November 25, 2016

Election 2016

All complex societies are fragmented. Democracies particularly so. Dictatorships and autocracies act as if they were not. They try to suppress dissenters, which they can often do in the short term but not forever. Consider the autocrats from China to Russia to Turkey. Would you bet on their lasting? Ask most human beings where they would prefer to live. The overwhelming majority will opt for an open society, one in which one can choose how to live one’s life. Yet in open societies there is always tension and prejudice against and between minorities, classes, and incomes. Prejudice is impossible to eradicate. But the law is the crucial issue. And in most free societies the law protects the rights of minorities.

Britain under Margaret Thatcher was a tense, divided country as it transitioned from old industries to new. Remember the riots in France in the 1960s and look at the hold the left-wing unions still have on the country. Spain has only now agreed on a government after a year without one. And after two elections in two years.

The USA has always been riven with the clashes of different interest groups and occasional outbursts of violence. I am reminded of the upheavals that took place between 1964 and 1970 throughout the USA. They started as protests against the Vietnam War and the drafting of young men to serve. The 1964 race riots in Los Angeles led to the burning and looting of the Watts neighborhood. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago became a murderous battleground. Protests at universities culminated in the shooting dead of students at Kent State University and Jackson State College.

The USA, in common with other countries, is going through another phase of social tension. Well before the election, the Occupy Wall Street movement raised the issue of income disparity, the 1%. The deaths of unarmed blacks by police opened up the wounds of racial discrimination. The push towards legalization of all kinds of sexual identities clashed with religious standards. As does the issue of abortion. The safe-space movement on campuses focused on avoiding any kind of conflict (except against Zionists). The issues of immigration and security against Islamic terror emphasized other fault lines in American society. Discourse concentrated on rights, on demands to be heard. At the same time, major issues of debt, taxation, infrastructure, and alienation from government have not been addressed.

What became clear was that things were not working as well they should on many levels, and when that happens pressure for change builds up—as it has, to howls of protests and demonstrations from those who wanted to preserve their vision against any other.

I do not know for certain which vision is right. Perhaps both, none, or a combination. I can see the good and the bad. The only thing I do know is that when a system does not work it needs change. If that change doesn’t work, we need to change again until we find one that does. The political process exists for this, even if, like any human process, it is flawed, corrupt, and often fails.

Jewish life, wherever you look, is fragmented too. In the USA in general, Conservative and Reform Jews vote Democrat. That is the legacy of long social tradition in Judaism. Orthodoxy tends to vote right, both to protect religious choice and to support Israel unreservedly, but there are anomalies such as the Satmar Chasidim in New York which demonstrate against Israel and vote Democrat, while Chabad lines up solidly with the Republicans. Jews, particularly visibly Orthodox Jews, are used to discrimination, name-calling, and hate crimes. Interestingly Jews still remain the most affected. It is true there has been a spike in anti Muslim incidents this year but they are still way behind the amount of petty hatred directed at Jews. You wouldn’t know it from the press. They feel alienated when other minorities seem to garner greater attention and concern. But just because they put up and shut up, that does not necessarily mean that others should.

Israel too had its protests against inequality. Social and religious divides between those one might call open (openminded, open culturally, and open politically, as opposed to those who are closed socially, closed religiously, and closed politically). It is fractious, furious, and unpredictable. It wants peace. It wants security. It wants compromise. It wants none. And the same goes for religion. One wing rejects any change, and the other pushes for more. Israel has a model of religious authority and power which is different from that of the diaspora. Wherever one looks, the conflict and tension continue. Meanwhile each side strengthens its own core.

We all preach peace and goodwill, yet there is precious little wherever one looks. This is not new. The Talmud itself reflects this dichotomy. “Wise scholars bring peace to the world.” That’s one view. “Any wise scholar who is not as hard as iron (or does not attack like a snake) is no wise scholar.” If the Talmud is confused, it is no surprise that we are! We might hope for compromise, for a willingness to rethink one’s position. There is no sign of it yet. But I can guarantee it will happen. History might work slowly, but there are always cycles. Human society has shown itself perfectly capable of change for the better when it sets its mind to it.

You can’t have a democracy if only one side always wins. What does make sense is to bounce back and prepare for the next battle. Crying foul or making exaggerated claims of racism, concentration camps, and mass deportations is just childish. If one loses one election, the onus is to create a better platform for next time. Democrats have failed this time. They now have to decide what kind of party they want. Will they do as the Labour Party in Britain has done and turn further left to the point where they become unelectable? Or will they go back to the drawing board to rethink core doctrinaire and politically correct policies and find more attractive representatives? An effective opposition is the core of a healthy democracy.

Is there a solution to internal conflict? It will never go away. People will continue to fight for what they believe in. Some will choose to go into politics. And may the best man or woman win. There are politics of parties and ideologies and politics of issues and causes. In free societies they clash and push against each other all the time. Good, effective politicians look for consensus and cooperation. Divisive ones prefer bludgeoning.

We as individuals can have our say in two ways. We can push to increase our influence, to protect our interests all the time, every day, every year. But we also have occasional elections to express our approval or disapproval and to try to change the order of things.

In almost all cases that I can think of, politics has failed to resolve conflicts permanently. Conflicts are only resolved when one side completely defeats the other. Or when people choose to meet each other, to decide not to hate, and to see the humanity in the other. Some humans choose that path. Others cling to hatred. As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “What common sense cannot achieve, time will.”

So I am mightily embarrassed. Not so much by the result as by who now represents the USA. But I am not without hope. Democracy works, for all its limitations. Perhaps the new team will do a better job and learn that confrontation is not the best way to achieve things. We have many things to be give thanks for in our democratic societies. And in Jewish life we wake up every morning and say, “Modeh ani.” “I am thankful” to be alive.

November 17, 2016

She Is My Sister

The fundamentalist position on the Bible—Jewish and Christian—is that every word comes directly from God on Sinai 3300 years ago. The “critical” or the skeptics’ position is that it is all a man-written compilation of various authors and traditions, the process took an extended period of time, and the text we have today was only finally compiled by the Masoretes some 1500 years ago.

In between these extremes, there is a range of different, perhaps we might call them more creative, positions. These differences represent the fault lines within religions and between them. Here’s an illustration. Over these weeks, those reading the Torah will notice that one storyline is repeated three times with variations. The first version, in Genesis Chapter 12, tells how Avram and his entourage had to go down to Egypt because of a famine. He fears that there, they will kill him for his beautiful wife, Sarai, so he asks her to say that she is his sister. Sure enough, she is taken into Pharaoh’s palace, and Pharaoh enriches Avram in return. God intervenes and plagues Pharaoh’s household. Pharaoh discovers indirectly that Sarai is Avram’s wife. He calls in Avram, accuses him of misleading him, and kicks them all out of his realm, but not without enriching him!

One can take this at face value. Avram would have relied on God to see the events safely through to a satisfactory conclusion. He was, after all, promised that he would be blessed and by implication protected. But this was another one of his ten trials or tests. Faith in God does not immunize one from earthly troubles. Commentators emphasize the fact that saving life overrides most other concerns (though not adultery of course) and even perhaps that Avram could take nothing for granted and had to try and defend himself by whatever means possible in a pre-Sinaitic, morally corrupt world.

It is only the more modern who might suggest that this was an example of a great man making the wrong decision out of fear. One might also point out the inconsistency of Avram’s moral stand in refusing money from the kings of Sodom while accepting wealth from Pharaoh. And of course, one might wonder at what a close call it was, since Sarai was actually moved into the harem and Pharaoh himself said he was about to marry her. Feminists, of course, will be scandalized at Avram’s treatment of Sarai, even if he did beg her to agree. One might also notice how plaguing Pharaoh starts long before the Exodus. If one delves back into the cultures of the times, one will know that taking other peoples’ wives was a common transaction, often a sign of hospitality. Whereas family members of a person one was in alliance with, were treated with great respect.

The story is repeated with much greater detail in Chapter 20, except this time in Philistinia with a local boss called Avimelech. God intervenes directly with Avimelech in the middle of the night and warns him off! Avimelech protests his innocence to God and then rebukes Avraham (his name has by now changed, so has Sarah’s) for assuming that Avimelech’s regime was as bad as all the others and one in which such things could happen. Avraham excuses himself and says, anyway, Sarah was his half-sister. But it all ends well, and Avraham is allowed to stay and prosper.

Consider the nuances. Pharaoh somehow guessed the true story, or perhaps, as with the later Pharaoh of Joseph’s era, he used his magicians, whereas God appears to Avimelech in a dream (and to Avraham when he is awake). Pharaoh kicks Avraham out, whereas Avimelech invites him to stay. Avimelech vaunts his country’s standards and morality, whereas Pharaoh is simply concerned with being misled. Avimelech uses similar language to Avraham when he appeals to God’s mercy in his plea to save the men of Sodom.

These two narratives become even more problematic to the rationalist, because of a third event a generation later recorded in Genesis Chapter 26. This too takes place in Philistinia with a king called Avimelech, but this time it’s with Yitzchak and Rivkah. It’s the same story, told more tersely. Avimelech finds out because he actually observes intimacy between Yitzchak and Rivkah.

We might argue that in an idol-worshipping, corrupt Middle East, this sort of thing was likely to happen often, certainly to nomads entering the territory of a strongman. It’s not unlike the idea of the Droit De Seigneur, that a monarch or duke had the right to sleep with a girl living in his realm before she married. Women were often expendable in those days. Wives were often pawns, bought and sold or bartered or used in political alliances, much less powerful than sisters of important men. This fact is confirmed by excavations in Tel el-Amarna. One needs much more archaeological evidence to flesh out the true nature of what happened, and at this distance one can really only guess. And why should guesswork be any more reliable than a text?

Modern scholars might ask whether this could be one event that different traditions recorded differently or orally and the compiler of the final text chose to insert all versions. One reply to that might be that if there was an editor, he certainly did a pretty poor job. The name Avimelech could be a title used by lots of kings, as indeed the generic term Pharaoh was. And perhaps this is all a polemic to show how bad Egyptian society was compared to others, to explain the exodus. Perhaps the core message is that there are different ways of discovering the truth. Just as there are different ways of interacting with other cultures, and surviving.

In truth, to look at an ancient text through modern eyes is a risky business. We have no way of knowing for certain either the context or the intention 3000 years ago. The traditionalists’ position has some merit. Take the text at face value, and examine it to see what moral or spiritual lessons can be learnt from the variations in it. Everything in the text has a didactic purpose, so be positive and look for what lies beneath the surface, rather than trying to recreate the process of transmission.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a fundamentalist viewpoint. I am a fundamentalist in the way that I regard the text as a holy text and relate to it more spiritually than rationally. That is my choice. But I do not deny that there are other ways of looking at the text. The fundamentalism I dissociate myself from is the one that says that there is only one way and all others are either wrong or valueless. I might say that I value one way over all others, but I would not say there is no merit in any of the rest altogether. So, whether it was three separate events or one, the text (to follow Jacques Derrida) is all we’ve got. Some of us accept it. Others dismiss it. I would argue that we should treat it with reverence and try to find a message and relevance in the light of our own experiences.

November 10, 2016

Freedom of Religion and Chickens

Several recent legal decisions in the USA prevent the custom of taking chickens and swinging them above one’s head before the Day of Atonement. This symbolic ceremony of atonement is called Kaparot (atonements). The apparently mystical idea is that the chicken represents one’s own body, which might deserve death for the sins it has committed. But instead, as in the case of sacrifices in eras gone by, the chicken is a replacement. The poor bird is then ritually killed and is usually given to the needy.

It is (or was, to be more accurate) a minority custom, that found favor in Kabbalist communities and hence passed on into the Chasidic world. Many medieval rabbis strongly disapproved. The great mystic and commentator Ramban, Nachmanides (13th century), said it was a pagan custom. As indeed it was, to ward off evil spirits, long before its appearance in Jewish circles. The greatest Halachic authority of Spain, the Rashba (Shlomo ben Aderet, 14th century), said it was witchcraft. And Rabbi Yosef Karo, of the Shulchan Aruch, simply called the custom foolish. But the great Safed Kabbalist Yitzchak Luria approved, and that was how the Chasidim came to adopt it.

Their opponents, the Mitnagdim, followers of the Gaon of Vilna, disapproved, and in Lithuanian communities it was frowned on. My father, who was an alumnus of the Lithuanian yeshiva system, did not do it. I once asked my Rosh Yeshivah in my alma mater, Mir in Jerusalem, what he thought. He said that they never did it back home. But that since the Chasidism were doing it, and at the time Orthodoxy was on the defensive, he did not want to undermine them by publicly condemning it. But he said he approved of giving money to charity instead. Nowadays the Chasidim seem to have won, and even Mitnagdim are doing it. Shouldn’t I just ignore it?

I find the way chickens are reared and slaughtered throughout the world absolutely disgusting and cruel. In comparison you might think that a few thousands of chickens suffering at the hands of Chasidim are barely a drop in the ocean of pain. But I don’t see it that way. I see any suffering as contradicting our fundamental Torah principle of Tsar Baaley Chayim (forbidding pain caused to sentient beings). I am not as learned, pious, or as sanguine as my Rosh Yeshivah. So I am not going to put up and shut up. I find the ceremony offensive, and frankly, I am delighted that some non-Jewish authorities in the USA have banned it. I only wish more did.

Is the issue one of freedom of religious practice? This is, after all, a core, if rarely consistent, value of civilized societies. But surely there has to be a difference between essential practices and peripheral ones. Between studying Torah or circumcision and, say, wearing a fur hat instead of a synthetic one. Male circumcision is an essential. Shechita is essential but optional. A shtreimel is optional. I believe the first and the second are examples of core Jewish practice. A shtreimel is not. And even in the case of circumcision, which is clearly core, there are additional customs and refinements associated with it that are not essential, however strong the custom.

As with any legal system, there are constant test cases. Practices allowed in one supposedly enlightened country are forbidden in others. Those who tout the honesty of western societies might note that pressure to ban circumcision and shechita reached their apogee at times of anti-Semitism. They have now receded, because no one wants to offend Muslims. There are more of them, after all.

The problem of concessions to alien legal systems was dealt with in the Talmud. Shmuel, living in Babylon 15 hundred years ago, instituted the principle that “the law of the land is the law”, Dina DeMalchuta Dina—on civil matters. There was subsequently much debate as to how far this extended. Assuming the laws of the land were applied equally and fairly to all citizens and assuming they applied only to civil matters, it became ingrained in Jewish law that this is the standard we follow. The gray area, of course, is where to draw the line on issues of religious ritual. Authorities inevitably differ. I come down on the side of those who are flexible on matters of non-core customs. I would not, for example, consider that one should defy the law if there were ever a ban on wearing red thread around one’s wrist or wearing one’s tzitzit out instead of in. Where one draws a line is going to be disputed forever. Those who want to martyr themselves over swinging chickens are welcome to.

Shechita (ritual method of taking animal lives for food) is an undisputed positive law, obligatory on all practicing Jews going back thousands of years. Objectively it is not inhumane; it is painless when carried out properly, more so than other methods. The trouble is that sometimes it isn’t done properly—as we saw in the infamous PETA recording of what went on under the Agriprocessor regime at Postville—despite its religious stamp of approval. But Kaparot is not a religious obligation of anywhere near the same seriousness. It is a custom. It causes pain and suffering to living animals. And there are religiously approved alternatives.

Here is the case for the chicken swingers:

“In United Poultry Concerns v. Chabad of Irvine, a group of chickens’-rights activists petitioned a federal judge to prohibit a California Jewish organization, Chabad of Irvine, from engaging in Kaparot, a Jewish ritual. The judge initially granted the plaintiffs’ request and prohibited a Chabad rabbi, from engaging use of live chickens for Kaparot. Eventually the judge lifted the ban, but only after it was already too late for Chabad to perform the ritual this year... such a ban highlights a disturbing trend currently playing out in America’s public and legal understandings of religious liberty… foes of religious liberty argue that only the legislature can determine “legal and moral behavior in the State of California.” The plaintiffs do not want to control only Chabad’s conduct. They want to control its conscience…They also asked the court to grant a temporary restraining order to stop Chabad from exercising its faith while the lawsuit progressed.”
Swinging chickens is crucial to our faith? It is a matter of conscience? You kidding me? You mean I am not a practicing Jew because I don’t? Where is the threat to our religion? Could they not atone in any other way? Were they banned from keeping Yom Kipur? I have rarely heard a sillier argument.

What if there were a law against shokeling, swaying during prayers (assuming, for instance, some doctors argued it damaged the brain)? Would this really be an existential threat to Judaism? It too is a custom that goes back a long way, but it is hardly essential. The chicken swingers should put up and shut up. There are bigger battles to fight over religious freedom. They should keep their powder dry for a real threat.

PS. We all know that Donald Trump won because his daughter went to pray at the Rebbe's grave! And given that the custom of kaparot is taken very seriously by Chabad, one can assume that Trump will not take steps to ban the practice. Too bad. Can we find a candidate next time who will?

November 03, 2016


When Noah comes out of the ark, the first thing he does (after thanking God) is to plant a vineyard and then make wine. But then gets drunk and rolls around naked in his tent! You might think that being shut up with your family and zoo of animals for a whole year in a small boat would be enough to turn anyone to drink. Later on in the text, Abraham’s nephew Lot will get drunk too and commit incest.

The Torah does not ban alcohol. Quite the contrary. It was a crucial part of Temple ceremonial and remains an important element of ritual today, used on holy days and celebrations. What Noah and Lot show is how any good thing can be taken to extremes. What starts as a genuine pleasure can soon lead to degradation.

The first archaeological evidence we have of wine dates back some 7,000 years to remains found in jars in Persia that were associated with religious and burial customs. Not much later Egyptian rulers were often buried with plenty of jars full to ensure that when they woke they would not go thirsty. The earliest winery, which goes back some 5,000 years, was found the Caucasus Mountains.

Wine was also associated with blood, both ritually and poetically: “He will wash his robe in the blood of grapes.” (Genesis 49:11) Throughout the ancient world, wine and blood were used in pagan worship. In Rome men and women doused themselves and bathed in both, and the association was perpetuated in the Christian ritual of Communion, in which the wine one drinks miraculously turns into blood. Little wonder such a mindset soon twists into claiming that Jews drink Christian blood on Passover. The blood libel has now migrated into much of Islam.

Because of this association of wine with pagan worship, the Mishna and Gemara forbade Yayin Nesech—wine that is poured out (to other gods). Anything to do with paganism was treated extremely strictly, when wine was even touched by anyone suspected of being a pagan it was forbidden. In times gone by, water was often contaminated, and most people avoided it. Instead, the poor drank beers of different kinds and the rich drank wine. Wine was associated with banquets and, of course, with the philosophical symposia in ancient Greece. So that in the polemic between Judaism and Greece, amongst a range of other comestibles, ordinary wine, Stam Yayin was banned in the Talmud in order to avoid fraternization and the chances of intermarriage. It was not a one way process. Both Christianity and Islam at various stages forbade their faithful from marrying Jews.

I should add that the issue of intermarriage is neither a racial nor an exclusivist issue. Genuine converts have always been welcomed, regardless of race, if their motives were a genuine commitment to Torah. The issue is continuity. Too many conversions are for marriage, and the religion soon gets ignored. Statistically the chances of the children of such unions ending up as committed Jews is minimal.

But the law regarding wine is usually practical. In almost all cases a degree of laxity crept in, because with increasing travel and commerce it simply wasn’t practical in many situations. So by the time Jewish law became codified in the Shulchan Aruch (sixteenth century), this is an abstract of how the law appears (Yoreh Deah 114):
Ordinary wine of Idol Worshippers is forbidden to the touch or to drink (because of use in Idolatry). But nowadays idolatry is rare and ordinary non-Jewish wine is forbidden to avoid intermarriage…other strong drink is also forbidden similarly but only where it is sold, but one may bring it home and drink it there….but others permit it and that is the custom in our communities
This last comment, by the way, was referring to the custom in Europe. Under Islam drinking wine was confined to the lax and the wealthy.

As with many issues, attitudes varied from place to place. Some were strict. Others were not. All sorts of variations can be found in Jewish law, from the very stringent to the permissive, including the fact that technically a nonobservant Jew is regarded in the same light as a non-Jew.

I have lived through a change in religious fashion. Once even the strictest authorities allowed non-Jewish wine at supervised Jewish functions, and drinking liquors and whiskeys without supervision. Nowadays the most restrictive rules that have become the norm. Fifty years ago no one thought that whiskeys (whisky applies exclusively to Scotch) needed supervision. Indeed, the major halachic authorities around the world dismissed issues such as the wine casks they were aged in or the myth that “blended” meant blended with wine. But nowadays the Charedi world no longer accepts anything that is unsupervised, even vegetables and fruit.

So, what is kosher wine? Not what it says.There used to be, it is true, non-kosher additives to wines to clear the sediments, such as dried blood or isinglass from a non-kosher fish. But in truth they were not technically a problem because of the minute quantity and the fact that they had no impact on taste or color. Sure, there have always been cases of abuse and illegality. But so have there been amongst Charedi butchers and grocers. In Jewish Law we follow the majority. Kosher wine is not an issue of ingredients. It is simply saying that the process of winemaking (which is almost entirely mechanized nowadays) has been observed, to guarantee that no human has touched the precious fluids.

There are explanations as to why we have become so unbelievably strict. One is the fact that intermarriage has become so much greater a problem than it ever was, so anything that might be regarded as a safeguard is latched onto with a passion by those who care about it. And social drinking is such a feature of our society (and a cause of a lot that goes wrong) that the desire to limit it is not unreasonable. Besides one can always order non-alcoholic drinks in the same way that at a business lunch where there are no kosher facilities one can go for a salad. The other is that with the massive expansion of the kosher supervision industry any excuse for increasing its range and monopolies is seen as a great obligation, as well as jobs for the boys.

The issue of intermarriage, though, would not explain why we cannot bring the stuff home and drink it around the Shabbat table, where the chances of running into a sexy non-Jewish model are sharply reduced! So we fall back again on the current fashion for extremes. As I have often said, I have no beef with those who wish to go to the most restrictive extent of religiosity. Just so long as they do not try to impose it on everyone else as if it were the only option.

Wine has a very mixed history of good and bad effects. But in moderation it oils the wheels of human interaction. We are commanded to drink it but to beware of the excess that can reduce a human being to the lowest level of animal behavior. One has only to see drunken Charedi youngsters throwing up on the streets of Jerusalem, Golders Green, and Brooklyn on Purim to see how drunkenness demeans.

Sigmund Freud accused Moses of being a killjoy and imposing unreasonable restrictions. But the truth is he and the Torah tell us to enjoy life and rejoice. It’s just that one also needs to be disciplined, and the Torah’s restrictions are intended to get us to think before we go too far. Sadly, even the most religious often take one and not the other!