May 31, 2012

Orthodoxy and The Internet

Last Yom Yerushalayim there was a huge Charedi gathering of some 50,000 “black hats” at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets baseball team. An organization called Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) raised $1.5 million for the massive rally to protest the “evils of the internet and the damages caused by advanced electronic devices”. No other branch of Judaism can organize such massive public attendance at what was a religious event. No women were invited. That is the Charedi way. Initially Chabad Chasidim were excluded too, because they are known to use the internet extensively and have many successful and informative websites.

There was a brave but futile attempt in advance to claim the event was not so much to call for a ban on using the internet altogether, as to campaign for sensible use with filters and safeguards. In fact the event turned into a long parade of rabbis who--in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English--harangued the crowd on the dangers of the internet (comparing it to the worst evils in history) and the need to ban it. If ever there was a case of preaching to the choir, this was it. Even if the choir concerned did not really believe in the message. After all, Charedi internet sites and smart phones buzzed recordings of the event around the world. Here was proof that censorship never works. Instead of trying to educate the faithful, the zealous rabbis were calling for the impossible. It is too late, my dears!

Much of the Charedi world uses the internet widely, despite their rabbis. It is another example of how many of their leaders bury their heads in the sand while the faithful dance rings of disregard around them, even as they proclaim their leadership infallible. When hypocrisy becomes so rampant, you know moral authority has been compromised.

For years now some rabbis have accused the internet of causing cancer and various natural disasters. But there are indeed some serious arguments. The internet (and of course smart phones) gives easy access to pornography, prostitution, sexually promiscuous dating services, sexual predators, online adulterous relationships, as well as opportunities for financial irregularity, misrepresentation, and fraud. People become addicted to watching trivial movies and television programs (both previously banned separately). They waste time gaming, gambling, and overspending online. It all reflects the drive for instantaneous gratification. It is reminiscent of the corruption of the Roman Empire, which as it collapsed, spawned a new era in religious asceticism. Sounds familiar!

Enormous time is wasted daily, instead of spending it in study or social service. Human interaction and effective written communication have declined in the face of brief, semiliterate tweets. Millions of children under the age of 10 have Facebook pages and upload information about themselves that could prove dangerous as well as embarrassing, and the number of suicides in response to internet bullying is frightening.

The dangers have been well explored and written about by psychiatrists, educationalists, and criminologists. The actual problems they discuss and the list of evils described have been around ever since humanity stepped out of the cave. Some people have always looked for excuses to be indolent just as others have worked hard. The only difference, you might argue, is that now access much more widespread. One hardly needs to leave one’s room to face the dangers of the outside world.

But the fact is as clear as daylight that those who demand a ban are just pissing into the wind. You cannot ban the internet any more than you can ban sex or ban the wheel on the grounds that it could get you to a brothel quicker than going on foot.

The other side of the coin is that the internet brings wealth, jobs, investment, career opportunities, dating services, marriages, and social networking that connects families, friends, alumni, and charity. The amount of study and text that the internet provides for traditional study is almost beyond imagination, and access to sources far more available than to any previous generation.

I agree with the critics of the abuses of the internet and its dangers, but I have never thought you could turn back progress. One has to learn and teach how to use it sensibly. And parents need to exercise control over usage. They also need to ensure their children learn how to access all the wonderful teaching aids it provides whether secular or religious.

I am especially delighted with what the internet has threatened authority, including rabbinic. It can spread ideas, often anonymously, through blogs and emails. It gives everyone who wants it a voice, to cry for help. These now include Charedi voices too that can lampoon ineffectiveness, highlight incompetence, and point out where leadership is failing (as in dealing with sexual predators or recalcitrant husbands). Shining a light drives away the darkness.

Much of the Charedi world preserves its intellectual stranglehold on the faithful by censoring innovative rabbinic opinions. Books printed over the past five hundred years that have expressed contrarian or lenient views have had pages and sections removed from new editions. Uncomfortable personal details that give the lie to stereotypes and hagiography have disappeared from official view. The internet now allows the originals of all such books to be published and readily available to anyone with a computer and a basic Talmudic education. We can now all see what was permitted in previous generations and where current rabbis have pushed the boundaries far further than ever before.

It is the same as, Lehavdil, political revolutions against oppressive regimes. Give people the means of communicating and you enable them to protest. Spread knowledge and you spread power. When you give people more freedom of thought, you get more honesty. And when religious authority is challenged, you open the religious world to greater spirituality and ironically it thrives. Good for the internet.

May 24, 2012


There’s a Jewish internet dating service (amongst the many) called “Saw You at Sinai”. I guess its name derives from the famous argument of Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari that what marked Judaism from the other monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, was that its core constitution and inspiration lay not in a private revelation that no one else witnessed, but in public, in front of the whole people who were present at Sinai. Of course this is what we celebrate on Shavuot, coming up this Saturday night.

It is an interesting argument and it makes a very important point about the nature of our religion. But it is hardly a watertight, rational argument. Vast numbers of people have been deluded and misled before and since. Mass hysteria is a profound reinforcer of delusions. And the argument that one cannot invent a tradition out of nowhere if a whole people would have known it was false, also fails rational analysis. The Tanach itself gives several examples of whole sections, if not the whole people, needing the discovery or the intervention of a great leader or a Biblical book they knew nothing about to reinforce their commitment to a tradition they had long lost.

So you will ask me, why am I a Jew? Is it an accident of birth? The influence of my parents? Doubtless that is part of it. And why am I so committed to the Oral and the Written law together, inextricably bound together and obligatory? Is it “faith”--the word other religions love to use? A simple declaration of “I believe”?

I have often wondered why the Torah itself does not command to believe using the words “You must believe.” Instead the first of the Ten Commandments is a declaration, that God is the foundation of everything. It is an invitation to engage. So I can say I experience God and feel His presence. But is that the same thing as “knowing” for a fact? If I knew for a fact, like seeing the police car behind me when I was speeding, then neither I nor anyone else, I think, would ever do anything wrong. The fact is we cannot, even Moses could not, “know” in the same way that we know that if I put my hand in the fire it will hurt. Yet, nevertheless, for many of us God’s presence is the most dominant experience of our lives.

But we--you and I, who are living now--we were not at Sinai. Neither were we on the plains of Moab. I am not much impressed by the genetic trail that nowadays is trumpeted as proof of our common or priestly origin. Sure, there may be traces of our Middle Eastern origins. But we have 90% common genetic material with rats. From the Books of Judges to Lamentations, we have enough evidence of rape and admixture to know our specific Jewish genes have been watered down. If you add Greeks, Romans, and all the racial varieties of Christians and Muslims then by golly the amount of foreign seed implanted, mainly under coercion, must outweigh by a massive amount any purity of our genetic line. And that’s without considering all the converts. Why, go to any Rebbe’s Tisch and you can see traces of Cossack blood everywhere.

Is it perhaps that our common bond is forged by suffering, oppression, alienation, emigration, and insecurity? Not every Jew has been through all this, though most have in different forms. And other minorities such as Gypsies, Armenians, Tutsis, and Hmong have been there and felt it too! It is true the Holocaust was a predominantly Ashkenzai catastrophe, but read the history of Iranian Jews to see what they went through under Shia domination for hundreds of years without going anywhere near Germany.

I do strongly believe in our nationhood and our right to our land. But I don’t really like the idea of nationalism. Frankly, I am waiting for the Messiah to get rid of all these petty little statelets and their flags and armies and petty rivalries. But until that happens, and for so long as the world runs on national lines, it cannot be just to allow the Kosovars or the Macedonians to have a state and not the Jews.

What do I have in common with my fellow Jews? Very little, if I’m honest. Most Jews in the world are not religious. I can understand that; but to me being Jewish without religion makes no sense. They probably think I’m crazy. On the other hand, a strong minority of religious Jews are so fundamentalist they consider me a lost soul. I am a typical Brit. I don’t like extremes at either end. I am neither an unreconstructed rationalist nor an unreserved mystic. I love them both. I love much of secular culture and I love nothing more than to be lost in the Talmud (which is my favorite book and the only one I’d need on a desert island). I am an intellectual in a world of philistines, a liberal surrounded by the prejudiced, and a popularizer in a world of specialists. So where does that put me? One fraction of one percent of one of the smallest peoples in the world. And I support Manchester United. Is there ANYONE out there who matches?

Yet on Shavuot I will feel I was at Sinai in the same way that I feel on Pesach that I came out of Egypt. That is the power of imagination as well as tradition. The Torah is God speaking to me. I do indeed have conversations with the Almighty and draw strength from feeling Him around me all the time. Although I would not pay any attention to what I thought was a Heavenly voice telling me to jump off the Empire State Building. Does that mean there are no doubts? Living a religious life gives me pleasure, structure, discipline, and deeper meaning. If I had to put my finger on why I am a Jew, it is because I enjoy it. It works for me. I may be unusual, but at least I’m happy! Chag Sameach.

May 18, 2012

Cardinal Pell's Foot

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell, recently took on the noted Atheist Richard Dawkins in a public debate, during the course of which he said of the ancient Jews that they were ''the poor, the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds...stuck between these great powers” of their time, such as the Egyptians and Babylonians, and that this reflected their intellectual development. Now Abraham and Moses were certainly in the shepherding business, but surely not just shepherds. When he was pressed on this point and asked if he thought the same of Jesus, who was, after all, (according to the Gospels) a Jew born some 1800 years after the prophet Abraham. The cardinal replied, ''Exactly.''

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry conveyed its ''serious concern'', in response to which Cardinal Pell released a statement saying he was trying to ''make a point about the unique place of the Jewish people in human history as the first to receive the revelation of the one true God while I was being regularly interrupted and distracted by the chairman''.

He suggested that ''historically'' or ''culturally,'' unequal might have been a better term to have used than ''intellectually''. ''My esteem for the Jewish faith is a matter of public record,” he said, “and the last thing I would want to do is give offense.''

Relations between Cardinal Pell and the Jewish community are very good. He is well liked and highly regarded by the Jewish community of Sydney and there has never been any question of anti-Semitism. So what he was trying to say?

It seems pretty obvious to me that he must have been under pressure from Dawkins, who, like many opponents of religion, loves to take selected Biblical laws out of context, and out of time, to show how primitive Biblical Law was. It is true, the Bible was indeed written when there were slaves, underage daughters were betrothed, criminals were stoned, and pagans had sex with anything that moved. But some of us have changed, have we not, over the past three thousand years? So to attack religion on the basis of ancient texts is rather puerile.

After all, if I wanted to make fun of English law today, would I quote from the Magna Carta or Hanging Judge Jeffreys? If attacking American law, would I want to refer to the Salem witch trials? I think not. Religion, it is true, has not always been and still is not always a force for good. On the other hand neither has modernity achieved all that we might have hoped for. If religions have not progressed as far or as fast as they should have, I could also argue that too many quick and hastily agreed changes in many spheres, on the basis of fads and political correctness, have been shown to have been pretty disastrous, with hindsight. Which medical professional goes in for lobotomy nowadays?

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point. The Orthodox position is that we have all been getting less spiritual and intellectually brilliant since the original revelation and the Talmudic era. “The generations have been diminishing.” But Pell’s position is a fair one for Christianity, because it takes the view that Christianity made things better; that the Old Testament was a prototype for a simpler nomadic era and the New Testament was the spanking new updated covenant.

For Jews the Biblical Canon ends with the Books of Nehemiah and Chronicles. There is no new deal. But I see no evidence that with the sudden arrival of the New Testament the world became a morally different place. Nevertheless, I can see from a Christian’s point of view that they believe we Jews were an earlier stage of evolution. I only get into slanging matches when someone attacks my position first!

Still, if we claim that every word of the Torah is holy, then what are we to make of commands to stone, burn, and kill? Conversely, how does such a supposedly primitive code get to include “love your neighbor”, “do not take revenge”, and all the amazing social and spiritual rules of rest, self-control, and spirit that are even more relevant today than they were then?

Is it enough to say that the Torah spoke at a moment in history, in a specific context, in a language that people of the time could make sense of, and yet still carry within it the noblest and most eternal of messages? Yes, I think it is. And its message is needed today by everyone as much as it ever was, but that does not mean there can be no advance, no new situations, no new solutions, and no new interpretations. We might dream of perfection, but in human terms it is still elusive, and for as long as it is elusive, the Torah has a role. For all this it still does not mean that everyone then was necessarily on a higher level, any more than everyone today is wiser. The real problem is with generalizations…all people, all Jews, all Christians, all shepherds.

We Jews are and always have been a mixture of the sublime and the primitive. The Talmud asks why we are compared to the “stars of the heavens” and the “dust of the earth”. It answers, because we are capable of both rising to the heights and sinking to the depths. That is us, and that is humanity; that is the world we inhabit and the world God created. The good and the bad are always interconnected, two faces of the same. Holy and profane—are the same words in Hebrew. It is up to us to make the choices. Religions, like any branch of humanity, can claim what they like; the record shows their limitations. That does not mean they are valueless.

The Pell incident highlights our exaggerated sensitivity. The moment anyone suggests we might not be the brightest and the best, the phantoms of anti-Semitism are let loose. Thousands of years of hatred and persecution distort one’s perspective, and my goodness gracious we DO have huge chips on our shoulders. The current mood of condemnation toward Jews, even by many Jews, is enough to put anyone on the defensive. But isn’t it about time we stopped being so neurotic?

May 11, 2012

How Not To Succeed

The Economist of May 5th has a fascinating piece on why the Mormons, a relatively small USA religious sect, with a very strange history, have succeeded beyond their numbers in terms both political and commercial. The article gives several possible explanations.

The nineteenth century founder Joseph Smith and his followers were hounded out of communities both for heresy and unacceptable doctrines. Finally Brigham Young found them a safe haven in Utah. This sense of being outsiders and unwanted has often acted as a spur to achievement.

They have always valued material success. The Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University is one of the best in the country. They also give 10% of their incomes to the church. Mormons, men and women, are expected to spend about two years as missionaries away from home, selling a religion that sounds more unlikely than the unlikeliest brands of Christianity. I guess if you can cope with that, you can sell anything. And whereas most youngsters who take a year or two off after high school indulge themselves, Mormons, who don’t drink alcohol or coffee and are supposed to reserve sex for marriage, spend their time off dealing with difficult and unusual situations which are far more likely to teach them survival skills than the typical overindulged, over-financed, overprotected Western child. Indeed, the article suggests that it is the two-year compulsory army service most young Israelis undergo (or used to) that gives them, too, the competitive edge wherever they go around the world.

Mormons regard creating Order Out of Chaos to be a Divine trait, the result of which is an efficient, unitary religious organization that contrasts with the ill disciplined, fractious, divided chaos that characterizes all the major world religions today. Of course it helps to be small and centralized.

Naturally I was immediately drawn to making comparisons with Jews. We too have done well commercially beyond our numbers, and we share a sense of alienation and persecution. Our religion is also commerce friendly and our history has pushed us into such areas to survive. But in our small little religion we have probably as many denominations sects, splits and variations as any of the religions who are a million times greater in number than we are. There is fierce rivalry between different communities. We have been scattered and blown around by violence. Although a common ritual and language has kept some sort of central core, the reality is that we are a potpourri of different cultures, races, nationalities, and loyalties. Apart from ultra-Orthodoxy the attrition rate is staggering, and it is hard to argue that religion plays any part, let alone defines, the success of Israeli entrepreneurs.

We are as fractious as Communists and as antiestablishment as Anarchists. So organization, cohesion, and discipline are not our fortes. But on the other hand, our record shows that it is not just in commerce that we do well; we are just as successful in virtually every area of human intellectual activity (let’s not talk about sport).

So what is the real secret of our success? Indeed, being disliked, envied, and persecuted, like the Mormons, we have learnt to be self-sufficient. We have had to pull ourselves out of the muck by our own shoestrings, with no affirmative action, no preferential treatment, no support structure, and the words of Hillel two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?”

And this is why I worry. Because we are now creating a different kind of Jew in two contrasting ways.

There is now, around the Jewish world, but mainly in Israel, a culture of religious dependence on handouts. Study is an essential part of our tradition. Study is something we are religiously bound to do throughout our lives. However, at one time everyone who studied also had to have a job. But now a whole generation has been encouraged to be entirely dependent on welfare, rich parents, or willing donors. It was never thus before or on such a grand scale. This culture of dependence can only lead to disaster.

Large numbers of Jews, religious and secular, rely either on indulgent parents or that lovely Yiddish word “Shtiklech”, fiddles. Fiddle this, fiddle that, look for a quick deal, a windfall, a lottery win, a smuggle, anything but a real career, a proper job--because in the end Ma and Pa will bail me out.

I used to argue that what gave us the edge was Talmudic training, brainpower, religious discipline, the need for self-sufficiency. But now I don’t know any more. Nothing destroys initiative like having it too easy. It is not a matter of wealth. Some wealthy families have succeeded in instilling drive and initiative and discipline. It is a matter of culture. If we change our culture from dynamic to passive, we will lose.

Thomas Friedman wrote in the NY Times this week that he does not see any new leadership in the Arab world, despite the much-trumpeted “Spring”. No up and coming leader is prepared to think out of the box, to stop blaming the West, Israel, everybody else for their woes. They all claim Islam is the answer, but to the Arab street, Islam is the handout that the Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah offer, or the subsidies the oil-rich states provide. They also want an overnight fix without changing the game plan, without struggling to improve. And they too (not unlike the Charedi world in Israel) can conjure up mass demonstrations of unemployed youngsters at the drop of a hat to bring pressure to bear to stop real change.

Perhaps that is why the Almighty is not giving us peace. Conflict is the only option left to force us to face an existential crisis. What God is telling us is to get off our butts, whether we are saints or scholars, would-be tycoons or missionaries. Remember the Israelites wanted to stay in Egypt, in comfortable slavery. They needed a push. God helps those who help themselves!


In several recent anti-Semitic remarks, acclaimed, publicly venerated Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung not only blames Jews for the ills of this world, Mossad for neo-Nazi Breivik’s massacre of a few months ago, but he also defends that notorious Czarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and says Jewish influence was one of the factors leading to Auschwitz. One more in the long line of Norwegian Nazi sympathizers. And you wonder why Norway is such an uncomfortable place for Jews. Time to boycott Norway.

May 04, 2012

Yeshiva University Catches The Disease

The Talmud says that the plague that decimated Rabbi Akiva’s academy nearly two thousand years ago was because they did not treat each other with respect. This tragedy came to be associated with this period of the year we call ‘The Omer.’ Some famous commentators have over the years suggested that this was a euphemism for the disastrous Bar Kochba campaign that Rabbi Akiva supported, much against most contemporary rabbinic leaders. This period of mourning has now come to be associated more with the frequent anti-Semitic campaigns in the Diaspora, mainly under Christianity but under Islam as well. Its moral lesson has receded.

I suggest we need to go back to its roots. The biggest internal threat to the Jewish people is the current lack of respectful dialogue, be it religious or civil. There is a mood of bitterness and aggression, and a blind refusal to respect another point of view, which I see as being as big a danger to our survival as the external ones. Because history tells us that we are and have always been the architects of our own downfall.

Wherever you look, you see not just a refusal to consider another point of view. I can understand the dangers of giving any platform or credence to a morally corrupt, despicable regime, or to a point of view that fails the test of morality. Intolerance of intolerance is a virtue. No one in his right mind would give a racist a platform. But along the spectrum of ideas, there are variations which are not existential threats, but rather areas of exploration and respectful consideration. We have a tradition that the great schools of Hillel and Shamai battled for years over legal issues, sometimes acrimoniously. Yet the Talmud reiterates that they still treated each other with respect, and married amongst each other despite their differences over halachic definitions. It is a well-known Talmudic principle that “both contradicting points of view can equally be the words of God”.

I am worried by this now universal tendency to dismiss, to rubbish, to abuse, and not even to stop to consider whether there may be a point worth considering, whether it is a religious or a political debate.

For years such abuse has been a feature of Israeli life, between political parties, religious and secular, different immigrant groups, let alone different communities and peoples. We would put it down to hangovers from less sophisticated societies, the tensions of war, of integrating so many different ethnic and cultural minorities. But it has gotten worse not better over time.

To make matters worse it has now become the norm in the USA both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. One could make out a case that it is the fault of the legal world with its adversarial approach to law and the desire to win at all costs being more important than the truth. One might argue it is the result of the cut, thrust, and grab as much as you can economic climate. It could be the increasing divide in a society that once encouraged integration and the ideal of a melting pot but now upholds division and separatism. In general, values passionately held are passionately supported and lead to zealous extremism, whether religious or political. The single-minded ideologues created revolutions, not moderates.

A recent sad example of how malicious public discourse has become in the USA (but it’s universal) concerns Yeshiva University. It is an admirable institution, of the sort that Old World Jewry has been incapable of imitating. It is a first-class recognized university, both graduate and undergraduate. It has an excellent yeshivah with outstanding Talmudic scholars at its head. It is the last bastion of thinking, academically rigorous Judaism of Diaspora Jewry. Yet it too has been accused of coming increasingly under the influence of the Right Wing.

Its student magazine, The Yeshiva University Beacon, has allowed students to express opinions, often uncomfortably close to the bone and controversial. Recently the magazine had its funds cut off by the administration for daring to publish an article that touched on the holy cow of premarital sex. Now an article written by a student, dated February 21, has suggested that the Jewish world is too focused and preoccupied with looking back to the Holocaust and should instead try to emphasize positive and moral contributions to society. The author did not minimize the Holocaust or the importance of maintaining the memory. But he suggested that we use it as a substitute for other more constructive forms of Jewish identification. We overreact in prosecuting Holocaust deniers. We are too sensitive about its use in public discourse.

This is not new. It’s a position that I have often expressed and several outstanding academics have written about. The article was neither innovative nor extreme. It was a student’s sincere attempt to think critically about something as horrific as the Holocaust, being so central to current Jewish experience and the sad fact that it does not necessarily succeed in reinforcing Jewish identity.

Poor fellow--all hell broke loose. He was accused of the most horrific heresy, of deserving excommunication, even death. The reaction was a very sad reflection of that brutal, primitive defense mechanism that represents the very worst elements of our people. It was so sad to see the disease now manifest in an otherwise praiseworthy institution.

Instead of confronting challenges, nowadays, the defenses go up. “Don’t we have enough enemies outside without you having to attack us from within?” There is no attempt to tackle the issue, just to dismiss it. It’s the very attitude that pushed me into becoming a maverick and a rebel a generation ago. It was this kneejerk self-censoring attitude that, in Britain at any rate, produced a colorless, conformist, unexciting community that I only wanted to stir and shake. This attitude now permeates the religious and the political community.

Instead of condemning and marginalizing any opinion or community that wants to offer an alternative paradigm or opinion, we should encourage variety and debate not bully tactics. Bullies might succeed in the short run, but they rarely last the course.