February 25, 2010

Purim 2010

One of the most well known quotes from the Talmud goes, "Rava said: It is a man's duty to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between 'Cursed be Haman' and 'Blessed be Mordecai'" (Gemara Megilah 7b). The text goes on to give an example of how too much wine can lead to murder, and as a result the overwhelming majority of rabbinic authorities, while agreeing one should loosen up a little to celebrate Purim, are strongly opposed to getting drunk.

This week one of the major figures in American Orthodoxy, HaRav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who heads the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, called excessive drinking on Purim an "aveirah" — a sin. "Chas v'shalom that our Torah would consider getting drunk to be a mitzvah!"

Still, too many people nowadays who ought to know better, ignore what their rabbis and rebbes tell them! Hoards of drunken religious neophytes staggering down main roads of Jewish ghettos around the world on Purim, accosting passersby with foul breath and vodka bottles, throwing up in alleyways and buses, is hardly the finest side of Judaism.

This whole issue is emblematic of the varieties of Judaism even within the confines of Orthodoxy. On the one hand you have those serious, rather killjoy sort , usually associated with Musar and the Lithuanian wing of Orthodoxy, who argue for sobriety and self-discipline. They will tell you that there is indeed an ancient obligation to drink wine, as there is to celebrate Shabbat and festivals, and on Purim one should indeed go further than normal to celebrate the great occasion. They will point out that the word used by Rava in the Gemara is "besumeh", which also means "perfumed" or "exhilarated", and may refer either to the wine or the person--but anyway is not the common word used in literature for a drunk, which is "shikor". It probably means "pleasantly merry".

The Purim story is indeed about a drunken king who makes disastrous decisions he regrets when he sobers up. This illustrates the difference between religiously ordained "controlled" drinking, and pagan unbridled excess. In Lithuanian pilpul, not knowing the difference between "curse Mordechai and bless Haman" is turned into a game of numerology, or theologically and it is taken to explain why only the Divine spirit differentiates between evil and good. Without it we are all capable of the worst standards of behavior. But even the Litvaks allow yeshiva students to make fun of religious authority with skits and satire (rhymes, called "gramen") on Purim day, to emphasize the contrary and revolutionary nature of the festival.

On the other hand there are the Chasidim who frankly don't need an excuse to get drunk at any time of the year. Their approach to life is that our inhibitions are the reason most of us are unable to reach or communicate with God and therefore alcohol performs an important role in removing inhibition and opening up the channels to God. Of course I agree that we are inhibited in spiritual matters and that is why I favor mysticism; but if God can only be reached through an alcohol-induced miasma, then I doubt very much if they and I are talking about the same god.

I recall, as headmaster, asking the Lubavitcher Rebbe for teachers because I valued the warmth, hospitality, and selflessness of Chabad graduates. He obliged. But the day after their first Shabbat at the school I was inundated by protesting parents who thought that giving 12-year-olds shots of vodka in the name of religion was going too far.

Of course nothing I say now will part a Chasid from his vodka, or indeed me from my malt. And nothing I say is going to stop the drunken masses of all wings of Judaism giving religion a bad name on Purim or any other time. Any more than I can control the hundreds of high school kids who take a gap year off in Israel and use yeshiva as an excuse to indulge in orgies of drink, drugs, and sex.

We Jews have never been prohibitionists. On the contrary, it has always been a matter of pride that we have avoided a culture of drunkenness. Poor suffering Eastern European Jewish peasants didn't have much other source of relief in eras gone by, so no one wanted to deprive them of a drink. And it was always argued that Jewish drunks rarely resorted to the violence usually associated with inebriation. Still given the almost universal excesses of our times, we who proclaim religious values, need to be educating our children, by example to exercise control. And even if I agree we should relax it on Purim, relaxation does not mean excess.

There is a positive side to this. Too often religion is seen as a killjoy. And Judaism is a disciplined religion with lots of demands. Still it is nice to know that on occasion we are commanded to have fun and let our hair down. We should drink and be merry. But not drunk.

February 22, 2010

Special Blog Post - Carmel College Reunion

Carmel College Reunion - March 20th, 2010
Village Hotel, Elstree, London

Carmel College was a magnificent adventure and experiment in Anglo-Jewish education that lasted from 1948 until 1997. For many people it was a defining experience in their lives.

Having been involved in Carmel through my father, as a pupil and later headmaster, I remember vividly how difficult it always was to get former pupils together and how the OCA (Old Carmeli Association) always struggled to maintain any momentum. Perhaps it was because so many Carmel graduates came from and returned to places scattered all around the globe and keeping track was much harder in previous times.

As Carmel graduates get older and the memories fade, nostalgia steps in. So recently there seems to be a renewed interest in getting together. Jill Kenton organized a great reunion last November for those graduating from the mid-80's to the 90's, and its success has led to a follow up for the 60's and 70's.

Because Carmel graduates are so scattered and the records so inadequate, if you happen to know of any Carmel graduates who might be interested in coming or finding out about future reunions, please pass this message on and ask them to contact Jill Kenton at info[at]connections-events.co.uk.

February 18, 2010


Education has been the bedrock of Jewish religious life for thousands of years. The Torah insists that "you should teach your children". We recite this phrase at least three times a day whenever we say the Shema (a declaration, not a prayer).

After the Bible, the next greatest book in Judaism is the Mishna (which together with its companion the Gemara came to be known as The Talmud), compiled in the second century. It starts with these words:

"These are the obligations that have no fixed limits--leaving corners of the field for the poor, first fruits, appearing at the Temple on festivals, kindness to other human beings, and studying Torah. These are the things that return one a benefit in this world but the absolute return is in the World to Come--honoring one's mother and father, kindness to other human beings, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping girls get married, participating in funerals, and studying Torah" (Peah 1).

Somewhere in the first millennium the second part was modified to read

"These are the things that return one a benefit in this world but the absolute return is in the World to Come--honoring one's mother and father, kindness to other human beings, attending the Study House morning and night, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping girls get married, participating in funerals, concentrating on prayer, making peace between people (and between a man and his wife), and studying Torah is worth all of them."

And this text, with minor variations, has entered our prayer books.

The list of priorities is significant. Notice how much emphasis is put on what we would call inter personal relations! The final reiteration of Torah study is based on a line in the Talmud that says, "Study is the greatest obligation of all precisely because it leads to practicing everything else." (Kidushin 40b). In theory, of course, that should be true but it is strange that what is thought of as a great spiritual tradition should put so much emphasis on an intellectual activity.

The opening phrase seems to me to have been written during Temple times and the second after its destruction, for those elements dealing with the Temple and the Land of Israel have been omitted. This would also explain the increased emphasis and priority on studying Torah. By then it was blindingly obvious that we would survive as a people only if we maintained our traditions, and the best way of perpetuating them was to study them and to teach them. This had already been clear during the first great exile into Babylon. It became even more so as the challenges of Greco-Roman civilization forced us to respond in an intellectually demanding and educationally rigorous way.

There was a difference of opinion in the Talmud as to the relative priority of prayer over study, and in the end a compromise was reached. But ideally the two should be interrelated, like two arms are essential to the balance and effectiveness of the body.

From an early age I remember my father emphasizing at home, at school, and on the lecture circuit, the necessity of a Jew knowing his heritage. "An ignorant Jew," he would say, "could not possibly be an authentic one." This was part of his great Lithuanian heritage of intense intellectual involvement in studying Torah, which has become the hallmark of Orthodoxy today. In my youth you could be "Orthodox" and be completely ignorant of most of Jewish Law.

Since then the Jewish State, through welfare and financial and moral support, has enabled centers of Torah study to proliferate. Everyone now recognizes the primacy of the Israel Torah community, if for no other reason than that so many of their elite have actually gone to live there. Financial support coming from the Diaspora has also encouraged growth. And in this modern world of individuality, and freedom to choose to belong or not, knowledge as well as a sense of commitment are factors in keeping one "in".

Many Jews still have no inclining of how demanding and tough, intense Talmudic study is. Nothing I ever went through at university compared to the demands and disciplines of Torah study. This is one reason why so many who have had this tough training do so well when they go out into the world to compete in professions and commerce. And there's another plus--continuing to study into old age is wonderful for preventing senility. Not only, but it gives elderly people a sense of value and pride in their old age. In secular society, people are often valued according to how much they earn. With us, ongoing study not only fills the vacuum of retirement but gives one status and significance too.

Study, says the Talmud, must lead to action, and in the end human relationships and obligations are what define a good person. After all, the great "Musar" movement was initiated by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the nineteenth century precisely because, as he saw it, study was not impacting sufficiently on behavior. Still, study is a very solid basis from which to start, because it constantly reminds one of the nobility of our tradition and its obligations.

I am immensely proud that I belong to a tradition that values study. We are not just the People of the Book, we are the People who Study the Books. And everyone is involved; it is not just for priests and clergy. That is why we have survived against the odds. It is why Israel, for all its faults, has done so amazingly well in almost every sphere where brainpower counts. And why if they do not do something soon about the abysmal state school system, yeshiva graduates might soon be the only educated Israelis left.

February 14, 2010

Special Blog Post - Proud To Be A Religious Jew

On this blog I have often criticized the abuses of religion. Here's a clip I'd like you to see because this is the other side--a Kiddush HaShem, giving God, religion, and Judaism a good name. I am proud to have gone to the same school as Dr. Tate!

Dr. Joseph Tate on PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

February 11, 2010

Dangerous Tefilin

So here is this innocent youngster on a flight in the USA trying to put on his tefilin, modestly and as inconspicuously as possible, in his seat. The air hostess has never seen these funny black boxes and straps before. They look like a device. Could be he is a suicide bomber strapping himself into a bomb. Panic. The kid is restrained. His tefilin are impounded. The plane is diverted and then isolated. Passengers are delayed and inconvenienced; appointments and celebrations are missed. It’s a massive scare. The press is alerted. The FBI moves in. The young man is cooperating with the authorities. And it is not a joke. It happened here in the USA.

Is this just another example of the madness gripping us as Islamic-inspired terrorism spreads? Yes and no. We Jews are a very, very small minority and Orthodox Jews are a small minority within a minority. So in one way it is not at all surprising that most people on earth have absolutely no idea what tefilin are. Besides tefilin themselves are so difficult to explain. Aids to prayer? Surely one does not need leather straps and boxes to pray? And the very English term "phylacteries" sounds a bit like "prophylactic". Are they supposed to prevent some plague or something? Perhaps they are like the Scientologists' "magic boxes". A kind of brain monitor? And why only for men? Are they some sort of male enhancers? I recall plenty of jokes about Jews putting on tefilin in hospital and people thinking they were for taking their blood pressure. The fact is that it is very, very hard to sound logical or sane when describing tefilin to a non-Jew who has no idea and no background.

On the other hand, you see so many Orthodox Jews on flights nowadays, and they are often carrying their talis and tefilin bags or praying at airport terminals. I cannot recall a flight anywhere in the world I have taken without a black hat and beard for company. My tefilin have been checked so often at security that by now, surely, word must have got round. In the past tefilin were used so frequently to smuggle diamonds in and out of Antwerp that I'd have thought there must be diagrams posted in every customs house.

And in most schools nowadays comparative religion is taught, if only to make Westerners more sympathetic to the spread of strange Middle and Eastern religions, that the very basic features and customs of alien religions are now more widely known than ever before. Yet clearly most human beings still seem unable to tell the difference between a suicide bomber's belt and tefilin.

The security situation is getting worse and worse all the time. I have had eau de toilette, shampoo, deodorant, and even hair gel confiscated (not to mention a half a bottle of Drambuie). But it’s the lunacy of political correctness and the civil liberties fanatics that are the real problem. It is utterly ridiculous that the anti-profiling lobby has been allowed to create a situation in which an eighty-year-old lady in a wheelchair is as likely to be searched as dishdash-wearing, heavily bearded, agitated twenty-year-old.

My old schoolmate, Professor Edward Luttwak, had an article in the January 18th Wall Street Journal in which he argued that ever increasing body searches and restrictions will not eradicate the problem nearly as effectively as clever profiling and personal interaction:
Given the power of widely available explosives, the amount that can be carried inside a body cavity—let alone two—is sufficient to destroy ordinary pressurized airliners at normal flight altitudes. That makes "pat downs", or indeed any form of physical inspection that is remotely feasible in any airport … entirely futile. That alone rules out scanners … To screen passengers as persons would reduce costs and inconvenience … because entire categories of passengers could be waived through with a rapid examination of travel documents … [and history].
This is precisely the sort of checking that we have all experienced on flights to and from Israel. Certainly it is more manpower-intensive than machines, but it clearly works. It is true that the number of employees required to monitor the flights in and out of one small Middle Eastern state would be dwarfed by the needs of massive worldwide air passenger traffic. But considering the billions wasted in the US alone on totally ineffective bureaucratic security agencies, it would make more sense to have well trained, well educated men and women on duty than the poorly paid, low rung employees most of us have encountered.

We may agree that security demands we veer on the side of strictness, but sensible and careful profiling will surely eliminate any suspicion that a teenager putting on tefilin is likely to blow a plane up! On the other hand, someone ought to tell him that although there's a fixed time to say your morning prayers, you can put tefilin on at any time during the day and fulfill your duty. Or, of course, you can fly El Al.

February 04, 2010

Rabbi Jesus

Recently, Shlomo Riskin, an American Israeli Orthodox rabbi, came in for sustained attack because he was shown on a Christian Embassy video referring to "Rabbi Jesus". Such was the brouhaha that Rabbi Riskin had to defend himself, claiming not to have praised Jesus. He said, "I never praised the character or the personality of the person in whose name Jews were slaughtered throughout history. If that is how my words were understood, I am disturbed by that understanding and state that that was not my intention at all. I apologize if my words were taken improperly. I related to the historical persona of Jesus, who was not a Christian, did not hate Jews, but was a Jewish and religious person."

Now I mean no offense, but I still need to be convinced that there actually was such a specific person as Jesus. The Gospels were written in Greek, anywhere between 40 to 100 years after his presumed death, and as the late Hyam Maccoby has amply illustrated, their stories contradict each other and the Jewish context of the times. The text in Josephus that refers to him is suspect, and the derogatory hints in the Talmud were written hundreds of years later.

What is certain is that the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to leaders and teachers that sound very similar to the John the Baptist and the Jesus of the Gospels. Except they speak of a generation earlier. In the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70, there were all kinds of sects and charismatic teachers wandering around the Judean countryside teaching and healing. Virtually all the popular teachings attributed to Jesus can be found in earlier popular and proselytizing mainstream Jewish, Pharisaic, teachers such as Hillel.

It seems to me that it was Paul, Saul of Tarsus, who was the founder of Christianity. As he admits, he never met a historical figure and only had his famous vision on the road to Damascus. It would not have been difficult to create a persona as a construct out of a range of popular figures from a previous generation. The genius of Paul was to create a compelling narrative and legend. He borrowed from Judaism and other cultures and selected a range of popular ideas that appealed to a much wider audience in the Roman Empire than the more exacting, divided, and national-based ideology of the Judaism of the time. There have been distinguished Jewish academics, such as the late David Flusser, who have tried to identify Jesus and place him in a Jewish context, and probably this was what Riskin was basing himself on. But I am afraid I remain a skeptic, albeit a sympathetic one.

As we have seen, both within Christianity and within Judaism, it is not difficult to create new religions or variations on existing ones that acquire a mythology, even supernatural support. Mass hysteria can lead to all sorts of visions and mental states. Religion is notoriously good at persuading its followers of almost anything. Think of all the wars that have been waged in the name of God, Jesus, or Muhammad.

The fact is that history is very subjective. Just consider, in our own case, the different perspectives on the Hasmoneans between the Books of the Maccabees and the Talmud. Different people looking at the same "events" can come up with very different interpretations. Myth is not necessarily derogatory. It doesn’t only mean "fairy stories"; it can also mean "hallowed traditions" and ways of relating to the world. It can be important in conveying values. It creates symbols and examples appropriate to the different moods and values of religions.

There are different ways of regarding Jesus within Christianity. He is worshipped as God, while others see him as man, and some as an ideal. Just as there are differences in understanding the Koran, as between Shia and Sunni, and opposing ways of looking at King David, for example, in Judaism.

In the end, what emerges from different contexts is a religious culture and way of life that sets out to try to make humans, humanity, and the world a better place. Sadly, its efforts are always hampered by the abuses and misuses with which people succeed in distorting the theory. (But then, I cannot think of any area of human ideology where this does not happen.) And then for a while, a new improved version tries to do things better.

Of course, I agree that there is no objective, archaeological evidence for Moses or Sinai, and that too becomes a matter of faith, intuitive or cognitive. What has and does keep Judaism alive is more a commitment to following God's Law rather than historical facts that are as yet unconfirmed. I suspect this is precisely why the Torah describes Moses as a man of poor speech. His inability to complete the cycle from slavery to freedom in the Land of Israel and the absence of a grave are all to emphasize the priority of the Divine over the human and no one has ever suggested Moses was more than man.

If individuals are inspired by whichever Jesus narrative they feel comfortable with, that is entirely a matter for them. What matters to me is that it should increase the amount of good and spirituality in the world. But I do not see why we Jews should in any way feel obliged to adopt an agenda that is not ours, even if its origins were born, in part, from our tradition. Rabbi Riskin's desire to see Jesus as a good rabbi seems to me to be an unnecessary attempt to curry favor with those he might be enlisting to support his political agenda, rather than his spiritual one. Sadly, I fear he ended up doing more harm than good. As they say in Yiddish, and I translate, "Don't mix in!"