December 31, 2009

Do Steal

You want to know why religion in Europe is up the spout? It is called moral relativism. In other words, no standards. A nice English priest, Father Tim Jones of York, has shot to fame or shame by suggesting that the poor should go and shoplift over this holiday season.

Such a genuine and sincere chappie he seems. I'm sure he is a great pastoral comfort to his flock. All Christian charity and goodwill and here he is telling people to break the Ten Commandments. He does qualify it. Only go for the big stores, he says, not the small Mom and Pop ones. Steal, he says, but only from the big guys. As if shoplifters are going to stand outside, calculators in hand, read the balance sheets and then make informed economic judgments. As if shoplifters are going to work out the differences between the threshold of need and desire and decide that stealing basic foodstuffs is fine but electronic gadgets are not.

Of course he is right that our material societies are morally corrupt in many ways. Most people are self-centered, selfish consumers who may occasionally drop a penny or two into the poor box or the collection plate. The fact is most human beings walk by poverty and ignore it. That is human nature, if you will. But now how do we deal with it? Do we suspend all moral laws? It is OK to steal under certain circumstances? No, it is never OK to steal (except to save a person's life). And even stealing from thieves is not acceptable either. Would he say it is fine to beat your wife if you are really feeling very, very depressed and hungry and it makes you feel better? Of course not.

So what is the issue here?

According to the Talmud, a judge always has to follow the law. If someone is guilty of a crime, however small, he is guilty. Motive may differentiate between crimes (e.g., manslaughter as opposed to murder). It may be taken into consideration when deciding on a penalty. But a crime is a crime is a crime. For human society to function effectively, the rule of law is absolute. "On three things the world depends [in order to function effectively]", said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel in Mishnah Avot, "Truth, Justice and Peace." And what differentiated Jewish law from Hammurabi and other early legal systems was that in civil matters every citizen has to be equal in the eyes of the law.

This classical Talmudic value lies in the narrative of a judge faced with a thief who had stolen to feed his starving family and must, as a judge, find him guilty. In exactly the same way that he may not give preference to a rich man because of his status, so he may not to a poor one. But then as a human being he has a religious and moral obligation to help feed the thief's family! It is this second part of the equation that is missing in many sectors of modern life, and one of the reasons is the European model of the Welfare State. So much money is taken from ordinary citizens by the state that supposedly has taken on the responsibility of feeding the poor and caring for the deprived that the ordinary citizen wonders why the heck he should give up from what is leftover to do what he paid the state to do (amongst other things of course). The result is that the average citizen in socialist countries gives pennies each year to charity.

So our poor priest ought to be preaching charity and good works. He ought to open his church and offer shelter and ask his congregants to give food or money to feed the starving, as indeed many churches do. But apparently he knows that all he will get in North England (as opposed to the USA) is bubkas. Average citizens are fed up with hundreds of thousands of scroungers from all over the place, home and abroad, citizens and aliens, of various religious persuasions that all proclaim the benefits of charity but are far better at taking than giving. So he or she closes up instead of opening up. Churches, mosques, and synagogues do indeed usually try their best, but most citizens don't go there.

Why are we Jews so much better on average at giving? Because we know we have to take care of our own. And we despise dependency (or at least we used to until welfare made it easy and legal). As Hillel said (Talmud Shabbat 118a), "Make your Shabbat no better than an ordinary week day rather than depend on others for handouts." Every morning we say in our prayers, "These are the things that have no limit…being kind to other human beings", "These are the things that give you reward in this world and in the next, materially and spiritually: respecting your parents, kindness to others," etc. And every time we say Grace after Meals, we say, "Help us not be dependent on the gifts of other human beings," and we repeat all this, day by day throughout our lives and somewhere down the line it sinks in.

Our whole religious culture is suffused with charity and giving, financially or otherwise. So it is with many other religions too. But theory is never enough unless it is rooted in daily required practice. And nowhere do our spiritual leaders ever tell us, "Be good, but if you can't then it's ok to steal."

December 24, 2009

Auschwitz Gates

Last week the iconic banner over the gates of Auschwitz with the ironic legend "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free") was stolen. The phrase itself has now entered our culture, sometimes to replace the famous words that Dante placed over the Gates of Hell, "Abandon hope all you who enter here." "Arbeit Macht Frei" is far more sinister and horrific, for there was not only the loss of hope, but life too, in unimaginably cruel ways. The language of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has now forever been associated with the wickedest of all human evil, all the more so because it was carried out by such apparently cultured and sophisticated human beings.

It was not a war crime where conflicting armies and their supporters massacred in frenzies of revenge, or to try to end carnage by deterrence. It was not the mindless cruelty of individual soldiers bringing their own issues into a conflict and behaving inhumanely. It was not the result of ancient tribal rivalries and conflicts over territory and revenge for past offences. It was simply, exclusively, and uniquely a masterminded plan, designed by bureaucrats and ordered by commanders, both civil and military. It was carried out with efficiency and expediency to exterminate--not to subjugate or diminish, not to undermine or to displace, but actually to wipe out like vermin, millions of innocent human beings. It was not carried out by primitives, religious fanatics or by reformers in millennia gone by. It was done by men and women at the cusp of modern, rational civilization.

As such, the banal misuse of the term "Nazi" to apply to any crime, real or perceived, just emphasizes how humans refuse to recognize that in evil there are degrees. It also proves that in politics and polemic, truth and honesty are irrelevant.

Now having said all that, I am both amused and annoyed at the exaggerated furor that exploded over what is the simple theft by a handful of uneducated, unemployed yobs to sell scrap metal. Now we will have a legion of Polish jokes. How many Poles does it take to steal a gate? Even if as is now claimed it was a theft on demand for a foreign Nazi collector, so what? If the pieces had not been recovered how much of a difference would replicas make? It was the people who were massacred that count, not the actual wooden barracks, bricks or railway tracks. Will Holocaust deniers be any more or less vocal if they only see a replica rather than the original?

The President, the Prime Minister, and the Chief of Police of Poland all rushed into the media to condemn this outrage. Why? What were they so concerned about? Public opinion? The Prime Minister and the President of Israel set all other matters aside to call for immediate action. The State Department sent a formal message. The outrage was totally out of all proportion to what is no more than a symbolic artifact. It is not a priceless archeological jewel or an essential piece of a nation's ancient heritage. It was not the demolition by Taliban of ancient rock Buddhas. It was not even the equivalent of the hundreds of Sifrei Torah that are stolen every year from poorly protected synagogues by religious gangsters wanting to make a quick buck. It was mid-twentieth-century industrial scrap.

But of course it is more than that, because Auschwitz has now become a religion in its own right. For religiously committed Jews, who proportionally lost most, the response has always been less of outward memorials and more of reinforcing the tradition. They do this by observance, study, and reproduction. Replenishing the destroyed fountains of Eastern Europe is the constant leitmotif of all Charedi thinking and is omnipresent in common discourse. A religion that rebuilds and thrives is the greatest way of avenging and remembering the past. A religion that means something, is a way of life and not just a system of empty rituals.

But for many Jews, the trauma of the Holocaust, of what looked like the Death of God, or at any rate His abandonment of His people, was too much to allow them to continue the old rituals and ways of life; they needed a new religion. As people overcame the initial reluctance to speak, Jew and non-Jew alike have thrown themselves into this new religion whose credo is the slogan "Never Again". Yet the sad fact is that although nothing of the same magnitude has happened again, lots of other "nevers" are happening again and again all over the world.

Auschwitz has become a quasi-religious symbol that is used by Jews to justify their rights and their demands, and is used by their enemies to throw back in their faces whenever something happens they do not approve of, or whenever Israel does something unacceptable. It is the symbol of the Jews and the sword of the anti-Semites. You know, you who suffered so much, should not now defend yourselves so aggressively.

We all have our myths, our narratives that justify our existence as individuals and as peoples. We are convinced of our own right. Each one of us is so conditioned by our symbols that we cannot possibly react sensitively to those that others have. We can only feel our own pain, cannot imagine anyone else's. Unless we, rabbis, mullahs, and priests can step back and try to see the really important issues, then what hope is there of increasing the amount of human understanding, compassion and love in the world today?

December 15, 2009

Boxing

This time of the year when there is a tendency to glorify the Hasmoneans as Jewish tough guys, it is appropriate that two Jewish boxers have just hit the news. Both are Russian Jews and both are newly religious under the influence of Lubavitch. Yuri Foreman of Brooklyn, but of Israeli citizenship, surprisingly defeated champion Puerto Rican Daniel Santos in Las Vegas to win the World Boxing Association 154-pound title. On the other hand, the previously unbeaten Jewish boxer, Dmitriy Salita, was less surprisingly knocked out by Muslim fighter Amir Khan from Britain in just 76 seconds. Should we be proud, sad, or what?

Thousands of years of subservience in exile have given us Jews a reputation for being weaklings and softies. It is not altogether fair. There have been great Jewish boxers such as Daniel Mendoza, England’s sixteenth Heavyweight Champion from 1792 to 1795. American Maximilian Adelbert "Madcap Maxie" Baer was briefly Heavyweight Champion of the world. In fact, the Boxing Hall of Fame lists over sixty Jewish boxers. Jewish mercenaries were known to be amongst the best in the Roman Empire (I wonder if they took breaks over Shabbat?) And of course we have in our lifetime had Israeli war heroes, and now everyone accuses us of being brutal tough guys.

Still, it is true we have tended to prefer the book to the sword and Nobel Prizes to boxing belts (though I'm not sure that some Nobel Prizes, particularly those outside the objective realms of science, haven't completely lost their luster).

But I hate boxing. It is a brutal sport in which you simply try to smash your opponent into submission, doing as much physical damage as you possibly can. The nadir of boxing was the ghastly specter of Mike Tyson biting the ear of Evander Holyfield. If you have seen the film Tyson, you have seen a world champion decline from brute to pathetic. Nothing is sadder that seeing the once arrogant Muhammad Ali reduced to invalidity.

It is usually the very poor or the disposed who venture into a sport that batters their bodies and minds into mush in the hope of making a lot of money before that happens. But more often than not crooked promoters filch most of it. The boxing world is an unsavory demimonde of crooks, charlatans, and punters, with a few dedicated trainers on the side. The audience at a boxing match is usually made of screaming frustrated women, neanderthal toughs spitting hatred and invective of the most racial kind, regardless of color, and so-called celebrities who have nothing better to do with their time. It recalls the Roman gladiatorial games and the crude bloodlust of primitive people. Yes, there have been noble fighters, but watching boxing brings out the worst in a person. Although I like seeing excellence in sport, it brings out the worst in me, too.

In other words, boxing is a sport in which you know you will be dealing with the dregs of humanity. So it was surprising that, in explaining his defeat, Salita told the (London) Jewish Chronicle, "It was over before it started. I was in great shape and well prepared but the anti-Semitic chanting left me completely overwhelmed. . .The experience of fighting away from home, and the crowd being so against me, left me shocked."

The article states, "Rabbi Dovid Lewis, of Newcastle United Hebrew Congregation, accompanied Salita, wearing his traditional Magen David-decorated shorts, from his dressing room to the ring. He said, 'We were shocked at the vitriolic abuse shouted at Dmitriy. It was anti-Semitic swearing and spitting with a lot of pushing and pulling.'"

Now initially one might react by saying that this is just symptomatic of the reaction to anything Israeli in European life. On any BBC current affairs or discussion program a person expressing any pro-Israeli sentiment will be booed, heckled, and harassed by the audience. At demonstrations there is no rational engagement, only hatred and abuse.

But in the case of boxing, what else does one expect? Amir Khan himself, writing in his autobiography, describes the constant abuse and hatred directed at him for being a Muslim. The sort of person who shrieks hatred at others usually shrieks it his own family after he has exhausted himself on an enemy. That's why fanatics don't care who they kill. Absolutism, be it Fascist or Marxist, has no room for moderation or exchange.

That this is true of the intellectual world comes as a disappointment, but that it is true of boxing is no surprise at all. So for Salita to express shock is to criticize his handlers and trainers for not preparing him. And for him to use it as an excuse is lame. As Tyson said in his film, it was precisely the bullying and the hatred he was subjected to that made him the fighter he was. Perhaps Salita is just too nice a Jewish boy and would not have made it onto Judah Maccabee's elite fighting corps!

December 10, 2009

Suckleukah

More than the calf wants to suck, the mother wants to suckle.
Talmud Pesachim 112a


It's Chanukah time! Consumerism has gone mad. We ape the rest of the world and we overindulge in an orgy of unnecessary spending, spoiling, and waste. Before my children complain that I am the worst overindulgent grandparent on the planet, hear me out, because this is all about therapy.

Once upon a time Chanukah was a sweet, eight-day-long, home-based, winter's fireside celebration. Returning from work, parents would light up the candles. In my youth in postwar England, olive oil was far too scarce and expensive a commodity to be squandered on lighting. Everyone lit white candles until 1948, when white and blue became fashionable, and then in the mid-fifties we had those multicolored twisted candles. Nowadays, of course, we have only the best and the purest olive oil, and even individual glass phials of oil premeasured to the right amount of time required to fulfill one's obligation. All imported, sanctioned, and sanctified from the Holy Land (and don’t ask where the olive trees actually are), guaranteed to make someone a small fortune in the process.

Then we would sing HaNerot Halalu ("These Are the Lights") which we sang to Handel's See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes, from his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. And on to Maoz Tzur Yeshuati ("The immovable Rock of our Salvation"), the cat's in the cupboard and you can't see me.

Mummy would fry up homemade donuts and other oil-cooked food (we wanted chips), and we'd sit around on the carpet playing dreidel for nuts. Four sides of the little top with Hebrew letters--Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin. In Hebrew these letters stood for "a Great Miracle Happened There"; in the dreidel game, they stood for the Yiddish words meaning "put one in, take one out, stay as you are, or take the lot"! Of course our parents made sure we were all winners and then off to bath and bed while the grownups took out the cards and gambled away the evening. Actually, my father never, ever allowed us to play cards. He had a visceral hatred of gambling. It was not until I married into a continental family that I discovered so much addiction to gambling in many Jewish communities.

It all sounds positively Dickensian doesn't it? Innocent and romantic. And I guess it was rather innocent in its way, at a time when most Jews, in fact most of postwar people in general, were poor.

But then things changed. It started with American cousins coming over with boxes of Bazooka bubble gum, and then slowly Madison Avenue initiated the relentless move towards consumerism, advertising, and spending. Insidiously, subliminally, the "The Hidden Persuaders" convinced us that buying things was good for the country. We learnt about built-in obsolescence so that we would have to buy replacements every year or so, and a car was no longer to last a lifetime but had to be traded in every two years to preserve its secondhand value, and of course to maintain a profile as a successful whatever-we-were. We deserved it. We needed it. And we were doing a service to the economy and the country. At the same time, in the immortal words of Harold MacMillan, we "never had it so good". And that was when I became aware for the first time that it was a mitzvah to compete with Christmas.

Christmas was no longer the festival of good cheer and charity and Christian values. It had become the pagan celebration of spending money, of going into debt to give lots of people lots of useless gifts. I, too, hung up a stocking on my bedpost and kept a lookout for Santa coming down my chimney with presents. But for some reason my father wasn’t on the same page.

As soon as I had children of my own, and it was the era of a television in every room let alone every house, I didn’t want my children to feel deprived. So I started buying presents, one for each child for each day of Chanukah as if to reassure them that they need not suffer by being Jewish when everyone else was getting presents and the media were seducing them day by day from November--because Chanukah gave them a whole lot more! I got a tremendous amount of pleasure seeing my children happy every evening for eight days, and getting hugs and kisses and adoring looks, and what a good Daddy I was. And now I do exactly the same for my grandchildren whenever I see them, and try to make up for the months in between.

I am addicted to giving because I enjoy it. When my sons and daughters, and daughters- and sons-in-law try to tell me to stop being so overindulgent, and that I am ruining my grandchildren and undermining them, because I am raising expectations and training them to want, and measuring love in terms of material things, I realize they are right. I am a hopeless addict. More than my kids want presents, I want to give them!

So it is that children are conditioned to expect and want the latest gadget and doll and toy car and fashion accessory. Spoiling children really does a lot of damage. I see young men and women incapable of taking "no" as an answer, and incapable of self-discipline, and unwilling to buckle down to work hard at anything. I see marriages destroyed because unreasonable expectations are not met. Yet here I am, the suckling cow, refusing to pull the treat away. How can I say, "Grow up," when I haven't grown up either? Is this really what the Hasmoneans fought for?

December 03, 2009

Others

I recently watched the debate between arch atheist Richard Dawkins and believing Oxford mathematician John Lennox and found myself alienated from both. And it struck me once again with satisfaction and self-validation, how I do not fit in anywhere completely. Sadly, there are others who turn this into a problem.

In the case of Dawkins it was not his critique of religion that disturbed me, for I almost entirely agree with him about the amount of evil religions have caused, the endemic inhumanity of religious power, and the irrational way so many try to justify the unjustifiable or prove the unprovable. It is just the absence of any spirituality, his materialist certainty, that overrides almost all other considerations.

And whereas I agreed with some of Lennox's critique of Dawkins, when he came to describing his own religious faith, I simply could not understand a literal Christian narrative. I have no doubt that both men would probably say exactly the same about my religious position.

If this true between other belief systems, it is even truer within each religion and ideology. And it has infected science too. Just look at the anger and devious massaging of statistics between rival scientists on the issue of global warming and the recent case in the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia where agenda overruled the facts.

Look how impossible we humans are, so convinced we are right and everyone else is wrong, and how easy it is to disengage, despise and hate each other. Humans are just programmed to protect their patches, physical and intellectual, against the outsider, and that is how they think they can survive the challenges of life!

After the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, by a Muslim army major, one response was to ignore any Islamic fanaticism, arguing that there are all too many nutcases of all religions and backgrounds wielding guns in the US. And the easy availability of guns in America simply gives more crazies more opportunities to do evil things. And the army was right to ignore all the signs of Islamic anger because it needs Muslim soldiers and diversity.

The other side argues that so many violent acts have been carried out by angry Muslims that it would be crazy not to be suspicious, and the way the army ignored all the signs of radicalism was not just willful neglect but criminal. Some go further and claim that there is something in contemporary Muslim minds and societies, if not in Islam itself, that encourages violence.

Homosexuality is now a ubiquitous presence in Western societies. Yet public opinion is still as polarized as ever. In Europe it is not politically correct to express reservations. In the US it is. Yet both narratives are discussed and debated. Sadly, in both cases there are sick individuals who physically assault those with whom they disagree.

When differences of opinion turn into hatred and deafness then of course it leads to disaster.

Although it is argued that popular culture dumbs everyone down to a mindless banality, our modern societies are so disparate, so much more mixed with conflicting cultures and ideas than ever before. How can we expect any kind of unanimity? The trouble is that politics, sensationalism and the need to make money have created a climate in which the media from top to bottom is dominated by attack, confrontation, and demolition rather than genuine attempts to understand and to build bridges. I see it at work wherever I turn. Everyone seems busy protecting their own positions by rubbishing any that is different than theirs.

Most societies have evolved out of a single class structure and a dominant religion and culture. In such societies newcomers are severely disadvantaged and too often alienated. But in a few societies, as in the USA, the damage is neutralized because no one position dominates to the exclusion of others.

I do not claim that Americans are more tolerant than anyone else. But I do believe minorities are better protected in the USA and are better able to thrive and assert their own positions than in Europe and most other parts of the world. And that has to do with the culture of the society rather than the behaviour of individuals. In Europe a centralized national culture invariably leads to a dominant media position and it is this that makes "others" feel uncomfortable, over and above individual acts of intolerance.

Most Americans just get on with living their lives, perhaps because they are not so cushioned by welfare, and nothing breeds anger, depression, and violence so much as indolence! In America if they hate, they usually hate those who threaten personally and immediately. But otherwise everyone has to work very hard to survive and almost everyone is a foreigner with a weird system of beliefs and odd practices. Perhaps New York is not typical but Hallal food stands on Sixth Avenue are not overturned. Cabs driven by turbaned Sikhs or festooned with the Koran are still taken. No one turns a head when a fully bedecked Hassid jaywalks on Fifth Avenue. We read of all the villains, the good and the bad and the ugly, but that's life, so long as Clint Eastwood wins in the ends.

I was surprised when a Muslim friend told me that many Muslims in the USA feel insecure. At first I had a hard time understanding why, because time and time again since 9/11 every American leader has emphasized, ad nauseam, that all Muslims cannot be held responsible for the acts of a few, and that America is fighting only those who attack it, and that Islam is a peaceful religion of gentle folk who would not normally say "boo" to a goose. The day after Thanksgiving was a Muslim festival officially recognized in New York (scene of the attack on the World Trade Center, of course) and all parking offences were forgiven. So what makes Muslims feel unwanted in the USA? Graffiti? Assaults? Cries of "Go Home"? Name calling? Bullying? We Jews have been putting up with that forever!

But then I felt bad because perhaps I was not being sensitive enough and perhaps in many parts of the USA the situation is very unpleasant for them. And just because it is almost a given nowadays that Muslims hate Jews because of Israel, why should I allow the generalizations or myopia of others to cloud my mind?

It is legislation that defines a country, not whether some citizens behave badly. But I suspect that because almost the whole of the Muslim world has bought into the myth that America and Zionism are out to destroy them they actually believe that (and incredibly ignore the crude reality that it is Muslims who kill most Muslims). As a result they have created a psychological mindset that takes no notice of reality, only mythology. And chunks of the world accept this. And once again I realize how pernicious differences have become and how, supposedly civilized we think we are, in reality we are still medieval in our hatreds and heresy hunting.

Almost everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in the USA, wherever they come from, because it is simply a celebration of being privileged to live in a society with opportunities and freedoms. It doesn't mean it is perfect or without its problems or mass murderers. But it is the celebration of a haven of difference, not forced toleration. Live and let live, and let me just get on earning enough money to live. And if we don't like what we hear on one channel, or in one magazine or newspaper, we can simply switch to another. So even if you think I'm crazy (and I certainly think you are), even if you hate me, I don’t give a hoot, that's your problem; just leave me alone to be me.