April 28, 2016

What is Good?

The core question of any discussion about ethics is: What is “good”? If we humans think we ought to have some standards of behavior and this behavior is “good” (whereas going against it is “bad”), how do we decide what is good and what is bad?

Is it “good” if I kill grandma to eat her brains, because my cannibal tradition tells me that this is the way I can absorb her wisdom and life experience? Is it good if do not work on the Sabbath as defined by my tradition as being a Saturday, but not on Sunday or Friday? Is it good if I kill in self-defense, or should I rather be a pacifist and allow whatever happens to happen?

There is no way I am going to settle a debate that has raged on throughout human cultural history. It is no nearer being settled today than it was Moses introduced the Ten Commandments or when Aristotle wrote his Ethics two-and-half-thousand years ago. But the fact is that we all do have ethical systems one way or another, regardless of how well thought-out or consistent they may be.

I have dabbled with most theories. I once liked the idea of utilitarianism, that we should be guided by the greatest benefit to the greatest number. But then who would decide what benefit is? Is it pleasure, hedonism? What if most people are sadomasochists? And why should “number” have any significance in making ethical decisions? That is the weakness of democracy, of deciding “good” by vote. Hitler was elected democratically. Did that make his “good” more valid than Stalin's? My father often quoted the phrase, “Where the heart wants to go, the mind is sure to follow.” We humans have an infinite capacity to convince ourselves we are right to do whatever we feel like doing. How else does one explain a major philosopher like Heidegger justifying his compliance with Nazism?

Religion comes along and tells us that “the good” is that which has been revealed. And this revelation usually comes from some supernatural source. And each religion adamantly assets that its revelation is the only valid one. But on what basis do we decide to accept the revelation? Logic? Hardly. Accident of birth? Maybe, but look at how many people many switch in and out of different religious groups and sects and ideas. What happens when one religion insists on persecuting another one or killing its own heretics? Can that possibly be good? I know the persecutors think they are doing good and acting in the name of Allah or whoever. But do those who suffer from persecution believe it is good?

At a certain moment in my search for the meaning of life, I decided to commit myself to Torah. In principle it met my requirements for a coherent, adaptable ethical system designed to deal with every aspect of human behavior. It was like committing oneself to a marriage knowing one will have challenges and disagreements. I particularly liked the flexibility of belief, in that although there were a few very definite principles, they were not too rigidly or dogmatically defined, which gave one a degree of flexibility in deciding how to believe.

I soon realized that it was not black and white (what is?). On the one hand the Torah instructs us to follow all the commandments, and yet also insists on a further meta-legal dimension of “doing that which is upright and good”. Not only that but there were things commanded once that now had either been abandoned or simply cancelled. Where could one, should one draw the line? But who and how decided such matters? Was it public opinion, a select group of rabbis, accident or simply necessity? so how do we decide when things in the Torah are no longer applicable while others remain in force? The Torah itself says that such matters are decided by the judges, priests, or whoever is the authority at the time. So clearly there is a human agency here. But which humans? That is the question.

But isn't it simply a matter of following the law? Obviously not, if one can also be “an ugly person within the framework of the law”. Doesn't even the Torah itself refer to an external standard when it insists that its laws should appear to be wise in the eyes of “the nations”?

However hard religions try to justify their own absolute truths, the reality is that to some degree or another they are all subjective and we all struggle with challenges from within and without. No man is an island. It is understandable that any specific culture, religion or ideology will try to defend itself. Agreed principles and standards of behavior are the tools of social cohesion. That is why if one keeps one’s thoughts to oneself and follows whatever the specific behavioral rules are, one can be accepted almost anywhere (except by racists of course).

Yes, it is an undeniable fact that circumstances, pressures, and influences affect and impact on the greatest of rabbis however hard they might struggle against them. We do not believe in infallibility. at least officially. Though some rabbis nowadays claim it. To give an example, the most Orthodox of religious authorities have tried hard to ban or restrict television, telephones, and the internet. But the fact is as anyone familiar with the reality on the ground will tell you that, although there is outward agreement and acceptance, the restrictions are kept in the breach and overwhelmingly ignored in private.

Attitudes toward women are an example of a dialectic between the outer world and the inner that continues to be fought in various ways, and usually the full frontal attack is the one that fails. Religions tend towards the conservative, the secular towards the radical. Religions are too slow to adapt, but the secular is too impetuous and often proven as wrong with hindsight. The mere fact that the Torah can say that new situations will arise, new challenges emerge, and they should be brought to the authority of that particular time, means that someone has to arbitrate between the old and the new, and not necessarily always in favor of one or the other. Religion has as legitimate a role in holding back as the secular has in pushing forward. But do we have the right to question authority? In all humility I believe we do and should. With respect of course.

We ought not want our religious leaders to be like Medieval monarchs surrounded by sycophants and those who want to restrict access and other points of view. But conversely it would be ridiculous to think just anyone can challenge, any more than just any citizen can sit on the Supreme Court. In the end, community trumps individuality and if one wants to belong, somewhere, anywhere, there are conventions one has to accept.

The truth is that our “good” is made of different elements, different goods, the religious and the secular, all competing with each other; sometimes we tend in one direction and sometimes in another. Someone who gives greater weight to the religious can be said to be a religious person. Those who include no religious dimension are secular.

I suggest that almost all of us are on a complex, sometimes inconsistent spectrum in between. So Torah is my predominant arbiter of 'good' but I have also absorbed other values too. Just because the Torah has not specifically forbidden torture or rendition or greenhouse gasses this does not mean I cannot have other ethical positions that supplement Torah. In effect I have three “goods”: the good of Torah as law, the good of Torah as ethics, and the good of society in general. That is why I so distrust black or white. Life is not like that. Gloriously humans are not like that. One may not be able to resolve all conflicts but one must seriously try. Above all to try to be honest with oneself and others (at least in private)!

So whether you are keeping one day of Yom Tov or two or indeed none at all, try to be a good person too! Just make sure you think about what that means. Which is one of the things a festival is supposed to remind you about.

Chag Sameach or Hag Sameah!

April 21, 2016

Passover Madness

Pesach, indeed of all religion, defies logic. That does not make it any less significant, valid, or effective. The whole of mysticism, you might say all of our emotions, are the quite non-rational phenomena. Yet clearly Pesach works! But I want to say something about Pesach, so here goes.

Here is a religion that requires us not to eat leavened, fluffy bread, the luxury food of the upper classes in ancient Egypt. I can understand the idea. Bernie Sanders would understand the idea, if he thought about it. Egypt was a rich, indulgent society full of self-indulgent, heartless Wall Street and dot-com billionaires. To escape from its decadence, violence, prejudice, and corruption, the Israelite slaves were asked to leave town, eschew luxury, to start from the basics by eating unleavened bread to remind themselves of their Spartan diet and how one can, indeed, survive on less.

So now we have to get rid of any leavened foodstuff from our homes. We clean, we scrub, and we vacuum every nook and cranny. Even if the Talmud only tells us to go looking where there is a serious chance there might be some leavened stuff lying around, where maybe the dog or the parrot has it sequestered, we go one better and clean out our cupboards, our clothes, our bookshelves, our cellars, and attics, and storerooms. We go everywhere, even if there’s absolutely no chance any crumbs ever went within spitting distance, because nowadays we electric-wash and dish-wash, we sweep, we Dyson, and disinfect and debug. We zap it all up, relentlessly and with a vengeance. It’s good for us. We invented spring cleaning. It’s good for our homes, our hygiene, and our spirits. It reminds us of a spring, a new season, new life. “The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.”

We have to root out not just leavened wheat and grains, but also everything derived from it, even undrinkable alcohol. No whisky, but so what, there’s still wine (isn’t that fermented too?), vodka, vishniak, and brandies of various sorts. And because its infinitesimally likely that some crumbs of leavened bread might have snuck into the solid glazed dishes, stainless steel cutlery, and our granite countertops, we need to replace the lot for Passover. Or we have to boil, burn, scald, soak, whatever we can to purge whatever might still be attached despite repeated dishwasher boilings and hot rinses in detergent flavored liquid that would kill any last remnant of food desperately clinging into the crevices of your finest Christofle silver cutlery, Rosenthal crockery, and Le Creuset kitchenware.

We are worried that somehow leavened foodstuffs have found their way into aluminum foil, bottled water, toilet paper, plastic wrap, paper towels, teabags, coffee, milk, olive oil, salt, sugar, and honey. At least in the USA, the OU actually tells you that you don’t need special Kosher l’Pesach versions of any of these. But no, we will do it anyway. At least it’s cheaper than spending $30,000 to ship the family off to a luxury hotel in Israel. Unless it’s to find partners for your kids, in which case it’s cheap at the price. How many people can afford to be Jewish nowadays?

But wait! As TV vendors like to say. For reasons known only to conspiracy theorists, the poor Ashkenazim are not allowed to eat beans, corn, peanuts, sesame, sunflower seeds, all lumped together improbably and known as kitniyot, because they might be confused with or mixed with grains. So out goes your peanut butter and half your vegetables, which anyway you can’t have because nowadays everyone one of them from berries to lettuces to artichokes and broccoli are not allowed unless supervised and costing double, because they are otherwise infested with microscopic bugs so there’s no way you can be trusted to clean them.

And somewhere in the last century the extremely remote danger of uncooked matzah becoming mixed with liquids and rising created a new refinement called Gebrokts (mixing little pieces). No produce on Pesach should contain matzah or matzah meal mixed with juices or other liquids. What once only a Chasidic minority bothered about this, now the whole world has to be careful about it, and Chabad Chasidim even eat their matzah into paper bags to ensure none falls on the floor and into a puddle. I kid you not!

So having driven yourself crazy and spent a fortune on Kosher l’Pesach imitation muesli, fake hamburger buns, ersatz pizza, and cured kosher bacon supervised by the Almighty Himself, you go out to buy special Shmurah Mazah (or, as we used to call it, “dog biscuit”), for the seder, that costs several times the old Bonns, Rakusens, Manichewitz and Streit’s stuff, because teams of supervisors have gone out to farms in hot, dry climes to make sure the wheat grew without any water touching it, so that it can be harvested and winnowed and ground and sifted into strictly “guarded” flour that will be mixed with supervised water, Mayim Shelanu, that was not left uncovered uncovered overnight and will be hand baked in supervised ovens for no longer than 18 minutes and the utensils cleaned thoroughly in between to come out costing an arm and a kosher leg. All of this naturally will keep hundreds of penniless ultra-Orthodox families (plus the businessmen who run the show) for six months until Sucot, when the Lulav and Etrog business takes them through the next six months.

You will gather round the seder table (or tables) to discuss the Exodus and the Torah, but whatever you do, you cannot ask inconvenient questions, only the four of “Mah Nishtanah”, because Heaven forbid you might challenge religious authority or prevent the hungry from getting their food. Even if the Talmud says quite explicitly that any questions will do.

You might wonder how it is possible to imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt as the excessive quantities of food are brought in from your special Kosher l’Pesach kitchen that you had built in or onto your little palace. Or you may start the recital of the Haggadah by inviting the poor to join you in the banqueting suite of your five-star luxury hotel in the Caribbean enjoying all the excessive materialism the twenty-first century has to offer. And you will know that no poor people will come within a mile. You might even wonder how an ordinary Jew struggling to pay his taxes, educate his kids and fend off importuning rabbis could possibly afford to keep the festival altogether. The slaves coming out of Egypt could at least afford a sheep per family. Most of us couldn’t, with prices as they are now. We can barely afford to live in a Jewish community. Perhaps that’s the real slavery.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this is not all madness in the name of religion, I don’t know what is. Yet Pesach is amazing. It is one of the highlights of the Jewish year. We talk about it, tell stories about horror guests and boring speeches and child performances and stolen Afikoman ransomed for a fortune. We will recite, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and you God keep on saving us from their hands.” We will end with the two-thousand-year-old prayer the UN does not want to hear: “Next year in Jerusalem!” And it will tide us over the summer, if we are not filing for bankruptcy. It is one of the core experiences that defines Jews and differentiates those who care from those who are not committed to Jewish survival. We Jews have always defied logic, odds, history, fate. That's who we are. Because we are a small nation of barely 14 million producing scholars, rabbis, artists, musicians, Nobel prize winners, billionaires, dot-com moguls, settlers, nationalists, criminals, politicians, outreach pioneers, and more than our fair share of meshuggenehs (crazies). We survive and thrive despite all the billions who desperately want to see the back of us.

We know we can’t rely on others or on the miracles of those days. Even God sometimes hides from us. No, it’s not logical, and it is strange, and weird, and a beautiful experience, and we do it all regardless of whether it is logical or not. Because that’s who we are.

April 14, 2016


The case of an Israeli soldier shooting an injured, disarmed, terrorist has divided Israel along the usual and predictable lines.

Those who are sensitive to ethical considerations regret and deplore the act. They are impressed that the armed forces as well as the civil have reacted swiftly to condemn it and they have charged him. If the enquiries reveal that the terrorist was indeed no longer a threat, then they will find the assailant guilty and hopefully take strong measures, because such action goes against the standing orders of the Israeli armed forces as well as Jewish religious law and Israeli civil law. Those who care will be gratified that Israel once again proves itself morally superior to the countries and cultures that hate and threaten it by having such standards and being willing to enforce them. Even if questions will remain about the punishments which too often are just token.

The soldier remains in detention. Until the evidence is in and has been tested, I am also prepared to accept that Israeli soldiers and civilians are in constant danger of being assaulted by terrorists with murderous intent and have every right to defend themselves. We have seen videos of terrorists shot and wounded getting up and then stabbing to death an elderly by-standing scholar. So when in doubt, I am in favor of playing safe.

I also recognize that in circumstances of attacks and heightened fear, even neurosis, people may act out of irrational and zealous passions and that this needs to be taken into consideration—again, depending on the circumstances. I am glad and proud that senior politicians and the head of the armed forces take the views I have outlined above.

Unfortunately, there are other voices I find offensive. Let me start with the ones that offend me less, only because I have no moral expectations of crude, insensitive yahoos of limited intellectual discernment. There have been protests and demonstrations in support of the soldier. That is as much a right in a democratic society as are those demonstrations against taking a human life unnecessarily. But the arguments presented are fatuous. Some have tweeted and posted comments claiming that they will now refuse to serve in the armed forces, because by prosecuting the soldier the army is showing it cares more for terrorists than it does for soldiers doing their duty. Some have said that any terrorist initiating an attack deserves to be killed regardless.

Another argument is that even when a terrorist is disabled he may well remain a threat and possibly become a hero and encourage others to violence. There needs to be as much deterrence as possible and summary execution is one and it ought to be carried out in all cases. And finally the only response to violence that a violent person recognizes is violence. Since the rise of Arab nationalism and the constant use of violence against Jews, we must use similar violence back…and so on, ad nauseam.

In any society there are rotten apples, different emotions, as well as an unthinking mass which fails to consider what it is saying and thrives on simplistic slogans. And there are always those in any society who just love the visceral thrill of aggressive language and brute mentality.

But I am much more disturbed by the expressed opinions of several significant rabbis (though in this context I do not know what “significant” means) that this act of execution was permitted by the Halachic principle of self-defense. Or, to quote the Talmudic source, “If someone rises to kill you, you must kill him or her first.”

I will not attack the claimed sources of these views by name, because I have not heard them first hand. I know full well how often the press, such as the New York Times, distorts, twists, and takes out of context. So I don’t believe everything I read, and I reserve my position. But if they did say this, the fact is they are simply wrong. Jewish law is quite clear.

The law of self-defense allowing you to kill someone attacking you with clear intent to kill (or rape or do grievous harm) only applies if you are the intended victim. Otherwise, if it is to protect someone else, your obligation is to stop, to disable, not to necessarily take a life. Here the soldier was no longer in danger of being attacked. The review will reveal if he feared the possibility of an injured person moving to detonate a hidden bomb. Even if someone else yelled at him to shoot. Even so if he thought he heard someone tell him to fire on a disabled man, he cannot claim “superior orders”.

The other argument is that the terrorist has forfeited his legal rights simply by being a terrorist, but there is no such halachic principle. Under the Talmudic principle of a Ben Noach, any human being who adheres to the Seven Basic Noachide commands as enumerated in the Talmud in Sanhedrin has certain rights to be treated according to basic Jewish law. Perhaps naively, I expect rabbis to provide a moral halachic lead. Sadly, too many of them have been so morally crippled or traumatized by the horrific experiences they have undergone or witnessed that their judgment has been compromised.

The rise of Arab nationalism brought violence against Jewish nationalism, and now they are locked in a deadly game of tit for tat, rival claims. Two people claiming the same home. Obviously I am biased in my side’s favor, just as I expect a Palestinian to be biased in favor of his. But that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for a solution. Unfortunately, when both sides have those who preach hate and approve of killing gratuitously, a solution seems as far off as ever. Regardless, we must preserve our humanity. I do not want to see my people dragged down to the lowest and most brutal level of some of its enemies.

April 07, 2016


Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches!

Shrinks; The untold story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind”. Is it science or fantasy, medical or quackery?

We have discovered prehistoric attempts to bore into skulls that we assume were attempts to correct mental disorders. But at the same time we have continued to argue about what we mean by “the mind” and how we categorize or explain what are mental disorders.

We used to abuse what we called the village idiot, shackling him to the wall, dousing him with cold water, or exhibiting him to the public like a wild animal. Then we “progressed” to removing organs, cutting out parts of the brain, and passing electric currents through him. The cruelties we have done in the name of medicine is as inhuman as the experiments that the unspeakably evil apology for a man Josef Mengele inflicted on Jewish children in Auschwitz.

Sigmund Freud who introduced the “talking cure". Josef Breuer had initiated Freud into the idea, and then Freud took it much further. If one was showing signs of neurosis, dysfunction of the mind, it was because from our birth we have found ourselves wanting or fearing sexual issues. If we were unable to achieve or escape these urges, they would be deflected and turned in on ourselves, thus hampering “normal” development. Dreams were ways to discover what was going on in the inner recesses of a person’s mind. The value of a patient talking about his past was that this way he would come to recognize and accept what these urges were and how dreams and other “tells” revealed them. Thus the patient could understand and purge his mind of the the guilt that was causing these problem inside.

Like most great innovators, Freud had his weaknesses. Everyone had to agree with his system of thought. So that when Carl Jung, the great Swiss doctor, disagreed with the primacy of sex in Freud’s system and wanted to take a more spiritual approach, Freud threw his intended successor out of the Psychoanalytic Society, which he had founded to create a new profession. Freud had criticized religion for being preoccupied with petty little differences. He was guilty of precisely that, with his new anti-religion, and initiated a witch hunt against anyone who disagreed with him. After his death, the system he tried to control split into rival camps. Charlatans and crackpots began to give the whole system the air of lunacy. Yet there is no doubt he radically changed the way we think about mental issues.

In the USA, the American Psychiatric Association grew out of an organization set up in 1844 to deal with the insane. Then the dominant approach to mental problems was that insanity was simply a disease. The field was so ill-defined and open to abuse that there was a need to try to document what were regarded as problems. Hence the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, became the profession’s bible. But it too has always been controversial and patently wrong in so many areas. Lieberman’s book goes through the history of the titanic struggles (often more personal than scientific) to accommodate new theories, modify old ones, and adapt to chemical solutions.

Psychoanalysis made inroads into American medicine as the refugees from Vienna arrived before and during the Second World War. Even so, it was regarded askance. To see a psychiatrist was a sort of blot on one’s sanity, and some people often hid their visits from friends and colleagues for fear it would affect their careers and marriage prospects. The term “shrink” became fashionable. They were regarded as primitive medicine men, like witch doctors with their shrunken human heads strung around their necks.

Psychiatry has gone through many phases and internal conflicts. The latest is the excessive prescription of medication. Simpler and less time consuming. Yet psychiatry and psychology have played a part in almost every area of activity, from business to military torture, from public health to personal insecurity. It controls the ways we buy and think. And yet there still remains something of a stigma.

Despite it all, talking to someone remains very popular, whether one goes to a trained psychoanalyst or psychiatrist, a life coach, a clergyman, or any good listener. Some find cures, others find comfort, and many become dependent. And yes, snake oil salesmen, charlatans, and frauds continue to proliferate.

Whereas in medicine it is possible to see whether one is being effective or not, in the talking cure it is not so straightforward. As a headmaster and rabbi, I used to encourage people to see professional psychiatrists if they were troubled beyond my expertise. Yet I do not recall any cases where I thought there were any tangible improvements or benefits. Too often it became an excuse and a prop to avoid confronting reality.

One can argue about brain and mind and what the difference is or is not, but clearly humans are complex beings. All the more so as we hear more and more about how we can alter our brains biologically. It is very important to ensure that the non-rational, non-medical, spiritual side of person’s being should be attended to. Jung wins over Freud on this one!

I value doctors of the body (though I do not worship them), so why shouldn’t there be doctors of the soul (as Maimonides called them)? The fact that pastoral work is still very much in demand only suggests that, at the very least, the need for people to talk to those who will listen is a significant part of human wholeness.

Religion used to, and still can, play its part. A caring pastor needs some training in understanding how human beings work. We ought not to disregard it, any more than we should scientific medicine. But as with conventional medicine, one must not think there is only one infallible way. Natural cures are not pointless. There is room for other forms of therapy and help when people suffer from whatever the ailment. Some practitioners still are shrinks, manipulators, and more interested in money than people, but others are doctors of the mind—both physical and spiritual. As in any sphere, one has to do due diligence and sort out the good from the bad.