Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama in Jerusalem

Best news line of the week:

Even in Israel, where Obama deftly performed what might be called a LeChaim-lich Manoeuvre – a full-on embrace to unstick the last of those American Jewish voters who can't help but choke on the candidate's middle name – the campaign appeared to attain all that it wanted.

Read the full article in the Toronto Star.

Later in the same article we read:

But mere moments after Obama departed Jerusalem, an Israeli seminary student retrieved and passed on for publication the prayer note Obama stuffed into the revered Western Wall. The rabbi in charge of the wall condemned the move, saying it intruded on Obama's relationship with "his maker."

For the record the text of Obama's note to God was duly reported in the Israeli "Maariv" (though other Israeli media refused to publish it. Since it has been now reproduced in sveral newspapers, I will so so too, below:

"Lord - Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will."

This is so smooth, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Obama suspected his words might make their way to the press.

A skeptical New York Post reports:

Several handwriting experts who have examined other pieces of Obama's writing said his penmanship suggests a different mood than in the past.

"There's nothing in it that makes you think he's not sincere with what he's saying, but it's actually making him feel very different than his [usual] energetic handwriting," said Michelle Dresbold, author of "Sex, Lies and Handwriting."

Expert Arlene Leachman said that when he wrote "forgive me," there was "too much space between forgive and me, so he probably doesn't feel he needs to be forgiven."

I myself will reserve judgment. But I will note that this is the first and only time I can recalled anyone's written prayer at the Kotel being revealed yet alone analyzed. Obama remains a unique phenomenon.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jewish Life in Germany

I received this email note from a friend who is doing some guest lectures in Hamberg Germany. He is a regular shul goer and Israeli.

It paints a sad picture.

"I went to shul today in Hamburg, and of course, am traumatized from the way European Jews live as a community today. Traffic is prohibited next to the shul, and there is a permanent police structure next to it; and of course if is fenced and guarded. (at least they let me in w/o showing the passport -- as I was required in Hong Kong) And it occurred to me that near the pre-WW-II shul that I 'discovered' -- that serves now as the offices of the Hamburg Jewish Community --- there is also a permanent police structure. ... Until today I wanted to believe this was a coincidence.

Shul was realtively small -- but full -- many aging people, a few young; languages I mainly heard were Russian and German; very little Hebrew, mostly from shlichei chabad; I suspect the Rabbi was one of them. Very little English. Very few sephardim. Orthodox service, of course; no announcement of pages etc. Kiddush was wine and white cake. Nobody approached me and I did not connect to anyone. I suspect they are all in business-- no academics; but I would not know.

The chumash I held was Hebrew-Russian, while the siddur was Hebrew-German. The Rabbi did everything other than Haftara: he davened, leynd, and gave the Dvar Tora, in German of course.

The guy sitting behind me kept constantly correcting the Rabbi while he was leyning; he was an Israeli.; he did not strike me as masbir panim however, so we never spoke.

OK; an anthropological experience."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Nuclear War and "Prisoner" Exchange

Here are several short comments on interesting news article I read this week. The real meat is in the articles themselves. So follow the links.

First, Benny Morris - the Israeli historian - is either completely nuts, or crazy like a fox. In this article from the New York Times, Morris predicts nuclear war between Israel and Iran! And claims that Israel probably has no choice but to strike first. Moreover he claims that his views represent the consensus among Israeli leaders. (He may be right !!! See this interview with Israeli Cabinet Minister Shaul Mofaz.)

Just to give a sample of Morris' chillingly detached academic logic:
It is in the interest of neither Iran nor the United States (nor, for that matter, the rest of the world) that Iran be savaged by a nuclear strike, or that both Israel and Iran suffer such a fate. We know what would ensue: a traumatic destabilization of the Middle East with resounding political and military consequences around the globe, serious injury to the West’s oil supply and radioactive pollution of the earth’s atmosphere and water.
"A traumatic destabilization ...."? What about the millions killed !!!???!!! Dr. Stangelove couldn't have said it better.

The only alternative to believing that Morris has completely "lost it", is to believe that he hopes that by predicting such stuff, he can help pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program, or else convince the U.S to take action so Israel will not have to. Threatening nuclear war, might, maybe, perhaps make some sense - though its a very dangerous game. Actually contemplating it is nuts.

Second, I had thought all week that Israel's "prisoner exchange" deal with Hizbollah was a bad idea, though I couldn't quite put my finger on why. But I also felt that my usually dovish POV should make me be in favour of the deal. Now, former Haaretz editor David Landau has helped me clarify my thinking. It really is a bad deal. And an immoral and deceitful one too. Read his analysis here.

Third, I really wanted to hate - completely and absolutely - released terrorist Samir Kuntar. That was one reason I why my gut was against the "prisoner exchange". This guy was the embodiment of evil. He had, so we are told, killed a father in front of their child, and then, Nazi style, killed the child by smashing her skull against a stone wall. But then I read this article, and, more ironically, this one. Even evil guys are complex it turns out. Kuntar was 16 when he committed his terrorist assault. Maybe he didn't do all that we have been told he did. His ideas have changed somewhat. So while I still think it was a mistake to release him in the "prisoner exchange", its not because he is the devil incarnate.

Levinas Course - take 2

“We propose to call ‘religion’ the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality”

- Emanual Levinas, Totality and Infinity

In a previous blog entry, I had said that I found the philosophical ideas of Emanuel Levinas steeped in religion and in Judaism in particular. I had quoted Levinas himself as saying, that he saw his philosophical endeavors as “translating the Hebrew into Greek.” As I continue taking my Levinas course (which I am enjoying greatly – thanks Corey!) I am struck over and over and over again by the religious, and Jewish, and specifically “misnagdik” and Reconstructionist Jewish, echoes I hear in Levinas’ words.

Some examples:

“ Conversation, from the very fact that it maintains the distance between me and the Other, the radical separation asserted in transcendence which prevents the reconstitution of totality, cannot renounce the egoism of its existence. But the very fact of being in conversation consists in recognizing in the Other a right over egoism, and hence in justifying oneself. Apology, in which the I at the same time asserts itself and inclines before the transcendent, belongs to the essence of conversation.”
Sounds like prayer and tshuva to me.

“Transcendence designates a relation with a reality infinitely distant from my own reality, yet without this distance destroying this relation and without this relation destroying the distance, as would happen with relations within the same; this relation does not become an implantation in the other and confusion with him, does not affect the identity of the same, is ipseity, does not silence the aplogy, does not become apostasy and ecstasy.”
I hear theVilna Gaon in these words.

“Morality will oppose politics in history and will have gone beyond the functions of prudence or the canons of the beautiful to proclaim itself unconditional and universal when the eschatology of messianic peace will have come to superimpose itself on the ontology of war.”
I hear traces of Isaiah here.

“… infinity is produced in the relationship of the same to the other,… the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were, magnetize the very field in which infinity is enacted.”
Buber could have written that.

“Infinity does not first exists, and then reveal itself. Its infination is produced as revelation, as the positing of the idea in me.”
Shades of Mordeccai Kaplan, IMO.

And finally this:
“Metaphysical desire longs not for return, for it is desire for a land not of its birth, …and to which we shall never betake ourselves. … The metaphysical desire … desires beyond everything that can simply complete it. It is like goodness – the Desired [note the capital D! -sn] does not fulfill it but deepens it.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal, and the Desired [again a capital D! -sn] invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence of relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. … Desire is the desire for absolutely other. Besides the hunger one satisfies, the thirst one quenches, the senses on allays, metaphysics desires the other beyond satisfaction, where no gesture by the body to diminish the aspiration is possible…. A desire without satisfaction which, precisely, understands the remoteness, the alterity, and the exterior of the other. For Desire this alterity, non adequate to the idea, has meaning. It is understood as the alterity of the Other and of the Most-High. The very dimension of height is opened up by metaphysical Desire."
Reminds me of the opening and closing of Shir Hakavod:
These melodies I sing, now weaving lines of song,
for only for your presence does my spirit long.
My soul desired nothing but the shadow of your hand,
To walk the secret paths within your mysterious land.

And may my thoughts be pleasing, find favour in your sight;
For you alone my soul has longed, you are its chief delight.

ki eylekha nafshi ta’arog

* * *

But as if to prove that he is not merely preaching classic God talk – to confirm, as if, his misnagdik and Reconstructionist credentials, Levinas finishes off the paragraph quoted above with:

“That this height is no longer in the heavens, but rather the Invisible [again that capital letter ! – sn] is the very elevation of height and its true nobility. To die for the invisible – that is metaphysics. This does not mean that desire can dispense with acts. [On the contrary!] But these acts are neither consummation, nor caress, nor liturgy.
Then they must be mitvoth!

Or do I read too much into this?

In any case, I find Levinas' philosophy very religious. And that's fine with me.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Ultimate in Convenience

When has convenience gone too far? Maybe never. Israeli's, usually an unsentimental and practical bunch, and certainly technically savvy, have come up with the ulitmate in convenience for the harried wedding guest. Rushing from work to the wedding? Forgot to get a gift - or even a card? No problem, according to this article from Reuters.
Guests at an Israeli wedding hall can now insert a credit card into a machine at its entrance, tap in a sum and leave a gift for the bride and groom.

"It's new in Israel and the world," Aya Alon Kaufman of the Gan Oranim
hall in Tel Aviv said on Israel's Channel 10. "It's very convenient ... guests
can give a gift even if they forget their checkbooks."

She said couples pay NIS 500 ($155) to rent the device, which resembles an automated teller machine, and the recorded funds are transferred into their bank account the next day.

The machine prints out a "deposit" slip with the guest's name, which can be put into an envelope along with a congratulatory note and inserted into a slot in the device for the couple to retrieve.

Kol Sasson - indeed!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Oklahoma City - Who Knew?

Jesse Helms died on July 4th. He was one of the most racist, homophobic, chauvinistic, and hawkish senators in modern U.S. history. He was loved by the far right, and hated by any one left of centre, and half the people to the right of it. But the image above, taken from the web site if the Daily Oklahoman, ... well who knew anti-Helms feeling ran so high in the Sooner State.
(Those pop-up ads can be SO embarrassing !)
Helms served as senator from North Carolina for 30 years - from 1973 to 2003. In his first foray into politics - as a campaign manager in 1950 - he penned the lines:
"White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races."

His candidate won. In 1963 Helms appeared on TV and said, in response to the then current civil rights protests:
"The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left
him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's
In 1981, he wrote in the NY Times,
"... irresponsibility among Negroes [is] a fact of life which must be faced."
And he kept getting elected with large majorities.

The fact that Barak Obama is now realistically hoping to win North Carolina (he is trailing McCain there by only 4 percentage points) speaks to how far American has come.

On the other hand, there are still a lot of die hard conservative racists. Just look at the Jesse Helm Memorial site.

My favourite entry there, however, is from the Mt Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, a black church in Washington North Carolina.

The officers and members of the Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church offer condolences to the family of the late Jesse Helms, Jr. We shall pray that God will take him in and make him a new person.

More Christian, for sure, then the image from the Daily Oklahoman. But then I am not Christian, so I will allow myself a smirk at Jesse's expense.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Death By Caterpillar

I wanted to write about this week's Jerusalem bulldozer murders, which killed 3 people and injured 36; about how almost all Israeli and Jewish commentators and politicians seemed particularly incensed; about the hysterical column my old friend Bradley Burston wrote in Haaretz labeling and libeling all Palestinians; about the fact that no one seems to believe the murderer's family when they say he was motivated out of personal problems, not membership in a terror group ; and about the headline in Haaretz reading:

Barak orders demolition of Jerusalem terrorists' homes
Mazuz: Demolition of terrorists' homes permissable by law; Ramon: Parts of East J'lem should be severed.
(See full article here.)

I wanted to write that destroying the murder's family's home would be even less just than blowing up the homes of the family's of Columbine massacre's perpetrators, or, closer to home, the homes of the "Brampton 18" - should they be convicted.

I wanted to write about the irony (Is it proper to think of irony in the face of such tragedies?) of the instrument of death being a Caterpillar bulldozer, the same machine that killed Rachel Corey, and that was been used by Israelis to demolish so many Arab homes, and will likely be used to tear down the home of this week's murderer.

I wanted to write about all this, but my favourite blogster, The Magnes Zionist, beat me to it (and wrote it better than I could have.)

Here, in part, is what he wrote:

The rampage of the Arab tractor-drive this week in Jerusalem, which killed several people and wounded many more, is rightly condemned. Yes, it is important to try to understand motives, and yes, it is important to think rationally on how to prevent the reoccurence of such events. But understanding is not excusing, much less justifying. You can say the same thing for the rampage of the student at Virginia Tech last year, which killed more people. Even if a person is driven to do something by mental illness, or by some sort of exculpating factor, the harming of innocents is to be condemned. The motives are not relevant. Death by Caterpillar is death.

But no less condemnable are the acts of revenge contemplated by Israeli officials against innocents, either the tractor-driver's family (destroying their house) or his neighborhood (revoking their residency.) In fact, they are arguably more barbaric because they are premeditated actions of a state, illegal by international law, and immoral by any morality save that of the mafia. ....

Read his full blog article here.