December 30, 2010


A few years ago there was a kerfuffle in the Orthodox Jewish world over a book called Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities. The book was a scholarly history of life in the world of the Eastern European Lithuanian yeshivot of the last century, with specific reference to the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. Rav Kamenetsky, who lived from 1891 until 1986, was one of a group of prominent Eastern European rabbinical scholars which included Rav Aaron Kotler, who founded the most famous of American Torah centers in Lakewood, New Jersey.

When they arrived in the USA as refugees, Orthodoxy was such a small and ignored section of Jewish life that no one would have predicted that 50 years later the institutions they founded and the communities they helped create would become the most dynamic and fastest growing section of American Jewry. Their single-minded vision to recreate their Eastern European world in the West has succeeded beyond imagination; combined with the resurrection of Chasidism, this will guarantee Jewish survival. The question, of course, is what kind of Judaism.

This question emerged with force in the wake of the ban issued on the book by much of the extreme Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership in Israel. The book was written by one of Rav Kamenetsky’s sons--himself a distinguished Lithuanian-style rosh yeshiva--Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky. Its crime was to suggest that Rav Kamenetsky, as well as Rav Kotler, had read secular books in their youth. You might think this more of a compliment than a condemnation, but not in the world of extreme Orthodoxy nowadays. The book was withdrawn from the public. Copies were so rare and in such demand that you could only find them on eBay, costing thousands of dollars. Thanks to my younger son's interest, I have been able to get hold of a photocopy of both the original and a follow-up called Anatomy of a Ban.

As you will know I support and identify with the intense religious atmosphere, devotion to studying Torah, and commitment of the extreme Orthodox world, and I believe it has more to offer spiritually than any other sector of Jewish life. But the downside is its absolute rejection of any value in liberal, intellectual freedom of thought. I have argued elsewhere that this enclavist, inward-looking rejection of the outside may well be a temporary and necessary phase in order to ensure the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Holocaust, and a reaction to the excessive and corrupt self-indulgence of much of modernity. (Though, of course, it has been a stream within Judaism going back long before the medieval opposition to the rationalism of Maimonides.)

But I believe that it is both counterproductive and indeed impossible to cut oneself off entirely; therefore the only way to deal with the challenge is by confronting it, not by pretending it does not exist or thinking one can hide. The increasing light shed on domestic violence, drug abuse, and crime, though still at levels well below the norm, attests to the sordid elements in parts of extreme Orthodoxy’s struggle with life.

The vituperation directed at Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky is a scandal by any objective standards and a denial of Torah values. A small group of zealots approached certain prominent rabbis (none of whom could or had read the original). They exaggerated the dangers of the book and, without anything we would consider due process or fair hearing, major rabbis issued a ban reminiscent of the way the Catholic Church used to be fond of proscribing and burning books they considered offensive, such as the Talmud. The episode highlighted the absence of Torah amongst the very people supposed to uphold it.

Rabbi Nathan later wrote but did not publish the follow-up I mentioned Anatomy of a Ban, in which he recorded the sorry story of misinformation, lies, and deceit that led to the ban, the withdrawal of the book, and the ongoing hounding and delegitimization of him by a small clique of personally invested immoral zealots whose concern was personal vendetta or, at best, the perpetuation of an exclusively hagiographic record of great rabbis.

This sort of intellectual barbarism is sadly now the norm in extreme Orthodoxy and is the reason I find myself unable to see myself as part of it. Yet for all of this I remain optimistic. No one fifty years ago would have predicted the state of resurgent Jewish religious life now. Fifty years ago only Zionism seemed to offer hope. Yet human civilization turns constantly in cycles. We rarely see what trends are coming and we rarely see all the effects our actions have. This raises all sorts of philosophical and moral questions, of course. This is precisely why I have a soft spot for well established and tried moral structures, even if imperfect and flawed humans often make monkeys out of themselves and the systems they purport to represent.

Ben Gurion had no inkling when he allowed yeshiva students to postpone military service indefinitely. There were only a few thousand in 1950. Now there are hundreds of thousands, forced to stay forever in yeshivas even if they have no inclination to study, because the state funds them and without military service they cannot get work in Israel. Quite apart from the immorality of a section of a population refusing to share in its civil responsibilities, the situation perpetuates enormous tension between the secular and the religious segments of society. Now the government has decided to get round the issue by requiring, instead of military service, some sort of community service, such as Magen David Adom or fire and rescue service, which are as necessary as the military in defense of the state, as demonstrated by the latest fires in Israel where the country suddenly realized how undermanned these services are. At the same time, the subsidy has been reduced to five years. Both these measures will ensure that the Charedi world will be forced to open itself up to greater responsibility and social awareness. Where this will lead or how long it will take to filter through cannot be known, but it certainly points to a more hopeful future.

Up until now the inward-looking, embattled, and insecure mood of Orthodoxy in Israel has produced precisely the worst of a narrow-minded, protectionist mentality that excludes or ignores any idea it fears. It breeds extremism. The Talmud says that wine that is too concentrated is unpleasant to drink. It needs to be diluted to enjoy. I hope the same thing happens to extreme Orthodoxy, so that great rabbis like Nathan Kamenetsky can be read and appreciated and "truth shall spring forth from the earth" (Psalm 85).

December 23, 2010

Washing Hands

When I was a child and went to visit my grandfather, he always put a bowl and a cup of water next to my bed at night, so that I'd wash my hands first thing when I woke up in the morning. Neigelvasser, it was and is called in Yiddish.

Actually, the first thing I did (and still do) was to say "Modeh Ani", a short prayer to thank God for my being alive. Later on, in rebellious years, I used to wonder about the words it included: "Thank you for returning my soul to me." So the soul, whatever it was, miraculously escaped my body and flew up somewhere into space and wandered around for eight hours or so before being condemned to the jail of my body for another day? It didn't make sense, unless "soul" was another way of talking about "consciousness". But then my consciousness isn't taken away and returned to me--it's a state of being, not an organ. As I got even older, but still rebellious, I realized that prayers are poetry and poetry is not literal or scientific prose.

But back to my hand washing. My father did not put a bowl of water next to the bed. The text says "you shouldn't go four amot before washing", and he followed the view that the "four amot" was not necessarily literal. "Four amot" is a term used in halachic writing that may often mean "your space"; it could be applied to a space you were in, such as your house. So washing one's hands was something to be done, but you didn't need a tape measure to fulfill the mitzvah. (And I should add that this washing ritual has to be done whenever one goes to the toilet, although a good rinse under the tap is good enough. One doesn't have to lug one's cup and bowl around all day like a mendicant fakir.)

The morning wash was a doddle compared to washing before meals. There one had to be particularly careful to check the rim of the cup first, then draw the water oneself, pour carefully three times over each hand, starting with the right, then raise one's hands so that the water dripped downwards. After that, one had to dry them very carefully, while at the same time reciting the blessing. Believe me, there were all kinds of refinements I learnt of over time, and different customs. But the fact is that observant Jews wash their hands every time they wake up, eat a meal (or bread), or go to the loo.

Often as I watch other people so punctiliously walk up to the sink, crouch over, check their hands, give them a good wash if they are dirty, then take the cup, measure in the right minimum amount, pour it over their hands with the care of someone handling precious elixir, I wonder what sort of neurotic, obsessive nutcases Jewish ritual is producing. Is this what religion is all about? Is God looking down kvelling?

I have been giving a course on Jewish history and having started with Hammurabi (yes, I know he wasn't Jewish). I have arrived at the Black Death that ravaged western and central Europe from 1340-1410 and decimated the population. Rumor spread that the hated Jews, in league with the Devil, had poisoned the wells. The result was that more than half the Jewish population of Europe was massacred. Whole communities perished: Augsburg, Barcelona, Bern, Cervera, Chillon, Cologne, Frankfort, Freiberg, Munich, Spires, Strasburg, Tarrega, Worms, and Wurzburg, to mention only the cases of complete destruction. Thousands perished elsewhere.

It didn't take much for priests and monks to whip up a frenzy against the hated Jews, killers of their god (as if), heretics, unbelievers anyway, condemned to perish in the fires of hell. And a little loot on the side didn't go amiss. But there was another factor in getting the masses to turn on the Jews. Fewer Jews were dying, proportionately, than Christians. The Jews must be guilty. The historical record is that many Jews did indeed die too. They were in the main herded into confined stinking ghettos (even before it became obligatory), where contagion spread rapidly. But the obvious reason they suffered less was that Jews washed their hands far more regularly than the others, and certainly before eating.

Jump to our age. In the season of colds and flu, we are all told to wash hands regularly. If you have been anywhere near a public urinal, even one in a swanky restaurant, you'll know that most people do not wash their hands before eating or after going to the toilet. The amount of contamination that is passed on by handshaking, handling money, eating snacks from a common bowl, let alone strap-hanging, is frightening. But do people care? How many bother, even if they know they should? And how many wash as a matter of routine during the course of a normal day? Very, very few, I can tell you.

That is precisely why a religious ritual can be so practical and utilitarian. I do agree it doesn't need to be obsessive, but better an obsessive hand washer than a passer-on of E. coli or whatever. So scoff if you like, but I'm glad I was conditioned to wash my hands, and make a bracha, and thank God I'm alive and my body is functioning pretty well. Happy Healthy Days!

December 16, 2010


The term "ghetto", meaning a place where Jews were forced to live within a city, does not appear until 1611. In 1570 the Italian papacy insisted that Jews be confined to certain areas of towns in order to prevent them contaminating the local Christians. The actual word simply means a "foundry" in medieval Italian. That happened to be the name for the area in Venice which was turned into an "exclusion zone" some years after the original papal order.

Jews have been living in both voluntary and involuntary self-governed communities for thousands of years. In the Babylonian Exile, Jews were settled in specific areas. They, and then the Persians, wanted to make use of Judean skills and talent. Later on, rivalry and tensions between Greek and Jewish merchants led to segregated communities within the big cities of the Graeco-Roman Empire.

If many instances involved force majeure, or political or security considerations, there were also religious ones. Jewish law requires community--to pray together, to care for each other in terms of charity and welfare, and to carry out all those laws that concern relations between human beings that play a far greater role in the Jewish tradition than most people, including Jews themselves, often realize. And if, in addition, one cannot travel on Shabbat and festivals, one simply has to live in proximity to other Jews (or build a holiday home in the Hamptons with sufficiently large guest quarters to accommodate a quorum). This did not mean one could ignore non-Jews. The principle of feeding and giving charity to non-Jewish poor was reiterated time and again.

However, there is much that is positive in Jews living in communities, whether voluntarily or by force. In most other societies, certainly European and other post-tribal societies, people tend to interact horizontally. Aristocrats mix with aristocrats, the rich with the rich. Few beggars can afford a "pile" in Gloucestershire. Middle classes usually associate and live with others of the middle classes. Peasants or poor working classes live, drink, and socialize with their own. In much of Europe, the wealthy and the aristocratic Christians worshipped in their private chapels attended, by their personal chaplains, and only very rarely condescended to attend church with the proletariat. The upper classes disdained and avoided the unwashed masses.

In the Jewish communities around the world, until relatively recently, it was otherwise. Religious life was (and is) as much concerned with community as with personal religious faith. Even if you were the wealthiest of "Court Jews" you had to come to the synagogue regularly. Every day you mingled with the poor and the needy. You heard of their problems and of fellow Jews throughout the Christian and Muslim world. You could not be unaware of the suffering Jew. Of course it was not always that ideal. Often the rich who married off their children to the offspring of the rabbinical intellectual elite combined to preserve their control over communal affairs. Still, the ghetto had a beneficial, cohesive effect.

Nowadays religiously committed Jews live in "ethnically" gated communities. An academic way of describing them is "enclaves", which means not just religious communities but likeminded ones. Some think Israel is the largest "gated community" of them all, but it is hardly a likeminded one. All enclaves tend to betray an inward-looking preoccupation that invariably results in myopia.

It should be almost impossible to cut oneself off from the community nowadays. With overwhelming impact of the media, internet, cell phones, and easy and free access to the rest of society, one cannot but be aware of alternative communities, cultures and needs. So, for example, everyone knows this Happy Holidays time. By that I do not just mean the Christian religious aspect. The overwhelming commercial and materialist character of the "season" is in some ways worse. We are encouraged, indeed pressurized, to spend unnecessarily. The waste is a scandal.

For those of us in minority cultures, we need not so much to reject what is going on around us, as to reiterate alternative values. The stronger the pull away from our tradition, the more we need to find ways to counterbalance. Once it was quite prevalent in the ghetto to fast on "Nittel" because the supposed birth of Christianity was no celebration for Jews suffering at the hands of the Church. This year our fast day is one week earlier. Friday, December 17th, is a fast day--the Tenth of Tevet--when the campaign that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple got underway. You couldn't think of a greater contrast.

So surrounded by difference as we are, shouldn’t this make us more open minded? For all the variety of ideas and opinions that bombard us, we prefer to fall back on what is familiar and secure. So we tend only to log on to sites or read blogs that confirm our preconceptions. Ironically, as the world of communication expands, we tend to restrict ourselves to a more limited range of perspectives. We simply press the "delete" button if something comes up we don't want to know about. I recall someone in London telling me he didn't come to my synagogue because he did not want to agree with the rabbi each week. I thought that was pretty impressive.

The issue is not so much the ghetto itself as the "ghetto mentality". Why shouldn't people live where they choose to? It is not where you live but how you think that decides whether you are open-minded or not. Some of the most narrow minded prejudiced people I have met have lived in the most openly academic of environments. It is the mental ghetto, not the physical ghetto, that is the single largest threat to our modern multiracial societies and to inter-human harmony. This is as true of the mindless hatred directed towards us as it is of that which too many of us project on to "the other".

December 09, 2010

Rabbis and Fires

A group of nationalist rabbis in Israel, including the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, and Carmiel, issued a statement declaring that Jews are forbidden to sell or rent homes in the Holy Land to non-Jews. "Wise men, be careful what you say lest people misuse them to lie" (Mishna Avot 1:11). Their declaration has been picked up by the non-Jewish press and gone round the world several times, as proof that Israelis are intransigent and that Orthodox Jews are racist. Nice one, boys.

One of the outstanding ultra-Orthodox rabbanim, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, refused an audience this week with the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, when Rabbi Eliyah attempted to convince the Bnei Brak spiritual leader to sign the letter instructing Jews not to rent or sell property to Arabs or other non-Jews.

Rav Shteinman condemned the letter and pointed out that had such a letter been written in Berlin about Jews, the whole of the Jewish world would have been up in arms.

Some more overtly Zionist rabbis also refused to sign up. Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi, Yaakov Ariel said, "The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, long ago decided that … in a democratic state you cannot discriminate between citizens. What's more, it will cause discrimination against Jews in other countries."

Maale Gilboa Yeshiva head Rabbi Yehuda Gilad said in response to the rabbis' letter, "This is a serious distortion of the Torah, and contradicts basic human morality."

Sadly and predictably, these responses have largely been ignored by the rest of the world, who are only too eager to find pretexts to excoriate Israeli failings.

The previous week, the distinguished Rav Ovadia Yosef said that the disastrous fires in the Carmel were the result of Israelis ignoring Jewish Law. Whereas the Hamas leader Meshal was equally sure it was because of Israel's Gaza campaign. Poor God, life must be tough out there, listening to all those people on earth who claim to know His mind. For years now I have heard it said in certain quarters that holocaust was punishment for religious backsliding in Europe. Now, given that the vast majority of Jews who perished were religious, it sounds to me a very Christian idea, that God makes his "child" or "the good" suffer for or atone for the sins of the wicked. Perhaps those rabbis really belong in another religion.

What is it, I wonder, that makes people who should know better say these ill-considered and morally equivocal things? It seems to me that rabbis (as well as other politicians) speak the language of their audiences. If the audience is superstitious, credulous, insecure, nationalist, or absolutist, and requires certainties in life, even if there are very few, then they gravitate towards or find they resonate with like-minded or wonder rabbis who rely on the perception that they can mediate between God and man because they know God better than anyone else. And the rabbis to preserve their position say what they think their followers want to hear. This explains the different ways Sephardi, Chasidic, and Lithuanian rabbis speak to their audiences.

In Antwerp, for example, Charedi rabbis love to talk about all goyim as drunken anti-Semites, whereas in Israel they like to talk about all Muslims as murdering fanatics. Just as they both like to refer to non Orthodox Jews as non-Jewish. When leaders live and work within a closed and protected environment, with no interaction with the outside world, they will tend to speak only in the terms and mindset of their closed little worlds. Thank goodness it is only a "tendency" and there are exceptions like Rav Shteinman (although I wonder how much his response sprung from his disdain for the "moderately religious" nationalist rabbis).

This of course does not only apply to Jews. Both the Muslim and the Christian worlds are divided between those who care not a whit for the world outside theirs and those who are sensitive enough to the feelings of others to moderate their jingoism. Between those who want dialogue and those who do not. Even in the Vatican you have competing wings so that when one side says something pro-Jewish, for example, there is another side that will pull in the other direction.

Israel is in a unique position precisely because it is so small, surrounded by enemies, and disdained by much of the world. The trouble is that the more beleaguered you are, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian, the more desperate you become, the less you trust the outside world, and slowly you turn more fanatical. And this has its own consequences. Because it means you are incapable of listening to the other. Then you become like the other.

I do not want to become like the narrow-minded fanatics full of hatred and anger. But on the other hand, if I do not defend my own position and that of my people, who will? But by retreating into my own world I may be doing the one thing that guarantees my ultimate defeat. If my only response is that God loves me and will not let me down, how come He has allowed us to destroy ourselves previously? And what guarantees it won't happen again?

Pathetic declarations in the name of religion harm everyone--Judaism, rabbis and the State of Israel--and do not help solve the challenge of peaceful coexistence. Similarly, telling a secular person that his actions in rejecting religion cause disasters is only likely to have the effect of driving him or her further away. Now that Chanukah has passed, perhaps we all need a dose of "peace and good tidings"?

December 02, 2010

Modern Leadership

In the Jewish world leadership is discredited. And Chanukah is good time to discuss it. Recent exchanges on my blog have questioned my definition of "leadership". So let me clarify what I mean. All significant creative and innovative movements in religious Judaism, after Moses, have come from outside the established leadership. The prophets of Israel, the Maccabee uprising, Talmudic Judaism, medieval Kabalah, Chasidism, and Musar have all challenged, been challenged, changed, and then themselves become stratified establishments.

Over time, most human organizations and movements atrophy, grow stale, and need either injections of new vitality or replacement. Very rarely does the person at the top have the capacity to bring about change or adaptability on his own. Sometimes challenge modifies the established order, but more often it does not. And often external circumstances do what internal leadership cannot. It is "the hour that maketh the man" rather than the reverse.

But how does one define leadership? If you live in the USA, where they love to produce lists of "the most influential", you will know that they bear little or no relevance to reality. Leadership seems synonymous with publicity and self-promotion, not with the actual numbers of people who follow, listen to, or obey. America's Rabbi, like America’s Best or America's Sweetheart, are just publicity slogans.

Leadership of organizations or political parties is rarely a reflection on the power and influence of the individuals who occupy the senior positions, even when the organization itself might be numerically very significant. Sometimes the self-selected appear to wield influence. But in reality it is only their money that does.

The exception to the rule was post-destruction rabbinic Judaism, first under Ezra and then two thousand years ago, when it responded to the cataclysm with a whole raft of innovative ideas and laws. This is precisely why I tend to refer back to Talmudic authority with such devotion and admiration. Some might want to point to later attempts to reform Judaism, but I only see those as trying to adapt Judaism to other cultures.

True leadership is when someone with a vision and guts goes for it regardless, like Mattityahu and Yehudah. The Lubavitcher rebbe might be an example although his greatness lay in the creation of a dynamic missionary movement, not in a radical paradigm shift in Jewish religious thinking or halachic innovation. As for those scholars who left Eastern Europe under duress and at the last moment and helped establish new centers of learning and Torah in the USA and Israel, they were forced by circumstances rather than innovative intent. Indeed, none of the topflight Eastern European rabbinic leaders had the wisdom, foresight, or vision to encourage migration either to Israel or the West when it was still possible.

The reluctance of intense Orthodox leadership to be innovative stems from the defining characteristics of post-Enlightenment Orthodoxy as defined by the Chatam Sofer, who insisted that one retreat behind the safe walls of established tradition and reject innovation (that in itself is the exception to my rule and an example of a visionary volte-face). Or perhaps it is a visceral response both to the Holocaust and excessive modern self-indulgence.

Leadership could be defined as commanding large numbers of followers. Although Stalin’s rhetorical question “How many divisions has the Pope” shows how he defined leadership. Like the Pope, the major heads of the Lithuanian and Chasidic movements, the great Sephardi rabbis command inestimably more loyalty following and commitment than any "western rabbis" or community leaders. That gives them power. But are they using that power and authority to lead or to conserve? At least the Pope is ready to think again about condoms! Besides for all these leaders' apparent power, most followers ignore their rulings when it suits them, in private at least. Religious leaders become superstitious salves for guilty consciences. And our version of Peter's Pence is a charitable donation to a man who, too often, looks the part but we would not want to emulate.

My blog commenter suggested Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz as an example of a great leader. But, as great as his contribution is through his commentaries on the Talmud, he has not been a leader; that is, I am not aware that he has championed causes or entered the lists (other than a brief, and ill-advised sortie into an attempt to recreate the Sanhedrin).

I can, with hindsight, see the impact of the Hippy Revolution in the USA, which led to the Chavura movement, Shlomo Carlebach, and various New Age rabbis. But all of them functioned independently of established organizations, and the actual lifestyle example they set has been left behind. I think of the rise of Jewish education, which (outside of the ultra-Orthodox world) is overwhelmingly due to the failure of state educational systems. And the largest single factor in the rise of Charedi Judaism has been the social welfare system that, more than anything else, has enabled so many thousands of families to live a life of study and subsist without other means of support.

Philanthropic funds have done a great deal, but these too are sui generis creations and vehicles of individuals, not vehicles of leadership. Whether one thinks of Zionist organizations, federations, unions of synagogues, lay representative bodies--they all, by nature and record, tend to preserve the status quo and discourage innovation and creativity.

The exciting contributions I can think of, whether in the realms of adult education or the evangelical movements from within Orthodoxy--such as Ohr Somayach, Aish Hatorah, the new alternative minyanim and egalitarian communities in the USA and Israel--they were started by individual initiative, rather than organizational fiat and they are independent. Even so, they are on the periphery of Judaism. The established rabbinates of all colors have done nothing I can think of that is creative or innovative to grapple with the challenges of our times.

Thinking, creative Orthodoxy exists today in two areas--academia and grassroots. If I am scornful of "leadership", I am full of admiration for what I see as the survival and growth of thinking Orthodoxy, even if it lacks powerful leaders. I do not for one moment deny the value and need for organizations, for structures and agencies and representation. But their role is largely preservative. It is the spirit of individual Jews that I find so impressive and which gives me cause for tremendous optimism. We refer to Moses not as "Moses our Leader" but rather "Moses our Teacher". And therein lays the secret of survival.

Happy Chanuka.