November 24, 2005

On Being Nice

Here’s a heretical thought. Avraham could afford to be nice to people because he didn’t have to live in a typical Jewish community. Don’t kill me. Jewish communities are probably no better or worse than most other communities. They all like to impose their own conventions, have their expectations and feel uncomfortable with those people who do not exactly fit in.

Being nice and considerate to people, difficult in practice as it may be, is one of the most important imperatives in the Jewish religion. So much so that according to the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) “Welcoming guests is more important than spending time with God!” And indeed even ritual obligations must be put on hold to deal with human needs.

You wouldn’t know this from the way most communities function. We constantly hear about breaking Jewish Laws, faulty conversions, disobeying rabbis, but not enough about visiting the sick, being kind to people, welcoming visitors--all things that are just as much a requirement of our religion as buying specially supervised kosher mineral water on Passover or wrapping oneself up in aluminum foil as one flies over graveyards! Is it right to humiliate a thoughtless au pair who turns up to pick up her charges at a religious school because she was wearing inappropriate clothes? Sure, the rule is the rule. But where is the human sensitivity in executing it? (To give a minor current example in North West London).

The source for the laws about hospitality is Genesis 18. The text says that God appears to Avraham as he sits at the opening to his tent. He looks up and he sees three men. (No he doesn’t ask for proof of identity or a genealogical pedigree.) He runs to meet them and says, “My Lord, please do not go away from Your servant. Let me get some water and wash your feet and rest under the tree.”

The simple meaning of this is that God appears to Avraham in the shape of three men whom he sees and invites in. When he says, “My Lord, please do not go away,” he is addressing the leader. And later it transpires they are messengers from another world. Avraham clearly saw them as humans because he offers them creature comforts. From this we might learn that angels are really humans acting in such a way as to actualize some Divine plan. We can all be agents of God in some way or another.

The great commentator, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, puts a very different spin on this narrative. God appears to Avraham and they are communicating spiritually when Avraham looks up and sees three men. He turns to God and says, “My Lord, please do not go away.” And then he turns to the three men and says, “Let me get some water,” etc. The idea here is that however important God is, there are certain types of human situations or obligations that are so important that one can actually tell God to wait. As important as God is, as spirituality is, in the end it must enhance our relationship with other humans.

There are general Biblical imperatives such as “Love your neighbor,” and “Take care of the widow and the orphan,” and “Open your hand to the poor.” But characteristically Judaism requires specific actions, and these go beyond charity, Tzedaka, in its various forms. There are, in fact, three laws that permeate our traditions that focus on inter-human behavior, Gemillut Chassadim, Showing Kindness, is the highest level. It is something a poor person can do for a rich person, and the greatest act of kindness is to the dead who have no way of repaying you. Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick--that’s pretty obvious though it’s very hard too. Who actually likes going into hospitals? And then there’s Hachnassat Orchim, having visitors. What, entertainment? Parties? Can that really be a religious obligation? Well, in a way, yes. Of course there should be a religious element too, but I would argue that in this day and age of alienation, showing people the warmth of a spiritual home is indeed massively important. Besides, most of us live under such pressure that we tend towards withdrawal.

There is, as you might expect, an argument amongst the rabbis as to what takes priority. The general rule is that an opportunity to be kind that might pass takes priority over virtually all else. In our prayer books we quote the Mishna in Peah that says study is greater than everything, on the assumption that the more you study the more realize how important it is to carry out the practice not just the theory. Sadly, it often doesn’t work that way. When I was in Yeshiva the person who devoted time to the poor and the unfortunate instead of academic endeavors was regarded as being rather peculiar. “Leave it to the women,” I was once advised by a very, very long beard.

Without getting involved in legalistic gymnastics, it does appear to me that in asserting this principle that God can wait but human beings cannot, the Talmud is making an absolutely essential point. One of the consequences of tragedy or loss is the realization that it is too late. Things that could have been said or done can now no longer be. Responding to individual pain is crucial, or to put it in its Talmud phraseology, “The tears of those who have been misused, rise up to Heaven.” It is so obvious, and yet too often communities in their desire for conformity and cohesion tend to overlook it.

It’s why religions are all very good at the grand statement, the moral imperative, the “Love Your Neighbor”, in theory--but when it actually comes down to being nice to someone, it is so much harder. And that’s why most religions fail! And that’s why Avraham is such an amazing role model.

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November 11, 2005


This week I had three Houses of Mourning to attend. There was a sad symmetry to the three shivas. One was for a ninety-year-old man. The second was for a middle-aged woman who died of cancer. The third was for a young man, whose life was tragically cut short, to the incredible pain of his parents and siblings.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, the institution of shiva, which literally means “seven”, requires a mourner to spend the seven days after the burial at home surrounded by relatives and visited by a constant stream of friends, well-wishers, do-gooders and clergy. Then after returning to normal activity there is a year of mourning for parents and a month for all other close relatives. I often wonder why it is only a month for a child but I guess in days of massive infant mortality it made sense.

Some argue that the intense shiva is therapeutic. The constant presence helps create an artificial atmosphere that helps carry one through from the unreality and tragedy of loss to the adjustment required to re-enter mundane society and pick up where one left off. Others suggest that it imposes a process of mourning that we need to go through as a way of learning to cope with loss.

I do not adhere to Jewish custom and Law because of any utilitarian or practical benefits. I am delighted to know that Divine Wisdom might on occasion coincide with ours, if only because it isn’t fun being the butt of skeptical agnostics who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy attacking the iniquities of religion instead of giving it some credit for helping the human condition. However, even if no benefits could be seen I’d still follow the rules.

But I must confess that I find the shiva incredibly difficult to handle. First, as a rabbi, a clergyman, it is so difficult to know how to respond. Instinctively, I want to show my feelings by hugging or touching. One wants to connect, to find some tangible way of expressing one’s concern or friendship, whether it is to a male or a female. Of course, Jewish Law does not encourage such free physical expression of feelings, especially with people with whom one is forbidden to have sexual relations. Not touching is regarded as a “fence around the law”. I remember in my youth how much people used to make fun of such religious sensitivity. But nowadays civil law in the West has caught up. With so many cases of sexual molestation, harassment and perversion, very often on the part of clergymen of many religions, a teacher who touches a pupil or a doctor who examines a patient alone in his surgery or someone who offers a comforting arm around a co-worker risks prosecution.

So when touching is not possible, what are you left with? Words. Words. Words! The trouble is that very few people have the skills to use words felicitously. Even those of us who live by the word often find it very difficult when faced by tragedy and human pain. Just think of the usual clichés. “Our hearts go out to you.” “We extend our sincerest condolences.” “They have passed on to a far better place.” I once heard a rabbi in Glasgow declare, “The community’s loss is the cemetery’s gain!”

And then you have all those well-meaning explanations of untimely death. “Everyone is given an allotted task in life and some of us accomplish it earlier and others later.” This was to explain to me why my father died at the age of 49 and then, years later, why I lost a son aged two months. In neither case did it achieve anything except make me want them to stop digging their own graves. I suppose someone in a coma for years is fulfilling a useful function. Oh, yes, I will be told they are giving something to the family if only indirectly, even in their comatose or premature state. I know these people meant well. But one of the less satisfactory aspects of a shiva is having to sit and listen to these endless inanities and ridiculous nonsenses.

When my father died there was a veritable procession of people who assured me they were my father’s best friends and fervent supporters, but I know how much he suffered because he was not supported in his great work and how few people who claimed to be his friends really were. Did they think I didn’t know? If anything, for me, the shiva hindered the process of grieving, made me very angry and resentful and long all the more for solitude.

One of the beauties of Judaism is that there is a tradition of berating God. Yes, we are expected to give thanks for the bad as well as the good, because in one way or another everything comes from the same source and is for the best. Both King David and Job were stoic in their sufferings and never raised a word against the Divine decree. But, on the other hand, the Chassidic masters were not at all inhibited in their complaints against the way God treated His creatures.

The fact is that a true believer takes what comes and bears it without any acrimony directed to God. What happens to us on earth is part of the natural way of things. Some bodies are more prone to diseases than others. Some situations are more risky and some peoples’ genetic make-up makes them more likely than others to end up in a mess.

Belief in God does not change the natural order neither does it answer why things happen that we humans call “bad”. When someone dies and we ask “Why?”, we do not want the rational, medical explanation. We want to be comforted and, as with a crying child, a hug is often better than a word.

The dead person must be better off, whether you believe in an Afterlife or not, having left the troubles of the physical world behind. We are mourning for our loss, for our pain. And that is why comforting is so important.

Once upon a time every word counted. Nowadays words are cheap. So we babble to cover up our awkwardness and our words get us into trouble. Job’s comforters sat in silence and in that silence there was no reproach. It was when they started talking they got into trouble.

The law is that we should remain silent until the mourner starts speaking. But I’ve often seen silent comforters sit awkwardly waiting for the word that never came and most people who throw words around carelessly look askance at them. This is one of the sicknesses of our times--that we need to speak, speak, speak.

To be fair, sometimes words can help and a sensitive speaker can comfort. But it happens so rarely. As we say three times a day at the end of the Amidah prayer “Oh Lord protect me from saying the wrong thing” (my translation).

It has been a sobering week. It reminded me of all my pain. Strangely I was never angry, just sad at the loss of human life, a brilliant life cut short and a waste of potential that had not properly began. As far as we are concerned it is the living who count, and the living are the only ones we can do anything about. The shiva forces us to focus on the living, rather than on those who have gone.

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November 05, 2005


The current "hot favorite" Israeli film is called Ushpizin. Ushpizin is an Aramaic word for "guest" and the verb means "to host". The film is made and acted by two formerly secular actors, now married and converted to religion in a very serious way. The plot is about a childless couple of "returnees" to religion who have adopted the Bratslav version of Chassidic Orthodoxy that was founded by the early nineteenth century Chassidic master Rebbi Nachman of Bratslav.

He is the known for his stories and aphorisms. Amongst them are, "It is obligatory to be in a state of spiritual joy all day long," and, "This world is like a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid." After he died in his late thirties, they never appointed another rebbe. As a result the Bratslaver Chassidim were known as the "Toiter Chassidim", the "Dead Chassidim".

In truth, they were always the very opposite of "dead" and represented the ecstatic, charismatic wing of Chassidism. Over the years they have split into two streams. The old guard of families descended from the original followers are still ecstatic and highly spiritual, steeped in learning and tradition. But in addition, there is now a new rapidly-expanding group of religious hippies throwing caution to the winds, gathering up every weird and wonderful misfit and offering them a new life or religious rebirth which revolves around annual mass pilgrimages to Uman in the Ukraine where Reb Nachman came from. They also cavort around the place like Jewish Hare Krishnas, chanting their own mantra of, "Na Na Na Na Nach Nachma Nachman MeUman"(with variations of course). In the main they are a lovable lot (unless you happen to be closeted on a plane to the Ukraine with a herd of them).

They have something in common with Lubavitch Chabad Chassidim in that large quantities of alcohol and other stimulants seem necessary to induce a state of "religious" ecstasy. And now, of course, they share the belief that a dead rebbe can still work miracles and will soon reappear, and that the recital of certain sequences of Psalms will achieve all sorts or miracles. They have not yet achieved Lubavitch’s ubiquity, or its wider communal involvement. Neither have they yet adopted its remarkably successful system of franchises!

All this is by way of introduction to the Bratslaver characters in Ushpizin. Poor as field mice, childless, jobless, foodless, behind in the rent, the couple, deeply in love with each other, are unfailingly loyal and happily pious, constantly appealing to God, reciting Psalms and prayers, falling prostrate and weeping for salvation.

Miracles happen. In a rush to close up shop before the Festival of Succot, a charity official randomly selects them to receive an envelope with thousands of dollars and a friend discovers an "abandoned" Succah, so that everything is working out just fine (except for wanting a child) until two escaped convicts who remember the hero from his gangster days, turn up unannounced.

The saintly couple welcome them in. The two obnoxious slobs take full advantage. They use and abuse them, but the saintly couple put up with everything in the belief that if they humbly submit to the trial the Almighty is subjecting them to, they will be rewarded with a child. Things get so bad that they rupture the marriage. The wife flees the tension and chaos. The rabbi intervenes and mirabile dictu everything ends happily, including a child soon to be born who will be called Nachman.

The film has been welcomed by the Orthodox world as the first example of an Israeli film that portrays the Ultra-Orthodox sympathetically.

But I really disliked it. Not just because the story line was weak. Most Hollywood story lines are clichés. Neither because of its sugary unreality, but because the religion it portrays is excessively naïve and credulous and the characters simply unbelievable. But what offended me more was that any secular Israeli or Jew seeing the film could be forgiven for dismissing religious Judaism as a tissue of naïve superstition with religiously induced indolence. If religious people hang around doing sweet damn all to rise from their state of genteel poverty, except cry and pray for miracles, then we’d all be in a sorry state. This manifestation of religion is both otherworldly and redolent of mendicant orders of monks, nuns and fakirs. You might think it quaint and rather impressive, so long as others are doing it!

There is a fashion of thinking that if you dress up in black Eastern European garb and look like an exotic nebbish you must be authentic and doing a great job keeping Judaism alive. Sadly, too many of these characters are social welfare cases who fortunately contribute to Jewish survival by producing lots of kids and thereby raking in the child support. But as a paradigm of spirituality are as remote from genuine Jewish values as the hordes of fighting Satmarer Chassidim who rioted in New York on Simchat Torah and had to be separated by police, and whose antics were blazed across the New York non-Jewish press.

Such Jews have brought ridicule to our noble tradition. If this is Judaism then it is the greatest desecration of God’s name imaginable. And according to Maimonides that is the greatest of sins and far outweighs such religious obligations such as eating only Chassidish glatt kosher steaks or spending $4,000 for the finest fur shtreimelach to parade around in summer’s heat to prove how much closer they are to God than ordinary Jews.

When I explained why I disliked Ushpizin to some friends they replied, "But this is what Orthodoxy has become nowadays--superstitious, miracle working, mezuzah checking, ketubah rewriting, blessing-receiving and holy water from wonder rabbis, alive and dead." And it’s true! That is what now characterizes huge swathes of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Thank goodness Judaism, like history, has always gone in cycles, and tides turn!

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