The Selfish Monk: Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring”

The ancients asked a question we ask too seldom today: How can I live a good life? Not a happy, successful, or important life, but a good one? The answer the Korean director Kim Ki-Duk gives in his 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring is: live alone, in a house that floats in the middle of a lake that lies in a beautiful, deserted valley. Do not love, do not raise a family, do not seek out other human beings.

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The Intellectual Defense Forces

If you want to bone up quickly on any subject ranging from molecular biology to gender studies to Maimonides, where do you go? If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Hebrew, you know where—you pop over to the nearest book store or library and dig through the booklets published by the Broadcast University.

Israel’s universities may be in decline and their humanities faculties heading for intensive care, but this is one bright corner, and the light comes, of all places, from the army.

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Up Against the Wall: Back at Gershom

Gershom, you’re right about a number of things in your“Politics of Measurement” post. Science is never free of social, economic, and cultural constraints, even if the scientific method offers, by and large, a good way to minimize those influences and approach the truth. And proving cause-and-effect relationships in politics and relations between nations is a hazardous undertaking. The influences are complex and interlocking, you don’t have a control group, and experiments can’t be repeated.

In the specific case at hand, the separation barrier, you are also correct that it is very difficult to isolate the anti-terror effect of the fence from other factors. As you note, political changes took place in parallel to the construction of the fence. And Israel also conducted an anti-terror offensive, using a variety of military measures.

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Colleges in Crisis

My children are reaching college age at an inauspicious time. My oldest daughter, Mizmor, matriculated last fall. My son, Asor, will start his studies in three years or so, when he completes his army service and, most likely, spends the usual year traveling overseas. I recently read an article on how to invest in student property as I’d like to be able to provide with them some decent accommodation that I can make a profit on later down the line, it’s a win win if you have the capital.

Higher education is one of those issues that Israeli governments like to procrastinate about. Put out fires and fix leaks but don’t make any long-term policy commitments—that, in the big picture, has been the approach for the last decade. And, as with our sharply dwindling water supply, a disaster is about to happen that will be difficult to reverse.

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Organ Donation and the Rabbis

The passage of a new organ donation law by the Knesset on Monday is good news in this country, which has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world. The new law will be trumpeted by some as a victory over the benighted Orthodox rabbis that have long opposed organ donation, and lambasted by others who will claim that it goes too far towards the rabbis.

As usual, the story is a lot more complicated than that. Undeniably, a lot more people in Israel, particularly religious and traditional ones, should be encouraged to allow organ donation when a tragedy occurs. But the rabbis’ concerns are important ones and this law has succeeded because it has addressed those concerns.

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Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

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Obama Comes Clean

When I came to Israel thirty years ago, my first home was the northern town of Kiryat Shmonah. I was quickly adopted by a young family–they were my age but already had two children–who were part of a small group that had come to Kiryat Shmonah from Israel’s big cities. Under the inspiration of the … Read more

Israel’s Separation Barrier: The Best of the Worst

Pretty much everything the critics say about Israel’s separation barrier is true. It causes incredible hardship to the Palestinians; it has been used in many places as a means of annexing Palestinian territory to Israel; and it has caused much environmental damage.

For all that, however, it has achieved its purpose. Since construction of the barrier commenced, deaths in terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank have dropped precipitously. As I note in my article in the current issue of Orion Magazine,

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

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