Yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a ban on 157 different types of assault weapons, and magazines containing more than ten bullets, Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, lectured Diane Feinstein on the Constitution. Cruz archly asked Feinstein, the author of the bill, if she would agree to limit the First Amendment so that it only applied to certain books and not others. While Sen. Feinstein appropriately decried and dismissed Cruz’ inappropriate attack, there is still more irony to be exposed and explored. Continue reading
This is my latest piece, published in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog.
Much has been made of the choice of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik as the invocation speaker at the opening of today’s Republican National convention. In part this is because Meir Soloveichik is the scion of a storied rabbinic family whose patriarch, a student of Rabbi Elijah Gaon of Vilna, established one of the great Lithunian Yeshivot in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk) in the eighteenth century. The unbroken continuity of that rabbinic line yielded one of the greatest rabbis, talmudists and Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century—Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, known to his students as “the Rov” or simply the Rabbi.
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My latest post on the Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast
Sitting in a cafe on Pico Blvd. in West LA that is way hipper than I am, there seems nothing further from this cultural moment than fasting. Yet, we are on the brink of one of the two most significant fast days on the Jewish liturgical calendar. The better known of those fast days is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, which is a day of prayer and forgiveness. It is also, at least in the eyes of the tradition, not only a holy day but a holiday, a day of celebration. Celebreating the possibility of renewal and atonement. The possibility of piety and holiness.
The day that is upon us in the heat of the summer is the fast of the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is a day of unrelenting sadness and mourning, a day of lamentation for the many, many evils that have befallen the Jewish people through the ages—the shattering of the Tablets in the desert, the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, even the expulsion from Spain and the “final solution.”
The question some raise is understandable. They ask: How do we—sitting in cafes in Los Angeles or in Tel Aviv—relate to this holiday? Jews as a people are not in any existential danger now. The opposite is the truth. The State of Israel, though facing challenges, has the strongest army in the region and is allied with the strongest power on the planet. The American Jewish community is probably the most affluent and politically powerful Jewish community to have ever existed on the planet. Why do we don the sackcloth and ashes of the eternal victims?
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Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.
It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.
Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.
Something, however, is seriously off here. Continue reading
This month, when a group of New York City police officers showed up for their required counter-terrorism training, they got to watch a movie. … The film is called The Third Jihad. It is 72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs. All of this is sandwiched between a collection of somber talking heads informing us that, while we were sleeping, the international Islamist Jihad that wrought these horrors has set up shop here and is quietly going about its deadly business. This is the final drive in a 1,400-year-old bid for Muslim world domination, we’re informed. And while we may think there are some perfectly reasonable Muslim leaders and organizations here in the U.S., that is just more sucker bait sent our way. (Tom Robbins, Village Voice, January 19, 2011)
The New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, through a top aide, acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that he personally cooperated with the filmmakers of “The Third Jihad” — a decision the commissioner now describes as a mistake. (Michael Powell, New York Times, January 24, 2012)
The book of Exodus famously starts with a new Pharaoh, “who did not know Joseph,” falling into a paranoid fantasy that the Israelites would constitute a fifth column, collude with the Egyptians’ enemies and, finally, leave the land, and leave Egypt in a shambles. Most of this comes true, you might say, so why call it a paranoid fantasy? The Israelites did leave the land of Egypt, and when they left, the country that formerly ruled the world was a destroyed shell of a nation—its people killed, its army drowned, its agriculture and livestock wiped out, and its personal wealth stolen. Was Pharaoh paranoid or prescient? Continue reading