June 22, 2007

Henry VIII and the Jews

The recent TV miniseries, The Tudors, has been a fascinating combination of drama, titillation and history. It is an excellent example of the benefits and dangers of watching television. In all the episodes there is not one mention of the Jewish angle, but there was a very important one! Did the producers leave it out because they wanted the series to sell in Muslim countries, or perhaps in England, and not be boycotted by left-wing academics?

The issue was partially religious and partially political! Marriages between royal families were matters of alliances and balance of power. Katharine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the nasty fanatics who expelled the Jews. At the age of three, she was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII of England. He became king after a long, divisive civil war and needed to consolidate his position in a world dominated, at the time, by Spain. In 1501, shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Katharine married Arthur. But after less than six months he died. Henry needed to keep the alliance alive, so Katharine was then betrothed to Arthur's younger brother, Prince Henry. When he became king in 1509, at the age of eighteen, he married Katharine.

Their marriage produced just one living daughter, Mary Tudor. Henry was desperate for a male heir and he was a notorious philanderer. He wanted Anne in his bed, officially. In a religion where divorce was not allowed, the only option was an annulment. But as the Pope had sanctioned the marriage in the first place he had to be the one to annul it.

Henry tried all sorts of ways of getting the Pope to agree but the Pope was under political pressure from other quarters (otherwise popes, like rebbes, usually found ways of giving rich people want they wanted, for a price). After several years of fruitless negotiations, Henry declared religious independence. He set up the Protestant Church of England with himself as the supreme religious head and got his way, at the expense of not a few clergymen who remained loyal to Rome and lost their lives. It wasn't only Jews who got burned at the stake in those days. Henry was happy for a while until he grew tired of his second wife. He couldn’t face more theological battles so he became famous for his trumped up charges and off went the heads of those of his wives who didn't die beforehand or survive him in the end. As Mel Brooks has King Louis saying in his History of the World, "It's good to be a king!"

Where's the Jewish angle here, particularly since they were expelled from England in 1290 and there weren't any there officially at the time (apart from a few itinerant Marranos, who anyway, outwardly were Christians)?

According to Leviticus 18, a man may not marry his brother’s wife and if he does they will be childless. That, thought Henry, was why he had no sons. But the Pope had sanctioned his marriage based on the levirate marriage described in Deuteronomy 25. In the event of a brother dying childless, his brother would marry the widow and have children to carry on the dead brother's name. Henry realized that where texts contradict each other, then interpretation and tradition come into play. If the Pope was not willing to play Henry's game and annul the marriage, he’d have to show the Pope didn’t know his Aleph from his Bet. The obvious people to turn to were the Church scholars except they themselves were split. So who else do you turn to but the Jews? Of course nowadays we know the Jews can't agree on anything and certainly not on matters of Jewish Law. But Henry hadn't spent any time in yeshivah and knew no better.

He sent his men to Italy where a Venetian rabbi, Isaac Halfon, wrote an opinion saying that since the end of the Talmudic period, the Biblical law of Yibum, requiring a brother to marry the widow of a childless brother, had fallen into abeyance and only the divorce, Chalitza was used. Therefore the marriage contacted with Arthur’s widow was against Jewish law, regardless of whether it had been consummated or not. Furthermore the same rabbi who had banned polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom (960 –1028) and the later Rabbeinu Tam (1100 -1171) both undisputed authorities of European Jewry, had banned the levirate marriage on principle. More good news came from a contemporary responsum to the same effect by Yaakov Rephael Ben Yechiel Chaim Paglione of Modena supported by other Italian rabbis. Henry wanted the sympathetic rabbis to come to his court to reassure him and his bishops of his case. But Jews, despite Oliver Cromwell's support, weren't allowed back into England officially (and not without heavy opposition) until the reign of Charles II. They couldn’t or wouldn’t come. Instead Henry had to use a Jewish convert to Christianity one Marco Raphael to come over on a generous expense account to persuade the local opponents that Jewishly speaking Henry was in his rights. Henry incidentally acquired a copy of the Talmud to do his own checking. Some years ago it was discovered in a British library and returned to Jewish ownership when the Valmadonna Trust swapped it for a copy of the Magna Carta.

The Pope knew that Sephardi Jews had other customs. Indeed, Sephardi Jews had not been bound either by Rabbeinu Gershom or Rabbeinu Tam. They could have several wives and divorce much more easily and they had never banned Yibum at all. The Pope got his own rabbis to say so. Poor old 'Enery had wasted his time and money and found himself back at square one. And that, my dears, was why he broke with Rome, established the first Protestant Kingdom and how the reigning monarch to this day is also the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Nothing much has changed. Where religion and politics come together, both end up the losers. The Pope lost out and the Spanish lost out. Besides, Jewish Law is so complex that it's nearly possible for anyone to find almost anything he or she wants to and someone of authority to back it up. No one is surprised if in the USA the Supreme Court High Justices can disagree over whether the constitution allows or disallows abortion or the death penalty. So why are we surprised if odd rabbis come out with something that strikes all reasonable people as rubbish and claim it's in the law. It may well have some foundation in legal sources but that does not mean everyone has to agree. The only sad thing is that we have no Henries to say, "A plague on your houses, I'm setting up my own court." On the other hand we don’t have to lose our heads over it.

(If this really excites your interest (and who knows what might) read more about it in, amongst others, David S. Katz. The Jews in the History of England 1485-1850.)

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June 17, 2007

Shimon Peres

I am pleased that Shimon Peres is to be the president of Israel. Yes, I’d have preferred a religious Jew who could also have represented the spiritual greatness of our people, though I confess I don’t know that many rabbis who would have fitted the bill. But it’s nice to have someone at the top (even if it is symbolically) that we won’t be ashamed of, or who won’t put his foot in it most of the time. Let us forget his old political reputation as an untrustworthy plotter. He is now an elder statesman with a proven reputation for trying to achieve peace. He comes to office at a time when the presidency has been as discredited, as has most of Israel’s political establishment. Yet his election has now been supported by all the major parties from Right to Left.

Apart from his unfortunate pronunciation of the "piss process", he is an articulate and elegant spokesman for Israel’s cause. Not, of course, that this will make any difference to Israel’s enemies, any more than the fact that Muslims has been responsible for killing ten times more Muslims than Israel has since 1948. When Tony Blair calls himself a Zionist, he probably has someone like Shimon Peres in mind. In my youth, this kind of Left-Wing Eastern European pioneer was the symbol so many young European socialists admired. He represented the cliché of the new Jew, tilling the land with one hand and a rifle in the other, living on a kibbutz, commuting to Bauhaus Tel Aviv.

I always felt alienated from secular Zionism; its arrogance in thinking it would supplant Judaism; its materialism, if not at that stage its consumerism. But my disdain for secular Zionism as an ideology was balanced by my nationalism, that Jews should have what everyone else claimed as their inalienable right too; a Land and State of their own. My own strongest practical argument in favor of a Jewish State is that Jewish life, institutions, scholarship and religion have flourished exponentially under its supportive wings, almost despite itself.

But, simultaneously, the dirty underside of religious politics has done more than anything else to discredit religion in Israel. That is another reason why I am pleased that there is to be a secular president at this moment in time. When religion in Israel can turn itself into a force for justice, equality, and honesty, then I think the average Israeli will be ready to welcome a man of God into the representative position.

I am also pleased that Ehud Barak is back in charge of Labor. He is neither charismatic nor attractive (unless you think his excellent piano playing compensates). He is highly intelligent, cultured man and a successful general. He is far more likely to carry public support for peace and concessions than any corrupt, money-grabbing sleazebag. And on the other hand he is better equipped to organize the defense of the state. But look at this. At the moment when it might be said that Israel has reached a nadir in its image and support around the world, when it is being excoriated as a corrupt, militaristic, cruel, aggressive regime--lo and behold, it brings to the fore men of culture, moderation and peace.

Now let’s look across the border, the fence, the wall, whatever. There you have a civil war of cruel ferocity where murderous fanatics, whether in the Holy Land or beyond, have hijacked the Palestinian people, holding their own as hostage in their thrust for violent power. (So much for the myth that Hamas is just a cuddly, caring social movement.) Oh, yes, I know it is all Israel’s fault. If the Jews had not been there, the whole of the Middle East would today be as peaceful an oasis as Aceh, Algeria, or Mindanao. And I know no argument will change that. Just as I know that no argument will change our own religious fanaticism or persuade anyone that occupation is an unhealthy dehumanizing process that corrupts.

Hamas won power originally because Fatah was discredited and corrupt. True, its refusal to accept Israel and its call for violence also attracted supporters. Fatah had shown itself incapable of healing itself or ruling. Around the world the supporters of the Palestinian cause continued to pour money into it in the hope it would win. But, in fact, it has lost and now it is clear that Hamas is the dominant power in Gaza and probably in the West Bank too. With power it might actually succeed in controlling the rival Mafiosi gangs of smugglers and arms dealers.

The Arab world needs strong men, as the chaos in Iraq only proves. I think the Palestinians need Hamas. I am even optimistic for as we know it takes strength to compromise, not weakness. The old Arafat legacy of deception and corruption must be swept away. It is just possible a cleaner more honest Palestine might then emerge. But if not then appeasement never works as we know and effective, ethical self defense is the only option left.

The hatred of Judaism and Israel is now so irrational. The poverty and alienation of the Muslim street is so pervasive. Anti-Israelism has absorbed into its blood all the prejudices that previously found other outlets. Yet these past weeks I have begun to sense a shift in the wind. Not to any affection for the Jews or Israel but away from the myth that evil is only one sided. Sometimes to "know your enemy" and not be deceived, is the only basis for progress and it takes a bunch of loony trade unionists to wake the others up (though to wake Anglo Jewry up is almost like expecting the Resurrection).

It is a feature of Israeli society that its freedoms allow for some of its own citizens to try to destroy it from within, either by denying its legitimacy and calling for its downfall or by believing that retreating behind a fortress and killing one’s enemies on the other side will bring peace and resolution. But we all know looking around the world today that we’d rather live under a regime that allows such freedoms than one that does not. One of the bright spots of the Middle East is the very presence of a society that, for all its mistakes, has the capacity to heal itself rather than destroy itself. I believe when people see this, within Israel and beyond, many of them will say, "That is the sort of society we need to preserve our sanity and hope, not a society of guns and bombs." Good luck Shimon.

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June 08, 2007

Blood Libels

The 20th of Sivan, this week, is the anniversary of the Blood Libel at Blois in France in 1171, when the Jewish community of about 40 people (at a time when the total Jewish population of France was no more than a few thousand) was massacred. Half were burnt to death singing the Aleynu prayer as they perished. The great Rabbeynu Tam instituted a fast day to commemorate the tragedy that for many years was adhered to strictly by the Jews of Ashkenaz.

In 1144 at Norwich, Jews were first accused of killing Christian children because it was claimed they needed Christian blood for the Four Cups of Wine at the Passover seder. In Gloucester in 1168, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1181, Bristol in 1183, and most notoriously in Lincoln in 1255, Jews suffered as the result of this stupidly insane and illogical charge. A thirteenth century monk called Rhindfleish claimed that Jews stole communion wafers from churches to beat until the blood of Jesus flowed, and hundreds of Jews were killed to avenge this "crime".

One might think that unexceptional in an era of burning heretics, drowning witches, and torturing people to confess almost anything, but the Blood Libel persisted into the twentieth century. In Kiev in 1913, the unfortunate Baylis was charged with murdering a Christian child for Jewish religious purposes. Although at the trial he was acquitted, the Jewish religion was not! It will come as no surprise that the Blood Libel is making a giant comeback in the Muslim world and is repeated and exaggerated on state-sponsored television throughout that culturally benighted part of our planet.

You may remember the scandal that erupted earlier this year when Professor Toaff was accused of claiming that medieval Jews were guilty of the Blood Libel and he withdrew his book. On closer reading, all he said was that possibly Jews did use dried human blood in medieval cures and charms, and at most might have retaliated for acts of violence against them—and even this was based only on confessions under torture. But the idea that we ever used blood, something forbidden by our laws, is so malevolently false that only depraved minds could conceive it.

We are also a week away from the moment when six-year-old Edgar Mortara was kidnapped by the Catholic Church from his parents in Bologna, Italy in 1858, on the grounds that his Catholic nanny had secretly baptised him. He was never returned. He became a favorite of Pope Pius IX, who ordered and perpetuated the crime. Mortara eventually died in a Belgian monastery.

What I find amazing is that despite the continuous lies and brutalities, the kidnapping, rape, and murder of our men, women, and children by supposedly good Christians, although negative opinions are expressed, nowhere in any major rabbinic authority or source will you find any support for a halachic position that says you do not have to treat non-Jews correctly and morally and according to the law of the land and if necessary in contravention of Jewish Law.

Throughout the periods of bloody chaos under both Christianity and Islam (accepting the differences) whether it was Rabbeynu Tam in the twelfth century, Rabbi Menahem Meiri in the fourteenth, Rabbi Lowe of Prague in the sixteenth, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau in the eighteenth or Rabbi Yisrael Lipshitz in the nineteenth, they all wrote and spoke out against any evidence of mistreatment, deception or amorality in dealing with non-Jews and our obligations to adhere to "The Law of the Land" (and that would include international law).

Sadly this is no longer the case. Our rabbis seem to get worse as the years roll on. Here is the latest scandal from last week’s Jerusalem Post.

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military
offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the Biblical story of
the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides' commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire
populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.
Eliyahu is simply wrong. Collective punishment is not halachically acceptable and Maimonides’s position on Shechem has been well challenged. This is not the place to go into details. If Rabbi Eliyahu is going to take a highly contentious and controversial abstract law and apply it to modern conditions, then frankly it is in the same category as the Neturei Karta jokers who argue that all the suffering of the Jewish people in Israel and beyond is because they have dared top pre-empt the Messiah.

I had little respect for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate before this outburst. Even if I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was responding in pain to his suffering constituents in Sederot and the scandalous double standards of others, such abuse of Law and Lore demeans the person and the system. It is a blot on our tradition. No wonder we have stopped fasting over Blood Libels.

While we have a right and an obligation to self-preservation and while charity starts at home, we cannot isolate ourselves. We must meet our obligations to society in general. And I can say categorically that no truly great rabbi has ever said anything to the contrary.

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