January 27, 2012

Costa Concordia

The world press had a field day over the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the Italian coast. We can now add to the list of popular Italian books, such as the “Short History of Italian War Heroes” and “The Berlusconi Handbook of Underage Girls.” Now we have “The Italian Sea Captain’s Advice on How to Abandon Ship”. Captain Francesco Schettino jumped into a lifeboat ahead of almost everyone else. His excuse was that he slipped. I guess his other excuse was that he couldn’t abandon ship (the lifeboat!) even when he was ordered repeatedly to get back on board the sinking cruise liner! I seem to remember some Law of the Sea that as long as the captain stayed on the ship, salvage companies could not claim it. Which boat was he saving?

Is he a typical Italian? They do seem to have great joie de vivre--singing, drinking, laughing, eating, joking, and seducing each other as the ship of state sinks further and further into debt. They turn tax evasion into an art form and shift all their savings into Switzerland. Italian men treat women like beautiful objects of adoration but have no notion of “faithfulness”. They are amongst the most fervent of Catholics and yet also the most secular. What other country rivals their toxic mix of Medicis and Borgias?

Captain Francesco Schettino typifies everything I have said. He comes across as a vain Lothario. Not only did he ignore the ancient cry of captains of sinking ships, “Women and children first”, he put himself before everyone else.

But wait! Haven’t I just delivered myself of the most spectacular example of crass generalizations and a completely one-sided view of Italy and Italians? Of course I have.

But doesn’t the press do precisely this all the time? The past month I have been reading a constant flow of silly, dishonest generalizations about the Charedi world, in sources from “Haaretz” to the “New York Times”. I don’t need to reiterate my own anger at the way Charedi bullyboys are tolerated and ignored by those who should know better. The Charedi world really is shooting itself in the foot, the way we Jews of all kinds do. Just take that idiotic Jewish newspaper owner in Atlanta who wrote an editorial suggesting assassinating Obama might be in the cards. Thank goodness he resigned and put the paper up for sale. But not before the damage had been done.

I have often argued that Charedi leadership ought to be making a much stronger effort to rein in the fanatics or boot them out. The view that these religious hooligans are at least keeping our religion alive and represent the most intense form of Judaism is deluded and catastrophic. All they are perpetuating is a distortion, a mutation. But to tar all of the Charedi world, all its scholars and saints, with the brush of the lunatic fringe is no different than taking Captain Schettino as typical of all Italians.

Amongst the crimes placed at Charedi doors is their supposed lack of regard for women. I have seen it said that had there been a Charedi captain of the Costa Concordia he would have forced all the women to go to the back of the line. But the fact is that the strictest of halacha nowadays insists that one does not differentiate between any human beings when it comes to matters of life and death. The current petty discriminatory practices (not laws) are a distortion, albeit a well-supported one. More the result of zeitgeist than tradition.

There is, indeed, a debate in the Talmud about who takes precedence, but this precedence is symbolic not practical. For example in the Talmud Horyot 13a, “A scholar takes precedence over a king of Israel, for if a scholar dies there is none to replace him, while if a king of Israel dies, all Israel are eligible for kingship.” Or, “If a man and his father and his teacher were in captivity, he takes precedence over his teacher and his teacher takes precedence over his father, while his mother takes precedence over all of them.” The overwhelming number of Charedi authorities agree that in such situations as the Costa Concordia, natural tragedies, fires, or life-threatening car crashes, we face a situation of “triage” where a decision should be made on which situation or individual circumstance is more likely to result in preserving life, rather than which person is most important to save.

The context of differentiating between men and women is not a civil one, for in civil damages there is no distinction in Biblical Law between males and females, unlike the nearest comparison, the Code of Hammurabi. And whereas it is true that in ritual matters men and women played different roles, this never meant that their lives were of any different value, even if the prevailing mores of all cultures was heavily tipped in favor of men and wealthy women.

I am extremely proud that thousands of years before the equality of the sexes became an issue, the rabbis refused to differentiate between males and females on this issue of who should take preference (I only wish they had taken a few other steps as well). Yet, for all of that, I am so conditioned by my Western education that it still seems natural that women and children should go into the lifeboats first, even though it is now rather anachronistic, since both rescuers and doctors, secular and religious, use other criteria. Surprisingly, in our egalitarian society traditional halacha seems to be remarkably fair and modern. Captain Schettino followed neither!

January 20, 2012

Jew Versus Jew

There’s a cute joke doing the rounds in Israel at the moment that my friend, Edward Cohen, sent me. It’s an adaptation of a very old one, as most jokes are, recycled to meet current issues. But it is highly emblematic and actually explains why, despite all the ghastly negative press religious life in Israel has been getting of late (and indeed the actions of fanatics of all sorts), I am surprisingly sanguine, even optimistic.

It’s on a bus, crowded with Charedi young men travelling from Benei Brak, the Charedi enclave outside Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. It’s packed with young men who devote their lives to study. And all of a sudden a very scantily clad young lady gets on and sits down next to one of the students, who shows no sign of registering her presence. After a while, to her surprise, he takes out an apple and offers it to her.

Here’s an interlude! Dramatic effect! In the current Israeli version it is an apple. This only goes to show that the originator of this version was a secular Jew with limited knowledge of Talmudic or indeed historical sources. The Torah itself does not mention what fruit it was. The version of the joke I received actually adds the text as a footnote, so the secular narrator at least knows a Biblical text in the original Hebrew. In Western culture the fruit is always an apple. Why? Because in Latin apple is “malum” and “malum” also means “evil” and this fits the Christian concept of Original Sin. Eating the fruit condemned all humanity to be sinners from birth unless redeemed by accepting Jesus as their savior. Hence adam and eve ate the apple. But in fact there were no apples in the Middle East in Biblical times. The Hebrew word “tapuach”, means “swollen” or “blown out” and the most likely fruit that was readily available would have been an orange, a fig, or a pomegranate. The Greek myth of the Golden Apples of Hesperides that Hercules had to gather also suggests oranges rather than Cox’s Pippins (or the ubiquitous cardboard Golden Delicious).

To continue with the joke. The lovely, scantily dressed young lady on the bus then asks him why he is offering her a fruit. He replies, “Before Eve ate the fruit in the Garden, she did not realize she was naked.” A snide reference to her revealing attire!

The next week at the same time, on the same bus, the same young girl boards, but this time very modestly dressed, and sits down next to the same yeshivah bochur, and in due course offers him a fruit. And he asks her why she is offering it to him. And she says:

“Before Adam ate of the fruit of the garden, he didn’t know he would have to work for a living.” Her dig back at the Charedi man in Israel who studies and never gets a job.

Of course, this gives away the age of the original joke, because nowadays she would have caused such an uproar just trying to get on the bus altogether that there would have been a riot that would have brought it all to a halt. But still, nothing better exemplifies the current situation. Two different world outlooks, both fighting for supremacy in Israel today. One based on Torah to the exclusion of all else and one based on secular values to the exclusion of the religious and yet both drawing on a great deal more of each other than they are often prepared to admit.

The fact is that Israel has always been divided between those who wanted to shut the page on the Ghetto past and those who wanted to keep its flame alive. And both sides have always had their extremists, their provocateurs, their louts and thugs. I remember the 1950s when I first experienced Israel; in those days the secular Zionists were totally in control. You would not find one person wearing a kipah in any government employ or office. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

In all such culture wars the strongest, the most single-minded, the most ideologically certain gain control of the battlefield initially and then, regardless of which side, over time there is a reaction. Sometimes the reaction comes because people do actually put up a fight and push back. Sometimes it’s because of the zeitgeist, the mood of the times. Think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation. Think of Georgian England and Victorian. Think of the attitudes that led to the witches of Salem and think of the Founding Fathers and their open-minded, tolerant utilitarianism. Think of the French Revolution and then the Reign of Terror. Think of the Czar, Lenin, and now, Lord help them, Putin. That’s how human society has always worked. Sometimes the process takes longer than others, but always there is a reconciliation before the next cycle starts again. Even the collapse of Rome was followed by a reconstructed Holy Roman Empire. History never ends. It always revolves.

I believe the unsavory battles going on in Israeli society today mirrors what is going on around the world. Once “The God that Failed” was communism, now it is liberal self-centered materialism. Wherever you look in Europe or America groups with a mission--be they Muslims, Baptists, Libertarians, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, Tea Party activists or unionists--are all fighting their grounds, giving absolutely no quarter, paralyzing the legislature, starting from an extreme rigid and unbending position, knowing full well that in the end they will have to modify and compromise. This will happen in Israel simply because you can no more impose religious standards on a significant section of a population any more than you can try to force them to give up their traditions.

The problem is in the meantime. Most rabbis are not willing to compromise on divorces or conversions. Muslims demand the rule of Sharia everywhere not just in Muslim countries. Occupy Wall Streeters wanting to dismantle the financial sector, and unions resist any modification to educational practice in the name of protecting teachers while their very charges suffer. That is the nature of humans and human society. We admire freedom and we admire choices, while at the same time we want control and we want black-and-white solutions. All or nothing situations never last forever. Eventually Mugabe, Assad, and Ahmadinejad will go the way of Mubarak and Gadhafi.

Look at us. From Moses through the Judges we were divided, contentious, and rebellious. A brief united kingdom under David and Solomon split into two warring countries of Jews. We were divided geographically and between Israel authority and Babylonian. Then came the Sadducees, Pharisees, Karaites, Rabbinates, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Eastern European, and Western, Orthodox and Reform, Zionist and anti-Zionist. We have had plenty of our own Savonarolas, our Pinchas zealots. Intransigent rabbis have always been driven out of town, attacked for their views, and ostracized.

Yet we have always adapted, survived, and found a way of coping--not without our tragedies, but we have come through. That very struggle has kept our tradition alive, as well as our divisions and our varieties. We are forged in fire! “And that, My Lord, is the case for the defense.” It is why, for all our crimes and misdemeanors, we are so bloody good and I wouldn’t change us for anyone!!!!

January 13, 2012

Who is Jesus?

I recently wrote a review of a book on Jesus by Shmuley Boteach which I am sharing here. In Kosher Jesus, he argues that “Jesus was a wise, learned rabbi who despised the Romans…worked to rekindle Jewish observance of every aspect of the Torah…was willing to die to end Roman dominion and renew Jewish sovereignty in ancient Israel.”

The question, of course, is to whom is he appealing? Does he really think Jesus existed as portrayed in Christian sources? If so what could he possibly have to offer Jews that is not already on record from our own great leaders of the century he is supposed to have lived in? Perhaps out of his genuine friendship and affection for his Christian admirers Shmuley is trying to remove the 600-pound gorilla in the room, the fundamentally different way Jews and Christians see the character of Jesus Christ. He wants Christians to understand Jesus was not God but a nice loyal Jewish boy (forgive me, I can’t stop myself recalling the line from the Monty Python movie, Life Of Brian, “He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy”). And, as a sop, he wants Jews to stop thinking of Jesus as a heretic and the founder of a religion that persecuted them for two thousand years. Not only, but he has endowed him with a totally unsubstantiated title.

He leans heavily on the work of Hyam Maccoby, an English academic (one of my teachers and a grandson of the Kamenitzer Maggid), who masterfully showed how little in the Gospels made any historical sense and how contradictory and improbable their narratives were. Judea at the time was choc-a-bloc with radicals, rebels, saints, charismatic healers, and Teachers of Righteousness (to use Dead Sea Sect terminology), any one of whom, or even a combination of whom, could have served as a model for someone intent on creating a new movement designed for the Roman Empire.

The Gospels were written in Greek some hundred years at least after the purported events. The words attributed to Jesus contained nothing that would in any way have been offensive to the Pharisee, Rabbinic school of Judaism. Politically, the Jews at the time were as divided as today between the peace party and those refusing to compromise. No one would have objected to somebody claiming to be the Messiah, which to them was simply the term used for an anointed leader who would throw off the occupation and restore Jewish sovereignty. After all, many of them supported Bar Kochba, who tried to do just that in 132. The proof of the pudding was in the eating. If you won, you’d be the Messiah, and if you failed, a corpse. Neither was being the "Son of God" a problem, because the Bible calls us all sons and daughters of the one God. And for any human to have claimed he actually was God would, in the eyes of his contemporaries in Judea, simply have consigned him to the ranks of the delusionary.

Since Geza Vermes, the Regius Professor at Oxford, wrote Jesus the Jew in 1973, academics have been trying to recast Jesus as a Jew. But it is all rather fanciful, because we have absolutely no direct, firsthand evidence whatsoever that Jesus actually existed. The Gospels were written for a gentile audience. Josephus, who might have been a contemporary and refers to him, never met him, and his record is not to be relied on. The Apostle Paul, whom Maccoby cast as the founder of Christianity, only met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. We have no more facts about the actual man said to be Jesus than we do about Noah. The Gospels are important documents, but not proofs of existence. I am not talking about the legacy or about the significance of the myth, simply the facts. Orthodox Jews often refer to uncensored scurrilous Talmudic references, usually in code, but we don’t know when they were written and whether they reflected later tensions.

A lot of people were trying to make the world a better place as the Roman Empire began to unravel. If you read Daniel Boyarin, particularly A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, you will know that it was almost impossible to tell many Jews from many Christians or Nazarenes in the sectarian turmoil, splits, and persecutions of those days. It wasn’t really until Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 that the dividing lines were finally drawn between Jews and Christians and between those who believed Jesus was a man and those who believed him to be God.

I felt, reading this book, the way I did after reading Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. You can make out a case for almost anything, but since there are no supporting facts at all, it’s all theory. I do not believe there is any point in trying to recast a religion’s "myths" or narrative. The issue surely anyway is not the story but the message and the measure of a religious person is how he behaves.

Whoever we are, we believe what we are taught, conditioned, persuaded and we act on the basis of those convictions. Variety in itself is healthy. What we religious folk, must do is stop persecuting people for thinking differently, not try to persuade them to change their ideas. That is why Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ‎(1903–1993) laid his ground rules for interfaith that still define the dominant Orthodox position. We should engage in mutually beneficial interaction over causes and matters of joint concern. But to try to engage in Theological Disputation is pointless. I would only want to qualify this by saying it is always beneficial to study other points of view and “know what to reply even to the Epicurian” (Avot 2.14).

I respect and value all religions that try to make this world a better place and increase love between humans. I despise any religion that tries to impose its worldview on others. It doesn’t matter who that religion has as a founding figure, or what tales it tells. No committed Jew is going to follow Jesus as a role model over Hillel, who said virtually the same things. Just as no believing Christian is going to take Hillel over Jesus. So why the need to pretend that Jesus existed and that he was a rabbi, or a shoemaker, or a financial advisor?

It’s as idiosyncratic a book, as its author who ranks Maimonides on a higher level than Hillel. We contentious Jews can’t even agree amongst ourselves about our own religion, let alone someone else’s. His potted history is too simplistic, with the odd mistake and debatable judgments. For example, it was not Pompey who started using the term “Palestinia” instead of “Judea”, it was Hadrian. Pharisees and Sadducees did indeed on occasion cooperate despite their differences, as the Mishna Yoma shows.

It is, however, fascinating how someone supposedly born of Jewish parents in Judea should be transformed into a blond Aryan, born in a Dutch barn surrounded by Scandinavian pines. We do indeed create gods in our own image. The long history of Christian persecution and anti-Semitism cannot entirely be blamed on a single mythical narrative. It is the continuous teaching that nonbelievers are inferior subhumans that is the source of most evil in our world, regardless of which religion.

Still, like all his books, it’s a fun romp and an easy if controversial introduction to a contentious issue.

January 07, 2012

Another Dimension To Israeli Society

Here is Michel Cohen, the winner of an Israeli children's singing competition: 


Just read the words. This is Israel:

For all the bad news we read about internal conflict in Israeli society, here is good and moving news about the spirit that still burns in its soul.

January 05, 2012

Greek Wisdom

In the latest New York Review of Books, Mary Beard, a popular lecturer, blogger, and professor of classics at Cambridge University, bemoans the disappearance of the classics from Western schools. She is right. But can anything be done? I think not because of the materialist values of our secular world.

When I was a schoolboy, Latin and Greek were essential parts of the school curriculum in Britain. Slowly, Greek disappeared, and then Latin went. Nowadays barely 300 British students graduate school each year with any classical Greek, and they are all in private schools. The purely intellectual disciplines are disappearing in favor of marketable, practical ones. Utilitarianism has led to the dumbing down of our education. That is precisely why, for all the current odium being heaped on our religious extremists, I still believe the one place where you can find “study for its own sake” as a fundamental principle is in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot. And they are right. Study has been at the root of our survival and success.

Over two thousand years ago, Judaism was locked in an existential struggle with Graeco-Roman culture. According to some, the fast we just had on the 10th of Tevet was decreed because of the translation of the Torah into Greek! Against all the odds our small, fractious people survived and preserved our religious culture, in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews either abandoned the struggle intentionally or were forced by circumstance to give up the struggle. Judaism outlived its pagan competitors and its minute size only because the brilliant rabbis of the era transformed a nationalist, sanctuary-based tradition into one revolving around on studying text, emphasizing the behavioral rather than the theological. Christianity inherited the Graceo-Roman tradition of theology and Temple. Judaism turned its back on the abstract and emphasized the home.

The Talmud rails against or bans “Greek Wisdom” (Mishna Sotah 9.14). But the question is what Greek Wisdom, Chochmat Yavan, actually means. Does it refer to Greek philosophy, intellectual wisdom? Or is it rather confined to language and associated attitudes, such as the legal system, on which most systems in the West are based, in which pleading, making out a case, often matters more than what actually happened? I would argue it does not mean pure intellectual activity, quite the contrary. We have always welcomed intellectual and scientific advances, but not necessarily their cultural contexts. (I should add here that the issue of not imitating idolaters in dress, habit, and thinking is a separate issue, which I will deal with in time for Valentine’s Day.)

The Talmud says (Bava Kama 83a and Sotah 49b) that despite the ban on “Greek Wisdom,”Rabbi Gamliel allowed his sons to speak Greek and dress like Greeks because they had to represent the Jewish people to the Romans. The context of this is a discussion about language, not ideology. The classic source in the Talmud (Bava Kama 82b) relates that during the civil war between the Hasmonean princes Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, someone who spoke Greek used it to get those besieging the Temple to send up a pig to be sacrificed. That was the moment that the sages decided to ban Chochmat Yavanit. It doesn’t seem to be referring to Greek philosophy or science, but rather a language of deception and conflict.

Another thread regards the preference of devoting time to Torah study. If this is the highest calling in Judaism, when can one study anything else? The answer is “at a time that is neither day nor night” (Menachot 99b). Some took that literally and suggested that one could only study ‘secular studies’ at dusk or dawn. It was said in my yeshivah days that Maimonides only studied Greek philosophy when he was in the toilet. Others took it figuratively to mean that Torah should be the priority, day and night. And indeed in Medieval times both Maimonides and Rashi supported studying what we would call secular studies (both commenting on the Mishna in Sotah 9.14).

In general there has been no objection to learning pure intellectual or scientific skills from another culture (the anti-Maimonidean campaign was a product of the fear of Spanish assimilation rather than philosophy itself, and as we know Maimonides, his reputation, and his ideas survived the assault). It is the values of the other system that may represent a challenge and possibly a danger. Indeed, in our day we can see the benefits of technological and medical advance, whilst we see at the same time the corruption of personal and commercial values which in the past were associated with pagan society are as alive today as they ever were.

Judaism survived precisely because it was able to adopt many of the technological advances and skills of the societies it found itself in. Nothing illustrates this better than our era. Most, even of the outwardly medieval of our coreligionists, are taking advantage of modern technology and methodology, covertly if not overtly. For all the railing of the ultra-Orthodox against the press, mass communication, and the internet, they are making increasing use of all of it, even if it is often to press an agenda we might have reservations about. The one area I believe secular society has adopted with a passion in recent years that the ultra-Orthodox world needs to recognize is that of respect for individuality and difference.

Having studied Greek philosophy at Cambridge and Talmud in the best yeshivot in Israel, my experience is that nothing is as mentally hard or demanding as Talmud studies “Lishma” for its own pure sake. That is why we have survived. And I can assure you the genuine scholars of the Talmud are not out demonstrating, spitting, or bullying. They do study day and night. Ironically, that is why in their ivory towers they often appear oblivious to realities of the world around them. Every society has its dropouts and failures, but where the dominant value is education, it has a far greater chance of success than when it is self-indulgence. Modern Greeks need to go back to school.