April 24, 2014

Are “peace” conferences a waste of time?

I recently had occasion to attend a conference of politicians and theologians in Vienna. It was sponsored by the InterAction Council, an organization of former presidents, prime ministers, and assorted theologians from all round the world. The council is dedicated to achieving world peace, which it believes it will achieve if it agrees to and promulgates a basic program of ethical, nonviolent, universal tolerance. There were famous names from my youth, now very largely in their dotage. The theologians included a Catholic, a Hindu, a Jew, a Protestant, an Eastern Orthodox, several Buddhists, a Taoist, and a Confucian atheist. There were eight Muslims, ranging from Sunni to Shia; literal jihadis, moral jihadis, a friendly if vocal Wahhabi, and on the reformist side, the ijtihadis. And a leavening of academics. Interestingly, there was only one woman around the table. There were plenty of others on the administration making sure everything ran smoothly.

The proceedings were carried out in an amiable atmosphere, and everyone agreed that peace was “a good thing” and that we should all aim to live together in mutual respect. However it became abundantly clear that everyone adhered to his own narrative and was simply unwilling to entertain an alternative. As you might expect, I found this most obvious in relation to Israel, where almost everyone thought that all the ills in the Middle East today should be laid entirely at the door of Israel as the “original sin”.

The politicians seemed to believe that the Holocaust was the only reason that the United Nations agreed to the 1947 Partition, which offered the Jews a state and led to the Arab declaration of war and invasion. Even if the Holocaust might have been in the minds of many of the signatories, you can hardly say that that was the motive for, say, the Balfour Declaration. And if one argues that the Arabs were occupants of Palestine before the imperial powers intervened, so too were Jews. It is true that nationalism, both Arab and Jewish, brought the two sides into open conflict, but to imply the Jews had no foothold in the Land of Israel historically, and long before the Holocaust, is as dishonest as to suggest there were no Arabs living there either. The unfortunate fact is of two occupants of different culture and religion (or none) fighting over one space. Each has a historical right. Each has a different narrative. This ought by now to be obvious but clearly it is not.

One former prime minister assured me that killing women and children was an ancient Biblical tradition that Judaism perpetuated, unlike Christianity, which he was faithful to and which always stood for love. But when I asked about the Christian religious wars and the Inquisition burning women and children, he blinked, smiled, and returned to his coffee.

Both politicians and divines seemed woefully ignorant of what ultra-Orthodox or Charedi meant. They all seemed to identify them with “the settlers”. No less than a former French president, just back from a visit to Israel, told me how he believed the ultra-Orthodox were to blame for Israel’s intransigence. I tried to explain the phenomenon that “Orthodox” is almost as broad a term as “Christian”. The most extreme Orthodox don’t even want to fight, and the majority are in favor of trading land for peace, provided there were a reliable partner and genuine peace. In Judaism, ironically, the more Orthodox you are, the less militant you are likely to be. It’s the seemingly more modern National Orthodox, the settlers, and the American Orthodox who are gung-ho for a fight and set against concessions. And many on the political right in Israel come from Russia and are not Orthodox altogether. It was all very civilized. Being a gentleman, he thanked me for my mini-lecture.

But then I get back to New York to find that The New York Times (Sunday April 13th) has a laughable article in which a Persian and an Israeli (who ought to know better) argue that Iran is heading away from theocracy, whereas Israel is moving towards it. Clearly neither bothered to check on the results of the last election. If they think the Ayatollahs are in the process of relinquishing their control, they must be dreaming. And if they assume that political trends and religious trends go hand-in-hand, they are living in La La Land. The NYT article says that “the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are. . .against any agreement with the Palestinians”. That’s ignorant, not just wrong.

As for theocracy, the truth is that Orthodox Jews are so divided on almost any issue you care to mention, the chances of their coming to agree on a shared platform for running the Temple, let alone the State of Israel, is as remote today as it was two thousand years ago.

To assume it is the Orthodox who are preventing a settlement is as ludicrous as suggesting Israel is the sole cause of the present impasse. Sadly, most people prefer to think simplistically, in blacks and whites. Presidents, prime ministers, and theologians are as incapable of objectivity as the primitive “street”. Most violence in the world is meted out by mobs spurred on by politicians and religious fanatics. Which is why I have always been skeptical of grandstanding. In the end, personal contact and human interaction are the only ways to try to bridge gaps.

Happy Summer everyone.

April 18, 2014

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865 to 1935

There is one rabbi who stands out in my mind above all others in the previous century. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel under the mandate. There were other great products of the Lithuanian world who equaled or surpassed him in scholarship. But there was no one who had his vision, his passion for his people, for the Land of Israel, and at the same time, his universality and humanity. There was no one who personified the spirit of Judaism in the world the way he did. If only more of Eastern European Orthodoxy had followed his lead. And because he was a poet and a master of the Hebrew language, there was no one who expressed these ideals the way he did. Forgive me for quoting a whole poem of his. A lot is lost in translation, but still I find it impressive in its sentiment and spirit. No rabbi alive today comes near him.
The fourfold Song the Soul

There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul.

There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.

There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.

And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.

And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.

The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.

And this simplicity in its fullness rises to become a song of holiness, the song of God, the song that is simple, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, the song of songs of Solomon—of the king who is characterized by completeness and peace.
(Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444)
What a beautiful, vision that includes every person and almost every variety of aspiration in the world we inhabit.

Rav Kook is all but unknown in the Diaspora. In Israel the Charedi world has disowned him for his approval of Zionism. His Charedi descendants prefer not to be known as such. And the secular world has rejected him because the name Kook is now associated more with his son Rav Zvi Yehuda, who became the mouthpiece and guru of a far narrower expression of religious Zionism associated with Gush Emunim and the settler movement. Both father and son passionately loved the Holy Land. But the son twisted the humane vision of his father into a narrower, largely xenophobic possessiveness.

Rav Kook the father was a brilliant scholar but he was also a mystic. A Lithuanian heir to the legacy of the Vilna Gaon, he studied in the great yeshivah of Volozhin and yet explored Chasidism and the world of mysticism and spirituality. He was an essayist and poet and published widely within the community of religious leaders who wanted to reach out to Jews beyond the walls of the ghettos. He was devoted to the cause of building up Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Although he occupied various positions in the Lithuanian rabbinate, the Land of Israel drew him, and in 1904 he emigrated to become the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.

There he found himself caught between the old and the new. The wave of secular Eastern European Zionist immigrants were detached from and opposed to what they saw as the religion of the ghetto. On the other side stood the Old Yishuv, descendants of earlier waves of very Orthodox Jews who came both influenced by the Vilna Gaon and the early Chasidic masters. They had augmented the ancient Sephardi communities which had held out in the land after the demise of the great seventeenth century centers of Safed and Galilee. These communities are often overlooked in the current debate over who lived in the Land of Israel before secular Zionism arrived. But they were implacably opposed to the new anti-religious arrivals who themselves were divided between left-wing sympathizers with Marxist ideology and the right-wing Revisionists followers of Jabotinsky.

Rav Kook tried, and in the end failed, to mediate and make peace between these factions. He valued the secular pioneers as much as he was devoted to the passion and depth of traditional Judaism. He suffered at the hands of both because of it. But his magnificent legacy has survived, despite the efforts of some to write him out of our history.

A new biography by Yehudah Mirsky and published by Yale Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution gives a fair overview of his life, times, and struggles. He analyses the political struggles of his subject and in particular the way he ended up losing both sides over the Arlosoroff assassination in 1933. But it does not do justice to his intellectual and mystical legacy. For that, the best we have remains Ben Zion Bokser’s Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, published in 1978. It is a sad statement that so little of his legacy has been available to an English speaking audience.

At this time of the year, Pesach reminds us both of our past and of our messianic aspirations. It is the time too when we celebrate Israel’s independence and the miracle of what has been achieved. But we are also reminded of so much of what is still sadly missing. Rav Kook symbolizes the human and religious ideals we need to aspire to and must determine to achieve.

April 10, 2014

Versions of Passover

In 419 BCE, the Persian king Darius issued a decree concerning the Jewish garrison at Elephantine on the Nile Delta (near the cataracts of what is now called Aswan). It was directed towards the governor, Arsames, and instructed him to make sure that the Egyptian priests of Khnum did not attack the Jews or try to stop the Passover celebrations at the Jewish temple there. You may well wonder both at a Jewish military garrison in Egypt two-and-a-half thousand years ago and at a Jewish temple where they sacrificed outside of Jerusalem. But that’s for another time.

Tension between the Egyptian priests and Jews was exacerbated by the Jewish tradition of slaughtering sheep, something the Egyptian religion forbade; this Egyptian antipathy is explicitly stated in the Torah (Genesis 46 and Exodus 8:22). Sadly nine years later, Arsames no longer there, the priests of Elephantine destroyed the Jewish temple and its population.

Alternative versions of the Exodus have existed for a long time. Just as alternative narratives about the Middle East proliferate nowadays. Each has its own agenda, some constructive and some destructive. Hecataeus, an Egyptian historian who lived around 320 BCE, talks about bands of exiles coming to Egypt, being driven out and then taking over an uninhabited Judea. They were led by a man called Moses who founded a new religion that Hecataeus described as unsocial and intolerant!

Manetho was an Egyptian priest who lived in Heliopolis in the middle of second century BCE. He is mentioned by Josephus. Manetho gave two versions of the Exodus. The first was about shepherds who invaded Egypt and took it over. This conforms to the archaeological evidence we have of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt roughly three thousand five hundred years ago. But then according to Manetho they were driven out and settled in Judea where they founded Jerusalem and built the Temple. This is not entirely dissimilar to, although different than, the Bible.

Manetho gives another version, which seems to be a basis of the virulent anti-Jewish sentiment of the Alexandrian Greek world. After the invasion of the shepherds, the Egyptian King Amenophis was told that he would see the gods if he purified his land of lepers and the diseased. So he gathered 80,000 diseased and unclean and set them to work in quarries. But the diseased ones formed a society of their own under a renegade Egyptian priest called Osarseph. Osarseph made new laws and commanded them not to associate with ordinary Egyptians. This new diseased people set fire to cities, attacked and destroyed temples and holy images, desecrated holy places, and sacrificed animals that hitherto had been forbidden. Finally, the leader changed his name to Moses and led them out of the land.

There were lots of upheavals, external and internal, in Egypt. One of the most famous was when Akhenaten overthrew the old system for the sun god Aten. Indeed Freud used this association in his “Moses and Monotheism” when he suggested that Moses was a follower of Akhenaten, and when his boss was defeated he looked around for another job. Manetho makes it very clear that the characteristics of these followers of Osarseph/Moses were an alien, dangerous, degraded, sick people, rigid and xenophobic. The visceral hatred of Jews as “others” and “enemies” had begun. Josephus uses much of this material in his book “Against Apion” a defense of Judaism against the Alexandrian Jew hater.

This association has come to be the dominant narrative of Jew hatred from Haman, to Greeks, and then medieval and not so medieval Christianity and Islam. Jews are rootless nomads who invade other people’s territories and live a life diametrically opposed to the host societies’ values and religion, while taking advantage of them and undermining them. They are misanthropes who are a threat to ordinary peace-loving peoples. Thus most Europeans nowadays see Jews as the biggest threat to world peace.

If you are interested in how this narrative is developed from its earliest stages to this very day, it is worth reading David Nirenberg’s brilliant book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. But I warn you, it is depressing reading for any Jew. There is no question that we have often added fuel to the fire, and often been the authors of our own fate, and made some terrible decisions. But the pathology of an irrational hatred is documented in Nirenberg’s book with even more impressive literary and historical sources than Anthony Julius’s great contribution in “Trials of the Diaspora.”

We will sit around the Seder table next week once again, surrounded by our children, and tell them tales of our past, enact innocent rituals, drink wine and eat and be merry. We may wonder what we are doing, bringing children into such a hostile world in which the hatred persists, and even grows in many places like dry rot. Yet this has been our narrative for thousands of years. Some argue (not I) that I has made us stronger and helped us survive. Yet for all that, I would not willingly impose this on anyone unless I strongly believed that the Jewish way of life is dedicated to making this world a better and more spiritual place, and that it adds so much quality and depth to one’s life; to one’s range of experiences, and to one’s intellectual development. All this despite the persistence of those within who make a mockery of it.

Perhaps it’s just envy that motivates our enemies. Pesach reminds us to rise above the hatred, which is to be really free!

April 03, 2014

The Faith of Fallen Jews

Thanks to Brandeis University Press, I have been thoroughly enjoying a volume of essays by the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who died far too early, in 2009. The title of this compilation, The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History, comes from the major interest of his academic life. Yerushalmi was fascinated by what life was really like for the Marranos, the conversos, the Secret Jews, some of whom were forcibly converted when they were given the choice of death or abandoning their faith. But since 1391 in several waves, thousands of Jews had converted willingly in the tragically deluded notion that they would be accepted by Christians if only they “saw the light”. Indeed this was the official position of the Church. But in practice it did not work out.

The success of such converts in rising through the ranks of Christian society was seen as a threat. So “old Christians” fought back by differentiating between racially pure Christians and the originally Jewish parvenus. They introduced the racist concept of “pure blood”, limpiezia de sangre, to purge Jewish blood, even converted blood from that of the racially pure of the faith. Even if the concept in theory applied to Muslims/Moriscos and others, in practice it was applied almost exclusively to those of Jewish descent. Yerushalmi argues that we are mistaken in thinking that racist anti-Semitism was the innovation of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century might have taken the idea of racial contamination of the Jews out of the religious into the realms of the national, but it was a religious disease before it became secular.

He similarly debunks the mythos of the “Convivencia”, the fashionable idea that once Jew, Christian, and Muslim all got along famously and equally in the Golden Age of Spain. There was hardly a Golden Age but merely brief respites in an otherwise painful state of accommodation and convenience in which Jews were used when it suited their masters. Even then the interaction was essentially with a small layer of aristocratic and learned Christians and Muslims, which never reached down to the masses. Indeed one might say that that characterizes much of present day interfaith activity. Not that I discount it for that. I merely point out its limitations. Both in Christianity and Islam, tolerance meant simply the condescending acceptance of an “other”, but never genuine equality. When later such equality was enforced by law, it was resented in the salons and homes of the established classes.

Yerushalmi points out an important feature of Jewish political life throughout the years of exile. It is that Jews established vertical relationships with the few power players capable of extending them protection. Kings protected them when it suited them. Different religious leaders shielded them on occasion. But political relationships were essentially with the ruling classes and rarely horizontal with the majority, the lower and merchant classes. The result was that whenever there was a political crisis, plagues, commercial competition or the agitation of fanatical preachers, the Christian mob, the Muslim street, turned on the Jews with violence and cruelty. Even if there were always individual relationships and those who helped Jews and tried to protect them, the vast majority of every class, did not.

The interesting question is whether it would or could have made a difference had such a policy been altered. Perhaps the profound religious sense that Jews were the enemy of the True Faith, regardless of which one (including Marxism), was too strong and deeply rooted to have been influenced.

Yerushalmi emphasizes time and again how important it is, in making crucial judgments, to have a historical perspective. He quotes the magisterial Baer as saying that the Jews of Iberia had no historical self-understanding. That was why they were so unprepared for the catastrophe that befell them, both those who converted and those who remained steadfast. “Despite his vast and intimate experience in the political world of his day, even Isaac Abarbanel, the last great leader of Spanish Jewry, did not perceive the impending disaster with sufficient clarity to prepare his brethren.”

In an essay based on a talk to the Leo Baeck Institute, he argues that German Jews suffered the same fate. Even if they did have a tradition of Wissenschaft and a secular perspective, they failed to appreciate the lessons of history. The same can be said of the failure of the Eastern European anti-Zionist leadership to see which way the winds were blowing in the 1930s. Somehow we often got blinded by the periods of peace in our host societies and assumed they would always remain safe, that we would survive regardless.

The same is true in Israel today. There is a reluctance to examine the lessons of history and to forge horizontal political alliances instead of vertical ones.

If this is true of Israeli secular society, it is even more so of Charedi society. The leaders, devoid of any academic historical training or understanding of history outside of the Talmud, are clearly unaware how their refusal to accommodate other viewpoints or reach out to create alliances on, say, the question of serving in some form of community service, if not the army, or refusing to allow significant numbers to study other subjects so as to enable them to get jobs and earn a living, is a symptom of the refusal to see things through different, including historical, perspectives. Theirs is just one angle; admittedly it is a legitimate one, but few things in life are black-and-white.

Some argue that this single mindedness is the result of Israeli political culture, all or nothing, the more noise you make the more cash you get. But if so that’s all the more why the work of men like Yerushalmi is so important and must not be allowed to disappear off our radar.