September 24, 2009

Why blog?

This is, of course, the time of the year for reflection and self-examination. Amongst the things I ask myself is why do I keep on writing my weekly pieces?

It has been ten years since I started sending out weekly comments on the Torah by email. That morphed into weekly essays on Jewish topics, and then turned into what is now called a blog. I have been at it ever since. Some of what I have written I am proud of, some of it happy with, and some of it embarrassed by. I can see how uneven it has been, ranging from the angry to the whimsical to the frustrated to the amused, to the sad and the happy. The overwhelming emotion I have is that it is fun. I enjoy it. Otherwise I would not do it.

I am not commercial. I am not selling or representing any institution or movement. I don’t publicize myself or sell myself. I am here for those who are interested. So what am I trying to achieve?

I do not fit easily into any box or category, religiously, politically or socially. My blog posts are not conventional comments on the weekly reading of the Torah, although occasionally I do refer to them. There is a glut of such weekly offerings on the internet, ranging from the good to the bad, the rational to the mystical, the popular to the academic. I continue to do some of this, but rather as lectures that can go on for longer and go into the subject in greater depth and can be tailored to the specific cultural and religious contexts of whomever the audience happens to be.

Similarly, I choose not to write academically because there too one needs more space and time. Besides, the academic world, Jewish and otherwise, has its rituals and technicalities, its terminologies, its disciplines, and its fundamental assumptions. Only a career academic or an academic manque would be interested in being circumscribed by them.

The same goes for the Torah World. It would hate to be compared in any way to the academic, but it too has its conventions, its nostra, its styles and its disciplines.

Anyone who fears for his job in the rabbinate or his career in Jewish communal life (won't even touch the ghastly world of Jewish politicians), and many do, is always conscious of who might be reading and what the consequences of offense might be. It may surprise you, but I have often been criticized for not being aggressive or combative enough. But I do not try to offend or to be controversial for controversy's sake. I am a free-booting maverick and have always delighted in my freedom of conscience, thought, and expression. I realize how privileged I am to be able to think and write whatever I fancy.

I am also taken to task for levity. I write in a light vein for a very wide range of people, mainly Jewish, who live all round the world. Originally most of my readers were English; this is now no longer the case. Hence my adoption, with great reluctance, of American spelling! I want to entertain and stimulate and present my idiosyncratic ideas, events, and experiences that I enjoy and think might be interesting. This blog of mine is a way of bringing these issues to you laced with other stuff so that it doesn’t get too boring, predictable, or didactic--though as a teacher I always try to teach.

In fact everything I write is related in one way or another to my religious commitment. I try to see a spiritual dimension in whatever I come across that arouses my interest or, alternatively, offends my values. It all can be related to what we call God, one way or another, even if the offenders are apparently His faithful followers.

As a Jew, I am surprised and sad to discover how much Jews are still so hated by so many. As a religious man, I am upset by the constant abuses of religious authority. As a supporter of the Jewish right to self-determination and a historical homeland, I am upset by the tensions, violence, misinformation, errors, and stupidity on all sides in the Middle East. And as a citizen of the world, I am aghast at the political corruption, lies, deceptions, and blindness that characterizes all political systems, even if some are less obnoxious than others.

I know there are others like me, who love life but feel disenchanted with systems and hypocrisies. I see my task as offering solace, companionship, and reinforcement to those who, like me, cannot stand humbug no matter how many others seem willing to lap it all up. I know I have given support and encouragement to some of my coreligionists who feel isolated, perhaps lonely, and definitely out of sympathy with the extremes of fundamentalism on the one hand and of assimilation on the other.

I am a chronicler. Perhaps one day some historian might look back and find my work an interesting comment on our transient times. I know I cannot change the world. I have failed to change my religion.

As the Talmud puts it with regard to this time of the year, there are a few saints (tzaddikim) and a few really evil people (rashayim), but most of us are in the middle. We are the beinonim. That’s where I belong and that is the world I am addressing and expressing. That is the free, independent viewpoint, the quiet still voice amongst all the noisy shrill salesmen pushing their products.

Fast well--I mean productively, cathartically--and meditate rather than recite!

September 17, 2009

Be Happy

When we consider religion we rarely think of fun or joy. Usually it is control, discipline, and awe. As we enter the period often described as the Days of Awe, I wonder what the value of being somber is.

There is an early tradition of combining joy with restraint. In Hebrew it is Gilu BiRe'ada, "Serve the Lord with awe and rejoice with trembling," (Psalms 2:11). The Talmud asks, "What is meant by 'rejoice with trembling'?… Mar the son of Ravina made a marriage for his son. He saw that the rabbis were getting too merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious. R. Ashi made a marriage for his son. He saw that the rabbis were getting too merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it in front of them and they became serious. The rabbis said to R. Hamnuna Zuti, at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, 'Please sing us something.' He replied, 'Alas for us that we will die. Alas for us that we will die!' They said, 'What can we respond?' He said to them, 'There is Torah and there is Mitzvah to help us!'" (Brachot 30b)

Living a life according to values, behaving in appropriate ways, being aware of the ups and downs, the bad as well as the good, helps us cope with the challenges we face. It enables us to deal with impending death because we see a larger picture. If one only lives for pleasure then one is ultimately bound to feel let down.

It is like those Renaissance paintings of distinguished men with a skull in the background to remind them of mortality. Or "Et in Arcadia ego" of Poussin's neoclassical paintings; death lurks in the Garden of Eden, too. The paradox is that one wants to enjoy life but we need to realize how transient it is.

So what is joy? What is happiness? The Hebrew word "simcha", does not just mean being happy in the sense that, as the Beatles said, "Happiness is a warm gun", or a hot bun, or a new car. When I hear people say they want to enjoy themselves and I ask why, I am told because it makes them feel happy. But that kind of happy is purely physical wellbeing. Important as it is, it fades as quickly as a good meal or a farewell kiss. Simcha is not just physical. It is physical linked to spiritual, a higher goal. It is a sense that one's life has a purpose, direction, and meaning, that one is doing something valuable. That is why the Mishna talks about the rich man as being "happy with his lot in life".

There is another Hebrew word, "Ashrei." It too translates as happy but to the best of my knowledge it is only used in the metaphysical sense, being happy because one is living a good life, a considered life, a life with meaning. Isaiah 56 is more specific, "Happy is the person who keeps Shabbat." Or in the words of the Psalm we say three times a day, "Happy is the person who lives in God's house," or "Happy is the person who trusts in God." Being happy here, similar to being grateful, might not always be fun or even make one feel happy at all in the usual sense. Visiting the sick is not fun. Neither is listening to someone's problems. But it is important and will give us a sense of doing something valuable.

The purpose of the coming serious Holy Days is to spend time in introspection, self-evaluation. It is not to feel guilty or bad, but to give one a sense of priorities. This does indeed help one cope with the vicissitudes of life. And having a ritual that imposes this can be very helpful. Rosh Hashana is not intrinsically a sad day. If one spends time assessing one's values and priorities and comes out feeling that one is on the right track, it can give a sense of great joy and happiness, a feeling of physical wellbeing and of intellectual and moral self-justification.

Of course all of this could apply to most religions. What differentiates them is not necessarily in the goals, but rather in the ways prescribed to pursue and achieve them. Each religion has its own trials, its own special days, and its own subcultures and hidden agendas. I feel incredibly privileged, happy indeed, that I am an heir to the great Jewish religious tradition.

I rejoice in our very specific rituals, the strange sounds of the shofar that conjures up sad histories and happy ones. I enjoy the sense of historical continuity. I even enjoy the poetry of the service. Above all, I relish the challenge of examining myself, accepting my failures and faults, and considering if the targets I set last year were met and what new ones I need to set for the coming year. And doing it in the Jewish way will give me enormous joy and happiness on levels we don’t usually associate with those words. And that is the added value of being Jewish.

September 10, 2009

Birthright, Birthwrong

Non-Orthodox American Jews are seriously worried about their future. Assimilation is increasing and vast numbers of young Jews seem to be disappearing from the ranks. Over the years the panaceas have lost their attraction--secular Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust, new age alternatives, even kabbala. So the idea emerged that free trips to Israel with no agenda other than experiencing Israel might just give a greater incentive to remain connected than say, a visit to a synagogue (or "temple" as they like to call it over here). An organization called Birthright was established. Wealthy American Jews poured millions into it. The Israeli government, anxious both for tourist money and ties with the USA, put funding in too. The Birthright website proudly declares:

"Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people."

According to The Jewish Week, about half the youngsters who go on this junket come from families with one non-Jewish parent. Some put the figure at 30%, which is a reasonable reflection of the state of American Jewry. Apparently many who go on the trips are positively impressed. But it seems very few actually return and get involved in anything Jewish. Now if Birthright was simply an exercise in public relations, meeting nice Israelis, then I would argue it is a project well worth supporting and encouraging. Israel has such awful public relations. Many American universities, like the European ones, are now hotbeds of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda, pressure, and sentiment that any youngsters who can go and see for themselves, the good as well as the bad, must certainly help tip the balance. They certainly cannot do worse than almost every Israeli spokesman who appears on the world's media.

Organizations like the John Levy's Friends of Israel Educational Foundation in the UK (don’t confuse it with the missionary site of a similar name), have for years been working away sending youngsters, Jewish and non-Jewish, politicians, and opinion-formers to Israel to get a fairer perspective, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But they are honest about their aims and clear about their objectives.

"Tell it not in Gat", some in Birthright actually did want to try to persuade the participants to become more Jewishly committed. Ah, but here is the rub. What does it mean "more Jewish"? One Israel provider company has been struck off the list because as it took its participants around the usual water parks, beaches, and nightclubs (as well as archaeological and political sites), its leaders were pushing agendas such as, "Why not consider coming to Israel?" and "You should try to marry Jewish." Politically correct secular or Reform America does not like anyone pushing agendas, certainly not if they are more religious or Zionist than they are.

Birthright realized most of its participants returned to the USA and simply disappeared off the radar. So they sensibly established a department to follow up and try to keep them involved. One recipient of finance was the Jewish Enrichment Center in Lower Manhattan and by all accounts it has been successful in getting many of the Birthright participants to become more involved. It is nondenominational, welcomes everyone in, and does not discriminate, BUT its charismatic leaders are personally Orthodox! Never mind they are tolerant, they have an agenda. They want people to live manifestly Jewish lives! Whereas most participants seem to have enjoyed the soft sell, some have bridled and now a paper called the Forward (actually supported by a major supporter of Birthright), founded on anti-religious, secular, Yiddishist Bundist principles, has revealed the link between JEC and the Charedi Baal Teshuva movement, Ohr Somayach, and is demanding Birthright cut ties.

Now, I do not identify or agree with a lot of the Baal Teshuva movement methods or ideology, whether it is Aish HaTorah, Lubavitch, or Ohr Somayach. But no one can deny they do a very important and valuable job in keeping many young Jews in touch with Judaism, providing centers of support, and indeed persuading some to lead more religious lives! In my view, that is the way to stop attrition, although of course in this life nothing is ever guaranteed. It makes sense to help something that actually succeeds instead of pouring millions into something that does not. There is a lot wrong with institutional religion. But I think it is self-evident that living a religiously committed Jewish life is a far more successful way of keeping Judaism alive (if you want to) than living a completely anti-religious one. Besides, it is a free society, no compulsion. If you do not like the message you can walk.

I really like the wide range of Jewish affiliation in the USA. Even the strong secular presence has something to commend. Every New York university has courses on secular Jewish culture and identity. But as a transmittable ideology it does not succeed, precisely because it is not passionate or behavioral enough. I welcome the variations of the Jewish religion so that there are options but I regret their almost paranoid need to attack anyone more religious than they are. Here is an example of religious intolerance coming not from the Right but from the Left.

If Birthright were only a PR exercise, then fair enough, you don’t want any religious ingredient. But if, as it claims, it also wants to strengthen Jewish identity and by implication keep the Jewish people alive, then it should not give in to negative pressure and prevent those who actually have track records of success from trying. You can be Jewish, they seem to say, so long as it is only my kind of Jewish.

September 03, 2009

Ernest Levy of Glasgow

From 1968 until 1971, I was the rabbi of the largest community in Scotland, the Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation of Glasgow in Scotland. It was my first full-time job, fresh from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. For those who might not realize it, Scotland and England are two very different countries! I drove up the motorway from my mother's home in London, past Birmingham, Manchester, and Carlisle, and over the border at Gretna Green (where young couples once went to elope) in my small, secondhand white MG Midget sports car, and into the magical world of Scotland with its lowlands and highlands and islands and seascapes and landscapes and dramatic shifts in scenery (and its rainy climate).

I was full of naïve idealism and raw enthusiasm. The community I found was overwhelmingly warm, hospitable, and welcoming. The synagogue was just about to move from a cramped wooden synagogue on May Terrace into a huge, modern complex at the Glen. My residence was a grand house on Eastwoodmains Road that was graced with a large and elegant piece of modern art on its front lawn, thanks to Mark Goldberg. And I set about shaking up, revolutionizing, and energizing my huge and expanding community. I was in heaven.

It’s a pretty universal rule that synagogue business brings out the worst in people. Synagogue life everywhere and anywhere is a minefield of politics and vested interests. I was really fortunate to have successive presidents, Baruch Mendelson and Dr. David Granet, who were the exceptions to any negative rule about synagogue presidents! And I survived and thrived because I was also fortunate to find a guide, a chazzan in place, who was one of the nicest and wisest and kindest human beings I have ever encountered, Ernest Levy.

Ernest had grown up in post-war Hungary with all of its traumas, as well as his own. He had no thought of being a chazzan. But the failed 1956 revolution, gave him the opportunity to escape. With an elder brother already in the business, and with a sweet, light voice (and a trace of a lisp) he became chazzan in Giffnock, instead of a motorbike-riding engineer in Budapest. Ernest was a cynic with a black sense of humor. He had experienced enough of human nature to know what deceits and subterfuges humans were capable of and yet enough love remained so that he really did devote his life to people, because he really cared. He very rarely spoke about his painful past. Much later, long after I had left Glasgow, was he able to open up and do a lot to educate people about the Holocaust.

At the time Glasgow Jewry was torn apart by a bitter rivalry between Reverend Dr. Cosgrove of Garnethill, the old cathedral synagogue of Glasgow up by the university, was in decline because of a population shift to the southern suburbs, and Rabbi Dr. Wolf Gottlieb, scholar, polymath, rabbi of Queens Park where my father presided thirty years earlier, and Av Bet Din. Cosgrove stood for compromise and pliability, Gottlieb for the law and authority. Cosgrove was a Jewish representative to the non-Jews. Gottlieb was the Lord Protector of Judaism for the Jews. They were both significant and, in their very different ways, great men. But they demeaned each other because their ideological differences descended into petty rivalry. They would jockey for position, priority, and seniority, even to the point that they once managed to accidentally push each other into an open grave one cold, sodden autumn in Glenduffhill Cemetery. Ernest always warned me not take sides. He counseled independence at all costs.

He was a great mimic. He could predict the content and the style of old-school rabbis from the decaying, older parts of town and the itinerant preachers and collectors who were always welcomed into Giffnock to ply their trade, and given respect, but that did not mean one could not make fun of their views, their foibles, and their illusions. Many were rigid and fundamentalist, confident in their learning, but with no idea how ineffectual their words were to the average Glaswegian. Ernest could prick the largest bubble. It only took a wink, a seemingly naive question, to demolish any pretension.

He and I were the new team, the new world of open ideas and open minds, reaching out rather than expecting everyone else to come in. We worked together all the time, in synagogue and at the endless weddings, bar mitzvas, funerals and shivas at which we jointly officiated. We knew whom to encourage amongst the members and who needed to be put in their places. We had a similar vision of Jewish life--welcoming, light, and appealing, with humor and tolerance, rather than dark, forbidding and exclusive.

We did not always agree. He was a professional musician and I an amateur. I loved really good choral music, but I had no patience for synagogue choirs of second-rate voices. I wanted streamlined services, but he needed to spend time justifying his cantorial role. We compromised, though once or twice I overstepped the mark. There were other characters there I loved and worked well with. But Ernest was in a class of his own.

I left Glasgow reluctantly, only because my father's legacy called me away. Ernest stayed, beloved and respected till the end. One man, one job, one city, one community; whereas I always moved on. But wherever I went I never forgot the wonderful times I spent in a remarkable community and with friends I have kept in touch with to this day. Ernest travelled with me, in a way, wherever I went. And whenever we met, as we did on occasion, we would both reminisce and laugh at those glory days of our youth. Ernest died last week. May his memory be a blessing.