October 27, 2011

Gilad Shalit

In 1286 the greatest rabbi of his time, Meir of Rothenburg, was on his way to the Land of Israel. As life had become so unbearable in the Rhineland as the Crusades swept through and brought wave after wave of Jew hatred in their wake, like many Jews of the time, he wanted to make a new life for himself in the land of his fathers. As much as the Crusaders wanted to conquer the land they believed their religion started in, and shed blood in the process, the Jews wanted not to conquer, but simply to live a spiritual life in the land that had been the focus of their literature, aspirations, and creative energy since Biblical times.

He got as far as Lombardy when he was recognized by a Jew who had converted to Christianity who betrayed him to his travelling companion the Bishop of Basel. The bishop seized him and transferred him to a castle in Alsace. There Rabbi Meir was imprisoned on the orders of the Emperor Rudolph (he of the red nose). In those days the Jews were the property of the king who benefitted from a cut of their profits, but also claimed their property when they died and only returned part of it in exchange for a heavy fine. When Rudolph heard that large numbers of Jews were leaving his territory and taking their property along, he feared he would lose too much of his income. This was a great opportunity to extort money from his Jews and help replenish his coffers. He demanded a ransom. The Jews of the Rhineland were prepared to pay up. But Rabbi Meir refused to allow them to free him. He said that if they did it would only encourage others to capture more Jews to demand even higher ransoms and he preferred to stay in jail, which he did until he died six years later.

Years later a Jew of Frankfurt, Alexander Wimfen, personally paid a huge ransom to release the bones of Rabbi Meir from captivity and asked in exchange for this act only that when he died he would be buried next to him. The opinion of Rabbi Meir became the default position on ransoming captives for Ashkenazi and indeed world Jewry.

But as you might expect, other rabbinical opinions were raised. In the case of Rabbi Meir, he was well treated in captivity. He was given a suite of rooms in the castle and many of his pupils could come and go. He was visited by nobles of the church and scholars. But what about situations where captives were tortured, brutalized, and threatened with death? Under such circumstances, despite the danger of encouraging even more trouble, the tendency was to return to the earlier principle of liberating captives in any way one could, even if the Talmud itself sets limits. Halacha has continuously tried to weigh all factors to determine when a demand becomes unreasonable and dangerous in itself. If you read Israeli news you will know that the great and the bearded ones are fighting and arguing amongst themselves over the halachic response to this current issue. One wonders how we ever get to make ANY moral decisions. That is both the strength and the weakness of the system. Debate is healthy and intellectually stimulating, but it can also be debilitating.

It is sadly a matter of record that captured Israelis have been cruelly tortured, mutilated, and brutalized. In the case of Gilad Shalit, the fact that Hamas refused to allow access to him by the Red Cross (never a particular friend of Israel) could only mean that they had something awful to hide. For all the stories that circulate about Israeli brutality, looking at the tanned well fed faces of their released prisoners, the contrast was so obvious that only a sick mind could refuse to see it.

All other avenues of liberating him failed. Was Israel right to exchange him for a thousand Palestinian prisoners? Will this now encourage other attempts to kidnap Israelis and hold them for ransom? Will the convicted murderers amongst them find a way illegally or surreptitiously back into Israel across long and unregulated borders to butcher more children? Will the hero's welcome they receive only encourage more youngsters to turn to violence?

We know the excuses that are made, that they have been brutalized, that they are no different than soldiers in the Israeli army, and this is not the place to illustrate the fallacies and faulty logic that can make that comparison. Nor is it the place to argue against some of the crazier self-congratulatory arguments.

But the question of whether Israel was right or not to make the deal remains and doubtless will continue to be debated. Parents of victims tried, but failed, to challenge it in the Supreme Court. But the vast majority is delighted at the prospect of Gilad's freedom. I only pray he is in a fit state to relish it.

The fact is that there are many calculations and considerations that a political leader has to take. A strong leader cannot please all of the people. We are not privy to all the security and political concerns and latest intelligence that leaders face day to day. But when we elect leaders we (should) do so because we have confidence in them to do whatever they see best for the welfare and security of their people and country.

So there is no simple cut-and-dried answer to the question of whether Israel has made the right decision. I am overjoyed that Gilad is released. There might even be some good and unexpected results from the negotiations. Still I am worried about the possible negatives. But I hope and pray it will be for the best.

October 19, 2011


I have fond memories of the years I spent studying in Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem. That quaint quarter of Ottoman courtyards that housed ultra-Orthodox Jews was tucked away over a hill from the main city streets and down into a valley that once was the border between Jewish Jerusalem and Arab, by the border post known as the Mandelbaum Gate.

I recall it particularly fondly during Sucot. Not only because every balcony and every spare space is packed with Sucot of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Not only because of the way the markets and streets are full of tables of etrogim and lulavim, and the way they examine in great detail each leaf, frond, and fruit with microscopes and obsessive concern with the minutest of imperfections. But also because the weeklong celebration of Simchat Beit HaShoeva, which commemorates the processions in the Temple to pray for rain and pour out precious water over the altar in the hope that God would replenish it. The dancing and the amazing music one can hear there every night prove, more than anything else, that the image of Meah Shearim as a joyless black hole of fanaticism is far from reality. As is the myth that everyone there belongs to Neturei Karta, refuses to pay taxes and will not serve in the army.

In truth, I have met there some of the most spiritual, sensitive, and caring human beings anywhere, even the most tolerant. It is also true, as in any community, that there are its lunatics, louts, and lascivious criminals. Even in my day, gangs of overzealous young men with no other outlet for their hormones used to go wild at demonstrations against anything that offended them, from swimming pools to driving on the Sabbath. To be fair, it was a form of blood sport in the Jerusalem of my day for young secular bloods to provoke as much as they could in the hope of a good punch-up. But then all the religious authorities, to a man, publicly excoriated the aggression and condemned the violence. It didn't stop it, but it kept it in reasonable bounds.

They didn't call themselves Chareidi then, and the nuance is modern that distinguishes between genuinely saintly men and women who really do "tremble" before God (that’s where the word Chareidi comes from, trembling) and the bearded hooligans dressed in black, who masquerade as ultra-Orthodox and brutalize anyone--man, woman, or child—that they can gain power over.

I was terribly upset a few weeks ago to see the BBC report about the way ultra-Orthodox men attack religious girls simply because their skirts are not down to the ground or their sleeves end at the elbow instead of the wrist, throwing stones and feces at them on the way to school. I know full well that the media need to find stories and that they particularly love to find the odd story of Jewish fanaticism so that they can equivalize and say, "See, the Jews are just as bad as the others." Nevertheless, I am convinced that what those bullies really need is a dose of military service and discipline. And I believe it would do the religious world a power of good if their underemployed and under-disciplined young fanatics were put to some hard physical work.

But then I realized the army is not a cure all. Amongst the National Religious fanatics there is a sort of movement called "Tag Mechir" (literally "Price Tag"). It seems to be made up of dysfunctional religious Zionist settler youth who simply attack, deface, slash, and burn any convenient Arab target every time something bad happens to Israelis, whether it comes from Palestinian sources or even the Israeli army taking down an illegal settlement.

This desire to take the law into one's own hands, regardless, is a growing disease that undermines the rule of law, morality, and religion. Things are getting worse in God territory, wherever you look. I fear the whole culture of Israeli discourse, the aggression and the violence that was directed against the enemy outside is now being turned inwards. Once again I blame the leadership for not doing enough to stop it.

It is a sign of the times everywhere, of course. Less violent are the current battles going on in the Amish community, but similar to the rivalries between Chasidic courts. In both cases they cut off opponents' beards, humiliate their women, vandalize each other’s property, and knock off hats in public. I really feel for the Copts in Egypt. Since there are no Jews left, they are the new scapegoat. The murderous political rivalry and pursuit of heresy between Shia and Sunni, indeed the campaigns against the Roma and vice versa in Europe are all part of a similar fundamentalist, primitivist way of thinking and behaving which lacks respect for difference and underpins all kinds of extremism.

We must put our own house in order and not take cold comfort from the fact that others are worse or more murderous than we are. In our world there is a false assumption that anyone wearing black is holy. That the outwardly pious ought always to be given the benefit of the doubt, for they are keeping tradition alive. In reality they are destroying tradition by causing alienation, and portraying a mutation of religion that is morally corrupt. If we really care about our religion, we must bring pressure to bear on its religious leaders to stop such extreme behavior instead of encouraging it for political ends. And we should withhold support if they do not. A bully only stops when he is bullied back and true leadership accepts responsibility.

October 11, 2011

The IKEA Sucah

Once upon a time we were a rural, agricultural people. Our founding forebears left the corrupt big city world of Nimrod, Babylon and Ur and migrated to the Land of Canaan (via Kurdistan). There, for practical reasons, they went back to a nomadic tent life. Abraham's nephew Lot couldn't handle the camping life. He needed his gold-plated faucets, so he retired to Sodom. A few generations later, the migration down to Egypt brought the Israelite nomads back into contact with a sedentary, technologically advanced civilization. Eventually the lure of the wild proved too strong and they went back to camping for a generation. Yet we Jews are much more urban than rural, despite the valiant but futile attempts of the early Zionists to make us a nation of kibbutzniks.

You might wonder where this going. I suggest we humans constantly go through transitions--physical, intellectual, and cultural. Often these cycles are contradictory. When we spend too much time in the countryside we yearn for the city. Too long living in the city and we dream of the open, innocent world of the countryside (go and see Straw Dogs if you want to be cured of that). "Cars chasing bicycles" soon turns into "hounds chasing foxes" or "men with guns blasting little birds" for fun rather than necessity.

We go from knowing how to make a chair to buying one to paying an interior designer to find one in an antique store to commissioning an aristocratic craftsman to make one specially for us at an astonishing cost. And then we progress to IKEA and buy a kit we can assemble (or get an unemployed student to do it for us) before finally to taking up carpentry as a hobby in retirement or old age.

IKEA itself has gone through its own transformation from the brainchild of a Swedish Nazi to the darling of the Left-Wing anti-Israel intellectuals who claim to be free thinking but really just long to follow their own particular herd (and the Israeli middle classes). Hugo Boss now finally admits its Nazi past and has become the favored outfitter of those yeshiva bochurim from comfortable families eager to impress a possible shidduch with their sense of materialism and fashion. More exclusive than Marks and Spencer (Brooks Brothers) but not as excessively ostentatious as Armani or Zegna. I have even noticed that very successful Charedi entrepreneurs love flashing a Hermes belt buckle through their fashionably open long black coats or flicking their wrists to show the latest metal chunk of a timepiece made by Swiss former-Hitler-sympathizers. What is it, I wonder, about ex-Nazi companies like Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen that they have in the space of sixty years gone from the enemies of civilization to the very definition of its materialist soul? What can better illustrate the inevitable cycle of human civilization? And of course the positive side of being excessively methodical, systematic, and single-minded at whatever it is one chooses to do?

It is precisely this transition and change I notice at Sucot time. Not just the arrival of autumn in the northern hemisphere and the touch and smell of nature's plants. We used to have booths all over the place during the summer season to give our shepherds and watchmen shelter from the heat. We quickly changed the thatch and, bingo, we had our sucah ready for the festival. We moved into cities and had to erect our own huts on our roofs or balconies in makeshift fashion and often under duress. As we became more settled and wealthier we could get our local carpenter to come and do it for us. Then we graduated to purposely built home extensions. Yet we still yearned for something authentic and went back to constructing our own from local lumber yards.

This where the IKEA approach comes back, collapsible kits of aluminum frames, waterproofed fabric sides with special rainproof covers for the North European climates. But as our families grew bigger, with more unemployed teenage yeshiva bochurim on vacation with nothing better to do than roll up their shirt sleeves, we delegated the mitzvah to them and simply turned up on the evening to eat, drink, and be merry. The real spirit of do-it-yourself has returned.

The beauty of our tradition is its infinite flexibility and adaptability. No matter the era, the prevailing civilization, the current political situation, we adapt. If the Muslim Brotherhood cuts off the supplies of palm branches for lulavim and sucah roofs from Egypt, we find them from African and Asian sources instead. If Turkey blocks the material for sucah construction, China is always happy to offer what turns out to be a cheaper option.

Here we are, a modern people, celebrating something nearly three thousand years old. We who can adapt finance, technology, medicine, and all the aspects of modernity to survive, to make life livable, profitable, and fun, are still yearning for a primitive past, the call of the wild, of simplicity. I fact it is just a handy reality check. What values matter more than others? That's why I love it. Pleasure with a touch of philosophy.

October 06, 2011

Rubashkin and Yom Kipur

You might have heard the name Sholom Rubashkin. He is a Lubavitcher Chasid and an entrepreneur who built up a series of apparently successful businesses which enabled him to become a very generous and high-profile benefactor of Orthodox charities in the USA. His best known business, Agriprocessors, based in Postville, Iowa, was, in its time, the biggest provider of kosher meat on the North American continent.

In 2008 it was the subject of a story by PETA undercover activists who photographed extremely disturbing practices of animal cruelty at its abattoir that not only contravened standards of human decency but also, according to most experts, Jewish law as well. It seemed that in the overweening desire for profit, corners were being cut and blind eyes turned. The ultra-Orthodox world was divided as always between the apologists and the condemners but assurances were given that under stricter rules the "lapses" would not recur. But soon after, a raid by Federal agents uncovered a scandal which, they said, involved underage Guatemalan immigrants, illegal papers, harsh working conditions, and financial corruption.

In 2010 Rubashkin was personally acquitted of 67 charges of child labor offences although his company was not. But he was convicted of 86 separate charges of fraud, money laundering, and other financial irregularities and was sentenced to 27 years in jail.

Judges everywhere are a mixed bunch with as many prejudices and failings as any other bunch of human beings. In the USA the interrelationship of law and politics adds a salacious ingredient into the mix. But there are ways to appeal. In recent years, because of so much scandalous abuse, fraud convictions have attracted stricter penalties. Even so some have been overturned and in other cases sentences reduced. And of course it is right and proper that any legal team will try to do its best for its client.

Rubashkin's lawyers appealed to the Federal appeals court for a retrial on the grounds that the Judge was biased and exceeded her remit. Last week the appeal was turned down and his lawyers are now going to the Supreme Court.

This is set against a feeling in the Jewish community in the USA that Jonathan Pollard's life sentence for giving restricted information to Israel, is not only vindictive and excessive but actually sadistic. They believe that only prejudice can explain why he has been singled out above all others and given a stricter sentence than men who actually caused the death of those they betrayed as well as their country.

But the sustained outcry over Rubashkin, claiming he is an innocent victim, the massive campaign to raise money and to use political muscle has become so distasteful it merits analysis. It is indeed the American way. Men like Al Sharpton complain about racism the minute any black man is convicted. But I am frankly scandalized by the way the Orthodox community is making such a public, self-righteous fuss. Here's a typical email I have received asking me to sign a petition on his behalf:

"We now have a unique opportunity -- for the sake of justice -- to express our outrage for this sentence and actually make a difference. If it can happen to Sholom Rubashkin it can happen to anyone! Tell President Obama to stop ignoring47 members of Congress and many others in the Rubashkin case!Sign this petition today and join the fight for justice for Sholom Rubashkin.President Obama is facing elections next year, and he wants to know what is on people's minds. By having thousands of people all across America express their outrage with the overzealousness and misconduct in the case of Sholom Rubashkin, it will send a powerful message that we really do care!"

This is crying wolf. If we use up political goodwill over this, what when we have a legitimate cause? By all means set before the courts his good deeds and his charitable record. But he is no innocent martyr. He brought this all upon himself by trying to swindle banks. Argue his sentence is stiff indeed. But to suggest as adverts have that he is a "captive", for whose release one has a religious obligation to pay, is an abuse of the concept of "pidyon shevuyim" (redeeming captives). It was introduced as a halachic response to kidnapping for financial or political gain in the days of pirates, slavery, and victims of war. The way Jewish law is used, misused, and twisted is simply dishonest and a scandal.

There are thousands of poor and completely innocent families and children who have never done anything wrong, struggling to put food on their tables. If charity is asked for it should be for them.

A similar outcry went up over the teenage Chasidim ensnared into smuggling drugs into Japan. You can say they were naïve or stupid, but if someone offers you $1000 to take a suitcase halfway across the world when you could FedEx it for a tenth of the price, even a cloistered scholar would know that something is fishy. Yet once again the Orthodox world screams foul; they are saints and martyrs and the wicked non-Jews are the evil ones.

There is a Talmudic law against mesirah, giving information to non-Jews that would get Jews into trouble. It was initiated at a time when there was no fair judicial system, when Jews were being victimized and subject to constant oppression and prejudice. But every great Jewish expert has agreed that it does not apply where this one fair law that treats everyone equally. Yet this is being used as a reason not to tell the police about child abusers, wife beaters, and petty crooks who prey on credulous coreligionists.

According to the LA Times (Sept 7, 2011), Federal prosecutors are threatening an ultra-Orthodox man with jail unless he testifies before a grand jury regarding the federal government's ongoing probe of tax evasion in his sect. His attorney says the man will refuse, citing "the ancient Jewish doctrine of mesira, a prohibition for Jews against informing on other Jews to secular authorities".

Hardly a day goes by without another breach of civil law by outwardly Orthodox Jews. These are all examples of a chillul Hashem, of betraying Jewish law and twisting it to cover nefarious activities. According the Talmud, anything that brings God or the Jewish people into disrepute cannot be atoned for on Yom Kipur. May we all be forgiven our errors and sins even the holy ones! Meanwhile "thousands of people all across America 'should' express their outrage" at the way Judaism is being morally compromised.