January 28, 2007

Jewish Mothers

Jewish mothers tend to get a bad press. It’s not just Philip Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s a much wider issue. In Western literature, the Jewish Mother has become an object of scorn, even worse than the dreaded Mother-in-Law. And did you know that the Yiddish for a Father in Law, Shver, also means "tough"!! The fact is that its not just Jewish mothers. Italians, Greek, Hindu, it’s pretty universal and Jewish Freud certainly made matters much worse suggesting that all men only want to return to the womb. But let’s just stick to the Jewish version.

In traditional Jewish culture the mother was always venerated (in an ancillary role). Not as a Virgin Mary, as some claim--that’s a pagan variation, but as the giving, caring nurturing, "mother of all life". No matter what some rabbis of the Talmud said about women in general, they were united in their adoration and praise of the Jewish mother and wife! Why, even King Solomon who waxes eloquent about the dangers of women succumbs at the end of his Book of Proverbs with a paean on the perfect wife and he had some experience of both Jewish and non-Jewish wives.

You might argue that in the past, women knew their place, were denied a decent education, and expected to do as they were commanded and so by way of compensation were thrown some compliments. No one expresses the state of servility better than Maimonides. Yet women of means and good fortune often rose in Jewish and other societies to prominence and power. Means as much as gender, affected the female as well as the male.

In Eastern Europe women often dealt with commerce while the scholarly husband sat at the back of the store with his books. Yet the myth of women being incapable intellectually persisted both in Jewish and non Jewish society and so how else could they fulfill a role at home if not as cooks and worriers? But Jewish mothers were indeed venerated. They might not be allowed to get higher education in some sects, but so long as it was all about "Children, Cooking, and Church" they were and are put on a marble pedestal a mile high. And no Kolel man who sits and studies all day long while his wife goes out to support the family as well as look after many children, would dare say anything against the Jewish mother. I have a sneaking suspicion that the current opposition of the "Great Rabbis" to women getting an advanced degree is their fear that an educated thinking woman might not be quite so willing to put up with intellectual nonsense from a narrower male of limited perspectives. But to get back to the point, I am suggesting that Jewish Mother jokes are a product of assimilation, or at least acculturation and disguise a condition in a state of turmoil.

Perhaps it’s because more recent generations of Jews rebelled against their Jewish background, they felt guilty about turning their backs on their parents’ traditions and used the image of an overbearing, dominating, suffocating, primitive, uneducated woman to assuage their guilt. Alternatively they romanticized to the point of absurdity, as in that old tear jerker, the song My Yiddishe Mama. In origin it was a genuine reflection of a sincere Yiddish values. Over the ocean it became a maudlin, overplayed shtick of the Catskills and the Borsht Circuit.

Liberation has brought blessings and curses as any change does. Everyone in free, open societies nowadays has options to some degree. And one can escape from the most restrictive of communities. Most choose not to because the advantages of a closed, protective, and supportive community outweigh the travails of going it alone. Sometimes money decides ones fate and sometimes personality or genes. In the ultra-Orthodox enclaves, a financially secure life and support structure is worth conformity. But nothing is ever black or white. And of course this goes for men as well as women.

The great women’s liberation movement achieved a great deal, but also offered exaggerated aspirations and posited a paradigm that simply does not work for most women. There are a few who breach the glass ceiling. Mind you it is true that only a small section of male society get to the top too. It is possible for women to break the mould, but not as a general pattern if they want work and family. One of the two will suffer. The Madonna/Angelina Jolie model of bought motherhood, where vast wealth enables a team of helpers to ferry and care while mum continues touring the world and pursuing a totally demanding and all embracing career is simply not an option for most mothers. And if it were, I trust and hope that most would reject it. Of course it was always thus. Royal families created a very artificial world of parenting and childhood. There were courts and aristocratic dynasties with their formalities, flunkies, power brokers and controllers. Many lesser families sent children off to convents, monasteries, boarding schools or nannies.

These were not traditional Jewish ways of doing things. In general nowadays attitudes have changed about child rearing and family life. More and more people have access to more money and the risks as well as the benefits that go with it. As in the past, some wealthy families have succeeded in maintaining a balanced sensible value based home life, others have not. It was always thus.

It is, in my view, one of the roles of religion to help people deal with these conflicting choices and pressures. The perfect mother may not be the one who stays at home all the time cooking and baking. The woman who works and thinks for herself may be a better model. And yet both may fail as well as succeed. Stereotypes are dangerous.

Sadly religion can also exacerbate them. In the Jewish world, more and more women rightly refuse to put up with unhappy marriages or inadequate spouses. Women who want intellectual freedom find it difficult to find a suitable partner who will appreciate spirit and be part of the Orthodox Jewish world. This means there are more divorcees, single mothers, more singles in general and most Jewish communities neither cater for them nor go out of their way to welcome them. They are penalized for their choices.

And that is the issue. It is not whether one example of motherhood, marriage or career is right and the other is wrong. It is a matter of allowing men and women, for whatever reason, to make their choices for better or for worse. And then we need to allow and encourage them to feel they have a place in a community.

So in one way nothing has changed. If you want to fit in you have to put up and shut up. Whichever way society lurches, further towards libertarianism and total unrestricted freedom of choice, or back in reactive religious dynamism and conformity, the genie is out. Humans can choose even if they choose wrongly. And until Jewish religious communities accept differences and variety--not by changing tradition but by encouraging variety and by including "others"- most Jews who want to be free to choose, will feel alienated. That, to me, is the biggest challenge Judaism faces--keeping its traditions and values but changing its attitudes. So I raise my glass to Jewish mothers of all varieties.

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January 19, 2007

Freedom Writers

I love idealists, even the crazy ones, just so long as they don’t harm other people and that’s getting rarer nowadays. I’ve spent most of my life struggling for my ideals and dreams and I’ve always been amazed at how little support we idealists get.

This week I saw a film called Freedom Writers, starring the talented actress Hilary Swank. It is an excellent of cinema as a source for ideas about the challenges of life and social creativity, as opposed to just violence and titillation. The main plot is as old as the hills and I can recall seeing at least four films with the same story: Idealistic young teacher insists, against advice from experienced experts, on going to a failed inner city school where racial gang violence rules, pupils don’t want to study, and school is just a holding camp in between life-threatening challenges. Teacher finds a way of breaking through and stimulating the failures to succeed. Of course, dedication to work comes at the expense of private life, but at least teacher is appreciated. Problems remain but solutions are possible. Feel Good. There’s hope.

What marks this film out as different is the way the Holocaust is brought in to show how preconceived ideas about others, prejudice, and hatred can lead to the most awful consequences. Gang members from deprived parts of LA who have suffered from violence and crime come face to face with the records of murdered Jewish children. They meet survivors. They read about Anne Frank and they raise the money to bring the woman who sheltered her to visit their school. They learn that, instead of allowing themselves to be marginalized, it is possible to do something about hatred and prejudice. This against a background of obstruction and antagonism from jaded teachers and administrators, concerned only with their careers, seniority, and pensions, rather than the progress and welfare of the kids.

As I watched the film I thought to myself that it will simply not be shown in England or Europe. Perhaps in small artsy places like the LJCC or the Everyman in Hampstead, to a predominantly Jewish audience. But it won’t go out on general release. Europe won’t want to offend those Muslims who object to Holocaust Memorial Days. Besides, the Holocaust is now so indelibly associated with Israel that all Israel’s enemies will do whatever they can to make sure this film doesn’t get the publicity it deserves. At the Jewish Book Week two years ago I was talking to Mrs. Abecassis whose beautiful novella Kadosh was mangled into a film of that name that bore hardly any resemblance her original work of art. She also teaches philosophy at Strasbourg University and she told me that if you so much as mentioned the Holocaust in a French university you would be booed off the podium. In the charged political and academic climate of Europe today Israel, warts and all, is the lightening rod that attracts the hatred that unites left and right, Muslim and Marxist. In this atmosphere because the Holocaust did indeed directly and indirectly persuade many that the Jews needed a homeland, it is blamed for all the ills that failed states and incompetent leaders like to heap on the so called Zionist entity. And that is why in the UK the main Muslim organizations refuse to participate in Holocaust Memorial Days. Of course there are Jews too linking arms with them, secular Israeli academics, Neturei Karta loonies, European and American radicals and anti War protestors. The only common cause that binds them is the animus they have for Israel. Why so much negativity?

As a young idealist I was told not to waste my time going into education or the rabbinate. But I had dreams that I could open closed minds, help kids and adults think for themselves, show them the beauty of Judaism. And from most all sides I got knocked and buffeted and discouraged by those who objected to my idealism, either because they did not want Carmel College to be a Jewish School (as opposed to a school for Jews) or because, as teachers, they resented change or having their comfortable mediocrity challenged. Not all of them, of course--there were some very good "Dead Poets Society" members. But I persevered, and I have to say that, despite it all, to this day nothing gives me greater pleasure than someone telling me that I opened their eyes to the value and benefits of Judaism, even if they have traveled other paths.

The sad part is that too often idealists are prevented from succeeding because of lack of funds and support. Too often communities and boards are peopled with those who obstruct rather than create, who see what’s wrong instead of what’s right. If I succeeded at all it was because I avoided bureaucracies and organizations, and did not allow myself to be beholden to those who couldn’t see the broader picture. But being a loner and a maverick has its disadvantages, too. It cuts you off from the major sources of support—those very organizations and corporations that have the means and the resources that they too often fail to use creatively.

The result is that synagogues and schools are usually peopled with the worn out, the disillusioned and the jaded. Place fillers and time servers wait out their years until its all over, battling with pupils and congregants instead of working with them. So that whether we are talking about schools or synagogues or communities, too often we are looking at failed organizations where minds are not challenged and excited but closed, dulled and turned off into apathy or rejection.

I was brought up in a world in which C.S. Lewis was an important influence. His work on English Literature, The Allegory of Love was a set text at university. He also wrote books in defense of Christianity. At home The Screwtape Letters, was compulsory reading. It’s a series of exchanges between senior devil Screwtape and young apprentice Wormwood on how to prevent people becoming religious. Wormwood writes in one letter that his Christian is beginning to enjoy praying. The advice he gets is to get him to think about all the other people around him in church and how they offend him in different ways and that will certainly put him off his prayers and probably the religion too. You can easily transpose that into the Jewish community.

If I focused on those who make Judaism a seething hotbed of narrow-minded prigs, needless hatred, moral superiority, arrogance, pride and treating religion as an obstacle course it drove me to distraction, to echo Baron Corvo’s Hadrian the Seventh who cried out in the play, "I love the faith but I hate the faithful." If I had allowed myself to be deflected by teachers who cared more for their pension rights than the success of their students, or clergymen who put the letter of the law and conformity above the sensitive souls of individual human beings, I would have given up on the spot. But what religion also gives as well as other things is a dream, a vision of a better world where individuals are loved and cherished and encouraged, and their lives are made fuller and better.

Just as Hilary Swank’s character did not give up, so we who care must carry on, ourselves as best we can or find encouragement and support from those who have the means and the will if not the skills or the dedication. If the system is failing, change it. If you cannot change it, at least persevere. You never know what impact you may have. You’ll get shot at but it’ll be worth it. And the same goes for trying to live a genuinely religious life. It’s a minority pursuit. If you focus on the others it will only put you off. Concentrate on making yourself a better person. If the rest won’t join in that’ll be their problem.

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January 15, 2007

Thank Goodness for Bar Ilan

I was studying in yeshiva in Israel in 1956 when Bar Ilan, which had been founded the year before, opened its campus. It was, at the time, a sort of Junior College built on American lines and with the support of American rabbis together with the Mizrachi Religious Zionist party in Israel. At first it was not taken very seriously by the snobbish Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the scientifically high flying Haifa Technion, or the renowned Weizmann Institute in Rehovot (other prominent universities in Israel emerged later).

In those days when antireligious sentiment was far more aggressive and rampant than it is even today in Israel, it was looked down on simply because it was openly and proudly religious, and it was mocked for insisting its male students wear a kippah on campus, and students were seen removing them the moment they left. It was assumed that rabbis would control its ideology and it would become an intellectual backwater. The ultra-Orthodox reviled it because it offered women equal academic opportunities, and because Talmud was studied academically as well as by traditional methods.

I visited Bar Ilan again in 1967 with my mother who had been asked to consider becoming the dean of women after she left Carmel College. By then it had already grown into a serious campus and institution. It was in the 1970’s that Bar Ilan really grew beyond the ideological and parochial visions of its founders. It defied its critics and, with some major new departments and faculties, became one of the most important academic institutions in Israel, where both Jewish and secular subjects were taught to the very highest levels.

Of course, no institution is perfect and every academic centre in Israel is criticized for one aspect or another of its ethos, politics, or policies. Bar Ilan’s association with Mizrachi became something of an albatross, because the National Religious movement that once was politically and religiously enlightened moved further and further to the right. It was this right-wing mood on campus that was blamed for producing the fanatical students from whom Rabin’s assassin came. As a result of this bad publicity, Bar Ilan took further steps to distance itself from politics and focus on academic growth.

Today Bar Ilan contains (not without a struggle) the sort of open-minded religious academic environment which is an antidote to the closed, constipated fundamentalism of the sort that wants to deny women an advanced education and which thinks that censoring science is the way either to protect or enhance spiritual values and respect for Torah. Bar Ilan’s contribution to Israeli life in almost every aspect is today inestimable and invaluable. No, I am not a paid apologist for Bar Ilan, or connected in any way. It is just that I believe, and have often repeated, that only the freedom of academia can now save Torah and Orthodoxy from complete submersion under the weight of obscurantism and conformism.

Recently a furor that erupted in the Orthodox world over the issue of sex before marriage. It is common knowledge that even within ultra-Orthodoxy there is hanky panky before marriage--this against a halachic background that forbids premarital physical contact, let alone sex. Of course some rabbis will deny this as strongly as they will deny that anyone lived on earth 6,000 years ago.

It was left Professor Tzvi Zohar of Bar Ilan University, a researcher in Jewish studies, to bring this issue out from under the rug with the publication of an article in the academic journal Akdamot in which he argues that leading rabbinical authorities have traditionally sanctioned sexual relations before and outside of marriage as long as the woman immerses herself in a mikvah and the couple have mutual respect. Such relations come under the rubric of a pilegesh, concubine. This is like having a wife but without the obligations of a marriage certificate, ketubah.

The great Chacham Zvi (1658-1718) was asked in the eighteenth century about reviving the idea of the concubine, to deal with the increasing sexual looseness of the Jewish community in Holland. This, it was argued, was better than prostitution or illicit affairs because at least this way one would know the identity of the offspring. The universal reaction of the rabbis of Europe was to reject this solution publicly because it would appear to be formally recognizing extramarital sex, something that was and is inconceivable officially. Indeed some argued that anyway concubinage was something the Biblical tradition reserved for kings only. But what is conceivable, and indeed does happen, is that individual rabbis, when faced with "faits accomplis", find ways of dealing with them. Many marriages are sanctioned in the Orthodox world (certainly in Britain) even where the prospective bride and groom give the same residential address on their application form. And even then the bride is officially described in the ketubah as a "virgin". Regardless of the merits of Zohar’s article, what is important is that someone within the Orthodox community has the guts and the independence to raise these sorts of issues from within Orthodoxy. The fact that Bar Ilan offers this possibility and has this atmosphere of open and free expression is absolutely invaluable to the Jewish world today.

A similar furor was created when an Orthodox gynecologist, Dr. Daniel Rosenak, gave an interview in the Israeli Orthodox paper Hatzofeh in early November, in which he called for "rethinking" the rabbinic additions to the rules of niddah which prevent couples from having intercourse during the menstrual period and for a week thereafter, and which are amongst the most important of Jewish religious laws. Rosenak suggested waiving a 1,500-year-old religious strictness across the board, thereby cutting a couple's monthly period of sexual abstinence by half, from two weeks to one.

To non-Jewish or secular ears this might sound trivial, but then any religious discussion does. For the religiously observant, however, it represented a revolutionary suggestion. Although Rosenak emphasized that he did not presume to give a religious ruling, he quoted halachic precedents, which suggest that because the added severity of a religious practice derives from custom, rather than law, it may be easier for rabbis to reverse it officially.

Now anyone vaguely familiar with rabbinic ways knows full well you do not reverse laws that easily. But, on an individual basis, rabbis often do find ways of ameliorating difficult situations on a specific rather than a general basis. This is how the system of "She’eylah" works, the tradition of going to a rabbi to ask a question to deal with a specific problem. The answer may well vary from person to person and from situation to situation. In neither of these cases can there be any expectation of change in Jewish law. It would be like expecting rabbis to declare that Judaism does not require one to try to have children in order to accommodate those women who choose not to get married, for whatever reason.

I find it terribly important that such discussions should be held and publicized and the debate be engaged. I know it will not move those with closed minds any more than years of debating the Agunah problem have produced results. But it is important to show that Orthodoxy is not monolithic or monochromatic. It is this tradition that Bar Ilan represents. It is this, in addition to all its other great academic activity, and in addition to the contribution of other academic institutions in Israel, that gives me greatest hope for the sanity of our religion and the future of thinking Orthodoxy.

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January 09, 2007


Many Christians are devoted to the idea of Apocalypse. A catastrophe ends this evil world and replaces it with perfect bliss. It’s not that far removed from some of our own ideas of Messianism. It conveniently solves all the problems and relieves us of responsibility. So I wondered if Mel Gibson was going to follow his film about the end of one messiah with a film about a Second Coming. I confess I went to see the film Apocalypto. Why? The Talmud is rather keen on knowing what it is that one wishes to combat and even more keen on knowing how to answer one's critics. Besides, I was curious to see if I really could predict the unsavory Mr. Gibson’s thinking. In a way it’s a bit like being fascinated by the evil mind of a Holocaust denier. Is this a human or a freak? So I went despite my knowing that anything produced by him would be full of medieval flagellant blood, gore and sadism. And now that I’ve seen it, I would not recommend it at all to anyone.

There are some beautiful scenes of nature and plenty of repulsive anthropological shots of a primitive society with its barbaric humans and idolatrous hierarchies and superstitions. But the guts and gore of the film is yet another endless Hollywood chase in which the anachronistic hero, showing all the emotions of Orange County, despite being speared, arrowed, chopped, stabbed, cut and gored and losing enough blood to replenish a Baghdadi hospital’s dwindling stocks, manages to run a marathon, evade a whole team of pursuers and, of course, rescue his wife and children. Even then, he survives only because his remaining chasers are amazed and flee at the sight of galleons from the Old World carrying the Christian barbarians who will replace the Mayan ones. Not surprisingly, our hero declines to trust them and therein lies the unusual twist at the end, because I was convinced that this was going to be another morality play in which Gibson’s Medieval Catholicism would be shown to be superior to the cultures of the pagans. In truth, despite that twist, that is clearly what the message is, because the film starts off with a quote from the historian Will Durant about a society only being destroyed from without after it has destroyed itself from within. It was just that our hero was too primitive to make the right decision--a bit like the stubborn Jews don’t you know!

The sad truth as we know it is that the medieval Old World was no more civilized than the medieval New World. It too burnt and killed human beings in the names of its gods. It too hanged, drew and quartered its enemies, ripping out the entrails of the living and dragging their half-dead bodies along the ground around the pretty medieval town squares. They, too, chopped off limbs and victimized women and enslaved men, women and children. And as society got richer and more technically proficient it simply found newer and more efficient ways of massacring its enemies, perceived or real. It may be true that some modern societies are far, far safer and better places to live in. It may be true that individuality is protected and encouraged. And it may be true that vast resources are committed to improving the quality of life and standard of living of the poorest levels of society. Nevertheless, even in the modern world, evil humans, tribes and gangs, torture, rape and kill in the cruelest and most unspeakable ways and it matters hardly at all what continent or what stage the "civilization". Given the opportunity and the power, vast chunks of human nature sink to the lowest level and if "nurture" has changed, "nature" doesn’t appear to have.

This would come as no surprise to the rabbis of two thousand years ago who asked why it was that the Bible describes the seed of Abraham as either the stars of heaven or the dust of the earth and replied that we human beings are capable of either rising to the stars or falling to the dirt. It is ideology that is capable of either elevating or destroying. What is the secret ingredient that differentiates the two?

There is, of course, the notion of Free Will, an elusive idea that neither Plato nor Aristotle managed to nail down, but which the Torah takes for granted. From Adam and Eve on, humans are shown choosing to disobey God. The Torah is neither a philosophical nor a scientific work and therefore makes no attempt to define the nature of choice. In our time, determinists, evolutionists and other "ists" all like to suggest there is no such thing. We are determined by our genes and our society, programmed like computers. In certain respects they are right, of course. The "accidents" of birth have a very powerful impact upon us, so too does or environment. I have no doubt that I am a rebellious maverick because my father was. That being born Jewish had something to do with my choice of religion and job, and that being born male has something to do with my choice of partner. But as we know this doesn’t mean it always has to be. People do defy the expected either through accident or design. I know I have made mistakes I could have corrected or avoided, and we have all come across human beings who have changed their way of life, religion and ambitions against both odds and predictions. Clearly there is a "chip" in our brains that builds in unpredictability and changeability, more in some than others, just as some of us have poorer brains than others. Freedom does not necessarily mean there are no constraints at all. It does mean there are some areas where there is choice. Freedom of thought is a good example.

The genius of Judaism, and what distinguished it from paganism and earlier systems of law and worship, was its emphasis on the sanctity and the equality of human life amongst those who shared those values (to pre-empt the argument that we killed the Canaanites three and a half thousand years ago). No human life could ever be taken gratuitously, even in the protection of society at large. The much legislated death penalty was so hedged around with qualifications, limitation, and safeguard as to be virtually fictitious, no more than an abstract way of giving one a scale of priorities. "This is the sort of thing that symbolically deserves losing the gift of life." Whereas Hammurabi allowed one class to get away with murder against another within the same society, Biblical Law allowed for no such distinction.

The trouble with ideals and, indeed, religions is that they become subverted into systems that pursue power and control and when they do, they trample on individuals and individuality in the name of "the greater good". All primitive societies believed you could sacrifice the innocent to appease the gods (or torture the non-believers in the name of their gods). And what theistic religions did, humanistic religions whether led by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot took much further and did far greater harm.

In our day and age, the greatness of democracy lies not so much in the system itself or its ideals, but rather in the one simple fact that it allows for orderly change and the correction of mistakes. This can be achieved and is achieved peacefully, despite of course the efforts of politicians who seem primarily concerned with staying in power at all costs. In the Western world any party that stays in power for too long is always finally ejected, usually after about fifteen years. And I suggest the same thing happens with religions. Any exercise of power or imposition of constraints on thought will inevitably produce a reaction. Yet it is clear that democracy is not welcome in many parts precisely because it challenges religious authority.

Every society, every religion has its rituals and its laws and restrictions. Every society is at root primitive, superstitious, and gullible and grapples with unanswerable questions, the meaning of life and reasons for suffering. But only those societies that value and respect the humanity of their members deserve to survive. Those which impose unreasonable constraints, artificial conformity of thought, which in essence do not value human integrity, are bound to crumble or change, one way or another, regardless of Hollywood.

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