October 27, 2008


It is Adam and Eve time again in the annual Torah reading cycle and that always reminds me of Sin! Original Sin! What unpleasant words. What awful baggage. I won't deny that lots of people do lots of awful things and the word "sin" often describes these things. But still I find the word in English a very negative word, I recoil from it. I resent it. And here is my point; I dislike the English word much more so than the Hebrew.

In Biblical Hebrew the words are "cheyt", which literally means "to miss the mark", or "aveirah", which is "to wander off the path", or "pesha" which is "to have failed to do something". We do sin, every one of us, even the apparently most holy of us. As the Bible (Ecclesiastes 7:20) explicitly says, "There is no righteous man on earth who does only good and not sin." Doing something wrong does not in itself make you a bad person. If you have done something wrong then all you need to do is to rectify it and determine not to do it again and then get on with your life.

But in Western culture, influenced of course by various strains of Christianity, "sin" is associated with a "state of sin" that all we humans are in and have been in automatically ever since "The Fall of Man". So much of Western culture, literature and music, is devoted to "The Fall", of man and indeed Satan, that these concepts are virtually taken for granted.

The origin of the idea of sin, in both Judaism and Christianity, goes back to the Bible. God plants two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge Good and Bad (Genesis 2:9). Actually, the text itself is ambiguous as to whether there are two trees or only one that includes both knowledge and life. I like the idea that they are one and the same; a good life is knowing how to live. But that is another issue. When Adam is put in the Garden of Eden, he is told that he may eat whatever fruit he likes except the fruit of the tree of Knowledge Good and Bad (Genesis 2:17).

Chapter 3 of Genesis describes what Christianity calls "The Fall". The serpent, knows that Adam has told Eve about the forbidden fruit, and Eve tells him that Adam has told her not even to touch it. I should point out that there is no mention in the text of what the fruit was. It might well have been a kiwi or perhaps a passion fruit. Christianity says it was an apple only because the Latin for evil is "malum" and coincidentally so is the word for apple. So put the two together and there you have it.

But the sort of apples we know were not yet imported into the middle east. The Apples of Hesperides were oranges if anything! That is why in Hebrew an orange is called "tapuz", short for tapuach zahav, a golden apple! The Talmud (Brachot 40a) suggests the fruit was a grape, only a drunk would be so stupid, a fig, they were clothed with the leaves of the tree they sinned through, or wheat because it is the most basic of foods (or because it is planted "naked" and ends up clothed like them). Anyway, I digress.

She eats and he eats. I confess I have always loved Milton's theory in Paradise Lost that he only ate out of his love for her and desire to share whatever her fate would be. Yes, I am a romantic, and off I go digressing yet again.

So they are punished. Life will be tough outside the Garden of Eden. No mention of Original Sin. So how then do we explain the evil that humans do? In Genesis 6.5, the text says there is a tendency (Yetzer) in the thoughts of the heart of mankind; this is the basis of the idea that humans have two tendencies--to do good, the Yetzer HaTov, and to do bad, the Yetzer HaRa. Life is a constant struggle between them. After the Flood, the text in Genesis 8.21 is specific, "There is a tendency in the heart of man that is evil from his youth." So it is youth rather than birth, experience rather than instinct, which is the source of evil. This seems to be the mainstream view in Judaism, and it is very different than the idea of "The Fall of Man" and "Original Sin".

Yet, as with so many theological concepts in the Talmud, you will find the opposite idea there too. The idea that the first sin goes on impacting on humanity can be found in several places (Brachot 4b, Sanhedrin 98b).

What is the source of the evil that exists in our world? In some ways it seems to be getting worse. Advanced technologies kill many more innocent human beings. Even in civilized countries, the amount of brutal torture, rape, and murder is still pervasive. Children are kidnapped and used for unspeakable things and then killed. The world can seem like a pretty sick place. The Christian attitude that we are born basically evil is sometimes very appealing. Yet at the same time we do so much good and there is a vast reservoir of charitable creativity. Goodness needs to be explained as much as evil does.

Despite everything, Judaism retains a basic optimism, or at least neutrality, about human nature. That is why I associate the nasty word "sin" more with other religions. However I have heard enough Jewish hellfire and brimstone preachers to know that you can find all attitudes alive and flourishing amongst us.

Judaism is not a monolithic structure of ideas, thank goodness. But then the question is whether one's attitude to sin reflects the way one has been brought up and educated or whether it is the result of genetic makeup. Are some people more naturally inclined towards living a good, a religious life or a bad one? Nature or Nurture? Chromosomes or Choirs? I am on the side of education.

October 17, 2008

Rav Yossi Raichik

Rav Yossi Raichik, who died recently in Israel, was one of the most impressive human beings I have ever come across.

I met him first in 1979. It was the year Khomeini took control of Iran and thousands of Jews were fleeing--to anywhere, just to get out. Chabad Lubavitch, responding to a crisis in the Jewish world like no other organization, simply poured resources and manpower in, to arrange for as many children to leave as possible. They just put them on flights out of the country as quickly as they could and then made arrangements for visas and more permanent solutions. Hundreds of youngsters were arriving in the UK, hoping to go on to the USA to be reunited with relatives and friends; but it was taking time to process them. Chabad had to arrange for them to stay somewhere, and although they found families in London willing to help, the numbers were just overwhelming.

I was principal of Carmel College at the time. Carmel was an elite, selective Jewish residential school with around three hundred pupils, with a beautiful campus set on the banks of the River Thames in a pastoral paradise just south of Oxford. Its curriculum was modeled on the great English public schools--high academic standards, emphasis on sport, as well as drama, music, and art. And it had a parallel Jewish curriculum that went from basic Judaism and Modern Hebrew to Talmud. It was run on Orthodox lines, although most of its pupils did not come from Orthodox or traditional homes. 

The head of the governors of the school at the time was Cyril Stein. He was then, as now, a well-known activist and philanthropist and a supporter of Chabad. He called me up, together with Rav Faivish Vogel, the public face of Lubavitch in London, of whom I had always been a friend and admirer. They described the emergency and asked if I could find space for two hundred kids, for as long as it took to get them visas.

Initially I thought I was unworkable. How could we cope with hundreds of teenage boys and girls, with no English, no idea of English discipline, or an Orthodox environment? They were away from home, uncertain and insecure, and for an unknown time span. I envisioned hordes of kids running wild. How would we occupy them? Feed them? All the problems of logistics and integration overwhelmed me.

I called in the teacher responsible for "English as a Foreign Language", a formidable, Geordie lady called Isabel Craston. She refused to handle the situation, and she said that none of her colleagues would cooperate. She had not been employed to be a babysitter, she said. From her, opposition spread to all the non-Jewish staff, who were unanimously opposed to what they saw as endangering the academic status, threatening the discipline of the school and increasing their work load. I relayed their views to Rav Vogel. He blithely assured me that he would send someone who would take care of everything.

I felt I had no moral option. These were Jewish kids in distress, who needed help, all the more so because so many of them had no idea where their parents were. I gave the go ahead.

The day the buses arrived Mrs. Craston and her allies gathered to protest the arrival of the newcomers. When the first bus came to a halt, out bounced a cheerful, smiling, young American Chabadnik, in an open-necked shirt and jeans. He gave me a bear hug and introduced himself as Yossi Raichik from California. He said he was going to be with the Iranian children throughout their stay, and he would guarantee they would be well-behaved. 

He asked who the ringleader of the opposition was. I pointed Isabel Craston out to him. He went right up to her, put his arm around her, and took her for a walk down the drive. Five minutes later they returned. Isabel Craston walked over to the non-Jewish staff, huddled with them, and then announced the opposition was over and she would take responsibility for their English program. And everyone quietly went back to work. Yossi smiled at me. He never told me what he had said. He just jumped back onto the bus and the convoy continued to the residential building where they unloaded.

For over a month, Yossi lived with the Iranian kids on our campus, commuting to London to arrange their papers. The kids themselves were some of the sweetest, nicest kids we had seen and they behaved impeccably. I have kept in touch with some of them ever since. Yossi was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wherever he went, his kids, our kids, were just mesmerized by him. 

We would meet in the evenings or on Shabbat for a L'chayim. He talked about his life in California and his dream of living in Hawaii. When he and the children from Iran left, we were all sad. His parting gift to my elder son, who was four at the time, was a stuffed bear called "Bear Mitzva", complete with talit and kippa, which my son named "Yossi Raichik" after him, and which stayed with him for many years.

Yossi never got to set up a Chabad House in Hawaii. Years later he got involved in bringing children from Chernobyl to Israel for treatment for the diseases that came in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Belarus. He travelled around looking for funds to bring as many of them as possible to Israel. His mission was humanitarian, and of course evangelical. 

He influenced thousands, and thousands more remember him with love and gratitude. He pushed himself beyond the limits most are physically capable of and in the end it took its toll. He had more love to give than any other human being I have met. If only he had taken as much care of his own health as he did of others. May his memory be a blessing.

October 12, 2008

Jewish Guilt

What is it about Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that gets hundreds of thousands of Jews who seem to care nothing about their religion all year long, suddenly to feel little twinges of obligation? Is it this the Jewish angst or guilt Philip Roth writes about?

There is a joke that a Christian expects that if he is found guilty before the Heavenly Tribunal on Judgment Day, he will be sentenced to eternal damnation and suffering. The Jew, on the other hand, expects to be let off with costs! Now let us ignore the anti-Semitic implication of "costs". The fact is that Judaism is an optimistic religion and one in which we do have a sort of special relationship with the Almighty. We do indeed expect special treatment, even if throughout history we seem to have blown it time and time again. It is very hard to explain Jewish survival against the heavy odds, and for so long, unless one assumes some sort of Heavenly intervention. Is guilt the price of this?

Consider the Mishna at the end of Taanit: "The happiest days of the year for Israel were Yom Kippur (and Tu B’Av) when the daughters of Jerusalem used to dress in white and dance in vineyards." These were the great "singles events" of Jewish life in ancient Israel. Judaism seems to have been a much more relaxed, fun religion! It all seems a world away from the serious, heavy atmosphere we have come to associate with the High Holy Days!

Why now are the Holy Days such heavy experiences, such penance to be suffered? Can it be said that Jewish guilt has won? But what is Jewish guilt? The Biblical attitude is pretty simple. Done something wrong? Admit it. Not to a priest, but to God. Then determine not to do it again; and finally, bring a sacrifice. That is it. Start all over again; the past is forgotten. All the Biblical words for "sin" imply no more than an error of judgment, to miss the mark, to step off the path, to fall short. There is no "state of sin", just mistakes that need to be avoided next time. Just get back on the path. The Biblical word for "guilt", "asham", is only once used of individuals. It is simply a category of sacrifice.

Some lay the blame at the door of Christianity and its preoccupation with original sin, the Greek dichotomy between body and mind, so that body is bad, sex a concession, celibacy the ideal. This explains their traditions of self-flagellation and monastic asceticism. Perhaps it was a Medieval Jewish response to Christian Crusader piety? But that is too easy. You can find similar ideas in Jewish sources of two thousand years ago.

All religions throughout the world have a very strong element of guilt and the need to purge it in various ways. And in every religion you will find those who treat its obligations as a celebration of life and others as a discipline. Perhaps in our case it is a post-destruction response to exile and suffering, and the feeling that the more we suffer the sooner we will be forgiven and escape the constant and unrelenting anti-Semitism.

The Holocaust exacerbated things of course. Guilt is even stronger amongst the children of Holocaust survivors than survivors themselves. In Israel so many have lost a relative, a friend or suffered in some way. Perhaps it is the guilt of survival that weighs heavily. Or perhaps it's the realization that the wonderful dreams and ideals of Zionism, of an ethical, just society, have been lost, and we are all to blame for our current greed and corruption.

We have lots of good reasons for guilt. But the response needs to be to change, to do something, not to wallow in it. Guilt is not necessarily a religious one. The trouble with guilt is that it can become a masochistic end in itself. Suffering makes us feel better. It gives us an excuse to go on doing all the wrong things.

Sadly, that is usually what happens. We go through the process of atonement, only to carry on afterwards in just the same way as before, as if nothing happened. And if that’s all these Holy Days are, salves to our consciences but of no tangible benefit to us or our society, then frankly a dance in the park or will be of much more benefit!

October 07, 2008

The Ethics of Kosher

There have been in recent years, a series of scandals in the USA over kashrut. The most public have been those that involve the largest provider of kosher meat, Agriprocessors, based in Postville, Iowa, and owned by the Rubashkin family. An undercover video revealed practices that shocked even the most hardened of kashrut experts and raised issues of how animals were treated. Could cruelty and kashrut be compatible? The kosher rabbinate rallied round and tried to defend the indefensible and the furor died down.

Then came last May's Federal raid on the factory and prosecution over violating employment rules and a stream of very unsavory allegations emerged. Once again the rabbinic authorities refused to concede any wrong. They talked about innocence till proven guilty. They went on a carefully staged and publicized tour of inspection and, as expected, declared nothing was amiss. (Only afterwards did it transpire from another PETA video that they were given a special performance and did not see what normally goes on.) Any Orthodox leader who dared to suggest anything was wrong was excoriated in the Orthodox press by vocal aggressive apologists. Only the "middle of the road" Orthodox Union said it would suspend its approval until it was satisfied that the practices it considered ethically unacceptable ceased. However the more ultra-Orthodox, including Lubavitch, remained adamant that so long as the letter of the shechita law was obeyed they would let the matter rest.

The situation is reminiscent of those who have tried to do something about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community being made out to be the wrongdoers, and attacked and harassed into silence. The kneejerk defense, the cover-up and then the attack, as the surest form of defense, is all too familiar. Any advisor on crisis management knows this is the wrong way to go. Israel has tried it for years and failed. Ultra-Orthodoxy is making the same mistake by not seeing when it needs to make concessions to public sentiment.

It was the non-Orthodox movements that took the lead in pushing for supervision that guaranteed that "kosher" meant not just killing the animal in the required manner but that the industry behaved according to Jewish ethical standards. Orthodoxy responded in contradictory ways to this challenge. The Agudah spokesmen have refused to countenance any suggestion of wrongdoing coming from those less Orthodox than they. They have argued consistently that although Judaism does indeed require ethical behaviour kosher is simply about kosher, technically, no other way.

Two otherwise admirable, balanced, learned Orthodox rabbis, Adlerstein and Broyde, wrote a disappointing article in the American weekly Forward, saying that they agree that "working conditions and the like are Jewish concerns", but that making a hechsher contingent on ethical practices requires rabbis to make judgments that go beyond the letter of the law. And that focusing on ethical considerations in the kosher food industry implies that such concerns are more important than halacha, which should be sufficient on its own. Hello! Indeed that is what the problem is. Total halacha is not working.

I understand that, as they say, "for centuries Jews were urged to abandon Jewish practice by arguments that the ethic behind the law was far more important, and indeed the only real purpose of the law itself." I share their opposition to anything that minimizes the importance of halacha. Focusing only on spirit totally undermines what differentiates Judaism from Christianity. But what people want to hear, and what they or the editor omitted from their piece, was unequivocal condemnation. It was a lost opportunity.

Thank goodness, therefore, that another Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Blau, wrote an article in The Jewish Week unreservedly supporting ethical standards in kashrut. And this week the Orthodox Union, the biggest authorizing body and the dominant organization on thinking Orthodoxy, finally agreed to set up a commission to ensure kashrut and ethics go together.

Ultra-Orthodoxy is so used to having to fight its corner that it cannot see when it makes sense to concede an issue. The fact is that the kashrut industry is the flashpoint, the largest specifically Orthodox business that is indentified with the religion. It is the face of Judaism that most Jews and non-Jews have dealings with. Too much of this industry has been busy proclaiming the strictness of its kashrut and has paid too little attention to other issues such as conditions of animals and workers.

Why has the Charedi rabbinate not made more of a fuss? Jewish Law does indeed cover issues such as the treatment of workers and animals. But as a rule all we hear in the press are Orthodox rabbis railing against immodest ladies in cycle lanes or mixed concerts. Orthodox leadership needs to come out and hammer home, again and again, the importance of ethics and ethical treatment in addition to and as part of halacha, not to attack those who argue for higher standards, whatever their motives.

Why, you may ask, am I bringing this up this week, before Yom Kippur? Precisely because this is the message of the Talmud for Yom Kippur (Yoma 86a). If all sins are forgiven, either through atonement, or Yom Kippur itself, or even death, the one thing that is not forgiven is Chillul HaShem, giving Judaism or Torah a bad name. The Talmud gives a specific example: when religious leaders do not pays bills at the kosher butcher on time, thereby giving the impression that they are trying to evade their responsibilities! Imagine how much more serious is allowing the impression to spread that Torah leaders care little for ethical issues so long as the letter of the law is maintained. That is Chillul HaShem.