February 24, 2011


There seems to be a permanent state of conflict between religious authority and individual spirituality (and this applies to all religions I know of). Authority values conformity, control, and stability, whereas mystics have invariably been individualists who have challenged the established structures and have encouraged religious experiment, even serendipity.

Invariably the individualists have been isolated, excluded, and disparaged by the authorities, sometimes excommunicated and imprisoned. (Galileo is an obvious example.) Bear in mind that Chasidism was excommunicated twice. And the great Moshe Luzzatto, whose book Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Righteous) is a yeshivah "set text", was banned too, by little minds.

Without a doubt, individuals have gone overboard occasionally. Shabetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank were rebels too far. We have had plenty of false messiahs, fake gurus, and even corrupt egomaniacs. But religious life without challenges is boring, stifling. Ultimately it heads to a dead end out of which only mystical revolutions like those of the Essenes, the Kabalists, or the Chasidim can free it. Then they themselves lose the dynamic; they become fossilized and structured, become the establishment, hunt out revolutionaries within, impose conformity of thought and behavior, and the cycle repeats again.

To me, the role of the Biblical priesthood typifies establishment. It was hereditary, privileged, and protected from reality. Historically, in both commonwealths, it lost its sense of mission and spiritual leadership. The first priest was Aharon, a good man, slow to anger and a peacemaker. But when it came to taking the lead, he couldn't. The worshippers of the golden calf manipulated him and he seemed to have given way far too easily. He offered no resistance. He sought political compromise. After all, he would have argued, he represented the whole of the community. He had responsibility. He was a diplomat to Moshe’s dynamic leadership. It was not for him be innovative or take risks.

One example of leadership, Chur, was left jointly in charge with Aharon, according to the Midrash, tried to stop those who wanted a golden calf, but was killed. Aharon was the cautious papal representative of the Hochhuth play, the representative rabbi who fears taking a stand in case he alienates, or the president of a commercial company, bank, or institution who has to convey confidence and stability, and show a steady hand on the tiller.

The prophet, on the other hand, had an entirely different role. The prophet was not appointed; he rose by dint of his own personality. Incidentally and significantly, there are women prophets in the Bible but no women priests.

The prophet was God's voice on earth. The message was the essence, not the presentation. There were, of course, great prophetic poets too. But more often the prophet was a mystic feeling the presence of God, driven by powers beyond his control, caught between suffering and ecstasy, the wild charismatic living in caves, on the run from authority, preaching challenging messages and pointing to new directions.

Moshe was unique because he alone combined both elements. He did not fit into any society completely. He was something of an outcast amongst Jews, resented because he could do things they could not, because he was fearless. The Egyptians regarded him as a threat, one of theirs who had been educated by them and given all the privileges, then used all that knowledge and turned against them. He was a stranger amongst the Midianites. He was also a spiritual visionary who withdrew into the desert to meditate and find his God and disappeared up the mountain in a haze of Divine encounter. Very reluctantly, and only under duress, did he take on a leadership role. Even then he continually begged God to relieve him of the burden and to let someone else take over, even to kill him and put him out of his misery.

Moshe was indeed a prophet who was forcibly harnessed into a leadership role, at which he turned out to be very good. He was a unique combination, which s of course why he remains the greatest of all spiritual figures. Ultimately he came to recognize that a people needed a constitution, a clearly defined framework, and a team of specialists to deal with the complex needs of a whole society. He took risks with his charges and put his job on the line. He even challenged God and yet retained his close, intense, and profound relationship with Him. His persona defines the characteristics of Judaism that differentiates us.

He and Aharon were so different and yet they represented these two contradictory paradigms of Jewish leadership. Aharon was the safe one who could not stop the rebels. Moshe was the radical who could.

The fact is that in most areas of human life we need both. Relationships need responsibility and obligation, but without love and passion they become dry and uninspiring. Businesses need complicity officers, accountants, and lawyers to make sure everything is done according to the book and unwise risks are not taken. But without visionaries, brilliant and sometimes crazy innovators, a business soon loses its edge, becomes petrified and fails.

The same is true of religion. Authority provides continuity, safeguards, and comfort. But it cannot see the exception. It cannot deal with the individual or the rebel. Too often authority loses sight of the essential message and ironically misleads the mass down the wrong alleyways. Without creativity and without challenge all authorities retreat behind bureaucracy and safety and they end up driving too many marginal people away.

Prophets can become loose canons and, with the exception of Moshe (and Eliyahu on Mount Carmel), prophets in Judaism have no authority to intervene in law. Yet without creativity and passion, religion atrophies and bores instead of inspiring. Woe to the generation whose prophets are silenced.

February 17, 2011

Thinking is Good

I have just finished reading a book by Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. It is an impressive combination of statistics and academic opinion, shedding new light on Eastern Europe Jewish society in the nineteenth century, and its educational system in particular.

Jewish education has always been a religious obligation on parents. In the past as in much of the world before state education, wealthy parents paid for private tutors. Otherwise the church or the mosque was the only alternative. In nineteenth century Jewish communities, it was the cheder.

The cheder took children as young as 3 years old (to allow their mothers to work). And I was surprised to learn to often it took girls as well as boys. They got a very basic education in essential traditional Jewish texts and prayers. But the system encouraged students with talent and interest to go on to become scholars. In this it was remarkably egalitarian in its way and time. Most children had the opportunity to go to some sort of cheder, however poor, and able boys could rise through the system to prominence and acclaim. Those at 13 who showed promise moved on to a larger Talmud cheder, usually in an urban center. They knew if they succeeded they would either find a rich man's daughter, become a rabbi or some other functionary of a community. The vast majority however simply learnt by rote, ending up relatively ignorant but still obedient to community values, and going to work.

Most of the cheder teachers were poor pedagogues, not unlike the characters Dickens portrays in the English poor houses of his day. They often took their humble positions because they could do little else. Their task was to get their charges to memorize both in Hebrew and Yiddish and inculcate information to supplement the rituals and experiences of home life. But the very nature of the texts and the commentaries required questions and answers. So even before going on to more serious studies, children were encouraged to challenge and start thinking for themselves (obviously within the parameters of the Talmudic method and culture). Success depended on the ability to argue and display intellectual creativity in front of one's peers as well as one's teachers.

When I first went to yeshivah in Israel as a teenager, throughout the day--in study, at mealtimes, even during leisure--we were given riddles and conundrums, and constantly tested to see how we responded. The intellectual challenge of yeshivah study was far more demanding and difficult than philosophy in Cambridge. It explains why so many who leave yeshivah go on to become very successful both in professions and business. It is a continuously perpetuated canard that young men who only have yeshivah study behind them are incapable of succeeding in the wider world. On the contrary, given the poor quality of so much state secular education I would put my money a well-trained yeshivah student any day of the week. That does not mean of course there are no casualties or abusers of the system.

Stampfer argues that it was this Talmudic method and the cheder system that influenced all discourse in Jewish Eastern Europe. Its language was combative and witty even amongst the least educated. It enabled so many emigrants to the West to do so well, because they were primed to challenge and question as well as to struggle to succeed. The "aggressive" Jewish mother is a product of such an environment, but so too are the Jewish comedians, writers, and intellectuals who overcame language difficulties to thrive as wordsmiths in new cultural environments.

But more significantly, he goes on to examine why it is that, if both Islam and Judaism revere their texts, drill their children in their early years to memorize and compare an ancient language with a vernacular, in general Muslim products of madrassas have become far more submissive to authority and less able to question. This is such a relevant issue. Religion does indeed speak to the disaffected and poor but why has "religious submission" become more dominant than "religious question"? He is, of course, cautious about extrapolating from limited studies, mainly of North African Muslims, to the whole of Islam. But even with the current turmoil, the Egyptian peasant is unlikely to vote against Allah.

We are both people of the book with similar traditionalist and centrifugal pressures. Yet the results of similar educational systems are so different. Why so many Jewish Nobel Prize Winners and so few Muslims?

One might put it down simply to political systems and historical political factors. Most Muslims live under dictatorships of varying degrees that discourage argument and challenge. Their societies have often not succeeded in liberating themselves from feudalism. Yet recent jihadis come from other backgrounds and degrees of wealth, and all they have in common is their religion. Stampfer suggests the real reason lies in the intellectually limited nature of modern Muslim religious education. But to be fair, within the Charedi world nowadays, there exists an equal degree of intellectual subservience and a reluctance to challenge religious authority. All religions, all authority, resist threats by retreating behind the barricades.

As soon as most Jews achieved freedom and success, they tended both to assimilate and to lose their combative edge. The dominant influences became the host society's educational system and values, not its own. The good news is that if our experience is anything to go by, the vast migration of Muslims to the West will, in the long run, benefit from exposure to challenge because modern Western educational systems do encourage question and individual autonomy. The mere fact that so many want to move to the west only goes to prove that most of them want the freedoms and the opportunities there they cannot get at home.

Of course it takes time, generations, to turn the tanker around. Everywhere, for all the evil sick minds that are captivated by bloodlust and jihad you can find just as many in the professions, commerce, and politics who are adjusting their Islam to a new reality, just as Jews did when they were the feared hordes of unwashed barbarians, spreaders of revolution, coming from the east! The challenge is to balance the two cultural systems. That applies as much to us as it does to others.

February 10, 2011

Mubarak, Egypt, and Moses

The more I consider Mubarak of Egypt, the more I am tempted to compare him with Moses (unfavorably, of course). Some parts of the Torah may be alien to the modern mind. But there is so much that wise and relevant thousands of years later.

We use "democracy" loosely and mean different things by it. The modern version does not come about either at the stroke of a pen or a sudden change at the top. It can only thrive if there are democratic institutions, and when the mass of the population has some measure of confidence in them.

Without an independent and reasonably honest judiciary, a police force that can be relied upon to do its job fairly, without freedom of expression and the right to gather; without an army that remains independent of politics , the theory of democracy will not work in practice. These elements were all missing from Mubarak's Egypt.

Moses had a fractious, unemployed, unemployable mob to contend with, divided tribally, religiously, and economically. It didn't matter how much aid they got from God (or the USA) they were ready at the drop of a donkey's dung to go out and demonstrate, to attack their leader, and demand his resignation. Even if Moses always had God on his side, look at the institutional steps he took to deal with the problem of getting the majority to share his vision.

At first he tried running things himself until his father-in-law taught him the importance of delegation. So he established a supervisory judiciary of the seventy elders to administer the constitution. Everyone had access to a just and fair legal system, a system in which, civilly at least, all citizens had equality, and so did strangers and aliens who accepted its principles. These elders presided over others who were responsible for "thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens". The criteria for appointments were honesty and freedom from corruption: "Honest men who hate bribery" (Exodus 18). The role of the judiciary then was not simply to execute the law but to teach it to everyone, universal education. This ensured that everyone felt invested in the system.

There was a police force to support and work with the judiciary. But they too were circumscribed by the principles of honesty and freedom from corruption. The problem in Egypt today is that neither the police nor the judiciary is considered by the vast majority to be fair or incorruptible.

In the wilderness the judiciary sat in and was part of the Tabernacle, which itself was a response to the need that emerged for a visible focal point at the center of the people. Everyone, regardless, was encouraged to come and voice concerns (Exodus 38, Samuel 1:2). In the post-wilderness settled communities, justice was accessible in city gates and travelling judges catered to the needs of the rural population.

The priesthood was responsible for seeing that the national public face of religion was a cohesive factor in national identity. It too was part of the same constitutional framework as civil law, not beyond it. It too was responsible for education.

There was no standing army. Volunteers from the tribes, came together to meet specific challenges. Only when the nation was under threat did conscription become a matter of obligation.

For all of this, the Bible itself recounts that these systems were as subject to decline and decay as any other human organization. That was why, parallel with the judiciary, the Torah introduced the role of the prophet, the voice of idealism and of opposition to corrupt government. In many ways the prophet then was like the free media now, although there were deceitful practitioners then too.

Mubarak claimed to have opened up lines of communication through the internet and social networks in ways that China has not, but in fact any serious expression of opposition landed the modern voices of protest in torture chambers. The checks and balances that Moses introduced and his willingness to listen to the complainants were effective safety valves during his period of leadership.

The Torah was not doctrinaire about systems of government, allowing for different models to suit different eras. If the monarchy acquired historical significance over judges or the rabbinic councils, it was more as a nostalgic reference point than a prescription. Anyway, even the king in theory, was always subject to the law of the land and never above it.

Jewish governance in the post-Biblical world was dominated by other powers and cultures. Where Jewish communities were allowed to govern themselves, as often happened, they were in theory led by a meritocracy subject to the will and the vote of the community. Sadly, oligarchies of the rich and the rabbinic protecting their own interests, too often came to dominate.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged" that humans succeed in diminishing almost all values that seek to restrict their selfishness and lust for power. The history of the Jewish people proves that the highest of ideals are no guaranteed protection against corruption. Nevertheless, seeing how the Torah maps out the requirements of fair and honest government fills me with admiration for the original inspiration, and perhaps a tinge of schadenfreude that over the millennia others have done far worse than we have!

February 03, 2011

Religion and Democracy

Upheaval in the Middle East. The West is panic stricken. Its own political systems (the result of hundreds of years of slow evolution) lead it to believe that the will of the people is paramount. So the mob takes over. The West supports what it thinks is democratic change but in fact after a false dawn of moderation, gets a crueler, nastier regime, more autocratic regime which poses a far bigger threat to world peace. For its pains, or incompetence, the West is vilified and rejected.

Beware of what you wish for. This happened thirty years ago in Shia Iran. It happened with Hamas in Gaza. It happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is happening again now in Egypt. I have no doubt that out of the turmoil it will be the Muslim Brotherhood that will eventually emerge as the government and the first thing it will do will break off diplomatic relations and repudiate the peace treaty with Israel. The same may happen in Jordan next. At best Egypt will go the way of Turkey; at worst, Iran.

Autocrats who lose the goodwill of the major part of their citizens are doomed eventually. But what do you get instead? It is often said that the Arab world is not amenable to democracy. The "Arab Street" is a primitive, prejudiced mob, lusting for revenge, not peace. Perhaps, but I wonder if what fuels this is just desperation. It seems to me there is a very powerful and disturbing religious undercurrent. In many situations religion often loses its domination when things go well; materialism wins. But when economic life gets tough, the fanatics offer the only hope--if not here and now then later on. Mubarak and the rest of them have failed in their corruption and their inability to improve the lot of the majority of their people. Religion is the obvious answer.

When nasty, corrupt strongmen are deposed on a wave of popular opposition, they are always replaced, perhaps not immediately but soon, by fanatical fundamentalist, clerically dominated absolutists like Hezbollah, Hamas--the sort of people who would rather shoot up and then demolish a Western-funded leisure center in Gaza than allow young men and women to have fun together. Yet many in the West would rather pat themselves on the back and feel good about supporting fanaticism, so long as it is in someone else's back yard.

But Islamic fundamentalism is not only a result of poverty, disillusionment, and political oppression. The Wahhabis spread their fanaticism from wealth and opulence in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it is Arab inferiority, because it once stood proud powerful but now has been overtaken by others and all it has left is the wealth that nature placed underneath its backsides rather than its once vaunted intellectual creativity.

Islam was not always repressive. Under the Umayyads who originated in Damascus a thousand years ago, it spread enlightenment, tolerance, and civilization into the barbaric remains of much of the old Roman Empire. The Abbasids in Baghdad and the Safavids, presided over one of the greatest eras of intellectual and poetic culture in human history. The Crusaders were a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs in comparison to the tolerance, dignity, and sensitivity of Saladin. The Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent looked down on the primitive intolerance of the Christian West and welcomed the Jews it expelled.

It is the mix of religion and social and political circumstances that is the powder keg. All religions have good humanitarian sides to them, but they also all have jingoistic, exclusionary, dark depths too. Religion itself is not necessarily opposed to democracy. There are plenty of examples throughout Jewish history and texts where the will of the populace has to be and was taken into consideration, and even monarchs being subject to constitutions.

Look at non- religious examples. Initially the West was deluded into believing that after the Soviet Union collapsed Russia could become a truly democratic state. In fact it has turned into a corrupt kleptocracy, the largest and most powerful mafia state in the world, where opponents of the regime are murdered or jailed, and justice is bought by the ruling powers and the corrupt new "upper classes".

Is China such a wonderful alternative? It might be dynamic materially and get the trains to run on time. But it supports violent and repressive petty dictators from North Korea, Myanmar, to Zimbabwe. It suppresses its citizens' freedom of thought and speech. It still venerates Mao, responsible for more deaths than any other figure in human history, a sexually corrupt, evil man. Are these examples we want to see spread?

All political systems go through upheavals and have their bloody consequences. The West is wrong to interfere. As Edward Lutwak has often reiterated, whenever Western powers intervene in conflicts and political situations not their own, they inevitably prolong the agony. Besides, supporting dictatorships elsewhere in the Arab world as the West does, its moral authority is nil. It might take a hundred years before the Arab world learns from its own mistakes, but eventually they will realize that neither violence , oppression nor fanaticism are the way to succeed.

In the meantime, the frightening fact is that Israel is now faced with the possibility of ideological enemies on all sides, ones that will call for blood. And I fear the appeasing West is blind. I am not sure that if Israel were invaded Obama's USA would come to its aid the way Nixon did. I fear the crazy world might cut the ground from underneath it.

You know by now I detest most of Israeli politics. I cannot stand fundamentalism of any brand and I want to see state and religion as far apart as possible. But if Israel is a mess, it is still a far more civilized place to live and thrive in than Hamasland or Ayatollah Hell. That’s why Israel’s Muslims, for all their disadvantages, would still rather stay put. For all its faults, Israel is a much better place for the ordinary citizen to live in than its Islamic neighbors.

But for some reason the world prefers the narrative of violent fundamentalism to imperfect democracy. If logic won’t help perhaps a little more fundamentalism might help them see the light of day! The agony of the Egyptians is, I am afraid, going to be prolonged and it won’t be the Children of Israel's fault.