Sunday, May 2, 2010

Three Stories about Staying Power

From time to time I pose the question - as a question, not an answer - of the ability of non-Israeli Jewry to sustain itself over time. I usually ask if it has staying power, since without it, Jews don't remain Jews for more than a few generations. Here are three recent stories about Jewish staying power.

The Bible doesn't much deal with non-military threats to Jewish existence, except a bit in some of the latter sections. Thus, the commandments to hold on no matter what, and the conceptual-religious-cultural mechanisms of doing so were mostly developed in the second millennium of Jewish existence. No single source for this is more important than the discussion initiated at Lod (Lyyda), where a wealthy Jew named Nitza gave his attic to a group of scholars to study. In the attic, so we're told, rabbi Yochanan taught what he had learned from Shimon ben Yehotzadak: All of the laws of the Torah, if a man is told to break them or be killed, he should break them and not be killed, except for idolatry, incest and murder.

The Gemara then goes into a long discussion which introduces distinctions such as if the demand is private (then there's more leeway to save one's life) or public (in which in some cases it is forbidden to give in at all). The motivation of the person making the demand and the threats is also relevant; if it's personal, or national, and so on. (Sanhedrin 74a and b)

At the time this was not a theoretical discussion, as many in the Talmud are, as there was a war going on with the Romans. Yet the rabbis could not have foreseen how serious their discussion would someday be; their conflict with the Romans was still largely political, or at least concentrated on the degree of autonomy the Jews of Judea would have within the Roman Empire. Many centuries later, after the Roman empire was no more, there would repeatedly be cases in Medieval Europe where the Jews would be faced with the full enormity of the dilemma, and large numbers of them would choose to die rather than to give in. (One assumes there were also large numbers who chose to give in, but their descendants were not Jews so their decision is lost). The horrible but extraordinarily powerful concept of Kiddush Hashem - Sanctifying His Name even through martyrdom - starts with this passage in the Talmud, which we passed last week.

During the Shoah, a number of rabbis reversed the logic of the ruling: if the enemy is attempting to destroy all of the Jews, without offering them any choice in the matter, perhaps they may transgress so as to survive, a few of them. A twist the earlier rabbis had not foreseen.

The second story began six years ago today, on May 2nd 2004, when Tali Hatuel, eight months pregnant with her first son, loaded her four daughters into the family van. Hila was 11, Hadar was 9, Ronny was 7,and Meirav was 2. They all lived in the village of Katif, and they were off to pick up their husband-father David, and go vote in the internal Likud poll on Ariel Sharon's plan to pull them out of Gaza. On the road to Ashkelon Tali was shot by Palestinian murderers, who then walked up to the stalled van and shot the four girls at close range.

The five were buried in a row: Tali, her foetus still in her, and to either side of her, two daughters.

I assume the murderers understood that such a murder on that particular day would likely hamper Sharon's plan of leaving Gaza. To the best of my knowledge the murderer or murderers were never apprehended, though one may hope they died in the 2009 attack on Hamas.

David Hatuel mourned his entire family, was forced out of their home the following summer, then remarried and now has three small children. His new wife is scrupulously left alone by our usually irrepressible media: there are some lines that are still not to be crossed. David himself, however, talks from time to time. In an interview over the weekend he said that he hasn't built a new family, he has built a second floor. Tali and her daughters are the first floor, Limor and her three (so far) are the second floor of the same family. His three new children have three sets of grandparents.

So that's the second story about staying power. Sort of puts things into perspective, doesn't it.

The third was this morning. We went to a Brit- the celebration of circumcision which Jewish boys undergo on their eighth day after birth. The great grandparents were there, and the grandparents, and lots of siblings and cousins and friends. The new-born is the first-born to his parents, and his mother looked deeply distressed as the moment approached. New mothers of new-born Jewish boys usually are, but the first is the hardest. Nearby I noticed another young woman, deep into her first pregnancy: she also has a boy coming, and she literally had tears in her eyes as the moment approached.

The baby, by the way, cried for about 30 seconds and then was given a pacifier with wine on it and went back to sleep, as always happens. Still, I'm always struck at this event by the underlying message that being Jewish hurts.


Anonymous said...

Off topic: Did you see the op-ed on Sheik Jarrah in the NY Times yesterday?


Anonymous said...

Kai Bird has a book to promote
from what I've gathered so far, it is of the "if only Israel would ..."-variety and didn't strike me as neither particularly unprejudiced nor as particularly interesting

Andrew said...

I well remember the Hatuel story; in a conflict full of atrocities, this particular murder always struck me then, as it does now, as breathtakingly cruel and evil. When I was an undergraduate student, David announced his engagement to Limor Shem-Tove. I wrote a column ( on the topic for the school paper.

I remain amazed by the entire tale. It's really a testament to both the depths and the heights of which we're capable.

Morey Altman said...

Lovely, as always, Yaacov. As for your comment: "Still, I'm always struck at this event by the underlying message that being Jewish hurts."

What strikes me is the inability of non-Jews to recognize this aspect of Judaism. It's particularly blatant in their simplistic condemnation of the brit milah, the ease with which they accuse of us indifference at best, or worse, willful child abuse. As if WE, who bear the scar of this act, don't understand it's implications. As if WE, who are asked to put our own sons under the blade, don't know the real risks.

The thing about antisemitism is that it takes so many forms, hiding itself like a computer virus, even from those who spread it. Not all antisemites want to kill Jews. These days our worse enemies are our self-righteous, condescending allies who offer us tough-love, and call it an act of friendship. We need this friendship like we need a doctor to push us in front of a bus to help us get over the flu.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

What a load of drivel. See my response here.

Yaacov said...

I knew you would appear on this one, Fake Ibrahim (or is it Alberto?) Don't worry, I have no intention of visiting your blog to read your opinion.

Anonymous said...

have pity on Fake Ibrahim but no mercy.
- Monday seems to be his day off when he is so bored with life that the best thing he can do is come up with another impossible to understand argument

- and now as the comment section of his blog seems to have lost steam during the last 3 weeks he comes to yours trying to generate some traffic which, should he succeed, might in turn get his buddies back to the keyboards

Cutman said...

Morey: Righteous. Israel might start losing wars and get conquered by the Mesopotamians (again!) should we break our covenant with hashem. And we can't trust the gentiles who get circumcised. They think it's hygenic but we do it because it makes us a nation.

Sergio said...

Ah, here comes our Cat Stevens from the Pampas, with his self-important opinions.

He's got bored again...

thankgodimatheist said...

Context Yaccov, context! The Hatuel family lived in a colony/settlement.
Yeah, I know, I know!