July 26, 2012

Another False Messiah

The fast on the Ninth of Av, Tisha B'Av, commemorates both the Babylonian and the Roman destructions of Jerusalem and the First Temple, in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. The mourning for these cataclysmic losses affected law, lore, and the psychology of Jews no matter where they were exiled. Anyone who thinks Zionism is a response to the Holocaust is just an ignorant fool.

The dream of returning to the Land of Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem became positively obsessive as reflected in our liturgy. Not a generation went by without pilgrimage and settlement, however small. Regardless of how well or badly Jews were integrated into their host societies, from Nachmanides and Yehudah Halevy to Alroi, from Spain in the West to Persia in the East, each generation produced its rabbis and messiahs who tried to return to Zion.

Of these, one of the most colorful was Shabtai Zvi. He was born in Izmir and lived from 1626 to 1676. He captured the imagination and support of a whole generation of Jews across the world. His conversion to Islam was such a profound shock that it took years to overcome and was a major cause both of the suppression of mysticism and the obsessive defensivism that still characterizes much of Orthodoxy.

Scholars from Gershom Scholem to Moshe Idel have argued about the man and his message and about whether he was a genuine mystic, a charlatan, a brilliant pretender, or simply sick. Perhaps he was all of these. But I believe one should look at him through the prism of Zion.

He was born on the Ninth of Av. This in itself, in a credulous world, would have been a significant omen. He came from a prominent family in Izmir and was a prodigy. But he was also a rebel against what he saw as the oppressive rigidity and conformism of the Jewish community. His interest in Kabbalah led him to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. So he set off, or was encouraged to leave, on a tour of Greece and Turkey, in which he sought out mystical teachers of different traditions. Wherever he ended up, his antinomian, charismatic personality led to ideological conflict and clashes. The more he was rejected the more outlandish his challenges to the law and authority.

In Egypt in 1662, he met the celebrated scholar and merchant Rafael Yosef Chelebi. Chelebi had done a lot to settle refugees from Iberia, and now he was concerned about the large numbers of Eastern Europeans displaced by the terrible ( in Ukraine today he’s a hero) Bogdan Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 and the Catholic reprisals. The Sephardi communities of the Mediterranean were not that happy to be inundated with what they considered unwashed, Ashkenazi peasants. Chelebi had an interest in encouraging as many as possible to resettle in the Holy Land.

Apart from Safed, which had become a major center for Jews fleeing the Spanish expulsion because there was a textile industry, there was nothing in the Holy Land to sustain large numbers of immigrants. Chelebi wanted to persuade the Ottoman authorities to permit the establishment of new industries and agricultural settlements. But he needed a front man, someone with presence and stature to impress the Ottoman authorities as a spiritual man of peace rather than a commercial speculator. or worse, a military adventurer. The sultan hated instability but did respect spirituality.

Opinions vary as to whether Chelebi persuaded Shabtai that he could better impress Jew and non-Jew alike as the Messiah, or whether it was Nathan of Gaza, the Svengali he met on the way to canvass opinion in Jerusalem, who persuaded him he was the Messiah. Perhaps he always deluded himself into thinking he was a kind of mystical superhero. In one way he might be compared to Theodore Herzl, who cultivated an elegance and presence that enabled him to present himself as the Prince of the Jews, giving him easier access to the European aristocratic courts. And Shabtai’s desire to involve other religions and populations in his project anticipates Buber, Scholem, and other idealistic Zionists.

Shabtai's assuming the Messianic mantle brought him the attention of the whole of the Jewish world, which desperately dreamed of returning to Zion and casting off the burden of exile. Even Gluckel of Hameln was so excited she started salting meat for the journey, and brokers at Lloyds took bets as to whether the Messiah had arrived.

But the Ottoman authorities came to see Shabtai as disruptive, doubtless encouraged by his Jewish and his Muslim enemies. He was given the choice: death or the turban. He converted to Islam but still maintained he was the Messiah working in mysterious ways as did Nathan of Gaza. Perhaps his disillusionment with Jewish authority convinced him he needed to escape the limitations of Judaism and reach out to Muslims and Christians too, because he persisted in presenting himself as all things to all people. The Ottomans lost patience with his prevarications and he was exiled to Dulcino in Albania, where he died still hoping to reconcile all three monotheistic faiths. For years his followers remained loyal, and a group of Turks called the Donmeh continue to revere him to this day.

I have always had a soft spot for him, despite his weird sex life and peculiar halachic deviations. I want to give Shabtai the benefit of the doubt. He saw himself as a metaphor for his people. The Jewish world was traumatized by exile and continuing humiliation. It was not always physical suffering, but alienation, a feeling of being unfairly singled out for hatred. The only possible escape was the Messiah leading the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple. But if the Jews had the means, they simply lacked the unity, the political power, and the allies to make it happen. Mysticism was the only option. Sadly, the political conditions were not right. It took another 300 years for pieces, good and bad, to come together. The Almighty has always had a different timetable.

So as we mark Tisha B'Av this year again, as we have for two thousand years, we will reiterate our ancient commitment never to forget our love for the land and our holy city and its centrality to our fate, as it was to Shabtai. Of course we will realize that for two thousand years we have had to share it with others, and it looks like only the real Messiah will be able to sort it all out.

July 19, 2012

James Joyce and the Jews

A recent biography of James Joyce (by Gordon Bowker) reminds me why I have such a soft spot for him.

Much has been written about Jews in Western literature. But what is it that determines whether writers are pro-Jewish or anti? Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta were both written at a time when Jews were perceived as dangerous, evil aliens. If either ever had met a Jew, it would have been a refugee from Iberia who was trying very hard to disguise his Jewishness because Jews were still officially banned from England.

Why, one asks, did Shakespeare manage to look for something positive in Shylock and even give him some strong arguments in his defense, whereas Marlowe’s Jew is just a nasty, evil, unattractive caricature? How is it that George Eliot could write Daniel Deronda, in which a Jewish character is portrayed as noble idealist, while most of her contemporaries, such as Trollope and even Dickens, saw them merely as financial manipulators and unsavory upstarts? Or that Martin Amis could be so different to his anti-Semitic father? American-born T.S. Eliot describes Jews in the crudest of words, while James Joyce on the contrary saw the good and helped many escape from Europe when the Nazi disease began to spread.

It is not just literature. In 1655 Oliver Cromwell convened the Whitehall Conference to rescind the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England. But to his surprise he found that both the Church and commercial interests were strongly opposed. He had to let the matter drop (and turned a blind eye to the small number of refugees). In New York, Peter Stuyvesant refused to allow Jewish refugees from Brazil to settle until the Dutch West India Company overruled him. In 1753 the Houses of Lords, Parliament, and King George II all agreed to give the Jews equal rights; but the outcry was so great, again from Church and business both fearing competition, that the bill, which initially passed, was repealed. Horace Walpole commented that it was “an affair which showed how much the age, enlightened as it is called, was still enslaved to the grossest and most vulgar prejudices".

This ambivalence towards Jews, more than to any other minority I can think of, runs deep and strong throughout Europe, and indeed many other Christian and Muslim societies. Outsiders are rarely popular, and we are the archetypal outsiders. Our survival stands as a challenge to the dominant aspirations of those religions that hoped to supersede us.

This brings me back to James Joyce, because he was one of the few writers who actually saw the morally corrosive destructive influence of church and society, and made the difficult decision to flee Ireland to get away from the pettiness as soon as he could. The Italy he escaped to was just as bad, but at least it was different and he had cut the umbilical cord. I suggest that this was precisely why he could identify with the Jews of his day. They were the underdogs. The Irish struggled for independence from the British occupiers, and during the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe a significant number ended up in Ireland, where they flourished. Irish society was always divided between the rural primitives and the urban elites, the ruling classes and the workers. The Jews were regarded with fascination but not revulsion, as the character of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s great work Ulysses illustrates. Yet there are plenty of other writers from minority or oppressed groups who are unremittingly and illogically anti-Semitic.

Irish politics has changed since Joyce’s day. The struggle with the Old Enemy has been won. After staying neutral in the Second World War, even being partly pro-Nazi, Ireland joined the EU and has adopted much of its mentality. So that now again the Jews are seen as the aggressors and manipulators. Attitudes towards Jews have run a gamut of emotions from fear of the different to sympathy for the underdog to anger at their strength. One senses this transition in Irish public opinion today as much as one sees it manifest in the attitude of the Church of England, which is increasingly antagonistic to Israel. This, together with the old Marxist hatreds, has transmogrified into political correctness that picks specifically on Israel and, inevitably, Jews.

Underdogs love to turn on others when they emerge from their inferiority and so the tables have turned. Now in Ireland, as in London, the mere whiff of an Israeli sportsman or actor is enough to bring out crowds of howling furies (none, as far as I am aware, seem to be so offended by Assad).One is no longer surprised at the overt hatred of acclaimed writers and academics, for they all have their biases and blind spots. But the worse it gets the more we should treasure those few great writers who did not succumb to anti-Semitism in one of its forms or another.

The fact is that I have adored Joyce for other, purely literary reasons. Ever since I first read the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, I realized how excited I was by the ability to create a language of one’s own, to play with words and manipulate them for literary effect. No one does it better than Joyce. True, that makes him difficult to read, and the more banal modern literature becomes the less inclined people are to want to struggle with a book. And Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is even harder to read than Ulysses.

And here comes my version of “Joyce and the Jewish Question". Maybe the reason I love Joyce is because with him, as with our religion, it is not for the fainthearted or those who want an easy life. Only if you struggle with it do you get to appreciate its majesty.

July 12, 2012

Higgs Boson and God

In 1964 the physicist Peter Higgs suggested that there had to be a crucial particle (a boson) that helped explain how matter could emerge from the "Big Bang" explosion of gases that is the most popular scientific theory as to how our world came about. Higgs said the so-called "God particle", which is the building block of the universe, only has a lifespan of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second and I guess that’s why it takes billion dollar accelerators to go looking for it. Now I admit I am a complete dud as far as physics or math are concerned. I can understand atoms and neutrons and protons, but when it gets to bosons and fermions I am lost.

I enjoy reading scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian. I am fascinated by science because it makes our world go round. Thanks to it, we have cellphones, the internet, space travel, and all the technological advances we take for granted. And I believe we have an obligation to try to understand our universe. The Talmud itself insists that if anyone can calculate the way the universe functions and does not, it is as though he cares nothing for the God who made it all. The more we understand, the more we can do. Science is an essential part of our lives. But it is not the only essential element.

For all the amazing advances, we humans are still the same selfish, confused, super-animals, and we desperately seek nonscientific resolutions of our inadequacies. That’s why religion (and, sadly, superstition and magic) still plays such an important a part in our societies. That was why Gould, for example, championed the theory of non-overlapping magisteria. Except they so often are overlapping and interconnected. That’s why so that many of us to try to find a modus vivendi.

There is an ongoing debate in religious circles as to how to explain Talmudic statements that contradict current scientific knowledge. Some authorities have simply accepted that the rabbis worked within the framework of contemporary knowledge and would certainly have changed their opinion had they known what we know. Others suggest that times have changed and the natural world today is not what it was then. And of course, wouldn’t you know, there are those who argue that the rabbis must be right and science must be wrong (as indeed it often has been on lots of its theories). It’s not unlike the current debate over climate change. No scientist of stature believes it is not happening. They argue about the causes. But still there are some backwoodsmen who deny it altogether.

Science has its practical applications and theoretical ones. It works through experiment and through guesswork that needs to be verified or rejected. One develops new theories that either build on earlier ones or supersede them entirely. Ptolemy gives way to Copernicus, Newton gives way to Einstein, and then comes Higgs, whose boson theory was no more than that for fifty years. But at least now we have some objective evidence (a distinct weakness in the God theory if, and only if, it is evidence you need). So it is with so many areas of science--creation, evolution, and indeed psychiatry and economic theory. While these theories are still being tested, it is possible to be skeptics and find ways of making fun of them or picking them apart.

That's how established magisteria (like religions) have always tended to react to new ideas. We must accept the past until we are forced screaming into the present. Some people simply reject new theories. Some simply accept them regardless of the gaps, and others try to reconcile the two positions. Gould’s answer is to give up even trying to. Just accept that there are different kinds of knowledge and certainties. I admit that after years of trying, and up to a point succeeding, in reconciling the Torah and the Midrash’s view of the universe and sciences, I no longer care to or try to. My God world is my spiritual vision. My science is my material view. I occasionally spend time meditating on or thinking about how the world came about, but most of the time I just get on with my day-to-day living in which Torah is a constant presence.

When scientists half seriously called it "the God particle", they meant that it solved or almost solved the question of how the world became what it has out of the initial bang of gasses, and how gases could eventually turn into matter without involving God at all. But of course the religious position was always that God initiated the bang and supervised its evolution. Which is very reassuring for those who believe in God. But, of course, it is not science. But maybe we humans simply need more than science.

So, delighted as I am that Higgs has got his boson, it doesn’t change anything for me. Neither would it if evolution filled in all the missing links, if human life were discovered in other galaxies, or if spaceships came to earth. I can enjoy a sunset, and I can enjoy a sunset AND think of a Divine presence as well. My job is to make a success of my life with the circumstances and knowledge I have access to and in doing that I think I have the best of both worlds.

July 05, 2012

Itsu Kaszirer

My father-in-law of 24 years, Itsu Kaszirer, died on the second of Tammuz at the age of 90, in Antwerp. He was a remarkable man in many ways. Nowadays the tendency is to create myths after people die, but he was a myth in his own lifetime. He grew up in the Romanian badlands of the Carpathians, known both for its bandits and its fiercely strict Chassidim. In his neck of the woods, the two dominant Chassidic sects were Viznitz and Satmar. His family was strongly Viznitz. He frequented the court of Rebbe Chaim Meir and his family. You could say that he was the best of buddies, on first name terms, with the eldest son, Rebbe Moishele, who was four years older and who became the Viznitzer Rebbe in 1972. Significantly, he also died this year, in March.

Itsu’s story is typical of the post war European Jewish world. During it he was brutalized in Hungarian work camps. But his resilience and strength helped him get through it all, at a cost. He had no time for reflection or psychology, just the passion and lust for the life he nearly lost. He married Suri, who had survived the war by living and working with nuns. They settled in Satu Mare, and Itsu began to rebuild the family wine business. They had two children (later another two).

When the communists took over Romania they decided to flee. It was a highly risky venture. They travelled secretly and separately and finally met up again in the Czech Republic. Itsu was caught as an alien and jailed. Only Suri’s gutsy intervention saved them. Finally they made their way as stateless refugees to Brussels. They moved to Antwerp, where they started at the bottom in the diamond trade.

Itsu was a hard-working, brilliant wheeler-dealer with a head for figures and a talent for salesmanship. He had charm and warmth and people took to him. With Suri’s help, he succeeded in building Kaszirer Diamonds into one of the biggest diamond companies in Antwerp. His coup in breaking into the Russian polished market gave him an edge. As his business flourished, he opened offices in Israel, America, South Africa, and the Philippines, and he used his leverage to invest in real estate around the world.

What was really remarkable about him was his charity. I have never met anyone who was so willing to help whoever who came to him, without strings attached. But he devoted himself above all else to funding Viznitz institutions, in their center in Bnei Brak and wherever Viznitzer Chassidim needed somewhere to pray.

His Chasidism was of its time. It was an anachronism and in some ways inconsistent. He struggled to cope with the temptations of modernity while still holding firmly to his religion--even as he seemed unaware of his inconsistencies. Although in his youth he wore the full gear, like many of his generation, after the war he westernized his appearance. When he built his first Viznitz Synagogue in Antwerp, it was peopled by like-minded refugees from Chasidic communities who were now living in a very different world and dressed and looked accordingly. Over time the Chassidic world grew less compromising, more separatist; the next generation wanted their own synagogues for those who now dressed and thought differently. This did not stop Itsu from funding them, too.

He was not an easy man to do business with. He was driven, suspicious, insensitive, and did not suffer fools gladly. He kept on driving himself and pushing others; like many successful businessmen, he sailed very close to the wind, probing and testing for weakness and opportunity for profit. Yet he lacked a command of business administration and management, which was to prove his downfall as he over expanded. In the heady atmosphere of the diamond industry, banks fell over themselves to lend. And Itsu was happy to borrow vast sums.

But the other factor in the decline of the empire was his relationship with his son, Mendy, who was not as personable as his father, though every bit as ambitious. The two initially formed an impressive double act. Slowly Mendy began to bridle, go his own way, and take bigger risks. They were partners who began to undermine each other. Miscalculations both in diamonds and real estate, including a disastrous attempt to play De Beers against the Russians, sapped the viability of the businesses. Slowly the profit centers disappeared and the relationship between father and son deteriorated. While Suri was alive she was able to mediate. But her death opened the way for the collapse of the whole edifice.

I was a minor player and observer of the collapse of the empire. Egos, ambitions, the wrong associates and partners all contributed. But what upset me more than anything else was the way people, religious people at that, whom one would expect better of, who had benefitted from Itsu’s largesse, friendship, and support, completely turned their backs on him when he lost his money. Some even tried to take the synagogue he built in Antwerp away from him. He became even more erratic, and from a powerful, handsome, dynamic man, he declined.

The memories of him will remain as vivid as he was. His delight in Viznitz, his abundant charity and benevolence and the way he overindulged, to a fault, many of those he cared most about. The story is not a unique one. Wherever you look in the business world you come across stories of men who overreached themselves, who were brought down by family conflict, and who saw everything they had built destroyed. But nothing can take away from this man, the charity he gave, the good he did, and the souls and families he saved.