February 28, 2008

The Cowards of Denver

The much vaunted freedom to be Jewish in the USA is not quite all it's cracked up to be. It's true that on a recent "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", fully 75% of the audience knew that a long-winded explanation was "a megillah", which shows to what extent Jewish concepts have been absorbed by American society. And in New York accommodating Jewish religious observances is the norm.

But this same level of acceptance isn't found everywhere in the US, as this report filed by the Associated Press yesterday illustrates. Thanks to FI for bringing it to my attention! And congratulations to the boys of Herzl for doing so well until they were blocked by the fixers (let's not call them anti-Semites--perhaps their kids were on the other side and they were just biased)!

DENVER (AP) Wednesday February 27th

The Herzl/Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy team could be headed for a regional championship on Saturday, March 8, if it wins one more game. But the Denver team's religious beliefs prohibit students from playing on the Jewish Sabbath between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

If Herzl/RMHA makes it to the regional championship and refuses to play a Saturday game, another school would be chosen to take its place, CHSAA commissioner Bill Reader said.

Earlier this month, the Colorado High School Activities Association, which governs sports and other high school activities, rejected the team's request for a schedule change.

Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, said the CHSAA's decision was ironic because it has a rule barring games from being played on Sunday for religious reasons.

February 24, 2008

"On Chesil Beach"

Ian McEwan is one of Britain's most successful novelists. I have to say that he is not one of my favorites. Rather like Jane Austen, he is preoccupied with the prissy, boring English middle classes, a species I do not find either particularly attractive or instructive. That's why I find Russian novels much more interesting. When it comes to reading modern novels I'm rarely satisfied, so I turned to On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan's latest, with a sense of obligation and foreboding. Obligation because, as it won prizes and was acclaimed, I felt I ought to, and foreboding because I was sure I would be disappointed. I wasn't. And I suspect this is because the book resonated with my background, my era, and some of my concerns.

I could criticize On Chesil Beach on several counts, but I'd rather focus on what impressed me. I delighted in its setting, the sights, smells, and beauties of the Oxfordshire countryside and its towns, which reminded me of my balmy youth. But what really resonated was the central theme--a young couple brought up in a repressed English social environment with the mores of respectability and the gentility that required presenting an exterior of normality and sanity, while beneath the surface raw emotions roil, struggling to release themselves. They fall in love and decide to get married without really understanding each other. They are not prepared for the intimacy that comes with marriage or the "permission", indeed expectation, to have intercourse. They have no inkling of the complexities of genuine communication between the sexes. This is such familiar territory to me brought up in the repressed fifties. Only the rich, it seemed, or the very poor, could enjoy themselves, whereas the middle classes amongst whom I was brought up were constrained by convention.

This reminded me of the very Orthodox world I have lived in for most of my life. A young couple is brought up with virtually no experience of interaction with the opposite sex, neither coeducation nor socializing. Touching is taboo. Then a couple meet, usually by arrangement. They go out on a few very correct dates and agree to get married. They both believe, innocently, that this will create a state of Heaven on Earth. Immediately after the religious ceremony, in one leap, they go from no touching at all to complete sexual intimacy. For many (not all), if there is inadequate preparation, this can lead to trauma. Yet this process happens each year to hundreds of thousands of couples in all forms of orthodoxies. Why, I wonder, is there no preparation, no training, no courses in communication and understanding for such a momentous moment in human life? How much emotional damage and pain must be caused?

And yet, the fact is that somehow or other so many do seem to cope and go on to achieve sexual compatibility, love, and happy marriages for the rest of their lives. Is this a miracle or what, when the only advice most girls get is to hold on tight and things will happen automatically? No wonder a doctor I know had to deal with a couple who thought intercourse took place via the bellybutton!

That is one extreme. On the other hand, with easy accessibility of all the explicit publications available in any newsagent's and on the internet, with all the pressure and availability of so much sexual experience, and all the freedoms of modern life, for all the years of physical intimacy of living together and having sex, still, so many more marriages fall apart. Clearly, sexual experience is no guarantee, or even condition, of success at all. In the end, marriage is based on accommodation, adjustment, and the will, desire, and commitment to make it work. In most Orthodox communities there is an emotional, financial, and social support structure that, while on occasion can be oppressive, can also be so helpful and positive in providing the glue that ultimately may hold families together.

There is no single answer. That's why the Talmud says some marriages are made in Heaven and others by humans. Life is a challenge and a struggle. Marriage is a challenge and struggle. And like all struggles and challenges, it is only by persevering that the benefits and the results come. On the other hand, some unions are mistakes, physically or emotionally. And when this happens, separation and the possibility of new beginnings are blessings that hold out hope for recuperation. If love fails once, it might succeed a second time. It would be terrible to have to give up the hope of ever experiencing it.

As with every human system, marriage has its advantages and disadvantages, and having a religious structure can help a lot. Where religion fails is when it does not allow for exceptions or for those who cannot follow the norms. That is where education, psychology, and healing are required even more.

I do strongly believe that we are not adequately preparing our children for marriage, and the results in the modern world we live in may prove to be a serious time bomb that could explode in our faces. I was delighted to read recently of a joint venture in the USA between various moderate Orthodox organisations to address this issue: the admirable Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which was established to train a new generation of well prepared US rabbis unhampered by rightist pressures, Drisha, which is a remarkable institute for teaching women Torah at the highest levels, and JOFA, which campaigns for Orthodox women's rights. But the people who need it most, in the farthest reaches of the Orthodox world, are still getting nothing. And they are unlikely to read On Chesil Beach.

February 14, 2008

Jewish Food

Food plays a very important role in Jewish life. I am not talking about the laws of what one may or may not eat. I am not talking about the kosher certification wars--mine is better and holier than yours and if you have to pay more for it, it must be good for your soul.

This week I am talking about something else. It seems there is something called "Yiddishe food", which means that if you eat sushi, mango and pear salad, or smoked salmon instead of schmaltz herring, zimmes, and gehakte leber, you are opening the doors to assimilation. You are lost, gone, doomed! It's in the same tradition as not allowing your baby to be surrounded by pictures or toys of treifa animals, like teddy bears or pandas, for fear that their kosher soul will be forever damaged.

I kid you not. Hamodia, the mouthpiece of Agudah in Israel is now available in English to counteract the assimilationism and deteriorating values of the Anglo Jewish press. It recently carried an interview with a prominent USA Rosh Yeshivah who said that eating foods that are not traditional would have a deleterious effect on the Jewish soul, schvartz oif veiss (black on white, as they say in Yiddish, which must have been spoken by Moishe Rabbeinu, because anyone who doesn't speak Yiddish can't be a REAL Jew).

So Eastern European fatty food is Jewish but the Sefardic diet of rice (on Pesach too) instead of tatties, or healthy salads are not! Manna turned into chulent and the Israelites cooked their food with fat and grease the way Eastern European peasants did. So I guess the Jews of Muslim origin who eat food closer to Arab culture cannot count as REAL! And chappati fressers, like me, are really Indian non-Jews masquerading as Jews. If you eat curry on Friday night you are breaking Shabbos. I know my father-in-law really thinks that carp is a Jewish fish and since I don't like it there must be something wrong with my Yiddisher soul. What is more, I cannot abide what Americans think defines Jewish food: a knish.

On Shabbat we sing the traditional songs that include such lines as, "We delight in meat and fish and fattened goose, quail, and fish." Does this mean a vegetarian cannot be a Jew? Or one who cannot take wine, is he to be excommunicated? If you could get the manna in the wilderness to taste of whatever you wanted, what if you wanted it to taste of passion fruit ice cream?

I accept there is pressure to conform. You see it in clothes. How come a Jew brought up in a Muslim country of jellabas, shifts and turbans is expected to wear the black trilby, black frock coat, and white shirt of St Petersburg? Does a Yemenite mystic have to adopt the fur hat of medieval Polish gentry? Joining a club and adopting its uniform is fine, if that's what you fancy. But on what basis does one call it authentic when it is cultural and a historical accident? It reinforces the current myth that authentic Judaism can only be lived in the recreation of an Eastern European ghetto.

According to some people, non-kosher foods build up a kind of spiritual cholesterol in your bloodstream that alienates you from God and spirituality. Most treifa foods are associated with the earth and dirt and that is why eating kosher elevates you, it is argued. Never mind you can eat kosher and still eat like a pig. Never mind the fats and carbohydrates that make up the highly unhealthy diet of poverty that much of traditional kosher catering is based on. Tradition, as Tevya might have said, is more important than reality.

The Biblical sacrifices are called Korban in Hebrew, from the root word meaning "to get closer". One shared food with God and priests, burning the unhealthy fats, draining the blood, and giving part of the meat to the poor. The ceremonial of the Temple was far removed from the butchery of the abattoir and one could offer breads and grains, fruit, and vegetables if one did not want to or could not afford to sacrifice animals. All the laws of food and eating were designed to make food a conduit between man and God. But it was the process of thought, and the way you ate, and with whom you ate that elevated the food, rather than the biological content. It didn't matter whether your diet was from the Mugreb, China, India, Italy, or Amsterdam. So long as you accepted the Biblical restrictions, it was how you ate that counted.

And health has always been a factor in Jewish Law. Now that it is clear that a diet low in fatty foods and high in pulses and grains is healthier than high cholesterol diets, surely a God-fearing person would want to protect and nurture the body God has given him. But no. It seems that, in pursuit of delusionary values of conformity in a mythical Eden, we must eat unhealthy food because it is more authentic. Even if this authenticity pertains only to one section of our people, in the last couple hundred years of a history that, in fact, extends for thousands, and was constantly fluid and changing in matters if dress and diet. If we really want to be authentic, we'd best dress in shifts, eating with our hands, sitting on the floor, and popping sheep's eyes instead of sashimi.

If the Rosh Yeshiva had lamented the loss of honesty and kindness, I would have applauded and added my voice. But to tell me, as I pore over my Daf Yomi, that the whiskey I drink is not the authentic drink in Omsk and Tomsk, and vodka and shmaltz herring will make me a better Jew, must be a joke. Kosher bacon anyone?

February 10, 2008

Sharia Law in Britain

According to BBC News, "The Archbishop of Canterbury says the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK 'seems unavoidable'. Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4's World at One that the UK has to 'face up to the fact' that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system. Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion."

What a catastrophic betrayal of the very Western values that have made Britain a free, open and egalitarian society! But let me not assume he is an idiot. Let me assume he just phrased things in a clumsy way and see if I can read some sense into what he said. He kept on repeating that Jews in Britain have a Beth Din that deals with family and other matters. He is right that we Jews may voluntarily take issues to a Beth Din and it is true that Jewish Law asks of us that we do this rather than go to civil courts. But the Beth Din only functions voluntarily and does not override or supersede the law of the land.

For example, a Beth Din will not finally issue a divorce until after the civil courts have finalized the matter. As for arbitration or settling financial matters, this can only be done by agreement. As we saw two years ago, a Dayan of the Federation ended up in the civil courts in a dispute with a Jewish businessman. Halachic courts operate purely on a voluntary basis. Now if the Archbishop was saying that Muslim courts could function in the same voluntary way, no one would argue with him. Of course, every religion has the right to worship, dress and conduct its internal affairs as it wishes so long as it does not offend the law of the land.

But he didn't say that. He said Civil Law has to accommodate to Sharia. In this charged, tense atmosphere his language was ill considered and childish at best. Such a suggestion is not only madness, but also a complete betrayal of British values. No wonder so many Christians in the UK prefer the Chief Rabbi to the Archbishop.

There is no way you can unite a country and a varied population without a single system of law. It is already a scandal that the police and the judiciary turn blind eyes to honor murders and forced marriages in flagrant opposition to English Law, for fear of offending sections of the population. It is a scandal that Social Welfare pays out large sums to multiple wives in a society where polygamy is against the law.

The problem is that many Muslims are as open, law-abiding, and religiously moderate as most Jews. Sadly, there is a significant number that come from more primitive sectors of Islam and have not yet made any concessions to modernity, other than Coca-Cola. They need to be encouraged to do so, not be pandered to, because in pandering we are abetting the betrayal of moderate Islam.

If Christianity is so weak that it has given up the fight for its values, please, I beg the government to stand firm. It was elected to serve British values, but if it concedes it will preside over the destruction of British values within a generation.

The Jews who came to Britain always knew they had to abide by the law of the land. We have always done this. Now it seems the Archbishop wants to see one law for Christians and Jews and another for Muslims. We might as well invite the Saudi Royal Family to move into Buck House.

February 05, 2008

Cooking or Gemara?

The Government at Westminster (U.K.) has announced that it intends to make cooking a compulsory subject in schools. It is worried about rising obesity and thinks that if you teach kids to cook they will eat more healthily.

Gosh, aren't politicians a dumb lot! If they do learn to cook they'll more likely deep-fry chips and meat patties or heat up ready-made hamburgers. And if they want to eat healthy they can make a Salad Nicoise without cookery lessons. Official exam results might be getting better but in fact employers complain that high school kids have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than before. Wouldn't it be better to spend money on dealing with the serious shortage of mathematics and science teachers?

Now I have issues with ultra-Orthodox education and its limited horizons. But it achieves three things. It ensures that virtually every kid gets to read fluently. It doesn’t matter in what language. It’s a transferable skill. It emphasizes numbers, because you can't make your way through Gemara without having a good grasp of basic mathematics. And, above all, it forces one to learn by heart, which is a much overlooked mental discipline.

Secular educational experts ought to get over their prejudices and look at what the graduates of yeshivas achieve in basic skills, even if those basic skills are extremely limited and there is no connect between what they learn and getting a job. But armed with basic skills, if or when you do decide to go for a job, give me Gemara over cooking any day of the week!

February 03, 2008

Rome and Jerusalem

It's not easy being Jewish. Not only do we attract odium--political, religious and social--out of all proportion to our size, but we are divided amongst ourselves to an incredible degree. Just think of the issue of Jerusalem and peace with the Palestinians. There are clearly no easy answers. There are enormous risks and a seemingly total absence of trust between the rival factions within and without. The Winograd report highlighted internal failures. Rockets raining down daily on Israeli schools and homes underline the external threat! It feels like most of the world would like us to simply disappear and this would solve all problems.

It has always been thus. There is nothing new under the sun. Our miraculous and almost illogical survival seems to be the only fixed point and common thread. Yet we always have been and remain excessively self critical. Is this bad? Maybe it's what gives us a moral edge!

History fascinates me, if only because we stubbornly refuse to learn its lessons. Professor Martin Goodman of Oxford has written many books on ancient Rome and Judea during the Roman occupation and destruction. His latest is "Rome and Jerusalem", much of it a restatement of earlier works such as "The Ruling Class of Judea". He attempts to answer the question as to why Rome turned on Judea with such violence and aggression. Rome was challenged elsewhere in the Empire and it was usually ruthless when it could be, but the viciousness of its campaigns in Judea was quite exceptional.

Throughout the Empire, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, tended either to ignore local cults or respect them. Perhaps this was a way of covering their bases. In Judea, Romans, even the Emperors from Rome itself, regularly sent sacrifices to the Temple. So religion does not seem to be the issue.

There was constant commercial and social tension and rivalry between Jews and Greeks throughout the Empire and clashes occurred frequently. But, again, this does not fully explain the Judean experience. Through a detailed analysis of sources, Goodman comes up with two principal answers.

First there was Vespasian, one of a generation of generals who vied for succession after the end of the Julian line of men descended directly or indirectly from Julius Caesar. All his rivals had won significant military victories. He had not. So a crushing, brutal campaign in Judea, continued after he returned to Rome by his son Titus, was essential to his claims. He had to be seen as outstandingly tough and the Judean Campaign happened to coincide with this moment in history.

Secondly, in all other areas the Romans relied on the local wealthy and upper classes to run the provinces, and often rewarded them with high office, even becoming senators. But in the case of Judea, the Jewish upper, aristocratic, priestly classes were not only divided, incompetent, and incapable of ruling, but they allowed such a wealth gap to open up between them and the masses that they only made matters worse and Judea ungovernable. The Romans also made the mistake of assuming the High Priest could function as an effective ruler when there were too many competing and more effective power structures. In particular, as anti-populists, the Romans were reluctant to recognize the power of the more democratic Assembly of Rabbis.

Our main sources remain the Jewish renegade Josephus, notoriously unreliable and self-justifying, the Talmud, written later and a vehicle of the rabbinic tradition, and the Gospels, written in an alien language by people who claimed to be Jewish but probably were not, and with an obvious anti-Jewish agenda. Naturally I am biased in favor of the Talmud, which presents three approaches, two of which support the Goodman thesis. One is that Jewish leadership indeed failed, as illustrated by the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Here's my adaptation of the Talmud in Gittin 55b:

A man in Jerusalem was friendly with Kamtza, but the enemy of Bar Kamtza. He told his assistant to invite Kamtza to a feast, but instead he invited Bar Kamtza. When he saw him sitting there he said, "You are my enemy; leave." Bar Kamtza said, "Let me pay for what I eat and drink, but do not embarrass me in public." He refused. So Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half the banquet. Still the man refused. Then he offered to pay for the whole of the banquet, but still he was forcibly ejected. Bar Kamtza said to himself, "The rabbis were there and did not protest. They must have agreed with him [they all deserve what's coming]. I will go and 'chew the cud' with the Romans." He went and told them the Jews had rebelled against them.

This failure of human sensitivity, the reluctance of the rabbis to tangle with a wealthy man, the absence of moral leadership, the bitterness and the betrayal, led ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem. The legend condemns the arrogance and insensitivity of the rich, the inability of the rabbis to take a moral stand, and the divisiveness and personal interests that overrode national considerations. Nothing better illustrates the disastrous incompetence of the ruling Jewish classes.

The Talmud sees the collapse of moral society as a religious failure. According to Shabbat 119b, most Jews had abandoned their religion, education had ceased, charity was the exception rather than the rule, and people were too arrogant. Throughout the Talmud there are endless examples of the ostentation of the wealthy. But equally, the Talmud blames wider external social and economic tensions, and this is from Megillah 6a:

"If you hear that Jerusalem is settled and Caesarea destroyed, or Caesarea settled and Jerusalem destroyed, you may believe it. But if you hear they are both destroyed or both settled, do not believe it!" (Never mind that by the time the Talmud was compiled they had both been destroyed!)

In other words, the factors we can point to nowadays as exercising a negative influence on Jewish life, and specifically on life in Israel--failure of moral leadership, wealth playing a corrosive role, corruption internally, external hatred and ideological conflict, religious hypocrisy--were all present then. Add to this external political exigencies and power politics and you had disaster then and potential disaster now. The only reassuring factor is that, somehow or other, we survive, our talents and drive win out in the end despite everything, and, I am sure, with a little help from Our Friend.