May 26, 2016

Corruption in Sport

The end of another soccer season. I used to be a fanatical supporter of Manchester United. During my youth, soccer was my first love. Manchester United was the altar at which I worshipped. Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but not much. When the phenomenal, youthful, talented team, the Busby Boys, were all but wiped out in the Munich air crash in 1958, I wore a black armband every time I played for my school team! Manu took talented kids from the Celtic fringes, and built them into a perfect example of how the “beautiful game” should be played. No violence, no aggression, no pulling shirts, “professional fouls”, faking injury, or falling in the box. Just pure talent and discipline, with exemplary, gentlemanly behavior. Not a Saturday night went by when I didn't dash to watch Match of the Day to see them play.

Eventually things changed. Alex Ferguson, the last great manager kept the flame alive for as long as he could. But in the end market forces won. They brought in stars from European countries. They even employed foreign managers. Nowadays their players are as tattooed, as temperamental, and as boring as almost every other club in the land. Where is the ideal? The honor? The purity? Gone, all gone. The same bunch of crude mercenaries as everyone else. The “beautiful game” is now just another place where greedy humans have taken a sport and turned it into a corrupt spectacle.

We have long known how corrupt the world body FIFA has been. Sepp Blatter was an obvious crook 20 years ago. The disease spread through the whole of the organization, from top to bottom. Allegations even go back as far as 1991. Now there are 20 total indictments and 47 counts. Wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering to name a few. Reaching well over $150,000,000. You can read more about it here:  

Cricket has been brought low by dishonest players and managers and betting scandals, mainly on the Indian subcontinent. Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France cycling victories for breaking the law on banned substances.

It came as no surprise when last year the World Anti-Doping Agency said that Russia should be banned from athletics competition. But equally, no one expected the IAAF to ban Russia from the upcoming Olympic Games. After all, they were implicated by WADA’s report. It would be like Mafia Dons excluding other lesser gangsters from casinos on the grounds that they were crooks. Besides, even in Greek times the Olympic games were riddled with bribery and cheating. And the horrific results of how East Germany, until it fell in 1989, used to destroy human lives through their state-run drug programs showed how widespread cheating always was on a national and international level.

Top Russian officials resigned in December, after the World Anti-Doping Agency released a report detailing the state-backed system in Russia of cheating in the Olympics and other international sports competitions. Last February a former director of the disgraced Russian Anti-Doping Agency died unexpectedly, mysteriously. He was the second former top official of the agency to die within a month.

The director of the Russia’s anti-doping laboratory at the time of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi revealed that Russia had a carefully planned state-run doping program designed to ensure their dominance at the Olympics. Dozens of Russian athletes at Sochi were involved, including at least 15 medal winners, he said. Will anything be done? Don’t bet on it. Similar charges are being made against Chinese athletes. As the saying goes, “Sport is just warfare using other means.”

The fact is that sport is a metaphor. Something that seems harmless enough, even beneficial, but is ruined by human corruption, specifically money and power. Every single great ideology, including every religion that has ever appeared on the human scene, has ended up distorting its original vision, no matter how caring, loving and touchy feely it may have started out. People like to blame religion, politics, or whatever, but in reality it is human greed that ruins everything. This is precisely why the Ten Commandments, for all its great principles, end improbably with the law against envy, against wanting to have something that someone else has.

As it goes with sport, so it goes with religion. As much as I am disillusioned with sport, so I am with religion (but I still play them both, regardless). Wherever I look I see outwardly religious Jews (and every other religion) putting money and power before ethics and humane behavior, and turning a blind eye to financial, sexual, and political corruption. Not a day goes by without another outwardly very religious person found guilty of financial corruption, using politics to gain material ends, deceiving, and taking advantage of the naïve, the credulous, and the desperate. And of course politics is even worse because there is more at stake.

Yet for all that, probably the majority are still good, religious, spiritual, charitable, caring rabbis, politicians, and lay people. They do not make the news. Let us remember that headlines are made of sinners, rarely saints. We humans can both elevate and desecrate.

So thank goodness for the amateurs, the nonprofessionals, who play sport for the fun, not to win at all costs, but simply to enjoy playing the “beautiful game”. And let us admire, not the big noisy shots in religion who practice it as “a spade to dig with”, but those modest and private good people who keep this world from tearing itself apart. Another season, another good deed, you have got to be an optimist!

May 19, 2016

Good Samaritan

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death late one night in Queens, New York by Winton Mosely who said that he simply wanted to kill a woman. He was sentenced to life, and a few weeks ago he died in prison. The case generated immense publicity because it seemed that a lot of people heard her scream and no one came to her rescue even after she was left bleeding to death. This case led to a debate over what are often called “Good Samaritan” laws. Some of these are less obligations to go to help as much as protections for those who do. Good Samaritan laws are often confused with “Duty to Help” laws, that most civil systems avoid, requiring citizens to go to the aid of others who are in danger or being attacked. There was a similar furor in China where in 2011 a young child Wang Yue was run over in the street and many people just walked by and did nothing. China now has a “Good Samaritan” law.

The issue is not as straightforward as it might appear. There have been cases both in the USA and China where people going to help someone have been sued either for interference or inappropriate medical responses. In 1964 New York, if people did not want to get involved it was possibly because the chances were high, in those crime ridden days, that a responder would himself be attacked. The issue is still debated. The “Seinfeld” TV series ended with a case of the actors being thrown into jail because when the New Yorkers were visiting Massachusetts (that had such a law) they were caught observing and photographing a carjacking without going to help. A recent episode of “Girls” also referred to the Kitty Genovese case.

The issue of such laws polarizes around two positions. Is it a criminal issue or a moral one? Is the duty to defend or to rescue? Should those who do not go to help be prosecuted or just condemned morally? Some countries like Germany and Finland make it a criminal offense.

Israel has a law requiring citizens to go the help of another. Its legal system is a compound of Ottoman law and British law, and they do not require going to someone’s aid. But the third element, Jewish law, most certainly does. The Torah explicitly says, and we read it last week in Leviticus 19, “Do not stand by (while) the blood of your neighbor (is being spilt).” For us it is a moral, religious obligation to protect someone under threat of danger. Not only, but Jewish Law as reflected in the Shulchan Aruch insists that one should even be prepared to risk danger to do so. There is a counter-principle that says you should NOT intentionally sacrifice your own life for someone else’s—but where the chance is unlikely, you should risk it.

I am immensely proud of my Jewish heritage. In the current mood of anti-Semitism in the Western World (whose religious and cultural underpinnings are still ignored), I want to explain why I am so offended by the original Good Samaritan story. Not, I hasten to add, that I have anything against Samaritans. Quite the contrary, I admire the strictness and perseverance that has enabled them to survive for nearly as long as we have even if their numbers are dwindling even faster than ours. There has always been a strange relationship between us.

Our version of their origin, is told in the Bible (2 Kings 17). (They have their own, of course, which claims an earlier pedigree.) In 722 BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel, the territory of the ten Northern Israelite tribes and scattered them around its empire (roughly Syria and Kurdistan). Their policy was to remove the population of defeated states and replace them with others transferred from defeated nations elsewhere. Those they imported into Samaria came to be known as Samaritans. Most people in those days believed their gods were local. In order to avoid plagues and other disasters, they asked the Assyrian king to teach them how to worship the gods of their new home. He in turn sent instructions to Judea to go and instruct them. That was how the Samaritans came to adopt the Bible.

In 592 and 586 BCE the Babylonians, who had conquered the Assyrians, destroyed the southern kingdom of Judea. They exiled the aristocrats and skilled artisans to Babylon, where the Jewish community eventually reestablished itself. Babylon was conquered by the Persian King Cyrus, who allowed a group of Jews to return to Judea to resettle and rebuild the Temple. When they got there, the Samaritans did their best to undermine and thwart them, claiming that they were now the legitimate indigenous population. (Sound familiar?) With the help of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Judeans succeeded, and thereafter the Samaritans lost their supremacy.

As they strictly obeyed biblical law, some rabbis regarded the Samaritans as full Jews. But they refused to accept rabbinic Judaism. They claimed it was an inauthentic post-Babylonian invention. Their version of the Torah is remarkably, though not entirely, similar to ours, but written in an earlier script than the one we have today, which was indeed adopted in Babylon.

The New Testament is a document predicated on the assumption that Judaism was hijacked by rabbis who betrayed its biblical mission. The New Testament was God’s New Deal with Christianity. As a result, several of its authors go out of their way to cast Jews or Pharisees or rabbis in a negative light in order to reinforce their claim that Christianity is the new covenant. The story in Luke of the Good Samaritan tells of a poor man left by robbers by the wayside. Ignored by passing Jews, he is helped by a good Samaritan. Of course it is pure polemic.

Christianity often used Jewish ideas but put them in the mouths of Christian spokesmen, naturally. So did Islam. After all, we were around for quite a while beforehand and were the fertile inspiration on which they sprouted. Earlier rabbis, like Hillel, expressed almost identical ideas to many of those to be found much later in Christianity. So you will often hear it said that, “Love your Neighbor as Yourself,” is to be found in the New Testament rather than the Torah.

When I was in a Church of England school in my childhood for a short while, I would often be told that I had do “the Christian thing”. In other words, do the “right thing”. As if being Jewish meant that I could not. This was the tone of life in Christian Europe in my youth. To be described as a Jew implied that you were a Judas who betrayed Jesus. Many of my generation and earlier were attacked and beaten simply for being Jewish and the murderers of God! In Catholic Italy “Porco Giudah” (you Jewish Pig) was a common insult. To “Jew” someone was to cheat them.

Now you might say I overreact and that things are indeed much better today, particularly in Catholic circles. But the whiff remains. Incidentally, that is why I suspect many Muslims are equally hypersensitive today. It is so easy to forget the significance and the polemic of language.

I understand, to the masses you can make your point better with a story, a parable. The Good Samaritan sounds better than a simple command. Laws are boring. But it is time, in this era of hypersensitivity and safe places, to retain the moral principle enunciated in Leviticus and pass by the implied slur of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament (unless you believe that Jews do not deserve safe spaces).

I hope that in future generations people will instead talk about the story of the Good Jew who gave so much to support dying industries, impoverished communities, charitable foundations, and projects that bring different people together in love and cooperation. Some hope!

May 13, 2016

Love Your Neighbor

Once again we return, in our cycle of reading the Torah each week, to the iconic, indeed universal, “VeAhavta LeReyacha Kamocha” (Leviticus 19:18), which is usually translated in English as, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For most people this is understood to mean that we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Which seems both an impossibility as well as an improbability. How can one realistically require this? And what if one does not love oneself? Does that mean one is relieved of the obligation?

In fact, both grammatically and in terms of simple common sense, it should translate as, “Show love towards you neighbor because he (or she, of course) is the same as you.” We are all the children of one God, as the saying goes. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) says, “Who is to say your blood is any purer than anyone else’s?”

The question one is bound to ask, of course, is how do you define a neighbor? Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, Troyes c. 1085 – c. 1158), the great literal commentator and grandson of Rashi, qualifies this as applying only to good people, not bad ones. But still, we could ask, which good people? Christianity might require one to turn the other cheek. Judaism requires one to recognize evil where it exists and combat it.

There is a well-known debate in the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarin 30b) over what is the single most important sentence in the Torah. Rebi Akiva says it is “VeAhavta LeReyacha Kamocha,” loving your neighbor. Ben Azai, his contemporary and friend, disagrees. For him it is, “This is the history of mankind who God created in His image,” (Genesis 5:10). The difference is that Rebi Akiva defines neighbor as being a fellow Jew, someone committed to the same ethical and ritual values and standards. Ben Azai says that it is the commonality of humanity that matters most. We were all created in the image of God. Not literally, of course, but all with a spiritual dimension and a capacity for good.

The Talmud seems to come down on Ben Azai’s side, because the phrase “Love Your Neighbor” is quoted overwhelmingly in regard to a criminal (Pesachim 73a, etc.). Even if he is condemned to die, “make sure his death is a humane one.” Here is not the place to go into capital punishment. Suffice it to say there are very different attitudes to be found in the Talmud. But the very fact that one has to be considerate and sensitive even to a murderer shows that that loving one’s neighbor is indeed supposed to apply even to bad guys! And it certainly applies to good non-Jews as Ben Azai’s position implies and as Rebi Akiva clearly agrees in Avot 3:14.

There is quite a separate command to be helpful to your compatriot, “Ve Chai Achicha Imach,” (Leviticus 25:36): “You must ensure that your brother is able to live alongside you,” in the context of supporting the indigent.

Loving the “other” is used in Leviticus elsewhere. “And you should love the stranger as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt,” (Leviticus 19.34), where it clearly is not someone the same as you. It strikes me as obvious that we have an obligation to be considerate towards everyone we encounter, not just our immediate neighbors. All of mankind. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashana states quite explicitly that God cares about and judges all of humanity. “On Rosh HaShana everyone on earth passes before God [and is judged each year].”

I think the broad message is clear. We all want peace. But if you cannot get on with your immediate neighbor, how the heck can you expect to get on with those further removed from you? Which of course is precisely what is wrong with all religions. Great on the theory as some may be, they are woefully lacking on the practice!

This importance of respecting others is behind the period of mourning we are presently in called the Omer. The Torah describes bringing the Omer, as the first sheaf of the barley harvest to the Tabernacle and then counting 49 days until the festival we now call Shavuot. The earliest source of something tragic happening then is the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), where it says that Rebi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students who did not behave respectfully towards each other and they all died between Pesach and the thirty-third day of the Omer. But there’s no mention there of a period of mourning or a time when we do not celebrate weddings.

Some authorities thought the whole custom was spurious. They suggest the true origin of the custom of mourning, is that Rebi Akivah supported the Bar Kochba revolution against Rome, which led to his death and that of many of his followers. It was the reason for Emperor Hadrian’s anti-Jewish legislation and persecution. Others (for example Aruch HaShulchan 301.1) point out that as the custom of mourning only dates back to Medieval times, it was really a response to the Crusades whose murderous campaigns usually began after Easter. Pinning it to Rebi Akivah’s time was so as not to offend the Church. Now we mourn for all our fallen heroes, from that period through to the millions who perished in Europe, and those who still give their lives every day for us.

But the message is clear. If we cannot even be humane to our own, we are doomed to suffer. The sight of rival groups of ultra-religious Jews fighting, demeaning, and attacking each other, let alone other less extreme Jews, and using politics to defeat each other is depressing beyond imagination. We have this capacity to adhere to traditions and customs and yet to completely ignore the ideas and intentions behind them. It’s called zealotry.

And if we cannot act humanely to our own, how can we hope to act humanely to others? It may be true that we have no obligation to be nice to those who hate us, and there are plenty of them. But we must at least compensate by being extra nice to those who do not reject us or our right to live like any other people in the world. As for those who are against us, if they want others to respect their integrity and distinctive ways of life, they ought to extend a similar tolerance toward others.

As another commentator said, “If there is a fault in you, cure it instead of blaming it on your neighbor.” Or anyone else. Showing love and concern to others is such a fundamental issue, yet it seems as hard for most humans to follow now as it ever has been.

May 05, 2016


I have always hated the idea of censorship. It never really works. As Proverbs says, “Food eaten in secret always tastes better.” Nothing encourages evil more than publicity, and nothing gets a film or a book more attention than being banned. If that was true a thousand years ago, it is exponentially more so now in our era of social media. It’s much more difficult to hide anything nowadays, from ideas to money. But there are other reasons. Censorship, banning, often has consequences that are totally unforeseen.

There’s book that came out in Israel some eleven years ago called “The Censor, the Editor, and the Text” by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin. It shows how the Catholic burning and censorship of Jewish books in the sixteenth century actually had the opposite effect of what was intended. Its central thesis is that the efforts of the Catholic Church to suppress Jewish documents actually strengthened Jewish identity, reinforced its opposition to Christian ideological assaults, and also spurred it into dealing with modern ideas. The struggle for the Jewish soul under these conditions also involved alienation from traditional Judaism and the Jewish community. Large numbers of Jews either defected or identified with other systems. We think this is something new, but it has always been a feature of Jewish life, and its effect is to only strengthen those who stay.

Christianity always had a problem with Jewish refusal to accept it. It tried as hard as it could to convert the Jews, and when it failed it resorted to restriction, compulsion, persecution, and murder. The picture was not always consistent. Certain popes, monastic orders, and clergy proved more zealous and aggressive than others. Only economic necessity ever blunted the edge of the wars against the Jews. From Carthage in 250 until the Arab states in 1948, Jews have been expelled from 109 states or countries. But the burning of Jewish books, mainly the Talmud, began in Paris in 1242 at the instigation of a renegade Jew, Nicholas Donin. Jews or ex-Jews were invariably behind the ideological persecutions.

All authoritarian bodies tend to want to restrict information available to the public. The printing press made books accessible to wider audiences. Already in 1479 Pope Sixtus IV demanded ecclesiastical censorship. But the challenge of Martin Luther brought out the best and the worst in the Catholic response. The Inquisition was established in 1542, and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Index of Prohibited Books) came in 1559.

Catholicism responded by trying to recreate a purer, more effective religious response. Commonly known as the Counter-Reformation. Monastic orders and Jesuits strove to outdo each other in their zealotry. The Council of Trent introduced a massive purge of what were seen as dangerous heresies. Those that stemmed from Judaism were regarded as the most dangerous. Judaism did not suffer alone of course. They start by attacking the Jews and then they attack their own. The Galileo affair perfectly illustrates the self-defeating policies of the Catholic orthodoxy of the time.

Initially the campaign against the Jews involved burning its books. Almost three quarters of all Hebrew books written and printed in Europe were either destroyed or confiscated. The Jews responded by having more copies of its core books printed beyond the reach of the Inquisition. But the Church also initiated a formidable campaign of censoring and altering Jewish texts, whether the Talmud, commentaries on the Bible, polemics, or prayerbooks it considered offensive to Christianity or heretical. A specific publication was issued, called Sefer Hazikkuk, which gave detailed instructions on what to look out for and how alterations had to be made in order to satisfy the censors before a text could be released.

There were unintended results from this. One was that in order to better understand Jewish texts, the censors employed learned Jews to work with them in deciding what words should be removed or replaced with others. This actually gave both work and recognition to Jewish scholars.Having to read more Jewish texts in detail, some Christian scholars developed a greater understanding and respect for the Jewish religion and its ideas. And Jews themselves turned increasingly to alternative and often mystical texts such as the Zohar, which were not considered to pose such a threat.

Great Christians like Johan Reuchlin championed the Talmud against venal ex-Jews like Johannes Pfefferkorn who demanded its total destruction. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola argued that the Zohar reinforced Christianity. Censorship in fact strengthened Judaism by extending the range of the books that actually became available even in censored editions to Jewish readers.

Most surprisingly censorship also also caused Jews to examine their own attitudes and to modify extreme negative and xenophobic sources. But it also accelerated the split within Judaism between those who wanted to preserve its authentic integrity and those who, on the other hand, either preferred to expand the process of cutting things out of the tradition or wanted it to meld with the mindset and values as those of the dominant Christian world.

What interests me, and is so relevant now, is that the campaign to censor or “update” Jewish texts was aided and abetted by Jews who had converted to Christianity, who psychologically probably needed to prove themselves holier or had to assuage their guilt and wanted to see Judaism disappear. And also by Jews still within Judaism who wanted to change Judaism to be more like the dominant Christian world around them . In other words, just as today, many who campaign against Jewish cultural or national autonomy are often Jews who have abandoned Judaism, or those who resent the increasing orthodoxy and strength of its religious mainstream and seek to ameliorate or change it. In so doing, they ally themselves with forces that, for all their disguise, are inimical to Jewish survival.

The trouble is that all this achieves is to force many of those loyal to Judaism to focus exclusively on its survival and to become even more inward-looking. Force, aggression, and antagonism often have effects opposite to those intended.

April 28, 2016

What is Good?

The core question of any discussion about ethics is: What is “good”? If we humans think we ought to have some standards of behavior and this behavior is “good” (whereas going against it is “bad”), how do we decide what is good and what is bad?

Is it “good” if I kill grandma to eat her brains, because my cannibal tradition tells me that this is the way I can absorb her wisdom and life experience? Is it good if do not work on the Sabbath as defined by my tradition as being a Saturday, but not on Sunday or Friday? Is it good if I kill in self-defense, or should I rather be a pacifist and allow whatever happens to happen?

There is no way I am going to settle a debate that has raged on throughout human cultural history. It is no nearer being settled today than it was Moses introduced the Ten Commandments or when Aristotle wrote his Ethics two-and-half-thousand years ago. But the fact is that we all do have ethical systems one way or another, regardless of how well thought-out or consistent they may be.

I have dabbled with most theories. I once liked the idea of utilitarianism, that we should be guided by the greatest benefit to the greatest number. But then who would decide what benefit is? Is it pleasure, hedonism? What if most people are sadomasochists? And why should “number” have any significance in making ethical decisions? That is the weakness of democracy, of deciding “good” by vote. Hitler was elected democratically. Did that make his “good” more valid than Stalin's? My father often quoted the phrase, “Where the heart wants to go, the mind is sure to follow.” We humans have an infinite capacity to convince ourselves we are right to do whatever we feel like doing. How else does one explain a major philosopher like Heidegger justifying his compliance with Nazism?

Religion comes along and tells us that “the good” is that which has been revealed. And this revelation usually comes from some supernatural source. And each religion adamantly assets that its revelation is the only valid one. But on what basis do we decide to accept the revelation? Logic? Hardly. Accident of birth? Maybe, but look at how many people many switch in and out of different religious groups and sects and ideas. What happens when one religion insists on persecuting another one or killing its own heretics? Can that possibly be good? I know the persecutors think they are doing good and acting in the name of Allah or whoever. But do those who suffer from persecution believe it is good?

At a certain moment in my search for the meaning of life, I decided to commit myself to Torah. In principle it met my requirements for a coherent, adaptable ethical system designed to deal with every aspect of human behavior. It was like committing oneself to a marriage knowing one will have challenges and disagreements. I particularly liked the flexibility of belief, in that although there were a few very definite principles, they were not too rigidly or dogmatically defined, which gave one a degree of flexibility in deciding how to believe.

I soon realized that it was not black and white (what is?). On the one hand the Torah instructs us to follow all the commandments, and yet also insists on a further meta-legal dimension of “doing that which is upright and good”. Not only that but there were things commanded once that now had either been abandoned or simply cancelled. Where could one, should one draw the line? But who and how decided such matters? Was it public opinion, a select group of rabbis, accident or simply necessity? so how do we decide when things in the Torah are no longer applicable while others remain in force? The Torah itself says that such matters are decided by the judges, priests, or whoever is the authority at the time. So clearly there is a human agency here. But which humans? That is the question.

But isn't it simply a matter of following the law? Obviously not, if one can also be “an ugly person within the framework of the law”. Doesn't even the Torah itself refer to an external standard when it insists that its laws should appear to be wise in the eyes of “the nations”?

However hard religions try to justify their own absolute truths, the reality is that to some degree or another they are all subjective and we all struggle with challenges from within and without. No man is an island. It is understandable that any specific culture, religion or ideology will try to defend itself. Agreed principles and standards of behavior are the tools of social cohesion. That is why if one keeps one’s thoughts to oneself and follows whatever the specific behavioral rules are, one can be accepted almost anywhere (except by racists of course).

Yes, it is an undeniable fact that circumstances, pressures, and influences affect and impact on the greatest of rabbis however hard they might struggle against them. We do not believe in infallibility. at least officially. Though some rabbis nowadays claim it. To give an example, the most Orthodox of religious authorities have tried hard to ban or restrict television, telephones, and the internet. But the fact is as anyone familiar with the reality on the ground will tell you that, although there is outward agreement and acceptance, the restrictions are kept in the breach and overwhelmingly ignored in private.

Attitudes toward women are an example of a dialectic between the outer world and the inner that continues to be fought in various ways, and usually the full frontal attack is the one that fails. Religions tend towards the conservative, the secular towards the radical. Religions are too slow to adapt, but the secular is too impetuous and often proven as wrong with hindsight. The mere fact that the Torah can say that new situations will arise, new challenges emerge, and they should be brought to the authority of that particular time, means that someone has to arbitrate between the old and the new, and not necessarily always in favor of one or the other. Religion has as legitimate a role in holding back as the secular has in pushing forward. But do we have the right to question authority? In all humility I believe we do and should. With respect of course.

We ought not want our religious leaders to be like Medieval monarchs surrounded by sycophants and those who want to restrict access and other points of view. But conversely it would be ridiculous to think just anyone can challenge, any more than just any citizen can sit on the Supreme Court. In the end, community trumps individuality and if one wants to belong, somewhere, anywhere, there are conventions one has to accept.

The truth is that our “good” is made of different elements, different goods, the religious and the secular, all competing with each other; sometimes we tend in one direction and sometimes in another. Someone who gives greater weight to the religious can be said to be a religious person. Those who include no religious dimension are secular.

I suggest that almost all of us are on a complex, sometimes inconsistent spectrum in between. So Torah is my predominant arbiter of 'good' but I have also absorbed other values too. Just because the Torah has not specifically forbidden torture or rendition or greenhouse gasses this does not mean I cannot have other ethical positions that supplement Torah. In effect I have three “goods”: the good of Torah as law, the good of Torah as ethics, and the good of society in general. That is why I so distrust black or white. Life is not like that. Gloriously humans are not like that. One may not be able to resolve all conflicts but one must seriously try. Above all to try to be honest with oneself and others (at least in private)!

So whether you are keeping one day of Yom Tov or two or indeed none at all, try to be a good person too! Just make sure you think about what that means. Which is one of the things a festival is supposed to remind you about.

Chag Sameach or Hag Sameah!

April 21, 2016

Passover Madness

Pesach, indeed of all religion, defies logic. That does not make it any less significant, valid, or effective. The whole of mysticism, you might say all of our emotions, are the quite non-rational phenomena. Yet clearly Pesach works! But I want to say something about Pesach, so here goes.

Here is a religion that requires us not to eat leavened, fluffy bread, the luxury food of the upper classes in ancient Egypt. I can understand the idea. Bernie Sanders would understand the idea, if he thought about it. Egypt was a rich, indulgent society full of self-indulgent, heartless Wall Street and dot-com billionaires. To escape from its decadence, violence, prejudice, and corruption, the Israelite slaves were asked to leave town, eschew luxury, to start from the basics by eating unleavened bread to remind themselves of their Spartan diet and how one can, indeed, survive on less.

So now we have to get rid of any leavened foodstuff from our homes. We clean, we scrub, and we vacuum every nook and cranny. Even if the Talmud only tells us to go looking where there is a serious chance there might be some leavened stuff lying around, where maybe the dog or the parrot has it sequestered, we go one better and clean out our cupboards, our clothes, our bookshelves, our cellars, and attics, and storerooms. We go everywhere, even if there’s absolutely no chance any crumbs ever went within spitting distance, because nowadays we electric-wash and dish-wash, we sweep, we Dyson, and disinfect and debug. We zap it all up, relentlessly and with a vengeance. It’s good for us. We invented spring cleaning. It’s good for our homes, our hygiene, and our spirits. It reminds us of a spring, a new season, new life. “The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.”

We have to root out not just leavened wheat and grains, but also everything derived from it, even undrinkable alcohol. No whisky, but so what, there’s still wine (isn’t that fermented too?), vodka, vishniak, and brandies of various sorts. And because its infinitesimally likely that some crumbs of leavened bread might have snuck into the solid glazed dishes, stainless steel cutlery, and our granite countertops, we need to replace the lot for Passover. Or we have to boil, burn, scald, soak, whatever we can to purge whatever might still be attached despite repeated dishwasher boilings and hot rinses in detergent flavored liquid that would kill any last remnant of food desperately clinging into the crevices of your finest Christofle silver cutlery, Rosenthal crockery, and Le Creuset kitchenware.

We are worried that somehow leavened foodstuffs have found their way into aluminum foil, bottled water, toilet paper, plastic wrap, paper towels, teabags, coffee, milk, olive oil, salt, sugar, and honey. At least in the USA, the OU actually tells you that you don’t need special Kosher l’Pesach versions of any of these. But no, we will do it anyway. At least it’s cheaper than spending $30,000 to ship the family off to a luxury hotel in Israel. Unless it’s to find partners for your kids, in which case it’s cheap at the price. How many people can afford to be Jewish nowadays?

But wait! As TV vendors like to say. For reasons known only to conspiracy theorists, the poor Ashkenazim are not allowed to eat beans, corn, peanuts, sesame, sunflower seeds, all lumped together improbably and known as kitniyot, because they might be confused with or mixed with grains. So out goes your peanut butter and half your vegetables, which anyway you can’t have because nowadays everyone one of them from berries to lettuces to artichokes and broccoli are not allowed unless supervised and costing double, because they are otherwise infested with microscopic bugs so there’s no way you can be trusted to clean them.

And somewhere in the last century the extremely remote danger of uncooked matzah becoming mixed with liquids and rising created a new refinement called Gebrokts (mixing little pieces). No produce on Pesach should contain matzah or matzah meal mixed with juices or other liquids. What once only a Chasidic minority bothered about this, now the whole world has to be careful about it, and Chabad Chasidim even eat their matzah into paper bags to ensure none falls on the floor and into a puddle. I kid you not!

So having driven yourself crazy and spent a fortune on Kosher l’Pesach imitation muesli, fake hamburger buns, ersatz pizza, and cured kosher bacon supervised by the Almighty Himself, you go out to buy special Shmurah Mazah (or, as we used to call it, “dog biscuit”), for the seder, that costs several times the old Bonns, Rakusens, Manichewitz and Streit’s stuff, because teams of supervisors have gone out to farms in hot, dry climes to make sure the wheat grew without any water touching it, so that it can be harvested and winnowed and ground and sifted into strictly “guarded” flour that will be mixed with supervised water, Mayim Shelanu, that was not left uncovered uncovered overnight and will be hand baked in supervised ovens for no longer than 18 minutes and the utensils cleaned thoroughly in between to come out costing an arm and a kosher leg. All of this naturally will keep hundreds of penniless ultra-Orthodox families (plus the businessmen who run the show) for six months until Sucot, when the Lulav and Etrog business takes them through the next six months.

You will gather round the seder table (or tables) to discuss the Exodus and the Torah, but whatever you do, you cannot ask inconvenient questions, only the four of “Mah Nishtanah”, because Heaven forbid you might challenge religious authority or prevent the hungry from getting their food. Even if the Talmud says quite explicitly that any questions will do.

You might wonder how it is possible to imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt as the excessive quantities of food are brought in from your special Kosher l’Pesach kitchen that you had built in or onto your little palace. Or you may start the recital of the Haggadah by inviting the poor to join you in the banqueting suite of your five-star luxury hotel in the Caribbean enjoying all the excessive materialism the twenty-first century has to offer. And you will know that no poor people will come within a mile. You might even wonder how an ordinary Jew struggling to pay his taxes, educate his kids and fend off importuning rabbis could possibly afford to keep the festival altogether. The slaves coming out of Egypt could at least afford a sheep per family. Most of us couldn’t, with prices as they are now. We can barely afford to live in a Jewish community. Perhaps that’s the real slavery.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this is not all madness in the name of religion, I don’t know what is. Yet Pesach is amazing. It is one of the highlights of the Jewish year. We talk about it, tell stories about horror guests and boring speeches and child performances and stolen Afikoman ransomed for a fortune. We will recite, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and you God keep on saving us from their hands.” We will end with the two-thousand-year-old prayer the UN does not want to hear: “Next year in Jerusalem!” And it will tide us over the summer, if we are not filing for bankruptcy. It is one of the core experiences that defines Jews and differentiates those who care from those who are not committed to Jewish survival. We Jews have always defied logic, odds, history, fate. That's who we are. Because we are a small nation of barely 14 million producing scholars, rabbis, artists, musicians, Nobel prize winners, billionaires, dot-com moguls, settlers, nationalists, criminals, politicians, outreach pioneers, and more than our fair share of meshuggenehs (crazies). We survive and thrive despite all the billions who desperately want to see the back of us.

We know we can’t rely on others or on the miracles of those days. Even God sometimes hides from us. No, it’s not logical, and it is strange, and weird, and a beautiful experience, and we do it all regardless of whether it is logical or not. Because that’s who we are.

April 14, 2016


The case of an Israeli soldier shooting an injured, disarmed, terrorist has divided Israel along the usual and predictable lines.

Those who are sensitive to ethical considerations regret and deplore the act. They are impressed that the armed forces as well as the civil have reacted swiftly to condemn it and they have charged him. If the enquiries reveal that the terrorist was indeed no longer a threat, then they will find the assailant guilty and hopefully take strong measures, because such action goes against the standing orders of the Israeli armed forces as well as Jewish religious law and Israeli civil law. Those who care will be gratified that Israel once again proves itself morally superior to the countries and cultures that hate and threaten it by having such standards and being willing to enforce them. Even if questions will remain about the punishments which too often are just token.

The soldier remains in detention. Until the evidence is in and has been tested, I am also prepared to accept that Israeli soldiers and civilians are in constant danger of being assaulted by terrorists with murderous intent and have every right to defend themselves. We have seen videos of terrorists shot and wounded getting up and then stabbing to death an elderly by-standing scholar. So when in doubt, I am in favor of playing safe.

I also recognize that in circumstances of attacks and heightened fear, even neurosis, people may act out of irrational and zealous passions and that this needs to be taken into consideration—again, depending on the circumstances. I am glad and proud that senior politicians and the head of the armed forces take the views I have outlined above.

Unfortunately, there are other voices I find offensive. Let me start with the ones that offend me less, only because I have no moral expectations of crude, insensitive yahoos of limited intellectual discernment. There have been protests and demonstrations in support of the soldier. That is as much a right in a democratic society as are those demonstrations against taking a human life unnecessarily. But the arguments presented are fatuous. Some have tweeted and posted comments claiming that they will now refuse to serve in the armed forces, because by prosecuting the soldier the army is showing it cares more for terrorists than it does for soldiers doing their duty. Some have said that any terrorist initiating an attack deserves to be killed regardless.

Another argument is that even when a terrorist is disabled he may well remain a threat and possibly become a hero and encourage others to violence. There needs to be as much deterrence as possible and summary execution is one and it ought to be carried out in all cases. And finally the only response to violence that a violent person recognizes is violence. Since the rise of Arab nationalism and the constant use of violence against Jews, we must use similar violence back…and so on, ad nauseam.

In any society there are rotten apples, different emotions, as well as an unthinking mass which fails to consider what it is saying and thrives on simplistic slogans. And there are always those in any society who just love the visceral thrill of aggressive language and brute mentality.

But I am much more disturbed by the expressed opinions of several significant rabbis (though in this context I do not know what “significant” means) that this act of execution was permitted by the Halachic principle of self-defense. Or, to quote the Talmudic source, “If someone rises to kill you, you must kill him or her first.”

I will not attack the claimed sources of these views by name, because I have not heard them first hand. I know full well how often the press, such as the New York Times, distorts, twists, and takes out of context. So I don’t believe everything I read, and I reserve my position. But if they did say this, the fact is they are simply wrong. Jewish law is quite clear.

The law of self-defense allowing you to kill someone attacking you with clear intent to kill (or rape or do grievous harm) only applies if you are the intended victim. Otherwise, if it is to protect someone else, your obligation is to stop, to disable, not to necessarily take a life. Here the soldier was no longer in danger of being attacked. The review will reveal if he feared the possibility of an injured person moving to detonate a hidden bomb. Even if someone else yelled at him to shoot. Even so if he thought he heard someone tell him to fire on a disabled man, he cannot claim “superior orders”.

The other argument is that the terrorist has forfeited his legal rights simply by being a terrorist, but there is no such halachic principle. Under the Talmudic principle of a Ben Noach, any human being who adheres to the Seven Basic Noachide commands as enumerated in the Talmud in Sanhedrin has certain rights to be treated according to basic Jewish law. Perhaps naively, I expect rabbis to provide a moral halachic lead. Sadly, too many of them have been so morally crippled or traumatized by the horrific experiences they have undergone or witnessed that their judgment has been compromised.

The rise of Arab nationalism brought violence against Jewish nationalism, and now they are locked in a deadly game of tit for tat, rival claims. Two people claiming the same home. Obviously I am biased in my side’s favor, just as I expect a Palestinian to be biased in favor of his. But that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for a solution. Unfortunately, when both sides have those who preach hate and approve of killing gratuitously, a solution seems as far off as ever. Regardless, we must preserve our humanity. I do not want to see my people dragged down to the lowest and most brutal level of some of its enemies.