May 29, 2006

American Idol

Britain has made some positive contributions to world culture over the years. But all this counts for very little compared to the impact of Britain’s rude, bad-tempered export, Simon Cowell, and his show Pop Idol, now transformed into American Idol. A whopping 34 million Americans watch American Idol weekly on television and (don’t ask me how or why), casting as many as 60 million votes by telephone for those competitors they want to win. Of these, apparently 35% believed their vote was more important than voting for the President of the United States. So is this the greatest exercise in democracy, or the sign of the Fall of the Roman (American) Empire?

On the other hand Matisyahu, the Orthodox nouveau Chasidic rapper from Brooklyn who sounds like the reincarnation of Bob Marley (shame on you if the name means nothing to you, brother), has an album called Youth that reached number 4 in the American hit charts and is selling millions. (He is, tell it not in Gat, outselling The Tanya.) In the words of the Times' review of his sell-out Manchester concert:

His show breathes new life into the reggae formula. . .He expresses unequivocal support for the aspirations of the Israeli people. . .He won’t be the first pop "messiah" whose fans have been swept along by the star’s commitment to his cause while not necessarily signing up for the full manifesto.
Is Mattisyahu a pop idol? And what exactly is his audience focusing on? Is it the music or the way he lives his life and his values?

The very word “idol” gives the game away. Idolatry in Biblical terms is the total abandon to licentious, lascivious self-indulgence as the primary “good” required by the gods of Canaan and Egypt. The more you indulge, the happier you make them. Jewish opposition was predicated on the fact that there was no general ethical, judicial system to protect the weak and disadvantaged. In the words of the Book of Judges, “Each man did whatever was right in his own eyes.” (Shoftim/Judges 17:6) By the time of the Romans, idolatry was no longer a matter of whether there was a legal system, but rather whether wealth and power allowed you to flout it, and whether one exercised any kind of sexual restraint at all. Worship of House Idols was the superstitious expectation of receiving preferential treatment.

An idol, as we know, is an object that humans worship. It has no intrinsic value other than that it is worshipped for quite baseless and spurious reasons. So a pop idol is someone worshipped unreasonably for no inherent talent, unlike a hero who is, in theory, worshipped or admired for some heroic deed or persona. I accept that to call it worshipping sounds a little extreme. But not having “other gods” means not allowing one's life to be dominated by spurious things. What could be more spurious than the fact that someone should command a salary of millions for the ability to hit a ball with an implement occasionally during the course of the year, whereas a nurse, social worker or teacher (forget rabbis) should only get a few thousand? This can only mean that “market forces” reflect the idolatry of our material values.

Indeed being led astray by gods of gold is not new. The Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf. They knew it was only made out of the gold they had contributed. They invested it with imagined powers and used it as the authority for having an orgy. After Solomon’s son Rehoboam was unable to keep control of all the twelve tribes, ten split off as the new Kingdom of Israel with Jeroboam as their king. He wasn’t going to have his people all traipse up to Jerusalem, in enemy territory, three times a year and spend their tourist bucks in Judea. So he set up two competing Temples in Dan and Bethel. And guess what--he put two golden calves in them. The belief in the Golden Calf must have persisted long after Moses ground the first one in to dust. Unless of course you are a Da Vinci Code fan, in which case the original Golden Calf was really sequestered and hidden until Jeroboam’s sleuths deciphered the clues and reinstated one and made a copy to confuse treasure hunters! Shame about the best-seller!

But why were they so easily fooled? It’s because it was easier to believe in a Golden Calf than to make the effort to try to understand a non-physical untouchable force (or a concept for that matter).

Why even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who should know something about idol worshipping, this week protested at the popular preoccupation with “personalities” who are treated as such simply because they made idiots of themselves on the Big Brother television series or I”m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Once upon time a personality or a celebrity was someone who achieved a degree of distinction for some contribution he or she made to society, culture even religion. Nowadays notoriety in itself is enough. In part this is because most people’s lives are so empty they crave anything instant that will enhance their pathetic existence. The dumbing down of society is a myth. The mass of humanity was always dumb. In the past their excitement came from religion and wars. You see it still in the sadder parts of our globe. Nowadays it comes from television, popular music, drugs and Hello Magazine. Humans always gravitate to the lowest common denominator and the easiest fix. That’s human nature. Only a few work hard. The majority skive or do the minimum to get by on.

So many teenagers and adults I know long for the lottery ticket, the big deal, the talent competition victory, as paths to an easy life. Idol and idle sound very similar. In the famous Peter Sellers sketch, Cyril the rock star is asked if being a teenage idol has changed him. “Naa,” he replies “I was idle before I was a teenager.”

I used to believe that if you had a religious pop singer he’d convert thousands, millions to Judaism. But it doesn’t work that way. Will Matisyahu change people’s attitude to Judaism? We’ve got our religious “personalities,” our pop kabbalists, our “tele-preachers” and our rappers, but everyone’s just interested in the surface, the superficial, the idol, not the manifesto. “I’ll vote for something that’s easy, not for something that makes me think!” Or “I’ll vote if I can do it on my phone, so long as I don’t have to make the effort to get up and go to a polling station.”

You might think religion has failed. Indeed, it has in the way it presents itself and has come to be identified with all the wrong causes and attitudes. But the religious message has not failed. It’s just that once upon a time religion, religious music, religious art or oratory was the only diversion for the masses. So of course they turned up in their hordes to be entertained. Nowadays they’ve all got digital TV, mp3 player, phone camera, and DVD's at home. It’s all so easy and so much less demanding.

That’s why idolatry is back in a big way and 35 million idol worshippers are worshipping golden calves all over again.

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May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

I really wanted to carry on talking serious stuff this week, but the hooha over The Da Vinci Code won.

Apparently intelligent people seem incapable of learning from history. Various Jewish groups got all worked up about Mel Gibson’s film about Jesus. They argued that it was anti-Semitic and would fuel hatred and ought to be modified. As a result, they got no modifications, they added to the publicity, and only increased the number of people who went to see it. It became a huge success.

Did the film increase anti-Semitism? Probably not, because anyway it said no more about the nasty Jews and how they wanted Jesus dead than the New Testament, that Christians read regularly, already says. Muslim anti-Semitism doesn’t need Christianity for fuel and Fascist thugs or Marxist fellow travelers don’t do religion anyway.

Besides it’s Christianity’s problem if its religion, instead of spreading love, encourages hatred of the other. It is for them to sort out. We Jews have enough on our hands coping with our own problems. Besides in this day and age telling anyone they can’t or mustn’t see something is only an open invitation to do so. The Catholic Church once had a list of forbidden books, called “the Index”. Some Catholics made a great business out of making sure all the books on the list were available to other Catholics. Britain once tried to ban novels and plays and things that might frighten old ladies and horses in Hyde Park. When that failed it tried banning pornography and smut, but it has no more succeeded in keeping them out than it has drugs and criminals.

Nevertheless, some sections of the Christian world are up in arms about the dangers, the blasphemy of this best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code. I believe a new Catholic pamphlet counteracting all its claims is now a bestseller in its own right. Bishops and Cardinals have been warning their faithful not to attend, and much to my amazement the BBC news carried a feature in which some Jews lined up with their Catholic colleagues in condemning the book, too, and calling it blasphemous.

Jiminy Cricket!! Did you ever? What’s blasphemous to a Jew about any story to do with Jesus? What’s going on here? Is this perhaps a show of solidarity in the hope that there will be reciprocation with regard to anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism? Or perhaps are these Jewish leaders trying to show solidarity with Herzl’s initial scheme to solve the Jewish problem by getting all the Jews to line up before Vienna Cathedral and convert in a massive public ceremony? (Thank goodness the Dreyfus trial brought home to him the futility of this cockamamie idea and he started to focus instead on a Jewish homeland.) Or have they decided that “reformation” has failed and rather than go back to tradition they’d be on a winning ticket by merging with Christianity? It is all so laughable and sad. After all it’s a novel. Hello, it’s fiction. It’s entertainment; it’s not history or theology.

But here of course lies the rub. Nowadays who goes to Church, who reads serious literature, who reads history? A good history book will be read by thousands, if the author is lucky. An airport quick read or a beach pot-boiler will sell in the millions. A few hundred will go to serious concerts of classical music, but thousands will go to rock concerts, and billions will buy CD’s, and Matisyahu will reach millions who never, ever, ever have set foot inside a synagogue. No wonder, according to the BBC, most Britons think the Da Vinci Code is true and the Bible is wrong. More people read “the Astrological Stars” in the newspapers, more people read magazines that display photographs of “personalities”, than watch the news or read an editorial. And if you want to see worship in the raw, go to a football match rather than a half-empty house of prayer.

Of course, hardly anyone has time for serious study, to go into the historical background of a political issue, to examine ideas from different perspectives. Instead we have religion lite, politics lite, life lite, all packaged by quick-fix gurus, marketing whiz kids, PR spin doctors and agents. It’s all Superman comics instead of Shakespeare. But, of course, it has always been thus. When the Victorians were producing Eliot, Darwin and Huxley, the most popular societies numerically were the Rosicrucians, who believed in fairies, and Madame Blavatsky and her mediums.

I guess I’m silly to think that religion should be in a higher league. Nowadays everyone has to sell himself and so marketing values and attitudes have permeated religion too. If you can’t beat them, join them. It’s all in the appearance, smoke and mirrors.

I suppose it’s also true that if your religion is based predominantly in myth, on a persona who in reality may well have been just a Roman marketing man’s concoction of an idealized popular teacher, then of course the facts will matter a great deal, perhaps more than the message. Sure we Jews have our narratives, but it’s the actual Torah rather than Moses that is the foundation.

The great contributions of the monotheistic traditions are their great ethical, spiritual messages, be they simple and popular or complex and sophisticated. But if they rely on fairy stories then of course there’ll be panic if a better fairy story appears on the scene.

When one loses sight of humanity one is left with husks and I am sorry to say that the failure of religion to reach into the lives of most of humanity is a sign to me that they have lost the plot. It’s a great plot--not the story of course, but the message. If religious leaders have no sense of humor or proportion, and if they think that censorship will ensure their survival, then they all ought to go and see Life of Brian or The Frisco Kid and have a good laugh and a reality check. Believe me, in a few years no one will remember the film but there still might be people living good, caring spiritual lives.

Meanwhile guys, leave them to sort out themselves and stop being such sycophants. And above all stop speaking as though you represent the Jews. No one represents the Jews. We all represent ourselves.

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May 01, 2006


When a young ultra-Orthodox man admits to biting and beating his handicapped infant to death, how is it possible that the greatest rabbis of our generation publicly declare that this is a blood libel on the part of the secular Israeli authorities and that the man is innocent, before any trial or complete investigation? This is what happened recently in Israel.

How can one not be totally ashamed of a religion whose leadership act in such a way? Is there any excuse? Any explanation?

I am really very reluctant to attack the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they are my brothers and sisters, in that my lifestyle and spiritual values have more in common with theirs than any other religion or group in society, even though externally I look nothing like them. Extreme Orthodoxy in Judaism is devoted to the principle that Godliness, Torah study, and good deeds are the overwhelmingly important goals to be pursued in life. That can’t be bad, provided of course it is actually followed in practice. In this case, however, it seems that because the perpetrator is a brilliant scholarly student all else must be ignored.

I do not identify with fundamentalism in any way. I regard it as intellectually dishonest and counterproductive, if not dangerous. But I always admire people with the guts to stand up to society if it’s on a spiritual and moral basis, rather than a criminal or excessively self-indulgent one. I do not think history repeats itself exactly but there do seem to be cycles of extreme permissiveness followed by waves of strict Puritanism; fundamentalism is often a response to extremes of permissiveness. In general they are making a stand against the values of society as a whole at a time when it might well be argued we are reliving the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

But one of the problems with being a minority and on the defensive is the paranoia it engenders that leads its members to believe that everyone else is against them and that all other value systems are evil and corrupt.

I also feel very hesitant to criticize the rabbinical leadership of the ultra-Orthodox world. Its outstanding rabbis are exceptional men, intellectually and morally. But, precisely because they are scholars and men of spirit who find themselves constantly dragged into politics and mundane affairs, they are surrounded by hangers-on and assistants and filters and minders and holy-rollers and politicos with their own agendas which they often disguise. And these busybodies act as a barrier between them and the world of normal people. A curtain between a man and the world distorts the view of even the holiest of saints.

Men who achieve the pinnacle of religious leadership in Lithuanian (that is, non-Chassidic) Torah Judaism are never appointed. They emerge on the basis of their own qualities. In this meritocratic situation they certainly hold a morally higher ground to appointees. But they live such rarefied lives. In pursuing excellence in some areas, they are sometimes in danger of failing to cover all bases. Living in a hothouse can make you hot, but sometimes you need to be cool.

Wiser counsel would have added something to the expression of horror about how society in general does not prepare young people sufficiently for the pressures of marriage and parenthood. Particularly where there are children with difficulties the strains are enormous and we should be concerned etc. But simply to try to sweep the whole thing under the mat, to declare that the young man is "holy" and blame the outside world, is a sign that someone badly needs a reality check.

It is true that tension between religious and secular has been a running sore in Israel throughout its existence, on all sorts of issues such as mixed bathing, modest dress, autopsies, travel on the Sabbath, kosher food and civil rights. And it’s true that Israeli civil society is not the most sensitive in the way it deals with its minorities, be they immigrant, Arab, Black or Black Hat. And, of course, now according to secular hatred all ultra-Orthodox are wife- and child-beaters. Perhaps another system might have bailed the offender or put him in a psychiatric hospital rather than keep him immured in a common jail for a week.

But the response of the ultras was to demonstrate, to destroy property, and to behave in such a loutish, unreligious way that no normal, objective human being could possibly find anything praiseworthy in such a religious group.

(Coincidentally, a similar thing happened thousands of miles away the previous week in Borough Park, New York when a religious man was arrested for traffic offences and the area erupted in an orgy of ultra-Orthodox violence. In America at least the rabbinic leadership condemned the excesses. But in Israel they praised them.)

Tensions have been higher than normal since Netanyahu reduced the social benefits to large families, both Orthodox and Arab (interesting that these anti-Zionists who decry a social state so depend on social support). But in truth the Ultras have been spoiling for a fight as long as I’ve known them, and I‘ve lived amongst them on and off and joined in their demonstrations since 1957. So I know a thing or two, and I know that it’s usually in vacation time that the riots take place, and it starts as fun and ends in tragedy, and there is a tendency to say, “Let them let off steam,” and it’s only that.

But when great rabbis declare there is no crime and follow a consistent pattern of refusing to face up to the abuses that take place in their society we see a pattern of immorality I find so dangerous that I believe it threatens the very core of Judaism. It implies that it matters not what one does, so long as you belong and conform to the God Squad. If that is what Judaism has come to mean, then frankly we have lost it and it’s time for an Ezra to come and drive the false priests out of the Temple. Many non-Orthodox Jews support ultra-Orthodox institutions because they believe they are helping the Jewish people survive. But what is the point of survival if we have lost our God?

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