July 30, 2009

Why fast?

We have just ended a period in the Jewish tradition called "The Three Weeks" of mourning for our own disastrous ethical and political mistakes of the past. For thinking we can arrogantly control every aspect of our own destiny with no regard to external pressure or objective standards. At least we do not blame others for our misfortunes.

There are many people who argue that the fast of Tisha B'Av is redundant and should be cancelled. It is true that it commemorates two massive destructions of Jerusalem, the Temple, and our sovereign states. But those are historical events, not timeless spiritual ones of self-fulfillment, atonement, and forgiveness. Times change. Jerusalem today is, if anything, overbuilt and certainly not desolate. The Temple is indeed still destroyed, and true, we are so divided amongst ourselves that we cannot even agree on whether we actually want one, how to build it, who will run it, or whether we actually could, if we did, or whether we must wait for God to do it. But we have sovereignty over our own land. And even if we have no King David, I'm not at all convinced that monarchy is the answer to Israel's governmental problems anyway.

So why fast on Tisha B'Av, or on any of the other, minor fasts that are still in the calendar? As Zecharia 8:19 says, "Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love truth and peace."

Ah, you see, there's the answer in the codicil--truth and peace. And as yet we have neither.

Here is a quote from the Talmud, Sotah 49b:

"In the lead up to the Messiah, arrogance will spread and honor decrease…amongst scholars there will be immorality and no one will dare to rebuke them. Wisdom will degenerate and good men despised. Truth will be rare…the face of the generation will be like that of a dog."

Yes, like a dog. That’s how I feel when I see rabbis carted off in handcuffs. Outwardly religious or simply overtly Jewish men arraigned for corruption, money laundering, and dishonesty. And it keeps on happening year after year, sect after sect, community after community, country after country, and there is no let up. It is embarrassing when men who should know better behave like dogs.

I only hope the Mishna will be right that this is indeed a sign that God will intervene, because frankly none of our religious leaders seems capable of stopping it. Oh yes, they will excoriate us for eating the wrong food, for wearing short sleeves, for using teabags on the Sabbath, or making the wrong blessing. They will ban the use of computers, cell phones, and television, but remain silent on corruption and deceit. Some will even argue that Laws of the Land are not sacrosanct, and they will praise and honor the criminals who subsequently pass on chunks of their illegal booty to religious institutions.

That is why I fast on the Ninth of Av. Because when I read the first chapter of Isaiah that is the haftarah on the Shabbat beforehand, and I read the words he used of his generation, I realize we have not changed in nearly 3,000 years. His words still accurately and correctly apply to swathes of Jewish life today. Last week, corruption once again, in New Jersey in the USA. Rabbis involved. It makes no difference if corrupt politicians outnumbered them. It is irrelevant if others are more corrupt than we are. Should we judge ourselves by scum or pure water? I fast for my inability to make our own world a better place. I fast for the desecration of God's name WE are guilty of. I fast because we have not learnt. Because we make money our god, and because not one of the so-called Great Rabbis of our generation comes out publicly and condemns corruption the way they do any petty minor infringement of their own political and social standards.

Think of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, Isaiah makes the comparison. The Torah in Genesis (13:13) says, "And the men of Sodom were evil sinners to God exceedingly." But if you look carefully at the traditional punctuation, there is a comma between "sinners" and "to God exceedingly". I wish I knew who first made the point that the verse, if read according to its punctuation, really says, "And the men of Sodom were evil sinners," take a deep breath, "[But with regard] to God [they were] exceedingly [pious]!" That is how it is nowadays. All outwardly holy and pious, but inwardly rotten to the core.

There's another crucial line in the first chapter of Isaiah. "Had it not been for a tiny minority, we would be no better than Sodom and comparable to Gomorrah." Thank goodness for the tiny minority. But sadly, it is all but silent. And for as long as this is the situation, Tisha B'Av remains as relevant as ever. Because we are in danger of destroying ourselves once again, if not physically then certainly morally.

July 23, 2009


Oh, how we love generalizations, such as blonds are dumb, men are chauvinist pigs, Poles are stupid, Romanians steal, and the Scots are mean. All non-Jews hate Jews. All Jews are money-obsessed. All Christians are missionaries. All Muslims are terrorists. All Israelis love humiliating Palestinians, and all Palestinians love killing Israelis. All blacks are rappers or welfare dependants. All Mexicans are drug dealers. The British are pompous. The French are arrogant. The Italians corrupt. The Spaniards are cruel. New Yorkers, Floridians, and Angelinos all exhibit specific and generic characteristics.

Each group or people or religion that is generalized about is then guilty of exactly the same offence in generalizing about everyone else! And if that were not enough, within each set there are generalizations too. All Reform Jews think all Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists who put the letter of the law above the spirit. All Orthodox Jews think Reform Jews are only stopping off for a minute on their inexorable assimilation out of Judaism. And all Conservative Jews are accused by both sides of being indecisive prevaricators whose left hands do not know what their right hands are doing.

When I first met Americans from Brooklyn, when I was a student in Israel many years ago, they had a scale of generalizations that declared that all Jews were automatically better than all non-Jews, all white non-Jews were automatically better than all black non-Jews, and the only exceptions were Lubavitch Hassidim who were worse than all black non-Jews.

Even within ultra-Orthodoxy, many Lithuanians make fun of Hassidim. And within Hassidim, some sects refuse to speak to splitters within the dynasties, let alone to other Hassidic groups outside. And yet generalizations are dangerous, wrong, and simply childish. Just because so many non-Jews use overly simplistic generalizations against us, why should we only pick up their worst habits?

It is a complete myth to think that all Charedi Jews are brain-dead fundamentalists. Just as it is rubbish to claim they are all lazy layabouts who do no work and rely entirely on charity. Some of course are and do, but not all by any means. Many I am close to are fully aware of the failings and limitations of Charedi life. But they are also protective of the many positive sides to the Charedi world, not least the incredible chesed (charity), and the intellectual brilliance and dedication to study for its own sake. But to believe they all think and act the same is just another crass generalization.

I spent quite a few years of my life in Meah Shearim, the hot core of Charedi life in Jerusalem. I loved it. I met saints and sinners. Overall I encountered a collection of caring, highly charitable, devoted, often saintly, and mostly nice people. True, there were madmen and fanatics, and no doubt bitches too (but we yeshiva bochurim were never allowed to mix, so I couldn’t tell). But I could tell you that often on hot Shabbat afternoons, when most people were having a Shabbes shluff, laid out by heavy dollops of cholent and cupfuls of cheap sweet wine, the youngsters would go out onto the streets to throw stones at passing cars.

During Beyn HaZmanim, breaks in the academic year (well hardly academic, but heavy study nevertheless), the numbers rose because for many this was the only recreation they ever got. Sure, there were a few mentally challenged adults in amongst them, but mainly they were very naughty boys out for fun. The cat was away and the mice went out to play.

Recent demonstrations against the current trivial issue, specifically a municipal car park, have angered the new secular mayor of Jerusalem. I can understand. But his response according to reports in the press, is to shut off all municipal services to Meah Shearim. The idjit! This is collective punishment of the silliest and meanest kind that will affect issues such as sewage and refuse collection, endangering the whole area. It will impact on the innocent as much as the guilty. It certainly will not help heal anything or rectify.

Spraying the demonstrators with water cannons of foul-smelling liquid might be a better idea (except, now I think of it, many of the Charedi youngsters smell pretty ropey to begin with). At least it would target the actual demonstrators. Unless, of course, the aim is to get the parents to rein in their errant offspring. But as England discovered when it tried to deal this way with its school truants, charging parents makes no difference, because most of the miscreants are out of parental control anyway.

I am sorry to have to say that this practice of collective punishment has been used for years against whole Palestinian communities for the sins of a few. And it is a truism that if you get used to treating your enemies inhumanely you will end up treating your own this way too. The chickens have come home to roost.

Mayor Barkat’s response is just typical of secular Jews who lump all Charedi Jews together. And if he does this with one group he will go on to do it with others.

I know I’m sometimes guilty of generalizations myself. The Charedi rabbinate is too strict, too out of touch, too insular, too political whatever. And there are indeed discernable patterns. My criticisms are often voiced by others within the Charedi world too. It is so important to be able to criticize and express a different point of view. But one must not give in to the easy tendency to generalize, and I guess this message is as much aimed at me as it is at others!

July 15, 2009

Jewish Women

There are of course Jewish women and Jewish women, and any generalization on either word is plain silly. But Jewish women who wish to remain loyal to the religious tradition in all its Divine magnificence and Human interference can, if they step out of line or try to deal with rabbinic authority, have a very tough time.

In 1994 admirable UK community leader, Rosalind Preston OBE, produced a report on the state of Jewish women in the UK. It highlighted the overwhelming feeling that women were excluded from communal leadership, that Orthodox institutions gave them no voice, and they suffered disabilities in their encounter with rabbinic authority, and felt disadvantaged by Jewish Law. Britain is different than the USA because it is a community in which Orthodox authority dominates. Many of the issues are not relevant in Reform communities, which have their own specific problems to deal with. At the time, well-meaning rabbis in the UK assured Mrs. Preston that they would deal with the problems. I knew it was all window dressing and PR and that nothing would change. Fifteen years later nothing has changed. I was accused then of being a cynical rebel for predicting this.

The Board has just produced a new report, "Connection, Continuity and Community: British Jewish Women Speak Out". You would not know it was not written in 1994. For it only reiterates that nothing has changed. Any community that disenfranchises, ignores or underestimates its female talent, cuts off 50% or more of its pool of talent, must be stark raving mad. It is a symptom of atrophy, conformity and mediocrity. This cannot make sense and it is one of the reasons why the UK suffers a serious Jewish brain drain (including every one of my parents' children).

It is true that UK Jewry is small in number, weak in academic institutions, and limited in talent. But still there are plenty of examples of how things can happen outside of and despite the establishment. It is the evil of British institutional authority, the dead hand of the establishment, the exclusion of talent from the hierarchy, that is as much to blame for wasting potential as the sad complacency, not to say cowardice, of most rabbinic leadership, and the marginalization of the few who would see change.

Of course there are many, many Orthodox women who are perfectly happy, who live fulfilled lives and, within their parameters, do a tremendous amount of good (and it helps if you have lots of money). But just as I believe a just society can be judged by how it treats its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens, so the test of a successful system is how it deals with those who do not fit in or who come up against the system. On all those counts Orthodoxy in the UK has failed far more obviously than either Israel or the USA, the two main Jewish communities of the world today, and I am not claiming for one minute that all is rosy in either of those places, either.

It cannot be right, nor can it be justified, that women are in any way disadvantaged under Jewish law. But they are. Husbands blackmail over divorce and too many rabbis only encourage them. Recalcitrant or absentee husbands will not release ex-wives to remarry and the authorities wash their hands and pretend there is no solution. In previous generations, rabbis took steps to redress grievances. This is not an academic or halachic piece so I am not going to cite chapter and verse, but I can assure you that legal literature is replete with evidence that a thousand years ago rabbis were more gutsy and less mentally paralyzed, indeed less politicized, than they are today, and were not afraid to use their authority and actually force divorce or annul marriages if nothing else worked.

Jewish Law does allow for ways of redressing the balance; it is a scandal that we have to rely on civil courts to do our own religious dirty work. If the boot were on the other foot and men were at a disadvantage, believe you me, they would soon find a halachic way of sorting it out. Nothing casts Jewish Law in a more negative light than the implication it is stymied and needs other systems to help it out of a fix of its own creation.

I fail to understand the argument that Jewish law does not allow women to be appointed to leadership roles, because according to Maimonides the Torah only talks about appointing kings. Why no earlier source than a man living under Islam? So better a dumb male than a bright female? When Deborah was a Judge, or Queen Salome Alexandra cleaned up the messes her husbands made, were the authorities then unaware of Torah? How much of our current paralysis stems from living so long under Christian and Muslim regimes that considered women inferior and put pressure on us to toe the line?

I am in favor of ritual differences. I do think we need to encourage more and different and female forms of spirituality, instead of butchering existing models that were not designed to be all things for all people. Why would one want to conflate Lithuanian and Hassidic prayer, instead of retaining variety and offering options? But when it comes to the equivalent of civil law, there can be no situation that leaves women, disadvantaged and in tears. According to His own words, the tears of the oppressed offend God, and yet too many rabbis act as if that did not matter.

July 08, 2009


"The Law is an Ass," said Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist. And if that is so, then some rabbis are even bigger asses.

The English courts have decided that the rabbis who determined the entrance policy of the JFS (the Jews Free School, a large state-supported Jewish day school in London) have contravened the Race Relations Act. It refuses to admit children where the mother's conversion to Judaism is suspect according to their criteria.

Unlike other community Jewish schools throughout the world, the JFS's religious position is controlled by the established Church of Anglo Jewry, the United Synagogue and its ecclesiastical authorities. So that if elsewhere children recognized as Jewish by other denominations and other ecclesiastical authorities are allowed to attend community Jewish schools, in England they are not.

The usual pathetic argument is that if you have children of doubtful Jewish identity mixing with those who are definitely Jewish this encourages intermarriage and will lead to confusion. It is so myopic, it leads inevitably to saying a Jewish child should never mix with any other Jew of different religious background or any non-Jew for fear of ending up falling in love and marrying out. It implies that reasonable adults are incapable of making choices. If ever there was an example of religious insecurity this must be it. And sadly it abounds.

It was my policy when principal of Carmel to accept children from homes where one parent was not Jewish, if I was convinced the parents and child really wanted a Jewish education and would be prepared to rectify the status issue at a later date, and so long as everyone was aware of the present status. Most of such pupils eventually did rectify their Jewish status in a committed way. So I regret nothing because frankly Judaism has been enriched by them.

The Charedi world doesn't have a problem because its schools really do apply only religious criteria. However technically Jewish a person may be, if he or his parents do not come up to their religious standards they don’t get in. Got a TV at home? You're out! Now if a private school wants to apply religious or academic criteria, whether one agrees or not, it can. And this would of course exclude many Jews who are not religious, just as it might exclude many who are not so bright (and yes there really are stupid Jews).

But petty Anglo Jewish Orthodoxy has created this absurd situation where children who might be religious but whose parents are not considered Jewish because their conversions are challenged cannot get in. But most pupils in the JFS are not at all religious. They might meet the criteria of identity through maternal birthline, what exactly, ask the Judges are these criteria? They cannot be religious because non religious kids attend. So they must be something else. And why aren't the current nominally Orthodox parents worried that their offspring will sit next to bacon-fressing Jews and then marry into a family where religious practice is reviled? If that is acceptable why not have children of Reform conversions who only eat kosher? Clearly it is not a matter of religion but something more insidious. But ethnic identity is not necessarily racial. That’s where the law is an ass.

According to English law, the JFS has contravened the race laws and stands accused of racial discrimination! That Judaism is a race is, of course, absurd and only used by anti-Semites as a false argument to berate us with. All criteria of race are genetic and Judaism has no hint of racial discrimination in its laws.

"Jews", the appeals court has determined (or rather, confirmed), "constitute a racial group defined principally by ethnic origin and additionally by conversion." Well blow me down with a left-handed goose quill. That is like saying "The big toe, as defined by digits on the right hand." Are Jews a race, based on genetic make-up? No, because anyone of any race may become a Jew. Are Jews all members of a religion? No because many self-proclaimed Jews refuse to have anything to do with religion. The Torah has no word for "religion", only "people".

What is Judaism? Most Jews cannot agree on who is a Jew. Israel cannot agree. But the English judges know! They have simply exchanged one ambiguous term for another. Ethnic origin? Pray, tell me what that is? Are Muslims a religion, a race, an ethnic group, or a football team? The fact is that definitions are usually dangerous, misleading, and ultimately wrong. We are humans and we need to treat each other the way we ourselves would like to be treated. (Where have I heard that before?)

That means that the law's job, in a democratic society, is not to define but to protect citizens of a state and treat them equally. It means that any state-funded religion, or ethnic group, or golf club should not be allowed to discriminate on any grounds other than preventing others interfering with or degrading the life and amenities of members.

If you allow religions to function, then they must be allowed to function within their own parameters so long as they do not damage or injure other citizens. Religions, like clubs, are voluntary. The French system makes more sense. In the Public Sphere there is no room for religion. Religions fund themselves. Similarly, in the USA, where government may not encroach on religion, denominational schools can apply for government aid to be used for purposes other than religious instruction. Once again I repeat, where religions are freed from state involvement and bureaucracy they flourish.

The British problem is, as always, fudging boundaries. If it supports a Jewish or a Catholic or a Muslim school, it is doing so for anyone who wishes to live or be educated that specific religious way. Therefore the courts were right to say anyone who wants a Jewish religious education should be allowed to receive one. But that is on the basis of equity and fairness, nothing at all to do with race or how you define religious identity.

Had the JFS not been under the dead hand of ecclesiastical authorities, it could, as most community schools around the world do, say that whoever wants to benefit from its kind of education and will participate positively is welcome. Had that been the case Anglo Jewry would not have needed to stump up more millions for yet another school, the Jewish Community Secondary School, to provide just that. Let alone fritter away sparse money defending an indefensible position. But no, once you let clerics get involved they invariably screw things up.

Amazingly this mess is more Anglo Jewry's own fault because in addition to the pettiness of its ecclesiastical authorities, those who claim to represent Anglo Jews decided to agree and push to have Jews classified as a race to benefit from the Race Relations Act!! I ask you.

Those who sow the petty wind, reap the vindictive whirlwind.

July 02, 2009

Sex Abuse

A recent book Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, & Life), contains essays from a wide range of professional and rabbinical contributors. They highlight the issues and the tendency of parts of the Jewish world, in common with so many other "enclavist" religious communities, to try to hide or ignore serious human failure and avoid facing reality. I am pleased I was asked to write a preface. The current situation is a betrayal of essential religious and ethical values. In practice self-interest and self-preservation seems to trump God every time.

Some communal figures have tried at various times, on both sides of the Atlantic and in Israel, to come to grips with these issues. But invariably they too are pressurized and undermined. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, was so disturbed by the evidence presented to him of abuse that he entered the fray to name and shame. He described the pressure exerted on him from Charedi sources as a "learning experience". The Charedi world is very good at exercising pressure and getting round the law of the land. In a different recent scandal, a Charedi prisoner was given highly preferential treatment because of the powerful influence of a top Satmarer fixer whose reach extended to the prison governor.

In a recent case in the USA, a Charedi teacher was sued for sexual abuse of minors. The victim and his family, as usual, were pressured to drop charges instead of being supported. The teacher himself continues to function openly and all efforts are being directed to get the case dropped instead of prosecuted! Over the years ultra-Orthodoxy and obstructionism have been virtually synonymous. Why?

Orthodox defendants always claim they are being hounded because they are different. They argue that social services and legal authorities do not fully understand the inner workings and sensitivities of different communities. And often they are right. I have heard similar complaints from Muslims in North London, blacks in South London, Sikhs in West London, and Africans in the East End. But the culture of victimization, whether used by Jews or blacks or Muslims, invariably leads to cover-ups which perpetuate even greater suffering and evil.

And doctrinaire attitudes on the part of Democratic or Left Wing agencies do not help. Legislation is proposed in New York by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey to change the laws regarding child sexual abuse in private schools to allow for a longer time frame to prosecute. The religious lobbies, Catholic and Charedi contend that Markey's bill would allow the filing of suits against religious schools based on alleged abuse that may have taken place decades before and might be too difficult to defend and similar legislation is not being proposed for state schools. Why? The answer of course is the power of the Teachers Unions who dogmatically oppose religious education. This clearly looks like victimization against religion, and as a result the bill is being blocked. Actually, the latest is that petty, corrupt wrangling between NY State politicians has frozen all legislation for another year at least! So let us not only blame religion!

In recent weeks two more awful cases of sexual abuse have emerged. Both of them concern ultra-Orthodox men, apparently respected in the community. One was sentenced to 30 years for sexually abusing his daughter. Particularly poignant was the fact that other daughters sided with the perpetrator--a typical indication of how people living in closed communities too often rally round to defend the wrong side of the case. In another scandal, a Jewish social services network specifically set up to deal with such problems simply did not do its job and allowed a pedophile to continue on his path of destruction until secular authorities finally stepped in. The culture of self-protection is perpetuated. And it is not just over this issue.

A recent piece in The Forward paper asked for responses from Jews of different denominations a year after the notorious Rubashkin scandal in Postville, where the Orthodox owners had been abusing not only kosher practice but also civil law. The Charedi respondent focussed on the unfair prosecution and the victimization of the Rubashkins. The others were more concerned with ethical issues, immigration abuse, improper employment and management, and other examples that have besmirched Orthodoxy, in other words chillul HaShem, desecrating the good name of Heaven and Israel. Once again the self-protective mechanisms lock into place and other issues are sidelined.

There are at last signs that the Charedi community is waking up to how much damage it is doing to itself by defending the indefensible and by not coming out with unambiguous condemnation. In Israel the courts have intervened both to prosecute and extradite sexual abusers. But sadly, none of this will amount to anything as long as a mindset continues to exist within much of the Charedi community that rubbishes anything that come from outside it, encourages evasion and deception in dealing with governmental agencies, and victimizes those who speak out (like beating them up on the streets of Stamford Hill). And indeed until pork barrel politics stops exchanging favors for votes. Until these issues are addressed, more and more human souls will be damaged and the perpetrators protected by those who ought to be dealing with them.

So much in life is about perception. Even if some Orthodox objection to aspects of bills might be understandable, the public perception once again is that the God Squad rallies round to protect itself, even at the expense of its own victims. This cannot do religion any good at all. It is just the same with issues such as the Aguna or Divorce Law. All Orthodoxy is seen as doing is obstructing. It needs rather to be shouting from the rooftops that the situation is intolerable and its religious leaders will not stand for it.

It is indeed a matter of PR. You see it in Israel's public response, too. Instead of saying, "Yes we absolutely want and are committed to peace", and then raise valid qualifications, they consistently say things like, "No peace until..." Just as rabbis like to say, "No you can't, it's forbidden", and then find themselves having to qualify or clarify. Imagine if every lover started off a profession of love with, "These are things that are wrong with you, but and nevertheless, I love you!!!"

The hopeful side is that the more publicity, the more books and documentation that expose the problem, the more the chances of change, however slowly the wheels turn.