May 18, 2017

More on Shechita

It comes as no surprise to me that more European countries are trying to make life difficult for Jews in various ways. But how should we react? Is it worth fighting prejudice? Should this be an issue of freedom of religious practice? But then what are the boundaries? The increasing attempts to restrict Shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) and ban circumcision are creating such a negative climate for Jews that they reinforce the strong arguments for having a homeland where we can practice our religion unimpeded. However, as with many issues of religious practice, it is not that simple, because sometimes they appear to conflict with other moral and ethical imperatives.

There are those who think this is a matter for no compromise. Belgium is a strange little country where rival parties scrap over meagre rewards. It has three separate regions, five provinces, and three official languages. The parliament of French-speaking Wallonia has voted to ban ritual slaughter. Of all the major issues it has to deal with—economic, social and safety—this seems to be its priority. Now we know it is not really about cruelty to animals. Because if it were, then they would ban animal slaughter altogether (which, as my readers know, I am all in favor of, though it’s not going to happen in my lifetime).

Look at the countries who have banned Shechita: Switzerland in 1893, Norway in 1930, Nazi Germany in 1933, and Sweden in 1937. None known for their love of Jews. The EU is now preparing to ban Shechita across the board unless animals are stunned, and it will require that kosher slaughtered meat be labelled as such when passed on to the wider market.

The new angle is the requirement to stun an animal before killing it. Up to now Judaism has rejected stunning on the grounds that it doesn’t help animals and actually injures organs which make the animal unacceptable. Anyone who has seen the stunning process in action knows that the failure rate of stunning runs between 10-20% when equipment is perfectly clean, up-to-date, and free of interference—which it rarely is. Like the electrocution of humans, stunning can take time and cause great pain. Whereas cutting the supply of oxygen and blood to the brain causes instantaneous loss of consciousness. So, given that we are dealing with prejudice here, how should we react?

One way of course is to fight it using whatever political influence one has. The only way of doing this with a chance of success in Europe nowadays is to ally with the Muslim communities on matters of religious freedom. Which Jews have done hitherto. It is votes that decide policies. The trouble is that more and more Muslim authorities are now considering permitting stunning. So that Jewish power on this issue is even further diluted.

Muslim religious slaughter, called Dhabihah, is similar to Shechita, but far less strict or rigorous, so that kosher slaughter meets Muslim standards, but not vice-versa. The Jewish market is relatively small. After slaughter animals are examined, and if found defective in some way that matters in Jewish law, they are usually sold to non-Jewish butchers. So too are parts of the animal we are not allowed to eat. Labelling meat as coming from Jewish sources could drive down its value on the wider market and that would raises the cost of local kosher meat.

The other option, as already happens in those Aryan Northern European states that ban Shechita, is to import kosher meat from areas that do not ban it. Or, of course, one could move either east to Israel or west to Britain or the USA, where there is no problem.

My brother-in-law Dr. Henri Rosenberg has campaigned for a different approach. He argues that there are strong halachic grounds for allowing stunning. Instead of campaigning against stunning, which threatens our common alliance with Islam, it would be better to accept the new reality. Indeed, this debate took place first in response to Hitler’s ban (Y.Sh). The prominent rabbis of Eastern Europe were consulted. Although there was a case to be made that stunning did not contravene Jewish law, the overwhelming body of opinion was that one should not make concessions on principle, for fear that showing weakness would encourage other demands. In other words, a meta-legal argument rather than a legal one.

Since we are not dealing with a Hitler, but a lower and less pernicious form of prejudice, my brother-in-law argues one ought to consider making concessions rather than face defeat. While I respect his opinion and his guts in supporting his position in public, I want to present an alternative point of view.

We Jews have always split between the fighters and the compromisers. Israel is usually associated with fighters and the Diaspora with compromisers (or appeasers, depending on whose side you take).

There is a principle in Jewish Law called Chanifa—literally a law against groveling or sycophancy. The Talmud discusses it in tractate Sotah (41 a&b) in the context of standing up to Roman authority. This is supported by some great authorities from the Medieval Rabbeynu Tam to the more recent Rav Moshe Feinstein. Should one grovel or stand up and fight, as we have often had to do in the past? Should we compromise or stand firm on principle? Will we look weak if we concede, even on issues that are not essential? Perhaps the Europeans should consider a campaign of civil disobedience, fighting restrictions on our religious practices on the competing principle of denying our human rights.

In 1936 Poland banned Shechita. The Bobov Chasidim led a campaign of resistance—a boycott that hurt the government’s revenues and had Jews going without meat until the powers relented.

There is a similar problem with circumcision. Would it make any difference if children were anesthetized? There is a move in Norway to ban circumcision of boys under the age of 16 and several other measures which have been blasted as an attack on minorities. Advocates claim that circumcision results in mental and physical harm to children and is a serious violation of human rights. Spurious arguments about psychological damage are childish. We might as well ban parenthood for the psychological damage parents do to their children. Besides, we circumcised Jews seem to be doing pretty well. And I haven’t heard anyone complain that it is his brit that has ruined his sex live. The problem there is that we insist on circumcision within eight days, whereas in Islam the ritual is done much later, around 13. I bet no one dares suggest that that's why Muslims are more prone to violent jihad! And there’s absolutely no comparison to the horrific female mutilation (it is not circumcision, by definition) where a pleasure giving organ is removed altogether. The arguments on both issues, Shechita and circumcision, are less scientific than ideological.

To complicate the issue, there are problematic aspects of Shechita that apply even where anti-Semitism is no argument. I would like to see the rabbinates in the forefront of urging humane methods of the sort that Dr. Temple Grandin advocates This week, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has decided to put its foot down banning unacceptable hoists and shackling for slaughterhouses in Israel and for imported shechita. Why, you might well ask, didn’t the Chief Rabbinate do it ? Sadly we know the reason why. Cruelty to animals, though a biblical law, is universally minimized in many very Orthodox communities.

On the other hand a Califorinian judge has just thrown out a human rights suit against Chabad over swinging chickens over people’s heads in the ceremony of Kapparot before Yom Kippur. The judge refused to allow the suit on the grounds that one ought not to ban a longstanding religious custom. I wish he hadn’t. Kapparot are quite unnecessary and cruel to chickens. Sometimes we need to be rescued from our own blindness. But this illustrates perfectly the difference between Europe and the USA. One culture respects Judaism (perhaps too much); the other does not.

The arguments in Europe are clearly political rather than humane. I wonder if we should not just ignore them, instead of trying to plea. Why would we want to live in such countries anyway? When empires are intolerant of different religions or ideologies, they have always declined. When they have been tolerant, they have flourished. Mainland Europe’s antipathy towards Judaism is a sure sign of its moral decline. Time to move.

May 11, 2017

How To Be Good

When I was a kid, I used to wonder why it was that some children in my circles seemed naturally better and sweeter than others, who seemed naturally evil and nasty. Why did some seem to be so much more religious and obedient than others? I found discipline hard to endure, rituals difficult to observe. I was a natural-born rebel, while others, like my younger brother, were natural-born saints. We were born into the same family, had the same parents, the same upbringing, and yet we were so different.

We talk about good or moral human beings and about bad, immoral ones. But how does one become a good, moral person? Awhile back we would distinguish “nature” from “nurture”. In our natural state, we are automatically good—noble savages. But then civilization influences us, and we become selfish and bad. Freud turned this on its head and said that we are born selfish creatures, but we learn, or are taught by our parents and society, to control our ids.

Psychologists like Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg developed theories about child development and how children come to make moral decisions. They differed as to what was most significant—evolution, the development of a child’s brain, interaction with other children and adults, a process of socialization. There were some, like Eysenck, who unfashionably argued that good and bad behavior were conditioned by one’s genetic makeup; there was such a thing as a criminal chromosome. And of course, a lot of crackpot pseudoscience, like racial theories and eugenics. Others focused anthropologically on how different tribes around the world developed their own rituals of conformity and socialization, which helped explain a lot of the rituals in the Torah we often find irrelevant or passé.

At this moment in time, as research into our genetic makeup is advancing in leaps and bounds, we are inclined to put more emphasis on the influence of our genes. Genes carry many different characteristics, both desirable and undesirable. That's why we can inherit diseases. But there is a lot we do not know about what goes into genes and what exactly they can and do pass on. An ethical gene is not an impossibility. So, is being good or bad passed on through our genes? Are some people automatically good and others bad? We are still learning.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind argues that "moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.” He uses an analogy of a rider on an elephant. The rider “reasons why” but the elephant “sees that” which represents emotion, intuition, and all the built-in factors that automatically get us to behave in a particular way. Which then we try to find reasons for. The just is out. Our societies are predicated on our knowing what is good (as defined by each society or religion or ideology). We act as if we have choice.

Socialization may explain why religious communities are successful in imposing conformity but not necessarily very good at getting many of its members to be moral human beings or to act correctly even by its own standards. Authority, whether it is parental, educational, or religious, is rarely effective in controlling human behavior. People usually behave well when someone else is looking—like a policeman. God is used so often to dissuade bad behavior because God is supposed to be the all-seeing eye. But then why do religious people who claim to believe in God and that God “sees” whatever they do, often behave badly? And often encourage killing in the name of religion or acting in coercive ways that most of us do not think are right and indeed much of religious ideology disagrees with?

Psychologists tell us that simply commanding people to be good rarely works. They must decide for themselves if they want to, if it is worth it. We punish in effect to express disapproval or sometimes simply prophylactically to protect society from dangerous people. The issue of whether we can change fundamental human behavior is debatable.

In fact, the old distinction between nature and nurture is still a pretty good one. We choose to abide by different laws—civil laws, religious laws, and personal moralities—for and through a variety of causes and effects. They all play a part. We are determined in part, and we are free in part. In the end, we as individuals make decisions in a variety of areas, even if there are laws that constrict us. Some of our decisions are predictable, some not.

In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? We punish criminals in the hope that they might change. We always have punished those who broke laws. But is this fair? Why did we even think punishment would get them to change?

Scolding is rarely effective. But presenting alternative models, alternative moralities, at least offers standards. There are standards for personal behavior, daily routines, and special days of the year. There are standards in every system and culture that applied historically in different times and some just as applicable now as then. Whether and how we choose to keep them is up to us. If one cares about being Jewish, the Torah provides a list of what comprises a Jewish way of life and a Jewish way of being good. It is one of several options and paradigms. Freedom of choice, if you like, is the freedom to decide which program we choose to be influenced by.

But this is one reason that I strongly support the separation of religion and state. I do believe religion should be part of the moral debate. But when religions gain power, they tend to exclude and suppress other ideologies. Actually, that's what the nonreligious extremes like fascists and marxists try to do, too. It is happening on campuses all the time. I am right, and you are wrong. It is always important to have access to alternative ideas.

Judaism claims that we are born neutral, with a good inclination and a bad one. We decide which one we give preference to. We are influenced by our own actions—good ones reinforce the good in our nature, and bad ones reinforce the bad. We know we are determined by genes and societies. But we still show every sign of being able to make some choices, at least. We do in fact change religions, countries, and communities. And friends and partners.

I knew how I should have behaved, in the past and even now when I make mistakes. Sometimes I did what I should have, and sometimes I did not. That is the struggle of life. Augustine is said to have prayed, “Please God, make me good…but not just yet.” I always prayed to God to make me good. I just didn’t always try hard enough.

As R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto said hundreds of years ago in his introduction to The Path of the Righteous, there is nothing new, we know what we ought to do, but we need to be constantly reminded. The function of education (as opposed to indoctrination) is to inform, to present possibilities, to reiterate, and to encourage people to think and to decide for themselves. To teach rather than preach. That is the only defense against hucksters and fanatics.

May 04, 2017

Independence Day

Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, brings out the best and the worst in us. We cannot agree on what it means, and we cannot agree on how to celebrate or recognize it.

For all the biblical miracles, after 2,000 years of exile and oppression, the reconstitution of a Jewish independent state strikes me as the most miraculous of events that defies logic and nature. And I celebrate it. I cannot understand why any Jew would not.

In the Diaspora the vast majority are simply unaware of when Yom Ha’atzmaut is. Most of American Jews have never been to Israel, and many are ambivalent, if not downright opposed. But then the same can be said for quite a few Israeli Jews. On one level I support freedom of expression, free choice, and autonomy. But I do find it sad that to so many Jews history either means nothing or it is something they want to escape from.

I am a part of a very small people—some 15 million. I am part of a very small part of those 15 million who declare themselves to be religious Jews. And I am a small part of that small part that believes we should thank and praise the Lord for the miracle of Israel’s existence.

But, as with anything to do with Jews, it is complicated. The Old Yishuv—Jews who settled in Israel during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries—sacrificed a lot to live in the Holy Land. They did not get involved in politics or agitate for self-rule. They thought that the Messiah would sort things out, and in the meantime they had to accept the facts of exile, subjugation, and second-class status with its humiliations and penalties.

Nineteenth century Zionism strove to actively liberate Jews and provide them with a safe haven. Secular, idealistic pioneers came to settle the land, drain swamps, and find a place to live in peace. The Old Yishuv disliked them for their secularism, politicism, and “loose morals”. But in those days, the Old Yishuv was a small group of religious dreamers, and most of their successors are simply not interested in a Jewish state. God will take care of everything.

What we might call Modern, Centrist or Inclusive Orthodoxy has always been very supportive of Israel and celebrated independence religiously as well as nationally. They were the dominant religious force in the early years of the state and used the tools of statehood to give a religious dimension to a civil occasion. Once moderate, and pro-Zionist Orthodoxy was the norm for pragmatic, religious life in Israel. Nowadays religious moderates have almost all turned right. And they exercise power beyond their numbers in Israel, the army and its institutions being in league with secular right-wing parties.

Meanwhile, since the rise of the state, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi world has grown exponentially. It is split three ways. Some participate in the activities of the state, its politics, and institutions. Others reject the state and Zionism ideologically, but still participate. Finally, a fringe group refuse to have anything to do with the state or to cooperate, and actively try to undermine it. There were a lot of Charedi men who served in the army in the early days of the state, and they celebrate independence privately. Chabad Chasidim, who do not consider themselves Zionists as such, recognize the day because of their strong support for the state and commitment to Jewish life in Israel. But most “black hatters” just ignore it. And some really weird ones treat it as a day of mourning. Sephardim overwhelmingly celebrate and the late great Sephardi Rav Ovadia Yosef said we should mark Yom Ha’atzmaut by studying Torah as well as enjoying the day.

The day before is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day to honor those who were killed defending the country from its enemies. A moment of silence. Speeches and solemn gatherings. Interestingly, although the Charedi community as a rule does not celebrate Independence Day, more and more do take Memorial Day seriously and recognize the sacrifices that so many made for them as well. Only a few insensitive zealots refuse to mark the moment of silence in public.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut itself, the country rejoices in many ways. Marches, parades, displays, festivities, and a day off work. The vast majority of Israelis participate. But, bearing in mind that about half of Israelis are not religious, does it have any religious significance?

Both in Israel and beyond, each one of the groups I mentioned above have different religious responses to the day that really do illustrate how crazy we are. Please bear with me over the arcane details I am going to describe. To many they will sound petty and of little consequence, but the faithful take them very seriously—to the point of fisticuffs. But they illustrate the problems of a religion with no central or universally recognized authority.

According to Jewish law, whenever there is religious holiday we recite a prayer called Hallel, which is simply a collection of joyful Psalms. On festivals we read from the Torah, and on the major ones recite a Haftara, a section of the Bible from the Prophets. In addition, there is a special blessing called Shehecheyanu, thanking God “who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this (special) time.” And the prayer Al HaNissim, thanking God for the miracles on Purim and Chanuka, should be just as relevant on this day.

There are daily penitential prayers called Tachanun or Nefilat Apayim that one does not say on festive occasions or other happy events. Amongst Chasidim there is a tradition not to say these on happy occasions, including the anniversary of the death of a great rabbi (as this is regarded as a happy event, the soul returning to its source). They drink a toast Lechayim, to life, physical and eternal. Most Chasidim have managed to find so many anniversaries that they have all but eliminated the prayer throughout the year. Now, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, should one say Tachanun or not?

Yom Ha’atzmaut also falls within the traditional Omer period of mourning in the days from Pesach to Shavuot, when weddings and public celebrations with music are not allowed in memory of a series of historical tragedies. There are sufficient sources to support an exception to the rule: There’s the obligation on an individual to rejoice and recite a blessing when a miraculous event happens to one, and there are precedents for the community to declare special days of rejoicing as well as fasting. Once a powerful religious authority could and would make decisions. Nowadays too many major rabbis are caught in a dated mind set. Hence, we are left with chaos.

Each religious sector of Orthodoxy celebrates the day differently liturgically. Some follow the whole special service once ordained by the Chief Rabbinate with Hallel prayers, Torah and Haftara, and Shehecheyanu. They treat it as the equivalent of Chanukah and Purim. Some only say Hallel. Some only say Shehecheyanu. Some say Tachanun; others don’t.

There’s a joke that someone asked the very secular first Prime Minister of Israel Ben Gurion what he said on Yom Ha’atzmaut. He replied that he said neither Tachanun, nor Shehecheyanu (nor anything else of a religious nature).

I think it is a shame that the Charedi world does not share in Yom Ha’atzmaut. I agree they were right to turn inwards and focus entirely on survival and rebuilding religious life after the depredations of the Second World War. And they have been remarkably successful in ensuring that we will survive religiously. In this, their great rabbis of the time compensated for those blinkered of their number who insisted on staying behind in Europe rather than escaping to Israel or the USA when they could.

But now they are wrong to extend this to refusing to recognize the miracle of Yom Ha’atzmaut or to allow young men are not perennial scholars to serve a country that has protected them, supported them, and enabled them to flourish. Now that their numbers have increased so much, their rigid opposition is a measure of the failure of their moral vision. Proof that just because a person is right on one issue that does not mean they are or will be always right on any other. Thank goodness more and more of their number are making up their own minds. It's a shame if the tail wags the dog. But if the head is paralyzed, at least the tail offers hope.

This confusion over Yom Ha’atzmaut illustrates our capacity for tunnel vision, pettiness and moral paralysis. Thank goodness there are still enough of us prepared to act on our own initiatives and recognize a miracle when we see one.