November 28, 2013

Jewish Meditation

In my youth the Beatles, notably George Harrison, introduced us to Transcendental Meditation and a variety of other Eastern religious practices. Yoga had been popular long before, of course, so had Rabindranath Tagore, whom my father read. If the practices were completely devoid of any outside religio-cultural association, there was no problem in trying them out, any more than fitness training might create a conflict of interest with Judaism, which of course it did not.

I gave yoga a shot for a while, but soon lost interest. Later on I read the books that the late and much lamented Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote on meditation in Judaism. I would close my eyes, imagine a selected letter of the Hebrew alphabet and focus on that letter for as long as I could. That then gave way to concentrating on what looked like black and white clouds that I would “see” as I closed my eyes. At the very least, it relaxed me more often than not. Sometimes it transported me into a different world in which I felt myself to have gone beyond my own body and into the “spiritual”. This became a daily habit, before I started my morning prayers and at various other times during a day as the opportunity arose.

When the Talmud (Brachot 32b) said that “the early pious ones use to wait an hour in preparation before they started to pray,” this was precisely what they must have been doing, meditating to get in the mood. I studied medieval mystics like Abraham Abulafia and saw that they were practicing various forms of mystical meditation; I realized that meditation had for a long time been part of our own Jewish tradition. Many of the greatest rabbis and Chasidic masters used these meditations in their different ways. It was a tool, to prepare for prayer, to make prayer itself more personal and meaningful, and to enhance the spiritual side of their religious lives.

You may well wonder, if this is so, why there has been a conspiracy of silence in much of the Orthodox world for so long. I believe it is, in part, a reaction against the excesses and abuses of Kabbalah in the past, men like Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank. In addition in post-Enlightenment Europe at any rate, the rise of rationalism tended to mock mysticism. Nowadays there is a return towards this other aspect of Jewish religious experience precisely because we know too well the limitations of science (as well, of course, as its benefits).

On many occasions during my teaching life, I have given courses on meditation in Judaism and on practices popular in the Kabbalah, not as ends in themselves but as means to fuller Jewish spiritual life. So for me all of this is nothing new. It is an essential part of my Judaism and has been for most of my life.

Now The Economist has discovered it (November 16th). Meditation is all the rage in cyberspace it seems and what’s more “it is keeping capitalism alive.” The article makes some interesting assertions. “Buddhism stresses the importance of ‘mindfulness’.” Indeed, but so does Judaism, and without the need to reject materialism either. This is the reason for blessings in our ritual, to think and consider before one acts. “Taking time out from the hurly burley of daily activities.” Isn’t that what Shabbat, festivals, and indeed daily prayer are designed to do? Judaism has always tried to combine being part of the ordinary material world while yet preserving the alternative spiritual counterbalance. Not going overboard in either direction--Maimonides’s Golden Rule.

Now all of a sudden this “mindfulness” stripped of its original ascetic dimension is the fashion, and everyone is trying it. Something that has always been part of our tradition is now suddenly taken up by Google, eBay, Twitter, and Facebook. They all advocate meditation in general, as well as offering courses within the company. And hey, presto, it becomes kosher!

But the article goes on to say, “The biggest problem with mindfulness is that it is becoming part of the self-help movement and hence part of the disease that it is supposed to cure.” That is precisely the problem that we have seen. The hijacking of Kabbalah from an intense supra layer over a framework of religious daily practice, to a popular quick fix with minimal commitment or religious investment, a Hollywood fad.

That is the modern way. But it is doomed to mediocrity, as any popular movement is as its shine wears off. History has taught us (so has Malcolm Gladwell, distilling the wisdom of others) that only intense involvement in any subject or sphere brings mastery. So it is with religion. As the world suddenly discovers what we have known for millennia. Sadly, too many in our tradition treat religion as a social phenomenon or a means of social control. It is stripped of its deeper meaning and spiritual heights and replaced with ugliness, materialism, and banality. In furniture, music, and clothes we either glorify kitsch or bathos. I look around me and I do not like what I see. But when I return to the actual content of Torah and its mystical depth, I thank the Almighty for our heritage. “Thanksgiving” in the USA is once a year. For me it is every day.

November 21, 2013

Limmud UK

The very first Limmud Conference was held at Carmel College in the UK during my time as principal. Alastair Falk, a teacher at Carmel, and some friends had been to a CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) in the USA and come back enthused by the range of participants, the enthusiasm, and the mood of commitment. Initially they thought only of replicating CAJE for teachers, but over time the concept expanded to become a forum for the study and experience of Jewish religious and cultural life. Over the years I have attended Limmud events. It now spans the Jewish world and brings together virtually the complete spectrum of Jewish life to celebrate Jewish culture, to study, to learn, and to debate.

The more successful Limmud became, the stronger the opposition from Charedi and not-so-Charedi rabbis in the UK. But why? Because Limmud commits the cardinal sin in UK Charedi eyes of welcoming all Jews regardless of denomination or degree of religiosity and gives everyone a platform. It is truly independent. It is not affiliated to any movement inside Judaism or out. Anyone who has something to say or teach can come and pitch his or her tent . So you might get a Reform teacher in one room and a Charedi teacher in the next. No one has to listen to anyone he does not want to and you can go right through Limmud attending every single hour of lectures and never hear one word of heresy. But yes, the opposite is true too. It’s a Jewish free for all. And UK religious authorities hate independence or anything they can’t control.

The Beth Din imposed a boycott that hitherto has succeeded in preventing most Orthodox rabbis in the UK from attending. They also reigned in any independent-minded rabbi who was unfortunate enough to be employed by the dominant and Orthodox institution of Anglo-Jewry, the United Synagogue. The previous Chief Rabbi Sacks, who was appointed on a much-trumpeted platform of inclusivity, lacked the fiber to stand up to the Right Wing. Not only did he not try to overrule what was, on paper at least, his court, but he betrayed his real constituency by refusing to go to Limmud, himself. Of course the former Chief Rabbi’s defenders have argued, with some justification, that his contribution to Jewry far outweighs his lapses. But genuine leadership is not just concerned with speaking and writing. It should involve action.

In Britain it is very rare for Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis to come together or to appear on a common platform. The official policy of the Beth Din is against any form of fraternization or cooperation. As if this will stop the drift towards assimilation. Barring gates never works. Strengthening and disseminating powerful values is what does, as the Baal Teshuva movements have shown. If you don’t like something, argue your case.

But Limmud is primarily for study. We, the people of the book, for whom study is probably the single most important factor in our survival, should welcome any opportunity to reach a wider Jewish audience. So what’s the issue? On paper it is the notion of recognition; if you invite other people with other ideologies you are “recognizing” the validity of their points of view. Strangely, this argument does not seem to apply to non-Jews. If a Chief Rabbi goes to Westminster Abbey to represent the community, is he thereby admitting that Christianity is right and Judaism is wrong? If a Chief Rabbi publicly debates with an atheist, is he thereby recognizing atheism? Of course not. But some on the right seem to think that if I attend a conference at which there are Reform rabbis, I am thereby accepting the validity of their ideology. We are more aggressive with internal schisms than we are with external threats. Freud put it beautifully as “the narcissism of little differences.” This is precisely why competing Chasidic dynasties engage in fisticuffs or why rabbis who back a different politician get beaten up.

Isn’t one of the successes of Chabad that they welcome and speak to and accept any Jew, regardless of affiliation? Does it mean that they are recognizing their different ideologies? If one has confidence in one’s own ideology, why not share it? Did the great proselytizers of our Talmudic past fear that talking to Pagans or Samaritans or Sadducees meant they recognized their points of view? Even the Mishna has rabbis teaching and working together with Sadducee priests who were not so different to Reform rabbis today. If there is a gathering of Jews eager and willing to learn, it is a scandal if Orthodox rabbis refuse an invitation to attend and a platform for their ideas.

The newly installed Chief Rabbi of the UK Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to his great credit, has realized that he is not the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak, but of a broad Modern Orthodox and not so Orthodox community. He has declared he is going to attend. Good for him, and at last someone prepared to be true to his values. He was immediately and publicly attacked by the High and Mighty. Surprisingly, some other important rabbis not hitherto considered extreme, joined the nay chorus. At least Rabbi Mirvis has the guts to stand firm where others crumbled.

But what does this tell us about the Charedi world? It is one in which they resort to bully tactics to impose their point of view and one in which, ostrich-like, they think that if they bury their heads in the sand the problem will disappear.

The world of those committed to Torah and living it and studying it with passion is growing exponentially. But at the same time it is also facing a serious crisis. Latest figures show that while the employment rate amongst Orthodox Jews is 80%, amongst Charedi Jews it is 40%. What is the response of the leadership? To pretend there’s no problem. To go on insisting that any secular studies are against Torah, to bluster and ban and condemn.

There are millions of Jews out there eager for a passionate, Torah-imbued but reasonable and rational alternative. Most Jews are abandoning Judaism out of sheer ignorance. There are talented Charedi teachers who can show the depth and beauty of our tradition to Jews, regardless of denomination. But for reasons I cannot honestly fathom some rabbis still refuse to condone Jews going to Limmud to study.

Limmud is not an agency for according recognition. It is not a religious authority. It is simply a very successful forum for Jewish study and Jewish life of all sorts. There is not one good reason why any Jew should not go there to teach or to interact.

November 14, 2013

Little Boxes

I was brought up to be an outsider. My late father, Kopul Rosen, was born in London, educated primarily in Mir in Lithuania, and served as the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. In 1948 he resigned to establish a Jewish residential school in the English countryside. That’s where I was brought up. It was outside of the established Jewish community, in a fiercely and proudly Orthodox atmosphere, in splendid isolation. My father was a contrarian. A passionate Zionist, he resigned from the Religious Zionists when they went into politics. He was fiercely proud of old yeshiva (my Hebrew name, Yerucham, is that of the Mashgiach, the spiritual advisor who had a profound impact on him). Yet he had no patience for obscurantism or narrow-mindedness. My father believed in our getting the best education possible, Jewish and secular. So I went eventually to the best yeshivot in Israel and to study philosophy at Cambridge University.

But I did not really belong in either completely. My spiritual life was on hold during my university years, and my rational, intellectual life shut down while I concentrated on fitting in and studying hard in yeshiva. But I knew I loved Judaism and that I wanted to represent it in an alien and unfriendly world.

My distaste for politics in Israel, particularly religious politics, drew me back to the diaspora. My antipathy towards religious establishments meant that I sought out independent Orthodox communities rather than the “big jobs”. I had no interest in committees, politics, or manipulation. I particularly disliked the way religious, not just rabbinic, organizations tended to be bureaucratic, insensitive to individual needs, and concerned more with power than spirit. So I reinforced my sense of not belonging, of being an outsider even as I strived to teach and represent an established religion.

My philosophical training meant that I could not just accept cliches or religious dogma without examination or questioning. And my passion for Torah meant I could not disregard or stand aside when anyone was suffering in the name of, or because of religious exclusivity. I tried to become a champion of the alienated and the disenfranchised. This was as true of the outside world as it was of my inner Jewish world; I joined and rose within the ranks of the anti-Apartheid movement in Britain.

So after all these years of being a rabbi, a lecturer, a teacher, on three continents, I am still fundamentally a misfit. I have spent time in and amongst the most extreme Chasidic sects and rabbinic courts and loved them. Not a day goes by when I do not delve into Talmudic intricacies and concepts, when I do not feel close to God. Yet few days go by without classical music, philosophy, and Western ideas. I am all but none exclusively. Reform Jews do not understand my commitment to Jewish law, and many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not understand why I care so much about those who are not. I can sit at any table and feel relaxed and happy, but only part of me is there. My late mother used to call me a chameleon. I am more Jewish than non-Jews, more non-Jewish than many Jews. I am more secular than religious and more religious than secular. I am more left than right and more right than left.

Let me just give you a snapshot of my discombobulation.

In the USA I feel repelled by Tea Party Republicans and by evangelical Christians who want to convert me and by Muslim extremists who want to kill me. I do not trust protestations of Left Wingers who claim to be disinterested. I do not trust Bill De Blasio not to undermine the wonderful and safe atmosphere of New York that I enjoy so much. Yet I know I am exceedingly privileged and fortunate to be able to live the life I live. I agree, the gap between rich and poor is unacceptable, and big business dictates spending, rather than need and poverty.

Now switch eastwards. I do not understand why Jews would still want to live in a European world increasingly antagonistic towards Jews and Israel. Further eastwards I badly want peace in Israel and an end to occupation, and yet I cannot bring myself to believe that Hamas will ever tolerate a Jewish state right there in the middle of the Dar al-Islam.

I read that Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu is back in Israeli politics, having been exonerated of charges of corruption, money laundering, and deceit. I feel an overpowering sense of despair and disgust that the Jewish state will be represented by such an unsavory, thuggish, tub-thumping, neo-racist. When I read that Chareidi thugs can go and beat up an old rabbi because he supported another candidate to be Mayor of Jerusalem, I want to have nothing to do with such people. When I read of corrupt dayanim, of recalcitrant husbands, of rabbis who are sexual predators, all getting away with it, how can I possibly recite the same prayers as they do?

When I see the hypocrisies of politics, the sexual corruption of modern life, the abuses and misuses, the pursuit of money as the ultimate value of most societies, I find it terribly depressing. Yet at the same time there is so much good. Socialism has brought us not just the corruption of unions but the protection of the weak and the social welfare without which Orthodoxy would never have been as strong as it is today.

I feel just like one of those silver pinballs in the machines in the old entertainment arcades of my youth (now it’s all computerized and we don’t have jukeboxes any more, only iTunes). Why do I have belong where I do not feel comfortable? Why cannot we make our own choices and live our own lives according to our own decisions? Why can’t religion accept that its role is to provide services and inspiration, not control? Why not appreciate and nurture the individual souls instead of looking at the exterior conformity, the shells? Every single denomination and variation of every religion, as far as I can see, is as guilty of exclusion and pettiness as every other.

I am no model. Lord knows I’ve got it wrong as often as not. But we have to try to be honest with ourselves. We can and should keep our own boundaries and preferences. But we need to stop trying to impose them on others. Sometimes, it is true, the other side just won’t let us. Human conflict, the desire to appear to be better, morally superior, holier seems endemic and universal. Yet if small groups, ethnicities, religions don’t fight for their own space they will disappear. I fight to keep Judaism alive because I believe it matters and has something good to say. But I feel that most of my coreligionists don’t seem to care.

November 07, 2013

Superstition

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was a doughty activist against superstition and black magic. A gentle man but fiercely rational, he would travel throughout India exposing frauds, fakers, and tricksters. But he so enraged people who made a living out of superstition that he was shot dead at the age of 67, just a few weeks ago.

Judaism desperately needs a Dr. Dabholkar. We have been getting more superstitious as time goes by, not less. We may look condescendingly at Indian susceptibility to multiple gods and superstitious practices, but it seems to me that most Jews are not very different. Perhaps we are so insecure, gullible, and troubled that we are only too willing to believe any rabbi who claims he can perform some charm or magic, that we throw millions of dollars each year at people who take advantage of our weakness in the name of religion. What is more, if you call it “kabbalah” you are guaranteed a whole legion more of suckers.

I understand that people are insecure and weak and need props, supports and placebos. I understand that for all the technological advances of society humans remain fragile, insecure organisms that need to feel protected. But what is really troubling is that hardly any rabbis of note are prepared to speak out against this epidemic of delusions.

Maimonides, in his rational moments, was clear that references in our ancient sources to spirits, evil eyes, and other such supernatural phenomena were of significance only in that people actually believed in them and therefore psychosomatically, as we would say today, they actually affected them. If someone believed he had been cursed he felt cursed, and it took its toll on him. In parts of Africa I am told, to this day if the Witch Doctor says someone will die, he or she goes off to a special hut and dies. I often encounter people who explain their failures or tragedies in terms of the “Evil Eye”.

Until relatively recently the way everyone looked at the natural universe was through astronomy and its daughter, astrology. The Biblical word Mazal simply meant the heavenly bodies and they knew that the sun and the moon affected things on earth one way or another. But people believed that spells, charms, and incantations carried out by shamans and witches could change the course of the stars and our fates. Paganism asserted that we were the playthings of the gods and our fates were decided by them and the planets. The more you worshipped, the more gods you had, the less the likelihood of trouble.

In contrast, monotheism posited that in so far as anything could be affected on earth, it was our relationship with God, our actions that determined what happened. We might be able to avoid some or certain tragedies. But even then we had to accept and resign ourselves to whatever the Divine Will was. There were indeed things beyond our control, and if we could not change them we had at least, like Job, to bear them and accept them and make the best out of it all. There were no lucky charms with any guarantee. But that did not stop people from wanting them, from needing them.

The Biblical oracles disappeared either because they were captured in war or because they were abused. “King Hizkiyahu hid the Book of Cures and smashed the bronze Serpent (of Moses’s days) and the authorities of the day approved it” (Brachot 10b). Back in those days our religious leadership had guts and confidence.

But then Kabbalah emerged as a force within Judaism. It is a wonderful body of knowledge, not some dangerous hocus pocus to terrify little children. But in addition to the majesty of a way of refining one’s spirituality, to harness Divine energy, parts of it absorbed a great deal of medieval magic, angelology, and folk cures. And so today many Jews are still fearful of kabbalist curses such as the notorious “Pulsa Di Nura,” the strokes of fire, that was supposed to have caused Rabin’s death ( not of course some mentally deranged fanatic ). Anyone want to try it on me? Go head. Be my guest.

Jews have always been a varied collection of individuals. So it is not surprising that some are more credulous than others, some prefer a rational Judaism and others a mystical. I am just constantly surprised how people who run their business and professional lives with expertise, seem so willing to sacrifice all logic when faced with a crisis, and turn to soothsayers, tarot card readers, and rabbis who tell you that all bad things can be traced to a defective mezuzah, or that reciting a formula or changing a name will avert the catastrophe. If only it were that easy and obvious everyone would be religious!

I will concede that a person’s frame of mind can make a tremendous difference to his will to overcome challenges. These placebos may have such an affect. But we are taught that a direct line to the Almighty is the true response to a crisis. It helps us cope. It is one thing to turn to a greater or holier person for inspiration. But it is a failure of one’s humanity to expect them to perform miracles for us.

In days gone by, people they explained the irrational in life as the work of spirits, evil eyes, curses, or the wheel of fortune. They saw astrology as a tool to explain the way God intervenes in the world, rather than as a system in competition with the Divine. They realized there were external influences such as gravity and natural phenomena. They just wanted to know how they could control it all. We graduated to seeking scientific information. Yet still there is so much that escapes us. That is why we still cling to magic.

Superstition is the belief that totally illogical, random actions cause bad things to happen. As well, acts of equal randomness can be antidotes. Such an idea flies in the face of numerous Biblical and post-Biblical texts. The magician Bilaam, who was invited to curse the Israelites, ended up blessing them and declared that “Jacob is not subject to magic and Israel is not influenced by sorcery” (Numbers 23). My father always used to tell us children that if we were frightened of anything we only had to say the “Shema”. That would be our hotline to God, and that was the only protection we would need.

So today when we wish each other Mazal Tov, what can that mean? The rabbis argued about whether Mazal applied to God-fearing Jews (Shabbat 156a and b). Overwhelmingly, they decided it did not. Good deeds and charity were the only response. But there were no guarantees. Death and sickness were and are inevitable. So is the human capacity for inflicting evil. “The world functions according to its own rules” says the Talmud. When we wish someone Mazal Tov we express the hope that their lives will be as free of pain and suffering as possible, not that random actions can save us. But then, as they say, there are no atheists in a war zone, so I guess there is no logic when one is desperate. I just wish all that wasted money would go instead to people or institutions that really deserve it!