Saturday, August 15, 2009

Biblical Criticism and Orthodoxy

Modern scholarship on biblical history is starting to have an impact on the Jewish Orthodox world, although, on the whole - understandably - its still not a hot topic on in the Yeshiva world. Pirkei Avot does teach that one should know how to respond to a cynic. Not easy when the cynic is backed up with a wealth of evidence that might seriously challenge your theology.

I plan to write more about biblical history and its impact on Orthodox Judaism - for me it is an issue close to home. But for starters, I'd like to share a short translation of a paragraph from Chapter 1 of Rav Mordechai Breur's (z"l) The Chapters of Genesis. The topic at hand is "understanding the text's plain meaning" in light of the contradictions that exist between different parts of the Torah (Pentateuch). The question posed is how to reconcile the Talmudic assertion that the Torah was written to be understood 'simply' with the contemporaneous contradictions in the text:

The author of Shaagat Aryeh (The Lion's Roar) has already pointed out that in the book of Chronicles we find many contradictory statements, even though it says in the Talmud that the book had only one author, and that was Ezra. And on the problematic nature of these contradictions, he explained that Ezra didn't actually write the book of Chronicles himself, rather he "copied chronologies from different sources that he found... in one book he found thus and in another book he found thus, and copied what he found... and didn't want to change the words that he found."

This is how we are reconcile the Talmudic assertion that the Torah's "spoke simply" (Dibrah be lashon bnei adam"). It isn't that the complete text is written to be understood simply, but rather, that the Torah is written in language that was copied from different sources and collected together in one book. And this was the simple language that The Ineffable One's Torah spoke in. For the Giver of the Torah ("Noten Hatorah") found with hidden power individual books Self-Authored that reflected different Divine attributes, and copied the Torah from them. "In one book He found thus and in another book He found thus, and copied what was found... and didn't want to change the words that were found." This book was first written with black fire on white fire and afterwards he read it to Moses our Teacher on Mount Sinai, so that he could write it in ink. This is the Sefer Torah that is passed from father to son , from Rabbi to pupil, from the first generation to the last generation.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Strangers" by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor

Strangers is a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet, but the details more than the general theme make the movie. Eyal (an Israeli traveling to Berlin for the mondial - or football World Cup) meets Rana (a Palestinian ex-pat), and they fall in love. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this film is that it was filmed unscripted, with the actors simply being told to act out what came to mind. But with an Arab and an Israeli playing an Arab and an Israeli, the tensions caught on camera are very real. When Eyal and Rana first talk politics, for example, he complains that "We always try and give so much, but they always say no". She flashes back "And why do you think that is?". Confusion meets anger - and it isn't acting. Their halting conclusion that "we won't.. solve the problem .. tonight" also comes across as on-the-spot pragmatism. In a reality where two people with a bitter disagreement touch on the topic in question, the actors seem to remember to co-operate because they are acting.

Rana is played by Arabic speaking
Lubna Azaba, Eyal by Hebrew speaking Liron Levo. Azaba's first role as Palestinian was in Paradise Now, where she played a woman returning to the West Bank who becomes romantically involved with a man planning to become a suicide bomber. Strangers is set in a more neutral France and Germany, and allows her to explore meeting an Israeli, as she would meet any man - without anger.

Rana's character is complex by design, with secrets unraveled as the film progresses. But it is the calm and straight-forward Eyal who gets me thinking. In his late twenties - traveling to the mondial to see his German ex-girlfriend, Eyal is an Israeli who has finished his compulsory military service and still has to decide what to do with his life. So many Israelis like Eyal get the traveling bug. He too is at home away from home. When we see him reaching for his phone to call his dad again - usually from a bar - it seems that Berlin is as close as Tel Aviv.

Eyal tells Rana about a previous relationship with his German ex-girlfriend that he gave up - because she wasn't Jewish. He loved her, but he didn't want to upset his family. Coming from a background where ethnic ties are just as strong, Rana is sympathetic. His ex-girlfriend though, isn't returning his calls. Was there ever an Israeli girlfriend? We don't know.

And then there's football. What is it about football and Israelis? Children in India and China watch their latest heroes on TV, but in some sense it's different here. As a 12 year old in Israel for the year, I recall my friend - the dedicated Liverpool supporter - smiling almost mystically when the conversation would turn towards English football. I don't think he played the game at all - it was a magical dream of constant glory which Liverpool in the 80's gave people. This guy belonged. And Eyal too, I think, wants to belong. But to what? We see images of him in the crowd, sharing passion, jumping with joy. But was this really about football? The mondial, where his country have failed to qualify ("because they play like Arabs") is perhaps the most universal cultural event in the world. Could it be that the real motivation here was his wanting to be a part of that universal family of nations?

The directors hone in on this theme. At one stage we see images of the crowd - Slavic and Nordic children, in their country's colors, next to Eyal. Then the screen splits and we see Israeli tanks jolting from the force of firing heavy shells. Striking contrast. The message
- you're not really here. You're not fully part of this.

The Lebanon war actually started while the movie was being shot, and the directors fortuitously decided to incorporate it into the story. The war brings out those tensions between Eyal and Rana, and also those within Eyal himself. At the relationship level we see two lovers watching football in each others arms, content. Then we see them watching the war news together, with no interest in anything but calling home. This is Romeo and Juliet. Internally too, Eyal can no longer be so care-free either. We see him alone in two contrasting scenes - able to enjoy being part of the crowd watching the final, and then worried, watching the news. Whilst Rana belongs to a culture that has the sympathies of the world, Eyal has no such luck. In one scene he is even thrown into the role of IDF spokseman, defending against the latest allegations of atrocities. Didn't so many Israelis play that role somehow during the war? Didn't so many of us feel isolated, like Eyal?

Two other images from the movie stick in my mind. The first is at a hospital, when a nurse calls the immigration police to report Rana for being in the country illegally. Perfectly curved and French, the nurse looks down as Rana is dragged away screaming. Jews know that betrayal. It was an insightful touch.

The other image in my mind is of Eyal playing with Rana's son. An Israeli man playing with an Arab child. A sense of humanity overcoming what stereotypes would demand, strength and vulnerability mixed into a walk down the street.

But sentiment aside, the question that remains for Eyal is what to do? We watch him struggle with forces pulling him in both directions: To leave Rana is to give up her love, to stay is to gamble with his identity. Could he have both? Should he give up one?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fundraising Corruption at Human Rights Watch

A snippet from Jeffery Goldberg's blog:
In other words, yes, the director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization's investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel's "supporters," who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.
read the whole thing here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Book of Ezra

One of the main themes in the book of Ezra, and perhaps most relevant to Zionism today, is that the Jews make immense efforts to return and rebuild the land, but these efforts are severely impacted by the blessings (small 'b') of imperial rulers. Cyrus says they could rebuild their temple, they rebuild. Artaxerxes says they should stop, they stop. Darius says they can start again, they start again. Ezra repeats the idea heard first in Exodus, "Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph". What happens in the corridors of power, whether they be in Pasargadae or Washington, impacts Jewish interests. The Jews did well, both in ancient and recent times, to accept what they were offered.
If Jewish submission to imperial power is a major theme in the book, what are we to make of the book's ending? Ezra orders Israelite males who have taken foreign wives to send them away. It's not clear how a heroine like Ruth would have fared in this difficult story, but a larger question on my mind is - what's this story of divorce en masse doing next to the story of the rebuilding of the Temple? Is there a connection?
If there is a connection, it might be the underlying theme of Jewish power (or lack of power) that we see in the book.
The unprecedented order to divorce non-Israelite wives could have been an attempt to strengthen a new power-less Israelite identity. With a temple rebuilt at the grace of non-Israelite rulers, and Israelite prayers (and possibly taxes) now directed towards his well being, the powerful political position Israel enjoyed during the first temple period was clearly over.

The strong identity that members of a powerful group naturally enjoy - an identity not threatened by foreign cultures - was at stake. Going forwards, the way to marry a non-Israelite woman would therefore involve either an act of conversion or one of desertion (marrying 'out'). One could perhaps go as far as saying that this was a step towards the creation of a religious-Jewish identity, from a national-Israelite identity.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Syria and a town called Quneitra

There's a very good post over at Daniel Pipes' blog, here. He asks, and answers, an interesting question -
How come, 35 years and one day after the negotiated return of Quneitra by Israel to Syria June 26, 1974, the town remains unrebuilt? To make a propaganda point, its population has been prevented all these years from returning to the town and resuming their lives.
The full post is well worth checking out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Change They Can Believe In

Walter Russel Mead, author of the amazing God and Gold (and top dog at Harvard and CFR) says America can do what hasn't been achievable yet between Israel and the Arabs - but in order to do so Palestinian refugees have to become the central element of the discussion.

He quotes - as an estimate of the cost of resettling the refugees - an enormous $80bn, and says that Israel should pay a "significant" portion, with the US, Germany, Britain, Japan and Europe paying the rest. He believes this is justified as the wars between Jews and Arabs were a direct result of the UN's failure to provide security for both sides.

Many people have tried to end it; all have failed. Direct negotiations between Arabs and Jews after World War I foundered. The British tried to square the circle of competing Palestinian and Jewish aspirations from the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration until the ignominious collapse of their mandate in 1948. Since then, the United Nations, the United States, and the international community have struggled with the problem without managing to solve it. No issue in international affairs has taxed the ingenuity of so many leaders or captured so much attention from around the world. Winston Churchill failed to solve it; the "wise men" who built NATO and the Marshall Plan handed it down, still festering, to future generations. Henry Kissinger had to content himself with incremental progress. The Soviet Union crumbled on Ronald Reagan's watch, but the Israeli-Palestinian dispute survived him. Bill Clinton devoted much of his tenure to picking at this Gordian knot. He failed. George W. Bush failed at everything he tried. This is a dispute that deserves respect; old, inflamed, and complex, it does not suffer quick fixes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Helping Palestinians

From Elliot Abrams, at the influential Council of Foreign Relations:

The Obama administration seems determined to repeat all the mistakes the Bush administration made, especially that of concentrating on fancy negotiations on final status issues while slighting the chances for real-world progress on the ground in the West Bank. So determined is our government to produce nirvana for Palestinians, it seems willing to ignore chances to bring them better lives now—something Netanyahu pledged to work with the U.S. on immediately. If the administration chooses to keep fighting almost entirely on the settlement "freeze" issue, it will be showing that a confrontation with Netanyahu is not a problem it seeks to avoid but a tactic it seeks to embrace. And once again, any chance of helping Palestinian moderates to deliver real improvements in Palestinian life will be lost.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The BNP on Jewish Continuity

The Independent sent Peter Victor to interview the British National Party's newly elected MEP Nick Griffin. (He's black, and so the discussion is about why the BNP want him to leave England).

Halfway through the interview, when discussing intermarriage, he mentions Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

What would he do, then, if one of his three daughters brought home someone like me? "I would be as disappointed, as I know many Sikhs, Hindus and black people would be, and I'd talk to them both about it, try and put them off. But in the end that's their business.

"Children grow up and do their own thing. I wouldn't go as far as, say, someone from the orthodox Jewish community could well do, which is to hold a funeral, a symbolic funeral for them. But I would ask you again – unless you're going to condemn the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, for writing a book called Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? – don't call me a racist, or some kind of wicked bigot, for saying I would be very disappointed."

Intermarriage is indeed a difficult thing for most Orthodox Jewish parents to accept (although the symbolic funeral is something I have never seen - what I have seen is the exact opposite). And Jonathan Sacks did indeed write a book about Jewish continuity.

But Jonathan Sacks also wrote a book called The Dignity of Difference, arguing not simply for tolerance of difference, but for a celebration of difference as a cure to intolerance. It is a powerful a call for a new religious pluralism.

That's not BNP.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A thought on Amalek

In this week's Torah portion (Shelach Lecha), the spies return from their journey into Canaan and report negatively on what they saw. There are attempts to explain what exactly was negative about their report (one of my favorites is from I believe the Chafetz Chaim who said it was that they spoke negatively about themselves when they said "we can't do it").

But I wanted to briefly dwell on something that Rashi says at the start of their report. In Numbers 13:28 and 29 the spies mention Amalek twice. In 13:28 they say "moreover we saw Amalek" and in 13:29 they say "Amalek dwell in the Negev".

Rashi says that this second mention of Amalek was an attempt to scare the Israelites, given that they had been attacked by them as they were departing Egypt. Once would have been a sufficient description of what they had seen, but twice implied something more than a factual report. Sewing the seeds of fear, implies Rashi, was wrong.

But hold on - is there more to be said here?

If we fast forward to Deuteronomy 25:17 - we read:

"Remember that which Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt - they attacked your weak ones when you were tired and weary, and did not fear God...[when God defeats your enemies].... erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven - don't forget!"

One of the perplexing questions raised by this commandment is the paradoxical nature of the prohibition to remember to forget Amalek. How can a person remember to forget anything? Isn't it like me telling you not to think of a cat? See, you just thought about a cat.

However, one might also see Deuteronomy 25:17 as a commandment to act in two different ways, depending on the circumstances.

At times when national security isn't guaranteed, (in the Bible's language - when God hasn't defeated Israel's enemies), this verse tells Israel to remember that which Amalek did. In other words, be alert - preoccupy yourself with security.

At times when national security is guaranteed (or in the Bible's language - when God has defeated Israel's enemies) don't think about Amalek. Or perhaps in other words, let yourself be occupied with other, more positive elements of Jewish life.

It was God who told Moses to "scout out the land" (Numbers 13:2). The spies were supposed to recognize their situation as one where they were guaranteed national security. Their report - with its emphasis on the sightings of Amalek - failed to emphasize the positive aspects of the land - and in doing so betrayed a fatal misreading of the situation's true potential.

Monday, June 8, 2009

World Outside My Shoes

Learning from Rwanda to equip and inspire each one of us to enter the world of the “Other”. The “Other” may be under our own roof or on the other side of the globe.

World Outside My Shoes

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama: "Only Likud can make peace"

Well, not exactly - but nearly:

"Just as so many Palestinians lost confidence and faith that the process can move forward, I think many Israelis lost confidence that they will ever be recognized by Arab states or there will be security," he continued. "So I believe Netanyahu will recognize the strategic need to deal with this issue and in some ways he may have an opportunity that a Labor or a left leader might not have."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Obama didn't say

From David Horovitz:

Where he, terribly, missed a vital opportunity from Israel's point of view, however, was in legitimizing our Jewish nation-state solely on the basis of our people's persecution through the centuries, which "culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust."

Yes, of course, denying the Holocaust is 'baseless, ignorant and hateful." And yes, "threatening Israel with destruction" does indeed serve "to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve."

But our rights in this land are not predicated solely, or even primarily, on the tragedies that have befallen us during our history in exile. Those rights relate, rather, to the fact that we were in exile - from this land, this historic Jewish homeland. This is the only place on earth where the Jews have ever been sovereign, the place we never willingly left, the place to which we always prayed to return.

The culminating tragedy of the Holocaust occurred only because we had been denied that rightful homeland. Six million Jewish lives were lost because that legitimacy was not internationally internalized in time. This president, in that place, should have emphasized the point - stressed the physical root of our legitimacy to a Muslim world, and especially a Palestinian populace, that overwhelmingly refuses to acknowledge it.

Instead, unfortunately, the president spoke of the "displacement" of Palestinians "brought by Israel's founding" (while making no mention of the Arab world's rejection of the Arab entity that would have been simultaneously created alongside us). In so doing, he reinforced the very portrayal of Israel as a modern colonial upstart that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so cynically and strategically asserts.

In so painstakingly calibrated an address, delivered in so vital and urgent a cause, this was a stark failure, and one Obama should himself recognize the need to rectify as he translates his talk into action. For Muslim recognition of our fundamental right to be here, precisely here, is central to the president's admirable quest to make a better world, a peaceful world, a new beginning.

Obama on Mid-East peace

Here is what President Obama reportedly told Thomas Friedman about his approach to peace in the Mid-East:
“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”
A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”
There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.
“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”
When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More on Bibi and Obama

from the Economist:

...relaxing with an intimate group of American conservative magnates who have backed him over the years, Mr Netanyahu gave vent to his discomfort. For all his efforts to set the scene in a Jewish-historical perspective, he felt that the president focused more on the plight of the Palestinians. “What moves Mr Obama?”, he wondered edgily aloud.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Freezing natural growth in major settlements - not worth the fight (at the moment)

Akiva Eldar argues that this is the wrong time to fall out with the US over settlement growth. Obama has a key trip to the Middle East in the coming weeks and needs to shore up support for action against Iran - Muslim perception of the US will play a role in determining the support he can win:

Does Israel have a greater existential strategic asset than its relations with the U.S. and its neighbors' understanding that these intimate relations are unshakable?

Is this the way to keep "all options open," including receiving American approval to fly over the skies of Iraq, on the way to attacking Iran's nuclear installations? And what will we do when the Iranians launch missiles at Tel Aviv? Will we send the new Abba Eban, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to Washington to ask Obama to declare war on Tehran? At the same time, the settler from Nokdim can reprimand the president for refusing to take his "natural growth" into account.

I do think that his point is a good one - in the grand scheme of things, at least whilst we still need the US for dealing with Iran, it may be better to put a freeze in place. In the long run however, freezing growth in places like Talpiot, Gilo, Efrat and Ariel - major settlements that don't disrupt Palestinian life - would not be in the israeli interest. As for other settlements, those located in large palestinian population centers and that bring Israel closer to becoming an apartheid state, they should come down and stay down.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Yona Baumel dies without knowing MIA son's fate

Yona Baumel, 81, died on Friday without fulfilling his heart's deepest desire: to discover the fate of his son Zachary, who was last seen on the Sultan Yakoub battlefield in Lebanon 27 years ago.

article here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bible podcasts

I just found this website.

Books read extend beyond the Tanach and include Christian books too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Netanyahu-Obama dynamic

David Horowitz is always worth reading, and here is his latest piece on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting in Washington. There is criticism of Netanyahu's refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood in principle, but there is also an interesting description of PR-savvy Bibi's body language in the meeting:
WHERE YITZHAK Rabin and Ariel Sharon were regarded by their American presidential counterparts as experienced elder statesmen, and treated with deference, respect and affection, Obama and Netanyahu was a meeting of heavyweight and, let's kindly say, middleweight, as was clear in the body language and the presentation: Obama, sitting back relaxedly in his chair, was dominant, cool and dispassionate. Netanyahu, in the unaccustomed position of having had some of his arguments rebuffed by his interlocutor, switched from uneasy lecturer, when he leaned forward and looked almost plaintively at the president as he spoke, to subordinate, when he sought to bridge or mask the differences between them, looking down at the floor when his points were weakest.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wake Up!

At the start of the Shmoneh Esreh we have the following words

He ... fulfills His trust to those who sleep in the dust.

That is the common translation of the term Liyshenei Afar - to those who sleep in the dust.

If you think about it - these words are quite striking.

Dust is a humbling concept to describe man as being related to - but what of sleep? Is this the sleep that a human being cannot function without?

Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps here, with the words those who sleep in the dust, Chazal are referring to a psychological state of unawareness - a state of being without really being - and at the same time the implication is - wake up!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Share tourism revenues?

From Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, at Marginal Revolution:

“In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their mainsource of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsiveto the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”

Liberate the oppressed and the oppressor

There's a great post over at South Jerusalem blog, by Gershom Gorenberg discussing the author's call for Palestinian non violent struggle. The whole essay is worth reading, but here is an excerpt that stands out - a response to those who think Israelis don't have the right to tell Palestinians how to fight:

There were others who asked whether I as an Israeli had any right to suggest that Palestinians risk their lives, and quite possibly lose them, in nonviolent struggle. Richard Silverstein, for instance, raised that question, in an astoundingly sour screed at his Tikkun Olam site attacking my “fantasy” of non-violence. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has coarsened both sides to the point that an Israeli would just as soon kill a Palestinian as look at him (and vice versa),” Silverstein wrote.

To which I have several responses: First, it seems to me that Silverstein, at great distance from real Israelis and Palestinians, is the one that has been deeply coarsened about both sides - as shown by the ease with which he assigns one mentality to all Israelis and all Palestinians. Besides that, I think that progressives are people who dare to imagine a better future and work for it, who “have a dream” - not people who mock such “fantasies.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Parshat Tazria - Sanctity and Impurity

Vayikra isn't the easiest of books to get through. It has been called Torat Cohanim, (the rules for Priests) because of the great details found in it relating to sacrificial and other priestly duties.

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah has rules that pertain to states of purity and impurity. In this discussion, Rav Aron Liechtenstein places these laws in context, saying that the Jewish approach to purity and impurity occupies the space between a nihlistic perception of the universe and one that sees purity and impurity as an inherent part of the universe's structure:

The Jewish approach in this regard differs from the two other prevalent attitudes to this issue. The magical approach claims that there are in fact forces of sanctity and impurity inherent in the world, but they are primordial, embedded within the natural order. There are demons, evil spirits and the like, but man does not and cannot bring them into existence; they emerged together with the rest of creation. The scientific approach, by contrast, maintains that no forces of sanctity or impurity exist in the world whatsoever. No object can be seen as more sacred then the next, no given place can be considered holier than the next, and no quality of impurity can be attributed to corpses or anything else. Simply put, science outright rejects all these concepts.

Judaism disputes both positions. On the one hand, it rejects the scientific approach and insists upon the existence of sacred and profane, purity and impurity. Even further, it believes in a hierarchy of levels of sanctity and purity. On the other hand, it disputes the magical approach and sees all sanctity and impurity as emanating from man, not from nature. Man creates sanctity - he writes Torah scrolls and tefillin (and only with the proper intention in mind), he designates an animal as sacred for the purposes of sacrifices, and he even infuses specific periods of time with sanctity.

The full text can be found here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What motivates Neturei Karta's anti-Zionism?

I recently watched Jonathan Hoffman debate Aron Cohen - the Neturei Karta representative notorious for standing loud and proud with Israel's worst enemies - on Iranian government controlled Press TV.

What was striking about the interview was Aron Cohen being challenged on his own turf, a message being sent to those watching, that he does not stand for Jews, he is not the proud ambassador his Iranian sponsors make him out to be.

So hats (or should I say fur hats) off to Jonathan Hoffman for challenging Aron Cohen on his own turf. Ethics of the Fathers teaches that "in a place where there is no man - be a man". Jonathan Hoffman is stepping up to the plate - he is leading the fight. We should all be grateful - and follow his lead.

But there's more going on here, the debate really got me thinking, and I wanted to try and collect some of those thoughts here:

The arguments expressed in this debate represented deeply opposing world views - and in the few minutes the participants were given - these views were not explored.

Aron Cohen became part of Neturei Karta Judaism through independent choice - he was born into a mainstream Orthodox Jewish family - and it is presumable that he was attracted to the spiritual purity that Hassidic Judaism strives for. Through their separate clothes, extreme dedication to Torah study and observance, Neturei Karta achieve what they strive for - life in a vacuum - as far away as possible from any possible hint of distraction or spiritual compromise.

Part of this religious attitude, I think, fundamentally involves resisting change and idealizing the past. For example, the fur hats (streimels) worn by Aron Cohen and other Hassidm are only recent additions to Hassidic Jewish culture. In fact, there is very little that is Jewish about these hats in their origins - and contrary to what some might say - Jews did not wear them at the splitting of the Red Sea. Originally worn by aristocratic non-Jewish Poles, these fur hats were adopted by the Hassidic communities in Eastern Europe and only recently came to be considered essential religious items in these communities.

Before I get carried away and criticize an attitude that is fundamentally backwards looking and not forwards looking, I should say that, being an Orthodox Jew, I am sympathetic to this backwards looking world-view. Passing values onto children is difficult without some kind of fondness for what was. Whether it was Psalmist remembering Zion by the rivers of Babylon, or the Hassid making sure he has the right type of fur hat, a people in exile longs for the past. When it ceases to do that, it is no longer in exile. On an individual level too, religion seeks comfort and inspiration in what is. Never mind that God reveled himself to Moses for the first time as "I will be as I will be" (Exodus 3:14 - a statement inherently dedicated to eternal evolution in the future). Many look to God for comfort. What is new, what threatens the status quo, is uncomfortable. It should be shunned.

Aron Cohen and Neturei Karta's attitude to Zionism should be seen through this lens. Zionism represents a breaking with the past, a refusal to accept historical fate and an attempt to shape a destiny through human action. This emphasis on human action is the polar opposite emphasis of what is Neturei Karta's focus - inertia accompanied by blind faith. This is why they can't stand Zionists.

So Aron Cohen would be right if he said that he represents an Orthodox Jewish world-view. He certainly does. But he actually represents one particular form of an Orthodox Jewish view, and one that is certainly not exclusively Jewish - it can be found all over the place - certainly in Islam and Christianity.

So the claim to represent the only Orthodox Jewish world-view needs to be exposed for what it is - elitist and misguided. He needs to accept that not all Orthodoxies are backwards looking, and that change does not necessarily mean loss.

Apparently he refuses to travel to Israel, but if he did I would be happy to take my cousin on a tour of the country's Hesder seminaries, institutions designed to allow male soldiers to combine Torah study with their compulsory military service. These boys have a love for Torah study he would want for his own grandchildren, but by refusing to come here - he refuses to acknowledge this. There are plenty of other examples of Orthodox Jewish Zionism that refute Aron Cohen's claim to be the only Orthodox Jewish world view. But I will leave him with one thought, if he is reading, which I hope he is.

When the Jews left Egypt they found themselves in a difficult situation. Up ahead was a sea - right behind them was an Egyptian army going for the kill. Moses prayed. And what did God say?
Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forwards! (Exodus 14:16)
The miracle at the Red Sea happened after human effort.

The holocaust - in which Aron Cohen and I lost family members - is the most recent historically relevant event to the Exodus story. Zionism, which was a response to the antisemitism that was to cause that tragedy, is a human effort that echoes Exodus 14:16.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

10am, Jerusalem, Yom Hashoah

The sirens sounded at 10 am today across the city.

It was haunting.

Cars and buses stopped, people stood.

I looked around.

I don't know these people, but I know they are my people, and we share history and (I hope) destiny.

Three buses stood still, at a green light. The driver and his one passenger, in the bus nearest to me, just standing.

Not surreal - very, very real.

This is Israel.

These are my people.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Palestinian children sing for Holocaust survivors

Strings for Peace, youth orchestra from Jenin refugee camp, gives a touching musical performance for Holocaust survivors in Israeli town Holon as part of Good Deeds Day.

Update - PA Dismantles W. Bank youth orchestra

Monday, March 23, 2009

Free Choice and the Tree of Knowledge

Leon Kass makes an interesting comment on the prohibition (in Genesis 3) of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad:

Every act of uninstructed free choice, the text seems to intimate, is an implicitly prideful act, presupposing as it does the possession of knowledge of what is good for a human being. Every act of choice implicitly expresses a judgment of good and bad, better and worse. Every act of choice presupposes that the human agent knows - or thinks he knows - what is good for him (or someone else), on which basis he chooses accordingly. On this interpretation of the text, the fact that God wants to keep man from the tree of knowledge of good and bad suggests that He wants man to remain an innocent, contented and unself-divided being who follows instinctively the path to his natural good. Or better, reading morally rather than historically, through God's command about the tree the text teaches the reader that it is his own freedom - and its implicitly yet necessarily disobedient character - that is the cause of all human troubles.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Palestino, 6 Euro

You can now show your solidarity in pink and lime. Keffiyah scarves, 6 Euros.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Rabbi and the Taxi Driver

A classic Jewish story: a learned rabbi and a taxi driver depart this world at the same time and arrive together at the gates of heaven. The angel at the gate signals to the taxi driver to enter, then turns to the rabbi and sadly shakes his head. "What is this?" asks the rabbi. "I am a learned rabbi and he is only a taxi driver who, not to put too fine a point on it, drove like a lunatic." "Exactly so," replies the angel. "When you spoke, people slept. But when they got into his taxi, believe me, they prayed!"

from the Chief Rabbi's weekly email.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"What does God want you to do?"

We recently spent Shabbat my ultra Orthodox sister in law and her husband. I had been looking forwards to discussing a situation that arose about 10 years ago in London: On the way home from shul on Shabat morning, I was asked to help push a car to side of the road. I was faced with the dilema of either breaking Shabbat by helping push the car, or not breaking Shabbat by refusing to help push the car.

The initial response was "don't break Shabat to help the guy out". But when I pointed out that helping out your fellow man while he is struggling is also a Mitzvah the difficulty of the situation was acknowledged.

Actually, the difficulty of the situation was summed up brilliantly with words I hope will stay with me forever. My wife's brother in law said: "What does God want you to do?"

What does God want you to do?

It's a crazy question. Or maybe its not so crazy, maybe it is simply the question. The same one that lies behind the thousands of pages of Talmud that we have in our tradition. Debates about what God wants from us.

I thought about it long and hard. (Ok, with a 20 month old, anything over an hour is long and hard).

What does God want me to do?

Its a tough one. Shabbat is so important in Judaism. But to ignore a man in trouble? For me, I can't really say I have full confidence that I made the right decision, on that day, to refuse to offer my help. Next time, I think that I might try and muster the courage to help.

But that question still lingered in my mind. It was brilliant, so deep, relevant to so much more than just one situation.

What does God want me to do?

Learn a lot of Torah.
Make movies.
Raise a family.
Set up a business and employ people in Israel.

These were all good attempts, contained a grain of truth in them. But I didn't feel satisfied. I was looking for something deeper, something below the surface, something that joins all these together. And then I had my mini-revelation. If it wasn't prophecy, then at least it was exciting.

God's wants what is best for me.

Is that obvious? I don't know. It wasn't to me. But the more I've thought about it, the more it makes sense. If my religious experience can indeed be described as reaching out to God, the elusive "Face of the Other" (as Levinas so eloquently describes God), reaching out and trying to understand what is desired of me, then what could be desired of me - by a loving God - more than what is for me? Sounds selfish? Well, maybe it is. But if I think that what is desired of me - by a loving God - is what is for me, it follows that what is desired of all others - by a loving God - is what is for them. So not so selfish!

In short, God wants what is best for us.

I guess that is the easy part. The hard part is trying to figure out what is actually best for us. And that is a question that permeates every field of human activity. Law, science, government, ethics, religion. Wisdom.

And Proverbs 1:7 comes to mind:

"Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom".

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Glorious Rain!

Although our ceiling has been enjoying the drought this winter - for the second weekend straight we've been trapped indoors because of the downpours!

But we're not supposed to rely on miracles.

So here's an article about boosting water supply in Israel by desalinating water from the ocean and deepening freshwater ground reserves.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Leo Strauss on Assimilation

I really like this quote from Leo Strauss z"l on assimilation:

Assimilation proved to require internal enslavement as the price for external freedom. Or, to put it somewhat differently, assimilationism seemed to land the Jews into the bog of philistinism - of shallow satisfaction with the most unsatisfactory present - a most inglorious end for a people which had been led out of the house of bondage into the desert with careful avoidance of the land of the Philistines. To quote the words of the Torah (Exodus 13,17): When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though it was near. It is always near.
Progress or Return? Jewish Philosophy and Modernity, Essays in Modern Jewish Thought

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oh Chomsky, enough!

Noam Chomsky says
any people, even knowing little about the matter, were revolted by the savage cruelty and cowardice of the IDF, brutally attacking defenseless people locked in a cage.
Cowardice. Don't make me laugh! What would he call Hamas fighters hiding in hospitals and firing rockets from press buildings?

At least he does admit that most of those revolted by Israel's "savage cruelty" in Gaza, were also those knowing little about the matter.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

An interview with Khaled Abu Toameh

There's a fascinating interview with Khaled Abu Toameh over at Michael J. Totten's blog. An excerpt:

Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations: What about the Israeli expectation that with these attacks they will have established deterrence against Hamas? Do you think that's true?

Khaled Abu Toameh: Yes. Yes. Look. The West Bank was quiet during the attack in Gaza. Now, I was talking to many people. You know what they were saying? And this is the funny part. “You know what?” they said. “The Jews have gone mad. This is not the time to mess around with them.” And, you know, when you hear this from the man on the street, it really does create deterrence. I would rather see deterrence created in another way, but there is this perception on the Arab street today that the Jews have gone crazy, there are no more red lines, nothing, they don't care, and we should be careful. So in that sense, yes, there is some kind of deterrence, for the short term at least.

Before this war, four days before the war, I interviewed a number of Hamas guys. I published it in the Jerusalem Post. And the headline was Hamas Mocks Israel's Nonresponse to Qassam Attacks. What were they saying, the Hamas leaders? Basically that the Jews are cowards.

They think Israel ran away from Lebanon, that Hezbollah defeated them. They thought the Jews were scared and would not come into Gaza. They were really confident that Israel wouldn't fight back. Really. They were. They thought at most that Israel would send a few tanks into open fields just to calm Israeli public opinion. So the response really caught them by surprise, especially the first day.

So yes, there is this perception today in the Arab world that our neighbor has gone mad.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Robert Fisk and the Israeli "Genocide"

Robert Fisk is accused of consistently trivializing Palestinian suffering by pointing out that queues at check points in the West Bank are not the same thing as queues at the selection ramp at Auschwitz.
I was especially taking exception to a Palestinian blog now going the rounds which shows a queue of Palestinian women at one of Israel's outrageous roadblocks and a (slightly) cropped picture of the Auschwitz selection ramp, the same platform upon which Leon Greenman was separated from his young wife and child more than 60 years ago. The picture of the Palestinian women is based on a lie; they are not queuing to be exterminated. Racist, inhumane and, sometimes deadly – Palestinian women have died at these infernal checkpoints – but they are not queuing to be murdered.
I've written to Robert Fisk twice, both times to complain.

The first time I suggested that he was too scared (living in Lebanon) to condemn Hezbollah's initiation of a war that brought disaster again to the country. The second time I asked him to start paying attention to Israeli, and not just Palestinian outrage.

He didn't respond.

Robert Fisk is not a friend of Israel - his articles are totally biased. They reserves their most bitter condemnations for Arab suffering caused by Israel, and use a totally different language and tone to describe Arab suffering caused by Arabs.

But I will also say this: Robert Fisk knows what genocide is and what it isn't. And he has stood firm in distancing himself from those who use the term to describe Israel's wars.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Israel Beitenu's rise to power

What to make of Israel Beitenu's rise to power in this last election?

Their most controversial election platform was the suggestion that all Israeli citizen's, Arabs should take a loyalty test. In their own words:
Israel Beiteinu does not ask Israeli-Arabs to renounce their Arab identity. However, it does ask that they recognize this country as a Jewish state. If they wish to live here as citizens with full rights and benefits, they must contribute to its success and not apply their efforts toward its destruction.
Jonathan Freedland didn't like it, and asked several members of the party
if they could name a single democracy anywhere that had removed citizenship from those who already had it. I asked what they would make of demanding that, say, British Jews, swear an oath of loyalty to Britain as a Christian country on pain of losing their right to vote.
They are interesting questions - but not entirely fair.

For starters, there a plenty of cases of discrimination against ethnic minorities who reside in a society which their home country is at war with. Japanese farmers in America had their land confiscated in WW2, loyal or not. Is it far fetched to say that Germans demonstrating proudly in support of the Third Reich during the blitz would have got treated any better in Britain? I doubt it. And to be honest, I don't think I would have a problem being asked to display some form of loyalty to Britain as a Christian country, so long as my rights (including religious rights as a Jew) remained secure. Asking the Jews to display loyalty on pain of losing their right to vote would be be justified if the Jews were out there offending most British people's sensibilities during times of war.

Do these examples mean discrimination is OK? Of course not. But an article asking Israel "to take a long look at itself" should at least have made the point that after 60 years of living as an ethnic minority in Israel, the country's Arabs are becoming increasingly radicalized. It is no secret that when Israeli Arabs voice open support for enemies of Israel, they are perceived by most Israeli Jews as a fifth column. His article doesn't mention that.

I don't like Lieberman's politics. I despise the way he responds to Arab politicians and I don't feel proud to see him as a leader here. But as a Likud voting friend of mine recently pointed out, Lieberman is only saying what most Israelis want to hear. Haim Watzman puts it well:
The great majority of people who voted for Lieberman are not ideologues. They voted him not because of his political philosophy, but because he knows how to appeal to their most basic fears. Lieberman’s voters are scared stiff—they fear war and terror, they fear Muslims and Arabs, and they have felt horribly insecure under a government that has talked a lot about peace agreements but which has actually led the country into two wars.
and he continues
The best friends of totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left, are fear and instability. When people fear for their lives and don’t know whether they’ll have a job tomorrow, they grasp at what straws they can, and a glib populist can exploit them.
I do think Lieberman is a glib populist. He is, as Freedland points out, a Moldovan immigrant telling a native Palestinian what to do. I also think a sizeable portion of Israeli Jews (including myself) would refuse to take the oath, on grounds that it is the wrong way to deal with the problem. There has always been an unspoken understanding for Arab feelings towards the Jewish State - that's why Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army or perform national service when they reach 18, like Israeli Jews are. But these last few years have seen an increasingly emboldened Israeli Arab electorate behave in increasingly threatening manner towards Israeli Jews. Israel Beitenu is the unfortunate response.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Seven Jewish Children

Caryl Churchill's new play expresses outrage at Israel's recent actions in Gaza. The play centers around the lies children growing up in Israel in the last 60 years have been told by their parents. A few excerpts:

Tell her we won

Tell her her brother’s a hero

Tell her how the tanks rolled in

Tell her how big their armies are

Tell her we turned them back

Tell her we’re fighters

Tell her we’ve got new land

Tell her it’s our water, we have the right

Tell her it’s not the water for their fields

Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer

Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down

Tell her it’s a building site


Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed

Tell her they’re terrorists

Tell her they’re filth


Tell her we killed the babies by mistake

Don’t tell her anything about the army

So I was about to get angry.

Then I read this gem from Jonathan Hoffman at Harry's Place:

If you should meet Caryl Churchill (maybe at meetings of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign where she is a Patron) please tell her that she has written a play which reinforces false stereotypes and demonises Israelis. Tell her there is a vibrant press in Israel where all opinions can be found and freely expressed. Tell her that Israelis are not the heartless, murderous triumphalists that she portrays. Tell her that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, removing military bases and its citizens from Gush Katif but nevertheless continuing to provide Gazans with electricity, water, and goods. Tell her how workers at the power plant in Ashdod risked injury or even death from the rockets which were being fired from Gaza — the place where they were supplying electricity. Tell her that Israeli parents tell their children the truth and therefore do not teach them that Palestinians are subhuman and to be hated. Tell her that it’s antisemitic to use the phrase “chosen people” to imply that Jews believe they are superior to non-Jews (tell her the phrase involves responsibilities as well as blessings).

But the trouble is, she probably knows all that.

So tell her then that there’s a nice job waiting for her at PressTV.

Truth discovered and Truth inherited

From the Chief Rabbi:
wisdom is the truth we discover, by reason, observation and experience. Torah is the truth we inherit. Revealed at Sinai, it has been handed on from generation to generation. Wisdom teaches us facts; Torah teaches us laws. Wisdom tells us how the world is; Torah tells us how it ought to be.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Likud, bro

I only noticed towards the end of this election campaign that the Likud party has been marketing itself as Ha Likud-Achi, which loosely translates as "the Likud, bro" (achi in Hebrew means brother). I've been torn between Meimad-Greens and the Likud, leaning towards the Meimad-Greens, but when I saw that "achi" stuck on the end of the name of the party that Menachem Begin once led, I felt put off.

Discussing a party's marketing techniques isn't as shallow as one might think. We choose our leaders because we feel they represent us, and we want to feel proud of them. Call me an arrogant Ashkenazi, but I don't like being called achi by people I don't know. I don't care if its my taxi driver, shopkeeper or dentist, I'm not your brother when I'm paying you or voting for you.

OK so my friend (and one follower of this blog) Avram is going to lay into me for this, so for the record, he can call me achi. (If he wants to now).

In voting Meimad-Greens, I am hoping that those issues that come up in the next few years, (which I may not even be aware of), will be considered by people I feel I identify with. Rabbi Melchior has "marketed" a Judaism I like. It's tolerant, ethics based, and closer to the world view I have than the other religious parties. I hope it was worth giving him my vote.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Meimad-Green party

I've been trying to understand what exactly Rabbi Melchior's party will be standing for in this upcoming election in Israel. I found this:

The Meimad-Green party is the only party that has a deep and clear integration of Judaism, social-democratic priorities and ecological responsibility. Until today, we are used to seeing Judaism as something that divides and separates the political map. The Green Movement-Meimad turns Judaism into a unifying element, a foundation on which to build a society with social and ecological responsibility. A party like this in Knesset will support the growing movement of Judaism and social justice, will represent the movement in Knesset, and will eventually replace the ideological vacuum represented by the larger parties.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Light and Dark

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided between the light and the darkness

God can divide between
The light and the dark seen
And be above both

But man must choose
To win or to lose
And be only one

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Here we go (again)

An armed group vandalized Caracas' oldest synagogue, shattering religious objects and spray-painting walls with the words 'Jews, get out.'


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Biblical debt jubilee may be the only answer

I thought this was really interesting - from the Daily Telegraph:

In the end, the only way out of all this global debt may prove to be a Biblical debt jubilee

article here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Needed: A Miracle in Gaza

This morning, as I recited the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea), I marveled at how the story describes the waters parting for the Israelites and then closing in again on the Egyptians:

The best of Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone. (Exodus 15)

Israel survives, its enemies perish, and - with today's Gaza war in mind - only its enemies perish.

How desperately we need a miracle like that now.

There is a midrash that asks - Why did God put Israel in a situation where they were being chased by an army from behind them, and faced a sea in front of them? It answers simply - so that they would pray. Perhaps, in these tough times, Shirat Hayam can be that prayer.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Rav Mickey Rosen z"l: The Quest for Authenticity

I often daven on Friday nights at Yakar, and I have not mentioned the passing of Rav Mickey Rosen z"l, the Rav of the shul. It might be best for me to mention Rav Rosen's z"l book, about chasidut - The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim. I bought it for my dad erev Yom Kippur and only gave it to him Neilah time so I had a good chance to browse through it. Suffice to say that I think it will become considered required reading. Although I can't say that I knew Rav Rosen z"l personally, I do remember his glowing face the Friday night of the week the book went to market. I believe it was deeply personal for him, and a major accomplishment, and perhaps we should be thankful that he accomplished it in his lifetime.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Value of Time

He who knows the value of time always has enough; not being able to lengthen it, he intensifies its value; and first of all, he does nothing to shorten it.

- A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.