institute a rule change prohibiting boorish behaviour in the Israeli parliament as an initial response to this incident.

The “Swine Affair,” as it has been named, has divided many Israelis and led to Op Ed pieces in all of Israel’s major daily newspapers. Noting the various protests that have been held earlier in the year in relation to issues such as public transportation on Shabbat and religious –based gender discrimination, some writers have asked that society also consider other areas of religious oppression including rules of Kashruth. Others have argued that the incident went too far. “Despite the differences of opinion between secular and Orthodox Israelis on a range of issues, no mainstream organization advocates making pigs kosher” argued the Op Ed piece printed in Ma’ariv.

One Yisrael Hayom reporter even contacted convicted rapist and former Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who reportedly claimed that “there is no place for pigs in Israeli society.”

The political fallout is likely to continue over the coming weeks.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Justice Joubran, Arabs and Haredim in Israel: Loyalty, Hatikvah and Universal Conscription?

(Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran - from Haaretz)

Justice Asher Grunis was sworn in on Tuesday as the new President (Chief Justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court. Among a range of impressive qualifications, Justice Grunis also has a Toronto connection - a PhD from York University. Justice Grunis replaces Justice Dorit Beinisch, who was the first woman to hold the post of President of Israel's highest court.

The induction ceremony was held at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Along with a number of speeches, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("the Hope") was performed and the panel of Israeli Supreme Court judges sang along. That is, with the exception of Arab Justice Salim Joubran. Justice Joubran apparently has idealogical objections to singing Israel's anthem. His public non-participation has touched off a debate in some circles about the level of loyalty to the State of Israel that ought to be required for a justice of the Supreme Court.

On one level, the issue that has been raised related to "Hatikvah." The Israeli national anthem speaks of the yearning of the Jewish soul to return to the Jewish homeland, the land from which the Jewish people were exiled. The anthem concludes with the dream of being a "free nation, in our land, the land of Zion, Jeruslem." The anthem is glorious and it captures the essence of the Zionist project - to build a Jewish homeland in which the Jewish people can live as a nation. For Israel, as a Jewish state, the anthem is appropriate and relevant.

But for Israel as a democratic State, which protects the rights of all citizens to live in the country, to practice their religious beliefs and to maintain their own national, cultural or ethnic identities and aspirations, it is understandable that Arab citizens would refuse to sing this particular anthem. I really don't see a problem with that. Other countries have equally offensive anthems. In Canada, the French version of the national anthem includes the line "they know how to carry the cross," suggesting that only Christians are true citizens. I cringe every time I hear it and would certainly refuse to sing it publicly at this type of induction ceremony, but I really don't believe that would be used as a litmus test to measure one's commitment to the country. In fact, in a country like Canada, it is particulary obnoxious because Canada purports to treat all Canadians equally, regardless of religious affiliation. Israel declares openly that it is a Jewish and democratic State, so there is a difference.

On the other hand, the issue of "loyalty" does have other aspects to it and is not confined to the question of whether or not a Supreme Court Judge should publicly sing Hatikvah. Israeli Jews are subject to universal conscription and must serve in the Israeli army or perform national service. There are currently exemptions to this requirement. Ultra-religious Jews, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas are exempt, for the time being. I have written about this in other blogs. Arab Israelis are also exempt, though Druze Israelis serve in the army. Overall, this means that approximately 75% of Israeli citizens of draft age are now eligible to be conscripted with the remainder exempt. Israeli army service can greatly affect a person's future employability with many employers placing a great deal of weight on the type of military service that a candidate performed.

The issue of military service is quite different than that of the public singing of Israel's national anthem. Here, changes should be made. If Israel, as a democracy, takes steps to ensure that rights and freedoms and all types of employment are open to all citizens, then all citizens should share the responsibility of protecting the State.

Steps are already being taken to conscript the Ultra-Religious Jews. This will assist the State of Israel and it will also improve the post-army employability of these Haredim. There may still be an exemption for a very small number of exceptional students, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas, as envisioned by Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. However, the vast majority of Haredim should be expected to perform military or national service.

With respect to Israel's Arab population, this is another group that should also be expected to perform military or national service. Israel's Arabs work in Israel in every conceivable profession, from blue collar jobs to working as professors, judges, doctors and lawyers. Surely, as part of "equality," military or national service is a reasonable requirement in a country in which universal conscription is a necessity and a reality.

Israel's politicians and military leaders will need to take steps to ensure that the army or the national service can and will accomodate any unique needs of Arab conscripts, just as they have begun to take steps to ensure that Ultra-Religious soldiers can be properly integrated. They will also have to sort out security and loyalty issues. The flip side is that Israel's Arab minority population will also have to recognize that there is a price to be paid for living in the only truly free and democratic country in the Middle East. They should be prepared to participate in protecting that privilege. Ultimately, an army with full universal conscription in Israeli is likely to lead to better integration and understanding between diverent religious and ethnic groups.

If Israel does implement truly universal military or national service, it will then make sense to ask candidates for high level positions, including Supreme Court positions, about their past military or national service. They will probably still not be required to publicly sing "Hatikvah" but it seems entirely reasonable to expect that a Supreme Court judge would have performed military or national service in a country with universal conscription, provided that minority rights are fully protected.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buses in Tel-Aviv? Ultra-Orthodox to go to the Army? More on Secular-Religious Tensions in Israel

On February 13, 2012, I wrote about some issues of religious-secular tension in Israel. There have been some further developments and I thought I would comment.

Last week, the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council voted 13-7 to ask the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to permit buses to run in Tel-Aviv on Shabbat (Saturday). As I have discussed, buses do not run in most of Israel on Shabbat, which is the national day of rest. There are some exceptions. For example, Haifa, one of Israel's largest cities, does have bus service on Shabbat. At this point, the Ministry of Transportation has indicated that it will refuse the request and will maintain the "Status Quo."

The "Status Quo" in Israel denotes the agreement entered into between religious and non-religious parties at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The then-future founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, wrote a letter in which he set out certain principles that the State of Israel would follow. Though the State would be democratic and would provide for freedom of thought and expression, it would recognize certain religious principles that would form part of the national law of the fledgling state. Included in this "Status Quo" was the idea that Shabbat would be a national day of rest and that all public institutions would have Kosher kitchens.

There was also an agreement that a certain number of highly observant Ultra-Orthdox Jews would be exempt from military service so that they could devote their full time and attention to furthering their religious studies. It was anticipated that this would be a very small number of students and would therefore be tolerable for the State to allow this exception to an otherwise universal system of military conscription.

Recently, this "Status Quo" has come under fire in different ways. Secular Israelis have perceived an increasing level of Ultra-Orthodox religious observance in certain public areas. For example, there has been a proliferation of gender-segregated buses (particularly in Jerusalem), Ultra-Orthdox opposition to women singing in the army (something women have done, without complaint, since the Israeli army began), other issues of the exclusion of women in billboard advertising, public state-sanctioned ceremonies and other fora. This attempt to set increasingly stringent boundaries by certain Ultra-Orthodox groups has led to a series of public protests, many of which have been organized by the "Yisrael Hofshit" ("Be Free Israel") Movement.

Perhaps, partially in response to these perceived attacks on the Status Quo by Ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Israelis, secular Israelis have felt emboldened to raise their own concerns about the Status Quo and to take steps to challenge it. One area of such concern has been the issue of public transportation, particularly in the Tel-Aviv area. As members of the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council have suggested, Tel-Aviv does not generally bar people from driving on Shabbat nor does it prevent taxis from running or even public passenger mini-buses. It is only large buses and trains that do not run. Mayor Ron Huldai and those who support him have argued that it is unfair that those who have the money to own a car or pay for a cab are free to do whatever they want on Shabbat whereas those who cannot afford car or cab fare, particularly students, soldiers and seniors, but including many other Tel-Aviv residents as well, are all "grounded" each Shabbat. Those who oppose the Tel-Aviv Municipality's request for Shabbat bus service have argued in favour of the Status Quo which has been in existence now for more than 60 years. They argue that it will further erode the Jewish character of the State and will commercialize Shabbat and negatively impact the quality of life in Israel.

The other "Status Quo" issue that is being publicly debated is the issue of military exemption for Ultra-Religious Israelis. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the exemption is now unconstitutional and cannot be continued. Israel's High Court held that the law created inequality in Israel. An article in Haaretz on February 23, 2012 noted that there now 62,000 Ultra-Orthodox Israelis taking advantage of the Tal Law to avoid military service. Israel's Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that this situation could not continue.

The move to eliminate, wholly or partially, the exemption from military service for Ultra-Orthodox and the movement to institute public transportation in many other areas of Israel are both signs that the long standing Status Quo is being challenged. There are certainly other challenges on the horizon including the challenge to the existing system whereby Jewish weddings, burials, conversions and ritual circumcisions are all within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.

All of these challenges are related to the issue of where to draw the line between democracy and freedom and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. These issues are likely to lead to continued considerable debate in the future as religious and secular Israelis seek to find a manageable compromise that will be workable for both sides.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel

Israel faces many different types of issues, some of which are distinctly more problematic than those with which other countries have to contend. There is the ongoing threat from Iran of a nuclear attack; Threats of missile attacks from Hezbollah to the north and from Gaza to the southwest; and the uncertain impact of events in Egypt, Syria and other surrounding countries. Internally, Israel has had to deal with a variety of criminal charges against various politicians and is constantly threatened by or actually paralyzed by (even if only for a short time) general strikes.

But bubbling beneath these issues, some of which are genuinely existential in nature, Israel is still grappling with another crucial issue - the balance between being a Jewish state and a democracy and the need for people of diverse religious viewpoints to find a way to get along.

Two incidents over the weekend in Israel caught my attention in different ways. The issues are very different but they are clearly related.

On Shabbat (the Sabbath), in Kiryat Yovel, YNET news reports that some people put up posters of naked or semi-naked women, depicted in well known art. One poster was Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," reproduced above. The other was "Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguain. Both posters were apparently labelled the "beautification of women." In Hebrew, the wording would be very similar to the "exclusion of women," an issue which has been in the public spotlight in Israel for many months now.

Kiryat Yovel is a neighbourhood with an increasingly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Yet it is not an exclusively ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood like Mea Shearim or B'nai Brak. It still has a sizable population of secular residents.

At first blush, it sounds like a needless provocation. The posters are not connected to some upcoming event, for example an art exhibit. Nor does there appear to be any real purpose to putting them up other than to strike back at the perception of increasing Haredi influence in this Jerusalem community.

On the other hand, the context is more complex. This incident comes after reports of some companies removing women (even modestly clad women) from advertising posters in Jerusalem, as a result of Haredi pressure, in some cases where the very same photos were used with the women included in other parts of Israel. The poster incident comes in a city in which there have been some very public disputes taking place over the issue of gender-segregated buses and even gender segregated streets. Viewed in light of many of the incidents that have occurred, while the incident may be provocative, it is also responsive. Much like the Scandinavian Muhammad cartoons, in some ways, the posters can be seen as a free speech statement by some who view gender equality as very much under attack. Ultimately, I'm not sure that this is the best way to deal with Haredi threats to freedom and gender equality, but it certainly made an interesting point.

On the same Shabbat, in Tel-Aviv, a group of protesters from the "Be Free Israel" movement gathered to protest the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and Jewish religious holy days. This is also a fairly complicated issue. The "Yisrael Hofshit" (Be Free Israel) movement has held a number of rallies around the country protesting the exclusion of women. They have invited women to sing and have pushed back against a number of public incidents in which women were shunned. Of course the movement received overwhelming support from the majority of Israelis for its stance on this issue. But now the movement has looked to expand the range of its attacks on perceived religious coercion by railing against publicly supported religious laws.

As a Jewish State, Israel has many public manifestations of Jewish influenced law. The State holiday calendar revolves around the Jewish calendar with the addition of certain national Israeli holidays. Saturday is the official day of rest and in many areas, all of the shops and restaurants are closed. In many areas, there is no public transportation or other public services. You certainly won't find any cars on the road on Yom Kippur, even in the most stridently secular neighborhoods.

Some argue that these state-supported Jewish laws are unfair and should be changed. One source of argument is that the "democratic and free" nature of Israel should trump the Jewish nature of the State. Given that the majority of the population is secular, these people argue that the ban on public transportation is an imposition of minority religious values on a non-religious public. It is a form of religious coercion in that it forces people to observe the Sabbath on some level.

Others argue that the ban on public transportation in many areas of Israel disproportionately affects the poor, the youth, students and soldiers. Since there is no general restriction on driving a car, taking a cab or using a large mini-van or mini-bus on Shabbat in Israel, the lack of public transportation primarily impacts those without the means to use these other forms of transportation.

There is certainly merit to both of these arguments but there are other points to consider as well.

Some have argued that the country's bus drivers have the most to lose and will now be forced to work while much of the rest of the country continues to take a day off. Even if they are paid overtime rates or given an option, this will still impact Shabbat for many drivers, some of whom may feel that they have no choice but to accept Shabbat shifts.

Others look to the balance between democracy and a Jewish State. Trying to balance these two values has necessarily involved certain compromises. In Ra'anana, for example, all of the stores and restaurants on the main street are closed on Shabbat. At the far end of the city, there is a small commercial area with a number of restaurants and shops that are open on Shabbat. For now, the city seems to manage well with this compromise.

The general operation of buses throughout Israel on Shabbat will have a significant effect on the Jewish character of the state, even though there are already many cars on the road. It will likely lead to many more stores and restaurants opening up, a significant increase in commercial activity and a decrease in the number of Israelis who are able to enjoy a day of rest each week. In some ways, it will mirror what has occurred throughout North America as shops have opened up on Sundays and vastly increased the general commercialization of society. But North America is a different case. Since it is not predicated on the religious values of one group, the impact of having Sunday closings was simply unfair in a society which claimed to treat all religious groups equally.

Israel must grapple with different issues than those in North America. Since it is trying to continue to define itself as a "Jewish State," it makes sense that there will be some public laws that reflect the Jewish character of the State. It is tricky to find the right balance. There are certainly many areas in which it would now be prudent to take away monopolistic power from the religious authorities - in areas such as marriage, divorce, funerals, conversions and even Kashruth (Kosher certification laws). It may also make sense to expand public transportation in areas that are overwhelmingly secular. But at the same time, the only way that the State will continue to be a "Jewish State" is if there are at least some aspects of that Jewish character that are publicly promoted.

As I have argued in other blog posting on this point, one thing that would certainly assist Israelis across the spectrum from religious to non-religious would be the move to a two day weekend with Sundays as a general non-working day. Buses would run and stores would be open but Israelis would be able to enjoy a much needed second day of rest with no restrictions.

In any case, the challenge presented by both of these incidents is to continue to look for a balance and a compromise and ways for religious and non-religious communities to find common ground despite their often diametrically opposite points of view.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Israeli Chief Rabbinate Rules: Häagen Dazs No Longer Kosher in Israel

I'm a little behind (2 or 3 weeks or so) on writing about this one but I couldn't resist. As reported in the Jerusalem Post on January 10, 2012, The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has issued a ruling stating that Häagen-Dazs ice cream is no longer Kosher in Israel. The ruling states that if stores and outlets with Kosher certification carry the products, they could risk losing their Kosher certification. As a result, many stores, including major Israeli supermarket chain "Shopersol," have pulled their Häagen-Dazs products in compliance with this edict.

I have to point out that I have been trying to eat very limited quantities of ice cream (not for any Kosher-related reasons...). If I do feel like some super premium ice cream, I would probably rather have some of Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk or Cherry Garcia. But others might prefer Häagen-Dazs, which is not only supervised by the OU - the largest American Kosher certification body - but has been sold in Israel for many years, as Kosher, without any difficulties.

The Rabbinate's Kosher department claims that since the milk used in Häagen-Dazs ice cream is real milk and it is not supervised at all times by Jews, there is a risk that other impermissible products (such as pig's milk or other additives) might have been added to the milk. Yet the OU and most other authorities accept the fact that with very stringent government regulation of milk in the United States, Häagen-Dazs only uses pure cow's milk. Further, this ice cream has been sold in Israel for years, while being manufactured the very same way. Strangely enough, the Israeli Rabbinate is fine with the use of powdered milk rather than real milk, which, for some inexplicable reason, does not create the risk of the same problem.

What is this really about? Who knows. Perhaps there was some dispute between General Mills and the Israeli Rabbinate over fees. Or perhaps some large Israeli dairies and ice cream producers got to the Rabbinate and "suggested" this ban. Or it could simply be part of a trend of the radicalization of Rabbinical rulings in Israel in a number of different areas, ranging from women's singing, to green vegetables to conversions.

Tellingly, when asked what Häagen-Dazs ice cream lovers in Israel should do if they crave their favourite ice cream, Rabbi Rafi Yochai of the Kosher departement responded that Israelis should "love God more than ice cream." What he really should have said is that Israelis should be willing to love the Chief Rabbinate of Israel more than ice cream - to jump whenever they say jump and to ask "how high?." After all, there is really nothing to suggest that God has suddenly developed a problem with Häagen-Dazs.

In my view, this is related to the type of stringencies that other communities have put in place regarding green vegetables as covered so nicely in David Kraemer's book, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages. It is a further effort by the Chief Rabbinate to extend its authority and control over a wider range of Israeli society.

If the ice cream is deemed to be Kosher but not "mehadrin" or some higher level of Kosher, Israeli consumers should be left to make their own determination as to whether "Kosher" is good enough. The product can be sold as Kosher but not "Chalav Yisroel" as it is in other places. But this is apparently not good enough for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

What is needed in Israel to prevent this type of abuse of authority is competition. For one thing, Israel should disband the office of the Chief Rabbinate as a government arm. This should apply to the regulation of weddings (where the Chief Rabbinate also currently enjoys a monopoly), funerals, brit Milah, divorces and other areas, including conversion. Secondly, Israel should allow for competing Kosher certifying bodies which can set their own appropriately strict standards. Those consumers who only wish to buy ingredients that are under the highest level of supervision and the strictest possible interpretation can make all of their purchases in Mea She'arim or B'nei Brak. The rest of us should be free to purchase reasonably supervised Kosher products throughout Israel. Leave it to us to decide whether we have to agree with some rabbi's latest, strictest possible, newly dreamt up basis for banning a currently available food item.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gender Equality Issues: From Israel to Canadian Conservative Synagogues

The issue of gender equality has been getting a great deal of attention in Israel recently, as I have written in some of my previous blog articles. What has become quite apparent is that the views that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men have of women and their capabilities are not confined to the religious sphere. As Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner wrote in the New York Times on January 14, 2012, the clash between the values of equality and Halakha (Jewish law) has created a growing rift in Israeli society. The New York Times article portrays the issue primarily as one between Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) and secular Jews. But the issue is much broader. It is a clash between traditionalist views of gender roles that begin in the religious sphere and modern conceptions of equality. It is not confined to Orthodox Judaism or to Israel. It affects Western countries around the world struggling with the tension between the tolerance of minority religious practices and gender equality.

To focus on one area, in Conservative Judaism, the issue has been one that has polarized practising Conservative Jews. Since the 1970s and the advent of the Ezrat Nashim movement, Conservative Judaism has wrestled with the line between traditional Halakha and religious gender equality. Different rabbis have weighed in with a range of responsa (rabbinic opinions) outlining their views on issues such as whether women should be permitted to read from the Torah and have Aliyot; whether women should be counted in a Minyan; and whether a woman can be a Shlicha Tzibur (a prayer leader). Some rabbis have found ways to reinterpret the Halakha in permissive ways while others have called for a “tikkun” – a correction to the law. There has not been unanimity in the rabbinical opinions.

The vast majority of American Conservative synagogues have adopted a fully or mostly egalitarian approach to these issues, based on some of the rabbinical responsa that have been issued. In Israel, most of the Conservative synagogues (including the one I attend) have also become partially or fully egalitarian. Ultimately, an egalitarian synagogue sends a message that no person is limited by their gender from fulfilling an equal religious role in the synagogue or an equal role in society outside of the religious sphere. How can a modern society in which women have an equal opportunity to be doctors, lawyers, pilots or any other profession or career continue to insist that in a synagogue, the women must be relegated to the balcony or behind the curtain or even just prevented from participating in the religious service? How can one expect that a social environment in which women’s voices are not heard and women do not participate in or lead the religious services will see women as equals in other areas of life?

Though largely settled in many areas of the world among Conservative Jews, this issue, which has generated so much recent controversy in Israel, is still very much alive in Toronto. Toronto’s Conservative synagogues are generally not egalitarian. But over the past few years, this has begun to change. Some of the smaller Conservative synagogues have become fully egalitarian, with women able to participate in all aspects of the service equally, including the Torah service. Other Conservative synagogues, such as Beth Emeth and Shaar Shalom have very stringent limitations on the role of women. Still others have been having ongoing and sometimes heated debates about the matter. The issue has divided the city’s Conservative rabbis as well as the congregants.

One of Canada’s largest synagogues, which is in fact one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the world, Beth Tzedek, has been “Torah egalitarian” for a number of years. This has meant that women can be called up to the Torah to read or to have an Aliyah. But women have not been able to lead most prayer services. This same approach has been taken at Beth David Synagogue, while some synagogues like Beth Tikvah and Adath Israel have had some opportunities for women to participate, but to a more limited extent.

In March of 2011, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedek issued a responsum that women would now be counted in the Minyan at Beth Tzedek. Although this did not move the synagogue to complete gender equality, it put Beth Tzedek at the forefront of the group of large Conservative synagogues in Toronto in moving towards religious equality.

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl’s responsum has been attacked by Conservative Rabbi Wayne Allen in the 2nd volume of his book Perspectives on Jewish Laws and Contemporary Issues, who argues that Frydman-Kohl has essentially abandoned Halakha by issuing that ruling. Before setting out his specific arguments to address Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, Rabbi Allen includes an introductory chapter in his book in which he describes a range of differences between men and women. Picking up on a book by Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate, Rabbi Allen staunchly defends traditional gender roles as mandated, in his view, by Halakha. But his support for this Halakhic view of the world is based on his conclusion that these observations about the capabilities of women apply much more generally than just in the religious sphere, even in today’s world. Women are best suited for the "task of caring for children." Judaism leaves men free to "tend to other worldly concerns" he concludes.

Recently, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a 1,000 family synagogue in Toronto, has opened up the issue of the increased religious participation of women. Beth Tikvah is likely to put the issue to a vote shortly and may well join Beth Tzedek and Beth David as a Torah egalitarian Conservative synagogue. In doing so, it would reject the conclusions of its former rabbi, who vehemently opposed religious egalitarianism throughout his tenure at Beth Tikvah. The move will not make Beth Tikvah a fully egalitarian Synagogue – that is still likely to take a few more years. But it may spark other Toronto Conservative synagogues to reassess their positions and policies.

From this discussion of what is happening in the Conservative synagogues in one limited geographic location, it is easy to understand the tension in some parts of Israel. It is quite evident that those who would use the “traditional” view of Halakha as their guide towards how to deal with gender equality issues do not limit themselves to the religious sphere even though they often purport to do so. Hence the recent efforts by ultra-religious Jews to bar women from singing in public; to keep women at the back of the bus; and to prevent men from having to listen to women delivery speeches in public. Of course, the issue is more challenging in Israel because religious groups receive state funding and because the line between synagogue and state is blurred. However, where some of these religious groups have the opportunity to extend their views of the role of women to areas outside of the synagogue, the effect becomes clear.

It seems to me that if these Haredim were able to see women as equal in the synagogue, only then would they be able to respect the ability of women to function in any other social or professional capacity in society at large. As evident from what has been happening in Israel in Haredi areas and even in the written works of some conservative rabbis, the exclusion of women in the synagogue spills over and affects views of gender equality more generally.

This issue is not limited to Haredim, to Israel or to the Jewish community. It applies much more broadly. It is a issue facing Catholicism and Islam and other religious denominations. The line between religious freedom and tradition and gender equality is a core issue at the very heart of every contemporary liberal democracy.

Postscript: Added on February 8, 2012: It was just announced that the membership of Beth Tikvah Synagogue, held a "Special General Meeting" on February 7, 2012. More than 80% of the members at the meeting voted in favour of the Board's proposal. Beth Tikvah Synagogue is now officially "Torah Egalitarian."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Protest in Jerusalem Uses Nazi Era Symbols

Israeli news outlets YNet News and Haaretz as well as Israeli radio and television stations have devoted extensive coverage to a rally by Ultra-Orthodox Jews (“Haredim”) on Saturday night. At the rally, the protesters were wearing yellow stars reminiscent of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi German and occupied Europe. There were also protesters wearing striped pajamas as if they were imprisoned in concentration camps. Some of these Haredim dressed their children in Nazi-era clothing and had them raise their hands to copy the famous Warsaw Ghetto photo.

(Photo from Ynet News by Noam Moskovich)

What exactly has Israel done to cause these Haredim to make boisterous claims that they are being persecuted “in ways worse than the persecution under Nazi Germany?” Aside from the fact that the State of Israel provides funding to Yeshivoth (schools of Jewish learning), exemptions from military service, extensive welfare and medical coverage and many other benefits, the Haredim are particularly upset at the recent wave of protests throughout Israel against “hadarat nashim” – the “exclusion of women.” The right of the Haredim to treat women as second class citizens is sacrosanct and mandated by their religious beliefs, they argue. Any challenge to these views is state-imposed fanaticism that must be labeled “fascist.”

As I have described in other blogs, there has been growing media and public attention over the issue of gender equality in religious and ultra-religious communities. People have been begun to take issue with the existence of segregated buses in certain communities, sometimes even state funded, where women are forced to sit at the back of the bus; with the posting of signs requiring women to walk on a different side of the street than men; and with the pressure placed on the Israeli army by Haredi soldiers insisting that women not be permitted to sing at official events. In rallies across Israel, organizations such as “Israeli Chofshit” – “Free Israel” have hosted events at which men and women, politicians, citizens and Israelis from different backgrounds, religious and non-religious, have spoken out against gender discrimination. Looked at through the lens of gender equality, it is actually easy to single out those with the real “fascist” values.

Now, in what can only be described as a repulsive display, the Haredim have held a counter-demonstration protesting against these rallies as what they call the “exclusion of Haredim.” They argue that Israeli secular society is “waging war” on their way of life and taking away their right to practice their religious beliefs as they see fit. To make these arguments, they resort to the extreme comparison between themselves and Holocaust era Jews who were being rounded up, imprisoned and executed.

The use of Holocaust imagery for this purpose has sickened average Israelis, many of whom have family members or other friends or relatives who were Holocaust survivors. Many also feel quite outraged that their tax money is being used to provide state support for this medieval way of life which often runs counter to values of equality and freedom that Israel promotes as a progressive state. Ironically enough, it is these values of tolerance and equality, promoted primarily by secular society, that have allowed the Haredim to flourish in many parts of Israel.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jerusalem Not Tehran: Another Rally to Oppose the Silencing of Women's Voices

According to Israeli on-line news site, in a recent poll, some 49% of Israelis agreed with the statement that religiously observant soldiers should not be forced to remain at ceremonies at which women are singing. As I discussed in my previous blog post on November 17, 2011, this issue has been getting increased publicity over the past few months as a result of a number of incidents in which women were publicly shunned by Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox groups.

Last night, hundreds of women and men attended a performance and demonstration in the centre of Jerusalem in support of the right of women to sing publicly and, more broadly, the need for Israel to continue as a society of equality, democracy and freedom rather than creeping towards a society with greater theocratic influence and control.

A number of well-known Israeli singers performed at the concert including international recording artist Achinoam Nini. One of the musical groups, Tarentina, began its set wearing full black, mock burkas. After playing a song in these outfits, they peeled off the head coverings and commented on the oppressive requirement of having to wear such cumbersome clothing in some societies. Echoing the sentiments of other speakers at the rally, they noted that “Israel is not Iran and Jerusalem is not and should not become Tehran.”

The rally was organized by Micki Gitzin, chair of “Free Israel,” an organization that has planned a number of these rallies over past number of months. Gitzin told the audience that “we will continue to sing anywhere and anytime until there is an end to the movement to shun women.”

Ultra-Orthdox Jews and many other observant Orthodox Jews maintain that it is improper to listen to a woman singing in public. In Orthodox synagogues, only men are involved in leading prayer services and reading from the Torah and women are generally seated in a different section of the synagogue, behind a wall (a mechitza). It is therefore not surprising that these communities would apply or attempt to apply that separation and view of equality more broadly. It is more disturbing that so many other Israelis, even many secular Israelis, would agree that it should be their “right” as observant Orthodox Jews to implement such rules in public arenas outside of the synagogue environment.

Conservative Judaism has recognized the connection between what occurs in the synagogue and its effect on equality more generally. In a recent responsa for the Schechter Institute, Rabbi David Golinkin traces the development of this ultra-Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice publicly by examining Jewish law. He concludes that the first real authority to require a general legal prohibition against hearing women sing publicly was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the “Hatam Sofer”) in the early 19th Century. (Volume 6, Issue No. 2, November 2011). Citing author Emily Teitz, Rabbi Golinkin notes that this relatively recent prohibition was not consistent with Jewish religious practice throughout earlier periods during which women often sang publicly, including at synagogues throughout the middle ages. Moreover, he notes that there is also authority for the proposition that it would be a greater halachic (Jewish legal) problem for observant men to walk out while women were singing (and thereby insult them) than it would for such observant men to actually sit and listen to the women singing respectfully.

In Israel, Conservative Jews have played an active role in the struggle to ensure equality in the synagogue and in society, generally. At last night’s rally, a co-ed choir, “Shirat Machar” – “The Songs of Tomorrow” performed as one of the opening musical acts. Shirat Machar is a musical ensemble comprised of teenagers affiliated and supported by Noam, the Conservative youth movement in Israel. Most if not all of the Conservative synagogues in Israel are egalitarian which means full participation by men and women in leading services, reading from the Torah and participating in other ways in the religious services. This egalitarian outlook, which begins in the synagogue, affects attitudes of congregants in many other ways.

Sadly, in some circles, the flip side is true. Attitudes towards women and towards gender equality that begin in Orthodox synagogues are often carried forward to other areas of life including family law, the law of estates and inheritance and even views of appropriate conduct between men and women.

The difficulty in Israeli society is the historic “compromise” under which earlier Israeli governments ceded much of the authority over religious affairs to the monopolistic control of the Orthodox establishment. As this authority has expanded recently with the growth of religiously observant communities in Israel, issues of gender equality have begun to face new and greater challenges. Rallies of the type held last night are aimed not just at ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard in public in Israel but that democracy and equality for all, regardless of gender, continue to be among the most significant values in Israel.