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A Purim special: The Book of Whitty, 1:1-12

1It happened in the days of Johnson – that Johnson who gave over a hundred and twenty thousand press conferences – 2that he gave a clap for all the officials and courtiers, the administrators, the nobles, the carers, the doctors and the nurses. 3For no less time than a year, every Thursday he would show the great magnanimity of his majesty, by underpaying his healthcare workers but topping up their salaries with applause. And the rule for the clapping was: many, many restrictions.

4In the second month, King Johnson ordered his advisers, wise and SAGE men, to bring Neil Ferguson before him. 5But they caught Neil Ferguson with his trousers down, and King Johnson was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him, and he banished Neil Ferguson from his palace.

6Then dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the land, except for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, that every man should wield authority in his own home, but that he should not step outside of it without reasonable excuse.

7King Johnson’s servants, who attended him, said, “Let beautiful young doctors be sought out for Your Majesty. Let them be provided with cosmetics and let the doctor who pleases you most become the face of your battle against coronavirus.”

8There was a doctor in the land called Whitty, and was more comely and beautiful than all the other doctors, and he won King Johnson’s grace and favour, so he appointed him Chief Medical Officer.

9That night, sleep deserted King Johnson, perhaps because the sound of smashing plates is pretty bloody loud, so he ordered up the book of records. 10There it was found written that there had been a remarkable episode in his own household: his courtier, Dominic, had deserted the palace and driven to the province of Durham. 11“What honour or advancement has been conferred on him for this?” the king enquired. “Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied his servants.

12So the king made him Chief of Staff.

To be continued when we know the end of the story…

Happy Purim!

Tzom Hillel v’Shammai: we need to bring back nidui

This time last year, 9 Adar, I wrote about the ancient fast day commemorating an outbreak of violence between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, following a halachic disagreement. I said:

[This is] a message that modern British Jewry desperately needs to hear. Actual physical violence along sectarian or political lines is thankfully rare in our community – though not unheard of – but other forms of silencing violence are prevalent. People get screamed at at communal events. People try to get political opponents fired. People are stalked online. People are relentlessly bullied in the hope of emotionally exhausting them into submission.

Things haven’t got better. Our community is still plagued with silencing violence. Those who speak out against the crowd are relentlessly bullied, harassed, gaslit, labelled as traitors. People are reported to their employers in the hope of sacking. Clients are hassled in an attempt to have businesses and careers ruined. Petitions are started. The police are weaponised when vexatious complaints are made. Fake Twitter accounts are set up to continue stalking after the culprit’s main account has been blocked.

Especially bad is how it’s not uncommon for women who put their head above the parapet, especially young women, to be met with threats of assault (including sexual assault) or demands that they take their own life.

It’s not just Jews who are victims of this silencing behaviour. Sometimes it comes in the form of outrageous racism, perhaps suggesting that Travellers should be excluded from our neighbourhoods, or that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be denied the right to vote.

There’s no point my explaining how completely unacceptable this all is. Everyone who isn’t guilty of this stuff understands that it’s unacceptable.

Sometimes, the perpetrators of this violence are random anonymous trolls. But, staggeringly often, they’re not. They act under their own names. We know who they are, and they’re not Russian bots: they’re real members of the Jewish community.

They pray in our synagogues (of all denominations). They attend Limmud. They have letters and columns published in our communal press. And they do so confident that, despite the way they conduct themselves, nobody will lift a finger to do anything about it.

We cannot continue to condone this bullying. We’re past the point of generalised statements from the President of the Board of Deputies saying “play nice kids”. We need targeted action against the transgressors.

Ostracism

Nachash is a Hebrew acronym: נח״ש. It stands for Nidui, Cherem [v’]Shamta. These are three forms of communal punishment detailed in our halachic literature. Cherem is the most severe and is often translated as ‘excommunication’; famously, Spinoza was put in cherem. There is a chilling ceremony involving black candles, an empty coffin, and animal entrails.

Nobody really seems clear on what Shamta is but it serves the acronym well because it means ‘serpent’.

The one that interests me is nidui. Nidui literally means ‘isolation’ (it comes from the same root as niddah) but is generally translated as ‘ostracism’. One who is put in nidui, referred to as a m’nudeh, is subject to a range of restrictions, which could include being required to stay four cubits away from other people, a ban on socialising with others outside their household, suspension from participating in communal prayer, and even their children’s exclusion from school.

(Yes, this does all sound eerily familiar, especially the enforced social distancing, and Rabbi Gidon Rothstein has penned a fascinating series of articles arguing that, during the pandemic, we are all m’nudim la-shamayim, ostracised from Heaven. But anyway…)

The authority imposing the nidui could be a Torah scholar, or a student, or a beit din, or in some cases a private individual, and this authority would determine precisely what restrictions to impose. The default period for a nidui outside Israel is a week, but again, this can be adjusted up or down, and it can be re-imposed indefinitely if the m’nudeh doesn’t change their ways. It can also be upgraded to a cherem which is permanent and carries more severe restrictions.

Offences justifying nidui

The Shulchan Aruch opens its discussion of nidui (Yoreh Deah 334) with the rather bald statement: “One who does a forbidden thing, we put them in nidui forthwith.” Earlier, Maimonides drew up a list of 24 offences which he felt justified nidui, but it’s understood to be non-exhaustive.

Violent behaviour, even if non-physical, must, in my view, be a transgression which justifies nidui. So far as Maimonides’s list goes, the closest item is probably ‘causing a blind person to stumble’, because we all know that online pile-ons encourage the rest of the world, who might not, on their own, think to behave abominably, to join in with the mob. But as I say, it’s a non-exhaustive list, and there is no doubt that cyberbullying is a form of halbanat panim, intentional infliction of humiliation. Anyone who does this is absolutely doing an act forbidden by Judaism.

How this should all work today

Some principles for how I envisage nidui being reinstated as a tool to allow the community to deal with this behaviour:

Nidui should be a last resort. Preliminary steps could include:

  • Public gestures of support to individual victims, which are specific and example-driven. The tone needs to be, “Online abuse, such as tweets reading XYZ, being directed at Jo Bloggs, is unacceptable. You may not agree with what s/he has to say but that is no reason at all to try to silence them.”
  • Offenders’ friends and rabbis having a quiet word with them.

Nidui should be relatively light:

  • It should primarily involve the revocation of synagogue privileges and honours such as mitzvot, honorary titles, service on Council and so on.
  • The nidui need not be issued publicly at first. If it needs to be renewed, publicity is an extra step that could be considered.
  • If publicised, and in a post-covid world, the four-cubit rule (or a variant, such as requiring the offender to sit in a designated seat when they attend synagogue) may be appropriate within communal spaces. It is to be noted that the four-cubit rule applies to the offender; it is their responsibility to keep their distance and not that of the rest of society to move away.
  • The rabbi should not be judged in their own cause: if they are the victim of the abuse, they cannot be the person to decide on a communal response to it.
  • Extreme steps that target family members rather than the offender themselves are plainly inappropriate.
  • Escalation to cherem would not be on the cards.

The path to discharging the nidui should be clear and achievable:

  • The default 7-day period seems apt, though if it needs to be repeated several times this could be extended (including to an indefinite nidui, ‘indefinite’ as opposed to ‘infinite’).
  • The nidui would normally be discharged if the offender shows contrition and apologies for their actions.
  • In some cases, it may be appropriate to require the offender to undergo digital citizenship training, such as that offered by Fix the Glitch; the synagogue could assist with the expense of this if necessary.
  • An agreement to cease interaction with, and comment on, the victim may also be called for.

(In)frequently asked questions

Why did nidui stop being used?

Nidui never caught on in the Progressive world at all, and even in Orthodoxy it’s barely used any more. There are a few reasons for this:

  • It had the potential to get ‘a bit silly’, with everyone putting each other in nidui for petty sectarian reasons. In particular, it was often used in an attempt to suppress liberal religious tendencies. It still does have this potential, but in my view that is no reason to rule out measured, responsible and appropriate use of the system. The subjectivity of, “S/he imposed a nidui for that conduct even though I might not have treated it so seriously,” is built into the system and is precisely what the rabbis envisaged.
  • As the Jewish community became more diverse and more assimilated, it became meaningless and impossible to enforce: people had non-Jewish friends who would still dine with them in spite of any nidui, and they could always move to a different synagogue if they were ostracised from theirs. Many of the rules required co-operation from people other than the offender, and this was not always forthcoming. This is definitely a drawback, but again, it’s surmountable, in particular by making as much of the nidui as possible about the synagogue itself: nobody else needs to co-operate in withholding aliyot, say. An offender who chooses to leave a community in which they are subject to nidui is welcome to do so; the threat of departure cannot exempt them from this expression of communal disapproval.
  • Once upon a time, nidui was the only way the community could enforce its laws. We generally no longer need our own enforcement mechanisms any more because we co-operate with the secular authorities much more. This holds true for many areas of communal life, such as domestic abuse, because the police can and should be the primary enforcers. However, much of the behaviour I’m concerned about is perfectly legal so far as the law of England and Wales is concerned; it is only on a moral and halachic basis that there might be concerns.

What about freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is extremely important. People absolutely need to be allowed to criticise others, and to challenge ideas and arguments they hear being aired in public. However, calling people Nazis is not a challenge to an idea or argument; it’s just abuse. There’s no need for outright abuse. That said, of course, a nidui ultimately doesn’t interfere with someone’s free speech because they have the option to continue saying whatever they want. We can’t and won’t coerce them into stopping. They have a clear (legal) right (up to a point) to say whatever they want; however they have no legal right to an aliyah on Yom Kippur.

What does all this have to do with Tzom Hillel v’Shammai?

The slaughter of Beit Hillel’s students didn’t come out of nowhere. There must, first, have been some ‘fighting talk’, some incitement, some harsh language calculated to cause bloodshed. If only it had been stamped out at the time – if only it wasn’t tolerated, if only the perpetrator hadn’t been indulged or lamely told to play nice – the students might still be alive. (You know what I mean.)

Conclusion

Light a yahrzeit candle tonight in memory of the Battle of Hillel and Shammai. And challenge communal bullying directly and whenever you see it.