The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

Contrary to the common wisdom, the Israelites were not liberated from slavery at the time of the Exodus. Many midrashim and commentaries stress that what actually happened was a change of ownership: they had been slaves to Pharoah, and then they became slaves to God.

When I was younger, this interpretation rang false to me. The opposite of slavery is freedom, and freedom means being able to do whatever you want, with no master to tell you otherwise. The claim that true freedom lay in subjugation to God seemed oxymoronic. But later I came to understand the rabbis’ meaning, in part with the help of Robert Frost’s exceptional poem “The Silken Tent.” (You can read it here and hear it read here.)

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More on Misunderstanding Identity: A Response to Bernard Avishai

Dear Bernard,

I’m delighted that you found my previous post worth a response. If a little summary judgment (isn’t that what blogging is all about?) can promote a lively exchange of ideas, then I think it’s for the best. If we weren’t doing this at our keyboards, when would we have found time for this conversation?

I’ll look forward to reading your book and having my misconceptions corrected—although I’m not convinced by your response that I have misunderstood where you stand.

I’m posting this on Erev Pesach; I’ve burned my hametz and will soon be setting out with my family to celebrate the Seder with close friends in Zikhron Ya’akov. So let me here focus briefly on your view of religion. I’ll address the nature of national identity in a future post.

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No Water, No Food: The Younger Dryas, Then and Now

About 12,800 years ago, the global climate suddenly cooled. Here in the Levant, the change also resulted in dry conditions that lasted for about 1,300 years.

I was reminded of this by two headlines today in one of the Levant’s leading newspapers: Israel Faces 350 Million Cubic Meter Shortage In Water Supply; The World Food Price Crisis Comes to Israel: Prices Rose 9% In The Past Year (that one’s only in the Hebrew edition, for some reason).

The cold, dry spell of the twelfth and thirteenth millennia BCE is called the Younger Dryas. Because the first evidence of human farming appears in the archaeological record at the same time (see my earlier post, Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution), some scholars have hypothesized that, because of the drought of the Younger Dryas, the people living in the area stretching from present-day Israel up through southern Turkey could no longer obtain sufficient food by hunting and gathering and, as a result, had to turn to farming, and then to the establishment of settled, larger communities in order to ensure a more stable and abundant food supply.

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Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

Ever since Abraham stood in the middle of two rows of dismembered animals, waiting for God to speak, the archetypical Jew has been the one who stands between. Ruth between Moab and Israel, David between sin and repentance; Yohanan ben-Zakkai between the sacred past and the almost inconceivable project of creating a new Judaism without a Temple, Maimonides between the Torah and Aristotle, Moses Mendelssohn between the Torah and the Enlightenment, Gershom Scholem between Berlin and Jerusalem—walking a thin wire between two seeming opposites, and by walking, bringing them together, seems to encapsulate the essence of what it is to be a thinking, creative Jew.

Over the last three decades, the Jews who have stood most in the middle, the ones who have walked the most precarious wire, have been women committed both to Jewish heritage and to living full intellectual lives of a type that heritage long generally denied to females. By now a plethora of books about Jewish feminism, Orthodox feminism, and women in Judaism have been published, but Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books stands out among them as the one that really enables the reader to experience what it feels like to be a committed religious Jewish woman caught between Jewish tradition and the modern, Western world.

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Myths in Collision: Velikovsky and the Zionist Narrative

Speaking of myths (see my previous post, Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?), I received an e-mail today from a nice woman I’ve spoken to on the phone a few times, Shula Kogan. Kogan is the daughter of Immanuel Velikovsky, the psychiatrist and scholar famous for his theory that the historical account offered by the Bible is best understood if we assume that the planet Jupiter ejected what is now the planet Venus and Venus turned into a comet and swung by the earth a couple times, causing the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the descent of manna from heaven, and other supposed miracles.

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Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?

You’ve perhaps heard that some Palestinian archaeologists and narrative-builders claim that the Palestinian Arabs of today are direct descendants of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, you may remember, are the people from whom, according to the Bible’s narrative, the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land.

Should the Jews care?

A lot of supporters of Israel get very worked up about this (here’s one example). They believe—correctly—that Palestinian interest in the Canaanites is an attempt to construct a national narrative that gives today’s Palestinians first dibs on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

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Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Much has been written about the slow pace and the role of time in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Less has been said about the societal decay it portrays.

This Romanian film, written directed by Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an abortion. But it also depicts, intensely, the relationship between two women, and shows how an impersonal, heartless regime (Ceauescu’s Romania, in this case) can leave its citizens with nothing but impersonal, heartless relationships.

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Why Israel is Losing Its Green Spaces: The Pointed-Roof Hypothesis

A phone company commercial currently appearing incessantly on Israel’s channel 2 depicts a somewhat thickset, balding man in his fifties sitting in an armchair watching television. The television is situated in a family room and in the background of this open-plan ground floor you can see a large kitchen and living room. The man’s teenage son bounds down the stairs in shorts and a sleeveless sweatshirt, fake-tosses a basketball to his father, and heads out the door.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what does it have to do with the destruction of Israel’s countryside?

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Boring Subversion

It’s out! The new issue of Ma’ayan, Israel’s most notorious literary magazine, lives down to its reputation. Here’s Dada without the humor, subway graffiti without the color. The prose reads like what you’d get if you transplanted George W. Bush’s brain into the body of Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe (I’m thinking of Bush’s wooden English style and cluelessness chimeraed with Pappe’s hysterical grandstanding and Hebrew kindergarten invective). Most of the poetry was, I suspect, written on Jerusalem’s infamous 15 (recently demoted to 13) bus, which wends its way irrationally and endlessly through streets that no one particularly wants to visit.

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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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