December 28, 2012

Mildly Islamist

The Economist, amongst many others, loves to refer to Recep Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, and his Justice and Development Party, as "mildly Islamist". He has steered Turkey to new levels of economic prosperity. He has completely overturned the Attaturk secular model of Turkish society and he has turned Turkey into an Islamic State. What I wonder does "mildly" anything mean? Is “mildly” a compliment or a condemnation of compromising mediocrity?

Let’s start with Erdogan. He has been trumpeted as a moderate, and yes, a mild Islamist. Once Turkey was the largest state of Muslims in which Jews could live comfortably and without harassment. Now it is a state where Ishak Alaton, one of its most prominent Jews, feels uncomfortable and unwanted, targeted by the endemic anti-Semitism that sadly has become a raging disease throughout the Muslim world and beyond. It is not just the Jews. While proclaiming his moderation, Erdogan continues to slaughter Kurds and deny them equal rights in Turkey today. Of course, he also refuses to acknowledge the massacre of Armenians, though he will get upset at Syria for its massacres. His selectivity and hypocrisy in regard to Israel is such that he encouraged a nongovernmental group of toughs to sail to Gaza against the wishes of the NATO he belongs to, because he wants to have his cake and eat it too. But he refuses to acknowledge any responsibility or blame for the fiasco that ensued. He demands apologies from everyone else, but seems incapable of apologizing for anything himself. Well, if this is mild you can keep it. Would they call Israel’s policies mild, I wonder?

What is mild then? Surely no one would call the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia mild. Or the Ayatollahs of Iran. Though we should recall that Khomeini was called "mild" at first too, because initially he tolerated the secularists, non-Muslim dress for women, and freedom of lifestyle choice. Only slowly, almost imperceptibly, did he hand over the core elements of industry and power to likeminded fundamentalists and then succeeded in imposing his fanaticism on everyone else. This, of course, is what is what will happen in Egypt now.

But in reality all of this is by the by. If Erdogan’s wife covers her hair, he and she are still described in Europe as mild. If a Jew’s wife covers her hair with a sheitel, would her husband or she be called mildly Jewish? I doubt it. Not even mildly Orthodox. But non-Muslim Europe is desperately trying to fool itself that there is such a phenomenon as mild Islam. This is what will flourish in Europe and as such it will be anodyne and undemanding and not affect the so-called Christian character of the European Union.

I actually recall telling a conference of Muslims and Jews in London thirty years ago that it would be a mistake for Muslims to follow the Jewish example. When religious Jews came to the UK in large numbers they tried very hard not to be conspicuous, not to make demands and not to assert themselves. As a result the level of ignorance and assimilation was catastrophic. If we have come back from that brink it is only because after 1967 Jews felt confident enough to assert themselves. My advice at the time was for Muslims NOT to be mild. Mildness rarely succeeds. The Muslim world is now rampant. But hold on. Isn’t that also true of the Jewish world?

You see, we are so used to the majority of Jews not being religious, that amongst Jews "mildly religious" means being more non-Jewish than Jewish. It means having Jewish components in one’s life but of relatively little practical significance, perhaps once or twice a year. That is enough to reassure ourselves that we are loyal to our religion, our culture, or our people. Such a position was the default position of Western Jewry. But no longer. The mildly Jewish world is fast disappearing. Either it is assimilating or it is becoming less mild.

We do not call Orthodoxy, in any of its manifestations, “mild.” We talk more about the degree of commitment. But in a world of commitment, it is the strong commitment we admire and which we believe will preserve the tradition rather than the mild sort. But wherever we look around the Orthodox world, we are seeing exactly what is happening in Islam. The only difference is we do not have a tradition of trying to impose it on others. It is bad enough that now, in too many communities, we try to impose it on other Jews.

This is where names and labels come into it. We used to have "Orthodox". Then some added Modern Orthodox. To counter that came ultra-Orthodox. But ultra-Orthodox did not like the term and so they switched to Charedi, pious, trembling before God. It sounds purely descriptive. But it isn’t. Wahhabi or Salafi does not just describe a way of being religious, like mysticism or Sufism or Chasidism. It describes a state of mind, a state of offense, a state of expansionism, of triumphalism. This is what is happening in Judaism as much as Islam. At this moment we do not fully realize it because the numbers are still comfortably on the side of the non-religious, but it is changing.

As a caring Jew, I would completely welcome greater religious intensity and commitment, just as I would, as a citizen of whatever Western country, welcome more Muslims becoming more spiritual and better, more tolerant, less anti-Semitic human beings. But for this disease of imposition, this mark of the fanatic that seeks to impose his truths, his interpretations, his choices on everyone else. And the only way to avoid that in a modern state is to refuse to allow religion to interfere with the lives of ordinary citizens, not to allow specific alternative religious courts and social pressures to override civil law. Jew, Christian, Muslim, whatever religion, should be free to practice to whatever degree of intensity they desire. But let us not pretend it is mild. For the mild and the anodyne do not survive in the face of the dramatic onslaught of the Western values of excessive pleasure, indulgence, and egotism that reminds me in no small measure of the last days of the Roman Empire.

Let Erdogan fight for his vision of his state and Israel for hers, so long as they are both honest and fair. Whether it is religion or politics, I would rather we tell it as it is and use terms that honestly differentiate those for whom it is a personal expression of faith, loyalty, morality, and tolerance from those for whom it is an ideology to be imposed and forced onto others.

And whatever New Year you celebrate, may it be a good one!

December 20, 2012

Massacre Of The Innocents

What the heck is it going to take to get an America to do something about its guns? For all that, I far prefer living in this dysfunctional society than I ever did in Europe. Still there is something sick and decadent in this country (yes, I agree, everywhere else too, mutatis mutandis).

It used to be said that every great society passes from barbarism to civilization and then decadence. The USA, the Europeans loved to say, was an example of going from barbarism to decadence without the intervening stage of civilization. Of course that’s unfair and wrong. The USA has achieved in most spheres far more than the old civilizations of Europe. But the way in which it has succeeded is different. America has done well, and badly, through a fighting pioneer spirit and a disregard for logic! It has conflicting values and freedoms. Religion and atheism, capitalism and unionism, legal indulgence and legislative restriction all thrive in a free society with rival ethnic communities, languages, and cultural norms.

America is no longer a predominantly white, religious society but it retains a quasi-religious belief in the right to carry guns even when it conflicts with logic and utilitarianism. Three hundred years ago in there was no proper police force, FBI, National Guard, or army on the American continent. People needed to defend themselves. They got around to banning witch-hunts in the seventeenth century, after all. Just because it was part of American life then, it didn’t have to be forever.

The awful killings at the elementary school in Sandy Hook, one more in the terrible list of successive massacres of innocents just continues the insane litany of irrational and preventable gun deaths. It is silly to say "guns do not kill, only people kill". Of course! People kill with whatever tools are readily available. Americans are addicted to guns. They are everywhere. So people kill with guns. In Japan and China guns are all but unavailable. The day before the Sandy Hook massacre, a man walked into a school in China and stabbed eighteen children. Not one fatality. Can you imagine if he had had a gun?

There are nearly 300 million privately-owned guns in the USA, the highest concentration of private gun ownership in the world. Most are guns designed not for hunting but for killing humans. The per capita rate for murder by gun in America is nearly 100 times that of the United Kingdom. Each year in America, guns are used in approximately 70% of the 17,000 murders, and nearly 19,000 people commit suicide by shooting themselves to death. Almost half of all US households have a gun, and half of those households do not keep their guns locked up.

Children find guns at home and kill other children. Most gun deaths occur in homes and within families. Children die from gunfire in the United States at a rate 25 times higher than that of the 20 next largest industrial countries in the world combined. Since the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, well over a million Americans, children and adults, have died from gunshots, and this continues at a rate 80 people per day, including those simply caught in gang warfare crossfire.

There are dangerous, sick, violent people everywhere. No country can claim a monopoly on them. But if you leave guns around they will use guns. And guns, the average American may be surprised to learn, do more damage than knives. Yet America refuses to act to restrict possession and usage. Neither Obama nor Romney campaigned for gun control. The Supreme Court regularly knocks down attempts to limit guns. The mayor of New York City and the governor of New York both plead for new laws, but Washington simply doesn’t care. Why? Is it THAT corrupt? People complain about the Jewish lobby. Some joke. Complain about the gun lobby instead.

After the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996, Britain tightened up on its gun laws (and indeed carrying knives in public) and there has been no repeat. But in the USA after Columbine, even with Michael Moore’s attempt to link it with the National Rifle Association, nothing changed. Nor did it after the Red Lake massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Batman massacre, the Sikh temple massacre, the Oregon Mall massacre, and it won’t change with Sandy Hook, despite Obama’s crocodile tears. He can push through Obamacare, go off a cliff, but he hasn’t had the guts so far to deal with guns. The outcry is such that now for the first time he is calling for a restriction on assault weapons with large magazines and for stricter tests. I guess now that he doesn’t have to face an election he can afford to. But will he really fight for this against the gun lobby, and indeed the Supreme Court? He will as usual say the right things, but actually do something? I have my doubts and I hope I’m wrong.

In Israel there is a justification for carrying guns. The country is still at war with those who continue to call for its destruction. Most men serve in the army and then in the reserves. There is a constant chance of terrorists blowing up children on buses, at cafes, and in their beds. There are indeed examples of guns used in domestic violence, but nothing to compare with the USA. In Israel guns are a necessary evil not a romantic necessity.

We Jews do indeed believe in self-defense, but we also realize how terrible weapons can be. There is a tradition of covering knives at the Shabbat table. The Temple and its altar were built without metal to remind us that tools of war have no place in a spiritual center. It was the role of the Shoter, the police force, to protect society. We also have a principle of “Lifnei Iver” (Leviticus 19) “Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” We take this to mean that we should not facilitate crime, accidents, or lunacy by making objects or actions that might facilitate them easily accessible.

In rational, sane countries it is the job of these agencies to protect people, not a gun in every child’s hand! You can only allow a weapon to someone who knows and understands its destructive powers. But America stumbles blindly forward in a river of blood fed by a constant supply of tools of death. Not even the assassinations of presidents, of great leaders, seem able to bring them to their senses.

It’s not sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, it is sex, drugs, and firing guns that is the preoccupation and favored pastime of much of American life. No wonder religion flourishes here too. When madness is all around you, only the supernatural gives hope for the future.

Happy Holidays. I’m sure Herod would agree.

December 13, 2012

Haym Soloveitchik in Jewish Review of Books

I have to go back 50 years to when I first met Haym Soloveitchik, the brilliant son of the magisterial and phenomenal late Rabbi JB Soloveitchik. We were young men in Jerusalem in the early sixties and both made very welcome on Friday evenings at the home of Dr. Yaacov Herzog and his wife, Dr. Pnina Herzog.

Yaacov Herzog, if I may digress for a moment, was the second son of the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog. Born in Ireland, and still speaking with an Irish brogue, he had been Israel’s ambassador to Canada, where he gained worldwide fame for a brilliant public debate with the English historian Arnold Toynbee, who had notoriously described the Jews as a fossil with no place in history and compared Israel to the Nazis. Intellectual anti-Semitism has a long record. He returned to Israel to head the Office of the Prime Minister until his premature death in 1972. Such was the range of his knowledge that he was actually appointed Chief Rabbi of the UK in 1966 to succeed Israel Brodie. Sadly for Anglo Jewry, but fortunate for him, he resigned before taking up the job. Isaiah Berlin described him as "one of the best and wisest, most attractive and morally most impressive human beings I have ever known.”

Haym was one of a circle of brilliant minds that gathered round the Herzogs (I was only admitted through my late father’s connection with the Herzog family). He was beginning a career in academic life and I was drawn to him not just for his intellect, but also his strong sense of honesty, morality and indeed his eccentricity, for want of a better word. This incidentally is a quality much valued in British intellectual circles and one I find sadly lacking in too many nowadays. He was one of the reasons I decided against an academic career, because I realized I just did not have his qualities of memory, analysis, perseverance, appreciation of detail and, frankly, intellectual fearlessness. I was not cut out for the ivory tower. I have followed his career over the years and occasionally bumped into him in Jerusalem when our visits coincided, but alas I was drawn too deeply into my more pastoral, interpersonal activities to have had as much contact as I would have loved.

This winter edition of the Jewish Review of Books reminded me of what a brilliant and forthright man he is. He wrote one of the most scathing reviews of another academic’s work I have ever come across. And believe me the academic world is a hotbed of rivalry, vicious infighting, and cruel nastiness. Still, this review is all the more remarkable because most reviewers pull their punches, offer sycophantic plaudits, and at most damn with faint praise, usually with a view to being asked to contribute again. Publishers and their running dogs do not take kindly to having their stars demolished.

The object of Haym’s scorn is a book written by Talya Fishman, professor of Religious Studies and Modern Intellectual History at the University of Pennsylvania. It is entitled Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures. Her thesis is that, unlike conventional wisdom, neither the text nor the authority of the Talmud we have today were fixed until the Tosaphists, the generations succeeding Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040 – 1105) who wrote analytical and legal commentaries to supplement Rashi’s more textual work. They benefitted from the change in European intellectual life from an oral to a written authority around the 12th century. The work is contentious from both sides.

Haym builds his rebuttal on Fishman’s own confession that she is neither a medievalist nor a Talmud scholar and relies almost entirely on secondary scholarship. Had she been able to study the primary texts, she could have avoided the catalogue of basic errors she made that completely undermine her theory. The texts themselves refute her assertions. You have to read the article to get a sense of how comprehensively he demolishes her position.

He also reveals that, having seen an early draft of a crucial chapter, he wrote to Dr. Fishman urging her not to publish the work as it would simply mislead English speaking readers about the historical and textual facts. He goes on to express his amazement that the book won the Nahum M. Sarna Memorial National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. He concludes that the panel of judges simply could not have read the work, or if they had then they themselves were so ignorant of Jewish texts that they lacked the wit or expertise to judge its merit.

The review reflects the genius and the courage of the man, his detailed knowledge of the vast subject of rabbinic scholarship, his penetrating analysis of the subject, his withering rebuttal, and his refusal to water down or compromise his firmly held position. I have not enjoyed such an honest piece of writing in a very long time and it made me appreciate once again what a remarkable man he is.

We are swamped nowadays with exaggerations, overloaded with excessive praise of people for being "brilliant scholars, philosophers, experts and writers" when they are rarely, in reality, anything of the sort. Compliments and praise can be bought or you can pay a public relations person or website to do it for you. It is therefore all the more refreshing to read someone who is unafraid to tell the truth and willing to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Long may he continue to live, write, and represent the most noble of qualities. If only Judaism had more like him.

December 06, 2012

Who keeps the Chanukah flame alive?

What is Chanukah? Thus the Talmud asks, in its only reference to the story of Chanukah. And it answers:
“On the 25th of Kislev are the eight days of Chanukah. We do not mourn or fast then. Because the Greeks entered the Temple and desecrated all the oil there, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame them, they checked and only found one container of oil that still had the seal of the High Priest. It only had enough to last for one day and a miracle happened and it lasted for eight. The following year they fixed these days and kept them for praise and thanks.”
The Talmud goes on to mention the lights and the debate as to whether you start with one flame and add another daily till you reach the eight or whether you start with eight and reduce each day. And we accept Bet Hillel’s opinion that we rise instead of falling.

This Talmudic text is challenging. Why no mention of Judah? Was it because despite his heroics he did not in fact achieve official recognition of Israel as an independent state? Judah’s brother Jonathan was appointed High Priest by Syria. But it wasn’t until the youngest brother, Simon, in 142 BCE that the Jewish state finally achieved independence from the Syrian Greeks. But why then does it not focus on the theme of spiritual revival, the cultural war between the Greek way of life and the Jewish?

The majority of the priesthood at the time was in fact pro-Greek. High Priest Onias (yes, they had Greek names too) introduced the circus and the theater to Jerusalem. They hobnobbed with Greek aristocrats and thought their own people a bunch of primitive peasants. Had Antiochus not tried to force the Jews to abandon their religion, they would probably have assimilated over time on their own. Perhaps the Hasmonean rebellion was simply one over political power. Is that why the rabbis focused on the miracle exclusively, because they had doubts about motives? The miracle was that the light of the people did not go out altogether. This was what Chanukah really was to represent.

There are still conflicting narratives. The two books of the Maccabees were written initially in Hebrew as a record of the Maccabean triumphs and disasters. But they were excluded from the Jewish canon and preserved for a long time only because Catholics included the Greek version of the books in the Apocrypha. In them, Judah Maccabee is presented as the conquering hero. Hence the famous Handel Oratoria “Judas Maccabaeus” with its popular anthem, "See, the conquering hero comes", which in our family we sang to the words of “Hanerot Halalu” as we lit the lights.

The priestly political party, the Sadducees, wanted to extol the Maccabees as heroes because they were priests, aristocrats, and pro-Roman. The party of the rabbis, the Pharisees, on the other hand was always critical of priestly hypocrisy and political machinations. As traditionalists, they couldn’t deny the role of the priesthood in Jewish life, but they stressed the spiritual role rather than the political. Who was right? Perhaps both were right and wrong.

Judah made the political alliance with Rome that opened the way for them to take over the Jewish State. This is precisely why I believe the Talmud glosses over Judah’s role in the revolt. The later anti-Roman rebellions brought passing victories and passing defeats. What survived was the culture, the religion, the moral message. All this was incorporated into the prayer “Al Hanissim” that entered our liturgy after the Talmud. Most scholars would agree that the survival of Judaism was in no small part was because the rabbis incorporated civil aspects of Greek culture instead of refusing to adapt. Much as today we adopt technology while retaining our ancient rituals.

Objective analysis of the historical data shows how during the Chanukah era religion was used to promote self-interest as much as ideology. This has continued. Nowhere is this plainer nowadays than in sectors of our own modern-day zealots.

There is a court case going on in New York against a Satmarer Chasid who is accused of sexually abusing a teen girl sent to him for counseling. For years the Brooklyn District Attorney ignored abuse in the Chasidic community for fear of their power and votes. Finally he has acted. Naturally the sect has rallied round; some have attacked the victims and their families, and others as always claim it is anti-Semitism. A few months ago four Chasidim were convicted of trying to buy off the victims. Last week in court another four were charged with taking photographs with their smartphones of the accuser with intent to intimidate.

Despite the Rebbe’s ban on such phones, the faithful succeeded in posting the photos on Twitter. The four charged were Joseph Fried, Yona Weisman, Abraham Zupnick and, wait for it, Lemon Juice! Yes, that’s right--you can check it out on page A29 of the New York Times, November 30th. Not only do these outstanding examples of Chassidic manhood try bullying victims and ignoring the rules of the court, but one of them tried the old "Mickey Mouse" ruse in the hope of evading prosecution. What does this tell me? That it is fine in his eyes to have no respect for the court, no respect for the law of the land, and no fear of subverting “goyishe” justice. The sad fact is that for such a person usually there is no Yiddish justice either. If such people are keeping our flame alive, frankly I’d rather light a different one.

Was it the zealots, the messianists, the religious fanatics who kept us alive? Not a bit of it. They were all too busy arguing amongst themselves and trying to make a monkey out of each other’s systems! "Lemon Juice" is typical of what is sick in our house. Chanukah reminds me that if we want to fight for our independence, if we want our values to survive, we had better set a moral example; otherwise we will go the way of all the other Jewish sects that disappeared off the face of the earth.