What possible connection could there be between a country speaking French and producing an unusually high number of people who go off to fight in Syria? That’s the question that a pair of American researchers faced after crunching a great deal of data and then staring, surprised, at the results.
The answer they suggest makes sense. That said, it will be more easily accepted in London than in Paris. It also emphasizes the sheer destructiveness of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim incitement. It even sheds light on what creates Jewish religious extremism in Israel.
Haim Watzman My annual meditation on Pesach and the Seder, in memory of my son Niot on the fifth anniversary of his death, written for Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet published by the religious peace group Oz VeShalom–Netivot Shalom. לגרסת המקור בעברית
A void yawns at the heart of the Haggadah, at the very center of the Seder. All we speak of on this long night leads to the central ritual precept—the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. We tell the story of the Exodus, sing “Dayenu” and, in obedience to Rabban Gamiliel, cite the three items that, if unmentioned, prevent us from having fulfilled the obligations of the Seder. Then we move from speech into action—we eat matzah, we eat maror. But there is no Pesach sacrifice to for them to be eaten with.
At the time of the twentieth-century return to Zion, there were calls to resume the Pesach sacrifice. A halakhic polemic ensued. Rabbis and scholars traded fine distinctions regarding the laws of sacrifices, of the Temple, of the priests, but very few of them spoke explicitly about what it would mean to turn the great nullity of the Seder night into a manifest presence.
Sefer HaAggadah offers a surprising midrash about Pharaoh on the night of the smiting of the first-born. The source is Midrash Tanhuma, but Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s version offers a more potent vision: “Pharaoh went among his servants, from door to door, placing each one in his retinue, and walked with them that night down every street and called out ‘Where is Moses? Where does he live?’”
I want to focus on that picture, not on the story as a whole. The picture has two elements: first, just prior to the Exodus from Egypt—that is, on the first Seder night—Pharaoh leaves his home. He goes from door to door like a beggar seeking bread and the warmth of a home and a family.
So intensely was I listening to my iPod that I bumped straight into Haim Abutbul as I galloped into the stairwell leading up to my apartment. Haim is my downstairs neighbor, and other than sharing a name, we don’t have much in common. He’s Moroccan, retired, round, short, and has a moustache. I’m the opposite.
After I apologized and he mumbled an acceptance, he strode right past me, smeared silicone on the door jamb, and affixed a clear plastic mezuzah. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he bumped into me again. This time he apologized and I mumbled.
“I bought a new one,” he explained. “New housing, new and expert parchment. The works.”
I nodded, in rush to get upstairs to a long-delayed lunch. “Tizkeh lemitzvot,” may you perform many other good deeds, I said. I put a foot on the bottom step but Haim would not let me go.
“Haim, you must have noticed that a lot of people in our entrance have been getting sick lately,” Haim said ominously.
I’m sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem almost on the eve of Independence Day, listening to the Ashkenazi and the Ethiopian waiters joking in Hebrew, in circumstances that existentially are a billion miles from anywhere that my great-grandfather in the Ukraine could have imagined a descendant living, and I’m thinking about the speeches that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give over the next couple of days – and thinking that he actually does not get that we are independent. Not that I mean to pick on Netanyahu, except as a personification of the Israeli right, which for all that it sees itself as strutting in Jabotinskian pride and glory, does not understand what it means to be here – physically, culturally or morally.
It’s a reasonable bet that in one or more speeches Netanyahu will mention Iran, the perfidy of Western nations, our isolation, and our potential extermination. Last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu gave a speech that was more about Iran and fear of a new Holocaust than honoring the memories of those who died in the actual Holocaust. Netanyahu’s entire public career consists of pronouncements that it is, right now, 1938, if not August 1939. His forecasts are detached from the physical universe but are wired directly into the neurons of enough of the electorate to win him elections.
For the literarily or religiously inclined, the words that best portray his constant mood are, “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.”
When Hanan felt another eye’s gaze on his Android, his first instinct was to tip it to the left to avoid intrusion. His second instinct was to tip it to the right to offer a better view. It was, after all, a fine and beautiful photograph of Yael, and while intimacy demanded a certain level of privacy, pride demanded a certain level of public display.
In an earlier age, perhaps, privacy would have won out, but in an earlier age he would not be gazing at a photograph of his girlfriend on an electronic device in the crowded waiting room of the Terem all-night emergency clinic in Talpiot. Were he, say, a member of Trumpeldor’s Labor Brigades back in pioneering days, one who had been taken on muleback to a doctor’s home in Yavna’el (had it been founded then?), because of, say, a burn on his shin from a misaimed bucket of hot asphalt, he would have had to conjure up Yael’s bare limbs in his mind’s eye and no one would have been able to peek. That body would have been his alone to see. But then no one else would know what a treasure he had and, face it, part of the enjoyment of a treasure is the admiration of those who don’t have it.
But it took only a fraction of a second for his peripheral vision to make out that the invasive but welcome gaze came from the eye of a small person dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, plaid with very wide blue stripes, tucked into brown corduroy trousers with an elastic waist. Above the eye was a black velvet kipah, and the head to which it belonged leaned lightly and lovingly on the forearm of a lean and tall man in a black suit and clipped beard with an open book on his lap from which he was reading to his son.
The boy dutifully turned his eyes to the book, but not for long. Hanan gave him a smile. The boy shifted in his chair and smiled cautiously.
“Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass,” the father intoned, pointing to the page and glancing at his son. “The Ben Ish Hai is talking here about a verse from the story of the plagues in Egypt. But we know that the word ‘sign’ doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a bunch of flies that got in the Egyptians’ beds and food and noses. A sign is also the mitzvot, the commandments that God has given the Jews, which are a sign of the covenant between the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his people.” And he explained how if you rearrange the Hebrew letters of the word “tomorrow,” which are MHR, you get RMH, which is the number 248, which is the number of limbs and organs of the human body, and also the number of positive injunctions in the Torah.
“How do we know there are that many?” the boy asked his father.
“We can count them in the Torah, like our Sages did,” the father replied.
“No, I mean the parts of the body.”
“Well, if you look at a person’s body, if you could see everything about it, you could count that many,” he explained.
“Let’s count,” said the boy, pointing to the photograph on Hanan’s phone.
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.
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 teens—Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel—who’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.
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 … Read more
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.
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.
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.
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