February 25, 2016

Religious Risk

There is no word I know of in the Bible for “risk.” Modern Hebrew uses the word “Sakanah”, which really means “danger.” “Risk” in modern usage can also mean opportunity and a healthy ability to go beyond the boundaries in a positive way. The opposite of risk (which you might think undermines my etymological analysis) is to play it safe.

When a religion, or any legal system for that matter, plays things safe, it becomes static and inhumane. We can all agree that the humane quality is admired, in theory. At the same time, most conservative religions and legal systems alike claim that they are in no way flexible, changeable, or evolutionary. But I want to extol risk. It is in vogue in economics, social interaction, and of course military tactics. I actually think it is inherent in Torah.

The Biblical (and Hammurabi’s) “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a bruise for a bruise, etc.” appears to be a very specific standard of retribution. Yet in the text, on either side of its first appearance in the Book of Exodus, we have laws about financial compensation, of different types of assessment of damages that do not follow the principle literally. How would a judge working under a literal interpretation take a tooth from a toothless man who had just knocked out the tooth of someone with a mouthful of teeth? Or, to give the example of the Talmud, would it be fair and just to take away the eye of a one-eyed man rendering him completely blind as fair compensation for putting out one eye of a man with two?

In other words, even a strict legal system is open to interpretation. Once there are options there are decisions, and once there are decisions there are risks and opportunities to take risks.

The Torah often links Justice (Mishpat), with what is right (Tseddek) as in Deuteronomy 1:16 and 16:18, not to mention all the references in Isaiah. What does Tseddek mean? Isn’t the law enough? Clearly not. There is some meta-legal standard which relies on another sort of standard. Which is why the Torah keeps on repeating less tangible and definitive ideas, such as not to oppress the poor or the widow or the orphan or the stranger, because if they cry out to God in their suffering there will be repercussions, as in Exodus 22:20. It is why the Torah also talks about what is “good and right” over and above adhering to the law (Deuteronomy 12:28).

There are, if you like, checks and balances, different principles that need to be combined in order to reach an ideal conclusion. The moment you have conflicting principles you leave the safety of certainty. You have to decide between different positions. You enter a moral zone that contains risk. You cannot be absolutely certain you will reach the right conclusion. But the only way you avoid risk is by not embarking altogether, and when you do that you betray the religious ideal of finding the correct (or others might say the Divine) way to act.

There is another issue, that of relativeness. You might think religious laws are absolute and immutable, but they are not necessarily. In Judaism all the ritual and ethical laws can be ignored in order to save a life, except for three. One may not “curse” God, kill an innocent person, or commit adultery even to save one’s own life. Any other commandment may be violated to save a life. Here is a perfect example of relative morality. In other words, sometimes a person has to make ethical decisions he or she would not normally make because of extenuating circumstances. This too requires dealing with risk.

The Talmud scornfully dismisses the person who refuses to take a risk. The “Pious Idiot” is someone who will not rescue a drowning woman for fear of breaking the laws of modesty that forbid looking at or touching a woman (Sotah 21b). If you refuse to take a risk you are an idiot! And there are so, so many pious idiots nowadays.

Theology requires risk. How can you explore abstract ideas without asking questions, without leaving the mental ghetto of security and certainty? Even Moses asks God to explain Himself, to reveal Himself, to resolve uncertainty and cannot be entirely satisfied. The famous Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that one could not possibly reach an understanding of God without a personal leap of faith. What could be a greater risk than leaping into the unknown?

The Chasidic idea that one has to fall before one can rise is another example of both illogicality and risk. It did indeed lead in some cases to heresy. But others achieved a state of spiritual ecstasy very few normal humans achieve.

The great Kabbalist mystics were not afraid of venturing into the unknown, of experimenting with risk through meditation and mental exercises, often with no idea where their experiments and states of rapture might lead them. At least they tried. Most of us do not even try. Some of the most absurd and yet exciting ideas come from letting go of moral certainty. Any practicing rabbi worth his salt is faced with moral dilemmas all the time.

Tertullian said, “I believe in God precisely because it is absurd.” By that he meant that for God to be encompassed by a limited human mind was to reduce the idea to a human level. Only by abandoning logic and the rational can one reach out beyond one’s mind. Of course there’s a danger—of delusion, of nonsense. But at least such a risk opens one up to greater possibilities.

We live in a world of certainties. Science aims at certainty, at proof and often succeeds. But we know how arid this can be and deceptive. Its like sex without love. Instead we talk increasingly now of “relativity,” of “fuzzy math and logic”. Science has opened up. Too much of religion has not. The failure of religions is when they go for certainty, conformity, and routine and thus abandon excitement, experiment, and religious ecstasy. Just think of how Chasidism, so dramatically innovate in its origins, has become so rigid and fossilized in its senility.

It's the dryness of someone who says every word of the prayers by rote but never stops to feel anything, to experience anything. If one had to choose, surely it would be to commune with God, not just to obey. That is a risk. But without risk there can be no honest, genuine religion.

February 18, 2016

Efraim Karsh

Nowadays reasoned, calm political debate is as lost as Atlantis. In most societies. Positions are as polarized and as a result the views and opinions that circulate most and are read most, tend to be those of the extremes.

This was brought home to me recently after reading Efraim Karsh’s latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, in which he charts the course of the European powers’ involvement in the Middle East from the nineteenth century until the present. He is a well known Israeli-British academic who has written several books on the history of the Middle East. He seeks to counter the one sided anti-Israel narrative that puts all the blame for the disastrous history of Arab nationalism and the Palestinians on Israel itself. As such, of course, he is reviled by the left but also disliked by the right, because he does see the other narrative and has no problem enumerating Israel’s mistakes too.

His core thesis is that external powers cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. However much they may have meddled and intervened, by far the major cause of the backwardness, internecine killings, and rivalries that are keeping it in the Middle Ages are due overwhelmingly to internal rivalries and feuding.

“Middle easterners have always found it easier to blame others for their misfortunes. But the main culpability for the regions endemic malaise lies with local players…There was no Arab nation at the outset of the First World War. Only an intricate web of local loyalties to one’s clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect or localized ethnic minority.”

Of course, one could have said much the same of Europe before the middle of the nineteenth century. Not all civilizations march in lockstep. But sadly, where one world impinges on the other, one needs to respond in the present rather than wait for Divine intervention. The extreme nationalism on display in Israel simply mirrors the extreme Arab nationalism. Both sides fight the zero blame game.

The record of conflict and dysfunction goes back a long way. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the victorious European powers looked around to find a structure that would replace the Turks. They made two fundamental mistakes. The first was to quite arbitrarily carve up the area into completely new and illogical states in order to accommodate the power grab of Sharif Hussein of Mecca (the Hashemite dynasties) and his sons. Hussein claimed to be leading an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks, when in fact he represented no one but himself and his family. Britain, largely besotted with the British agent T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), was gulled, together with France, into going along with his misrepresentations. Very similar to the way the United States was totally fooled into believing that Iraq would coalesce into modern democracy the moment Saddam Hussein was deposed.

The Husseinis were driven out of Mecca by internal rivalries, not external ones. And it was handed over to the rival tribe of Saud. Lawrence tried to get one son, Faisal, appointed over Lebanon and Syria. Both, as we see today, artificial and arbitrary concoctions of rival sects and religions. He was soon kicked out, and so they concocted another impossible country for him to rule—Iraq. Ignoring the conflicting demands of Kurds, Shia, and Sunni. The older son, Abdullah, was given Transjordan.

To complete the criminal idiocy, the British Mandate appointed another Husseini the Mufti of Jerusalem. He had fomented anti-Jewish riots in Palestine in which hundreds of Jews were killed and many more wounded during the 1920s, long before the State of Israel was founded or indeed the Holocaust (for those who fancy that these were the original sin). The Mufti in Jerusalem and Faisal’s son in Iraq agitated for Arab nationalism and wooed the Nazis in the hopes of driving the Jews out of the Middle East.

For a period after the Second World War, secular Pan-Arabism looked to be taking over from backward religious fanaticism. However, its dictatorships, its failure to govern in an enlightened democratic manner, has led directly to the return of religious extremism. When nothing else works, look for a Messiah! This in turn has led to the current mad dreams of the Arab world resurrecting the Caliphate and returning to the borders it occupied over a thousand years ago, which included much of Europe.

Karsh is often portrayed as an extremist. But he is far more nuanced and moderate than most Arab spokesmen. Voices like al-Qaradawi (beloved of British left-wing politicians) proclaim, “Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor after being expelled from it twice.” Even the late Zaki Badawi, a man I knew and got on well with, said that one day the whole world will be one Muslim community. If one really wants find Jewish extremists there are plenty to choose from, but Karsh is hardly one of them.

Fortunately there are Muslim moderate voices too, like Hamza Yusuf, who are being supported and their views disseminated. A recent conference hosted by the King of Morocco has issued important declarations that propagate tolerance, coexistence, and moderation. Even the Saudis have begun to take steps in this direction. It is important to hear these voices every time some new barbarian calls for the destruction of Jews and of the West.

The evils of the Middle East are on the move. But, ironically, I am optimistic. Israel is well placed to take care of itself. The USA has its own social, immigration, and political issues to deal with. Europe is now grappling with a massive cultural upheaval that will keep it busy for generations, and the Arab world has to sort its own political and religious fissures to sort out. The UN, the Left, and opponents of Israel can huff and puff but can achieve nothing more than tokenism.

We live in a world where twisting the facts and lying are simply tools of warfare. Even bishops and academics throw around terms of abuse like Apartheid, Nazi, racist, and imperialist without a pause to examine the accuracy or historical meanings that prove how ignorant and malicious such epithets are when applied to Israel.

I only wish more people would read books like Efraim Karsh’s to realize that to solve a problem requires honesty, which demands objectivity. And a condition of objectivity is balance.

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February 11, 2016


It has been a while since I tackled a theological subject. But a recent need for self-criticism and introspection drew me back to one of my favorite biblical books, Ecclesiastes (or Kohelet).

Traditionally it is attributed to King Solomon. Of course, like all the books of the Bible, there is much debate about its origin, date, and author. But I find it an amazing short book for lots of reasons. Not least because it contains phrases that have become deeply engrained in Western culture. “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity,” says the King James translation (“It’s all just hot air,” in our parlance). Folk songs have been composed to its lyrics: “There is a time for everything… a time to give birth and a time to die…a time to love and a time to hate.” It has verses that challenge accepted theology: “Who knows if the souls of humans rise and those of animals goes down?” And convention: “Of making books there is no end,” and, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It opens with a very ancient and yet very modern question: “What is the point of life?” It sounds very much like the weary pot-induced mental meandering of an overindulged teenager. Or indeed a hormonally excited but unemployed addict who cannot get a date. Yet instead of answering the unanswerable question, the author responds by trying to see if there is one way, the secret, the magic bullet, THE answer, the answer to life’s challenge.

He tries wisdom and then pleasure, stoicism and epicureanism, and finds them inadequate. It seems there IS no single, one answer. The message superficially seems to be one of skepticism, until one gets to the very end. Indeed the rabbis of the Talmud had their doubts about whether to include this in the canon altogether. A somewhat similar “Wisdom Book” called Ben Sirah, or Ecclesiasticus, although mentioned in the Talmud was excluded and only comes down to us via the Apocrypha. In the case of Kohelet, it is only because of the last two lines, “In conclusion, having heard everything, respect God and keep His commandments, for this is (the purpose of) humankind,” that Kohelet is deemed kosher. Whereas Ben Sirah is not. (Though having King Solomon’s name on the publication surely helped sell it!)

These last two verses are always given as the core message of the book. But It does very much sound like an after thought, tacked on to get the approval of the authorities the way Chaucer always adds an apology every time he makes fun of Christianity or uses Greek myths. I have another theory.

There one line that is repeated seven times throughout Kohelet in slightly different ways. It is the single most recurring theme of the book. It first occurs in Chapter 2 verse 23: “The only good for a human being is to eat and to drink and to show himself what is positive in his work.” Official translations suggest alternatives such as, “Is it not good for a man that he eats and drinks, etc.” I take the verse to mean that one should actively participate in life and try to enjoy its pleasures (legally of course).

In other words, to quote Monty Python, “Always look on the bright side of life.” One has to be positive, to enjoy what one has, to appreciate the gifts of life, whatever they are, and whenever we are fortunate to receive them, because too often we do not or cannot. In modern parlance, one is reminded to consider the cup half full not half empty.

Now this is great advice. Most therapists will push it. Instead of thinking of this earth as a vale of tears, one should try to be positive, and enjoy it much as one can (without causing harm to others or breaking one’s moral or religious code). And if a pill or two or more will help, well everyone will be happy, from doctors to parents to the drug companies, because pill-popping is so easy.

Our societies are dominated by bestselling books that peddle feel-good, easy answers, the secrets to happy living, the solutions to all our problems, without too much trouble, effort, or obligation or losing any sleep. This is the religion of the twenty-first century. A simplistic reduction of a complex religion or ideology that functions as a placebo, just so long as it doesn’t make any demands. But the sad fact is that without a structured way of life, without a framework and constraints, the possibility of a considered, valuable life is all but zero. Nothing of real value can be acquired without effort.

Yet simplistic, banal versions of Kabbalah, Sufism, Buddhism all are peddled to the credulous, disturbed, and dissatisfied world as answers to all problems. No one is willing to talk about discipline and self-control and creating a way of life with values or constraint that serious religion requires. It’s like slimming. How many books, how many diets, how many new fads of prepared low-calorie foods and meals come out all the time, one after another, and how many people join gyms and let their memberships lapse? Yet we are still overwhelmingly overweight and unfit. All because everyone wants the quick and easy fix.

The truth is that Kohelet knows that we humans are weak and limited. Because the rest of the sentence I quoted above continues, “But this [ability to be positive] is a gift from God.” Isn’t that true? Some of us seem not constitutionally equipped or genetically programmed to achieve this. It is like trying to tell someone who is depressed to snap out of it. It’s like all those people who are addicted to therapists and carry on year in, year out, talking but not doing.

I am always amazed at how modern Kohelet is. How it speaks to us now. But I am also surprised how many who are drawn to the book do not pick up on the one message that is its most repeated theme: The challenge of life is to integrate the physical and the spiritual and to find the balance. Not to be destroyed by either extreme.

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February 04, 2016

A Rosh Yeshiva

Fifty years ago I had the privilege of studying in a great yeshiva in Israel. In those days there were none of the more modern yeshivot that welcomed students from different backgrounds and levels of knowledge and religious commitment. There were only a few “hardcore” yeshivot that modeled themselves on, and were hardly different than, the great academies of Lithuania.

You could gain acceptance if you were either a really first-class student who was immersed in Talmud or, as with most things in Israel then and now, you had “protektzia” (influential contacts). And I did. My father had studied in Mir in Lithuania and was friendly there with several outstanding rabbis who, after the Second World War had reestablished themselves and founded new institutions in Israel.

I was incredibly fortunate to be sent (initially reluctantly) to study as a teenager in one such yeshiva and then several years later, after university, at another. The latter, was very reluctant to take me, given that I had been to university and studied philosophy. But because of their respect for my late father, and with a promise that I would not discuss philosophy with anyone there, I was allowed in.

Although I say it myself, I devoted myself assiduously to studying hard for long hours to make up for the years I had “wasted” on secular education. I was first into the Hall of Study in the morning and the last out at night. I stopped reading any other material or listening to the radio. I conformed enthusiastically. For I knew that this was the only way to benefit from the experience. So that’s what I did, and it was the highlight of my student years, easily surpassing Cambridge for the intensity and intellectual challenge it offered.

There were several heads of the yeshiva, and the older generation all treated me with varying degrees of kindness and encouragement. I respected them enormously and deferred to their authority. Of course I was out of my depth. I was nowhere near the levels expected of students who devoted their lives entirely to studying Torah. But I made up for that with my attitude and devotion to study, and several of the more junior Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgichim (academic and pastoral leaders) took me under their wings.

But there were several younger sons of the main Rosh Yeshiva who resented me and tried their best to undermine my position. No doubt because, in their zealotry, they believed I should not have been there. They literally “spied” on me and reported to their father anything I said that they did not approve of. Fortunately I did not step out of line. I survived to live out my allotted years there, to be acquire the certification I needed to practice as a rabbi, and I left to begin my career.

Perhaps they had been right in their antagonism towards me. After I left I no longer accepted all the ideas and opinions that have come to characterize the Charedi world that they belonged to. Actually, neither did most of the earlier generation either. In that sense I could be said to be a failure. But even so, I maintained very warm relations with my alma mater and several “junior” heads of the academy. Some of these Rosh Yeshivas would visit me during their trips abroad. Every few years I would return to spend the summer months studying there to refresh myself, and I was treated kindly by the old guard, and then but ignored by the sons of those who had always resented me.

It is now fifty years later. Recently saw an article in the Jewish Press about one of my two nemeses who had just died prematurely after an unfortunate illness. His gray beard surrounded a patriarchal face, with twinkling eyes and an angelic smile under the regulation black homburg hat. He was lauded as a brilliant, humane, and good Rosh Yeshiva whose loss would be mourned by thousands.

I looked at his picture, and I read the eulogy, and I wondered, “Could this be the same unkind zealot that had spied on me, had expressed his dislike of me, and had tried to prevent me from being in the yeshiva?” And it was not just me. There were others too. Had we been people who wanted in anyway to undermine or diminish the institution I would have understood. But this was not the case. Did he maintain such attitudes for the rest of his life? Was he, beneath the avuncular facade, still an unforgiving hardliner? Or had he changed, and had age softened him? Was it up to me to give his memory the benefit of the doubt and revise my opinion, and posthumously forgive him his unkindness?

So much has happened since, for better and for worse. I have changed. The world has changed. I am happy to say, without, I hope, arrogance or false pride, that I do not bear grudges, and I always prefer to see the good and focus on being positive. So I am glad I have been reminded of one of the few negative memories of my time in yeshiva, and I will assume that he did soften and was a great Rosh Yeshiva who left behind him a loving grateful family and a legacy of Torah at its best. I am glad our paths crossed and sorry I was not able to win him over then. But I can hope that if we had met recently perhaps I might have.

Yet somehow I doubt it. The two camps, of accommodation and tolerance on one side and hard-lined zealotry on the other, remain within our religion as in every other one. Strange creatures we humans are.