June 30, 2011

The San Francisco Cut

Do you really believe those San Franciscans who want to make circumcision illegal are genuinely concerned with the welfare of children? If they were they'd immediately introduce a law restricting parenthood to those who have passed a psychological examination. But then I doubt many of them would survive sane.

I ask you, what is likely to do more harm to a child? The loss of a minute piece of skin and a moment's transitory pain (and most children I have heard cry do not go on for more than they do after an inoculation), or years of mental cruelty, sexual abuse, violence, and manipulation? The hypocrites should at least be consistent and include piercing children's ears in the ban, but then that would offend all the aging hippies as well as the other local lobbies.

Let us not in any way compare it to female circumcision in which an organ is removed and the whole purpose is to prevent female sexual pleasure. In Judaism sexual pleasure is marital obligation and required. I am not aware that circumcised Jews or Muslims have a reputation for not enjoying sex.

There are those who argue that the experience is so traumatic it damages children psychologically forever. You can respond in several ways to that. One is to say we Jews don’t seem to have done too badly on it. We have outlasted most of our competitors and shown ourselves to be remarkably resilient; indeed, the more Orthodox we are, the more we reproduce.

Circumcision did not seem to have held back all those Nobel prizewinners, world renowned musicians, academics, economists, writers, artists, and financial wizards. But if we Jews have not been noticeably traumatized by circumcision, what he HAVE been traumatized by is anti-Semitism. Actually, given that such a high proportion of males in the US get circumcised too, perhaps we should blame the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on circumcision. Oh yes, and New York passing gay marriage too!

Much of the material disseminated in California about circumcision is manifestly anti-Semitic and directed against a religious ritual rather than cruelty. Of course there have been errors and accidents and some circumcisions have gone wrong. There have been mistakes throughout the medical world. Thirty billion dollars are awarded each year in the USA alone for medical malpractice. Shall we ban medicine?

I am, of course, not a medical expert. I have never argued that we should adhere to any of our traditions for medical reasons. It certainly doesn't do any harm, and I have read that circumcision helps prevent the transmission of certain sexual diseases, including AIDS. But I don't know if it does, and I certainly don't base my religious observance on those grounds. Neither am I willing to argue aesthetically that a circumcised penis looks nicer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or the partisan.

I am also prepared to assert that if anything could be proven to be medically dangerous or psychologically damaging, this alone in Jewish Law requires one to desist. That is why the most Orthodox of hemophiliac children will not be circumcised. It is a cardinal principle of our religion to put health and life first.

Therefore it seems to me that the opposition can only be animated by prejudice and antagonism. The argument is put that the campaign only aims to open the public's eyes to the fact that circumcision is not necessary. Well blow me down. I am not aware of any law in a free society that says it is. It may be a matter of fashion, but then people do indeed do weird things in the name of fashion without making a law about it. By all means, spend as much money as you want publicizing the beauty, medical advantage, and benefits of not being circumcised. Be my guest. I'll even donate, if it can be proved. But surely an attempt to ban it is both a prejudiced expression of irrational hatred and an infringement on a person's liberty.

Circumcision is usually an expression of parental love for their children, that that are inducting them into a moral and spiritual tradition that they value. It is not an act of cruelty. And I write this as someone who hates circumcisions and looks away or stands as far back as possible; if it were not a religious obligation, I would forgo it! Perhaps one might argue that all religion is dangerous and a lot of religion is indeed very dangerous. But we do not proscribe it just because we disapprove. Otherwise I'd campaign to ban most religions.

Surely society has gone mad if it permits any kind of behavior that is libertarian while at the same time it seeks to ban something simply because it is tradition. Surely if we start interfering in what parents do without the evidence to substantiate the claim, then we must legislate to stop parents producing children unless we are convinced and they have passed the tests to show that they can be good caring and responsible parents. In my long educational experience I can state with absolute confidence that more lasting and detrimental damage has been done to children by poor parenting than by any cuts or injections. But clearly some San Franciscans don't care for who is a good parent or not, only for trying make everyone else as unbalanced as they are.

Thank goodness the USA has a constitution that protects freedom of religion. Anyway there are far more Muslims in California than Jews. If the antis don't mind offending Orthodox Jews, they might twice about Fatwas.

June 23, 2011

West Dunbartonshire Whisky

The fools of West Dunbartonshire Council asked for it when they decided to ban any books from their libraries that give a pro-Israel point of view or were printed in Israel. I thought George Galloway was a Dunbartonshire mutation. Now it seems there must be some more general infection in the air that turns some of its homo sapiens back into apes.

But it takes one act of stupidity to cause another one. Around the Jewish world, that new spiritual movement that has caught on like wildfire, the Shabbat morning kiddush club, has been galvanized into a response. From Los Angeles to St Johns Wood has come the call for a worldwide ban on West Dunbartonshire Whisky, which includes Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, and Auchentoshan (approved by the London Beth Din, which in itself must make it suspect). Frankly, none of them are worth shedding a tear over or getting drunk on. So long as they leave Caol Ila alone, I don't give a damn. Caol Ila comes from the Isle of Islay, where the bracing Atlantic winds clear the brains far more effectively than the fetid Lowland air of West Dunbartonshire.

This is just another example of second-rate failed politicians who end up as councilors because they are fit for no other real job in life, making fools of themselves. Or perhaps it was a case of Georgie Porgie Galloway arranging a subsidy from the estate of his old pal, Saddam Hussein. Not unlike the London School of Economics which one expects to take a stand that their great benefactor Gaddafi would approve of. Money makes the world go round, and down. And of course one expects that West Dunbartonshire will now throw out their computers too, given that Israel originated technology that lies insidiously deep within each one of them. (Read Archbishop Cranmer's blog for a more thorough response!)

But really, is a boycott the answer? Don't we argue in our role as victims that boycotts are ineffective scattergun tools that often hit the wrong people? The Americans tried re-naming the french fries when France wanted to block the Gulf War and for a while sales of Champagne and Camembert took a hit. Where did that get anyone? If an army marches on its stomach, religion seems to need wine and spirits.

Writing letters of protest is another matter, so is contacting the multinational that owns the whiskies and getting them to stop their donations and subsidies, which incidentally they give in abundance to West Dunbartonshire. That is worth doing anyway, and all the more since Arabs are not supposed to be drinking the stuff anyway.

If San Francisco weirdos decide to outlaw circumcision, does this mean we will refuse to speak to anyone from San Francisco, watch movies from Hollywood, or not fly on Boeings because they make jets in California? If Chivas (which was once owned by Bronfmans) had been guilty of this idiocy, that would be different. But they have had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Yet I am rather pleased at this visceral response, even if it is silly itself. Perhaps it takes a shot of whisky to get apathetic, smug Jews off their well upholstered backsides and be proactive. In general, we seem to be stuck like bunny rabbits in car headlights and unable to respond to the growing threats to our societies; we leave it to a few mavericks in each community to take up the cudgels. If it requires some good scotch to stir up our guts and encourage us to protest, then that must surely be a positive byproduct of kiddush clubs.

I always liked kiddush clubs precisely because they challenged the boring, stuffy established order. I also liked them because instead of listening to some boring old fart droning on during the haftarah we could actually go out and engage in social lubrication, enjoy Shabbat, talk Torah even, instead of sitting chatting in shul, disturbing everyone else around.

Not only that, but it did seem to me that many who came back in afterwards prayed with so much more enthusiasm and concentration (when they weren't throwing their arms around and knocking their neighbors). The beauty of the synagogue, as opposed to the church, always was its informality and the sense that we were at home with the Almighty rather than stiff guests. Too many cathedral synagogues have lost that and the kiddush club was and is a great antidote.

But now I see they have other benefits--stirring the gut, getting the highland spirit, that of Robert Bruce, William Wallace, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, the acmes of lost causes, up and running. The bagpipes swirling, the kilts a-flying, and wae hae, off we go to battle!

Now trust me, Caol Ila will do that far better and more effectively than Auchentoshen! Besides, I bet the West Dunbartonshire councilors drink Irish whiskey, if they're not boring teetotalers.

June 16, 2011

Skirt Lifting

My anger at the Strauss-Kahn affair stems both from a Jewish and a purely secular point of view. I am not prejudging the issue. A person is "legally" innocent until the verdict is delivered. But even if it transpires that he is innocent, still there is a pathology he represents that repels me. (Anthony Wiener's Twitter farce, of course, is neither as sexually oppressive nor as offensive, just juvenile and a reminder how self-destructive adult males can be.)

When people are given too much power and authority, they get to feel they are above the law. There always have been and will be abuses; no matter whether it's rabbis, priests, mullahs, politicians, or bankers.

It's not simply the sex. As King Solomon said (and he ought to have known), "There is no man on earth who only does good and never sins." Most humans are fallible. The Bible itself tells the story of Midian's successful tactic of using sex to thwart the Israelite advance. The Talmud says, "There are no guarantees when it comes to sex" Ketubot 13b etc. So it is not the normative male condition of giving in to temptation that is the issue here. It is what I believe to be a matter of primitive male aggression towards women. To make matters worse, it is still too often justified or minimized by like-minded males.

French journalist Jean-Francois Khan typifies the secular point of view. DSK was, he says, merely indulging in "troussage domestique", a typically French expression which delicately translated means "lifting the skirts of domestic servants". Jack Lang the former French minister declared, "It's not as though he killed anyone." Henri Bernard Levy accuses the Americans of overreacting. Sadly, they are all paragons of French intellectual society betraying the hypocrisy of their calling. They share a similar secular Jewish background as well as a track record of philandering, for which they are, more often than not, rewarded by their society.

If this is not "imperialism" at its modern worst I don't know what else is. Women who are forced through poverty, circumstances, or simply the desire to succeed in a society still heavily weighted against them, are vulnerable and scared. They know that no one will believe them and that society will ignore their predicament. They will be hauled through the courts and maligned and besmirched. They will be the ones punished. It's a predator's world.

It derives from a similar male mental aberration as that which is the fate of women in many Muslim societies where if they are raped they themselves will be blamed, punished, even killed because it must have been their fault or family honor has been offended. They are doubly victims.

It happens in other ways in the workplace. In our corrupt financial world, ethically motivated whistleblowers are more than likely to be punished than the criminals they had the guts to expose.

There was a time where male rulers made use of the "droit du seigneur", the law of "primae noctis", that gave them the right to take all virgin brides in their domains first. And I agree you can find plenty of cases of powerful women abusing their power sexually--think of Catherine the Great. We like to think we are a more ethical world now where secular values have supposedly advanced over religious ones imposed by fear and authority. Well my dears, it hasn't happened yet. Although I do agree secular courts are more likely to do something about it than most religious ones.

In the case of DSK, he has a record a mile long of affairs with subordinates, of pressurizing employees into supposedly consensual liaisons. He was already investigated once at the IMF for an inappropriate affair; the inquiry, while exonerating him of course (it was her fault), agreed that the IMF had a culture of sexual exploitation. So regardless of the merits of this particular case, he has already been found wanting on ethical grounds. Not that that matters in France. Mitterand had a mistress and an illegitimate child housed and fed by the state. Chirac was corrupt financially as well, but that did not faze the French. On the contrary, it seemed a positive recommendation, for ruling like with like.

And here is the Jewish angle. Dominique Strauss-Kahn always feared that French anti-Semitism would block his prospects of winning the presidency. Now he has done it to himself another way. He has never been a practicing Jew. His third wife is more overtly Jewish and she insisted on a religious ceremony, but he has never been associated with anything religious. In court his lawyer asked for him to be allowed to attend religious services once a week. What do we make of that? Is he, as a Frenchman, now inclined towards Catholicism and its convenient system of confession? Or does he think attending a synagogue in New York will curry favor with New Yorkers and the chance of some Jews on the jury.

I have always detested the hypocrisy of certain types of Orthodox men who think they can play away from home and get away with it. There are far too many of them if the problems I have been asked to try to solve over the years are anything to go by. But of course it is not only a religious hypocrite that gives Jews a bad name.

We can argue about the relative merits of the American and the French legal system. I am actually pro-Napoleon, even if I dislike France. But at least in America the dirty laundry eventually gets washed in public. In France it is simply recycled.

June 09, 2011


I lived in Jerusalem, through the transition from divided city from which Jews were excluded, to the reunited city of 1967 when once again we could walk on those historical stones and touch the ancient walls. I have never experienced euphoria like that which vivified my soul, my mind, and my senses.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution number 181. Amongst its provision for the partition of British Mandate Territories was the stipulation that Jerusalem would be an open city. Amongst other administrative stipulations were included these:

"The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations. The Trusteeship Council shall be designated to discharge the responsibilities of the Administering Authority on behalf of the United Nations. The Administering Authority in discharging its administrative obligations shall pursue the following special objectives:

To protect and to preserve the unique spiritual and religious interests located in the city of the three great monotheistic faiths throughout the world, Christian, Jewish and Moslem; to this end to ensure that order and peace, and especially religious peace, reign in Jerusalem;

The City of Jerusalem shall be demilitarized; neutrality shall be declared and preserved, and no para-military formations, exercises or activities shall be permitted within its borders.

All persons within the City shall be entitled to equal protection of the laws. Existing rights in respect of Holy Places and religious buildings or sites shall not be denied or impaired.

Free access to the Holy Places and religious buildings or sites and the free exercise of worship shall be secured in conformity with existing rights and subject to the requirements of public order and decorum."

Ben-Gurion, on behalf of the Jewish Palestinians, accepted the resolution. The Arab world rejected it. The response of the British was to declare that they would abandon their Mandate responsibility and pull out of the country on May 14, 1948. Britain was supposed to have been neutral in the conflict. During their withdrawal, the British refused to hand over territory or authority to any successor. But in fact military personnel on the ground arranged that the Arab Legion (under the control of British officers) should gain strategic positions around Jerusalem before the actual withdrawal. With Israel's declaration of Independence, on the 15th of May, five Arab armies invaded, and so began the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which ended not in peace, not in agreed boundaries but only in ceasefire lines.

Jerusalem was surrounded. The Jews in the Old City, who had always been a majority since the middle of the nineteenth century, were besieged. They fought valiantly and lost men and women in the battle. Neither the UN nor the British came to their aid. They capitulated and were forced out by the Arab Legion. Only the heroic Burma Relief road was able to save the New City for the Jewish state; but neither the UN, nor the USA, nor Britain was prepared to accept it as the capital of Israel. The Arab conquest of the Old City, unopposed by the rest of the world was the green light for the complete destruction of the Jewish Quarter, the demolition of its ancient synagogues, the desecration of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and the order to shoot any Jew who ventured over the "no man's land" that separated the Arab from the Jewish side of the city. The Legion on one side and the Haganah on the other.

We don't know how any settlement over Jerusalem will be finalized, if at all. Israel has made several offers under Barak and Olmert that give concessions to Muslim rights of access and control. I am a dove but not a suicidal dove. When I look around at the reality on the ground in the Middle East today, I believe it would be madness to make concessions that endanger Israeli security. The one thing history has taught us is not to trust anyone's good word. Certainly not that of the UN, which was mandated and promised to control the flow of arms into southern Lebanon to Hezbollah, after each ceasefire and simply gave up.

So here I was a few weeks ago on Jerusalem Day thinking about Jerusalem, of course. And I have no sympathy for memorial days. We have enough special days in our religion and Jerusalem is remembered at least three times a day. Then I saw the mutilated, castrated body of a 13-year-old Syrian tortured to death by his own government. This was not an isolated case, though it did stand out as a particularly inhuman example of what tyrants get up to. I thought, "How can any sane person want to make peace with people like that?" And this was not the work of crazed individuals, like those sad women who kill their own children. This was not the work of a Hezbollah, Hamas, or Ahmadinejad’s cruel Basij militias, but of a respected Arab state, once the very symbol of Islamic culture and civilization.

In principle I have always believed in trading land for peace. I would trade Jerusalem for peace. That's what our rabbis did two thousand years ago. But never ever, ever would I trust a peace with men like those in power in the Middle East today. Normally spring leads to summer. I am delighted Egypt has opened its border with Gaza, though it now does not appear to be as magnanimous as I would have liked. (And I notice the deluded flotilla fanatics don't seem to be trying to run the Egyptian blockade. Wonder why not?) But I'm waiting to see what happens. No one would be happier than me if a new generation of peacemakers arose this summer which did not believe its own propaganda looking forward to the eventual destruction of Israel. And if these new Arabs would seek a genuine reconciliation, then I would hold a special day and bless the Almighty's Name.

I dislike the language and attitudes of many spokesmen I hear from Israel's right and I have little in common or sympathy with them. They are stumbling forward towards disaster, ignoring the great threat of the future for the small one of the present. But on this I agree. To force a cobbled settlement with people who expect others to fight their battles is to store up tragedy for short-term political gain. If the UN does proclaim a Palestinian state, we will be in no different a position than before: surrounded by enemies, rejected by the world, supported ambivalently by the USA, and in the end responsible for our own protection and survival.

Jerusalem Day was a happy day for me because Jews could walk its streets. But genuine peace seems to me to be as far away as the Messiah. Cultures and civilizations grow, wax and wane, and grow again in different cycles. Until the cycles coincide they simply go their own ways.

June 02, 2011

Shavuot 2011

The Festival of Pentecost was originally recorded simply the 50th day after the Children of Israel left Egypt; the ceremonies related to it were exclusively concerned with the summer harvest and agriculture. "Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk" is mentioned three times in the Torah, all within a harvest context.

There's a cute old joke. God tells Moses, "Moses, do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk."

Moses says, "Oh, you must mean we should not eat milk and meat together."

"Moses," says God, "I repeat: Do not boil a kid in its mother' milk."

"Oh," says Moses, "what you really mean is that we should wait six hours after eating meat before we can have milk."

"Moses, for the third time: Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

"God, what I am hearing is that we should have separate dishes for milk and meat."

"OK, Moses," says God, "I give up. Have it your way."

But behind the joke is the inevitable fact that any constitution requires constant reinterpretation, and development, and never remains static. The age old problem is how to find a balance of remaining true to the core spiritual values while coping with changing external and material conditions. This is at the center of the issue of how to define Jewish identity. Some move so far towards redefining their Jewish obligations that they lose sight of the original spiritual content. Others refuse to be creative and lose the dynamism inherent in Torah.

This is precisely how Shavuot came to be associated with Sinai. It wasn't just a matter of working out the calendar and seeing that the Sinai Revelation worked out on that day. It was the larger issue. Freedom from slavery can only be a first step. Throwing off shackles enables one to move. But where one moves to is still the real problem. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Arab world today where it remains to be seen if freedom will lead to enlightenment or to obscurantism and fanaticism. And no revolution, no exodus proceeds smoothly and without reverse.

We too have issues we need to face. Just getting our land was not enough. As soon as we got it, we all but lost it because we abandoned our religious identity and fought amongst ourselves. We were ejected from the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and then from Judea in 586 BCE. We came back and then lost it again to the Romans in 70 CE. The prophets and then the rabbis all argued that we ourselves were the architects of our own demise.

I wonder in what we are different today? Is it land that matters or God? If it is our relationship with God, in what way should we acting religiously? If religion is being used against us as it is, then we must use religion back. But what kind of religion? Everyone, every sect, every denomination seems to believe it is right and everyone else is wrong. Is this the human condition? Constant disagreement and conflict? It seems so.

I would argue that it is obvious that the Torah, our constitution, is what has kept us alive as a distinct body of people. But at the same time it has been its very flexible membrane that has enabled it to survive as a "broad church", to incorporate so many different manifestations and degrees of religiosity. Of course there have been internal religious wars—Sadducees and Pharisees, Rabbanites and Kaarites, Chasidim and Mitnagdim, rationalists and mystics, Orientals and Occidentals, Orthodox and Reform. Yet the glue that held us together was the text of Sinai, however differently we interpreted it or how seriously we took it or not.

I may not like the plumber, but I need him when my toilet gets blocked. I may not want to worship as regularly as a Chasid, but I may need him to make up a minyan when my parents die. I may not agree with a pork-eating Reform Jew, but I will need his support politically and financially on matters of common concern. If, God forbid, we lose our land again, we will still survive but it will be our religious tradition that will achieve it as it did before. I cannot control politicians, generals or fanatics. I can only control myself.

The message of Sinai to me is that there was moment of unity. We all stood there: our Korach's who rebelled against Moses, as well as our Pinchas's who played the zealots, our ‘Eirev Rav’ mixed multitude of non-Jewish fellow travelers as well as our priests. We were together there for that moment.

When I will be teaching at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan for the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, there in the building will be a complete spectrum all that night. Some will come to study Torah and others for a midnight dip! Some will dance Chasidic dances and others the Horah. Some to participate and others to observe. And the only thing they will all have in common is that they are there because it is Shavuot. It won't solve any of our problems, but it will show that it doesn't all have to be conflict.