Afterword: A Memoir Continued From Canada to Israel Some Reflections on Political Matters Back To My Two Worlds A Final Word Notes References

Ricardo It's An Ill Wind

Back To My Two Worlds

In my "It’s an Ill Wind…." I wrote that I was walking a tightrope between two worlds, that of the Enlightenment and that of Orthodox Judaism and had some confidence I could stay up into the foreseeable future (Hollander 1998: 22). I erred. The brew of religion and politics described above has forced me off the high wire, for the clash between my two worlds experienced since arriving in this country has proven too much to take.(9) It is certainly not what I expected back in August 2000 when I arrived in this country.

I do not doubt that the literature I have been engaged in for so long is to some degree responsible for my reaction to current circumstances. For one thing, as I very briefly noted in my first memoir, I am attracted by the common sense characterizing the Classical perspective on policy. particularly the Utilitarian tradition whereby "all laws and rights were to be regarded as essentially man-made and to be evaluated according to their effects on the general happiness, long term and short," rather than in "conformity to a pre-established natural order capable of very easy definition and invariant in time and space" (Robbins 1952: 47). Now formally this conflicts with the religious perspective, or at least with that version which appeals to something akin to "natural law," for example the "natural right" of Israel to the entire land mass between the Mediterranean and the Jordan irrespective of consequences. As far as concerns matters of principle, the contrast should not be exaggerated since there have been and continue to be numerous adjustments to rabbinical rulings on "utilitarian" welfare grounds. But on these very grounds the religious establishment should, I believe, be adopting the Leibowitz view regarding Greater Israel, by taking into account the damage being done to the Israeli psyche by the occupation and continuous settlement. My concern relates then not so much to a matter of principle but to specific application.

I shall give a second example of the point at hand. A Utilitarian calculation led Thomas Robert Malthus to recommend prudential population control, namely delayed marriage even if unaccompanied by what he nicely called "moral restraint." And recall that Malthus was a Churchman, exposing his reputation to defamation by seeking the general welfare in this fashion in direct conflict with the rule that "Heaven will provide." I can think of no rabbinical equivalent to Malthus. But even here the contrast should not be exaggerated, for many rabbis find ways and means of quietly allowing their flock some leeway in these matters, and this on what are in effect utilitarian grounds. Nonetheless, poverty directly due to local over-population remains a serious issue amongst the extreme orthodox, because the religious authorities in this sector still adopt an absolutist stance that brooks no compromise. It is needless to say that the religious-nationalists also fulfill with gusto the commandment to be fruitful. It is a national obligation; there is much empty space to be filled, and the Arab birthrate so high.

I have maintained that it is not so much rigidity on the part of the religious leaders that is the key issue to the extent that at least some of them are in practise more flexible than might appear on a surface view. But control of the flock is another matter. There may be quite "liberal" rulings provided they are made by the rabbinical authority on behalf of the community and not left to every Tom, Dick, Harry and Sam to decide for himself. And here the clash between "enlightenment" and the religious perspectives appears to me very serious indeed. The dilemma was raised in a very practical manner by a dog that walked into my life. I shall explain.

One fine Sabbath day I was attracted by a noise in the garden and upon investigation discovered a dog with a gaping wound in his side, that had found his way on to my property or perhaps been abandoned there by his owner. A visiting grandson checked a standard religious-law book to confirm that it is forbidden to desecrate the Sabbath for an animal though one is permitted to offer it food and water. The dog was unable to drink let alone eat. There remained the options of doing nothing more until nightfall, letting the animal suffer in silence whilst we continued our Sabbath meal, to the accompaniment of gleeful table songs, or taking the patient to the animal hospital. This latter alternative, which I decided upon, implied numerous rabbinical transgressions that I shall not enter into here. My duty I felt was clear. As Jeremy Bentham put the matter when he discussed animal protection in the late eighteenth century: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?" (Bentham 1982 [1780]: 283). Equally, it must be insisted, my decision could be justified theologically by appeal to the rule not to cause pain to an animal. (One is obliged, for example, to feed one’s animals before oneself; there are strict rules against overburdening and much else.) Halacha or Jewish Law in practice – like Sharia law incidentally – is a question of proper balance; there is often no black and white in religious decision making, all depending on the weighting made by the expert authority consulted. Consulting the nearest Rabbi I ruled out in the case at hand, lest he arrive at a different balance to the one I was convinced was proper; in fact I was sure from experience that he would reject my position.(10) And given the circumstances there was no time to seek out an authority likely to confirm it.(11) My whole point, however, is that in the last resort one must take responsibility for one’s own actions and make one’s own calculations rather than depend upon the authority of law books and their interpreters in the event that conflicts arise between the formal rules expressing established "custom," and the "small inner voice" when it speaks up loud and clear. How strange that it should take a dog to teach me so elementary a lesson, and so late in life. Yet I do not recall another instance when I have been faced by a dilemma of this sort, so there is some excuse for the delay. And perhaps I will not be faced by another such test, in which case the matter will have become purely academic.

It may be thought that by taking this position I deviate from the main lines of orthodoxy.(12) However, I am not so sure that this conclusion means too much, for the "main lines" are very indistinctly drawn. As I said earlier, there is no Pope in Israel. Much more needs to be said than I have space for of the factionalism within Israeli society – not merely the secular-religious divide but the splits and sub-splits within "orthodoxy," manifesting – so it appears to me – in some instances a variety of degrees of "absurdity, imposture, [and] fanaticism," as my favorite Enlightenment writer would, I suspect, have found (Smith 1976 [1776]: 793). It is quite likely that but for the Palestinian problem some of these fissures would have been deeper still. But even with this safety valve in place, there are tensions, with extremists attempting to force their life style on more moderate practitioners of the religion particularly in parts of Jerusalem and other centers of extreme practise, especially when it comes to the "modesty" of women’s dress, and separate-seating buses with women relegated to the back.(13)

In summary, I fear that Adam Smith was not always right. For he opined that competition between religious sects was likely to act as a moderating influence, whereas, in the present case at least, the operation of a version of the principle of "minimal differentiation" to capture the market seems to be at play. Thus, for example, it has long been the custom amongst strictly orthodox men to wear a girdle, during morning prayers in particular, to the end of separating the lower from the upper part of the body. It was unheard of for a national-religious adherent to go to such lengths in the interest of purity. Now it is no longer uncommon. I find the sight incongruous, so accustomed am I to the old-fashioned ways. But the sects are competing not only as to girdles, length of side curls and fringes, size of skullcaps and other external manifestations of religious enthusiasm, but also regarding doctrinal matters. And here one discerns yet further reason for concern, for extreme religious practise is beginning to intrude on the wider state institutions. Thus one religious-nationalist rabbi who heads a talmudical academy on the West Bank where students study and also serve in the army has declared that orthodox soldiers should face death rather than listen to servicewomen singing (Haaretz, 17 November 2011). In a similar case, a leading religious-nationalist rabbi told academy students to avoid positions in the army involving command of female soldiers (Jerusalem Post, 7 November 2011). Laugh Out Loud, as the young people like to put it – were it not that such rulings are taken as gospel by the student-soldiers, who threaten by their growing numbers and fanaticism to change the face of what was supposed to be "the people’s army" with all that implied for progress towards gender equality.

For those unfamiliar with such matters I should explain the significance of (male) head covering. The type of skullcap worn signals in many cases the wearer’s religious commitment. The knitted variety for example, often implies national-religious sentiment; a conspicuously large white knitted skullcap is a favorite with the more enthusiastic amongst the settlers; black suggests traditional orthodoxy; to go bare headed indicates more likely than not "secularism"; any other type of headgear intimates no particular commitment apart from a desire for protection from the sun. In my present state of mind my preference is for shade.