July 17, 2014

Why America?

Once again I need distraction from the painful world we live in. Who asked Hamas to send salvos of rockets into Israel? Are they doing it intentionally to have casualties to win back public opinion? To prove they are as good jihadis as ISIS? Perhaps Israel should just pack up and ago. Perhaps Islam should never have been founded. Perhaps if we had been better Jews we would never have been exiled two thousand years ago. Perhaps Moses should have stayed in Egypt. The fact is we must deal with a world as it is. Hatred, prejudice and blame will solve nothing.

Let’s talk about something else. I was asked to participate in a documentary recently on why Jews have and continue to emigrate to the USA. This forced me to revisit how it is that I have left the country of my birth in the Old World for my present haven in the New.

They say that if you see someone drive by in a nice car in the USA, you are likely to think that if you really want one of those, you have to work hard and one day you will get one. In the Old World if you see someone drive a Bentley, you are more likely to think that come the revolution you will take it away from the bastard (or at the very least you will have an urgent desire to scratch the shiny exterior with a key as you walk by). In the US a problem is a challenge to overcome. In Europe it is an excuse for giving up. Like all such clichés, there is indeed an element of truth, but just as much untruth in both of them.

I used to think that New York was the most cosmopolitan of cities, where everyone was from somewhere else. Where everyone felt that one belonged every bit as much as one’s neighbor. But over the years I have realized that New York is not the USA. I can’t think of anywhere else in the USA I would rather live.

In Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn) accessibility and public transport is good. You do not need a car. You have music of all kinds, theaters, museums, libraries, universities, and public amenities like no other place. Some say it is a city only for the wealthy or the lucky. Some poorer minorities have a strong sense of alienation, of creeping gentrification that is pushing them out. This is still a world in which you have to become one to swim with the sharks. Except of course if you would rather swim with the bottom feeders, or just not swim altogether in the dirty water. You can do that easier here than anywhere else I have encountered. Concessions abound. You can be anonymous and untroubled, or as public and socially mobile as you want to.

Europe recognizes class and wealth. But America, as well as worshipping the dollar, recognizes any talent less begrudgingly than the Old World. Intellectuals are cherished, rather than regarded as odd. No matter what your field, if you succeed you are valued. And the things that frustrate one here such as politicians, bureaucracy, incompetence, graft, corruption at every level, pretty much the same as everywhere else.

What I always disliked about Britain was the way that establishments closed ranks, excluded and dismissed the maverick or the nonconformist. This was as true of Jewish society as of non-Jewish society. In every sphere that I was involved with, I was made to feel an outsider because I was and because I made a point of making them feel I was.

Here it doesn’t seem to matter. Of course you have your secret societies and cabals. But the history and the culture of the New World is of outliers, mavericks, and people going out on a limb. That’s why I feel so comfortable here. And because it is so big, and there are so many different groups and options and immigrants and newcomers that one need not feel isolated. Above all, difference is welcomed as a route to success rather than an obstacle. Yes, the USA is completely dysfunctional. It cannot even agree on tax reform, let alone any of the serious social or fiscal issues it faces. But it’s as flexible as it is static. It’s more likely to change than ossify.

But perhaps the most obvious reason is that it’s so comfortable and soothing to be a Jew here. You don’t have to hide the way you do, or feel you should, in Europe. No one would think in the USA of not walking around with overt Jewish symbols. Yiddish words are part of the vernacular. Jewish holy days are acknowledged at every level. Chanukah menorahs are lit in almost every apartment building, and there are special stamps in the post office. There are Jews of every variety and degree, and whatever their differences most of them actually speak to each other. Because there is such a critical mass of Jews of all sorts, you know you will be able to find others at just your level of idiosyncrasy to feel less alone or weird. Each denomination is free to fight for itself, and the most extreme have their lobbies in Washington and state capitals and are courted by politicians.

Whereas the neo-monopoly of establishment services like state broadcasting systems dominate the mindset in Europe, if you do not agree with the chattering classes who are predominantly antipathetic towards Israel, you are made to feel evil. At this moment I see French and British Television all solidly pro Hamas and barely a note of dissent. There is of course a similar academic, left-wing, liberal religious prejudice against Israel here as much as elsewhere but in US I can see both sides. There are channels and think-tanks that can and do share other points of view. One feels under less moral assault.

The USA is a country of alternatives, even chaos. I prefer that to the thought police, social pressure, and the hypocrisy I associate with the Old World. Nowhere is perfect of course but have you ever wondered why the Queen has never been allowed to visit Israel? I think that proves my point.

July 10, 2014

Human Nature

We seem to be caught at present in a terrible battle of evil extremism. But the sad fact is that human beings have always been and continue to be this way. For all that Stephen Pinker might argue in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and even if one were to agree that on balance the world is a safer place now for more people than it was in the past, still the amount of evil and suffering we humans inflict on each other is simply inexplicable. And I do not just mean in the Middle East, where as Jews we feel it most.

The problem of why we do such things as humans was tackled in the Talmud.

“When Adam was created he reached from the Earth to Heaven. But when he sinned God placed His hand upon him and shrank him.” (TB Hagigah 12a) You could not ask for a more simple and unequivocal expression of humanism. That humans have the potential to span the world, to make it a wonderful place. But because we have the capacity to make the wrong choices, we end up diminishing ourselves.

If this is true of humanity in general, it is equally true of the Children of Israel.

“Why are Israel compared to the stars of the heaven and the dust of the earth? Because when they rise they can rise to the heavens, but when they sink they sink to the dust.” (TB Megilah 16a)

And from the very start, the story of Adam and Eve in the primordial Garden of Eden, human beings always tend to blame someone else. Whether we blame evolution or creation, the very nature of human beings is one that Hobbes described as “nasty and brutish”. It is almost as if the Bible is telling us that this is the human condition, and it calls upon us to live with it, to try to ameliorate it, but not to expect it will be different. Not in this world anyway. This is probably why “life after death” seems to offer the only solution in rabbinic literature. But in reality that is both pessimistic and sad for us now on earth.

Indeed, what could be sadder than the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai in TB Eruvin 13b over whether it would have been better for a person not to have been born? They debated for two-and-a-half years before agreeing with the proposition, but added the conclusion that we have no alternative other than to check our own actions and try our best.

But we fighting humans use whatever means are at hand physically, whether it is a fist or a bomb, to impose our selfish wills on others. We start with personal antipathy, move on to tribal rivalry, and end up with national conflict. Indeed, we see some of this progression in the Bible. We start with spitting, throwing stones, beating up, go on to throwing acid, and then using guns.

Ideologies make matters worse. No matter whether they are political, religious, social, or even sporting, the idea that my ideology is better than yours has led to the greatest catastrophes and orgies of destruction that humanity has caused. Millions of humans are currently seeking an escape from hell, and many die in the process. It shows no sign of letting up. Historians debate the causes of world wars, and in the end one concludes, like Plekhanov, that the inevitable always happens through the accidental. Politicians are constrained by personal and political considerations, by constituencies, votes, trade-offs.

We are about to start a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of two temples and two thousand years of exile. The Talmud consistently blames the Jews themselves for what happened. They betrayed their spiritual traditions; they betrayed their social obligations; they made all the wrong political decisions, and the few good people were simply outnumbered by the selfish and the corrupt. It sounds exactly the same today. Fanaticism exists with our people just as much as tolerance and sensibility. We like to think we are better, that we set an example. In some ways we might. But the sounds of internal conflict and brutalism towards the other, be it a different gender, a different religious position, or a different people, is so painful one can understand why so many prophets fled to avoid having to deal with the impossible.

It does not help at all to say “the others” are worse than we are. Two wrongs do not make rights. Most of us desperately want to see an end to conflict, needless deaths, and occupation. I cannot see the light. We are like two punch-drunk fighters slugging it out until one drops or the referee separates them. Then after a few years of recovery we are at it again.

None of the so-called solutions I have seen, on the right or the left, work in practice. And it is not good enough to say that the Almighty will get us out of this mess. It did not happen in the past. So what can we do, we ordinary human beings who care about humanity and about our ways of life? We can pray, and that helps soothe. But practically? Nothing! The politicians will decide. We can only get on with doing our best, wherever we are, to increase the amount of goodness around us, and to try to shine a little light in a dark world.

July 03, 2014

Eid al-Fitr and Diwali

There is so much evil in the world that one almost gets inured. The senseless killing of innocents, regardless of where, is a disgrace to humanity. But obviously when it touches us personally it becomes so much more painful. I cannot write about the three young men abducted and murdered in Israel. Neither can I write about many of the reactions. An amazing sense of coming together and sadly, on the other hand, so much inhumane, prejudiced, and vengeful. Emotions are too raw. I will come back to it. But this week I offer you something trivial and abstract as a distraction.

Throughout Europe and parts of the USA there are moves to add Muslim and other holy days to the list of official state holidays. Is this about personal identity or evangelism? How should we as Jews respond? Our interaction with civil authorities has always tended to be passive or defensive on such issues. We have fought for the right of Jews to take holy days off school and work in order to celebrate our own religious occasions. In my youth I got permission to sit my Cambridge finals three days after everyone else, because the exams were held on Shabbat which was followed by two days of Shavuot. I was invigilated throughout those three days. But I certainly did not campaign for the university to change the date of the exams for everyone else. To my knowledge, in the Diaspora we have never sought to impose our holy days on others. But then, unlike others, we do not think it is an obligation to convert the rest of the world.

In the Jewish state, Israel, the recognition of Jewish holy days is enshrined in the law in the same way that most states recognize religious or political celebrations and milestones. But how far should one go in extending this idea in other countries? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when one religion’s or people’s festive days actually conflict ideologically with the established state’s? In my youth we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating when the Catholic Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Anti-Catholic sentiment was deeply enshrined in English custom for many centuries. Nowadays the fireworks in London are more likely due to Diwali, but we don’t need a bank holiday for it.

The idea of state holidays is now common, and it’s an unholy and illogical mess. Some holidays are religious ones, like Christmas and Easter. But of course within Christianity different denominations have their own special and particular dates for such occasions. So even a decision on when Christmas falls is theological. Then you have civil celebrations. These may include an Independence Day or a V-Day or Memorial Day for military victories, and the Left Wing have a May Day. Now we have a Holocaust Day, but it often seems only to encourage anti-Semitism. These are not necessarily days when parts of the economy, public offices, or schools are closed.

There is much debate nowadays as to whether religious holidays are really religious altogether. Is Halloween a religious festival or a civil one? What about St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Fathers’ Days? Are they civil, religious, political, or commercial? Perhaps all holidays are now simply commercial opportunities, because if once upon a time they were days for everyone to be free from work, nowadays the retail and entertainment sectors are busier and more fully employed than at any other time.

And if in this multicultural world we want to be fair, we must allow all religions to have their holy days, and indeed we tend to, and so why not also have an Atheists’ Day too? I am all for having days that different cultures or interests find significant. It is all part of a broad education. The problem is only when they impinge on others.

The logic would be for states to preserve their historic culture, which includes religion. But in a rapidly mobile world, it does not make sense to accommodate every immigrant culture as if it were THE national culture. There are more Frenchmen than almost any other minority in London now. Should they observe Bastille Day?

I do strongly believe in the separation of state and religion in matters of legislation, other than symbolically. But I also believe in making outsiders, immigrants, and minorities feel welcome and validated. So by all means, let there by days for Buddhists, Hindus, Scientologists, and Wiccans and Rastas and hippies and bikers, and let them celebrate their founders and their special days and their myths. But official state holidays, if at all, should reflect the origins of the particular state’s culture, values, political origins, and survival. Everything else is an optional extra and should remain so. And those poor suffering Englishmen who want a St. George’s Day, or feel so discriminated against that they need to have a St. George’s Parade up Fifth Avenue in New York, should get one. So long as I am not forced to celebrate it!

June 26, 2014

Soccer World Cup

They say soccer is a beautiful game, but it is also a symbol of what is wrong with society. Here is a game of skill that can produce artistry and physical prowess that at the same time can show all the corruption, degeneration, and disappointment that human beings consistently exhibit ( such as biting opponents). This may sound counterintuitive coming from me, for whom soccer was the single most important subject on my school timetable, involved me in hours of training, physical torture and broken limbs at university, and until recently actually occupied 90 minutes every Saturday night when I was glued to the television watching “Match of the Day” as a life-long supporter of Manchester United.

And you might say I am only jaundiced now because Manchester United have had their worst season in decades. Or that England have exited ignominiously from the World Cup in Brazil. A teabag stays in a cup longer! But then only the most antirational, diehard supporter could possibly have expected anything else. English soccer now depends on foreign players who show more skill than your average English yob. Brian Clough got Nottingham Forest to win the European Cup twice with the English style of punt the ball and run after it. But that was in 1979 and 1980, and no one has heard of them since.

Soccer, it is true, is the most popular sport in the world in terms of numbers playing it and numbers watching it. But it is also the one with the worst record for hooliganism, racism, numbers killed on and off the pitch, corruption, and nationalism at its crudest level.

FIFA, the body that “controls” the World Cup, is a self-perpetuating oligarchy for nepotistic millionaires. For years they refused to use technology that might help eradicate dishonest and incompetent referees. It is now clear that it accepts bribes to decide where the World Cup will be held. FIFA makes billions on the World Cup and puts almost nothing back into the game, but plenty into private bank accounts.

So the big question is, why do people put up with it? The answer is simply that soccer is a substitute for warfare. You dress up in your team’s or country’s colors and you hope that your mercenaries will smash the opposition into the ground, enabling them and you to perform a victorious war dance, humiliating the enemy and displaying all the crude gestures and facial expressions of a Maori raiding party.

It is something built into the human psyche, this need to win. The more that society tries to control our belligerence and baser instincts, the more we seek other outlets for it. Which you might think makes it all worthwhile. But there’s something else. Sport represents the very summit of materialism, the pursuit of physicality and sexuality, materialism for its own sake.

Judaism, on the other hand, stands in opposition to the very philosophy of sport. The Maccabees rebelled against the Greeks precisely over the introduction of the theater and the circus into Jerusalem, and what it represented. The assimilated Jews who preferred Greek values to Jewish ones were the very people who brought the games into Judea. The Olympic Games soon declined from their original philosophical justification. Athletes were paid, glorified, and sometimes killed. Nakedness was a requirement, and although in theory a good symposium was supposed to round off the day, in practice it usually descended into an orgy of one sex or another.

Roman games relegated athletics in favor of gladiators killing vast numbers of humans and animals. Rival gangs of charioteer supporters used to riot in the streets of Rome. Early Christianity, like the Maccabees, gained strength precisely because it offered a moral and social alternative to the degenerate Roman culture.

We are not very different nowadays. The barbaric haircuts of players at the World Cup are reminiscent of Viking marauders out to rape kill and pillage. The unsightly tattoos, more than your average Neanderthal medicine man, are symbolic of a snub to decorum and lack of respect for the human body. Players did and do behave in a deceitful, petulant manner and if they score gesticulate and dash to the cameras like monkeys in heat. And when men known for their dissolute behavior beyond the game start looking to heaven, bowing to the ground, or crossing themselves in the expectation that their deity will favor them, you know that there’s something wrong with religion too. I want the team with no primitive haircuts, no tattoos, and no record of foul play to win. But sadly the only team that qualifies on all these counts is Germany!

When I stopped watching Manchester United and England because it only depressed me, I spent the 90 minutes I otherwise would have wasted studying more Torah instead. I can’t tell you how much better I felt for it. How superior and more elevated than those who spend their time on such trivial pursuits. Why should one waste time on soccer or indeed any sport?

How, I wondered, did I allow myself to get sucked into this vain waste of time? Then I thought of those hormonally overexcited yeshivah students who use up their surplus energy throwing stones, acid, and bleach at other human beings they disagree with and beat up rabbis and women that find disfavor in their eyes. And I think, what wonderful soccer players they might become. Perhaps if their teachers allowed them to use soccer as a way of releasing their animal instincts they might, and return from the experience far better people and far better Jews.

June 19, 2014


It has now become a requirement of Orthodoxy that wherever one writes the word made up of the letters GEE OH DEE in reference to the Holy Name, out of reverence one does not write the name in full but with a dash, to wit: G-D. Now my father always insisted that if we were writing English we ought to write English and not some bastardization of it. Just as when we used the Hebrew language we should be grammatically correct. For centuries, the name in English for the creator of the Universe has been GOD. Or as wags often like to joke, DOG backwards. Should we need to treat the Divine Name in a different language with respect? Should we bury dollar bills because they bear this name in English (or perhaps American)? Times change. My father’s generation is long gone, and G-D has now swept all before it in the religious world, so has Alm-ghty, and doubtless soon so too will Div-ne, and perhaps Cre-tor as well.

The Ten Commandments stresses the importance of not taking the Divine Name in vain. In those days people took such things so much more seriously. Nowadays OMG turns up every second sentence spoken, and people make fun of religion all the time. Nothing is sacred anymore, and no one seems to bother about swear words, oaths, or the delicacies of speech; if the faithful were determined by the times the Divine Name is uttered in daily speech there would not be an atheist on earth.

The Bible uses various names for what we call God in Hebrew. There are seven altogether (Talmud, Shavuot 35a). Of these seven, one specifically is holier than all others--the so-called tetragrammaton, the letters Yod Hey Vav Hey, which is never vocalized. Only the High Priest was allowed to when he entered the Holy of Holies. We on the inside tend to laugh at non-Jewish attempts to discover how it should be pronounced--Jehovah, Yahweh--they’re obviously way off beam. For everyone else, when reading the name in the text it is pronounced “Adonay”. Even that is not used in common speech; then we simply say HaShem, The Name. These and the rest of the seven may not, according to Talmudic law, be obliterated, desecrated, or trashed, and must be buried if torn or worn. These are the extents to which Jewish law requires one to treat the Divine Names respectfully. Yet we go further. All of the seven names when pronounced outside of a sacred text or usage are indeed pronounced differently than the way they are written.

In the Code of Jewish Law, the great commentator known as the Shach, Shabbtai ben Meir HaKohen (1621–1662), was asked if one had to treat the German name “Gott” with similar sanctity, and he said quite specifically that the laws only applied to the Hebrew names (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dea 276). And given the different ways “God” is used in other religions to refer to their various interpretations, it is not surprising that he thought that the Hebrew God was not at the same as “gott”.

It was on this basis that my father thought of putting in a dash as frankly silly. His disdain for dog English extended beyond the Divine Names into what we once called Yinglish and is now often referred to as Yeshiva Speak or Frumspeak--a mixture of English and Yiddish words or Yiddishisms that have infiltrated Orthodox speech such as “by us” or “to bring down”, well documented in Chaim Weiser’s cute book “Frumspeak: The first Dictionary of Yeshivish”, which is already 20 years old.

My father thought that if you wanted to express yourself in Yiddish you should use Yiddish and if English, use English correctly. We were drilled to use words correctly, to know the difference between uninterested and disinterested, between continuous and continual, obliged and obligated. He thought Americanisms were for American, not English. I still cringe every time I hear many Americans say Axe instead of Ask. He was punctilious about usage. In my youth “the likes of” was working-class or uneducated usage, but nowadays it peppers the pages of The Economist and The New York Times. He wasn’t consistent. He made great fun of the French desperately trying to keep the evil influence of English out of their pure language. Indeed, some Frenchmen do still try to avoid “le weekend” and “email” and “computer” and “tablet”. But we know that languages are fluid and usages and vocabularies constantly change.

So why, if it is clear that misspelling the Divine name in English by putting a dash instead of a letter is not required, has it become such a test of holiness? Why, was kosher once the standard, then it was Glatt, then Chasidish, and now Mehadrin? Of course we all like to play games of religious one-upmanship and show off. But this is more a matter of a social security blanket, belonging, wearing the same uniform, the same hat, the same head covering. It shows to others where you belong and who your friends are. It is a way of giving you some much needed security in a troubling, complex world, and signaling to likeminded others that you are “safe”. And of where you want to book your seats in the World to Come.

And I have no problem with that. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose their level of piety? So long as you don’t insist that I have to.

June 12, 2014

Peace In The Middle East

Readers of my blog will know that I do not hold back from criticizing Israeli politicians and policies and that I think that occupation, or however one describes the situation on the West Bank or in Judea and Samaria, is neither healthy nor morally sustainable. Why, even the Scots cannot bear to be under the English.

But for the love all I hold dear, I cannot understand how anyone other than a thoroughly biased, prejudiced, or blind theorist (or someone ideologically or religiously opposed to Israel’s existence) could possibly ask of Israel to relax its insistence on controlling points of access to its population under current circumstances in the Middle East.

Civil war rages in Syria, where different Muslim sects mutilate, torture, and rape each other. The regime poison gasses its enemies. The only thing they have in common is hatred of Jews.

In Iraq, Sunnis and Shia are beheading, hanging, and torturing each other. The jihadi “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is sweeping the corrupt Shia Maliki government before it like chaff, and just as they did under Saddam, even their American-trained soldiers are dropping their pants and rifles and fleeing.

In Lebanon Sunni and Shia attack each other, bomb each other, and live within their own secure armed enclaves.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is regarded as a danger to be imprisoned and killed.

In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, perceived enemies are imprisoned, tortured, and killed without due process. And we know that when the Americans leave Afghanistan the Taliban will take over again.

Christians of all denominations everywhere in the Middle East are under threat, their churches are attacked, their clergy killed, and they are leaving in vast numbers.

Altogether the number of Muslims killed by Muslims is exponentially vaster than all Palestinians killed and imprisoned by Israel since 1948. Regimes are shaky and on the point of collapse, and one cannot predict who will be in charge tomorrow. The Palestinians are themselves divided into various rival factions who think nothing of killing each other.

So please tell me why Israel, unless it is suicidal, has one good reason for reaching a deal at this moment in this situation? And why should anyone think it makes sense to pressurize or boycott Israel under these circumstances?

I do believe Israel should voluntarily withdraw from areas of Palestinian population, minimize checkpoints within, and maximize investment and cooperation with willing and interested parties. But to sign a peace treaty under such inflammable circumstances cannot make objective sense.

Memorials and Days

We are right in the middle of all sorts of memorial days. But I wonder. Do they do any good?

My late father was born in London, into a modest home in a poor working-class district of London. Even as teenager he was heavily involved in social issues and supported the UK Labour Party in its attempts to redress the imbalance between wealth and privilege on the one hand and poverty and inequality on the other. But the years he spent in Eastern Europe studying in Mir and travelling through countries where Jews were subject to discrimination and oppression gave him a tremendous amount of respect for British institutions and gratitude for living in an enlightened country with its rule of law and, in theory at least, respect for individual rights. He was constantly drumming into his children what good fortune we had to have been born in a free land.

Each year in England when we remembered VE Day, the victory over Nazi Germany, we bought our plastic red poppies and my father proudly wore his. He would speak to us about how but for the British holding out against Germany and the brave Royal Air Force pilots of the Battle of Britain we would not be alive.

But that did not mean he was oblivious to the faults of British society. After all, he demonstrated against the inhuman policy of the Labor Party he loved towards the Jews in Mandate Palestine after the World War ended and Churchill was ousted. He was as critical, as much as he admired British institutions.

In the US I celebrate Memorial Day because America helped in defeating my enemies. I know most Americans, if asked, would have refused to fight to protect the Jews. After all it was Hitler who declared war on the USA, not vice versa. Roosevelt wanted to help Britain, but the anti-war lobby in the USA, supported by men like Ford, Kennedy, and Father Charles Coughlin together with big business that went on trading with the Nazis, was very strongly opposed. America refused to allow Jewish refugees from the Nazis to enter the country. However and regardless of American anti-Semitism the end result was that without the USA neither I nor any European Jews would be alive today.

We are told in the Mishna (Avot 3) to pray for the welfare of the states we live under because, in terms that sound like Hobbes, “we would otherwise swallow each other up alive.”

In the same way I support Israel, even if I experienced the anti-religious atmosphere that secular Zionism tried so hard to perpetuate. I remember enough examples at firsthand of the pressure brought to bear on religious immigrants in the early years to abandon their traditions. All the same, over time the state has enabled Torah to flourish, directly and indirectly. Even the concept of a welfare state, with all its benefits, has come about through predominantly secular socialist political ideologies. The same goes for workers’ rights in the USA.

Therefore I cannot understand why one would not be grateful for the existence of a Jewish state, with all that it has facilitated, even if one hates its politics. As if the Mufti or Hussein or Arafat or Khomeini would have subsidized yeshivas or Torah learning to the point where hundreds of thousands are supported directly and indirectly by the state.

Jerusalem Day, too, is a cause for celebration (as well as memorializing it, even if we say so three times a day in our prayers). I don’t care whether the soldiers who recaptured Jerusalem were saints or sinners, Jews or non-Jews, Zionists or not. I do care that today I can walk its ancient streets and visit the remains of the Second Temple. I couldn’t do that without a Jewish state.

One can call Israeli politicians, like politicians the world over, corrupt, immoral, self-serving, even evil. But criticizing soccer players does not mean that soccer is evil or basketball or baseball. You can love the game even if you hate the players.

Do Memorial days do any good? So many people are ignorant of earlier events, either because they were born so much afterwards or because of a failure of education. Memorial days should educate. But the people who need it most pay least attention. As with so many things nowadays, we tend to stick to our received ideas for better or for worse and don’t really want to take on board challenging counter-narratives. Old veterans or politicians turn up and say the right things, but the average Joe doesn’t give a hoot.

I value these days because they reiterate a much undervalued human emotion, gratitude. Ingratitude of any kind pains me. And it pains me even more when it comes from religious people who should know better. The value of memorial days, indeed of Mother’s and Father’s Days reminds us of how fortunate we are. We shouldn’t need days for that. It should be taken for granted. Yet our tradition is full of memorial days, and “remembering” is the catchphrase of our history. We should, in theory, come to appreciate these sentiments of gratitude ourselves every day, in every prayer, in every breath. But until we do, we need them all.

May 29, 2014

Shavuot: An Identity Crisis

Plato’s theory of ideas and Aristotle’s more empirical approach are the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition. The result of this patrimony has been the search for truth, even absolute truth, which I believe has tended to constrict our way of thinking and reflect the desire to find a specific answer to every problem assuming there is one.

In our times we have at last realized that there is such a phenomenon as fuzzy logic and fuzzy mathematics which are, to put it simply, more approximate and less definite. In a similar vein, what is called “chaos theory” offers a different way of looking at empirical data and discovering that there can be various answers. One might not need to choose one specific theory or solution.

I have always sensed an affinity to the fuzzy. I find consistency boring and often self-defeating. The Torah itself gives us conflicting models of management, the Divinely-appointed leader, the hereditary priesthood, and then the monarchy, the prophet, and the Judge. Much later we adopted the idea of the rabbi and scholar. Perhaps the implication is that circumstances may require different models of leadership, and we should be open to such possibilities. There is no single simple answer. So it is with Shavuot.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost, is a perfect example of a religious institution that defies categorization. Is it a harvest festival, an extension of Passover, or the anniversary of the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai? It is all, and I suggest that which aspect we emphasize ourselves, depends on circumstances, history and personality. When it comes to understanding Shavuot, one can, as with other theological issues, embrace several approaches simultaneously and find satisfaction in some or all.

In the Torah, the festival is described first as Chag HaKatzir (Exodus 23:16) , the Harvest Festival as well as the occasion for dedicating Bikurim, the First of the Harvest (23:19). Then a few chapter later it is Chag Shavuot (Exodus 34:22), the Festival of Weeks together with the first of the harvest. In Leviticus (33:16 and 17), the festival is referred to only as the culmination of the 49 days of the Omer, although the term Bikurim is once again specified. In Bamidbar (28:26) again the name HaBikurim appears, but as Yom (day) instead of Chag (festival). And in Devarim (16:9) it is Chag HaShavuot, as in Exodus 34, but with the definite article

Academics will suggest that this variation can explained as different sources the Torah was originally based on. The theory (and it is after all a theory) has its limitations. It creates as many problems as it solves; not least is the obvious incompetence of the editor. A passive collator might make more sense. One can suggest other possibilities. The Talmud Gittin (60a) suggests another possibility. The text of the revelation was not written down immediately, but extended over a forty-year period. So just as our own vocabulary and usage varies over time, so too may have that of Moses.

It is common for the Torah to repeat narratives and laws. Its context was very different to our modern scientific minimalist approach. Each repetition and variation adds an extra dimension. Rather like “Remembering” and “Keeping” the Shabbat. Two different words used in the Exodus and Deuteronomy text of the Ten Commandments” that do not cancel each other out as much as adding to one’s understanding. This variation in the terminology of the festival in the Torah might simply mean that it had multi functions. Just as Passover is sometimes called Chag HaMatzot (the human proactive idea of baking matzot) and sometimes Chag HaPesach (Divine protection). Sucot too is also Chag HaAsif (festival of gathering in, human activity) and Sucot (Divine protection again).

One is left to decide for oneself which answer satisfies. Perhaps all of them!

Zeman Matan Torateynu (the time when our Torah was given)

Post-Biblically, Shavuot became the anniversary of the Revelation of the Torah. There is no explicit mention of this connection at all. It is only implicit. One might well understand the shift in emphasis that the changes in Roman society, migration away from one’s early Hebrew agricultural land-based roots (whether forced or by choice) and urbanization must have had. The harvest aspect would no longer have been primary, and as rabbinic emphasis shifted towards study as the acme of Jewish self-identification, the focus on Sinai and Torah would have made sense. So from the period of the Geonim at the end of the first millennium and particularly during the height of the period of Kabbalah, staying up all night to study Torah acquired much more significance than the harvest or first fruits.

But even here we have variations. The actual description of the Sinai theophany in the Torah contains inconsistencies, and indeed apparent contradictions between Exodus 19, Exodus 24:1-11, and Exodus 24:12-18. There are variations in the sequence, in the responses, and in what actually was received or given on Sinai. And there is the question of why the mountain is sometimes called Sinai and sometimes Horeb. In post-Biblical literature, what happened at Sinai is sometimes referred to as Matan Torah (Giving the Torah), Torah MiSinai (Torah from Sinai) and Torah Min HaShamayim (Torah from Heaven). They signify the same concept, but may not mean or were not intended to mean exactly the same thing. We are left to make what sense or derive what significance we want to. And we might each come to different conclusions. Which does not matter so long as we all come together to celebrate the occasion at the same time.

I used to think that the agricultural, like the prayers for rain, were out-of-date and out-of-touch with modernity. I now know much better. The accelerating dangers of climate change, shortage of water, droughts, and ecological tragedies such as deforestation have woken us up to the importance of emphasizing the agricultural and the natural. The circle has come round. Had the Torah only given one reason, we might have been left high and dry. But it consistently gives different names and significances. I find this amazing and empowering. That’s why I like the flexibility of the fuzzy, and that’s another reason I will celebrate Shavuot!