Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Back to theology. The following was part of an email I sent to to my friend, Jay Michaelson:

> Unsurprisingly, being in Yeshiva, I've been thinking a lot about
> normative Judaism. In your Leibowitz response you asked why we have
> any obligation whatsoever to a transcendent God.
> "Why is there any need to stand before God in worship?" I think it's
> something to do with the assertion of God's immense power on the one
> hand and goodness on the other, infinitely dwarfing us and
> our individual wills on both counts.
> Whether what God requires of us is to obey the system of halacha in
> particular is another question. But don't you agree that that the
> essence of normative Judaism is the individual's obligation to God?
> It bugs me - because I want to think Judaism is about something more
> instinctual, more mystical - but at the moment it seems to me that to
> be authentically Jewish one can't escape the concept of obligation.

He replied with the following:

> You've been sitting in yeshiva too long.
> The "essence of normative Judaism"? What is that?
> Obligation is a highly misnagdic way of looking
> at mitzvot, and mitzvot is only one (albeit central) part of the Jewish
> picture. How about love of God? How about, since you seem very
> Maimonidean this day, the knowledge of God? Which in
> the Guide III-61 (or is it 51) is the same as love anyway -- as
> evidenced by the Hebrew yada.
> Obligation is also extremely dualistic. God fills every atom of the
> universe. So who is obligated, and who is he being obligated to?
> I do regard halacha as obligation but not in a dualistic sense. In
> fact, obligation might not even be the right word. I regard
> halacha as a set of practices which both inculcate right understanding
> and respond to the reality of God with right action.

Now I've sent him quite a lenghty reply:

> "You've been sitting in yeshiva too long."
> You might be right. It's almost a truism when I say I'm sure I'll
> get more perspective on my yeshiva experiences when I remove
> myself from this environment. Dharamshala and India is going to
> be something else entirely. (Well, maybe not entirely - I mean to
> study a little bit of Talmud with the Chabadniks there.)
> "The "essence of normative Judaism"? What is that?"
> I meant the core of Judaism as seen by Judaism itself.
> I'm aware of the circularity in talking about "Judaism itself" and
> therefore implying a specific centre. It may be a product of being
> in the yeshiva environment, but I find it difficult not to think of certain
> textual forms - Tanach, Mishnah, Gemarah, Tshuvot and Halachah - as
> somehow the most 'essentially Jewish'. Learning Talmud Torah in a
> yeshiva environment is a good example of a 'normative' Jewish ideal.
> "Obligation is a highly misnagdic way of looking at mitzvot, and mitzvot
> is only one (albeit central) part of the Jewish picture."
> My friend Alex quoted Elliot Dorff on this: "mitzvah means commandment".
> Alex added himself: "That's not to be against other ways of relating to
> mitzvot. But they only make 'empirical sense' if they come from a sense
> of commandedness." I've already mentioned to Alex that making 'empirical
> sense' may not be the ultimate criterion. Nevertheless, most Jewish discussion
> of Mitzvot seems to imply the conventional interpretation. As Leibowitz points
> out, even the original Kabbalists and Chassids saw Mitzvot as binding
> commandments. I know there are other ways of relating to halacha, but
> doesn't obligation come first, in the knowledge that the system is strong and
> intransient enough to take the many interpretations of different ages, groups
> and individuals? It may be that a sense of obligation is the only way a system
> of mitzvot is sustainable in society.
> As for mitzvot being just one (central) part of the Jewish picture... Leibowitz
> says it is the only constant throughout Jewish history. He rejects the view
> that Judaism should rather be characterised as the 'community of One
> God' - because a) interpretations of the meaning of monotheism are so
> diverse as to sometimes be contradictory and b) many other communities
> have expressed something similar without any knowledge of or debt to
> the Abrahamic tradition. (I know that b) is quite weak... after all, what is wrong
> with different traditions expressing the same Truths each in their own way?)
> I think Leibowitz has a point when he identifies the 'halachic enterprise' as
> the central linking thread.
> "Obligation is also extremely dualistic. God fills every atom of the
> universe. So who is obligated, and who is he being obligated to?"
> Granted, the self may be an illusion. And yet more often than not we
> experience life as individuals. It as a self that I observe, think and act as
> an agent in the world. I can directly experience nonduality through meditation,
> prayer and other such practices. And I can keep some of this awareness with
> me as I return to my habitual sense of acting as a distinct self. But surely I
> have no choice but to return. Thus I can be obligated, even to a system
> which ultimately leads me to an awareness that the self who is obligated
> is only an illusion. There is no conflict between the concept of individual
> obligation and your interpretation of halacha as "a set of practices
> which both inculcate right understanding and respond to the reality
> of God with right action".
> If we accept that most of the time we inevitably function as selves,
> obligation may play another function:
> If I always obey my will as an autonomous individual then I make myself
> my master. In fact, I might say I am both master and slave. If I perceive
> a de facto obligation and assert its divine nature, I acknowledge God as
> my master. (We were just studying a part of Masechet Rosh Hashanah
> which defines the correct kavanah for Kriat Shema as an intention to 'seat
> God on His throne'.) Leibowitz is very wary of any utilitarian interpretation
> of mitzvot - as it makes God the servant of the individual, when really it
> should be the other way round. Personally, I think this makes sense, but
> only as a starting point. It falls short in so far as it fails to acknowledge
> that ultimately there is no distinction between God and everything else,
> including the individual.

Monday, March 29, 2004

The people at say that the old 'left-right' axis of political analysis is on its own inadequate. To describe political positions more accurately one needs indicators of both economic and social attitudes. They've devised a 'political compass' and included a test on their website. At the end they place you on the compass and allow you to compare yourself to world political figures. I took this a few months ago and retook it just now. No change: I'm still most similar to the Dalai Lama, so I guess I'm going to the right place.

Follow the link to the home page, take the test and leave a message in my guestbook saying where you place and who you're like.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

I spent a relaxing Shabbat with my uncle's family in Rehovot, got a lot of sleep, enjoyed the good weather, did little energetic ... so why is my bronchitis back with a vengeance? I sound like I'm dying here - this morning I sat there coughing, spreading airborne germs around the Bet Midrash. So instead of going to this afternoon's liturgy class on leyl seder (the ceremonial Passover meal) I'm at home with Jason Collin about to watch A@*enal vs Man Utd, partaking in a good bit of Bittel Torah (literally 'nullification of Torah' i.e. time spent doing anything other than studying Torah). Into my final week of yeshiva studies...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

One of the good things about yeshiva is that every Rosh Chodesh, the first day of every Jewish month, we have a big breakfast and special programmes. Today Aharon Razel, a young, Hasidic singer-songwriter, came in the morning and sang for us. Then we went on a tour of Jerusalem's beautiful supreme court. In my afternoon Hebrew class we played Happy Families with specially made vocab cards. After yeshiva Kerry and I walked around Talpiot, shopped for a few things for Boombamela and wondered if the humidity means the hot weather of the last two weeks is about to break.

It's not all doom and gloom here you know?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Addenda to yesterday. Yassin was not just a 'spiritual leader'. I quote from today's Haaretz, Israel's foremost liberal paper:

"Yassin was the founder, leader, spiritual authority and strategic planner both politically and militarily for Hamas, and was known as the "sheikh of two intifadas" to all the activists from the lowest ranks to the highest."

I also didn't mean to suggest he'll be easily replaced:

"It is clear to all that nobody will fill his shoes, nobody is capable of filling all the roles he held. And it is already evident that a collective leadership for the organization will have to be formed. It will have to be based on those high up in Hamas who have so far survived Israel's campaign to eliminate the entire leadership, starting with the killing of Ismail Abu Shnab, who headed the pragmatic line in the organization."

It doesn't, of course, stop them sending terrorists. But what I failed to realise fully yesterday is that this assassination was meant first and foremost as a message, to be understood against the backdrop of Sharon's proposal to withdraw from Gaza. The killing was meant to say, "We may be taking our troops and settlers out of the Gaza strip, but this isn't a surrender. Just to prove we're not weak, to prove that terror doesn't bring victories, we're going to kick you in the teeth on the way out. We can do this and worse - anytime we like." The vital thing, according to this school of thinking, is not saving lives but rather making sure that terrorism is not 'rewarded'.

It gets us nowhere. Justice remains justice, even if its component parts coincide with the aims of extremists.

As you probably know by now, today Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Palestinian terrorist and civic organisation, Hamas. Ben Overlander emailed me, told me he had to face the questions of all his colleagues and asked me what I think of it all.

First of all, unlike some I've read, I don't object to the term 'spiritual leader'. I don't think it's meant to give Yassin mystique or his former actions and words legitimacy. It describes the iconic function he played and distinguishes him from Hamas leaders who get their hands 'dirtier' in the practical orchestration of suicide bombings. There is a strong argument that the distinction between the military and the civic / religious wings of Hamas is a false one. Still, while it may be disingenuous (the right hand knows what the left is doing), the nominal split exists and the different leaders of Hamas play different roles within the single organisation.

However, to say, as I've read on the BBC public message board, that Israel should be ashamed of itself for murdering "an old paraplegic in his wheelchair" is absurd. Yes, he was wheelchair-bound. But that has nothing to do with anything. As far as I know, a pair of working legs is no defence against helicopter gunships. Plus he may have looked benign and, yes, spiritual, but as the head of a group that openly targets innocents ... let's just say he was no harmless grandpa. So any sentimentalism that creeps into criticism of this assassination in particular is just risible. Perhaps Israel should be ashamed - but not because he was in a wheelchair.

The same goes for the idea that Israel has somehow exposed its true nature as a 'terrorist state'. Whether you agree with the terrorist state bit or not (I do not), the Israeli government has been carrying out this policy for years. It makes no attempt hide it, so how can anybody suggest Israel has been "exposed"?

So, what of 'targeted killings' and this one in particular? There are two main issues: the first is a question of legitimacy, the second of practical effect.

Legitimacy: Israel's 'targeted assassinations' are illegal under international law and also according to the domestic law of most democratic countries. That the United States would probably take the opportunity to do the same to Public Enemy #1 may show double standards on the part of some people but it does nothing to make extrajudicial killings more legal. OK, say some, international law is all very well, but when you are fighting for the lives of your citizens and the security of your country, worrying about international law is a luxury you can't afford. I'm not convinced. As hard as it is to 'sit by' while your citizens are killed, international law is not a luxury. It is law and as such does not apply only to unconventional killing organisations but equally - especially even - to democratic governments. Plus there is an alternative, limited application of the principle which is much more acceptable. I remember hearing someone say: the moment the suicide bomber straps on his or her explosive device he or she becomes a legitimate target. Killing that person becomes self-defense, a category recognised by most legal systems. Up to that point, even given evidence - as in this case - that the target endorses and/or causes terror, we cannot call these assassinations self-defence. Why not? Because the killing does not function as a defensive act. It saves no lives. In fact it escalates the situation and makes further deaths a greater certainty. So we have moved onto the second question: practicality.

There is no doubt in my mind that this assassination is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. So Hamas are now bereft of their spiritual leader. No doubt they will look to new leadership. And will they stop sending suicide bombers? Of course not. Will they send more in the coming weeks, months, who knows how long? Almost certainly. One less terrorist in the world? An assertion that makes no sense.

Counterproductive in practical terms. Of questionable legitimacy. Meanwhile here, on the streets of Jerusalem, the roadblocks and security checks get tighter and everyone braces themselves.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Thursday afternoon I left Yeshiva after lunch to start a volunteer project I'm continuing for my last couple weeks in Jerusalem. Twice a week I'm to visit a handicapped woman called Meira and type her emails as she dictates to me. Kerry came with me, befriended the woman's cat, reprogrammed her remote control and fetched cold drinks while I sat at the computer and saw tiny glimpses into this woman's life. For an hour and a half I forgot the buzz of my own affairs - the whole experience was extremely calming. I'm back there tomorrow, in the middle of a long long day. I'm also supposed to find someone to take over from me when I leave Jerusalem. Now Meira's met Kerry, who gets on so well with Meira's cat - it all looks to be working out.

Rabbi Monty hasn't emailed since I put up that post about him. I'm worried about the guy. Maybe something's happened to him. Alex thinks he must have google-searched my name and found this blog and now he's offended.

Rabbi Monty (you know who are) - if you're reading this, please forgive me. I didn't mean it when I said you're deranged.

Although if you're reading this, you really must have google-searched me. In which case... yes, you are deranged after all.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Urgh - at home with diagnosed bronchitis. I've not really recovered yet from all that Purim madness. I'm probably well enough to make it to my Hebrew lesson this evening, but I think I can give myself permission to take it easy. So it's cable TV and videos instead. I just lay out and watched the first Ghostbusters movie. I don't think I appreciated such absolute brilliance at 7 years old. Some great lines ...

Sigourney Weaver [possessed, growling]: I want you inside me.
Bill Murray: I'm not sure there's room. Sounds like you've got at least two people in there already

Meanwhile, I finally booked my ticket to India. I'm back in London on 11 April and fly out to Delhi on the 25th. Poker, fantasy football, book group take note - we have dates to keep. I fly back from India (from Calcutta, where my brother will be volunteering with Tzedek) on 28 July. The thought of my 2 months on the subcontinent is incredibly exciting. Life will be suddenly, totally different. But I have my 2 weeks in the UK to get myself mentally and otherwise prepared.

Elsewhere in the life of Joel, I'm trying to sort out finishing my time in Israel by spending 4 days at Boombamela. It's a festival by the beach, over some of Pesach. An Israeli Burning Man if you will. One or two of the other yeshiva people are up for it so there's nothing to stop us.

I wrote this in an email to Ben Overlander earlier this evening:

I thought a bit about something you said to me before I left. We were walking back from Masorti Beit Midrash and you said you thought my couple months of Talmud study and yeshiva life would probably be pretty interesting but it was unlikely to give me any spiritual epiphanies. You were right. But I'm beginning to think that Judaism intentionally makes no distinction between the 'spiritual' and the 'commonplace'. People think Talmud is absurd and nitpicky - and it is. It deals with everyday details but the fact that our tradition views the formulation of these problems as holy intentionally says: it's not good enough to view only the transcendent moments as the spiritually important ones. So when I'm learning every morning about the distance one man places his tree from another man's field, I'm not making any great truthful discoveries. But I am learning that that's OK and no less part of an authentically God-centred religion.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Randy is a 40-year-old from Chicago. He has lived his working life as a rock musician, heading a now defunct band called Randy Herman and the Sceptre of Benevolence. He's managed to live comfortably on money from his music, augmenting band proceeds not with a normal day job but with a steady stream of bars, weddings, festivals and sessions.

Randy's maternal grandparents left Poland in the 1930s, just before it got really bad. His grandfather went first, on a boat which was turned away first from the United States then from Cuba and finally landed in Mexico. His grandmother followed a couple years later, after her husband worked for a while, saved some money and got himself established.

Randy's paternal grandparents were vaudeville performers who married at 18 and toured together. When Randy was 15 he starred in his high school musical. His grandmother, his 90-year-old 'singing nana', came backstage after the performance. "I'm so sorry," she wept, "but you've got it, I can see. I wish I didn't have to tell you this, because it's a horrible horrible life, but you're a performer." She was giving him her blessing, through streams of tears, and calling it a curse.

One morning about 2 years ago Randy woke up and thought: "I'm 38 years old. I've loved my freedom. I've loved being single. What am I doing with my life?" He rented a place in upstate New York and lived there for a year. He thought about the future. And then he ran out of money.

Randy decided he was going back to school. Lawyer? He could hardly pictured himself as the type. Academic? Too dry and intellectual. (Although Randy's father is the world authority on the Christian Democratic Party of Venezuela.) So what was it to be?

Chazanut. Randy would become a cantor. When he stumbled on the idea it just looked like a sensible career choice: musical, respectable, well-paid. But when he looked into it he found out that the world of Jewish liturgical song had a diverse and serious artistic and religious tradition.

Randy had been raised Reform and had even performed with some of the most famous Reform liturgical composers. But that style of chazanut left him cold. He interviewed at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and they accepted him. His Jewish knowledge was pretty sketchy, so he'd have to spend the first year studying in Israel.

Sunday morning midday Randy is sitting opposite me in a place called Brasserie, in Rabin Square Tel Aviv, and is telling me all this. He talks about how he'll teach kids Torah and bar mitzvah lessons and then tell his congregants about the latest jazz gig he's playing. He says Judaism and following Jewish law are about "aligning yourself with God through structure". In between all this he and I can't help but glance up at four of the most beautiful waitresses we have ever seen. When one comes over to ask if everything is OK, Randy replies: "I don't know which I'm more impressed with - how good your English is or how beautiful you are." He is looking for a wife and I guess old habits die hard.

The Passion

I've not seen it but every blog's talking about it. In my uninformed wisdom, I declare this far and away the best article you're going to find.

Big City, Jewish City

In 1997-8 I spent 10 months in Israel with a Jewish youth movement. The first five months were based in Jerusalem and consisted mainly of a custom-designed education programme. The purpose of the programme was essentially to strengthen the participants' (Reform, Zionist) Jewish identity and train them to become even better leaders in the movement.

I remember one seminar they ran called 'Big City, Jewish City'. We were driven from our home in Jerusalem to spend a full day in Tel Aviv, where we visited sites (Independence Hall, where Ben Gurion officially declared the State of Israel; the ultra-trendy Sheinkin Street; an early neighbourhood; one of the largest synagogues in the city; the street-side food and clothes market) and were to consider what made a city Jewish. Tel Aviv is obviously not yeshiva-bochering, historically saturated, Shabbes-stalling Jerusalem. It's just a big city in the Jewish state. This I knew back then. It's just a truth, factually. But it was only this Saturday night that I really felt it.

Immediately after Shabbat went out, Alex, Randy, Kerry and I travelled to Tel Aviv and celebrated Purim 24 hours earlier than everyone in Jerusalem. At first I had my doubts about how the night might turn out. Someone at the yeshiva had mentioned parties on the beach, but in the taxi from the Tel Aviv bus station to the Basel hotel (where, I'm told, there is a decent heart hospital on the second floor) the streets looked reasonably quiet. I reckoned the few people in Purim costume were probably tourists. The social dynamic was weird. We were all over-excited and clamouring for attention. We had grand, vague plans to go to unspecified clubs. But none of us knew the city that well.

Last minute I called my 20-year old cousin who lives in Tel Aviv. Dana was really happy to hear I was around. She was going out to meet a few friends herself. We should just meet her at a bar in Dizengoff Square.

We had a superb night. Dana was a big hit. Her two friends, Yossi and Amir, were fun, good people. She took us round one of the major bar areas and pointed out all the best places. She said of Jerusalem: "I spent a year there with the army and I hate that city." Of Tel Aviv: "Things have been hard the last three years. We've been at war, but the worse the situation gets the better this city parties and the more creative its people seem to become."

The bar we drank in put most of the London places I know to shame. The architecture was gorgeous, with thin tables hanging from the ceiling by iron cables. The crowd was casual and stylish. The music was funky and up-beat. There was hip-hop to whet Alex's appetite.

It hit me that Tel Aviv is not just a normal city. It's positively cosmopolitan, a sophisticated, worldy place. Why did this come as a shock? Maybe I didn't know the city before or maybe it really has come on in the last few years. Or maybe it was the specific experience of going from the capital's rarefied air to this liberated metropolis. As we went on to a cool, inexpensive hip-hop club I felt like I was breathing again ... but hadn't even realised I'd been having trouble before. Much like coming down from Oxford to London for the weekend: you have to get out to realise it's what you need.

This is not a 'Jerusalem bad / Tel Aviv good' polemic. I'm more conflicted than that. I don't want to live an entirely secular life any more than I do an entirely religious one. In Tel Aviv the biggest night to go out is Friday. Amir and Yossi were shocked when Randy showed them he was wearing tzitzit, the fringes religious Jews have at the corner of their shirt to remind them of their obligation to God. It's good that Randy challenged their view of who can be religious. A view that forms part of that very dichotomy that pulls me in two directions, encapsulated in Israel's foremost two cities, an hour away from each other but more different than I could imagine.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Early one morning three or four weeks ago, just after the collective body of American Conservative Rabbis had finished its annual conference in Israel, Alex and I found our Talmud study graced briefly by a special guest. Let's call him Rabbi Monty here - I don't want to reveal his real name. Monty's in his fifties I'd say, a community rabbi from eastern America. He was with us for ten minutes. It felt like a whirlwind passing through our humble chevruta. He drove the pace of our study, drawing diagrams, offering interpretations of meanings of phrases, reading ahead and anticipating the direction of the argument. And then he was gone, but not without first asking if Alex and I were around for dinner or a drink either that night or the next day.

That afternoon I was at the flat, on the computer, when the phone rang. It was Monty. Would Alex and I like to do that drink tonight? Sure I said, but I think Alex has some UJIA reception until 9 or so. I said he should check if he was free - he could find Alex at the yeshiva. Oh good, said Monty, that's where I was headed anyway.

I phoned Alex that night, after I'd finished a Hebrew lesson. Monty had come to the yeshiva again, but had said nothing to Alex. I phoned Monty's hotel room and left a message on the answering machine. He should call if it still wasn't too late, or we could always do tomorrow - just let us know. He didn't call back.

But he emailed both Alex and I when he got back to the States. He made no mention of his invitation / non-invitation. It was a basic good wishes message:

>To my 2 favorite Brits at the Conservative Yeshiva,
>I trust you have had a good week after all the rabbi visitors left. I hope
>we can keep in touch and I especially look forward to hearing about your
>progress in study
>Best wishes across the miles,

Alex wrote back with his pleasantries and I followed suit a day later. He wrote back to me immediately - something about how he hoped I didn't mind that he'd taken charge of our Talmud study that day. He said he'd be less forthright in his emails if I promised to keep in touch. I didn't reply - not out of any great spite or bad intention, only that I didn't have much to say or that much time.

A few days later Monty sends me this message:

>Dear Joel,
>Is Purim in the air as the Taanit ends and Shabbat looms?
>How does the long weekend play itself out in peoples plans?
>Can you believe that a young Jewish Professional group of
>[censored American city] is having a Havana Night on Megillah Reading Sat ev'g??
>What are your best recollections of Purim growing up in London??

Again I didn't reply, this time partly because I'm floored and bemused.

Today I got another message.

>Dear Joel,
>Can't wait to hear how your Purim was in Israel. I hope you carried the
>celebration to every extreme of our tradition.
>My own memories of the year at [censored institution] are spiced by the
>incoherrence of Purim. The spelling may be wrong but the spirit is
>unmistakable. I can only believe a Brit knows all the more how to do
>it right.
>Write soon please, and regards to all,

This time I replied. You must admit though, he does seem slightly deranged.

And you too can find out all about my Purim, as soon as I get some more time over the next day or so.

Friday, March 05, 2004

A tad lazy of me, but I'm sure you'll forgive me ...

10 things I have done this week:

1. Talked theology one on one with Shaya, the yeshiva resident mystic
2. Looked at what Jewish law says about women and the shofar
3. Had dinner with Rabbi Joel Levi
4. Watched Groundhog Day for the first time
5. Gone to see a depressing Ken Loach film about jobless Northerners trying to make ends meet
6. Enjoyed the constant 25 degrees centigrade weather
7. Studied the Book of Esther
8. Learnt about rabbinic approaches to the subject of death
9. Fasted for Taanit Esther
10. Bought my Purim costume

Purim falls on Monday in Jerusalem but Sunday everywhere else - so three of us are going to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, going clubbing and then coming back here to do the whole thing again. It's pretty much non-stop parties until Tuesday next week.