February 04, 2016

A Rosh Yeshiva

Fifty years ago I had the privilege of studying in a great yeshiva in Israel. In those days there were none of the more modern yeshivot that welcomed students from different backgrounds and levels of knowledge and religious commitment. There were only a few “hardcore” yeshivot that modeled themselves on, and were hardly different than, the great academies of Lithuania.

You could gain acceptance if you were either a really first-class student who was immersed in Talmud or, as with most things in Israel then and now, you had “protektzia” (influential contacts). And I did. My father had studied in Mir in Lithuania and was friendly there with several outstanding rabbis who, after the Second World War had reestablished themselves and founded new institutions in Israel.

I was incredibly fortunate to be sent (initially reluctantly) to study as a teenager in one such yeshiva and then several years later, after university, at another. The latter, was very reluctant to take me, given that I had been to university and studied philosophy. But because of their respect for my late father, and with a promise that I would not discuss philosophy with anyone there, I was allowed in.

Although I say it myself, I devoted myself assiduously to studying hard for long hours to make up for the years I had “wasted” on secular education. I was first into the Hall of Study in the morning and the last out at night. I stopped reading any other material or listening to the radio. I conformed enthusiastically. For I knew that this was the only way to benefit from the experience. So that’s what I did, and it was the highlight of my student years, easily surpassing Cambridge for the intensity and intellectual challenge it offered.

There were several heads of the yeshiva, and the older generation all treated me with varying degrees of kindness and encouragement. I respected them enormously and deferred to their authority. Of course I was out of my depth. I was nowhere near the levels expected of students who devoted their lives entirely to studying Torah. But I made up for that with my attitude and devotion to study, and several of the more junior Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgichim (academic and pastoral leaders) took me under their wings.

But there were several younger sons of the main Rosh Yeshiva who resented me and tried their best to undermine my position. No doubt because, in their zealotry, they believed I should not have been there. They literally “spied” on me and reported to their father anything I said that they did not approve of. Fortunately I did not step out of line. I survived to live out my allotted years there, to be acquire the certification I needed to practice as a rabbi, and I left to begin my career.

Perhaps they had been right in their antagonism towards me. After I left I no longer accepted all the ideas and opinions that have come to characterize the Charedi world that they belonged to. Actually, neither did most of the earlier generation either. In that sense I could be said to be a failure. But even so, I maintained very warm relations with my alma mater and several “junior” heads of the academy. Some of these Rosh Yeshivas would visit me during their trips abroad. Every few years I would return to spend the summer months studying there to refresh myself, and I was treated kindly by the old guard, and then but ignored by the sons of those who had always resented me.

It is now fifty years later. Recently saw an article in the Jewish Press about one of my two nemeses who had just died prematurely after an unfortunate illness. His gray beard surrounded a patriarchal face, with twinkling eyes and an angelic smile under the regulation black homburg hat. He was lauded as a brilliant, humane, and good Rosh Yeshiva whose loss would be mourned by thousands.

I looked at his picture, and I read the eulogy, and I wondered, “Could this be the same unkind zealot that had spied on me, had expressed his dislike of me, and had tried to prevent me from being in the yeshiva?” And it was not just me. There were others too. Had we been people who wanted in anyway to undermine or diminish the institution I would have understood. But this was not the case. Did he maintain such attitudes for the rest of his life? Was he, beneath the avuncular facade, still an unforgiving hardliner? Or had he changed, and had age softened him? Was it up to me to give his memory the benefit of the doubt and revise my opinion, and posthumously forgive him his unkindness?

So much has happened since, for better and for worse. I have changed. The world has changed. I am happy to say, without, I hope, arrogance or false pride, that I do not bear grudges, and I always prefer to see the good and focus on being positive. So I am glad I have been reminded of one of the few negative memories of my time in yeshiva, and I will assume that he did soften and was a great Rosh Yeshiva who left behind him a loving grateful family and a legacy of Torah at its best. I am glad our paths crossed and sorry I was not able to win him over then. But I can hope that if we had met recently perhaps I might have.

Yet somehow I doubt it. The two camps, of accommodation and tolerance on one side and hard-lined zealotry on the other, remain within our religion as in every other one. Strange creatures we humans are.

January 28, 2016

Orthodox what?

There has been a lot of debate recently about what defines Modern Orthodoxy. The latest “term” is “Open Orthodoxy” as opposed to “Modern”, “Rational”, “Halachic”, “Traditional”, “Combination”, and “Thinking”. Such nuances are what Freud described as “the narcissisms of little differences.” The sad fact is that no matter what arguments one version presents to justify its position, the other side will pay no attention, just react with invective in protection of its own absolutely authentic position (or so it claims). The eagerness with which one group attacks the other underlines one of the major failures of religion.

Does being Orthodox (whatever that means) depend on whether you believe every word of the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Sinai? Or most? Or written down over time? And if you don’t know and keep an open mind, does that make you a heretic? If you think the Zohar was not all written by Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai, does this mean you are a traitor? Do you have to believe a Messiah will come riding on a white donkey and all the dead will be resurrected? And what degree of practice must you adhere to? If you do not wear a black hat or a Shtreimel or your wife does not wear a wig, does that exclude you? If you do not ask your rabbi about what new car to get or what business to invest in, does this make you a nonbeliever? What’s wrong with us?

Does it matter if I have absolutely no idea what happens after I die or if I will be resurrected, whereas others claim to know exactly what will? Does it really matter if one is moderately Orthodox, very Orthodox, extremely Orthodox or fanatically Orthodox? Is it really theology or just the natural human tendency towards particularism, conformity, belonging? If I behave according to traditional Jewish law, its rituals, its principles and its ideals, why should intellectual reservations make any difference? After all, if every human being’s physical characteristics are different, aren’t their brains and thought patterns different too? If we do not expect everyone to be the same physically, why do we expect them all to think the same way or to believe exactly the same thing?

When one thinks that most religions ostensibly preach being a good, caring, peaceful human being who tries to establish a relationship of some sort with the spiritual, why do we insist on everyone having to think exactly the same way? After all as the prophet Micah famously said “what God requires of you is to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Of course he did not mean that one does not have to do other things too, but there have to be overriding humane principles, priorities.

And yet in every religion you have aggressive, assertive, narrow-minded bullies who insist that everyone else has to think and act just like them or else. Every single religion I know of is riven with schisms and conflicts over authority, authenticity, and power. Why do Shia and Sunni hate each other yet both reject the Ahmadis? If you think we have too many “names”, just try Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. Everywhere, men and women are convinced that they are the sole possessors of the right and true way and everybody else is wrong or evil.

You will very rarely find two people able to articulate the same ideas about what they think God is. Even the great Maimonides could only say what God was not. Yet we religious are all expected to believe in exactly the same thing, in the same way. Why do we hate each other for being in a different religion or a different denomination or a different sect? I wonder if it isn’t all about insecurity. And I wonder if one of the negative side-effects of religion is that it often expects people to lie. After all, if you express your doubts, you are often going to run the risk of being labelled a heretic.

Christianity invented orthodoxy. “Ortho” meaning “right” and “dox” meaning belief, "orthodoxy" means having the right beliefs. The Nicene Creed was the first list of correct beliefs, and early Christians killed vast numbers of each other over it. In Judaism it was more a matter of “orthoprax”—the correct behavior—that counted. But tending, as we Jews do, to be influenced by what is going on around us, we too eventually adopted the term, mainly as a way of distinguishing an established expression of Judaism from a reformed version (around the time of what is fancifully called the “Enlightenment”, when we grew so unenlightened we killed off even more human beings simply because they were different).

So we have an alien term in an alien language. But even that wasn’t good enough, because we have added ultra-Orthodox, Charedi, Charedi Light and Charedi Heavy Duty, Charedi Nationalist and Charedi anti-Zionist. In truth all of this only matters to a few small-minded sectarians, and even they will ignore their own standards when money and power are concerned.

Thankfully, external forces have come to the rescue. In our open modern societies there is great flexibility. One can move from one community, one congregation, one style of praying to another for spiritual or emotional support. One just has to find the place or places where one feels comfortable, where one can relax and allow the spiritual side to flourish in whatever way works. It is true that each one has its own rules, dress codes, opinions, theologies, and customs, and one learns to be a chameleon and be adaptive. The answer? Learn the rules and conventions, and nurture your own soul. That is the only orthodoxy you need to know! If you want another label, call it Existential Orthodoxy!!! And avoid the zealots.

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January 21, 2016

Primo Levi & Toni Morrison

A side benefit of reviewing books is that one often gets books one otherwise might not splurge on. A week ago I received the handsome three-volume set of the collected writings of Primo Levi, Italian survivor of Auschwitz. The set is edited by arguably his best translator, Ann Goldstein, and published by Liveright. I will write a thorough and conscientious book review in due course.

But I am writing this blog post in protest at the inexplicable and offensive fact that the publishers asked the American novelist Toni Morrison to write an introduction. Of all people, they had to choose such an outspoken and biased critic of Israel. Why invite a person who shows such animus towards the homeland of the Jewish people to write an introduction to the work of a man who suffered under a real genocidal regime determined to destroy him simply for being Jewish, given that, for all his criticisms and alienation, Levi remained an avowed Jew?

Its not just the banality of her introduction, her cold words, her use of “throngs” to describe, impersonally, those who died. She cannot bring herself to mention Jews. It is that she stands for poisonous revisionism. She, together with her partners in prejudice, have accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and genocide. Inevitably this leads to comparisons with Nazis. Which is precisely what the primitive, mentally challenged bullies who use such an abusive slogan in protests love to do. If any of that were true, how come after 65 years of Israel’s existence the Arab population of Israel continues to grow and thrive? Why haven’t they all been gassed? And why are denizens of the Occupied Territories and Gaza still expanding in number? Why have they not all been killed or expelled? Are the Israelis so incompetent? 
 It seems that Morrison was contacted and asked to consider the invitation because Primo Levi was a left-wing secular Jew who criticized the State of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and disliked the, albeit democratically elected, right-wing governments (criticisms I too would agree with, incidentally). The presumably liberal, left-wing publishers thought her stamp of approval on this edition would attract likeminded readers and librarians. But that does not put Primo Levi and Toni Morrison on the same moral page.

No one should dispute that millions of non-Jews also suffered and died in World War II, and they should be remembered as well. Similarly, no one has the right to minimize the horrors of slavery imposed by black and white, Christian, Jew, and Muslim in the African slave trade and, indeed, on the continuation of slavery to this very day. And today we still witness gratuitous killing, ethnic cleansing, torture, rape, and expulsion. Suffering continues to be imposed or tolerated today by many states which are either incompetent or venal.

But the one thing it is not possible to do is to make an equivalence to the Holocaust, because the unique feature was a stated and put into effect a policy of extermination. The Nazis brought all the resources of a modern state to exterminate a people simply because of they hated Jews, not for what they might have done but for who they were. Prejudice, hatred, irrational as they are, are of one despicable order. Systematic extermination is another. In other situations where one was attacked or invaded, one could escape a final solution by resignation, capitulation, or conversion. Here there was nothing one could have done. No one else has built industrial extermination camps.

The pathology of much of the world we inhabit is its politically correct knee-jerk accusation of Israel for its imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, slavery, and fanaticism. Those who seek to destroy it are even more guilty of those very crimes. But politically correct radicals may not say so. And Morrison falls for it like a sucker. Never mind that unlike imperialism, Jews have had a longer history of indigenous association with the land of Israel than any other religious or ethnic group. Never mind the refusals to accept compromise and the stated commitment to destroy it. Dogma has always trumped the facts, politically and religiously.

The anti-Israel left everywhere is guilty of revisionism, of trying to sanitize the Holocaust by equivalence. They want to disinfect it of any Jewish content so as not to offend anti-Jewish prejudice today. They shift the debate by using words to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians dishonestly and inaccuracies. Anyone who experienced Apartheid, or Nazism knows it is despicably wrong and ignorant to apply them to Israel even at its worst. But lies have never got in the way of political debate. Egypt has a border with Gaza but I have seen no flotillas against Egyptian authority. However much I do indeed deplore and regret the conflict, one should not obscure the fact that much of this tragedy is the result of the victims’ own intransigence and belief that if they just hang in there the world and time will impose a far better solution fir them than compromise.

The USA has always had its voices sympathetic to Jews, like Martin Luther King. It also has had its hate-mongers, like Louis Farrakhan. Morrison has chosen the wrong side. Maybe she has retracted the scandalous lies she attached her signature to, though I have seen no evidence of it. I respect her right to her views. But to invite her to write an introduction to the work of Primo Levi is simply unacceptable.

That is why I urge you not to buy this particular set of books. Instead, do please read Primo Levi, but in other editions. Boycotts, which Morrison supports, can go both ways.

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January 14, 2016

Above & Beyond

Above and Beyond is a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg that makes fascinating and quite scary watching. It tells the story of Jewish American pilots who in 1948 secretly helped find armaments wherever they could and also fought for Israel in its war of independence. Israel had no air force, not one plane, whereas Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria did indeed have both fighter planes and bombers. It was a time when every world power refused to sell Israel the arms it needed to defend itself against the invasion of five well-armed Arab armies (generously supplied by Britain, France, Russia, and the USA).

Those few amazingly determined pilots found unwanted secondhand aircraft parts and sections scattered around the US. Undercover, they assembled whatever cannibalized parts they could and patched together barely serviceable flying machines. Then, avoiding bans, surveillance, and opposition, they flew them along circuitous routes across the Atlantic, around Europe, and finally into Israel, where their impact was more psychological than real.

Not only that, but the US State Department and FBI did whatever they could to prevent anyone helping Israel and actively, maliciously prosecuted many of those volunteers for years afterwards. The film is well worth watching, both for the history and the lesson.

The lesson is that antagonism towards Israel has a long pedigree and one that is not just political but also anti-Jewish. It existed long before any issue of occupation or unfair treatment of Palestinians came to the fore. The US State Department and the Foreign Office in the UK have shameful records of prejudice. If it were simply a matter of preferring the Arab world, it might make sense, because there are far more of them and their market is broader and wider. If it were a simple matter of political interest, I would understand even if I would disagree on endless counts. It is the visceral anti-Jewishness that has infected both governmental agencies for so long and is documented too, so that it is not just subjective impression. If Israel has received support over the years, it has almost entirely been due to the US military or former generals like Alexander Hague.

But the truth is that governments and their agencies in general are animated by self-interest, pragmatism, and political considerations. Doubtless you will be familiar with the witticism of Henry Wotton, 17th century British Ambassador to Venice, to the effect that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” I agree with the second part. The first part in my experience, is rarely true.

It is no different today. A recent report stated that the American State Department has fiddled with figures of human trafficking for fear of offending certain countries it has interests to be nice to.

China, Cuba, India, Mexico, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan all have shocking records for human trafficking. That is turning blind eyes to women and children sold as slaves or into prostitution by criminal racketeers. But they were conveniently lifted out of the worst category because otherwise this would automatically result in restrictions on American trade. So the State Department officials doctored the results and then tried to protest that they had not. And of course this is quite separate from the issue of whether or not the USA does enough to tackle its own abuses.

Why am I not surprised by government agencies fiddling their statistics? Why does corruption no longer surprise me? Virtually all the politicians now contesting the upcoming US presidential elections are tainted. Some obviously more than others. Inevitably, whoever achieves power will pack governmental and legislative bodies with their favorites. Not that the European version of full-time civil service employees is any less prone to vested interests. And Angela Merkel’s policy on immigration has put dogma before reality. Wherever one looks, governments are either corrupt, dysfunctional, doctrinally paralyzed, or simply unwilling or incapable of acting objectively.

In my naïve way, I desperately hoped Israel would be different. But from the moment I stepped on its holy ground in 1958 I realized that “Protektzia” was the only way to get ahead. In those days left-wing secular Zionists made sure their pet projects were funded and their cronies controlled government offices and finance. If you weren’t one of theirs, then you could, as the Bible so graphically puts it, “piss against the wall.” And of course when the Right Wing got into power the very same system continued, except now they gave all the good jobs, all the financial perks, all the government nationalized industries, banks, and utilities to their pals and backscratchers. Only very rarely did you find a politician like Menachem Begin, who got and took nothing for himself.

So I am not surprised that in Israel presidents, prime ministers, government ministers, police, and rabbis have all been found guilty of corruption of one sort or another. I am just grateful that there is a judicial system and oversight that can actually try to get the criminals.

I am frankly embarrassed and depressed that Aryeh Deri, a man convicted of bribery last time he was the Minister of the Interior, is now back there thanks to Israel’s system of bartering power. Yes, of course, he has done his time and should be given a chance to redeem himself. But you don't put him right back into the cookie jar and not expect his sticky fingers to itch. It’s like putting a sex offender in charge of victims of sex abuse.

Would you believe it, nothing has changed since the days of our great prophets who railed against corruption, oppression, and inequality. Look at what they predicted!

January 07, 2016

Kissinger

Niall Ferguson’s first volume of Henry Kissinger’s biography, which deals with his formative years, is masterful. It's a difficult read, heavy with research and documentation. Kissinger was without doubt a brilliant man. Perhaps the most influential political advisor in the USA of the late twentieth century. He served across the divide as advisor and Secretary of State, employed most notably by John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. After he left government, he established his own consultancy to the world’s leaders. He is, as is anyone who takes a stand, both admired and reviled.

As Jews we would like to claim him as one of ours. But his whole career seems to have been a rejection of everything Jewish. The Nixon tapes have recorded him remaining silent as his master excoriates Jews in general. When he returned from the war in Europe, he told his father, “Certain ties bound in convention mean nothing to me. I have come to judge men on their merits.”It sounds to me as if he is implying that Jews do not judge others on their merits and that that is why he is rejecting Judaism. A pretty poor, if not dishonest, excuse. One almost feels sorry for someone who tried so hard to escape his heritage and yet the name stuck like a shadow regardless.

Ferguson has explored Kissinger’s Orthodox religious background in Germany before the family managed to get out. He was forced out of public school into a Jewish one when laws were passed against Jews attending. In his teens he joined Ezra, the Orthodox youth movement, where he wrote a paper on the recondite subject of Muktzah on Shabbat (what objects one may or may not move on the holy day), that would have done a yeshivah bochur proud. Almost as soon as he arrived in the States, like so many others at a time when anti-Semitism was so embedded in American academic, social, political, and commercial life, he turned his back on his Jewishness in the hopes of gaining acceptance and rising to heights of American society.

We will have to wait for the next volume to discover if during the Yom Kipur War it was Kissinger who persuaded Nixon to send the arms that virtually rescued Israel from catastrophe. In his nineties he has for the first time attended a Holocaust event, something he avoided like the plague for most of his life. He even supported Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery where the SS elite are buried. One can perhaps understand a person wanting to forget the discrimination and humiliation he and his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Kissinger devoted himself completely to his adopted country. It was historically his blessing and curse to reach the political heights during President Nixon’s terms of office. Much of his positive achievements as a negotiator and have been colored by the venality of his patron and his own cloying sycophancy towards him. Regardless of the merits of the cases for and against, there is no doubt that he equaled many of the achievements (and compromises) of the Court Jews of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.

Kissinger’s critics accuse him of being an unprincipled pragmatist. Ferguson makes a persuasive case that he did indeed have ideals but that he realized that without pragmatism those ideals could and would be subordinated and undermined, as now seems to be the fate of liberal European and American idealism.

Kissinger admired Immanuel Kant, whose idealistic view of the human capacity for moral decision-making was reinforced by his important idea of the Categorical Imperative. Kissinger’s Harvard thesis, still the longest ever submitted, morphed into his book A World Restored, which examined the contributions of the nineteenth century European powerbrokers Bismarck, Castlereagh, and Metternich. It argued for stability and practicality over revolution and uncontrolled idealism. His early contribution to the political debate was the concept of limited use of the nuclear option if it helped prevent a far greater catastrophe. He insisted that the US had to stand firm and show strength to tyranny and totalitarianism.

Amongst the many points he makes in his sweeping overview of modern political affairs is the paradox that: “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquility.” In a speech in 1957 he said, “It is the characteristic of a policy which bases itself on purely military considerations to be immoderate in triumph and panicky in adversity.” How true of American polices then and recently. In 1958 he said, “Most Americans are like spectators at a play that does not concern them…we are losing the cold war.” Such words are even more appropriate today where a failure to act often opens the doors to worse alternatives.

His greatest challenge was the resolution of the Vietnam War after President Johnson allowed it to escalate. Perhaps his most significant diplomatic achievement was the Nixon rapprochement with China. In Israel he was not liked because he was perceived as putting more pressure on Golda Meir than on the Arab states and the Palestinians. In Israel at the time, jokes at his expense were legion. Here is one I remember:

Golda Meir took him to the Western Wall and invited him to say a prayer. Kissinger turned to the wall and began, “Lord I want to thank you for enabling me, a refugee from Nazism, to rise to one of the most important positions in the United States of America.” And Golda said “That is a very nice prayer Henry.”

Kissinger continued, ,“And Lord I ask you to look favorably on my patron, Richard Milhous Nixon, and enable him to survive the challenges to his position and fulfill his role as a great President of the USA.” Again Golda said, “That’s a lovely prayer Henry.”

Kissinger turned back to the wall and continued “And finally Lord help me persuade the Israeli government to make concessions in the interests of a lasting peace.”

And Golda turned to Kissinger and said, “Henry you realize that's only a wall you are talking to.”

Kissinger’s moderation between idealism and pragmatism is, in fact, a very Jewish position. Judaism allows its principles and laws to be sacrificed to save life, except in three cases: one cannot murder an innocent, commit adultery, or curse God. Survival trumps all the rest. The biggest challenge to the Western world today is the threat to its culture through the very idealism of concern for refugees and the persecuted, even when it may well mean the ultimate betrayal and defeat of Western values, by both the fascism and the religious barbarism.

Ferguson does an excellent job describing his subject’s brilliance and achievements in his rise on the world stage. What is clear here is that Kissinger deserves a much closer look and greater recognition of his ideals as much as his pragmatism. It would be wrong to say he was a crafty Machiavellian, devoid of moral values and ideals. I am looking forward to the next volume to see if Ferguson can maintain his thesis.

December 31, 2015

Experimenter

I recommend a recent film called Experimenter, a dramatization of the work of the American Jewish psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), released this past October by Magnolia Pictures. It stars Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, along with other stars.

The series of experiments conducted by Milgram at Yale University concerned the way people respond to and obey figures of authority. They measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts even when they conflicted with their personal consciences. The participants drew slips of paper to divide into “teachers” and “learners”. But some of the participants were, in fact, confederates—actors who would always be designated as the “learners”, unbeknownst to the actual participants, who would always be the “teachers”.

Sitting in separate rooms connected only by speakers, the teacher asked a series of questions. If the learner got the answers wrong, he was given an electric shock, rising each time in intensity. In fact, the learner was not being shocked, but the teacher would hear cries of pain and then pleas to stop as the current got stronger, since actors were playing the parts of the victims.

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question at that time as to how Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust were morally able to just follow orders. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. However, as the film shows, the experiments were highly controversial.

In 2014 a paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology by researchers Professor Alex Haslam (University of Queensland), Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews), Professor Kathryn Millard (Macquarie University), and Professor Rachel McDonald (University of Kansas) argued that the meaning of the experiment has been misunderstood. They analyzed the feedback that 659 of the 800 volunteers provided at the end of the experiment, after the set-up had been revealed.

Most volunteers said they were very happy to have participated.Because they did not think they had done anything wrong.  They were convinced that they had made an important contribution to science. This tends to confirm the idea that perpetrators are generally motivated not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.

Of course when we apply such ideas to Hitler’s Germany, one can see how the German tendency towards accepting authority, combined with its quasi-religious worship of Hitler and his regime, might have led so many of its citizens to really believe that murdering Jews was a noble cause. Hannah Arendt argued that it was simply the “banality of evil”. I cannot help but see this as an apologetic, whether conscious or not, for her love for and rehabilitation of the Nazi philosopher Heidegger. But that really ignores the issue of what leads or causes such human betrayal of good. Professor Reicher and his colleagues’ critique is only concerned with the morality of the experiment of course, not the issues it originally sought to address.

“Shock Room,” was a film by Professor Kathryn Millard that explored how people make the choice to obey or disobey authority, which challenges the Milgram “Obedience to Authority” paradigm and reevaluates its conclusions. Instead of a latent capacity for evil, we just want to feel good about ourselves. So it was not a willingness to inflict pain on other humans, but rather a desire to please.

Another controversial experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard, conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his team. The participants adapted to their roles beyond expectations. The guards enforced authoritarian measures beyond their original brief and with unexpected gusto. The experiments were terminated prematurely because of it.

Zimbardo argued that that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' behavior and that results are compatible with the results of the Milgram experiment. Nevertheless several outstanding psychologists disagreed including Erich Fromm and Peter Gray finding faults with Zimbardo’s experiment.

When acts of prisoner torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were publicized in March 2004, Zimbardo was dismayed by official military and government representatives' shifting the blame for the torture and abuses onto "a few bad apples”, rather than acknowledging it as possibly systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system.

This is what disturbs me about our current intellectual world. We have a built-in, I would say intellectually conditioned, tendency to look for THE answer, as if there were only one. The Theory, The Explanation, when there are usually several that may even sometimes conflict. There is no doubt in my mind that amongst those who murdered Jews (throughout Europe, I might add) were some sadistic sub-humans, some who were ideologically and religiously educated to think of Jews as vermin that needed to be destroyed, others were eager to do their duty and please their superiors. On the other side, there were a number of exceptions who retained a moral compass despite everything the world around them and their own evil impulses might have been pressurizing them to do.

Single, simplistic theories are always suspect. Conditioning, pressure, human nature, prejudice, dehumanization—they all played a part. But above all, it was and is a human problem. We require strong disciplinary structures and standards. This is precisely what we lack now in Europe where anti-Jewish sentiment is increasing and being tolerated by more and more people living in supposedly civilized societies. Whole groups all around the world are being vilified—whether it is Israelis, Jews, Muslims, or blacks. We are no longer looking at individuals, but at generalizations. Social and educational conditioning create an atmosphere in which certain types of violent reactions are encouraged. And there are political consequences when such group pressure affects parties too eager for power at any cost. Let us not deny that there is some of this in our own ranks. But not everyone in such environments responds violently or inhumanely. We need to look to our own souls as well as the state of the society we live in. An effective spiritual religious education needs to emphasize both.

May we have a happy and peaceful 2016. But happiness and peace need to be consciously and positively worked for. They do not happen by chance.

December 24, 2015

Factory Farming

Those who work in education delight in their successes and regret the failures. Very often those one expected to shine burnt out and those one expected to struggle shone. One of my pupils was such a disaster academically at school that I wrote on one of his reports that “he was heading like a lemming to disaster", and indeed at that time he was. But he was such a cute and charming little terror that it was hard to be too tough on him. Besides, anyone who is strong enough to defy peer group opinion to become a vegetarian has got to have guts. Today Jeremy Coller is highly successful in the world of finance. He still defies category, convention, and “normality”.

One of the big questions anyone who works hard to make money and succeeds way beyond expectations ought to be asking himself or herself is what then? Not enough do. There is no tradition in Judaism of seeing money as the source of all evil or of disparaging wealth. Neither is there a tradition of thinking that wealth in itself says anything about those who have it. Money is only a means to an end, and if one has it, one has an obligation to use it positively and humanely.

The crucial question that one really needs to ask is what the end is; to what purpose one will put one’s wealth? Some of the richest men and women do indeed set up foundations and charities to give away vast sums. The sad fact is, however, that those who do remain a very small minority. Most fritter and waste or pass on their wealth to those unworthy or incapable of looking beyond their own appetites.

My late father often used to say disparagingly, usually when people who could refused to help him with his educational dreams, “You can tell what God thinks of money by the sort of people he gives it to.” He once had to apologize to a wealthy property man who refused to help him with Jewish education but gave millions to the Monkey House at London Zoo. At a fundraising dinner for Israel, my father had commented on why someone would want to give money to monkeys rather than humans and had said that obviously he had more in common with monkeys. (But that was my father. Witty, articulate, emotional, and sometimes shooting from the hip and regretting it afterwards. We are a family of mavericks.)

So when Jeremy told me he had set up a foundation and one of its primary aims was to stop factory farming, I was impressed. The url is jeremycollerfoundation.org, where you will find the heading FAIRR (Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return). If you are interested you can see it for yourself. I deplore factory farming. Altogether I believe that the process of killing animals for food is an industry of cruelty from rearing to transport to slaughter. I also believe that most of those who seek to ban Shechitah (the Jewish method of slaughter) are anti-Semites, because if they REALLY cared for animal welfare they would try to ban ALL animal slaughter.

I also believe that the kosher meat industry is largely complicit in the betrayal of values in regard to cruelty to animals about which the Torah is clearly concerned. Orthodox Jews in general look askance at vegetarianism. Partly because it is seen as coming from a different cultural world, partly because the Torah approved of animal sacrifices as well as vegetable, and partly because of the tradition on Sabbaths and festivals of feasting on meats! On a recent flight my Charedi neighbor noticed I had ordered a kosher vegetarian meal, and he leaned over and asked me how I, as an apparently religious Jew, could eat vegetarian!!!

I look forward to the day when modern techniques of artificially producing substitutes will change and then eradicate the industry altogether. I also identify with those great rabbinic authorities who called it pure paganism to swing chickens over your head as Kapparot, atonement before Yom Kipur. They called it Darkei Emory, Emorite custom. So I am on board 100% with the aims of the foundation.

The only question I have is over the limited aims of eliminating factory farming as opposed to outright banning of all animal slaughter. But I can see that it makes sense to proceed in stages against what is, after all, one of the most popular of human activities and one of the major providers of jobs. Besides, I believe that time, economics, and ecology will bring about the end of the business eventually. Meanwhile, day by day, billions of sentient creatures are being treated inhumanely.

But there are two other issues: the “Hitler loved his dog” argument and the priority argument. Hitler apparently was a vegetarian and so opponents of vegetarianism will often say that this proves that vegetarians love animals more than humans. Anyone familiar with the laws of logic or the limitations of generalizations will realize how facile such an argument is.

A similar faulty argument is the priority argument, which says that one should give to human charities first. Of course there are priorities in life. But prioritizing does not necessarily require to focus on only one area of charity. As the Talmud (Bava Metziah 71a) says, “The poor of your city come first.” But that did not stop the Talmud (Gitin 61a) from saying that “one should provide for the poor of the non-Jewish world in addition to one’s own poor.”

It is true that I have argued previously that there are so many more members of other religions (and of no religion at all) that one ought, as a Jew, to give priority to Jewish charities. But that does not mean one should not give to other causes too. I deplore those Jews who refuse to give to any Jewish charity at all as much as I deplore those Jews who give large sums to organizations that actively try to undermine Judaism or Israel. But that doesn’t mean I am in favor of giving ONLY to Jewish charities. However, I do believe in giving only to charities that support the values that I do. It is obvious to me that the Torah is concerned with treating animals humanely. Perhaps that’s a subject for another occasion, as is the rabbinic dispute as to whether the laws in the Torah that appear to be motivated by concern for animal welfare may in fact be intended to heighten human sensitivity.

Either way, Jeremy Coller’s mission strikes me as fully consonant with Jewish values (although I very much doubt that is why he got involved). Besides, he gives to Israeli and Jewish causes too. I am delighted that he has proved me, and the rest of those who feared disaster, wrong!