Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

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‘.  

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.

 

Why Bnei Akiva Needs Biblical Criticism

As it becomes increasinly clear to most of us that we need to be moving towards peace, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our thinking is open, flexible and creative.  Ancient Texts carry immense power and can be used, by all sides, in very dangerous ways.

The recent Bnei Akiva scandal raised some of these issues, but they really go deeper and further than just Bnei Akiva.

My thanks to the team at thetorah.com for embracing this piece and for helping me to substantially improve it.  I’d love to hear any thoughts.

http://thetorah.com/why-bnei-akiva-needs-biblical-criticism/