April 28, 2016

What is Good?

The core question of any discussion about ethics is: What is “good”? If we humans think we ought to have some standards of behavior and this behavior is “good” (whereas going against it is “bad”), how do we decide what is good and what is bad?

Is it “good” if I kill grandma to eat her brains, because my cannibal tradition tells me that this is the way I can absorb her wisdom and life experience? Is it good if do not work on the Sabbath as defined by my tradition as being a Saturday, but not on Sunday or Friday? Is it good if I kill in self-defense, or should I rather be a pacifist and allow whatever happens to happen?

There is no way I am going to settle a debate that has raged on throughout human cultural history. It is no nearer being settled today than it was Moses introduced the Ten Commandments or when Aristotle wrote his Ethics two-and-half-thousand years ago. But the fact is that we all do have ethical systems one way or another, regardless of how well thought-out or consistent they may be.

I have dabbled with most theories. I once liked the idea of utilitarianism, that we should be guided by the greatest benefit to the greatest number. But then who would decide what benefit is? Is it pleasure, hedonism? What if most people are sadomasochists? And why should “number” have any significance in making ethical decisions? That is the weakness of democracy, of deciding “good” by vote. Hitler was elected democratically. Did that make his “good” more valid than Stalin's? My father often quoted the phrase, “Where the heart wants to go, the mind is sure to follow.” We humans have an infinite capacity to convince ourselves we are right to do whatever we feel like doing. How else does one explain a major philosopher like Heidegger justifying his compliance with Nazism?

Religion comes along and tells us that “the good” is that which has been revealed. And this revelation usually comes from some supernatural source. And each religion adamantly assets that its revelation is the only valid one. But on what basis do we decide to accept the revelation? Logic? Hardly. Accident of birth? Maybe, but look at how many people many switch in and out of different religious groups and sects and ideas. What happens when one religion insists on persecuting another one or killing its own heretics? Can that possibly be good? I know the persecutors think they are doing good and acting in the name of Allah or whoever. But do those who suffer from persecution believe it is good?

At a certain moment in my search for the meaning of life, I decided to commit myself to Torah. In principle it met my requirements for a coherent, adaptable ethical system designed to deal with every aspect of human behavior. It was like committing oneself to a marriage knowing one will have challenges and disagreements. I particularly liked the flexibility of belief, in that although there were a few very definite principles, they were not too rigidly or dogmatically defined, which gave one a degree of flexibility in deciding how to believe.

I soon realized that it was not black and white (what is?). On the one hand the Torah instructs us to follow all the commandments, and yet also insists on a further meta-legal dimension of “doing that which is upright and good”. Not only that but there were things commanded once that now had either been abandoned or simply cancelled. Where could one, should one draw the line? But who and how decided such matters? Was it public opinion, a select group of rabbis, accident or simply necessity? so how do we decide when things in the Torah are no longer applicable while others remain in force? The Torah itself says that such matters are decided by the judges, priests, or whoever is the authority at the time. So clearly there is a human agency here. But which humans? That is the question.

But isn't it simply a matter of following the law? Obviously not, if one can also be “an ugly person within the framework of the law”. Doesn't even the Torah itself refer to an external standard when it insists that its laws should appear to be wise in the eyes of “the nations”?

However hard religions try to justify their own absolute truths, the reality is that to some degree or another they are all subjective and we all struggle with challenges from within and without. No man is an island. It is understandable that any specific culture, religion or ideology will try to defend itself. Agreed principles and standards of behavior are the tools of social cohesion. That is why if one keeps one’s thoughts to oneself and follows whatever the specific behavioral rules are, one can be accepted almost anywhere (except by racists of course).

Yes, it is an undeniable fact that circumstances, pressures, and influences affect and impact on the greatest of rabbis however hard they might struggle against them. We do not believe in infallibility. at least officially. Though some rabbis nowadays claim it. To give an example, the most Orthodox of religious authorities have tried hard to ban or restrict television, telephones, and the internet. But the fact is as anyone familiar with the reality on the ground will tell you that, although there is outward agreement and acceptance, the restrictions are kept in the breach and overwhelmingly ignored in private.

Attitudes toward women are an example of a dialectic between the outer world and the inner that continues to be fought in various ways, and usually the full frontal attack is the one that fails. Religions tend towards the conservative, the secular towards the radical. Religions are too slow to adapt, but the secular is too impetuous and often proven as wrong with hindsight. The mere fact that the Torah can say that new situations will arise, new challenges emerge, and they should be brought to the authority of that particular time, means that someone has to arbitrate between the old and the new, and not necessarily always in favor of one or the other. Religion has as legitimate a role in holding back as the secular has in pushing forward. But do we have the right to question authority? In all humility I believe we do and should. With respect of course.

We ought not want our religious leaders to be like Medieval monarchs surrounded by sycophants and those who want to restrict access and other points of view. But conversely it would be ridiculous to think just anyone can challenge, any more than just any citizen can sit on the Supreme Court. In the end, community trumps individuality and if one wants to belong, somewhere, anywhere, there are conventions one has to accept.

The truth is that our “good” is made of different elements, different goods, the religious and the secular, all competing with each other; sometimes we tend in one direction and sometimes in another. Someone who gives greater weight to the religious can be said to be a religious person. Those who include no religious dimension are secular.

I suggest that almost all of us are on a complex, sometimes inconsistent spectrum in between. So Torah is my predominant arbiter of 'good' but I have also absorbed other values too. Just because the Torah has not specifically forbidden torture or rendition or greenhouse gasses this does not mean I cannot have other ethical positions that supplement Torah. In effect I have three “goods”: the good of Torah as law, the good of Torah as ethics, and the good of society in general. That is why I so distrust black or white. Life is not like that. Gloriously humans are not like that. One may not be able to resolve all conflicts but one must seriously try. Above all to try to be honest with oneself and others (at least in private)!

So whether you are keeping one day of Yom Tov or two or indeed none at all, try to be a good person too! Just make sure you think about what that means. Which is one of the things a festival is supposed to remind you about.

Chag Sameach or Hag Sameah!

April 21, 2016

Passover Madness

Pesach, indeed of all religion, defies logic. That does not make it any less significant, valid, or effective. The whole of mysticism, you might say all of our emotions, are the quite non-rational phenomena. Yet clearly Pesach works! But I want to say something about Pesach, so here goes.

Here is a religion that requires us not to eat leavened, fluffy bread, the luxury food of the upper classes in ancient Egypt. I can understand the idea. Bernie Sanders would understand the idea, if he thought about it. Egypt was a rich, indulgent society full of self-indulgent, heartless Wall Street and dot-com billionaires. To escape from its decadence, violence, prejudice, and corruption, the Israelite slaves were asked to leave town, eschew luxury, to start from the basics by eating unleavened bread to remind themselves of their Spartan diet and how one can, indeed, survive on less.

So now we have to get rid of any leavened foodstuff from our homes. We clean, we scrub, and we vacuum every nook and cranny. Even if the Talmud only tells us to go looking where there is a serious chance there might be some leavened stuff lying around, where maybe the dog or the parrot has it sequestered, we go one better and clean out our cupboards, our clothes, our bookshelves, our cellars, and attics, and storerooms. We go everywhere, even if there’s absolutely no chance any crumbs ever went within spitting distance, because nowadays we electric-wash and dish-wash, we sweep, we Dyson, and disinfect and debug. We zap it all up, relentlessly and with a vengeance. It’s good for us. We invented spring cleaning. It’s good for our homes, our hygiene, and our spirits. It reminds us of a spring, a new season, new life. “The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.”

We have to root out not just leavened wheat and grains, but also everything derived from it, even undrinkable alcohol. No whisky, but so what, there’s still wine (isn’t that fermented too?), vodka, vishniak, and brandies of various sorts. And because its infinitesimally likely that some crumbs of leavened bread might have snuck into the solid glazed dishes, stainless steel cutlery, and our granite countertops, we need to replace the lot for Passover. Or we have to boil, burn, scald, soak, whatever we can to purge whatever might still be attached despite repeated dishwasher boilings and hot rinses in detergent flavored liquid that would kill any last remnant of food desperately clinging into the crevices of your finest Christofle silver cutlery, Rosenthal crockery, and Le Creuset kitchenware.

We are worried that somehow leavened foodstuffs have found their way into aluminum foil, bottled water, toilet paper, plastic wrap, paper towels, teabags, coffee, milk, olive oil, salt, sugar, and honey. At least in the USA, the OU actually tells you that you don’t need special Kosher l’Pesach versions of any of these. But no, we will do it anyway. At least it’s cheaper than spending $30,000 to ship the family off to a luxury hotel in Israel. Unless it’s to find partners for your kids, in which case it’s cheap at the price. How many people can afford to be Jewish nowadays?

But wait! As TV vendors like to say. For reasons known only to conspiracy theorists, the poor Ashkenazim are not allowed to eat beans, corn, peanuts, sesame, sunflower seeds, all lumped together improbably and known as kitniyot, because they might be confused with or mixed with grains. So out goes your peanut butter and half your vegetables, which anyway you can’t have because nowadays everyone one of them from berries to lettuces to artichokes and broccoli are not allowed unless supervised and costing double, because they are otherwise infested with microscopic bugs so there’s no way you can be trusted to clean them.

And somewhere in the last century the extremely remote danger of uncooked matzah becoming mixed with liquids and rising created a new refinement called Gebrokts (mixing little pieces). No produce on Pesach should contain matzah or matzah meal mixed with juices or other liquids. What once only a Chasidic minority bothered about this, now the whole world has to be careful about it, and Chabad Chasidim even eat their matzah into paper bags to ensure none falls on the floor and into a puddle. I kid you not!

So having driven yourself crazy and spent a fortune on Kosher l’Pesach imitation muesli, fake hamburger buns, ersatz pizza, and cured kosher bacon supervised by the Almighty Himself, you go out to buy special Shmurah Mazah (or, as we used to call it, “dog biscuit”), for the seder, that costs several times the old Bonns, Rakusens, Manichewitz and Streit’s stuff, because teams of supervisors have gone out to farms in hot, dry climes to make sure the wheat grew without any water touching it, so that it can be harvested and winnowed and ground and sifted into strictly “guarded” flour that will be mixed with supervised water, Mayim Shelanu, that was not left uncovered uncovered overnight and will be hand baked in supervised ovens for no longer than 18 minutes and the utensils cleaned thoroughly in between to come out costing an arm and a kosher leg. All of this naturally will keep hundreds of penniless ultra-Orthodox families (plus the businessmen who run the show) for six months until Sucot, when the Lulav and Etrog business takes them through the next six months.

You will gather round the seder table (or tables) to discuss the Exodus and the Torah, but whatever you do, you cannot ask inconvenient questions, only the four of “Mah Nishtanah”, because Heaven forbid you might challenge religious authority or prevent the hungry from getting their food. Even if the Talmud says quite explicitly that any questions will do.

You might wonder how it is possible to imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt as the excessive quantities of food are brought in from your special Kosher l’Pesach kitchen that you had built in or onto your little palace. Or you may start the recital of the Haggadah by inviting the poor to join you in the banqueting suite of your five-star luxury hotel in the Caribbean enjoying all the excessive materialism the twenty-first century has to offer. And you will know that no poor people will come within a mile. You might even wonder how an ordinary Jew struggling to pay his taxes, educate his kids and fend off importuning rabbis could possibly afford to keep the festival altogether. The slaves coming out of Egypt could at least afford a sheep per family. Most of us couldn’t, with prices as they are now. We can barely afford to live in a Jewish community. Perhaps that’s the real slavery.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this is not all madness in the name of religion, I don’t know what is. Yet Pesach is amazing. It is one of the highlights of the Jewish year. We talk about it, tell stories about horror guests and boring speeches and child performances and stolen Afikoman ransomed for a fortune. We will recite, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and you God keep on saving us from their hands.” We will end with the two-thousand-year-old prayer the UN does not want to hear: “Next year in Jerusalem!” And it will tide us over the summer, if we are not filing for bankruptcy. It is one of the core experiences that defines Jews and differentiates those who care from those who are not committed to Jewish survival. We Jews have always defied logic, odds, history, fate. That's who we are. Because we are a small nation of barely 14 million producing scholars, rabbis, artists, musicians, Nobel prize winners, billionaires, dot-com moguls, settlers, nationalists, criminals, politicians, outreach pioneers, and more than our fair share of meshuggenehs (crazies). We survive and thrive despite all the billions who desperately want to see the back of us.

We know we can’t rely on others or on the miracles of those days. Even God sometimes hides from us. No, it’s not logical, and it is strange, and weird, and a beautiful experience, and we do it all regardless of whether it is logical or not. Because that’s who we are.

April 14, 2016


The case of an Israeli soldier shooting an injured, disarmed, terrorist has divided Israel along the usual and predictable lines.

Those who are sensitive to ethical considerations regret and deplore the act. They are impressed that the armed forces as well as the civil have reacted swiftly to condemn it and they have charged him. If the enquiries reveal that the terrorist was indeed no longer a threat, then they will find the assailant guilty and hopefully take strong measures, because such action goes against the standing orders of the Israeli armed forces as well as Jewish religious law and Israeli civil law. Those who care will be gratified that Israel once again proves itself morally superior to the countries and cultures that hate and threaten it by having such standards and being willing to enforce them. Even if questions will remain about the punishments which too often are just token.

The soldier remains in detention. Until the evidence is in and has been tested, I am also prepared to accept that Israeli soldiers and civilians are in constant danger of being assaulted by terrorists with murderous intent and have every right to defend themselves. We have seen videos of terrorists shot and wounded getting up and then stabbing to death an elderly by-standing scholar. So when in doubt, I am in favor of playing safe.

I also recognize that in circumstances of attacks and heightened fear, even neurosis, people may act out of irrational and zealous passions and that this needs to be taken into consideration—again, depending on the circumstances. I am glad and proud that senior politicians and the head of the armed forces take the views I have outlined above.

Unfortunately, there are other voices I find offensive. Let me start with the ones that offend me less, only because I have no moral expectations of crude, insensitive yahoos of limited intellectual discernment. There have been protests and demonstrations in support of the soldier. That is as much a right in a democratic society as are those demonstrations against taking a human life unnecessarily. But the arguments presented are fatuous. Some have tweeted and posted comments claiming that they will now refuse to serve in the armed forces, because by prosecuting the soldier the army is showing it cares more for terrorists than it does for soldiers doing their duty. Some have said that any terrorist initiating an attack deserves to be killed regardless.

Another argument is that even when a terrorist is disabled he may well remain a threat and possibly become a hero and encourage others to violence. There needs to be as much deterrence as possible and summary execution is one and it ought to be carried out in all cases. And finally the only response to violence that a violent person recognizes is violence. Since the rise of Arab nationalism and the constant use of violence against Jews, we must use similar violence back…and so on, ad nauseam.

In any society there are rotten apples, different emotions, as well as an unthinking mass which fails to consider what it is saying and thrives on simplistic slogans. And there are always those in any society who just love the visceral thrill of aggressive language and brute mentality.

But I am much more disturbed by the expressed opinions of several significant rabbis (though in this context I do not know what “significant” means) that this act of execution was permitted by the Halachic principle of self-defense. Or, to quote the Talmudic source, “If someone rises to kill you, you must kill him or her first.”

I will not attack the claimed sources of these views by name, because I have not heard them first hand. I know full well how often the press, such as the New York Times, distorts, twists, and takes out of context. So I don’t believe everything I read, and I reserve my position. But if they did say this, the fact is they are simply wrong. Jewish law is quite clear.

The law of self-defense allowing you to kill someone attacking you with clear intent to kill (or rape or do grievous harm) only applies if you are the intended victim. Otherwise, if it is to protect someone else, your obligation is to stop, to disable, not to necessarily take a life. Here the soldier was no longer in danger of being attacked. The review will reveal if he feared the possibility of an injured person moving to detonate a hidden bomb. Even if someone else yelled at him to shoot. Even so if he thought he heard someone tell him to fire on a disabled man, he cannot claim “superior orders”.

The other argument is that the terrorist has forfeited his legal rights simply by being a terrorist, but there is no such halachic principle. Under the Talmudic principle of a Ben Noach, any human being who adheres to the Seven Basic Noachide commands as enumerated in the Talmud in Sanhedrin has certain rights to be treated according to basic Jewish law. Perhaps naively, I expect rabbis to provide a moral halachic lead. Sadly, too many of them have been so morally crippled or traumatized by the horrific experiences they have undergone or witnessed that their judgment has been compromised.

The rise of Arab nationalism brought violence against Jewish nationalism, and now they are locked in a deadly game of tit for tat, rival claims. Two people claiming the same home. Obviously I am biased in my side’s favor, just as I expect a Palestinian to be biased in favor of his. But that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for a solution. Unfortunately, when both sides have those who preach hate and approve of killing gratuitously, a solution seems as far off as ever. Regardless, we must preserve our humanity. I do not want to see my people dragged down to the lowest and most brutal level of some of its enemies.

April 07, 2016


Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches!

Shrinks; The untold story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind”. Is it science or fantasy, medical or quackery?

We have discovered prehistoric attempts to bore into skulls that we assume were attempts to correct mental disorders. But at the same time we have continued to argue about what we mean by “the mind” and how we categorize or explain what are mental disorders.

We used to abuse what we called the village idiot, shackling him to the wall, dousing him with cold water, or exhibiting him to the public like a wild animal. Then we “progressed” to removing organs, cutting out parts of the brain, and passing electric currents through him. The cruelties we have done in the name of medicine is as inhuman as the experiments that the unspeakably evil apology for a man Josef Mengele inflicted on Jewish children in Auschwitz.

Sigmund Freud who introduced the “talking cure". Josef Breuer had initiated Freud into the idea, and then Freud took it much further. If one was showing signs of neurosis, dysfunction of the mind, it was because from our birth we have found ourselves wanting or fearing sexual issues. If we were unable to achieve or escape these urges, they would be deflected and turned in on ourselves, thus hampering “normal” development. Dreams were ways to discover what was going on in the inner recesses of a person’s mind. The value of a patient talking about his past was that this way he would come to recognize and accept what these urges were and how dreams and other “tells” revealed them. Thus the patient could understand and purge his mind of the the guilt that was causing these problem inside.

Like most great innovators, Freud had his weaknesses. Everyone had to agree with his system of thought. So that when Carl Jung, the great Swiss doctor, disagreed with the primacy of sex in Freud’s system and wanted to take a more spiritual approach, Freud threw his intended successor out of the Psychoanalytic Society, which he had founded to create a new profession. Freud had criticized religion for being preoccupied with petty little differences. He was guilty of precisely that, with his new anti-religion, and initiated a witch hunt against anyone who disagreed with him. After his death, the system he tried to control split into rival camps. Charlatans and crackpots began to give the whole system the air of lunacy. Yet there is no doubt he radically changed the way we think about mental issues.

In the USA, the American Psychiatric Association grew out of an organization set up in 1844 to deal with the insane. Then the dominant approach to mental problems was that insanity was simply a disease. The field was so ill-defined and open to abuse that there was a need to try to document what were regarded as problems. Hence the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, became the profession’s bible. But it too has always been controversial and patently wrong in so many areas. Lieberman’s book goes through the history of the titanic struggles (often more personal than scientific) to accommodate new theories, modify old ones, and adapt to chemical solutions.

Psychoanalysis made inroads into American medicine as the refugees from Vienna arrived before and during the Second World War. Even so, it was regarded askance. To see a psychiatrist was a sort of blot on one’s sanity, and some people often hid their visits from friends and colleagues for fear it would affect their careers and marriage prospects. The term “shrink” became fashionable. They were regarded as primitive medicine men, like witch doctors with their shrunken human heads strung around their necks.

Psychiatry has gone through many phases and internal conflicts. The latest is the excessive prescription of medication. Simpler and less time consuming. Yet psychiatry and psychology have played a part in almost every area of activity, from business to military torture, from public health to personal insecurity. It controls the ways we buy and think. And yet there still remains something of a stigma.

Despite it all, talking to someone remains very popular, whether one goes to a trained psychoanalyst or psychiatrist, a life coach, a clergyman, or any good listener. Some find cures, others find comfort, and many become dependent. And yes, snake oil salesmen, charlatans, and frauds continue to proliferate.

Whereas in medicine it is possible to see whether one is being effective or not, in the talking cure it is not so straightforward. As a headmaster and rabbi, I used to encourage people to see professional psychiatrists if they were troubled beyond my expertise. Yet I do not recall any cases where I thought there were any tangible improvements or benefits. Too often it became an excuse and a prop to avoid confronting reality.

One can argue about brain and mind and what the difference is or is not, but clearly humans are complex beings. All the more so as we hear more and more about how we can alter our brains biologically. It is very important to ensure that the non-rational, non-medical, spiritual side of person’s being should be attended to. Jung wins over Freud on this one!

I value doctors of the body (though I do not worship them), so why shouldn’t there be doctors of the soul (as Maimonides called them)? The fact that pastoral work is still very much in demand only suggests that, at the very least, the need for people to talk to those who will listen is a significant part of human wholeness.

Religion used to, and still can, play its part. A caring pastor needs some training in understanding how human beings work. We ought not to disregard it, any more than we should scientific medicine. But as with conventional medicine, one must not think there is only one infallible way. Natural cures are not pointless. There is room for other forms of therapy and help when people suffer from whatever the ailment. Some practitioners still are shrinks, manipulators, and more interested in money than people, but others are doctors of the mind—both physical and spiritual. As in any sphere, one has to do due diligence and sort out the good from the bad.

March 31, 2016


Caught between alternative moral positions, how does a thinking person determine what to do?

Of course, your average person cares more about drink, sex, and sport and couldn't care less about value thinking. For those of us who do, however, the process of self-analysis constantly forces us to examine. If you were a philosopher you would want to think the process through rationally. If you follow, a religion the answer should be simple: Do as you are told. Except that in both rational and non-rational cases there are alternatives within the very structures you chose. Every religion, indeed every movement, has its extremes and variants in both directions. The challenge is to decide where one stands on the spectrum and which of the alternative approaches, rational or non-rational, one feels more comfortable with. And I am a firm believer in choice!

Variations existed and continue to exist in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Over time the pendulum swings from one approach to the other and back, from one thinker, exponent, or sect in fashion to another.

We are currently in the midst of an important paradigm shift. On the one hand the rational and scientific, on the other the mystical and emotional. For some the material is the only one that counts. For others logic is anathema. The sad fact is that most people think they have to chose one or the other. And there is another contrast, that of strictness and insularity (although the two do not necessarily always go together) as opposed to leniency and universality. All these different positions tug at our consciences, if we have them.

The Renaissance introduced the idea of humanism into the Western world. The idea that instead of the Church or religious authority deciding for you what to do and think, human beings should be able to decide for themselves. Initially humanism was seen as being anti-religious for challenging its authority. Slowly it began to morph into the assertion of human responsibility for uneasy coexistence alongside the old.

The pendulum began to swing during the nineteenth century. Science undermined the idea of anything special about human beings. We were just sophisticated animals. Marxism undermined our ideas of how a state should act. Freud told us how unaware we really were of our own minds. And nationalism taught us that nations mattered more than individuals.

Philosophy too went through fundamental changes. The great theoretical thought systems of Spinoza, Hegel, and Kant (attempts to explain it ALL, to find THE solution) were challenged by the empirical ideas of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. It seemed that the world of thought was divided between abstract continental thought and practical Anglo-Saxon realism.

The twentieth century introduced two important philosophical movements that opened up new vistas for the thinking person. The catalyst for innovation was the culture of the German speaking peoples. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was the genius of Linguistic Analysis. Born in Vienna, he argued that philosophers had become preoccupied with theories rather than the meanings of the words we use to explain them. Whether in a religious or secular context, words and terms like God or Society, Good or Evil can signify different things to different people. How could one have a debate if one could not agree on what exactly one was talking about? WE are still arguing about what we mean by “belief” or “faith.” Besides, words do not have meanings. They have uses and usages may vary and be beyond definition or category. For instance, what do we mean when we say something is a game?

In Vienna the Logical Positivists thought that sentences and statements that could not be verified were “meaningless.”This consigned all talk about emotions, mysticism, and abstraction into meaningless statements. The realization that thought and language were inevitably interconnected led to Moral Relativism; that anything could be right or wrong depending entirely on how I or you might decide.

Parallel with this stream of philosophical development, the European continent gave birth to another—that of Phenomenalism, and through it, Existentialism. Starting with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) Phenomenalism focused on the individual and how he or she experiences the universe. We only know for certainty what we experience ourselves. We extrapolate and assume that others feel and think the same way. Such a personalized way of looking at the world left it open to distortions.

Jean Paul Sartre, a brilliant, complicated French thinker together with Simone De Beauvoir were regarded as the prime movers of Existentialism and a tradition of disregarding and rebelling against authority. Sartre flirted with Communism, but eventually repudiated it. He was also a staunch defender of Jews (see his Anti-Semite and Jew, 1948). His philosophy inspired a whole generation to justify personal self-expression and attack convention and expectations. Of course, such idealism conflicts with many of the norms societies impose simply to protect one person from another. Nevertheless, it offered an alternative to overarching grand theories of how people ought to behave.

This dichotomy between systems or norms of different kinds and individuality is now the ideological battleground of the world we live in in the twenty-first century. We are caught between those who want to impose their orthodoxies on us ( right or left) and those who want complete freedom from almost any limitation.

Those of us who love religion (with qualification), struggle to hold the middle ground between the extremes. Yet in Judaism today this is the very core existential struggle. Here, of course, existentialism has another meaning—that of survival, existence of a people, as opposed to the validation of one’s own private freedoms and experiences.

In ultra-Orthodoxy (and ultra-nationalism) total obedience is required. Knee-jerk acceptance of nostra with no questions. In reform movements, autonomy, the right to choose, is the password. Anything one doesn’t find convenient one can jettison. For people like me, a balance between them is the Golden Mean. I would argue it always was.

I fear intellectual inflexibility wherever it is found. I accuse the vast majority of the thinkers of Western Civilization as being inflexible and doctrinaire, too. Just look at academic life.

I claim that religion has no business giving absolute and definitive answers to abstract issues. It can posit what it sees as crucial. But many of such points are simply not open to debate. The role of religion is to recognize a spiritual dimension which is not subject to material, scientific enquiry. That is why philosophy has never challenged my religious faith. However religion does try to provide a way of life, a framework for living that recognizes obligations, patterns of behavior, and physical boundaries. To do, more than to theorize.

As the Mishna says, “It is not the mental activity that counts, but behavior.” And, “Do not (spend your time) asking what is above and below, behind and ahead.” It's the present and how we deal with it that is the challenge.

I appreciate Existentialism for its validation of individuality and I value religion teaching us how to live and cope.

(If you are interested in exploring existentialism in a not too heavy way, I heartily recommend At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell.)

March 24, 2016

Why I Don’t Criticize Israel More

Once again I feel the need to defend my position on Israel.

I do not identify with the political climate in Israel today nor with its government. I do not approve of occupation or discrimination. I find extremism of any kind repulsive and offensive. I believe that risks need to be taken for peace, though not irrational ones, and Palestinian rights should be validated. I also believe that if there can be Christian countries, Muslim countries, and countries of other religions, there can be nothing offensive in having a Jewish state. But I find the rising tide of condemnation excessive, unobjective, ideologically animated, and undermining of our rights as Jews to exist within the safety of our own borders.

As in the USA and Europe, in Israel there are right-wing and left-wing extremists. There is aggression and caring humanity. There is discrimination that must be combatted, irrational hatred, and dysfunction, and gross materialism. These things do not necessitate delegitimizing a national entity.

I find much of the critical attacks on Israel offensive and a balanced, sane dialogue totally absent. One-sided hatred is an offense to intellectual honesty. As often has been said, much of the bias comes from within. I do not for one minute impugn or dispute the genuine pain that a lot of critics feel at both the occupation of the West Bank and the often aggressive behavior of soldiers. Neither do I like to use such indefinable and vague slurs as “self-hating”. Many opponents are perfectly at ease morally and as Jews with their positions. My issue is balance and objectivity.

The New York Review of Books (not quite as shameless as the London Review of Books) regularly publishes articles by well-known activist and critic of Israel, retired Hebrew University professor David Shulman. I read them because I want to know the other side. My argument is not with his citation of examples of bad Israeli behavior, but with the fact that his pain and justifiable anger leads him to feed misinformation.

In this month’s offering, he writes in support of the Palestinan authority: “No one has been executed in Palestine in the last ten years.” This is patently not true, and a quick internet search will show that. I guess he also thinks there is no corruption, either, or if there is it must be Israel’s fault.

And, “The goal is ethnic cleansing.” Really? Perhaps he can explain why there are still Israeli Arabs living in Israel and millions of Palestinians still living on the West Bank and why the Supreme Court is challenging Netanyahu’s desire to expel certain families of terrorists to Gaza? If Israel was really trying to ethnic-cleanse, how come they are still there after all this time? If Israel is such a powerful and evil adversary, it is clearly a highly incompetent ethnic cleanser.

To use such a loaded expression as ethnic cleansing is a libel. All governments sometimes move people from certain areas for security or development. This is not ethnic cleansing any more than confining citizens to their own quarters until there is a peaceful settlement is apartheid. The only ideological apartheid is the Palestinian authorities insistence that it wants no Jews at all in its territory.

“In September it looked as if Israel was about to change the status on the Haram Al Sharif.”

“Looked” to whom? There is no documentation of any such “look” on the part of Israel. It is true some fanatical activists tried to pray on the Mount in defiance of Palestinian wishes, but there was no government support even for something as innocuous as that. It was entirely a myth whipped up by pseudo-religious agitators to cause trouble.

“Blacklist of books that are to be banned from the curriculum.”

Another lie. The minister ordered that certain books that paint Israelis in a negative light should not be subsidized by government funds and should be removed from the compulsory curriculum. Now, I do not agree with this, but it is certainly not the same as banning, say, in the way that Hitler or indeed the popes used to ban literature they disapproved of and burn books. There was no ban on children reading whatever they wanted to.

“The persecutor of millions of Palestinians entirely without rights.”

Really? What about those millions of Palestinians who are under Palestinian control, ceded by Israel, which only reserves the right to pursue military objectives? Who is responsible if they have no rights or if their leaders corruptly misuse funds and feather their own nests?

He complains about treatment of suspects in Israeli prisons. Indeed he should. Prisons anywhere are ghastly institutions, and abuse of all kinds is endemic throughout the world. In Israel the Right Wing complain just as much that their members detained and imprisoned for terrorism are treated just as badly. My point is that both sides have a legitimate claim, but why only attack the abuses of one side? Attack them all.

There are such oft-repeated canards that Jews and Muslims cannot marry. It is true that Israel has no civil marriage (along with tens of other countries). I deplore this myself, but if that is the choice of most Israelis that is their business. The only marriage for Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Israel is religious, a system continued from Ottoman days. If a Muslim and a Jew want to marry each other, one of them has to join the other’s religion. Then they can marry in Israel. Indeed, each year many Jews (mainly women, interestingly) do marry Muslims and Christian Arabs in Israel. The people who suffer most are secular Israelis who have to go to Cyprus for a civil marriage (which is then recognized in Israel). But that is an internal political issue that every country has the right to decide for itself.

You might argue that such discrepancies or inaccuracies fade into insignificance compared to the evils of occupation, and that may be true. But occupation itself is only the result of a failure to reach an agreement, of which both sides are at least equally guilty (although I do believe the Palestinians are more to blame for holding out for a better deal).

Yes, Israel is the stronger, when set against the West Bank and Gaza. But one needs to realize that the opposition is not just them but thousands of well-armed, well-financed, and ideological maximalists who declare that they want Israel destroyed and millions who want Israel driven out. Thus is indeed an asymmetrical struggle, but not in the way opponents of Israel frame it.

There are ideological battles. There always have been between different worldviews. Israel itself has always been riven between religious and secular, left and right, and they all fight each other with all the intellectual and political tools at their disposal. That is what makes Israel so great and so frustrating. For those of us who seek honest objectivity, the struggle is to maintain balance and the middle ground. That is why I refuse to allow either extreme to pull me towards it.

March 17, 2016

Purim; Serious or Fun?

There is trend in certain quarters to look at the story of Purim as one of Jewish aggression, the murder of innocent Persian non-Jews, antagonism to outsiders for no valid reason—the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are evil. Some Jewish academics have focused on the “brutality” of killing Haman and his sons and of killing men, women, and children. Elliott Horowitz haswritten one entitled Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. But if one looks at the text honestly and objectively, it is as far from the truth as black is from white.

The story, apparently, takes place in Persia some 2500 years ago though the historical facts are unclear. The first part of the story is comic. A drunken King Achashverosh spends a good portion of the year partying. He deludes himself that free orgies for his administrators and subjects will keep them loyal and avoid plots. He has civil laws that are frankly ridiculous, like never being able to retract an order once given.

He loses his temper with his tempestuous Queen Vashti who tries to stand up to him (once again we are not entirely certain why). He fires her, but then the poor fellow gets lonely and misses having a wife. Clearly he has deep relationship issues. He cannot act. He needs the advice of his various sets of seven cronies and is so insecure he has to decree that all wives must obey their husbands. The young men about town suggest he gathers as many virgins as possible from throughout his realm. They are submitted to a twelve-month regime of cosmetics and oils before being allowed to spend the night with the king. He has to pick just one to be his queen. The rest are carted off to incarceration in his harem. But even after selecting Esther he continues to gather virgins for his own pleasure (and probably that of his inner circle, too).

There is an undertone of insecurity and the next part is ominous. Jews are reluctant to admit who they are. The Royal Guardsmen want to assassinate the king. And then this mindless sop is so short of cash he gives his approval to genocide. Kill all the Jews, and confiscate all their property. The bad guy who persuades him, and pays him for the privilege, is Haman—another browbeaten macho who is under the thumb of Zeresh, his wife. Thanks to to Esther (is that the new queen, the evil of Haman’s plot is revealed. Unable to retract his initial command, he issues a second decree that the victims can defend themselves, and everything ends happily for everyone. Except he increases the taxes to enable him to go on feasting. You might call that the Persian dimension. Love of wine, women, and a good time are a feature of Persian life, Jewish and non-Jewish, to this very day. And the bad guys are eliminated.

Now the Jewish dimension to the Megilah. Both Esther and Mordechai carry the names of Assyrian deities. Were they so assimilated? Jews, feeling insecure, keep a low profile, even hide their identity. When Esther is taken into the palace, Mordechai warns her not to reveal her origin. Only Mordechai, thinking he is fighting a lone battle, publicly refuses to bow down to the egomaniac prime minister. Although Mordechai has proved his loyalty by saving the king from a plot hatched by his palace guard, he did not calculate on Haman’s ideological anti-Semitism. Haman doesn’t just try to eliminate Mordechai. The case Haman makes out to the king is that Jews are different. They are all untrustworthy, disloyal, and a danger to society. In other words, as totally wrong and irrational as anti-Semitism is today.

Mordechai tells Esther she must act, otherwise all they can do is pray. It is Esther who risks her life to get to the king. She softens him up with alcohol and then reveals Haman to be the real threat to the king (after he has revealed his designs by asking the king to let him ride the royal horse through the capital). The Jews are saved. Mordechai and Esther are the human tools of salvation. But the unspoken name of God lurks in the background, hidden (Esther’s name means “I hide”.) but pulling the strings. Jews survive both through their own efforts and Divine intervention. Purim means lottery, but there are two—the human one that fails and the Heavenly one that succeeds.

To end the book there is a sad reflection on Jewish life then and now. When Esther and Mordechai try to institute an annual festival of commemoration, they cannot succeed in getting all the Jews to agree. We ARE a stiff necked people aren’t we!

But what of the killing of poor non-Jewish Persians? One could take the apologist’s line and say that thousands of years ago life was brutal, it was like gang warfare today. Or indeed the way the Syrian government or ISIS has been torturing and killing children. Or one might understand the natural sense of pain and anger that parents would feel when their children are threatened with death.

The text simply does not support the theory of wanton cruelty. The first decree was to invite everyone in the Persian empire to join in killing the Jewish men, women, and children, and grab their goods on one specific day that astrology determined to be the best. So much for astrology. But the second decree said the Jews could defend themselves. No Persian HAD to go kill Jews. Those who chose to were animated in their clear disregard of the second decree only by irrational hatred or hopes of gain. And when a section of a population is so full of irrational hatred and greed it affects their children too. Children can still be taught to hate and wield knives! What always struck me was that only a minority was infected by the virus. In a population of millions, those who actually were killed because they attacked the Jews amounted to no more than 800 in the capital and 75,000 throughout the Empire who died for their evil cause. This is not a story of Jewish cruelty, but of regrettably necessary self-defense. And the Jews did not take any loot!

It is such a modern twenty-first century story of government and personal corruption, using violence for irrational hatred and gain. Haman is called “Haman the descendent of Agag". Agag was the Amalekite king that Samuel killed (Samuel Chapter 15). The Amalekites first attacked the Israelites coming out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:27) by killing women, children, the tired, and the weak bringing up the rear of the people. Cowards that anti-Semites are. That is why the Bible focused on their cruelty and the need to remember and protect ourselves from endemic hatred.

But those who suggest that violence is an essential part of the story are ignoring the real message of Purim in Jewish law and lore—to celebrate the occasion Mordechai and Esther instituted three law: to give to the poor, to send presents to one’s friends, and to read the Megilah. No violence there, only the importance of history, charity, and friendship. Later came the tradition of dressing up in disguise, to remind us that much in life is hidden, many people do not reveal themselves, and what appears one way at one moment can turn into something or someone quite different the next.

What the Megilah in all its confusing and contradictory richness tells is that his world is a topsy-turvy one. It is complex, fun, dangerous, and made up of many layers. And nothing could be more topsy-turvy than suggesting that we delight in violence. What we do delight in is survival, physical and spiritual.