July 28, 2016

Proud to be a Zio

I was once standing in line to board a plane at Stansted Airport, and I found myself next to a gentleman who appeared, to my trained eye, to be an Orthodox Jew—black suit, white shirt, no tie, black hat, and beard. I turned to him and said, lightheartedly, in a mixture of English and Yiddish, “With a ‘Shayna Yid’ like you on board, I am sure we will have safe flight.” For the uninitiated, this is a Yiddish expression for a “fine, upstanding Jew.” It's a compliment.

He looked at me blankly, and I realized I had made a serious mistake. “What did you say?” he asked me. I replied that I had said that with such a fine, upstanding-looking gentleman like him on board, I was sure we’d have a safe flight. Don't ask me why I said such a stupid thing. But I did.

“No that’s not what you said,” he replied and walked away. And that was the last I saw of him.

I realized that he had heard the word Yid and had thought I was insulting him. You see, in Yiddish “a Yid” is a compliment. It is a positive, good word. But in north London soccer circles, “Yid” is a term of abuse. Supporters of Arsenal and Chelsea use it against fans of Tottenham Hotspur, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. This poor fellow, possibly an undertaker or a member of some honorable Order, took it as an insult. It is all about context.

The word “Goy” is now used almost universally in a derogatory way, even if in the Bible it is used entirely complimentarily to describe any significant nation, primarily Israelite, but non-Israelite too. Where did its negative usage come from? According to Israeli academic Amnon Raz Krakotzkin, when the Catholic censors turned their attention to the Talmud, they went looking for anything that might be offensive to Christians. Talmudic terms for non-Jews like “Ovdei Kochavim” (idol worshippers) were intended originally to refer to real idolaters. But the censors thought it was a negative code for Christians, who had effigies of Jesus and Mary in their churches. So they insisted that the printers replace such terns with the word “Goy”, which at that time was regarded as a safe, positive biblical Hebrew word. But the fact that the Christians who were oppressing the Jews preferred this word inevitably turned it into a negative one. Amazing how one often does not see the consequences of one’s actions.

Now a new fashionable term of abuse, acceptable amongst the yahoos on the Left and Islamists, is that of Zio, intended to demean Zionists. In the discovery of rabid anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, this term has suddenly come into the open. It is a soubriquet I am proud to adopt. If people use a term to disparage my inalienable rights, well, sod them, I say. In your face.

The strange truth is that in my youth I did not want to describe myself as a Zionist. My early experiences in Israel in the 1950s were of proudly secular Zionists who hated religion in general and Judaism in particular, who associated Orthodoxy with the ghettos of Europe and desperately wanted Israel to be Torah-free. This was a new phenomenon for me. I was brought up in England to respect religion, even if you chose not to keep it. The left-wing Zionism I encountered in Israel was rooted in the late 19th century, as a political movement whose dominant ( not all of course) ideology was inspired mainly by Marxism. In my youth Marxism had already been revealed as “the god that died” or, more accurately, had betrayed all those millions of idealists who trusted in its healing powers—whereas I was brought up in Judaism, where Jews had been longing to return home and praying for Zion for thousands of years. Wanting to return home was Jewish liberation, self-determination. One did not need another word for it.

The Zionist myth that normalization would remove anti-Semitism was predicated on the belief that anti-Semitism was logical. That when faced with “normal” Jews the anti-Semites would see the error of their ways. But in the face of the blind hatred that refuses to go away, no evidence or argument can dissuade prejudice. I am hated for being a Jew regardless of whether I am a Zionist or not, and the current tsunami of anti-Israelism has drawn no distinction between Zionist and Jew. Meanwhile many secular Israelis feel more at home with like-minded international socialism than they do with Judaism. Which is fair enough, so long as I have the right to identify with those I prefer to.

I believed, and still do, that any “ism” that thought it could replace Judaism was doomed. So I did not want to describe myself as a Zionist. Yet I remained, and remain to this day, a firm believer in our need to try to take control of our own destiny (in so far as anyone can nowadays ). One can describe that, if one wants to, as Jewish nationalism. But I could never see why, other than as a historical oddity, there was any value in calling it anything other than Judaism wanting its right to self-rule.

At the same time, I could see how all nationalism had and has a lot wrong with it. most of it a relatively modern phenomenon that replaced the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Hungarian Empire, The Ottomans and sundry others. In a dream world we would not need it. But given that nationalism is the current currency of world affairs and if the Serbs and Croats and Samoans and Irish can have their own country, it seems to me that only prejudice or visceral hatred could possibly object to Jews having a state of their own and the right to protect it. All the more so given that no other states were prepared to absorb them in any significant numbers when Hitler struck. And I accept fully that objectively my nationalism ought to be no less and no more important than anyone else’s.

The attempt to differentiate between Jews, Orthodox or other, Zionist or not, is unhelpful and misleading. It provides work for bureaucrats and academics and excuses for Jew-haters. If you are walking in Jerusalem as a black suited-Charedi pacifist Jew who opposes Zionism as a secular distortion, you are just as likely to be stabbed to death as a soldier carrying a gun or to have abuse hurled at you by opponents of Israel’s existence. Current statistics show that Charedi men are far more likely to experience anti-Semitism in Europe and the USA than secular Zionists!

So, yes, I am going to call myself a Zio and be proud of it. Because if people hate me for who I am with no attempt at nuance or understanding, it makes no difference what they call me. So it’s my way of saying “F***K you, too.”

July 21, 2016

Conversion Confusion

We know well enough by now that the status of conversions to Judaism is an unholy, inconsistent, politicized and often corrupt mess. As a people and as a religion we are just as confused, inconsistent, and illogical as any other. I am referring to the chaos that reigns within what is confusingly and illogically called Orthodoxy.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israel’s highest rabbinical court recently rejected a conversion performed by prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, upholding the decision of a lower rabbinical court. The Supreme Rabbinical Court had held two appeal hearings on the rejection of the woman’s conversion by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court, where she had applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé. Last week the Chief Rabbinate (countermanding) said it recognizes Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as it always has.

Naturally this case has attracted extra publicity, because Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was the rabbi who arranged for Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka to receive an Orthodox conversion so that she could marry Jared Kushner. It would look very bad just as the Republican National Convention appoints Trump as their candidate for rabbis to suddenly cast aspersions on his daughter’s conversion. Yet it does raise the issue of what the criteria for an Orthodox conversion are.

The episode illustrates the political tensions that exist in Israel between local rabbinic courts, the Supreme Rabbinic Court, and the Chief Rabbinate, each vying for power, and each believing it has the right to decide. So a conversion, even in Israel, recognized in one area might not be in another. There is nothing new about this; local courts and authorities often refuse to recognize others in the same country, let alone others. In Israel it has been particularly prevalent, because nationalist rabbis are too Zionist for Charedi rabbis, who are too fundamentalist and anti-Zionist for Modern Orthodox rabbis. While both agree that Conservative and Reform rabbis are not “real” rabbis.

In 2013, the Chief Rabbinate rejected—then later accepted—a conversion by New York rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies as Chief Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This is all too typical of religious political infighting, using theology as a smokescreen for power politics.

Conversion has been a problem ever since, two thousand years ago, Hillel took a lenient and inclusive attitude and Shammai preferred to be strict and exclusive. It did not help when Christianity and Islam both made converting one of theirs to Judaism a capital offense. But what distinguishes Judaism from the others is that it sees no point in trying to evangelize, so long as other peoples and religions are living ethical lives. Don’t convert if you don’t want to keep all the rules. Stay as you are. The criterion the Talmud laid down, and the one that remains imbedded in Jewish law, is that the only basis for conversion is that one wishes to join the Jewish people and live a life according to the Torah. Naturally each denomination defines Torah in its own way.

To this day we have two distinct attitudes even within Orthodoxy: the lenient and the strict. Most of my rabbinic life was spent in the UK, where the authorities took a strict line and would refuse to accept any conversion for ulterior motives, such as to get married. They refused to accept conversions from Israel, South Africa, and the USA, where they thought the rabbis were too lenient. You could be Orthodox in Johannesburg, but not able to join an Orthodox synagogue in London.

I was amazed to discover cases in the UK where an Orthodox conversion could be arranged if you were very rich and well connected. I was shocked to discover how easy it was to get converted in different parts of the USA under different officially Orthodox rabbis where there was no centralized authority. And scandalized to discover that in Israel there were rabbinic courts that would convert very easily, particularly if you crossed their palms with silver. There are still too many cowboys on both sides of the Atlantic. The situation is a mess wherever you are, and almost whoever you are, and I feel so sorry for innocent people who are misled by rabbis who do not tell them the truth about their status. Even in Hassidic circles what is allowed in one court may be refused in another.

For those of us who would like some consistency and humanity, this is depressing and even immoral. To others there have been so many suspect, dishonest, and baseless conversions, often abandoned the minute the ring is on the finger, that the whole issue of conversion is a farce anyway. Some never accept conversions for the sake of marriage. And yet the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uzziel although he disapproved in principle strongly urged tolerance and accepting such converts.Others, like the Syrian community in New York, simply refuse to accept any conversions at all.

Yet in one way the chaos is good. At least there are options, possibilities, alternatives, and the chance of finding someone in authority who might come down on your side. The advantage of one all-powerful authority is that, like the pope, you have infallibility. The disadvantage is that if they come down against you, that is the end of the road. There are not too many Orthodox rabbis that I know, that I would have the confidence in that I ‘d be happy to see them have the power to decide for us all. It is not their scholarship, I worry about so much as their ability to foreswear politics and power. So I am glad that there are other options.

You have two contrasting models in Judaism today: the centralized Israeli State Religious model, and the laissez-faire, uncontrolled American model. It is indeed tightening up now that pressure has been brought to bear. But there are still cowboys! Neither system is perfect. Many of the conflicts in Israel arise because one model seeks to impose its view on the other. This is always going to be a political battle. But in such situations you do find good men and women working hard to resolve the conflicts.

Like Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy. Or TZOHAR a movement of moderate, tolerant Orthodox rabbis within the state system. Or Rav Aaron Leibowitz of HASHGACHA PRATIT. They do a magnificent job that goes some way to redress the ethical balance.

You might say this all gives the Orthodox establishment a bad name. Orthodoxy will reply that it doesn't care. It has its principles. Besides, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” But if, as the Torah says, we are supposed to be an example to the world of an ethical, moral system that brings us recognition for our sensitivity and spirituality, we really need to see the damage that is being done by not having a clear policy, one way or another. Meanwhile, if Ivanka keeps Shabbat, I am definitely on her side!

July 14, 2016

Fractured Society

The Fractured Republic is the title of a book by Yuval Levin, subtitled “Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism”. He regrets the tendency to think in terms of national concepts rather than communal ones. In other words, we now tend to look at the whole building rather than its bricks. At the same time, whilst we look at national issues in terms of the larger picture, in practice we all live lives that are much more selfish than a communal. And this is one reason why religion is losing its popularity and position in American society. We have enough of big government s telling us what to do without needing religions to do it too.

Many Americans look back with nostalgia to a time after World War II in which schools, communities, and churches provided the social nucleus, and everyone was confident in his or position within a homogeneous community. Levin’s message is that looking backwards to a mythical past is unhelpful. Social clocks change all the time, but they very rarely go backwards. Parts of American society might have been thus, but such a myth ignores the racism, the social inequalities, and the exclusivities and closed communities that were even more evident then than now. It was hardly a model society. Just think of the McCarthyism that pervaded the early 1950s. Nostalgia is rarely an accurate lens.

Many Jews similarly look back to the ghetto as a kind of pastoral heaven, ignoring the anti-Semitism, stinking hovels, poverty, and constant threat of attack. Even the number and degree of the faithful is exaggerated. The average general level of religious study and practice was far lower than today, as well as the numbers dedicated to Torah compared to those nowadays in the USA and Israel. And yet ironically it is probably true to say the those tough conditions produced far more great minds and leaders than the masses sitting in study today. Even here in America there are many Jews who look back to the perfect Jewish world where everyone voted Democrat, and Reform and Conservative Judaism dominated the Jewish roost.

Judaism has always been concerned with community, for self-preservation and protection. It has looked to a model that combines spiritual authenticity and religious services all in one walkable zone. No human being can stand alone. Jewish communities were always based on charity, support, and the provision of social service. It is true that such cohesion was often imposed from the outside, and as soon as they could escape it, many did. But the ideological underpinning was a religious community, a kingdom of priests where study and prayer required involvement with others of different backgrounds and levels of commitment, wealth, and knowledge. It was as near to a classless society as one could get. Certainly more so that the evil, Marxist, egalitarian replacement that Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin created.

We are now privileged to live in a free world where we have choices. It is indeed a world of individuality and individualism. But this does not prevent people from choosing to live in whichever kind of society they want to. Many do indeed prefer closed, monochromatic communities for their support, religious facilities, and protection. Such Jewish societies can also be oppressive and restrictive. Yet Judaism today is a strange mixture of open and closed societies. Each has its good points and its bad ones. And we are able to move in and out of different models depending on mood, opportunity and where it is we live. In the larger communities we may visit a Chassidic rebbe or a Lithuanian yeshiva and attend a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat. WE can study a page of Talmud every day, and yet, go to the movies, holiday in the Caribbean, and wear modern dress. We may conform outwardly but rebel inwardly (and sometimes openly, too). On balance, I think this is healthy. Certainly no less healthy than excessively pious communities that disregard State as well as Torah laws they find inconvenient.

While one part may reject modernity, the other embraces it. Conversely, while one sector of Jewry objects to the idea of an Eruv, or protests the right of Orthodox women to bathe separately in municipal pools or circumcision or a Jewish state, another part of us can tell them to piss off. We are a people only in name or, as Sartre said, because other people describe us as Jews, not because we share very much; we don’t. Anyone to the right of me is a fanatic and to the left is an assimilationist.

Instead of mourning this variety, even confusion, I celebrate it, for it is the only way in the free world we inhabit. Whenever an exclusive ideology, no matter what it is, tries to impose itself on others, it might for a while win some traction. But it will always generate opposition, and there will always be alternatives. Just think off the history of Marxism.

No matter who tries to write a book (and many have Jews and non Jews alike) about what decisions we should make to heal fractured societies, they all sound preachy, pious, and unrealistic—indeed, doctrinaire in their own ways. Yuval’s book is just another such. He might be right about the importance of community. And creating communities and maintaining them is hard work. But what works in micro does not work in macro. They are two very different situations.

No societies, except dictatorships of mad men or the proletariat, have come up with a model that gains the approval and acceptance of 99% of a population. Why should it? Moses didn't achieve it, and by implication God has not either! Which is why there are so many different groups of humans speaking in His name and utterly convinced that He speaks to them alone.We are who we are, and above all we want to be allowed to make our own decisions. When anyone tries to bully us, we react the other way. Look at Brexit for example, or Heaven save us, Donald Thump.We accommodate to societies. We have personal interests and national interests. They sometimes conflict. We live in tribes, super-tribes, and pseudo-tribes, as sociologist Morris said.

I value Jewish values. They are amazing despite (possibly because of) their contradictions. I am not so happy about many of the ways that Jews treat these ideas, but I respect difference. As Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, if you come across anyone who believes he is in the sole possession of the truth, run away as fast as you can. I prefer fuzzy inconsistency to boring unanimity. The Ancient Greeks liked order and certainty. We Jews like questions more than we do answers. We were born and bred in chaos.

July 07, 2016

Louis Jacobs

I shall be delivering a memorial lecture next week for Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, a very controversial figure in Anglo-Jewry in my youth. He was the Gateshead-educated, academically rigorous senior lecturer at Jews College, now defunct but then the training ground for British rabbis that combined Torah with academic study.

He was expected to succeed Isadore Epstein as principal, but in 1961 Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked his appointment on the grounds that in his book “We Have Reason to Believe” Jacobs repudiated “Torah from Sinai”. That was not what Jacobs had actually said, but Brodie feared that he was too academic to become the successor.

Rabbi Jacobs attracted a lot of support. His own congregation rallied round. To make matters worse, Rabbi Brodie then fired him from his New West End Synagogue. Rabbi Jacobs withdrew from the United Synagogue the established UK umbrella organization of nominally Orthodox Jewry) and set up a new independent community called the New London Synagogue, that he described as “non-fundamentalist Orthodox”.

The Jacobs Affair divided Orthodoxy, and it resulted in Rabbi Jacobs being ostracized from the mainstream community. The issue on the face of it was fundamentalism. Could one, in addition to living a completely Torah-observant life, pursue academic analysis, raise questions about the process of Revelation, and still be regarded as Orthodox? In other words, was fundamentalism the only paradigm of Orthodoxy? Or could one combine commitment, faith, and indeed mysticism with rationalism? Louis Jacobs believed so. Had that been the only issue, I doubt the result would have been the inhuman, even cruel way he was treated by the Anglo-Jewish religious establishment.

But sadly, there was another aspect to the affair. And that was the campaign of William Frankel, then the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to get the United Synagogue to join the American Conservative Movement. Although most members of the United Synagogue then probably had much more in common with Conservative Jewry than with what we would now call Orthodoxy, there was no way Anglo-Jewry would make the switch. It would go against the natural tendency to support the Establishment. However badly Louis was treated, I believe it was a mistake to ally himself with Frankel. All the more so since when he was driven out and set up his own independent congregation, he never actually identified it with the Conservative movement.

Why then did I accept the invitation? Because I believe Judaism should be more than conformist Orthodoxy. It should respect differences. I knew Louis Jacobs. He was a good human being. A great, halachically observant Jew. A gentle, caring minister. It hurt me the way he was treated, and it is out of respect for his memory that I was honored to accept this invitation.

There is a personal angle—my late father liked him too! In 1946 my father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. Together with Israel Brodie, he was one of the two final candidates to succeed Chief Rabbi Hertz, even though he was barely 32 at the time. In 1948 he founded Carmel College and left the rabbinate. Twelve years later he was being canvassed heavily to succeed Israel Brodie. I well remember his saying at the time that the position was not for him; it was too diplomatic and representative, and he was not interested in playing the political games of the rabbinate he had left behind him. Besides, he loved his life and mission at Carmel too much to give it up. Sadly, the Almighty intervened. In 1961 he contracted the leukemia that would end his life a year later.

My father supported Louis Jacobs on the Jews College appointment and actually wrote a letter published in the Jewish Chronicle saying that if Louis Jacobs was blocked he would discourage his pupils from attending Jews College. That year I was present when Louis came down to Carmel to visit my father, and I remember the conversation clearly. My father advised Louis strongly not to enter into an alliance with William Frankel. He advised Louis not to react to the Jews College snub and not to challenge the establishment. My father believed that if Louis Jacobs had accepted the decision with quiet dignity, he would in time have become Chief Rabbi after Brodie.

They parted on good terms, and a few months later my father died. Had he lived, I often fancy he would have steered Louis through the upcoming conflict. Two years later I was a student at the Inter-university Jewish Federation conference when it was decided to ask Louis Jacobs to become its honorary president in recognition of his fight for academic freedom within Judaism and in the hope that it would strengthen his position. It did not.

The last time I saw him was in 1995. By then Anglo Orthodoxy was growing exponentially. I had retired from the Anglo rabbinate, but I was asked to come and meet Rabbi Jacobs because he wanted to retire and I was thought by some to be an appropriate successor. I went to meet two senior members of the London Beth Din, upholders of Anglo-Orthodoxy, to ask if they would sanction a reconciliation that would bring the New London Synagogue back into mainstream Orthodoxy if I were to accept the position. They said they would. I took this message with me, and Louis seemed pleased. But our negotiations faltered over one issue.

Louis was utterly devoted to Minhag Anglia, the old Anglo-Jewish style of formal synagogue liturgy. I found it cold, boring, and unattractive. I always disliked United Synagogue services. At Carmel our prayers were more like what are now called Carlebach style. Services were less drawn out, with more community singing. It was in yeshiva in Israel that I experienced for the first time true ecstatic, spiritual prayer. I would have wanted to bring the services more into line with the new Orthodoxy that was, everywhere, making Orthodox prayer much more exciting and meaningful. I do not know if Louis objected because he just preferred his way and would not budge. Or if it was because he fought fundamentalism for so long that this sounded to him like capitulation to the growing trend of “yeshivish” Orthodoxy. I respected his decision and chose not to probe.

Alas, we never met again. But I do want his memory and his legacy to live on. May it be a blessing.