General Topics

Politics & Religion


Several things are clear to me from the US midterm elections. Only a minority care enough to vote. Most people do not trust politicians. Most people are not wedded to any particular political party, even if there might be a family tradition of loyalty to one. Voters are pragmatists. If it works they’ll stick to it, and if not they’ll kick them out and give the others a chance to do better. They know there is a lot of corruption everywhere, but tend to think that it is just the inevitable way of things.

These lessons apply equally to most democracies, including Israel. Although there party loyalty is much stronger because of the longstanding tradition of buying votes, job and cash handouts and, to use a most inappropriate term, pork barrels. Yes, the term might have been coined in the US, but the Jewish state has perfected and institutionalized the art.

What most people care about is having government that cuts waste, prevents abuses, does not employ vast numbers to keep the unemployment figures low or to win voters, does not hand out huge sums to the underserving and lazy who could work but prefer not to. They want to see someone able to run the economy is such a way as to increase wealth and see that it is spread reasonably widely and to good effect. Often the last is not possible because of external factors, world trade or world slump. But when they see a refusal to tighten controls for fear of alienating underserving oligarchs and ‘bankers’ it is a sign that something is rotten.

People are fed up with those sectors of society that want to impose unrealistic burdens on others. The strikes in France over raising the pension age (to 62–a level still way below most advanced countries) are illustrative. France has in the past been held hostage by unions and their political lackeys who have imposed crazy benefits, long paid holidays, early retirement, almost universal disability bonuses for retirees on the grounds of stress and feeling under the weather. In the past government capitulated. This time–despite the massive support, including millions of schoolchildren apparently already worrying about being able to retire before they have even begun employment–the rest of the country supported a hitherto unpopular government and president in standing firm.

Back in the USA, the Republicans have no better solution to unemployment than the Democrats. They may want to cut government spending and reduce unemployment, but times have changed and those nongovernmental jobs that are coming on-stream require a level of education and skill many of the present unemployed don’t have. It is not dissimilar to the collapse of old heavy industries and mines. And while they want to reduce the deficit, the Fed (not a political party) goes ahead and prints more money, which will have the opposite effect, even if short-term it might well be necessary.
Doe-eyed dreamers who supported Obama have abandoned him because he has proved to be a politician like any other. Many voters are disillusioned. And all they can do in a democracy is to express disappointment, if not anger.

It strikes me that I could have been talking about my favorite subject, religion. Most people, even religious ones, are dissatisfied. They may be committed as individuals, love the religion, if not its organization. They may be loyal to one group or another. But they know that most of their leaders are failing to inspire, to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, to improve human relationships, to increase Godliness on earth, or to persuade the skeptical that they have something to offer.

Reform and Conservative Jews know their message is insipid and irrelevant to most Americans. The very Orthodox know that, although they are increasing, mainly through birthrates, they haven’t solved outstanding halachic issues that create barriers between them and many Jews. They have only widened the credibility gap with the majority of most intelligent, enlightened westerners. They have turned happily inwards, and to hell with the rest (I exclude those few evangelical Hassidim and “Returnee Movements”, who have had some notable successes, but still leave the overwhelming majority cold).

In Israel the Orthodox are living in cloud cuckoo land, expecting others to fight and work for them and underwrite a largely indolent life for too many. Not all, but most of the leadership responds to the illogicality and unsustainability of the situation with inaction; put your trust in God, pray and let someone else find a solution. Not all, by any means, but many preach to the choir, circle the wagons, become increasingly detached from reality, and suffer from intellectual and moral paralysis. In fact, more and more of their own know full well something needs dealing with, but cannot quite work out what, or are frightened of taking the lead or being ostracized. Even more of the faithful, while not knowing exactly what they want, know for certain what they do not want.

Democracy is not a panacea. It is inappropriate to deal with matters of spirit in a world where most people settle for the lowest common denominator. But if only there were a way for ordinary people to express their dissatisfaction with their priests, rabbis, and mullahs, and vote for someone else who might have a chance of doing a better job. Nowadays we have no effective priesthood, no prophets, and no real leadership–just clerics, dynastic rebbes, and rabbis who are only concerned with furthering their own personal agendas and keeping the rest out. No wonder it’s a mess. Still, we faithful carry on, because we refuse to allow incompetent or hypocritical humans to put us off a good thing.

7 thoughts on “Politics & Religion

  1. Dear Jeremy,

    You said,

    "Nowadays we have no effective priesthood, no prophets, and no real leadership–just clerics, dynastic rebbes, and rabbis who are only concerned with furthering their own personal agendas and keeping the rest out. No wonder it's a mess."

    And I say,

    Well, maybe it depends on where you look.

    By one of those journalistic coincidences which beset the best laid blogging plans, only last week, in the print edition of the Jewish Chronic (bottom of page 12) was a small article titled "European Jewry vibrant and growing, says report". The report they're talking about is "The 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives", the product of an American/European collaboration between the Pears Foundation, The ROI Community for Young Jewish Innovators and Jumpstart. It's available here,

    And, into my in-box only today has arrived Tablet's latest email which reports on the Avi Chai Foundation report, "Generation of Change: How Leaders in their Twenties and Thirties are Reshaping American Jewish Life". There's a working link to the report at the end of's useful summary here,

    I think what you might be complaining of is that your peers have failed to move with the times. Or are failing to move sufficiently swiftly. This doesn't seem to me much of a problem while there are younger, energetic, pragmatic and educated Jewish leaders waiting in the wings. There is nothing to be gloomy about if the old dinosaurs eventually have to give up the ghost. A new and better (more professional) standard is being set and that can only be a good thing.

    All best wishes.

  2. DK:

    Thanks for your comments. They merit a longer reply, so I intend to write a separate blog post in response to them and I'll quote you if you don't mind.

    But briefly, I have always claimed that the most exciting and innovative developments in Judaism have come from the grassroots and not from the established leadership. This is arguable historically, but in my opinion absolutely true these past hundred years. And indeed, your references reinforce my contention. They are spearheaded by individuals with talent and, if lucky, get the support of people or trusts of means. But those very trusts tend to be the foundations of people who are not religious leaders. Certainly in Anglo-Jewry every feature that is regarded as innovative and creative has come from outside the Establishment. And I think the same goes for the USA. Only very rarely do you find religious leadership in the vanguard of innovation and the Lubavitcher Rebbe comes to mind and is the exception that proves the rule.

    I have always argued that one needs to find individuals of talent and vision who emerge usually and then fund that talent. This is something the USA is very good at doing. But in too many cases establishments, organizations and religious authority squash individuality and discourage it.

    And yet ironically it is also true that programs to 'jumpstart talent', etc., rarely in the long run do as well in preserving Jewish identity as larger social and religious, movements. No amount of talent-spotting, in my opinion, comes close to producing the results that positive religious life does even where its leadership fails to inspire.

    Still, I am for creativity and believe strongly in funding talent. If only religious institutions and leadership felt the same way. Sadly, conformity and obedience in the pursuit of power and funds usually come first.


  3. Dear Jeremy

    I'm flattered you think my comments merit a whole blog post, please quote away.

    Are you saying that engaged leadership is evidently springing from secular rather than religious initiatives because the religious ones remain so entrenched that innovation is all but impossible? If that's what you're saying, here's an argument against.

    1) Steinsaltz — in your forthcoming blog post, I expect you will include him because how could you miss him out? Translating the Talmud into modern Hebrew has made it accessible to an enormous number of people, including those who Chabad Lubavitch would never manage to reach.

    2) The internet — modern communications have redefined traditional communities, we are not all still stuck with whatever local shul and rabbi we happen to be living near. After all, I choose you over my local stuffed shirt; the Kol Nidre service from Nashuva gets thousands of viewers; and a really quite extreme version of electronic Judaism is described in this month's Lilith in an article about shul attendance in Second Life (According to this article, lighting shabbos candles in virtual life has prompted people to light them in real life.)

    3) According to the Avi Chai Foundation the up and coming crop of Jewish leaders is better Jewishly educated than the previous generation so the investment in various out reach programmes has paid off.

    4) According too to the Avi Chai Foundation, there is a significant overlap between establishment and grass-roots organisations which doesn't seem surprising in a small community. They also say that class difference is what distinguishes allegiance with more middle-class professionals more likely to see the benefits of establishment networking than their non middle-class counterparts.

    So in summary, I think the main question is, what constitutes a "positive religious life"? If all the above 'don't count', then you are right, mainstream Judaism is still mired in the same nonsense that has always bogged us down. But if they do count, then we have much to be pleased and optimistic about. Over to you, and apologies if I have created any straw dolls, I haven't intended to.

    Best wishes.

  4. DK:

    Thanks for persevering!

    Of course I believe Jewish life is dynamic, but you reinforce my contention that the dynamism comes from outside the established structures which in my opinion deaden individuality and discourage experiment.

    You give Adin Steinsaltz as an example. Can't think of a better example of what I am saying. He is largely self-taught, has never held an establishment pulpit or Rabbinate post. He is the archetypal individualist who defies all categories and boxes.

    (to be continued in the next comment)

  5. (continued from previous comment)

    The young leaders Avichai refers to are the current equivalent of the old Chavura movement that took its inspiration from people like Shechter or Carlebach and reflected the Hippy Generation. The new alternative, egalitarian minyanim and their leaders all reflect an antinomian mind set.

    The old Federation organizations were manned largely by ignorant non observant Jews and despite its efforts to blow its own trumpet has fossilized. The remarkable thing is how grass roots Jewish life has revived and is so dynamic but this is despite rather than because of the Establishment. Remember Jewish education–Jewish education on the high school level in the USA was almost entirely confined to the Orthodox. Post-war Jewry everywhere was abysmally ignorant. The expansion of Jewish education has not been supported by the Federations or Establishment Jewry. It is the result of grass roots demand (or in the UK and parts of the USA, the deterioration of the State System). Indeed the massive growth of Charedi life is in no way due to support from American communal or rabbinic organizations.

    Everyone talks about Limmud nowadays but that too started in the UK as the initiative of young anti-establishmentarians!

    We might need organizations administratively but inspirationally they are disaster areas. Both in the USA, Europe and Israel.

    We are all but composing my next blog post jointly!


  6. I think you are moving the goal posts, or we both are. Are we just discussing terminology here? Your wholewheat is my wholegrain but both are brown bread?

    You originally said there are no Jewish leaders and I said, yes there are, they're reported in two reports, for Europe and for America.

    Then you said they weren't religious.

    Now you say they don't count because they're alternative rather than establishment.

    Supposing you're right (and I've already said there's overlap) that doesn't make them any the less leaders. (Just because they might be clubs happy to have you join doesn't immediately rule them out as clubs.)

    I gave Adin Steinsaltz as an example not of him personally but of the behaviour which he promotes and made possible. How much more establishment than studying Talmud can anyone get? Even if you might dismiss the effects of the Birthright project and Limmud as so much short lived hot air because people return to their own countries and return to their usual, non religiously observant way of life, you can't dismiss the impact of Steinsaltz's Talmud project. (Doesn't it feel great to be alive at the same time as someone who can do a thing like that?)

    Are you sure that the revival of Jewish education is despite rather than because of the establishment? Another way of looking at it is as a direct result of the defects of the establishment. You say, "The new alternative, egalitarian minyanim and their leaders all reflect an antinomian mind set." (I assume you mean anti-legalistic.) And I say, of course they do. Look at what they're opposing. They're in opposition to people who deliberate about mentioning sex education at the height of the AIDs crisis. The only other examples of that kind of mindset are drawn from the most unenlightened, despotic, ignorant parts of the globe. It's not hard to appear reactionary when what is being opposed is so much at odds with every other modern organisation.

    To put it another way, suppose that over night every orthodox rabbi decided to settle once and for all:-

    the inequities of religious divorce
    who is a Jew
    what to do about women

    If they did these three things, (all areas that the supposedly less subtle, secular legal system has dealt with –and please don't try Switzerland and voting rights for women because we've already had that conversation) over night the impact of all the non orthodox alternatives would be significantly weakened, and orthodox shuls would begin to look a whole lot more attractive or at least a lot less unattractive. But they are never going to do that because they'd rather sit in the dark and complain about declining membership which leaves the field open for any alternative organisation that wants to offer something new and improved.

    It's impossible to argue that institutional establishment is anything other than deeply uninspiring but that is not the only source of leadership and the very vacuum the establishment creates by being so stultifying is what produces leaders elsewhere. You should cheer on the establishment for being stuck in the muds because as soon as they effectively extricate themselves we'll have to stop complaining and looking for alternatives. Don't you think that much the same can be said of any organisation or community? This isn't a uniquely Jewish phenomenon.

    Best wishes.

    (I am busy with alternative Jewish organisations for the next few days so you'll be left in peace to finish your blog without more assistance from me!)

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