The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Another Rabbi goes to prison – no news there …

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  1. The really depressing thing about the reports that former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger is to plead guilty to corruption charges in a plea bargain is how completely un-shocking the reports are.
  2. I don’t suppose anybody is surprised that an Israeli Chief Rabbi was prepared to take bribes.
  3. How shocking is it that it’s no longer shocking?
  4. Never mind – let’s just keep repeating the mantra Mi K’Amcho Yisroel and not worry about the real world …
  5. Sometimes it seems that almost every large Jewish religious institution around the world is beset by scandals of corruption and abuse.
  6. Perhaps that means that individual Jews need to become completely self-reliant for recognising and applying Jewish values in their own daily lives, and cannot expect to get much in the way of reliable guidance from anybody else.
  7. And perhaps that’s no bad thing …

Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 7, 2017 at 10:20 pm

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Small Claims Beis Din

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  1. A UK Beis Din (rabbinic court) has just announced a new small claims service for claims between £500 and £5000 where both parties choose to use it; the guarantee is that they will “receive a brief, written, binding psak within 72 hours”.
  2. I must be missing something.
  3. It’s great that a Beis Din is promising a swift decision: one of the embarrassing features of the Beis Din system in this country is how long cases are sometimes allowed to drag on.
  4. But what’s that got to do with the value of the claim?
  5. Everybody knows that the complexity of a claim and its value do not necessarily correlate.
  6. In secular courts, there are a number of practical reasons why small claims are provided with a range of faster tracks.
  7. A Beis Din is meant to do one of two things: (a) determine a compromise; or (b) decide the truth of liability.
  8. There is no reason why either of those should be quicker with a “small” claim (and which part of the community is the Beis Din prioritising if it considers £5,000 a “small” claim?).
  9. The speed of the resolution should be determined by the complexity of the case, not its value.
  10. Instead of offering a service that equates complexity with value and thereby inevitably risks giving decisions that are poorly thought out in order to meet an artificial 72-hour deadline, all Botei Din should concentrate on treating all cases as urgent, and providing answers as quickly as is consistent with the search for Torah justice.
  11. If the parties don’t care whether a decision is right or wrong but just want it quickly because the claim isn’t big enough to matter much to either of them, they’d do better tossing a coin.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 7, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Copyright and Copywrong

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  1. I sat in a shiur a few weeks ago given by a rising star presently learning for a dayonus semichah (ordination as a judge of Jewish civil law) in a prestigious institution in America.
  2. The handout included a diagram which he mentioned he had copied from a particular contemporary edition of a standard Jewish work.
  3. After the shiur I suggested that he should add to the handout the details of the permission given by the copyright owner for the reproduction, in order to avoid the prohibition of ma’aris ho’ayin (creating reasonable suspicion that he might have behaved improperly).  He beamingly replied that this was why he had mentioned that he had copied the diagram, because that made it okay.
  4. I had to explain that telling people where you’ve copied from doesn’t make the copying lawful: any more than it becomes lawful for me to steal money from your pocket just because I tell the shopkeeper where I pinched it from when I spend it.
  5. He thanked me politely, but I’m not sure he was convinced.
  6. And he is going to be a dayan …
  7. (Even if they hadn’t got around on the course to learning about intellectual property, you would hope that they would enter the course with enough common sense to work out for themselves that just saying where you got something doesn’t make it yours.)
  8. It’s about time that everyone got the message that any shiur handout sheet that contains a reproduction from any work that is likely to be under copyright protection anywhere in the world should be treated like poison and avoided unless it clearly states that permission was sought and obtained, and recites compliance with any conditions.
  9. (Anyone who thinks that so long as it’s only a few pages nobody will care is wrong: a few years ago Rabbi Cooper ztz’l asked me to make a few copies of the Terumah and Ma’ser Brochos from the Artscroll Siddur – I contacted Artscroll and although I only wanted to make a few copies for non-commercial use they were rightly careful to inquire into the precise circumstances, and they kindly gave their permission on specified conditions.)
  10. Tzion b’mishpot tipodeh – which roughly translates as “Until we bring up our youngsters with a reasonably instinctive understanding of right and wrong, and an appreciation of the difference between meum and tuum, we might as well save ourselves the trouble of praying beseechingly and endearingly for Moschiach to come.”

Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 3, 2017 at 4:08 pm

Carlebach Minyanim and Nigunim

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  1. This has been worrying me for a while.
  2. Shlomo Carlebach wrote wonderful tunes that without doubt help people to make their prayer and song spiritually richer.
  3. But some people say he also behaved inappropriately: there are allegations of sexual abuse of minors and of other sexually inappropriate behaviour.
  4. These allegations are anecdotal and appear online in a few places: so far as I can discover, during his lifetime he was never charged formally with any offence.
  5. There may be something in these allegations; and there may be nothing in them.
  6. So – “innocent until proved guilty” and sing on?
  7. I’m not sure it’s so simple.
  8. If I were a victim of sexual abuse by Carlebach, how would I feel every time I saw another Carlebach Minyan starting up?  And how would I feel every time one of his songs was started up to turn a service into a rousing chorus?
  9. I would feel neglected by a community that seemingly doesn’t care whether or not I was abused.
  10. Having thought about it for a while and investigated a little bit online, it seems to me that the allegations are sufficiently serious to need some kind of investigation (the only investigation I have seen mentioned online does not seem to me to have been sufficient).  The international Jewish community should find a way of setting up a credible investigation into the allegations, followed by a report (difficult, but not impossible – there are some precedents we could draw on).  That report would either conclude that it is beyond reasonable doubt that Carlebach behaved improperly; or that there is no credible evidence that he behaved improperly; or that there is some credible evidence, but insufficient to be sure either way.
  11. After that, individuals could make up their own mind about what that meant for their own attitude to his music.
  12. But until then, the only message we are giving is that we don’t really care.  To embroider a theme from Blowing In The Wind, if we have sufficient ears to hear the beauty of Carlebach’s music, we should have an equal ability and desire to listen to the cries of those who claim to have been abused by him.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

December 27, 2016 at 8:34 am

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Clarifying Jewish Orthodoxy by Disowning Murderers and Paedophiles

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1.  The vicious and depraved lunatic Yishai Schlissel who murdered a marcher on the Gay Pride event in Jerusalem is described in the press – not unreasonably given his appearances and pretensions – as “an ultra-Orthodox Jew”.

2.  The chillingly sane child-abuser Todros Grynhaus is similarly described for similar reasons.

3.  Grynhaus’ Counsel told the judge in court that “Part of the punishment for this man is of course the shame and exposure and social ostracisation within his own community”.

4.  So far, that is, of course, unhappily not true.  The only people who have been shamed, exposed and ostracised are the victims.

5.  Orthodox Judaism needs to act fast and decisively.  Unless we all act together both to proclaim that violence and abuse are incompatible with orthodox Jewish observance and show by the community’s actions that knowledge, zeal and money will not be reasons to acknowledge murderers and paedophiles as part of our community, then we will be rightly tainted as a community in the eyes of the world.

6.  Community is about membership with rules.  If the rules of the Jewish orthodox community are not effective to protect the vulnerable and to enforce basic standards of human decency, it will no longer be morally tolerable to be seen to identify with it.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

August 2, 2015 at 3:52 pm

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Neo-Nazi Demonstration in Golders Green

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  1. The Neo-Nazis who are proposing to hold a demonstration in Golders Green this coming Saturday have chosen well.
  2. The timing is good: we are approaching the three weeks, culminating in the 9th of Av, when we commemorate Jewish persecutions throughout the ages, and remind ourselves that our enemies are (unwitting) messengers of God from whose actions we need to learn something.
  3. And the content of the demonstration is good: they propose to burn copies of the Talmud and Israeli flags.  The Talmud contains and represents the whole of Jewish ritual, and the land of Israel provides and represents Jewish physical security.
  4. On Saturday, as the Neo-Nazis burn the Talmud and the Flag, I will take this as an important reminder of the need to ensure that my Jewish belief is internal and self-reliant.  It is about my personal relationship with God, based on Abraham’s teachings of recognising a single Creator and being inspired by that recognition to serve Him through kindness to others.
  5. It is easy to become too reliant on religious ritual for our spiritual habits, and to become too trusting in the State of Israel for our national physical security.  The Neo-Nazis will remind us that both of these are fragile, and that neither of them is what matters.
  6. As the old liturgical poem has it: “I will build a sanctuary in my heart” – nobody can destroy that.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

June 25, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Chad Gadya – A Spiritual Cycle

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1. Every year at the Seder table we all notice that the “wise” and “wicked” sons use similar terminology in talking about the Pesach, but only the wicked son is rebuked.  They both say something along the lines of “what does this mean to you”, without including themselves.  Lots of explanations are offered, and the one that strikes the strongest chord with me sees the four sons as four generations.

2.  The “wise” son is “clever” in a pejorative sense – a common use of the Hebrew “chochom” – he thinks he will make Judaism easy for himself by saying to his father – “tell me what the rules are but don’t bother me with the explanations – I’ll do whatever you do because I want to be ‘frum’ and stay within the exclusive social circle, but I don’t see the need to search for complicated explanations; just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”.

3.  The problem is that his son is the “wicked” son in the sense of liking to challenge things: he says to his father – anything you can explain to me so that I can understand it, I’ll do – but anything that makes no sense to me, I won’t.  For example, why can’t I use a light switch on Shabbos?  But his father can’t answer that, because he never asked his father, because he never wanted to understand.  Social conformity was the extent of his religious observance.  So the “wicked” son rejects everything that does not have an obvious explanation, and practices those parts of the religion that happen to make sense to him.

4.  So his son is “simple” – the word “tam” in Hebrew meaning closed or deficient: he has a limited menu to choose from because he is starting from the list that happened to make sense to his father, who rejected everything he couldn’t understand and whose father couldn’t explain the others because he never asked about them.

5.  Which means that the next generation “cannot ask a question” – he cannot put together a coherent question to establish the nature and value of his Jewish identity, because all he has is a few cultural fragments that happened to survive the ravages of both the “wicked” and the “simple” generations.

6.  From complete Jewish observance to nothing at all in four generations: and all starting with blind, meaningless observance.  So we warn the “wise” son: but in what terms?  He is about to make a fundamental error in Jewish observance, so we say to him something profound and meaningful, presumably?  Apparently not.  We say: “don’t eat after the Afikomen”, the final piece of matzah at the seder.  Not obviously either deep, instructive or even relevant!

7.  The Afikomen of the Haggadah is the Chad Gadya poem.  Whatever differences there are in different Haggadot – and one of the key Seder rituals is comparing different orders and phrasings – every Haggadah around the world ends with Chad Gadya.  This is the Afikomen that the Rabbis wanted to leave running around our minds at the end of the evening.  And on its surface it is a children’s tale about animals and other things without any profound message at all.

8. The central feature of the Chad Gadya is the small goat that father brings home for the seder.  This obviously represents the korban Pesach – the Pascal sacrifice.

9. The most superficial and selfish part of my mind looks on that simply as a good meal.  The feline part of my nature – and cats are a byword for selfishness, and were one of the Egyptians’ gods for that reason – wants to look no further into the korban Pesach than a nice meal.  So the cat eats the goat.

10.  But there is part of my nature that can’t help thinking that we can do better than that as a religion, and that we need to look for something more meaningful.  The canine part of my nature is looking for an ideal to sign up to and be loyal to.  The dog has always been noted for loyalty, but without discrimination: like Bill Sykes’ famous dog, the dog will be loyal to whoever feeds it, whether he be saint or sinner.  So the dog chases the cat away, looking for something better than mere selfish greed in my religious observance.

11.  That’s a positive sign, but easily corrupted.  The blind loyalty of the dog is open to being seduced by every kind of foolishness that religious mis-observance has to offer.  The Jewish people at their least discriminating become easy prey for the latest meaningless chumras and frumkeits (stringencies and religiosities) and quickly become a parody of religion rather than a genuinely religious community.  And generation after generation we reduce ourselves to spiritual bankruptcy through an excess of empty piety, and God is forced to step in and “punish” us, to bring us back to a desire to see through the superficial trappings of ritual and to reach for a genuine spiritual message in our religion.  As the parent disciplines the child out of true compassion and care, the stick comes and beats the dog.

12.  When human nature began its journey with good intention, however far it has been corrupted since, it responds positively to adversity.  The stick arouses a spark in the dog of contrition and submissiveness, looking for a master who is worth following; looking for kindness and sensitivity that can be reciprocated.  The Jewish people come back to God with their figurative tail between their legs, looking for something beyond the self-congratulatory complacencies of their earlier frumkeits.  The stick has reignited the spark of real spiritual yearning in the Jewish soul – the eternal flame of Torah comes and replaces the stick, making it unnecessary and irrelevant.

13.  That yearning makes me receptive to true Torah learning, which has been symbolised by water in Aggadic literature throughout the ages.  The water of Torah – the purest liquid, sustainer of life, that always seeks the humblest and lowest place to occupy – quenches the spark of yearning and satisfies our thirst in a meaningful and constructive way.

14.  The animal that drinks the pure water of Torah becomes loyal to God in a fully discriminating way: it has the strength and determination that is not distracted by superficial fancies because it has a deep knowledge and understanding of its true master.  “The ox knows its owner”, as we recite from the prophet around Tisha B’Av every year – and our soul that has been through the journey from selfishness, through corruption, to contrition and learning, knows God in a clear and truly spiritual way.

15.  But along comes that most destructive of animals: man.  The “slaughterer” destroys other peoples’ spiritual ambitions and achievements for the sake of trying to make himself feel better about his own spiritual poverty.  With a snub, an unkind word, or by making clever fun of someone else, we destroy their feeling of achievement and self-worth and send them back to the beginning.  The same power of speech that created the world, is capable of destroying it in each of us when it is used destructively as it so often is.

16.  The slaughterer feels a little better when he has proved to himself his superiority over the ox-like simpleton whose religious attainments were so easy to deride.  He congratulates himself on his “cleverness” – the chochom who knows better than everybody else.  But he and his victim both fall prey just as easily to the Angel of Death, who levels all, and sends them back to their Maker who restarts the whole cycle at His will.

17.  And is that cycle doomed to continue without end?  Will there never be a more permanent resting-place for those who seek spiritual comfort?  Will there never be a “Next Year in Jerusalem” – an eternal atmosphere of peace and goodwill for the whole of humanity, living side by side in recognition of a single divine presence?

18.  Of course there will.  And it will begin when we break the vicious cycle ourselves, by supporting each other’s spiritual ambitions and helping each other to achieve what we cannot do alone: building on each others’ strengths, supplying each others’ deficiencies and strengthening each others’ weaknesses.

19.  When the clever part of my mind – the “wise” son at the Seder table – is not satisfied with simply copying the outward rituals but wants to make sure that every religious observance is properly founded in understanding of a symbolism that enhances human sensitivity and encodes spirituality into human activity; when that happens, I start out on a religious journey that can join with yours to bring a Next Year in Jerusalem for the whole world.

20.  So we warn the Chochom: don’t eat after the Afikomen.  Make sure the ritual of the Seder table lingers in your mind when you leave it and changes who you are.  If you walk away from the Seder table the same person who sat down – you may as well not have bothered to come.  But if you walk away having released yourself from Egypt – having identified a particular constraint of the material world and released yourself from it – and the lingering taste of the Afikomen changes your behaviour on the way home, in your house, in the street, shop and office the next day, then we are starting a journey that is really necessary.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 31, 2015 at 6:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized