September 21, 2007


This has not been a good year for religion. In the West, scientists and rationalists of various hues and popularity have repeatedly assaulted it in bestselling books. Many of their arguments have appeared persuasive. Religion has a lot to answer for; or to be fairer, people who act in the name of religion have a lot to answer for. They have killed, tortured, and murdered vast numbers of human beings. It is little compensation that those rejecting religion and espousing other ideologies have exterminated an even larger number of human beings. Two wrongs and all that!

In the name of religion, free thought and expression have often been suppressed and attacked. Innovation and progress have been opposed, and societies have been thrown back to barbarism. It is "cold comfort" that so-called free and modern societies have often spawned excessive inequalities in wealth and opportunities. Crime and depravity have flourished, and values have been eroded. And, again, it's no compensation to point to disastrous nonreligious ex-Marxist leaders like Robert Mugabe and say that they are worse.

Wherever one looks, in every religion, there is hypocrisy. Power and authority corrupt. Materialism is endemic. Women are to some degree or other are treated as second-class citizens. Certainly attitudes toward them are expressed in derogatory or condescending language. And each group is composed of many people who are convinced (or at least declare) that God, Allah, Jesus (it matters not what name they use) is on their side and everyone else is wrong, doomed, and damned.

The case for the defense is that all human activity, whether it is tiddlywinks or Morris Dancing, is open to manipulation, corruption, and abuse. Humans seem to have an infinite capacity to either ignore the constraints of morality or to desecrate anything that is wholesome and good. The ideology is not to blame. It is the human who messes up anything and everything.

Yet such arguments are not entirely satisfactory. If an ideology sets itself up to achieve certain goals and manifestly fails to do this, then may we not conclude that it is flawed? If we can say the ideology of communism failed, why not the ideology of religion? If religion sets out to make humans better and more caring, but in fact it does not, and it has plenty of time to prove itself, then I suggest it too has failed. If the Bible tells us that our behavior should set an example that others will want to follow, and yet we behave in such a way, or make public declarations in such a way, as to make ourselves a laughingstock, have we not betrayed our own holy texts? And thereby cannot it be fairly said that the religion has not succeeded in helping us overcome our least attractive natures? It is not God's fault so much as ours.

The Mishna says that someone who finds favor in the eyes of humanity surely knows that he has found favor in the eyes of God, but remember the Mishna says that the converse is also true. Of course, it is not the opinion of the crude masses that counts, but the opinion of moral, caring humans that behave ethically that matters.

So what can we say? Is it an answer to shrug it all off and say that some religions are growing in membership? Is it an answer to say that even within religions that are losing numbers, the more committed are actually increasing in number and therefore they must be getting something right? All this tells us that there is a need for social cohesion, to belong, to identify, and religion is one of the means available to satisfy this need. Or that many, if not all, humans have a built-in spiritual dimension that needs to be satisfied one way or another, and religion meets this too. Or perhaps that we humans are poor weak easily deluded creatures who need certainties, and religion offers those. Or merely that we need props to live, and reassurance in the face of death, and religion does this too?

Perhaps this is all true. So why am I , a rational, reasonable fellow, open minded, I believe, and trying hard to be a good person, why am I so profoundly attached to my religion despite the antics I cannot identify with of so many of my co-religionists in both directions?

Most religions do indeed offer visions of things to aspire to, standards to strive for, and goals to be met even as we fail them. I think it is no coincidence that our holiest day of the year is one that asks us to look at ourselves, to examine our lives and values. And that the Talmud (Yoma) declares that the one thing you cannot atone for is desecrating the Name of God--giving religion a bad name, in other words!

On Yom Kippur we devote 25 hours to a special, solemn and introspective state. We judge ourselves and find us wanting. We cry for another chance. We determine to improve. Yet the minute it is over we return to where we were before. That's the human nature I'm complaining about. I'm sure Torquemada prayed and lacerated himself and was totally convinced he was being a good boy. My late father used to say that you could judge how effective Yom Kippur was by the way a person prayed the mundane routine evening prayer that follows after Neila at the end of the Day of Atonement. We all know that in most places Jews don't even wait to say the evening prayer. The synagogues empty out the moment the fast ends. Then by that criterion, the day was a waste. But was it? Is it a waste if for twenty-five hours in a year one lives a higher, nobler, less indulgent life, even if one cannot sustain it? Isn't something better than nothing? Isn't a sight, a glimpse of eternity worth it?

For all its failings, or manifest limitations, does not religion offer us a vision of something more, even if it is a measure too far for us? Forget the human hypocrites. No one is responsible for our actions but us. If humans need to imagine a god in a human format, inevitably the god, thus created, will appear to fail us, as all humans inevitably fail. The Bible does us anthropomorphic language but I do not have to take it literally. The Bible often uses language that is sometimes poetic, sometimes allegorical or metaphorical. If we take it too literally, that is a human failure, too, to miss the wood for the trees. The criticisms we have are of humans, whether religious or not, who claim what they have no right to claim, or who impose what they should not, or who destroy what they should leave well alone. As the great Shimon Bar Yochai says in the Talmud, "I have noticed there are very few people who rise (to higher spiritual levels)! Maybe two in every thousand!" (Succah 45b, etc.)

The question we need to ask is not why others don't rise higher. The only question worth asking is, why we don't!

September 07, 2007


As we begin 5768, we will enter another Sabbatical, the Seventh Year Release referred to in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, called Sheviit or Shmita.

The concept of the Shmita concerns issues of nature, study, economics, and leisure. In an agrarian society this fantastic idea was not just a sort of crop rotation to help agriculture, it was also an opportunity to spend time in study and contemplation, a kind of statute of limitations on servitude and debt, and a device to try to level the economic playing field and prevent too much concentration in only a few hands. However ancient the idea, its moral implications are as essential in our post-industrial age as they ever were thousands of years ago.

The first challenge to the idea came with exile. It was a law that only applied in the Land of Israel and so, at a stroke, it became irrelevant to the majority of Jews, who after 586 BCE (and until our day) never returned to work in their ancient homeland.

But two thousand years ago in the Land of Israel it proved problematic for economic reasons, as commerce became more sophisticated and as fewer and fewer Jews earned a livelihood from the land. The real issue became a financial one. If the Seventh Year released all debts, then long-term lending became effectively impossible. The great Hilel dealt with this through his innovation of the Prosbul (Talmud Gittin 36a). Only private debts were to be cancelled, not public or institutional debts. So if you transferred the debt to the courts, the courts would be exempt from the release. They would collect in due course and pass the money back to you, taking a commission of course. You might argue that this was the first example of finding a way around the law without annulling it altogether so as to preserve its ideals.

Over time other such devices came into use. In medieval times came the selling of Chametz on Pesach to a non-Jew so as to be able to use large stocks of leaven or alcohol without having to destroy them before Pesach. Then later came the Heter Isska, a way of lending money not for interest, which was forbidden, but for a share in the business and a "director's fee" (something the Muslim world is now bringing to the attention of Western financial circles).

With the modern Return to Zion (there have been many other smaller ones over the years) a huge agricultural industry owned by Jews on land subject to Shmita, suddenly created new problems. Modern agriculture did not lend itself to taking a year off. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (Kovno 1817-1896), responding to the increasing Zionist settlements, was the first to permit agriculture to continue during the Shmita year on the principle that Jews were allowed to farm fields owned by non-Jews during the Sabbatical so you could simply sell the land temporarily. The early Chief Rabbinate in Israel did this and "sold" the land each seventh year to a compliant local Arab Sheikh. However, the greatest rabbi of my childhood, the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Karelitz 1878-1953), was opposed to this and argued that even produce grown in Israel on land owned by non-Jews should be subject to Shmita. So ultra-Orthodox farmers (yes, they do exist) leave their fields fallow every seven years and are supported by communal funds .

As a result of Charedi pressure on the Israeli Rabbinate, a previous Sephardi Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron cancelled the arrangement to sell land to non-Jews during the Shmita but other mainstream rabbis persevered and Charedi organizations make their own arrangements to deal with the issue of both Jewish and non-Jewish produce in the Land of Israel. I have to admit that many years ago, as an impecunious yeshiva bochur, I did some part-time work for the Orthodox authorities in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem and they were not above all sorts of ingenious stratagems that miraculously permitted produce from Jewish sources in the Land of Israel to turn into perfectly acceptable produce.

Did the ultra-Orthodox world object to selling the land because the original idea was provisional? Or was it because it was the hated Zionist rabbinate that was arranging it? Or was it simply that the idea of Shmita was such a wonderful and spiritual one that the rabbis really wanted it preserved despite the problems and possible solutions? Or, dare I say it, was it a way some people could make good quick money by buying food from Kibbutzim, selling it on to Arabs, and then buying it back for the kosher market, rising exponentially in price along the way? Feh feh, that I should even think such a thought.

The fact is that now Israeli Shmita observers are divided between the moderate Orthodox who available themselves of the "selling" device on the grounds of supporting Israeli agriculture and if other devices were and are permissible why not this one too, and the Charedi world, which loudly proclaims the great charitable endeavor of supporting Orthodox farmers who now will lose all their income during the coming year.

I have to say I really do love the purity of the original idea and if there are people willing to support Orthodox farmers and give them a well-earned Sabbatical, how wonderful. And if it means religious consumers pay more, well what's new? And if it makes us appreciate the great spiritual lessons of the Shmita and of nature and if it helps us redouble the time we spend on our study and spiritual exercise, why should anyone complain? But why is it that there remains an uneasy niggling at the back of my mind that, rather like kosher supplies in general, someone is going to make a killing out of all this???

September 03, 2007


Recently the major Charedi rabbis of Israel announced a ban on mixed concerts, even when the sexes are seating separately and the performers themselves are very, very kosher. Obviously, the power of song is highly seductive and dangerous. Having been to some of these "kosher" concerts, the truth is that sometimes the atmosphere does become very charged, almost reminiscent, if I may recall my dissolute youth, of the Beatles concerts I attended forty years ago. So it's not as if I don't recognize what it is that they are worried about! But, of course, we are in the grip of a wave of restrictions. Even going to the opera is now regarded as forbidden for fear that heavily overweight sopranos might seduce the unwary yeshiva bochur. Why, I wonder, are they not equally worried about men’s voices seducing women? Perhaps the Levites in the Temple were an unattractive lot!

To be fair, it's seduction that is the problem in rabbinic eyes, not the song itself. Song has always been a very important part of the Jewish religious tradition. In Biblical Hebrew, the words for "song" and "poetry" are the same, "shira". Whole chunks of the Torah are poem-songs. Some commentators have even suggested that the whole of the Torah must be read as a Song of Heaven. The obvious songs of the Torah are, of course, the celebration of crossing through the Red Sea, the songs of Numbers 21, and Moses’ rather stern farewell poem Haazinu. Then came the great poetry of the Psalms, that still remain the essential songs of praise of religious worship both in Judaism and Christianity.

The song that created the greatest problems for the holy men was the Biblical Song of Songs. On the surface it read like an erotic love poem. But when Rabbi Akivah insisted it was a love song between God and Israel, he won them over. In fact, it is now regarded as the essential metaphor for the way we are supposed to experience the Divine presence. That speaks volumes about the way our tradition, despite Maimonides, has viewed sensuality and emotion as being the ideal way to experience God. But I fear a sort of medieval Christian asceticism has infected the body of Judaism, and the link between seduction and song came to the fore in a Judaism that wanted to distance itself from its Christian tormentors as well as show it was holier.

It was ecstatic mysticism, and then Hasidism that brought joyful singing back. My late father Z”L, was fond of saying that the trouble with the Lithuanian Mussar movement, whose motto was "Turn from Evil and do Good", was that they spent so much time turning from evil they hardly got round to doing good. The motto of the Chasidim, on the other hand, was "Do Good and Turn from Evil", so that they focussed on good deeds and enjoying the legitimate pleasures of life, he said, and that way they turned from evil. Indeed, my father himself moved from Mussar towards Hasidism in his later years. My experience in certain areas of the Hasidic world led me to observe that while this worked for one section, others were so busy enjoying themselves, and not always legitimately, that they clean forgot about the "doing good" part.

But I digress from song. It has always been an essential part of our tradition, in good times and bad, on happy occasions and sad ones. I find it fascinating how many American songwriters came from Jewish stock. Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, George and Ira Gershwin, Marvin Hamlisch, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Paul Simon, and Stephen Sondheim come immediately to mind, and I apologize to all the others I've left out.

It is an interesting phenomenon that a people, particularly with a literary and scholarly tradition, when oppressed, use song as a tool of resistance. One thinks also of black music. And it's also true that Jews, in particular, are driven to succeed as a way of overcoming the barriers they often face. This would explain the phenomenal proportion of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, as well as financial wizards and musicians. Of course, it also true that Jews who abandon their traditions slowly assimilate into welcoming host societies and lose both their distinctiveness and their edge. But insecurity is a great stimulator.

Look at the way Israelis have succeeded way beyond expectation or number in establishing themselves around the world in almost any sphere you care to mention, from the worst to the best. Is this, too, because of their insecurity and alienation that drives them to succeed? Is singing the language of the underdog, the slave chorus of "Va Pensiero" of Verdi's Nabucco? Is our success as a nation of singers because we suffer either persecution or alienation? After all when we first went into exile in Babylon we sat down by the waters and cried, and sang!

I'd rather look at the positive, at our tradition of song and poetry combined. And who better to express its beauty than the great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook? Here’s what he writes, in one of my favourite pieces of modern religious poetry, though of course it sounds so much more beautiful in Hebrew:

One man sings the song of his own soul, for it is there that his satisfaction is complete.

Another sings the song of his people, transcending the bounds of his own individual soul. ... feeling close, with tender love, to the Jewish people, singing her songs with her. ...

A third man’s soul expands beyond the Jewish people to sing the song of man, his spirit embraces all humanity, majestic reflection of God ...

And a fourth is transported still higher, uniting with the entire universe, with all creatures, and all worlds, with all of these he sings ... Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook. Orot haKodesh II, 444.

It is, indeed, our religious tradition to sing and to praise the Lord, Halleluiah, to serve through joy, even if it sometimes it means singing alone, at home, in private and despite those who regard singing with suspicion. It is true in the western world popular song is associated with some of the least attractive or moral aspects of modern society. I think it is this that worries the holy rabbis. But those who misuse song shouldn’t deprive us of ours. The previous Viznitzer Rebbe used to say, "A tune [as opposed to words] cannot become contaminated."