"Who Stole My Religion?"
Several weeks ago, in a post entitled "How Frum Is Your Food?", I lamented how the Orthodox Jewish community (and particularly the ultra-Orthodox community) pays very little attention to animal welfare, especially in comparison to the enormous emphasis on stringency with kashrut. Part of the reason for this unfortunate phenomenon can be found in a book that was sent to me, provocatively titled Who Stole My Religion? (an earlier edition of which is freely available online in its entirety here). The book was written by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, and is subtitled "Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet." It is published by Urim and it is specifically targeted towards Orthodox Jews.
The book has a foreword by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz who is also listed as a co-author. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a person who has performed acts of kindness to which most of us cannot begin to aspire, such as donating a kidney to a stranger and taking in foster children. However, he has also authored numerous articles which utterly invert traditional Jewish teachings in order to make them harmonious with his contemporary liberal values. For example, he claims that the Torah itself shows a full acceptance of all sexual orientations, because since Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all mankind, they therefore contain all their descendants(?), and thus all genetic sexual proclivities reflect the Divine purpose of humanity(??). Dealing with homosexuality is indeed a problem with which Orthodox Judaism does not seem to have yet succeeded, but claiming that homosexuality is consistent with traditional Judaism hardly makes for credible theology. Yanklowitz has also claimed that it is "spiritually violent" to refer to God in the masculine, and that the Jews' slaughter of their mortal enemies in the story of Esther is morally wrong (apparently they should have let them live, to have another opportunity to plot the murder of the Jews).
Then, back in April 2015 when Obama was president, Yanklowitz very sensibly wrote: "Israeli friends, I love you, but I fear you may be hurting yourselves (and all Jews) by constantly shaming the US President. Let there be no mistake: Israel is dependent upon US support. If there was G-d forbid a major crisis in Israel, the very first call would be to the US President! Responsible Zionism requires humility in imperfect partnerships." Yet, when Trump was elected, Yanklowitz made headlines by rewriting the prayer for the government so as to condemn Trump instead of blessing him, and called for a public fast on the day of his inauguration!
As a result of all this (and more), Yanklowitz might be a very fine teacher of contemporary liberalism, but he cannot be taken seriously as teaching any kind of Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, this complete loss of credibility, and siding with groups and outlooks that oppose traditional Judaism and/or large sectors of the Orthodox community, means that any truly valuable struggles that he engages in with the Orthodox community are instantly undermined. I mention these problems with Rabbi Dr. Yanklowitz because they mirror the problems with Dr. Schwartz's book.
The book roughly divides into three parts. The first part is an all-out attack on American Jews who are politically right wing. Schwartz, while admitting that the Democratic party is not perfect, makes the bold claim that Republican philosophy cannot be reconciled with Jewish values. Now, I am not American, and I don't know that much about Republicans and Democrats. Still, it seems to me that to correlate the immensely complex array of Jewish values with a particular contemporary political party is naive. It is rather presumptuous to claim that Jews of a different political persuasion have "stolen my religion." It does not seem to have occurred to the author that perhaps these Jews prioritize different aspects of Judaism than he does, or have a different understanding of political and social realities.
The second part of the book is a discussion of various aspects of the Israel/Arab conflict, where the the author laments the lack of peace, and lectures at great length about how valuable it would be to have peace with the Palestinians. You don't say! I would venture to suggest that people who actually live in Israel, and suffer from the effects of Palestinian terrorism, feel this even more strongly than people in the US.
The author feels that the lack of peace is partially or even primarily the fault of the right-wing Israel government and is, once again, the result of his religion having been stolen. On p. 104 he insists that Israel is responsible for coming up with a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. On p. 81, in discussing how to make peace with the Palestinians, he makes the following breathtaking statement:
"Judaism has traditionally been based on reconciling opposites. There is a basic principle of Torah interpretation that says when two verses seem to contradict each other, a third verse will come to reconcile them. Judaism teaches us to listen to all sides of an argument and then try to find a way to reconcile them."
As with the writings of R. Dr. Yanklowitz, this makes a mockery of traditional Judaism and intellectual integrity. The principle of reconciling contradictions, mentioned here, is that of reconciling seeming contradictions between two statements of the same Divine author. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts with other nations. Yes, there is such a thing as creative drush, but this one is just silly. Did traditional Judaism mandate that the conflict with Amalek or the Nazis should be resolved by listening to their side and reconciling with them?!
On p. 85 the author notes that the responsibility for the lack of peace and blame does not only lie with Israel, but he issues a statement of blind faith in the resolution of these problems: "There are many obstacles to a just peace, including Arab intransigence and promotion of hatred toward Jews and Israel, but I believe these problems can be solved." How exactly can these problems be solved? He doesn't say. What is the basis for his faith that this is possible, after so many attempts have failed? He doesn't say.
A common problem with the left is that they often fail to acknowledge the logical possibility that the maximum that Israel can safely cede is much less than the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to settle for (a possibility which, indeed, is supported by all available evidence). The reason why most of Israel is no longer talking about how Israel must seek peace with the Palestinians is not because they are opposed to peace. It's due to most of Israel having woken up to the cold, harsh reality that the dominant forces among the Palestinians are not interested in peace, and the word "peace" for them is simply a politically correct euphemism for conquest. The author writes that "Instead of living in adversarial mode, we need to somehow find a way to move into a mode of conciliation and cooperation, seeking common ground and solution." But maybe there is no common ground with them, and maybe conciliation and cooperation are less important values in their culture than conquest and victory? Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that the Jewish People have no history in the Land of Israel - why would they accept us controlling any of it today?
In any case, even if someone disagrees with the right-wing approach, it's certainly a reasonable and understandable approach to take, in light of repeated Palestinian rejections of the Jewish People having any historical presence or right to any of Israel. The notion that being right-wing is an example of having "stolen Judaism" from traditional, authentic religious values is absurd and offensive.
In the third part of the book, the author moves to environmentalism and animal welfare, in which he raises some very important issues that are, tragically, not take seriously in the Orthodox community. But of course, by now he has already lost all but the most left-wing of readers, so he is preaching to the choir. If there are any Jews in the mainstream Orthodox community that he hasn't yet alienated, he does so on page 206, in which, after discussing the very real problems of factory farming, he writes "I believe that Jews should seriously consider becoming vegetarians, and preferably vegans, to be most consistent with basic Jewish teachings." This statement is utterly wrong, not to mention completely counterproductive. Basic Jewish teachings, over the last few thousand years, have made it clear that it is perfectly legitimate to eat meat. All the problems that he names with factory farming can be solved by eating animals that are not developed and farmed in such a way; it does not require a person to become vegetarian. (See, for example, the excellent animal welfare work of the Jewish Initiative For Animals - which is run by a shochet!) Claiming that good Jews have to be vegetarians simply turns off most Jews to anything that you have to say about animal welfare.
The author discusses turning Rosh Chodesh Elul, the Rosh HaShanah for behemot (domestic animals), into a festival that celebrates respect for the animal kingdom. The problem is that this festival, mentioned in the Mishnah, was traditionally no such thing; instead, it was simply a date for counting newborn animals for tithing purposes. The author, to his credit, acknowledges that this is a conscious effort to transform the original date into something else entirely (just as happened with Tu B'Shvat). The same cannot be said for R. Dr. Yanklowitz, who, in his article about this celebration, claims that celebrating it in this way was God's Intent, and that "the holiday was a means to celebrate the special bond between humanity and the other creations of the Earth." No, it wasn't! Not that such would not be a nice thing to celebrate; it certainly is (and both Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh include aspects of celebrating the natural world). But this is simply not what Rosh HaShanah LeBehemah was about, and to claim otherwise looks intellectually dishonest and silly.
In this forum I have often criticized revisionism of traditional Judaism by the religious right, but the far left is equally guilty of this. Of course, Judaism does evolve. The contemporary celebrations of the chagim bear little similarity to their ancient agricultural forms. In Israel, the traditional festival of Shemini Atzeret has completely disappeared and been replaced by the much more recent festival of Simchat Torah (if you don't believe me, ask Israeli kids what the name of that day is). And we have seen the creation of new festivals, such as the one celebrating pyromania and the reformation of classical Judaism by a pseudepigraphic mystical work. However, there is a difference between the natural, organic evolution of Judaism, and the cavalier dismissal of millennia of tradition and blatant rewriting of Judaism to make it conform with the contemporary liberal left-wing zeitgeist.
The author expresses wonder and dismay at how the Orthodox Jewish community denies climate change and displays little regard for the welfare of animals and the environment. He doesn't seem to realize that he himself, and the people and organizations that he endorses in his book, are partially the cause of this. Issuing blatantly spurious revisionism of Torah and siding with those hostile to Orthodox values are not only going to decrease the effectiveness of your important messages; they will actually cause people to reject those messages, due to presumptions of guilt by association. If there's one thing that I've learned with the banning of my books on Torah and science, and the success of The Biblical Museum of Natural History at reaching the full spectrum of the population (except those that I alienated with my books), it's that you have to respect people's communal values and beliefs, and educate within that framework.
Judaism is a complex system that has been developing over many thousands of years. Yes, there are many problems in contemporary Orthodox society that need to be fixed, and which demonstrate it falling out of step with certain traditional Torah values, as I have written about on many, many occasions. But to reduce Judaism to certain left-wing liberal views of the first decades of the 21st century is no less dishonest (and perhaps quite a bit more so) than defining Judaism as charedism or as rationalism.
The book's title asks, "Who Stole My Religion?" Well, the obvious response from most of the author's desired target audience will be, "You did!"