Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Coren's Why Catholics Are Right

Michael Coren’s latest book, Why Catholics Are Right is as pugnacious as the title suggests. Though relatively short, Coren sets out to explain or justify a wide range of official Catholic Church positions and historical conduct. Describing a variety of sources of anti-Catholic beliefs, Coren positions his book as a handbook for those who wish to defend Catholicism against its many would-be attackers. Coren paints the Catholic Church as an institution under attack. One might be confused into thinking he was describing a much smaller and more endangered religious group rather than the Church with its hundreds of millions of adherents.

Calling anti-Catholicism the “last acceptable prejudice in what passes for polite society,” Coren is on a mission to respond to those perceived slights. He points out, on a few occasions in the book, that anyone who disagrees with the views set out in his book is simply wrong. In his introduction, he generously concedes that Non-Catholic Christians, including “serious Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox believers” are only “slightly wrong.” Others, including Christians with different interpretations of the Bible, atheists, “part-time Catholic bashers” and presumably members of every other religious group are “wrong most of the time and to a shocking degree.”

With introductory words like that, it might be tempting for someone like me to simply close the book. But I am interested in reading a range of views, so I continue on. After all, the book is a mere 200 pages and is relatively easy reading.

Coren begins the book by addressing head on what he believes to be two of the major sources of attack on the Church, the abuse scandals and the crusades.

His first chapter downplays the sexual abuse scandals of the Church by essentially arguing that the rate of this type of egregious behaviour is no worse in the Church than anywhere else. He cites various statistics dealing with rates of abuse, both within the Church and other institutions all with the aim of disavowing any relationship between Church dogmas (requiring celibacy and only male priests) and abuse and by extension minimizing the level of Church culpability. He highlights a lengthy letter written by the current Pope in March 2010 to the Irish Church as reflecting Benedict’s historical role as “one of the fiercest opponent of abusers.” Though Coren attacks Christopher Hitchens’ writings on the subject as “cruel, flippant or dumb,” I found Hitchens’ review of the Church’s role in these abuse scandals in God is Not Great to be much more persuasive.

Coren ends the chapter by briefly addressing theological equality, explaining that the Church “simply does not have the authority to ordain women.” The Pope has spoken on this issue and those who disagree can “go elsewhere.” Even though Coren later in the book discusses the role of Biblical interpretation, he dismisses the notion of equality between men and women by arguing that “gender-bending may work in some areas of life but not in the institution that will take you back to God.” By way of contrast, Coren argues later in the book that the Church’s fight against abortion is like the fight of the early opponents of slavery. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will look back on the Church’s position as the correct moral position. But with respect to women’s rights to religious equality, Coren is completely dismissive. It seems to me that the arguments in favour of women as priests are much more analogous to those who fought and opposed slavery and other forms of discrimination. But of course, as Coren points out repeatedly in the book, anyone who holds this view must be wrong. He finishes the chapter with a spirited defence of the celibacy requirement for priests before moving along.

Entitled “Catholics and History,” the second chapter offers a defence of the Church’s behaviour through various historical periods. Coren provides his thumbnail sketch of the Church’s role in the crusades, defending the Church’s conduct at all times. Whether the Church acted in justifiable response to Muslim aggression or within the acceptable ranges of conduct at the time (however barbarian), the Church was part of a generally brutal medieval world, argues Coren. He continues on to suggest that it is ridiculous to pin the Spanish Inquisition (including the mass torture, forcible conversion and expulsion of Jews and others) on the Church and even downplays the number of people “hurt or affected by it.”

Coren also addresses the Holocaust and provides his historical version of why Pope Pius XII was a righteous man whose actions during the Holocaust have been misunderstood or overlooked. There are extensive historical works covering this complex subject which are outside of the scope of a book review. However, it is worth noting that in dealing with this topic, as with every other area that Coren covers in his book, there is no room for any other viewpoint and no admission of any possible errors or wrongdoing on the part of the Church. Coren does not address the history of anti-Semitism in the Church nor the manner in which this was addressed and changed by John Paul II. That would not fit with his thesis that the Church has always been right and everything is immutable.

Moving to theology, Coren explains the doctrines of the supremacy of the Church and of papal infallibility. Coren covers the compilation of the Bible by the Church between 393 A.C.E. and 419 A.C.E. Since the Church selected and compiled this version of the Bible, the Church must be infallible, since the Bible is infallible. This seems self-evidently circular to me. But there it is in black and white. And since Coren says it, it must be correct.

Coren goes on to explain the doctrine of transubstantiation, the importance of confession, Catholic beliefs about purgatory, saints, the Virgin Mary and other sacraments. He circles back to the history and origins of Christianity near the end of his book and ties the historical points there to the various doctrines that are discussed here. Libraries of material have obviously been written about these issues and there all kinds of viewpoints. For an explanation and understanding of the history of the development of the Church and review of the origins of its beliefs and dogmas, I would simply suggest that a book like How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson provides a much more detailed and critical look at these matters.

Next Coren moves on to social issues. He provides a vigorous and unquestioning restatement of the Church’s fundamentalist positions on a range of issues – abortion, birth control, euthanasia and homosexuality and provides short arguments in favour of each of the Church’s stated orthodox positions. Coren quotes former New York Mayor Ed Koch earlier in the book as saying “many in the public…are incensed by positions the Church holds, including opposition to all abortions, opposition to gay sex and same-sex marriage, retention of celibacy rules for priests, exclusion of women from the clergy, opposition to birth control measures involving condoms and prescription drugs and opposition to civil divorce….I disagree with the Church on all of these positions. Nevertheless it has a right to hold these views in accordance with its religious beliefs.” Since Coren is right about everything, as he points out in his book on a number of occasions, everyone who holds contrary views on any of the above issues is simply wrong, including, presumably the former New York Mayor and any other Catholics who might have more liberal views.

The final chapter turns to miscellaneous issues including the most crucial historical details of the life of Jesus and the origins of some of the key beliefs of Catholicism. Coren also discusses marriage annulment, the issue of communion for non-Catholics and the historical myth of a female pope (Pope Joan). On every issue here, as throughout the book, he provides his argument in favour of the most conservative Church view, allowing no room for historical changes, nuanced Biblical interpretations or even dissenting views within the Church.

Coren saves his harshest words for those who he describes as hypocrites – people who claim to be Catholic but act as if they are not. To Coren, there is no room for any liberal interpretation of Catholicism, whether in action or belief. To him, there is one truth, described by the Church, that all Catholics must follow if they are to be taken seriously and accepted as real Catholics.

Though interesting to read, Coren’s book was not particularly stimulating or thought provoking and certainly not persuasive. It sets out a range of beliefs that Coren and many other Catholics have chosen to follow but this is not a book that uses reason, scientific method or critical scholarship. I felt much more challenged by Richard Dawkins The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great even though each of those books also had its own significant shortcomings.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jonathan Kay - Among the Truthers

Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers is a thought provoking read, but ultimately unsatisfying. Subtitled “A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground,” the book describes and explains various historical examples of conspiracies, provides a history of some conspiracy movements and sets out lessons Kay has drawn from immersing himself in Truth Movement (9/11 conspiracy) lectures, conventions and meetings at which he has had the time to get to know many leading conspiracy theorists.

At the outset, Kay cites examples of real or problematic historical events that may have actually been conspiracies such as Iran-Contra, the “unsatisfying Warren Commission Report on JFK,” the secret bombing of Cambodia, U.S. military cover up of Mai Lai massacres and other examples of real conspiracies. Yet he later calls conspiracy theories a “leading cause and a symptom of intellectual and current crisis.” He is quick, for example, to dismiss any suggestion that the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island could be part of a conspiracy without providing any convincing details.

Kay suggests that sometimes “we don’t know” is the answer to difficult questions that conspiracy theorists raise. While that may be true, conspiracy theories can sometimes be deflated with proper proof. For example, President Obama has now successfully defeated the “birthers” by producing full and proper birth records. Historians have demonstrated, with overwhelming historical proof, the factual basis and record of the Holocaust. Kay himself provides a sound explanation of the hoax of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how it was debunked historically.

Much of the book focuses on the movement of Truthers – those who would argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the U.S. government. Kay cites frightening statistics to illustrate the success that Truthers have had in convincing a large percentage of the American population that the U.S. federal government participated in the collapse of the twin towers. He profiles a number of the Truther movement’s leading figures, taking pains to point out that these people are not all easily dismissed as cranks. Many are mathematicians, engineers and others with high level academic achievements. However, Kay points out that his book is not a rebuttal of the various conspiracy theories in detail. Instead he provides a range of references and sources for that type of material.

In reviewing some of the history of conspiracy movements, Kay is convincing in explaining the role of anti-Semitism and more the recently, left wing anti-Zionism in the historical development of these movements. Some of the rest of the historical description is lacking. For example, the lack of a decent response to the JFK material leaves the issue hanging. Although Kay shows a link between JFK conspiracies and 9/11 Truther conspiracies, the factual differences are enormous. With respect to 9/11, there are cell phone calls from victims, airport video surveillance, video footage from many angles, names, faces and stories of each of the terrorists and much other information. This can really only be compared to one home video showing Kennedy’s assassination (the Zapruder film).

The chapter discussing the “birth certificate conspiracy” over Obama is illuminating, particularly demonstrating the link between the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalists (particularly those who rely, literally, on the book of Revelations) and the demonization of Obama. Although Kay acknowledges the “kernel of truth” to some of the allegations about Obama, relating to Obama’s background and upbringing, which might even affect Obama’s decision making on Middle East issues, Kay is easily dismissive of any suggestion that this would make Obama part of some kind of fifth column or an illegitimate president.

The heart of Kay’s discussion is the lessons that one can take from 9/11. The widespread availability, particularly on the internet, of unreliable information has undoubtedly played a major role in the spread of conspiracy theories. Here, Kay laments the downfall of traditional media and the commensurate loss of accuracy in information. But Kay forgets that traditional media have also, historically, been complicit in spreading misinformation. For example, the demonstrably false stories of a massacre in Jenin by the Israeli Defence Forces were spread by the “traditional” media outlets.

Kay refers to the phenomenon as the “democratization of paranoia.” He underlines the fact that internet users can load up web sites with unprovable and false information and rise to the top of Google searches. Of course, accompanying video, that is easily edited and even created, can also be spread quickly and easily.

Ultimately, Kay goes overboard in tying in issues of political correctness and academic “reconstruction” theories to conspiracists. Though he discusses certain issues of Canadian and American discourse, such as aboriginal land claims issues and the reliability of aboriginal “oral history” and also touches on controversial affirmative action issues, it is quite a leap to propose that Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld are targets as alleged conspirators because of the attack by the political correctness movement on middle aged white men. This suggestion does not accord with other parts of Kay’s book in which he notes that most of the Truthers are, in fact, middle aged white males. The idea that an exaggerated version of political correctness should be tied in to the conspiracy theorists is a claim that allows Kay to ignore the very real and positive changes that society has made by changing some of the offensive and discriminatory language that was used in the past.

Kay is on much stronger ground in tracing the tie in between anti-Semitism and conspiracy movements. Here, he highlights the fact that conspiracists on the right and on the left have both been plagued by variants of anti-Semitism. He segues into a discussion of the use by the left of anti-Israel anti-Semitism, which is disguised as fair comment on Israel’s foreign policy. The discussion explains why this is, often, simply disguised anti-Semitism and why that has led or contributed to a shift in Jewish voting patterns and party support in the U.S. and Canada. The shared anti-Semitism is sometimes something that the far right and the far left can share together even while their conspiracy conferences are being held blocks away from each other.

Kay’s recipe for confronting conspiracy movements is in education, particularly in educating people in the ability to filter information and in providing people with the history of conspiracy movements. But Kay lumps in atheist authors such as Hitchens and Dawkins as being complicit in creating an atmosphere that allows for conspiracy theories. “Society requires some creed or overriding national project…” and in the absence of faith, people will be led to these types of theories. But Kay does not circle back to the impact of the many religious Tea Party fundamentalists at the heart of many conspiracy theories that he describes. Surely they have to be at least as dangerous as the atheists, given Kay's historical discussion.

While Kay ultimately calls for the need for society to balance scepticism with faith and cites the need to rehabilitate public institutions, Kay fails to adequately explain why the public institutions warrant the rehabilitation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mighty Judgment by Philip Slayton - a look at the Supreme Court of Canada

There is a distinct tone of condescension that runs through Philip Slayton’s book Mighty Judgment. Subtitled “How the Supreme Court of Canada Runs Your Life,” the book reviews the history and role of the Supreme Court of Canada, ultimately calling for significant reforms to the Court, primarily reforms to the manner in which judges are appointed.

Written for lay people, Slayton’s book begins by describing the role and history of Canada’s highest court. It moves on to a discussion of some of the Court’s more controversial recent decisions, a look at its current members, a discussion of its clerks – and then ultimately, a call for change. Though I agreed with some of Slayton’s penultimate recommendations – I found the journey at times tedious – and at other times obnoxious – particularly the repeatedly cited mantra that the Supreme Court “runs your life,” which seems overly hyperbolic.

At the heart of any discussion of the role of the Supreme Court (whether it is Canada’s Supreme Court or any other) is the debate between those who would prefer an “activist” court willing to use its power to strike down laws that seem to run afoul of the Constitution (the Charter)and those who would have the Court play a much more deferential role towards Parliament. In Slayton’s discussion of some of the issues that the Court has wrestled with – such as abortion, gay rights, religious minority rights – the early tone of the book seemed to suggest that he was advocating for a more deferential court, particularly from his review of abortion issues.

Interestingly, by the end of the book, he suggests that he would side with the view point of those such as Justice Rosalie Abella, who see the court’s role as interventionist - charged with the responsibility of protecting minority rights against the tyranny of the majority.

In some ways, the heart of the book is Slayton’s arrogant assessment of the Amselem case, a landmark religious rights case which he refers to as a “bad decision.” The case looked at the issue of whether a group of Orthodox Jews in Quebec could build sukkas (temporary huts) on their balconies for the eight day holiday of Succoth in a condominium building despite having agreed to property contracts that banned the building of any structures on balconies. The Supreme Court, by majority decision (5-4), narrowly determined that minority religious rights overrode other considerations, such as restrictive property covenants. In doing so, it carefully noted that there was no demonstrable threat to safety or security in the building and that minority religious rights could be accommodated in this type of situation where the real or perceived harm to the majority was minimal. Slayton sounds the alarm bells over the decision by exaggerating the deference provided to religious rituals. Although it is true that the Supreme Court held that only a sincerely held belief that a particular practice was required – in order to gain some level of protection for a minority religious practice – the Court also discussed the boundaries of the exercise of such rights – the discussion of which seems to have eluded Slayton. This decision from the Supreme Court gave real protection to religious minority rights – for practices that were unpopular – provided that they did not unduly interfere with the rights of the majority. This is a classic example of the Court protecting the rights of the minority against the majority – a principle that Slayton supposedly endorses by the end of the book – yet he dismisses this case with such disdain.

In the same chapter, Slayton argues that the Wilson Colony decision – which held that Hutterites (an Alberta religious community) cannot refuse to have their pictures taken if they want to get drivers licenses – is also wrongly decided because it is too harsh. Here the Supreme Court felt that the impact of hundreds of Hutterites having drivers licenses without photo identification – would outweigh their religious freedom. Slayton argues that the case runs contrary to Amselem but I think it is simply an application of it. In both cases, the Court set the boundaries of minority religious rights – depending on the extent to which they affected other rights and other aspects of social policy.

Slayton’s book spends a number of chapters on petty reviews of the personalities, backgrounds and, sometimes, hobbies, of the current members of the Court, whom he patronizingly divides into “the Chief,” the “Leaders of the Court,” the “Middle of the Pack,” and “Bringing Up the Rear.” I can’t imagine that Justices Deschamps, Fish and Cromwell could be too thrilled with being slotted into this final category – though the assessments of the judges – as with the other six – are all reasonably favourable. It seems to me that much ink is spilled unnecessarily on these sections of the book - especially since Canada is about to receive a number of new Supreme Court judges. Individual personalities are interesting and important – but in the long run – some are relatively ephemeral and have minimal impact.

At the end of the book, some of Slayton’s calls for reform are logical and persuasive – though I felt that the impact was undermined by a poor discussion of some of the Court’s decisions and by a fairly tedious discussion of some of the members of the current Court. Nevertheless, Slayton proposes changes to the appointment of judges with either a U.S. or U.K. model and term limits of twelve to fifteen years. The idea here would be to increase transparency and ensure that new ideas are considered – at least every 15 years or so. These changes seem to make good sense.

I’m less convinced that we should do away with regional representation or a preference for Court of Appeal judges (even if such judges have only spent a short period of time sitting on the appellate court) – both of which are also among Slayton’s preferred reforms. I’m torn over Slayton’s idea of insisting that all judges be fully bilingual. Although it makes sense to prefer this – the reality is that this would exclude a very high percentage of the Canadian population. We should probably start here with improving language instruction across the country – to first ensure that more Canadians are fluently bilingual.

Overall, I felt better about the book after reading the final chapter or so – though my impression was that it could have been reduced from 261 pages to a polemic article of about 20 – and it wouldn’t have lost of its forcefulness – and may well have avoided much repetition.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages - Review

I just finished reading Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages by Professor David Kraemer. The book traces the development of Jewish dietary laws from biblical times to the modern age.

The author provides theories for the development of increasingly stringent rules – from the very initial Torah prohibition on cooking a baby goat (kid) in its mother’s milk – to the very recent developments of families having two sets of absolutely everything – sometimes even two kitchens – all emanating from that original prohibition.

The book persuasively suggests that the rules have become more and more stringent in an effort by the highly observant Jews to build the walls of separation between themselves and other less observant Jews – or non-Jews. Kraemer touches on such topics as the development of the waiting period for eating dairy after meat, the development of rules separating meat from dairy dishes, the rules prohibiting Jews from eating certain breads and drinking non-kosher wines. I do believe that it is likely that keeping kosher has played a huge role in maintaining the Jewish community and fending off many assimilationist threats over the years.

Kraemer ties this all in by the end of the book to the very recent development of extreme rules barring observant Jews from eating various types of green vegetables for fear of insect or bug contamination. Kraemer suggests implicitly – that the bug rules have little to do with Kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). Rather they are either designed as an economic mechanism to support such companies as Bodek that are selling pre-washed and “checked” greens – or they are designed to simply raise the “fence” higher to separate very observant Jews from the less observant. He points out that the cafeteria at the Jewish Theological Seminary has opted to serve broccoli and cauliflower – despite the ban on these products by many Orthodox Kashrut councils – all since the early 90s.

Though some of the early parts of the book were a bit dry – and other parts were a bit puzzling (trying to justify the fact that so many New York Jews eat at non-kosher Chinese restaurants) – the overall explanation and theory that Kraemer provides for the development of these rules is compelling and persuasive. The question left unanswered is how to deal with and address these newer, increasingly stringent guidelines which are seemingly designed to make it harder and harder for Jews to keep kosher – and to give increased power and control over kosher food preparation to a group of increasingly powerful Rabbis running the largest certification boards.

The book provides a great deal of food for thought – though it is sure to upset some Orthodox readers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Air Canada Business Class - Tel-Aviv-Toronto

Flying a great deal between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, I have been writing some blogs assessing the various flight options – and comparing the services. After doing this for more than a year and a half – I am hard pressed to conclude that anyone can compete with Air Canada on this route.

Air Canada offers regular service between Toronto and Tel-Aviv and competes in that regard only with El Al, Israel’s national airline. Otherwise, you have to change planes in the U.S. or somewhere in Europe.

Starting with economy class, Air Canada comes out quite ahead. Each seat includes a personal screen, an electrical outlet and a USB connection. Although Air Canada does not currently offer internet service on its transatlantic flights (like Lufthansa) – the range of music, video and TV programming is extensive. Although I enjoy the Israeli music on El Al – the sound quality is horrible – and the selection is limited.

The main advantage of flying Air Canada is the Aeroplan program. For a flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv – you earn approximately 11,500 Aeroplan points. For 15,000 points, you can get a ticket between Toronto and other “short-haul” destinations – such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis (the boundary). For 25,000 points – you can get a ticket from Toronto to anywhere in North America (with payment of a range of ever increasing “fuel surcharges” and taxes).

But more significantly – for 35,000 points – just over 3 flights a year between Israel and Toronto – you can get “Elite” status – which entitles you to free upgrades to first class – subject to availability.

I have been upgraded on a number of occasions over the past year and a half or so – and I have to say – I have never been on better flights.

The seats fold down into completely horizontal beds. They have a mini-barrier – that is almost like a wall for privacy. You have an electrical outlet, a USB Port and your own personal movie and music entertainment system. Unlike Austrian Air – you do not have computer games (chess, space invaders etc.,) but I’ll take the trade-off.

The staff members are exceptional.

Though I ordered a kosher meal, I was prepared to enjoy the special business class dish of pacific salmon with wild rice and grilled zucchini and asparagus. It was preceded by a traditional salad. For dessert – I was given a choice of chocolate molten lava cake or mixed fruit (or both). I was also offered cognac – and a special California Cabernet Sauvignon – which I quite enjoyed.

The main flight attendant assisting me on my most recent flight – was quite friendly. He told me he was proficient in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, German and Italian – and was now learning Arabic. He could also serve passengers in Yiddish. He was quite polite and readily available – generally a pleasure to have such a competent steward.

The only drawback to Air Canada flights – and it is significant – is that the flights are scheduled as daytime flights from Israel to Toronto. It is a 12 ½ hour flight – leaving Israel at 12:30 p.m. and arriving in Toronto at 5:30 p.m. Toronto time. This kind of flight can really ruin your schedule.

I much prefer the El Al flight times – leaving at about 1 a.m. on Saturday night – and arriving in Toronto at about 6 a.m. El Al’s security is also formidable – as is the patriotic lure of supporting the Jewish State’s national airline. However – the “Matmid” – loyalty program – is terrible compared to Air Canada – and the airplane amenities are sorely lacking. On the positive note – you can sometimes get an El Al ticket for hundreds of dollars cheaper than Air Canada – so these are all considerations that have to be weighed). As mentioned above, I also enjoy the music selection on El Al and the general feeling of being “at home.”

However, for now – I need about 50,000 more points to achieve Air Canada’s “Super Elite” status – and it seems to be a worthy goal – even if I get there by flying cheaper partner airlines like Lufthansa, Austrian Air, US Air (via Philadelphia) or Continental (Via New Jersey). Using the Air Canada entertainment system, I listened to Rush’s Moving Pictures (what a great album! I probably hadn’t listened to it cover to cover in more than 20 years), Eric Clapton – Unplugged, Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. Together with some cognac – and extremely helpful staff – it is hard to imagine a better way to travel the 12 ½ hours back to Canada from Israel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kosher restaurants - serving Meat AND Dairy products

I am fascinated with the process by which eating establishments are certified as “kosher,” particularly after I had some involvement in a Canadian lawsuit involving now defunct Levitts Meats – which was for many years, the quintessential purveyor of kosher Montreal smoked meats – for Montrealers and the Canadian Jewish community in general. Levitts failed in its bid to break into the monopolistic Toronto kosher market – and subsequently went bankrupt – much to the disappointment of smoked meat connoisseurs everywhere. The politics involved in Levitt’s battle to obtain kosher certification for its meat products in Toronto were simply astounding. This seems to be the case in many other areas as well.

Last year, before the huge fire that burned the place down, I visited the IKEA store in Netanya, Israel. IKEA had been newly purchased by an owner interested in ensuring that its Israeli operations were Kosher and Sabbath observant (i.e. closed from sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday night). I arrived at about 10:15 a.m. at the IKEA restaurant on a weekday morning. IKEA is, of course, famous for providing a variety of Swedish delicacies at very reasonable prices – including Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon (lox). At this IKEA location, all of the products had been certified as “Kosher” – so observant Jewish clientele could now eat Swedish meatballs – and other Swedish dishes.

The interesting thing – from my point of view – was that this location also included an espresso bar – adjacent to the main IKEA restaurant. Normally, kosher establishments offer either dairy products or meat products – but not both. This IKEA offered a regular coffee bar – with cappuccinos, lattes etc., made with milk products- right next to the meat restaurant.

I spoke with some employees – who explained to me the following: Between 7 a.m. or so (store opening) and 10 a.m. – the coffee bar used real milk and dairy products. At about 10:15 a.m. – the Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) would arrive and clean all of the equipment – including the mugs, dishwasher and espresso machines. At about 10:15 a.m. – the coffee bar would officially switch to “pareve” status – meaning non-dairy – and non- meat. They would use soy milk only for the rest of the day (but with the same mugs…).

In my humble view – this represented quite a liberal approach – since you cannot normally “kosher” ceramic mugs – but it was certified by two different authorities – both the local Netanya authority – and the Jerusalem Rabbinical authority. That has to be good enough for me! Alas, the IKEA burned down – in a fire that I have written about in another article – so it remains to be seen what will become of the kosher status of the IKEA restaurant in the newly renovated premises.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. The Aroma Coffee bar in Ra’anana has been newly renovated. Aroma is.a wonderful Israeli-owned coffee shop chain (which has expanded into some North American cities including Toronto and New York). The coffee is tastefully strong but not as bitter as Starbucks – the lattes and cappuccinos are terrific. Each coffee is served with a little chocolate square. (For now – they are all milk chocolate though I think they would be better off to offer a choice of milk or dark but I digress…).

Some of the Aroma Coffee shops in Israel are certified as kosher. These establishments have generally served only dairy products. The menu is diverse with a wide selection of healthy salads, sandwiches and soups. Picture a healthy Tim Hortons, with espresso products… For example, try a Portobello mushroom /pesto sandwich on whole wheat bread – or a quinoa/yam/mint salad. You can get a printed information sheet with the calorie count, fat content and other nutritional information for each item. Until recently, the location in Ra’anana, Israel was certified as kosher and served only dairy products. It seemed to me that the location was generally full and quite successful. Some other locations in Israel are open on Saturdays (Shabbat) and serve certain meat items (chicken etc.,) – which disqualifies them from kosher certification since they can’t mix dairy and meat – or so you would have thought…

Recently, the Ra’anana location underwent significant renovations. Aside from renovating the physical premises, the ownership decided to begin offering meat products together with dairy products – at the same location. Somehow – they obtained kosher certification for this enterprise. So you can now order a smoked meat sandwich – or a meat chilli dish – in the same restaurant in which you can order a Greek salad with Bulgarian cheese. Apparently, the products are prepared in different parts of the kitchen.

For anyone used to the traditional interpretation of kosher laws, this sounds crazy. How can a person order a meat sandwich and a latte in the same place (without violating Jewish dietary law)? By way of comparison, all of the kosher establishments in cities like Toronto are certified as either dairy or meat. Apparently, the Ra’anana Kosher authorities have agreed to licence the establishment as kosher – as long as it only serves the meat products as “take-out” and prepares everything with separate equipment. I am not sure if the staff are actively policing the policy – and asking meat eaters to leave the restaurant – but I am quite sceptical.

So we now have a restaurant in Ra’anana – certified as kosher – where you can go in and order a smoked meat sandwhich – together with a cafĂ© latte, made with milk – and the establishment is “kosher.”

The really strange thing – is that there are really only two or three meat items on the menu – so it seems like an awfully great hassle for a few small items. One wonders whether this is a trial balloon of some sort to determine whether to convert the restaurant into a non-kosher establishment.

Alternatively – the level of flexibility is astounding. The same Va’ad Harabonim (Rabbinical Council) that will reject romaine lettuce, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli, among other vegetables (for fear of insect contamination) – and will certainly reject any role for women in formal Jewish prayer ceremonies – is prepared to look the other way while an establishment serves dairy and meat products – at the same time – to the same customers.

I can only conclude that the Aroma in Ra’anana agreed to pay whatever exorbitant price was requested by the Ra’anana authorities. What else could explain this type of establishment? I have cynically concluded that for the right price – you can have a pig declared to be “kosher.”

Curiously enough, I found myself in a coffee bar in Tel-Aviv last week – that was certified “kosher – chalavi-basari” – meaning that it could serve both dairy and meat products. This was only a few days after I saw what was going on in the Aroma in Ra’anana. So, apparently there are quite a number of establishments in Israel that are now able to take advantage of these liberal rules.

I can’t say that I really oppose these “liberal” approaches to Jewish law. However, I can say that I would like to see these liberal principles applied to other areas of Jewish “law” and tradition – such as the role of women in the traditional prayer service.

These same Rabbis, sitting on the Kosher Council of Rabbis – willing to approve of this kind of establishment – continue to adamantly oppose the idea of women reading from the Torah, praying at the kotel (the Western Wall) or participating in a Jewish religious service as equals. Perhaps one day, they will apply the same “liberal” approach to gender issues that they apply to kosher issues.

In the meantime, as liberal as I am, I am becoming queasy about the idea of eating any food items in the Ra’anana Aroma…though I suppose it is the same as eating dairy (non-meat products) in any otherwise non-kosher establishment. However – it does not seem to have fazed Kippah (skullcap)-wearing Orthodox Jews, who continue to patronize to the location in droves.

Interesting to compare this to Ra’anana’s kosher McDonald’s – which is almost across the street –and which was forced to open a second “take out” bar location – (where ice cream and other dairy products are sold) to retain its kosher certification.

Ultimately, it seems to me that one part of the appropriate solution, both for Ra’anana and places like Toronto – is access to a range of Kosher certifying authorities. The range of options will create healthy competition and will eliminate the problems that are inevitably created by deferring to one centralized monopolistic establishment.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Memorial and Remembrance Day 2011

This evening marked the start of Yom Hazikaron in Israel – Remembrance and Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

Across Israel, everything is closed for the evening. In cities across the country, major streets are closed – as tens of thousands of people attended ceremonies to remember cousins, friends, neighbours and family members who have fallen in Israel’s wars, in the course of national service and in terror attacks.

Yom Hazikaron is linked to Israel Independence Day – which follows one day later. The very intentional linkage reminds Israelis of the importance of the sacrifices made by so many to enable the creation and continued existence of the Jewish State.

In Ra’anana, thousands attended a very moving and extremely well planned memorial ceremony. Ra’anana’s Mayor, Nahum Hofri, a former Army commander himself, spoke about the loss of his brother in battle– and so many others. Ra'anana’s Chief Rabbi spoke along with a number of family members of fallen soldiers. The memorial evening included a number of well-known Israeli ballads sung hauntingly by individual singers as well as an adult and a children’s choir.

Residents of Ra’anana walked quietly to the centre of the city – Yad LaBanim – from many different areas - to pay silent homage over the course of the 90 minute commemoration.

These losses are so close to home to so many Israelis who have faced a very real existential struggle over the course of 63 years of statehood – which has included 6 major wars – and many terrorist attacks along with numerous other military operations and battles. Ceremonies are also held across the country – at schools, military ceremonies and other locations, marked by silence at 11 a.m. during the day of Yom Hazikaron itself.

Despite this history of tremendous loss, the ceremonies included an optimistic note. The nationally broadcast ceremony from Rabin Square in Tel Aviv – closed with “Lu Yehi” – If Only It Could Be – a prayer-like song yearning for peace. And Mayor Hofri – closed his speech in Ra’anana – quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more…”

Despite the many challenges Israel faces – the recent uprisings and governmental changes in neighbouring countries, the threats from Iran, Syria, Gaza, Lebanon and other enemies – and the misguided or simply anti-Semitic ostracization of Israel by so many of the world’s countries – the hope and belief that peace is possible continues to resonate with Israelis even as they remember those whose lives have been lost through so many years of struggle.