Avarice or Cowardice or ???

The Forward recently reported on another in a series of what it calls “cushy confabs” that bring together the really important Jews to deliberate and pontificate (although the pontiff himself was not invited — perhaps that big yarmulke did him in) and decide the future course of Jewry and Judaism for all us small folk.

In this sense, this gathering of pretentious eggheads, enjoying an all-expenses-paid jaunt on the dime of a filthy-rich sponsor whose own pretensions are slaked by soaking in the intellectual aroma of the former — read: those who can pontificate; those who can’t, bankroll others who pontificate — is so entirely irrelevant that even the slight energy expended by tapping on a keypad grants it more than its due.

This latest shindig, last month’s grand summit of Jewish People Policy Planner People, some other such regular inanity called — so very understatedly — “The Conversation” — they’re all so fungible and so deeply meaningless.

But one incident at this latest outing, held in Park City, Utah, and put on by the Bronfmans, needs comment. The Forward‘s reporter describes the scene when old man Bronfman arose to address the assemblage:

Looking out at the crowd, Edgar bemoaned the “deep sexism” in the Orthodox communities and said he couldn’t “possibly believe God wrote the Bible.” These comments, as well as his uncontroversial plug for tikkun olam, were greeted with hearty applause by everyone, the most religious included.

Now, neither Bronfman’s musings nor the audience’s enthusiasm for them are surprising in the least . . . almost. How did that last line end? “[T]he most religious included”? That’s what I thought.

I haven’t put a call into the Sam Bronfman Foundation to request a full list of the 40-odd invited guests, but I do know from reading press reports in the Forward and JTA that the conference coordinator is an Orthodox rabbi. At least three of the participants are of that persuasion as well, including an individual who was spoken of as a candidate for Y.U. president and the fellow who would have been his competition had the former been selected.

[I omit all names here because I’m really not sure that it’s permissible to mention them, and, in any event, this post’s objective of drawing attention to their behavior is adequately achieved without such mention. But, dear reader, if you know any of these individuals, by all means feel free to direct them to this post; perhaps they’d like to explain themselves.]

So, if we are to believe the Forward ‘s writer, we have prominent Orthodox Jews heartily applauding, along with everyone else, a condemnation of Orthodoxy for “deep sexism” (the article doesn’t say or even imply that any other segment of Jewry came in for Edgar’s wrath on any score, or, if they did, that hearty applause was forthcoming).

They further reddened their palms in appreciationof renowned theologian Bronfman’s considered view, arrived at after eighty-some years of sustained cogitation (for fellow former A. Konigsberg devotees: “with time out only to try to get the two little balls in the eyes of the bear”) that G-d hath not written the Bible (of course not, silly, which CEO doesn’t do dictation?)

But perhaps we rush to judgment, you say, and the mention of “the most religious” refers not to our Orthodox brethren, ro perhaps we ought not believe the reporter at all. It still seems a good bet that if they didn’t applaud, heartily or otherwise, they didn’t stand up and make a ruckus, or even politely demur, or even storm out dramatically, or even slither out quietly. Because had they done so, it’s quite likely that the press would have dutifully reported as much.

And so, the question now becomes: why? Why would Orthodox Jews, sophisticated and glib ones at that, at best sit docilely by, and at worst join in the gladiatorial frenzy, as their faith community, their families, their rebbes, their cherished beliefs, are singled out for public censure as immoral and as an octogenarian am ha’aretz feels entitled, having paid for the food, to boorishly rub his rejection of the essence of Judaism in his beneficiaries’ faces?

There are, it would seem, three possible answers. One is simple cowardice. Another is simple avarice, that is, fear of ruffling the feathers of the goose that lays the golden eggs they so hungrily consume. The Forward itself suggested as much, writing about the whole bunch of fearless intellectuals that “off the record, participants grumbled about the conference’s disorganization, lack of focus, academic arrogance and moments of sexism (the last being likely the fault of the conference’s Orthodox coordinator; you know how deeply sexist those kind are – EK). But no one wanted to step on another’s toes, and certainly nobody wanted to step on the Bronfman purse strings.”

In other words, the dynamic here may have been no different than that at play when, in the past, Orthodox Jews, to their great shame, sat by passively as Michael Steinhardt — another boor who confuses “philosophy” with “philanthropy” — appeared before a high society dinner — one marking Richard Joel’s retirement from the Hillel presidency to assume that of Y.U.! — in full Chasidic dress to nastily lampoon Orthodox Jews. Is there anyone who doubts that a comparable blackface performance would have gotten him thrown off every board he sits on?

So encouraged does Steinhardt seem to have been by the Orthodox non-response that earlier this year, at the posh dinner of another Jewish organization, Steinhardt took the podium to say of Orthodox Jews that “they come from a different planet,” while, according to the Jewish Week , the Orthodox guests in attendance “shook their heads” and “squirmed in their seats,” but apparently weren’t willing to walk out in protest and miss the delectable dessert yet to come. After that incident, too, Samuel Freedman noted that Steinhardt is “a great deal of money with an intemperate mouth, a combination that has let him . . . play on bigoted stereotypes and get away with it because nobody is about to turn down one of his checks.”

Lastly, there’s the possibility that the Orthodox Jews at the Park City event didn’t quite disagree, or at least not vehemently so, with Bronfman . . .

Whichever one or more of these answers is the reality, it doesn’t smell good.

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27 Responses

  1. dr. william gewirtz says:

    I may even share some of your views on this topic, but in honor of Chodesh Elul, try writing a defense for the three unnamed individuals. It is not that hard and might do some good for Tikkun Olam, particulalry in any community that enjoys reading this type of “Page 6” reporting.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    They probably think that the good they can do with a philanthropist’s money is worth having to stand a boor. In ten years nobody would remember the offending remarks, but the kids they educated with the money will still be educated.

    Maybe I’m too prejudiced for “lekaf zechut” (judging people favorably), but it doesn’t seem an unreasonable tradeoff.

    Shavua Tov (it’s close to Shabbat, and I’m sure this won’t be moderated until Motzaey)

  3. Loberstein says:

    I recall an Israeli expert who when speaking before the Baltimore Jewish Council said that people say we need more “confidence building measures” but he prefers more “conference building measures”. That way he can make money going around being an expert.

  4. joel rich says:

    Interesting post, Do you advocate a sunshine policy for all orthodox organizations to disclose the source of all funding along with any communications from the organization’s leaders to those who support their organizations but don’t live up to the organization’s standards?


  5. Tzippi Naomi says:

    Our son is set to attend Yeshiva University in the fall. There are more then a few of us that are deeply concerned about the cowardly behavior as Steinhardt publicly lampooned Orthodox Jewry.

  6. Ben Litchman says:

    What Bronfman said is obviously foolish and wrong (not to mention a cheap shot — it’s not exactly difficult to rail against religious people in front of a crowd of that nature). However, two things:

    1) It’s understandable for someone who has not spent any time immersing himself in Torah to believe that it is “sexist,” and challenge its divinity. How do you expect a person like that to react to the difference in educational opportunities for men and women? How do you expect a person like that to react to commandments regarding annihilating people?

    2) Bronfman may not be a talmid haham, but because of his generosity, Jews at NYU have a place (i.e. the Bronfman Center) to gather, learn Torah, daven, have Shabboth meals, etc.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I need to add something to my comment above. It’s quite possible that the tradeoff is actually a bad one. The perception that certain community leaders care so much about getting money for their institutions they’ll agree to almost everything might cause more damage than that money will provide. However, a wrong tradeoff means somebody made a mistake. It does not mean that somebody is cowardly or avaricious.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    A good argument for Austritt.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, it’s an excellent argument for Austritt! Austritt is obviously the solution! Ehh, what is Austritt? Sorry, I know Hebrew and English, but I don’t understand the term.

  10. Avigdor says:

    I have no problem with a vigorous debate and a vigorous attack on another’s ideas.

    But how are attacks on another individual acceptable? Phrases like “pretentious eggheads”, “a filthy-rich sponsor”, “another boor”, etc. These are just cheap shots at other individual, rather than their ideas.

    And its not good writing. Good writing is done with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that Sam Freedman has pegged Bronfman right-he has a huge checkbook and he believes that the same allows him the right to offer an opinion on any Jewish-despite his obvious and woeful ignorance of anything seriously Jewish. I tend to doubt whether he can affirmatively answer any of the inquiries in Echad Mi Yodea. I know that Richard Joel and Freedman were close when Mr. Joel headed Hillel and that he invited Bronfman to speak and/or receive an award at YU, but given Bronfman’s long record of public Orthodox bashing, it was a questionnable award and IMO, the time has long come for MO leaders to cut any strings to Bronfman. Given the fact that Edgar Bronfman moderated his anti Orthodoxy only because of the presence of R I Singer, IMO, the same issue can be raised with respect to any ties with Edgar Bronfman.

  12. Elliot B. Pasik, Esq. says:

    The author doesn’t quite settle on a definite answer to the headlined question: Avarice or Cowardice? Let me try: Neither. Hishtadlus. Yasher koach to every orthodox participant.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, I don’t know why comments on R Jonathan Rosenblum’s and Shira Schmidt’s excellent columns on this conference were closed. The J Post columns on this issue prove fairly conclusively that the planners deliberately snubbed and were not interested in a Charedi or even Chardal perspective and that the only MO perspectives present appeared to be rather LW MO at best-which are not at all representative of committed MO in the US. Such conferences generally yield thick books, journals, etc that are interesting in their own right but which have zero connection or analysis of the facts on the ground and their root causes.

  14. Moshe Brissman says:

    Did you check to see if the Forward reporter accurately reported the event? You cannot take this for granted.

    Further, it is unclear in the copy if the Orthodox Jews clapped with hearty applause at the unobjectionable tikum olam comment, AND the absursd heretical and sexist comments. They may have clapped at only one or two of these remarks. Even as far as the last statement goes, though I agree it’s riddiculous beyond belief, there are a few orthodox Jews who believe the Torah is sexist. The attendees at this event are probably among them.

    Also, you ask the attendees to do something almost no one does – walk out. There are many frum Jews sit who in shul and hear their rabbonim sput complete nonsense from the pulpit. Some get this on a regular basis, others less so. If you have never heard something with which you passionaely disagree, you either are not thinking with your own mind, or have not been exposed to enough shuls. Yet few of us actually walk out or make a public machach. It’s not b/c of cowardice or avarice, nor do we have anything to gain from it. It’s just simple derech eretz.

    Now, if you are advocating a return to the old days, when ballebatim would get up and tell their rabbonim of when they’ve gone too far – well, that’s a different story. I might agree with you there, for you would be intelellectually honest. But if you are willing to countenance men sitting quietly while they hear amaratzus in shul, you should not be surprised when they do so at dinner speeches.

    Finally, you criticize – with surprisingly undignifed terms – Bronfman and Steinhart, each of whom has given many millions to Jewish causes. Even with the Agudah philosophy, which holds that no Jewish cause is worthwhile unless it results in someone becoming frum, there are plenty of Jews who have become frum b/c of Birthright Israel. And someone else already wrote about the Bronfman Center. You want these people to open their wallets, and keep their mouth shut about policy. That’s a very easy thing for someone to say who’s not giving away money like they are. As a man of opinions, you would find it much harder to keep silent were you actually in their shoes.

  15. Nachum Lamm says:

    Mr. Kobre, have you ever had to hit up a gvir for money? If not, you really shouldn’t judge.

    Once, a rebbe of mine had to accompany a donor until his meeting with Dr. Belkin. (My rebbe was a dean at YU at the time.) The donor was incredibly profane, and, later, he mentioned it to Dr. Belkin. Dr. Belkin responded, “You think it’s easy to give away a million dollars?”

    Ah, back then we had people who thought before condemning. Today we have those who would rather blast away (and in quite an underhanded way, picking on institutions they don’t like with half-truths) at things they have no experience of. God will judge the non-religious donor and those who use their money. Bloggers shouldn’t.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    Nachum-I think that the post in question has hit on a very unfortunate part of organized Jewish life-namely, that anyone who fancies themselves as a philanthropist is entitled to an opinion on any issue affecting the Jewish community-even if the donor is grossly ignorant or hostile to Jewish practices and values.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    Ori asked above, “Ehh, what is Austritt?”

    First, my point was that the Orthodox need to stand aside from umbrella organizations pushing goals and policies antithetical to Orthodoxy, and instead need to develop the needed parallel institutions under Orthodox direction. There is no point in being second-class citizens.

    Recently, my wife was asked to attend a gathering staged by an arm of the “general community” to recognize women for community service. She and another member of our shul were among the honorees, and they and some other Orthodox women attended. Shockingly, the invited speaker veered off into ridicule of the Orthodox in front of the captive audience, showing the true face of the intolerance that some “liberated” people have for us. No organizer stood up there to curb the speaker when that might have demonstrated some real community solidarity.

    Similarly, another local general organization has been advocating leftist political initiatives in the name of the whole community, and our shul (a member organization) has had no ability to influence that direction. Our presence there has no positive value and only supports the fiction that a united community stands behind the group’s political stands.

    Our lack of self-respect that has led to our deference to such organizations has not exactly done us proud.

    The material below is quoted (with a few minor spelling corrections) from http://www.tzemachdovid.org/gedolim/jo/tworld/rbreuer.html


    Perhaps the most characteristic of the Frankfurt kehillah’s battles for religious principle was the “Austritt” struggle that was fought by Rabbi Hirsch and continued by his disciples and successors. In nineteenth century Germany, as in most European countries, religious communities were recognized by the state and had certain powers, including the right of taxation. In the climate of mid-nineteenth century Germany, the governing bodies were dominated by Reformers. So powerful were the communities under Prussian and local law, that an Orthodox synagogue could not exist without their sanction. Rabbi Hirsch’s institutions in Frankfurt had to be called Gesellschaft – association – not a synagogue or community, in order not to be declared illegal. He fought a long and difficult battle on the legislative front to gain legal sanction for his Austrittsgemeinde (separate community).

    When his victory was achieved, the Reform communities offered an important concession. They would permit Orthodox synagogues to have autonomy within the community structure. Some of Germany’s leading gedolei Torah and lay Orthodox leaders accepted this proposal, holding that a person should be permitted to maintain membership in both communities, providing there was no infringement on his religious practice and he was not required to contribute toward the cultural institutions of the Reform movement. To Rabbi Hirsch it was inconceivable that an Orthodox Jew could voluntarily belong to a body purporting to represent the Jewish Kehillah, if that body was directed or controlled by people not loyal to the very foundations of Jewry – the unchanging nature of the Torah and Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith. The fact of membership in such a body implied recognition of its legitimacy as an expression of Judaism, and this was something no Orthodox Jew had the right to grant.

    In Rabbi Hirsch’s words, “What [such membership] amounts to is this: Orthodox Judaism recognizes the complete validity of the Reform Movement so long as it tolerates and shows consideration for Orthodoxy. Nowhere in all the Jewish past will you find anything like this hybrid community.”

    Rabbi Breuer continued the fight of his grandfather and father. He could not countenance recognition of a non-believing body as a legitimate representative of the Jewish people, even though that body granted religious independence and autonomy to its religious subsidiary body. For this reason, he was unalterably opposed to the Mizrachi, which remained affiliated with the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.

  18. Mark says:

    Moshe Brissman,

    “there are plenty of Jews who have become frum b/c of Birthright Israel”

    Have you any idea how many? I’d be very interested in hearing real numbers, not just conjecture.

    It would also be interesting to ask whether more people are becoming frum today thanks to Birthright, than before there was a birthright and they went to EY on their own with backpacks and met Meir Shuster at the WWall.

    In the absence of hard numbers, I find it difficult to believe that Birthright has accomplished more [or even similar] results than beforehand. Please supply any information you have.

  19. mycroft says:

    Some of Germany’s leading gedolei Torah and lay Orthodox leaders accepted this proposal, holding that a person should be permitted to maintain membership in both communities, providing there was no infringement on his religious practice and he was not required to contribute toward the cultural institutions of the Reform movement

    It was more than some of Germany’s gdolei Torah who did not follow SRH on separation-it was most. Reason why not usually self evident-SRH is still known today for his Commentaries and books-which are still read even in English translations. The others are known generally only by scholars.

  20. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, thank you for your explanation. So, basically, you want to acknowledge the reality that the Jewish people has split into two separate groups. We have shared history, but not a shared ideology.

    Jewish identity is and has always been a matter of ideology. Converts could always join, and in the diaspora there is no way to prevent people from leaving. I think that what this means is that we are actually split into two separate peoples. Would you agree with that statement (as a reality, not an ideal)?

  21. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding Comment by Ori Pomerantz — August 23, 2007 @ 10:08 am

    I don’t write off any Jew, so I regard this split as temporary, but I definitely write off some organizations.

  22. Bob Miller says:

    Mycroft’s point above (Comment by mycroft — August 23, 2007 @ 6:07 am) includes the observation that “Some of Germany’s leading gedolei Torah and lay Orthodox leaders accepted…providing there was no infringement on his religious practice and he was not required to contribute toward the cultural institutions of the Reform movement.”

    Interestingly, we have some general community organization today that do “contribute toward the cultural institutions of the Reform movement.”

    Today, how does a Torah Jew truthfully explain our supporting general community organizations that automatically contribute a chunk of all our donations “toward the cultural institutions of the Reform movement” and the like—other than that we have been bought off?

  23. Moshe Brissman says:

    Mark, if you have any experience with Kiruv, you’ll know that many young Jews first became exposed to Judaism while on a birthright trip. It’s downright common. People don’t keep statistics about these things.

    I reiterate also that that I made this point for Mr. Kobre’s benefit, who is/was affilaited with the Agudah. The Agudah’s philosophy is that programs are to be judged solely on the basis of how many people it causes to adopt an orthodox lifestyle. Hence, i observed the “toeles” taht has come from Birthright Israel “lesheitosom”. Most other Jews, including orthodox Jews, do not share this philosophy, and hold that programs that expose Jews to their culture is worthwhile in itself. Birthright Israel has unquestionably done this. Thus, whether graduates of this program become orthodox is really irrellvant.

  24. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Elliot Pasik, “hishtadlus” may justify the Orthodox presence at the conference in the first place, but it doesn’t justify their not protesting Bronfman’s attack on one of the most fundemental principles of Judaism, one that all Orthodox Jews hold dear. I can understand kowtowing to and groveling before a philanthropist; sometimes hishtadlus requires sacrificing dignity and self-respect, and I applaud those who are willing to suffer indignities for a worthwhile cause. But we’re talking about one of the “ikrei emunah” here! Dr. Belkin may have been willing to suffer the profanities of a “gvir”, but I highly doubt he would have put up with “kefirah”, even for a million dollars. Sacrificing the Torah’s honor even for the noble purpose of increasing its honor is putting the cart before the horse. Not to mention the halachic requirement of “mecha’ah” (protest) when hearing such “kefirah”. And Moshe Brissman, that is why you can’t compare a nonsensical sermon in shul with Bronfman’s speech. The laws of “derech eretz” tell us not to insult the rabbi, no matter how inane his “derashah” is. The laws of “mecha’ah” tell us to protest when hearing the type of “kefirah” spouted by Bronfman. I think Bronfman would have a lot more respect for the Orthodox participants had they protested his remarks. Now he probably thinks nothing is sacred to them but the almighty dollar.

    Nachum, if we leave all the judging to G-d, wouldn’t all blogs have to shut down? After all, passing judgment on others (usually from the safety and comfort of anonymity) is the raison d’etre of blogs. [By the way, Mr. Kobre should have known better than to try to sneak a hidden agenda past you!]

  25. Baruch Horowitz says:

    ” The laws of “derech eretz” tell us not to insult the rabbi, no matter how inane his “derashah” is”

    I agree to this difference, but with great caution, would suggest an effective response for the exasperated, disgruntled baal habos(layperson). In other words, there may be times when it is appropriate for Rabbonim and Torah leaders to hear from the tzibbur. There are times– and this may sometimes be due to media distortion– when messages communicated to the public are being understood the wrong way.

    In such cases, the healthiest approach, I think, would be for layman to communicate to their individual rabbonim, who in turn would communicate to a higher level of leadership that a particular message was distorted or was being misunderstood.

    Of course, there is a respectful way of doing that, as in the halacha of pointing out an error in a Torah matter to a parent or a rebbe. Indeed, the same Ruach Chaim on the Mishnah of “v’havei misaveik b’afar ragleihem”, who points to the virtue of “wrestling” with one’s rebbe (I quoted it on Jonathan Rosenblum’s recent thread), cautions that many times, errors should be attributed to a lack of the student’s understanding.

  26. Mark says:

    Moshe Brissman,
    “Mark, if you have any experience with Kiruv, you’ll know that many young Jews first became exposed to Judaism while on a birthright trip. It’s downright common. People don’t keep statistics about these things.”

    Here’s the rub. I actually do work in kiruv [do you?] and I know quite a bit about these things and I do beg to differ with your assertion [as do many of my peers btw]. It may be true that many Jews become exposed to Judaism through Birthright but there are many factors to consider here.

    1. Many Jews get exposed thanks to or in spite of Birthright’s efforts? There’s a big difference here. A student of mine went on a Birthright trip and although they visited army camps, Masada, Ethiopian villages, Arab schools, etc. they somehow never quite made it to the Kosel. The only reason he made it there was because on the last night of the trip while everyone else went barhopping he and a few others snuck out and took a cab to the kosel.
    The Birthright curriculum offers very little by way of exposing them to anything resembling traditional Judaism [in the early days there was more of this but it was nipped rather early on]

    2. Are less kids going on Aish, Ohr Someach, Livnot, etc. trips today because of the fact that they’re all going on Birthright? The numbers would indicate that this is the case and that’s a huge problem because those trips did an awful lot to bring students to Yiddishkeint in a more direct manner than any BR trip ever could.

    3. Is BR really helping stem the intermarriage rate [one of its professed goals]?
    This is a hard question to answer because given the fact that ANY student who claims to be Jewish is automatically accepted on a BR trip and those of us who work in kiruv know that a significant percentage of students on campus who claim to be Jewish are not [in my experience it’s one out of four], they actually end up socializing with and dating non jews in many cases. I personally know of three such cases just this past year.

    4. Is the fact that students go on BR preventing them from making their own trips as they did before BR and invariably landed up at the wall and were ripe targets for Meir Schuster, Jeff Seidel and many others. The fact is that Jeff and Meir [especially] are no longer nearly as busy as once before and that is a direct consequence of BR.

    5. What does BR really accomplish?
    There is no question that upon their return many students are enthused about the land, the culture, and some express a desire to return [for another free trip!], and so on and so forth…
    Two months later the scene is very different. The enthusiasm generally has waned and their back with the non-Jewish dates in many cases and so on and so forth. Yes – some retain their motivation to “get more involved” but the majority lose it within six months. At the Hillel that I used to be affiliated with, the first Shabbat Dinner after BR was packed, the second was half-full and within a month there was little left to show for their efforts.

    There’s plenty more to be said if you’re interested. BR is hardly what it’s cracked up to be and even “Lshetosom” is not the smashing success you portray it to be. Theis is information however that only someone who is actually involved in kiruv would know.

  27. Moshe Brissman says:

    Mark, your discussion over BR is beside the point. Of course BR is not perfect. All I said was that it was undeniable that many Jews become frum through a process that began on a BR trip (intended by BR or not),and that alone should make it worthwhile in the eyes of the Agudah.

    Chaim Wolfson and Baruch Horowits are right that one should have derech erets to a rabbi ( to anyone, really), no matter how silly his remarks. But nevertheless, my point was that we all hear foolish things, and not walking out is not necessarily a function of cowardice or avarice, as Mr. kobre averred.

    Horowitz adds an intruiging idea. The reality today in many shuls is that the rabbonim are not all that much better educated than their ballebattim. They all went to the same yeshivahs, and in many cases they all learned in kollel. That’s why, perhaps, this phenomenon of people belittleing their rabbis is growing. (I have no proof, of course, it just seems that way to me). The Torah revolution has had the unexpected consequence of blurring the line between rabbi and congregant. The chasm that separated the two no longer exists, in many circles. Thus, it is vital for more communication to exist between the rabbi and the ballebattim. I dont know how this would work in practical terms, but the idea is interesting.

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