June 27, 2013

Must a Jewish State Be Zionist?

Modern western states are slowly adapting to the idea that no one religion should dominate and all religions within them should be treated with equality and respect. Too often modern states fail not in the theory as much as the practice. There is a powerful reactionary move in parts of Europe and the Middle East to drag everyone backwards towards medievalism by tolerating no-go areas controlled by religious and usually fanatical authorities. Even what is laughably called "mild" Islam in Turkey is failing to protect its secular and other religious minorities.

A state that defines itself as a religious state, rarely gives absolutely equal standing to all its citizens. The only way they will is if religion plays no formal part in the running of the state and its legislature, full stop.

Israel is an example of a hybrid. It is officially secular and democratic and gives equal rights to all its citizens regardless of religion. But it does also give preference to Judaism as a religion and people of Jewish origin. This inevitably has consequences for secular Jews as well as other religions. The compromise worked for many for a while. But it is not working now if most secular Jews, most Christians, and most Arabs feel the state is not protecting or validating them sufficiently.

What is the solution? Recently Israel has allowed Muslim recruits to its army to swear on the Koran. Arab Israelis have equal civil and legal rights; yet it is also true that because they are regarded (sometimes very unfairly) as not fully loyal, they are often discriminated against, not by law as much as convention. To equate this inconsistency with Apartheid, where state legislated discrimination was the rule and interracial sex was a crime, is of course just the stupidity of ignorant or prejudiced idiots. Nevertheless, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. How?

Many Israeli intellectuals seem still caught up in an outdated debate about their identity caused both by their secularism and their left-wing ideology. It’s as if they still lived in the nineteenth century. Currently there’s a fascinating debate about what kind of state Israel should be as two secular Israelis battle it out in the pages of Haaretz. Shlomo Sand, a secular Israeli professor at Tel Aviv University, is notorious for his banal theory that Jews today have no connection with the Land of Israel because they are descended from non-Jewish Khazars who converted a thousand years ago in the Caucasus. No unbiased academic takes this seriously.

But he has a point in challenging the concept of a Jewish Nation as opposed to Religion. In his latest book, How and When I Stopped Being Jewish, he says he wants to be an Israeli but not a Jew. Of course he is welcome and entitled and I would say “bloody good riddance.” But that will not solve the problem of Jews who want to live in a state that supports Jewish values (however one wants to define them). Sand’s arguments have sparked a lively response from other secular Israelis.

Vladimir Shumsky has argued in Haaretz that most Israelis, Jews and Palestinians, feel a Jewish or a Palestinian national identity. This national identity is connected in both cases to a wider community beyond the borders of the state: Jews with world Jewry and Arab Palestinians with world Islam. To substitute an “Israeli nationalism” for this reality makes no sense to those who care about their Judaism of Islam. The only way Israel can truly be a more equitable state of all its citizens is not by eliminating identities but by negotiating rights for both national groups in an Israeli federation, he argues. Plausible, but it evades the question of the relationship between Israeli Palestinians and Palestinian Palestinians within the state.

Secular Israelis and religious Jews can now, if they choose, live safely in many countries outside the state of Israel. Yet many from both camps insist that they have as much right to live in Israel as any other religio-ethnic group that has qualified for a seat in the United Nations. Religious Israelis argue furthermore that whereas a secular Israeli could live the same lifestyle anywhere else in the free world, only in a Jewish state could a religious Jew live where Shabbat is Shabbat and work stops on Jewish festivals. If there are states for Christians and Muslims, where their religions are state-supported and enforced, what moral argument could possibly deny Jews a similar right?

What does the term “Zionism” add to a Judaism that wishes to express itself within a Jewish state? Is it anything more that Jewish Nationalism? Before Zionism was created in the nineteenth century what was the nature of Judaism‘s relationship to the land? Was it not simply the wish to live within a community of practicing Jews on its historical territory? Did that require a political movement? There was no political movement when thousands of Jews moved to Safed under the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. So why add this controversial notion of Zionism to Jewish proactive dynamism? And why not recognize secular Jews in the way, once upon a time, both Jewish commonwealths did, by including everyone, religious or not?

Zionism is a product of its limited time. Judaism has been around for thousands of years. Trying to conflate a nineteenth century nationalist ideology with a millennial religious tradition just cannot work. It’s like trying to fit a fat man into a thin man’s diving suit.

This is why many Israeli politicians now realize that if Israel is to be a Jewish state as opposed to a state for Jews, it must define itself as a Jewish state and support Jewish identity within its mission. The Palestinians should indeed also have a Palestinian state of their own which will define itself in any way it sees fit. Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis, be they secular or religious, should be free to choose which state they want to live in and make whatever adjustments or compromises will be required. This is the fair solution. In theory. Sadly, we know it’s not that simple.

Given the unlikelihood of reaching an agreed solution with the Palestinians for two states, a single state looks a possibility. Under the Ottomans, a government bureaucracy ran the country, and each religion, millet, ran its own affairs. That would be the ideal solution if only the external threat was removed. But it won’t be as long as militant Islam exists and so long a militant Judaism wants to defend itself with maximal demands. Or as long as both sides have political leaders with limited imagination and no stomach for risk taking.

Therefore sadly I see no solution. There is only an unsatisfactory status quo, both externally and internally. That being so we have an obligation to make it as livable, as fair, and as ethical as we possibly can. But ask politicians to achieve that (anywhere) and you’re dreaming!!!!

June 20, 2013

Rape, the Agunah problem, and Bernard Jackson

The treatment of women around the world today remains a blot on humanity. That an Indian judge can counsel a rape victim to marry her abuser beggars belief. The Bible compared rape to murder. The narratives of the rapes of Dinah in Genesis and then Tamar in Samuel 2, whatever else they show, clearly condemn rape. Now it is true the Bible also allows for the rapist to marry the victim; but, ladies and gentlemen, that was three thousand years ago. Consent became embedded in Jewish law before the Common Era. Sadly, half the world and its religions haven’t progressed since then!

Women didn’t get the vote in the UK until 1918, and in the USA in 1919. Switzerland didn’t give the vote to women until 1971--even then, one state held out until 1990. Women were not allowed to take Oxford degrees until 1920. In some prehistoric groups, arguments continue about the size of the female brain and the limitations of female intellect. Nowadays it is clear that women are even more able to gain academic degrees than men. In the USA, four women graduate for every three men. They achieve the highest of offices, run countries, control major companies. And if their numbers at the top are proportionately low, let us not forget that in addition to holding down jobs, most of them actually carry, bear, and rear children.

I was brought up in patriarchal society and a patriarchal home. I have to admit that the Jewish community (as well as the secular) reinforced this absurd and damaging mindset. Modern values have indeed brought us progress (as well as negative side effects). Yet I am ashamed to say that in the very center of my religion women are still treated as secondclass citizens. I concede that the innovations the rabbis introduced two thousand years ago to protect women and preserve their dignity were way in advance of the rest of the world. But in recent generations we have fallen a long way behind. Very few things make me more ashamed of my own religion than the fact that women are still subject to men on matters of divorce. The ensuing blackmail they are too often subjected to is a gross stain on our tradition. The stain of the Agunah was once upon a time simply a matter of men disappearing through force majeur. Now it is overwhelmingly the result of male vindictiveness.

Biblical law also insists that men only inherit their parents estate (unless there are no males). And that technically remains the law. But for a very long time Jewish law has offered plenty of ways round it, such as allocating assets before one’s death or a device for dividing up the estate equitably known as “The Wishes of a Dying Man.” But the issue of the Agunah remains intractable.

Of course I know most religious women are happy with their lot, and most religious husbands are considerate, caring, and supportive. And I recognize that women, too, can use laws for their own benefit and often exercise as malevolent a power as the men. But a religion, any moral system, must be judged by how it treats the weakest, the most disadvantaged of its members, and on this score we are failing.

The Jewish Law Association has just published the proceedings of the Fordham Conference of 2012. There the noble, brave, and persistent Professor Bernard Jackson, one of the unsung moral heroes of our halachic age, presented the summation of years of serious academic by the Agunah Research Unit of the University of Manchester. With little fanfare, he and his team explored every aspect and possible halachic solutions to the problem and offered answers. You can see the work at this link. In my opinion, it is a scandal and a desecration of God’s Name that two years later nothing has changed.

There is also a fascinating piece by Rachel Levmore on “the Agreement of Mutual Respect”, a specifically Israeli attempt to solve the problem. Nevertheless, the refusal of halachic authorities to tackle the issue directly and forcefully instead of relying on secular systems to clear up the mess remains a moral and halachic failure.

It is equally depressing that the late Rav Emanuel Rackman fought long and to the end of his life to resolve the issue yet sadly all his work ended with his passing.

Without a Get, freely given by her husband, a woman cannot remarry. As secularism destroyed the power and authority of autonomous Jewish courts (not necessarily always a bad thing) many husbands simply refused to give religious divorces because they disdained the religious world and wanted to escape it or ignore its demands on them. Then, as commercialism infected everyone, even the most outwardly pious of husbands suddenly realized they could gain financial advantage by refusing to give a religious divorce. As the secular world made divorce easier, more Jewish women gained their freedom judicially from abusive, oppressive, or incompatible husbands. But they then often found themselves tied by their inability to remarry because their husbands blackmailed them over a religious divorce.

You might have thought the combined genius of religious brainpower could resolve the problem. But no such thing happened. In my opinion this is because any pressure seen to be coming from a liberal secular world is perceived as automatically suspect and antireligious. So the Orthodox rabbinic leadership--even its supposedly most open, articulate, and “modern” voices--have just clammed up. If ever there was proof of the moral failure of religious leadership, this issue must be it.

One solution was to use secular courts to enforce Jewish law--an abdication of our responsibility to clean up our own messes. Modern Orthodoxy has tried valiantly to deal with the issue through prenuptials. But the Haredi world has refused to make any concessions.

I am a great believer in equality before the law, and in 99% of Jewish civil law this is so. Just not in matters of evidence and divorce. Regardless of the historical and social reasons, the fact is that nowadays this is simply morally unacceptable and makes us appear ethically deficient rather than “a light to the nations.”

Equality does not mean sameness. Men and women are not, as a rule, the same. In religions, as in other areas such as sport, there are different competitions and systems. I think it has been a disservice to try to merge male and female forms of prayer. At the same time I think it a wonderful development that in the realms of Torah study the opportunities for women are fast closing the gap. I find the circus of Women of the Wall silly and counterproductive because they are descending to the very politicized and corrupt way of dealing with spiritual issues that now mars Israeli society and makes us a laughingstock. I believe most strongly that women must be able to choose to pray as they wish. What is going on at the Wall is nothing more than a political circus on both sides. I am a pluralist in the sense of allowing for freedom of expression and practice. But this fuss over rituals is a side game.

The real battle, that affects lives, not options, is over the Agunah. Until that issue is addressed, I have to say that I love my religion but I am ashamed of its religious leadership for failing to tackle the issue head-on. And I am deeply depressed that Professor Jackson and his team have received neither the kudos nor the reaction they deserve.

June 14, 2013

Pills and Religion

As children in the UK, we used to make fun of Americans with their bottles of vitamins and supplements: a pill for every hour of the day, every limb of the body, and every possible deficiency known to man and animal. The GIs who came over to rescue Europe seemed bigger and stronger and more handsome than the local infantrymen. Some thought it was because of the Bazooka bubblegum and soda they consumed. But perhaps the real secret was that they took all those fortifying pills. We were trained to think of going to a doctor and taking pills as a sign of weakness, of namby pamby overindulgence. We were brought up on Arnold of Rugby’s robust empire-building ideology. No, we decided that we were morally superior because we did not take pills.

We Brits had been forced to be basic. We had to eat our unappetizing food and not leave any on the plate because the poor Chinese were starving (how the tables have turned). We were urged to eat carrots for our eyesight and spinach for iron, bland local vegetables (swedes, turnips, and rhubarb) and (as soon as rationing ended) fruit. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. We hated all that healthy stuff. All we wanted were “chips with everything.” After the war, returning sergeant majors took jobs teaching physical education in our schools. I remember being yelled at often enough “Rosen! Chin in, chest out, you lily-livered little weakling! You have got sparrows kneecaps for biceps!” We tried. But still the Americans won more competitions (perhaps because they had many more millions to choose from). They looked bigger and handsomer and took the girls. Perhaps there was a value in taking pills after all.

Later on, of course, it became clear America was indeed addicted to pills. Not just the vitamins but all kinds of horrid stuff, from steroids and artificial stimulants to Lance Armstrong’s blood replacement and everything that now makes American sport as dirty and dishonest as the old East German sports teams. America is a society in which pills are the answer to everyone’s problems. Pop a pill and it will all be better.

Antibiotics became so popular that people ended up becoming resistant to them. And once you started popping one kind of stuff, you popped others. Then the mentality spread into other areas of instant solutions. Gurus, mystical healers, and kabbalists. Like snake oil salesmen, they all had the answer. Sure, Charles Atlas urged us to exercise, and we had home exercises, then gyms, then spinning clubs. But it is so much easier to pop a diet pill. And even reading became like taking pills, easy, quick instant cliff notes and a self-help culture that inevitably fall back on pills when nothing else worked. Timothy Leary brought us LSD and American hippies made drug taking normal, and then came ecstasy and all the other ways of avoiding reality. Now even many of my Charedi friends are heavily into the game.

If you watch American television today you might think that the most serious threat to our lives is erectile dysfunction. Drug companies dominate the commercials (or “messages” as they facetiously call them). Every American child seems to be on Ritalin and Israelis are imitating them. And adults need a pill to go to sleep, a pill to wake up, and another pill to keep going through the day. Only us older generation Brits still cling to the belief that this pill business is a bit of con, a trick pulled by commercial enterprises in the USA to get us to part with our cash. But we are capitulating too.

And the disease is not simply pills, themselves, but the areas they have completely conquered, like John Wyndham’s triffids. The pill has changed our sex lives in sixties with contraception; it enabled everyone to go at it like rabbits with Viagra. It’s going to ensure that no one should ever go without an orgasm. And the morning-after pill that is now available to everyone (and frankly I am not against it if it means fewer later-term abortions) will ensure that no one has to think before they act. Relationships? An optional extra.

No wonder we have become a species of addicts. From the cradle to the grave we have been trained to take pills for everything. Morphine and opium have morphed into Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, and Tramadol, to name the best known. In New York there is pharmacy on every corner.

One of the most influential books in America today is a handbook of the American Psychiatric Association. It is officially called “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” Known as the DSM, the fifth edition has just been released. This is the bible of American psychiatry, a profession that for years advocated lobotomies, misdiagnosed and invented all kinds of mental states that might or might not have been the cause of every ill in American society. This has led to people being institutionalized or even being persuaded that they had traumatic experiences that led to charges that ruined other lives. It had advocated the talking cure for years. But now it has decided that that takes too long and it is cheaper just to give out a pill. Ah yes, here we go again. So doctors can once again prescribe a quick-fix pill.

So far the fun; I fear I have needlessly insulted Americans, Britons, and Israelis. But to be serious, of course many pills in many situations are essential and quite miraculous. It’s the abuse, the idea of an instantaneous solution without effort, quick and easy, that worries me for our future as a species. And religion, which should be a bulwark against this instant gratification, has borrowed and adapted the very mentality it excoriates as corrupt Western materialist paganism. It is all there amongst the black hats and the long black coats. The wonder rabbi solves our problems. If not a magic cure, a drug will do. Of course, this is not new in our tradition, indeed in all religion. But it is getting surprisingly worse, not better. Superstition is a placebo too.

It is there amongst our less religious too, this desperate need for someone else to take responsibility, something else to blame. Someone I know who is not Orthodox agreed to my suggestion that he put on tefilin every morning to start the day in a more spiritual, meditative frame of mind. He did for a while, and he said it helped. But then he made some terrible decisions, and his business plummeted. Off came the tefilin. He had expected the magic to work and it hadn’t so he blamed the pill!!!

Me? I don’t take pills. I eat healthily and carefully, and I exercise. If I want God to do His bit, I had better do mine!

June 06, 2013

KNAIDEL

Last week a young Indian boy living in New York won the National Spelling Bee, the annual spelling championship. The winning spelling was KNAIDEL, that Yiddish description of a mixture of matzo meal, egg, fat, and spices we usually put in our chicken soup. Incidentally, I cannot imagine any spelling competition in Europe that would include a Yiddish word. Almost immediately the New York press was afire with controversy. How can you say there is only one spelling? Had he suggested KNEYDLE would he have been wrong? After all, that’s how Max Weinreich’s authoritative “History of the Yiddish Language” spells it!

The derivation of this Yiddish word is from the German KNOEDEL, a kind of dumpling. The fact that Eastern European Jews spoke Yiddish, a language that derived from German rather than from a Caucasian dialect, knocks into oblivion the infantile theory, first proposed by Arthur Koestler, that Ashkenazi Jews (Zionists) really descended from non-Jewish Khazars. It suits anti-Israelis to pretend there never was a link between Jews today and the Land of Israel. Every clever mind has an Achilles heel.

But Yiddish is a strange language that was and is pronounced differently across the geographical and sectarian divide. There is an old joke about how it is possible to write Noah (in Hebrew) making seven mistakes when it was spelt with only two letters in the Torah. But take Moses’s name. It is spelled and pronounced Moshe, Moishe, Mowshe, Moyshe, and Maishe in different communities. What I know as a Kneydel is pronounced in the Jewish world as Keneydel, Kneydl, Knoedel, Kniydl, and Kenedel. Yiddish was spoken in a sort of European dog dialect but usually written in Hebrew characters and how it was transcribed varied from local to locale. Who on earth has any authority to say one spelling or pronunciation is right and the other is wrong? OK, so the French have a centralized Academie francaise, which decides to the letter what is correct and what is not, and that probably explains why France is such a mess and most of us would only live there if we had no alternative.

As for transliteration, that surely cannot be determined in terms of right or wrong; only whatever convention the publisher, institution, or person chooses to follow. I have in the past month been invited to contribute essays to three different institutional publications and each one sent me a sheet giving the required translations, transliterations, and styles IT requires, and they all differ.

Take the Hebrew word for a wise man. A Sephardi will call him a Haham (and by the way why PH instead of F in Sefardi, for goodness sakes). Others, mainly academic, will prefer an H with a dot underneath. I prefer CH and others insist on K with or without a dot. I have often used an H without a dot. Sometimes it simply depends on what side of the bed I wake up on. And how do you spell and write Chanukah? Hanukkah, Hannuka, Hanuka, Chanooka, Chanuka or Chanukah? When do you decide there will be an H at the end of Hebrew word? Only when there’s a final Hey, Hay, Hei, or He?

Neither can we agree about the word or the spelling for what men put on their heads. Is it a Capel (or cuppel or cupel or kapel or kappell), a Kippa (or Kipa or cipah), let alone yarmulker, yahmulkah, or perhaps a toupee. Can only one be right?

Translation is subjective. What, then, of pronunciation, spelling, and transliteration? Can there only be one correct? Of course not. That would be arrogant, inconsistent, unfair, and dishonest. We are corrupting the minds and values of innocent young spelling champions, imposing our subjective and arbitrary decisions on them as a matter of life or death, or financial reward.

But, you see, that’s one of the curses of our era. We want to know exactly how a word is spelled (or spelt), pronounced and written. We want to know exactly what it means, even if by now we have all heard Wittgenstein’s aphorism that “the meaning of a word is its use.” We want everything prepackaged, predigested, pre-decided, in black and white, with no room for variety, variation, or inconsistency. In fact, real humans are not like that. And if young Arvind Mahankali (the winner) wants to be a great scientist as he says, he’d better get out of the habit of accepting arbitrary conventions.

And that’s my gripe with Judaism nowadays. People are too busy defining! Are you Reform? Conservative? Reconstructionist? New Age? Modern Orthodox? Orthodox? Ultra-Orthodox? Yeshivish? Chasidic (one or two S‘s?), Charedi (Haredi)? And are you Ashkenazi, Yekke, Pollack, Litvak, Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, or White Russian? Are you Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Persian? And I can tell you the difference between a how a Jew from Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, and London pronounces his Hebrew and thinks he’s better for it, is nothing to the differences between a Mashadi, a Kashani, an Esfahandi, and a Teherani!

Do you “keep” Glatt, Gebroicks, Cholov Yisroel (Yisroel, Yisrael, Israel)? Are you Shomer Negia, Shomer Shabbes, or Shomer fiddle your neighbor? And now in Golders Green we have another one called “Shomer interfere with someone else’s wife.” But for that you need a full beard.

Or take me, an English Ashkenazi Mitnaged. Now rav, rabbi, or Rah Bi (yes, I do know what the late Rav Moshe Feinstein intended by that usage) of an American Nusach (Nusah) Sefardi (no, not Nusach Sfard) Persian shtible or Shtiebel or Shtibel. Either way, it’s the wrong word.

Gosh, we take ourselves so seriously. Where’s the humor? Where’s the variety, and why, for goodness’ sake, can’t we embrace differences and love them, instead of using them to discriminate, humiliate, and to fight about, let alone to prize young love apart? So don’t tell me how to spell, or pronunciate, and above all don’t tell me that your customs or nuances or idiosyncrasies are essential to being a good Jew or anything else. I am me. Accept it? Fine. Don’t? Too bad.