October 08, 2015


There are a myriad issues and challenges that we all face every day. Coping with life can be exhausting and exhilarating. But needing to know when exactly the universe or the earth were created is surely is not amongst them. Some people choose to believe it all happened 5776 years ago precisely, either on Rosh Hashanah in the seventh month or in Nissan, the first month. Others incline towards scientific theories that posit a date many millions of years ago.

According to Wikipedia (the easiest, quickest, but not necessarily the least disputed source readily available nowadays):
"The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model describing the development of the Universe. Space and time were created in the Big Bang, and these were imbued with a fixed amount of energy and matter; as space expands, the density of that matter and energy decreases. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation first of subatomic particles and later of simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars. Assuming that the prevailing model is correct, the age of the Universe is measured to be 13.799±0.021 billion years."
Well, you can see how out of date I am because whereas I wrote above about millions of years, Wikipedia gives it as billions. That’s inflation for you. But notice too how the text says “prevailing cosmological model”, which keeps all options open and is not doctrinaire. It simply means “based on the current evidence”, which might of course change one day, in either direction. When it comes to the age of the earth, the author of another Wikipedia article is a trifle more dogmatic:
"Earth formed around 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula... One very large collision is thought to have been responsible for tilting the Earth at an angle and forming the Moon. Over time, the planet cooled and formed a solid crust, allowing liquid water to exist on the surface."
All this is important information for anyone who wishes to be up-to-date with current scientific theories. Indeed anyone interested in having a conversation with an educated person nowadays will need to assume that these opinions are the default ones. But that does not stop many apparently intelligent people from believing something altogether different, to the effect that the world is only a matter of thousands of years, not billions. I once knew a professor of nuclear physics at King’s College London, no less, who believed, or said he believed, precisely that. Not only, but almost everyone who calls himself or herself Charedi, Chabad, Chasidic, not to mention all the significant Ba’al Teshuva (internal evangelical) movements within Judaism today, also claims to believe that.

Creationists are a breed of people who believe that God created the heavens and the earth in whatever manner and time frame the Almighty “chose.” If that were all, I might be amongst them. But most of them go a step further and also dispute the age of the universe based on a literal reading of the Bible, assuming that Biblical “days” are the same as ours. Which in itself raises problems, as the sun was not “put in place in the heavens” until the fourth day. Of course the age of the universe does not necessarily have any bearing on whether God created it all, because you can have your cake and eat it by believing that it was God who initiated the Big Bang. Time scales, as much in the Bible, were based on earlier Sumerian and Mesopotamian calendars, just as Western calendars are products of Christian theologians.

But what this dispute really highlights is the difference between “Emunah Peshutah” (simple, unquestioning belief) on the one hand, and belief that is prepared to accommodate science and rationalism on the other. The world in general is indeed divided along these lines on almost everything from climate change to whether a Sunni has the obligation to kill a Shia or a Kofir and vice versa. It's not unlike the difference between people who are superstitious and those who are not, between those who choose to follow the herd and those who stand apart. Not everyone has a high I.Q or a penchant for philosophy. No two people are the same, so why should we expect everyone to think or feel in exactly the same way?

I believe in freedom, in the right of individuals to make their own choices wherever possible (provided they do no harm to others they disagree with) about how they live and what they choose to believe. If they want to believe in little men from outer space building pyramids, that’s their right. If they want to believe that all Jews want to control the world, are in league with the devil, drink human blood for evening cocktails, that is their right, no matter how crazy or illogical. But once they try to harm anyone, they should be disabled before they kill someone.

Does it really matter to me how many thousands or millions or billions of years ago the earth was created? I am interested, but it really makes absolutely no actual difference. My relationship with God and the way I live a religious life are not at all based on scientific knowledge, but on internal spiritual intuition. You might call it “Simple Faith”. It is in one way. But I draw its line at the essential, not the peripheral. I do not believe that smashing willow branches on Hoshana Raba is a matter of life or death. It is significant, but a custom, after all, however ancient.

As we begin this week reading the Torah again, starting with creation, what I take from it is not a scientific theory but rather the idea that there us a spiritual dimension to our lives as well as a physical one. To reject or deny either is to limit one’s capacity to cope with life, to enjoy it. Our task is to strive to fulfil our potential in whichever we we are most inclined. Belief, religion, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

October 01, 2015

Two Day Festivals

Judaism began with 40 years of wandering in the desert, with plenty of time to celebrate festive days. Its calendar, based on both the solar and the lunar system, was the product of agricultural societies in the northern hemisphere. There was a commercial element, it is true, but nothing like the brute, mechanical, industrial societies that developed in the nineteenth century, which spawned our modern world.

Nowadays humans are divided into three categories. There are those who inherit their wealth, those who have to work for it, and those who rely on government handouts. It is the poor middle class, squeezed now from both sides, who must find living a Jewish religious life the most stressful nowadays, over three thousand years since the religion was founded.

In our advanced western societies, we live in an ethos where work has become an end in itself rather than simply a means of supporting one's family or surviving in order to accomplish more meaningful goals.

Work group peer pressures often expect us to put in the hours, to come in early and leave late not because the work demands it, but because appearance requires it. You have to show how dedicated you are, to the point where work must be your ultimate priority. Even if this might work to weed out the slackers on one level, it is bound to lead to other levels of dysfunction. But still, this is the zeitgeist.

So how does someone who is religious cope with these demands? I don't only refer to Orthodox Jews, but anyone of any religion which requires a measure of commitment to values and routines that are not necessarily compatible with work. What about Christians who do not want to work on Sundays or Muslims who want to fast all day during Ramadan? Well their problems are nothing when compared to ours!

Take this year. You take off your Shabbat on September the 12th, and then the following evening it's the Eve of Rosh Hashanah--two days off work, Monday and Tuesday. If you are strict, you will have the Fast of Gedaliah the day after. That leaves Thursday and Friday when you are double-tasking to make up, then wham, on Friday evening comes Shabbat again. OK, so you have Sunday and Monday as normal, but then Tuesday evening is Kol Nidrei and on Wednesday Yom Kipur. And you know it takes a day to recover your physical rhythms. But with barely time to regain your equilibrium, it is Friday night, and we are into Shabbat again.

Yes, it's true that you have now survived the heavy part and it's the Festival of Sucot, which is much less cerebral, more sensual, and more fun. Except, if you are building a Sucah where do you find the time to do all the work involved in setting it up and decorating it? What about all the cooking someone has to do for the holidays (unless you are hyper rich so can afford those pricey kosher hotels). Come Sunday evening Sucot begins, so no work on Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday you're playing catchup again. Friday evening it’s Shabbat. Sunday morning and it is Hoshanah Rabba, with a much longer morning service. Sunday evening it's the final two days. First Shmini Atzeret and then Simchat Torah with lots of dancing, drinking, and eating, and you are utterly, utterly exhausted and drained, even if you do feel virtuous and spiritually cleansed. Regardless, come Wednesday you had better be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at work, because everyone thinks you have just had a holiday.

In other words, out of 25 days you have taken off 13 for religious days.

If you are self-employed it might be easier ( although it might cost you more). If you are employed by a religious Jew you can get away with it. If, like me, you have worked in Jewish education or the rabbinate all your life, you will have no problem. If you live on welfare or belong to a Chasidic court where work always takes a backseat it is easy. But otherwise? If your employment is in the general workplace, how the heck do you manage without having a nervous breakdown? I honestly do not know, and I can only hope the Almighty is very understanding of those who cannot!

One might argue that this only goes to prove that Judaism was always intended as a religion to be lived within a community where everyone was adhering to the Jewish calendar. It is true that in Israel it's so much easier because everyone has Jewish religious days off and of course because as a rule they only keep one day instead of two.

Except that Rosh Hashanah is two days in Israel as well and has been for more than two thousand years, because Rosh Hashanah is the only festival that starts on the first day of the month. In ancient times the lunar calendar that decided on New Months was fixed by visual sighting. Temple routines were exacting, and different days had different routines. So if you didn’t find out until the last minute on a Monday that the New Moon had already begun, it might have been too late to carry out the complicated rituals. As many Jews were by then living in Babylon, and the old system of lighting bonfires from Jerusalem took so long, they decided that keeping two days for Rosh Hashanah would be the easiest solution.

The fact is that since the days of Hillel the Second, around 380 C.E., our calendars have relied on calculation, not sightings. We know precisely when the first day of Rosh Hashanah is every single year. So why do we still keep two days on all the other festivals, too, wherever we live in exile? Perhaps it was some sort of penalty for living outside Israel. Except that living in Israel adds so many extra agricultural rules that do not apply in the diaspora that it at least balances out. You can come up with any number of ingenious justifications and explanations. The simple fact is, it is tradition!

But, you might wonder, what if tradition is so demanding that it actually prevents people from keeping it? Doesn't the Talmud say, “You cannot impose on the community new laws they simply cannot adhere to?”  The trouble is that such arguments are both relativist and the thin edge of the wedge. Once you start overruling laws and customs on the grounds of difficulty, it is so easy to slide down the path of convenience and indulgence.

Here’s the core of the issue. Those parts of Judaism that do indeed drop days do not see a rise in attendance and observance. On the contrary, once you start reducing officially, the slide begins all the way to assimilation. If I had any evidence that removing second days would help Jews become more observant, I’d be inclined to support it, but I don’t. Those for whom Judaism is not a priority do not even keep one day. And those for whom it is, find a way of coping, however hard.

It is not easy. But it really is worth it. The more that the secular, material society encroaches and imposes, the more important it is to have an alternative value system and way of life. That way you get the best of two worlds. Nothing worthwhile comes easily.

September 24, 2015

Google God

It’s a sign of our times that the New York Times can devote a serious op-ed to the fact that God is in decline because He, She, or It was googled less than few years ago.

According to the author, pornography searches are up 83%, heroin is up 32%, and churches are down 15%. The top Google search that includes God is a video game called “God of War”.

There are 4.7 million “hits” for Jesus, but 49 million for Kim Kardashian. By that standard she is more popular than John Lennon, who in turn claimed that Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. And indeed they were if you think that kind of popularity should be taken seriously. Even so Allah does pretty well amongst Muslims, just as HaShem is no slouch when it comes to Jews. Does Krishna count? Of course! And if you include such Google questions as “Why did God…make the world, make me, make me so ugly, so stupid, etc.”, God gets a lot more searches. But what does that actually tell us? Does anyone believe that God is a popularity contestant or a product? Since when did God care how many people voted for him? Only Satan in the Christian tradition worries about pride. It all reminds me of the famous witticism “ The God that is small enough for my mind is not big enough for me.” If God needed popularity, He couldn’t be God. People who sell themselves, particularly outwardly religious ones are just that, they are salesmen.

The writer goes on to say that:
“I looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan and 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280%. The top religious searches be they Bible, Quran, God, Allah, or prayer tended to drop.”
Yes, of course people want news of a crisis, especially if they are affected, more than sitting down to a theological discussion. The piece reminded me of all those silly articles in which God is described as a kindly old man sitting on a cloud in the sky (or very angry, hurling down thunderbolts at evil doers). Having set up a caricature as the target, the article then proceeds to make fun of the idea. Well, yes. If you compare God to Superman it would be laughable. But which thinking believer sees Him that way? Do people assume that all religious grownups still cling to kindergarten ideas of what God is?

Bad is always more fun than good. That is why in Milton’s great poem, “Paradise Lost”, Satan sounds so much more interesting than boring old God. And Milton was a believer. Crime always hogs the headlines. Taking a drug is an easier way to escape your problems than working hard to overcome them.

That's why the papers are full of all the bad things Israel does but rarely does anyone ever mention the good, even if there’s just as much of that too. Newspapers will always publish “Man Pushes Old Lady Off a Bus.” They will never bother to publish “Girl Helps Old Lady Onto a Bus.” Scandal sells. Paris Hilton became a celebrity because of a sex video, not because she helped refugees. And Kim Kardashian became a celebrity because she behaved like a hooker, not a nun. “50 Shades of Gray” did not sell millions with a message of love, fidelity, and devotion. And consider this blog. I have named several people I despise and haven’t named anyone I admire!!!!

It is obvious that most human beings are pretty selfish, self-indulgent, egocentric animals who want to have fun and pleasure and work as little as possible. Which is why the few who are prepared to work hard usually do so much better if they are given half a chance. It’s why trust fund kids rarely succeed in comparison to the poorer, hardworking first generation who slog to build the fortune in the first place.

For most human beings life is sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. That is what sells. Of course billions prefer pop music to classical, a rock concert to a religious service. It’s easier, so much more fun. It's true some successful churches entertain. But even so, the vast majority of the lumpenproletariat prefer playing computer games to reading a book. Of course people who lust after money will say that money talks, because that's the only language they speak.

Your average Joe or Josephine is a yahoo who is satisfied with the lowest common denominator, the easiest and simplest of everything. He will vote for Donald Trump to become president of the United States. He will hate foreigners, minorities, and probably women too. But this merely tells us what we already know—that most people in this world love pornography more than the self-discipline of a religious tradition. Indeed the amount of sexual abuse within religions suggest that even many religious people treat sex as their true god, that is to say the thing that matters and occupies them most in this world. Many religious people get just as corrupted by money as anyone else. Well, good luck to them, if that’s what they want, I say. But that does not make pornography or masturbation a good partner in life.

It’s like all popularity polls of politicians, teenagers, actors, singers, “personalities”. It is based on who can make the biggest noise, splash, or fool of themselves. A huckster is after all only a huckster. And the public, bless them, laps it up because they have no greater values, no higher standards to apply. How many people prefer reading comics to studying the Talmud or a book on nuclear physics or history? What sells more? A cheap, sexy, potboiler (bodice-ripper as we used to say 50 years ago) or a serious work of literature?

Of course we live in a dumb world. All Google searches prove is how true that is. Google Jews and anti Semitic sites come top of the list. So why does a supposedly serious newspaper publish such a silly article, unless it too feels the need to attract more dumb readers? Unless it was hard up for news and needed to fill the space. (Which is probably why hardly a day goes by without it also publishing pages of anti-Israeli reportage). Funny how the two often go together.

So you wonder what this blog has to do with this weekend? Well, after the seriousness of the High Holy Days, it's nearly Sucot, the time of Simcha (Joy)…and fun.

September 17, 2015

Everything, Something, or Nothing - Thoughts for Yom Kipur 2015

During the nineteenth century there were two ideological movements that swept the western world. For want of a better term, I will call them universalism and particularism. Universalism was the message of Marxism, which spawned socialism and communism. Particularism was the ideology of nationalism. Religions caught between the two split into rival factions.

From 1848 onwards there were fierce civil battles across the states of Europe. America was spared them, but its Civil War and the rivalry of the states in their way, too, reflected this conflict between those who looked out and those who wanted to turn inwards.

Marxism’s anthem was The Internationale. Its credo was and is the international brotherhood of man, the working classes, and freedom from any religious or national ideology. Nationalism on the other hand tried to promote one nation, one culture, one religion and we all know how disastrous both ideologies were for mankind and for Jews.

Despite the catastrophes of the Second World War, the Cold War and totalitarianism the world is still divided along the lines of those who stand for an open society and those who prefer a restricted and specific society. But like any attempt to pigeonhole, there are always exceptions, contradictions and hybrids.

Socialism yearns for the universal. Nationalism seeks to preserve a specific culture. Religious nationalism wishes to preserve a specific religion and predicates civil rights on an agreed understanding to accept its cultural traditions and not seek to weaken them.

All this is background to the current migration crisis Europe is experiencing which is the result of 50 years of socialism in one form or another. Even “conservative” European parties have been socialist-lite. This dirigiste, secular ideology has driven the culture of the European Union since its inception. It has emphasized universal civil and human rights and freedoms of thought and movement. Its culture of welfare actually began in Germany under Bismarck and spread out across the continent and beyond. Americans may not like to hear this, but today the USA is more socialist in its welfare and policies than any European country was before the Second World War. But let me focus on Europe.

Millions of immigrants from different cultures and religions, from all over the world have been moving into Europe, quite legally, since the 1950's to provide cheap labor for countries whose indigenous folk simply did not want to do the dirty work. Demographically, Europeans are getting older and having too few children to replace them, which will mean fewer taxpayers and a greater burden on the state.

Europe needs immigrants. However what we are witnessing now is of a different scale as millions are fleeing the failed Arab and Muslim states of their birth, attracted by the prospects of a free life, generous welfare, and stable governments. We have never seen this scale of lawlessness and desperation before. Potentially it could involve tens of millions more. Human trafficking is now huge business.

This will make the integration of these different attitudes, cultures and religions much harder. In effect Europe has capitulated and thrown out its own laws and protocols. Once a country loses control of its system of Law and Order and is invaded, the consequences are far reaching. Most other countries are not so accommodating. Try China or indeed Russia!

Universalism says that we must take them in without limit. Anyone suffering or indeed wanting to better himself or herself should be given a chance. There can be no moral justification for a modern open society to deny refuge no matter how many, no matter what their background and no matter what the cost. But what the consequences will be, we do not know for sure. It might be better than some fear, or worse. Indeed in the European Union now some countries are bridling at this internationalism that they fear will ultimately destroy their indigenous culture. Are they wrong to try to preserve their laws and character?

Where do we stand as Jews? The Bible says, "Do not return a fleeing slave." The stranger was always welcomed and given equal civil rights, but the rider was that they had to accept the moral and religious character of the host community.

This is precisely where Israel finds itself today, in a moral quandary. Israel is an open society despite everything its enemies claim. The Israeli Left, loyal primarily to left-wing values, says, “Let in anyone who wants to flee to Israel; we are proud of our open, liberal society.” The Right Wing says, “There are 50 Muslim majority states. Some are poor, but others are rich. Let them take in Muslim refugees who will be part of and help strengthen their own Muslim societies.” As it is Israel has an uneasy balance between religious and secular Jews and between Jews and non-Jews. Taking in more people who are loyal to a culture that currently is overwhelmingly opposed to Israel and Jews and who might well ally themselves with those who seek to undermine the Jewish state would be simply suicidal.

So you have a clash of moralities, cultures, and ideology. It is with great reluctance and even a feeling of moral ambivalence that I agree that Israel has no alternative but to do its best to ensure its own survival. Of course it could take in a token amount without any problem. Say, the same amount proportional to its population as the USA, which is now “generously” offering to take in 10,000. But not to open the floodgates as Europe has.

The Jewish world is divided between the left and the right just as much as the political world is. Less Orthodox Jews tend to vote for left wing or democratic parties and see themselves more as universalist. Orthodox Jews see themselves as more republican, conservative, particularist, struggling to preserve a very specific way of life. One wing inclines towards intermarriage and assimilation and less commitment to Judaism and Israel, the other inclines towards restrictions designed to preserve Jewish integrity.

I believe in choice, and I support the right of individuals to make their own decisions. However that right extends to the Orthodox and the nationalists too. In the end we humans decide based on our own experiences and loyalties. Each side has to accord the other this right. I am loyal to both. My secular education is liberal. My religious education is Orthodox. I draw on both. But in the end, survival of Judaism is my absolute priority. It is my, our contribution to the betterment of human society. It is our attempt to offer a specific, ethical counterbalance to self-interest, materialism, and the lowest common denominator that unites all humans. The world would be a poorer place without us.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, in his “Song of the Soul”, said that we all have songs within our souls that sing of different aspirations. We all sing multiple songs. But we decide which song prevails. Each one of us decides one’s own ultimate priority is.

This is the message Moses gives us in the final chapters of Deuteronomy. "You are all here today to enter into a covenant with God…a covenant that includes all future generations." But we have choices. Individual Jews have always abandoned the covenant. "Some of you may decide to turn away from your roots…and may choose to follow your hearts’ desires." (Chapter 30:12-19) There will be consequences. The consequences will not be whether or not the Jewish people will survive. That has been guaranteed. But whether you or your children will still be part of it or not in the next generation.

That is the crucial decision here and now as it has always been and always will be. Do we put universal values before specific values? Both have their good points and their bad, their successes and their failures. But in the end it is like our children. No matter what they do they are still our children. So it is with us Jews. I weep for the suffering masses. But I fear for my own survival.

We are surrounded by enemies and prejudice. Our hopes that hatred would diminish have been cruelly denied. No doubt we share some of the blame. Yet we are, thanks to having a state of our own (with all its faults, imperfections, and blindness), in a stronger position than we have ever been for 2,000 years. It would be suicidal to throw it away.

This is a time to reflect on our choices and where we stand. What are YOUR priorities? As Joshua asked in the Bible, “Are you for us or against us?” Are you universalist or particularist?

September 10, 2015


When I was a child in England, I often used to see men and women standing at street corners holding placards saying such things as, “The End of the World is Nigh! Repent before it is loo late!” or some variation on that theme. It struck me as silly. Even in the era of the atomic threat, I had much more important things to worry about, such as the next soccer game. And repent? What exactly had I done that was so terrible? A few little lies to my parents like, “No, I did not eat that chocolate”?

Every Shabbat afternoon my father always made us learn one brief quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and that was where I came across “Repent one day before you die.” So, it seemed, our religion took the idea seriously after all. So what did it mean?

The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” is used in the Torah of God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffered exile. It is not used as we do today, to mean personal repentance. That doesn’t mean there is no such concept in the Torah, but it is implicit rather than explicit.

The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the root of the name of Yom Kipur. The Torah requires atonement but also a process of confession, Vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest. Instead one addresses oneself directly to God (or to one’s own conscience). In true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. Only after that has been completed and any restitution effected can one be forgiven.

Maimonides adds a rider. Only when one finds oneself in exactly the same position as one was when one did wrong and with the capacity to do it again, and this time one desists, then can one be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor. But since one can atone at any time in the year there is some debate as to why one also needs a Yom Kipur, be it for individuals, serious crimes, or the community.

We need to be reminded of our limitations and forced into facing the consequences of our actions. Most of us just let things slip or fade from our immediate consciousness. This period of the year is designed precisely for that: reflection and introspection. But on the other hand, it could equally and simply be that the community needs this group catharsis, and it is there to reinforce our sense of community and national shortcomings.

Nevertheless, there is no actual, specific command in the Torah to repent, Teshuvah in the obligatory sense. I believe this has a lot to do with the “psychology” of sin in early Judaism, before we were influenced first by Greek and then by Christian and Muslim theologies.

The three main Biblical words for sin are instructive. “Cheyt” derives from “missing the mark or the target.” “Aveyra” come from the word to pass off the straight and narrow. “Avon” means to be deficient in some way. All of them imply an error of judgment that can easily be rectified by adding a quality to our armory, by standing in a better or more appropriate position, or by acting more skillfully or wisely. It is no wonder that the Talmud says, “A person only sins when he is possessed of stupidity.” (Sotah 3a)

There is no hint here of a “state of sin”, so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. No heavy, awesome weight that can be debilitating and psychologically damaging. Just a recognition that people make mistakes that can usually, and often easily, be rectified.

The idea of “fearing sin” plays an important part in rabbinic literature. But I don’t think this is intended to induce guilt. It is nothing more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the look out, and sensitive to possible mistakes.

The concept of “Original Sin” does not loom large in our thinking. Certainly not in the Christian sense of believing that humanity is born naturally evil and can only be redeemed by faith (specifically in Christian dogma). We do have the idea that Adam’s (emblematic) sin in the Garden of Eden changed the course of human history. And this is often referred to in the Talmud. But we are usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for intense movements like Mussar). Guilt is not a healthy emotion, and despite the myth of the guilt-ridden Jewish mother, I think we are much more laid back.

I believe the weight of Talmudic opinion is that humans tend to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism. These, rather than intrinsic evil, are the features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.

In theory, the most evil person has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur. Instead of weighing ourselves down with guilt and regret over our own relatively minor mistakes, we should be thinking of the wider world. On Rosh Hashana, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” We should be thinking of everyone else. We should be praying for all the sad human beings, all the evil, violent people in this world who are destructive, selfish, and corrupt, and hoping that they might see the light.

Despite all the things I say to the contrary, I really am an optimist!

September 03, 2015

Gluckel of Hameln, Champion of Business Ethics

Most of us have heard of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but how many know about a nice Jewish lady called Gluckel of Hamelin? She lived some 300 years ago, when Jews in Europe struggled to survive as outsiders and outcasts in an inhospitable “no man's land”. They were at the mercy and whim of rival political and ecclesiastical powers, without formal recognition and subject to completely unpredictable commercial and political winds. Think of her near contemporary, “The Jew Suss”, Joseph Oppenheimer, rising from obscurity to become one of the major financiers of the European Courts and then falling to imprisonment and doom simply because of the political rivalry between German states.

Gluckel was born in 1645. She died in 1724. Her life, inevitably, had its tragedies and its failures. Unlike Oppenheimer, she was a learned and committed Jew and her religion was a constant source of inspiration and comfort. There were plenty of other Jewish religious businesswomen like her. Almost every woman then had to be involved commercially in one way or another just to survive. But she is remembered because, unusually, she wrote a diary that is still in print today. So we know so much more about her, her private thoughts, her approach to life than we do of any other premodern Jewish woman. Her diary is invaluable to historians for its comments on the significant events in the Jewish and the non-Jewish world of her lifetime.

She lived out the whole of her life confined socially to a narrow circle of fellow Jews, and despite her wealth she was always constrained to live in claustrophobic, dark, unsanitary ghettos. But commercially her world extended throughout Northern Europe. She was a pious and learned woman who lived according to the strictness of Jewish law, a loyal and devoted wife, and the mother of twelve children. Her diary records the lengths she went to ensure that she married them well, into that small circle of similarly pious and economically prosperous contemporary Jews.

But what makes her particularly interesting is that, in addition to being such a Balabusta, an effective mother of the home, a strong personality in her family, she was a highly successful and energetic businesswoman.

Her first husband, Chaim, was a banker in Hamburg, where she went to live and spent most of her life. He had dealings with cities as far afield as Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, and Leipzig. While he concentrated on finance, Gluckel traded in commodities, garments even timber, anything that could be bought and sold. She used her own capital, and there is no record that her husband financed her trades. She would travel to the major fairs of the Rhineland and east to Leipzig. She records one business trip that involved traveling to Cleves, Altona, Amsterdam, Emmerich, Delftzil, Emden, Wangerooge, and Hanover before finally returning to Hamburg. These were journeys of months, not days.

She usually travelled alone and dealt with her clients and agents with confidence and expertise. But above all, she was honest and fair and conscious of the ethical values and demands of Torah. She strongly disapproved of those Jews who were either dishonest or devious. When her husband, friend, and partner died in 1689, she took over the whole of his banking business, ran it successfully, and expanded it.

She remarried, another banker, Cerf Levi from Metz, in 1700 and went to live with him there. They were also happily married and worked together in business. But a few years later, he made some disastrous decisions and lost all of his and her money. Shortly afterwards he died, and she was left to rebuild her life and those of her unmarried children, which she did.

Gluckel, like many historical figures, is claimed by disparate and different groups. She wrote in Yiddish, so she is a Yiddishist. She passionately believed in the Return to Zion. She even records salting meat for the journey to Israel because she had heard that Shabbetai Zvi was the Messiah and soon all Jews would be coming together in the Land. Alas, Shabbetai turned out to be yet another a false messiah.

Her learning and religious commitment make her a pietist, what we might call a very “frum” woman. Her independence and commercial success make her a champion of women, and she always supported them in their quests for justice from the rabbinical authorities. Her insistence on her children being independent make her a very model of a wise but firm mother. No time for spoiling anyone. Life was brutish and hard, and you had to fight to survive. Most significant was her emphasis on business ethics. You might call her an ethical icon. How ironic that one of her descendants has been prosecuted in connection with the notorious Madoff affair in the United states.

In the end, Gluckel defies category. She was her own unique person, and when we read Gluckel's life and realize how hard and unpredictable it was, we are bound to conclude that for all the pressures, we Jews are really very fortunate to live in freer times, and that but for the sacrifices of women like her we would not be where we are today. If you are interested, you can read The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln.

August 27, 2015

The End of Our World

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of humans around the world are on the move, political refugees and economic migrants. They are already and will continue to radically change the character of the societies they are moving into.

Throughout history humans have always migrated, from land to land and from continent to continent. They were pushed by climate change, by poverty, and by unemployment to search for more fertile land, and sometimes they migrated out of a lust for conquest. “The barbarians are coming” has always been on our lips. Species, tribes, nations, and civilizations rose and fell. Such claims to territory as existed were just swept aside. A new thug or ruler brought a new set of laws and religions. You can roll off the list of conquerors, migrations forced and chosen, of empires won and lost. But the single most significant feature of all these migrations is that, in one way or another, they benefitted the places they ended up in.

Humans, being the shortsighted creatures that they are, thought they could rely on boundaries, laws, and treaties to protect themselves. For short periods of time they often could. But inexorably the tide turned, cities fell, cultures and empires collapsed. Out of their ruins new ones emerged and the cycle continued and continues today. We in the west now are no less arrogant than were the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Marxists, and now the contrasting worldviews of socialists and capitalists. Each one had and does contain the seeds of its own destruction.

After the Second World War, Western Europe decided to try again. It determined to reduce the national rivalries, to share and work together rather than to compete with each other for dominance. Social welfare systems expanded dramatically. Across the globe a new order of human rights and moral obligations struggled to emerge. But none of this could eradicate the basic core of human greed, envy, and prejudice that remained like spores of a disease deeply embedded in society.

Postwar Europe needed workers. The locals no longer wanted or needed to work in unglamorous jobs. Immigrants were needed, as they had always been, to do the dirty work, run the buses, clear the refuse, and clean the houses. Did the populace welcome them? Not really. And as each new tide swept in from the old imperial empires, they were met with ungrateful segregation and disrespect.

Now there is a massive influx into Europe of millions from the Middle East and Africa that is impossible to halt. It’s not just Europe of course (which is getting all the publicity at the moment), it is everywhere. Some may well be criminals, some dependent on support, but many come in the hope of a better life; they head to countries with the best welfare opportunities. And Europe needs them because of its aging population and decreasing pools of workers.

But essentially the migrants are coming because of the failure of their home countries, because of the ghastly worlds they live in, of political and religious oppression, obscurantism, and corruption. They try one route, and if that is blocked they try another. Those disgusting regimes will not go away, and so the stream will continue to flow.

Because Europe is now constrained by international conventions that only a few parts of world adhere to, they have no moral right or logic to stop those trying to escape human suffering from coming in. It is pointless and futile even to try. We Jews once were these hopeless refugees, and then the West, one by one, cut off the escape routes. Those who once tried to stem the flow of Jews now complain that Jews, having failed to get humane treatment elsewhere, have gone and set up their own refuge. But whereas most Jews never wanted to retain links with the places or cultures they left or wanted to impose their religion on others, and most quickly assimilated, that is not going to happen in this case. It is possible that assimilation might ameliorate this present doomsday prediction, and I hope so, but I am not optimistic.

The West all of a sudden is trying to shut the gates again. But, as with water, if you shut off one route, it will always find another. It can’t be done, aside from whether it should or should not. Just as you cannot end crime, so you will not stop people smugglers. In one way we have progressed morally. We know we cannot ignore human suffering the way we once we did. But the result may well be the end of Europe as we know it.

A few years ago it was Israel that seemed the easy route out of East Africa. Israel is small enough to put up fences, even though it was condemned morally for it. The sci-fi film World War Z depicted Israel’s fence as the only thing that saved it from the zombies who invaded everywhere else. It’s a scenario that is proving true in the ISIS Middle East today. But, as the film suggested, it could not hold out alone forever. And, no, I didn’t see it!

The only alternative political model is a fascist dictatorship like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, and many Islamic states. This kind of regime, like China and Russia today, tries to buy people’s quiescence while limiting their freedoms and ignoring human rights. It is possible that both models will coexist in a tense but accommodating symbiosis, trading commercially and sometimes putting money before guns.

The USA likewise has this problem, though there is much dissimilarity too—not least, the differences in cultural background. But in the USA there are other threats to survival. The massive gap between the haves and have-nots will exacerbate the tensions between classes, religions, and races. For all the dreams of its founders, the USA now looks dysfunctional.

We are in the process of leaving a relatively peaceful and secure time for one of desperation and division. The next generation will experience a new and very different world. It will be one of science fiction, where huge numbers of people will be on the move because of climate change, terror, and relative poverty. They will use modern methods of transport, held off either by physical or natural boundaries.

Open societies will be fundamentally changed, and I just do not have the confidence in democratic political systems to believe that they can stop it. If we fall back on survival, on “me first”, this will lead to anarchy. Bakunin was right. I am beginning to sympathize with the Russian nihilists. Only small inward-looking, self-protected communities will survive. But I wouldn’t want to live in one.

Perhaps that's why so many people believe in messiahs. If humans can’t make the world a better place, perhaps God will.