June 24, 2004

Osama Bin Laden is right!

Osama Bin Ladin is right! The Saudi Arabians are the real threat to world peace. The ruling clique is so corrupt that like many such cases I know of, they resort to supporting religious extremism as a sort of easy penance.

And, like all such self-deluding oligarchs, they always blame someone else for their own faults. So I read in The Times that the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is certain that “Al Qaeda is the work of the Zionists!”

OK, so let me get this right. Osama Bin Laden hates the Saudis; the Saudis hate the Zionists; therefore, Bin Laden is a Zionist! Or, to put it another way, the Saudis hate Bin Laden; Bin Laden hates the Zionists; therefore, the Saudis must love the Zionists!

But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. The Saudis believe that all evil in this world stems from the Jews. The Jews spawned the Zionists. The Zionists spawned Bin Laden, and, therefore, Prince Abdullah’s in-growing toenail is a Zionist conspiracy.

If you haven’t already, you must read Dore Gold’s book on Saudi support of the Wahabbis. The House of Saud continues to fund Wahabbi extremism in the naive belief that their pay offs will protect the corrupt Saudis. They refuse to confront the reality that it is Wahabbiism that is encouraging violence against its enemies whoever and wherever they may be. Danegelt, our Anglo-Saxon Bubbes and Zaides used to call it. Pay the Vikings off. It worked for a while, but eventually Lindisfarne fell.

Now I know I shouldn’t generalize, and there are some lovely, humane Saudis. I just wish they’d raise their voices a little more. Meanwhile the official Saudi authorities oppress their women, disenfranchise most of their own citizens, squander their wealth, refuse to help other downtrodden Muslims except by distributing free inflammatory texts, and it is all a Zionist plot.

And these are the people the British and the American Foreign Office suck up to? Or is it just the taste of oil they like drinking? In which case, guys, we need to go electric, quick!

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June 18, 2004

Religious Coercion and the Pig

The big news from the Middle East this week is that the Supreme Court in Israel has overruled a long-standing convention to forbid shops in Israel from selling pork. This convention is part of what is called The Status Quo. This was an arrangement that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, entered into with the religious parties after Israel’s Independence to ensure the basic Jewish character of what otherwise was a secular state.

Over the years things have changed in both directions. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly but not exclusively from Eastern Europe are not Jews. On the other hand religious life has gained significant additional benefits over time than were originally envisioned. And of course the tension between religious and non-religious has created a terribly unhealthy climate of hatred towards clericalism that explains why so many Israelis when they leave Israel have absolutely nothing to do with Jewish communities or Jewish life.

I am very much in favor of separating Church and State. I believe religion does better in those countries like the USA where they are. I would like to see total freedom of religious practice in Israel. But obviously I would hope that ultimately the religious would succeed in winning people over through persuasion and education rather than compulsion.

But many feel a particular revulsion about pork for all sorts of historical and psychological reasons. As one religious leader said, “This is the end of the Jewish character of Israel.”

Well if it is, then it says more about the failure of Judaism than Israel, if compulsion is the only way you can ensure it.

The Midrash in Kedoshim says, “A person shouldn’t say, ‘I couldn’t bear to eat pork.’ Rather he should say, ‘I want to, but I can’t because it is forbidden.’”

There is nothing intrinsically evil about any food. It is simply a matter of our religious laws. If others want to stuff themselves silly on unhealthy kosher food that is their problem and decision, as is that of a vegetarian or a pork eater.

The way to win people to religious Judaism is not by interfering in their lives but by making ours so remarkable that others might be inclined to give it a try!

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June 08, 2004

Bugs in your Hair!

Now I know why Israeli Public Relations is such a disaster and we Jews keep on shooting ourselves in the foot. It is clearly a built in feature of our religion to make ourselves out to be bigger idiots than we really are.

I have written before about bugs and the industry that is developing in bug spotting machines and bug free foods. I pointed out that offensive as creepy crawling things might be, Jewish law, the halacha, expects one to take reasonable measures to check and clean fruit and vegetables. Nevertheless that which one cannot reasonably see with the naked eye, in pure halachic terms is not worth bothering about.

Now an American rabbi has decided that New York water contains microscopic creatures the naked eye cannot see and therefore one is not allowed to drink tap water. This issue was actually dealt with by the late and the same very great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein many years ago and it was agreed then that there was not a halachic problem (and the Health Authorities declared that there was not a health/medical problem either). I believe that paying inflated sums of money for bottled water is a scandal and symptomatic of how easily a fool and his money are parted. We have become victims of marketing and crafty salesmanship. Tap water is perfectly healthy and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the rabbi who wants it banned has probably got a contract with Perrier. As Jacky Mason has pointed out, give it a fancy French name and the suckers will just line up to buy canned fresh air.

The halacha itself is eminently sensible. But this checking for bugs in food and water is taking matters to absurd lengths and sadly it seems to put other considerations into the shade.

We also have this Indian Hair business. I believe the issue of modesty and covering hair is a very important one even though it is true fifty years ago in many orthodox rabbis wives did not cover their hair except with hats. The extremes of permissibility that our society has sunk to, call, I believe for greater vigilance nowadays, not less. But the wig (the sheitel in the vernacular) is, frankly, both halachically and otherwise something of an anomaly. By far the greatest weight of halachic opinion holds that a fancy sheitel ought to be covered in public. Indeed the really very frum don’t go in for sheitels at all and when they do they cover them up. The Charedi Leumi (the very religious Nationalists known as Chardal) in Israel strongly oppose sheitels as symbols of decadence and insist on scarves, snoods and other more modest and complete covering as indeed do Sepharadi authorities such as Rav Ovadiah Yosef. One too often sees sheitels on immodest bodies to be persuaded that the letter of the law is enough. Besides a religion that requires women to spend thousands of pounds on fancy fashion accessories that are simply ways of getting around a perfectly good law when that money could go to helping the undernourished and sick has clearly got its priorities wrong.

The recent scare over Indian Hair that has lead to the banning of thousands of hair pieces on the grounds that the hair has been dedicated to idolatry. As a result there have been bonfires of offending wigs. Some wig makers have lost their complete stock and gone out of business and others have cleaned out big time and made a real killing. Some do gooders have even set up a charitable free loan system especially for kosher wigs.

And all of this is over a total misconception both of Hinduism and the specific ceremony these hairs come from. In every religion you have fools (as Maimonides says in his introduction to Chelek) who take things literally when they shouldn’t. You have plenty of religious Jews who are superstitious. That doesn’t necessarily make them idol worshippers. Some still argue that Christianity is. Others such as the Maharal of Prague, the Tifferet Yisrael on the Mishna and the Nodah Biyehuda all say that Christianity is not idolatry because of its belief in Divine Intervention, something Hindus do too. Anyway the Talmud agrees that idolatry outside Israel is not the real thing and the great Meiri of Provence argued that idolatry is defined as lacking any moral code. Immoral Atheists ought to be a bigger problem than a saintly polytheist.

The procedure of the hair offered in India is closer to our idea of a Nazirite and is an act of self-denial akin to our fasting. If we are going to cast doubts about Hinduism we have just as strong a basis for criticising Christianity. By making an ill considered fuss all we have done is to offend our Hindu allies when we need every ally we can get in our increasingly scary battle against Muslim Fundamentalists who want to blow us all up because ironically they consider us the infidels! I wish religions would stop rubbishing each other and just get on with trying to make this world a better and safer place.

But what really upsets me is this. Within our religious communities there is absolutely amazing goodness, kindness, charity and support of a kind you simply will not find anywhere else. People I know who work within these closed communities tell me of the total dedication to helping the poor, the handicapped, the deprived and the disadvantaged way beyond anything seen even in middle of the road Jewish communities and welfare organisations. Yet the image they convey to the outside is of a sect of bug fearing, wig wearing obscurantists. This is as distorted a view as is the almost universal belief that the Palestinians are all peace loving victims and all Israelis sadistic oppressive aggressors. Why do we get our PR so consistently wrong?

The only comforting news this past week has been the trouble in the Shinto religion of Japan. It is dramatically split down the middle over an error in addressing the Emperor as His Imperial Highness instead of His Imperial Majesty. I guess all religions have their problems.


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