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.

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.