Jewish Current Issues

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Friday, October 31, 2003

This Week’s Portion: Noah (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32)

At the end of forty days, Noah . . . sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him . . .

He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf!
(Genesis 8:6 - 8:12).

Rabbi Melissa Crespy – experiencing a “good deal of chaos in my life at the moment” -- notes the reference to seven days and to the dove’s return with an olive leaf (signaling the restoration of order in the world) and thinks of Shabbat:

As I thought about the dove in the verse, and the moments that bring me peace, I couldn't help but think of the Shabbat [song] . . . [that] takes its wording right from our verse 9 above and says:

"The day of rest should not be forgotten, its memory is like a satisfying aroma. On it the dove found rest ... and on it shall rest exhausted ones."

The order, the lack of pressure, the peace, and the inner calm which many of us seek is to be found in God's special gift to us -- Shabbat.

When we make the effort to prepare for it, when we set it aside as a day when we stop "wrestling with the world" . . . and instead "care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul" (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 13), we can find a haven from the chaos of the world.

Shabbat at its greatest can be sublime; for me -- and I suspect for many of us busy, harried people -- it is essential for restoring a sense of balance, a sense of order and a sense of peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Academic Anti-Semitism

Daniel Gordis has a new Dispatch from Israel -- a response to Tony Judt's infamous essay in The New York Review of Books. He says the underpinning of Judt's proposal to replace Israel is anti-Semitic:

And one final question, if you don't mind.

Why is it that when Ceausescu turns Romania into a living hell, no one suggests doing away with Romania?

Or when Iraq menaces the world, the United States invades Iraq, not to destroy it, but to save it and return it to her people . . . .

When North Korea announces its arms proliferation program, the discussion is about how to contain North Korea; no one says that North Korea has no right to exist.

Why do we hear claims that a country has no right to exist only when it comes to Israel? Doesn't that strike you as odd?

Andrea Levin thinks Judt's essay is dangerous and motivated in part by academic peer pressure:

Accomplished in the academy, where Israel is widely vilified, he has evidently, as a Jew, suffered discomfiting criticism among his colleagues -- perhaps even at dinner parties. He doesn't appreciate this, and so publicly advocates the dismantling of Israel as a sovereign Jewish nation. . . .

Arafat and his associates have long advocated the "single state" solution Judt embraces, and have made clear what that would entail.

"Every Palestinian must clearly understand that the independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, is not the end of the process but rather a stage on the road to a democratic state in the whole of Palestine," Fatah ideologue and PA director of political indoctrination Othman Abu Gharbiya stated in November, 1999.

"This will be followed by a third phase, namely Palestine's complete amalgamation in the Arab and Islamic cultural, national, historic, and geographic environment. This is the permanent-status solution."

Her point about Judt's discomfort on campus is sarcastic, but there is a larger truth within it. The atmosphere on many college campuses is growing poisonous.

Natan Sharansky reports on a trip to 13 campuses in the United States earlier this month:

During a frank and friendly conversation with a group of Jewish students at Harvard University, one student admitted to me that she was afraid — afraid to express support for Israel, afraid to take part in pro-Israel organizations, afraid to be identified.

The mood on campus had turned so anti-Israel that she was afraid that her open identification could cost her, damaging her grades and her academic future. That her professors, who control her final grades, were likely to view such activism unkindly, and that the risk was too great.

Having grown up in the communist Soviet Union, I am very familiar with this fear to express one's opinions, with the need to hold the "correct opinions" in order to get ahead, with the reality that expressing support for Israel is a blot on one's resume. But to find all these things at Harvard Business School?

. . . [M]y conversations with other students at various universities made it clear that her feelings are widespread, that the situation on campuses in the United States and Canada is more serious than we think.

Tell students about "On One Foot."

Friday, October 24, 2003

This Week's Portion: B'reishit (Genesis 1:1 - 6:8)

Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.

Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the Lord said to Cain:

Why are you so distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.

David Curzon illustrates the portion with a parable in "Reacting to Rejection:"

Offerings are made by two different people . . . . God attends to one person and his superior offering, and ignores the other. The person whose offering is ignored is distressed.

In response, God provides no explanation of His motives or reasons and does not offer the rejected person the opportunity to argue against the Divine decision. Instead He says, "You have control over your response to My rejection. If you choose to control your distress there will be a positive effect, and if you choose not to there will be a negative effect."

I'll give an interpretation of this passage by means of a parable . . .

Harry and Jake are 30. They are close friends, and both are artists. They brought their portfolios of slides to the owner of a well-known gallery . . . . The owner looked over Jake's portfolio and said: "Yes, I like your work a lot. . . .

But after looking over Harry's portfolio, the owner said, "These are not for us."

And Harry's face fell, and the owner said: "Surely you know by now that you aren't Picasso. You want to be an artist, so keep producing your works and dedicate yourself to your art. . . .

And let me give you some serious advice. . . . Despair and rage are latent in all of us, and if you give them a chance, they're crouching at the door . . . and if you open the door to them, they'll act in you as though they were independent forces, demons of sin waiting to tear you to pieces.

They'll destroy you, and you won't be the first to slip from depression to insanity or suicide. Facing up to limitations and persevering in spite of them is no joke. But you have the capacity to keep the evil impulses at bay . . . ."

It's obvious from the parable that my interpretative application of God's rejection of Cain's offering can be applied to any and all "God-given" aspects of life that are inequitably distributed, and all are: looks, health, intelligence, place and decade of birth, family of birth. . . .

Curzon closes with an early poem of Shakespeare's that he interprets as Shakespeare's envy of others with greater gifts:

Let's hope that he came to understand the lesson implicit in Genesis 4:3-7 and that, after accepting the limitations of his scope and art, and the limitations of the offerings he made with them, he experienced uplift.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Mahathir Mohamad's Speech at the Islamic Summit

Daniel Drezner, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, writes about the speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the Opening of the Islamic Summit Conference on October 16, 2003:

The scary and pathetic thing is . . . relative to a lot of Muslim leaders, Mahathir's position is moderate. Mahathir embodies the moderate face of Islam.

To his credit, he was at the helm as his country indistrialized. He . . . appreciate[d] the importance of the rule of law and the role of markets in fostering economic growth. . . . He . . . ameliorate[d] ethnic tensions between the poorer but more numerous Malays and the wealthier ethnic Chinese. These feats are not easy for a developing country leader to pull off

And yet, this man, the best that moderate political Islam has to offer, is rotten with flaws. Mahathir subverted his country's democratic traditions . . . . He jailed his anointed successor . . . . And the anti-Semitism is hardly new -- he blamed the Jews [in 1997-1998], specifically George Soros, for causing the Asian financial crisis. . . .

There is actually a powerful critique of Islamic fundamentalism in [his speech] -- but the critique is exclusively over means and not ends. Mahathir explicitly denounces the use of wanton violence to exterminate the state of Israel. He's advocating the use of brainpower -- to exterminate the state of Israel.

What Mahathir wants is for Islamic countries to embrace modernization without Westernization and its tacky "Jewish" traits of human rights and democracy. However, it's no coincidence that the peak of Islam's power and influence came at a time when the religion was tolerant to scientific and religious views outside of the Quran.

. . . I side with the writer Jonathan Rauch in believing that it's impossible to embrace modern science without embracing the tolerance for free thought that is at the core of Western liberal thought.

The reference to Jonathan Rauch is to his book "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought."

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Religious Responses to Rush Limbaugh’s Troubles

Marvin Olasky, writing in World Magazine, has a nice article on “Thinking Biblically About Limbaugh’s Fall:”

Top preachers say "we sinners," not "you." They remind listeners that there's plenty of sin to go around, and also lots of grace. We can take positions on moral issues without becoming holier-than-thou if we remember that sin is crouching at our door.

The fall of those who cast a large shadow should remind us of the shadows in our own lives and our dependence on God's grace every day. That consciousness should also free us from any tendency to demonize opponents.

. . . conservatives should insist that if Mr. Limbaugh did anything that merits a legal penalty, he should pay it. The Bible is clear that justice should be impartial, and that wealth or prominence shouldn't exact a higher or lower penalty.

But the Bible is also clear that when the mighty have fallen, the nation should lament.

The biblical reference is to David's lament, "How the mighty have fallen," when he heard the news that Saul was dead.

Joseph Aaron, columnist for the Chicago Jewish News, grants Limbaugh the compassion he “needs and deserves” -- because it is “the Jewish thing to do.” But it takes him a little while to get there:

And just as we ask G-d to wipe clean our slate on Yom Kippur . . . so we are instructed to forgive all those we feel have done us wrong, . . . harbor no ill feelings, let go of the past.

Not easy to do. No sir. Especially when it comes to a creep as creepy as the pill-popping Rush Limbaugh.

I despise Rush Limbaugh not only for all that he is, but because he represents all those of his ilk that make up such a big part of the right wing of this country.

And even more, because he represents all those of his ilk that make up such a big part of the right wing of Judaism, both politically and religiously. . . .

It's hard to feel any compassion for Rush Limbaugh now that his drug abuse has been revealed, precisely because Limbaugh has never given to others what he so much now needs and deserves. . . .

. . . Rush, like right wing Jews, never listens to the other side, never listens to anyone else, never even entertains the idea that other points of view might have value.

Too much has Rush Limbaughization infiltrated Judaism, made Judaism ugly, made those on the Jewish right mean and cruel.

For the moment, do I feel compassion for Rush's drug problem? It ain't easy, but I do. [See, we told you he’d get there – JCI]. I do because that is the right thing to do, the Jewish thing to do.

Mr. Aaron may have been off his own meds while writing his article. But at least they kicked in in time for him to write his last paragraph, with the lovely "[f]or the moment" qualifier.

Monday, October 20, 2003

The Modern State of Israel -- How It Started

In 1954, David Ben-Gurion (a short biography, by Amos Oz, is here) wrote an essay that offered an historical perspective on the creation of the state of Israel.

There was, said Ben-Gurion, a greater miracle even than independence. Here is an excerpt from his essay, reprinted in Walzer, Lorberbaum and Zohar, eds., “The Jewish Political Tradition” (2003) -- worth re-reading at this time:

Never in Jewish history has the unity of Israel been revealed in a . . . more perfect manner than in the Declaration of Independence of our state in our times.

. . . when Moses was merely delayed in descending from the mountain, the people gathered with Aaron at their head and made the golden calf.

And after all the tribes had come to David in Hebron to appoint him as leader over all Israel . . . the rebellion of Absalom broke out.

And after Joab and Abishai . . . suppressed the family rebellion and restored the kingship to David, a more severe rebellion spread, the rebellion of Sheba . . . which led, after the death of Solomon, to a split between Judea and Israel. . . .

In the days of the Second Temple, quarrels proliferated between the Sadducees and the Pharisees and between the Hasmonean brothers themselves. And prior to the destruction, between the moderates and the zealot rebels.

The rebels too fought among themselves no less than they fought the Romans . . . . Nor did the quarrels and conflicts cease in Israel during the exile.

On the eve of the establishment of the state, the Jewish yishuv in the Land was perhaps the most divided and fragmented of all the Jewish settlements in the world.

In no other land could one find such a conglomeration of different ethnic groups, cultures, organizations and parties, beliefs and opinions, shifting ideologies and international orientations, conflicting economic and social interests, as in the yishuv -- as a result of the ingathering of the exiles, the center of all the divisions and splits in Israel.

With the wondrous occurrence of . . . independence, it was as if all the divisions were overcome.

Representatives of all the parties in Israel signed the Declaration – from the Communists, who had forever fought against the Zionist enterprise as reactionary, bourgeois, chauvinistic, and counter-revolutionary, to Agudat Yisrael, which had perceived as apostasy any attempt to bring about the redemption of Israel through natural means . . .

However, it was not only these two extremes that . . . overcame their prolonged and bitter opposition to the state of Israel. The representatives of Shomer Hatzair, who for over twenty years had maintained that a binational state was the only means to realize the Zionist goal . . . participated in the signing. . . .

And representatives of the Revisionists, who had vehemently fought against a state based on partition, also signed the Declaration.

The only obstacle . . . was the last paragraph [of the Declaration] referring to “trust in the Rock of Israel.” Some radical intellectuals considered those words an apostasy against atheism; on the other side were ultra-Orthodox extremists who perceived the failure to add “and its Redeemer” . . . as an apostasy against fundamental dogma.

Nevertheless, everyone signed after negotiations. And not only the parties in Israel but the Jewish people throughout the world were united on that day in their joy and pride over the establishment of the state.

It is difficult to assess which of the two miracles was greater – the miracle of independence or the miracle of unity.

The "Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel" contains a recitation of the historical basis and aspirations of the state of Israel.

Like America, Israel has not yet reached all its goals. But its story and aspirations are the hope of history. It is the alternative to the chaos that surrounds it.

Israeli blogger Imshin had a related observation on her blog yesterday:

Strangely, many see Israel's being forged as a Western style democracy as a natural development, but when you think of it, it was anything but natural.

The Israel we see today was built, in the early days, by Eastern European Jews, most of them born and bred in Orthodox Jewish households, where the Rabbi's word was law and the secular ruler of the land, often a cruel tyrant, was feared and hated. . . .

There was no tradition [in Israel] of peer rule, no gradual development over the years of a belief in liberalism or in individual freedom . . . .

Still, amazingly, these people, joined later by, among others, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from feudal Middle Eastern and North African countries, somehow managed to break away from what they had experienced before, and established a Western-style democratic state . . . .

Is this not amazing? True, our democracy has its flaws. It is far from perfect (as are all democracies, even old, established ones). But give us time. We're working on it. We have one or two other problems, as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Tony Judt -- Respected No More

Paul Berman wrote an important article last year in Forward. He described a “spirit of hatred” of Israel, emerging in otherwise respectable people. One of his principal examples was Tony Judt, who had just written “The Road to Nowhere” in the May 9, 2002 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Judt’s 2002 article asserted most Israelis were “trapped” in the “story” of their own “uniqueness.” Their “invocation” of the Holocaust was simply “special pleading.” The term “terrorist” was a “rhetorical device” -- like “Communist.” The United States was being “blackmailed” by Ariel Sharon. The article went on -- sprinkled with references to “pariah state” and “rogue state.”

What upset Berman was not the one-sided nature of the essay, nor even its ostensible argument, which Berman disposed of in a single paragraph:

[Judt] ends up commenting, "terror against civilians is the weapon of choice of the weak." Presumably he means that the Palestinian bombers are weak and have had no alternative way to claim their national rights — though he doesn't explain why the "weak" would have turned to their "weapon of choice" precisely in the aftermath of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer to create the Palestinian state in Gaza and on almost all of the West Bank.

Instead, what concerned Berman was Judt’s rhetoric and language -- which culminated in Judt’s reference to Israeli intellectuals as Pontius Pilate, who took no responsibility for killing Jesus. What? What!? Berman thought such language must have been the accident of a “writer whose anger has gotten out of hand.” But given the other examples in his article, Berman thought things had become ominous:

The little accidents and odd behaviors do add up. The new wind is definitely blowing. A few months ago . . . it was pretty unusual to stumble across diatribes against Judaism or anti-Semitic phrases in the intellectual press. But look at what has happened. Something has changed.

One wonders what Berman would make of Judt's latest article ("Israel: The Alternative") in the October 23, 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books, and the fact that last week the Los Angeles Times reprinted a sanitized version of it.

In his new article, Judt calls Israel an “anachronism,” says the “fascist” label now “fits better than ever,” accuses Israel of “political murder” (which is “what fascists do”), and asserts we are now in an age when a Jewish state “has no place” (history having apparently ended). Israel today is “bad for the Jews.” He wants it replaced.

Yael, who publishes the indispensable "Boker Tov, Boulder" blog, labels Judt’s article the “liberal intellectual rationale for dismantling the Jewish state -- on grounds of antifascism and modernism.” If so, it is not much of a rationale, on either of its purported grounds:

Asher Klatchko notes that, as an intellectual matter, the “binational state solution [favored by Judt] came and went in Israel’s political thought many times and long ago.” He observes that the “solution” did not work so well in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Czechoslovakia, and he does not think Israel is a good place to experiment.

Scaramouch (#19), commenting at Little Green Footballs, says Judt should:

look up the meaning of "anachronism" before he misapplies it to Israel. An anachronism is the appearance of something out of its time – a perfect description for the 13th C beliefs and mindset of the Islamo-fascists in any number of failed Arab and Muslim states.”

Marc Mulholland thinks Judt’s view of a “post-nationalist, cosmopolitan” Europe is naïve:

. . . how did we get from the “late-nineteenth century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law"? Well, two world wars, massive ethnic cleansing . . . and the elimination of stranded sub-national enclaves. Where this didn't happen (Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia), all our “advanced” ideas on citizenship were impotent in rooting out ethnic hostilities.

For the chattering classes . . . cosmopolitanism is perhaps natural. They flit from place to place on jets, they speak with other members of the elite in a lingua franca, they subscribe to liberal internationalism . . . .

For the rest, nationalism is a comfort, bringing a sense of community and pride. It need not be intrusive. The Americans call it Patriotism. It is not the last refuge of the scoundrel, but a pleasing texture to life. . . . [Without it, we are an] atomized society, without historical memory, social solidarity or collective aspirations.

These are all valid points. But there is a more fundamental point about Judt’s essay. Last year Paul Berman said he was confident Judt “had no intention of indulging in anti-Zionism . . . or demonizing the Jews (even if that is the inference of what he ended up writing).”

Now Judt has labeled the leaders of the Jewish state as “fascist” -- you cannot demonize Jews more than that -- and explicitly called for the end of the state, while it is fighting to survive a war it did not start.

Look at what has happened. A prominent American intellectual has put hatred of Israel into print, in a leading intellectual journal, and a leading U.S. newspaper has reprinted it. Something has changed.

The intellectual arguments are easy to refute. They're not even really intellectual arguments. But when an academic, even a respected one, starts publishing anti-Semitic images and slurs, something has changed, and he should be respected no more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

More on Dogs and God

From this week's New Yorker:

From the July 29 Jewish Current Issues, excerpting a James Lileks column:

Perhaps at the absolute extreme some see dogs as an affront to God because they live in the moment, unconscious of tomorrow let alone eternity, and have no desire to govern their appetites. Show them a steak and they deploy that pale purple tentacle and stare at you with desire. They have no word for shame.

But . . . I’ve often said, half facetiously, that the relationship between man and dog is the same as man to God. Dogs don’t understand our books or physics or spacecraft or lawn mower engines or flat-screen monitors or 99.8% of our world. They do not know what it is that they do not know. They don’t even know how to pose the question, frame the argument, find their way into the realm of the human mind.

The connection to the human being is sufficient. . . . I find no more empirical proof of God than my dog finds proof of satellite TV. But at night when we’re on the sofa he sees the inscrutable stories flickering on the box in the corner. I note his disinterest: one of those things, whaddagonna do.

But the fact that he doesn’t get the story doesn’t mean there’s not a story being told.

Interestingly, the caption of the New Yorker cartoon could have been "Without Making a Big Deal Out of It, Dogs Often Appreciate the Existence of an Almighty" -- and it would have fit the picture better.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Pessimism, Optimism and the Middle East

From an on line discussion at The New Republic between Yossi Klein Halevi and Leon Wieseltier:

Yossi Klein Halevi: . . . I appreciate your caution about excessive pessimism, even toward the Middle East. Still, in the last three years of terror and the pervasive demonization of Israel, I've come to value Brooklyn's warning against the temptation of self-delusion.

For me, that means conceding that the peace process is over, that in fact there never was a peace process, if by that we mean a mutual process of reconciliation. "Land for peace" wasn't an option because recognition of Israel's legitimacy was never being offered. The current war, then, isn't merely a glitch on the way to an inevitable comprehensive peace, but the end of the assumption that a comprehensive peace is possible, perhaps in our generation.

. . . if Oslo was, as I believe, a Palestinian ruse -- or Trojan Horse (the phrase belongs to the late Faisal Husseini) -- then Oslo failed because it was meant to fail. And that requires a self-reckoning, yes, an atonement for self-deception, among those of us who initially supported Oslo.

If I say there is no possibility, at this point in history, of achieving peace, it isn't only because of the collapse of Oslo, but because of numerous conversations I've had over the years with Palestinians, from all levels of society. When I'd ask the question, "What will happen after the peace?" the answers almost invariably focused on the next phase of repatriating Palestinian refugees and transforming Israel into a bi-national entity. When the war over Israel as a state ends, the war against Israel as a Jewish state will begin.

. . . Given that this generation of Palestinian leaders is incapable of accepting Israel's legitimacy, we need to rethink the goal of negotiations. If renewing the peace process is premised on an Israeli withdrawal to an approximation of the green line . . . then I don't want a peace process -- not because I'm not willing, in principle, to make the concessions, but because I don't believe those will win us peace.

The issue now isn't how to resurrect a rejected peace but how to most effectively fight the war that's been imposed on us. Once the war is won, the peace can be negotiated. . . .

Leon Wieseltier: Hold on. You are the one who fears despair. . . .

You do not believe that territorial concessions will win you peace; but territorial occupation has not won you peace, either.

If I were you, I would not speak so grimly of the inevitability of territorial withdrawal; I would make territorial withdrawal my fondest fantasy. Under the right conditions, naturally--and those conditions are nowhere to be found right now. But right now is only right now. It is not optimism or self-delusion to think that the present is not the same as the future. It is, in fact, an old Jewish habit.

(Hat tip and thanks to MM).

Friday, October 10, 2003

The Poetry of a World Destroyed

Edward Hirsch reviews a volume of poetry by the Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1975) -- Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky. The volume was translated by Dr. Kathryn Hellerstein, a lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania.

Molodowsky was born in a shtetl in Russia. She taught school in Poland and lived there until 1935, when she settled in New York City and supported herself by writing for the Yiddish press.

She published her most haunting book, says Hirsch, in New York in 1946 -- Only King David Remained -- a book of poems lamenting the destruction and pain of an entire Jewish world that had been murdered.

The first poem in the book is "Eyl Khanun" ("Merciful God"). It is painful to read.

Merciful God,

Choose another people,

Elect another.

We are tired of death and dying,

We have no more prayers.

Choose another people,

Elect another.

We have no more blood

To be a sacrifice.

Our house has become a desert.

The earth is insufficient for our graves,

No more laments for us,

No more dirges

In the old, holy books.

Merciful God,

Sanctify another country,

Another mountain.

We have strewn all the fields and every stone

With ash, with holy ash.

With the aged,

With the youthful,

And with babies, we have paid

For every letter of your Ten Commandments.

Merciful God,

Raise your fiery brow,

And see the peoples of the world --

Give them the prophecies and the Days of Awe.

Your word is babbled in every language --

Teach them the deeds,

The ways of temptation.

Merciful God,

Give us simple garments

Of shepherds with their sheep,

Blacksmiths at their hammers,

Laundry-washers, skin-flayers,

And even the more base.

And do us one more favor:

Merciful God,

Deprive us of the Divine Presence of genius

Imagine the pain and power of the poem in the original Yiddish.

S.T. Meravi writes in "The Kosher Cellar of Her Heart" that "Prof. Hellerstein has built a paper bridge of her own to bring an important Yiddish voice to a new generation of readers."

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Serious Thoughts About Jewish Humor

Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and Literature at Harvard, and author of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, delivered the inaugural Richard Pratt Lecture at Melbourne University. Her topic was the psychological basis of Jewish humor.

The lecture has some funny jokes, and some serious reservations.

The following joke dating from World War I may help to convey why [Jewish] humour remains so haunting.

An ordinary Jew is stranded in no-man's land sometime during World War I. Suddenly he finds himself staring into the beam of a German sentry's searchlight.

"Halt," shouts the guard. "Halt or I'll shoot."

"Are you crazy," says the Jew, "can't you see that I am a human being?"

The character in this joke fails to understand the ways of the world. He isn't an ideological pacifist, he just doesn't get the point of aggression and belligerence. . . .

Joking is one kind of defence, military and diplomatic preparedness is another. When Jews resort to joking in times of threat, they seem to be functioning in a world of their own. The humour itself is quite aware of this possibility, but it may also be one of its symptoms.

Jews might do better to attend to their military and political self-defence rather than laugh off and sublimate the mounting danger.

Wisse's extraordinary paper, "The Brilliant Failure of Jewish Foreign Policy," written nearly a year before the collapse of Oslo and published shortly thereafter, is a remarkable study of Jewish political character. Worth re-reading.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Yom Kippur in Israel

Allison Kaplan Sommer, blogging from Israel, writes about the holiday and the day after. From last night:

Now is when I usually call my parents in the U.S. and gloat that my fast is over but they still have several hours to go. I guess I can gloat to all of you in the States who are religious enough to fast, but not religious enough to refrain from blogging . . . my fast is over!

. . . Meanwhile, looks like things are heating up in the north. As for the Palestinians . . . I love this AP headline: "Qureia Wants Quick Truce With Israel But Won't Confront Militants". It might as well read "Qureia Wants His Cake And Plans To Eat It Too."

And from this morning:

. . . just know that the bottom line here on the ground in the Israel is that today is a day of funerals -- 12 of them -- of families mourning, of injured people in pain, and of the country trying to be strong and stand by them.

Much sadder than Yom Kippur.

Damn, sometimes I wish I lived in California so I could worry about stuff like the recall election and the state budget.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Some Things to Think About on Yom Kippur

Nathan Gutman has a heartbreaking remembrance of Yom Kippur in 1944 as a 13-year old boy -- Prisoner No. 86619 -- in a slave labor camp in Austria, but it is "Why I Fast."

One by one, the family perished. I ended up alone in the St. Valentin camp. The Nazis worked us in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, making tank parts. All day long I monotonously pushed a lever on a huge machine and kept reciting the "Shema."

Then came Yom Kippur of 1944. It was bitter cold. The family was gone. The already meager food rations deteriorated further into "soup" and "bread" twice a day. The long starvation and deprivation had taken their toll. I kept my mind from going numb and kept reciting the "Shema" that my grandmother taught me.

To fast on that Yom Kippur day was an act of defiance. It was to prove to myself that in spite of all the German atrocities, I still controlled at least one aspect of my life. They took away my family, they took away my freedom, but they could not take away the Yom Kippur fast. It was a desperate effort to cling to . . . personal dignity in an upside-down world that went berserk.

Rabbi David Wolpe uses Yom Kippur to reflect on our obligations, living in America in 2003:

We are not only fortunate, we have tremendous influence in the most powerful nation in the world. If we do not use that influence to help our sisters and brothers in Israel, to plead their case and present the truth, then we are as guilty as Esther might have been [had she not used her position in the palace to plead for her people].

Perhaps it was for just such a mission that we were granted this tremendous gift.

. . . We who live outside the land of Israel can settle where we will, but it does not absolve us of the responsibility to do what we can to sustain our people in our land. We may not fight, but we can learn, contribute, visit.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber writes that on Yom Kippur we must remember that "We Are Not Small:"

. . . at the edge of a vast universe is God. And most remarkably, is that in God’s eyes, we are not small. We are beloved by the Master of the Universe. "The greatest sin of man," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "is to forget that he is a prince — that he has royal power."

. . . when you believe God is that close, you begin to see the world in a different way.

You are more grateful for a simple glass of water, for it is a gift from God.

When you are God’s child, you become more sensitive to the suffering of those who are in need, for the poor and the hungry are your sisters and brothers.

When you believe your life matters to the King of the universe, you make different choices; you take your life more seriously.

Read all three before Sunday evening. Have an easy fast.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

More Readings for the Days of Awe lists 17 books to read during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The books range from (a) the useful and informative "Rosh Hashanah /Yom Kippur Survival Kit" to (b) S.Y. Agnon's classic companion to the High Holiday prayer book, "Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days."

There are 15 others.