August 26, 2010

Fate or Faith?

The Jewish Week recently published a review, written by Steven Bayme, of a book by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. The review said that Rabbi Sacks disagrees with the late and great Rav Soloveitchik’s belief that it is a shared fate that unites Jews. Rabbi Sacks insists it is a shared faith. Rav Soloveitchik Z”L doesn’t need me to support him, of course, and I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if the reviewer is right or if Rabbi Sacks said such a thing. So let this piece not be read as a critique of him but simply of the idea that Steven Bayme mentioned.

Only someone whose ideas have been shaped more by Christianity than Judaism could possibly come up with such an idea. The Jewish people, bless them, ever stiff-necked, divided, have never truly been shaped by "faith". By obedience perhaps, by national identity at certain times, by anti-Semitism at others--but faith? The very word is a late invention and borrowed from Anglicanism. The Torah itself does not use the word "emunah" (belief, faith) to mean anything more than "trust".

I always found the term "faith communities" a peculiarly Christian term, because it is "faith in Jesus" that determines Christian grace and salvation. Judaism is rather a "way of life". Torah means "teaching". "Halacha" means more than "law"; it is "the way we live". In its structure and nature, if not in its historical development, Judaism is closer to Islam than Christianity. The fact that now politically we are about as far from each other as is possible should not disguise the fact that we are both systems based more on behavior than theology. And you know I really don’t even like the term "Judaism". I prefer "Am Yisrael", the People of Israel.

I do not say, as some do, that there is no theology in our tradition, or that belief has no fundamental importance; but faith is a matter of personal, intangible mental processes and can never truly be tested or verified. Action, behavior, can. Halacha, like Sharia, expects behavior. That is why actions are punished, not thoughts.

So what is it that links and connects Jews in terms of ideas? Is there a common denominator? I think not. Jews are best described as a "Gestalt". That is, a collection of elements, each distinct, that makes up a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

Pray tell me what faith unites a Charedi and a Reform Jew? They do not both believe in Torah from Heaven or Sinai. They do not both believe their lives should be circumscribed by Jewish law. They usually do not share political or theological loyalties, neither do they agree on the idea of nationalism or Zionism. It is true they will both probably agree they believe in God, but then so too will Christians. Where is their common faith? What do both share with a significant body of Israelis who fight to the death to defend their homeland, belong to a "Jewish state", but are atheists?

You may stand on 5th Avenue and see a man with a black or grey Biblical beard, long black or grey earlocks ("payos" or "peyote", but not to be confused with the drug), an eighteenth century Polish hat, a nineteenth century long black frockcoat, twentieth century white socks, and twenty-first century black sneakers. You will look in the other direction and see a bare headed, cleanly shaven, sweet smelling, Zegna-dressed, Prada-shod, Dunhill-briefcase-carrying executive, both even hurrying to afternoon prayers. They have certain important practices in common, but one views God, the world, history, and text with a literality the other does not. Can they possibly share the same faith?

Many Jews around the world have little interest in or affiliation with religious institutions. The rate at which they marry out of the "faith" (there you are, funny word again) is 50%, on average. What do those who marry out share with those other Jews who consider doing so a betrayal? The most trumpeted vehicle for retaining the loyalty of non-affiliated American Jews is the Birthright program which ships large numbers of Jewish youth to Israel each year on free junkets. Religion is virtually taboo. When in the past some of its programs had a religious dimension, it provoked an outcry. Let us assume it succeeds. Does it succeed in creating faith communities? As they say, "I don’t think so." Any more than Israel itself does.

But I suspect they do share more common values than one might think. They will be prepared to admit to being part of a people descended from some ancient tribes. They will be proud of the survival of Jews and their remarkable contribution to civilization. They will support the right of Jews to have some sort of homeland, as well as their right to settle elsewhere. They will defend Jews against anti-Semitism and expect civilized societies to resist the attempt to write the Holocaust out of the dark history of human inhumanity. Even if they no longer adhere to more than occasional rituals, many will still contribute to those who live and devote themselves to Torah. Even the most Marxist, anti-Zionist, anti-religious of them will still claim at some moment in his life, even when he is trying his best to undermine Jewish identity, that he or she is a Jew. Faith? Bah. Jew? Still!

August 19, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque

Last week I wrote an op-ed piece for Ha'aretz on the mosque, or center, or both (depends who you ask) near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The theme of the article was that in free and open societies where all weird and strange religions are allowed to flourish and compete on the market, one cannot and indeed should not try to prevent anyone expressing himself or herself through law-abiding and nonviolent places of worship and gathering. But by the same token religious organizations need to be sensitive to some of the anxieties, even insecurities, of others. The trouble is that there is a tendency to try too hard to push one's point of view into other people's faces under the pretext of freedom of expression, and I called for sensitivity on both sides.

Judaism, thank (my) God, is not a proselytizing religion, so our pushy, in-your-face evangelicals tend to confine themselves to asking passersby if they are Jewish first. Even so I must say I am not comfortable with some Chasidim insisting on overt displays. But throughout history all the major religions have built huge show-off monuments of worship, converted each other's to theirs, and battled away, literally, for the hearts and minds of their own constituencies and any others they thought they could conquer or win over. But it does not have to be this way.

I happen to be an apostle of good contacts and relations between religions wherever possible, and there is more good stuff going on than most people give credit for. If I resent evangelical Christian ideology that suggests that I cannot get to Heaven (wherever that is) unless I do it their way, I react with amusement rather than anger when, say, Jews for Jesus tries to convert me. My brother David is as good an example you can find of someone who is an excellent diplomat and model of Orthodox sensitivity. He is on very good terms with almost everyone and admired the world over for his work, and that includes many of the notoriously difficult to please ultra-Orthodox community too.

I said in my piece that I knew some of the people involved in the Cordoba Initiative to be good and tolerant human beings, the sort who give Islam a good name and try their best to show that it is not composed entirely of throat-slitting suicide bombers. I supported their idea of establishing a Muslim center rather like the Jewish 92nd Street Y or the JCCs which are open to everyone and, although funded and run as Jewish, are not ultra-Orthodox and not necessarily 'halacha compliant'! But then, of course, I have said Judaism is not evangelical.

I also pointed out that all new immigrant populations face resistance to their religious projects, and indeed to this day in many parts of the country Orthodox Jews face resistance and objection to their building plans. Most of the opposition I have read about recently has come from other Jews. We Jews had asked the previous pope to pressurize the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz to remove a very public cross because of our sensitivities, and I suggested that the Cordoba Institute might consider amicably finding a location just a little further away from Ground Zero. My piece also brought up, as a side note, the insensitivities in Jerusalem on both sides--but then anything in Jerusalem is fraught with political confrontation and agendas.

It is now obvious to me that the Ground Zero whatever-it-is has become a political football, as everything in the USA has a tendency to become, with both sides exaggerating and looking for votes. I regret this.

But since my article I have had conversations with people, insiders and others, who have been at various public and private meetings, and I can tell you it is not exactly at it seems. There are two conflicting interests involved in this project and that, as much as any other factor, is why the project is sometimes called a mosque and sometimes a center. The Cordoba Initiative is headed Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whom I believe to be absolutely sincere and transparent about what he wants to build and achieve. He has my support. But here's the interesting information I have: He regrets the ruckus and wants to do what he can to defuse the situation. If the current location is a problem, whether rational or not, he is prepared to consider another one. The same cannot be said for others who are now using this as a political football, kicking from both ends of the playing field.

But, ladies and gentlemen, isn't it strange that there is another website? I am reliably informed the developer has another agenda. He is, after all, a real estate man as well as a born-again Muslim. His view is that this is a going to be a Muslim statement. Now if that is the case, by all means make a Muslim statement as loud as you like, but do not make it where you know a lot of people would not welcome it. The 9/11 jihadists were also making a statement. And I get worried by statements, because then it is all about posturing. Freedom of religion and making statements are two very different things.

I have sneaking suspicion this is also about real estate, a great opportunity landing on someone's desk. But I wonder if Cordoba has not got into bed with the wrong guy. My solution is to buy the fellow out or offer him a swap, and then I really do believe everyone will be a winner. We and he will have a Muslim mosque and center which will be what it will be. The incongruity of the present location will no longer be an issue. Imam Feisal will be seen as the figure of understanding and moderation that he really is. And I suspect he will garner much more support from many more people, business and ecclesiastical, to build the vision he really has and we need.

August 12, 2010

Love Betrayed

So you have fallen in love. You are in a relationship. You think you are happy. And then the other betrays you.

There are lots of different ways of betraying. It does not just have to be the ultimate, the sexual, though that is the one the Bible focuses on. Modern society, with its greater emphasis on psychology and analyzing human actions, has perhaps gone too far in seeing anything as a betrayal, and at the same time is too cavalier in expecting everyone to forgive and forget everything. Bill Clinton thought he had not committed adultery because he did not go "all the way", and on the other hand an article I read recently tells me I can commit adultery on the internet.

The Bible has a whole slew of laws about lying, misleading, stealing someone's mind, and taking advantage of someone's ignorance or innocence. All these are forms of betrayal but may fall short of being the coup de grace that ends a marriage. I suggest we all make some such mistakes, even in the best of marriages. We are allowed, in Jewish law, to lie and tell a bride she is beautiful, to encourage her and enhance her self-esteem. We may tell white lies about our partners not being fat or wrinkly or badly dressed to avoid hurting their feelings. This surely is not betrayal, but some people I know take it as that.

There are other ways of betraying a marriage such as being cruel, verbally abusive, or insensitive. Some betrayals do indeed indicate a pattern of deceit and untrustworthiness that would be ignored or forgiven at ones peril. That indeed is why we allow divorce in Judaism, and even encourage it to allow a victim to hope for and aspire to a better life and a more honest relationship. Once this option was rare and forbidding. Now it is a lot more accessible (though I am sad to say that in Orthodox Judaism it too often comes at a price over and above an equitable settlement).

Turning, as I always tend to, to our sources, I can find two conflicting ideas. On the one hand, Jewish law forbids a husband to cohabit with the wife who has betrayed him. A co-respondent in a divorce case may not afterwards marry the divorcee. The former is easier to choose to bypass, because the husband who forgives his wife is under no obligation to tell the religious authorities or demand a divorce. In the second case the name of the co-respondent is known and often identified in the get and divorce proceedings. But these examples are of the unforgiving option. Interestingly, the Torah only talks about a person confessing and atoning. Forgiveness seems to be a Divine quality. I cannot find a source to support forgiving someone who was not sorry or did not repent.

The controversial case of the Sotah, the Fallen Woman in Numbers 5, makes unpleasant reading under the best of conditions. Rabbinic close reading of the text insisted that the woman had actually betrayed her husband on two levels. She had consorted with another man inappropriately, even if we had no direct evidence of adultery. And she has persistently refused to obey her husband's wish that she end the association. She, for her part, insists she is innocent of adultery but not necessarily of betraying her husband's wishes. The humiliating trial by ordeal is designed to get her to confess only if she insisted on her innocence. If then she came out unscathed, the rabbis expected them both to forgive and make up and have a child to seal the deal. I cannot think of a more obvious example of forgiveness of betrayal.

What better symbol can one ask for than the repeated Biblical motif of the Jewish people betraying their God at the worst and crudest of levels, and yet Divine forgiveness, albeit with a dose of pain and exile, would always be assured. This is the underlying theme of Jewish religious life from the betrayal of Tisha B'Av, the abandonment of God and Jewish values, followed by the month of Elul in which we fall in love with God again, and in Tishrei ask for His forgiveness. God may be forgiving of us humans on earth, but even then not in every case and not necessarily in this life!

It is much harder for humans to forgive. Indeed sometimes anger is a necessary catharsis and must be allowed to run its course. Yet the fact is that perpetuating bitterness and anger can be counterproductive and destructive. Sometimes it is pride, sometimes the pain is so great we simply cannot get over it. Each relationship carries its own baggage, rawness and illogicalities. A good relationship is one in which partners recognize the specific anxieties and neuroses of the other and act accordingly. What other people feel and think is no determinant of what you or your partner might feel. As Tolstoy said about families, each happy family resembles each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; so it is with love. And when a relationship is shaky, it is knowing and understanding the specific way in which one's partner is unhappy that enables one to recover.

All this is true not only of love, but of any area in which human beings come together in partnership and one of them does something, willful or accidental, that threatens the whole fabric of the relationship. And that is why all of this is relevant to this time of the year, as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. Can we ask God for forgiveness for ourselves, if we cannot grant it to others?

August 05, 2010

Love Hurts

Having anything, means that one risks losing it. That is true of possessions, of life, and of course of love. But because one risks losing something, surely that does not mean one should never try to achieve it. As Lord Tennyson said (yes, Lord Tennyson and not Shakespeare), "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Indeed, it was Shakespeare who said, "For violent fires soon burn out themselves" (Richard II).

This does not seem to deter us from falling or trying to fall in passionate love. What is remarkable about the loss of love is that it can be particularly debilitating and difficult to overcome. It often remains within one's psyche as a bleeding wound even when a new love has replaced it. Some people never recover.

Losing one's health, death, the collapse or deterioration of material possessions--these are either inevitable or beyond one's control. They are not necessarily personal insults. They are not a statement about how lovable, desirable, or attractive one is or not. And that is why the pain of lost love is so intense. One is negated, rejected, rubbished. And even the old excuse, "It is me not you", does not seem to help.

Yet the fact is that powerful and passionate as love is, it is still an emotion. Very often another part of our brain countermands the emotion and counsels logic, opportunism, or simply concession to other people or other demands. (Not to mention the other parts that press the claims for lust and excitement). Most of our lives are led trying to find a balance between the logical and the emotional--what we want and what is appropriate to the given circumstances. Still, we humans tend to want everything. We either strive for possession or perfection.

Even God started out as an idealist. He wanted unconditional love and obedience. He only gave Adam one command, but that was enough to highlight the fault line. Any statement "you can't" seems to invite betrayal. Love is not control. Control, domination, exploitation is a denial of genuine love. Having created humanity with the capacity for choice, God was in a way forced by the very willfulness of man to set him free from his Garden of Eden. If you love someone you must let him go.

The prophet Hoseah describes the relationship between God and Man. "When the Lord spoke through Hosea, He said to 'Go, take a wife who is a whore and will have children of infidelity, for the people (land) has committed adultery in departing from the Lord'" (Hosea 1:2).

Hoshea asks us to imagine the awful pain that a betrayed lover feels, even when he knew from the start what the outcome would be. In this case it is God. It is the nature of love, spiritual and physical, to yearn for a perfect merging of two souls. The ideal is a marriage based on love, not just contractual obligation. "And it shall be on that day, says the Lord, that you shall call me my "Man" ("Ishi"); and no longer my "Master" ("Baali")" (Hosea 2.18). The relationship of "Ish Ve Isha", a man for a woman and of course vice versa, is a relationship of total commitment. The relationship of a husband as a master "Baal" is just a contract. So if God can aspire to a passionate devoted relationship, of course that must be what He wants for us too!

Yet most of us fail in our relationships to some degree. I was selfish and self-centered as a young man. What I thought was "love" was really "desire." I had an agenda for my life and that was going determine my choice of partner. Later I came to understand that love is a very different, much more profound phenomenon because it is based on "give" rather than "want." It is something very few people are privileged to experience. In most cases, marriage is either the mistaken next step from desire and passion or, on the other hand, an arrangement between families or individuals.

If in either case it succeeds it is because both parties want it to. And wanting it to succeed, requires a degree of agreement, shared values, and aspirations as well as the decision to remain faithful. Not unlike the decision to be religious, interestingly. The amazing thing is that to the Western mind it seems inconceivable that an arrangement can actually lead to as much love and as deep a passion as falling madly in love at first sight.

I have met people who have been scared of love simply for the fear of losing it and being hurt. Just as some fear being completely honest about themselves for it leads to vulnerability. And just as some shy away from marriage because they think a successful marriage must be founded on 'love at first sight.'

The fact is that love and marriage do not always "go together like a horse and carriage". If they do, it is a blessing. But they are two very different processes. There is sexual attraction and there is compatibility. That's why a couple having lived and slept together for several years, then get married, may still break up.

And that leads me to the next installment. If marriage is an arrangement, does the pain of infidelity inevitably mean it is all over, forever?