Thursday, November 28, 2013

Do the bad guys win?

Movie cliches dictate that the bad guys are always stronger and better organised than the heroes. For most of the plot, the villains look poised to conquer the world until- just in the nick of time- a social outcast with just the right combinations of mazal and skill pulls off a perfect sequence of tricks that tips the scales, sends the villains packing and saves the world.

With the right agent, the Maccabees could have raked in royalties (or plagiarism suits) for generations now. Hero/ villain movies are all just variations of the Chanukah tale. That whole one-guy-takes-down-auto-weapons-packing-global-crime-syndicate-with-his-bare-hands genre is Maccabee through and through. Read the Chanukah prayer, it's all there: "The mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous". Basically, the good guys defy the odds and win.

Ah, but there is one part that Hollywood hasn't picked up on. Chanukah is also the time that the "impure were delivered into the hands of the pure". Goodbye martial arts, this is now spiritual conflict we're talking about. You know, the kind that plays out inside our heads and is much more difficult to win than a bar brawl or street scuffle.

Spiritual conflicts work like a see-saw, when one force rises, the other must fall. You'll know this from your own experiences- on the days that you feel inspired, no distraction pulls you away from your focus. But, when you're feeling dry, scintillating spirituality doesn't raise your eyebrow. Get stuck in that rut for long enough and the "pure" side of life slips far out of sight. You start to feel like you'll never be inspired again.

What a frustrating vicious cycle to get caught up in. You don't feel inspired, so you have no motivation to get up and do the things that may inspire you. So you feel less inspired. 

By rights, once you're getting sucked down in that blah spiral, there should be no way to come up for air. After all, how can you inspire yourself to inspire yourself?

The real miracle of Chanukah is not so much the "good guys come out tops" story (you can catch that on DSTV). The big deal of Chanukah is that the "pure" found a way to displace the "impure"; the soul managed to drag itself out of the mire of lethargy. The light was able to shine again through the darkness. That's Chanukah. It celebrates the promise that the most uninspired of us can flip our "on switch" whenever we choose to, even if we're convinced that the inspiration we want can never be found, and if it is found, it can never last. Chanukah says beating bad guys is impressive, but the real goal is to reignite our personal Menorah.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Is Judaism boring?

"No pushing, please, we're Jewish." You won't hear that line at the barmi buffet table, but it sums up how Jews think about being rammed with religion. You can't blame us, we've had sword-yielding, bible-swinging, stake-burning religious activists try stuff their religions down our throats for most of our history.
And we’ve had rabbis. And Jewish mothers.
Jews are a thinking people; quite proud, in fact, of our cool, analytical approach to life. We only take wise risks. We research and study thoroughly before leaping, and we believe that spirituality is a personal matter, where each of us needs to find our comfort zone.
In fact, most Jews are quite convinced that Judaism rests on the bedrock of moderation and rationalism. Say "fundamentalist" and Jews cringe and deny that we have any (even our fanatics are not "real" fanatics, we’ll tell you).
That’s why Jews don't talk much about our patriarch, Yaakov's sons, Shimon and Levi. After their sister had been violated, these two took matters in hand and wiped out the whole city of Shechem, where the perp had been a nobleman. Vigilante Jews? Not something we’re overly comfortable with. 
Well, almost.
The Talmud highlights precisely that incident and uses it to determine the age of Barmitzvah. In that narrative, the Torah calls these two Ish, the term for "man", even though they were youths. A quick calculation reveals that they were both thirteen, so the Talmud illustrates that at thirteen a boy becomes an "ish".
Now, of all the stories of our ancestors, why would the Torah choose the story of a bloodbath to nail the age when one becomes an adult? Surely, the Torah doesn't want barmi boys stabbing their way into manhood. But, it does want us to know that to be counted in the Jewish community, you need to be bold for your Judaism. Not every Jewish response will fit into the neat, rational compartments of our understanding, but are expected to stand up for our beliefs, even when they are beyond our comprehension.
And the Torah wants us to know that Judaism must be passionate and energetic; infused with the zeal of a protective older brother. When Judaism simmers down to a comfortable, predictable rhythm, it quickly becomes uninspiring and is soon discarded. 
At the Kinus, I heard many rabbis bemoan how Jews seem to be losing the spark from their Judaism. In some communities, Judaism still plods along, but at a humdrum, mechanical pace.
In others, the wheels have stopped turning altogether. The recent Pew Research Centre survey on American Jewry highlights the challenge of US Jews who have lost their Jew-mojo. 
We’re lucky in S.A. We have a dynamic community and remain behind the USA’s downward curve. But, we are not immune. Any of us can run dry. Many of us have solidified our Jewish habits and no longer want the challenge of pushing spiritually forward. We’re happy, we’re settled and we’re “more involved than so many other Jewish people”. Shimon and Levi come along to remind us to step up, step out and take the challenge to do something unplanned, but passionately Jewish every once in a while. We need to regularly raise our Jewish heart rate to ensure we keep our souls fit and the next generation inspired to stay Jewish.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Jews, get out of South Africa?

A few Chabad rabbis leave town for a while and the rumours start that Jews are pushing for mass-emigration. 
While we were dancing at farbrengen-central, the Star newspaper ran this sensationalist headline: 

I picked this up on a friend's Facebook feed, where young concerned Jews vented their concerns about rising anti-Semitism in S.A. Sensationalist perhaps, but the Star's article wasn't anti-Semitic. It reported on Israeli MK Avigdor Lieberman's comments that South African Jews should get out of the country ASAP to avoid an impending "pogrom". Lieberman was responding to some inane comments against Israel made by International Relations Minister, Nkoana-Mashabane.
Pogrom in SA? We may have problems in our country, but rampant anti-Semitism isn't one of them. 
Last night, I landed in Montreal Canada. Shortly before I got here, a Jewish man was attacked in an eatery by two Muslim women. Ironically, he had asked their view on an issue of mutual concern- the possibility that the Quebec government may ban religious head coverings. Rather than engage, the women hurled abuse at him, knocked his food to the floor and took a few swings at him, before calling the police to report his "racial incitement". 
Last year, Canada had over 1300 reported incidents of anti-Semitism.
This past Sunday, I chaired a session at the Kinus to discuss anti-Semitism in Europe. The Shluchim on the panel represented Sweden, Germany, Poland and the UK and, to our surprise, the UK measured the highest levels of anti-Semitism of them all. Last year, Australia racked up over 500 anti-Semitic incidents, and last month saw five people hospitalized in an anti-Semitic attack in Sydney.
South Africa reported 50 anti-Semitic incidents last year.
A few years back, I heard Mark Bagraim talk about how he had represented the SABJD at a conference on global anti-Semitism and had arranged a comprehensive two page report on the issues on our home front. The French delegates arrived with a three volume report on the problems in their country, with the UK, Australia and Canada not far behind.
If Israel wants to promote Aliyah, by all means.
But don't fear-monger.
Having just spent the week with communal leaders from around the world and hearing what's really going on in other Jewish communities, I'd rather go with the assurances of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that SA will remain good for the Jews until Moshiach gets here.