November 20, 2014

Conversion Law

On the face of it Judaism welcomes converts, regardless of race or background, if their motive is a sincere conviction that they would like to live a committed Jewish life. But there were always differing points of view. The well-known Talmudic story tells about a potential convert coming to the great Shammai and asking to be converted if he can teach him the Torah standing on one leg. Shammai, going by the book, told him to get lost. The even greater Hillel, on the other hand, converted him by giving him a general overview that Judaism is concerned with caring for human beings, and then told him to come back for more lessons.

Two thousand years ago converts were legion. But then both Christianity and Islam made conversion to Judaism a capital offence, and Jews turned inward to avoid trouble. Come the Enlightenment mores Jews converted out than in. At that stage there was no alternative to religious identification. But as society became more open and secular, liberal communities began to accept converts who wanted to marry Jews rather than to live an Orthodox way of life.

History and circumstances changed. Even within Orthodoxy, the desire to encourage new blood and the establishment of a Jewish State led to many rabbis becoming much more flexible, particularly for those living in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally open and flexible. But in recent years, its hijacking by more right-wing rabbis or those more beholden to right-wing politics has led to complete chaos, with rabbi pitted against rabbi and community against community. Increasingly the right wing insists on no compromise of Orthodox demands, and the left wing insists on no restrictions at all. Caught in between are hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis who are not legally Jewish but are full citizens of a Jewish State, thousands of Reform converts not recognized as Jewish and hundreds of Orthodox converts whose conversions are not now deemed kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Orthodoxy today is as divided as in Hillel’s day between those who stand for what they see as religious integrity and fewer numbers and those who want to open up Judaism to more people, and in the case of the State of Israel want to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This chaos is proof that when religion and politics intersect, the result is total desecration of every religious value. It only makes a laughingstock out of Judaism.

Despite all this I am just amazed at the number of wonderful committed young men and women I have met who have persevered and jumped through all the hoops to become amongst the most impressive, committed, and learned Jews I have come across. Although, yes, I admit I have also come across just as many who were not sincere and had other agendas.

This month conversion has been in the news in the USA and in Israel. In Washington a prominent Orthodox rabbi who had been a champion of centralizing and tightening up Orthodox conversions under the Rabbinical Council of America has himself been found falling short of the very moral and religious standards he claimed to and should have been upholding. What a shock it has been to those converted under his aegis. And coincidentally the Knesset in Israel, recognizing what a mess we have, has just passed some new laws trying to make the conversion process transparent and fairer there.

Israel’s marriage laws are an embarrassment. There is no civil marriage. You can only get married by a religious authority. You can marry across the faiths, but only if you agree to accept some religious authority of whichever religion. And hitherto one centralized authority controlled it all, and you had to go to the relevant clergyman in your district.

Under pressure, the Knesset last year opened up religious marriages in Israel to allow one to go to any recognized rabbi instead just one’s local poobah. Of course it still doesn’t help a secular Jew who wants nothing to do with his religion or any other. Travelling to Cyprus is his nearest option.

Now the Knesset has intervened to make conversions less hide bound and here too one can, in theory, go to any established rabbinical authority. The trouble is that the Chief Rabbinate was and remains so opposed to any compromise that, in the end, the political parties agreed to allow the Chief Rabbinate a veto as to who would be allowed to convert and who not.

So although in theory things have loosened up, a fat lot of good it has done because the Knesset Bill is not binding. The law was not passed as legislation but as a government directive. Legislation would have provided greater guarantees that the ability of municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions would not be overturned. The government directive is subject to the unpredictability of coalition politics. A simple cabinet decision could overturn it. So in fact if the Chief Rabbinate proves to be bolshie, it can. Of course one can always pray for a miracle, but that is not always very reliable.

Because the more open national-religious rabbinic leadership has been losing ground to more the extremes, a backlash has developed, led mainly by the Tzohar rabbinical association, against the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate. It has succeeded in galvanizing less rigid and more Zionist inclined rabbis to make both marriage and conversion much more humane and personal. Despite all attempts to squash them, they are flourishing. But the situation still remains inconsistent.

Those who oppose the change argue, in my view not at all unreasonably, that the decentralization of conversion can lead to individual rabbis giving in to pressure and bribes. This has, in fact, been the case for many years, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. But I do not believe it is worth making life impossibly difficult just because some people take advantage. It’s like school rules. The tougher you make them, the more likely the efforts to circumvent them.

It’s all very well to complain about the abuses, but unless Orthodoxy can come up with a consistent, humane alternative, we remain in a state of chaos and moral deficiency. Torah, instead of being a light, is in danger of failing in its moral and spiritual mission.

I stand solidly on the side of compromise. I fear, however, that I will be on the losing side, as I have been so far within Orthodoxy. This will not discourage me, but it will be tough on the campaigners and bad for Judaism. Why, oh, why do we seem to go out of the way to appear rigid, uncompromising, and extreme? Do we really want to shoot ourselves in the foot every time? For what it’s worth, I gather the pope has similar problems!

November 13, 2014

Scotland the Brave

I have always loved Scotland.

When I was two years old, my father became the Communal Rabbi of Glasgow. The much missed author Chaim Bermant records that when Kopul Rosen had finished his induction address an elder of the community was seen to walk away shaking his head. "What's the matter?" he was asked. "Don't you think he's good?"

"Good? He's marvelous."

"Then why are you shaking your head?"

"Because a man like that will never stay here for long."

He was right, though for possibly the wrong reasons. The Rosen family's time in Glasgow was brief, just two years, because my father was called to London to become the Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. All I recall from that period was having my finger nibbled by a rabbit at Queens Park Zoo.

In 1968 I returned to Scotland as the rabbi of Giffnock, the largest Scottish Orthodox community, and spent some of the happiest years of my life. I loved the community. It was so warm, so Scottish. But they talked about leaving the country every time they went down to London. To me, Scotland and the work in the community was heaven. But I didn’t last long either. Not because I didn’t love it, but because I was called south to take over my late father’s school in England.

I was educated in England, and we were taught about the Great British Empire and Scotland’s essential part of it. Throughout the empire the Scots marched in their kilts and trews and blew their bagpipes. They fought bravely and provided skills, managerial and academic expertise. We English were proud of the Scots. But the feeling was not necessarily mutual.

One often sensed an abiding resentment of England that came from earlier battles and defeats. The competition between the two dominant soccer clubs of Glasgow in those days, Celtic and Rangers, often led to violent encounters and reflected the tensions between Catholics and the Protestants, the loyalists and the antiroyalists. The annual international between Scotland and “the auld enemie” England was often marred by violence.

Scotland had beauty, vibrant culture, and great universities, but also brutal poverty and drunkenness. The Church of Scotland was independent of the Church of England. Scotland had its own legal and educational systems. Political life in Scotland was for the past 150 years dominated by the unions, with their passionate Marxist orators and bullies. The leaders of the working masses along the Clyde, in heavy industries and shipbuilding, were amongst the founders of the Labour Party.

Over time the Conservative party lost any influence it once had North of the Border. Virtually all the Westminster members of Parliament from Scotland are socialists, and often extreme ones as well. The Scots liked to express their deep resentment that England was flourishing as Scotland declined. This resentment remained even after the North Sea oil boom brought wealth to Aberdeen and the North East. Then the Scottish National Party appeared and added a petty and anti-English form of nationalism to the mix. But it expanded and offered a serious alternative to the big parties from the south.

Massive financial support of the Scottish social system by English taxpayers was a sweetener, but not enough. So more money was poured out to build a Scottish Parliament and carry out devolution. In its turn this caused resentment in England because Members of Parliament from Scotland could vote in London on matters of English concern, but English MPs couldn't have a say in Scotland’s Parliament.

In British politics I am not a natural Conservative, but whereas once I was a strong Labour supporter, the way it has become increasingly unsympathetic (at best) towards Israel has inclined me against them. Perversely this was why I might have supported the idea of Scottish independence in theory! Because if the socialist politicians could be hived off the British body politic that way, their malign hard-left influence would be removed from a Westminster already coming more and more under antagonistic sway.

On the other hand, an independent Scotland without the moderation of the Conservatives would have been yet another violently anti-Israel vote in the UN and the EU. So on balance I am glad it went the way it did.

Interestingly, in the vote for Scottish independence Glasgow and Dundee areas were the ones with by far the largest vote in favor of breaking the union. They are also the most vociferously anti-Israel cities. And the younger generation voted overwhelmingly to split. As everywhere in the west nowadays, the young, educated activists see anti-Israelism as their default cause. Radicalism lashes out in predictable directions.

Now, with the breakup averted, one comfort is that the UK will remain ambivalent about Israel because the Conservatives do contain a pro-Israel element, regardless of the pressure from the Foreign Office. England now may well have its own parliament that excludes the Scottish MPs, who can now do as they please within their own borders. And England will continue to foot much of its bills. That was the carrot offered to try to win votes. That's tradition for you and the price of preserving the Union Jack and Balmoral as the Queen’s summer retreat!

The truth is I have doubts about more little ethnicities asking for independence. All this nationalism really goes back to the post-WWI misguided attempt to stop more conflict. The old empires fractured, and each part became more self-preoccupied and xenophobic. The EU has tried to rectify it, but the result has been a capitulation of its dominant ethnicities to external ones. All countries and most politicians are corrupt to varying degrees and waste money. Lots of little ones only end up increasing the pig trough and wasting even more.

The only good I could see in this whole episode was that it makes it harder to argue that if every little European ethnicity can have their state, then why should not Israel? But frankly, in the end, national identities tend to be bad things and cause more enmity rather than less. And anti-Semitism knows no logic. World peace is still a long way off, but Scotland the brave remains part of Great Britain and the Queen can now relax. At least she still has her “Sceptered Isle”.

November 06, 2014

The Assyrians

As the battles rage around Mosul, it is relevant to recall that what we now call Kurdistan was actually the core of the old Assyrian Empire, the one that carried off the Ten Lost Tribes. Indeed there is quite a lot of literature to suggest that the Kurds are descended from Israelites. Benjamin of Tudela (died 1173, in Castile), who visited them, thought that had not the Byzantines forcibly converted one half and the Muslims the other half, then they would still be Jewish. He detected, he said, several customs they all adhered to that could only have come from us. Now there’s a thought. Anyone volunteering to rescue Kobani?

Assyria looms large in the Bible. After it conquered the Arameans of Damascus who had ravaged the Northern Kingdom for years, it then turned its attention to the Kingdom of Israel. First they bullied King Jehu into submission and finally conquered it in 722. According to the Bible, they exiled all the population and replaced them with other victims from their empire who settled around Samaria, the Northern capital, and became known as Samaritans. They were plagued by wild animals and thought it was because they did not know the local gods. So the Assyrians commanded Judea in the south to send priests to teach and convert them. They became known as “Geyrei Arayot”, “Converts (out of fear) of lions.” In other words not genuine converts out of conviction. The struggle between Samaritans and Jews went on for quite a while. Needless to say, Samaritans dispute this story. But the story does indicate what a religiously tolerant sort of people the Assyrians were. They wanted your money, bodies, gold, and obedience, but really didn’t mind too much which god you worshipped.

They then turned their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judea and besieged King Hezekiah, “like a bird in a cage” according to Sennacherib’s stele. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians withdrew, but Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute nevertheless. Sennacherib, the one Byron describes as coming down “like the wolf on the fold”, retreated home and set about building a new capital called Nineveh (the ruins are to be found outside Mosul today, if you can avoid ISIS).

The Assyrians finally fell foul of the Babylonians, and they in turn capitulated to the Persians, whose king Cyrus let some Jews return. But they ran into trouble with the Samaritans, who said that this was their land now and the Israelites could jolly well go back to Persia and complain to the UN (or something like that). We keep on running into such problems, don’t we? But we persevered! We hung in there. Until, of course, the Romans decided otherwise.

But there’s an important lesson we learn from the Assyrians that we repeat every Yom Kipur when we read the book of Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh to get them to repent their evil ways. He didn't want to go because he knew that if they did repent they would be used as a tool to destroy his country, Israel. So he fled to Tarshish a well known port that was in the hands of the Kittim, the enemies of the Assyrians, the Sea Peoples from Crete and islands around. Well, we know the story of the fish and that when Jonah eventually got to Nineveh and started preaching, the King listened. Hence the well known phrase, “There’s no prophet in his own country.” They repented. Then proceeded to destroy the Northern Kingdom. (Don’t ask too many questions about chronology.) The lesson is clear. God does not support Israel if they misbehave. He will use some other power to destroy her. So He must have thought reasonably highly of the Assyrians. At that stage, at any rate, they were not just brutal, greedy conquerors, but in fact had a higher standard of morality than the Northern Kingdom.

Why am I telling you this? Because at this moment there’s an excellent exhibition called “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Anyone who would like to tour the exhibit with me and Dr. Michael Seymour, assistant curator in the museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, should just turn up at 10:00 AM at the Met on Thursday, December 4.

The exhibition is fascinating in many ways. First of all it includes the earliest archaeological artifact that refers to the “House of David”. It is an engraved stone, a fragment from an arch found at Tel Dan celebrating Hazael of Damascus’s destruction of the House of David. As you might expect the Palestinian archaeologists anxious to deny there were ever any Jews there claim it’s not the House of David, but the “House of Dod” (perhaps Dod’s your uncle). Given that there is no other evidence, record, or hint of such a house, it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s not what it obviously is. But hey, politics gets into archaeology too. And the Israeli archeologists made so sure we would not miss the reference that they chalked the words white against the black background for all to see. Politics cuts both ways.

Then there’s the ivory balustrade found in northern Israel on display. The Bible mentions Solomon’s use of ivory, but this was found in Samaria. Ahab’s son Ahaziah fell through one of the balustrades of the palace and died soon after. Ahab’s dynasty was done away with by Jehu, and here he is at the Met, in stone on the Black Obelisk from Nimrud, the Assyrian capital before Nineveh, bowing down low to Shalmaneser, and it looks as though those following him are wearing four tassels that might even be tzitzit!

The exhibition links Assyria to Spain through the Sea Peoples. They were what we now call the Phoenicians or the Philistines. Some suggest the Canaanites are their descendants too. The competition between them and Assyria was fierce. But it was often one of mutually beneficial trade. In the different artifacts you can clearly the connection between the Phoenician alphabet and the early Hebrew script. That was before the Jews of Babylon adopted the square letters we still use today. But it was that earlier one that Moses would have used.

It is very moving, and it goes to show that the Bible is not just a collection of fairy stories. The events it mentions come alive. They remind us of the immense achievements of our ancestors and their failures too. It is both a source of pride and a warning, that like Ozymandias, great kings end up in the dust and are remembered only by their epitaphs. But ideas live on.

October 30, 2014

Halloweeen Again

Why do I feel so negatively towards Halloween? Surely it's just an opportunity for harmless fun, getting dressed up in weird costumes, festooning homes with horror characters and scenes of witches, dungeons, skeletons, blood, and fear. And what could be bad with kids running from house to house asking for sweets, candies, and gum?

Rituals in most religions are, after all, quite arbitrary and more often than not based on earlier pagan customs. Lights in winter, masks and disguises in spring, and so many of our Jewish customs are borrowed from earlier fears of evil spirits, like driving them away by breaking plates and glasses or covering mirrors and lighting candles. However it’s not the ritual itself but rather what lies behind it that really matters. What is the deeper, the real message, as opposed to the superficial one? To be fair, all our major Biblical festivals were once pagan celebrations that we sanitized. But what was this sanitization? It was to require of us to think before acting and to take responsibility for our actions. A religious ritual brings us closer to religious values (or should) whereas a magic ritual brings us closer to magic and unpredictability.

In simple terms, the pagan world believed we were at the mercy of the gods of nature who determined everything that went on in the world. Humans had to placate them. Sacrificing children, rites of blood and magic were ways of winning their approval. It was a world that believed that the greatest gifts we could give were of our bodies, our bodily fluids, and our children. Paganism wanted to perpetuate the fear of the natural world rather than try to overcome fear, because that made you dependent on their magic to survive. Superstition was based on randomness--a black cat, a broken mirror, and you never knew what antidote the shaman would require.

Monotheism emerged as a counterforce to say that although God did represent and control the world, what He wanted was good behavior, good deeds, and respect for humanity. He wanted us to refine our bodies rather than simply use them. In God’s religion you knew in advance everything that was expected, even if you might not have always felt able to do it all.

Monotheism introduced the “marshmallow principle” of deferring pleasure, the concepts of self-control and self-improvement. Of course we know how hard this is. How often the Israelites found it much easier, not to say more fun, to go off to pagan orgies. Everything was allowed, not forbidden. Not all pagans were the same, of course. Some tried to rationalize their gods, just as today people justify their actions, lusts, and weaknesses.

Spirits were quite useful in explaining things people didn't understand. If clothes wore out, it was because spirits were tugging at them. If you fell ill, it was because a bad spirit flew through the air to get hold of you. Or else someone else had cursed you or put an evil eye on you. Some rabbis in the Talmud seem to have believed in evil spirits, sheidim. The Talmud even contains advice as to how to see them--spread sand at night and look for the footprints in the morning, or kill a black cat that has just given birth and spread the ashes of its placenta over your eyes. Perhaps they simply accepted the credulity of simple people, and they did not want to take their props away from them. It also gave them power and a useful tool for helping the weak and the sick.

But overwhelmingly the greatest of rabbis argued that there was no such thing as luck, “Mazal”, in Israel. It was a characteristic of the non-Jewish world, not ours. It was our actions that determined what we made of our lives, what happened to us as individuals and as a people. However, they conceded that if a people or society was doomed, innocents would suffer the consequences too. And external forces, both natural and human, could be unleashed to terrible effect. Our world was one of human choice, not helplessness in the presence of magic or ghosts. The downside, of course, was and is that humans make the wrong choices sometimes.

But why does superstition persist now amongst us after all this time? Perhaps it’s because Jews suffered so much for so long that they needed emotional, magical, superstitious support and turned to any crazy idea that might help them get through the day and the night. Even now we seem helpless and confused in the face of so much antipathy.

What I have against Halloween is that it reinforces the fear of magic and evil spirits even if most people have lost the connection or refuse to make it. The witches, wizards, and devils are all symbolic of the uncontrollable pagan world. They are linked to the world of tarot cards, astrologers, and pseudo-kabbalists with their spells, their tricks, and their magic to help you cope by giving you dishonest but plausible answers.

As our society has become more scientific, more rational, and yet more stressful and demanding to live in, we seek these placebos and fake answers. We become even more superstitious and dependent. We go to horror films; we love zombies and vampires; we want to see more blood, more terror, more corpses, and more humans suffer, even as we need to know it will all turn out fine in the end because some superhero or strongman will eventually save everyone and good will triumph.

There’s another issue here. We are becoming anaesthetized to blood and horror. Just as there’s a danger that the violent computer games that are so popular also affect our sensitivity to suffering and pain. The jury is still out, of course, but my gut tells me that glorifying blood and gore cannot be a healthy thing.

It’s true that all this nonsense can be harmless, and perhaps I am taking it too seriously. But I strongly believe if as parents we encourage such customs that do not convey the positive values that really matter, we had better make sure we give enough counterexamples of the thinking, caring, and spiritual world if we want our children to learn a positive lesson.

October 23, 2014

Sexual Exploitation

According to the Bible, Noah’s flood destroyed humanity because they were violent. How much have we changed?

We seclude ourselves in our protected worlds and often have little idea of what is really going on around us. We who live in Western “civilized” societies and are reasonably well off know about the millions of refugees, or poor exploited human beings around the world. But it rarely touches us personally. More worrying is the delusion we have that our societies are safe places. They may be safer, but they are not safe. It’s not just a matter of gunfire, fires, and auto accidents. Hundreds of children men and women disappear off the streets each year and are never heard from again.

Specifically, abuse of women (and men) remains a blot on the record of the males of our species, and it is far too prevalent even in the “free world”.

But I want to focus specifically here on the violence, the rape. The Torah compares rape to murder. There is a degree of violent aggressiveness in males worldwide. But even here in a free and American society there seems to be a streak of male violence that seems to glorify this wanton abuse. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has been protesting at the inaction of university authorities by carrying a mattress around campus until her reported rapist is removed. Fifty assault survivors spoke out recently in a campus demonstration supporting Sulkowicz. More and more female college students are coming out to fight against both the abuse and the reluctance of college authorities to act.

Governor Jerry Brown of California has now passed a bill requiring all colleges that receive state money to enforce a standard of “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes” and only a positive “yes” at every stage can lead on to the next. Such a law was first instituted at Antioch College twenty years ago. Until recently no one else adopted it. Harvard still hasn’t.

President Obama has begun a campaign to highlight the problem of college rape in the US. Here are the statistics, according to One In Four:
  • One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
  • Each year, 5% of women on college campuses experience rape or attempted rape.
  • 673,000 women currently attending U.S. colleges and universities have experienced rape at some point in their lifetime. In one year 300,000 college women, over 5% of women enrolled in colleges and universities, experience rape. This does not include other forms of sexual assault.
  • Every year 5% of women in the U.S. Military academies report surviving rape, as do 2.4% of the men.
Time Magazine (September 22, 2014) reports that every day 13,079 women in the USA experience domestic violence in the USA each year.

The New York Times (September 30, 2014) reports female firefighters suffering job discrimination, harassment, and sexual abuse every day. One in three women have been physically abused.

The boxer Mike Tyson was a classic example of male, physical crime against women; his rape landed him in jail, and for a while the public took notice. But interest subsided. The issue has been brought to the public by the recent revelations of the number of American football, stars, “heroes” who have been guilty of abusing women. A video of Ray Rice’s attack on his fiancée has gone “viral”, in current terminology, and has forced the NFL to start taking action after years of pretending there was no problem. Another footballer, Adrian Peterson, was indicted for beating his child. Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for aggravated assault against a woman and a child. These massively rich Neanderthals have for years been getting away with physical abuse. So too have college sportsmen and ordinary common and garden males of the species.

The defense has always been that women invited their attention, even threw themselves at them, that they dressed provocatively or drank too much and invited it. It’s true that modern fashions tend toward the provocative, and it is true the amount of male and female drinking on college campuses and city bars is excessive. Recently examples of college girls dying from immoderate amounts of alcohol have been publicized.

But nothing justifies the crude brutality of males forcing their unwanted attentions and testosterone-inflamed bodies on women. Many parents are bound to wonder whether sending their daughters away to college is such a good idea. The traditional antipathy of ultra Orthodoxy to allowing girls to go off to college away from home might even have some justification.

The trouble is that it’s not just away from home that violence is a problem. Within homes, all kinds of physical abuse are reported at phenomenal levels. It is estimated that 46% are not even reported. And that is just physical abuse, not mental.

We who gather this time of the year to experience the intensity of our religious tradition are proud of the quality of our religious life. We look with a degree of condescension on the decline in the moral standards of the world around us. We are bound to wonder whether we are doing enough to protect our families from the sexual predations of society within and beyond the home.

It may be true that nowadays women have much more power and greater access to legal means to defend themselves. Nevertheless recent revelations that police forces across the USA neither took complaints of rape seriously nor processed evidence in their possession shows how primitive are the attitudes toward this in a so-called modern world. The problem exists at every level of society and, sadly, in every religious community as well.

The religious world considers itself an antidote to the corruption of the secular world. But it too has a poor record of dealing with abuse within its own communities. Often the clergy, themselves, are the guilty perpetrators. Sadly this past year we have witnessed highly regarded rabbis found guilty of theft, bribery, and sexual corruption. It is a blot on our world. If the charges against Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, DC’s Modern Orthodox community, are proven, it is yet another sad example of how men of religion, all religions, use their positions and power to take advantage and abuse others, men and women. There has been too much of this within the Orthodox community of all degrees.

We recognize that if we leave our children’s morality to society’s default position, we are failing them. The whole purpose of religion is to raise the level of morality and spirituality. But this does not happen accidentally, or by itself. Religion should not be concerned only with our souls. It also requires of us that we take responsibility for our own community and its leadership where it is failing in its obligations, as well as the world beyond. What goes on around us ultimately affects us. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so a sinking one leaves them high and dry. Noah’s flood is a reminder that violence by humans against humans can destroy a world.

October 14, 2014


Who are the Karaites, and do they keep Simchat Torah?

I have several times in the past come across Jews, invariably thoughtful and charming, who have told me that they are so fed up with the excesses of rabbinic Judaism that they have decided to become Karaites. Only this week a delightful young Israeli woman living in New York told me in synagogue that she was so fed up with extra days of festivals and other rabbinic added strictness that she too was a Karaite and so only kept one day of festivals.

Which set me wondering why my little Persian community in New York, most of who do not bother with second days, did not themselves adopt the Karaite variation? All the more since many of the early founders came from Persia. But the fact is that, if you look more carefully into it, becoming a Karaite is not really to be recommended, and if it might solve one set of problems it would create a heck of a lot of other ones.

The Karaites take their name from the word for “text” which indicates that they only accept the text of the Torah. They reject post-Torah rabbinic interpretations, additions, and customs, and those theological ideas such as Resurrection and Life After Death that are not explicit in the Torah. What makes them popular with Reform communities is that that accepted patrilineal descent as the definition of Jewish identity and they are even less happy about conversion than the London Beth Din.

Some scholars trace them back to the Sadducees, who themselves held such opinions, others to the Dead Sea Sects. They were dormant or marginal after the destruction of the Temple; but later and under the dynamic leadership of Anan Ben David (715-795), who some say really founded them, they flourished to such an extent that at one moment in the ninth century they nearly became the dominant sect in Judaism in Persia and Babylonia. Salo Baron thought they accounted for 40% of the Iraqi Jewish population.

It was thanks mainly to the great Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), who campaigned energetically and relentlessly against them, that they receded and declined to the very small sect that they are today. Currently some 30,000 live in Israel and about 4,000 in the USA. Despite their differences, Sephardi rabbis such as Rav David-Chaim Chelouche and the late Rav Ovadia Yosef have always maintained that they count as Jews and do not need conversions to “return to the fold”. The Ashkenazi rabbinate, surprise, surprise, is not so open.

The Karaite calendar differs from the accepted Jewish calendar. It follows the literal reading of the Torah text for festivals lasting only one day. But I don’t understand why they celebrate Simchat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Torah as such. They do not include Chanukah, as a post-Biblical festival, but do keep Purim.

But before you go out and sign up, let me tell you the downside. Not accepting rabbinic innovation does have its drawbacks. Karaites do not allow lights and fire in their homes on Shabbat, although I am told reformist ideas on this issue now divide them into the “lighters” and “the darkeners”. Still, no sex on Shabbat--that’s a real downer, as are far stricter rules on family purity which really put women in a state of Purdah. And the laws of marriage are so strict that any blood relative however distant is forbidden. You really are hurting your chances of getting married! That more than anything else probably explains why there are so few today.

It’s true they don't interpret the Torah texts about Tefillin and Mezuzot as requiring literal objects--they see them merely as symbolic--but they are very keen on Tzitzit, especially the blue thread. They do not take the four kinds of plants we wave on Sukot, because they understand the Torah references to mean that they were to be used only in building a Sukah. And because their laws of how to slaughter animals are different and stricter than Orthodox shechitah, this means that a good Karaite will not eat normal kosher meat. In addition if one cares about marrying “in” then the pool of possible partners is ridiculously small. If you are interested in learning more, they have websites such as or The fact that they have several that conflict must prove they really are regular Jews!

On balance, I conclude, it makes more sense from a social point of view to stay technically within the dominant expression of Jewish religious life. After all, we are small enough as it is compared to the major religions of the world and riven enough by denominational conflict as it is without confining oneself to an even narrower religious network. But then we have never played the numbers games. Still to claim adherence to an apparently more lenient way of life based simply on convenience, and usually ignorance, just does not cut it from the point of view of integrity or logic. If you don’t want to keep something, fess up to it. Don’t seek justification elsewhere.

If Karaites see themselves as part of the Jewish people then the variations in their beliefs and practices are no different than those of most Conservative and Reform Jews today. But if someone simply wants a justification for only keeping one day of Rosh Hashanah and the other festivals, there are, believe me, easier ways to go about it. Meanwhile we can all enjoy Simchat Torah together!

October 07, 2014


Whatever is said about the festival of Sukot, the fact is that water is the most significant subtext. All plants need water, as do humans and all other living things. But the four “kinds of plants” we take and wave are all associated specifically water, whether natural rainfall, irrigation, or oases. Sitting in the Sukah is our farewell to the dry season, at least in areas where for thousands of years Jews mainly lived. The important post-Biblical traditions of “Nisuch Hamayim” pouring water over the altar as part of the prayers for rain, and the massive public celebrations of “Simchat Beit HaShoeva” the rejoicing over the well house in Jerusalem, prove the point that water is at the core of this festival.

Water also plays an essential part as the means of purification, both physical and spiritual. As with all the ancient “elements” it bridges the gap between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the sacred.

Water of course is not the only theme to the festival. Sukot was also the major communal reunion of the Jewish people. On the second day everyone gathered to hear the Torah (or parts of it) read in public. It was a huge public exercise in mass education that included women and children as well as men. Then Simchat Torah emerged as the happiest festival of the year, to record the conclusion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah in synagogues. Still the festival ends with new prayers for the rainy season, which were in part held off until the pilgrims from Babylon and the West could get home before the deluge made roads impassable.

During the early years of my life, no one seemed to make too much out of the issue of water and rain in general; no concerns then about climate change. The prayers for rain in the synagogue were regarded as a hangover from our agrarian past, something relevant only to the Land of Israel, not wet Manchester. But now the rising temperatures, the shortage of water, and the political tensions over its availability, have all brought the issue of water and rain to the forefront. It’s as if Moses and the rabbis of the past really could look into the future. Now nothing is more important on earth.

The Greek philosopher Thales thought that everything was derived from water, one way or another. He lost out to the popular theory that it was a combination of water, air, fire, and earth. That theory lasted until modern times. Even Maimonides believed it. In Medieval times water was so dangerously contaminated that people drank beer and wine instead. No wonder they called it the Dark Ages. We do not seek such simplistic solutions nowadays, but we do know how important drinkable water is, indeed almost any water is important to irrigate crops and facilitate industry.

In the rich world everyone is aware of the need for hydration. We spend vast sums on bottled water that is rarely superior to ordinary tap water. But in most of the world pure, potable (why the heck use that foreign word instead of simply “drinkable”?) tap water is still a rarity.

The facts are disturbing. I am no fan of the UN, but it does occasionally produce something of value. The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that in the next 20 years the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Forty percent of the world's inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. In 2000, more than 2.2 million people died from waterborne diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or from drought. I might add the sad statistic that in the Industrial west 40% of the water is wasted each year through decaying infrastructure, leaking pipes, and poor management.

Increasingly, conflicts around the world relate to water. We are replaying Abraham’s conflicts with the Philistines over wells. We know the problems in the Middle East over the feeding rivers into the Jordan, the diminishing aquifers in the Judean hills, and the shrinking Dead Sea. This while swimming pools expand alongside villages where the wells have dried up. At least Israel is now investing so much in desalination that it could well satisfy most of its water needs this way within the next few years. Neither does Israel get credit (because it’s not political enough) for how much Israeli universities are investing in joint projects with Palestinians to deal with the water problem. But as we see millions of refugees trek across deserts to safety, the importance of water and its availability is growing by the day. It's a sad state of affairs that too many states spend more on arms than they do on ensuring safe, accessible, drinkable water for their citizens.

So when we celebrate Sukot, we are indeed celebrating water and how lucky we are to have it. Literally, LeChayim, for life. And for those in the know, the alcohol comes a week later.