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Saturday, April 03, 2010

This Blog Has a New Home

After more than five years on Blogger, I decided to try a new blogging platform and moved the blog to Wordpress.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Shabbat Pessach – The Dry Bones

לכן הנבא ואמרת אליהם… הנה אני פותח את קברותיכם והעליתי אתכם מקברותיכם עמי, והבאתי אתכם אל אדמת ישראל

(יחזקאל לז, יב)

On both shabbatot of Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Pessach we read the same Torah portion, but the Haftarot – although from adjacent chapters in Yechezkel - are different. On Sukkot we read about the battle of the end of the days, Gog and Magog (chapter 38). On Pessach we read about the prophecy of the resurrection of the dry bones (chapter 37).

The Haftarah is not the only difference. As is customary in many communities, a Megillah is read on this shabbat. On Sukkot, it is Kohelet; on Pessach it is Shir HaShirim. In the days of the temple, there was also a difference in the number of bull sacrifices offered during the holiday: 70 in total during Sukkot (13 on the first day, going down to 7 on the last); but only 2 per day during Pessach.

These differences all symbolise the difference between the two holidays. Whilst Sukkot is a universal holiday, Pessach is a particular holiday. During Sukkot, all nations came to the temple in Jerusalem and the 70 sacrifices symbolised the 70 nations of the world. So the story of Gog and Magog applies to the entire world, and Kohelet’s wisdom is one that is universal. But Pessach is a Jewish holiday, the one commemorating the moment when Israel became a nation. Thus the sacrifices symbolise the daily, regular, sacrifice of the Jews, and Shir HaShirim tells the story (allegorically) of the love between God and His people.

So what do we learn from the story of the dry bones? The prophet Yechezkel is shown a valley full of dry bones and then God resurrects the dead and the bones come together and become living humans again. Then God promises this is what will happen to the People of Israel, who are now scattered among nations and are like dry bones with no hope. God’s promise is that they will be “resurrected” and brought to the Land of Israel:

Therefore prophesy, and say unto them… Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.

Who did these dry bones belong to? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92:), the sages tell us these were people from the tribe of Ephraim, who had made a miscalculation. God promised Avraham that his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years and will then be brought out possessing great wealth. The count of the 400 years began on the day Yitzchak was born, 30 years after the promise, but the people of Ephraim thought it began on the day of the promise (during Brit ben HaBetarim). So they left Egypt 30 years too early and were killed in the desert by Philistines.

There are two opinions in the Talmud about what happened in the resurrection of the dry bones. R. Eliezer says the dead rose up, sang praise to God, and died again. R. Eliever son of R. Yossi says that they stayed alive, moved to Israel, married and had sons and daughters. These two opinions reflect different attitudes of the Midrashim to these Ephraimites. Some viewed them as bad people, who did not keep the Mitzvot and rebelled against the leadership by leaving Egypt too soon. Thus, their resurrection was a temporary one, merely to symbolise the future redemption of the exiled Jews, and then they died again. But others viewed them as courageous people whose immense love for the Land of Israel drove them to take a huge risk by escaping from Egypt and trying to cross the desert alone, to reach the Promised Land. Thus, they were rewarded by being resurrected and moving to Israel, where they prospered.

The second, positive, interpretation of the dry bones prophecy is supported by the testimony given by R. Yehuda ben Betera in the same Talmud portion. Upon hearing the discussion between the sages about these Ephraimites, he stood up and said that he is a descendant of these people, and he is in possession of a pair of Teffilin that his grandfather, one of the resurrected, gave him.

This testimony teaches us a lesson of hope. Even though the Ephraimites might have been hard-headed fools who disregarded the common view and the leadership, and were punished by dying in the desert, their offspring ended up as sages living in Eretz Israel and fulfilling the will of God. Through the misdirected adventure of the grandfather emerged a Tana like R. Yehuda ben Betera. One may make an analogy to our day and age, to those brave souls who were “foolish” enough not to heed the call of the European rabbis to stay put and left for Israel/Palestine, thus saving themselves from annihilation in the Holocaust.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Impossible Choice

On Friday, two IDF soldiers died in a fire exchange with Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza strip.

One of them was Major Eliraz Peretz z”l, a 32-year-old deputy commander in the Golani brigade, and father of 4 children. Tragically, his older brother, Uriel, died in combat in Lebanon 12 years ago. His father could not bear the loss and died a few years later. I cried this morning listening to the mother, Mirian, speak on the radio. A modern-day Job.

Eliraz Peretz

The law in Israel is that if a new recruit wishes to join a combat unit, and his family has already suffered a loss (a father or a brother), then the family, typically the mother, needs to approve his wish in writing. In other words, if a family member has already died in the line of duty, then the family has the right to veto the decision of another family member to join a combat unit.

This law must change. There are only a handful of “veto” cases each year and the reason is simple. The mother usually has no power to decide against her son’s wishes. If the son decides to follow in his father’s or brother’s footsteps – which is usually the case – then the pressure against the mother is unbearable. A child of 17 or 18 years is not mature enough to see the possible ramifications of his decision on the family and his desire to be a combat soldier will drive him to force his mother to sign the release form. No mother can stands in the way of her son’s wishes, especially when she’s already lost a son.

The state is acting unfairly in passing the decision on to the mother. Instead, the law should state that if a family member has died in the line of duty, then no other family member can join a combat unit. Period. No exceptions. He (or she) will need to fulfill his military duty by serving elsewhere in the army, where his chances of survival are infinitely higher. The burden of a double death in the family is one no family should be exposed to.

Monday, March 15, 2010

43 Minutes

Does the Obama administration understand the complexities of the Middle East?

This question rises again to the fore following the current “unprecedented crisis” between the US and Israel, after the allegedly unintentional gaffe made by Israel during Joe Biden’s visit. (If you’ve been sleeping this past week: the municipality of Jerusalem approved a permit for building new apartments in East Jerusalem, without the government’s knowledge and without paying attention to the presence of a US eminence in the country).

Apparently, Hillary Clinton held PM Netanyahu on the phone for 43 minutes, berating him for allowing this to happen on his watch. 43 minutes! I’m not sure even Bill received such a long earful from Hillary after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Can the US administration be serious about this? Do they really think that the entire peace process is dependent on a permit for some apartments in Jerusalem? Is this really the most pressing issue, one worth 43 minutes of Hillary’s valuable time.

It is fast becoming apparent that Obama has no clue when it comes to the Middle East. His infamous appeasement speech to the Arab world in Cairo was a bad omen. Now it seems that he is indeed clueless, believing that articulate speeches can solve centuries-old problems as if by magic. Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand (Iran, anyone?), he is busy peddling useless “proximity talks” between Israel and a powerless Palestinian leadership. And he allows his Secretary of State to whine about some apartments in East Jerusalem that are years away from being built (as if anyone in his right mind truly believes that area of Jerusalem is ever going to be part of a Palestinian state). How so very frustrating, even if not entirely surprising.

bibi hillary

Bibi explains something to Hillary

 

As a small consolation, here is the transcript of the Hillary-Bibi 43 minute conversation (courtesy of The North Star National). Look up the Yiddish if you’re not familiar with it:

CLINTON:  “Bibi, this is Hillary.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, Bubbala!  How are you?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t you ‘Bubbala’ me, Bibi.  What’s going on with this announcement of 1600 new apartments while Joe’s in your country?  That’s just a little in-your-face even for you.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, that.  That was a little unintentional, technical mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Come now.  You must know I don’t get every little building permit reported to me.  It’s low-level bureaucratic stuff.”

CLINTON:  “An unintentional mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Right.  That announcement was a deliberate insult.  A humiliation for the Vice President and an affront to the President and to the people of the United States.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, please!  Look, you have to know this was done in all innocence.  It was regrettable, and we recognize it was hurtful.  After all these years, you more than anyone would recognize that our connection with the American people and our respect for the president are important components of Israel’s security and foreign relations.”

CLINTON:  “Don’t try to butter me up with diplomat talk.  This was a calculated effort to undermine the peace talks with the Palestinians we’re trying to advance.  You’ve weakened trust with us, and you and your government are in serious trouble.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, you have to believe I had nothing to do with it.  Look, you know we have this Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who’s new to these things.  He’s going to get a bissel fardrayt from time to time and make these little goofs.”

CLINTON:  “‘Little goofs?’  You’re striking right at the heart of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy and plan for peace.”

NETANYAHU:  “Policy and plan for peace?  Whatever could you be referring to?”

CLINTON:  “You know full well.  The President has made it publicly clear that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and that they have to stop.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, yes, of course.  Now I remember.  That little diplomacy shtick Mr. Nobel Peace Prize has going.  How could we have forgotten that even-handed Cairo speech, and this well-thought-out, impartial, equitable plan our neutral broker Barack Hussein has come up with?  Let’s see … we sink our government and tacitly abandon our rights to territory by agreeing to freeze settlements in exchange for … what?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t get cute with me, Bibi.  A freeze would be a show of faith in the process.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, faith in the process.  The process!  How silly of me!  So much the process has brought us.  Intifadas with suicide bombers blowing themselves up in our buses, markets and restaurants.  Missiles raining down on children and bubbas from Gaza, from which we of our own accord withdrew.  United Nations investigations and resolutions against us for defending ourselves.  Here we have a United States president buttering up the Palestinians and turning against his friends, and we wouldn’t want to threaten the process with a few apartments in an area of our ancient capital not even claimed by the other side.  You’re so right.  I must apologize for damaging the process.”

CLINTON:  “Bibi, you’re trying my patience.  We’re expecting you and your government to take bold, specific actions to show your commitment to the relationship with the United States and to the peace talks.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, I assure you we are willing to show the same commitment to the President’s peace talks that he has offered to the vital interests of the state of Israel.”

CLINTON:  “And what would that be?”

NETANYAHU:  “It’s another technical, diplomatic term:  does the word bupkes mean anything to you?”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tissa - Holiness in Stones

ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות, ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר

(שמות לב, יט)

The story of the exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt is reaching its denouement: the giving of the Torah. Moshe just spent 40 days and nights with God and is on his way down the mountain to give the Torah, the two tablets, to the People. When he sees what the People are up to – dancing around a golden calf and calling it God – this is what happens:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount (Shemot 32, 10)

Imagine the shock. Today, should a Torah scroll fall to the floor, a jarring jolt of horror strikes the congregation (and in certain conditions, we need to fast). So Moshe breaking the actual tablets written in the hand of God seems be an act beyond belief, a surreal image. What brought Moshe to commit such an unbelievable deed?

The Midrashim offer three different explanations:

1. Moshe wanted to protect the People of Israel. The Midrash likens the covenant between God and Israel to a betrothal. So by breaking the tablets, Moshe avoids Israel being punished as a married woman (eshet ish) who has strayed. The same idea is conveyed by another famous Midrashic saying: מוטב יהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידיןBy not knowing the law, Israel would be erring in practicing idolatry, but at least they would not be performing a sin willfully, out of knowledge.

2. Moshe is frustrated. With the culmination of his efforts in Egypt and in the desert rendered to nothing, one can understand the irritation and the need to vent anger. The Midrash brings opposing views as to whether God agreed to or rejected this behaviour of Moshe, but regardless of His acceptance, Moshe’s act was one borne out of pure disappointment.

3. God commanded Moshe. A diametrically opposed view in the Midrash has God commanding Moshe to break the tablets, as it is inconceivable for a human being, even Moshe, to decide by himself to destroy God’s word. Certainly not as a frustrated act in a moment of anger.

These are all acceptable explanations of Moshe’s breaking the tablets. But there remains a fundamental question: how do we reconcile the view that Moshe acted of his own accord (whether out of anger or to protect the People of Israel) with the view that it is not possible for a human being to perform such an act without God’s permission? Why did Moshe not get punished for breaking the tablets?

Another Midrash offers us a way to solve this question. The writing on the tablets was God’s writing, and the letters hang miraculously in the air so that the commandments could be read from both sides of the stones. When Moshe saw the sin of the golden calf, the letters “flew away” from the tablets and vanished. All Moshe was holding now was a pair of empty stones. One explanation is that Moshe lost all strength while witnessing the People of Israel sinning, and the empty tablets simply fell from his hands.

But I another explanation. After the letters vanished, the tablets were nothing but stone. Devoid of the word of God, they were devoid of any holiness. Moshe breaks the tablets willfully and in anger, but in doing so he is not breaking the word of God; he is merely casting down a pair of empty, worthless stones. With God having removed Himself as a result of the People’s unwillingness to accept the Torah, there is no kedushah left.

This is a great lesson for us. God’s presence and holiness are there only if we act properly and earn our right to deserve them. Kissing barren stones in the hope their supposed holiness will protect us, rather than working on improving our ways (which is much harder!), is an act devoid of any religious meaning.

This idea for this Torah Thought is from R. Lichtenstein.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Brave New World

I’ve been holding back on getting a Kindle for the last year or so. I wasn’t sure the technology was there yet and I was afraid to be disappointed. But last week I decided to stop procrastinating and dove right in. I am now the proud owner of a brand new Kindle!

 

image

So far I’ve only read one book on the Kindle and I must say I am pleasantly surprised. It has the main disadvantage I expected: missing the feeling of holding a book in your hands and flipping the pages. But the reading experience is better than I expected. It’s slim and light, yet sturdy enough to hold (especially with the cover). And the “virtual ink” technology is truly amazing, much better than reading off an LCD screen. Not to mention the fact that if you think about a book, you can have it in your hands two minutes later.

In short, first impression is that this is going to be a winner for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Israeli Tennis Players in Dubai

 peerdubaiap468dubaipict2_wh

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hard to Believe

I am still reeling from the news about the alleged sexual misconduct of R. Motti Elon. The news broke last night and there are still more questions than answers.

R. Elon denies the charges. But a list of ten prominent rabbis put their name to the warning; surely they made 100% sure this is true before publishing such claims about someone like R. Elon?

On the other hand, if they knew about this four years ago and were convinced the story was true, why didn’t they publish this earlier?

They claim they posed limitations on R. Elon and only after he didn’t adhere to these limitations they decided to go public. But such allegations surely need to be handled by the authorities, not by some self-appointed council of rabbis?

I don’t know R. Elon personally. But like many Israelis I know of him and his reputation. This is so hard to believe.

If it does turn out to be true this will be a double blow. Firstly, because of who R. Elon is. But mostly because of how this leading group of rabbis seem to have preferred to deal with this case internally, apparently from fear of washing dirty laundry in public.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mishpatim - Justice or Compromise?

ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם

(שמות כא, א)

A few years ago, while building our new house, we had a disagreement with one of the contractors. We were not fully satisfied with the his work and asked him to compensate us. The argument dragged on for a while but he did not budge. So we sued him at the Small Claims Court and after a few months we were invited for the hearing. I remember walking into the tiny courtroom with some trepidation; after all, this was my first ever appearance before a judge. The judge entered, sat down, looked at us both and said: “I can either delve into the matter before me deeply, appoint experts and start a lengthy process of investigation. Or, I propose that you both settle now” and he proposed an amount of money. After a short discussion with my wife, we accepted, and so did the contractor. The whole thing took less than two minutes.

Why do I tell this story?

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, deals with a multitude of intricate tort and property laws. The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the entire parasha is a continuation of the previous one, Yitro, where we read the Ten Commandments. More specifically, it elaborates the rules governing the last commandment about coveting. A person needs to know what belongs to him and what does not, what he can rightly covet and what he must not think about possessing. For this, he needs the detailed laws in Mishpatim.

So it would seem a judge needs to “do justice”. Indeed R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says in Sanhedrin: a judge who judges truth makes the Shechinah (God’s presence) rest in Israel, and a judge who does the contrary makes the Shechinah leave. A tall order for a judge, who has to make 100% sure he find out the absolute truth and passes correct judgement. But also in Sanhedrin we find an interesting discussion that reflects differing opinions on how a judge should go about his job.

R. Eliezer ben Yossef HaGelili says that a judge must not settle for a compromise, and one who does so is committing a sin. Instead,  judge should decide either way and give a verdict. However, R. Yehoshua ben Korcha says that not only is a judge allowed to find a compromise, it is a mitzvah for him to do so! He learns this from verses in the Prophets that show that justice and peace can live together, and this is possible only if the sides reach a compromise.

So we are left with the question: what is a judge to do? Fortunately for us, there is a third opinion in the Talmud that merges the two opinions. R. Shimon ben Menassia says that a judge is allowed to offer the sides a settlement before he listens to their arguments (or even after he listens to them, provided he doesn’t know what to rule). But if he has heard the sides and reached a decision on who’s right and who’s wrong, he is not allowed to offer a compromise and must make a definitive ruling. In other words, the judge has two roles: that of judge (like Moses in last week’s parasha) and that of mediator (like Aharon, who always sought to bring peace between parties).

It turns out that this is also reflected in the secular laws of the State of Israel. In the 1980 law governing the court system, there is a stipulation that if a court does not know what the verdict is, the court should appeal to “the principles of freedom, justice, righteousness and peace of Israel’s heritage”. Mencham Elon, a former judge in the Supreme Court, wrote that he researched many judicial systems and did not find one where “peace” was up there with values like freedom and justice.

R. Ya’akov Ba’al HaTurim sums it up nicely by using the first two words our parasha as acronyms:

ואלהוחייב אדם לחקור הדין (A man must investigate and get to justice)

המשפטיםהדיין מצווה שיעשה פשרה טרם שיעשה משפט (The judge has a mitzvah to offer a compromise before making jugdement)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Two-Pronged Threat

The ultra-orthodox religious Jews in Israel are posing a serious demographic challenge to Israeli society. In my Israeli Society in 2030 blog post, I pointed out the troubling statistics of children starting school this year, and the possible effects on life in Israel in a couple of decades.

The trouble does not end with the proclivity of religious Jews to “go forth and multiply”. The ultra-orthodox religious establishment, mainly the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts, is also fighting a bitter war against conversions to Judaism (giyur). By adopting the most extreme interpretation of the conditions necessary to bring a non-Jew into the fold, they set the bar impossibly high. They insist that committing to maintain a religious way of life after the conversion – something that the vast majority of Jews do not do themselves – is a pre-requisite for the conversion process to start.

The most evident win of the ultra-orthodox in this war is the repudiation of the state-sponsored giyurim granted by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. This led to the resignation/firing of R. Druckman and to sharp drop in the number of conversions. Data published today shows that in 2009 there was a 12% drop in giyurim, after a 27% drop in 2008. Only 4,206 people converted to Judaism in Israel in 2009, and of these less than 1,000 belonged the group labelled as “religion-less”. This group, mostly composed of ex-Soviet Union emigres, is estimated at 300,000 people (some put the number much higher). The rate of conversion is but a drop in the ocean.

By blocking the way for Israeli citizens to convert to Judaism, the ultra-orthodox are exacerbating the demographic threat. Most of the potential converts are secular people, so by keeping them out of “the tribe”, the relative number of ultra-religious Jews is higher. Faced with the specter of a society composed of 30-40% ultra-orthodox Jews, most of which currently do not serve in the military and are not legally part of the workforce, it is no wonder that Lieberman, and now Netanyahu, are promoting crazy ideas like allowing Israelis abroad to vote in parliamentary elections.

As I wrote previously, this two-pronged threat is the single biggest challenge facing Israel’s future.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Meryl Weep

I’ve written before about how Meryl Streep is quite possibly the most overrated actress on the planet. So you can imagine the pleasure with which I read this piece on Spiked about Meryl Weep.

Here’s to another oscar-less year!

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Green Future

It’s funny now, but there is truth behind every joke. Thirty years ago people made fun of the restrictions placed on smokers; now, smokers are shunned pretty much everywhere. This is a glimpse into our “green future”.

Friday, February 05, 2010

הרמב”ם, משה הלברטל

You know the famous hypothetical question: “if you could meet 3 people from history, who would they be”? Well, in my case – when the question is posed specifically about figures from Jewish history – my reply is: “Moses, Maimonides and I haven’t decided about the third”. I guess there is no need to explain Moshe, the greatest Jewish leader of all time and the only person who has spoken with God “face to face”.

RabamAs for the other Moshe - R. Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, Maimonides - he is not only by far the most prominent Jewish thinker and Torah scholar of all time. He also stands out for his rational approach to Jewish law and his unbelievable capacity for writing outstanding scholarly works on subjects ranging from law to medicine to philosophy. All this against a background of a harsh life that saw his family fleeing from Spain to find refuge in Morocco and in Eretz Israel before settling in Egypt, the loss of a brother who supported him financially, a demanding and time-consuming job as the Sultan’s doctor and attacks on his writings and thoughts from Jewish leaders worldwide. To have accomplished what Rambam accomplished in his 68 years is unfathomable to mere mortals like us. It is no wonder the epitaph on his tombstone reads: “from Moses (the prophet) to Moses (Rambam) there were none like Moses”.

The writings of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz first introduced me to the world of the Rambam more than two decades ago. I have studied, and am continuously studying, the Rambam’s Halachic works, most notably his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishne Torah. I have also read (and only partly understood) his great philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed. I read the various letters (Igrot) he wrote to Jewish individuals and communities who sought his opinion. I have also read a couple of biographies and many academic books and treatises on his works and his philosophy.

So when I picked up Prof. Halbertal’s book about the Rambam I didn’t have great expectations. Halbertal is indeed a renowned Rambam scholar, but the book is part of a series published by the Zalman Shazar Institute in Jerusalem about prominent Jewish thinkers in history. I found most of the books in the series tend to be somewhat confused in their approach, probably a result of trying to blend an academic work with the need to satisfy the wide audience the books aim to address.

But Halbertal surprised me. He managed to write 300 brilliant pages encompassing almost every facet of the Rambam. He covers his life in the first chapter and then goes on to describe every major body of work and philosophy of the Rambam, from his early work on the Mishnah, through his colossal Mishne Torah and ending with The Guide to the Perplexed. Throughout, Halbertal classifies and explains the thoughts behind what Rambam wrote, and highlights the different approaches to his philosophy. This is all done in clear and concise prose, never lapsing into convoluted academic text nor into over-simplifications. One is left with a good, solid understanding of what a revolution the multi-faceted. multi-disciplinary Rambam brought about in Jewish thought.

I cannot say whether this is a book that a person who knows nothing about the Rambam will enjoy. But to someone who has studied or read some of Rambam’s works, Halbertal’s book is a must. It will bring order from chaos, summarise many of the ideas succinctly and elucidate some of the finer points of Rambam’s philosophy. It is a book I highly recommend (currently available only in Hebrew, I believe).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Fall (cont.)

A year and a half ago I wrote about the fall of miss USA in a beauty pageant as symbolising the decline of the United States.

This post came back to my mind this morning, as I read about the victory of Li Na over Venus Williams in the Australia Open. Another small metaphor of the decline of the US, befittingly this time in the hands of a rival from China.

Li Na

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Israel and the Haiti Earthquake

Like most Israelis (OK, perhaps a little more than most) I am critical of Israel and I have a tendency to point out the bad things and ignore the good things. It’s mostly a criticism born out of love, just as a father is more upset with the wrongdoings of his own children than with those of other people’s.

So when Israel does something right, I am only to happy to point it out. Israel’s response to the disaster in Haiti has been fast, effective and disproportionate (in the positive sense of the word). Within 48 hours, two 747 aircraft with 220 military medical personnel and a fully operational field hospital were on their way to Haiti. The Israeli rescue delegation set up and started saving lives almost immediately. This CNN report is worth watching.

On a side note: Many countries sent aid to Haiti – some more, some less. I’m still waiting to hear about a Muslim country sending aid: food, clothes, supplies, medicines. Anything really. I know Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia are very poor countries compared with Israel, but surely they can pinch something together for Haiti. After all, isn’t Islam a charitable religion?

Monday, January 11, 2010

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

Every time I visit the US, I pick up a copy of the New Yorker. I love reading the long, well thought out and superbly written, essays. “What the Dog Saw” is a collection of 19 essays written by Malcom Gladwell and published in the New Yorker over the past decade or so. The essays touch on various subjects but they all have that “Gladwell touch”: a seemingly mundane and boring topic is turned into a fascinating narrative with thoughtful insights.

What the Dog SawThe book is organised into three categories. In the first - “Minor Geniuses - Gladwell explores people who have made a significant impact in their field of expertise. I truly loved the first essay in the book, about Ron Popeil, who single-handedly invented the direct marketing of kitchen appliances, first by selling on street corners and later on late-night TV. The story is fascinating from both a business and a personal perspective. The third essay in the book is about an equally captivating character, Nassim Taleb, who devised an investment strategy based on the “inevitability of disaster”, that is betting that the most unlikely event (like 9/11) will happen. I found other essays in this category less captivating, such as the one about John Rock, the inventor of the birth control pill. I didn’t agree with the conclusions Gladwell drew from Rock’s decisions regarding the Catholic church’s approach to the pill.

Essays in the second category deals with “theories, predictions and diagnoses”. There is an essay about Enron and how how all the information was there for everyone to see. Another, related, story deals with a subject that was at one time close to my heart: the impossible job of military intelligence assessments. In these two stories Gladwell makes a brilliant distinction between puzzle and mystery. A puzzle is a problem which has a definitive answer and finding that answer depends on finding all the relevant pieces of information. A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definitive answer, because it requires judgement and assessment and cannot be solved by gathering more information. Many of the intelligence assessments are mysteries and that is why intelligence organisations have failure built into their very nature.

The last category of essays is about “personality, character and intelligence”. Gladwell makes minced mint out of the “profile builders” of the FBI, those psycho-experts that can tell you who the criminal is (almost) by analysing the crimes he committed. In another essay he asks the question “are smart people overrated?”, and in a third he asks whether it is possible to hire people based on interviews. I found some of the essays in this category to be less engaging and less convincing, as they touched on topics that appeared in Gladwell’s previous book “Outliers”, which I didn’t like.

All in all, this is a delightful collection of long-winded essays but easy-to-read essays. Vintage Gladweel, vintage New Yorker.

PS – This was my first ever audiobook. I never thought I could concentrate on a book by listening to it, but I found out that while driving or jogging, listening to a book is a great way to pass the time. I’m now trying to listen to a novel and see if it works just as well.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

State, Army and Religion

The past few weeks have seen the age-old discussion about the relationship between state and religion in Israel make the front pages again. The current debate was prompted by Defense Minister Barak’s decision to kick out the Har Beracha Yeshiva from the “Hesder”, literally “arrangement”, by which religious boys can do a shortened army service (about half, 1.5 years) and spend the rest of the time continuing their studies. This arrangement has been around for decades and the army tolerates it because most of the religious soldiers join elite combat units, meaning they will spend considerable time each year doing meaningful reserve duty.

Barak’s decision came after the head of the Har Beracha Yeshiva, R. Eliezer Melamed, vociferously backed a handful of Hesder soldiers that wrote banners proclaiming their right-wing political views, specifically that they would refuse to obey an order to evacuate Jewish settlements. He stated that the soldiers should follow the rabbis’ rulings and where there is a conflict with a military order, they should prefer the rabbi’s directive. Obviously, from the army’s point of view, this is an unacceptable stance. Both R. Melamed and Barak climbed very tall trees and it seems hard for them to find a ladder to climb down. The debate escalated after some of R. Melamed’s colleagues backed him, while other Hesder rabbis sought to calm things down.

The truth of the matter is that once this debate turns to the question of whose authority the religious soldiers should listen to above all else – the army’s or the rabbis’ – there is no way out. No religious person can accept a statement that there is a higher authority than God. And no army will accept a statement that a soldier can decide whether to carry out an order based on his religious belief. (I’m assuming, for the sake of the discussion only, that the rabbis’ right-wing stance faithfully represents God’s will; in my opinion, it doesn’t). So trying to bring the discussion to a head on this point is useless. It will cause more harm than good.

To me, what needs to be done is very clear: a separation of state and religion. Israel is a secular country that has an army to protect it. The army is an organization that has no religious significance, just as the government has no religious significance. A decision by the government to build settlements or to evacuate them is a legitimate democratic decision that has no religious bearing. Speaking of the State of Israel, its government or its army as having any kind of religious meaning is not only ridiculous from the secular state’s point of view. It is also ridiculous from the religion’s point of view! It belittles the Jewish religion and relegates it to a position of subservience to a civilian organization, instead of allowing it to be independent of any authority. Israel is not governed by the laws of the Torah and by associating themselves with it from a religious standpoint, the various religions institutions are, pardon the expression, prostituting themselves and the religion they purport to represent.

Compare it if you will to religion and science, or religion and academia in general. There are many religious scientists and professors in Israel. Some of them are prominent figures in their field of expertise. Some of them deal with issues that are clearly in contrast with their religious views, like the age of the universe, or contraception and abortion, or the study of the New Testament. Yet they continue their work and excel in their fields precisely because there is a clear separation between science and religion. They do not go and ask their rabbi whether to believe the universe is 4 billion years or a mere 6,000 years old. They do not ask for permission to read Luke or Matthew. They understand there are areas of life that Halacha does not cover.

In short, there are two, and only two, decisions a religious person can make regarding the secular State of Israel (and its army). He can either decide, like the extreme ultra-orthodox among us, that until a Jewish religious state, i.e. one that is governed by Halacha, can be established, one cannot recognise the State of Israel or benefit from it. Or he can decide that he has a religious duty (a kind of dina demalchuta) to be a fully loyal citizen of the secular State of Israel, just as he would be a fully loyal citizen of France or India if he were living there as a Jew. All other “in between” combinations are nothing but compromises that do more damage to the religion and to religious people.

Brave rabbis (sounds like an oxymoron in our day and age) should tell their students very clearly that the Jewish religion has nothing to do with a government decision to evacuate settlements. Just as religion has nothing to do with government decisions to provide healthcare or build roads or tax income. Only a clear separation between the domains can solve the non-existent dilemma these rabbis have plunged their students and followers into.

הכלב היהודי, אשר קרביץ

I picked this book up on a whim, during one of the end-of-year bookstore deals. For decades, Israel had only one major bookstore chain – Steimatzky – and all the rest were small mom & pop shops. Then, about a decade ago, Tsomet Sefarim grew as a competitor to Steimatzky and forced it to start reducing prices and offering special deals. Some pundits think the current situation, where the two chains compete fiercely against each other, although beneficial to customers, has hurt writers and devalued Jewish Dogbooks in general. People buy because it’s on sale, not because it’s a book they really want to read. I confess this is how I picked this book. It simply sat on the shelf where I could get 2 for 1, or perhaps was it 1 plus 2 or 2 plus 2. Who remembers? (Which reminds me of this – sorry, Hebrew only).

Yet sometimes a book you never heard about and you read just because you happen to have it, turns out to be a gem. This is the case with “The Jewish Dog”, by Asher Kravitz. Or perhaps I should call it “Der Yiddisher Hund”, which is the Yiddish subtitle of the book.

The Jewish dog is the life story of Koresh, a dog born in 1935 to a Jewish family in Germany. Koresh’s life parallels the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe – from the rise of Hitler and the deportation and extermination of the Jews – and ends with the hope of rebirth of the Jewish State in Israel (it dies in Israel in 1947, right after the UN decision to grant Jews a homeland). The dog, an intelligent, observing animal, goes through various phases and owners in life, and even gets different names. It is through its life experiences that it imparts the reader with insights and understandings about the world and human nature, with a cunning that would dwarf many humans I know.

It is not possible to write about the plot of this short book without ruining it for those who have not read it. In fact, the little blurb on the inside flap of the book has the word “spoiler” written on the top as a warning (even though it doesn’t reveal too much). So I will only point out that Kravitz’s style is simple yet thoughtful, peppered with verses from the Bible and with subtle hints about the “big picture”, which is not how one would normally see the world through a dog’s eyes. He manages to deal with the most horrific period in history – the Holocaust – in a manner that is light and occasionally even comic, yet it does not belittle the enormity of the period it describes. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Enemy Within

Israelis are used to fretting about the threats from without: Syria and Egypt in the past, Iran in the present, a possible Palestinian state in the future. But Israelis tend to suppress their fears from the real threat to the country’s existence, the threat from within: the so-called “Arab-Israelis”. (Arabs who were here when Israel achieved independence in 1948 and were granted Israeli citizenship). Mostly this burying-one’s-head-in-the-sand attitude comes from wishful thinking (“they prefer to live with us so they’ll behave”) or political correctness (“they are Israeli citizens, like you and me”).

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The allegiance of many Arab-Israelis to the State of Israel is an impossibility. Israel Jews cannot ask Israeli Arabs to declare full and unconditional loyalty, simply because such loyalty is not something they can give. Would you ask an American Jew to declare full and unconditional loyalty to the US if the US were an enemy of the Jewish State? Those politicians asking Arab-Israelis to declare unconditional allegiance do so because they want to promote their own agenda, possibly legitimising a future deportation or a “population swap” deal.

So what we are left with is an intractable problem: a huge minority (around one fifth) that cannot be integrated fully. So long as they are a minority, the problem is more or less manageable. But demographics being what they are, the problem will not go away; it will become only bigger. And Israel will find itself managing an apartheid regime to contain the problem, pretty much like it’s been doing with the Palestinians in the occupied territories for the past four decades.

A recent loud and clear reminder to this problem was the “interview” of MK Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of parliament, to one of the TV shows earlier this week. Putting aside, with sadness, the lack of any vestige of civilised debate, the views expressed by Zahalka are such that will exasperate almost any Israeli Jew. Like calling the Defence Minister a murderer of children who then listens to classical music (the not-so-subtle reference to Nazi commanders of death camps is clear). Or labelling Ramat Aviv (a suburb of Tel Aviv) Sheikh Munis, the name of the Arab village that was there before 1948. Or asking Israelis to listen to what Haniyeh (head of Hamas in Gaza, an advocate of the destruction of Israel) has to say. Instead of helping Israeli Jews understand the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, these declarations achieve exactly the opposite: they raise an impenetrable barrier between Jews and Arabs and preclude any reasonable debate.

By the way, I’d love to see Zahalka express similar views against Arab political leaders on Arab television networks, or even on Palestinian television. Arab-Israelis take the freedom of speech granted to all Israeli citizens as granted (and so they should) but all too often they forget there are 21 Arab countries, and not one of them is a democracy.

I’m sure most Arab-Israelis are honest, hard-working citizens who care much about the same things I care about. But they are stuck impossibly between a rock and a hard place and a future of living peacefully together currently looks like an impossible dream.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Snow Cow, by Martin Kochanski

I am not a skier. Never have been. Most likely never will be. So when I started reading a book subtitled “Ghost Stories for Skiers”, I was afraid my non-existing knowledge of skiing would hamper my understanding or my reading pleasure. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be mostly baseless; or, at least, so I believe, as one cannot really know if one misses out on some subtleties due to one's ignorance, right?

Snow CowThis book contains thirteen (most probably an intentional number) short stories, all set in a skiing setting, usually in some upscale resort in Switzerland. The stories, as the name of the book suggests, all revolve around mysterious things happening to people who are in the ski resort – the holiday goers, the chalet owners, the local help, etc. Some of the protagonists are either dead of alive; others are plotting unspeakable crimes; others still are innocent bystanders who get drawn into a situation they cannot escape. The eponymous cow is the main character in the first story, as the drawing on the book cover suggests, this is not a mild-tempered, grass-chewing, cow.

The back cover of the book says that these are “stories to be shared in the firelight after a long day’s skiing”. Maybe this is part of some ski lore that I’m unaware of, but I found some of the stories disturbing enough even when read in the comfort of my bed. The thing about short stories, especially ones that deal with ghosts, is that you can read a couple just before falling asleep and the images from the story will most likely accompany you in your dreams. At least on one occasion, that was not a pleasant experience. So perhaps the firelight in the ski resort is indeed a better place for reading this book.

But it was not the stories which  enjoyed most about this book. Some were good, some were less good. What I enjoyed most was Kochanski’s habit of inserting a sentence, or a short paragraph, that didn’t really contribute much to the story line, but were wonderfully cynical or funny. Most of them made me do a double take, just to make sure I got the meaning correctly, and quite often they made me laugh. I may be wrong, but it seemed to me almost as if Kochanski were using the story only as an excuse to get a sentence he had been thinking about for a long time into the book. Here are a couple of examples (hopefully they’ll be appreciated even out of context):

Jägermeister is a worthy product of the land that gave us weltschmetz, schadenfreude, and angst. It tastes so vile that you have to down it in one. Like some Wagnerian magic weapon, it will heal any wounds except the ones it has caused itself… (from “The Long Man”, p. 59)

Now the man at the ski shop was from New Zealand, and when someone from Nizullund talks about sex, he calls it `six`. They guy in the shop didn’t talk about sex at all, but it being snowboards, he had to talk about decks rather a lot. (from “Downhill”, p. 86)

Kochanski is clearly a very erudite person. And his writing is mostly flowing and intelligent. I hope to see a novel from him in the future.

Friday, January 01, 2010

VaYechi – The Foreign Grandsons

ויברכם ביום ההוא לאמור: בך יברך ישראל לאמר, ישימך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה. וישם את אפרים לפני מנשה.

(בראשית, מח, כ)

The blessing that Ya’akov gives his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, on his deathbed, has become the traditional blessing of parents to their sons. On Friday evenings and on the eve of Yom Kippur, parents will put their hands on the heads of their children and bless them using the same words Ya’akov used:

And he blessed them that day, saying: 'By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.' And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Bereshit, 48, 12).

But a closer look at the verses of this week’s parasha reveals a little drama before Ya’akov gives this blessing to his grandsons.

Yossef’s family grew up in Egypt. He married Asnat, the daughter of a local high priest, and his sons were born and raised in the royal court. Yossef names the eldest Menashe “for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (41, 51). He names his second son Efraim “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41, 52). Thus Yossef, through the names of his sons, marks the break from his past and the connection with his new home, Egypt. The two sons grow up in the house of the high priest of Egypt, not in the house of their Jewish grandfather, Ya’akov.

Even when Ya’akov and his family move to Egypt and settle in Goshen, away from the centre of power and disconnected from Egyptian culture, Yossef and his family remain where they are. His sons continue to grow up in an Egyptian environment. In fact, when Yossef is called to his father’s deathbed, the Torah tells us “he took with him his two sons” (48, 1). One can imagine the trepidation with which Yossef enters his father’s house, fearing whether his father will accept his sons, who have grown up away from him in a completely foreign culture.

Ya’akov starts blessing his son Yossef by telling him how God appeared to him to promise him and his seed the Land of Israel. But then he takes a pause from blessing Yossef and says:

And now your two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. (48, 5)

The two grandsons are accepted in full by their grandfather and are each given land in Israel, as if they were sons and not grandsons. Yossef thus receives a “double portion” in the Land of Israel. It seems as if Ya’akov accepts Efraim and Menashe fully. But here comes the surprising part. After Ya’akov finishes his blessing to Yossef, the Torah says: “Israel beheld Yossef’s sons and said: Who are these?”.

What is going on here? A minute ago, Ya’akov divided his estate in Israel further to include portions for Efraim and Menashe, and now he asks his son “Who are these?”. He sees these two young men, dressed in the royal Egyptian garb and looking totally foreign to him, and wonders who they are and how they grew up. Are they truly deserving of the land he just promised them in Israel? Shouldn’t he have checked who his grandsons are before imparting such generous gifts unto them?

To understand this seemingly out-of-place question, one needs to remember another place in Bereshit where the words “Who are these?” (מי אלה) is uttered. When Essav meets his brother Ya’akov after the long years of separation and sees his big family, he asks “Who are these?” (33, 5). Ya’akov replies to his brother: “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”.

Yossef’s reply to Ya’akov question is strikingly similar: “They are my sons, whom God has given me here”. This reply reminds Ya’akov of the words he himself uttered in response to Essav’s question, and this memory gives him the understanding that although his grandsons may look foreign, they are his seed and the gift of God. The sons of Ya’akov come in many different shapes and forms, but they are all descendents of the great patriarch, all sons of God, and are therefore worthy of a place in the family.

With this understanding, Ya’akov then proceeds to bless Efraim and Menashe with the blessing that has become the prototype for all future blessings of Jewish parents.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Binyamin Lau.