August 24, 2007

Yeshivas and Money

When I went to yeshiva in Israel many years ago, the "Black Hat" yeshivas were all struggling without any government support. Funding was always politicized in Israel, whether it was the kibbutz movement on the left or the yeshivas on the right. At that time the right (both religiously and politically) had hardly any political clout so it got peanuts (or bubkes, if you prefer). The great yeshivas depended, for better or for worse, entirely on the fundraising efforts of such giants as the late Rav Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevez z''l, Rav Leizer Yehuda Finkel z”l of Mir, or Rav Chatzkel Sarna of Chevron z”l.

In Be'er Yaacov, where I was in 1958, accommodation was primitive. Bedbugs crawled up the walls of wooden huts, and food was essentially TCP (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers) and chatzilim (eggplant, disguised as chopped liver, chicken, and meat). In those days there was the odd successful yeshiva, such as Ponevez in Benei Brak, which actually built spanking proper stone buildings and dormitories with washing facilities. Older, established ones, such as Chevron in Jerusalem, were so badly run down that you thought you were in a home for the destitute. As for Mir, you walked past the toilets on the way in and that set the physical tone (thank goodness for the rest). Admission was dependent almost entirely on merit, or in the case of those yeshivas with a long tradition, such as Mir, if your father was an alumnus.
It was taken for granted that if you could contribute financially you would, to the best of your ability, but if not, it was expected that if you came into money one day you would help. My father had died, and my mother could afford very little. But at no time was I pressed to pay, and in fact ever since I have tried my best to express my gratitude.

As the Mishna says "Im Ein Kemach Ein Torah". If there is no flour (to make bread) how can you study? So yeshivas, like any educational institution, have always needed to ask for money, and have every right to. But there are ways and there are ways. When I was headmaster of Carmel College, almost one third of the student body came on scholarships or reduced fees. That had always been my late father's policy; one should never turn away a worthy, motivated child simply because he could not afford the fees. Even if a child was not very intelligent or gifted, but needed the education for social or political reasons, we found ways to help. Of course, we would always ask if there were relatives we could approach, or a community that might support them, or if their financial circumstances changed they would let us know. Naturally, some parents were devious liars, and others frankly crooked. But in practice no worthy child was turned away.

In most Jewish schools one of the governors is given the responsibility for checking on parental finances when there is a request for help. Sometimes sadly these are heavy handed. Occasionally they are sympathetic and sensitive. It is notoriously difficult to know the true situation of many people's finances, particularly if they are self-employed. There are millionaires whose wealth is entirely tied up in shares they cannot sell or in companies that reinvest. Some people have huge obligations and commitments. Others have none. It is never easy but it needs to be done.
As my children grew and graduated and went off to study in yeshivas or seminaries in Israel, I was always told what the fees were and asked to contribute the maximum, which I endeavored to do according to my circumstances at the time. But, ah, but how times have changed.

Thanks to the power of political parties, yeshivas in Israel nowadays get all kinds of subsidies, capitations, and building grants. Yeshivas are flourishing and expanding exponentially, both in numbers and facilities, and the demand for places is rising all the time. My old yeshivas are positively luxurious compared to what they were. Many alumni, not only from the USA but in Israel too, have done remarkably well financially and you can see the results wherever you go in Israel's yeshiva alleys.

The significant inflow of funds has had a deleterious impact on the morals of the yeshiva world. As the money has flowed in, so too has corruption, and now even extortion. I first became aware of all this when looking to place an American youngster in a post high school program in Israel. The Year Off industry has spawned countless Israeli yeshivas catering to American high school graduates. The competition for places is fierce and as a result methods that, alas, are commonplace in American high schools, particularly in New York, are now transferring to Israel. Only a large donation up front will often get your child in to your place of first choice. Now, if Oxford or Harvard does this, well, what do you expect? But when a religious institution, supposedly educating young people in the highest values of Torah, descends to these pits it is a sad reflection on the state of the Black Hat world!

A nephew of mine (and don't try to guess because I have more nephews than you can image) who happens to be very committed, very studious, and from every point of view the ideal student, was told that unless his parents come up with $150,000 they wouldn't even examine him, and if they did he would be accepted without an examination. This was from two of the most highly regarded Black Hat yeshivas in Israel today. Both of them with palatial premises and no shortage of funds and on the basis of having heard through the grapevine, but with no evidence, that one of the parents had inherited some money.

I find this offensive on two grounds. If the money were going to poor teachers, perhaps I could understand, even if there was no due diligence to discover the facts or the nature and amount of the obligations the family has. But, in fact, I am pretty sure the money goes to the private accounts of the nepotistic families which own and run these institutions, because I have it on firsthand account that non-family teachers get very little and certainly not the pensions and expenses the "owning" families get. Almost all yeshivas are family businesses in which birth usually plays a greater part in promotion than scholarship.

Secondly, it is one thing to ask for funds. It is another to reject a student, regardless of how good or studious he is, simply as a bargaining tool of pressure. Jewish education around the world is flourishing, but in many places where there is no state support it is prohibitively expensive. We need to find, communities must find, ways of funding their schools and yeshivas.

What I am describing, however, is corruption pure and simple. If this is the way the yeshivas are going, then the outlook for Judaism as a spiritual and moral religion, an example to the wider world, as opposed to just another social phenomenon, is bleak indeed. The great and lamented Rav Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevez, Rav Leizer Yehuda Finkel of Mir, and Rav Chatzkel Sarna of Chevron must be turning in their graves. And I bet the guilty parties will be praying away with fake piety during Yom Kippur as if their hands and souls were clean.

August 16, 2007

Women's Hair

Times change. My late father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in the United Kingdom (more kosher than the United Synagogue) from 1945 to 1948. He would meet up with the former Chief Rabbi, Israel Brody at Covent Garden, where they would both sit without head covering, listening to female singing voices. It is probably fair to say that the same applied to the majority of Central and Western European and American Orthodox rabbis fifty years ago.

I was "educated" not to wear a kapel (kippah) in public--but of course my youth in England was a time when all "decent" people wore hats. I didn't at university. We were still in those days under the "Anglo/Germanic" influence of "Be an Englishman in the street and a Jew in your home." But after the Six Day War and spending time in yeshiva, I felt confident enough to say, "What the hell, why not flaunt my pride in my heritage," and I have worn one in public ever since. It's as much a social issue as a religious one. These are obvious examples of how circumstances, even fashions, change outward aspects of religious life.

Some fifty years ago it was unusual, in the west, to find an Orthodox rabbi's wife who covered her hair outside of a synagogue. The same could be said for some great Lithuanian rabbis' wives, and indeed for some wives of Hassidic rebbes. There was still a degree of variety and flexibility that stemmed from a clearer distinction between the anti-rationalists, the anti-Enlightenment rabbis of the Pale of Settlement, and those to the west who had been exposed to other attitudes.

Nowadays, hair covering for women is almost the definition of Orthodoxy. The question is whether this is an absolute requirement or a social one and whether the current trend bears any relationship to universal trends as with Muslim fashion. Once it was rare to wear a hijab, or even hair covering, in the West. As in Judaism, it was confined to the more closed eastern societies. Holidaying Sheiks from Saudi in the South of France looked no different from other wealthy French jetsetters. In Turkey it was unheard of, except amongst the backward Kurds, for a woman to cover her hair. Now it has become a statement, as it has with us.

Was head covering a social phenomenon in Torah times? Or was it a religious obligation? There is no actual requirement laid down in the Torah, but the origins lie in the Biblical narrative (Numbers 5:18) of the woman suspected of adultery (who gave adequate grounds for suspicion but there was no proof). She was brought before the priest for a sort of psychological test. No Inquisition trial by torture I am pleased to say. The priest made her swear her innocence and "loosened" her hair. The Hebrew for "loosened" (PaRaH) is also used of loose men, as in the song of Deborah (Judges 5.2). There it certainly didn't mean "uncovered". Rashi, the great commentator, says it (PaRaH) in the Torah means "removing the pins that keep her hair in place" and then he goes on to say, "This is the origin of the daughters of Israel not going out in public with uncovered hair." Of course, in Rashi's day in northern Europe, no good Christian woman would be seen in public with her hair uncovered either.

The Talmud (Ketubot 72a) asks if hair covering is a Torah obligation or just "tradition" and if tying hair up under a basket to keep it in place is good enough. It is clear that head covering of some sort is an ancient tradition. The only issue is whether it is merely a matter of modesty, as with modest dress, or whether hair covering is a requirement in itself. Clearly the Western rabbis thought modesty was the issue. But, interestingly enough, as important as modesty is, it is not really defined. The Shulchan Aruch says that one should not pray in front of a tefach (a hand's breadth) of hair or skin that is normally covered. But "normally covered" is left vague. The actual definition varies with times and traditions. "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; now, heaven knows, anything goes," wrote Cole Porter.

It would be true to say that at one period, a major chunk of Orthodoxy regarded neat and tidy hair a good enough mark of modesty and perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it is equally true to say that in both many Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities all married women were expected to cover their hair. And as I have said above, now, in most Orthodox circles it is de rigueur in one form or another. The issues are simply what one covers with and how much.

What has swung the pendulum in recent years? Generally there has been reaction to scientific modernity. Specifically the Holocaust so traumatized so many that Orthodoxy decided that the values that could tolerate Nazism, or at best stand by and ignore what was happening, reflected so negatively on Western culture that there was a conscious decision to reject it in favor of survival. The post-1960s tolerance of difference cultures, religions, and immigrant societies, meant that one no longer needed to accommodate to prevailing norms. There weren't any, any more. So head covering, for men and women, has become a statement, both an assertion of one's own values and a rejection of others.

The fact is that within Orthodoxy there is now a whole range of different standards. Chasidic sects wear different hats of different shapes and sizes, coats buttoned up different ways, and socks and shoes of varying styles that all betray, or reveal, the identity and affiliation of the wearer. The same goes for hair covering. Some shave their hair and wear only scarves. Some wear wigs that are covered with hats. Some wear wigs, sheitels, that are supervised religiously, others are bought at the local shops. Some cover their wigs in public; others do not. Some wear scarves, snoods, hair bands, or combinations of the lot, each group allowing different amounts of hair to peek out.

So what's one to do? The fact is that it really depends on what sect or society you want to fit in with and what their conventions and customs are. There is no single standard. There are choices. Rav Ovadya Yosef declares wigs are an abomination and must be covered like normal hair. But virtually all the Ashkenazi Charedi world ignores him. Is anyone right or wrong? It seems to me that the bottom line is modesty. Then there is custom that has taken on the status of law. Thus, what you wear on your head, male or female, is rather like what style of clothes you buy. It is a useful tool to remind yourself where you affiliate religiously and to tell the world outside that you don't give a fig either for their values or their politics! Which is all fair and fine, so long as your own standards pass muster.

August 12, 2007

Arab Israelis

All the major Zionist ideologues of note, from Jabotinsky on the right to Katzenelson on the left, envisioned a state with Arabs and Jews treated equally by law. Israel's Declaration of Independence enshrines this. After 1948, those Arabs that remained within the state of Israel were granted citizenship. But they were regarded as enemy combatants or sympathizers and put under military rule, with their lands subject to confiscation if the army felt it necessary. The exceptions were the Druze, who served with distinction in the Israeli army. Arabs had the vote. Some Arabs thrived and succeeded in many areas of Israeli life. There were Arab political parties and significant representation in other parties, such as the Communists. There were Arab members of the Knesset. But the general Arab population was disadvantaged in terms of the allocation of resources and what are called "Land Rights".

After Oslo, significant attempts were made to improve the lot of the Arab community, but nowhere near enough. The general feeling was that Palestinian aspirations would be met through the creation of a Palestinian state and Arab Israelis would choose either to move into and become a part of that, or be secular Israelis like the Jewish secular Israelis. Not surprisingly, many Arabs felt unhappy with this. They felt that, as they had always lived in this part of the world as Arab Christians or Muslims, it was their land too and they had every right to stay as loyal citizens while still expressing a commitment to their religions and to other Arabs. They argued that they were no different to Jews living in Christian States with their citizenship and civil rights whilst being loyal to other national and religious aspirations.

Of course there were some, like Kahane and his latter day apostles, who argue that Arabs should all be kicked out because they would never be loyal to a state predominantly Jewish. With typical Israeli indecision or perhaps neglect, the feelings of Israeli Arabs, even those unreservedly loyal, were ignored, in the same way that no serious attempts were made to woo and win Palestinian minds and hearts after 1967 in territory suddenly under Israeli rule (or for that matter other Jewish Israeli voices). When Israeli Arabs protested about land confiscation, although they had access to the Supreme Court, they were routinely manhandled. In 2000, a peaceful demonstration resulted in 13 Arab Israelis being killed by the police in the Galil. The Arab population gets a minute proportion of the budget and the infrastructure of its communities, and the opportunity to build for the new generation is severely curtailed.

Of course it is not Apartheid. Anyone who experienced South African Apartheid knows that. The USA was not described as an Apartheid state, despite its scandalous treatment of its black population until relatively recently, because its Federal laws did not impose ideological restrictions or limitations. Neither does Israel. Indeed, there is an Arab minister. Under Apartheid no black could vote, let alone sit in the legislature. Many states are exclusive in various ways. Israel is. The Law of Return is an example. However, there is discrimination and it is this which needs addressing.

Many Jewish Israelis are concerned about preserving the Jewish nature of the state. All the more so since there are tens of other Muslim or Arab states but no other Jewish one. But then these same people would rather have 290,000 Russian non-Jews given the "Right of Return" than address the issue of trying to accommodate its existing Arab population.

It is hardly surprising that as a result Arab opinion is radicalizing and polarizing. It is becoming more religiously extreme, vocal, and assertive. For their part, Jewish Israelis feel threatened by the clear desire of many young Arabs to identify more with Islamic fundamentalism and Palestinian aspirations. In recent years, Israeli Arabs increasingly have been found giving help to terrorists and other enemies of the state. In response, there has been as much talk about redrawing boundaries and transferring population as about how to integrate them into the state.

I believe it is right that the Israeli Ministry of Education has now published textbooks for Arab schools that give an Arab perspective. But the real issues are still not being addressed. What is to be the nature, politically and socially, of Arabs living within Israel's borders, whichever way they turn out to be finalized? And how does Israel deal with a seriously alienated minority? These issues will not go away, however wishfully some like to dream. There will be no ethnic cleansing, no expulsions, no magic. Either you bury your head in the sand until your backside is blown away or you try to deal with it. So, what are the options?

The easy one is to start sharing resources more fairly and investing in Arab communities, which in the long run will only help the Israeli economy. This needs to be done on both sides of the "Green Line". But there are both religious and political issues that need dealing with as part of an overall plan that cannot be an instant solution but may lead to a long term one.

Firstly, one could treat the Arab population, whether Christian or Muslim, as a separate, protected, and empowered minority within the body politic. Such status would recognize their difference, allowing them to be loyal both to a political entity and to a religious, ethnic, cultural identity, just as Jews are in the Diaspora. Once upon a time secular Zionists objected to this solution on the grounds that religion should be a subsidiary sub category of its own. Indeed, separate religions were recognized in the state, but the dream was that all Arabs would turn into mirror images of secular Jewish Israelis. The reality is that Israeli Arabs see religion as a way of identification, as indeed do Charedi Jews who, also, while being citizens still do not identify with a great deal in Zionism or secular Israeli society.

It seems to me that by taking these two simple steps, Israel could begin the process of reintegration that itself would resolve both the specific identity of a Jewish State while giving its Arab citizens a sense of partnership and identification. It is facile to dismiss all Israeli Arabs as enemies. This is dangerous and insulting to many, as anyone familiar with Israeli Arabs knows full well. There may well be enemies there (where aren't there, even amongst Jewish Israelis?), but there are far more who have the wonderful potential to be friends, professionals, and financial partners.

Each person, religiously and civilly, in Israel or elsewhere, deserves to be judged on his or her own merit, not tarred with the same brush as suicidal maniacs. Jewish religious law requires of us to treat the stranger who chooses to live peacefully amongst us as an equal in terms of civil law, charity, and welfare. There is no way we can be a Jewish state if we refuse to abide by the ethical principles of Judaism.

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August 05, 2007


As I read the lines in lamentations, over the fast of the Ninth of Av, the sentences about Jewish virgins being raped in the streets of Jerusalem were particularly poignant. I have recently had to defend Judaism against the charge, both from yet another anti-Semitic website and also from a Jew, that Jewish law, or at least the Bible, condones rape.

The Jewish correspondent wonders how I can base my morality today on a Bible that says that if a man rapes an unmarried woman he can marry her or pay compensation. No mention at all of consent. (No marriage, as opposed to betrothal, could take place without consent, even in Biblical times). No mention of the importance of financial compensation as a way of giving the raped woman some independence. No mention of all the civil claims that would have to be met. And no concession at all to the fact that in all other societies the victim ended up being abandoned altogether usually to a life as a prostitute whereas here provisions are made for her protection or independence. No mention either that if she was betrothed or married the rapist would have been liable for much heavier punishment. In biblical law no one who is coerced can ever be found blameworthy.

The anti-Semite seems to think Jews are allowed to rape all non-Jews, because of the case in Deuteronomy of the woman captured in war, who can be brought home, converted, and then married. The mere fact that the Bible insists on a whole slew of preparatory actions and delays without allowing him to have his way with her is apparently of no significance. He seems oblivious or ignorant of the obligation to treat her as a full wife and to provide for her until death, again at a time when raping foreign captives and selling them off as whores was the norm.

At the root of the issue is the relationship to texts that are at over three thousand years old. The Torah was written, our rabbis all agree, in a language that humans would understand at the time and in their specific context. Institutions that were the norm then, like slavery, were modified, and safeguards and protections unseen elsewhere in the ancient world were introduced. War was violent, with children killed and women raped. The Torah tries to modify and ameliorate and, indeed, protect captured women. But it is true, to us moderns, there is much that sounds archaic.

The Torah was indeed given in a patriarchal environment. What is surprising is that two thousand years ago the rabbis started to use texts and ideas from within the Torah, itself, to improve women’s lot. They stopped the Torah-given right of a jealous husband to challenge his wife in the Temple. They argued that men were not on a higher moral level and ought not be given this privilege. They banned marriage through intercourse, and marriage without providing documentary economic protection and many other legal improvements in a women’s position in society. They did all this using tools the Bible, itself, gave them. It is true that since then these creative attitudes seem to have stalled. But you cannot blame either the Bible or the Talmud for that.

The greatness of the Torah is that it was not only a system applicable then, but it also held within it sources to support new rules and laws to meet new situations. Just think how sacrifices disappeared from Jewish life and prayer replaced them. You might even wonder how the rabbis could disobey the Bible and refuse to allow one to blow the shofar or carry the lulav if the festival fell on a Shabbat.

Any legal system needs continual updating. The Supreme Court of America is constantly reinterpreting its constitution, which is barely hundreds of years old, let alone thousands. Every year, in our day, volumes of Jewish Law are written, dealing with entirely new issues our forefathers could not possibly have imagined, such as genetic engineering, computer copyright, and space travel. They are dealt with through a system that starts with the Bible, but obviously must go and has gone way beyond it.

What amazes me is not that three thousand years ago there were laws that would need to be altered and modified later on, as economic and social conditions changed. What amazes me is that the Torah itself says that legislature must be in place to deal with new circumstances. And with regard to rape it makes the morally significant statement (Deuteronomy 22:26) that rape can be compared to murder. A statement like that, way ahead of today let alone its time, enables later legislators to innovate. When one is committed to Torah, one is committed to a dynamic system--one that was way ahead of its time, in that it allowed for change within defined parameters.

Here we are three thousand years after the Torah and still an Italian judge, not untypical of much of European justice, can say that women who get raped deserve it. In Britain conviction for rape is still notoriously difficult and in the USA men still are less likely to be convicted than not. In most parts of the Muslim world, raped women are regarded as having asked for it. Remember Yugoslavia, where rape was used as a tool of war with virtually no limitations or restrictions ruining the lives of tens of thousands of women. Look at how many have been raped in Sudan, as we live. Even modern Turkey has only just introduced nominal legislation protecting women from rape.

Now here is another issue. In our modern, egalitarian societies women increasingly feel free enough to dress in the most revealing and provocative way, there is a culture of drunkenness in which young women often find themselves helplessly drunk and out of control. There are those who say that it’s hardly surprising if they get into trouble and I confess I’m amazed that more do not. But it has never been the halachic position to put the blame on a woman who is victimized. It's true that halacha puts a high value on modesty in dress and behavior and strongly urges its adherents not to lose control. But there never is any justification whatsoever for a man to take advantage of a woman. All sexual activity must be by consent. It can never be by compulsion, even between husband and wife.

If there are individuals who do not always act on this basis, it is because they themselves have been brought up in societies that devalue women or are otherwise morally defective. Ironically, they might be borrowing either from Eastern European drunken male chauvinism or from primitive Middle Eastern cultures who regard women as chattels to be bought and sold. If there are still some Jewish men whose mindset is barbaric, it is not the Bible to blame or Jewish Law, but a clear deficiency in human sentiment.

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