May 25, 2017

Harvest Festivals

Once we used to celebrate Shavuot as the harvest festival that linked the first barley crop, which was dedicated on Pesach, with the wheat harvest 49 days later.

I often hear people say pejoratively that our festivals and laws are based on earlier, primitive systems and are therefore somehow inauthentic. They may be, in the way that a modern automobile is based on earlier horseless carriages. Or jet planes on those that used propellers. It is not a criticism or defect. On the contrary, it is a tribute to the creativity and adaptability of a religion such as ours, where individuals and innovation can coexist with tradition and conformity. Even if there is a constant battle over how to change, how to add, or how to modify.

Shavuot was the early summer harvest festival. We tend to think of harvest festivals as opportunities that our more primitive forebears had for dancing around maypoles, having fun, and misbehaving. Harvest festivals of different sorts go back thousands of years. When early humans began animal husbandry and cultivating the land, they would celebrate harvests and fertility, praying in the spring for good, and rejoicing in the autumn when the season was over and everything gathered in. Which usually involved an orgy or two. If ancient gods enjoyed sex, why wouldn’t they approve of humans doing the same?

The ancients worshipped the sun, the moon, different deities, and a host of spirits and phantoms that they believed controlled their world. If we laugh at them, we ought to stop and think for a moment about the level of superstition that survives and thrives to this day, which is little different. There is no more limit to the extent of human credibility and gullibility now than then.

As we find out more and more about our earliest forbears, we see how, long before the Torah, people marked the recovery of the earth, metaphorically, from its winter sleep and then later bid it farewell in preparation for returning to its cold darkness. All Jewish festivals were based on earlier iterations. Just as many of the laws of the Torah, both civil and ritual, are reminiscent of or based on earlier codes, like Hammurabi, possibly a contemporary of Abraham. It is not surprising. Human nature doesn’t change much, and the universe still runs according to its laws. We humans are great borrowers.

But the Torah transformed these earlier attempts to formulate ethical and spiritual societies. Whereas Hammurabi treated the poor, the peasants, and women differently than the aristocracy, the Torah’s civil rules treated life within its system equally. Whereas kings, rulers, and priests were always above the law, the Torah insisted they be subject to it. Even so, the influence of male-dominated patriarchal societies is clearly there. It would take time for changes. The Torah reflected earlier rules of holy spaces, holy states, holy dress and habits that set the priesthood apart as a class devoted exclusively to servicing sanctuaries on behalf of the nation, while kings spent their time fighting and amassing wealth and wives.

The same thread can be seen in ancient stories of creation, floods, and intertribal and national fighting. It is all there in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures that predate the Israelites. But instead of gods killing each other and fornicating to produce the world, or rescuing their favorites from other rebellious rivals, the Torah transforms and understands the narrative in terms of one natural universe with an order and system accessible to everyone. It is human behavior that mediates, not spells, magic, or randomness. Praying to gods, to forces beyond our control, remains a pervasive human practice and need. Some see this need as a necessary therapeutic process. Others see it as a weakness, while many think it works in getting God to change God’s mind.

Judaism has changed over its 3,000 years of recognizable continuity. Partly through changing circumstances, partly through subjugation, and partly through internal decisions. Maimonides affirms that many of the accepted contemporary religious ways of worship were borrowed and adapted as a way of weaning the Israelites off them in stages. Indeed we see in the Bible how hard they always found it to abandon pagan worship. The Torah, in its wisdom, kept and modified those practices to help wean people away in stages from what they were used to. Sacrifices were as automatic a feature of religions then as praying or meditation is today. Perhaps one day we will evolve towards extrasensory perception. Or our genetically modified brains will be able to speak to God in code.

Such transitions are part of the development of humans and their societies. Even so, we will always need systems of ethics and patterns of therapeutic behavior. No country, culture, or religion bursts onto the world from nowhere or starts in a vacuum. They all emerge from earlier forms, added and adapted and removed different parts. It is not disrespectful, or in any way derogatory, to suggest this. Quite the contrary. It illustrates progress and creativity.

We have all come from earlier forms and stages, whether you call them Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, or Neanderthals or cavemen. It is no more an insult to a modern-day religion than it is to say that we contain genes from earlier forms of homo sapiens and share genes with other forms of life. We are what we have become and so is religion.

Shavuot as a harvest festival might well have come about because earlier peoples celebrated a pagan festival of fertility and boiled calves in mother’s milk. But it has turned into the anniversary of the birth of Torah and the texts that emerged from it. Our constitution and the object of veneration and study which reflect the Judaism of some 2,500 years ago and the way it has come down to us today. After all, there were no Chasidim in the time of Moses, no Kabbalists, but nowadays we have them alongside our rationalists and legalists.

Once upon time there was no such notion of an individual doing what he or she wanted to. The religion or the state insisted on its hierarchies, obedience, and ceremonials, the way Chasidim do today. They found ways of enforcing them. You had no option but to conform, to know your place, if you wanted to survive in such societies. Unless of course you were a rebel, a Ghengis Khan, a Napoleon—but then you created your own conformities.

Now a new paradigm is emerging—that of individuality. It is a burden and a blessing that we are so much freer in modern societies. Very few people are prepared now to say that “this is how things have always been and this is how they should remain.”

I don't know if this what Moses had in mind on Sinai, this interaction and conflict. On the one hand was the declaration that we obey first, and then we can ask questions. On the other, he said before he died that each one of us stood at Sinai as an individual who had to make individual decisions and acts of commitment. Moses also came from two worlds, and that must have influenced him. I believe this struggle between individuality and conformity is a good thing. But it is challenging. And twice as difficult as opting only for one.

But that is what Shavuot celebrates—an acceptance of our constitution, of Torah, regardless of what we think. But at the same time, we are invited to metaphorically stand at Sinai and declare a personal commitment. To decide how each one of us will worship our God and how much we want to keep and to what depth of our way of life will be animated by Judaism as opposed to secularism. We who are bound by tradition and are free to choose want the best of both worlds.

May 18, 2017

More on Shechita

It comes as no surprise to me that more European countries are trying to make life difficult for Jews in various ways. But how should we react? Is it worth fighting prejudice? Should this be an issue of freedom of religious practice? But then what are the boundaries? The increasing attempts to restrict Shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) and ban circumcision are creating such a negative climate for Jews that they reinforce the strong arguments for having a homeland where we can practice our religion unimpeded. However, as with many issues of religious practice, it is not that simple, because sometimes they appear to conflict with other moral and ethical imperatives.

There are those who think this is a matter for no compromise. Belgium is a strange little country where rival parties scrap over meagre rewards. It has three separate regions, five provinces, and three official languages. The parliament of French-speaking Wallonia has voted to ban ritual slaughter. Of all the major issues it has to deal with—economic, social and safety—this seems to be its priority. Now we know it is not really about cruelty to animals. Because if it were, then they would ban animal slaughter altogether (which, as my readers know, I am all in favor of, though it’s not going to happen in my lifetime).

Look at the countries who have banned Shechita: Switzerland in 1893, Norway in 1930, Nazi Germany in 1933, and Sweden in 1937. None known for their love of Jews. The EU is now preparing to ban Shechita across the board unless animals are stunned, and it will require that kosher slaughtered meat be labelled as such when passed on to the wider market.

The new angle is the requirement to stun an animal before killing it. Up to now Judaism has rejected stunning on the grounds that it doesn’t help animals and actually injures organs which make the animal unacceptable. Anyone who has seen the stunning process in action knows that the failure rate of stunning runs between 10-20% when equipment is perfectly clean, up-to-date, and free of interference—which it rarely is. Like the electrocution of humans, stunning can take time and cause great pain. Whereas cutting the supply of oxygen and blood to the brain causes instantaneous loss of consciousness. So, given that we are dealing with prejudice here, how should we react?

One way of course is to fight it using whatever political influence one has. The only way of doing this with a chance of success in Europe nowadays is to ally with the Muslim communities on matters of religious freedom. Which Jews have done hitherto. It is votes that decide policies. The trouble is that more and more Muslim authorities are now considering permitting stunning. So that Jewish power on this issue is even further diluted.

Muslim religious slaughter, called Dhabihah, is similar to Shechita, but far less strict or rigorous, so that kosher slaughter meets Muslim standards, but not vice-versa. The Jewish market is relatively small. After slaughter animals are examined, and if found defective in some way that matters in Jewish law, they are usually sold to non-Jewish butchers. So too are parts of the animal we are not allowed to eat. Labelling meat as coming from Jewish sources could drive down its value on the wider market and that would raises the cost of local kosher meat.

The other option, as already happens in those Aryan Northern European states that ban Shechita, is to import kosher meat from areas that do not ban it. Or, of course, one could move either east to Israel or west to Britain or the USA, where there is no problem.

My brother-in-law Dr. Henri Rosenberg has campaigned for a different approach. He argues that there are strong halachic grounds for allowing stunning. Instead of campaigning against stunning, which threatens our common alliance with Islam, it would be better to accept the new reality. Indeed, this debate took place first in response to Hitler’s ban (Y.Sh). The prominent rabbis of Eastern Europe were consulted. Although there was a case to be made that stunning did not contravene Jewish law, the overwhelming body of opinion was that one should not make concessions on principle, for fear that showing weakness would encourage other demands. In other words, a meta-legal argument rather than a legal one.

Since we are not dealing with a Hitler, but a lower and less pernicious form of prejudice, my brother-in-law argues one ought to consider making concessions rather than face defeat. While I respect his opinion and his guts in supporting his position in public, I want to present an alternative point of view.

We Jews have always split between the fighters and the compromisers. Israel is usually associated with fighters and the Diaspora with compromisers (or appeasers, depending on whose side you take).

There is a principle in Jewish Law called Chanifa—literally a law against groveling or sycophancy. The Talmud discusses it in tractate Sotah (41 a&b) in the context of standing up to Roman authority. This is supported by some great authorities from the Medieval Rabbeynu Tam to the more recent Rav Moshe Feinstein. Should one grovel or stand up and fight, as we have often had to do in the past? Should we compromise or stand firm on principle? Will we look weak if we concede, even on issues that are not essential? Perhaps the Europeans should consider a campaign of civil disobedience, fighting restrictions on our religious practices on the competing principle of denying our human rights.

In 1936 Poland banned Shechita. The Bobov Chasidim led a campaign of resistance—a boycott that hurt the government’s revenues and had Jews going without meat until the powers relented.

There is a similar problem with circumcision. Would it make any difference if children were anesthetized? There is a move in Norway to ban circumcision of boys under the age of 16 and several other measures which have been blasted as an attack on minorities. Advocates claim that circumcision results in mental and physical harm to children and is a serious violation of human rights. Spurious arguments about psychological damage are childish. We might as well ban parenthood for the psychological damage parents do to their children. Besides, we circumcised Jews seem to be doing pretty well. And I haven’t heard anyone complain that it is his brit that has ruined his sex live. The problem there is that we insist on circumcision within eight days, whereas in Islam the ritual is done much later, around 13. I bet no one dares suggest that that's why Muslims are more prone to violent jihad! And there’s absolutely no comparison to the horrific female mutilation (it is not circumcision, by definition) where a pleasure giving organ is removed altogether. The arguments on both issues, Shechita and circumcision, are less scientific than ideological.

To complicate the issue, there are problematic aspects of Shechita that apply even where anti-Semitism is no argument. I would like to see the rabbinates in the forefront of urging humane methods of the sort that Dr. Temple Grandin advocates This week, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has decided to put its foot down banning unacceptable hoists and shackling for slaughterhouses in Israel and for imported shechita. Why, you might well ask, didn’t the Chief Rabbinate do it ? Sadly we know the reason why. Cruelty to animals, though a biblical law, is universally minimized in many very Orthodox communities.

On the other hand a Califorinian judge has just thrown out a human rights suit against Chabad over swinging chickens over people’s heads in the ceremony of Kapparot before Yom Kippur. The judge refused to allow the suit on the grounds that one ought not to ban a longstanding religious custom. I wish he hadn’t. Kapparot are quite unnecessary and cruel to chickens. Sometimes we need to be rescued from our own blindness. But this illustrates perfectly the difference between Europe and the USA. One culture respects Judaism (perhaps too much); the other does not.

The arguments in Europe are clearly political rather than humane. I wonder if we should not just ignore them, instead of trying to plea. Why would we want to live in such countries anyway? When empires are intolerant of different religions or ideologies, they have always declined. When they have been tolerant, they have flourished. Mainland Europe’s antipathy towards Judaism is a sure sign of its moral decline. Time to move.

May 11, 2017

How To Be Good

When I was a kid, I used to wonder why it was that some children in my circles seemed naturally better and sweeter than others, who seemed naturally evil and nasty. Why did some seem to be so much more religious and obedient than others? I found discipline hard to endure, rituals difficult to observe. I was a natural-born rebel, while others, like my younger brother, were natural-born saints. We were born into the same family, had the same parents, the same upbringing, and yet we were so different.

We talk about good or moral human beings and about bad, immoral ones. But how does one become a good, moral person? Awhile back we would distinguish “nature” from “nurture”. In our natural state, we are automatically good—noble savages. But then civilization influences us, and we become selfish and bad. Freud turned this on its head and said that we are born selfish creatures, but we learn, or are taught by our parents and society, to control our ids.

Psychologists like Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg developed theories about child development and how children come to make moral decisions. They differed as to what was most significant—evolution, the development of a child’s brain, interaction with other children and adults, a process of socialization. There were some, like Eysenck, who unfashionably argued that good and bad behavior were conditioned by one’s genetic makeup; there was such a thing as a criminal chromosome. And of course, a lot of crackpot pseudoscience, like racial theories and eugenics. Others focused anthropologically on how different tribes around the world developed their own rituals of conformity and socialization, which helped explain a lot of the rituals in the Torah we often find irrelevant or passé.

At this moment in time, as research into our genetic makeup is advancing in leaps and bounds, we are inclined to put more emphasis on the influence of our genes. Genes carry many different characteristics, both desirable and undesirable. That's why we can inherit diseases. But there is a lot we do not know about what goes into genes and what exactly they can and do pass on. An ethical gene is not an impossibility. So, is being good or bad passed on through our genes? Are some people automatically good and others bad? We are still learning.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind argues that "moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.” He uses an analogy of a rider on an elephant. The rider “reasons why” but the elephant “sees that” which represents emotion, intuition, and all the built-in factors that automatically get us to behave in a particular way. Which then we try to find reasons for. The just is out. Our societies are predicated on our knowing what is good (as defined by each society or religion or ideology). We act as if we have choice.

Socialization may explain why religious communities are successful in imposing conformity but not necessarily very good at getting many of its members to be moral human beings or to act correctly even by its own standards. Authority, whether it is parental, educational, or religious, is rarely effective in controlling human behavior. People usually behave well when someone else is looking—like a policeman. God is used so often to dissuade bad behavior because God is supposed to be the all-seeing eye. But then why do religious people who claim to believe in God and that God “sees” whatever they do, often behave badly? And often encourage killing in the name of religion or acting in coercive ways that most of us do not think are right and indeed much of religious ideology disagrees with?

Psychologists tell us that simply commanding people to be good rarely works. They must decide for themselves if they want to, if it is worth it. We punish in effect to express disapproval or sometimes simply prophylactically to protect society from dangerous people. The issue of whether we can change fundamental human behavior is debatable.

In fact, the old distinction between nature and nurture is still a pretty good one. We choose to abide by different laws—civil laws, religious laws, and personal moralities—for and through a variety of causes and effects. They all play a part. We are determined in part, and we are free in part. In the end, we as individuals make decisions in a variety of areas, even if there are laws that constrict us. Some of our decisions are predictable, some not.

In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? We punish criminals in the hope that they might change. We always have punished those who broke laws. But is this fair? Why did we even think punishment would get them to change?

Scolding is rarely effective. But presenting alternative models, alternative moralities, at least offers standards. There are standards for personal behavior, daily routines, and special days of the year. There are standards in every system and culture that applied historically in different times and some just as applicable now as then. Whether and how we choose to keep them is up to us. If one cares about being Jewish, the Torah provides a list of what comprises a Jewish way of life and a Jewish way of being good. It is one of several options and paradigms. Freedom of choice, if you like, is the freedom to decide which program we choose to be influenced by.

But this is one reason that I strongly support the separation of religion and state. I do believe religion should be part of the moral debate. But when religions gain power, they tend to exclude and suppress other ideologies. Actually, that's what the nonreligious extremes like fascists and marxists try to do, too. It is happening on campuses all the time. I am right, and you are wrong. It is always important to have access to alternative ideas.

Judaism claims that we are born neutral, with a good inclination and a bad one. We decide which one we give preference to. We are influenced by our own actions—good ones reinforce the good in our nature, and bad ones reinforce the bad. We know we are determined by genes and societies. But we still show every sign of being able to make some choices, at least. We do in fact change religions, countries, and communities. And friends and partners.

I knew how I should have behaved, in the past and even now when I make mistakes. Sometimes I did what I should have, and sometimes I did not. That is the struggle of life. Augustine is said to have prayed, “Please God, make me good…but not just yet.” I always prayed to God to make me good. I just didn’t always try hard enough.

As R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto said hundreds of years ago in his introduction to The Path of the Righteous, there is nothing new, we know what we ought to do, but we need to be constantly reminded. The function of education (as opposed to indoctrination) is to inform, to present possibilities, to reiterate, and to encourage people to think and to decide for themselves. To teach rather than preach. That is the only defense against hucksters and fanatics.

May 04, 2017

Independence Day

Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, brings out the best and the worst in us. We cannot agree on what it means, and we cannot agree on how to celebrate or recognize it.

For all the biblical miracles, after 2,000 years of exile and oppression, the reconstitution of a Jewish independent state strikes me as the most miraculous of events that defies logic and nature. And I celebrate it. I cannot understand why any Jew would not.

In the Diaspora the vast majority are simply unaware of when Yom Ha’atzmaut is. Most of American Jews have never been to Israel, and many are ambivalent, if not downright opposed. But then the same can be said for quite a few Israeli Jews. On one level I support freedom of expression, free choice, and autonomy. But I do find it sad that to so many Jews history either means nothing or it is something they want to escape from.

I am a part of a very small people—some 15 million. I am part of a very small part of those 15 million who declare themselves to be religious Jews. And I am a small part of that small part that believes we should thank and praise the Lord for the miracle of Israel’s existence.

But, as with anything to do with Jews, it is complicated. The Old Yishuv—Jews who settled in Israel during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries—sacrificed a lot to live in the Holy Land. They did not get involved in politics or agitate for self-rule. They thought that the Messiah would sort things out, and in the meantime they had to accept the facts of exile, subjugation, and second-class status with its humiliations and penalties.

Nineteenth century Zionism strove to actively liberate Jews and provide them with a safe haven. Secular, idealistic pioneers came to settle the land, drain swamps, and find a place to live in peace. The Old Yishuv disliked them for their secularism, politicism, and “loose morals”. But in those days, the Old Yishuv was a small group of religious dreamers, and most of their successors are simply not interested in a Jewish state. God will take care of everything.

What we might call Modern, Centrist or Inclusive Orthodoxy has always been very supportive of Israel and celebrated independence religiously as well as nationally. They were the dominant religious force in the early years of the state and used the tools of statehood to give a religious dimension to a civil occasion. Once moderate, and pro-Zionist Orthodoxy was the norm for pragmatic, religious life in Israel. Nowadays religious moderates have almost all turned right. And they exercise power beyond their numbers in Israel, the army and its institutions being in league with secular right-wing parties.

Meanwhile, since the rise of the state, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi world has grown exponentially. It is split three ways. Some participate in the activities of the state, its politics, and institutions. Others reject the state and Zionism ideologically, but still participate. Finally, a fringe group refuse to have anything to do with the state or to cooperate, and actively try to undermine it. There were a lot of Charedi men who served in the army in the early days of the state, and they celebrate independence privately. Chabad Chasidim, who do not consider themselves Zionists as such, recognize the day because of their strong support for the state and commitment to Jewish life in Israel. But most “black hatters” just ignore it. And some really weird ones treat it as a day of mourning. Sephardim overwhelmingly celebrate and the late great Sephardi Rav Ovadia Yosef said we should mark Yom Ha’atzmaut by studying Torah as well as enjoying the day.

The day before is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day to honor those who were killed defending the country from its enemies. A moment of silence. Speeches and solemn gatherings. Interestingly, although the Charedi community as a rule does not celebrate Independence Day, more and more do take Memorial Day seriously and recognize the sacrifices that so many made for them as well. Only a few insensitive zealots refuse to mark the moment of silence in public.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut itself, the country rejoices in many ways. Marches, parades, displays, festivities, and a day off work. The vast majority of Israelis participate. But, bearing in mind that about half of Israelis are not religious, does it have any religious significance?

Both in Israel and beyond, each one of the groups I mentioned above have different religious responses to the day that really do illustrate how crazy we are. Please bear with me over the arcane details I am going to describe. To many they will sound petty and of little consequence, but the faithful take them very seriously—to the point of fisticuffs. But they illustrate the problems of a religion with no central or universally recognized authority.

According to Jewish law, whenever there is religious holiday we recite a prayer called Hallel, which is simply a collection of joyful Psalms. On festivals we read from the Torah, and on the major ones recite a Haftara, a section of the Bible from the Prophets. In addition, there is a special blessing called Shehecheyanu, thanking God “who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this (special) time.” And the prayer Al HaNissim, thanking God for the miracles on Purim and Chanuka, should be just as relevant on this day.

There are daily penitential prayers called Tachanun or Nefilat Apayim that one does not say on festive occasions or other happy events. Amongst Chasidim there is a tradition not to say these on happy occasions, including the anniversary of the death of a great rabbi (as this is regarded as a happy event, the soul returning to its source). They drink a toast Lechayim, to life, physical and eternal. Most Chasidim have managed to find so many anniversaries that they have all but eliminated the prayer throughout the year. Now, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, should one say Tachanun or not?

Yom Ha’atzmaut also falls within the traditional Omer period of mourning in the days from Pesach to Shavuot, when weddings and public celebrations with music are not allowed in memory of a series of historical tragedies. There are sufficient sources to support an exception to the rule: There’s the obligation on an individual to rejoice and recite a blessing when a miraculous event happens to one, and there are precedents for the community to declare special days of rejoicing as well as fasting. Once a powerful religious authority could and would make decisions. Nowadays too many major rabbis are caught in a dated mind set. Hence, we are left with chaos.

Each religious sector of Orthodoxy celebrates the day differently liturgically. Some follow the whole special service once ordained by the Chief Rabbinate with Hallel prayers, Torah and Haftara, and Shehecheyanu. They treat it as the equivalent of Chanukah and Purim. Some only say Hallel. Some only say Shehecheyanu. Some say Tachanun; others don’t.

There’s a joke that someone asked the very secular first Prime Minister of Israel Ben Gurion what he said on Yom Ha’atzmaut. He replied that he said neither Tachanun, nor Shehecheyanu (nor anything else of a religious nature).

I think it is a shame that the Charedi world does not share in Yom Ha’atzmaut. I agree they were right to turn inwards and focus entirely on survival and rebuilding religious life after the depredations of the Second World War. And they have been remarkably successful in ensuring that we will survive religiously. In this, their great rabbis of the time compensated for those blinkered of their number who insisted on staying behind in Europe rather than escaping to Israel or the USA when they could.

But now they are wrong to extend this to refusing to recognize the miracle of Yom Ha’atzmaut or to allow young men are not perennial scholars to serve a country that has protected them, supported them, and enabled them to flourish. Now that their numbers have increased so much, their rigid opposition is a measure of the failure of their moral vision. Proof that just because a person is right on one issue that does not mean they are or will be always right on any other. Thank goodness more and more of their number are making up their own minds. It's a shame if the tail wags the dog. But if the head is paralyzed, at least the tail offers hope.

This confusion over Yom Ha’atzmaut illustrates our capacity for tunnel vision, pettiness and moral paralysis. Thank goodness there are still enough of us prepared to act on our own initiatives and recognize a miracle when we see one.

April 27, 2017

The Hebrew Language

Where did the Hebrew language come from? When did it begin? What language does God speak? And for that matter what language did the snake use to converse with Eve in the Garden of Eden? Is Modern Hebrew a development out of Biblical Hebrew, or is it really a new and different language? Questions such as these have challenged us for years. Once upon a time, William Chomsky’s Hebrew: The Eternal Language was the source one would turn to (a world away from his son Noam, who has renounced Israel and Judaism).

Now William Chomsky’s mantle has passed to Lewis Glinert, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College. Also a former Brit and, briefly, a teaching colleague of mine. His new book, The Story of Hebrew, is a brilliant, informative, readable, and enjoyable romp through the history of Hebrew from its earliest beginnings to the present day. It is a must-have for any thinking person's Jewish library.

There is no way we can trace the exact beginnings of the Hebrew language. Of course, the Bible tells as that God said, “Let there be light,” but who was God speaking to? And how does God speak? Are we to assume God has vocal cords and a mouth? And according to the story, Adam gave the animals names and then called his wife ISHA, which is a Hebrew word. He then decided to call her more personally “the mother of all life, Chavah” (or, as we call her in English, Eve). But again, we only have the Bible's word for it, which will work for some but not everyone.

There is the story of the Tower of Babel, where one universal tongue split into a babble of different languages. But we aren’t told what the original one was or indeed what language Abraham spoke, except that he was able to communicate with the men of Ur and Haran, Pharaoh, Avimelech, Efron, and nine different kings all having, one assumes, different languages. What a polyglot! Or did he use translators or sign language?

When it comes to Hebrew writing, we can at least see the Gezer calendar, which is some 3,000 years old. Its script of course is not the square Assyrian script we have today, which goes back to the Babylonian exile. But it is still used by the Samaritans. Insofar as the Ten Commandments were carved they would certainly have been in this early Hebrew script. Even if the Talmud acknowledged that the Assyrian script as coming from Babylon, it still envisioned the carving being done in the more recent script (Megillah 2b).

But the written and the spoken, though obviously connected, are not the same. No average modern Israeli child would be able to read the early Hebrew script today. But he or she would certainly be able to understand much of the language of the Torah. Now how many Italians today can understand Latin, or English children Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? The Hebrew language is unique in this respect. Even if no one can say for certain it is God’s language, no other one has a longer or better claim!

According to Glinert it is wrong to say that Hebrew has been reborn. Of course, such a claim is often heard from those who claim there were no Judeans, no Hebrew-speaking kings, no Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s all a Zionist myth. Hebrew never died. Not only did the Jews never give up using it in one function or another, but Hebrew as language of communication, as well as scholarship, has always played an important part in Jewish life, even when it was separated from the crucible of its homeland. And even when Jews spoke other languages.

It was the great contribution of the Babylonian scribes 2,500 years ago, who began the process of turning the Israelites from a localized, sanctuary-based religion into one that emphasized study, literacy, and language. Even as Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew, became the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in a beautiful pure Hebrew language which drew on biblical, colloquial and Greek influences. This in fact enabled Hebrew, as opposed to Aramaic, to remain the religious, literary, and spiritual language of Jewish communities in the West (where Aramaic played no part), as well as the East.

The compilers of the prayers 2,000 years ago also made Hebrew the core language of spiritual communication, even if Aramaic dominated the Talmud and indeed documents both commercial and religious in the East. The Kaddish is Aramaic and rivals the Hebrew Shema for the title of best known Jewish text.

Islam brought challenges. It claimed that Arabic was the divine language and superior to all others. The Jews of Medieval Spain responded with poetry just as beautiful and emotional and with grammar every bit as structured and systematic. Maimonides chose Arabic for philosophy, but used a powerfully simple and beautiful Hebrew for his books on Jewish law and much of his correspondence.

As Ashkenazi Jewry flourished and rivaled Eastern Jewry, Aramaic continued as the language of arcane mysticism. The Zohar is overwhelmingly an unusual kind of Aramaic. Even so, Hebrew was the method of internal and external Jewish communication and legal responsa. At no time throughout the medieval period was Hebrew lost as a living language, even as Yiddish or Ladino became the popular mediums.

All that modernity did was to add a range of new words and forms. But the grammatical structure and core vocabulary remained the same. And modern Hebrew literature dates back to a period long before Zionism. The link was continual.

Glinert deals with the valiant attempt by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) to make Hebrew the language of the Zionist enterprise against competition from German and English. But many of the words he introduced have simply failed to gain favor. He would have trouble understanding Ivrit today. Current Israeli Hebrew includes a ton of slang words that I certainly knew nothing of, living in Israel 50 years ago—as well as strange borrowings (like “pendel" for “penalty” in soccer), Arab words, and hi-tech! Glinert also recognizes the amazing success, in the early years of the State of Israel, in spreading the use of Hebrew amongst the very wide range of different languages spoken by the new immigrants. Conscription into the citizens' army played a major part. Although in the process they tried very hard to suppress alternatives, including Yiddish. Ironically, Yiddish has grown exponentially with the birth rate of Charedi communities in Israel. Even so, Ivrit is the norm for social interaction.

No language stands still. The Oxford Dictionary adds new words each year. The successful survival of Hebrew, very much like the Jewish people, has defied the odds. As we celebrate Israel’s independence this week, we are celebrating Jewish national liberation from those who tried so hard to eradicate us from history. We are also reiterating our links to our ancient land, its language, its history, and the Bible itself.

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.