Death, Defeat and the Dangers of Despair

This week’s Torah reading discusses the limited circumstances under which a priest may come into contact with a dead body.

The laws proscribing this particular form of ritual contamination may seem to strange to us, it is hard to see how they could possibly be relevant.

The first thing we notice is that Judaism is not obsessed with death, and does not believe, on the whole, that this world is simply a preparation for an afterlife.  There is talk of Olam Haba, which is often translated as ‘the world to come’, but is perhaps better translated as ‘the world of becoming’.  It alludes to a way of experiencing life that is rich and flowing, infused with energy and inspiration, connected to values and concerns which recharge and nourish it.  This is how Olam Haba is depicted in the Zohar, and I believe it can be read into many other rabbinic uses of the term.

But there is more than that, Judaism seems to have an aversion to death, it wants to keep us distant from its spirit.

We could say that this is a form of denial, that it’s falling prey to the weakness so vividly diagnosed by Ernest Becker in his masterwork the Denial of Death.  Faced with mortality, we flee, we cannot face such hard truths about life, and we embrace distractions and focus on happier thoughts.

But I don’t think this is what’s happening.

It seems to me that we are being given warning that there are moments of crushing defeat in life, moments when all we can feel is the hollowing out of loss, when the dark curtain of despair tries to seduce and envelop us.

This is what is symbolised by death, this is the thing we must not become too contaminated with.

Yes, we must be realistic, we must face the truth, but we must not let death and defeat overcome us, we must not surrender our faith to its indifference.

To do so is to prevent us from achieving anything in life, from bringing about inner and outer change, from doggedly persisting with the endless task of tikkun, of sanctifying and refining the worlds that we inhabit.  For the work is not on us to finish, but we must certainly not waste our time nor evade our responsibilities.

Realism, yes, but in healthy measure, administered like a powerful drug, and whose poisonous dimension we will gradually nurse and encourage out of our system.

For despair is all too easy, particularly in challenging times, and it will not help us, it will not get us where we need to be.

And it seems that the Torah is marking out three levels of warning here.

For the regular Israelite, the average citizen, there is simply the demand for a requisite awareness.  If you have come into contact with death, you should know about it.  You cannot enter the sanctuary, your capacities have somehow been impaired, your spirit is perhaps not best placed to attain its greatest heights, to meet its toughest challenges.

But it is a fact of life, and there is no prohibition against contact with death.  It is part of the fabric of life, the reality of being a person, and we cannot legislate such harsh truths out of existence.  We are not in denial of death.

For the next level of person, the priest, the Kohen, who lives a life more firmly consecrated to higher tasks, a greater level of warning is issued.

They are prohibited from coming into contact with death, they must do everything in their powers to avoid it.  Their work is too sacred, too significant, and the dark shadow of defeat cannot be allowed to cloud their judgment, to sully their spirits, to weigh down on their souls.

‘For how shall we sing the lord’s song in an alien land’, how can we reach the highest heights whilst adrift in the land of sorrow and hopelessness.

There is a sacrifice here, a part of one’s humanity is perhaps being curtailed, but the Torah is suggesting that this is necessary for the good of the greater society, that different people must bear different burdens.  The focus on avodat hakodesh, on the work of elevation, requires a different level of personal consecration.

Only for close relatives, for extremely important and real matters can this bitterness be tasted.  To squander one’s focus and energy on trivial sorrows, on the romance of melancholic absorption, this is not permitted to the priest.

The high priest, the one with ultimate responsibility, he must be even more careful to protect himself, to maintain his near impossible level of spiritual focus and concentration.  For if the leader of the people becomes cut off from the source of hope and life, then the people are wholly exposed, there is no longer any buffer or bulwark to protect them from an annihilating loss of direction.

For the high priest, there can simply be no access to death, its depressive spirit must not be allowed to penetrate.

Not only this, but he must not leave the sanctuary at all, his life must be one of total dedication, of total sublimation.  He is not a realistic or attainable figure, he is simply to exist as a vision for the rest of us, an ideal which inspires us, but which we know that it is not our fate to actually reach.  He is different, he is separated, he is bordering on the otherworldly.

And whilst we might appreciate this tripartite delineation, this mapping out of the spiritual landscape, we might find that it doesn’t entirely speak to our modern sensibilities, to our democratic worldview.

We might however consider that these different levels of spiritual dedication refer to different levels of our personality, different layers of our psyche.  There are the outer parts, the rugged parts, which deal with death and defeat as part of our routine, as part of the cost of doing business.

And then there might be parts which we try to keep a bit more aloof, a bit less accessible.  We sense that these need greater protection, so we do not open them up so easily, we do not rush to expose them in the same way.   We refrain from certain emotional investments.

And then there is our ultimate point, our deepest level, and that is where we know we must be even more vigilant and careful, that there is something there that must not exit its spiritual sanctuary.  For to risk its tarnishing is to risk our very essence, to risk completely losing our way.

We live in challenging times, and there are many many reasons why we might want to give up, why we might let death and defeat dominate our spirit.  But we must look after ourselves, particularly in our most sacred recesses, and we must ensure that we are ready for the next challenge, able to scale the heights when they come into focus once more, able to help generate a new vision of a world perfected by the majesty and sanctity of Divine virtue.

We are not permitted to desist from the task, and we must always be ready to answer its call.

Fighting Inequality is a core Jewish Value – Election 2015

This article appeared originally in Haaretz on 01/05/2015  - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.654494

 

The Jewish story begins when a privileged Egyptian prince becomes sensitized to the hardships inflicted on the local slave people. Finding the imaginative capacity to sympathize with them, he eventually decides to liberate this people, irrespective of the cost to his own wellbeing. The ultimate lesson he repeatedly bequeaths to us through his Torah is simple – our fate is bound up with those who are suffering.

It cannot be stated clearly enough: Judaism stands for justice, compassion and equality of opportunity.

So I am deeply perplexed when people tell me that the only legitimate Jewish choice in next week’s U.K. election is to vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives.

And this is not mere anecdote. A recent survey found that only 22% of Jews are planning to vote Labour, with 69% backing the Conservatives.

This is a recent development, for in 2010 the Jewish population was roughly evenly split, with Labour on 31% and the Conservatives on 30%.

The popular account of this is that David Cameron has been a vocal supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, whereas the positions of Ed Miliband have been, in the eyes of many, far less friendly. There is, however, no evidence at all that Labour would respond any differently to the needs of the community, as their previous track record more than amply demonstrates. And questioning Israeli policy is very different from delegitimizing or demonizing it, which Miliband has absolutely not done.

But this election is not about Israel, it is about Britain.

It is about a country where the shape of society is changing, where it is becoming increasingly unequal. And this is the fundamental question in this election: Is one happy about this or does one wish to change it?

Inequality is different from poverty. Helping those in poverty sounds like an optional good deed, and may well be something one does through private means and donations. Perhaps one feels that politics is not the arena in which to be charitable.

Inequality is to do with the distribution of wealth and opportunity in society, which can be measured and tracked statistically. And it appears to be moving in only one direction.

This structural issue is not something that any one person can affect through charity; it is something that only government has the power to tackle.

Only the state can counterbalance the indifferent neutrality of the market economy. Only the law can prevent people being dominated by powerful corporate interests.

And everyone is affected by inequality.

As shown in the 2009’s “The Spirit Level,” unequal societies do worse on nearly every measure. This is because inequality heightens the sense of competition and aggression between people, and makes us relentlessly insecure about the ways we live and the futures we can look forward to.

Inequality is what makes us uneasy when we worry about providing education and health care for our children, about the sorts of opportunities that await them.

The Conservatives have not really engaged with this, sticking to the tired mantra that wealth will somehow trickle down to help everyone.

It doesn’t.

Wealth, like power, has a tendency to concentrate. Once you have some, it becomes a whole lot easier to get more as demonstrated in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital.”

Having wealth allows one to make riskier investments, to employ economies of scale, to undercut the profit margins of competitors. It will often bring influence and access that create subtle but significant advantages.

The only way to tackle this phenomenon is to focus on taxing wealth, as opposed to income. This incentivizes work, whilst reducing the negative and demoralizing effects of aggregation.

This is where the idea of a mansion tax comes in.

There are certainly problems with the mansion tax. It is not clear, for example, why one should tax property rather than other forms of investment.

That said, it is nonetheless a step in the direction towards a society where more people have a chance, where one’s starting point in life doesn’t wholly determine one’s fortunes.

From a Jewish point of view, one could claim that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the Biblical vision, the entire nation’s wealth would be reset every 50 years, via the Jubilee mechanism. Everyone would start again with equal opportunities, whatever the misfortunes and errors of their fathers.

The mansion tax may not be good for Jews, but it certainly has good Jewish pedigree.

For the many Jewish voters in the Finchley and Golders Green constituency, a further twist in the tale finds Labour’s candidate Sarah Sackman to be a committed Jew and a lover of Israel. Sarah explains her own considered perspective by reference to a famous teaching of Hillel that her grandfather drummed into her: “If I am not for me, who will be for me. But if I am only for me, what have I become?”

She interprets this as charging us with a sense of civil responsibility, with ensuring that one’s politics never become solely about the protection of narrow interests.

And it seems to me that the community would do well to reflect on Hillel’s point. Whilst concern about Israel and the community are certainly admirable, if they are all we can worry about, then, truly, what have we become.

Moses didn’t turn up his nose at those less fortunate, but with courage and faith he managed to change the course of human history, in ways that have echoed and reverberated across the centuries.

To be a Jew is to demand no less of ourselves, and to rise to the challenge of in some small way perfecting our world.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: A Champion of Spiritual Sensitivity

On Monday 20th April, the 1st of Iyyar, my teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein left this world.   I wrote some personal reflections on this huge loss, which originally appeared in Haaretz on thursday - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.653242.   May his memory be a source of inspiration, blessing and strength for all of us.   

It is perhaps in the nature of a great human being that it is only from a perspective of both time and distance that one can really appreciate them.
I consider myself blessed to have spent three of my formative years in close proximity to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. On trying to put his virtues into words, one which stands out was his humility, which was both unique and exemplary. He possessed a genuine egolessness, in the healthiest possible sense. This was not false modesty, a labored and strained attempt to suppress one’s pride or hunger for recognition. No, this was simply a profound and genuine awareness of one’s smallness, humbled as he was by his place in the tradition.

He was also justly famous for the rigor and complexity of his thought. We take thinking for granted, that we know how to do it, that we know what logic and clarity are. But it has to be learnt, it has to be cultivated, and the intricacies of the Talmudic world were a great training ground for it.

I recall listening to his Talmud lectures on tape after hearing them in person, rewinding sections over and over again in an attempt to understand a hairsplitting distinction. A two-hour lecture could take six hours to revisit, digest and properly note. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t recall all of the subject matter from those lectures, but the ability to think critically and systematically, to unravel and engage with difficult concepts, that has stayed with me for life.

One might say that his subtlety was wasted on the young Yeshiva students he was mostly surrounded by. Filled with passion and impatience, a thirst for metaphysical certainty, they would look to him for clear and definitive answers. But they would never come; his endless contextualizations and qualifications were perhaps designed to frustrate his students, to show them the meaning of complexity, of nuance, of rigor and systematic thinking. The students of course would continue to ask, and they would in turn keep drinking from the cooling waters of this deep and capacious mind, learning, unwittingly, the patience and discipline required to be a thinker.

His educational philosophy, like that of Rav Amital, was to give space, to lead by example, to teach of the Divine by embodying it rather than by philosophizing about it. Following the Kabbalistic doctrine of tzimtzum, of self-limitation, they both left a lot of autonomy in the hands of their students, giving them the space to wander and get lost in ways conducive to true and lasting growth.

He once spoke of the ideal personality as a large container, which could then be filled with Torah, with wisdom and character marked with the stamp of the Divine. It was easy enough to fill a small vessel, and also possible to create a large vessel but to fail to sanctify it. To allow oneself to expand and to still somehow infuse the fullness of one’s person with a sense of responsibility and higher purpose, that was a struggle. And it was not one without its risks.

Rav Lichtenstein was not always completely comfortable with directions his students took, wondering how positions that he had staked out on the left flank of Orthodoxy, which had seemed radical in their time, came to be viewed by some students as moderate or conservative.

In my own experience, however, at a time when I was really struggling with my Judaism, I found him to be above all compassionate and non-judgmental. As we spoke at length about the intellectual and existential difficulties I was having, he communicated tremendous sympathy with my plight, and, characteristically, did not pretend to have any easy answers to my problems.

But there was something more, something warm and encouraging, as if he could see in my troubled soul that something good was trying to work its way out, that this was not a meaningless and angry rebellion but a necessary stage in my development. It was almost as if his faith in me allowed me to have faith in myself, to feel that I was actually engaged in something meaningful, that my better self had not been entirely duped.

I’ll never know for sure what he was thinking, but our encounter that day kept me connected to Judaism and to the Yeshiva, and gave me a true glimpse of his greatness of soul. To outer appearances he might have looked just like another Rosh Yeshiva, blessed with an exceptional mind and extraordinary piety. And he was. But beneath the surface lived an integration of all the moral and spiritual wisdom he encountered throughout his quest, a glowing furnace of broad virtue, acting as a reminder that such things were possible.

He showed that there really is a need for deep commitment to the life of the spirit, that there are no technological or intellectual shortcuts to moral progress. Through his example we can see that a life lived in pursuit of these goals is not only possible within the apparent constrictions of traditional religion but might even be enhanced by them.

In my mind, this is what the Yeshiva stands for, a world of alternative values, a place where young souls are given the nutrition and love necessary for finding their roots and developing what he called “a kind of spiritual sensitivity to the world.” Seeds are planted in these years which may take many years to come to fruition, whose impact might only become clear over the decades.

But this was Rav Aharon’s vision, the blood which ran through his veins, and in a world where he is no longer, where we are orphaned and bereft of his guiding presence, of the sense that someone had things in hand, it falls upon all of us to work that bit harder to realize it, to show that both Judaism and spirituality have much to teach our world, particularly when the best of them are married together.

Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.

 

The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski has written an article against Partnership Minyanim which I have responded to in Haaretz.  http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

I’d like to add a few further reflections based on his citing ‘meta-halakhic’ considerations in favour of his argument.

I am bothered by this move for many reasons, not least becasue I do not believe he has done justice to the richness of this topic.   I am thus outlining here 13 principles of meta halakha which seem to be relevant to the discussion.  There are links to where I have already written on some of them at greater length.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can begin to help people think about some of the issues involved.

  1. A founding principle of all meta-halakha must be the conviction that there is a spirit and a set of principles which inform halakha, that rigid interpretation will never be enough.  This is the essence of the ongoing debate between Hillel and Shammai as depicted in the Talmud.  Hillel is capable of a more poetic reading, Shammai’s approach is rooted in anxiety and anger.
  2. In a similar vein, that Mishna teaches that we must reflect seriously upon our connection to the Divine before we submit to the rule of the commandments, the mitzvot.  Unthinking rule following is not the aim of halakha.
  3. There is a danger in being  too strict in the way we apply the law, doing so upsets the balance it is supposed to bring too life.
  4. The law should be approached with love, and not only fear.  Excessive caution and the erection of too many boundaries can undermine the purpose and spirit of the law.
  5. There will always be a need for engaged interpretation of the law, the text alone cannot provide definitive answers:      “The relationship between Oral and Written Torah is complex, their side by side existence seems to bespeak the realisation that any written text will always need a living and engaged interpretation, that truth can never be expressed unequivocally once and for all time.The famous story of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s lecture (Menachot 29b) embodies this spirit. Rabbi Akiva is innovatively expounding hundreds of new ideas from the written Biblical text and Moses doesn’t recognise any of them. He starts to weaken out of confusion and distress, before Rabbi Akiva explains to one of his inquisitive students that all of these ideas are ‘Halakha Le’Moses Mi’Sinai’ – ‘a tradition of Moses from Sinai’. Moses recovers his strength, and expresses newfound appreciation for the genius of Rabbi Akiva.          There is a paradox revealed here which lies at the core of Torah – there was a singular moment when God revealed something of his will and vision to Moses and the people at Sinai, but this truth could only ever be partial and would need, by design, to be constantly expounded and renewed by the intellect and creativity of human beings. There must always be variety, for the limits of language are such that no words can ever maintain consistent meaning and purpose across time, their usage and context are forever shifting.”  (from an article I wrote on Limmud, which has other things to say about the abuse of Rabbinic Authority.)
  6.  Compassion must play a major role in our approach to religious life and halakha.  Love and tolerance are vital for Rabbinic leadership, as shown by the failings of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.  (See the section on Shabbat 33.)
  7. Rabbinic authority must be handled with sensitivity and mindfulness.  Placing too many burdens upon the people misses the point and will result in a justified uprising.  This was the undoing of Rabban Gamliel.  His overthrow revealed how damaging his spirit of aristocratic disdain had been.
  8. In line with this, there is a democratic ethos at the core of halakha, it is not divorced from the ongoing and continuous unfolding of the human spirit.
  9. The principle of human dignity – kavod habriyot – is foundational .  It cannot straightforwardly be discarded or limited in scope as the Frimers have argued.
  10. The Halakha is not in heaven, but for human beings to interpret and live.  I have not written up my teachings on this topic, but will offer this quote from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.  I would only add that the famous narrative on Bava Metzia 59b is, for all its radicality, in some ways less shocking than the original formulation of the idea in Deuteronomy 30.  The suggestion there is that it is within reach of every human being, to be found in our hearts and in our mouths.  It is not necessarily subject to the filtering of any authority, Rabbinic or otherwise.

Not in Heaven – Eliezer Berkovits                The law has to formulate general principles; but life situations are always particulars, there is something unique about each of them.  In this sense, every law is to some extent “inhuman”.  The problem is much more serious when the basis of the law is the revealed Word of God, which by its very nature is timeless.  How can an eternal truth and command take notice of the forever-changing needs of the fleetingly uncertain human condition.  God’s revelation was not the absolute Word of God – which could not be received by any human being – but the Word of God addressed to man.   However, if that should have any sense, would it not mean the relativization of the Absolute?

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the process of the application of the Torah to life all through the history of the Jewish people had to be entrusted to man.  It had to be because “the Torah was not given to God’s ministering angels” but to mere man.  Once the Torah was revealed to the children of Israel, its realization on earth became their responsibility, to be shouldered by human ability and human insight.  That is, we suggest, the ultimate meaning of Rabbi Y’hoshua’s bold stand: “The Torah is no longer in Heaven!”  One pays no attention to the voice from heaven in matters of Torah realization on earth.  So it is intended and explicitly stated in the Torah itself.  It could not be otherwise.  The divine truth had to be poured into human vessels; it had to be “humanized”.  Having left its heavenly abode, it had to be accommodated in the modest cottages of human uncertainty and inadequacy.  This, in essence, is the task of the Halakha.  The “humanization” of the word of God requires that in applying Torah to the human condition, one takes into consideration human natures and its needs, human character and its problems, the human condition in its forever-fluctuating dimension, the Jew and the Jewish people in their unique historical reality.

11.  Midrash and Rabbinic interpretation does not always align straightforwardly with Biblical texts, but often radically undermines their meaning.  This should be kept in mind when we think about the ways we approach both Rabbinic and Biblical texts.

“Rabbinic Midrash initiates a subtle game that both pledges a certain allegiance to the biblical text and yet in places radically subverts its original meaning.  A good and pertinent example relates to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai.  In Exodus 19 and 20 it is a thunderous, terrifying and life threatening encounter with God’s singular voice or presence appearing to annihilate the people.  In Shemot Rabba (5:9) and Shir HaShirim Rabba (5:16) the voice is no longer overpowering and singular, but it is heard differently by every individual, and God is suddenly very aware of the potentially destructive power of his communications.

Revelation is thus transformed from a fearsome encounter with an alien force into a more humane and measured encounter with a loving aspect of the Divine, one much more attuned to and aligned with our earthly experience and nature.  There is a deliberate attempt to render the text more human, to validate what every individual makes of his or her experience.  This should be read as a warning against singular and literal appropriations of the Bible:  if God Himself had to revise and recondition his presentation of the materials, surely it is incumbent upon us as readers and educators, and especially as leaders and politicians, to do the same.

The Rabbis are warning that the word of God can be deadly, that it must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility.  They did not appear to adopt the second option espoused in the Facebook conversation – ‘find another book’ – but in many ways that’s exactly what they did: they re-appropriated and re-constituted the Bible through their own readings in the Mishna, Talmud and midrashim, keeping the words of the text, but turning it into a different book.”  (from my essay on how to read the Bible)

12.   The rewards of adhering to halakha can be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, something administered by a Grand Divine Adjudicator.

13.  The Rabbis of ancient times were not always able to fully transcend their environment – no one is – and think critically about the role of women in their world.  I have explored this in these four discussions:

(a)    Regarding time bound mitzvot

(b)   Regarding grace and inclusion

(c)    On the projection of all femininity into Torah, rather than actual women

(d)   On hysteria and the theft of female fertility

 

Netanyahu, stop telling me where my home is

This originally appeared in Ha’aretz on February 24th 2015. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.644075

I do wish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stop telling me where my home is.

In the aftermath of the Paris tragedy it felt a little bit distasteful and opportunistic. But one was willing to be somewhat forgiving.

In the aftermath of the Copenhagen shootings it feels a lot more intolerable; it seems that Netanyahu really does feel it his place to tell the Jews of Europe how they should live their lives.

What I find particularly bothersome is how Netanyahu presumes to know what being Jewish means to me.

As a Diaspora Jew, I have been forced to do battle with a complex and fragmented sense of identity, and to try to understand what roles, both positive and negative, Judaism might play in that mix. And it is an ongoing struggle, particularly at a moment like this.

While a certain approach to Jewish education in the Diaspora may have contributed to a sense that we are all simply failed Israelis, “armchair Zionists” who chickened out of aliyah, many of us have come to realize that that simply isn’t the case.

At some point this summer, driving on a motorway outside Tel Aviv, the thought crystallized in my mind: I am not an Israeli.

I may love the country and its people, I may stand in awe at some of its achievements, I may be bowled over by the everyday courage and heroism some of its citizens regularly display. I am extremely fond of the time that I spent in the country, and grateful for what I learnt there, and for the positive effect it had on my sense of Jewishness. I have family and close friends who live there, and as someone deeply connected to the culture of the Bible and Talmud it carries a historical resonance which seems unlikely to be re-created elsewhere.

For these and many other reasons I want what is best for Israel, and endeavor to contribute in that direction when possible.

But this is not the sum total of my Jewishness, and it is certainly not the sum total of my humanity.

A rich Diaspora tradition

As a Diaspora Jew I am part of a tradition going back some 2,600 years to the first Babylonian exile. Judaism at that moment ceased to be a national concern and became instead a universal and transportable system of values, a dynamic and evolving way of living.

According to the Bible, a large proportion of Jews did not return to Israel when Cyrus encouraged them to in 539 BCE, nor did they follow Ezra and Nechemia when they “returned” decades later.

In his recent study of the Book of Esther, my good friend Professor Aaron Koller argues that the text may have been written as a statement of counter-ideology to the nationalist and ethnocentric vision of Judaism being preached by Ezra. Mordechai, the hero in the story, represents a different ideal, that of the acculturated Jew, accepted by Persian society, enriched by his surrounding culture, strengthened by his heritage, and through his leverage in the empire able to exert broad influence across the global politic.

Judaism was no longer about Temples or Jerusalem, but about truth and tolerance, about navigating the thicket of identity troubles while coming to accept that one might never quite feel at home in the world.

It is in this sense an extremely modern story, and speaks to an increasing suspicion in today’s world of the idea of “home” as some safe and final resting place, where we will comfortably fit in without jarring incongruence. In a post-colonial world the universal condition is one of exile – the possibility of “home” is a fantasy.

We do what we can to come to terms with ourselves, to make peace with our inner unrest, and we may gradually come to feel comfortable in one place or another. But the idea that there is a singular geographic region, or even a community, which gives us a final sense of home, is misguided and dangerous.

Sense of victimhood

French President Francois Hollande said of the recent desecration of Jewish graves in eastern France that it was “the expression of an idea that corrodes our Republic.” His response was not to tell Jews that they don’t belong, but to make it clear that they do, that they are an integral part of the French nation.

Netanyahu’s response, by contrast, reduces Jewishness to a sense of victimhood and persecution, to never forgetting the numerous traumas of Jewish history. But while anti-Semitism may not have disappeared completely, and may indeed never do so, it is certainly no longer the dominant way of thinking in Europe.

More than this, I strongly doubt that focusing on tragedy is the healthiest way for us to think about Jewish identity. The reason we re-visit trauma in psychoanalysis is to try to free ourselves from the terror inscribed in the buried memories. We thus seek to liberate our creative humanity from trauma’s grasp, not to heighten the fear and deepen the enslavement.

Living in London I feel extremely grateful to be part of a tolerant, liberal and multi-cultural metropolis. These are words which are often mocked, which are equated with weakness and a fear of commitment. But they might actually represent the zenith of human achievement, an awareness that our problems do not lie in our religion, ethnicity or skin color, nor in those of the stranger in our midst.

Resisting the call and calculus of the apocalypse is not a sign of feeble mindedness but a willingness to live in the present, with all of the inevitable uncertainty and unease that it brings. Danger can never be wholly banished; to believe that it can is to abandon reality and enter a delusional world of fantasy.

It is not inconceivable that I might – for positive reasons – one day choose to live in Israel. But for as long as I am living in London and raising my family here, contributing to the Jewish and broader community, I will choose to view this as very much my home. And I will kindly ask Netanyahu to stop undermining and delegitimizing this choice with his negative and fearful rhetoric.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about the book of Esther, I’m teaching about it on Sunday 1st March at 8pm at jw3 in a class called ‘Purim for Atheists‘.  

Can the Israeli Army talk about God?

This article was published on November 25th 2014 on Haaretz.  It is an attempt to consider a form of religion that might work in a modern state, and that would neither inflame internal or external passions, nor lead Israel into a religious war.  

On heading into battle during Operation Protective Edge, Colonel Ofer Winter invoked the “God of Israel” to bolster the fighting spirit among his troops. This provocative gesture, echoing something from a Biblical narrative, generated huge controversy and could become the undoing of his career.

Israel Harel defends the colonel in an opinion article for Haaretz, and my first instinct was to disagree and say that God should have nothing to do with the army, that religion should be a private matter. Harel’s history as a founder of the settler movement surely highlights the dangers of fusing religious ideals with the national project.

Harel’s presumption of moral superiority is also galling, particularly his assertion that the religious right’s teaching “the values of Judaism, Zionism, love for the Jewish people and love for the land, fill them” – a vaguely defined leftist coterie, one presumes – “with anger… and envy.”

All of that said, it’s perhaps not so simple. For Colonel Winter and many like him, one imagines that preparing for battle is one of the most challenging and difficult moments in their personal lives, as well as having a more obvious national dimension. The personal and the national cannot always be neatly kept apart.
And at moments like these people turn to God, to the personal God who dwells in their depths.

The question then becomes: is it possible for an army colonel to speak about God in a way that is non-problematic? Can a private God be called upon who is different from the nationalistic God who is invoked to justify territorial ambitions and violence?

On one level, it feels like an injustice to deny Colonel Winter the right to connect with his own framework for courage, with his own deepest roots, with his sense of his place in the world.

He makes such a case in his statement that ‘“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God.”

The challenge is to find a less inflammatory way of doing this, to be able to speak of God without taking us down the dangerous path of a religious war. In the State of Israel, we must make room for more than just the God of the Bible. We need a God that is a universal and humanitarian force, connected with liberal tolerance and personal strength.

The philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for developing the idea of God as a personal force who provides us with courage. Writing in 1952, he speaks of an existential encounter which replaces anxiety with the courage needed to live with integrity.

But, as Europe lay in ruins, he was very conscious of the dangers of nationalism and was aware that it can provide an easier answer than that of genuine courage. The pressure of the collective makes it harder to stand firm as an individual, to resist the mentality of tribalism which gives us a clear and easy sense of purpose.

Returning the insight to our military situation, we might set up the following opposition to clarify our possibilities:

God can give courage through promising to get involved, through assuring us – in spite of Bob Dylan’s query – that He is on our side.

But God can also give us courage through enabling us to access reserves of strength we never knew we had, through helping us attain a level of moral seriousness which might otherwise escape us, through helping us remember the values that run most true and deep in us. He can help us to wrestle with our fears, and to find a better way of living side by side with them.

It may not be easy to cry out to the God who answered Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, without calling out to a force with a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without presuming that He prefers one outcome over the other. It seems hard to evoke these names as mythical legendary characters, without implying a Divinely mandated plan for history.

It feels like it would probably be safer to speak of a purely personal God, to take some quiet moments of reflection and commune with the ineffable presence, who remains wholly ungraspable, beyond the ken of mankind. Whose shadowy hints we may encounter in our depths, but whose explicit intent we affirm as inscrutable.

I suggest that we might approach God as a soothing mother, without needing Him to don His armor and intervene in our world like a violent father.

And if the two cannot be kept apart, if my personal invocation of God must necessarily lead to a mindset which values certain pieces of territory and certain sacred sites, then perhaps God is, indeed, best left out of the conversation.

If we are all – soldier and civilian alike – able to transition into thinking about the personal and non-partisan aspect of God, then we might approach the situation with courage and hope. But if we continue to be bound up with the God who gets physically involved, then we play right into the hands of those looking for a war of religion. And in doing so, we relinquish the moral and religious high ground that we might have once occupied.

Freud vs Freundel

My piece on the Freundel scandal, which explores how Rabbinic training might be enhanced to help prevent such tragedies.
It originally appeared in Ha’aretz -
http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.623397 -
though you may need a subscription to read it.
It has since appeared in The Forward, which does not, I believe, require a
subscription.
http://forward.com/articles/208221/channeling-freud-to-prevent-the-next-barry-freunde/

Does Kashrut Breed Racism?

This post originally appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday 28th September.    For those who don’t have a subscription, here it is:

On a recent trip to Israel my family and I arrived at our destination at around 11.15 P.M. Our hostess – whose house we would be renting – was extremely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by our arriving even later than planned. She had gone to the extra trouble of ensuring that we would have food for breakfast in the morning and had even prepared a couple of salads for us to enjoy. It was a truly Israeli welcome in the very best sense.

But when she saw my kippah she was suddenly overcome with worry. ”Oh dear,” she said, “I think we have a problem. My kitchen isn’t kosher.”

I was quite taken aback by her presumption that this would be a deal breaker, and quickly re-assured her that we would manage, that we’d often holidayed in houses in France and Spain where there had been no question of the owners bequeathing us a kosher kitchen. She helpfully showed me where we might find some aluminium cooking trays, and seemed reassured that we would be OK.

The episode stuck with me, as I discovered that the divisions between Jewish communities in Israel can be wider than those where I come from. In some ways, they have become emblematic of something I noticed about Israeli society.

I was upset by my host’s feeling that her kitchen would somehow not be good enough for us, that we would look down on her house based on its standard of kashrut. As a Diaspora Jew, I don’t expect other people to consider my dietary needs: If I have a concern, I expect to attend to it myself. Kashrut is a personal and private matter, a practice that I keep to myself; not something I wish to broadcast through vibes of separateness, awkwardness and disdain.

Now, this may not be the classical view of kashrut. For many people and in many periods, the purpose of kashrut was to keep Jews separate from their surrounding communities. In ancient times it may have been a bulwark against idolatrous practice, and in more recent times it served to prevent interaction and assimilation with the broader populace.

That said, I can’t help but feeling that in today’s world things have changed.

In a country where Jews are in the majority and there have been alarming indications of racist undercurrents toward Israeli citizens of Arab origin it feels important to cultivate a Jewish mindset that is different from that embodied in “exclusionary” or ”ghetto” kashrut.

If kashrut is rooted in a sense of “us and them,” of “chosen and not chosen,” then it may, under present conditions, contribute to a dangerous and inflammatory state of mind. Fostering ethnic and racial superiority is always problematic, and, with the challenges Israel presently faces regarding racism, it is particularly unwelcome. Evidence of this social poison can be seen in the rise of anti-Arab group Lehava and in the protests at the recent marriage between Morel Malka and Mahmoud Mansour, encapsulated in the disturbing slogan: ”Arab watch out, my sister is not public property.”

It seems clear that an ongoing challenge to the Jewish-Israeli psyche is the transition from traumatized and persecuted victim to a mindset of sovereign responsibility and a civilised wielding of power.

Kashrut may feel trivial in the face of this task, but the manner in which it is embraced can play a key part in shaping psychological attitudes. If the aim of our kashrut observance is to erect barriers, to separate communities, to distance ourselves from other citizens, then our observance might indeed be contributing to the mindset of separation, both among Jews and between Jews and other Israeli citizens.

If, on the other hand, we embrace kashrut – as other voices in the tradition suggest – to refine our capacity for gratitude, to distance ourselves from violence and hatred, to overcome our tendencies toward indulgence and gluttony, then we Jews as the majority population in Israel might move in a more positive direction.

Freud famously understood some forms of religious practice as instances of obsessional neurosis, as answering a deeply human need to overcome anxiety. The anxiety of difference, of encountering those who do not share our history or values, who look unfamiliar or talk differently from us, is a major part of modern multi-cultural life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Whilst it might be tempting to respond to difference-anxiety by insisting upon ever-stricter regulations and adherence to kashrut, we should be wary of thoughtlessly falling into this pattern. Rather, we should engage the attentive thoughtfulness kashrut might cultivate, and make every effort to explore and overcome our anxieties about difference.

As a practical example, we might revise the legal status of Israeli Arabs with regard to kashrut. The status quo in Jewish law has been to view them as gentiles, which serves to limit consumption of their food produce. This may have been historically necessary to protect a Jewish minority, but a Jewish majority can be bolder, and find a new legal status that teaches greater respect toward Arab citizens.

Kashrut need not be a place where we express our feelings of being threatened. Positively encouraging Jews and Arabs to break bread together might help re-balance a society struggling to balance Jewish particularism with the universal ideals of Abraham and Isaiah.

It is my hope that the Jewish vision of purity of soul neither reveals nor encourages racist and xenophobic sentiments. We can and must find ways of retaining allegiance with our past that neither diminish our humanitarian sensitivities nor jeopardise our political aspirations in the present.

 

Laughing With Dead Poets

This article was originally published in Ha’aretz, in its ‘Jewish Thinker’ section, shortly after the news of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide.  

Toward the end of Dead Poets’ Society, as John Keating is being ushered out of the school following the suicide of one of his pupils, his disciples make a defiant statement of allegiance and respect, of honour and recognition, by standing on their desks and shouting, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” They do this one by one, hesitantly, nervously, and in that moment they enact the poetic passion, the courageous individuality, that he had worked so hard to awaken in them.

He looks back at them admiringly, appreciatively, but there is a tinge of sadness in his face. He has been rocked by the death of his pupil, he has been reminded that the embrace of passion will sometimes lead to destruction. The light may burn brightly, but it may also be prematurely extinguished.

I want to stand on my desk and shout, “Oh Captain My Captain.” Through this role and his therapist role in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams conveyed to many in my generation a profound sense of the possibilities in being human, of overcoming fears, of the need for “Carpe Diem,” seizing the day. And he always did it without coming across as trite or shallow, it was spoken from the depths of strength, from an awareness of the obstacles that would get in one’s way.

He gave flesh and spirit to a character who had battled demons, who had held his friend’s corpse in Vietnam, who had watched his wife slowly die of cancer, and who was still willing to play a hand, to give life a go.

Robin Williams could seamlessly merge the comic with the tragic, finding the light amidst the darkness, the redemptive laugh in the face of despair.

And yet, it seems, in the end his own darkness was too much to bear, the pain could not be evaded, the abyss pulled him in with a force he could not counter.

I’ve heard people being surprised by this – “but he knew so much,” “why did he not seek help?,” “but he seemed so jovial” – and my feeling is that people misunderstand what it means to suffer in this way. Perhaps this misunderstanding is deliberate, and rational, for to contemplate the abyss too deeply is to start to feel its grip, to awaken oneself to its horror.

It would be trite and disingenuous to suggest that Judaism has solutions or answers to such problems. My own work as a therapist – perhaps part inspired by Good Will Hunting – has taught me that the paralysing blackness of depression needs to be respected, that it can’t be argued with or cajoled into relenting.

It is a space in which words and sense lose all meaning, wherein connections to the future feel frail, like a bridge that cannot be crossed. Sitting with the pain and trauma can help, but there are no guarantees or formulaic fixes.

Severe depression ravages our most basic levels of motivation, decoupling us from the engine that unconsciously propels us through life. And sometimes, when the engine can’t be restarted, even the will to live cannot be found.

What the Talmud may offer us is a sense that we’re not alone in our suffering; that the dead poets of previous generations have been there too.

I am not speaking of finding comfort in God, for as Julia Kristeva notes in “Black Sun,” to be depressed is to be a most proper atheist, to find salvation utterly blocked, to be wholly enclosed within one’s suffering.

The Talmudic sages lived amidst loss, and their approaches carry the weight of that experience.

A particularly thoughtful approach is offered by Rava (Berakhot 5b). He suggested that in the face of tragedy we might use our acute vulnerability as a source of soul searching, as a call to improve ourselves. This wouldn’t alter our external circumstances, but it might enrich our internal circumstances, and be of tremendous benefit in the long run. It would also keep the aggressive energies from turning depressive, sublimating them into more constructive pursuits.

It is Rava’s position that we adopt at this time in the Jewish year, as we transition from the depressive mourning of Tisha B’Av to the creative self-regeneration of Elul and the High Holy Days.

Rava’s emotional flexibility was in part shaped by his own master Rabbah.

Rabbah was famous for opening his discourses with a joke, with a touch of comic lightness. Once his audience had been opened up by this, once their defences were down and their emotions were receptive, he shifted into a mood of awe and reverence, and then began to teach.

Occupying different emotional registers, transitioning from tragedy to construction, these are Jewish values we are much in need of, this Av more than most.

As we remember Robin Williams, a contemporary master of this dynamic, may we find the strength in ourselves to remain fluid rather than rigid, open rather than closed, and instead of fear may we find the courage required for peace.