November 25, 2010

Chaim Amsellem

I do not know Chaim Amsellem MK personally, but here is a man unafraid to speak the truth. This is an extract from an article that appeared in Haaretz this week:
The Shas leadership ousted Chaim Amsellem from the party on Monday, but the so-called renegade lawmaker continues to make waves. Three weeks ago, Amsellem made controversial comments to the newspaper Maariv about the Shas leadership. Inter alia, he condemned strictures against conversion, growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children.

In the Haaretz interview, Amsellem says he opposes the subordination of politics to the party's spiritual leadership. "It's an MK's right to say he accepts the ruling of a rabbi or rabbis...I really believe the place of rabbis is the world of Torah, and they shouldn't deal in politics. We can and must follow rabbis, but this whole style, which is a copy of the Ashkenazi style, a confederation of rabbinical courts, just doesn't appeal to me," he said.
Amsellem has two targets in mind. The first is that the ultra-Orthodox world is behaving in a morally ambiguous way, relying on politics to encourage a culture of dependency and entitlement that is divisive and corrupt. Polls consistently show that most Israelis object to the political role of religion in the state.

If the argument was that outstanding scholars should be allowed to concentrate on their studies, whether secular or religious, and should receive scholarships for excellence, I do not think anyone who recognizes the importance of academic excellence would object. It is an ideal fewer and fewer countries can live up to, to subsidize further education. If the argument were that devoting oneself to a life of spirituality and study adds to the Jewish spiritual component in a Jewish state, and helps the morale far more than a life of dissolution and indulgence (although some who do not share my religious views might object) I would support the idea wholeheartedly. But where hundreds of thousands of young men with no aptitude or interest in study are granted years paid for idleness in the name of religion, I can think of absolutely no moral or halachic justification.

For a major sector of the Israeli population to rely on others to protect it, to fight and to die for it, but refuse to shoulder any responsibility for its defense, I find morally and halachically unacceptable. As if an invading army or suicide bombers are going to differentiate between an Israeli with a beard and black hat and one without. Halacha has always insisted that we do not rely on miracles and be proactive in meeting our physical needs and the protection of community.

Even if the argument is that in modern states millions are supported by welfare, whether they work or not, and therefore why shouldn't one take advantage of what is on offer, I reply that moral leadership should encourage adults to take responsibility for their lives. And rabbis who refuse to take a moral stand for those they have influence over shoulder the blame for the decadence of those they can influence (Shabbat 54b). Dependency is scorned if there are alternatives."It is better to eat on the Sabbath the same modest food you eat during the week than rely on handouts from other humans." (Pesachim 112a)

The Charedi world will answer that ordinary people have no right or qualification to challenge rabbinic authorities. Not on learning perhaps, but anyone can detect when something is simply morally unacceptable. Whether it is in the UK, Israel, or anywhere else, decisions based on realpolitik and bargaining may be justified pragmatically but not ethically or religiously. This involvement of religion in politics is what Amsellem is objecting to though it must be said that that is the only raison d'etre of religious parties on whose ticket he was elected. If he really believes this he should have resigned rather than wait to be pushed.

The second issue is the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide. I am not going to deal with prejudice here, it is too big a subject for this piece, but I believe a prejudiced mind starts offending "the other" and then turns on itself. This explains the virulence of the internecine hatred that exists within rival religious groups. It also explains the banality of censorship that tries to exclude any opinion they disagree with or feel threatened by and the reckless way too many ‘major Rabbis’ excommunicate anyone they disagree with.

There is a fundamental feature that distinguishes Sephardi attitudes from Ashkenazi ones. Because in the Sephardi world there was no Reform movement, their rabbis had to tolerate the full spectrum of Jewish observance or the absence of it. Sephardi communities have always been far more tolerant and open than Ashkenazi ones, and Sephardi rabbis far better at turning blind eyes. The sad process of Sephardi Orthodoxy taking on board the worst aspects of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy is one of the tragedies of our age. And this is what Amsellem also excoriates.

Sadly, he will be mown down by the establishment. But I wish him well. I hope his spirit and independence survives the inevitable humiliations he will be subjected to. It is supposed to be a Christian ideal, but you can find it in the Talmud--the modest and the humble will inherit the world.

November 18, 2010

Anglo History

After the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, there was no official Jewish presence in England until the time of Oliver Cromwell. In 1655 he convened a conference in Whitehall to discuss the official readmittance of Jews to England. But, with opposition from the Church and the merchants, no official decision was taken. Yet a blind eye was turned and several families settled in London.

The first official Jewish synagogue in England after the expulsion was the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Sha'ar haShamayim (which the diarist Samuel Pepys visited in 1663). It was built during the reign of William & Mary and located in Creechurch Street in the City of London. In 1702 the famous Bevis Marks Synagogue was completed (with a generous gift from Queen Anne). The Jewish community then was overwhelmingly Spanish and Portuguese. They regarded the newly arriving Ashkenazim as unwashed barbarians and soon introduced rules banning the "tedescos" from holding office.

So the Ashkenazim set up their own synagogue, also in the city. The first record of their congregation dates from 1695 with what would, in time, be called the Great Synagogue, and that eventually Duke's Place. But Ashkenazim, being what all Jews have always been, fractious and divided, soon set up another called the Hambro', after the Jews from Hamburg who funded it. Naturally the first synagogue put a cherem, a ban on it, but eventually relented. As the population moved westward out of the City of London, a new Ashkenazi synagogue was founded in 1761, initially called the Hebra Kaddisha Shel Gemilluth Hassadim, Westminster, later known as the Western. It did not join the Great/Hambro' alliance but remained independent. Still they were few in number.

Slowly many of the early Iberian immigrants began to assimilate and intermarry. But during the next century, thousands of Ashkenazi refugees from Europe came into the country and became the dominant force in Anglo-Jewry. They were formally constituted by an act of Parliament into the United Synagogue (a Jewish version of the Church of England), and their Chief Rabbi came to be regarded as the religious representative of the community. The benefit of being the "Official Jewish Church" was that the United Synagogue came to be regarded as the "default" of Jewish life. But the loss was that nominality, outward adherence to Orthodoxy, really masked apathy and assimilation.

Meanwhile, a breakaway group from the Spanish and Portuguese had founded the first Reform congregation in London called the West London Synagogue. One would have thought that, as in the USA, this would have become the most numerous denomination. But it never did because of the character of Anglo-Jewish conformity to hierarchy and establishment. Throughout this time "The Western" had flourished independently, although its character was rather similar to that of the United Synagogue in its laid back none-too-frum character. It moved to the Haymarket and acquired its own burial grounds in the Fulham Road and then Cheshunt.

The war shifted the Western again, and in the 1950s it built a new synagogue in Crawford Place off the Edgware Road. At that time the West End had a significant Jewish population. In the decades that followed the Jewish population moved north, and the Western was stranded in what then became known as Little Lebanon!

I became the rabbi of the Western in 1985. I relished its independence, even if it was in decline, because I was not prepared to sell my soul or my independence to the United Synagogue or any other organization. In 1990 the Western was struggling to sustain itself with members as they died out or moved away, although financially it was well off. It became obvious that the Western should merge with the United Synagogue neighbor, Marble Arch. The merger made sense. I encouraged it. But when the new organization decided to remain within the United Synagogue, I left.

The first task I had when I joined the Western was to make a decision about selling the burial ground on the Fulham Road. It had been filled up in the 1880s and was now walled and derelict. A real estate company had offered millions for the site and had offered to transfer the 280 or so remains to be reinterred in Jerusalem. Halachically, one may only reinter a body if it is to go to a better or more spiritual location, and nothing could be better than the Mount of Olives. I supported the move, but the "Ecclesiastical Authorities" of London objected.

Their argument was not a halachic one. It was partly, "What will the goyim say? That Jews are prepared to do anything to make a quick buck?" Which is typical of the cringing insecurity of much of Anglo-Jewry. The other argument was that dotted around England there are tens of ancient burial grounds, many dating back to before the expulsion, and if we allow one to be developed, pressure will build to do the same for all of them.

And the Charedi world objected because it has long made a thing out of burial grounds, even where it is clear no Jewish bones were involved. Lord Jakobovits once told me a supermarket in York was held up for years because some passing yeshiva bochur claimed Jewish bodies were found in the foundations, whereas he and experts were utterly convinced they could not have been. A similar issue is currently holding up a hotel in Jaffa. It is one way of raising money.

To make matters worse, the Spanish and Portuguese congregation, not being subject to the anxieties or the threats of the Ashkenazi authorities, had themselves recently sold one of their disused burial grounds, so this now became a matter of principal. In the end, the board of the Western caved in and the whole thing was shelved.

Here is the point. Before the Western could even think of proceeding, they needed to contact relatives of all those buried in the Fulham Road to get permission. Two-hundred eighty Jews had died and were buried over a hundred year period; they got permission, but also discovered that not one single one of them had a living Jewish relative. Most of the original Spanish and Portuguese families over the same period had gone the same way. The type of Judaism they both practiced was a formality, devoid of passion or total commitment. Admittedly, times were different. The pressure to assimilate was greater. The rewards of remaining a Jew were less manifest than nowadays. But the fact was that only the injection of newer immigrants and a revival of more genuine Orthodoxy have kept these august institutions alive and well.

Some people wonder why I, who find so much to criticize in intense Orthodoxy, still nail my colors so firmly to its mast. The simple answer is that no other way of living Judaism has such a track record of survival, coming back from the edge and inspiring continuity. No system is perfect. Every system has warts and failings. But some survive better and are more successful in handing down a tradition than others. Communities come and go. Who remembers now that Otranto and Bari were the strongest Jewish centers of learning a thousand years ago? No one's left there. But we are here.

November 11, 2010

Politics & Religion

Several things are clear to me from the US midterm elections. Only a minority care enough to vote. Most people do not trust politicians. Most people are not wedded to any particular political party, even if there might be a family tradition of loyalty to one. Voters are pragmatists. If it works they’ll stick to it, and if not they'll kick them out and give the others a chance to do better. They know there is a lot of corruption everywhere, but tend to think that it is just the inevitable way of things.

These lessons apply equally to most democracies, including Israel. Although there party loyalty is much stronger because of the longstanding tradition of buying votes, job and cash handouts and, to use a most inappropriate term, pork barrels. Yes, the term might have been coined in the US, but the Jewish state has perfected and institutionalized the art.

What most people care about is having government that cuts waste, prevents abuses, does not employ vast numbers to keep the unemployment figures low or to win voters, does not hand out huge sums to the underserving and lazy who could work but prefer not to. They want to see someone able to run the economy is such a way as to increase wealth and see that it is spread reasonably widely and to good effect. Often the last is not possible because of external factors, world trade or world slump. But when they see a refusal to tighten controls for fear of alienating underserving oligarchs and ‘bankers’ it is a sign that something is rotten.

People are fed up with those sectors of society that want to impose unrealistic burdens on others. The strikes in France over raising the pension age (to 62--a level still way below most advanced countries) are illustrative. France has in the past been held hostage by unions and their political lackeys who have imposed crazy benefits, long paid holidays, early retirement, almost universal disability bonuses for retirees on the grounds of stress and feeling under the weather. In the past government capitulated. This time--despite the massive support, including millions of schoolchildren apparently already worrying about being able to retire before they have even begun employment--the rest of the country supported a hitherto unpopular government and president in standing firm.

Back in the USA, the Republicans have no better solution to unemployment than the Democrats. They may want to cut government spending and reduce unemployment, but times have changed and those nongovernmental jobs that are coming on-stream require a level of education and skill many of the present unemployed don't have. It is not dissimilar to the collapse of old heavy industries and mines. And while they want to reduce the deficit, the Fed (not a political party) goes ahead and prints more money, which will have the opposite effect, even if short-term it might well be necessary.
Doe-eyed dreamers who supported Obama have abandoned him because he has proved to be a politician like any other. Many voters are disillusioned. And all they can do in a democracy is to express disappointment, if not anger.

It strikes me that I could have been talking about my favorite subject, religion. Most people, even religious ones, are dissatisfied. They may be committed as individuals, love the religion, if not its organization. They may be loyal to one group or another. But they know that most of their leaders are failing to inspire, to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, to improve human relationships, to increase Godliness on earth, or to persuade the skeptical that they have something to offer.

Reform and Conservative Jews know their message is insipid and irrelevant to most Americans. The very Orthodox know that, although they are increasing, mainly through birthrates, they haven't solved outstanding halachic issues that create barriers between them and many Jews. They have only widened the credibility gap with the majority of most intelligent, enlightened westerners. They have turned happily inwards, and to hell with the rest (I exclude those few evangelical Hassidim and "Returnee Movements", who have had some notable successes, but still leave the overwhelming majority cold).

In Israel the Orthodox are living in cloud cuckoo land, expecting others to fight and work for them and underwrite a largely indolent life for too many. Not all, but most of the leadership responds to the illogicality and unsustainability of the situation with inaction; put your trust in God, pray and let someone else find a solution. Not all, by any means, but many preach to the choir, circle the wagons, become increasingly detached from reality, and suffer from intellectual and moral paralysis. In fact, more and more of their own know full well something needs dealing with, but cannot quite work out what, or are frightened of taking the lead or being ostracized. Even more of the faithful, while not knowing exactly what they want, know for certain what they do not want.

Democracy is not a panacea. It is inappropriate to deal with matters of spirit in a world where most people settle for the lowest common denominator. But if only there were a way for ordinary people to express their dissatisfaction with their priests, rabbis, and mullahs, and vote for someone else who might have a chance of doing a better job. Nowadays we have no effective priesthood, no prophets, and no real leadership--just clerics, dynastic rebbes, and rabbis who are only concerned with furthering their own personal agendas and keeping the rest out. No wonder it's a mess. Still, we faithful carry on, because we refuse to allow incompetent or hypocritical humans to put us off a good thing.

November 04, 2010


George Soros is, like me, an admirer of Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. I completely agree with Soros on almost every issue, except that he has no interest at all in anything spiritual. When I met him briefly at a conference in Vienna many years ago, his disconnect from anything Jewish reminded me of a man who has never fallen in love and regards such fancies as fool's gold.

Recently he has gained notoriety for putting millions into a campaign in California to legalize marijuana. To my amazement the people of California, the home of spaced-out druggies, rejected the proposal. I guess the vested interests such as the Unions and the Mexican drug trade bought more votes. Soros supports the decriminalization of drugs. He has argued that governments should simply make money taxing drugs the way they do alcohol and tobacco. I agree with him.

That drugs are unhealthy, dangerous, and cause crime and death is indisputable. To what extent they degrade the human mind and body is debated, usually distinguishing "soft" drugs from "hard" ones. I remain highly skeptical that soft drugs do no harm. Ineffective drug laws and policing costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. American jails are filled with mainly black poor whose only chance of making big bucks seems to be drug crime.

Far too many deaths are caused by people operating machinery or vehicles, or being in charge of children while under the influence of drugs. Drugs have all but turned the Mexican/American border into scenes of medieval barbarity. Youngsters from all communities that I have come across are constantly seduced into use, dealing, and smuggling. Too many crimes are committed under the influence of drugs. Too many lives are wasted or destroyed. The "War on Drugs" has failed ignominiously.

Much of what can be said of drugs can be said of alcohol and tobacco. According to the BBC alcohol does far more harm, to a greater number of people, and costs society more than heroin. Even if one argues that alcohol in moderation has social and medical benefits that hard drugs do not, still alcohol and tobacco cost us billions in sickness, care, and death. Yet they are legal and are major sources of government income. It makes no sense not to do the same with drugs. Prohibition fuels crime. Taxation at least can help society.

It is argued that legalizing drugs that can be made or cultivated at home by anyone would not make government much money. That also used to be said of alcohol where moonshiners and do-it-yourself winemakers still ply their trade, but big business does a better job manufacturing and marketing easily available products of a higher quality and greater effect.

In theory, the money accumulated from taxing could be used to set up clinics, and improve rehabilitation and education. But politicians usually squander such windfalls on pet pork-barrel schemes. Besides, pouring millions into Britain's health system doesn't appear to have made any difference.

But the problem is much larger. People are taking legally prescribed "pharmaceutical" drugs all the time--to sleep, to wake, to have sex, to get thin, to put on weight, to calm down, to get excited, to get through the day, to get through the night, to get into school, to get through school, and to get out of school. The impact on bodies and minds is still undetermined.

The pharmaceutical companies are, at least in theory, controlled, and their products need some form of testing. They employ millions to legally make, market, and sell their products. They tend not to use physical violence to overcome competitors. Although, like all companies, they try to avoid paying tax on their profits, they usually end up paying something somewhere.

But there's a wider issue here. Most of us willingly and without care for the consequences, ingest vast amounts of food, drink, and other stuff that is unhealthy. Either due to content or quantity it damages our systems. Many of us pursue hobbies or sports that are dangerous and cause millions of serious injuries every year. We engage in commercial activities that put us under enormous stress, degrade our mental welfare, and increase the risks of cancer and heart attacks. Are we going to criminalize all this too? If people want to eat themselves sick or fat and unhealthy, on kosher food or any other, let them. It is their problem.

Most humans have always tended to put faith in false material values, self gratification, rather than spiritual or moral ones. Throughout history we have experimented with drugs and poisons of all kinds and people have made good decisions and bad ones. I cannot see any significant distinction between the society we live in now and the Roman Empire at its most decadent, or Hogarth’s England--except that then only the wealthy and the privileged could indulge and now almost anyone can. Thank goodness then, as now, other sections of society have tried hard to make things better. As a libertarian, I am very much in favor of people being free to mess up their own lives if they choose to. The answer is education, not prohibition.

The counterbalance to decadence is ethical and or religious values--until they too descend, as they do, into corruption, megalomania, and hypocrisy. As we see around us, religion and superstition are hardly distinguishable at this point. People need quick fixes, banal religious substitutes, self-help gurus, and magic, no matter how it is disguised. And if none of those work, then many try drugs.

The wise person tries to do without false gods. The world has constantly been going through cycles of rises and falls, good guys and bad ones. The tools are around us, as they have always been, from mushrooms to mushroom clouds. Some of us have made poor choices and some of us have made wise choices.