February 27, 2014

Ramaz and Rashid Khalidi

The Ramaz School was wrong to refuse to allow Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian apologist, to speak to its senior students. The purpose of any good school is to educate its pupils to think for themselves.

Thinking students need to hear other opinions, other arguments and other convictions. Knowing what the other side’s arguments and emotions are, they can better make up their own minds about the issues of the day. One of the primary tasks of a good education is to present different ideas. Certainly where a school prides itself on the intellectual quality of its staff, its pupils, and its curriculum, there is all the greater responsibility to present conflicting points of view and intellectual challenges, even if they sometimes might be painful. Presenting different points of view is indeed the very difference between education and indoctrination.

This does not mean that a good school cannot propagate its own particular favored position and ideology. It should and it must. But if you do not expose your charges to an opposing point of view, they will be totally unequipped to deal with the challenges they will face on the outside in situations when there may be no one there to consult or to give them another point of view.

In my years in education, both high school and adult, I was always ready to invite controversial speakers to present another point of view, even if I hated the opinion and the person who propagated it. Whether it was the Austrian neo-Nazi Jorg Haider or South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, or an extreme left-wing Israeli opinion, which was often much worse. I have always thought it important to actually listen to them in a context in which they can be challenged, both for their own good (though it rarely achieves that, hatred rarely tolerates a riposte) and in order to learn how to respond. Even, I might say, to listen with humility if there are strong arguments that are painful.

The process of dialectic, of classical philosophical debate, is an invaluable tool for young people to learn not only how to think for themselves but how to try to persuade others. Similarly, when it comes to religious issues I have welcomed atheists, such as Anthony Grayling. I think it essential that young Jews learn how to defend themselves. After all, even Pirkei Avot commands us to “know how to answer the Apikorous.”

All this presupposes that in the audience and afterwards there will be well-informed teachers who will be able to defend the other side. Sometimes this is not the case. But if it does happen, the school has every opportunity to make sure that this is rectified further down the line with better-equipped experts brought in to ensure that other arguments are given and the nuances appreciated. Anyway there are levels of commitment that go beyond logic; priorities of family, people and nation even if one has reservations or sees another point of view.

One of the sad features of political debate nowadays in general and the Israel-Palestinian issue in particular is that in one side, invariably the Palestinian, in my experience, usually tries to shout down the other. In Europe Israel rarely gets an opportunity to present itself, and when it is given a platform the other side and its amen-choruses try their best to disrupt. This is happening on American campuses too. Fashion in academia is as insidious as in Vogue. More so given the stakes. The illogicality of boycotting Israel over say China or Russia simply defies logic or justice. Balanced and reasoned debate is increasingly rare. But this doesn’t mean a well-organized school genuinely interested in education should be frightened of presenting both sides, even if universities do not.

Rashid Khalidi is a historian at Columbia, an apologist for the Palestinian cause, and a supporter of armed resistance. He is intelligent and articulate. I think it would have been very useful for the Ramaz students to hear his arguments. Besides, now that he has been denied a platform there, I have no doubt that many pupils will try to find out for themselves what his arguments are, outside the school. So what have you achieved?

I do feel sorry for Ramaz. When, as a rabbi or headmaster, I did invite controversial speakers, the skies fell down around me, and all sorts of pressure was tried to get me to change my mind. Everyone who thought, or whom other people persuaded, that they could influence me, either because they were donors or communal bigwigs, weighed in on the matter and tried everything from threats to withdrawing financial aid. That’s Jewish life for you. Fortunately I was always in a position to ignore them, sometimes politely. Not everyone is. So I sympathize.

It a grave mistake to believe one can completely protect one’s children intellectually, and even if you could it would certainly not help if one wanted them to grow up to take their places in a competitive society. Ironically, I am more in favor of refusing to give our enemies a platform as adults within the established community than I am in schools, precisely because there the minds are more open and malleable.

Once again it is the season for anti-Israel campus events. The very terminology, such as Apartheid, is proof of the intellectual ignorance and dishonesty of the campaigns. Yet left-wing academics rush into the fray all over the country. Not enough is being done to arm young Jewish students to fight back. Sadly, it too often has to be against other Jews who are as fanatically opposed to Israel as the blindest of Jihadis. But their arguments and lies must be exposed, not avoided.

There are enough reasons to criticize Israel without lies and distortions, and equally there enough good arguments to show that Palestinians themselves are the authors of their own sorry state of affairs. I wish it could be resolved amicably, or even not amicably. But the last thing we want to do is to descend to their level of dishonest debate, falsified history, and a culture of physical and mental dependency. Unless our youngsters actually hear the lies and how to answer them, they will not be prepared for university life or the moral challenges that face them.

February 20, 2014


I have always valued the utilitarian aspect of Judaism, even though utilitarianism in itself is hardly justification for living a religious life. Circumcision may indeed help reduce the risk of certain kinds of diseases. So might refraining from sex at certain times. But those are not the reasons most of us adhere to these laws.

The strict Shabbat of Judaism is the most relevant of all our rituals in the world in which we now live. Difficult, I concede, but immensely rewarding. The value in taking a break from constant cell phone rings, texts, and messages that apparently cannot wait for one minute, let alone 24 hours, has actually dehumanized us. Otherwise intelligent hominids have to check their screens as they walk, eat, and converse, as if their lives depend on them. The endless Tweets, Facebook likes, LinkedIn requests, Skype calls, WhatsApp, and Viber messages constantly nag and distract us. Having a day in which one does not have to deal with all of this must make enormous sense for our sanity and indeed our freedom.

Not being able to drive ensures that families members have to stay in easy reach of each other. They will sit together around a table several times to eat, converse, and perhaps sing and study. It requires one to read books rather than screens, to hold, to touch, to feel the print. Instead of the ubiquitous Muzak of electronic sounds and sights, the all-pervasive screens and games, we can free our senses to the sounds of nature and our own brains. We are forced out of the mundane, into another world. Not entirely cut off of course, and with some concessions and compromises, but different enough to be noticeable, beneficial both physically and mentally. Shabbat is a therapeutic break in an otherwise electronic nightmare of conformity and similarity imposed by media, most of which is either trivial and valueless or materially and commercially importuning and insidious.

It is true that actually keeping Shabbat requires discipline and being able to postpone gratification or harness it, which is often uncomfortable and grating. But how does one succeed in any area of life without self-control and delayed gratification?

Petty laws annoy us. But imagine you take your family somewhere where there is no such thing as a day off, of the sort of Sunday most of us in the West recognize. If you want your children to understand it you will have to be negative and restrictive. No formal clothes, lie in bed later than usual, read the bulky Sunday papers, go for a walk, sit down to a meal together. These demands are all going to sound petty. It won’t help to say you can do whatever everyone else is doing on the other six days of the week. Kids will always want to do the opposite. Kids will always want to join their friends, the flow, the fashion, the easy fun way out. I know I always did, until yeshivah taught me the value of discipline.

This reflection on Shabbat was provoked by a recent BBC talk and interview with Matthew Engel, a former schoolmate of mine, now a well-respected British journalist. In it he discussed how the strict Christian Sabbath that once controlled the Scottish Islands has slowly been eroded, to argue for the merits of a day off, a break from the pervasive culture of perpetual work, business, computers, and phones. But on the way to that point, he and his equally non-Jewish Jewish interviewer made fun of the Orthodox Shabbat.

Matthew comes from a non-Orthodox Jewish family, brought up in the wilds of Northamptonshire. He and his two elder brothers were sent to Carmel College, where Shabbat was strictly enforced. Matthew later carved out a distinguished career for himself, probably because of the very challenges, difficulties, and disciplines that were forced on him. He became a cricket fan. He was also forced to play cricket at Carmel. Eventually he became the editor of the bible of cricket known as Wisden.

The cynic can make fun of everything and anyone, of handkerchiefs, and ties, and handshakes, and salutes--all meaningless aspects of most societies. One can make endless fun of cricket, just as he made fun of Judaism. It is a game which you can play for five days and get no result. A bowler hurls a lump of cork and leather at three sticks called stumps (a mystical number?). The ball must be thrown in the most unnatural way, over the shoulder at a batsman standing in from of the sticks, adopting rigid stances with funny names. The batsman wields a heavy slab of linseed anointed ash, and swings it in fixed and defined arcs. If the bowler actually hits the batsman, and they often try, he can claim “Leg Before Wicket” and get him dismissed, even if it hits his arm. There are ritual calls like “Howzat”, meaning he should leave the field. There are place names like “Silly Mid Off” and “Silly Mid On” (yes, honestly). And if a bowler hurls the ball six times (why six, indeed?) and the batsman fails to strike, everyone applauds. Yes, you applaud when nothing happens. I could go on, but you get my point. But it’s tradition of course. The defender of cricket will talk about broader and wider issues of gamesmanship, skill, and competition. He will resent you picking on small cultural details. But it’s those details that determine the difference between cricket and baseball.

So it is with Judaism. The broader idea of having a day that is different than the others is so wise and obviously beneficial. But the only way to achieve it and take it seriously is if there is a system to support and enforce the idea and give it structure.

Matthew ends up by saying he decided to make his own Sabbath which, out of deference to his heritage (ironically), he does on Saturday, despite describing his current religion as MYOBism (Mind Your Own Business). I wonder if he realized that, for all his rebellion, the idea had been planted in his subconscious and was now reemerging despite himself. His Sabbath is avoiding his computer and not answering his emails. But he confesses the overpowering attraction of horse racing, and making a bet leads him to make an exception.

And there you have it. If one tailors one’s religion to one’s own whims, one has neither consistency, nor pattern or communality. For all the inconvenience of a religious system, at least one has something recognizable and definable that one can share, even if one, as most people do, often fails to live up to it all, whether it’s orthodoxy in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or whatever.

In principle there’s no reason why each and every individual shouldn’t create his or her own lifestyle. And I haven’t even mentioned the idea of God. But that tendency towards solipsism is what has made society such a selfish/me/want-it-now world of instant gratification and the lowest common denominator.

The Olympians who we thrill at currently and the great cricketers need more than natural physical talent. They need skills, courage, and enormous discipline. We might make fun of their early mornings, their strict regimes of controlled eating, sleeping, and exercise. But we admire and delight in the results nevertheless.

February 13, 2014

Bury Me There

On a recent trip to Israel I made a tour of burial grounds. Not the great archaeological sites, although I did spend some magical hours at the Western Wall when almost no one was there. Neither did I make pilgrimages to the graves of venerable rabbis. I have never felt comfortable with the idea of visiting relics and tombstones of saints. It’s true there is a rabbinic tradition of praying at the graves of our great and good but it has never made any rational sense to me. After all, it is the soul and spirit that animates and inspires us, not some earthly remains. Even the graves of my own parents, great Jews and human beings by any standards, on Mount of the Olives in Jerusalem, mean little to me compared to their constant inspiration and presence in my mind and heart. This time I went looking for somewhere to be buried myself.

It’s not that I care, to be honest. Yes I adhere to Jewish tradition and want to have a traditional burial. But that’s for convention, not because I think I will notice any difference. After all, I do believe that when my soul returns to its Maker, the physical me will disappear into the eternal cycle of molecules and atoms. And I certainly do not believe in the kabalist’s idea of gilgulim, that our souls are recycled into other bodies. As if spiritual souls retain physical characteristics. Even resurrection seems to me to be an abstract concept. The great Maimonides conceded that he neither understood how it worked nor what it entailed. To me it has always meant that soul, spirit, is indestructible, precisely because it is not physical. I always liked the way the Talmud dealt tongue-in-cheek with Cleopatra when she asked Rebbi Meir (Sanhedrin 90b) if she would come back to earth dressed or naked.

Pascal ’s famous wager was that it makes sense to bet on God. If He doesn’t exist, what have you lost? And if He does, you’ll look a right fool when you die. Perhaps I should worry about missing out on all the resurrected bodies marching up to Jerusalem. But I can’t believe that being buried on Mount of the Olives gets me there quicker than being buried in Bnei Brak, Bushey or Long Island. Do I worry that great rabbis such as Rebbi Akiva or those who were burnt to a cinder will miss out for not being buried near the Temple? No sir, I do not. I have much more faith in the Almighty’s capacities than I do in abstract traditions dressed up in human language.

If the Almighty wants my physical remains, He will come for me wherever they are. If not, it will be too late anyway. Finding a burial place was caused by wanting to save my children the expenses and by what would be most convenient for them should they be interested. They and my grandchildren are, bless them, scattered over four continents. Who knows what migrations, marriages, or moves might take place over time. But the one place that will always be the center of Jewish life is Israel, no matter what the government’s policies are. That’s where all Jews are expected to visit at regular intervals, if not to settle permanently. So it makes sense to be buried there, according to my way of thinking. But exactly where there?

Mount of the Olives is crowded and expensive and at this moment in time not all that safe. Har Hamenuchot, the massive Jerusalem burial mountain to the west, is an industrialized mausoleum. In some parts it is multi-tiered, a car park for the dead. There are one or two favored spots one has to bargain for, and nearby are the graves of heroes who died for the state as well as rabbis and criminals. But it’s too big, too impersonal, and finding a grave is like a treasure hunt.

I looked in Bnei Brak at places revered for the great scholars buried there. But the tombstones were crowded barely inches apart, littered with planks and cardboard, the detritus of people scrambling over stones, through mud and dust to get to a barely accessible slab. Surely the souls of the dead do not hang around on earth to have friendly conversations with old friends from the Carpathian mountains or sit at the feet of dead scholars studying Talmud together (or playing cards).

The nicest place I found was Ramat Beit Shemesh. Set up on a hill amongst pine trees about half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it is nicely kept and much more aesthetic and personal. The people who run it are humane and considerate. It even has special sections for foreigners, as if the Americans prefer not to be buried too near the English or the Israelis. My kids could always pop in on the way up to Jerusalem or down to Tel Aviv if they were minded to, without having to worry about traffic. And they could breathe in the heady pine scents of the hills our ancestors once walked. Christianity might have pretty country churchyards. We are more concerned with life than death. But this is a good compromise.

Part of me says, “Concentrate on living, to value and enjoy every breath one takes now.” And the other part of tells me to be practical, make preparations, “repent one day before you die.” Isn’t that paradox what being religious is about? The spirit, the grand ideas, the delights of special days and great religious experiences still need the support of dull mundane habits and rituals. You can’t have a house without foundations. As for me, if I haven’t passed anything on from my forebears to my children by now, I doubt I’ll do it after I’m gone.

February 06, 2014

Women Wearing Tefilin

One of the most significant daily rituals in Judaism is laying Tefilin, strapping leather boxes containing scrolls with certain Torah verses onto one’s arm (against the heart) and one’s forehead (against the brain). According to the Torah, it is to remind our hearts and minds of our religious and social obligations. Initially Tefilin would be worn all day long, except on Shabbat and festivals. But over time custom dictated putting them on only during morning services. Nevertheless, some individuals have continued to wear them all day.

According to Jewish Law, women were relieved of ritual obligations related to time, because they had to be allowed the freedom to tend to the demands of children and home without constantly being preoccupied with other obligations. Therefore, as a rule and convention, women have not worn Tefilin. But in a more flexible environment, and given the different roles that some women have adopted in recent years, there has been, both in Orthodox and non- Orthodox circles, a tendency for more and more women to want to put on Tefilin, even if it is not an obligation for them.

The decision of two schools in New York to allow girls who want to put them on during obligatory school services has created a storm in a teacup. Accusations of heresy and abandoning tradition have been hurled across the networks and blogs. Is this really so significant a challenge to the survival of traditional Judaism and mankind that it deserves so much attention? Or is it just another example of religious authority resisting any change on principle?

Judaism was always a way of life that emphasized doing, as much as thinking. Religious obligations were layered. At the top came the priests, whose daily regulations of ceremony and purity came with the obligation to look after the wider community as religious functionaries, teachers, doctors, and social workers. The layman had a raft of rules designed to get him to think about God and moral values at every stage in the working day. Women were relieved of obligations that were related to time, to give then the freedom to prioritize family and home over synagogue and public services. These differences were not issues of civil law, but exclusively ritual. They were indications not of superiority, but simply of different function.

The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) mentions that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore Tefilin and no one objected. The Bible tells us that she had frowned on what she considered King David’s inappropriate public display of religious enthusiasm when he danced the tabernacle up into Jerusalem. She was punished for this by being barren. Her putting on Tefilin might have been thought of as an atonement or compensation. Alternatively, it might have been an example of the natural thing to do for a religious woman who had no obligation of children or housework to distract her. There are various sources that suggest that the medieval giant Rashi allowed his daughters to wear Tefilin. Perhaps this was in recognition of their significance in acting as his amanuenses and being so knowledgeable of Torah in their own right.

Jewish law allows one to take on extra obligations if one wishes to. The only issue in general is whether a voluntary act, as opposed to an obligatory one, requires a blessing or not.

The Talmud says that Tefilin should only be worn with a “clean body”. In medieval times some argued that women should be excluded from wearing Tefilin on the grounds that they could not control their periods. A typical medieval example of how women were regarded then. Because Biblically menstruation simply renders one unable to enter the sanctuary, as do a whole raft of other exclusions applicable to men as well as women, such as being in the same room as a dead person. That some societies regarded the menstrual period with fear and disgust is no more true to Judaism than objections to divorce. If that were the real reason for objecting to girls opting to wear Tefilin it could be argued that if men can be trusted to clean up, why not women too?

But in truth the issue is about a perceived challenge to halachic authority. In some cases it might well be so. But that doesn’t mean it has to be! Whether and in what way some women want or should take on more public religious roles, and use ritual as a tool, is their business and choice. I am not concerned here with that issue.

A girl, a woman wants to find different ways of expressing her relationship to God and her religious tradition and wants to do more than she is obliged to. Why is this any different than a male who wishes to be stricter than the law requires? Some men lay two sets of Tefilin every day to cover the disagreement between Rashi and Rabbeynu Tam on the order of the scrolls. Some give more to charity than others. Some eat only Glatt or super Glatt kosher, or no gebroks on Pesach. Some go to the Mikvah every day, even on Shabbat. Does this make them rebels against early Torah Judaism that never heard of such things? What can possibly be wrong with someone wanting to do more rather than less, if it does not in any halachic way offend? Indeed Mikvah on Shabbat does offend the letter of the law. To say it has not been done before as a general rule is no stronger an argument against wearing Tefilin than it is against riding in a car.

Halcha is a defined legal framework that has its rules of debate and modification. But here we are not talking about challenging law, just custom. And Lord knows there are infinite varieties of custom in observant Judaism between communities, denominations, and sects.

I understand why religious establishments should fight off challenges to their authority. We live in times of excessive sensitivity and all religions try to fight off vigorously any threat to their world view. But why with aggression and disrespect? Novelty frightens, but that does not necessarily mean it is wrong. So why stop a girl who wants to put on Tefilin? If all she is doing is something that gives her a sense of spiritual uplift? If it is a feminist battle for supremacy, then I believe it misguided and bound to fail. But simply an expression of a personal desire to extend observance to another level? Where’s the beef?

Once upon a time men tried to argue that women were neither as intelligent nor as in need of ritual as men. Only a caveman could possibly suggest that nowadays. Have we gone crazy that a girl who wants to put on Tefilin is to be regarded as some sort of criminal and a rabbi who supports her, a traitor? Doesn’t it really make religious authority look an ass?