Monthly Archives: February 2019

Feb 22

21 February 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit about the malignantly-misunderstood Friedrich Nietzsche and his unfair association with Nazism. What is perhaps a much worse historical judgement is that which falls on a different ‘villain’: Niccolò Machiavelli. In the generation after his own lifetime and for many that followed, Machiavelli was labelled evil, degenerate, immoral, and more than once was suggested to be the Antichrist himself.

In reality, Machiavelli was a political philosopher who advocated for Republicanism and used his writings to subtly undermine the authoritarian tendencies of the Medici family which ruled his native Florence. Machiavelli uses irony and humour to mock and insult these immoral actors, all while confirming his belief in popular rule and the usefulness of moral governance.

Perhaps I have a penchant for the historically-misunderstood, but I’ve been reading The Prince this week, as well as Erica Benner’s brilliant biography of Machiavelli (Be Like the Fox). Both together paint a very different portrait than the one I had inhaled via our culture at large, and I’m finding that Machiavelli is surprisingly insightful not only about the political machinations of his own day, but of ours as well.

This past week has seen two major upsets to the political systems of the UK and Israel, respectively. With Brexit looming and crises in both major parties far from resolved, we witnessed the creation of the Independent Group, a growing number of MPs from both major parties who have upset the status quo, and as of today, hold more seats than the government’s confidence-and-supply partner, the DUP. In the course of a week, the power map of Parliament has changed dramatically, and will likely continue to do so.

Meanwhile in Israel, something truly astonishing has happened: two politicians have set aside their massive egos for the sake of a perceived common good. For the first time in over a decade there is a credible threat to Netanyahu’s rule because of an agreement reached in the early hours of this morning to merge Benny Gantz’s party with Yair Lapid’s. The new party will be called ‘Blue and White’ and has the chance to capture as many (or more) Knesset seats as Likud– creating a genuine competition in an Israeli election for the first time in recent memory.

Both of these phenomena have been about creating a vital and radical centre, and more specifically, about a new type of politics. In stump speeches and late-night tweets, both the Independent Group and Blue and White have endorsed the notion that they are looking not just to change the government, but to change politics. The Independent Group has even got the #ChangePolitics hashtag going, and Gantz and Lapid opened today’s press conference not by talking policy, but instead history: evidently Gantz’s mother and Lapid’s father both lived in the same block of flats in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

Shared history and clever branding may not be enough to #ChangePolitics however. Why? Why is it so hard to break out of the ruts we find ourselves in– of one dominant personality, of a two-party system, etc? As expected, Machiavelli has some insight, although it’s not positive:

“…nothing is harder to organise, more likely to fail, or more dangerous to see through, than the introduction of a new system of government. The person bringing in the changes will make enemies of everyone who was doing well under the old system, while the people who stand to gain from the new arrangements will not offer wholehearted support, partly because they are afraid of their opponents, who still have the laws in their side, and partly because people are naturally sceptical: no one really believes in change until they’ve had solid experience of it.” (The Prince, Ch. 6)

A bit of a downer, sure– but also true. The challenge in the task of changing politics for the better is convincing people to take a risk on something untested, unknown. Yet, it is precisely those risks which have led to most major innovations in the past. It is the fragile factions formed in response to a crisis which can bring a new approach and new solutions to the table.

Perhaps if we, in the UK or in Israel, want to support a different type of politics– if we are sick of ‘business as usual’ while nothing gets done– we have to be willing to take the risk, and to imagine what change could bring. Whether it is good or bad, successful or not, time will tell– but no change can really be effected without the wholehearted support of the people who gain the most from it, even if they have to make the jump to offer that support before they’ve had solid experience of it. To change things we have to be willing to reconsider some of our most basic assumptions, and to challenge ourselves to imagine a different path.

Shabbat Shalom

Feb 15

14 February 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Something remarkable happened last night, something no one thought possible, and something that really struck me in a surprising and unexpected way. No, I don’t mean that Spurs won (although that fits the same criteria), but rather that, during the match between them and Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, a *successful* minute of silence was observed for Emiliano Sala, the Cardiff City footballer who perished in a plane crash along with the single-engine’s pilot, David Ibbotson.

As anyone who has ever been in front of a classroom can testify, getting 20 people to be totally silent for a full minute is a gargantuan challenge. Therefore, to get 71,214 people to be silent (many of whom are there specifically to yell and may or may not have been intoxicated) is a truly miraculous feat. To be honest, I was surprised they even attempted it. But I was glad to be proven wrong when the stirring sound of over 70,000 people’s conscious silence was reverberating around Wembley stadium.

What is the sound of silence? The question is more than a zen koan or a terrifyingly catchy Simon and Garfunkel folk ballad. Real silence is more than simply the absence of sound, it is a conscious and considerate effort to listen rather than speak. In many religious systems, silence is a virtue unto itself– with many sects and practitioners of mystical schools in particular taking vows of silence, some even for their entire lifetime.

Unsurprisingly, there are no Jewish monks who undertake a vow of silence, yet there are many records of medieval pietistic communities where someone would adopt a short-term tsom dibbur (fast from speaking), usually as part of a broader spiritual exercise. These rituals were always based on the Biblical and rabbinic teachings which endorsed the power of silence to convey spiritual truth.

In the Book of Kings (1,19), we read about Elijah’s encounter with God, who we are told repeatedly, is not in the fire, not in the smoke, not in the thunder, not in the lightning– but instead, appears only in the kol d’mamah dakkah, ‘the subtle sound of silence.’ Later, our Sages endorse silence as a practice. Rabbi Akiva teaches in Pirké Avot that ‘Silence is a fence for wisdom’, and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamli’el (whose father was the leading Sage of his generation) writes: ‘All my days I grew up among the rabbis, and never did I discover anything better for a person than silence.’ Ouch!

There are lots of times when silence is the best response we’ve got. However, there are just as many instances when a response that doesn’t transcend silence fails to say much at all. A year to the day after the shooting in Parkland, Florida– silence still pervades public domain. Yet, there are other times when silence is helpful, powerful, even spiritual. I think the difference lies in what I observed last night in the silence of 70,000 football fans: not having anything to say is not the same as choosing not to say anything.

For those of us there last night, a moment of silence was a conscious effort, one that required focus and energy. That kind of silence is the kind our Sages praised and the kind in which God maybe can be heard. Perhaps in our own lives we should consider the silences (or lack of) we encounter. Is silence an absence, or is it the subtlest sound of quiet protest, of careful listening, and of wise consideration?

Shabbat Shalom

Feb 01

31 January 2019

By Editor | Blogs

At one point in my life, I kept a list of all sorts of phrases and words that would make really good names for a rock band. Now, I never actually played or formed a band– the drama of that seemed exhausting. The fun part was in the naming of the band. As any good marketing professional will tell you, there’s a lot in a name. At the top of that list for some time was the brilliant Latin expression ‘Lex Tallonis.’ 

Lex Talionis is the legal term usually applied to the biblical exhortation to return punishment for a crime in a way that mirrors the crime itself. It derives from a section which we read in our parashah for this week, Mishpatim. Exodus 21 gives the case of a pregnant woman who was struck and, as a result, experienced a miscarriage. The loss of the pregnancy was its own crime, and we’re told that the offender would need to pay a fine for damages. Yet in the case that the woman was hurt above and beyond the trauma of pregnancy loss, the text reads: “But if any other harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (v. 23-25).

This famous line, ‘an eye for an eye,’ often characterises the sort of objections people have to the Bible– finding in this prescription of criminal law a brutal and unforgiving system which returns violence with violence in an endless cycle of retribution. Yet, among our Sages, this law was never understood literally. Instead, they suggest (Talmud Baba Kamma 83-84) that the law means that one has to pay the monetary value of the lost eye, tooth, etc in financial compensation to the victim.

Fascinatingly, part of what lies behind the debate about how to understand lex talionis is a much more ancient debate. In the Talmud passage cited above, the Rabbis insist that they are correct in interpreting it non-literally, and take the opportunity to slam the ancient Tsedukim (Saducees) who they claim understood it literally, cutting off hands right and left. This already-ancient dispute about ‘retributive justice’ has an even older precedent however, and one that sheds a great deal of light on the Torah’s position.

In the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE) we find what appears to be the Saduccee/Literalist position: “If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. If he breaks another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken. If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.” The echoes with the language of the Torah (being written at least 700-1000 years later) are profound. But perhaps even more interesting is that contemporaneous with Hammurabi, we also find the Babylonian Laws of Eshmuna (1800 BCE), which say: “If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver; an eye — 60 shekels; a tooth — 30 shekels; an ear — 30 shekels; a slap to the cheek — he shall weigh and deliver 10 shekels of silver. If a man should cut off the finger of another man, he shall weigh and deliver 40 shekels of silver”

Biting off people’s noses certainly seems extreme, but what we see is that the debate between the Perushim (Pharisees/Rabbis) and the Tsedukim (Saducees) was predated by almost two millennia by the Babylonian sources which clearly frame the Torah’s legal system. When the Talmud decided to follow the idea that lex talionis is metaphorical, they were aligning themselves with the Laws of Eshmuna and rejecting the view of Hammurabi’s Code.

Perhaps this should give us some perspective, and more than a little humility. First of all, our objections with the Torah’s text, our desires to read it differently– aren’t just ours. Not only have they been stated already by our Jewish ancestors and by our halakhic tradition, but even the Ancient Near-Eastern precedents which lie behind the Torah’s system contained a debate about how to put these laws into practice! For me, this is some comfort, as it adds a degree of sophistication to a debate that has been ongoing for longer than we can reasonably conceive of.

To those who look at the Torah and immediately react by considering it barbaric, brutal, and irrelevant, the several-thousand year history of debate and discussion around what the ideas within it mean should offer some solace in helping us to realise that we are neither the first, nor likely the last, to raise concerns and debate the meaning of our ancient legal texts. If you’d like to start a band however, you still can be the first to use the very-metal name of lex talionis– as far as I know it’s still available.

Shabbat Shalom,