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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First Law of Political Thermodynamics: For every action there is an unequal and opposite reaction

At a press conference a few weeks ago, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon explained the government’s attempts to influence events in Gaza through both military action and pressure on the general population. “Palestinians in Gaza know the truth,” he asserted. They understood that the Hamas regime was responsible for their woes, and would act against it. “A combination of steps will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Ramon said.

Ramon was half right. Nothing affects Palestinian public opinion like Israel actions – just as nothing affects Israeli public opinion like Israeli actions. But as the latest Palestinian poll results show, the reaction is usually in the opposite direction

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The Dispossessed and the Manufacture of Fury

Amalek, according to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is the name of the tribe that attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, on the road from slavery to freedom. You can regard this as ancient history. But history is remembered as our story, and in Jewish mythic consciousness, Amalek became a name for hate embodied.

From there, it’s an easy jump – for the fearful and the angry, and for those embodying a fair amount of hatred themselves – to label a present-day enemy as Amalek. The formula “Amalek = ____” transforms a real-world conflict into a metaphysical one, and gives theological sanction to fury. Since Haman is described in the Book of Esther as a descendant of Amalek, and Esther is read on Purim, some misuse the carnival holiday to dress Judaism in a dark costume of rage.

And others remove that awful mask. Twenty-five years ago I heard an interpretation of the Amalek myth that transforms it into moral obligation. It was entirely rooted in rabbinic tradition – and served as proof that the meaning of the text is the responsibility of the interpreter. I remain uncertain that the man from which I heard it was really there. Here’s the story,

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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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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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Purim security alert – one-sided or two?

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s office has sent out this notice:

In accordance with the decision made by the Minister of Defense and as part of the security measures adopted by the defense establishment, a general closure will be implemented in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The closure will begin today, Tuesday, March 18th at 12:00 am and will be lifted on Saturday, March 23rd, 2008 at 12:00 am.

The reason for the closure, the notice says, is that

“The IDF regards the Purim holiday as a highly sensitive period in terms of the security risk.”

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McCain: Uh, Sunni? Er, Shi’ite?

John McCain, running for US president on his security credentials, showed in Amman on Tuesday that he does not attention to the difference between Shi’a and Sunni extremists in Iraq. This isn’t flunking Iraq 101, it’s flunking the entrance quiz to get into the course.

Earlier, the three candidates for president sent their proxy fighters to meet with Jewish leaders. McCain’s man,

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The Look of the Lynch Mob

Nadia Matar, leader of the extremist Women in Green, has performed a certain service for feminism, I realized Sunday as I watched her give a series of quickie TV interviews at sunset on the promenade leading to Jabel Mukaber. Until I’d watched her talk, I still harbored the assumption that loud, threatening, bigoted rants – the jaw out, the tone nervous with excess adrenaline – were a male thing, especially a young male thing.

My mistake. An older woman can also don a baseball cap, push her jaw out, and describe an entire ethnic group – in this case, Israeli Arabs – as threatening to good people. Her rap was the same for each camera crew. The strangest part was when she insisted that if a Muslim in America had killed Christians, “they would confiscate the whole family’s American ID cards.” But then, it doesn’t matter that America doesn’t have government-issue ID cards. It has had lynch mobs,

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The republic of Tel Aviv v. the other Israel: Kulturkampf or class warfare?

A standard portrayal of Israel today – especially from educated, well off secularists – is one of a cultural battle between forward-looking Tel Aviv and the sundry backward forces elsewhere in the land. Tel Aviv, in this description, is the secular Hebrew city that the most liberal of Zionists wanted to build; the rest of the country is haunted by primal faith and tribal loyalties. (Alternatively, Tel Aviv is the land of debased Israelis; Jews loyal to tradition live elsewhere.) In 1996, after the Rabin assassination and Netanyahu’s victory, there were a spate of suggestions in the punditsphere to divide the country into Israel and Judea, an idea revived after the Gaza pullout.

I’ve never liked that neat division between secular and religious identities – it doesn’t fit me, and it doesn’t fit most people I know. Would I have to live on the border of Israel and Judea, with a bookshelf on one side of the house for Kant and Sophocles and a shelf on the other side for Talmud?

But a conversation I had today with Shlomo Swirski, the academic director of the Adva Center for social research in Tel Aviv, gave me a very different view of the geographic split.

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Guilt is not genetic

Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich of Labor says she’ll skip German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech, in German, to the Knesset, Ha’aretz reports. Arieh Eldad of the far-right National Union, to do her one worse, said he’ll wait for her to start speaking, then stand up and leave the hall.

“I can’t bear the thought of hearing German in the Knesset,” he said. “This is the language my grandparents were murdered in.”

Eldad’s promise to insult has a certain internal logic. He belongs to a political camp that treats nations as organic units, erasing the individual. The fact that Merkel was born nine years after the Holocaust is irrelevant. For him, Germanness is guilty.

Yachimovich has no such excuse

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