May 30, 2013

God’s Army

You might think the army is the single most effective tool for bringing everyone together in Israel. It is a brilliantly successful citizen’s army designed to protect the nation, an army of the people, by the people, for the people. After all, the struggle to survive is the most primordial of human motivations. Surely we can all agree that we need to ensure survival? But no, sadly, we cannot.

Many religious Israelis strongly believe that sitting and studying Torah all the time is the best possible defense against our enemies and that there is no need for an army because God will protect us.

Others believe there might be a need for an army, but let other people endure the hardships, risks and time, while they pursue a scholar’s life, regardless.

Some agree to a compromise; genuine scholars ought to be granted the privilege of devoting their lives to study but less motivated young men might do well to have some army training and enhanced prospects of getting a job.

And there are, of course, other completely committed religious Jews willingly serve, and they do remarkably well, too. Increasingly, the elite soldiers are coming from the religious nationalist sector of the community, committed ideologically to defending the land, the religion, and the ancient borders promised by the Bible.

Don’t think that secular Israelis are not just as divided.

Some are eager to join the army for its camaraderie and training that in some areas equips them to be captains of industry and internet entrepreneurs.

Many argue that the army is an important tool of education and socialization and the reason that Israel has done better than any other state in integrating such a huge proportion of new immigrants from such diverse languages, backgrounds, and cultures.

Others think it imposes a simplistic, false ideological sense of militarism that conflicts with their sense of morality.

Some refuse to serve because they prefer to spend their time on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Some are cowards.

And some oppose occupation and object to settlements. They do not wish to serve in what they see as the armed wing of corrupt politicians or of governments whose political position they find offensive.

Some Israelis think it intolerable that all Charedi men do not serve in the army and play their part in defending their land.

Others think it’s a jolly good thing they don’t because we all know what happens when fanatics get hold of guns. And no army can allow its officers to be dictated to by rabbis. And it would affect the current role of women in the army. Besides, many of them are simply not army material.

Some argue that an elite voluntary force would be better than forcing people into conscription. Modern warfare needs fewer bodies in boots on the ground and more technical brain power. Others say that brain power is the key nowadays and Talmudic academies are well known for increasing brain power.

And we should not forget that there is a middle option of community service. After all, a similar divide over women serving in the first place was resolved by allowing Orthodox girls to serve in more protected and homogenous groups.

In addition to the variety of opinions, misinformation and mistrust abounds. Many secular Israelis believe that no religious Jews serve in the army altogether. 30% currently do. Most religious Jews think all secular Jews are Godless atheists. Each side tells lies about the other, and each side’s press churns out half-truths and false rumors about the other. The more one side pushes back, the more aggressive the other gets.

This past week we have read about Charedi soldiers being attacked when they returned to their communities wearing army uniform instead of black hats. There was a story about Charedi protesting against other Charedi young men attending a military passing out parade. On the other hand, there are stories about secular commanders making life difficult for religious conscripts: refusing to address their religious concerns and victimizing them. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. This inter-community tension has always been a significant feature of Israeli life.

Whether one agrees with one side or the other, there is a genuine cultural conflict of values and attitudes. Secular Israelis have a value system closer to Hollywood than Jerusalem. Charedi youngsters are brought up segregated and protected enclaves. Their leadership fears that if they are suddenly throw then into a mixed secular environment only the strongest would be able to resist the seduction of a liberal society. But of course one could ask why are there so many brought up within the walls of the Charedi ghettoes who still succumb to temptation even without going into the army.

Many Charedi Jews believe the non-religious genuinely want to destroy their communities and their way of life. Indeed, that’s what many of the early Zionist politicians set out to do. For their part, the secular believe all Charedi Jews are bloodsucking parasites.

In commerce, industry, and academic and professional expertise there are prominent Charedi contributors to Israel today, despite the attempts of the religious leadership to block it (not the money-making, of course; they all want that and glorify the wealth makers in their ranks, even if it means actually taking time off study). A major complication is that those who do not serve are at a great disadvantage in Israeli society because they cannot get jobs or work officially until they do. This effectively prevents very many Charedi men from getting work, and thus increases the burden in welfare.

In fact, in other Charedi communities around the world a much higher proportion do actually get jobs and contribute. In Israel, due to the political nature of the problem, the leadership refuses to budge on principle, and so condemns its own to penury and ignorance.

The allied problem of their refusing to allow even the most basic secular education in their schools exacerbates the problem. Here, too, there are different opinions. In the UK, Charedi schools only get state aid if they conform to minimal government curricular requirements. Why not in Israel? But no. The leadership, in public at least, is immovable, irrational. They posture on the one hand and fear on the other.

The Charedi leadership is suffering from paralysis and refuses to countenance any compromise. It insists that even the mentally challenged should spend all of every day on complex Talmudic debate rather than develop other skills that could be put to some use. It wasn’t always that way, incidentally. It is just that over the years positions have hardened and reversed.

If we can’t resolve these internal issues, how in the name of heaven can we hope to make any arrangement with anyone else even further removed? No, I don’t have an answer. It seems intractable and only a miracle of Divine intervention can solve it. So then how am I any different than those Charedi rabbis who say we must do all we can for God because He alone is capable of getting us out of this mess? The Talmud says we may not rely on miracles, but we do!

I have just heard that in committee a law has been agreed, with compromises, to extend the draft but allow for some exemptions. It hasn’t passed the Knesset yet. It might not. But after all my pessimism, there is a ray of hope. Perhaps we can do it without Divine help after all!

May 23, 2013

Michael Gove & History

It is a popular misconception that there is no precise word in the Bible for “history”. But the Bible uses the words “Divrei Hayamim”, which we translate as the two books of Chronicles. That sounds very much to me like what I understand history to be. We have the word for story, “Tolda”, the unfolding of generations, from father to son and mother to daughter. Even if I agree it usually is the narrative of male chauvinists (his story) still there are plenty of contrasting narratives within the whole. If history means objectivity, then of course the Jewish story is a story with an agenda; God’s involvement in the history of a people. In the ancient world one did not record one’s defeats and failures. Remarkably, the Bible did. And we have a tradition of reinterpretation and adaptation, even if it always struggles against conservative interests. I hope this blog often shows how we have changed perspectives, adopted and adapted external ideas, and continued to struggle to adjust our Jewish narrative to changing reality while remaining loyal to our past.

“This is the story of Mankind,” says Genesis (5:1) and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) adds that our forefathers were taught “Dor Dor Ve Dorshav”, “Each generation (has its unique features), its wise men and its leaders.” “Jeptah in his generation was like Samuel in his” (Rosh Hashanah 25b). Human affairs are always fluid. Our tradition requires us to study and know how our story has unfolded, its triumphs and its failures. We recount them all, we preserve them all, and we teach them all. What we add is the extra concept of “Zachor”, remember. We are commanded to remember our past. Memory in itself is not enough unless it is translated into action. That’s what has helped us survive and what makes our attitude to history special.

I was fortunate to have two unconventional but highly inspirational history teachers. So I know that a great teacher is worth so much more than a curriculum. Nevertheless, I have witnessed over the years a significant change in the way history is or is not taught in schools nowadays. Out has gone chronology, looking at great spans of history, and in has come more detailed analyses of sources. This is a tragedy. Not because details are unimportant or that specificity is insignificant. But if one has little understanding of one’s cultural past, it is very difficult to understand one’s present.

I was fortunate to be educated in England at a time when we were expected to understand the unfolding of English life over a thousand years. I was doubly fortunate to have learnt about Jewish history and the occasions when the two narratives conflicted. I could see what the Crusades did for the Normans and how disastrous they were for the Jews. How Jews were expelled from England, and then how vigorously the bishops and aldermen fought against Cromwell’s desire to allow the Jews to reenter. In 1753, Parliament passed the Jew Bill to allow Jews civil rights. George III signed it, and then Lord Newcastle repealed it the next year because of the popular outcry. All of this colored my view of Britain. So when I came to study the Empire it was with a mixture of pride and disdain.

It is so sad that in much of Britain today not only does the curriculum not include the past, glorious and infamous, but now no longer requires students to know anything about the two World Wars. And in the USA many a college education no longer requires certain basic information. I have always made a bird’s eye view of Jewish history an essential feature of any Jewish curriculum I have ever taught.

As each country becomes more multicultural and includes large numbers of citizens from other cultures, I believe it is even more important to teach everyone the history of the host society as well as others. This does not mean ignoring its disasters or excluding other narratives. Certainly one must avoid contempt or intolerance. It should be critical. But one needs a basis, a point of reference, a foundation from which to compare and contrast. If “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”, then factual information is the beginning of historical knowledge.

In most colleges in the US, the educational system has been serious degraded by kowtowing to cultural relativism. Let alone the dumbing down of standards and curricula. There is nothing wrong with teaching all the various different histories, religions, and cultures around the world. But one needs to start somewhere, and that somewhere is the national narrative, its home.

Britain currently is fortunate to have in Michael Gove, an education secretary who has at last put his foot down and insisted that the school curriculum combines both chronology and a national narrative. In doing so, he has of course stirred up a hornet’s nest. Britain is usually so painfully politically correct. The debate is between those like me, who support chronology and standards, and those who argue that English history is “his story” or just about “posh white blokes”. It may well be. Nevertheless, some “posh white folk” abolished slavery before anyone else did. They supported the idea of a Jewish homeland when no one else did. British history has the good as well as the bad and the ugly.

The mood of appeasement that plagued Britain after the First World War should have taught it certain lessons about relinquishing pride, heritage, and moral backbone. Sadly, the current mood of refusing to recognize and then deal with the imported septic tank of ideology that opposes the culture of the country and seeks to overthrow it, is no different than the challenge that revolutionary Marxism once presented to free societies, which seduced much of the elite of its era.

If one studies chronological history one will recognize those recurring patterns. Otherwise like an ostrich it pretends it is only a few crazies who go round murdering in the name of a cause, it is not serious. Hitler can be negotiated with.

There was and is anti-Semitism, racism, chauvinism, and arrogance in every society. But there is also often a lot of good. It is an error not to study and learn from the past, be it in the UK or the USA. Once upon a time the USA was a beacon of liberality and equality. Over the years it has waxed and waned, delighted and disappointed. I fear it is fallen now to the disease of relativity and no standard at all. Statism rivals Wall Street for self-interest and power. Values give way to interests. Poor H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n must be turning in his grave.

May 09, 2013

Shavuot - A Kid In Its Mother's Milk

“Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.“ It is a puzzling statement that is repeated three times in the Torah. Twice it is connection with Shavuot, the summer first fruits and harvest festival. The third time is in the context of forbidden foods. Traditionally, these texts have been taken to ban cooking, eating, and benefitting from milk and meat together.

There’s a cute joke: Moses is up on Mount Sinai and the Almighty is conveying the text of the Torah to him. They come to “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, and Moses looks up and says, “By this I assume you mean we should not eat meat and milk dishes at the same time.”

“No,” replies the Almighty, “I simply said, ‘Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

“OK,” says Moses, “So you mean we should have separate dishes for meat and milk."

“No,” says the Master of the Universe, “I simply said, ‘Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

“Fine,” says Moses, “So you mean we should wait six hours after meat before we can eat milk?”

“Alright, Moses,” says the Holy One, “have it your way.”

Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, hazards a guess that this was an ancient pagan harvest custom that the Israelites were forbidden to imitate. But there was no external support for this theory until 1929, when at a site in Syria called Ras Shamra, that is now known as Ugarit, a French archaeologist uncovered the first of more than a thousand cuneiform tablets from about the 14th century B.C.E.

One of these tablets, experts later claimed, describes a Canaanite religious ritual, part of the worship of their chief god El, which included a command that was deciphered to read, "Cook a kid in milk.” Out of this emerged the claim that the pagans did indeed have a practice of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. Given the repeated insistence in the Torah of not imitating local pagan worship, this would explain the Biblical Law. Maimonides' intuition seems to have been right. Even the great Biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto of the Hebrew University was taken in. Unfortunately, this theory was based on a mistranslation. The Ugaritic said nothing of the sort. The Ugaritic word gd doesn't mean "kid", and there was no mention of milk nor of cooking.

Perhaps the prohibition was linked to the other Biblical laws requiring humans to treat animals with consideration. Laws included not sacrificing a newly born animal until it has had a week with its mother (Exodus 22, Leviticus 22), taking care of lost animals or helping them when struggling under heavy loads (Exodus 23), not slaughtering a mother and child on the same day (Leviticus 22), sending away the mother bird if you want to take away the eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22), not getting disparate animals to work under the same yoke (Deuteronomy 22), and not muzzling an ox while it threshes (Deuteronomy 25).

Philo of Alexandria suggested a more abstract idea, that "it is unacceptable that the very liquid that sustained the animal at birth should now be used in its death” (De Virtute 13). And this links to the idea of separation. The Israelites were told to separate themselves from the pagans, both morally and behaviorally. The idea of not mixing is found in the laws of Kilayim, sowing different plants together, or crossing plants and animals (Shatnez, wearing wool and flax), holy spaces from communal ones, permitted foods and forbidden foods, permitted unions and forbidden unions, God’s time and human time, meat from blood. It’s a recognition of difference, an awareness of everything that goes on around one in the natural world and the human world. And that’s where babies in their mother’s milk comes in. It is a separation of life from death and an assertion that life is our primary concern on earth. You might also apply this logic to priests and laymen and see the whole structure as a response to pagan priests and practices. And indeed it explains all the Biblical laws that relate to blood of one sort or another. But as the Talmud says, the only Biblical law with an explicit reason, limiting the King in pursuit of sex and money, was contravened by King Solomon precisely because he reasoned he was above it. Anything based on reason alone is risky.

All these attempts at rational explanations are all very well. It’s the sort of sophisticated anthropological symbolism that Mary Douglas writes about so brilliantly in “Leviticus as Literature”. Which, incidentally, is the best commentary on the sacrificial system in Vayikra that I have ever read. But is it relevant? Is all this guesswork anything more than an intellectual exercise? We try to explain the laws of kashrut through medical or utilitarian theories but none of them cover the entire subject. Like them, this seemingly obscure law is part and parcel of the whole system of Jewish lifestyle of modulating all human activity, from sex to food. The way to do that is through law and custom, regardless of origin. In effect, when one considers it this way, the rabbis were right to emphasis the practical, to expand on the poor little kid. Actions speak louder than words.

Why do I keep these laws? It certainly isn’t because of archaeology or complicated associations of ideas. I keep then because they are part of an existing way of life I subscribe to and enjoy, part Divine, part human. They reinforce all sorts of emotions. That is how most thinking religious people relate to their religious traditions. Does the intelligent Christian really believe the myths of the Gospels? Does the reflective Muslim really think that a warring, illiterate Bedouin was given a work of poetic genius in his sleep, or does a Mormon believe that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Tablets? Does an academic Hindu believe the panoply of gods is anything more than symbols and points of reference? And how many of us Jews now literally believe “The sun stood still in the valley of Ayalon”? We delude ourselves into thinking religion is primarily theological orthodoxy. It is concerned with narratives (some like to use the word ‘myth’) and rituals that should lead to correct actions and appropriate thought. This should be the function of ritual of course, not just routine thoughtless behavior.

Does it matter where eating cheesecake on Shavuot came from, or how late the idea of Shavuot being the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation emerged, or whether the Tikkun was an invention of seventeenth century Kabbalists? It is all interesting and worthy of study, of course, but it is not the reason we do it all. That lies deep in our human minds and in our mystical souls, as well as in the very basic physiological need for order, system, and a structure for facing the constant challenges and pressures of life.

Chag Sameach!

May 02, 2013

Soccer Hooliganism

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the sad fact that the supporters of London soccer club, Tottenham Hotspur, attract the violent attention of fascist thugs wherever they travel abroad. Soccer is a battleground in Europe and too often an outlet for racism and Judeophobia.

In Britain football clubs were proxies for religious wars. In cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow, the major clubs were traditionally and until recently either Protestant or Catholic. I once experienced a Glasgow Rangers versus Celtic derby sitting between a Catholic priest and a minister of the Church of Scotland. When the Protestants stood to sing the National Anthem, “God save the Queen”, the Catholic half of the stadium booed and cursed. And when the Catholics sang their anthem, “You’ll never walk alone”, the Protestants erupted in vitriol, hurling abuse at the pope. I was kissed on my right check when Rangers scored and on my left when Celtic did. Mercifully, the game ended in a one-one draw.

For some reason, London avoided the religious divide. Most Jews in working-class London tended to support Arsenal, whereas the more genteel middle classes went for Tottenham. Tottenham Chutspa, as we called them, but mostly known as “The Spurs”, was my father’s team. He took me to watch them play several times. I remember fondly, in those days of standing terraces rather than seats, the crowds delighted in shouting out running commentaries and abuse, sarcastic comments that mercilessly lambasted unfortunate errors and made fun of any player off his game. “Hey, Jimmy! Yer shorts are too long. Are you playing for the other side?” It was done in a spirit of good humor that made it an art form that was every bit as entertaining as the match itself, and my father used those same skills to humiliate our school team every time he watched us play! It spurred us on to try harder.

As British society began to fracture and change during the sixties, hooliganism became the norm at soccer matches. Thugs went to fight as much as watch the game. Pitched battles were the norm. Families no longer dared to go. Chants became crude hate-filled rants. Black players were taunted unceasingly. But then a series of tragedies slowly forced the authorities to think deeply about the way the game was going and how to separate warring gangs of rival toughs.

Television poured in huge sums of money. Stars who had earned working-class wages now joined the league of millionaires. Young, barely literate thugs suddenly strutted the social scene, flaunting their wealth in the demimonde world of nightclubs, crooks, and hookers. And of course they fuelled the pathetic cult of celebrity. For the first time, successful Jewish businessmen entered the fray. Soon both Spurs and Arsenal had Jewish owners, and even Chelsea, once regarded as the most anti-Semitic of clubs, found a vaguely Jewish Russian oligarch to pour millions into it.

Nevertheless, Tottenham Hotspur seemed to have more of a Jewish presence than the rest and, slowly, working-class fascist thugs around the country started to chant anti-Semitic invective against Spurs supporters. The Spurs fought back. Even the non-Jewish supporters reveled in calling themselves the “Yiddos”, and they actually adopted the name as a badge of honor. The taunting didn’t work.

In Britain, anti-Semitism was always there amongst the thuggish elements (as well as the elites), but it wasn’t the biggest problem. Racism became the toughest hatred to dislodge. One might have expected the arrival of the large black and Muslim population to lead to violence between them and Jews at soccer matches. This didn’t happen significantly in the UK. The immigrants, both black and Muslim, stayed away in significant numbers (the rising cost of entry tickets didn’t help). They concentrated on sports the British Empire taught them, such as cricket where skill alone enabled the former colonials to regularly humiliate their old Imperial masters.

Just as Spurs was the Jewish club in London, so in Holland was Ajax. Ajax Amsterdam had, in fact, been founded by Jews and was known as a Jewish club long after most Jews had left. Its supporters took to waving Israeli flags and of course this inspired reactions. Similarly in Ireland, Protestant soccer clubs adopted a pro-Israel stance in reaction to Catholic anti-Semitism. Any whiff of an Israeli player or team in Ireland produces a hate fest of anti-Semitism such as, “Send him to the gas chambers!” Somehow, away from Britain anti-Semitism felt freer to flaunt itself. And things have been getting increasingly evil.

There was a time when it was British supporters travelling abroad who instigated the violence. But as Britain toughened up on its own game, the notorious football riots of twenty years year past have receded. Violence, racism, and indeed anti-Israelism still erupt at English soccer matches every now and again, but at least the players and the authorities are responding. Still, soccer players in Britain are not the most cultured or educated example of homo sapiens or even of soccer players. That’s why England rarely wins anything. Whereas Germany, more cerebral as well as tough, do so much better. Perhaps it is because German players tend not to have tattoos, neither do Ronaldo or Messi. Beckham, on the other hand, is covered in them, and he covers his bases by having a cross as well as two Hebrew phrases.

In Europe after the war, it was unfashionable to be anti-Semitic and indeed anti-Israel; this has now changed. We are seeing an increase in attacks on any sign of Jewish or Israeli presence. That is why so many Tottenham supporters travelling abroad in Europe are being attacked and injured.

Just as it is pretty widespread now in the world of classical music to disrupt concerts featuring Israeli performers, so the violence directed at Jews and Israelis in Europe is a sign of a broken moral compass. You can’t blame the game or the music. But you can blame people. Unless the authorities act quickly and forcefully to stop abuse of any sort, the disease will spread.
PS - I was born in Manchester, so I support United!