January 30, 2008

Anglo Jewry Wakes Up

I may have to eat my words. Anglo Jewry is alive and well! Not only, but there is a new era of younger, proactive professionals who know how to run organizations efficiently, how to deal with governments and civil servants, and handle the press and the new media. And, for the first time, they are supported by new generation of younger magnates, often with a far stronger command of Judaism and Jewish affairs than hitherto, who are seeing that funding is there for the right projects, so long as they are run by appropriate people. I detect a sea change! Even the ancient, crusty, much-maligned Board of Deputies is waking up and for the first time that I can remember, looking exciting!

If there is one more general item that proves the point, it is that this year, for the first time in Anglo Jewish history, there will be a march through the centre of London to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday. And it will be a march to rival New York's, a proper one, not hidden away in an arena or a sheltered square, but out in the open, in your face. Anglo Jews will parade out in the open and not be scared or embarrassed.

For the first time there is also a ground swell of support for Jewish education and day schools coming from beyond the fringes and even indeed from the growing number of mixed marriages (which I happen to think might, and I stress might, not necessarily be all bad, if some choose to retain a positive Jewish identity). What is more, this new wave of well-trained and well-supported lay leaders are coming from areas in Anglo Jewry outside the ghettos as well as within.

When I first entered the rabbinate my concern was the other way. Orthodoxy in Britain was dominated by the pseudo-Orthodox. The largest and mainstream religious body, the United Synagogue, was about as Orthodox as a belly dancer is modest and it did not contain one fully functional mikveh in the nineteen fifties. The mood of Anglo Jewry was most unfriendly towards the ultra-Orthodox world, which was regarded as an irrelevant fossil. Gateshead Yeshiva was regarded as a sort of Trappist retreat for the socially challenged. My mission, when I entered the rabbinate, was to fight for a more positive Orthodox perspective. I wanted to defend and encourage Torah study, yeshiva, Jewish education, when it was unfashionable, underfinanced, and looked on as for extremists only. No "normal" Anglo Jew would want to be associated with any of them, except occasionally for guilt money. Only one rich Anglo Jew then gave substantially to religious institutions and that was the colorful Isaac Wolfson.

At that time Orthodox spokesmen were being outgunned and outmaneuvered by the non-Orthodox, who seemed to have commandeered the media. Now things have changed so much that the boot is on the other foot. Ultra-Orthodoxy, Charedi Judaism, whatever label you want to use, has now come to dominate our thinking and our community to the point where even the Chief Rabbi trembles before their onslaught.

This would not be perceived as problematic in a society open to discourse, disagreement, debate, and choice. But it is a feature of all examples of growing religious strength that it tends to stifle debate and impose conformity. That is why there are rebellious groups of religious youngsters who cannot find their places in strict orders, who may turn to religious violence. It's not just confined to other religions. Ours may not be as serious or as lethal, but look at recent riots and attacks by "ultra" youth in Beth Shemesh in Israel--even the Charedi establishment has decided that enough is enough. Others end up leading double-lives, as any clubber in London, New York, or Tel Aviv will testify.

At one stage I feared that the growth of Charedi communities, which I welcomed and supported, would lead to the Charedi-ization of all Anglo Jewry with the rest drifting away altogether. But now it seems the opposite is true. The stronger one section becomes, the stronger the community as a whole becomes, and it almost engenders creative competition. It"s like when a McDonald's attracts a Pizza Hut and then a Kentucky Fried Chicken. More does mean more for everyone. More Jewish schools of whatever color will lead to more children identifying, in whatever ways, and that means more chances (never guarantees) of stronger Jewish commitment. A better-run, more successful community means more people are proud to be associated with it. Better institutions attract more funding. Up to now all the creative elements in Anglo Jewish life came from outside the establishment, from informal or unofficial elements. Now at last some sections of this old establishment, and I do only mean some, are getting their creative acts together.

Anglo Jewry is indeed far more religious and learned, cultural and creative than it ever was. The only black hole remains academia, where we have all but nothing (O.K., one or two really good ones, but most have been attracted elsewhere). In comparison to Israel, the USA, and France, Anglo Jewish academic life is a ghost.

Of course, too many Jews are still alienated. Some feel the community only values the wealthy. Some simply haven't been touched or inspired by anything to excite their identity. For every one brought back to Judaism, far more slide away. Despite all the new schools, we have nowhere near enough really good Jewish teachers.

But the signs are good. I'm an optimist, and after speaking to a successful magnate, a Board of Deputies guru, a teacher, and a social worker, I must say that I cannot recall as upbeat a mood in Anglo Jewry as a whole, ever.

There are of course still fears that the flaccid, apathetic British and the rest of Europe still haven't still woken up to the threat to their values that rampant fundamentalism presents. But then the only response is indeed to fight back. So I'm delighted there are people in the Jewish and non-Jewish community who are taking these issues seriously. Well done people--enjoy the parade.

January 20, 2008

The Ten Commandments

If one had to suggest one indisputable contribution that Jews have made to humanity it might be the Bible. The trouble with that assertion is that there are sections of the Bible that are taken by some rather negatively, whether they are laws to do with slavery or even sacrifices or historical commandments like obliterating Canaanites. But I think even an atheist would agree that the Ten Commandments have not ever been bettered as a basic code of human behavior. Of course, he or she might cavil at references to God and idolatry, but be comforted by the curious yet significant fact that the Ten Commandments do not actually, in their literal wording, command you to believe in God.

These Ten appear all over the world in sculpture, art, and indeed in or around many American law courts. Yet the fact is there is no such thing as "The Ten Commandments". The exact number of commands listed under Chapter 20 of Exodus, verses 2 to 14, is a matter of dispute amongst even the greatest of Jewish authorities. If you look at the great medieval commentators, you will find numbers of specific commands derived from these verses, ranging from 12 to 15. Besides the divisions into chapter and verse we all use nowadays is a very late arrival on the scene and owes more to Christianity than to Judaism.

In fact the Jewish tradition refers to them as Aseret Hadibrot, which literally means "The Ten Statements" which really means the "Ten Principles". The fact is that if they were commandments they would be rather vague and even unhelpful. When the text says "Thou Shalt Not Kill", does it mean "kill"? If so, why does the Bible elsewhere tell us that we should kill, either Canaanites or others who come to attack us? Cannot it make up its mind? And if the text requires us to replace "kill" with "murder" then why is there no distinction stipulated between culpable homicide and manslaughter? The Bible itself makes this distinction when it talks about cities of refuge for accidental homicide. And does "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery" literally only mean adultery? What about all other forbidden relations such as incest? Are they included too or not? The other Biblical term we use to refer to forbidden sexual relations, "Gilui Ayarot", would be much more appropriate, if less catchy and concise. And is coveting one's neighbor's ox a separate command from coveting one's neighbor's ass or his wife? Or do they all come under the same rubric?

To make life even more complicated, there are two versions in the Bible of the same "Ten". One we have mentioned comes in Exodus 20:2-14, and then another version appears in Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy, verses 6-18. Why do they have different verse counts? Which version are we to take as the actual "Ten", given the differences? There are only minor differences in text and law, but they can be quite significant, such as in the reasons given for keeping Shabbat. The first reason given is "creation" and the second is "slavery". It's all well and good to say that both versions were given by the Almighty simultaneously to Moses, but we ordinary mortals of lesser inspiration and indirect contact can only take in one version at a time. If a simple command like keeping the Shabbat is meant to be legislatively watertight, and all the great monotheistic religions agree in principle, then how come Jews keep it on Saturday, Christians on Sunday, and Muslins on Friday? And that's without even going into the issue of how you define "work". So what this all means is that even Biblical texts are read and understood through the varying filters of different religious experiences, traditions, and dogma.

Within Judaism itself the relationship with the "Ten" has been a rocky one. According to tradition, the Two Tablets of the Covenant which Moses brought down off the mountain, both the second whole set and the original broken bits, were kept in the Ark in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple and, were read regularly in the Temple. They were not read in synagogues every day because, as the Jerusalem Talmud, the Yerushalmi says, otherwise people might think these ten were more important than the rest of the Torah. Which, of course, is why Judaism has always referred to them as the "Aseret Hadibrot," statements, rather than commands. Nevertheless, this tendency to think they are the essential rules and all the others are secondary is precisely what has happened in many circles both within Judaism and without.

Despite all these points, the "Ten" have not been improved upon over the thousands of years since we introduced them to the world. As, indeed, we did with the Biblical command in Leviticus to "Love Your Neighbor as Yourself". I'm still always amazed to discover that so many think that came from Christianity first. But it's a sad fact that younger and seemingly prettier seductresses have touted the Ten as their own, and our enemies only seem to want to focus on those things we do that they disapprove of. So perhaps we should remind them that without us there wouldn't be any Ten Whatever-You-Want-To-Call-Them. And, yes, I'm proud of that!! In this day of newer models being assumed to be superior, I declare for the "Golden Oldie".

January 11, 2008

Actions Count

It is easy to beat up on any kind of human activity, as indeed I often do. Humans often mess up, intentionally or otherwise, almost anything they get their hands on or invent. It is true that there are also those, if fewer, who seem able to elevate things, but it is easy to focus on the negative. Newspapers will write about, "Youth pushes old lady off a bus", but never, "Youth helps old lady onto a bus."

Casual readers of mine may get a distorted view of my outlook on life if they only pick up a critical piece, so here's a contrast. (Although I'm just as conscious that casual readers may also come to the conclusion that I'm just another preachy rabbi.)

We in the Christian West (now there's an old fashioned and unfashionable expression!) tend to look at religions as collections of theological imperatives. Presidential candidates are asked about their beliefs. It's natural that Judaism has come to be influenced by the world in which it exists, but if you look at our primary texts you will notice that theology hardly features. This does not mean there are no beliefs, just that the way we relate to them differs from the theological Christian approach and we do, for better or worse, put much greater emphasis on behavior, on actions, rather than thoughts.

The Mishna and then the Gemara (which together make up the Talmud) are the primary texts of the Judaism we see around us today. They were written and complied during the first half of the first millennium, though of course their roots lie much earlier. They give us a flavor of how the religion was perceived by its leaders during this period, and it is clear that they were very consciously not interested in looking at the world through Greek, Roman, and then Christian, eyes, or in using the tools those societies used to explain their religion and its ideas. Of course from Philo of Alexandria through Saadya of Iraq to Maimonides of Egypt, some very significant Jews did indeed indulge in speculative theology. But there is no theology as such in the Talmud. It does deal with ideas but not in a philosophical way. The texts I want to share with you are emblematic. This is how the Mishna opens, its very first words, which are intended to put down a marker of what really matters in Judaism.

This first Mishna in Peah: "These are the things that have no limitation--Peah (how much you leave for the poor from your fields at harvest time), First Fruits (how much you bring to the Temple), Appearance (how much you bring to Jerusalem when you appear at the Temple each year), Gemilut Chessed (being kind to others), and Torah study." It seems pretty clear that this is a text based on sometime before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70CE, though no doubt there are plenty of people who will dispute this and claim it is much later and just nostalgic.

The post-destruction modification continues like this: "These are the things that a person 'eats the fruit of' in this world, but the real benefit is in the World to Come--honoring parents, kindness, making peace between people, and Torah study, which is the most important of all." This latter is on the assumption that study leads to practice as well (Megilla 27a), but it also reflects the rabbinic emphasis on Torah study, both to compensate for the loss of sacrifices and as a way of maintaining cohesion and tradition in scattered exile.

Then sometime around the first millennium, when the prayerbook we have today was largely compiled, a third variation comes in which adds the following (and there are minor variations in different prayer books): "Getting early to the Beit Midrash (where they both studied and prayed) in the morning and in the evening, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, helping brides get married, participating in funerals, concentrated prayer, making peace between people and between a man and his wife. But studying Torah is as important as all of them."

(Incidentally, "The World to Come" is used in different ways throughout the Talmud. In addition to meaning "Life After Death", it sometimes refers to a "Messianic Era", and could also be used as the equivalent of what we might call nowadays a "spiritual world" as opposed to the material.)

Look at that list, the priorities. Look at how important being nice to people is. Surely those things matter far more than "believing" the right thing, the accepted thing, or the conventional thing. Though of course it's easy enough to say "I believe", not argue, and get on with your meal. This Mishna is to be found in every prayer book and forms an integral part of the daily service. On the other hand, Maimonides 13 Principles are tagged on at the end as a sort of optional extra. There are many different ways of believing, as many as there are human minds. But there is only one way of behaving in a caring way and we can all recognize that.

This was inspired by an incident in the USA a few weeks ago. There was a bad crash on the route between Brooklyn, New York and Lakewood, New Jersey. They are two of the most important focal points of Orthodoxy in the Jewish world today. The connection route carries more sheitels and beards per kilometer than almost any other. The crash happened on a Friday afternoon, which, together with rush hour traffic, meant that large numbers of Orthodox families found themselves stranded on the highway with no chance of making it to their destinations before Shabbat set in. Thanks to mobile technology, emergency arrangements were made along and off the route. Large numbers of Jewish families at the very last minute put up stranded strangers, often with very different customs and traditions, and gave then somewhere to eat and sleep over Shabbat with absolutely no gain or motive other than kindness, welcoming visitors, helping the needy, Gemilut Chessed.

Now that' s what I love about Judaism and what makes me proud of my tradition. It's not the abstractions, or what might, may, or could happen after I die, or even who wrote what--as important as these idea may be. It's living a life according to Torah that leads one to care and help. Notice that although the Mishna goes on to deal with laws and details, it starts by stressing the underpinning principle of care for humanity.

Torah study is crucial but it matters most when it leads to action. According to another Mishna, if you do things that others recognize as noble, you can be sure that is what the Almighty wants of you.

January 04, 2008

A Different Hasid

All revolutionary movements lose their original inspiration. Power and pragmatism dull the fire. So it is with religion, and so it is with Hasidism. I identify with the Hasidic movement, in principle, and admire its passion and desire to elevate every individual and to inspire through joy. But nothing, no one, is above constructive criticism.

My brother, Mickey Rosen, has just produced a very important book, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, published by Urim. Anyone who wants to know what is wrong with Orthodoxy today, need only to read it.

It is about the "court" of Przysucha (often called Peshischa) in Poland under its leading eighteenth and nineteenth century charismatic leaders, the Yehudi (died 1814), Simhah Bunim (died 1827), and Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (died 1859)--charismatic, fiercely honest individuals who were opposed to blind faith and conformity. The rest of the Hasidic world didn't much like Simha Bunim, in particular because he had trained as a chemist, supported himself financially, had traveled, spoke many languages, and (crime of crimes) wore normal western dress. And the Kotzker had a brilliant intellect, no patience for fools, and an acerbic wit.

Sadly, the rest of the Hasidic world closed ranks against them. The movement was suppressed by what has become most (though, thank goodness, not all) of current Hasidism, with its exaggerated veneration of rebbes regardless of actual qualities, its hereditary dynasties, its reactionary antirational, conformist mysticism and its wild and too often aggressive excesses. Yet Hasidism now dominates much of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

It is so ironic, because Hasidism itself started out as a challenge to conventional religious norms. It was strongly opposed by the great Vilna Gaon as "dumbing down" Judaism and spreading popular Kabbala. Those who rejected Hasidism were known as the Mitnagdim, the "opponents". The movement was excommunicated by the Jewish establishment in Eastern Europe twice in 1772.

Yet a hundred years on, it did virtually the same to its own radicals. Moves to officially excommunicate Peshischa were initiated in 1820 and 1822, but in practice it was not necessary to ban the movement to suppress it. Some argue it was the tempestuous and then reclusive character of the brilliant Kotzker rebbe that ceded the territory to the more stable and controlling, if reactionary, Chidushei HaRim of Ger ( he more than anyone else responsible for the dress codes ). Whatever the reason, creativity and nonconformity lost out. What's new in radical movements!

The Baal Shem Tov (died 1760), founder of the Hasidic movement, wanted to reach out to the masses of Eastern European Jews who were not scholars, lived predominantly in rural communities, and suffered a sense of isolation and alienation in the wake of the terrible Cossack pogroms from 1648 to 1680. There was a tremendous gulf between them and the rabbinic authorities, who tended to ally themselves with and marry into the small wealthy oligarchy of most Jewish communities.

Mysticism was one response to this need, with its emphasis on experience and charisma, feeling rather than study, and the messianic belief in imminent redemption. The latter, although an attractive antidote to desperation, had already led to a spate of false messiahs. Indeed, having a charismatic rabbi as an intermediary or representative was very attractive, too. The Baal Shem Tov although not the simple schoolteacher as is often made out, made use of his charisma and powers of healing to reach out to the masses, but by all accounts this was peripheral to his primary message of the individual struggle to find a direct relationship with God.

When he died he passed his mantle on, not to a son, but to two other great leaders the Maggid of Mezrich and Yaakov Yosef of Pollonoye, and an unofficial group of others. Despite the opposition, Hasidism clearly met a growing need, for it spread like wildfire and then branched out into different, distinct zones and styles. In the next generation, Rebbi Elimelech of Lizhensk expanded the idea of the tzadik and the rebbe beyond the inspirational to the level of an iconic representation of God on earth, imitating Kingship with Royal Courts and having powers others could not aspire to except through dynasty. One might even see the influence of Christianity at work. Hence genealogy became a central ideology of Hasidism.

Peshischa, on the other hand, demanded self-analysis, honesty, and a sincere attempt to establish a direct relationship with God. Its detractors accused it of being too free and easy with ritual demands, but in practice it was as committed to Torah and to Halacha as any other Hasidic group. However, in restricting the worship of the tzadik and minimizing the importance of miracles, it threatened the powerbase and, indeed, the financial underpinnings of the Hasidic movement.

As a result of the campaign against Peshischa, leadership based on charismatic meritocracy, lost out to the hereditary empires of rebbes who would get you into heaven and cure all your ills (and a nice donation would help). This led to a leadership that notoriously failed, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to offer any solution to social, political, or theological challenges, other than conformist passivity.

In practice, it worked as a social mechanism for control over the masses of Eastern European Jews who had neither the time, nor the inclination or the education to engage theologically or philosophically. The security of belonging was enough. Indeed, one might argue that that was what the post-Holocaust world required. But it is far removed from the world of Simha Bunim. Reading this book only makes one sadder that his movement was suppressed. For it represented the very features of a great spiritual tradition that so many Jews find missing in the public face of Judaism on almost all levels today.

Nowadays Hasidism has effectively taken over the whole of the Orthodox world. Even Lithuanian rabbis behave the same way Hasidic rebbes do, with their courts, their handlers, protocol, moneymaking machinery, and hereditary succession. It is sad how conformity rules.

You need to read this book to realize it doesn't have to be the way it is. My brother has done a great service in making sure the real Peshischa is not forgotten.