August 25, 2011

Jung was right!

The great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, wrote a series of essays after the First World War which were printed in 1933 as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. It was prescient then and just as relevant now. Jung famously parted company with Freud over Freud's emphasis on sex as the primary influence on psychological development. Jung considered the spiritual quest of the psyche to be the dominant factor. Psychiatry has moved on since then, but I find Jung's analysis of the malaise of modern society compelling, and his prediction of further calamities frighteningly accurate. Although he wrote from a Christian perspective, he describes perfectly what I think is wrong with Jewish religious life today.

In the penultimate essay, The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, he writes, "The man whom we can with justice call 'modern' is solitary." This term "solitary" is the one word I would use to describe my own religious position. I am not "lonely" in the negative sense of lacking something or someone, nor am I "alienated" in the Marxist usage. I have an identity and a community. I have places in which I feel comfortable, spiritually and materially, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But I do not completely fit in anywhere. Wherever I am, I am solitary. I would not have it otherwise.

I revel in the Jewish spiritual experience. I can see the value of halachic discipline and feel bound by it. But I find current attitudes of most religious Jews I encounter to be unsatisfactory and repressive, preoccupied with performance rather than ecstasy. The overpowering authority attributed to Chasidic rebbes and Kabbalists (and more recently to Lithuanian rabbis) seems to me to be stifling and contrary to the tradition of the accessibility to everyone of God, Torah, and law.

According to Jung, humans have to contend with different circumstances and different influences. The answers to current predicaments cannot be answered simply by looking backwards in time, or to solutions that worked once. Yet neither can one, nor should one, jettison the wisdom or the contribution of the past, because it also addressed similar human problems and human needs. Jung, despite being religious, was alive to the failures of religion. He was aware of the way many of its authorities and spokesmen were selecting inappropriate religious models and giving imperfect religious responses to the challenges of the times.

I am not advocating revisionist or reformist positions. On the contrary, those types of solutions initiated in the wake of emancipation and the Haskalah movement of the early nineteenth century have shown that emasculation and dilution do not usually offer a dynamic spiritual experience. If anything, such approaches impede Jewish religious advancement.

It may be argued that the current intensive and enclavist Orthodoxy, intellectually regressive as it might be, is indeed a suitable contemporary response to the challenges of open, libertarian societies. But it is clear that what works for some does not work for everyone. What I deplore is the subtle and not so subtle suppression of dissent, the social ostracism of rebellion, and the pseudo-intellectual attempt to portray fundamentalism as a genuinely open and legitimate intellectual position. It is no different than the suggestion that Creationism is a scientific theory.

So what is Jung’s prescription? "Only the man who is modern in our meaning of the term really lives in the present. The values and strivings of those past worlds interest him only from the historical standpoint. Thus he becomes 'unhistorical' in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition."

Modern man struggles, indeed, to cope with the challenges of the present. But this does not mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, and I don’t believe Jung himself meant that. All he meant was that the mindsets that interpreted religion, the entrenched interests, the small-minded refuge of always looking backwards, of preserving everything indiscriminately, those needed to be jettisoned. Not the great visions or the majestic structures that have been misused and abused.

I value halacha, the constitution, as the safety net, the safeguard. However constitutions are too often misinterpreted. I can find no better example than the way the American Supreme Court, to give a simplistic analogy, comes to conclusions I cannot believe the Founding Fathers intended. And so the solitary man, the solitary Jew finds himself and herself buffeted between the constitution and the vision.

Jung correctly points out that religion can be a dangerous tool indeed. "Every good quality has its bad side, and nothing that is good can come into the world without directly producing a corresponding evil."

On the other hand, modernity has brought with it scientific arrogance. "Consciousness of the present may lead to an elation based upon an illusion: the illusion namely that we are the culmination of the history of mankind."

Jung claims we have created a world in which the human psyche, in casting off the past certainties, has lost its security. He argues for psychiatry as a way of restoring a healthy psyche. It is not for me to justify psychiatry. However, it is Jung's analysis of the failure of religion to meet many of the needs of modern man that I find so compelling and frightening, because religious leadership in Judaism today seems inadequate to the needs of all but a minority.

Millions of Jews are disaffected and voting with their feet. And what is our response? Evangelism is one, and it works for some. But too many fall back onto usage, the familiar. It is often scary and disorientating to venture into new territory. Judaism now seems to have opted for regression, a retreat into the past. This is why the ultra-religious world does not seem to recognize it has a problem. As far as it is concerned, it is fine. It feels safer to think that way. But like those leaders who were overtaken by catastrophe in Eastern Europe 70 years ago, they may wake up to find the boat has left the harbour.

August 18, 2011

Which School?

All parents have to go through the "which school" agony, often several times for every child. For many parents it is a double agony, because the issue is not simply one of what choice will most affect a child's career, but how that choice will affect a child's soul as well.

The first question is what the priorities are. In a dream situation, parents, teachers, and pupils all share the exact same vision. This rarely happens. Most settle for a compromise. If one belongs to a particular religious sect or dynasty, then there will be no question. But even then, for parents whose children do not fit in or are challenged in some way, or if there is any doubt about the ideology, this sort of education just will not necessarily succeed.

Schools which are committed to a very high and competitive academic program, geared to bright children, would be unsuitable to anyone not highly motivated or with an average IQ. To force a reluctant child into such an environment is a recipe for frustration and a sense of failure. My father loved to say that "for the average Jewish parent there is no such thing as an average Jewish child".

City and state schools set out to achieve a balance, academically, socially, and culturally. There is a great deal to said in their favor where they work. But this usually depends on the pupil intake, quality of teachers and social context. Everywhere there are some excellent state schools, and parents battle to get their children into them. But the majority of State schools are inadequate. The bigger issue is the cultural and behavioral degradation that seriously affect ones child’s academic and moral development.

The failure of the state system almost everywhere is why so many Jews in countries where there are options, send their children to Jewish schools even when they are not religiously committed, themselves. They believe the social environment is less threatening. And the cost is massively subsidized by the state, unlike in the USA. But the trouble is that this leads to conflicting agendas. Non-observant Jewish parents only want the school to provide a Jewish social context, not to educate their children to become religious. The school, on the other hand, wants to enhance Jewish religious commitment. Such a conflict of interests undermines the homogeneity and Jewishness of the school.

A typical problem for parents in the UK is whether to opt for a school, like the JFS in London; academically excellent, outstanding facilities, but 90% of its pupils are not interested in Jewish education, what do you do as a parent? You might find a private Jewish school with good academic results, but the social may be problematic because the student body will tend to be highly materialist and less motivated.

If you can afford it, you might send your child to a private ("public" in the UK) school where the academic results will be excellent; but a non-Jewish environment during the crucial period of a child's emotional and social growth has other side effects. There are some such schools with outstanding academic records and a very significant Jewish minority that provides a sense of solidarity. But in my experience it works only with really motivated secure children with a highly supportive home environment. And here’s another issue. Too often children forced into highly academic environments and succeeding in them end up having the creativity and independence squashed out of them.

Many Jewish religious schools may discourage academic excellence (even where they encourage good exam results). Religious girls' schools discourage going to university. On the other hand, the pupils will have the security and warmth of a protected and religiously secure environment where they will not feel outsiders, inadequate, or old fashioned, and later on they can make other choices.

When I had to choose for my children, I went for religious schools, even though I knew full well their academic (and even their Jewish) limitations. Those of my children who were academically motivated pushed themselves to succeed. Those who were not simply marked (I might say "wasted") time until, at a later date, they themselves grew into motivated adults. I thought that feeling comfortable in a social environment was more important than a strong academic program. All the more since my experience has told me that success comes in many different guises and personal success is more important than academic success.

In the USA, the choice is much harder because of the phenomenal cost of Jewish education. Very Orthodox schools, within an ethos of communal charity and support, find ways of subsidizing pupils. But for the rest it can be as much as $35,000 a year per child. Home Schooling is another growing option but this requires such willing, dedicated and knowledgeable parents, it is not always possible.

In the USA there is the further issue of whether one should patronize Hebrew charter schools, state-funded private schools patronized mainly but not exclusively by Jewish or Israeli children. The social environment might be conducive, but certainly not religious. It is like sending one's child in Israel to a secular state school. And we have seen how much impact that has on Jewish identity.

In the end, there are no guarantees or certainties. Every school and every child is different, and every family situation is different. The needs of one are not the same as the needs of others. Bringing up children is a tough, stressful and risky enterprise.

When all is said and done, as an ex-headmaster, I do not much like schools. For every inspirational teacher there are twenty duds. Thank goodness most kids are resilient and survive them. What counts are parental love and discipline(!). The rest is up to the Almighty! No wonder the Talmud says it's in God’s hands.

August 11, 2011

Human Apes

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer is well known for his utilitarian arguments based on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. He is perhaps "notorious" for his attack on "specieism", which posits a fundamental difference between humans and animals. His argument was that we cannot draw a moral line between humans and animals. Not surprisingly, he became an icon for animal rights.

The foundation of his argument is not that every living thing is equal and has equal rights. It is rather the principle of avoiding pain. We respect the desire to avoid pain in others, and that means in any living organism that suffers pain. I share a profound, visceral disgust at the way so many humans treat animals (and other humans ). I am not a vegetarian to the degree of strictness that my brother David is, nevertheless I would be delighted if the international community would ever decide to ban all animal slaughter for food. In the meantime, doubtless, they, like Norway, will only focus on specifically banning Jewish slaughter, but not Muslim. And that in itself raises moral issues, but not for now.

Another fundamental idea of Singer’s, and one that I embrace as religious Jew, is what I might call gradualism. He justifies abortion on the ground that you can, indeed, evaluate human life and say that, for example, the mother’s life is more valuable than the fetus's. In fact, we humans go further; in many ways we evaluate human life and say that one person deserves to die and another does not. He fends off the charge of relativism (as does Stanley Fish in the New York Times) by saying that just because one does not accept absolutes does not mean everything is allowed.

Most absolutes (this is absolutely evil or good) tend to be of a religious nature. That is why I fear them, for their basis is rarely open to intellectual challenge. But this does not mean that some moral and ethical values may not be either superior or preferable to others, and it doesn't mean that sometimes even the worst of actions, like taking a human life, might not be justified (particularly if he is trying to kill you first).

So how do we justify killing animals? Research has shown that we share over 90% of our genetic makeup with Orangutans (but we also share nearly as much with rats, so the genetic argument is not that compelling). Chimpanzees have been shown to have emotions, learn how to invent tools and, in a very limited way, learn how to pool resources. Does this make them human? Certainly they are more human that cows or lizards.

We like to think that what differentiates us from animals is advanced intellect, capacity to reason, morality. But then what about those humans with defective or less advanced intellects? Shall we treat them the same way we treat monkeys? And if children were to be tested at birth, would they show enough advances on mature chimps to warrant special treatment? Do we decide morality on the basis of potential or achievement? And how would we treat Neanderthals nowadays, if they were still around? Would they come in at the top of the monkey scale or the bottom of the human?

In other words, we do indeed have sliding scales rather than fixed lines in morality. In Judaism, all sentient animals are to be protected from human cruelty. The ghastly undercover revelation by PETA of what went on at Rubashkin's abattoir in Postville, Iowa showed how we often ignore our own rules. The Biblical laws about sending away the mother bird from her nest, not killing a mother animal and its child on the same day, not muzzling an ox as it threshes, or yoking incompatible animals together all indicate concern. Although I admit that it is all simply a way of getting us to be more merciful to other humans.

We draw a distinction between a fetus and a living human. We also distinguish between those humans who are willing to abide by moral laws and those who are not. I often wondered how the Torah handed down such seemingly cruel treatment to certain Canaanite and pagan tribes. Why could not all humans not be treated equally? Yet if we were to think in terms of graded scales, rather than absolute categories, we would be able to recognize that in the past, and still today, there are humans so devoid of values, so corrupt that we find it offensive (or shall I say challenging) to give then the same rights we would others. Although human rights pretend to do just this, in practice legal systems do indeed treat people differently.

You might argue that law and morality are not necessarily bound to each other, and sadly often they are not. In Judaism they are. Therefore laws of cruelty to animals and humans become part of the same ethical obligation to carry out the Divine will. But then why are we allowed to kill animals, even if as mercifully and painlessly as possible? And I would go further and ask why Chasidim whirl chickens around their heads for kaparot, atonement, before Yom Kipur ? No one I know have has suggested the chickens enjoy it.

Maimonides said in his Guide (others will deny he meant it) that sacrifices were merely a concession to primitive sentiment and custom. I might say that eating meat, too, was a concession to the times (as the Midrash and Rashi say about the time after the Flood). If so, it seems to me we either have to admit we are still primitive or at least that we have not yet progressed as far as we should.

August 04, 2011

I Accuse

J’Accuse! was the title of Emile Zola's condemnation of French anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair. I accuse human beings who ought to know better of abrogating their responsibility to other human beings. From Cain’s story we learn that humans are capable of gratuitous violence. And here we are thousands of years later and still almost every day brings another story from around the world, from every culture, from every religion and anti-religion of brutal, pointless crimes in which innocent lives are destroyed.

We live in a culture where we seek blame more than explanation, condemnation rather than understanding. It's always someone else’s fault. Thus we try to turn the blame away from ourselves, onto others. It is one thing when the scapegoat is an animal, quite another when it is a human or humans.

Religious leaders of all kinds have always used disasters to blame the other. A tragedy in Israel? It's the fault of the secular. A catastrophe? Blame the Crusaders if you are Muslim and Muslims if you are Christian. The Middle East? It is all his or her fault. The British singer Amy Winehouse, who died recently, was a sad example of the dangers of certain popular lifestyles and values. Sadder still that some sick Irish blogger blamed her death on her being Jewish/Israeli (it's all the same to some). In a new variation of the Blood Libel, he argued that she was typical of Israel--arrogant, brutal, and ultimately self-destructive, and she had to go.

Last month a mystical rabbi in Israel (another worker of miracles and investment guru to the superstitious) was stabbed to death by an outwardly pious Jew. Was he mad or sick? Did the miracle worker promise him something he couldn't fulfill? Maybe. But there are millions of disappointed humans who do not resort to murder. We must blame someone. So let's blame secular values, perverted religious values.

An innocent Jewish child was abducted and murdered in Brooklyn by another Jew. It must be the fault of television, of sexual corruption, of Gay Marriage. I don't need to rehash the catalogue of gratuitous death on a massive scale, in both the civilized and uncivilized world. But what disturbs me most of all is that too many religious leaders who ought to know better are to blame for not doing more to prevent violence and on the contrary, see the cause everywhere except at their own doorstep.

The Biblical law of the eglah arufa says (Deuteronomy 21) that when one finds a dead body and no evidence of who committed the crime, the nearest city symbolically "accepts the blame". The ancient custom has a very modern application. Even when we know who the murderer is, I suggest we also symbolically should share in the blame, not by blaming others but by asking ourselves what we might have done to avoid it and whether there might not be something wrong with our society that enabled it to happen. It may well be that the act was one of a deranged, unbalanced personality. Were we at fault for not seeing the problem? Perhaps we missed the signs. Perhaps we made weapons too accessible. I am not suggesting a specific issue, a specific cause, or even that there was one.

I can't claim to have answers. Indeed seeking answers is often futile. It is behavior that counts. But all tragedies have lessons. I can recognize when leadership has failed and it failed as horribly in Charedi Brooklyn as it has elsewhere. We can all always benefit from a little introspection but the very leaders who tell us important it is are often the ones who do least of it.

I have it on very, very good authority that religious Jews, even well known rabbis knew about the molester. That he had tried to lure kids into his car before and even at one stage was given a job out of town in order to keep him away. But still rabbinic leadership prevaricated, turned blind eyes in precisely the same way as the Catholic Church has to its sexual abuse problems. This is not what I call religious leadership. It is abdication. And proof, if proof were necessary, that neither learning not authority guarantee ethical or responsible leadership. Just because a person is religious it doesn't necessarily mean he is ethical. It should. But it doesn't.

Wherever we look we see a troubled world, a troubled society, a troubled people. My father often quoted a witticism he heard from his childhood friend Abba Eban, "We Jews are just the same as everyone else, only more so." We often think we have no murderers, no child molesters, no drunks, or hookers. But it's not true. We have all the vices. And one of the worst is standing by while others are abused.

I will fast and feel sad on the Ninth of Av, not because God abandoned us, but because too many of us have abandoned ourselves. It needn't be that way.