May 27, 2010

Response to Beinart

The New York Review of Books published an article last week by Peter Beinart castigating the American Jewish establishment for not being critical of Israel, and saying that is why they are losing the next generation of Jews. He conceded that this did not apply to Orthodox youth, but he was appalled at that prospect. I guess secular fundamentalism is as bad as the religious kind.

We live at a moment in history when Israel is reviled by the majority of the world. It is painful, but there are very good historical and political reasons for it. We Jews have been here before. We must not give up or let it faze us. There is an increasing divide between Jews over Israel, just as there is a divide between those who live Jewish lives and those who do not. But a lot of current Jewish anti-Israelism reminds me of Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, when the worst anti-Semites were Jews like Weininger and Schonerer.

Of course I am not saying anyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite. Otherwise I'd be one, myself. But neither am I saying that every Jew who does is not! I believe that we who care owe it to our history and tradition to support the survival of Israel. That does not mean we cannot or should not try to change it or repair its faults.

I do not know of one country that is not corrupt in some way, or that has not made terrible mistakes internally and externally. I recall some Americans being so upset by George Bush that they vowed to leave the country. But not once did they argue that America should cease to exist or that Americans have no right to their state.

I agree with a lot of Israel's critics. I support the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators. However my criticisms are predicated on an absolute commitment, not necessarily to Israel's ideology, but to its survival. The right of the Jews to have a homeland of their own is challenged often by Israeli and Diaspora nominal, accidental Jews. Too many of them have become moral masturbators. They indulge their own fantasies regardless of how much hatred they spray around or fuel.

Jewish opposition to Zionism is as old as political Zionism itself. It has an ultra-Orthodox pedigree as much as a Marxist one. There have always been internal battles. But if dissent is one thing, giving up our right to return to Zion is another. For as long as nationalism is the universally accepted currency and is deemed legitimate for Serbs, Montenegrins, and Croats, to deny it to Jews is as wrong as denying it to Palestinians or Kurds. And to blame Israel as the primary source of evil is to refuse to see the complete picture.

Beinart castigates the American Jewish establishment for having lost the allegiance of its young because it has been too slavish in its support for Israel. His analysis is probably correct. But his reasons are wrong. If non-religious Jews no longer feel attached, that is because they have not been given a good enough or passionate enough reason to stay engaged. And who is to blame for that?

The vast majority of American Jews of the previous era were descendants of refugees from oppressive and anti-Semitic European regimes. Many of them were active communists, and many others were already on the way to assimilation before they reached America. Jews in London, Paris, and New York were in the vanguard of social secular movements, opposed to clericalism. Many of them had already lost the religious component of their Jewish identity.

When they needed cohesion in the New World, they found it in socialist networks, country clubs, undemanding religious substitutes, secular Zionism, and later, the Holocaust. The whiff of old socialism was perpetuated by voting Democrat or Labour. None of these were really powerful centrifugal passions that guaranteed continuity. It is not surprising their children feel more at home in Hollywood than Jerusalem and have more in common with those of other religions or no religion than with Orthodox Jews.

But you cannot blame leadership for that. I dislike establishments and that is why I have always avoided them. As a student I ran disruptive campaigns against the Jewish Agency and the arrogance and moral bankruptcy of the Israeli nomenclatura. But it did not turn me into an enemy of the Jewish state. The role of communal leadership is to strengthen commitment to peoplehood, not to undermine it. And if it often gets its tactics wrong, the goal is legitimate. Beinart argues that the only way we can keep young Jews involved is by highlighting Israel's failures.

Beinart fears Jewish extremes. I do too. But if peace will work both extremes will learn to modify and adjust. Why just pick on Orthodox Jews? If Palestinian hopes remain alive through increasing religious extremism, why should we be surprised if a new Jewish generation does not learn that very lesson.

What is the lesson? Only those with passion and commitment are prepared to fight for the future of a cause they believe in. If one wants to see a Jewish homeland survive, who would you rather have on your side--Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Alexei Sayle, or religiously committed young men prepared to fight in the Israeli army to defend their homeland until such time as peace becomes a realistic option?

Building a safe home requires resolving differences, not pretending they do not exist and that if we give up and walk away peace and happiness will reign forevermore. It also requires that we build an honest fair and moral home. Otherwise it will be destroyed, like others we have built before. But a Jewish future will be shared only if our side has as much passion as the other.

Left-wing, liberal, humanitarian internationalism, good as it may be in certain circumstances, too often leads to anodyne, facile, feelgoodism. Religious passion can lead to fanaticism. Instead of each side denigrating the other, the ideal is for both to work together to exercise balance.

In the meantime, of course, I support my side, warts and all. And I hope community leaders will too. If that is too much for Beinart, then as far as I am concerned we are simply not on the same side.

May 21, 2010

As If

Over Shavuot we have been thinking about how the Torah was given on Sinai. It is one of the fundamentals of our religion that we often take for granted. But what actually happened on Sinai is not at all clear. Even the Torah itself gives different descriptions in Exodus 19 and 24. And the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash give differing opinions too. Nevertheless, Torah as we have it is the foundation of Judaism.

One of the most significant divides in religious communities is between the literalists and the figurativists--those who feel bound to take holy narratives literally, at face value, as opposed to those who put much greater emphasis on the idea, the significance, and the symbolism beneath the surface. The latter do not necessarily deny the historical background or that miraculous or amazing events took place, but see the text as a spiritual and behavioral guide, rather than a scientific textbook.

The Talmud, the Midrash, disagrees as to exactly what was transmitted on Sinai and when it was written down. But there is now a general assumption noit only that the Torah comes from God but that all the Written and the Oral Law was given at one moment in time. To many Jews, even some Orthodox ones, this seems it seems a trifle fanciful especially if one thinks that God told Moses on Sinai about Purim, Chanuka, two sets of crockery, the eiruv, or indeed how to use a time switch for Shabat.

The question, then, is whether one can remain within tradition and still find room and significance for those ideas that rationally one struggles with? What I have to say will not even be considered by the fundamentalist school of Jewish theology. But I am writing for those who do, indeed, try to reconcile rationalism with faith.

There is a solution in the idea first put forward by a German thinker, Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933). Dealing with "reality" and whether what we see and experience is "true", he argued that human beings cannot really know the reality of the world. For example, the way a table looks to the human eye is very different to the way it looks through a powerful magnifying glass. Which is "real"? We behave "as if" the world matches what we think we see.

George Kelly (1905–1967), an American psychologist, also encouraged people to try different ways of looking at events to see what might happen when they act "as if" these alternative ways might work; in this way they might learn to change their ways of behaving.

So what matters is not if something really IS the way we see it, but how we respond to it and act. A wall may not be "solid" through a microscope, but I do not try walking through it. Would you rather someone who believed in being good but was not, or someone who questioned what it meant to "be good" but behaved completely and consistently according to the highest standards?

I am not convinced we are expected to adopt unquestioningly those ideas we have intellectual doubts about. I believe the rabbis of Talmud accept this when they say that what they cannot accept is the person who denies, rejects, as opposed to those who are still in the process of clarifying how to understand certain ideas. Only a "kofer" (a denier) is excoriated. Not the honest questioner.

As for how the rabbis want us to understand what they mean when they say something, the great medieval commentator Rashi, himself, says that Chazal often use language in an exaggerated way to attract the attention of the simple folk (Shabat 30b Mutav Techabeh). One of the most common hyperbolic forms of language used in Midrashic and Talmudic Judaism is the Hebrew word "keilu" which does actually translate "as if".

We are familiar with the phrase in the Hagadah, "In every generation one is obliged to see oneself as if one has actually come out of Egypt"(Pesachim 116b). Obviously this means "imagine" and is clearly not literal. But here are some other examples from the hundreds to be found in the Talmud:

"He who eats and drinks on Tisha B'Av [a rabbinic fast] it is as if he eats and drinks on [the stricter Biblical] Yom Kipur." (Taanit 30b)

"Whoever tells Lashon Hara [gossip] it is as if he denies the existence God." (Arachin 15b)

"Whoever studies Torah one day in the year it is as if he has studied all year round." (Chagigah 5b)

"Keilu" is important. But it is not a halachic fact. It is an essential idea. What matters is what one does. One can behave in a way that indicates devotion to God and the Torah, or in a way that in practice ignores or denies God and Torah. What the rabbis wanted was for us to treat Jewish law as if we personally have heard it from God. As if God were speaking to us now. That is why we adhere to Jewish traditions.

The theological ideas of our tradition, as opposed to the behavioral ones, are there to help us avoid thinking of the world we inhabit only as material, but try to imagine a spiritual world and spiritual values as well. If one wishes to be part of the mainstream of tradition, one needs to treat all the theological imperatives of Judaism with respect and a serious desire to understand what they mean. But ultimately we must try to hear God speaking to us through them and to understand what the real message is, not just the superficial meaning of the words. Remember they chose a way of speaking that had to allow for the simple man as well as the intellectual giant.

To adapt the idea to current politics, one may disagree with the vast majority of Jews either because one is not as right-wing or as left-wing as one's neighbor. But what matters is how much one is doing to perpetuate the Jewish tradition and keep it alive.

May 14, 2010

Vote Conservative

I always voted for the Labour Party in the UK. I admired its idealists, like Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, and Michael Foot. I supported Harold Wilson's desire to turn the UK into a scientific meritocracy. I felt bad for cuddly Michael Foot, propelled into a position unsuited to him, but still better him than angry, bitter Tony Benn. I applauded Tony Blair's strength in standing up to the unions, and his balanced approach socially and economically. Even with their loony left, I identified with Labour more than with the Conservatives, who were snobbish, xenophobic, and elitist.

As for the Liberals, there's no point in voting for a party that can turn up to parliament in a single taxicab, as my father used to say. I thought they were right about many issues, including the electoral system. Still, a vote for them was a wasted vote.

I turned against Labour for various reasons. Like any party that is in power for too long, it lost its edge. It became complacent, and it failed to tackle fundamental social issues and abuses of welfare. It promised to democratize the risible House of Lords, but did not.

From a Jewish perspective, and of course I have one, the leadership was predominantly pro-Israel, but too many of its prominent MP's, like Clare Short, were blinkered in their hostility (criticism is one thing, hostility is another). They refused to change the law so as to stop ugly monkeys trying to haul Tzipi Livni, of all people, before the English courts on criminal charges and they have ignored militant Islam in order to retain the Muslim vote.

As for the Liberal Democrats I'd never dream of voting for a party that puts boycotting Israel on its agenda, still has the unspeakable Baroness Tonge as a member, and goes out of its way to insult the Board of Deputies by sending in its deputy leader, William Wallace, to rebuke Anglo-Jews for supporting Israel.

The sad fact is that no party seriously addressed the issue of cultural conflict, of homegrown antagonism to democratic secular values. But some were worse than others. The Lib Dems were so eager to gain power that many of their candidates allied themselves with rabid fundamentalists who disapprove of every plank of their political and moral agendas except for antagonism towards Israel (and towards Jews, since the Koran, not unlike the New Testament, says some nasty things about them).

So that only left the Conservatives. Britain needed change. I thought they would be the least damaging to the values and interests I hold dear and you never know, despite my scorn for all politicians, they might even do a good job.

From a Jewish perspective again, their leadership is pro Jewish although their Foreign Minister Hague is not. Under him the rabidly Arabist Foreign Office will continue to ensure that the only place the Queen cannot go to in the Middle East, is Israel. Not that I care too much about that.

Anyway the Conservatives won even if they needed the Lib Dems to join their coalition. Thank goodness the Lib Dems have been kept out of the ministries of Home Affairs, which controls immigration, Work and Pensions which controls Welfare.

In Britain there are three main voting blocks. Upper-class, right-wing, big money tend (always exceptions, of course, to any rule) to vote Conservative. Left-wing workers, trade unionists, loonies, vote Labour. Liberal intellectuals vote Lib Dem. The middleclass professionals, businessmen, entertainers, sportsmen, and overnight personalities are the swing voters who switch between the major parties. They brought Thatcher to power, but later switched to Blair. Now they have swung back to Conservative. Why? It is not the economy. Brown did a great job until international factors derailed every major economy in the world, and no one believes the Conservatives are going to change the world.

More people voted Conservative precisely because they were the only ones who did not kowtow to the Muslim extremist vote. Neither were they xenophobic. Most Britons are not. They know working immigration benefits a country and the average Brit by now is used to foreigners and not much bothered (except for rival gangs). That is why the Conservatives destroyed the fascist BNP vote. What the average Brit cannot abide is the appeasement of those who want to undermine or negate British values. Whereas Labour and the Liberals have gone out of their way to indulge, and court and subsidize radical Muslims, the Conservatives alone have not.

There is a reaction to alien fanaticism. One sees it in Belgium, which hitherto had Socialist government that courted the Muslim vote and overindulged it with welfare. Yet now Belgium has preempted France in voting to ban the burka in public. France has no anti-immigrant legislation, but sends Jihadist preachers home. All one needs is a simple message, "We have our values. We are going to keep them, and we are not going to support or encourage anyone who wants to undermine them." But sadly in Britain none of the major parties so far had the guts to say this.

That’s how we Jews integrated. Some of us wanted to keep our funny dress, strange customs, and cultural identity, but we did not try to undermine the values of the society we came to. My parents even advised me, as a teenager, to wear a hat instead of a kipah, so as not to stand out. (As if I didn't anyway.) And if we wanted change we used the democratic channels to fight, not gunpowder.

Change in politics is necessary. And if the Cons actually deal with the crucial social issues instead of ignoring them, next time they will win a proper majority. That is democracy. That is why I love it.

May 06, 2010

Agunah Project

For some ten years, Professor Bernard Jackson of Liverpool Hope and Manchester Universities has labored away, with insufficient reward or recognition, as director of the Agunah Project to document the problem and the possible solutions of Agunot. He has now retired and the project has ended, which is a shame.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jackson deliver his closing report on at the conference of the Jewish Law Association at Fordham University. You can read this report here.

The issue of the Agunah is not a simple one. In Jewish Law, divorce must be requested by the husband, written up and witnessed by a Beth Din (Jewish court), and then delivered to the wife. But what happens when a husband disappears, intentionally absconds, is buried under the World Trade Center, or goes down with the Titanic? Or worse, what happens when a pigheaded husband simply refuses, or because his wife was such a harridan, wants to avenge himself? Most common of all, he is a blackmailer and wants money? The woman is then left "tied"--she is not free to remarry under Jewish Law.

The definition of an Agunah nowadays is debatable. Originally it was simply someone whose husband had disappeared. But now it has been expanded to include those whose husbands have refused. The number of the former is probably not more than in the tens, the number of the latter may run into the thousands (it's a hot issue in Israel, depending on whom you ask). But how long does the refusal have to go on for to make one an Agunah? Sometimes the get is delayed because of civil issues, not religious ones, which might be the fault of the woman as much as the man. In some cases it is actually the woman who is at fault.

Should the woman refuse, the rabbis often find ways of getting round the law. Should the man refuse, if he lives in Israel he may go to jail. In the Diaspora, where Jewish law is not enforceable, civil courts may intervene. But the real problem is that any coercion or pressure runs the risk of producing a Get Meuseh, a Divorce by Compulsion, which is automatically invalid. A married woman without a Get cannot remarry; if she does, her subsequent children will be "mamzerim" halachically restricted in whom they may marry.

Jewish law has been dealing with these issues creatively and innovatively for thousands of years. A rabbinical scholar suggests a solution, or a specific rabbi gives a judgment in a particular case. It is disseminated and the opinion debated within a circle of universally accepted authorities. Consensus may then emerge which will modify Jewish law. If not, individual rabbis may adjudicate according to specific circumstances and take individual responsibility for their decisions. In the past this was much more common. Nowadays pressure is easily exerted to prevent anyone being too radical, so change is far more difficult.

Times have changed and now pressure is building to treat women equally. Jewish law provides for various solutions, most controversially the annulment of the original marriage. But it is true to say that most Batei Din are loath to use such devices. Some of it is political. The more pressure Batei Din feel comes from outside their domain, the more they feel an ideological obligation not to concede to what they consider to be pressure coming from alien values.

Batei Din often speak publicly, cautiously, and conservatively for fear of being misquoted or manipulated, but privately they are often extremely cooperative and sensitive. Some Batei Din, particularly in America, use psychological and psychiatric expertise and have found effective ways of resolving issues without tinkering with the law.

One of the most popular modern ways of dealing with the issue is through a prenuptial agreement which stipulates that in case of a matrimonial breakdown both parties agree to accept the jurisdiction and decision of a Beth Din. This is much favored by Centrist Orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic and it certainly helps. So too does the increasing use of civil law to require that obstructions to remarriage be removed before a civil divorce is granted. So things are better. But still not good enough.

Sadly, women are still too often treated as second-class citizens, either intentionally or through sexist carelessness. I have always thought that if this had been a problem for men rather than women it would have been long solved. Even for those anxious to bring about change, the wheels of traditional law turn slowly and there is a legitimate fear of giving in to fashion. But too often those, like the late Emanuel Rackman, who have not waited for consensus but tried very hard to correct injustice by halachic means, have been vilified and humiliated and disregarded.

Dr. Jackson's motives have always been of the highest and purest order and a more honest and good human being would be hard to find. What he and his team have done is document thoroughly (though not entirely exhaustively) the rabbinic literature on the subject and to place the history of creative decisions before the rabbinic and the academic world for consideration. It is a gutsy and monumental undertaking which is shutting down for lack of resources. It deserves to be kept alive, for it helps disseminate the options and thus facilitate the slow process of rethinking, even amongst those who currently reject the possibly solutions.

Pressure, political demonstrations, and publicity will not change attitudes within the closed world of Orthodox authority. But information and scholarship may. Bernard Jackson is a gem who must be treasured and the work he started must continue.