August 27, 2015

The End of Our World

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of humans around the world are on the move, political refugees and economic migrants. They are already and will continue to radically change the character of the societies they are moving into.

Throughout history humans have always migrated, from land to land and from continent to continent. They were pushed by climate change, by poverty, and by unemployment to search for more fertile land, and sometimes they migrated out of a lust for conquest. “The barbarians are coming” has always been on our lips. Species, tribes, nations, and civilizations rose and fell. Such claims to territory as existed were just swept aside. A new thug or ruler brought a new set of laws and religions. You can roll off the list of conquerors, migrations forced and chosen, of empires won and lost. But the single most significant feature of all these migrations is that, in one way or another, they benefitted the places they ended up in.

Humans, being the shortsighted creatures that they are, thought they could rely on boundaries, laws, and treaties to protect themselves. For short periods of time they often could. But inexorably the tide turned, cities fell, cultures and empires collapsed. Out of their ruins new ones emerged and the cycle continued and continues today. We in the west now are no less arrogant than were the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Marxists, and now the contrasting worldviews of socialists and capitalists. Each one had and does contain the seeds of its own destruction.

After the Second World War, Western Europe decided to try again. It determined to reduce the national rivalries, to share and work together rather than to compete with each other for dominance. Social welfare systems expanded dramatically. Across the globe a new order of human rights and moral obligations struggled to emerge. But none of this could eradicate the basic core of human greed, envy, and prejudice that remained like spores of a disease deeply embedded in society.

Postwar Europe needed workers. The locals no longer wanted or needed to work in unglamorous jobs. Immigrants were needed, as they had always been, to do the dirty work, run the buses, clear the refuse, and clean the houses. Did the populace welcome them? Not really. And as each new tide swept in from the old imperial empires, they were met with ungrateful segregation and disrespect.

Now there is a massive influx into Europe of millions from the Middle East and Africa that is impossible to halt. It’s not just Europe of course (which is getting all the publicity at the moment), it is everywhere. Some may well be criminals, some dependent on support, but many come in the hope of a better life; they head to countries with the best welfare opportunities. And Europe needs them because of its aging population and decreasing pools of workers.

But essentially the migrants are coming because of the failure of their home countries, because of the ghastly worlds they live in, of political and religious oppression, obscurantism, and corruption. They try one route, and if that is blocked they try another. Those disgusting regimes will not go away, and so the stream will continue to flow.

Because Europe is now constrained by international conventions that only a few parts of world adhere to, they have no moral right or logic to stop those trying to escape human suffering from coming in. It is pointless and futile even to try. We Jews once were these hopeless refugees, and then the West, one by one, cut off the escape routes. Those who once tried to stem the flow of Jews now complain that Jews, having failed to get humane treatment elsewhere, have gone and set up their own refuge. But whereas most Jews never wanted to retain links with the places or cultures they left or wanted to impose their religion on others, and most quickly assimilated, that is not going to happen in this case. It is possible that assimilation might ameliorate this present doomsday prediction, and I hope so, but I am not optimistic.

The West all of a sudden is trying to shut the gates again. But, as with water, if you shut off one route, it will always find another. It can’t be done, aside from whether it should or should not. Just as you cannot end crime, so you will not stop people smugglers. In one way we have progressed morally. We know we cannot ignore human suffering the way we once we did. But the result may well be the end of Europe as we know it.

A few years ago it was Israel that seemed the easy route out of East Africa. Israel is small enough to put up fences, even though it was condemned morally for it. The sci-fi film World War Z depicted Israel’s fence as the only thing that saved it from the zombies who invaded everywhere else. It’s a scenario that is proving true in the ISIS Middle East today. But, as the film suggested, it could not hold out alone forever. And, no, I didn’t see it!

The only alternative political model is a fascist dictatorship like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, and many Islamic states. This kind of regime, like China and Russia today, tries to buy people’s quiescence while limiting their freedoms and ignoring human rights. It is possible that both models will coexist in a tense but accommodating symbiosis, trading commercially and sometimes putting money before guns.

The USA likewise has this problem, though there is much dissimilarity too—not least, the differences in cultural background. But in the USA there are other threats to survival. The massive gap between the haves and have-nots will exacerbate the tensions between classes, religions, and races. For all the dreams of its founders, the USA now looks dysfunctional.

We are in the process of leaving a relatively peaceful and secure time for one of desperation and division. The next generation will experience a new and very different world. It will be one of science fiction, where huge numbers of people will be on the move because of climate change, terror, and relative poverty. They will use modern methods of transport, held off either by physical or natural boundaries.

Open societies will be fundamentally changed, and I just do not have the confidence in democratic political systems to believe that they can stop it. If we fall back on survival, on “me first”, this will lead to anarchy. Bakunin was right. I am beginning to sympathize with the Russian nihilists. Only small inward-looking, self-protected communities will survive. But I wouldn’t want to live in one.

Perhaps that's why so many people believe in messiahs. If humans can’t make the world a better place, perhaps God will.

August 21, 2015

Rav Lichtenstein, z”l

Those who follow me will know how much scorn I pour on abuses of religion and religious authority. I despair at the pettiness and outright vindictiveness of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and its utter refusal to follow the Biblical exhortation to “understand the soul of the stranger”. I am alienated by extremism of all kinds, religious and political, including anti-Zionism and lunatic Zionism. I feel revulsion for national religious zealots who think that random revenge killing and physical brutality is a Jewish response to violence directed at us. And I feel profound sadness that sick maniacs (both religious and anti-religious) are let out of detention to murder innocent victims simply because they are different. Just as I despise those who pick on a few examples of inhumanity to claim we are the same as the real evil human beings our there and who pick on one speck when a mountain of real genocide, rape, slavery, stoning, and beheading goes unreacted to.

There is so much wrong with humanity in general and, sadly, in our own minute corner, too, that we need to be reminded, I need to be reminded, of the far greater number of our people who are good human beings and represent the best of us rather than the worst.

So to cheer myself up I am writing this week about a man who represented everything I hold dear and was a wonderful example of a brilliant, gentle, humane, multi-cultured scholar and rabbinic authority, the late lamented head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, whose memory really IS a blessing.

He was the last of a generation typified by his late father-in-law, the great Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who himself was the greatest exemplar of profound Jewish scholarship combined with mastery of Western thought and literature. He was a powerful supporter of the Jewish state (as well as an honest critic) and an open-minded, caring human being.

Rav Lichtenstein was born into an aristocratic Lithuanian family of outstanding scholars. Educated in the USA, he was a Talmudic scholar of the top rank. He was also a PhD from Harvard University. The range of his scholarship spanned English literature all the way to the most intricate details of Jewish law. But in truth, it was his gentle personality, humility, and humanity that really set him apart from his contemporaries. He was tall, a giant of a man, but he radiated warmth and concern. He was the mentor of several generations of young rabbis and Talmidei Chachamim (religious scholars). Through them, his values and ideals will continue. Thank goodness, for our sake and for the sake of a sane, committed Judaism.

His daughter recorded what kind of parent he was:

"[One of Rav Lichtenstein’s daughters described] how her father managed to radiate both a rarefied aura of sanctity and, crucially, a true humanity that extended to such mundane matters as doing most of the laundry in the house, getting the kids ready in the mornings, helping them with their homework in the evenings, making sure to eat dinner with them almost every night, washing the dishes after Shabbat, attending their performances at school and youth group, teaching them how to ride a bike, playing Scrabble and chess with them, taking an interest in their friends. . .all of them activities that might be undertaken by normal devoted fathers but that I think we usually, rightly or wrongly, do not associate with people of Rav Lichtenstein’s intellectual caliber and spiritual stature."

I saw him several times but never actually spoke to him. My late brother Mickey Rosen and he were close and attended some of each other’s happy and sad occasions. Rav Lichtenstein wrote a very moving obituary and memorial to my brother on his very premature death a few years ago. I was also aware that Rav Lichtenstein and his wife Tova knew and befriended my mother, who was already in Jerusalem taking care her father when they arrived there. But it was only thanks to the brother-in-law of my late Uncle Hershy in Canada, Jules Samson, that I discovered this anecdote about my grandfather that Rav Lichtenstein appended to a scholarly article he wrote about the religious obligation of raising children. Here he describes the story:

"Let me close with a brief anecdote. On Yom Ha-atzmaut 1973, just prior to Yom Kippur War, there was a big military parade up Keren Ha-yesod Street in Jerusalem.  We were new olim, having just come in 1971, and we took our children to see the parade.  We went to the home of someone who lived on Keren Ha-yesod, up to their porch, and watched the parade with a number of other people. On this porch we met a Mr. Cohen from Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff is not Bnei Brak, yet all of Mr. Cohen’s children were religious, and all of his grandchildren were religious. He himself was not a rav but a simple layman; many Torah giants did not merit what Mr. Cohen did. My wife and I asked him, 'Mr.  Cohen, how did you raise such a family?' He responded in Yiddish, 'To raise children properly, you need two things: good judgment, seikhel, and divine assistance, siyata di-shemaya; and to have seikhel, you also need siyata di-shemaya.'"
That was so typical of my grandfather. He loved to say that there were really Eleven Commandments, not Ten. And the eleventh was, “Use your seikhel, your common sense.”
Then Rav Lichtenstein adds his own conclusion:

"However, even if you have seikhel and siyata di-shemaya, your heart has to be in the right place. You have to be willing to give, and willing to receive. Family life is all about giving and receiving reciprocally, to children, to parents, to a spouse, in all areas of life. Superficially regarded, raising children is massive giving. But I tell you that it is massive receiving, but massive! The joy and nachas are beyond words."

I remember the apartment with the balcony overlooking Rechov Keren Hayesod. It was actually where my mother and grandfather lived. Now almost all of that generation has gone. But whenever I despair about the state of Israel or the state of Judaism today, I think of them, their heritage, and their children and grandchildren, and I know there is hope.  

August 13, 2015


Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of greatest of philosophers. Not only, but he was possibly the most honest and moral of them all. He was a gentle, if prickly, principled human being who led an ethical, modest life unaffected by money or fame. He won a court decision over his father’s estate and promptly handed it all over to his estranged sister. He turned down an offer of a professorship and life pension from a German prince, because he feared he might not be able to say what he thought.

He was born Jewish and had a good Jewish education. Technically, Spinoza remained Jewish even though he was put under a ban (Cherem) by the Amsterdam Jewish community. He never converted to another religion, but he was given a Christian burial, and his remains are buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. What led to his ban (Cherem is not strictly the same as Excommunication, which has very specific Catholic theological ramifications) were his views on the Bible, on God, and on religious authority. They were as much a threat to the Catholic Church and Protestantism as they were to Judaism. There is some dispute as to how much pressure from the church was brought to bear on the Jewish community in Amsterdam to disown him. All his writing was put on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.

In the religious and political turmoil of the Netherlands of the day, Spinoza courted the opposition of all religions. The so-called Eighty Years’ War, from 1568-1648, was an attempt by Catholicism, in its struggle with Protestantism, to retain its grip over Northern European countries. The Netherlands ended up being divided into a Protestant North and a Catholic South. It was still divided over religion in Spinoza’s day, and the Enlightenment was only beginning to sprout its controversial shoots. Only a handful of freethinking intellectuals, such as his teacher Van den Enden (another one whose books were banned by the church) and the brothers Johan & Cornelis de Witt, supported him. Even then the situation was so tense and volatile that the much respected Johan de Witt was lynched by a mob of religious fanatics.

The case for Spinoza is that he came from Marrano stock and was subjected to all kinds of alien ideas, and the family had only recently reentered the observant Jewish community. But he had been taught by several distinguished and actually open minded rabbis, including the great Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, a friend of the legal giant Grotius and the artist Rembrandt. Spinoza’s scandalous views included denying the Mosaic single authorship of the Bible, rejecting theological ideas of life after death, and describing God as the sum of the universe (an idea that can be found in the Kabbalah, too). These are the sorts of ideas that nowadays can be found as topics of debate and discussion in more open Orthodox circles. But it is true that if the Amsterdam community was the equivalent of the Charedi community today, he would certainly have been branded a heretic.

Spinoza did not initially intend to leave the Jewish community. He recited kaddish for a year for his father. He donated to the Amsterdam Talmud Torah and other charities. It was only when he was driven out of Amsterdam that he cut his ties with the Jewish community altogether. If his philosophy in general is controversial, he frankly disliked all religious authority, all blatant exercises of political power, and was very much attuned to the new intellectual world that wanted to separate state and religion, enthroning reason above all else. So the case for his defense is that he was a reluctant rebel and simply alienated by intransigent communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

But there is another angle. In his great religious polemic the Tractatus Theologicus-Politicus, he questions the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and he claims that it is no longer binding on Jews. It is true that he denigrates all religions as having failed their founders. But he sees the prophecy of Moses as being of an inferior level to that of Jesus. He considers the meeting of minds that characterized the relationship of God to Jesus (as described in Christian theology) as being of a higher and purely intellectual order. It has been suggested that he said this only to curry favor with the Christian authorities and try to gain the support of the church. But if we assume that these were really his views, then I can perfectly understand not only the offense taken by the Amsterdam community but by Jews nowadays too. So those who might argue for his posthumous reinstatement are just wide of the mark and clearly have not read his philosophy.

A criterion for belonging to the Jewish religious community is to regard the Torah as the ultimate prophetic communication, whether it was “face to face” or “mouth to mouth” or indeed symbolically. This is what differentiates the Jewish religion from the other monotheistic religions. To deny this is to “deny the rock from whence you were hewn.”

In the enlightened world we inhabit, we do not insist on people having to belong to one religion or another. If we are enlightened practitioners of our own religions, we will not object to people finding their points on its spectrum. We approve of freedom of thought and mind when it comes to making personal choices. But we cannot expect the sort of relativism that considers all views of equal significance or all Jews as being an integral part of the Jewish people regardless of what they think or how they behave. Sadly, Spinoza ended up not only rejecting Judaism, but giving up any attachment to his people.

I can certainly sympathize with his sense of alienation, and this is consistent with his philosophy. But you can no more call Spinoza a great Jew than you can Karl Marx. They might be great people who happened to have been born Jewish, but that is a different matter altogether. If the Cherem in Amsterdam was based purely on his theological views, and given that in those pre-emancipation years it was only religion that defined a Jew, then clearly Spinoza belonged and belongs to the rarefied world of philosophy. He is not a proponent of religion in general or Judaism in particular. Quite the contrary.

Were he alive today I would like to think he would have been head of the philosophy department at the Hebrew University where, I am delighted to say, religious parties exercise no influence whatsoever. However, it is much more likely that he would have joined Noam Chomsky!

August 06, 2015

Side Effects

We humans have always needed cures, whether they are of the body, the mind or the soul. And in our desperation we have turned to the most unlikely of sources and placebos.

The Talmud, for all its weight of law, ideas, and debate, lists the most unbelievable, improbable, and weird cures you could imagine: the burnt placenta of black cats, wild roosters cut with silver coins, pigeons on your chest, to name a few. They make the witches of Macbeth look like amateurs.

Medicine has always been a significant part of our tradition. Many rabbis were expert doctors. Shmuel, for example, was an expert in anatomy, cardiology, dermatology, embryology, gastroenterology, obstetrics, ophthalmology, pediatrics, urology, and faith healing. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish doctor of all, wrote over 10 books on medicine and ignored almost all of the Talmudic cures.

The issue of whether we should leave all such matters up to God can be found in the Torah: “I am God who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). Yet in the Talmud it says very clearly that we may make use of human healers (TB Brachot 60a). Every day we pray, “Heal us God, and we will be healed,” which seems tautologous. My late father probably contracted the leukemia that killed him from the drugs he was given to cure an earlier attack of pleurisy. He liked to say that when humans cure they often cause unwanted results as well. Only God’s cure is without negative side effects.

There is much in medicine of all kinds that I do not understand. I know faith healing can work sometimes, so can the blessings of rabbis, but always unevenly, inconsistently, and with limited pathologies. It seems homeopathy works often, but it doesn’t make sense to me. Acupuncture has a method to it I can understand, but I still find it hard to believe all of its claims. I do not believe one should forswear modern medicine. I am eclectic and believe we should try all sorts of options. And I do agree that sometimes pharmaceutical drugs work effectively and efficiently too.

But I am very suspicious of drug companies and their influence on governments and doctors. I worry about the drastic side effects of many drugs that are allowed on the market. In the USA daily we are bombarded by adverts for drugs probably more than any other product. Which proves how financially significant the market is. Of course I understand that drug companies need profits to fund research. But it seems to me that there is a tendency towards overprescription and overdependency on so many chemical drugs.

Every advert for a pharmaceutical drug comes with an obligatory list of rushed-through or minutely printed side effects. They are so frightening that I really do not understand why people insist on taking them.

Let me give you some random examples that I have recently noticed:

Humira is recommended for psoriatic arthritis, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. It lists the following serious side effects: “TB and infections caused by viruses, fungi, or bacteria. Symptoms related to TB include a cough, low-grade fever, weight loss, or loss of body fat and muscle. Symptoms include muscle aches, feeling very tired, dark urine, skin or eyes that look yellow, little or no appetite, vomiting, clay-colored bowel movements, fever, chills, stomach discomfort, and skin rash, hives, trouble breathing, and swelling of face, eyes, lips, or mouth, numbness or tingling, problems with vision, weakness in arms or legs, dizziness, bruising or bleeding, looking very pale, heart failure, immune reactions, a lupus-like syndrome, liver problems, red scaly patches or raised bumps that are filled with pus.”

Xarelto is recommended for people with high blood pressure. But “people with atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart beat) are at an increased risk of forming a blood clot in the heart, which can travel to the brain, causing a stroke, or to other parts of the body. It can cause bleeding, which can be serious, and rarely may lead to death. Call your doctor or get medical help right away if you develop any of these signs or symptoms of bleeding: Unexpected bleeding or bleeding that lasts a long time, headaches, feeling dizzy or weak, pain, swelling, or new drainage at wound sites,” etc., etc.

Zithromax is an antibiotic useful for treating bacterial infections. Its instructions include: “Get emergency medical help if you have any of these signs of an allergic reaction to Zithromax: hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat, diarrhea that is watery or bloody, headache with chest pain and severe dizziness, fainting, fast or pounding heartbeats, nausea, upper stomach pain, itching, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice yellowing of the skin or eyes” and another 80 different symptoms.

To be fair, they are all listed on the internet by the companies themselves. Perhaps they need to cover themselves from the efforts of eager lawyers. But who in their right mind would want to risk these side effects? You might be safer going to an ordinary witchdoctor.

We have become a civilization of drug takers, pill poppers. Almost every kid is on Ritalin. Half of America is addicted to painkillers, even when the pain has long gone. This is all symptomatic of a consumer society gone mad.

No, I do not advocate Christian Science, which avoids medical intervention in favor of prayer. And I think parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated on principle are potential child-killers. (Ben Franklin learned this the hard way. He wrote, “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.”)

But seriously, we really need to know much more about what we ingest than we do, and we should not assume all doctors know best or that they were not taken on a free golfing holiday in order to recommend prescribing the stuff. When in the Torah God said, “If you behave well, I will not let the diseases of Egypt affect you,” perhaps He was referring to side effects!