September 29, 2010

God in History

I have just finished writing a history of Carmel College, the school I headed for nearly 14 years, and which my father founded at a time when almost everyone in the UK thought Jewish education was bad and regressive. Great Jewish pioneers working when secular state education was excellent had a far tougher time than when it had collapsed in a shambles. Jewish education is always more popular when states fund it. In many countries no alternatives to state schools are allowed. Who, a hundred years ago, would have imagined that yeshivas around the world would get any kind of state support. So, important as human beings may or may not be in human affairs, I cannot avoid the conviction that what happens in life is really determined more by broader social and historical circumstances. Or to put it another way, by God.

We are hard put to define either God or History. If, as Sam Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it is also true that everyone claims God (or whatever name you use) is on his side. I am wryly amused when clerics see a disaster as the Divine Hand--but usually only when it strikes others! Have you heard anyone in Pakistan say the floods are Allah’s punishment for extremism?

I feel that a force beyond us has been responsible for the survival of the Jews. But even if God is controlling everything above and beyond time (and Stephen Hawking’s brain), while we wait for God's timeline and ours to coincide, there seems to be an inordinate amount of suffering. Who can say if it is worth it?

Politicians as well as clerics like to claim credit for advances, changes, and progress which in fact have relatively little to do with them and are the result of the confluence of a series of social and historical events, stages, or if you prefer, coincidences. Al Gore got a ragging for claiming he invented the internet. Everyone wants to claim he had a hand in success stories but conveniently forget his disasters. Individuals might play their parts in history--as Shakespeare says, coming onto the stage for awhile and then disappearing--but usually their role is much overrated and exaggerated. There is "a time and a tide in the affairs of man" that is greater than the sand castles. Who remembers now that Bari and Otranto were the biggest and most learned Jewish centers in Europe a thousand years ago?

In the USA, the once much-vaunted American Jewish Congress has been wound down. The earth still stands. No one cares. The Jewish Agency in Israel still survives in Israel and no one knows why or to what end. A man like Natan Sharansky, whom the whole world took to its heart, has become another bureaucrat trying to sell an unworkable product. He doubtless is the same man. The times are not.

All this is both sobering and important for the vast majority of human beings who wonder what contribution they make to life. This is why the Book of Proverbs tells us to, "Go and learn a lesson from the ant." Firstly, because it gets on with its own business, working day and night. It is neither lazy nor seeks excuses. But more importantly, insignificant as the individual might be, as part of a group it contributes to the strength and survival of the group. The little man counts. Sometimes more than the big man.

We are, as the Greeks liked to say, the playthings of the gods. God did not choose us because we Israelites were good, or better than anyone else. That’s what the Bible says (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). It was simply that at a moment in time when the Seven Canaanite tribes had reached the point of disintegration, we were available to step into the breach. When we had blown our opportunities the first time, Assyria and Babylon took advantage, for a while. Why did we have to suffer all those years in Egypt? I guess because God was "waiting" for the moment when the Egyptian Empire began to crumble from within or some such factor. One might wonder how come it took 2000 years for a Jewish State to emerge again. Political factors in Eastern Europe amongst the world powers, the power of the British Empire, perhaps even the Holocaust had something to do with it. Whatever, my point is that it is the hour that maketh the man rather than the other way round. You cannot suppose that either the Jews in 1948 merited it more than any other generation or indeed that our leaders loved Zion any more than earlier generations who migrated such as the great Hasidic migration of the eighteenth century.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about Moses being brought back to earth to sit at the back of Rebbi Akiva's yeshiva and listen to him teaching. He is so impressed he asks God why He did not give the Torah through Akiva. God replies, "That's just the way I decided" (or as they say in Ivrit and Yiddish, "Stam"). Then he saw Akiva being tortured to death by the Romans and he asked, "Is this the reward for Torah?" To which again God replies, "That’s just the way I do things." Moses was in the right place at the right time. Akiva was not.

For those of us who are in the wrong places at the wrong time, we can still contribute in however small a way, like little molecules, to the people, the culture, the religion. One simply cannot tell the degree to which one does or does not. It is like novelists--who may be all the rage one moment and forgotten the next. That is the story of how an attractive girl gets a plutocrat to fall in love with her and in that way she saves her people from extermination. That's a soldier taking out a mass bomber. When one single combatant commits an atrocity or saves a city, we cannot tell what the ramifications will be. Didn't the builders of empires think they were great civilizers? Didn't the Crusaders believe they were going on a holy war?

We are indeed all ants, but we have a destiny and that, so to speak, is in the hands of forces or processes that work in other ways. The only thing I know is that I have to do my best, convinced that my little brick helps keep a building standing.

September 22, 2010

Sukot 2010

The Englishman John Keats wrote a beautiful poem, To Autumn, in 1820:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
I don’t know whether it was before the dreaded "climate change" or that he was experiencing what the Americans call an "Indian summer". Either way, it was not my experience of autumn in the UK.

Every Sukot I remember, whether it was in the Oxfordshire countryside, the suburbs of Glasgow, or the ghetto of North London, we built a sukah in order to adhere to the Biblical command "For seven days you should live in temporary homes." But the UK climate, ladies and gentlemen, is known for its damp and wet autumns. Here is an extract from one of my favorite English songs, by Flanders and Swann, which puts Keats in the shade (or rather the wet):
Bleak September's mist and mud
is enough to chill the blood
Then October adds a gale,
wind and slush and sleet and hail
Dark November brings the fog,
should not do it to a dog
Freezing wet December, then…
Bloody January again
So we knew, as certain as the queen turned up at Ascot every year in June, that Sukot time would be like Flanders' and Swann's description of August, "cold and dank and wet, brings more rain than any yet". The rain turned fallen leaves into mulch. Mushrooms sprouted everywhere. Grass was sodden underfoot and morning mists enveloped our Thames-side estate. Only rarely did a crisp, weak-sunned autumn day allow an invigorating tramp through the beech woods or a hike along Grim’s Dyke.

In my youth, no one had heard of automatic electronically retractable roofs that were activated by sensors at the drop of a drip. Or their more modest middleclass plastic sheet covered frames that were operated by pulleys that invariably jammed halfway. Or the really modest plastic sheeting you just throw over and hoped. We knew the law that said that as soon as the rain spoiled your soup you could leave the sukah and go eat indoors, and that is what we invariably did.

Our beautifully decorated sukot would, within a day, sport waterlogged decorations, sagging portraits of holy men, and sodden vistas of Jerusalem, not to mention wasps in the fruit and slugs on the ground. No one ever mentioned the fact that one was supposed to sleep in the sukah, of course.

It was only as sixteen-year-old in Jerusalem that I experienced a different Sukot. There it was dry and hot; the chamseen blowing in from the desert parched your throat and stung your eyes. We slept in the yeshivah’s sukah, but our reward for piety was being bitten all over by mosquitoes. No matter what we pulled over our heads and bodies, they dive-bombed us like World War II Spitfires strafing and whining in around our heads so that sleep became impossible. But there was no law about being able to leave the sukah because of Messerschmitt mosquitoes.

And now I am in New York, 30 stories high and no balcony. There’s a beautiful ornate sukah inside the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that is an indoor wood paneled room decorated with pine fronds and a lovely schach roof (under a retractable cover) that reminds one of a Rembrandt painting of old Amsterdam. But there are no beds. Or there’s a rather modest, functional, ground-level sukah at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where only a fool would sleep after the security patrol leaves the area at midnight. I have tried a collapsible in Central Park, but the police advised me to move for my own safety.

I wonder what Moses would make of our modern way of life. Would he revise the original instructions to take Alaska into consideration? Or would he just tell us to stop being so fussy and remember the spirit, the idea that there is a world beyond our electronically operated, centrally heated, air conditioned, burglar alarmed, optically cabled, wired houses. We are all ecologically tuned into to Mother Nature and climate control nowadays. Indeed, things have turned full circle in some respects and we are back on Moses’s very same wavelength about proximity to the spirit of the universe and God. It is just that we do it OUR way. Our return to the wild, our nature treks and camping holidays don’t usually coincide with Sukot anymore.

September 16, 2010

Yom Kipur 2010

Every year on Yom Kipur, Jews list their errors and determine to be better. But you and I know that most of us are unlikely to change very much, if at all.

The religious bigot is going to stay a bigot. The Chasid will not turn into a Litvak. The hardliner will not become soft, nor will the man who always says "no" change his tune. The crook will not willingly hand back his ill gotten gains. The day after Yom Kipur all the instruments will, in the main, continue to play the same tune.

Sometimes I wonder if the answer might not lie in the old anti-Semitic joke: What is the difference between a Christian and Jew approaching the Pearly Gates of Heaven when they die? The Christian expects to be found guilty and sentenced to suffer for an eternity in the hell fires of perdition. The Jew, on the other hand, expects to be let off, with costs. It's the "with costs", of course, that is anti-Semitic. But the attitude with which the pious Jew (and the not so pious) approaches his or her Maker is indeed one of confidence. It is like a spoilt son who knows his mother will always love and forgive him so he can get away with absolutely everything. So yes, we do, rather confidently, expect God to forgive us. That's our excuse and, in my view, it is a much healthier response than guilt and depression.

The God of the Bible does not ask us to change, just to try to follow His commands (which He hopes will keep us on the straight and narrow). If we do wrong, we are expected to confess, desist and atone. But there is no specific command in the Holy Writ to repent. It is true Rambam says there a Biblical command to repent, but the text he uses to justify his minority opinion is not at all obvious. At face reading in the Bible, teshuva, like reward and punishment, seems to be a national issue rather than a personal one.

I suggest it is only in a post-Greek philosophical world of individual morality that teshuva becomes important. Despite my cynicism, many of us do change--some more and some less. But what gets us to change is usually some crisis, whether it is the loss of someone we love, surviving an accident, or some major upheaval in our life. All the time there are forces beyond our control influencing our lives. This is why so many are superstitious. It is their only way of pretending they can protect themselves from the unknown.

Our lives are influenced, if not determined, by government policies. Do we know if they get it right over stimulation packages? Did the measures taken to deal with the economic crisis really work? Will reigning in banks make all of us poorer or richer? Did they make things better or worse? Even the experts cannot agree. For years, governments have been tinkering with education, social security, and health. They spend billions, reform, change, add, reduce, modify, close loopholes. But things do not seem to get better. Perhaps governments simply guess. But we rely on them. They tax us, but what can we do? We treat them as a kind of god. We put our trust in them and hope they get it right more often than not. But what we do is to just carry on, day in day out, year in year out, and hope that things work out right.

Isn't it this why we have Yom Kipur? What do we have some measure of control over? Only how we live, the quality of our own lives. If we make materialism the overriding consideration we will feel good or bad according to how much money we have. But if we value other factors like relationships, healing others, then we can derive pleasure from life regardless of how small our bank balances are.

Yom Kipur therefore is not simply about asking for forgiveness or even about change. It is about value, trying to live a more meaningful life. The advantage of having a way of life is not that it guarantees anything. Nothing can. But it helps give structure and guidance. Being physically fit doesn't guarantee you won't be shot by a crazy gunman. But it does enable you to run away from trouble if you get the chance.

Being religious does not guarantee your being a good person, but you have a handy template if you choose to try to be one. Much of our characters and natures are influenced by family, friends, education, and circumstance. Change is indeed difficult and that is why our tradition keeps on hammering away at it.

If you look at the people who haven't changed it is like looking at how many enemies we have. That will only depress you and inhibit action. But if you focus on the possibility of trying to improve, of survival, and you see that both are possible, this gives one hope and this is what will give one the impetus to make a better job of it next year. It's the trying that counts.

I suggest that God does not really ask for immediate change, for repentance overnight. He is, so He says, slow to anger, merciful, and allows us to change slowly in our own way and time. That is why we feel less fearful of what awaits us.

September 02, 2010

Rosh Hashana 2010

One of the most interesting features of a God relationship is the way we use language. God "speaks" as He creates. "And God said, 'Let there be'." Man is a "speaking animal". The Decalogue puts tremendous emphasis on not taking God’s name in vain and not speaking false testimony. Language matters because it can sometimes be so damaging. There are laws against scandal and gossip.

But conversely, words can be inspiring. Moshe was not a fluent speaker, it is true, and that alone indicates God’s skepticism about oratory. But the words of the Torah speak to us. And they speak in a simple language we can understand. Yet without interpretation the words can sometimes sound either obscure or inconsistent. The rabbis of the Talmud make the point that the normally laconic Torah actually added eight extra letters only to avoid saying something unpleasant (Pesachim 3A, etc.).

Over the coming Holy Days we must confess. We must give verbal expression to our misdeeds and mistakes, and own up to them, directly to God. Confessing to other humans is not regarded as a religious obligation in our tradition. It is a brilliant pre-Freudian device. Unless we actually express something verbally, it remains locked in our subconscious.

I mention this now because these days we take God’s in name in vain at the drop of a hat (or a standard). We are so free and easy with words. Amongst our most common phrases is "I am sorry; I didn’t mean it." Well if you didn’t mean it, why say it? Or "You use words well", meaning you know how to lie. You’re just a bull.t artist.

Even though they are fluid and constantly change to some degree or other, each culture and each language has its own peculiarities. Languages all have their meaningless words. So for example in English when you are unsure of a word or need time to think, you might say "er" or "umm", although if you are an aristocrat, and preferably drunk, you are more likely to say "ah". The fumbling bumbling is a characteristic of English prevarication and obfuscation. If you are Israeli, you will dot your speech with "eeem" or a guttural "errr". Both sounds are more definite and aggressive. An Arab or a Charedi will use "ach" a lot, I guess because that is suitably dismissive of anyone who disagrees.

It struck me a few days ago that in all the years of my youth that I used to hear great heads of yeshiva like R. Moshe Shapiro Z”L or R. Chayim Shmulevitz Z”L, or great musar orators like R. Shlomo Volbe Z”L, I cannot once recall any one of them using an unnecessary word, an "err" or an "ach" or an "eeem". Their language was precise. Words were carefully chosen and used to brilliant effect, precisely because they were accurate and sharp. Nowadays even the best of orators uses fillers, words or phrases to fill the gaps or give time to think, that most listeners don’t even notice.

Current American fashion is to say "like", so to combine old fashion with new you might say "like, er". That betrays American verbal laziness as well as relativism. Anything can be compared to anything else. They are all more or less, like, the same.

But the American slang that always strikes me most is “hang out”, as in the expression “Do you want to hang out with me tonight?” It doesn’t just mean “pass the time with me” in any which way is relevant. It also means “we have something trivial in common, common pastimes and common leisure activities". You would not say to someone you wanted to study with or learn a blat Gemora, “Let's hang out.” To "hang", to be "suspended", is in between heaven and earth. It is nowhere in particular. It does not define any action other than negatively. And as for “out”, that means excluded, out of, anything substantial. In other words, it is the perfect expression of futility, dislocation and waste.

"Freedom of speech" is the new god of our times. Say whatever you like. Insult whomsoever you wish. Propagate whatever hateful libel. It doesn’t matter, if it serves your cause. “Freedom of speech” is something I value; but I cannot find it in the Torah, the Talmud, or the Codes of Law. What I do find is "guarding one's tongue". It seems to me that “freedom of thought” matters more than “freedom of speech". Speech is an easily abused commodity, whereas thought can be kept to oneself.

Yet, as the Bible says, "Your thoughts are not mine, says God." The aim of the Holy Days is to see if we can get the two to coincide.