November 25, 2007


My article in support of Esau upset some of my readers. Some seem to think that one may only make use of previously sanctioned official interpretations, and others think it is heretical to disagree with rabbinic interpretation. There is another section of my readership that thinks the opposite. So I think I ought to tackle the issue of Midrash head on.

The Talmud, the repository of most authoritative rabbinic sources, is divided roughly into three categories. The first, Halacha, deals with the complete spectrum of Law from civil to ritual. Very often in the Talmud we are left with conflicting opinions. And, of course, since then new laws, situations, and precedents have proliferated. Eventually, on matters of law one has to come to a conclusion. This is determined over time by practice, scholarship, and debate. Codes, compendia, and responsa have taken Jewish law to constantly changing levels (sometimes controversially) as it deals with life as lived today.

Aggada is a catch-all for folklore, history, folk medicine, and all the miscellany that any great culture accumulates. So if there is an Aggada that says the earth is flat, or will last for 6,000 years, or that a cat's placenta enables one to see evil spirits, or that there are Phoenixes or flying towers, these ideas, fascinating as they are, are not definitive in the way that law is. As Maimonides says in his introduction to the Mishna (Chapter Chelek of Sanhedrin) they are not to be dismissed as rubbish, but neither are they to be understood at face value or always taken literally. This is why there are so many different opinions and attitudes on such issues as luck, or dream interpretation, or historical events. And then one has to confront parable used both by Prophets and rabbis. Sometimes the parables are obvious. Sometimes not. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac 1040-1105), in his commentary on the Talmud, says that rabbis often exaggerated to make a point or to appeal to the uneducated masses (Shabbat 30b).

The third category, Midrash, is devoted to the interpretation of Biblical texts. In fact Midrash is the medium for discussing theology in Judaism rather than using rational philosophy.Here you have an immense and highly stimulating range of opinions on almost everyone and everything in the Bible. And there are different schools of thought. Rav and Shmuel, two Talmudic giants, are always disagreeing with each other. (Was Ahasuerus a good king or a stupid king? Perhaps he was both.) Or Rebbi Nechemia and Rebbi Zecharia argue over a mystical or a rational approach. In medieval times Rashi in his great commentary, made selections of those Midrashim he felt most apposite. Sometimes even he quotes contradictory ones. Others (notably his grandson, the Rashbam) felt his selections were too distracting from the literal meaning. The whole corpus of traditional Biblical commentary has added layers of different approaches, selections, and ideas to this very day. If in the Midrashic texts, many of which are post-Talmudic, there are such varieties, do we have to agree on one as definitive? Is Esau all bad, or is Jacob all good?

It is possible to say that some ideas or interpretations are simply beyond the spirit of rabbinic opinion. Midrash is not a free-for-all in which anything goes. Some ideas cannot be kosher. But this is where the intangible definition of "spirit" comes in. The trouble is its intangibility. A few years ago there was a furor when an Orthodox rabbi wrote a book, popular in yeshiva circles, in which he brought Midrashic sources to show that the world might be older than 5,000 years and geology might have something valid to say. He was attacked so vehemently that one can only assume that those who did so were worried more about their own authority than about the idea. When you are battling for control, anything that might undermine it is suspect. That's why books get burned. It is short-sighted and rarely works. But it's tempting. So here you have an example of some rabbis saying some Midrashim are unacceptable or must only be understood the way they say so.

The issue is a delicate one as ultra-Orthodoxy fights to position itself in opposition to secularism. Given that is the agenda, must we all fall into line? I do not think so, any more than Maimonides did. But I agree that Torah does have a spirit that delimits what is within the range of authenticity. The interpretation I gave of Esau is overwhelmingly untraditional and controversial, but that does not mean it cannot make a contribution to the debate.

Take the idea of "Turn the Other Cheek". It is commonly thought that such an idea is Christian and not Jewish. But look at the Talmud Rosh Hashana 17a, Yoma 23a, et al, all statements in favor of not responding. Or this repeated quote: "Those who are insulted but do not insult back, who keep their hurt to themselves and do not react but accept their pain in joy and silence, of them it is said they are like the sun in all its glory" (Shabbat 88b).

Now it is true there is a contradictory tradition of fighting back and defending oneself. Two traditions can coexist, rather like when Jacob's sons destroy the city and men of Shechem. Jacob recoils at the violence and protests. His sons say they cannot let people get away with things (Genesis 34). Clearly, there is room for differences and I should hope so.

It doesn't help that there is so much wild and inappropriate nonsense written about Biblical texts and characters. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism that the Guardians of the Faith feel a need to draw a line. But it is one thing to defend, it is another to censor or claim there can be no variety. It is essential both for freedom of thought and for creativity that we should have other points of view in our exegetical armory.

November 18, 2007

The Esau Fan Club

The rabbis of the Talmud set out to portray Esau as the archetypal baddie. I, on the other hand, have a really soft spot for him. Right from the start, just because he's born ruddy and hairy, the rabbis have it in for him. They obviously prefer the wan, pale, scholarly types who spend all day long at their books. Not for them the healthy outdoor type who feels close to God and nature in the field, the mystic who needs to get away from claustrophobic institutions. Oh no. Unless you're a boring yeshiva bochur, or you stay at home with Mummy in the tent, they don't want to know. Though to be fair, if Nimrod was the example of a hunter, it was not one the bible approved of.

Typical of the hatchet job on Esau is when the Torah says, "Esau came in from the field" (Genesis 25), they dredge up every negative association with "field" and say that he was a murderer, a rapist, an idolater, and an atheist. But when dear, goodie Jacob "comes in from the field" in Chapter 30, not a peep. Or when the text says that Isaac loved Esau because "the hunt was to his taste", instead of the obvious meaning that Isaac loved a bit of game, it is turned to mean that Esau used words deviously and pretended to be religious when he was not. Not only, but the questions they put into his mouth ("Daddy, how do you tithe salt?") show they really did think he was stupid as well.

I think it was most noble of Esau to reject the birthright. Just because of the accident of coming out of the womb first, why should one son get twice the inheritance of the other? His selling it for soup was not such a terrible thing. If the Torah says he "despised" the idea of the birthright, perhaps it was a good thing not to be so materialistic. Besides, imagine you have just come in from an exhausting game of soccer, bruised and tired, and all you want is a drink, but your , stay-at-home in front of the TV, mother's favorite, brother won't share his can of Coke with you. Who do you think is right? Yes, you might answer that Esau was the boss's son, so he could have gone into any one of the hundreds of tents in his father's compound and got a meal, and why did he just have to have Jacob's lunch? So he was the sort of fellow who lived for the moment, and maybe he was too impetuous to be a good leader, but we are talking character assassination here.

He is swindled out of the blessing. But consider, he is interested in the blessing, not in the money! Now doesn't that say something positive? And this supposedly brutish, tough guy bursts into tears when he hears his brother has stolen his blessing. Doesn't that show both his sensitivity and his spirituality? It is true he married the wrong girls first time round, but he is more than willing to make up for it when he realizes his mistake and try again (Genesis 28:9). That shows both flexibility of mind and respect for his parents.

It's true he said he hated his brother and wanted to kill him. But we all say extreme things under pressure. Years later, when Jacob comes back on his knees, he welcomes him and hugs him. Of course, some will say that it was only because God appeared to him in a dream and warned him off. And the text which says he kissed his brother has dots on top (33:4) which they say proves he was not being straight and even that he bit him. Finally, Esau comes with Jacob to bury Isaac and do the right thing. It's the rabbis again who say there was a fight and Jacob's son knocked his head off and it rolled into the cave of Machpelah.

I know full well the reason why the rabbis go for him. After successive campaigns in which the Romans slaughtered, tortured, raped, or enslaved the population of Israel with abandon, whenever the rabbis wanted to attack Rome without getting into trouble with Roman spies, they used Esau or Edom as a code. But then when the threat finally passed you'd expect them to make amends. Instead the phrase, "Be it known as a fact that Esau hates Jacob", has entered Jewish folklore. But by then Christianity had replaced the Romans.

You might argue that Eau is also code for all those self-hating, assimilated Jews who seem to need to justify themselves by attacking the Jewish people, from Medieval converts to Christianity, like Pablo Christiani, through the Jews of the Enlightenment, and down to our own day when almost as many enemies of the Jews are born Jewish as not. But then why not make it clear that it's only symbolic and really he's a rather good-natured, crazy idealist? Can the answer be that in this pro-feminist era anyone who is preferred by his Daddy must be suspect?

I think is time to rehabilitate Esau. To me, he's the symbol of the nonconformist maverick. In this era of increasing conformity in Judaism, I think we need to welcome such people, not shut them out.

November 11, 2007

Faith Schools

One of the side issues of multiculturalism is that it encourages religious, or as some prefer, "faith-based" education which is socially divisive. In truth there were "faith–based" schools in many European countries long before multiculturalism was an issue. It was seen as an issue of choice.

In principle, as a confirmed believer in separating state from religion, I do not believe states should support religious or denominational schools directly.
If groups want to have their own form of education, they should pay for it, either directly or through their communities. I favor the idea of vouchers so that all parents have choices in a freer market and if they want to use vouchers for religious schools that would be their choice. It does after all save the State money by going elsewhere.

There are arguments against private and separate schools, altogether. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, separate Catholic and Protestant schools that refused to have anything to do with each other, stoked antagonism. But then, this happens with rival football teams too.

I am convinced by my own experience that going to a separate school does not prevent one from integrating into society. Whether at university or at work, how one relates to others is a matter of attitude. It may be true that culturally or religiously likeminded people tend to live and socialize amongst their own, but that does not mean they cannot contribute positively to society or get on with others, whether they live in a mansion or a slum.

Where separate schools do exist, they have to be monitored to ensure they do not preach hatred, teach their children to undermine the state, or fail to provide basic education that would enable their graduates to make their way in life. The fact is that in all these areas most Western States are failing.

In Britain, originally the Government funded three streams of compulsory education. There were state (non-denominational but with religious instruction and prayers that one could opt out of), and denominational Anglican and Catholic schools (and one Jewish school, the JFS). Other schools were allowed to exist outside of state educational control, so long as they met safety and other civil regulations. Many ultra-Orthodox institutions flourished in this category; so too did Muslim madrassas. Now more Jewish and Muslim schools are getting official state funding.

Over the past thirty years the number of Jewish schools has mushroomed, both with and without state aid. It has had little to do with campaigning. The recent exponents of Jewish education in Britain are certainly no more articulate then the late Rabbis Solomon Schonfeld or Kopul Rosen fifty years ago. But in those bad old days, they had to struggle to convince Anglo-Jewry, both because at the time its mood was assimilationist and because it was feared that Jewish education would hold youngsters back in life and hamper success. Jewish education was still identified with poor immigrants. Besides there were still very good, selective state schools around.

During the 1960’s the Labor Party introduced radical changes and state schools became a byword for inferior education and violence. Suddenly Jewish schools became fashionable. A more open multiracial society and Jewish pride led to more confidence and assertiveness and, finally, to greater wealth and more successful Jewish entrepreneurs. All helped the new mood that now sees well over half of Anglo-Jewish children receive a Jewish schooling.

But the situation is imperfect. Many Jewish schools are insular. Some that receive state aid only pay lip service to state values; others actively undermine them. This is an example of the failure of state will, in the face of the increasing political power of minorities. The same may be said of Israel, where state funding supposedly carries with it government inspection but with regard to ultra-Orthodox schools this is emasculated for political reasons. Even in the USA, schools such as the Saudi Islamic Academy of Fairfax County flout the law by having textbooks that preach hate, specifically of Jews.

Yet for all this, I still believe religious schools are beneficial. They give their pupils a feeling of belonging, security, and pride. They reinforce identity, though they are certainly no guarantee against assimilation. Schools cannot always be expected to combat the prevailing attitudes of parents and society!

The real issue is one of culture and agenda. Is the culture of the school inward or outward looking, tolerant or intolerant? When I was principal of Carmel College, I was happy to have some non-Jewish pupils in the school. They had to conform, of course, and we insisted on respect for them, as we did for the non-Jewish staff and their opinions. There was a lot of sporting and cultural exchange with non-Jewish schools. And the school taught respect for state institutions. There was Jewish pride but not isolationism.

It is this which is sorely lacking in too many faith schools nowadays. A lot depends, of course, on the attitude of the teachers. But it is also up to the state to fight for its values. This once again is the root of the current problem of multiculturalism that is not achieving the desired results. It is not the system that is at fault, but its application.

November 04, 2007


Everyone seems to be attacking multiculturalism nowadays. It is true that different groups of immigrants in Europe are huddling together in voluntary ghettos, but there have always been enclaves of class, region, and background.

Matters are worse at the moment because so many Muslim immigrants oppose Western ideals whilst living off of them. Indeed, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians who also think liberal Western values are corrupt. But thankfully, they do not normally resort to violence. The real problem is that, for the first time since Guy Fawkes, a significant minority of extremists actively want to violently destroy open and free societies.

But that is no reason to throw the baby out with bathwater. We didn’t tell ourselves our society was flawed, or bring in laws against the Irish because of the I.R.A.

I have lived in Britain before multiculturalism came into vogue and after, and I feel a lot happier and more relaxed as a Jew since we stopped feeling the pressure to become good little English clones. The Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Britain has just published a book in which he argues that multiculturalism has failed, and that it threatens liberal democracy. He contrasts the Jewish experience in the United Kingdom with that of minorities who have come into the UK since the Second World War and suggests that we Jews did a better job of integrating and our example should be followed. He is completely wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.

Anglo Jewry suffers from a Diaspora Inferiority Complex. Far too many British Jews are still so insecure that they try to hide their Jewishness. The contrast with Israel, on the one hand, or New York on the other, where even the non-Jews are "Jewish" is such that you actually feel a sense of relief and normality when you come from Britain. It is true the assimilation levels in the USA are almost the same, but the experience of being Jewish is felt less as a handicap. There is not the same feeling that we ought to lie low and not make waves, the old German Jewish "delusion" of being a Gentleman in the street and a Jew at home!

For hundreds of years, Jews in Britain were encouraged to play down their Jewishness. Their heroes were the assimilating "Jewish" aristocracy. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, even Jewish charitable institutions actively connived in denuding new arrivals of their religious differences. A lot of what happens in Britain, specifically, had and has to do with the relics of the class system. As much as this has changed, it still remains a profound influence on the British psyche.

But it also has a lot to do with the history of Jews settling in Britain. We were made to feel unwanted guests. We were the butt of constant anti-Semitism, overt and covert, in institutions and the street. We put up and shut up and got on with it. Slowly making our ways as best we could, down whatever channels were open to us, because however bad it was, it was better than where we came from.

The result? I used to be the rabbi of a venerable and long established Orthodox synagogue in London called "The Western", founded in 1799. It owned a cemetery in the Fulham Road that was closed when it was full, nearly a hundred years ago. At one stage it considered moving the bodies to Israel and redeveloping the site. To do this it had to trace the descendents of the 300 bodies that were there. Do you know that in 1975, when they did it, there was not one fully Jewish descendent alive? Is that an example we should recommend to other religious minorities?

The US is a good example of multiculturalism. It, too, has changed and evolved. Racism and anti-Semitism were still rampant fifty years ago, and continue today in isolated pockets. It is not a melting pot. It's rather like a stew in which here are identifiable pieces of different kinds of food that resist disappearing, and at the same time there is plenty of dissolving matter that goes into the general gravy.

The American culture recognizes and values differences, from Amish and Hassidim, to Scientologists and New Age Kabbalists. So long as you abide by the law, you are left alone to do, think, and live as you please. Change comes from democracy (or, alas, pork barrel and lobby politics). But no one feels the need to apologize for difference. And everyone feels they have a right to belong and succeed.

This is crucial--the potential for success. In Europe this is much harder for the under classes, and in some circumstances it is effectively squashed by the entitlement mentality of overprotective and massively abused social welfare. In this world people are conditioned to expect, rather than earn. As a former mayor of Antwerp told me recently, "You know why there are no race riots in Belgium, like France, even though proportionally we have as many young Muslims? Because we start paying them unemployment benefits at 17, whereas in France they have to wait till they are 25. Sure, it costs--but it keeps them quiet." Whether he’s right or not is irrelevant. It’s the attitude that is so instructive and ultimately destructive!

It is not multiculturalism that is at fault, but the fundamentalist attitudes of those in all religions who fear outside influences and fight against them. The answer is not to strip them of their differences, but to encourage them to feel confident enough to relax and reach out beyond their castles' keeps.

We Jews had several hundred years to adjust, to make serious mistakes, and then to adjust and come back from the brink. Minorities in a multicultural world do not have to go through the debilitating humiliations we did, the refusal of Parliament to pass bills giving us equal rights for hundreds of years and even then against massive religious, commercial, and social opposition.

Nowadays immigrants can, and do, and should fight for their rights. What is wrong with Europe at the moment is that the majority, and indeed the state, is not fighting for its rights. It is capitulating. If one wants to live in Britain, or wherever, one needs to accept certain a priori principles. This, after all, was the Biblical condition for giving equal rights to non-Jews living under Jewish government. Accept the Seven basic Noachide principles and, Bob’s your uncle...equal civil rights. Learn the language, find out about its culture, and accept its democratic processes.

But this takes time. It is a shame that Islamofacism has muddied the waters, and the natural tendency of Europe is to appease instead of standing firm for what it requires. It is not multiculturalism that has failed, but political will. But that has always been the case.

Recognizing and valuing differences does not mean you have to lose your own. But to go back to a society in which general values are specific religious values, or cultural norms are imposed, is to return to the Bad Old Days. We need patience and determination and, above all, good governance, not retreat.