Monday, April 26, 2004

Thou shalt not assume

Suppose the Torah did not say, “thou shalt not steal” would it be all right to steal? I read a report by a police detective in Israel, who said that whenever a particularly callous spate of crimes is noticed in a specific area, the first thing they check out is if there is an ex-ortho in the vicinity. You would have thought that anyone brought up with as many rules as we are, in a society as strict as ours, would at least retain a vestige of morality even after leaving. That is patently not the case, as most who deal with such cases will tell you.

The reason is simple. We are not taught morality. What we learn is what God and the Torah allow and what not. That is all. We do not teach a child that it is wrong to hit, we teach them it is an aveira (sin). We do not tell our children that you must not steal, we teach them that the Torah says you must not steal. The result is that if someone decides at some point that he does not believe in God and the Torah, he is left with no rules at all and no inherent sense of right and wrong.

I do not expect our Rebbes and teachers to start teaching human morality. I am not sure they could even if they wanted to. I do remember that our former headmaster, the late Alexander Feurstein, used to take five minutes every day during lunch to teach us a din (halachic rule). Between the usual things, like how to wash your hands before eating bread, how to stand during prayer and what blessing to recite for rice, he would slip in some little nuggets of common decency. “If you see a woman carrying heavy bags, offer her your help. Stand up on the bus if you see an elderly person or a mother with a baby and offer up your seat. Shut the gate if you are rambling in the countryside, to stop animals getting out.” He made no distinction between the kind of din that is mentioned in Halacha and those that human decency dictates.

I do not claim to remember all those little things he told me. I do still get irritated when I see people dropping litter and I know he was the one who drilled it into me, and I am proud that I was brought up that way. The Yesodey Hatorah is now but a shadow of its former self. Today most parents prefer to send their children to the ultra-Chassidic schools that cater to a much more fundamentalist stream. There is no room in today’s curricula for such frivolity.

I was going to open a business at one stage in my life, importing a certain product from the United States. When we discovered that someone in the community was already doing it my partner and I had second thoughts. He went to ask a Rav what to do. The answer he got was that it was Halachically permissible.
When he asked “What about meschlichkeit (common decency)? The Rabbi replied, “You want to be more meschlich than the Torah?"

I don’t, but I am loath to suppose that the Torah is as unnmenschlich as the behaviour of some of those being taught its ways seems to indicate. As Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame so aptly put it “What God wants, God gets, God help us all."

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Torah states that if two people bear false witness on another and they are proved by another pair of witnesses to have been elsewhere at the time they testified to have seen the innocent committing the alleged crime, they must be punished with the same punishment they plotted should be done to the innocent. Thus if they said they saw Mr X commit adultery, a capital crime, if they are proven to be lying they must die, if it was a monetary loss they would have caused, then it is money they pay.

The Talmud asks, if they bore witness that Mr X had divorced his wife and not paid his severance (ksuba), what do they have to pay?
The reasoning goes like this; The ksuba has to be paid if the husband dies or he divorces his wife. If she dies first or in some other extreme circumstances, she does not get her ksuba. So now either he is going to die first, in which case the ksuba would be paid anyway or she will die first and there is no ksuba for her and he would have lost the entire ksuba had the witnesses had their way. So what do we fine them for it?

The Talmud’s answers is; either his worth or hers. Cryptic but sharp, Rashi explains like so. The husband could go to a businessman and offer him the following deal. I have a ksuba on my wife for 100 pieces of gold. How much will you give me now so that if my wife dies before me I will give you the ksuba?

If we suppose a savvy business man would give 7 pieces of gold for a lotto ticket like that then the witnesses have caused him certain damage of seven pieces of gold, because by being forced to pay now he can no longer earn back those seven pieces. The rest is non-proveable loss at this time. That is his worth.

There is another deal the husband can cut. He can offer to buy her ksuba from her now, at a discount. How much would I have to give you now cash in hand so that if I die or divorce you I should not have to pay the ksuba? A clever woman I suggest, would go for half in hand now. The difference is the loss they would have caused. That is her worth.

A friend of mine was complaining today that the arrival of the ArtScroll Talmud with the all the commentaries boiled down to bite sized blurbs, was killing the ability of people to research and explore the Talmud in its original form. I just happened to learn this piece of Gemara today and I left my AtrtScroll aside to struggle through manually.

It took longer but the satisfaction was immense. I thought I would like to share such an exquisite piece of logic with you who have shared my finest whines too. (-;

Sunday, April 18, 2004

I'm an Alien - An Englishman In London?

When I was a young boy I had no questions about my identity. I was an English Chassid. As a Chassid in Stamford Hill there was no problem of split-allegiance, there was simply nothing to split it with. We painted Union Jacks to hang from the window when the Queen celebrated her golden Jubilee and proudly went with all the school when she did her walk-about in Hackney to see her and recite the Bracha (special blessing) for the only Queen who still merited one. Israel was to us a then a far away place where even the postmen were Jewish but that was about as far as it went.

When Menachem Begin was elected one boy in my class stood up and announced that a Frummer Yid had been elected as prime minister of Israel. He was awarded with a stint in the corridor for that piece of heresy. It was only as I grew older and we started talking about what Yeshiva we would attend that the issue of USA or Israel forced the question of my ‘position on Israel’ to the forefront.

Like most of my contemporaries the lure of ‘belonging to a country’ was stronger than the indifference we were served up in school and I became an avid Zionist. Of course in the shul it I went to one did not announce that in public but secretly we all did feel a surge of pride whenever some great coup was recounted that the ‘Tziyonim’ had carried out.

Today with my generation the parents and Balei Batim, and Israeli newspapers and products crowding our store shelves and filling our coffee tables that feeling of connection has become the norm although unfortunately the feeling of pride has become somewhat tarnished and often replaced by quiet discomfort and shared despair.

My children on the other hand are feeling something different altogether. For them the British ambiguity towards Israel and the negativity that they feel from the local media is creating a sort of ghetto defiance that is forcing them to ask themselves if they belong here at all.

The size of our community should give us enough clout to get our position heard and put across. It is not happening because we are not organised and demanding it. Instead of creating housing projects to house first the families and friends of those working in the Housing Association, Jewish organisations in Stamford Hill should be developing political clout and representation that will enable the community to continue to make their homes here and feel they belong.

Maybe if we could develop some pride in our community we could also stop the slide towards insularity and fundamentalism that is the obvious result of alienation.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

the Evils of Knowing Better

Grove Lane shul was a beautiful example of Jewish architecture and probably the last of its kind in Stamford Hill. When I was a child I remember going in there of a Shabbes morning just to see it in use. Its solemn presence moved me while its grandiose domed ceiling decorated with stunning murals and delicate carvings, gave it a presence that was so lacking in the dingy converted two roomed town house where we davened.

Grove Lane Shul is sadly no more. Having been bought by Visnits, in a move that at the time had me hoping that a new renaissance in Chassidic appreciation of architecture was finally underway; it is now a shabby and crumbling empty hall, standing limp testimony to our strident insistence that we ‘know’ everything better.

It is not only on the sad and amateurish decoration of our shteebles that this attitude is manifests itself. In education we have today a generation of teachers and principles who need no guidance from the professionals. So, while advances in educational methods are allowing dyslexic children all over the world to benefit from the advances in the understanding of what causes this condition and how to overcome it, our dyslexics are still being labeled underachievers by our expert educationalists. A recent survey of the Chassidic schools found one school with almost four hundred pupils that had not one single child diagnosed as dyslexic!

The medicine-doctor has returned in Chassidic society too, with young men like a certain ‘Rabbi’ in Israel who, with no formal medical training at all, advises patients from all over the world on matters of the utmost delicacy. Ostensibly he just tells people which doctor to go to but most who I hear from tell me that he also decides whether medical attention is necessary or not and shares his experiences with patients. London too has its own ‘medical practitioners’ who, with their ‘vast’ knowledge gained from their work in the Hatzole (a voluntary first-aid team) or by merit of their being on first-name terms with some Harley Street specialist, feel themselves qualified to advise patients on whether or not they need medical attention and where to seek it. In fact it is rare today for Chassidim with life-threatening diseases not to go and seek the advice of such quacks, to soon find themselves flying half round the world to ‘the only specialist who can help’.

The fact that the outcome is rarely different than what the first doctor suggested does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the poor patients or their families, who in their distress feel like they are doing less than they could if they do not seek such advice. Many a family I know have in the end found they have wasted vast sums of money, not to mention the final years with their loved one chasing the fools gold of the miracle cure on such advice.

Self –proclaimed shulem-bayis-machers (marriage guidance counselors) fly around the world offering their expensive and often useless advice to gullible couples that think that only a yid can appreciate their problems.

Meanwhile all over town shteeble after shteeble is springing up where the unifying force is the lack of any rules in design or behaviour. From Italy ugly cast copper church-chandeliers and wall light fittings, that for years lay gathering dust, are being gleefully bought up by eager young sidelocked young men each trying to prove that their shteeble is the fairest in the land. All over the Chassidic world from New York to Jerusalem monstrously ugly monuments are being built for obscene amounts of money that, to any eye not blinded by the elephantine glittering chandeliers, the garish marble stonework and primitively carved woodwork, look like the were designed by cutting and pasting bits from a picture book called Architectural Styles of the Last Millennium.

The same arrogance and over-developed self-assurance that has allowed individual Chassidim overcome their handicaps and allowed them to achieve a measure of success in their chosen field with little to no formal training, is now beginning to grow out of hand. We have come to believe that we can do anything we set out minds to, regardless of what the experts say. In the decoration of shteeebles it is ugly but will probably cause little lasting damage, except to the aesthetic sense of those growing up in them. In other fields however it can be, and in some cases is, reckless, dangerous and worryingly prevalent.