April 18, 2014

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865 to 1935

There is one rabbi who stands out in my mind above all others in the previous century. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel under the mandate. There were other great products of the Lithuanian world who equaled or surpassed him in scholarship. But there was no one who had his vision, his passion for his people, for the Land of Israel, and at the same time, his universality and humanity. There was no one who personified the spirit of Judaism in the world the way he did. If only more of Eastern European Orthodoxy had followed his lead. And because he was a poet and a master of the Hebrew language, there was no one who expressed these ideals the way he did. Forgive me for quoting a whole poem of his. A lot is lost in translation, but still I find it impressive in its sentiment and spirit. No rabbi alive today comes near him.
The fourfold Song the Soul

There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul.

There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.

There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.

And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.

And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.

The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.

And this simplicity in its fullness rises to become a song of holiness, the song of God, the song that is simple, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, the song of songs of Solomon—of the king who is characterized by completeness and peace.
(Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444)
What a beautiful, vision that includes every person and almost every variety of aspiration in the world we inhabit.

Rav Kook is all but unknown in the Diaspora. In Israel the Charedi world has disowned him for his approval of Zionism. His Charedi descendants prefer not to be known as such. And the secular world has rejected him because the name Kook is now associated more with his son Rav Zvi Yehuda, who became the mouthpiece and guru of a far narrower expression of religious Zionism associated with Gush Emunim and the settler movement. Both father and son passionately loved the Holy Land. But the son twisted the humane vision of his father into a narrower, largely xenophobic possessiveness.

Rav Kook the father was a brilliant scholar but he was also a mystic. A Lithuanian heir to the legacy of the Vilna Gaon, he studied in the great yeshivah of Volozhin and yet explored Chasidism and the world of mysticism and spirituality. He was an essayist and poet and published widely within the community of religious leaders who wanted to reach out to Jews beyond the walls of the ghettos. He was devoted to the cause of building up Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Although he occupied various positions in the Lithuanian rabbinate, the Land of Israel drew him, and in 1904 he emigrated to become the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.

There he found himself caught between the old and the new. The wave of secular Eastern European Zionist immigrants were detached from and opposed to what they saw as the religion of the ghetto. On the other side stood the Old Yishuv, descendants of earlier waves of very Orthodox Jews who came both influenced by the Vilna Gaon and the early Chasidic masters. They had augmented the ancient Sephardi communities which had held out in the land after the demise of the great seventeenth century centers of Safed and Galilee. These communities are often overlooked in the current debate over who lived in the Land of Israel before secular Zionism arrived. But they were implacably opposed to the new anti-religious arrivals who themselves were divided between left-wing sympathizers with Marxist ideology and the right-wing Revisionists followers of Jabotinsky.

Rav Kook tried, and in the end failed, to mediate and make peace between these factions. He valued the secular pioneers as much as he was devoted to the passion and depth of traditional Judaism. He suffered at the hands of both because of it. But his magnificent legacy has survived, despite the efforts of some to write him out of our history.

A new biography by Yehudah Mirsky and published by Yale Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution gives a fair overview of his life, times, and struggles. He analyses the political struggles of his subject and in particular the way he ended up losing both sides over the Arlosoroff assassination in 1933. But it does not do justice to his intellectual and mystical legacy. For that, the best we have remains Ben Zion Bokser’s Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, published in 1978. It is a sad statement that so little of his legacy has been available to an English speaking audience.

At this time of the year, Pesach reminds us both of our past and of our messianic aspirations. It is the time too when we celebrate Israel’s independence and the miracle of what has been achieved. But we are also reminded of so much of what is still sadly missing. Rav Kook symbolizes the human and religious ideals we need to aspire to and must determine to achieve.

April 10, 2014

Versions of Passover

In 419 BCE, the Persian king Darius issued a decree concerning the Jewish garrison at Elephantine on the Nile Delta (near the cataracts of what is now called Aswan). It was directed towards the governor, Arsames, and instructed him to make sure that the Egyptian priests of Khnum did not attack the Jews or try to stop the Passover celebrations at the Jewish temple there. You may well wonder both at a Jewish military garrison in Egypt two-and-a-half thousand years ago and at a Jewish temple where they sacrificed outside of Jerusalem. But that’s for another time.

Tension between the Egyptian priests and Jews was exacerbated by the Jewish tradition of slaughtering sheep, something the Egyptian religion forbade; this Egyptian antipathy is explicitly stated in the Torah (Genesis 46 and Exodus 8:22). Sadly nine years later, Arsames no longer there, the priests of Elephantine destroyed the Jewish temple and its population.

Alternative versions of the Exodus have existed for a long time. Just as alternative narratives about the Middle East proliferate nowadays. Each has its own agenda, some constructive and some destructive. Hecataeus, an Egyptian historian who lived around 320 BCE, talks about bands of exiles coming to Egypt, being driven out and then taking over an uninhabited Judea. They were led by a man called Moses who founded a new religion that Hecataeus described as unsocial and intolerant!

Manetho was an Egyptian priest who lived in Heliopolis in the middle of second century BCE. He is mentioned by Josephus. Manetho gave two versions of the Exodus. The first was about shepherds who invaded Egypt and took it over. This conforms to the archaeological evidence we have of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt roughly three thousand five hundred years ago. But then according to Manetho they were driven out and settled in Judea where they founded Jerusalem and built the Temple. This is not entirely dissimilar to, although different than, the Bible.

Manetho gives another version, which seems to be a basis of the virulent anti-Jewish sentiment of the Alexandrian Greek world. After the invasion of the shepherds, the Egyptian King Amenophis was told that he would see the gods if he purified his land of lepers and the diseased. So he gathered 80,000 diseased and unclean and set them to work in quarries. But the diseased ones formed a society of their own under a renegade Egyptian priest called Osarseph. Osarseph made new laws and commanded them not to associate with ordinary Egyptians. This new diseased people set fire to cities, attacked and destroyed temples and holy images, desecrated holy places, and sacrificed animals that hitherto had been forbidden. Finally, the leader changed his name to Moses and led them out of the land.

There were lots of upheavals, external and internal, in Egypt. One of the most famous was when Akhenaten overthrew the old system for the sun god Aten. Indeed Freud used this association in his “Moses and Monotheism” when he suggested that Moses was a follower of Akhenaten, and when his boss was defeated he looked around for another job. Manetho makes it very clear that the characteristics of these followers of Osarseph/Moses were an alien, dangerous, degraded, sick people, rigid and xenophobic. The visceral hatred of Jews as “others” and “enemies” had begun. Josephus uses much of this material in his book “Against Apion” a defense of Judaism against the Alexandrian Jew hater.

This association has come to be the dominant narrative of Jew hatred from Haman, to Greeks, and then medieval and not so medieval Christianity and Islam. Jews are rootless nomads who invade other people’s territories and live a life diametrically opposed to the host societies’ values and religion, while taking advantage of them and undermining them. They are misanthropes who are a threat to ordinary peace-loving peoples. Thus most Europeans nowadays see Jews as the biggest threat to world peace.

If you are interested in how this narrative is developed from its earliest stages to this very day, it is worth reading David Nirenberg’s brilliant book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. But I warn you, it is depressing reading for any Jew. There is no question that we have often added fuel to the fire, and often been the authors of our own fate, and made some terrible decisions. But the pathology of an irrational hatred is documented in Nirenberg’s book with even more impressive literary and historical sources than Anthony Julius’s great contribution in “Trials of the Diaspora.”

We will sit around the Seder table next week once again, surrounded by our children, and tell them tales of our past, enact innocent rituals, drink wine and eat and be merry. We may wonder what we are doing, bringing children into such a hostile world in which the hatred persists, and even grows in many places like dry rot. Yet this has been our narrative for thousands of years. Some argue (not I) that I has made us stronger and helped us survive. Yet for all that, I would not willingly impose this on anyone unless I strongly believed that the Jewish way of life is dedicated to making this world a better and more spiritual place, and that it adds so much quality and depth to one’s life; to one’s range of experiences, and to one’s intellectual development. All this despite the persistence of those within who make a mockery of it.

Perhaps it’s just envy that motivates our enemies. Pesach reminds us to rise above the hatred, which is to be really free!

April 03, 2014

The Faith of Fallen Jews

Thanks to Brandeis University Press, I have been thoroughly enjoying a volume of essays by the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who died far too early, in 2009. The title of this compilation, The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History, comes from the major interest of his academic life. Yerushalmi was fascinated by what life was really like for the Marranos, the conversos, the Secret Jews, some of whom were forcibly converted when they were given the choice of death or abandoning their faith. But since 1391 in several waves, thousands of Jews had converted willingly in the tragically deluded notion that they would be accepted by Christians if only they “saw the light”. Indeed this was the official position of the Church. But in practice it did not work out.

The success of such converts in rising through the ranks of Christian society was seen as a threat. So “old Christians” fought back by differentiating between racially pure Christians and the originally Jewish parvenus. They introduced the racist concept of “pure blood”, limpiezia de sangre, to purge Jewish blood, even converted blood from that of the racially pure of the faith. Even if the concept in theory applied to Muslims/Moriscos and others, in practice it was applied almost exclusively to those of Jewish descent. Yerushalmi argues that we are mistaken in thinking that racist anti-Semitism was the innovation of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century might have taken the idea of racial contamination of the Jews out of the religious into the realms of the national, but it was a religious disease before it became secular.

He similarly debunks the mythos of the “Convivencia”, the fashionable idea that once Jew, Christian, and Muslim all got along famously and equally in the Golden Age of Spain. There was hardly a Golden Age but merely brief respites in an otherwise painful state of accommodation and convenience in which Jews were used when it suited their masters. Even then the interaction was essentially with a small layer of aristocratic and learned Christians and Muslims, which never reached down to the masses. Indeed one might say that that characterizes much of present day interfaith activity. Not that I discount it for that. I merely point out its limitations. Both in Christianity and Islam, tolerance meant simply the condescending acceptance of an “other”, but never genuine equality. When later such equality was enforced by law, it was resented in the salons and homes of the established classes.

Yerushalmi points out an important feature of Jewish political life throughout the years of exile. It is that Jews established vertical relationships with the few power players capable of extending them protection. Kings protected them when it suited them. Different religious leaders shielded them on occasion. But political relationships were essentially with the ruling classes and rarely horizontal with the majority, the lower and merchant classes. The result was that whenever there was a political crisis, plagues, commercial competition or the agitation of fanatical preachers, the Christian mob, the Muslim street, turned on the Jews with violence and cruelty. Even if there were always individual relationships and those who helped Jews and tried to protect them, the vast majority of every class, did not.

The interesting question is whether it would or could have made a difference had such a policy been altered. Perhaps the profound religious sense that Jews were the enemy of the True Faith, regardless of which one (including Marxism), was too strong and deeply rooted to have been influenced.

Yerushalmi emphasizes time and again how important it is, in making crucial judgments, to have a historical perspective. He quotes the magisterial Baer as saying that the Jews of Iberia had no historical self-understanding. That was why they were so unprepared for the catastrophe that befell them, both those who converted and those who remained steadfast. “Despite his vast and intimate experience in the political world of his day, even Isaac Abarbanel, the last great leader of Spanish Jewry, did not perceive the impending disaster with sufficient clarity to prepare his brethren.”

In an essay based on a talk to the Leo Baeck Institute, he argues that German Jews suffered the same fate. Even if they did have a tradition of Wissenschaft and a secular perspective, they failed to appreciate the lessons of history. The same can be said of the failure of the Eastern European anti-Zionist leadership to see which way the winds were blowing in the 1930s. Somehow we often got blinded by the periods of peace in our host societies and assumed they would always remain safe, that we would survive regardless.

The same is true in Israel today. There is a reluctance to examine the lessons of history and to forge horizontal political alliances instead of vertical ones.

If this is true of Israeli secular society, it is even more so of Charedi society. The leaders, devoid of any academic historical training or understanding of history outside of the Talmud, are clearly unaware how their refusal to accommodate other viewpoints or reach out to create alliances on, say, the question of serving in some form of community service, if not the army, or refusing to allow significant numbers to study other subjects so as to enable them to get jobs and earn a living, is a symptom of the refusal to see things through different, including historical, perspectives. Theirs is just one angle; admittedly it is a legitimate one, but few things in life are black-and-white.

Some argue that this single mindedness is the result of Israeli political culture, all or nothing, the more noise you make the more cash you get. But if so that’s all the more why the work of men like Yerushalmi is so important and must not be allowed to disappear off our radar.

March 28, 2014

Racism

The film that won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, 12 Years a Slave, is a moving picture about a free black man living in New York State in the 1840s, before the Civil War. It is based on a true account of how a free black citizen in New York State was tricked into visiting Washington, where he was drugged and sold into slavery in the south. After a horrific life, he was rescued through a chance encounter with what appears to be a religious craftsman from the North. There have, in my opinion, been better films about the horrors of black slavery in the USA. But it is always important to be reminded of the unspeakable cruelty we humans, of all persuasions and cultures, are capable of inflicting on our brothers and sisters.

It was probably political correctness that led to the gorgeous young Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o getting the Oscar for best supporting actress. Beautiful as she was, and moving as her part was, I cannot believe that in any other film of any other subject she would have won the award. But I am glad of it nevertheless.

The Supreme Court of the United States is debating the issue of Affirmative Action again. I had a visceral reaction against such a policy, partly because we Jews did well despite not having such support. And because we have always believed in doing our best, regardless of the odds stacked against us, and using the challenge to excel. But I do think there is a special case to be made out because the disastrous state of much of black society in the USA. Most children grow up in single parent and multi-partner households, far too few black children graduate high school, there is a huge disparity between the chances of a black defendant being acquitted by a jury and a white one, blacks vastly outnumber whites in the jail population and in the numbers executed, and far too many blacks find full time employment. The resulting gang warfare, criminality, and violence that comes from feeling helpless and alienated are all reasons to do something about it. As with all human situations it is, in my view, almost impossible to isolate a single cause, be it internal or external. So locating blame is a futile exercise.

I also think that, ironically, doctrinaire white intellectuals, as typified by many in the teachers unions, do more to hold back black kids than the most prejudiced of racists, precisely because they refuse to let market forces in education, such as charter schools, improve their lot. They seem to care more about protecting jobs for teachers, even criminal ones, than success for pupils.

Many years ago I recall an argument I had with a bright young black woman in London who told me that she thought that slavery was every bit as significant a crime as the Holocaust. I argued that there was a difference. The evils of slavery were motivated by financial gain, blacks were treated as commodities, whereas the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not even interested in preserving Jews to put to work (though some were). The main motivation was the eradication of Jews as if they were vermin. There were no extermination camps or ovens for blacks. We parted company acrimoniously.

Over the years I have reconsidered my position. Not because I think the two are of identical nature, but because at root both are reflections of the absolute wickedness of too many people. Taking away a person’s freedom is nowadays, in theory, an offense against every attempt to define human rights, whether it is defined as Habeas Corpus or Liberty. To rape, mutilate, and flog human beings is the very height of inhumanity and sadism. To tear children away from their parents is a betrayal of the family as the core institution of human love and care. Slavery did all that to the extent that sometimes death was indeed preferable. In some ways you could even say that slavery was worse, because its crimes were carried out by many more people over a much more extended time frame. Kidnapping (for slavery or other reward) is equated in the Jewish legal tradition with murder.

You may argue that slavery under some conditions could also be supportive and caring, and in some cases it was. But the mere institution of ownership of other humans can put people at such an extreme disadvantage that they will often accept humiliation, sexual exploitation, and inferior conditions either because psychologically they have been conditioned to or out of a desperate desire to ameliorate their state.

The daily cruelty inflicted by an uncaring human on another is a scandal that continues. Large numbers of the poorest Asians and Africans work under inhuman conditions. They are often indentured literally as slaves or by circumstances. They live without hope of freedom or recourse. Often they are cut off from their children for years. Although in relatively civilized societies bosses, civilian and military, can also impose themselves on subservients, kidding themselves that there is no compulsion, at least one go to the courts with the possibility of escape.

None of this was possible for black slaves. The Civil War, which was ostensibly fought over slavery, did not ameliorate the suffering in the South. It took more than another hundred years. And prejudice remains against blacks at least as much as it does against Jews. Once it was religion to blame, but then Red idealists proved it’s a universal disease.

It is a pointless exercise to say “my pain is greater than yours” or “my suffering cannot be compared to any other.” All individual suffering is a crime against God and Man and must be prevented by law or negotiation. While the Torah allows taking a life in self-defense, it does not tolerate individuals inflicting pain gratuitously or for financial and personal gain on innocent human beings for any other reason. We need to be constantly reminded of this.

March 20, 2014

To Serve or Not to Serve

My friend Yori Yanover was recently sacked as editor of the online Jewish Press. His crime was a biting condemnation of a demonstration of protestors in New York against a proposed law, now passed by the Knesset, requiring a significant number of Israeli Charedi men to serve in the Israeli army or do some form of social service even within their own communities.

Yori simply pointed out the lies that that the campaign perpetuates both in Israel and abroad: "That the bill aims to destroy Torah”, but the bill is not requiring every yeshivah student to serve; genuine scholars will be exempted. “That the army will destroy the religious life of Charedi recruits”; there are thousands of religious young men who have served and remained religious. “That those religious politicians and rabbis who support the draft are heretics.” None of this is true or makes. It should be held up to the ridicule it deserves.

What is their case? It is first and foremost that the God of Israel is the defender of the Jewish people, and that this should be enough to protect Israel from its enemies. In principle that may be true, but from the time immemorial the Israelites were commanded to defend themselves by taking up arms. So one is bound to wonder if it was OK for Abraham, Moses, King David, and indeed Judah Maccabee, why would it not be permitted for Jews living today. Anyway, doesn’t self-defense trump most of the laws of the Torah? Isn’t training to learn how to defend oneself against imminent and real threats self-defense too?

The sad fact is that one section of our people has come to expect the other to go to war and die to defend them. That cannot be an ethical position, even if you do believe that serving God is the highest good. Not only, but the bill is offering an alternative to military service; it is called community service. It has even included an agreement with Chabad to exempt a number of young men from community service in Israel to serve communities abroad.

It may be argued that in the past the Israel was defeated and destroyed because it had abandoned Torah and was corrupt and decadent. I agree that a high moral standard and Torah study is necessary for our survival. But in the past it was considered possible to combine study and fighting. Why not now that there are proportionally more yeshivah students per capita amongst the Jewish people than ever before? And many of them are only in yeshivah because of social pressure, rather than a passionate desire to study. Can it be that some yeshivahs are only insisting on keeping everyone full-time because if some of their students go into the army they will get reduced subsidies? Perish the thought.

You may be told that the Israeli army is the agent of a secular anti-religious state. There was indeed a time when the Israeli army was not very hospitable to religious Jews, but that is hardly the case nowadays with an effective army rabbinate and top generals wearing kipot. Perhaps many Charedi youths being exposed to the outside world (and not just in an airplane journey from Tel Avi to New York) might be so cataclysmically shocked as to impair their mental states for the rest of their lives. Chabad has always sent a large number of young men into the army and they have not lost it. Over the years a significant number of young Haredi men have served in the army, despite the disapproval of their rabbis, and there is no evidence that they have been adversely affected. There has actually been a system in place for many years in which young men could combine the army with yeshivah study.

Another argument is that this is really an evil plan to get young Haredi men to learn how to earn a living. Why is that such bad thing? Others argue that threatening punishment for those who evade the draft is discrimination. But it could only be if it were not applied equally to anyone who evaded the draft regardless of religious proclivities.

There may in fact be a lot wrong with the bill. But the Haredi camp refused to negotiate altogether. They refused earlier attempts at compromise, like the Tal Law. What is it that has so convinced their leadership that compromise is a sin? How does one explain the total refusal to even sit down and negotiate? Or the pathetic claim that this a Nazi-like genocide against poor defenseless young men? I expect rabid anti-Semites or lunatics to say such rubbish.

There are I think two reasons for this extreme refusal to compromise or negotiate. Neither is legitimate. One is the historical tension between the Haredi and the Secular. Once there were indeed grounds. I well recall the antagonisms of the 1950s, when obstacles were put in the way of religious communities and all secular political doors were slammed in their faces. But that is long gone on a governmental level.

The other is the increasing extremism and influence of anti-Zionist Messianic ideology. The mood amongst many ( not all) Haredi communities around the world has been getting increasingly extreme. Whereas the grandfather of the present Vishnitzer Rebbe was very supportive of Israel and actually sent groups of young men into the army. His son no longer did. The grandson, who spent time in exile with his extreme uncle in Monsey, has become blindly antagonistic. Even the Belzer, once pro-Israel, has now threatened to take his Chasidim to the USA (as if a hundred thousand Jews in welfare are going to be welcomed).

It has become a religious principle to become more extreme and a political game to say “no”. So naturally, the secular ask why they should support and indulge those who refuse to share the burdens of the state. That is how Israeli politics gets so polarized.

The trump card is the dogma that the “Great Ones,” an oligarchy of outstanding rabbinic scholars (and no small number of rabbis who simply succeeded their fathers) have decided and they know best and we must just obey. In principle I do not disagree. But experts can also be wrong. And Judaism does believe in personal responsibility. I wonder if those who were alive in 1938 when “the Great Ones” almost to a man declared that it was safer to stay in Eastern Europe than leave, should have listened to them then!

And I cannot see how we can possibly negotiate with the Palestinians when we cannot even negotiate with ourselves!!

March 13, 2014

Carnival

The great “Carnivales” of the Catholic world have always coincided with the period preceding Lent, when the righteous avoid pleasures of the flesh and atone. You said goodbye to meat (carne) and you celebrated being forgiven your sins. Many Christian ascetics and killjoys objected strongly to the levity that came with carnivals. Indeed, in places like Venice they were occasions of mass debauchery. The tradition of wearing masks or dressing in disguise to preserve anonymity or to assist secret assignations came to be part and parcel of Carnivals to this very day.

The Bible knows only too well the link between religion and sexual impropriety. The Golden Calf led to an orgy. In the pagan world in general, religious worship involved “giving of oneself” to the deity, or its willing priests and priestesses, whether sexually or with defecation. Biblical Judaism was not opposed to fun and pleasure. But it did emphasize self-control and restraint. Time and again, the Bible admonishes the Children of Israel not to follow the corrupt religious rites of the peoples they were trying to dispossess.

Just as festivals of light were universal and each religion found its own way of celebrating it, so too carnivals were universal. This does not mean that each culture did not have its own and original reasons for celebration. Either you did win a battle against the Greeks or you didn’t. Either there was a plot to destroy you in the Persian Empire or there was not. But if the reason to celebrate varied from culture to culture, the carnivals came to resemble each other through the inevitable cross fertilization that comes when different cultures share the same space.

You will find examples of lights for the dead or covering mirrors to keep out evil spirits throughout the ancient world, long before they appear as Jewish customs. You will find lighting flames as the depth of winter approaches long before Chanukah was celebrated. And you will find masks and fancy dress and getting drunk well before Purim.

The fact is that for all the drunken excesses and self-indulgence of Purim, it has never been known as a time when sexual misconduct was rampant (one or two historical exceptions notwithstanding). If it happened, it was not part of the culture. As the Talmud says, you can judge a person by how he drinks; so too I would argue you could judge a religion by what happens when you remove restraints.

Purim has come to be associated with masks. Which normally means “to disguise” or “to cover.” It has different usages, but the one thing they have in common is that when you are masked, you are not whom you appear to be. No one was supposed to know who “The Man in the Iron Mask” really was! In a good person, disguise may be no more than a game; but in a bad person, such as a robber, you are covering your face to get up to monkey business. So it usually has been with carnival masks.

In general, masks and disguise have played an important role in religious ceremonies going back well before the Biblical period and all around the world. From Oceania to Africa and the Andes, they were and often still are used to control, to instill fear and obedience. Chiefs and witch doctors wear them to reinforce their authority. In Africa, to frighten and discipline the child, mothers often paint a frightening face on the bottom of her water container. In many cultures judges wore masks to protect them from the fury of those they punished and their families. Disguise and uniforms are associated with authority and power. And of course masks are still used in war to frighten the enemy or ward off evil spirits.

In the Bible masks only appear once. In Exodus 34: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in his hands, he did not realize that the skin of his face shone…When Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses and his face was so bright, they were afraid to come closer to him…So Moses put a mask/veil on his face. When he went in to speak with God he took the mask/veil off, until he came out, and then he put the mask/veil on his face again until the next time he went in to speak to God.”

This does seem strange. He was not wearing the mask to frighten anyone or to hide his identity. Quite the contrary. He was scarier without it. It seems he was wearing a mask in the way a disfigured person might to make him appear less alien. In his case the mask was making him more accessible. You might think that the process of religious inspiration itself was the scary part. Once you transmit it to ordinary people it is less frightening, but it is also less pure; it has been modified to make it accessible. This is why Moses is the only one in the Bible who wears a mask. He was uniquely close to the source. It’s a symbol of the degree of proximity and distance from the ideal. We all of us are somewhere along that line that runs from one extreme to the other.

That is why, even if the custom of masks and disguises on Purim has come from somewhere else, it still finds a place in our tradition. Just as pagan harvest festivals have been adapted to a monotheistic purpose, so too masks and disguise. We can all be Hamans or Mordechais. Different potentials lurk beneath our surfaces. It is up to us to choose which one, which mask to wear, for better or worse.

March 06, 2014

Who's afraid of Putin?

As I watched the Sochi Winter Olympics, I thought of Putin’s long shadow was cast, malevolently, over the construction, the management, and the security of the event. I wondered what act of aggression he would get up to next. His smirking, self-satisfied, bullying presence thumbed a nose at the civilized world as he gloated over his support for totalitarian regimes in Chechnya, Syria, Moldova, and Georgia. His malevolent involvement in other countries and the blatant way he suppresses and imprisons opposition at home are chilling. His KGB nature reveals itself for what it is. Well, now we know. A leopard and his spots!

By way of contrast, Obama’s incompetence, the way his naive worldview and credulity have made a fool of him, is equally frightening. It means there are no red lines, and no ally can trust that he will actually step up to the plate in a moment of crisis. Perhaps a little tokenism here, bravado there. But is the EU any better? They need their deals with Russia. They are being very circumspect.

There is another perspective. You could argue that Putin has backbone and determination in trying to reestablish Russia as a world power, to revitalize an ethnic culture and religion that had all but been eradicated by Marxism. You might argue that in supporting Assad, Putin is the only bulwark against extreme, violent Muslim fanaticism.

Meanwhile in the West, the liberal, so-called chattering classes, or politically correct world, perpetuate the myths of the old order, excoriating the United States and its allies and capitalism as the real oppressors. They are cowards who will refrain from boycotting Russia or China but prefer to bully smaller fry.

Then comes the Jewish perspective. We tend naturally to side with freedom. But the freedoms of the European Union have created a world in which Jews are increasingly marginalized and vilified and Israel is boycotted. Their religious practices are increasingly restricted. Putin, on the other hand, has been very supportive of Jewish life in Russia. Ironically, it might just be easier to be a practicing Jew in Moscow nowadays than in Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, or even Zurich.

We may cheer the Ukrainian opposition for trying to escape the Russian grip. But there’s another side to Ukraine too. The Chief Rabbi has warned that the lid the pro-Russian party kept on anti -Semitism is now lifted. Ukraine is arguably, more than any other part of the old Russian Empire, the cradle of the most virulent and violent anti-Semitism. It is the origin of the Chmielnicki atrocities (he is regarded today as a hero by many Ukrainians), the Beilis blood libel, and the Kishinev pogroms, to mention only the most notorious. Many of the demonstrators from Western, Cossack Ukraine were neo-Nazis and sympathizers; some wore swastikas and declared a desire to rid Ukraine of its remaining Jews (admittedly Eastern Ukraine and Western are very different) and the Cossacks are as divided as the Jews, some pro-Russian and others anti.

This has always been our dilemma. We Jews have to live somewhere. Nowhere is perfect. It’s often a matter of what compromises we have to make. So would you rather live under Putin? Not I.

Two and a half thousand years ago we were in a similar position. Yes, really. Egypt and Babylon were the two competing world powers. Both cultures were cruel, morally bankrupt but militarily strong. There were Jews living in both empires. The kingdom of Judah (the northern state of Israel had already been destroyed) was caught in between both powers, switching from one to the other as alliances were promised and then betrayed. We ourselves were torn apart internally; socially, religiously, and politically. In the end we backed the wrong horse. Despite being assured by our false prophets that we would be fine, we suffered horribly.

But thanks to the Persian Emperor Cyrus, Jews living in the Empire and in the renewed satrapy of Israel enjoyed an era of toleration. The Macedonian Alexander the Great followed suit. Toleration meant it didn’t matter what or who you worshipped, so long as you accepted the conqueror’s authority. Persia was an absolute dictatorship. Greece had a modified form of democracy. What Jews who lived under both regimes cared about was less the style of government than the practicalities of earning a livelihood. Conflict was over trade, rather than religion. But once again Jew argued with Jew, as the Maccabean revolt illustrated.

Under the Roman Empire, too, Jews lived and thrived, some in the East and some in the West. They had to choose which leader to back, of course. One moment it was Pompey. The next it was Caesar. I am sure they had PACS in those days too. Tensions between East and West resurfaced. Some Jews revolted against Rome and looked to the Parthians for support. Others, like Josephus, abandoned their people and chose to live acculturated in Rome. And there indeed they lived peacefully, flourished, and were (eventually) accepted. Then too disagreements between the Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora were common.

With the rise first of Christianity and then Islam, we (along with home-born heretics) were persecuted most of the time, occasionally tolerated, rarely accepted. So we kept on moving, when we were not expelled, which proved our salvation, searching for safe havens in and between the rival camps.

On to modernity. Jews living in Germany were sure their cultural tradition put them at the comfortable and safe center of civilization. Like Napoleon, they looked down on Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Jews fought on both sides in the First World War. Many supported the rise of fascism. And I recall both in England and Israel meeting refugees from Hitler who still believed that Germany was heaven, and Nazism had all been a terrible mistake.

I rehearse all this to make the point that we have always been faced with conflicting politics and realities and have tried to tread warily through the minefields. Sometimes we got it right. More often we got it wrong. I can’t think of a better example than the conviction of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, almost to a man, a hundred years ago that Eastern Europe would be safer for the Jews than anywhere else.

I am both rational and mystical. I am in part liberal and part conservative. The challenge most of us have is to make the right micro-decisions, even if we cannot make the right macro ones. If there is a metaphorical message in our holy texts, it is that in the end (and sometimes it’s a very long end) God (or history) sides with the ethical, regardless of their identity or their affiliation.