This post was written together with Ruhama Weiss, an Israeli poet, author, and Talmud scholar. The post appeared in Hebrew on YNet, as Ruhama’s weekly column on the Torah portion. The English post is not an exact translation, and in fact there is a section here that is not in the Hebrew and vice versa. The whole piece was written in collaboration and the first person voice of the author is sometimes me (Aryeh) and sometimes Ruhama.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob comes close to doing battle with Laban face to face. In this week’s Israeli portion, we almost deepened our battle with Hamas and with the residents of Gaza. In the end Jacob sealed a treaty with Laban. Will we succeed in sealing a lasting treaty with Hamas and the residents of Gaza?
Jews in the world and in Israel spend a lot of time engaged in the question of whether the Jewish people is in danger of being destroyed; we worry about assimilation, antisemitism, and wars. I do not find myself worried about the question of the survival of the Jewish people, but especially recently I find myself very worried about the danger of the disappearance of Jewish culture. A culture that we built with the sweat of our brow, rare courage, creativity, and pain, over thousands of years (the majority of which were in Exile).
I turned to my hevruta, my study partner, Prof. Aryeh Cohen, an alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and today a professor of Talmud at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. I asked him to help me write a short dictionary of words of war and peace which are in danger of destruction. Here is the beginning of our sad, destroyed dictionary. Continue reading
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
Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?
If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world. Continue reading
A meditation on a sugya (talmudic discussion) that I am currently teaching and thinking about.
Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 34b
There was a certain boat that two [people] were fighting over.
This one says: “It is mine.” And this one says: “It is mine.”
One of them came to the court.
He said: “Seize it until I bring witnesses that it is mine.”
Do we seize it or not?
Rav Huna says: “We seize.”
Rav Yehudah says: “We do not seize.”
He did not find witnesses.
He said: “Release it. The one who is stronger will prevail.”
Do we release it or not?
Rav Yehudah says: “We do not release.”
Rav Papa says: “We release.”
The law is that we do not seize. If we do seize we do not release.
What is it about these two men that engages the curiosity? They, both of them, lay claim to the same boat or barge—or, later, piece of land—and neither can draw down the gods of the law through the sacred ritual of evidence to prove his side. The boat lays between them in a nether space, neither here nor there—bodies of water not being owned by one or the other. The turn to the court is of last resort, it seems. “Intervene” is the cry of the one, certain in his ability to scare up a witness, a scrap of paper that will tilt the scales, a proof incontestable which will move the boat to his possession. Ownership, the ability to bond with inanimate objects in a manner signaling “mine own”—”part of me.” And are they? And how are they? Land especially it seems floats through the dark arts of transferal of ownership without transformation, for how would it? Its bond with its owner more sorcery than sophistry. At the last, it is violence, is it not, that bounds one’s property as part of one’s self. Continue reading