October 20, 2016


I have always thought it important to read opinions that conflict with mine, either to confirm my position or perhaps to reconsider it. A thinking person should always be prepared to examine his or her received opinions. So it was with eager anticipation that I read Lesley Hazleton’s Agnostic: A spirited manifesto.

I have known Lesley for a very long time as a very talented writer who has always held strong, contrary opinions, honestly and fearlessly expressed. I was not entirely surprised, therefore, to discover that I agreed with almost everything she writes.

In general, I approve of Voltaire’s, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” I am sure that is true of intellectual ideas. Less so about emotions, of course. Although they, too, can often be just as misleading.

One of the things I like least about Orthodoxy as currently practiced is this absurd certainty that so many profess, about issues that often the greatest of Jews were not so certain of themselves. Great minds like Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda Halevy, and Abarbanel, to mention only a few, were prepared to say that there were things they did not understand within the corpus of Jewish ideas and that even the prophets did not know the details of some of the ideas they preached. And that was precisely why there were so many different interpretations on such nonrational issues as the afterlife and resurrection.

Many theological issues that carry important messages in their abstractions are simply beyond us in rational terms. Yet children and adults are taught in religious schools or evangelical centers that they have to accept literal explanations and are often dissuaded from asking questions. This can lead to one of two possibilities: blind, unconsidered acceptance or rejection. Sadly, it is often the brightest who reject, and who can blame them? It is not surprising that such certainties have put people off organized religion.

As a recent Pew paper shows, for all the many that claim a belief in God, the different versions of what that actually means are often contradictory. Doubt is exciting and necessary when it accompanies an open mind. The Torah encourages children to ask why. The Seder revolves around asking questions. The Talmud in Sucot gives four quite contradictory interpretations of why we sit in a Suca. Is only one of them “the truth”? No one should be asked to believe in anything that doesn’t make sense to them on some level. But if the answer is, “Shut up and accept what I say without challenge,” a lively mind will just switch off.

It has become fashionable to try to use modern techniques to discover the religious gene or the way the brain reacts to prayer or meditation. Clearly some activities have a calming effect on the human brain. Praying for people can give those praying a sense of doing something to help. And people who receive blessings and charms can feel better even if it is psychosomatic or due to autosuggestion. One always hears about the few cases of success, rarely of the failures. Does this invalidate religion? Not necessarily. But it does raise questions that any thinking, religious person will want to find answers to. And it is of course perfectly legitimate sometimes to say, “I just don’t know.” The common response of religion to matters of faith is that they are beyond scientific verification. Even so, too much energy and effort is wasted trying to undermine scientific theories instead of focusing on the positive elements in religion.

But challenge popular myths and you will not be thanked. I have noticed that if I ask people to explain to me what it is they believe, they become uneasy and defensive. If I am critical of religious shortcomings, I often get the response, “Don’t we have enough enemies without you undermining religious faith?” As Ms. Hazleton points out, those who claim to possess certainty often hate to be challenged. She quotes Samuel Johnson, “Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.” And that's why religious rationalists get attacked so fiercely too, not just by fundamentalists but by ordinary people who want to feel secure in their belief that they are absolutely right.

Questioning does not necessarily undermine. It can help clarify. Finding gaps or problems with evolution does not necessarily prove that it was God who created the world. Antony Flew, the most famous atheist of my youth, now says he cannot believe the universe came about by accident. Neither can I! But that still doesn’t tell us who or what designed it.

I do find the agnostic position compelling. It contrasts to the absurdity of the atheist certainty “that not” and the fundamentalist certainty “that is.” Both exhibit the same absolutism. “I know for certain” always rings danger bells. What is wrong with saying “I honestly do not know”? So long as one is living an ethical and considered life.

Ms. Hazleton explores such feelings as being connected to the universe, in awe of nature, and similar attempts to describe what others call a religious experience. But none of these satisfactorily explain the persistence, even amongst rationalists, of a commitment to a religious way of life. Precisely because of the range of different experiences they engender and excite. In the end, the existentialism of experience wins over abstractions. I like to distinguish between rationalism and mysticism. Ms. Hazleton uses the word romanticism. She is indeed a romantic, as well as an honest doubter, and in my view that is an ideal position. It opens one up to a whole range of different experiences.

There are some minor cavils. For example, to say that the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria is the father of Kabbalah is rather like saying Martin Luther is the father of Christianity. It gives the impression of undervaluing all that went on before. Nevertheless, her book draws on Jewish and other sources from religion, philosophy, psychology and literature to create an entertaining and stimulating flow of ideas. It is a beautifully written, serendipitous exploration of doubting and questioning and allowing for the possibility of surprise.

And in our hectic life, having a row of festivals, each one standing in contrast to the prevailing society, it’s a perfect time to wonder why and to what end.

October 13, 2016


Between the two World Wars in Eastern Europe, yeshiva students used to entertain each other at weddings and other happy occasions with Gramen—rhymes in Yiddish prose or song that combined humor and scholarship. They were “party acts”. Now, with so many other forms of entertainment, the art is all but lost. Sad remnants are preserved at weddings in Chasidic circles where, at the very end (often at 5:00 in the morning), at the Mitzvah Tanz, a Badchan (a Chasidic-style court jester and amateur comedian), introduces guests and relatives with a few lines of rhyming verse. Nowadays they lack the skills of the past, so their rhymes are invariably banal, sycophantic ditties about how everyone is a scholar, a saint, a renowned benefactor. And the guests actually pay the Badchan for the honor.

Another old tradition of Jewish religious humor is the Purim Torah. Witty combinations of laws and ideas strung together in a nonsensical, humorous, but usually brilliant flow of Talmudic and Halachic texts. Alcohol helps; after all, nowadays that is what Purim is—a mixture of the spiritual and the profane.Standards have declined. My father was absolutely brilliant at both, in Yiddish and English. At weddings and at school parties. I have one record of a tour de force of his at a family wedding in the fifties where he succeeded in making fun of the other attending rabbis as well as the parents of the bride. But like all septuagenarians, I can look back and say that “fings ain’t what they used to be!” I, sadly, have dropped the baton.

This Jewish tradition was mirrored, in my youth, by brilliant non-Jewish or secular entertainers who combined academic and cultural excellence with musical talent. They were the stars of my youth, now long forgotten (though YouTube thankfully ensures they can still be found). Men like the American Tom Lehrer, a Harvard mathematician and satirical songster who used to pack auditoriums. And in England we had the brilliant Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Michael Flanders (1922–1975) was an actor and composer, and Donald Swann (1923–1994) was a pianist and linguist. Amongst their most famous are the Hippopotamus and the Gnu songs. Their version of Mozart’s Horn Concerto with comic lyrics still delights me. I still love their song about the awful British weather. Here are the words:

January brings the snow
Makes your feet & fingers glow.
February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.
Welcome March with wintry wind.
Wish you were not so unkind.
April brings the sweet spring showers
On and on for hours and hours.
Farmers fear unkindly May.
Frost by night hail by day.
June just rains and never stops.
Thirty days and spoils the crops.
In July the sun is hot.
Is it shining? No, it’s not!
August cold and dank and wet
Brings more rain than any yet.
Bleak September mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.
Then October adds a gale
Wind and slush and sleet and hail.
Dark November brings the fog.
Should not do it to a dog.
Freezing wet December, then
Bloody January again.

This is part of my multicultural upbringing. And this is how I remember the British weather, although as I write this I sit in New York under driving rain, and Britain sees much more sun nowadays than it used to, thanks to Global Warming ( for those who believe it). But still, this explains why praying for rain and the Suca experience (I can’t remember when we weren’t washed out) just did not resonate as much with me as it should have done. It wasn’t until, as a teenager, I experienced Sucot in Israel that I really understood why it was so relevant there.

Now, of course, rain/water is a massive issue almost everywhere in the world. What was once seen as a minority concern of a small people living in the Middle East is now universal. The genius of our tradition is that old customs and laws that were instituted thousands of years ago are just as relevant now as they were then. Everything the Romans laughed at the Jews for are now major preoccupations and issues in modern society. The original Romans are long gone, but we are still here (no more popular than we were then). And according to that most derisory of bodies UNESCO and its lies, we never even existed! Nearly as insane as suggesting that the Quran written over a thousand years later than the original text was the true version and the earlier one’s forgeries. Such its the state of madness in our world.At least the rain doesn't play politics.

Praying for rain, understanding its importance, the growing concerns over climate change and the state of the universe, are all issues that make Sucot even more relevant now than ever before. We need to be reminded. We need rituals to shake us out of our convenient stupor and tendency to do the least possible. This festival is about us and our position in the natural world and the importance of the decisions we take to preserve it or destroy it, for us and our children.

Happy Sucot!

October 06, 2016


Western entertainment seems massively preoccupied with dead bodies coming back to life. Popular horror films and television series regurgitate this very weird fixation. And there’s Halloween. Parallel with this is the increasing belief of many scientists that we are on the threshold of immortality. Modern medical science will enable us to live forever. We will never have to confront death. My rational self is just amazed, both by the ridiculous and the unknown.

During this time of the year we are reminded of a range of theological ideas that if taken literally, do not make sense. In most major religions, resurrection in all its wondrous, fabled manifestations plays a crucial part. Whether it is fear of death and the need to be reassured at times of loss, or the belief that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The ancient world believed in it. Think of the Pyramids. Christianity is predicated on it. This particular idea keeps on popping up. What are we to make of it?

In Judaism’s most repeated liturgy, the Amidah, “God, who enables the dead to live” is repeated at least three times a day, every day of the year. Yet no one throughout our history has successfully defined what it actually means. Perhaps it is no more than Elijah’s reviving an apparently dead child. Maimonides, writing about the tradition of the Messiah, but including the After Life and Resurrection, says, “All these ideas, no one knows how they will play out until they happen. This was something that was hidden even from the prophets….That is why there is so much disagreement.” (Laws of Kings 12:2)

The Talmud is mystified too: “Cleopatra the queen asked Rebbi Meir, ‘I can understand that dead people can be brought back to life, but will I come back with my clothes on or without them?’” No fashionista like Cleopatra would want to be brought back to life wearing clothes that were out of fashion. If it was meant literally, then of course we might wonder about the details. Do we come back as adults or babies? With plastic surgery, false teeth or limbs? Given that our bodies are constantly changing, growing, and decaying, at what stage of life? Or will we just rise from our graves as we were when buried? And what about all those thousands and millions of faithful Jews who were burnt to a cinder?

The Talmud, is divided. There are those who see resurrection as a national state, as the Prophet Ezekiel does, a nation reborn. Some rabbis said and resurrection was a “mashal”, a metaphor, a message that there is always hope and one should never give up hope—for cures, for rain, for life. Others say it means some miraculous intervention, an affirmation that there are forces, a force, in this world beyond our science and beyond our comprehension. Some people simply take it at face value and ask no questions. But that can be dangerous, particularly if you are a teacher.

Last week I was having a discussion with some young members of my community who went to a very good Jewish school in the USA. They raised the question of organ donations and told me that in their school the Jewish studies teachers told them that it was against Jewish law. Their teacher had said that when it comes to resurrection, bodies come back to life as they were at the moment of death, and if one was missing a crucial organ one would be resurrected without it. I asked them if they really thought that all those great rabbis and martyred Jews who had been burnt at the stake or incinerated would be denied resurrection. This, coming from an institution which prides itself on its high secular and religious standards. I then realized why I had heard that so many of its alumni were abandoning Orthodoxy.

I was so flabbergasted that I approached the rabbi of the school and asked him whether this was school policy or just one rogue (stupid/naïve) teacher. He promptly took out his US Organ donor card. I took out mine from the HODS the Halachic Organ Donor Society. He said he thought it important that we Jews be seen contributing to the pool or organs that we ourselves might need to benefit from. He said that it must have been a teacher in the much lower grades who would have said such a thing. We Jews come in all shades—the simple and the brilliant, the rational and the mystical. We are bombarded with different and conflicting narratives by rabbis who range from the brilliant to the stupid. But if we are mature adults we will listen, learn and make up our own minds.

Resurrection does not make rational sense. I often think of walking down High Street, World To Come and bumping into my late father. But I know it's a fantasy. How often do you hear it said that “your mother is looking down on you from Heaven”, as if she has eyes and a private space machine to follow you around.

Do our bodies come back with tooth veneers or rhinoplasty? Are we expected to understand these ideas the way they did then? Or should we try to make them relevant to us now? Do we simply accept age old theologies because we have to or because they can inspire us? If the most committed of us can agree that obligations in the Bible to destroy Canaanites no longer apply, or that if many of the punishments the Torah mentions were never expected to be carried out, can’t we say the same of ideas?

For me personally, Yom Kipur is a day of resurrection. It is a day when I descend to the depths of despair at the realization of my failures, mistakes, and inadequacies. I read the lists of all the possible errors the liturgy names. I wonder whether I deserve to live another year or why I was allowed to outlive my father by so much. This is a necessary, cathartic, and healthy process. It purges one’s black side. Though I approach the valley of the shadow of death, though I know I do not deserve it, I come back from the gates of Hell. The Day gives me hope, gives me life. Life goes on.

I know this process can be undertaken throughout the year, at any time and in any place. But the magic of Yom Kipur is that while we are all together during these 25 hours, the aura of the day weighs heavily on us. It takes us down, but then, magically, it lifts us up. That is resurrection.

September 29, 2016

A Jealous God

As we spend longer than usual in synagogues these coming weeks, one of the biggest problems for most Jews is the language of prayer—particularly if we only understand the English translations, which are really very poor and uninspiring. So much of the language, even in translation, is obscure, if not confusing. There are words used to describe God—like big, great, powerful, and awesome—that in English we tend to apply to the most trivial of things. And why the constant repetition?

Take opera, for example. Most opera lovers do not understand Italian. But those of us who love it listen to the sounds and rhythms, to the music. We relax and go with the flow. But if we could translate the words into English they would sound stupid. “Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, it’s done. It is done. No, you will not! You cannot.” Or “She’s my mother. She’s my mother. She’s his mother. She’s His mother. His mother, my mother, his mother, my mother.” It sounds so silly in English but can be elevating in Italian as an aria or duet.

Much of the prayer book is poetic language that does not translate well, without a sense of the nobility or rhythm of the original language. Given that the major Jewish texts began in a prerational, prephilosophical world and were sang or read and understood under many different cultures, it is not at all surprising that we nowadays, with our constantly fluctuations and changing usages and vocabularies, understand words very differently. The text of the prayers are preserved for valid historical and social reasons but the result is that they do not speak to most of us today . Words that once resonated with glory and nobility, like “king”, are now considered by many to be quite offensive, sexist, and politically regressive. Whereas once elegantly uniformed soldiers and household guards wearing fur busbies were objects of pride, dignity, and fear, today they are amusing tourist curiosities.

The Bible is full of anthropomorphisms. God speaks to Moses, mouth to mouth or face to face. He smells things; He stretches out his finger or His arm; He blows. No one seriously thinks God’s blood pressure rises when He is angry. Indeed, few think God is a “he” the way we use “he or she or it”. We understand that we have to use human language and that that language is designed for human activity and emotions, not intangible, nonphysical, mystical forces. So we who are both rationally and mystically animated find ways of understanding many biblical words as metaphors, and the same goes for the prayerbook. I am constantly faced with words that either upset me or sound archaic.

There are a couple of words that offend me and I think translation gets them wrong. And they recur in the services this time of year. One is the idea of “fearing God” (or one’s parents). Why fear? It sounds awful. Which parent nowadays wants to be feared? But in fact “fear” in Biblical Hebrew is the word PACHAD. The Hebrew word YIRAH, which is used of the commands relating to God and our parents, really means what we now call “respect”. But sadly when we read the English text, we get this very negative term, which really puts us off.

The other word is “zealous” or “jealous” as used of God, it all depends on what translation you have. As if God can be a petty human. The Ten Commandments include the phrase, “I am a jealous, avenging God, paying back the sins of fathers on their children.” After the Golden Calf debacle and towards the end of the book, God says he is a jealous God. This idea is repeated in the Torah.

To describe God as jealous offends my sensibilities. Jealous is not a nice word or a positive emotion. We understand that humans are jealous and sometimes rightly so but why would one want to ascribe such a feeling to God? Others prefer an archaic word we rarely use nowadays: “zealous”. Zealotry is used for narrow-minded extremism. It is used to describe Elijah’s or Samuel’s or indeed God’s battle against idolatry or Pinchas’s acts to defend Moses’s authority. But to apply it to God is metaphorical, not literal. What is more, the Torah in Deuteronomy also says, “Sons should not be punished for the sins of their fathers, nor fathers for the sins of their children.”

So why can’t we find a more appropriate metaphor in regard to God that does not offend modern thinking? We could take some of the negativity out of a word like zealous or jealous and use the softer expression of “caring”. It matters very much what happens, what humans choose to do. The Hebrew word KANA, the one the Bible uses and we translate it as jealous or zealous, is indeed used of a man being suspicious of his wife who has committed adultery. So one can see how it would be applied to someone who has betrayed God and been seduced by other gods.

But the common root KANA, can also apply to something straight and firm like a staff. Therefore it could equally be translated as “consistent or consequent.” This is precisely what the Torah means when it says, “…visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons.” It is not a judicial statement. It means that actions have consequences and that the consequences can affect the next generation, for bad as well as good. The text is therefore warning us to act with foresight and responsibility, otherwise the results could be disastrous if we make the wrong decisions.

Suggesting a different translation or meaning that previous generations did not is not disrespectful of tradition. It suggests that there are other ways of translating and understanding, in a language we are familiar with, while remaining loyal to the original intent.

So as you sit in the synagogue in front of a prayerbook that does not resonate, try to find specific words that interest you or strike a chord and reflect on them. Take them out of context and wonder what they could mean to you. Reflect on the text. Don’t be a slave to it. But don’t dismiss the text as pointless, meaningless, archaic verbiage.

The prayerbook was intended to be a menu, not a fixed meal. We inevitably face the challenge of making our ancient tradition relevant and appealing in a new age. We love the old and ancient, but we need to present it to ourselves in a language that appeals to our modern minds.

September 22, 2016


The Hebrew month of Elul which leads up to the New Year, brings daily shofar blasts, extra prayers, selichot, and the serious mood of awesome anticipation that replaces the carefree, happy, fun days of the summer season. But for me, Elul always reminds me of the birth of my passion for religion.

I was born into an Anglo-Orthodox family. My father’s parents had emigrated from Radomsk, my mother’s from the Ukraine. My father, although born in London, was sent to study in Mir in Lithuania and returned to eventually become the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London (to the right of the centrist United Synagogue). He left the rabbinate to found Carmel College, an English, residential, Public school, run on religious lines but mainly for non-religious boys. Thus I came to be brought up in the English countryside, far from any center of intensive Jewish life. And the lack of religious enthusiasm that most of my contemporaries evinced rubbed off on me. I was more interested in playing football than studying Torah.

I was sixteen when my father decided that I needed a change, so he packed me off to yeshiva in Jerusalem. The route to Israel in the 1950s was arduous. I was seen off at Victoria Station in London, went by train down to Marseilles, and boarded the Theodore Herzl liner to sail to Haifa.

Haifa from the sea was idyllic, with its golden Bahai dome halfway up the wooded Carmel. The port itself was rather different—coarse, hot, rushed, and frenetic. I was amazed to discover that wearing a kapel meant that I was looked at with scorn, jostled, and even told I didn’t need such a relic of the ghetto now that I was in Israel. In the fifties Haifa was the outpost of secularism. It refused to close public services and transport on Shabbat.

I was hosted by very kind ex-Mancunian friends of my father, who shipped me off after a few days, in a sherut up to Jerusalem to arrive in time for the start of the religious academic year, Elul. I arrived at Kol Torah Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. My father had picked it from the others because it was a new building and not too primitive for a relatively spoilt English kid. It was run by old colleagues of my father from Mir in Lithuania, and Dayan Abramsky, my father’s mentor, lived nearby. I found Kol Torah a bit too Germanic for my liking, and two months later I transferred myself down the hill to Be’er Ya’akov, which I adored. But a couple of experiences I had while I was in Jerusalem, had really profound impacts on me.

The center of the yeshiva was a huge hall where hundreds of young men were studying, shouting, arguing, and gesticulating in an atmosphere of noisy enthusiasm that was initially confusing and strange, so different from the decorum of the English academic tradition. But soon the freedom, the ability to argue, to challenge, to go to someone else for another opinion, the feeling of study for the pleasure of it, not the burden or duty, was liberating. Then at prayer time, to see the chaos transformed in to a solid, disciplined communal expression of concentrated spirituality, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in any synagogue ever in my whole life so far. This was stage one in my transformation.

The first Friday night the two other English boys in the yeshiva decided I needed further educating. Together we walked down the five miles to the Gerrer Chasidic center, which was then in Machane Yehuda. It was midnight; the building was crowded with hundreds of black-coated Gerrer Chasidim with tall fur spodiks on their heads, swaggering around the hall, erect, tummies stuck out in front of them, pacing up and down nodding to each other, altogether like a hive of busy bees. Suddenly there was a hush. In swaggered a small, little man, dressed in the same way as the others. Wherever he walked, the crowd parted. Like thrashing sardines in a net, they pushed back to make way. The rebbe strutted about; his look split through the throng, and everyone struggled back to get out of the way of his piercing glance. After walking around the hall, he retreated to a top table behind a wooden crash barrier. Everyone swept up to the barrier. Those behind pressed those in front to get nearer; young strapping youths hurled themselves over other bodies to get closer.

As a well-brought-up Englishman, I stood back from the fray. My rugger-playing friend grabbed me, and completely disregarding our staid English upbringing, we bored through the bodies to the front. There sat the Rebbe, protected by a wooden crash barrier, at a long table, with apparent clones, dressed identically, sitting solemnly on either side. The Rebbe’s assistant stood on a chair and called out individual names to come up for a glass of wine, then some challah. There was singing, strong martial rhythms; everyone joined in. Then silence. The Rebbe talked—quietly, briefly, something to do with the opening words of the weekly Sedra—in a yiddish I didn’t understand. Then singing again. Late into the night. The power, the control, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the ecstasy were totally unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere. Could this really be the same religion as the United Synagogue I knew in London?

The following day I was taken to lunch at Sam Khan’s. Sam was as far from a Gerrer Chasid as you could imagine. He was a German Jew who had fled to England, where his Germanic rigidity was softened by a dose of English reserve. and then he had come on to settle in Israel. He was as morally straight and correct and ethical a person as you could ever wish to meet, living modestly, a little haven of European Gemutlichkeit in a Middle Eastern turmoil of hot, nervous chaos. He devoted his life to others, to charities and good works, to saving others from poverty, from humiliation, and from missionaries. He and his wife had an open home and bestowed abundant hospitality, particularly on English waifs and strays.

Within a day or so, I was exposed to three entirely different paradigms of religious Jewry—the Lithuanian academic, the Chasidic ecstatic, and the Germanic controlled and highly ethical—all of them impressive in very different ways. I realized there was so much depth and variety and choice in Judaism, something I had no inkling of in the Britain of my youth. This was the first Elul I consciously remembered as a religiously positively experience.

Each year I try to recreate the excitement and the novelty of that year. Recurring routines, even annual ones, can be the same—boring, uninspiring—unless we try to make them otherwise. And the way to do that is to remember the positive, the happy and the good things in life.

September 15, 2016

Patriotism and the National Anthem

There has been a huge amount of debate in the USA following the refusal of a Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, to stand during the national anthem before a game. His supporters argue that the American constitution allows his freedom of expression (to protest the injustices faced by, mainly, the poor black minority in the USA) to override any offense he might give to loyal Americans.

He is not the first to do this by means. Megan Rapinoe, of soccer fame, refused too, but no one seems to have noticed. I well recall the famous 1968 protest at the Olympic Games where two black American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, stood on the podium during the national anthem and raised black-gloved clenched fists, also in protest of discrimination against blacks. They were standing during the anthem. In their cases, if I recall, hardly anyone came to their support, and they were vilified. The difference over the years in public attitude in itself might challenge the assumption that nothing has changed.

What is a flag but a piece of cloth? What is an anthem but a trite, banal song? Does it really matter? It is not the end of the world. But the answer is yes, it does.

I was brought up in the UK. I have witnessed the dramatic decline in nationalism of any sort. In my youth every performance at the movie theaters ended with the national anthem. No more. We never, ever took oaths of loyalty. Nationalism was regarded by the educated classes as, to quote Samuel Johnson, “The last refuge of a scoundrel.”

In 1933 the Oxford Union, the university undergraduate debating society, passed a famous motion that "this House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country". They voted that they would not. It made headline news at the time; Churchill called the vote "abject, squalid, shameless” and “nauseating". It is even said to have misled Hitler into thinking the British had lost the will to fight. Yet that same class, minus a few who became spies for the Soviet Union, did indeed go to war to defend liberty. And Brits in general do take pride in the Queen, even if they laugh at her handbag and don’t think much of her husband and family.

Nationalism mattered terribly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in Europe and Britain it is now almost the exclusive preserve of right-wing, racist, neo-Nazi neo-fascists. In Europe today the dominant political and administrative classes no longer see themselves as wanting or having to preserve any specific cultural, religious heritage, ideology, or loyalty. They are part of a wider, common, universalist, and indeed tolerant mindset (except when it comes to Israel). If they are culturally overwhelmed, they will accept it.

What of Israel? In 1948 Israel had to reestablish a nation out of disparate mixture of cultural and racial immigrants. Divided by a common religion, rather than united by it. So Israel needed to develop a civil religion based on nationalist symbols, the flag, Masada, the Holocaust, and the army to reinforce a sense of identity, mission, and culture. It succeeded admirably for its Jewish population. Less so for the others. Israel is indeed different than Europe and the USA, in that it exists specifically to reinforce and protect a specific culture and religion. Loyalty is a big thing.

Even so, Israel’s Declaration of Independence accords rights and equality to other religions, too. Whatever its limitations. Most countries of the Middle East do not afford the same rights to other religions that Israel does.

Yet many Jews disapprove of and disagree with the politics of the state, on the left and the right. The left has produced a fine array of antisemitic Israelis. On the right, xenophobia thrives. Neturei Karta will happily burn the Israeli flag. Hundreds of thousands of Charedi Jews refuse to serve in the armed forces, and some physically assault those who do. They will refuse to stand in silence during memorial days. Refuse to sing the national anthem. I and most Jews I know strongly disagree and disapprove. Not with their ideological position. They are entitled to that. But with their disparaging in public the state that protects and supports them financially and otherwise.

Every religion, every nation, every person functions on two levels: that of ideas and values and that of ritual and behavior. Many Jews love the ideas of Judaism but do not like adhering to rituals. Others live by the rituals but have great difficulty with some of the theological ideas. Regardless, we are all committed to being Jewish and are grateful for a place of refuge and somewhere to call our own, even if we live elsewhere. In the end, the rituals, be they religious or civil religious, are what reinforce that strange and wonderful thing called identity. I think certain things need modification and should be argued for. But in principle I stand for the rituals of the state.

The USA has its constitution, its laws, its rituals of behavior. Anyone living in the USA must adhere to its civil constitution. Freedom of expression allows for disagreement and challenge. We can be religious or not. Patriotic or not. In the case of Kaepernick, he can and should protest against anything that offends him. But there are certain relatively unimportant rituals that exist in American life designed to reinforce identity and pride in the nation, and I think he is wrong to offend those. Coming from Europe, one of the thing that strikes us is American pride—the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, singing God Bless America—even if we know full well the sordid side of its history. Silly as they are, they succeed. Most Americans are proud and happy to live here, and much of the rest of the world desperately wants to join them.

Whatever is wrong in American life, its laws are egalitarian, recognizing the rights of minorities racial or sexual. These rights are upheld by the Supreme court. That does not mean that hatreds, prejudices, biases do not exist. Human beings are messy things. I am not aware of any Jews refusing to stand during the national anthem because antisemitism has always and continues to flourish in the USA. We fight it. We set up organizations to combat it. But we are grateful for a country committed to law and equality of rights that has afforded some of us a home, a safe place to live and thrive. And we know full well how many were turned away trying to flee the Nazis.

American society has protected Kaepernick (as Israel has Neturei Karta), afforded him a safe, caring home, and a wealth-producing career. He should rail against racism. But not against a state that condemns it. Refusing to stand, as I see it, undermines the simple rituals that help bring so many disparate peoples together. It is this sense of American exceptionalism which is both offensive to some and affirmative to others. But any outsider coming from Europe recognizes a spirit of American pride that does not exist there. But it exists in Israel, too.

Keeping rituals in America and mitzvoth in Judaism are so important. Regardless of whether we think they are Divine or not, they help reinforce identity. Whereas vague ideas like human rights, Tikkun Olam, lovely and important as they are for humanity in general, are not enough to reinforce a specific identity. Conventions matter!

Unless America wants to go the way of Europe, it ought to expect (although I don’t believe it should compel) its citizens to respect its rituals, to stand during its national anthem, even as one protests at its injustices and limitations. And that goes for Israel and being Jewish, too.

September 08, 2016

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa has become Saint Teresa! Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in what is now Macedonia. She joined a religious sisterhood in Ireland and then took vows as a nun in India. She taught at a girls’ school in Calcutta for many years, then in 1946 she decided to devote herself to the poor and moved to the poorest part of the city, where she founded a religious order.

Over the years her devotion to the poor attracted worldwide attention. It became fashionable for the idle rich, aristocracy, and movie and pop stars to visit her for photo opportunities or to burnish their credentials. She became a celebrity. Travelled the world. Won the Nobel Prize. She expanded her order to become one of the most important in the Catholic Church. And she died in 1997. Not surprisingly, the Church fast tracked her “canonization”, as it is called.

It is a feature of saints in Catholicism that they must perform miracles to prove their supernatural power—something that went out of fashion in our tradition thousands of years ago. Our greatest of Biblical and Talmudic figures were shown to be human and imperfect. We ever had saints.

The Catholic Church is entitled to its own strange theologies, customs, and procedures. Unfortunately, we have borrowed the idea from them. Nowadays, any rabbi venerated by the Charedi world becomes the equivalent of a saint, in that the myths and stories of his absolute perfection in every possible area are enhanced and exaggerated. The appropriate term is hagiography (which originally meant writing the lives of Christian saints). It has now infected the nether reaches of our own tradition. Even the requirement of performing miracles to prove one’s supernatural powers has made a comeback in parts of our community. Going to a great one’s grave and pressing in a kvitel (a piece of paper with your Hebrew name and wish for the future) guarantees a miracle, apparently. And if not, no one ever mentions the failures.

Mother Teresa, of course, performed miracles. That’s what saints do! You have to if you want to get the title. Very often the evidence has been highly dubious. Several people have attested to the fact that she cured their cancers, while medical professionals on site claimed their treatment did it.

In the 1980s, when I indulged in a little interfaith activity, I heard her speak twice. Once in Oxford, together with the Dalai Lama (whom she considered a pagan), and another time with Chief Rabbi Jakobovits (whom she also thought would burn in hell because he had not seen the true light). Her theology was primitive, as was she. She said that contraception was exactly the same as murder. She accepted money from some of the worst offenders against human rights (but so do some presidential candidates we know about). I have to say I was horrified by what she said about abortion and her opinions on poverty and how it was a godly state, to be borne with fortitude, based on the certainty that they would be rewarded in the World to Come. Although I must admit I have heard some rabbis say that too.

There were voices that were raised giving another perspective. From Christopher Hitchens to Yogi Adityanath. Many in India saw her as figure of Western, white hypocrisy and a proselytizer for Christianity amongst the barbarians. There was criticism of her institutions for cruelty and inhumanity to children. Even the glorification of poverty was seen as inappropriate. She often said it was not her job to be a social worker. It is clear that there was another, harder, and crueler side to her.

As she grew older, her team began to address some of these issues and set about cleaning up her history and her persona. Yet she devoted her life to living simply and poorly herself and became and continues to be an icon of dedication and commitment. I should say I was more impressed by Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated his life to the lepers of Lambarene in Gabon (without his intellectual and cultural brilliance or his liberal theology).

I have no patience for saints. All the more so since so many of them were rabid antisemites. Besides, I do not believe anyone is perfect. Even sinners can do good. I certainly do not believe in brushing dirt under the carpet. And I just laugh at hagiography. So many people are lauded nowadays, idolized, for selfish feats of sport, music, and wealth-making. And yet the world for all its selfishness, has got better. Global poverty has shrunk over by half over the past 20 years. That’s an impressive figure. A new middle class is emerging, mainly in Asia, that is redressing the balance. Even so, one of the biggest challenges of our generation is the gap between rich and poor. Millions are without either drinkable water, shelter, or sufficient food, and have nothing of the social welfare safety nets we have in the West.

In our own Jewish communities there are many men and women who live lives devoted to good deeds and the welfare of others. We don’t call them saints. We don’t venerate them or expect miracles from them. But neither do we appreciate them sufficiently.

We, sadly, have sunk to the level where we venerate the people whop make big bucks, flaunt their donations and lord it over their communities. I believe in concept of the Tsaddik Nistar, the good person who is hidden from public view, who avoids the glare of publicity. Recognizing Mother Teresa as a person who did good deeds reminds us we ordinary people, too, can do something for those less well off than we are. Such people are the real heroes and saints of all of our societies. There are not enough of them.