September 22, 2016


The Hebrew month of Elul which leads up to the New Year, brings daily shofar blasts, extra prayers, selichot, and the serious mood of awesome anticipation that replaces the carefree, happy, fun days of the summer season. But for me, Elul always reminds me of the birth of my passion for religion.

I was born into an Anglo-Orthodox family. My father’s parents had emigrated from Radomsk, my mother’s from the Ukraine. My father, although born in London, was sent to study in Mir in Lithuania and returned to eventually become the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London (to the right of the centrist United Synagogue). He left the rabbinate to found Carmel College, an English, residential, Public school, run on religious lines but mainly for non-religious boys. Thus I came to be brought up in the English countryside, far from any center of intensive Jewish life. And the lack of religious enthusiasm that most of my contemporaries evinced rubbed off on me. I was more interested in playing football than studying Torah.

I was sixteen when my father decided that I needed a change, so he packed me off to yeshiva in Jerusalem. The route to Israel in the 1950s was arduous. I was seen off at Victoria Station in London, went by train down to Marseilles, and boarded the Theodore Herzl liner to sail to Haifa.

Haifa from the sea was idyllic, with its golden Bahai dome halfway up the wooded Carmel. The port itself was rather different—coarse, hot, rushed, and frenetic. I was amazed to discover that wearing a kapel meant that I was looked at with scorn, jostled, and even told I didn’t need such a relic of the ghetto now that I was in Israel. In the fifties Haifa was the outpost of secularism. It refused to close public services and transport on Shabbat.

I was hosted by very kind ex-Mancunian friends of my father, who shipped me off after a few days, in a sherut up to Jerusalem to arrive in time for the start of the religious academic year, Elul. I arrived at Kol Torah Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. My father had picked it from the others because it was a new building and not too primitive for a relatively spoilt English kid. It was run by old colleagues of my father from Mir in Lithuania, and Dayan Abramsky, my father’s mentor, lived nearby. I found Kol Torah a bit too Germanic for my liking, and two months later I transferred myself down the hill to Be’er Ya’akov, which I adored. But a couple of experiences I had while I was in Jerusalem, had really profound impacts on me.

The center of the yeshiva was a huge hall where hundreds of young men were studying, shouting, arguing, and gesticulating in an atmosphere of noisy enthusiasm that was initially confusing and strange, so different from the decorum of the English academic tradition. But soon the freedom, the ability to argue, to challenge, to go to someone else for another opinion, the feeling of study for the pleasure of it, not the burden or duty, was liberating. Then at prayer time, to see the chaos transformed in to a solid, disciplined communal expression of concentrated spirituality, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in any synagogue ever in my whole life so far. This was stage one in my transformation.

The first Friday night the two other English boys in the yeshiva decided I needed further educating. Together we walked down the five miles to the Gerrer Chasidic center, which was then in Machane Yehuda. It was midnight; the building was crowded with hundreds of black-coated Gerrer Chasidim with tall fur spodiks on their heads, swaggering around the hall, erect, tummies stuck out in front of them, pacing up and down nodding to each other, altogether like a hive of busy bees. Suddenly there was a hush. In swaggered a small, little man, dressed in the same way as the others. Wherever he walked, the crowd parted. Like thrashing sardines in a net, they pushed back to make way. The rebbe strutted about; his look split through the throng, and everyone struggled back to get out of the way of his piercing glance. After walking around the hall, he retreated to a top table behind a wooden crash barrier. Everyone swept up to the barrier. Those behind pressed those in front to get nearer; young strapping youths hurled themselves over other bodies to get closer.

As a well-brought-up Englishman, I stood back from the fray. My rugger-playing friend grabbed me, and completely disregarding our staid English upbringing, we bored through the bodies to the front. There sat the Rebbe, protected by a wooden crash barrier, at a long table, with apparent clones, dressed identically, sitting solemnly on either side. The Rebbe’s assistant stood on a chair and called out individual names to come up for a glass of wine, then some challah. There was singing, strong martial rhythms; everyone joined in. Then silence. The Rebbe talked—quietly, briefly, something to do with the opening words of the weekly Sedra—in a yiddish I didn’t understand. Then singing again. Late into the night. The power, the control, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the ecstasy were totally unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere. Could this really be the same religion as the United Synagogue I knew in London?

The following day I was taken to lunch at Sam Khan’s. Sam was as far from a Gerrer Chasid as you could imagine. He was a German Jew who had fled to England, where his Germanic rigidity was softened by a dose of English reserve. and then he had come on to settle in Israel. He was as morally straight and correct and ethical a person as you could ever wish to meet, living modestly, a little haven of European Gemutlichkeit in a Middle Eastern turmoil of hot, nervous chaos. He devoted his life to others, to charities and good works, to saving others from poverty, from humiliation, and from missionaries. He and his wife had an open home and bestowed abundant hospitality, particularly on English waifs and strays.

Within a day or so, I was exposed to three entirely different paradigms of religious Jewry—the Lithuanian academic, the Chasidic ecstatic, and the Germanic controlled and highly ethical—all of them impressive in very different ways. I realized there was so much depth and variety and choice in Judaism, something I had no inkling of in the Britain of my youth. This was the first Elul I consciously remembered as a religiously positively experience.

Each year I try to recreate the excitement and the novelty of that year. Recurring routines, even annual ones, can be the same—boring, uninspiring—unless we try to make them otherwise. And the way to do that is to remember the positive, the happy and the good things in life.

September 15, 2016

Patriotism and the National Anthem

There has been a huge amount of debate in the USA following the refusal of a Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, to stand during the national anthem before a game. His supporters argue that the American constitution allows his freedom of expression (to protest the injustices faced by, mainly, the poor black minority in the USA) to override any offense he might give to loyal Americans.

He is not the first to do this by means. Megan Rapinoe, of soccer fame, refused too, but no one seems to have noticed. I well recall the famous 1968 protest at the Olympic Games where two black American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, stood on the podium during the national anthem and raised black-gloved clenched fists, also in protest of discrimination against blacks. They were standing during the anthem. In their cases, if I recall, hardly anyone came to their support, and they were vilified. The difference over the years in public attitude in itself might challenge the assumption that nothing has changed.

What is a flag but a piece of cloth? What is an anthem but a trite, banal song? Does it really matter? It is not the end of the world. But the answer is yes, it does.

I was brought up in the UK. I have witnessed the dramatic decline in nationalism of any sort. In my youth every performance at the movie theaters ended with the national anthem. No more. We never, ever took oaths of loyalty. Nationalism was regarded by the educated classes as, to quote Samuel Johnson, “The last refuge of a scoundrel.”

In 1933 the Oxford Union, the university undergraduate debating society, passed a famous motion that "this House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country". They voted that they would not. It made headline news at the time; Churchill called the vote "abject, squalid, shameless” and “nauseating". It is even said to have misled Hitler into thinking the British had lost the will to fight. Yet that same class, minus a few who became spies for the Soviet Union, did indeed go to war to defend liberty. And Brits in general do take pride in the Queen, even if they laugh at her handbag and don’t think much of her husband and family.

Nationalism mattered terribly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in Europe and Britain it is now almost the exclusive preserve of right-wing, racist, neo-Nazi neo-fascists. In Europe today the dominant political and administrative classes no longer see themselves as wanting or having to preserve any specific cultural, religious heritage, ideology, or loyalty. They are part of a wider, common, universalist, and indeed tolerant mindset (except when it comes to Israel). If they are culturally overwhelmed, they will accept it.

What of Israel? In 1948 Israel had to reestablish a nation out of disparate mixture of cultural and racial immigrants. Divided by a common religion, rather than united by it. So Israel needed to develop a civil religion based on nationalist symbols, the flag, Masada, the Holocaust, and the army to reinforce a sense of identity, mission, and culture. It succeeded admirably for its Jewish population. Less so for the others. Israel is indeed different than Europe and the USA, in that it exists specifically to reinforce and protect a specific culture and religion. Loyalty is a big thing.

Even so, Israel’s Declaration of Independence accords rights and equality to other religions, too. Whatever its limitations. Most countries of the Middle East do not afford the same rights to other religions that Israel does.

Yet many Jews disapprove of and disagree with the politics of the state, on the left and the right. The left has produced a fine array of antisemitic Israelis. On the right, xenophobia thrives. Neturei Karta will happily burn the Israeli flag. Hundreds of thousands of Charedi Jews refuse to serve in the armed forces, and some physically assault those who do. They will refuse to stand in silence during memorial days. Refuse to sing the national anthem. I and most Jews I know strongly disagree and disapprove. Not with their ideological position. They are entitled to that. But with their disparaging in public the state that protects and supports them financially and otherwise.

Every religion, every nation, every person functions on two levels: that of ideas and values and that of ritual and behavior. Many Jews love the ideas of Judaism but do not like adhering to rituals. Others live by the rituals but have great difficulty with some of the theological ideas. Regardless, we are all committed to being Jewish and are grateful for a place of refuge and somewhere to call our own, even if we live elsewhere. In the end, the rituals, be they religious or civil religious, are what reinforce that strange and wonderful thing called identity. I think certain things need modification and should be argued for. But in principle I stand for the rituals of the state.

The USA has its constitution, its laws, its rituals of behavior. Anyone living in the USA must adhere to its civil constitution. Freedom of expression allows for disagreement and challenge. We can be religious or not. Patriotic or not. In the case of Kaepernick, he can and should protest against anything that offends him. But there are certain relatively unimportant rituals that exist in American life designed to reinforce identity and pride in the nation, and I think he is wrong to offend those. Coming from Europe, one of the thing that strikes us is American pride—the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, singing God Bless America—even if we know full well the sordid side of its history. Silly as they are, they succeed. Most Americans are proud and happy to live here, and much of the rest of the world desperately wants to join them.

Whatever is wrong in American life, its laws are egalitarian, recognizing the rights of minorities racial or sexual. These rights are upheld by the Supreme court. That does not mean that hatreds, prejudices, biases do not exist. Human beings are messy things. I am not aware of any Jews refusing to stand during the national anthem because antisemitism has always and continues to flourish in the USA. We fight it. We set up organizations to combat it. But we are grateful for a country committed to law and equality of rights that has afforded some of us a home, a safe place to live and thrive. And we know full well how many were turned away trying to flee the Nazis.

American society has protected Kaepernick (as Israel has Neturei Karta), afforded him a safe, caring home, and a wealth-producing career. He should rail against racism. But not against a state that condemns it. Refusing to stand, as I see it, undermines the simple rituals that help bring so many disparate peoples together. It is this sense of American exceptionalism which is both offensive to some and affirmative to others. But any outsider coming from Europe recognizes a spirit of American pride that does not exist there. But it exists in Israel, too.

Keeping rituals in America and mitzvoth in Judaism are so important. Regardless of whether we think they are Divine or not, they help reinforce identity. Whereas vague ideas like human rights, Tikkun Olam, lovely and important as they are for humanity in general, are not enough to reinforce a specific identity. Conventions matter!

Unless America wants to go the way of Europe, it ought to expect (although I don’t believe it should compel) its citizens to respect its rituals, to stand during its national anthem, even as one protests at its injustices and limitations. And that goes for Israel and being Jewish, too.

September 08, 2016

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa has become Saint Teresa! Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in what is now Macedonia. She joined a religious sisterhood in Ireland and then took vows as a nun in India. She taught at a girls’ school in Calcutta for many years, then in 1946 she decided to devote herself to the poor and moved to the poorest part of the city, where she founded a religious order.

Over the years her devotion to the poor attracted worldwide attention. It became fashionable for the idle rich, aristocracy, and movie and pop stars to visit her for photo opportunities or to burnish their credentials. She became a celebrity. Travelled the world. Won the Nobel Prize. She expanded her order to become one of the most important in the Catholic Church. And she died in 1997. Not surprisingly, the Church fast tracked her “canonization”, as it is called.

It is a feature of saints in Catholicism that they must perform miracles to prove their supernatural power—something that went out of fashion in our tradition thousands of years ago. Our greatest of Biblical and Talmudic figures were shown to be human and imperfect. We ever had saints.

The Catholic Church is entitled to its own strange theologies, customs, and procedures. Unfortunately, we have borrowed the idea from them. Nowadays, any rabbi venerated by the Charedi world becomes the equivalent of a saint, in that the myths and stories of his absolute perfection in every possible area are enhanced and exaggerated. The appropriate term is hagiography (which originally meant writing the lives of Christian saints). It has now infected the nether reaches of our own tradition. Even the requirement of performing miracles to prove one’s supernatural powers has made a comeback in parts of our community. Going to a great one’s grave and pressing in a kvitel (a piece of paper with your Hebrew name and wish for the future) guarantees a miracle, apparently. And if not, no one ever mentions the failures.

Mother Teresa, of course, performed miracles. That’s what saints do! You have to if you want to get the title. Very often the evidence has been highly dubious. Several people have attested to the fact that she cured their cancers, while medical professionals on site claimed their treatment did it.

In the 1980s, when I indulged in a little interfaith activity, I heard her speak twice. Once in Oxford, together with the Dalai Lama (whom she considered a pagan), and another time with Chief Rabbi Jakobovits (whom she also thought would burn in hell because he had not seen the true light). Her theology was primitive, as was she. She said that contraception was exactly the same as murder. She accepted money from some of the worst offenders against human rights (but so do some presidential candidates we know about). I have to say I was horrified by what she said about abortion and her opinions on poverty and how it was a godly state, to be borne with fortitude, based on the certainty that they would be rewarded in the World to Come. Although I must admit I have heard some rabbis say that too.

There were voices that were raised giving another perspective. From Christopher Hitchens to Yogi Adityanath. Many in India saw her as figure of Western, white hypocrisy and a proselytizer for Christianity amongst the barbarians. There was criticism of her institutions for cruelty and inhumanity to children. Even the glorification of poverty was seen as inappropriate. She often said it was not her job to be a social worker. It is clear that there was another, harder, and crueler side to her.

As she grew older, her team began to address some of these issues and set about cleaning up her history and her persona. Yet she devoted her life to living simply and poorly herself and became and continues to be an icon of dedication and commitment. I should say I was more impressed by Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated his life to the lepers of Lambarene in Gabon (without his intellectual and cultural brilliance or his liberal theology).

I have no patience for saints. All the more so since so many of them were rabid antisemites. Besides, I do not believe anyone is perfect. Even sinners can do good. I certainly do not believe in brushing dirt under the carpet. And I just laugh at hagiography. So many people are lauded nowadays, idolized, for selfish feats of sport, music, and wealth-making. And yet the world for all its selfishness, has got better. Global poverty has shrunk over by half over the past 20 years. That’s an impressive figure. A new middle class is emerging, mainly in Asia, that is redressing the balance. Even so, one of the biggest challenges of our generation is the gap between rich and poor. Millions are without either drinkable water, shelter, or sufficient food, and have nothing of the social welfare safety nets we have in the West.

In our own Jewish communities there are many men and women who live lives devoted to good deeds and the welfare of others. We don’t call them saints. We don’t venerate them or expect miracles from them. But neither do we appreciate them sufficiently.

We, sadly, have sunk to the level where we venerate the people whop make big bucks, flaunt their donations and lord it over their communities. I believe in concept of the Tsaddik Nistar, the good person who is hidden from public view, who avoids the glare of publicity. Recognizing Mother Teresa as a person who did good deeds reminds us we ordinary people, too, can do something for those less well off than we are. Such people are the real heroes and saints of all of our societies. There are not enough of them.

September 01, 2016

Petty Orthodoxy - is a website that looks at the weekly reading of the Torah for people who do not take every word in the Torah literally. In addition to valuing traditional commentators and interpretations, it caters to those who are interested in seeing how academics, scholars of different disciplines and backgrounds, understand the Torah. It is not for the fainthearted, fundamentalists, or those who are unable or unwilling to take a rational point of view.

I consider it to be extremely important in bridging the gap between rationality and faith, belief and acceptance. But more than that, I think it is crucial in reaching out to those who feel that traditional interpretations alone no longer meet their intellectual needs. This is so important in preventing open minds from rejecting Torah as being too doctrinaire.

The biggest challenge today in Jewish life is no longer preserving Orthodoxy. The Very Orthodox world is thriving. It retains most of its alumni. those who leave get a lot of publicity but they are few overall. On the other hand, we are losing far more through apathy, ignorance, and assimilation. It may well be too late to reach those who have absolutely no knowledge of Jewish spirituality or of Jewish learning. But I think the greatest challenge is to reach out to those with a background, from Jewish schools or observant families, who are turning their backs and minds on a simplistic way of looking at our traditional texts.

We live in a world where people like to think for themselves, to make up their own minds. For better or for worse, ours is an era of individuality. How should religion relate to it? By shutting up the mental gates, closing minds, peddling conformity of ideas? Or by opening up, tolerating, allowing freedom of thought?

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York started out to meet these goals. It was a reaction against the creeping influence of non-rationalist rabbis over Yeshivah University. Amongst its alumni is Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, who is the editor of Recently some YCT students issued a declaration affirming a belief in their concept of Torah from Sinai as a red line in Orthodoxy, clearly intended to dissociate themselves from Rabbi Ferber and, by implication, putting him beyond the pale. It was just another example of the pettiness within the “broad church” of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, it negates thousands of years of alternative interpretations from impeccable rabbinic authorities.

Trying to impose any auto-da-fé on Orthodox Jews is offensive to me as a rationalist precisely because although there are indeed accepted ideas and fundamental concepts in Judaism; there has always been a powerful rational voice in Judaism that has avoided the rigid constraints of fundamentalism. Although certain concepts are regarded as core components of Jewish identity, the right to use one’s mind, to be able to think for oneself, is a measure of a healthy society and a healthy human being.

What is more, the prime mover of is a Kollel rabbi of impeccable credentials and a member of the Charedi community. If YCT students want to dissociate themselves from men like these, who look beyond traditional sources for answers to serious questions, then I wonder what they are doing in YCT. If thinking Orthodoxy has no room for questions, it will wither on the vine of obscurantism. I am proud to be associated with and Rabbi Farber, and I urge every thinking, committed Jew to rally to its support.

I worry that orthodoxies tend towards pettiness. Whenever any group seeks to define itself by distancing itself from and negating others, it inevitably risks becoming a witch-hunting travesty of its own ideals. In time, it falls prey to internal division and sectarianism. That was why we needed prophets, to keep us reminded of our ideals and goals.

Once one adopts a policy of negativity, of attacking the other instead of asserting the positive, one demeans, discriminates, and humiliates. That becomes the currency, and the result is that one turns in on oneself, petty tensions proliferate, and it becomes a suicidal feeding frenzy. All Orthodoxies are like that, in every religion. In politics it is even worse. And when the two get together it is positively satanic.

Some issues are indeed incredibly complex. Does “Torah from Sinai” mean all of it, part of it, most of it, or none of it? Was it spoken, transmitted, dictated, inspired, influenced, deduced at a specific moment some four thousand years ago, over forty days, or forty years? And in what language and what script? Or was it invented or edited, or complied, or adopted, or adapted, or reconstructed, or deconstructed, or created, or evolved out of something, nothing, or everything? If many rabbis in the Talmudic era could argue about the details then, why not now? And what really matters? Theological slogans or living a life of Torah and genuine morality?

I’d rather see energy expended purging Charedi Orthodoxy of its culture of corruption, illegality, materialism, and brushing everything under the carpet. Communities can have their own ideas and can choose to be either open or closed. They can refuse to accept anyone who thinks or behaves differently. Or to tolerate those who may or may not completely, partially, occasionally, formally, or informally agree, or not quite, or sort of, or it depends. That’s why many of us prefer living in free societies that do not insist that we all believe the same thing. The last thing we need is a “belief test” as well as a “means test” as well as “sniff test” or a “look into my eyes and swear test”.

You like my club? You’re welcome to stay. You don’t like my club? Go somewhere else. But why do you have to rubbish my club? Do you really think the Almighty, who insisted on love, kindness, support, and sensitivity, really cares more about jots and tittles? I don't say that jots and tittles have no use or purpose or benefit. I value and practice lots of them myself. I just wonder how much they are worth being cruel, insensitive, and aggressive about? Didn’t Samuel say that more than sacrifices God wants you to listen to the message?

You want to wear a black coat in summer? Be my guest! But don't rubbish those who prefer not to. You want to believe the world is five thousand years ago? Gezunt! But why insult those who think its older. You want to study Torah only? Of course, why shouldn’t you. But don't prevent those who want to earn a living from being able to educate themselves. You don’t want to serve in the Israeli army? It’s your decision, but stop bullying those religious people who do. And now to cap it, we want to hound people who think for themselves.

Am I to understand that the God of Micah who said, “Be kind, love justice, and walk humbly with your God,” really wants people to snub or insult others just because they disagree about how to understand texts or history? Let’s focus on the positive, on the good. One should have enough confidence in one’s own identity not to need to bolster it by trying to define who is “in” and who is “out.”

August 26, 2016

The Secret War against the Jews

It is no secret that nations spy on each other. They always have. Just think of Moses and Joshua sending spies into Canaan. That’s what you should expect and be prepared for, both defensively and offensively if necessary. Whether it is through individual contacts, so-called diplomats, arms dealers, shady fifth men, electronic surveillance, or hacking. The benefit of internet technology is that it is less and less possible to hide what nefarious activities go on.

We have known for a long time that where there are peace treaties, in addition to the publicly available official terms, there have always been unofficial side deals, national and personal, not divulged to the public for all kinds of reasons. Some will call it diplomacy (warfare through lies); others will call it wise counsel. We have just had an example of the internet revealing such a side deal.

An American planeload of cash notes in various currencies was photographed arriving in Iran. After it had been checked by the Iranians, another plane took off in the other direction carrying released hostages. No, said Obama, it was not trading for hostages. The money was part of a previously agreed restitution of Iranian money originally intended for an arms deal that the US held back when it imposed sanctions. Yes, pull the other leg. That’s why it happened just now and in secret and within hours of releasing hostages. And why in cash? There can be no other reason than that Iran wants cash to fund terrorism in such a way that it cannot be traced.

Of course the Government will tell you the deal with Iran was a success. He won’t tell you what other side deals were made. I guess it all depends on how you define success. To me it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, and yet the duck is dead. But in truth he’s only doing what state representatives and senators do all the time. You scratch my back, I’ll fund your pet project and pass it through Congress without anyone knowing about it.

What do you do when you realize that a supposed ally is spying on you? What do you do when you discover that your allies are really helping your enemies? This happens all the time and always has. It stands to reason when you are dealing with bodies like the American State Department or the British Foreign Office, well known for their antipathy towards Israel. After all, it makes sense in one way. There are only 14 million Jews.

If you want to read about all the examples of proven dishonesty, corruption, and repeated attempts either to blame Israel or pull the rug out from underneath it, not to mention actual attempts to get it destroyed, you have only to read one book: The Secret War against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People, by John Loftus and Mark Aarons.

As the title proclaims, it deals with the diplomatic battle to attack Jews over a hundred years. We are no longer surprised at the antipathy and hatred towards Jews in Europe. But it is sad to read how far the poison has spread. The book’s frontispiece includes the famous 1992 quote from the Honorable James Baker, US secretary of State, “Fuck the Jews…they won’t vote for us anyway,” as proof, if proof were needed, that the war against Israel is also a war against those Jews who fight for the preservation of their autonomous religious and cultural traditions.

But everywhere things are constantly changing. Once the Democrats were the main supporters of Israel. Now it's the Republicans. Once 90% of American Jews voted Democrat. Now it is sliding rapidly down below 60%. Yet surprisingly, under Obama Israel has received more aid than under any previous American President. For all that, anti-Semitism erupts from the Middle East, and Olympic athletes refuse to talk, shake hands, or compete with Israelis; Israel has two peace treaties, is now on negotiating terms with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and shares their position on Iran. Turkey is renewing diplomatic ties. Russia has good relations with Israel, better certainly than under the Communists, and yet Russia is supporting Assad in cahoots with Iran. Everything is in a state of flux. Clearly, no alliance remains static. No hatred outlives self-interest. Israel must take care of itself, as it always had to. So realpolitik is the order of the day. In contrast, say, to religion, where realpolitik is a sign of its moral corruption.

Now it is a modern convention that spies, no matter how much damage they do, how many deaths they cause, are exchanged (when they are not just liquidated). Last years The Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, was based on the real-life swap of Rudolf Abel for Gary Powers. TV series like The Americans revolve round the issue. So why is the American who spied for Israel, Jonathan Pollard, being treated vindictively, out of all proportion to his crimes? After all, he was providing proof to Israel that America was acting against it. Refusing to share information that they had agreed to. And delivering documents that caused no loss of life, endangered no system of espionage or American interests, other than American perfidy.

Yes, he was a spy. Yes, he betrayed America, and yes, he volunteered rather than being recruited. Israel itself correctly insisted that he had not been recruited as a spy, and indeed he was never employed by Mossad. Anyway, Israel thought him unreliable and had better sources of its own. Yet over the years they came round to reluctantly accepting that he had acted in order to help the state and granted him citizenship. Why did Caspar Weinberger, of Jewish origin on one side, go to such an extent to vilify him, lying about the damage he did? Why did two Jewish judges, Bader Ginsburg and Silberman, refuse an appeal, when the only non-Jewish judge argued strongly for a miscarriage of justice? What does it say about their insecurity? We Jews are our own worst enemies. Interestingly, the authors only refer in passing to Jonathan Pollard as a small incidental cog in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israeli espionage? I suggest it’s a reaction against Mossad, which has a fearsome and often exaggerated reputation. It has as many failures to its credit as successes. But just as once the czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to explain the myth of how and why the Jews controlled the world, now Mossad crops up everywhere from Hollywood to Bernie Sanders as the evil force that is secretly subverting and subjugating and the rest of the world. When, in fact, it is only helping Israel survive against all the odds, including threats from its supposed allies. As the great Hillel said two thousand years ago, “If I am not for me, who will be?” But of course we should also remember that he went to say, “But if I am ONLY for me, what am I?”

August 18, 2016

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter indeed, and so they ought to, all the more for what they have had to endure. But the organization, however noble and justified its beginnings, is in serious danger of marginalizing and undermining itself. For the sake of its cause, I hope it does not fall further into a political trap.

There can be no doubt that black human beings, as well as many others, both of color and of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, have been treated atrociously in the USA (and almost everywhere else in the world, regardless of political or religious creed). For all the moral piety of the Declaration of Independence that declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it took a bloody civil war to abolish slavery.

It was not until President Lyndon B. Johnson helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (we can argue about Eisenhower), making racial discrimination and segregation illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting, that the USA began to take the noble sentiments seriously.

Despite all this and the fact that a portion of the black population has reached the pinnacles of American society, large numbers of black (and other) citizens remain confined to poor areas with substandard education, housing, and employment. A disproportionate number of blacks sit in American jails, and systemic prejudice remains endemic in pockets throughout the country. Some police forces have a terrible record of discrimination, and poor areas suffering from contamination, like Flint, have been ignored ( and sadly there are plenty of other examples of contaminated water across the US that have not been addressed). Clearly neither money, nor access to local government (Baltimore’s administration is almost entirely black), nor affirmative action have resolved what seems to be an intractable problem.

Is there a solution? I cannot think of one. I was brought up in a different culture, one that admittedly believed that self-help was the only way. But then Jews could always hide their identity if they chose to, and most did. Doctrinaire socialism has not found a solution other than blaming others. On the contrary, too often trade unions hold back progress in all these areas, either out of political correctness or vested interest in preserving their power bases and privileges.

That is why the only solution I see is for those who care to speak out, to campaign, to agitate peacefully against prejudice wherever it occurs.

But Black Lives Matter is in danger, unless it wakes up, of becoming another left-wing, political, ideological, lunatic fringe as guilty of prejudice and close-mindedness as any other special interest sector of American society, precisely because it has fallen into bed with crackpot extremists who have pushed it to adopt ideological lies that only prove it is just as politicized as those it claims to speak out against. And politicization only holds back progress. No better example exists than that of civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who for all his noise, bluster, and publicity for more than fifty years has achieved bubkas other than self-promotion and wealth.

There is a wider coalition (which Black Lives Matter has allied itself with), called The Movement for Black Lives, which has expanded its remit to deal with universal examples of prejudice and discrimination that it blames on American imperialism. Nothing, you notice, against oppression of human rights by other states, religions, and races. In its manifesto, published on August 1, it pokes its nose into the Israel-Palestine conflict and uses terms that are not only deceitful, but plain and simply wrong. Its motive can only be to ally itself with myopic ideological left-wing ideology with closed minds, and those, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who deny Jews equal rights. You will notice that they say nothing about Indian occupation of Muslim Kashmir.

They claim that the occupation of Palestinian territory is only due to Israeli intransigence and white Imperialism and everything wrong in the Middle Eat is America’s fault for supporting Israel. They repeat the tropes of black anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X who thought that Israel was the sole aggressor, rather than an expression of a persecuted people for home rule (support them when they are victims, reject them when they are not). They erroneously think that blacks have more in common with Muslims than with Christians and ignore the fact that Muslim traders were more responsible for slavery, both in time and numbers. And that most slaves were sold to the Americas by black African chieftains for personal gain. Sadly, everyone’s hands were sullied by that inhuman trade to some degree, and to pick on only one to blame is simply historical ignorance, if not rabble-rousing prejudice. Unfortunately, this spurious black narrative has infected a whole generation, including novelist Toni Morrison, bestseller Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Bernie Sanders supporters who blame Israel for everything you care to mention.

It is applying terms like apartheid or genocide to Israel’s attempts to protect itself (while waiting for a negotiated peace agreement, having relinquished the occupation of Gaza) that betrays prejudice, whether it comes from Jew or non-Jew, black or white. Genocide means destroying a people, but under Israel the Palestinian population has risen not fallen. No mass graves of executed civilians or gassed populations have been found, whereas all this is common place amongst its declared enemies.

If Black Lives Matter is dedicated to removing discrimination in the USA, we should support it wholeheartedly and campaign for it. But if, like the UN, it allies itself uncritically with movements that have political agendas like The Movement of Black Lives, which sticks its nose uncritically into other complicated and complex conflicts, coming down on one side only, I will accuse it of dishonesty, prejudice, and malign intent. It will be in danger of becoming just another corrupt, self-serving political movement. If it continues to support The Movement for Black Lives, it will wither on its own vine.

August 11, 2016

The Temple

The Temple has been the most significant building in Jewish history. The Fast of Av commemorates two occasions when it, Jerusalem, and the Jewish state were destroyed. Tradition has it that the 3rd Temple will last forever! But how essential is it? We managed before we had a Temple with a collapsible, moveable Tabernacle. Babylonian Jewry survived without one. And we have managed without it for some two thousand years. Why do we make such a fuss of it?

I can understand its symbolism. Once we were in charge of our own land and could build whatever we wanted to. The Temple represents a time before Christianity and Islam tried to displace and eliminate us. It is the myth of the past, a mixture of El Dorado, Atlantis, and Tintagel, with great, wise, victorious kings like Solomon. When conquest was conquest, whoever the conqueror might have been, for better or for worse, and there were no interfering international proxies.

After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70, the Jewish people had to make significant adjustments to a new reality. Community prayer and study replaced community sacrifices. Hundreds of years later, when the Byzantium exiled the remnant of Judean Jewry and authority, the reality hit that there was no chance of a military Messiah regaining what had been lost. Instead Judaism focused on a mystical Messiah.

As the likelihood of things being again exactly as they had been, receded, the rabbis had to allow for a new order that might be different than the previous one. So the idea developed that the prophet Elijah would come back down to earth to give us details of a new order. What new rituals and old laws would or would not apply? One opinion declared that all festivals would no longer apply, except for Purim—as the example of God’s presence being hidden, because His name is not mentioned once in Esther’s Scroll, and that we should enjoy life and be happy despite all awful things going on around us!

It was this idea of God’s presence withdrawn that lay behind the idea in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) that we should accept our fate in exile and not try to return by force. Instead, wait patiently for God to intervene. Most rabbis have taken this as symbolic. Besides, the agreement not to use force was conditional on force not being used against us. Only the immensity of our suffering and political circumstances helped bring Jewish nationalism to fruition. Yet individual Jews always returned when they could—Nachmanides, Yehudah HaLevy from Spain, the Spanish Exiles to Safed, and the second generation of Chasidic masters and Lithuanian pietists from Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. All of these groups shared one dream: to return to Zion, if just to die.

The place where the Temple stood remained holy ground, and under biblical law no one ritually impure could enter its space. Only the ashes of the Red Heifer could provide such purification. Even if such a Red Heifer were to be found, only a proven priest could carry out the ceremony. And it is a fact that we do not know for certain who a priest is today. The Cohanim we have are accepted symbolically, but not with the same authority or functions as Biblical priests. Yes, I know there are these fancy genetic tests, but none of them satisfies all the criteria for proving a priest’s pedigree today. We will just have to wait until Elijah comes, no matter what the crazies plan.

It is for this reason that you will not find Charedi Jews going to visit the Temple Mount. No one from my yeshiva ever tried to in my day. Even though it is probable that the Temple did not occupy all of the territory now called Haram Esh Sharif, or Al Quds, they did not and do not go there. When in doubt, one should not, particularly if there’s a danger of infracting a biblical law. Those who now campaign to go up there are the less Charedi. They are the nationalists who are motivated less by spirituality than political assertion of rights. When one side plays politics, so too does the other.

Those Muslims who object to Jews being up there and try to scream and scare them away are being racist and playing politics too. But in a tinderbox, one ought to be careful about lighting a match. One has to choose one’s fights. In this case the overwhelming majority of Orthodox and other forms of Judaism do not approve of trying to take over the Temple Mount. Neither does the Israeli government, nor any really significant rabbi that I am aware of.

Ironically, since the success of secular Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement in achieving a Jewish homeland, most secular Israelis have drifted so far away from religious Judaism that they don't care about the Temple very much at all. Those who want to claim rights are regarded as crazy by both the Charedi and the secular.

But the Temple will not fade from our psyche. We pray for it every single day. Certain Charedi yeshivot study every law to do with Temple procedure in great depth—every inch of the building in its first and second phase, every movement of procedure, every ceremonial, every garment, tool, and artifact. They are not the ones scouring Africa or Hollywood or the Vatican for the Lost Ark, nor going up on to the Temple mount to say their prayers. They are waiting patiently for God to reveal, through history, the fate of the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, given the world we live in, we have no option but to fight for our survival. Since most of the Charedi world doesn’t fight and more secular Israelis avoid military service, it is the National Religious who are following in the footsteps of Bar Kochba, taking up arms in defense of Jewish sovereignty. I admire them. Just wish some of them didn’t have designs on the Temple Mount.History never exactly repeats itself. But it seems to me that any attempt to provoke by trying to take over the Temple site is a fool’s game. Worshipping stones instead of God is itself an example of how some Jews continue to worship idols.

There is, of course, immense significance in the Western Wall, the last physical vestige of our Temple. As much as it reminds us what we have lost, it also stands as testament to the fact that we have done pretty well without a Temple, and this seems to be the will of God at this moment in time.

So as we mourn the loss, I think we should also celebrate how we have risen from the ashes like a phoenix. As Rabbi Akiva said on seeing foxes where the Temple once stood, the same voice that prophesied our loss also prophesied our survival.