Thursday, January 29, 2004

There May not be Poetry ... 

... after the Holocaust, but there certainly is photography.
If you can stand seeing this, then you can also see this. (This may take time getting into - you are obligated to try until you succeed.)

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

An Open Letter to Michael Steinhardt 

Dear Mr. Steinhardt,

You have taken the lead in the fight for Jewish continuity, although it should be the job of our religious and communal leaders. As often happens, a sense of urgency over situations is felt more dearly by concerned people who are on the outside of the establishment than by the establishment themselves.
The early (we hope) warning that you have given to organized Judaism in the US and around the world should motivate our best minds to meet the challenges necessary.

Unfortunately, I feel that the cornerstone of your attempt jump start the process, Birthright, while it appears successful, needs to move to a different level to prevent it from becoming just one more in a long line of feel good efforts to stem the tide of assimilation. Solutions to problems of dedication, loyalty and commitment cannot come from projects which don't demand those same features of its participants. I understand the impetus behind Birthright, but as you know from your commitment to education, the process is a long and complicated one.

The defenses I see of Birthright from its supporters, most recently in the Jewish Week and the Jerusalem Post, bring as proof anecdotal evidence. The only statistics I have seen come from your recent article in the Jewish Week. But even those talk only of feeling "strong connections" to Israel and the Jewish people. This is a weak statement from people that have been given a free vacation – it's an upgrade over the past – but a weak one - sort of like "sell" recommendation being upgraded to a "hold".

With 60,000 kids sent on a free trip I would expect harder statistics than the ones provided. Either they are not there or you are being taken by the professional sociologists/educators/bureaucrats that have been advising you. I know that you feel that the issues that Birthright are supposed to bring to the fore and help solve are no less important than quarterly financial statements of your investments – you should demand no less.

But this letter is not meant to be critical but to be productive. We therefore have some suggestions to better Birthright and to combine it with your other initiative, the "Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education". You were correct to chastise Rabbi Yoffe in your recent article in the Jewish Week. He and the others in the education establishment in the US (and in Israel I might add) have failed us. Your "Partnership" has provided an opportunity for real advances in Jewish commitment.

We have had many discussions here as to the proper role of Jewish education not only in order to bring people to commit to their heritage but also in unifying the diverse elements that exist amongst the committed Jewish population. Although the modern-Orthodox, Haredi, Reform, Conservative and non-religious committed communities don't see eye to eye on theology or even on educational methodology, there can be a common commitment that will allow us all to speak the same language.

I speak of a commitment to the Hebrew language and to the Bible – the Tanach. This must form the basis for the perpetuation and unification of world Jewry. We speak of unification not in the sense of all agreeing on the proper interpretation of past or current events but in our ability to talk to each other in the same language - that of modern and Biblical Hebrew. We must be able to communicate with each other by having a common culture - and that must be based on the Tanach and its language.

Practically speaking, your efforts can lead to the finding and keeping of the lost, and the unifying and educating of the committed.

We propose the following:
1. Set up scholarships for Jewish educators to study Hebrew and Tanach in a certification program sponsored by Israeli universities and Yeshivot. The curriculum can be set by your organization and the sponsoring institutions will be paid based on the following of it.
2. Donate money to those institutions that offer Rabbinic ordination and require their graduates to be certified in Hebrew and Tanach on a level that will allow them to teach Jewish Studies classes in schools in the Hebrew language; and will allow them to be proficient in Tanach.
3. Create two year programs on university campuses (possibly in conjunction with Hillel) that will concentrate on Hebrew and Tanach study. Reward those that finish with by paying for their junior year abroad at an Israeli university or a four week "study and travel" summer trip to Israel.
4. Create similar programs for high-school students who will be rewarded with a six week 'high school in Israel' program.
5. Have ongoing adult education programs in Hebrew and Tanach that will be combined with subsidized trips to Israel.
6. Create similar programs here in Israel in order to stem the tide of apathy regarding Judaism and the Jewish people - and in order to promote the bond between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

Mr. Steinhardt, you are being led astray by your advisors who think that getting youngsters excited while on vacation is a great success. Since you are committed to the Jewish future you must demand commitment from those you are trying to help. There is no doubt that the numbers you reach in the short term will be less than what Birthright has reached – but the gains, both qualitative and quantitative will be more everlasting.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the fight against anti-Semitism is also a fight against assimilation. The anti-Semitism that has pervaded the Western and Islamic world has created a feeling of defeatism in the world Jewish community that can only lead to further assimilation. These educational programs will help fight the evil that is eating at our bodies, as well as that which is gnawing at our souls.

The Jewish people are depending on you and your colleagues to help Jewish continuity that is threatened by assimilation and by anti-Semitism. A commitment by you to strengthen our culture – and by us, to work to strengthen it is sure to pay off.

There are many people, including myself, who are willing to help in your efforts. I hope you take us up on this offer.

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Monday, January 26, 2004

On Teaching the Tanach 

The third Friday article (available only in Hebrew, from my search) of which we spoke yesterday concerns the teaching of Tanach in the Israeli school system.

Written by Yeira Amit she states that "for 100 years Hebrew educators have been trying to give over an emotional attachment to the Tanach and its learning, all for naught. If knowledge of the Tanach were really important for someone he would trade his expectation of loving it for a clear and agreed enunciation of its importance."

Ms. Amit has a point here. She goes on to compare the teaching of Tanach to the teaching of mathematics. We don't care so much if the children love the subject, only that they learn it. The love will (or won't) come later. Children concentrate on mathematics because society, parents and most important teachers relay its importance in life to the students and children.

Here in Israel Tanach is taught quantitatively, not qualitatively. The students are expected to finish books of the Bible. Period. In the religious public school system (Mamlachti-Dati), from second grade through sixth grade the students go through the entire Pentateuch. They start with Bereshit, then Shmot, Bamidbar, Vayikra and Dvarim. In fifth grade they also start learning the Nevi'im (Prophets) and go through Joshua and Judges in a few months. They then learn Samuel I and II in sixth grade. (There is also an extensive Bible program in the secular school system – the details of which I am not aware.)

Impressive? How much can they possibly understand and remember? What exactly do they know? More importantly, how can the students understand that the learning is important for their life if the goal is simply to finish?

But it gets worse. In high school the students start to learn for the bagrut (matriculation) where they can study anywhere from a 3 point bagrut up to a 5 point bagrut. My 10th grade son this year will be tested on Bereshit, Bamidbar, Dvarim and all of the First Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel I, II and Kings I, II !!! And this is just one of three years of study like this. While it is true that after the bagrut he will have an elemental knowledge of these books (more than I got in yeshiva in the good old days on the East Coast, to be sure) but an understanding of their importance? Surely not.

In the United States the situation is much worse. There are exceptions to the rule of course but in general the Orthodox day schools and Yeshivot teach sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. Its like going through a forest and stopping at each tree and examining it. You may get to know a few of the trees intimately, but haven't a clue where you are walking.

In a recent edition of the Edah Journal, Esther Orenstein Lapian wrote an essay on the teaching of Tanach called: "Fear of the Forest: Avoiding Meta-Themes and Overview in Orthodox Bible Education". She brings interesting examples on how to teach various books of the Bible. They are suggestions that educators here in Israel and certainly in the US should take seriously.

We have long praised the "Da'at Mikra" Tanach put out by the publishing house Mossad Harav Kook. It is not perfect but it deals with all the aspects of the Tanach in its commentary: From the grammatical and literary to the geopgraphy, science, nature history and theology found in our heritage. Although written from an Orthodox/masoretic perspective and apologetic at times – it gives both the sentence by sentence explanation that is necessary to understand the language (on its various levels) as well as the overview of the forest. It divides the Tanach into logical portions and gives introductory and lengthy summaries of each section.

(As I was searching I found to my surprise that the Psalms commentary of Mossad Harav Kook has been translated into English. To those who really want to learn Tehilim instead of just saying it this is the place to start. I hope this is the just the first of a major translation project.)

We have a long way to go with our Tanach education – but it is something that will pay off in "Jewish identity" more than free vacations and lectures from politicians (more on that tomorrow).

Yaeira Amit ends her article by stating that if the education powers that be can't relate the importance of the Tanach to the future lives of our children then "they should remove it from the curriculum. Anyway, after 11 years of education they don't know anything. Maybe it is worth taking advantage of the time spent for things that educators deem more important. This way, at least, they (the children) won't hate the Tanach, and maybe they will even see it as something exotic, like the works of the Far East".

She refers of course to physical and spiritual travels Israeli youth notoriously take to India and China – where they discover the exotic beauty of other works, cultures and religions never realizing what they have left at home.

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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Ben-Yehuda.org, Talya Halkin 

This past Friday's (Israeli) papers had a few interesting articles that were not filled with political jargon. For the most part different people (or sometimes the same people) repeat the same arguments and accusations.

Ha'aretz had two notable pieces and the Jerusalem Post one that are worth mentioning here. One of the Ha'aretz pieces is only available in Hebrew and has touched on some of the themes we have spoken of here – so we will discuss that at greater length tomorrow (who knows maybe by then they will translate this important essay into English).

In the other article there David Rapp discusses a web site which he dubbed the "Israeli Guttenberg Project" in which the 27 year old Assaf Bartov has started to assemble Hebrew literature that is in the public domain onto one site – which he has aptly named after the 'father" of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (Ben-Yehuda.org).

Bartov already has all or some the poetry of Rachel, Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Gvirol, Judah Leib Gordon and others. He also has the prose writings of Berdichevski, Brenner, Mendele (in translation from the Yiddish) amongst others.

The site is a real treasure – and is growing daily.

The JPost article is by Talya Halkin. She has one of the toughest beats on her paper, covering the Israeli art scene. It is tough not because there isn't a lot of it, but because so much of it just isn't very good. But she manages often to find interesting things to write about (I have a few good ideas for her) and this week she found a gem.

Now, for some reason not understandable to me, the Post has decided (or erred?) not to post her article on its Internet version. They did post a different article of hers (dealing with the Israeli ambassador to Sweden) but neglected to post this more interesting one.

Ms. Halkin highlights Esther Orner, whose book "Autobiography of No One" has recently been translated into Hebrew (it doesn't look like it has made it to English yet). According to Halkin, Orner is a child survivor of the holocaust – originally from Germany but lived many years in Israel, and Belgium. Her 'mother tongue' is German but she writes in French and currently lives in Tel-Aviv.

The essay starts: "In a Jewish old-age home, in an unidentified European city, an elderly woman is urged by her only daughter to write a memoir of her life. In short , laconic sentences that render past and present nearly indistinguishable from one another, she tells about her life before World War II, about her failed attempt to settle in Israel once it was over, about her subsequent return to Europe. Her confused account gives equal weight to the vicissitudes of history and to the details of everyday life. She describes the people around her. She awaits her daughter's visits."

The article reminds me of the powerful but confusing book by Imre Kertesz, "Kaddish for an Unborn Child" that is as disturbing as it is profound. According to Halkin, the narrator of the story has no name, "the concentration camp she survived is called 'over there'. She calls her country of origin 'the dead country' and the language spoken there .. 'the language without grammar'."

Halkin ends her essay with these words: "... her narrative makes its readers realize that once we dare to put life into words as strange and confused as they might be, we can read and re-read them in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible trajectory they describe."

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Two More Gems from Wolfson 

Two more gems from Wolfson's "Religious Philosophy" (see below):
At the end of the first essay on the centrality of Philo in (monotheistic) religious philosophy:
"The Philonic type of religious philosophy may be described after Matthew 9:17 as a process whereby old wine is put into new bottles. The speculation about God in modern philosophy, ever since the seventeenth century, is still a process of putting old wine into new bottles. There is only the following difference: the wine is no longer of the old vintage of the revelational theology of Scripture; it is of the old vintage of the natural or verbal theology of Greek philosophy. Sometimes, however, even the bottles are not new; it is only the labels that are new – and one begins to wonder how many of the latter-day philosophies of religion would not prove to be only philosophies of labels."

Describing the Church Fathers' views on "Immortality and Resurrection":
"Similarly with regard to the problem of the origin of the soul, we find that the Fathers are divided into different camps. In this case, there are three camps. In technical language, the views of these three camps are known as those of creation, pre-existence and traducianism. In plain English , they may be described , respectively, as the theory of custom-made souls, the theory of ready-made souls and the theory of second-hand souls.
According to the custom-made theory, at the birth of each child God creates a soul especially for that child. According to the ready-made theory, at the time of the creation of the world, God in his foresight created individual souls which in number and variety were sufficient to supply the need of all the future generations of men. These souls are kept in a place the exact name of which is variously given by various authorities who are expert in the knowledge of these matters. At each child's birth a soul suitable to his body is placed within him- though, judging buy the great number of misfit souls in the world, one may infer that mistakes frequently occur. According to the second-hand theory of the soul, God, at the time of the creation of the world, created only one soul, and that is the soul of Adam. All our souls are only slices of the worn-out soul of our first ancestor, which, without being thoroughly cleansed and de-stained, are cut down and made to fit our own peculiar bodies."

Mel Brooks could not have put it better.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004


A new blog - this guy is young, smart, full of energy.
And this one is from my favorite eleven year old boy.

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Harry A. Wolfson 

Going through my father's bookshelves last week I came across a series of books by Harry A. Wolfson that I had long wanted to read. Wolfson, the first holder of the "Jewish" chair at Harvard (subsequently held by Isadore Twersky) was a scholar in every sense of the word. The breadth of his knowledge extends from the Bible, Talmud and the ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment philosophers.

He wrote two volume works on Spinoza, Philo and the Church Fathers as well as a book on the medieval opponent of Miamonides, Crescas. (Alas, all out of print by my search – shame on Harvard Univ. Press.)

I chose the shortest of his books on my father's bookshelf, "Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays". He writes so well and with such clarity that it’s a shame Wolfson is not more widely read. He also has a wonderful sense of humor. I would like to quote for you the last paragraphs of the second essay in the book on the various interpretations of Platonic ideas:

"At the beginning of my talk I said that I would trace the history of the two interpretations of Platonic ideas through the successive generations of descendants of these ideas. Let me now, by way of summary, list the generations through which I have tried to trace the continuity of these two interpretations. As there is no better method of showing the continuity of a historical process that that used by the Biblical historiographers in those genealogies which begin with the words 'Now these are the Generations', I shall adopt this literary device and begin:

Now these are the generations of Platonic ideas.

And Plato lived forty years and begat the ideas.

And the ideas of Plato lived three hundred years and begat the Logos of Philo.

And the Logos of Philo lived seventy years and begat the attributes of Islam.

And the attributes of Islam lived five hundred and fifty years and begat the attributes of the Schoolmen.

And the attributes of the Schoolmen lived four hundred years and begat the attributes of Descartes and Spinoza.

And the attributes of Spinoza lived two hundred years and begat among their interpreters sons and daughters who knew not their father."

A literary gem if there ever was one. Why can't anyone write philosophy like that anymore? It is certainly worth a trip to the used bookstores.

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Monday, January 19, 2004

The Netziv and Heinrich Graetz 

For each "book" of the Bible I bring a specific commentator to shul on Shabbat morning to help pass the time and learn some Torah. Bereshit was for Shulamit Elitzur and her "Shira Shel Parsha", a collection of early medieval piyutim (religious poems) as commentaries on the parhsa. Shemot is the time for the "Ha'amek Davar". Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, author of the commentary, was the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva for nearly 40 years – was in fact the last Rosh Yeshiva of the academy started by the most distinguished student of the Gaon from Vilna, R. Haim of Volozhin.

The haredi world has always had a problem with the Netziv. He was the head of the most distinguished of Yeshovot for a longer period of time than anyone else and he was a Zionist. He supported the Hovevei Zion and encouraged their work. The Haredi world couldn’t dismiss him as they did R. Yosef Dov Soloveithcik, yet they have never really made them one of their own.

If you look at the Ha'amek Davar last week you will understand why. He comments on the first pasuk (sentence) of Exodus (Hebrew ... English) by stating that the Pshat (true textual reading) of the third and forth words of the pasuk, "bnei Yisrael" (literally the "sons of Israel") refer not to the individual "sons of Jacob" but to the "Umma Ha'Yisraelit" – the Israelite nation.

The Netziv places the birth of the nation of Jews not only before the Exodus from Egypt – but even before they came to Egypt. And what would a nation be without an army? In the ninth pasuk the Netziv interprets the words of Pharaoh to his people 'Henei Am bnei Yisrael rav va'atzum memenu" – as "Here the soldiers (Anshei Hayil) of the Israelite nation are getting stronger than us".

The Netziv supported the Jewish nationalism that was just budding in his own day and understood that the reality of nationhood included the training of soldiers to defend the nation's interests. Reading his commentary you see not only the Lithuanian intellectualism seep through but his ardent belief in the Israelite Nation, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel.

That trilogy was taken up as the main theme of religious Zionism (Am Yisrael, B'eretz Yisral, al pi Torat Yisrael). But where did that trilogy come from?

I don't know for sure the origin of it but Hermann Cohen (disapprovingly) quotes the historian Heinrich Graetz who wrote in an 1846 essay (I found it in the wonderful book by Alan Mittleman, "And the Scepter Shall not Depart from Judah") as follows: "The Torah, the Israelite nation, and the holy land stand in a, I would like to say, magical rapport. They are indestructibly joined to one another by an invisible band".

Here were two Jewish greats of the 19th century, speaking to different worlds in a different intellectual language. Each though, understood the essence of Jewish peoplehood in the same way.

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Sunday, January 18, 2004


Let's talk a bit about re-doing Birthright so that it can have a long term effect on the individuals involved as well as on the Jewish people.

Trips to Israel are great things. Way back in my youthful involvement in the Zionist movement we in Bnei Akiva had two goals: The prime goal was to bring kids on our extensive and intensive one year Hachshara program. The secondary goal was to bring kids to Israel on any kind of program.

We may have been right or wrong to emphasize one program over another, but we were young believers and felt very right in our views and actions. We were concerned that without massive aliya Israel and the Jewish people were doomed. We all grow up and think in a less apocalyptic way but in general I am in agreement with the Birthright people that bringing Jewish youth to Israel is a prime goal.

However, in order to have a long term effect on our youth there need to be two other aspects of this "trip". The first is that people have to give in order to receive. If we want them to accept that Israel and Judaism is a valuable part of their lives, then they must be made to "pay" for it in some way: That could be through money, time or intellectual effort. Things that are attainted without effort are rarely valued.

Which brings us to our next point. A long term effect will be had when the participants in our program bring something back with them (besides photographs and souvenirs) that will last them a lifetime: An education in our language, culture and religion.

That is why I would like to adapt some of the ideas that AlanS stated in his comments on our first post on this subject.

1. Provide a trip after completion of a two year course in conversational Hebrew and Tanach. These could be given in conjunction with the Hillel houses in the Universities, or via other institutions.
2. Provide airfare and other costs to those who want to spend Junior year in an Israeli university – preferably after completion of the course in the first idea. I understand that some universities refuse to provide insurance for their students who want to come to Israel – we should provide that.
3. Provide a series of highly subsidized trips to Israel for the working young (until age 25 or 30?) which would include a week of study and a week of travel. This could be a three year effort where young Jews would be spending three years of their hard earned vacation learning about Judaism and visiting Israel.
4. Provide air-fare for the various 6 week High-School in Israel programs similar to the one at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon. This program provides a phenomenal Jewish History course that combines real learning with touring.

We could go on and on and I am sure there are other good suggestions. Birthright in its current format provides no values and little value to the individual or to the community.

We can and should do better for our kids and for ourselves.

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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Partial Correction 

I received a few complaints regarding my previous post on Birthright.
First - as my favorite football analyst Gregg Easterbrook can tell you, writing without an editor has its problems. (I actually have a good friend here in KS who usually catches my more embarrasing errors.)
The end of the post should have read - "... such a morally corrupting program as Birthright" - add the "ing".
This still may upset a few people but the idea is not that the program is morally corrupt, but rather, the "free lunch" basis of it is corrupting to the participants.
Now - I received some interesting feedback about people who were helped by birthright and some about some who used the program for purposes that hurt the Jewish people.
I did hear some interesting comments by two educator friends of mine here in Kfar Saba. Apparently, Birthright is hurting some of the high-school in Israel programs. These programs which last from 6 weeks to 6 months bring Jewish high school students come to Israel to study Jewish history and tour the country in the middle of the school year. There have been cases (I don't know the numbers) of parents who refused to let their children come since in another two years they can get a trip for free.
This should not be surprising to Messrs. Steinhart and Bronfman. They know full well that if you give something away for free it will hurt those that are selling something similar.
In any event, I would like to use the next post to discuss some "improvements" to Birthright along the lines of one of the comments to the previous post. A little constructive thought to blunt what I thought was a mild attack.

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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Birthright ... Stillborn 

I have really been trying to think of a nice way to say this – but Birthright has to be the most ridiculous creation by otherwise smart people. Judaism is not a free lunch, let alone a free trip. And by demanding that the Israeli taxpayer fit part of the bill for this boondoggle is the ultimate in chutzpa.

Michael Freund writes occasionally for the Jerusalem Post and usually has some interesting things to say. His latest defense of Birthright and his attack on the Israeli government's cutting its funding of the program is off the mark. Like most welfare programs, this one too, will end up on the expensive failure list.

He goes on to make the most ridiculous claims for the program – saying that it "has made significant inroads in saving young Jews from assimilation and intermarriage, and reaffirmed the centrality of the Jewish state to the future of the Jewish people". His "proof" is nothing other than stories by Birthright's director of marketing. If any of this has a bit of truth in it, it is an "inroad" that will detour very quickly. When there is no investment the return is always very short lived.

By making no demands whatsoever of Birthright participants we are sending the wrong message to our youth. If we don't demand that they foot part of the bill, the least we can do is ask them to contribute their time in volunteer efforts for the Jewish community.

This is the wrong way to "save world Jewry". Mr. Steinhart and Mr. Bronfman would never expect a business to succeed by making no demands of their employees – why would they think that they can build the Jewish future this way?

But that is what we have become – always looking for the shortcut, for the easy way out. If you want to build a Jewish future – educate young Jews. If you want to educate young Jews, then demand effort from them.

It is a little disappointing to see Michael Freund involved in the whitewash of such a morally corrupt program as Birthright.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The IDF and Conversion 

Ha'aretz is reporting(English article thanks to AH) that the number of converts in the Israeli Army (IDF) Netiv program doubled to 182 this year. The IDF chief rabbi, General Yisrael Weiss is a supporter of the program which allows the soldiers to take classes during their army service. The plan was initiated because the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has made conversion so difficult.

The article claims that there are 7,500 non-Jews serving in the IDF, but it is not clear if that number counts the Druse (who of have no desire to convert). Most of the candidates for conversion are olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union and many have had to fight the Chief Rabbinate's obstinacy.

Personally, I favor a plan put forward some time ago by Hillel Halkin in the Jerusalem Post that called for the conversion of all residents of Israel who would like to convert. True, their may be halakhic issues with this – but they are nothing like the halakhic issues that will come when 10-20% of the non-Arab population of the country is not Jewish.

There are many Israeli residents who are here legally and are not Jewish – they serve in the IDF, as we have seen, go to school and – marry our children. A bold move by rabbinic authorities should encourage these Israeli citizens to join the Jewish people. Maybe, if the IDF's Netiv program expands it will force the civilian rabbis to act in the best interests of the Jewish people.

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Monday, January 12, 2004

Hebrew, Again 

We wrote a short while ago of a new English translation of the Bible, said to replace the King James Version and of the importance for us, as Jews, to learn the Tanach in Hebrew.

Ha'aretz has an article that starts out reviewing two books about the making of the KJV Bible and ends with some wonderful examples of English language (mis)usage from our favorite publisher - Art Scroll.

I would say that we deserve better than Art Scroll (and nearly everything is better than Art Scroll) but will go back to my original argument: Learn Hebrew.

That said, some emails and comments had the following suggestions to improve Hebrew and Tanach fluency and literacy amongst diaspora Jewry:
1. A certification in conversational Hebrew (to be administered by YU?).
2. A conversational Hebrew and "bekiut" (matriculation) in Tanach requirement for all semicha students who plan on going into Jewish education (presumably at YU, but it could extend to the haredi Yeshivot as well as JTS and HUC)
3. Special seminar in teaching in Hebrew, (Ivrit b'ivrit) set up by an Israeli university, for Jewish Studies teachers in elementary and high schools.

To these I would add a new initiative in Hebrew and Tanach in all Yeshivot, Jewish Day Schools and afternoon congregational Hebrew schools.

These need not be looked upon as "ideological" but rather at an attempt to get world Jewry together again by speaking the same language and reading the same "book". Michael Steinhardt, are you there?

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Sunday, January 11, 2004


This past Thursday we went to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem to attend a ceremony called a "Hashba'a", where newly recruited tzanchanim (paratroopers) and other elite units training with them, declare or swear allegiance to and their willingness to die for Israel. (For halakhic reasons, religious soldiers have the option to 'declare' - l'hatzhir- allegiance instead of swearing.)

My son was amongst those soldiers as they lined up within full view of the Kotel in order to receive their Tanach and (although they have had them for nearly a month) their guns. They marched in (the best Israeli soldiers know how to march) stood at attention and listened to the history of the Tzanchanim – from the pre-state "jumps" by the likes of Hanah Senesh to the battles of the present war.

I have wondered about the connection between the Tanach and the M16. The two are given together – the Tanach first, the rifle second.

The Jewish Bible is not a book for the fainthearted, it is not a book that seeks to whitewash history or for that matter God. It is truly a "book" that was meant to be used. It is a book for the ages because it shuns the utopian visions of the next world and shows us the world for what it is – and guides us on how to live in it.

I have wondered if, as our ancestors "look down" upon us what they think of our Jewish soldiers. Certainly, the Biblical personas we know so well would be proud and understanding of our need to use power in order to take command of our lives. I think, that even our pre-WWI Eastern European grandparents and their medieval predecessors must be looking with more pride at our soldiers than at their brothers who chose not to serve because "toratam omunatam" - Torah is their trade - a phrase that contradicts the whole idea of Torah Lishma, the alleged basis for today's haredi yeshivot.

It all has to make you wonder if once again the Torah is being used as an excuse for parents to keep their precious boys out of harm's way, while our children take on the responsibility of their protection - a Hillul Hashem (profanation of the Name) to be sure .

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Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Bialik & Hartman 

This past Friday both Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post had noteworthy articles.

The Ha'aretz article is only available in Hebrew (or at least I couldn't find the English version) but is well worth reading. If you can't get through it then demand a refund on your Yeshiva or Jewish Day School education. The article, by Shmuel Avineri, exposes as a libel, a racist quote attributed to the greatest of the modern Hebrew poets, Haim Nachman Bialik. For years, he was to have said that "I hate the Arabs since they are just like the Sephardim".

Avineri goes on to prove that not only didn't Bialik say it, but the quote itself is wrong.
The person who actually said it was the critic Lev Semiatzki who actually said "How can you hate the Arabs if they are just like the Sephardim?".

In fact as the article points out in detail, Bialik was a supporter of the culture of the Yemenite and Sephardic Jews and readily and happily admitted a debt to the great (Sephardi) Jewish poets Ibn Gvirol and Moses Ibn Ezra.

In last Friday's Jerusalem Post, the philosopher Rabbi David Hartman made an appeal not to neglect the religious/cultural agenda in spite of our life and death security concerns.

Hartman wrote:
"The paramount Jewish issue today is survival. To talk about the spiritual and religious dimensions of Israeli society, of new possibilities for a renewal of Judaism in the light of the rebirth of Israel, seems like a luxury Jews can't afford at this moment. Moses first had to free the people from Egypt before presenting them with a vision of holiness. You cannot tell enslaved people who are physically and economically oppressed and dehumanized that they should aspire to become a holy and just people, a light unto the nations.
Only after leaving Egypt and overcoming the conditions of slavery did Moses lead the people to the covenantal moment at Sinai where they were given a vision of the future, an aspiration defined by how Jews should conduct their lives.
It may not, then, seem to be the best of times to attempt theological and philosophical reflections on the meaning of Judaism or on the relationship between Jewish statehood and a renaissance of Jewish spirituality.
Yet I believe that if the Jewish agenda is defined exclusively by our compelling security concerns, fears and suffering, then a vital part of the Jewish spirit will die. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined exclusively by the external conditions of our history while ignoring the internal values, ideals and aspirations of our tradition.
Nurturing the soul of our people is not a luxury. Nurturing our understanding of how Jews should live is not an act of escapism from a harsh reality better served by attending to the pressing issues of physical survival. I firmly believe that the classic biblical statement that a person cannot live by bread alone means that being engaged with physical needs alone actually undermines our ability to survive and our determination to face hardships with courage."

A little culture to end our busy week.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The DP's Then, Jewry Now: Part 2 

We have to place ourselves for a moment not in the 21st century but in the late 1940's, when the world and the Jewish community were trying to get back to a peacetime setting. We will find ourselves moving back and forth in time – at once shocked by what was said and thought back then, at once amazed that what was written then, could have been written last week. We will move from profundity to apparent banality, from embarrassment to anger to hopefully, agreement.

Gringauz opens his essay "Jewish Destiny as the DP's See It" in the December, 1947 Commentary with these paragraphs:
"As we withdraw our attention from the events of the day, and a certain distance in time permits us a more general and stable view of things, it becomes increasingly clear that the years 1939-1945, together with the after effects directly following the liberation, constitute the 'great catastrophe' of Jewish history. This is not true merely in the consciousness of the surviving European Jews but also in the light of historical judgment. Today there is not the slightest doubt that the inner structure of Jewry everywhere, its religious character, its national cohesion, its capacity for being incorporated in national states, the issues of its culture, its real relation to Western civilization … will be epochally influenced by this 'great catastrophe'.

"The surviving remnant of Israel in Europe - the so-called Sherit Hapleita – has, to a greater extent than any other group, formulated the ideological consequences of the 'great catastrophe'. Other Jews merely heard or read about the catastrophe. This group directly experienced the catastrophe. Hence its reaction was more direct, more intense, more responsible. Today the Sherit Hapleita has an ideology of its own – this despite the fact that in its outlook on life, in its politics and its culture the group is … no less divided than other Jewish communities."

It is obvious from these paragraphs that it was not clear to Gringauz and the DP's that the rest of the Jewish world (let alone the non-Jewish one) would recognize the 'great catastrophe' for what it was. It is clear that they felt that their untenable situation in which they saw no future for themselves was a continuation of this catastrophe. You can sense fear in his words that not only will the DP's be left as is, but that the Holocaust itself would be left behind with the rest of WWII.

You can read the desperation in his words as he tries to convince the post WWII American Jewish community that what had happened and what is still happening will affect their lives and those of their children and grandchildren: Physically, morally, culturally, religiously. Yet, he moves very quickly from his attempt to convince the reader of the "historical judgment" that the years just past constitute a catastrophe to a demand in the name of the DP's.

"Empowered by its own martyrdom and the legacy left it by the dead, the Sherit Hapleita – in the name of a half million martyred children and two and a half million crucified mothers and wives, two million fallen fathers and brothers, a quarter of a million DP's still wasting away in the camps – demands of the Jewish people a single unified national-political attitude."

The ideology of the Sherit Hapleita, according to Gringauz is an ideology of "Judeo-centrism", not necessarily in the day to day material way that the halacha makes us Judeo-centric – but rather in an existential way.

"For the Jewish DP, Jewishness is a given fact of existence that plays the deciding role in life and death, in attitude and feeling, and influences and governs every aspect of his life. During the most crucial years of his recent experience, it was the mere fact of his Jewishness that determined the physical circumstances of his existence and it was this fact essentially that lay behind the danger of death in which he stood daily, and behind every important step he took."

This is "Judeo-centrism" in both its most basic and complex forms. The feeling of Jewishness was forced upon him since all the decisions made for him (and all decisions were made for him) were made on the basis of his Jewishness. His entire day to day psychology (there was no long term psychology) was formed by his enemy's "extremely intense, and omnipresent anti-Jewish attitude" which formed the "foundation of his consciousness". Therefore the "demand" that the DP's make of world Jewry is to understand as they do, that the core of the existence of each individual Jew is his "Jewishness".

This demand for Gringauz is one of Zionism. "It is no party Zionism" Gringauz writes, "it is a historical-philosophical Zionism felt as an historical mission, as a debt to the dead, as retribution toward the enemy, as a duty to the living".

What are we to make more than sixty years later of the "Judeo-centrism" or the "historical-philosophical Zionism" that forms the basis of the ideology of the Sherit Hapleita? How are we to understand the concept of a "unified national-political attitude" when the only thing that seems to count, even in politics, even when our lives depend on it – is an "in your face" political style where we will literally sell our grandmother's homes for a limited local political victory?

Jews in Israel and the US, on the left and on the right have for years used their relations with the outside world in order to gain on the intra-Jewish political playing field. We write op-eds in the NY Times not for the sake of truth or beauty, not for "torah lishma" as we learned in the Yeshiva, but for the sake of one upmanship in the game of local politics.

We lecture on college campuses and in churches and even mosques and relate not a message that shows the Judaism in our very being but one that tires to beat our Jewish opponents in the court of public opinion but for only local gain.

I am not talking about policy differences or arguments over life and death issues, when the only forums are sometimes ones that we share with other peoples and other faiths. I am not even talking about "airing our dirty laundry". Articles that show Judaism in an honest, albeit negative light don't bother me and don't negate the demand and lesson of the DP's.

What negates the demand of the Sherit Hapleita is the pure cynicism in which people present arguments for their favorite Jewish public or security policy issue without once thinking if their goal isn't merely the defeat of their Jewish opponents in a game of internal Jewish/Israeli politics.

What is to be done?

We need now, over 55 years later to answer the demand of the DPs' and have the message of the Sherit Hapleta be the "herald of the indivisibility of the Jewish people".
And this is to be done by formulating a Jewish Foreign Policy. What do we mean by a Jewish Foreign Policy? We mean a consensus on how it is that we deal with the world around us. How we relate internal Jewish issues to the other religions and intellectual forces in the world and how we need to understand that the "best interests" of the Jewish people always be taken into consideration when we lecture, write and talk.

As a Zionist I hear myself objecting to my own proposal. How can it be that with a sovereign state there is any "Jewish" foreign policy that is not also an Israeli foreign policy? For the true Zionist, to be part of Israel is to be part of Jewish history and to separate yourself from the country is to reject your participation in history.

I would very much like to think that way, but we cannot do that when the best interests of the Jewish people dictates otherwise. We cannot do that, when so many Israeli policy makers and wannebe policy makers so consistently work against the best interests of the Jewish people. However, it has to be made clear to all that the best interests of the state of Israel is in the best interests of the Jewish people, just as the best interests of the Jewish people are the raison d'etre of the state of Israel.

This Foreign Policy requires a few major points or commandments, if you will.

The First is obviously not to do harm to the interests of the Jewish people.

That doesn't mean that we have to agree what are in the best interests of the Jewish people. That however does mean that although we can disagree on even the most important policy points in the most dramatic style, when we can never be so sure of ourselves that we need to destroy the position of our internal opponents solely for internal political gain.

Let us use an explosive but clear example here: The settlements in Judea and Samaria – or the West Bank. We may disagree vehemently over whether these settlements are in the best interests of the Jewish people and may come to Israel in support of either position. We may even argue one position or another in front of the World Council of Churches or a group of students at Princeton. We can write op-eds for the NY Times or Wall Street Journal and let our arguments stand for the world to judge.

But our Second commandment is, we must never demonize our opponents to the world. We must never put our opponents in a situation where they can be stigmatized as "those Jews".

There is a difference in claiming that by living in Elkana or Efrat or Netzarim they are hurting the interests of the Jewish people – and by claiming, or hinting or being silent about claims that those who live there are fascists and racist fanatics who on a daily basis steal from their neighbors and desire no more than to kill Palestinian children.

So too, there is a difference in arguing for the unity of the Land of Israel and quite another to demonize the residents of Tel-Aviv as "nihilistic atheists" or as God-less drug addicts in front of friends from other religions.

We all know that we have seen or heard both of these claims not only amongst Jews but when talking to our "allies" in the world around us. We all know that the only reason we speak this way is to gain political points in our own local political wars. We know this, because we can gain nothing in our war with the anti-Semites, by giving the anti-Semites Jews to use as cannon fodder.

Third, We must never include non-Jews in internal Jewish arguments since the temptation to stoop to gutter politics is too great.

We then come to the question of our internal opponents. Are all Jews worthy of being our opponents? Or are some outside of the realm of Jewishness? Do some Jews hold views that are so contrary to our collective and individual interests by allying themselves with our enemies that we can exclude them forcefully for the Community of Israel? I think the answer has to be yes.

Be they the fanatically "religious" Neturei Karta and Satmar Hasidim or the likes of Noam Chomsky and most recently Tony Judt – they are not worthy of being our internal Jewish opponents. Those who oppose the peoplehood of the Jews as manifested in the State of Israel do not deserve to be included in the Community of Israel. If the rabbis refuse to exclude them by a religious "cherem" (ex-communication) we as a people ought to take the lead.

Those who oppose the right of Israel to exist are, to quote a good friend of mine, "no better than those who deny the Holocaust". Both views go to the essence of anti-Semitism in our times. We still go all silly when a Christian talks or makes a movie about our role in the death of Jesus, but we are willing to sit and take seriously arguments that deny our right to peoplehood.

Fourth, Jews who oppose the existence of Israel or who deny the Holocaust are not to be considered part of the Community of Israel and are not part of the Jewish Foreign Policy consensus.

These are just some of the points that should form the basis of a Jewish Foreign Policy. As Gringauz and the DP's have demanded of us, we must always be Judeo-centric in our thinking so that we always understand the consequences of our words and actions on our fellow Jews.

Although we have much more to say and may add some more ideas in the coming weeks, and we welcome comments on these issues, this is not really the forum for a comprehensive tome on a Jewish Foreign Policy. The case of the DP's should put to rest all of the claims, arguments and libels against the Jewish people over the last few years.

Although we may not be able to convince our enemies of this, we should at least be able to convince ourselves.

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Friday, January 02, 2004

The DP's Then, Jewry Now: Part 1 

We have spoken in the past of the situation of the Jewish DP's (Displaced Persons) after the holocaust. We have related their plight to the birth and continued existence of Israel.

I was able to participate in the beta-test for Commentary's new digital archive and I used the opportunity to find what they had written about the DP's in the late 1940's. I found four fascinating articles and would like to take the next few days and discuss them. Now, Commentary as well as the American Jewish community at large was not then the fan of Zionism that it is now.

That is important to keep in mind when discussing these articles because some of what you read seems a truism for us now. However, when they were written they were not necessarily the consensus among American Jewry in general and the editorial staff of Commentary in particular.

Imagine what it was like to be an American Jew reading about the 250,000 concentration camp survivors wasting away in camps in Germany a full three years after their 'liberation'. I don't claim any expertise on this issue and have decided to concentrate only on these four amazing articles.

These articles are gems not because they are of historical interest (which they clearly are), but because the issues they discuss are directly related to the crisis we are currently in. You will see that this current crisis, the re-legitimization of the Jewish Question is not caused by some 'immoral' Jewish activity in Israel or the Diaspora, but is wholly independent of our actions, thoughts and words. Further, you will come to understand that out of the horror of the Holocaust and of its aftermath came an outlook on Judaism and life – an ideology – that can help us out of our current predicament.

The first two articles I found from the end of 1947 and the start of 1948 were by Samuel Gringauz. Gringauz was a survivor himself and was president for a while of the Landsberg DP camp – the largest and most well known of the camps.

When taking notes on the articles I found myself wanting to underline nearly the entire text of the articles. Sentence after sentence makes you open your eyes and shake your head. The first, "Jewish Destiny as the DP's See It" deals with what Gringauz claims was "an ideology of its own" - an outlook specific to the DP's or as they were known in Hebrew "Sherit Hapleita". The second article, "Our New German Policy and the DP's" reviews the crisis of the DP's in light of the new geo-political situation where the US saw the emerging West German state as a key frontline ally in the quickly developing cold war with the Soviet Union.

Gringauz opens the second article with a paragraph that amazes when you realize what was being said of the survivors of Dachau and Auschwitz less than three years after the end of the war.

Gringauz writes:
"Almost as tragic as the story of the extermination of the Jews, is that of the surviving remnant. It is a crowning irony that under present conditions the very fact that some European Jews were lucky enough to survive – that the mass murderers did not complete their work - today constitutes a threat to world peace. Because of these 'lucky' survivors grave political and social tensions have arisen; because of them blood is being shed every day in the Holy Land; because of them the lives of eight hundred thousand Jews in the Middle and Near East are in immediate danger; because of them the United Nations has reached an impasse; because of them the Jewish sentiment here in the United States has become nervous and uncertain. As for the survivors themselves, they are compelled to go on living in the midst of the people who were the source of all their sufferings and humiliations."

In short, these Jews, who bore the brunt of a World War and managed somehow to remain alive after 'valiant' attempts to kill them were for many a bother, a stumbling block if not to world peace then at least to global stability. They were thought not only a danger to Europeans but to other Jews nowhere near them. Their situation apparently also put American Jewry ill at ease at a time when they were solidifying their social presence in their country.

Here we are, the world is tired of talking about the evil Germans when they are now at the front lines against another evil. Although Europe is still a tough place to live, its economy struggling to grow, its people still mourning its war dead it is looking forward. And except for a few intellectuals in Paris and Oxbridge, the new challenge is in facing down communism. The problems of the war are being solved - all except one, the Jewish problem.

And the center of the Jewish problem is, once again, Germany. The defeated nation is struggling to come to grips with its new status as purveyors of mass destruction and at the same time not quite accepting that their crimes were greater than others in this horrendous war just ended.

So, instead of being left alone to lick their wounds move on with their lives, Germany was now filled with 250,000 Jews – few of them even German. The Jews didn't want to be there and the Germans didn't want them.

According to the article, in a May, 1947 poll of the German population a full 19% "declared themselves to be Nazis", another 22% "supported Nazi ideas" and another 20% who "declared themselves convinced anti-Semites". Only 2% described themselves as "positively opposing race hatred". This was not a poll conducted in the midst of the Third Reich or over the last 12 months when another group of Jews, this time in a country of their own not near Germany are considered a "threat to world peace". This was less than two years after the end the WWII.

The anti-Semitism was not limited to Germany or to the "normally" anti-Semitic countries of the east. Even in Holland, David Bernstein in his article "Europe's Jews: Summer 1947" writes of the "acquaintances who muttered in surprise when Jews returned after the war 'Oh, so your back…' ". According for Bernstein, in 1947 "many Dutch Jews seem altogether distrustful of their neighbors". He describes how 2/3 of the 30,000 Dutch Jews left in Holland wanted to immigrate to Palestine in spite of the "relatively easy steps required to reintegrate themselves into the Dutch community".

Gringauz breaks down the allied policy toward the DP's into three periods. The first was right after liberation when the military police still kept the surviving Jews in camps "surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers". A report by a one Earl G Harrison to President Truman stated that "Beyond knowing that they are no longer in danger of the gas chambers … there is .. little change". In response the President wrote to General Eisenhower that "We must make clear to the German people that we thoroughly abhor the Nazi policies of hatred and persecution", ordering him to "demonstrate this" by a more humane treatment of the DP's.

Yet despite this the sociologist Leo Srole wrote in 1947 ("Why the DP's Can't Wait") that the DP's in Landsburg "were crowded into barracks, twenty or thirty to a room [while] the Germans and even Nazi party-members in town [we]re living in their own homes". Said one Jewish leader: "It is better today to be a conquered German than a 'liberated' Jew".

The main US policy right after the war was to "prevent Germany from becoming a threat to the world" and the US combat troops then furnished the occupation forces. These were the soldiers who "had seen the German concentration and extermination camps and they themselves had liberated the surviving remnant".

But then came the replacements. They were young GI's who did not see combat and "had not seen the Germans in their loathsomeness. They saw clean German homes and pretty accommodating German girls; they heard anti-Semitic whispers; they were influenced by German officials." The DP's to them became regarded as a "nuisance that complicated an otherwise easy-going routine".

We don't mean here to indict the US Army for crimes it did not commit – only to describe a situation where the German people continued their anti-Semitic thoughts and actions, even using it in the early 1948 elections, while the US military pacified the country and prepared now to defend it from an aggressive Soviet dictatorship. The policy of the west was now to establish "stable political and economic conditions in Germany" so it could contribute to the rebirth of the continent.

The Jews once again were a bother. They were in the way of the grand strategy of the new cold war which, as is common in foreign policy, turned friends into foes and allies into enemies.

Let us recount the facts: Over a quarter of a million survivors of concentrations camps and hidden attics and cowsheds, Jews all, could find no home, fully three years after liberation! Neither United Nations agencies nor declarations by a US president were enough to find homes for the DP's. Jews, "whose nerves have been rubbed sore by abnormal living conditions and by the constant Jew-baiting of German officialdom and private individuals" were forced to live in camps in Germany of all countries. Yet, less than 2,000 miles away was a land most of the DP's dreamed of going to – Palestine.

They were not to have their wishes granted just yet. There was a problem in Palestine since the vote for partition. The Arab world rejected it and because it feared the results of a new war, the US government switched gears and now proposed a "UN Trusteeship". The Jewish community in Palestine – the Yishuv – would hear none of this and planned to declare a state with the end of the British mandate. Would the Yishuv had felt the pressure to declare a state had the UN accept its proposal to bring 100,000 DP's to the shores of the Holy Land ?

That of course, was an impossibility, for the situation of the DP's could not, according to world opinion, be solved if it were opposed by an affected party. The Poles would not take the Jews back (nor would they want to go) nor would the British, the Americans, the French, the Dutch, the Scandinavians, or the Italians take them in.

Here was a group of people, of Jews, who had just survived not an imaginary Hell but a true and real life of suffering and despair here on earth: A group who were rescued but who could not lead a normal life since the world could find no place for them, even amongst their own.

Gringauz says that this situation gave the DP's a feeling of being a "chosen group" amongst the "chosen people". What do we have to learn from the outlook on the destiny of the Jewish people, on Jewishness, on humanity that this new group of Jews had?

For our next discussion we will center on the article mentioned above by Samuel Gringauz, "Jewish Destiny as the DP's See It". We will discuss what Gringauz calls the "ideology" of the Jewish DP's and their prophetic message "l'dorot" – for the generations.

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