September 18, 2014

Who, me?

Another year has gone by.

When I was young there was a popular folk, student song that referred to a Kentucky coal miner during the Depression. The refrain went “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call me, ‘cause I cant go. I owe my soul to the company store.” I guess it was a “those days” version of rap. But the fact is that for many of us it is a very appropriate chorus this time of the year. Another year older and what have we got?

You might accuse me of being unduly cynical and world-weary. But I remember in my first, let’s call it “little” yeshivah, youngsters who prayed and cried and shook and swayed with the utmost fervor over the Holy Days, or more accurately the Days of Awe. Looking at them you might have thought they carried the weight of the world on their little prepubescent shoulders and were actual saints in pious fear of Heaven. But the moment the Gates were closed and we leapt from awe to joy, they were just as mean and nasty as they were before. Later when I saw this all repeated at the “big” yeshivahs I attended, I realized the little ones were just aping the big ones, who were aping their parents, who had aped theirs.

I know I should not generalize. There are wonderful, genuine saints around, albeit few and far between, and usually anonymous because those who crave attention are rarely saints. But over the years, regardless of community or synagogue or ethnicity or degree of religiosity, all the good intentions seem to fly out the window. After the awesome days of introspection and determination to improve almost everyone returns to old habits, learned patterns of behavior, and characteristics. That's human nature. Human nature is made up of different elements and drives. Some are better, some worse. The whole of our lives are lived shuttling and rebounding between the two extremes. I don't say a person cannot change. But only a minority does. It’s rare. That's why successful relationships depend on accepting the other as she or he is, in working with the material rather than expecting that one will change the other.

In theory this is the same for the big, wide world outside. Last year this time I had a sort of fear list that revolved around Iran getting the bomb and drop it on Israel. But I did not imagine Russian imperialism, another war in Gaza, that anti-Semitism would rise up again around the world, that religious fanatics would spread and impose their sick and evil mental diseases on others, that nationalism would increase, that sicknesses and epidemics would explode around the world. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly Muslim, risked death to reach Europe. Hondurans fled to America. Economies struggled. All bad stuff. But world poverty receded, world health improved, and some countries and religions actually did learn to get on better with others and not find scapegoats to cover their abysmal failures.

I live in two worlds: a Jewish world and a secular one. In my Jewish world the rabbinical pursuit of power continued, the idiotic attempts to impose excessive religious standards increased in the Diaspora and in Israel. In Israel politics continued to weave its corrupt web from the top down. Society is split and divided. Offering and taking bribes or going to jail seems to be the new norm. But there is another side. The increase in the number of ethically animated schools and yeshivot, the increase in charitable work and giving to offset the reduction in government handouts, the persevering attempts to reach out to the other side. The continuing growth of scholarship, research, and achievement, despite the military burden. All these things are heartening and bode well for the future. And Israel, for all its complexities, contradictions, absurdities, and frustrations is growing stronger and better and more successful. But yes, we Jews always want more and better.

In the USA, this year has brought the continuing failure to reform taxation, immigration, and financial regulation, political gerrymandering, and incredible government waste and incompetence. If you think Israeli politics is corrupt, try looking at the American system, where big money can now give as much as it wants to politicians through crazy but legal mechanisms. And there were race riots in Ferguson. If the USA, after hundreds of years and with untold wealth, hasn't dealt with its social and communal issues, why are we surprised that Israel is not doing a good enough job with its Jewish and Arab minorities? As for Great Britain, the United Kingdom, despite the Queen, it is neither great nor united. And France is the sick man of Europe. So wherever you look you can see massive problems that are neither being dealt with nor solved.

But yes, we Jews like to navel gaze and wonder what’s wrong and be self-critical. In truth we must. That is part of our tradition, and that is what the coming “Days of Awe” institutionalize. We are puny things, we humans. We have no idea what this year or any year will bring. Or when any one of us might be struck down by a bullet or disease. The currents of history ebb and flow around us as we speak and we cannot know what will happen until it has happened.

We should not despair. Even if we cannot change society, the world, or even our partners, we must at least try to change ourselves in however small a way, because something is always better than nothing. So please don't look at your neighbor in the synagogue and think what a corrupt, nasty hypocrite he or she is. He or she may well be. But your task is to make sure everyone else doesn’t think the same about you! Don't focus on the negative things, the bad people, and the deformed ideas. Just think of the good and how fortunate we are that, in some measure, our destiny is in our hands too.

As the Talmud says, “The universe runs according to its own rules.” But we humans can run a long way according to ours.

Shanah Tovah.

September 11, 2014

Repentance

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

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

The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” is used in the Torah with regard to God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffers exile. It is not used as we do today to mean personal repentance. That doesn’t mean there is no such concept in the Torah, but it is implicit rather than explicit (now there’s a linguistic distinction too many people are ignorant of nowadays).

The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the same root as the name of Yom Kipur. The Torah requires a process of confession, Vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest or other person, but directly to God. And in true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. That completed and any restitution effected, forgiveness is effected. There is some debate then as to why one also needs a Yom Kipur, be it for individuals, serious crimes, or the community. Maimonides adds a rider: Only when one finds oneself in exactly the same position as one was when one did wrong and with the capacity to do it again, but this time one desists, can one then be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor.

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

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

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

The idea of “fearing sin” plays an important part in rabbinic literature. But is this anything more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the lookout, and sensitive to possible mistakes?

Judaism does not have a concept of “Original Sin”. It is usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for the extreme Mussar self-denialists). Certainly not in the Christian sense of believing that humanity is born naturally evil and can only be redeemed by faith (specifically in Christian dogma).

We do have the idea that Adam’s (emblematic) sin in the Garden of Eden changed the course of human history. This is often referred to in the Talmud. However, I understand this only to mean that the recurring tendency to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism, are features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.

In theory the most evil jihadi throat-slitter has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashana, instead of weighing ourselves down with our own relatively minor mistakes, which we can decide to do every morning when we pray and meditate on our actions. Instead of that, when we come to a public festival like Rosh Hashana, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” So let us pray for all the sad human beings, all the evil people in this world who are involved destruction, and hope they might see the light. Gosh, I love optimism!

September 04, 2014

Da’at Torah

You cannot understand Orthodox Judaism today without coming to grips with the concept of Da’at Torah. Da’at Torah literally means a “Torah Opinion”, and it was originally used to refer to a legal opinion that fell within the framework of Jewish law. Much, much later it came to mean the only authentic religious position in Judaism. Later still it mutated into that position officially endorsed by “the Council of Great Rabbis” without of course specifying who those rabbis might be. Since nowadays there is so much disagreement as to who actually is a Great Rabbi, it now means “whatever position MY ‘Great Rabbi’ endorses”. So we have been treated to a series of examples where one “Great Rabbi” says, “Vote for this party,” and another “Great Rabbi says, “Vote for that party.” For those in the middle or following a third “Great Rabbi”, this is rather confusing.

Da’at Torah is an ideology that emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century in response to the challenge of assimilation, Reform, and Zionism. It is as near as you can get to the Catholic dogma of Papal Infallibility (itself a nineteenth century response to challenge). Over the past century it has been constantly modified and tweaked to the point where it has become the defining distinction between Ultra/Charedi and every other brand of Orthodoxy. For those of you interested in understanding more, I refer you to a brilliant analysis by Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University. It is serious reading.

Da’at Torah is an interesting expression of an idea that is more political than religious. Of course there has always been a tradition of following religious authority. You can find its origin in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 17:8-10: “If there is something you do not understand in Jewish law, a disagreement between people or a conflict within your gates…you shall take it to the priests or the judges whoever is the authority at that time, and you shall do as they tell you in accordance with Jewish Law,” etc. Throughout the Talmudic period there were mechanisms of authority, processes of decision making. These have continued to this day through the medium of responsa, published learned legal opinions. Such mechanisms have always allowed for differing opinions, as there have always been on matters of politics, civilization, and personal choices.

Post-Talmudic Judaism has developed into different traditions based in locations, influenced by host nations and intellectual trends, sometimes mystical and sometimes rational. Nevertheless, the constitutional integrity and continuity of the halachic process has been what has kept the common core and link between these different religious communities and sects, as one sees most vividly in Israel today.

The author of the handbook of Jewish Law, the “Shulchan Aruch”, said in his introduction that the purpose of his book was to enable the average Jew to know what to do and only have to resort to a rabbi where he did not have the information. The dogma that one had to go to a rabbi or a kabbalist to answer all and every matter of one’s personal life is a recent development that owes as much to the Chasidic concept of the rebbe as the tzaddik (the saintly man with a hotline to Heaven) as it has to do with traditional or Talmudic sources.

Of course some people are on a higher spiritual level, some more knowledgeable, and some more talented in understanding human nature. But that is not the same as saying one is obliged to go to a rabbi for every issue and that one is bound to adhere to his advice.

This dependence on rabbinic authority was tested during the run up to the Holocaust, when many Eastern European Great Rabbis told their followers to stay put rather than to flee into the jaws of American materialists or Zionist heretics. Yet many rabbis who told others to stay, got out, themselves, and were worshipped nevertheless. Which only goes to show that devotion has nothing to do with logic or history, but is an act of faith. No evidence can ever dissuade someone who chooses to believe. That is both the strength and the weakness of faith.

In a world where money and power are dependent on votes, leaders of religious communities, like political parties, know they must keep the faithful loyal so that they can produce a voting bloc at election time. This is why politicians in Israel and the USA go out of their way to court “Great Rabbis”; they want their votes. So the concept of inerrancy becomes a mechanism of control and political power. That is why the rabbis I respect most are precisely those who refuse to use such power, morally, fiscally, or politically.

Once such a phenomenon characterized Chasidic courts and kabbalist miracle workers. But now even the Lithuanian Yeshivish community mimics the Chasidim because they have realized the cost-benefit factor. It is a sad moment for Judaism as a spiritual tradition, as opposed to a social one.

As Prof. Brown illustrates, this ideology is beginning to fray. The Council of Sages is no longer effective. More and more followers are refuse to abide by such features of Da’at Torah as refusing secular education, refusing to serve in the Israeli army, and banning the internet and smartphones. Much of what Da’at Torah objects to may be justified. Secular culture is increasingly destructive, corrosive, and morally ambiguous. But the answer is not to imitate Catholicism, for as we know it hasn’t succeeded. The answer is to follow the great tradition of “Both can be the words of God” (TB Eruvin 13b). There can be differing conclusions within the parameters of Jewish law.

The Great and the Good have the expertise and scholarship. I believe such expertise and scholarship should be respected and deferred to. But nowadays “Great Rabbis” have such carapaces of assistants, secretaries, bodyguards, gatekeepers, and fixers that it is impossible to know what actual message gets through to them and what they actually said in response. It’s like Chinese Whispers both ways.

Thanks to the internet and computer technology with massive databases, we can all get access to the facts with a basic yeshiva education. It’s how one uses those facts that should define a Great Rabbi, rather than simply regurgitating the information. In an ideal world, that is what should define Da’at Torah.

Da’at Torah has developed into a positive theological political ideology. Ironically it is almost identical to Ayatollah Khomeini’s way of thinking. Benjamin Brown’s paper is a major achievement in giving the concept of Da’at Torah a historical and political context and showing why it is in danger of undermining itself.

August 28, 2014

Prejudice

I am prejudiced. No doubt about that. My level of prejudice, of course, varies according to the criteria. I am prejudiced in general against all loud-mouthed aggressive human beings. But that is very different to my prejudice against anyone expresses anti-Jewish sentiments. I am prejudiced against people of any color or faith who do not obey the law of the land. I am prejudiced against fanatics and anyone who wants to impose his religion or views on others. To repeat a cliché I am intolerant of intolerance.

Even so, I try very hard to overcome such prejudices when I meet someone, regardless of appearance or loyalty, because I know that one should not judge a book by its cover, a man by his dress (though Shakespeare’s Polonius thinks I should) or a woman by her plastic surgeon. Above all I do not believe in being rude or unkind, and certainly not offensive or aggressive towards people I disagree with and may be prejudiced against. Despite my recognizing certain prejudices, I work hard to ensure they do not affect the way I interact with others until more information either confirms or removes the preconceived mindset. If my prejudice turns out to be valid, then I just walk away.

Prejudice usually means something more than just feeling one wants to avoid certain people. Prejudice has come to involve not just hate-crimes and abuse, but preventing people getting jobs, renting homes, or even entering certain places. In free western countries the law bans such prejudicial actions and behavior. In some countries the law reinforces them. Laws of course cannot control people’s thoughts or choices of company or where they choose to buy a house. Equally so, prejudice does not depend on where we live. Some of the most tolerant human beings I have met live in closed societies and some of the most intolerant live in open ones.

We can think nasty thoughts about others, but in general the law of the land forbids translating such thoughts into actions. Sadly enforcement is weak, almost everywhere. One should not be able to intimidate those one disagrees with though in practice this happens all the time in the so called free Western World and even in Universities supposedly paragons of open intellectual debate.

The current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black man (regardless of whether he was a saint or a sinner) was shot dead by white police, illustrates the overlap between prejudice with cause and prejudice without (though I might add that I believe just as much a problem is a society where guns are so tolerated and encouraged). Prejudice against blacks simply because of skin pigmentation is as ridiculous as prejudice against someone because he is ugly or her hair is red. On the other hand, prejudice against people who seem threatening or dangerous is just a protective mechanism. It might just be self-defense.

One of our biggest problems now is a tendency to feel that most if not all Muslims are ill-disposed towards Jews. Even if in the past many Jews had good experiences with their Muslim neighbors. But look at how much hatred and murder there is between Sunni and Shia! Singling out Israel say the apologists is just because of Israel’s actions. But if the issue were just the dead, one would expect equal anger at Muslims killing Muslims. Is it because Israel is seen as a competing culture in the culture wars? Perhaps it is linked to the fact that until relatively recently Muslims were one of the most powerful groups, and they lived almost exclusively under Muslim rulers. Now they see the Imperial West as humiliating them, and Israel is identified with the imperialists (regardless of the fact that most Israelis originated in Muslim lands and identify with Arab culture).

If Muslim anti-Semitism is the major single cause of anti -Semitism around the world, fascism is not dead either. The Jobbik party in Hungary is violently anti-Semitic. So are skinheads in Germany. As is the left--how strange that it identifies with a fundamentalist, anti-humanist, anti-feminist, and anti-egalitarian brand of religion. But then it was a principle in Marxism that you could ally yourself with anyone if it helped your cause.

I grew up in a Britain, where anti-Semitism was common. It was lurking beneath the surface, but it was never as overt, as public or as threatening as it is now. But now even in New York we have seen thugs carrying Palestinian flags attacking Jews. So when I see a skinhead, or when I see a Muslim, should I not now assume the worst until I know differently? Should I not run for cover or cross over to the other side of the street? Or should I rather give humans the benefit of the doubt? And is that really prejudice?

Some of my Muslim correspondents can no longer speak to me civilly. But others still do rationally. Some have confessed that other Muslims, such as ISIS or Assad, are a far bigger danger than Israel, but they are reluctant to stand up against overwhelming public opinion. I know Muslims who do not hate me. But I am really worried that I am being dragged down into a cesspit of prejudice.

The Jewish answer is that although I must defend myself, I should try to judge each individual on his or her own merit. After all, on Rosh Hashanah we quote the Mishna that says that the Almighty evaluates every human being. Not all are found guilty! The Torah tells us to treat the stranger as one of us, even though the environment in which this was said was one of pagan hostility and a clash of cultures. But it is true this only applied where the stranger was willing to accept us and our moral code, not when he wanted to kill us or impose his laws instead.

A similar ambiguity occurs within the Jewish world. We have our full range of those for Judaism and Jews and those against or disaffected. Large numbers of young Jews with no firsthand experience of intolerance, expulsion, or insecurity, or of religious commitment, no longer see the need for a Jewish state or its right to defend itself. And I am very worried by the increasing prejudice I hear and see manifest in our own ranks against Muslims and Christians. “The goyim all hate us.” Any Jew who expresses reservations about Israel is “self-hating”.

Prejudice towards “the other” seems almost to be an evolutionary natural state. The whole point of religious morality is to combat “naturalism”, the animal aspect of our nature, and to try one’s best to elevate the better. If others cannot, we must still try. We are all prejudiced in different ways. We must not let it dictate to us.

There are good people everywhere, and there are thinking, considerate humans even amongst those who we assume are our enemies. We must seek them out and try to make common cause with them, however few, frightened, or battered they may be.

August 21, 2014

Israelis & Palestinians

Let’s start with the obvious.

We are caught up again the violent dance of death between Israel and Palestine. On both sides there are fanatics and politicians who revel in aggressive talk and belligerency. As usual the ordinary person is held hostage by superior forces whether they agree with them or not. And as usual human suffering ensues. Uninformed world opinion takes simplistic sides, as if this were a tragedy that can be blamed entirely on one party or the other.

Shall we play the blame game? The original Jewish sin, some claim, was not the fact of Jews returning to the Holy Land. That had never ceased, though it waned when circumstances made it impractical. No, it was the Zionist desire for a Jewish state. Something granted to others without question. The original Arab sins were those who fought the Jewish presence, incited the Hebron massacre, and refused Abdullah’s vision to share or accept the UN partition.

The second sin was a war the Arab states declared on Israel in 1948 that the Jews dared to win. That was the Arab tragedy, the Nakba. But unlike with any other such conflict, the UN perpetuated it by accepting an armistice but not insisting on a peace treaty and defined borders.

Since then repeated defeats have always resulted in Arab depression, helplessness and the delusion that they might win next time. But there was no imposition of peace or decision on borders because the nations of the world had agendas of their own that let them off the hook.

The rise of bloodcurdling, throat-slitting Jihadi fanatics right across the Arab world has led to genuine fear that concessions would only open the doors to an ISIS or al-Qaeda 15 kilometers from Ben Gurion Airport. This fear has led to Israeli isolationism, the Masada complex, and a sense that no matter what they did they would never be able to rely on anyone else for their security. What we are seeing around the Middle East now only reinforces this survival instinct. But fear is a limiting pathology.

After the 1967 war, the Arabs on the West Bank welcomed the Israelis for freeing them from Hashemite sovereignty. But then the Israelis squandered that goodwill and subjected the West Bank to Israeli occupation. Does it matter that after 1967 the Arab world refused to negotiate? Which side was to blame? Only one, or both? But if no negotiations have resolved this issue over the past seventy years, what crazy logic lays all the blame at one door? If the most popular voice is one that calls for Israel’s total destruction, why should Israel not take such threats seriously and put its own safety first?

Does it matter that Israel decided to settle the West Bank? Does it make sense for Israel to insist on demilitarization? Yes, it does. But this doesn’t mean it cannot take steps to rethink the occupation. The stalemate is one of ongoing lukewarm war. One side feeling weak and unloved wants to use violence as a tool of change. The other uses violence as a tool of continuity.

There are insecurities on both sides; the fear of rockets if Hamas gains power in the West Bank (tunnels under the Knesset?); the awareness of the older Israeli generation that experienced homelessness and insecurity never to be without a safety net; the Palestinian desire to be in charge of its own destiny, and the desire of the refugees not go on being dependent on charity and used as pawns. There seems to me no way this is going to be resolved. The antagonism of the Muslim world, the Left, and the anti-Semites only strengthen a resolve not to take risks by making concessions.

This is not an Imperialist one, where interlopers come in, impose themselves, and then retreat. There is no going back to Poland, Ukraine, Ethiopia, or Iraq. Israel is a Jewish homeland in which there are non-Jewish inhabitants with rights and protections.

Genuine peace will require a Palestinian state to incorporate Jews as much as Israel does Arabs, Palestinian or other. And refugees will have to be compensated. But Palestinian refugees will no more come back to a Jewish state than Jewish refugees would want to go back to a Muslim state. Everyone knows this but still there is no agreement.

Any solution is is far, far away. I doubt it will be in my lifetime. So what do we do?

A wise Israeli government would find ways to make life more tolerable for Palestinians in Israel and on the West Bank. Greater freedom and investment (free from Fatah corruption) would strengthen moderate opinion. It will take generations until the bitter anti-Semitism of the Arab world will be modulated. But a start must be made.

So after all this negative introduction, I want to sing the praises of efforts and attempts to make life better now, in the present, without waiting for the politicians to find a solution.

The trouble with the media is that bad news is news, and good news is boring. Pushing old ladies off buses gets more coverage than helping old ladies on to buses.

We read a lot about nationalist extremists, street mobs, hashtag psychotics. But in Israel there is a great deal of bridge building--of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who try their best to reach out to try to heal.

Israel has a very powerful secular, left-wing population, many of whom go to extremes to counteract the Right or to fight for civil rights and justice. But just as many use interpersonal channels to try to achieve good. I know of large numbers of academics, clerics, professionals, and ordinary human beings across the spectrum who feel the pain and want to try to heal it. They know this is too important to be left up to politicians. There are examples too on the Palestinian side. I only wish there were more.

I am not going to take up time singing the praises or the limitations of each one of these randomly picked examples (there are many and possibly worthier), and I welcome suggestions that I will disseminate later. If you really care about the situation and want to try to do something about it, check these sites out and see which ones might appeal to you:

Hand In Hand

The Citizens' Accord Forum between Jews & Arabs in Israel

Merchavim

The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus

The Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development

Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations

The Jerusalem Intercultural Center

One Voice

Soccer Stars for Peace
(Also see this YNET article.)

Palestine-Israel Journal

Save a Child's Heart

And here’s a book (on Kindle too) by an Israeli Arab friend of mine, Dr. Maher Dabbah: A Promising Middle East

You won’t all agree with some of my suggestions but it’s up to you to do due diligence. Even if you just pick one, you can say you are doing something, however small, to try to make a bad situation better.

There are good caring people on both sides, and in the end that’s going to be the better way of ensuring long-term peace, if not in our lifetime then at least for our children. Let us not leave it up to the extremists.

August 14, 2014

The Land of Israel

The Jewish attitude to the Land of Israel is completely missing from the current mood of antagonism in both Western and Muslim society to Jewish history and culture. The Sabbatical year of 5775, which starts this Rosh Hashana, illustrates the depth and complexity of the issue.

Every seven years, says the Bible, one must leave one’s fields and orchards fallow and not cultivate plants, vegetables and fruit. No reason is given in the Bible. One can guess it was an agricultural preservative system, like the rotation of crops that began in the Middle East some 6,000 years ago. But one could equally argue it was an opportunity for national education, to refresh and reinforce one’s connection with Torah.

Nachmanides (1194-1270), living in Catalonia, said in his Biblical commentary that all Biblical laws were intended primarily to be adhered to in the Land of Israel. Beyond its borders, in exile, we keep them so as not to forget them, so that if we were ever able to reestablish a Jewish community in Israel we would know what to do and how. But everyone agrees the laws of Shmitah only apply within the inhabited Biblical boundaries. Not surprisingly, there is much debate as to whether the laws of Shmitah still apply, whether they depend on the defunct institution of the Jubilee, are of Torah obligation or now simply rabbinic, to keep the memory alive. So just think, for 3,000 years the actual land has been part of our psyche and our law.

Like many Biblical laws that became impractical or anachronistic, the rabbis found ways to accommodate them to new conditions. The Shmitah also required cancelling all debts. What was a humanitarian act in early times, lending to the poor, became unworkable in more advanced commercial societies, so Hillel found a way of transferring the loans to the courts. As only personal loans were released, this way the loan remained “on the books.”

You might wonder why he didn’t just cancel the law altogether. It has always been a principle that we do not eradicate a law altogether. Even if unworkable in its principles, it remains an expression of a religious ideal. We rather try (at least the few adventurous and strong ones amongst our leaders) to find a way round it while preserving the concept. Times change, human society advances in cycles, and what was thought to be modern at one moment becomes medieval at another. Thousands of years later, we have now adopted the idea of an intellectual sabbatical. Even crop rotation is coming back into organic fashion. How shortsighted we would look now if we had written the law out altogether.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the land of Israel. When settlers began to arrive in the nineteenth century, the religious ones amongst them could not survive if they had had to leave their lands fallow and wait two years for another crop. The great Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor adapted a well tried device for getting round the law. Sell it notionally to a non-Jew and buy it back at the end of the year. Rather like the device on Passover for preserving large stocks of Chametz in grains or alcohol by selling it, and then buying it back afterwards. It looks like fiddle and it is. But at least the practical link between religion and the land was preserved. As the Jewish presence grew and agriculture flourished, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Kook, made this the policy of the rabbinate, and it became automatic for many years. As with many such laws, individuals found other ways of circumventing it. One bought produce from Arabs. Then one imported it from Cyprus, and more recently Israeli enterprise and innovation in hydroponics has helped meet the need.

Times change. Once only the few religious Kibbutzim and Moshavim kept the Shmitah and relied on the fictional sale. The Charedi world does not accept the rabbinate loophole. More and more individuals in Israel see the Shmitah as a way of asserting their new piety and/or their ancient bond with the Promised Land. As one would expect, asking for financial support has now become a fundraising tool to help more people keep the rigors of these ancient laws. And why not, if modern methods and charity make it achievable? (Although feeding the poor seems to me to be a priority.)

But it is good in another way. As our connection to the land is being disavowed and delegitimized, it is a powerful reinforcement, to ourselves at least, that this is a land we care for and have loved for thousands of years. This, I insist, does not mean it cannot be shared as it often was.

Dr. Margaret Brearley, a medieval historian and former advisor to several Archbishops of Canterbury, has shown the difference between Jewish and Christian poems at the time of the Crusades in her research about the Holy Land. To the Crusaders it was an abstraction, a theological mission into alien territory. Jerusalem was a town somewhere beyond the sea. To the Jews it was the dust, the boulders, and the ruins that made the land not an abstraction but a reality, a place that existed in this world, not some other. After 2,000 years of such dreaming, from long before lslam was invented, it is hardly surprising that we Jews did not want a quiet plot in Africa or the Russian steppes. Instead we wanted to return to our ancient land. For that is what our religion is based on regardless of how well or otherwise we have adapted to exile.

August 07, 2014

Who is right to hate us?

The Palestinian conflict and the way it is perceived throughout Europe and in parts of the USA has put paid to this false messiah of normality once and for all. Even normal, secular, music-loving, technologically self-sufficient Jews are regarded as evil, in league with the devil.

No humane human being can possibly be immune to children dying. But hold on. Where are most children being killed in the world at this moment and by whom? In Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, China, Indonesia, and Myanmar--Muslim children all, hundreds of thousands in recent years. Yet there have been no calls for boycotts, no calls to kill the murderers, no Human Rights condemnations.

jew If I fire a rocket aimed at a human civilian target, and it fails to explode or is intercepted, am I not still guilty of intent? And if the world thinks that deserves no condemnation, is not the world crazy or sick?

I address this to my Muslim friends. If we were to concede that Israel was entirely to blame for the collapse of the peace talks, was wrong to attack Gaza, why can we not agree that Gaza was wrong to attack Israel? And if Israel was wrong to attack areas where there were civilians, was not Hamas wrong to fire rockets from schools, hospitals, and homes? Are we going to use population density as an argument for not hitting back if attacked? Who previously ever did? There is no objectivity here. Because Jews are whipping boys for any sick culture in decline, for any dictator clinging to power who needs a scapegoat, or for politicians desperate for votes. Israel, Zionism is now an excuse for attacking Jews, not for accepting them. We are heavily outnumbered. But so what?

In a way we must be grateful to Hamas for clarifying things. The fact is that there is no practical difference between most Zionists and most Jews anymore. “Kill the Jews” is now acceptable language across the globe. The myth of being anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish is blown. And, yes, there always have been Jews who were anti-Jew. There were Jews who supported Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. There are some deluded religious Jews who think they will have a better life under the Hezbollah or Iran. There are Jews who believe in other religions. Jews support every political party across the spectrum. Jews are “the same as everyone else, only more so”. But nothing reinforces us Jews more than a sense that we are being treated unjustly. This whole issue, this whole scenario, is an issue of loyalty.

Zionism, or nationalism, or just wanting a refuge from hatred has united Jews more than any other ideology. We have always been a divided, fractious people. We certainly are not agreed today about the State of Israel, its political leadership, or its direction. We are divided socially between rich and poor, between countries of origin, and degrees of observance. Yet for all that, the vast majority want a homeland and are willing either to fight for it or support it.

So if we rally round our own, why would we not expect most Muslims to rally round other Muslims and care about their suffering, even if their own political leaders are responsible for it? If we try to ignore our own fanatics, why shouldn’t they? Is this conflict a matter of logic? No, it’s a matter of conflicting loyalties. Why are we so surprised? Except that they seem to care less about Muslims killing Muslims than they do about Jews killing Muslims, not for ideology, just in self defense.

I hate seeing children suffer. I hate seeing anyone killed. No matter what the cause. I cannot even bear to watch casualties on TV. I find war horrific, terrible, and to be avoided at almost all costs. But not at all costs. If I fear an existential threat (just imagine the toll if we had not had the Dome), my religion demands of me I respond, and my loyalty to my people demands of me I support them. If “the world” is against my people, why wouldn’t I want to support them? No one else will. All the more so if the world of our opponents is one filled with barbaric, oppressive extremism. Why shouldn’t one want reassurances and demilitarization before laying down one’s guard?

And who is refusing ceasefire extensions? Hamas. Because the only way they have of garnering support and money is by exaggerating their suffering. The only way the millionaire political leadership, living underground in its luxury shelters, has of growing richer on the backs and bodies of its own populace is by showing more fake photos of tragedies it has created for its own ends.

There are two kinds of enmity: the enmity of a cause one is passionately committed to, and the enmity of illogical prejudice. The first is understandable. The second is dishonest.

Yet my argument is not with Muslims who support Muslims. Of course they want what they want, and they will not give up before they get it any more than Israel will. I understand why Muslims want the Jews out of the Middle East, out of Dar al-Islam.

I can understand those who accuse Israel of not doing more for peace. But I cannot sympathize with neo-Nazis or with Jews who want to see the end of a secure homeland, or with anyone else who does. Neither do I understand a “turn the other cheek” mentality that says Israel should just suffer and bear bombs and missiles regardless. And I certainly don’t understand how liberal intellectuals can ally themselves with fundamentalists who would deny freedom and choice to any people unfortunate enough to be ruled by them.

Yet this irrational hatred is, ironically, beneficial, for it forces us to think about priorities and make choices. It actually helps us. The more we are attacked, demeaned, or delegitimized, the more we identify and the stronger we get. We are “a nation that dwells alone”. We are outliers. And it is precisely because we neither accept other religious myths nor abandon our individuality that we find ourselves so unpopular. But rather survival than popularity. If we few millions and our allies do not stand up for us, who will?

I hear the mantra that young American Jews no longer support Israel. I am not surprised. They have no experience of the helplessness in the face of Nazis and world abandonment. Most of them are Jewishly ignorant and uncommitted. Of course they do not stand by a Jewish homeland. They are who they are. But you go anywhere in the US to religious communities and schools and you will see dynamic committed support, if anything too blind. Because it is not based on anything but passionate loyalty. We have always relied on quality not quantity.

But I know full well that there is another truth. Peace comes only when both sides want it badly enough. If you have two punch-drunk boxers, only the referee can separate them. It seems there is no referee anyone trusts. I pray for peace, but sadly at this moment I neither trust the process nor the players. We are still only in the early rounds. This is a long battle. To adapt an old adage, a Chinese Emperor was once asked if he would like to be loved by all his subjects. He replied “No! Loved by the good ones, but hated by the bad ones.” It depends on which side you are on. I know where I stand.