June 25, 2015


The HBO series “Game of Thrones” is set somewhere in a mythical medieval past and is based on a series of fantasies by author George R. R. Martin. It is immensely popular because it is saturated with rivalry, incest, rape, murder, torture, sex, violence, dynastic power, religion, magic, and, of course, dragons. Not something a normal parent would want any of his children to see. The finale of this season introduced a novel idea: shame.

Cersei Lannister is arguably the most evil character in a cast of the most evil characters you have ever seen. She is the incestuous, wicked queen, the daughter of an evil father, who fights without any scruple to ensure that her children, conceived with her brother, keep control of the Iron Throne. There is no imaginable evil she has not perpetrated, no moral boundary she has not transgressed, and for awhile we thought her end had thankfully come when a new reformist religious movement threw her in jail for refusing to admit her guilt.

Ever scheming and devious, the only way she can escape is when she finally pulls the wool over the holy man’s eyes and confesses a minor infraction while barefacedly continuing to deny the major. She is allowed to return to the sanctuary of her palace provided she accepts her penance, which is a long, nude walk of shame through the streets of the city accompanied by a nun-like figure who rings a bell and cries out “shame” every few yards.

Pelted with refuse, her feet bleeding, Cersei finally makes it through the derisive throngs to the palace, where she finds sanctuary. One almost begins to feel a measure of sympathy for her. But, safely in the arms of a new champion, she casts a malignant eye on the people who have abused her. The clear message is that revenge is going to be awesomely cruel and swift. Cersei has no shame. She is incapable of it. She might be embarrassed and humiliated, but there is not an iota of shame. But then, what is shame?

Now let’s switch from the pagan to Torah. If you study the daily page of the Talmud (you can’t really study a page of Talmud a day, but you can read it), you know that we have recently read in Masechet Nedarim about the idea of shame, or perhaps embarrassment, using the words “busha” or “boshet panim". Panim is the Biblical Hebrew word for face. But it is plural word—“faces”—as if to tell us that we all put on different faces in different situations.

The Talmud says, basing itself on a sentence in Exodus, “From here we learn that shame helps a person to be wary of sinning, which is why they (the rabbis) said that shame (busha) is a good quality in a person. Others say whosoever is embarrassed (mitbayesh) will not easily sin, and whoever does not get embarrassed (boshet panim) you can be certain his forefathers were not standing at Sinai” (Nedarim 20a).

Same words, but three different uses. Are these merely local usages, or do they signify differences? In English, embarrassment might simply be a matter of conditioning. Blushing may just be a physical reaction, with no reference to morality at all. So “Have you no shame?” could as well be a moral judgment as it could simply be a matter of etiquette. There are expectations and expectations. I do not think the Talmud is concerned here with simply physical responses or matters of social expectations. They were not worried about turning up to the hunt in the wrong colored jacket, for example.

You might think that “boshet panim”, shame or embarrassment of the face, could be a human response to others, like blushing, or because one is found out. Whereas simple “busha” is before God or one’s conscience. Similarly, the English word “shame” might have two usages—before others, as opposed to before God. In which case Cersei had the first but not the second.

But the truth is that the Talmud makes no such distinction. The term “boshet panim” is used in these additional cases. Moses begs God not to destroy the Children of Israel but to keep him alive after the Golden Calf. He says, “Please do not shame me in the face of my forefathers.” Jerusalem was destroyed because the people had no shame. An ignoramus has no shame when he has intercourse. All very different kinds of situations.

What I derive from this is that there are correct ways of behaving towards other people and incorrect ones. If one is sensitive, then one will regret one’s insensitivity. If one is religious, one will regret behaving in an irreligious way. If one is moral, one will regret behaving in an immoral way. But if, like Cersei, one regrets nothing, then a walk of shame cannot succeed in bringing about change. It only deepens the ill will.

Shame indeed has two ingredients: shame for the act itself and shame for the response of others. The Talmud is telling us that we should have shame for betraying God and our values, first and foremost. Shame or embarrassment in the face of others may well be a necessary condition of socialization, but it is secondary.

There is one other example of this idea that one needs to have a sense shame to be fully part of the Jewish people. That is in Talmud Beitzah 32b, where it says that anyone who is not merciful towards humanity (please note, not only to fellow Jews) cannot possibly be a descendant of Avraham our father.

These two are what we might call the spirit of Judaism rather than just the letter. Which is why if you only have time for one of the two sources for this homily, go study Torah first.

June 18, 2015


It just never seems to end. The press publicizes yet another case of a rabbi and teacher guilty of abusing his position in a sexual way. The roll call in recent years is a depressing one. Twenty names come immediately to mind, this year alone, of very Orthodox men convicted of sexual abuse of women or children. And these are just the cases that have hit the headlines.

A similar roll call can be found of ultra-Orthodox, Charedi, Kabbalistic felons convicted of financial crimes, bribery, and cheating the government and their own. These crimes are not confined to America or Israel but have happened throughout the Jewish world, including such holy cities as Antwerp, London, Manchester, Sydney, and Melbourne. Despite public condemnation from what we might call centrist Orthodoxy, too often the Charedi world closes ranks and remains silent.

I know, of course, that our rate of criminality in these areas is no different than any other group, but that's cold comfort. It is not my problem if priests abuse their charges. But it is my problem if Orthodox rabbis do. And it is part of our tradition to accept moral responsibility for crimes carried out in our communities. If our charges fail, we have failed. If our shepherds are filthy, to quote Chaucer, how can we be clean sheep?

Every human being makes mistakes. That’s what King Solomon said, and he should know. Every time I reflect on how I should have done better, I feel a deep sense of regret. Thankfully, my regret is for none of the above. But what is it that seems to infect people in positions of power over others? Is it just that, the power? Is that why parents are also often convicted of harming their own children? Perhaps that is what the rabbis of the Talmud meant when they said that “he who has more power than other men has a much stronger evil inclination” (Talmud Sukah 52a).

But there is, in my opinion, another issue—that of charisma. It usually means having the power to inspire people. It's a word I cannot find a Biblical Hebrew equivalent for, and I suspect that’s for good reason. The Bible is very suspicious of people with such power. They become demagogues. They get carried away with their own egos. They end up feeling they can do anything, be above the law. This is precisely why Moses is described as someone unable to use language to inspire. It is why the prophets, for all the beauty of their written texts, seemed in the main unable to win people over. Charisma is a gift that is too easily misused and abused.

Why do people fall for charisma so often? The weak, the halt, and the lame all need someone to look up to, to raise them up from their depression. Charisma is attractive, and it is the basis of much of our modern cultural life. From actors and musicians to politicians and religious leaders, those who succeed in attracting attention and mass popular followings invariably have charisma. In a world where intellectual achievement and expertise require hard, consistent work to be rewarded, having charisma, along with notoriety, is a much easier route to success.

Emotional intelligence, the ability to get on with people, to make oneself popular and wanted, is something that usually comes naturally, like good looks and a commanding presence. It can be learned too, up to a point. Consider Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the thousands of similar books that have followed. The ability to please, to win people over, is a dangerous gift or skill. It is dangerous in that it tends to be delusive, to give those fortunate enough to have it an exaggerated sense of their own capacities and capabilities. It is a trap lying in wait that too many people fall into, from great teachers to great dictators.

I have always noticed that those, whom the Almighty overendows in one area, are often sadly underendowed in others. This goes for charisma, and the same also goes for intellectual brilliance. A mind or a memory overendowed is usually counterbalanced by deficiencies elsewhere. This is why so often great scholars may have the information but lack the sensitivity. And it is why great minds or capacities often disappoint.

Charisma is an increasingly marketable quality in western society. The media loves charisma. Religions too. It is in demand and it is rewarded. Like fame, it is deceptive and it is dangerous. He who lives by the media will be destroyed by it. Modesty, Moishe Rabbeynu’s prime characteristic, does not go down well on television.

Which is why I believe in Moishe Maimonides’s Golden Mean. Yes, I know the idea started long before, in Greece. But Maimonides was the one who articulated it in a positive way for Judaism in his “Eight Chapters”. Whenever one has a quality or a fault that is problematic, the way to counteract it is, for a while, to go to the other extreme. It's the pendulum theory. Swing from one extreme to the other so that the clock keeps time in the middle.

If you are too popular, try some unpopularity for a while. Too successful, live a more modest life. Too generous, too mean, too proud, too modest, even too religious, too pious, anything to extreme is dangerous. I believe that too many in positions of religious leadership have become too pious, too demanding, too restrictive. They were right to go down that path at one stage. That was what we needed to repair the losses, the disasters of exile and oppression. That was needed in Judaism itself to prevent the slide towards apathy and assimilation. But what was needed once is not what is needed now. We have swung too far towards obscurantism and oppression, ourselves. We have allowed charisma to blind us to faults, to ignore deficiencies. Beware of people who think they are above the law. If the Bible says this of kings, I say this of rabbis.

We need to get back to that balance, that golden mean.

June 11, 2015

Belz and Women Drivers

There has been much neurotic outcry about the Belz Chasidic yeshiva in London (note, not in Israel) for issuing a ban on women driving and threatening to expel children from its schools if their mothers arrived to drop them off or pick them up in cars (which, under pressure, has now, thankfully been withdrawn).

Forget that most Chasidic dynasties around the world and leading rabbinical experts disagree with those Belz rabbis. National newspapers got their knickers in an orgasmic twist over what they are describing as Judaism’s answer to Saudi Arabia. Non-Orthodox Jews claim to be offended by association. The UK Minister of Education declared she would open an inquiry into this abuse of women’s rights. She didn’t need to, but I assume she will now also open an inquiry into Muslim women being forced to cover up from head to toe or marry men imposed on them by their parents or not being allowed out at night. But of course they won’t. Imagine a community of Saudis and Omanis living in London forbidding their wives to drive. You really think the government would intervene? Or in the USA they would try to insist that the Amish be allowed to drive cars? I don’t think so.

Why do they care? Surely what Charedi Jews freely do amongst themselves is their business even if I personally disagree? And if there are women in Belz who are unhappy about it (and all my information tells me that most are not), it is for them and their supporters to intervene.

Every religion contains those who choose to live lives different, holier or more ascetic, than the people around them. Indeed in most societies there are groups, of a social or financial character that choose to live in segregated or gated communities. Such communities provide security and safety, whether physical or moral. They often distinguish themselves from other groups through distinctive dress and custom and regulations. But they are all voluntary in the sense that in theory one can always walk away from them. The amazing fact is that most do not. They enjoy the charity, security, and the support of the closed community, even if in many cases they are neither equipped mentally or financially to leave if they wanted to. Most human beings opt for their status quo. Rebels are always a minority.

Ultra-Orthodox Charedi Judaism fits these generalizations. The laws of free lands respect their choices of dress and behavior, just as they respect the right of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist men and women to wear their specific styles of dress and those who choose to become celibate or refuse to watch television, or to go to movies, or deprive themselves of watching porn or gambling or going to strip clubs. We say, in our free societies it is their right.

The state only intervenes usually (though not always) to ensure that the Law of the Land is obeyed. I believe it should. IT should do so fairly and consistently. But very often religious and other minority interest groups lobby for exemptions and sometimes get them. And the state is usually selective and politically motivated as to when, where and against whom it acts. I think of New York mayor De Blasio’s refusal to deal with their specific custom that some Charedi communities insist on for circumcision. Both in the UK and the USA there is a current issue over how society can or should coerce religious people to follow state laws that they find offensive or disagree with.

There is a blurry line here between allowing people choices to refuse to do things that offend their religious attitudes, like gay marriage and adoptions, or allowing females to function in what some consider to be exclusively male roles, and the extent to which exemptions can be tolerated fir religious values. But the debate is out there. If I have a gripe against Charedi extremism it is that they usually tolerate no debate. And if I criticize the outcry it is because it is clearly motivated by animus.

My problems are with religions when they try to impose too much on often reluctant followers or on nonbelievers. I object to the way in which secluded societies tend to protect their felons and abusers and the way they often limit the opportunities open to women.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the Charedi world is going through a process of change and adjustment as more and more of its followers refuse to accept many of its social nostra. Increasingly the voices for change are female. Because most men were required to remain life long students of Torah, Charedi women were always encouraged to go out and work. As a result, they are often better educated and more worldly than men, occupying top jobs in commerce, education and administration.

But they still cannot hold positions of power in Charedi parties, and they cannot stand as candidates for the Knesset. You might think they happily accept this, but if you have seen the recent TED talk by Esty Shushan in Jerusalem you will know that many Charedi women are very unhappy with their sense of disempowerment, subordination, and victimization. And she herself admits that many Charedi women object to her outspokenness as much as men. The pressure of conformity is very powerful.

The problem that religious women face everywhere is simply male chauvinism that often disguises itself in religious terminology. The most obvious is in divorce where men have to give it and often refuse to unless paid off. If a woman does not mind leaving the community, she can go to civil courts for her freedom. But if she wants to stay within the community, she is trapped. The same goes for many religious Muslims and Hindus. The subordination of women has been the default position of all societies until very recently. Religions are, by nature, conservative and very slow to adapt.

The secular, love to highlight religious abuses. But too many of them are willing to turn a blind eye to what is wrong morally in their society. They will complain about women being restricted in Charedi communities, but minimize the pressures exerted on women as a result of the issues and tensions that a modern society imposes. They bridle at the hijab, take France’s policy for example, but have no problem with the skimpiest of mini skirts and dressing children as sexual objects.

In principle we should not refuse people the right to their strictnesses. But what we can do is to help those who want to see change from within. First, we have to establish refuges and support structures for those who refuse to accept discrimination and second-class status. Secondly, we must fund and support those women who are willing to campaign against inequality from within. And finally, we have to tackle hard line Charedi male chauvinists, either by making financial support contingent on changing their attitudes or by subjecting them to critique.

In Israel, where Charedi power is strongest and most pervasive, Charedi women have more opportunity than ever before. The law has supported their rights, whereas politics has tended to hold them back. If enclaves will not willingly address their internal problems, those of us who care about them must not desist from engaging. And if none of this works, we can always turn to satire. Double standards will not help anyone.

June 07, 2015

American Pharoah

The Lubavitcher Rebbe won the Triple Crown at Belmont last Saturday when American Pharoah romped home in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont, New York, by five lengths, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years. The owner is one Ahmed Zayat, once known in Cairo as an Egyptian Muslim, but now in the USA he is an Orthodox Jew. He and his family spent Shabbat in a mobile home nearby so as not to have to travel to the event.

He made his fortune in beer, quickly realizing that in the Muslim world it makes sense to market the non-alcoholic kind! He himself is a good Sephardi Jew, not a Chasid. But the jockey of his winning horse was taken to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by some enterprising young Chabad Rabbis (as ever, with a nose for publicity), where he dropped in a piece of paper asking for a blessing before the race. That, of course, is why his horse won. I would not recommend doing this if you are a serious gambler, but then most gamblers, like those who put pieces of paper in walls and suchlike, are very superstitious.

In the United Kingdom, where I was born, horse racing was and is “the sport of kings”. The Queen is its most fervent patron and horse breeder. Her horses have won at Ascot 22 times. The fabulously rich royal family of Dubai, the Maktoums, are the dominant force nowadays. Here in America horse racing is the sport of whoever wants to have a go. It is under a lot of pressure, but it still attracts attention and money.

And the unthinkable, a nice Jewish boy, has just won its Triple Crown. Its true in England there were wealthy and successful Jewish breeders (the Rothschilds, the Sassoons and the Tabors come to mind), but not one of them was Sabbath- or kosher-observant. And you had to be or hobnob with the aristocrats to get anywhere. In the USA, any Tom Dick and or Ahmed can make it.

As a child I spent several years living at Greenham Common in Berkshire overlooking the Newbury racecourse. I would sneak down the hill, through the fields, and climb up onto a haystack to watch the races. On television you get no sense of the thunderous pounding of the hooves, the snorting of the horses, the shouting and whipping of the jockeys as the peloton of sweating horse meat, the rolling of white horse eyes swishing past you in a second, and then heading towards the grandstands, where the crowd is roaring and cheering and screaming and stamping their feet until the post-climactic sigh that means the bookies have made a lot of money and the punters have lost again.

In the Britain of my youth, the poor would bet on greyhounds, the middle classes and the rich on horses. But in truth horses attracted all classes. There were stands and boxes where the rich could go and plain open, unprotected mounds for the peasants. The rich would bet in secluded areas, while the poor stood amongst the shouting gesticulating bookmakers in garish clothes and hats screaming to get attention and pick up the small, the leftovers, and the last-minute hunch bets.

There was an art to deciding the odds, and usually the bookmakers knew they had to cover their bets or they might lose everything. Then off-course betting and now the internet have changed all that. Aficionados studied form, looked at statistics, knew the jockeys, examined the mounts, asked all kinds of shady insiders which horse would get nobbled, which jockey told to rein in his mount or let a favored stablemate win. As with all gambling, it was often gangster-controlled and rigged against the ordinary sucker. But the atmosphere, the excitement, and vain hopes of winning a fortune always won out.

I remember going to Royal Ascot 40 years ago. It was something special (but not so special that I ever wanted to go back). The Queen and members of the Royal Family would be driven in horse-drawn carriages from nearby Windsor Castle, accompanied by red jacketed riders, down the straight to the cheering crowds and the military band, and into the Royal Enclosure. Only the elite could get in there, and you had to be wearing morning suits and toppers or elegant dresses and outrageous hats.

The ordinary wealthy or the middle classes could make use of the Grand Stand enclosure, where companies and families had their private boxes and entertained lavishly. Dress was “cocktail.” Or you could stand on the grass mounds to the side.

Ascot dates back to Queen Anne. It was an essential part of the great annual summer Royal social calendar that divides Brits into those who aspire to be close to the monarchy and those who despise it. To me it was more about the setting than the betting. No, I did not win anything.

Beyond Royal Ascot it is a lot less glamorous and horse racing is a tough, expensive hobby, although it has its business side. Unless you have more cash than you need, it is not to be recommended. But then neither is betting in general. Just study the odds. And of course the rabbis of the Talmud had no sympathy for betting and banned gamblers from giving evidence in courts or standing for positions of honesty and responsibility. To the best of my knowledge, no Chasidic rebbes are in the business, unless of course you include the Lubavitcher Rebbe of sainted memory but then he no longer has a say in it.

For all my cynicism, I am delighted that a Shomer Shabbat Jew has won this great prize. There is such a constant flow of news about Jews being attacked, boycotted, and reviled and rejected (often, sadly, because they deserve it), that to see a happy, smiling, victorious religious face is a real tonic. I hope we don't have to wait another 37 years for a repeat. But then we did have to wait 2000 years to come home!

PS—The horse racing business is hardly the preserve of the educated. Those who registered the name of the horse couldn’t spell Pharaoh properly!!!!

June 04, 2015

FIFA Corruption

You know someone is unsavory if Vladimir Putin defends him. Thank goodness Sepp Blatter, the recently reelected president of FIFA, has finally resigned. Or so it seems at the moment. On a scale of values, running a corrupt soccer cartel and stacking it with family and friends surely is not the worst crime of all. What he represents is not evil, as such, so much as our zeitgeist. Making money one way or another is the be-all and end-all of human activity. It is the deity of our times.

We have known for 30 years that FIFA was a corrupt, nepotistic, self-perpetuating oligarchy, where the leadership always makes sure the odds are weighted in its favor. It is like a casino. The machines are all guaranteed in advance to ensure the owners rake in a massive profit. The punters are naïve enough to believe they can win by being indulged with relatively modest gains. Their minds are dulled by the pheromones and oxytocin stimulated through sex, alcohol, drugs, and freebies.

The formula has been the same for thousands of years. Olympic games, Roman circuses, chariot races, gladiators, Persian orgies, crusades and almost all modern sports. They all offer entertainment for the masses, controlled by the oligarchies, based on bribery and corruption. But no one seems to care, so long everyone is having a good time, and the money rolls in, and the necessary kickbacks are provided. I used to be such a fan of soccer and other sports. I am now totally disillusioned. I couldn’t care less. Physical fitness is good and healthy. Following overpaid louts with tattoos is just demoralizing. Whoever pays more gets the best.

If money is the deity, its theology is to win at all costs. In sport you use performance enhancing drugs and therapies. You try to evade controls. You come up with new ways of disguising what you are doing. You tamper with equipment. You bribe judges and referees. You tinker with administrative structures so that your opponents are outvoted. You place your friends and cronies in significant positions all laced with benefits and kickbacks. Your family is inserted into existing posts or given consultancies. You grant favored contracts on the understanding that somewhere a bank account you are connected to receives special payments. You cultivate donors, and kiss their behinds. You find scapegoats to blame when things go wrong, and you ensure that whoever succeeds you will protect you and your ill-gotten gains.

Political dynasties, fixers, lobbyists, convicted criminals who return to positions of power. All because money can sanitize, and if you are brazen enough to deny, you might even hang in there. The Clintons typify the disease in politics. They rake in huge lecture fees, donations to their charities and foundations. Are you going to tell me it is only out of the goodness of the hearts of the donors? Tell me on what basis Chelsea Clinton commands fees of $75,000 a talk. But then what about the Kennedy family and Bush and almost any successful politician you can mention? And all those family members succeeding each other in public and private companies. Very few of them make a success of it.

Precisely because it corrupts, money can also make people stink. Although it may not always happen, sometimes the law actually does facilitate prosecution and through this brings about some degree of change.

Democratic systems are dysfunctional and corrupt, but in less venal and all-embracing ways than dictatorships. Organizations like the United Nations are democratic but corrupt. They care not a jot for honesty, objectivity, truth. Yet for all that is wrong with them, democratic systems are still the preferable form of government precisely because they are the only ones that have shown how to throw out one group of governors and politicians for another.

Change is creative. It can heal. Stasis is disastrous. Constitutions and laws are safeguards. That is why the Magna Carta that King John signed in 1215 is still revered to this day. It insisted the king was not above the law. The Bible and the Talmud had said so much earlier, but as they were Jewish no one wanted to pay much attention. Successful societies have always been the most flexible and adaptive. They have also been the ones with visionaries and with strong institutions of law and justice. It is why I believe it good that there is such a battle in Israel between right and left. Both sides need to be challenged.

In free societies individual prosecutors, district attorneys, commissions, committees, investigators, even journalists can and have affected public policy, and on occasion pursued the corrupt and the felonious. But to do this requires moral clarity and courage. Fortunately there have been a few gutsy people in public office. Attorney General Loretta Lynch joins the honor roll of such. I hope she now turns her attention to American sports bodies and the Olympics.

Consider: It has been just 300 years since societies began to challenge the old divine right of kings and autocracies. Previously only conquest brought about change. Slowly over this time of intended and unintended progress, political parties have risen and fallen. Whigs and liberals have disappeared. Conservatives and socialists have, like chameleons, changed beyond recognition. In the US, Southern Democrats were once racists. Within parties the divisions are as extreme as those without. Monopolies have come, and monopolies have gone. Wherever you look there are disagreements, nuances, and variation, some greater some smaller. Nothing is static, although it often feels like it is. Change is happening, but not in isolation and not always in the same direction.

Just look at how dramatically Judaism has changed over time from a Biblical system based on the sanctuary to adaptation in exile, the Talmudic dialectic and then a structured legal system. We have absorbed different streams—rational, Kabbalistic, Chasidic, nationalist, and enlightened. There can be change that preserves continuity and change that does not. That is why currently Judaism as a religion is in a state of crisis, because it lacks creative leadership at one extreme and loyalty to tradition at the other.

The lack of moral visionaries undermines religions as much as politics. The Torah and the prophets proclaimed for thousands of years that justice and righteousness must struggle to overcome bribery, corruption, and vested interests that are poison to the human soil and inevitably lead to decline and fall, however long it may take. In the end, FIFA had to change or be brought down. And if Clinton is as wise as she is reputed to be, unless she is addicted, she too will learn the lesson.