I've got a little list
Friday, 21 July 2017 | 27 Tammuz, 5777
At our Wednesday shiur this week, Ian Gelbart reminded me of the cheeky Gilbert and Sullivan ‘Little list song’. The song opens:
“As some days may happen
That a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list
I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders
Who might well be underground”.
You will forgive me if I’ve been a little obsessed with little lists since my name appeared on a blacklist emanating from the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s office last week. (The list is of diaspora rabbis whose letters of authorisation of Jewish identity for the purposes of marriage in Israel have supposedly been rejected).
Blacklists are not new. They have been around for centuries as has the concept of excluding or denouncing individuals as heretics. They were the stuff of the Inquisition, the grist of the McCarthy era and its denouncement of communist suspects and infiltrators. The Nazis had their fearful lists as did Stasi; many illustrious people appeared on these lists. The Nazi list, prepared for the invasion of England, was discovered in a booklet found in the Berlin Headquarters of the Reich security policy in 1945. It contained over 2,300 names ranging from Winston Churchill and Virginia Woolf to members of the peerage and of course prominent Jews like Chaim Weizman. It led the cartoonist, David Low, to quip “That is alright. I had them on my list too”. When Rebecca West learned that she and Noel Coward were on the list she wrote to him: “My dear, these are the people we should have been seen dead with.” (Thank you Prof Louis Waller for bringing this to my attention). A copy of the black book is on display at the Imperial War Museum.
So does Judaism have anything comparable? I would like to think not, although the concept of putting people into Cherem or excommunicating them is enshrined in Halacha. It is a total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community, a form of shunning (and similar to the vitandus excommunication later taken on by the Catholic Church). The Jewish High Court or Sanhedrin would occasionally excommunicate someone for failing to submit to its’ rulings or for their heretical views. The most famous case is probably that of Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher although celebrated scholar Maimonides too was excommunicated by some of his colleagues. Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders also had a Cherem placed on them by the Rabbis of Odessa. The Talmud speaks of twenty four offences that were punishable by a form of niddui or temporary excommunication. These include the theological, like causing others to shame the name of God; the legal, like selling treif meat as Kosher meat; the ethical like having a savage dog on your property. Interestingly you could be excommunicated for declaring an unjustified excommunication! While very rarely practiced today except in some Charedi and Chassidic communities, there have been a few notable exceptions. In 2004 the High Court of South Africa upheld a Cherem against a Johannesburg businessman who refused to pay his former wife alimony as ordered by the Beth Din.
I prefer to think that Judaism and Jewish Law has developed a more refined and transparent system of dealing with its detractors, that it prizes proper legal process and allowing people to defend themselves. And this takes me back to the Rabbinate’s black list. I can understand that one needs to check the veracity of a person’s Jewish identity and be comfortable with those providing authorisation. All rabbis do it when approving of a shule membership or application for marriage and I am, in fact, punctilious about this. My argument is not that the Chief Rabbi’s office would want to check the veracity of the documents, but their process lacks transparency and smacks of secrecy, cronyism and often of Chareidi control if not disdain for those who are not Chareidi. I remain bewildered by their half-hearted apologetic letter conveyed to me; the officer of the Chief Rabbinate writes: “Firstly there is no list and was never a list of rabbis that are disqualified”. He continues, “There are certain certificates that were not approved, each for its own reasons. A clerk at the rabbinate prepared this list at his own discretion and created a lot of injustice to many rabbis…” No list? When is a list not a list? Not approved? This still doesn’t explain what I’m supposed to have done, what certificate of mine was not approved and why I wasn’t advised of this. I also question the assertion that this list was compiled by a low-level clerk since the name of the rabbi has been publicised and he appears to have held a position of authority in the office.
I am most concerned that the letter fails to really acknowledge the damage that this letter has done to the reputation of people on the list. As Mark Twain put it: “A lie gets across the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. It’s hard to shake off the dust of the defamatory Lashon Hara; it has a habit of sticking no matter what and in a day of global communication who is going to wipe it from the countless media it has appeared on?
Rabbi Alexander Davis recently wrote and open letter to the Chief Rabbi:
“Dear Chief Rabbi Lau,
When messages started to flood into my inbox, “proud of you”, I didn’t know what I had done to deserve such accolades. Then I saw your list. I was one of the 160 Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbis your office blacklisted. Usually, being blacklisted is a stain on one’s reputation. But for my congregants and for me, this was a badge of honour.”
I too continue to be overwhelmed by the flood of messages, texts, phone calls and personal communications I’ve received from you, my congregants, from across the community and from across the world. They’ve strengthened me immensely.
In the spirit of a former Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook, may these dark days on our calendar soon be transformed from pointless baseless, animosity to pointed, generous love שנאת חנם לאהבת חנם .