July 31, 2014

Tisha B’Av (2014)

Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, is the second most important fast day in the Jewish calendar, after Yom Kipur. All other so-called “minor fasts” run from dawn to dusk, like Ramadan. Unlike Ramadan, which lasts for a month, we have many fewer fast days, but we also have these two in the year that run for longer, over 24 hours. I would be interested to see a study as to the comparative impact, physical and mental of a month-long daytime fast as opposed to the four obligatory rabbinic fasts (leaving out the mystical and ascetic options).

I used not to understand how ordinary mortals could go about their daily business on minor fasts without the necessary fuel. I find it hard to concentrate when I fast. I feel weak. It’s not the food I miss as much as the liquid. If I could drink, I’d have no problem. I wonder if it isn’t the fact that they are normal working days that affects me psychologically. I am not a multitasker.

The spiritual function of fasts, I believe, is to encourage self-analysis. But if you are feeling physically weak it’s difficult. Though you might argue that at least you cannot get easily caught up in your daily, demanding physical tasks as a distraction. Surely fasting merely as an endurance test has no spiritual value, any more than doing it to diet has. On the contrary, it seems to me it is more likely to cause delusion.

Yet the fact is that I am able to handle Yom Kipur without too much difficulty. Is it just that psychologically I know I have to because it is so important religiously, whereas on the other days, because I know they are less important, my body tries persuading me I should not try or perhaps give up halfway through? Even if all the empirical evidence is that I CAN do it? Perhaps it’s autosuggestion trying to undermine me.

I have no doubt that this is why the rabbis said (Eiruvin 21b) that keeping a rabbinic command is even greater than keeping one from the Torah. One is inevitably inclined to want to treat what the rabbis say less strictly (they are, after all, only human) than something coming from a Higher Authority! What this indicates is a perfectly natural human tendency to seek the easy way out.

We who are religious seem much better at keeping the little things than we are at keeping the big ones. We are more inclined to bother about strictness in matters of food than we are in matters of personal relations. Yet if one were to weigh up the number of what we would call moral and ethical statements in the Torah, they by far outweigh the ritual ones (with the exception of two areas that are no longer applicable--sacrifice and priestly purity).

There are different traditions that seek to explain Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the two Temples, two Jewish states and Jerusalem. One is the collapse of the moral order. This is what the Prophets during the First Temple period focus on. The other is the collapse of the political order, and this emerges more from the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud in Gitin 55/56, which we study on Tisha B’Av. In both Temple periods, the actual rituals were being carried out all the time. But something fundamental, a moral compass, was missing.

I suggest it was and is the inability or the reluctance we have to go beyond our comfort zones. Someone who is ritually particular and disciplined finds it difficult to know when to bend the law towards humanity. Whereas someone who focusses on the broader human scheme of things finds it difficult to focus on the smaller, more mundane practices and community obligations.

This is typical of all humans. It is true that many of us are weak and we like immediate gratification. But if our vanity is at stake it is a strong factor in selecting the foods we know are better for us and minimizing those we know are not. It’s vanity that may drive us to find time for hours in a gym or on a yoga mat. And our vanity usually puts the needs of self before the needs of others. It is vanity to focus externality rather than internality.

If Yom Kipur takes us out of our comfort zone for spiritual matters, I suggest Tisha B’Av should take us out of our comfort zone on political issues. So much suffering and death in almost every generation has come from making the wrong political decisions. This has been as true (dare I say it) of our greatest rabbis as it has of ordinary simple folk. But unless we are prepared to step outside of ourselves every now and then, however difficult, we will never get a different perspective on our own limitations.

Experience tells me we may enter a fast with the best of intentions. But by the end it is all dissipated in the rush to eat!

July 24, 2014


In the USA a debate rages over the thousands of refugees from Central America streaming across the porous southern border. The fact that in the past few months over 50,000 of them have been unaccompanied minors makes the situation particularly emotional and complicated. This year alone some 300,000 immigrants have crossed illegally into the USA. Among them is a significant number of drug dealers and criminals, not just from Latin America, but from around the world.

The issue is both the humanitarian one of wanting to assist those in trouble, and also an existential one. What happens when the flood of refugees threatens to radically change the character of the receiving nation? Is it relevant to distinguish between political, social, and simply economic refugees? And finally, there is a principle of whether breaking the law, coming into a country illegally, should be rewarded.

This is now a problem that affects the free world everywhere. Countries that are blessed with freedom and at least a semblance of democracy are seen as places to run to when living at home is no longer congenial. If you have money or good qualifications, you will be welcomed. If you are poor, you will not. And does it matter if you also have an agenda of replacing the culture of the host nation with your own?

The movement of millions of human beings from one country to another across the globe, these quasi-invasions, sounds almost like science fiction. It is a huge, illicit, corrupt business. Human trafficking has apparently overtaken drug smuggling in profitability. And of course, tragically, many die on the way. What can one do?

In Europe it is in many ways too late. The millions of North Africans now living in France have already changed the character of the nation. It is no longer a country where Jews feel comfortable. Mobs are massed regularly to attack synagogues and assault Jews. Anti-Semitic marches are now regular features. And still hundreds of thousands continue to come in from the Middle East and Africa, either by boat from North Africa or on land through Turkey and Greece. The European Union has dithered and completely failed to deal with the issue. Its passivity means that with the dislocated from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands are going to continue risking the journey to try to get into Europe. The character of the nations is already changing.

In Israel, too, thousands of refugees from Somalia and East African religious fanatics are heading through Egypt (where none of them want to stay) across Sinai towards Israel. They are often tortured, raped, and murdered on the way. If they do get in, Israel is not the most hospitable of destinations, given the security problem and Islam’s antipathy to the Jewish state. If Israel welcomed millions of Muslim refugees, it would completely lose what often tenuous Jewish identity it has.

Indeed, why would any country want to be swamped with desperate people, often unemployable, particularly if they belong to cultures and religions diametrically opposed to the values of the host society?

The simple answer is that there are laws and conventions that require it. The Convention relating to the status of Refugees was formalized at a special United Nations conference in 1951, where certain rules were established to protect European refugees who had no state after the upheavals of the Second World War. The numbers were limited. Much later it was expanded to include anyone “fleeing their countries because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

What started with a limited number of internal European refugees now applies to millions, who can claim that living conditions in their countries of birth are insufferable. The world population has expanded from the less than a billion then, to seven billion today. What should one do?

There are those who say that one should simply accept the reality and let the chips fall as they may. But, as we have seen in the USA, this is a matter of cost too in welfare and housing. Many governors who in principle approve of welcoming genuine refugees do not want to have to house and fund them. Either one simply opens the floodgates to all and sundry or one helps create this massive industry in human smuggling. It was the reasonable attempt to apply an amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in to the USA that has caused this massive influx of desperate Hondurans eager to escape a country with the highest murder rate in the world. So is Honduras to transfer its population en masse to the USA, leaving a few gangster oligarchs to enjoy what’s left?

You might argue that rich countries should spend money trying to reform or prop up the failed regimes the refugees want to escape from. But America has tried that and notably failed in the Middle East, South America, and Near Asia. Europe tried pouring money into North Africa to stem the outflow. Not only did it fail, but refugees are now pouring in from farther afield. Regime change can only come when enough of its own people insist on it.

Australia has tried shipping its illegal immigrants off to island camps, with disastrous results. Logically the answer is to ship them home. But due legal processes in democratic countries often prevent that. In Britain, no matter how foul or lethal jihadi rabble-rousers are, they usually avoid being sent home by claiming they would be mistreated. And the courts usually agree.

The issue is now fodder for Hollywood. But we need to think seriously about what is to be done. If the original idea was to protect those without a state, and now millions are moving from states with passports, perhaps we should be taking action against the original states for creating the problem in the first place—whether through sanctions or boycotts or international pressure. Except that, given the current state of world politics, we know that will never be agreed upon.

Clearly the conventions on refugees are simply neither working nor any longer logical or practical. Even when refugees arrive somewhere, they are often treated as pariahs. It seems the only solution is for each state to determine for itself whether it wishes to commit cultural suicide or not and act accordingly. Or indeed whether it cares if its immigration laws are flouted. But it does seem ridiculous to help failed states by taking in the very people they want to drive out for political reasons. Because all that does is to reinforce the corrupt regimes that created the problem. Instead, by forcing people to stay (by not giving them refuge) they may act to change their evil rulers. Then we would be doing them a greater favor in the long run than by allowing our states to be overrun, diluted, and in due course become failed states themselves.

Think of Russian Jews. They benefitted and enriched other societies thanks to modern attitudes. But there it was indeed an issue of religious persecution, rather than political or economic disadvantage. And isn’t it significant that those Palestinians who emigrated have done far better than those who stayed? Where does self-interest end and humanity begin?

Anyone got a better idea?

July 17, 2014

Why America?

Once again I need distraction from the painful world we live in. Who asked Hamas to send salvos of rockets into Israel? Are they doing it intentionally to have casualties to win back public opinion? To prove they are as good jihadis as ISIS? Perhaps Israel should just pack up and ago. Perhaps Islam should never have been founded. Perhaps if we had been better Jews we would never have been exiled two thousand years ago. Perhaps Moses should have stayed in Egypt. The fact is we must deal with a world as it is. Hatred, prejudice and blame will solve nothing.

Let’s talk about something else. I was asked to participate in a documentary recently on why Jews have and continue to emigrate to the USA. This forced me to revisit how it is that I have left the country of my birth in the Old World for my present haven in the New.

They say that if you see someone drive by in a nice car in the USA, you are likely to think that if you really want one of those, you have to work hard and one day you will get one. In the Old World if you see someone drive a Bentley, you are more likely to think that come the revolution you will take it away from the bastard (or at the very least you will have an urgent desire to scratch the shiny exterior with a key as you walk by). In the US a problem is a challenge to overcome. In Europe it is an excuse for giving up. Like all such clichés, there is indeed an element of truth, but just as much untruth in both of them.

I used to think that New York was the most cosmopolitan of cities, where everyone was from somewhere else. Where everyone felt that one belonged every bit as much as one’s neighbor. But over the years I have realized that New York is not the USA. I can’t think of anywhere else in the USA I would rather live.

In Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn) accessibility and public transport is good. You do not need a car. You have music of all kinds, theaters, museums, libraries, universities, and public amenities like no other place. Some say it is a city only for the wealthy or the lucky. Some poorer minorities have a strong sense of alienation, of creeping gentrification that is pushing them out. This is still a world in which you have to become one to swim with the sharks. Except of course if you would rather swim with the bottom feeders, or just not swim altogether in the dirty water. You can do that easier here than anywhere else I have encountered. Concessions abound. You can be anonymous and untroubled, or as public and socially mobile as you want to.

Europe recognizes class and wealth. But America, as well as worshipping the dollar, recognizes any talent less begrudgingly than the Old World. Intellectuals are cherished, rather than regarded as odd. No matter what your field, if you succeed you are valued. And the things that frustrate one here such as politicians, bureaucracy, incompetence, graft, corruption at every level, pretty much the same as everywhere else.

What I always disliked about Britain was the way that establishments closed ranks, excluded and dismissed the maverick or the nonconformist. This was as true of Jewish society as of non-Jewish society. In every sphere that I was involved with, I was made to feel an outsider because I was and because I made a point of making them feel I was.

Here it doesn’t seem to matter. Of course you have your secret societies and cabals. But the history and the culture of the New World is of outliers, mavericks, and people going out on a limb. That’s why I feel so comfortable here. And because it is so big, and there are so many different groups and options and immigrants and newcomers that one need not feel isolated. Above all, difference is welcomed as a route to success rather than an obstacle. Yes, the USA is completely dysfunctional. It cannot even agree on tax reform, let alone any of the serious social or fiscal issues it faces. But it’s as flexible as it is static. It’s more likely to change than ossify.

But perhaps the most obvious reason is that it’s so comfortable and soothing to be a Jew here. You don’t have to hide the way you do, or feel you should, in Europe. No one would think in the USA of not walking around with overt Jewish symbols. Yiddish words are part of the vernacular. Jewish holy days are acknowledged at every level. Chanukah menorahs are lit in almost every apartment building, and there are special stamps in the post office. There are Jews of every variety and degree, and whatever their differences most of them actually speak to each other. Because there is such a critical mass of Jews of all sorts, you know you will be able to find others at just your level of idiosyncrasy to feel less alone or weird. Each denomination is free to fight for itself, and the most extreme have their lobbies in Washington and state capitals and are courted by politicians.

Whereas the neo-monopoly of establishment services like state broadcasting systems dominate the mindset in Europe, if you do not agree with the chattering classes who are predominantly antipathetic towards Israel, you are made to feel evil. At this moment I see French and British Television all solidly pro Hamas and barely a note of dissent. There is of course a similar academic, left-wing, liberal religious prejudice against Israel here as much as elsewhere but in US I can see both sides. There are channels and think-tanks that can and do share other points of view. One feels under less moral assault.

The USA is a country of alternatives, even chaos. I prefer that to the thought police, social pressure, and the hypocrisy I associate with the Old World. Nowhere is perfect of course but have you ever wondered why the Queen has never been allowed to visit Israel? I think that proves my point.

July 10, 2014

Human Nature

We seem to be caught at present in a terrible battle of evil extremism. But the sad fact is that human beings have always been and continue to be this way. For all that Stephen Pinker might argue in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and even if one were to agree that on balance the world is a safer place now for more people than it was in the past, still the amount of evil and suffering we humans inflict on each other is simply inexplicable. And I do not just mean in the Middle East, where as Jews we feel it most.

The problem of why we do such things as humans was tackled in the Talmud.

“When Adam was created he reached from the Earth to Heaven. But when he sinned God placed His hand upon him and shrank him.” (TB Hagigah 12a) You could not ask for a more simple and unequivocal expression of humanism. That humans have the potential to span the world, to make it a wonderful place. But because we have the capacity to make the wrong choices, we end up diminishing ourselves.

If this is true of humanity in general, it is equally true of the Children of Israel.

“Why are Israel compared to the stars of the heaven and the dust of the earth? Because when they rise they can rise to the heavens, but when they sink they sink to the dust.” (TB Megilah 16a)

And from the very start, the story of Adam and Eve in the primordial Garden of Eden, human beings always tend to blame someone else. Whether we blame evolution or creation, the very nature of human beings is one that Hobbes described as “nasty and brutish”. It is almost as if the Bible is telling us that this is the human condition, and it calls upon us to live with it, to try to ameliorate it, but not to expect it will be different. Not in this world anyway. This is probably why “life after death” seems to offer the only solution in rabbinic literature. But in reality that is both pessimistic and sad for us now on earth.

Indeed, what could be sadder than the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai in TB Eruvin 13b over whether it would have been better for a person not to have been born? They debated for two-and-a-half years before agreeing with the proposition, but added the conclusion that we have no alternative other than to check our own actions and try our best.

But we fighting humans use whatever means are at hand physically, whether it is a fist or a bomb, to impose our selfish wills on others. We start with personal antipathy, move on to tribal rivalry, and end up with national conflict. Indeed, we see some of this progression in the Bible. We start with spitting, throwing stones, beating up, go on to throwing acid, and then using guns.

Ideologies make matters worse. No matter whether they are political, religious, social, or even sporting, the idea that my ideology is better than yours has led to the greatest catastrophes and orgies of destruction that humanity has caused. Millions of humans are currently seeking an escape from hell, and many die in the process. It shows no sign of letting up. Historians debate the causes of world wars, and in the end one concludes, like Plekhanov, that the inevitable always happens through the accidental. Politicians are constrained by personal and political considerations, by constituencies, votes, trade-offs.

We are about to start a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of two temples and two thousand years of exile. The Talmud consistently blames the Jews themselves for what happened. They betrayed their spiritual traditions; they betrayed their social obligations; they made all the wrong political decisions, and the few good people were simply outnumbered by the selfish and the corrupt. It sounds exactly the same today. Fanaticism exists with our people just as much as tolerance and sensibility. We like to think we are better, that we set an example. In some ways we might. But the sounds of internal conflict and brutalism towards the other, be it a different gender, a different religious position, or a different people, is so painful one can understand why so many prophets fled to avoid having to deal with the impossible.

It does not help at all to say “the others” are worse than we are. Two wrongs do not make rights. Most of us desperately want to see an end to conflict, needless deaths, and occupation. I cannot see the light. We are like two punch-drunk fighters slugging it out until one drops or the referee separates them. Then after a few years of recovery we are at it again.

None of the so-called solutions I have seen, on the right or the left, work in practice. And it is not good enough to say that the Almighty will get us out of this mess. It did not happen in the past. So what can we do, we ordinary human beings who care about humanity and about our ways of life? We can pray, and that helps soothe. But practically? Nothing! The politicians will decide. We can only get on with doing our best, wherever we are, to increase the amount of goodness around us, and to try to shine a little light in a dark world.

July 03, 2014

Eid al-Fitr and Diwali

There is so much evil in the world that one almost gets inured. The senseless killing of innocents, regardless of where, is a disgrace to humanity. But obviously when it touches us personally it becomes so much more painful. I cannot write about the three young men abducted and murdered in Israel. Neither can I write about many of the reactions. An amazing sense of coming together and sadly, on the other hand, so much inhumane, prejudiced, and vengeful. Emotions are too raw. I will come back to it. But this week I offer you something trivial and abstract as a distraction.

Throughout Europe and parts of the USA there are moves to add Muslim and other holy days to the list of official state holidays. Is this about personal identity or evangelism? How should we as Jews respond? Our interaction with civil authorities has always tended to be passive or defensive on such issues. We have fought for the right of Jews to take holy days off school and work in order to celebrate our own religious occasions. In my youth I got permission to sit my Cambridge finals three days after everyone else, because the exams were held on Shabbat which was followed by two days of Shavuot. I was invigilated throughout those three days. But I certainly did not campaign for the university to change the date of the exams for everyone else. To my knowledge, in the Diaspora we have never sought to impose our holy days on others. But then, unlike others, we do not think it is an obligation to convert the rest of the world.

In the Jewish state, Israel, the recognition of Jewish holy days is enshrined in the law in the same way that most states recognize religious or political celebrations and milestones. But how far should one go in extending this idea in other countries? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when one religion’s or people’s festive days actually conflict ideologically with the established state’s? In my youth we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating when the Catholic Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Anti-Catholic sentiment was deeply enshrined in English custom for many centuries. Nowadays the fireworks in London are more likely due to Diwali, but we don’t need a bank holiday for it.

The idea of state holidays is now common, and it’s an unholy and illogical mess. Some holidays are religious ones, like Christmas and Easter. But of course within Christianity different denominations have their own special and particular dates for such occasions. So even a decision on when Christmas falls is theological. Then you have civil celebrations. These may include an Independence Day or a V-Day or Memorial Day for military victories, and the Left Wing have a May Day. Now we have a Holocaust Day, but it often seems only to encourage anti-Semitism. These are not necessarily days when parts of the economy, public offices, or schools are closed.

There is much debate nowadays as to whether religious holidays are really religious altogether. Is Halloween a religious festival or a civil one? What about St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Fathers’ Days? Are they civil, religious, political, or commercial? Perhaps all holidays are now simply commercial opportunities, because if once upon a time they were days for everyone to be free from work, nowadays the retail and entertainment sectors are busier and more fully employed than at any other time.

And if in this multicultural world we want to be fair, we must allow all religions to have their holy days, and indeed we tend to, and so why not also have an Atheists’ Day too? I am all for having days that different cultures or interests find significant. It is all part of a broad education. The problem is only when they impinge on others.

The logic would be for states to preserve their historic culture, which includes religion. But in a rapidly mobile world, it does not make sense to accommodate every immigrant culture as if it were THE national culture. There are more Frenchmen than almost any other minority in London now. Should they observe Bastille Day?

I do strongly believe in the separation of state and religion in matters of legislation, other than symbolically. But I also believe in making outsiders, immigrants, and minorities feel welcome and validated. So by all means, let there by days for Buddhists, Hindus, Scientologists, and Wiccans and Rastas and hippies and bikers, and let them celebrate their founders and their special days and their myths. But official state holidays, if at all, should reflect the origins of the particular state’s culture, values, political origins, and survival. Everything else is an optional extra and should remain so. And those poor suffering Englishmen who want a St. George’s Day, or feel so discriminated against that they need to have a St. George’s Parade up Fifth Avenue in New York, should get one. So long as I am not forced to celebrate it!