June 27, 2008

Candidates and God

Several months ago a friend referred me to a website that asks you a series of questions and then tells you which candidate for president of the USA was closest in opinions to yours. When I looked at the questions I saw that I would not fit any stereotype.

I may follow restrictive Jewish Law, but I am a complete libertarian when it comes to government regulation. I think the state should intervene in personal matters only when others are affected. I believe women should be free to choose what they do with their bodies. That's libertarian.

On the other hand, free health care should be offered only to those who cannot otherwise afford it, not to everyone regardless of means. That makes me a "conservative". So does my opposition to "positive discrimination", or "affirmative action" as the Americans delicately prefer to call it. (We Jews never got it and we did OK.)

But my loathing of guns and American gun culture and wanting to see them banned by law swings me as far away from the right wing as you can get, as does my implacable opposition to capital punishment.

I am glad the USA removed Saddam Hussein and is the unapologetic, if sometimes hypocritical, champion of freedom in a world too full of evil rulers that are kowtowed to by the United Nations. I like someone prepared to take a stand and act instead of being an appeaser. So that alienates me from the peace/appeasement camps, the Little America camp and others on the right and the left!

Yet I think more needs to be done to protect the environment and find other energy sources. We should charge petrol guzzlers a million dollars a year each to drive their obscene vehicles. People with lots more money ought to be taxed lots more. I strongly advocate the separation of state and religion, and yes, I think creationism should only be taught in Bible classes, as it has nothing to do with science.

I know I'm neither fish nor fowl. So imagine my amazement when I discovered that there was a candidate, of whom I had never heard, who thought almost the same way as I--one Maurice Robert Mike Gravel, sometime Democratic Senator from Alaska, maverick, and oddball. Well, he withdrew ages ago, so what's left?

The presidential election is not till this coming November. But since last November we have suffered endless primaries, caucuses, delegates, superdelegates (it would take too long to explain the differences, try Wikipedia) just to find the candidates who will stand. Finally Obama got it. Hilary was flawed by association and divisive. She suffered from an America that is still rather male chauvinist. She was really driven, but relied on party power and failed to adapt to internet politics. Obama was charismatic, inclusive, and plausible, and he promised a breath of fresh air.

He hasn't actually done anything or proved anything yet. He has voted, like every politician, for bad bills that will get him votes (like a bloated $300 billion farm bill) and saying to the Israel lobby exactly what it wants to hear. Americans like ephemeral personalities (like everyone else). He'd certainly be the favored candidate of the anti-American world (cosmetic, of course, because hatred is an irrational emotion and burns regardless). The Republicans had it easier with McCain. Great on heroism, poor on consistency, policy, and treating his wife nicely.

Now the two candidates are de facto decided, we have another six months of daily canvassing, flip-flopping, sniping, charging, denying, posturing, and utter, utter boredom. No wonder Americans love soaps.

The truth is that it won't matter much. America steams on, regardless of political changes. Huge vested interests exercise far greater power than presidents. Even on the issue of Israel, so dear to Jewish hearts, there's virtually no difference between the candidates, and even if there were I do not believe it would make a difference. The only thing American can do, if it really wants to solve the Israel/Palestinian problem, is to put bodies on the ground. A different Iraq scenario might have gotten there. Not now. The intermittent low-grade war will continue, regardless of flying trips and photo ops.

The presidential race is a media event, a popularity contest, a bullfight, a cockfight, a chance to gather young enthusiasts and harness their energies before they get disillusioned. It is dreamtime, like in football. You want your team to win. It probably will not, and although you will be in a bad mood for a few hours, you will get over it and life will go on.

That is where God comes in useful again. No elections, no beauty parade, and present all the time, regardless. You might not be able to prove He is on your side, but then no one else can prove otherwise either! True, the Torah made some promises that still have not been fulfilled three thousand years later, and you might accuse the Almighty of appearing to have forgotten about the good guys sometimes too--but you shouldn't have been in it for gain in the first place. Religion might be weighed down with dirty politics, but the Almighty seems to have a pretty universal constituency of devotees. However, like sportsmen who do their "Please, God" bit before a game, fanatics of all religions haven't yet noticed that God is not always on their side. Perhaps they should focus more on being on His!

June 23, 2008

Daniel Sperber

I find lists of the great or the famous such a silly waste of time. I never take them as anything more than journalists' fluff. Whatever the criteria, they are bound to be subjective and superficial. By most standards of fame, singers, soccer players, and starlets are the best known and most popular. So what? Qualities of leadership are bandied all over the place, and we tend to hear about politicians most of the time. We seem to take the media as the basis of judgment. So whom do I rate?

I am not considering those who achieve something through money. I do not deny the good that money can do, but I just do not see money-making as a criterion for human nobility or spirituality. Nor does heredity confer any inherent positive values, though neither does it necessarily preclude talent or greatness. Power tends to corrupt, and the paths to power almost invariably involve dubious activities. If people with power almost automatically exclude themselves from my list, even more so do those otherwise significant and talented people who have the power to change or to stand up for certain values in Judaism but refuse to. And, given a life spent in education, I really value those who dedicate their lives to teaching.

Most of the time I am suspicious of charisma. I have seen it misused too often. I admire the modest men and women who do good works unheralded or unrecognized. But they are rarely leaders. The "tzaddik nistar" (hidden saint), who does not pursue fame or recognition, is the person who tops my list of genuine spiritual leaders. But by very definition such people are hardly known.

I admire the ancient prophets, precisely because they eschewed power, position, and popularity, and the message was their overwhelming animation. I have enormous admiration for scholars, but I know some scholars, as the Talmud says, can be vicious biting snakes. Similarly rabbis, and if they get involved in politics, we part company. I have to say that the best and most talented, by far, are based in Israel. It is almost a replay of the Talmudic era, when the Israeli rabbis used to mock the Babylonian ones for relying on outward finery to bolster their status.

Most of my readers may not have heard of Rabbi Daniel Sperber. He gets a far bigger audience outside Israel, in the USA. He is hardly appreciated in his birthplace, Britain. I first met him when I went to Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem when I was 16. He took me under his wing. I was amazed at his many talents. He played the guitar well. He was a talented artist. He had a phenomenal memory. He had studied what to me felt like vast amounts with his brilliant, scholarly father in London, and he was quite definite about wanting to combine his Gemara with his familiarity with Latin and Greek. He delighted in showing me examples of Greek influence on the Talmud both in language and culture. Danny was the first genuine budding scholar I had met.

I returned to England to continue my schooling. Two years later, back in Jerusalem, once again Danny and his circle became the focal point of both my unofficial education and my social life. In between bouts of the most intense study, his idea of a break was to go to Turkey and hitchhike east to India and beyond.

By the time I returned to England, he was well on his way to a brilliant career that led him to the professorship of Talmud at Bar Ilan University and a vast number of academic and popular publications, most notably on the origins of Jewish customs. He has won the Israel Prize (like a Nobel Prize of Jewish culture). He married an equally talented woman, Chana Magnus, and combined his academic work with being the rabbi of a small community in Jerusalem and raising a large and, unsurprisingly, creative and diverse family.

Unlike so many in both the rabbinate and academe, Danny has broader horizons. He has involved himself in interfaith dialogue. He heads a foundation dedicated to training a new generation of learned yet open-minded and tolerant Israeli rabbis. He stands up controversially and fearlessly for women's rights and an expanded role within halacha. He, unlike so many others, has been ready to put his head above the parapet and write and speak about the inconsistencies and regressive attitudes that so many rabbis in the Orthodox world today refuse to examine or stand up to. Given the fact that I tend to criticize religious leadership more often than not, it is a delight to be able to be positive about one of them for a change.

Rabbi Sperber surely cannot be as perfect as he sounds. No man could be. We have not, until recently, gone in for saints. But there you have it, a man of genuine spirituality, scholarship, broad vision and guts, not scared of controversy. Now, tell me how many people you know that you can say that of.

June 15, 2008

Bush, Obama, and the Europeans

In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Maureen Dowd asserts, like a dog returning to its sick, that the Europeans hate the US because of George Bush.

Ever since I was a kid, Europeans have always hated, envied, and at the same time longed for the products of, the USA. They envy the fact that the USA sorted out two European wars. They envy her superior wealth and go-getting economic influence, and they lust after most of what she produces. So, to feel better about themselves, they love to rubbish her. "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." I often heard that quoted in the 1950's!

Of course, the USA is highly imperfect politically, socially and morally. Show me a country that that is not. But that is all a much larger issue than whatever face the president has. It doesn’t matter who the president is. European Old World, snobbish amour proper, combined with a logic-defying yearning for Marxism (if not its forms of government), is so deep that it is breathtakingly naïve for Americans to believe that a new face will change a profound inferiority complex that yearns for occasional compensatory bouts of schadenfreude.

It is as silly as the other grand deception seemingly rational Westerners fall for, that the moment the Palestinian issue is settled and Israel is removed from the Middle East the whole Arab world will turn into sweet, cuddly, peaceful democrats. We must, of course, strive for solutions. But idealism is one thing; self-delusion is another.

June 13, 2008

Elgar

If anything will emphasize my heterodoxy, it is my taste in music. Jewish music, or what passes for it, really does not grapple with spirituality to anything like the extent, the profundity, and the passion (oops, wrong word) of classical music. However much I may enjoy Hasidic music, folksy Carlebach, pop Mordechai Ben David or Avram Fried, or the new wave of slick, syncopated pseudo-rapping, choreographed youngsters shouting out their eternal devotion, it pleases but none of it really moves me. The old, more profound and authentic Bobov or Modzits "deveykut" (the mystical term for getting closer to God) tunes do better.

But still, I have to admit, nothing, nothing that tries to convey the depths of religious spiritual experience or the desire to feel the Divine presence, succeeds for me more than Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. Of course, I exclude the specifically Christian theological references, which have no significance for me. But the general theme, the journey of the soul as it leaves the body and gets closer to its source, the mixture of apprehension and anticipation, the spiritual quest is so powerful, so sensuous, even sensual, in a strange way that it moves me religiously like no other piece of music (all it needs is to be translated into Hebrew).

I can date the moment of my corruption precisely. It was when my Uncle Henry, a highly knowledgeable aficionado of hazanut (cantorial music), gave me Verdi's Requiem for my sixteenth birthday. He warned me to ignore the Christological texts, which he said only made up a very small part of the piece, besides most of it consists of words lifted straight from the Jewish Bible or from our own liturgy. He also told me that many people regarded the work as Verdi's finest opera. He did not even hint at any danger from listening to a woman's voice--ah but those were different times. I was hooked on requiems ever since. My favorite is Brahms', with no New Testament references at all. Of course, when I studied architecture I became interested in important ecclesiastical buildings, too. Some people, no doubt, will say that this explains a great deal about my position in the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

Now, England is not known for the richness of its spirituality, nor for its musical talent. You might point to Purcell; you might even want to include Handel (who, although an Anglophile and was once said to write music like an Englishman, was actually German). Some praise Britten, but I cannot listen to him. For me Elgar is the greatest by far. "What," you will say, "Elgar? Elgar of Pomp and Circumstance? Of Land of Hope and Glory? That trivial popular music?" Yes, indeed, Elgar. Elgar of the sublime Cello Concerto, and Elgar of Gerontius' dream. I have to say whenever I launch into one of my Anglophobe rants and suggest the British are a nation of bourgeois shopkeepers (not original I know) for whom religion is just another stage for class wars to play themselves out, a little voice always haunts me, "What about Elgar?"

Other religious works may have greater grandeur, more complex music. Doubtless Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were greater composers, but their religious works all sound more like performances to me, whereas this sounds more confessional. This speaks to my religious sense like no other piece of music where the music is completely without context. Kol Nidrei moves me, and Bruch's cello rendering of it is moving too--but there it is the context as much as the music that does it. The sight of banked rows of swaying Hasidim in black, singing lustily in praise of the Lord is incredibly impressive and moving too, but the music is often merely a step removed from Polish military marches. If anyone would ever ask me what piece of music is the most religious in itself, or the one that best describes the impact of religion on my life, this is it.

I saw a recorded performance of 'The Dream' on American TV recently. Colin Davis was conducting in St. Paul's Cathedral. Rows of English men and women choristers simply did not seem to go with feelings about God. Any more than Colin Davis's beard, without a moustache to fill it out, looked authentically Biblical. Nevertheless, if you can ignore the contradiction of an Englishman and heaven, this is Divine.

Yes, I'd rather pray with Shlomo Carlebach, and I'm sure I'd have had almost nothing in common in shul with Edward Elgar. But somehow something happened here. Some might say it was his universal Divine Soul that suddenly tuned in to the Divine wavelength. Some might say he must have had a Jewish soul somewhere in his past, a forced convert antecedent from the time of the Crusades. Who knows? All I can tell you is that it works for me and it reinforces my belief that God can be found in all places, not only my own.

June 08, 2008

Jewish Ethics

I am a great fan of the Business Ethics Centre of Jerusalem (www.besr.org). Firstly because it was founded by a man I greatly admire and respect, Dr. Meir Tamari. Secondly because a former pupil of mine, one of the best, Rabbi Pinchas Rosenstein, is involved, and thirdly because of articles like this one by Rabbi Joel Domb on the treatment of foreign workers that appears on its web site and weekly distribution list. Here is an extract:
Economic exploitation of the weak and unprotected sectors of society is unfortunately a common problem in Israel. Especially at risk are the thousands of foreign workers who are brought here by contractors looking for quick profits from their unsuspecting workers. In many cases these employers confiscate the workers' passports, thus shutting off their ability to escape, and then provide them with very poor working conditions and minimal pay by any standard. What we have here is effectively an illicit slave trade, with the authorities turning a blind eye due to the economic benefits which can accrue from these workers.

This situation is both socially untenable and morally unconscionable. There is no justification for such abuse of the basic human right to freedom, and the social implications could be disastrous for Israel's image as a country which is dedicated to upholding the dignity of every resident. The fact that these workers are gentiles does not permit us to take advantage of them. Our own history has taught us how hard it is to be a stranger in a foreign land, and we should therefore be extra sensitive to people who are far away from their families and homelands. . .

. . .These workers are both friends of Israel and are helping to build up the country. Many of them even risk their lives in their jobs, as was proven a few weeks ago when two Romanian workers were killed while building a fence in the Gaza Strip. Surely we should treat them at least as well as any other workers!
The article was of course written in and for Israel, but in the light of recent scandals it is clearly just as appropriate for the USA. If you care about genuine Jewish values, support these guys. They're good!

Free Speech (Shavuot 2008)

You might think there is little left original to write about Shavuot. We know its Biblical, agricultural origins, the importance of nature without the subservience to it, and the celebration of the seasons with without worshipping them. We know of its umbilical 49-day connection to Pesach, from barley to wheat. We also know how the rabbis emphasized the Torah and revelation and decided, not unanimously, that this was the anniversary of Sinai. "Torah" is the practical initiative that focused on study as the centre of our religious life in compensation for the Temple. "Revelation" is a theological concept that has underpinned the continuity of our constitution and given authority to the very specificities of it that have, in fact, kept our tradition alive.

But keeping a tradition alive and healthy requires more than just obedience. Like liberty, it requires eternal vigilance; otherwise one looks around too late and it is gone. It requires free expression and free thought, the essential ingredients for a healthy human mind and soul.

There are features of the English and the Jewish worlds I was born into that I dislike intensely. One is the idea that one must not express one's opinion. Of course I was taught not be rude, to try to learn to express my views calmly, rationally, and respectfully. But I grew up in a society where one did not say what one thought. Certain subjects were not to be brought up in polite conversation. One did not disagree with one's superiors or betters. The other was that one knew one's place. One did not rock boats or express private feelings or wash dirty laundry in public. Thank goodness my father rebelled against these constraints and taught me to follow him.

My weekly pieces, some intentionally light, are dedicated to free expression, association and fanciful things to show the delights of open enquiry as well as a desire to rock boats. I can leave scholarship to the many specialists that now abound on Jewish cyberspace. But someone needs to keep two flames alight, the flame of free speech, even contrarianism, and the flame of intellectual curiosity. God loves "light". Only some men fear it.

The Bible has God communicating to humans in words, whether in dream states or as in the case of Moses, awake and conscious. God speaks. And man speaks. The Zohar described man as the creature who speaks, long before some evolutionists described him as "the talking animal".

In my philosophical youth we debated the issue of whether there could be "private languages". The fascinating issue was whether it is possible for everyone to agree on a meaning or a usage of a word. To understand what words signify and how another person uses them, one must be familiar with words, and one must be open to listening and understanding precisely--because words are so easily misheard, misunderstood, and misrepresented. The only way to ensure that one hears and understands correctly or creatively is if one has the freedom to explore, to wander in and out of the halls of comprehension and experience. Otherwise, one trains the mind to grow restricted, the way some primitive cultures constricted the skulls of children so that they would grow in misshapen ways.

I concede that belonging to a close-knit social community has great benefits and may be the necessity of the hour. But if thinking is restricted then the result eventually will be intellectual and moral distortion.

A Jewish school in Brooklyn wishes to close one campus and enlarge another. Some parents object, The Jewish Press reports them as wishing to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. This happens in most places I have lived, including Antwerp and North London. Parents were and still are frightened to speak their minds for fear of consequences. What a reflection on a community and a religion if one is unable to speak one's mind. But this is increasingly true on religious matters where if one actually said some of the things that Maimonides dared to say he would be all but excommunicated. It is sad, but the only place where Orthodox thought can flourish, without fear of ostracism or retaliation is in academia.

Shavuot and Sinai celebrate words. Words liberated us from paganism and the randomness of irrationality. Freedom did not mean having no constraints, saying anything and everything. God, in the Torah, started creation by looking, observing, and then saying "Let there be". In some versions the word was there even before the process began. Indeed, in Greek, "logos" means not just the word but the capacity to reason. So we too must observe, reason, question, and have the freedom to say what we think without fear. Of course, if words are not linked to actions, and if we do not make choices that impose restrictions, then we are failing as any kind of creature, let alone a talking one.

According to the Talmud the words of God are like a hammer smashing a rock into a myriad pieces; each piece is special, hence the other famous dictum that there are seventy faces to the Torah. Each of us hears words through our own filters. That is why barely days after the Sinai revelation the same people who experienced it could turn their backs on Moses and God. They must have heard different things. Even Moses needed clarification.

This does not mean that all and any explanations are valid. Tradition plays an important part. And we do make our own choices as to whether we prefer a mystical, non-rational explanation to a logical one. But if we do not allow ourselves to even hear another point of view, how will we know if we have not missed or misrepresented what we thought we heard?

June 04, 2008

Obama at AIPAC

I listened to Barak Obama's address to AIPAC this morning. I have never ever, ever heard a more pro-Israel speech from any politician from either side. Amongst all his promises about supporting Israel and guaranteeing its survival, and the importance of the Holocaust, and his grandfathers commitment after he saw the horrors in Germany never to forget etc., etc., he went on to insist on an undivided Jerusalem as Israel's capital. No, he would never talk to Hamas until they recognized Israel's right to exist in peace; and yes, he accepted the magnitude of the Iranian threat and he would never let the Iranians get away with anything.

Obama said that anti-Obama pieces were being circulated that questioned his commitment to Israel, and he only wanted to say it must have been some other Barak Obama because they couldn’t possibly be referring to him.

I couldn't help wonder if this is what the anti-Semites refer to when they say the Jews control Washington, particularly when, shortly afterwards, Hillary spoke and said pretty much the same (but, frankly, without his charisma). And, of course, McCain speaks the same language, no less forcefully. Yet I knew full well they were only words, and politicians will say almost whatever it takes to get elected.

But he left little doors open. No more settlements, Palestinians must have a viable contiguous state, America committed, as it is needed to push both sides towards a peaceful solution.

Then I began to feel unhappy. You see, America is the only power which can solve the issue, and the only way it can do it is not by swearing to each side that it is their best friend, but by putting troops on the ground in between. They will not do it, of course. They got so burned in the past, and are so mired in other parts of the Middle East, that of course they will not want to get into another quagmire.

Then in today's NY Times, the iconic Thomas L. Friedman wrote an Op Ed piece in which he suggested that, as no side can or really wants to progress, Jordan should come back in to push the Palestinians and act the honest broker--something they’ve been terrified of doing for forty years. Oh dear, I thought. Here we go again, roundabouts with no end in sight. Frankly, I'd prefer to hear someone say, "We are going to fix this mess, by force if necessary, and we'll back up our promises with men on the ground, even if it means someone gets hurt, maybe on both sides!"

It is no different than the Gemara/Midrash which says the Jews would never have accepted the Torah if they hadn't been forced to with the threat that Mount Sinai would have been dumped on them. Better a threat and a good ending than the freedom to go on messing up and ruining lives.

June 01, 2008

Huntington Hartford

Huntington Hartford died on May 19, aged 97. He was a multimillionaire trust fund baby who inherited from a wealthy grandfather food magnate. He lived the life of a playboy. He married lots of times and spent much of his life in a haze of alcohol and drugs. At one time he dabbled in the art market and built up a significant collection but then he squandered all his money and lost it. He ended up having nothing, living like a down-and-out, and was rescued by one of his daughters. It's a familiar story of how dangerous it is to spoil children and give them too much money. I see it over and over again, even in the Jewish community, or indeed especially in the Jewish community. I never tire of repeating Roberto Benigni's remarks when he won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful; he said, "I would like to thank my parents. . .They gave me the biggest gift of poverty."

There are exceptions. Some wealthy families do learn not to spoil, to make demands, and to realize that to really love might actually involve saying "no". That’s how some wealthy dynasties survive, though even then it might be just one out of the siblings who makes it. Usually overindulgence produces waste, apathy, and indolence. I remember a very successful West Coast Orthodox rabbi telling me, some fifty years ago now, that the board of his synagogue had just appointed a very talented young rabbi as his assistant. But he knew he'd never last in the rabbinate because he had married into too much money.

Yet for all his dissipation I have a soft spot for Huntingdon Hartford for one reason only. At the height of his art phase and fame, he had a museum built on Columbus Circle in Manhattan in the manner of a Venetian Palazzo. Now, in 1961 my late father had tried very hard to persuade me to study architecture. He said that I would find the rabbinate so frustrating I'd be better off having a proper career. As I'd always loved art, as well as people, he pushed me in that direction. To get into Cambridge I produced a dissertation that was a contrast between two buildings, the modern synagogue at Carmel College, a hyperbolic parabola designed by Tom Hancock and now a "protected masterpiece" and on the other hand this, what we now call retro, Italian Renaissance style throwback designed by Edward Durrell Stone. I will not go into the details of the contrast I made, but in the process I really grew to be fond of that building--so beautiful, so anachronistic.

It did fit in with the Italianate sculptures of Columbus Circle that predominated in those days. But slowly the money disappeared. The gallery closed and fell into disrepair. As the modern skyscrapers of real estate developers gradually closed in on it, it began to look more and more out of place. After a series of humiliating transformations and decay, it has just been completely redesigned into the Museum of Arts and Design.

Over the years I have moved from here to there as my spirit and circumstances changed. I have been a happy rootless cosmopolitan and my mother called me a chameleon who could fit in almost anywhere. Now I am living in New York City, and from my apartment window I have a bird's eye view of Columbus Circle and my old friend, Huntington Hartford's building, which, now transformed, looks like nothing so much as a hip design for a boutique shopping bag.

In the year I did actually study architecture, I learnt about the importance of design relating to use. And no doubt the transformed gallery is much more practical, user friendly, and flexible. Nevertheless, it symbolizes the constant transformation of cities, and in one way I am sad for my youthful innocence.

Older and wiser, and aware now, despite everything I have just written, I delight in the transformation. We cannot go on hankering after the past. In our lives and in our religion we must progress. On the other hand, our whole heritage emerged from the past and constantly reminds us of its successes and failures. The age-old question is how to find a balance between the two without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I find all those buildings that try to recreate a style from the past to be rather sad reflections of human mediocrity, imitation rather than creation. It is like trying to return to the horse and cart. New technology does create new buildings. As Le Corbusier famously said, "A building is a machine for living in." So, technologically speaking, I cannot stand retro, and I despise pseudo-antique reproductions and nouveau riche homes that believe plastic covered Louis Quinze imitations and chandeliers to be the height of Gemutlich Yiddishkeit. And I cannot bear those ridiculous new synagogues that reproduce nineteenth century Polish fake medieval grandeur with crenulations and Gothic windows, or recreations of nineteenth century brownstone New York amongst the citrus orchards of Israel. There is room for nostalgia, but not when imposes a straightjacket.

Huntington Hartford represents everything I despise. A wasted, self-indulgent, material life, and the creation of a nostalgic design that proved totally out of sync with modernity. So where does this leave me, a modern, religious guy living my life according to rules that are thousands of years old?

Well I think I have the best of both worlds. For all that is technological, I look forward, embrace change, and welcome innovation. But for human morality, certain traditional values and structures have a therapeutic and curative effect that transient modernity does not. Technology requires overwhelming change and obsolescence. Morality and religion while it must adjust to new and different circumstances, requires continuity and detachment and an ability to say, "no", "stop". Not everything that is modern is good!

Whether one makes use of a written constitution or an oral one (or, as Jews do, both), to be so limited by it one cannot adjust is as bad as being so unconstrained as to adopt every passing fancy. Good old Maimonides was right. The Golden Mean was best. But now, as then, everyone thinks he has found it when clearly very few have! To borrow a totally inappropriate metaphor, this is the Holy Grail of our era!

I am grateful to Huntington Hartford for reminding me why I like my traditional values.