April 23, 2009

Memorial Days

It is the season of memorial days!

All the major ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the 1950's refused to accept the Israeli Holocaust Day, Yom HaShoah. Instead they wanted to include the tragedy of the Holocaust within an existing fast day, Tisha B'Av, The Ninth of Av, when we mourn the destruction of two Temples. They argued that the tragedy of the destruction and the exile was one long continuum of suffering and alienation. We had not established separate days for the Crusades, the Cossack massacres, the expulsions from Iberia, or the sufferings of Jews under Islam. If the Holocaust was way and above more horrific, systematic, and all-encompassing, they put that down to technology and modern methods rather than a change in essential human evil and prejudice--witness other modern genocides.

The historical fact is that we did indeed have other days of mourning for past tragedies. But in practice they all fell away. Probably the period of mourning from Passover to Pentecost, the Omer, also served as a memorial for the sufferings Jews experienced in exile and the medieval world, in particular from Easter onwards.

I agree that memorial days in isolation are poor vehicles for long-term effective memory. The best response to Hitler is the Charedi one; to have many children, study Torah in depth and width, and ensure the survival of the religion is the best answer to those who want to eliminate us. Emotionally as well as religiously, I agree with the Charedi position.

In practice I suspect it was the fact that Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Jewish Holocaust Day, was established by the Knesset, a secular and political body rather than a religious one, that provoked the reaction. Pro-Zionist rabbis like Rabbis Herzog and Uzziel went along with it. Another bone of contention was the way the Knesset coupled Yom HaShoah with the phrase VeHagvurah, "and Might", referring to the physical struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Charedi world has always seen true "might" in spiritual terms, resistance of spirit rather than body.

However, I believe that civil states have every right to establish what are called "civil religious" ceremonies, whether they be independence days, memorial days, victory days, or whatever. They play an important part in self-identification and national self-images, unfashionable as it is to say so in the current climate of capitulation to barbarism. Religion is one important ingredient, but it must not be the only one!

In principle I used to be opposed to civil Holocaust Days on the grounds that they were tokenism. They were opportunities for crocodile tears, and would be misused and misappropriated. They would only give further excuses to excoriate Jews. As we have seen, where they have not been intentionally ignored for fear of offending others, they are too often hijacked for other purposes, usually anti-Israel.

Yet I have modified my view. Now the overwhelming evil of misusing words and terms, of purloining totally irrelevant terminology, of throwing epithets like "Nazi", "Apartheid" and "racism" around with no regard to relevance, appropriateness, historical fact, or hypocrisy, has so degraded the language that some people turn anything and everything into terms of abuse. Once crude abuse was restricted to the uneducated and the primitive. Now it has all but become the norm, thanks largely to politicized students and campaigners who think and talk only in slogans.

We have an obligation to refuse to be silent and accept fascism in any guise. And by fascism I mean anything that opposes free thought and free expression, including ridicule. The only way one does this is by engagement, and the best way to engage is by publicizing contrary views. Therefore any opportunity to talk about the Holocaust and why it was so different than any other example of inhumanity needs to be taken and used to combat ignorance and distortion--political, cultural, and religious.

This past week at the World Conference Against Racism (only anything that offends Islamic militants) in Geneva, the laughable charade organized under the auspices of the UN Committee on Human Rights (any rights but Israel's), we have at last seen signs that some Western powers are standing up to hypocrisy and extremism. Not the EU, of course, but some European countries (notably Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands), and more significantly, the USA, Canada, and Australasia refused to demean themselves by attending a manifestly corrupt cabal. And even some of the appeasers who did attend booed Ahmadinejad and walked out. Jews, too, at last fought back and used the tactics normally used to try to silence them, against their enemies. At least it is a start! Tides turn but we must not let up.

When Israel recalls the Holocaust, and next week celebrates those who died to establish a Jewish homeland and Israel Independence Day itself, regardless of what we may or may not think of Zionism in its many hues, we need to join in the occasions, both happy and sad to ensure that we and the world (or as much as is prepared to listen) do not forget the tragedies of the past and a people's right to survive.

Every Jewish celebration is an opportunity for introspection and self-criticism. This must not be neglected, in the Diaspora or in Israel. But at the same time we have always been commanded to remember, and for as long as we remember we must make sure that others do not forget.

Memorial Days

It is the season of memorial days!

All the major ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the 1950's refused to accept the Israeli Holocaust Day, Yom HaShoah. Instead they wanted to include the tragedy of the Holocaust within an existing fast day, Tisha B'Av, The Ninth of Av, when we mourn the destruction of two Temples. They argued that the tragedy of the destruction and the exile was one long continuum of suffering and alienation. We had not established separate days for the Crusades, the Cossack massacres, the expulsions from Iberia, or the sufferings of Jews under Islam. If the Holocaust was way and above more horrific, systematic, and all-encompassing, they put that down to technology and modern methods rather than a change in essential human evil and prejudice--witness other modern genocides.

The historical fact is that we did indeed have other days of mourning for past tragedies. But in practice they all fell away. Probably the period of mourning from Passover to Pentecost, the Omer, also served as a memorial for the sufferings Jews experienced in exile and the medieval world, in particular from Easter onwards.

I agree that memorial days in isolation are poor vehicles for long-term effective memory. The best response to Hitler is the Charedi one; to have many children, study Torah in depth and width, and ensure the survival of the religion is the best answer to those who want to eliminate us. Emotionally as well as religiously, I agree with the Charedi position.

In practice I suspect it was the fact that Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Jewish Holocaust Day, was established by the Knesset, a secular and political body rather than a religious one, that provoked the reaction. Pro-Zionist rabbis like Rabbis Herzog and Uzziel went along with it. Another bone of contention was the way the Knesset coupled Yom HaShoah with the phrase VeHagvurah, "and Might", referring to the physical struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Charedi world has always seen true "might" in spiritual terms, resistance of spirit rather than body.

However, I believe that civil states have every right to establish what are called "civil religious" ceremonies, whether they be independence days, memorial days, victory days, or whatever. They play an important part in self-identification and national self-images, unfashionable as it is to say so in the current climate of capitulation to barbarism. Religion is one important ingredient, but it must not be the only one!

In principle I used to be opposed to civil Holocaust Days on the grounds that they were tokenism. They were opportunities for crocodile tears, and would be misused and misappropriated. They would only give further excuses to excoriate Jews. As we have seen, where they have not been intentionally ignored for fear of offending others, they are too often hijacked for other purposes, usually anti-Israel.

Yet I have modified my view. Now the overwhelming evil of misusing words and terms, of purloining totally irrelevant terminology, of throwing epithets like "Nazi", "Apartheid" and "racism" around with no regard to relevance, appropriateness, historical fact, or hypocrisy, has so degraded the language that some people turn anything and everything into terms of abuse. Once crude abuse was restricted to the uneducated and the primitive. Now it has all but become the norm, thanks largely to politicized students and campaigners who think and talk only in slogans.

We have an obligation to refuse to be silent and accept fascism in any guise. And by fascism I mean anything that opposes free thought and free expression, including ridicule. The only way one does this is by engagement, and the best way to engage is by publicizing contrary views. Therefore any opportunity to talk about the Holocaust and why it was so different than any other example of inhumanity needs to be taken and used to combat ignorance and distortion--political, cultural, and religious.

This past week at the World Conference Against Racism (only anything that offends Islamic militants) in Geneva, the laughable charade organized under the auspices of the UN Committee on Human Rights (any rights but Israel's), we have at last seen signs that some Western powers are standing up to hypocrisy and extremism. Not the EU, of course, but some European countries (notably Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands), and more significantly, the USA, Canada, and Australasia refused to demean themselves by attending a manifestly corrupt cabal. And even some of the appeasers who did attend booed Ahmadinejad and walked out. Jews, too, at last fought back and used the tactics normally used to try to silence them, against their enemies. At least it is a start! Tides turn but we must not let up.

When Israel recalls the Holocaust, and next week celebrates those who died to establish a Jewish homeland and Israel Independence Day itself, regardless of what we may or may not think of Zionism in its many hues, we need to join in the occasions, both happy and sad to ensure that we and the world (or as much as is prepared to listen) do not forget the tragedies of the past and a people's right to survive.

Every Jewish celebration is an opportunity for introspection and self-criticism. This must not be neglected, in the Diaspora or in Israel. But at the same time we have always been commanded to remember, and for as long as we remember we must make sure that others do not forget.

April 14, 2009

Women on Pesach

I have always suspected that Pesach, Passover, is a cunning plot to so overburden Jewish women with exhausting preparation and mind-numbing confusion over the most improbable and irrational rituals that they end up so worn out and confused that there could be no chance whatsoever of their even thinking of challenging male authority. After all, if the demands of religion are this excessive, it must all come from God--because no human could possibly think it all up. Alternatively, it could show that the male world view is such a ridiculous one that there is no point in even trying to engage with it. That is why so many suffer stoically and often their resentment finds other outlets.

On the other hand, and there always is another hand, in this affluent age of cruises and hotels many women are fortunate enough to have a Pesach of self-indulgent idleness, just like their men folk (though I gather this year all bookings are down, surprise!).

And yet the more one considers it, the female element in Passover is crucial and too often overlooked. It may sound too obvious to say that without women the whole show would never have got on the road because without women there would be no men, no show, full stop and vice versa of course but too much of our cultural narrative comes from a male perspective. But here is the case I want to present to challenge what, I am afraid, remains a persistent thread of male chauvinism in parts of Judaism.

Look the women in the Passover narrative. The nation of slaves was only saved from extinction by the intervention of the two midwives, Shifra and Pua, who defied Egyptian authority, ignored the royal decrees, and found ways of keeping male children alive. This is no small issue. There is no other record of male Hebrews defying Egyptian authority in the same way until the very end of the process. One thinks of isolated cases of individuals in more modern situations, like the Bielski brothers of the film Defiance, refusing to give up without a struggle. But here we have a coordinated campaign right under the noses of a power no less ruthless than the Nazis in cruelly and remorselessly executing its wishes. And they seem to have dealt with the Gestapo like interrogation with incredible guts and sangfroid. (They were obviously fans of Tim Roth's new series Lie to Me in which facial expressions give everything away. They knew how to get away with it.)

The role of Pharaoh's daughter in defying her father knowingly is another remarkable feature of the narrative. Where did she get the audacity and the independence from? To allow the child to be nursed by a Hebrew was a double defiance of her father. The secondary roles of Moses' sister Miriam and mother Yocheved are remarkable too. A young girl was audacious enough to approach and engage an enemy princess, a mother willing to suckle and then part with her child, none of these emotional hurdles should be minimized or underestimated.

Later on, as a grown man, Moses himself would not have survived without another female intervention. On his way down to Egypt he neglects to take care of his domestic rituals, and had it not been for his wife Zippora coming to his rescue he would have been snuffed out before even getting within spitting distance of Egypt (Exodus 4:25-26).

The role of Miriam as a national leader is rarely given sufficient emphasis. She is described as a prophet. No other female is explicitly called a prophet in the Five Books, though tradition accords this title to the Mothers. She leads the women in a specifically religious song and dance. And we see that her words are echoed by the men as well as the women, because the Hebrew word for "them" used in "she answered them" (Exodus 15:21) is in the form that is inclusive of both sexes.

The role of women in the Golden Calf crisis is recorded in the Midrash time and again but it is implicit in their refusal to hand over their gold. Their contribution is explicit in the creation of the Tabernacle where their skills, devotion and contributions are repeatedly emphasized. And of course they contribute to the establishment of new legislation in the case of the five daughters of Zelophehad.

The mere fact that the Bible records and emphasizes these events, in itself, attests to their significance. In a record of overwhelming male genealogy the references to females have added significance.

Of course none of this will make a ha'penny of difference to an unreconstructed male chauvinist just as mu trying to redress the balance will never go far enough for others. But somewhere along the line we did go wrong. If it was possible for Deborah to be both judge and prophet, for Hulda to be a prophetess, for Salome Alexandra to rule successfully in two separate stints (repairing the damage of her first husband Aristobolus and then her second husband Jannaeus did to the body politic, and ruling with the approval of rabbinic leadership under Shimon Ben Shetach, no less), then one is bound to ask why by the time we get to Maimonides, living under Islamic culture, does he say, "All appointments must be male," if no one said it explicitly before him?

No civilization can survive effectively if it disenfranchises fifty percent of its talent potential. We have allowed thousands of years of distorted, alien, male-dominated theological cultures to insidiously undermine our intrinsic values. After all, it was the single biggest innovation of Sinai legislation to overturn Egyptian law and the Hammurabi code and give women equality in civil law.

I am not suggesting Biblical values were all egalitarian, or that religion should not recognize difference and varied paradigms. There have always been separations and groupings that were specific not only in gender--think of the differences between priests, Levites, and common and garden Israelites--or privileges of ages (e.g., after twenty, until forty). Certainly women were disadvantaged, as were the poor and the alien. But remember we are talking three thousand years before Switzerland gave women the vote!

It is true that individual women of distinction and talent were able to rise and overcome disadvantage and it is consistent with our ancient tradition to encourage and facilitate this. But we should now be in a situation where female involvement and equality should be the norm (if not necessarily identical to that of males). Pesach should remind us as much of the slavery of gender as it does of the slavery of labor.

April 05, 2009

Pesach 2009

Nothing typifies the ambivalence of Jewish life today more than the famous Midrash that is repeated in the Talmud:

Rebbi Shmuel Bar Nachman in the name of Rebbi Yonatan said, "[At the Red sea] the angels wanted to sing a song before the Holy One Blessed is He, but He rebuked them saying, 'My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you want to sing to me?'" Rebbi Yose Ben Hanina said, "Even if He will not rejoice He allows others to."(Sanhedrin 39b)

What is more important, a sense of humanity or national survival? This ambivalence is reflected in the fact that during the morning services during Pesach we reduce the number of Psalms of Joy, Hallel, from the whole collection to half. Similarly we tip or drip out some of our wine on the Seder Night when we list the Ten Plagues, precisely because our celebration was at the expense of others.

Despite all that the Egyptians threw at us and despite their emblematic role as cruel oppressors and child murderers, we are commanded not to hate Egyptians (Deuteronomy 23) and to feel a concern for all humans, given that we are "all God's children". It sounds rather un-Biblical or un-Jewish, given our constant battles to survive what the rest of humanity throws at us and our own amazing and consistent capacity to shoot ourselves in the foot (or rather the mouth).

The most obvious and common theme of the Passover Seder is freedom from slavery. This resonates because until relatively recently so many of us lived under some form of slavery—political, if not physical. The emergence of Jews over the past century from overwhelming poverty and disadvantage has changed most of us dramatically. Not only are we equal in rights and opportunities in the most successful parts of our globe, but we have our own land that is doing very well, in comparison to so many others. And Jews have power and influence way beyond it, though perhaps not as much as our enemies suggest. Sadly, as we know only too well, we are also experiencing a return to the antagonisms and enmity that existed before the Second World War and the Holocaust. While we must avoid the debilities of victimhood, we cannot ignore how we are regarded by so many.

If the traditional question at the Seder was always, "What is it like to be enslaved and then liberated," now the question increasingly is going to be, "What does it feel like to be hated." We might even add an extra one to the Four Questions, "Why do Europeans vote that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace today?" Even if many of the voters have been Muslims with a specific agenda, this still doesn't explain the overwhelming size of the negative vote. What is it about us? Have we done more wrong than anyone else? Or is it just something non-rational about our very being?

So we may add an extra layer of interpretation to the questions of the Four Sons. The Wise Son will direct this question to humanity, "Why is hatred of the other so endemic?" He might suggest, in a mystical vein, that we are suffering because we have failed to live up to our own standards. The Wicked Son will phrase his question in terms of it being our fault for insisting on remaining clannishly distinct and contrary, too preoccupied with our own survival. He might even add we excite envy because we are so successfully adaptable. The Simple Son will ask what it matters, if he is living perfectly happily without being aware of any threat to him personally. And the Son who doesn't yet know there is a problem needs to be taught some history and answers so that he can defend himself when he goes to university.

The truth is, there is a universal and humanitarian spirit of the Torah and Midrash that we have failed to live up to in certain ways. Even the Biblical command to remember Amalek involves remembering, not hating. Hatred is debilitating, demeaning, and destructive, yet historical circumstances have dragged too many of us down into this black hole. Fighting for survival and delighting in it can never be at the expense of human sensitivity.

The point has been labored that the Torah tells us 36 times to remember what it was like to be slaves and thus to be sensitive to others. But have we paid much attention? Our religion has shifted its emphasis from humanitarian issues to increasing strictness and exaggerated refinement, increasing costs year after year till the burden has become almost intolerable. Kashrut, instead of being a service to the community, has become a massive profit centre and mechanism for social control. Consider how many people feel alienated or uncomfortable in Jewish communities because of their financial limitations. So if we haven't even been sensitive to the needs of the disadvantaged or financially stretched in our own community, how could we possibly have been sensitive to wider concerns?

Yet of course it would be unfair to suggest this is the only picture. For every Hassidic Master who makes use of a private jet there is another who enforces sumptuary laws that restrict excessive indulgence. Many dispense huge sums in charity. As with business ethics, the significant voices of the ethically aware are too often lost in the glare of financial crimes and failures.

Pesach is a time for us to reflect how fortunate we all are in one way or another. But such fortune must not blind us to the spiritual and financial needs of those around us. Eat, drink, and be merry, but don't forget to connect.