Pesach And Jewish Continuity

Pesach 5767

Can the message of Pesach retain its value and meaning in the world of 2007 – a world of MRI scans, al Qaeda and Richard Dawkins? This is not just a question about Pesach, but also about the whole of Jewish life and thought. If Pesach is no longer relevant to our children, then we have no hope of successfully promoting the concept that the Jewish past must inform the Jewish future. If we find ourselves unable to relate to the national life of the Jewish people, if we fail to be inspired by its achievements and governed by its rules, then we may as well shut up shop now, and go with the flow of assimilation. The Pesach experience, especially the Seder, is seminal to the process of what is sometimes called Jewish Continuity. In its true form, Jewish Continuity is certainly a precious goal, something for which we all strive and hope. Every person reading this wants to have Jewish grandchildren who are not merely Jewish by name, but have a sense of Jewish history, an appreciation of Torah concepts and ideals and at least a modicum of observance, all coupled with the will and enthusiasm to impart all of that to their children.

It is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have not broadly succeeded in doing this. To be sure, the observant community is growing in leaps and bounds, but elsewhere, in the heartlands of Anglo-Jewry, the message is not getting through. To be sure, there are many notable exceptions: Shuls, communities and outreach programmes that have had a major impact, but many places, the prognosis looks dire.

One of the keys to success is persistence. There is a beautiful parable for this, which will make things clearer. (It also involves a frog, which makes it suitable for Pesach!) A frog once fell into a bowl of milk. It realised that it had no hope of survival, as the milk was deep and the walls of the bowl too high to climb – the best that could possibly managed would be to tread water / milk for a while until exhaustion would set in and drowning became inevitable. So, thought the frog, why bother – I might as well drown now and save all the trouble. He shut his eyes, stopped struggling and drowned. A second frog fell into a bowl of milk. After making the same assessment as his lantsman, he closed his eyes and drowned. A third frog fell into a bowl of milk, but this one was a fighter. He paid no heed to the hopelessness of the situation, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, remained convinced that he would survive. So he paddled and kicked with all his might, determined to keep going. As his flailing became more and more vigorous, the milk began to turn into butter and when most of it had solidified, he simply climbed out, tired, but alive to jump another day. The application of the parable is clear – continuous efforts, despite perilous conditions, are likely to produce some results. The Haggadah tells us:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself as if one has personally come out from Egypt…. Not only did the Holy One, may He be blessed, redeem our ancestors, but He redeemed us with them…

Can we really see the exodus as a personal experience – didn’t it happen over 3300 years ago? The truth is that unless we see Judaism as an experience of the here and now, we are finished. History is interesting, but by definition, it lives in the past – in books and memories, but not in the present. We can’t sell people a history book as a lifestyle, unless the experiences are direct and meaningful today.

Pesach and the Seder represent for us the conjunction of history and present. Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known contemporary Jewish thinker and historian, points out something very interesting about his own family Seder. He notes that as a child, he sat at his grandfather’s Seder, at which his grandfather recalled his own childhood experiences with his grandfather, a man who could remember the great 19th century ethical teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. At Rabbi Wein’s Seder, he sits with his grandchildren, who will be able, in due course and God willing, to share stories about their grandfather with their own grandchildren. Thus at one current Seder, we can see an experience potential spanning several generations. As Rabbi Wein points out, very few (less than 20) such structures are needed to bridge the gap between the exodus and the present day.

But to create meaning across the generations, tremendous effort is required. Indeed this only has meaning if the imperatives, ethics and goals of the past are shared with the present. Otherwise, in our minds, grandfather’s grandfather is a dinosaur, an artefact from a long-dead age, while grandchildren’s grandchildren inhabit a future unimaginably different from the world of today. The redemptive spirit of Pesach seeks, through our own efforts, to redress this – it links us to our past and, perhaps more importantly, it helps to assure our future. Only if we take Judaism and its wealth of ideas and experiences seriously can we say that we ourselves have been redeemed. We always have the chance to start afresh – to be redeemed and commence the path of spiritual growth once again. If we are prepared to do this, we, like the frog, may be able to climb out of the milk once and for all and create an unshakeable link across the generations. This is true Jewish Continuity.

Shabbat And The Single Jew

Just Shabbat

Much has been written about the predicament of mature singles in our communities, their frustration, sense of helplessness and feeling of exclusion from mainstream Jewish life. However, the religious fallout of long-term single-hood is less frequently addressed: singles commonly suffer from a lack of inspiration and religious burn-out. I would like to address one aspect of this troublesome phenomenon.

Many men and women use Shabbatot as opportunities to attend singles’ events geared to helping them find their life partner. These occasions are often professionally run and claim a good number of successes. While in principle they are a ‘good thing’, singles who attend them regularly are in danger of turning Shabbot into a means, rather than an end.

The purpose of Shabbat is no more than Shabbat itself: affirming one’s belief that God created the universe and building a joyful relationship with Him through the observance of the Shabbat laws. This tremendous experience is an end in itself, yet for many on the singles circuit, Shabbat has become a means to finding a mate, no longer an opportunity for spiritual enrichment. Shabbat is the cornerstone of Jewish observance and of the Jew’s rapport with the Divine: its proper observance and the integration of its message form the basis of a healthy religious identity. Robbing Shabbat of its power by using it as a means to achieve something else will have devastating religious consequences. A Jewish life lived over an extended period without a ‘real’ Shabbat will feel dull and uninspired; the person concerned may never realise why.

For some the need to use Shabbat in this way is so acute that missing a Friday night event may lead to a feeling of angst: if only I had gone along I might have met the ‘right’ one. The single person seeking a partner is caught on the horns of a dilemma: attending deprives Shabbat of its full meaning; not attending leads to feelings of torment that perhaps one has not explored every possible avenue. By way of example, a woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well-organised singles’ events have proved successful in introducing people who will eventually marry each other. They are often run by dedicated volunteers whose dearest wish is to contribute to the Jewish people by relieving the plight of singles who so wish to marry. Yet by running too many of them on Shabbat they unwittingly rob the day of its majestic potential for their clients. Perhaps more of these wonderful events could be held on weekdays, with just a handful on Shabbat.

One need not feel guilty or sad that a Shabbat has passed without finding a wife or husband. Of course, it would be wonderful to meet one’s bashert (destined one) en route, but it is not the purpose of Shabbat, or for that matter, Yom Tov, Purim or Chanukah. (In ancient times, it was an objective of Yom Kippur and the 15th Av, but that is another story!) To be healthy, holistic Jews we require inspirational, self-contained Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations. We don’t need to use Friday night dinner to speed-date, Seder night as a chance to meet a girl, or Purim to surf the parties.

Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence

A View from London

Growing up in middle-class not-so-frum Jewish London, I noticed that families with more than three children were very rare. In my childhood I knew only two families with four children – they were treated with awe – and none at all with more. Although this is just my own observation, this situation has changed little among the mainstream of British Jewry: indeed a number of parents of four children have told me their peers regard them as odd.

I was interested in a recent study published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Jewish women in Israel give birth, on average, to 2.8 children. This compares favourably with the average of 1.5 children per women in Europe and points to steady Jewish growth into the next generation. But these figures must be heavily skewed by the high birth rate among the burgeoning religious section of the populace, in which families of 10 or more children are common. Studies suggest that the birth-rate among the less religious is low: while the overall trend may be upwards, the constituency of the population is gradually becoming more religious.

These statistics brought to mind a discussion I had a year ago with a leader of a non-Orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK. He told me that an expert in population statistics from the USA had visited his synagogue and explained to the congregants the inevitable consequences of low birth rate for their community in: their eventual disappearance. While, apparently, no-one could refute his argument, they rejected his suggestion that survival was contingent on having more children!

It is apparent that all sections of the Jewish world from the moderately Orthodox leftwards are in danger of extinction, which is attributable, at least in part, to a low birth-rate. Let’s suppose that the average family in those parts of the Jewish world has 1.8 children, slightly above the overall European figure. While this is my own conjecture, it seems reasonable based on studies of similar communities in the USA and the decline in numbers recorded by the research of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people in just one generation. An average birth-rate of two would still lead to a net loss as sadly there will always be those who do not survive or do not reproduce themselves.

When combined with other factors, however, the reality is much grimmer. With intermarriage on the increase to an alarming degree and many not marrying at all, it is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

An important point must be interjected: many members of the community would dearly love to play a part in building the Jewish future, but are unable to find a marriage partner or are incapable of having children (or as many children as they would like). They must be treated with great sensitivity; any criticism levelled here is certainly not directed at them.

I have a hunch that even three children per family may be too few to secure a strong Jewish community into the future. Many segments of the community in the UK are under-reproducing themselves out of existence. As I discussed with my non-Orthodox friend, we can forget issues of theology, commitment to Torah values, etc., as indicators of the Jewish future, since all but the Orthodox are going to disappear anyway due to lack of numbers.

This problem besets the middle-ground of the Jewish world, even though in the UK, most such people are affiliated with the Orthodox world. ‘Mainstream’ Orthodox organisations like the United Synagogue (for which I work) are struggling to maintain their numbers. The bulk of our members follow the same patterns of reproduction as the rest of the populace, where late marriage, high intermarriage rate and small families are common.

Only the Orthodox part of the UK community is dedicated to building the Jewish future in this way. They alone as a group are committed to reproducing sufficiently to actually increase the numbers of the Jewish people. They recognise that the rewards of raising a large family outweigh the practical difficulties involved and are prepared to dedicate many years to child-raising, ignoring the limitations on personal autonomy in order to play a responsible role in populating the next generation. And while far from zero, the rate of intermarriage in those communities is very low indeed.

Many outside the Orthodox world do not want to hear this message: every Jewish family must attempt to raise at least three children, preferably more. I implore each couple I marry to have one more child than they had originally planned for the sake of the Jewish people. Those who do not take family-building seriously are an endangered species. This is a message that the observant community understands and must somehow sell to the rest of the Jewish people. If we can do this, whether by teaching or by example, we will yet make the greatest possible contribution to Jewish survival.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

A Grave Business

A Visit to Tiberius

I am enjoying the privilege of showing my eleven-year-old daughter around Israel and yesterday we spent the day grave-hopping in the Galil. We had a wonderful time, which both of us found highly educational, yet something disturbed me – the proliferation of ugly mechitzot (barriers dividing men and women) at gravesites. I found it particularly unpleasant at the grave-site of the Rambam.

I last visited the grave of the Rambam in Tiberius some years ago and remember it well. One leaves the road and walks up a gentle incline between fourteen pillars each engraved with the name of one section of the Rambam’s magnum opus, ‘Mishneh Torah’. Passing the resting places of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the great 17th-century mystic) as well as those of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and other sages of the era of the Mishnah, one arrives at the grave of the Rambam at the top of the incline. The tombstone is quite distinctive and the inscription reads, ‘from Moshe (the original Moses) to Moshe (the Rambam), no-one arose as great as Moshe’.

This preamble is intended to indicate the beauty of the site and how the area has been carefully landscaped to honour the remains of the Rambam in the most apposite manner. Regrettably, the site has been completely spoiled by the metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription. Barriers of this kind have sprung up all over the place to ‘preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing’.

I am in favour of care and sensitivity in these areas of Jewish life. I appreciate that gender mixing is fraught with problems and needs to be carefully controlled and that visitors to holy sites need to pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere. However, a degree of common sense and self-regulation is necessary to avoid a slide into extremism. People had been visiting the grave of the Rambam for centuries quite successfully before the erection of the mechitzah. I think it is safe to say that they managed to achieve their goals there by voluntarily finding a space to daven (pray) undisturbed. The segregation of such sites is considered by some to be a sign of a Jewish world that is stronger and more confident in its Yiddishkeit (Judaism). I feel that the opposite is true.

It is apparent that among a growing segment of the observant world, there is no recognition that architecture and other cultural manifestations may contribute to religious inspiration. Obviously, they have to be crafted to ensure that they remain within the parameters of halachah (Jewish law), yet when carefully devised they can enhance our spiritual world immeasurably. Some of those policing our world see one part of the picture (the need to regulate gender interaction), yet are oblivious to, and even actively reject, any concessions to wider sensitivities: further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Shaking Hands

Contact

The religious scruples of a Muslim police officer recently made headlines when she refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair at her passing-out ceremony. She asserted that her faith barred her from physical contact with men other than her husband or family members. This is reminiscent of the 2004 statement by President Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines warning men not to kiss her as a form of greeting. She announced, 'please, all the men in the country, so that I would not be rude to you, do not make kiss kiss with me’.

Jewish law has a strict code of conduct governing interactions between the sexes. Halachah expects care when it comes to physical contact with others, fully cognisant of the non-platonic potential in every touch. While in our society, contact in the form of shaking hands or even kissing has been desexualised, Judaism wishes us to remain sensitive to the majestic potential in each touch.

Contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden, excepting close family members, where relationships are absolutely platonic. Restricting even casual contact to the marital relationship assures that the mildest touch can be replete with love and meaning. Judaism believes in powerful and passionate intimate relations and takes great care to ensure that every ounce of sensuality is reserved for marriage.

How far does this restriction extend? Halachah forbids any contact between the sexes that can be construed to be ‘derech chibah’ – holding any pleasurable or sexual suggestion whatsoever. This clearly forbids greeting others by kissing them, and, at least according to most halachists, prohibits even casual contact in the form of a handshake. If necessary, as in the case of the Muslim police cadet, one may have to explain oneself to avoid embarrassing others, or, by holding something in each hand, engineer a situation in which handshaking can be avoided altogether.

Yet some current halachists suggest that the handshake that commonly introduces business and social meetings is utterly devoid of sexual meaning. It is simply a means of activating a communication and is not ‘derech chibah’ at all. Accordingly, in this narrow circumstance it would be permissible to shake hands. A common compromise involves not instigating the handshake, but taking a hand offered to avoid embarrassing its owner. It should be emphasised that while this view is commonly relied upon, is not reflective of the view of the majority of halachists. It is however, the view of a respected minority opinion, and indeed, the view of my own teacher.

These restrictions do not apply to a doctor’s examination, as the halachah assumes that the doctor is immersed in his or her professional duties, which eliminates any concern. Whether they apply to other ‘professional’ circumstances, such as at the hairdresser’s, is a subject of discussion too.

We are poorer for the desensitisation to touch that prevails in modern society. In contrast, scrupulous observance of these rules not only prevents misbehaviour, but sensitises us to the significance of touching another human being.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Why I Am A Boring Guest

Older Singles

What do the following four women have in common?

  • Andrea: management consultant, graduate of a seminary in Israel, summa cum laude graduate in business management, volunteer for a Jewish outreach organisation.
  • Channah: Kodesh teacher in a Jewish Girls’ High School, graduate of Beis Ya’akov seminary (classic Jewish higher-education college) and talented musician.
  • Sara: freelance computer programmer, Ba’alat Teshuvah (late-comer to religious life) of 12 years standing, graduate of Harvard and seminary in Israel.
  • Trudy: university lecturer in psychology, graduate of modern-style seminary in the USA and gifted artist.

While the connection may not be immediately obvious, they share the facts that they are sophisticated, attractive, deeply committed to lives dedicated to Torah and Mitzvot, and, wait for it, in their 30s and single.

Although the women are fictional (albeit loosely based on real people), the scenario is not. I (and many of my colleagues) observe this phenomenon in London, but it is happening everywhere. All over the world, there are hundreds of older observant single women who would love to get married, yet have been unsuccessful in finding a partner. I am not suggesting that there are no single men struggling with the trauma of single-hood, just that there seem to be a lot more eligible women around than men.

There is enough to fill a book about this situation, but on this occasion I shall confine myself to three brief observations.

The pain and frustration felt by older singles is barely appreciated by others in the community. Being 34 and unmarried in our community is not like being 22 and just a few years older: it is often an emotionally and religiously devastating experience. The long-term effects of living without a life-partner, devoid of the love, intimacy, support and sharing of life goals a successful marriage should provide, are immeasurable. It is seldom appreciated that remaining single impacts on many other areas of one’s experience and particularly one’s religious life. A common observation made by women in this situation is that they feel spiritually burnt-out and uninspired. They may find personal growth insurmountably difficult and struggle with other aspects of their Jewish lives: davening, learning, and enjoying Shabbat and Yom Tov are among the most notable casualties.

Older singles also feel disenfranchised by the observant community. Our communities tend to compartmentalise people – there are girls, newly married women, mothers, divorcees, widows, but mature singles scarcely appear on the religious community’s radar. The existence of these women disturbs the happy, simplistic vision of community shared by many within it, in which everyone falls into an idyllic marriage before the age of 23. It is assumed that there must be something wrong with those who didn’t or that they are ‘too fussy’, which avoids facing the reality of their existence and the need to treat them as functioning adults. Singles even feel that people speak to them differently from the way they speak to married women. This is especially painful for women who take important, often life-changing decisions in their professional lives. In short, the community gives vibes that infantilise unmarried women, contributing to their feeling of exclusion and failure. While conjuring up husbands may be extremely difficult, this aspect of singles’ distress is the responsibility of the community and is completely unnecessary.

The consequences for the Jewish community are also significant. A growing group of older women, all of whom would love to have been married years ago, are marrying late and subsequently having fewer children. Some otherwise fertile women may have no children at all. This is going to have a catastrophic effect on future Jewish demographics. Dealing with this issue must be considered an international Jewish priority.

These issues trouble me so much that I have become a boring guest, because wherever I visit, I ask the same question: do you know any eligible men? I invite you to share in this project and become a boring guest too.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Templeera, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world, especially in Israel. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Choosing A Lulav And Etrog

Sukkot 5767

At Sukkot-time, one often sees an image of a bearded man examining an etrog with a jeweller’s loupe; those who have seen the popular Israeli film ‘Ushpizin’ will recall that selecting a beautiful etrog is a serious business.

The observance of Sukkot involves the use of four species: lulav - palm branch, etrog - citron, three myrtle sticks and two willow twigs; they are waved in devotion during the Hallel psalms. The Torah stipulates (VaYikra 23:40) that the etrog must be ‘beautiful’, but the rabbis understand beauty to be a prerequisite for all four species. Here, however, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for the criteria of ‘beauty’ are very carefully specified in what has become a vast body of halachic literature.

So how does one select a beautiful set? Here is a very brief guide:

The lulav should be fresh and green, especially at its end. The leaves grow in pairs, all of which should be intact and together, particularly at the top. The leaves above the ‘spine’ of the lulav should be completely whole. Special attention must be paid to the central leaves.

The etrog must be undamaged, with its top (pitom) and bottom (uketz) protrusions intact. It should be as free of marks as possible, especially on the part that tapers; any black marks are particularly problematic. The etrog should be yellow, bumpy (not smooth like a lemon), with a wide lower portion narrowing symmetrically towards its pitom. Some varieties grow without a pitom; these are great for clumsy people!

The myrtles should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaves intact. Myrtle leaves appear in threes from its stalk (meshulash – tripled); each group of three leaves should emerge at the same level from the stalk, ideally along its entire length, but at least for the majority of it. The leaves should be upright and interlocking, covering the branch.

The willows too should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaf intact and the leaves in good condition. One should select a variety with long, smooth-edged leaves and red stems.

Daunted by all this? Fortunately, pre-checked items are available for the uninitiated, although one of the great pleasures of the season is selecting them oneself. As for the loupe, it isn’t necessary, as the naked eye at a normal distance will do; it is only used for resolving uncertainty.