October 29, 2009

Tefillin

Every weekday morning after I have washed and dressed and, unless it is a fast day, drunk a glass of water, I put on my tefillin. They that, for reasons I cannot understand, are called phylacteries. The word still sounds like a form of contraception to me because when, as a fourteen year old, I saw an advert for prophylactics I was told by an almost equally ignorant teenage friend that it had something to do with birth control. Apparently it is from the Greek for "outpost" or "guard".

Anyway, come rain or shine, hell and high water, healthy or sick, in a good mood or bad, I put on my tefillin, even if I am nowhere near a minyan or a synagogue. It is one of the most important rituals of my life. It enables me to start each day in a mood of reflection and spirituality and identification with my Jewish heritage.

As I put on, or "lay", my tefillin (and there's another confusing word), I look at the "houses", the little boxes that contain little scrolls of parchment of Biblical texts that I dedicate my head and my heart to. I notice the details of the leather craftsmanship, the precise, accurate, clean lines of the squares, the relief of the letter Shin with four branches on one side but the usual three branches on the other, the complicated knots on the pristine leather straps, and the exact number of threads of sewing gut that just peep out from the recessed channels they are threaded through, and I am both amazed and perplexed.

And I ask myself, can it possibly be that Moses and his followers wore things like these thousands of years ago? Of course it is not impossible. Egyptians had been building very complex technically sophisticated structures for a long time beforehand and their jewelry and other crafts were impressive even by modern standards. But such things were luxuries confined to the minute stratum of wealthy aristocrats, not for the masses.

The Torah is vague. "And you shall bind them [these words which I command you today] as a sign on your hands and they shall be decorations between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6 ), sounds to me as though it was meant symbolically, that the constitution of the Torah should be there with us all the time to guide and affect every action. In the same way "write them on your doorposts" sounds paradoxical in an era of tents. It sounds more like an injunction to dedicate a habitation to Divine values. But still, the fact is we have an Oral Law, a tradition that helps explain what was meant by the Written Law. So when the Torah says, "Take the fruit of a fine tree" on Sukkot, it is clarified by Oral Tradition as the etrog (rather than a kiwi or a kumquat), which we still use to this day. It does not strike me as necessarily unlikely at all that that was exactly what was meant by people at the time.

There is an old argument between the Medieval Scholars Rashi and Rebbeinu Tam over the actual order of the texts. Remember this some two thousand years after every male amongst the Children of Israel had been putting them on daily so they should have known! And because of this difference of opinion a few kabbalists started wearing two pairs (some doing so consecutively, and others simultaneously) and that caught on amongst the Hassidim, who now wear two pairs of tefillin every day, one with Rashi's order and one with Rabbeinu Tam's. I do not, because my father did not and what was good enough for him is good enough for me.

It also seems likely that an ancient argument is responsible for the fact that on the head the four texts are in four separate but conjoined sections while on the arm they are all together in one. As indeed is the unique use of a letter Shin I mentioned above, with four branches instead of three. Not only, but the great archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered ancient tefillin that were round. So, on the one hand, it is clear that tefillin of some sort have been around for thousands of years. And that’s precisely why I have difficulty believing that the ones we have today have gone though absolutely no changes whatsoever since Moses's day.

But does it matter? Does it matter if the little black disks (or the multicolored knitted ones) all Orthodox and not-so-orthodox people wear might be a more recent development? The fact is that head covering of some sort for ritual occasions is an integral part of Jewish law and custom, and certainly has been documented as such for two thousand years. Indeed does it matter if head covering itself originated as desert protection or a reaction against Roman and then Christian custom? I know nowadays with the Chareidi-ization of much of Yiddishkeit that we are expected to believe that Moses wore a fur shtreimel and full Polish seventeenth century baronial gear. Indeed I have seen Charedi illustrations where Talmudic rabbis were wearing shtreimels.

I am not a slave to conformity by any means. But I do love our traditions and customs and see the value of investing most of them with authority. Tefillin mean so much to me and play such an important role in my life that frankly even if someone could prove they were invented a hundred years ago in a Romanian beer cellar I'd still put them on every morning never fail and still feel a little bit closer to Heaven.

October 21, 2009

The Bomb

In my youth I marched against "the bomb" in the annual Easter marches from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire (UK) to Trafalgar Square in London.

We were genuinely worried that the Russians and the Americans would drop atomic bombs on each other and in the ensuing cataclysm we would all be wiped off the face of the earth. Amazing as it may now seem to us, most people thought the Americans were more likely to let go first. Dr. Strangelovespoke with a foreign accent but his equipment looked more American than Russian. But then, America had been the only one to have actually exploded a nuclear bomb on a human target, even if, to be fair, it did stop the war with Japan, which might have cost far more casualties had it dragged on. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 changed perceptions, when the Russians seemed willing to provoke a nuclear war by shipping nuclear warheads to Havana.

To us young idealistic Brits, it seemed really ridiculous that what once we called Great Britain should spend millions it desperately needed to upgrade its Victorian infrastructures and reform its medieval social structures, to have a nuclear deterrent of its own (which anyway relied on American technology and support). As if anyone really thought Britain was still a world power even with a "bombele". And the French were even more laughable. Having lost two World Wars ignominiously, De Gaulle thought that having a French bomb would mean that people would take them more seriously.

My father would have none of my objections. He argued that the nuclear deterrent would in fact prevent wars, and in one way he was right. There hasn't been another World War since. Though low-grade conventional conflicts have, if anything, spread.

The situation now is different. I suggest it is not a fear worth consideration that the new bully on the block, China, will want to initiate nuclear war. Although in Mao's day he often used to say that China was the only power that could afford a nuclear war because it had so many people spread out over such a wide area that more of its population would survive a cataclysm than any other country.

But now we have proliferation, with India and Pakistan both having the bomb. Pakistan in particular is a failed state, and in parts barbaric. It has already leaked atomic secrets to unsavory clients. North Korea is just self-destructively catatonic. And Russia is like an aging prostitute willing to trade anything to anyone who will give her a drop of pleasure or pride. This is why attempts to curtail the spread of nuclear warfare is so important for all of us.

Once again, like "The Elephant and the Jewish problem", we come to Israel. Israel, unofficially and without ever admitting to it, seems to have nuclear bombs. It has steadfastly denied this (despite Vanunu's self-serving claims) and it has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or to allow inspection of its Dimona reactor. But it has always publicly declared that it would never be the first to use such weapons. It has relied on the mere threat of nuclear retaliation to deter Arabs and Muslims bent on destroying Israel.

Now that Iran virtually has its bomb and the West is patently incapable of stopping either it or North Korea perfecting their nuclear arsenals, the United Nations Security Council, with the approval of the USA, has finally officially decided to lay into Israel and demand it give up its nuclear weapons. As I have said before, I would not trust the United Nations to clean my backside, let alone give a fig for Israel's survival. And I would no more rely on Obama to protect Israel than I would Hamas or Hezbollah.

However, I do strongly believe that Israel ought to agree to give up nuclear bombs if it has them. Israel should agree to be bound by all international resolutions and laws concerning nuclear arms. But on one simple condition, that the United Nations must publicly reiterate Israel's right to exist, declare unanimously that any state that threatens its existence will be expelled from the United Nations, and that any attempt to delegitimize Israel will be a breach of the United Nations Charter. That is all, no more, no less.

Empty guarantees are not enough. The United Nations cannot even protect Rwanda or Montenegro let alone Israel. No one has ever protected the Jews better than the Jews themselves. Equally, no one has ever done more damage to Jews than Jews, taken over the whole span of Jewish history (though Hitler, Stalin, the Church, and the Cossacks came pretty close).

And lest my left-leaning friends challenge me, I am still strongly of the opinion that Israel needs an independent, unbiased enquiry into the conduct of the Gaza war, but should tell the Human Rights bozos to crawl back into their own unhealthy caves. Even the founder and ex-head of Human Rights Watch agrees they are a dishonest, biased bunch who have betrayed their own original values.

October 15, 2009

Demographics

You may have seen a video doing the rounds, The Islamic Tidal Wave, about the demographics of survival and the clear message that within our lifetime Islam will have conquered the world through its birth rate.

Of course it is a Christian scare video to get good believers to rabbit away to save the Kingdom of Christ. In its over-simplicity it ignores too many other factors. But it does make a very valid point--that cultures cannot sustain themselves unless they increase membership through conquest, conversion, or producing babies (and of course an ideology they think worth fighting for).

Europeans and most Americans reproduce at a rate that guarantees extinction. The statistics quoted are that one needs a birthrate of 2.11 just to retain one's population. The European indigenous birthrate averages 1.38. On the other hand, Muslim immigrants in Europe reproduce at a rate of 8.11. In less than fifty years therefore they will be the majority in all countries of Western Europe. Similar predictions of doom apply to the USA although it will take quite a while longer and Catholic Latinos reproduce just as quickly.

Now such situations are not news to Jews. It has always been thus and we have even gloried in our minority status and capacity to defy odds. The great medieval Rashi comments on Jacob's fear of the huge number of tribes descended from Esav in comparison to his (and I suspect Rashi's comment was also a reply to the situation that prevailed in his own day, when Jews were a very small minority in a totally dominant Christian world). Jacob was comforted with this parable:
"A flax merchant with his camels loaded squeezed past a small charcoal burner's store front. The charcoal burner was initially in awe at the size of the camel's load, but then realized that one small spark of his could reduce it all to nothing." (Rashi on Genesis 37:1)
It is this that gives me comfort when I hear the amoral UN clap anti-Semites and cheer anything derogatory of Jews or pundits argue that Israel is a greater threat to the world than Iran (as if self-defense were ethically wrong). We like to say that the Almighty (Allah, if you prefer) works in strange and unpredictable ways, and we are still around even as the numerically superior Roman Empire disappeared and Christianity is certainly wobbling. But overall, Jewish numbers are down, significantly! Of course, none of this is new to academics, such as Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University, who have for years been warning Israelis of the looming demographic reversals.

Not a day goes by in the Jewish world without some philanthropist funding a new initiative, a conference, a chair, or a competition to find a way of ensuring Jewish continuity, survival, call it what you like. Millions have been spent, and doubtless willing suckers will continue to be leeched by conniving, self-serving charlatans till Kingdom Come. But the fact is that it is all a complete waste of time and money. There is only one guarantee of continuity and that is birthrate (assuming, of course, people want to continue and not assimilate). And the evidence for this is everywhere. There are some valuable and interesting initiatives in the less Orthodox world that must not be underestimated. But overall figures are down, unless one accepts the arguable contention that mixed families still strengthen Judaism (doubtless there are individual cases who do).

Who reproduces? The Charedi world of course, our own equivalent of the Muslims! Their whole social structure, mindset, and raison d'etre is based on the desire and the need to obey the command to reproduce, to deny Hitler a posthumous victory, to refute the predictions of assimilationists, to counter secularism, reform, and any ideology they consider a threat.

And it works. If the rest of Jewry is marrying out at the rate of nearly 50% of all marriages, the Charedim are not only all marrying in, but are growing exponentially; theirs is the one sector of Judaism that has absolutely no doubts about survival and looks on the concerns of others as pathetic. The current recession brings almost daily news of many Jewish schools in the USA closing down, but not Charedi ones (though a few did, thanks to crooked rabbis). They are replaying the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt, where despite everything the Egyptians could throw at them they increased and multiplied and grew stronger and stronger. And despite what you might think, I am delighted.

In many ways the Charedi world offers a distorted version of Torah, certainly in its ever-increasing strictness, beyond reason and law. But if I ask what guarantees the future, it is passion, commitment and numbers too. When Charedi families have 8 or 10 children, even if two go off the tracks, they are still way ahead in the reproduction stakes of the rest of the Jewish world.

And that’s what the future may well look like for Judaism. Those who "do", both reproductively and religiously, will survive. Those who neither live a dedicated Jewish life, nor reproduce but spend their time at conferences recommending solutions will not do much for survival. I am not sanguine about the loss of so many Jews through assimilation. I wish it were not so. But I see no other alternative, no panacea, no Magic Bullet, no Golden Goose or Egg, certainly not trying to rope in as many lukewarm, reluctant members as possible.

Life is so complex, so strenuous and demanding, it might simply not be possible to have one's cake and eat it any more. The pressures of earning a living might leave no time for spiritually. Only the very wealthy or, at the other end, those on welfare will be able to afford a religious life. I'd rather see us survive, even if it is as a distorted expression of Judaism, than disappear. Because what is, what exists, can be repaired and nursed back to health. But if there is nothing left…

October 08, 2009

Shaking It

I am all for customs. They add variety, exoticism, and often humor into our ever more pressurized and material world. And Judaism has its fair share of strange things to do. If you take them all as friendly pointers, as ways of thinking and acting differently to the way one habitually does, they can add some spice to life and might even be elevating. They are as a general rule harmless and, if they will not necessarily do you any good (unless you're a mystic who believes in magic), at least they do not do obvious harm.

You just might not want to indulge in say, whirling chickens around your head before Yom Kippur. Though come to think of it, it can't be harmless for the poor chickens. As for me, I'd rather give money any day instead of running the risk of picking up some fowl virus.

Sukkot is a festival with a heavy overload of exotic things to do. (And I don't mean getting drunk on vodka on Simchat Torah, something we have Lubavitch to thank for. Getting drunk on single malt whiskey is a much older and healthier custom.) I mean everything to do with the four plants we take and shake and wave, the Arba Minim. They are the Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, and Aravot. (For those of you looking from outside in, they are the palm branch, citron, myrtle, and willow. Just think of Palm Sunday, except that’s in the spring and we do ours in the autumn.)

So much can go into buying the Four Kinds of Plants and the expense can be mind-blowing if you go for the top of the range. Perhaps you have seen this depicted in the film Ushpizin. The tips of the lulav have to be examined to make sure they are not split. (And women think split hair is a problem.) You might, as I do, prefer a lulav with a kneppel. That's the husk still intact at the top that reduces the chances of split fronds but has the disadvantage of not sounding so good when you shake it (more of that shortly).

The etrog is even more complicated. You want one that is genuine citron, not a mixture of other citrus, not one grafted. Preferably one watched over by the thousandth generation of Sicilian Mafiosi shepherds whose goat manure is vintage, or better still from the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, and not to mention the more controversial ones from Corfu.

And don't even begin to get involved in the issue of the pitom, that cute little mushroom-like protrusion at the top of the fruit (not to be confused with the bottom, which has the remnant of the stalk that attached it to the tree). The pitom is pure vanity. It takes just one clumsy move or a kid's over-enthusiasm and it's gone and your etrog is useless, a defective reject. Far better to get one that never ever had a pitom so there's nothing to break off. And then there are the marks, the spots and the bubbles. You will need magnifying glasses, microscopes, and jeweler's loops to sort out the goats from the sheep, the lemons from the citrons. And a really laboratory-tested pure one, certified by experts, sanctified by saints, and commercially exploited by rabbis, can run into thousands! I know people who live elegantly the whole year round on the etrogs they sell for Sukkot.

I suppose splurging money on a religious artifact is at least no worse than throwing away 100 times more on horsepower you can never use in traffic or jewels that 99% of people cannot tell from glass or cubic zirconia.

What concerns me, however, is the way you wave your lulav and when. You see, as of course anyone who knows anything about Judaism will tell you, there are a hundred different ways of doing it. You take them in your two hands, hold them out in front of you and shake. But how do you shake? Is it a swirling cutlass swipe, an up and down beating motion as if to cut any nasty lingering evil spirits in two? Is it a sedate Germanic putting out and pulling back in, three times or two? Is it an en-garde foil-wiggling at the end, as though you are trying to clean out the right ear of the fellow in front, or perhaps you are trying to spike his kippa and toss it into the air?

And which direction do you rotate? Most go east, south, west, north, up, and down. Others go right, left, front, up, down, and back. The Kabbalists added their variations, and the rebbes a few refinements more. Beware if you are out of sync with your neighbor. It does not matter if what you were doing was good enough for King David or the Vilna Gaon, you will get black looks, superior noses in the air, and if you are really out of luck, some kid will be delegated to tug your kaftan and tell you that you are an ignorant fool or a heretic for ignoring local custom.

You see, that's what I do not like about customs. They give every pompous inadequate religious snob a chance to feel superior, to make you feel inferior, and to do the very opposite of what true religion is supposed to do which is to engender happy, uplifted, and spiritual feelings. The complexities of the varieties of customs are minefields laid out to trap the unwary, and make the visitor feel out of place and ignorant. They are the means of ensuring that small select groups of holier-than-thou's can recognize who is in and who is out. It is like the dress code that enables you to get into the right nightclub or casino. Which might be fine for nightclubs and casinos and fashion shows, but it is not what religion should be concerned with. And you, sir, are waving your lulav under my nose and in the wrong direction. No way into heaven for you! (You see, Yom Kippur is over and I'm back to normal!)

October 01, 2009

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Talented film director Roman Polanski was accused and convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl some thirty years ago. There was some sympathy for him at the time. His wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered by the Manson "family" and he was in a state of emotional shock. But he fled the United States and lived in France and travelled pretty freely, avoiding the United States for obvious reasons, and cemented his reputation as a man of many talents.

Last week he was arrested in Switzerland and awaits possible extradition to the United States of America which has a treaty with Switzerland and has for many years reiterated its international warrant for his arrest. The world of the glitterati is up in arms. What is the rape of the 13-year-old, they mutter, when compared to the great contribution of artistic endeavor? Rather like those who argued the Nazis could not possibly be so bad, brought up as they were on Beethoven and Heine. If even the victim has called for clemency why hound the poor man? After all, he is not a war criminal or a mass murderer, whose heinous crimes merit hounding till the end of his days. He is an artist.

Nevertheless, any philosopher of ethics or of law will agree that someone found guilty by a legitimate and open court of law is guilty unless and until that verdict is overturned. And I am prepared to wager that a way will be found to let him go. Nowadays it seems morality is not the issue so much as public sentiment.

Nearly two thousand years ago, in the third century, a great Jew called Samuel, living the Persian Empire, declared, "The Law of the Land is the Law", which ever since has bound Jews in civil matters to accept the government and laws of whichever country they may live in. But about seven hundred years later another great Jew, living in Spain, Solomon Ben Aderet (1235-1310) known as the Rashba, declared that this only applies where the law of the land is applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise there is no rule of law and under such circumstances self-interest trumps the random and unjust demands of the ruling authority that tended to victimize Jews (and indeed Muslims).

Now let us turn to Israel. If Israel or its soldiers have committed crimes they must be prosecuted, as indeed Israeli law does prosecute its criminals, whether civil or military. One can argue about whether they do it fairly or not, and there is a Supreme Court to which all citizens may apply equally regardless of race or religion, that is not as enslaved to the political authorities as many claim. If Israel were to be found to have transgressed any international laws then she should and must be prosecuted too. No one should be above the law.

But where the law is not being applied fairly or evenly then one is clearly not under any moral obligation to accept it, although one is still under a moral obligation to examine one's own actions to determine their morality or lack thereof. Those of us who are religious will hold ourselves bound by a higher authority, regardless of others; although I fear there are religious leaders who will interpret that authority to suit themselves.

Now I ask you, members of the jury, isn’t it true that judges are supposed to be objective? Is it not the case that if a judge is known to be biased he is unfit to be a judge? The United Nations, or to be more precise the UN Human Rights Council, has just issued a report entitled Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, now commonly known as the Goldstone Report after its head. One of its members was Christine Chinkin--read this to see if you think she might be objective.

Even former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, hardly biased in favor of Israel, described the Human Rights Council as having a practice of "adopting resolutions guided not by human rights, but by politics". She had declined to head the fact-finding mission that produced the report, herself, specifically citing its exclusive focus on Israel.

The United Nations is a disgrace and a farce and unfit to pass judgment on anything. If its halls can reverberate with applause for an Iranian anti-Semite, then it is not fit to be a sewage plant. If the Human Rights Council which called for this report can have dictators as its chairs, it is already a disgrace to its name. But if it can appoint a person to pass moral judgment who has already and previously publicly stated that Israel is guilty of war crimes in Gaza, then how is that different than a judge declaring the plaintiff guilty before a word of the trial has been spoken? In all fairness, how can an organization that has not prosecuted equal and graver crimes by other egregious regimes and conflicts sit in judgment of one it has already previously condemned year after year with no hint of reciprocity or balance? If Israel is condemned for blockading Gaza why is not Egypt?

As much as it is our moral obligation as Jews to prosecute war crimes, it is our moral obligation to repudiate judgments until they are seen to be fair. The United Nations and its agencies are an absolute disgrace to humanity and justice and we must ignore them. As the Midrash says, "Let din velet dayan", there is neither law nor judge.