November 28, 2008

Walk In The Park

I have often commented on how ridiculous it strikes me when I see soccer players running onto the field of play and cross themselves before engaging in battle. I feel exactly the same way about Muslim athletes bowing down to kiss the turf or the cinder track. And I guess Israeli sportsmen are only immune because they are virtually all secular. But even if they were religious what would they do? Take a mezuzah out and kiss it? Look up to heaven and wag a finger?

As if God has nothing better to do with His time than bother about who wins a soccer match or a track race, when there is so much suffering and so many disasters that need dealing with far more urgently. How does He decide which of the various games for which He is appealed to will win the day? And does it matter in which of the various names He has been given that one appeals to Him? Of course, each religion believes it has a special relationship (yes, I know that WE do, but then thats what they think too). And will the decision be in any way influenced by the record of the appellant, or is the result either random or quite scientifically based on superior fitness, tactics and mental strength?

Of course, such thoughts are completely fatuous because unless one thinks God is Superman it is silly to think in terms of any physical limitations, just it is silly to expect God to intervene every time someone has spot on his nose. All attempts to explain God in human terms are bound to fail, precisely because God is not human. I have always regarded such superstitious, trivial appealing to God as claptrap and an affront to serious spirituality, which is far too significant to be treated like some fruit machine or lottery

The other day as I was exercising in Central Park I saw a well groomed and turned out middle-aged man who could have been a banker, a CEO, or an academic run in to join the jogging lane, and as he did so he crossed himself. And that got me thinking. Why did he cross himself? He was not trying to win anything. So he was not like the soccer players or athletes I have been laughing at. So what was he doing?

Then it struck me that crossing or falling to the earth is not necessarily asking God to defeat one's enemies (though in most cases I am sure it is, because most falling to earth forwards happens after victory, whereas after defeat it is more likely to be falling backwards). It occurred to me that the jogger was simply asking for protection, the way we religious fellows often do.

After all, we know how dangerous driving is and how many accidents there are, and so we have a prayer for travellers, Tefilat HaDerech, which asks God to protect us on our journey. (Mind you, it definitely needs updating. Very few of us need to be on the look out for dangerous animals on the way nowadays.) Pedestrians are in almost as much danger, certainly in New York, from slippery surfaces, road works, crazy cab drivers and delivery boys on cycles belting down streets the wrong way and through traffic lights and onto pavements without a care in the world.

Even jogging has its dangers. You can turn your ankle, overdo it, strain yourself, and at my age do other damage too. And this is without the pelotons of speeding cyclists in Central Park, inline skaters, and boarders, as well as carts and three-wheelers all belting around in desperate search of customers and victims. It is really very dangerous, and therefore perfectly reasonable to ask for Divine protection.

Yet, of course, there is a two-way deal here. Although I'd almost swear that twice recently I would have been run down by motorbikes, had He not advanced time to allow them to just miss me, I cannot expect the Almighty to take care of me when I cross the road without looking in both directions or when I am careless changing lanes. I also cannot totally disregard Divine values and priorities and then call on Him for favours. That is why I really have no patience for footballers who live dissolute lives and then think a quick sign puts it all right. You cannot have your cake and eat it, boys.

November 22, 2008

Brain Death

I wrote recently about the sad, premature death of a wonderful man I knew. He needed a lung transplant to survive. One was available. But the transplant could only work if the organs were removed while the brain-dead donor's heart was still beating. Rabbinic authority in Israel was consulted and refused to allow removal before the heart stopped. Attempts were made to find an alternative halachic ruling, but by then it was too late. Two people died where one could have lived.

You might have thought it obvious that a life should have been saved and the spirit should have overruled the law. But things are never as simple as they seem. For thousands of years Judaism has made the moment the heart stops and the body ceases to breathe the defining moment of death. Until that happens anything that hastens death is not acceptable. This is based not on scientific evidence but simply a long established tradition that has become the accepted law.

About fifty years ago the debate began in halachic circles over the issue of brain death, particularly in regard to harvesting organs to save other lives. Initially, those who supported considering brain death, such as the American Rabbi Moshe Tendler, were excoriated. Only when he was joined by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, his father-in-law and a universally accepted halachic giant, did the furor die down. But still the Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, almost to a man, refused to accept brain death as the end of life.

Opposition was initially based on horror stories of people being declared brain dead and then coming back to life. But as technology improved such considerations fell away. Over the years more and more rabbis have come to accept brain death under most circumstances--of course, always treating each case on its own merits. That is the halachic way.

However in Israel the weight of ultra-Orthodox opinion remains opposed. Why? During the 1950's the Ministry of Health in Israel was run by left-wing secular Jews who made fun of what they saw as the primitive taboos of both the Orthodox and the oriental Jews, with regard to the human body after death. They were happy to use corpses for medical practice, to perform autopsies as training, and too often human remains ended up in trash cans. (Incidentally, the Alder Hey scandal in Liverpool, only a few years ago, shows how common it is for hospitals to take body parts without consent, and illegally, for all kinds of purposes. A current case in the USA involves a large-scale criminal enterprise providing body parts from funeral homes to American medical institutions.)

This behavior on the part of the secular medical authorities resulted in a bitter war between rival camps over autopsies, in which the ultra-Orthodox position was that all autopsies are forbidden altogether, while the other camp insisted that autopsies were needed both for medical and criminal reasons. It was a long and bitter battle that reflected the polarized nature of Israeli society. From this experience, the ultra-Orthodox world learned that if one will have to compromise politically, anyway, it makes sense to start from as extreme a bargaining position as possible.

It is this mentality that has such a profound effect on religious life in Israel. Start from an implacable and immovable "no", scream your way to "maybe", and fight for concessions all the way to a final "yes". And that is the approach of all sectors of Israeli political life--possibly all politics, full stop. But that is why change and development in halacha come more readily from those rabbinic authorities not caught up in the Israeli political mindset (or the few outstanding experts who have remained independent).

The fact is that in all legal systems there are variables and the mindset of judges is subjective within the framework of the system. For example, under Bush more right-wing conservative judges were appointed to the Supreme Court of the US and the decisions of the court swung towards a Republican and Christian agenda, whereas now, no doubt, under Obama the opposite will happen. Does this mean that Supreme Court Judges are dishonest manipulators? Not necessarily. You can have different ways of interpreting the same rules, genuinely held conflicting views.

In Judaism the obvious example is Hillel and Shammai, the religious leaders of Judaism 2100 years ago. One tended to take a lenient, inclusive approach. The other was strict and exclusive. And both, says the Talmud, were "the word, the will, of God". You have divergences nowadays in Hassidism between those who reach out and those who turn inwards. It is hard to say only one is right.

My initial starting point was that it was a tragedy that brain death was rejected in this case. Of course I would have chosen to save Yossi's life. But that does not mean the negative decision was morally or halachically wrong. I am not in their league, as far as knowledge is concerned; but judgment and knowledge are two different qualities. The rabbis who took it were no doubt genuinely and honestly of the opinion that they were doing God's work and that strictness was and is the only way of combating the destructive forces of self-indulgent modernity.

The only good thing I can derive from this is that it shows that Jewish law is dynamic, and struggles with current issues, and it is capable of development. I only hope that in the years ahead choices and decisions such as this one will increasingly veer towards life instead of death.

November 13, 2008

It's all our fault!

So I am to blame for the current world financial crisis! That is the latest conspiracy theory. It is all over the blogosphere. Evil, greedy Jews caused the crash. We started it on Wall Street in New York and then we spread the poison all the way to China.

Isn't it funny how we Jews, who cannot agree on anything within our religion or without, can all get together to conspire to manipulate markets around the world to our advantage! I just wish some Jew I know had told me beforehand! We won't agree on whether socialism or capitalism is preferable, on who the Messiah is, who will serve in the Temple, or indeed who will be the architect. But we can agree on a good conspiracy, like blowing up the Twin Towers and fooling the rest of the world into believing it was done by who actually did it.

I grew up conscious that the European Christian world did not like us. I was a kid when my father gave me a book of pictures of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and I realized that there were a lot of people on this earth who wanted to kill a Jewish child like me who had never done them any harm, and even more who couldn't have cared less.

When I was eleven and lived in the Oxfordshire countryside, I walked into the nearest town to go to the cinema. When I got there I discovered the prices of the seats had been raised and I did not have enough to go in. I complained to the ticket manager. He looked down at me malevolently and said, "It is all your fault. You are a Jew. You know about money. Now piss off."

I knew I was no Rothschild. I was brought up in a modest family. So clearly there were some people out there with very strange perceptions if they supposed all Jews to be wealthy businessmen. I once met a Jewish boy who had been evacuated during the war to a country farm. He told me the farmer's wife refused to give him sheets for his bed for fear that the tail and scales that all Jewish boys had would tear them. Anyway, the New Testament kept on about nasty Jews and moneychangers so it was hardly surprising that regular churchgoers got the message.

You could not grow up in Britain, study its literature or its history, without realizing that Jews were not popular! The Blood Libel started in Medieval England. The Jews had been expelled in 1292 after hundreds of years of torment. They were only reluctantly allowed back six hundred years later. The Jew Bill of 1753, giving Jews citizenship, had been passed by parliament and actually signed by the king. But then it was repealed under pressure that included the claim that there were too many poor, criminal Jews in the country. That is the problem. We are both too rich and too poor. Too religious and too secular. The Mosley fascists marched through the Jewish East End protesting that the Jews were wealthy bankers as well as evil communists. The truth is we are like any other people with their wealthy and their poor, their Democrats and their Republicans, their good ones and their bad ones. But I grew up thinking that Jew hatred was a British Christian disease.

Then under Pope John 23rd Catholicism began to modify its negative stance, the old hatred now came from Islam. Walking down the Edgware Road in the West End of London one Shabbat afternoon I was accosted by a gang of Muslim youths who accused me of killing innocent Muslims to drink their blood. Actually I heard the same sick nonsense from a black Muslim in New York last month outside Macy's.

OK, I reasoned, I could understand religious hatred. After all, here were two new religions we Jews had spurned, sticking to our own old-fashioned traditions. No wonder they hated us. And, of course, politics in the Middle East won't have helped. Even if we had a point we were massively outnumbered, and besides some of our own actions and decisions had not been too clever. At least I thought academics could be objective. But no, they too became increasingly as irrational in their hatred.

No doubt you read all those reports from around the world about how Obama would change everything and drive all the wicked Jews out of Washington. And lo and behold he has appointed Jews to significant positions. Oh dear. That was not what the anti-Semites of the world expected. We are back. What devious people we are.

There is no logic at all to this oldest of hatreds, other than our refusal to give up. We are the eternal outsiders wherever we are, the convenient scapegoat, only because we are both contrary and identifiable. We human beings are not inherently logical. Emotion plays a more powerful role than intellect in human affairs. That is why whipping up prejudice is so easy, particularly when it plays on human anxiety. That is why there are so many anti-Semitic sites on the internet and why you are as likely to find a hate site as not when you Google "Jew". So welcome to cyberspace, fellow Jews. The rule is that if anything is wrong in this world it is our fault.

There is an old joke about the Jew in Germany between the two World Wars. He was reading Der Sturmer, the Nazi anti-Semitic broadsheet. "Why are you reading this rubbish," asked a fellow Jewish passenger.

"Look, when I read the Jewish press," he answered, "I see we are losing numbers, we are assimilating, arguing amongst ourselves, unable to support our institutions and communities. We are a disaster we are. But when I read anti-Semites I see we are the most powerful, wealthy people who control the world. Of course I would rather read the good news."

November 09, 2008


What we have just seen in the USA is an almost Messianic passion for the person of Barack Obama. Everywhere millions seem to believe he will change America, get everyone to love the "Ugly American". In America, itself, many think he will radically change the economic and social structures.

One cannot help notice how people will believe anything that suits their preconceptions. I am not surprised. All religions are made up of significant numbers not only of mindless sheep but of often apparently intelligent human beings who will believe in the most improbable, irrational nonsense. Just consider some of the dogmas of any religion. I don't need to enumerate them here. Or how many different and competing humans, from the soccer field to jihadi cells, actually believe their God is rooting or fighting for them.

We humans never let facts get in the way of what we want to believe. The advantage of a nonmaterial God is that we should not treat God like a human being subject to our physical, mundane, personal desires. The disadvantage is that we have no way of asking and getting a clear answer. That is why we tend to turn to humans who claim they can tell us what God really wants. I can see why people need miracle workers and gurus, but I have seen a lot of abuse by so many such people

But did not the Psalmist say two-and-half thousand years ago:

"Do not put your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom one cannot rely to save. His breath leaves his body, he returns to his earth, and on that day all his intentions disappear."

Obama has successfully resisted categorization. He is a Muslim because he is called Hussein. He is an African because of his father. He is white because of his mother. He is a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist. I have even heard it said that he is Jewish because he shares a name, Barack, with an Israeli Prime Minister and Supreme Court Judge.

He is friends with Arab radicals, black racists, Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, left-wing radicals, and has been in contact with, supped with, and spoken to them all. But that's what certain types of aspiring politicians do (others focus on more narrow constituencies). America is a land of powerful interest groups and lobbies. And as his appointments are beginning to show he will have close advisors from a very wide range, including a Jewish Chief of Staff.

Obama has become a sort of folk hero, a healer, because that is what so many people so desperately want. Yet his record has proved that, like most politicians, he will do whatever it takes to get elected; he will say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear, and vote for whatever is in his interests. Have you heard Obama once mention guns?

One thing is undeniable. In no other country do the same possibilities for advancement exist for someone not of the political establishment, or the powerful families and dynasties, someone half black, with an aggressively black wife, to rise to the very top. It could not and will not happen in Europe for a long time yet. This is indeed what makes America great. And the infectious optimism is refreshing when compared to Old World negativity and cynicism. (And one must mention his brilliant use of the internet and a highly professional team that only emphasized how creaky McCain's passé campaign was.)

Most free countries have populations that are too varied for any one person to appeal to everyone. That's why governments change and that is only as it should be. I doubt anyone has or can be right all the time. Top leaders create moods, sometimes positive and enthusiastic, sometimes negative. But thank goodness they come and go, try to put things right and occasionally they do. But the show goes on regardless. And I take comfort from God's promise to Noah not to destroy the world even if some seem to be doing their level best to do so.

I am pleased Obama won. America needed a change. The pendulum had swung too far. In a way it is like religion. Too much interference suffocates. Too much freedom leads to dissipation and dilution. One needs checks and balances and cycles.

I am inspired by the example of Abraham that the Torah offers us. Despite what God has promised, predicted, foreseen, or whatever, nothing comes easily. He has to find different ways of dealing with different types of regimes, some good, some bad. Sometimes he interferes, sometimes he does not. Sometimes he makes treaties and sometimes he avoids them. Sometimes he is strict and sometimes indulgent. He is pragmatic. But above all he tries to be a good, caring human being getting on with as many different people as possible and certainly not shutting himself away from social contact. He believes in a God that lets people make their own mistakes.

In the end, the Biblical narrative is brutally frank about our limitations and concludes that God decided humans need constitutions and rules. Good intentions are not enough. Whoever applies the rules to others is a ruler, sometimes benevolent, sometimes malignant, and sometimes incompetent. That's why in synagogue we pray for them, that they should have "the spirit of wisdom and understanding".

Though it is sad that the words "politics" and "lies" are synonymous, I do not knock showbiz politics entirely. I only attack the pretence that it is more than it is, the illusions its practitioners like to foster, and the credulity of human nature. "Put not your trust in princes." Whereas Superman is a myth, Abraham is a role model.

November 02, 2008


What is the cause of the financial "tsunami" we are experiencing? Is it incompetent oversight, dishonesty, or simply unbridled greed?

Humans are usually very selfish. That is why all religions put so much emphasis on charity. Yet it is the modern state that supposedly controls excess. It taxes the wealthy more, precisely because rich individuals are usually so loath to part with their money. And as soon as one makes enough money to live off, the bar gets shifted higher and higher. Hence the Talmudic maxim that a rich man is one who is satisfied with his lot!

But it is "greed" that seems to be the issue in the public mind and media, "greed" one of the "Seven Deadly Sins" of Christianity. There is no Biblical word directly equivalent to "greed". "Envy" of course is prohibited in one of the Ten Commandments. But the command "Lo Tachmod" (You Shall Not Envy) is usually understood to mean actually taking steps to acquire something that belongs to someone else. Actions are the issue. Therefore the concern is not so much with abstract feelings of greed or envy, but rather what happens when those feelings prevent one from sharing with others or respecting what is theirs.

Our sources do not regard wanting something, or striving to acquire it legitimately, to be necessarily bad. The Talmudic tradition is to encourage every productive aspect of human activity so long as one lives up to one's responsibility to the poor and the needy, to community and society in general. Commercial activity was regarded as essential, to the point where ethical conduct of business affairs is one of the conditions of eternal life (Shabbat 31a). Poverty is not glorified in our tradition, and dependency is regarded as an undesirable state. There is no concept in Jewish texts that is the equivalent of "Money is the root of all evil." On the contrary, the Talmud actually gives advice on how to get rich: He who wishes to get rich should save (Bava Batra 25b).

Yet the Bible and the Talmud speak out against the dangers of wanting too much. There were originally Talmudic limits on excessive profit (though as we lived under different regimes, in the end the "Law of the Land" came to determine acceptable practice). And there is indeed an obligation to share one's good fortune and not to hide from the needs of others. It is all a matter of degree. Our tradition sees both the material and the spiritual holistically engaged in the struggle to live according to Divine values. Both can be used well or abused. Hence we value the Maimonidean ideal of the golden mean, of disciplining oneself to be balanced.

Some have argued that this current crisis is a failure of an economic system. Judaism takes no definitive position on economic systems. Capitalism does seem to be a better way of generating wealth than an overly regulated command economy. Yet most capitalist countries also have welfare systems in place that rely on money being generated to fund them. So freeing markets to allow them to produce wealth is necessary. Many individuals benefit, and the community benefits. Perhaps excessive consumption, luxurious cars, private jets, twenty homes, and all the signs of success in the modern world are what are needed to fuel the economies that provide welfare services to the poor and disadvantaged?

But then, in the world we live in, governments and international financial institutions decide how markets should function. If they fail to see danger, or if they fail to regulate properly as is clearly the case now, then they must accept the blame. As we saw with the old Soviet Union, if a government gets its financial policies so wrong that the economy collapses, in the end it will be voted out of power. We rely on experts running economies to make the necessary adjustments. This time they have failed both in foreseeing the crisis and in failing to stem the decline in confidence.

It seems that if religion recommends and tries to get people to behave ethically and spiritually, it is government legislation that decides what is economically acceptable and legal. Dishonesty, deception, even failure of duty are what is at fault here more than human emotion. Governments grew complacent and had too few experts involved. And as we have seen, strong effective leadership works, tentative tinkering does not.

Of course we are told to put our trust in God, not man. This has been the message of the Torah for thousands of years. There is more to life than money and physical comforts. The way to cope with this or any other crisis is to have good values and live by them. If a parent's only way of showing love is money, and money goes, what is left? But if there have been other values, other ways of showing love, then they will survive a monetary collapse.

This financial crisis will pass. There is still a lot of wealth, many good healthy businesses, and lots of natural resources. The markets ran wild as they periodically do. Irrational exuberance, as Greenspan once called it. It happened during the bubble and collapse. There have always been bubbles. Tulips, South Sea, real estate, and more. Out of the rubble new business, and new regulations, emerge. It is a constant process of "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis". It is the way each of us learns to cope with life. Irrationality, exuberance or fear is another human condition.

It is right that this crisis should make us reassess our values and our goals. All pain serves to teach us lessons, to appreciate life. Religion provides periodic and recurring opportunities to rethink and re-evaluate. So too, less predictably, do markets. Some of us will learn not to be too greedy, to sell when we have made a little profit, to work in jobs that give other satisfactions that are less susceptible to crises. There have been fools, greedy fools, aplenty. But it is not human desire that is at fault, only human folly. And the worst fool is the one who does not learn from mistakes.