March 16, 2017

Mazal

We have just celebrated Purim, a festival named after the lottery, the pur, that nearly decided the fate of the Jewish people. But the randomness of the lottery was defeated by God’s laws. You might have thought that this would have knocked luck or astrology on its head once for all. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

We wish each other mazal tov all the time, and many of us are very concerned about whether other people can have a good or bad impact on our mazal—whether an evil eye might strike us down or a curse ruin us.

But isn’t this total superstition? And isn’t the Torah unmistakably clear that we must not be superstitious? “There is no divination in Jacob and no magic in Israel,” says Balaam in Numbers 23, and the law in Deuteronomy (18) is specific: “You must not practice divination, astrology, reading omens, charms or sorcery, dealing with spirits or calling up the dead.”

Until relatively recently, everyone related to the natural universe through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. Spells and incantations carried out by experts could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism saw us as the playthings of the gods, and our fates were decided by the planets. In contrast, monotheism, I always believed, posited that the world functioned according to its own rules, which might overrule our human requirements (Avodah Zara 54b), and only our relationship with God could affect us spiritually. Our task was to accept what happens to us and see the positive. “Whatever God does (allows to happen) is for the best.”

The earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia nearly four thousand years ago. The great Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) produced a framework of linking the astronomical solar system to astrology that is still used in this day, although scientifically it no longer holds true. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that the stars influenced human behavior, though they did not determine it. Only in the 19th century did medicine succeed in severing the connection between the moon and lunacy. Yet even such moderns as Carl Jung tried to modify astrology in such a way as to have it remain relevant.

Given the importance of astrology in medieval Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is hardly surprising that it persisted. In Judaism astrology’s interconnection with mysticism gave it continued relevance and influence. Today there are many “rabbis” who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and the disturbed try to cope with the pressures of life. Usually for a healthy fee or “charitable donation.”

The idea persists in some Orthodox circles that astrology in Judaism is still a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world. But then so does the idea that that past rabbis could never have got their science wrong, and if some claimed the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth every day then we must be wrong not they.

The term mazal is used only once in the Bible, in Kings II: “The pagans worship the sun the moon and the planets [mazalot].” Clearly it does not approve. Yet it all depends on what you understand mazal to mean. Is mazal fortune, something beyond our control? In which case, how does it differ from God? No one of any significance in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said mazal is the same as God or divine intervention.

The Talmud in Shabbath 156a discusses the issue:
“R. Hanina said: The planetary influence gives wisdom and wealth and affects Israel. R. Johanan, on the other hand, said that Israel is immune from planetary influence [mazal used here as planetary influence]. Rab too holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence, and so does R. Akiba.”
There is a great deal more throughout the Talmud and other rabbinic sources. It is clear that rabbinic opinion is divided. Today it is difficult to find any major rabbinic figure who will publicly decry the popular preoccupation with mazal, ayin harah (the evil eye), and their offshoots and variations. Once upon a time (Brachot 10b), our leaders had the guts to act against superstition. “King Chizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze serpent (of Moses’s) days, and the authorities of the day approved it.” Nowadays, sadly, they would make money out of it.

When mazal means random luck and superstition, it is clearly against Judaism (even if I know that most Jews relate to the religion superstitiously). But the idea that there are forces beyond our control—wars, epidemics or financial collapses—that affect us badly is obvious. Even so, many people have stories of miraculous events, cures, salvations, and successes that they put down to some external force, when the reality can easily be explained by examining events and causes and unusual capacities.

Those aspects of our life over which we have no control do indeed render us impotent, in the lap of the gods. Nevertheless, one does pray or hope that what unfolds through natural and unnatural causes will not have a negative effect on us. Just as we pray that our children will have an easy life free from danger, disease, and hardship. Hope for something is not the same as thinking that individuals can change the will of God or the nature of the universe. Recovering from cancer may be because certain types of cancer are more able to be fought and being given a placebo or a blessing might encourage a sick person to battle the ailment.

Some humans understand aspects of the universe we inhabit and the motives of other humans better than the ordinary person can. Some people can train themselves to read faces and gestures that tell them more about humans than the average person can see. Some people call that mind-reading and some mind-readers use this knowledge to get rich. A doctor can usually read the physical signs better than others because of his training, and a psychiatrist can read the psychological signs because of hers. But it is equally true that both may also miss something that a more holistic mind can appreciate. We must distinguish between skills learned and claims of supernatural powers.

I do believe we can “make our own luck.” By being positive, looking out for possibilities, and thinking several steps ahead one can take better advantage of what life has to offer. This is one of the ideas behind the statement of the Talmud to avoid bad company. One’s mood, attitude, company, and friends can all impact the quality of one’s life. Avoiding bad vibes and negativity is great advice.

Random luck, on the other hand, has no place in an intelligent or a genuinely spiritual mind. To wish someone luck is simply a popular way of expressing one’s hopes and aspirations. To think that mazal has a power of its own that can be harnessed to control the uncontrollable is pure superstition. To treat it as code for the things we have no control over is less destructive, morally deficient, and intellectually primitive. The notion that there are irrational spells, or mystical incantations that can guarantee protection is as delusionary as fool’s gold. And most of us are indeed fools.

Maimonides, the great rationalist, in his Laws of Idolatry said:
“Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning—such as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: “The simple believes everything” (Prov. 14:15).
Maimonides said that all references in the Talmud to spirits and metaphysical control over human affairs was simply a reflection of popular delusion. The masses believed in it, so the rabbis spoke in a language they were familiar with.

I realize there are many people who need the “security” of magic, fortune, astrology, and luck. Often life is so awful to us that we cannot cope. We need comfort. It is false comfort, lies, that I deplore. I accept human frailty, because I am frail. But I am offended when I hear people say that it is a requirement of religion or even an essential part of it.

March 09, 2017

Drunk on Purim

One of the most distasteful aspects of Purim are the hordes of drunken acolytes throwing up on the streets of religious ghettos around the world. To make it worse, they claim to be doing this in the name of religion. From the Bible onwards, the wise have excoriated drunkenness. It is an impediment to priests performing, to people praying, and an affront to human dignity. It reduces us to a complete lack of self-control and is a desecration of everything genuine spirituality reveres. If “wine gladdens the heart of man”, drunkenness destroys it. Pleasure is good. But it is a feature of the physical world in general that any pleasure taken to extremes cloys, and drunkenness is the mot obvious.

Yet the Talmud says that a person should drink so much wine on the day that he can no longer distinguish between “Let Haman be cursed,” and “Let Mordecai be blessed.” There is some debate about the Aramaic word used. Normally in the Bible and later, the Hebrew word for a drunk is Shikur. Here the Talmud uses the Aramaic Besumeh, which is used for such things as being merry, perfumed wine, or spices. But these are unlikely to befuddle the mind to the point of irrationality. And the Talmud itself describes an occasion when one drunk rabbi killed another on Purim, which led, unsurprisingly, to a reaction!

Nevertheless, the command to drink on Purim found its way into medieval Jewish law—even though the glossaries add that it is better not to get drunk. The rational Maimonides is clear about priorities:
“Rather a person should increase the amount he gives to the poor than the amount he spends on food and drink, and presents to friends. Because there is no greater nor more glorious joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and strangers [perhaps read refugees], for assisting the desperate and the run-down is the equivalent of greeting God personally.”
On my first Purim in Israel in yeshiva as a teenager away from home, I got drunk twice. The novelty of Shushan Purim was something we didn’t have in the Diaspora!. The first day I was at the home of a very correct and dignified religious man. I sneaked extra shots of cherry brandy until I found myself lying on the floor underneath the table. His stern rebuke soon brought me to my senses. On the second day I was invited into the home of the head of the yeshiva, and once again I disgraced myself. Staggering out of his home, I fell down the steps and ended in the gutter. He sent his son to tell me that this was not the way a real yeshivah student should behave on Purim. Suitably chastened and embarrassed, I have never got drunk since. I have often felt merry, even a little high on an expensive malt. But never to the point of losing control. And if I fainted after a glass of wine on one hot Israeli day, it was only because I drank on an empty stomach and after a long hike. No significant rabbi I have ever encountered has got drunk (at least not in my presence).

Let me see if I can find anything to say in favor. Chasidism has indeed argued that alcohol loosens one’s inhibitions in matters of the spirit. We are uptight and reserved by nature. In order to overcome this inhibition, a shot or two or three of vodka might encourage us to relax and dance and thus find ourselves closer God. But if drink were the way to encounter the Divine, then the bigger the drunk, the greater the saint! I don't think so. Otherwise we might as well all take drugs and kid ourselves it helps us reach heaven. No doubt Timothy Leary would agree. I suppose being a drunk and an addict, then, should qualify one as pious. Drinking on Purim is a mitzvah, but only in so far as it can lead one to confusion, spiritual uncertainty perhaps. Not malfunction or throwing up.

There is, I agree, a stage in between sobriety and drunkenness, and that is a sense of wellbeing in which one feels grateful for one’s blessings, at ease in the world, generous and warm to one’s friends and those less fortunate. When one might forget one’s troubles and anxieties and relax in the sense that there is a God in heaven. Order in the world might be possible after all. In other words to “always look on the bright side of life.” I think that is precisely what the rabbis meant about drinking to the point where one wasn’t sure who would best for the world in its present condition. Sometimes (very rarely), a rigid, unsympathetic hand can be better for discipline.

There is a lot of bad stuff out there. People who want to kill, to swindle and defraud, and to grab as much as they can for themselves. There are others who so believe they are right that they wish to impose their beliefs and systems on others, regardless of the means they use to do so.

Now Donald Trump might remind some of you of Achashverosh. Except of course he is a teetotaler. He is certainly not a Haman, though some idiots claim he is worse. And Ivanka might turn into Esther, though she doesn’t really fit the part. But his fumbling, braggart personality reminds me of an oriental potentate who believes he is God’s gift to mankind. And although he cannot himself be blamed for the revolting racists and anti-Semites who have come out of the woodwork, no one seemed to bother when similarly mentally challenged lefties worked their dogmas under a different regime. Nevertheless, there is as sense at the moment of a loss of order and direction.

Purim reminds us of regime change. Of the possibility of a different order. Things are not always what they seem to be. Only time will tell. No, I do not wish to compare the two situations. But I do believe that every now and again one needs change, even revolution. One needs to have the old certainties challenged. Purim is a festival of over-turnings. I have been conscious for a long time of the arrogance of the dogmatic left and its bias against Jewish rights of self-determination. But I cannot identify with much of the right-wing mindset. I dislike excessive social control and dependency. And I despise right-wing selfishness and greed without concern for the poor and the weak. I am caught in the middle. I do not like politics or dogmatic politicians of any sort.

I don’t think either side is completely right or wrong. There is good and bad in both. In the absence of perfection, let there be cycles of change. Usually the system that does better wins out. Chaos can be good. I do not despair. There are enough checks and balances to ensure that the extremes will be modified. The reality of power is sobering and limiting. One simply cannot ride roughshod over everyone forever.

I will drink (in moderation) on Purim, knowing that if we fight for what we believe in, for tolerance (which goes both ways), for our values, it is preferable to have hope and happiness to despair. You never know when a Haman will arise, but equally you never know when he will fall. There are few certainties in life. But having Purim helps!However, if there are some who think that being drunk is how they are supposed to celebrate, I think they have the wrong end of the stick…and the sick.

March 02, 2017

Joy

“When the month of Adar begins, we increase the amount of joy (simcha),” says the Talmud. What does that word joy mean? If I spend every day in bed or at the gym, or in front of a screen, does that count? The Hebrew word simcha (usually translated as “joy”) needs clarification. It contrasts with pleasure, which usually refers to physical sensations. The Hebrew word that best represents that is hanaah. So what is joy? Should it be more spiritual, cerebral or ethereal? What is meant here?

Adar is the month in which we celebrate Purim. Purim is the one celebration of the Jewish calendar that takes place outside the Land of Israel. It records the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman, the Persian chancellor who wanted to kill all the Jews in the empire some two and a half millennia ago. Some think this is the first example of pure anti-Semitism, because Haman’s main reason for getting rid of the all the Jews was pure visceral hatred. The Jews were just different. “Not like us.”

We read the biblical the story of Esther, dress in disguises, give charity, gifts to friends, and have a really whopper meal with songs, rhymes, jokes and charades. All practical things. Does the phrase above mean that we should start doing this right from the beginning of the month and not just on the day itself? But we don’t. So what does it mean?

On the face of it, the word simcha is used in the Torah to describe the pleasure of worshipping God, spiritual, as well as the physical pleasure on festivals. But the Talmud says that you can only have such pleasure from wine and food. Though it adds fancy clothes and jewels for women. The Talmud also says that the real simcha, is when one gets married. Shabbat and festivals do have a long association with marital delights. So does simcha just mean physical delights?

One is bound to wonder why it took the mystical tradition to bring such spiritual experiences to the fore in the language of Jewish religious practice. The Talmud does talk about the ecstasies of prayer, of Rabbi Akivah lost in profound prayer to the point where he loses any sense of time. Prayer can be (sadly, too often it isn’t) a really uplifting and joyful experience. So too can meditation, devekut, feeling close to God, the universe—the goal of all mystics. Shouldn’t this be the primary aim of joy on a festival? Why doesn’t the Megillah mention that?

My theory is that the Torah is concerned, as a constitution, primarily with practical behavior. The festivals were opportunities for pilgrim Jews to come together, to gather in Jerusalem and observe, passively, the ceremonies in the Temple. But they were also expected to bring produce or monetary equivalent to eat and spend together, to share and enjoy. And food to be shared with God, priests, family, and friends was the social adhesive that enhanced a sense of community and people.

When Chapter 24 of Exodus discusses the Sinai Revelation, it mentions those who had a vision of God. They experienced something phenomenal, and promptly sat down to eat and drink. Linking spirituality to materiality makes a lot of sense. One does not negate the other. It values a combination. It is holistic. Even so, it strikes as strange our western binary minds that distinguish spirit from matter.

That is why I suggest that joy, rather than pleasure, is an appropriate word for simcha—because it is much broader. In the month of Adar, we celebrate our survival by giving to the poor, presents to friends, and having a festive meal. These are all positive actions that reinforce a sense of well-being, community, and peoplehood. The goal of religion is to synthesize the relationship between humans and God. Eating together can do this. Of course, one can eat alone and pray alone. But doing it as part of a community stimulates other emotions and relationships.

Celebration can be personal but it has a wider impact if it is communal. Actions are what count. To invite the poor and the stranger. We increase simcha through good deeds. I have always been impressed by the response of the Jews to Haman’s failed decree. Having removed the threat, the Jews share their good fortune with others.

We know the constant threat of annihilation. As Jews, we experience hatred and alienation all the time. It is toxic. If it makes us toxic too, it will have succeeded. But if instead it makes us become grateful for life, sensitive and supportive of others, then goodness overcomes evil instead of submitting to it. The reward for good is more good, and the punishment for hatred is more hatred.

When we feel depressed, inadequate, or inferior, instead of wallowing in it and feeling negative, destructive, and envious, we should get up and do good things, visit the sick, help the poor, increase friendship and love. That is the way to go forward in life. The way to live, rather than narcissism and egoism. That is why, in the lead-up to Purim, when Adar begins, we should be doing good things that will give others and us joy, and make us happy, better people. Simcha is usually linked to the word mitzvah, a command—simcha shel mitzvah. That means action. Doing good things.

But there’s another aspect to this build up towards Purim. We prepare in advance for the somber days of Tishrei and Days of Awe. But just as important is the need to build up towards days of joy. In practice this is usually confined to mystics. But just as we ordinary people experience the physical , so too, we should try to experience the spiritual. Just as we prepare for the serious, so too there is a benefit in preparing and getting into the spiritual mood, in advance, for the joy of Purim.

February 23, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli

We may think that current political discourse is crude and vicious. But believe me, beneath a veneer of gentility, politics in the British Empire was worse. As Hobbes put “nasty and brutish.” If he were alive today Benjamin Disraeli would agree with me!

Benjamin Disraeli, 1804 –1881 was born in London. His family came to England from an Italy. Although his father held membership in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, he never attended. He was expected, as a member to join the board which he did for a time. But he officially resigned over whether he could be compelled to continue and left the community altogether. Benjamin and his sister were converted to Anglicanism as children, and brought up in the Church of England. He had hardly any knowledge of Judaism and its practices and came to believe that Judaism was a purely racial phenomenon. He even saw it as a barbaric faith that had been superseded by Christianity, and he believed that all Jews should abandon the Old Testament for the New. He rebuked his friends the Rothschilds for hanging onto their Jewish identities. But when it suited him, he played up his supposed Jewish aristocratic lineage.

He was attracted to journalism, and throughout his life he wrote popular novels. He entered politics on the side of Reform but switched to the party of the Aristocratic landowners, the conservatives, supporting the monarchy, the Church of England, and the protectionism of the landed aristocracy. In 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time, briefly, before leading the party to a majority in the 1874 election. He developed a very close friendship with Queen Victoria. He was quite a ladies man and accused of using his wiles to win her over. He was proudly British and he fought for its imperial interests, supporting the declining Ottoman Empire to thwart Russian expansion and buying the Suez Canal (with the help of the Rothschilds) to facilitate British access to its Eastern colonies.

He tried to distance himself from Judaism. Rather like Henry Kissinger in his prime. He avoided getting involved in the long struggle to allow a Jew to become a member of parliament if he would not swear by the Christian faith. When he visited the Middle East and Jerusalem, he spoke to no Jews and visited no synagogues. He refused to support Sir Moses Montefiore and Albert Cremieux in coming to the aid of the Syrian Jews imprisoned and tortured over the Damascus Blood Libel in 1840 or the kidnapping by the Catholic Church of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara in 1858. Neither did he support Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist who came to him asking for support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1879.

Yet for all that Disraeli tried to escape his Jewish identity, he was hounded and reviled throughout his life and beyond as an oily, devious, dishonest Jew, typical of all those who shared his history.

The late lamented and talented David Cesarani who passed away too soon, was commissioned to write a short life of Disraeli for the Yale University series called “Jewish Lives.” As paradoxical and inconsistent a selection of subjects as one could dream up if one tried. The mere fact of including Disraeli as one shows how loosely the net has been drawn.The book is not an easy read, but very worthwhile. If only to remind us how deeply the virus of anti-Semitism was embedded in British society from the eighteenth century onwards, even exceeding in its virulence that of France and Germany (which is saying something).

Such was the hatred that the Jew Bill of 1753, granting Jews civil rights, had been passed by Parliament, signed by King George, but then revoked because of the outcry from the church, commerce, aristocracy, and the middle classes. It would take another hundred years until Lionel de Rothschild was finally allowed to take his seat in Parliament, because he was finally allowed to take an oath on the Old Testament only. There were philo-Semites too, of course, like George Eliot and indeed Laurence Oliphant. But they were few and far between and overwhelmed by the primitive hatred of the English upper and middle classes in general (educated and ignorant alike).

Cesarani’s thesis is that Disraeli was excoriated and despised and mistrusted so much precisely because of his Jewish birth. Yet he came to acknowledge his Jewish birth with pride. Why? The source of his pride was his belief that the Jewish race has bequeathed nobility and talent to humanity through its inspiration of Christianity and Islam. His novels were sprinkled with Jewish heroes and noble examples of Jewish wisdom and generosity. But they were all without an iota of Jewish religious commitment or identity, and on the few occasions he tried to insert something of the Jewish religion, he got it completely wrong. Yet his famous reply to an anti-Semitic attack was “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” To him, the fact that he had Jewish blood defined him racially, if not religiously. Such views were eagerly adopted by the evil pantheon of European Jew-haters. As Cesarani says:
“Ultimately he fits squarely into modern Jewish history for the worst reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse. Within a few years of his demise his words were being cited by Baurer, Marr, Drumont, Chamberlain, Hillaire Belloc, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even Hitler, to justify their insane and pathological hatred of Jews.”
All his early biographies were written by anti-Semites like Edward Freeman, Goldwin Smith, and Thomas O’Connor, who all demeaned him and betrayed their own crude anti-Semitism.

In 1877 the Turks had reacted to a Christian rebellion in Serbia and Bulgaria with barbaric force and cruelty. Disraeli took steps to block the Russian military assault on the Ottomans. The lords of his Conservative Party and public opinion insisted that Disraeli punish the Turks. But, he refused to. Together with Germany and France, he blocked Russian advance in the Middle East and at the Treaty of Berlin was rewarded with the island of Cyprus. For his pains, he was scurrilously attacked as a Jew who undermined Christianity in favor of the Turks because they were more sympathetic to the Jews than the Christians.

Disraeli desperately wanted to escape Judaism and be accepted by the British aristocracy. But in the end he was, in Bismarck’s words, just considered “the Old Jew.” His success in the end was ability to use the system to his advantage. If anything he proved that you don’t have to be loved to be successful. Some of the most effective politicians have been the least likable.Times have not changed as much as we like to think they have.

February 16, 2017

Apartheid in Israel

Benjamin Pogrund was born in South Africa. As a journalist, he fought the apartheid regime, most notably through his work for The Rand Daily Mail. When the government closed it down and exiled him, he moved to London, where he joined The Independent and The Sunday Times. In his latest book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, he completely demolishes the spurious, not to say libelous, claim that Israel is an apartheid state.

I became an opponent of apartheid when my father took me with him to South Africa on one of his lecture tours, in 1955. While he was busy lecturing, I was handed into the charge of some lovely Jewish ladies who turned out to be radical opponents of the system. They took me around some of the townships and made sure I saw the evils of the system at first hand. In my student days, I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and eventually rose to become honorary president of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

In 1985 I was approached by the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Bernard Casper, to consider succeeding him. I went out and spent a month in Johannesburg to explore the possibilities. I wanted to know the inside story of South Africa—whether there was anything I could do, if the position became a reality, to mitigate or even to combat the apartheid government. It was through Benjamin’s good offices that I could get to meet many of the ANC and COSATU underground leadership, to get a feel for the situation. It was not easy to get to meet them. Only Benjamin’s reputation and the enormous respect they had for him got me through. They all advised me not to come. They told me that if I did take a stand, I would be put on the next plane out. That the situation was hopeless, and a bloodbath was imminent. Of course, things did not work out that way, fortunately, due overwhelmingly to the greatness of Nelson Mandela and the realism of President de Klerk. And the late Rabbi Cyril Harris did an excellent job shepherding the Jewish community through the transition.

Benjamin and his family subsequently moved to Israel, where he joined my late brother Mickey in setting up the Centre for Social Concern at YAKAR in Jerusalem to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Unlike most people, he actually knows and has experienced apartheid firsthand. Hence he is better able than most to deal with the charges that Israel is an apartheid state. He can state categorically that applying the term apartheid to Israel is simply ignorance, if not malice. To call Israel genocidal when its Arab population has doubled is a joke. Even the population of the Palestinian territories has mushroomed. Which means that Israelis must be the most incompetent genocidists ever!

In his balanced, detailed, and honest book, he completely demolishes the comparison, based entirely on objective facts. Under apartheid no black South African was allowed to vote or take up residence in white areas. In contrast, Israeli Arabs sit in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and hold senior positions never, ever accorded to blacks in South Africa under the old regime. The areas currently occupied by Israel are indeed in a state of limbo awaiting a final peace settlement. The only people wanting the area to be occupied by only one race are the Palestinians. In a very different situation than South Africa. The Afrikaaner whites never intended to give any sovereignty to blacks, regardless of any settlement of their differences. Theirs was an ideology of racial superiority, not an unfortunate political accommodation awaiting a peace treaty, in which peace was being pursued in principle, if not always in reality. This book is an excellent overview of the present struggle between two competing claims, both of the past and the present. It is possibly the fairest book on the market for a balanced, objective viewpoint.

It is all the more important because, in examining the charges, he pulls no punches in criticizing Israel both within the green line and on the occupied West Bank and Gaza. He has no patience for extremism on either side. He points out Israel’s mistakes, failures, and shortcomings without trying in any way to disguise or minimize them. This book is an important source of facts, arguments, and replies that will help anyone on the frontline defending Israel against the lies, half-truths, and mendacious libels that one hears all the time and in almost every sector of the media, the glitterati, the NGOs, the charities, and academia. That lying should be the case in polemics and politics, of course, is a given. It’s politics. But that people professing honesty, objectivity, and ethics do so simply illustrates the amount of prejudice, hypocrisy, and mendacity that stalks the world we live in, and in fact actually prevents and postpones any chance of a settlement.

This is the issue. Sadly, no matter what Benjamin, or anyone else for that matter, writes, it will make absolutely no difference, any more than a Marxist can be objective about a capitalist. Ideological blindness is played out on university campuses where the ideological leanings of professors become the only point of view acceptable if one wants to pass exams or gain promotion in weighted, self-perpetuating faculties. Or where aggressive, bullying student cadres look to disrupt and silence any other points of view. All this at a time when most of the nations who berate Israel as a colonial interloper and aggressor are themselves the most corrupt offenders against human rights and civilized behavior on earth.

Israel will survive. But the awful side effect of exaggerated and prejudiced anti-Israel propaganda is that it further empowers right-wing refusal to compromise. It reinforces a siege mentality, imperviousness to self-analysis. One despairs of a solution when exceptional, fair, and experienced people like Benjamin will simply not be listened to, because they will be dismissed as tools of colonialism, regardless of their record. At the same time, he will be dismissed by the Israeli right wing as being too liberal. Such is the mad, mad world we live in. It is only by encountering good, honest people like Benjamin Pogrund that we can retain some faith in humanity and its prospects.

February 09, 2017

Jack Lunzer

Jack Lunzer, who died this past December, was famous for his Valmadonna collection of Jewish books, texts, and incunabula. It was the largest collection of Judaica in private hands, and Sotheby’s described it as “quite simply the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”

But to those us who knew him, Jack, the man, was one of the most interesting, multifaceted persons one could ever come across. When you met him, you would never know which persona you might encounter. The international diamond dealer, the Orthodox Jewish follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfort, the generous philanthropist, the Yekke, the English gentleman, the Yiddish-speaking Belgian, the Italian count, the African diplomat, the opera buff, philatelist, horse breeder, skier, horticulturalist, man-about-town, bon viveur, joker, pious Jew and scholar. He was all of those, and more. Not to mention the doting father of five special girls.

We were connected indirectly. His brother Henry had married my mother’s cousin. I first met him when I was eleven. I was invited for tea one Shabbat at his elegant home in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. The long table was laid impeccably with the finest china and silver above the starched white lace tablecloth. His elegant, perfectionist Italian wife Ruth and he always made sure everything was of the best and most fashionable. We were seated, and tea was poured by uniformed staff. As I reached out for the strawberry confiture to spread on my scone, I dropped the spoon, and its contents stained the tablecloth bright red. I was mortified. Jack saw how embarrassed I was. He reached out, picked up the jar, and turned it upside down, spilling all its contents onto the table. “There you are young man,” he said, smiling, “no need to feel bad about it.” What a generous and thoughtful act. But of course, it made me feel even more embarrassed, despite his good intentions.

My aunt and uncle who also lived in the Suburb were very close friends with the Lunzers. They often went skiing together in Switzerland. It was through them that I became a regular visitor whenever my parents brought me up to London from our Oxfordshire home. Everything about Jack was impressive—his home, his vintage Rolls Royce car that he said he needed to impress his clients. So was the flagpole in front of his house with the Guinea-Bissau flag, signifying that he was in fact their consul to the UK. One of the great coups of his life was when he cornered the Guinea-Bissau diamond production from under the noses of DeBeers.

Jack was born in Antwerp. His family had established itself in diamonds and had built the Eisenmann Synagogue, a little island of the Frankfort Jewish community, with its combination of deep commitment to traditional Judaism and a very Germanic openminded cultural outlook. When the family left Belgium for London, they joined and became prime movers of the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, which used to be called “Munks” after its very cultured founding rabbi, Dr. Elie Munk. It too was an island of Germanic Judaism and held out for a long time before the wave of Charedi excess swept it firmly into the fundamentalist camp. Jack went to work in the family diamond business, and in due course took it over and expanded it well beyond its initial parameters.

Every time I visited Jack there would be another visitor there—an ancient rabbi from the east, a modern one from the west, a Zionist, an anti-Zionist, a duke, a count, a magnate, or a beggar. Jack spoke to each in his own language and as if they inhabited the very same world. And each time I visited, I would discover that Jack had a new passion. Of all of them in those early years, the opera was the most consuming. As with everything, he threw himself enthusiastically into it and became an expert, a patron, and an aficionado.

Somewhere along the line, he began to collect old Jewish books. What started off as a few shelves in his spacious home turned into a whole room, which then turned into an annex. Books took over his life, as he gathered around him experts and academics and became an expert in his own right. Of all his passions, beyond his family, this was the one that consumed him, and hardly anything else seemed to matter. Over the years I would see him occasionally, at family affairs or seated amongst his books, pointing out some unique feature of a particular volume. Or running off a list of all the Jewish books ever printed in, say, Venice.

He used to hold regular services in his home on Friday evenings, and his family expanded it into a small synagogue in the Suburb at which I was occasionally invited to officiate. One Rosh Hashana he was very agitated because that I wore a black kipa on my head instead of a white one. He assured me that my father would not have been so lacking in respect for tradition (in the nicest way, of course, with a smile on his face). He brought me a white crocheted kipa, which probably came from somewhere like Khartoum, to wear the next day (which I still have).

I doubt anyone knew everything about him. I once asked him if I could write his biography. He laughed and said he didn’t want anyone to know everything there was to know about him. The last time I saw him was in New York in 2009. It was at Sotheby’s. He was sitting like a king amongst his beloved books, enjoying being courted and consulted, greeting scholars, friends, and well-wishers with geniality and good humor. He was getting older, but the magic and the charisma, as well as the charm, were still there.

His world is gone, both the secular and the religious. Even his library is no longer completely intact. Nothing lasts forever. But I will always treasure his memory and so too will generations of bibliophiles.

February 02, 2017

Pray for the Welfare of the State

It is amusing and disturbing to see the demonstrations against an elected president, not so much for what he has done but for who he is. We rarely empathize with politicians. The bitterness this time in a change of power, seems to be coming from a deep sense of outrage felt by Democratic voters at having their sacred cows challenged, as well as the fact that Trump is a TV showman and not a typical president.

In Britain there is no point in demonstrating against the queen. She has no power, does not make laws. I am not a monarchist myself. In my childhood we used to make fun of the prayer for the queen that mentioned a list of minor royalty of doubtful quality. We would wonder who Heehoo was (as in the opening words “He Who Gives dominion unto princes”) or change “a spirit of wisdom and understanding” into “spirits of whisky and vodka.” Nevertheless, where I come from we just accepted whoever won a general election regardless of how much one disapproved of, or even despised, the political platform and personae. The winner, having abided by the rules, was the winner and exercised power in the way he or she decided. Though we knew that parliament or the House of Lords often emasculated the strongest of policies.

And this even though for the past 50 years the most successful party in the UK has rarely got much more than 40% of the popular vote. No one tries claiming they are illegitimate. So perhaps it just the difference between “new” democracies and old established, mature, worldly-wise ones. There are, it is true, always major issues at stake. But that is what democracy allows for. For swings, for change, and for differences.

There are many different types of democracies. The British constituency system is different than Israel’s proportional representation, which is different than the USA’s specific feature of an electoral college designed to prevent populous states monopolizing power. No system is perfect yet they are all democracies and as the great Jewish Persian authority Shmuel said, “The law of the land is the law.”

Some liberal-minded rabbis in the USA have decided not to recite what has been regarded as the norm in America, a prayer for the president. Does it matter? The prophets insisted that the Jews going into exile should pray for the protection of the regimes they were exiled to. The Mishna in Avot says, “You should pray for the welfare (peace) of the government, for without it people would swallow each other up alive.” There are lots of things one ought to pray for. But this does not imply a formal public prayer in a synagogue. It more likely meant that we as individuals should worry about the state of our society and try our best to support and encourage law and order.

But in Spain it became the custom in medieval times to indeed pray formally in the synagogues for the monarch to protect the Jews. Ironically, such public prayers fell on very deaf ears. Despite them, the Jews were attacked, discriminated against, and finally expelled from Spain.

Prayers for the monarch were common in Europe, asking God to protect the monarch and guide him or her to be kind to their Jewish subjects. But as we know from Tuvia in Fiddler on the Roof, the prayer was often to “Protect and keep the Czar…as far away from us as possible.”

Texts varied from country to country. In Britain such prayers mentioned the monarch by name. In the USA they prefer praying for the position (given that the incumbent changes every four or eight years). Some preferred prayers for the health of the monarch. Others implored them to “deal wisely and truly with all Israel.”

Such prayers often imitated Christian liturgies to show how loyal the Jews were. During times when they were persecuted as outsiders, fifth columns, and agents of the Devil, Jewish communities depended on the king to protect them from zealous Christian fanatics, both in the clergy and the populace. In many countries the national flag was displayed in synagogues. But increasingly they are falling out of fashion, just as we stand less and less often for national anthems.

In Israel, bless us (or not as the case may be), the Charedi world has long refused to pray for the state of Israel or its presidents or Zahal, to salute the flag, stand or join in when the national anthem is being played, or even celebrate Independence Day. Most people just look on them as daft and pathetic. After all, they do benefit from the state, even if they seem incapable of accepting it. I don’t see the fuss, and besides, whenever one says any prayer, one adds one’s own layers of meaning, intention, and significance.

But there’s another issue, perhaps dearer to my heart. Why add more prayers to services which are long enough anyway? I know some Modern Orthodox communities like them because they are not obligatory, and therefore you can ask a woman to recite them! Some like the idea of expressing loyalty, even gratitude that we won the war! Others love the pomposity. But do we need them altogether? I am a great believer in short services, in cutting out unnecessary padding and formality. Our liturgy is full of prayers asking for good governance and protection. Why add a specific one for the state we reside in? I can understand why under conditions of warfare or threats one would pray for one’s security and the protection of those who protect us. But again, if one is going to start including soldiers, police, security and spying agencies, the prayer will go on and on.

Of course, in our private prayers we express our hopes and anxieties. Once upon time we could not rely on states for protection or rights. We felt insecure. Now in Western democracies we can be more or less secure in our Jewish identities (although the Left and resurgent anti-Semitism is making this less of a given than it once was). We no longer need to profess loyalty. All the more so, since we know it is the law that protects us, rather than the whim of the head of state.

Once we had no choice. We needed to suck up to the authorities. Now we can live in a state with laws supposedly fair and applicable to all citizens of whatever religion. If anything, we should be praying for a fair and just system, rather than for its representatives.

I find such prayers rather empty, pompous expressions of formality. We have only one ruler and that is the Almighty, and we do spend rather a long time in every service praising and extolling Him and beseeching Him to protect us. But it is God we pray to and for, not human beings.

What is more, in Orthodox synagogues we recite on Shabbat the Kabbalistic declaration Brich Shmey De Marey Alma (Blessed is the Name of the Creator of the World). In it we say, “We are the servants of the Holy and Blessed One. We do not put our trust in men nor in princes, but only in God of Heaven.” So, let’s take the words we say to heart and scrap the prayer altogether. If we abide by the laws of the land, we should be good citizens like everyone else, even those who never go to synagogue or church at all.