Saturday, May 31, 2014

Piety in Post Hurban Times



Below is a slightly edited version of a dvar Torah I gave at my synagogue earlier today.

I want to thank my fellow congregant Mark Matchen for some of the ideas regarding the discussion of Mishna  Nazir 5:5 below; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Neil Litt for some the ideas regarding the discussion of Nazir 5:4.


Dvar Torah, Parshat Naso,
31 May 2014, 2 Sivan 5774
Sydney Nestel
Shabbat Shalom,
Today’s parsha is Naso, the second parsha in the book of Numbers. The parsha deals with a number of seemingly disconnected topics. It begins with a continuation of the census that Moses was commanded to perform in last week’s parsha. It then goes on to tell us the laws regarding anyone who has become ritually impure, either by cause of a skin disease, or contact with the dead. The parsha then instructs us in a principle of Biblical law: anyone who causes financial harm to another must make full restitution, plus pay an extra fifth as atonement.
Next the parsha discussed the law regarding the suspected adulteress: the famous case of the Sotah, whose guilt or innocence is to be determined by a ritualized trial by ordeal. The parsha, then goes on to tell us about the laws of the Nazirite – or temporary monk – someone who voluntarily takes upon themselves extra responsibilities of holiness. Next the parsha commands Aaron and his sons to recite the Priestly Blessing: the same blessing that we at Darchei Noam say to each other, every Shabbat, as we embrace each other in our tallitot.
Then the parsha tells us – in excruciating detail, 88 verses in all – about the offerings that the chiefs of Israeli brought to the consecration of the Miskkan. And finally the parsha ends by telling us that Moses enters the Tent of Meeting to talk to God, who speaks to him from between the Cherubim.
* * *
It was hard to find an overarching theme in this parsha on which to base this dvar Torah
The theme of a census, in the opening of the parsha, tempted me to focus my remarks around the Canadian governments’ dismantling of Statistics Canada – but I rejected this idea as being perhaps too current and too controversial for a dvar Torah.
The theme of the Sotah – or suspected adulteress – also was tempting. There is certainly a lot of material to be mined there. But frankly this topic has been addressed so many times at our shul that I thought there was nothing new I could say on the subject.
So I decided to base this dvar around the perhaps arcane topic of the Nazirite – or for lack of a better term, the monk – the person how takes upon themselves an elevated commitment to holiness. Or is it holiness? And that is one of the questions we will address.
The parsha tells us, in Numbers chapter 6:
1 And the YHWH spoke unto Moses, saying:
2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the YHWH,
3 they shall abstain from wine and strong drink: they shall drink no fermentation of wine, or fermentation of other strong drink, neither shall they drink any grape juice, nor eat the fresh grapes or dried grapes.
4 …
5 All the days of the vow of Nazirite-hood no razor come upon his head; until the days which he has consecrated himself to YHWH be fulfilled, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.
6 While he is consecrated to YHWH he shall not come near a dead body.


We see several things here. First, both men and women can become Nazerites.
Second, in order to become a Nazerite one must make a clear – and presumably voluntary – vow.
Third, that the Nazerite gets to declare, as part of their vow, the length of their Nazerite-ship. It could be for a month, for a year, or for life if they choose.
Forth, there are three specific obligations that a Nazerite takes on:
  1. not to drink wine or any fermented product or eat or drink any grape product;
  2. not to cut their hair; and
  3. not to have any contact with , or even be physically close to, the dead.
As we shall see this last prohibition is particularly strict.
The parsha text goes on.
7 Because his consecration unto God is upon his head, he shall not make himself unclean when they die for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister.
8 All the days of his Nazirite-hood he is holy to the YHWH.


These two verses, echo the obligations of the High Priest. And they emphasis the obligation to be holy to God – which is presumably the point of the whole exercise.
But being a Nazerite has some additional costs, and it is not always easy to end the period of Nazrite-ship on schedule as planned The Torah goes on:
9 And if any man die very suddenly beside ... [the Nazerite], and he defile his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head ….
10 And on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting.
11 And the priest shall prepare one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering, and make atonement for him, for he has sinned …
12 And he shall re-consecrate to YHWH the all the days of his Nazirite-ship, ...; and the former days [of his Nazerite-ship] shall be void, because his holiness was defiled.


Thus if you accidentally violate one of your Nazerite restrictions – you have to bring several sacrifices. But perhaps more importantly, you have to start the entire period of your Nazerite-ship all over again. So being a becoming a Nazerite, involves a serious commitment to following the rules. Or at least it was supposed to.
Finally, ending one's Nazerite-ship involves several more sacrifices, and therefore more commitment of time and money.
13 And this is the law of the Nazirite, when the days of his consecration are over: he shall come to the door of the tent of meeting;
14 and present his offering to YHWH, one young male lamb without blemish for a burnt-offering, and one young female lamb without blemish for a sin-offering, and one ram without blemish for peace-offerings ...


The text goes on for several verses with the details of the sacrifices and then concludes.


20 And the priest shall wave them for a wave-offering before YHWH; … and only after that the Nazirite may drink wine.


So, to end the period of his Nazerite-ship the Nazerite has to bring 3 animals as well as bread, oil, and wine and and his shaven hair. Only after the priest has made sacrifices of these, is the Nazerite free to resume his former life.
The rules seem pretty clear. And the purpose too, is pretty clear – to give pious people a chance to publicly express their piety – to do more then what is normally expected – but in a time limited way. Today, I would compare Nazir-hood to the practice of temporary monk-hood that is common in some Buddhist societies.
Or perhaps, if we remove the temporary aspect, Nazir-hood is akin to the Haredim – who take on obligations of dress, hairstyle, and behaviour, which they admit are not strictly speaking halachik , but which publicly express what they see as their extra level of piety. And, who like the Nazir, who avoided the temptation of wine, avoid all manner of temptations in the secular world.
Of course, given that Nazir-hood is linked to the Temple system, there have been no formal Nazerites since the destruction of the Second Temple. But what do we know of Nazerite-hood in the days when the Temple still stood. The answer is “not much. “ And what we do know is more from what is recorded in the Talmud about Nazerites in the late Second Temple period, than from what is recorded in the Hebrew Bible regarding Nazirites in the First Temple or early Second Temple periods.
In fact, outside of this week’s parsha, the word “Nazir” is only mentioned in two other instances in the entire Tanach. Once it is mentioned in a speech by the prophet Amos, without reference to any particular person. And, the word comes up a few times in the story of Samson – the only person in the entire Tanach, clearly identified as an actual Nazir.
But Samson – though he is clearly labelled a Nazir by the text – follows nearly none of the rules of Nazir-hood as laid out in this week's Parsha. Firstly, as you will notice if you follow today’s haftarah – he never takes a vow – let alone a voluntary vow – to become a Nazir. Rather an angel appears to his mother before she conceives and tell her that she will have a son and that he will be a Nazir. Furthermore, It is his mother who is enjoined not to drink wine, and additionally and somewhat surprisingly, not to eat anything unclean. (Aren’t all Jews forbidden to eat “unclean” foods.)
Samson is explicitly forbidden to cut is hair. But as for the rest of the Nazirite prohibitions – it seems unlikely that he kept them. It is told that he killed 30 Philistines and took their clothing; later he killed several more Philistines in revenge for them having killed his wife and father-in-law (which, by the way, the Philistines did in revenge of Samson having burned their crops, which Samson did because he was angry at his wife’s adultery with a Philistine.) Still later we are told that Samson clubbed 1000 Philistines to death with the jaw bone of an ass. With all this killing, it is unlikely that he avoided touching the dead. We are also told that he liked the ladies, and frequented Philistine prostitutes. It seems unlikely, in such circumstances, that he avoided strong drink.
And as for Samson’s piety – his entire life seems one of impulse and swagger and violence, from his marriage to a Philistine woman, to his dangerous betting, to his impulsive acts of revenge, to his affair with Delilah, to his foolish revelation of the secret of his strength, to his suicide murder (dare I say “suicide bombing”) at a Philistine feast, killing 3000 Philistines, in revenge for their tormenting him. This is hardly piety, or holiness, as most of us would understand it. And indeed it is not clear, whether the Tanach wants us to see Samson as a hero, or as a fool – an example of the weak and immoral leadership of the Israelites during the period of the Judges: a leadership crisis that, in the eyes of the Biblical author, justified the establishment of a monarchy to suppress the religious anarchist currents deep within Judaism, and which too often, perhaps, bubble to the surface.
We see, therefore, that the sole example of a Nazir in the entire Tanach, hardly comports to the model laid out in the Torah. Is there then any evidence that Nazir-hood was ever carried out as envisioned in our parsha? Yes there is: - sort of.
This evidence comes to us from the from the Talmud, and recalls the late Second Temple period. The Talmud devotes an entire tractate to the topic of the Nazir. This alone should tell us that Nazir-hood was a real phenomenon in the early Mishna period.
But Rabbinic attitudes to the Nazerite are complex. Some of the Rabbis argue that Nazir-hood is primarily sinful. That is why the Nazir has to bring a sin offering at the end of his period of Nazir-ship. But what is the nature of this sin?
According to these Rabbis, the sin of the Nazir is that he forbids himself what the Torah has permitted. Because of his own fears that he cannot control himself, he needlessly denies himself both pleasures and grief. The Nazir sees a world of temptation and corruption, a scary world he does not want to be sucked into. So, he says "I will have no part of this - I will not corrupt myself in that way!" And he puts in place mechanisms to maintain his own purity and correct behaviour. However, what has he actually accomplished? Has he changed any of the things that bothered him about society? Has he helped others to overcome temptation? No. And therein lies his sin.
But other Rabbis see Nazir-hood as a genuine and positive way to express piety and the love of God. In support of this they bring theoretical arguments, but also a postive example: Queen Heleni – or in Hebrew, Heleni Hamalkah.
Mishna Nazir 3:6 reads:
One who [made a] Nazirite [vow] for a long time period and he finished his period of being a Nazirite, and then he came to Israel, Beis Shammei say, "He must become a Nazir for thirty [additional] days" and Beis Hillel say, "He must become a Nazir from the beginning." It is told of Heleni the Queen, that her son went to war and she said, "If my son comes [back] from war in peace, I will be a Nazir for seven years." And her son came [back] from war and she was a Nazir for seven years. And at the end of seven years she moved to Israel and Beis Hillel ruled that she should be a Nazir again for seven more years. And at the end [of these] seven years, she became Tamei / ritually impure by contact with the dead [making her repeat her Nazirut again]. And it ended up being that she was a Nazirah twenty one years. But Rabbi Yehuda said, "She was only a Nazirah for fourteen years".
Heleni Hamalkah is a real historical figure. She was the Queen of Adiabene, in what is now Kurdistan. In the first century she converted to Judaism along with a large number of her people – perhaps the source of Kurdish Jewry. And she really did move to Jerusalem. And she contributed from her great wealth to the Temple, donating among other things a famous golden candlestick and a large golden plate. She also sent to Alexandria for grain and to Cyprus for dried figs for distribution during a famine. In another Talmudic passage we are told she built a Sukkah 20 cubits high, which, though it was higher than Rabbinic law allowed, no Rabbi would condemn, and many attended the dinners she hosted in it. Her tomb, and that of her sons, can still be found in what is mistakenly called “the Tomb of the Kings”. You can visit it at the corner of Salach-a-Din Street and Nablus Road in East Jerusalem. There is also a street named after her. Rehov Heleni Hamalkah, is a narrow cobblestoned street that runs from Rehov Haniviim to Jaffa Rd. just behind Migrash HaRussim in West Jerusalem. As all this attests, she was well-loved, and truly pious. Perhaps a bit showy – but nevertheless someone to be admired. A good example of a Nazir – or in her case a Nazirah.
Of course the rabbis who saw Nazir-hood as problematic or sinful have counter-examples. The Talmud, tractate Nazir 4b, tell us that Simon the Just – a priest and a Rabbi – declared that only once in his life had he accepted the sin offering of a Nazir who had broken his vows. In all other cases he felt that they were insincere, and were just using the sacrifice to get out of the strictures they had so publicly placed on themselves. He also felt that most of these Nazirim would, in fact, not re-start the period of their Nazirite-ship as prescribed in the Torah. He thus refused to accept their sin offering and be part of the charade.
In another incident, Mishna Nazir 5:5 tells us
Six people were travelling on the way and someone was approaching them [in the distance]. The first says, "I am Nazir if that is so and so." The second says, "I am a Nazir if that is not so and so." The third says, "I am a Nazir if any one of you is a Nazir." And the forth says, "[I am a Nazir] if none of you are a Nazir." The fifth says "[I am a Nazir] if any two of you are a Nazir." And the sixth says, "[I am a Nazir] if all of you are a Nazir".

Beis Shammei say, "They are all a Nazirim". Beis Hillel say, "No one is a Nazir unless their words come true". Rabbi Tarfon says, "None of them is a Nazir".
Aside from sounding like an SAT word logic puzzle, what is going on here? Ostensibly, this is a legal debate about the validity of conditional vows of Nazerit-hood and perhaps conditional vows in general. Bet Hillel allows them, and Bet Shammai, and Rabbi Tarfon do not.
But look a bit deeper. Two of these travellers – numbers 4 and 6 can never have their words come true, so while they are seemingly making a big show of piety, they know – or should know – that they risk nothing by their declaration. Two of these – numbers 3 and 5 – will always have their words some true, so their conditions are meaningless or stupid, and two of these are simply betting on becoming Nazir – a sort of holier than though game of chicken. Bet Hillel, are the liberals here, letting adults do as they wish so long as no one else is harmed. But Bet Shammai, feels that this type of gamesmanship is against the spirit of piety required by the Nazir and ruins the institution of Nazirit-hood. They aim to stop it, by making anyone who plays such games become a Nazir regardless of their silly conditions. Rabbi Tarfon, agrees with Bet Shamai that this kind of conditional vow is against the proper spirit of Nazirit-hood. But instead of punishing, he says such vows simply don’t count. If you want to become a Nazir do it right – unconditionally and with a full heart.
But aside from these conflicting positions on the validity of conditional vows – we learn something else from this Mishna – namely, that conditional vows for short periods of Nazir-hood were fairly common in the late Second Temple times: A common public display of piety. But, was it real piety or was it just for show – at least some Rabbis thought it was mostly for show.
I want to end with one final Talmudic discussion Nazir-hood which I thought was appropriate given that earlier this week we marked Yom Yerushalayim. Mishna Nazir 5:4 tells us:
This is the mistake that Nachum the Mede made when the Nazirim came up [to Jerusalem] from exile [to make there sacrifices to end the period of Nazirite-ship] and found the Temple destroyed. Nachum said to them, "If you had known that the Temple was destroyed, would you have [sworn to be] Nazirim?" and they said to him, "No!" and he permitted them [to annul their vows]. But when the matter came to the Sages, they said to him. "[The law is that] anyone who [swore to be] a Nazir before the Temple was destroyed is [still] a Nazir and [anyone who swore] after the Temple was destroyed is not a Nazir.
In the ensuing Talmudic discussion, the disagreement comes down to the question: can one annul a vow which was made based on false information. The accepted principle, is that if there is information that is generally knowable, and you did not know it when you made your vow, you can annul the vow – presumably because one should not be penalized for having less information than was available, or knowing less than one’s neighbour. But if the fact that makes you want to annul your vow - was completely unknowable at the time of the vow, or if the event was completely unpredictable at that time, than you cannot claim an exemption, and your vow stands.
But, it turns out, the Rabbis are divided on whether the destruction of the Temple was predictable. The Sages say that it was not, so the Diaspora Nazitites in our Mishna cannot annul their vows, and since they also cannot now bring the sacrifices required to end their period of Nazarite-ship, (the Temple being destroyed) they must remain Nazirites for life. (Considering that the Sages lived through the long war and the corruption and infighting leading up to the destruction, this is a somewhat surprising position.)
Rav Yosef, arguing in support of Rabbi Nachum position, believes that the destruction was predictable. He bases himself on a verse in Jeremiah chapter 7
Trust ye not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,”
which he understands to predict the destruction of the first , the second, and it would seem even the Third Temple. The context of the verse in Jeremiah is clear but stark:
[If Israel] executes justice between a man and his neighbour; [if Israel] oppresses not the stranger, the fatherless, the widow, and sheds not innocent blood”
Than, God – and Israel – will dwell in the land forever. But since Israel has trusted in “lying word” - that is, the mere existence of the Temple, to protect them, and since they in fact
[they] steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, … [and allow] Jerusalem to become a den of robbers”
then Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed.
Rav Yosef, argues that, that based on Jeremiah, the destruction of the second Temple was predictable to anyone with enough insight to see. And therefore, the vows of the Mishna’s Nazerites may be annulled. They are off the hook: they do not need to be Nazerites for life.
Is there a deeper meaning to this Talmudic passage, beyond the technical issue of annulling vows?
Maybe the real tragedy for our Mishna's Diaspora Nazerites is not that they cannot get out their Nazerite vows, but that they cannot intellectually or emotionally get over the fact that the holy Temple no longer exists. These are pious people after all. People who publicly took on extra trapping of piety – in service of a religion that in their mind was based around Jerusalem and around the Temple. They probably looked forward, their whole lives to making pilgrimage to Jerusalem and experiencing its spiritual high and ethical excellence. But when they got there, it was all gone. “How could this be?” they must have asked themselves. What shall we do? Oy vavoy vavoy!
If the destruction was, as the Sages say, completely unpredictable: the product of some fluke, some petty jealousies among the Jews, or some misguided nationalism on the part of the Zealots, or poor tactics by Jerusalem’s defenders, or a random assassination of a good leader by the Sikarrii, then indeed the destruction of their dream of the spiritual Jerusalem, the source of Jewish hopes and identity, the light unto the nations – is truly un- understandable. Our Nazities are stuck carrying out a dead piety based on outmoded concepts – one that can never end for them, but also one that will give them little meaning and no sense of salvation.
But, if as Rav Yosef argues, the loss of Jerusalem as a spiritual centre was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted by people with clear vision – prophetic vision to be sure: if all this happened, as the prophets had predicted, for a reason, because of the meanness of the society to the stranger and to the weak, because robbery and murder were condoned, because instead of trying to walk in Gods ways Jerusalem put its faith in empty symbols - ancient stones: if that is the case, if this was all predictable, than the maybe, just maybe, the Mishna’s Nazerites can make sense of the spiritual vacuum they have found where the Temple once stood. Maybe they can get out from under their Nazerite world view, and their outdated understanding of Jewish piety, and maybe they can begin creating a new Jewish understanding and a new Jewish practice for new Jewish times: One that is based on the vision of our prophets: working for truth, justice and peace; feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
Perhaps this, rather than being bitter over the exile and pining for lost glory and an imagined holy past, is what is really required as the new Jewish piety for this post destruction – post Hurban – era.


Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom.





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Friday, May 16, 2014

Patrick Martin Thinks This May Really Be The End.
Here are his Seven Reasons


I went to a lecture last night by veteran Globe and Mail journalist Patrick Martin. The lecture was at the Nerayaver Synagogue and was sponsored by Canadian Friends of Peace Now.

Martin, who is a veteran foreign correspondent who has specialized in the Middle East and Israel/Palestine for over 20 years, had a rather depressing thesis to present. There is unlikely to be a two state solution in the foreseeable future. Neither is there likely to be a one state solution – at least not one that most people would call a solution. Rather things will just muddle on, more or less as is – the occupation with minor variations. Less friction is the best (or the worst) that the near future holds.

Martin told the audience, of about 70 people (whose average age was also close to 70) that until very recently he had believed that a two state solution would be achieved at some point. “It is the only logical solution. It has always been the only logical solution, dating back to the UN Partition plan of 1947, or maybe longer to the Peel Commission of the 1930s.” But he stated, “This is the Middle East and logic, often, has nothing to do with how things turn out.”

Martin attributed his new found scepticism re the achievability of a two state solution to a number of factors, and he peppered his talk with both anecdotal and statistical evidence to illustrate them. He listed seven reasons.

First, he told us that the children of the settlers – those who are sometimes called the “Hilltop Youth” are much more militant than their parents. He told us how the parents of a family he knew in the settlement of Bet El, told him that while they would demonstrate and strenuously resist any attempt to remove them from Bet El in a peace deal, they would not physically fight the army. Their children however – the eldest of whom was a student at the hyper-nationalist militant yeshiva in Yizhar  (that advocates the re-establishment of a Jewish monarchy in all of the Land of Israel) – had no such compunctions, and would likely take up arms to resist any such evacuation.

Second, Hamas was undergoing two significant trends. On the one hand there are those who believe that “time is on our side”, and if they wait long enough Israel will collapse under its own weight. Together with this they are tired of fighting (as are most Palestinians, according to Martin) and realize that if they do not improve the day to day lives of the people of Gaza, they may lose control there. So they are willing to – quietly – cooperate with Israel, to improve – or at least not worsen – the lives of the residents of Gaza.

Third, the Palestinian upper and middle classes, or at least growing parts of them, just want economic prosperity and a modicum of civil rights, and are willing to give up - at least temporarily - political rights if they have to. This is particularly true in Ramallah, and to a lesser extent in Nablus and Hebron –where the economy has been significantly improving in the last 8-9 years. Together these cities contain about 40% of the population of the West Bank. Furthermore, Netanyahu is aware of this dynamic and has promote a policy of encouraging the growth of the economy in these West Bank urban centres, by loosening travel restrictions, particularly on goods, and encouraging economic cooperation, while on the other hand he chokes off the flow of tax money to the PA and tightens travel restrictions, every time he is displeased with the Palestinian’s actions. This combination of carrots and sticks has had the effect of significantly moderating the political aspirations and militancy of the Palestinian upper and middle classes. (This is not the case, Martin, claimed in the villages – which bear the brunt of the day to day conflict with settler and the army, who often experience land theft, and who have not enjoyed increased prosperity in the last decade.)

Forth, the average Israeli feels no pain and no cost from the status quo. Martin related how even in the middle of a series of rocket barrages from Gaza towards Ashkelon and points north, the beaches were full. Israelis briefly took shelter in nearby buildings and watched as Iron Dome knocked most of the Palestinian rockets out of the sky, and then went right back to sand and the water. Israel has had no real external threat since the 2006 “Second Lebanon War”, and the up upheavals in the Arab world have neutralized such a threat for a near future at least. Except for the small segment of the population that lives close to Gaza, and who experience occasional rocketing from there, most Israelis do not experience the conflict in their daily lives. And even in the Gaza area, Israel’s deterrence capabilities – so effectively and cruelly demonstrated in operation Cast Lead – has had the desired effect of severely calibrating the willingness of Hamas to attempt serious damage within Israel.

Fifth, under Israel’s current political constellation there is no parliamentary majority for a peace deal base on territorial withdrawal. Of the 20 Likud members of the Knesset, only 1 – Benjamin Netanyahu – has publicly stated he supports two states for two people: and Martin doubts he was sincere when he stated this. Furthermore, demographic trends in Israel indicate that the constituency for a peace deal based on two states is shrinking. The haredim – who are currently 16% of the Jewish population of Israel are doubling their numbers every 15 years!  (They will be almost aprox 40% of the Jewish population in 30 years). While the haredim are nominally anti-Zionist, they are also mostly hawkish, have no sympathy for Palestinians, and more and more have a material interest in maintaining the occupation (over 100,000 haredim live in various settlements – not counting east Jerusalem. Non haredi Orthdox are also growing at a faster rate than the secular Jewish population. And finally, polls show that Israeli Jewish youth across the spectrum are on average more right wing and hawkish then their parents.

Six, Martin sees no serious effort being made by the Americans to involve itself in a peace process for a long time, and certainly no American pressure on Israel to make meaningful concessions. Furthermore, the Americans have managed to lose the trust of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. (Martin related that things got so bad that at one point during the talks, the Palestinian delegation did not believe that the Americans were accurately relaying Israel’s proposals.)

Seventh, and finally, Martin believes that Abu Mazen is truly interested in reaching a two state deal with Israel, is totally committed to a non-violent path, and willing to make deep compromises on the actual implementation of the “right of return” – effectively allowing Israel a veto on which and how many and on what time table refugees could return. Abu Mazen, in Martin’s view, is a true partner for peace – maybe the best Israel will ever get. But Abu Mazan will be weakened by the failure of these talks, and Abu Mazen is getting old. It is not clear that the next generation of Fatah leadership will have even his limited ability to pull the population along with them, nor that they will really be interested in a two state solution.

Martin ended by saying that though he is not 100% certain, he thinks that maybe this time the window on two states has finally close – at least for the foreseeable future. And that a great pity in his opinion. One state with full and equal rights for all is also not in the offing.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Arabs, Jewish, Women, Sex, Slaves. Now that I Have Your Attention ...



A few weeks ago in my Talmud Study Group we learned, in a sugya in Bava Metzia, that adult single Jewish women were not allowed to own Jewish male slaves for fear that they would have out of wedlock sexual relations with them. They were allowed to have non-Jewish male slaves, because non-Jewish slaves were assumed to be so indiscreet that they would boast about the sexual encounter, and thus no Jewish woman would dare take the chance of having relations with them. (Jewish slaves, it is assumed are more discrete, though clearly not less sexually licentious.)

Well some things change and somethings don't. It seems that In Israel adult Jewish women can still not be trusted to be alone with adult males- but now its with non-Jews

According to

http://news.nana10.co.il/Article/?ArticleID=1011629


פרסום ראשון: מנהלת השירות הלאומי פרסמה הוראות לפיהן מתנדבי השירות הלאומי לא יתנדבו אחרי השעה 21:00. הסיבה: קמפיין שניהלו רבנים וארגונים בציונות הדתית בעקבות עדויות על יחסים אינטימיים בין בנות שירות לרופאים ערבים. אך ארגון להב"ה שהיה ממובילי הקמפיין לא מרוצה: "יש להפסיק את השירות הלאומי בכל מקום שיש גויים"

"The directorate of National Service (Sherut Leumit) [an alternative to military service that many religious women, as well as Arabs, pacifists, etc., avail themselves of] has publicized orders whereby volunteers to National Service will not serve after 9:00 PM. The reason: a campaign run by Rabbis and Religious Zionist organizations following accounts about intimate relations between National Service females and Arab doctors. However, the organization Lahava [see here (Hebrew) and here  (sic) ] which was one of the leaders of the campaign is not satisfied: "We must stop National Service in all places were there are goyim"
This is indeed in accord with the Talmudic section that I studied - in as much as adult Jewish women should not be in places where they could have out of wedlock sex (apparently even the Religious women of Sherut Leumit cannot be trusted to control themselves) - but Lahava got an important point wrong. According to the Talmud these women are much more likely to have relations with Jews than non-Jews - so, it seems to me, they should be kept away from Jewish men and required to serve ONLY in Arab communities.

One thing that is, unfortunately, consistent between that Talmudic passage and this incident is the misogyny and the racism - and I am not sure which is worse. Of course I can forgive the Talmud - it was written over 1500 years ago. The Israeli National Service Administration, and the "Religions Zionist organizations", not so much

Excuses, Excuses


Haven't posted anything in a while.  Had a grandson: Zachariah Alus. Very distracting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Syrian Crisis Proves, Once Again:
Israel Does Not See Itself As Part Of The Middle East


The pictures coming out of Syria are horrific, as Noam Sheizaf of 972 noted. And he has a suggestion as to how Israel can help save lives: open its borders to Syrian refugees.
... there is one thing Israel could do in order to actually help save lives: opening the borders and allowing in a substantial number of Syrian refugees. 
Not a handful of wounded who are sent back to their Syrian nightmare once their wounds are healed, but the many who need long-term refuge until fighting ends. 
Israel is more prosperous and stable than Jordan or Lebanon, and each of those countries has already accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees. 
Geopolitical circumstances will probably prevent Israel from taking a more active role in ending the war, but our country can still help save many lives. It’s not just the smart or honorable thing to do. It’s the only real human response to the massacre, and the moral call of our own history.
But the Syrian civil war has been going on for close to three years now - with over 100,000 dead and over 1,500,000 refugees having fled the country - in addition to 2-3 million internal refugees. Lebanon has accepted over 600,000 refugees, Jordan 500,000, and Iraq and Turkey 100s of thousands each. Even Cyprus has announced willingness to accept up to 200,000 refugees.

Israel is the only country bordering Syria that has not accepted any refugees - other than short term medical cases. Lebanon, Iraq - and Jordan in particular - are struggling under the burden of dealing with the refugees. Yet Israel, by far the richest and most advanced economy in the region, holds itself aloof from making any significant contribution to the Syrian refugee problem and to humanitarian relief.

What is more, no one - not in the West, not at the UN, and certainly not in the Middle East - has asked Israel to accept Syrian refugees. Not only does Israel not see itself as part of the region (rather - as Ehud Barak once put it "a villa in the jungle"), neither does anyone else.

And that is why Sheizaf's suggestion sounds so radical; and why its is so necessary - both to save lives of Syrian victims and to integrate Israel into the region in which it actually lives.


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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Changing the Cognitive Map by (Re)Naming.



Here is the dvar Torah, I gave today at my synagogue last Shabbat.

Dvar Torah,
Parshat Mattot Ma’asei
July 6, 2013

Shabbat Shalom

This weeks’ parsha is Mattot-Ma’asei. It is a double parsha, and it ends the book of Numbers. Next week we start the book of Deuteronomy, which is essentially a series of speeches by Moses to the People of Israel just before he dies. Nothing actually happens in Deuteronomy – it simply recaps past events and provides instruction for the future – so in a very real sense, this week’s parsha is the end of the narrative story of the Torah.

The parsha opens with the Israelites camped on the plains of Moab just across the Jordan River from Jericho. Soon they will cross the river to begin their conquest of the Promised Land.  The Parsha begins with instruction regarding the laws of women’s vows. Next God commands the Israelites to engage in some unfinished business with the Midianites – who had dealt treacherously with them a few parshot ago. A particularly brutal war ensues, which the Israelites win.

At this point the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert is over, and they are now getting ready for the upcoming invasion of the Canaan. But before the Torah’s narrative ends and the story picks up again in the Book of Joshua, there is another brief, though significant digression. Two and half tribes, Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasheh, ask to stay behind on the East Bank of the Jordan.  The Reubenites and the Gadites, owned much cattle, and they noted that the land on the east side of the Jordan River – and which had previously belonged to the defeated Midianites, Amorites and Bashanites -  is especially well suited for cattle grazing. They approached Moses, and ask that these lands be given to them as their permanent holdings. Moses asked them, somewhat rhetorically, if they expect the rest of the Israelites to go to war in Canaan while they stay safely back on the east bank. Wouldn't that undermine the enthusiasm of the rest of the Israelites for crossing into the Promised Land? Moses compares their request to that of the spies who surveyed the land and then turned the minds of the Israelites against invading, thus angering God and bringing punishment on to all of the Israelites.

The Reubenites and the Gadites reply, in Numbers 32, verse 16:
We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be ready and armed to go before the children of Israel …; but let our little ones dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. (Num 32:16-17)

Thus they volunteer to serve as shock-troops in the vanguard of the Israelite army, but only if their children can stay in fortified citied on the east bank of the Jordan. On hearing this, Moses agrees to their request.

The Torah then goes on to relate, in Numbers 32 verses 34-38:
The Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Arorer, Atroth-Shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran as fortified towns or as enclosures for flocks. [And] The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, El-aleh, Kiriat-haim, Nevo, Baal-meon – some names being changed  – and Sibmah; (Num 32:34-38)

I was struck by the almost casual throw-away phrase “some names being changed”, and it is on verse and on this phrase that I want to focus the rest of my dvar Torah. You may wish to open you chumashim to that verse – Numbers 32:38 – to see how it is translated in your particular chumash and to better follow the rest of the dvar.

In Hebrew the phrase “some names being changed” is “musabbot shem” and it is, as we shall see, an awkward phrase, and there is not universal agreement on how to translate the phase.  But the translation “some names being changed” is in agreement with Rashi – the premier medieval commentator - who writes on this verse:

Nebo and Baal Meon were names of pagan deities, and the Amorites named their towns after their deities, and the descendants of Reuben changed their names to other names. This is the meaning of “musabbot shem”- that Nebo and Baal-Meon, were changed to another name.

Therefore, language similar to “some names being changed” is the translation found in virtually every English Chumash.

Let us look a bit deeper at both the linguistics and the concept behind the phrase “musabbot shem.”

The word “shem”  should be familiar to us, and is usually translated as “name”, as in “Baruch Hashem” – “Bless the Name” - ,  or the “Baal Shem Tov” – the “Owner of a Good Name.”
But what of the word Musabbot? It occurs previously in the Torah, in Exodus 28 verse 11. The context is the clothing of the High Priest, and of some jewelry – engraved onyx - that is to be sewn into the shoulder pieces of the ephod. The verse reads.

With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, shall you engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be enclosed in settings of gold. (Ex 32:11)

The word translated here as “enclosed” is “musabbot”. So here, in this case at least, the word “musabbot” seems to mean “set within” or “enclosed in’ or “surrounded by” – most probably from the Hebrew root “sovev” meaning to turn, as in the Hannukah song – “Sevivivon Sov Sov Sov …”

If that is the proper translation in our verse too, then what could “surrounded by names” possibly mean.  Can it really mean that the names have been changed.
Professor Zvi Betzer of the Hebrew Language Department of Bar-Ilan University doesn’t think so. He thinks that modern translations have been overly influenced by Rashi’s commentary. Indeed he thinks that if  musabbot – an admittedly rare word – means “surrounded”, then “shem’ must not mean “name” in this context, but something else. Betzer argues that, in this context, shem ”means“ towers or walls, and the phrase “musabbot shem” means “surrounded by walls.”

He makes 5 arguments to support his claim:

First, the end of the verse in question – Numbers 32:38 reads – “they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.” This is unambiguous.  Why then, he asks would  it be necessary to have the same thought expressed twice in the same verse. Clearly the first half of the verse with the phrase “musabboth shem” must mean something else.

Second, in the story leading up to this verse, the Reubenites and the Gadites expressly ask to leave their children in fortified cities. We are also told explicitly that the Gadites rebuilt captures towns as fortified or enclosed. So why would the story of the Reubenites not include the fortification of their towns.

Third, the Septuagint – the oldest known translation of the Bible into Greek – translates the phase “musabbot shem” as simply “enclosed”,      leaving    “by walls” as being obvioulsy implied.

Forth, both the 1st century translation of the Torah into Aramaic  - the  “Targum Eretz Yisrael” - and  the 8th century translation -  “Targum Yonatan” (neither of which should be confused with the better known and much more authoritative Targum Onkolos)  translate the phase as “surrounded by towers” and “surrounded by high walls” respectively.

Fifth, Betzer brings examples of other places in the Bible were shem might more properly mean “tower” than “name”. 

·         In II Sam. 8:13 we find: "(Vaya'as David shem) And David made a SHEM when he returned from smiting Aram in the valley of salt". It is difficult to translate shem as 'name' or 'fame' in this context, since the Biblical combination "asah shem," meaning 'to make a name for oneself' demands to be followed by the preposition “le atzmo” or "for oneself". Rather, better to understand the verse as meaning David erected a tower which would serve as a monument to commemorate his conquests.

·         Another example, this from the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis – here we have the verse: "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a SHEM  for ourselves (vena'aseh lanu shem)" (Genesis 11:4). Thus the plan was to fortify themselves by erecting a tower and a wall, otherwise – to quote the protagonists in the next verse -  "we will be scattered all over the face of the earth". Therefore, "na'aseh lanu shem" in this context does not describe their desire to gain fame, but is parallel to the first half of the verse, and the entire verse simply means let us build a tower and a wall.

·         Similarly, in Isaiah we have the famous phrase "yad vaSHEM” which is generally translated as "an everlasting memorial". But here, shem is simply parallel to yad, - which unambiguously means ‘monument’ in this context.  Better to translate the phrase as ‘a monument and a tower’, argues Betzer.

Betzer concludes his article with the following:

It is … possible to maintain that in Biblical Hebrew the word shem underwent a process of meto-ny-my (the use of one word for another which it in some way hints-at or suggests). [Thus] the word shem came to signify not [just] "name" alone, but also the objects on which names were carved (e.g. a wall, a tower, or a memorial).

*  *  *
So much for the linguistic argument about the phrase “musabbot shem”.  But what of this whole concept of renaming geographic place names.

No matter whether we side with Betzer or Rashi in our understanding of the phrase “musabbot shem”,  there can be no doubt that, according to the Torah,  the Reubenites did, in fact, change the names of the towns they occupied. As noted above, the end of verse 38 states unambiguously “they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.”

And if that is not enough, just 3 verses later we read:

Jair the son of Manasseh went and conquered villages, and called them the Villages of Jair. And Nobah went and conquered Kenath and its surrounding villages, and called it Nobah, after his own name. (Num 32:41-42)

Dr. Yisrael Rosenson, President of Efrata Teachers College in Jersualem, in an article published by Bar Ilan and commenting on Betzer’s article, makes the point that the act of changing names and of the acts of conquering, occupying and re-building are intimately connected -  or at least they should be in his opinion. He points out that the Israelites were commanded in Deuteronomy 12:3 to “tear down their alters …[and to] obliterate their names ….” He ends his commentary with the following:

The primacy of Reuben, first-born of all the sons and first to establish a foothold in the land [of Israel], creates a sort of proto-structure to serve as a significant model for what is to come, contemplating the essence of the process of settling the land, combining jointly the acts of building and re-naming that are a necessary part of eradicating the memory of idolatry.  …  Changing the physical map by building and [changing] the cognitive map by naming are what characterize the act of settling the land.

Dr. Rosenson, is not writing in a vacuum, he is a religious Zionist writing in a publication of Bar Ilan University a bastion of Religious Zionism. I have to assume, that he is quite consciously defending and encouraging what has been common Israeli practice for many years and certainly since 1948. Changing the physical map by building and [changing] the cognitive map by naming.

Various estimates have it that between 352 and 432 Arab towns and villages were depopulated during the 1948/49 Israel war of independence. Of these at least 200 have been renamed, while most of the remainder were simply destroyed and their lands absorbed into neighbouring towns, villages, kibbutzim, and moshavim. Some examples include:

·         Masmiyya became the moshav Bnei Reim;
·         Majdal  became the City of Ashkelon;
·         Sheikh Munis became the Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Ramat Aviv, where Tel-Aviv University now stands;
·         Deir Yassin, site of the infamous 1948 massacre, became the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Givat Shaul Bet;
·         and Katra became the town of Gedera, where I myself lived for 9 years.

To be sure, Israel is not unique in changing geographic names. Some contemporary world examples include:

·         my mother’s home town of Stanislawow Poland is now Ivano-Frankivsk Ukraine;
·         the capital of Norway, Oslo was renamed Chritisana  in the 17th century in honour of the King Christian V of Denmark who ruled Norway at the time, and it was only renamed Oslo again in 1925;
·         in 1975, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City;
·         St Petersberg became Leningrad in 1924, and in 1991 it was changed back to St Petersberg again;
·         and Pile of Bones North West Territories is now called Regina Saskatchewan.

But in few places, I think it is safe to say, have we seen such a scale of geographic name changes as in Israel. Moshe Dayan, speaking in 1969, said:

"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. [Today] you do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don't blame you because [the old] geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehoshu'a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

Naming something has always been an act of power. To name something is to have power over it, and moreover to publicly proclaim that power. And in this sense Israeli Jews, by renaming villages, are (like and the ancient Reubenites) simply declaring their power over the Palestinians (or in the Biblical case, over the Amorites). But, declaring power to what end? Renaming also has other purposes.

Re-naming can be done for ideological reasons – to wipe out idolatry as Rashi suggests, or to wipe out Tzarism as in the case of St Petersberg becomimg Leningrad, or to wipe out communism as in the case of Leningrad becomimg St Petersberg.

Renaming can be done to give respect to someone important, as in the case of Oslo becoming Christiana.

Renaming can be done for nationalist reasons as in Christiana becoming Oslo again.

Renaming can be done for aesthetic and/or commercial reasons, as in Pile of Bones becoming Regina.

Or it could be done for any combination of these reasons.

But another very important effect of, and reason to, rename geographic names is to re-write history. To say that “we” have always been here, and “they” are interlopers. Alternately, in rare case, renaming can be used to acknowledge that “they”  - the disempowered group – are also part of the cultural and political make-up of the society. Rare examples of this later case include.

·         Frobisher Bay was renamed Iqaluit – the original Inuit place name, meaning “place of many fish”;
·         Streetsville and Port Credit were merged and renamed  Mississaugua, after the first nations tribe that once occupied the land present day Toronto;
·         and of course, York was renamed Toronto in 1834,  reverting to its original Indian name.

Israel, is of course the opposite case; one of changing geographic names to deny, as much as possible, the history of the previous occupants of the land, and their “de-population” in 1948/49; and to undercut any possibility of,  or  claims by, them to return.

So much did the State of Israel pursue this policy of historical erasure that in the years 1949 through 1952, not only did it rename over two hundred Palestinian towns and villages, it also systematically physically destroyed dozens, if not hundreds, of such town and villages as well. (Perhaps this was justified as an analogue to the Biblical injunction to “tear down their alters” which appears in the same verse as “obliterate the names.”.)  Most of this destruction was done at the direct order of the government and with State resources. Most of the rest was done by the Jewish National Fund, which became the owner of most abandoned Arab property.
Of course, not all Jewish Israelis agreed with this policy, and we have dissenting voices recorded in both the cabinet records and in the popular press. The following poem appeared in the Hebrew daily Al Hamishmar on 19 May 1950. (The translation is my own.)

(Abandoned Village - Daniel Ben Nachum - Al HaMishmar 19.5.1950)


Heavy smoke rises over the village,
Gushing dark from the doors of earth homes,
Creeping through melon fields on the hillside,
Clawing up 'gainst olives and dates.

In a skip the fire leaps to a patch of wild thorns,
Glides along the Jordan through the rushes.
It spreads from the village to the tel - and returns,
And silently engulfs all, and ignites.

In armoured bulldozer, between rifle and blade,
All feelings gone numb and hardened of heart,
In this war, there's no awe, there's no mercy.

And thus ends in dark smoke - empty village, silent witness:
Musty shacks, joyous feasts, babies cries, mothers' songs.
Disappeared! - In dark smoke, as bitter as tears.



*  *  *
So what are we to make of all this conquering, destroying, rebuilding, and renaming?

Is renaming illegal? Certainly not.

Is renaming immoral?  Probably not.

Is it tragic? It certainly is if you are on the losing side.

Is renaming and obliterating   effective in changing the average person’s view of History and Geography? Yes, it most certainly is,     and that, I think, is the point.  

When we lived in Gedera in the 1980s, if you asked an old timer for driving directions to Jerusalem, he would probably tell you, to go out of town on route 40 southbound and then turn left at  Masmiyya.  Masmiyya was the Palestinian village that used to be at the junction of route 40 and route 3. Today that junction is just called Tzomet Bnei Reim, and probably no one under 50 has any idea where or what Masmiyya once was. 

What it once was, was a town of about 2500 people. Most of those people, if they are still alive, and most certainly their children, are living somewhere in Gaza.  And most Israeli’s have no idea: out of sight, out of mind. Bnei Reim was built ex nihilo – out of the desert – and those people in Gaza are just hateful lunatics.

Renaming place names may or may not be necessary to build a national consciousness, but it has a price. That price is forgetting. I personally don’t think we should forget. Judaism, it seems to me, is too invested in honesty and is too committed to remembering.

We may not be able to change history, but at least we owe it to ourselves to know it.


Shabbat Shalom


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