Category Archives: Judaism and Religion

The Question of Questions

Haim Watzman

Seder night four years ago was my last night with my younger son, Niot, who died in a diving accident a few days later. Each year I write a dvar Torah for “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom-Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here.

The Four Questions appear in the Hagadah as a preface to the Maggid, the telling of the Pesach story. They stand as prototypes of the questions that are meant to be asked during the entire Seder night. The evening’s unusual observances are intended, in part, to elicit questions, especially from the young people sitting around the table.

Some two decades ago, when my children were small, I was able to observe any number of times how effective this strategy is. One year we decided to adopt a custom with its source in the Talmud—to clear the table of the Pesach plate and matzot immediately after yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. The source of the custom comes from the school of Rabbi Yanai: “Why is the table cleared? Said the school of Rabbi Yanai: so that the children will see it and ask [why].” At that Seder, my younger son, Niot, who was preoccupied with his own affairs during the previous stages of Kadesh, Urhatz, Karpas, and Yahatz, suddenly noticed that something was happening and asked in a loud voice: “Why are you doing that?” By asking a spontaneous question, he had fulfilled his duty and we thus did not require him to chant the official Four Questions, an honor he happily passed on to someone else.

Niot’s question is, in fact, the question of questions, and is a much harder one to answer than the prescribed kushiyot. Continue reading The Question of Questions

In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

 

Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. The poster in the background reads: "The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, Jerusalem area, mourns for the righteous son of Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, murdered as a martyr..."
Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. (Photo © Gershom Gorenberg)

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The American Prospect:

The air-raid silence sounded at three minutes to ten at night in Jerusalem. Two distant booms followed. Afterward, they seemed like an orchestral finale: abrupt, followed by silence, the only notes of a long day that were unmistakable in their meaning.

That afternoon, I’d gone with busloads of Israelis to Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to visit the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. A huge mourners’ tent had been set up: The ceiling was made of blue tarps; one side was open to the street; the other three sides walled with tapestries and printed banners showing pictures of Muhammad. In the pictures, Muhammad looked very young for 16, his age last week when, on his way to Ramadan prayers, he was pulled into a car and doused with gasoline, murdered by immolation. The suspects, now in custody, their names still under a gag order, are six young Israelis from the Jerusalem area. The motives were revenge and hatred—call it national, or ethnic, or tribal.

Here’s the very brief timeline: On June 30, Israeli troops found the bodies of three Israeli teensEyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkelwho’d been kidnapped by Palestinian extremists while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The next afternoon, as their funerals were broadcast on national TV and radio, downtown West Jerusalem became a riot zone. Bands of angry Jews, most in their teens, virtually all male, chanted “Death to Arabs!” They tried to beat up Palestinian workers in the open market, and threw stones at cars, randomly, without any sign that they cared whether the driver was Jewish or Arab. Before dawn the next day, Abu-Khdeir was abducted and murdered. Continue reading In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

Palestinians Won PR Battle Over Pope’s Visit. Will It Matter?

Gershom Gorenberg

My apology to readers; I’ve been mostly absent from this blog while teaching for a semester at Columbia University. But I’m back, and here’s my latest piece from The American Prospect:

“The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications.” So a Palestinian official involved in negotiating the precise form of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land told me yesterday. The comment, though, could as easily have come from an Israeli government source.

The pope’s two hosts agreed on this much and no more: His pilgrimage, so carefully choreographed that even the spontaneous moments were planned in advance, sparkled with symbolism. The battle was over determining what the symbolic journey would stand for. The Palestinians won: They largely succeeded in making Francis’s visit part of their campaign for statehood through international recognition. And yet, both the pope and the Palestinian strategy are subject to the same question: How much does symbolism really count for?

The Vatican itself—not the Israelis or Palestinians—initiated the visit, and in the Vatican’s narrative, it was a peace mission within an entirely Christian context: The pope came to meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to commemorate the breakthrough religious summit 50 years ago in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

So this trip was, in theory, the Vatican’s show. The Holy See laid out the program it wanted, Israeli and Palestinian sources told me. But even when it drew up plans, it had to maneuver within the protocol each side expected for a head of state. Then it negotiated for months with the two governments on the details.  Pope Francis was the star, and made choices—but often between pieces of pre-written scripts.

The Palestinians won their first victory in March, when the Vatican announced the official itinerary. “The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel,” it said. He’d fly by helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem, rather than arriving via Israel, and proceed immediately to a “courtesy meeting with the president of Palestine,” Mahmud Abbas.  The symbolic statement was this: The pope would not be visiting the occupied West Bank, certainly not Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially labels the territory), but independent Palestine. This, presumably, was the pope’s choice – but given Abbas’s ongoing diplomatic efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the Vatican couldn’t evade a decision on whether to use that wording.

Read the rest here.

The Chief Rabbinate Proves Judaism Would Be Better Off without It

Ye of little faith: There is a job for you in the rabbinic bureaucracy

Gershom Gorenberg

My new post is up at the Daily Beast:

The legitimacy index of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has just taken another plunge. That is, the state rabbinate has reduced the number of rabbis from outside its own bureaucracy whom it considers legitimate, and the number of people whom it trusts as being legitimately Jewish.

And, in the process, the Chief Rabbinate has shown yet again that there is no legitimate reason for its own existence.

The latest development: As reported in the New York Jewish Week, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from prominent American Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss affirming that two U.S. Jews wanting to marry in Israel are indeed Jewish and single. In the past, the rabbinate accepted Weiss’s letters. No longer. Speaking to the Jewish Week’s Michele Chabin, Weiss said the rabbinate’s reduced-trust policy affected “many rabbis”—by which he surely meant Orthodox rabbis, since the Chief Rabbinate already treated letters from non-Orthodox clergy as paper rendered worthless by the ink on it.

Weiss also speculated that he’d personally been blackballed because of “politics,” meaning his role in pushing for a more religiously liberal form of Orthodoxy. (Among other things, Weiss had the beautiful chutzpah to ordain Orthodox women.) It’s also possible that Weiss just doesn’t appear on a Chief Rabbinate whitelist of rabbis deemed sufficiently terrified of accidentally certifying a non-Jew as Jewish. Continue reading The Chief Rabbinate Proves Judaism Would Be Better Off without It

For Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

Gershom Gorenberg

I explain why in my latest piece at The Daily Beast:

The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there’s anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it’s the idea of official state Judaism.

The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia’s choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to “putting an idol in the Temple.” On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. “Anti-Semites” would be much too soft a translation.

None of this has added any honor to Judaism. Continue reading For Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

I Don’t Text on Shabbas

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece at The Daily Beast:

I was sitting in a café and talking to a friend on the phone while naturally checking text messages that kept popping up on the little screen, when I got a tweet with a link to Jonathan Safran Foer’s article, the one on how each new form of electronic communication leaves us less in touch, more alone. I was so captivated that I didn’t respond to several incoming emails, and my friend hung up. He was talking about his marriage, or maybe it was his divorce. Whatever. I wasn’t quite paying attention.

Most of our communication devices, Foer writes, began as “diminished substitutes” for activities that were otherwise impossible. The telephone allowed us to keep in touch when we were too far apart to talk; then the answering machine allowed us to talk when no one answered. Email eliminated the voice; text messages could be sent quicker but shrank the mail. Each invention communicates less, which people often treat as an advantage. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” Foer writes. To which I’d add: Each step forward marches us further into misunderstanding. The voice on the phone has no unhappy shrug of the shoulders; the email has no ironic tone; the text message has no room for politeness. And the more easily a message can be forwarded, the less wise it is to say anything that matters. Continue reading I Don’t Text on Shabbas

Our Lady of the Wall — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

llustration by Pepe Fainberg
illustration by Pepe Fainberg

My back thudded on paving stones worn smooth by millions of pious Jewish feet. I cried out, gasping for air as a twelve-stone policewoman with a Meg Ryan coiffure sat herself on my chest and lit a cigarette. She seemed quite at east despite the chants of “Nazis!” “Heretics!” and “Anti-Semites” coming from the black-cloaked men and long-sleeved woman who were pressing forward in their battle to halt the desecration of the Kotel. Why not? They were not yelling at her.

Noticing that my face was turning blue, she shifted her weight off my diaphragm. I took a deep breath and she blew smoke into my face.

“I’m innocent!” I coughed before once again going into severe oxygen deprivation.

“Right. That’s what they all say.” She considered my Arapahoe Basin t-shirt and Levis. “Although you do stand out in this crowd.”

I shook my head and she lifted herself up ever so slightly. “Respirate,” she ordered Continue reading Our Lady of the Wall — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

A Case of Mistaken Identity

The Faux Israeli Everyman, Naftali Bennett, Appoints His Extremist Rabbi To Teach Us Judaism

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest at The Daily Beast:

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of religious services, has decided to appoint Rabbi Avihai Ronski to head a brand-new Jewish Identity Administration.

One could simply say, “Ronski is the wrong man for the job.” But there’s a logical flaw in that sentence. The job shouldn’t exist, so no one could be right for it. Furthermore, the post will be in a ministry that only does a disservice to religion. And the fact that Naftali Bennett sees Ronski as his master and teacher provides additional proof that Bennett shouldn’t be minister of anything.

Let’s start with Ronski, Continue reading A Case of Mistaken Identity

Passion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.

      illustration by Pepe Fainberg
     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.

But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.

“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”

“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.

“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”

He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam? Continue reading Passion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Yeshayahu Leibowitz Is Not a Street Name

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at the Daily Beast:

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, by Bracha L. Ettinger, via Creative Commons

Yeshayahu Leibowitz
(Bracha L. Ettinger)

 

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. The street was named by Menachem Ussishkin himself. An early Zionist leader, prideful, pugnacious, Ussishkin headed the Jewish National Fund for nearly 20 years. In 1931 he built an imposing house on what was then Yehudah Halevi Street, named for the 12th century philosopher-bard. All the streets in the new neighborhood of Rehaviah were named for poets and philosophers of the Spanish Golden Age. For his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided to honor himself. He ordered JNF workers to remove all the signs saying “Yehudah Halevi” and replace them with ones that bore his own name. And so the name of the street is Ussishkin unto this day.

You can’t imagine Yeshayahu Leibowitz doing this. If Leibowitz knew that city council members would one day propose naming a street after him and that the proposal would cause so much loud opposition that the mayor would have to drop it from the agenda, as happened last week, he would have felt honored by the controversy: The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Memorial Upheaval.

The last time I visited Leibowitz was 19 years ago, on Israeli Memorial Day, 1994. I came to his home to pick up a handwritten article Continue reading Yeshayahu Leibowitz Is Not a Street Name

A Him to him — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My Dear Herr Kapellmeister,

It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg
     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”

Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me. Continue reading A Him to him — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Non Sequitur — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

God knows how Eliezer’s mind works. It goes off into other dimensions every time I try to have a serious conversation with him. That’s what happened on Purim this year. I waited through the entire reading of the megillah, the Book of Esther, to point out to him Chapter 4, verse 14, which I’d never really thought about before.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg
     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Ki ‘im taharishi ba-‘et ha-zot’ revah ve-hatzalah ya‘amod le-yehudim mi-makom aher,” Eliezer reads as my finger traces the word. He translates: “‘But if you remain silent at this time, reprieve and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.’ So?”

“So this is what Mordecai says to Esther when he tells her about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews,” I point out. “That she really doesn’t have to do anything, because the Jews are going to be saved anyway.”

“Well, if that’s God’s plan,” says Eliezer, “then I guess he’s right. What’s the big deal?” Continue reading Non Sequitur — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report