January 28, 2016

Orthodox what?

There has been a lot of debate recently about what defines Modern Orthodoxy. The latest “term” is “Open Orthodoxy” as opposed to “Modern”, “Rational”, “Halachic”, “Traditional”, “Combination”, and “Thinking”. Such nuances are what Freud described as “the narcissisms of little differences.” The sad fact is that no matter what arguments one version presents to justify its position, the other side will pay no attention, just react with invective in protection of its own absolutely authentic position (or so it claims). The eagerness with which one group attacks the other underlines one of the major failures of religion.

Does being Orthodox (whatever that means) depend on whether you believe every word of the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Sinai? Or most? Or written down over time? And if you don’t know and keep an open mind, does that make you a heretic? If you think the Zohar was not all written by Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai, does this mean you are a traitor? Do you have to believe a Messiah will come riding on a white donkey and all the dead will be resurrected? And what degree of practice must you adhere to? If you do not wear a black hat or a Shtreimel or your wife does not wear a wig, does that exclude you? If you do not ask your rabbi about what new car to get or what business to invest in, does this make you a nonbeliever? What’s wrong with us?

Does it matter if I have absolutely no idea what happens after I die or if I will be resurrected, whereas others claim to know exactly what will? Does it really matter if one is moderately Orthodox, very Orthodox, extremely Orthodox or fanatically Orthodox? Is it really theology or just the natural human tendency towards particularism, conformity, belonging? If I behave according to traditional Jewish law, its rituals, its principles and its ideals, why should intellectual reservations make any difference? After all, if every human being’s physical characteristics are different, aren’t their brains and thought patterns different too? If we do not expect everyone to be the same physically, why do we expect them all to think the same way or to believe exactly the same thing?

When one thinks that most religions ostensibly preach being a good, caring, peaceful human being who tries to establish a relationship of some sort with the spiritual, why do we insist on everyone having to think exactly the same way? After all as the prophet Micah famously said “what God requires of you is to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Of course he did not mean that one does not have to do other things too, but there have to be overriding humane principles, priorities.

And yet in every religion you have aggressive, assertive, narrow-minded bullies who insist that everyone else has to think and act just like them or else. Every single religion I know of is riven with schisms and conflicts over authority, authenticity, and power. Why do Shia and Sunni hate each other yet both reject the Ahmadis? If you think we have too many “names”, just try Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. Everywhere, men and women are convinced that they are the sole possessors of the right and true way and everybody else is wrong or evil.

You will very rarely find two people able to articulate the same ideas about what they think God is. Even the great Maimonides could only say what God was not. Yet we religious are all expected to believe in exactly the same thing, in the same way. Why do we hate each other for being in a different religion or a different denomination or a different sect? I wonder if it isn’t all about insecurity. And I wonder if one of the negative side-effects of religion is that it often expects people to lie. After all, if you express your doubts, you are often going to run the risk of being labelled a heretic.

Christianity invented orthodoxy. “Ortho” meaning “right” and “dox” meaning belief, "orthodoxy" means having the right beliefs. The Nicene Creed was the first list of correct beliefs, and early Christians killed vast numbers of each other over it. In Judaism it was more a matter of “orthoprax”—the correct behavior—that counted. But tending, as we Jews do, to be influenced by what is going on around us, we too eventually adopted the term, mainly as a way of distinguishing an established expression of Judaism from a reformed version (around the time of what is fancifully called the “Enlightenment”, when we grew so unenlightened we killed off even more human beings simply because they were different).

So we have an alien term in an alien language. But even that wasn’t good enough, because we have added ultra-Orthodox, Charedi, Charedi Light and Charedi Heavy Duty, Charedi Nationalist and Charedi anti-Zionist. In truth all of this only matters to a few small-minded sectarians, and even they will ignore their own standards when money and power are concerned.

Thankfully, external forces have come to the rescue. In our open modern societies there is great flexibility. One can move from one community, one congregation, one style of praying to another for spiritual or emotional support. One just has to find the place or places where one feels comfortable, where one can relax and allow the spiritual side to flourish in whatever way works. It is true that each one has its own rules, dress codes, opinions, theologies, and customs, and one learns to be a chameleon and be adaptive. The answer? Learn the rules and conventions, and nurture your own soul. That is the only orthodoxy you need to know! If you want another label, call it Existential Orthodoxy!!! And avoid the zealots.

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January 21, 2016

Primo Levi & Toni Morrison

A side benefit of reviewing books is that one often gets books one otherwise might not splurge on. A week ago I received the handsome three-volume set of the collected writings of Primo Levi, Italian survivor of Auschwitz. The set is edited by arguably his best translator, Ann Goldstein, and published by Liveright. I will write a thorough and conscientious book review in due course.

But I am writing this blog post in protest at the inexplicable and offensive fact that the publishers asked the American novelist Toni Morrison to write an introduction. Of all people, they had to choose such an outspoken and biased critic of Israel. Why invite a person who shows such animus towards the homeland of the Jewish people to write an introduction to the work of a man who suffered under a real genocidal regime determined to destroy him simply for being Jewish, given that, for all his criticisms and alienation, Levi remained an avowed Jew?

Its not just the banality of her introduction, her cold words, her use of “throngs” to describe, impersonally, those who died. She cannot bring herself to mention Jews. It is that she stands for poisonous revisionism. She, together with her partners in prejudice, have accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and genocide. Inevitably this leads to comparisons with Nazis. Which is precisely what the primitive, mentally challenged bullies who use such an abusive slogan in protests love to do. If any of that were true, how come after 65 years of Israel’s existence the Arab population of Israel continues to grow and thrive? Why haven’t they all been gassed? And why are denizens of the Occupied Territories and Gaza still expanding in number? Why have they not all been killed or expelled? Are the Israelis so incompetent? 
 It seems that Morrison was contacted and asked to consider the invitation because Primo Levi was a left-wing secular Jew who criticized the State of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and disliked the, albeit democratically elected, right-wing governments (criticisms I too would agree with, incidentally). The presumably liberal, left-wing publishers thought her stamp of approval on this edition would attract likeminded readers and librarians. But that does not put Primo Levi and Toni Morrison on the same moral page.

No one should dispute that millions of non-Jews also suffered and died in World War II, and they should be remembered as well. Similarly, no one has the right to minimize the horrors of slavery imposed by black and white, Christian, Jew, and Muslim in the African slave trade and, indeed, on the continuation of slavery to this very day. And today we still witness gratuitous killing, ethnic cleansing, torture, rape, and expulsion. Suffering continues to be imposed or tolerated today by many states which are either incompetent or venal.

But the one thing it is not possible to do is to make an equivalence to the Holocaust, because the unique feature was a stated and put into effect a policy of extermination. The Nazis brought all the resources of a modern state to exterminate a people simply because of they hated Jews, not for what they might have done but for who they were. Prejudice, hatred, irrational as they are, are of one despicable order. Systematic extermination is another. In other situations where one was attacked or invaded, one could escape a final solution by resignation, capitulation, or conversion. Here there was nothing one could have done. No one else has built industrial extermination camps.

The pathology of much of the world we inhabit is its politically correct knee-jerk accusation of Israel for its imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, slavery, and fanaticism. Those who seek to destroy it are even more guilty of those very crimes. But politically correct radicals may not say so. And Morrison falls for it like a sucker. Never mind that unlike imperialism, Jews have had a longer history of indigenous association with the land of Israel than any other religious or ethnic group. Never mind the refusals to accept compromise and the stated commitment to destroy it. Dogma has always trumped the facts, politically and religiously.

The anti-Israel left everywhere is guilty of revisionism, of trying to sanitize the Holocaust by equivalence. They want to disinfect it of any Jewish content so as not to offend anti-Jewish prejudice today. They shift the debate by using words to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians dishonestly and inaccuracies. Anyone who experienced Apartheid, or Nazism knows it is despicably wrong and ignorant to apply them to Israel even at its worst. But lies have never got in the way of political debate. Egypt has a border with Gaza but I have seen no flotillas against Egyptian authority. However much I do indeed deplore and regret the conflict, one should not obscure the fact that much of this tragedy is the result of the victims’ own intransigence and belief that if they just hang in there the world and time will impose a far better solution fir them than compromise.

The USA has always had its voices sympathetic to Jews, like Martin Luther King. It also has had its hate-mongers, like Louis Farrakhan. Morrison has chosen the wrong side. Maybe she has retracted the scandalous lies she attached her signature to, though I have seen no evidence of it. I respect her right to her views. But to invite her to write an introduction to the work of Primo Levi is simply unacceptable.

That is why I urge you not to buy this particular set of books. Instead, do please read Primo Levi, but in other editions. Boycotts, which Morrison supports, can go both ways.

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January 14, 2016

Above & Beyond

Above and Beyond is a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg that makes fascinating and quite scary watching. It tells the story of Jewish American pilots who in 1948 secretly helped find armaments wherever they could and also fought for Israel in its war of independence. Israel had no air force, not one plane, whereas Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria did indeed have both fighter planes and bombers. It was a time when every world power refused to sell Israel the arms it needed to defend itself against the invasion of five well-armed Arab armies (generously supplied by Britain, France, Russia, and the USA).

Those few amazingly determined pilots found unwanted secondhand aircraft parts and sections scattered around the US. Undercover, they assembled whatever cannibalized parts they could and patched together barely serviceable flying machines. Then, avoiding bans, surveillance, and opposition, they flew them along circuitous routes across the Atlantic, around Europe, and finally into Israel, where their impact was more psychological than real.

Not only that, but the US State Department and FBI did whatever they could to prevent anyone helping Israel and actively, maliciously prosecuted many of those volunteers for years afterwards. The film is well worth watching, both for the history and the lesson.

The lesson is that antagonism towards Israel has a long pedigree and one that is not just political but also anti-Jewish. It existed long before any issue of occupation or unfair treatment of Palestinians came to the fore. The US State Department and the Foreign Office in the UK have shameful records of prejudice. If it were simply a matter of preferring the Arab world, it might make sense, because there are far more of them and their market is broader and wider. If it were a simple matter of political interest, I would understand even if I would disagree on endless counts. It is the visceral anti-Jewishness that has infected both governmental agencies for so long and is documented too, so that it is not just subjective impression. If Israel has received support over the years, it has almost entirely been due to the US military or former generals like Alexander Hague.

But the truth is that governments and their agencies in general are animated by self-interest, pragmatism, and political considerations. Doubtless you will be familiar with the witticism of Henry Wotton, 17th century British Ambassador to Venice, to the effect that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” I agree with the second part. The first part in my experience, is rarely true.

It is no different today. A recent report stated that the American State Department has fiddled with figures of human trafficking for fear of offending certain countries it has interests to be nice to.

China, Cuba, India, Mexico, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan all have shocking records for human trafficking. That is turning blind eyes to women and children sold as slaves or into prostitution by criminal racketeers. But they were conveniently lifted out of the worst category because otherwise this would automatically result in restrictions on American trade. So the State Department officials doctored the results and then tried to protest that they had not. And of course this is quite separate from the issue of whether or not the USA does enough to tackle its own abuses.

Why am I not surprised by government agencies fiddling their statistics? Why does corruption no longer surprise me? Virtually all the politicians now contesting the upcoming US presidential elections are tainted. Some obviously more than others. Inevitably, whoever achieves power will pack governmental and legislative bodies with their favorites. Not that the European version of full-time civil service employees is any less prone to vested interests. And Angela Merkel’s policy on immigration has put dogma before reality. Wherever one looks, governments are either corrupt, dysfunctional, doctrinally paralyzed, or simply unwilling or incapable of acting objectively.

In my naïve way, I desperately hoped Israel would be different. But from the moment I stepped on its holy ground in 1958 I realized that “Protektzia” was the only way to get ahead. In those days left-wing secular Zionists made sure their pet projects were funded and their cronies controlled government offices and finance. If you weren’t one of theirs, then you could, as the Bible so graphically puts it, “piss against the wall.” And of course when the Right Wing got into power the very same system continued, except now they gave all the good jobs, all the financial perks, all the government nationalized industries, banks, and utilities to their pals and backscratchers. Only very rarely did you find a politician like Menachem Begin, who got and took nothing for himself.

So I am not surprised that in Israel presidents, prime ministers, government ministers, police, and rabbis have all been found guilty of corruption of one sort or another. I am just grateful that there is a judicial system and oversight that can actually try to get the criminals.

I am frankly embarrassed and depressed that Aryeh Deri, a man convicted of bribery last time he was the Minister of the Interior, is now back there thanks to Israel’s system of bartering power. Yes, of course, he has done his time and should be given a chance to redeem himself. But you don't put him right back into the cookie jar and not expect his sticky fingers to itch. It’s like putting a sex offender in charge of victims of sex abuse.

Would you believe it, nothing has changed since the days of our great prophets who railed against corruption, oppression, and inequality. Look at what they predicted!

January 07, 2016


Niall Ferguson’s first volume of Henry Kissinger’s biography, which deals with his formative years, is masterful. It's a difficult read, heavy with research and documentation. Kissinger was without doubt a brilliant man. Perhaps the most influential political advisor in the USA of the late twentieth century. He served across the divide as advisor and Secretary of State, employed most notably by John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. After he left government, he established his own consultancy to the world’s leaders. He is, as is anyone who takes a stand, both admired and reviled.

As Jews we would like to claim him as one of ours. But his whole career seems to have been a rejection of everything Jewish. The Nixon tapes have recorded him remaining silent as his master excoriates Jews in general. When he returned from the war in Europe, he told his father, “Certain ties bound in convention mean nothing to me. I have come to judge men on their merits.”It sounds to me as if he is implying that Jews do not judge others on their merits and that that is why he is rejecting Judaism. A pretty poor, if not dishonest, excuse. One almost feels sorry for someone who tried so hard to escape his heritage and yet the name stuck like a shadow regardless.

Ferguson has explored Kissinger’s Orthodox religious background in Germany before the family managed to get out. He was forced out of public school into a Jewish one when laws were passed against Jews attending. In his teens he joined Ezra, the Orthodox youth movement, where he wrote a paper on the recondite subject of Muktzah on Shabbat (what objects one may or may not move on the holy day), that would have done a yeshivah bochur proud. Almost as soon as he arrived in the States, like so many others at a time when anti-Semitism was so embedded in American academic, social, political, and commercial life, he turned his back on his Jewishness in the hopes of gaining acceptance and rising to heights of American society.

We will have to wait for the next volume to discover if during the Yom Kipur War it was Kissinger who persuaded Nixon to send the arms that virtually rescued Israel from catastrophe. In his nineties he has for the first time attended a Holocaust event, something he avoided like the plague for most of his life. He even supported Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery where the SS elite are buried. One can perhaps understand a person wanting to forget the discrimination and humiliation he and his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Kissinger devoted himself completely to his adopted country. It was historically his blessing and curse to reach the political heights during President Nixon’s terms of office. Much of his positive achievements as a negotiator and have been colored by the venality of his patron and his own cloying sycophancy towards him. Regardless of the merits of the cases for and against, there is no doubt that he equaled many of the achievements (and compromises) of the Court Jews of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.

Kissinger’s critics accuse him of being an unprincipled pragmatist. Ferguson makes a persuasive case that he did indeed have ideals but that he realized that without pragmatism those ideals could and would be subordinated and undermined, as now seems to be the fate of liberal European and American idealism.

Kissinger admired Immanuel Kant, whose idealistic view of the human capacity for moral decision-making was reinforced by his important idea of the Categorical Imperative. Kissinger’s Harvard thesis, still the longest ever submitted, morphed into his book A World Restored, which examined the contributions of the nineteenth century European powerbrokers Bismarck, Castlereagh, and Metternich. It argued for stability and practicality over revolution and uncontrolled idealism. His early contribution to the political debate was the concept of limited use of the nuclear option if it helped prevent a far greater catastrophe. He insisted that the US had to stand firm and show strength to tyranny and totalitarianism.

Amongst the many points he makes in his sweeping overview of modern political affairs is the paradox that: “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquility.” In a speech in 1957 he said, “It is the characteristic of a policy which bases itself on purely military considerations to be immoderate in triumph and panicky in adversity.” How true of American polices then and recently. In 1958 he said, “Most Americans are like spectators at a play that does not concern them…we are losing the cold war.” Such words are even more appropriate today where a failure to act often opens the doors to worse alternatives.

His greatest challenge was the resolution of the Vietnam War after President Johnson allowed it to escalate. Perhaps his most significant diplomatic achievement was the Nixon rapprochement with China. In Israel he was not liked because he was perceived as putting more pressure on Golda Meir than on the Arab states and the Palestinians. In Israel at the time, jokes at his expense were legion. Here is one I remember:

Golda Meir took him to the Western Wall and invited him to say a prayer. Kissinger turned to the wall and began, “Lord I want to thank you for enabling me, a refugee from Nazism, to rise to one of the most important positions in the United States of America.” And Golda said “That is a very nice prayer Henry.”

Kissinger continued, ,“And Lord I ask you to look favorably on my patron, Richard Milhous Nixon, and enable him to survive the challenges to his position and fulfill his role as a great President of the USA.” Again Golda said, “That’s a lovely prayer Henry.”

Kissinger turned back to the wall and continued “And finally Lord help me persuade the Israeli government to make concessions in the interests of a lasting peace.”

And Golda turned to Kissinger and said, “Henry you realize that's only a wall you are talking to.”

Kissinger’s moderation between idealism and pragmatism is, in fact, a very Jewish position. Judaism allows its principles and laws to be sacrificed to save life, except in three cases: one cannot murder an innocent, commit adultery, or curse God. Survival trumps all the rest. The biggest challenge to the Western world today is the threat to its culture through the very idealism of concern for refugees and the persecuted, even when it may well mean the ultimate betrayal and defeat of Western values, by both the fascism and the religious barbarism.

Ferguson does an excellent job describing his subject’s brilliance and achievements in his rise on the world stage. What is clear here is that Kissinger deserves a much closer look and greater recognition of his ideals as much as his pragmatism. It would be wrong to say he was a crafty Machiavellian, devoid of moral values and ideals. I am looking forward to the next volume to see if Ferguson can maintain his thesis.