Keith Kahn Harris

Metal Jew

Tag Archive: Jewish texts
  1. On Torah and democracy

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    By Stephen Handley

    Matamim is a weekly sheet of divrei torah produced in Israel, which I have seen appearing in England, usually in Hebrew, but they are now beginning to be published in English. This piece is my response to the Matamim on Parshat Vaeira.

    Matamim’s dvar torah ends with a lesson drawn from the fact that the list of the tribes of Israel in the Parashah ends with Moshe and Aharon. Nobody else needs to be mentioned, because nobody else deserves mention, and the fortunate are those who hold to the words of Moshe and Aharon, who were the wisest of their (or any) generation, and thereby merit redemption. What I find interesting is where Matamim starts from to reach this conclusion. Its principal theme is that of reflections on democracy.

    The format of Matamim, for those who haven’t seen it, is that it is printed on two sides of one sheet of A4, and it begins with a colourful cartoon. The cartoon on the front of this particular Matamim depicts a polling station in Israel. In the centre of the picture a most vulgar character, mug of beer in hand, is casting his vote. To his left is standing an elderly rabbi, wearing a long black coat and a somewhat perplexed expression, with a voting paper in one hand and a Gemara in the other. Behind these two figures stand two vacant looking white boys, one talking on a mobile phone and one with an Ipod, and a sinister Arab man behind them in the shadows. In the far left of the picture are three bored tellers sitting at a table, and a map of Israel behind them.

    Now, the people behind Matamim are presumably very religious members of Am Yisrael, who would surely have no truck with Darwin and his theory of evolution. None the less, in deciding how to depict an utter low-life, they seem to have decided to make him look like a monkey. Paradoxical, no? Well, wait until you see what’s coming.

    In the written narrative accompanying said cartoon, Matamim begin by quoting, or misquoting, Churchill: “The least evil system of government is democracy”. They then proceed to tell the story of a young Jewish genius, word of whose exceptional wisdom reached the local baron, who decided to test this boy. He asked him to visit his castle at a certain time, hid himself and his servants out of sight, and waited for the boy to find him. When the boy duly did so, the baron asked him how he did it.

    “I noticed that there was one room where the shutters were not drawn,” replied the boy. “I reckoned that you had to be in that room.”

    “Very clever of you,” said the baron. “And what if all the shutters had been drawn?”

    “I would have knocked on all the doors until some of your servants appeared, and I would then have asked them where you were.”

    “And what if they had given you contradictory answers?”

    “Well, I would have followed the majority, as it says in our Torah – After the majority you shall incline.”

    “Aha!” yelled the baron. “Now I’ve got you. You must be aware that there is only a very small number of Jews in the world, and there are many millions of Christians. Why don’t you follow the majority and convert to Christianity?

    “Because, Your Excellency,” replied the boy, “we only follow the majority in the case of doubt. I have no doubt that God gave us the Torah and that we are to follow the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu.”

    It’s a lovely story. Matamim then go on to spoil it by asking a number of questions – do the majority always know what is good for them, have they the necessary knowledge for informed decision making, are they able to foresee what will result from their decision, and so forth, and the answer to that question is a resounding No. That should come as no surprise at all. God has given us all free will. Can you or I, or indeed anyone, claim to always know what is good for us? Have we all the knowledge for informed decision making? Can we foresee the consequences of what we will do? Of course not. None the less, God does not withdraw free will from us.

    Matamim make the point that we defer to the experts – doctors in particular – in the case of important matters. But that has not always been the case. We live in a world in which humanity in general has decided to produce goods and services on an industrial scale, and for that reason we have created a need for any number of medical, legal, engineering, scientific, and religious specialists, none of whom existed in Biblical, Mishnaic, or medieval times. Many of these specialists are creations of the last two centuries. In times past, if you were very ill you would either have to look after your own cure, or else if you were very fortunate you would get together the local healers who, in consultation with your family, would decide what to do. Modern life is an aberration from historic norms of conduct. I need hardly add that the experts are not always right: ask any thalidomide child. Examples could be multiplied.

    Having embarked on the modern trail of trusting the experts in everything, Matamim go on to preach a gospel of absolute trust in the chachamim (wise men) of the generation. Not content with taking a verse from Scripture (Deuteronomy 17,10) which refers to specific cases of difficulty and making it apply to literally everything, they appear to put forward a view of man’s development which would make the most ardent disciples of Darwin draw breath. In their own words: “As every intelligent human being clearly recognises the difference between a person and an animal, all see the world of difference between the chachamim and “everyday” people. The chachamim are like a different species – a different category of Hashem’s creations, and the “everyday” man stands in awe of them, and submits to their superior vision and understanding”.

    Well, that isn’t what my Bible tells me. My Bible tells me we were all made in God’s image. Let us go back to my earlier point about free will. Suppose God had engineered things in such a way that we all thought that we had free will, but only a few of his specially favoured ones, who have the kind of knowledge denied to the majority, actually did have free will. All the rest of us, me included, would be labouring under an illusion of freedom of action. How do I know that isn’t the way God made the world? The answer is precisely because the Torah tells us we were made in God’s image.

    At this point Matamim start to mention the genealogy of Moshe Rabbeinu, as stated at the beginning of this piece.

    This is my dvar torah on the Parashah, although it isn’t mine but, if I recall correctly, that of the Chatam Sofer. Why did God tell Moshe to throw his staff onto the floor before Pharoah? The staff was an extremely holy object. It would be like throwing a Sefer Torah to the floor. According to tradition, the staff was created by God and passed on to the Patriarchs, and it had holy divine names written on it. And why did it become a snake? The answer is that Pharoah did not believe that the Israelites could be redeemed. “Look at them,” he said. “Sinners, low-lives, nogoodniks. Why should God want to redeem such trash as this?” In response, Moshe threw the staff to the ground before Pharoah.

    “Yes”, said Moshe. “Before you, we are all like snakes – the lowest of the low. That is because your culture makes us so. Here in Egypt, you are either the ruling class, or you are the slaves. But once we become free men, we will be holy again – like my staff.” With that, his staff swallowed up all the magicians’ staves.

    In all non democratic forms of government, the ruler is like Pharoah. All his subjects can be enslaved at a moment’s notice. It is only when democracy rules that men can be holy. Please understand that in ancient Israel, although there was a king, he was elected by the people, and subject to the rule of law: see Deuteronomy 17, 14-20. In Britain, until we established a parliament, it was accepted that the king was the agent of God and thereby empowered to make or unmake the law as he saw fit. There is no hint of this in the Torah. Furthermore, there was no idea that kingship ran in families. The Torah is closer to the democratic ideal than many of us think.

    My opinions on anything are subject to change. My love for you will not change.

  2. Renegade Jews?

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    In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post , the writer and activist Isi Leibler takes an uncompromosing stance against leftist Jewish critics of Israel. Amongst those he damns as ‘renegade Jews’  are Israeli post-Zionists (particularly within Israeli universities), the J Street lobbying group in the US and the newspaper Haaretz. He is dismissive of ‘fringe groups of “non-Jewish Jews,” many with no prior involvement in Jewish life, exploited their Jewish origins or Israeli nationality to defame Israel’. He argues that:

    Such odious Jews can be traced back to apostates during the Middle Ages who fabricated blood libels and vile distortions of Jewish religious practice for Christian anti-Semites to incite hatred which culminated in massacres. It was in response to these renegades that the herem (excommunication) was introduced.

    He recommends the following solution to the problem:

    The Israeli government must now take steps to neutralize the impact of renegade Jews who present themselves as legitimate alternative Jewish viewpoints. Such an initiative by a country which provides genuine democratic rights to all its citizens, including Arabs, could hardly be categorized as eradicating freedom of expression. It would rather represent a highly overdue effort to exorcise such odious groups from the mainstream and expose them as unrepresentative fringe groups with no standing.

    Strong words indeed. Regardless of whether those that Leibler targets really are as odious as he claims; regardless of whether it is possible to maintain a democratic Israel (and indeed a democratic diaspora Jewish community) that at the same time ‘neutralises’ dissenting voices; regardless of whether  those he despises really are confined to small minorities of ‘non-Jewish Jews’; Leibler’s views are reckless in the extreme. The herem he wishes for might have been possible at a time when Jews lived in small, homogeneous self-governing communities. In a time when individuals have the freedom to identify as they please, it is simply a recipe for dischord. Even were it desirable you simply cannot ostracise people in this way anymore – communities and identies are too fluid to be policed in this way. Whether Leibler likes it or not, some Jews in Israel and the Diapora will continue to identify as Jews whilst being severly critical of Israel and Zionism.

    Leibler’s proposal is simply a recipe for yet more intra-communal strife and bitterness. Do the Jewish people really need another source of tension to add to progressive-secular-orthodox tensions? It is sheer fantasy to imagine that Leibler’s ‘renegade Jews’ can be cut out of the body of the Jewish people.Instead of such fantasies, Jewish leaders and opinion formers need to start grappling with the reality and inevitability of dissent.

  3. Review of The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy by Aaron W. Hughes

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    Whether for the purpose of heartening the faithful to resist pressure to convert or assimilate, or to demonstrate the essential harmony of faith and reason, the philosophic dialogue has a long and distinguished history. A Canadian academic from the Religious Studies Department of the University of Calgary, Aaron W. Hughes gives a well-structured overview of its function and form within Jewish philosophy. Beginning with the towering mediaeval figure of Yehudah ha-Levi and concluding with the Enlightenment grandee, Moses Mendelssohn, he compares a variety of strategies used over the centuries for both internal and external consumption.

    In the environment of eleventh-century Moorish Spain, the pressing issues at the forefront of Jewish intellectual-spiritual inquiry were the challenges of Aristotelianism and Islamic triumphalism. Hughes attempts with considerable success to place the Kuzari’s impassioned and unembarrasedly élitist defence of Judaism within its cultural and historical context, evidencing a relatively open market for competing subcultures, from philosophy to Isma’ilism and showing how its poetic and literary qualities were able to enhance its appeal in contradistinction less fully characterised works by ibn Gabirol and Bahya ibn Paquda.

    In the wake of the Maimonidean controversies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the gulf between religious traditionalists and philosophical inquiry grew greater and was magnified by continuing tensions between the philosophical rationalism of the Sephardim and the Talmudic legalism of the Franco-German communities. Hughes chooses the dialogues of Shem Tov ibn Falaquera of Provence to illustrate that at least some thinkers considered that the relationship between religion and philosophy need not be one of mutual antipathy. In the precise, well-researched style that is a hallmark of the book, he is able to demonstrate the effects of the mediaeval Kulturkampf that took place between competing visions of Judaism. In fact, it becomes abundantly clear that today’s struggle for the right to dissent from the Microsoft-like advance of monolithic Artscroll orthodoxy is not so much a new phase as it is a case of history repeating itself. Ibn Falaquera is sympathetically presented as an idealist who is seeking to reconcile two assertive and principled stances to produce something which is more than the sum of its parts.

    By the fourteenth century, the Jews of Christian Spain were under sustained attack from the Church in forms that included Christian preaching during synagogue services and public (i.e. forced) debates, such as the famous disputation of Barcelona, in which Nachmanides himself was compelled to participate. In many cases, the Christian accusers were Jewish apostates who used their knowledge to attempt to justify their conversions and vilify those who, in their view,  continued to be intransigent. Hughes examines the work of Isaac Polleqar, who fought a decades-long literary battle with his former teacher, the convert Abner of Burgos, who deployed astrological, kabbalistic, philosophical and aggadic elements to undermine the faith of his former co-religionists. Outlining a “dialogue of disputation”, the author draws a convincing portrait of a rationalist and faithful Jewish thinker engaged in a literary struggle against all enemies foreign and domestic, creating characters that express his own views with humour, poetry and sarcasm and scoring Pyrrhic, rhetorical victories that would not have been permitted in the kangaroo court of Christian public opinion.

    As the mediaeval period gave way to the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the classical sources and the rise of new forms of philosophy and aesthetics brought a new set of challenges to the Jewish exiles from Spain newly arrived in Italy. Hughes analyses the figure of Judah Abravanel, the author of the Italian work Dialoghi d’amore, showing him to be not only a great populariser of Renaissance philosophy, but also a subtle defender of Judaism against new pressures of Christianisation from such towering figures as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

    The work of Moses Mendelssohn is chosen by Hughes to demonstrate an ultimately doomed attempt to show Judaism to be the “religion of reason” beloved of Enlightenment philosophers, using the pre-Christian figure of Socrates as an uncontroversial stalking-horse. Unfortunately, as the author makes evident, Mendelssohn’s fragile synthesis did not survive him and despite his attempts to be accepted on his own intellectual ability, Jews were subsequently accepted into the society of reason once they had submitted to conversion.

    Hughes’ forceful and lucid exposition paints a precise and well-footnoted picture fate of the dialogue format within Jewish philosophy. For a text by an academic it is notable for its clarity of language, only occasionally succumbing to linguistic technicality, which remains for the most part confined to a densely written introduction no doubt intended to satisfy his more scholarly readers and an epilogue which nonetheless raises some interesting points about the essentially static nature of a philosophical text when compared to the face-to-face encounters increasingly possible beween individuals.

    In many ways it is this last point that has much to say to the modern practitioner of dialogue, whether between faiths or between different political and philosophical points of view. Modern dialogue is neither pre-scripted nor is the outcome predetermined by one controlling author, although it may of course still be used to caricature the positions of one’s opponents through selective and tendentious editorial control, as in the case of Professor Richard Dawkins’ recent anti-religious documentary “The Root of All Evil?”. It may no less still be intended by one or more of the parties to convince, convert or defend an ideological agenda, as demonstrated by the recent “dialogic encounter” book, “Letters to a Buddhist Jew”. Nonetheless, a record of a dialogue may still be used to show how different points of view can be reconciled into a harmonious whole, as it is in Rodger Kamenetz’s account of rabbis meeting the Dalai Lama, “The Jew In The Lotus”. However, the most free-wheeling, no-holds-barred encounters are now possible in the age of the blogosphere and web forum, which allow people from radically different cultures, walks of life and above all religious, philosophical and political outlooks to interact, debate, argue, banish ignorance and change minds in a frank exchange of views with little historical precedent.

  4. Natural Burials in the British Jewish Community: A Response from Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

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    Ancient burial laws in the Middle East were very complex. We are familiar with Egyptian pyramids and mummies. Their burial customs, together with the Hittites offered a form of transition for the upper classes and the priesthood to the after life. Poor commoners however were simply left for the god Sheol (Biblical Hebrew for ‘grave’) to consume the flesh before the bones were handed over to the god Mot (Hebrew for ‘death’) who was given the bones that were then gathered up and dumped into ossuaries. The bible refers to the ‘Fathers’ as ‘becoming corpses, dying and then being gathered to their people’ (Genesis 25).

    Perhaps as a reaction to this and an assertion of the immediacy and priority of life, there are hardly any biblical laws about burials or indeed about mourning. Most of the complex rules we have nowadays are very late Talmudic and medieval. But I suppose you could say that Moses had the first natural burial, no grave, no human administered rites, just as with Aaron ( Numbers 20.29 ) a period of mourning of thirty days ( Deuteronomy 34.8). And of course there was Abraham burying Sarah in the Cave of Machpela.

    Over the years different communities have developed their own customs. So for example in Israel bodies are buried straight into the ground whereas in the diaspora they are usually buried in coffins. A part of the reason is local legislation and part the mystical nature of the land of Israel.  According to Jewish law the body is regarded as holy, the vehicle of divine worship, the receptacle of the soul. That is why the dead body is treated with such reverence and must be buried whole. Even limbs and blood need to be buried. Only the needs of the living, saving or augmenting human life, override this. That is why cremation is not acceptable within the framework of Jewish law.

    Burial grounds, while considered to be holy ground and to be treated with reverence, are not regarded in quite the same way as Western burial grounds. The bareness, the minimalist nature of orthodox burial grounds is a conscious rebuttal of emphasising the needs of the dead over those of the living. Most rabbinic authorities urge one to spend more on the living than spending money on mausoleums or tributes to the dead.

    Dead scholars and saints (one needs to qualify this by saying that this only applies with reference to Torah) are worshipped as great souls. The graves of saintly or important rabbis are visited, particularly before Yom Kippur. But that is primarily to try in mystical terms to harness their spiritual connections for the sake of the living. It is life in the present that is the testing ground and the means of achieving spiritual continuity. It also functions as a reminder of our frailty both physical and moral in comparison and of course, mortality.

    Natural burials are a new form of burial that both tries to escape the drabness of formal burial sites and to establish a natural setting and connection between the past and the future, by integrating death into the natural process. In its rejection of grandiose but artificial cemeteries it might be seen as having a rightful place within Judaism and offering a serious alternative. The question is whether it is legal either in civil terms or Jewish ones.

    Actually my father Kopul Rosen zl had a sort of natural burial in the grounds of Carmel College, the school he founded on the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. When he died in 1962, permission was granted by the local authorities to bury him in the grounds of the school. Then ground was set aside and consecrated in the Ashkenazi tradition of circling it seven times (recalling King Solomon’s dedication of the temple). Only after that ceremony was he buried in the grounds he loved. Sadly, 35 years later, the school was sold and his remains were transferred to the Mount of Olives in Israel. I also lost an infant son while I was headmaster at Carmel and he too was buried in this consecrated ground. His remains were later transferred as well. But to enable the burials, two conditions had to be met, civil and religious.

    This is not the place to go into the issue of whether and under what circumstances one may move a buried body. Assuming all the permits have been received, the Jewish religious requirement is that graves and the ground around them are treated with reverence and must be demarcated, in particular so that Cohanim, who have to be careful about avoiding contact with dead bodies, know where to avoid. This also includes trees that overhang a grave. But if the grave is marked and the area demarcated it is only a matter of whether the civil authorities approve. Otherwise from a strictly Jewish point of view there is no need for a coffin, no need for a fancy tombstone, no need for a traditional cemetery.

    But then there are other kinds of issues, rather more a cultural ones.  It is a long established tradition to visit graves, particularly near to the High Holy Days. Easy access to burial grounds therefore is an important factor and might, I guess militate against a burial ground in, say, the Outer Hebrides.

    Sadly the one objection I think most likely in Orthodox circles is that the very concept as it is currently being conveyed is that this movement is an ecological one grounded in ideologies that are not spiritual ones. Its not that ecology is not an essential element in both biblical and Talmudic Judaism, it’s just that in the current defensive, inward looking environment, in which issue of survival and external antagonisms loom large in rabbinic thinking, the association of ecology with people who are so strongly opposed to Israel that it verges on the anti-Semitic inevitably creates a sympathy barrier in the Orthodox world, which anyway has been ideologically opposed to change of any kind ever since the years of the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) the great rabbi of Bratislava, responded to the Enlightenment by declaring any new idea, forbidden. This attitude nowadays is a shame. Conceptually, natural burial is indeed totally in sympathy with a Jewish world outlook that everything comes from God. We come from the ‘dust’ and we return to the dust and life is a constant cycle of birth death and rebirth. The natural cycle is God’s cycle and we humans have to do our bit to preserve those parts we have some measure of control over. Besides a reverence of nature can be an appreciation of God’s world. To visit a grave in woodlands can be comforting, soothing and affirmative of the importance of all forms of life. More importantly it removes the association of burial grounds with Churches and other houses of worship. Sadly in the past it was only the wealthy who had the grounds to facilitate this sort of private rural burial. Now that it is becoming more readily accessible to ordinary people, so long as the halachic requirements are met, I can think of no serious objection.

    Rabbi Jeremy Rosen graduated in Philosophy at Cambridge University and from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is an Orthodox Rabbi, a former Headmaster and Academic, now a traveling cyber rabbi at

    October 2006