March 25, 2010


No, not General Motors, but seeds that are Genetically Modified.

Pesach is a time when we "moderns" focus on grains more than at any other time of the year. Shavuot may be the main summer harvest festival, but very few of us nowadays are involved in commercial agriculture. (Even in Israel, the kibbutz dream of Jews returning to a nostalgic past of cultivating the fruit of the earth and getting their hands dirty with mother soil instead of bank notes, is itself a thing of the past, as a mass ideological movement.) Sukot is more concerned with fruits and temporary living.

We no longer bring the Omer sheaf of barley in the Temple. But on Pesach, when the Torah forbids us from eating grains except in matzah form, we do suddenly have to remember what a grain actually is. How many of us city dwellers can tell the difference between wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye? Most of the Third World poor who toil to produce food for their starving families can.

Pesach gets us to think of produce in other ways too. The Ashkenazi world highlights absurdity by refusing to eat "kitniyot", commonly called pulses or legumes claiming there is a definitive comparison between them and grain. There's no logic to it. Forget the myths of wet European climates fooling rabbis into thinking that peas that sprout might be grains. It is like that other more modern anomaly of prohibiting gebrocks (baked matzah in liquid)--simply a fantasy of strictness that sends shivers of pietistic delight down the spines of those who want to feel better for being more kosher than kosher, more demanding than the Almighty (and you can see what the Talmud thinks about that at Yerushalmi Nedarim 29a).

The prohibition of kitniyot applies to maize, rice, peas, lentils, beans, peanuts, mustard, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds. (Lucky Sefardim, their rabbis were much more realistic.) But wait, there's more (as American TV salespeople say), some improbably add coffee beans, chestnuts, alfalfa sprouts, and even marijuana (sorry, kids). And others want to ban quinoa, only because it is new to them and anything they haven't come across before must be bad news!

And this leads me to GM. European lefties, desperate for moral causes to adopt, have successfully banned GM crops from Europe. This, despite the scientific evidence that they increase yields, reduce the need for pesticides, enable poor farmers to make a living, and help feed the poor. This is why GM crops are rapidly coming to dominate in Argentina, Brazil, India, and China to name only the biggest markets. But the European loonies who gratuitously destroy experimental GM crops spread unfounded scare stories about killing butterflies, causing genetic deformity, and sterilizing the planet. And they think nothing of fiddling statistics and experiments to further their cause, rather similar to those who discredit the campaign to stop global warming by telling lies.

Why ? Because in true Marxist (and Fascist) ideological tradition, the end justifies the means. According to them you may overrule any moral or civil law if it achieves the goals they want. Incidentally in Jewish morality the only time you can deceive is if you are trying to protect someone's hurt feelings. This 'Ends justifies the Means' approach underlies all left-wing political idealism and it explains the increasing rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. (I am not for one moment suggesting that all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli, but then neither am I saying it never is.) There is a lot in Israel to criticize, on all both sides of the spectrum. But when it is a matter of ideological warfare in which political victory is all that matters not honesty or truth, then as with GM crops, it is honesty that is the loser and in the end humanity.

Idealism is a wonderful and necessary thing, and there is not enough of it. But it is also dangerous. All fanaticism is dangerous--I don’t care which end of the spectrum or which religion it comes from. The only antidote is openness, honesty, and debate. But if this is being prevented by fanatics who will simply not allow civilized discussion, then what are we who value freedom of thought do, capitulate?

Passover celebrates freedom, and that includes freedom of expression and freedom of debate. We have strange customs and laws to encourage questions and discussion. We are reminded that there are different ways of looking at life and of living life. Variety is the glory of humanity. Suppression of ideas leads to oppression of humans and a return to slavery. If you try to prevent any group from defending itself, like Pharaoh did, you will end up enslaving everyone.

March 18, 2010

Women Rabbis

There's a storm in a teacup over Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well known Orthodox American rabbi who has, it seems, appointed a woman "rabbi"--no, a "maharat", no, a "rabba", or perhaps it is a "rabbit". The Orthodox right is up in arms. There was even talk of expelling Rabbi Weiss from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

What really is the issue? Is it anything more than a quibble about titles? If a woman is counselling, advising on religious and personal matters, answering pertinent questions on Jewish law, and teaching Torah to those in the community who want it, there are enough major and universally accepted rabbis of impeccable Orthodoxy who agree there is nothing halachically wrong with this at all. Nowadays, in Israel and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, women do all these things all the time, and plead in rabbinic courts, sit for the same exams as men, and give halachic advice from official positions within the State Rabbinate.

It is true that there are certain ritual functions that women cannot perform for men. But these do not define who a rabbi is or is not. Unlike priests in Christianity, rabbis are no different than any religious male in terms of what they can or cannot actually do. You don’t need a rabbi to marry you or bury you. There are limitations and differences between men and women in Orthodoxy. One may or may not agree with them. But no one who supports women functioning in Orthodox communities has suggested changing that order.

Rabbinic ordination in the Talmudic sense no longer exists. The term for ordination, semicha, literally "laying on of hands", originally was a way of passing on the chain of tradition directly from one great leader to the next. The Romans under Hadrian tried their best to hamper this transmission and banned it. Nevertheless, the religious leadership staggered on until finally the line of the Gamliel dynasty was terminated around 1500 years ago.

The great post-Talmudic Gaonim derived their authority from their acknowledged expertise. Communities appointed their religious leaders based on their qualities, or they emerged thanks to their charisma. It was only later when non-Jewish states started to appoint official ecclesiastical representatives and chose the term "rabbi" that the question of qualification and ordination emerged as an issue. The schism between Orthodoxy and Reform muddied the waters; because the Reform movement chose to call its clerics "rabbi" the title lost much of its lustre. It seemed to the Orthodox inconceivable to have a rabbi who ate pork and did not keep Shabbat. (This is not to say that non-Orthodox rabbis cannot be scholars or make important contributions to Jewish life.)

The rabbinate today owes more to imitating non-Jewish clergy than it did originally, when it simply denoted a scholar, a Talmid Chacham. A Talmid Chacham could well be a leader. True spiritual leadership is earned, not appointed. In the Mir Yeshiva of my day, the heads did not have semicha and they were no less regarded for it. They did not need it. They considered semicha rather like a qualification someone going out to teach school needs, whereas those who stayed in Jewish academe were all research PhD's. In fact in yeshiva to call someone a rabbi (as opposed to "rav") was a putdown. Semicha, the title "rabbi", does not define religious leadership in Orthodoxy. On the contrary, if anything it might be a handicap!

The term "rabbi", itself, is nowadays pretty meaningless. Anyone can call himself, or herself a rabbi. Like "who is a Jew", or having a degree. You can buy one online. What matters is where and from whom you got it. Because of the devaluation of the title many Orthodox leaders prefer to be known as Rav or Rabban or Rebbe. "Rabbi" in many Orthodox responsa is written "RA Bi" which in Hebrew means "Bad for Me". It is indeed intended in some quarters as derogatory. So why the fuss?

One Orthodox objection is based on tznius, modesty. According to Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah's director of public policy:
Tznius isn't a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they're put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. Putting a woman in front of a group of men and women on a regular or ad-hoc basis is violative of tznius.
Codswallop. Modesty is a matter of comportment and attitude. Male Orthodox rabbis have projected far more arrogant, immodest concupiscence and corruption this past year than women. Are they suggesting that any woman automatically is immodest? So why are Orthodox women allowed to appear and plead in public rabbinic courts in Israel, or function in public as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and CEOs? Are they all loose women? Come on!

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, gave the real game away when he lambasted Weiss's move because it "not only mimics Reform, but in fact is a throwback to pagan ideologies and a perennial challenge to religious establishments."

Well, knock me down with feather. Since when is a woman teaching Torah, counselling, visiting the sick, and making herself useful around a large community pagan? But it is Reform that is the issue, because they thought of it first!

In the end, Rabbi Weiss gave in to pressure and changed his mind. I do not agree with many of Rabbi Weiss's political positions, but I do admire his guts and ideals, and I do think Jewish religious life is all the richer for having highly learned and qualified women contributing to it. But then, as Rabbi Shakespeare said, "What's in a name?"

March 11, 2010

Whose Fault?

Haiti, then Chile, one earthquake after another has brought death, suffering, dislocation, and torment. And as ever, everyone seems to be asking, "Did God do this? And why?" All the usual holy rollers of all religions trundle out the old tired theories about what we did wrong to deserve this.

Indeed, often there may well be a good reason why the tragedy was so much worse than it needed to be. We humans made mistakes, such as not building adequate defenses, or putting up cheap vulnerable buildings. Sometimes governments are too corrupt or ineffectual to protect beforehand or deal with the crisis afterwards. If humans choose to build and live on the San Andreas fault, is God to blame when the earth shifts? If skiers get in the way of an avalanche, is it not human error that is to blame? And what is now a cliché, the question is not where God was in Auschwitz, but where was humanity.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, followed by fire and tidal waves, was a cataclysmic series of disasters that had a profound impact on European thought and politics. All the major thinkers of the time grappled with its theological implications, then as now. Traditional political systems began to crumble in the face of their impotence. The Catholic Church suddenly became much stricter and more authoritarian, because it thought that religious backsliding was to blame and God was sending a message when the cathedral collapsed.

On the other hand, Voltaire argued that this proved that there was no God to get involved and gave this example in "Candide". It was up to humans to do the best they could. And Kant, while not rejecting God, argued that physical phenomena functioned according to verifiable scientific rules, while God (if you believed in Him) simply allowed nature to do what nature needed to do. Two hundred fifty years on, nothing much has changed.

The Talmud says that if bad things happen, you should examine your ways. But this is another way of saying that any catastrophe or accident is an opportunity for reflection, self-analysis, and hopefully self-betterment. It also wonders whether God could possibly act in an unfair manner, just as Abraham wondered about the destruction of Sodom. It recognizes that God functions on a different level than humans, and therefore we have no way of fathoming the "Mind of God". Such thoughts about Divine justice can only be rhetorical, not logical. Can you imagine logically what arrogance it must take for any human to say with certainty, "I know that this is why God acted this way?"

But of course, they do. Anything that strikes down your enemy is the Hand of God, and every competing ideology looks for signs that it alone is right. Did you see during the Winter Games how almost every competitor's mother was busy praying to her God? And did you hear of any losing finalist abandoning his religion as a result?

Dealing with tragedy is a question of self-reassurance, of trying to cope, ourselves. Facts or scientific explanations don't help remove pain. If we believe nothing happens on earth without God's approval, we can make no logical sense out of most of what happens on earth, whether it comes from Nature or Mankind. We do not know why God allowed Auschwitz to happen. Though do know that humans committed unspeakable crimes. Our beliefs either matters of faith or wishful thinking. They may reinforce our sense of our position in the universe, but they can hardly be objective or scientific. If we believe, as the Talmud also says, that the world functions according to its own rules regardless, then we accept our limitations and try to deal with life and God in the best way we can. I don’t consider this passivity or defeatism, just realism.

The Talmud asks, "Why do bad people prosper and good people suffer?" The beauty of the Talmud and of Jewish theology, as opposed to those who purvey black-and-white certainties, is that it offers various and different ways of understanding the world, our position in it, and what happens after death. We can buy the answers or not! We can choose which of its approaches best satisfies our minds and our souls. This is why religious thinkers have always ranged from strict rationalists to weird mystics.

A blessing is an expression of human desire (just as a curse is no more than an expression of hatred), a way of giving people support and strength. It can be very comforting, but it is never a guarantee that anyone is listening, or that He or She will decide to act on your behalf or on someone else's. Still it helps one to feel that one is proactive rather than passive. The Torah is a book of life, one which helps us to live in the here and now.

Life is a constant struggle. We are all subjected to pressures and tensions at certain moments in our lives, no matter how holy we are. There are no answers. Certainty is an illusion. There are only ways of dealing with the crises, setbacks, and disasters as they arise, and of trying to become better human beings as well.

March 04, 2010


The outpouring of protests over the assassination of a terrorist in Dubai is another case of hypocritical anger and symptomatic of a complete loss of moral compass.

From a Jewish ethical point of view, if someone is trying to kill you, you have every right to disable or remove the threat in any way you can (preferably without killing). If this threat comes from a country, then you attack the country. If it comes from an army, you attack the army. If it comes from an individual, you attack that individual. And when in doubt, your safety comes first. In no way do I compare the removal of a threat, to torture which is always wrong. I have yet to be persuaded that torture ever provides accurate information that other means of interrogation cannot.

In the past you could settle a war by sending two champions to fight in single combat and the two armies didn't need to massacre each other. Alexander didn’t offer the Persians that option. The niceties of medieval warfare and chivalrous challenges were relevant to knights in armor. The tactics of terror are altogether a different matter. There are no Geneva Conventions of Terror.

The rules of international law are all well and good if you dealing with someone who feels bound by international law. But not where an enemy organization explicitly and uncompromisingly calls for your destruction. In the asymmetrical modern battlegrounds around the world today where there are no rules of chivalry or legitimate combat or separating civilians from combatants. It is a matter of kill or be killed. If one is facing an enemy who is buying arms to use against civilians, assassination is a legitimate form of self-defense. So is confiscating a boatload of arms heading for enemy shores.

It is indeed dangerous to argue that just because assassination has been and is being used by states and individuals therefore it is legitimate. If the USA, and indeed Britain, practiced it once with regularity against regimes they disliked, they are nowadays a little more concerned with appearances. Usage is not a moral argument, but self-defense is. Even if world public opinion thinks everyone can defend himself, apart from Israel.

As for infringing sovereignty and due process of law, what happens when the perpetrators are protected by regimes which tacitly support their aims? What happens if everyone else is not standing up for justice? Was Israel wrong to ignore International conventions to land in Entebbe and rescue hostages? Has anyone ever suggested Von Stauffenberg was wrong to try to assassinate Hitler? Would the USA be wrong to assassinate Bin Laden? Why should not Israel target those who carried out terrorist attacks against its citizens on Israeli soil and beyond?

It is argued that this is a reasonable deterrent, to warn potential attackers that for the rest of their lives they would remain wanted, hunted, and potential targets. Although it hasn't worked too well as a deterrent judging by the numbers increasingly willing to blow themselves up.

The protests in Europe are really a smokescreen for NATO and USA assassinations by drone in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilians are killed in collateral damage or by errors of arms and information. Why have I not heard anyone suggesting that NATO forces be charged with Crimes against Humanity? Why can China get away with oppressing its minorities and the Tibetans, and the UN and most world governments simply kowtow to them? Why are both the USA and Europe so craven towards Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab world? It is money and politics stupid, not morality, not justice, not fairness.

Israel was and is used as the scapegoat for all Arab and Muslim woes. Blame the Jews, blame the Israelis, and this will deflect criticism from barbaric, incompetent rulers. Now the disease has spread to Europe. Your economy is in a mess? Find a distraction. Blame Israel for everything. Make a huge issue over forged passports.

Actually the tactics that were used in Dubai are behind the game. Things have progressed. With modern surveillance and passport technology, using old Cold War methods gives too much away. Remote control, drones--these are the new tactics and indeed Israel excels at them. That is why I am not convinced this was not the work of Fatah, even if some Israelis might have helped.

I hate violence and war. I wish it would all go away and we could all live in peace, and Israel could spend the money on education, health, and welfare that it now has to waste on arms. But wishing never won anything or got Nazis to go away.

No, of course two wrongs do not make a right. A great rabbi living in Spain 800 years ago said, "If the law is not applied fairly and equally to all citizens, it cannot just bind one part of the population and not the other." And if that was true of Christian Spain, it is also true where the Nations of the World do not apply one fair and equal standard across the board. Two wrongs do not make a right. But, conversely a right is not necessarily wrong!