February 26, 2006

Chabad Myths

The Lubavitcher (Chabad) Rebbe was undeniably a great man and arguably the greatest Jew of his generation. Many of his followers have done outstanding work around the globe. But sadly as with every large organization they have their crooks, their swindlers and their charlatans. Amongst their failings is an exaggerated tendency to maximize miracles the Rebbe performed (while ignoring his limitations) and inventing myths.

For many years there has been a story circulating that my father, who died in March 1962, was promised he would be cured by the Rebbe provided he did not tell anyone, but he did and that’s why he died. These stories caused my late mother a great deal of distress. Her very different record of the events was actually published in a Lubavitch book called Challenge: An Encounter with Lubavitch-Chabad and at one stage she even toyed with legal action.

The facts of the situation are that in the autumn of 1961 my father was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of leukemia and he needed regular blood transfusions. The doctors described his condition as terminal. Initially he kept repeating that he was in the hands of God, not fallible human doctors. As he deteriorated, his initial optimism began to wane.

He went to see the Rebbe in New York and was tremendously impressed. The Rebbe encouraged him to devote his remaining time to preparing himself to meet his Maker. He suggested my father grow his beard full, wear a gartel when he prayed and study the Tanya daily. The visit certainly gave my father a lot of spiritual comfort. When he returned he wrote many letters to friends and pupils telling them that he was nearing his end but facing it with confidence. His health continued to deteriorate, of course, and in the winter he went to New York again for a final visit to the Rebbe. He kept very detailed notes of both visits, so we have written evidence apart from what he told us from memory.

The Rebbe reassured him that he would live to dance at his daughter’s wedding (she was two at the time), and that Purim would be a time of turning sadness into joy. One can argue whether this was honest or not. Let us assume he was just trying to give him courage or speaking mystically. But medically there was no chance of recovery. He died less than two months later, a week before Purim.

Although I have never joined Chabad, when I was a rabbi in Glasgow I helped Chabad establish itself there. The Rebbe was instrumental in my returning to Carmel as Headmaster, and I made several trips to New York to see the Rebbe and to get Chabad teachers to come to Carmel. But I was always a fellow traveler rather than a believer.

Recently this myth resurfaced in the rather sick variation excerpted below, written by a rabbi in Kfar Chabad in Israel. My comments are in brackets.

The scene is London 1963.

[My father died in 1962.]

Three religious bearded Jews are sitting around a table and one, a noted rabbi and community leader by the name of Rabbi Koppel (sic) Rosen was weeping. Usually he was known almost as well for his disdain toward the Chabad Chassidim as he was for his erudition.

[Strange. He came to visit when I was in Beer Yaakov Yeshiva in 1957, and together we went to Kfar Chabad to meet some friends of his. He was responsible for getting Lord Wolfson to fund the building of Lubavitch House in Stamford Hill in the 1950’s, and he was a very old friend of Reb Laizer Spector, zl, one of the main early supporters of Chabad in London, who actually went with him to the Rebbe the first time. My father was in contact with the Rebbe long before his final illness, as letters exchanged between them in the fifties attest.]

Whenever there was an opportunity to belittle or even vilify Chabad he took it.

[It is true that he made fun of the credulous and superstitious, but neither I nor anyone else I know of ever heard him belittle Chabad.]

Several weeks later Rabbi Rosen was standing before the Rebbe. It had all come about so suddenly, he had always shuddered in repulsion at the name Chabad

[Oh no, not that lie again.]

and now it was so obvious that the Rebbe was unequalled in holiness and knowledge that he was actually shaking with excitement. But the Rebbe wasn't enthusiastic about his idea of becoming a Chassid. "Chassid?" he answered, "I am willing to accept you as a partner. But not a Chassid."

[The part about being accepted as a partner is the only element of this story that is mentioned in my father’s notes.]

Rabbi Rosen stayed for over a week in Brooklyn

[He has got the two visits confused and time scales wrong]

and every day he felt better and better, in some ways better than ever before in his life. For the first time the hatred he had always carried in his heart was gone.

[Hatred? Of whom, Chabad? Then why had he been helping them for so long?]

That Shabbat he attended the 'Farbrengen' (gathering) of the Rebbe. Rabbi Rosen was elated. After the Farbringen he told everyone he met of the amazing miracle that was happening to him;. how just reading the Tanya and seeing the Rebbe completely cured him of the worst disease and made him young again.

[There was no cure, no remission. But, yes, he did feel tremendous spiritual elation from being with the Rebbe.]

When the Shabbat was over he called home and told his wife to advertise the miracle until everyone knew.

[Rubbish, confirmed by my mother. In all he said to his wife and children, he never mentioned a cure.]

Rabbi Rosen never felt better in his life.

[He was on blood transfusions!]

He exclaimed that he was healthy and he felt it would last for ever. "I'll begin by telling everyone about my miraculous recovery!" He exclaimed enthusiastically.

[His letters, notes and conversations say nothing about this at all.]

But the Rebbe emphatically stopped him. "No! You must tell no one!” But it was too late. Rabbi Rosin (sic) had already advertised.

[Strange that none of his family had been told any of this.]

He returned home a different man, full of life and Chassidic joy and began several projects to spread and teach but after a few months he contracted a cold which developed complications

[He had leukemia!]

and, as the Rebbe foresaw, he passed away.
I find it fascinating that the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament contains a similar story of a man being warned not to reveal a miraculous healing, but publicizing it anyway. It seems that it’s not just the Second Coming that some people in Chabad are borrowing from Christianity! If people can invent nonsense like this to bolster their belief systems, then every story they tell becomes suspect. Myths and lies certainly won’t help bring “Moshiach Now!”

My mother’s Yahrzeit was this past week. Out of respect for her memory, let alone my father’s, zl, I hope someone in Chabad has the integrity and authority to put an end to this for the sake of its own good name.

As a result of my objections, the author of the piece quoted above apologized to me and promised to correct the story. However I notice that all he has done is to give a very qualified apology in his weekly mailing and simply taken out my father's name and substituted "Rabbi J" in the story that remains online. That's interesting. I wonder if in future years J will turn into Jeremy! But either way the "myth" is being perpetuated and told as fact. This is simply unacceptable, not to say dishonest.

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February 19, 2006

Olive Trees

Whenever I read irrational, vituperative attacks on Zionism or Israel I always determine to resist writing articles that are in any way negative about Israel. Or when I read articles by Ilan Pappe, a man so distorted by hatred that he wants to see the end of a Jewish State, I bite my tongue. Or Norman Finkelstein, whose book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History is so bitter that it clouds those legitimate points he does make, such as his criticism of “Shoah business”.

But then I pick up The Jewish Press (Jewish Distress), that organ of American Orthodoxy that makes Kahane fascism look positively Marxist, and see such ill-conceived apologetics that I think, “To heck with our enemies; let’s just try some home truths.”

We have just celebrated the New Year for Trees. It is supposed to reinforce our reverence for and appreciation of nature, God’s gifts. The olive tree in particular is associated with peace ever since Noah sent the dove out of the ark and she came back with an olive branch. It is one of the seven “elevated” fruits and trees that are associated with the Land of Israel and require special blessings. But nowadays olive trees are bearing the brunt of hatred in the hills of Judea.

There are Torah laws against cutting down trees needlessly and very specifically those that produce fruit. In the Torah mankind is compared to the tree of the field. It grows slowly, produces, provides and nourishes and yet can be cut off in an instant. In the Talmud the famous story of Honi seeing a man plant a carob tree that will not bear fruit in his lifetime leads to the famous phrase, “I found a world with trees in it that my grandparents planted, so I must provide similarly for my grandchildren.”

For many years now vandals have been destroying Arab olive trees in Judea and Samaria. It’s part of a hidden war of attrition on both sides. Just as Muslims make it tough for Christians in the hope they will leave, so settlers try to deprive local Arabs of a living in the hope that they will leave. Of course each side always finds justification and provocation. But I had thought the army had it under control. So it was with some sadness that I read the following recent report in the Israeli press:

Over the past year there have been dozens of sabotage incidents of Palestinian-owned olive groves by settlers. As recently as last month more than 1,000 olive trees have been cut down on six different occasions. Judea and Samaria District police told Haaretz that 672 investigation files were opened in 2005 for "disruption of order by Israelis against Palestinian property".
And in a second story:

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz told the cabinet on Sunday that 2,400 trees were axed in a recent wave of vandalism in the West Bank by militant settlers and Israel should give monetary compensation to Palestinians whose olive trees have been cut down.

"There's a pervasive feeling of lawlessness," Mazuz said, adding, "This phenomenon is part of a wider phenomenon of a lack of law enforcement against Israelis in the territories. The excuse that there is a lack of resources is unacceptable," said Mazuz. "This is a matter of priority, it's unacceptable that Israel is unable to allocate resources for this.”

[Israeli Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz noted. . .that he has ordered the establishment of a special team to investigate the destruction of over 2,000 olive trees belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank

Mofaz said in the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday that, following the findings of an investigation into the matter, he ordered security forces to increase their presence in areas where trees have been destroyed, to carry out a policy of quick and effective arrests and to compensate the Palestinian tree owners. Mofaz did not refer to the identities of those responsible for destroying the trees, but they are widely assumed to be settlers.
The Jerusalem Post, not at all left wing, had the following report on January 13th:

While the army plans to launch special operations to catch the perpetrators, officials on Thursday slammed what they called the police's constant failure to arrest the suspects. On Tuesday, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Yuval Diskin criticized the police's failure to effectively prevent settlers from vandalizing Palestinian olive orchards.
Who are “settlers”? It’s a general term that is applied to anyone living beyond the old 1967 armistice borders. But this covers a range of people from religious to secular, economic settlers looking for a bigger house to ideological ones, aggressive Brooklynites, spiritual, pacifist mystics, criminals and ordinary law-abiding nature lovers. Some are right wing politically and some are Left. Sadly, within this generalization are to be found those who resist the democratic process in Israel and refuse to try to live amicably with anyone who disagrees with them, including no small number of “Hill Top Youth”--delinquents and petty criminals, dropouts from society who use the cover of “ideology” to indulge their own antisocial neuroses. The damage they do by breaking laws and using violence in pursuit of their goals sadly was the excuse given for the brutal reaction of police and soldiers in evacuating Amona.

Now if I had seen an article excusing the work as the result of sick minds amongst a minority of the settlers I would have accepted it as at least an explanation. But this is what was written in a prominent article in The Jewish Press by Steven Plaut from Haifa University (the Alma Mater of Ilan Pappe--clearly extremes breed extremes):

The simple answer is that the accusations are baseless. It would be hard to find another set of baseless rumors turned into ‘news.’ Not a single Israeli settler has been convicted of damaging Arab trees [That’s like saying no one in Europe has been convicted this year of anti-Semitic attacks and therefore there have been none. –JR] and several more plausible explanations for the cutting of the trees have been provided. A small number of trees have been cut down by the Israeli Army because they were being used by Palestinian snipers. The Israeli government has been paying compensation to Palestinians who claim their trees have been vandalized and that is why more and more complaints are being made!
As if tight-fisted Israeli exchequers under economic pressure are going to dole out compensation for no good reason!!!

We have had a field day these past weeks with Muslim fanatics and Anglican churchmen making complete idiots of themselves. Let us not forget we have our own. Once one unleashes violence in one area it inevitably spills over into others.

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February 12, 2006

Freedom to Laugh

I am seriously worried that the liberal Western civilization of Voltaire, Locke, Hume, John Stewart Mill, Huxley, Russel and Popper is about to disappear.

It is not because the Muslim "street" has been staging violent demonstrations, burning embassies, demanding that laws are changed, editors sacked and goods boycotted--and all this over cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. With all the honor killings, genocide and refusal to acknowledge human rights in parts of the Muslim world today, you'd think there were more serious things to get worked up about. But this appears to be part of a campaign to impose the darkest of Muslim values, from its least enlightened substrata, onto the West. The response is a pathetic capitulation that may well lead in time to the denial of the right to poke fun at religion and the end of the ability to demolish dangerous myths.

The overwhelming body of opinion I have been hearing in the press and on the media on both sides of the Atlantic is that it was wrong to allow the publication of the cartoons and that one should not give offense to the most fundamentalist distortions of Islam.

So the Danish Government has apologized, the French editor was sacked, and in Britain they are too scared to even show us what the fuss was all about. No wonder the press is losing ground to the freedom of the internet. The head of the UN, a morally corrupt organization that cannot stop genocide in Darfur, has to express his concern for offended Muslim feelings. Where is this all going to lead?

One of our values is that the press should be free. Another, going back at least to Jonathan Swift, himself a cleric, is that one should be able to make fun of religion and even to satirize it. In my youth, there was nothing more calculated to attract scorn than pompous humorless clerics of any faith. Just think of The Life of Brian, or the dancing Inquisition in Mel Brooks' History of the World. Indeed God Himself, in all His variations, has been the subject of ribald criticism, let alone a human prophet, so if the issue is Muslim sensitivity to representations of prophets, then we should by rights be up in arms over the Sistine Chapel's semi-naked God!

There is a very healthy tradition of anticlericalism in Europe. This is why crazy religions and sects tend to find it harder to take root in Europe than in America and why there are far more cases of religious abuse and corruption in America, too. Sure, the downside is an anti-mystical, cynical dimension that works the other way and discourages outward religiosity. But if this important feature of European culture is lost then I believe we are in trouble, because, as is now abundantly clear, religion without humor is really dangerous!

Christianity and Judaism have, for the most part, adjusted to the fact that living in a free and open society means being prepared to have people poke harmless fun at your most cherished beliefs. Many Muslims are still stuck in a medieval mindset that recalls the days when they burnt dissenters at the stake. Do we really want to go back to that frame of mind?

What worries me is not that politicians fall over backwards to apologize and run around bleating with their tails between the legs. That's what politicians do when they want votes. In Britain they are terrified of losing the Inner Cities. Why else would reasonable, liberally educated men and women give serious consideration to a law that prevents one making fun of any religion? Politicians are the last people I would ever expect to defend ideas or culture.

No, it’s the men and women of letters and the Third Estate that concern me. It seems the disease of anti-Semitism is so profound that a socialist would rather defend a gay-bashing, woman-humiliating, antidemocratic fundamentalist absolutist, than a liberal Jew.

It all began with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the disgraceful way so many academics and media personalities refused to stand up for Rushdie's right to write whatever he felt like writing, in fiction of all things! Then it went to the pusillanimous response, with the exception of Rowan Atkinson, to the British Government's introduction of blasphemy laws to restrict what one can say or write if it can in any way be taken as offensive to Islam. Thank goodness the Conservative party ambushed the Government to water it down. Meanwhile Israel has the sort of freedom where you can hold religion up to ridicule (and a good thing, too, in that context) but Israel is almost universally condemned for being a betrayer of Human Rights!

Remember when a British cartoonist really offended Jewish sensibilities? Not only was there not a peep but it actually won awards. But Heaven forefend one makes fun of Islam or one’s embassies will be burnt!

You see I would mind less if there were some reciprocity. But throughout the Muslim world the most crude, abusive, pornographic anti-Semitic cartoons and television programs appear all the time and no one says 'boo.' Mr Annan has not once asked them to stop in the interest of peaceful coexistence!

No one replies to these primitive Muslim protestors that they should clear up their own houses first. Surely sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you don't like insults then try stopping insulting others first. A free and an open society allows fun to made of the most serious of sacred holy cows. Those societies that allow making fun are the very ones that guarantee more freedom and where most human beings including Muslims want to live in.

Of course, good relations between different peoples and religions requires protection and legal recourse. But there is a fundamental difference between making sure that people are not harmed or discriminated against for their views or their religion and, on the other hand, cotton-wooling them to make sure the little diddums are not upset.

Yes, indeed, this is an assault on most cherished Western value of Freedom of Speech. Apologists are saying that it’s not, it’s about community relations. But community relations that require us to give up our cherished cultural freedoms is not relations, it is capitulation.

If we do not now stand up for our cultural rights then I fear the end of our civilization as we know it is at hand. If we do not refuse to stand up now against placards in London calling for death to non-believers, if we continue to appease, then Western culture is done for.


There is another aspect to all this, closer to home. I have a long experience of religious extremist demonstrations, Jewish ones in Jerusalem, going back to 1956 (in my youth I was always up for fun). First it was against the mixed swimming pool in the German Colony, then autopsies, then traffic on Shabbat, then archaeology, then the Supreme Court and now full-circle back to autopsies and Shabbat desecration.

When you have large numbers of idle, unemployed students with nothing better to do, or, indeed, rich trust fund kids without a struggle to keep them focused, then a good demonstration is part of one’s recreational CV. The same goes for protestors against World Trade.

I must add here that the brutality the Border Police showed against old men and children over the years was such that what I saw at Armona did not surprise me at all. I’d seen it too often before, directed against one’s own, let alone one’s enemies. This is one of the few occasions when I long for the British tradition of police crowd control.

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is any comparison in the violence between Muslim thugs and yeshiva bochurim, but there is a certain sociological commonality. In the Islamic world it is one of the few political safety valves. You are not allowed to demonstrate against your government but a good blood curdling orgy against America, the West, Israel, Zionism and the Jews is rather convenient and most therapeutic. Peaceful demonstrations are one thing and I totally support them however uncomfortable they may be to some. But the moment they turn violent then I completely approve of suppression.

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February 01, 2006

New Life, Old Tradition

Now that I have just become a grandpa again (the sixth time) my total delight is tempered by the thought of another circumcision, a brit (nothing to do with awards).

I am a terrible, terrible softy when it comes to blood and the very sight of it tends to make me weak at the knees. I don’t watch any of the popular TV hospital shows (not that I would willingly waste the time) because when it comes to cutting up bodies, even if it is all fake, I cannot bear to look. Similarly, I can’t watch those nip-and-tuck documentaries on plastic surgery. I can’t even bear to look at injections. I do not understand how doctors or surgeons do it.

As part of my rabbinic training I had to study the laws of ritual slaughter. It was required of me by my teacher that I witness the real thing. I have to tell you I was sick for weeks afterwards, and even today the thought of chickens being whirled around for the annual Hassidic ritual of kapparot (atonements) before Yom Kippur makes me run for my charity checkbook as a substitute. And if the Temple was rebuilt tomorrow and the sacrifices brought back, I think I’d make sure I got a doctor’s certificate to justify my absence.

I have never been able to understand those individuals at a brit who get up close to have a look and examine the differing expertises. Neither can I fathom that recent phenomenon of bringing a video camera in as close as possible to record every last snip and then digitally send it off around the world to the delight of aficionados.

So when it comes to circumcisions, I stand as far back as I possibly can. When I have been honored with holding the child while it’s done, I simply cannot look. For me it’s “eyes wide shut”!

So if that’s how I feel, why does it not enter my mind for one minute that maybe I ought to desist or at least object? Not only, but when I read of objections to circumcision I have to laugh. Does it really reduce sexual pleasure? Well, if it does, we Jews don’t seem to have noticed it. Four thousand years of sexual activity, and according to the Talmud we Jews are not less susceptible to sexual temptation.

Neither, to the best of my knowledge, are the Muslims feeling deprived. On the contrary they are only too pleased to extend their suffering into the next world too! There was apparently a time when almost all Americans were circumcised but now it’s dropped a lot. All the members of the British Royal Family were circumcised and certainly they did not seem to be sexually inhibited.

It is true that fashions change and now it seems undoing circumcision is in great demand in certain areas. At the time of the Greeks assimilated Jews used to “pull on the skins of their penises” to cover up their Jewish identity. And I’m sure that might be a reason nowadays for some. But I’m hardly going to be influenced by Jews who want to escape their Judaism.

Recently the New York City Health Department has said it is issuing warnings. This is because one particular mohel (that’s the guy who does it) has infected three children over a ten-year period, one fatally, by giving it herpes when he put his lips to the cut to draw blood. This practice, called metzitzah, traditionally disinfects the wound and helps the healing. (Indeed, it is one of the amazing things about circumcisions how quickly they do heal). It is a tradition as old as the Mishna and probably the Torah. In most Orthodox circles it is still adhered to, though repeated fears of infection led many rabbis to permit the use of a glass tube to do it. Every mohel I have ever seen washes his mouth out with disinfectant beforehand (once upon a time vodka was considered enough, no longer!) so perhaps the New York fellow was rogue and you do get rogues in any profession. But of course human life is so precious and Halacha so insistent on preserving life that I believe that if there is reasonable doubt custom should be dispensed with. Not a fashionable point of view in resurgent Orthodoxy nowadays.

The mohel is a highly trained professional, often a medical man, usually pious as well as skilled. The actual operation takes seconds. With the millions of circumcisions it is exceedingly rare for accidents to occur although they do. But then people die after piercings and tattoos and in hospitals as a result of errors or hospital bugs.

I do not find the brit ritual aesthetically pleasing or even religiously uplifting. But I am a believer, in my tradition, in Torah. I also know that it is a fundamental of Torah that whatever the command, if there is any question of health risk it is suspended or waived altogether. I do not believe Torah laws are utilitarian or necessarily logical. I realize I am disagreeing with Maimonides, but then so have others far greater than I. So I do not accept circumcision because of the evidence that it inhibits cancer of the cervix, STD’s, and is healthier for men and women. I accept it because if I want to belong to a tradition and derive the benefits of its greatness, spirituality, and beauty, then to pick and choose demolishes the structure and makes it no more than another human, transient fashion. And if, furthermore, I believe this to be a link between me and God, then I feel I must submit my limited intellectual capacity to that of something I intuit to be eternal and far greater than me.

Circumcision reinforces my commitment. It’s not just about the child. We certainly all impose far greater evils on our children emotionally, socially and psychologically.

Blood has always been both emotive and sanctified yet at the same time it is so transferable as well as dispensable. It occupies central positions in religious worship and motifs from the most primitive to the most "sophisticated". In Christianity blood is the central motif of the Eucharist. For Catholics the wine does actually turn into blood. If civilized people can be at ease with symbolically drinking the blood of their god, then the once-in-a-lifetime ritual of the brit, the covenant, seems to me to be infinitely less problematic.

It is like the idea of sacrifice, that one allows blood to be spilt to affirm one’s commitment to something greater than human blood. If one is ever called upon to spill it, it is only therapeutically, or in the most restricted and limited of rituals, as part of the very cycle of one’s own existence.

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