October 30, 2014

Halloweeen Again

Why do I feel so negatively towards Halloween? Surely it's just an opportunity for harmless fun, getting dressed up in weird costumes, festooning homes with horror characters and scenes of witches, dungeons, skeletons, blood, and fear. And what could be bad with kids running from house to house asking for sweets, candies, and gum?

Rituals in most religions are, after all, quite arbitrary and more often than not based on earlier pagan customs. Lights in winter, masks and disguises in spring, and so many of our Jewish customs are borrowed from earlier fears of evil spirits, like driving them away by breaking plates and glasses or covering mirrors and lighting candles. However it’s not the ritual itself but rather what lies behind it that really matters. What is the deeper, the real message, as opposed to the superficial one? To be fair, all our major Biblical festivals were once pagan celebrations that we sanitized. But what was this sanitization? It was to require of us to think before acting and to take responsibility for our actions. A religious ritual brings us closer to religious values (or should) whereas a magic ritual brings us closer to magic and unpredictability.

In simple terms, the pagan world believed we were at the mercy of the gods of nature who determined everything that went on in the world. Humans had to placate them. Sacrificing children, rites of blood and magic were ways of winning their approval. It was a world that believed that the greatest gifts we could give were of our bodies, our bodily fluids, and our children. Paganism wanted to perpetuate the fear of the natural world rather than try to overcome fear, because that made you dependent on their magic to survive. Superstition was based on randomness--a black cat, a broken mirror, and you never knew what antidote the shaman would require.

Monotheism emerged as a counterforce to say that although God did represent and control the world, what He wanted was good behavior, good deeds, and respect for humanity. He wanted us to refine our bodies rather than simply use them. In God’s religion you knew in advance everything that was expected, even if you might not have always felt able to do it all.

Monotheism introduced the “marshmallow principle” of deferring pleasure, the concepts of self-control and self-improvement. Of course we know how hard this is. How often the Israelites found it much easier, not to say more fun, to go off to pagan orgies. Everything was allowed, not forbidden. Not all pagans were the same, of course. Some tried to rationalize their gods, just as today people justify their actions, lusts, and weaknesses.

Spirits were quite useful in explaining things people didn't understand. If clothes wore out, it was because spirits were tugging at them. If you fell ill, it was because a bad spirit flew through the air to get hold of you. Or else someone else had cursed you or put an evil eye on you. Some rabbis in the Talmud seem to have believed in evil spirits, sheidim. The Talmud even contains advice as to how to see them--spread sand at night and look for the footprints in the morning, or kill a black cat that has just given birth and spread the ashes of its placenta over your eyes. Perhaps they simply accepted the credulity of simple people, and they did not want to take their props away from them. It also gave them power and a useful tool for helping the weak and the sick.

But overwhelmingly the greatest of rabbis argued that there was no such thing as luck, “Mazal”, in Israel. It was a characteristic of the non-Jewish world, not ours. It was our actions that determined what we made of our lives, what happened to us as individuals and as a people. However, they conceded that if a people or society was doomed, innocents would suffer the consequences too. And external forces, both natural and human, could be unleashed to terrible effect. Our world was one of human choice, not helplessness in the presence of magic or ghosts. The downside, of course, was and is that humans make the wrong choices sometimes.

But why does superstition persist now amongst us after all this time? Perhaps it’s because Jews suffered so much for so long that they needed emotional, magical, superstitious support and turned to any crazy idea that might help them get through the day and the night. Even now we seem helpless and confused in the face of so much antipathy.

What I have against Halloween is that it reinforces the fear of magic and evil spirits even if most people have lost the connection or refuse to make it. The witches, wizards, and devils are all symbolic of the uncontrollable pagan world. They are linked to the world of tarot cards, astrologers, and pseudo-kabbalists with their spells, their tricks, and their magic to help you cope by giving you dishonest but plausible answers.

As our society has become more scientific, more rational, and yet more stressful and demanding to live in, we seek these placebos and fake answers. We become even more superstitious and dependent. We go to horror films; we love zombies and vampires; we want to see more blood, more terror, more corpses, and more humans suffer, even as we need to know it will all turn out fine in the end because some superhero or strongman will eventually save everyone and good will triumph.

There’s another issue here. We are becoming anaesthetized to blood and horror. Just as there’s a danger that the violent computer games that are so popular also affect our sensitivity to suffering and pain. The jury is still out, of course, but my gut tells me that glorifying blood and gore cannot be a healthy thing.

It’s true that all this nonsense can be harmless, and perhaps I am taking it too seriously. But I strongly believe if as parents we encourage such customs that do not convey the positive values that really matter, we had better make sure we give enough counterexamples of the thinking, caring, and spiritual world if we want our children to learn a positive lesson.

October 23, 2014

Sexual Exploitation

According to the Bible, Noah’s flood destroyed humanity because they were violent. How much have we changed?

We seclude ourselves in our protected worlds and often have little idea of what is really going on around us. We who live in Western “civilized” societies and are reasonably well off know about the millions of refugees, or poor exploited human beings around the world. But it rarely touches us personally. More worrying is the delusion we have that our societies are safe places. They may be safer, but they are not safe. It’s not just a matter of gunfire, fires, and auto accidents. Hundreds of children men and women disappear off the streets each year and are never heard from again.

Specifically, abuse of women (and men) remains a blot on the record of the males of our species, and it is far too prevalent even in the “free world”.

But I want to focus specifically here on the violence, the rape. The Torah compares rape to murder. There is a degree of violent aggressiveness in males worldwide. But even here in a free and American society there seems to be a streak of male violence that seems to glorify this wanton abuse. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has been protesting at the inaction of university authorities by carrying a mattress around campus until her reported rapist is removed. Fifty assault survivors spoke out recently in a campus demonstration supporting Sulkowicz. More and more female college students are coming out to fight against both the abuse and the reluctance of college authorities to act.

Governor Jerry Brown of California has now passed a bill requiring all colleges that receive state money to enforce a standard of “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes” and only a positive “yes” at every stage can lead on to the next. Such a law was first instituted at Antioch College twenty years ago. Until recently no one else adopted it. Harvard still hasn’t.

President Obama has begun a campaign to highlight the problem of college rape in the US. Here are the statistics, according to One In Four:
  • One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
  • Each year, 5% of women on college campuses experience rape or attempted rape.
  • 673,000 women currently attending U.S. colleges and universities have experienced rape at some point in their lifetime. In one year 300,000 college women, over 5% of women enrolled in colleges and universities, experience rape. This does not include other forms of sexual assault.
  • Every year 5% of women in the U.S. Military academies report surviving rape, as do 2.4% of the men.
Time Magazine (September 22, 2014) reports that every day 13,079 women in the USA experience domestic violence in the USA each year.

The New York Times (September 30, 2014) reports female firefighters suffering job discrimination, harassment, and sexual abuse every day. One in three women have been physically abused.

The boxer Mike Tyson was a classic example of male, physical crime against women; his rape landed him in jail, and for a while the public took notice. But interest subsided. The issue has been brought to the public by the recent revelations of the number of American football, stars, “heroes” who have been guilty of abusing women. A video of Ray Rice’s attack on his fiancée has gone “viral”, in current terminology, and has forced the NFL to start taking action after years of pretending there was no problem. Another footballer, Adrian Peterson, was indicted for beating his child. Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for aggravated assault against a woman and a child. These massively rich Neanderthals have for years been getting away with physical abuse. So too have college sportsmen and ordinary common and garden males of the species.

The defense has always been that women invited their attention, even threw themselves at them, that they dressed provocatively or drank too much and invited it. It’s true that modern fashions tend toward the provocative, and it is true the amount of male and female drinking on college campuses and city bars is excessive. Recently examples of college girls dying from immoderate amounts of alcohol have been publicized.

But nothing justifies the crude brutality of males forcing their unwanted attentions and testosterone-inflamed bodies on women. Many parents are bound to wonder whether sending their daughters away to college is such a good idea. The traditional antipathy of ultra Orthodoxy to allowing girls to go off to college away from home might even have some justification.

The trouble is that it’s not just away from home that violence is a problem. Within homes, all kinds of physical abuse are reported at phenomenal levels. It is estimated that 46% are not even reported. And that is just physical abuse, not mental.

We who gather this time of the year to experience the intensity of our religious tradition are proud of the quality of our religious life. We look with a degree of condescension on the decline in the moral standards of the world around us. We are bound to wonder whether we are doing enough to protect our families from the sexual predations of society within and beyond the home.

It may be true that nowadays women have much more power and greater access to legal means to defend themselves. Nevertheless recent revelations that police forces across the USA neither took complaints of rape seriously nor processed evidence in their possession shows how primitive are the attitudes toward this in a so-called modern world. The problem exists at every level of society and, sadly, in every religious community as well.

The religious world considers itself an antidote to the corruption of the secular world. But it too has a poor record of dealing with abuse within its own communities. Often the clergy, themselves, are the guilty perpetrators. Sadly this past year we have witnessed highly regarded rabbis found guilty of theft, bribery, and sexual corruption. It is a blot on our world. If the charges against Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, DC’s Modern Orthodox community, are proven, it is yet another sad example of how men of religion, all religions, use their positions and power to take advantage and abuse others, men and women. There has been too much of this within the Orthodox community of all degrees.

We recognize that if we leave our children’s morality to society’s default position, we are failing them. The whole purpose of religion is to raise the level of morality and spirituality. But this does not happen accidentally, or by itself. Religion should not be concerned only with our souls. It also requires of us that we take responsibility for our own community and its leadership where it is failing in its obligations, as well as the world beyond. What goes on around us ultimately affects us. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so a sinking one leaves them high and dry. Noah’s flood is a reminder that violence by humans against humans can destroy a world.

October 14, 2014


Who are the Karaites, and do they keep Simchat Torah?

I have several times in the past come across Jews, invariably thoughtful and charming, who have told me that they are so fed up with the excesses of rabbinic Judaism that they have decided to become Karaites. Only this week a delightful young Israeli woman living in New York told me in synagogue that she was so fed up with extra days of festivals and other rabbinic added strictness that she too was a Karaite and so only kept one day of festivals.

Which set me wondering why my little Persian community in New York, most of who do not bother with second days, did not themselves adopt the Karaite variation? All the more since many of the early founders came from Persia. But the fact is that, if you look more carefully into it, becoming a Karaite is not really to be recommended, and if it might solve one set of problems it would create a heck of a lot of other ones.

The Karaites take their name from the word for “text” which indicates that they only accept the text of the Torah. They reject post-Torah rabbinic interpretations, additions, and customs, and those theological ideas such as Resurrection and Life After Death that are not explicit in the Torah. What makes them popular with Reform communities is that that accepted patrilineal descent as the definition of Jewish identity and they are even less happy about conversion than the London Beth Din.

Some scholars trace them back to the Sadducees, who themselves held such opinions, others to the Dead Sea Sects. They were dormant or marginal after the destruction of the Temple; but later and under the dynamic leadership of Anan Ben David (715-795), who some say really founded them, they flourished to such an extent that at one moment in the ninth century they nearly became the dominant sect in Judaism in Persia and Babylonia. Salo Baron thought they accounted for 40% of the Iraqi Jewish population.

It was thanks mainly to the great Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), who campaigned energetically and relentlessly against them, that they receded and declined to the very small sect that they are today. Currently some 30,000 live in Israel and about 4,000 in the USA. Despite their differences, Sephardi rabbis such as Rav David-Chaim Chelouche and the late Rav Ovadia Yosef have always maintained that they count as Jews and do not need conversions to “return to the fold”. The Ashkenazi rabbinate, surprise, surprise, is not so open.

The Karaite calendar differs from the accepted Jewish calendar. It follows the literal reading of the Torah text for festivals lasting only one day. But I don’t understand why they celebrate Simchat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Torah as such. They do not include Chanukah, as a post-Biblical festival, but do keep Purim.

But before you go out and sign up, let me tell you the downside. Not accepting rabbinic innovation does have its drawbacks. Karaites do not allow lights and fire in their homes on Shabbat, although I am told reformist ideas on this issue now divide them into the “lighters” and “the darkeners”. Still, no sex on Shabbat--that’s a real downer, as are far stricter rules on family purity which really put women in a state of Purdah. And the laws of marriage are so strict that any blood relative however distant is forbidden. You really are hurting your chances of getting married! That more than anything else probably explains why there are so few today.

It’s true they don't interpret the Torah texts about Tefillin and Mezuzot as requiring literal objects--they see them merely as symbolic--but they are very keen on Tzitzit, especially the blue thread. They do not take the four kinds of plants we wave on Sukot, because they understand the Torah references to mean that they were to be used only in building a Sukah. And because their laws of how to slaughter animals are different and stricter than Orthodox shechitah, this means that a good Karaite will not eat normal kosher meat. In addition if one cares about marrying “in” then the pool of possible partners is ridiculously small. If you are interested in learning more, they have websites such as www.karaite.org or http://www.karaite-korner.org. The fact that they have several that conflict must prove they really are regular Jews!

On balance, I conclude, it makes more sense from a social point of view to stay technically within the dominant expression of Jewish religious life. After all, we are small enough as it is compared to the major religions of the world and riven enough by denominational conflict as it is without confining oneself to an even narrower religious network. But then we have never played the numbers games. Still to claim adherence to an apparently more lenient way of life based simply on convenience, and usually ignorance, just does not cut it from the point of view of integrity or logic. If you don’t want to keep something, fess up to it. Don’t seek justification elsewhere.

If Karaites see themselves as part of the Jewish people then the variations in their beliefs and practices are no different than those of most Conservative and Reform Jews today. But if someone simply wants a justification for only keeping one day of Rosh Hashanah and the other festivals, there are, believe me, easier ways to go about it. Meanwhile we can all enjoy Simchat Torah together!

October 07, 2014


Whatever is said about the festival of Sukot, the fact is that water is the most significant subtext. All plants need water, as do humans and all other living things. But the four “kinds of plants” we take and wave are all associated specifically water, whether natural rainfall, irrigation, or oases. Sitting in the Sukah is our farewell to the dry season, at least in areas where for thousands of years Jews mainly lived. The important post-Biblical traditions of “Nisuch Hamayim” pouring water over the altar as part of the prayers for rain, and the massive public celebrations of “Simchat Beit HaShoeva” the rejoicing over the well house in Jerusalem, prove the point that water is at the core of this festival.

Water also plays an essential part as the means of purification, both physical and spiritual. As with all the ancient “elements” it bridges the gap between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the sacred.

Water of course is not the only theme to the festival. Sukot was also the major communal reunion of the Jewish people. On the second day everyone gathered to hear the Torah (or parts of it) read in public. It was a huge public exercise in mass education that included women and children as well as men. Then Simchat Torah emerged as the happiest festival of the year, to record the conclusion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah in synagogues. Still the festival ends with new prayers for the rainy season, which were in part held off until the pilgrims from Babylon and the West could get home before the deluge made roads impassable.

During the early years of my life, no one seemed to make too much out of the issue of water and rain in general; no concerns then about climate change. The prayers for rain in the synagogue were regarded as a hangover from our agrarian past, something relevant only to the Land of Israel, not wet Manchester. But now the rising temperatures, the shortage of water, and the political tensions over its availability, have all brought the issue of water and rain to the forefront. It’s as if Moses and the rabbis of the past really could look into the future. Now nothing is more important on earth.

The Greek philosopher Thales thought that everything was derived from water, one way or another. He lost out to the popular theory that it was a combination of water, air, fire, and earth. That theory lasted until modern times. Even Maimonides believed it. In Medieval times water was so dangerously contaminated that people drank beer and wine instead. No wonder they called it the Dark Ages. We do not seek such simplistic solutions nowadays, but we do know how important drinkable water is, indeed almost any water is important to irrigate crops and facilitate industry.

In the rich world everyone is aware of the need for hydration. We spend vast sums on bottled water that is rarely superior to ordinary tap water. But in most of the world pure, potable (why the heck use that foreign word instead of simply “drinkable”?) tap water is still a rarity.

The facts are disturbing. I am no fan of the UN, but it does occasionally produce something of value. The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that in the next 20 years the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Forty percent of the world's inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. In 2000, more than 2.2 million people died from waterborne diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or from drought. I might add the sad statistic that in the Industrial west 40% of the water is wasted each year through decaying infrastructure, leaking pipes, and poor management.

Increasingly, conflicts around the world relate to water. We are replaying Abraham’s conflicts with the Philistines over wells. We know the problems in the Middle East over the feeding rivers into the Jordan, the diminishing aquifers in the Judean hills, and the shrinking Dead Sea. This while swimming pools expand alongside villages where the wells have dried up. At least Israel is now investing so much in desalination that it could well satisfy most of its water needs this way within the next few years. Neither does Israel get credit (because it’s not political enough) for how much Israeli universities are investing in joint projects with Palestinians to deal with the water problem. But as we see millions of refugees trek across deserts to safety, the importance of water and its availability is growing by the day. It's a sad state of affairs that too many states spend more on arms than they do on ensuring safe, accessible, drinkable water for their citizens.

So when we celebrate Sukot, we are indeed celebrating water and how lucky we are to have it. Literally, LeChayim, for life. And for those in the know, the alcohol comes a week later.

October 02, 2014


As we meditate this year on the resurrection of anti-Semitism and its new acceptability, let us not forget the role academia, supposedly objective and sane, plays in perpetuating it. Anyone familiar with university politics knows full well the hypocrisy of ideologies, be they Marxist or fascist (even Zionist and anti-Zionist) that can impose themselves on staff and students.

Of all the well-known Western philosophers, Martin Heidegger must be the most morally despicable. I have no expertise in physiognomy, but just looking at his portraits as a young professor I see a weasel-like malignance and arrogance. Having deflowered his brilliant but flawed Jewish student, Hannah Arendt, he set about systematically blaming Jews for every failing of modern societies to the point where he joined the Nazi party and paid his dues right up until the very end of the war. He admired Hitler, and to his dying day he not only refused to repudiate him but also thought that Nazism was the right way for Germany to go, even if the specific manifestation that lost the war was in his opinion a deviation.

He enthusiastically sacked Jews from their positions in the University of Freiburg when he was appointed chancellor in 1933. He approved the racist Nuremberg laws Hitler introduced and never once responded to requests from other academics to condemn Hitler’s policy of exterminating innocent Jews. If ever there was proof that philosophy has little to do with morality, Heidegger must be the perfect example.

I will not bore those of you familiar with his philosophy or those who have little patience with casuistry by rehearsing his work. But I will focus on several aspects just to make my point. Heidegger had little patience for Kant’s concept of moral obligation. Neither did he much like Nietzsche, who wrote about the super- or übermensch, above the common and petty restrictions of ordinary mortals. Fascist dictators tended to love Nietzsche because they used his idea of the exceptional superman (above the norm and above the law). This was at the root of Nazi ideology, if you could call it that. Heidegger refined and expanded on Nietzsche to argue for the absurd notion of an “uber folk”, a super people. Yes, in other words, the Nazis.

He initially based his thought on one of my favorites Husserl (born Jewish 1859-1938). It was Husserl who first developed the idea of phenomenalism, that we humans exist as beings whose primary responsibility is to live our lives through our own experiences. Some, like Sartre, took this to be a charter for unrestrained freedom to act as one wished. Heidegger modified it in his early work “Being and Time” (1927) to discuss the nature of “being” as existing in a bubble of one’s own lunacy. This bubble of his consists of submitting oneself to the idea of one’s people, in his case the Aryan super race that would purge the world of the decadent malevolent influence of the despised Jews. Them he blamed, as if they all acted and thought in a similar way; they alone were responsible for everything evil in the world, from Marxism to Capitalism, from collectivism to individuality. They were rootless cosmopolitans, an epithet he shared with the Marxism he so despised and feared. As with all prejudiced people, he hated and feared a myth rather than a reality. Judaism was guilty of introducing monotheism, universalism, everything that challenged his idea of a folk rooted in land and blood. They were not willing to fight but incited others to take up arms. I wonder where he would stand today as Jews fight for the right to be accepted as a folk and to live on their own land that they defend with their blood.

But I would no more expect Heidegger to understand this than I would any anti-Semite. One can understand why so many philosophers feel such an affinity to his sick thought process. His apologists claim that his anti-Semitism is a blip. The overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers have excused him or ignore his moral failure. Even Hannah Arendt was so enamored of him (or perhaps trying to excuse herself) that she herself assisted in his rehabilitation. But in recent years his detailed notebooks from the years 1931 to 1941 have been published under the title of “Black Notebooks”. They are replete with his disgusting prejudice, invective, and hatred. Among them he said that Nazism’s persecution of the Jews was justified as self-defense against Jewry’s unique predisposition towards planned criminality.

The Talmud says that “hatred distorts the balance of one’s mind”; so too does love. Heidegger is revealed as an evil, hateful man. The Talmud tells us that in the period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kipur all of humanity passes before the Almighty to be judged. We are all God’s creatures, regardless of our origins or race. We have an obligation to try our best to care for, to help, and to improve the world we live in. Even if around us our enemies swarm, we should not lose sight of our task in improving humanity. I hope Heidegger is being dealt with wherever he is. But for us he is a lesson that irrational hatred remains a pernicious disease that can strike anywhere, and like any disease it requires a prophylactic.