November 27, 2015

Women in Orthodox Judaism

You may wonder why, in a world full of so many real problems, are Orthodox rabbis of various organizations, dimensions, and denominations so busy condemning, decrying, banning, and excoriating women for the wicked, heretical crime of wanting to teach Torah and pray? Are they serious? Aren’t studying Torah and prayer crucial elements in getting closer to God in Orthodoxy, too? Are they telling us that women have neither brains nor souls? Really? What’s the real issue?

For thousands of years arrogant males thought women were stupid, seductive witches who could not add up one and one and whose only functions were to produce and rear babies, cook and to lie flat for their husbands. Some may be surprised to learn that this is no longer the case. After all, in the most ultra-religious conservative homes women often go out to work at serious professional jobs at which they are very good and earn the money to keep the home going. Once upon a time, men refused to allow women to vote, to get degrees, or to open bank accounts. Now they can run states, governments, universities, Fortune 500 companies, MI6, and outdo most men at college and in any area they allowed to compete. I doubt there are many men who could beat Serena Williams at tennis.

So what are we witnessing? Is it a reaction against Western values, against feminism, against Reform, or is it fear that opening too much to women will lead to their dominating or taking over most of the communal jobs and threatening the cozy hegemony of male chauvinists? Are they frightened that a learned, scholarly women will know enough to contradict her husband or, worse still, her local rabbi?

Yes, you can point to a source in the Talmud Sotah that you shouldn’t teach Torah to women (two thousand years ago), but there were plenty of other opinions. The late, great Gaon J.B. Soloveitchik actually wrote a letter (available on the internet) insisting that it was right and essential to teach women Torah to the highest level. Oh, for the great men who once led Judaism and had guts. But I do not despair (only of religious bureaucracies). Where leadership fails, grassroots activity flourishes. In the USA and, more notably, in Israel, institutions that teach Torah to women are booming and producing outstanding scholars. They become halachic advisors, pleaders in rabbinic courts, and educators. What earthly reason can there be for them NOT to give of their brilliance to communities and congregations?

How can it make any sense for any culture or any group of human beings who wish to preserve their traditions to exclude fully 50% of their talent? How can it make sense for leadership of such groups to fail to address concerns and needs and complaints of fully half their membership?

You might say that once you open the door to changes, you never know where they will lead. But if all that is being asked by Orthodox women is within the framework of Jewish law, the constitution of our people, not beyond it, what is the issue? If everything that is being asked for can be supported purely and entirely from halachic sources, how can it possibly be heretical?

I won’t rehearse here all the halachic arguments that allow women to gather together to pray and to read from the Torah. Rabbis Sperber and Henkin have done it powerfully and brilliantly, and you can find it all on the internet (another great equalizer that is hated by the extreme). It is true that women and men have different degrees of obligations in Torah Judaism. I believe it is right and necessary to distinguish between male and female spaces, so long as legal equality is universal. But that does not mean that those who want to cannot take on more for themselves. None of the women who hold positions in Orthodox synagogues in the USA is campaigning to abandon Jewish law or take on functions that do. Even the so-called “Partnership Minyanim” are still committed to halacha. All they ask is to be able to have services that give women more opportunities to participate actively for themselves. Their only crime is being something new that was never done before. Traditional bodies of all kinds fear change and progress. It is like refusing to abandon the horse and cart in favor of the automobile. It’s new. It has not been done before. Welcome the Amish.

Is the issue one title? Evereyone knows that “rabbi” is pretty toothless. If there are people who eat pork, break Shabbat, and know less about Torah than a Charedi cheder kid can call themselves rabbis, then what does the title mean, any more than calling someone “sir” or “madam”? If one can set up ones own rabbinical college and award rabbinic degrees, the title is no more than a BA in tiddlywinks. But who cares? We all know you need to look at the degree awarding institution, not just the degree itself. There is a difference, I venture, between a PhD from Harvard as opposed to one from the Florida Methodist University of Waterskiing.

In my yeshivah they looked down on those who abandoned the scholarly life to become a “rabbi” in a congregation. I know Orthodox rabbis who actually bought their title and from very, very Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem, for that matter. Titles are pretty meaningless in themselves. The great Hillel didn’t need any title whatsoever. Most great heads of yeshivahs don't actually have semicha (technical ordination), and most rebbes wouldn’t want to be called rabbis to save their lives. I would much prefer to be called Rav than Rabbi. The great late Rav Moshe Feinstein used on occasion to refer to rabbis as “ra bi”—“bad for me”!

If a woman teaches in a community and helps the rabbi with sundry social pastoral tasks, how is she in anyway offending Jewish law, regardless of what name she is given? And if it's the title alone that is the problem, let the Orthodox come up with one that doesn’t offend instead of the usual, predictable attack dogs being unleashed and excoriating those of a different point of view.

So it’s feminism they worry about? But there are feminists and feminists. Sure there are plenty of crazy, left-wing, looney, politically correct, anti-Zionist, nutcases called feminists. But there are others who merely want seek opportunities to serve.

I find it illogical that the halachic authorities still refuse to deal with the one issue that embarrasses me about Orthodoxy today, that a man can still hold his wife to ransom over a divorce “till death do them part”! Why aren’t those busy rabbis dealing with that, you ask (other than with pious motions and fine words)? If the boot were on the other foot, and men were suffering, you bet they would.

I am particularly disappointed that the American RCA has capitulated to the narrower perspective of the Israeli religious powers. But I guess they too are political.

So instead of disregarding the reasonable, moderate requests of women who want to remain within Orthodoxy, who want to study Torah and help people, those pious men should actually try being positive. That, I believe, would be a Kiddush HaShem, make us seem caring and good. Issuing bans on nothing of significance is indeed a Chillull Hashem. It makes us seem both sad and blind. Certainly not “wise in the eyes of the nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6).

November 19, 2015

Poor Paris

“Israel is the greatest threat to peace in the world.”

A Flash Eurobarometer survey carried out in October 2003 for the European Commission in the fifteen member states of the EU found that nearly 60% of European citizens believe Israel poses the biggest threat to world peace. The survey was carried out by EOS Gallup Europe. “The one socio-demographic characteristic that stands out is education – the more highly educated respondents (66%) are more likely to perceive Israel as a threat to world peace than those who ceased their studies at an earlier age (“16-20”: 59% and “15 and younger”: 50%).”

After Paris you might think there would be some soul searching as to why such opinions are so prevalent in Europe and increasingly in the USA and why other much more murderous and dysfunctional people, countries, and religions are not considered to be so dangerous. But of course you and I know there will not. Because any attempt to send hate preachers, or undesirables back home will be blocked, as they have been in the UK by protracted legal disputes and the European Court of Human Rights. So we will have a few clichés, a token closing of the border, some arrests, and then back to blaming Israel again (as indeed Sweden’s foreign minster already has).

Let us take it as read (for argument’s sake, of course, because neither I nor the facts agree with the following) that there were never any Jews or Israelites living in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. That the only reason Jews feel any connection to Israel is because of Zionism. That the only reason Jews are in Israel is because the imperialist crusading powers foisted the Balfour Declaration on them. The only reason Israel is in the Middle East is because the Holocaust gave the West such a guilty conscience that it tried to salve it by foisting this alien population on the Arab world. There were no Jewish Arabs, no Jewish communities living in the Middle East ever in the past who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and they had all left Arab lands voluntarily and without coercion. All the wars and all the occupations were caused exclusively by Israel. Israel never voluntarily withdrew from any Arab territory and were never interested in or willing to make peace. Let us accept Israel is the one and only source of all the evil, dysfunction, and mayhem that exists in the Middle East today. Finally, let us admit that without the United States support Israel would have disappeared ages ago and that the United States is the evil Satan above all others whose wars have killed more Muslims than Muslims themselves have. All this is the narrative that political opponents of Israel believe.

Even so, all this alone cannot explain why Israel is so hated. You may legitimately wonder why Israel has been picked on so exclusively for condemnation. Sixty percent of all motions passed in the United Nations agencies are reserved for Israel, and no other country receives more than 2% negative motions. I have no argument with labelling produce from occupied territory. But why is Israel’s reluctant occupation the only one anywhere in the world that is selected for specific export labelling, not China over Tibet, Russia over Crimea, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, India over Kashmir, or indeed Spain over Catalonia (to give just a few examples).

The answer is obvious. There are four good reasons. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims and only 14 million Jews. From almost every economic, political, and logical point of view, it makes sense to side with such a powerful, wealthy body of opinion.

Secondly, at least half the western world inclines to a left-wing political and intellectual viewpoint. Marxism has always been opposed to religion, and when it suits them they can condemn Israel as a religious state (as if all the other religious states did not exist).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no other worldwide political cause to rally round than that of anti-Israelism. The first and second reasons combine in the third factor. Marxism has always preached taking advantage of alliances, even with ones most bitter foes, in order to achieve power. Just recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler. In much of Europe today the demographics of anti-Israelism means that socialist parties wishing to achieve power as in Belgium ( the favorite bolt hole and source of arms of terrorists in Europe), ally themselves with fundamentalist Islam, which stands for everything they despise: free speech, separation of state and religion, gay rights, women rights, and equal rights of other religions. Not only, but if the State of Israel advocates such causes, the Left argues it is only to deflect criticism, not out of genuine conviction.

Fourth is the long history of right-wing fascist anti-Semitism and prejudice illustrated by the Ku-Klux-Klan-like websites on Google or letters to the press excoriating Jewish control of the world.

Finally, the pervasive religious based anti-Semitism. Despite all the efforts of churches and governments to proscribe, it still flourishes. Much of the Christian world adopts an anti-Israel narrative, seeing Palestinians as innocents and Jews as guilty. Jesus was a Palestinian is their narrative. But of course there are other Christians, notably the Evangelicals, whose support for Israel balances the one-sided biases of most Episcopalians and Quakers.

Since such opposition is not based on logic or fact, it must rely essentially on irrational prejudice stoked by a pervasive black-versus-white narrative. If you are a student at a university where most of your contemporaries are apathetic or focused on careers and the active political groups and academics are solidly anti-Israel, or you are drinking in a pub with friends, or at business dinner where anti-Semitic or anti-Israel remarks are the norm, you will either fade into the background or join the rabble. Europe’s tragedy is that it will not differentiate between those who wish to immigrate and settle in order to be part of its grand, idealistic vision and those who actively want to undermine and replace it.

But whatever tragedy happens, it changes nothing. Here is Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford:
“It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true that the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities. And it is thus remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilization within these avowedly peace-loving communities.

“I do know that 21st-century Europe has itself to blame for the mess it is now in. When I went up to Oxford …We learnt a lot of nonsense to the effect that nationalism was a bad thing, nation states worse and empires the worst things of all. ‘Romans before the fall’, wrote Ward-Perkins, ‘were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.’

“Poor, poor Paris. Killed by complacency."
So if you listen to the French media today, after the Paris massacres, you will still hear it said that the chaos in the Middle East is all Israel’s fault. The Hamas websites. of course, claim the Paris massacres are the work of Mossad. And Russia supports them. The Swedish foreign minister says it is only because of the way Israel treats the Palestinians. What the heck is wrong with these people? Anything but look into their own failures. Are they really suicidal or just mentally challenged? As if Israel were the cause of the Sunni-Shia rift or the Turkish oppression of the Kurds or the Muslim massacres of Christians. It is so easy to find a scapegoat. They have been doing it for 50 years, why would they want to stop now?

Prejudice is not logical. Anti-Israelism is not logical. The crude visceral hatred, the screaming interruptions on college campuses or cultural events that do not want to hear another point of view are the symptoms of a destructive virus that every now and again infects huge swathes of otherwise normal, fair, and balanced human beings. And sadly I accept we have our own screaming houris and fanatics of the right. Action and reaction again.

So, no, I do not think Paris will change anything. Security forces will share information, try their best to avoid new disasters but the culture of Europe will not, seemingly cannot change. Europe is condemned to reap the whirlwind of its own blindness. The virus is too deeply embedded. No one whose ideas were formed by prejudice will change their views any more than most genocidal murders really know how to express regret.

The story goes that God gave up trying to change the world after Noah’s flood. But we were left with the rainbow to remind us to look and connect. Perhaps that is why humanity is such a mess—not because it repeats the wrong things but because it forgets.

November 12, 2015

Not In My Name

More books and articles apologizing for religion, claiming that they are all really peaceful and positive. Only a few are narrow-minded fundamentalists. Only a minority are extremists causing the murder, torture, rape, and brutality carried out in the name of religion. I am finding this a little bit wearisome. The truth is that extremists of all religions are the ones who carry the weight, determine the agenda, and cow the rest into acquiescence or silence.

Here are some examples I have come across in these past few months of, no doubt, well meaning religious apologists:
“We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best. The sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes of resolving conflicts, forgiveness of the injuries of the past and devotion to a future in which all the children of the world can live together in grace and peace.”
Indeed we should. But if time and again Abrahamic faiths have failed and are failing to do this, should we not ask why and wonder what has gone wrong or is it an inevitable feature of religion and its preoccupation with power and control?
“We also need to insist on the simplest, moral principle of all: the principle of moral altruism, otherwise known as tit-for-tat. This says: As you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect.”
Religions of all sorts have fed us slogans like: Love your neighbor, all men are create equal, liberty, equality, fraternity (or the right to happiness) make love not war, give peace a chance, from each according to his ability, to everyone according to his need. We have had hundreds, even thousands of years of all this and where has it got us? More slit throats?
“Fundamentalism—text without context and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith.”
But when the majority of the committed in your own religion insist on literalism and refuse to reinterpret or use the very means the religion itself allows for rethinking the meaning or modifying it to meet different circumstances, can we not say that something has gone wrong? Particularly if once in its history it was not so. If the majority refuse to listen to moderate leadership and prefer the extremes, does not this then define the way the religion functions, not the few whistling into the wind?
“We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life.”
Yes, we must, but we aren’t! Either we are producing fanatics, many who are violent, or religions are being abandoned by a sizable and growing section who think they have nothing significant to offer.

The nonreligious like to blame God. But I prefer to blame human beings. The fact is that humans have this capacity to corrupt almost everything they get involved with, from religion, to politics, to sport.

I have worked in apologetics all my life, trying to emphasize what is good, beautiful, and inspirational in Orthodox Judaism. But in the end I have to admit that the greatest challenge I have had to face has been the behavior and attitude of other Orthodox Jews and their capacity to justify their shortcomings. Whenever I read attacks on religion from well known atheists, so long as they confine themselves to the negative impact of religions, frankly, I agree with them. I part company only on the sad fact that they have no existential knowledge of the beauty and the value of religious experience and life.

The fact is that open-minded, liberal, tolerant religious leaders of most religions have more in common with each other than they do with the the extremists within their own religions. Yet they have been notably incapable of spreading their message across and down in their own constituencies. And what is more they are usually laughed at and dismissed as fly weights by their own religious right wing.

I can make out a very strong case for Judaism as an enlightened, caring, just system (as well as a magnificent and intense spiritual system, with its focus of practice rather than abstract theology). I can select my Biblical and Midrashic sources. I can interpret them in ways that reframe the gender narrative. I can emphasize the moral, caring, humanitarian, and universal aspects of Judaism. But I also know that there is a lot wrong with the way it is practiced, the poor ethical standards of too many of its faithful, and the limitations of much of its leadership. Too often the letter of the law is given priority over human sensitivity and suffering, when one can indeed offer sufficient source material to show how it ought to be the other way round. And the same applies to swathes of Christianity, Islam, and the rest.

I am mightily fed up with those apologists who insist that all is fair in their gardens, that it’s only a small minority that gives religion a bad name. It’s not religion’s fault. But surely it IS, at least to a very significant degree. At some stage it is right to ask whether a religion is failing if the majority or a large minority are acting in such a way that belies both the religion’s stated mission and ethical values.

Paul Nitze said, “Moral claims are otiose if the antagonist does not share them.” Sadly, most religious people do not act as if they share my morals. Religions have a value to remind us of our morality and humanity, that we are supposed to be in the image of God. But it's a poor one, a weak one when both leaders and followers constantly show they are simply not up to the task beyond spouting banalities.

So when I hear yet another articulate religious leader telling us how positive religion is, if only we can get everyone to adhere to its peaceful ideals (when we can’t even get our own to behave), I wonder what the real point of grandstanding is other than pompous self-promotion. All the more so when I know that they themselves have often been responsible for a lot of divisiveness and cowardice. I know people will say these things have to be said. And its true they do, but it's the disingenuousness of suggesting or implying that one side it right, that grates.

Meanwhile, too many religious people are behaving badly, carelessly, and cruelly and claiming to act if not in my name then in the name of my religion. Enough hot air. I want to see action or some effective alternative. Otherwise “silence protects wisdom” and to quote another Mishna “words are not essential, actions are.”

November 05, 2015

Is Vegetarian Food Vegetarian?

On 26th October 2015, CNBC published this report:
“Clear Food, a branch of Clear Labs, a company that analyzes food at a molecular level to determine the quality of brands, tested 345 hot dog and sausage samples from 75 brands to see if the product matched what was described on the package. It turns out that 14.4 percent of the samples were not as advertised. Clear Food found that the hot dogs and sausages either included substitutions or had hygienic issues. The company noted that all of the kosher products that were tested were 100 percent pork-free. However, 10 percent of the vegetarian products tested contained meat. In addition, 67 percent of the vegetarian samples were recorded as having "hygienic issues," which were not described in detail.

“In several cases, pork had been added to products that did not mention the meat on the labels or ingredient lists. This included the vegetarian samples. Most often pork had been used as a substitution for chicken or turkey, according to Clear Food. Perhaps the most unsettling discovery by Clear Food is that human DNA was found in 2 percent of all samples and in 66 percent of the vegetarian products.”
This report has raised very important issues for people who care about their religious laws and customs. It has certainly persuaded me to rethink some of my assumptions.

I was brought up after the Second World War at a time when kosher food was nowhere nearly as available as it is today. It was unheard of to find kosher certified products in ordinary grocery shops. When supermarkets appeared, you would never find kosher products there. Kosher supplies, mainly meat, could be found at kosher butchers, only in heavily populated Jewish areas. Bread and cake could be bought at the few kosher bakery shops, and products made in Israel were limited and rare. The local religious authorities supervised foods mainly for Pesach. If one did not live in a ghetto, one had to travel long distances for supplies, and if one went on vacation, or indeed to study in a university town with few local Jews, provision of kosher supplies was a challenge at best, often a logistic nightmare.

In such a world one had to be creative. One looked at labels to see what went into the food, although in those days most food had no such list on their labels. One often wrote letters to manufacturers asking about ingredients. It was rare to find vegetarian restaurants, but if you did you could not be certain that many of the foods offered did not have animal ingredients (cheese usually had animal rennet).

There were halachic solutions. Quantity can be significant in matters of the wrong food mixed in with the approved. Minute ingredients, not essential ones, can often be discounted or cancelled out in greater quantities of acceptable ingredients. Hot and cold makes a difference because cold non-kosher food will not normally transfer itself into the material of the crockery. Glass does not absorb non-kosher food previously eaten on it or drunk from it. There are many, many ways within Jewish dietary laws to permit what on the surface is not permissible. Of course intent, accident, and compulsion all play a part in halacha too, so that you might often not be actually guilty of anything. But of course you really do need to know your Jewish law to take advantage of the stuff, and very few lay people do. Nevertheless, in those days it was not at all easy for those who cared about living a religious life and for whom all this mattered very much. It was tough. As it would be today if you were trekking down the Andes or Borneo.

Slowly over the years things began to change. As Orthodoxy rebounded from its near obliteration, demand began to rise. More and more young men trained only in Jewish studies needed jobs. Kosher supervision began to expand and grow into a billion-dollar industry. The American Othodox Union (OU) organization became so professional that many non-Jews recognized it as a mark of high standards and reliability.

Israel changed a lot, because there you had a serious local commercial market of millions to cater to. Most commercial food producers had kosher stamps from religious authorities. Indeed religious authorities themselves proliferated and vied for marketshare. Nowadays armies of bearded supervisors can be found all over the world guaranteeing the religious suitability of foods from Shanghai to Patagonia. Many supermarkets in the “civilized” world carry products with kosher stamps from somewhere. In the USA kosher products are bought by non-Jews who believe its standards are above the norm. And many Muslims, whatever they think of Jews, buy kosher food because they know that they can rely on it to be pork-free. The business has grown to the point where supervised water, paper towels, dishcloths, and aluminum foil can be found with stamps saying they are all guaranteed to have no non-kosher ingredients. The arguments for extremes of supervision have become ridiculous to the point of humor. But business is business, jobs are jobs and markets are markets. Since we now have bug-free lettuces and “kosher” water, I have no doubt we will soon have kosher supervised air.

There are some strict Jews who never eat out of their homes altogether. Thanks to ready availability of kosher food nowadays, many Orthodox Jews only buy supervised products on principle, no matter how farfetched it might seem. The argument in favor is not just religious but practical. One needs to support the industry, both for financial and practical reasons, regardless of religious necessity.

There was a time when one could argue that the cost of kosher food was prohibitively high. Many families could not afford the expense. Rabbis, such as myself, who were sensitive to the needs of those of modest means found ways of permitting unsupervised alternatives.

As the business has expanded many prices have come down relatively, and with the most notable exception of meat products the differences are not that high. Besides, the arguments against eating meat nowadays get more persuasive by the day. Recent headlines warn that processed meats and red meat increase the risk of cancer. And the high cost of rearing cattle (not to mention the cruelty) and the increasingly effective artificial substitutes will eventually level the playing fields, which I hope will make slaughtering animals for food quite unnecessary. In major cities now strict vegan restaurants are proliferating (and in New York some have kosher supervision, too).

In recent years governments have insisted on much more regulation and reliable food labelling. At first this seemed to pose a challenge to those who argued one had to have only supervised food. Most religious authorities argued that you could rely on the Law of the Land and on government inspection to enforce the purity of ingredients. Of course scare stories began to circulate. Mythical upstate farmers adulterated cow milk with pig milk (an utter absurdity since the two do not mix), and stories about unlisted additives proliferated. I have to say I took most of this with a pinch of salt and put it down to self-justification of vested interests. I trusted non-Jewish suppliers of vegan products to tell the truth and vegetarian purveyors to be genuinely vegetarian.

But now I am beginning to wonder. If after all the years of law enforcement and public scrutiny the report I quoted above is true, then I am afraid I must recant. I must now declare that given the clear failure of government agencies to enforce their laws, the examples of food producers adulterating their products and lying, I see no alternative other than to buy only supervised food. Even if many supervisory agencies have been shown to be both dishonest and negligent and there are of course rabbis and rabbis. A little bit of due diligence helps. But in the end I take the view that if the supervisor is committed to Jewish law and behaves ethically too, I will accept him (and her).

This need for supervision does not apply to fresh (kosher) fish, fruit, and vegetables. I do not agree one needs supervision of all vegetables for fear of bugs, so long as one checks before one eats for things that can be seen by the naked eye. I do not believe for one moment there is a little man who injects fruit and vegetables with bacon and only a supervisor guarantees he stays away. Even if he does spray pig fat on apples, nowadays everyone recommends washing fruit before you eat it anyway. I know full well many pious religious policemen will accuse me of undue leniency. But this is an ideological issue. On principle I prefer leniency when it comes to prescribing for others. The Talmud, after all, considers the right to be lenient superior than the right to be strict.

I know as well there have been too many examples of Orthodox Jewish purveyors of food betraying the religious community. There is a lot of skullduggery and false labelling going on. I know some supervisory organizations are less reliable than others. There is never 100% failsafe reliability. All human systems are subject to abuse. But we who care do have an obligation to reduce the risks.

What this report does is to challenge my innocent faith in government regulation has now been shattered. If I do buy vegetarian meat substitutes, I will put more trust in Israeli products than I will in American ones!