October 29, 2005


As we return to reading the Biblical story of creation, the battle over what should be taught in American schools rages on. According to The Washington Post, George Bush wants school science classes to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative to Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution. He said:

"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about. . . Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
The trouble is that ID isn’t an alternative. It's comparing apples to codswallop!

Science involves examining the world we live in experimentally. Usually you come up with a theory and then you test it. If the results come out as expected you confirm your theory. If not, you scrap it and try again. Many theories have appeared to work reasonably well until another theory emerged that explained things even better. So Isaac Newton’s view of the world and gravity was the best in its time, but years later Einstein’s proved much more accurate.

Science has a track record of achievements in discovering things that were always there but we humans hadn’t learnt how to understand them or harness them, like bacteria or electricity. In ancient days they called these things “sprites” or “devils” or in Jewish literature “sheydim” (spirits) or “ruach raah” (evil air). Now we understand a little more, and look at what has been achieved as a result for our modern world, where medicine, technology and biochemistry have produced unimaginable benefits and advances.

None of this would have been possible had we relied only on Holy Texts as the Catholic Church did in trying to refute Galileo or as Jewish, Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists do in trying to refute Darwin. All of science is based on trial and error and theories that are often no more than the basis of further experiments and debate.

Scientists will argue about how old the universe is and about its origins. In science classes you will teach those theories that can be shown to have some experimental basis, even if there is still much to be learnt, gaps to be filled in and possibly totally contradictory evidence to be found. Honest teaching will always provide caveats and conditions and limitations, and good school teachers will always try to present different points of view. I agree too often teachers allow their own scientific fundamentalist dogmas to dictate the curriculum so there is certainly room to look at how science is taught. But that’s altogether a different issue.

Regardless, you are not going to teach in science a theory which says that science is wrong without any evidence. If you teach reproduction in biology you are not going to go in to the moral laws of whether to use contraception or not, because then, in an open multi-cultural society you’ll have to teach Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Tao and, arguably, Humanist variations too. Or if you explain how to do a caesarean operation you are not going to go into the moral issues of abortion. That is for an ethics class or a religion class. And once again I agree a good curriculum will have both.

Science does bear a lot of the blame for this campaign. In Britain medical experts on child death have been shown recently to have been catastrophically wrong and struck off as a result. Two recent books have just appeared about medical experts in the USA responsible for horrendous crimes in performing lobotomies and other procedures on mental patients that were based on crazy theories (Madhouse: A tragic tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine and The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness). Scientists have lot to answer for.

It is incumbent on a good science teacher to highlight the problems, deficiencies and limitations of the evolution theories. I would agree to a law that insists that science teachers or textbooks actually declare that theories are theories, in case they do not already. However what can be said is that a great deal of evolutionary work is based on empirical evidence and examples of how species evolve, even though, as we know, there are lots of missing links, and at this stage we only have constantly changing theories to cover the gaps.

But belief in Intelligent Design (or God) has no experiments to support it whatsoever. It only says creation cannot be explained any other way, but it doesn’t bring evidence as to how it actually happened or whether it was what we call God or little men from space who did it. The only “evidence” that Intelligent Creationists have is the old and irrelevant chestnut about finding a clock in the prairie and assuming it got there by accident!

Religion occupies the regions of faith not scientific fact. There are some holy men, even in our religion, who still insist you can prove God’s existence. Well good luck to them. No philosopher I know worth his salt would take those claims very seriously.

To insist on teaching religion as science is dishonest. It is animated by antagonism to Western liberal values, which I can sympathize with up to a point, but I do not agree that this is the way to combat them. Science does not give us a moral framework for living, which is precisely why so many turn to fundamentalist religion to give then the certainties honest science cannot.

It is, indeed, the role of religion to offer something extra to the role of government legislation, whose function it is to protect us from harming each other and create a free and honest climate in which individuality and interaction of all sorts can flourish. To do this effectively one needs honesty. All generalizations are dishonest. To say that all of Western Society is corrupt or all scientists are anti religious is as patently rubbish as to say that all religion is good.

The only safeguard of freedom is indeed the open exchange of different ideas. But science lessons are for teaching science not religion. I wouldn’t want a rabbi learned in Gemara or a priest with no science training to teach me biology, any more than I’d want him to perform brain surgery on me.

So let’s keep teaching about God and science separate. They both have essential things to say, but once religious thought-police start insisting that they are right and everything else is wrong, or that they have a right to stick their noses where their noses do not belong, then we bring into our lives the very Mullahs that George Bush professes to despise, or the very Christian Crusaders that the Mullahs detest.

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October 23, 2005

Be Happy!

The Torah command us times to “rejoice” on Sukkot. The fact is that one should enjoy all festivals (with the possible exception of Yom Kippur). And if you check out Deuteronomy 28:47 you’ll find that in general, in every part of our lives, we are expected to see the good and worship God through joy and that is the source for it in Jewish religious law.

So in truth we are expected to be happy clappy all the time. Yet, that’s surely not possible! The Greeks were rather keen on “states”, states of agape, angst, pain, joy, happiness, catharsis and romance. Christianity has always been rather gung ho on “states of sin” and, on the other hand, of “bliss” and “grace” and so on.

Judaism is weak on “states of”. It doesn’t believe that you wake up one morning, say “I believe” and, glory halleluiah, the gates open and you enter “bliss”. Rather it talks about actions being the sorts of actions that can be joyful or not or bring about satisfaction or fulfillment. Visiting the sick isn’t going to make you feel happy but it might be very, very worthwhile!

But by the same token we are not really too keen on asceticism either. Yes the Bible asks us to suffer one day a year. And in truth we have been rather eager to add fasts on to it since, and it is my theory that current obsession with adding layers and layers of unnecessary legal strictness is a way of delighting in suffering that certainly strikes me as overcompensation!

But when we look at Catholic processions that involve lacerating one’s body as one follows holy icons, and Shia celebrations that involve barbed whips raining down in rhythm on the bare backs of the faithful, one can feel fortunate that the only vestige we have is a little breast beating when we enumerate our sins at Tachanun or on Yom Kippur (and in our family we don’t even approve of that).

So to get back to Sukkot--why specifically on Succot does the Torah insist three times on joy? One explanation is that we are so relieved at being let off on Yom Kippur. Another is that it’s the end of the harvest and our bellies are full and our storehouses overflowing, the equivalent I guess of the Christmas bonus on Wall Street. And another is the simple opportunity to be happy to be alive after the summer season of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and of course the military campaigns that in days gone by when technology was more primitive, always started up in the spring and then usually mercifully stopped for the winter!

But then the often-asked text question is why does the Bible add that strange “but” word, “but you must enjoy” ("v’hayita ach sameach" Deuteronomy 16:15). That word “but”, “ach” in Hebrew, is always used to limit, to qualify. What’s the qualification?

Rabbeynu Bahya (Eleventh Century Spain) said you should always limit your rejoicing because there are others less fortunate and besides all joy has limitations.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), who famously said, “It is a great mitzvah to be constantly joyful” (which does actually sound like a “state”) understood this “but” to mean quite the opposite. He said you should rejoice to the point of stupidity, be silly, go over the top!

The Gerrer Rebbe Sfat Emet (1847-1905) said you have to rejoice all year round otherwise your rejoicing on Simchat Torah will not be as great as it should be. Get into training for the big day.

But I have a problem. You see to tell you the truth I don’t enjoy wildly, throwing oneself around in the company of sweaty boozers or perfunctorily shuffling around in a circle of closely packed bodies. I don’t like getting drunk. Most of what goes on on Simchat Torah in most Synagogues I’ve been in, doesn’t do it for me! I’m a cerebral sort of chap. I regard myself as being very, very lucky and very, very, very happy and every day I thank the Lord for my life. But singing myself hoarse and trying to be jolly when I really don’t enjoy it, doesn’t wash.

So for me the “ach” is quite literal. I am happy, you betcha. And I love the Torah and am delighted to have got through it again. I AM happy. But not THAT way.

Sure I know, my Lubavitch friends will tell me and I need to get drunk to loosen up a bit and I’m an uptight Litvak (actually I haven’t a drop of Lithuanian blood in my veins to my knowledge, perhaps its just that I’m English). But by that token I should take skunk, coke, LSD and anything else if it will send me off into the stratosphere. I don’t think so and I don’t buy it. I believe in conscious pleasure, conscious spirituality. I like to think I’m a thinking man.

So if you’re sitting there while the lunatics around you are going wild, or alternatively if you’re in the average English synagogue where any loss of decorum is frowned upon and Simchat Torah is positively funereal, DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY! Really HAPPY!

Chag Sameach!

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October 16, 2005

Philo & Pepys

We Jews really are a funny people. We strive to acquire nice homes and the security of our own little palaces, yet at this time of the year we are busy putting up rickety shacks or garden huts without roves, or prefabricated enclosures in fabric, plastic, canvas or waterproof Burberry, or extensions with electronically operated roofs that have automatic sensors that respond to a drop of rain and immediately retract, or strange little holes in synagogue halls that open up and all to reveal branches or bamboos or special kosher rabbinicly approved reusable fibers.

And then we go out and pay absolutely astronomical sums for a funny lemon-like citron, a palm branch of the sort that most Middle Easterners leave on their rubbish sites or compost heaps, common and garden willow branches that wilt after one day and strange but sweet smelling myrtle leaves that seem to miss their Eucalyptus relatives. Then we take them into our synagogues and shake them all over the place. And we buy mini sets for our kids so that they can joust and sword fight while we’re not looking.

Then on the last intermediary day of the festival, we troop along to the synagogues where we go raving mad whacking willow branches on the floors, pews and anything or anyone handy, leaving an absolute mess all over the place.

No sooner does that mess get cleared up (if you’re lucky) when we come back in synagogue half-drunk, cavort around the place doing the most silly and childish of things and dance the most peculiar and dysfunctional of dances and sing and drink some more and collapse in a heap, all to celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah on Simchat Torah. All this in the name of our religion. And one wonders why so many people think there’s something funny about us Jews.

May I remind you of the famous (perhaps infamous) Englishman, Samuel Pepys, who entered into his diary the following entry on October 14, 1663 after he had visited Bevis Marks Synagogue on Simchat Torah:

But Lord, to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more; and indeed, I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
Of course Pepys was a rather unethical, sexually promiscuous, pompous, social climbing, money grabbing sot. So I’d take his condemnation with a pinch of salt. But, nevertheless, for the uninitiated or the uneducated it does look very strange.

The truth is that our customs and laws do all achieve, or at least try to achieve, several important things. Firstly they give as a framework for creating a life pattern that requires us to spend time away from our work with our families and with our communities (surrounded as we are by pressures of work and materialism that can otherwise go on incessantly, 24/7 as the Americans say).

They emphasize the importance of self-reflection and self-analysis. They invite us to experience different emotions and different feelings. They remind us of the changing seasons and times, and bring us into contact with touches, smells and experiences that we normally take for granted. They focus on the natural world (and our obligations to be caring custodians) as well as the spiritual. They meet our need to put ourselves in situations where we might sense things of a more ethereal nature. Above all, they interlink social morality and responsibility with daily ritual, so that we are constantly reminded of our values and goals.

The fact that some humans are impervious in their abandonment of these traditions, or that others refuse to link ritual to the greater values, does not detract from their purpose or from the benefits that such a system offers for those who want to take it seriously. The trouble is that too many people too often reduce these laws to utilitarian placebos and lose both the beauty and the greater significance in the process.

This week I was phoned by a journalist who wanted to know why we Jews made such a fuss of circumcision. I was reminded of Philo. He lived from 25 BCE until 50 CE in Alexandria during Temple times. He was as philosopher, a wealthy intellectual dilettante who was roped in to diplomacy to represent the Jews of Alexandria in pleading with Roman Emperor Caligula to withdraw his support for the anti-Semitism that caused horrific massacres. His writings were preserved by the Church because nothing survives of his Hebrew and some have suggested he didn’t know any. To make matters worse, his comments on the Torah show that he believed most of the narrative was allegorical (something not fashionable in Judaism until the Kabbalists). Either way, he was a philosopher of note and reputation and yet a practicing Jew and here is his justification for adhering to the laws.

There are some who, regard laws in the way that they regard symbols, as having value only that they point toward intellectual ideas. And so they are negligent with the former and over punctilious with the latter. But they ought to give significance to both.

It is quite true that the Seventh Day is meant to teach the power of the Almighty in comparison with whom our labours are puny and ineffectual. But let us not for this reason abrogate the laws laid down for its observance and light fires or till the ground or carry loads or institute proceedings in court or act as jurors or demand the restoration of deposits or recover loans or do all else that we are permitted to do on all days except for festival seasons.

It is true that circumcision does indeed symbolize the excision of pleasure and control of all passions and rejecting the improbable idea that man is capable of controlling itself without Divine influence. But let us not on this account dispense with this law.

Why, we should reject the Temple and a thousand other things if we are going to heed nothing except the inner meaning and theoretical purposes of the laws. Rather we should look at these outward observances as resembling the body and the inner meaning as resembling the soul. Because the body is the repository of the soul that is why we should pay attention to these outward signs and actions.
(On the Migration of Abraham IV)

I don’t agree with Philo’s explanations, or some of his allegorical ones; but the point he makes is that adherence is not a matter of logic. For two thousand years since Philo, intellectual fashions and philosophers have come and gone, but our unfashionable practices have remained pretty much the same (forgetting all the new strictnesses that are now in fashion). It is this loyalty to our traditions that has helped us survive. Whether you believe they are God-given or humanly inspired, they have stood the test of time.

Chag Sameach!

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October 09, 2005

The Good and the Dead

The news from Moscow is that they are considering removing Lenin’s body from the mausoleum and burying it. The mummified icon of Russian Marxism is, figuratively and literally, a rotting corpse!

I am reminded of the joke that after Khrushchev distanced himself from Stalin he was worried about a coup by supporters of the Old Regime (which actually happened, led by Brezhnev in 1964). So he called up Willy Brandt the German Chancellor and begged him as a favor to take Stalin’s body and bury it somewhere deep in the Black Forest. Brandt tactfully declined. He said he couldn’t guarantee that the Neo-Fascists might not discover where it was and desecrate it.

The pressure was mounting, so K called up Charles de Gaul and asked him to bury Stalin’s body in France. But de Gaul also declined because the Communist party was so strong in France at the time that it might have used Stalin’s body as a rallying point. Getting more and more agitated, Khrushchev tried Prime Minister Macmillan. Macmillan replied that Britain already had Karl Marx’s body, and one was enough.

The crowds were gathering around Stalin’s mausoleum in Red Square, demanding a return to the old Stalinist regime. In desperation, Khrushchev calls Golda Meir. She replies, “Of course, dear Khrushchev, for you it will be a pleasure. But I think I should warn you that here in the Holy Land we have a record of resurrection!”

Which leads me to my next example of revisionism. According to The Times, the Catholic Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland have published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true. I welcome their statement that the line in the New Testament that declares the Jews said, “His blood be on us and our children,” is not true. But if you can say that is not true, why not fess up about Virgin Birth, Resurrection and the Fish and the Loaves? Of course the conservatives will have none of this, any more than Jewish conservatives will tolerate any reinterpretation that does not accept that the world is 5765 years old precisely (as of last Tuesday).

Now where an ideology is based almost exclusively on events and myths, any undermining of that myth inevitably leads to a weakening of the tradition. If scientific evidence shows that, say, the world is older than 5000 years, or that virgin birth is not feasible, or that resurrection is not a physical possibility, then of course you can either reject the tradition or stubbornly close your mind and refuse to think outside of your box. Or, more reasonably, you can try to reinterpret the tradition, to understand it in a way that makes current sense—-which is what the Midrash always tended to do and Maimonides approved of (see his introduction to Chapter Chelek of Sanhedrin in the Talmud).

In Judaism it is the behavioral constitution that counts. Of course around the constitution is built a whole narrative about the Sinai Revelation and the role of Moses. But in the end it is loyalty to the constitution, rather than events, that matters above all else. This is why prophets functioned only to reinforce loyalty to Torah and why the miracles were regarded by Maimonides as the lowest level of religiosity, meant primarily for those of limited intellect.

Human beings come and go and, great as they may be, it is a body of ideas and ideology that either stands the test of time or falls by the wayside. It is abundantly clear that Stalin’s ideology has not stood the test of time. It is true that “evil” has survived as well as “good”. But I would describe evil as a human deviation rather than an ideology. You might argue that religion itself has been responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Except I think it is human politics, greed and frailty that is to blame rather than the constitution itself. The great monotheistic religions share much of the same beautiful, humanitarian and loving caring values. Sadly individual egos and the lust for power always seem to get in the way.

I believe it was precisely to undermine the cult of personality that Moses’ burial place was not known, to make our religion a matter of following a code rather than a person. Yes, it’s true we have a long tradition of respecting burying places going back to Abraham’s Cave of Machpela. But one of the reasons Jewish graveyards are so bleak is to emphasize life rather than death and the needs of the living above those of the dead. Egyptians put up huge monuments to their dead, and the Christian worship of saints and relics was taken to such extremes that it was one of the reasons for the Reformation. This was not the Jewish way.

Yet nowadays it is increasingly so. I am amazed at the amount of energy and time placed on visiting graves and graveyards and praying to the dead to intercede. Why I have even heard letters of blessing written by dead rebbes naming the celebrants at a simcha. I regard this as another example of the distortion of Torah values that can probably be attributed to the traumas of Eastern Europe culminating in the Holocaust.

Any tradition dealing with humans needs to take cognizance of human nature and various different ways people have of relating to the past or to dead relatives. So I do not want to denigrate this process of revering ancestors, just point out its limitations and that it is not necessary for everyone to respond in the same way. We are here to live and to do the best we can for the living. One can argue that asking great but dead people to intercede is not idolatry but a good and ancient tradition that recognizes greatness in human beings. However it can be taken too far. It now borders on the very worship of saints that other religions have made a fetish of.

At this time of the year we are called to reckon and to analyze our relationship with God. If the past helps then it is good. But when it is a replacement then it is sterile.

Have a good year and a meaningful fast.

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