October 25, 2007

Abraham

Every time I read the Biblical narratives about Abraham (and it's that time of the year in the synagogue) I am reminded of the differences between his day and ours--and I usually think the comparison favours his. I often come across people who claim that Abraham was rather primitive, specifically in the way he treated his women. But the fact is that, taking his life as a whole, he was a remarkably universal, tolerant human being, well worth emulating. However particular, or even exclusive, the Bible may seem to some, Abraham is a startling example of how one can transcend one's specific concerns and priorities.

There's one issue that troubles me because it is now, perhaps with reason, a really prevalent mantra in the Jewish world that I encounter. So many of us believe that the whole world hates us, "It is an accepted fact that Esau hates Jacob." The late Lord Jakobovits often referred to anti-Semitism as "Hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary."

It's not as though we have no good reason. After all, Hitler did actually nearly succeed while the rest of the world looked on and didn't seem to care, except when their own interests were at stake or if they were individual mavericks like Raoul Wallenberg. President Roosevelt didn't want to be seen being too pro Jewish and nice President Truman's wife wouldn't invite local Jews to come into their home.
Still today, anti-Semitism is flourishing (even leaving anti-Israelism out of this). It is not pleasant to be assaulted on the media almost daily by images of articulate enemies and thousands of yahoos who would like to see us killed, disappear, or prevent us from demanding our rights. Hardly a day goes by anywhere where walls of synagogues or schools or graveyards are not daubed with symbols and words of hatred against us. So it's hardly surprising if we have just a weeny teeny little "chippele" on our shoulders. Even if there are some non-Jews who are favorably disposed to us, it's rather like as kid coming home from school where he's been bullied and abused and his mother says, "There, there, darling; at least I love you."
So I guess with our history of three thousand years of persecution two things are amazing. One is that we have survived and we are actually flourishing (despite the losses and the dropouts). The second is that we are not even more screwed up than we are. Frankly, when I look around at the messed up millions of barbarians who share this same planet we inhabit, I reckon we're not too bad after all.

But the fact is that for good reason we are primarily concerned with our own survival. Does this excuse our apparent lack of concern for others beyond our ghetto walls?

To return to our father Abraham, look at Genesis Chapters 18-22. He certainly had grounds for paranoia. He couldn't even hold his own family together, let alone cope with the Hittites the Canaanites and all the other "ites" of his day. He had to contend with famine and attempts to take his wife away from him, and he got involved in other people's fights. At every turn he was faced with dissension within and without. Yet, for all of this, he was able to put his own worries aside and beg God not to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, made up of people he didn't particularly like or approve of. His immense humanity, his concern for everyone, overrides his own preoccupation with survival.

Whereas the prophet Jonah refuses to go on a mission to non-Jews who may then turn on his own people (and gets a firm rebuke from God for his lack of universalism), Abraham, on the other hand, unreservedly and unhesitatingly argues for alien peoples, even his enemies. Not only but by way of contrast, when God tells him to sacrifice his own son Isaac, he does not try to argue at all.

You might say this simply reflects his commitment to God's command as directed to himself and thought he was a special and specific case. But that would make my point even more forcefully that we need to fight the battle of humanity in general, even when we continue to fully accept the impositions and restrictions of our own particular traditions. This, I believe, is the message that the Biblical narrative wants to emphasize. Of course, we must fight for our own survival. But at the same time we need to see ourselves as part of Creation, part of Adam's world, Abraham's world, not just Moses'. There is a well-known Talmudic phrase that says, "What our forefathers did is an example for us to follow."

Interesting that when our current religious leadership wishes to defend its territory, it tends to focus on the need for survival and preserving our integrity, as against and often to the exclusion of the more universal values that may appear to conflict. That does not appear to have been the Abrahamic way.

It's also interesting that when the current antireligious lobby looks for points to score against Biblical Judaism, they always select those commands that are directed at a very specific group, such as the Canaanite tribes or specific pagan horrors and ignore the wider humanism of the text and those commands that transcend differences. The will refer to political and social exigencies of three thousand years ago and disregard the broader ethical obligations. So the needs to extricate oneself from Egyptian oppression by whatever means, was balanced by the Biblical command not to hate Egyptians.

Whichever way one regards the Biblical texts and whoever or however one thinks they came about, it was precisely what was included that fascinates and sometimes confuses me. But from amongst the mixed and complex messages, certain voices simply shout out at one for their primacy. Abraham's voice is one of them.

In truth, I believe self-interest and universal concern are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We must have both within our psyches, struggling creatively for our future.

October 21, 2007

Middle Eastern Books

My summer reading included some fascinating contrasts. It started with Amos Oz. I have to confess I am so far removed from secular Jewish angst that I have tended to steer clear of secular Israeli literature. Besides, I get so many anti-Israel and anti-Jewish opinions, and articles, and programs bombarding me, particularly whilst I'm in Europe, that frankly I just did not want any more Left Wing soul-baring and self-castigation with heavy doses of anti Judaism that often make anti Semites look tame. I know what's wrong with Israel and Israelis. I know what's wrong with Jews and yes I know what's wrong with me too. I don't have to go on hearing the same mantras without any nuance, alternative, or proportionality. The fact is that I can only bear American secular novelists when they do not write about anything Jewish. But friends in Israel kept on about how good A Tale of Love and Darkness was, so that in the end I capitulated and I was delighted that I did.

It is beautifully and sensitively written. I found it particularly interesting because Oz describes a Jerusalem of the 1950's that I well recall from my youth, including some of the characters he mentions. It made me very nostalgic for the small, insular Jerusalem of my youth that actually was incredibly beautiful and hospitable and warm. But it was a town with a scar down its middle--of barriers, walls, and "no-man's land". We would struggle to find any vantage point to look into the Old City, and how we feared being the victims of Arab Legion sniper fire if we ventured too close.

One bus line was all you needed to go from west to east, and one from north to south; hardly anyone had cars except for ministers and United Nations officials (you couldn't call them "peacekeepers" because they didn't keep any peace). The Knesset was on Rehov King George and you could watch the open-shirted members of the Knesset walk up and go inside carrying their bundles of papers in their hands. Almost everyone who was anyone lived in Rehavia; you could stand there and see Ben Gurion walk in and out of his Jerusalem residence. On the other hand, you could walk from the cramped, decrepit Hassidic hot spot of Ger in Machane Yehudah (before they rebuilt and relocated) to Mea Shearim in twenty minutes and pass the modest homes of nearly all the greatest rabbis of the generation (except for the handful who lived in the terrifyingly strict and holy town of Benei Brak).

Then in 1967 the walls came down and you could go into the Old City and up to the Kotel and drink coffee in exotic Arab caverns by the Damascus Gate. Jerusalem expanded and spread out like a ravenous amoeba; institutions mushroomed, American students proliferated, and there was more than the one kosher Yemenite restaurant in town. Yes, novels are great at peddling nostalgia, and Oz does it masterfully in a clean and simple style that, frankly, should have won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, had he not been Israeli.

But as I spoke about his book, other friends said that his was too one-sided a view and I ought to read Sari Nusseibeh's book, Once Upon A Country, as an antidote. So I did, and I'm glad I did. Nusseibeh is a philosopher, not a writer, and he and his co-writer have produced a turgidly written sort of apologia "pro vita sua" with little literary merit, just too clumsy a polemic to for it to be seen as a work of literature like Oz's, which Nusseibeh himself says inspired him to write his book. There are errors and distortions and Nusseibeh claims that Israelis took pot shots into the Old City rather than the other way round.

But the humanity of Nusseibeh and his obvious pain comes through, and I believe everyone who cares about the Middle East ought to read it. If he were representative of the Palestinian masses, I'd have qualms about the future of two states living side by side in peace. He tries to be fair (and that's no small feat in itself nowadays). He does not shrink from describing the errors and lost opportunities, not to mention the cruelties that both sides have been guilty of.

But, of course, he is a Palestinian, and this book gives us a Palestinian's perspective. I strongly believe in hearing another point of view; my education and my father's training impressed on me the importance of doing so. And never ever has it been more necessary than it is today. So I am grateful to Nusseibeh for his book. As painful a read as it may be to the uninitiated, I recommend it highly, precisely because it makes an attempt at evenhandedness. Incidentally, when I was in Israel during the summer, I had no luck getting hold of the book in Jerusalem. A few bookshops claimed never to have heard of it. But Amazon came to the rescue.

And, finally, I read two books by the Turkish Nobel Prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk. I do recommend them. But they are not, I think, Nobel Prize winning material, other than for the same politically correct reasons that have denied Oz. Both the Orhan books I read give a fascinating insight into Turkish Muslim culture. My Name Is Red (another recommendation by a good friend) is a murder mystery set against the background of rivalry between Muslim miniaturists loyal to tradition and those who wanted to introduce more modern Flemish styles. The clash between tradition and modernity, even if it takes place four hundred years ago, is the very one seen in both Jewish and Muslim fundamentalist circles today.

Even more so is this true of Snow, which takes place in a remote town on the Kurdish border. It concentrates more specifically on the clash between traditional Muslim values and the secular values of Ataturk in a changing and increasingly religious Turkish society. It is all so familiar, almost identical to what is going on in Orthodox Judaism today.

But all of this goes to show how fine the line is that divides so many of us, and how tantalizing close, and yet so far, we are from each other. It is not, I think, a matter of culture. It is all about politics. Perhaps we should ask the writers to see if they can sort things out!

October 11, 2007

Hygiene

In my callow youth I used to think it absurd to have, as Jewish law requires, to wash and make a blessing every time I went to the toilet. It added another ritual ablution to a long list that started from the moment I woke up. My stern grandfather insisted that I make use of a bowl he placed under my bed, together with a jug of water and a cup. The moment I woke up I had to wash my hands, "negelvasser", as it was called in Yiddish. My father, on the other hand, was more lenient, and he was satisfied if I walked the few paces to the bathroom.

Then after I went to the "loo" there was another wash and a blessing to thank the Almighty for my bodily functions performing normally, cavities to put things in and others to let things out and all of them working as they were intended. Well, of course they did, I thought. I can't exactly recall when I realized that it was, indeed, something to be very grateful for if all these intricate, complex and malfunction-prone orifices really did function normally. Of course, as you get older you are reminded all the time of what a miracle it is, and the miracle gets bigger as each year passes.

I do not believe that one of the primary intentions of Jewish ritual is hygiene or physical well being. There are too many exceptions and besides you can adhere to the letter of many laws and still be an unhealthy, cigarette smoking overweight slob. Even if the Torah itself commands that we take good care of our bodies--it's like lots of laws that are often disregarded in practice even by the most Orthodox. But hygiene and physical wellbeing actually turn out to be very important byproducts of leading a religious life. This has even got us into serious trouble more than once, most notably during the Black Death. As Jews were expected to wash after going to the toilet and before meals, it is hardly surprising that they were less likely to be the victims of a disease that spread through unhygienic conditions. Because they were less likely to succumb, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells.

If hygiene, in itself, is not the reason for our laws, it is connected. The consistent theme that underlies all Jewish ritual is, to take a phrase from Georgian literature, "Only Connect" to "Think About the Consequences." Thinking before acting can add a spiritual dimension to everything one does. It may be that avoiding certain foods has beneficial side-effects or that abstaining from sex during a period lessens the likelihood of catching certain types of diseases, or that circumcision reduces susceptibility to certain types of infections; but the importance of such ritual activities has much more to do with sanctity than hygiene, as the great anthropologist Mary Douglas has often pointed out (most relevantly in Purity and Danger).

Perhaps adhering to Jewish ritual is, as Professor Yeshaya Leibovitz loved to claim, simply an act of obedience and submission to a higher dictate. Perhaps it is, as the Kabbalists believe, a supernatural matrix that links our actions to heaven where each action establishes a secret connection. Whatever the reason, in my youth I thought it a bind, and I bridled at the inconvenience to have to bother all the time. Now I thank the Almighty for the understanding that maturity (of sorts) is giving me. Because I know myself how easy it is to say, "What the heck," and just rub your hands against your trouser leg or dab a few drops from the faucet (as the Yanks call taps) in a symbolic gesture. But actually washing hands properly, and being forced into a complex ritual each time one goes to the loo, and having to recite a serious blessing afterwards, is terribly important on hygienic as well as religious grounds because it does indeed force you to stop and think.

I wouldn't want you to think I frequent "conveniences" like American Senators or British MPs who prowl for sexual encounters except I am recording scientific data. Heaven forefend. Neither do I stand around in a dirty raincoat noting those who walk past the sinks after relieving themselves in public conveniences. But I have noticed how often, or in fact how rarely, people actually do wash their hands after excusing themselves. I am just amazed that even in airport lounges or places of intellectual entertainment, such as concert halls and theatres, or at fancy restaurants (even kosher ones), the vast majority, and I repeat, the vast majority of well-brought-up Western men do NOT wash their hands after they handle certain parts of their anatomy that are best left unmentioned, even if the Good Lord created them too!

According to The Lancet, medical tests taken at sophisticated bars (not the grubby boozers of the unwashed masses) have shown that the levels of bacteria from excreta to be found in bowls of peanuts and snacks that are shared, are dangerously high. In our modern, health-conscious world, the majority of us are spreading our dirty stuff around without second thought. I know some people think we have become cleanliness freaks and that's why so many allergies have proliferated in modern families.

How wonderful, therefore, that our ancient and, as some sadly suggest, old-fashioned, restrictive, narrow-minded, primitive religion requires us to wash our hands several times with a goodly measure of water, and praise the Lord, and think, after relieving ourselves. If hygiene were the only reason then of course we would have to add soap and disinfectant and a lot more. And indeed I would heartily recommend that too. But at least if we adhere to the minimum traditional requirement when we come out of the toilet and shake someone's hand, we can do so with confidence, secure in the thought that we have done our bit to avoid passing something unhealthy on to our fellow creatures. Indeed, respect for God should lead to respect for humanity.