Thursday, December 30, 2010

Katsav: Who knew what when?

At the end of the day, no one is to blame for the behaviour of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav - who was convicted this morning of rape and sexual harassment - but himself. As an adult he is responsible for his own behaviour, and the criminal conviction reflects on him - and no one else.

However, there is at least one part of Israeli society which should be soul-searching this morning, and that is its politicians. So far I've seen no sign.

The fact remains that the Knesset elevated this man to a position for which he was eminently unsuitable, and from which he had the power to do great harm - to the entire country. He was voted in, if you recall, in July 2000, in a shock result, not because anyone thought he was the best man for the job - but because Israel's parliamentarians could not bear to give the job to Shimon Peres. Essentially they did it to spite him, even though he was almost universally acknowledged to be the better candidate.

But, I hear you say, they could not have known Katsav was a rapist. Even if they are guilty of deliberately elevating a weak man to the top job, they could not have foreseen today's turn of events.

Well, that's not quite true. One of Katsav's convictions today is for actions he took during his time as tourism minister. His behaviour was already established by the time he came to the presidency; and I'm sorry, but it's hard to believe that a government minister can harrass women in his office without people starting to whisper about his behaviour in corridors; without him developing a reputation amongst those 'in the know'. Anyone sitting for five minutes in the Knesset cafeteria knows that the place positively thrives on gossip.

Indeed, Shimon Peres himself acknowledged, a couple of years back, that he actually knew about allegations against Katsav when he ran against him for the presidency, but "ordered his associates not to make any use of the charges and to allow the race to be held solely on the two men's qualifications for the job." Very noble, but entirely misguided, and rather old-fashioned to think that sexual misconduct allegations against a man have nothing to do with his qualifications for the job.

How many others - in the Knesset, in the media - knew about Katsav in 2000, but either voted for him anyway, or helped cover up? It is unreasonable to think that Peres was the only one. If the Knesset really wants to draw proper lessons from this whole miserable affair, it should be prepared to confront its own part in the scandal.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas greatest hits

From the archives:
And quite a lot else besides. Enjoy the blast from the past - I'm away until Tuesday or Wednesday next week, so see you back here then.

Women to the temple?

Ah well, apparently the right-wing rabbis were right. Turns out that allowing a woman to be given the title 'rabba' is a slippery slope. First you let a woman think she's a rabbi, next thing you know, she can serve in the Temple - lighting the menorah, for example, and even slaughtering the animals to be sacrificed. Whatever next? High Priestess?

Now that would be a messianic era...


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Can a Jew be racist about another Jew?

A British journalist you've never heard of called Christina Patterson has written a piece expressing outrage that she has ended up on the Wiesenthal Centre's list of Top 10 Anti-Semitic Slurs of 2010, for an article she wrote in late July complaining that her Chassidic neighbours in the London neighbourhood of Stamford Hill weren't nice to her. I'm not sure why she's so surprise, because her piece was one of the nastiest things I've read all year.

You can read what I thought at the time here and - considering her main accusation of Jewish racism - here. And for effective responses to Patterson's column today, try Oy Va Goy and Robyn Rosen at the JC. There's not much to add, other than that I think the Wiesenthal Centre was extremely generous to include an Independent hack amongst its list of mostly genuinely important people. Really, she should be flattered.

But there is one point on which I would like to set Ms Patterson straight. Her main defence in her piece today seems to be that Jews -- or as she actually put it, "people called Solomon, Symons or Greenfeld" (!!) -- have written in supporting her. First of all, I'd love to know exactly what they were supporting. They may have had a think or two to say about Charedi manners, but did they also support her comments on, for example, not subjecting children to the "crazed whims" of their parents, who want to teach their children about their Jewish heritage and the Bible? Or is she just assuming they supported every word she wrote?

But even if they did, the fact is that even had a Jew actually written Ms Patterson's original article, that would not make it any less intolerant, biased or nasty. In the Jewish community as well, there is plenty of ignorance, hatred and fear of the Charedim. They are as alien to most Jews as to anyone else, and more threatening - because some of their practices and habits have the potential to impact the rest of us. And so it is not unusual to hear nasty, biased and yes - racist - comments directed at Charedim coming from the Jewish community itself.

So, Ms Patterson, please take note. Just because some Jews agree with you does not mean that the Wiesenthal Centre has it wrong. Maybe you should go back and re-read your column.

Can you curl up with an e-book on Shabbat?

In a great piece, The Atlantic asks how Orthodox Jews are being affected by the rise (and rise) of the Kindle. As the reading device becomes standard, what are the yidden going to read on Shabbat?

Some, of course, claim that there are halachic arguments which would allow one to use the Kindle on Shabbat, but the majority seem to agree that even if it is technically permitted (and most people think it is not), using a Kindle violates the spirit of the day. And it certainly seems that at the moment, at least, frum Jews are treating the Kindle as if it is assur (forbidden) on Shabbat, even if the halachic arguments are still being hashed out.

According to the Atlantic, many Orthodox people are actually refraining from buying a Kindle because most of their reading takes place on Shabbat and they therefore have no use for it. Others simply revert to physical books despite using a Kindle during the week. Some wonder whether, with time, the Kindle will become acceptable - with the halachic arguments permitting its use gaining ground - because books will have become obsolete:

Fox thinks that if the Orthodox community comes to reevaluate its stance on electricity use on the Sabbath, it won't be a reaction to e-readers alone but rather a result of our homes, in the next 50 to 75 years, becoming so thoroughly wired that Jews will be left with no choice but to use electronic devices.

Nevins sees parallels between contemporary discussions about electronic devices and the Conservative movement's decision in the 1950s (when the automobile and television were the new technologies) to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.

"As Jews were moving to the suburbs ... we said we're going to lose everyone if we don't let them drive to synagogue," he says. "To some extent it was true because people would drive one way or the other but, on the other hand, making peace with [driving to synagogue] formally undermined an ideal we have, which was the neighborhood community. There is a similar danger here. If we become too relaxed about this we could lose the distinctive flavor of Shabbat."

Now I don't really have any clear cut answers to how attitudes are likely to evolve in the future - only time will tell - but here are some initial thoughts.

1. Much of this depends on how the Kindle will develop. At the moment it's just a device for reading books and we are basically unsure whether it falls (emotionally as much as anything else) into the category of "fancy book" or "technology" - ie whether it poses a "danger" to the boundaries of Shabbat, and its spirit, or not. The fact is that even though I don't know anyone who uses a Kindle on Shabbat, I hear plenty of people debating whether it's allowed.
But just as the cellphone is suddenly also a camera and a music-player and a computer, it seems to me likely that Kindles and the like will also develop other uses - playing video, for example, or allowing readers to 'write' notes on the sides of the books, etc. At that point, it will fall much more clearly into the category of "technology", and our attitudes towards it might crystalise.

2. It's hard not to think of this issue in the context of the debate over 'half-Shabbos' - the teens today, across the entire Orthodox spectrum, who text and Tweet on Shabbat and yet still consider themselves (semi-) observant. If, in a decade or two's time, printed books really do become the exception; if tomorrow's youngsters really have no experience handling a proper book, they might simply perform whatever mental gymnastic they see necessary to allow themselves to continue using Kindles on Shabbat without removing themselves from the observant community, much as they have with texting. In this sense, the attitude towards Kindles might turn out to be generational. The youngsters who can't function without one will find ways/excuses to use it; the oldies (like me...) will revert back to "real" books, which they are in any case far more comfortable with, on Shabbat. Of course, with time, the norms set by the youngsters will naturally prevail.

3. The real radical scenario? If Kindles continue to be verbotten, but no one's comfortable reverting back to old-fashioned books any more, perhaps Jews will just not be able to read on Shabbat. In that case, two words: board games.

New day, new Charedi website ban

I notice that Vos Iz Neias, the popular Charedi news aggregator, has reported today on everything but the one topic that everyone is really talking about - the brand new rabbinic ban on Vos Iz Neias. Funny that.

Of course, rabbis banning VIN is like King Canute standing on the seashore, commanding the waves to advance no further; both utterly futile - because the Charedi community has clearly shown again and again that it wants to, and is going to, access news online, whatever the rabbis say - and counter-productive for the rabbis themselves, who look out of touch with their followers and weak when no one listens to them.

But then, as Dov Bear points out, the notice is not a straightforward ban on reading the website. It largely bans advertisers from advertising on it, and says that businesses that do place ads on it will themselves be boycotted.

DB thinks that this indicates that the ad was written by one of VIN's competitors (and then given to the rabbis to sign); perhaps it was. But don't forget that last January , when the Israeli Charedi rabbis came out with their major ban on Charedi news sites, they too threatened economic and other sanctions, for example that anyone working on the websites will find their children expelled from school. It seems that the American rabbis have learned from their Israeli peers that the real way to harm these websites is by threatening those who run it - not those who read it.

One interesting point. The notice presents a long list of complaints against VIN - that it publishes gossip and scandal about rabbis and Torah institutions, nasty comments, and generally promotes division and 'stirs the pot'. So far so standard. Then it adds the following line: "In addition it writes against ministers and politicians under whose protection we [live], in order to ruin their reputations [literally - in order to make them stink], and the desecration of God's name is absolutely terrible".

Who has VIN angered / offended here?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Orthodox eating disorders

The Washington Post is running an interesting article on eating disorders amongst the Orthodox. It claims that Israel has one of the highest rates of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating in the world, and that studies seem to show that in the frum community, it is even higher.

Why would this be? The obvious answer is that young ultra Orthodox girls trying to attract the best grooms are expected to stay very thin; we've written about this recently. But some patients seem to see "eating disorders as a more culturally sanctioned form of rebellion in a religion where smoking and drinking are discouraged". And there are also issues stemming from the religion itself - not just the culture: the increased emphasis on food and food rituals in Judaism seems to be a "breeding ground" for an eating disorder.

Along similar lines,

Leaving treatment and re-entering the tight-knit Orthodox culture also presents hurdles. For many, fasting on Yom Kippur or another holiday could cause them to relapse, but patients worry about judgment from others.

[Hillary] Waller [who is in fact Conservative - MS] felt guilty one holiday as she loaded her plate at a salad bar shortly after leaving treatment. She felt isolated from the community, unable to join in the ritual fast with the rest of her congregation, until she realized her greater sacrifice would be eating.

"For me it became the opposite. I had to give into all the things that everyone else had been giving up," Waller said. "That was the lightbulb that reconciled the Jewish dilemma I was facing with needing to be in recovery."

Eating disorders are traditionally associated with attempting to control at least one facet of one's life when life feels out of control. I wonder whether it is not a coincidence that eating disorders seem to be (even) more common amongst women in the religious world, who live in a relatively regimented society, with fewer opportunities to rebel or express their individuality than their secular peers.

Who bought the world's greatest collection of Jewish books?

Amazingly, it has gone virtually unnoticed that the world's most important collection of Jewish books and manuscripts, the Valmadonna Trust library, has been sold; the news was broken in the Forward by an academic worried about the collection's future, and picked up almost nowhere.

The collection, which was for sale for $40 million, and which generated great excitement when it was displayed in New York last year, ultimately went in a sealed bid to an unknown buyer. Of course, we will in time know who bought it; they will either start selling it off in bits and pieces - the Forward academic's fear - or start showing it off.

The collection was always going to be a difficult sell. What people perhaps don't realise is how many millions of dollars it takes to maintain a collection like this, full of ancient manuscripts, which need to be stored properly and cared for. Plenty of potential buyers - libraries and universities, which probably don't have spare cash at the moment - would probably think they were doing owner Jack Lunzer a favor if they took it off his hands and requested $40 million to take care of it.

We don't know the condition of sale. One possible scenario is that it was sold off relatively cheaply to a buyer who promised to put some of the balance into keeping the collection together, and maintaining it. But if that's not what happened, perhaps the story of the Oppenheim collection might provide a comforting thought for Mr Lunzer:
The Bodleian Library in Oxford is a major repository of outstanding illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. A key portion of the Hebrew collection at the Bodleian Library consists of the library of David ben Abraham Oppenheim (or Oppenheimer) (1664-1736), acquired in 1829.

Oppenheim was a leading rabbi, liturgist and bibliophile who had inherited a sizable fortune. When he became Chief Rabbi of Prague in 1702, he left his extensive library with his father-in-law in Protestant Hanover, since he feared that the Holy Office might confiscate his books. After his death the library passed from member to member of the Oppenheim family, eventually being pawned with a senator in Hamburg and stored away in twenty-eight cases.

To facilitate its sale, special catalogs were printed, but the various attempts to sell the library were unsuccessful. Although the Oppenheim collection was valued at £22,000 by the noted savant Moses Mendelssohn, this library of some 780 Hebrew manuscripts was finally obtained by the Bodleian Library for the trifling sum of £2,000.
Cheap, perhaps, but what a good home. Let's hope for a similarly happy ending for the Valmadonna.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pollard's release must be imminent

Netanyahu is going to ask openly for the release of Jonathan Pollard. It's unclear why he's announcing that he's going to announce it; is he floating the idea in time to withdraw it if reactions are disappointing? I hope not. The PM would be completely irresponsible and negligent to make this kind of public request from the Americans without absolute reassurances that it would be taken the right way - and answered in the positive. You can expect Pollard's release imminently. Netanyahu is just racheting up the excitement.

Then again, even the president of the US turned up in Copenhagen last year to hear who won the Olympics without apparently checking first that Chicago had the games in the bag. Pundits everywhere could not believe he was such an amateur. Let's hope the Israeli Prime Minister has learned from Obama's mistake.


Left-wing criticism is not right

My column from Friday's Jewish Chronicle is finally online. Responding to the recent furore in the British Jewish community over comments critical of Israel made by Mick Davis, who is effectively our most senior lay leader, I argue that it's time we stop behaving as if criticism of Israel/Israeli policies is the unique preserve of the left.

What is really behind the objections to Jewish Leadership Council chief Mick Davis's criticism of Israel? Is it what he said? To whom he said it? Or is the real issue, perhaps, who said it?
At that now notorious panel debate, Davis seemed to blame Israel for the collapse in the peace process, blasting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for "lacking courage" to take teps towards a "great advance". He implored the Israeli government to recognise that its actions "impacted" him in London - implying that diaspora Jews were equal stakeholders in the Middle East conflict. And he confessed that Anglo-Jewry's
leaders are afraid to speak openly about Israel's problems, re-enforcing the myth (proven false by his own words) that those holding dissenting opinions are suppressed.
To many, all this added up to an unjustified attack on the Jewish state. Others took no issue with the content of his talk, or respected his right to hold these views, but questioned his judgment in saying all this publicly. "He is giving ammunition to our enemies", they said - and this at a time when Israel is battling delegitimisation.
I do wonder, though, whether many of his criticisms would have been judged to be quite so contentious had they been made by someone else - someone from the opposite end of the political

Read the rest and please come back here to comment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How Jews respond to Christmas: the research

We all "know" that Chanuccah's importance is magnified for diaspora Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. But last year, some researchers set out to prove it.

In a paper published in The Economic Journal, economists Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi showed evidence that Jews with children under 18 are more likely to celebrate Chanuccah than other holidays; that the correlation between having children and celebrating Chanuccah is highest amongst Reform Jews (most likely to be exposed to Christmas), then Conservative Jews, and lowest amongst Orthodox ones; that these correlations are not present for other festivals such as Pesach; and that "Jewish products" have higher sales at Channucah time in US counties with a lower share of Jews (ie amongst people likely to feel more pressure from Christmas). They concluded:
These patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that Jews increase religious activity during Hanukkah because of the presence of Christmas and this response is primarily driven by the presence of children. Jews with children at home may celebrate Hanukkah more intensively so their children do not feel left out and/or because they are concerned their children will convert or intermarry.
The other obvious explanation for their findings is that for parents who want to give their children some Jewish exposure, Chanuccah is far "easier" to "do" than Pesach, to which the researchers were comparing. They say they took this into account but to be honest, I didn't understand the stats talk (I'm an English major, so sue me).

Either way, it would be interesting if they could track observance of Chanuccah over several years, to show whether celebration of the Jewish festival increased the closer it was, in the calendar, to Christmas, or whether it decreased in years like this one, when there was a distance of some weeks between the two.

The researchers end by noting that Christmas does not just affect Jews; it has had an impact on Kwanzaa, for example.
One natural idea for further research is to investigate the behaviour of Jews who live in predominantly 'Muslim' countries and analyse whether Jews in such countries respond to 'attractive' Muslim holidays.
It is of course possible they developed their own customs around Muslim holidays (much as American Jews eat Chinese on Christmas, for example), but I doubt they responded by strengthening observance of their minor festivals, for the simple reason that the dates of the Muslim festivals tend to move quite radically over a short number of years, so any correlation between the dates of particular festivals wouldn't last that long.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Claus's Jewish secret

A lovely anecdote in the Forward this week, straight from Brooklyn:
I was on the subway, and I saw a little boy about the same age as I was when I met Santa. He sat with his mother, and across from them was a large, old Hasidic man. The little boy said, “Mama, why is that man so fat?” The embarrassed mom tried to quiet him, albeit unsuccessfully. Then the boy said: “Mama, why does he have such a long beard? Why is he so old?” The Hasidic man leaned over to the little boy and said, in an accent rivaling the Borsch Belt comedian Jackie Mason: “Oy vey! What, you’ve never seen Santa Claus in person before?”
Related (but kind of opposite): During my childhood in Jerusalem, we used to go to Meah Shearim every year to buy the arba minim (four species) on Succot. While we were there, we would examine the various Succah decorations for sale: mostly tinsel and other Christmas decorations. Of course, they sold in droves, not that there's any problem with that. But another item on sale were pictures of Santa Claus. We were always amused at the thought of succot around Jerusalem, in some of the 'frummest' neighbourhoods, decorated with images of a big, fat, jolly Chossid, with a rebellious red coat.

Who will be the next British chief rabbi?

I give the odds for the most obvious candidates in today's JC - keeping in mind that very often, the front-runners at the beginning of the race are overtaken by sometimes completely unexpected sprinters later in the game (as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can attest). I am pretty sure this covers all the likely local candidates, but there are any number of outstanding international candidates that can still emerge, if they choose to go that route.

The leading candidates

Rabbi Shaul Robinson: Senior rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan since 2005, Glasgow-born Rabbi Robinson was national secretary of UJS and later became the first rabbi for students at Cambridge. His last UK post was at Barnet. Miriam Shaviv says: Landing a major New York pulpit was a coup for Rabbi Robinson, instantly catapulting him into the ranks of rabbinic heavy-hitters. Many regard him as the strongest of the candidates. But with his New York shul currently building a new $40 million campus, can he be tempted back from the diaspora's most exciting Jewish city?

Rabbi Harvey Belovski: An Oxford maths graduate, Rabbi Belovski also studied at Gateshead Yeshivah and has been rabbi at Golders Green Synagogue since 2003. He is the rabbinic mentor for University Jewish Chaplaincy and is a fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies. MS: Rabbi Belovski is comfortable with both modern and Orthodox. Popular with the other rabbis, he could be a uniting figure for the community. But some have speculated he may be heading for the Beth Din instead.

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet: At Mill Hill Synagogue in north west London for the past 17 years, Canadian-born Rabbi Schochet previously served at Richmond Synagogue. MS: A seasoned media performer, Rabbi Schochet could continue Lord Sacks's ambassadorship to the outside world. His recent indication that he may attend Limmud may be read as an attempt to soften his right-wing image. Some, however, may judge his outspokenness too risky. [Incidentally, the JC inexplicably took out my best line, which said that Rabbi Schochet may find his Lubavitch background lengthens his odds considerably, to 770:1....]

Rabbi Naftali Brawer: Boston-born rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue. He moved to Britain in 1996 to serve at Northwood Synagogue. He holds the Jewish-Muslim portfolio in the Chief Rabbi's cabinet. MS: One of the US's brightest minds, he has shown courage challenging the rabbinic establishment on moral and religious issues such as conversion. A champion of Jewish learning and interfaith relations, he is possibly too left-wing for the other rabbis.

Dayan Ivan Binstock: With a degree in chemistry, the dynamic orator has served at a number of London communities, including Golders Green Synagogue and St John's Wood Synagogue, where he has been rabbi since 1996. He is also principal of North West London Jewish Day School. MS: Do not underestimate the most modern of the dayanim, highly respected by his peers on the Beth Din and with wide experience in the community. Just a few years younger than Lord Sacks, he would be a safe pair of hands if the US needed more time to find its way.

The longer-shots

Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag: Newcastle-born rabbi of Whitefield Hebrew Congregation, in north Manchester, he has a BA in Jewish studies from Jews' College. Joint president of the Manchester Council of Christians and Jews, he is convenor of the National Association of Orthodox Schools. MS: A successful communal rabbi, he is intelligent and sophisticated, and active in the educational arena. However, any chief rabbinical ambitions may be stymied by his low profile in London and among the rabbinate.

Rabbi Warren Goldstein: At 37, the youngest ever Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Goldstein, a trained lawyer, has held the post in his home country since 2005. He is a regular contributor in the South African media and has his own website complete with podcasts and video blogs. MS: Young and charismatic, you will know he is interested in the job if he books a UK speaking tour soon.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence: Chief minister at Sydney's Great Synagogue in Australia, Rabbi Lawrence was the research assistant to Lord Sacks for his 1990 Reith Lectures. He was executive director of the Association of Jewish Sixth-Formers and later deputy head of Jewish studies at Carmel College. His interests include the environment and Gilbert and Sullivan. MS: The Oxford-educated British expat may seem like a natural candidate, but much depends on his performance in Hampstead Garden Suburb last Shabbat - a rare opportunity for him to make a local impression.

Rabbi Benny Lau: Rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and director of the Centre for Judaism and Society, he lectures at Bar-Ilan University where he himself studied.The nephew of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, he previously worked in Britain as a Bnei Akiva shaliach and is regarded as a charismatic community leader and social activist. MS: Securing one of Israel's up-and-coming national-religious leaders, with that evocative surname, would be a triumph for the US. But an Israeli rabbi may experience severe culture shock in the British system.

Another candidate that was suggested to me later, and which sounds possible: Michael Melchior. He's frum enough, respected enough, speaks good English, has shown willingness to spend time overseas before, and frankly, doesn't have much to do nowadays....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Time for a new god?

Paul Saffo of Discern Analytics writes in the Economist that, with all the innovation and upheaval of our age, we are due a new God:

Our current religious order formed in what Karl Jaspers termed the “axial age” — that extraordinary period between 800BC and 200BC that witnessed monotheism’s move into the mainstream with Zoroastrianism, the appearance of Buddhism, the establishment of Confucianism and the efflorescence of Greek humanistic philosophy.

Jaspers’s axial age shares close parallels with today. It was a time shaped by innovations in government, transport and ommunications. Population growth created new challenges demanding political innovations. New sailing technology transformed the seas from barriers to highways for ideas that
travelled with trade goods to new lands. The consequent intellectual ferment yielded new world views, new uncertainties—and new religions.

Three technologies have brought us to the edge of another axial shift today. Air travel has given entire populations unprecedented mobility. The intermodal container has delivered a cornucopia of products to every corner of the globe. And cyberspace has become a promiscuous, meme-spreading hotbed of ideas.

Throw in the usual round of human misery served up by war, revolution and natural disasters, and the result is a potent cultural Petri dish from which a new god could spring. Populations around the world are struggling to find security and identity in this strange new future-shock world. The rise of fundamentalism is a sure indicator of dissatisfaction with the current religious order. Unhappy believers first look back to their roots for comfort, but origins rarely comfort and thus they will inevitably search for a new god.

Well, I really can’t imagine what new god might be thrown up in Africa, Asia or America (perhaps my readers can help?); but here in Europe, I have a suggestion.

A few months ago, I read a piece on futurology (I can’t remember where) suggesting that most wild trends are obvious in hindsight. That is because the roots of these game-changers go back far in time; they bubble away relatively quietly until all of a sudden, they take off. The technology on which certain ‘hit’ items are based, for example, has been around for a long time. It just takes a while until someone makes something popular out of it, or until someone turns it into a craze.

All the more so, it seems to me, with religion – which history has shown can take centuries to really spread.

And so, coming back to Europe – the currently godless continent. Isn’t it obvious that the “new” god’s name is Allah?

Granted, this particular deity has been around for some time. But in his Islamic form, he has really only arrived in Europe properly in the last 30 years. And the nature of Allah, and the demands he makes of his followers, seem to me sufficiently different to those of the Christian god who previously ruled the continent to qualify as “new” (and certainly as exotic).

Europe, in particular, is ripe for a new god. Living in London it seems really clear that too many in the population are “Bowling alone” (as Robert Putnam famously put it) – cut off from family, social structures and support (witness the 13,000 Frenchmen who died in 2001 in a heatwave, many of them elderly people with no one to look out for them). It's not just the move towards extremism which shows that Europeans are 'searching''; it's the attraction to all the 'isms', such as environmentalism, socialism, nationalism etc which seem to indicate Europeans are looking for definite meaning in their lives, despite supposedly having dropped religion.

Islam has a solution for that: like Judaism, it is a very community oriented religion. I can definitely see a time, decades or centuries away, in which lonely Europeans, living detached lives in impersonal cities, are attracted to the community life offered by Islam – which is now very firmly on their doorstep, and will only grow more prominent. The Times recently ran a piece (now behind a paywall) on the young British women already converting to Islam, finding comfort in the structure and community. It doesn’t take a prophet…..

When it comes to appealing to Westerners, by the way, Islam’s advantage over Judaism, (other than the fact that Judaism does not proselytize while Islam is aggressive about it) is that Judaism has become a pretty middle-class religion, in the British sense of the word – for the relatively affluent – while Islam is still for the masses.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jewish burka: still with us

I have written now quite a few times about the continuing spread of the "Jewish burka", even following the jailing of the woman who started the trend, child abuser Bruria Keren; and also of the fear of regular Charedi women that this practice will become a norm that will be imposed on them against their will. Unfortunately, the evidence continues to accumulate that the "frumka", as it is known, and the cloak known in Hebrew as a "shal", are making inroads into Charedi society.

Life in Israel has linked to a report by Mynet on a wedding invitation from Meah Shearim, which included a plea that
guests should come dressed tzanua [modestly], and wear the shal [cloak]. It also added that doing so will please the holy shechina, and in the merit of the righteous women we will be redeemed.

According to the guest who spoke to MYNET, this was put on the invitation despite the fact that all the invitees themselves are Haredim, so there is no issue of the women being dressed inappropriately, and the venue for the wedding is one where the men and women are in completely separate halls, plus they covered up all the windows in the womens hall, so no men would see the women anyway.

As an aside, MYNET notes another interesting Mea Shearim wedding coming up where the bride, the kallah, is 22 and the groom, the chosson, is 17. The reason it took so long for this alte maidel to find her zivug is because of her demand that after she marry she would insist on wearing a shal and a raala (a.k.a. a burqa).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stockholm bomber's Jewish connection

According to the Daily Mail, Stockholm bomber Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly was so disinterested in religion as a youngster that he even had a Jewish girlfriend. The Telegraph claims she was an Israeli.

Only a matter of time until someone digs her up - if she really exists...

The lies we tell ourselves about Jewish history

Marc Shapiro has a fascinating reviewover at the Seforim blog of Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europeby Shaul Stampfer (Littman Library). Looking closely at the social history of the 19th century shtetl, he busts myth after myth.

For example: divorce appears to have been relatively common (though Shapiro disputes that it was quite as common as Stampfer claims). Teenage marriages was relatively rare. Most Jews (especially the lower classes) did not use matchmakers; love was a factor in some marriages. Women generally worked, and were involved in business;
Unlike today, the stay-at-home wife and mother was not necessarily an ideal... East European Jewish society was not what we would regard as a patriarchy. Conservative views on the importance of women staying in the home to raise children might be sound social policy, yet we should not assume that this is how East European Jews ever actually lived."
Some women were even educated Jewishly; there were co-ed cheders and according to Stampfer, the ratio of girls to boys in cheder was 1:8. Moreover, there were fewer men in cheders than we might imagine. While we like to think of the shtetl as a place where yeshivot thrived, by the 1930s there were more men in secular secondary schools than in religious schools.

All fascinating. But even more sos because of a brilliant book about Jewish women in the Middle Ages which I reviewed several years back. Pious and Rebellious by Avraham Grossman also busted several myths, showing, for example, that in Europe in the Middle Ages there was a high divorce rate (at least 20%) and divorce was not stigmatised; sexual licentiousness was rife; most women worked, and were active in business; they gained many religious rights and roles; and as I wrote on this blog at the time, much more. Much of this sounds familiar after reading Shapiro on Stampfer; the same kind of myths are there to be broken.

It's one thing to say we have built up a totally mythical picture of Jewish life in the Middle Ages; another to say we have a completely fictional idea of life in the shtetl. But put them both together and one has to ask whether we, as a collective, really have any idea at all about what life was ever like for the average Jew in Europe for 1,000 years before the Holocaust.

The answer is highly relevant to today. So much of what Orthodox, and particularly ultra Orthodox Jews argue for in their own lives, particularly when it comes to family and working life, is based on what they claim is "tradition". Turns out it's not, and probably never was.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Next Chief Rabbi Watch... really begins in earnest!

Will Israeli-style airport security become affordable to the West?

Everyone seems to agree that the Israeli method of airport security - trying to catch terrorists, not bombs - is superior to the screening methods used in the rest of the world. There also seems to be widespread agreement that it would never work in major Western countries, first of all because it is too time-consuming, and would not translate well to airports that handle more than Ben Gurion's relatively small number of passengers (11m); and secondly because it is just too expensive, with Israel spending $56.75/passenger on security, compared to $6.93/passenger spent in the US. (Part of this, of course, is that to accommodate its system, Israel has to train and pay very capable security officers, while in the US airport security is a low-paying job for people without great prospects elsewhere.)

But now, according to the Daily Mail, both of those problems might be solved - thanks to a string of Israeli innovations. One company, for example, has developed a programme that simply... asks passengers whether they are terrorists! The company, WeCU,
derived their machine from the science that shows that anyone who comes across a familiar stimulus - for example, a branch of the bank he or she uses, or a favoured chain restaurant - will show a small but completely involuntary physical response.

'If you expose the subject to something that he knows, he will react, and this produces a detectable physiological change,' Givon says. 'And it's even better if he knows this test is going to happen. This isn't a trick. Nobody is going to be deceived.'

WeCU's technology can easily be incorporated into existing airport processes, such as the stand-up computers found at fast bag drop and check-in stations. Built into the screen is a cheap but highly sensitive thermal imaging sensor, which can measure data including the temperature of the subject's skin, heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure and changes in breathing, as well as other variables - 14 in all - most of which, says Givon, are classified. When the passenger begins to use the station, all these readings are taken almost instantly in order to establish a 'biological baseline'.

Then, over the course of the next 30 seconds, the machine will expose the subject to a stimulus that would cause a response in someone involved with terrorism, but not anyone else.

'I'm not going to give you details here, but it could be a sentence threaded into the instructions about getting a boarding pass or an image on the screen,' says Givon, 'or something as simple as a statement that says, "Thank you for keeping this flight safe". And whatever it is can be changed every day.
We certainly need a new method. We all know that our airport security is lacking; but did you realize that (according to the article), the number of times scanners and current non-Israeli security measures have detected a real bomb or bomber before they boarded a plane is... zero?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Did the Turks kill Ofra Haza?

Bit of a bombshell in the Guardian (of all places).

Israel's iconic singer Ofra Haza died nearly 11 years ago of AIDS. It was widely assumed she had become infected by her husband, Doron Ashkenazi, who died shortly after her; as she had always built a completely pure, even virginal image (she apparently had never had a boyfriend before she married Ashkenazi, aged 40), this was something of a shock to a nation that loved her.

Now, Craig Leon, who produced some English-language demos for her, reveals another version of events:
Ashkenazi, he says, told him Haza became infected from a blood transfusion in a Turkish hospital after suffering a miscarriage.
If that's true (and keep in mind that Ashkenazi had an interest in deflecting blame for her death away from himself), Israeli-Turkish relations are over for sure.....

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Next Chief Rabbi Watch

Some months ago, a JC diary item named several potential candidates for Chief Rabbi when Lord Sacks retires, sparking much comment. To the best of my recollection, they were: Rabbi Brawer of Borehamwood; Rabbi Schochet of Mill Hill; Rabbi Belovski of Dunstan Road; and Rabbi Robinson of Lincoln Square in NY. In my many conversations with members of the community, two other names have come up more than once: South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein; and (more recently) Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, currently rabbi of The Great Synagogue in Sydney.

Rabbi Lawrence has a British background and an impressive CV, including a degree from Oxford. And this Shabbat - what do you know - he was guest rabbi at a major London Synagogue, Norrice Lea (Hampstead Garden Suburb), whose pulpit has been empty for nearly a year. His sermon in shul today - I hear - promoted a strong pro-modern Orthodox line. I happen to know they are interviewing candidate(s?) tomorrow (Sunday).

If he does move back from sunny Sydney to cold, snowy UK, would his sudden occupation of a senior pulpit inch him closer to the chief rabbinical position - in sight, in mind? Or would it be unseemly for him to accept another position within a couple of years of moving to Norrice Lea? (On the other hand, there has been some speculation about the next Chief Rabbi moving out of St John's Wood and closer to the NW London community. Perhaps retaining some kind of role in HGS, close to the "frum" neighbourhoods but still on their periphery, would be ideal?)

Watch this closely.

RELATED: Here, here and here.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

When Chanuccah fell out of fashion

It's the last day of Chanuccah, so I'm going to sneak in one last festival-related post.

Prof Moshe Benovitz of the Schechter Institute has written a fascinating piece on the early(-ish) history of Channucah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the third Century, he says, Channucah became primarily a diaspora festival, celebrated in Babylon. Back in the land of Israel, observance of it practically disappeared. The reason, he contends, was
the destruction itself, which quite naturally cast a shadow on a holiday celebrating the purification and dedication of the Temple years earlier.... This is to be expected: Is it conceivable that a mere few months after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE Jews gathered to celebrate the purification and rededication of that same Temple 234 years earlier? Is it conceivable that in the shadow of the destruction Jews would continue to joyously mark a period of independence that ended 107 yeas earlier, when all hope for its renewal has been shattered?

In Babylonia, however, where the effect of the destruction of the Temple on religious and political life was minimal, Hanukkah was thought of as a historical celebration, akin to Purim... The sense of irony which would have accompanied such celebration after the destruction of the Temple in Eretz Israel was naturally less vivid in the diaspora.
So why did the festival re-appear in Israel in the third century? Relying on some slighly creative textual reading, Prof Benovitz speculates that it had to do with the Palmyrene (Syrian) soldiers in the country, who were set upon conquering Roman Palestine, and eventually did so.
It would seem that during the Palmyrene Syrian occupation Rabbi Yohanan revived the celebration of Hanukkah in Palestine, and specifically the ritual of kindling the Hanukkah lights, as a sign of identification with the political and military struggle against the new Syrian occupying power, whose queen mocked the God Israel. This struggle reminded him of the Hasmonean rebellion against Syrian rule in Palestine hundreds of years earlier. He insisted that the Hanukkah lights be kindled until the Palmyrene troops leave the marketplace, in order to make the Palmyrenes aware of the miraculous victory of the forefathers in their earlier struggle against Syrian rule.
An interesting reminder that halachah - Jewish law - and Jewish traditions are far less static than many of us today in the Orthodox camp wish to acknowledge. And also, of the changing relevance of Chanuccah throughout the ages; far from being the simple festival some people treat it as today, it is in fact brimming with meaningful themes on which successive generations can draw (except, I suppose, 1st-3rd Century Palestinian Jews, for whom Chanuccah was simply too painful). Howard Jacobson, take note.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Beware the Zionist sharks

The South Sinai governor has speculated that the Mossad may be behind the shark attacks in the Red Sea. Oy Va Goy thinks it could make a great movie....

Leo's giyur

Is Leonardo DiCaprio converting to Judaism, in order to marry his long-term girlfriend Bar Refaeli? The Daily Mail is starting the rumour.

It's not entirely unlikely: this interview seems to indicate he had conversion on the brain as far back as this summer.... So Bar, convert him if you can....

Israel's undesirable friends

This summer, I wrote about the disturbing friendship some friends of Israel seem to feel towards far-right Polish MEP Michael Kaminski, Dutch MP Geert Wilders and the English Defence League in Britain. My conclusion:
Israel is currently battling systematic attempts to delegitimize it. A favored tactic of its opponents is to paint Israel as a racist, apartheid country that discriminates against its Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors. Israel simply cannot afford to be linked to real bigots, no matter how friendly they appear to be.
Well, it seems some people never learn. This week, the settler leaders have been hosting leaders of Europe's far-right:

"The parliament members on the tour in the Shomron region all battle Islamic extremism and the spreading of terror organizations in Europe, while explicitly supporting the state of Israel," [Shomron regional council chairman Gershon] Mesika said... "European countries must understand that without a state of Israel there is no one to stop the Muslim wave from eroding Europe, and without Judea and Samaria, Israel is unable to exist," Mesika added.
Well, he's right about one thing: the issue these leaders do care about is the Muslim populations in their countries. That is why they are interested in Israel: they know that their supporters at home will interpret friendship with Israel as opposing Islam; they want to goad their native Muslim populations, as the EDL does when its members wrap themselves at Israel flags in demonstrations; and they need friendships with Jews in order to defend themselves against charges of racism. This does not make them real friends of Israel, or of the Jews; Mesika and his buddies are just being used. And by some of the worst racists and antisemites out there.

Take a quick look at the biggest names on this particular tour. Austrian opposition leader Heinz-Christian Strache is the political heir to Jorg Haider. Israel actually withdrew its ambassador from Vienna in disgust when his party joined the government. Flemish politician Filip Dewinter is a leader of the controversial Vlaams Belang, has strong ties to neo-Nazi groups and has defended the Flemish collaborators with the Nazis (apparently they were just nationalists hoping for Flemish independence, so that's okay then).

I understand that it is tempting for the settler leaders to believe these people when they vow friendship, when friends in Europe seem so few and far between. Sometimes you do have to take your friends where you can get them. But not in this case.

Israeli settlers must ask themselves whether this motley crew - people connected to Nazis and antisemites - are really friends they want. What does it say about the settler leaders that they are willing to accept these people as their friends (very desperate, very naive)? And - even if some of the figures do seem to have genuine feelings for Israel, as Wilders, and some would argue Kaminski, do - do they really think that it will do them any long-term strategic good to be associated with Europe's most controversial politicians? Make no mistake, on the continent, this visit has been widely noticed.

Unfortunately, it's not just a few stupid settler leaders who are going to be tarred with this brush, but the entire settler movement; and, seeing as Israel right now has a right-wing government fighting against the settlement freeze, possibly the government and Israel as a whole (although no MKs, as far as I know, met with the visitors).

Kaminski; EDL; Wilders; Strache; Dewinter; and even BNP leader Nick Griffin. "Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are".

We need to shake off these people, fast, before the entirely unfair association between Israel's settlers and Europe's bigots begins to stick.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On my shopping list

Still one day left to Chanuccah - enough time to buy one of these must-have Rebbe pens for your nearest and dearest...

Monday, December 06, 2010

Next-chief-rabbi Watch: Rabbi Schochet goes to Limmud

Mill Hill's Rabbi Schochet - whose name is often raised as a potential next chief rabbi - is talking about going to Limmud this year, although the London Beth Din has consistently frowned upon United Synagogue rabbis joining the conference, and the very few who have are mostly those on the left of the US. In a blog post on his shul website, Rabbi Schochet explains that around 15 years ago, when he was first invited to speak, he wasn't intrinsically opposed - as a North American, he realised that in other contexts, for an Orthodox rabbi to share an event with non-Orthodox rabbis (he carefully uses the word "clergy") was non-controversial. But it was in the UK, and he bowed to the Beth Din's ruling, later developing his own reasons to avoid the conference:
Mostly because Limmud was being directed by either staunch members of the reform movement who had their own agenda or even US members who were more pro-pluralism than anything else. Limmud, to my mind anyway, had been hijacked to serve ulterior motives.
So what has changed now? Rabbi Schochet seems to have grasped the inconvenient truth that the Beth Din-led "boycott" and its campaign of intimidation effectively handed Limmud on a plate to the non-Orthodox movements - and must be counted as one of the worst "own goals" of the United Synagogue, on a par with the JFS case. He was swayed, he says, by the fact that so many members of the US - including many of his own shul - attend, while so few Orthodox rabbis speak (there are some from the US and Israel, as well as many other non-rabbinic Orthodox speakers). And he now felt more comfortable with Limmud, becoming convinced that those heading it "are committed solely to the ideal of education".

Whatever the motive, I applaud Rabbi Schochet for taking this step, which - if followed by other US rabbis - can potentially do much to improve our community dynamics and relations, by showing that we can, indeed, all share one venue (perhaps even platform) without lightening striking, even if we don't all agree with each other. I only hope that he, and any other US rabbis, will "come in peace", as it were, and not out of a sense that they need to "fix" or "change" the conference - which can only end badly, for them as well as for Limmud. They need to be "committed solely to the ideal of education" as well, without any of the politics, in order for this to be the right forum for them.

If that is the case, the crucial paragraph in Rabbi Schochet's piece is this:
Even as the Beth Din might employ tactics of trying to marginalise me, whether as having gone soft or labelling me a left-winger, it occurs to me that with my “right-wing credentials” and being as the first ever chairman of the Rabbinical Council to attend they’re going to have more than a palpitation or two.
In other words, he can afford to go to Limmud because he knows he will retain his credibility on the right. Allow me to suggest, though, that this move - if he does it right - will also shore up his credibility on the left. After so many years of right-wing US rabbis boycotting Limmud; and with Rabbi Schochet often dismissed in the community as a candidate for chief rabbi because he is "too right-wing", he is now going to appear far more open-minded and brave than most people ever allowed for, more open to the other parts of the community than any other pulpit rabbi on the Orthodox right. He might be Nixon - it will be said - but only he can go to China.

Can't do any harm as the race for next chief rabbi gears up.......

RELATED: here and here.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Ghosts of Chanuccahs past

My brother writes that before Jews ever played dreidl on Chanuccah, they played cards. Which reminds me of a post I wrote in 2005, on the non-Jewish origins of the dreidl:
[I]t was in fact a popular game in Europe, and especially Germany, in the 16th century -- particularly around Christmas time (aha!). As this site explains, the word 'dreidl' itself is derived from the German word drehen, which means to spin...

So far, so unsurprising. I was intrigued to discover, however, that not only is the game itself Germanic in origin, but that the letters on the dreidl come directly from the German as well.
Read the rest here. And while we're at it, check out the post last year on the real reason for Chanuccah: it's connected to Sukkot.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Who determines America's foreign policy?

The money quote on Wikileaks comes (inevitably) from Jeffrey Goldberg:
Here's a fact that might astonish Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose book, "The Israel Lobby," posits the existence of a nefarious, all-powerful Jewish lobby that works in direct opposition to American interests: The "Lobby" (they love to capitalize the word, to accentuate its alleged uniqueness) has failed to convince two successive American administrations, one Republican and one Democratic, to attack Iran's nuclear sites. So much for Jewish power.

Here's another fact that might astonish Walt and Mearsheimer: It turns out that the Jewish lobby wasn't even the main lobby working to bring about an attack on Iran. It was, according to the treasure trove of State Department cables released by Wikileaks, the Arab lobby -- whose lead lobbyist is, by the way, the King of Saudi Arabia (which is a big job, since he's also in charge of the world's oil supply) -- that was at the forefront of an intensive, even ferocious, anti-Iran lobbying effort. For Walt and Mearsheimer to acknowledge that the Arab lobby, and not the Jewish lobby, was the prime mover of this issue would mean that they would have to recall their book, and somehow stuff back into a bottle all of the anti-Semitic invective they unleashed in the book's wake. So don't expect an apology anytime soon.

In sum, what we have here is a situation in which all of the Semites in combination have been proven impotent in their attempt to move American foreign policy. Which suggests that American foreign policy might actually be made by Americans. This is definitely a tough week for the neo-Lindberghians.
Great stuff.

Get married, send your parents to the poorhouse

Marty Bluke reads Mishpacha magazine so we don't have to...

According to his blog, Jewish Worker, a recent edition (I can't find the copy on the magazine's internet site) claimed that
the profile of the recipient of Tzedaka has changed dramatically. In the past most of the people who needed tzedaka were people who had undergone some tragedy, someone died, got sick, divorce etc. the average Charedi was not rich but did not need support from Kupat Hair.

In the last few years this has changed dramatically. Most of the people who now get money from Kupat Hair are regular people who are poor because they married off their children. To marry off their children they had to buy them apartments and that put them under water. They borrowed money that they could not repay and now they need tzedaka.
Hardly surprising when you consider the going rate for a shidduch. But for how long can Charedi leaders continue to dig in their heels and banish anyone who suggests this is not a realistic, or dignified, way of life?


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Howard Jacobson's childish Chanuccah

A disappointing and shallow piece, I think, from Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson in the NYT today. He basically doesn't see the point of everyone's favorite festival, Chanuccah:

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight. Indeed, Hanukkah means “consecration,” and when we light those candles we are remembering the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts...

The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.

The Hasmoneans, he complains, do not resonate; the Book of Maccabees "doesn't quite feel authentic"; we didn't defeat the Greeks in an interesting enough way; the chanucciah is fun but uninspiring; heck, he even moans about the songs. I know he's trying to be funny, but one rather gets the sense he doesn't like Chanuccah.

But then I do, and I suspect many others do too. For me, the basic themes of Chanuccah resonate today more than ever: the temptations and dangers of cultural assimilation; the fight for religious freedom; the desire for national independence; and, for those who know a little more about those boring Hasmoneans, the corruption of power. These are not just historical curiosities, nor is understanding their relevance to today simply an academic exercise; the story of the Maccabees speaks directly to our experience as Jews in the 21st century, perhaps more than any of the other historical festivals (indeed, it seems like only yesterday that we were discussing, on this blog, the amazing malleability of Chanuccah, and how it has a message for every age).

It's hard to understand how a man who writes so convincingly, in fiction and non-fiction, about Israel, the diaspora and Jewish identity can fail to connect to these themes - or, better still, find some original message of his own. In his piece, he calls Chanuccah "a children's festival". It does rather feel as if he is stuck in a childish Chanuccah. You would have thought the winner of the Man Booker prize, 68, would have grown out of it by now.

RELATED: Commentary and Avraham Bronstein. Tablet inexplicably thinks the piece is "a mini-masterpiece".

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A megillah for Chanuccah

On Purim, we read a scroll to recall the events commemorated by the day. Why don't we read one on Chanuccah?

Well, turns out we do - or at least, did. David Golinkin, rector of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, explains that between the 9th and the 20th centuries, there was a custom in some communities of reading Megillat Antiochus (always known as Megillat HaChashmonaim / The Hasmonean scroll, Megillat Channukah and Megillah Yevanit / the Greek scroll):
[I]t was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic and other languages.(2) The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever...

[W]e know that this scroll was read in public at different times and places. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (Italy, ca. 1200-1260) says that "in a place where they are accustomed to read Megillat Antiochus on Hanukkah, it is not proper to recite the blessings [for reading a scroll] because it is not required at all"...

In Mahzor Kaffa, which was published in the Crimea in 1735, the Scroll of Antiochus is printed in Hebrew and preceded by the following instructions: "It is customary to read Megillat Antiochus during minhah after kaddish titkabbel [the reader's kaddish] in order to publicize the miracle [of Hanukkah]..."

Rabbi Yahya ben Yosef Zalih, who was the leading rabbi in San'a, Yemen ca. 1715, says "that some read Megillat Antiochus on Shabbat [of Hanukkah] after the haftarah. This is not required; it is only a general mitzvah to publicize the miracle among the Jewish people". But Rabbi Amram Zabban of G'ardaya in the Sahara Dessert viewed this public reading as a requirement.
Rabbi Golinkin doesn't explain why the reading of the scroll never fully "took off" - and why it seems to have faded from memory (although according to Wiki, it is actually printed in the Birnbaum Siddur). But it seems fairly obvious. The fact is that Chanuccah already had a mechanism by which we directly commemorate the victory of the Maccabbees and the associated miracle of the oil: the lighting of the chanucciah. This ritual was specifically designed to recall the miracle and prompt discussion of it - pirsuma d'nisa (advertising the miracle). Another ritual, appearing centuries later, for the same purpose must have seemed to most people unnecessary.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks and the law of unintended consequences

It would be rather ironic if the Wikileaks material - meant to expose, humiliate and hurt America, and delivered as a scoop to leftie favorites, the Guardian and NYT - ended up exposing, humiliating and hurting Iran and vindicating the worldview of the right. And yet, as the law of unintended consequences kicks in, that could very well happen.

Lee Smith in Tablet gets it exactly right:

What comes through most strongly from the Wikileaks documents, however, is that U.S. Middle East policy is premised on a web of self-justifying fictions that are flatly contradicted by the assessments of American diplomats and allies in the region. Starting with Bush’s second term and continuing through the Obama Administration, Washington has ignored the strong and repeated pleas of its regional allies—from Jerusalem to Riyadh—to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in the documents is the extent to which both the Bush and Obama Administrations have concealed Iran’s war against the United States and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states, even as those same allies have been candid in their diplomatic exchanges with us. U.S. servicemen and -women are being dispatched to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are fighting Iranian soldiers and assets in a regional war with the Islamic Republic that our officials dare not discuss, lest they have to do something about it.

Members of the Washington policy establishment should be considerably less worried about how the foreign ministries of allied countries respond to the leaks than how the American electorate does.
The "revelations" which seem to have caused most surprise - the Arab hatred and fear of Iran and its nuclear weapons programme, Iranian interference in Iraq and Lebanon - cannot really have surprised anyone who was paying attention to the Middle East, or to various right-wing pundits. But - in addition to our governments - elements in the media, particularly those chosen as vehicles to carry these "shockers" today, have been instrumental in playing them down over the past years and months, choosing to promote instead narratives highlighting Israel's supposed "warmongering". At what point is it going to dawn them that these leaks they are so thrilled about destroy their own credibility - not just America's?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where do bubbe maysehs come from?

Ah, another myth shattered....

According to the NYT article on Yiddish I referred to earlier (in connection with Shrek), the origin of the phrase 'bubbe mayseh' - literally 'a grandmother's tale' but colloquially, an old wives' tale - has nothing to do with grandparents or seniors of any description:
It was, [philologist Michael Wex] revealed, based on a 16th-century chivalric story about a Christian knight named Bovo who improbably marries a princess under a chupah — a Jewish wedding canopy — and arranges a circumcision for twin sons. Over time, few Jews were familiar with Bovo, so the expression morphed into something said by a bubbe.
Sounds like a typical bubbe mayseh, but unfortunately, Philologos seems to agree...

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Shrek got his name

Perhaps I’m coming late to this, but I’m astonished to discover that Shrek is a Member Of the Tribe.

How so? According to the NYT, one of the relatively new additions to the Yiddish language is the word “shreklekh” – meaning, terrible or frightening.

Of course I initially thought that the word had entered the language after the movie come out. But no. According to this source, Shrek – originally a character in a book - derived his name from the Yiddish.

So there you have it: the green monster is really a good Jewish boy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shas's subversive Knesset member

Why was MK Haim Amsalem kicked out of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas?

Three weeks ago, Amsellem made incendiary comments to the newspaper Maariv about the Shas leadership. Inter alia, he condemned strictures against conversion [a longstanding issue for him and subject of a controversial book earlier this year - MS], growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children.

In the Haaretz interview, Amsellem says he opposes the subordination of politics to the party's spiritual leadership.

"It's an MK's right to say he accepts the ruling of a rabbi or rabbis. I'm in favor of that, but I don't think it needs to be put above politics - an upper echelon of spiritual leadership, a rabbinical council alone is vested with making decisions," he said. "I really believe the place of rabbis is the world of Torah, and they shouldn't deal in politics.

"We can and must follow rabbis, but this whole style, which is a copy of the Ashkenazi style, a confederation of rabbinical courts, just doesn't appeal to me," he said.

So what - of all these things - really made R Amsalem intolerable to Shas?

According to Rav Benny Lau, by expelling R Amsalem, Shas made a "final decision to surrender to the Lithuanian model" - that is, follow the Ashkenazi-ultra Orthodox approaches to halachah, work and the state, and to surrender their own authority to that of the Ashkenazi "gedolim", or great rabbis. In this version of events, what we have here is essentially a disagreement that got out of hand over the future direction of Charedi Sephardim.

According to 'Mostly Kosher', the real issue was something deeper: R Amsalem's comments about the impropriety of rabbis interfering in politics. His tendency towards free thought was simply too "dangerous" to tolerate because it threatened rabbinic authority.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and both are certainly true. But the real problem with R Amsalem, as far as Shas was concerned, was clearly even more fundamental. His comments on a variety of topics threatened to expose the lie on which, increasingly in the last few years, Charedi society has been built: that many of the issues by which Charedim have come to define themselves are mandated by halachah, and not, simply, lifestyle choices.

Take all the issues Ha'aretz mentions above.

"Shas leadership" - ie the rabbis' authority: Charedim have convinced themselves, if not others, that there is a religious duty to "obey" "the rabbis" as "the rabbis" have a direct line to G-d and embody "da'at Torah" - the Torah view. Of course, this idea of blind obedience, and that the rabbis can give an "authoritative" ruling on personal issues which have nothing to do with Jewish law, is a very modern phenomenon. It is meant to shore up rabbinic authority and establish the hierarchy of Charedi society, and as such is an entirely social construct - nothing to do with halachah.

"Strictures against conversion" - Charedim have convinced themselves, and many others, that their positions on giyur, obligating converts to conform to very high standards of observance, are pure halachah. Of course, historically converts have been held to varying standards, rarely as strict as Charedim are now advocating, and many non-charedi Orthodox rabbis take much more lenient positions. Charedi positions on giyur have more to do with Israeli politics - cementing their own authority in the Chief rabbinate and in Israeli society - than with any halachic issues.

"Growing joblessness and army evasion" amongst Charedim - Charedim have convinced themselves, and others, that it is a religious duty for men to learn all day and that going out to work is essentially sinful, a waste of time that should be devoted to Torah. Serving in the army is not the best way to serve G-d. Of course, historically only a handful of men -- the brightest -- ever spent their days learning full-time and everyone else went to work. So do Charedim in America. There is no religious reason not to serve in the army - thousands of serious religious young men do - but the Charedi leadership prefers not to expose its youngsters to "temptation". It's a social (and political) choice.

"Non-religious education for children" - Charedim have fought hard, particularly over the last months, to limit the amount of English, maths and other basic subjects their children are "exposed" to. They are told, again, that these subjects are a waste of time for good religious people, who should instead be learning Torah. In other words, there is a religious reason for the aversion. Of course, the leadership simply does not want to equip its youngsters with skills that will allow them to work (see above), go out into the big wide world, be exposed to other ways of thinking and of life, and ultimately, think for themselves.

Amsalem, in other words, is not just bearing "different" ideas; he is completely subsersive. Should he be "allowed" to stay under the Shas umbrella while preaching his ideas (which, to my mind, promote a dignified and healthy way of life, working for one's living, taking part in greater society and showing consideration and care for its weakest parts), it will become clear to the Charedi masses that their leadership agrees there is actually more than one path a religious person can follow on all these issues - and still be a Charedi Jew. Their leadership's positions on all these subjects are not halachic - they are a choice - ergo the Charedi masses have been duped.

If Shas can live with Amsalem, the entire foundation of Charedi society, as it has developed over the past few years, crumbles. So he had to go.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bibi, don't negotiate for Pollard

The Jewish world seems to be getting quite excited about the rumour that the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is asking for Jonathan Pollard to be freed as part of the new freeze deal.

Well, I'm not excited and can't understand those who are. I don't think this is something Bibi should be asking for, at least not in the context of these negotiations.

Now don't get me wrong; if Jonathan Pollard were freed from prison tomorrow, I would be perfectly happy for him (although I think he has done himself no favors, making it virtually impossible for an American president to pardon him by turning himself into a cause celebre, and with his politically ill-judged pronouncements). While he did commit a crime, the sentence was clearly too severe and after 25 years for a crime which typically carries a 10-year jail term, he deserves to be free.

However, I don't think that he should be freed as part of negotiations which involve Israel's long-term strategic interests. In return for a sacrifice that has serious implications for Israel's future - giving up building in its settlements - Israel needs to ask for serious things that will give it strategic advantages in the region and in the peace process. Jonathan Pollard may be a worthy cause, but he is not a strategic asset. His freedom will not help protect Israel from the multiple threats it faces.

So by all means, campaign for Jonathan Pollard's freedom. But ask for it as a correction to an injustice, a mercy which should be done for its own sake; do not inject the issue into the negotiations for Israel's future. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mostly kosher

I'm particularly busy this week, so blogging is going to be slow. But have no fear. You can keep yourself busy on my younger brother's new blog, Mostly Kosher, instead. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


The Philologos column in the Forward this week concerns Hebrew words that came from the Arabic: ahbal (idiot), kef (fun), ala kefak (terrific), achlah (great), and more. All fairly straightforward.

But then he ends by noting that words travel the other way as well - from the Hebrew to the Arabic (which of course makes perfect sense):
Just yesterday, an Arab friend informed me that nudnik is now a Palestinian-Arabic word!
Of course in about 20 years' time, we'll be accused of stealing the word from them....

Tom Friedman. Kettle. Black.

Since we're on the subject of Tom Friedman, I was rather amused by his latest column in the NYT - "Too good to check" - which lambasts the conservative media for failing to check its facts.

The footnote on the article as I read it on my iPhone (mysteriously it doesn't seem to appear on the website): "In my Nov. 10 column, I mistook the last name of one of the Indian analysts. It should have been Kanti Bjapai."

It's one of those ironies the sub-desk really should have picked up on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Thomas Friedman hates Bibi

A column by Thomas Friedman in the NYT has provoked a viscious response on the front pages of Maariv.

Earlier this week, Friedman blasted Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu for refusing to halt settlement buildings in order to give peace a chance, and essentially accuses him of bringing about the end of Israel as a Jewish state:

Reading the headlines these days, I can’t help but repeat this truism: If you jump off the top of an 80-story building, for 79 floors you can think you’re flying. It’s the sudden stop at the end that tells you you’re not. It’s striking to me how many leaders and nations are behaving today as though they think they can fly — and ignoring that sudden stop at the end that’s sure to come....

Rather than take the initiative and say to Arabs and Palestinians, “You want a settlement freeze? Here it is, now let’s see what you’re ready to agree to,” Netanyahu toys with President Obama, makes Israel look like it wants land more than peace and risks never forging a West Bank deal — thereby permanently absorbing its 2.5 million Palestinians and eventually no longer having a Jewish majority. That’s the sudden stop at the end — unless the next war comes first. But, for now, Bibi seems to think he can fly.
A couple of days later, on the front page of Maariv and on a two-page spread inside, Avi Ratzon uses some particularly strong language against Friedman:

Dear Mr Friedman, we understand your weakness in everything that concerns Binyamin Netanyahu. When you were volunteering to pick oranges in a kibbutz, he followed in the footsteps of his brother Yoni and volunteered to the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, where he became an outstanding officer. He later became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, a foreign minister and a prime minister. Could it be he had realised your dreams, and this is the reason for your obsession and weakness for the man? It’s not certain, we’re skeptical people here, and still we wouldn’t have rejected the possibility out of hand. After all, jealousy is a human, humane issue...

But we should ask the question, how long can you go on squeezing the lemon of a Jew who volunteered in a kibbutz, who had a Bar Mitzva, who’s a Zionist and who cares about Israel. Stop, enough. Stop threatening and get out of the frame. There are plenty of journalists here who think that your entire existence is indeed one of jealousy, which is why you target Netanyahu; that your worldview is identical to that of the radical Left here in Israel, and that you are serving as an escort boy providing embarrassing journalist services to Obama, who is your light, your support and your god.

Well, it seems unlikely that the multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, America's senior columnist, who has earned enough to live here, is jealous of Bibi. To me this reads like stereotypical Israeli fantasy about how a diaspora Jew - weak and nebbish - must feel: in awe of those strong, independent Israelis. And I strongly object to the implication that diaspora Jews cannot criticise Israel; indeed, that they should put up or shut up. While I think that most of Friedman's comments on Netanyahu are both wrong and naive, I don't see that anything he says removes him from the bounds of normative discourse.

That said, his tone (in this piece - read the whole thing - and in recent interviews) is striking in its contempt and anger for Netanyahu. What, other than jealousy, explains this? Three things.

First, Friedman does genuinely believe that his policies are destructive for Israel, and as a true friend of the Jewish state, is worried. (I agree with him that the lack of a peace agreement endangers Israel's future as a Jewish state, but disagree with him that the main obstacle to reaching an agreement is Netanyahu).

Second, there is a group of diaspora Jews (and indeed, a smaller group of Israelis) who have never got over Netanyahu's first term, and find it impossible to comprehend that many years have passed, that local conditions and the Israeli public have changed, and that Netanyahu himself has matured and grown. They continue to relate to him with the contempt of the mid-1990s, and cannot free themselves from it no matter what he does or what the Palestinians do this time round. For some of these people, hatred of Bibi is a convenient way of channelling their anger away from Israelis in general for making the "wrong" decisions. He's their proxy.

Third, I can't help but feel that there is something in Bibi's personality which brings out the worst in bullies like Obama - and some strong people like Friedman. As Ratzon notes, Friedman has no problem speaking respectfully about some far nastier types - dictators in the Arab world, for example. But for Bibi, he has nothing but contempt. It is as if, despite Netanyahu's intelligence, dedication to his people and other qualities, he perceives Netanyahu to be an inferior specimen. This is why he finds his defiance of Obama (and indeed, of Friedman's own wisdom) so infuriating. That pathetic little schnip!, I can hear him telling himself. How dare he!

This is what I think is Bibi's problem. Despite his strong rhetoric, he is weak: indecisive, with a tendency to fold under pressure, physically nervous around Obama. Aggressive people pick up on this and don't respond well. Weakness actually riles and provokes them, and they pounce on it.

For people like Friedman (and Obama), Bibi is the village idiot who is witholding the keys to regional piece, and he just can't stand it.

RELATED: Bradley Burston on Friedman and Bibi.

Next-Chief-Rabbi watch

Last month we noted that one of the rabbis who is regularly mentioned as a potential successor to Lord Sacks, Lincoln Square rabbi Shaul Robinson, was going through a tough time, with construction on his new Manhattan shul being halted due to a lack of funds and the resignation of his president.

Well, the shul construction project has now been rescued with an anonymous, magnificent $20 million donation.

It is possible that London now looks a little less attractive...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reform goes kosher?

America's Reform rabbinical association is coming out with a new guide to Jewish dietary practice: "The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic".

No, the word "kosher" is not mentioned on the cover. But according to JTA, "Reform kashrut" is part of it, in a way that was unimaginable even a year ago, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, dropped plans to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice following an outcry from his lay leaders.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution...

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said [Rabbi Mary] Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

This is a really positive development. True, there is still no agreement in Reform about what precisely it means by "kosher". Many Orthodox people might not recognise some of the definitions being reached: bringing in "ethical" principles for food choice does not necessarily mean they are "kosher" halachically (although they might be. And it would be nice if more people in the Orthodox camp had some regard for "ethical" food choices as well as for halachic ones. One of the ironies here is that the renewed Reform interest in kashrut is partially being credited to the scandal of the Lubavitch-run Agriprocessors meat plant, which provoked little soul-searching - and some of the opposite - amongst the Orthodox).

But who can object to the movement becoming, in its own way, more comfortable with Jewish practice and terminology? Who knows where their journey will end.

Of course, we are a long way off from seeing a majority of Reform's rank-and-file members keeping kosher. Rabbi Yoffie's experience last year suggests that the image of Reform's rabbis being frummer than their followers has an element of truth to it and a decade ago, just 8% of those keeping kosher were Reform, despite being the largest denomination.

But just how serious this is might be discerned from the comments of Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains NJ, who writes
that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.
Of course, he is not excluded, because he can still eat the food, while kosher people at a non-kosher dinner cannot eat. That he clearly feels threatened perhaps indicates that something substantial really is happening.

How is this knight different...?

Ever wonder what the youngsters did to entertain the bride and groom before the days of silly hats, plastic glasses, balloon poppers and jump ropes (ah, Jewish weddings can be so classy!)? Well, in medieval times - because I'm sure you spent hours wondering - turns out they did jousting.

One of my favorite blogs, On the Main Line, explains a particular bit of Talmud (Sukkah 45a):
The background is that the Mishnah writes that in the Temple, on the last day of Sukkot, the people would take the lulavs from the children and eat their Etrogs. Naturally there are two ways to understand this: one is that the people would eat the etrogs, the other is that the children did. But Rashi interprets it that it was the adults who would eat them. Therefore the Mishnah is describing a situation where the adults apparently grabbed the lulavim and esrogim from the hands of the children, and Rashi explains that this was not stealing - it was a fun game.

From this explanation Tosafos [medieval commentaries - MS] derives a principle: One can learn from here that those bochurim (youths) who ride horses and war with one another, before grooms, and tear each others clothing or hurt the horse, are exempt from the damage they've caused because this is the customary way of providing joyous entertainment for grooms....

So there you have it: in the times of Tosafos the bochurim would get on horses and joust with each other for entertainment.