The Sceptic Blog

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The Man Who Didn’t Have To

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A rich man who had lived during the coronavirus pandemic died of natural causes years later and went towards Heaven.

The Angel in Charge asked him: “When you cancelled your house cleaners during the lockdown did you carry on paying them anyway?”

“No”.

“Why not”, asked the Angel?

“Because I didn’t have to”, the man said confidently; and he would have explained why he was quite in the right but the Angel was asking another question.

“Did you stay in your town home and resist the temptation to travel to your second home in the country where they didn’t yet have much COVID?”

“No.”

“Why not, asked the Angel?

“Because I didn’t have to”, said the man, and he would have carried on to explain why it was no real risk to the country and the law he was breaking was daft and didn’t really mean to apply to him but the Angel wasn’t listening and asked another question.

“Did you use your own money to pay the workers you couldn’t use in your factory during lockdown rather than the public money?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I didn’t have to”, said the man, and was about to give the Angel a lecture in free market economics; but the Angel had walked away and shut the gate.  The man tried it but it was locked.

“Hold on”, shouted the man “Why have you locked me out? Why won’t you let me in?”

“Because I don’t have to.”

Written by Daniel Greenberg

May 22, 2020 at 6:03 pm

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Kol Dichpin – A Seder Without Guests

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  1. This year around the world for the first time in living memory almost every seder this Pesach will have to take place without guests.
  2. I have set out my general thoughts on how our Judaism can best flourish at a time when the community cannot function – see my post What’s The Derech and Who’s off It – A Discussion of Core Jewish Values (below and at https://www.danielgreenberg.co.uk/shiurim-and-lectures/).
  3. But a specific issue arises for the seder: we will begin as always with a ritual announcement that all who are hungry should come and join us – and we will know that we do not mean it: that we have not been able to invite guests, and that there will be people sitting alone whom we would have loved to have invited.
  4. So, simply, what kavono can we have in saying “kol dichpin” this year?  Perhaps we should leave it out?
  5. It seems to me that we need to start now: there are many people for whom existing financial difficulties have been exacerbated by coronavirus; or whom the lockdown will have precipitated into new financial difficulties.
  6. There are also many wonderful charitable organisations which are doing their best to help.
  7. So if we make efforts to give to those organisations now a little bit more than we might otherwise have done (perhaps particularly where we have money that we might have spent on a large seder that is now available for other things) then we can sit at our seder table and in saying “kol dichpin” we can reflect that we have done our best to ensure that as many people as possible are joining our seder remotely, in the sense that we have shared with them before Pesach so that they can enjoy their seder in peace and comfort.
  8. L’shonoh ha’bo’oh b’Yerushalayim to us all – hoping that we can celebrate next year’s Pesach in a world that has been spiritually enriched by our collective experiences of a closer connection with God and Jewish values as a result of our enforced isolations.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 30, 2020 at 5:23 pm

What Is The Derech and Who’s Off It? A Discussion Of Core Jewish Values

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This is the text of a shiur I gave online on Sunday 22 March – see https://www.danielgreenberg.co.uk/shiurim-and-lectures/.

There are three words that many of us are going to become more familiar with over the next few weeks then we have been for the past many years. 
These are the words Keil Melech Ne’emon that we add before saying Shema if davening without a minyan.  For many of us, it has been relatively rare to say Krias Shema without a minyan, but over the past week and in the immediate future we are going to have to get used to it, and therefore to adding these words.

The words Keil Melech Ne’emon are added when we say the Shema on our own to complete the traditional 248 words of Krias Shema, corresponding to the traditional Rabbinic representation of the number of limbs in the body.  When we daven with a minyan the number of 248 is made up by the repetition of Hashem Eloikeichem Emess at the end by the baal tefillo, and when we daven alone we substitute for that by adding the words Keil Melech Ne’emon at the beginning.

Those words are chosen in part because they form an acrostic Aleph, Mem, Nun – making the word Omein, which is our traditional affirmation of the truth of what we say.

But the words are also individually interesting choices as preparation for the sentence in the Shema that articulates and asserts our belief in a single God.

The word Keil is one of the names of God, and it is one of the names that corresponds to or reflects the divine attributes of mercy and kindness, the Midas Hachessed.

The Vilna Gaon has an interesting elaboration on this theme which was told to me many years ago by my then neighbour in shul, Jack Ordman.  The Vilna Gaon notes that the two most common names of Hashem that we use – Yud Keh Vov Keh, and Eloikim, both represent core attributes of God, the first representing kindness and the second representing judgement. But the first two letters of Yud Keh Vov Keh themselves form a name of Hashem, and that name is associated with the Midas Hadin, the attribute of judgement. And the first two letters of the name of Hashem Eloikim form the shem Hashem Keil, the name appearing in the three words we say before the Shema, which also represent a separate name of God, in this case one associated with the Midas Hachessed, the attribute of mercy or kindness.  So, notes the Vilna Gaon, intrinsically incorporated within the attribute of mercy is an element of judgement, and intrinsically incorporated in the attribute of judgement is an element of mercy.

The second word that we say before the Shema – Melech – attests to God as King.  This has two implications for us. First, it reminds us of our voluntary subservience to God as our king, our choice to become citizens of a virtual kingdom – Meloich Al Kol Ho’oilom Kulo.  Having accepted the yoke of the kingdom of heaven – oil malchus shomayim – as we say in the preparatory paragraphs before the Shema, it becomes appropriate for us to feel and show an element of modesty in keeping with our selfclassification as servants of God as King.  On the other hand, the assertion of God as our King reminds us that there is a divine attribute of Malchus which we are required to emulate, as with all divine attributes, and which is articulated in the form of a power or strength, which we harness by showing moral courage and fortitude in our adherence to our faith.  (It is
this aspect of our proclamation of God as King that has led Jewish martyrs over the years to die with the words of Shema on their lips, showing the ultimate in moral courage.)

The third word – Ne’emon – also has two aspects to it. It represents something that we believe in, coming from the root Emunah – belief.  But that route is in itself two of the letters that make up the word Emess – Truth.  By adding the final letter Soph, we have the first letter of the alphabet Aleph, the middle letter of the alphabet Mem and the final letter of the alphabet Sof, the truth being the understanding of any situation that takes account of all its aspects from beginning to end.

The three concepts represented by these three words remind us of three characteristics attributed to each of the founding fathers of our religion, Avrohom, Yitchok and Yaakov – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The last verse in Micah, chapter 7:12 – “Titein Emess L’Yaakov, Chessed L’Avrohom” – reminds us that Avrohom ovinu exemplified chessed, while Yaakov ovinu exemplified Emess; and Yitschok ovinu exemplifies the dual resonance of Malchus: he was the first person represented as being content to die in the service of God the King (in the akeido) but he is also represented by the rabbis as exemplifying not weakness but the opposite – Gevurah – moral courage.

So the first word of our phrase Keil Melech Ne’emon represents the attribute of kindness, which corresponds with Avrohom Avinu. The second word represents the attribute of moral strength, which corresponds with Yitschok. And the third word represents the concept of belief and striving towards truth, which corresponds with Yaakov.

These concepts also correspond with a classic description in the Gemoro in Yevomos 79b of the eternal signs or characteristics of the Jewish people, the qualities which determine us as a nation: Rachmonim, Baishonim v’Gomlei Chassodim – compassionate, modest and doers of kindness.

As for the first – Rachmonim – we are said to display the characteristic of kindness, embodied in the name Keil which is the first of the three words that we say before the Shema.

The second – Baishonim, or modesty – is less a pre-occupation with particular issues of dress-code and more an all-round comprehensive modesty that is a natural product of an all-encompassing subservience to the Divine, and a consciousness of ourselves as being less important than the values which we serve and represent.  It is therefore a reflection of our acceptance of the Kingship of God, which is the second of the three words that we say before the Shema – Melech.

Gomlei Chassodim appears to repeat the motif of kindness, but it adds the concept of gemilut.  The Malbim and others explain the concept of gemilut as reciprocity, or some kind of inter-connection between the person doing the act and the person receiving it. At first sight this downgrades the concept of chessed from something being done out of love into being something done in the hope of mutual benefit.

We all remember that Rashi brings the midrashic commentary on the name of the bird the stork – the Chassidah – that it is given this name because it performs acts of kindness for its mate. The rabbis question on this why, in that case, is the Stork not a kosher bird as representing good Middos – good characteristics – rather than a treifa bird that cannot be eaten because it represents bad characteristics: and the answer is, quite simply, that chessed done to one’s family is not kindness, it is simply self-interest.

So when the Rabbis characterise us as Gomlei Chassidim they are not referring to disinterested kindness, but to something else.  (Of course, they have already included disinterested kindness in the concept of Rachmonim – compassion and empathy for others.)  Gemilus chassodim is about being part of a societal structure where rule-following insures the greatest good of the greatest number: it is part of yashrus – straight dealing, honesty and adherence to Emess – to truth – in our dealings with others, that is so much part of the Divine that according to the Talmud the very first question we will be asked in the next world is not about ritual observance or anything remotely connected to it, but simply “Nososo v’nosoto b’emunah? – did you deal with the rest of the world with Emunah – with strict adherence to the rules and dealing faithfully with the reciprocal system of the rule of law?”  And this concept of belief in truth links us to the last of the three words that we say before the Shema, Ne’emon.

There are three particularly famous occasions on which the entirety of Judaism is encapsulated in a single phrase.

At the end of Koheles – Ecclesiastes – Shlomo HaMelech says: “Sof dovor hakol nishma, es ho’eloikim y’ro v’es mitzvosov shmor, ki zeh kol ho’odom” – which freely translates as “At the end of the day all that matters for a person is to show real yiras shomayim – fear of Heaven – and to build her or his observance of the ritual mitzvos on that solid foundation”.

In Micah chapter 6:8 the prophet says “higid lecho odom mah tov u’ma Hashem doreish mimcho, ki im asos mishpot v’ahavas chesed, v’hatsnei’o leches im eloikeicho” – “What does Hashem want of you, other than to do justice and kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”.

And famously the Gemora in Shabbos 31a has Hillel respond to a request to teach the whole Torah at a single lesson by saying something along the lines of: “what is hateful to you don’t do to someone else, that is the whole Torah – the rest is commentary, go and learn it”.

This comment of Hillel relates directly to the reciprocal nature of Gemilus Chessed as the foundation of the rule of law, and was expressly referred to as such in the leading tort case Donoghue v Stevenson in the House of Lords in 1932, when Lord Atkins said “The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour.”

Each of these three encapsulations of Judaism has a slightly different emphasis; but they all expressly acknowledge that Judaism is a complete package, and that the moral traits of kindness, modesty and justice are the
bedrock on which the rest of our Jewish observance must rest if it is to achieve anything useful.

As we said in the name of the Vilna Gaon at the beginning, even the name of God that represents kindness has to show justice and truth within it, and all our three middos of Rachmonim, Baishonim v’Gomlei Chassodim are required to be individual facets of a balance incorporating the three concepts in a well-constructed coherent foundation on which our ritual performance can lie.

If we wondered why the orthodox Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally is haemorrhaging adherents, particularly among the young, we could do no better than simply ask ourselves – are we offering a perception of ourselves as a community that reflects these three concepts of Rachmonim, Baishonim and Gomlei Chassodim?  Are we obviously and clearly associated with compassion, empathy, modesty, moral courage, and adherence to truth and straight dealing?

Just asking the question is enough for us to give ourselves a resounding answer – no: as a community we clearly are not.

The key moral issues of today that our more spiritually attuned and morally-driven youngsters consider the most urgent are problems of global preservation, climate change, ecological destruction, and, as they come nearer to home, pressing ethical issues in relation to homelessness, poverty, equality, social isolation, discrimination and bigotry of all kinds.

As a Jewish community are we conspicuously in the forefront of addressing these moral issues? In a limited way, of course, we are well known for, for example, addressing issues of poverty – but most conspicuously within our own community.  We do look after our own – or perhaps we did more effectively than we do now.  It is true that we still have food distribution projects within our community, as of course so do many other local faith-based and purely secular communities; but in so far as they are community-based, again these are very much like the Stork doing chessed for its mate; this is self-interest in the preservation of our own community, not driven by our compassion to empathise with all human beings as creations of the Divine.

Of course, we do some of that as well. There are Jewish charities that operate in a wider field with conspicuous gallantry and great effect. But, again, is this what we are known for as a community?

On modesty, of course again there are many individual orthodox Jews for whom modesty is a byword: but how do we represent ourselves as a community? Are we more famous for moderation and modesty and walking humbly with our God, or for luxury cars, six-course weddings and expensive Paris-modelled clothes?

And on yashrus and emess – straight-dealing and truth – what should we take from the fact that the very first Jewish charity to close during the recession a few years ago in the UK was the Jewish Association for Business Ethics? As a community, we flock happily to any business providing goods that we require for our ritual observance, without asking or caring whether, for example, the businesses that we use pay their suppliers on time, avoid indulging in regular strategic bankruptcies, pay their staff properly and treat their competitors respectfully and in accordance with reasonable standards of commercial morality.  All too often, when instances of tax evasion, housing benefit fraud and other crimes of dishonesty are exposed within the community they are treated not with astonishment and expulsion, but with an acceptance that appears sometimes to transcend resignation and to flirt with admiration.

The present temporary destruction of our community is an extended Tisha B’Av, requiring us all to experience a hisbodedus – a one-to-one reconnection with God; and it is potentially a fantastically important opportunity for us to recalibrate the fundamentals of our community, and to rebuild it afterwards as a genuine reflection of our core values – Rachmonim, Baishonim v’Gomlei Chassodim.

Our increasing obsession with Toras Moishe – with the ritual side of Judaism – has without doubt been at the expense of our Toras Avrohom, the incorporation of the key values of Avrohom, Yitschok and Yaakov into our daily lives.  As a community, we have departed so far from incorporating core values into our daily observances that nobody can be surprised if our most spiritual and morally-driven youngsters look at the community as spiritually bankrupt, and desert it out of contempt.  If they are, as they so often are, driven into the arms of non-Jewish partners with whom they feel better able to establish a morally focused and ethically constructive life, whose fault is that: ours or theirs?  (Clue – it’s ours.)

The truth is that the answer to the question in the title of this shiur – Who Is Off The Derech? – is quite simple: the derech is off the derech.  Our community has strayed massively from its core fundamental values, and this period of isolation is an opportunity to reflect, to re-connect with God one-to-one, to re-calibrate and eventually to rebuild.

It’s lovely that services are being live streamed, shiurim are being live streamed and that we are doing as much as we can to maintain the services and institutions of our community.  But this should not be allowed to become a frustrating and necessarily largely illusory attempt to maintain our reliance on what is at least in part a spiritually dysfunctional community.  One of the positives that could emerge from this enforced isolation is that we reduce our reliance on community and strengthen our individual relationships with our own conception of a God of compassion, modesty, moral courage and truth.

Like all of us, I look forward to the restoration of our full communal functions: but I am not hoping for a return to normal.  Personally, I hope our community will never return to what has become normal: I hope that each of us will come out of this enforced seclusion with an enhanced personal relationship with God and the core values of the Divine, the realisation that our community has failed to incorporate those core values effectively for many years, and with a determination to refashion it in a way that includes into every aspect of our ritual lives and every aspect of our wider lives, the core Jewish values of compassion, kindness, modesty, moral courage, truth and straight-dealing.

Perhaps our new communities could be as involved in food banks for the wider community and anti-poverty initiatives for the whole world as with our own shabbos tables; wouldn’t it be lovely if every kiddush was matched with either a local foodbank or a community aid project in a less developed country, so that we can give real enthusiastic and energetic expression to our concern for others worldwide?  Wouldn’t it be great if every time we planted trees in Israel in honour of someone’s special occasion, we were also digging a well in a community regeneration project somewhere in Asia?  And wouldn’t it be great if we showed renewed energy and determination to solve social isolation issues within our own community – notably agunot,  absorbing geirim effectively and enthusiastically, and making room for those who don’t fit the clonestereotypes for any one of a wide range of reasons, but at the same time addressing the bigotry and discrimination that many of those people face in the general world?  So our new communities could be energetically involved in addressing issues of exclusion, isolation and discrimination both outside our community and within it.  Perhaps we could show that we take climate change at least as seriously – and address it at least as energetically – as those for whom it is the single greatest threat for the world today.  And perhaps our new communities will be as concerned with the ethics of the businesses that we deal with as with their standards of ritual observance.

If we do even some of these things then we will not return to normal, but we will rebuild something of much greater spiritual power than we have had for many years, and we will use our core Jewish values to reawaken the ruchnius of our people, and through our people the whole world, ad
sheyovo Melech, Goel U’Moschiach, bimheiro b’yomeinu omein, v’omein.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 30, 2020 at 5:11 pm

Coronavirus in Jewish Law and Thought

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  1. The sages say “turn it [the Torah] over and turn it over for you will find everything in it”.
  2. So what are the key Jewish messages in relation to the present state of the outbreak of coronavirus?
  3. There is a Biblical requirement to look after one’s health. That involves, in particular, not deliberately exposing oneself to unnecessary danger.
  4. There is also a rabbinic dictum that those involved in doing meritorious actions do not come to harm as a result.
  5. And there is another rabbinic concept based on a verse in the Psalms (God guards the simple) that those who do things through habit without really thinking whether or not they are good or bad for them, can look for a degree of divine protection.
  6. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein applied the latter principle to those who were already addicted to smoking when the dangers began to be publicly known apparent in the mid-20th century; and he used it to excuse their continuing in the habit of smoking, even after he was clear that it was halachically prohibited to begin smoking because of the biblical injunction to guard one’s health.
  7. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch has written that the principle of divine protection for the simple-minded could reasonably be applied when Rabbi Feinstein originally wrote about smoking, but that he would no longer have applied it now, given that it is no longer a question of an unknown degree of risk but a known and definite damage to oneself every time one smokes a cigarette.
  8. (Yes, it is true that there are still people who look like orthodox Jews and who smoke cigarettes: the answer to the conundrum is that they are not orthodox Jews, any more than are those who dress like orthodox Jews and fiddle their taxes or cheat on housing benefit by having their father-in-law buy a house through a limited company so they can sign that they are not related to their landlord.)
  9. So, where we are at the moment with the coronavirus spread in the UK, it is entirely reasonable to carry on life as normal and in the knowledge that Jewish law and thought requires reasonable precautions, but neither requires nor supports paranoia.
  10. So we go about our ordinary business but without exposing ourselves unnecessarily to obvious dangers, such as travelling without particular need into areas in the world where there are hotspots of the virus.
  11. Obviously that adds up to common sense: but isn’t it nice to know that God agrees?
  12. Two thoughts to add.
  13. First, there is a halachic principle requiring obedience to the law of the land. So if the law of the land requires self-isolation, for example, for people travelling back from a particular country, whether or not one thinks that is sensible or necessary as a matter of health and hygiene, we follow the law of the land as both a secular requirement and a religious obligation.
  14. Secondly, trying to look for positives in the present experience, traditional Jewish values place enormous emphasis on kindness to others, which was the foundation of the religion that Abraham discovered: and any public health outbreak creates multiple opportunities for kindness in looking after each other; so the present experience is a spiritual opportunity as well as a time of anxiety.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 8, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Who’s Afraid of the Holocaust? – or – What Are The Jews Frightened Of?

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  1. What are the Jews afraid of?
  2. It’s a question a lot of people have asked after the Chief Rabbi’s extraordinary intervention in the general election campaign. Does he really think that there’s going to be another Holocaust in 21st century England? And the answer to that is: maybe he does.
  3. But isn’t that stretching credulity a bit far? Gas chambers on Salisbury plain are surely a ridiculously unthinkable notion? Yes, they are (although not more ridiculous or unthinkable than gas chambers in civilised 20th century Germany).
  4. But in one sense at least, the enduring lesson of the Holocaust is not the atrocities that were carried out against Jews and many other groups of people, as much as the conditions that permitted those atrocities to become thinkable and feasible.
  5. Germany was one of the most sophisticated and developed rule of law societies in the world in the early 20th century.  Its Parliamentary and democratic traditions were refined and entrenched. And yet, in a matter of a couple of years, decades of democratic tradition in all three branches of the State – the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary – were blown aside as so much froth, and the rule of law was completely turned on its head.
  6. It is that which I and some other Jews fear more than any specific atrocity that might result, whether aimed at us or at any other specific section of society.
  7. The rule of law is fragile. And it is perhaps more fragile in those countries that take it for granted because they do not remember its absence, then it is in those countries that struggle with it daily and therefore appreciate its delicate nature.
  8. In the last few decades the United Kingdom has begun to habituate itself to taking liberties with the rule of law. This is not a party-political point. Governments of different complexions have allowed themselves to make constitutional changes without the kind of intense and lengthy consideration and scrutiny, long before the party-political cut-and-thrust of Parliamentary progress, that would once have been required to ensure that the likely implications of the changes were understood by all, and the necessary safeguards, balances and protections incorporated.
  9. And it isn’t only governments: the relationships between the Government, Parliament and the courts have come under unprecedented pressure in the last few months, and the authorities within each branch of the constitution have found themselves making or accepting enormously radical constitutional change without any kind of preparation, and sometimes without appearing to recognise the wider implications of action taken to secure a specific short-term result.
  10. It is this that is enough to give a sense of unease to those who fear the fragility of the rule of law.
  11. Whoever wins the general election needs to take to heart the message of the Holocaust as a wake-up call not in relation to the perpetration of atrocities, but in relation to the need to protect the rule of law. They need to reflect on the pace of change in the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution, and they need to consider how to slow it down, and how to ensure that our constitution develops, not through knee-jerk reactions for short-term gain, but as part of a consensual process bringing in as many different people as possible, to cherish and protect the core values of our rule of law society while ensuring that it is flexible enough to allow the political and societal pendulum to swing unimpeded backwards and forwards through the generations.
  12. That may require a written constitution; or the codification of parts of the constitution; or it may not. But it certainly requires thought. Thought about the future of the Union; about the role of referendums in allowing “ordinary” people to feel that they influence politics which therefore becomes relevant to them; about how to protect the judiciary from perceptions of political bias; and about many other aspects of what we have taken for granted for a dangerously long time.
  13. Constitutional reform is urgent in a number of ways: but it is so urgent that it must not be hurried. Nor must it be carried out in a way that serves, or appears to serve, any one side of any particular argument.
  14. Otherwise the constitution and the rule of law will become a political football, kicked back and forth between ever-widening gulfs separating self-serving and increasingly fanatical political opinions, from all parts of the political spectrum.
  15. And that’s what the Jews – and everybody else – should be afraid of.(Daniel Greenberg is a lawyer specialising in legislation, and a Director of the Constitution Reform Group.)

Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm

Skip the Skips: An Environmentally Responsible Approach to Passover

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  1. Discussing the commandment of not leaving over any of the Passover sacrifice to the next day, the Sefer Hachinuch explains that in order to show our liberated status, coming out of slavery in Egypt and becoming a free people, we are copying monarchs and rulers who as an expression of their wealth simply destroy any food left over at the end of a meal and have no need or wish to preserve food from one day to the next.
  2. Social conditions and social consciences have changed, both for monarchs and for ordinary people in the intervening period since this was written.
  3. No responsible person today would think it appropriate at the end of a banquet simply to throw all the remaining food away: with hunger facing people even in the most developed countries of the world, this would be an act of gross insensitivity, and thought is routinely given by caterers at all levels in society as to how to use leftover food in an appropriate way.
  4. This thought about changing social conditions has no direct application to the Passover sacrifice today because we do not bring it: it does, however, have direct application to our preparations for Passover.
  5. Not so long ago it was common for local councils in areas with large Orthodox Jewish populations to provide an extra rubbish bin collection on the day before Passover, and to set up communal skips into which people were invited to throw their leftover chometz (non-Passover) food on the day before Passover itself.
  6. It is inconceivable that this would be thought appropriate by responsible people today: burning a slice or two of bread in the garden on the day before Passover as a symbolic rejection of the grosser forms of materialism is one thing: throwing into a skip significant quantities of good food for which the homeless and the hungry would be grateful is entirely another.
  7. The message for today’s age is simply this: the mitzvah of biur chometz (destroying leavened food) starts now, or even earlier, with a concerted effort to wind down the larder so as to ensure that on the day before Pesach we have very few open packages of non-Passover food still around, and we can move into the symbolism of a simpler lifestyle for the duration of Passover without committing acts of irresponsible and disreputable waste.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 24, 2019 at 1:52 pm

The Urgency of Rabbinic Regulation

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  1. Here is a post that was published last week (in almost exactly this form) in the Jewish Chronicle online.  Predictably, it’s had a fair amount of reaction, positive and negative.  Someone this morning asked why it wasn’t on the Sceptic Blog – so now it is.
  2. Here we go again: another rabbinic scandal to sweep under the extraordinarily capacious carpet of Anglo Jewry. Whatever we do, this must be hushed up as quickly as possible and, in particular, let’s hope it doesn’t get into the national press, because the Eleventh Commandment of Anglo Jewry over the decades has been “thou shalt not wash dirty linen in public”.
  3. The problem is that, as we have seen time and again, private laundries don’t wash.
  4. It is true that instances of financial or sexual misbehaviour by the Anglo-Jewish Rabbinate are relatively rare, although less rare than one would hope given the nature of the vocation. But looked at in the round, the rabbinic cadre is for the most part mediocre at best and significantly under-performing at worst.
  5. While there are a number of community Rabbis who are extraordinarily inspiring in their dedication to their community and tireless in its service, they are the exception rather than the rule. The perception held by some that the quality of the communal rabbinate is in general superb rests largely on the low standards expected of them, and the lack of transparency and accountability around their role that encourages a culture of flourishing mediocrity.
  6. Sometimes when I am being told how wonderful a communal rabbi is because he visited somebody in hospital or gave thorough attention to a family wedding or funeral, I point out that this is precisely what they have been paid for: and with many rabbis on remuneration packages amounting to actual or full-time equivalent salaries that many of their communities can only dream of, when one calculates an hourly rate for their performance, the heroism of spending several hours a day visiting their parishioners in hospital suddenly appears in context to be nothing more than simply performing their job in the way that the rest of us have to do without the compensation of uncritical adulation.
  7. In part this is because the expectations of communities have become matched to their experiences over time. And perhaps because it is “public money”, synagogue boards are less rigorous in determining what value for money they are getting day by day from their rabbi than they would be in other professional circumstances.
  8. But the main reason why rabbis can perform poorly and get away with is because there simply are no properly regulated standards for the rabbinic profession. While contracts have become more detailed and, to some extent, restrictive than they used to be, there is no systematic method of regulation or enforcement to support the greater detail on those contracts.
  9. If I am unimpressed or offended by the performance of my doctor, my lawyer, my dentist or any other trained professional, there is a clear method by which I can complain. And that applies to simple under-performance as much as to rarer cases of misconduct or impropriety.
  10. What can I do if I feel that my local rabbi did not give proper attention to a particular family funeral, did not bother to find out enough about the family before addressing it, and was possibly insensitive or even improper in the comments that he made? The answer is that there is nothing I can do that is likely to achieve any constructive results.
  11. There is no professional body that regulates the rabbis in a transparent and accountable way and investigates complaints. In extreme cases I can of course complain to the Chief Rabbi – whose dedication and commitment to the community and to the quality of the Rabbinate is well-known – but there is no mechanism for him to make a transparent and accountable investigation and produce publicly identifiable results.
  12. This is simply unacceptable in today’s world. Even judges are now subject to an accountable and public investigatory mechanism for misconduct or significant under-performance (such as unreasonable delay in producing written judgments) and the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, far from diminishing the reputation of the judges, ensures that they can be seen to earn the respect that the system requires them to be accorded.
  13. Exactly the same is true of the rabbis; and in order to preserve the reputation of hard-working, honest and decent rabbis, it is now overdue that we have a proper mechanism for dealing with those who underperform or misbehave.
  14. Over the last few years a number of UK rabbis have behaved improperly and in some cases have left behind victims suffering from their behaviour in a number of different ways. The reaction of the community has been to enjoy a passing scandal, but beyond that the establishment has raced to cover up the wider picture and the mechanisms of reputational damage-limitation have taken precedence over thoughts about support and care for victims and imposing enforceable standards.
  15. We have no right to regard ourselves as a religious community if we do not establish a mechanism for dealing with abuse within the rabbinate, and accountable and transparent ways for people to address inadequate performance, so that we can go back to respecting the rabbis as a group knowing that those who deserve respect will receive it and those who don’t will be dealt with appropriately.
  16. (For those who have asked how my suggestion would have helped in the case of a rabbi who behaves improperly and then leaves his position and the country, the answer is that by having a central licensing process from which he could be formally removed, it would draw a line under the issue and hopefully help direct or indirect victims of his behaviour to feel some closure and public acknowledgment.)

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 17, 2019 at 11:33 am