June 26, 2014

Soccer World Cup

They say soccer is a beautiful game, but it is also a symbol of what is wrong with society. Here is a game of skill that can produce artistry and physical prowess that at the same time can show all the corruption, degeneration, and disappointment that human beings consistently exhibit ( such as biting opponents). This may sound counterintuitive coming from me, for whom soccer was the single most important subject on my school timetable, involved me in hours of training, physical torture and broken limbs at university, and until recently actually occupied 90 minutes every Saturday night when I was glued to the television watching “Match of the Day” as a life-long supporter of Manchester United.

And you might say I am only jaundiced now because Manchester United have had their worst season in decades. Or that England have exited ignominiously from the World Cup in Brazil. A teabag stays in a cup longer! But then only the most antirational, diehard supporter could possibly have expected anything else. English soccer now depends on foreign players who show more skill than your average English yob. Brian Clough got Nottingham Forest to win the European Cup twice with the English style of punt the ball and run after it. But that was in 1979 and 1980, and no one has heard of them since.

Soccer, it is true, is the most popular sport in the world in terms of numbers playing it and numbers watching it. But it is also the one with the worst record for hooliganism, racism, numbers killed on and off the pitch, corruption, and nationalism at its crudest level.

FIFA, the body that “controls” the World Cup, is a self-perpetuating oligarchy for nepotistic millionaires. For years they refused to use technology that might help eradicate dishonest and incompetent referees. It is now clear that it accepts bribes to decide where the World Cup will be held. FIFA makes billions on the World Cup and puts almost nothing back into the game, but plenty into private bank accounts.

So the big question is, why do people put up with it? The answer is simply that soccer is a substitute for warfare. You dress up in your team’s or country’s colors and you hope that your mercenaries will smash the opposition into the ground, enabling them and you to perform a victorious war dance, humiliating the enemy and displaying all the crude gestures and facial expressions of a Maori raiding party.

It is something built into the human psyche, this need to win. The more that society tries to control our belligerence and baser instincts, the more we seek other outlets for it. Which you might think makes it all worthwhile. But there’s something else. Sport represents the very summit of materialism, the pursuit of physicality and sexuality, materialism for its own sake.

Judaism, on the other hand, stands in opposition to the very philosophy of sport. The Maccabees rebelled against the Greeks precisely over the introduction of the theater and the circus into Jerusalem, and what it represented. The assimilated Jews who preferred Greek values to Jewish ones were the very people who brought the games into Judea. The Olympic Games soon declined from their original philosophical justification. Athletes were paid, glorified, and sometimes killed. Nakedness was a requirement, and although in theory a good symposium was supposed to round off the day, in practice it usually descended into an orgy of one sex or another.

Roman games relegated athletics in favor of gladiators killing vast numbers of humans and animals. Rival gangs of charioteer supporters used to riot in the streets of Rome. Early Christianity, like the Maccabees, gained strength precisely because it offered a moral and social alternative to the degenerate Roman culture.

We are not very different nowadays. The barbaric haircuts of players at the World Cup are reminiscent of Viking marauders out to rape kill and pillage. The unsightly tattoos, more than your average Neanderthal medicine man, are symbolic of a snub to decorum and lack of respect for the human body. Players did and do behave in a deceitful, petulant manner and if they score gesticulate and dash to the cameras like monkeys in heat. And when men known for their dissolute behavior beyond the game start looking to heaven, bowing to the ground, or crossing themselves in the expectation that their deity will favor them, you know that there’s something wrong with religion too. I want the team with no primitive haircuts, no tattoos, and no record of foul play to win. But sadly the only team that qualifies on all these counts is Germany!

When I stopped watching Manchester United and England because it only depressed me, I spent the 90 minutes I otherwise would have wasted studying more Torah instead. I can’t tell you how much better I felt for it. How superior and more elevated than those who spend their time on such trivial pursuits. Why should one waste time on soccer or indeed any sport?

How, I wondered, did I allow myself to get sucked into this vain waste of time? Then I thought of those hormonally overexcited yeshivah students who use up their surplus energy throwing stones, acid, and bleach at other human beings they disagree with and beat up rabbis and women that find disfavor in their eyes. And I think, what wonderful soccer players they might become. Perhaps if their teachers allowed them to use soccer as a way of releasing their animal instincts they might, and return from the experience far better people and far better Jews.

June 19, 2014

GEEOHDEE

It has now become a requirement of Orthodoxy that wherever one writes the word made up of the letters GEE OH DEE in reference to the Holy Name, out of reverence one does not write the name in full but with a dash, to wit: G-D. Now my father always insisted that if we were writing English we ought to write English and not some bastardization of it. Just as when we used the Hebrew language we should be grammatically correct. For centuries, the name in English for the creator of the Universe has been GOD. Or as wags often like to joke, DOG backwards. Should we need to treat the Divine Name in a different language with respect? Should we bury dollar bills because they bear this name in English (or perhaps American)? Times change. My father’s generation is long gone, and G-D has now swept all before it in the religious world, so has Alm-ghty, and doubtless soon so too will Div-ne, and perhaps Cre-tor as well.

The Ten Commandments stresses the importance of not taking the Divine Name in vain. In those days people took such things so much more seriously. Nowadays OMG turns up every second sentence spoken, and people make fun of religion all the time. Nothing is sacred anymore, and no one seems to bother about swear words, oaths, or the delicacies of speech; if the faithful were determined by the times the Divine Name is uttered in daily speech there would not be an atheist on earth.

The Bible uses various names for what we call God in Hebrew. There are seven altogether (Talmud, Shavuot 35a). Of these seven, one specifically is holier than all others--the so-called tetragrammaton, the letters Yod Hey Vav Hey, which is never vocalized. Only the High Priest was allowed to when he entered the Holy of Holies. We on the inside tend to laugh at non-Jewish attempts to discover how it should be pronounced--Jehovah, Yahweh--they’re obviously way off beam. For everyone else, when reading the name in the text it is pronounced “Adonay”. Even that is not used in common speech; then we simply say HaShem, The Name. These and the rest of the seven may not, according to Talmudic law, be obliterated, desecrated, or trashed, and must be buried if torn or worn. These are the extents to which Jewish law requires one to treat the Divine Names respectfully. Yet we go further. All of the seven names when pronounced outside of a sacred text or usage are indeed pronounced differently than the way they are written.

In the Code of Jewish Law, the great commentator known as the Shach, Shabbtai ben Meir HaKohen (1621–1662), was asked if one had to treat the German name “Gott” with similar sanctity, and he said quite specifically that the laws only applied to the Hebrew names (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dea 276). And given the different ways “God” is used in other religions to refer to their various interpretations, it is not surprising that he thought that the Hebrew God was not at the same as “gott”.

It was on this basis that my father thought of putting in a dash as frankly silly. His disdain for dog English extended beyond the Divine Names into what we once called Yinglish and is now often referred to as Yeshiva Speak or Frumspeak--a mixture of English and Yiddish words or Yiddishisms that have infiltrated Orthodox speech such as “by us” or “to bring down”, well documented in Chaim Weiser’s cute book “Frumspeak: The first Dictionary of Yeshivish”, which is already 20 years old.

My father thought that if you wanted to express yourself in Yiddish you should use Yiddish and if English, use English correctly. We were drilled to use words correctly, to know the difference between uninterested and disinterested, between continuous and continual, obliged and obligated. He thought Americanisms were for American, not English. I still cringe every time I hear many Americans say Axe instead of Ask. He was punctilious about usage. In my youth “the likes of” was working-class or uneducated usage, but nowadays it peppers the pages of The Economist and The New York Times. He wasn’t consistent. He made great fun of the French desperately trying to keep the evil influence of English out of their pure language. Indeed, some Frenchmen do still try to avoid “le weekend” and “email” and “computer” and “tablet”. But we know that languages are fluid and usages and vocabularies constantly change.

So why, if it is clear that misspelling the Divine name in English by putting a dash instead of a letter is not required, has it become such a test of holiness? Why, was kosher once the standard, then it was Glatt, then Chasidish, and now Mehadrin? Of course we all like to play games of religious one-upmanship and show off. But this is more a matter of a social security blanket, belonging, wearing the same uniform, the same hat, the same head covering. It shows to others where you belong and who your friends are. It is a way of giving you some much needed security in a troubling, complex world, and signaling to likeminded others that you are “safe”. And of where you want to book your seats in the World to Come.

And I have no problem with that. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose their level of piety? So long as you don’t insist that I have to.

June 12, 2014

Peace In The Middle East

Readers of my blog will know that I do not hold back from criticizing Israeli politicians and policies and that I think that occupation, or however one describes the situation on the West Bank or in Judea and Samaria, is neither healthy nor morally sustainable. Why, even the Scots cannot bear to be under the English.

But for the love all I hold dear, I cannot understand how anyone other than a thoroughly biased, prejudiced, or blind theorist (or someone ideologically or religiously opposed to Israel’s existence) could possibly ask of Israel to relax its insistence on controlling points of access to its population under current circumstances in the Middle East.

Civil war rages in Syria, where different Muslim sects mutilate, torture, and rape each other. The regime poison gasses its enemies. The only thing they have in common is hatred of Jews.

In Iraq, Sunnis and Shia are beheading, hanging, and torturing each other. The jihadi “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is sweeping the corrupt Shia Maliki government before it like chaff, and just as they did under Saddam, even their American-trained soldiers are dropping their pants and rifles and fleeing.

In Lebanon Sunni and Shia attack each other, bomb each other, and live within their own secure armed enclaves.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is regarded as a danger to be imprisoned and killed.

In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, perceived enemies are imprisoned, tortured, and killed without due process. And we know that when the Americans leave Afghanistan the Taliban will take over again.

Christians of all denominations everywhere in the Middle East are under threat, their churches are attacked, their clergy killed, and they are leaving in vast numbers.

Altogether the number of Muslims killed by Muslims is exponentially vaster than all Palestinians killed and imprisoned by Israel since 1948. Regimes are shaky and on the point of collapse, and one cannot predict who will be in charge tomorrow. The Palestinians are themselves divided into various rival factions who think nothing of killing each other.

So please tell me why Israel, unless it is suicidal, has one good reason for reaching a deal at this moment in this situation? And why should anyone think it makes sense to pressurize or boycott Israel under these circumstances?

I do believe Israel should voluntarily withdraw from areas of Palestinian population, minimize checkpoints within, and maximize investment and cooperation with willing and interested parties. But to sign a peace treaty under such inflammable circumstances cannot make objective sense.

Memorials and Days

We are right in the middle of all sorts of memorial days. But I wonder. Do they do any good?

My late father was born in London, into a modest home in a poor working-class district of London. Even as teenager he was heavily involved in social issues and supported the UK Labour Party in its attempts to redress the imbalance between wealth and privilege on the one hand and poverty and inequality on the other. But the years he spent in Eastern Europe studying in Mir and travelling through countries where Jews were subject to discrimination and oppression gave him a tremendous amount of respect for British institutions and gratitude for living in an enlightened country with its rule of law and, in theory at least, respect for individual rights. He was constantly drumming into his children what good fortune we had to have been born in a free land.

Each year in England when we remembered VE Day, the victory over Nazi Germany, we bought our plastic red poppies and my father proudly wore his. He would speak to us about how but for the British holding out against Germany and the brave Royal Air Force pilots of the Battle of Britain we would not be alive.

But that did not mean he was oblivious to the faults of British society. After all, he demonstrated against the inhuman policy of the Labor Party he loved towards the Jews in Mandate Palestine after the World War ended and Churchill was ousted. He was as critical, as much as he admired British institutions.

In the US I celebrate Memorial Day because America helped in defeating my enemies. I know most Americans, if asked, would have refused to fight to protect the Jews. After all it was Hitler who declared war on the USA, not vice versa. Roosevelt wanted to help Britain, but the anti-war lobby in the USA, supported by men like Ford, Kennedy, and Father Charles Coughlin together with big business that went on trading with the Nazis, was very strongly opposed. America refused to allow Jewish refugees from the Nazis to enter the country. However and regardless of American anti-Semitism the end result was that without the USA neither I nor any European Jews would be alive today.

We are told in the Mishna (Avot 3) to pray for the welfare of the states we live under because, in terms that sound like Hobbes, “we would otherwise swallow each other up alive.”

In the same way I support Israel, even if I experienced the anti-religious atmosphere that secular Zionism tried so hard to perpetuate. I remember enough examples at firsthand of the pressure brought to bear on religious immigrants in the early years to abandon their traditions. All the same, over time the state has enabled Torah to flourish, directly and indirectly. Even the concept of a welfare state, with all its benefits, has come about through predominantly secular socialist political ideologies. The same goes for workers’ rights in the USA.

Therefore I cannot understand why one would not be grateful for the existence of a Jewish state, with all that it has facilitated, even if one hates its politics. As if the Mufti or Hussein or Arafat or Khomeini would have subsidized yeshivas or Torah learning to the point where hundreds of thousands are supported directly and indirectly by the state.

Jerusalem Day, too, is a cause for celebration (as well as memorializing it, even if we say so three times a day in our prayers). I don’t care whether the soldiers who recaptured Jerusalem were saints or sinners, Jews or non-Jews, Zionists or not. I do care that today I can walk its ancient streets and visit the remains of the Second Temple. I couldn’t do that without a Jewish state.

One can call Israeli politicians, like politicians the world over, corrupt, immoral, self-serving, even evil. But criticizing soccer players does not mean that soccer is evil or basketball or baseball. You can love the game even if you hate the players.

Do Memorial days do any good? So many people are ignorant of earlier events, either because they were born so much afterwards or because of a failure of education. Memorial days should educate. But the people who need it most pay least attention. As with so many things nowadays, we tend to stick to our received ideas for better or for worse and don’t really want to take on board challenging counter-narratives. Old veterans or politicians turn up and say the right things, but the average Joe doesn’t give a hoot.

I value these days because they reiterate a much undervalued human emotion, gratitude. Ingratitude of any kind pains me. And it pains me even more when it comes from religious people who should know better. The value of memorial days, indeed of Mother’s and Father’s Days reminds us of how fortunate we are. We shouldn’t need days for that. It should be taken for granted. Yet our tradition is full of memorial days, and “remembering” is the catchphrase of our history. We should, in theory, come to appreciate these sentiments of gratitude ourselves every day, in every prayer, in every breath. But until we do, we need them all.