The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

The Binding of Isaac – Who’s Testing Whom?

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1.  We read the story of the binding of Isaac yesterday as we do every year at New Year.

2.  For years this story bothered me: what sort of a person is prepared to sacrifice his or her son to God, and what kind of God demands that sacrifice?

3.  The Torah singles out the idolatry of Molech as particularly objectionable on precisely the grounds of child sacrifice.

4.  So this may have been the tenth test of Abraham by God: but what was the point?  To find out if Abraham was prepared to be barbaric?

5.  I finally realised this year that the anxiety underpinning my issues with this story was simply “What if it had gone wrong?”

6.  Of course, the Medrash says that Isaac’s neck was turned to marble so that when Abraham tried to show his real determination to do whatever God demanded of him, he couldn’t harm his son.

7.  So Abraham was prepared to be barbaric and God had to stop him?  Again, what kind of a person does that make Abraham?

8.  I have finally found an answer that sort of satisfies me, at least for the moment.

9.  If Isaac had died, Abraham would have stopped believing in God.

10.  This was about Abraham testing God.  As he said at Sodom – “cholilo lecho …” – it is unthinkable for the God I know to punish the innocent for the sins of the wicked.  Here he is saying to God, if you make me kill my son to show my love for you, I will know that you are not worth loving.

11.  Many rabbis have said over the years that Abraham did not expect to be asked to kill Isaac in the end.  It would have contradicted Abraham’s entire conception of God as a God of justice and mercy.  But until he put the knife to Isaac’s throat in response to the Divine command, Abraham may have believed that Isaac would not have been allowed to die: but he could not have known it with certainty.

12.  The end of the test showed Abraham with absolute certainty that his earlier assessment of God’s ideals was correct, and that the values of justice, compassion and peace are indeed the foundations of our belief in and commitment to God.

13.  So, as someone asked me at the table yesterday: why is this presented as a test of Abraham, not a test of God.

14.  The answer is: the final test of Abraham was whether he was prepared to test God: was he prepared to set limits to his commitment to God, parameters to his belief, which he could not cross while remaining devoted to God’s service?

15.  We read this story on Rosh Hashanah as we set out to forge a new relationship with God at the start of the new year: to remind us that our relationship must be based on underpinning values, which bound and explain our conception of God.

16.  A person who will obey any command that comes from a religious book, a religious leader or even a religious vision, and never question or challenge it, is not a believer: he or she is an obsessive fanatic with no ideals or values underneath blind faith.

17.  As Jews, our faith is not in God, but in the characteristics that He has taught us as Divine: the thirteen attributes of God are in the fact the parameters of our belief.  When our religion tallies with the human instincts that are part of the Divine image in which we are created, we know we are on the right track.

18.  Hopefully this will be a year in which religious people around the world will listen increasingly to the promptings of our sound human instincts, so that religion can become a force that unites us in getting the best out of our common humanity.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 27, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Shemittah Year and the Heter Mechirah

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1.  I attended an excellent shiur on the halochos of shemittah this afternoon.

2.  The issues underpinning the controversy around the heter mechirah were carefully explained.

3.  The conclusion was that for preference heter mechirah produce should be avoided in chutz la’aretz; but that it can certainly be relied upon if necessary, and should not be avoided at the cost of causing offence or creating divisions.

4.  All fine so far as it goes: I would add one thing.

5.  At a time when people are boycotting Israeli goods, many Jews in chutz la’aretz who want to show their solidarity for Israel will see buying Israeli goods as one effective way of doing that: and they will certainly want to rely on the heter mechirah for that purpose and will be pleased to know that without doubt they have solid halachic ground on which to rely.

6.  Hopefully this year will bring peace to Israel and the whole world, and we will all be able to support every nation’s commercial endeavours in a spirit of universal harmony.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 27, 2014 at 8:18 pm

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The Two Faith Solution

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1.  The Government’s proposal that students of GCSE Religious Studies would each have to show evidence of having studied two faiths has apparently united all faith groups in the UK in furious opposition.

2.  What a shame.

3.  In the Rosh Hashanah prayers tomorrow we repeatedly proclaim God’s kingship over the whole world – it is a universalist message, with very little about the Jewish people in it and a continual concentration on the challenges and opportunities of humanity.

4.  All around the world today we see religion being used as an excuse for the worst kinds of evil (including that particularly dangerous and insidious evil – simple indifference to others’ feelings, needs and sufferings).

5.  And all around the world we see that evil combated by simple humanity, expressing itself in a variety of forms and manners, some religious, some ethical, some pure – unlabelled – human instinct.

6.  The Rosh Hashanah liturgy celebrates the universality of the human condition – its weaknesses and its strengths.

7.  Why deny children the opportunity to do the same, just because they happen to be studying a GCSE?

8.  This is not a proposal for compulsory religious education for anyone; merely a proposal that if your own religion is important enough to you to be worth basing one of your school qualifications on, and if you would like that qualification to be recognised in the form of a public examination, you should accept the public’s wish to enhance your citizenship potential by simply learning a little bit about what motivates some of the other human beings with whom you share the world, and with whom you share most or all of the characteristics that shape and drive your own spiritual journey.

9.  Sounds like a good idea to me – and hopefully a recipe for a happy new year for us all.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 24, 2014 at 8:38 am

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Boruch Dayan Ho’Emes – Dayan Gershon Lopian Z’tzl

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1.  I once heard that the more effort a person takes to conceal his or her greatness in this world, the wider the Gates of Heaven are thrown open for them b’yom haDin.

2.  The Gates of Heaven are opened wide tonight.

3.  The Dayan spent more effort than most people spend in pushing themselves forward in keeping himself back.  He shrank from honour, from controversy, from ambition, from everything that is Moitzi es Ho’Odom Min Ho’Olom.  For his part, he could have gone unrecognised and unknown and been perfectly happy; which is why he was known and sought after from every corner of the world, why his telephone never stopped ringing, and why he will be irreplaceable.

4.  From the Dayan one could learn ahavas habrios.  He loved every human being.  He loved the weak, the broken, the silly and the ineffectual; and he even loved those who didn’t think they were any of those things.  He had time for us all.  His ‘phone number was on Directory Enquiries for all to see: and he answered his own ‘phone – you didn’t have to pluck up courage to get through a wall of secretaries or to explain your business; if you needed an ear and an answer, you got both.

5.  From the Dayan one could learn sholom.  He was always interested in people –  but he was never interested in taking sides, or leading or supporting battles for anything.  His infectious smile and laughter dissolved discord and united people in ahavas haTorah.

6.  From the Dayan one could learn emes.  He was afraid of nothing and nobody.  If something was nonsense you were told it was nonsense.  If something was wrong, no amount of discussion would make it right; and if it was right, no amount of pressure would make it wrong.

7. Boruch Dayan HoEmes.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 30, 2014 at 6:32 pm

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Limmud – A Plea for Intolerance

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1.  As the date for this year’s Limmud Conference draws nearer, the Jewish community is able to put aside the distracting trivialities of past months – minor irritations like discovering that the rabbinate is completely unable to provide an effective system for investigating allegations of sexual abuse by rabbis – and concentrate on the all-important task of infighting.

2.  The Limmud controversy is enlivened this year by two novelties.  First, the new Chief Rabbi Mirvis has publicly announced his intention of attending.  Secondly, in response, letters have been published by orthodox rabbis denouncing the event.

3.  The fact that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has decided to go is hardly startling.  Since he opened his term of office by declaring his wish to act for all kinds of Judaism – progressive as well as orthodox – he would have lost every shred of credibility that declaration carried had he refused to attend the main pluralist and inclusive event in the communal calendar.  Nor does it require particular courage: it will make no difference to the chareidi community’s attitude to his chief rabbinate – when it suits them they will use him and when it doesn’t they won’t.  (It probably won’t make any real difference to the progressive communities’ attitudes to him either; they will pocket the gesture and demand more, pushing him beyond wherever he draws his boundaries in order to assert their need for separate recognition by the secular authorities.)

4.  The letters of condemnation are pretty futile too.  With one exception, those that I have seen are very much in the “preaching to the converted style”, and do not even pretend to argue in a way that will convince anyone who needs convincing.  The one exception is a modern orthodox Rabbi who has written a brilliant description of his personal attitudes to the event.

5.  The battle – trivial, parochial and communally-self-absorbed as it is – has of course been lost years ago.  Outside Chareidi circles, it has long been regarded as intolerant and bigoted to object to Limmud.

6.  So perhaps this is a reasonable time to remember that Judaism has always been, theologically speaking, intolerant and bigoted.  In human terms, Jews have always been – if they follow their religion – generous, humble and unlimitedly tolerant in their dealings with Jews and non-Jews alike.  In theological terms, there is no room in orthodox Judaism for compromise, or for acceptance that any other religion or version of religion has any truth that is not also found in orthodox Judaism itself.

7.  It is this theological intolerance that would lead many orthodox Jews to feel uncomfortable at an event that has pluralism and the acceptance of pluralism at its heart.  They like their educational events to take place in an atmosphere of respect for orthodoxy as the only authentic version of Judaism.  The presence of progressive educators being presented as equally valid sources of education and inspiration as orthodox rabbis would be enough to make many orthodox Jews feel profoundly uncomfortable.

8.  All  very bigoted and intolerant: but I wonder if the spirit of tolerance and generosity that prevails at Limmud (or so I am told) can find room to feel tolerant and generous spirited towards those of us who stay away because we genuinely believe that our religion requires us to be bigoted and intolerant?  (Or is it, perhaps, infected with an intolerance and inverted bigotry of its very own?)


Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 10, 2013 at 10:51 am

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Knocking the Rabbis … Into Shape

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1.  A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking part in a Shabbos afternoon panel at Alei Tzion shul in Hendon, chaired by its Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, and consisting of Dayan Lichtenstein, Rabbi Michael Pollack and myself.  The subject was whether rabbinic authority is damaged beyond repair by recent events in the UK, Israel and America.

2.  You can see an account of the discussion here:

3.  I see from that account that I called for an independent regulatory body to work across all Botei Din.

4.  And so I did; the idea had been wooffling around in my mind for some time, but the event somehow crystallised it into a simple thought.

5.  The catalyst was something that Rabbi Pollack said: in a helpful attempt to keep the event peaceful and constructive he observed that most rabbis of course do a good job.  In an unhelpful attempt to keep the event provocative and constructive I disagreed, and said that by and large our rabbis do a fairly mediocre job, and that we have come to expect so little from them that our expectations are easily exceeded by very moderate performance.

6.  How often is a rabbi commended as wonderful for having visited a parishioner in hospital when that is no more than precisely what he is paid a hefty salary for doing?  I am all in favour of rabbis and other workers being commended for performing beyond the call of duty, but that should be tested against a reasonably exacting and challenging initial threshold of what that duty should be.

7.  We do have some wonderful and inspiring rabbis in the UK community today; and we have very few really bad ones; but we have a fair number of unimpressively mediocre ones; and with the system as it stands there is little impetus for them to strive to improve themselves as a profession.

8.  Recent events have shown the lack of a disciplinary body, such as other professions have, for dealing with misconduct by rabbis that is not, or may not be, criminal in nature.  But on reflection I see that there is an equal need for a body that can deal with issues that are not about misconduct, but merely poor performance (along the lines of the Medical Professional Performance Act that I drafted in 1995).

9.  The more I think about the idea, the more useful I think it could be; and it really need not be very complicated to establish.

10.  We need a group of communal activists who are prepared to act as an unpaid disciplinary body for rabbis, including a chair with experience in employment law and a panel of unpaid rabbinic advisers.  Hopefully nobody would be called on to act very often, and the body could sit in separate panels (as do many professional regulatory bodies) each consisting of perhaps one person with employment law experience and two or three lay-members, with a rabbi in a purely advisory capacity.

11.  Complaints about poor performance and misconduct could be referred to this body in accordance with its rules.

12.  Now comes the simple bit – every new contract offered by any congregation would include a clause providing for all complaints about poor performance or misconduct to be considered by the disciplinary body in accordance with its rules.  The rabbi and the employing organisation would agree to be bound by the body’s decisions.

12.  There are one or two more details that might need to be thought through – but that is the essence.  (Halachic enforcement considerations are significant but not insurmountable.)

13.  One result would be to provide real protection for the community from misconduct and inefficiency by rabbis – much more importantly, however, the system could serve as the basis for new professional standards that rabbis could set for themselves, and therefore as a mechanism for restoring trust in, and the moral authority of, the profession that is meant to be the backbone of our religion.



Written by Daniel Greenberg

August 6, 2013 at 2:18 pm

North Hendon Adath Yisroel – Time to Leave the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations

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  1. Tomorrow morning iy’h the North Hendon Adath Yisroel Synagogue will hold an Extraordinary General Meeting to decide whether or not to leave the UOHC.
  2. I hope and pray that we do leave, if only for the selfish reason that then I will be able to return and daven in my local shul to which I have belonged for about 20 years.  For the last two weeks I have felt unable to set foot inside the building, and this post explains why.
  3. Abuse of the vulnerable is a natural human temptation, and it is therefore inevitable that in any community someone will sooner or later be abused by someone else.
  4. The test of a community is not whether it can prevent abuse, but how it handles abuse when it happens or is alleged.
  5.  Indian society today is having to take a long and painful look at itself to work out how it has allowed attitudes to women to deteriorate to such a degree that abusive and violent treatment of women had become so commonplace that the atrocity that occurred a few days ago was simply waiting to happen (or had already happened further from the public, and international, eye).
  6. Catholic society around the world has been having to take a long and painful look at itself for some time to work out how child abuse had become in effect tolerated and condoned by a religious institution.
  7. Until very recently, many orthodox Jews may have had our fears that perhaps abuse – which must inevitably occasionally happen in our community since we are as susceptible to human failings as any other community – may not have been being handled properly.  But I for one have not felt it necessary to confront these fears openly and investigate them – perhaps I should have done, but to look the other way is another strong human temptation.
  8. In the words of one of the most powerful activism songs of all time, “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? … How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”.
  9. The crying is now too loud to pretend not to hear it; and to turn ones head in today’s situation makes one morally complicit in what is happening.
  10. The Torah law of sexual offences makes an important distinction.  Where a woman has an adulterous relationship in a populated area, she is unable in effect to plead that she was forced because the Torah asks why she did not cry out; in the countryside, however, the Torah plaintively notes “maybe she did cry out and there was nobody to hear”, and expands that maybe she did not cry out only because she knew there was nobody there.
  11. The women of India had almost given up crying out at the degrading treatment to which many of them are treated every day, because they feared that in one of the most densely populated areas of the world there was still nobody who cared to hear them: they have just found new voice, and one hopes and prays that the ears of all Indian society will listen.
  12. The vulnerable of the London orthodox Jewish community have apparently just cried out.  A number of specific allegations of abuse have been made against one of the most powerful and respected Rabbis of the community.  I am not required or able to pass judgment on whether these allegations are true or false: but as a member of the community I am morally obliged to satisfy myself that the cries of the vulnerable are listened to in an appropriate way.
  13. There is only one appropriate way to listen to allegations of abuse in our community.  Our botei din have no criminal jurisdiction; so in any matter of law that is not confined to a dispute between individuals about property matters that can be arbitrated under the Arbitration Act 1996, we are obliged both as a matter of halachah and as a matter of secular law to present evidence of any alleged crime to the police, and evidence of any other kind of abuse of the vulnerable to appropriate civil authorities (such as the social services).
  14. If we believe that perhaps an allegation of abuse may not amount to an allegation of a criminal offence, whether because the acts complained of may have been consensual or for any other reason, we need to leave it to the police and the prosecuting authorities to look at the evidence and make a decision.  It is not for us to decide, for example, whether apparent consent is vitiated by having been obtained through undue influence or through fraudulent misrepresentations as to the halachic position; those are matters on which we could only speculate but the prosecuting authorities first, and possibly later the courts, are equipped and obliged to decide.
  15. If we are to be a God-fearing community, our self-regulation must be efficient and effective, and it must know its limitations and engage with those outside people and authorities who are available to take over where self-regulation is no longer available.
  16. The only proper response to anyone who comes to a rabbi with an allegation of having been abused is “get in my car and I will take you to the police station, I will stay with you while you make a statement to the police, and I will support to my last breath your right and duty to have your allegation investigated by the authorities of the State, so that wrong-doers can be punished and deterred, and other vulnerable people can be protected”.
  17. Members of our self-absorbed and insular community will of course be very reluctant to go to the police.  It is never easy or pleasant for someone to make a complaint about a sexual offence.  But many women, children and men have found the courage to go through the traumas of the court procedures, at horrendous personal emotional cost, in order to make sense of what has happened to them by using it to prevent the same from happening to others.  Members of our community may have additional fears for themselves and their families: but outspoken support from the rabbis acting together can allay those fears, and if they do not provide that support then they do not deserve to be our rabbis.
  18. The fear of washing dirty linen in public is something I have never been able to understand.  Dirty linen smells: to pretend there is no dirty linen in the cupboard deceives nobody.  And why go through the charade of a pointless pretence anyway?  It is no disgrace for ones linen to get dirty: but it is a disgrace not to take it to the wash in the same way as everybody else.
  19. To encourage people not to take criminal allegations to the criminal authorities, or to encourage them to use alternative, necessarily ineffective methods of “resolving” potentially criminal matters, rests on a failure to understand the halachic implictions of the law of mesirah as it applies in the context of the political and legal structures of the United Kingdom today.   The Torah forbids recourse to the secular courts in matters where a Beis Din is competent; and it forbids recourse even in other matters to an arbitrary, unjust and inherently anti-semitic system.  There are no Cossacks in the UK today; and although the police and courts are not perfect, and miscarriages of justice will occur, there are mechanisms for righting even those; and they are not as inevitable to begin with as the injustice that is bound to occur when criminal allegations are dealt with in an informal manner by people who are neither trained nor appointed to assess them, nor have effective remedies to deal with them.
  20. “Leave the rabbis to sort this out – we can make the place too hot to hold any perpetrators”, as well as resting on this halachic misconception, can result only either in perverts being shunted from place to place to reoffend once people’s short memories have become confused with the passage of time, or in innocent people being driven from their homes and their livelihoods based on insufficiently tested evidence.  This behaviour is not only wilfully ineffective, but may, depending on the precise circumstances, amount to the criminal offence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
  21. As for behaviour which after full analysis of the available evidence, and full cooperation from the community, the police or the Crown Prosecution Service decide is not criminal, or is not sufficiently evidenced to make a conviction likely, at that point the question of self-regulation arises again.  The rabbis need to have, as do the medical and other professions, a process for dealing with allegations of professional impropriety not involving (or not necessarily involving) criminality.  That procedure needs to be transparent and efficient, following due process in an accountable and public way (subject to such privacy as is justified in individual cases for publicly recorded reasons); and it needs to engage effective and proportionate remedies.
  22. I can happily belong to a community in which I am not the only imperfect human being; I cannot belong to a community in which my silence is part of the collective cowardice and institutional inertia that allows the cries of the vulnerable to go unheard.
  23. North Hendon has always been a remarkable community.  If nothing demogs like demography, in the same way few things geog like geography: as a result of being set a little apart physically from the rest of the orthodox Jewish community, we have always had a degree of objectivity.  Now is a time to put that objectivity, and its consequent clarity of vision, to good purpose, and to show the rest of the community the way: leaving the Union may be only a small gesture, and it may only be a start, but it is at least a start to putting our community back on the sound moral basis which is its only justification for existing in the first place.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

December 31, 2012 at 1:15 pm


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