December 30, 2008

Judah who?

Why is Judah Maccabee not mentioned in the Talmud? There are all sorts of reasons suggested. The Maccabee dynasty, with the exception of the remarkable Queen Shlomzion (Salome Alexandra) was strongly anti-rabbinic. The dynasty came to identify itself with the rich Sadducceean aristocracy, rather than the poorer Phariseean populace, whose leadership came to dominate post-destruction Judaism. It was Judah who sent envoys to Rome asking for an alliance which led to Jewish subjugation. And the dynasty was identified with Herod, who killed just about every member of his family and thought that by paying vast sums to redecorate the Temple he could buy off public opinion and God.

The achievements of Judah and his brothers, significant as they were, in fact amounted to little more than guerrilla campaigns. The Syrian Greek armed forces had far more important issues to deal with at home and only sent secondary forces to deal with what they saw as a minor local disturbance. Indeed, a Syrian garrison remained in the fortress in Jerusalem throughout Judah's life and beyond, until final settlement with Simon. Only in the next generation John Hyrcanus was a really successful military commander. But what started off as a pious rural priestly family's stand against Antiochus, and indeed against assimilatory high priests in Jerusalem, soon became an example of how power corrupts.

Nevertheless, nothing can take away from Judah's achievement of regaining control of the Temple, purifying and rededicating it.

The Chanuka story is emblematic of the Jewish people, as always divided between rich and poor, nationalists and internationalists, idealists and pragmatists. Indeed, every Jew sees Chanuka through his or her own eyes and personal agenda. Rabbinic emphasis on the spiritual rather than the military is surely a reaction to the disempowerment of Jewish life under Roman and successive regimes. The emphasis on God fighting our battles is a classical Diaspora response to the loss of our land and exile.

But of course in our own era the different emphases abound. Physically robust secular Zionism saw Judah as its military hero, standing up to the enemy physically, unlike the Jews of the ghettos who were seen as cowards walking like lambs to the slaughter. The possibility that acceptance of Divine Will, with dignity and an awareness of life beyond this world, may have created spiritual heroes, simply could not have occurred to a generation of Jews more influenced by secular, socialist material values.

The counter myth that Mattityahu was a sort of Rosh Yeshiva and his family sat in Kolel studying Gemara all day and emerged only occasionally to waste good study time fighting the Greeks, is not only an anachronism but equally off the mark. We all invent our own heroes.

The irony of a materialist viewpoint is that it claims to redress the balance in favor of the masses but in practice lends itself to abuse and excesses. Russian Communism, Maoism in China, could not illustrate this better. The sad transformation of Israel from the idealist state I recall of the 1950's to its corrupt decadence of today is only a natural consequence of a society that dismissed or relegated spiritual values. The result has been a collapse of ideals. Similarly, capitalism gloried in its defeat of Marxism, threw caution and oversight to the winds, and precipitated the most serious recession in two generations.

The same can be said for religious society. The poverty and deprivation that characterized most of the very Orthodox world fifty years ago produced a generation of men determined to make money at almost any cost, legal or otherwise. Those who have risen out of poverty have gone overboard with material excess, as the conspicuous consumption on display at many Charedi weddings, airport lounges, or vacation watering spots illustrates. Officially, Charedi society worships its rebbes and the Greats. Unofficially, it worships the Gvirim, the rich ones.

I do not wish for one minute to suggest there is no more idealism in secular Israel, any more than in the religious world. But the time when the idealists were the elite is long past. Mammon rules everywhere in the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

It is only when we have the sorts of economic crises we are experiencing now, and heroes turn into villains, that we realize that those whose only criteria for success was money have failed by the very standard they wanted to be judged by. It is only then that they begin to consider that other values might be preferable, that teachers and social workers might be making a more important contribution to humanity than bankers and dealers.

Sadly, most humans cannot see beyond their immediate material needs and only a very few within religion and beyond genuinely aspire to the various degrees of authentic saintliness. Even rabbis nowadays are more often associated with amassing money in various ways, or selling indulgences, than Heavenly values.

The rabbis of the Talmud never spoke out against wealth per se, but that was because they always emphasized other more important values that were ends in themselves. Money was always only a means. If they downplayed Judah, it was because they wanted to downplay materialism and emphasize light, enlightenment, and the flame of spirit.

So whatever Chanuka means for you, please add a little light.

December 19, 2008

Life After Death

The Torah does not explicitly say there is life after death. Which seems strange given the tremendous significance all the surrounding the Middle Eastern cultures attached to the idea. Just think of the Greeks and Hades, the Egyptians and their Pyramids, and the Babylonian Ziggurats--all testaments to the significance of what they thought happened to the body after death. Not to mention Hindu concepts of the transmigration of souls and reincarnation, as well as the Buddhist graduation to another level of understanding and "life".

Perhaps the Bible chose quite intentionally to focus on how to live life in the present rather than spend any time on the intangibles of something beyond the physical world. Perhaps it simply assumed such a universal belief as unnecessary of expansion. And of course there is the possibility that it simply did not think it an idea of any merit.

The counter argument to the deduction from silence is that there are references to the Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, dying and being "gathered to their people" (for example, Genesis 35:29). Talk of "spirit" in its various forms implies something beyond the physical, and odd phrases such as "Until Shilo Comes" (Genesis 49) are usually understood in a transcendental way.

The Oral Tradition however, placed, and continues to place, tremendous emphasis on the importance of the Next World and read into all kinds of texts, hints however improbable, such as "Then Moses sang" (Exodus 15), reworking the ambiguity of the tenses to say that "he will return and sing again".

Both the Talmud and Maimonides conflate the idea of resurrection and afterlife. The Mishna in Sanhedrin talks about those who have no part of the afterlife and then proceeds to discuss those who reject the idea of resurrection. What has one to do with other unless they conflated both ideas?

Maimonides was accused of not believing in resurrection because he did not mention it at all in his major Halachic work, "Yad HaChazaka". Instead, in Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 8, he talks about the significance of The World to Come, about those who cultivate their souls enabling them to continue on a spiritual level after death, while others simply obliterate their souls through neglect and die like animals. Thus he fell afoul of those who thought souls indestructible, and the kabbalists who claimed Jewish souls had an eternal life of their own.

Maimonides was no stranger to controversy, but even he buckled under pressure and wrote a specific little pamphlet reiterating his belief in resurrection, though even he could not really explain rationally how it worked. And he made up for it by listing resurrection in his simple handy guide to Jewish thought, the "13 Principles of Faith", but surprisingly makes no mention there of life after death.

For many Talmudic thinkers, the only way one could explain reward and punishment, disasters affecting the innocent, or why good people suffer and bad people prosper, was through the idea that accounts are settled in the afterlife. But still, the whole idea is so difficult to explain, because as the Talmud itself says, "No human has ever seen it, only God" (Sanhedrin 99a etc). Nevertheless, Rebbi Yosef the son of Rebbi Yehoshua Ben Levi took ill, had a sort of near death experience, and reported that he had been to the afterlife and returned and discovered that those on top on earth were on the lowest rungs up there and vice versa (Talmud Pesachim 50a).

To switch cultures, Aristotle said that one's immortality was in one's children, and other Greek thinkers talked about the legacy of the good works one leaves behind.

All these thoughts came back to me as I sat shiva last week in Jerusalem for my younger brother, Mickey, who founded Yakar and died at the early age of 63. He was fortunate in one way to have a wife, sons, and daughters who will continue his work; and the hundreds of people who came to pay tribute spoke of the impact that he had on their lives that continues to vivify them long after the initial inspiration passed.

Who knows about his soul, where it is, or on what journey it has now embarked? What we can say without doubt is that his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of so many of the living. What could be more immortal than that?

December 04, 2008


The tragic massacre by Muslim fanatics, of innocents in the Chabad/Lubavitch House in Mumbai, reminds us of two things. "Hatred," as the Talmud says, "distorts the mind," and spews evil out randomly. And who but Chabad would have a centre in a place like Mumbai, hardly a hotbed of Jewish religious life.

What more is there to be said about Islamic terror that has not already been said? That it has too many apologists in the so-called civilized world? The sort of facile pseudo-psychology that excused crime, because decadent capitalist societies caused it, has transmuted into the apologetic excuse that the perpetrators have been pushed into their crimes because of the errors of the west. The victims are to blame simply for the accident of being there.

I wonder if you noticed how it took two days before there was any mention in the Indian media of Jewish victims in Mumbai. Whenever local Indian commentators were asked about it they responded with a blank stare or simply moved on to another topic. There was something strange about their refusal to talk about Jews. Since Hindus are traditionally sympathetic to Jews, one is inclined to conclude that the combination of leftwing intellectual bias and rightwing religious primitivism were in their usual state of licentious cohabitation.

Chabad House was described as an outreach organization, which is not correct. It is an inreach organization, one that reaches to other Jews, who are technically part of the same ethnic/religious grouping. Chabad's presence around the world is precisely to cater to the needs of Jews who are either on the move or who have moved out altogether. If one hears that there is a rabbi in Timbuktu, or along the banks of the Orinoco, or halfway up the Himalayas, you can be sure he will be Chabad, rather than Satmar or Belz, or even one of the other "inreach/outreach" organizations. They are hardly a proselytizing organization like, say, the Mormons, though their general inclusive atmosphere means that converts find them a more than unusually conducive and welcoming group within Judaism.

After a summer of bad press over Chabad Rubashkin abattoirs in Postville, this tragedy brings back to the foreground the altogether different and praiseworthy aspect of Chabad, which like any people, religion, or movement, has its saints and its sinners. I can think of no other organization in Judaism that consistently finds hundreds of willing young men and women so utterly devoted and dedicated to saving Jewish souls, willing to travel with their families to the strangest and often remotest of black holes. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe always used to speak of his followers as foot soldiers ready to obey his superior orders and go where they were sent. No other group succeeds in reproducing such good humored, smiling dedication in so many of its members.

I have always been fascinated by the fact that no matter how ludicrous one's ideology, if one presents it with dedication and passion, the most offensive of ideas can sound appealing. Virtually all Jewish Orthodox inreach (baal teshuva) organizations fall into this category. They are essentially absolutist and fundamentalist. They have a well-defined religious framework of disciplined behavior and thought that acts as a safeguard and protective structure for the ordinary, moderately educated foot soldiers.

So I wonder if, in fact, the issue is really one of ideology at all. Religion is often a matter of comfort, of feeling secure, loved, and belonging. We are tribal creatures. It is true each tribe has its own characteristics, but it this sense of belonging and loyalty that can persuade many of us to believe in almost anything. As society becomes larger and more impersonal, people turn to smaller groups for security and identity.

Perhaps it is this that meets the needs of so many, rather than any doctrine or belief system. Perhaps this explains why sometimes religion leads to evil behavior. Men and women are not in it for truths or morals, but to be part of a tribe, a like-minded group with its own uniform and outward signs of belonging. That is what counts, and Chabad is brilliant at doing just that.

Although Chabad may appear to be selling ideology, they are marketing it with this sense of acceptance and belonging. This is what gives them the security that enables Chabad foot soldiers to go beyond the religious comfort zone. And that is what they were doing in Mumbai.

Very often they are the only visible Jews around, and sometimes they pay the price. In Mumbai we saw once again the two faces of religion and it seems obvious to me which is superior in every way.