February 23, 2012

Kopul Rosen 1913-1962

On March 1st several hundred pupils of Kopul Rosen will gather at his graveside on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to remember him on the 50th anniversary of his death. He was the most charismatic person I have ever encountered; a learned, fervently Orthodox, open-minded rabbi, intellectual, musician, sportsman, artist, wit, and orator. He was well over six feet tall, darkly handsome and engaging with a warm attractive smile, arresting dark eyes, and an imperial beard. On the other hand, he did not suffer fools gladly. His anger was fierce and his moods frightening. He dominated my life, and I desperately wanted his attention and love.

He was born in London in 1913 to a modest family of Eastern European immigrants from Radomsk. After his primary school education in Notting Hill, the family could not afford secondary education, and he went to study at Etz Chaim Yeshivah in the East End. His extracurricular activities included a passionate involvement in the Zionist movement, teaching Cheder, guest preaching (even then he was in great demand), and furthering his own broad intellectual, literary, and musical education.

He was encouraged to go to study at the great Lithuanian Yeshivah of Mir. Mir had a profound impact on him, both in learning and in the person of Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the greatest Mussar preacher of the generation, who inspired him to become a rabbi. Kopul returned just before the outbreak of the Second World War. He acquired another mentor, Rav Dessler, and was soon appointed the first rabbi of the Higher Crumpsall Congregation in Manchester in 1939.

He immediately became a sensation. He combined his strong Eastern European religious scholarship, with powerful spirituality, and a fluency and passion that had simply not been encountered previously in Anglo-Jewry. His rise was meteoric. Within two years in 1944 he was invited to become the Communal Rabbi of Glasgow.

In 1946 he was invited to become the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. His impact on London Jewry too was powerful and immediate. When Chief Rabbi Hertz died, Kopul, although only 33 years old, was regarded as the most exciting prospect to succeed him. But the conflicts of the Hertz era led the United Synagogue leadership to opt for a safe pair of hands instead of a charismatic mercurial individualist, so they appointed Israel Brodie instead.

By 1948, Kopul had grown disillusioned with the rabbinate in general and the Federation in particular. As the President of the Religious Zionist movement, Mizrahi, he was also feeling uncomfortable at the entry of religion into politics in the new State of Israel. He was increasingly alienated from communal affairs. He had always felt that education held the key to Jewish survival and Anglo Jewry was not noted as a community of scholars or its Jewish academic institutions.

His dream was to build the equivalent of the English public school combined with the intensity and learning of a traditional yeshivah. He founded Carmel College at first at Greenham Common outside Newbury and later at Mongewell Park. In 1949, he resigned his communal positions and moved with his family into the school.

From the start, he encountered opposition. The community at large at that time was convinced that a Jewish school amounted to segregation and would inhibit successful integration into English society. As for the small but growing ultra-Orthodox community, they thought that Kopul’s wider cultural and intellectual aspirations were too unorthodox for them. The lack of funding was a constant strain on Kopul and his ever-supportive wife Bella (who once pawned her engagement ring to provide breakfast for the pupils). But slowly the school grew and gained a serious academic reputation. Its success during the late fifties slowly began to attract support. Carmel grew and became one of the premier schools of the Jewish world.

Kopul was perceived by many as an Achilles withdrawing from communal life to his tent in the countryside. He held the Jewish establishment in scant regard. His lessons and talks often betrayed his impatience with the ignorance and lack of religious conviction that characterized postwar Anglo-Jewry. He had no patience for the growing fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness to which he believed the Orthodox community had fallen prey. He enjoyed sharing his criticisms with his pupils, who he hoped would usher in a new era of enlightened Jewish stewardship. Nevertheless, he was always in demand as a public speaker throughout the Jewish world, raising funds for Israel and Jewish education. His legacy is still remembered particularly in Australia and South Africa.

He threw himself into his school and into close relationships with many pupils. Some found the force of his personality too intense. But his own enthusiasms and example reflected his ideal of a tolerant universal Jewish education. He himself played sport, cricket and soccer, but swimming was his first love. He delighted in Carmel’s success in rowing and dreamed of his pupils going to Oxbridge as athletes whose religious commitment would cause the annual boat race to be postponed. He encouraged music, art, intellectual enquiry, while at the same time trying his best to get his pupils to live and master the Jewish tradition. His made all the religious occasions at Carmel unforgettable. His mellow singing voice and religious enthusiasm suffused them with authenticity and spirituality.

For various reasons, Carmel never lived up to his original ideal. Too few of its pupils cared for an intense religious way of life and the quality of the Jewish education never matched the secular. But nevertheless it did have a powerful influence on many who remember his example and personality with great affection and gratitude.

Kopul was seriously injured in a boating accident 1959, just as he started to negotiate the next dream on his list, the establishment of a school in Israel. He was hospitalized and invalided for almost a year. At the same time the impending retirement of Chief Rabbi Brodie was seen by many to be an opportunity to give Kopul the position he had been denied 13 years earlier. He was not enthusiastic and told his inner circle that he had no wish to leave his beloved school for the straightjacket of communal politics. He never recovered from his accident and died in March 1962, at the age of 48. They don’t make ‘em that way anymore. His memory sustains me and has always been a blessing.

February 17, 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow

I must recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. I was won over at the very start when he describes his conversations with his late friend and collaborator Amos Tversky in the Rimon restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, just off Ben Yehudah. Ah, the memories flooded back of the many times I sat there for a quick lunch. But unfortunately it was one year before them; otherwise I might have become a wiser man.

The Israeli Nobel Prize winner for economics has written a popular analysis of how we fool ourselves into believing that we think rationally and our actions are logical, most of the time. It would fascinate me anyway because of its insights into human behavior. But, as always, I look for a religious angle and a rationalization for my own religious behavior. Many of the examples are old chestnuts. But I want to focus on two of them that relate to the function of religion.

The first is a much argued about study. In the 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel and his students exposed preschool children to a dilemma. They were given a choice between a small reward, one treat they could have right away, or a larger reward of two treats if they waited 15 minutes under stressful conditions--alone in a room facing a table with a single treat and a bell that the child could ring if it wanted the one treat. No toys or books or other distractions. The experimenter then left the room to return only if the bell was rung, or after 15 minutes to come with the other treat. Meanwhile the children and their antics during the waiting period were observed through a one-way mirror and recorded.

About a third of the children managed to wait 15 minutes for the bigger reward. Ten or fifteen years, later, a gap had opened up between the “resisters” and the “indulgers”; the resisters registered a higher degree of executive control in cognitive tasks, especially the ability to redirect their attention effectively, and they were less likely to take drugs. The children who resisted had substantially higher scores on college entrance exams and better “emotional intelligence". Researchers from the University of Oregon took the experiments further and demonstrated a close connection between children’s ability to control attention and to control their emotions.

I am not interested here in the technical issues or whether one can argue that other factors count just as much, genes, environment, childrearing. I am only interested in the way this makes so much sense to me given my utilitarian attitude to ritual in religion.

I have always argued that the purpose of the many behavioral mitzvot, commandments, that regulate us from the moment we wake to the moment we sleep, are utilitarian. They are designed to get us to think before we act, to ponder, to appreciate our good health, good fortune, and to try to be positive. It is this that differentiates instinctive behavior from considered behavior. Even if one then acts merely out of habit, the habitual rituals reinforce one set of actions over another, which on balance are preferable for society. Giving charity out of habit is qualitatively more beneficial than not giving at all, although obviously it is better to give with thought, intent, and goodwill.

But more important is the issue of delayed gratification. Whether it is tantric sex or just pausing to say “thank you” before enjoying something, the benefits are huge. One of the aims of Jewish ritual is precisely this, not as Freud suggests, to deny pleasure, but quite the contrary, to increase it through delay, consideration, and heightened awareness.

The second issue is that of “priming”, influencing by suggestion, how people act. It is possible to affect the way people behave by giving them sets of words that suggest something. If the idea of EAT is on your mind you will be quicker than usual recognize a word such as SOUP when it is spoken in a whisper or presented visually with a blurred font. In an experiment conducted at NYU, collaborators between 18 and 22 were asked to assemble four-word sentences from five jumbled words. One group was given words that could suggest old age: forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle, Florida. When they had completed their task there, they were sent down the hall to do a further experiment. It was the walk that mattered, because as the researcher, John Bargh, had predicted, those who fashioned a sentence out of the “elderly” words walked slower than those who made up sentences of completely different words. They were “primed” to think of infirmity and moving slowly. Another example, in Arizona in 2000, showed that voter support for a proposition to increase school funding was approved of far more when the polling station was in a school, with its images of classrooms, teachers, books, and pupils.

This explains a lot about the text and purpose of our communal prayers, as opposed to our private and personal ones. It is the value of the set and repeated text of formal prayer throughout the day that “primes” us with certain concepts and ideas that are at total variance with the language of the workplace. Even if one only concentrates on some of the words, one is being reminded, subliminally or consciously, of alternative, call them spiritual, values and concepts. So even if the intended aim of prayer, to communicate with or be conscious of a divine, spiritual dimension is not activated, at least the subject matter will have some impact.

The only problem with all this is I still have not explained why exactly the same rituals can have different effects on different humans. Why do some from identical backgrounds become more charitable or more aggressively evangelical or prefer prayer to study or vice versa?

But it does say to me that the intentions of the founders of our system were way ahead of their time in putting the emphasis less on theological abstractions and concepts and much more on human behavior. Freud accused Moses of imposing rituals to inhibit and repress. I would argue rather they were to help us liberate ourselves from that natural human tendency that Kahneman’s book is concerned with--to think fast, act out of impulse, and take the easiest options, rather than to think slower, harder, and more rationally to achieve greater self-control and considered action.

February 09, 2012

Valentine’s Day

Just as we Jews are caught up in our internal conflicts between those who want no religion and those who want too much, a similar ideological conflict is waging on both sides of the Atlantic over financial policies.

On the one hand, the apostles of financial freedom explain away the disasters of unbridled capitalism as a temporary setback to an otherwise perfect system that encourages hard work, creativity, and innovation. On the other hand, the European model of socialism and government interference has led the Euro to near collapse. If Nobel prizewinners can argue both ways, it is not easy for layman to evaluate which system is better. One can see the abuses of both. Bonuses of millions are as offensive as abuses of welfare.

All that one can say is that consumerism everywhere is dominating our lives. The vast majority of humans are frail, shortsighted, pretty incompetent creatures who fumble through by following trends and fooling themselves that they are making rational decisions. The most one can do is comment on what is. Predicting the future is a mug’s game.

If we accept the old Hobbesian contract that a country does have obligations to its citizens, then providing basic services, a charitable safety net, is now the accepted norm throughout the Western world, regardless of economic system. But to fund that, a government needs some income (although it seems to me that it is only massive debt that is enabling Western governments to pay their bills).

So those of us with any disposable income are encouraged to spend. It helps the economic recovery and that helps the government and that helps the world. But how do you get anyone to spend? One way is to make what you have to sell attractive, either because you’ve designed it that way (Apple) or because you have marketed it that way (De Beers persuading you to buy diamonds for your wife). The other is to establish a Special Day when everyone is expected to buy something for someone he or she cares about and you are persuaded to buy something that no one really needs because you will feel bad if you do not.

“But wait”, as the commercial goes. We also have special or holy days that originally had nothing to do with commercialism. Once the Christian West celebrated Christmas exclusively as a religious festival. For many people it still is. But for at least as many it is simply an excuse for parties and gifts and trying to have a good time. And why not find an occasion to have a good time, especially if things are not so good?

There are subcategories. New Year’s Eve (originally St. Sylvester’s) or St. Valentine’s Day (named after a highly unlikely Saint Valentine) might have started out as religious festivals, but nothing of the religious side seems to have remained. And all religions have their own esoteric holy days and new years. Is Halloween Christian, Pagan, or just commercial? Does it make any difference if you celebrate it with no religious significance in the company of others who do? Like inviting your Christian neighbors to join you for a kosher Christmas pudding?

Then there are purely civil dates, like Thanksgiving, Guy Fawkes, Independence Days, and I guess Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Even they, if you trace them back, had Christian origins.

What interests me is where the giving presents part comes in. Was it only the common practice of giving Christmas presents that forced us to start giving even more Chanukah presents to overcompensate. But the fact is that for thousands of years we have been commanded to celebrate our religious festivals by giving presents to our families and nice clothes and having lots to eat and drink. And remember Purim, when we have to give presents all round! So you can’t say giving prezzies goes against the Jewish grain.

But what about the religious issue of not imitating other religions? Cannot this be said to imply the sort of response that once led many to fast on Christmas and nowadays manifests itself in late night study marathons? The argument usually goes that if a public holiday either has no religious significance or has largely lost it then there’s no problem. That’s why so many really frum Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. And what can be wrong with celebrating Mother’s or Father’s Day? Since most of us, including Christians, have absolutely no idea who St. Valentine was, what can be wrong in celebrating love? On the contrary, we are commanded to love, the more the better (if perhaps not romantically).

It seems to me that the issue is one of motivation. After all, virtually every one of our Biblical Festivals was copied from someone else before us. And our harvest festivals were all celebrated at the same times of year that the Bible required them of the Children of Israel, long before Isaac was a twinkle in his father’s eye!

So I guess it all depends on what you have in mind. Is your Valentine’s Day gift a nod in the direction of some obscure bishop or a character who may or may not have been jailed by the Romans and may or may not have fallen in love with his jailor’s daughter? Or is it just because you really do want to please the woman or man you love? In which case, if you can afford it, make every day a Valentine’s Day, help the economy, make some people richer, and please the most important person in your life.

February 02, 2012

Failed Leadership

For several weeks now I have been trying to explain, in as rational and balanced a way as I can, the tensions that exist in Israel over religious standards and the nuanced spectrum from rabid secular to fanatical religious. Of course, when one does that, both extremes complain that one is apologizing. And both extremes justify their positions in terms of survival. We who straddle both worlds then feel that the agenda in the media is being controlled by sensationalism and if only a balanced view would prevail it would help defuse the situation.

This is what is going on all the time over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There are two different narratives and goals. The discourse is dominated by the extremes who argue that their survival is the ultimate issue. Those of us who seek compromises are castigated for siding with enemies or understating the dangers.

The sides are so far apart that compromise seems unattainable. Extreme positions commandeer the media. I want to see a peaceful and fair resolution of all issues. But the more I see a one-sided campaign, the less I am inclined to criticize too aggressively. And as I see the abuses, they hurt and offend me. Yet on the ground and away from the grandstanding there is far more positive interaction than one might expect.

I have witnessed the secular religious struggle now for over 50 years--much of it firsthand, for I have taken part in demonstrations on both sides over the years since I first went to Israel to study as a teenager. The changes, as in every sphere of Israeli life, have been enormous, and mainly for the better. What prevents reconciliation is politics. Just as it does everywhere else where political rivalries clash on ideological issues such as abortion, gay rights, bankers, or trades unionists. Underlying every conflict is a political agenda in which both sides push and probe and see what they can get away with and how much they can gain. So you start demanding, insisting, wailing, and howling for the maximum, knowing you will probably have to settle for much less. And what suffers? The truth. It is this that lies at the root of my frustration with religious leadership in Israel or to be more accurate, the lack of it.

The Charedi, ultra-Orthodox leadership, and I mean of all shades and degrees, will not live up to its responsibility to stop extremist excess because it needs to show a united face to the secular politicians in order to stay in a coalition and get the money it wants. Wherever I look I see leadership so motivated by money that it has lost all moral authority. Even within its own ranks, most Charedi Jews now only pay lip service to the authorities they claim to revere.

I remember my Rosh Yeshivah in Mir threatening, in 1966, to excommunicate any one of his students who went to teach in any institution that taught anything other than Torah. This meant that the whole Charedi education system was based exclusively on an intellectually rigorous Talmudic curriculum that was simply beyond the mental capabilities of at least half the population. But nothing was done to provide them with an alternative. By insisting that every single Charedi youngster stayed in yeshivah that focused on Talmud only regardless, of their mental capacities, thousands of youngsters were denied the opportunity to earn an honest living and provide for their families. No wonder a whole generation of dislocated, dysfunctional adults emerged. But the Charedi leadership had other priorities. It refused to acknowledge the problem and still overwhelmingly does.

After the summer’s social demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu set up the Trajtenberg Committee to make recommendations to deal with the increasing poverty gap in Israeli society. Their recommendations were brought to the cabinet for approval last week. Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg had called for the introduction of new incentives and training programs to increase employment rates among the ultra-Orthodox, but Charedi pressure in the Knesset made sure that these proposals were dropped.

Yet on the ground things are changing. Currently, 37% of Charedi men and 49% of Charedi women are employed. That’s nowhere near enough, but it is a change and a trend despite the absence of support infrastructure and official education. Where there is a market demand there will always be ways found of meeting it.

But instead of government funding going to provide such infrastructure to the Charedi community, it will likely go instead where it will be appreciated, such as the Arab community. I’m glad the funds will be put to good use, but sad that the Charedi leadership is depriving its own faithful of desperately needed support.

Leadership that simply preserves the status quo is a failed leadership, like the old Soviet Communist Party. The reason Judaism survived the near cataclysmic challenge of Greco-Roman intellectual and military power was because the brilliant and gutsy rabbis of the era took innovative risks in repositioning the emphasis in Judaism from Temple ceremonial to the halls of study and prayer. That’s leadership.

I understand why, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Charedi world put up the shutters and focused exclusively on study and refilling the wellsprings at all costs. The Chazon Ish was the giant of that process. But now, fifty years later, the current leadership is simply not tackling anywhere the problem of religious education, employment, and aggression.

Whenever leadership fails, the grassroots emerge. Charedi men and women are making up their own minds. Just as the Charedi ban on the internet has simply failed to stop increasing Charedi use of it, so now the development of new forms of Charedi education are beginning to appear. Let me give you one example.

There is a small yeshivah in the Negev town of Ofakim, largely neglected by the big guns of either the secular or the religious nomenklatura. Most of its inhabitants are poorer Sephardi families. Many years ago brilliant scholars of Mir Yeshivah retired to obscurity in Ofakim to study, a sort of modern-day hermit, except in Torah you carry your family and all its baggage with you. Accidentally, an old-fashioned Ashkenazi Charedi Yeshivah called Mishkan HaTalmud started up. Again quite accidentally, a dedicated, sincere, saintly rabbi by the name of Rav David Sheck found himself pressganged into taking over. With hardly enough funds to keep himself and his family alive, he has kept the yeshivah going. But here’s the point. Of his own initiative, when he saw that some children had learning difficulties, he brought in professional consultants and educational advisors to test them and help him decide on the best way of educating them. It is only sad that he is hardly known and he has to spend so much time travelling the world to raise money to keep his institution alive.

Now that is a model of genuine education, which blends tradition with modernity, that is springing up all over Israel nowadays in isolated communities where Charedi families go to find somewhere to live and to contribute to Israeli society. I am inclined to compare them to the Dead Sea sects who withdrew from the turmoil and corruption of Jerusalem 2000 years ago to live a purer life in the desert. This trend has been going on for many years. Rav Grossman of Migdal HaEmek is probably the best known of all as a Charedi man who built up a community in a neglected backwater. But there are many, many more like him.

After I first wrote this piece I read that the Beth Din of the Ultra Orthodox Eydah Charedis in Jerusalem has instructed its followers not to cooperate with the police in bringing the violent thugs who attacked women and children to justice. Once again I am thrown back into a state of disgust and shame. How can any genuinely religious person accept this kind of “leadership”?

Thank goodness for the ordinary dedicated religious men and women who are doing their bit to spread a brand of the Jewish religion that is spiritual, caring, sensitive, and idealistic, rather than aggressively and arrogantly oppressive and regressive. As Hillel once said, “In a place where there are no men, you strive to be a man.”