December 25, 2005

It's That Time of Year!

This is a very strange time of the year for those of us who are not Christians. We look on bemused as throughout the West all the tools of materialism are cranked up to panic point in the desperate quest for us to spend as much of our money as possible on buying, often totally unwanted and unappreciated, gifts.

It is as if the desire to give gifts or to be charitable can only be associated with myths. So we sit back and smile and congratulate ourselves that we do not have such ridiculous myths as Santa Claus and his reindeer. At least the Dutch have it ethnically right with their Black Santas. Thank goodness we tell ourselves, we don’t have to believe in Virgin Birth, or God turning Himself into a human being or Wine turning itself into blood and then drinking it, or Gold Tablets turning up in Palmyra in the nineteenth century. And we Jews feel smug that really we started the whole thing and only much later, along comes Christianity and waters it all down and adds a whole slew of “bubbe maisehs”.

While we are on a roll, we go on to discount Islam for trying to concoct a Bahai-like amalgam of everything that came before, and getting its quotes from our Bible totally wrong. And while we are at it, we can dismiss Kwanzaa as a Black way of getting in on the Christmas act and Diwali as an imitation of Chanukah.

As for Chanukah, we all now seem utterly convinced that it is part of our tradition to hand out presents. So we overdo it for eight days so that our kids don’t feel they’re missing anything over Christmas. Typical Jewish overcompensation, like the way Jewish mothers can’t help themselves overindulging their poor, unloved, little ones (and may I say here, before I get into trouble, I AM NOT REFERRING TO MY GRANDCHILDREN). Oh yes, I nearly forgot those who are so deprived that they need to do a Christmas tree/menorah double act because Heaven forefend they or their children should be deprived in any way or have to make any uncomfortable choices

And remember, no sooner is Christmas over than we must start spending for the New Year or Sylvester, and barely will we have recovered from that when Saint Valentine’s Day will be upon us. We have a double whammy. The slow inexorable advance of materialism allied to the increasing divisiveness of religion.

Every religion (and, of course, every political party, not to mention football club) spends too much of its energy rubbishing the other and too much time fighting battles that really ought not to be fought. All religions share certain basic goals and principles. They all say they want to make the world a better place. But for some reason they are all so insecure that they only seem capable of feeling good about themselves by telling themselves that they are right, everyone else is wrong, and that anyone belonging to a different religion is at best misguided and at worst doomed to burn in eternal damnation.

In principle, all religions have irrational myths. All religions have concocted all sorts of arguments to justify their own anomalies and inconsistencies. The human mind is amazingly capable of justifying almost anything it chooses to and that’s why so much superstition pervades not only religion but also all human activity. Maybe that is why so much pernicious nonsense is spread by almost every religion about all the others and conspiracy theories abound so that it takes only a spark to ignite seething hatreds to erupt into violence.

Yet humans clearly need not just religious experience and spirituality, but to belong to groups and identify. This was Desmond Morris’s theory. We start as tribes which share values and practices. The tribe grows and expands into a Super-Tribe where we no longer have common values, and so we create Pseudo-Tribes to have smaller groups again, in which we can feel comfortable.

So just as Jews knee-jerk to the defense of Israel and see anti-Semitism everywhere (I’m not saying it isn’t out there, of course), or Muslims overreact when anyone (even a Muslim) dares to criticize Islam, this is the time of the year when Christians fight back and insist that they are a benighted minority and the only way to survive is by pushing Christmas into our faces.

In America there is a campaign by fundamentalist Christians who seem to believe that there’s a conspiracy to stop Christians practicing Christmas. There isn’t! There’s just a natural desire in a multicultural world to live and let live and not ram it down everyone’s throat.

The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks that without Christianity there would be no British culture. What codswallop. I guess I must be an uncultured Brit. Sure a thousand years ago when Britain was little more than series of tribes this might have been true in theory. The Christianity they practiced then was very loose and totally different to the one the Archbishop believes in. And then there were the Protestants who burnt Catholics at the stake, and Mary Tudor got back and burnt Protestants, and then the Huguenots came and the Dutch and the Jews and the Indians and the Muslims and the West Indians and the Sikhs and the Buddhists, and somewhere in the middle came the Marxists and the Atheists and the Rosicrucians and the Wiccans, and bless me if there isn’t still a weeny bit of the Archbishop’s Anglicanism in the stew, but it’s hardly recognizable and nowadays most Britons don’t seem to care very much.

Let everyone practice whatever nonsense they want to. Just don’t hurt other people, overturn their gravestones, daub swastikas on their places of worship; don’t ram your beliefs into their faces (difficult I know for those who think they are right and everyone else is wrong). I love my religion, but I am not blind. I can see how religions develop and I’m under no illusions about mine. I believe it is right for me. I don’t want to push it onto anyone else and I deeply resent any do-gooder trying to tell me that he or she has found God and truth but I have not. It’s as dumb as those who say they know which soccer team God supports. And I confess I get mightily annoyed when I hear Jews say that all non-Jews are immoral, drunken anti-Semites who would like nothing more than to shove us all into gas chambers.

So happy holidays, everyone, as they say in New York.

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December 18, 2005


So the International Red Cross has voted to accept Israel as a member so long as Israel uses a diamond (with a Star inside) as its symbol. “Proper” religions like Christianity and Islam will use their Crosses and Crescents but all the rest have to make do with the diamond. Why am I not ecstatic? Obviously because the only honest decision would have been to make everyone do the same thing and use the diamond, and everyone then puts inside it whatever symbol they want. But in a world where international agencies tend to make conflicts worse, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.

Symbols are trivial but very dangerous things. For millions of people the Cross is a source of comfort and reassurance. But if it has been held over you or your relatives while they were being burnt, raped or slaughtered, then the Cross is a hated symbol of pain and oppression. The same can be said of the Crescent, the Star and Sickle and, of course on a far less comparable level, (except for Iranian Presidential half-wits) the Star of David, the Magen David.

If you are wearing the wrong football shirt in Istanbul there is a serious chance of getting stabbed, and in parts of England having a broken beer bottle shoved in your face. And if you wear a kippa or a hijab in parts of France you run the risk of violence (and sometimes from the same source). Religion, Politics or Sport are all often the excuse for mindless thugs to use violence. In America there is an ongoing debate fuelled by the Christian Right over what symbols for Xmas can or cannot be used and whether religious symbols altogether conflict with America’s separation of State and Religion. In New York the Menorah is almost as ubiquitous as Father Xmas.

If it were just a matter of symbols, frankly I wouldn’t be bothered. After all, the Star of David, from a historical Jewish point of view is a totally unimportant and a relatively recent import. It is not mentioned or to be seen in Biblical Judaism. In the Talmud the term is used once only, and then it used not of a shield, but to refer to one the blessings in the daily prayers (Pesachim 117b) and the same goes for later halachic sources.

I’m reluctant to say it never appears anywhere in early Jewish decorative motifs (though the swastika does!) because I’m not an archaeologist. But I have never seen it on reproductions of decorations of early Jewish buildings and it is not until medieval Prague that it appears in synagogues.

My own view is that as a variation of the magical symbol, the Pentangle, it was forced on medieval Jews as a symbol when they were made to identify themselves with some external sign. As they were accused of being league with witches and devils, this was foisted upon them and, in turn, they transformed it into a badge of honor. Others argue it found its way into Judaism as a kabbalistic symbol. Given that much of medieval Kabbalah was imported from astrology and alchemy, its not farfetched.

But then why associate it with King David? Just as oppressed Jews invented the Super Hero myth of the Golem, who would rampage and destroy the enemies of the Jews, so they yearned for a Super Hero, a King David and his legions of fighting men to come to their rescue. And in time secular Zionism, in need of a symbol, preferred this less obviously religious symbol to the more traditional Menorah.

Historically, the real Jewish symbol was the Seven Branched Menorah (not to be confused with the Eight Branches we use on Chanuka). The Menorah was a symbol of peace, of Heavenly presence. In the Tabernacle and in the two Temples the “eternal light” was the western light on the Menorah that was kept burning perpetually. And in Zechariah’s famous imagery it is a symbol not of human physical force but of spiritual strength.

Interestingly the Menorah was and is also the official symbol of the Jewish State. So what’s all this about the Magen David? It is in effect the symbol of Jewish physical strength! But is that really a Jewish value? It is true, once upon a time we took on the world’s toughest armies. In Roman times Jews were known as the best mercenaries. In the Arabian Peninsula once, Jewish tribes were the fiercest and, of course, nowadays we can take care of ourselves! But what is our “natural” state?

Jacob is described as “A Simple Man”. But he was hardly “simple” and neither was he a wimp! After all he single-handed rolled a huge boulder off the mouth of a well, he faced off Laban and his sons, battled with an aggressive angel and stood up to Esav. He was certainly capable of defending himself. But he was a “complete” man, not one sided. He could be as peaceful and as sensitive as he could fight if necessary.

The sort of strength I admire is the strength that knows when to be soft. And that is the real strength of Israel and the symbolism of the Menorah, not the reliance on magic or total physicality. Which is, of course, why the Talmud does not glorify Judah Macabee’s military victories, but instead the spirit that kept a religious flame alive.

The Star of David means nothing to me religiously, though it does have a special place in my affections precisely because of its association with Jews and a modern Jewish homeland. My ideal would be for Israel to put a Menorah inside that diamond. And then I might feel less angry at the hypocrisies of those, like Esau, who can only fight using dishonest tactics and deviousness.

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December 15, 2005

Fools and Their Folly

Last week the Jewish Telegraph drew attention to an article published in The Dubliner, written by Justin Keating, a former minister in the Irish Government. In it he said, amongst other inanities, that:

There is no link between the Jews of the Bible and Jews today.

Most Jews today have no connection to those who went into exile two thousand years ago.

That Jews invented their God.

That Israel is responsible for the deaths of Catholics in Northern Ireland, etc.
The editor, defended the article on the grounds that it encouraged debate. I find it fascinating that Ireland professes to be a staunchly Catholic nation, and the Catholic Church is now the Christian denomination most favorably disposed to the Jews and Israel. It was not always that way. For most of the Twentieth Century it was the Protestants who were our allies. Now the tables have been turned. But clearly the news has not reached parts of the Emerald Isle.

How should one respond to this pathetic nonsense? I am sure the boring worthies of Anglo Jewry will mutter something about quiet diplomacy, contacts behind the scenes, not taking it too seriously, being careful not to exaggerate, reasoned responses and cold logic. Well it hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work now.

The way to fight fire is with fire. Let anyone attack us and we will give as good as we get.

Let me illustrate. I was once headmaster of what was, at the time, an exceptional Jewish school called Carmel College on the banks of the River Thames. It gave a rigorous academic education to a wide range of pupils of mixed academic, social and national backgrounds. It emphasized a rounded cultural education that included first class sport, music, art and drama. Its Jewish curriculum offered advanced Talmud for those who wanted, it in addition to basic Jewish education, language and history. Its atmosphere was religiously observant and the Jewish teachers used their homes and families as teaching aids and influences. I am exceedingly proud of what we achieved under difficult financial conditions.

Our sportsmen went out to compete against some of the best schools in the land and held their own. Soon after I took over, the captain of the soccer team asked me how he should deal with non-Jewish teams where both Catholic and Anglican kids would regularly curse and call our players “f*****g Yids”, etc.

It’s not only Christians who are exhorted to “turn the other cheek”! The Talmud is rather keen on our doing it too. But the Talmud is also in favor of standing up for one’s rights.

But what was I to say? Under no circumstances would I condone taking a swing. If for no other reason than that it might damage our chances of winning if a key player was sent off. But, seriously, I would never consider violence an appropriate response unless there is no other option. And to try reasoning? Why even anti-Semitic academics, who swear they are not, are impervious to logic or sweet reason and seem incapable of honesty, fair comparisons or proportionality. No, we are, after all, dealing either with visceral endemic hatred or simply with fear or mistrust of “the other”, the stranger, the outsider. In either case, an argument is irrelevant. No, I simply said, “Call him a ‘f*****g Christian’ back. See how he likes it!” And, in fact, after a season the abuse stopped.

Now I have many Irish friends who are the nicest people I know and I wouldn't hurt them for all the world, so if they are reading this and have had a bad day then perhaps they should skip the next paragraph! But this is how I would reply to Mr. Keating:

He’s the one with the problem. The Celts were late arrivals on the Irish scene having massacred the indigenous locals when they sailed in from the North. Then a later importation of aggressive missionary invaders, after (so called Saint) Patrick led the way, imposed a cruel violent religion based on Middle Eastern myths reworked to incorporate local the pagan deities. With a policy of slaying heretics and torturing innocents, they imposed their vicious religion as a way of subjugating and impoverishing the island. The result was the creation of a violent, murderous and drunken primitive population that used religion to suppress and sexually abuse women and children, which indeed has continued right up until our times. It is only when the Irish leave their original homeland and are civilized by coming into contact with more advanced peoples that they become capable of contributing positively to normal societies--when they are not killing each other, drug running, supporting world terrorism and drowning in Guinness.

Ah! Now that feels a lot better! Of course, it’s not just Mr. Keating. A fascinating article in the New Republic describes the volume of anti-American publications and rhetoric in France today (and indeed ever since the American Revolution). Many French intellectuals are so eager to cover up France’s appalling record under Vichy Fascism that they try deflecting criticism by blaming Jews and Americans of being in league to destroy the beautiful caring paradise of a world that French revolutionary ideals have established. Yes! Tell that to the arsonists of the Parisian suburbs.

The president of Iran now adds to his primitive rants against Israel by declaring that the Holocaust never happened. Indeed! And Mohammad never existed and Islam is really a kind of Reform Judaism. And Alexander the Great killed off all the Persians, and those people living there today are really all Greeks!

None of this is an excuse for our faults and errors. I am not hesitant in pillorying our own false gods. But it is sad that ideologies prevent honest discussion, biases and hatreds prevent honest analysis and they distort comparisons. Sometimes one just wants to scream because short of giving the idjit a dose of his own medicine, what else is there?

Oh yes. Don’t get even, get ahead. And thank goodness economically, intellectually and spiritually that is precisely what Judaism in general (of course, admitting all the exceptions) is doing. Thank goodness, because if we don’t take care of ourselves no one else will.

If you think I’ve gone off the rails, just remember it is the good book of Proverbs that says, “Answer a fool according to his folly.”

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December 04, 2005

Saints or Sinners

For those of us who take our Bible seriously, the narratives of Genesis are meant to be moral pointers to correct human behavior. If so, then it is very difficult to explain why our great forefathers did certain things.

Or should I phrase it this way--Why did the Torah not edit out those uncomfortable incidents, if, as the Talmud in Sotah says, “Whatever the Fathers did sets an example for us”? (We needn’t go into the actual context of this phrase which actually refers to the days of Joshua, not Avraham, because it is now part of our commentators’ lexicon.) What, for instance, are we to make of the following:

Putting your wife and marriage in danger to save your own skin (and this happens three times)

Throwing a lively teenager and his sullen mother out of your home into the world with no more than a day’s supplies

Pretending to your son you’re taking him on a hiking holiday but really you intend to do something nasty to him

Fooling your father and telling lies to get your hands on his money

Favoring one son over another (seems to be pretty commonplace)

Taking advantage of your brother (another commonplace)

Give as good as you get (even more commonplace)

Moonlighting and playing with your father-in-law’s capital

Allowing your out-of-control sons to behave despicably and “top” the local gang

Spending the night with a call girl who turns out to be your daughter-in-law

Allowing yourself to lose your self-control and lash out at those around you
All of these are there, in black and white in our Holy Writ. Of course, I have oversimplified, and anyway in every story there is always another side and life is never as simple or straightforward as it seems. After all, the Bible is a document which, even according to its detractors, is nearly three thousand years old, and many of the narratives much older. We would hardly expect it to conform to modern sensitivities and, quite frankly, given the highly dubious moral values of huge swathes of modernity one should be very grateful that it doesn’t.

In our times any document, opinion, cleric or tradition that doesn’t totally permit anyone to do whatever they feel like doing comes in for popular criticism. Yet religions have flourished particularly at times when society in general was amazingly corrupt and heading for a serious fall. (The series Rome is providing a graphic depiction of how corrupt ancient Roman society was.)

I used to thrill to Georgie Best’s brilliance on the soccer pitch and felt sad when he descended into inebriated self-destruction. But you’d think he was a real saint the way he is being treated in death. When men talented in their use of their bodies are lauded and treated as heroes, showered with immense and illogical rewards and worship, whilst those who care for our elderly or teach our young are all but ignored, one can hardly be surprised if more and more people yearn for some “good old fashioned values”.

But my point is that, looking at the behavior described in the Bible, one is bound to wonder what exactly those values were.

One approach of apologists is to argue that we don’t understand and if only we weren’t so mired in secularism and so anxious to rubbish our forebears we would comprehend. Indeed, one point of view in the Midrash/Talmud says that Kings David and Solomon never put a foot wrong throughout their lives. It is simply our misreading of the text or inadequate information about the exact circumstances that leads us to make these erroneous assumptions.

Another point of view in the very same sources (which only illustrates the variety of debate then, which, alas, is often suppressed nowadays) is to say that, indeed, they did do something wrong. The fact is that they were human beings, not saints, and “the Torah was not given for/to Ministering Angels.” This is the greatness of our tradition that the examples we are given are, indeed, human. “There is no human on earth who has done only good and never sinned,” as King Solomon himself said in Ecclesiastes 7 (which, for those who might not know, is part of our Bible).

I regard it as very positive that our tradition gives examples not of perfection, to which we have no chance of aspiring, but of human beings who, like us, sometimes fall short and yet are still capable of the highest spirituality and goodness to others. Although in the current hagiographic fashion, no great rabbi has ever done anything wrong, who of us has not made serious mistakes? Who has not been seduced by the mirage of materialism, or favored a child, or had a spouse lie on our behalf, or failed to control unruly kids, or not told the complete truth out of fear? We are all incomplete, every one of us. But the Torah gives us hope because it tells us that even in our imperfections we are inextricably bound to our Creator and are given challenges that we must try to overcome, and even I we fail we can still try again.

I am troubled by a great deal in the Torah I do not understand. My late father, Kopul Rosen, loved to quote the saying, “The God that is small enough for my mind is not big enough for me.” But I am inspired by the examples of our great forefathers who had to grapple with life and adverse circumstances despite the promises of ultimate success. I am encouraged precisely because they were humans and not perfect saints.

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There is no word in the Bible that means “torture” the way we use it nowadays. Modern Hebrew uses the word “inui”. But that is used in the Bible to describe what we do to ourselves when we fast on Yom Kippur. Hardly a defiance of the Geneva Convention, unless being deprived of a Krispy Kreme is torture! It is also used to describe slavery in Egypt and that might well have included torture, but not necessarily. The great Rabbi Lowe of Prague described the whole of Exile as “inui.”

The Hebrew word for cruelty, “tza'ar”, is nearer to what we mean by “torture”. Cruelty to animals, for instance, is “tza'ar ba'alei chayim”. Under no circumstances are we allowed to torment animals. It is banned as one of the Seven Noachide Commands, fundamental laws that apply to everyone.

There is another word, “oness”, compulsion, which is also the Biblical word for rape. In Jewish Law anything achieved as a result of compulsion is negated, invalid. This is why the forced converts to Christianity under the Inquisition were held blameless and allowed to slot gently back into Jewish communities when the opportunity arose.

There is a Talmudic principle that says we do not rely on a person’s own testimony against himself (in the absence of any other evidence). “A person cannot incriminate himself.” “Confessions” under oness, would not be acceptable. So under Jewish Law judicial torture would never be tolerated. The only pressure brought to bear to clarify events in the absence of witnesses was the Oath. You might call it psychological pressure at a time when people really feared to take the Lord’s Name in vain, but this is in contrast to judicial torture being the norm in Europe until just a few hundred years ago.

So why is there no discussion in the Talmud on the merits of or the moral abhorrence of torture? After all, three thousand years ago life was cruel and vicious. Casual reading of the books of Samuel or Kings confirms that kings and their courts got up to all sorts of unsavory business, as indeed did the last of the Maccabee kings. But we need to look at Torah legislation, itself, rather than at those who betrayed it.

One reason that “torture” is not an issue is that Biblical and Talmudic law is very definite about the immorality of any harm or damage done to a person. Whole chapters are devoted to “chavala”, physical assault, and the necessary compensation.

I have seen it argued that the Lex Talionis (“an eye for an eye”, etc.) is proof of sanctioned torture. That’s rubbish on two counts. Firstly, it is unlikely that “an eye for an eye” was ever taken literally in Jewish Law, because on either side of it in the Torah, the laws talk about financial (not physical) compensation. Besides, when we discuss torture we are not talking about a judicial system of clearly laid down crimes and punishments. Torture is when a possibly innocent person is harmed physically, for either religious or political reasons.

Torture seems almost to be endemic in human nature. The Romans were certainly no strangers to the practise. For them it was a natural tool to scare and cow rebellious natives or colonies and indeed entertain citizens in the circuses. And the Medieval World positively reveled in torturing for political, religious and social reasons. Look at the long list of unspeakable things they did to human bodies--burning, stretching, cutting, gouging.

Yet Judaism as a religious system has never ever tolerated torture.

(One might argue for one exception--a husband who refuses to give a divorce to his wife may be beaten until he agrees! Rabbeynu Tam, who lived in France in the 12th century, effectively put an end to it, probably on the grounds that being surrounded by a violent Christian society he wanted to distance Judaism from anything vaguely similar. There is more than one Jewish woman alive today who regrets that decision!)

The argument in favor of torture is usually most simplistically put like this. You have someone who knows that a bomb will go off and kill thousands. Isn’t it worth torturing him to save a catastrophe?

According to Jewish Law one may, indeed, even kill someone who represents a clear and present danger to your life. The Talmudic principle is, “If someone comes to kill you, get there first and kill him.” This justifies a pre-emptive strike. But torture is a different issue.

Once you tolerate the idea of torture, then every sadist or Nazi doctor will argue that, for the greater good of mankind, you can experiment on defenseless victims. (See the film ‘The Constant Gardener’ to get an idea what our modern civilization is still capable of.) Judaism has never accepted the principle that “the end justifies the means”. Every life is precious and the Talmudic debate over the Biblical case of Sheva Ben Bichri (II Samuel 20:1), who rebelled against King David, confirms that you may not hand an innocent person over to certain death to save the lives of others.

And the fact is that under torture a person will say whatever he thinks you want to hear. It is rarely reliable. There was the case of the Marrano Doctor Lopez who confessed under torture to plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth. He hadn’t. And she felt so bad she gave his widow a pension. And what about all those Russians who confessed to Stalin they had been traitors when on the contrary they were loyal acolytes?

If someone really does have information, there are nowadays lots of chemical and psychological ways of getting him to talk, without having to torture or set the dogs upon him.

I am bitterly disappointed that I cannot find important rabbinic responsa on torture. Neither can I recall hearing, or seeing in print, any major Orthodox rabbi denouncing it unequivocally and explicitly. Are we to bury our heads in the sand and think it’s none of our business?

Torture deprives not only the victim, but also the torturer, of his humanity. No sensitive, ethical human can tolerate inflicting pain on another. It is our moral and religious obligation to speak out against it. This is the clear and totally unqualified position of our religious tradition.

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