April 25, 2013

Boston, Cameras, and Civil Liberties

America is a crazy land of contradictions, and yet if ever there was an argument in favor dysfunction, the USA is it.

Enough of its senators could not agree to require its citizens to be checked before being allowed to buy guns. Or put it another way, this is a democracy where the National Rifle Association can buy enough senators to carry out its wishes. And which normal healthy state could possibly object to limiting the size and arsenals of guns readily available to the ordinary man and woman in the street? No state except for the United States of America. And this regardless of how many mentally unstable mass murderers have already killed so many innocents, how many tragedies have occurred, or that the death from gun-inflicted wounds is so massively higher than anywhere else on earth. As they say, “You cannot be serious.”

OK, so the Right is crazy. What about the Left? A few weeks ago, two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon that killed three and caused some of the most horrific injuries to innocent bystanders it has been my unfortunate lot to see on television (and outside Israel). They were apprehended before they could execute their planned campaign of violence only because security cameras caught them on video. In Boston, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) had successfully blocked the city from placing cameras in the city center public places and had prevented others from being activated because, they argued, it was in breach of civil liberties. Fortunately, private stores had their cameras turned on and it was thanks to those of Lord & Taylor that the terrorists were identified and so quickly. Yet still the ACLU continues to campaign against cameras in public places. They too are either misguided or naïve ideologues. How can we deal with evil, amoral enemies with our hands tied behind our backs? Surely safety overrides libertarian considerations. Indeed according to Hobbes (whom the Founding Fathers admired), this is the very basis of society. We give up freedoms. We accept taxes and limitations precisely as the price for protection and safety. OK, so they don’t agree with Hobbes, but I do! Besides, if you are doing nothing illegal in a public place what have you got to fear? No one has suggested putting cameras in the homes and bedrooms of American citizens (without a court order).

The ACLU mentality is of the same breed as the refusal of so many sections of US society to accept that this kind of violence is indeed a product of Islam. What Islam was intended to be, or was once, is not what huge swathes of it are now. Similarly in Judaism, what was intended and how many practice it or don’t, is a far cry from its ideal past. Are we to pretend all is healthy and rosy in our garden and not admit what is distorted? Should we say that the religious anti-Zionists who demonstrate with our enemies are not really Jews? I might like to, but it won’t help. I thank the Lord they don’t explode bombs. But political correctness prevents dealing with issues and only prolongs the agony.

Western states are irrational and all but ungovernable. They encompass so many radically different ideologies, ethnic and religious groups, so many contrasting ways of life. Somehow they find ways, through trial and error, of coping. They are more popular places to live in those countries which are controlled and commanded, whether by religion or political ‘isms’ which stand in the way of progress and resolution and only delay transformation.

Yet I believe good governance requires a spiritual, ethical dimension. If I had to put my finger on why the USA has been relatively successful, it is precisely because its founding ethical utilitarianism was combined with a spiritual persuasion, even if it was antinomian and separated officially from state.

To return to civil liberties, nothing better illustrates the difference between a Jewish religious standpoint and the values of the ACLU. Once I believed it had a vital role to play, like the unions. But now, like the unions, they have betrayed their mandate, and they stand in the way of progress rather than for it. Its prevailing spirit is to enthrone individuality over all other else. And while I agree with the importance of individuality, it cannot be the overriding principle in a communitarian world.

Our religious culture assumes we do need checks and balances, a restraining principle. This is provided not just by our moral system, but also by the idea that we are always being watched. As the Mishna in Avot says, “Think of three things and you’ll never go wrong; an eye is looking, an ear is hearing and everything is being recorded.” Now they were not thinking of the FBI but they were thinking of God and of course the obvious difference between them is corruption.

In our tradition, having someone look over your shoulder is a good thing. In my Musar Yeshiva (Musar is the ethical religious movement introduced into Lithuanian yeshivot to raise the moral and spiritual level of yeshivah students, started by Rav Israel Salanter 1810-1883), we were all allocated a senior student to keep an eye on us during the day and to tell us in the evening what we had done that was inappropriate or whether there was anything, any characteristic, that could be bettered. We called that moral training. It is no bad thing to imagine that everything is being recorded.

As the Talmudic giant Rebbi Yossi once said, “All my life I have never said anything and then had to turn round to see if anyone was listening.” How many of us can say that! Indeed, how many regret half the comments and photos they allowed to go up on Facebook and now feel embarrassed or ashamed! It would be no bad thing to have a friendly heavenly voice telling us when to watch out. In our tradition we have security cameras. God is watching. We live with it! But for others the mechanical kind is better than nothing.

April 18, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

The death and magnificent funeral of Margaret Thatcher has reminded us of what a divisive figure she was. My only personal encounter with Margaret Thatcher was when as Minister of Education, she was the guest of honor at the Carmel College graduation ceremony (we called it Speech Day) in 1971. I did not warm to her. She was hectoring and lacking in warmth. I admit I was biased. I should confess that I was brought up in a family that considered voting Conservative a betrayal of one’s intellectual and moral integrity. But that was at a time when Britain was still dominated and hobbled by class. The Conservative party was regarded as the preserve of aristocratic, military, wealthy, male Britons (and their obedient ladies) and it tolerated those aspiring to upward mobility. Most Jews were still closer to the ethic of socialism and the Labour Party (despite the ghastly postwar anti-Semitic Ernest Bevin). It was much more pro-Jewish and had many more Jewish members of Parliament in those days.

Britain was polarized in my youth, far more than anyone can imagine nowadays. Class pervaded everything. In the Oxfordshire countryside where I grew up, the Landed Gentry lived on their own estates and everything and everyone around them was kept at a discreet distance. In the village pubs there were two bars; the public bar for the working classes and the saloon bar for the genteel middle and upper classes. In the local town, Wallingford, there was one general store called “Field and Hawkins” for the upper classes, and a discreet square away was “Petits” for the rest. The wealthy went to private schools (ironically called “public schools”) and the middle and working classes went to state schools. There was an annual cricket game called “Gentlemen v Players”. Gentlemen were upper-class amateurs. The Players were the working-class athletes who were paid to perform. Upper classes went horse racing at Royal Ascot. The poor went greyhound racing. The Upper Classes went to work with a bowler hat and furled umbrella, the workers in cloth caps.

During the sixties everything began to change, however slowly. West Indian immigration, the Beatles and Rolling Stones who appealed across the class divide, all helped. But still, the historic grip of the Royal Family and its aristocracy was preserved. The House of Lords, still dominated by birth rather than either merit or democracy. It could interfere with or block the will of the freely elected House of Commons (don’t the names themselves say it all). Women might have had a vote but they were still regarded as the weaker sex. “A woman was expected to be seen and not heard.”

The Conservative Party was dominated by Peers of the Realm or their relatives. And into this atmosphere swept Margaret Thatcher, ably supported by her wealthy husband. I well remember the extent to which she was despised by her own party for being a woman with a mind of her own, and worse, for being the daughter of a grocer. That was the most damning insult the Tories could throw at her in those days.

Her own party begrudgingly allowed her promotion only because she fought for it, and most of them disliked her for dislodging the weak, anodyne Edward Heath. But she had the strength of character and will, first to fight her ground, then to overcome and finally to hector them into submission. It was only after a long reign that they were they able to turn on her and pay her back.

Inevitably, she was and is despised by the Left and adored by the Right. Her economic record is still a matter of dispute. But there is no doubt she was a catalyst for significant change in many areas. There were inevitably battles she lost or causes she got wrong. But she had guts. She took on the uncompromising coal miner leader Arthur Scargill and broke the back of union resistance. She fought against political correctness and turned Britain into a society where you could get things done and there were opportunities for rising out of dependency if only you were prepared to “get on your bike”, as one of her ministers put it.

It would take another twenty years before the Labour Party broke the vice the unions still had on them. Tony Blair became electable precisely because he followed Thatcher’s pragmatism and surprisingly, his more feminine approach. Even so, neither she nor he could control the abuses and costs of welfare. She was fortunate that North Sea oil sustained her economically.

She is blamed for being unenthusiastic about the European Economic Union. That was because she loathed lazy bureaucracy, incompetence, financial corruption, unnecessary subsidies, and decisions based on not upsetting anyone. Imagine, members of the European Parliament shuttling between two duplicating parliaments, one in Brussels and the other in Strasbourg, just to keep France sweet. She was right. The EU has shown itself administratively and financially to be a mess, even if culturally and as a market for goods it has been a success.

As for the Jews, she understood us better than any other prime minister. Her Finchley constituency was heavily Jewish. Her ideology was closer to Biblical self-sufficiency than Anglican noblesse oblige. That was why she got on so well with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. She surrounded herself with more Jewish cabinet ministers than any previous PM, and don’t think she wasn’t hated for it.

In the Old World they don’t like strong leaders who are unafraid to get tough. They prefer consensus. They look for compromise. The result is that they tend to either capitulate or awake too late to stop the inevitable. Thatcher was never afraid to speak her mind, to say it as she saw it. That was why the Americans always admired her more than the Brits.

Whether it is politics or religion, boredom, consensus, bureaucracy and vested interests all place a dead hand on creativity and innovation. The gutsy, radical, innovative thinkers lose out to competent conforming self-servers. Maggie riled her civil servants and loathed her diplomats. The epithet “The Iron Lady” was originally intended as an insult. It became her badge of honor. She was tough. And tough is what we really need if we are ever to get things done. Give me a gutsy leader I disagree with rather than a weak one who will not take a stand.

April 12, 2013

Not My Bible

I am not amongst those who consider it a religious crime to live outside Israel. After all, since the days of the Babylonian Exile (actually even earlier the Judean kings established an Israelite garrison and temple at Elephantine) large numbers of us have lived beyond our ancestral borders. But I do believe in the idea of Galut, Exile. And by that I mean the profound sense that one is fundamentally at odds with the prevailing culture. And sadly one can often feel a sense of Galut within present day Israel’s borders, where so many seem to want to imitate the very worst aspects of Western pop culture.

But here in America I have recently been feeling it more than ever. Even though for Jews in the Diaspora I cannot think of a better place for us to live in peace and harmony. Although you only need to read “FDR and the Jews” by Richard Breitman and Allen J. Lichtman to realize how vehemently we were hated and excluded even in the USA.

The most popular television show in the US at the moment is the History Channel’s “The Bible”. It is watched more than the trashiest reality shows, the banal talent competitions, and the series about zombies and vampires (all good reason for banning television from any sane household). The History Channel, on the other hand, usually deals in facts rather than fantasies. Not this time.

My issue is not that the part that deals with our Bible is badly researched and full of anomalies and anachronisms. It is when it gets to the New Testament that I realize why anti-Semitism is still so prevalent and persistent all around the world and why I feel so culturally alienated. The current incremental rise of anti-Semitism is mainly driven by Muslim and neo-fascist thugs. But it is the subtle undercurrent of negativity, perpetuated by holy texts that gives a patina of justification for the antipathy.

I am amongst those who think that Pauline and later Christianity developed a series of myths based on earlier popular ideas rather than on a specific, living human being. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, unless it leads to torturing and killing those who do not agree with you. We too have our earlier Canaanite horror stories. Both Christianity and Islam wanted to supersede what came before. To do this they had to show how their religion was so much better. And to hammer it home they had to present the Jews as primitive, hypocritical, corrupt betrayers of truth which the new religion was going to put right. The very distinction between Old Testament and New Testament that make up the Christian Bible is a clear statement that we oldies are now out of date and out of touch.

In the Christian world, for thousands of years Jews have been cursed and pursued for the “crime” of rejecting Jesus and the greater crime of causing his death. In some quarters we are still blamed for “killing God”, ridiculous as such a claim might sound to you and me. As for the myth of Jesus being accused of heresy, you will not find anywhere in Jewish law any hint that it is heresy to say “ I am the King of the Jews,” “I am the Son of God,” or indeed to claim “I am God.” One might think you are a lunatic, but hardly a rational heretic. And if trying to make Judaism more popular and humane were a crime, then the great Hillel who lived a generation before would have been in trouble. So would all the many faith healers who abounded at that time. And If the crime were a political one, like saying I am the President, or King of the Jews, if the Romans had an issue with that, we certainly didn’t. The proof of the pudding would lie in achieving the goal of actually getting appointed and then seeing off the Romans. Otherwise he’d be no greater a threat than Bonnie Prince Charlie. It is possible that factions within the Jewish community supported Roman rule and had an interest in suppressing opposition but then why not just say it is was? The whole narrative is so improbable and unhistorical.

The directors of “The Bible” protested that we were not propagating Jew-hatred by having the Jewish priests accuse Jesus of heresy and handing him over to the Romans. But this series inevitably propagates the “official version” of the emergence of a new, clean, honest religion to replace a corrupt, petty, hypocritical one identified with Jews today. This message is hammered home visually by having the Jews wear a modern immediately identifiable tallit. There are not very subtle messages of Jews as the bad guys, the evil moneychangers in the Temple, reminiscent of Wall Street (who in fact were simply currency exchangers providing a service to pilgrims to cash in their local travelers checks to pay for accommodation at the King David Hotel or a quick sacrifice to atone for whatever). But it is now a cliché to accuse Jews of being moneylenders.

I cannot condemn Christians in what is predominantly a Christian country for propagating their myths. Every few years another similar version hits the big screen or the little one. But can you blame me for feeling a cultural dissonance? There are still plenty of crazy missionaries out there, and others, apparently sane, telling us Jews we will not get to Heaven unless we repent.

Perhaps those who identify with Jesus might secretly think I’m one of the Devil’s Squad? How else can you explain the persistence of that other myth that around 12 million Jews control the billions of others in this planet? It can’t be logic. It must be myth. Who, pray, is responsible for that? Oh yes, they’ll tell you, it is all our fault!

The period of mourning called The Omer that we observe between Pesach and Shavuot is a period of mourning largely because historically after Easter the Crusades began and peasants poured out of churches after incendiary sermons against the Christ-killers, eager to avenge the death of their savior by killing as many local Jews as possible. Thankfully, times have changed. But for too many, the narrative has not.

Israel is still the only place on earth where Jews can feel culturally at home and not be aware of the prevalence of competing theologies and myths. But then, of course, we know Israel has other problems.

April 05, 2013

Being Jewish Without God

What if you just do not believe in God? Does this mean there is no room for you in the Jewish religion? On the surface, yes, it does. God underpins the Torah. And the Torah is the essential core of Jewish religious life. But the question is what one means by “God”. If one thinks that God is an ancient man sitting up in the clouds casting thunderbolts at sinners and bestowing bounteous rewards on the good, or like Superman, He intervenes whenever bad things look like happening, then I am not sure how many so-called “believers” share such a view. Or what if your God had a physical presence or representation? Many Medieval rabbis thought so and many mystics think that way even now. Would that put you out of the official camp?

Most of us who do make God the core of our religious lives and the object of our spiritual yearning are constantly struggling. We move in and out of periods of profound conviction and then serious doubt. Each one of us creates our own framework of religious engagement in the light of our own mental characteristics. We are not unique in this. Our sacred literature is full of examples of great spiritual forebears who often felt lost, abandoned, and even alienated. They all needed reassurance. Yet they remain the role models of our spiritual heritage.

The Torah actually does not say, “You must believe in God.” The first of the Ten Commandments simply says, “I am the Lord your God.” It’s an invitation to engage, rather than a theological command to attest to something one may not be able to articulate. For all the Divine miracles in the Bible, the people kept on falling back to idolatrous ways and abandoned their God. So why isn’t there room nowadays for an honest doubter?

Many Jews have no interest in religion. Their criteria for Jewishness might be literature or Jews who contributed to the wider world. Their heroes will be people like Freud, Marx, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, or the host of acclaimed writers of partly Jewish heritage, with a measure of talent and brains but no claims to Jewish spirituality. Their causes will be civil rights. Their festivals will be musical and cinematic. They might possess a feeling of being defined by anti-Semitism or feel a shared historical destiny. But the life they lead will be no different than that of the liberal academically inclined people they mix with. That, of course, is their right, and if they are also ethical, caring human beings, even better.

There are other positions I can feel a kinship to even if I go a stage further. There is the heightened sensitivity to the Divine dimension, to feeling that there is more in this universe than our physical existence. Such sentiments have been articulated by Einstein, or more recently by the late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. But neither would accept an idea of God as the creator, the great intervener in human affairs. And of course there are different degrees of commitment within “religious” Judaism itself.

The religious person I identify with (insofar as I identify with anyone) is one whose life revolves around a religious calendar, who spends time every day in spiritual activity, who tries to relate in practice to Torah values. It is not a profession of faith as much as a commitment to behavior and this behavior is not just rote but ethical. I take my lead from the Mishna; Rebbi Yeudah HaNasi says in Avot 2:1, “What is the right path for a man to choose? That which is honorable to him and brings him honor in the eyes of others.” Or as Chaninah Ben Dosa says in Chapter 3:9, “Whoever humans regard as a good person, God considers good too.”

I do not consider a Jew to be religious if his behavior towards other human beings is unethical, regardless of his confessed beliefs. And conversely I do consider someone a good human being if he or she relates positively and kindly to other humans, regardless of religious practice. The two principles of our religion are the relationship between God and Humanity and between humans themselves. If one part of the equation is missing there is an imbalance. But an imbalance is not grounds for dismissal. It is rather an invitation to engage more deeply.

The absence of religious ritual is a mark of how seriously or not a person takes his religious life. The value of ritual, of Jewish behavior, is that it helps stimulate and repeat certain types of spiritual encounters and experiences. If someone believes in the importance of being healthy or fit but never acts on it, the belief becomes vague sentimentality. That is why I am in favor of living a religious life, even if one does not believe in God. The rabbis say, “From doing something for the wrong reason one can come to do it for the right one.” They didn’t set a time limit. Perhaps that person might never be able to jump to the higher level. But they did not reject the honest doubters.

We have always been a “broad church”. Where Talmudic Judaism drew the line was at the person who ideologically, defiantly denied the possibility of God. That was what defined the person who cut himself off from his religious roots, the certainty of “not” as opposed to the uncertainty of possibility. The so-called Wicked Son we read about at the Seder, though even he kept the Seder ritual. When one encounters men like Noam Chomsky or Woody Allen, one sees where the process of religion-less Judaism is leading. I can respect them as humans, even if I do not respect them as Jews. Once, apostasy involved conversion to another religion. Now it is the gentle but certain disappearance from the ranks and from the causes that preserve us.

So here I am, unhappy about religious hypocrisy, worried about those of our family who are leaving us. Why shouldn’t I try to include anyone who manifestly lives a Jewish life, regardless of intellectual reservation? If an agnostic Jew wants to keep Shabbat, I say, “Good for you! Come join my minyan!”