January 30, 2014

How Jewish Is Jewish History?

Once we asked, “Who is a Jew?” Now the big question is, “What is Jewish History?” Both questions are largely academic and typical of a particular mindset that desires to know exactly how to characterize human affairs and where other human beings fit it. It is a product of Western philosophical culture, modern nationalism, and indeed scientific categorization.

I don’t for the life of me understand why it has taken me so long to read Moshe Rosman’s excellent How Jewish is Jewish History? (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). I must have been sleepwalking, for it is a most important and essential book for anyone interested in Jewish affairs. It is an overview of how academic theories of modernism are changing and have changed perceptions. It is a vital analysis of how many different approaches to Jewish history there are.

Even the ancillary issue of when does “modern Jewish history” begin is the subject of constant debate and modification. Was it the French Revolution? The American Revolution? Napoleon? The Haskalah, the Enlightenment? Mercantilism? The exile from Iberia? The rise of nationalism? The collapse of autonomous Jewish life in Poland? The first mass migration to Israel under Yehuda Hachasid? Does it really make any serious difference?

It all confirms what we inside have always known. You can define neither Jews nor Judaism in a way that will satisfy all its various elements. What is the difference between a “people” and a “nation”? Is Judaism an “ethnic culture” a “religious culture” or neither? Jean-Paul Sartre thought it was anyone who others think is Jewish. Homi Bhabha thinks it is any group that suffers as a result of imperialist domination.

Modern theory is right to try to avoid “The Simple Solution”, “The Grand Scheme”, or the “Neat Title”, whether it is “The End of History” or “The Clash of Civilizations”. They might sell books, but they get just as much wrong as right. We do know that modernism has freed us to think more as individuals than as members of established ideologies. The internet in all its varieties has, for better and worse, enabled more of us to “pursue our own ideas and goals”. Political, religious, and social groups try to control and dominate, but the genius of mankind is its ability to resist automatonism and to allow us to be ourselves as we define it. We might call it existentialism or phenomenology, but the fact is that just as much as some humans need to lose themselves in the comforting but suffocating embrace of societies, communities, and ghettos, many others resist these constrictions. There are plusses and minuses in both, and it would be wrong to say only one is right and all the others wrong. But that sadly is precisely what fundamentalism does.

Rosman’s book highlights the achievements, advances, and the limitations of academia. Old models are challenged and superseded, and the new models in turn will face revisionism. It is a world in which great minds toil and produce theories, defend them with aggression and determination, devote passion and animosity to demolishing competition, and invariably end up being as doctrinaire, unreasonable, and closed-minded as the worst anti-academic fanatics. Those of you who saw that brilliant Israeli film Footnote know exactly how it works on the academic shop floor. It is hard to find a more competitive and cutthroat atmosphere outside of a Marxist coven. It makes rabbinic conflict look positively benign, and it explains why so much antagonism towards Israel comes from universities.

Rosman raises all the fascinating issues. Can Jewish history only be about Jews? What about their relationship, for better and worse, with their host societies? Is an English Jew more English or more Jewish than a French Jew? Is an American Jew more comfortable with other Americans or with other Jews? Is a Charedi Jew more at home with a Salafist Muslim or a secular Jew? Is a liberal Jewish female more at home with other feminists?

Israelis, Russians, Ethiopians, Jews from Arab lands, and Jews from Christian lands are probably influenced just as much by their cultures of adoption as they are by Judaism. You can tell an American Chasid from an Israeli one. If Jews are defined as having a common culture, is it one of religion or of card playing? How can all their different histories, cultures, and attitudes be reconciled if Jewish history is concerned with culture? But one might study their institutions and systems under a rubric of Jewish structures. And what about Kabbalah? Is it mainstream Judaism or fringe? If it is a category of Jewish culture? (In which case Madonna could be more Jewish than a rabbinical Talmudist!) But that is the beauty of postmodernism. It opens up new worlds, new ideas that I find liberating. A Jew is indeed anyone who declares or feels to be one. The only problem is when you want other Jews to agree with you!

Postmodernism recognizes the variations and validates them. But in so doing it creates such an indeterminate category as to be gutless, passionless, and all but meaningless. I don’t belong entirely to any of the categories that postmodernism offers as defining Jews, although in part to some. But in one area, the religious, I live a clearly Jewishly-defined way of life, more animated by the Jewish tradition than any other. I do indeed walk in Athens and Jerusalem, but there’s no doubt in my mind which and what matters most, even if my version has little in common with 90% of other Jews. In other words, I am who I am. And Moshe Rosman helps me feel very good about it.

January 23, 2014

What We Can Learn From Kit Kat

Here’s a story I picked up from the Financial Times a while ago:

On March 17 2010, Greenpeace launched a social media attack on Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand. In a YouTube video parodying the “Have a break; Have a Kit Kat” slogan, it highlighted the use of unsustainable forest clearing in production of palm oil, which is used in Kit Kat (amongst many other products). In the video, a person bites off a piece of Kit Kat that turns out to be the bloody finger of an orangutan, one of many species threatened by this practice.

According to the Financial Times, Nestlé’s initial response was to force the video’s withdrawal from YouTube. This led to a viral outbreak of criticism on social media. All this did was to make the video a sensation and far more people saw it. Soon Nestle realized it needed to limit the immediate damage as well as address the palm oil sourcing issue and turn the reputational risk into an opportunity. Nestlé suspended sourcing from the company that produced the oil. The company held meetings with Greenpeace in which it provided details of its palm oil supply chains. It audited its suppliers and it joined the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, a partnership of companies and other parties aimed at eliminating unsustainable production.

They set up a “digital acceleration team” to monitor social media sentiment 24 hours a day. Whenever there is a problem, the communications unit coordinates the company’s engagement with the relevant parties. Executives from across the globe visit the digital acceleration team center at the headquarters to learn about managing social media communications and digital marketing. Nestlé discovered that engaging with its critics and addressing some of their concerns was more effective than trying to shut down discussion on social media.

What a graphic lesson in how to handle a public relations crisis. Immediately I think about our own problems. Whether it is the way Israel is regarded in general or closed religious communities pretending they have no corruption or abuse, the traditional attitude has been to close ranks, to dismiss the campaigns as anti-Semitism and to pretend that if, like an ostrich, one buries one’s head in the sand the problem will go away.

You might argue that commercial companies have the resources and the organization to deal with such issues, while governments, communities, and religions are notoriously conservative, divided, and slow to act. Which is true. Such social mammoths do indeed move slowly, if at all. But it is no excuse for inaction when the situation becomes too obviously detrimental to avoid. And it is not as if there isn’t the talent around. Even Al Jazeera has some Israeli bloggers.

The Muslim street refuses to humanize Israel or accept its right to exist. Israel has refused to try to understand Palestinian anger. Name me anyone who likes being occupied. Of course I generalize about both sides knowing there are exceptions that prove the rules. But recognizing the challenge is the first step towards dealing positively with it, the way Nestle has. You cannot bury heads in the sand, censor forever, or prevent matters coming to light. Indeed you can’t get away with lies either, because the internet now provides both archival and visual evidence. In the same way, you cannot ban the internet but you have to learn how to live with it and use it well. So closed societies must now come to terms with greater exposure and see the benefits as well as the dangers.

Israel is still a society in which the military censor has great power. But the more it uses those powers the more it backfires, and the publicity is multiplied and magnified. What has America achieved by hounding WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning for making documents available? At last, Israel’s Defense Forces have realized the value of recruiting young bloggers and media savvy technocrats to respond to misinformation or to own up to errors. That takes maturity and wisdom. But the side effect is that one faces up to those actions that actually need explaining and justifying. That is the first stage of reconciliation. If only both sides did it!

So it is with the religious world. The truth is that the media, including of course much of the Jewish media, just loves to highlight religious shortcomings. It’s a kind of guilt compensation to point out the failures of the religious world to feel better about one’s own religious neglect. There is what to find fault with, of course. Where isn’t there? And of course the interesting story is “Young Man Pushes Old Lady Off Bus”, not “Young Man Help Old Lady Onto Bus”. It’s also true that the interesting story is not “Thug Gets Involved With Gang Violence”, but “Guys Who Go Around Making Everyone Else Struggle Under a Burden Of Guilt, Poverty, and Oppression Take Whatever They Want for Themselves, Whenever They Want It”. It’s the hypocrisy.

But the religious world needs to fight back constructively. The game is played like this: Highlight the shortcomings of the Charedi world. In reaction the Charedi world excoriates the corruption and decadence of the secular. No one hears about the good qualities of either.

Just as once the religious communities employed “Shtadlanim”, men who made contact with the non-Jewish powers and interceded with them on behalf of Jewish communities, now we have lobbyists in Washington and Brussels. And the process goes both ways. Both sides benefit. At last one is seeing blogs and articles by Charedim in the wider press criticizing their own shortcomings and taking responsibility for trying to change from within.

January 16, 2014

What Is and Isn’t Wrong with Prayer

The way most of us pray today is very different to the way it was originally intended. What goes on in most Jewish “houses of prayer” of whatever community, denomination, sect, or form is usually far from an exciting, uplifting spiritual experience.

According to Maimonides (Laws of Prayer Chapter 1:11), it remains a Torah obligation to relate to the Almighty every day and in one’s own way, regardless of what may or may not happen in a synagogue. The Hebrew “to pray” is Lehitpallel, which literally means “to express oneself”. How many people do? We tend to rely entirely on what other people have said. Yet the formal prayers we have were initially only intended to be a menu of suggested ideas for those who could not find the words themselves.

There is a dichotomy between personal, private prayer and public communal prayer. Their functions are entirely different. The Torah ideal remains that individuals should find spontaneous, subjective, and personal ways of connecting with how they understand the Divine presence. This is what is called “Deveykut”, actually engaging with God. This can rarely be done in a crowded synagogue surrounded by others who often have no interest in such activity. It cannot be done while a cantor performs, and most of all it cannot be done “on command”. Sometimes for a moment, such as Kol Nidrei, this effect can be achieved. But it rarely survives long. Only in a very few situations, such as those yeshivot with a strong tradition of prayer, does one experience extended concentration and excitement. For the average Jew living in no such rarified situation, synagogues in general simply do not offer this experience of the Divine. The Great Synagogue in Alexandria, where flags were waved to let distant parts of the building know when to say Amen (TB Sukah 21b), cannot possibly have been a place of personal engagement with Heaven.

The services we have nowadays perform very different functions. They are primarily to give us a sense of community and to actually get people together in ways that most religious obligations do not. Judaism makes demands on us both as individuals and as members of the community of Israel. Personal prayer remained personal. Yet over time personal prayers and petitions were incorporated into the “prayer” format, for convenience.

Herded into claustrophobic, foul ghettos, under Christianity and Islam, most Jews wanted to escape the overcrowded hovels they often shared with animals. The synagogue was the only large and airy building in the community where one could go to chat and study as well as pray. One needed to come and leave together for safety. That was where they wanted to be and to spend as much time as possible. No wonder the services got longer and longer.

The prevailing culture was also one in which any educated persons expressed themselves in poetry. Hence the great payyatanim, who spread under Islam from Israel to Spain to Northern Europe and churned out religious poetry in formal structures and conventions that were incorporated into services but no longer resonate with most of us.

The great mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Luria was responsible for introducing songs, for walking out into the fields, praying on the hills of Safed. The attempt to experience God moved from man-made structures to nature and back. The existential aspect of prayer, its singing and ecstasy as much as its communal aspect, influenced the great Chasidic reformation. But then like all revolutions, over time it lost its iconoclasm and creativity and sank back into formality. Still to this day in many Chasidic courts you will hear singing and ecstatic prayer that would be unimaginable in most synagogues in the West.

Over the years I have gone through all sorts of different prayer experiences. And I still find the traditional service meets my “communal” needs. But it is private prayer that satisfies me spiritually. Yet I have always encountered other Jews who disagreed with me. Some preferred the big performance, the big event, the sense of being together, to the modest utilitarian alternatives I tried to recommend. Yet it is right that it should be so. We are not all alike. We have different intellects and tastes and needs. There should be alternatives.

I believe we are living in exciting times. More and more people are willing to experiment. Whereas once this inevitably meant casting off the requirements of tradition, now the trend is to find resolutions without throwing the baby out with bathwater. One of the joys of many Jewish communities where there is a critical mass is that one can shul-crawl on Shabbat to experience a wide range of alternatives and find one that accords with one’s temperament and background.

Despite a common superstructure, services have evolved in response to specific cultural and social circumstances. I believe that more energy should go into trying to find completely new styles of worship than in tinkering with the old. There must, for example, be creative ways in which female spirituality could create totally new atmospheres and experiences without being constricted by established male modes and norms. I approve of choice and, where it is possible, exploring the alternatives in one’s neighborhood.

Regardless of the style of service, or the regularity of one’s attendance, one must, I believe, reestablish the practice of personal prayer outside of synagogual structures. Meditation and contemplation in a totally secular style, or one borrowed from another religion, have brought relief and inspiration to many in the West. But we have our specifically Jewish exercises and meditations. One need look no further than Avraham Abulafia (or in modern times Aryeh Kaplan) to realize such things have been part, albeit a neglected part, of our tradition. We must revive them.

Romantics rely on the experience, the stimulation of beautiful buildings, music, canonicals, and ceremonial to induce a sense of devotion, worship, and spirituality. The classicist works on himself to make it happen. I prefer that, rather than to expect others to do it for me.

January 09, 2014

Ridiculous Weddings

It has been a pleasurable part of my life as a rabbi to attend weddings. I have attended hundreds of weddings of various sizes, styles, numbers, and traditions. Some of course I have enjoyed more than others, and not a few have been the occasion of as much conflict, anger, and dispute, as happiness, love, and delight. But I am finding it increasingly hard to feel comfortable about some weddings I attend, for a whole range of reasons.

They are getting more and more protracted. I thought it was only Persians who called you for 5:00, arrived at 8:00, and started at 9:30. But the last Ashkenazi one I attended was called for 6:00, ran a smorgasbord till 9:00, and started at 10:00. You can now assume it takes half an hour for the procession in to the Chupah. Some Chupahs are so overcrowded with jostling relatives that it feels like a scrum.

Often there’s one band plays for the reception, another for the Chupah, a third for Hassidic or Israeli dances, a fourth for ballroom dancing, and then there’s a disco. One singer is for Ashkenazi cantorial style, one for Chasidic pop, one for Sephardi tunes, and another for Carlebach. As for food, a loaded reception is offered as people arrive, another after the Chupah but before dinner, then there will be a full main meal, midnight refreshers, and if there’s a Chasidic Mitzvah Tantz at the end you’ll get a complete breakfast as well.

It is fashionable to fly in from Israel, distinguished rebbes, rabbis, and factota traveling first class or on private jets. A guest list of thousands is not unusual. Consider the millions, now billions being spent each year on religious weddings. Then consider how much charitable and educational work could be accomplished instead of a one-night bash that disappears into photo albums a few hours after it is over, to be glanced at perhaps once a year thereafter. The cost, the waste, it’s mind-blowing.

But I realize that weddings are not just for brides and grooms. Nowadays we have massive extended families. Once upon a time war, disease, and anti-Semitism decimated our ranks. Nowadays first cousins can run into the fifties and seconds into the hundreds. Successful businessmen have to invite business contacts, flaunt their success to attract new capital, and invite gaggles of rabbis to prove their religious status and legitimacy. It’s not just spoilt daughters who clamor for excess, it’s insecure magnates too.

Over the past fifty years of rising Jewish affluence (as well as continuing Jewish poverty) many religious leaders of all denominations have tried hard to introduce sumptuary laws to try to limit excessive expenditure on weddings, to absolutely no avail. Desperate parents have offered apartments and cars instead of huge weddings to their children, but a fancy white wedding always seems to win. Occasionally you hear of a couple who elope to Israel for a quickie or just take a rabbi and two witnesses into Central Park. But the pressures are so great that in most Jewish circles it’s simply not an option.

One could arrange a nice, modest wedding ceremony and celebratory meal, regardless of whether it was in New York, London, Jerusalem, or Pondicherry (even if the price of kosher catering is ballooning like the Hindenburg). Recently I entertained a relatively humble rosh yeshiva from Israel who has ten children and has personal debts of $500,000 as a result of marrying off his five daughters. It was not just the cost of a wedding itself, or the seven mini-celebrations, the Sheva Brachot during the following seven days. It was the need to buy an apartment for each that left him staggering under such a heavy load of debt. At the same time he has to support his five sons who are also married but studying full-time. This is not atypical.



A rented apartment is unacceptable nowadays in certain circles. And the chances of someone with no serious secular education getting a good job are massively reduced in Israeli society, indeed in any society nowadays. Some families can support indolent, sponging, trust fund parasites. But the number of wealthy families who can do this is shrinking, because the open hands increase exponentially in each generation without any new infusion of money-earners. At the same time the culture of universal life-time study as the norm for adult Charedi men is reaching the point where either poverty or social dislocation will produce disaffection and even violence, as it invariably does regardless of religion.

Now it is true that Judaism is expanding because of its families blessed with many children. And it is true that social welfare (incidentally a product of the secular culture they despise) enables this mindset. But at some point social welfare will eventually have to be cut back as fewer and fewer enter the workplace to fund all this with their taxes. Shouldn’t we be thinking longer term?

If we cannot survive and grow without our families, it is also true that for Judaism to survive we need education and Jewish schools. In America there is a massive crisis over the cost of Jewish education. At $30,000 per child per year, after tax fewer and fewer Jewish families can afford Jewish schools. The Charedi world has a way of taking care of its own. The absence of significant secular education cuts their expenses by more than half. Secular or less religiously committed Jews don’t bother with Jewish education altogether, and the resulting assimilation is now a veritable tidal wave. It is the modern or centrist Jews who carry the massive burden, because they want a dual-track Jewish and secular education. But the costs are making it harder and harder to afford.

In Britain state aid has made Jewish education affordable. But there are not enough schools. A well-known campaigner for Jewish schools in London recently confided that he has a list of 1,500 Jewish children in the northern suburbs who are clamoring for Jewish education, but he cannot raise the money to start a school that, once it is running, the state would then support. The Charedi rich only contribute to Charedi education. The non-religious only care about non-Jewish education, and the middle either can’t afford to give or don’t care enough.

For our own good as a people, we must call a halt to throwing so much money away on pure self-indulgence. If we care for our future we must give as much attention to supporting Jewish education as we do to Jewish reproduction. The place to start is weddings. Make your calculations. Then carve them in half and divide the sum evenly between the two pillars that keep us alive and well and Jewish.

January 02, 2014

Real Artificial Protein?

For years there have been artificial substitutes for meat, most often soya based. Some have been edible, especially when mixed with other foodstuffs. But none so far has come near to satisfying passionate meat eaters.

According to a recent report, real progress is being made to generate laboratory grown meat that tastes as good as the real thing without all the cruelty, ghastly side effects, expense, and waste of the present worldwide meat industry. “We could be seeing a future where huge quantities of high-quality meat are gown in vats, incorporating not only muscle fibers but layers of real fat and even synthetic bone. In 25 years real meat will come in a packet labelled, “An animal has suffered in the production of this product,” and it will carry a big eco tax. I think in 50-60 years it may be forbidden to grow meat from livestock. An animal does need to be killed to kick off the in-vitro process, but “in theory, a single specimen could provide the seed material for hundreds of tonnes of meat.”

This is perfectly acceptable halachically. After all, the Gemara tells us that R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath evening studying the Book of Creation, and as a result they were able to create a fat calf and ate it (Sanhedrin 65b). So if you could conjure up a living being from a mystical source, then why not from a lab?

Yet you can bet there will be opposition. Whenever anything threatens the kosher meat trade the rabbis and dayanim who live by it, automatically cry foul because they will lose a major source of income. That also explains why those few rabbis who became vegetarians, like the Kamenitzer Maggid, or supported vegetarianism in principle. Men like Rav Kook, were excoriated and virtually written out of Charedi history (for other reasons as well such as supporting Zionism).

I am not an ideological vegetarian, but I welcome the possibility of scrapping the current meat trade.. But actually on purely economic grounds I find the current situation unacceptable. We spend more money raising one beef animal than would feed an Indian village for a month. Then there is the issue of cruelty. Most processes are offensive: the ghastly way most animals bred for slaughter are treated, the awful sights and smells hidden from consumers, the amounts of chemicals fed into animals reared for human consumption, not to mention the dangers of our modern diets. I am not opposed to eating meat, but I’d be delighted if there some way of doing it without subjecting animals to human cruelty.

This is not an attack on Shechita. I have seen virtually all officially sanctioned methods of slaughter, Jewish and non-Jewish. I don’t like any of them. But then I hate the sight of blood in general. Nevertheless I am utterly convinced that of all of them Shechita, when carried out correctly, is the least painful and disturbing. But, as Temple Grandin has shown emphatically, so much of the awfulness of slaughter has to do with the lead up, the corralling, the forcing of animals towards the fate they can smell and hear, not to mention so much cruelty involved in the rearing, the transportation, and the preparatory processes of meat production. If only we could have the taste without all that.

Let us assume that all the unemployed Shochtim could be trained to work in other areas of the kosher trade. Why do I still envisage opposition? One reason is simply the reluctance to countenance anything new or to allow science or modern values to challenge ancient traditions. A new concept of religious correctness is that “Masorah”, the way we have always done things, trumps innovation. My late father-in-law used to say (perhaps tongue in cheek) that there was something called “Jewish food”. Anyone who didn’t prefer carp gefilte fish or schmaltz herring to smoked salmon was not a proper Jew.

Finally there is in fact another issue. It is the tension that exists between the letter of halacha and the spirit. The Torah commands us to sacrifice animls and the priests to eat meat (although I do pray that when Elijah comes to usher in the Messiah he will tell us that only vegetable sacrifices will be accepted in the Temple). But the Torah is also full of laws concerning animals: not killing a cow and its calf on the day, not taking a fledgling or egg in front of the mother, not ploughing an ox with an ass together, not muzzling an ox while it threshes.

The rabbis are divided in their rationalizations. Some of course refuse to accept the idea of explanations altogether and emphasize only the significance of an act of obedience to a higher power. Some do indeed say it shows Divine mercy to creatures as a sign of greater mercy towards humans. And others do actually argue that the purpose is showing mercy to animals to imitate Divine qualities of caring. Of course I do not need to rehearse the very specific laws against cruelty to animals and the Noachide laws of “Ever Min HaChay” (not taking a limb from a living animal). Yet too often one hears these ideas dismissed as figments of non-Jewish moral relativism.

There is indeed a massive challenge to reconcile caring for animals with the meat trade. This is where meta-halacha plays an important part. Humans do indeed come first. But that does not mean we should not be concerned with animal welfare. Yet somewhere along the march of history we have lost the thread.

Take these narratives about Rebbi Yehudah Hanassi in Bava Metzia 85a:
Why did he suffer in life? A calf was being taken to the slaughter. It broke away, hid his head under Rabbi's skirts, and began to howl. “Go,” he said, “because you were created for this.” Then they said (on High), “Since he has no pity, let us make him suffer.”

And why did his suffering end? One day Rabbi's maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she was about to kill them. He said to her, “Let them be, for it is written, ‘He extends his mercy to all of his creation.’” Then they said, “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.”
You could not have a more explicit expression of the significance of the issue in Jewish ethical terms.