Tuesday, June 12, 2012
So, it's Euro 2012 time, and if you think that this is some form of monetary currency convention between Europe's great economic powers, then clearly we don't inhabit the same planet. It is a football (soccer) competition, and is what gets people through the four long years between World Cups, for those who worship at the altar of the one true religion, namely: the Beautiful Game. Anyway, as I currently live in footaballing exile (i.e. outside of a country that knows how to appreciate the game), I am sentenced to death by idiocy - that is to say, I have to put up with Israeli commentary on football matches. This is truly painful. It seems that the broadcasters actually cast around to find the most non-sensical idiotic morons available to comment upon and give analysis of these games. I often watch the games on mute - my wife thinks it is because I am being considerate and making sure I don't wake our gorgeous son sleeping next door - this is a fantastic win-win situation. Occasionally I put the sound on to be able to hear the crowd but make sure it is too low to hear the idiocy coming through. So I was slightly in shock recently when I actually watched some English commentary and analysis, and found to my horror that they are just as bad, if not worse. The inane chatter and supposed joking around seems to cover the fact that these people know nothing about anything and do not have the ability to talk intelligently about the one thing they are meant to know something about. It is hard to believe they are getting paid for this.
So - it is one thing to complain - but one has to ask - why is this the case? Why are football commentators almost universally stupid in the two places where I watch football. Well, first of all, I was forced to ask the question whether it is universal. After a tiny amount of anecdotal research, I find out that, while other countries do have some idiots behind the mic, as a general rule, it is not true of most European countries. Not only this, but it seems to be particularly true of football, as opposed to other sports. And moreover - it is not just commentators - everyone involved in English football, barring a small minority seem to have difficulty expressing themselves in a reasoned and intelligent manner. What's going on? Now of course this is a ridiculously unfair generalisation - and I really do apologise. It isn't true - there are plenty of intelligent footballers, coaches, managers and commentators, in England, Israel and around the world, but, still, there is a sense that those involved in football in England lack the ability to analyse the game and speak eloquently about it. Now - I can see good reason for that to be the case with regard to footballers themselves. When someone says of a footballer, his brains are in his feet, it is meant as a compliment, but it also comes across as a back-handed insult. If his brains are in his feet - they aren't in his head. And I also am happy to admit there are lots of different types of intelligence and it is narrow thinking to concentrate on eloquence as a defining characteristic of intelligence - and of course there are many ways on the pitch that footballers show how aware of the world they can be and how quick they can think. Nevertheless - there still remains a sense that elevated intellectual thinking is not a necessary requirement for success in the footballing field. But coaches? Commentators? What's going on? And is it really fair to believe that somehow footballers are not as smart as others? Wasn't the last pope a semi-professional standard goalkeeper? Albert Camus? Didn't he play a bit? So once again - I ask - what is going on?
So here are some of my observations, and then some conclusions, primarily relevant to the English case, but I am sure also to the Israeli case:
1) Most commentators and most coaches are ex-footballers themselves. So essentially the question is about the footballers themselves.
2) There is a culture that surrounds football (all good religions develop cultural elements to them).
3) The culture of football has become anti-elitist, anti-intellectual and to some extent - anti-learning.
4) To become a top-flight footballer these days, one has to basically commit the majority of one's energy to achieving such a goal from the age of about 8, meaning that one's priority is to develop one's footballing skills, rather than to develop one's overall mind.
5) As noted - non-British, European players, coaches and commentators seem to come across as more cultured, more educated and more intelligent than British players, coaches and commentators.
6) Football is a working class sport in the UK, and the vast majority of players have a working class education.
7) The vast majority of people who try and make it as a footballer do not end up earning their salary for the majority of their life from the sport.
8) MOST IMPORTANTLY - these people are actually just as intelligent as anyone else. This is not about intelligence. This is about sounding eloquent. This is about sounding informed and engaged.
So - some conclusions:
1) British footballers are uneducated, because they have been encouraged to believe they do not need an education to be a footballer. This is short term thinking. Even if they are good enough to make it as a footballer (the tiny minority who start on the journey), they remain uneducated after finishing their relatively short career as a footballer. It seems that in other countries, people who end up being footballers, also have a general, rounded education.
2) This is about class and power - there is a reason why footballers are encouraged to be well paid but poorly educated. They are more manipulable as such.
3) It is self-defeating. England has enough resources to be better than Italy, Spain, France and Holland at football, and yet it has never reached the success at major tournaments that those countries have. I believe this is because of poor coaching and poor attitudes of players. This is an educational issue.
In short, the UK seems to be happy to allow its footballers to lack an education. This may be all well and good if really the issue were footballers (or coaches, or commentators, or winning trophies by developing smart coaches), but actually what is important about the UK football education dearth is what it says about the UK's educational system - that if you come from the working class in the UK - no-one has an interested in making sure you will receive a good education.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
But I don't write about relationships - so what's this about? Well, I recently had an interesting conversation with a facebook friend about this article. And the conversation led us to ask the question - what is loving criticism of Israel from "the Diaspora"? Is there acceptable criticism and unacceptable criticism of a government?
You see, I am as critical as can be about Israeli government policy. I have protested it, I have petitioned against it, and I am willing to shout and wail about it in the streets. But it's my government! The question arose in my conversation with my fb friend - how much criticism can a partner take before they begin to doubt the sincerity of the "love" out of which the critic speaks.
So - I ask myself? Have I turned into that narrow minded Israeli who refuses to hear criticism - no, I don't believe I have. I am happy to hear criticism from many pro-Palestinian organisations (including Jewish Pro-palestinian organisations). You know what, I myself consider myself a Jewish pro-Palestinian. I support Palestinian nationhood, I support Palestinian business. I do my best not to support the economy of the settlements. I vote for and am a member of a party which will uproot the settlements and work towards a Palestinian state. I am a pro-Palestinian critic of Israeli governmental policy. And I believe that my critique of the state's actions comes from within. From a place of love.
When I critique Likud policy or Bibi Netanyahu personally, though, it is not out of love. I do not love Bibi (more than I love any other human in that they are human). Infact I dislike Bibi and resent him for what he has done to my country. So I would be dishonest if I said that I criticise him from a place of love. Maybe if I was part of his family but disagreed with him politically, I could say that - that I love him, but because I love him, I must tell him that he is wrong. And that's the key - criticism will always be criticism. Love needs to be shown and felt. It cannot be declarative. Next time my wife asks me about the sweater, or the boots, or the skirt - I know that she knows that I love her, because we live together, day in, day out. We support each other and face the world together.
So now I understand another level of the complicated "critique from Love position" of Diaspora Jewry. You see it's not about the criticism - it's about the love..... The real issue is not whether Israel can take criticism or not. We take it plenty. We've learnt to live with it. It is that essentially we don't see ourselves as being in a loving relationship (or pretty much any relationship) with Diaspora Jewry. What Diaspora Jewry needs to understand is that we don't see your criticism as loving - not because it's criticism, but simply because we essentially view you as any other foreigners. That's sad, and I get that it's hurtful, and I wish it wasn't so, but you know what - you chose that. Israel has made it super-easy to come and be a citizen here (I'm not saying it's easy to make aliyah, but it isn't hard to become an Israeli citizen). You chose not to. You chose to stay living in America, Argentina, France, wherever.... We asked you to move in. You said no. And now you think there's still a loving relationship? When you say to Israel, those shoes (the settlements) don't really go with that skirt (being a democracy), you're right. And you know what - if you were a fashion guru, we'd listen to you. And also, if you were our husband or mom or a close friend, we would listen too. But you aren't. And think about it for a second. If someone stops you in the street and tells you that your shoes don't go with your outfit, you're not going to stop, rationally and think about it and say - oh yeah, you're right. You're going to think they are rude and should mind their own business. Especially considering that at the time, the back of their skirt was accidentally tucked into their knickers. So - criticism from Love - it works as a concept, but there has to be real love. And unfortunately - there just isn't. Sorry guys....
Thursday, March 22, 2012
"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"
(Questionably attributed to Mohatma Ghandi)
It is hard not to see the logic of Ghandi's thought, and from our (post-)modern perspective, it is hard to see the logic behind the original biblical principle. In fact it does not take the perspective of modernity to see the problematic nature of the eye-for-an-eye concept. The rabbis themselves reworked the understanding of the biblical verse - "assuming" that it could never have been meant in its literal sense. In a passage of the Talmud discussing compensation (Bava Kama 83b), the rabbis ask, "Why pay compensation - does not the bible say, "An eye for an eye"?". The rabbis respond to their own question, saying, "סלקא דעתך" - "Cast out that thought of yours!" It is obvious to them, that the meaning of the verse never meant that one whose eye has been gouged out should be allowed to do the same to his attacker - but rather we must pay compensation.
We have convinced ourselves that the very concept of retributive justice is old-fashioned, antiquated, even barbaric - a symbol of a more ignorant, less civilized world. And yet, I am not sure that this conclusion is always correct. It would be tempting to suggest that the spiritual path, the Jewish path, is to reject vengeance, but our tradition is never that simple. Our tradition, as always, has at least two authentic opinions on the question of revenge. In 1945, on his release from a concentration camp, Dr Zalman Grinberg gave the following testimony:
“We do not want revenge. If we took revenge it would mean that we would fall to those moral and spiritual depths in which the German people have been lost for the last ten years. We are not able to murder women and children! We are not able to burn millions of people! We are not able to starve hundreds of thousands!”
It is hard not to agree with his words, and see the morality etched into them. On the other hand, no less of a Jewish view is represented by the last letter of Mordechai Anilewitz,
“The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defence in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic fighting of Jewish men of battle.”
Could Anilewitz' desire for revenge be considered immoral?
If we return to Ghandi and his famous quote, it is undeniably true that if we are willing to take an eye for an eye we may all end up blind. But it must be remembered that Ghandi also refused to fight the evil of Nazism - a refusal to engage with evil can lead to a greater evil. Sometimes, intervention is necessary. If we started with a quote questionably attributed to Ghandi, it is reasonable to finish with one of the most common misattributions ever. Edmond Burke never said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But if he had, he may be adequately reflecting the initial intention of “An eye for an eye”. Vengeance is not Jewish, but Justice, Justice shall you pursue…
Friday, March 2, 2012
Just read two excellent pieces by UK Liberal Jews, both of which, from different directions touch on what it means to be Jewish. I know neither author, but agree with most of what both say. The first article I found on Facebook:
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Thursday, February 9, 2012
So every now and again, I get asked to write a drasha for someone. Here is one I did for the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), that can be seen on there site here: http://www.wupj.org/Publications/Newsletter.asp?ContentID=522
“As one person with one heart” on Parashat Yitro
Parashat Yitro contains one of the most dramatic scenes of the entire Torah, and possibly the pivotal moment of all of Jewish History – it is the Torah portion which relates our primary encounter with the divine. The paradigmatic moment of revelation retold in this parasha serves as the classic example of what it means to have God’s will revealed to us on the collective level. Whatever Reform theology or modern scholarship might tell us about the authorship of the Torah, the tradition views the gathering at Sinai as the defining moment of Divine Revelation. This is it! This is the moment that we become God’s chosen (for those who still believe in that)! This is the moment that Moses stands face to face with the Eternal, and we in turn share in that heavenly intimacy. This is THE moment of truth. This is the moment when the Jewish people are brought together – our national character is defined through this gathering – this meeting with each other and the divine. This is the beginning of our covenant. Our covenant with the divine and with each other. Or is it?
A minute detail of questionable Hebrew grammar may point to a different rendering of this dramatic moment.
At the beginning of Chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, before the children of Israel arrive at Mt Sinai – before this miraculous gathering – we read:
א בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי. ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר.
“In the third month, after the children of Israel had left Egypt, on that day they came to the Desert of Sinai. And they travelled from Refidim, and they came to the Desert of Sinai and they encamped in the desert; and Israel encamped opposite the mountain.”
If one was reading the English, or did not understand the Hebrew, the significance of this line would be entirely lost. It would seem a list of geographic details - part of an endless litany of the journeying of the children of Israel with which the Torah is littered. But in the original Hebrew, a deviation is obvious in the subject of the verbs used throughout these two verses. In the first verse, the subject is “the children of Israel.” In the second verse, it seems the verbs that describe the action – “they travelled”, “they came”, “they encamped” – are all in the third person plural, and then at the end of the verse, the subject changes from being “the children of Israel” to “Israel”, and the verb changes from plural to singular.
Now, I cannot pretend to be an ancient grammarian or understand the significance of each minor detail of the Torah’s use of language. But luckily I do not have to – for that, we have Rabbi Shimon Itzhaki, better known as Rashi (France, late 11th century) – the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah. Drawing on ancient midrashim, Rashi attempts to answer all the questions and queries that are brought up by the text of the torah. And what does Rashi have to say about this verse?
Commenting on the change to the singular, “ויחן שם ישראל”, Rashi says:
“כאיש אחד בלב אחד, As one person with one heart.”
He goes on to point out that the previous journeys and encampments of Israel (referred to in the plural) had not been “as one person with one heart” but with murmurings and disagreements.
What does Rashi mean by this expression, “as one person with one heart”? The term has come to be used in modern day Israel as a slogan of national unity. What it expresses in its most simply understood form, is that the people were united when they encamped opposite Mt Sinai – they were already “as one person with one heart” BEFORE they received Torah. When we understand the significance of this, it becomes clear that the giving of Torah did not unite us – we were already united. Something about our shared journey – our shared experience of the ordeal of journeying, the shared fears and hopes of leaving Egypt – had brought us together. If the giving of the Torah is symbolic of our shared belief, while the exodus from Egypt is symbolic of our shared experience, this simple midrash brought by Rashi shows us that it is our shared experience – our history together as a community that unites us, before we come to have a shared view of the world. In fact, even without any basis for shared belief, we have the ability to stand together as one. This unity, which is not reliant on the shared belief brought about by the giving of Torah is called in our tradition, “Brit Goral” – the covenant of fate. While the covenant we enter into at Sinai, that of shared belief, is called “Brit Yiud” – the covenant of faith. These are not reliant on each other. We shared Brit Goral before we joined in Brit Yiud. Yiud literally means “objective” – something to strive for. And indeed we may strive to find common belief. But as members of the people of Israel, we need not strive to find common experience – that is part of who we are.
This basic truth – of our shared experience – of our common past – of our unity of fraternity, if not of purpose, has been forgotten within Israeli society and the Jewish world today. We do not stand “as one person, with one heart”. We stand divided. History has taught us the danger of such a stance. As we approach Parashat Yitro, we are called to remember the possibility of unity despite our murmurings and disagreements – despite the fact we may not share belief, we are called to remember our shared heritage. May we realise the potential of this unity before we fall divided.
Monday, January 23, 2012
I tend to write a lot about the British Jewish community, as I grew up there, and because I think it is a fascinating example of what Jewish life might mean outside of one of the major centers (Eretz Yisrael and modern day Bavel -
Obviously, most of the people I know, including many former JFS students have reacted to the article with disgust, fury, protest and a desire to put right this obvious wrong (just proving that all the people I know are pinko-commies or wet liberals, like me). But I have to ask, why?
Before this liberal-crusader took to the pages of the JC, did anyone think that JFS was a gay-loving pink idyll? Were people walking around with the understanding that JFS, an Orthodox Jewish day school would actively support all students in their choices about how to deal with their developing sexuality? As far as I was concerned, the shock in the article was that anyone might consider this newsworthy.
Whether it pretends to be something else or not, JFS is an Orthodox institution, and whether it pretends otherwise or not, Orthodox Judaism is institutionally homophobic. While there are many minority opinions within the Orthodox Jewish world who actively support gay rights and welcome LGBTQ members and who attempt to find a way to embrace gay Jews while rejecting male homosexual sex, this is still a tiny minority and in no way represents mainstream Orthodoxy. I sometimes frequent one such minyan which challenges my own shul for the title of pinkest in
So what is my point?
As long as you believe in the idea of faith-schools, you must allow JFS to continue preaching bigotry and hate. I realise that that may sound harsh, but only an actual democratic separation of religion and state and the end of the bizarre idea of publicly funded private community schools will actually be able to stop these private communities continuing to use the education system to promote their values which are inconsistent with a free, fair and democratic society. I say this fully aware of the complete hypocrisy inherent in my words (if I were to live in the UK, I would probably send my own child(ren) to a Jewish day school), but my own hypocrisy and use of the system for my own selfish gain should not mean that we don't recognise the inherent injustice in the current model of schooling. Jewish day schools (as well as Muslim and Christian ones) are a way that a particular community manages to use the universal societal resources for their own gain. They at once, give a good rounded education, and at the same time inculcate the values of the particular community into the next generation. It is fine for a community to demand that their children be educated on the public dime as long as members of that community pay taxes. It is not acceptable that a particular community expect that the society as a whole should Jewishly educate their children. Particularly if that Jewish education is actually at odds with the value system of wider society.
So - am I appalled by JFS's homophobia? Yes, of course I am. Am I surprised? No, of course I am not. Do JFS have the right to teach homophobia? According to the current non-constitution of the
It is worthy and admirable to attack each small injustice as we encounter it, as the former head-girl of JFS did in her letter to the school (linked above), but each one of these small fights is meaningless without a more holistic approach to building a just, fair and equitable school system which helps educate our youth towards building a free and democratic society.