March 28, 2014


The film that won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, 12 Years a Slave, is a moving picture about a free black man living in New York State in the 1840s, before the Civil War. It is based on a true account of how a free black citizen in New York State was tricked into visiting Washington, where he was drugged and sold into slavery in the south. After a horrific life, he was rescued through a chance encounter with what appears to be a religious craftsman from the North. There have, in my opinion, been better films about the horrors of black slavery in the USA. But it is always important to be reminded of the unspeakable cruelty we humans, of all persuasions and cultures, are capable of inflicting on our brothers and sisters.

It was probably political correctness that led to the gorgeous young Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o getting the Oscar for best supporting actress. Beautiful as she was, and moving as her part was, I cannot believe that in any other film of any other subject she would have won the award. But I am glad of it nevertheless.

The Supreme Court of the United States is debating the issue of Affirmative Action again. I had a visceral reaction against such a policy, partly because we Jews did well despite not having such support. And because we have always believed in doing our best, regardless of the odds stacked against us, and using the challenge to excel. But I do think there is a special case to be made out because the disastrous state of much of black society in the USA. Most children grow up in single parent and multi-partner households, far too few black children graduate high school, there is a huge disparity between the chances of a black defendant being acquitted by a jury and a white one, blacks vastly outnumber whites in the jail population and in the numbers executed, and far too many blacks find full time employment. The resulting gang warfare, criminality, and violence that comes from feeling helpless and alienated are all reasons to do something about it. As with all human situations it is, in my view, almost impossible to isolate a single cause, be it internal or external. So locating blame is a futile exercise.

I also think that, ironically, doctrinaire white intellectuals, as typified by many in the teachers unions, do more to hold back black kids than the most prejudiced of racists, precisely because they refuse to let market forces in education, such as charter schools, improve their lot. They seem to care more about protecting jobs for teachers, even criminal ones, than success for pupils.

Many years ago I recall an argument I had with a bright young black woman in London who told me that she thought that slavery was every bit as significant a crime as the Holocaust. I argued that there was a difference. The evils of slavery were motivated by financial gain, blacks were treated as commodities, whereas the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not even interested in preserving Jews to put to work (though some were). The main motivation was the eradication of Jews as if they were vermin. There were no extermination camps or ovens for blacks. We parted company acrimoniously.

Over the years I have reconsidered my position. Not because I think the two are of identical nature, but because at root both are reflections of the absolute wickedness of too many people. Taking away a person’s freedom is nowadays, in theory, an offense against every attempt to define human rights, whether it is defined as Habeas Corpus or Liberty. To rape, mutilate, and flog human beings is the very height of inhumanity and sadism. To tear children away from their parents is a betrayal of the family as the core institution of human love and care. Slavery did all that to the extent that sometimes death was indeed preferable. In some ways you could even say that slavery was worse, because its crimes were carried out by many more people over a much more extended time frame. Kidnapping (for slavery or other reward) is equated in the Jewish legal tradition with murder.

You may argue that slavery under some conditions could also be supportive and caring, and in some cases it was. But the mere institution of ownership of other humans can put people at such an extreme disadvantage that they will often accept humiliation, sexual exploitation, and inferior conditions either because psychologically they have been conditioned to or out of a desperate desire to ameliorate their state.

The daily cruelty inflicted by an uncaring human on another is a scandal that continues. Large numbers of the poorest Asians and Africans work under inhuman conditions. They are often indentured literally as slaves or by circumstances. They live without hope of freedom or recourse. Often they are cut off from their children for years. Although in relatively civilized societies bosses, civilian and military, can also impose themselves on subservients, kidding themselves that there is no compulsion, at least one go to the courts with the possibility of escape.

None of this was possible for black slaves. The Civil War, which was ostensibly fought over slavery, did not ameliorate the suffering in the South. It took more than another hundred years. And prejudice remains against blacks at least as much as it does against Jews. Once it was religion to blame, but then Red idealists proved it’s a universal disease.

It is a pointless exercise to say “my pain is greater than yours” or “my suffering cannot be compared to any other.” All individual suffering is a crime against God and Man and must be prevented by law or negotiation. While the Torah allows taking a life in self-defense, it does not tolerate individuals inflicting pain gratuitously or for financial and personal gain on innocent human beings for any other reason. We need to be constantly reminded of this.

March 20, 2014

To Serve or Not to Serve

My friend Yori Yanover was recently sacked as editor of the online Jewish Press. His crime was a biting condemnation of a demonstration of protestors in New York against a proposed law, now passed by the Knesset, requiring a significant number of Israeli Charedi men to serve in the Israeli army or do some form of social service even within their own communities.

Yori simply pointed out the lies that that the campaign perpetuates both in Israel and abroad: "That the bill aims to destroy Torah”, but the bill is not requiring every yeshivah student to serve; genuine scholars will be exempted. “That the army will destroy the religious life of Charedi recruits”; there are thousands of religious young men who have served and remained religious. “That those religious politicians and rabbis who support the draft are heretics.” None of this is true or makes. It should be held up to the ridicule it deserves.

What is their case? It is first and foremost that the God of Israel is the defender of the Jewish people, and that this should be enough to protect Israel from its enemies. In principle that may be true, but from the time immemorial the Israelites were commanded to defend themselves by taking up arms. So one is bound to wonder if it was OK for Abraham, Moses, King David, and indeed Judah Maccabee, why would it not be permitted for Jews living today. Anyway, doesn’t self-defense trump most of the laws of the Torah? Isn’t training to learn how to defend oneself against imminent and real threats self-defense too?

The sad fact is that one section of our people has come to expect the other to go to war and die to defend them. That cannot be an ethical position, even if you do believe that serving God is the highest good. Not only, but the bill is offering an alternative to military service; it is called community service. It has even included an agreement with Chabad to exempt a number of young men from community service in Israel to serve communities abroad.

It may be argued that in the past the Israel was defeated and destroyed because it had abandoned Torah and was corrupt and decadent. I agree that a high moral standard and Torah study is necessary for our survival. But in the past it was considered possible to combine study and fighting. Why not now that there are proportionally more yeshivah students per capita amongst the Jewish people than ever before? And many of them are only in yeshivah because of social pressure, rather than a passionate desire to study. Can it be that some yeshivahs are only insisting on keeping everyone full-time because if some of their students go into the army they will get reduced subsidies? Perish the thought.

You may be told that the Israeli army is the agent of a secular anti-religious state. There was indeed a time when the Israeli army was not very hospitable to religious Jews, but that is hardly the case nowadays with an effective army rabbinate and top generals wearing kipot. Perhaps many Charedi youths being exposed to the outside world (and not just in an airplane journey from Tel Avi to New York) might be so cataclysmically shocked as to impair their mental states for the rest of their lives. Chabad has always sent a large number of young men into the army and they have not lost it. Over the years a significant number of young Haredi men have served in the army, despite the disapproval of their rabbis, and there is no evidence that they have been adversely affected. There has actually been a system in place for many years in which young men could combine the army with yeshivah study.

Another argument is that this is really an evil plan to get young Haredi men to learn how to earn a living. Why is that such bad thing? Others argue that threatening punishment for those who evade the draft is discrimination. But it could only be if it were not applied equally to anyone who evaded the draft regardless of religious proclivities.

There may in fact be a lot wrong with the bill. But the Haredi camp refused to negotiate altogether. They refused earlier attempts at compromise, like the Tal Law. What is it that has so convinced their leadership that compromise is a sin? How does one explain the total refusal to even sit down and negotiate? Or the pathetic claim that this a Nazi-like genocide against poor defenseless young men? I expect rabid anti-Semites or lunatics to say such rubbish.

There are I think two reasons for this extreme refusal to compromise or negotiate. Neither is legitimate. One is the historical tension between the Haredi and the Secular. Once there were indeed grounds. I well recall the antagonisms of the 1950s, when obstacles were put in the way of religious communities and all secular political doors were slammed in their faces. But that is long gone on a governmental level.

The other is the increasing extremism and influence of anti-Zionist Messianic ideology. The mood amongst many ( not all) Haredi communities around the world has been getting increasingly extreme. Whereas the grandfather of the present Vishnitzer Rebbe was very supportive of Israel and actually sent groups of young men into the army. His son no longer did. The grandson, who spent time in exile with his extreme uncle in Monsey, has become blindly antagonistic. Even the Belzer, once pro-Israel, has now threatened to take his Chasidim to the USA (as if a hundred thousand Jews in welfare are going to be welcomed).

It has become a religious principle to become more extreme and a political game to say “no”. So naturally, the secular ask why they should support and indulge those who refuse to share the burdens of the state. That is how Israeli politics gets so polarized.

The trump card is the dogma that the “Great Ones,” an oligarchy of outstanding rabbinic scholars (and no small number of rabbis who simply succeeded their fathers) have decided and they know best and we must just obey. In principle I do not disagree. But experts can also be wrong. And Judaism does believe in personal responsibility. I wonder if those who were alive in 1938 when “the Great Ones” almost to a man declared that it was safer to stay in Eastern Europe than leave, should have listened to them then!

And I cannot see how we can possibly negotiate with the Palestinians when we cannot even negotiate with ourselves!!

March 13, 2014


The great “Carnivales” of the Catholic world have always coincided with the period preceding Lent, when the righteous avoid pleasures of the flesh and atone. You said goodbye to meat (carne) and you celebrated being forgiven your sins. Many Christian ascetics and killjoys objected strongly to the levity that came with carnivals. Indeed, in places like Venice they were occasions of mass debauchery. The tradition of wearing masks or dressing in disguise to preserve anonymity or to assist secret assignations came to be part and parcel of Carnivals to this very day.

The Bible knows only too well the link between religion and sexual impropriety. The Golden Calf led to an orgy. In the pagan world in general, religious worship involved “giving of oneself” to the deity, or its willing priests and priestesses, whether sexually or with defecation. Biblical Judaism was not opposed to fun and pleasure. But it did emphasize self-control and restraint. Time and again, the Bible admonishes the Children of Israel not to follow the corrupt religious rites of the peoples they were trying to dispossess.

Just as festivals of light were universal and each religion found its own way of celebrating it, so too carnivals were universal. This does not mean that each culture did not have its own and original reasons for celebration. Either you did win a battle against the Greeks or you didn’t. Either there was a plot to destroy you in the Persian Empire or there was not. But if the reason to celebrate varied from culture to culture, the carnivals came to resemble each other through the inevitable cross fertilization that comes when different cultures share the same space.

You will find examples of lights for the dead or covering mirrors to keep out evil spirits throughout the ancient world, long before they appear as Jewish customs. You will find lighting flames as the depth of winter approaches long before Chanukah was celebrated. And you will find masks and fancy dress and getting drunk well before Purim.

The fact is that for all the drunken excesses and self-indulgence of Purim, it has never been known as a time when sexual misconduct was rampant (one or two historical exceptions notwithstanding). If it happened, it was not part of the culture. As the Talmud says, you can judge a person by how he drinks; so too I would argue you could judge a religion by what happens when you remove restraints.

Purim has come to be associated with masks. Which normally means “to disguise” or “to cover.” It has different usages, but the one thing they have in common is that when you are masked, you are not whom you appear to be. No one was supposed to know who “The Man in the Iron Mask” really was! In a good person, disguise may be no more than a game; but in a bad person, such as a robber, you are covering your face to get up to monkey business. So it usually has been with carnival masks.

In general, masks and disguise have played an important role in religious ceremonies going back well before the Biblical period and all around the world. From Oceania to Africa and the Andes, they were and often still are used to control, to instill fear and obedience. Chiefs and witch doctors wear them to reinforce their authority. In Africa, to frighten and discipline the child, mothers often paint a frightening face on the bottom of her water container. In many cultures judges wore masks to protect them from the fury of those they punished and their families. Disguise and uniforms are associated with authority and power. And of course masks are still used in war to frighten the enemy or ward off evil spirits.

In the Bible masks only appear once. In Exodus 34: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in his hands, he did not realize that the skin of his face shone…When Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses and his face was so bright, they were afraid to come closer to him…So Moses put a mask/veil on his face. When he went in to speak with God he took the mask/veil off, until he came out, and then he put the mask/veil on his face again until the next time he went in to speak to God.”

This does seem strange. He was not wearing the mask to frighten anyone or to hide his identity. Quite the contrary. He was scarier without it. It seems he was wearing a mask in the way a disfigured person might to make him appear less alien. In his case the mask was making him more accessible. You might think that the process of religious inspiration itself was the scary part. Once you transmit it to ordinary people it is less frightening, but it is also less pure; it has been modified to make it accessible. This is why Moses is the only one in the Bible who wears a mask. He was uniquely close to the source. It’s a symbol of the degree of proximity and distance from the ideal. We all of us are somewhere along that line that runs from one extreme to the other.

That is why, even if the custom of masks and disguises on Purim has come from somewhere else, it still finds a place in our tradition. Just as pagan harvest festivals have been adapted to a monotheistic purpose, so too masks and disguise. We can all be Hamans or Mordechais. Different potentials lurk beneath our surfaces. It is up to us to choose which one, which mask to wear, for better or worse.

March 06, 2014

Who's afraid of Putin?

As I watched the Sochi Winter Olympics, I thought of Putin’s long shadow was cast, malevolently, over the construction, the management, and the security of the event. I wondered what act of aggression he would get up to next. His smirking, self-satisfied, bullying presence thumbed a nose at the civilized world as he gloated over his support for totalitarian regimes in Chechnya, Syria, Moldova, and Georgia. His malevolent involvement in other countries and the blatant way he suppresses and imprisons opposition at home are chilling. His KGB nature reveals itself for what it is. Well, now we know. A leopard and his spots!

By way of contrast, Obama’s incompetence, the way his naive worldview and credulity have made a fool of him, is equally frightening. It means there are no red lines, and no ally can trust that he will actually step up to the plate in a moment of crisis. Perhaps a little tokenism here, bravado there. But is the EU any better? They need their deals with Russia. They are being very circumspect.

There is another perspective. You could argue that Putin has backbone and determination in trying to reestablish Russia as a world power, to revitalize an ethnic culture and religion that had all but been eradicated by Marxism. You might argue that in supporting Assad, Putin is the only bulwark against extreme, violent Muslim fanaticism.

Meanwhile in the West, the liberal, so-called chattering classes, or politically correct world, perpetuate the myths of the old order, excoriating the United States and its allies and capitalism as the real oppressors. They are cowards who will refrain from boycotting Russia or China but prefer to bully smaller fry.

Then comes the Jewish perspective. We tend naturally to side with freedom. But the freedoms of the European Union have created a world in which Jews are increasingly marginalized and vilified and Israel is boycotted. Their religious practices are increasingly restricted. Putin, on the other hand, has been very supportive of Jewish life in Russia. Ironically, it might just be easier to be a practicing Jew in Moscow nowadays than in Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, or even Zurich.

We may cheer the Ukrainian opposition for trying to escape the Russian grip. But there’s another side to Ukraine too. The Chief Rabbi has warned that the lid the pro-Russian party kept on anti -Semitism is now lifted. Ukraine is arguably, more than any other part of the old Russian Empire, the cradle of the most virulent and violent anti-Semitism. It is the origin of the Chmielnicki atrocities (he is regarded today as a hero by many Ukrainians), the Beilis blood libel, and the Kishinev pogroms, to mention only the most notorious. Many of the demonstrators from Western, Cossack Ukraine were neo-Nazis and sympathizers; some wore swastikas and declared a desire to rid Ukraine of its remaining Jews (admittedly Eastern Ukraine and Western are very different) and the Cossacks are as divided as the Jews, some pro-Russian and others anti.

This has always been our dilemma. We Jews have to live somewhere. Nowhere is perfect. It’s often a matter of what compromises we have to make. So would you rather live under Putin? Not I.

Two and a half thousand years ago we were in a similar position. Yes, really. Egypt and Babylon were the two competing world powers. Both cultures were cruel, morally bankrupt but militarily strong. There were Jews living in both empires. The kingdom of Judah (the northern state of Israel had already been destroyed) was caught in between both powers, switching from one to the other as alliances were promised and then betrayed. We ourselves were torn apart internally; socially, religiously, and politically. In the end we backed the wrong horse. Despite being assured by our false prophets that we would be fine, we suffered horribly.

But thanks to the Persian Emperor Cyrus, Jews living in the Empire and in the renewed satrapy of Israel enjoyed an era of toleration. The Macedonian Alexander the Great followed suit. Toleration meant it didn’t matter what or who you worshipped, so long as you accepted the conqueror’s authority. Persia was an absolute dictatorship. Greece had a modified form of democracy. What Jews who lived under both regimes cared about was less the style of government than the practicalities of earning a livelihood. Conflict was over trade, rather than religion. But once again Jew argued with Jew, as the Maccabean revolt illustrated.

Under the Roman Empire, too, Jews lived and thrived, some in the East and some in the West. They had to choose which leader to back, of course. One moment it was Pompey. The next it was Caesar. I am sure they had PACS in those days too. Tensions between East and West resurfaced. Some Jews revolted against Rome and looked to the Parthians for support. Others, like Josephus, abandoned their people and chose to live acculturated in Rome. And there indeed they lived peacefully, flourished, and were (eventually) accepted. Then too disagreements between the Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora were common.

With the rise first of Christianity and then Islam, we (along with home-born heretics) were persecuted most of the time, occasionally tolerated, rarely accepted. So we kept on moving, when we were not expelled, which proved our salvation, searching for safe havens in and between the rival camps.

On to modernity. Jews living in Germany were sure their cultural tradition put them at the comfortable and safe center of civilization. Like Napoleon, they looked down on Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Jews fought on both sides in the First World War. Many supported the rise of fascism. And I recall both in England and Israel meeting refugees from Hitler who still believed that Germany was heaven, and Nazism had all been a terrible mistake.

I rehearse all this to make the point that we have always been faced with conflicting politics and realities and have tried to tread warily through the minefields. Sometimes we got it right. More often we got it wrong. I can’t think of a better example than the conviction of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, almost to a man, a hundred years ago that Eastern Europe would be safer for the Jews than anywhere else.

I am both rational and mystical. I am in part liberal and part conservative. The challenge most of us have is to make the right micro-decisions, even if we cannot make the right macro ones. If there is a metaphorical message in our holy texts, it is that in the end (and sometimes it’s a very long end) God (or history) sides with the ethical, regardless of their identity or their affiliation.