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News for Sociology of Religion--Wed Apr 23 06:08:13 EST 1997

  • COMMENTARY: PASSOVER SERMON
    WASHINGTON—Let me try to explain to Gentiles why some Jews are so roiled up at others this Passover. Israel is the Jewish state. Though most Israelis are ``secular'' (New York Times) (*)

  • COMMENTARY: SOME ORTHODOX JEWS WIELD A TOO-HEAVY HAND
    It was Louis Farrakhan who branded Judaism a ``gutter religion,'' but it took a radical element of Judaism itself to refine his broad libel.  (*)

  • COMMENTARY: FROM THE PAGES OF THE TORAH, A PASSION
    NEW YORK—A well-thumbed Bible, its cracked spine mended by layers of tape and its worn pages marked by a rainbow of stickies, rested on Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis' desk. She carries it (New York Times) (*)

  • THE ADVENTURE OF KEEPING KOSHER IN VIETNAM
    HANOI, Vietnam—The tropical heat was relentless in the waiting room of Noi Bai Airport as Vietnamese immigration officers inspected each new visitor. Slowly, nervously, I proceeded in line, (New York Times) (*)



    COMMENTARY: PASSOVER SERMON

    By WILLIAM SAFIRE<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service=@

    WASHINGTON—Let me try to explain to Gentiles why some Jews are so roiled up at others this Passover.

    Israel is the Jewish state. Though most Israelis are ``secular'' (not that observant), Orthodox Jews have a monopoly on religious functions like marriage, and decide ``who is a Jew'' and therefore able to claim citizenship under the Law of Return.

    Israeli courts, at the urging of secularists and applauded by non-Orthodox Jews in America, have begun to challenge that monopoly. That triggered a fierce defense from Israeli religious-political parties: new laws are being passed to insure that only conversions by Orthodox rabbis, not Reform or Conservative, confer legal Jewish identity on people who want to become Jews.

    Many American Jews respond: Who are you fundamentalists to challenge the legitimacy of our modern religious practice? We celebrate diversity in our democracy and don't have to keep kosher to keep the faith. (And we send you guys a bundle, too.)

    The Orthodox counter: Your relaxed brand of Judaism has led to intermarriage and assimilation. As a result, in the 50 years that the U.S. population has doubled, the number of U.S. Jews has stayed the same or dwindled, with only the Orthodox segment growing. That proves our way is the only way to preserve the faith. (And we face terror daily, not you.)

    If either side totally wins this argument, everybody loses, but it's not enough to urge every demagogue to calm down. As a Conservative in Judaism and politics, I turn to the Book of Job to work out a position on who can best decide what the standard should be to make somebody Jewish.

    You remember the story: To prove to the Satan that a devout man's faith was not based on his worldly success, God unjustly afflicted Job. When his friends, representing organized religion, came to commiserate, they told Job that his suffering had to be the result of some sin. He exploded in anger at God's injustice, even wishing he could drag Him into court.

    The horrified religionists then accused Job of impiety, but the worked-up dissident maintained his ways until God engaged his challenger directly in his longest speech in the Bible. After slapping Job down for his impudence, God tells the friends they were mistaken all along and rewards Job.

    Among the messages in this near-heretical book: (1) suffering is no evidence of sin, (2) God does not distribute justice on Earth as seemingly promised in the Covenant, and (3) the individual believer, no matter how outcast from society or berated by co-religionists, is never isolated from his God.

    I take that last message to be directed at those who, in Nelson Mandela's phrase, ``think more with their blood than their brains.'' Jewishness combines clan with culture and faith, and faith is the central part of the mix.

    The faith of Judaism emphasizes congregation, or coming-together to worship, but requires no intermediary between believer and believed-in. A rabbi—no matter how strong a moral leader or profound an interpreter of Scripture—is a teacher, not a priest or a saint.

    Jews have no pope infallible on doctrine, no hierarchy to instill discipline as Catholics have. A local or national rabbinate can designate a ``Chief Rabbi'' for administrative purposes, but the individual Jew needs recognize no ``chief rabbi'' anywhere. Even as Jews congregate, each member of this far-flung tribe deals directly and quite privately with his or her Creator.

    And as Job teaches, we're encouraged to argue with any authority, which is why this controversy, if conducted civilly, can enliven and enrich Judaism.

    Non-Orthodox Jewish Americans can say to Orthodox Jewish Israelis, with no rancor: Our political circumstances are different. You live in a democratic state that is rooted in an established religion; we live in one that prides itself on forbidding such establishment.

    Accordingly, we don't recognize your power to recognize ``who is a Jew'' beyond your borders. We question your wisdom in using your political muscle in asserting that power inside Israel because it dissipates Israel's centrality to Judaism around the world.

    As we acknowledge how tradition deserves respect, you should consider how rigidity begets reform. Outsiders are not enemies. As a non-Jew likes to remind me, the Old Testament Job was a Gentile.

    <

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    COMMENTARY: SOME ORTHODOX JEWS WIELD A TOO-HEAVY HAND

    By HOWARD KLEINBERG=

    c.1997 Cox News Service

    It was Louis Farrakhan who branded Judaism a ``gutter religion,'' but it took a radical element of Judaism itself to refine his broad libel.

    When the 600-member Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada earlier this month condemned the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism as ``not Judaism at all,'' it, in effect, attempted to excommunicate almost 94 percent of America's 5.8 million Jews, although few of us will lose any sleep over it.

    As part of their adjudication of our disparate religious practices, the union said it was prohibited to pray in any temple other than an Orthodox temple.

    With all respect to those many Orthodox organizations who immediately distanced themselves from such medieval thinking, it was the tenet of prayer in Orthodox temples that drove many of us to Conservative and Reform temples.

    As a child, I was raised within the orb of Orthodox Judaism and, frankly, I never knew what was going on. I also felt too removed from the secular society in which I was living.

    My voyage, first to a Conservative temple, then to one of the Reform branch, was based not on disbelief in the religion but in needing a way to practice it that I could comprehend, accept and pass on to my descendants.

    To any and all who continue to practice Orthodoxy, my utmost homage.

    But to me, and to the overwhelming majority of American Jews, more contemporary liturgies are preferred. What those who condemned us cannot understand is that ``assimilation'' and ``capitulation'' are not the same word.

    Yes, we have assimilated into American society, but we continue to observe and honor the Torah, better known to non-Jews as the Old Testament. In our temple, prayers are in English as well as in Hebrew and, yes, we are not as dogmatic about accepting everything literally.

    It is true that intermarriage is destroying Jewish lineage at an alarming rate, and it is equally true that the Conservative and Reform branches are more tolerant of it than are the Orthodox, who are not tolerant of it at all. Instead, they declare the intermarried to be dead. Wonderful!

    But it is rare that you will find a Reform rabbi willing to perform such a marriage. In the Miami area, which according to a Council of Jewish Federations study has the second-highest Jewish population in the nation, there are but one or two rabbis out of dozens who are willing to do it.

    And what is to be done, really, if a Jewish boy and Christian girl—or vice versa—fall in love with each other? Will it be like Romeo and Juliet, whose parents refused to accept love? And what will be the end result of that pronouncement?

    Meanwhile, there are those of us within the Conservative and Reform branches who not only carry on the religion—the words of the Torah—but who also strongly support Jewish causes regardless of branch, and Israel regardless of which party is leading that nation—and there are things going on in Israel lately that, frankly, alarm and disturb many of us, such as the disproportionate power-wielding of fanatical ultra-Orthodox groups within that country, and their intolerance toward other branches of Judaism.

    The Orthodox Jews in America who condemn us are no different than fundamentalist Muslims and Christians who threaten to impose their wills upon global society.

    With so few Jews left in this world, it is a sad thing to see us squabbling among ourselves. Hopefully, this contemporary variation of the Tower of Babel won't come crashing down on our heads.

    (Howard Kleinberg, a former editor of the Miami News, is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is hkmiami(at)aol.com.)

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    COMMENTARY: FROM THE PAGES OF THE TORAH, A PASSION

    By DAVID GONZALEZ<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service<

    NEW YORK—A well-thumbed Bible, its cracked spine mended by layers of tape and its worn pages marked by a rainbow of stickies, rested on Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis' desk. She carries it everywhere, and it looks it.

    ``Take,'' she said. ``It's all good stuff.'' She had motioned to a nearby plate of cake and rugelach, but coming as it did during an enthusiastic conversation about the Torah, one could have thought she was talking about the book.

    She usually is. Every week, hundreds of young professionals pack an Upper East Side Manhattan synagogue where she lectures—with passion but without notes—on the Torah. It is a comfortable crowd, with smart-looking suits and a confident step.

    Rebbetzin Jungreis—her title is an honorific for a rabbi's wife—worries about the deceptive lure of success. A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Mrs. Jungreis, 61, has had her own test of faith and deliverance. Now she fears that assimilation could swallow up young adults who consider the Biblical story of Passover as a remote tale of troubles.

    ``We survived the generations not that we should disappear in freedom,'' she said. ``We have a generation that has surpassed expectations in every field. But when it comes to the Torah, we _ the people of the book—have Jewish illiterates.''

    Yet her lectures, where she holds forth in tones that are pleading, exhortative and motherly, attract a crowd of young singles who yearn for something more enduring than the latest car or nicest summer place.

    ``What should motivate Jews to continue their heritage?'' she said. ``The Holocaust? Nonsense. That is negative. If we don't know the teachings of the Torah, what should impel them to continue as Jews. If Judaism has nothing to say, why bother being Jewish?''

    Her voice, tinged with the accent of her native Hungary, is soft yet urgent when she explains her mission.

    ``If you study the recent history of American Jews, you see that the majority of hippies, yippies and the Left were dominated by Jews,'' she said. `` Buddhism? A tremendous amount of Jews. It is our mission to create a better world. To bring healing to the world. But if the Jew does not have the knowledge of the Torah, a vacuum is left in his soul, and he will gravitate to any ism.''

    The young adult lectures started simply enough with six people who went to her office at the Hineni Heritage Center two years ago. Within months the session had grown so much that a closed-circuit television was set up in another room. A few months ago, she moved the lecture series to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on East 85th Street, where the spacious lower sanctuary is filled each week.

    There was no advertising. Just word of mouth.

    ``Those who removed themselves from Jewish peoplehood, if they had been in Egypt they would not have been redeemed,'' she lectured shortly before Passover. ``In the ninth plague of darkness, those Jews died.''

    Stuart Daniel briefly left the room during her talk.

    ``Ooh!'' he said to someone in the hallway. ``Too much.''

    He said that he usually went for the socializing that happens after the talks.

    ``She goes a little bit overboard,'' he said. ``A little too emotional.''

    But others were attracted by her passion.

    ``I walk out of there feeling like, the treasures of life,'' said Soriya Kowalsky. ``Her lectures leave you inspired and make you want to say hi to people. In a bar, you wouldn't give somebody the time of day.''

    David Smolanoff started going to the lectures a year and a half ago, after months of putting it off to prepare for a body-building competition. Two days after the contest, he met Mrs. Jungreis and was hooked.

    I was looking to increase my strength in the physical sense,'' he said. ``When I came here I realized that the strength I needed didn't come from Mount Olympus, but Mount Sinai. The muscle I needed to develop was my soul.''

    Such comments give Mrs. Jungreis hope. She wants people to realize that the worn book that accompanies her everywhere can teach a lot. The holy person, she said, is not sitting on some mountaintop in the lotus position, but fully involved in the world.

    She tapped her hand on her Bible.

    ``We always managed to smuggle a book, a page sometimes,'' she said. ``Even in Bergen-Belsen we managed. I don't know how my father did it. The book, the book, the book. Here, we have the books. But we need somebody to open it.''

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    THE ADVENTURE OF KEEPING KOSHER IN VIETNAM

    By BARAK D. RICHMAN<

    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service

    HANOI, Vietnam—The tropical heat was relentless in the waiting room of Noi Bai Airport as Vietnamese immigration officers inspected each new visitor. Slowly, nervously, I proceeded in line, feeling the contents of my backpack begin to melt. My 90-minute flight from Bangkok, Thailand, to Hanoi had been too short for me to think of a good story for the customs officials.

    ``They're chickens,'' I imagined saying in my broken Vietnamese.

    ``But we have chickens here in Vietnam'' would be the obvious answer.

    Where to go from there? Should I try to explain the kosher requirements for slaughtering meat, a procedure that a rabbi in Bangkok performs for the small Jewish community in Thailand? ``And, you see, we don't have a rabbi in Hanoi,'' I could say, once I had thought of a good way to translate ``rabbi.''

    Luckily, I passed through customs with my stockpile of 20 frozen chickens and rushed home to my freezer. So ends another chapter in my adventure of learning to find kosher food in a country that doesn't know Judaism.

    Since I arrived under the auspices of the Henry Luce Foundation to serve as a visiting lecturer in international economics at Hanoi National University, I have endured several such chapters. Recent economic reforms have brought relative affluence, and the Vietnamese now enjoy far more meat than before. That leaves little room for vegetables, which are the only option for a kosher diet.

    I am thankful that Indochina's Buddhist monks have blazed a trail for me. I often describe myself as ``chay,'' the term the monks use. Translated literally, it means I am the strictest vegan. Then, I am often asked whether I am Buddhist. ``Close enough,'' I reply.

    Still, the ``chay'' badge is not foolproof either, because restaurateurs do not comprehend the full extent of vegetarianism or do not understand my pronunciation. So I have armed myself with nearly a dozen other phrases to relate my dietary restrictions: ``Is there meat? I don't eat meat. I don't eat beef, pork, crab, shrimp, frog, water buffalo, mutton, snake, eel.'' (All are meats that can sneak up on you here.) ``Did this touch meat? Then I can't eat it.'' And if those don't work, ``I eat only rice.''

    Jewish holidays bring the greatest pleasures and the steepest challenges. The highlight, to date, was a delicious party we organized for Purim. We made what we believe to be Vietnam's first ever hamantaschen, the traditional triangular cookies, after finding tropical substitutes for the standard ingredients of poppy seeds and prunes.

    I have developed a certain camaraderie with an Israeli family, stationed here as diplomats, for whom keeping kosher is also important. We excitedly inform each other when we find a new product that is acceptable or discover a bakery that uses only vegetable oil. We attained nirvana when a friend from Hong Kong brought me kosher salami and hot dogs (given, ironically, as Christmas presents, perhaps the most appreciated in history).

    Judaism clearly was not designed for the lone traveler. But if I persist, I feel that I will score an important personal victory. It will mean that my adventures will not dilute my observance, and my observance will not dilute my adventures.

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