April 28, 2011

The Royal Wedding

There is a blessing the Talmud gives for when one sees royalty (Brachot 58a). The text itself goes further and says one should even go out of one's way to see royalty, because in being impressed by the way the way they are held in awe by mortals, one should realize how much more the King of kings should be revered.

This might have been true once upon a time when kings and queens were absolute rulers with the power to make or break, reward and punish every one of their subjects. Jewish post-Biblical law gave kings the right to put anyone to death if they felt that would preserve or protect the realm. Thank goodness that no longer applies in civilized countries; but unfortunately in the barbaric ones which account for most of the world's current population it does. So if a blessing were to be relevant now on this issue it should be to thank God we live under these defanged royal ciphers rather than under bloodthirsty murderers who think nothing of shooting, torturing and raping their own citizens.

Yet I have a problem with all this royalty fuss. I have met the queen several times. She is indeed a gracious lady, but massively underwhelming. She has an unenviable task: to be gracious and calm all the time, to treat the hundreds of thousands of people she meets as if they are important and matter, when in reality it can only be a formality. I have seen her at work (for it is her profession) at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and Buckingham Palace in London, at tea parties where thousands wait patiently in line for her to pass and smile and nod and pick out someone here and there to enquire of or comment to, and smile again and move on. It is one of the amazing gifts of the royal family that they can make someone feel for a second or two that he or she is the only one who matters in the world and whatever it is that they do is so significant and interesting. And I have met her at receptions at which once again she approaches, smiles, asks a question or two and moves on. On several occasions when I had a chance to engage her, the mask remained fixed, the polite "how interesting" betrayed cold professionalism, and the only subjects she responded to with animation was when I mentioned that I had just seen her at Ascot where her horse had won, or enquired of her corgis. Otherwise, even praise for her son elicited a blank stare as if I had been guilty of disrespect. Helen Mirren gave an incredibly accurate portrayal of Her Majesty in The Queen.

It is hardly surprising, having to go through the public rituals she does and maintain the exterior she must, that she is emotionally restrained, constantly aware of position and obligation rather than emotion, and has brought forth emotionally stunted offspring. But she does nevertheless represent the earthly symbols of rule, even if she is powerless. It is a beautiful and impressive charade and one that attracts millions of tourists, worldwide interest and fascination. But the fact is that nowadays the royal family is no more than a branch of show business. It feeds the insatiable appetite of those who live dull and boring lives for gossip and "personality".

There was a brief interlude in history when the royal family behaved and believed as if it ought to set an example, morally and religiously. But that is no longer the case. The excessive and irrational personality cult of Princess Diana was for someone of intellectual limitation (albeit more than compensated for by a humanity and concern) and sexual indiscretion. She was a "star".

I was able to observe Prince Charles when he spent a day with us at Carmel College in 1974, to celebrate our 35th anniversary. He was incredibly impressive in the way he had clearly learnt his role, to seem interested in everything and everyone and be excessively polite and friendly. He was an impeccable professional. But at the same time his entourage was busy picking up signals from him of which attractive females to proposition and invite onto his royal train. It seemed as though he had a royal procurer, unofficial of course. In this he was no different from almost all other royals and aristocrats who comprise the fabled Eurotrash jet set. What about him, or indeed his siblings, commands respect? The fact that one day he would inherit the title "Defender of the Faith"? Or his oft expressed wish to be the "Defender of Faiths"?

I am not arguing for the abolition. It is harmless enough and gives a sense of history and national identity, which is disappearing at a rapid rate as the United Kingdom descends to its own bland version of a multicultural, multiethnic society, preserving prejudice as it bends over backwards to indulge. It is not as if other models of national figureheads are any more satisfying or exemplary.

My lack of interest in a mediocre couple of human beings getting married, has repercussions on my attitude to our daily prayers in which we call for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Do I really want to empower a human, however special, with powers of life and death, or even of mundane legislation? So I translate it in my mind into nostalgia for a misty autonomous past and an expression of hope for future perfection.

As for this royal family, I see no evidence of power or moral splendor, just the banality of personality worship and human credulity. Why should I make a blessing when I see no particular reason to? Mazaltov nevertheless, and LeChayim.

April 21, 2011


The issue of kitniyot. The term meant pulses and beans in the Talmud, but now extends to include peas, certain other vegetables, peanuts, and any new food that reaches the market. It seems strange, just typical of the excessive, casuistic preoccupation with minutiae that now dominates Orthodox Jewish life and seems to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with one's relationship with God. Can there possibly be a case for the defense?

The basic code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch itself, makes no mention of any ban on kitniyot. But the commentary on it of Rav Moshe Isserles (the Rema, 1520-1572) which is the accepted norm of Ashkenazi Jews, says that it has become the custom in Ashkenaz to be strict and not to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Sephardi Jews know no such ban.

The idea of the Biblical ban on chametz during Pesach itself is strange. Dough can rise, ferment. The ban on seems rooted in the idea that puffery, whether of grain or humans, is an unnatural state. Mystically, chametz is negativity. We need to be reminded occasionally to recognize the dangers of arrogance and to try to exclude it from our lives if we want to thrive and succeed spiritually.

But kitniyot do not "rise". Two reasons are given for the custom. In Europe pulses were often stored with grains and taking some out of the sack or barrel on Pesach might lead one to eat forbidden produce by mistake. And in wet climates pulses sprout. This was seen as giving the appearance of chametz.

Regardless of the reason, by the sixteenth century the whole of the Ashkenazi world banned kitniyot on Pesach. The Sephardi world did not. But even strict Ashkenazis agreed that food cooked with kitniyot did not make one's vessels chametz on Pesach, and one could eat on utensils in a Sephardi house where everyone else ate kitniyot. There is absolutely no logic for banning kitniyot, other than an error of botanical understanding, or dereliction of care, that is confined exclusively to Ashkenazi brains.

The accepted principal is that where a custom has spread universally, or throughout a specific community, it becomes the equivalent of law and is retained even where the original reason has fallen away. This is the force of "custom". Offending against custom may not be as serious as offending against a Biblical law, but the fact is no rabbinic authority of any status will agree that any widespread custom no longer applies.

Why do logically anachronistic or paradoxical customs never disappear? In part, it is simply the "nature" of the Orthodox/Charedi rabbinate nowadays. They will happily add all sorts of excessive strictnesses, even when the Shulchan Aruch is lenient, but will never ever dream of making life easier or saying a custom no longer applies!!! All religion nowadays gives the impression of being more concerned with social conformity and belonging than anything spiritual or commonsensical. And people who live in closed or defined religious societies are too fearful of social pressure (perhaps my child won't get into the right school or might not get a suitable "shidduch") to dream of not doing what everyone else is.

The fact is that human beings are inconsistent, irrational, credulous, and superstitious, and are consumed with the need to conform and the desire to show off. Humans do really stupid things and think they are important. They salute flags, they put their hands on their hearts and swear allegiance, they sing banal songs in praise of their homelands or leaders, they wear silly little tokens in their lapels, ridiculous, pointless relics of bygone ages, such as neckties, kerchiefs, unnecessary buttons and buckles, and the most ridiculous felt and beribboned things on their heads, for no logic reason other than to conform or show off. They say pointless things and meaningless words such as "seeya", "hi", "I mean", "like", "don't yer know", and "say what". Why? Just because others do. And in a religious context we use words like "amen" and "halleluyah" that we could dispense with and lose nothing of sense or communicative value. We are trained in some countries to eat with knives and forks and hold them in very specific ways. (One of the biggest culture shocks Europeans encounter in the USA is that hardly anyone knows how to hold a knife and fork properly.) Does all this matter? No, not really, because they are all little ways of signifying belonging to a group, a class, a culture, and we do it as reinforcement of where we want to be or with whom we want to be seen identifying with.

So much of all of human life is based on earlier cultures, social conventions and yes, even mistakes. What matters surely is not the origin but the usage. Are these strange habits beneficial? Can they add to the quality of our life, making it more meaningful and significant? I believe they do. They force us to stand back and question difference, to break or contrast patterns of behavior and to bring the spiritual into the mundane. Simply to think about what one eats is important. And if one has a yearlong habit of relating to food one way, I see nothing wrong in upping the ante over Pesach so that we try that bit harder to think about what we are doing. That, in the end, is the purpose of halacha of whatever degree of strictness. Nice moral theories and values are useless unless translated into everyday action. Ritual does not guarantee. Nothing can, because of our human nature. But I believe it helps.

Orthodoxy is such a minority interest, such a strange way of conducting one's life, that we aficionados like to make a virtue of our craziness. We find value in almost everything. Precisely because kitniyot and similar eccentricities make no sense in the rational world, observing the rule on Pesach is a way doing something for a purely religious reason. As Tertullian said, "Credo Quia Absurdum Est." I believe it precisely because it is absurd. Our variation is that we do it despite its seeming absurd. That is what is meant by the Biblical term "Chok". It is a spiritual sacrifice of reason to raise our awareness of another way of looking at life.

April 14, 2011


At China's National People's Congress this year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that increasing happiness was more important than the GNP. If China really cared about its citizens it would give them more freedom. Guangdong is to change its name to "Happy Guangdong" and officials in China have established "happiness indices".

If "happiness" in Chinese is the same as "happiness" in English, then it is just another "happy" clappy, fluffy, meaningless expression of a desire to feel good. But what does feeling good amount to? Absence of pain? Or is it some physical state, like sneezing or taking Viagra? When the Beatles sang that "happiness is a warm gun", whichever interpretation you choose to place on the words, it cannot be any more serious a description than that other cliché that "love is never having to say you're sorry".

John Locke in 1693 wrote in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" that "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness." But then he failed to explain either what "happiness" was or what "true and solid" meant either!

The United States Declaration of Independence, which was drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson and was adopted by the Second Congressional Congress on July 4, 1776 declares that:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." So what in Heaven's name is "happiness"? It can't be simply "pleasure", because then the state should have no right to stop me walking around in an opium-induced stupor, or running around naked. Are we talking about what a pig rolling around in the dirt feels, or a hippopotamus in the mud? Pleasure cannot be sustained permanently. It is easy to overeat and feel sick, to overindulge and feel deflated or exhausted.

The classical Hebrew word "simcha" is often translated "joy". We are commanded to "serve God in joy", to "be joyful on your festivals". How do you get to be joyful? I guess by enjoying the good things in life. But that is a matter of personal attitude. You cannot legislate for a mental state. You can merely suggest it as a goal to be aspired to. Similarly "happiness", "ashrei" is not a state of being so much as an appreciation of how fortunate one is. It is something we should aspire to but can never guarantee or legislate for. Anyway there is a fundamental difference between "pleasure" and "joy/happiness".

Happiness may result from unhappy or unjoyful situations, when we do a good deed or a spiritually beneficial one. When I go to visit a dying congregant, I want to be there in that ghastly hospital, but I am as far from happy or joyful at that moment as you could imagine. Or what if I put my life in jeopardy to save a drowning soul? That too is very "good" thing to do, according to my moral and religious system, but it is hardly a happy experience. Ask any parent if there aren't moments of pain, anger, and frustration in bringing up children just as there are moments of sheer delight, pride, and excitement. Is there a permanent state of a "happy parent", even when one may sometimes have to nurse a sick or injured child? What Locke calls "true happiness" surely is something more.

When the rabbis ask, "Who is a wealthy man," they reply, "Someone joyful, sameach (satisfied), with his life". Satisfaction too is a state of mind. I have known millionaires who thought they were poor. It seems to me that the aim of human beings should be to do that which is beneficial, valuable, and creative.

Happiness can also come from a conviction that one is on the right path, even if at any moment it is strewn with thorns and thistles. The root word ASHR meaning "happy" also means "validate". Happiness is having direction, structure, goals, and targets. Such as a religious life, for example, gives.

But who decides what goals and targets are appropriate? What of murderous dictators who are convinced they are right to torture rebels into submission, recantation, or death? Marxists or Maoists who believe human life is dispensable in pursuit of the "end" for society? Maimonides, in his vision of a Messianic Era, defined it simply as removing political coercion and allowing individuals to fulfill their potential--and naturally he saw that potential as including the spiritual, not only the physical .

All religions and political systems agree on vague goals of peace and goodwill, but not on how to achieve them. That is why nowadays in the West we prefer political systems that leave most of private values and private lives up to individuals. My religion requires my sorting out my values and goals for myself, regardless of what political system I live under.

I believe the Festival of Pesach has it right. We think about what freedom means, what it allows us to do, and what our goals are for ourselves. We remember and value others, see examples of different lives, for better and for worse, those free and those oppressed, and we accept the right to be different. But why a Seder Night for this? Humans need a ritual framework to remind them constantly of their values, so that when we lose momentum we are brought back to our ideals.

Happiness and joy are individual emotions. Being happy means appreciating good fortune, not giving up when things go badly. It is like being sensitive. One needs to cultivate it. It is very personal endeavor. Everyone has to imagine that he or she has come out of slavery and now has to make decisions. That is what Pesach is designed to remind us of.

Chag Sameach!

April 07, 2011


Pope Benedict XVI has published a book about Jesus of Nazareth in which he exonerates the Jews of guilt over his death. It has received a lot of publicity. But why? Pope John XXIII (in my view the greatest and saintliest pope of modern times) was responsible for the Second Vatican Council that started in 1962. He did not live to witness its conclusions. The Council produced the document "Nostra Aetate" in 1965 which, amongst other things, relieved the Jews of the theological crime of deicide. Never mind how it is conceivable that humans could kill a non-material God, other than in Nietzsche's metaphorical sense that God was dead. The vote of bishops was 1,763 to 250 and it was a landmark in Jewish-Catholic relations.

After the infamy of Pope Pius IX, who approved the kidnapping of young Edgar Mortara, and Pius XII's moral failure to condemn the Nazis, Pope John XXIII singlehandedly transformed the Catholic Church's relationship with Judaism. In a short time the Catholic Church began to address Jewish sensitivities, just as the World Council of Churches, the major Protestant organisation, started to move in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, I recall hearing the late Cardinal Franz Konig of Vienna say that for all the good intentions of recent popes, anti-Semitism still flourished, particularly in the lower reaches of the Catholic Church around the world. Indeed, in the US new immigrants from Catholic countries, particularly South America, have come in with inherited anti-Semitic beliefs. Fortunately, they tend to lose them over time in the US. One can only pray that Muslim immigrants go through a similar transformation.

Perhaps this explains why the pope has decided to reintroduce the issue now. By writing about the issue in a more popular book, rather than in a dry theological statement, he hopes it will reach a wider audience. Or perhaps he has realized there is so much anti-Semitic religious literature flooding into Europe from Muslim sources it might be time to try to balance things a little. Regardless of whether one does or does not like Israelis, Israeli policies, Israeli ministers, or for that matter Israeli food, the fact is that the tone and specifics of the language used against Israel, whether in the Arab world or in the intellectually challenged West, too often crosses the borders of anti-Semitism.

Perhaps it this background of consistent condemnation of Israel but silence in regard to the unspeakable horror of so many really evil regimes that has led the pope to conclude that anti-Semitism is indeed still alive and flourishing, that it is necessary for him to reiterate at least in the Christian world that the basis of two thousand years of hatred contempt and dehumanization needs to be counteracted.

The truth is that every new religion, however much it may proclaim the virtues of peace, rises on the delegitimization of those that came before it. Every holy text condemns the poor, ignorant, or graceless savages who failed to see the benefits of the New Revelation, and dominant religions have always persecuted them when they had the upper hand.

The uniqueness of Judaism is that for the past two thousand years its Midrashic commentaries and its legal judgments have overwhelmingly modified the harshness of the initial pronouncements. It has pointedly rejected any attempt to identify peoples condemned three thousand years ago with those today who might share the same names. Sadly, in the current political and theological climate some of our own seem to be regressing to earlier religious aggression. The problem with Christianity and Islam is that the old fundamentalist standards have for too long remained dominant and in place, so that flagellatory fanaticism has a tradition to call on.

Christianity has a problem with its gospels, not least of which is the patent contradiction between the synoptic authors of the apparent events or myths they were describing with an obvious polemic intent. The late Hyam Maccoby was particularly effective in challenging the historical accuracy of the gospel narratives. To admit they were the products of a specific era, and to admit they had an agenda that distorted their objectivity, does not necessary damage any moral or ethical message, if that message can be distilled and purged of its animus. But when the messages do in fact lead to inhuman and immoral behavior on the part of the faithful, the issue has to be addressed. All fanaticism is dangerous, and in some religions more than others fanaticism and murder go hand in hand.

The pope continues in the enlightened tradition of trying to eliminate primitive literality in favor of humane reinterpretation, and for this he deserves praise. He at least wishes to occupy the moral high ground, even if parts of his Church are clearly failing. He is not taking sides in a political dispute. He is simply trying to remove impediments to improvement. If only more of his counterparts in the other faiths would follow his example.