September 18, 2014

Who, me?

Another year has gone by.

When I was young there was a popular folk, student song that referred to a Kentucky coal miner during the Depression. The refrain went “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call me, ‘cause I cant go. I owe my soul to the company store.” I guess it was a “those days” version of rap. But the fact is that for many of us it is a very appropriate chorus this time of the year. Another year older and what have we got?

You might accuse me of being unduly cynical and world-weary. But I remember in my first, let’s call it “little” yeshivah, youngsters who prayed and cried and shook and swayed with the utmost fervor over the Holy Days, or more accurately the Days of Awe. Looking at them you might have thought they carried the weight of the world on their little prepubescent shoulders and were actual saints in pious fear of Heaven. But the moment the Gates were closed and we leapt from awe to joy, they were just as mean and nasty as they were before. Later when I saw this all repeated at the “big” yeshivahs I attended, I realized the little ones were just aping the big ones, who were aping their parents, who had aped theirs.

I know I should not generalize. There are wonderful, genuine saints around, albeit few and far between, and usually anonymous because those who crave attention are rarely saints. But over the years, regardless of community or synagogue or ethnicity or degree of religiosity, all the good intentions seem to fly out the window. After the awesome days of introspection and determination to improve almost everyone returns to old habits, learned patterns of behavior, and characteristics. That's human nature. Human nature is made up of different elements and drives. Some are better, some worse. The whole of our lives are lived shuttling and rebounding between the two extremes. I don't say a person cannot change. But only a minority does. It’s rare. That's why successful relationships depend on accepting the other as she or he is, in working with the material rather than expecting that one will change the other.

In theory this is the same for the big, wide world outside. Last year this time I had a sort of fear list that revolved around Iran getting the bomb and drop it on Israel. But I did not imagine Russian imperialism, another war in Gaza, that anti-Semitism would rise up again around the world, that religious fanatics would spread and impose their sick and evil mental diseases on others, that nationalism would increase, that sicknesses and epidemics would explode around the world. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly Muslim, risked death to reach Europe. Hondurans fled to America. Economies struggled. All bad stuff. But world poverty receded, world health improved, and some countries and religions actually did learn to get on better with others and not find scapegoats to cover their abysmal failures.

I live in two worlds: a Jewish world and a secular one. In my Jewish world the rabbinical pursuit of power continued, the idiotic attempts to impose excessive religious standards increased in the Diaspora and in Israel. In Israel politics continued to weave its corrupt web from the top down. Society is split and divided. Offering and taking bribes or going to jail seems to be the new norm. But there is another side. The increase in the number of ethically animated schools and yeshivot, the increase in charitable work and giving to offset the reduction in government handouts, the persevering attempts to reach out to the other side. The continuing growth of scholarship, research, and achievement, despite the military burden. All these things are heartening and bode well for the future. And Israel, for all its complexities, contradictions, absurdities, and frustrations is growing stronger and better and more successful. But yes, we Jews always want more and better.

In the USA, this year has brought the continuing failure to reform taxation, immigration, and financial regulation, political gerrymandering, and incredible government waste and incompetence. If you think Israeli politics is corrupt, try looking at the American system, where big money can now give as much as it wants to politicians through crazy but legal mechanisms. And there were race riots in Ferguson. If the USA, after hundreds of years and with untold wealth, hasn't dealt with its social and communal issues, why are we surprised that Israel is not doing a good enough job with its Jewish and Arab minorities? As for Great Britain, the United Kingdom, despite the Queen, it is neither great nor united. And France is the sick man of Europe. So wherever you look you can see massive problems that are neither being dealt with nor solved.

But yes, we Jews like to navel gaze and wonder what’s wrong and be self-critical. In truth we must. That is part of our tradition, and that is what the coming “Days of Awe” institutionalize. We are puny things, we humans. We have no idea what this year or any year will bring. Or when any one of us might be struck down by a bullet or disease. The currents of history ebb and flow around us as we speak and we cannot know what will happen until it has happened.

We should not despair. Even if we cannot change society, the world, or even our partners, we must at least try to change ourselves in however small a way, because something is always better than nothing. So please don't look at your neighbor in the synagogue and think what a corrupt, nasty hypocrite he or she is. He or she may well be. But your task is to make sure everyone else doesn’t think the same about you! Don't focus on the negative things, the bad people, and the deformed ideas. Just think of the good and how fortunate we are that, in some measure, our destiny is in our hands too.

As the Talmud says, “The universe runs according to its own rules.” But we humans can run a long way according to ours.

Shanah Tovah.

September 11, 2014


When I was a child in England, I often used to see men and women standing at street corners holding placards saying such things as “The End of the World in Nigh--Repent before it is loo late” or some variation on that theme. It struck me as silly. Even in the era of the atomic threat I had much more important things to worry about, such as the next soccer game. And repent? What exactly had I done that was so terrible? A few little lies to my parents? “No, I did not eat that chocolate.”

Every Shabbat afternoon my father made us learn one brief quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and that was where I came across “Repent one day before you die.” It seemed our religion took the idea seriously after all. So what did it mean?

The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” is used in the Torah with regard to God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffers exile. It is not used as we do today to mean personal repentance. That doesn’t mean there is no such concept in the Torah, but it is implicit rather than explicit (now there’s a linguistic distinction too many people are ignorant of nowadays).

The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the same root as the name of Yom Kipur. The Torah requires a process of confession, Vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest or other person, but directly to God. And in true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. That completed and any restitution effected, forgiveness is effected. There is some debate then as to why one also needs a Yom Kipur, be it for individuals, serious crimes, or the community. Maimonides adds a rider: Only when one finds oneself in exactly the same position as one was when one did wrong and with the capacity to do it again, but this time one desists, can one then be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor.

But there is no actual, specific command in the Torah to repent, do Teshuvah, in the obligatory sense. I believe this has a lot to do with the “psychology” of sin in early Judaism, before we were influenced by Greek and then by Christian and Muslim theologies.

The three main Biblical words for sin are instructive. “Cheyt” derives from “missing the mark or the target”. “Aveyra” come from the word to pass off the straight and narrow. “Avon” means to be deficient in some way. All of them imply an error of judgment that can easily be rectified by adding a quality to our armory, by standing in a better or more appropriate position, or by acting more skillfully or wisely. It is no wonder that the Talmud (Sotah 3a) says, “A person only sins when he is possessed of stupidity.”

There is no hint here of a “state of sin”, so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. No heavy, awesome weight that can be debilitating and psychologically damaging. Just recognition that people make mistakes that can usually, and often easily, be rectified.

The idea of “fearing sin” plays an important part in rabbinic literature. But is this anything more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the lookout, and sensitive to possible mistakes?

Judaism does not have a concept of “Original Sin”. It is usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for the extreme Mussar self-denialists). Certainly not in the Christian sense of believing that humanity is born naturally evil and can only be redeemed by faith (specifically in Christian dogma).

We do have the idea that Adam’s (emblematic) sin in the Garden of Eden changed the course of human history. This is often referred to in the Talmud. However, I understand this only to mean that the recurring tendency to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism, are features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.

In theory the most evil jihadi throat-slitter has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashana, instead of weighing ourselves down with our own relatively minor mistakes, which we can decide to do every morning when we pray and meditate on our actions. Instead of that, when we come to a public festival like Rosh Hashana, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” So let us pray for all the sad human beings, all the evil people in this world who are involved destruction, and hope they might see the light. Gosh, I love optimism!

September 04, 2014

Da’at Torah

You cannot understand Orthodox Judaism today without coming to grips with the concept of Da’at Torah. Da’at Torah literally means a “Torah Opinion”, and it was originally used to refer to a legal opinion that fell within the framework of Jewish law. Much, much later it came to mean the only authentic religious position in Judaism. Later still it mutated into that position officially endorsed by “the Council of Great Rabbis” without of course specifying who those rabbis might be. Since nowadays there is so much disagreement as to who actually is a Great Rabbi, it now means “whatever position MY ‘Great Rabbi’ endorses”. So we have been treated to a series of examples where one “Great Rabbi” says, “Vote for this party,” and another “Great Rabbi says, “Vote for that party.” For those in the middle or following a third “Great Rabbi”, this is rather confusing.

Da’at Torah is an ideology that emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century in response to the challenge of assimilation, Reform, and Zionism. It is as near as you can get to the Catholic dogma of Papal Infallibility (itself a nineteenth century response to challenge). Over the past century it has been constantly modified and tweaked to the point where it has become the defining distinction between Ultra/Charedi and every other brand of Orthodoxy. For those of you interested in understanding more, I refer you to a brilliant analysis by Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University. It is serious reading.

Da’at Torah is an interesting expression of an idea that is more political than religious. Of course there has always been a tradition of following religious authority. You can find its origin in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 17:8-10: “If there is something you do not understand in Jewish law, a disagreement between people or a conflict within your gates…you shall take it to the priests or the judges whoever is the authority at that time, and you shall do as they tell you in accordance with Jewish Law,” etc. Throughout the Talmudic period there were mechanisms of authority, processes of decision making. These have continued to this day through the medium of responsa, published learned legal opinions. Such mechanisms have always allowed for differing opinions, as there have always been on matters of politics, civilization, and personal choices.

Post-Talmudic Judaism has developed into different traditions based in locations, influenced by host nations and intellectual trends, sometimes mystical and sometimes rational. Nevertheless, the constitutional integrity and continuity of the halachic process has been what has kept the common core and link between these different religious communities and sects, as one sees most vividly in Israel today.

The author of the handbook of Jewish Law, the “Shulchan Aruch”, said in his introduction that the purpose of his book was to enable the average Jew to know what to do and only have to resort to a rabbi where he did not have the information. The dogma that one had to go to a rabbi or a kabbalist to answer all and every matter of one’s personal life is a recent development that owes as much to the Chasidic concept of the rebbe as the tzaddik (the saintly man with a hotline to Heaven) as it has to do with traditional or Talmudic sources.

Of course some people are on a higher spiritual level, some more knowledgeable, and some more talented in understanding human nature. But that is not the same as saying one is obliged to go to a rabbi for every issue and that one is bound to adhere to his advice.

This dependence on rabbinic authority was tested during the run up to the Holocaust, when many Eastern European Great Rabbis told their followers to stay put rather than to flee into the jaws of American materialists or Zionist heretics. Yet many rabbis who told others to stay, got out, themselves, and were worshipped nevertheless. Which only goes to show that devotion has nothing to do with logic or history, but is an act of faith. No evidence can ever dissuade someone who chooses to believe. That is both the strength and the weakness of faith.

In a world where money and power are dependent on votes, leaders of religious communities, like political parties, know they must keep the faithful loyal so that they can produce a voting bloc at election time. This is why politicians in Israel and the USA go out of their way to court “Great Rabbis”; they want their votes. So the concept of inerrancy becomes a mechanism of control and political power. That is why the rabbis I respect most are precisely those who refuse to use such power, morally, fiscally, or politically.

Once such a phenomenon characterized Chasidic courts and kabbalist miracle workers. But now even the Lithuanian Yeshivish community mimics the Chasidim because they have realized the cost-benefit factor. It is a sad moment for Judaism as a spiritual tradition, as opposed to a social one.

As Prof. Brown illustrates, this ideology is beginning to fray. The Council of Sages is no longer effective. More and more followers are refuse to abide by such features of Da’at Torah as refusing secular education, refusing to serve in the Israeli army, and banning the internet and smartphones. Much of what Da’at Torah objects to may be justified. Secular culture is increasingly destructive, corrosive, and morally ambiguous. But the answer is not to imitate Catholicism, for as we know it hasn’t succeeded. The answer is to follow the great tradition of “Both can be the words of God” (TB Eruvin 13b). There can be differing conclusions within the parameters of Jewish law.

The Great and the Good have the expertise and scholarship. I believe such expertise and scholarship should be respected and deferred to. But nowadays “Great Rabbis” have such carapaces of assistants, secretaries, bodyguards, gatekeepers, and fixers that it is impossible to know what actual message gets through to them and what they actually said in response. It’s like Chinese Whispers both ways.

Thanks to the internet and computer technology with massive databases, we can all get access to the facts with a basic yeshiva education. It’s how one uses those facts that should define a Great Rabbi, rather than simply regurgitating the information. In an ideal world, that is what should define Da’at Torah.

Da’at Torah has developed into a positive theological political ideology. Ironically it is almost identical to Ayatollah Khomeini’s way of thinking. Benjamin Brown’s paper is a major achievement in giving the concept of Da’at Torah a historical and political context and showing why it is in danger of undermining itself.