The Rwandan Shabbos elevator

Comments on the present Tory government’s contempt for the law have tended to focus on the prime minister’s lockdown parties, or his bribes for home redecorating, or his lying to Parliament. But there has been nothing so explicit and brazen as the prime minister defending a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await decisions on their cases, as a necessary defence against “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”. Rather like the US sending prisoners to be tortured abroad — or doing it themselves in the law-free zone of Guantanamo — he is saying that our legal protections for asylum seekers are too onerous (when lefty lawyers have the audacity to actually use them) so we’re going to evade the law by sending the people to another jurisdiction where they don’t apply. Rather than simply change the law to match what he believes ought to be done, providing clarity and confidence to all concerned.

Which brings me to… the Shabbos elevator. One of the things that makes Orthodox Judaism seem bizarre to us Liberal Jews is its never-ending struggle to put one over on God. The Torah is full of rules and regulations — 613 of them according to one popular enumeration — and these are variously extended, expanded, and interpreted in various rabbinical texts and traditions to form the quasi-legal corpus known as halakha. Orthodox Jews commit themselves to obeying all of these precepts, which immediately leads — because some of them (like the ban on carrying anything outside or making a flame — interpreted to include electricity — on Shabbat) are quite onerous, some (like the prohibition against borrowing money at interest and the requirement to cancel all debts every seventh year) inconvenient, and others (like the ban on clothing made of mixed fabrics) simply bizarre — devote vast stores of legalistic ingenuity to evading these rules.

Thus you see the Orthodox tying wires — an eruv — around whole neighbourhoods, or even a large part of a city, to define it as a single “household”, where objects may be carried and journeys are permitted on Shabbat. They formally transfer their loans to a rabbinical court to avoid the required cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. They put their electric lights on automatic timers on Shabbat. And in hotels and apartment blocks — particularly, but not only, in Israel — they continue to use elevators that are specially designed to stop on every floor on Shabbat (to avoid needing to activate electrical buttons).

In his book The Shabbat Elevator, and other Sabbath subterfuges, the folklore scholar Alan Dundes considers the question of why the same people would have a set of overly strict customs, and then “counter customs” that relax the strictures. Within the framework of Jewish tradition the explanation is simple: The halakha is not a mere custom, it is the perfect law of God, and so must be followed. To the letter. Not, though, in spirit, because interpreting the spirit is beyond the capacity of mortal man. We are responsible for obeying the exact perfect words as passed on to us from God through our ancestors. These tricks may seem bizarre and counterintuitive, but if God wanted us to behave differently he would have formulated his Torah differently.

To a liberal Jew this seems kind of crazy. Our ancestors collectively created the law, and we do not respect it by evasion. We respect it by updating it. That forces us to acknowledge what we are doing, and to justify it, to ourselves and to our community.

And so it is with refugee law in Britain. If the UK government finds the law inappropriate, if it admits what they consider abuse by lefty lawyers, then they are free to use their majority in parliament to change the law, and to remove the legal rights and protections that refugees currently enjoy. To leave the law in place, but to evade it by sending the asylum-seekers to a country where they are not legally protected is bizarre and pointless, except as way of avoiding responsibility for the moral principles that their ancestors encoded into British law.

Riley in Odessa

While looking up something else in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English dictionary I came across the expression לעבן ווי גאָט אין אדעס — to live like God in Odessa — translated as “to live the life of Riley”.

I was familiar with the German expression Leben wie Gott in Frankreich — to live like God in France — with the same meaning, and I’d always assumed it was a reference to the large number of opulent houses that God has in France. But Odessa? It’s not a city I associate with cathedrals — though I’ve never been there. And would a Yiddish expression locate God’s dwelling in cathedrals? Is it originally a Russian expression? Presumably it’s connected to the German expression, but which came first? Maybe they both have nothing to do with cathedrals, but with a general opulence of lifestyle, in which God figures only as a kind of ironic hyperbole.

So many questions…

(Including about Riley. According to some sources the phrase goes back to a Sligo landowner Willy Reilly who found his way through to a contented and prosperous life after some ballad-worthy marital complications. There are no records of him ever having visited Odessa.)

Rudy Giuliani and Lenny Bruce

Former New York mayor and current bagman for Donald Trump’s Ukraine connection, Rudolph Giuliani has been getting some flak for first spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and then defending himself by saying that Soros isn’t “really Jewish” because “he doesn’t go to church”. Corrected then “he doesn’t go to religion”. Corrected again: “Synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.” One may doubt Giuliani’s bona fides as arbiter of Jewishness, but in fact

“Soros is hardly a Jew,” he continued. “I’m more of a Jew than Soros is.” Asked by NBC News if his remarks were seriously intended, the former mayor texted: “I’m more Jewish than half my friends.”

The outrage is misplaced. Giuliani’s claim rests on the authority of one of the great Jewish standup comics of the 1950s and 1960s, Lenny Bruce. Giuliani was clearly channelling Bruce’s classic “Jewish and Goyish” routine:

Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish.
B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corps–heavy goyim, dangerous.
Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes–goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish–very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.
Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar Show is very goyish.
Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish.
All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish.

On the other hand, Lenny Bruce wasn’t seen in church shul much, and I don’t know that he’s on record with much support for Israel. So maybe he wasn’t really Jewish?

We should ask Giuliani.

A Purim reckoning for the Jewish people

I think the Jewish community worldwide needs to come together to discuss, soberly and in a spirit humble reflection a matter that has been repressed and ignored for too long: Our strategy for causing the name of Haman to be blotted out, and that his memory and that of his descendants should vanish from the earth, is just not working. We have been trying the same approach — noisemakers and loud booing — for centuries now, and maybe it’s time for a rethink.

I sat through the Megillah reading yesterday, and in discussions later on it was conspicuous how little Haman has been forgotten. Despite all the noise, he remains easily among the top ten best-known Agagites. Even his ten sons are relatively well known.

The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: Continue reading “The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)”

Condorcet method for choosing a religion

Making choices is hard! Particularly when there are multiple possibilities, differing in multiple dimensions. Like choosing the best religion.

There are many possible methods, leading to a variety of outcomes. The 18th century French mathematician Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet, advocated privileging methods of deciding elections that will always grant victory to a candidate who would win one-on-one against each other candidate individually. (Of course, there need not be such a candidate.) Such methods are referred to as “Condorcet methods”.

I’ve just been reading The Jews of Khazaria, about the seventh to tenth-century kingdom in central Asia that converted to Judaism around the middle of the ninth century.

According to the Reply of King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, one of the few surviving contemporaneous texts to describe the internal workings of the Khazar kingdom,

Each of the three theological leaders tried to explain the benefits of his own system of belief to King Bulan. There were significant disagreements between the debaters, so Bulan went a step farther by asking the Christian and Muslim representatives which of the other two religions they believed to be superior. The Christian priest preferred Judaism over Islam, and likewise the Muslim mullah preferred Judaism over Christianity. Bulan therefore saw that Judaism was the root of the other two major monotheistic religions and adopted it for himself and his people.

Plaque assay

I was just in Paris for a few days. Walking past the Lycée Simone Weil, in the 3rd arrondissement, I noticed a plaque, such as one sees quite commonly on public institutions:

À la mémoire des jeunes filles, élèves de cet établissement, autrefois école de couture die la ville de Paris, déportées et assassinées de 1942 à 1944 parce qu’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy.

Plus de 11400 enfants furent déportés de France dont plus de 500 vivaient dans le 3ème art de Paris.

Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort.

Les élèves du Lycée Simone Weil ne les oublieront jamais.

[To the memory of the girls, pupils of this establishment, which was then the Paris School of Dressmaking, deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.

More than 11400 children were deported from France, of whom more than 500 lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.

They were exterminated in the death camps.

The pupils of the Lycée Simone Weil will never forget them.]

As I read it, the formulation seemed to me strikingly perfect. The text avoids all the pitfalls that similar texts have been criticised for, whereby they seemed to either be minimising the horror, or pushing away blame, or somehow alienating the victims. The victims were “jeunes filles”, “innocent victims”, “murdered because they were born Jewish” (thus emphasising that it was a purely racist crime. They were “exterminated”, they lived right here, and then this somewhat wishful phrase at the end, usually attached to heroic martyrs, “The pupils will never forget them.” Most striking was the attribution of responsibility to “Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.” They clearly were concerned to make absolutely unambiguous that they were not minimising French responsibility. Not just “complicity”, but “active complicity”. (Though it wasn’t the “French government”, but only the “Vichy government”.)

I was impressed first, then irritated. Precisely because they managed to tick every box and engrave such a perfect text on the plaque, it made it clear what a formulaic activity it is. (Perhaps the final sentence, unassailably high-minded just as it is clearly not true in any meaningful sense, also drove that point home.) It’s not that they did anything wrong, and I’m glad that they put all these plaques up. There’s just a limit to what you can achieve with a plaque, and perfecting the art of the memorial plaque in some ways undermines the spirit that it is meant to express.

A real champion of academic freedom

I’ve commented before about the craven assault on academic freedom at the University of Southampton, which feigned concerns about “health and safety” to justify cancelling an uncomfortable conference on international law and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But for me it’s mainly an abstract issue. I’m not involved in the conference, my political views lie messily between those of the conference organisers and their opponents, and it’s not a hugely important topic to me.

One name that I noticed, with interest, on the programme, was that of Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at University of Buckingham. I know of him from his frequent contributions to the Jewish Chronicle, which I usually filed in the “staunch Zionist” column, with some of the blindspots typical of that worldview. I was impressed with his willingness to appear in such a forum, clearly slanted against his beliefs, both because of the discomfort that entails, and because of the danger that his ideological allies would see him as a traitor to the cause.

He has now written a letter to Times Higher Education, forthrightly condemning this triumph of obscurantism.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment.

As a proud non-Zionist Jew, I am hugely impressed, and encouraged.

Dolchstosslegende à l’anglaise

Another Jew has stabbed us in the back, warns defence secretary Michael Fallon. This time, it’s Ed Miliband, who has shown himself an utter failure at trying to pass for a normal bacon-eating Brit, who is potentially going to leave us helpless, with barely a nuclear-armed submarine to protect us against the benefits scroungers. His choice of detail was fascinating: He wrote that Miliband

could not be trusted with the nation’s defences after he “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader”. In a Times article Fallon wrote: “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

Now, of course, we can’t be sure of the details until David Miliband’s body is found*, but so far as I am aware, they competed fairly for the leadership of Labour. Ed won. Doesn’t sound particularly nefarious to me. But then, I come from a religious tradition whose scripture celebrates younger brothers who stab the older ones in the back triumph over the disadvantages of their birth.

*Correction: It has already been found. It is in New York, directing the International Rescue Committee.

The Emancipation Haggadah [reprinted from last year]

A few years ago, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and because I was blown away by reading a couple of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, I had the inspiration to try to integrate the American slave experience with the traditional haggadah. In particular, I put in lots of quotes from Douglass about the nature of slavery and freedom — the amazing physicality and emotional presence — to supplement the traditional text of “hard labour, clay and bricks, and all the work of the fields”. I’ve always thought the main purpose of the seder is to remind children (and adults) to think again about the difference between freedom and slavery, and for that we need text that makes it fresh and real. Douglass does that.

I combined this with other favourite passages and the portions of the traditional haggadah that I like to include in my seders. Of course, for those of us who are not keen on stories of wandering Arameans and such, it’s very convenient to have your own haggadah with your own selection of material, to spare the annoyance of announcing page numbers.

The result is here, for anyone who wants to have a look.