September 28, 2008


"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth," said George Bernard Shaw, "without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Such is the significance of accent and vocabulary in English. If you ask me what is good, or what I believe, I will immediately respond by asking what you mean by the word "good" or "believe". That is why the shofar is so central to Rosh Hashanah. A sound is much purer than language. In many ways it is neutral and unmistakable.

The Torah says nothing about a New Year, nothing about atonement. But it does say twice that this day is one of Teruah. And Teruah is always associated with blowing. There are trumpets and horns mentioned in the Torah and tradition has it that the horn should ideally be a ram's.

The shofar is the most natural of all religious symbols. Unlike flutes, there are no holes for notes; there are no mouthpieces, no strings or valves. It requires direct human interaction for it to function. The wordless sounds are cultureless. Laws, texts are open to variation across the spectrum. The sound of the shofar transcends all human cognitive barriers and creates a unity amongst those who hear it unlike any other feature of our religion.

Music itself changes in many ways, of course. The instruments Mozart wrote for are not the same ones that we hear in most concert halls today. And what sounded good to Chinese ears a hundred years ago was very different than what most Western ears would have find attractive. And even in this world of universal music tastes, they vary all the time, even personal ones. The unique timelessness and cultural neutrality of the sound of the shofar makes it unlike any religious music.

There is a historical theme too. The sound we hear is identical to the sound they heard three and four thousand years ago. If the number of times it is blown has risen over the years, the three kinds of "blasts" have remained the same, even if there are minor nuances. This was the sound Jews heard in the desert, in the Temple, in Babylon, Rome, Spain, France, Poland, Russia, Morocco, Egypt, Afghanistan, even China. It was blown when the Yemenite and Moroccan communities were airlifted to Israel after 1948, and it was blown by Rabbi Goren, in that iconic photo, when the Western Wall was liberated in 1967. No matter what place, era, or culture, the sound has always been the same.

Think for a moment of all variety that currently exists in Judaism, all the different peoples, customs, communities, rules, and refinements. But the shofar is sounded, the same three blasts, the same number, by all groups. On Rosh Hashana wherever we go to pray, whether we are inspired by the prayers or bored, the shofar is the one element we will "get". I can't think of any other feature that bonds us Jews as the shofar does. That is its magic. Scholar or ignoramus, rich or poor, regardless of degree of religiosity, this sound provides a common denominator. The shofar is the "Jewish sound".

Mystically, the shofar also represents us humans. Created figuratively out of the earth, it takes the Divine breath of spirit to animate us. A piece of animal skin, nail, in itself of little value, when breathed into comes alive and stimulates us in ways beyond our imagination.

And, finally, the shofar is associated with the ram's horn at the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, which is read during the Rosh Hashanah service. A ram was sacrificed instead of Isaac. The symbolism of Abraham, so obedient to what he thought was the will of God that he nearly killed his own son, has three messages. It is a motif of absolute dedication to God, overriding human conceptions of reality and authority. Secondly, it is also described as a test. Life itself is a constant test. We have to try to face everything that comes our way and do the best we can.

But what tools should we be using—ours or God's? The Biblical narrative recalls the willingness of Abraham to kill his own son because he believed that that was what God wanted. In fact, the third lesson we learn from this is that we should not listen to voices or what we think God wants; since Sinai, the Torah revelation has given us a clear constitution.

Because humans are so prone to error it was necessary to establish a code of behavior and ethics that would establish rules that, no matter what voices one thought one heard, one could never transgress certain boundaries. If the Bible started off with simple general commands to Adam and Eve, over time, after the false starts, it became clear one needed more specific legislation.

If we can be mistaken in hearing voices, we cannot be so misled by the sound of the shofar. The shofar is the sound of Sinai. Revelation, like the shofar, takes someone to make it "work". After the initial Sinai impetus it was left to human beings to take it forward. There would be no heavenly voices, no sudden miracles defining law.

Humans contribute positively to the ongoing vibrancy and progress of tradition, in constant creative dispute and tension. Currents and trends that go one way do not necessarily have to keep going in the same direction always. But it is only by being positively engaged that we can hope to contribute to continuity.

September 19, 2008

Iran & Jews

Esther's Children edited by Houman Sarshar is a collection of fascinating essays and photographs about Iranian Jewry. The title alludes to the fact that Queen Esther was frightened to reveal her people. The author suggests that most Iranians he knew were brought up to hide their true identity in public.

The one abiding impression the book left on me is the extent that Iranian Jewry has suffered, most noticeably hen Shia Islam took power. Apart from a brief interlude under the last Shah, the Jewish communities of Iran, in all their magnificent variety, were continuously humiliated and victimized.

Jews lived and thrived in Iran under the Persian Empire ever since the exile of 586 BCE, although the story of Purim illustrates how precarious it was. The Talmud itself attests to the richness of Jewish life in Babylonia, and the Geonim flourished into the second millennium. But it was not all light and bright before Shia Islam. The Zoroastrians were a changeable lot. They forbade anyone, including Jews, from lighting lights at home, instead of in Zoroastrian temples. Yet Jews were so well integrated that Yazdegerd 1st had a Jewish wife in the fifth century.

Under Islam it started promisingly. The Umayyads were the most enlightened of rulers, the Abbasids too, within the constraints of Islam. The famous Harun al-Rashid had Jewish financiers, doctors, and advisors, but he instituted the yellow badge all Jews had to wear. Jews and Christians were categorized as Dhimmis, second-class citizens, which from the time of the Pact of Omar imposed social and economic restrictions upon them that left them very much at the mercy of Muslims. If they were lucky, they were tolerated. If not, they were oppressed

It was under the Safavids (1501-1731), who turned Iran into a Shiite state, that things got appreciably worse. A Muslim who killed or raped a Jew was not punished beyond a small fine. Jews had to step aside for Muslims in the street and could not eat or drink with, or even touch, Muslims. Increasingly, Jews were forced to live in ghettos (the Mahalleh), which were intentionally kept foul, fetid, and constricted. Muslims were forbidden to sell Jews houses elsewhere.

Jews were declared unclean, untouchable. They could not leave their homes when it rained because the wet might transfer their impurity. The penalty for infringement was death. Pressure began to build on the Jews to convert, and violence was often used to achieve results. To be fair, the Armenians, Zoroastrians, and other non Muslims suffered too, but Jews were singled out.

Things got even worse under the Qajars (1795-1925). By the nineteenth century the Jews of Iran were overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and at the bottom of the social heap. In 1839, virtually the whole of the Jewish community of Mashad was forced to convert. For many years, they, like the Marranos in Spain, had to live double lives.

During the nineteenth century the attention of European Jews began to focus on the plight of the Iranian Jewry. French Jewry established the Alliance Israelite Universelle network of schools in Iran to give Jewish children an education, but also encouraged assimilation. Thanks to international pressure, things began to change slowly. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 sped up the process. By 1911, Jews achieved civil rights (only fifty years after Britain, let us not forget).

Under the Pahlavis (1925-1979) things continued to be a mixture of good and bad. It was in fact only after the pro-German Shah Reza was forced out during the Second World War by the British and his son Mohammad Reza came to power and was supported by the United States (oil!), that Iranian Jewry really flourished and Jews began to rise up the rungs of society.

The 1979 revolution brought Khomeini to power. All the social Shia limitations were re-imposed on Jews, including the rules of impurity, once again consigning them to inferior status. Several significant and wealthy Iranian Jews were put to death on notoriously specious grounds. And a mass (though not total) migration led to the establishment of important Iranian communities, particularly in the United States.

Why do I mention all this, apart from my admiration of those Jews who kept their faith under such awful conditions? Imagine if you lived in a country where a group of people who are despised, the inferior dregs of society, suddenly begin to rise and do better than you. If you are a simple Muslim peasant toiling under the sun, of course you will resent these nouveaux riches, as indeed did most Americans and British in their day.

The Jews after all were only apes and pigs according to the Koran. Then all of a sudden these apes and pigs are able to establish one of the most powerful, intellectually, technically, and economically advanced states in the area. They win more Nobel prizes than you do. Not only, but these apes and pigs can withstand the combined might of the Muslim states who try to drive them out. The humiliation must be intolerable. And if you yourself are of already limited spirit and intellect, it must be very humiliating--apes and pigs doing better than you. No wonder primitive men like Ahmadinejad and his fundamentalist allies hate the Jews for having turned the tables on them.

This, my friends, explains Iranian foulmouthed anger and invective and their passionate desire to eradicate those whom they perceive as having humiliated them. It is not surprising. Now you tell me, when faced with irrational, deep-seated, visceral hatred, how should you respond? Sit down to a nice cup of tea?

September 10, 2008


The story of the Cantonists is one of the most reprehensible examples of how Jews behaved to other Jews. The rich, the powerful, the religious authorities all took unforgivable advantage of their positions to get themselves off the hook at the expense of the poor.

Russia included the majority of the Jews in the world in the nineteenth century. Czar Nicholas 1st, who came to the throne unexpectedly in 1825, was a crude anti-Semite who wanted to rid Russia of its Jews. He devised a system that would use military service as a way of cutting young Jews off from their families and communities and converting them to Russian Orthodoxy. In 1827 he introduced compulsory military service for all Jews from age twelve to twenty-five to serve for twenty-five years!

All conscripts under the age of seventeen would be assigned to Cantons, military schools inside military camps originally set up a century earlier to train young recruits, before being sent to regiments. Whilst there, they would be denied Jewish requirements and subjected to a harsh and intensive conversion regime. Life would be made easier for those who converted, and progressively tougher for those who refused. These kids were called Cantonists.

Almost a hundred thousand Jewish children suffered under the system before it was abolished in 1855, after Czar Nicholas died. But of that number the vast majority died or disappeared under the most cruel and harsh of conditions. Conscription continued, but equally for all citizens and many Jews served in the Russian army, including my grandfather. Even into the early twentieth century many Jewish young men voluntarily deformed themselves or removed their teeth to avoid the agonies of conscription. But nothing could compare to the sadistic regime these thousands of little Jewish Cantonist children were put through.

But there is another dimension to this episode that is in some ways equally disturbing. Government set a quota of conscripts for each community and it was up to the Jewish authorities to fulfil these quotas on pain of fines and imprisonment. Naturally, no Jewish parents wanted their sons to go through this ordeal, which was usually a death sentence. The Jewish officials were in a difficult position and open to inducements. The rich and the influential got their children off, by bribery or persuasion. This meant that the poor and the weak, suffered inordinately.

When community officials could not meet their quotas, they employed chappers (from the Yiddish "to grab"), Jews who were paid to bring in conscripts, rather like the British naval press gangs. They would act like a cross between bounty hunters and gangsters. There are documented reports of mothers running behind the carts that carried their kidnapped children in cages, begging for their release, sometimes of an only son or the sole provider for a poor widow.

One of the worst aspects of this was that the rabbis, whom you might have thought the poor and the weak could have turned to for support, were themselves only too willing to protect their own. There are records of debates as to whether it was right to send of a young man who was not religious instead of one who was, or the son of a poor Jewish peasant rather than the son of a rabbi. There is plenty of research on all this. An example is a small, easily accessible book by Larry Domnitch called The Cantonists.

But I want to take the matter further and argue that this sort of discriminating attitude is still with us, although of course not under quite the same circumstances. Too many of us still think that if I can buy or fiddle or bargain myself a privilege at the expense of someone else, then why not? Who cares about moral arguments?

When casualties of the Lebanon War came out, it became clear that most of them were from poorer, disadvantaged families, predominantly new immigrants. And of those who were Ashkenazi, a very high proportion were religious Zionist young men who had studied in yeshivot and were ideologically committed. But more and more of the Tel Aviv beau monde, the Shenkin elite, the privileged children of the wealthy were skipping the draft. Let the poor put their lives in danger, not us!

As for the ultra-Orthodox, there are now over thousands and thousands of able-bodied young men, not all particularly interested in study, who are given automatic exemption. When the Chazon Ish, the great rabbinic figure in Israel when the state was founded, persuaded Ben Gurion to exempt yeshiva students from military service, there were a few a hundred involved. Now it is approaching 50,000. This cannot be morally justified.

I agree that scholarly types, the academically exceptional, might claim and merit postponement or exemption. But sixty years ago ultra-Orthodoxy was hanging on by a thread. Now it is powerful, rampant, wealthy, and growing. If it insists that only the non-religious, or those it disapproves of, go into battle, then there is something morally and ethically wrong. Even if I agree prayer and spirituality matter as well as fighting men, nevertheless one still needs trained soldiers ready to fight.

The trouble is that everything in Israel is a political crap game of wheeler-dealing negotiation that starts from a tough, seemingly immovable bargaining position in order to squeeze as many concessions as possible. Everyone does this, regardless of party. This means ethics or morality doesn't get a look in. I no longer expect the Knesset to be moral, but I do look to religious leaders at least to make the effort.

Israel today reminds me of the unholy alliance between the Rich, the Rabbis, and the Chappers, all taking advantage of the poor and the weak, buying or bargaining for privileges, sending some into the army risking death, while others sleep soundly in protected beds. O Isaiah, where are you now!

September 07, 2008

Tikun Olam

The sociologist Percy Cohen, in his book, Jewish Radicals and Radical Jews, argues that as Jews abandon Jewish religious life there is a tendency to shift towards radical social attitudes to compensate.

One sees this throughout the Jewish world. But there is a new variant.
Tikun Olam, to change the world (for better), has become the new cliche for large numbers of Jews, in particular for those seeking a Judaism confined to idealism and largely bereft of traditional practice. All of Judaism is fundamentally concerned with improving human life and the general state of the universe we have been made custodians of. The question is really one of emphasis and priority.

The expression "Mipnei Tikun HaOlam", to set the world straight, occurs some twelve times in the Mishna. There it means that one needs sometimes to act so that the world, that is human society, can function fairly. Hillel found a way round the law forbidding loans to extend over the seventh year release, by creating an innovative transaction called Prosbul, to ensure that commerce and lending for charitable purposes ran smoothly. Finding ways of ensuring a couple can get married where status is a problem, safeguards to encourage people to return lost property, not redeeming captives for extortionate prices so that society can run fairly without fear of a plague of abductions and ransoms--these are all examples given of "Tikun Olam".

Nowhere in traditional sources will you find the sort of usage now common, that refers to a specific obligation to "correct the world" and put it right. Only in the Aleynu Prayer, where the full verse goes "leTaken OIam BeMalchut Shaddai" ("To rectify the world through the authority of God"), do we ask God to bring about a time when He will put the world right by getting everyone to accept Him.

Kabbalah uses the word "Tikun" a lot. But it usually refers to special ways of trying to connect with God or, alternatively, raising one's own spiritual level. In this way, one may then rebuild a perfect world; but to try to rebuild the world before we have rebuilt ourselves does not make sense.

There is indeed the universal obligation of justice and charity which goes beyond one's home, town, country, and people--the overriding principle of Tzedek, an amalgam of "just law" and "kindness". That is the fundamental principle of Judaism, caring for others and trying to improve life and the world on every level, social, political, and ecological. Gemilut Chesed, kindness to others, together with charity, involves working or giving to improve human conditions, including such more modern ideas as micro loans, combating hunger, providing drinkable water, curing diseases, and changing corrupt regimes.

There have always been attempts to redefine Judaism, to adopt the theoretical, some call it the prophetic, agenda of social justice, without the pesky and inconvenient obligations of Torah. To be able to claim involvement in Jewish affairs and Jewish peoplehood without actually having to live a Jewish life.

Recent manifestations have been the idea that Zionism could replace religion. Support for Israel, if only through the checkbook, was good enough to preserve one's Jewish identity. Then came the preoccupation with the Holocaust to the point of obsession, and the myth that memorials to it would help defend against anti-Semitism or indeed genocide. The fashion for secular Yiddish and klezmer. All ways of proudly asserting one's Jewish identity, association, and commitment, without actually having to live it. This way many thought they could have the best of both worlds. In practice, it led to the loss of at least one--usually the Jewish one--because the next generation either did not share these passions or saw its parents' involvement as merely social, so they decided to join a bigger and better social club.

Sadly, we suffer from such overwhelming insecurity, with some justification after all, that we have made our survival the be-all and end-all of Judaism. This cannot be right if it excludes wider issues. If what survives is a travesty of traditional Jewish values, then it is a mutation. Torah stands for making life easier, more livable, more workable for others, Jews and non-Jews.

The work that Rabbi Lerner does through his Tikkun magazine, and more significantly through his Network of Spiritual Progressives, is important precisely because he emphasizes the whole range of Jewish values and responsibilities within the context of mitzvot and living a Jewish life, not as a substitute. In this he does Judaism a great service, offering a home and inspiration to those otherwise turned off by Jewish insularity (regardless of how controversial his ideas might seem to some).

Of course we must try to make the world a better place. "Tikun Olam" is just a new slogan for a hallowed ancient obligation. The priority is to start living Torah at home as a basis for going off preaching to others. Changing the big world starts when you change the little you.