Welcome to my Blog!

Follow this Blog by registering and you can earn mitzvah points.
(Mitzvah points cannot be redeemed at the moment but may be redeemable in the World to Come - check with your provider).

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Jews, Christmas and Chanukah

When I was a young boy, I had a big sack with a picture of Santa on and my name engraved on it. Every year I would help prepare and decorate the Christmas cake – the picture you see here is me helping prepare it, aged 5. Our family would have a giant tree which we would decorate and when we woke on December 25th, my Santa sack would be absolutely full of presents, usually a mixture of books and Transformers.

Into my early teenage years the presents would come until one year in September or October I asked my Mum why we kept Christmas since, after all, we were a Jewish family. I was told that it was a parenting decision that had been made so that we didn’t feel left out at school. It’s a decision I can respect even if 60% of the pupils at my school at the time were Jewish. My parents didn’t want us to feel different or, specifically, for our difference to lead to any sense of exclusion.

I explained that I understood that reasoning but now that we had all grown up, why were we still celebrating Christmas? The answer was that it was a family tradition. That was an answer I wasn’t so keen on and so I broke with the family tradition and said that that year I wanted no Christmas presents - if the family insisted on giving presents, they could be at Chanukah. And so our family developed Chanumas. I would get Chanukah presents, my sisters would get Christmas presents and it would all be called Chanumas. That made me no happier either. Finally, I said that since my birthday was in December, I could get presents for my birthday and if people wanted to buy presents at any other time, they could do it for Purim, which is when Jews traditionally give presents anyway.

In his book Liberal Judaism, Eugene Borowitz specifically addresses the issue of Jews celebrating Christmas, describing it as an “offense against the Christian faith. A large number of Christians properly resent having a major holiday of their religion subverted by commerce and sentimentality, and, not infrequently, by our contemporary paganism.” When I first read these words perhaps ten years ago, I knew they were right. How would I feel if a non-Jew told me that they and their family were celebrating Pesach by cutting down a living tree, eating matzah for a day, and spending ridiculous amounts of money on toys and presents for children? I would probably be enraged. I would tell them not to make a mockery out of my religion and not to make it so crass with their consumerist cravings. 

My first response when I was younger – just move the present-giving to Chanukah – is just as problematic, because it turns a festival about light, hope and overcoming adversity (and, for adults, the challenges of religious extremism) into a festival like-Christmas-just-Jewish. In fact, it’s not even like-Christmas-just-Jewish, it’s more like-a-consumerist-pastiche-of-Christmas-just-Jewish – not very attractive at all. Sure, play with a dreidl, use gelt, have a bit of a flutter, but that’s a teaching tool for nes gadol hayah sham – “a great miracle happened there.” Having a new present every day for Chanukah doesn’t teach anything – it’s just aping a mockery of another religion’s festival. So many times in the past I’ve said and heard the phrase “We don’t need Christmas because we have eight days of presents” that I’m amazed that we don’t stop and reflect on what we’re saying – we lost Chanukah and we promoted the Christians’ loss of Christmas to the great market. The forces of secular consumerism claimed Chanukah and Christmas as their own because we allowed and encouraged them.

But why? Borowitz again – “That many Jews nonetheless are avid to be part of Christmas testifies to some deep need within them…. What they long for is an end to being different. They are tired of being outsiders. They want to be included, even if the expressions of goodwill are superficial and trite.” My mother was right – it was about not being different. But I want to be different, we should all want to be different. Do we really all want to be virtually identical consumer drones who flock annually to shopping centres to buy tat that is only going to be replaced in a few years but another “must buy” item of disturbingly similar but slightly advanced characteristics? Are we so afraid of being called Scrooge if we actually think that the consumerist Christmas and Chanukah are disturbed reflections of a sick society that we dare not say anything and just go with the flow? Of course, December 25th is a day when few people are at work so it’s a chance for a family day together. Everyone should relish that. But there’s a very big difference between a Jewish family that uses that time for everyone to get together for a big meal and a Jewish family that uses that time for crackers, turkey, tinsel, decorated trees and presents “because that’s what everyone else does.”

Interfaith families are, of course, different. But how many interfaith families truly show their children Christmas in church and Chanukah in synagogue? Anyone who says they have a tree and do presents because one of the partners is a Christian is not only kidding themselves but also their children and is also perpetuating the notion that religion is really equitable with consumerism. So, interfaith family or not, I would like to suggest that it’s about time Jews were more honest with themselves. Carrying on a religious family tradition is incredibly important so long as that tradition actually has religious merit. If it’s just shopping pretending to be religious, or paganism masking as monotheism (as in the case of a tree) that’s not only dangerous but insulting.

Ultimately, celebrating religious festivals is one way to step outside the mainstream society and to live with God. If a Christian family wants to give presents and then suggest why this reminds them of those who attended the manger and how they brought presents and then use that as a springboard for teaching about Christianity, I have no problem with that. Similarly, if Jews use Chanukah gelt to teach about Chanukah, fine. But Jews being consumers pretending to be Christians, that’s just shallow and sad.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Mind the Gap

Seemingly, in today’s world, it is not only possible but perhaps almost socially required for people to be applauded globally for creating something so horrific that it will commit half the species on earth to extinction and threaten the future of human society as we know it. It is seemingly the done thing to applaud those who dabble in what environmentalist Aubrey Meyer calls the “economics of genocide.”

I’m talking about the outcome of the COP talks in Durban that just closed with the agreement to talk about ways to reduce carbon emissions in nearly a decade’s time. Not a commitment to actually do something practical in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but a commitment to talk about committing to do something. If mass death weren’t the projected outcome of this, it would be almost comical. But since that it the projected outcome, it isn’t funny at all.

There is a pervasive social view that so long as we reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 then everything will be hunky dory and we’ll hold the global heating effect (not warming, it won’t be cosy) to within 2°C. With that amount of warming, it is generally held that while there will be serious social ramifications, human society will survive, albeit modified. The problem with that pervasive view is that it’s nonsense. Imagine the atmosphere is a balloon and every minute you put in 10 breaths of air. Imagine also that you plan by five minutes’ time to have reduced the number of breaths you put in by 60% - from 10 to 4. After five minutes, how many times have you breathed into the balloon? The answer depends on when you reduced the number of breaths. If you did it immediately, from the very first minute, then it would be 4x5 = 20 breaths, something a balloon could handle. But if you waited until the very last minute it could be (10x4)+4 = 44 breaths. Your balloon would have burst.

Delaying immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions allows these gases to accumulate in the atmosphere, so they build up. It’s a cumulative effect. So now we have an Emissions Gap – the gap between the emissions reductions that are needed and those that are being pledged. It’s a gap in carbon accounting, basically, that seems like an economics exercise but is, in fact, playing with peoples' lives. The Emissions Gap is now huge. If we accept the agreement made in Durban, then instead of trying to hold back 2 degrees of warming, we’re probably looking at 4 degrees, enough to kill millions of people, alter human society forever and render around 50% of global species extinct. This isn’t alarmist, this is what we know best on tested models. Even scarier, these models are conservative in their estimates because they don’t take feedback mechanisms into account that could destabilise the entire climatic system.

And what’s the front page on the newspapers? Either news about the Euro or news about a girl-band winning X-Factor. Sometimes when I look in the Reality Gap – the gap between what most people in society think is important and what really is important - I think we probably deserve what’s coming to us. The horrifying truth, though, is that the thousands upon thousands of impoverished people in the world who will now die from famine and drought in the coming hundred years, didn’t deserve it. Their future suffering is something we have now essentially locked into place. Still, so long as we don’t leave our TVs on standby after the X-Factor, it’ll all be okay, right?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What to do with leftover food?

As I wrote an article for a forthcoming book by UNESCO, I was reminded of a fascinating extract from Talmud that is worth sharing:

Grain being dumped into the open sea
“Some of the good things which Rav Chuna used to do: Every Shabbat eve he would send a messenger to the market who would buy up all the perishable vegetables which the gardeners had been unable to sell. These would then be thrown into the river. “Surely he should have given them to the poor?” [it is asked]. “No,” came the rejoinder, “they would then get used to getting it free and would not come to buy in the future.” “Perhaps he should feed them to the animals?” “It seems that Rav Chuna holds that it is not permissible to feed food fit for human consumption to animals.” “Perhaps he should not have bought them at all?” “No – if nobody would pay them, then the gardeners would produce less in the future.””

Why does Rav Chuna behave this way? Our natural inclination is obviously to give the food to those who are needy, but Talmud expects this response and explains that doing so traps people into a cycle of dependency. In today's society, using the basic models of supply and demand, grain is dumped into the sea in order to reduce supply and therefore maintain high prices. If the grain were instead given away, the price would slump and those producing the grain would not continue to do so (the third argument given by the Talmudic passage above). At least give it to the animals, then! Talmud says no - human food does not go to animals.

What can this passage teach us? It teaches us that the concept of bal tashchit, which I have mentioned before - the commandment to not waste anything - is very much a market-based concept. If it were not, then Rav Chuna would obviously be chided for wasting so much food. Bal tashchit must mean "unnecessary wastage." So in what way is this wastage necessary? It's extraordinary to think about, but it's necessary because without it the market would collapse and then no-one would get their food (since very few people own enough land to grow their own crops and rely on them). The market has to maintain a minimum price and sometimes food has to be dumped to maintain that price.

This is extremely challenging emotionally. In the short-term it might help the starving to dump food on them but in the long-term it locks them into poverty. Rav Chuna's actions are in one sense completely unsustainable and, in another, completely sustainable. Perhaps the answer is to create a more sustianable market but to do that the market first has to realise that it is unsustainable, and that recognition is very hard to foster.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Water, water, everywhere?

So, it's official... we've run out of water. Not from the mains, thank God, but in the water butt and it's brought home to me a completely different level of awareness about an essential environmental matter - the distribution of water. The history of humanity is at least in one sense a history of water - civilisations rise when they can control water and use it for their purposes, particualrly for agriculture. Whenever consideration was ever made in history for a human settlement, the first consideration was whether or not there was access to a safe, healthy and regular supply of water. We take water utterly for granted. According to www.savetherain.info the average UK resident uses 150 litres of water a day, 30% of which is used on flushing toilets, about 20% of which is used for bathing or showering and about 14% of which is used in dishwashers (which, interestingly enough, are now more water-efficient than washing by hand).

We've run out of water for good reason. The sun has started to come out and we have more plants. Our rickety old white picket fence was taken down and replaced by a hedge that needs watering to help it grow. We've bought more plants and in order to keep Zafra away from the pond we've added to the garden large growing pots with more water-thirsty vegatables. I've noticed that all the plants had been looking a little weary but didn't realise it was just because I wasn't watering them enough - apparently in this sunlight and with this little rain (I geniunely don't remember the last time it rained properly in Bournemouth, even though we had moments of rain today), I should be watering the plants twice a day... and I was doing it once every two or three days! So with my new watering regime, with significantly more plants to water and with no rain to top up the water butt, it's easy to see why we ran out of water so quickly.

Indoor water usage statistics from the US
I'm aware that many people will water plants from the mains supply but I don't like to. If harvested properly, the average house could collect enough water to supply at least half of all their daily needs - not just watering plants, but showers, baths, washing up... the lot. So the first thing that I have to do is get more water butts. Then we have to get better about using our grey water. Grey water is water that has been used once but could be used again. For a long time, we've taken a large jug and filled it with shower water as the shower takes 10 seconds or so to heat up. Over a year, I can't imagine how much water that's saved us - it must be many thousands of litres. We're also careful with our black water - that's water that you don't want to use again. For example, in our house we follow the mantra of "If it's yellow, let it mellow - if it's brown, flush it down." We don't if guests are round - that might be weird for some people. But we do whenever possible. That's water-saving, at least from the mains.

Looking at www.waterfootprint.org really brings water usage into perspective. Most people are aware of the notion that everyone has a "carbon footprint" but now more people are considering an awareness of an individual "water footprint." What many people don't realise is that around 85% of our water usage comes from the consumption of agricultural products, particularly in feeding animals in preparation for turning them into meat - thankfully I've been a veggie for around a decade now.... one kilo of beef takes 15,500 litres of water. I'm also off the hook when it comes to coffee since I don't drink it - every cup of coffee takes 140 litres of water in production (tea, by the way (which I also don't drink) takes about 35 litres of water per cup). But then I run into trouble - a 125ml glass of wine takes 120 litres of water to create. One slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. One slice of bread! Not one loaf, but one single slice. We make our own bread at home and it only uses a tiny amount of water... here. But growing the flour takes a huge amount of water. I'm now slightly horrified to realise that every slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. But not as horrified as I might be to realise how much water is used to make the thing that I often put on bread - cheese! One kilo of cheese takes 5000 litres of water. I may not usually eat 1 kilo of cheese at a time, but I will eat a lot of cheese in time and will therefore be responsible for the usage of a lot of water. Rice is the same - every kilo of rice takes 3400 litres of water. It's not just food - every one sheet of A4 paper takes 10 litres of water to create and I use a lot of paper in my work.

Everything we do uses so much water and knowing all this really brings into perspective the need to be unbelievably careful with our water usage. So I'll have to take some steps...
Firstly, I really have to fix the dripping tap in the nursery. A dripping tap can waste 4 litres of water a day.
Secondly, we really should  reduce the amount of water used in every toilet flush - apparently a brick wrapped in a plastic bag does the trick (the plastic bag is essential otherwise the brick breaks down in the water and can damage the entire system).
Thirdly, I'm going to have to do more weeding. Weeds take water from the plants that we want to grow, meaning that more water is needed on the same bed. I never thought that being environmental would involve more weeding.
Fourthly, as I mentioned before, we're going to have to buy more water butts to catch all the water that falls on our roof. At the moment we have one water butt near the back, but there's definitely space for two or three more, including at least one at the front of the house.

If I'm honest, part of me would really like to live off the water grid. I'd like to really be responsible for my own water. I don't think it's practical right now but that doesn't mean that I can't work towards that. I think that I've become so dependent on water being provided without question that I haven't cared enough about harvesting the rain that pours on our property. In other words, because I live a life of relative luxury (relative in global terms) I haven't cared about basic steps for sustianable living. Maybe once I'm really dependent on rain water, the prayer that we add in the Amidah, the central prayer in our service, for rain to fall at the right time, will really resonate more strongly.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Jewish Response to the Death of a Mass Murderer

How do I respond to the death of Osama Bin Laden? Not being an expert on the workings of Al Qaida, I obviously cannot know how significant his death is in the terrorist movement that has been responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide. Is Al Qaida a Hydra that gets stronger every time a head is removed? Or is it a movement whose rapid growth based around one man’s ideology will be matched by its rapid demise as he dies? Of course, the Hydra was killed even though it grew stronger and, of course, even if Al Qaida dies it doesn’t mean the end to terrorism, but the point is that few of us can know what effect this world-changing death will have. So instead of pontificating about the effects on the movement, we can at least discuss how we react to the death of a terrorist from a Jewish perspective.

In the US, news of his death was greeted with cheering in the streets of New York and Washington, two cities profoundly affected by bin Laden. But I have always found such actions distasteful. When terrorist attacks occur and individuals in the Middle East celebrate, I find it similarly distasteful and I do so because the Bible specifically tells us (Proverbs 24:17) “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” When the Bible celebrates military victory, it’s in the context of an exposition on God’s greatness in the victory. It doesn’t focus on the victory itself. Thus Midrash tells us that when the ministering angels start celebrating as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes them saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the Sea, and you would utter song in My presence!” (Talmud: Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b). So strong is the dislike of celebrating the death of our enemies that it is said that we do not sing full Hallel on the last day of Pesach in order to not celebrate the death of the Egyptians. And, of course, at the Seder when we dip our finger in the wine to count the plagues, we never lick the finger for fear that we might derive any pleasure from the suffering of others, even our enemies.

So it would seem, as many an author has already provided online, that Judaism absolutely condemns the celebration of the death of others, even of wicked enemies. But, as always, it’s not that simple because the Bible also says, “When the righteous prosper the city exults; when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10). Our quotation about the ministering angels from above is challenged by some Rabbis in Talmud – Megillah 10b has Rabbi Elazar saying that “God does not rejoice but causes others to rejoice” while Sanhedrin 39b puts these words in the mouth of Rabbi Yose bar Chanina. In fact, the Biblical quotation that accompanies this statement is quite convincing, so it could be said that while God does not rejoice, we do have permission to do so.

How do we hold together all these texts? How can we reconcile us being told not to rejoice when our enemy stumbles (Proverbs 24) with it being pointed out that when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy (Proverbs 11)? How do we hold texts in which God rebukes the angels for celebrating the death of the wicked with texts that says that while God does not rejoice, God can cause others to rejoice (Talmud: Megillah and Sanhedrin)? My answer is that Proverbs 11 is talking about what comes naturally to us. When a very close friend of mine was murdered nearly a decade ago, the most helpful question someone asked me at the time was when I was in America – a student rabbi called Nathan asked if I was upset that Britain didn’t have the death penalty. It made me realise how much rage was inside me because I knew the answer at the time was yes. The instinctive reaction to the death of loved ones by most people is vengeance. Proverbs 11 doesn’t tell us that there should be shouts of joy when the wicked die, just that there are – this is the normal state of affairs. So the people who gathered in crowds in the US this week to cheer the death of bin Laden were just doing what came naturally. They were expressing an aspect of grief that is real. But just because that’s what’s natural doesn’t mean that’s what we should be doing, hence the need for the Proverbs 24

 text. We hold these together by understanding that they’re talking about the same situation and comparing the normative and the ideal response.

In terms of our Talmudic texts, I always hesitate when we try to know the mind of God. Is God a God of mercy or of vengeance? The question is relevant since we are asked to walk in God’s ways (Deut. 10:12) – if God is merciful, so too should we be merciful, but if God is vengeful, so too should we be vengeful. Bringing our Proverbs texts in here is helpful for me – we can incite God’s name in vengeance if we wish since God also exacts vengeance but I believe that ultimately God wants us to be merciful and to not celebrate the death of the wicked. So I won’t condemn the cheering because I understand it as an expression of pain. I would hope that people might eventually move beyond it, so that they can see that even murderers are people too - twisted hateful people - but people nonetheless. They may not deserve our sympathy in the slightest because we also learn that whoever destroys a life is as though they have destroyed the entire world (Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a) but every person, even a murderer, is part of God’s creation. Ultimately, when such a person dies, how we respond says much about ourselves, whether we are in pain and, if so, how we express that pain.  

At the end of the day, I would have liked to have seen bin Laden stand trial, to have had his ideology publicly torn apart, to have had his hatred exposed. I would have liked to have seen a man who elavated himself to the point where he ordered the deaths of others, even those who served him, humbled in the dock and shown to have been just a twisted soul, although I appreciate the tremendous risk that would have involved. I would have liked the world to have really seen how a normal young boy became a mass murderer and would have liked the world to have really understood the consequences of that for all of us. Is the world a better place without him? Probably. Is that reason to celebrate? No, but I understand and feel sorry for those for whom that is the instinctual reaction.

Just in case we forget that he was once like all of us before turning to evil.