November 26, 2009

Conor Cruise O'Brien, 1917-2008

Conor Cruise O'Brien, who died December of last year at the ripe old age of 91, was, as one cynic once said, "An Irishman who wanted to be a Jew." This was not only because he was not anti-Semitic in a rabidly anti-Semitic world, but also a supporter of Israel. He was something of a hero to me, a benchmark of honest individuality and fearlessness, the standard of a cultured, educated, analytical, and moral man.

I first became aware of him because my father admired him and encouraged me to read anything he wrote. At first I thought it was because of a family connection. My father had never lived in Ireland, but his parents are buried there. They moved to Dublin during the Great Depression because there was no work in London. But my father, a teenager at the time, was studying in Etz Chaim Yeshiva in London and so he stayed behind.

I remember going with him only once to Dublin to visit my grandparents, a year before they died in 1950. Ireland then had several thriving Jewish communities (at one moment in Anglo-Jewry there were more rabbis from Cork than any other city in the British Isles), and Jews and Irishmen in general got on very well. But the refusal of de Valera's Ireland to join the war against the Nazis cast a pall on relations, even if one could understand the longstanding antipathy of Irishmen to the English.

It is difficult now to appreciate the extent and the bitterness of the class divisions in British society during the nineteenth century. These divisions were reflected in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews identified with the Labour Party. In my home the political heroes were all socialists: Clement Attlee, Aneirun Bevan, Jennie Lee, Michael Foot, and Hugh Gaitskell. Although we admired Churchill, and were immensely grateful for his almost singlehanded role in getting Britain to stand up to Hitler, we never indentified with the Conservatives. I'm not saying all Anglo-Jews felt this way, but certainly those who came from poor recent immigrant families did.

That is why there was always a degree of sympathy for Irishmen fighting for their freedom from British rule, and in particular for the Irish socialists--because by and large they were not violent murderers and political gangsters, but rather enthusiastic agitators. Ireland itself was a paradox. Primitive country priests catered to very poor disadvantaged communities. Yet Dublin was a cosmopolitan city, the home of Joyce and Yeats, and a great academic environment in which Catholic, Protestant, and atheist exchanged ideas and generated intellectual creativity.

Conor Cruise O'Brien was a product of this atmosphere. A Catholic who was given a Protestant education at Trinity College, he became interested in politics as an idealistic socialist who was always animated by idealism and hated the duplicity of politics, even though he had chosen to get involved.

He was sent to the United Nations and became the special representative of Dag Hammarskjold, the impressive Secretary-General of the UN at a time when the UN was still held in high regard and promised much (before sinking into corruption and decadence). He tried to deal fairly with the Congo crisis of 1961, but resigned in frustration and wrote To Katanga and Back in 1962. In it he excoriated the incompetence and duplicity of the UN. That book, more than anything else, turned me against the UN long before its abysmal record on Israel.

He became Chancellor of the University of Ghana and a professor at New York University before returning to Irish politics. He was not corrupt enough to be a success as a minister but gained fame, some might say notoriety, in condemning the IRA and its political front the Sinn Fein, and opposing violence. He fought against any compromise or power sharing with what he argued were murdering terrorists. He had a spell as editor of The Observer in London, but spent the rest of his long life writing and lecturing and fighting corruption and intellectual dishonesty wherever he saw it. He used to say that his role in life was to be "a shock to the Irish psyche".

In 1989 he wrote The Siege, a history and defence of Israel's struggle for survival, and this of course alienated him from the new wave of politically correct, intellectually crippled left-wing orthodoxy. The Siege remains one of the best books on the subject.

It is when I think of men like O'Brien that know why I became the person that I am--antiestablishment, nonconformist, a gadfly refusing to accept conventional wisdom or standards. It is the fact that there can be people who think for themselves and yet retain deep loyalty to both religion and national values that reassures me I am neither alone nor wrong! Thank you, Conor Cruise O'Brien, for your life.

November 19, 2009


An article in an Orthodox Jewish paper recently argued that couples should use contraceptives for the first year of marriage so as to get used to each other before children arrive. This will probably not strike many of you are either remarkable, unusual or in any way worthy of a second thought. Except that officially in Orthodox circles contraception is only allowed under certain circumstances and the very notion of emotional education for marriage, as opposed to ritual, is relatively recent.

The first year of marriage often reveals deep incompatibilities that either destroy or severely hamper it. Given social and religious pressure to get married couples often overlook a great deal in the enthusiastic rush to the altar or the chupah. Once children arrive it may be too late and often couples are then locked into a loveless union feeling compelled to stay together for the sake of their children. But usually children growing up in such a conflict ridden and unhappy home suffer just as much as those who have to cope with divorce.

In my youth, it used to be argued in "modern" circles that couples ought to live together and get used to each other sexually before getting married. And it is true that a lot of marriages do flounder on sexual incompatibility. But then the sexual liberation of the 60's and 70's produced vast numbers of couples who had plenty of sexual experience together without getting married and when many of them in the end did actually "tie the knot" (and that really is a loaded expression isn't it?) they discovered that sex within marriage and sex beforehand sometimes involved very different emotional dynamics. Couples who lived together were even more likely to divorce as those who had no or little experience before marriage. It was obvious that sexual expertise was only one of many factors and not necessarily the predominant issue in the success or failure of married life.

Within very Orthodox families the issue of compatibility looms much larger precisely because in practice, or should I say "officially", there is little chance of living together before marriage. So the argument has been put forward that, particularly where couples get married very young, they should use contraception during the first year.

There are other factors that constrain unhappy couples to stay together. In many cultures one is expected to go on trying to succeed and not giving up regardless of the problems. Marriage is a decision and once taken one is committed. And I do not mean "till death do us part" so much as "if you make the bed then lie in it". Judaism accepts divorce, provided obligations are met and responsibilities accepted. The Talmudic folio dealing with divorce is twice as long as that dealing in marriage. Nevertheless, divorce is not usually undertaken unless there is a very valid reason. And certainly in very Orthodox circles there is still a measure of taboo and resistance which I believe owes more to Christian influences than Jewish ones. So a young couple is often compelled by convention to stay together, even without children.

Despite all this, I have noticed that an increasing number of couples divorce soon after marriage. And rabbis are much more willing to countenance a quick and easy divorce if there are no children. So surely as the numbers of divorces rise everywhere it must make sense to give young couples time to get used to each other or not before having children, if for no other reason than to try to protect any possible children from the traumas of divorce.

I am not for one minute suggesting that this has a cat's chance in hell of becoming official policy. Anyway there is an obligation to get married and to try to have children as quickly as possible. Where contraception is allowed other than in extenuating circumstances, it is usually only where the couple have met Hillel's very liberal ruling, for his time, that one must have one boy and one girl to fulfill the obligation. Not only, but having lots of children, once the natural response of the poor, has now been adopted by the very pious of all religions. In general, however, according The Economist (October 31st) the faster countries industrialize the quicker the size of families declines. Orthodoxy is the exception to the rule.

I do not expect rabbis to take the lead in recommending this, but I do expect sensible parents and counselors to try to take the initiative to protect their children. We all make mistakes. There are all kinds of pressures. Sadly, people are reluctant to tell the truth when shidduchim are in the air and too often crucial information is kept hidden, both physical and psychological. Under these circumstances we must not consign young couples to lives of pain and frustration. The Talmud gives a reason for allowing divorce. If the Torah insists we love our neighbors, we should try to increase the amount of love in this world. Compelling two people to share the same home when they just want to get away from each other only creates hatred.

There is of course a danger in allowing too easy divorce and thinking of marriage as a dispensable permit. Many marriages are political and even commercial, where both parties know in advance what the terms are and love is a bonus. Similarly, many successful couples I know started off marrying out of shared values and love came and grew as they matured. So sexual compatibility is by no means the only criterion. But certainly children complicate the issue. So I am supporting the argument that we should allow contraception and simply postpone procreation. There are many religious obligations we are allowed to postpone, or in which delaying is accepted post factum. And postponing pregnancy until after the first year of marriage may be an example where it is beneficial, if not in all cases then certainly in some.

November 12, 2009

Who Is A Jew?

How come the High Courts of England are now deciding who is and who is not a Jew? The simple answer is that the rabbinic authority of the United Synagogues of London arrogantly believed that everyone else had to fit in with them, rather than that they should accommodate others. Most power and bureaucracy makes this mistake.

In the West, religion is associated almost exclusively with faith, belief. But nowadays all religions have members or associates who do not believe what the religion demands. Can you have your cake and eat it? In England now it seems that unless you actually do believe what the religion prescribes you cannot justify membership. Therefore if you have a school for Jews only religious ones can attend. If, on the other hand, you define Jews by birth you are being racist.

King Herod, who dominated life in the Roman provinces of Judea thousands of years ago, was of Idumean descent, a local non-Jewish, pre-Arab tribe. Yet everyone, including the Romans, called him a Jewish king, and he rebuilt the Temple. He certainly was not what we would call religious. Throughout its history, Judaism has always absorbed converts from all parts and races of the world.

Since Talmudic times Jews were defined religiously. Passion for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem were core values enshrined in liturgy, poetry, and academic study. So much so that in 13th Century Spain Ramban could argue that the laws of the Bible were originally only intended to be in force in the Land of Israel and nowhere else.

In the West, since the 18th century "Enlightenment", Jews have lost their all-encompassing, unitary identity that had been defined religiously ever since Constantine made Christianity the religion and citizenship criterion of the Roman Empire. Under Islam, religion remained the definition and Jews were Dhimmis, inferior believers. In those days, all the world was made of communities with specific religions, worshipping specific gods. Political power and religious identity went hand in hand. Judaism, then, was defined as a community of common worship and shared texts and constitution based on Divine authority.

But then came the separation of Church and State, and then the rise of modern nationalism as a secular phenomenon, albeit with a strong religious element. Some people wanted to abandon religion altogether and others wanted to join religious groups for social rather than religious reasons. Most religions reacted by turning in on themselves and becoming more exclusive. It is the modern phenomenon of people wanting to lay claim to Jewish identity without its religious encumbrances that makes it is so difficult to categorize or define Jews.

In Israel, which is a nationalist phenomenon, they like to think of Jews as a nation, which is why so many have difficulty with the idea of a Jewish state as opposed to an Israeli nation. Just as it is now politically correct for some Arabs to argue there never, ever were Jews in the Middle East before Zionism, so secular Jews have liked to attack the connection between Judaism and its roots in the Middle East.

Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe said that all Eastern European Jews were descended from the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the 9th Century. As if Yiddish emerged from the Caucasus Mountains! An Israeli academic argues in Haaretz this week that all Jews are descended from converts and not a drop of the original bloodline remains.

His conclusion is that Jews today have no genetic claim to the lands of ancient Israel because most Jews nowadays are descendants of converts of one sort or another. Even if he is right genetically (which a lot of experts dispute), if a body of people have a literary and historical link does it matter if it has absorbed others from the outside? Did no Muslims ever migrate into Palestine from other parts of the Ottoman Empire? As if any English today are still pure descendents of Angles. The Queen is more German! Thanks to massive Muslim immigration most Englishmen will soon be of Muslim descent. Does this mean they are not English too? Will England then cease to be English? You might argue that previous migrations abandoned their countries of origin and few nineteenth century Jewish emigres from Russia ever looked back with yearning or a sense of belonging. But German immigrants did and most Israeli emigrants today still do.

So peoples, cultures, and religion are intertwined. Attempting to rigidly divorce them or categorize is silly and wrong. States can define citizens. Ethnicity or culture cannot.

The Bible and the Mishna, regardless of when you think they were written or by whom, originated in the rough area of the Land of Israel. We possess documents and archaeological evidence confirming this, dating back at least two thousand years. And the Judaism practiced around the world today, to a greater or lesser extent, is based on these documents and their contents. Does it matter therefore if the original adherents have been diluted by conquest, rape, conversion, and intermarriage so that the original species is no longer pure? Of course not. Does it matter if every part of my body has now been so transformed over the past sixty years that not one original cell remains? Am I therefore not me?

If Yehuda HaLevy, living in Spain 800 years ago, wrote that he longed to return to Jerusalem, does it matter if he was born a Chinaman? What matters is the yearning of a group of people, reflected in their literature, to return to their land. If some of those people were not religious or were not born Jewish, does it matter? Must Welsh culture only be supported by people living beyond the River Severn and descended from Llewellyn? Can one only support Scottish nationalism if one is a born member of the Church of Scotland or a Highland clan? What matters is the survival of a culture and/or its religious system.

Both Israel and England have got themselves into all sorts of messes because lawyers and politicians like to define and categorize (and so, sadly, do rabbis).I know Muslims in England who bitterly resent being defined as a race instead of a religion, just as much as there are Jews who object to be classified as a religion!

When England introduced laws against one group hating or attacking another, they called them laws against racial discrimination and so they categorized different groups such as Jews and Muslims as races. The fact that Jews meet no biological definition of race, and neither do most Muslims, escaped them. So Jews and Muslims, protected under the laws of Racial Discrimination now have to fit into the straightjacket of a definition arrived at by Anglican lawyers. Interestingly, the only laws still on the books to do with defending religion are the ancient heresy laws that anyway only apply to the Anglican religion and are virtually dead letters!

Over time we Jews have changed from tribal to national to nation-less to religious to religion-less as the sweep of history has taken us in and out of divers peoples and societies. Had we remained a tribe, definition would not have been an issue. Had we remained a nation, definition would not have been an issue. But we have been these and more. The term "Jew" covers a very broad spectrum and range, and religion is only one part, albeit in my opinion the most significant.

If one wants to work within English law or any other legal system, then inevitably one has to accept compromises, however silly they may be (or try to make changes, which is of course the right of anyone living in a democracy). This is why the great Babylonian Rabbi Shmuel established the principal that "The Law of the Land is the Law".

Israel needs to make up its mind if it is Jewish state or an Israeli nation. Muslims need to decide if they want to be protected as a race or as a religion. And Anglo-Jewry needs to decide if it wants to continue fudging issues and pretending there is just one Jewish religious system, one religious authority. Something that only states that refuse to separate Church and State permit.

If a school's entrance is based on religious criteria, then so be it. Ultra-Orthodox schools make no bones about their standards, which are exclusively Orthodox. But if, as in other major Jewish communities around the world, there are Jewish communal schools serving the wider Jewish community, and the majority of the pupils and their parents are actually not observant, then the religious authorities should either think out of the religious box and leave religion to those who choose to be observant, or relinquish their hold on such schools.

Now ironically the JFS has been forced into insisting that applicants prove their religious commitment by bringing proof of synagogue attendance and degrees of obedience. So families with no interest, no desire to lead religious lives, are flooding the synagogues just to get their kids into a school. Is not that making a laughingstock out of religion and teaching hypocrisy instead of morality?

If you want to get into bed with the State you will have to compromise. If you don’t want to compromise don’t team up with the State. And if you pretend to be the religious leader of all Jews then practice what you preach.

That the English High Court should define who is a Jew is as ridiculous as Jews denying other Jews a Jewish education just because they decide on their definitions. They have only themselves to blame for this mess.

November 05, 2009


For me, November conjures up Guy Fawkes Night. "Remember, remember, the 5th of November." That was when some English Catholics set up a fellow called Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament, while King James I and the English Lords Temporal and Spiritual were inside, so that that they could remove Protestantism from the British Isles forever. Lunatic (and bearded) religious fanatics setting off bombs in London is nothing new. They were caught, tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered, as was the custom in those very civilized days, and everyone celebrated with great gusto. Hence the most politically incorrect of traditions.

Every year we would celebrate the event with lots of fireworks and bonfires where an effigy of Guy Fawkes was burnt and the fire used to roast potatoes and chestnuts in the chilly autumnal evening air. There was a whole week's preparation beforehand in which children paraded models and images of Guy Fawkes in wheelbarrows from house to house asking for a "Penny for the Guy". We always had fireworks at home. My father was an expert at setting them up and setting them off and we kids were given handfuls of sparklers. Every year we were solemnly warned to be careful and every year we burnt our fingers. Ah, how things have changed. Nowadays in England you are more likely in November to see and hear fireworks celebrating Diwali.

In my English youth I never recall hearing about or noticing Halloween. As a child I went, for a brief spell, to an Anglican primary school in the wilds of Berkshire (which explains my knowledge of carols and hymns) and heard about All Saints' Day or All Hallows, as a Christian festival on the first day of November. It commemorates Christian saints' and their ascent to heaven. And it seems that the name Halloween, "All Hallows Even", derives from that.

But still, something like a witches' Halloween probably came first. Ancient days commemorating the end of summer and the "darkness", the sinister aura of winter. And there is an ancient Celtic festival of the dead this time of the year.

My Irish links introduced me to the tradition of Jack O'Lantern, a candle inside a face carved into a pumpkin to scare away evil spirits but these were all very hallowed Christian rites, not at all profane and certainly nothing to do with witches and magic.

Many suggest it is the Irish who brought the whole Halloween shebang over to the USA where today it is all-pervading and highly commercialized. I have heard it muttered that it is really a sinister plot to corrupt innocent religious children, spread by a secret cabal of mysterious Irishmen and women in league with the little people and the World Union of Leprechauns, to dominate the universe and convert it to the force of magic and superstition. The secret greeting of conspirators in this dangerous plot is "Show me your palm, dearie."

I have just survived another Halloween in New York. There were hordes of little witches and magicians demanding a treat or else they would trick. Stores and apartment buildings were decorated with spiders and cobwebs. Normally sane adults wandered the streets dressed as monsters, Draculas, zombies, skeletons, devils, ghouls, demons, goblins, black cats, bats, werewolves, and crows.

In Boulder, Colorado there was an outcry because the town police have decided that the annual streaking at midnight of naked men and women wearing nothing more than a pumpkin on their heads and sneakers on their feet, posed a serious danger to local morality. Meanwhile the commercial gains are enormous and vast sums spent on disguises and confectionary and alcohol have done much to scare away the evil spirits of the dreaded recession.

I was thinking of getting on my high horse and holding forth to you on the evils of magic and the corrupt pagan influences that underlie corrupt Wall Street capitalism and how alien magic is to Judaism. But then I realized how the virus has already taken hold and indeed has always been with us. The Bible spends a lot of time denouncing witchcraft, and that alone should be enough to distance ourselves from Halloween. But that did not stop King Saul consulted the Witch of Endor and he came to a messy end. The Talmud mentions ghosts and spirits and all kinds of magic spells. Certainly by medieval times it seems almost everyone believed in evil spirits. The great Isaac of Vienna had to deal with a woman who claimed a spirit slept with her, and it became very common for fallen women to argue that they had been seduced by spirits (no doubt wearing St. Michael underwear). So much so that some rabbis publicly declared this would no longer be accepted as a valid excuse!

And Kabbalah is absolutely choc-a-bloc full of magic and hocus pocus and evil spirits and dangerous forces and bad angels and all kinds of fancies. And of course there's the myth of the Golem, a totally unsubstantiated Frankenstein fancy. The saintly Rabbi of Lowe of Prague was far too intelligent a man to try con tricks like creating a superman to defend the ghetto Jews against marauding anti-Semitic sickos. He never even mentioned it himself. (Though the Talmud in Sanhedrin says that a couple of rabbis used the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah to make themselves a fat calf for their Shabbat meal.)

Jews are notoriously superstitious; wonder-rabbis with all kinds of claimed supernatural gifts play on the credulity and insecurity of so many and rake it in at the same time. And as for corrupt capitalism, let us say no more. So I guess Halloween must be Jewish after all.

Yet if it came down to a choice, I'd rather associate with non-Jewish customs that connect with a benign Divine energy than with black magic, evil spirits, and spells. If it’s a choice between trees and Draculas, I'd go with the former. Still, give me a gemara to study any day.