September 29, 2016

A Jealous God

As we spend longer than usual in synagogues these coming weeks, one of the biggest problems for most Jews is the language of prayer—particularly if we only understand the English translations, which are really very poor and uninspiring. So much of the language, even in translation, is obscure, if not confusing. There are words used to describe God—like big, great, powerful, and awesome—that in English we tend to apply to the most trivial of things. And why the constant repetition?

Take opera, for example. Most opera lovers do not understand Italian. But those of us who love it listen to the sounds and rhythms, to the music. We relax and go with the flow. But if we could translate the words into English they would sound stupid. “Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, it’s done. It is done. No, you will not! You cannot.” Or “She’s my mother. She’s my mother. She’s his mother. She’s His mother. His mother, my mother, his mother, my mother.” It sounds so silly in English but can be elevating in Italian as an aria or duet.

Much of the prayer book is poetic language that does not translate well, without a sense of the nobility or rhythm of the original language. Given that the major Jewish texts began in a prerational, prephilosophical world and were sang or read and understood under many different cultures, it is not at all surprising that we nowadays, with our constantly fluctuations and changing usages and vocabularies, understand words very differently. The text of the prayers are preserved for valid historical and social reasons but the result is that they do not speak to most of us today . Words that once resonated with glory and nobility, like “king”, are now considered by many to be quite offensive, sexist, and politically regressive. Whereas once elegantly uniformed soldiers and household guards wearing fur busbies were objects of pride, dignity, and fear, today they are amusing tourist curiosities.

The Bible is full of anthropomorphisms. God speaks to Moses, mouth to mouth or face to face. He smells things; He stretches out his finger or His arm; He blows. No one seriously thinks God’s blood pressure rises when He is angry. Indeed, few think God is a “he” the way we use “he or she or it”. We understand that we have to use human language and that that language is designed for human activity and emotions, not intangible, nonphysical, mystical forces. So we who are both rationally and mystically animated find ways of understanding many biblical words as metaphors, and the same goes for the prayerbook. I am constantly faced with words that either upset me or sound archaic.

There are a couple of words that offend me and I think translation gets them wrong. And they recur in the services this time of year. One is the idea of “fearing God” (or one’s parents). Why fear? It sounds awful. Which parent nowadays wants to be feared? But in fact “fear” in Biblical Hebrew is the word PACHAD. The Hebrew word YIRAH, which is used of the commands relating to God and our parents, really means what we now call “respect”. But sadly when we read the English text, we get this very negative term, which really puts us off.

The other word is “zealous” or “jealous” as used of God, it all depends on what translation you have. As if God can be a petty human. The Ten Commandments include the phrase, “I am a jealous, avenging God, paying back the sins of fathers on their children.” After the Golden Calf debacle and towards the end of the book, God says he is a jealous God. This idea is repeated in the Torah.

To describe God as jealous offends my sensibilities. Jealous is not a nice word or a positive emotion. We understand that humans are jealous and sometimes rightly so but why would one want to ascribe such a feeling to God? Others prefer an archaic word we rarely use nowadays: “zealous”. Zealotry is used for narrow-minded extremism. It is used to describe Elijah’s or Samuel’s or indeed God’s battle against idolatry or Pinchas’s acts to defend Moses’s authority. But to apply it to God is metaphorical, not literal. What is more, the Torah in Deuteronomy also says, “Sons should not be punished for the sins of their fathers, nor fathers for the sins of their children.”

So why can’t we find a more appropriate metaphor in regard to God that does not offend modern thinking? We could take some of the negativity out of a word like zealous or jealous and use the softer expression of “caring”. It matters very much what happens, what humans choose to do. The Hebrew word KANA, the one the Bible uses and we translate it as jealous or zealous, is indeed used of a man being suspicious of his wife who has committed adultery. So one can see how it would be applied to someone who has betrayed God and been seduced by other gods.

But the common root KANA, can also apply to something straight and firm like a staff. Therefore it could equally be translated as “consistent or consequent.” This is precisely what the Torah means when it says, “…visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons.” It is not a judicial statement. It means that actions have consequences and that the consequences can affect the next generation, for bad as well as good. The text is therefore warning us to act with foresight and responsibility, otherwise the results could be disastrous if we make the wrong decisions.

Suggesting a different translation or meaning that previous generations did not is not disrespectful of tradition. It suggests that there are other ways of translating and understanding, in a language we are familiar with, while remaining loyal to the original intent.

So as you sit in the synagogue in front of a prayerbook that does not resonate, try to find specific words that interest you or strike a chord and reflect on them. Take them out of context and wonder what they could mean to you. Reflect on the text. Don’t be a slave to it. But don’t dismiss the text as pointless, meaningless, archaic verbiage.

The prayerbook was intended to be a menu, not a fixed meal. We inevitably face the challenge of making our ancient tradition relevant and appealing in a new age. We love the old and ancient, but we need to present it to ourselves in a language that appeals to our modern minds.

September 22, 2016

Elul

The Hebrew month of Elul which leads up to the New Year, brings daily shofar blasts, extra prayers, selichot, and the serious mood of awesome anticipation that replaces the carefree, happy, fun days of the summer season. But for me, Elul always reminds me of the birth of my passion for religion.

I was born into an Anglo-Orthodox family. My father’s parents had emigrated from Radomsk, my mother’s from the Ukraine. My father, although born in London, was sent to study in Mir in Lithuania and returned to eventually become the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London (to the right of the centrist United Synagogue). He left the rabbinate to found Carmel College, an English, residential, Public school, run on religious lines but mainly for non-religious boys. Thus I came to be brought up in the English countryside, far from any center of intensive Jewish life. And the lack of religious enthusiasm that most of my contemporaries evinced rubbed off on me. I was more interested in playing football than studying Torah.

I was sixteen when my father decided that I needed a change, so he packed me off to yeshiva in Jerusalem. The route to Israel in the 1950s was arduous. I was seen off at Victoria Station in London, went by train down to Marseilles, and boarded the Theodore Herzl liner to sail to Haifa.

Haifa from the sea was idyllic, with its golden Bahai dome halfway up the wooded Carmel. The port itself was rather different—coarse, hot, rushed, and frenetic. I was amazed to discover that wearing a kapel meant that I was looked at with scorn, jostled, and even told I didn’t need such a relic of the ghetto now that I was in Israel. In the fifties Haifa was the outpost of secularism. It refused to close public services and transport on Shabbat.

I was hosted by very kind ex-Mancunian friends of my father, who shipped me off after a few days, in a sherut up to Jerusalem to arrive in time for the start of the religious academic year, Elul. I arrived at Kol Torah Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. My father had picked it from the others because it was a new building and not too primitive for a relatively spoilt English kid. It was run by old colleagues of my father from Mir in Lithuania, and Dayan Abramsky, my father’s mentor, lived nearby. I found Kol Torah a bit too Germanic for my liking, and two months later I transferred myself down the hill to Be’er Ya’akov, which I adored. But a couple of experiences I had while I was in Jerusalem, had really profound impacts on me.

The center of the yeshiva was a huge hall where hundreds of young men were studying, shouting, arguing, and gesticulating in an atmosphere of noisy enthusiasm that was initially confusing and strange, so different from the decorum of the English academic tradition. But soon the freedom, the ability to argue, to challenge, to go to someone else for another opinion, the feeling of study for the pleasure of it, not the burden or duty, was liberating. Then at prayer time, to see the chaos transformed in to a solid, disciplined communal expression of concentrated spirituality, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in any synagogue ever in my whole life so far. This was stage one in my transformation.

The first Friday night the two other English boys in the yeshiva decided I needed further educating. Together we walked down the five miles to the Gerrer Chasidic center, which was then in Machane Yehuda. It was midnight; the building was crowded with hundreds of black-coated Gerrer Chasidim with tall fur spodiks on their heads, swaggering around the hall, erect, tummies stuck out in front of them, pacing up and down nodding to each other, altogether like a hive of busy bees. Suddenly there was a hush. In swaggered a small, little man, dressed in the same way as the others. Wherever he walked, the crowd parted. Like thrashing sardines in a net, they pushed back to make way. The rebbe strutted about; his look split through the throng, and everyone struggled back to get out of the way of his piercing glance. After walking around the hall, he retreated to a top table behind a wooden crash barrier. Everyone swept up to the barrier. Those behind pressed those in front to get nearer; young strapping youths hurled themselves over other bodies to get closer.

As a well-brought-up Englishman, I stood back from the fray. My rugger-playing friend grabbed me, and completely disregarding our staid English upbringing, we bored through the bodies to the front. There sat the Rebbe, protected by a wooden crash barrier, at a long table, with apparent clones, dressed identically, sitting solemnly on either side. The Rebbe’s assistant stood on a chair and called out individual names to come up for a glass of wine, then some challah. There was singing, strong martial rhythms; everyone joined in. Then silence. The Rebbe talked—quietly, briefly, something to do with the opening words of the weekly Sedra—in a yiddish I didn’t understand. Then singing again. Late into the night. The power, the control, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the ecstasy were totally unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere. Could this really be the same religion as the United Synagogue I knew in London?

The following day I was taken to lunch at Sam Khan’s. Sam was as far from a Gerrer Chasid as you could imagine. He was a German Jew who had fled to England, where his Germanic rigidity was softened by a dose of English reserve. and then he had come on to settle in Israel. He was as morally straight and correct and ethical a person as you could ever wish to meet, living modestly, a little haven of European Gemutlichkeit in a Middle Eastern turmoil of hot, nervous chaos. He devoted his life to others, to charities and good works, to saving others from poverty, from humiliation, and from missionaries. He and his wife had an open home and bestowed abundant hospitality, particularly on English waifs and strays.

Within a day or so, I was exposed to three entirely different paradigms of religious Jewry—the Lithuanian academic, the Chasidic ecstatic, and the Germanic controlled and highly ethical—all of them impressive in very different ways. I realized there was so much depth and variety and choice in Judaism, something I had no inkling of in the Britain of my youth. This was the first Elul I consciously remembered as a religiously positively experience.

Each year I try to recreate the excitement and the novelty of that year. Recurring routines, even annual ones, can be the same—boring, uninspiring—unless we try to make them otherwise. And the way to do that is to remember the positive, the happy and the good things in life.

September 15, 2016

Patriotism and the National Anthem

There has been a huge amount of debate in the USA following the refusal of a Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, to stand during the national anthem before a game. His supporters argue that the American constitution allows his freedom of expression (to protest the injustices faced by, mainly, the poor black minority in the USA) to override any offense he might give to loyal Americans.

He is not the first to do this by means. Megan Rapinoe, of soccer fame, refused too, but no one seems to have noticed. I well recall the famous 1968 protest at the Olympic Games where two black American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, stood on the podium during the national anthem and raised black-gloved clenched fists, also in protest of discrimination against blacks. They were standing during the anthem. In their cases, if I recall, hardly anyone came to their support, and they were vilified. The difference over the years in public attitude in itself might challenge the assumption that nothing has changed.

What is a flag but a piece of cloth? What is an anthem but a trite, banal song? Does it really matter? It is not the end of the world. But the answer is yes, it does.

I was brought up in the UK. I have witnessed the dramatic decline in nationalism of any sort. In my youth every performance at the movie theaters ended with the national anthem. No more. We never, ever took oaths of loyalty. Nationalism was regarded by the educated classes as, to quote Samuel Johnson, “The last refuge of a scoundrel.”

In 1933 the Oxford Union, the university undergraduate debating society, passed a famous motion that "this House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country". They voted that they would not. It made headline news at the time; Churchill called the vote "abject, squalid, shameless” and “nauseating". It is even said to have misled Hitler into thinking the British had lost the will to fight. Yet that same class, minus a few who became spies for the Soviet Union, did indeed go to war to defend liberty. And Brits in general do take pride in the Queen, even if they laugh at her handbag and don’t think much of her husband and family.

Nationalism mattered terribly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in Europe and Britain it is now almost the exclusive preserve of right-wing, racist, neo-Nazi neo-fascists. In Europe today the dominant political and administrative classes no longer see themselves as wanting or having to preserve any specific cultural, religious heritage, ideology, or loyalty. They are part of a wider, common, universalist, and indeed tolerant mindset (except when it comes to Israel). If they are culturally overwhelmed, they will accept it.

What of Israel? In 1948 Israel had to reestablish a nation out of disparate mixture of cultural and racial immigrants. Divided by a common religion, rather than united by it. So Israel needed to develop a civil religion based on nationalist symbols, the flag, Masada, the Holocaust, and the army to reinforce a sense of identity, mission, and culture. It succeeded admirably for its Jewish population. Less so for the others. Israel is indeed different than Europe and the USA, in that it exists specifically to reinforce and protect a specific culture and religion. Loyalty is a big thing.

Even so, Israel’s Declaration of Independence accords rights and equality to other religions, too. Whatever its limitations. Most countries of the Middle East do not afford the same rights to other religions that Israel does.

Yet many Jews disapprove of and disagree with the politics of the state, on the left and the right. The left has produced a fine array of antisemitic Israelis. On the right, xenophobia thrives. Neturei Karta will happily burn the Israeli flag. Hundreds of thousands of Charedi Jews refuse to serve in the armed forces, and some physically assault those who do. They will refuse to stand in silence during memorial days. Refuse to sing the national anthem. I and most Jews I know strongly disagree and disapprove. Not with their ideological position. They are entitled to that. But with their disparaging in public the state that protects and supports them financially and otherwise.

Every religion, every nation, every person functions on two levels: that of ideas and values and that of ritual and behavior. Many Jews love the ideas of Judaism but do not like adhering to rituals. Others live by the rituals but have great difficulty with some of the theological ideas. Regardless, we are all committed to being Jewish and are grateful for a place of refuge and somewhere to call our own, even if we live elsewhere. In the end, the rituals, be they religious or civil religious, are what reinforce that strange and wonderful thing called identity. I think certain things need modification and should be argued for. But in principle I stand for the rituals of the state.

The USA has its constitution, its laws, its rituals of behavior. Anyone living in the USA must adhere to its civil constitution. Freedom of expression allows for disagreement and challenge. We can be religious or not. Patriotic or not. In the case of Kaepernick, he can and should protest against anything that offends him. But there are certain relatively unimportant rituals that exist in American life designed to reinforce identity and pride in the nation, and I think he is wrong to offend those. Coming from Europe, one of the thing that strikes us is American pride—the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, singing God Bless America—even if we know full well the sordid side of its history. Silly as they are, they succeed. Most Americans are proud and happy to live here, and much of the rest of the world desperately wants to join them.

Whatever is wrong in American life, its laws are egalitarian, recognizing the rights of minorities racial or sexual. These rights are upheld by the Supreme court. That does not mean that hatreds, prejudices, biases do not exist. Human beings are messy things. I am not aware of any Jews refusing to stand during the national anthem because antisemitism has always and continues to flourish in the USA. We fight it. We set up organizations to combat it. But we are grateful for a country committed to law and equality of rights that has afforded some of us a home, a safe place to live and thrive. And we know full well how many were turned away trying to flee the Nazis.

American society has protected Kaepernick (as Israel has Neturei Karta), afforded him a safe, caring home, and a wealth-producing career. He should rail against racism. But not against a state that condemns it. Refusing to stand, as I see it, undermines the simple rituals that help bring so many disparate peoples together. It is this sense of American exceptionalism which is both offensive to some and affirmative to others. But any outsider coming from Europe recognizes a spirit of American pride that does not exist there. But it exists in Israel, too.

Keeping rituals in America and mitzvoth in Judaism are so important. Regardless of whether we think they are Divine or not, they help reinforce identity. Whereas vague ideas like human rights, Tikkun Olam, lovely and important as they are for humanity in general, are not enough to reinforce a specific identity. Conventions matter!

Unless America wants to go the way of Europe, it ought to expect (although I don’t believe it should compel) its citizens to respect its rituals, to stand during its national anthem, even as one protests at its injustices and limitations. And that goes for Israel and being Jewish, too.

September 08, 2016

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa has become Saint Teresa! Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in what is now Macedonia. She joined a religious sisterhood in Ireland and then took vows as a nun in India. She taught at a girls’ school in Calcutta for many years, then in 1946 she decided to devote herself to the poor and moved to the poorest part of the city, where she founded a religious order.

Over the years her devotion to the poor attracted worldwide attention. It became fashionable for the idle rich, aristocracy, and movie and pop stars to visit her for photo opportunities or to burnish their credentials. She became a celebrity. Travelled the world. Won the Nobel Prize. She expanded her order to become one of the most important in the Catholic Church. And she died in 1997. Not surprisingly, the Church fast tracked her “canonization”, as it is called.

It is a feature of saints in Catholicism that they must perform miracles to prove their supernatural power—something that went out of fashion in our tradition thousands of years ago. Our greatest of Biblical and Talmudic figures were shown to be human and imperfect. We ever had saints.

The Catholic Church is entitled to its own strange theologies, customs, and procedures. Unfortunately, we have borrowed the idea from them. Nowadays, any rabbi venerated by the Charedi world becomes the equivalent of a saint, in that the myths and stories of his absolute perfection in every possible area are enhanced and exaggerated. The appropriate term is hagiography (which originally meant writing the lives of Christian saints). It has now infected the nether reaches of our own tradition. Even the requirement of performing miracles to prove one’s supernatural powers has made a comeback in parts of our community. Going to a great one’s grave and pressing in a kvitel (a piece of paper with your Hebrew name and wish for the future) guarantees a miracle, apparently. And if not, no one ever mentions the failures.

Mother Teresa, of course, performed miracles. That’s what saints do! You have to if you want to get the title. Very often the evidence has been highly dubious. Several people have attested to the fact that she cured their cancers, while medical professionals on site claimed their treatment did it.

In the 1980s, when I indulged in a little interfaith activity, I heard her speak twice. Once in Oxford, together with the Dalai Lama (whom she considered a pagan), and another time with Chief Rabbi Jakobovits (whom she also thought would burn in hell because he had not seen the true light). Her theology was primitive, as was she. She said that contraception was exactly the same as murder. She accepted money from some of the worst offenders against human rights (but so do some presidential candidates we know about). I have to say I was horrified by what she said about abortion and her opinions on poverty and how it was a godly state, to be borne with fortitude, based on the certainty that they would be rewarded in the World to Come. Although I must admit I have heard some rabbis say that too.

There were voices that were raised giving another perspective. From Christopher Hitchens to Yogi Adityanath. Many in India saw her as figure of Western, white hypocrisy and a proselytizer for Christianity amongst the barbarians. There was criticism of her institutions for cruelty and inhumanity to children. Even the glorification of poverty was seen as inappropriate. She often said it was not her job to be a social worker. It is clear that there was another, harder, and crueler side to her.

As she grew older, her team began to address some of these issues and set about cleaning up her history and her persona. Yet she devoted her life to living simply and poorly herself and became and continues to be an icon of dedication and commitment. I should say I was more impressed by Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated his life to the lepers of Lambarene in Gabon (without his intellectual and cultural brilliance or his liberal theology).

I have no patience for saints. All the more so since so many of them were rabid antisemites. Besides, I do not believe anyone is perfect. Even sinners can do good. I certainly do not believe in brushing dirt under the carpet. And I just laugh at hagiography. So many people are lauded nowadays, idolized, for selfish feats of sport, music, and wealth-making. And yet the world for all its selfishness, has got better. Global poverty has shrunk over by half over the past 20 years. That’s an impressive figure. A new middle class is emerging, mainly in Asia, that is redressing the balance. Even so, one of the biggest challenges of our generation is the gap between rich and poor. Millions are without either drinkable water, shelter, or sufficient food, and have nothing of the social welfare safety nets we have in the West.

In our own Jewish communities there are many men and women who live lives devoted to good deeds and the welfare of others. We don’t call them saints. We don’t venerate them or expect miracles from them. But neither do we appreciate them sufficiently.

We, sadly, have sunk to the level where we venerate the people whop make big bucks, flaunt their donations and lord it over their communities. I believe in concept of the Tsaddik Nistar, the good person who is hidden from public view, who avoids the glare of publicity. Recognizing Mother Teresa as a person who did good deeds reminds us we ordinary people, too, can do something for those less well off than we are. Such people are the real heroes and saints of all of our societies. There are not enough of them.

September 01, 2016

Petty Orthodoxy - thetorah.com

Thetorah.com is a website that looks at the weekly reading of the Torah for people who do not take every word in the Torah literally. In addition to valuing traditional commentators and interpretations, it caters to those who are interested in seeing how academics, scholars of different disciplines and backgrounds, understand the Torah. It is not for the fainthearted, fundamentalists, or those who are unable or unwilling to take a rational point of view.

I consider it to be extremely important in bridging the gap between rationality and faith, belief and acceptance. But more than that, I think it is crucial in reaching out to those who feel that traditional interpretations alone no longer meet their intellectual needs. This is so important in preventing open minds from rejecting Torah as being too doctrinaire.

The biggest challenge today in Jewish life is no longer preserving Orthodoxy. The Very Orthodox world is thriving. It retains most of its alumni. those who leave get a lot of publicity but they are few overall. On the other hand, we are losing far more through apathy, ignorance, and assimilation. It may well be too late to reach those who have absolutely no knowledge of Jewish spirituality or of Jewish learning. But I think the greatest challenge is to reach out to those with a background, from Jewish schools or observant families, who are turning their backs and minds on a simplistic way of looking at our traditional texts.

We live in a world where people like to think for themselves, to make up their own minds. For better or for worse, ours is an era of individuality. How should religion relate to it? By shutting up the mental gates, closing minds, peddling conformity of ideas? Or by opening up, tolerating, allowing freedom of thought?

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York started out to meet these goals. It was a reaction against the creeping influence of non-rationalist rabbis over Yeshivah University. Amongst its alumni is Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, who is the editor of thetorah.com. Recently some YCT students issued a declaration affirming a belief in their concept of Torah from Sinai as a red line in Orthodoxy, clearly intended to dissociate themselves from Rabbi Ferber and, by implication, putting him beyond the pale. It was just another example of the pettiness within the “broad church” of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, it negates thousands of years of alternative interpretations from impeccable rabbinic authorities.

Trying to impose any auto-da-fé on Orthodox Jews is offensive to me as a rationalist precisely because although there are indeed accepted ideas and fundamental concepts in Judaism; there has always been a powerful rational voice in Judaism that has avoided the rigid constraints of fundamentalism. Although certain concepts are regarded as core components of Jewish identity, the right to use one’s mind, to be able to think for oneself, is a measure of a healthy society and a healthy human being.

What is more, the prime mover of thetorah.com is a Kollel rabbi of impeccable credentials and a member of the Charedi community. If YCT students want to dissociate themselves from men like these, who look beyond traditional sources for answers to serious questions, then I wonder what they are doing in YCT. If thinking Orthodoxy has no room for questions, it will wither on the vine of obscurantism. I am proud to be associated with thetorah.com and Rabbi Farber, and I urge every thinking, committed Jew to rally to its support.

I worry that orthodoxies tend towards pettiness. Whenever any group seeks to define itself by distancing itself from and negating others, it inevitably risks becoming a witch-hunting travesty of its own ideals. In time, it falls prey to internal division and sectarianism. That was why we needed prophets, to keep us reminded of our ideals and goals.

Once one adopts a policy of negativity, of attacking the other instead of asserting the positive, one demeans, discriminates, and humiliates. That becomes the currency, and the result is that one turns in on oneself, petty tensions proliferate, and it becomes a suicidal feeding frenzy. All Orthodoxies are like that, in every religion. In politics it is even worse. And when the two get together it is positively satanic.

Some issues are indeed incredibly complex. Does “Torah from Sinai” mean all of it, part of it, most of it, or none of it? Was it spoken, transmitted, dictated, inspired, influenced, deduced at a specific moment some four thousand years ago, over forty days, or forty years? And in what language and what script? Or was it invented or edited, or complied, or adopted, or adapted, or reconstructed, or deconstructed, or created, or evolved out of something, nothing, or everything? If many rabbis in the Talmudic era could argue about the details then, why not now? And what really matters? Theological slogans or living a life of Torah and genuine morality?

I’d rather see energy expended purging Charedi Orthodoxy of its culture of corruption, illegality, materialism, and brushing everything under the carpet. Communities can have their own ideas and can choose to be either open or closed. They can refuse to accept anyone who thinks or behaves differently. Or to tolerate those who may or may not completely, partially, occasionally, formally, or informally agree, or not quite, or sort of, or it depends. That’s why many of us prefer living in free societies that do not insist that we all believe the same thing. The last thing we need is a “belief test” as well as a “means test” as well as “sniff test” or a “look into my eyes and swear test”.

You like my club? You’re welcome to stay. You don’t like my club? Go somewhere else. But why do you have to rubbish my club? Do you really think the Almighty, who insisted on love, kindness, support, and sensitivity, really cares more about jots and tittles? I don't say that jots and tittles have no use or purpose or benefit. I value and practice lots of them myself. I just wonder how much they are worth being cruel, insensitive, and aggressive about? Didn’t Samuel say that more than sacrifices God wants you to listen to the message?

You want to wear a black coat in summer? Be my guest! But don't rubbish those who prefer not to. You want to believe the world is five thousand years ago? Gezunt! But why insult those who think its older. You want to study Torah only? Of course, why shouldn’t you. But don't prevent those who want to earn a living from being able to educate themselves. You don’t want to serve in the Israeli army? It’s your decision, but stop bullying those religious people who do. And now to cap it, we want to hound people who think for themselves.

Am I to understand that the God of Micah who said, “Be kind, love justice, and walk humbly with your God,” really wants people to snub or insult others just because they disagree about how to understand texts or history? Let’s focus on the positive, on the good. One should have enough confidence in one’s own identity not to need to bolster it by trying to define who is “in” and who is “out.”