November 27, 2015

Women in Orthodox Judaism

You may wonder why, in a world full of so many real problems, are Orthodox rabbis of various organizations, dimensions, and denominations so busy condemning, decrying, banning, and excoriating women for the wicked, heretical crime of wanting to teach Torah and pray? Are they serious? Aren’t studying Torah and prayer crucial elements in getting closer to God in Orthodoxy, too? Are they telling us that women have neither brains nor souls? Really? What’s the real issue?

For thousands of years arrogant males thought women were stupid, seductive witches who could not add up one and one and whose only functions were to produce and rear babies, cook and to lie flat for their husbands. Some may be surprised to learn that this is no longer the case. After all, in the most ultra-religious conservative homes women often go out to work at serious professional jobs at which they are very good and earn the money to keep the home going. Once upon a time, men refused to allow women to vote, to get degrees, or to open bank accounts. Now they can run states, governments, universities, Fortune 500 companies, MI6, and outdo most men at college and in any area they allowed to compete. I doubt there are many men who could beat Serena Williams at tennis.

So what are we witnessing? Is it a reaction against Western values, against feminism, against Reform, or is it fear that opening too much to women will lead to their dominating or taking over most of the communal jobs and threatening the cozy hegemony of male chauvinists? Are they frightened that a learned, scholarly women will know enough to contradict her husband or, worse still, her local rabbi?

Yes, you can point to a source in the Talmud Sotah that you shouldn’t teach Torah to women (two thousand years ago), but there were plenty of other opinions. The late, great Gaon J.B. Soloveitchik actually wrote a letter (available on the internet) insisting that it was right and essential to teach women Torah to the highest level. Oh, for the great men who once led Judaism and had guts. But I do not despair (only of religious bureaucracies). Where leadership fails, grassroots activity flourishes. In the USA and, more notably, in Israel, institutions that teach Torah to women are booming and producing outstanding scholars. They become halachic advisors, pleaders in rabbinic courts, and educators. What earthly reason can there be for them NOT to give of their brilliance to communities and congregations?

How can it make any sense for any culture or any group of human beings who wish to preserve their traditions to exclude fully 50% of their talent? How can it make sense for leadership of such groups to fail to address concerns and needs and complaints of fully half their membership?

You might say that once you open the door to changes, you never know where they will lead. But if all that is being asked by Orthodox women is within the framework of Jewish law, the constitution of our people, not beyond it, what is the issue? If everything that is being asked for can be supported purely and entirely from halachic sources, how can it possibly be heretical?

I won’t rehearse here all the halachic arguments that allow women to gather together to pray and to read from the Torah. Rabbis Sperber and Henkin have done it powerfully and brilliantly, and you can find it all on the internet (another great equalizer that is hated by the extreme). It is true that women and men have different degrees of obligations in Torah Judaism. I believe it is right and necessary to distinguish between male and female spaces, so long as legal equality is universal. But that does not mean that those who want to cannot take on more for themselves. None of the women who hold positions in Orthodox synagogues in the USA is campaigning to abandon Jewish law or take on functions that do. Even the so-called “Partnership Minyanim” are still committed to halacha. All they ask is to be able to have services that give women more opportunities to participate actively for themselves. Their only crime is being something new that was never done before. Traditional bodies of all kinds fear change and progress. It is like refusing to abandon the horse and cart in favor of the automobile. It’s new. It has not been done before. Welcome the Amish.

Is the issue one title? Evereyone knows that “rabbi” is pretty toothless. If there are people who eat pork, break Shabbat, and know less about Torah than a Charedi cheder kid can call themselves rabbis, then what does the title mean, any more than calling someone “sir” or “madam”? If one can set up ones own rabbinical college and award rabbinic degrees, the title is no more than a BA in tiddlywinks. But who cares? We all know you need to look at the degree awarding institution, not just the degree itself. There is a difference, I venture, between a PhD from Harvard as opposed to one from the Florida Methodist University of Waterskiing.

In my yeshivah they looked down on those who abandoned the scholarly life to become a “rabbi” in a congregation. I know Orthodox rabbis who actually bought their title and from very, very Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem, for that matter. Titles are pretty meaningless in themselves. The great Hillel didn’t need any title whatsoever. Most great heads of yeshivahs don't actually have semicha (technical ordination), and most rebbes wouldn’t want to be called rabbis to save their lives. I would much prefer to be called Rav than Rabbi. The great late Rav Moshe Feinstein used on occasion to refer to rabbis as “ra bi”—“bad for me”!

If a woman teaches in a community and helps the rabbi with sundry social pastoral tasks, how is she in anyway offending Jewish law, regardless of what name she is given? And if it's the title alone that is the problem, let the Orthodox come up with one that doesn’t offend instead of the usual, predictable attack dogs being unleashed and excoriating those of a different point of view.

So it’s feminism they worry about? But there are feminists and feminists. Sure there are plenty of crazy, left-wing, looney, politically correct, anti-Zionist, nutcases called feminists. But there are others who merely want seek opportunities to serve.

I find it illogical that the halachic authorities still refuse to deal with the one issue that embarrasses me about Orthodoxy today, that a man can still hold his wife to ransom over a divorce “till death do them part”! Why aren’t those busy rabbis dealing with that, you ask (other than with pious motions and fine words)? If the boot were on the other foot, and men were suffering, you bet they would.

I am particularly disappointed that the American RCA has capitulated to the narrower perspective of the Israeli religious powers. But I guess they too are political.

So instead of disregarding the reasonable, moderate requests of women who want to remain within Orthodoxy, who want to study Torah and help people, those pious men should actually try being positive. That, I believe, would be a Kiddush HaShem, make us seem caring and good. Issuing bans on nothing of significance is indeed a Chillull Hashem. It makes us seem both sad and blind. Certainly not “wise in the eyes of the nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6).

November 19, 2015

Poor Paris

“Israel is the greatest threat to peace in the world.”

A Flash Eurobarometer survey carried out in October 2003 for the European Commission in the fifteen member states of the EU found that nearly 60% of European citizens believe Israel poses the biggest threat to world peace. The survey was carried out by EOS Gallup Europe. “The one socio-demographic characteristic that stands out is education – the more highly educated respondents (66%) are more likely to perceive Israel as a threat to world peace than those who ceased their studies at an earlier age (“16-20”: 59% and “15 and younger”: 50%).”

After Paris you might think there would be some soul searching as to why such opinions are so prevalent in Europe and increasingly in the USA and why other much more murderous and dysfunctional people, countries, and religions are not considered to be so dangerous. But of course you and I know there will not. Because any attempt to send hate preachers, or undesirables back home will be blocked, as they have been in the UK by protracted legal disputes and the European Court of Human Rights. So we will have a few clichés, a token closing of the border, some arrests, and then back to blaming Israel again (as indeed Sweden’s foreign minster already has).

Let us take it as read (for argument’s sake, of course, because neither I nor the facts agree with the following) that there were never any Jews or Israelites living in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. That the only reason Jews feel any connection to Israel is because of Zionism. That the only reason Jews are in Israel is because the imperialist crusading powers foisted the Balfour Declaration on them. The only reason Israel is in the Middle East is because the Holocaust gave the West such a guilty conscience that it tried to salve it by foisting this alien population on the Arab world. There were no Jewish Arabs, no Jewish communities living in the Middle East ever in the past who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and they had all left Arab lands voluntarily and without coercion. All the wars and all the occupations were caused exclusively by Israel. Israel never voluntarily withdrew from any Arab territory and were never interested in or willing to make peace. Let us accept Israel is the one and only source of all the evil, dysfunction, and mayhem that exists in the Middle East today. Finally, let us admit that without the United States support Israel would have disappeared ages ago and that the United States is the evil Satan above all others whose wars have killed more Muslims than Muslims themselves have. All this is the narrative that political opponents of Israel believe.

Even so, all this alone cannot explain why Israel is so hated. You may legitimately wonder why Israel has been picked on so exclusively for condemnation. Sixty percent of all motions passed in the United Nations agencies are reserved for Israel, and no other country receives more than 2% negative motions. I have no argument with labelling produce from occupied territory. But why is Israel’s reluctant occupation the only one anywhere in the world that is selected for specific export labelling, not China over Tibet, Russia over Crimea, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, India over Kashmir, or indeed Spain over Catalonia (to give just a few examples).

The answer is obvious. There are four good reasons. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims and only 14 million Jews. From almost every economic, political, and logical point of view, it makes sense to side with such a powerful, wealthy body of opinion.

Secondly, at least half the western world inclines to a left-wing political and intellectual viewpoint. Marxism has always been opposed to religion, and when it suits them they can condemn Israel as a religious state (as if all the other religious states did not exist).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no other worldwide political cause to rally round than that of anti-Israelism. The first and second reasons combine in the third factor. Marxism has always preached taking advantage of alliances, even with ones most bitter foes, in order to achieve power. Just recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler. In much of Europe today the demographics of anti-Israelism means that socialist parties wishing to achieve power as in Belgium ( the favorite bolt hole and source of arms of terrorists in Europe), ally themselves with fundamentalist Islam, which stands for everything they despise: free speech, separation of state and religion, gay rights, women rights, and equal rights of other religions. Not only, but if the State of Israel advocates such causes, the Left argues it is only to deflect criticism, not out of genuine conviction.

Fourth is the long history of right-wing fascist anti-Semitism and prejudice illustrated by the Ku-Klux-Klan-like websites on Google or letters to the press excoriating Jewish control of the world.

Finally, the pervasive religious based anti-Semitism. Despite all the efforts of churches and governments to proscribe, it still flourishes. Much of the Christian world adopts an anti-Israel narrative, seeing Palestinians as innocents and Jews as guilty. Jesus was a Palestinian is their narrative. But of course there are other Christians, notably the Evangelicals, whose support for Israel balances the one-sided biases of most Episcopalians and Quakers.

Since such opposition is not based on logic or fact, it must rely essentially on irrational prejudice stoked by a pervasive black-versus-white narrative. If you are a student at a university where most of your contemporaries are apathetic or focused on careers and the active political groups and academics are solidly anti-Israel, or you are drinking in a pub with friends, or at business dinner where anti-Semitic or anti-Israel remarks are the norm, you will either fade into the background or join the rabble. Europe’s tragedy is that it will not differentiate between those who wish to immigrate and settle in order to be part of its grand, idealistic vision and those who actively want to undermine and replace it.

But whatever tragedy happens, it changes nothing. Here is Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford:
“It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true that the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities. And it is thus remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilization within these avowedly peace-loving communities.

“I do know that 21st-century Europe has itself to blame for the mess it is now in. When I went up to Oxford …We learnt a lot of nonsense to the effect that nationalism was a bad thing, nation states worse and empires the worst things of all. ‘Romans before the fall’, wrote Ward-Perkins, ‘were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.’

“Poor, poor Paris. Killed by complacency."
So if you listen to the French media today, after the Paris massacres, you will still hear it said that the chaos in the Middle East is all Israel’s fault. The Hamas websites. of course, claim the Paris massacres are the work of Mossad. And Russia supports them. The Swedish foreign minister says it is only because of the way Israel treats the Palestinians. What the heck is wrong with these people? Anything but look into their own failures. Are they really suicidal or just mentally challenged? As if Israel were the cause of the Sunni-Shia rift or the Turkish oppression of the Kurds or the Muslim massacres of Christians. It is so easy to find a scapegoat. They have been doing it for 50 years, why would they want to stop now?

Prejudice is not logical. Anti-Israelism is not logical. The crude visceral hatred, the screaming interruptions on college campuses or cultural events that do not want to hear another point of view are the symptoms of a destructive virus that every now and again infects huge swathes of otherwise normal, fair, and balanced human beings. And sadly I accept we have our own screaming houris and fanatics of the right. Action and reaction again.

So, no, I do not think Paris will change anything. Security forces will share information, try their best to avoid new disasters but the culture of Europe will not, seemingly cannot change. Europe is condemned to reap the whirlwind of its own blindness. The virus is too deeply embedded. No one whose ideas were formed by prejudice will change their views any more than most genocidal murders really know how to express regret.

The story goes that God gave up trying to change the world after Noah’s flood. But we were left with the rainbow to remind us to look and connect. Perhaps that is why humanity is such a mess—not because it repeats the wrong things but because it forgets.

November 12, 2015

Not In My Name

More books and articles apologizing for religion, claiming that they are all really peaceful and positive. Only a few are narrow-minded fundamentalists. Only a minority are extremists causing the murder, torture, rape, and brutality carried out in the name of religion. I am finding this a little bit wearisome. The truth is that extremists of all religions are the ones who carry the weight, determine the agenda, and cow the rest into acquiescence or silence.

Here are some examples I have come across in these past few months of, no doubt, well meaning religious apologists:
“We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best. The sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes of resolving conflicts, forgiveness of the injuries of the past and devotion to a future in which all the children of the world can live together in grace and peace.”
Indeed we should. But if time and again Abrahamic faiths have failed and are failing to do this, should we not ask why and wonder what has gone wrong or is it an inevitable feature of religion and its preoccupation with power and control?
“We also need to insist on the simplest, moral principle of all: the principle of moral altruism, otherwise known as tit-for-tat. This says: As you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect.”
Religions of all sorts have fed us slogans like: Love your neighbor, all men are create equal, liberty, equality, fraternity (or the right to happiness) make love not war, give peace a chance, from each according to his ability, to everyone according to his need. We have had hundreds, even thousands of years of all this and where has it got us? More slit throats?
“Fundamentalism—text without context and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith.”
But when the majority of the committed in your own religion insist on literalism and refuse to reinterpret or use the very means the religion itself allows for rethinking the meaning or modifying it to meet different circumstances, can we not say that something has gone wrong? Particularly if once in its history it was not so. If the majority refuse to listen to moderate leadership and prefer the extremes, does not this then define the way the religion functions, not the few whistling into the wind?
“We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life.”
Yes, we must, but we aren’t! Either we are producing fanatics, many who are violent, or religions are being abandoned by a sizable and growing section who think they have nothing significant to offer.

The nonreligious like to blame God. But I prefer to blame human beings. The fact is that humans have this capacity to corrupt almost everything they get involved with, from religion, to politics, to sport.

I have worked in apologetics all my life, trying to emphasize what is good, beautiful, and inspirational in Orthodox Judaism. But in the end I have to admit that the greatest challenge I have had to face has been the behavior and attitude of other Orthodox Jews and their capacity to justify their shortcomings. Whenever I read attacks on religion from well known atheists, so long as they confine themselves to the negative impact of religions, frankly, I agree with them. I part company only on the sad fact that they have no existential knowledge of the beauty and the value of religious experience and life.

The fact is that open-minded, liberal, tolerant religious leaders of most religions have more in common with each other than they do with the the extremists within their own religions. Yet they have been notably incapable of spreading their message across and down in their own constituencies. And what is more they are usually laughed at and dismissed as fly weights by their own religious right wing.

I can make out a very strong case for Judaism as an enlightened, caring, just system (as well as a magnificent and intense spiritual system, with its focus of practice rather than abstract theology). I can select my Biblical and Midrashic sources. I can interpret them in ways that reframe the gender narrative. I can emphasize the moral, caring, humanitarian, and universal aspects of Judaism. But I also know that there is a lot wrong with the way it is practiced, the poor ethical standards of too many of its faithful, and the limitations of much of its leadership. Too often the letter of the law is given priority over human sensitivity and suffering, when one can indeed offer sufficient source material to show how it ought to be the other way round. And the same applies to swathes of Christianity, Islam, and the rest.

I am mightily fed up with those apologists who insist that all is fair in their gardens, that it’s only a small minority that gives religion a bad name. It’s not religion’s fault. But surely it IS, at least to a very significant degree. At some stage it is right to ask whether a religion is failing if the majority or a large minority are acting in such a way that belies both the religion’s stated mission and ethical values.

Paul Nitze said, “Moral claims are otiose if the antagonist does not share them.” Sadly, most religious people do not act as if they share my morals. Religions have a value to remind us of our morality and humanity, that we are supposed to be in the image of God. But it's a poor one, a weak one when both leaders and followers constantly show they are simply not up to the task beyond spouting banalities.

So when I hear yet another articulate religious leader telling us how positive religion is, if only we can get everyone to adhere to its peaceful ideals (when we can’t even get our own to behave), I wonder what the real point of grandstanding is other than pompous self-promotion. All the more so when I know that they themselves have often been responsible for a lot of divisiveness and cowardice. I know people will say these things have to be said. And its true they do, but it's the disingenuousness of suggesting or implying that one side it right, that grates.

Meanwhile, too many religious people are behaving badly, carelessly, and cruelly and claiming to act if not in my name then in the name of my religion. Enough hot air. I want to see action or some effective alternative. Otherwise “silence protects wisdom” and to quote another Mishna “words are not essential, actions are.”

November 05, 2015

Is Vegetarian Food Vegetarian?

On 26th October 2015, CNBC published this report:
“Clear Food, a branch of Clear Labs, a company that analyzes food at a molecular level to determine the quality of brands, tested 345 hot dog and sausage samples from 75 brands to see if the product matched what was described on the package. It turns out that 14.4 percent of the samples were not as advertised. Clear Food found that the hot dogs and sausages either included substitutions or had hygienic issues. The company noted that all of the kosher products that were tested were 100 percent pork-free. However, 10 percent of the vegetarian products tested contained meat. In addition, 67 percent of the vegetarian samples were recorded as having "hygienic issues," which were not described in detail.

“In several cases, pork had been added to products that did not mention the meat on the labels or ingredient lists. This included the vegetarian samples. Most often pork had been used as a substitution for chicken or turkey, according to Clear Food. Perhaps the most unsettling discovery by Clear Food is that human DNA was found in 2 percent of all samples and in 66 percent of the vegetarian products.”
This report has raised very important issues for people who care about their religious laws and customs. It has certainly persuaded me to rethink some of my assumptions.

I was brought up after the Second World War at a time when kosher food was nowhere nearly as available as it is today. It was unheard of to find kosher certified products in ordinary grocery shops. When supermarkets appeared, you would never find kosher products there. Kosher supplies, mainly meat, could be found at kosher butchers, only in heavily populated Jewish areas. Bread and cake could be bought at the few kosher bakery shops, and products made in Israel were limited and rare. The local religious authorities supervised foods mainly for Pesach. If one did not live in a ghetto, one had to travel long distances for supplies, and if one went on vacation, or indeed to study in a university town with few local Jews, provision of kosher supplies was a challenge at best, often a logistic nightmare.

In such a world one had to be creative. One looked at labels to see what went into the food, although in those days most food had no such list on their labels. One often wrote letters to manufacturers asking about ingredients. It was rare to find vegetarian restaurants, but if you did you could not be certain that many of the foods offered did not have animal ingredients (cheese usually had animal rennet).

There were halachic solutions. Quantity can be significant in matters of the wrong food mixed in with the approved. Minute ingredients, not essential ones, can often be discounted or cancelled out in greater quantities of acceptable ingredients. Hot and cold makes a difference because cold non-kosher food will not normally transfer itself into the material of the crockery. Glass does not absorb non-kosher food previously eaten on it or drunk from it. There are many, many ways within Jewish dietary laws to permit what on the surface is not permissible. Of course intent, accident, and compulsion all play a part in halacha too, so that you might often not be actually guilty of anything. But of course you really do need to know your Jewish law to take advantage of the stuff, and very few lay people do. Nevertheless, in those days it was not at all easy for those who cared about living a religious life and for whom all this mattered very much. It was tough. As it would be today if you were trekking down the Andes or Borneo.

Slowly over the years things began to change. As Orthodoxy rebounded from its near obliteration, demand began to rise. More and more young men trained only in Jewish studies needed jobs. Kosher supervision began to expand and grow into a billion-dollar industry. The American Othodox Union (OU) organization became so professional that many non-Jews recognized it as a mark of high standards and reliability.

Israel changed a lot, because there you had a serious local commercial market of millions to cater to. Most commercial food producers had kosher stamps from religious authorities. Indeed religious authorities themselves proliferated and vied for marketshare. Nowadays armies of bearded supervisors can be found all over the world guaranteeing the religious suitability of foods from Shanghai to Patagonia. Many supermarkets in the “civilized” world carry products with kosher stamps from somewhere. In the USA kosher products are bought by non-Jews who believe its standards are above the norm. And many Muslims, whatever they think of Jews, buy kosher food because they know that they can rely on it to be pork-free. The business has grown to the point where supervised water, paper towels, dishcloths, and aluminum foil can be found with stamps saying they are all guaranteed to have no non-kosher ingredients. The arguments for extremes of supervision have become ridiculous to the point of humor. But business is business, jobs are jobs and markets are markets. Since we now have bug-free lettuces and “kosher” water, I have no doubt we will soon have kosher supervised air.

There are some strict Jews who never eat out of their homes altogether. Thanks to ready availability of kosher food nowadays, many Orthodox Jews only buy supervised products on principle, no matter how farfetched it might seem. The argument in favor is not just religious but practical. One needs to support the industry, both for financial and practical reasons, regardless of religious necessity.

There was a time when one could argue that the cost of kosher food was prohibitively high. Many families could not afford the expense. Rabbis, such as myself, who were sensitive to the needs of those of modest means found ways of permitting unsupervised alternatives.

As the business has expanded many prices have come down relatively, and with the most notable exception of meat products the differences are not that high. Besides, the arguments against eating meat nowadays get more persuasive by the day. Recent headlines warn that processed meats and red meat increase the risk of cancer. And the high cost of rearing cattle (not to mention the cruelty) and the increasingly effective artificial substitutes will eventually level the playing fields, which I hope will make slaughtering animals for food quite unnecessary. In major cities now strict vegan restaurants are proliferating (and in New York some have kosher supervision, too).

In recent years governments have insisted on much more regulation and reliable food labelling. At first this seemed to pose a challenge to those who argued one had to have only supervised food. Most religious authorities argued that you could rely on the Law of the Land and on government inspection to enforce the purity of ingredients. Of course scare stories began to circulate. Mythical upstate farmers adulterated cow milk with pig milk (an utter absurdity since the two do not mix), and stories about unlisted additives proliferated. I have to say I took most of this with a pinch of salt and put it down to self-justification of vested interests. I trusted non-Jewish suppliers of vegan products to tell the truth and vegetarian purveyors to be genuinely vegetarian.

But now I am beginning to wonder. If after all the years of law enforcement and public scrutiny the report I quoted above is true, then I am afraid I must recant. I must now declare that given the clear failure of government agencies to enforce their laws, the examples of food producers adulterating their products and lying, I see no alternative other than to buy only supervised food. Even if many supervisory agencies have been shown to be both dishonest and negligent and there are of course rabbis and rabbis. A little bit of due diligence helps. But in the end I take the view that if the supervisor is committed to Jewish law and behaves ethically too, I will accept him (and her).

This need for supervision does not apply to fresh (kosher) fish, fruit, and vegetables. I do not agree one needs supervision of all vegetables for fear of bugs, so long as one checks before one eats for things that can be seen by the naked eye. I do not believe for one moment there is a little man who injects fruit and vegetables with bacon and only a supervisor guarantees he stays away. Even if he does spray pig fat on apples, nowadays everyone recommends washing fruit before you eat it anyway. I know full well many pious religious policemen will accuse me of undue leniency. But this is an ideological issue. On principle I prefer leniency when it comes to prescribing for others. The Talmud, after all, considers the right to be lenient superior than the right to be strict.

I know as well there have been too many examples of Orthodox Jewish purveyors of food betraying the religious community. There is a lot of skullduggery and false labelling going on. I know some supervisory organizations are less reliable than others. There is never 100% failsafe reliability. All human systems are subject to abuse. But we who care do have an obligation to reduce the risks.

What this report does is to challenge my innocent faith in government regulation has now been shattered. If I do buy vegetarian meat substitutes, I will put more trust in Israeli products than I will in American ones!

October 29, 2015

Chimen Abramsky

Chimen Abramsky was one of those geniuses who dwarves most intellects. He was a modest, loving man, self-taught, who became a lecturer and visiting professor at Oxford, London University, Harvard, and the Hebrew University, to mention only some. He was Sotheby’s and the world’s expert on Judaica.

For much of his life he was a convinced Marxist. Born in Russia, he was allowed to leave in the 1920s with his father (other members of the family were held hostage by Stalin) and came to London as a young man. He soon became one of the brains and prime movers of the U.K. Communist Party, even supporting the Stalinist regime. Until he eventually saw the light.

I met him on several occasions in the house of Jack Lunzer, the indefatigable businessman turned collector of the largest Judaica library in private hands. Chimen was elfin, with a mischievous smile. His rapid-fire delivery of scholarship, still in a thick Russian Yiddish accent, was mesmerizing.

It was Chimen who told me about the Russian ideologue Plekhanov’s bon mot that in history “the inevitable always comes about through the accidental”. He also told me that after the Shah fell, in a short time the Tudeh Party, the Iranian Communist power, would seize control. They never did of course. He was an atheist with a deep love and respect for Jewish culture. He was hardly known beyond left-wing and academic circles, and his passing was largely unnoticed by the community at large. His grandson Sasha has written a well received book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, in which he connects his grandfather’s massive collection of books and documents to his life.

The name Abramsky carried awesome weight in my family because of his father, a great and imposing Talmudic giant and commanding authority. He was the religious kingmaker in Anglo-Jewry and possibly the single most influential factor in creating modern Anglo-Jewish religious life. Yehezkel Abramsky, known as one of the most brilliant rabbinical scholars in Eastern Europe, was sent to Siberia for refusing to stop teaching Torah or to give in to the party’s demand that he publicly say how well the Jews of the Soviet Union were being treated. After a great deal of pressure, he was freed and came to London. Chief Rabbi Hertz appointed him head of the Beth Din and his ally in trying to assert the values of Torah over the semi-assimilated Anglo-Jewish petty aristocracy, who at that stage dominated the United Synagogue, and who were very lukewarm towards Zionism.

Amongst his earliest innovations was his scheme to identify the most talented young men studying in yeshivot in Britain and send them off to one of the great academies of the East. My father was one, and he went to Mir in Lithuania. I remember his telling me that Dayan Abramsky had promised to arrange for a scholarship to support him, but it never materialized. My father could not afford a warm winter coat. His own parents were far too poor to help him, and he suffered through the freezing arctic cold. But my father recounted this without malice. When he returned to begin his career in the rabbinate, Dayan Abramsky had recommended him as one of “his boys” in contrast to the graduates of Jews College, the more anglicized training institution for Anglo-Jewish ministry.

In 1944 Chief Rabbi Hertz and Dayan Abramsky persuaded my father to leave his position as Communal Rabbi of Glasgow and come to London to help them fight the battle for Orthodoxy. He was appointed Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. After Hertz died in 1946, the final shortlist to succeed him was Israel Brodie and my father, even though my father was only 32 at the time.

Many years later, meeting Ben Elton in New York (who had written his doctorate on the chief Rabbinate in the UK), I discovered that Abramsky had actively undermined my father’s candidacy and supported Brodie. I found this strange, given that Brodie was a typical Jews College Anglo-Jewish minister whereas my father was a Lithuanian educated yeshiva man. Naturally I wondered whether Abramsky simply thought my father was too young, too ambitious, too overreaching, or whether it was too humiliating to have his protégé in what was after all, on paper at least, the most senior position in Anglo-Jewry. My father must have known, but I never ever heard him say anything critical of him, which was typical of my father who readily forgave a long list of people others would not have. He never bore a grudge.

In 1958 my father sent me to Yeshivat Kol Torah in Jerusalem, and he insisted that I call on Dayan Abramsky, who lived nearby. He received me most cordially. Three years later I was back in Jerusalem studying at another yeshiva, and Dayan Abramsky sent a message asking me to come and see him. I arrived to see him sitting, studying Talmud with a small bald younger man (who was not wearing a kipa). He interrupted his study and told me that my father had asked him to tell me that he was very seriously ill and that I had to return to England. And that was the last I ever saw of him. A few years later (after my father had died), I met Chimen and recognized him as the man who had been sitting at the table studying Talmud with a bare head.

I recount these reminiscences for two reasons. One is out of admiration for my father, who clearly had not been treated all that well by Dayan Abramsky and yet nothing had detracted from his admiration and respect for him. Of all the rabbis he knew in Israel, the Dayan was the one he trusted to convey the awful news that he was dying and had the authority to tell me to return home.

But I also want to emphasize the other side of the Dayan’s personality. He had this awesome reputation for fierceness, uncompromising commitment to the strictures of Orthodoxy. He was a fighter for Torah against both the communists and the pseudo-Orthodoxy of the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. Yet when it came to his son, he was so sensitive to his individuality that even knowing full well how far Chimen had strayed from what mattered to his father more than anything else, he could tolerate it with love and tenderness. What a salutary lesson and one that too few great men seem capable of following.

October 22, 2015

To Kill Or Not To Kill

The painful scenes from Israel of young Arab men and women killing civilian men, women, and children randomly is all the more depressing because most of them are not the products of poverty or unemployment but, on the contrary, what we might call "middle class". They have all been given an education that has conditioned them to hate. I accept that anyone suffering from "occupation" will feel profound animosity, and I blame the political leadership on both sides for perpetuating a situation where neither side has the leader willing to do what it takes to really strive for a solution. It is equally clear that no matter what the rest of the world might say or do, no one will succeed in imposing a solution from outside.

Jews are subjected to constant internet reminders of Muslim hate preachers inciting violence and murder in Israel and encouraging their followers to attack Jews wherever they are. And Arab audiences can see the smaller number of Israeli extremists calling for crude retaliation. I have no doubt that the majority on both sides detest violence and want to find a way of living in peace and dignity.

I am not concerned here with the morality of the Palestinian position. That is their problem. They need to wake up to the fact that they have a sick preoccupation with martyrdom and death. Neither do I give a fig for biased opinions that cannot tolerate the very idea of a Jewish state capable of defending itself and report the situation in Gaza as if Egypt did not have a common border too.

As a rule Israelis, police and soldiers are constrained by moral laws even if there are some who ignore them. Failing an agreed peace treaty, conflict is inevitable. The Judicial system allows attackers their day in court. Earlier this week, the three terrorists who pelted the car of Alexander Levlovitz with rocks on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, leading to his death, were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder. Israel even takes its attackers into its hospitals. It is not uncommon for Palestinian bombers, fighters or assailants shot mid stabbing spree, to lie just a few beds down from the civilians they’ve just tried to butcher.

I believe it is right that there is a debate on the moral issues amongst Israeli Jews. What do you do when an Arab knifeman has severely injured Israeli civilians (or soldiers for that matter), is then shot and disabled and needs treatment to survive? First medical responders either come from Magen David Adom (MaDA), which is predominantly secular, and ZAKA, which is Charedi, very Orthodox. MaDA policy is to decide who is most severely injured and gives that person priority regardless of whether it is the aggressor or the victim. ZAKA says Jewish lives come first. On this issue I side with ZAKA. Victims should always be given priority over attackers.

But there’s another debate, this time between two rabbis. One, Rav David Stav, represents the middle, moderate ground of religious opinion. The other, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, is typical of right-wing ultra-nationalists. The question was asked of Rav Eliyahu, "What if a terrorist has attacked and injured an Israeli and is disabled? Should he then be shot dead or not?" Rav Eliyahu argues that he or she should be shot dead on the grounds that, as we have seen on YouTube, even shooting a terrorist several times did not stop him continuing to attack victims. Rav Eliyahu uses Jewish law to argue that self-defense requires us to remove any threat to life, even by killing. So when in doubt, kill him (or her). The trouble is that Rav Eliyahu has been guilty of the most dangerous, provocative statements in the past that frankly do stand comparison with Palestinian hate preachers.

In 2007, according to report in The Jerusalem Post, and not denied, Rav Eliyahu advocated "carpet bombing the general area from which the Kassams were launched, regardless of the price in Palestinian life." Eliyahu is quoted saying, "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand. And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop." In March 2008, he called for "state-sanctioned revenge" against Arabs. According to Haaretz, in an article for the newsletter Eretz Yisrael Shelanu ("Our Land of Israel"), Eliyahu proposed "hanging the children of the terrorist who carried out the attack in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva from a tree". Such language, even if one sympathizes with the pain, is unforgivable.

Compare his words with those of Rav Stav, who argues equally from a Jewish legal position that we only have an obligation to disable a terrorist, if we can, and an injured terrorist can easily be restrained or incapacitated.
". . .people who are not involved in murderous activities and those who no longer pose a danger must not be harmed. The blood boils when you see Israeli Arabs, young and old, who have been making their livelihood from Jews, murdering children, soldiers, women and men indiscriminately, without any gratitude. It is precisely on such days that the strength and uniqueness of the Israeli society is put to the test.

"These days, when the boiling blood is mixed with civilian willingness and resourcefulness, it's important to maintain our moral superiority: To avoid harming a person who is uninvolved in murderous activity, and to avoid harming those who have already been neutralized and no longer pose a danger. Harming a terrorist who has been neutralized causes double damage: The collateral damage is when these images are distributed, and the main damage is harming our moral norms. We will not stoop down to our enemies' despicableness, and we will not contaminate ourselves with a moral breakdown."
Some may not feel comfortable with Rav Stav’s idea of Jewish exceptionalism, but at least he cares about morality and public perception rather than crude physical aggression.

Rabbi Stav has a record of speaking out against religious narrow-mindedness, shortsightedness, and primitiveness. In the past, speaking out against the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate to help facilitate conversions of non-Jewish Russians living in Israel and serving in the army, he needed police protection from right-wingers. Such is the nature of "civilized" debate in Israel. Rav Eliyahu, on the other hand, represents everything I cannot stand about extreme right-wing attitudes. They produce the vigilantism that saw groups of Israeli youths with sticks trying to get at disabled terrorists. Thankfully the police were able to prevent them. But they couldn’t prevent an innocent Eritrean being bludgeoned to death after being mistaken for a terrorist and other cases of mistaken identity. Once the dogs of terror are unloosed, reactions are inevitably raw, and one needs voices of calm, not provocation.

I know there is a strong argument to treat aggression with force, particularly where that is clearly the currency of the prevailing culture in the Middle East. But talk that dehumanizes, that encourages violence, whichever side it come from, is what makes matters worse. Because once you get used to the language and actions of aggression, it is very difficult to return to normality. Rav Eliyahu is the type of example I reject. Rav Stav’s is the one I admire. Rav Eliyahu's diminishes; Rav Stav’s elevates.

October 15, 2015

Rosh Chodesh

This week we have celebrated the New Month of Cheshvan. Sometimes it is called Mar Cheshvan because, so goes the official story, it is the only month with no special days and is therefore sad (Mar). They really liked anthropomorphisms in days gone by. So that is why we add the adjective. In reality it has more to do with the ancient Akkadian name of the month: “AraChashman”. Many of the Biblical months were taken from the Babylonians, such as Nissanu, Tammuz, and Adar. Others come from Ugarit, and the Bible itself cross-uses different local pagan names such as Bul, Ziv, and Eytan. But my interest here is not in the names.

The New Month is the most neglected Biblical holy day of them all. Probably because it is not a day when one needs to stop working. No, that can’t be right, because on Chanukah and Purim, which are certainly popular, we can work as normal if we are so inclined, and they are not even Biblical festivals. And not because it occurs at least 12 times a year, because Shabbat happens much more often. My pet theory is its association with penance, since most people prefer happy occasions.

The Torah includes the New Month, Rosh Chodesh, in its list of festivals, and in the Temple there were special ceremonies. Included were sin offerings. The two goats mirror the two-goat sin offerings on Yom Kipur. Thus Rosh Chodesh was associated with atonement, a sort of mini-Yom-Kipur. Coincidentally, the Babylonian word “sin” was the god of the moon. People in ancient Israel used to go up to the sanctuaries on the new moon (2 Kings 4). After the destruction of the Temple, the liturgy, in its nostalgia for the lost past, harked back to Rosh Chodesh rituals in the Temple.

But its major significance in the old days was the fact that we have and had a calendar that is both lunar and solar, and they used to rely on witnesses appearing before the religious authorities every month to confirm the start of the new month, which was then communicated through a chain of bonfires around the Jewish world. The detailed procedures of testimony are laid out in the Talmud and encapsulated in the Maimonides codes. Once the calendar was calculated, arithmetically one knew exactly when the moon appeared and much of the significance and ritual fell into abeyance.

The Talmud says that one should make a blessing over the new moon, as well as lots of other natural phenomena. With no explanation, it also says that women were to have a day off from work on Rosh Chodesh (Megillah 22b). We know that in times gone by the poor only got holy days off work, but I have yet to find a satisfactory reason as to why Rosh Chodesh was chosen to give women an extra day off and why this did not include second days too. Perhaps it was a way of giving it more significance.

For most men Rosh Chodesh is just a day (or two days, as this month) like any other weekday. Except that in our morning prayers we have Hallel, as we do on every happy festival, Musaf (an additional service), and in addition we read from the Torah. And we say the prayer for festivals, “Yaaleh Veyavo”, in the appropriate places and in the Grace After Meals.

The custom of Kiddush Levana, Sanctifying the Moon, emerged sometime in the fifteenth century, seemingly a Kabbalist innovation. It is practiced still in many communities on the first Saturday night on which one can see the clear new moon of each month. This is not that frequent in the Northern Europe I grew up in. Which probably explains why it required the Middle Eastern mystics to come up with it. Similarly, the use of the repeated refrain “Shalom Aleychem”, which is borrowed from Islamic prayer ritual, attests to its later origins. And the declaration that “David is the King of Israel and will live for ever” indicates a response to those religions that sought to supersede Judaism.

But in our day, feminists of one hue or another have adopted Rosh Chodesh as their private festival. Sometimes it involves Mikvah parties, when groups of ladies go for an optional extra immersion. Some denominations have been creative with special Rosh Chodesh meals, cups of wine, dancing, and New Age meditation.

How did that come about? Here’s my theory. The moon has always had a bad rap in most societies. It represents darkness, which was when evil spirits and devils wandered the world causing havoc and distress, sucking blood and life out of innocent maidens. The moon was associated with sin and female seduction of otherwise good men. Witches came out at night and rode their broomsticks towards the moon. And madness became so linked to the moon that the very word for madness, “lunacy”, came from the Latin word for moon, “luna”. And it But reigning over all was Lilith, the spirt of the night.

Lilith does not figure much in Jewish lore before Medieval times. There is only one brief mention of her in the Talmud. Lilith really only came into her own in Medieval Jewish narratives, when everybody, including Jews, was fearful and superstitious. Religious authorities even encouraged it as a tool of keeping the masses under control. It’s not very different nowadays in many quarters of our credulous world. Lilith, according to these stories, was Adam’s original partner but refused to accept his dominance. More liberal feminists, liking the idea of an independent female figure, adopted her as their mascot, and indeed named one of the founding magazines of the movement Lilith.

So with Lilith on board, Rosh Chodesh, among certain groups of our people, becomes a day devoted to appreciating women. I fully support women’s rights (which is not necessarily sameness) and detest any manifestation of male chauvinism.