Translating the Talmud and modern American politics

I’ve been looking around for an Election Day item to share today, but nothing has really snagged my attention.

Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life said: “Last night was a great night for the pro-life movement.”

The Muslim American Society said: “With the 2010 Election results revealing a greater shift to the political right and the rise of the Tea Party, the American Muslim community will need to substantially increase its political participation in Election 2012.”

Nothing that really surprised.

So I’ll share something that has nothing to do with politics or elections or 2010 or 2012.

The Jewish Week has a story about Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a prominent Jewish scholar who has spent the last 45 years translating the Talmud from Aramaic to modern Hebrew and English.

That’s 45 years.

He’s publishing the final tractate in the series this Sunday. We’re talking about 40 volumes.

The resulting body of work, truly a body of work, is the Steinsaltz Talmud, which is used around the world by Jews from all traditions and even many non-Jewish scholars and others who want to delve into the trove of ancient rabbinic debates that make up the Talmud.

Steinsaltz, who is 73, tells the JW: “Jewish knowledge belongs to everyone. Our goal is not so much to ‘spread’ knowledge, but to give it back to its owners.”

What is Talmud? Here is the JW’s definition: “The Talmud — both the larger, more-authoritative Babylonian Talmud, and the smaller Jerusalem Talmud — is a compilation of debates and discussions that took place in rabbinical academies after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Fearing that the oral tradition would be lost, the generation’s religious leaders decided to record the teachings that can be traced, according to Jewish tradition, to Moses on Mount Sinai.”

I should note that Steinsaltz has slipped in a few dozen other books during the past 45 years.

Five years ago, I got to cover him when he spoke at the Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation. He has a long white beard and looks like he could be one of the rebbes who helped produce the original Talmud.

I got to interview him before his talk. Oddly enough, I must have asked him about politics, in particular about polarization in American politics.

He said:

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Day and night are dissimilar, but night is never completely dark and day is not everywhere light. Even black is rarely completely black or white completely white. This is reality.

American, as distinct from English, is a language of superlatives, of overstatement. Because of that, in America, when you have a dispute, it is between angels and devils. But even angels, most of the time, are not completely angelic. And devils should be full of self-doubt – even though American devils might be different.

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So he wasn’t thrilled with seeing things in black-and-white.

But guess what? He wasn’t too happy with gray, either.

As he put it: “The gray people see the whole world in shades of gray – dark gray, very bright gray. These people are so sophisticated, so clever. They see the nuances, but could lose the quality of knowing there is a difference between right and wrong. It is the other side of the equation. Sometimes you have to take sides, even though you don’t have all the answers.”

So there is your Election Day message, after all.

The imam’s troubles, Woody Allen, Jewish day schools and messy ice cream ads

A few matters great and small:

1. I’ve written in the past that I’ve heard only good things about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from those who know him. Rauf is, of course, the lead figure trying to develop the much-disputed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

But now Rauf is facing some pretty serious allegations about being, of all things, a slumlord in Jersey.

The Record of Bergen County, N.J., has written some disturbing stuff about a low-income apartment building in Union City that needs serious repairs. Its owner, Rauf, hasn’t been making them and is now being taken to court.

The Record’s Mike Kelly writes:

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Then, on Friday, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Union City officials rushed again to Rauf’s building. PSE&G had shut off the electricity in the hallways. The reason: Rauf failed to pay a bill of almost $5,000, Stack said.

Not only were the hallways dark, but the electric-powered smoke detectors and fire alarms were not working. In other words, the building was now a fire trap.

When Union City officials persuaded PSE&G to restore electricity, they discovered yet another code violation – the fire alarms were not working anyway, even with electricity.

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Explanations, anyone?

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

2. Woody Allen has always been associated with a certain New York, Jewish sensibility.

A lot of Americans in the Heartland probably learned some of what they know about Jewish humor and even Jewish ways of looking at the world from Woody’s movies.

It didn’t make much of a difference, in this regard, that Woody was never a real religious guy.

But, still, many Jews probably winced while reading the NYT’s interview with The Woodman yesterday. He pretty much disowned the Tribe.

He didn’t want to be wished a “Happy New Year” for the Jewish new year, telling the Times: “That’s for your people. I don’t follow it. I wish I could get with it. It would be a big help on those dark nights.”

He also says: “To me, there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful.”

Manu Fernandez /AP file

3. The Jewish Week reports on the first-ever study of how Jewish day schools handle the abuse of students — sexual, physical, psychological.

Yeshiva U in NYC conducted the survey and got responses from more than 40 percent of 320 schools polled. These included mostly modern Orthodox day schools, some Conservative schools and some Orthodox yeshivas.

According to the JW:

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Underscoring the need for more data on a problem little acknowledged until a decade ago, 80 percent of respondents report that “behavioral signs” are the primary means of identifying abuse, but only 15 percent of respondents said they could “easily identify abuse, with a full 48 percent disagreeing altogether,” according to the report.

“The headline here is that the community is recognizing a challenge and responding,” said Goldberg. He added that support is coming from rabbis, educators, lay leaders and philanthropists, and that efforts over the last decade have led “to what we expect is a ‘tipping point,’” where the community can face the challenges of abuse.

Yitzchak Schechter, a psychologist who headed the study and program with Goldberg, noted that “as a reflection of the changing times, 88 percent of the respondents agree or strongly agree that reporting abuse is accepted by the Torah.”

Though no statistical data is available for comparison, the study team said this represents “a very significant change in attitude” in the Orthodox community, where some still insist that rabbinic leaders, not secular authorities, should handle such cases.

4. Why would an ice cream company in Italy want to challenge the Vatican?

The company has an ad depicting a pregant nun eating ice cream. The ad promises ice cream that is “Immaculately Conceived.”

The same company produced an ad last year showing a nun and preist about to kiss.

The ads have faced all sorts of opposition. But the company, Antonio Fedirici, plans to press on. They have a bigger agenda, saying that the pregnant nun ad is supposed to “comment on and question, using satire and gentle humor, the relevance and hypocrisy of religion and the attitudes of the church to social issues.”

American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew — especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel — but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But — there’s always a but — it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate — the religious establishment — is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:

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The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.

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Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:

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Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.