Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Plus ca Change...Redux

I teach two related courses (every few years or so). One is entitled 'Judaism and Other Religions,' the other is entitled 'The War Against the Talmud and its Impact on the Text of the Talmud.' In both, I often have occasion to note that one cannot understand today's headlines without a background in Jewish-Christian or Jewish-Muslim relations. While the former is self-evidently true, given the rhetoric of Imams and Qadis around the world, the former case usually sees me citing radical, anti-semitic websites that continue the tradition of anti-Talmudic agitation.

No more. Today's Haaretz reported that:

The Moscow district prosecutor has ordered an examination into the Shulhan Arukh - a code of Jewish halakhic law compiled in the 16th century - to ascertain whether it constitutes racist incitement and anti-Russian material.The prosecutor ordered the probe against a Jewish umbrella organization in Russia for distributing a Russian translation of an abbreviation of the Shulhan Arukh.

So here it is again. Anti-Jewish agitation is being directed against Jewish religious literature in an obvious attempt to diabolize Jews. The report conmtinues:

Jerusalem sources following the affair said this is the first time since Stalin's regime that Russian officials have described holy Jewish scriptures as prohibited incitement.

That's true. It fails to mention, however, that anti-Talmud agitation has a long, nefarious history in Czarist Russia in particular (and Christian Europe, in general).

Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme chose.

UPDATE: Yair Sheleg has a very good piece on the Russian action, in which he quotes Yisrael Yuval. Of equal interest, for those with strong stomachs, are the responses listed under Talkback.

Monday, June 27, 2005

What Went Wrong?

I normally don't get publically involved in the musings of other bloggers. However, Chayyei Sarah has been so frank asnmd honest about her conflicted feelings about the retreat from Gaza, that I felt she deserves a kudo. The way she's been describing her thoughts, it's clear that she is grappling with the issue in the principled way I've been advocating here.
In order to help, I would suggest she read 'What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis (see the interview here). Lewis, without reference to this specific issue, explains how the so-called disengagement (without any connection to Jewish religio-nastional considerations) reflects a fundamentally flawed (and potentially racist) attitude toward the Muslim world, of which the Palestinians are an integral part. (I would also recommend his prescient article The Return of Islam [Hebrew version] and, of course, Semites and Anti-Semites). See here, too.
Of course, there are critical intra-Israeli issues involved here, as well. These, however, get all of the limelight and there is no need for me to comment thereupon (for now).

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Classics Never Die

I'm in the middle of reading Raymond Aron's, The Opium of the Intellectual. It was finished in the mid-fifties. It reads like it was written yesterday, parse some anachronisms. Highly recommended.

See this introduction by Roger Kimball, for a start.

Functional Iliteracy is Dangerous

A well known lawyer's adage says: 'When the law is on your side, bang on the law. When the facts are on your side, bang on the facts. When neither are on your side, bang on the table.' This might be good practice in an adversarial proceeding (though, what it does for justice is another question). However, at least it presumes that the lawyer knows both the law and the facts. However, what concerns (no, terrifies) me is the fact that in current Jewish or Israeli discourse, people only bang on the table. Their ignorance of the facts (never mind the law) is abysmal and, in our case, extremely dangerous. (I guess it comes from living in a bubble.)

A few examples will suffice:

1) MK Michael Melchior, Deputy Minister of Education, was interviewed on Radio Moreshet last Sunday. He was asked about concerns that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will cost Jewish lives, given Meimad's position that the sanctity of life is more important than the sanctity of territory. Melchior blithely replied that such a position is absolutely unfounded, as proven by the Camp David accords. So, here we have a Deputy Minister of Education for the State of Israel, which is 19% Arab, who never read the Quran, never heard of the Hadith, never heard of the Battle of Badr and has no idea of what Egypt's official policy regarding Israel. What he does do is superciliously reject anything that he doesn't like. Marvelous! (Then again, what do you want from a guy whose minister barely has a BA. Ben Zion Dinur, where are you?)

2) Gidi Gov was interviewed in Makor Rishon. He informs us that nothing taken by violence is legitimate, and that Jews have no rights to Eretz Yisrael. 'Nuff Said.

3) A persistently egregious example of all of this concerns the word 'democracy.' Everybody (both Right and Left) talks about it, but very few people have a clue what it is (especially our legislators, pundits and even our judges). [Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in the United States and the British Commonwealth do know, but Israelis tend not to listen to us because we're not real Israelis.]
Noone has read Locke, Hobbes, the Federalist Papers, Burke, Benthem, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendall Holmes etc. (despite the heroic and wonderful efforts of the Shalem Institute to translate and circulate their ideas). So, the result is that everybody yells democracy, but democracy usually means 'what I think.' There is not a hint of Voltaire's famous observation: 'I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.' Instead, any hint of criticism of the dominant side becomes 'treason,' 'incitement,' 'racism' or worse.

4) This reminds me of an episode after the murder of PM Rabin, z'l. There was an assembly at Bar Ilan where all kinds of people spoke. One speech, however, stands out in my memory. Then MK Benny Temkin of Meretz (now Yahad), spoke extolling his spiritual mentor Herbert Marcuse. Temkin waxed eloquent about how Marcuse was a pacifist whose writings should be the bedrock of Israeli political culture. I thought I was dreaming! Wasn't Marcuse Angela Davis' mentor? I walked over to a colleague who was known for his left-wing political affiliations. I asked him about Marcuse. He confirmed my recollection that Marcuse preached a version of Marxist violent anarchy.
I walked away very sad. Either Temkin had read Marcuse and hadn't understood a thing he'd written. Or, he had not read him and was faking it. Or, he had read him, understood him and was consciously misrepresenting him. Similarly, since the students were lapping this stuff up they clearly hadn't heard of Marcuse either. Saddest of all, I knew full well that none of them would walk the three hundred feet into the Library from the amphitheatre in order to find out.

Ten days of Shavu'a HaSefer. What in hell are they reading?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Euripides was Right...

The Greek playwrite, Euripides (484- 406 BCE), is credited with the observation: 'Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,' although I have found one version that is more acceptable for us monotheists, '"Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first deprives of their senses."

Hopefully, our fate will no be that drastic but the collective insanity is certainly deepening. Hamas is raining down rockets, the Americans are rehabilitating them and we are merrily assunming that Sjaron's retreat will stop them. No, it gets better. A book just appeared at Israel's annual Book Week (my favorite event of the year), that documents how Sharon's lawyer,.Dov Weisglass, thought up the Gaza plan in order to keep Sharon and Sons out of jail. This, and the country is buying it.

Euripides was right.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Kol HaKavod, Rivka!

Rivka Yaffa just published a piece on the Supreme Court's decision on the 'Disengagement' that says it all. Well Done!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Torah UMadda: Really

Bar Ilan University just finished celebrating its Jubilee anniversary. In that connection a lot was said about how important it is to foster Torah UMadda. I was, however, disappointed to see that the regnant conception of Torah UMadda is caught in something of a time-warp. People still think, mirabile dictu, that one this is confined to Physics/Biology/Chemistry. One ostensibly learned person told me that the Rambam only considered the so-called exact sciences to be part of his religious program. I don't know why I bothered, but I tried to show him that the opposite is true. The Rambam viewed these disciplines as propaedeutic to philosophy (which at Bar Ilan is in the Faculty of Humanities). Of course, he remained unconvinced. Neve try to confuse a scientist with a theory with the facts.

However, there is real danger with this kind of limited mindset. The real challenge to religious life is specfically in the area of the humanities and the social sciences. The Slifkin Controversy may be shaking up the Haredi world, but our community is reeeling from its inability to deal with the results of post-modern anarchism in all of its manifestations. Unless we develop tools to tame and/or address the questions Hokhma (instead of just Madda), Modern Orthodoxy in Israel will not rise. (The kippot, however, will continue to fall.]

Friday, June 10, 2005

The First Fruits

Every so often, with all of the negatives that surround us, God provides a reminder as to why we chose to live here. Today brought just such a reminder.

Our seven year old daughter, Moriah, attends the Gush Etzion regional elementary school in Alon Shvut. This morning we were invited to participate in a ceremony commemorating the bringing of the Bikkurim ('The First Fruits') to the Bet HaMiqdash. Of course, this was done in advance of Shavuoth, the 'Hag HaBikkurim.' (Though, the Bikkurim mentioned by the Torah are a 'meal offering' and the Mishnah says that Bikkurim were brought from Shavuoth until Sukkot.) It was an amazingly beautiful and emotional ceremony.

The parents all gathered in the square of the commercial center of Alon Shvut, in front of the central shul. From the left we heard drums and a trumpter. Leading a procession of little kids was a group of miniature levites (real levi'im), and behind them was a goat all decorated with flowers. (The Mishnah requires a cow with gilded horns, but this was fine too). Then came hundreds of kids in blue and white, with garlands on their heads and sundry baskets of fruits in their hands.

From their midst emerged twenty (or so) junior kohanim, dressed in white ponchos, tied at the waist with blue cloth belts. They went barefoot up to the steps of the shul. At the signal, representatives of each class went up and presented their baskets to the kohen, just as the Mishnah describes. At the same time, the kids in the square recited the Bikkurim declaration:

'I profess this day unto the Lord your G-d, that I have come to the land which God swore to our fathers to give us'...'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And God brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs, and with wonders. And He has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, O Lord, have given me.'

I was really on the verge of tears (my daughter is also very cute). Here are all of these Jewish parents and children, in Eretz Yisrael, invoking the Hava'at HaBikkurim with such quiet joy. What a beautiful sight it was! Then we all adjourned to the shul to learn a Parshat Shavua sheet together with our children. What a zekhut! [While everyone was getting settled, I glanced at Rashi on the Vidui Bikkurim. Rashi cites the Sifre, that goes against the obvious meaning of the verse and serves as the basis of the Pesach Hagaddah. The bottom line in Rashi is: Mir vellen zei uberleben.
Timely words at a breathtaking moment.]