July 21, 2016

Conversion Confusion

We know well enough by now that the status of conversions to Judaism is an unholy, inconsistent, politicized and often corrupt mess. As a people and as a religion we are just as confused, inconsistent, and illogical as any other. I am referring to the chaos that reigns within what is confusingly and illogically called Orthodoxy.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israel’s highest rabbinical court recently rejected a conversion performed by prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, upholding the decision of a lower rabbinical court. The Supreme Rabbinical Court had held two appeal hearings on the rejection of the woman’s conversion by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court, where she had applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé. Last week the Chief Rabbinate (countermanding) said it recognizes Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as it always has.

Naturally this case has attracted extra publicity, because Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was the rabbi who arranged for Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka to receive an Orthodox conversion so that she could marry Jared Kushner. It would look very bad just as the Republican National Convention appoints Trump as their candidate for rabbis to suddenly cast aspersions on his daughter’s conversion. Yet it does raise the issue of what the criteria for an Orthodox conversion are.

The episode illustrates the political tensions that exist in Israel between local rabbinic courts, the Supreme Rabbinic Court, and the Chief Rabbinate, each vying for power, and each believing it has the right to decide. So a conversion, even in Israel, recognized in one area might not be in another. There is nothing new about this; local courts and authorities often refuse to recognize others in the same country, let alone others. In Israel it has been particularly prevalent, because nationalist rabbis are too Zionist for Charedi rabbis, who are too fundamentalist and anti-Zionist for Modern Orthodox rabbis. While both agree that Conservative and Reform rabbis are not “real” rabbis.

In 2013, the Chief Rabbinate rejected—then later accepted—a conversion by New York rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies as Chief Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This is all too typical of religious political infighting, using theology as a smokescreen for power politics.

Conversion has been a problem ever since, two thousand years ago, Hillel took a lenient and inclusive attitude and Shammai preferred to be strict and exclusive. It did not help when Christianity and Islam both made converting one of theirs to Judaism a capital offense. But what distinguishes Judaism from the others is that it sees no point in trying to evangelize, so long as other peoples and religions are living ethical lives. Don’t convert if you don’t want to keep all the rules. Stay as you are. The criterion the Talmud laid down, and the one that remains imbedded in Jewish law, is that the only basis for conversion is that one wishes to join the Jewish people and live a life according to the Torah. Naturally each denomination defines Torah in its own way.

To this day we have two distinct attitudes even within Orthodoxy: the lenient and the strict. Most of my rabbinic life was spent in the UK, where the authorities took a strict line and would refuse to accept any conversion for ulterior motives, such as to get married. They refused to accept conversions from Israel, South Africa, and the USA, where they thought the rabbis were too lenient. You could be Orthodox in Johannesburg, but not able to join an Orthodox synagogue in London.

I was amazed to discover cases in the UK where an Orthodox conversion could be arranged if you were very rich and well connected. I was shocked to discover how easy it was to get converted in different parts of the USA under different officially Orthodox rabbis where there was no centralized authority. And scandalized to discover that in Israel there were rabbinic courts that would convert very easily, particularly if you crossed their palms with silver. There are still too many cowboys on both sides of the Atlantic. The situation is a mess wherever you are, and almost whoever you are, and I feel so sorry for innocent people who are misled by rabbis who do not tell them the truth about their status. Even in Hassidic circles what is allowed in one court may be refused in another.

For those of us who would like some consistency and humanity, this is depressing and even immoral. To others there have been so many suspect, dishonest, and baseless conversions, often abandoned the minute the ring is on the finger, that the whole issue of conversion is a farce anyway. Some never accept conversions for the sake of marriage. And yet the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uzziel although he disapproved in principle strongly urged tolerance and accepting such converts.Others, like the Syrian community in New York, simply refuse to accept any conversions at all.

Yet in one way the chaos is good. At least there are options, possibilities, alternatives, and the chance of finding someone in authority who might come down on your side. The advantage of one all-powerful authority is that, like the pope, you have infallibility. The disadvantage is that if they come down against you, that is the end of the road. There are not too many Orthodox rabbis that I know, that I would have the confidence in that I ‘d be happy to see them have the power to decide for us all. It is not their scholarship, I worry about so much as their ability to foreswear politics and power. So I am glad that there are other options.

You have two contrasting models in Judaism today: the centralized Israeli State Religious model, and the laissez-faire, uncontrolled American model. It is indeed tightening up now that pressure has been brought to bear. But there are still cowboys! Neither system is perfect. Many of the conflicts in Israel arise because one model seeks to impose its view on the other. This is always going to be a political battle. But in such situations you do find good men and women working hard to resolve the conflicts.

Like Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy. Or TZOHAR a movement of moderate, tolerant Orthodox rabbis within the state system. Or Rav Aaron Leibowitz of HASHGACHA PRATIT. They do a magnificent job that goes some way to redress the ethical balance.

You might say this all gives the Orthodox establishment a bad name. Orthodoxy will reply that it doesn't care. It has its principles. Besides, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” But if, as the Torah says, we are supposed to be an example to the world of an ethical, moral system that brings us recognition for our sensitivity and spirituality, we really need to see the damage that is being done by not having a clear policy, one way or another. Meanwhile, if Ivanka keeps Shabbat, I am definitely on her side!

July 14, 2016

Fractured Society

The Fractured Republic is the title of a book by Yuval Levin, subtitled “Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism”. He regrets the tendency to think in terms of national concepts rather than communal ones. In other words, we now tend to look at the whole building rather than its bricks. At the same time, whilst we look at national issues in terms of the larger picture, in practice we all live lives that are much more selfish than a communal. And this is one reason why religion is losing its popularity and position in American society. We have enough of big government s telling us what to do without needing religions to do it too.

Many Americans look back with nostalgia to a time after World War II in which schools, communities, and churches provided the social nucleus, and everyone was confident in his or position within a homogeneous community. Levin’s message is that looking backwards to a mythical past is unhelpful. Social clocks change all the time, but they very rarely go backwards. Parts of American society might have been thus, but such a myth ignores the racism, the social inequalities, and the exclusivities and closed communities that were even more evident then than now. It was hardly a model society. Just think of the McCarthyism that pervaded the early 1950s. Nostalgia is rarely an accurate lens.

Many Jews similarly look back to the ghetto as a kind of pastoral heaven, ignoring the anti-Semitism, stinking hovels, poverty, and constant threat of attack. Even the number and degree of the faithful is exaggerated. The average general level of religious study and practice was far lower than today, as well as the numbers dedicated to Torah compared to those nowadays in the USA and Israel. And yet ironically it is probably true to say the those tough conditions produced far more great minds and leaders than the masses sitting in study today. Even here in America there are many Jews who look back to the perfect Jewish world where everyone voted Democrat, and Reform and Conservative Judaism dominated the Jewish roost.

Judaism has always been concerned with community, for self-preservation and protection. It has looked to a model that combines spiritual authenticity and religious services all in one walkable zone. No human being can stand alone. Jewish communities were always based on charity, support, and the provision of social service. It is true that such cohesion was often imposed from the outside, and as soon as they could escape it, many did. But the ideological underpinning was a religious community, a kingdom of priests where study and prayer required involvement with others of different backgrounds and levels of commitment, wealth, and knowledge. It was as near to a classless society as one could get. Certainly more so that the evil, Marxist, egalitarian replacement that Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin created.

We are now privileged to live in a free world where we have choices. It is indeed a world of individuality and individualism. But this does not prevent people from choosing to live in whichever kind of society they want to. Many do indeed prefer closed, monochromatic communities for their support, religious facilities, and protection. Such Jewish societies can also be oppressive and restrictive. Yet Judaism today is a strange mixture of open and closed societies. Each has its good points and its bad ones. And we are able to move in and out of different models depending on mood, opportunity and where it is we live. In the larger communities we may visit a Chassidic rebbe or a Lithuanian yeshiva and attend a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat. WE can study a page of Talmud every day, and yet, go to the movies, holiday in the Caribbean, and wear modern dress. We may conform outwardly but rebel inwardly (and sometimes openly, too). On balance, I think this is healthy. Certainly no less healthy than excessively pious communities that disregard State as well as Torah laws they find inconvenient.

While one part may reject modernity, the other embraces it. Conversely, while one sector of Jewry objects to the idea of an Eruv, or protests the right of Orthodox women to bathe separately in municipal pools or circumcision or a Jewish state, another part of us can tell them to piss off. We are a people only in name or, as Sartre said, because other people describe us as Jews, not because we share very much; we don’t. Anyone to the right of me is a fanatic and to the left is an assimilationist.

Instead of mourning this variety, even confusion, I celebrate it, for it is the only way in the free world we inhabit. Whenever an exclusive ideology, no matter what it is, tries to impose itself on others, it might for a while win some traction. But it will always generate opposition, and there will always be alternatives. Just think off the history of Marxism.

No matter who tries to write a book (and many have Jews and non Jews alike) about what decisions we should make to heal fractured societies, they all sound preachy, pious, and unrealistic—indeed, doctrinaire in their own ways. Yuval’s book is just another such. He might be right about the importance of community. And creating communities and maintaining them is hard work. But what works in micro does not work in macro. They are two very different situations.

No societies, except dictatorships of mad men or the proletariat, have come up with a model that gains the approval and acceptance of 99% of a population. Why should it? Moses didn't achieve it, and by implication God has not either! Which is why there are so many different groups of humans speaking in His name and utterly convinced that He speaks to them alone.We are who we are, and above all we want to be allowed to make our own decisions. When anyone tries to bully us, we react the other way. Look at Brexit for example, or Heaven save us, Donald Thump.We accommodate to societies. We have personal interests and national interests. They sometimes conflict. We live in tribes, super-tribes, and pseudo-tribes, as sociologist Morris said.

I value Jewish values. They are amazing despite (possibly because of) their contradictions. I am not so happy about many of the ways that Jews treat these ideas, but I respect difference. As Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, if you come across anyone who believes he is in the sole possession of the truth, run away as fast as you can. I prefer fuzzy inconsistency to boring unanimity. The Ancient Greeks liked order and certainty. We Jews like questions more than we do answers. We were born and bred in chaos.

July 07, 2016

Louis Jacobs

I shall be delivering a memorial lecture next week for Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, a very controversial figure in Anglo-Jewry in my youth. He was the Gateshead-educated, academically rigorous senior lecturer at Jews College, now defunct but then the training ground for British rabbis that combined Torah with academic study.

He was expected to succeed Isadore Epstein as principal, but in 1961 Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked his appointment on the grounds that in his book “We Have Reason to Believe” Jacobs repudiated “Torah from Sinai”. That was not what Jacobs had actually said, but Brodie feared that he was too academic to become the successor.

Rabbi Jacobs attracted a lot of support. His own congregation rallied round. To make matters worse, Rabbi Brodie then fired him from his New West End Synagogue. Rabbi Jacobs withdrew from the United Synagogue the established UK umbrella organization of nominally Orthodox Jewry) and set up a new independent community called the New London Synagogue, that he described as “non-fundamentalist Orthodox”.

The Jacobs Affair divided Orthodoxy, and it resulted in Rabbi Jacobs being ostracized from the mainstream community. The issue on the face of it was fundamentalism. Could one, in addition to living a completely Torah-observant life, pursue academic analysis, raise questions about the process of Revelation, and still be regarded as Orthodox? In other words, was fundamentalism the only paradigm of Orthodoxy? Or could one combine commitment, faith, and indeed mysticism with rationalism? Louis Jacobs believed so. Had that been the only issue, I doubt the result would have been the inhuman, even cruel way he was treated by the Anglo-Jewish religious establishment.

But sadly, there was another aspect to the affair. And that was the campaign of William Frankel, then the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to get the United Synagogue to join the American Conservative Movement. Although most members of the United Synagogue then probably had much more in common with Conservative Jewry than with what we would now call Orthodoxy, there was no way Anglo-Jewry would make the switch. It would go against the natural tendency to support the Establishment. However badly Louis was treated, I believe it was a mistake to ally himself with Frankel. All the more so since when he was driven out and set up his own independent congregation, he never actually identified it with the Conservative movement.

Why then did I accept the invitation? Because I believe Judaism should be more than conformist Orthodoxy. It should respect differences. I knew Louis Jacobs. He was a good human being. A great, halachically observant Jew. A gentle, caring minister. It hurt me the way he was treated, and it is out of respect for his memory that I was honored to accept this invitation.

There is a personal angle—my late father liked him too! In 1946 my father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. Together with Israel Brodie, he was one of the two final candidates to succeed Chief Rabbi Hertz, even though he was barely 32 at the time. In 1948 he founded Carmel College and left the rabbinate. Twelve years later he was being canvassed heavily to succeed Israel Brodie. I well remember his saying at the time that the position was not for him; it was too diplomatic and representative, and he was not interested in playing the political games of the rabbinate he had left behind him. Besides, he loved his life and mission at Carmel too much to give it up. Sadly, the Almighty intervened. In 1961 he contracted the leukemia that would end his life a year later.

My father supported Louis Jacobs on the Jews College appointment and actually wrote a letter published in the Jewish Chronicle saying that if Louis Jacobs was blocked he would discourage his pupils from attending Jews College. That year I was present when Louis came down to Carmel to visit my father, and I remember the conversation clearly. My father advised Louis strongly not to enter into an alliance with William Frankel. He advised Louis not to react to the Jews College snub and not to challenge the establishment. My father believed that if Louis Jacobs had accepted the decision with quiet dignity, he would in time have become Chief Rabbi after Brodie.

They parted on good terms, and a few months later my father died. Had he lived, I often fancy he would have steered Louis through the upcoming conflict. Two years later I was a student at the Inter-university Jewish Federation conference when it was decided to ask Louis Jacobs to become its honorary president in recognition of his fight for academic freedom within Judaism and in the hope that it would strengthen his position. It did not.

The last time I saw him was in 1995. By then Anglo Orthodoxy was growing exponentially. I had retired from the Anglo rabbinate, but I was asked to come and meet Rabbi Jacobs because he wanted to retire and I was thought by some to be an appropriate successor. I went to meet two senior members of the London Beth Din, upholders of Anglo-Orthodoxy, to ask if they would sanction a reconciliation that would bring the New London Synagogue back into mainstream Orthodoxy if I were to accept the position. They said they would. I took this message with me, and Louis seemed pleased. But our negotiations faltered over one issue.

Louis was utterly devoted to Minhag Anglia, the old Anglo-Jewish style of formal synagogue liturgy. I found it cold, boring, and unattractive. I always disliked United Synagogue services. At Carmel our prayers were more like what are now called Carlebach style. Services were less drawn out, with more community singing. It was in yeshiva in Israel that I experienced for the first time true ecstatic, spiritual prayer. I would have wanted to bring the services more into line with the new Orthodoxy that was, everywhere, making Orthodox prayer much more exciting and meaningful. I do not know if Louis objected because he just preferred his way and would not budge. Or if it was because he fought fundamentalism for so long that this sounded to him like capitulation to the growing trend of “yeshivish” Orthodoxy. I respected his decision and chose not to probe.

Alas, we never met again. But I do want his memory and his legacy to live on. May it be a blessing.

June 30, 2016


I know I am expected to write about Brexit this week—-a classic conflict between a great concept and a corrupt, incompetent, bureaucratic misexecution of it. But I won’t, because it’s too early to know how it is going to play out.

Instead I turn to another issue of conflicting worldviews. I have written before that I simply do not understand America’s attitude toward guns. There are certain American loves, like capital punishment, that a Brit does not get. I know it is a cultural dissonance, and I do not expect my gun-loving friends to understand my position either. Whatever weird justifications are offered—it's the American constitution; right to self-defense; guns don’t kill, people do—nothing I have heard brings me any closer to understanding the lunacy that leads to so many deaths each year (the majority of which are cause by people they know and often by accidents).

Anyone familiar with the issue in halacha (Talmud Avodah Zara 15b-16a, Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach, etc.) will know that the dominant position is that one does not distribute dangerous weapons to people who may misuse them. A human is always regarded as potentially dangerous. The counterargument of self-defense only pertains where there is no reliable system of law and order, and that’s the let out that all vigilantes claim. So there’s a screw loose in my brain, but I am in good company.

The National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobby groups in the USA, and it has almost every Republican Senator in its pocket. Every time there is a mass murder, outrage explodes; presidents promise, huff and puff, beg, and even cry for limited restrictions. The NRA turns its back and ensures that no law is passed. No matter how often advocates of minimal restrictions say they are not challenging the ancient, barbaric, even Neanderthal (apologies to Neanderthals) right of Americans to possess guns, no matter what limitations, however anodyne, they advocate. The gun lobby blocks any reasonable proposal on principle.

Once again after Orlando there was another drive to contain this madness.

You won’t believe this, but the law in the USA allows someone who is banned from flying because he or she is regarded as a security risk to buy a high-powered multi-magazine weapon. Now you would have thought the NRA, made up largely of xenophobic, backwoods, reactionary yahoos, might just get a wee bit worked up if a jihad-proclaiming supporter of ISIS would be allowed to buy a weapon of mass murder. But no. The fanatics of the NRA won’t even change that. Because they fear if you give an inch the crazy leftist anti-gun lobby will take the whole of your arm and your genitals too!

BBC report of June 21st:
“The US Senate has rejected plans to tighten gun controls, including the restriction of weapons sales to people on terrorism watch lists. Four proposals were brought before the Senate after 49 people died in an attack on a gay nightclub in Florida. Democratic and Republican senators voted along party lines, blocking each other's bills.

Senators strongly disagreed about how to prevent more attacks happening in future.

Republican Senator John Cornyn said: 'Our colleagues want to make this about gun control when what we should be making this about is the fight to eliminate the Islamic extremism that is the root cause for what happened in Orlando.

'My colleagues in many ways want to treat the symptoms without fighting the disease.'

“For her part, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski said: 'Why is it we would go through such incredible scrutiny to board an airplane to protect me against terrorist, and yet we have no scrutiny of the people on the terrorist watch list to be able to buy a gun?'

“Republicans and members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) complained that the bills put forward by the Democrats violated the constitutional right to bear arms. They are concerned that without enough 'due process', law-abiding Americans wrongly named on watch lists would be prevented from buying weapons. Democrats said the Republican proposals were too weak.

“In the US, gun dealers are licensed by the federal government. People can be prevented from buying weapons if they have mental health problems or are guilty of serious crimes, but there is no specific prohibition for those on the terrorism watch list. There are currently about one million people on that list. Besides, there are other ways to buy guns - at gun shows, or from a private vendor online - that do not require any background checks altogether.

"The Senate voted down legislation that would have closed a gun show loophole and expanded background checks to cover private sales.

"Also rejected were:
  • A bill to ban suspects on terrorism watch lists from buying guns 
  • A bill (backed by the NRA) that would allow the US attorney general to delay a gun purchase by a known or suspected terrorist, but prosecutors would need to convince a judge of the would-be-buyer's connection to terrorism within three days    
  • A bill that would alert the FBI to terrorism suspects who have purchased a gun, without blocking the purchase outright.”
Now I ask you who is mad? How can a country as dysfunctional and a legislatively as paralyzed as this survive? It really makes one wonder whether democracy must be one of the worst forms of government ever invented. But for all of this, America is still one of, if not THE place in the world where most others would like to live. Even those who want to blow us up would rather be here than there, if we let them choose!

Democracy is a mess, but it’s a better mess than some other forms of either incompetent or venal rule. So I guess I just have to put up with all these crazy, gun-loving, Montana backwoodsmen and -women. Which is, after all, what a truly democratic society must allow for, even when it does make crazy decisions.

Which leads me back to Brexit, of course.

June 23, 2016

The Devil and The Jews

In 1943, even before the full story of Nazi inhumanity was revealed, Joshua Trachtenberg published The Devil and the Jews, a brilliant analysis of how the Christian world turned Jews and Judaism into a version of evil totally detached from reality. People who had never met Jews believed they poisoned wells, killed children for their blood, spread diseases. By dehumanizing Jews, Christians transformed them turned into the symbol of evil. Islam followed. The blood libel migrated. Jews were accused this week of poisoning wells. Jews living under Islam transmitted impurity. Stoning the devil in Mecca was stoning the Jews by proxy. All this explains the way popular antisemitism retains its illogical grip on much of the world, religious and secular. Blame the Yids. It has metastasized into the minds of left and right.

A well-known English journalist (with a Jewish name, though not Jewish) has been writing about the moral bankruptcy of the left ever since his book What’s Left?: How the Left Lost its Way came out in 2007. More recently he has written about how left-wing anti-Semitism has forced him to identify with Jews. Here are a few extracts:

“It took me 40 years to become a Jew. … Whether the antisemitic conspiracy theory is deployed by German Nazis or Arab dictators, French anti-Dreyfusards or Saudi clerics, the argument is always the same. Democracy, an independent judiciary, equal human rights, freedom of speech and publication—all these ‘supposed’ freedoms—are nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world. …the Labour party [in the UK] is in danger of becoming as tainted as UKIP by the racists it attracts.

“…[many] leftwing activists [believe that w]estern governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The ‘Israel lobby’ controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the ‘root cause’ of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State. Polite racism turns the Jews, once again, into demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations. Or as the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström … explained recently, Islamist attacks in Paris were the fault of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank.

“Or consider the otherwise bizarre indulgence of ultra-right religious extremists by people who otherwise describe themselves as liberals and leftists. The belief that Jews fuel radical Islam allows them to overlook superstition and the tyrannical denial of equal rights. They’re against Israel and that’s all that matters.

“As someone who warned in the 00s about the growing darkness on the left, I am pessimistic about the chances of change. If you keep shouting ‘fire’ and the fire brigade never comes, you tend to assume the house will burn to the ground.”

That, I am afraid, is the reality of left-wing dogma everywhere today. Israel is the devil. And not a few Jews and former Jews agree, as they did in the middle Ages. Nick Cohen is pessimistic. He sees the alliance between the Left and Islam in Europe as unstoppable and incapable of granting Israel a fair hearing. I recognize the reality. But I am not so pessimistic.

An alternative narrative comes from Martin Kramer; in Foreign Affairs (Israel and the Post-American Middle East: Why the Status Quo Is Sustainable) he writes:

“Israel faces all manner of potential threats and challenges, but never has it been more thoroughly prepared to meet them. The notion popular among some Israeli pundits that their compatriots live in a perpetual state of paralyzing fear misleads both Israel’s allies and its adversaries. Israel’s leaders are cautious but confident, not easily panicked, and practiced in the very long game that everyone plays in the Middle East. Nothing leaves them so unmoved as the vacuous mantra that the status quo is unsustainable. Israel’s survival has always depended on its willingness to sustain the status quo …such resolve has served Israel well over time.

“Even as Israel seeks to deepen the United States’ commitment in the short term, it knows that the unshakable bond won’t last in perpetuity. This is a lesson of history. The leaders of the Zionist movement always sought to ally their project with the dominant power of the day, but they had lived through too much European history to think that great power is ever abiding.

“They were alone during the 1930s, when the gates of the United States were closed to them. They were alone during the Holocaust, when the United States awoke too late. They were alone in 1948, when the United States placed Israel under an arms embargo, and in 1967, when a U.S. president explicitly told the Israelis that if they went to war, they would be alone.

“[Over the next 50 years] large swaths of the Middle East will be left to their fate, to dissolve and re-form in unpredictable ways. Israel may be asked by weaker neighbors to extend its security net to include them, as it has done for decades for Jordan. Arab concern about Iran is already doing more to normalize Israel in the region than the ever-elusive and ever-inconclusive peace process. Israel … will loom like a pillar of regional stability—not only for its own people but also for its neighbors, threatened by a rising tide of political fragmentation, economic contraction, radical Islam, and sectarian hatred.

“Although Israel has made plenty of tactical mistakes, it is hard to argue that its strategy has been anything but a success. … Only if Israel’s adversaries conclude that Israel can sustain the status quo indefinitely—Israel’s military supremacy, its economic advantage, and, yes, its occupation—is there any hope that they will reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“Statements like Obama’s don’t sway Israel’s government, which knows better, but they do fuel Arab and Iranian rejection of Israel among those who believe that the United States no longer has Israel’s back. … Israel is well positioned to sustain the status quo all by itself. Its long-term strategy is predicated on it.”

So as I said last week, I am not worried for our survival.

Meanwhile Europe and the USA have far bigger self-inflicted internal problems than they realize. In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Mohed Altrad, himself a refugee from Syria to France, a billionaire, PhD, novelist, and World Entrepreneur of the Year, warns that millions of refugees have a basic cultural mindset that is anti-Western and anti-Semitic. Like them, he was educated to hate the West and to kill Jews. Eventually he realized that hatred was self-defeating. The path to success was to change his attitude and stop blaming others. His is a success story. But most will not follow his example. He strongly believes the West must insist on immigrants adjusting to Western values rather than the West conceding to theirs.

Hatred of the other just because he or she is different is a poison wherever it appears. When you add religion, it becomes overwhelmingly evil. This is the toxic mix we are encountering everywhere. No community, no religion is immune. Wherever it rears its head, it must be dealt with or we are all lost.

June 16, 2016


Tolerance only works if it goes both ways.

At Muhammad Ali’s funeral, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun Magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave a stirring speech that was roundly applauded. I agree with almost everything he said. We must stop victimizing, generalizing, and hating people who are different in color, creed, and practice. We live in a world where power corrupts. Inequality and exploitation are everywhere and infiltrate every ideology, religion, and creed. Racism, victimization, greed, and violence pervade every society. Obviously, some more than others. Otherwise no one would ever want to move to a different country for abetter quality of life and greater freedom.

The message that Rabbi Lerner advocated was the message of every idealist. We must love our neighbors. Do unto others as we would be done by. Yet for some reason, despite technological, scientific, and humanitarian progress, despite a reduction in poverty, an increase in food production, welfare systems, huge charitable enterprises, and benevolence, we are still way, way off achieving what we have been preaching. We still live in a world of either imperfect or evil regimes. But we still yearn for freedom, equality, friendship, and benevolence. We like the good. But we are not all capable of pursuing it.

Muhammad Ali was a remarkable character as well as a brilliant athlete. No one is perfect. Not even him. He picked up too many anti-white and anti-Zionist hate tropes from mentors Malcolm X and Farrakhan. But he fought for his people and for freedom. How ironic that he had a Jewish grandson and went to his bar mitzvah. But still, it is so important, and after Orlando even more so, to use every opportunity to speak out against racism and prejudice and that was what Rabbi Lerner rightly did.

I was pleased that he went to the funeral. It was, in its way, a Kiddush HaShem, even if he had absolutely no right to say he was representing American Jewry. It seems any rabbi who gets exposure claims that nowadays. But I am sorry he so overtly politicized his message by spouting left-wing Bernie nostra as if they would solve the problems of the world, let alone America.

Governments that want to create a utopia often have to concede that they either do not have the financial means or the population to achieve it. We all want it in theory, on our terms. Since the days of Plato and his Republic, we have dreamed and planned, but we are still a long way off. With our societies we have the idealists and the pragmatists, the capitalists and the socialists, and no one system is perfect or has ever been. But still we must dream, we should dream, and we need to be reminded of our dreams.

In all my days in the rabbinate, whenever I was stuck for a sermon I knew I could always fall back on preaching ideals, excoriating those who betray our ideals, standing against hypocrisy. And after every such sermon someone would always come up to me and say, “Rabbi, great sermon, you really gave it to them today.” Or words to that effect. It was always, “You told them.” It was never, “You told me.”

On the same day as Ali’s funeral, an American Muslim wrote in the New York Times about how his young daughter was picked on in a restaurant for wearing a headscarf. He ended by wondering why we hate people for their religion or race. Yes, of course I agreed, because I wonder why so many Muslims and Christians still hate Jews for being Jews, or hate people of different sexual orientation. We are so good at seeing the mote in the eyes of others, but not the beam in our own. Or as the Talmud says )Bava Batra 15b), “Don’t tell me to do something about my toothpick when you have a whole plank of wood to deal with.”

So I ask myself, why in his speech did Lerner have to focus on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and not Sunni Shia internecine conflicts which Ali felt equally strongly about, human rights in China and Russia, occupation in Tibet, Kashmir, or West Sahara, or Turkey’s treatment of Kurds or North Korea? Why did he not excoriate the left wing ideology that Chavez and Maduro have destroyed Venezuela with? Or indeed Cuba? Does he think there is no need for self-examination other than for Jews? Why no reciprocity? Did Israel start the wars? Do Israelis really not want peace desperately? Is there no other side to the argument?

We now live in a world of rights. Do not Jews have rights too? Were Rabbi Lerner’s comments about Netanyahu just to pander to an audience that, at core, is now sadly so anti-Israel and anti-Semitic as to deny rights to Jews to defend themselves? he could have said that almost half of Israel opposes many of his policies and rhetoric.He spoke about how once Jew stood shoulder-to-shoulder with black civil rights leaders. He did not speak about why today anti-Semitism is so prevalent in black societies. Why Black Lives Matter has chosen to add Palestine to their agenda rather than any one of the other humanitarian causes with far greater casualties elsewhere in the world today. If Martin Luther King had been present, he would not have been so one-sided.

Of course the Israeli Left, indeed any Left, has the right and should have the right to take whatever side it wants to. Of course excess, corruption, and inhumanity must be addressed. But one who excoriates Jews wherever they are, should have the honesty and morality to point out another point of view others political correctness and one sidedness simply debases the debate. Why does no one mention the protests in Palestinian territory against the policies of their dogmatists and kleptocracy? When you pick on just one example, on just one argument, that is pure prejudice.

Not only, but look at how Lerner’s speech was reported—not as a critique of racism or prejudice wherever it comes from.Look on the internet and see the headlines “Rabbi Slams Israel in Muhammad Ali Funeral Speech.” Yes, just more fodder for the Jew-haters. He could have made all his major ethical points without having to pander to the tub-thumping anti-Israel, anti-Jewish amen chorus that has now taken over the Left (not to mention the Right) wherever it exists.

The same trope. Remove Israel and the Middle East will be peaceful. Sunni and Shia will love each other, as well as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. The Left has always had rose-colored spectacles. Remove the Kulaks, then the aristocrats, then the bourgeoisie, then the Jews, and Russia will be paradise. Remove capitalists, and we will live in heaven. Remove religion, and we will get in with each other, make love, and we will all live happily ever after.

Life is not like that. I am glad Rabbi Lerner stands for what he stands. We need contrarians and prophets. But my experience tells me that any dogma can be dangerous, any one sided argument is doomed.

All I seek is balance. By all means, criticize Netanyahu if you also criticize Abu Mazen. By all means attack Israel if you also attack Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the others who put war above human needs and human rights. Rabbi Lerner can and should demand rights. But I can demand mine too.

June 09, 2016

Shavuot 2016 - Torah

It was the genius of Babylonian Jewry to meet the challenges of exile 2,500 years ago. Originally Judaism was a fragile community of rival tribes settled in a specific land. Its public religious rituals were based on its agricultural seasons and tithes. It had a central sanctuary, with its priests and sacrifices, and a system of ritual purity. It had its civil laws and judiciary.In addition there were all the laws required of one on a personal level; the general ethical imperatives, charity, and how one ran one’s home and family. The relationship with God was personal. What kept the community together (in theory) was everyone gathering in Jerusalem on the three pilgrimage festivals.

When the Children of Israel lost their land and sanctuary what was left? What was going to keep the community together? This was when the synagogue, the Beit Knesset and Beit Midrash, began as places for the Jews to gather. But what did they do there? Not pray. That was something personal that one did in one’s own home in one’s own time. Daniel records that he went to his loft three times a day and turned towards Jerusalem to pray.

Babylon produced the sofrim, the scribes. Back home they had been just that, skilled in reading, writing, and recording. In Babylon they turned into the scholars, the teachers. What one did in the synagogues was pore over the sacred texts, study, and teach. The term “Knesset” means to get together. And “Midrash" means to study. That was how Judaism re-grouped and survived. That was its secret weapon.

The process of transformation took time. When Jews returned under Cyrus, the Temple was rebuilt and all those earlier laws were reinstated. Except now you had two communities, those in the Diaspora who had one set of routines and those in Israel who had another. And in Israel the Priesthood and the sofrim (forerunners of the rabbis) coexisted in competition and uneasy truce. For another 400 years or so the two systems coexisted. Then in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and Jerusalem. The priests lost their roles. The sects soon disappeared. The rabbis were left standing as the sole bearers of the tradition. Then, through the oral law, the Talmud, the face of Judaism that we recognize today emerged.

Thus the festival of Shavuot was transformed. From being a harvest festival 49 days after the first sheaf of barley was dedicated in the Temple on the first day of Pesach, it was transformed into the celebration of the Sinai experience of Torah. As the diaspora turned into an extended hell for Jews—oppressed, suppressed, enslaved, and murdered—their numbers began to dwindle, and many preferred to lose their Jewish identity than to suffer. It is argued that external oppression was responsible for keeping the Jewish people going. But I find that illogical, since large numbers of Jews were always able to escape that oppression by choosing another, less stressful way of life.

What really kept Judaism alive was Torah study. It was not just the value of study itself. It was also that you were trained to read, to use your brain in disciplined learning. And what’s more, to survive and earn a living you had to combine the physical and the scientific with the mystical and the paranormal. This achieved two things. It taught one to appreciate God’s universe and, not unimportantly, to have skills to survive. All of this contributed to an evolutionary survival of the fittest, the brightest, the most accomplished. But the question is, accomplished in what? In the study itself or in the byproduct of learning how to survive in an unfriendly world?

This issue is still debated today, and it lies at the root of the miracle of Jewish survival, of such small numbers having so much success (sure, we have our failures too). No wonder so many believe we are the Devil incarnate. How else can you explain what we have achieved against such numerical odds? Perhaps that is precisely why we are singled out for so much anti Semitism.

In the Talmud there is a debate as to whether study is more important than prayer. Prayer represents the religious spiritual side, which is most often identified with the religious spirit. It focuses on the relationship with God. But for many Jews that is not so compelling; God is too intangible, too abstract. Study, on the other hand, is more substantial in the cognitive sense. It is an intellectual amassing of information and the immersion in a tradition. The intellectual prowess the Greek philosophers so revered as the way to find truth was, in Judaism, the process of study and intellectual debate.

This debate remains unresolved. But the famous line goes that “study is greater because it leads to action.” You know what is required and how to do it. So much alienation in Judaism today is because so many Jews are so painfully ignorant. They have no idea what Judaism really is. They are like children whose only mathematical education ended in kindergarten.

There is another major issue. Should the study of Torah be all one needs or not? The rabbis of the Talmud were divided on almost every issue, including this one. We have always loved to argue. Some said that if prayer, encounter with God, was the core of religion, this surely meant that we should pray as much as possible. Others argued that study itself was an act of religious worship (Shabbat 11a).

Now if study was the way towards the good life and to God, should not one study all day long? The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) tells the story of how Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son had to hide in a cave from the Romans for twelve years. They spent their time in study and meditation. When they were told the threat had passed, and they came out they could not understand how ordinary people were sowing, ploughing, and reaping instead of studying Torah. They became a threat to normal life. A heavenly voice said, “You seem to want to destroy My world.” So they were sent back into the cave to think again. God was none too happy.

Another text the Talmud says, “It is written, ‘The words of Torah will never depart from your lips.’ Can this be meant literally? The Torah also says you must gather your corn so that you can eat.” You have to earn a living. You fix specific times to study, and work when you need to. So says Rebi Yishmael. But Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai said that if you do that, you will never study Torah. Instead one should study all the time, and if one is pious someone else will make a living for you.” That, of course, is the justification and hope for the hundreds of thousands of Torah scholars who do nothing else. The text tellingly goes on to say that “many tried it Rebi Shimon’s way and did not succeed. But many tried it Rebi Yishmael’s and they did succeed (Brachot 35b).

Not everyone is cut out for a life of constant study (intellectually or temperamentally) and the society simply cannot function if everyone sits and studies all day long. Like Plato’s republic, someone has to do the work! Yet studying Torah remains the single most significant difference between Jews who adhere to tradition and those who do not; between those who pass something onto the next generation and those who fail to. Everyone has to learn Torah to whatever degree he or she is able to. The Torah requires of us that we study and teach our children. That was the crucial and massive contribution of the rabbis not to allow this to be the preserve of an elite, but the obligation on everyone. That is why we start teaching our children to read Hebrew as early as possible. That is why we are called the People of the Book. And that is what Shavuot celebrates. We all have an obligation to keep on studying. Some more, some less. That is the best answer we have, and have always have had, to our enemies.