Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Iran's Jews and Gaza

Iranian Jews, in what looks like a display of loyalty to the country's Islamic majority, demonstrated against Israeli attacks in Gaza. If they are scared at the moment, who could blame them? (courtesy of the Huffington Post). Perhaps it is worthwhile to point out, that Israeli Arabs are confident enough not to feel the need to display their loyalty to the Jewish majority.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Animals and Prayer

An odd post for an odd verse: In the longest discussion between man and God in the Bible, Job is asked rhetorically about animals and prayer:
Who provides food for the raven, when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food? - Job 38:41
The implied answer is, of course, God. But it's highly unusual to hear animals spoken about in terms of prayer, perhaps even more so in the Bible!

I do wonder whether the point of ascribing to animals a supposedly human action (perhaps
the human action) is to equate human suffering and animal suffering from God's perspective. In other words, surely God cares about all His creations.

On a lighter note, I am reminded of the howling dog in John Steinbeck's
The Moon is Down:
down toward one end of the village, among the small houses, a dog complained about the cold and the loneliness. He raised his nose to his god and gave a long and fulsome account of the state of the world as it applied to him.
Perhaps prayer is more natural than we think?

Not by bread alone...

From Leon Kass:

It seems like only yesterday that the Enlightenment overthrew the rule of religious orthodoxy, promising an earthly paradise of human fulfillment based solely on scientific reason. Yet today, the enlightened children of skeptics are discovering for themselves that man does not live -- or live well -- by bread alone, not even by bread and circuses, and that science's account of human life and the world is neither adequate to the subject nor satisfying to the longings of the soul.


Saturday, December 27, 2008


David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post:
We are now going to find out whether those lessons from 2006 - on military preparation, on the need for effective military-political coordination, on operating in an immensely complex regional and global context, and on setting realistic goals for the use of military force - were indeed well learned.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanuka 5769

My friend Calev asks what the lesson of Chanuka's military victory is for us today:
for every Judah the Maccabee who fought against all odds and successfully freed his people from an occupying empire (Greece), there is a Bar-Kokhba whose revolt against an occupying empire (Rome) ended in defeat and mass slaughter and expulsion
Although the Maccabee/Bar Kochba question remains open, Chanuka's significance is important - and perhaps is not as ambiguous as one might think. Implicit in the Al Hanisim prayer's lack of military emphasis is Chazal's reluctance to celebrate warfare. Their shift away from a military emphasis towards a spiritual one sends out the message of Chanukah - power without purpose leads nowhere.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Joseph's Dream and Psalm 126

we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf

My friend Alex recently pointed out that there are only two places in the Bible where the Hebrew word Aluma (sheave) is used. The first time is in Joseph's first dream (Genesis 37:7) and the second time is Psalms (126:6).

I love textual parallels, and I wonder if this one is significant. Joseph's life is perhaps the classic story of holding onto faith. Betrayed by his brothers, jailed by his master, Joseph rises to win
Pharaoh's trust and becomes his most powerful advisor. Then, in Genesis 45:8, during an emotional reunion with his brothers, he tells them not to fear his retribution because

it was not you that sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt

At a moment where Joseph could be forgiven for feeling at least some animosity towards those same brothers who sold him into slavery, he reassures them: God did this, not you. God's hand was in my life, from the very start to the present.

This is a deep faith.

Perhaps this is also the faith echoed in Psalm 126, that other reference to sheaves. Here, we sing

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes on his way weeping carrying the seed bag, he shall come home with joy, bearing his sheaves.

I cannot help wonder - did the Psalmist have Joseph's faith in mind?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Biblical Criticism and Yirat Shamayim

Rav Moshe Liechtenstein argues that we should study Tanach not as a source of faith but rather because of faith:

At its root, the issue is not unique to Biblical Criticism; rather, it is part of the broader subject of faith and science that has engaged religious philosophy over the past millennium, since the essence of the issue pits the analytical findings of the human intellect against the plain meaning of the Scriptural text. This leaves us with three options: (1) accepting the findings of science and rejecting the plain meaning of the revealed text, either by denial of the text’s authority or by reinterpretation of its meaning, (2) holding on to the literal meaning of the text and rejecting scientific knowledge as the product of fallible human reason, or (3) attempting to find middle ground, in which part of the scientific finding is recognized and integrated into the textual meaning while other portions are denied. In theory, yirat shamayim can accommodate all three of these alternatives, although the first only by a radical redefining of many basic tenets and texts. Therefore, the traditional approach has been to choose the second or third options in varying degrees. Thus, even though the classic sources relate mainly to natural science and not to Biblical Criticism, which is a more recent phenomenon, the basic methodology is applicable in the case of Biblical Criticism and biblical archaeology as well. However, since Biblical Criticism is not a natural science, the prevailing tendency has certainly been the third approach that declines any acceptance of critical theories.

A radical break with this tradition was initiated by R. Mordechai Breuer who established a method of interpretation that is based upon adoption of the first alternative regarding Biblical Criticism. The method is predicated upon the assumption that the textual conclusions of Biblical Criticism are accurate and their findings indisputable, so that intellectual honesty requires us to validate them. The religious challenge, therefore, is not to deny the textual claims but to provide them with a metaphysical framework that is compatible with an Orthodox viewpoint. R. Breuer’s approach figured prominently in a previous Orthodox Forum, whose papers have subsequently been published, there is not much point, therefore, in entering into a lengthy discussion of it here, despite its relevance for our topic. However, the discussions of that forum focused upon the theological implications of the method and did not relate to the educational aspects of it. These, though, are a crucial element for any evaluation of his Shitat Habechinot and its relationship to yirat shamayim.

The inherent dangers of contact with Biblical Criticism and the attempt to integrate it into an Orthodox framework from an experiential point of view are of a dual nature. The first is a function of its content. Aside from the dilemma of adopting (or adapting) interpretations that were arrived at by a method whose implicit metaphysical axioms are foreign to any God-fearing outlook and the concern that these principles may unknowingly be the motivating force that underlies the suggested interpretation – which was the subject of the previous forum – there is the additional problem of the slippery slope. Exposure to a body of work that is academically impressive but whose theological premises are in contradiction to yirat shamayim may cause a student to go beyond R. Breuer’s policy of accepting the details and rejecting the framework and induce him to accept the metaphysical structure as well. Essentially, such a person accepts the premise of R. Breuer’s critics that the interpretations and metaphysics are inseparable, only like R. Breuer and unlike his critics, he is so convinced of the interpretations that he does not have the option of rejecting them. Therefore, he has no choice but to redefine his beliefs. Even if this is sincerely done out of deep religious motivation, the result will be a system of belief totally incompatible with traditional Orthodoxy. R. Breuer himself brought attention to this phenomenon in a very poignant piece that he wrote in Megadim a few years ago.

The additional risk of this method is the emotional aspect. The constant contact with texts and/or people that treat Tanakh as an ancient piquant text lacking divine authority can have a corrosive influence. If the intellectual framework of reference is an academic milieu that treats Torah as fodder for deconstruction, then there is an existential price that is often exacted. The sense of awe, dignity, and reverence that we feel towards Torah as d’var HaShem is readily compromised in the soul if critical concepts become routine and cease to jar the ears. References to “the Biblical narrator” or other similar phrases that convey a detached academic aloofness and the loss of intimacy and varmkeit that must accompany the study of Tanakh are not worth any intellectual gains that may have been gotten by exposure to such materials. To employ a metaphor, if a person has to choose between knowing more about his father or mother, but at the price that the additional understanding will come at the expense of the warmness and intimacy, isn’t it self evident that it’s better to know less and feel more rather than vice versa?

This brings us to the heart of the issue of Tanakh and yirat shamayim. To paraphrase John Henry Newman’s remark about God and Nature, we do not believe in God because of the Tanakh, rather we accept the Tanakh because of our belief in Him.

Thanks to Hirhurim for the heads up. Article here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z"tl

In a tribute to Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z"tl, Rabbi Michael Broyde ends with four lessons he learnt from his teacher:

(1) Jewish law is a truth seeking venture which must live by the currency of logic and analysis, always living in the present and being driven by the data, both Talmudic and scientific.

(2) Ethical people live lives of compassion with the understanding that life is more complex in fact than in theory and are ready to recognize that sometimes people are frailand in need of help. Ethical people are measured by how they show compassion to the weak.

(3) Hard work is extremely important. Torah comes to those who work hard to acquire it, and virtually no one is a natural master of Torah. Regular and intense learning is imperative in being a torah scholar.

(4) Never be too sure of yourself and listen closely to the voices of the wise people around you. Rabbi Rackman once remarked to me that “everyone really needs a mentor, since a mentor serves the purpose of checking that one is not egregiously in error.

(Many thanks to Menachem Yoel Butler for the reference. The full article can be found at Hirhurim, here.)

Judaism is not "the opium of the people"

From the Chief Rabbi:

Judaism is not an escape from the world but an engagement with the world. It is not "the opium of the people," as Karl Marx once called religion. It does not anaesthetise us to the pains and apparent injustices of life. It does not reconcile us to suffering. It asks us to play our part in the most daunting undertaking ever asked by G-d of mankind: to construct relationships, communities, and ultimately a society, that will become homes for the Divine presence. And that means wrestling with G-d and with men and refusing to give up or despair.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Isaiah 43:9

I just happened to notice that there are different versions of Isaiah 43:9.

The American King James Bible:

Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear, and say, It is truth.

The Douay-Rheims Bible:

All the nations are assembled together, and the tribes are gathered:
who among you can declare this, and shall make us hear the former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, let them be justified, and hear, and say: It is truth.

More complete set of translations here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Henry Townsend and Rabbi Akiva

Henry Townsend is a black slave turned slave master in Edward Jones' novel - The Known World. It's unusual for a black man to be free in America in the 1800's, let alone be an owner of slaves. In his penultimate moment, Henry is disappointed to find himself deceived, renting, uncomfortable and denied an opportunity to share feelings with his wife. It is a moment of realization - a final reckoning of sorts: His idealization of ownership of land and slaves have led him to an unexpected place.

What is one to make of Edward Jones' description of Henry's death? With Henry's life accounted for in a single disturbing moment, I am reminded of Rabbi Akiva's teaching in Pirkei Avot, 3:20 -

"...the judgment is a judgment of truth. And everything is prepared for the BANQUET."

What 'banquet' was Rabbi Akiva reffering to? I have always understood it as referring to a final reckoning, a moment where the forces that dominated a person's life are examined by truth itself. A moment, much like Henry Townsend's, where falsehood, if it is there, is exposed.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Here I am in London, the rain tapping against the window of a room overlooking nowhere in particular. You know you’re no longer a kid when a cab driver old enough to be your grandfather speaks to you like you’re his boss. Sitting next to an old, rather chatty judge on the plane, I got a glimpse at a liberal-English Jewish world view. “Civil rights for women and um, Palestinians” he explained. How different the world sees Israel to the way it sees itself. I sat humbly next to him. Maybe ten years ago I would have taken the endless road to nowhere and tried to change his view. Explain how right we are. But we’re not “right”, we are just scared. It is all about fear. Fear of a Mumbai in one of our cities. “I’m against torture” he said. "That Guantanamo Bay is a disgrace". I agreed. But torture? What if on September 10th …..? He conceded that was a tough situation. Of course, he is right. It is a tough situation. And we go on.

Is there a balance to be struck? Can we only torture bad guys? Can we only occupy terrorists?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Needed: Seperation of Shul and State

We have a yearly list of Shabat times hanging on our fridge. We don't use it, there's a better online service here, but as I was doing something irrelevant in the kitchen, I took a closer look at this laminated blue sheet. In the top right hand corner of this page is the symbol of the Jerusalem municipality. They seem to have used taxpayers money to create and distribute this leaflet. I can't help but find that disturbing. \

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lech Lecha: Go To Your Self

The Ishbitzer explains Abraham's journey as one away from material pleasures of this world and into himself, where he could seek the "source of his life" or in other words, God. Interestingly, he doesn't shun materialistic pleasures, only points out that they are there to alleviate worry and allow us to pursue this higher goal.

In trying to understand how the Ishbitzer reads the story, it's interesting to note that two of the promises that are given to Abraham ("I will make you into a great nation; I will make your name great") address the comforts that Abraham is told to leave behind him: becoming a great nation consoles him for having left his country and his people; making his name great consoles him for having left his father's house. God seems to be saying to Abraham, if you start this journey, I will take care of the things you are leaving behind.

In emphasizing Abraham's search for the truth that was inside him (go to your self), there is a message: God's blessing comes to those who seek out what is true.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Moses' Blessing

On Simchat Torah it is customary for all males (and females in some shuls) to get called up to the Torah for an aliyah for the reading of Moses' final blessing to the children of Israel before he dies. The poetic language used in the blessings is all-too often overlooked, maybe because the blessings are rushed through a dozen or so times in as many corners of the shul as there are Sifrei Torah in the building to use for the aliyot.

But it's a shame - the blessing carries a haunting echo of the origins of the Jewish people. It demands in depth study.

Here is a very short thought on the opening verses of the blessing:

Deuteronomy 32:2 reads

The LORD came from Sinai, He shone upon them from Seir, He appeared from Mount Paran and approached from Ribbeboth Kodesh.

Apart from Sinai, the places from which God is said to have shone, appeared and approached from are not clear at all. Also,
although we know the Torah uses anthropomorphisms - what are we to make of these words shone, appeared and approached?

Some commentators say that Seir and Paran were hills that were geographically close to Sinai and the verse refers to the national revelation described in Exodus. This is understandable, as the unique story of a national revelation at Sinai is fundamental to the Jewish tradition.

Other commentators refer to a midrash that relates the story of both Esav's (whose descendants lived in Seir) and then Yishmael's (whose descendants lived in Paran) rejection of the Torah, before God's finally offering it to the children of Israel. This midrash reminds us that the children of Israel not once but twice came close to missing out on receiving the Torah. Abraham's eldest son was Yishmael, (and he chose to pass on God's blessing through his younger son Isaac), and Isaac's eldest son was Esav (who sold his birthright to Jacob and later only receives Isaac's blessing second, after Jacob).

The second (midrashic) answer hints at the transfer of God's blessing through the generations, and as far as stories of origins go is more satisfying. But if it explains the significance of Seir and Paran, where (or what) was Ribbebot Kodesh? Also - should the use of words like
shone, appeared and approached be explained as Moses' poetic description of the transfer of God's blessing through the generations?

Rashi is of the opinion that Ribeboth Kodesh was not a physical place, but rather a description of the holy myriads from which God came to bless the Israelites. This explanation allows us to understand the use of all three names, Seir, Paran, and Ribbebot Kodesh.

Interestingly however, there is also another place in the Torah that quotes Seir, Paran and a place called Kadesh. Genesis 14:6-7 reads

and the Horites in their hill country of Seir, as far as El-Paran..... and they came to En-Mishpat which is Kadesh

The text here relates the story of a war between kingdoms in which Abraham (then Abram) became involved because his nephew Lot was taken captive. In an act of
pidyon shevuyim Abraham succeeded in freeing Lot, and at the same time frees the captives and booty of the defeated nations. The story finishes with the king of Sodom praising Abraham and God, and making a banquet. At the banquet, Abraham refuses to take any of the booty that the king offers him, because it might detract from the glorification of God's name. Genesis 15.22-23 reads

But I swear to the LORD God Most High Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours ; you shall not say 'It is I who made Abram rich!'

So here we have potentially another link to the opening verse of Moses' blessing. Seir, Paran and Kadesh were all places involved in possibly the first act of
Kidush Hashem recorded in the Torah. Also, as a final thought, since a Kiddush Hashem involves the creation of a positive impression - could there be a specific calling for use of the words like shone, appeared and approached which hint at the creation of such an impression?

(note - my wife bought a Concordantzia this week which helped me find the verse!)

(note -
He shone upon them from Seir can also be translated as He shone for them from Seir, as the Hebrew word Lamo can be found in both forms in Tanach. This second translation would be more appropriate for a reading that connects the verse to the story of Abraham and the King of Sodom, because the use of the plural in He shone upon them is hard to explain given there were no Israelites yet. He shone for them could however describe the first act of recognition of God by non-Israelites, and this could indeed be described as an act for the Israelites.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wellhausen Shmellhausen

Rabbi Mordechai Breur z"l, commenting on the contradictory Noach narratives in the Bible :

We are not as obliged to explain contradictory narratives in the text as we are obliged to explain why some narratives only appear once.

(loose translation from Pirkei Bereishit p.187)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

God's Holiness explained (sort of)

How is man supposed to relate to the Eternal One? Doesn't God's absoluteness negate the possibility of relating to him?

For Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, z"l (1908-1992), God's holiness (in the Tanach) is His "withdrawl" from absoluteness and infinitude, towards man.

The Concept of the Holy:

The infinite is unrelated to the finite by its essence; it is indifferent towards it. Thus God, too, as it were, has to separate himself from his absoluteness in order to turn with care and consideration towards his creation; he has to "withdraw" from the "natural" indifference of his infinitude in order to be the "father of the fatherless and the judge of the widows in the habitation of his holiness". He has to "curb" his nature as Wholly Other so that he may come near for the sake of his holiness.

This is an illuminating paragraph that sheds light on the problem of man's relationship with an eternal, absolute God. In order for Heaven and Earth to "kiss" (Bava Batra 74a), the divisive barrier that exists in our minds between finite and infinite must be breached. This breach, according to Rav Berkovits, is possible because of God's holiness.

Watch this space for what holiness means for man.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Akeida

The binding if Isaac, the story of how Abraham prepared to slaughter his son after being commanded to do so by God has been interpreted for nearly two millennia as the quintessential example of total submission to God’s Will, and of the exemplary suspension of one’s own sense of morality in the name of God’s Word as expressed in the Bible. Such is a common line of reasoning, still heard at the pulpit today.

A few questions: Firstly, from a Jewish perspective (the Hebrew Scriptures are after all – Jewish), is a “good Jew” really supposed to suspend his sense of morality? Is it not a principle in the Talmud that the Law “is not in Heaven”, namely that it is man’s responsibility to build, with his own judgment of right and wrong? Surely Abraham SHOULD be using his moral compass, and therefore should have refused to murder his son.

Secondly: What are we to make of the apparent contradictions in the text?

1) Abraham is told to sacrifice his son but the place of the sacrifice is not given to him until after 3 days of traveling.

2) God (Elokim) tells Abraham to sacrifice his son but an Angel of Lord (YW) stops him.

3) Abraham tells his two servants to expect both Isaac and himself to return after prostrating themselves to the Lord.

4) After being stopped, Abraham is rewarded for “not withholding his son”.

Before addressing these points, one should be aware of how Judaism’s greatest Orthodox Rabbi, Moses Maimonides explained prophecy in his book – The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides views the stories about God in the Bible to be anthropomorphic in nature, to the extent that ‘God said to Abraham’ really means ‘Abraham understood’. Prophecy for Maimonides is intellectual revelation of truth (incidentally he viewed scientists to be a certain part of the way towards prophecy). In any event, ‘God speaks’ should be understood as the Prophet hears something new which is true. Maimonides does not discuss the fact that had Abraham gone ahead with child sacrifice he would have been a murderer, but he does explain a line of reasoning that existed in the act for Abraham, namely that this would be service of God without reward, since the only reward Abraham wanted in his life was to have a son from his wife.It seems according to Maimonidean prophecy, that Abraham had reached a point where he had to know whether child sacrifice (prevalent at the time) was indeed the true way.

This is further indicated by the incomplete nature of the initial command – “take him to a place that I will show you” or namely – “travel with Isaac until the truth becomes clear”.The incomplete nature of the initial command, and the fact that when he did finally “see the place” (or understand what was true) he told his servants that both Isaac and he would return (the implication is – both return ALIVE) strongly suggest Abraham had made up his mind not to go ahead with child sacrifice. This is also indicated by his response to Isaac, when asked where the sacrificial animal was – “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering” or namely – it will become clear that there will be an animal not a human sacrifice.

But what are we supposed to make of Abraham’s actually binding Isaac, and lifting the knife “to slaughter his son”?

Although the text uses language of determination here (after all, it doesn’t just say Abraham lifted his knife, it adds the purpose “to slaughter his son”), it should be noted that this is where the story reaches it’s climax. It is now that Abraham has his name called twice (a Biblical sign of God’s Love, or as Maimonides would say, a new level of intellectual revelation). Some commentators say that Abraham was now testing God – but either way, it is only at this point of final action that Abraham can see this was not the true path.

Incidentally, we don’t hear from the Angel of the Lord who stopped him again until Moses and the burning bush, and some see Moses’ prophecy as a direct continuation of Abraham’s. Also, Abraham is not recorded as having spoken to God or Isaac after this harrowing story.Finally, what of the reward given to Abraham?

In verse 22:12 the Angel of the Lord tells Abraham that he will become a great nation specifically because he did not withhold his son. Doesn’t this imply that the text is suggesting there really was nothing wrong with the initial command and that it was only though God’s grace that Isaac was saved?

In Maimonidean terms, no. Abraham is being rewarded for what he was willing to give up for what was true. Had he concluded that child sacrifice was correct, he would have done the difficult deed. But this is the story of his discovery that child sacrifice was not, in the end, the true way.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pinchas and Religious Violence

The Torah tells us that God rewarded Pinchas killing and Israelite man and a Midyanite woman who were copulating in public. Numbers 25:8:

an Israelite man brought to his companions a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman's body.

The Torah was written at a time when less eyebrows would be raised at this act of violence - but today, the question of whether Pinchas was right to kill the two lovers is impossible to ignore. Some interesting attempts at answering the problem come from the Midrash, from psychology and from the Ishbetzer Rebbe. The Midrashic approach sees Pinchas' spear as a phallic symbol and the psychological approach sees violence as the opposite action to sex, both here. For the Ishbitzer, the verses describe a tragic love story, here.

The question remains a strong one, however.

In attempting to understand the justification that the Torah gives Pinchas' actions, I think it should be noted the verses continue immediately to describe end of the devastation that was being caused:

Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; Those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

Thus the Torah actually puts Pinchas' action in a specific context for us - it was an action that saved lives. In Numbers 25:11 and 12, it is this saving of lives that is explicitly implied as being pleasing to God, and what makes Pinchas worthy of reward:

The LORD said to Moses, "Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites because he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites."

Thanks to Avram Piha for pointing that out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A dark two years

This week, the loved ones will know that Kuntar will be feted to a hero's welcome staged by Hezbollah, whose claims to being a religious organization, stain the word religious with a level of sadism that is astonishing, reaching new levels with every gloat by the torture master who calls himself a spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Bradley Burston on Hezbollah and the prisoner exchange

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sadam, Yoni and I

Middle-aged Sefardi men and hot-shot Arab teenagers don't always see eye to eye. Forget about politics, I'm talking about basketball.

Pick up 3 on 3 at the
Gan usually involves waiting one's turn to play, and choosing your other two team mates from the losers, or from those who are also waiting their turn on the side. Yesterday, I ended up playing with Sadam and Yoni, and to be honest, we made a damn good team.

But before I picked these two six footers to do all my dirty work (rebounding and driving), a word about the tension on the court just 15 minutes earlier. Sadam had been playing on a team with a middle aged Sefardi guy who made no secret of his displeasure of Sadam's inability to pass (it was a fair point to be honest). But he took it too far. Maybe because he was an Arab, or maybe just because, he shouted at him in front of everyone. What's worse, Sadam took it very badly. I was impressed with his response though. After being humiliated, he shouted back: "I give you the same respect I give my father! He would never talk to me this way in front of other people! I'm not playing with you!" And he stormed off the court.

Nothing short of free food would hold up a game at the Gan, and surely soon enough they found a replacement for Sadam and continued to play. But I felt uneasy. The guy was really upset, and to be honest, apart from him being right to be angry at being humiliated, I don't think it is ever a good idea to let an Arab walk away from Jews feeling like he was wronged by them.

I sat down next to him, and without meaning to get political I said, "listen, sometimes even when you are in the right, you have to continue..." I didn't add - "I'm not talking about the Middle East you know?" but it was OK, he appreciated having me on his side. When it was my turn to play, I asked him to join my team, and spotting a group of short Chareidi boys still wearing their black trousers and white shirts waiting their turn on the side, I quickly turned to one of the members of the losing team, Yoni, (6ft 3 " and wearing shorts) and asked him to join us.

We were unbeaten for a good few games - we won in style - I felt like I'd made peace in the Middle East. Then Yoni had to go back to Efrat, and non other that Mr Sefardi guy, the source of Sadam's anger was the only person available. "Yallah" I thought. I asked him to join us. They both hesitated, then smiled and shook hands and we started. There was no shouting this time, but I think I finally learnt what it means to be the pointguard (playmaker) on the team - in my efforts to keep them both happy I hardly took a single shot!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pagan Gods in 2008

Here's an article from the Telegraph about CJ Kanuha, a surfer who took on the waves caused by lava flowing from a live volcano (click the picture to make it bigger). The water was so hot it caused the wax on his board to melt and he also sustained light injuries.

But what struck me most from the article was the offering he made to a Hawaiian godess of fire called Pele. In the words of his photographer:

"Not leaving an offering could have resulted in bad luck, a value that most native Hawaiians strongly believe in"

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chukat: Wandering Jews

It seems the Jews have been wandering around for a long time indeed. This week's Parsha, Chukat, has two stories about Jews asking for rights of passage and being refused:

First they ask Edom (descendants of Jacob's twin, Esav) to pass through their land, but are refused permission:

"Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory. But Edom answered: "You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword." The Israelites replied: "We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot—nothing else." Again they answered: "You may not pass through."

and then, after a detour:

Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: "Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway until we have passed through your territory." But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the desert against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of the St Louis, the Havana bound ship containing 936 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. First, the Cubans said no, then, the U.S and Canada also denied them entry. Eventually, Hitler's foes (the U.K, France, Belgium and Holland) took them in.

There are claims on Wikipedia that the purpose of Germany's sending the St Louis across the world was to demonstrate that the world agreed that the Jews were an unwanted problem. The passengers were given asylum, (and apparently their fate is unknown) but the humiliation suffered was of historical proportions.

Of course, the parallel between the St Louis story and this week's Parsha is not wholly accurate. In Parshat Chukat the Jews are fully capable of fighting Edom, but choose not to. Also later, when the Amorites attack, Israel chooses to fight and wins.

But then again, 9 years after the St Louis story Israel did decide to fight, and also won. So perhaps the parallel isn't such a bad one after all.

Korach: No losers when arguing about the truth

A very nice quote from Jonathan Sacks about Parshat Korach:

When you argue about the truth, even when you lose you win.

He also compares Korach's rebellion to the political opportunism used in the Russian Revolution. I love historical examples that parallel the Torah's stories.

The short Dvar Torah can be heard here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Shelach Lecha: The First "Be'ezrat Hashem"?

How far should man's trust in God go? Does the Torah say anything about the relationship between God's Will and man's will? Is there a line where the Torah sees one stop and the other start?

Some of the many views on the nature of the relationship between God's Will and man's will are summarized nicely here. There is one approach that sees God's Will as dominating the universe so absolutely so as to make man's free will and his independent choice impossible. (How can I freely choose if God has knowledge of what my choice will be?) Another view sees free will as dominating the universe absolutely, leaving no space for God's Will (God created the Universe, it's just that he doesn't like to get involoved). Parshat Shelach Lecha offers a compromise of sorts:

The spies have returned from scouting the land and the Israelites await their report. Instead of giving the hard facts they paint a picture that spreads fear and anger through the people. Calev and Yehoshua, two of the spies, are described by the Torah as having responded to the crisis as one, and later, because of their words, are spared punishment by God. Their words are found in Numbers 14, verses 7 and 8:

and they spoke to children of Israel saying: The land, which we passed through is a very very good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which flows with milk and honey.

By linking the success of their military conquest to God's opinion of them, and by describing a project that would undoubtedly require enourmous human effort in passive terms (He will bring us into this land) Yehoshua and Calev express a view that negates neither the dominance of God's Will nor the freedom of man's actions. In short, in these verses the Torah implies a balanced model: Man should do everything in his power to accomplish his spiritual and physical goals whilst remembering that he is ultimately not in control.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Deep Routes of American Zionism

Any discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Israel must begin with the Bible. For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. This influence originated with the rediscovery of the Old Testament during the Reformation, was accentuated by the development of Calvinist theology (which stressed continuities between the old and the new dispensations of divine grace), and was made more vital by the historical similarities between the modern American and the ancient Hebrew experiences; as a result, the language, heroes, and ideas of the Old Testament permeate the American psyche.

Instruction in biblical Hebrew was mandatory for much of early U.S. history at Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. James Madison completed his studies at Princeton in two years but remained on campus an extra year to study Hebrew. Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan, "a land flowing with milk and honey," and reminded their audiences that just as the Hebrews lost their blessings when they offended God, so, too, would the Americans suffer if they disobeyed the God who had led them into their promised land. Today, Old Testament references continue to permeate U.S. political writing, oratory, and even geography -- over one thousand cities and towns in the United States have names derived from Scripture.

the article by Walter Russel Mead can be heard here.

Ethical Foreign Policy

It is important to remember that we did not overthrow Adolf Hitler to bring democracy to Germany.

from an article by Condolezza Rice, which can be listened to here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Story of Rav Yehudah Amital

One day Yehuda decided to take a trip through the Judean hills and visit the religious kibbutz, Kfar Etzion, set up just two years earlier in April 1943. Together with a friend from the yeshiva, he took an Arab bus from Jerusalem to Hebron. They got off close to Kfar Etzion and walked to the new settlement. On the way, they met a group of men from the Kibbutz, collecting stones for building from the hills. Yehudah was surprised to see that one of the men was his old adversary from Gruswedein, Joshua Hagar. Hagar had joined the the effort to build Kfar Etzion a short time after he had arrived in Palestine. He was also surprised to see Yehuda. They both immediately remembered the argument thay had had in shul in Gruswedein on Chol Hamoed Pesach. "Is that you, Yehuda?" he teased. "You scoundrel, you stayed alive? Weren't you the one preaching about dying for Kidush Hashem? By your own words you should have gone to Auswitz! I'm amazed you're alive!" In his heart, Yehuda answered him in a different tone. "Chutzpah! You were the only one who escaped, and you're calling me a scoundrel...?" Aloud, he said only "Baruch Hashem, I was saved". But Yehoshua wouldn't let go. "You still believe? You're still Dati?" he asked. To this Yehuda answered with a question: "Had I not stayed religious would the questions be answered? Would what happened be understood? Would it be clearer?"

(excerpt from page 108)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zechariah and the Emblem of the State of Israel

Did the vision found in the Haftorah this week (Zechariah), have an impact on the founding fathers of the State of Israel?

In Chapter 4 we read:

And the angel that talked with me came again, and woke me, as a man that is woken from his sleep, And said to me, What do you see? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick made of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and his seven lamps on it, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which on the top. And two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl, and the other upon the left thereof.

The image that comes to mind is the emblem of the State of Israel, below:

If I'm right, and Israel's national emblem was inspired by this Biblical passage, then there's food for thought for both hardcore secular Zionists and Israeli-flag burning Jews. For the secular Zionist, the plain meaning of the vision of the Menorah and olive trees is explained immediately by the angel:

So I answered and spoke to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord? Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Do you not know what these things mean? And I said, No, my lord. Then he answered me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubavel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.

The message from Zechariah is that military power alone will not suffice to guarantee the returning Jews survival in the land. Only through 'the spirit of God' will the attempt to reclaim the land succeed. Fast-forward two millennia
, and the relevance for Jews in Israel today is astounding (to me anyway). The message again is that power without purpose leads nowhere.

But what's also interesting to me, is that the secular leaders who chose this emblem must have been aware of the meaning. So, at the very heart of the supposedly secular, hedonistic country, condemned by so many ultra-Orthodox Jews, we find a national vision very different to that which they assume, and in fact, much closer to theirs.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Behaalotecha: Two Rebellions, Two Reactions

When Israel complains in this week's parsha, Moses asks G-d for an out, he wants to quit. When his siblings, Miriam and Aaron complain, God takes issue with them but Moses is silent. Why the different reactions from Moses?

Jonathan Sacks, here , says that the different reactions from Moses can be explained by his humility. The first rebellion, where the Israelites ask for meat, was against God. Moses despaired because he saw his message was not getting accross, Israel had not changed. When Miriam and Aaron rebel, the attack by those closest to him is deeply personal. But the Torah wants us to know that Moses' equanimity was not due to indifference, nor due to hurt, but due to his great humility. He cared about nothing other than the cause, about God and about freedom and responsility.

"Humility is the silence of the self, in the presence of that which is greater than oneself."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Warren Buffet have in common?

They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

More from Thomas Friedman

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shavuot - 5768/2008

I had an interesting discussion with an inspired convert to Judaism who found his faith whilst studying PPE at Oxford. It is certainly unusual to hear of someone becoming more religious studying at Oxford, but Aryeh explained how he had found the abstract nature of his subject unappealing, and had wanted something more practical. After he had begun searching for meaning in religion and examinined Christianity and Islam, he found that Judaism, being the original revelation, was also "better" since the number of people, an entire nation, is described as being present at Sinai, and this number is far greater than the relatively tiny numbers present in any of the revelations described in other religions. It was, in short, a line of reasoning similar to that of the ancient Kuzari king, written about by Judah Halevi (More).

It got me thinking. The revelation at Sinai is a marvelous concept. 3 million people, at the foot of a mountain, and the voice of God introducing Himself as Anochi Hashem. The tradition that all of Israel, including all future generations, were present at Sinai, was taught to me dogmatically at school. But cynicsm aside - were we not there? Can we read the verses in Shemot and not marvel at the Divine calling out to our nation? Can we say that we don't hear that calling ourselves?

Aryeh had to jump out of the cab early, and he gave me money to pay the cab driver with, first making me promise I would explain that it was a mitzvah to pay workers on time as I paid him.... which of course I did. The cab driver loved it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


To say that Henry Kissinger is the most controversial of twentieth-century American Secretaries of State would be an understatement. No other holder of that office has inspired opprobrium of the sort heaped on Kissinger by journalists such as Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens. The latter’s polemic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2002), for example, accuses Kissinger of having “ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way”. Hitchens offers no explanation of his subject’s alleged record of “promiscuous violence abroad and flagrant illegality at home”. The reader is merely left to infer that Kissinger must be a terribly wicked man.

Quite apart from the distinctly thin documentary foundation of Hitchens’s footnote-free case for the prosecution – which quotes from little more than a few dozen primary documents, all from US archives – The Trial of Henry Kissinger suffers from a strange absence of historical perspective. It would in fact be much easier to implicate a number of Kissinger’s predecessors in civilian bombings, coups d’état and support for murderous regimes. Unlike the case of Chile, to give a single example, there is no question that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew an elected government in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan Left. Many more people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were “disappeared” in Chile after 1973 (2,279). In any case, Richard Nixon was not the first President to seek to influence Chilean domestic politics. Both of his immediate predecessors did so. Yet you will search the bookshops in vain for “The Trial of John Foster Dulles” or “The Trial of Dean Rusk”.

The more books I have read about Henry Kissinger in recent years, the more I have been reminded of the books I used to read about the Rothschild family. When other nineteenth-century banks made loans to conservative regimes or to countries at war, no one seemed to notice. But when the Rothschilds did it, the pamphleteers could scarcely control their indignation. Indeed, it would take a great many shelves to contain all the shrill anti-Rothschild polemics produced by Victorian antecedents of Hitchens and his ilk. Which prompts the question: has the ferocity of the criticism which Kissinger has attracted perhaps got something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish? (Nota bene: this is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites. Some of the Rothschilds’ most fierce critics were also Jews. So are some of Kissinger’s.)

Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century puts Kissinger’s Jewishness centre-stage in an interpretation of his life that stands out among recent books on the subject for the extent and depth of the author’s research. Unlike Hitchens (to say nothing of Robert Dallek and Margaret Macmillan, two other writers who have recently published books critical of Kissinger), Suri has done some real digging before rushing into print. He cites documents from sixteen different archival collections. His sixty-seven pages of notes are a model of academic rigour. I should at this point declare an interest: I am currently researching a biography of Kissinger based (in part) on his own private papers at the Library of Congress, to which Suri did not have access. I hope this lends credence, rather than the reverse, to my positive judgement. Though I do not agree with all Suri’s conclusions, I salute his scholarship. This is surely the best book yet published about Henry Kissinger. (Jussi Hanhimäki’s 2004 study of Kissinger’s foreign policy is more comprehensive on Kissinger’s time in office, but is much less insightful.) Unlike so many previous writers – particularly those journalists steeped in the blood of the Nixon administration – Suri actually makes an attempt to understand his subject in the appropriate historical context rather than simply joining in the never-ending hunt for “smoking gun” quotations.

For Suri, Kissinger’s Jewish origins are the key to understanding both the man and the world’s reaction to him. Kissinger, writes Suri in one of his boldest sallies, was like “a hybrid of the Court Jew and the State Jew – what we might tentatively call the ‘policy Jew’”. He portrays his subject as ascending from academia to the corridors of power by doing “grunt work” for the goyim: first his Harvard mentor, William Elliott, then McGeorge Bundy, then Nelson Rockefeller, then Nixon and finally his successor Gerald Ford (about whom, like nearly all writers on Kissinger, Suri says much too little). But Kissinger’s Jewishness has a wider significance. In Suri’s account, it was Kissinger’s German-Jewish youth – born in 1923 at the height of the Weimar hyperinflation, ten years old when Hitler came to power, fifteen when his family emigrated to the United States in 1938 – that laid the foundation for a distinctly pessimistic world view. “Life is suffering, birth involves death”, wrote Kissinger in his sprawling Harvard senior thesis, “The Meaning of History”: “Transitoriness is the fate of existence. No civilization has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled. This is necessity, the fatedness of history, the dilemma of mortality”. The influence of Oswald Spengler, Suri suggests, imbued Kissinger with a fear of “a return to the violence, chaos and collapse of Weimar Germany”. Kissinger entered the White House as Nixon’s National Security Advisor filled with foreboding, anticipating four years of “disorder at home, increasing tension abroad”. This, he suggests, helps to explain why Kissinger felt so much was at stake in Vietnam. As he put it in the first volume of his memoirs:

"Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination . . . . I could never forget what an inspiration [America] has been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years . . . . It seemed to me important for America not to be humiliated, not to be shattered, but to leave Vietnam in a manner that even the protesters might later see as reflecting an American choice made with dignity and self-respect."

When Watergate struck the Nixon presidency, Kissinger feared “irreparable damage” that might take the US over the “edge of a precipice”.

I am not sure I quite buy these two arguments. Advising politicians politicians can be interesting, usually involves a measure of sycophancy, and is not a peculiarly Jewish activity. As for the Weimar trauma, I am inclined to think the experience of returning to Germany as a GI had a much greater impact. Still, these are matters of interpretation. Suri deserves credit for producing a more convincing account of his subject’s German-Jewish background than any previous biographer of Kissinger, including the broadly sympathetic Walter Isaacson.

Heinz (as he was originally named) and his younger brother grew up in an Orthodox household in Fürth, Bavaria, where their father Louis was a respectable schoolteacher, a firm believer in the benefits of German Bildung. Louis Kissinger’s world was shattered by the rise of the Nazis, but it was his wife Paula who had the wit to get the family out of Germany just months before the regime’s anti-Semitism erupted in full-blown pogroms. Kissinger lost at least a dozen relatives in the Holocaust, including his grandmother, Fanny Stern (who Suri says perished in the Belzec death camp). “I had seen evil in the world”, Kissinger commented in an interview many years later, “and I knew it was there, and I knew that there are some things you have to fight for, and that you can’t insist that everything be to some ideal construction you have made.” Suri is surely correct to see that an awareness of this searing experience is indispensable to our understanding of the man.

One puzzle that is not quite resolved here is why Kissinger abandoned his parents’ Orthodox allegiance, which they maintained after moving to New York’s Washington Heights by joining the most conservative synagogue in the neighbourhood. Was it the drudgery of the brush-cleaning factory where Kissinger worked for a time? Or was it, as Suri seems to imply, the experience of “eating ham for Uncle Sam” in the US Army after he was drafted in 1943? Suri’s account of Kissinger’s wartime career is tantalizing in other ways too. We do not hear enough about his work as a military administrator in the post-war occupation of Germany, a role which involved apprehending and interrogating Nazis. The link that Suri draws between these experiences and Kissinger’s subsequent close relationship with Konrad Adenauer seems tenuous.

As Suri shows, post-war Harvard provided the young veteran with an altogether more propitious environment than the military. With the proportion of Jews at the university rising from 17 per cent of enrolments in 1947 to 25 per cent in 1952, Kissinger can scarcely have felt like an outsider. He was also fortunate in his mentors: just as Fritz Kramer had spotted Kissinger’s intellectual potential in the army, so William Elliott soon identified him as “a combination of Kant and Spinoza”, hyperbole that Kissinger almost lived up to by producing a senior thesis so long that it prompted Harvard to impose a maximum word-count. Elliott’s influence, Suri suggests, was as much political as academic. As early as 1950, with Elliott’s encouragement, Kissinger was writing hawkish briefings for Paul Nitze, then Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Running the long-lived International Seminar at the Cold War Summer School (a classic “soft power” initiative partly funded by the CIA) also provided him with first-class networking opportunities, particularly among the next generation of Western European statesmen and diplomats. As Suri says, Harvard at this time was truly a “Cold War University” – in marked contrast to the hotbed of liberal sentiment it became almost as soon as Kissinger departed for Washington.

In addition to illuminating Kissinger’s cultural roots, Suri does a good job of tracing the development of his strategic thought in the 1950s. He also gives a fair appraisal of Kissinger’s doctrine of limited nuclear war as a way of avoiding “impotence in the atomic stalemate” (as he put it in 1954). All-out nuclear war, Kissinger reasoned, “would not be an act of policy but of desperation”. There needed to be “options less cataclysmic than a thermonuclear holocaust”. Kissinger was therefore an advocate of increasing West German and Japanese conventional forces, while creating a “compact, highly mobile US strategic reserve” in the Middle East. He also recommended, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), a greater readiness to deploy and to use smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons. This has subsequently been misrepresented as a reckless “Doctor Strangelove” argument that underestimated the risks of nuclear escalation. But, as Suri shows, at the time Kissinger’s argument was welcomed by such luminaries as Bernard Brodie, Reinhold Niebuhr and even (albeit with qualifications) by President Eisenhower himself.

How far had Kissinger worked out a framework for American grand strategy before he entered the White House? Suri does not quite answer this question, but provides ample evidence to suggest it was quite a long way. For example, he early on grasped the significance of American “relative decline” as the rest of the world finally put the economic devastation of the Second World War behind it. This implied not only a basic acceptance of the division of Europe between the superpowers, but also a reconfiguration of the Western alliance system.

In lectures he wrote for Rockefeller in 1962, Kissinger advanced an argument for a new confederal “framework . . . for the free world” – an Atlantic Confederacy with an Anglo-American-French “Executive Committee”. At the same time, Kissinger made the case for an autonomous European nuclear force. As all this suggests, Kissinger still considered himself a European specialist. During his brief stint as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy, when Bundy was serving as President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, Kissinger was mainly concerned with the division of Berlin.

Yet America’s principal foreign policy preoccupation by the mid 1960s lay far from Germany. Suri shows that Kissinger had formed a pessimistic view of American policy in Vietnam as early as 1965, when he first visited the country. He also shows how Kissinger became persuaded that “ending the war honourably” was “essential for the peace of the world” since “any other solution may unloose forces that would complicate prospects for international order”. Contrary to the assumptions made (and still cherished) by a generation of liberals, Kissinger felt the US “could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and thirty-one thousand dead as if we were switching a television channel”. Pace Hersh and Hitchens, Suri contends that there was nothing untoward in Kissinger’s bipartisan communications about Vietnam at this time.

As has often been remarked, there have been few odder couples in American politics than Nixon and Kissinger. Not the least of the oddities about their relationship was Nixon’s tendency to give vent to his own anti-Jewish prejudices, sometimes even in Kissinger’s presence. Yet Suri argues that their differences were always outweighed by fundamental similarities of outlook. In particular, Kissinger was impressed by Nixon’s faith in his own willpower and the effectiveness of firm, decisive action. As the President told his adviser, his long, hard ascent of the greasy pole had given him “the will in spades”; hence his readiness to take “action which is very strong, threatening, and effective”. On occasion, Kissinger could talk in similar terms. As he told Yitzhak Rabin in 1973: “When you use force it is better to use 30 per cent more than is necessary than 5 per cent less than is necessary . . . . Whenever we use force we have to do it slightly hysterically”. Suri details the two occasions when Kissinger used nuclear sabre-rattling to exert pressure on the Soviets – October 1969 and October 1973 – though he does not offer a clear verdict as to whether these actions were effective diplomatically, or needlessly reckless.

The obverse of occasional sabre-rattling was Nixon and Kissinger’s shared and unshakeable faith in regular “back channel” negotiations. Beginning in February 1969, Kissinger cultivated a hotline to Moscow via the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. At first designed primarily (though never exclusively) to bypass the State Department, the back channel gradually evolved into a highly effective and highly sensitive system of superpower communications. Subsequent criticism of the policy of détente (from the Right more than the Left) cannot detract from the tangible achievements of Kissinger’s period in office: the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Helsinki Accords. Suri also seems to concur with the view that Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China (or, as Margaret Macmillan would have it, Mao and Zhou Enlai’s opening to America) worked as a way of exerting pressure on the Soviets by shattering the illusion of a homogeneous Communist Second World.

In Suri’s version of events, Nixon and Kissinger approached the problem of Vietnam with a similar combination of tools: the unflinching use of force plus sustained back-channel negotiation, allied with the hope that either the USSR or the PRC could be induced to lean on Hanoi. Suri does not dismiss the strategy as doomed to fail. The use of force certainly hurt North Vietnam. Le Duan, General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, later admitted that the mining of Haiphong “completely obliterated our economic foundation”. Equally, Kissinger’s tenacity in negotiation ultimately bore fruit in the form of the Paris Accords, signed on January 23, 1973. The question – which Suri does not quite answer – is how long that peace might have endured had not domestic opposition undercut American assistance to South Vietnam.

A similar question can, of course, be posed about Kissinger’s policy in the Middle East. Could more have been achieved? But there is a danger in posing unrealistic counterfactuals. An enduring peace in the Middle East was probably not attainable in the wartorn 1970s. What was attainable was a diminution in the power of the Soviet Union and a stabilization of Israel’s position relative to her Arab neighbours. These goals, as Suri points out, Kissinger was uniquely positioned to achieve. As a Jewish Secretary of State, he could credibly promise the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to “get [Rabin] to move in the right direction . . . to work on him”. At the same time, he could withstand the bitter claims of Menachem Begin that he was one of those “Jews, who out of a complex feared non-Jews would charge them with acting for their people, and therefore did the opposite”. And, having ousted the Soviets from Egypt, he could reassure Rabin, with equal credibility: “We are working for a common strategy, one element of which is a strong Israel”.

“Kissinger”, Suri writes, “was above all a revolutionary.” To those who have read their Hitchens, this may come as something of a surprise. Kissinger a revolutionary? The man who told the Argentine junta’s Foreign Minister, Cesar Guzzetti: “We wish [your] government well”? The man who promised his South African counterpart to “curb any missionary zeal of my officers in the State Department to harass you”? The man who told the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: “We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here”? Yet Suri has a case to make, even if he does not make it more than obliquely. An integral part of Kissinger’s grand strategy was always to establish priorities. In order to check Soviet ambitions in the Third World – the full extent of which we have only recently come to appreciate – some unpleasant regimes had to be tolerated, and indeed supported. Besides the various Latin American caudillos, the Saudi royal family, the Shah of Iran and the Pakistani military, these unpleasant regimes also included (though the Left seldom acknowledged it) the Maoist regime in Beijing, which was already guilty of many more violations of human rights than all the right-wing dictators put together when Kissinger flew there for the first time in July 1971.

Yet the real revolution Kissinger had to achieve was not so much in the realm of grand strategy as in that of domestic politics. As he himself put it in one of the many “heartland speeches” he delivered in the US in 1975 and 1976, his underlying aim was “to end the self-flagellation that has done so much harm to this nation’s capacity to conduct foreign policy”. In this he was ultimately unsuccessful. Indeed, US self-flagellation reached its zenith during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Jeremi Suri, who was still an untenured junior professor at the University of Wisconsin when he wrote this book, draws back from passing an unambiguous verdict on Kissinger’s “revolution”. He does not say how far the strategic benefits of supping with sundry devils outweighed the domestic costs. Indeed, he leaves open nearly all the major questions about Kissinger’s grand strategy. What he has done is to provide an invaluable insight into the background of an American statesman who has surely received a disproportionate share of criticism relative to his predecessors. How far Kissinger’s Jewishness provides the real key to his inner motivations remains a matter for debate. (My own preference would be to see him as first and foremost a historian – one of the very select band of serious scholars of the past who end up actually making policy in the here and now.) But it certainly provides a part of the explanation for the vitriol that has come his way.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Science, Religion, and the Soul

Just as the created world is a world summoned into existence under command, to be a human being in that world is to live in search of a summons. It is to recognize, first of all, that we are here not by choice or on account of merit, but as an undeserved gift from powers not at our disposal. It is to feel the need to justify that gift, to make something out of our indebtedness for the opportunity of existence. It is to stand in the world not only in awe of the world’s existence but under an obligation to answer a call to a worthy life, a life of meaning, a life that does honor to the divine likeness with which our otherwise animal being has been--no thanks to us--endowed. It is to feel the explicit need to find a way of life for which we should be pleased to answer at the bar of justice when our course is run, in order to vindicate the blessed opportunity and the moral-spiritual challenge that is the true essence of being human.
More from Leon R Kass

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Reasons to celebrate Israel

Some great letters to the Guardian:

So Messrs Fry, Rose, Pinter et al (Letters, April 30) will not be celebrating Israel's independence. Were this gesture to have meaning, it should be made in an Israeli newspaper. Expressing such sentiments in the Guardian is the secular Jewish version of preaching to the choir.

Indeed one wonders if the real point here is to establish that the signatories of this letter are not like "those Jews", us bad ones, who will always defend Israel's right to exist, and celebrate the survival of our families there. Yes, we would like to see a different Israel and an end to occupation: however, strutting and fretting this point on an English left-liberal stage, however satisfying, has no impact on Israeli opinion save to alienate the very people who must consent to an eventual peace settlement. It is the politics of "not in my name" - which recent history suggests to be a message easily ignored, most of all when delivered by diaspora liberals (among whom I count myself) to an Israel facing daily attack.

British Jews, being subjected to less anti-semitism than any other European Jewish population, are in no position to lecture those of our cousins in Israel who can say: "I have no other country."
Reuben Cohen

The Jews who signed the Guardian letter were in such a hurry to tell us how much they are not celebrating the 60th birthday of Israel that they stampeded through the truth.

There was no "massacre" at Deir Yassin. The New York Times said more than 200 Arabs were killed and quoted Arab survivors who said only 110 of 1,000 were killed. The attackers left open an escape corridor from the village and more than 200 residents left unharmed. And there were evacuees - which does not tend to happen in "massacres".

Plan Dalet did not "authorise the destruction of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of the indigenous population outside the borders of the state". It was a defensive strategy, to counter the expected pan-Arab assault on the emergent Jewish state. And the invasion of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq duly occurred, on May 15 1948.

Israel was not "founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land". In defiance of the UN resolution of November 29 1947 (No 181), the Arabs launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes.
Jonathan Hoffman

Contrary to the claims in this letter, Israel was not built on the ashes of centuries of persecution. Zionism was a response to the trends prevalent in the enlightenment era of the 19th century when other peoples also wished to be allowed to determine their lives based on their unique ethnic characteristics. Pre-Zionist thought took shape around the middle of the 19th century and this ultimately led to the creation of the Zionist movement in 1897.

Further, no one has ever found evidence of an ideology of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In relation to Plan Dalet Benny Morris states: "It was governed by military considerations and geared to achieving military ends. But, given the nature of the war and the admixture of populations, securing the interior of the Jewish state and its borders in practice meant the depopulation and destruction of the villages that hosted the hostile militias and irregulars". Finally, UN resolution 194 gives no unconditional right of return but is predicated, inter alia, on returning refugees wishing to live in peace.
Richard Millett

The signatories of your letter assert that "what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Naqba is to the Palestinians". I am puzzled by this. The Nazis murdered most Jews in the many lands they controlled and expropriated and expelled the rest, in all many millions. When did the Israelis do this to the Arabs? The letter's only detail as to deaths is that "hundreds" died on a death march in 1948. Hundreds, not thousands, not tens of thousands, still less millions.
George Stern

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Israel's questions at 60

One of the words I've heard repeated this week has been "answers": "The IDF and the State of Israel is our answer to the Shoah"(from Israel's Chief of Staff on his visit to Auschwitz); "religion is an answer to man's questions" (from a historian discussing religious war); "the society we build is an answer..." (from a speaker at the memorial ceremony for Israel's fallen soldiers and civilians).

I wish that instead of focusing on the answers, we spent more time on questions. This generation's answers might not satisfy the next generation, but the questions are likely to be similar. We understand ourselves so much better when we give time to thinking about our questions. Surely this is the key to understanding each other, and finding the unity that so many say is lacking.