Friday, August 31, 2007

This is What a Jewish State is For

The upcoming Jewish year will be a Shmita - the seventh year. This is the original "sabbatical", the idea that after working for six years, one should change things in the seventh. Wikipedia gives a reasonably good description here, though you'll note that the article was written, as usual on Wikipedia, by many hands (see if you can count all the different ways the word is spelled!).

Fundamentally the concept deals with agricultural issues (allowing the land to lie fallow for a year), with social ones (it serves as an equalizer), and ecological ones. The agricultural aspects are binding only on Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel, which means that for centuries prior to the 1880s there was no issue, and then, when agricultural settlement was crucial to the early Zionist movement it was a matter of life and death. The economic aspects (debts are annulled) were evolved almost out of practice well more than 2,000 years ago.

The agricultural issues are a main bone of contention between ultra orthodox (Haredi) and the Zionist orthodox (the Israeli version of Modern Orthodox), as summarized by The Forward here.

Yesterday I went to a conference offered by the Avi Chai Foundation in Jerusalem. The purpose was to look at the subject from many different perspectives. Avi Chai has set itself the mission of bringing together diverse Jewish and Israeli groups, so the speakers came from all directions. There was an assortments of rabbis, there were agronomists and farmers, there were social theorists and social activists, politicians, ecologists, economists and bankers, a high-tech VP, a rising young law professor as well as one of the most prominent lawyers in the country; there was a session limited to journalists (why?) and another with two rocks stars and a novelist. Many of the speakers were religious, and quite a few weren't, and the same seemed to be true of the hundreds of people in the audience.

I had hoped to be able to spend most of the day there - ha! In the end, I only found the time for one session, where five economists presented their thoughts. The first dispatched the entire question of the cost of letting the land lie fallow by noting that given the size of Israel's economy and the relative size of its agricultural section, we could shut down the entire sector every seventh year for the price of half of one percent of VAT. The other four talked about various schemes for creating universal sabbaticals across the entire economy, or otherwise stopping the rat-race.

Learning has always been a central aspect of Jewish life - if not, perhaps, THE center itself. So such a public event really is part of what I wrote in the title above: One of the reasons to have a Jewish state.

PS. If you read Hebrew, you really should go and read Yossie Zruiya's blog here. He's in the process of writing a halachic code of behaviour for a society that really lives with Shmita. Example: what happens with the nature reserves? On the one hand, one goal of the shmita is that people have time to spend in nature, so the parks need to be free that year. On the other hand, the land needs a rest, so the parks should be closed that year. (You'll have to go read how he solves the problem).

A Price of Many Children

Israel is one of the most fecund societies in the industrial world. There are various explanations for this, and even more implications, but for the purpose of this post suffice it to say that just about all groups of Israeli society have more children than the parallel groups elsewhere (if there are any parallels). Hen or egg, it's a society that encourages, even expects, children.

Here's a poignant article by a woman who is not managing to join, and is probably suffering much more than if she was, say, a European.

Hat tip: Chayyei Sarah.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Court vs. the Politicians

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On - a political hack if ever there was one - has just announced that he's getting rid of the Accountant-General, Yaron Zelekha. Everyone is in an uproar, since Zelekha is a corruption fighter of mythical stature, and he's at the heart of an investigation against Olmert, Bar-On's boss. Some of the clamourers are threatening to go the High Court of Justice to stop the move, and this would seem to be a fine example where we need the court to balance the government. Although if you read the linked article you'll see that there are a whole set of other players on the board. Having a court that can balance the government is essential, but they aren't the only two agents around. A healthy democracy has redundancies (in the high-tech meaning of the word).

By the way, I have no doubt that if Zelekha loses his job, his next one (five minutes later) will pay at least 8 times as much. But then again, it probably won't come with the satisfaction of toppling prime ministers. Poor man.

Talking to Israelis About War

Next week the army will award 135 medals of honor for acts of bravery in the 2nd Lebanon War last year. Israel is traditionally quite stingy in awarding medals (no Silver Stars for flying once in a bomber, as once happened to a very prominent American). There is a saying that medals are awarded to soldiers and junior officers when the generals screw up, and this seems an accurate assessment of last year's war. I haven't done a systematic breakdown of the present awards, but it's pretty clear that lots of them went to the fighters in the battles that were mismanaged. This reinforces an impression most of us had anyway, that the grunts on the field did well, and in most cases beat their enemy, while the higher-ups - division commanders up to the prime minister - were making some very strange decisions.

Of the 135 awards, only 5 went to colonels (and of them only 2 to full colonels); of the five, three seem to be pilots, probably helicopter pilots whose acts of bravery were committed while evacuating casualties under fire - so they are actually more like fighters than like high officers.

I may try to link to some of these stories over the next few days. The most obvious one is the story of Major Roi Klein, but I don't seem to see an English-language post about him. He was posthumously awarded the second highest award Israel has (and the highest awarded in this war) for throwing himself onto a live grenade so as to spare the lives of his troops. Another recipient of the same medal (Itur ha-Oz, Medal of Courage), is Lieutenant Anton Simion, who evacuated one of his sergeants under fire. For those of you who can't decipher the names, Anton is Russian, and Malko Ambau was Ethiopian.

Talking to Germans About War

Not long ago I posted a section of an article about the morality of waging war that I've been asked to write for a German publication. In the meantime I've completed the article, and the publisher has permitted me to post the English version here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Peace, When it Comes

I haven't been linking to most of the articles about the evolving negotiations between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians - for that you can go directly to Haaretz (though not to the New York Times. It's not exciting enough for them at the moment). But here's an interesting tidbit - from Yahoo. It appears that a rising young Egyptian actor is in deep trouble at home, to the extent that his career is endangered, because he was so careless as to participate in a film alongside an Israeli. He's claiming that the film is anti-American, but this may not save him.

As you may recollect, there has been peace between Israel and Egypt since before the birth of this young man. There are no border issues, no Palestinian refugees in Egypt... peace. And yet look how unfriendly they are.

An icy peace with Egypt has been and remains much better than any kind of war. My point is not to condemn the Egyptians (well...), but rather to point out that there are hundreds of miles of desert between Israel and Egypt. The distance between the towns of a future Palestine and Israel will be, in some places, far less than hundreds of feet. Hatred of this sort between Palestinians and Israelis will be a constant and existential threat to peace. Doesn't mean we shouldn't be striving for it, because we should, but we shouldn't be kidding ourselves that we'll get there.

Haaretz and the Supreme Court

Some years ago Haaretz ran a marketing campaign that was meant to convince us that they are the newspaper of choice for "thinking people". In a way it was a very aggravating campaign, because as everyone knows the paper has an agenda, rather similar to what the Americans call Liberal though in an Israeli context, and many people who correctly regard themselves as 'thinking' while not identifying with that agenda felt slighted. To this day you can often hear such people sneering at Haaretz when the paper's line is particularly outlandish.

On the other hand, the fact is that in spite of its house agenda, the paper does offer quite a range of perspective. This morning, for eaxmple, the Hebrew version of the paper had two almost contradictory op-eds. On the front of the op-ed section they put Shlomo Avineri's spirited defense of Justice Minister Friedman's right to change the rules of the Supreme Court's methods. This is significant, because the paper's own line, along with most of the group that regards itself as THE thinking class, is that Friedman is a barbarian out to destroy human rights if not worse. Avineri, by the way, is a major heavyweight, one of our most important historians.

On the next page you can find the riposte (or is Avineri the riposte?). Moshe Hanegbi explains why what Friedman is doing will adversly effect every one of us. Hanegbi is a long-time interpreter of legal issues, a well known journalist. For some reason his article seems not to be available online in an English edition, but the Hebrew is here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On The Perils of Wall Street

Michael Totten has just put up another essay describing his recent stint in Iraq. It well captures the murkiness and the many shades of the story over there; besides reporting what he saw he touches upon a number of deeper issues.

However, the report also has its comic moments. The best one is when he's talking to Captain J. Dow Covey from New York:

“Do you know the Weekly Standard magazine?” Captain Covey asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

“My buddy Tom Cotton was just written up there,” he said. “It was pretty cool seeing him in that magazine.”

“What did he do to get in the magazine?” I said.

“He’s like me,” he said. “He’s a Harvard Law grad who joined the Army after 9/11. I’m an attorney.”

“You’re an attorney?” I said. “What are you doing out here in Iraq?”

“I practiced law for three years,” he said, “then got into investment banking. When 9/11 happened I just had to sign up with the Army. Investment banking is a lot more stressful than this.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I said.

“No,” he said and laughed. “I am totally serious.”

If he was deployed in, say, Kurdistan I could see it. But Mushadah was stressful. Less stressful than investment banking? Investment banking in New York must really be something.

Human Nature Doesn't Change

This post is part of the Daf Yomi thread that started here.

Heard any good mother-in-law jokes recently? If not, there's an entire website of them over here.

On page 117a in Yevamot there is a Mishna dealing with some of the ways out of a situation where a husband has disappeared but it's not clear if he has died, and this of course has significant implications for his wife - or is she his widow - but also for other members of the family and potentially of a new family, if she can re-marry, or a different part of the same family, if he was childless but has brothers.

The position of this particular Mishna (about 2,000 years ago, remember) is that there are a number of women involved, first and foremost the mother-in-law, whose testimony cannot fully be trusted. The Gemara (1,700 years ago) then elaborates, and details the dynamics of the tensions - which woman hates which other woman and why. Rashi (12th century, so roughly half-way between the Mishna and us, but still 350 years before Columbus discovered the Caribbeans) tries to soften the discussion, and explains that although there are rules in these things, ultimately the individual relationship is crucial, and he brings a beautiful metaphor:
"Like calm water, when a person looks into it and sees a face like his own. If he's smiling, so is it. If he's scowling, so is it. So also is the human heart to another: if one loves, the other loves back; if one hates, the other hates back".

Sounds pretty familiar, huh? Even tho we're all modern and enlightened and far advanced compared to all those primitives?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Flags at Half Mast (or Not)

The Greek consulate arond the corner has both its flags at half mast - I assume because of the terrible fires they're having, and the many dozens of casualties.

Both flags? Yes: the Greek one, and the EU one.

The Italians, around the other corner, not only haven't lowered their flag, they haven't lowered the EU one, either. And a block away in a third direction, the Swedes only have one flag to begin with, even though they also are staunch members of the EU.

Someday someone's going to have to work out the protocol on this.

Change of the Guard at "Peace Now"

Dror Etkes has just left "Peace Now". For most of the past decade Dror has served as the eyes of Peace Now on the West Bank settlements. He's the one who has been regularly traveling all the roads, byroads and not-really-roads to check what the settlers are building, and his reports have served all those who wish the settlements were gone. Last year he engineered the legal proceedings that led to the dismantling of the nine houses built at Amona (If I were into editing Wikipedia articles, there are some changes I'd make on this article). You can enjoy (or not) some of his handiwork here.

I've known Dror (a bit intermittently) since he was a teenager. He likes his fans and detractors alike (and there are many vehement ones in both camps) to think of him as a staunch and implacable left-winger, hardly Zionist if at all, full of scorn for national aspirations of any form. I never bought into any of that. Even at the height of the violence of the 2nd Intifada he regularly donned his body armor and helmet and set off with his Israel-license-plated jeep to see from close up what was going on. He obviously knows the terrain of the West Bank better than almost anyone, but whoever traveled with him saw also that he knew the people, and could tell equally about the identity, conditions and motivations of all the players: which Jews live in which settlements, but also which Palestinians live in which towns, which Israeli soldiers at which road block would respond how to his appearance, and so on. For a while I urged him to write a book about all this, since his perspective is unique - maybe now that he has left he'll get to it. It would be an exasperating book, no doubt, much of it misguided, but fascinating. Part of the story, you see, is that in spite of what he claims, Dror is very much a part of the Zionist Project.

Anyway, he's on vacation from public action for a while, and I have no doubt we'll notice when he returns. He's being replaced by Hagit Ofran, whom I don't know personally (tho I know various people in her world), but according to the interview with her here, she lacks some of Dror's ideological affectations.

Good luck to them both, as to all the rest of us (which will be a bit of a contradiction, but no matter).

Far Far Out

Winston Churchill famously once said to an American public that "We are separated by our common language".

To see how this works, have a peak here. The bloke writes his blog in the same language I do - English - and uses the same technology - yea, even the same graphic template - that I do. He even wrote a book, which he promotes on his blog! Beyond that, if you can find any similarities, feel free to point them out to me. I read him sometimes because for the life of me I can't find them.

PS. Yes, I'm aware of the pun. And if you missed it, all the better. Puns are the lowliest form of humor.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

On the Crucial Distinction Between Considering and Acting

Tom Segev (yes, him again) has uncovered the story of some long-hidden sections of the diaries of Moshe Sharett (one of Israel's "Founding Fathers", whose most important claim to fame, and quite a claim it is, is that he was Not Ben Gurion). Before delving into the findings, Segev does an excellent job of describing the importance of the diaries as they were published in 1978, and how they were a motivating tool for the revisionists of Israeli history back in the 1980s. Then, he turns to the newly uncovered sections, which tell that according to what Sharett knew, and it's not clear how much he really knew, the minister of defense, Pinchas Lavon, was hatching some very diabolical plans, such as using biological weapons (it doesn't say that Israel had such a capacity in the mid 1950s. Or today, for that matter).

Sooner or later the friends of Israel will swoop onto this finding to prove, yet again, how bad we are. When they do so, let's hope that they tell the full story: that Lavon indeed does seem to have had some maniacal ideas, and that he was the minister of defense, not a fishmonger - but also that his subordinates (two Chiefs of Staff), his peers, and his superiors, all seem to have regarded him as off the rocker, and the ideas didn't happen.

The fact that crazy ideas can be mooted is quite different from crazy ideas that are implemented, and then defended as if they actually aren't crazy at all, they tell merely of the horrible frustration of the perpetrators and the narrow mindedness of whomever didn't save them from their frustrating conditions.

A Sardonic Pun

Amir Oren, one of the less ideologically driven columnists at Haaretz, has a very level-headed report on the mid- and long-term forecasts for our area. Not fun reading. And, interestingly, most of the scenarios have very little to do with Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, unless perhaps you're of the group that believes that if we give them what they want, peace will reign on earth forever after (there are such people). So you can go and read, if you're in the mood.

The reason I've linked to it, however, is that the Hebrew original contained a sentence that so flummoxed the English translator that she simply dropped it. The third paragraph sums up Ehud Barak's current understanding of the issue with the sentence "Only security will bring withdrawal". In Hebrew: Rak Bitachon Yavie Nesigot - and the acronym for that (in Hebrew) is... RABIN.

Layers of Language

Here's a story from the Talmud study group I participate in most Saturday afternoons. It's page 83a in the tractate of Bava Batra, which deals with all sorts of aspects of property: ownership, transactions and so on. For instance, what if you wish to buy or sell a ship. Well, the Mishna starts by telling us that if one sells a ship, this includes also the mast, the oars, the sails - but not the slaves who do the rowing, nor the containers - barrels, I suppose - for the merchandise. This Mishna would have been articulated (not written) about 2,000 years ago (and see this earlier post for more background about how the Talmud works).

The word used for mast is toren.

The language of the Mishna was Hebrew. A few centuries later, let's say 250 years, the Gemara is discussing the Mishna, but the languages of its scholars is Aramaic, and they live not in Judea or the Galillee but in Babylon. And they' don't know what toren is, so the first thing they do is translate into Aramaic: iskaria.

The mediaeval interpreter in this tractate is Rashi's grandson the Rashbam. He lived in France in the mid- or late 12 century. His working assumption was that his readers wouldn't recognize either word, toren or iskaria, so he gave the French - but in Hebrew letters, of course. What he wrote, translated here into Latin characters, was m s t. Sound's like mast to me, and why not, given that 800 years after the Rashbam's day French (and German) had long since parented a younger language, English.

All of this was mostly an intellectual curiosity for us, studying in modern Hebrew which is extremely close to ancient Hebrew: While we don't recognize the word iskaria, and m s t we recognize through the daughter language of English, toren is a perfectly obvious word in Hebrew. It means mast.

The Rabbis in the Galilee couldn't have lived more than 50 miles or so from the Mediterranean Sea, but they had never seen a large river. Their Babylonian descendants, however, very likely never saw the sea - but they knew all about rivers. And so, about half a page into the discussion, they mentioned the small boats used in the marsh area to their south which they called the Miashen. 500 years later this area would be conquered by the invading Arabs from the desert, and its denizens would become the Marsh Arabs. Their desecndents lived there, using the same small boats the Gemara knew about, until late in the 20th century when Saddam Hussein would destroy their world for some reason that made sense only to him. A world that the Gemara recognized remained essentially unchanged all the way until yesterday, but now it's gone.

Friday, August 24, 2007

History According to the Guardian

You'll have to admit that I've been reasonable, and haven't been bashing the Guardian anywhere near as often as I could have been. I'm resisting the urge, so that this blog be interesting, not drearily predictable (as the Guardian is... Oops!).

Matter of fact, even today I'm not going to link to any of their daily anti-Israel fare. No. What I'd like to call your attention to is a comment that appeared in yesterday's Leader (editorial), and was then repeatedly echoed elsewhere in the paper and the online comments, all following George Bush's "Vietnam speech". Wisely or not, plausibly or not, Bush stated that a premature American exit from Iraq might cause as much human misery as the exit from Vietnam did. The reaction at the Guardian was an outburst of indignant spluttering, along the line of "How dare he invoke history!":

His view of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, though shared by some Republicans, is bizarre too. It was not withdrawal but intervention in neighbouring Cambodia that led to the killing fields. Anger at American bombing (intended to disrupt North Vietnam's supply lines) brought down the Cambodian government and triggered the Khmer Rouge's brutal revolution.

Well, perhaps. I think it is reasonably documented that the American intervention in Cambodia did contribute to the ability of the Khmer Rouge to reach power (after the Americans had left, one might add). But I don't see how that has anything to do with the genocide the Khmer Rouge then inflicted on their own people, which seemed to be the point Bush was making.

Yes, the Guardianistas and their millions of ilk despise America, not only Israel (the dislikes are connected). But pinning all human misery on the Americans won't really work.

German Memory and Why It Can't be Easy

I'm in the midst of writing an article for a German publication dealing with the morality of waging war. Here is the first page of it, and the reason I'm posting it is because Timothy Garton Ash has an interesting review at the New York Review of Books which deals, from a very different angle, with the same topic: how complicated it is to live in the context of German memory.

Here's my take:
Earlier this year I had occasion to do a lecture tour in Germany. As usual on such a tour, I never spent more than a day or two in any single place, almost every evening meeting a new group of strangers in an unfamiliar lecture hall, perhaps in a town I’d never seen before. The strangers all had in common that they could be induced to spend an hour of a cold evening listening to a stranger from Israel present his ideas about why his country isn’t really as bad as what their media tells them. Other than that, there didn’t seem much in common to the audiences. Some were young, others less so, some dressed more radically, others looked perfectly b├╝rgerlich. There were university students and some professors, flagrant atheists, a few priests, true believers of Marx. One young woman introduced herself as an Iraqi, though upon investigation she was a Kurd from Iraq. Some Jews, though fewer than you might expect if you expected Jews in Saarbruecken or Rostock. A few came with the purpose of being antagonistic, though not as many as I’d feared. Even fewer – but there were some – brought their personal recollections from the Nazi period into the discussion. Some of the younger students had so little knowledge about that past that it took my breath away (one was quite flummoxed by the possibility that the war might have damaged buildings in his home town of Bonn).

Ah, and there was one additional common denominator. With perhaps two individual exceptions, everyone agreed that the subtitle of my book – “A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars” – was unacceptable. Wars are always, by definition, evil. Perhaps, at a pinch, necessary evils, but certainly never morally defensible. Never. Inconceivable.

I admit that once I understood the dynamic, it brought me the more entertaining parts of the evening. Someone would stand and pose the question, a variation on “much of what you have told us this evening has been interesting, some of it is even plausible, but why did you have to be so provocative with that awful subtitle” (general murmur of consent). In a number of places the question was posed at the very beginning of the evening by whoever was introducing me. My studied and pre-prepared response was to put a look of befuddlement on my face and ask: “But what about World War II? (very ominous silence). Surely that was a moral war if ever there was one? (deathly silence, pin drop and so on). From the perspective of the Allies, I mean”.

Someday, someone is going to have to write about how the Germans, too, not only the Jews, are still mortally traumatized by Nazism in this seventh decade after it’s demise, and will continue to be so for quite some time.

UPDATE: The full article is posted here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Are the Jews of France Disappearing?

Well, not exactly. However, according to Dr. Joel Mergui, head of the Jewish organizations in Paris, the fact that some 3,000 of them move to Israel each year is draining his community of its committed Jews, leaving the uncommitted with no-one to learn from, no-one to pull them back into the community. I'm sceptical on two counts. First, how did half of the 600,000 Jews in France get disconnected even before this decade's movement to Israel? Or put differently, if half of the Jews disconnected while the other half was still there and committed, doesn't that tell us that the disconnecting was not for lack of more committed cousins? Second, I admit that my version of Zionism, though not expecting all Jews or even most of them to move to Israel, nevertheless is not perturbed by the thought that many actually might. And say two generations from now French Jewry will be gone - a third to Israel, two thirds into the same non-denominational limbo most (non-Muslim) Frenchmen are sliding into - would this be a catastrophe? Of course, it would be better if two thirds moved here and not vice-versa, now that I think about it. But in any case, I don't feel that having a Jewish community in France is essential for anything.

(And don't get me started on the Germans).

Time Bubble

It used to be so, that every neighborhood had a makolet on every block. Makolet was the word for small, family-run stores that sold most of the goods all the other families on the block needed for everyday life: food, cleaning fluids, candles, newspapers, cigarettes. Sometimes there was a neighborhood greengrocer, so the Makolot didn't sell fruit and vegetables. The family that ran the makolet knew all of their clients personally, and everyone knew them. Often they had a dusty cardboard box with grubby index cards on which each purchase was written, and the bill was paid whenever both sides felt that the time had come. This made it easier to send the seven-year-old to the makolet to buy eggs, bread, milk, sugar and an icicle (that last item was the commission demanded by the seven-year-old future businesswoman), all without the danger of the future-but-not-yet-businesswoman losing the required cash on the way.

Israel had supermarkets in the 1960s, but not that many of them, and many people didn't have cars to go to them nor to shlepp all the grocery-bags from them; in the 1980s many makolots were still thriving. The hyper-inflation of the 1980s somewhat damaged the grubby-card business model, as did the growing pervasiveness of credit cards (although during the hyper-inflation period the credit card companies were stingier with their credit). Still, it was only the arrival of the large malls, sometime around 1990, that killed the makolot: everybody had cars, the gigantic supermarkets in the malls were gutting even the local supermarkets with their lower prices, and the seven-year-olds liked taking their parents with them to do shopping, because of all the other possibilities: why allow yourself to be bribed with an icicle when with a wee bit of perseverance the parents can be bludgeoned into buying yet another pair of Reebok shoes?

In the neighborhood where I live, however, there still are a few makolot. Their business model seems to have adapted. Either they serve the very-old-timers, or they serve the rest of us when we need that one item we forgot to buy at the mall. It also helps that there are fewer makolot left, so they don't compete as much with one another.

This morning I popped into one for a moment. An elderly woman was just leaving, but an elderly man was having part of his social life. He and the proprietor were discussing some other local figure, when the elderly man mentioned the dead brother of the person under discussion. The proprietor - probably in his 40s - had never heard of this, so the elderly man launched into an explanation: "Oh yes, Haim, he was killed in the fighting in the Old City in 1948. Ah, such a handsome young man he was. Blond, blue-eyed - he and Itzik were the two most popular kids in our class, they were quite a pair those two..."

I suppose most of us wouldn't mind being the subject of discussion in some makolet 60 years after our deaths - but there won't be any makolets by then.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Elul in Yinglish

For a week or so I've been intending to post something about the Jewish month of Elul - which started last week. Everybody knows about the High Holidays and that they're approaching, but actually, the preparations begin a month before, from the begining of Elul. One of the things that happens is that at the end of each weekday morning service one of the congregants blows one three-section blast on the shofar, to waken us to the seriousness of the approaching events. (Sephardi congregations, btw, have a heavier load already, and this is the source of some reasonably good jokes about how they aren't serious at Pessach and have to pay for it now, unlike us Ashkenazis).

So I went googling to find some good item about Elul and shofars and so on. Didn't really find what I was looking for, but I did find this, on the weeklyshtikle. The money quote, as Andrew Sullivan would call it, is this:
This week, we began blowing the shofar following davening as part of our yearly Elul ritual in preparation for Rosh HaShanah, only a month away. These shofar blasts are generally regarded as a wakeup call. Perhaps we can also view these shofar blasts as a call to arms - a reminder to begin to wage war against our yeitzer hara as we turn our focus towards teshuvah in preparation for the Yom HaDin.
He's right of course, is Eliezer Bulka... but how is a person to know? You'd have to be a Yinglish speaker to figure out what he's talking about. Meaning, that you think in (more or less) English syntax, and also you know the type of Hebrew that orthodox Jews prefer, or good old Yiddish. The interesting thing is that he is totally unabashed at writing his blog in this language, because obviously his entire social world understands it. Obviously. They may well not be proficient in Yiddish anymore, and their Hebrew might not be adaquate to use to run a business, and they probably don't even think about how what they're doing is NOT talking English.

Thus is a new language born.

Human Rights in an Era of Heat

I have a few (mostly friendly) bantering correspondences with some staffers of some of our many human rights organizations. One of them has me on his mailing list, so I get daily updates on all the things we're doing wrong, and what he and his colleagues are doing to make things better and save us from ourselves. Recently I've noticed that considerably fewer than 99.44% of his reports are about Palestinian issues. Indeed, he's been telling us about how we're wrong the way we treat Sudanese refugees (he's right, there), about nasty practices in registering children in schools - that sort of stuff.

So I asked him what's happening. Have we gotten better suddenly? No, he told me. Simply that their investigators on the West Bank are on vacation (it's August). In September he'll get back to the usual fare of our infractions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Is Mortality Rational?

John B. Judis has a very interesting article at The New Republic with the hardly sophisticated title "How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Successes". In spite of the title, it's a worthwhile read.

The thesis is that when people are reminded of their inevitable death, they tend to turn to ideas or behaviours that are larger and more enduring than themselves. The academic underpinning of the thesis comes from a book I've never heard of but probably ought to read: Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. (5,800 at Amazon, 33 years after the author's untimely death). Becker's ideas have been tested and demonstrated empirically since the 1980s by three psychology professors; now they are using their expertize to explain why so many Americans behaved irrationally and supported Bush since 9/11: because he, unlike his opponents, managed to tap into the need people had for reassurance through patriotism, religiosity, animosity towards life-threatening enemies and a powerful and protective leader.

I'm not going to debate George Bush's policies here. As an historian, I am quite aware of how the contemporary perception of a politician and posterity's perception can differ - think John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson then and now, or Levi Eshkol. I don't say this to claim that history will necessarily judge Bush one way or the other - by definition, I don't know how he'll be seen 15 years from now, or 30.

My argument with this otherwise worthy article is with the underlying assumption: when people are confronted by the awareness of death, they become irrational and turn in dubious directions such as religion, patriotism and GWB. Only once they calm down do they return to their rational senses.

But perhaps it's the other way around? Faced with mortality, people create immortal ideas; when they manage to shield themselves from their mortality, that's when they become frivolous, shallow, hedonistic - unserious? Not to mention the thought that when faced with deadly enemies, people rise to defend themselves, as they then don't do when the enemies are gone.

PS. If memory serves (or the online archives of TNR), The New Republic was mighty patriotic and even militaristic back in, say, 2002 or 2003. How irrational of them.

Interview with Mahmoud Zahar

Charles Levinson has just returned from Gaza, where he talked to all sorts of people, foremost among them deposed Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar. Essential reading if you're interested in the facts from Gaza.

Geriatric Synagogues

In the long run we're all dead, and some potato couch friends of mine have done the math for me: if you run often you may live up to ten years longer, but nine of them will be spent running, so perhaps it's not worth the effort. Now, a newly published article in the European Journal of Aging suggests an easier way: go to synagogue! If you do so regularly, you are certain to statistically live longer (whatever that might mean).

And you'll shvitz a lot less. Especially nowadays, when many synagogues have air conditioning.

Who is a Holocaust Survivor?

Earlier this week Olmert apparently agreed with representatives of the survivors (or their organization) to up the support for Holocaust survivors, but only for those from the so-called "first circle", not for elderly Jews who spent the war years in the hardship of the Soviet Union. Haaretz asked three respectable historians what they thought about the matter. Unfortunately, I find myself agreeing with the "wrong" ones.

I've been friendly with Daniel Blatman for many years, but don't understand what he meant when he states: "The division into two circles is completely political and lacks any historical logic". Of course it's political. Can a prime minister make ANY decision which is not political? Isn't every decision about the allocation of public funds political by definition? As for the logic of the distinction between Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis and those that weren't, well, it seems pretty elementary to me. Not because of the degree of the suffering, which can't be measured one way or the other, but because the experiences were obviously different. This is not a value statement, it's precisely a historical one.

Dina Porat I've known for years, but we're colleagues, not friends. (She lives in Tel Aviv...). Nonetheless, her historical distinction is correct where Danny's isn't. Then, however, she translates it into a value statement with political and financial repercussions, and defends different allocations according to historical criteria. Seems strange to me.

Finally, the third historian polled is Idit Zertal. She and I have met, but we move in different circles and don't interact very much. We rarely agree on much. I note that she now seems to have moved from Tel Aviv to Basel. She is simply right that the allocation should be by need, not by biography, with wealthy first-circle survivors doing without any additional public support, and other [elderly, I assume] needy receiving significant support.

At the end of the item Zertal throws in a comment about how Israel has always played the Holocaust card, but regards the survivors as a nuisance. Well, as I said, she and I often disagree...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Antisemitism in Australia

I'm not in favor of shouting "Antisemitism!" every time a Jew anywhere has an altercation with a non-Jew. But this case looks pretty straightforward, since the attackers explicitly told their victims they were being attacked as Jews.

I know basically nothing about Australia, and cannot give a clue about the context of this attack. The report studiously tells us nothing about it either, for whatever reason. Is it out of the blue? In the last sentence there's a hint it may be part of a pattern, but there's no information about that, either. The only thing we are able to deduce is that there is no obvious connection to, say, Israeli politics. Indeed, the word Israel is never mentioned nor alluded to.

Australian readers should feel free to enlighten us, in the comments if they wish.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

ITS and Historical Accuracy

Another report on the slow but certain process of transferring copies of the International Tracing Service to Jerusalem and Washington.

The part that I found mildly amusing for the way it spouts historical non-truth as if we all know it's truth, is the sentence that enumerates the number of people killed by the Nazis: 6 million Jews, it says, and "millions of homosexuals, gypsies, political opponents and others".

The historical truth is that it was hundreds of thousands of Gypsies (nowadays they're called Sinti and Roma), a much smaller number of political opponents, an even smaller number of homosexuals... but also many millions of Slavs of various categories, well above the 6 million dead Jews. Funny how they don't manage to penetrate the historical consciousness in the West.

The Court vs. the parliament - II

Even as I was writing the previous post, the forces of enlightenment were gearing up to defend us from the bad guys. You are invited to read Ehud Asheri on the most prestigious real estate that Haaretz can offer an op-ed piece (the center top of page 1 of the op-ed section). To which I have four quick comments:

1. Where Friedman offered substance, regarding how he sees the relationship between the court and the government, Asheri feels that bad mouthing is sufficient. Justice Minister Friedman is a megalomaniac (stated twice), he's an evil PR genius, he wants to weaken the protection of human rights, and so on.

2. Since Asheri bases his thesis on an ad Hominem attack, it might be relevant to point out that the two figures here are, on the one side, a 72-year-old well known law professor, Laureate of the Israel Prize, and a 40-year-old journalist whose most outstanding achievement I can think of is to write the reviews of Israeli TV programs (most of them are trash), a job that is fulfilled by Pronouncing: this is a fine program, that's a poor one.

3. Asheri's real agenda is stated in the very first paragraph:

Those who are impressed by the external image, and that applies to most media consumers, are apt to miss the scheming, manipulative, almost aggressive aspect of his personality. It is very easy to be seduced by the facade of the harmless, apolitical professor devoid of personal interests, like a fish out of water in the government. One must look beyond the external characteristics in order to see that the justice minister is one of the most sophisticated, populist, megalomaniac politicians in this country. [My emphasis]

Nice and comforting, isn't it? True, the masses of media consumers, they don't really understand what's going on, but we sophisticated readers of Haaretz, we do, which is why we must do something to save civilization. It seems to me that Friedman couldn't have put it better himself: this may well be an argument about the essence of democracy, but not all the vocal defenders of the court are truly democrats, in terms of assuming that the voters can be relied upon to make the right decisions often enough so as to justify giving them the power to do so.

4. I still am not in the position to say who's right and who's wrong in this discussion, since I'm not well enough versed in the details. But I do know who seems to be winning the debate.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Court vs. the Parliament

The weekend edition of Haaretz offers a longish interview with Daniel Friedman, the Minister of Justice who is scandalizing most of the chattering class with his suggestions for reforms in the judicial system.

Unlike, say, the burning issue of aid given to Holocaust survivors, which has us all agog this summer but is at least partially simply spin, the story of the Supreme Court and it's relation to the other branches of government is a long term discussion of real significance, which addresses the question of how Israeli democracy functions and adapts.

The central figure of the drama is what's called the High Court of Justice. So far as I know, this is a unique Israeli invention. It members are the justices of the Supreme Court, but where the Supreme Court has the traditional mission of being the highest instance for resolving cases that have been winding through lower courts, the High Court has a radically different role. It is a tool by which citizens may stop the government or its agencies in their tracks if they are engaging in measures they shouldn't be. The Justices of the Supreme Court and the High Court are the same people (as is the building in which all the cases are heard), but whereas it takes years of litigation for a case to reach the Supreme Court, you can decide to turn to the High Court today, argue your case before it tomorrow, and block the intentions of the government also tomorrow. If the government is about to do something in a hurry, the whole process can happen in a single day.

It's probably not a bad thing that citizens can defend themselves from their government. Healthy for all sides involved.

Back in the early 1980s, when I was teaching about this to high school students, plaintiffs still had to prove to the High Court that they were directly effected by the measure they were trying to have blocked, but this has since changed, and basically anybody can try to stop anything - and, quite often, they do. Nowadays, the assumptions is that any significant move that the government or one of its agencies tries to do will have to pass the High Court first; in essence, this means that the High Court is often second guessing the government.

Since we have a parliamentary system, the task of second guessing the government is supposed to be the parliament's job. That's what we elect the members of Parliament to do, and as you may have noticed, we elect and dis-elect them with great frequency. The justices of the court don't get elected at all, they are appointed. On paper, they're appointed by a commission designed to curtail the influence of the politicians, which is probably a fine thing - except that in recent years, more and more of us have been wondering if perhaps the justices themselves have too much say in who gets appointed to serve alongside them, and if perhaps the group that supplies the justices doesn't have an agenda of its own. Surely not a political agenda in terms of being for this party or against that one, but a cultural and philosophical agenda which many of the voters don't fully agree with. Read the interview I've linked to, and you can see this agenda quite clearly from the scandalised questions of the two interviewers.

Of course, nothing is ever quite what it seems and certainly not what you'd expect. The current attempt at reforming the system is being lead not by the ultra-orthodox politicians, the most obvious group, nor by any of the other obvious suspects. It's being lead by a 72-year-old retired law professor who never participated in politics, was never elected to anything, and is probably not all that far from the cultural assumptions of the justices themselves. Indeed, some of his detractors say that his primary motivation is personal pique.

In spite of the tone of this post, I'm not really sure what my position is on all this. Certainly, I'm not at all versed in the details. Yes, I do think that in a democracy the voters are sovereign, not anyone else, though there must be checks on the ability of the majority to abuse its power, and the best checks may well be the courts. Ultimately, it seems to me, freedom and democracy need to be protected at all times, and the solutions to today's threats could conceivably pose threats of their own tomorrow. Vigilance and keeping an open mind, though they may be slightly contradictory requirements, are both necessary all the time.

Beware of Haaretz

A reader informs me that Haaretz has been sending unrequested stuff to her computer, thereby aggravating her anti-virus system. My experience is that Haaretz likes its readers to be registered, and once you're registered it will bombard you with junk advertisements. Basically harmless, and the way around it is to re-route all their mail into your spam box. Either that, or don't follow my links to them.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Snag in the Peace Negotiations

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about serious things. It may be exacerbated by dramatic things such as road blockades or missiles aimed at civilians, but that's not what it's about. So when the top item on the front page of Haaretz informs us today that Olmert and Abbas really are trying to hammer out a framework for a final-status agreement, but that the Palestinian demand for a right of return is proving to be a real stumbling block, there shouldn't really be any surprise, should there?

Once that one gets resolved (if ever), there will be a few more, such as the question if any Palestinian government will be able to deliver what Israel needs to get from the deal. Real peace, for example. Which doesn't mean that the efforts to get there are a waste of anyone's time. They aren't.

India and the Jewish Problem

Sixty years ago this week the British left India, in the midst of one of the 20th century's worst upheavals. There's a brief recap here, based upon a new book which I've put on my reading list: Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition.

Not long ago I read Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2006. (The Booker Prize is the highest literary prize for literature in English, which does not, however, ensure that the winning books will prove to have any lasting value. Alas.) I found the book to be a reasonably good read, though I was irritated by its underlying thesis that English colonialism was the main culprit for the shambles of India in the 1980s, and by implication, today also. But maybe that's just me. In the meantime, the English have been gone for 60 years, the two Muslim states carved out of the jewel in the imperial crown - Pakistan and Bangladesh - are basket cases, but the Indian part does seem to be showing some signs of climbing out of its pit.

And the Israelis are watching, and taking note. A flourishing India, were it to happen, would be the giant of the 21st century, perhaps even more than the Chinese. Like the Chinese, the Indians have no particular reason to be either for the Jews or against us. Most of them have simply never heard of us (hurrah!). Ergo, if we play our cards right, we might be able to balance the animosities of the Europeans with the curiosity of the Indians (or the Chinese, but they're not celebrating anything this week). The Jewish Policy Planning Institute, for example, is one of the places where the cards are being crafted.

One of the reasons Israel was never for a moment a basket case, such as most of the other states founded around the same time were or even still are, is because of this sense of purposefulness. We take note, we figure out what needs to be done, and we go for it. Sometimes with catastrophic results, but the balance is admirable.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Visitor from the Army

Here's a story that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Yesterday evening we got a phone call from Raveh, Achikam's Sargeant, who expressed his interest in coming to visit us today. Okay, we said, rather amused.

This afternoon he arrived. A handsome young man, bedecked with slightly more pins and insignia than usual - apparently this is his version of full regalia. He was obviously rather uncomfortable, which is not surprising given the situation. For the past few weeks he has been part of the team that has been grilling our son and making life hard for him; a significant part of this effort is the drilling into his head of the crucial and vast chasm between basic trainees, who are expected to do what they are told and only what they are told, and their commanders - of whom Raveh is one. Achikam and his fellow rookies are not permitted even to address Raveh and his colleagues in normal language, they must always shout the Hebrew equivalent of "YES SIR!" when spoken to, and infractions that would be laughable in any other context are followed by unpleasant punishment. Now here he was, sitting in our living room, telling and asking about Achikam. We could easily be his parents, too.

So what was it all about? Apparently, it is important to the army that the civilian parents of its soldiers feel confident that their children are in trustworthy hands. In order to achieve this the army must indeed be trustworthy, but also advertise the fact, and set up mechanisms of ensuring both the fact and lines of communication about it. So Raveh spent the entire day traveling around the country meeting parents of his squad to tell them about what their sons are going through, what the plan for the coming months is, but also to look for problems at home that could distract his soldiers from concentrating on their training. He even told that in a few cases the army will be sending special officers to see what additional support the soldiers might need.

Especially interesting to me was the requirement the army obviously has even of its lowest ranking commanders, that they be able to deal with such a task. Raveh's training is mostly as a tank commander, not a social worker, yet here he was, doing an aspect of the job that no amount of tank drills could prepare him for.

At one point I made a crack about the relations of rookies and sergeants. He already knew that I myself had had his job many years ago, and that we were not being antagonistic - not towards him, not towards the army - yet he felt defensive, and needed to reassure that the staff and the rookies really are all on the same side. This is of course fundamentally true, but perhaps not quite so obvious either to the rookies or even to their commanders - yet Raveh was telling that it was clear to the commanders, and even, he seemed to be saying, to the soldiers themselves. "We do it differently now", he told me, directly relating to experiences he assumed I must have had.

There is a much larger story here, but I'll wait to gather additional data before outlining it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Second Lebanon War, a Year's Perspective

Yesterday a year ago Israel's 2nd Lebanon War ended. A week or two later Michael Totten and I had a talk about it, which he then posted on his blog. It's a bit wordy, but you can see that I was angry at the time. The reason to re-read it - if there's a reason at all - is because I felt then, and still do, that my position was pretty much what most Israelis were thinking.

A single year cannot give historical perspective. But it can perhaps demonstrate why the passing of years and decades can make events look different than what they looked like to their contemporaries. So here are some initial comments, one year after:

1. We were going to get rid of the leaders: Well, sort of. Dan Halutz, the top general, left his job, and then after a while Amir Peretz was released from his job as Minister of Defense, so that's two out of three - but Olmert is still there. Moreover, when he eventually gets removed from his position, the immediate cause will not be that war but some other matter - five or six possible ones spring effortlessly to mind. For all the fact that being Prime Minister of Israel is not a reliable job, it isn't so easy to get rid of the person, either. Public anger can help, of course, which brings us to the next point.

2. The public anger seems to have been less than we thought at the time. True, Olmert's popularity plummeted to depths unheard of anywhere else ever (lower single digit), but beyond all of us agreeing that Olmert was useless, we never remotely agreed upon a possible replacement. So he's still around. In some scenarios, he could even salvage his name, and if - unlikely - he were to lead us to peace with this neighbor or that, he might yet be remembered fondly.

3. It was a stupid war, partly for having achieved nothing. But did it really achieve nothing? The border between Israel and Lebanon has been completely quiet. So far as we know, Hezbullah has not returned to the border or its immediate vicinity (though I remind you of this earlier post). Hassan Nasrallah yesterday gave a speech, part of which was bellicose, but part not. And anyway, he gave it by video, since he seems to assume that public appearances are no longer good for his health. We really don't have enough perspective, but it is at least conceivable that as a result of that war, Iran and its proxies lost a military advantage that it will yet regret.

4. The war proved to the Israelis that they (we) were not adequately prepared for a real war, and that we'd been focusing far too much on the singularities of the Palestinian enemy, and not enough on all the others. If one thing is clear, it is that the IDF, and to an extent also the politicians and even the voters have now rectified this. If you assume there will be additional military rounds, the fact that the IDF is taking the full gamut of its challenges seriously is significant (by which I mean training, training of reserve units, equipment, planing and preparations, and so on). If you assume that possible conflagrations can be avoided through the perception of being formidable, the sea change this past year may even delay the next round.

5. The kidnapped soldiers are still kidnapped. We don't even know if they're alive, since the Hezbollah and Hamas don't deal with basic humanitarian gestures and international law such as offering information about the well-being of their prisoners.

An Erudite Politician!

Plodding along at my day job at Yad Vashem, I needed an item of information about Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the strange Englishman who became one of the prophets of Nazism. So I wandered over to the relevant Wikipedia article, and found what I needed. Then I read on, and found something far better: a review of Chamberlain's book "The Foundations of the 19th Century", written by none other than... Theodore Roosevelt, who a few years earlier had been president of the United States. If you have the time - and five minutes is all you'll need - you really should go read the review. Bear in mind that Chamberlain's ideas motivated people to genocide, and then watch how Roosevelt demolishes the book, and weep. First, that what was so blindingly obvious to Roosevelt, namely that Chamberlain was a crank, was not noticed by misguided millions, many of them highly intelligent and educated. And second, can you think of any world-class leader today who could write on a par with Teddy?

New Technology

Someone I know just flew in to Israel this morning on El Al's newest airliner, a spanking new Boeing 777. It's so new that the crew included an inspector who spent the whole flight prowling around checking that everything was working and filling a notebook with all of the things that weren't (apparently this is a plane with lot's of new gadjets). Among the things that were malfunctioning was the clock on the info screen, which at one point got so confused by the time zones and jet lag that it announced the time as 26:32.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An interesting perspective on the Supreme Court

The Hebrew version of Haaretz has an op-ed written by one Asher Shafrir, a medical student who did his military service in a Hesder unit, i.e. a combination of military service and Yeshiva studies. Such soldiers are often, but of course not always, close to the political right and the settler's movement.

Shafrir bemoans the fact that a significant minority of voters polled over the weekend support the decision of a handful of soldiers who last week refused an order to evacuate some settlers from some buildings they had taken over in Hebron. (I haven't dealt with the issue becasue it seems to me not as important as everyone is making it out to be. More spin in all directions). Then he surprises us. Rather than blaming the Rabbis of the settlers for encouraging "their" soldiers to prefer settlements over the democratic process as embodied by the chain of command of the military, he suggests that the most important culprit, the institution which has most claimed that a set of values can and should override the will of the majority, is no less than the Supreme Court. Furthermore, since the system is designed so that the sitting justices have a large say in determining who will be appointed to join them, he continues, their set of values cannot be questioned by other groups.

The role of the Supreme Court is at the heart of one of the more serious discussions this society has been having these past few years. The parameters are different than in the US, because the system works differently, but some of the underlying issues aren't so different: what is the relation between the democratic decision-making process and universal values, and who distinguishes between them, how, why, and under what terms?


I was up north this afternoon. Israel being the very small size it is, you can go all the way from Jerusalem to the Lebanese border in less than four hours. I went about half way. By the time I started back, it was early evening.

Days in summer in a country this far south are not only hot (ever been in Chicago in 102 degrees Fahrenheit?), they are dazzling. The sun is so strong it really does beat down on you, and not as a figure of speech. Some people wilt under the glare, others bravely stand tall, but no matter how you deal with it, it's a physical effort, not incomparable to facing a hailstorm - only without the drama, and with no way out until the end of the day.

And then the end of day approaches. The air takes on gentler hues. The sunlight is a glowing red which Naomi Shemer once described as gold. If you've been engaged in any sort of physical activity out in the heat, you may well find yourself simply sitting and enjoying the freedom of no further exertion. The very landscape seems to heave a sigh of relief, and for an hour or so there is an atmosphere of peace.

It doesn't happen in the winter, it hardly happens for the city dwellers unless they know how to look, and it never happens for the air conditioned office dwellers. So although I know, from past experience, that the magic hour of summer twilight is there, I rarely experience it. But today I did.

Supreme court

Following weeks of being told by everyone who has access to a microphone or a newspaper column that Daniel Friedman, our Minister of Justice, is an evil man who is doing his best to drag us out of the club of democracies and into the ranks of kleptocracies or some such, suddenly we hear that there are responsible figures, including two law professors who have both served in the past as ministers, who are publicly defending him. Huh. Who'd have thought! How confusing.

Haaretz published an interesting op-ed touching upon the same issue from a very different direction, but so far I haven't found it on their English website. I'll keep looking and come back to this later.

Monday, August 13, 2007


James Lileks has a fine post on the importance of Iowa. In it he uses the word "micturate", which I had never encountered, and didn't recognize. So I looked it up - and, now that I know, I ain't telling.

Attack in Jerusalem - Cont'd

The family of the assailant in the Old City last week, who was shot after snatching a pistol from a guard, is claiming that the video film of the event, stitched together from a series of surveillance cameras, doesn't show what it shows. You can view the film here.

I must admit that I find the film confusing. But the experts say it is very clear. And, interestingly, no-one beyond the family itself is denying the official version. Sheikh Raad Salach and his movement have essentially been praising the attacker for his heroic act.

As an historian I know that decisions, actions and events are the result of earlier decisions, actions, and events. In this case, a married 29-year-old father with a pregnant wife committed an act of violence that was meant to cause bloodshed, and could plausibly have been expected to cause his own death. That Salach has been inciting violence is not new, and indeed he has already been indicted and is presently awaiting trial. The attacker may well have been listening. More interesting, however, because less obvious, is the ability of the family to arrange the facts in their own narrative, irrespective of what everybody else agrees upon, and irrespective of objective facts such as video films or forensic evidence. All of which begs the question if growing up in a family with this ability, contributed perhaps to the deadly decision?

Michael Totten Reporting from Baghdad

Michael has been in Bagdhad this past month, but with very little time to write. Now he's out, and starting to post again. You should be following his reports.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Jewish Learning

From time to time I intend to post thoughts about interesting things I come across while learning (in the Yiddish meaning of the Hebrew word: Limud=learning in Hebrew, but the traditional use refers to study of the traditional texts). But first, a word about the the method of Limud. Well, actually not a word, and not even a paragraph, rather an entire article I wrote a while ago about Daf Yomi:


Daf Yomi – The Daily Page

Yaacov Lozowick

In a recent article in Commentary Magazine (
Jewish Genius, April 2007), Charles Murray, the non-Jewish co-author of The Bell Curve, put forth the thesis that Jews are and have long been more intelligent than their surrounding societies. I am not in the position to contribute anything to Murray’s speculations, aside from the comment that if he’s right, it wouldn’t be all that surprising given the centrality of learning in Jewish culture these past few millennia. But I do wish to offer a story about that learning, and about how alive it is.

Back in the 1920’s a pragmatic rabbi named Meir Shapira accidentally transformed how the Talmud is studied. Cognizant that study of the Talmud (or Gemara, it’s more common Aramaic title) is a time consuming activity even if one has already invested the necessary years of training, he invented a method of serious study for busy Jews. Rather than plumbing the depths of the text, he speculated it should be possible to race over a
Blatt (or folio: two pages) in less than an hour, every day. True, one wouldn’t have learned very much, but given enough patience – seven and a half years of it, to be precise – one would cover all 2,711 Blaetter of the entire Talmud, and what had been lost by superficiality would have been gained by quantity. Shapira may also have had a practical goal in mind: when in 1930 he founded the Great Yeshiva in Lublin (Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin), he synchronized its schedule so that his potential donors and his students were all on the same page, thus creating a sense of community that couldn’t have harmed anyone.

Why would two pages an hour be an accomplishment, on the one hand, and such a sacrifice of seriousness on the other? For that you have to keep in mind that the basic text of the Talmud is in Hebrew, created accumulatively by generations of rabbis in Judea and the Galilee over some 250 years, or in Aramaic, created accumulatively by a different group of rabbis mostly in Babylonia after the first group finished. The languages are almost seamlessly intertwined. There is no punctuation, and no vowels. Some words could be either Hebrew or Aramaic, with different meanings in each language. The rabbis had the fine ability to put complex arguments into seven-word sentences, which they then shortened to five. Like their distant descendants, they often interrupted one another. Unlike their distant descendants, they all knew the entire Bible by heart, so that whenever one of them quoted half a passage, all the others recognized it in its full context. Also, they constantly used hyper-links, some 2,000 years before hyper-links were invented, so that when studying a page it helps to have previously studied all the other pages. Each section, called a tractate, has its own subject, which it scrupulously doesn’t adhere to (hence the hyper links), meaning that if you have brushed up your command of the putative subject of the tractate, there’s as good a chance as not that you’ll be dealing with something else anyhow.

At the time of creation of this mind-twister it was preserved orally, and when it eventually was put in writing, some 1,500 years ago, an occasional word had been misplaced or half a sentence falsely remembered; then, once it was finalized in writing, another thousand years would pass before Gutenberg’s invention, providing ample time for discrepancies to creep in between the various hand-written versions.

All of the ensuing generations have been mulling over this text ever since, often putting down their thoughts in writing. Rashi, an eleventh-century genius in France, followed almost the entire text and wrote a line-for-line commentary, most of which is an attempt to fill in the words and meanings that the earlier rabbis had left out. A group of scholars headed by his grandsons, collectively called the Tosafot, then trawled the entire Talmud and pointed out contradictions between statements – there are many of these – and figured out ways to reconcile them with one another. Rashi and the Tosafot all thought they were writing in Hebrew, or was it Aramaic? Without punctuation or vowels, in any case. From time to time Rashi helpfully translated something into the French of his day, and I’m told that philologists of mediaeval French regard this as a treasure trove – after all, how many people are there around who still know mediaeval French? (But you have to know ancient Hebrew or Aramaic to know what the French is a translation
of). It begins to be clear why the Talmud is rarely studied alone, the preferred mode being in pairs who convene regularly in groups to make certain they’re all on the same page, so to speak.

The pertinence of Rashi and the Tosafot is not that they were unusually brilliant or erudite, which they were, but rather that when the Talmud was eventually put into print the typesetters incorporated Rashi and the Tosafot onto the basic page, so that the ancient texts appear as a block in the center of the page, surrounded by the mediaeval commentaries. (As with hypertexts, this is a concept that has become easier to understand since the advent of modern word processors and their various graphic potentials). All the other commentators went into the back of the volume, or into separate volumes, which partially explains why when the Nazis burned the library of the seven-year-old Great Yeshiva in Lublin, there were already more than 22,000 volumes in it.

Study of the Talmud is a painstaking, word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence deciphering of the ancient texts, accompanied by a decoding of the mediaeval ones and a clarification of the ensuing thoughts and concepts of all the other scholars who engaged in the discussion these past 1,500 years and are still doing so. It’s slow going. Doing a
Blatt in an hour means getting the gist of the basic text, probably with Rashi’s assistance. Should the learners be experts, it might even be possible to glance at the Tosafot. All the rest is dropped.

Intriguingly, Shapira gave his project the Hebrew name
Daf Yomi (Daily Page), and not it’s Yiddish counterpart. This would eventually contribute to the portability of the concept into a Jewish world where Yiddish is a distant third player to Hebrew and English. 80 years later his idea has become popular beyond his wildest dreams. A traveler arriving practically anywhere in the Jewish world can find a group of locals who are on the same page. There are at least 230 groups in Jerusalem alone. Websites offer daily visual and audio recordings; some have scanned the daily page. Blogs are perfect for discussing such an ongoing issue, which would explain why there are so many Daf Yomi ones. Students of Daf Yomi often have less training than traditional students, and always have less time, so there is a thriving industry of new publications of the Talmud equipped with tools to make it easier – punctuation, vowels, translations, diagrams.

If anyone ever expected the modern world to erode Jews’ commitment to learning their traditional literature, they weren’t expecting this. Wikipedia’s Hebrew-language version claims there are hundreds of thousands of Daf Yomi learners worldwide, and this actually may be true. When the cycle was last completed, in March 2005, tens of thousands of celebrating learners convened in Madison Square Garden alone. Poignantly, a smaller group, from all over Europe, convened in the empty building in Lublin that once housed the Great Yeshiva.

* * *

What are they all studying? This summer of 2007 we’re traversing the tractate of
Yevamot, the Yevama being the childless widow who must be married by a surviving brother, as decreed in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, verse 5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.” The Bible also offers two examples of such families, one being the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, and the other being the family of Ruth, great grandmother of King David.

It’s a rather straightforward concept, you would think – until, that is, you begin to think in Talmudic terms, which entail figuring out the full meaning of the concept through a process of testing its edges. A brother: is he a full brother? The widow: might there be family connections to her that prohibit marriage? In Talmudic society polygamy and childhood marriages were permitted. The potential complications that require consideration are legion. And so, in recent weeks large numbers of men and, yes, women the world over have been stretching their minds over questions such as the following:

Two brothers marry a grandmother and her granddaughter (keeping in mind that the grandmother could be in her mid thirties and her granddaughter approaching puberty). The husband of the grandmother died childless, but left two widows. What now? (Answer: the surviving brother is prohibited from marrying his wife’s grandmother, and this prohibition is extended also to her co-wife, even though this means the deceased brother will have no-one to carry his name). The same logic is then applied to a case where a man married the half sister of his half brother (they are not related) and died leaving two widows. Obviously, the surviving half brother cannot marry his half sister, but also not his half sister’s co-wife.

These, however, are simple cases. A bit further on we deciphered the rules in a family of four brothers, two of whom married two sisters. One brother died, and his widow must now marry one of the two remaining brothers. (She cannot be married to her sister’s husband). However, before the marriage is consummated, a fifth brother is born; since he didn’t exist during the lifetime of the dead brother, there is no obligation to marry the widow. A while later, the sister’s husband also dies childless, and the same thing happens. The remaining uninvolved brother of the original four marries her, but not before a sixth brother is born. When eventually the two second husbands die childless, there actually is a way to keep the two twice-widowed sisters in the family, by having each of them marry the brother who was born after the death of her respective first husband, whom he never knew.

And so on, and on, and on. We heard rumors of Daf Yomi groups who were using colored Lego figures, but our rabbi insisted that was a mild form of cheating, and we should do the mental acrobatics in our minds alone. (Once, when he was away for a few days, his substitute cheated. It made things easier). Eventually some of the acrobatics indeed got easier, as always with practice, but also because some of the concepts began repeating themselves. Our growing familiarity with the models, however, opened the way for a far more substantial debate, namely, what did those ancient rabbis think they were doing?

One of our leading participants, a retired economist, insisted almost on a daily basis that the Talmud was engaging in intellectual acrobatics, not reality. The rabbi, however, a man who openly proclaims no mathematical abilities but whose social awareness is highly developed, countered that in a world where polygamy and early marriages exist, sooner or later every one of these cases would come before the rabbinical courts. The economist noted the neat mathematical symmetry of the constructs; the rabbi responded that courts deal with the endless diversity of real life. The economist complained that would mean also a world with death interfering on a regular basis; the rabbi agreed. After ten or twelve days of this argument, another participant, a psychologist, jumped in with his perspective, whereby the rabbis’ endless convoluted models were actually an expression of their awareness of the degree to which sexual attraction, especially among people in close proximity, is a powerful force which must be controlled.

A collection of mathematical riddles. An expression of the social immediacy of a legal system. An attempt to reconcile the drives of sexuality with ethical mores. All in one: is it really so surprising that 100,000 people engage daily in this habit?

Jerusalem, June 2007

This essay was followed up by more than 70 examples at my blog,
Ruminations. the relevant posts are all labelled, predictably, as “daf yomi”.