January 28, 2010

Spit and Pray

Ever since I first encountered the very insular Jews who live in parts of Jerusalem in 1957, I have been aware that some of them have the habits of throwing stones at people they do not approve of and of spitting. I don’t mean spitting to clear the throat. Lots of people do that. It is common in the Middle East and on European soccer pitches. No, I mean the primitive custom of spitting when passing non-Jewish places of worship and in prayer when reciting the ancient Aleinu prayer with its often censored text which thanks God for not making us like those nations "who bow down to vanity 'varik' (literally 'and emptiness') and to gods who cannot save them".

The word "rik" has the same Hebrew root as "spittle". And the numerical value of the Hebrew letters "varik " is 316, the same as Yeshu, Jesus. (It is also the reference to the Gospel of John 3:16, in which Jesus proclaims that he is the Son of God.) Never mind that the Aleinu text is based on Isaiah, written six hundred years before the emergence of Christianity, and applied to Idol Worshippers. Still, under a medieval and oppressive Christianity that put Jews to death for their religion, spitting upon seeing a church or a priest gained in currency the more the anti-Semitism increased. I can understand the visceral reaction, "If you rubbish us and our religion, we will rubbish yours." But I certainly deplore it.

As relations began to get better, Western European Jews in particular began to drop the custom, as well as the text. Of course, the Holocaust set the whole relationship with Christianity back, and it is one of the miracles of the subsequent sixty years that it has improved so much that popes now visit synagogues on missions of peace and cooperation rather than conversion.

But still, in parts of Israel the custom has persisted in its ugliest form, of spitting at Christian clergy, mainly in Jerusalem. Here is an extract from a letter by the well-known teacher and commentator Devorah Weissman and circulated it to her community, Kehillat Yedidya, in Jerusalem:
Some of you may remember that on Yom Kippur of this year, I reacted, or should I say perhaps overreacted (I often do that when I'm upset about something) to the shaliach tzibbur’s recitation aloud of a line in the Aleinu prayer, "…that they kneel to nothing and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save…" To the best of my recollection, we had never recited that line publicly before at Yedidya—at least not in the minyanim I have attended. There is a recent trend in some parts of the Jewish world to bring it back, especially in Artscroll and many Israeli editions of the prayerbook. It is missing in editions by Hertz, Adler, and Birnbaum, and in the new siddur of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth), although it is present in the Koren edition of his siddur produced for the US. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, Father Samuel Aghoyan, a senior Armenian Orthodox cleric in Jerusalem's Old City, says he's been spat at by young Chareidi and national Orthodox Jews "about 15 to 20 times" in the past decade. The last time it happened, he said, was earlier this month. "I was walking back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I saw this boy in a yarmulke and ritual fringes coming back from the Western Wall, and he spat at me two or three times." Aghoyan said, "Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night."
Dr. Weissman urged her community and the Orthodox world to do something. The issue was raised with the Chareidi rabbinate in Jerusalem, who are usually much better at talking to Muslim clerics, whom they regard as monotheists, than with Christians, who worship the trinity and are therefore regarded as idolatrous (and don’t ask about the Kabalistic idea of the Ten Sefirot). And they responded.

This JTA report appeared in Haaretz:
A rare meeting between clerics from various churches, representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, and the Edah Haredit, the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox stream, gathered in Jerusalem in an effort to stave off a diplomatic crisis between Israel and a number of foreign states.

The meeting was spurred by the growing number of complaints from churches in the vicinity of Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter about violence and harassment toward them on the part of ultra-Orthodox Jews. ...News of the harassment of the clergy was published abroad and met with shock. Complaints were lodged with the Israeli embassies and began piling up at the Foreign Ministry.

...Edah Haredit representatives denied that members of their community were involved, but said it was possible that "fringe youth" who had participated in the demonstrations were causing the problems. ...Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, a member of the Edah Haredit leadership, met at the Jerusalem municipality ... [and] brought a letter from rabbis of the community's religious tribunal denouncing the attacks.

..."In addition to the desecration of the Lord's name that is involved," the letter states, "our rabbis, may the memory of these righteous men be a blessing, have already forbidden harassment of gentiles."
After all the negative things I have had to say about sectors of Orthodoxy I am so pleased to be able show another side. There are impressive, sophisticated, and sensitive--I would say saintly--Chareidi rabbis like Rabbi Papenheim, and they must be encouraged and recognized. It is not ALL black.

January 21, 2010

Kill the Messenger

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about corruption in the Jewish religious world. As I expected, the response from my target audience was to ignore it altogether, or that I must be a charlatan and a hypocrite, an enemy of Orthodoxy. Why didn't I focus on all the good things religious people do, and why not emphasize all the horrible and corrupt and far more serious crimes that others commit. It is the usual response I have come to expect. Do not address the issues, just kill the messenger.

I am not for one minute suggesting I come anywhere near the ankles of the great Biblical prophets. They too excoriated their coreligionists, their priestly leadership, and the corruption of Temple worship. Were they anti-Semites? When the Torah commands us to rebuke our neighbors, is it too anti-Orthodox? Proverbs says one should not try to correct a fool for he will only hate you.

Of course, one has to try one's best to ensure that the honest criticism one directs internally to one's own is not misused by others on the outside, nefariously. And it is all but impossible to control that nowadays. In the end, however, honest and sincere criticism is essential for anyone's morality. It is this that lies behind the Musar exercises and practices I was taught as a teenager in Beer Yaakov Yeshiva by the great proponent of Musar, Rabbi Shlomo Volbe, z"l. I am justified in criticizing Orthodoxy precisely because I love it and am fully aware of its good points, which indeed underpin and animate my life and work.

So despite everything, here I come again asking for more trouble. This time it is about Israel. I have kept my powder dry hitherto precisely because of the crescendo of attacks, the attempts to delegitimize Israel, and the unholy alliance between fundamentalists and left-wing loonies united only in their hatred of Israel and Jews. But eventually one has to express one's views, regardless.

I have always been strongly opposed to occupation. I agreed completely with the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz that occupation would have a deleterious impact on the values and humanity of the occupiers, however benevolent. That it has been accompanied by land grabs, theft, insensitivity, and bullying makes it worse (and it is no excuse to argue that all this happens constantly, every day, within and between Israelis). There are mitigating circumstances. Palestinian and Arab errors of judgment and policy may have been far worse; this does not excuse the evidence that, to many Israelis, Palestinians are untermenschen. Even if there is corruption and abuse in Palestinian society, the sad fact is that it exists in Israel too.

On the other hand, I have always believed in Land for Peace. When I was in yeshiva, all the major Charedi rabbis, both Sefardi and Ashkenazi, (with the exception of Lubavitch) were all of the same opinion. Important as land is, essential as the Hills of Judea and Samaria may be to our heritage and past, human life and safety overrides all other considerations. And as much as I admire and revere the late Rav Abraham Isaac Kook's vision of Israel and the Jewish people, I did not identify with the cliques that surrounded his son the late Rav Zvi Yehuda and became the powerhouse of Settler ideology. We Jews have survived without any land for millennia, let alone without all parts of it.

I am not convinced there is a partner for peace and I think there is an agenda to see all of the Fertile Crescent in Muslim hands. Even if I do believe in the principle of Land for Peace, I do not therefore believe in submission or suicide. But this has nothing to do with the impossible conundrum of occupation, which by its very definition means subjugation.

As a completely unqualified, inexpert commentator, it seems to me that withdrawing behind defensive barriers until such time as hatred diminishes has its attraction. It has certainly worked in stopping suicide bombers. Except that nowadays you can fire rockets over any barrier. In theory, the Palestinians should be responsible for their own security, but we have already seen how those same security forces can become the vehicles of aggression. And the numbers game is against Israel. Negotiation in other words offers more long term hope than inertia.

Individual Israelis have been guilty of war crimes. Some have been dealt with by Israel itself. Certain governmental and army policies have been wrong and self-defeating. It is necessary to keep on hammering away at abuses. That is the moral obligation of any moral human being. But that does not mean we should not fear the baseless hatred of Israel and Jews which infects not only the primitive reaches of our universe but the so-called sophisticated world too.

I am influenced by the famous line in Proverbs that "God rebukes those He Loves like a caring father." Criticism must come from those who are committed to Israel, committed to its survival, committed to Judaism. A parent who exercises no correction is a bad parent. A friend who does not point out failings is a bad friend. One must not ignore criticism from those who live in, work in, and love Israel. I hear the criticism that comes from other quarters too, but usually those critics have much huger warts on their noses and it is a case of "doctor, heal thyself".

There is too little civilized debate and too much abuse and excoriation. An Anglo-Jewish magnate who objected to the opinions of an Israeli academic emailed him:

"I saw your disgusting contribution to the Dispatches programme. I want nothing ever to do with you and will use whatever influence I have at BGU to have you thrown out. The only thing worse than an anti-Semitic gentile is a traitorous anti-Semitic Jew. I hope you perish and I curse you."

Hardly civilized debate, which goes to prove that money is no guarantee of common sense.

I criticize because I love. Love that will not criticize is not true love.

January 15, 2010

Let Them Be

I know this is going to sound harsh and unfeeling but we ought to leave failed states alone to stew in their own self-imposed cruelties. It is, in the end, up to their own citizens to either put up or shut up.

I really thought Obama was going to usher in a new era and stop trying to cure those sick parts of the world that do not want to be healed. But it seems his arms dealers, his scaremongers, his political allies and supporters all have a vested interest in keeping armed forces overseas, sending young men and women to their pointless deaths, and throwing away vast sums of money that could better be used improving the fabric of society and infrastructure at home. I remember in my youth the arguments for staying in Vietnam. There was the domino theory that all of Asia would collapse into Communism. The line had to be drawn. Failed states would present a danger to the USA and World Peace. And they all proved to be false.

If you cannot tend to everyone else's garden, at least you can make sure yours grows properly. And if you put all your energy and resources into trying to help someone who hates gardening to spend time weeding, you will inevitably fail. Have we not yet learnt that no matter how benevolent an occupier is, an occupier is a resented alien who will never be accepted?

I remember vividly the 1967 war in which Israel ejected the Jordanians from the West Bank they had illegally occupied in1948 (though no one in the UN seemed to mind if it was Arab occupying Arab). The Palestinians threw roses at the Israeli tanks as they passed through the villages, so hated were the Jordanians. Unbelievably, the victors simply refused to learn from what their own eyes were telling them--that any occupier comes to be hated, and certainly one who tries to subjugate and disenfranchise. About the only thing to be said in favor of Russia this last century was that she actually did give up on Afghanistan and get out.

So I say cut your losses and get out. Occupation does not work.

Will a failed state become a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists? So isolate that state. Track those who come and go, rather than try to change it from the outside. Any attempt from the outside will be regarded as a crusade, imperialism, or an American Zionist plot. It will only reinforce blind fundamentalism.

In Iraq, the US ended up in league with the very Sunnis it initially booted out of power. The Taliban rulers were ejected from Afghanistan. Yet most analysts now think the only chance of any kind of success is by making a deal with the new Taliban. Meanwhile, they and Al Qaeda are protected within Pakistani territory, because its own political and military system is riddled with fundamentalists and it is a nearly failed state with an already tested nuclear bomb. Look at all the failed states harboring Al Qaeda or other dangerous potential terrorists. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And in the case of Somalia the US left with its tail between its legs. The world cannot even deal with Somali pirates.

There is a mindset amongst many moderate Muslims that only outside intervention can rescue then from the oppressive Muslim regimes they live under. That is why it is argued that the USA should reach out to and support moderates in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Not that she will be thanked. Only when a sufficient number of oppressed citizens within a country feel so strongly about it that they are prepared to rebel can there be any hope of regime change. That, for example, is precisely what happened in Honduras, and in time it will happen in Venezuela too. Hopefully Zimbabwe as well. They are not as toxic as Iran and North Korea--two virtual nuclear powers. Yet no one I have heard is arguing that the USA should invade them.

In Iran the oppressive regime murders, tortures, and rapes its own people. That’s the way in the East. No one is making a fuss of Christians killed in Egypt or Malaysia. Who cares if in Abu Dhabi a royal prince gets off scot-free after torturing and maiming another Muslim. We don't expect justice or freedom in such places. Shall we invade them too?

Thanks to China's refusal to countenance any interference in the internal affairs of regimes, there is no way to impose universal sanctions or effective restrictions. Free countries have no alternative other than to rely on their own methods of self-protection.

As for locally born terror, stop pretending it is exceptional. Political correctness and appeasement will not protect anyone. Britain still refuses to acknowledge that its universities are centers of recruitment for aggressive Islam, something students have been telling anyone who would listen for years.

America's decision to require stricter security for visitors from certain Muslim states which harbor terror has been attacked both by American Muslims and Civil Rights campaigners. I hope the USA stands firm (I know Europe won't). I do feel very sorry for innocent peace-loving Muslims who suffer as a result. But they have it in their own hands either to help change regimes or bring the pressure to bear on those Muslims who give Islam a bad name.

January 07, 2010

Religion Is Sick

Yet another case has been revealed of Orthodox corruption. A rabbi, very strict on conversions but lax on morality, was taped offering "Orthodox" conversion for sex. This comes after a yearlong litany including the trial of Charedi youngsters sent by other Charedi bosses out to Japan as drug "mules", another Charedi "rabbi" accused of dealing in sex and drugs, the conviction and sentencing of a Spinka Chasidic Rebbe, the arrest of Sephardi rabbis on charity fraud, the conviction of a Lubavitch magnate on bank and other financial illegalities, the Chasidic Square Town in breach of numerous laws and an Orthodox Lakewood businessman accused of massive fraud.

I am sorry to have to tell you that this is only the tip of the tip of a huge iceberg of corruption that is endemic in the Charedi world. Don't even try to justify it by saying the whole world is corrupt so why pick on a few bearded Jews? The Torah commands us to pursue "that which is upright and good" and even if everyone around you is corrupt, in the words of Hillel, where there are no men, at least you should try to be a man.

This disease within Orthodoxy is corrosive, widespread, and endemic. It has reached the highest levels of our religion, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Lithuanian and Hassidic. It knows no borders, no limitations, America and Israel and all points between. And what makes it even more disturbing is that the few honest good and spiritual men at the top who are untainted are too scared, weak or feeble to make a stand. I won't even begin to mention those who have political agendas. It is all as corrupt as the sex crimes of the Catholic Church and the hypocrisy of many Evangelical preachers. It is the result of exaggerated worship of holy men who seem to think this allows them to get away with anything.

Of course the usual response is to condemn the messenger as an ignorant, backsliding, heretical criminal, himself, who is contravening the Biblical and rabbinical laws of gossip and giving people a bad name. The wagons circle and the criminal is said to be the object of the envious, the uncomprehending and anti-Semites. Adverts appear in the Orthodox press calling for meetings of prayer and support for the poor victims--not the victims of the crimes, but the perpetrators. In Israel any case of prosecuting or convicting an Orthodox person of any misdemeanor is of course put down exclusively to secular bias and antagonism.

Anyone familiar with the murky world of kashrut supervision knows how much monkey business is involved. Backhand payments to kashrut supervisors, deals made between and against rival supervising bodies. "Kosher" sometimes has relatively little to do with the actual laws and more to do with who is paying whom for what. The result has been endemic fraud. Honesty is rare.

It is not easy to find a Bet Din that is not corrupt in one way or another. Money often decides the outcome, rather than the law. Or who knows whom, or who owes something to someone--all matters specifically proscribed in Torah, which is somehow forgotten or ignored. Interested parties can often bribe or bring pressure to bear on Dayanim. One sees it at its worse when it comes to Jewish divorce and the way men often refuse to give a Get unless they are paid blackmail money and many rabbinical authorities at best turn a blind eye and at worst actually encourage it.

As for conversions, the system (where there is one) is riddled with abuse--rabbis prepared to convert for money, expecting kickbacks, applying different standards and criteria, refusing to convert in one country, arranging an easy way out with a friend or relative in another, and indeed expecting sexual favors from the vulnerable. This is not hearsay, I assure you, but something I have come across.

Rabbis seeking sexual favors is typical of male-dominated hierarchies the world over. The underlying animation seems not Torah, but rather personal concupiscence. And this probably explains why there is so much financial corruption and dishonesty in religious circles. It might start off stealing from the State but it invariably ends up stealing from family and friends too. It is like terrorism. Theorists start off by explaining it all away as the result of poverty, deprivation, discrimination, ignorance, and alienation—but then one comes across perfectly well educated, comfortable, apparently stable people who do the same.

So why has this not turned me completely of Orthodoxy? For one thing, of course, I also have firsthand experience of the beauty and inspiration of living a religious life, and I am also fortunate to know enough really honest, sincere, and good Orthodox people to know there is another side.

All religions, like the Parson's Egg, are good in parts. But that of course means other parts are foul. All organizations, parties, indeed any agglomeration of human beings, has its rotten eggs.

Hans Eysenck got into trouble many years ago for suggesting that criminals had an extra chromosome. I am coming round to the view that being good is genetic. Some people just have the good chromosomes and genes and others don't. Just as some are willing to teach and serve and others are interested in accumulating wealth and are motivated by greed. Some will argue it is environmental, and that makes a difference too, but I have seen the same ghetto produce saints and sinners.

Now I know we believe in free will and repentance and change. And indeed I have seen it happen, both ways. But the percentage of those who do actually change is very small. Being religious is like supporting Manchester United. You do it not out of any moral, spiritual animation, but it is a result of accident of birth and loyalty to tradition. No one expects Manchester United supporters to be ethical, good human beings, but we do expect this of people who outwardly adhere to a religion. That is why Maimonides starts of his book of law by dealing with the halachic subject of Chillul HaShem (desecrating God's name). But then what is written is of course irrelevant to those so blind they cannot see.