September 27, 2011

Why do we act the way we do?

Philosophers are divided over the ethical question of why humans behave the way they do. There are and have been different theories, "labels" such as "utilitarianism" or "moral imperative". None is without its strengths and weaknesses. That is precisely why the debate burns as fiercely as ever.

Log onto Harvard Professor Michael Sandel's excellent series for a wonderful free online course in ethics and you will be treated to an overview of many, not all, of the options. All the old chestnuts are there. There is a runaway train heading towards five men working on the track. Can the driver redirect the train so that it veers off onto a sidetrack and only kills one man? The yacht, "The Mignonette", capsized at sea and three survivors were in a leaking boat. Were they right to kill the cabin boy so that the others would survive? The great German philosopher, Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason wrote that we humans could indeed work out for ourselves the morally right thing to do. Others, such as Jeremy Bentham, thought it was simply a matter of what was best for most people. The great revolutions that shaped the modern Western world were all influenced by his "utilitarianism".

Sandel does not refer to the French thinker Sartre, the existentialist. The Anglos regard French thinkers as rather airy-fairy, loose, and ill disciplined pseudo-philosophers. Sartre's contribution was to put the onus on individuals to ensure that whatever decisions they made, they did so as individuals empowered to decide their own fate. Any pressure or coercion was anathema and he was not prepared to brook any prior moral or religious system.

He gives the example of a boy and a girl sitting at a café table together and all of a sudden the boy's hand comes to rest on the girl's hand. She now has an existential decision to make. Should she leave her hand there or take it away? She can, knowing that one thing will lead to another, leave it there, precisely because she knows how things will develop and she wants them to. That's a legitimate decision. Equally, she could withdraw her hand because she does not want to have a relationship with the young man and does not want to start something she is unwilling to finish. That too is a legitimate existential decision. But what if she leaves her hand there, not because she wants to, but because she is too embarrassed to make a scene? She hopes she will be able to break things off later on. This, says Sartre, is betrayal, because instead of deciding what she wants to do, the circumstances have trapped her into allowing something she does not want.

I suggest that very few people make such rational decisions. Kant might, but he was by all accounts such a remarkable person that one could tell the time by his regular movements. In my book, if the young lady had been brought up in a very strict religious atmosphere she would be much less likely to find herself alone with such a "forward" young man in the first place. And if she had been brought up in twenty-first century Los Angeles, his hand would have to be a lot further up her body before she would notice anything unusual. Most of our moral decisions are, if not "conditioned", then influenced by our upbringing and environment.

There are no guarantees. Usually our moral or ethical decisions are confined to special occasions; should a dying relative be resuscitated, should a human body organ be taken from a poor person for money, the sort of challenges and conundrums that Professor Sandel so admirably highlights. But for most people the stress and pressure of daily life, lead them to functioning on a sort of "autopilot".

Now this autopilot is often not so terrible, particularly if one is living, say, a religious life that is constantly preoccupied with "correct" behavior, even if adherence to the norms is out of habit or convention. It would, on the other hand, be very dangerous in authoritarian societies, for example, which require unquestioning obedience to authority without the right to challenge or question. For a good literary example, read Kafka's The Penal Colony.

The beauty of Judaism is that it requires a way of life that is indeed regulated, covering codes of behavior that try to improve the relationship between humans as well as with God. Even when they are obeyed on autopilot (or out of a misguided belief that halacha is not concerned with ethics only obedience), one can still argue that a system that automatically requires one to give charity or to help one's neighbor is preferable, if not morally superior, to one that does not. True, many on autopilot will stray when tempted and go off track, but a system that gives constant reminders is more likely to reign in the strays than one that does not.

That, dear friends, is why I so value Judaism, precisely because it offers ways to remind us of our moral standards and obligations. The artifice of the Rosh Hashanah ritual--the shofar and the liturgy--reminds us of human failings, of ideals we fail to live up to. The device of imagining we are being judged by a Heavenly Court, are all designed to jog our lazy minds and remind them of their obligations. That is Judaism's answer to utilitarianism and philosophical morality. Both can be manipulated, just as Marxism and Fascism have manipulated the minds and actions of millions for evil. Religion offers an alternative, even if humans have always failed it and abused it. It is at least a system designed to provide us with a daily constitution and the practical mechanisms to remind us to check our moral compasses all the time. It is less an abstract system of thought and more a practical method. Were it not for religious rituals we would have no Rosh Hashanah, no days devoted to introspection and repentance. Of course, too much is not good either; it can be debilitating and frustrating. I suggest that, like Goldilocks, we have got it just right.

Shanah Tovah. May you all have a sweet year.

September 22, 2011

Israel's Survival

These are worrying times for Israel. When wasn't? The peace treaties were never popular in the Arab world. There was always rabid anti-Semitism throughout the Middle Eastern media. Alliances in the Middle East are unraveling.

When Turkey was a secular state, it established close military and economic ties, but then Erdogan decided that if Europe wasn't going to welcome Turkey, his future lay with Muslim autocracies where there is a long tradition of having Israel as a convenient a scapegoat. The vituperation against Israel did not begin with the flotilla. It erupted when Erdogan abused Peres in Davos in 2009. His whole approach has been consistent with his new more Islam-centered Turkey.

The Muslim Brotherhood, now in the ascendency, in all the Sunni states, has been pro-Nazi and virulently anti-Semitic from its inception, nothing to do with Israel (just read the texts of its founder Hassan al-Banna or Sayyid Qutb). It has instigated massacres against Jewish communities across North Africa, notably Tunisia and Libya, throughout its existence.

Israel’s allies have always been fickle. John Foster Dulles was no friend. France in the 60s was an ally, then an enemy. Britain has always sat on the fence and spoken with forked tongue, to mix my metaphors. The Soviet Union was once an implacable enemy and now goes wherever Putin sees his interests. Greece was once antagonistic. Now it is supportive. Armenia, Romania, and Bulgaria, with their experience of Ottoman cruelty, will go some way towards redressing the balance. Things have always been in a state of flux and Israel has had to look for alliances wherever it could find them--not always very savory, I regret, but survival often trumps niceties. Despite Americas other alliances and interests, its special relationship with Israel has in recent years been its greatest support. Indeed, only American help extracted Israeli personnel from the besieged embassy in Cairo.

Regardless of Israeli mistakes (and Lord knows here have been plenty) it has always fallen foul of the majority of people on this earth. But now, at this time of the year there is a mood, darker than before, full of anxiety. Is it the introspection that is in air before Rosh Hashanah? If only! Is it the annual hate fest that is the United Nations General Assembly each September? Could be. I do not believe that a UN recognized Palestinian state would be the disaster it appears. On the contrary, I actually welcome it both morally and politically. Statehood works both ways. It imposes obligations as well as benefits. Two can play the same games. But neither do I believe that solving the Palestinian issue will solve Israel's.

There are those who believe Israel is still around because the Almighty has kept a protective eye on its affairs. To believe that, you'd have to believe one of two things: either Israel as a state is so moral and spiritual that it deserves Divine protection, or that a minority of its religious followers merit sufficient regard that they, like the old Talmudic concept of the 36 saints in every generation, are responsible for Jewish survival. You might argue it's the Almighty's love for "His people". But that hasn't stopped disasters in the past. The Almighty did not intervene while the Jewish settlers of Gaza were evacuated. As the Talmud says, "We do not rely on miracles." Anyway, there is pocket of renegade Chasidim who believe Israel as a Jewish state ought to perish for preempting the Messiah.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are bound to ask ourselves where we stand, what we hope for, and what we can do for the best. Particularly since as individuals we feel so helpless, regardless of which side of the political or religious debate we are on. Physical survival requires mental and physical preparation, good allies, and wise policies. But survival by itself, in my opinion, is not enough. Moral survival requires moral rectitude and that can only be tackled on a personal level.

Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 4:12 says, "If one is attacked, two will come to his defense and a rope of three strands cannot easily be broken." This has always been used as a metaphor for the Jewish people, linked to its land and its constitution and its God. If one extends the metaphor, I suggest it can imply that each strand contributes to the strength of the rope even if each one remains distinct. Some people support the Jewish people for religious reasons, national reasons, or simply civil ones. They will disagree on so many issues. But so long as there is a unifying feature of wanting that rope to hold, to survive, then it matters less whether they can agree on everything or not. In the same way that religiously, the denominational divisions between us are wide, divisive and often bitter, if there is a shared agenda of survival then isolation can be ameliorated. To take another line from Kohelet, "two people can keep each other warm."

The purpose of Rosh Hashanah is not to get us to agree or be the same. But rather for each of us to ask ourselves what we are doing, in our own specific ways, to ensure that we survive.

September 16, 2011


Tradition is the magazine of the Rabbinical Council of America. Its summer edition opens with a letter from a member of an Orthodox synagogue who says that in his opinion converts are "not Jews like us. . .they may be fine wonderful people but they are simply not like us." He asks if that makes him a racist.

To dig himself even further into his dirty pit he also says, "Do I want my children to marry a person with such a different background? . . .I would have the same objection to my children marrying Sefardim."

It took me several readings before I could actually believe my eyes. And then it took me several weeks before I could reconcile myself to the idea that a respected Orthodox journal could actually print such offensive opinions. Even as I write this, weeks later, I am boiling with indignation, frustration, and despair that I could be tarred with the brush of belonging to the same religion as this correspondent and the suspicion that he is certainly not a lone voice.

Who, I wonder, is "us"? Not someone who believes in Torah and the idea that one's behavior is what differentiates a good person from a bad one, rather than an accident of birth. The writer is certainly is not a Jew like me!!! I wouldn’t want my children to marry anyone like him who would not want a child of his to marry into King David's family or great rabbis like Shemaya and Avtalyon. He would avoid Rambam, Maimonides, because he is Sefardi. Never mind that he is regarded as the greatest post Talmudic Jewish minds and a spiritual giant. The mere fact that he was born in Cordova instead of Worms makes him a less desirable match? He is not "like us"?

What kind of morality is that? There are Ashkenazim like him who are "different". Someone brought up in Frankfurt am Main will have very different attitudes, customs, and habits than someone brought up in the Carpathian backwoods. Or what about an Ashkenazi with absolutely no secular education as opposed to one with an Ivy League degree? Clearly his reason for not wanting to marry a Sefardi or a convert cannot be differences of attitude and custom. Of course it's racist.

Racism is judging a person not by his actions but purely by physical characteristics. An ugly man cannot be a good man. A black man must automatically be inferior to a white man, a Sefardi to an Ashkenazi. That is racism at its most barbarous, intellectually degenerate, and morally corrupt. It is Naziism, "Jews are not like us."

If I say I want someone who is moral for my son-in-law, or someone who lives a religious life for a daughter-in-law, that is not racist. I am judging people for how they are rather than where they came from, by the depth of their souls rather than the surface of their skins. I would by far prefer my children to marry converts who care about Torah and live ethical lives, than members of the longest genealogical line of Ashkenazim who could not care less about either.

If the man had said, "You know, I would not want my daughter to marry a crook who might have all the outward characteristics of an Orthodox Jew (of any denomination or social group) because I object to corrupt behavior," then I would of course sympathize. Even so, I would allow for a person to change and repent. But this fine fellow has no room for repentance, for spiritual growth, for religious improvement. If he had said I object to hypocrites, whoever they might be, or wife beaters, I would agree too, so long as he also understood that this has nothing to do with where you were born but how you were brought up.

But to smear a whole group without specifically naming one characteristic, to generalize about them and to pretend that his group is automatically different and superior is precisely what defines a racist.

It is not just amongst the Ashkenazim we have this disease. I am offended that the Syrian community in New York refuses to give honors to converts and children of converts because it believes this is the way to prevent intermarriage. It is like thinking censorship works better than education, that punishment is preferable to rehabilitation. And, frankly, given what they have had to put up with from Ashkenazim, I am secretly glad they retaliate by refusing to accept Ashkenazi sons- or daughters-in-law! How's that for inconsistency? But still it is all the same problem.

The editor of Tradition, Shalom Carmy, has a reputation as a scholarly, intelligent, and moral man. In replying, he bends over backwards to be understanding and to avoid wiping the floor with such a crude, non-Jewish correspondent (and I mean non-Jewish in the sense of betraying Jewish values). He sees no evidence in the letter of racism, just of a failure in personal spirituality.

Even if we concede, as I would, that over the years many have abused the conversion system, or that occasional rabbinic voices have been raised that question some converts' motives, or that Sefardim have been more influenced by Islam and Ashkenazim by Christianity, this still does not justify his crass generalizations. A failure in personal development is not the same as tarring whole groups.

This has been the very plague that has dogged us externally and internally throughout our history. It starts with this sort of xenophobia and then goes on to characterize and demonize whole peoples, whole nations and religions without realizing that with them, as with us, there are good ones and bad ones. The one thing we must be intolerant of is intolerance. Shalom Carmy's public "tolerance" of an intellectually and morally challenged Jew has done Orthodoxy a great disservice.

September 08, 2011


I spent a long weekend in Durban this summer. Its elegant suburbs, the Indian Ocean, the tropical forest descending from the heights of Zimbali down to the seashore, are heavenly. Last year's World Cup gave it some impressive facilities as well. Durban used to conjure up proud Zulu traditions, as well as peaceful cricket matches and a comfortable, well established Jewish community. But now, to adapt Roosevelt on Pearl Harbor, the name "Durban" will live on in infamy as the name associated with distorted and corrupt racism.

The WCR, short for "World Conference against Racism Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance", was founded as a dependent body of the United Nations, after the Second World War and the Holocaust. Its mandate was to fund research on racism and to arrange international events organized through UNESCO to combat racist ideologies and behaviors. Four conferences have been held so far, in 1978, 1983, 2001, and 2009.

The 2001 conference was held in Durban, South Africa under the auspices of the United Nations. It was presided over by Mary Robinson, then the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And it turned into a primitive hate fest, singling out Israel as virtually the sole culprit for all racism in the world. The only other issue of significance was that African-American NGOs wanted individual apologies from each of the countries responsible for slavery, recognition of it as a crime against humanity, and reparations called as such.

A separate gathering at Durban of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) turned into a well organized and orchestrated, brutal hate fest where anyone trying to defend Israel or call for proportion and balance was physically assaulted. Violations of human rights and genocide in other parts of the world were disregarded.

Canada, the US, and Israel walked out of the 2001 conference in protest of a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism. Likewise, the EU refused to comply with demands from Arab states to condemn Israel's "racist practices".

It was universally accepted in the free world that the 2001 conference was a disgrace and the participating NGOs had betrayed their true colors. But when a Durban Review conference (Durban II) was called in Geneva in 2009, things were little better.

Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, and the US boycotted the conference. The Czech Republic stopped attending after the first day, and 23 other countries from the EU sent only low-level delegations. The western countries were concerned that the conference would promote anti-Semitism and laws contrary to free speech (anti-blasphemy laws). There were also concerns that the conference fail to deal with other issues of discrimination. The conference was also criticized by European countries for having a focus only on the West, neglecting racism and intolerance in developing nations. Nevertheless, donor NGOs were only too happy to waste time and millions of dollars on the event, which could have been better spent on humanitarian causes.

According to Wikipedia: "On the first day of the conference, Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to attend, made a speech condemning Israel as "totally racist" and accusing the West of using the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians. The distributed English version of the speech referred to the Holocaust as an "ambiguous and dubious question". When Ahmadinejad began to speak about Israel, all the European Union delegates left the conference room, while a number of the remaining delegates applauded the Iranian President. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [in a typically lame attempt at diplomacy] expressed dismay at both the boycotts and the speech."

The follow-up conference, Durban III, scheduled to meet this month in New York, has been boycotted by Australia, Canada, Israel, Germany and the United States (among other countries), but there is no reason to believe it will be any better or fairer.

However, this time there's some alternative. A coalition of human rights groups is organizing The Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution to focus on the world's most urgent human rights situations. It is scheduled to be held next to UN Headquarters in New York on September 21 and 22, at the same time that world leaders will be gathering for the 66th session of the UN General Assembly and the 10th anniversary commemoration of the UN's Durban conference on racism.

A press release on the summit states: "Bringing together prominent dissidents and human rights activists from countries with abysmal human rights records—including China, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran—the conference will produce draft UN resolutions on governments that grievously abuse human rights through policies of genocide, torture, discrimination, and repression of civil, religious and political freedoms. The proposed resolutions will be presented to world leaders attending the major UN events that week."

Of course they will ignore it. I expect nothing good from the United Nations. The General Assembly is so dominated by corrupt states and by primitive hatreds that I'd rather give money to the Mafia Benevolent Fund. But what offends me and disturbs me far more are the NGOs. NGOs include the full panoply of well-known major world charities that sell themselves and raise money on the basis of their non-political missions to simply aid the poor or heal the planet. All the well known ones joined the hate fest. Most of them do indeed have a political agenda, and the overwhelming majority put as much energy into attacking Israel as they do into helping the poor and disadvantaged. Durban has proved that most NGOs are not too particular about drawing a distinction between Israel and Judaism.

Then they have the audacity to send me letters appealing for donations for humanitarian causes. For as long as any NGO is associated with the Durban Conference, I urge my readers to do whatever they can to prevent those which do participate receiving any charitable aid whatsoever. If and when they renounce Durban and its works, I might give them a second thought.

September 01, 2011

Whisper Jews

There has always been a strain in parts of, mainly nonreligious, Anglo-Jewry that is apologetic and reluctant to assert itself.

Roger Cohen is a columnist for the New York Times with a reputation for criticizing Israel. He was born and educated in the UK, lived for a time in the USA, and is now residing in London again. In a recent article, Jews in a Whisper, he reiterated that need that too many Anglo-Jews have to tone themselves down. It is as if they are ashamed of publicly admitting their identity.

Cohen quotes Philip Roth from his novel Deception, where the American protagonist says to his British mistress, "In England, whenever I'm in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word 'Jew', I notice that the voice always drops just a little." She challenges him on this observation, prompting the American, a middle-aged writer, to say, yes, that's how "you all say 'Jew'. Jews included." Cohen’s article continues:
This prompted a memory: sitting with my mother in an Italian restaurant in the upscale London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood circa 1970 and asking her, after she had pointed to a family in the opposite corner and said they were Jewish, why her voice dropped to a whisper when she said the J word.

"I'm not whispering," Mom said and went on cutting up her spaghetti so it would fit snugly on a fork.

None of this carried malice as far I could see. It was just flotsam carried on the tide of an old anti-Semitism. The affable, insidious English anti-Semitism that stereotypes and snubs…In Britain I find myself exasperated by the muted, muffled way of being a Jew. Get some pride, an inner voice says, speak up!
Cohen goes on to talk about the present day situation in the UK:
Traditionally, England’s genteel anti-Semitism has been more of the British establishment than the British working class, whereas anti-Muslim sentiment has been more working-class than establishment. Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism.
So far, so good. But then, lo and behold, Cohen does his usual flip. He wants Anglo-Jews to stand up and protest against Jewish critics of Islamic fanaticism. Anglo-Jews, he implies (and Israelis), line up with "Islamophobes".

He cites Melanie Phillips. If ever there was an example of desperately trying to curry favor, this has to be it. Right-wing fascists and skinheads who attack Muslims are no friends of the Jews, and alliances with them are madness that can only be explained by insecurity. But when Cohen tars Ms. Phillips with that brush he is guilty of the very sin himself.

All she has done is to point out the cowardice of Westerners who fail to take a stand against or recognize the dangers of extreme Islam, and refuse to be cowed by the bully tactics of Muslim extremists or the scorn of the ‘chattering classes.’ She has consistently stood up against bias and prejudice against the wider Muslim community, but she also courageously and almost singlehandedly highlights anti-Semitism in all its guises.

But anyone whom Mr. Cohen disagrees with must be wrong. He recognizes the Anglo Jewish disease but cannot identify his own pathology. The very English education he identifies has infected him too. Recently, the novelist Howard Jacobson got into trouble too for wondering aloud whether he too might not be attacked by the increasing number of Islamic anti-Semites on UK streets. But what Mr. Cohen typifies is something else.

European countries are made up of vertical societies and class hierarchies. They encourage one to escape ones foreign roots into a "higher" order. Unless one is confident in one's difference, one feels second-class. The USA is a horizontal society. Of course there are prejudices and small groups of well-connected power brokers. But there are lots of other equally powerful parallel groups who can confidently exert counter-pressure. The European Jew feels he doesn't quite belong. The American Jew knows he does.

And there's another feature, in terms of Jewish history specifically. Since the Enlightenment, Jews have been free to abandon religion as their defining characteristic. The early "Maskillim", those Jews who sought to escape the physical and religious constraints of the ghetto, were still deeply educated in Jewish history and culture. As the years have gone by and the bonds with tradition loosened, nonreligious Jews have sought substitutes for the Jewish religion.

First it was being Germans, or any nationality, of the Jewish Faith. Then it was secular Zionism. Afterwards came the Holocaust, and when that paled there was Soviet Jewry. For the religious Jew these were all important issues, but ones that came on top of a religious foundation. Without that foundation which has remained consistent through these passing fashions, as each issue recedes, the nonreligious Jew has to find a new one. Distancing oneself from the Jewish homeland and all it implies is the new cause, because it enables Jews to ally themselves either with Left-Wingers or with Muslim minorities in the West, and it enables them to feel citizens of the world, internationalists, rather than Jews constrained by the particular history and the specific land of their heritage.

That is Roger Cohen's issue. He is indeed a Jew, but one who would rather escape its limitations if he could.