April 20, 2017


This is a sad story. For obvious reasons, I am changing names and certain details to protect the memory of a brilliant, flawed person.

Eliyahu was one of the most amazing and talented people I have ever met. It was in 1968. I was a young rabbi appointed to the largest synagogue in Scotland and something of a celebrity in northern Europe for my youthful and controversial approach to rabbinic leadership. As a result I had been invited to go on a speaking tour of the Scandinavian Jewish student societies.

I started in Copenhagen. Took the ferry across to Sweden and Lund University, then drove to Stockholm and from there flew across to Finland. Eliyahu was the Chief Rabbi of Finland. Stocky, dark complexioned, with a thick, black, bushy beard. He had twinkling, alert eyes. He was charismatic and compelling. He looked Charedi outwardly, but as soon as I entered his home I realized he defied category. His wife wore a very kosher wig, and his lively children were playing all kinds of musical instruments. His apartment was filled with books of all sorts and a serious Jewish library. There was art and pottery, a harpsichord he had built himself, and a highly eclectic collection of books and artifacts. Conversation ranged from the rabbinic, across a broad spectrum of cultural and philosophical subjects.

He had been born in Russia, into a completely committed communist family. He had been a child prodigy and got caught up in the resurgent sense of Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Anything he was interested in, he threw himself into with passion and dedication. He moved to Western Europe, graduated from university, and was working as a journalist when he decided to try for the rabbinate. He studied hard, and with his formidable brain and intense curiosity he mastered a very wide spectrum of practical rabbinics, ritual slaughter, and circumcision, as well as the arcane details of Jewish law and responsa. All was now lodged in his photographic memory. He was a true polymath. He had married into a very religious family. He had changed his name to that of a well-known Lithuanian rabbi from a previous generation. One would never have guessed that he had not been brought up in the Charedi world from childhood.

He told me about his life in Finland—how hard it was because very few of the Jews there were religiously committed. They wanted him, as the rabbi, to make life easy for them, not to make demands, to be prepared to accept whatever marriages they contracted, and to facilitate conversions without expecting too much. He showed me special programs he had created to teach Hebrew to adults and children and explain the intricacies of Hebrew grammar. Altogether, he was a remarkable polymath in two worlds. I was taken with him. We exchanged numbers and agreed to keep in touch. I returned to Glasgow.

A year later he got in touch with me. He said he had reached crisis point with his community. He was not prepared to compromise, and he had to leave. Did I have a job? I spoke to the president of my community and got him to agree to invite Eliyahu to become our Director of Education for adults and children in the community. He moved with his family to Glasgow, where he impressed everyone and was a great success. But within a year I left Glasgow to become headmaster of Carmel College, the residential high school near Oxford that my late father had founded.

At the end of my first year, Eliyahu called me up and said he wanted to move from Glasgow; he asked if I could find a job for him at Carmel. Something was not working, but he was reluctant to tell me what. I trusted him and did not press him. He and his family, now with six children, came down south.

He immediately threw himself into boarding school life with enthusiasm. He revised the teaching programs for Hebrew studies in language, history, and Torah. He developed his own teaching aids and textbooks. He learnt how to canoe on the Thames and qualified as an instructor. He became an expert in identifying edible mushrooms, as opposed to poisonous ones. He took expeditions of pupils on treks along Grim’s Dyke with his rucksack full of chemicals and testing kits to use on the fungi and other plants they encountered, to see if they were toxic. And he and his wife had an open home for pupils eager for a warm, Jewish, family atmosphere out in the wilds of Oxfordshire. After school hours he held philosophy workshops with the older students, on Kierkegaard and other Scandinavian thinkers. He was a phenomenon.

Yet it became clear that he was far from perfect. He had difficulties with boundaries, constraints, and the disciplines of a very English “public school”. We parted company. He moved with his family to the very Charedi community of Stamford Hill in London. We kept in touch off and on, despite the unpleasantness of our parting.

A few years later, he was working as a shochet, a ritual slaughterer—first in London, and then he took up work in the USA. One day I received a letter from him. He told me he was living in Chicago, working for a large kosher meat processing plant. His letter went onto say that the whole of the kosher meat trade there was in controlled by the Mafia. Even the most ultra-Orthodox of rabbis was up to monkey-business, and he was going to use his experience and contacts from his days as a journalist to publicize it all. I was surprised, of course, but thought nothing more of it.

A month later I heard that he had been shot dead in his hotel in Chicago. I made contact with a rabbi in Chicago. I sent him a copy of Eliyahu’s letter. He promised to look into it. But eventually he told me there was nothing to be done, no clues, no suspects, the enquiries had reached a complete dead end. The riddle of Eliyahu’s death (to my knowledge) was never solved. I lost contact with his family. I had no idea what happened to them. I often remembered that extremely talented, charismatic, but deeply flawed individual. What a senseless, sad loss. And I was left wondering what had happened to his children.

A few months ago I got a call out of the blue from Eliyahu’s son who I had last seen thirty-five years ago. He had seen a blog of mine in Israel and was in New York. He wanted to meet. We had coffee together. He told me that all Eliyahu’s children had done well, grown into fine, committed examples of good ethical Jews, with families of their own. He told me that after leaving Carmel, Eliyahu had actually disappeared out of their lives altogether. They never saw him again. It was their remarkable mother who had brought them up and even encouraged them to revere the memory of their father. If ever one doubts the importance of a mother in the bringing up of children to be loyal to father and faith, I can think of no better example.

Eliyahu’s son gave me closure, that his genius and commitment to Torah passed on to another generation. So that, for all his faults and failings, the memory of the father is still very much alive.

April 13, 2017

Fake News

Is the fuss over “fake news” in itself a fake issue?

Who really believed in the objectivity of journalists? As students we used to debate which was preferable—the Western system of arbitrary rich men owning newspapers, motivated by self-interest and the flow of advertising in determining what sells and what is news, or the communist system of a group of party ideologues deciding what should be published for the public good in Pravda or Izvestia? We knew perfectly well that each side was doctoring the news one way or another.

In the Britain of my youth, we knew where the Manchester Guardian, the News Chronicle, and The Times stood on the political issues of the day. In Israel we know where Haaretz stands and where The Jerusalem Post sits. In New York we know the difference between The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and their journalists. We are under no illusions of objectivity. Fake news has always been around. Just think of Jews drinking blood on the Seder night. Many Christians and Muslims have believed it for hundreds of years. And there is a fine line between completely fake stories, doctored documents and photos, biased editorial opinion and lies. But if we are thinking people, we will try to check the facts, read multiple opinions, and decide for ourselves.

It is true that in my youth we thought the BBC was objective. But enough evidence has emerged since of vested interests, government interference, jobs for the boys, and just plain corruption to know that there is no such thing as unbiased, objective news. In the same way, as a child I was taught that the police were honest, incorruptible public servants and the tax authorities carried out their investigations honestly and objectively. It is now abundantly clear that both assumptions were wrong, and those who maintained such views often lived to regret it. You needed to lawyer up or face the consequences. Unlike my father, I would now tell my children not to trust any of them.

So reading the NYT this week, I was not surprised to read that its editorial declares that the wall (fence) that Israel erected “does not work”. It was using this claim to make fun of Donald Thump’s Mexican border wall. Well, if you need a better example of dishonest reporting, you can’t beat this. I had to check that it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. Why doesn't the wall work? Because, says the NYT, one can send missiles over walls. Yes, of course that's true, and fighter planes, and IBMs, and indeed nuclear bombs. But that doesn’t mean the wall is not working.

Whether one agrees with it or not, whether it is unaesthetic or the route it took was incompetent or venal, whatever one’s position on the conflict, the number of suicide bombers coming into Israel from the West Bank has been dramatically reduced. Of course, there are ways of getting over and around, and there has been a spike in vehicles mowing down ordinary people, knifings, and lone wolf attacks on civilians. But nothing to compare to the rash of suicide bombs that characterized the previous intifada. Just because you can ram down a front door, that doesn’t mean the front door is useless and should not be locked. And just because some criminals get away with it, that doesn’t mean it is pointless to have security.

Why is it so silly for nations to define their borders? Particularly if there is problem with illegal immigration? Don’t countries have the right to restrict entry? Even if one welcomes refugees as one should, there still needs to be some sort of order and regulation. Whether peace comes, which we all pray for, the wall will not be a factor one way or another. But clearly the NYT is consistent with its agenda, which is to only see the worst in Israel (and there’s enough without manufacturing more). Fair enough, so long as it doesn’t claim it is trying to be objective. And I agree, objectivity is not everything. Why shouldn’t one pursue one’s moral objectives? It is being honest about it that I am insisting on.

Let me go further and say that the Bible is not objective. It has an agenda. I may approve of the agenda, but that does not mean there might not be another point of view. Perhaps the Canaanites were lovable, hippy tree-huggers. History is often written by the victors. The Egyptians and the Hittites never recorded their defeats! Only the Bible did. But that was because it required its people to uphold certain standards, and its agenda was that if they failed there would be consequences. Objective or not, we can agree that it is an amazing document of law, lore, poetry, and tradition.

Or take the Exodus. Did the Israelites borrow, beg, or steal Egyptian gold and silver when they left? Or did they simply ask for back pay? Better not ask Palestinian ideologues, because they claim there weren’t any Israelites in the Middle East until Zionism. We consider the Exodus from Egypt to be a glorious release and the start of something great. Two thousand years ago, the Egyptian priest Manetho thought we were a bunch of diseased, disaffected slaves who rebelled, killed off all the good guys, and took off for Canaan.

I don't mind hearing other points of view. I am happy to read Freud’s fanciful Moses and Monotheism, in which Moses was a pal of Akhenaten, who briefly overthrew the old order. When he himself was kicked out, Moses lost his job. He looked around for a leaderless people and foisted himself on them. When he tried to impose too many restrictions, they killed him. And it was the guilt that drove them into this crazy religion they've had ever since. Well, you could knock me down with a feather. But so what? A good education requires one to face different and often difficult ideas. That was why my father introduced me to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus! I do not fear contrary opinions, and it seems to me that if some people and some religions do, then it is a sure sign of their insecurity.

Liberal America has become an effete, pathetic, gutless collection of whining college students complaining about being subjected to different points of view and adults who should know better pissing in their pants and throwing hissy fits because someone they cannot bear won an election. Quit whining, for goodness’ sake. Life is all about facing challenges, not overprotecting disappointed people to the point of an incapacity to cope. So long as we are protected by a judicial system and laws we should “always look on the bright side of life” and enjoy our Holy Days.

April 06, 2017

Just Do It

“Just do it” is, of course, the slogan of Nike, Inc. But I think we Jews should adopt it. Let me explain.

Why is Pesah, Passover, so popular amongst so many Jews who have little interest in its religious life throughout the year? It is, after all, a festival that requires extensive preparation in clearing one’s house of all leavened products. It involves serious expenditure in stocking up with a complete range of kosher lePesah foodstuffs, most of which are quite unnecessary if one were to follow the letter of Jewish law rather than keeping up with the religious Smiths.

With the more comfortable Orthodox, Pesah is an occasion for an expensive pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to other luxurious destinations. That certainly takes care of much of the grind—but at the expense of intimacy, autonomy, and spiritual authenticity. And exotic as the Seder night might be, most people dash through the text or give up reading the Haggadah and cannot wait for the food. Communal Seders perfectly illustrate the lack of interest in the core of the Passover ritual that requires discussion and debate of historical, spiritual, and political issues. In many families, coming together is often an obstacle course of tensions and personal animosities, and younger generations disconnect from the religious baggage and personal histories of the older. These are the complaints of those who do participate. Sadly, most Jews are not even at the table.

“Just do it” can mean one of two things. It can mean that one should just forget one’s inhibitions, excuses, or apathy and get involved. Go to the gym, not just think about how beneficial it might be. Push oneself to work harder at keeping fit and healthy, even if it is often painful. Our modern-day slavery, our twenty-first century Egypt, is pleasure, self-indulgence, material comfort, and fighting to preserve our own against the rest—all for me and to hell with the rest.

The popular antidote seems to be an ideology of political correctness that is just as self-defeating, in that it too focuses on oneself and one’s received attitudes, with little concern for objectivity. It is secular dogma every bit as dangerous as religious dogma. The result is that very few people nowadays actually talk to people with different ideas or values or log on to opposing sites. Trump is right—one-sided, false news, biased reporting is the new norm. Not that his tweets are objective, either.

The Seder is designed to encourage discussion and debate, not simply to repeat clichés year in year out. Even those rabbis 2000 years ago who knew it all, differed on matters of law and politics, stayed up all night debating, exchanging ideas. If we don't invite alternative views, there can be no genuine discussion. The Haggadah describes having different sons, different opinions, different generations. It is predicated on asking questions. As the Talmud says, if one asks why, if one challenges the established mindset, one has fulfilled one’s obligation and does not need to recite the traditional “Four Questions”. They are there only in case no one asks anything else. One has to say, “I was there.” To try to understand what slavery, persecution is like. It is better to skip the whole narrative and have one good existential debate!

There is another aspect to doing it. Passing it on. Letting others know what matters to you. The ceremony includes a range of items and rituals designed specifically to encourage children to ask why. Questions require answers, knowledge, study, to pass it on to the next generation. (As the other cliché says, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”) The serve to educate, to stimulate. All things we might pay lip service to, but too often we hand over to others.

Being Jewish in any meaningful way requires action every day, not just special days. We might scorn petty ritual, an over-dependence on doing things by rote. But the alternative is abstract theology, accepting slogans and vague intentions instead of doing things. Judaism is a way of living, as opposed to a religion. It is a call to action, spiritual fitness. If anything, “just do it” should be the slogan of Judaism.

Thinking of others is difficult and often disruptive and painful. Once we are warm and safe, we no longer think of the poor, the hungry, the slaves, the refugees. I can’t think of another religious ritual that says: “Reduce your pleasure because your enemies suffered; drink less wine because your freedom came at a cost.” Humans drowned in the sea. They are still drowning. Never forget that. Never forget what slavery does to a person, how it dehumanizes. Never forget that so many others still are enslaved one way or another. You cannot fully rejoice in your good fortune unless you realize that others are without it.

“Just do it” can also mean that it is the act of doing that gets one further involved and ultimately enables one to enjoy and benefit from the immersion in what one does. It is immersion that is required to feel at home in any strange or different culture. The less one does, the more one feels alienated and strange. Actions lead to actions. Thoughts and intentions are too often dissipated and lead nowhere.

Why do so many Jews still keep the Seder ritual on Pesah? Precisely because it demands so much. It is because Pesah has so many things to do, because it is not easy. But the more one does, the easier it becomes. The more you have to pass on. The more you enjoy it. The more there is something worth preserving.

Do you sometimes wonder if it is really all worth it? Why bother? Who cares? The answer lies in the doing! On Pesah we are commanded to “just do it.” That is the secret of Jewish survival. We and our children need to learn the lesson and remember why.

March 30, 2017

The Mortara Affair

The story of Edgardo Mortara is a scandalous example of Christian theological cruelty and arrogance towards Jews. In the mid-nineteenth century, six-year-old Edgardo Mortara was seized by the Church from a Jewish family in Bologna, Italy. Bologna's inquisitor, Father Pier Feletti, had heard that Edgardo had been secretly baptized as a baby, by a Catholic woman working in his family’s home when she thought he was about to die from an illness. As a result, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition declared Edgardo to be irrevocably a Catholic, and ordered that he be taken from his family and brought up by the Church, since the Papal States forbade members of other faiths to raise Christian children.

An appeal was made to Pope Pius IX to reject the decision and return Edgar to his distraught parents and siblings. But despite a public outcry in Europe and the USA and a desperate campaign by his family, the pope refused to relent. On the contrary, he kept the boy firmly in his care and out of the public eye and refused access to him. It became a matter of principal, a desperate attempt of the papacy to assert its declining power as secularism began to erode its authority. It was the equivalent in its time of the sexual scandals that have undermined the moral authority of Catholicism in our day. In all such cases the Church’s priority was protecting its own interests at the expense of human suffering.

Father Feletti was prosecuted for his role in Edgardo's seizure after pontifical rule in Bologna ended in 1859. But he was acquitted, when the court determined he was simply following superior orders (shades of Nazism). The Pope continued to act as father to Edgardo, who trained for the priesthood in Rome until 1870, when the city was captured by the Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States were brought to an end. Edgardo then left Italy for France, where he was ordained three years later at the age of 21. He stayed outside of Italy most of his life and died at the age of 88 in Belgium.

Many felt that the Vatican's actions in this case epitomized all that was wrong with the Papal States and showed pontifical rule to be anachronistic. Some historians consider the event to be one of the most significant of Pius IX's papacy and . Some say it accelerated the end of papal rule over parts of Italy and sped up the Italy’s reunification. But it also shows how entrenched antisemitism was in the Vatican, how the Church’s theology taught contempt for Judaism and Jews, and indeed would continue in this way until Pope John XXIII began to change Catholic teaching. It illustrates the profoundly embedded disdain for Jews that prevailed then. It remains a disease that metastasizes in many European and Christian societies to this day despite the valiant efforts of recent Popes to change such prejudiced attitudes.

Two things brought this sad affair back to my mind. The first was hearing that Steven Spielberg is working on a film about the Mortara affair. The other was receiving a copy of Writing for Justice: Victor Sejour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipation by a descendant of Edgardo Mortara, Elena Mortara. Until reading the book I confess I had no idea who Sejour was.

At the same time as the Mortara affair, the USA was in the throes of the vicious retreat from its founding egalitarian ideals. The hopes for the emancipation and equality of blacks and were cruelly being denied. The implications of the Declaration of Independence were being ignored. And after the Civil War, gains were reversed. In France many of the intellectuals who fought against anti-Semitism also fought for the emancipation of blacks in the USA.

These two issues were combined in the work of a remarkable man, now largely forgotten. Victor Sejour was an American-born black poet and writer who moved to France and became a celebrity. Amongst the many plays he wrote was a fictional adaptation of the Mortara affair, in which the abduction was of a young girl. Thus, themes of anti-Semitism, racial discrimination, and the inferior position of females were all combined into one play, which was so successful in its day that it was translated into five European languages. It was called La Tireuse de Cartes ("The Fortune Teller") after the mother of the abducted child who disguised herself as a fortune teller to find and stay close to her lost daughter.

This theme of the inhumanity of the Church has also been brought to the fore by the television series The Young Pope, masterfully directed by Paolo Sorrentino. I really loved it, although my brother, who really knows what goes on in the Vatican, was not impressed. It is beautifully shot and directed. It centers on what happens when the conclave of cardinals appoints a compromise candidate as pope, a young American idealist, acted impressively by Jude Law. The series deals courageously with the conflicting demands of spirituality, honesty, and the politics of the largest religious centralized institution in the world, where corruption lurks under every cassock.

"The young pope” is a man struggling with the position and his conscience. He tries to be honest with himself and others and struggles for a purity and honesty that conflicts with the interests of the cardinals and the establishment of the Church. The series shows exactly how and why a less sensitive pope could allow himself to become so inhuman. It illustrates why the Vatican failed in its Christian mission and rallied around the pope over the Mortara affair. Even today we witness how the good intentions of Pope Francis are often thwarted by a more traditional curia. And it saddens me that chief rabbinates exhibit exactly the same pathologies of political intrigue, vested interests and power plays.

I have always resented religious authority, precisely because it invariably subordinates individuality, sensitivity, and the ordinary man or woman to the demands of order. To preserve its power and mystique, it allows itself to be manipulated by vested interests and a fear that if it makes concessions or allows for exceptions the whole structure will collapse.

Leaders, regardless of what other talents they may have, are invariably involved in trying to root out dissent, and they resent challenge. They often betray their integrity for the sake of the position, while convincing themselves they are doing the best to preserve the dignity of the position. The best of leaders is rarely willing to be honest and admit to doubts. Of all the major rabbis I am aware of, the great Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik was the only one to confess publicly to such personal, human limitations.

In the end, all governments and powers, religious, secular, left or right (even governing bodies of sports) are or become corrupt. Failure of moral authority, a dearth of courageous leaders is a disease that has infected the majority of human institutions. Anything that can be done to mitigate this, and ameliorate hatred and prejudice must be encouraged and supported. Elena Mortara’s fascinating, well documented, and scholarly study is a very welcome and eloquent description of the issues and a plea for change.

March 23, 2017

Elliot Meadow

Glasgow born Elliot Meadow, who died recently, was very well known in jazz circles. He was a record producer, agent, journalist, broadcaster, impresario, manager, and expert who was obsessed with the world of jazz from an early age. He knew almost every major jazz musician during his lifetime on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an irascible loner. Some thought he bordered on the autistic. He did not suffer fools gladly and offended or rejected almost everyone who came into contact with him. Not many people knew that he was proudly Jewish. Here’s my personal recollection to put the record straight.

In 1968 I took up my first full-time rabbinic position in Glasgow, Scotland. In those days the city was home to some 15,000 Jews, Lithuanian in origin with a strongly cerebral and rational approach to Judaism. Its Jewish communities were islands of warmth and incredible creativity but also social separation, caught in between different sections of Glaswegian society. There were those whose life revolved around work, alcohol, football, and Saturday night brawls. Catholics and Protestants fought each other at soccer matches and afterwards in the pubs. While on the other side, the wealthy and aristocratic old Scottish society that was, in those days, more positively inclined towards Jews than England was, because the Scots themselves felt discriminated against by the “auld enemie”. The Jewish community was upwardly mobile. Jewish boys and girls topped the honors in most schools. They rose up the social and commercial ranks. But often, in the process, the ties that bound them to their forebears began to fray.

When I became rabbi of Giffnock and Newlands, it was the largest Orthodox community in Scotland—even if, as was typical in those days, those who belonged to Orthodox synagogues were rarely actually Orthodox in practice. But that was the great challenge that excited me. Traditional Orthodoxy, led mainly by Eastern European rabbis or those with a fundamentalist mindset, was regarded as outdated, boring, and irrelevant, other than as a sort of club one rarely attended but couldn’t be bothered to cease one’s membership in. It was an exciting challenge for a young, wet-behind-the-ears rabbi, and I threw myself into it with abandon and delight.

One of the things I enjoyed most, and which was regarded as almost unheard of in those days, was to go out to engage my congregation, since they were not coming to me. Whether it was the Bonnyton Golf Club, the Jewish school Calderwood Lodge, concerts, or parties, I appeared, so that I could to meet my constituency and present a new and different type of rabbi. In those days, it was controversial and no small source of gossip. Soon I was the go-to address for rebellious teenagers and others who had drifted away. My home was open, and much of my time was devoted what we now call outreach.

That was how I came to meet Elliot Meadow. His family lived in the elegant suburb of Whitecraigs, with the rest of Glasgow’s Jewish crème de la crème (though Jews were still banned from Whitecraigs Golf Club). He absolutely adored his mother. But when she died, and his father remarried, he did not get on too well with his father’s new family. To make matters worse, although he loved fashion, he had no intention of joining his father’s clothing company. The one thing he was passionate about was jazz. Thus began a process of detachment both from his family and Glasgow Jewish society altogether.

At 18, Elliot the jazz fanatic headed to America on his own to be near the music. He managed to sweet talk his way in to being a “band boy” for the great Count Basie Orchestra, which enabled him to tour all over America learning firsthand from the masters. When his mother became seriously ill he returned to Glasgow and suffered her final illness. That was around the time that I arrived in town.

He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was rude to some, avoided others, and withdrew into his shell. Friends and family approached me to see if he might respond to someone new. I relished the challenge and was told that I could always find Elliot at Morrison’s, the local deli, around lunchtime. That's where I first met him. He was several years younger than me. He had blond, almost white, hair, thick glasses, and an intelligent but angry look, as if the world had offended him.

Hunched over a pastrami sandwich, he positively exuded alienation and indifference. I sat down at his table. A quick look was all I got. Then he picked up his food and walked over to another table. I followed him. I started speaking about jazz. He ignored me. Then I did what I have often done since—said something provocative to grab his attention. I rubbished Sinatra, said he was just a smooth crooner like Bing Crosby. Elliot adored Sinatra. He came alive, excoriating me as an ignorant fool with no sense of music, no ability to understand Sinatra’s timing, improvisation, and unique capacity to take a tune and inject it with soul and angst as well as love.

I started laughing. He laughed back, and so began a friendship that lasted until he passed away. We adopted each other. He taught me how to dress more elegantly. He inducted me into the secrets of Glasgow Jewish life. Despite his seeming detachment, he knew everyone—those in and those out. Most importantly, he put me in touch with some families that had completely withdrawn from Jewish life.

He often accompanied me on my lecture tours and tried to manage me. He even helped me through some of my problems. Above all, he taught me about jazz—who was good, who was great, and who was in a league of his or her own. We went to jazz clubs and I even ended up writing jazz reviews for the Glasgow Echo under his tutelage. He never came to Giffnock synagogue. And I never tried pushing religion on him. But we spent a lot of time together.

I left Glasgow, and Elliot started commuting between Glasgow and the USA. Every now and again, he would appear wherever it was that I was living at the time. We would spend time together, go for walks, and then he would disappear for years. In his final sickness, he did indeed for the first time talk about his Jewish soul. He told me he had finally been able to go into Giffnock shul.

Elliot Meadow never married. But he had some very close male and female friends. Not everyone could cope with him. But if you could, his humor, warmth, and charm were enriching. In the right mood, he was a great conversationalist, full of anecdotes and stories of musicians and characters he had met and admired. He died aged 71, after a two-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving his mark on the jazz scene in Scotland, in America, and on me.

March 16, 2017


We have just celebrated Purim, a festival named after the lottery, the pur, that nearly decided the fate of the Jewish people. But the randomness of the lottery was defeated by God’s laws. You might have thought that this would have knocked luck or astrology on its head once for all. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

We wish each other mazal tov all the time, and many of us are very concerned about whether other people can have a good or bad impact on our mazal—whether an evil eye might strike us down or a curse ruin us.

But isn’t this total superstition? And isn’t the Torah unmistakably clear that we must not be superstitious? “There is no divination in Jacob and no magic in Israel,” says Balaam in Numbers 23, and the law in Deuteronomy (18) is specific: “You must not practice divination, astrology, reading omens, charms or sorcery, dealing with spirits or calling up the dead.”

Until relatively recently, everyone related to the natural universe through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. Spells and incantations carried out by experts could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism saw us as the playthings of the gods, and our fates were decided by the planets. In contrast, monotheism, I always believed, posited that the world functioned according to its own rules, which might overrule our human requirements (Avodah Zara 54b), and only our relationship with God could affect us spiritually. Our task was to accept what happens to us and see the positive. “Whatever God does (allows to happen) is for the best.”

The earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia nearly four thousand years ago. The great Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) produced a framework of linking the astronomical solar system to astrology that is still used in this day, although scientifically it no longer holds true. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that the stars influenced human behavior, though they did not determine it. Only in the 19th century did medicine succeed in severing the connection between the moon and lunacy. Yet even such moderns as Carl Jung tried to modify astrology in such a way as to have it remain relevant.

Given the importance of astrology in medieval Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is hardly surprising that it persisted. In Judaism astrology’s interconnection with mysticism gave it continued relevance and influence. Today there are many “rabbis” who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and the disturbed try to cope with the pressures of life. Usually for a healthy fee or “charitable donation.”

The idea persists in some Orthodox circles that astrology in Judaism is still a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world. But then so does the idea that that past rabbis could never have got their science wrong, and if some claimed the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth every day then we must be wrong not they.

The term mazal is used only once in the Bible, in Kings II: “The pagans worship the sun the moon and the planets [mazalot].” Clearly it does not approve. Yet it all depends on what you understand mazal to mean. Is mazal fortune, something beyond our control? In which case, how does it differ from God? No one of any significance in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said mazal is the same as God or divine intervention.

The Talmud in Shabbath 156a discusses the issue:
“R. Hanina said: The planetary influence gives wisdom and wealth and affects Israel. R. Johanan, on the other hand, said that Israel is immune from planetary influence [mazal used here as planetary influence]. Rab too holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence, and so does R. Akiba.”
There is a great deal more throughout the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. It is clear that rabbinic opinion is divided. Today it is difficult to find any major rabbinic figure who will publicly decry the popular preoccupation with mazal, ayin harah (the evil eye), and their offshoots and variations. Once upon a time (Brachot 10b), our leaders had the guts to act against superstition. “King Chizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze serpent (of Moses’s) days, and the authorities of the day approved it.” Nowadays, sadly, they would make money out of it.

When mazal means random luck and superstition, it is clearly against Judaism (even if I know that most Jews relate to the religion superstitiously). But the idea that there are forces beyond our control—wars, epidemics or financial collapses—that affect us badly is obvious. Even so, many people have stories of miraculous events, cures, salvations, and successes that they put down to some external force, when the reality can easily be explained by examining events and causes and unusual capacities.

Those aspects of our life over which we have no control do indeed render us impotent, in the lap of the gods. Nevertheless, one does pray or hope that what unfolds through natural and unnatural causes will not have a negative effect on us. Just as we pray that our children will have an easy life free from danger, disease, and hardship. Hope for something is not the same as thinking that individuals can change the will of God or the nature of the universe. Recovering from cancer may be because certain types of cancer are more able to be fought and being given a placebo or a blessing might encourage a sick person to battle the ailment.

Some humans understand aspects of the universe we inhabit and the motives of other humans better than the ordinary person can. Some people can train themselves to read faces and gestures that tell them more about humans than the average person can see. Some people call that mind-reading and some mind-readers use this knowledge to get rich. A doctor can usually read the physical signs better than others because of his training, and a psychiatrist can read the psychological signs because of hers. But it is equally true that both may also miss something that a more holistic mind can appreciate. We must distinguish between skills learned and claims of supernatural powers.

I do believe we can “make our own luck.” By being positive, looking out for possibilities, and thinking several steps ahead one can take better advantage of what life has to offer. This is one of the ideas behind the statement of the Talmud to avoid bad company. One’s mood, attitude, company, and friends can all impact the quality of one’s life. Avoiding bad vibes and negativity is great advice.

Random luck, on the other hand, has no place in an intelligent or a genuinely spiritual mind. To wish someone luck is simply a popular way of expressing one’s hopes and aspirations. To think that mazal has a power of its own that can be harnessed to control the uncontrollable is pure superstition. To treat it as code for the things we have no control over is less destructive, morally deficient, and intellectually primitive. The notion that there are irrational spells, or mystical incantations that can guarantee protection is as delusionary as fool’s gold. And most of us are indeed fools.

Maimonides, the great rationalist, in his Laws of Idolatry said:
“Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning—such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15).
Maimonides said that all references in the Talmud to spirits and metaphysical control over human affairs was simply a reflection of popular delusion. The masses believed in it, so the rabbis spoke in a language they were familiar with.

I realize there are many people who need the “security” of magic, fortune, astrology, and luck. Often life is so awful to us that we cannot cope. We need comfort. It is false comfort, lies, that I deplore. I accept human frailty, because I am frail. But I am offended when I hear people say that it is a requirement of religion or even an essential part of it.

March 09, 2017

Drunk on Purim

One of the most distasteful aspects of Purim are the hordes of drunken acolytes throwing up on the streets of religious ghettos around the world. To make it worse, they claim to be doing this in the name of religion. From the Bible onwards, the wise have excoriated drunkenness. It is an impediment to priests performing, to people praying, and an affront to human dignity. It reduces us to a complete lack of self-control and is a desecration of everything genuine spirituality reveres. If “wine gladdens the heart of man”, drunkenness destroys it. Pleasure is good. But it is a feature of the physical world in general that any pleasure taken to extremes cloys, and drunkenness is the mot obvious.

Yet the Talmud says that a person should drink so much wine on the day that he can no longer distinguish between “Let Haman be cursed,” and “Let Mordecai be blessed.” There is some debate about the Aramaic word used. Normally in the Bible and later, the Hebrew word for a drunk is Shikur. Here the Talmud uses the Aramaic Besumeh, which is used for such things as being merry, perfumed wine, or spices. But these are unlikely to befuddle the mind to the point of irrationality. And the Talmud itself describes an occasion when one drunk rabbi killed another on Purim, which led, unsurprisingly, to a reaction!

Nevertheless, the command to drink on Purim found its way into medieval Jewish law—even though the glossaries add that it is better not to get drunk. The rational Maimonides is clear about priorities:
“Rather a person should increase the amount he gives to the poor than the amount he spends on food and drink, and presents to friends. Because there is no greater nor more glorious joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and strangers [perhaps read refugees], for assisting the desperate and the run-down is the equivalent of greeting God personally.”
On my first Purim in Israel in yeshiva as a teenager away from home, I got drunk twice. The novelty of Shushan Purim was something we didn’t have in the Diaspora!. The first day I was at the home of a very correct and dignified religious man. I sneaked extra shots of cherry brandy until I found myself lying on the floor underneath the table. His stern rebuke soon brought me to my senses. On the second day I was invited into the home of the head of the yeshiva, and once again I disgraced myself. Staggering out of his home, I fell down the steps and ended in the gutter. He sent his son to tell me that this was not the way a real yeshivah student should behave on Purim. Suitably chastened and embarrassed, I have never got drunk since. I have often felt merry, even a little high on an expensive malt. But never to the point of losing control. And if I fainted after a glass of wine on one hot Israeli day, it was only because I drank on an empty stomach and after a long hike. No significant rabbi I have ever encountered has got drunk (at least not in my presence).

Let me see if I can find anything to say in favor. Chasidism has indeed argued that alcohol loosens one’s inhibitions in matters of the spirit. We are uptight and reserved by nature. In order to overcome this inhibition, a shot or two or three of vodka might encourage us to relax and dance and thus find ourselves closer God. But if drink were the way to encounter the Divine, then the bigger the drunk, the greater the saint! I don't think so. Otherwise we might as well all take drugs and kid ourselves it helps us reach heaven. No doubt Timothy Leary would agree. I suppose being a drunk and an addict, then, should qualify one as pious. Drinking on Purim is a mitzvah, but only in so far as it can lead one to confusion, spiritual uncertainty perhaps. Not malfunction or throwing up.

There is, I agree, a stage in between sobriety and drunkenness, and that is a sense of wellbeing in which one feels grateful for one’s blessings, at ease in the world, generous and warm to one’s friends and those less fortunate. When one might forget one’s troubles and anxieties and relax in the sense that there is a God in heaven. Order in the world might be possible after all. In other words to “always look on the bright side of life.” I think that is precisely what the rabbis meant about drinking to the point where one wasn’t sure who would best for the world in its present condition. Sometimes (very rarely), a rigid, unsympathetic hand can be better for discipline.

There is a lot of bad stuff out there. People who want to kill, to swindle and defraud, and to grab as much as they can for themselves. There are others who so believe they are right that they wish to impose their beliefs and systems on others, regardless of the means they use to do so.

Now Donald Trump might remind some of you of Achashverosh. Except of course he is a teetotaler. He is certainly not a Haman, though some idiots claim he is worse. And Ivanka might turn into Esther, though she doesn’t really fit the part. But his fumbling, braggart personality reminds me of an oriental potentate who believes he is God’s gift to mankind. And although he cannot himself be blamed for the revolting racists and anti-Semites who have come out of the woodwork, no one seemed to bother when similarly mentally challenged lefties worked their dogmas under a different regime. Nevertheless, there is as sense at the moment of a loss of order and direction.

Purim reminds us of regime change. Of the possibility of a different order. Things are not always what they seem to be. Only time will tell. No, I do not wish to compare the two situations. But I do believe that every now and again one needs change, even revolution. One needs to have the old certainties challenged. Purim is a festival of over-turnings. I have been conscious for a long time of the arrogance of the dogmatic left and its bias against Jewish rights of self-determination. But I cannot identify with much of the right-wing mindset. I dislike excessive social control and dependency. And I despise right-wing selfishness and greed without concern for the poor and the weak. I am caught in the middle. I do not like politics or dogmatic politicians of any sort.

I don’t think either side is completely right or wrong. There is good and bad in both. In the absence of perfection, let there be cycles of change. Usually the system that does better wins out. Chaos can be good. I do not despair. There are enough checks and balances to ensure that the extremes will be modified. The reality of power is sobering and limiting. One simply cannot ride roughshod over everyone forever.

I will drink (in moderation) on Purim, knowing that if we fight for what we believe in, for tolerance (which goes both ways), for our values, it is preferable to have hope and happiness to despair. You never know when a Haman will arise, but equally you never know when he will fall. There are few certainties in life. But having Purim helps!However, if there are some who think that being drunk is how they are supposed to celebrate, I think they have the wrong end of the stick…and the sick.