May 25, 2008

Not Kosher Kosher

A few years ago PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a video of awful schechita practices at the biggest kosher abattoir in the USA. The practices shown on the video were roundly condemned by some religious authorities. Sadly, as you might expect, others prevaricated, arguing about only breaking the spirit of the law, as opposed to the letter (after all, business is business). In my experience, those who make such nuanced distinctions, and sacrifice spirit, almost always end up sacrificing the letter as well. I would also add that those who allow animals to be mistreated are also the sort who are more likely to allow humans to be abused too. In the pursuit of money, caution is thrown to the winds, and once again the multimillionaires of the kosher meat trade have desecrated the good name of our religion.

Last week the now notorious kosher abattoir in Postville hit the news again. This appeared in the Des Moines Register:

Postville, IA - Immigrant workers detained during this week’s Agriprocessors Inc. meatpacking raid in Postville allege that the company withheld pay for what it called “immigration fees,” denied compensation for overtime and refused to let employees use the restroom during some 10-hour shifts, according to a lawsuit filed late Thursday.

The federal lawsuit on behalf of three arrested workers includes accounts of verbal abuse by plant supervisors and one anecdote about a floor manager who threw meat at his employees.

Federal agents raided the plant on Monday and arrested 389 workers suspected to be illegal immigrants. The workers were detained at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, identified and taken to initial court appearances in the largest single-site immigration crackdown in U.S. history. . .The lawsuit cites stories heard by Sonia Parras Konrad, a Des Moines immigration lawyer who interviewed more than 50 detainees in Waterloo.

According to the lawsuit:

– Workers told Konrad that Agriprocessors Inc. procured bogus identification and employment papers for them.

– The kosher meatpacking plant withheld $50 per paycheck from employees for what it called “immigration fees.”

– Plant supervisors subjected the immigrant workers to abuse that included derogatory names and physical abuse.

A federal affidavit signed on May 9 and made public the day of the raid states that federal authorities launched their raid in part because of allegations that Agriprocessors Inc. was exploiting its employees.

Eighteen of the workers were minors, ranging in age from 13 to 17. Federal agents have since turned the youths over to adult guardians or the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for displaced refugees.

You can read of other serious allegations on the internet. For sure, the issue of illegal immigration is a delicate one. Wealthy societies depend on cheap immigrant labour, but only want the benefits, not the responsibilities or the consequences. This is an important wider issue, but here I am only concerned with the kosher angle.

Now, if you log on to the very kosher websites, you get a fascinating microcosm of Orthodox attitudes. VosIzNeias (Yiddish for "What is News") has a typical exchange on this issue. One group jumps to the defense of the Rubashkins, the multimillionaire owners, and talks about what good and charitable people they are, as if that makes up for running a company that regularly breaks the law. Welcome, Rabbi Hood! The defenders argue that they have brought jobs and new life to a dying community. Indeed, but I doubt it is out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than for a multimillion dollar profit. Of course, as always, it is the nasty wicked Feds picking on the Jews. Except that they raided other, non-Jewish, abattoirs at the same time. And, finally, there's the assertion that all the claims of exploitation and dishonest practices are being made by Mexican illegal immigrants who have turned state's witness only to save their own skins, and that union officials who have their own agendas are whipping up a storm in a teacup.

Thank goodness there is an equal representation of outraged Orthodox bloggers who see this for what it is. Corrupt and dishonest practices that run right through the kosher industry, made all the worse because so many rabbis are involved. It is a scandal and one that makes me very ashamed of some of my coreligionists.

For a long time now I have refused to buy any meat coming from Postville. I would like to urge everyone else to boycott them too, except I have no evidence that other abattoirs are any better. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that the overall levels of humanity in most US abattoirs, let alone elsewhere, are disgraceful. In the same way, too many kosher food establishments have an awful record of failing sanitary inspections.

The US-published Jewish Press this week produced scare headlines about a shortage of meat and rising prices. Typical. There are other abattoirs inside and outside the United States. They could replenish supplies without difficulty. This is just an excuse for raising prices in what is not a public service industry, but a goldmine. As long as the credulous want goose eggs, the goose will be fatted. And, finally, it is a cover-up. Scare people about rising prices and they might forget or turn a blind eye to illegal practices. I do not care if others do it, we should not. Anyone however remotely linked to religious law certainly ought not to.

Once again, the only true solution is not to eat meat. But I know that is asking for too much. After all, even the deleterious impact the meat business has on the climate, environment, world food prices, health, and hygiene and the vast waste of resources involved in fattening up animals for slaughter, have not dented meat consumption, so what hope can there be for the kosher world, where our tradition and liturgy are so full of the benefits of sacrifices and celebrating Sabbaths and festivals with hecatombs!

Nevertheless, I hope anyone who cares enough will do their souls and their pockets a favor by not indulging!! If we are asked to reduce oil consumption to reduce our reliance on the petroleum cartel, we should reduce our meat consumption to reduce our reliance on dubious kosher meat practices. But, then, pop into any of the up-market New York kosher steakhouses and you will realize this is whistling in the wind. Might as well talk about business ethics to heads of yeshivas who have been found guilty of making false claims to get state funding. And you know what? I am going to get flack for washing dirty laundry in public again!

May 19, 2008

What Orthodoxy?

Modern, Centrist, Enlightened Orthodoxy (no one knows quite what to call it) is dead. The alarm bells are ringing all around the Jewish world as a result of the recent decision of the rabbinical courts in Israel to question thousands of conversions, both in Israel and the Diaspora, performed by rabbis considered too modern/unreliable/suspect/not kosher enough/not subservient enough, even if nominally Orthodox. The creeping takeover of Orthodoxy by right-wing, Charedi, ultra-Orthodox, extremist, fundamentalists, non- or anti-Zionists, however you feel like classifying them, seems to have been going on for years, but now it is accelerating. Where once the Israeli state rabbinate was seen as a bulwark against this process, now it has been taken over, just as a cuckoo's baby throws all the other eggs out of the nest. The Judaism that calls itself Orthodox, in all its varieties, is experiencing a "Kulturkampf"--a struggle between two different approaches, not a battle between two different religious expressions.

I am not as worried as some others are. Israel is a very specific problem. Ever since religious parties entered government and negotiated deals for a state-funded, centralized rabbinic authority, with its control over personal status and its rival Ashkenazi and Sefardi Chief Rabbis, religious life in Israel has always been a highly politicized battlefield.

The Charedi world has found that using religion as a political tool brings with it financial benefits, state subsidies, welfare, and power. They have developed political strategies to maximise influence and gain. The need to find jobs for scholars in the yeshiva world also led to a slow process of infiltration into the mainstream rabbinate. Many nonreligious observers saw this as a positive thing because it involved them in the democratic political process.

At the same time, the Orthodox Zionist movements flourished, particularly on the West Bank. They, too, assert independence and political power. Religious life in Israel has been changing, fragmenting, and regrouping in many directions. The current Charedi takeover of the Rabbinate is as much a sign of the failures of the Rabbinate as the machinations of the Charedi politicians. The Rabbinate has failed to speak to the majority of secular and moderate Israelis.

This Charedi imperialism is not as frightening nor as likely to lead to a further split within Orthodoxy as is suggested. The fact is that all variations of Orthodoxy are committed to the same halachic constitution. The spectrum of Orthodoxy agrees that the halachic process is the lynchpin of Jewish commitment. The differences are more of attitude (social and intellectual), and peripherals like dress. It’s a matter of style and degree, rather than fundamentals. It is true that the Charedi world is less open, less conciliatory, and less willing to compromise. Other branches of Orthodoxy are more flexible. But it is also true that in the Diaspora, in particular, flexibility has been abused. Just as interesting is the fact that some of the worst abuses of conversion for money have come from some of the more Charedi authorities.

I believe the current brouhaha will simply speed up the necessary process of separating state from religion in Israel. The free-for-all American model is much healthier than the centralized, politicized Israeli version. Such a separation will strengthen the alternatives. Into the vacuum will step varieties such as exciting new rabbis of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, the rabbis of Tzohar, those being trained at Bar Ilan University and the great moderate Zionist yeshivas like Gush.

Anyway, the Charedi world is itself highly fractured, and there are moderating influences as well as divisive ones. Authorities cannot agree, whether it is Land for Peace or whether to allow Hasidic pop concerts. Large numbers who outwardly conform, completely ignore many of the rulings they privately disagree with. There is tension between the rival Hasidic dynasties and within them. We are living in a postmodern world, where religion is primarily a mechanism for social solidarity. Individuals want to feel they belong with the holy, good guys and this is their "indulgence". They do not want to be seen rocking the boat or undermining.

Orthodoxy is indeed a mess of conflicting authorities and empires, but it's alive. There are choices, and above all we are free to choose! So is the modern/moderate Orthodox position lost? Well, it depends on how you define it. If "modern" means weak compromise, wishy-washy, gutless inconsistency, well then it deserves to wither.

I always used to find the term "modern" offensive, because it implied that new was good but old was not. That, of course, offends my sense of commitment to an ancient tradition. Carl Jung describes modern man thus:

The man whom we can with justice call "modern" is solitary. He is so of necessity and at all times, for every step towards a fuller consciousness of the present removes him further from his original "participation mystique" with the mass of men--from submersion in a common unconscious. Every step forward means an act of tearing himself loose from that all-embracing pristine unconsciousness which claims the bulk of mankind almost entirely.
(Modern Man in Search of a Soul)

Jung did not mean that modern man needs to reject the past or is "lonely". On the contrary, as a committed Christian he thought the religious soul and tradition to be essential for a fully balanced person. But to achieve mental health a thinking person has to struggle with making sense of the world as he sees it and cannot rely exclusively on the past for all the answers to the challenges of the human condition in the present (though it may have some).

And this is what differentiates "us", the thinking Orthodox, from "them", the reactionaries. It's not the degree of learning, or the desire to be stricter than the law requires. It is, at root, one of attitude and whether the past is the all-embracing, all-answering golden age, whether the poverty-ridden stinking ghettos of Eastern Europe are to be looked back to with nostalgia.

We believe halacha constantly modifies without destroying itself. As with any constitution, the experts waver and disagree, and at different times respond in different ways. The real flashpoint is over freedom of individual thought, not halachic strictness. And this is the "Kulturkampf," the cultural battle between the values of a free society versus the controls of the ghetto. Thank goodness, nowadays we have choices, and one of them is freedom of thought and expression. The role of Thinking Orthodoxy is to make sure the alternatives are not forgotten and remain in the marketplace of ideas for intellectual fashions to change. Until that is in danger, I'm a happy bunny.

May 11, 2008

Israel at 60

Everyone else is giving an opinion on Israel's sixtieth. Even notional Jews who have had absolutely no positive involvement in Jewish life whatsoever have suddenly come out to relieve themselves of their own antipathies by excoriating Israel. Hope it makes them feel better. Here's my contribution.

If having a state was, as some Zionists ideologues dreamed, going to normalize Jews, to make them a nation like any other, then there could be no expectation of anything more than yet another body politic with its interests and inevitable corruptions.

In the years before statehood, my late father was president of British Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist organization. He was a passionate religious Zionist. Judaism, he argued, was not designed to be a religion of an exilic minority, but lived as a holistic, religiously animated community, where it was the dominant culture and language.

When Mizrachi went into politics in Israel in 1948, he resigned. Thus I was brought up in a house that was ideologically committed to the idea of returning to our homeland, but strongly opposed to religious parties and their politics. We were educated to love and to criticize. Religious values demanded and required ethical behaviour, honesty, and sensitivity to all humans. I hoped, but was soon disillusioned.

Much of the world fell in love with Israel then. Any left-wing student worth his or her salt went to work on a kibbutz. But what the world loved then was an image of new socialism, not Judaism. When I first went to study in Israel as a teenager in 1956, I was shocked to discover the extent of secular, anti-religious fervor. Now, it was said, one could abandon one's religious, spiritual heritage with an easy conscience, knowing one was building a modern, post-ghetto Jewish world. This was no Jewish State and secular Zionism had nothing to say to me. I even had some sympathy with Neturei Karta at the time, for refusing to sully themselves by entering a political system whose ideas and ideals were so diametrically opposed to theirs (until I discovered their corruptions and betrayals).

Despite this, I am thankful for what I regard as the miracle of a state for Jews, a refuge on the one hand, but also a source of pride. After two thousand years, to return to sovereignty against such odds and after such extended inhuman treatment, what else qualifies as a miracle as great as the parting of the Red Sea?

By culture I was and am an internationalist. I hold no brief for flags, anthems, and the sad trappings of nationalism. But for as long as nationalism is the flavour of the day, as long as the Kosovars can have a state, it cannot be just, logical, or equitable to deny Jews the same. And for as long as there are plenty of Muslim states it can only be disingenuous to deny Jews one.

Yet self-interest never obscured the challenges and problems. We were, after all, claiming a disputed home. Even the combative Ben Gurion conceded this was a conflict of two rights. I recall a mood in the fifties of desperately wanting peace and a desire to live in harmony and equality with Arabs wherever they were. So much was made of Christians, Druze, and Bedouin serving in the Israeli army. Despite the ongoing conflict, then and today, there is so much being done to try to repair, to build bridges. But it gets hardly any recognition and is submerged beneath the blood of conflict.

I was studying in Israel in 1967. I recall that the initial aftermath of the Six-Day War was so euphoric not just because we had survived the threat of obliteration. It was euphoric precisely because we thought that now, at last, there would be peace and Palestinians would have their own state. The overwhelming majority of Charedi rabbis in those days advocated "Land for Peace". The rejectionists were oddities.

Slowly, it changed. I recall the pain of rejection after Khartoum and then the reaction, the arrogance, Kahana, settlements, continued occupation and agony. I have always feared zealotry and never much liked religious fervor when it spills over from the personal encounter with God into the public realm. I have always admired the painful honesty of Yeshaya Leibowitz, who cried for the soul of an occupational military culture. I knew it could never be good, but I wondered how else one could protect oneself from those who wished to destroy and refused to talk.

Another miracle of Israel has been trying to integrate such diverse and opposite races and communities from every corner of the globe. No other country has ever tried it as repeatedly and with such high proportions as Israel. It has not always been fair or smooth. There have been many casualties, but fewer than one sees in the ghettos of Europe, or even America.

I was delighted when the Sephardim, thanks to Menachem Begin, threw off the arrogant, humiliating, left-wing Ashkenazi yoke. But then I looked at the passionate hoards and feared the mindless populism. I noticed how each new generation of immigrants was made to suffer, like children bullied in school make sure that when they reach seniority they get their own back. There was always a mood of besting the other, and of course the problem of how best to deal with an Arab minority that, despite its precious citizenship, was seen as a fifth column and has all but been pushed into self fulfillment of it.

Yet, for all that, I was amazed that Israel turned into such a great country, despite itself. The arts, music, literature, and intellectual activity of all sorts flourished. Universities sprouted up all over the place. Idealism could be found in as much variety and color as could the worst aspects of average humanity. Yes, there was bureaucracy, corruption, proteksia, political haggling, and siphoning. Despite it all, everything good was flourishing too, and in recent years the economy, entrepreneurship, has made Israel one of the success stories of the technological era. Even the many Israelis who have left to succeed elsewhere still often contribute indirectly to Israel's successes. And the fact that I had nothing in common with most secular Israelis simply emphasized the complexity and contradictions of Jewish identity in a modern world.

Much maligned religion, in all its monochromes, has flourished in Israel beyond expectations too (though with growth has come with intellectual regression and intolerance). Never, ever in Jewish history have there been so many yeshivahs, kollels and institutes of higher learning. I have watched the precocious child grow into a giant so that no Jewish community in the world comes near it in creativity, scholarship, and richness, not even the USA. No diaspora community today survives without Israeli input in one form or another, through its teachers, its rabbis, and the thousands who go there to study and return to enrich local scenes.

Yet war and violence continue. The Almighty, it seemed, has wanted us to suffer. The Talmud says we can only acquire our land through suffering. Nothing has changed in the three thousand years of our existence. We have always been accused of taking someone else's land, made the wrong alliances, the wrong decisions, betraying our principles and our God. Yet somehow we have survived. So I am optimistic, where logic tells me I am a fool. Just as I am optimistic about human nature, for all that it is self-indulgent, excessively acquisitive, and egotistic.

Israel remains a country divided against itself, subject to so much hatred. There's so much wrong. It reminds me of the blind and bound Samson in Gaza. Yet it is, nevertheless, so vibrant, creative, and alive. If that’s not an ongoing miracle, I don’t know what is.

May 01, 2008

Support the Ahmadiyya

It is a sad sign of the times that in all religions, fundamentalist pressure is exercising an intolerant influence that is spreading rather than receding. Some may argue that the times require it, that the perniciousness of libertarianism is the modern paganism and only strictness and protected environments can counteract the destructiveness of Western societies, but the negative impact this wave of religious suppression has on the weaker sectors of each community are more serious than we allow. Some religions recognize these pressures. In others they prefer to turn a blind eye (or are frightened).

In Judaism, the majority of its adherents are not Orthodox. As a result, the room to exert pressure in the Diaspora is limited. Within orthodoxy the assault focuses almost entirely on the moderate or intellectually open Orthodox. In Israel, of course, it is all a game of political power and the very Orthodox do try to impose their will on the majority there, with the result that anti-Orthodox feeling, rather than simple antipathy, characterizes much of Israeli society. However, for all the bluster and aggressive demonstrations, no serious religious leader has yet called for violence against less Orthodox coreligionists.

Sadly, much of Islam is still living in a pre-modern world where religious violence is often acceptable and tolerance is a dirty word associated with corrupt western values (don't take my word for it, you can read Ed Husain's book, "The Islamist", or the even more blunt Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Last week's Economist listed two examples. In Saudi Arabia, a woman whose husband had shot her twice could not report the abuse because she needed her husband's presence to go to the police, otherwise she would be prosecuted for consorting with other men. The second is the campaign to ban the Ahmadiyya in Indonesia.

Who are the Ahmadiyya? They are a relatively small and moderate sect of Islam based mainly in Pakistan but spread throughout the Muslim world and beyond it. The movement was founded in India (in the area now called Pakistan) in the nineteenth century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. He wanted to return Islam to what he saw as its original spiritual purity. He did not accept the later reinterpretations of the Koran, and he rejected the idea of jihad as a physical religious obligation and tool of expansion, but confined it to the idea of self-improvement. He committed his movement to conciliation and reaching out to other religions, instead of confronting them or proselytizing. He believed that Jesus, after his resurrection, came to India and there laid the foundations of Islam and that he, Ahmad, would return as the Mahdi, the Messiah.

In some ways the Ahmadiyya are similar to Lubavitch Hassidim, with their warmth, unfailing cheerfulness and dedication to a minority religious interest, as well as their heterodox messianic opinions. But the way the Ahmadiyya came to be regarded by mainstream Islam is closer to the way much of Orthodox Judaism looks at American Reform--as a heretical, backsliding door out, rather than a way further in.

During my years of interfaith work, I was invited to the opening of the huge Ahmadiyya mosque in south London. I found those I met there to be really warm, spiritual, friendly people. They presented an aspect of eastern Islam totally different to the one more familiar in the west. I have admired them and felt protective of them ever since, and I have been frankly outraged at the way they have been and are treated by many other Muslims.

Comparisons are rarely accurate. I have often heard the very Orthodox excoriate Reform Jews, but I have never yet heard anyone call for them to be killed. Demonstrators against the Ahmadiyya in Jakarta a few weeks ago carried placards saying "Kill, Kill, Kill". The Indonesian Ulema's Council is pressing for them to be banned and prosecuted as heretics and it looks like the authorities will give in, as they did with another unorthodox Muslim mystic, Abdul Salam, who on April 23rd was jailed for four years for blasphemy. I fear these attitudes are increasingly tolerated in the West.

I had no idea of how much the Ahmadiyya are reviled and hated until I became friendly with a Pakistani Muslim, whom I initially met when he and I crossed swords at a public meeting, over how wicked Israel and the Jews were. Despite this unpromising start we became friends. I visited his home and he and his wife visited mine.

After we had known each other for a year, he confessed to me that he was a member of the Ahmadiyya. But he swore me to secrecy because he feared that if the fact were known he would be physically abused, or at least totally ostracized, by the Muslim community in Britain of which he was an important member. This was when I realized how strong the hatred was.

I won't deny the seriousness of the battle between Orthodox and Reform for the souls of Jews. It goes both ways. In the nineteenth century the great Orthodox German Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch refused to join the Reform scholar Graetz in setting up a joint school for Jewish children in Israel to save them from the Christian missionaries who were taken advantage of their poverty to seduce them away from their tradition. He was so worried about corrosive Reform ideology that it looked as though he would rather they became Christians than Reform Jews. In recent years, some of the most vituperative sermons I have heard in New York have been the other way--Reform ridiculing Orthodoxy.

But, for all this, it is a long, long way from what many Ahmadiyya suffer. I would argue that we, as a community, should support them, but I fear that, in the current mood of most of the Muslim world, having allies such as us would only make their lot worse. What a sad, sad world.