October 15, 2006

Be Happy

During the festival of Sukkot ("Tabernacles" for some), we are catapulted into a totally different mood and atmosphere just five days after Yom Kippur. But I am going to admit that it does strange things to me. It makes me totally aware of contradictions, mine and others.

According to the Talmud we must leave our permanent homes and move into temporary accommodation that needs two and a half walls and a roof made out of anything grown from the ground and is no longer attached to it. We are supposed to remember what it was like living as nomads when our ancestors wandered through the Sinai desert. Indeed we not only have to eat and spend time in our Sukkot but we ought to be sleeping there too (not sure what that’ll do for family relations even if it is only a male obligation). In Israel there are some areas here where whole building facades are dotted with small balcony based Sukkot and Jewish ghettos around the world have Sukkot in every eatery. In Golders Green and Hendon you see them on the street practically every ten paces and that’s not counting ubiquitous Lubavitch caravan Sukkahs.

But here in Hendon the private Sukkah, usually not visible from the road, has taken on another dimension. You get an architect to design a special extension, suitably heated and air conditioned that makes a great play room or home gym during the year. You have an electronically operated movable roof under which you lay your kosher roofing material and you install special electronic sensors that automatically move the permanent roof back into position the moment it rains. It is comfortably carpeted and beautifully decorated. Now that’s temporary? That’s something the Children of Israel in the desert will have recognized and identified with I suppose. It’s legal of course. It’s not only in English Law that asses put in an appearance.

On the other hand, let’s be fair. My daughter and son-in-law’s Sukkah, the prefabricated style with canvas walls on a collapsible frame, was all but destroyed several times in the monsoon deluges of the past ten days. A quick press of a button would have saved a great deal of time, energy and pre Yom Tov nerves. Isn’t it nice how we can harness modernity when we want to, embrace science when it suits us to and still try and remain loyal to a constitution that’s three thousand years old? It’s no different to building your own private mikvah and avoiding the lines, the late night excursions in a bath towel and the prying eyes.

In Israel one can do it as commanded. The weather is different. Sleeping outside is no hardship. The problems are bugs and mosquitoes. In England it can be all but impossible as it was this year if you really follow the Talmudic blue print to spend most of your time under the stars. But then it always used to strike me as strange to start praying for rain in England until Global Warming and this year’s drought. Perhaps the Almighty is trying to tell us something. So here we have contradiction number one. If we sit in centrally heated brick walled, electronically operated Sukkot is this keeping the spirit as well as the law?

Then there are the Four Plants, the lulav, etrog, willows and myrtles. Clearly all are symbols of the need for water to sustain nature and the link between us nature and God. But by the time the mystics finished adding their explanations that specific link was all but lost. We should be really concerned about preserving and protecting God’s natural world; ecological disasters, loss of species and the way our physical material needs are poisoning and ravaging our planet. God only promised Noah He wouldn’t destroy the world again. He never said anything about us doing it! Yet these issues are simply not part of the Orthodox agenda. I bet not one Rosh Yeshiva or Rebbe will have raised it over the festival this year.

And so we come to that amazing innovation of the prophets The Temple Well House Celebrations. This is what the Talmud says about it (Sukkah 51b-53a.)

‘He who has not seen the celebrations of the Well House has never ever really seen real celebration. After the first days of the festival they started to make preparations in the Temple…they made huge candelabra that lit up all the courtyards of Jerusalem. Young priests used ladders to climb up carrying barrels oil. Pious and good men used to dance with lit torches in their hands and sing songs of praise while the Levites played harps and lutes and cymbals and trumpets…Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel used to take eight lit torches throw them in the air and catch them without one touching the other. He would also prostrate himself by digging his thumbs into the ground and raise and lower himself, something no other man could do.’

Can you imagine? The greatest rabbi of the day, a juggler and a body builder, doing full body push ups on his thumbs? They sure built them differently in those days.

Now when it comes to Simchat Torah and dancing around, the dancing is either sedate, boring and perfunctory or drink driven wild chaos masquerading as religious ecstasy. Good for inhibitions perhaps but so is coke. At religious weddings on the other hand you’ll see religious dancing that is choreographed, frum hoedowns or kosher break dancing. But somehow as soon as it gets near a synagogue it tends to lose the plot. Actually modern reenactments of the Well House celebrations are worth looking in on!

Perhaps it’s a sign of age that I simply don’t enjoy hopping around holding on to a sweaty man, or being squashed in a tightly pressed circle of slow moving shocklers. And I certainly don’t like getting drunk. But on the other hand I can’t juggle and as for press ups I need two full hands and its still a struggle. I love Torah. Not so keen on the dancing. Is there something wrong with me? Is this where my inhibiting Anglo upbringing that has somehow got in the way and overcomes my yeshiva training? Am I allowing “English” decorum to inhibit religious fervor? Or is it simply that a lot of what passes for religious enthusiasm is fake and I see through it?

I don’t really know. But I do know that all this underlines the fact that Jewish custom and tradition is so varied and variegated, it offers so many different ways of celebrating life and spirit that if one is interested in looking one can surely find something that will appeal. Just don’t expect everyone else to agree with your choices!

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October 01, 2006

Law or Therapy?

There is a myth that on the Day of Atonement most Jews turn up at synagogue. I have serious doubts about this "statistic". Even it is true, attendance is around the synagogue rather than in it and is a social identification rather than a spiritual one. In order to explain why I think this is let me digress.

I have a valued friend in Israel, Yair Ronen, who lectures at Ben Gurion University on children’s rights. He trained as a lawyer and educational counselor and then moved into the social arena. His particular area of interest is how the law very often fails children. Yair is a totally devoted idealist, deeply committed to caring for children on both sides of the conflict, and a man I deeply admire. Recently he sent me two articles he has written about how Israel (and indeed most countries) fails to deal adequately with children from disadvantaged homes and the problems that arise from not taking past victimization of young offenders into consideration. A person’s identity is complex and "The Law" is a limited tool that often, and perhaps inevitably, is poorly equipped to deal with children whose lives have been affected by both internal and external crises and upheavals.

Indeed, this week in Britain a report has come out showing how scandalous are the conditions of children sent into "care" (a misnomer if ever there was one). Half of them end up in prison, almost half are sexually abused, and only 6% will achieve minimum educational standards. This is shocking. Even more shocking is the fact that this scandal has all but been ignored and nothing will be done to ameliorate it.

Yair writes, "One must concede that feelings can be irrational. On the other hand, rationality can degenerate into rationalization justifying dehumanization of ‘the Other’, which in the case of child law is ‘the Other’ or ‘the Other’s child': the child offender, the illegal immigrant’s child, or the enemy’s child. Legal intervention can be traumatic to the child but the traumatizing, painful aspect of judicial decision making is often denied, ignored or underplayed." He makes reference to the notorious Bulger case in 1993 where politicians and the press intervened to ensure that the two boys who murdered the two-year-old were demonized. No attention at all was given to their disastrous backgrounds and traumas. Of course, this does not mean they should not have been punished. But punishment without therapeutic intervention is an example of society’s limitations and refusal to come to terms with the underlying issues.

Yair emphasizes the importance of memory and the need to recognize and validate it. If a child’s memory of abuse is dealt with through a healing process such as psychotherapy, his or her anger can be channeled creatively into a fight for social change and justice. Otherwise it festers into criminality or into submissive adaptation, even resignation to an oppressive and often unjust social order.

In Israeli law the obligation to report any case of parental abuse to the police is quite complicated and circumscribed and staff members are reluctant to report for fear of being victimized themselves. The crucial point of the articles is that where a society does not try to validate the cause of pain in a child, then that child is more likely to turn its anger against those he comes into contact with, whether at school, in the army, or later on in life. Important as law is in creating a climate of protection, the law is limited in that it is only rarely therapeutic. The need for therapy is not, as some see it, a way of being nice to criminals. It is rather a way of trying to channel the pain of those who actually have been abused and turn their capacities to more productive and positive directions. If one wishes to create a fair and just society, this surely must be a priority.

Thinking of the work that Yair puts into trying to change attitudes in Israeli society, I am struck by the contrast between Jewish life in Britain and Jewish life in Israel. In Britain, and in the European in general, Jews are part of a minority and usually feel little obligation to try to change society. They are concerned with their own minority problems--anti-Semitism, victimization and survival in a host society that they are part and yet not part of--whereas in Israel one is working to change a total society.

Israel is an incredibly complex society. No other can compare in the way it has tried to integrate such a high proportion of different cultures and backgrounds within such a small place and in such a short span of time, admittedly not always successfully. We in the Diaspora are so weighed down, even crippled by the constant criticism and condemnation of Israel as a Nazi State that we are in danger of forgetting what an amazing society it is. Israel contains a great deal of idealism and spiritually that coexists with its gross materialism, corruption, crime and abuse. Yet in Jewish terms it is so creative, so dynamic, that it puts our petty Diaspora communities to shame. It is no wonder that such a high proportion of our most talented end up going to Israel.

There’s a lot wrong with Israel, but it offers a challenge of trying to create a just society that is more readily achievable (and of course I do not claim that its anywhere near it yet either internally or externally) and one in which we have a very vested interest.

Now I come back to my starting point. To most uneducated, apathetic or alienated Jews, Judaism appears as a formidable legal system that all but excludes them. The emphasis is on legal and conformist structures rather than spiritual or shall we say therapeutic ones. I’m not saying that that is the reality. There is plenty of profound spirituality within the complexities of Orthodoxy and amazing human concern and care throughout the Jewish world. But the impression created by rabbinic decisions and the publicity they accumulate is that we are more interested in excluding than in including and welcoming. If that is the impression we are giving, then we are failing, and creating more alienation, and thereby more antagonists, than is healthy either for us or for them.

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