September 24, 2015

Google God

It’s a sign of our times that the New York Times can devote a serious op-ed to the fact that God is in decline because He, She, or It was googled less than few years ago.

According to the author, pornography searches are up 83%, heroin is up 32%, and churches are down 15%. The top Google search that includes God is a video game called “God of War”.

There are 4.7 million “hits” for Jesus, but 49 million for Kim Kardashian. By that standard she is more popular than John Lennon, who in turn claimed that Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. And indeed they were if you think that kind of popularity should be taken seriously. Even so Allah does pretty well amongst Muslims, just as HaShem is no slouch when it comes to Jews. Does Krishna count? Of course! And if you include such Google questions as “Why did God…make the world, make me, make me so ugly, so stupid, etc.”, God gets a lot more searches. But what does that actually tell us? Does anyone believe that God is a popularity contestant or a product? Since when did God care how many people voted for him? Only Satan in the Christian tradition worries about pride. It all reminds me of the famous witticism “ The God that is small enough for my mind is not big enough for me.” If God needed popularity, He couldn’t be God. People who sell themselves, particularly outwardly religious ones are just that, they are salesmen.

The writer goes on to say that:
“I looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan and 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280%. The top religious searches be they Bible, Quran, God, Allah, or prayer tended to drop.”
Yes, of course people want news of a crisis, especially if they are affected, more than sitting down to a theological discussion. The piece reminded me of all those silly articles in which God is described as a kindly old man sitting on a cloud in the sky (or very angry, hurling down thunderbolts at evil doers). Having set up a caricature as the target, the article then proceeds to make fun of the idea. Well, yes. If you compare God to Superman it would be laughable. But which thinking believer sees Him that way? Do people assume that all religious grownups still cling to kindergarten ideas of what God is?

Bad is always more fun than good. That is why in Milton’s great poem, “Paradise Lost”, Satan sounds so much more interesting than boring old God. And Milton was a believer. Crime always hogs the headlines. Taking a drug is an easier way to escape your problems than working hard to overcome them.

That's why the papers are full of all the bad things Israel does but rarely does anyone ever mention the good, even if there’s just as much of that too. Newspapers will always publish “Man Pushes Old Lady Off a Bus.” They will never bother to publish “Girl Helps Old Lady Onto a Bus.” Scandal sells. Paris Hilton became a celebrity because of a sex video, not because she helped refugees. And Kim Kardashian became a celebrity because she behaved like a hooker, not a nun. “50 Shades of Gray” did not sell millions with a message of love, fidelity, and devotion. And consider this blog. I have named several people I despise and haven’t named anyone I admire!!!!

It is obvious that most human beings are pretty selfish, self-indulgent, egocentric animals who want to have fun and pleasure and work as little as possible. Which is why the few who are prepared to work hard usually do so much better if they are given half a chance. It’s why trust fund kids rarely succeed in comparison to the poorer, hardworking first generation who slog to build the fortune in the first place.

For most human beings life is sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. That is what sells. Of course billions prefer pop music to classical, a rock concert to a religious service. It’s easier, so much more fun. It's true some successful churches entertain. But even so, the vast majority of the lumpenproletariat prefer playing computer games to reading a book. Of course people who lust after money will say that money talks, because that's the only language they speak.

Your average Joe or Josephine is a yahoo who is satisfied with the lowest common denominator, the easiest and simplest of everything. He will vote for Donald Trump to become president of the United States. He will hate foreigners, minorities, and probably women too. But this merely tells us what we already know—that most people in this world love pornography more than the self-discipline of a religious tradition. Indeed the amount of sexual abuse within religions suggest that even many religious people treat sex as their true god, that is to say the thing that matters and occupies them most in this world. Many religious people get just as corrupted by money as anyone else. Well, good luck to them, if that’s what they want, I say. But that does not make pornography or masturbation a good partner in life.

It’s like all popularity polls of politicians, teenagers, actors, singers, “personalities”. It is based on who can make the biggest noise, splash, or fool of themselves. A huckster is after all only a huckster. And the public, bless them, laps it up because they have no greater values, no higher standards to apply. How many people prefer reading comics to studying the Talmud or a book on nuclear physics or history? What sells more? A cheap, sexy, potboiler (bodice-ripper as we used to say 50 years ago) or a serious work of literature?

Of course we live in a dumb world. All Google searches prove is how true that is. Google Jews and anti Semitic sites come top of the list. So why does a supposedly serious newspaper publish such a silly article, unless it too feels the need to attract more dumb readers? Unless it was hard up for news and needed to fill the space. (Which is probably why hardly a day goes by without it also publishing pages of anti-Israeli reportage). Funny how the two often go together.

So you wonder what this blog has to do with this weekend? Well, after the seriousness of the High Holy Days, it's nearly Sucot, the time of Simcha (Joy)…and fun.

September 17, 2015

Everything, Something, or Nothing - Thoughts for Yom Kipur 2015

During the nineteenth century there were two ideological movements that swept the western world. For want of a better term, I will call them universalism and particularism. Universalism was the message of Marxism, which spawned socialism and communism. Particularism was the ideology of nationalism. Religions caught between the two split into rival factions.

From 1848 onwards there were fierce civil battles across the states of Europe. America was spared them, but its Civil War and the rivalry of the states in their way, too, reflected this conflict between those who looked out and those who wanted to turn inwards.

Marxism’s anthem was The Internationale. Its credo was and is the international brotherhood of man, the working classes, and freedom from any religious or national ideology. Nationalism on the other hand tried to promote one nation, one culture, one religion and we all know how disastrous both ideologies were for mankind and for Jews.

Despite the catastrophes of the Second World War, the Cold War and totalitarianism the world is still divided along the lines of those who stand for an open society and those who prefer a restricted and specific society. But like any attempt to pigeonhole, there are always exceptions, contradictions and hybrids.

Socialism yearns for the universal. Nationalism seeks to preserve a specific culture. Religious nationalism wishes to preserve a specific religion and predicates civil rights on an agreed understanding to accept its cultural traditions and not seek to weaken them.

All this is background to the current migration crisis Europe is experiencing which is the result of 50 years of socialism in one form or another. Even “conservative” European parties have been socialist-lite. This dirigiste, secular ideology has driven the culture of the European Union since its inception. It has emphasized universal civil and human rights and freedoms of thought and movement. Its culture of welfare actually began in Germany under Bismarck and spread out across the continent and beyond. Americans may not like to hear this, but today the USA is more socialist in its welfare and policies than any European country was before the Second World War. But let me focus on Europe.

Millions of immigrants from different cultures and religions, from all over the world have been moving into Europe, quite legally, since the 1950's to provide cheap labor for countries whose indigenous folk simply did not want to do the dirty work. Demographically, Europeans are getting older and having too few children to replace them, which will mean fewer taxpayers and a greater burden on the state.

Europe needs immigrants. However what we are witnessing now is of a different scale as millions are fleeing the failed Arab and Muslim states of their birth, attracted by the prospects of a free life, generous welfare, and stable governments. We have never seen this scale of lawlessness and desperation before. Potentially it could involve tens of millions more. Human trafficking is now huge business.

This will make the integration of these different attitudes, cultures and religions much harder. In effect Europe has capitulated and thrown out its own laws and protocols. Once a country loses control of its system of Law and Order and is invaded, the consequences are far reaching. Most other countries are not so accommodating. Try China or indeed Russia!

Universalism says that we must take them in without limit. Anyone suffering or indeed wanting to better himself or herself should be given a chance. There can be no moral justification for a modern open society to deny refuge no matter how many, no matter what their background and no matter what the cost. But what the consequences will be, we do not know for sure. It might be better than some fear, or worse. Indeed in the European Union now some countries are bridling at this internationalism that they fear will ultimately destroy their indigenous culture. Are they wrong to try to preserve their laws and character?

Where do we stand as Jews? The Bible says, "Do not return a fleeing slave." The stranger was always welcomed and given equal civil rights, but the rider was that they had to accept the moral and religious character of the host community.

This is precisely where Israel finds itself today, in a moral quandary. Israel is an open society despite everything its enemies claim. The Israeli Left, loyal primarily to left-wing values, says, “Let in anyone who wants to flee to Israel; we are proud of our open, liberal society.” The Right Wing says, “There are 50 Muslim majority states. Some are poor, but others are rich. Let them take in Muslim refugees who will be part of and help strengthen their own Muslim societies.” As it is Israel has an uneasy balance between religious and secular Jews and between Jews and non-Jews. Taking in more people who are loyal to a culture that currently is overwhelmingly opposed to Israel and Jews and who might well ally themselves with those who seek to undermine the Jewish state would be simply suicidal.

So you have a clash of moralities, cultures, and ideology. It is with great reluctance and even a feeling of moral ambivalence that I agree that Israel has no alternative but to do its best to ensure its own survival. Of course it could take in a token amount without any problem. Say, the same amount proportional to its population as the USA, which is now “generously” offering to take in 10,000. But not to open the floodgates as Europe has.

The Jewish world is divided between the left and the right just as much as the political world is. Less Orthodox Jews tend to vote for left wing or democratic parties and see themselves more as universalist. Orthodox Jews see themselves as more republican, conservative, particularist, struggling to preserve a very specific way of life. One wing inclines towards intermarriage and assimilation and less commitment to Judaism and Israel, the other inclines towards restrictions designed to preserve Jewish integrity.

I believe in choice, and I support the right of individuals to make their own decisions. However that right extends to the Orthodox and the nationalists too. In the end we humans decide based on our own experiences and loyalties. Each side has to accord the other this right. I am loyal to both. My secular education is liberal. My religious education is Orthodox. I draw on both. But in the end, survival of Judaism is my absolute priority. It is my, our contribution to the betterment of human society. It is our attempt to offer a specific, ethical counterbalance to self-interest, materialism, and the lowest common denominator that unites all humans. The world would be a poorer place without us.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, in his “Song of the Soul”, said that we all have songs within our souls that sing of different aspirations. We all sing multiple songs. But we decide which song prevails. Each one of us decides one’s own ultimate priority is.

This is the message Moses gives us in the final chapters of Deuteronomy. "You are all here today to enter into a covenant with God…a covenant that includes all future generations." But we have choices. Individual Jews have always abandoned the covenant. "Some of you may decide to turn away from your roots…and may choose to follow your hearts’ desires." (Chapter 30:12-19) There will be consequences. The consequences will not be whether or not the Jewish people will survive. That has been guaranteed. But whether you or your children will still be part of it or not in the next generation.

That is the crucial decision here and now as it has always been and always will be. Do we put universal values before specific values? Both have their good points and their bad, their successes and their failures. But in the end it is like our children. No matter what they do they are still our children. So it is with us Jews. I weep for the suffering masses. But I fear for my own survival.

We are surrounded by enemies and prejudice. Our hopes that hatred would diminish have been cruelly denied. No doubt we share some of the blame. Yet we are, thanks to having a state of our own (with all its faults, imperfections, and blindness), in a stronger position than we have ever been for 2,000 years. It would be suicidal to throw it away.

This is a time to reflect on our choices and where we stand. What are YOUR priorities? As Joshua asked in the Bible, “Are you for us or against us?” Are you universalist or particularist?

September 10, 2015


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 is 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 like, “No, I did not eat that chocolate”?

Every Shabbat afternoon my father always 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.” So, it seemed, our religion took the idea seriously after all. So what did it mean?

The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” is used in the Torah of God and Israel in the context of “returning” to each other after Israel betrayed its covenant and suffered 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.

The sacrificial system talks about sin offerings and the need to confess one’s errors before seeking forgiveness and atonement. Kapara, atonement, has the root of the name of Yom Kipur. The Torah requires atonement but also a process of confession, Vidui. Unlike the Catholic concept, it does not require confessing to a priest. Instead one addresses oneself directly to God (or to one’s own conscience). In true Freudian terms, it requires one to give full expression to what it is one has done wrong. Only after that has been completed and any restitution effected can one be forgiven.

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, and this time one desists, then can one be said to have completely wiped away the misdemeanor. But since one can atone at any time in the year there is some debate as to why one also needs a Yom Kipur, be it for individuals, serious crimes, or the community.

We need to be reminded of our limitations and forced into facing the consequences of our actions. Most of us just let things slip or fade from our immediate consciousness. This period of the year is designed precisely for that: reflection and introspection. But on the other hand, it could equally and simply be that the community needs this group catharsis, and it is there to reinforce our sense of community and national shortcomings.

Nevertheless, there is no actual, specific command in the Torah to repent, 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 first 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 says, “A person only sins when he is possessed of stupidity.” (Sotah 3a)

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 a 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 I don’t think this is intended to induce guilt. It is nothing more than simply an instruction to always be aware, on the look out, and sensitive to possible mistakes.

The concept of “Original Sin” does not loom large in our thinking. 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. And this is often referred to in the Talmud. But we are usually much more relaxed about such issues (except for intense movements like Mussar). Guilt is not a healthy emotion, and despite the myth of the guilt-ridden Jewish mother, I think we are much more laid back.

I believe the weight of Talmudic opinion is that humans tend to make the wrong decisions, to undo all the good that others achieve, to bring selfishness in to dethrone altruism. These, rather than intrinsic evil, are the features of human beings in general that make this world a less pleasant place to live in.

In theory, the most evil person has the capacity to change and to repent. Perhaps that is what we should all be praying for over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur. Instead of weighing ourselves down with guilt and regret over our own relatively minor mistakes, we should be thinking of the wider world. On Rosh Hashana, as the Talmud says, “All God’s creatures pass before Him.” We should be thinking of everyone else. We should be praying for all the sad human beings, all the evil, violent people in this world who are destructive, selfish, and corrupt, and hoping that they might see the light.

Despite all the things I say to the contrary, I really am an optimist!

September 03, 2015

Gluckel of Hameln, Champion of Business Ethics

Most of us have heard of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but how many know about a nice Jewish lady called Gluckel of Hamelin? She lived some 300 years ago, when Jews in Europe struggled to survive as outsiders and outcasts in an inhospitable “no man's land”. They were at the mercy and whim of rival political and ecclesiastical powers, without formal recognition and subject to completely unpredictable commercial and political winds. Think of her near contemporary, “The Jew Suss”, Joseph Oppenheimer, rising from obscurity to become one of the major financiers of the European Courts and then falling to imprisonment and doom simply because of the political rivalry between German states.

Gluckel was born in 1645. She died in 1724. Her life, inevitably, had its tragedies and its failures. Unlike Oppenheimer, she was a learned and committed Jew and her religion was a constant source of inspiration and comfort. There were plenty of other Jewish religious businesswomen like her. Almost every woman then had to be involved commercially in one way or another just to survive. But she is remembered because, unusually, she wrote a diary that is still in print today. So we know so much more about her, her private thoughts, her approach to life than we do of any other premodern Jewish woman. Her diary is invaluable to historians for its comments on the significant events in the Jewish and the non-Jewish world of her lifetime.

She lived out the whole of her life confined socially to a narrow circle of fellow Jews, and despite her wealth she was always constrained to live in claustrophobic, dark, unsanitary ghettos. But commercially her world extended throughout Northern Europe. She was a pious and learned woman who lived according to the strictness of Jewish law, a loyal and devoted wife, and the mother of twelve children. Her diary records the lengths she went to ensure that she married them well, into that small circle of similarly pious and economically prosperous contemporary Jews.

But what makes her particularly interesting is that, in addition to being such a Balabusta, an effective mother of the home, a strong personality in her family, she was a highly successful and energetic businesswoman.

Her first husband, Chaim, was a banker in Hamburg, where she went to live and spent most of her life. He had dealings with cities as far afield as Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, and Leipzig. While he concentrated on finance, Gluckel traded in commodities, garments even timber, anything that could be bought and sold. She used her own capital, and there is no record that her husband financed her trades. She would travel to the major fairs of the Rhineland and east to Leipzig. She records one business trip that involved traveling to Cleves, Altona, Amsterdam, Emmerich, Delftzil, Emden, Wangerooge, and Hanover before finally returning to Hamburg. These were journeys of months, not days.

She usually travelled alone and dealt with her clients and agents with confidence and expertise. But above all, she was honest and fair and conscious of the ethical values and demands of Torah. She strongly disapproved of those Jews who were either dishonest or devious. When her husband, friend, and partner died in 1689, she took over the whole of his banking business, ran it successfully, and expanded it.

She remarried, another banker, Cerf Levi from Metz, in 1700 and went to live with him there. They were also happily married and worked together in business. But a few years later, he made some disastrous decisions and lost all of his and her money. Shortly afterwards he died, and she was left to rebuild her life and those of her unmarried children, which she did.

Gluckel, like many historical figures, is claimed by disparate and different groups. She wrote in Yiddish, so she is a Yiddishist. She passionately believed in the Return to Zion. She even records salting meat for the journey to Israel because she had heard that Shabbetai Zvi was the Messiah and soon all Jews would be coming together in the Land. Alas, Shabbetai turned out to be yet another a false messiah.

Her learning and religious commitment make her a pietist, what we might call a very “frum” woman. Her independence and commercial success make her a champion of women, and she always supported them in their quests for justice from the rabbinical authorities. Her insistence on her children being independent make her a very model of a wise but firm mother. No time for spoiling anyone. Life was brutish and hard, and you had to fight to survive. Most significant was her emphasis on business ethics. You might call her an ethical icon. How ironic that one of her descendants has been prosecuted in connection with the notorious Madoff affair in the United states.

In the end, Gluckel defies category. She was her own unique person, and when we read Gluckel's life and realize how hard and unpredictable it was, we are bound to conclude that for all the pressures, we Jews are really very fortunate to live in freer times, and that but for the sacrifices of women like her we would not be where we are today. If you are interested, you can read The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln.