May 29, 2014

Shavuot: An Identity Crisis

Plato’s theory of ideas and Aristotle’s more empirical approach are the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition. The result of this patrimony has been the search for truth, even absolute truth, which I believe has tended to constrict our way of thinking and reflect the desire to find a specific answer to every problem assuming there is one.

In our times we have at last realized that there is such a phenomenon as fuzzy logic and fuzzy mathematics which are, to put it simply, more approximate and less definite. In a similar vein, what is called “chaos theory” offers a different way of looking at empirical data and discovering that there can be various answers. One might not need to choose one specific theory or solution.

I have always sensed an affinity to the fuzzy. I find consistency boring and often self-defeating. The Torah itself gives us conflicting models of management, the Divinely-appointed leader, the hereditary priesthood, and then the monarchy, the prophet, and the Judge. Much later we adopted the idea of the rabbi and scholar. Perhaps the implication is that circumstances may require different models of leadership, and we should be open to such possibilities. There is no single simple answer. So it is with Shavuot.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost, is a perfect example of a religious institution that defies categorization. Is it a harvest festival, an extension of Passover, or the anniversary of the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai? It is all, and I suggest that which aspect we emphasize ourselves, depends on circumstances, history and personality. When it comes to understanding Shavuot, one can, as with other theological issues, embrace several approaches simultaneously and find satisfaction in some or all.

In the Torah, the festival is described first as Chag HaKatzir (Exodus 23:16) , the Harvest Festival as well as the occasion for dedicating Bikurim, the First of the Harvest (23:19). Then a few chapter later it is Chag Shavuot (Exodus 34:22), the Festival of Weeks together with the first of the harvest. In Leviticus (33:16 and 17), the festival is referred to only as the culmination of the 49 days of the Omer, although the term Bikurim is once again specified. In Bamidbar (28:26) again the name HaBikurim appears, but as Yom (day) instead of Chag (festival). And in Devarim (16:9) it is Chag HaShavuot, as in Exodus 34, but with the definite article

Academics will suggest that this variation can explained as different sources the Torah was originally based on. The theory (and it is after all a theory) has its limitations. It creates as many problems as it solves; not least is the obvious incompetence of the editor. A passive collator might make more sense. One can suggest other possibilities. The Talmud Gittin (60a) suggests another possibility. The text of the revelation was not written down immediately, but extended over a forty-year period. So just as our own vocabulary and usage varies over time, so too may have that of Moses.

It is common for the Torah to repeat narratives and laws. Its context was very different to our modern scientific minimalist approach. Each repetition and variation adds an extra dimension. Rather like “Remembering” and “Keeping” the Shabbat. Two different words used in the Exodus and Deuteronomy text of the Ten Commandments” that do not cancel each other out as much as adding to one’s understanding. This variation in the terminology of the festival in the Torah might simply mean that it had multi functions. Just as Passover is sometimes called Chag HaMatzot (the human proactive idea of baking matzot) and sometimes Chag HaPesach (Divine protection). Sucot too is also Chag HaAsif (festival of gathering in, human activity) and Sucot (Divine protection again).

One is left to decide for oneself which answer satisfies. Perhaps all of them!

Zeman Matan Torateynu (the time when our Torah was given)

Post-Biblically, Shavuot became the anniversary of the Revelation of the Torah. There is no explicit mention of this connection at all. It is only implicit. One might well understand the shift in emphasis that the changes in Roman society, migration away from one’s early Hebrew agricultural land-based roots (whether forced or by choice) and urbanization must have had. The harvest aspect would no longer have been primary, and as rabbinic emphasis shifted towards study as the acme of Jewish self-identification, the focus on Sinai and Torah would have made sense. So from the period of the Geonim at the end of the first millennium and particularly during the height of the period of Kabbalah, staying up all night to study Torah acquired much more significance than the harvest or first fruits.

But even here we have variations. The actual description of the Sinai theophany in the Torah contains inconsistencies, and indeed apparent contradictions between Exodus 19, Exodus 24:1-11, and Exodus 24:12-18. There are variations in the sequence, in the responses, and in what actually was received or given on Sinai. And there is the question of why the mountain is sometimes called Sinai and sometimes Horeb. In post-Biblical literature, what happened at Sinai is sometimes referred to as Matan Torah (Giving the Torah), Torah MiSinai (Torah from Sinai) and Torah Min HaShamayim (Torah from Heaven). They signify the same concept, but may not mean or were not intended to mean exactly the same thing. We are left to make what sense or derive what significance we want to. And we might each come to different conclusions. Which does not matter so long as we all come together to celebrate the occasion at the same time.

I used to think that the agricultural, like the prayers for rain, were out-of-date and out-of-touch with modernity. I now know much better. The accelerating dangers of climate change, shortage of water, droughts, and ecological tragedies such as deforestation have woken us up to the importance of emphasizing the agricultural and the natural. The circle has come round. Had the Torah only given one reason, we might have been left high and dry. But it consistently gives different names and significances. I find this amazing and empowering. That’s why I like the flexibility of the fuzzy, and that’s another reason I will celebrate Shavuot!

May 22, 2014

What keeps Judaism alive?

It is a thought often attributed to Ernest Bloch that it is anti-Semitism that, for all its perniciousness, has preserved the Jews. Of course, if that were true our position in the world would be very different today. After all (according to the Encyclopedia Judaica) Jews accounted for about 1% of the population of the Roman Empire at a time when the total population was around 56 million at the time of Augustus. And in medieval times, Jews again accounted for 1%. Populations fluctuated, indeed, because of natural disasters, plagues, and wars. But by logic and right we should be at least 1% of the Middle Eastern and Western world’s population now.

During these thousands of years, of course, Jews were not only being killed in vast numbers. They were constantly converting to other religions, whether by force or simply to survive. Some, incredible as it seems, because they actually believed in the alternatives. So if it was anti-Semitism that was keeping us alive, then frankly it did a lousy job.

But the truth is that proponents of such a madcap theory are invariably those Jews who want to find a reason for Jewish survival other than a profound commitment to its civilization and religion. So they seek ways for self-justification or alternative shibboleths to explain Judaism’s survival. It’s similar to those who define their Judaism through historical, tragic, or other forms of “feeling Jewish” without it in any way having to impinge on their daily lives. It’s like claiming you can love someone without any sense of obligation. You can’t argue with it, but it does seem trivial.

External threats do often bring out the best in us, but also the worst. The late Israeli diplomat and rabbi, Yaakov Herzog, often liked to say that were it not for the eternal threat, the internal divisions in Israeli society would have torn it apart long ago. I would add that the average left-wing, secular Israeli has more in common with the average left-wing, secular Arab than he or she has with Orthodox Jews. Indeed, soon after the establishment of the State of Israel the Israeli Communist Party merged with the Arab Communist party, while Ben Gurion and Begin were at armed loggerheads. This may be even truer now that both the right-wing and the Orthodox populations of Israel have grown exponentially.

There is a perpetual motion of seminars, conferences, books, and articles all trying to find ways of keeping the Jewish people together so long as one doesn’t have to live a traditional Jewish life. Yet it is that very behaviorism that has been the real reason for our survival against all the odds. This doesn’t mean you have to be traditional to be Jewish, or that without tradition one cannot remain a Jew. But if you seek a way to perpetuate any tradition you can only do it by living it.

Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals makes an important contribution to “sane Judaism”. A recent issue of its publication, Conversations, focuses on why so many synagogues fail to inspire. The message one gets is that there are no shortcuts. Every panacea has been tried; change the music, change the words, change the style. And after all that has been tried for over a century in the USA, apart from the odd minor spike, it has had no significant overall effect on synagogue attendance. Quite the opposite. Because as with anything you want to take seriously, there are no simple fixes, only serious commitment. Jews vary in the way they like to pray, but the common denominator of those who are involved is that they are committed to act (in whichever way they decide works for them).

An article by James Loeffler bemoaning the collapse of secular Jewish culture in the USA recently appeared in Mosaic Magazine. He refers to the “death” of two institutions dedicated to Jewish culture in America, Makor and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, saying that:
“. . .both of them failed the test of relevance. If the cause of Jewish culture cannot sustain a modest physical presence in New York City, the symbolic center of American Jewish life, then it would seem to have exhausted its raison d’être. Indeed, the time may have come to acknowledge the truth: the project of Jewish culture is dead.”
He concedes that Jewish film festivals, klezmer, new Jewish museums, Jewish artists and composers making Jewish art and music, and Jewish titles enjoy a reliable body of readers and buyers, but notes:
“. . .Jewish culture means something other than simply the sum total of works of art or other artifacts, of whatever quality, made by individuals who happen to be Jews. Nor is Jewish culture merely the sum total of such works made by Jews on explicitly Jewish themes. It refers instead to a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, and holistic identity.”
I happen to think that what Loeffler says goes for the USA, but not for Israel where secular culture is indeed alive and flourishing precisely because it is the default. But there Israeli identity works under different parameters to the Diaspora, where it is marginal.

There have always been institutions, movements and ideologies (and music) that have had mass appeal. But others have focused on quality, intensity and depth. Judaism is not a mass movement to be reduced to minimal basic concepts. It’s a way of life. You either live it or lose it. That is what is meant by the term used in the bible, “a kingdom of priests”. You have to take it seriously for yourself, not rely on others to do it for you or indeed to define you.

May 16, 2014

Uses and Abuses

Muslim activists have been exerting pressure within state schools in Birmingham UK to Islamize them by firing or sidelining uncooperative staff, segregating and discriminating against non-Muslim pupils, removing parts and whole subjects of the state curriculum that they deem offensive, and inviting al-Qaeda members and jihadi imams to speak.

According to the UK Daily Telegraph, April 2014:
“At least six schools are implicated in the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot by extremists to ‘Islamise’ secular state education. . . .senior sources at the Department for Education say they have established an ‘overlapping web of connections’ in the schools affected, with a ‘driving force which appears to be explicitly Islamist. . . .The report said girls at Park View and Golden Hillock were made to sit at the back of the class; some Christian pupils at Golden Hillock were left to ‘teach themselves’ and at Park View a supporter of al-Qaeda was invited to speak at assembly. Aspects of the GCSE curriculum were ignored as un-Islamic, even though needed by pupils for exams.”
Respected and successful head teachers who resist the moves are either sacked or marginalized. Government inspectors are, at a further nine schools in the city where the attempted Islamic takeover is less advanced, or where secular head teachers are trying to resist it.

The article continues:
“Michael Gove, the Education Secretary last week controversially appointed Peter Clarke, the former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, to investigate the issue. Ministers and DIE officials were understood to be frustrated at what one senior figure called ‘the willful attempt at every stage to minimise what is happening’ by local Muslim leaders in Birmingham.“
According to another article in the Telegraph, on May 2, says the problem has now extended to 17 other schools in Birmingham, Bradford, London, and Manchester. In other words, this is now a veritable epidemic that the government has been warned about for ages and which it is only responding to now, when it is probably too late. This is precisely the problem that Tony Blair had the courage to raise and was excoriated for only last month.

But this attitude of undermining the state is a Jewish problem too, although we do not try to change the rules for everyone else, only for ourselves. In Antwerp, London, and Manchester, state-aided Orthodox schools are also refusing to teach government curricula which include subjects and values they do not approve of, and the governments are loathe to do much about it. It is true that we Jews do not preach jihad or try to impose our values on non-Jews. But still, the principle of taking money from the state and then undermining or ignoring it is a common thread. It is uncommon in Israel and in the United States too mainly in very religious communities who have often been found guilty of misusing government funds as well as circumventing curricular demands.

On the other hand completely spurious charges have been made against the ultra-orthodox by non-Jews and liberal Jews alike. There has been a lot of publicity in the USA because the school board of the East Ramapo Central School District in Spring Valley, a heavily Charedi area in New York, is run primarily by Charedi Jews. About 20,000 Jewish children in the area go to non-state schools which get certain types of non-denominational aid and subsidies, while the remaining 8,100 children face reduced state and federal funding for their State schools as the number of students declines. In addition, it is claimed that redundant state school buildings have been sold to independent Jewish schools below the market price.

The school board says it is merely carrying out state policy and using state criteria for valuing state property. Cuts in state funding for education are the fault of Governor Cuomo, not the school board. They have been operating legally, and even the district superintendent says the issue has nothing to do with the religion of the board members. There has been no charge of illegality.

However, both in Britain and, to a much lesser extent, in the USA, government policy has increasingly been to encourage schools to either opt out of the state system or for academies (charter schools, in America) to offer an alternative. Particularly in failing districts where the poorer and disadvantaged population get the worst education instead of more help, charters and academies are often seen as ways of offering a better alternative. In the USA, where private education is prohibitively expensive, charter schools set up by Jewish interests offer a sort of way out socially, but they cannot teach religion, for that would contravene the First Amendment which in effect separates of state and religion.

In Britain, Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, has said Mr Gove’s policies of encouraging academies and allowing schools to take more responsibility for their own affairs is to blame, because there is much less government control over the curriculum and the policies of the schools once they have left the mainstream.

The threat posed by extremists taking over schools is of course far more worrying and potentially disastrous than Charedi schools refusing to teach evolution or secular studies altogether. Trying to manipulate one system that exists to help you and replace it with a dangerous ideology is altogether different. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of benefits, subsidies, or support from the state, so long as you abide by its conditions. But the immorality of taking advantage of the state and then undermining it remains the same. As with welfare, the state should get its act together, protect its values, and stop abuse. If citizens or residents do not like government educational policy, they can try to set up their own schools. Or as a recent case of refugees from Germany who wanted to homeschool in contravention of state policy, they can always try to move somewhere else.

May 08, 2014

R.Michael Lerner - Embracing Israel/Palestine

It have been reading Michael Lerner’s book Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East during the week of Israeli Independence Day. The establishment of a Jewish homeland has been the single most important positive historical fact of my lifetime as a Jew. If ever there was a latter day miracle this was it. I would do almost anything for its survival. So some of you may wonder why of all people I chose to read him this week.

Michael Lerner is the founder and rabbi of the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California, and a founding editor of Tikkun Magazine. He is the leading representative of liberal, universal, humanitarian Judaism and is respected on the national stage. He has travelled a long and arduous path championing a tolerant, moderate, and open-minded worldview. And because he argues for compromise in pursuit of peace and reconciliation in Israel, he is dismissed by right-wing maximalist Jews. When I ran Yakar in London I invited him to come and speak. I found him engaging and sincere, and found his use of traditional sources to support his arguments impressive.

So why is it we so dislike people who have the guts to express unpopular opinions? Is it because of that old aphorism that you can’t be a prophet in your own city? Biblical prophets were lonely people. Jeremiah ended up in jail just for his views. They have always stood up for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, and condemned corruption and the hypocrisies of society; for this they were condemned.

So I was glad to have the opportunity to read a book Michael Lerner published a few years ago about the Israel/Palestine issue because I wanted to know if I would agree with him or not. I want to state unambiguously, that there is nothing in his book that I would disagree with. Yet, in the end, I found it unsatisfactory.

Lerner fairly sets out both narratives against each other. He tries and succeeds, in being fair, in recognizing pain, mistakes, cruelties, and missed opportunities on both sides. He believes both sides suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (in the Jewish case for two-thousand years) that blinds them to errors and misjudgments, some obviously much more morally questionable than others. In both camps there are balanced, reasoned opinions and there are extreme, fanatical ones. The world thinks in clichés, but the reality is full of complexities and varieties. In the end, both sides know they will have to compromise.

The blame game is pointless. Perhaps one side did refuse to negotiate. Perhaps the other did fail to nurture good relations when it could have. Perhaps one side has a Supreme Court that has failed and the other doesn’t even have any system of justice. One side might preach hate, and one side might humiliate. Calling on holy textual authority only works if both sides accept the same texts. Dredging up broken promises will achieve nothing, any more than trying to offset Deir Yassin against Gush Etzion, or Palestinian exiles against Sefardi exiles. In the end, peace will only come when both sides want it badly enough. At this moment, clearly, both sides do not.

Perhaps the Palestinians think they can get a better deal. As for Israel, it does not trust Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the fanatics of the wider Middle Eastern environment it finds itself in, who commit such terrible atrocities against each other. You might even argue that both peoples have been and are being let down by their politicians and indeed by the world.

I admire Lerner’s willingness to insist on an unpopular position because he believes it is right. We need such voices. We always need to have our positions challenged. He is driven by a vision of Judaism that I share, what he calls the restorative rather than the defensive (though he calls it “settler Judaism”, which I think is unfair and wrong). We should be trying to make the world a better place instead of only thinking in defensive terms. Sadly we live in a world of murder and prejudice, where world opinion is heavily tilted against Israel for all kinds of reasons; theological, political, and psychological. A defensive person tightens inwards; he doesn’t open up.

We may often be our own worst enemies. But in the end, just as I will put my loved ones first, so too will I seek to defend my people first. We are indeed tribal, we humans. I would love to see internationalism overcome nationalism. Judaism can survive, in theory, in a common market where everyone has equal rights. We do in the USA, after all. But for as long as the world around us remains tribal, we must inevitably support our own tribe first.

If this were just an abstract conflict of policies, one could indeed hope to find reconciliation. If it were simply a European imperialist interloper, as were the whites in South Africa, then overcoming the oppressors would be the only way. But this is different because of ancient cultural bonds. If conquest was the original sin, then where does one begin or end the ancient cycle? Does one return the land to the Canaanites?

This is why I find a purely neutral position like Lerner’s right and just, but unsatisfactory. I am biased, prejudiced in favor of my own people. I have lived through the trauma of almost every door being shut in our faces. I have known the possibility of extermination of not just of some, but possibly of all my people. Whatever one my say about the Palestinians, neither they nor the Muslim religion faces extermination. So yes, I am biased. We have been so traumatized for two thousand years that if I have a chip on my shoulder. I just do not have the confidence to let go of it. All those people across the world and from different cultures screaming for our extermination does not give me confidence.

That doesn’t mean we should not pursue peace. The process itself might help reconciliation, and it certainly does not mean we should turn blind eyes to injustice. But it does mean that if there are billions howling against us, we need our few millions to stand by us. Too many of the Israeli and Jewish critics sound bitter and angry, rather than sad.

Lerner suggests peacekeepers to protect a deal. But where have we seen examples of peacekeepers succeeding? Rely on the USA? Having seen this administration’s well-meant but ineffectual red lines, I no longer have that confidence. I do desperately want to see peace. But more than that I want my people to survive. There are enormous challenges and dangers. But I may be forgiven my realism. In support of it, I quote the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and former Leader of the Official Opposition, Michael Ignatieff:
“I cannot help thinking that liberal civilization--the rule of law, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence--runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.”
We must undertake that struggle. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But we should not let our guard down in the process. We have no one to rely on except ourselves, and of course Heaven. It is up to politicians to find a way of protecting the state while resolving the long-term issues. It is for people of vision to inspire them.

May 01, 2014

Thomas Piketty - Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty is a French economist. His book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has taken the left-wing intellectual world by storm. Reviews are everywhere, and if you want to be up-to-date in the salon or the pub, you’ll need to read up on his major points. The truth is that it’s not the essence of his message that has made his book such a topic of conversation and worth reading, but rather the impressive way he has marshalled his facts, research, history, and broad cultural analysis to make his point. The book is worth reading even if you think his prescriptions and parts of his analysis are arguable.

The increasing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has now become a cliché of the “one percent.” There has throughout history always been excessive inequality. Piketty argues that it is getting significantly worse than it has been for a long time. His touchstone is the Belle Époque (associated with France in the fifty or so years before the First World War and the period of the massively wealthy USA robber barons and bankers). Either such periods end in revolution or in an extended period of recession, slow growth, or stagnation. Which is what he thinks will happen unless, amongst other things, we tax the rich more to reduce the gap.

There is much debate between Republicans who think one should spend one’s way out of it by encouraging job creation and letting the rich keep as much as possible which will trickle down, and Democrats who believe the less fortunate need more help and the rich should be taxed to provide it. The welfare element of the US budget is rocketing to the point where it is beginning to look as though the USA is indeed becoming a welfare state. Government increasingly is the employment safety net of the disadvantaged. At the same time, the very rich have many means of avoiding taxation not available to middle-class wage earners.

Piketty makes the point that once wages were the route to upward mobility and financial self-improvement. But increasingly the gap is in capital, mainly inherited, that provides the “One Percent” with its wealth. Old forms of employment are increasingly obsolete. Whole swathes of the population will be left in the cold as many simple human tasks are more cheaply done abroad. This means that, with exceptions, the American dream of upward mobility is becoming less and less realistic. It is very difficult to rise on the basis of employment, which means that, as in Jane Austen’s era, if you care about such things, you either inherit money or marry into it.

All this might be so, but there are other scenarios. Nowadays brainpower is the gold dust of success. After all, a brainy (and hard working) child will win scholarships to good universities, regardless of capital. There are many who use their brains and flair to create internet fortunes every bit as big as those of the old industries. And many of the richest of the new billionaires now, as in previous years, plan to leave most of their fortunes to their charities. Sure, the majority remain scrooge-like, selfish, egotistic accumulators. But humanity has always been the good, the bad, and the ugly. At the same time most of humanity is rising faster out of poverty and hunger than ever before and world health is improving by leaps and bounds. So I am not as pessimistic as Piketty can sound. Revolutions come not when the rich have too much, but when the poor have too little. But then Plato said that in “The Republic” over 2,000 years ago.

Humans have always been different, some more successful than others. People will always be unequal (though of course they should be treated equally under the law). Some are brainier, stronger, and better looking, and some try harder. Give me the ugly grafter any time. Aristocracies and oligarchies, whether praiseworthy or revolting, have always tried to preserve wealth through military expansion, theft, and strategic marriages. The One Percent of Rome, medieval Europe, or Imperialism possessed massive wealth on the backs conquest, serfs, and slaves. In the end they did all collapse, but was it just because of financial inequality, and are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the American Empire?

Historians, philosophers, and economists have always disagreed on fundamentals, on statistics, on which system of capital is preferable, whether markets can or cannot monitor themselves, whether government intervention is always good or always bad. The great economists of the past all claimed to have the answer. Now we know they didn’t, and we still don’t have it. The best academics analyze. The worst prescribe!

That is why I find the Jewish approach so wise and validating. The Torah recognizes there will always be differences. It does not assert that money is necessarily the root of all evil or tht accumulation is wrong. The Torah prescribes no economic policy. It simply advocates and stresses honesty and charity. No matter what the economic or the political system, “the poor will never cease” says the Bible. And in dealing with the problem, the Torah insists that in addition to the obligation to give, justice should be fair and blind.

We have always had our fat-cats; Korach, Ben Kalba Savua, Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Shmuel HaNagid, the Duke of Naxos, Rothschild, Montefiore, and now our Jewish billionaires. Still, the vast majority of our people have always struggled. However, we have an enviable record of helping the poor. The amount of charity that the Orthodox, in particular, dispense is unbelievable (and most of it is kosher).

Our theological position is clear. First of all, financial is not the only form of wealth. Secondly, if you are fortunate to have it, share it. If God or Nature or Chance has bequeathed you billions, it is to you as the custodian and the agent to ensure that you help those in pain, poverty, and oppression. Systems come and go like fashions. I do not know who is right. But I do know that if there are those I can help, help them I must. That is my religion. That is Judaism.