July 30, 2015

Marc Shapiro and Jewish Censorship

Human beings have always told lies. The purpose of lies, of course, is to try to cover up truth. It is just that some lies, under certain conditions, are considered less morally evil than others. All ethical systems have grappled with whether it is ever permissible to lie, and they have come up with range of possibilities, such as white lies, lies to avoid embarrassment, lies to save lives, and lies for the greater good.

One of the benefits of modern technology is that it is much easier and much more common to lie. For example, anyone who has used an online dating service (and I have not) knows that almost everyone lies. But it is also true that you are much more likely to be caught out thanks to the internet and your lies revealed for the deceptions they are.

Governments have always lied. Either to cover up their mistakes or because they felt the masses should not know how nasty their leaders were. Sometimes they have lied to protect their security services, their spies. On occasion it has been to help defeat enemies. But as hackers of various degrees of malignancy, or perhaps in belief that they were doing some good, have flourished, it has become increasingly difficult to hide anything. Even if one gives them the benefit of the doubt, two notorious examples, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, both lied as well as revealed. Religions and ideologies have been amongst the biggest liars, either to preserve their mystique or to retain their hold on the credulous faithful.

One of the tools governments (Marxists obviously and crudely, but even democracies less so) and religions have employed is censorship. If there are ideas floating around, books or films or art, anything that might be considered subversive or dangerous, the authorities have censored for what they saw as the greater good. In other words, ordinary people cannot be trusted with the truth, or it may do great damage to their acceptance of authority. So some authority sets itself up to ensure that certain things are not published, and if they are published they are not read.

Britain had an official censor, the Lord Chamberlin’s Office, which was the official censor for virtually all theatre, publishing, and the arts in Britain, until it was abolished in 1968. Some plays were not licensed in the 1930s, during the period of appeasement, because they were critical of the German Nazi regime and it was feared that allowing certain plays to be performed might alienate what was still thought of as a friendly government (you can see the evidence on Wikipedia). Penguin, the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, were taken to court for obscenity in my student days, and you had to go to Paris to buy Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

The Catholic Church had a list of prohibited books, publications deemed heretical, anticlerical, or lascivious and therefore banned by the Catholic Church. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was formally abolished on June 14, 1966 by Pope Paul VI.

In both cases the censoring agency ceased when it became blindingly obvious that you can never stop people reading or seeing what they want to if they are determined enough to do so. Censorship just doesn’t work.

For years now Professor Marc Shapiro of the University of Scranton has revealed examples of mind control in Jewish sources. Opinions regarded as too lenient have been expurgated from books of responsa. Opinions once considered acceptable have now been proscribed in the current witchhunt against anything that might not completely condemn secular education. Records of great rabbis reading newspapers, Heaven forfend, have been removed from publications. Rabbis who held Zionist, tolerant, or modern views have had their names removed. Original approbations of great rabbis have been cut from their books so as not to misguide innocent modern readers.

But thanks to easy access to original uncensored editions and the availability of texts online, this is now out in the open and clear for all to see (who are not blind). In his latest book, Changing the Immutable, Professor Shapiro has provided an invaluable service to the world of Torah scholarship by giving chapter and verse of so many examples of censorship and distortion.

But I have to take issue with the implication of his last chapter, “Is Truth Really That Important?” There he gives an excellent overview of the attitudes toward lying in Christianity and Judaism, documenting cases where lying was considered to be a necessary and beneficial thing to do. He rightly points out the complexity of the issue, bringing examples from Jacob’s misleading his father to Bill Clinton’s famous lie about Monica Lewinsky. He gives cases where rabbis blocked lenient conclusions for fear of giving the wrong impression. He concludes that we need to redefine the word “truth”. But he also implies, disappointingly, that rabbinic censorship might be morally defensible.

From a philosophical point of view, of course, truth needs to be more than a simple yes or no. Plato developed the idea of a Noble Lie. The great Maimonides spoke about different truths and admitted that his Guide for the Perplexed was written only for philosophers, not ordinary people. He was careful about what he said for the masses. Shapiro concludes that such distinctions are behind the attempts of Orthodoxy to play fast and loose with truth in the interests of preserving their cloistered life and mind style.

Professor Aryeh Frimer of Bar-Ilan has taken Shapiro to task on Shapiro’s the Seforim blog for pulling his punches. He accuses him of justifying censorship on the grounds of good intentions. Shapiro defends himself by saying that he was only quoting authentic sources and his book has been well received in Charedi society. This might well explain his failure to be more condemnatory. But in most of the examples he brings from the Talmud and beyond, the rabbis concerned were motivated by meta-halachic considerations and openly admitted it. What worries me is when they refuse to admit their nefarious excisions even in scholarly contexts. Many of his cases are such, and I expected to see more outrage. But then, to be fair, this is a scholarly work and not one of polemic.

I have always believed that education is concerned with opening minds, not closing them. One can understand the need on occasion to be protective of young, innocent minds in the knowledge that in due course they will grow up and discover other opinions. I might even, at a pinch, understand why if children never grow up because they are sequestered in protective enclaves for the whole of their lives they might never have access to other opinions, and it might be disturbing to try to force such challenges onto them. I was amazed to discover that Bais Yaakov schools only taught their girls a censored (sex-free) version of the Torah.

By all means decide how you want to educate your children selectively. But do not distort or pretend that a rabbi has not approved of a book when he did. Withdraw it altogether if you must. But do not claim a bastardized version was the original. That only compounds the deception. It's the intentional distortion while claiming authenticity that is hypocrisy.

July 29, 2015

New Book - Commitment and Controversy: Living in Two Worlds. Collected essays and blogs

I have been blogging for ten years to my "select" audience, on anything that tickled my fancy or felt appropriate in any week. Sometimes the blogs were theological, sometimes political, often historical, or even serendipitous. It wasn't always clear if I was flying a kite. Sometimes my readers thought I was angry, when I was just sad at the abuses of religion and the failures of leadership. My intention was to educate, to challenge, and to entertain. Sometimes I managed all three in one blog entry.

I was asked by my friend Joe Dwek to publish a collection of some of my blog posts. So, for those who enjoyed them, for those who didn't, for those who have not yet joined my list for weekly blog mailings, here's a pretty random sample of blogging on Jewish, secular, and social themes. I hope you enjoy at least some of them.

Commitment and Controversy: Living in Two Worlds. Collected essays and blogs

July 23, 2015

Bad Decisions

“Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana was not referring to Israel, but he might have been. When all is said and done, the fast of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of Av, is a fast that symbolizes and commemorates bad decisions. The Israelites were always very good at that. The wonder is that they survived at all.

We managed to alienate world powers time and again. Two-and-half thousand years ago and down to the establishment of Christianity and Islam, religion was not so much a matter of faith, but rather of politics.

Cyrus of Persia, in his famous stele, was happy to accept and support all and every religion practiced in his empire, so long as he was acknowledged as the supreme leader. So was Alexander the Great. He and the Roman emperors after him happily sent sacrifices up to Jerusalem to please the locals, as they did everywhere else. What they expected in exchange was the acceptance of their hegemony politically. Only the intolerance of Christianity and Islam, who insisted that they alone were the sole possessors of theological truth, forced conversions and religious martyrdom (and all that nonsense) on others.

So when Egypt, the world power to the south, wanted to pass through on its way to fighting the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, it expected Israel to be its ally. Similarly Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, on their way south against Egypt or west against Greece, weren’t interested in religious issues. Every time little Israel happened to straddle the main routes, north and south or east and west, between the rival powers, and virtually every time the Israelite leaders backed the wrong guy and got beaten up. Isn’t it ironic that about the only time we got it right was when most of us identified with Persia (but that, of course, was prior to Shia Islam).

We pride ourselves in our history that we fought for our religion to keep it alive. But in fact almost all our battles, directly or indirectly, effectively undermined our religion instead. Sometimes treaties are more effective than wars. Or as the Charedi world loves to say, we are better off relying on God. Which might be true in abstraction but is no way to save ones life.

I cannot tell if this treaty with Iran will prove to be the disaster that logic and its opponents claim it to be. I certainly would not trust the ayatollahs or the Revolutionary Guards or the Basij further than I could smell them. But tell me, pray, which politicians do you trust? If you were in the Middle East now, is there a devil you know and prefer? Is there anyone there you would trust?

Who would have thought Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia would be on our side? Israel has been surviving surrounded by maniacal enemies of all kinds without and within. It has done so in part because of its own determination to survive but also because it has established alliances and made friends. It has been nimble. Friends have come and gone all the time. Russia and Czechoslovakia helped Israel once, when the USA refused. France provided military and atomic assistance once. America only began to stand up for Israel during and after the Yom Kipur war. India, for the first time, is an ally. And who knows where Russia and China will stand in the future? The USA is now saying it might not support Israel any more in the UN, where Canada (and Micronesia) and occasionally the Czech Republic are the only ones Israel can rely on.

I am not as worried as some are about this deal Obama is so desperate for. He has his calculations too and reigning in ISIL is one of them. But I do worry like mad that the Israeli government will do something really silly and alienate the wrong people. Israel might like to think it can go it alone, but it can’t. It needs supplies and arms. I am not worried about the braying asses who want to delegitimize and boycott. I'd rather be in control of my own destiny than worry about trying to win over people who are too prejudiced to be won over and think Israel is the devil incarnate and Hamas and Hezbollah are warm, fuzzy teddy bears.

This is why Tisha B’Av is so important to me. It is not so much about a building or a city that was burnt to the ground twice in 600 years. It's more the lesson of the past. That those terrible things did not have to happen and would not have happened had we only made the right decisions.

You remember the famous story of the Talmud, where Rabbi Akiva and his friends were walking in the rubble of the Temple, and his friends were crying but Akiva was smiling. When they asked him why, he said, “Because just as our downfall was predicted, so too was our return in triumph.” And lo and behold he went and backed the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome that set us back two thousand years.

Nevertheless Tisha B’Av reminds us that despite the worst of decisions, we can survive them. Great rabbis and great politicians have both made disastrous decisions. I will fast long and hard in the hope that in our generation the lessons of history will be learnt! This is a fast about second chances.

July 16, 2015

Napoleon

A few weeks ago we had the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, the one which finally ended Napoleon’s career. My history teacher made us read Pieter Geyl’s “Napoleon For and Against”, which illustrated the two opposing opinions as to whether Napoleon was good or bad, and I learnt you do not always have to decide one way or the other. The issue remains controversial to this day. Beethoven had dedicated his Eroica symphony to him, but when Napoleon declared himself emperor, he tore off the sheet he had inscribed “To Buonaparte”, saying, “He is no more than a common mortal. Now he too will trample underfoot the rights of man, indulge only his ambition.”

We Jews are divided, too. The Eastern European rabbinate feared Napoleon would bring freedom and that freedom would lead to assimilation. So, like those World War II rabbis who told their flocks it would be better to stay in Eastern Europe than try to escape to Palestine or the USA for fear of losing their religion, they put doctrine over life. The founder of Chabad Chassidism instructed his followers to pray for Napoleons’s downfall, because he thought that suffering anti-Semitism under the Czar was a preferable fate to freedom under Napoleon. Just as the Satmar Rebbe told his followers to stay in Hungary rather than try escape the Nazis (which he did when Kastner gave him the opportunity).

More enlightened Jews applauded Napoleon because he insisted wherever he went that Jews be given equal rights. They condemned all those countries that allied to defeat him when they rescinded Jewish rights after his downfall. Britain couldn't rescind them because she had not even given them. And Wellington, the victor, was a guttersnipe of an anti-Semite.

Napoleon convened the Sanhedrin of Jewish notables to promise them everything as citizens but nothing as a people. He did indeed hope for Jewish assimilation, as he hoped to get rid of Nationalism and dismantle the petty rivalries, hatreds, and pathologies of the European states. Had he succeeded in blocking nationalism, the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust (and some argue even Zionism) might not have happened.

It is for his dream of a united Europe that the EU still has a soft spot for him. Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador to the UK, recently claimed that were he alive today Napoleon would have fought for the preservation of the EU, since he was driven by the dream of a “united Europe”. I think he’d have been appalled by the incompetence of the EU. So too does Simon Schama in a recent article in the Financial Times:
“. . .if your idea of a united Europe is the wholly owned subsidiary of a militarist dynasty, with its brothers and sundry marshals on its thrones; a vast autocratic empire run by bureaucrats and from barracks, all financed by “indemnities” laid on the conquered as the bill for their own “liberation”; your masterpieces — Rubens, Veronese, Titian — hauled off to the Louvre in Paris, the only city fit to be the culture capital of the world; your manpower marched off to some godforsaken calamity…

When he came to power his police and spies were everywhere, deadening cultural life in Paris. Theatres were shut the minute they dared to perform anything that could be construed as critical of the regime. Napoleonic Paris was a showplace for grandiose architecture but the cemetery of independently conceived art and ideas…

In 1802 Napoleon reinstated slavery; two years later he liquidated divorce by mutual consent. The Civil Code made wives more the prisoners of their husbands than in the old regime. They no longer had any right to their property in marriage and had to ask their husbands’ permission to take the stand in legal proceedings. He re-established the Catholic Church and fawned on any of the old aristocracy willing to “rally” to its autocracy.”
Leaving out the preposterous idea that Napoleon would have approved of the bureaucratic sclerosis and incompetence of the EU, the question of course is not whether he was anywhere near perfect, or whether he was a nepotistic oligarch or not. Of course he was. But Simon Schama ignores his own famous book “Citizens” in which he describes how catastrophic the Revolution was for France before Napoleon. And post Napoleonic France was pretty disastrous too.

Power corrupts and all dictators end up destroying themselves or their countries. Most politicians in so-called democracies are corrupt and self-serving whenever they can get away with it. The alternatives after his fall were even more evil. Every one of those societies he had tried to reform was riddled with the disease of anti-Semitism, which in the end always consumed those it infected, and they were unable to cure themselves.

But he had a grand vision, and I admired him for that, even if he overreached. Europe too has a grand vision, but had it focused just on its more modest aims it would not be in the mess it is in today politically and financially, or at the mercy of human traffickers. It has allowed a typically grand French design that is manifestly unworkable to overreach, as Napoleon did, and all but bring it crashing down. You can’t paper over fundamental differences with incompetence and grand slogans and hope to deal with the details later. Just as you can’t ignore major problems like immigration and hope it will take care of itself harmlessly.

The truth is the issue then and now is a fundamental clash between the French centralized great idea and the pragmatic, realistic approach of that old Anglo-Scottish concept of utilitarianism. Which is why France is such a bloody mess today. Both methods are as inadequate or incomplete as all ideologies. But given a choice, I still prefer the Anglo-Saxon. I loved Napoleon’s grand idea. But it was Wellington’s successors who stood up to fascism and Marxism and kept democracy alive in Europe. Like religion, the ideas may be great, but you can bet that people will make a mess of it.

July 09, 2015

Divine Supervision

I have always felt that in a democracy it should not be the role of a state to impose personal religious practices on its citizens. Any state bureaucracy tends to become corrupt and atrophies. Its employees become pen-pushers, placeholders concerned with protecting their positions, perks, and powers. So it is with religious bureaucracies like the Vatican. One sees this too in Israel, where the Chief Rabbinate has become a byword for corruption, incompetence, politics, and alienation.

All Israelis are forced into the clutches of their religious authorities because Christian, Jew, and Muslim can only get married religiously. Often one is forced to have one’s wedding performed by a clergyman whom one dislikes, despises, or finds irrelevant. Many Israelis go abroad to marry, because although there is no civil marriage in Israel, itself, it does recognize such marriages contracted abroad.

The handing of personal status to the rabbinate was part of Ben Gurion’s concordat with the religious parties when he came to power. He felt that this would preserve the unity of the people and underpin the state. In theory he was right. The state should support its traditional religious identity in public, to buttress its religious institutions and educational facilities. But he was wrong in thinking that compulsion was the way to do it.

Many countries support and give priority to their religious infrastructure without making it obligatory on its citizens. Friends tell me that if Israel were to allow civil marriages or disestablish the Chief Rabbinate, religious life would collapse. What nonsense. It hasn't in the USA, where affiliation is voluntary. Britain supports most religions and their schools without imposition. And throughout the Jewish world Jews are free to choose to affiliate or not.

The argument goes that without a state rabbinate one would not know who counts as Jewish or not. But that's no different than the diaspora, where if you want to marry in an Orthodox synagogue or send your children to an Orthodox school the onus is on the individual to either justify his pedigree or put things right through conversion. Some do, many do not, but it hasn’t stopped Orthodox institutions from thriving. Besides there are many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who don't accept the state rabbinate anyway.

Anyway other religious authorities have proliferated purely voluntarily and on the basis of commercial or sectarian criteria. Meanwhile the Chief Rabbinate fights back and makes a fool of itself trying to blackball other Orthodox rabbis it does not agree with.

Kashrut supervision in Israel in general is notoriously corrupt and unreliable. Supervisors are paid by establishment owners, and therefore are inclined to accommodate their paymasters rather than their religious principles, turning blind eyes. They are casual supervisors, supposed to regularly drop by to check but rarely do. They sit and study (or play chess) and collect their checks. They have no interest in hygiene or training staff. Yet the system requires them because many Israelis and tourists like to have kosher food, so hotels and restaurants for commercial necessity need to have certification. Kosher certification is controlled by law, and therefore no one can claim to be kosher, even if they are, without the rabbinate’s approval.

The same can be said of conversions. The system is chaotic, unfair and not working. The Chief Rabbinate argues that it must uphold tradition and the law, and that the road to hell and assimilation is paved with good, lenient intentions. But the question surely is whether the standards they apply are those the Talmud refers to as that which “most of the community can stand by”.

There was a time in the sixties when the Chief Rabbinate and its rabbis were dominated by the more openminded nationalist rabbinate, which was much more moderate. Over time they have been pushed out as more Charedi rabbis take over the well paying jobs with perks. Instead of it becoming more tolerant and openminded, it is getting more rigid. There are exceptions and some remarkably human, tolerant rabbis in the rabbinate. But they are becoming increasingly Khomeini-ized!

This has led to several grassroots movements. The most famous is TZOHAR, a group of rabbis eager to show the humane, tolerant, and moderate face of the rabbinate. Another is the new organization Hashgacha Pratit. Its name is a pun on the term usually used for Divine Protection. The same words can mean what it stands for: Private Supervision.

It is the baby of Rav Aaron Leibowitz, and it is a community-based kashrut project. Rav Aaron is also on the Jerusalem City Council, as well as the diverse Sulam Yaakov community in Nachlaot, where Sfardi, Ashkanazi, Yemenite, Chassidish, religious and non-religious residents live, work, and thrive.

Rav Aaron set up an organization that sends supervisors into catering establishments to create a personal and cooperative relationship with owners to provide certification of social trust and reliability. This includes supervision of food, ethical working conditions, and a guarantee of hygiene. It pays its supervisors rather than the owners. It is gaining more and more support from those who are dissatisfied with the Rabbinate. And it has defended itself in court against attempts by the Rabbinate to shut it down.

Rav Aaron knows he cannot change or replace set the Chief Rabbinate. He simply hopes that over time people will see the validity of his approach and pressure the Knesset for change. I admire him and urge you to support his organization.

Sadly, I see no chance of things changing because the left-wing, secular parties seem so removed from the populace that there is little chance of their gaining the power in the Knesset needed to reform the system. Just this week the Netanyahu cabinet overturned the decision of the previous government to break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on conversions. A bill which allowed local rabbis to perform conversions has been rescinded because Netanyahu needs the votes of Charedi parties. Heck, I didn’t like him before, I like him even less now, even if we all know how dirty all politics is.

I have an academic friend whom I admire. He was too left-wing for Bar Ilan University when he taught there and is too right-wing for Ben Gurion University where he teaches now. He tells me that in regard to the Rabbinate he is a revolutionary. Chipping away will not work. He just wants to bring the whole state religious edifice down and split off State from Religion.

Perhaps he is right. But in the meantime, I still think we should support men like Rav Leibowitz as well as TZOHAR and Rav Daniel Sperber—anyone who has the guts to stand up for the moderation they believe in and represent Judaism as a spiritual institution, rather a bureaucratic money machine.

July 02, 2015

Christians in Zion

Recent reports that some Charedi Jews disrupted a Christian mass on Mount Zion really upset me. When insensitive bullies who dress as and proclaim their obedience to Judaism treat Christians disrespectfully, especially those wishing to worship, they themselves are proving how far they fall short of Jewish values.

The Jerusalem Post reported that "hundreds of Jewish protesters sought on Sunday to prevent a group of Greek Orthodox Christians from entering the complex housing the sites where Jewish tradition says lies the tomb of King David and Christian tradition holds is the site of Jesus’s last supper." The site has been controlled by Christians for generations. Fortunately the police arrived and ushered the worshippers through the mob.

To make matters worse, an ancient church in the Galilee was vandalized. I am glad the Israeli leadership condemned the crime and many offers of help and repair rolled in from Jews. Had the perpetrators been Arabs, I have no doubt they would have been caught. But for some reason the police do not seem too bothered about Jewish vandalism.

I understand that there are sill a lot of Jews whose experiences of several Christian denominations has been colored not just by centuries of abuse but specifically by their experiences during World War II (there were, of course, some notable and noble exceptions). Such depth of feeling is difficult to eradicate, and it often gets transmitted on to the next generation.

The Catholic Church in particular has changed dramatically in my lifetime, radically transforming itself to become the most sympathetic and warm to Jews of all the churches. And many, mainly evangelical, Protestants revere Jews as the Chosen People.

The churches in Israel have always had to walk a tightrope in protecting physical assets and their presence in the Holy Land. This has inevitably put them in a very difficult position in regard to the Israel-Arab conflict. Some of the churches in Israel have been guilty of stirring up hatred and anti-Semitism at home and abroad. On the Jewish side a handful of religious louts have always tended to behave despicably to passing peaceful pastors and nice neutral nuns, usually claiming that they have been guilty of missionary activity. I completely and unreservedly condemn such loutish behavior as a desecration of God and religion. We Jews ought to be doing our best to try to get along with others who wish us no harm, wherever we interact, and all the more so in what we too call the Holy Land.

Differences of theology are for theologians. Judaism has always taken the position that where other religions have a moral code, adhere to the principles of the Seven Noachide Laws, their faithful are regarded as pious and beloved of the Almighty. We do not believe that everyone must become Jewish to fulfill themselves religiously. How others choose to worship and what they believe is their business.

In 1958 my father, with amazing foresight, packed me off to Jerusalem to get some Jewish inspiration. In the intimate Jerusalem of those days you would bump into the political and religious elite simply walking around Rehavia on a Shabbat morning. Amongst those I met, and who kindly offered hospitality, was Dr. Kahana, Director General of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He loved to regale his Shabbat guests with how he would hike around the Galil discovering the graves of great rabbis of the past. And when he was challenged as to the authenticity of his identifications, he brushed aside any objections on the grounds that it was good for national heritage, not to mention the tourist industry.

One of his favorite projects was what he called Mount Zion, a modest hillock to the south of the Old City, which had been occupied by the Jordanian Legion since the Jewish population had suffered massacre or expulsion in 1948. A wall divided the city—this one built by Jordanians. What is called Mount Zion survived the war in Jewish possession. There once stood a Byzantine Church built in 5th century, after it was claimed to be the site of the Last Supper. It became one of the earliest gathering spots for early Christians. Its present building is an early 20th century monstrosity. And to its south were some nondescript buildings. The12th century Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela had heard it said that King David was buried there, in a sarcophagus in one of the rooms of the church.

Since the real Mount Zion, the Temple, was in Arab hands, Kahana was anxious to find some substitute holy site on the Jewish side. So he decided to publicize this location as the burial place of King David even if Kind David’s Jerusalem was down in Silwan and there was no indication that this had ever been a burial ground, certainly not a royal one, there were no bones left in the sarcophagus anyway. And so it was. Busloads of tourists would make the pilgrimage to this most ersatz of holy sites, suitably and artificially charred with candle smoke and grease to give this most unlikely of sites the patina of ancient holiness.

I was never a fan of relics or of pilgrimages to graves, and to me the whole project was a joke. After 1967, when the Old City was opened up to Jews and we could visit the genuine location of Mount Zion, Kahana’s site lost its raison d’etre. For a while he transformed into a Holocaust museum, but of course Yad Vashem left it in the shade. The buildings were handed over to the Diaspora Yeshiva, which made a name for itself as the first place ex-hippies could come to study Talmud and smoke hashish at the same time. No one bothers with it much nowadays.

Several times a year, Christian pilgrims come to the cenacle near the Dormition to say mass, in a deal agreed on high (government, of course). Credulous folk, they really do believe this was the location of the Last Supper. There is no end to the absurdity of what people of all faiths will believe, then or now. But why not leave them be? They are not harming anyone.

I can only explain the behavior of those ultra-Orthodox yahoos as a fit of religious paranoia—unless of course it was drug induced. King David would have known how to deal with them!


June 25, 2015

Shame

The HBO series “Game of Thrones” is set somewhere in a mythical medieval past and is based on a series of fantasies by author George R. R. Martin. It is immensely popular because it is saturated with rivalry, incest, rape, murder, torture, sex, violence, dynastic power, religion, magic, and, of course, dragons. Not something a normal parent would want any of his children to see. The finale of this season introduced a novel idea: shame.

Cersei Lannister is arguably the most evil character in a cast of the most evil characters you have ever seen. She is the incestuous, wicked queen, the daughter of an evil father, who fights without any scruple to ensure that her children, conceived with her brother, keep control of the Iron Throne. There is no imaginable evil she has not perpetrated, no moral boundary she has not transgressed, and for awhile we thought her end had thankfully come when a new reformist religious movement threw her in jail for refusing to admit her guilt.

Ever scheming and devious, the only way she can escape is when she finally pulls the wool over the holy man’s eyes and confesses a minor infraction while barefacedly continuing to deny the major. She is allowed to return to the sanctuary of her palace provided she accepts her penance, which is a long, nude walk of shame through the streets of the city accompanied by a nun-like figure who rings a bell and cries out “shame” every few yards.

Pelted with refuse, her feet bleeding, Cersei finally makes it through the derisive throngs to the palace, where she finds sanctuary. One almost begins to feel a measure of sympathy for her. But, safely in the arms of a new champion, she casts a malignant eye on the people who have abused her. The clear message is that revenge is going to be awesomely cruel and swift. Cersei has no shame. She is incapable of it. She might be embarrassed and humiliated, but there is not an iota of shame. But then, what is shame?

Now let’s switch from the pagan to Torah. If you study the daily page of the Talmud (you can’t really study a page of Talmud a day, but you can read it), you know that we have recently read in Masechet Nedarim about the idea of shame, or perhaps embarrassment, using the words “busha” or “boshet panim". Panim is the Biblical Hebrew word for face. But it is plural word—“faces”—as if to tell us that we all put on different faces in different situations.

The Talmud says, basing itself on a sentence in Exodus, “From here we learn that shame helps a person to be wary of sinning, which is why they (the rabbis) said that shame (busha) is a good quality in a person. Others say whosoever is embarrassed (mitbayesh) will not easily sin, and whoever does not get embarrassed (boshet panim) you can be certain his forefathers were not standing at Sinai” (Nedarim 20a).

Same words, but three different uses. Are these merely local usages, or do they signify differences? In English, embarrassment might simply be a matter of conditioning. Blushing may just be a physical reaction, with no reference to morality at all. So “Have you no shame?” could as well be a moral judgment as it could simply be a matter of etiquette. There are expectations and expectations. I do not think the Talmud is concerned here with simply physical responses or matters of social expectations. They were not worried about turning up to the hunt in the wrong colored jacket, for example.

You might think that “boshet panim”, shame or embarrassment of the face, could be a human response to others, like blushing, or because one is found out. Whereas simple “busha” is before God or one’s conscience. Similarly, the English word “shame” might have two usages—before others, as opposed to before God. In which case Cersei had the first but not the second.

But the truth is that the Talmud makes no such distinction. The term “boshet panim” is used in these additional cases. Moses begs God not to destroy the Children of Israel but to keep him alive after the Golden Calf. He says, “Please do not shame me in the face of my forefathers.” Jerusalem was destroyed because the people had no shame. An ignoramus has no shame when he has intercourse. All very different kinds of situations.

What I derive from this is that there are correct ways of behaving towards other people and incorrect ones. If one is sensitive, then one will regret one’s insensitivity. If one is religious, one will regret behaving in an irreligious way. If one is moral, one will regret behaving in an immoral way. But if, like Cersei, one regrets nothing, then a walk of shame cannot succeed in bringing about change. It only deepens the ill will.

Shame indeed has two ingredients: shame for the act itself and shame for the response of others. The Talmud is telling us that we should have shame for betraying God and our values, first and foremost. Shame or embarrassment in the face of others may well be a necessary condition of socialization, but it is secondary.

There is one other example of this idea that one needs to have a sense shame to be fully part of the Jewish people. That is in Talmud Beitzah 32b, where it says that anyone who is not merciful towards humanity (please note, not only to fellow Jews) cannot possibly be a descendant of Avraham our father.

These two are what we might call the spirit of Judaism rather than just the letter. Which is why if you only have time for one of the two sources for this homily, go study Torah first.