November 29, 2012

Oliver Stone

The film director Oliver Stone has once again ruffled feathers with a controversial television series that justifies those like me who think that, despite the 75% of corrosive, banal rubbish that appears on television, every now and again an important educational documentary makes having access to it worthwhile. The iconic British series “The World at War” directed by Jeremy Isaacs, which aired between 1973 and 1974, was and remains an essential tool in understanding the history of World War II. It was as balanced and objective as it is ever possible to be. Oliver Stone’s miniseries called “The Untold History of the United States” is in no way balanced or objective. But it is stimulating and thought provoking, and I highly recommend it, however much I may personally dislike many of Stone’s biases, especially with regard to Jews and Israel.

According to Stone, Hitler only lost because Russia stopped him and prevented him reaching the oil fields of Baku. America finished him off. Most of Britain’s tactical decisions were disastrous and only the Channel saved it. Roosevelt pulled the rug from under the Imperialist British Empire he hated. But then it was Truman and Eisenhower who initiated an era of American empire-building and imperialism that Stone thinks is still in place.

Truman might not have been the most charismatic or able of presidents and his nomination as vice president was indeed an example of dirty, backroom conniving to block the incumbent vice president, the radical charismatic Henry Wallace. But he was responsible for the Marshall Plan that rebuilt much of Europe. If nothing else, we Jews applaud his decision, however reluctant, to support the UN vote for Israel as a state in 1947. The only person Stone blames more for the cold war than Truman was Winston Churchill. This no doubt explains why President Obama returned the Churchill bust that had decorated the Oval Office to the UK.

As a child growing up in postwar Britain, I was fully aware of how much anti-American feeling ‘the bomb’ generated. Yet the atomic deterrent led to the longest period free of war that Europe experienced since before the arrival of the Vikings. I recall that during the fifties the European anti-Americans used to joke that America learnt three things from its most recent presidents. From Roosevelt it learnt that you could be president until you died, from Truman that anybody could become president, and from Eisenhower that you could manage without a president. The joke, of course, was on the Old World as it stumbled and fumbled towards decline.

Nevertheless, history is so engrossing precisely because there are so many different ways of recording the facts, analyzing them and drawing conclusions about them. As Isaiah Berlin said, one should always beware of people who claim they are in possession of the one and only certainty. One of the most influential books in my life was “Napoleon: For and Against”, by Pieter Geyl. As a schoolboy it taught me that every person, every situation can be seen through positive lenses and negative ones. Not to mention Jewish ones. Whatever else one might think of Napoleon, wherever he conquered in Europe Jews were given civil rights. And when he was defeated they were taken away. Can we agree that Ben Gurion was a better Prime Minister than Menachem or whether JFK did more for civil rights than Lyndon Johnson? No, we can’t and never will, because we each have our own specific perspectives and priorities. What’s more, we may never know the full story. Did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo because of weather conditions, rivalry between his generals, a tiff with Josephine, or a bad night’s sleep? New information becomes accessible and hind sight is a great revisionist.

Was Oslo wrong? Was Israel right to leave Gaza? Or the current ceasefire in Gaza, will it prove to be good or bad for Hamas, and will it weaken Fatah? Did it encourage Morsi to overreach himself? Will the success of the Iron Dome lead to a complete rethink of Iranian and Hezbollah strategy? Was this a trial run for an attack on Iran or might the Ayatollahs think again? Did Netanyahu gain new commitments from America? We will also have the cranks who will tell us it was all the hand of an unseen power. But which one? The Jewish or the Muslim?

We don’t know for certain. Each one of us sees, decides, and thinks within our own parameters, and no one has the complete story or the complete picture. Every treaty there has ever been has had its unwritten side deals. Academics and experts always argue about what happened and what the consequences were, and that is precisely why the Oliver Stones of the world flourish, and rightly so.

We do know that if we want to survive we need to ensure that our intelligence is reliable. Our defenses are secure. Our people are prepared and our morale and sense of what we are fighting for is primed and sure. But too often Israel has made the wrong decision. After 1967 good will was squandered. The Yom Kipur War nearly ended in disaster because of faulty intelligence, and so did two wars in Lebanon. Most of Israel’s top army brass opposed spending money on the Iron Dome. We need the wisdom to evaluate and to negotiate, to see beyond our noses, and to prepare for the next stage not just the present one. That is as true of our personal lives, our professional lives, as well as our spiritual ones.

What is the greatest quality that wise leaders need? To see what is already happening under their very noses. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai lived at a time of crisis, when the Romans crushed the Jewish resistance and ended the Second Jewish State. He asked this very question. Rebbi Shimon answered in Avot 2:9, “He who can see what is born (and is going to happen).” I don’t know which is worse, an ostrich which refuses to see or a mad dog that makes all the wrong decisions. Either way, wise leaders value criticism.

November 22, 2012

Rabbinic Bugs

We have so many humanitarian and political challenges that face us, as humans and Jews that I suspect the only way we can cope is by being ridiculous. Anyone looking in on our religion from space would conclude we are crazy. We religious Jews have become maniacally preoccupied with bugs. Not with plagues of cockroaches, spiders, ants, or caterpillars. No it’s the almost invisible aphids, black spots, and minute creepy crawlies that roam every nook and cranny of the universe including our own human bodies, not to mention the air we breathe and the water we drink.

The basic code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Volume Yoreh Dea, has only one small section, no 55, that deals with worms and bugs; and there it says very clearly that one only need bother about what can be seen by the naked eye. I won’t discuss here the halachic conundrum of finding half a worm in an apple. If there was no apparent entry route you can eat it because it was supposedly auto generated within the fruit itself and doesn’t count as a living creature. My concern is with the whole industry that in recent years has developed around bugs. Chapter after chapter in newly published kashrut manuals is devoted to the problem of microscopic bugs.

My theory is that as kosher food became so much easier to get hold of and so many of the chores that burdened our grandparents (like koshering meat) are now taken care of by others, and all one needs is in many communities is a quick trip to the supermarket or a phone call, some rabbis were worried that housewives would have too much time on their hands. They decided to find new ways of burdening them in the hope that they would give up any thoughts of pressuring rabbis to deal with some other problems of fairness and equality. So the ante was upped with special machinery to backlight and examine lettuce leaves, broccoli, strawberries, you name it.

There was another factor. The kosher industry needed to find more work for all the otherwise unemployable ultra-Orthodox young men. Agricultural companies were set up to grow guaranteed bug-free vegetables and fruit. Of course, all this then makes kosher food even more expensive. It has also been suggested that insisting on "kosher" vegetables is another socializing tool in keeping sects very separate.

A few weeks ago the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, having lost every other battle so far in fighting for a more reasonable approach to halacha, issued a ruling recommending that the public purchase regular leafy vegetables and clean them "in the old-fashioned way" as Jews have done throughout the generations. This could prove disastrous for the halachic-agricultural innovation that began in the Gush Katif greenhouses of growing bug-free (and expensive) vegetables. The stricter rabbis argue that since the special growth method was invented there is a halachic obligation to stick to it. But Amar also says that to achieve bug-free vegetables, the process uses far too much insecticide. It represents a threat to health, as well as an intolerable burden on household expenditure.

Of course he will be ignored! Because too many rabbis are so busy looking for little bugs this gives them an excuse for not seeing the far more religiously offensive bigger bugs, the disgusting ultra-Orthodox, predatory abusers of women, under their very noses.

The plague started a few years in Israel with evidence before the courts of rabbis seeking sexual favors for judgments or in exchange for counseling. It spread to Antwerp, then Manchester, the USA, and most recently one of the best known Charedi Chassidic rabbis in Golders Green has been accused of well documented sexual coercion. They tried to cover up. But in the end, only because of external pressure and only for fear of court proceedings, he was forced to leave town. His faithful followers still insist this is all a nasty feminist plot.

I could never understand how a genuinely Orthodox rabbi could possibly turn a blind eye to the cries of humiliated women who turned to them for help, as the victim did in this case. Time and time again I saw how none of the Charedi rabbis had the guts to take a public stand. Every case was covered up. No dirty laundry in public, which in effect means that when the civil courts take the lid off the stench is twice as bad.

But now I know why. They are so busy looking for aphids in lettuces they cannot see abuse within their own communities. They are so used to making a fuss over little things they cannot adjust to the really big ones! Or as the Talmud says (similarly to some other well-known text), ”Take the beam out of your eye before you complain about the toothpick in his mouth.”

Woe to a community that insists on the strictest of standards of modesty for its women but allows its men the freedom to do as they please in the most corrupt manner. In the UK, even so called Modern Orthodox rabbis are frightened to take a stand for fear of reprisals from the Holy Terrors. If this is the benefit that extreme piety is bringing to our communities, we might be better off without it. Perhaps future candidates for the Charedi rabbinate should be asked which sin is greater: innocently eating a microscopic bug or sexually abusing someone else's wife. Maybe then they’ll go back to the original sources.

November 15, 2012

Luck

Sam Goldwyn famously said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” So why do I constantly come across perfectly sane, intelligent people who tell me they are unlucky? Or religious God-fearing Jews who believe in Mazal, let alone the Ayin Hara, the Evil Eye? It does not make sense.

The Bible is very clear that luck has no impact on Israel, in Balaam’s famous phrase, “There is no magic in Jacob and no divination in Israel” (Numbers 23:23).

The Talmud debates the issue. “R. Hanina said, 'The planetary influence gives wisdom, the planetary influence gives wealth, and Israel stands under planetary influence.' R. Johanan said that Israel is immune. Rav too agrees. For Rav, Judah said in Rav's name, 'How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence?.... Because Avraham said, 'Master of the Universe! I have looked at my constellation and find that I am not fated to have a child.' The Almighty replied, 'Leave your planets alone, for Israel is free from such influence.'' R. Akiva also says that Israel is free from planetary influence." (Shabbat 156a and b)

The overwhelming weight of opinion is against the idea. But what is the idea? Neither the word Mazal, meaning luck (or the signs of the zodiac) nor the Evil Eye figure in the Bible. On the other hand, the earliest astrological chart dates back to Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, where Avraham came from. Clearly Avraham wanted a different approach. But astrology continues to hold a grip on humans to this very day. Even in the nineteenth century, people still thought that lunacy was linked to the moon.

In Judaism, astrology’s link with mysticism gave it continued relevance and influence, so that today there are many "rabbis" who use astrology and its allied systems to help the sick and the disturbed try to cope with the pressures of life. Snake oil salesmen, hustlers, and Ponzis still make a good living.

There is a major divide in Judaism between the rationalists and non-rationalists. On this point I side with the rationalists. Evil spirits, bad luck, and the evil eye are only relevant to people who are credulous, uneducated, or desperate enough to believe in them. Humans who face an insurmountable crisis turn wherever they can for sustenance and support. And we must offer them that. As they used to say in World War I, “There are no atheists in trenches.” But I do not want to equate turning to God in despair or from the depths, which is a profound human expression, with belief in magic or luck.

It is true there are areas in our lives that we have control over and areas where do not. But if I do not study hard, I am unlikely to pass an exam. If I do not apply for a job, I am likely to remain unemployed. If I do not make an effort to meet the sort of girl I want to marry, I am more likely to get involved with someone unsuitable. There are other areas where events beyond our control cause things to happen to us. Is the act of getting on a plane that then crashes a matter of bad luck, or is it the absence of information about a bomb or fault in the engine that results in my death? Insurance companies rely on statistics, on probability. It is not certainty, but it works better than anything else in predicting things. Investment advice based on hunches may work occasionally, but over time the cold numbers tell the more reliable story. There are general trends and specific exceptions in everything, including life expectancy, susceptibility to disease, and everything else in life.

Every year thousands of Bangladeshis are killed when the Ganges delta floods. This is because they are too poor to live higher up. If people build homes on the shoreline they are more likely to be flooded than those inland. If they build amongst trees, they will more likely be killed by one that falls in a storm. If you live on the San Andreas fault, you had better build earthquake-proof. But then is it luck if a tree falls on you and not your neighbor? If your house is too well founded to wash away?

Is it bad luck to catch a virus or a disease? Bacteria are part of our world. Who is to blame if one affects you badly? We take risks all the time. Whenever we get into a car. And we know that a certain percentage will be killed on the roads. We just hope the drunken driver coming the other way misses us or stayed behind for another drink. We go about our lives knowing we will all die one day. Is it luck if I die at 40, 70, or 90?

As Rabbi Yannai so honestly said in the Mishna, “We have no idea why the good suffer or the evil prosper.” At least he didn’t come with some cockamamie theory, or suggest it was because of luck or a letter in a mezuzah that was out of kilter. Insofar as we can understand the idea of Divine intervention, it is on the basis of our behavior. We simply don’t understand how God works. But that doesn’t mean that luck had anything to do with it. Did millions die in the Holocaust because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it just bad luck to live in Europe when Nazis came to power? When people tell me they know why the Holocaust (or any other tragedy) happened, I know they are charlatans. No human can know the mind of God.

Is it luck that decides who will be president, or make a fortune? We make use of the circumstances of our time. Rockefeller made money out of oil. Gates made it on computers and Zuckerberg on the internet. Similarly we suffer from the negative circumstances of our time, be they war or peace. If we keep fit, we will be more likely to resist disease. If we keep spiritually alive, we will better survive trials and tests. But there is no magic, no luck that will protect us from the realities and challenges of life. Charms, promises, and holy water are placebos. Placebos work because people want them to; but they are nothing to do with luck. Faith helps us cope. But there’s a difference in having the faith in God that will help us cope and believing that whether God is good to you or bad depends on hocus pocus. It is goodness that appeals to the Almighty, not charms.

What we should mean by luck comes from reducing the odds and taking advantage of situations wherever they may happen. The luck that we make is far more effective than the luck others promise us.

November 08, 2012

Choice

Thank goodness the election is over and we can get on with the fun things in our lives! The Bible clearly encourages men and women to procreate, and big families are regarded in our tradition as blessings. Avraham, for example, tells God that having a son is the one thing missing in his life. At the same time, we are told repeatedly of how profoundly women suffer, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and later Shmuel’s mother Hannah because of their inability to reproduce for long periods of their lives.

So if having children is so important why should abortion (or contraception for that matter), ever be allowed? Jewish law is against abortion unless a woman’s life is in danger. In this we differ from Catholicism, for we do not consider a child to be a full-fledged human being until its head and the majority of its body has come out of the womb. And we do allow abortion to save her life. Neither do we consider what is in the mother’s womb to be anything more significant than liquid until after 40 days from conception. The issue of what constitutes a danger to a woman’s life is, interestingly, one of the areas where we see Jewish law responding to changing circumstances and knowledge. Many experts now include psychological damage into that zone. None that I know of would consider financial circumstances a reason for abortion (although there are increasingly Orthodox rabbis who would include this in the justification for contraceptive use).

The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells of how Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi had an argument with the Roman Emperor Antoninus about the question of when the soul enters the human body. And remember this is a theological issue rather than a legal one. Rebbi said it is from the moment that it acquires a human form (the Talmud assumes a period of three months for that, in Brachot 60a). Antoninus said it is when the egg is fertilized. To which Rebbi replied that, after consideration, Antoninus was right. And he quotes Job to support his position.

That story is remarkable in itself, in that the compiler of the Mishna was prepared to accept the superiority of Roman knowledge. But it also teaches us that although there is a developmental difference between the stages of the embryo, and we make use of that to allow for abortions under certain circumstances, pure logic really belongs to those who say you cannot differentiate in human life at all. Drawing the line is arbitrary. Nevertheless, halacha is practical, and we do draw lines. Jewish Law considers the fetus to be a limb of the mother until it has emerged from the womb. Which is why if the fetus endangers the life of the mother, we can ‘amputate’ it so that the existing, viable human, the mother, can live. This is the genius of Jewish law; that although Torah is paramount, it is trumped by the need to preserve life (Leviticus 18).

Ironically, in Jewish law killing a fetus before it reaches maturity is not a capital crime, but it is to a descendant of Noah (who, in previous times, if he or she adhered to the Seven Noachide Laws, had to be given equal civil rights in Jewish society). It sounds illogical. If the demands on a Noachide are in general far less strict, why be tougher in this issue? But if your culture is one that respects human life in general, and at high levels of concern, then you will only take it under the most extreme circumstances, such as to save a life. But if your culture treats human life casually in general, believes in child sacrifices (as most pagans then did), you will be much more lax and loose in how you deal with the unborn.

We do, indeed, value all life from egg to birth. But we may make use of it in its early stages to preserve and protect human life in specific and in general. But just as the law in regard to the fetus assumes a foundation of respect, so the way we legislate for women ought to assume a foundation of respect.

It has taken Western society a long time to come near to approaching women as equals and, sadly, in too many cultures, including some parts of our own, we are still a long way from it. The very fact that some, mainly males, want to remove personal choices from women over matters of terminating or preventing pregnancy, is indicative of the continuing male orientated mentality.

As a Jew, I know what my laws are and they lay down the boundaries. I have the freedom to choose to follow them. If some rabbis choose to be too cautious or prohibitive in applying Jewish Law in regard to women, that is a fault in them, not the law. But in the end, the woman is the one who must weigh up the conflicting emotions and traditions and decide for herself (or if she is married with her husband). It is the height of arrogance for people to decide for her in a democratic world on the basis of their own religious convictions or biases. All the more so, since most of us nowadays live in two or more moral and political frameworks. It is up to us to decide on our personal moral choices, not for others. Any more than others can tell us how to worship.

When it comes to legislation in a democracy, religions have no right to impose their stringencies on the general population, whether on free speech or free choice. Religious people can choose to abide by their Sabbaths, but they ought not impose them on others unless it is a democratic decision and then, as when you do not like whom the country voted for President, you can always pick up and move. That is why I support the right of women, in society in general, to have abortions and to make choices about their bodies. Nevertheless, given that there are alternatives, including contraception, I agree that the law should not be a free-for-all. There can be a balance as there is with driving a car--just because you are allowed to drive, that doesn’t permit you to drive dangerously.

Therefore, I am pro-choice but I strongly object to the implication that I am not pro-life. After all, Judaism is pro-life: "And you shall live by these commandments, not die by them." (TB Yoma 85b, etc.)

This is an example of the dishonesty of slogans that obscure truth. If anything, American pro-lifers are really pro-death. Many of them seem to want the mother to die before the fetus.

Most religious establishments want to stop abortions. Libertarians want to allow them to continue (with certain limitations). This is another example of how it can be morally compromising to have to accept the whole of any political platform and why religion in politics is so dangerous. What I choose to adhere to is not necessarily what should be imposed on everyone else.

November 01, 2012

Olympics

Thank goodness, living in a part of Manhattan that was not directly affected by Sandy, I have no personal disaster stories to tell. But in recognizing the limitations of humanity, my thoughts turned to how we humans have always thought we knew better.

The Olympic games began in Greece around the time that Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Samaria in 722 BCE. Originally they involved a few foot races, and then expanded to include wrestling, throwing things, and chariots. And, apparently, cheating, bribing, and even killing your opponents was par for the course. As nations today compete, in those days Greek cities did. They offered huge rewards to winners. The modern Olympics were revived by the French Baron de Coubertin. The first was held in Athens in 1896. What has changed nowadays is the number of sports, the commercialization, and the cost. But the raw worship of the physical remains at the center of the Olympic ideal.

Greek philosophy in all its varieties contra posed mind over matter. The Olympics were the showpiece of how the physical could be developed and disciplined by the mind. They incorporated religious tradition with national pride. In contradistinction, Judaism posited something else; not just that that humans beings were made of mind and matter but that soul, spirit, religious fitness was as important as physical health. The Greek idolization of the body beautiful soon deteriorated into physical excess and Bacchanalian hedonism. Western culture emphasized the perfection of physical human form in its depictions of the idealized Holy Family.

I do not suggest that Western religions have no tradition of serving the lame and the halt! Quite the contrary. I recall as child what a hero the Christian theologian and pianist Albert Schweitzer was, giving up his comfortable European existence to work amongst lepers in Lambarene, and the reverence later accorded to Mother Teresa. Nevertheless, the prevailing mood in the secular world I grew up in was an emphasis on beauty that penalized ugliness.

In our tradition, Jacob was lame, Leah was ugly, Moses could not speak properly. There was indeed beauty too, in buildings, in the intricate Tabernacle. There was beauty in humans such as Rebekah, Rachel, Joseph, and David, to name only the obvious ones. There is the idea of "Hidur Mitzvah", that whatever we use for ritual should be as beautiful as we can afford. But tradition chose to focus less on outer beauty and more on the inner. Hence the line we recite every Friday evening from Proverbs. “Beauty is deceptive, charm is empty, but a God-fearing woman is to be praised.”

There is a well-known Talmudic story (Sanhedrin 21a) about Alexander the Great. When he passed through the Middle East he was approached by various local nations with claims against the Jews. (Things haven’t changed much in two and a half thousand years.) Alexander then called on the Jews to defend themselves. Gaviah Ben Pasisah, a humble hunchback, asked permission to represent the Jewish people. He brilliantly demolished the arguments of his opponents, who ended up fleeing in disarray. It was not by accident that the Talmud contrasted a physically deformed and ugly, yet wise, Jew against the young, beautiful, militant, and philosophically trained Alexander. This is a lesson in different values.

Western art with its emphasis on human representation, glorifies beauty and vilifies ugliness. Think of the way Breughel paints the Jews. The result of this conditioning is that in the West, for years, the crippled, the ugly, or the variations of nature were regarded as repulsive, abused by society, or turned into objects of derision and prurient display. Instead of looking for their inner qualities, we were encouraged to mock their external characteristics.

In 1948 a group of war-injured men at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK, inspired by Jewish refugee Dr. Ludwig Guttman who used sport as a means of rehabilitation, founded the “World Wheelchair and Amputee Games”. Initially it was a quiet affair, because looking at crippled servicemen compete in sports was something society was not yet ready for. But over the years, very slowly it must be admitted, it has grown to the point where at London this year the now re-named Paralympics was a sellout and a massive success in its own right.

We have advanced tremendously in the way we treat and relate to the physically challenged. The fact that we see almost daily on television someone physically different than the norm, men such as Stephen Hawking, confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak unaided, and clearly suffering debilitating disease, yet one of the most brilliant men on earth confirms that the severest of handicaps need not consign us to asylums, hospitals, or circuses. Actors suffering from illnesses that would in the past have meant the end of their careers can still take on major roles. Actresses with speaking difficulties have won acting awards. All this has changed the way we relate to people with different challenges and appearances. Yet many handicapped people will tell you that they are conscious of how others look at them or avert their faces. In the same way that we have progressed in our attitudes to racial differences, we are still too often ambivalent about physical disabilities.

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, good-looking men and women, which often simply boils down to meaning symmetrical faces, find it easier to land jobs. So do thin ones. The airbrushed world of models and stars creates an illusion of perfection and beauty that very few can achieve in reality. We do indeed prefer looking at aesthetic shapes, forms, and faces, even if tastes can vary culturally from (to give a simple example) big buttocks to small ones. Too much of our attention and money goes to the superficiality of externals. Not that they are unimportant, but we give them far too much credibility and influence.

I venture to suggest that whereas the Greek idea of the body beautiful worked against integrating the handicapped into society, the spiritual tradition insisted on trying to grant them dignity and value.