March 30, 2007


In Britain we are "celebrating" 200 years since William Wilberforce forced an anti-slavery bill through Parliament. A film, Amazing Grace, has just been released that tells the story. We British are rightfully proud of the fact that we banned slavery long before anyone else did. But rather like the American Civil War, freeing slaves did not end discrimination or prejudice. Nevertheless it was an important landmark in the slow process of turning modern societies into ones that respect human rights, in principle at least.

Slavery of one sort or another continues to exist, mainly in Africa, the Middle and the Far East. It may be disguised sometimes, but in practice it involves some humans using and treating others as chattels and animals. Even in the "West", the White Slave Trade is thriving and police and immigration forces are struggling to cope.

I find it difficult to read Biblical texts that seem to condone slavery. There were Jewish slaves who served limited terms, usually to pay off debts, but remained citizens bound by all Jewish Laws. And there were non-Jewish slaves who were regarded as property. They were converted to Judaism on acquisition and became fully fledged members of the Jewish community on being freed. It may be remarkable that thousands of years ago the Bible insisted on rights for slaves, but still the idea that such behaviour could have ever been institutionalized is problematic. Even if the Talmud says, "He who acquires a slave acquires a master," because of the many obligations a master had (even to the point of not being allowed to live on a higher material level or have a less comfortable pillow), nevertheless the very notion is offensive to modern, civilized sensibilities.

Over the years, millions of Jews were captured and sold into slavery by successive conquerors. This meant children like ours, if they were not brutally massacred or tortured to death, were sold into prostitution and treated as animals. If you watch the miniseries Rome on television (assuming you have one of course, you decadent child of modernity) you’ll get a flavour of what slavery was like in Roman times. Indeed, read the Book of Lamentations to see what being conquered long before the Romans. Yet slavery persisted and most humans on this earth thought it the natural way of life. There were whole classes of eunuchs, mutilated and put to service under the Ottomans, and thousands of poor European boys were painfully castrated to provide the church and aristocracy with "castrati" singers.

You may wonder why, if the Bible was Divinely Inspired, it couldn't try to change peoples' attitudes and ban slavery outright. Maimonides gives a relevant answer with regard to sacrifices in his Guide to the Perplexed. He says that the Bible tried to wean humanity gently off its idolatrous and inhumane practices. It could not have insisted on too radical a change because the human mind would not have been able to grasp it. So to have created a religion in those days without sacrifices would have been as unthinkable as creating a religion thousands of years later without prayer. (Perhaps in the future new religions will simply require meditation or ESP.) Similarly, the Torah dealt with a simple agricultural economy. To have discussed the perspectives of Marx, Samuelson, or Galbraith would have been anachronistic and meaningless. Still, the general values of human concern and responsibility were given as starters on which to build and advance. And that, in my view, is the genius or the inspiration of the Torah.

But the current discussion about the ongoing destructive legacy of slavery raises two issues I find problematic; both use the Holocaust to justify an unjustifiable position. And I will confess here that the only time a black person of my acquaintance has got up from my table in protest was when I made this very point a few years ago.

Slavery and the Holocaust, indeed, share two common features--prejudice and inhumanity. But the nature of the process and the concept of compensation were very different. The aim of slavery was to use human beings as part of an economic process that, in its day, was universally accepted. It was never an ideological aim of slave traders or owners to exterminate them as a matter of principle. It is true that millions died through intolerable conditions, neglect, and cruelty. If it is simply a numbers game then, yes, more slaves died. And it is true that for too long others turned blind eyes and frankly enjoyed their superiority.

Slavery was accepted by all religions and societies for thousands of years and no religion, no country, can claim to have clean hands or innocence. It is a childish blame game to say Muslims traded more for longer or that Christians were crueller or that Arabs only used them for sex or the British made a better business out of transporting them. Besides, many, if not most, African slaves were captured and sold in the first place by their own. It was, until recently, perfectly normal behaviour in Africa to use or sell off conquered manpower. That was the normal way of life and intertribal politics, for better or for worse. Like modern financial markets it was ‘dog eat dog’ and the weak go to the wall and to the victor go the spoils. Just because some tribes of different colour did better than others is no reason to pick on some and lay the blame at their door.

And so to compensation; nowadays society has advanced to the point where we compensate victims of crime or people wrongly imprisoned or offended. But we do this to those who personally and directly suffer. This was also the basis for German reparations. It is true that Menachem Begin and the Herut and Revisionists parties at the time strenuously opposed reparations on principle, and I am not sure I do not agree with them. Nevertheless, money was paid essentially to those who suffered personally, not for all previous generations of Jews who were killed by Christians or Europeans or suffered from anti-Semitism in whatever form. We in Britain allowed the most inhumane child labour in our factories and on our farms right through the Industrial Revolution. But we do not offer to compensate the grandchildren of child labourers in the Dark Satanic Mills of Lancashire.

I would agree that there is an argument for positive discrimination to assist poorly performing sectors of society, particularly the victims of prejudice. But financial compensation has become the new lottery of the lazy classes who want a quick financial fix before sinking back into lethargy or criminality and refusing to raise themselves legally by their boot straps. Many prominent blacks in the USA who have risen to the highest ranks also argue against the compensation culture. It would be money far better spent to raise the quality of education (if the teachers' unions don’t impede progress in pursuit of their own vested interests).

As we celebrate Passover we are commanded more than any other time (and no other principle is repeated as often in the Torah) to remember what slavery was like and to be is sensitive to others. The wrong done to humans by other humans, whether in Europe, the Americas, Cambodia, Rwanda, or Sudan is a blot on humanity, a scandal that is still going on long after the wrongs done to the Atlantic slaves was stopped and the process of rectification began. But, as with us Jews, memory is essential. We must remember the awful things done to African slaves and determine to do our best to stop all inhumanity wherever it occurs. Yes, we must mourn and regret and cry, every day of our lives, for the cruelty that humans do to each other, anywhere and everywhere, then and now.

But we must also go forward and celebrate life and do that within a caring, ethical and ideally spiritual framework. That is the essential message of Passover. We humans, regardless of race or creed, are all created in the image of God and to treat any other human as less than an equal in the eyes of our Maker, is a betrayal of our own souls.

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March 25, 2007


One of the most important religious obligations is Gemilut Chessed, being kind to someone. Indeed, according to the Mishna, the world is based on three things--Torah (you might say "correct human behaviour" if you want to be inclusive), Service of God (let’s call it for the sake of the agnostics, "a spiritual, pan-human dimension"), and Gemilut Chessed (kindness to other human beings, which really speaks for itself ). These are the pillars of human life.

The term "Gemilut Chesed" is used rather than "Tzedaka" (Charity), because charity can only be exercised by those who have material things giving to those without. Kindness, on the other hand, can come from a pauper to a magnate. The highest form of kindness, according to the Talmud, is dealing with the dead, because they cannot return any favours. A subcategory of Gemilut Chessed is Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, which is not actually specified as a command in the ancient sources. Later, the Midrash describes God as sick-visiting Abraham after his circumcision, and there is a fund of Midrashic sources supporting the idea and emphasizing its centrality. There's a brief reference in the Talmud, though even then it raises the possibility that it is subsumed under the wider category of kindness.

But as simple as it sounds, I think being kind is one of the hardest challenges we humans face. I have noticed that just as some people seem more naturally religious or pious than others, so some people seem more naturally good and kindhearted. It is expected that a rabbi, and clergymen in general, will be natural sick-visitors and do-gooders. In fact, the Orthodox rabbinate was traditionally a profession of scholars rather than pastors, and perhaps that’s why it fell more upon women to visit the sick and spread kindness around.

The men were too busy grabbing for power or status, or simply knew they weren’t very good at it and hoped their wives would cover for them, as of course many great rebbetzins did and do. Even today, Chasidic women predominate in the area of sick-visiting and welfare. They can be found around the world doing wonderful unpaid work wherever there is an opportunity to fulfill all or any aspects of the mitzvah. I am told by insiders that the very Orthodox women in Stamford Hill who deal with social issues are the very best in the land.

If being kind is such an important principle and law, then why is it in fact mentioned rather rarely and why is there such meagre discussion about its parameters in the Talmud? One reason is that it is so difficult to categorize is that so much depends on intangible human interaction. You can say it is important to be kind, but how do you know if you really are? Maybe your good intentions are having the opposite effect. How often have I seen well-meaning sick visitors overstay their welcome, or say the stupidest most inappropriate and sometimes hurtful things? And the same goes for visitors to the house of mourning.

It’s all very well to take the advice of the Talmud and learn from Job’s comforters that one should not speak before the mourner opens up the conversation. But then what happens when the mourner doesn’t feel like talking or when everyone’s sitting like a bunch dumb-struck zombies looking mournful and sad and "Waiting for Godot"?? I guess that’s why talking about practical tangible things like attending to the dead is simpler.

In Yeshiva we used to be told that Torah was the highest form of worship and greater than everything else, as it says, "VeTalmud Torah Kenneged Kulam", and that once we left Yeshiva it would all go downhill and our religious life would sink to that most despicable level of a simple Householder, the Baal HaBayit (or Balaboss). Whereas that may be have been true of the intensity of our study, it was not necessarily true of our religious lives.

Yes, by becoming a practicing rabbi I was abandoning the Halls of Academe to teach Primary School. But outside and beyond, there was a whole raft of other activities that revolved around the idea of "kindness" that I now found myself suddenly and unpreparedly involved in. It was quite traumatic to have to visit congregants in hospitals. I had picked up a dread of hospitals during the last few months of my late father’s life (I was fortunate in that I had never been hospitalized myself). The scenes, the smells the implications terrified me. And then what did I say? What did I do? No one had told me or taught me. I read psychology and pastoral manuals and I asked and I researched, but I was till tongue-tied and awkward and burdened with a profound sense of uselessness, even anger with God for doing what He was doing to other humans and, it seemed, expecting me to pick up the pieces.

Yet for all of this angst I kept on hearing that I was helpful and kind and people appreciated my coming and yet I didn’t know why or how. And here I am forty years on and, sadly, this past month I have had to visit and be with some close friends whom the Almighty has decided He has other plans for, and I feel as helpless and useless and angry and emotionally raw and weepy as I ever did, and I still don’t know what to say or what to do.

In a way it's like love ("Love Your Neighbour", after all). The Hebrew word for love is based on the word to "bring" or "give". It’s what you bring or give to a relationship that stimulates and increases love. It is your being, who you are and as you are, for better or for worse. So by being with someone, that simple act of being there, the effort to show you care, that is a kindness. You don’t have to say the right things. You certainly should not say the wrong things--silly parables or dubious theological explanations. As God says of the Jewish people in Psalms 91, "I am with him (you) in your pain." So it must be with us, to be and to love and to find ways of showing it. That, to my mind is "above all", Kenneged Kulam.

This is dedicated to my friend, Howard Ronson, who died Wednesday, March 21.

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March 22, 2007

Who Loves Us?

So the BBC World Service took a poll and discovered that more people think Israel is a danger to the world than any other place! Forgive me for an ironic laugh! The World Service reaches and is avidly listened to by billions of Muslims and an odd million Jews, if it’s lucky (who, anyway, know by now to take BBC polls with a pinch of salt--even the BBC children’s programme Blue Peter admits it fiddled its polls). Hey, imagine a poll in Stamford Hill on favourite colours. Any betting it would be black? Big Deal. It’s like asking in English soccer grounds beyond Stamford Bridge whether they love Mourinho or not.

There are billions of unemployed with nothing better to do than phone in to straw polls. Of course they’re going to knobble their favourite whipping boy or vote for something in the face of those they envy and resent. Just think of the millions who vote for Big Brother or American Idol, and they’re actually paying to swing the results! Besides, we Jews are never united on anything, even on the things we hate. After all, Israel itself divides pretty equally between those of its citizens who want it to survive and those who don’t. And Jews are divided, perhaps not so evenly, on whether their religion ought to be phased out altogether or turned into a monastic order.

I was asked this week to help deal with a Swedish anti-Semitic site that claims we must have done something to deserve being hated and quotes Talmudic snippets out of context to show how wicked we Jews are: How we have sex with girls under three years old because under three their virginity returns. How we can pick up innocent gentile women in the street, have sex with them, which means they are married to us by law and trapped, and then drink their blood once a month. How we are commanded to kill all non-Jews and it is permitted to steal from our non-Jewish neighbours. Any idiot can take any law and hold it up to ridicule. On the contrary, ignorance helps! Imagine condemning all Brits on the basis of what the Domesday Book of 1086 says, or the English penal system on hanging in Judge Jeffrey’s era three hundred years ago, let alone two thousand. Sorry we’re still alive, boys! And don't we always say, "The Almighty weighs His faithful; he doesn't just count them"?

So should we be taking hatred seriously or not? You could argue that we are not always a loveable lot. But should that matter? We try very hard to succeed and, dammit all, we do a bloody good job in almost every single sphere we set our minds to. Proportionally we are way ahead of the game in every area, academic, commercial, industrial, financial, medical, even literary. We win more prizes and accolades for our numbers than anyone else and we tend to rise up the ladder in every society we find ourselves in, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps instead of moaning and complaining and begging for handouts (and certainly not bombing innocents to gain attention). Of course they’re all jealous like mad.

To make matters worse, they all know that it’s only thanks to us that their religions are around altogether. Neither Islam nor Christianity would have got off the ground had we not laid the foundations and done the spade work. So they have to rubbish us to reinforce their insecurity by claiming we blew it but now they got it! The essence of their religions all come from us, ethically, even ritually. The differences are really either cosmetic, cultural or simply softer, watered down options. They both have this neurotic preoccupation with trying to ram their religion down everyone else’s throats and claim that theirs is the only way to Heaven and everyone else is doomed. Whereas we more reasonable guys actually think others can be good and right and can get to Heaven their way too! Sheesh, as they say in the USA, who’s the normal one here? And please don’t accuse me of generalizing. I’m not suggesting that ALL non-Jews are like that of course, only the irrational, prejudiced ones.

I know the Israelis are a tough lot. You can’t go anywhere on the globe (or even in space) without bumping into them doing deals, selling arms, stealing the bed linen from hotels, monopolizing mountaintops, ashrams, and beaches, or doing the plumbing and decorating for less and more efficiently than the lazy local contractors. Yes, they are a prickly, arrogant bunch and they’re buying up all the real estate and making money out of idleness and apathy of the locals. But it’s hardly surprising, living under constant tension, unceasing pressure, cooped up in a little country with so many bloody Jews.

And yes, Jews control the world, don’t you know (so does the Royal Family, ask Mr. Fayed); that’s why Madonna has become a Kabbalist. There you have it Hollywood, God and Cash all in bed together. And no doubt you’ve all seen the Memri tape of the Iranian "academic" who claims Walt Disney was Jewish and really Tom and Jerry is about Jewish mice controlling the non-Jewish cats of the world.

We must take hatred seriously! And when all is said and done we must not let the bastards get us down. We are pretty good. We have a fantastic religion that encourages us to enjoy life, delight in God’s gifts, no celibacy or monasticism. We can be party of society without having to withdraw. We have a religion that is overwhelmingly focused on good deeds rather than right theology, and if things aren’t always as they should be, it’s the fault of the all too human rabbis rather than the religion itself! We are charitable way beyond our numbers and more than other supposedly charitable traditions. We have come back from the death camps and built a strong, financially productive state that, despite some glitches along the way, can take care of itself even in a sea of hatred that surrounds it. The picture is not that bad.

We know our own failings, hypocrisies, inadequacies and sins. But our religion encourages us to get them out of our system and go forward. Who else escapes the clutches of their enemies and then says "but we gotta be nice to them nevertheless"? Our religion did that three thousand years ago, as we’ll remember this Pesach, and we’ve been doing it ever since. I’m prepared to bet Israel will end up doing more for the Palestinians than their coreligionists or hard line left wing bandwaggon jumpers on.

We’re good! It’s not so bad to be a Jew. It isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. And if they don’t like us, they have a far bigger problem than we do.

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March 11, 2007

Looking Back

There’s a Russian proverb that goes, "He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing two eyes." I don’t know if that’s really a Russian proverb. I heard it from Lord Bullock, the historian, biographer of Hitler and Stalin, who was speaking at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem many years ago. And it has always struck me as so applicable to us Jews.

It’s part of our tradition to remember, our forefathers, our history, and our enemies. Purim of course is concerned with remembering the eternal and irrational hatred we seem to engender: Amalek (Deuteronomy 25), King Agag (1 Samuel 15), and Haman the Agagite. Both Hitler and Goebels referred to the Jews creating a "New Purim" if they survived. We did, and I guess our new Purim is Israel Independence day. And soon we'll be looking back to life in Egypt three-and-a-half thousand years ago.

On the other hand, just think of one of the most enduring of Biblical motifs, Lot’s wife! Don’t look back. Go forward! Indeed, both remembering the past and being able to let go of it are part of our great tradition. We remember slavery in Egypt, but we move with anticipation into a Promised Land. We weep by the waters of Babylon, but we dream of returning and rebuilding. We look back in our prayers, nostalgically, to an ancient past with our own King and Temple, but we look forward to a Messianic era.

The rabbis of the Talmud also looked both ways--back to the Sinai Revelation and yet forward to creating new realities in Law and custom. Look at how they responded so brilliantly to the loss of the Temple and introduced a different framework for community worship. The innovations of the Zohar, the medieval mystics, and the Safed of Cordovero and Luria would have been impossible if we had remained in a kind of Kaarite devotion only to the fossilized texts of the past. And was not Hassidism originally innovative, creative, breaking new ground until it too started to look back instead of forward?

It is true that all legal systems look back to the earlier authorities who established the principles or back to earlier precedent. But these are usually springboards to the future. It is religion that is most responsible for looking back, back to its original founders, its glorious past or to some perceived tragic defeat or wrong or assassination, and therefore by nature religion is conservative and slow to change. On the other hand, one of the attractions of religion is that it offers stability, continuity, and security. Particularly at times of change, uncertainty, and excessive license that feeds destructively on itself, that creates icons out of such insubstantial beings as Anne Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, or Princess Diana.

In the case of Torah Judaism we are stuck in an excessive wave of retro. Religiously we are told that the ghettos of Eastern Europe were some sort of spiritual paradise. We often forget the squalor, the hate, the agony, and the psychological damage of oppression. Instead we rebuild synagogues and rebbes’ Imperial Seats in a mock style that, in itself, imitated a nostalgia for medieval castles with crenellations and turrets. The Hassidic world is overflowing with rebbes who take their names from Eastern European villages. As soon as a new great-grandson sets up his own dynasty he has to find a Polish village to name himself after. If it were simply paying tribute to places obliterated in the Holocaust that would be fine, except many of the names are of towns to the east that never were involved. But it’s more than that. It’s the implication that to go back takes you closer to authenticity. But then what is authentic? Can it only be someone dressed as a medieval Polish baron?

Go into very Orthodox homes throughout the Jewish world and you will see imitations of third-rate antique furniture covered in plastic, heavy chintz or velvet drapes, incongruous chandeliers that can’t be cleaned, and bookshelves in imitation antique fretwork--interior décor of eighteenth century petit Warsaw, Vilna, or Budapest. And that is supposed to be "authentic" heimish, Jewish religious! It’s small wonder that the dress code is retro too, with black Italian Mafiosi, undertaker broad-brimmed Borsalino hats.

We now idolize scholarly rabbis of the past, and pretend they were all perfect saints of hagiographical proportions who never allowed a bad, selfish, nasty word to cross their lips, or such a thought cross their minds. And it is true that although far more Orthodox Jews nowadays sit and study all day long than was ever possible before (thanks in no small measure to modern secular welfare states), nevertheless giants of Torah are fewer and further between than ever before. We may be pygmies on the shoulders of giants but we have far more pygmies than ever before and perhaps the giants are becoming extinct.

There seems to be an unhealthy preoccupation in religious circles with old burial grounds, with finding and preserving the graves of ancients but caring not a jot for the wider issues of the universe, for ecology, climate change, economic exploitation. That’s for non-Jews! Like ethics! A recent survey by a religiously conservative Jewish paper in New York found that almost 60% of respondents thought the science of global warming was rubbish. In other words, apart from being ignorant, they are unconcerned with issues beyond the confines of their ghettos. Just stand on Golders Green Road and watch for five minutes how much rubbish is thrown out of cars driven by outwardly religious drivers. How is it that a religion that intends to be an example to the world is now more laughed at than admired?

The only response of the Torah world to any question or challenge is to throw dirt and scorn in the hope that that will drive away any challenging voice. We look back with religious eyes but we are blinded because no one can see the pain of the living or the needs of the spiritually vacant. All that matters is fitting into a mindset and a social and legal framework that has been tested in the past but creaks in the present.

So what do we do? Simply cutting out chunks of tradition, throwing out the baby with the bathwater has been a manifest failure. On the other hand for all the triumphalism of the Baal Teshuva Orthodox evangelical movements, they have touched a small sliver of the jewish world. Not that I disparage that at all. But it still begs the question of why we are not retaining or attracting the majority. Ultra Orthodoxy relies primarily on internal growth, not persuasion. Yet I do not believe much is needed to change attitudes--just smiling and easing up a bit might be enough to chase away the clouds. It’s a bit like Israeli PR, a small amount of well-directed effort could have amazing results. The creators of Christianity were right in theory--a bit more love, a bit less law. But getting the right balance has still not been achieved, by them or us or anyone else.

Perhaps our inward-looking pettiness is the result of two thousand years of exile and oppression and having a huge chip on our shoulders as a result. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the horror of the Holocaust where one part of the civilized world wanted to destroy the Jews and the other half didn’t care. Lord knows, that’s reason enough to be emotionally crippled. But even someone challenged can live looking forward and try to improve the quality of his life. Or else he might be so busy looking back he loses his sight altogether. And I fear we nearly have.

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