November 27, 2014

A Jewish State

Is Israel a Jewish state or not? If there are avowedly Christian and Muslim states, why shouldn’t Jews have a Jewish state? Clearly there are some people in Israel have not considered Israel to be enough of a Jewish state up to now, for they have pushed hard for a recent bill in the Knesset to declare that Israel is a Jewish state.

We are a funny lot. We can’t even agree on “who is a Jew”, let alone how to describe a Jewish state. The truth is that this bill is just another example of politicians putting politics above common sense. You know sometimes things are best left vague!

This bill will achieve nothing positive. It will neither help security nor make anyone more Jewish, and it will only create more tension. It will make no difference, either to life in Israel or to the implacable, irrational antagonism towards Israel. So what is it for?

We have been here before. In the past the Knesset passed a “Basic Law” declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Did anyone pay attention? Did it change anything? Are there any foreign embassies in Jerusalem today? Did it make the Palestinians any more inclined to negotiate? No. It was more than a completely pointless exercise, and the UN promptly adopted a resolution calling for its annulment (though frankly I am in favor of anything that pisses off the UN).

The 1948 Declaration of Independence describes Israel not as a Jewish state but as a state for all its citizens, regardless. But it also declares it a homeland for the Jews. The Law of Return opens the state's gates exclusively and of right to any one that Hitler would have described as a Jew. And there are the laws establishing the flag, emblem, and anthem enacted in 1949 immediately after the state's establishment. In addition there are laws allowing for Jewish legal courts, the state rabbinate, and laws of personal status and marriage according to Judaism.

This unnecessary declaration will not add or solve anything. It will not decide who is part of the Jewish people, or whether the state of Israel is also the state of a person born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother or of a person who underwent a Reform or Conservative conversion. Anyway it is the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide such issues, if ever we ourselves can agree on how to solve them.

In truth the law is aimed at explaining to the Arabs that Israel will never be their state. But wait, what about the Druze and the many Christian Israelis whose men and women serve in the army and the police? At the horrific “Massacre of the Innocents” in Har Nof, a Druze policeman gave his life protect Israel, as have many other non-Jews over the years. Can it not be their state, too?

In today's explosive situation, the law only has the power to cause damage and worsen our relations with minorities. If in the end Israel annexes the territories with all their residents, Israel will become a bi-national state and will probably concede to Arab areas autonomy regardless of what the current Knesset writes in one law or another. With this law we are regressing to nineteenth century Europe, where if you weren’t a Christian in a Christian country you were regarded as a second-class citizen. We know what that does to one. The greatness of Israel was that it tried to separate religion from state as far as the political negotiations would allow. Not enough in my opinion, but some.

The fact is that the USA separated the two but it still managed to evolve into a state where both religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, communities and individuals could coexist and thrive. It has not been perfect and lot needs to be done. Where doesn’t it? But a separation of State and religion, individual freedom without coercion in matters of conscience, this is still my preferred vision for Israel. And yet Israel is a state where priority is given to Judaism. Just as in Britain priority is given to the Church of England, or in most of Europe to Catholicism.

I am not a big fan of democracy. I am with Winston Churchill when he said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried." The reason is because in principle democracy upholds the rights of all citizens. Israel has its Supreme Court and, although some argue it is too protective of Israel’s security needs, it still protects the civil rights of all its citizens to the best of its ability.

The Torah is neither for nor against any political system, so long as it is just and fair to all its citizens and legal residents. There is nothing in Torah opposed to democracy for running civil affairs. As a religious Jew I would, in theory, like to see Israel run according to Jewish law, working with a democratic system (not that the present democratic system in Israel is so good, but then tell me please where it is any better or less dysfunctional). The trouble is I don't have confidence in much of our present religious leadership. I just don’t see the tolerance and broadmindedness to follow the spirit of Torah as opposed to its letter.

That is why such tokenism and tinkering does nothing for Judaism. It strikes me as simply one in the face to Abbas, who wants a Palestinian state free of Jews. Do we really have to descend to his level? (And I don’t even mention the abomination that is Hamas’s charter.)

Israel needs to focus on security and meeting the social needs of its people, whatever their religion. And if we Jews want Judaism to flourish, we must do it by persuasion not legislation. If I thought this would help all that in any way, I’d be for it. Otherwise it looks to me like little boys throwing stones at each other and trying to teach a lesson that no one wants to learn.

November 20, 2014

Conversion Law

On the face of it Judaism welcomes converts, regardless of race or background, if their motive is a sincere conviction that they would like to live a committed Jewish life. But there were always differing points of view. The well-known Talmudic story tells about a potential convert coming to the great Shammai and asking to be converted if he can teach him the Torah standing on one leg. Shammai, going by the book, told him to get lost. The even greater Hillel, on the other hand, converted him by giving him a general overview that Judaism is concerned with caring for human beings, and then told him to come back for more lessons.

Two thousand years ago converts were legion. But then both Christianity and Islam made conversion to Judaism a capital offence, and Jews turned inward to avoid trouble. Come the Enlightenment mores Jews converted out than in. At that stage there was no alternative to religious identification. But as society became more open and secular, liberal communities began to accept converts who wanted to marry Jews rather than to live an Orthodox way of life.

History and circumstances changed. Even within Orthodoxy, the desire to encourage new blood and the establishment of a Jewish State led to many rabbis becoming much more flexible, particularly for those living in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel was originally open and flexible. But in recent years, its hijacking by more right-wing rabbis or those more beholden to right-wing politics has led to complete chaos, with rabbi pitted against rabbi and community against community. Increasingly the right wing insists on no compromise of Orthodox demands, and the left wing insists on no restrictions at all. Caught in between are hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis who are not legally Jewish but are full citizens of a Jewish State, thousands of Reform converts not recognized as Jewish and hundreds of Orthodox converts whose conversions are not now deemed kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Orthodoxy today is as divided as in Hillel’s day between those who stand for what they see as religious integrity and fewer numbers and those who want to open up Judaism to more people, and in the case of the State of Israel want to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This chaos is proof that when religion and politics intersect, the result is total desecration of every religious value. It only makes a laughingstock out of Judaism.

Despite all this I am just amazed at the number of wonderful committed young men and women I have met who have persevered and jumped through all the hoops to become amongst the most impressive, committed, and learned Jews I have come across. Although, yes, I admit I have also come across just as many who were not sincere and had other agendas.

This month conversion has been in the news in the USA and in Israel. In Washington a prominent Orthodox rabbi who had been a champion of centralizing and tightening up Orthodox conversions under the Rabbinical Council of America has himself been found falling short of the very moral and religious standards he claimed to and should have been upholding. What a shock it has been to those converted under his aegis. And coincidentally the Knesset in Israel, recognizing what a mess we have, has just passed some new laws trying to make the conversion process transparent and fairer there.

Israel’s marriage laws are an embarrassment. There is no civil marriage. You can only get married by a religious authority. You can marry across the faiths, but only if you agree to accept some religious authority of whichever religion. And hitherto one centralized authority controlled it all, and you had to go to the relevant clergyman in your district.

Under pressure, the Knesset last year opened up religious marriages in Israel to allow one to go to any recognized rabbi instead just one’s local poobah. Of course it still doesn’t help a secular Jew who wants nothing to do with his religion or any other. Travelling to Cyprus is his nearest option.

Now the Knesset has intervened to make conversions less hide bound and here too one can, in theory, go to any established rabbinical authority. The trouble is that the Chief Rabbinate was and remains so opposed to any compromise that, in the end, the political parties agreed to allow the Chief Rabbinate a veto as to who would be allowed to convert and who not.

So although in theory things have loosened up, a fat lot of good it has done because the Knesset Bill is not binding. The law was not passed as legislation but as a government directive. Legislation would have provided greater guarantees that the ability of municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions would not be overturned. The government directive is subject to the unpredictability of coalition politics. A simple cabinet decision could overturn it. So in fact if the Chief Rabbinate proves to be bolshie, it can. Of course one can always pray for a miracle, but that is not always very reliable.

Because the more open national-religious rabbinic leadership has been losing ground to more the extremes, a backlash has developed, led mainly by the Tzohar rabbinical association, against the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate. It has succeeded in galvanizing less rigid and more Zionist inclined rabbis to make both marriage and conversion much more humane and personal. Despite all attempts to squash them, they are flourishing. But the situation still remains inconsistent.

Those who oppose the change argue, in my view not at all unreasonably, that the decentralization of conversion can lead to individual rabbis giving in to pressure and bribes. This has, in fact, been the case for many years, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. But I do not believe it is worth making life impossibly difficult just because some people take advantage. It’s like school rules. The tougher you make them, the more likely the efforts to circumvent them.

It’s all very well to complain about the abuses, but unless Orthodoxy can come up with a consistent, humane alternative, we remain in a state of chaos and moral deficiency. Torah, instead of being a light, is in danger of failing in its moral and spiritual mission.

I stand solidly on the side of compromise. I fear, however, that I will be on the losing side, as I have been so far within Orthodoxy. This will not discourage me, but it will be tough on the campaigners and bad for Judaism. Why, oh, why do we seem to go out of the way to appear rigid, uncompromising, and extreme? Do we really want to shoot ourselves in the foot every time? For what it’s worth, I gather the pope has similar problems!

November 13, 2014

Scotland the Brave

I have always loved Scotland.

When I was two years old, my father became the Communal Rabbi of Glasgow. The much missed author Chaim Bermant records that when Kopul Rosen had finished his induction address an elder of the community was seen to walk away shaking his head. "What's the matter?" he was asked. "Don't you think he's good?"

"Good? He's marvelous."

"Then why are you shaking your head?"

"Because a man like that will never stay here for long."

He was right, though for possibly the wrong reasons. The Rosen family's time in Glasgow was brief, just two years, because my father was called to London to become the Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. All I recall from that period was having my finger nibbled by a rabbit at Queens Park Zoo.

In 1968 I returned to Scotland as the rabbi of Giffnock, the largest Scottish Orthodox community, and spent some of the happiest years of my life. I loved the community. It was so warm, so Scottish. But they talked about leaving the country every time they went down to London. To me, Scotland and the work in the community was heaven. But I didn’t last long either. Not because I didn’t love it, but because I was called south to take over my late father’s school in England.

I was educated in England, and we were taught about the Great British Empire and Scotland’s essential part of it. Throughout the empire the Scots marched in their kilts and trews and blew their bagpipes. They fought bravely and provided skills, managerial and academic expertise. We English were proud of the Scots. But the feeling was not necessarily mutual.

One often sensed an abiding resentment of England that came from earlier battles and defeats. The competition between the two dominant soccer clubs of Glasgow in those days, Celtic and Rangers, often led to violent encounters and reflected the tensions between Catholics and the Protestants, the loyalists and the antiroyalists. The annual international between Scotland and “the auld enemie” England was often marred by violence.

Scotland had beauty, vibrant culture, and great universities, but also brutal poverty and drunkenness. The Church of Scotland was independent of the Church of England. Scotland had its own legal and educational systems. Political life in Scotland was for the past 150 years dominated by the unions, with their passionate Marxist orators and bullies. The leaders of the working masses along the Clyde, in heavy industries and shipbuilding, were amongst the founders of the Labour Party.

Over time the Conservative party lost any influence it once had North of the Border. Virtually all the Westminster members of Parliament from Scotland are socialists, and often extreme ones as well. The Scots liked to express their deep resentment that England was flourishing as Scotland declined. This resentment remained even after the North Sea oil boom brought wealth to Aberdeen and the North East. Then the Scottish National Party appeared and added a petty and anti-English form of nationalism to the mix. But it expanded and offered a serious alternative to the big parties from the south.

Massive financial support of the Scottish social system by English taxpayers was a sweetener, but not enough. So more money was poured out to build a Scottish Parliament and carry out devolution. In its turn this caused resentment in England because Members of Parliament from Scotland could vote in London on matters of English concern, but English MPs couldn't have a say in Scotland’s Parliament.

In British politics I am not a natural Conservative, but whereas once I was a strong Labour supporter, the way it has become increasingly unsympathetic (at best) towards Israel has inclined me against them. Perversely this was why I might have supported the idea of Scottish independence in theory! Because if the socialist politicians could be hived off the British body politic that way, their malign hard-left influence would be removed from a Westminster already coming more and more under antagonistic sway.

On the other hand, an independent Scotland without the moderation of the Conservatives would have been yet another violently anti-Israel vote in the UN and the EU. So on balance I am glad it went the way it did.

Interestingly, in the vote for Scottish independence Glasgow and Dundee areas were the ones with by far the largest vote in favor of breaking the union. They are also the most vociferously anti-Israel cities. And the younger generation voted overwhelmingly to split. As everywhere in the west nowadays, the young, educated activists see anti-Israelism as their default cause. Radicalism lashes out in predictable directions.

Now, with the breakup averted, one comfort is that the UK will remain ambivalent about Israel because the Conservatives do contain a pro-Israel element, regardless of the pressure from the Foreign Office. England now may well have its own parliament that excludes the Scottish MPs, who can now do as they please within their own borders. And England will continue to foot much of its bills. That was the carrot offered to try to win votes. That's tradition for you and the price of preserving the Union Jack and Balmoral as the Queen’s summer retreat!

The truth is I have doubts about more little ethnicities asking for independence. All this nationalism really goes back to the post-WWI misguided attempt to stop more conflict. The old empires fractured, and each part became more self-preoccupied and xenophobic. The EU has tried to rectify it, but the result has been a capitulation of its dominant ethnicities to external ones. All countries and most politicians are corrupt to varying degrees and waste money. Lots of little ones only end up increasing the pig trough and wasting even more.

The only good I could see in this whole episode was that it makes it harder to argue that if every little European ethnicity can have their state, then why should not Israel? But frankly, in the end, national identities tend to be bad things and cause more enmity rather than less. And anti-Semitism knows no logic. World peace is still a long way off, but Scotland the brave remains part of Great Britain and the Queen can now relax. At least she still has her “Sceptered Isle”.

November 06, 2014

The Assyrians

As the battles rage around Mosul, it is relevant to recall that what we now call Kurdistan was actually the core of the old Assyrian Empire, the one that carried off the Ten Lost Tribes. Indeed there is quite a lot of literature to suggest that the Kurds are descended from Israelites. Benjamin of Tudela (died 1173, in Castile), who visited them, thought that had not the Byzantines forcibly converted one half and the Muslims the other half, then they would still be Jewish. He detected, he said, several customs they all adhered to that could only have come from us. Now there’s a thought. Anyone volunteering to rescue Kobani?

Assyria looms large in the Bible. After it conquered the Arameans of Damascus who had ravaged the Northern Kingdom for years, it then turned its attention to the Kingdom of Israel. First they bullied King Jehu into submission and finally conquered it in 722. According to the Bible, they exiled all the population and replaced them with other victims from their empire who settled around Samaria, the Northern capital, and became known as Samaritans. They were plagued by wild animals and thought it was because they did not know the local gods. So the Assyrians commanded Judea in the south to send priests to teach and convert them. They became known as “Geyrei Arayot”, “Converts (out of fear) of lions.” In other words not genuine converts out of conviction. The struggle between Samaritans and Jews went on for quite a while. Needless to say, Samaritans dispute this story. But the story does indicate what a religiously tolerant sort of people the Assyrians were. They wanted your money, bodies, gold, and obedience, but really didn’t mind too much which god you worshipped.

They then turned their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judea and besieged King Hezekiah, “like a bird in a cage” according to Sennacherib’s stele. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians withdrew, but Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute nevertheless. Sennacherib, the one Byron describes as coming down “like the wolf on the fold”, retreated home and set about building a new capital called Nineveh (the ruins are to be found outside Mosul today, if you can avoid ISIS).

The Assyrians finally fell foul of the Babylonians, and they in turn capitulated to the Persians, whose king Cyrus let some Jews return. But they ran into trouble with the Samaritans, who said that this was their land now and the Israelites could jolly well go back to Persia and complain to the UN (or something like that). We keep on running into such problems, don’t we? But we persevered! We hung in there. Until, of course, the Romans decided otherwise.

But there’s an important lesson we learn from the Assyrians that we repeat every Yom Kipur when we read the book of Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh to get them to repent their evil ways. He didn't want to go because he knew that if they did repent they would be used as a tool to destroy his country, Israel. So he fled to Tarshish a well known port that was in the hands of the Kittim, the enemies of the Assyrians, the Sea Peoples from Crete and islands around. Well, we know the story of the fish and that when Jonah eventually got to Nineveh and started preaching, the King listened. Hence the well known phrase, “There’s no prophet in his own country.” They repented. Then proceeded to destroy the Northern Kingdom. (Don’t ask too many questions about chronology.) The lesson is clear. God does not support Israel if they misbehave. He will use some other power to destroy her. So He must have thought reasonably highly of the Assyrians. At that stage, at any rate, they were not just brutal, greedy conquerors, but in fact had a higher standard of morality than the Northern Kingdom.

Why am I telling you this? Because at this moment there’s an excellent exhibition called “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Anyone who would like to tour the exhibit with me and Dr. Michael Seymour, assistant curator in the museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, should just turn up at 10:00 AM at the Met on Thursday, December 4.

The exhibition is fascinating in many ways. First of all it includes the earliest archaeological artifact that refers to the “House of David”. It is an engraved stone, a fragment from an arch found at Tel Dan celebrating Hazael of Damascus’s destruction of the House of David. As you might expect the Palestinian archaeologists anxious to deny there were ever any Jews there claim it’s not the House of David, but the “House of Dod” (perhaps Dod’s your uncle). Given that there is no other evidence, record, or hint of such a house, it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s not what it obviously is. But hey, politics gets into archaeology too. And the Israeli archeologists made so sure we would not miss the reference that they chalked the words white against the black background for all to see. Politics cuts both ways.

Then there’s the ivory balustrade found in northern Israel on display. The Bible mentions Solomon’s use of ivory, but this was found in Samaria. Ahab’s son Ahaziah fell through one of the balustrades of the palace and died soon after. Ahab’s dynasty was done away with by Jehu, and here he is at the Met, in stone on the Black Obelisk from Nimrud, the Assyrian capital before Nineveh, bowing down low to Shalmaneser, and it looks as though those following him are wearing four tassels that might even be tzitzit!

The exhibition links Assyria to Spain through the Sea Peoples. They were what we now call the Phoenicians or the Philistines. Some suggest the Canaanites are their descendants too. The competition between them and Assyria was fierce. But it was often one of mutually beneficial trade. In the different artifacts you can clearly the connection between the Phoenician alphabet and the early Hebrew script. That was before the Jews of Babylon adopted the square letters we still use today. But it was that earlier one that Moses would have used.

It is very moving, and it goes to show that the Bible is not just a collection of fairy stories. The events it mentions come alive. They remind us of the immense achievements of our ancestors and their failures too. It is both a source of pride and a warning, that like Ozymandias, great kings end up in the dust and are remembered only by their epitaphs. But ideas live on.