Sunday, February 29, 2004

Serious Out, Purim In 

Well, our attempt to bring the idea of "Covenant" to a discussion of readers here has been shall we say, unsuccessful. We did get one respondent who felt not up to the task as yet. What we will do is not give up, but delay our quest. If anyone wants to respond by next week, great, otherwise I will say what I think needs to be said - your choice. We will also provide (if time permits) a series of sources in Tanach, Midrash, etc that can be useful.

In the meantime, we will start our Purim blogs. It is customary to commence Purim celebrations with the start of the month of Adar (m'shenichnas Adar marbim b'simcha) so we are a bit late. The Out of Step wife claimed that this blog is too serious to deal with Purim in anything other than an intellectual way (she obviously does not remmeber this), so we will prove her wrong (this will be a first, because she has never been wrong about anything before).

Starting tomorrow and for the rest of the week we will blog Purim. Enjoy.

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Friday, February 27, 2004

Article from a Friend 

One of the more interesting perks of writing a weblog is "meeting" people and developing a strange sort of "Internet relationship". There are three or four people that I converse with on a regular or semi-regular basis and have developed what in the non-electronic world would be called a "friendship".

One of these is Evy Nelson, a Christian woman from California who (along with her husband) has taken enough of an interest in Judaism to learn Hebrew and study Torah. In the olden days she would be called a "philo-Semite" - one who has taken an intellectual interest in Judaism without giving up her own faith.

Anyway .... I have not commented and don't plan to comment on the circus that has become Mel Gibson's new movie. I guess I just don't take Hollywood that seriously - although with the power they have in the public square I guess I should.

Evy though has sent me a link to an article on it that she wrote for Christianity Today. She asked me to mention that it is written by a Christian for Christians.

In any event I urge you read it since it gives a much more interesting perspective than what I have read until now.

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Thursday, February 26, 2004

A Simple Answer 

With the nihilist convention at The Hague winding down and the verdict against the Jewish people about to be given, I thought it would be apt to answer the condemnation with some passages from "The Victory", by Henryk Grynberg (in The Jewish War and The Victory).

p. 117: A man to a 10 year old boy.
"And what is this? He asked, picking up an album of drawings.
"Those are drawings from Treblinka. The naked women with their hands raised are dying and those thin lines falling onto their heads and winding around their necks, that's the gas … And where were you before coming here?" I asked, looking at his swollen legs.
"They say it’s a beautiful country."
Yes, but I came from Mauthausen".

p. 121
When Uszer married my mother, the cantor himself said Kaddish, since Uszer didn't know such things. All Uszer said was "Amen". I stood under the canopy, between Uszer and my mother. Everyone cried as if it were a funeral, not a wedding. That's how people treated a marriage between a widow and widower who hadn't been able to hold a funeral for those with whom they'd once, and some quite recently, stood under the canopy."

There were tears whenever the Jews assembled. The more Jews, the more tears.

p. 125
My mother, who had always wanted a daughter, made dresses for Ania out of her old clothes, braided her hair and pinned a different bow in it every day. I was happy, too, because I had always wanted a sister. Izak and the other boys envied me. None of the other Jewish children we played with had a sister or a brother.

Again we wore American clothes and swallowed American vitamins. We found German sleds, skis and postage stamps in the attic. Whole boxes of stamps with Hitler's face on them. We'd bring these boxes down from the attic, set them down in the middle of the room. Then grab handfuls of stamps and throw them up in the air lkie confetti. Once again we believed we had won the war.

Victory? Not, I'm afraid, for the Jewish people.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Two more days if you want to comment on the Daniel Elazar piece as part of our Jewish Political Tradition Project - as mentioned below.

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Monday, February 23, 2004

Neturei Karta are not Jews! 

This has been reported on YNET. I am not sure if you can read this if you are not in Israel so I will copy what the reporter Gadi Weinberg is reporting from The Hague, followed by my translation. The story is of the Neturei Karta and their support of Palestinian terrorism against Jews.

If we didn't have the nerve to do it before, now is the time to officially declare that the Neturei Karta are no longer Jews, that we not be allowed to marry their children, eat in their homes, count them for a minyan or drink their wine.

הרב אהרן כהן הגיע מארה"ב: "מה שישראל עושה זה פשע להומניזם, ולפלסטינים אין ברירה אלא להשתמש בטרור. הפלסטינים תומכים בפעולות שלנו וזה פתח את עיניהם לעובדה שכל הבעיה החלה מההקמה של מדינת ישראל". אנשי נטורי קרתא הפגינו יחד עם כאלף ערבים מול רחבת בית המשפט
גדי ויינריב, האג

"Rabbi Aaron Cohen came from the USA and stated: "What Israel is doing is a crime against humanity, and the Palestinians have no choice but to use terror. The Palestinians support our activities and it opened their eyes to the fact that the whole problem started with the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Neturei Karta demonstrated with about 1000 Arabs in front of the courthouse."

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The Poestess Esther Raab 

This past Friday's Ha'aretz Magazine has an interesting article on one of the first of the native born Israeli poets, Esther Raab. Raab was born in the "Mother of the Moshavot", Petach Tikva in 1894 and wrote poetry during an age when nearly all of the major Hebrew poets were foreign born. Alterman, Shlonski, Rachel, Leah Goldberg and others dominated the Palestinian-Israeli literary scene which, according to the article's author, Aviva Lori, left her on the outside.

Of Raab's start as a poet Lori tell the following story:
"In the winter of 1920, Esther Raab decided to undergo her baptism as a poet. To this end, she invited two men - the writers Asher Barash and Yaakov Rabinowitz, the "old men," as she called them - to come for a walk through the Streit brothers' almond grove in Petah Tikva. "It's the month of Shvat and the almond trees are in full bloom," Raab later described it. "We head out. The scents of the flowers and a soft sun, and the virginal white of the almond tree is sweetly intoxicating and the two old men become young, kidding and laughing and finally sitting down on a hilltop covered with groundsels, and I laughingly say, `Do you want to hear a poem?' and I pull out a piece of paper that I'd hidden under my foot in my shoe. They look at me wonderingly and I ask: Shall I read it? `Yes, of course,' they say, and I read the poem `To a Father.' When I finished - silence. Barash is the first to snap out of it: `But this is poetry, Esther Raab! This is the scent of the land. There has never been a poem like this before. You must continue. You must write.' And thus my fate was sealed in the blooming almond groves of Petah Tikva."

The article provides a wonderful description of the literary life of Palestine during the first half of the century which will seem familiar to readers of Agnon's early Eretz Yisrael stories.

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Sunday, February 22, 2004

A Covenant in Kings II 

Yesterday's Haftorah (weekly reading from the Prophets) is an important one regarding our current discussion on Covenant and our attempt at a Jewish Political Tradition Project (see below).

The Haftorah is taken from Kings II 12:1 , (HebrewEnglish) but the Sephardim have a custom to start the reading a few sentences earlier in Kings II 11:17 (HebrewEnglish). If you read from the beginning of chapter 11 you will read of a palace coup by the Queen Mother Atalyah and the murder of all but one of the descendents of the House of David by her. She subsequently ruled for 7 years – the only Queen to rule during the First Temple period.

You can read the fascinating story but I would like to look at the first sentence of the Sephardic version of the reading.

It reads:
"And Jehoiada (the priest) made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord'S people; between the king also and the people."
Now – Atalya was not a descendent of the House of David, so the covenant set up between the people and David (Samuel II 5:3 - HebrewEnglish) was broken and no longer in effect. Also, the people were taken by Atalya to worship Ba'al and not God.

Two new covenants needed to be created in order to insure the consent of the people to be ruled by the House of David – and to be again the "Lord'S people": In fact, the first covenant is a tripartite agreement between the King, the People and God. The second is between the King and the People.

An interesting reading considering our current discussion. Just though I'd bring it up.

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Thursday, February 19, 2004

Another Western Wall 

Heeding our words from last week ....
Actually, responding to an Israeli Supreme Court order (and there are a lot of those, so its tough to keep up), the Jerusalem Post is reporting that the government is preparing a separate prayer area at Robinson's Arch for women's tephila groups (presumably Orthodox, but it isn't quite clear) and for mixed-sex minyanim.

Anat Hoffman of "Women at the Wall" is not satisfied calling the NIS 2 million investment a "colossal waste of money". Presumably she won't be satisfied until the main prayer area goes "pluralistic". The challenge for her is to make the new prayer area the "main" area by having people pray, so to speak, with their feet - but that seems like too much of a challenge.

This goes to the heart of the religious divide in Israel, where neither side is satisfied unless it has rubbed the other's face in the mud.

Where will this lead? Hopefully to an expansion of the religious uses of the Kotel and hence to our permanent presence there. Where will it probably lead? To more court cases, stone throwing and "beat the (internal) enemy at all costs, take no prisoners" politics.


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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A Blog-based Project? 

Our discussions on a Jewish Political Tradition are gaining a life of their own both in the comments section and in emails and there seems to be more of an interest in these topics than I originally thought. There was even a suggestion of starting a book club in general.

What I would like to propose is an "idea" club – or project, "The Jewish Political Tradition Project" where we look at essays or parts of books that contain information on specific ideas within the Jewish Political Tradition. Alan Mittleman kindly responded (twice) to our discussions and I therefore would like to start with a topic that is dear to him and his late colleague Daniel Elazar: The idea of the Covenant – or Brit. If you read Mittleman's book "And the Scepter Shall not Part from Judah" you will see two chapters dealing with the issue. These are good introductions to the topic.

I would like to start though by discussing the first chapter of Elazar's book "The Covenant Tradition in Politics" which is available on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA)website. (The Covenant Tradition in Politics, Volume 1, Chapter 1)

On Covenant, Elazar writes:
"Covenant is one of the major recurring principles of political import which informs and encompasses all three themes -- an idea which defines political justice, shapes political behavior, and directs humans toward an appropriately civic synthesis of the two in their effort to manage political power."

"A covenant is a morally-informed agreement or pact based upon voluntary consent, established by mutual oaths or promises, involving or witnessed by some transcendent higher authority, between peoples or parties having independent status, equal in connection with the purposes of the pact, that provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect which protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting (in both senses of thinking together and agreeing) and promising. Most are meant to be of unlimited duration, if not perpetual. Covenants can bind any number of partners for a variety of purposes but in their essence they are political in that their bonds are used principally to establish bodies political and social."

I would like to post request that interested readers to send their responses to me by email by next Wednesday February 25. I will try to edit the responses and organize them into a post that will make sense – and then open up the discussion for further comments. If this works out we can then move on to other areas and maybe come up with an interesting "Jewish Political Tradition Project".

I think some of the important points to look for here are:
- the truth of the concept of a Covenant (Brit), of consent as a political organizing principal in our tradition.
- what if anything can we use of it today for organizing a Jewish polity in Israel.
- what if anything can we use of it today for organizing Jewish communities (kehillot) in the Diaspora?
- can a new covenant be a new organizing principle for the relations between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry?
- In light of the lack of consensus in the modern Jewish world, can God's place in a new Covenant be a unifying principle for the Jewish people?
(You don't need to limit your responses to these points.)

Feel free to bring in other sources in your responses, take your time and let's see where this leads us. Remember, email them to me by February 25.

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Monday, February 16, 2004

Appelfeld and Korbman 

This past Friday we had another one of those interesting article days in the Israeli newspapers. (Our Friday papers are your Sunday papers.)

Ha'aretz has an interview (Hebrew ... English) with one of the best writers of fiction in Hebrew, Aharon Appelfeld. Interestingly, Appelfeld has never been accepted as "one of the boys" by Israel's writing elite (which includes the likes of Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua and others). He is an outsider and if you read the interview you will see that the interviewer (Ari Shavit) while very good at his trade, well, to quote the feminists - "just doesn't get it".

Appelfeld writes about the Jewish experience in central Europe before, during and after the Holocaust. A good introduction to his work are the translations of: Badenheim: 1939, The Age of Wonders and Tzili. His best work, to my mind takes place after the Shoah and is called For Every Sin - read it and you won't drink coffee the same way again.
(Here is the link to his writings on Amazon)

Moving on to Tel-Aviv, the neglected city amongst the religious, Talya Halkin has an article on the photographer Shimon Kormban, who anonymously photographed the first Zionist city from his arrival in 1918. For those of you in town, his photographs are being exhibited in the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel-Aviv.

Note: We have received some fascinating and intellectually superior comments on a wide range of topics regarding our posts on the Jewish Political Tradition. If you are interested, please read (and comment) - we will get back to them later in the week.

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Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Jewish Political Tradition: On the Comments 

The comments on the last post seemed to have taken up a life of their own, so I thought that instead of replying in that section, I would write a post about some of the interesting and excellent points made regarding the Jewish Political Tradition. But there were so many points made and so many sources mentioned that it would be take too much space to discuss all of them. I hope the discussion continues here and under the previous post.

I would like to start by mentioning just one important item, that of leadership and then conclude by quoting and briefly discussing a paragraph of one of the 'commenters'.

First, I was taken aback by the interest in the Platonic idea of the "philosopher-king". This must be a generational thing, although I don't know the ages of most of the respondents. Way back when I was studying Torah and political science at YU in the late '70's/early '80's, Marxism was at its high point in the intellectual world and the 'totalitarian temptation' was more than just a phrase.

Karl Popper was the interpreter of Plato that was closest to those of us who saw the danger in Marxism in general and the Soviet threat in particular. His two volume book "The Open Society and its Enemies" took on Marx and his antecedent, (according to Popper) Plato as the prime enemies of the "open society". Now for the Straussians amongst us there is no philosopher more important to western ideas than Plato and damning him was and is a difficult thing to do. How much the more so, when our own beloved Miamonides so clearly takes a Platonic view of politics?

Could it be that the end of communism has weakened our defense of freedom? Or can it be that our post-modern era has so destroyed the yardsticks of truth and beauty that we really do need a 'benevolent philosopher-king' to guide us? Or is this shall we say 'extreme rationalism' a reaction to the moral relativism of the post-modern intellectual milieu?

As to Kingdom itself, BKochba raised the necessary point that although Miamonides writes of the Laws of Kingdom, nowhere does he say that we need to appoint a king.
I think that the idea behind the post and Mittleman's book was to find the common ground between the Jewish and Western democratic political traditions. And it is here that there were so many interesting comments.

The question still remains whether we can use our tradition in order to create a truly Jewish polity, or whether we are damned to failure. I take democracy and freedom as the sine qua non or any polity and, as I stated, would not accept a solution that is not democratic. That does not mean of course that there is only one definition of democracy or one way to set up a republic.

On the other hand – most of us take the Jewish part of the tradition as the masoret of halacha. Maybe, we are barking up the wrong tree here. Rav Soloveitchik will excuse me I hope, but maybe a truly Jewish political philosophy in the modern era (or modern-state era as Joel Oz stated) should look to aggada instead of halacha to determine the guiding principles of a Jewish polity. Honestly, I can't bring myself to actually believe that, but maybe that is where we should be looking. Maybe we can't really use a halacha (that of the state) whose masoret has essentially been broken to create a workable polity.

Second, I think that Joel Oz had a most interesting statement that needs to be addressed if we are to succeed. He wrote:
"We also have to reorient our notions of what commitment to Halakhah means. It means very different things in the socio-political sphere than it does in the ritual sphere. We tend to conflate Halakhah and what it means to be obedient to the Halakhah and poskim. There is a lot more room to maneuver than is often portrayed."

On a practical level, that is exactly the problem we have been going through here in Isarel. But – is the statement true? Does Halacha really mean something different in the "socio-political" sphere than in the "ritual" sphere? I tend to agree, but you will find that most of the religious-Zionist (And Israeli haredi) establishment disagrees. The problem of personal freedom in an halachic polity remains a real one.

This statement and problem leads then as JI and Ami brought to our attention (and others answered), the real-life practical problem of building workable institutions – a court system, a legislative and executive branch.

Finally – AlanS brings up the most interesting practical point in the separation of religion and state. Here in Israel it is safe to say that the lack of separation is a major cause of the cheapening of the religious experience of so many people – religious and not – in the country. Can we have build a Jewish polity – a religiously informed Jewish polity which would mean a constitution which takes the Torah as its foundation but whose institutions do not reflect the 'establishment' of religion? Can we do for Judaism what the founding fathers of the US did for Protestantism (at least until the advent of the "naked public square") ?

What is most interesting about the comments is that so many people (myself included) contradict themselves. I think the reason for this is that we all very much want to believe that there can be a truly Jewish modern state, but deep down see this as a daunting task.

In conclusion – one 'commenter' if we were interested in starting a book club here at this blog. It is not something I am against, but I don't have the technical expertise to set this up – if someone does and would be willing to help , then it would be worth pursuing.

As a start, maybe we could read an essay and I could edit the comments on it. If there is an interest in that, I have one that I would like to suggest that touches some of the issues that we have discussed over the last few days.

Note: Alan Mittleman, author of the book on which this entire discussion is based has written a comment on the previous post, which I will re-print here:

"I have found the discussion of my work fascinating and gratifying. I conceived of my book primarily as a scholarly exercise rather than as a contribution to a practical project. Many of the chapters were written as papers for a seminar every summer in Jerusalem sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on the Jewish political tradition. Although all of us in the seminar, I think, shared a belief that there is a Jewish political tradition and that it would be valuable to lift it out of obscurity and study it, there was no consensus on what to with it, whether it was compatible with modern democratic norms, etc.

My own position on this is more conflicted than the "out of step Jew" indicates. My book makes clear that although a main thrust of the Jewish political tradition is classical-republican, it is not democratic, in the contemporary (i.e. liberal democratic) sense of the term. Non-liberal democratic republican polities, such as Switzerland until recent times, have not been able to forestall the allure of liberal democracy. By this I mean, the emphasis on individual rights, the primacy of privacy rights over concerns of the common good, a public philosophy emphasizing secularity, etc. To the extent that these principles have become politically normative also for us, I don't see the Jewish ideal of a "virtue republic" having much traction. My critique of David Novak's "Covenantal Rights" in chapter 5 points out the illiberal features of an halachically based rights theory. Novak's book, by the way, is must reading for anyone interested in these questions.

My late teacher and friend, Daniel Elazar, was the trail blazer in this field. Before the Hartman group came along, Elazar was arguing on behalf of the existence of a Jewish political tradition, compiling its texts, and generally reconceiving of Judaism as a religio-political phenomenon. That the Walzer volumes do not give Elazar credit for creating this field of study is dismal. I recommend Daniel Elazar's works, particularly his four volume analysis of the Covenant Tradition in Politics without qualification."

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Thursday, February 12, 2004

The Jewish Political Tradition 

On what should we base the Jewish political tradition? Which sources should we use in order to see which political values are within the Jewish tradition? How important is it as Jews that our polity (be that the government of Israel or our Diaspora 'kehilla') be in line with our tradition?

Having just finished Alan Mittleman's "The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah: Perspectives on the Persistence of the Political in Judaism", these questions come into sharper focus. Mittleman has command of the Jewish sources as well as the western political tradition and is able to take us through various concepts and see how and if the Jewish tradition fits into the republican tradition.

Mittleman is not afraid to work on the assumption that a religiously informed polity can be as much in tune with democratic principles as a thoroughly secular one. He therefore is not afraid to tackle the issues head on and does not bend Jewish pieces to make them fit into the democratic puzzle.

Yet, by using midrash and medieval rabbinic (rishonim) interpretations of the Torah he shows that the rabbis over the generations valued concepts such as "consent" and limited rule. For those who have been raised in the yeshiva world, as I was, the first reaction to a "Jewish political-science" is to assume it means a divine right monarchy – specifically tied to the House of David and the Sanhedrin.

Whether it is the Laws of the Kings in Miamonides' Mishneh Torah or Tractate Sanhedrin, we are often raised to think of "Malchut David" (Kingdom of David) and the status of the Sanhedrin (Supreme Rabbinic court during the time of the Temple) as the beginning and end of a Jewish Political Science.

While not denying the importance of these institutions in the Jewish political tradition, Mittleman looks beyond them to both halacha and agadda in order to ascertain basic principles that the Rabbis held important regarding the Jew's relation to his community and to the polity.

A fascinating example is the three sentences in Genesis dealing with Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-10, HebrewEnglish). Mittleman shows through his readings of Genesis Rabbah, Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer and the medieval commentators Rashi and Nachmanides (Ibn Ezra being the exception) that "consent" was an important aspect of picking leaders.

Along this line Mittleman writes extensively on the concept of "Birit" (Coveneant) both in the idea of a Jew's relation to God (essentially his Sovereign) and the Jewish relationship with his community, or his polity. Starting with an historical interpretation of the Biblical concept through discussions of Wellhausen and Weber, Mittleman leads us through the Rabbinic discussions of the idea of Brit in both halacha and agadda.

Mittleman shows both the tensions between the classical liberal political philosophers such as Hume, Locke and Hobbes and the Jewish political tradition, as well as those areas of agreement.

Is this an exercise in futility though, trying to find a Jewishly based polity that can fit in with the modern democratic-capitalistic state? Is a Jewish state – one that takes halacha seriously possible in the world in which we live? As a resident of Israel, talk of a "medinat halacha" scares me. As a religious-Zionist I am "supposed" to believe that we should all live according to the halacha – yet it is something that I cannot and will not ever accept.

I would never be willing to give up my freedom to decide personal let alone political matters to a reconstituted Sanhedrin, let alone to a divine right monarchy.

Yet, Mittleman's project deserves further study. What can we do as Jews to make our polity unique, without betraying the western democratic tradition that for many of us is a sine qua non of our participation in it?

This book is a great start in explaining laying out for us (unapologetically) the Jewish and western sources and where they stand on political values important to every Jewish citizen.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004


For those who are interested I set up RSS/Syndication. I am not sure how it works or what you have to do to get it, but I put the link on the right, just above the archives.
Thanks to a very patient reader who helped my through what ended up being a very painless process.
Will this mean I get more or less hits?

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How Many Western Walls? 

Ha'aretz is reporting a protest by members of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly at the Kotel (Western Wall). Apparently, someone is expanding the prayer area so as to accommodate more people at prayer. The problem for the RA is that the entire prayer area is segregated by sex and that prohibits Conservative Jews from praying according to their custom.
My suggestion to the RA is to take the government up on its offer a few years ago to pray at a separate area around Robinson's Arch - which is to the south of the current prayer area along the Western Wall. This way, they can develop an area that suits their needs. With Shinui in the government they may actually "win" their battle against the Orthodox monopoly at the Kotel, but it will be an empty victory.
Why not take advantage of an opportunity to develop a new area, one archaeologically rich and no less holy.

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Monday, February 09, 2004

Some Personal Notes 

One of the advantages of working from home is that I get the chance to do some work while having coffee in one of the many cafes that populate the outdoor "urban mall" in very secular, middle class Kfar Saba. The morning hours bring out many of the new mothers as they have the famous Israeli 10am breakfast.
Today they were out in force. This morning I counted 49 mothers with newborn babies (two sets of twins) sitting in the cafes, walking toward them or leaving them! Did anyone say demographic problem?

Today I got my Amazon order, carefully avoiding the Israeli tax authorities (shhh!!!) by having it hand delivered by my visiting sister. She brought me three new books that I am looking forward to tackling once I finish the three I am now reading.
First - "The Jewish War and The Victory", two novellas by the Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg. I have already read his "Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales of the Holocaust and Life After" and look forward to this. He is a writer of immense talent and to my mind is in company with Imre Kertesz and Primo Levi.
The second is a book of essays "Equality Lost: Essays in Torah Commentary, Halacha and Jewish Thought" by the halachist and posek R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin, a thoughtful mind in these difficult days of religious shallowness and rigidity.
The last book is "To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders" by Harvard professor Bernard Bailyn. Many years observing Israeli politics have taught me to appreciate the genius that was the collective mind of what we like to call the "American founders".

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Sunday, February 08, 2004

On a Story by Agnon 

In the latest issue of De'ot , publihsed by Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah (in Hebrew only) there is an article on Agnon's short story "Why they Didn't Allow our Teacher, the Gaon R. Yisrael Isserlein into the Garden of Eden Immediately Following his Death", from the volume "Elu Va'Elu".

I am not sure if the story has been translated into English, but the three pages are in highly readable Hebrew (if you are a Yeshiva of Jewish Day School graduate and can't understand it, get a refund). In any case, the author of the article Yair Eldan, claims that the story is a critique of halakhic-religious society in general and of Rabbi Akiva's moral compass in particular.

The story itself seems to read like that. The great Rabbi, upon trying to enter the Garden of Eden is stopped by an angel who has not quite made it into the upper wrung of angel-hood because of a sin of the great Rabbi Isserlein (a true figure who lived in Europe in the 15th century and who is the author of the halakhic work, "Terumat HaDeshen"). The sin of the great rabbi was in not heeding the words of arguably the greatest of all tana'im (rabbis of the mishna), Rabbi Akiva.

R. Akiva stated that if two people are walking and one has water – and the water is only enough for one (if two drink it both will die), the owner of the water is to drink it himself. Apparently, R. Yisrael was in such a situation and gave his water to his friend – disobeying the words of R. Akiva.

On first glance, Eldan is right and Agnon seems to be criticizing R. Akiva's lack of concern for his fellow man and the contemporary religious community's rigid halakhic strictures.

I am not so sure that Agnon is making the social commentary that Eldan claims. To me, it seems that Agnon the modernist is using an ancient style of story-telling, the midrash and is presenting us with a moral quandary that has existed for thousands of years – and that still exists today. Agnon is not making a 'critique' of (religious) society as much as he is clarifying the human condition by showing the contradiction between two values – law and compassion.

Agnon, the master story-teller is showing us that in spite of the impossibility of solving certain moral issues for all times, the law provides us with a living solution. However, he goes on to tell us – man does not live (and die) by the law alone.

That is why it is R. Akiva who is picked here as the antagonist of the story. Who better to show us both the importance and the inadequacy of the law but the man who was both the supreme halachist of all times and the one who has taught us "ve'Ahavta L'reacha Kamocha" (Love thy neighbor as thyself) ?

Note: For an interesting theory on Agnon and his spoken-written Hebrew read ZSB.

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Thursday, February 05, 2004

Haim Sabato 

Its been a bit depressing in these parts lately so what better time to read about the Yom Kippur War than now ? If we don't survive this latest spate of anti-Semitism (one long bout of a more viscous anti-Semitism that extends from the Holocaust, if you ask me) then the point at which historians will say was the turning point in our attempt to overcome this evil will be the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

For those old enough to remember it, the fear that was put in our hearts while sitting on Sukkot with the radios on was surpassed only by the shock at the "non-invincibility" of the Israeli Defense Forces. I will never forget my embarrassment coming to shul on Yom Kippur morning and asking how the NY Mets fared in the World Series – only to be told instead about the war.

The one book theologians and philosophers (if not historians) will want to read is "Adjusting Sights" by Haim Sabato (translated by Hillel Halkin). Sabato was a gunner in a tank on the Golan Heights during the war, is currently a Rav at the Yeshiva in Ma'ale Adumim and is a novelist. This rare combination has given him the ability to relate the feelings of soldiers that were as shocked as the rest of us to be fighting the Syrians in Israeli territory and to see through the war at our own fears and agitation about our relationship with the world in which we live.

The book is literature, to be sure – but it seems to me a new genre of literature (or maybe one which Agnon had started) that combines the structure of the novel with the style of the Midrash. "Adjusting Sights" has to be read on many levels. It is not only a novel about a soldier's experience in a most horrible war; it is a midrash on the Jewish Prayer-book. Although mostly concentrating on the Psalms that make up our daily prayers, its "drash" on many Blessings give us a new outlook on our daily conversations with and requests of God.

Do yourself a favor and read "Adjusting Sights".

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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Boo to the Skirt Chasers 

Now that Robert Kraft's Patriots won the Super Bowl again, and the half-time show is over, we can concentrate on the next game.
The question is, can the skirt wearing Jerusalem Patri-ettes win, too ?
The Vegas line: Maidelech -3 1/2.

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Monday, February 02, 2004

On Rehavia 

For lovers of Jerusalem the neighborhood called Rehavia has special meaning. Unlike Baka and the German Colony it was a Jewish neighborhood from the beginning – planned by the German-Jewish architect Richard Kaufmann.

But, we Israelis are not very good at maintaining our recent (Zionist) past. For the most part we are able to dig and admire our ancient history always searching for more evidence of our past glory. However, when it comes to the 20th century, we manage to ignore our architectural heritage – be it in Tel-Aviv or in Jerusalem.

Shlomo Arad writes in Ha'aretz of the destruction being done to the neighborhood of so many of our 20th century greats.

Of the neighborhood Arad writes:
" This was a true work of artistry, facing in the direction of a new future. Rehavia was not a neighborhood of wealth, as the cynics tried to claim, but rather a community that upheld the harmony between people and their environment. On the lands of a monastery that were purchased by the Palestine Land Development Corporation, a tolerant and liberal Jewish community with a modern outlook took shape. Rachel Yanait grew vegetables and sold them to passersby, while Yitzhak Ben-Zvi hosted political consultations in his cabin. Talma Yellin organized chamber concerts, while her husband Eliezer Yellin planned new houses in the neighborhood. Prof. Arie Dostrovsky, who immigrated on the ship Ruslan, laid the foundations of modern dermatology in Jerusalem and his colleague, Dr. Bernard Zondek, founded a gynecology department. Gershom Scholem did research in his home on the kabbala and Shabtaism; S.Y. Agnon lived in Ruppin's home and taught him Hebrew. Afterward, he described the way of life of the intellectuals of Rehavia in his book "Shira." Poet Elsa Lasker-Schuler wrote poems in Rehavia and was considered a naive eccentric by the children of the neighborhood.

Here jurists Moshe Zmora, David Goitein, Moshe Duchin, Moshe Landau and Haim Cohen laid the foundations of the Israeli justice system, while the men of the Trumpeldor Work Brigade hewed stone from the earth of Rehavia and built houses in the recognition that the Jewish people would be redeemed by manual labor. In Rehavia, Brith Shalom flourished, headed by Judah Magnes and Arthur Ruppin, who upheld conciliation with the Arabs. Alongside them lived Revisionist families like the Meridors and the Rivlins. And the children of all of them attended the Hebrew Gymnasium, which educated the best of Jerusalem's youth."

Of the solution, he writes:
"Only a prohibition on demolishing buildings until a legally binding preservation plan is prepared can put a stop to a process that is destroying one of Jerusalem's historic neighborhoods."

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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Two Articles on Women 

One of the outstanding issues that much of religious-Zionism/modern Orthodoxy finds it difficult to deal with is the women's issue. I think we made great strides years ago but have been stopped in our tracks because of the misogynist character of the Israeli rabbinate.

Shlomo Aviner, one of the most popular of the religious-Zionist rabbis has often taken the lead in fighting the coeducational nature of Bnei Akiva in Israel and in attempts to take a haredi stance towards women in general. There is a strong voice within our camp that denies to women positions of power in even non-religious settings. These views lead of course to inferior education for our daughters as well as fostering attitudes of disrespect for women and girls amongst our young boys.

One of the main debating points have to do with women's dress which is mistakenly called "Tzniut" (modesty). Aviner goes so far as to give, in centimeters, the length of various women's garments. He quantifies what is an un-quantifiable halachic issue.

In the latest issue of De'ot (Hebrew only) the journal of an organization called Ne'emanei Torah Va'avoda, Tova Hartman-Halbertal who teaches in the Jewish Education department of Hebrew University, takes on Aviner and his colleagues.

The main theme of the article is an attempt to build a basis for modest dress that is dependent not only on the woman's responsibility to control the male sex-drive, as the current halachic formulations demand – but that understands the joint responsibility of building a society in which men and women can both fully participate. In order words in building a society that is not sex-obsessed.

We have written here in the past of the obsession that many of our rabbis have with sex and their attempts to undo any of the coeducational activities not only of our teenage children, but of their parents as well. Here in Israel it is accepted in many synagogues to continue the separation of the sexes beyond the end of prayer into the "sit-down" kiddushes that are prevalent in many synagogues here.

I agree with most of Dr. Hartman-Halbertal's points here but have one objection and two suggestions. The objection is to the post-modernist language that is strewn throughout the first part of the article which weakens the points she is trying to make.

The suggestions are two: To do a more systematic critique of the modern rabbinical writings such as the book by Aviner and to point out in more detail what needs to be done to create this "new cosmology" she speaks of.

The article is just a start and she has picked the right topic – women's dress – which has led to a male obsession with female fashion. This is not only the case in the religious-Zionist/modern-Orthodox community, but in the haredi community as well. (Who can forget the statements blaming the terror attack on the bus filled with haredim with the lack of modest dress and behavior amongst the haredim?!!).

Another article in De'ot dealing with women's issues is called "The Challenge of the Bachelorettes" . This article tells us nothing new as it rehashes the old "does a woman have to be married to be happy?" theme that has been discussed ad-infinitum. To make matters worse, the author, Hagit Bartov speaks with the voice of a Marxist-feminist which makes an already ho-hum article, even more humdrum.

Read the Hartman-Halbertal article, avoid the Bartov one.

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