Monday, November 29, 2004

Chanukkah Redux: Hellenism Today

One of the courses I teach is called 'Mo'ade Yisrael: Talmud, Halakhah u-Minhag.' Various other instructors approach the a subject matter in different ways. I set myself two goals. First, I try to show that the holidays are far more sophisticated, intellectually and experientialy respectable than the students think. This is a real challenge, because the holidays have been 'dumbed down' in contemporary Israeli awareness to the extent that (if people know anything about them), they amount to infantile ideas and very fattening foods. [This course is for students without religious High School background. Truth to tell, however, the sophistication of the graduates of religious High Schools, Yeshivot and Ulpanot also leaves alot to be desired.] The other goal is to show how the practical observance of the mitzvot of the holidays embodies the lofty ideas that are developed in class. In this connection, I introduce them to the halakhot of the holidays, since most only have a very hazy awareness of what to do (and they really do want to know).

Those of you who read this blog (4,000+ at this writing) know that I try to integtrate Jewish History into my classes. You also know, that I"m a big believer in the existence of patterns in history. As the French say: Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). Hanukkah is a great case in point. This was borne out by my class last week.

I was describing the religious-intellectual struggle among the Jews of Judea before the decrees of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE. Basically, the community was divided into three, uneven, groups.

There were the radical Hellenizers, whose advocated total adoption of Hellenistic life and values. They argued that one must go with progress and enlightenment. As IMacc. 1, 11 reports: 'In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow '

Then there were the Hasidim ('pious ones') who absolutely rejected anything that had to do with Greek culture. These two were minority groups, though the Hellenizers were rich, powerful, well-connected celebrities who exerted influence far beyond their numbers.

The overwhelming majority of Jews were, for wont of a better word, 'moderate Hellenists.' These made up a broad spectrum of variations. However, they had in common the idea that one could adopt alot of Hellenistic culture without losing one's Jewish religious and cultural integrity. They were the 'silent majority,' who revolted when Antiochus (at the instigation of the radicals) outlawed Judaism.

After I presented this, my students were uncharacteristically silent. Why? Because they realized that this represents the fundamental breakdwn of the Jewish population of contemporary Israel. There is a hard-core, often virulent, anti-Jewish cadre that inhabits the media, the universities and the literati. Politically, they are represented by Yahad and Shinui. They are devoted to the de-judaization of Israel in order to become part of the larger 'Liberal, European West,' which is the direct heir of Hellenism. The preach cultural assimilation for 'our own good.'

Then there are the haredim and haredim-le'umi'im who reject the West in total. No university, no secular studies, nothing. Together these two are matche at about 30% of the population.

Then there are the rest of us, 70% of the whole. These people (traditional Jews, sentimental Jews, most national religious Jews) believe (like the moderate hellenists and Samuel Butler) that 'extremes are alone logical, and they are always absurd.'

How will this play itself out? Well, a friend of mine who's a noted historian of the Hasmonean period told me once: 'Antiochus rules, Menelaus has taken over the Temple and Mattathias has no yet appeared on the scene.'

How Dare You? A Reply to Stephen Savitsky

This Friday, the Jerusalem Post (and IMRA) reported that the incoming OU President, Mr. Stephen Savitsky had this to say about previous generations of Olim from North America:

People are starting to go to Israel for the right reasons. Years ago aliya was for people who were running away from something. They weren't successful. They didn't have a successful marriage. They were coming because there was a reason. They weren't role models.
"But today I see really successful people. Young people. Doctors, lawyers, business people, finance people, who are giving it up not to come here to starve. Not to schnorr from their parents," he said.

This comment is so outrageous, so patently false, so devoid of Jewish values that one can hardly believe it was uttered by an ostensibly religious Jew, much less the president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. I hardly know where to begin with it.

1) Jews who come to Israel have always been unique specifically because we have not 'run away' from anything,' We have, rather, been 'running to' something. We have been running to living in the Land God gave us, in order to fulfill more mitzvot than Mr. Savitsky ever dreamed of. We have run toward building a spiritual and political homeland and refuge for our people. We have moved out of the conviction that the Torah goes forth from Zion, not from Jersey. We have run to Israel because the future of world Jewry (like the calendar, according to the Rambam) depends upon the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, not vice versa.

2) North American Jews who made Aliyah from the 1880's onward gave up careers, material success, and the closeness of family in order to actualize a dream. How does Mr. Savitsky know that they were not (or would not have been) successful? Furthermore, since when does a believing Jew only validate the existence of professionals and business people? How very assimilated of him!

3) Nevertheless, let's see who Mr. Savitsky considers an unsuccessful refugee from America (a partial list, only counting Orthodox Jews): Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Dr. Tovah LIchtenstein, Professor Pinhas Churgin (Founder, Bar Ilan University), Rabbi Dr. David Applebaum (HY"D), Rabbi Nachman Bulman, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman (RY, Qiryat Arba), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, all the American members of Qibbutz HaDati, Dr. Efraim Zuroff (Simon Wisenthal Center), Rabbi Shabbetai Rappaport, Rabbi Dr. Willy Lev Z'l (Founder, Machon Lev), Mrs. Rachel Levmore (highest ranking woman in Hanhalat Bate HaDin), Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Rabbanit Malka Bina, the hundreds of faculty members of Israeli Universities, Professor Dov Frimer (Frimer & Gelman PC), Professor Shmuel Adler (Head of Gastroenterology, Biqqur Holim Hospital). The list goes on and on..Oh, I forgot the hundreds of religious North American Olim who were wounded or killed in the defense of their country or in terrorist attacks. (Evidently, Mr. Savitsky thinks that Alyssa Flatow belongs in this category, as well).

4) The Gemora already makes it clear that parnassa in Eretz Yisrael has always been harder than in 'Bavel.' Nevertheless, contrary to Mr. Savitsky's assertions, North American Olim work very hard to make a living in a country with a 60% tax rate. Indeed, I wonder if he would be so successful with that kind of burden. We all work two or more jobs. Some of us commute to Europe or the US. Others make do with a lot less than we might have had in the US, in order to fulfill our ideals. Schnorrers, indeed!

Mr. Savitsky owes the Olim from North America an apology. He owes God Heshbon ha-Nefesh for besmirching the Torah, the Land and the People of Israel

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Arafat: Requiescat in Tartaro

I suppose I can't let the new week start without some mention of the death of Arafat. Jeff Jacoby had a good obituary on him:

Arafat the monster
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist November 11, 2004

YASSER ARAFAT died at age 75, lying in bed surrounded by familiar faces. He left this world peacefully, unlike the thousands of victims he sent to early graves.

In a better world, the PLO chief would have met his end on a gallows, hanged for mass murder much as the Nazi chiefs were hanged at Nuremberg. In a better world, the French president would not have paid a visit to the bedside of such a monster. In a better world, George Bush would not have said, on hearing the first reports that Arafat had died, "God bless his soul."

God bless his soul? What a grotesque idea! Bless the soul of the man who brought modern terrorism to the world? Who sent his agents to slaughter athletes at the Olympics, blow airliners out of the sky, bomb schools and pizzerias, machine-gun passengers in airline terminals? Who lied, cheated, and stole without compunction? Who inculcated the vilest culture of Jew-hatred since the Third Reich? Human beings might stoop to bless a creature so evil -- as indeed Arafat was blessed, with money, deference, even a Nobel Prize -- but God, I am quite sure, will damn him for eternity.

Arafat always inspired flights of nonsense from Western journalists, and his last two weeks were no exception. Derek Brown wrote in The Guardian that Arafat's "undisputed courage as a guerrilla leader" was exceeded only "by his extraordinary courage" as a peace negotiator. But it is an odd kind of courage that expresses itself in shooting unarmed victims -- or in signing peace accords and then flagrantly violating their terms.

Another commentator, columnist Gwynne Dyer, asked, "So what did Arafat do right?" The answer: He drew worldwide attention to the Palestinian cause, "for the most part by successful acts of terror." In other words, butchering innocent human beings was "right," since it served an ulterior political motive. No doubt that thought brings daily comfort to all those who were forced to bury a child, parent, or spouse because of Arafat's "successful" terrorism.

Some journalists couldn't wait for Arafat's actual death to begin weeping for him. Take the BBC's Barbara Plett, who burst into tears on the day he was airlifted out of the West Bank. "When the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound," Plett reported from Ramallah, "I started to cry." Normal people don't weep for brutal murderers, but Plett made it clear that her empathy for Arafat -- whom she praised as "a symbol of Palestinian unity, steadfastness, and resistance" -- was heartfelt:

"I remember well when the Israelis re-conquered the West Bank more than two years ago, how they drove their tanks and bulldozers into Mr. Arafat's headquarters, trapping him in a few rooms, and throwing a military curtain around Ramallah. I remember how Palestinians admired his refusal to flee under fire. They told me: `Our leader is sharing our pain, we are all under the same siege.' And so was I." Such is the state of journalism at the BBC, whose reporters do not seem to have any trouble reporting, dry-eyed, on the plight of Arafat's victims. (That is, when they mention them -- which Plett's teary bon voyage to Arafat did not.)

And what about those victims? Why were they scarcely remembered in this Arafat death watch?
How is it possible to reflect on Arafat's most enduring legacy -- the rise of modern terrorism -- without recalling the legions of men, women, and children whose lives he and his followers destroyed? If Osama bin Laden were on his deathbed, would we neglect to mention all those he murdered on 9/11?

It would take an encyclopedia to catalog all of the evil Arafat committed. But that is no excuse for not trying to recall at least some of it.

Perhaps his signal contribution to the practice of political terror was the introduction of warfare against children. On one black date in May 1974, three PLO terrorists slipped from Lebanon into the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot. They murdered two parents and a child whom they found at home, then seized a local school, taking more than 100 boys and girls hostage and threatening to kill them unless a number of imprisoned terrorists were released. When Israeli troops attempted a rescue, the terrorists exploded hand grenades and opened fire on the students. By the time the horror ended, 25 people were dead; 21 of them were children.

Thirty years later, no one speaks of Ma'alot anymore. The dead children have been forgotten. Everyone knows Arafat's name, but who ever recalls the names of his victims?

So let us recall them: Ilana Turgeman. Rachel Aputa. Yocheved Mazoz. Sarah Ben-Shim'on. Yona Sabag. Yafa Cohen. Shoshana Cohen. Michal Sitrok. Malka Amrosy. Aviva Saada. Yocheved Diyi. Yaakov Levi. Yaakov Kabla. Rina Cohen. Ilana Ne'eman. Sarah Madar. Tamar Dahan. Sarah Soper. Lili Morad. David Madar. Yehudit Madar. The 21 dead children of Ma'alot -- 21 of the thousands of who died at Arafat's command.

A good collection of apt observations can be found at The Town Crier.

Maran: The Life of R. Ovadiah Yosef

I'm almost finished reading a new biography of Rav Ovadiah Yosef by Nitzan Hen and Anshel Feffer. The authors are journalists, but despite that fact, the book is remarkably good. The presentation is coherent and respectful (though not obsequious). It places Rav Ovadiah's life in its proper social and historical context. The authors are very weak in matters halakhic and alot of what they say about his legal writings (and even his public pronouncements) is somewhat skewered because they don't know how to interpret rabbinic parlance. Still, it's a fun read and I strongly recommend it (as did the reviewer in HaZofe this Friday).

There is one point that I really disagreed with, howeverׄ The authors credit Shas' jum from six to ten Knesset seats in the 1996 elections solely to the famous amulet campaign centered on Rav Kaduri. This, in my opinion, is way off the mark. The massive rise in Shas' representation was paralleled by similar rises in strength in Mafdal and Aguda/Degel HaTorah. I am convinced, as were others like Daniel Ben Simon, that the run to the religious parties was a result of the virulently anti-religious, anti-semitic campign that was waged by th Left (especially Meretz). It was the first hint of the process of re-judaization that has continued over the last eight years.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Religious Right and the Fears of American Jews

Jonathan Rosenblum is a newspaper columnist, who usually functions as an apologist for the Haredi world (In general) and Agudat Yisrael (in particular). As a result, it isn't very often that I find myself agreeing with him. Last week however, he wrote a column in Maariv that was (IMHO) right on target.

Rosenblum was addressing the fears that most American Jews have of George Bush's religiousity, and of the rightward (and increasingly Christian) turn of American society. They fear a breach of the separation of Church and State, which has protected Jews from anti-Jewish persecution. Jewish opposition to any government involvement in religion is dogmatic. As Rosenblum says:

Out of fear of aiding and abetting religion, major American Jewish groups, including the Reform movement, consistently adopt the most extreme positions on separation of state and religion. Noted constitutional scholar Nathan Lewin has quipped that the only Wall at which American Jewry worships is the wall of separation between state and religion. As an example, the Reform movement recently advised its congregations against accepting any Homeland Security funds for guarding their temples and schools from terrorist attack, despite the obvious appeal of Jewish institutions for Islamic terrorists.

The truth of the matter is that separation of Church and State is more a religion for the established Jewish Community, than is Judaism itself. Of course, there are real reasons to be concerned about Christian missionizing, and certainly not a little evangelical support for Israel may turn out to be a double edged sword. Nevertheless, Rosenblum points out that this argument is specious.

Eli Valley, the author of a recent Jerusalem Post piece, who works for Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, warns that President Bush’s evangelical supporters are bent on “converting the Jews and ending the Jewish religion.” Given the phenomenal success of American Jews themselves in ending the Jewish religion through intermarriage and assimilation it is unclear why the evangelicals should cause shudders.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.