July 31, 2008


What is religion to you? Pleasure or pain?

We are in the fasting season. We started with the Seventeenth of Tamuz, a full day from dawn till dark. Next week we move on toward the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av), a 25-hour marathon in the height of summer.

I am intrigued by the role of fasting in Judaism. In theory it goes against the grain of a tradition that delights in the permitted pleasures of this world and encourages one to enjoy, to eat, drink, and be merry and thank God for the pleasure. The Torah only mentions one fast, Yom Kippur. But over time we have added plenty, to mitigate disaster, record tragedies, as antidotes to anything from bad dreams to excessive celebration, or just to increase piety.

Zechariah (8:19) looks forward to a day when fasts are abolished (other than the Torah fast, of course); so clearly he has reservations about the spiritual validity of adding fasts.

There is plenty of published literature about the extent to which customs have been influenced by the different Christian and Muslim environments in which Judaism has survived. Cycles of strictness, reformations, and counterreformations in Judaism seem to have followed external conditions pretty closely. The medieval pious Hasidei Ashkenaz movement, for example, coincided with the Crusades. A rash of pseudo-messiahs came with the post-expulsion traumas of Sefardi Jews, as did popular mysticism. Self-laceration, particularly before Yom Kippur, appears to come from both Christian monastic and Shia Ashura customs. But I do not think that is the complete story.

Religions are not simple monolithic structures, despite the impression some like to give, and Judaism contains many different types of spiritual expression. The spirit of the prophets was different than that of the Temple priesthood, and Temple Judaism had different rules and regulations than what went on outside. Pharisees battled Sadducees, then the Rabbinates fought Kaarites. It is true that Rabbinic Judaism won the battle of history. But even within there were differences, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, kabbalists, rationalists, Hasidism, and on to the multifaceted variations of Judaism nowadays, both within Orthodoxy and without. Even all those that technically follow the same constitution do so in markedly variegated ways. To give one trivial example, some Jews fast on the anniversaries of their parents' deaths while others drink LeChayim!

There are two strains of Greek philosophy, the Stoic and the Epicurean. Stoicism is the more ascetic approach to life. Think of Diogenes and his barrel, rejecting this world. Epicureanism delights in physical pleasures. Of course, I am being very simplistic here to make a point. Even within Hasidism you have those charismatics who fasted all week and only reluctantly ate on Shabbat because they were obliged to by law. On the other hand, you can find those Dionysian characters that delighted in all the halachic pleasures of life and made an issue of appearing well fed and watered.

As a child, I noticed how some religious kids simply seemed more naturally pious. They positively reveled in self-denial, in praying longer than anyone else, in fasting as often as they could, in denying pleasure, in studying rigorously and with apparent delight. People are different and asceticism comes naturally to some that is fine, but not everyone is like that or has to be like that.

I was reared in a family where Torah was joyous. Those who know me are aware that I delight in Torah. A halachic way of life brings me immense pleasure. I am in the "religion can be enjoyable" camp, not in the "it's good to suffer" one. I guess I am an epicurean by nature. I know the dangers of Epicureanism, just as I know the dangers of asceticism. I decided early on that there seemed too many killjoys in Orthodoxy, so I consciously took a different path to show people that you could enjoy it and it needn't be a self-denying ascetic penalty. But I also know that for many the disciplines of religion are essential and the rigors of halacha can be beneficial in other ways.

All religion contains these different trends, elements, fashions. It seems to me that both sides of the religious spectrum need balance. Therefore, despite my visceral objection to fasting, I force myself to see the positive. Partly it is communal. I am associating with, participating in, Jewish community togetherness, in pain as well as joy. Given the extent to which I feel alienated from so much Jewish community life, I feel it a necessary antidote to fast with those I might not always feel close to. And I feel that materialism has gone too far.

On a very epicurean level, if I am prepared to suffer for the sake of physical fitness and vanity, then why not do it for religious reasons too? Fasting as a diet need not just be for vanity. Sometimes it can be for a higher good!!!

July 28, 2008

Not Rabbis

A New York court has decided that a rabbi who has had a sexual affair with a congregant cannot be sued for betraying his professional standards, because rabbis are not proper professionals!!

In a unanimous verdict, judges dealing with a claim against an Orthodox rabbi for sexual abuse said that rabbis do not have a fiduciary duty as with professions such as therapists or lawyers. Despite the fact that this rabbi abused his position to counsel sexual therapy involving himself, and that there have been other complaints, they refused to allow the woman to sue the rabbi. Most professions forbid sexual relations between professionals and clients where vulnerability is an issue. It seems that a job involving "reverential deference", in which one treats the clergy with particular trust, allows them to mess with adults, who ought to know better! (Thankfully, this does not apply to children, who do not. Hence, child abusers are now being more rigorously prosecuted and sued.)

In another situation, The Jewish Week played a part in uncovering serial sexual abuse by a charismatic American-born rabbi who was dismissed from his post at Bayit Chadash in Tel Aviv, after several congregants lodged complaints with the police. He actually issued a statement apologizing and said he needed treatment and disappeared. Now he has set himself up in Colorado as a New Age rabbinic guru. That in itself would not be a problem; after all, we allow Teshuva ("repentance"). But when he declares that his apology was given under duress and these things never happened, he seems to be in dangerous denial and therefore likely to abuse again.

I cannot tell you how many cases of rabbis misusing their position in sexually inappropriate ways I have encountered over the years of my ministry. Most were unsatisfactorily settled in the way the Catholic Church once dealt with its pedophiles--move them on and keep quiet. And as with rape, it is very difficult to get a conviction.

So what is a rabbi then? Some sort of exploiter of the vulnerable who can get away with it because he has no professional standing?

Outside of the rabbinate, they try to differentiate between a doctor-patient relationship after hours as opposed to within, or university lecturers after graduation. The whole issue of "unequal power" in relationships is an important emerging issue in thinking circles, where one party uses his position or power to take advantage of a weaker subordinate.

But where we are dealing with consenting adults I question whether one can legislate for this. The fact is that marriage in general is and has always so often been between "unequals", either in financial, power, age, beauty, or otherwise. (Didn't Kissinger once declare that power was a great aphrodisiac?) One upon a time most rabbis were married and stayed that way. Nowadays this is less and less the case. So why not marry a congregant? What is appropriate?

I have seen the boundaries transgressed, in every denomination, and tremendous emotional damage has resulted. With experience I am convinced it must be absolutely forbidden, if not by law then by convention, for a clergyman to engage in sexual relations with someone he is counseling, whether in hours or after. It is too dangerous, both because of the situation and the consequences. There is a lot of abuse of varying types and degrees going on and something needs to be done. But what?

Many American state courts have ruled differently than the New York judges, but I think their judgment raises an important issue. You see, in practice nowadays, a rabbi is anyone who says he is. Most rabbis, certainly most Orthodox ones, have no professional training. It was one thing when rabbis were simply scholars who knew the laws and you referred to for an opinion on Jewish Law, and in the main they were all self-employed and financially self-sufficient. Then there were miracle workers, mystics, Baalei Shem, rebbes, whose expertise was not the sort you could legislate for. Somewhere along the line, rabbis began to imitate Christian clergy and morph into counselors, confessors, and a cheap alternative to therapists, as well as congregational functionaries who took it up as a paid career. That was where professionalism should have appeared on the halachic radar.

There are no universal professional standards for rabbis, even though there are now colleges which do give some training in counseling and pastoral affairs. Therefore, all I can say is Caveat Emptor.

In previous eras it might not have been relevant to legislate halachically for professional standards. Now it is. There has been too much monkey business. Instead of spending all their time and energies legislating for minutiae, I would like to see more religious authorities tackle the issue of professional conduct in the rabbinate. At the moment it seems to me that anything goes, and I do not only refer to sex.

If Judaism does not deal with this issue and in keeping quiet allows some rabbis to tarnish God's name, it will come back to haunt us. We already have a general term for this. It is called Chillul HaShem, the Desecration of God's "good" Name. It needs to be applied specifically.

July 20, 2008


Where does superstition end and religion begin? Or are they same? My late father had no patience for spells, curses, or any kind of superstition. He always quoted to us the famous line from Numbers 23:23, "There are no charms in Jacob, no magic in Israel." The most he conceded to us as kids was that if we were frightened we should say the Shema.

Why are Jews so superstitious? In fact, the world is. One might think that astrology, card reading, divination of all sorts, were demolished eons ago. But they are gaining in popularity, rather than waning.

However much we are led to believe we are closer to controlling our world, and we are in many areas, in our personal lives there is far more pressure and insecurity. The world we inhabit is often as frightening as it must have been to Neanderthal man in his cave. And we still use similar tools for protection. What is wrong with superstition?

Superstition is the belief that, regardless of my own actions or any other external factors, like walking into a war zone or driving a car the wrong way on a motorway, if one does certain prescribed actions, or carries a certain text or symbol, it will protect. Regardless of whether I do my homework, check the figures, and balance all the factors, if I get a blessing then this business deal will succeed. Look at all those footballers crossing themselves before they take their kick!

Any rational mathematician familiar with the laws of probability will be able to explain why some bets on currencies may well succeed, cancer will be cured, but others not. The successes will be hailed as miracles. The failures will be accepted and forgotten. Human brains have that amazing gift of ignoring things they want to.

Many people confuse religious symbolism with superstition, but it is not the symbolism of religion that protects. The mezuzah on your doorpost is not a magic charm. It is there to remind you of your religious obligations in the hope that by doing them you will be elevating yourself and your household.

Time and time again, the rabbis say that luck has no bearing on Jewish life (Talmud Shabbat 156a&b). And yet, for all that, you can find references in the Talmud to people relying on luck. Luck, like God, seems a natural human response to the unknowable. Whoever avoids using spells for luck enters the highest levels of spirituality (Nedarim 32a). However, human frailty, I am afraid, trumps logic most of the time.

Religion itself proclaims that the good are rewarded, yet in life the righteous often suffer and the wicked prosper. Clearly, good actions and good consequences are not inevitably connected. If God can ordain 400 years of suffering in Egypt before the Exodus, then during those four hundred years the enslaved sons of Jacob could have done nothing to change their situation. Rational attempts at explaining the world in terms of individual good and bad totally flounder. No wonder it became so much easier to refer it all to another life.

Religion, in theory at least, is predicated on the idea that, one's actions can determine a lot. The word is "hishtadlut", the other side of the coin to "bashert", the Yiddish for "ordained". They coexist. We can and have no option but to accept what happens. There are so many competing and conflicting factors at work in the universe that it is impossible to know or control them all. But at the same time there are plenty of other areas where one can do one's best, where it is possible to change and achieve things by whatever means are at one's disposal. Only desperate or lazy people clutch at straws.

What I find offensive is that too many of these miracle rabbis expect people to pay for their insecurity! Credulity then becomes a matter of extortion and manipulation. Give me money and I will give you a charm to cure your cancer. Now that's what I expect from a witch doctor, not a rabbi.

I do feel the presence of a Divine power that can be reassuring and comforting, not because it necessarily produces the results we hope for, but because it reinforces a sense of our own humanity. It encourages us to use our human resources to cope. It is supportive, if not curative. It is like love. It does not take away life's problems, but it certainly makes life easier to handle. It is the difference between regarding God as a Slot Machine and regarding God as an experience to feel and savor and enjoy. The more positive experiences one has in life, the easier it is to cope.

I was always impressed by the story in Kings II, Chapter 5. The prophet Elisha cured the Aramean general, Naaman, by getting him to recognize a higher power, not a superstitious one. Most importantly, he refused any reward. Nowadays there's a charge. We have, indeed, deteriorated spiritually! Superstition and religion are in bed together more than ever.

July 16, 2008


Before you point out my apparent spelling mistake, may I say that I refuse to use a name which incorporates God’s, even in Arabic, when talking about such savages who desecrate the Divine name.

The return by Hezbular of the corpses of Israeli soldiers Goldwasser and Regev , captured alive, murdered in cold blood, in contravention of the Geneva Convention, ought to be a source for universal condemnation of barbarism. But all I see as I look for international condemnation, all I hear is silence.

Two Israeli soldiers were captured and now it seems, according to Arabic tradition in the Middle East, tortured, mutilated, and killed. This is not isolated. You might recall what happened to two Israeli reservists who strayed into Ramallah and had their hearts literally torn out of their bodies and displayed to the roaring crowd. We won’t even begin to talk about the inter-Muslim butchery in Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein.

Guantanamo Bay may be an affront to Western values, but no one was murdered in cold blood after being caught. Israel kills civilians in collateral damage, which I disapprove of, but this is not the same thing as direct, sanctioned murder. Apologists like to talk about Jewish terror before the state. And there was--both British excesses and Irgun retaliation, not to mention the Stern Gang. Not only were they condemned by all mainstream representative bodies, but also by the vast majority of the Jewish populace. Indeed, if you recall, the Altalena affair was when the new Israeli government forcibly suppressed them. I know full well that Israelis have also committed war crimes, and there have been Jewish terrorists too. But never has there been this barbaric blood lust, this glorification of killing even infants. Comparisons are facile and insulting.

The usual suspects all love to use the Geneva Convention to beat Israel over the head regularly, and I won’t say they are wrong. But where is their condemnation of the murder of captives? Hezbular is not a government, so it may?

I am, as you know, no hawk. I dislike right wing Israeli policies. I abhor the abuse of Arab rights and I am a peacenik at heart. But when I see the world remaining silent, the utter hypocrisy of the so-called civilized world, frankly I simply cannot add my voice to the critics of Israel, if only in the interests of some sort of balance.

There are, indeed, honorable, civilized, lovely, kind, tolerant Arabs. But so long as the Arab street is a murderous gang of blood curdling, blood drinking, fanatical savages who think nothing of killing each other, I do not believe peace is possible. Barricades are far from ideal, but if they keep the barbarians out they serve a purpose.

I know I ought not to use such provocative language. There have been rare cases of Israeli brutality too. It is the fact that the world media is silent on this issue that so offends me and convinces me that unless we take care of ourselves no one else will. Even if there is a peace settlement, separation of a population that contains such an element of bloodthirsty lunatics is the only way to survive. I know it will be said by some, you see it on the blogs, that Israel is responsible for dehumanizing those it occupies. But come on--if Israel were the only place this happened in the Middle East or North Africa I might agree; but it is not. This world is an imperfect place and solutions are imperfect, but survival trumps most other values.

July 13, 2008

What is modesty?

Summer time. Swimming time. Bikini time?

"In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; now, Heaven knows, anything goes," wrote Cole Porter over seventy years ago. And if it was bad then, it is worse now. Nowadays on home television, let alone computer, one can see all there is to see. It is hardly surprising that that all religions are trying to draw lines.

Modesty is regarded as a supreme religious quality. But what is modesty? How do we define it? The Torah does not even mention modesty directly. There is no specific law of modesty in the Torah. You can pick up hints, like Rebecca covering her face when she sees her husband-to-be. The procedure relating to a suspected adulteress indicates that correct dress included covering one's body and keeping one's hair neat and tidy. But such dress code as there is in the Bible is entirely concerned with the male priests.

The Song of Songs, allegory or not, tells us a lot about contemporary fashions. Isaiah and his colleagues had a lot to say about the provocative and scandalous dress and behavior of the Israelite women of their day. (Both Jewish kingdoms three thousand years ago were heavily influenced by pagan practices and pagan queens. Think of Jezebel and her daughter Athalia.) But the term "tzniut" (modesty) does not appear, and the one obvious example, "walk modestly/humbly with your God" (Micha), is about general human behavior.

By Talmudic times, things were very different. Roman excesses and the assimilation of the Judean aristocracy led to a serious cultural division between the modest traditionalists and the looser modernists, not unlike nowadays.

The Talmud makes a great deal out of modesty, for men and women, and talks about not revealing too much flesh. Loose behavior and loose dress are regarded as grounds for divorce, but once again there is no specific list of what the limits are beyond a vague instruction to cover "the head and most of the body". There were different standards as between the classes and environments. The Talmudic references to modest dress are almost all in reference to working women. And we know that some sects were much more particular than others. Still it was much, much later, in medieval times, that some decided to start measuring and defining hemlines and sleeve lengths.

I believe the absence of specifics in earlier texts is intentional, because it is not simply a matter of being covered as opposed to uncovered. It is more to do with attitude. Modesty is about mental attitude (translating into actions, of course), not measuring flesh. Kosher dress is no guarantee of kosher behavior.

Modesty, in my opinion, is a positive quality, not a negative one that leads people to cover up out of embarrassment. Covering up because the Law says so, or because one is ashamed of oneself, might have some positive aspects, but it can so easily become purely negative and destructive to self-worth. Similarly, the quality of humility that stops one flaunting one's merits, be they physical or intellectual, is a positive quality that sees value in not boasting or showing off, which is usually the characteristic of the insecure.

The opposite of "tzniut" is "azut", meaning arrogance both in behavior and dress. The women or the men who bare it all and flounce around revealing everything are arrogantly inviting anyone and everyone to have a look. They do not care. But not caring is often arrogance. Some societies prefer to keep things covered up. Though it always amazed me how dowagers in strapless ball gowns seemed perfectly happy to reveal folds of unsightly flesh. Modest dress certainly has advantages if only by leaving something to the imagination which is usually far more enticing than the reality.

Nowadays, airbrushed photos, constant plastic surgery, and cosmetic disguise all create artificiality and intolerable pressures to be impossibly perfect and impossibly ageless. The result is that the real inner beauty of personality, mind, and emotion gets lost in illusion. No wonder some give up the battle and decide to cover up from head to toe. Sadly, even in the most Orthodox of communities, outward beauty, like easy money, seems in the ascendant. That is why I believe the desire to create an alternative value system has not entirely succeeded.

Go to an Orthodox wedding. Sheitels, dresses, makeup, and cosmetic surgery all create a Hollywood fairytale atmosphere that shrieks ostentation, externality and therefore arrogance. Surely this contradicts Torah values of modesty. For, again I stress, modesty is not just about how you cover up but about how you act, bear yourself, the impression you give. You can be modestly dressed and immodest, or you can be less modestly dressed but still act with dignity, restraint, and self-control. In the end, this inner modesty is the one that counts, the one that the rabbis of the Talmud declare distinguished Rachel from the other wives of Jacob.

Jewish law is neither ascetic nor unrealistic. There are different opinions in the Talmud as to how free one may be in the intimacy of ones home but the demand to cover is not a matter of shame but respect. Beauty is appreciated and the Talmud says that beautiful people and objects broaden a person's mind. If there is a blessing to be made over a beautiful woman, someone must have been looking and someone must have been revealing enough for others to see! Jewish law advocates a balance. A beautiful person is not expected to hide it, nor an intelligent person to seem dumb, but neither should she or he flaunt it. Disapproval came from other traditions. Laws insist that partners try to look good for each other, and even approve of wearing makeup even when in mourning. But this is still regarded as secondary to inner beauty, not essential.

Within Orthodoxy, there are different standards of modesty. Between different communities and countries of origin there are varying standards. There are inconsistencies. Anyone who has been to any of the Mediterranean resorts has seen women in sheitels revealing more than they should or young boys in peyot running in and out of naked sunbathers. It is a bit like kosher meat. So long as there is a stamp on it, no one seems to care about anything else, and as a result very often it is not as kosher as it claims to be.

The Talmud says that the rabbis of Babylon wore fancy clothes because, as they were not so learned as the rabbis of Jerusalem, they relied on outward signs for their status and respect. We are all Babylonians nowadays.

July 08, 2008

Religious Violence

Even readers of the New York Times are now familiar with the battles going on amongst Satmarer Hasidim (actually the biggest and most powerful of all Hasidic movements) over the succession. It is about money and power, of course. Hasidic dynasties are hereditary aristocracies (no meritocracy here, heaven forefend), and they are now very wealthy ones, too.

A similar battle for succession is going on Viznitz. Ynetnews reports:

The conflict among the two opposing camps in the Viznits Hasidic community in Bnei Brak doesn't include stealing money or ideological arguments; instead, the Hasidic way of quarrelling entails “swiping” shtreimels and bartering their return. . .In each fight, the Viznits Hassids try to snatch as many shtreimels off their opponents' heads, so as to have as many bargaining chips as possible ahead of the next barter. . .

. . .When Hasidic leader Rabbi Moshe Hagar fell ill, a war was ignited between his sons – the elder Yisrael and the younger Menachem Mendel – over who will succeed him. . .

. . .Attorney Moshe Meroz, approached by Mendelists immediately sent a letter to the Tel Aviv Police, asking them to handle the pogroms [sic--No doubt they'll call them Nazis next] issued by the Yisraelists against the Mendelists. . .The police claim they are doing their best. . .

I find it so sad that supposedly religious organizations, ostensibly devoted to spirituality, Torah, and good deeds, should descend to this sort of street fighting over succession. Is this Torah? Is this Judaism? Is this what God wants of humanity? Never mind that in every religion there are turf wars and rivalries, and that monks fight monks. I do not want it in mine! There is something rotten in the state of Torah.

In my Yeshiva days in Jerusalem the excuse was that the stone throwers were kids out on a Shabbat afternoon while their parents slept. Then it was young hot bloods in vacation time with nothing better to do. But as religious violence increased other excuses appeared. We were so traumatized by the holocaust that we told ourselves we must rebuild the wells of Torah at all costs, pour money and manpower into survival, use every means at our disposal to avenge the millions who died. The only "good" was to survive and recreate Eastern European ghettos in the Free World.

In the pursuit of such noble a cause, kanaut (zealotry) was not only excusable, but necessary. I agree that you save a drowning man any way you can. But once you have saved him, you have to give him good medical care to ensure he recovers and lives a constructive life. In this case, we have overindulged and gone on pouring artificial sweeteners, chemicals, and drugs into what is now in danger of becoming a Frankenstein.

I used to have inordinate respect for Viznitz. As a teenager, I went to Benei Brak and stood in awe at the passionate spirituality, powerful and moving singing, and intellectually stimulating drashot I experienced in modest surroundings in 1956. I was profoundly impressed. It was this that convinced me that colder, watered down, western versions of Judaism were not the future. The Rebbe, Reb Chaim Meirel Z"L, was a wise, enlightened, charismatic leader who recognized the realities of Israel and indeed encouraged young Hasidim not suited to long-term study to join the army in special units.

It was nearly thirty years later that I married into a Viznitz family and reengaged. By then Reb Chaim Meirel Z"L had been succeeded by his elder son, Reb Moishe Yehoshua. His younger brother, Mordechai, thought that he ought to be the rebbe. He had studied in Satmar Yeshivot in New York and decamped to Monsey where he set himself up as a Viznitz Satmar clone, anti-state, excessively rigid, and uncompromising.

Poor Moishele felt himself pulled to the right. When I met him, he confessed that on certain issues he gave in to pressure from his Hassidim--never a healthy sign. His wife, Leah, was a very impressive woman. I really admired her and took my elder daughter to meet her. Sadly, she died and what strength and insight there was disappeared with her.

I am not going to go into the merits of the succession. But where such battles turn into fisticuffs over shtreimels in the streets of Benei Brak, that involve litigation and police intervention, it is clear to me that Torah Judaism is in deep trouble. I hear of too much violence all over the religious world, so one cannot pin it on Israeli militarism! I suspect that the hothouse force-feeding is producing a reaction in some (thank goodness, not all). I also suspect the pressure of social and mental conformity, the way anyone who disagrees or steps out of line is so rubbished and excoriated in verbally violent terms by religious inner circles, also contributes. This is a warning and we who care about Charedi Judaism had better take notice.

For, as long as so many of us are so superstitious as to fear getting on the wrong side of any man in a shtreimel and long beard, so long as we collude in this travesty of spirituality, then Torah hides her face in shame and so should we. We owe a lot to Hasidism, its devotion to a religious way of life and to Torah study, which I regard as so essential to the spiritual health of the universe. But if we do not condemn this travesty of religion then we will be leaving a distorted rump of Judaism like the Sadducees, the Dead Sea sects, and the Karaites. Pious and strong in their time, verging on becoming the deciding voice of Judaism at moments in history, they all eventually lost their moral authority and disappeared.

I am not a prophet, but I say this will happen here, too, if all Hasidim can do is fight over fur hats, burn stores that sell mp3s, and behave as if Might Makes Right.