April 30, 2007


In reference to my post "Am I A Believer?", several readers have told me that the most troubling issue is less belief, but more what actually happens, or is allowed to happen, on earth. To make matters worse it is religion that is often the cause of much of our suffering. Of course we must separate religion and what humans do with it from God. We can’t blame God for everything.

A principle of all Western religions is "Benevolence", that God cares and is involved in human life, rewards the good and punishes the bad. But from the way we look at things, most of us just don’t see it working that way.

When Abraham is arguing over the men of Sodom he asks, "Will not the Judge of the earth be just?" The problem is that according to all human criteria of justice, life does not appear to be. Shall we say that God allowed millions of innocent children to die in Auschwitz because some crime or failure that we Jews or others committed? The Bible itself says, "Sons do not die for fathers, nor fathers for sons." And although you might want to quote "visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons" in the Ten Commandments, that really means that consequences of actions go on impacting those who come after us; it is not a statement about punishing anyone.

This problem has always troubled the rabbis. They deal with it in various ways: God rewards and punishes in the next world not in this; we humans see things through limited and selfish perspectives; we are expecting God to be like a human being; we are being tested; bad things happen because of other factors outside of ourselves. Anything, including reincarnation, is offered to answer the unanswerable. I personally do find any of these answers satisfying, regardless of whether they may or may not be the case. The fact is that for some people there is no satisfactory explanation. True believers might not need an explanation, for others even an explanation cannot take away the pain.

I have always admired the honesty of those who avoided glib answers and simply said that either they did not know or couldn’t explain. My favorite on this issue is Rabbi Yannai, who says in Avot.4.15, "We simply cannot explain why good people suffer and bad people prosper."

Nevertheless, we still wonder why bad things happen, even if we can explain why. We seem to need answers. We still buy book after book in our desperate search for finality and closure. We know about bacteria, about viruses, about bodies that pick up diseases, and we also know we need bacteria to live. Even when we know "why" someone dies we are still hurt, we still feel loss and suffer and we ask "why". But "why" does not mean "why", it means "How can I cope?" Wanting to find meaning really means, "take away my pain."

The fact is that people are different and they cope differently, in all types of situations. Some people handle crises by accepting, passively. Some respond actively and dynamically and use pain and setbacks to spur themselves on to greater things. Others can only deal with things through anger--anger at themselves, at others, and at God. It’s like love. Don’t you know of loving relationships based on tension and constant bickering? Yet do we also not know of love based on calm and ease? Who is to say there is only one paradigm? And so it is with dealing with pain and loss. Some go out and shop till they drop. Others withdraw into their shells.

The rabbis often used the concept of Yissurin, which one can translate as "suffering" and it literally means "discipline". The Talmud talks about two kinds. Those which are deserved and corrective and those which are imposed on people for no apparent reason and are euphemistically called "the Yissurin of Love". A person can suffer because of forces completely beyond his control and, indeed, beyond the normal workings of this world. The Book of Job is a document that deals with this issue. The idea is that God is at least showing an interest in someone, if only to test them. The testing is a sort of "act of love". Of course, that is no answer that satisfies the rational human mind. Neither is it logical that suffering is good. That’s not a Jewish response. But suffering can be useful. It can get us to think, to appreciate, to understand.

It is true that we do and can bring bad things upon ourselves--"Do as you would be done by!" Two Temples were destroyed because we disregarded both the Torah and the prophets. The Talmud also seems to distinguish between national failure and consequences and what happens to individuals. On the other hand there are lovely stories of Rabbi Akiva or Nachum Ish Gamzu dealing with bad things in a positive way. When something goes wrong, instead of despair, they say, "It is all for the best." "Fate" may appear initially to go against a person, but often we only see a short term effect and fail to see a broader plan. And yet there are events that simply cannot be explained away this way. The possibility of being run over by a drunken driver is beyond our capacity to take precautions and one can hardly argue that a painful death would be "for the best".

Here’s an excerpt from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b):

Our Rabbis taught: Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, ‘If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it?’ They replied, ‘If it was something of which the world has no need that was worshipped, He would abolish it; but people worship the sun, moon, stars and planets; should He destroy the Universe on account of fools! The world pursues its natural course. Or suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course. Or suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor's wife; it is right that she should not conceive, but the world pursues its natural course and as for fools who act wrongly, they will have deal with the consequences."

So this is the world we live in. God creates the system but then leaves it to go its own way. But that conflicts with the idea of Divine Intervention. As with the ideas of Resurrection, Messianism, and Life after Death, we are left with concepts that we do not understand and which seem to fly in the face of everything we experience in this world. Is blind obedience the only way? But blind obedience means not asking questions and the Torah constantly requires us to ask!

Once again we are left unable to find an explanation of "why" to satisfy our logic. But we need, nevertheless, to find an answer to the question of "what". What are we supposed to do now? By all means, rage at your Maker, accuse the Almighty. That, indeed, is an old and ancient tradition of ours. It is at least engagement. It is therapeutic, and the aim of therapy is to aid recovery and allow one to go forward. I suggest that the whole issue is one that forces us to grapple with life, raw as it is, and to try to find ways of coping.

Life, in fact, is less a matter of finding answers, rather of finding ways. By all means ask "why" and see what answers one gets. But in the end even if there is no answer that satisfies, life must march on and we with it.

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April 19, 2007


For as long as deep in the innermost heart
A Jewish soul stirs
It is towards the East and to Zion that the eye longingly looks.
We have not yet lost our hope
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free nation in our land
In the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.

These are the English words of the Hatikvah (blame me for the translation). Originally a poem by Naftali Herz Imber published in 1886 and set to music by one Samuel Cohen (a bowdlerized version of Smetana’s Moldau), it became the official song of the Zionist movement in 1897 and, after several modifications, the National Anthem of the State of Israel. At this time of the year it is sung with added gusto as Israel celebrates its 59th birthday, another milestone in its fraught, insecure, yet miraculous, history.

The Hatikvah is now de rigueur at most Jewish events, communal or personal. In England we have toasts at banquets at which some pompous toastmaster dressed in red hunting jacket with a gilded chain of counterfeit honor around his neck, bangs with his gavel and proclaims, "My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen." Or a press-ganged relative of the bride or bar mitzvah asks us to be "upstanding" (Upstanding? Upended? Uptight? Where do they get these mock ceremonial archaisms from, I wonder--perhaps the Masons or even the Knights of the Round Table?) to drink the "Loyal Toast" to the health of the Queen (and some rheumy eyed veterans add, "God Bless Her"). We raise our glasses and either drink or wait for the band to finish its perfunctory rendition of the English National Anthem.

Then a semi-inebriated guest rises with difficulty, glass in hand, to toast the President and, or, together with, or in addition to, the State of Israel. Then, if there’s a band that knows its stuff, off it goes with a rendition of the Hatikva, during which about 5% actually sing the words, 5% stagger through half of them, 80% stand looking stupid as they pretend to mouth words they haven’t the faintest idea of, and another 10% stand or sit looking choleric either because they object on principle or simply because they resent having to interrupt their meal.

One of the benefits of going to a Charedi simcha is that you are spared all of this rigmarole. But then the price you have to pay is listening to a whole lot more rabbis trying to speak above the chatter.

Hatikva is not without its controversies. I have a cousin who when forced to sing it because of his public position, has difficulty with the phrase "to be a free nation" because free (Chofshi) is also current Hebrew usage for "irreligious", free of obligations. So he sings "to be a religious people (Am Dati) in our land." Of course those pious whackos who cozy up to Ahamdinejad won’t sing it at all, on principle.

I am very fond of it. It does pull on my emotions and recalls the momentous events in my young life when the whole question of the Jewish State hung in the balance and then opened up unimagined vistas and experiences. But, in truth, as the novelty has worn off, and perhaps as my cynicism has increased, the whole business of nationalism and flags and petty state paraphernalia has soured. Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world have come closer together and yet fragmented at the same time. The Balkans have split into endless mini-states, and just like Europe after the First World War each one puffs up its own supposed identity by marginalizing and alienating anyone else of different ethnic or religious background. Proud nationalism becomes divisive, ridiculous, and bloody. You may say that this is symptomatic of the British disease, and besides look at America with its National Pride and singing its anthem the drop of a hat or a fat lady. But there’s another issue here.

I confess I can sympathize with an Arab Member of the Knesset who doesn’t like singing Hatikvah. Of course, I believe that if we are to have a state it should be a Jewish State. There are plenty enough Christian and Muslim and other denomination states around the world--why shouldn’t we have one too? But that doesn’t mean we cannot recognize that there are others living in the state of different religions and affiliation. How can one ask an Israeli Muslim or Christian to sing about having a Jewish soul? It doesn’t make sense.

Here are two verses of the British National Anthem:

God save our gracious Queen
Long live our noble Queen
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the Queen!

One realm of races four
Blest more and ever more
God save our land!
Home of the brave and free
Set in the silver sea
True nurse of chivalry
God save our land!

Would I be happy to sing it if instead of describing us as "the nurse of chivalry" it said the "nurse of Christianity"? Britain is a Christian State but it does not require its non-Christian citizens to sing about it. In truth, I don’t take the British National Anthem too seriously. After all, do I really believe Britain is the home of the Brave and the Free or that the Queen should always be victorious? Surely it depends! Besides, having heard the way crowds of hooligans at football matches boo and hiss the others anthems, I think they should all be scrapped!

The sort of state that Israel is, or aspires to be, does not depend on a Nineteenth Century poem. I really hope Israel continues to have other religions and denominations within its rich mix of citizenship, just as I hope it will continue to give preference to Jewish refugees. And, despite my religious commitment, I’d be uncomfortable with a state made up exclusively of Jewish fundamentalists. But if we insist on an anthem, let it be one that incorporates all its citizens. It’s not a text that is hallowed by religion or tradition. If it is inappropriate, let’s change it. It has been changed before.

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April 15, 2007

Am I A Believer?

It is a fundamental of most religions that there is a God who has created and runs our universe. But, in the Bible, which really is a book about God and His intervention in human affairs, there is no actual command that is worded, "You must believe in God." And in a way this makes wonderful sense. You can encourage people to believe certain things. You can suggest. But you cannot in any meaningful way command thought, can you? And if people say "I believe", how can you ever know if they mean it or not? Besides, exactly what is it that you have to believe to pass the test? If God is without material form, if as Maimonides says you can only know what God is not, then what, exactly, are you believing in? Remarkably the Hebrew word for belief, Emunah, means to be convinced, or certain. Now that is a very different mental state to belief. "I know it is raining" is very different than "I believe it is raining."

I remember, as a sixteen-year-old, daring to ask in yeshiva, what if I was not sure if I believed in God or not? And the very understanding Mashgiach (Spiritual Director), Rabbi Volbe, Z"L, told me not to worry, it would sort itself out in time! Since then I have often encountered Jews who have told me that they adhere to Jewish Law and Custom without being at all convinced that God exists and, of course, far more who neither adhere to Jewish religious traditions nor even give God a second thought.

The question that interests me is: What if you are uncertain? Does this mean you cannot be a religious Jew? I think you can. All authorities in Judaism agree that even if you discard or disregard certain laws or traditions you should not therefore abandon the lot. What is more, a heretic according to the Talmud, is either someone who totally rejects the Jewish people or someone who denies its fundamentals as a matter of principle, rather than convenience, weakness or uncertainty. The Talmud was clearly less concerned with theological correctness than we are today.

What changed was, of course, the Christian preoccupation with belief, and then more recently the Enlightenment when for the first time God came under really serious assault and Judaism began to face attrition through assimilation rather than oppression. In the old days, you believed in or accepted the idea of God because you were afraid you would be struck by lightening or burn in Hell or face a Heavenly Tribunal. As we began to lose such fears, the brilliant thinker Blaise Pascal suggested that logically we should believe in God because if He didn’t exist what difference would it make, but if He did we’d look pretty silly in the next world (if there is one, but again why not cover your bets?). But this is hardly what I would call a religious position.

Apparently 90% of Americans believe in God. But, in my experience, if you try to find out what people actually do believe you get some very peculiar answers. Had you stopped Tevye the Milkman on his way home on a Friday night and asked him if he believed in God, of course he’d have said yes, without thinking. He would not have been able to give you a Maimonidean proof or define his terms! This is why we have the concept of "Simple Belief". Some people seem more easily persuadable. Some people seem more naturally spiritual. Not everyone is a philosopher. It does seem that God can be encountered or understood on many different levels. So does belief in God mean "to everyone according to his or her level of understanding"? If so, then clearly when lots of people say they believe in God they cannot all be meaning the same thing!

Nevertheless, declaring a belief in God does keep ones mind and senses open to more possibilities than if it is shut out completely. It leaves the door open. And this is where mysticism comes in useful.

A huge measure of human activity is not based on logic at all, but love and emotions to start with. We often base our activities on senses and I believe we have a sense that can detect the Divine. Some call it the soul. Mysticism takes the view that God is to be experienced, not through logic. It is true that senses can mislead. We often "see" things that aren't there or think we hear things when we don't. But they also provide us with a great deal that really matters. We do need logic to examine and evaluate our experiences, but that is once we actually have something to analyze. The beauty of religious practice is that it exposes one to possibilities and opportunities for intangible, mystical experiences. And then if you are fortunate enough to feel something, God becomes not a theory or an abstraction but a reality.

Now what if you have no such reality? Well, you could give up--that would be a shame, like my giving up piano practice for football, which I now too late regret. Or you could expose yourself to continued religious experience in the hope that things will clarify, or that one day you will recognize that you are encountering something Divine. And this is I why I would argue that even without a belief in God at this moment one should lead a religious life.

We have just come through an intense festival. It worked on two tracks, the historical, national group experience and the personal private encounter with our spiritual side. Some people are fortunate enough to relate to both. But even if God was not in everyone’s minds, being exposed to these different strands will have either added something new and richer to ones palette of experience or at the very least will have allowed for the possibility. Potential surely is a plus!

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April 08, 2007

Do Prisons Work?

America and Britain each has a higher prison population, proportionally, than any other country in the "civilized world". If you include non-citizen prisoners in Israel (that means Palestinian and other terrorists convicted, suspected, or otherwise), it too gets bumped up to the higher rankings. Of course, the crucial question is, "Does it work?" Does prison in any measurable way stop or reduce crime or terror or, indeed, does it teach its occupants any lesson other than to get right out and do it again? Once upon a time the great reformers intended prison to be a place of correction. There is little correction that goes on nowadays. Then they thought it should be a penitentiary. But there are very few penitents in prisons.

Statistics, while always suspect, I agree, indicate that prison works. Certainly in America crime rates have declined as the prison population has risen and in Israel terror rates have been drastically reduced. But a recent article in the New York Review of Books (The American Prison Nightmare, by Jason DeParle, April 12th 2007), focused admittedly on the USA alone, suggests that there may not be any correlation.

The US prison population has risen from 380,000 in 1975 to 2.2 million today. At the same time homicide rates have fallen by 43%. It may be however that the decline in crime has other causes, to do with birth rates and increased funding for more professional policing and detection. But there is another issue, the creation of an underclass that is poor, uneducated, and unemployable. In addition they are disenfranchised because in many states in the USA, felons cannot vote. Israel happens to be one of the few democracies where felons can. I hate to think why! In some states the percentage of blacks who are debarred from voting is so high that one can speculate whether it affected the outcome of the past two presidential elections.

Of those imprisoned in the USA, 60% are for drug-related offences and they are overwhelmingly black. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, 60% of black high school dropouts are either prisoners or ex-convicts. A huge number of children are deprived of a father figure, and a high percentage finds it impossible to find work. In other words, there is a significant sector of a civilized society that is consigned to the social scrap heap. To make matters worse, 1.5 million people are released from prison each year who have infectious diseases, over half of which it is estimated, were contracted inside. And 90% of prisoners re-offend. Even if we concede that slavery and discrimination are heavily to blame, even if others argue the problem is at least partially self-inflicted, this is a ticking time bomb. And, with variations of course, a similar bomb is ticking away in the UK. A just society is to be judged by how it treats its weakest citizens, not its strongest, and that to my mind is the single biggest critique I know of a capitalist society.

The trouble is that there are two sides to this issue. On the one hand you have the issue of punishment. What is its function? Is it to penalize, to cure, or to prevent? On the other hand you have the quite different matter of what steps one takes to protect society from antisocial people. Where potential troublemakers are taken off the streets they can do no harm. However, if in taking them off the streets you are, in effect, creating a far larger threat and potentially even more violence, then the cure is worse than the disease.

Yet that is precisely what we are doing. We are, indeed, protecting society by removing drug dealers and violent criminals or suicide bombers. But we may well be creating a spiral of consequences that will make matters far worse in the long run because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that incarceration reduces criminality in the punished, if anything the contrary is true.

So what can we do? In Biblical times, prison as an integral part of the penal system was absent. In many societies a quick death for almost any offence was the short and sharp solution. Just think of what happened to cattle thieves in eighteenth century Britain. Life was cheap anyway. In the Torah however, the response for most crimes short of murder and incest was "community service". If you could not pay you were made to work off your debt to people or society. You were attached to a family, usually the wronged one, and forced to work for them until you had met your obligation. Thus your punishment kept you in society, together with your family, and avoided punishing a whole host of ancillary innocents for the crime that only you had committed. Sadly, we have no reliable sociological surveys to compare the effects. Anyway other factors such as war and social upheaval needed to be taken into consideration and our modern societies are simply not designed to adopt such a system. They can't even handle the feeble attempts at community service they already have.

At this time of the year when we recall slavery, that of a whole nation, we might be inclined to think we were better off working than being incarcerated. But how many were killed off by the conditions? From what we know of Egyptian or Aztec slave labor very few survived. It seems we had some sort of special protection at that time!

When Daniel was imprisoned it was with lions that were expected to kill him off almost immediately. No drawn out life sentence. And the same went for the thousands of Jews who perished in the circuses and gladiatorial orgies. Still, that might have been preferable to life as a Roman slave. In a more variegated and, in most respects, humane society, the responses are more complex and resultantly more confused, less just, and ultimately more destructive to the fabric of society. Perhaps it's like industrial waste and pollution. We might not realize its bad effects until it's too late!

As for the situation in Israel, what else is one to do? We know that prisons breed more terrorism, more determination to get one's own back. But the answer cannot be to do nothing. We know occupation of others is intolerable and counterproductive, but what else can one do if no one is willing to negotiate, other than to simply withdraw and then leave the space to be filled with rocket launchers? And I am not saying ill will is one-sided. So is the answer, like pacifism to do nothing and sit back and hope or rely on basic human goodness of which there is precious little evidence? Shall we just pray for the Messiah? The overwhelming view of our tradition is that one must be proactive.

Sometimes even if a solution is inadequate, it may still be better than the alternative. If prison, awful as it is, does in fact keep violent criminals off our streets then it is doing a valuable job. But if it introduces relatively minor felons to greater danger and corruption then we are exacerbating the problem and we will need to reexamine exactly whom we allow the law to put inside.

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