Sharon Dolin and the Music of Nature

Haim Watzman

One of my favorite poets, Sharon Dolin, has four poems up at Nextbook. The first, “Let Me Thrum (6 a.m.)” is a wonderful fresh and new version of “Nishmat Kol Hai,” the poem of nature extolling God that we read every Shabbat morning.

What makes Dolin’s work stand out for me is her exquisite ear, her ability to create a poem that would sound like music even if you did not know English, and whose sounds are intimately woven into her meaning. It’s on full display in this poem, where the early morning poet both hears and observes:

antennae’d and furred
all sing all shirr all rub and buzz
and fling their call to You
in song-light as the mist still clings

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Not Getting Married Today–When Should Young Modern Orthodox Jews Get Hitched?

Haim Watzman

One of the problems with the liberal Orthodox Jewish Zionism that we live by here on this blog is that it delays young people’s entry into adulthood and marriage. When I graduated from a public high school in the U.S. in the 1970s, the path before me was four years of college and the real world. My son graduated high school, then studied at a yeshiva for a year and a half, and is now performing military service in a unit that will require him to serve at least one year beyond the already long mandatory term of three years. Add the de rigueur year of travel after the army, and he won’t even begin college until he’s 25. If he goes for an advanced degree, he may not reach the real world until he’s well into his thirties.

It would be absurd to pretend that the expectation that our sons and daughters will pursue high-level religious and secular studies, as well as serve extended terms of military or national service, doesn’t clash with the family values we also espouse as religious Jews. Understandably, many young modern Orthodox men and women have chosen to delay marriage and spend extended periods as singles, a phenomenon almost unheard of previously in the religious community and now the subject of a popular new television series, Serugim.

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Friends II: Judaism Isn’t About Spirituality

I’ve waited too long to recommend “The Brisket King,” an essay by my friend Andrew Gow on Jews who dismiss Judaism and go looking for “spirituality”:

We go shopping, literally, for new ‘spiritual’ experiences, as though one could isolate and purchase ‘spirituality’ via retreats, healing sessions, etc. – as a commodity. New Age, Wicca and Buddhism are major alternative destinations for disaffected middle-class Jews, followed by Christianity-though ‘secularism’ is admittedly the default destination for the vast majority, with assimilation coming close behind, probably in the generation following those who see themselves only as ‘secular’ or ‘cultural’ Jews.

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The Secret of Low Expectations–“Necessary Stories” Column, The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman I remember a high wind and driving rain. Night is darker here, I thought, as the bus’s engine expired in a series of knocks that sounded like the final beats of a broken heart. We pulled our duffel bags and backpacks from the luggage compartment and dragged them in the direction of the … Read more The Secret of Low Expectations–“Necessary Stories” Column, The Jerusalem Report

Laugh Your Guts Out–Irony on Yom Kippur and Election Day

Haim Watzman

Penitents are like voters. They face critical choices, ones that will set the course of their lives, and must make them in a situation of uncertainty. Committed voters try to grope through the fog of rhetoric in order to understand the true wills and predilections of the candidates they must choose from; penitents seek to dispel the mystery and ambiguity that cloaks the divine in order to understand what God wants of their lives.

But when I look around me this year, three days before Yom Kippur and a month before the American elections, I have a feeling that a lot of Jewish penitents and American voters are not using an essential tool that they need to make their choices. I mean irony.

Irony? Doesn’t that have something to do with punch lines? Is the choice of the leader of the free world and the acknowledgment and correction of one’s sins a joke?

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Deadly Idealism–The Fast of Gedalya

Haim Watzman

The ruins of Mitzpa, from Encyclopedia.comJeremiah the prophet, bound in chains in the convoy of Judean exiles the conquering army was taking to Babylonia, is freed by the captain of the guard. Jeremiah goes to Mitzpa, near destroyed Jerusalem, where Gedalya, whom the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had appointed governor over Judea.

Jewish idealists and patriots who opposed the Babylonian occupation viewed Gedalya as a traitor and collaborator. In a sense they were right—Gedalya was working for the enemy. But Gedalya, like Jeremiah, understood that resistance to the conquers was hopeless. Better to accept the autonomy the Babylonians were offering and do what could be done to help the nation recover from the ravages of the war.

“Now it came to pass in the seventh month that Yishma’el the son of Netanya the son of Elishama, of the royal line, and some of the chief officers of the king, and ten men with him, came to Gedalyahu the son of Ahiqam to Mitzpa; and there they ate bread together in Mitzpa. Then Yishma’el the son of Netanya and the ten men that were with him arose and struck Gedalyahu the son of Ahiqam the son of Shafan with the sword and slew him” (Jeremiah 40:1-2).

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The Cistern And The King–An Elul Story

Haim Watzman

A cool wind blows through the vineyard in Yavneh late in the month of Elul. The sun, obscured by large but unthreatening gray-blue cloud, has passed the sky’s pinnacle. Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai’s students, who until just a few minutes previously had been engaged in a heated debate over whether the shofar could be blown when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. This was formerly allowed only in the Holy Temple, which was destroyed some years before. Could a rule applying just to the sacred precinct now be expanded to include all of Jerusalem, or perhaps Yavneh as well, or even the entire Land of Israel?

“We seem,” says Rabban Yohanan—the Nasi, head of the Sanhedrin, reconstituted here on the southwestern coastal plane of the Holy Land after the Temple’s destruction—“to have lost our train of thought.”

Rabbi Yosi points to the sky. “Since the destruction of the Holy Temple, a cloud often passes between us and divine inspiration.”

“Perhaps,” says Rabban Yohanan, “I should tell a story.

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Revelation and Law: Elijah and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

Haim Watzman

When do religions based on text and revelation turn fundamentalist and extreme? When their adherents take their holy books and divine messages to be sources of infallible wisdom that needs no human mediation. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other creeds can all inspire their adherents to take individual responsibility for weighing competing moral values, but this requires that the community of believers understand that the practical application of religious values “is not in heaven.” In other words, they must realize that revelation and holy texts cannot be understood and used without placing them in dialogue with the real world that we confront in our everyday experience.

At his weekly Shabbat afternoon lecture last Saturday, Rabbi Binyamin Lau cited an aggadah—a rabbinic homily—from the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 8, page 5d). (The following thoughts are my own, not Rabbi Lau’s.)

A man named Ula Bar Kushav was sought by the Roman authorities for some unnamed crime. He fled to Lod, then (the early third century CE) an important city in Judea with a large Jewish population. The Romans surrounded the city and demanded that the Jewish community turn over Bar Kushav. If he were not turned over, the Romans would raze the entire city.

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All The Conspiracy Theorists Are Out To Get Us–More On The Crusade Against Islam

Haim Watzman

Y. Ben-David, South Jerusalem’s most intrepid commenter, writes, in response to my previous post on anti-Semitism in Islam, that a significant part of the Muslim world today subscribes to theologies that demonize the Jews, as well as to outlandish conspiracy theories. I’d like to declare here, on the front page of this left-wing peacenik accommodationist blog, that Y. Ben-David (hereinafter YBD) is correct.

However, YBD is, like Benny Morris, wearing blinders that make his correct observation nearly useless–indeed dangerous–as a basis for creating good policies to confront such bigoted Muslims and their political-theological movements.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theories. Perhaps YBD has forgotten how popular they are pretty much everywhere and anywhere, including in the enlightened West. Large numbers of Israelis, in particular in the religious-Zionist sector, believe that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered on the orders of the Shabak or Mossad. A large number of Americans also believe in a variety of conspiracy theories regarding the 9/11 attacks. According to a Gallup poll in 1999, six percent of Americans are sure that the Apollo moon landing was faked by a shadowy conspiracy and another five percent think that might be true. That’s far from a majority but it’s a lot of supposedly enlightened Americans.

Read moreAll The Conspiracy Theorists Are Out To Get Us–More On The Crusade Against Islam

Old-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.

An afterword to Haim’s post on screeds about anti-Jewish attitudes in Islam: A few months ago I wrote an article about anti-Muslim and anti-Christian prayers in Judaism. The anti-Christian prayers are medieval (I urged excising them.) The anti-Muslim prayer I cited is apparently a fake antique: It’s written in a medieval style, and it follows the midrashic convention of using “Ishmael” as a name for Muslims or Arabs. But it’s a product of the contemporary Israeli-Arab conflict, and it shows up in the liturgy of the Israeli religious right, which has dressed up militant modern nationalism as ancient theology.

There are several lessons to be learned:

First, attacks on Islam in authentic medieval Jewish prayers are almost impossible to find, as a leading historian explained to me:

Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”-looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.

There was obviously theological conflict between Judaism and Islam from the time the latter began. But Jews themselves did not perceive Islam as trying to displace and disinherit Judaism in the same way,

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Licht Observed: Evan Fallenberg’s “Light Fell”

Haim Watzman

Joseph Licht, a religious Israeli with a devoted wife, five young sons, and a budding academic career attends a Torah class in Jerusalem given by a young rabbinic prodigy. The two men fall in love and conduct a passionate affair, leading Joseph to abandon his family and his religion—on the same day that his lover commits suicide. Two decades later, on his fiftieth birthday, Joseph invites his five grown sons to spend with him a Shabbat of celebration and reconciliation.

In Light Fell, Evan Fallenberg fluently takes on a tough subject—not just father-son relationships to the fifth power, not just father-son estrangement over many long years, but also father-son relationships sacrificed to love, and love of kind that breaks the most fundamental of his family’s implicit covenants and explicit taboos.

Joseph seeks to reconnect with his sons both to explain to them why he left them and to urge them to learn the lesson he learned. He had been living a lie, he tells them, and had no choice but to be true to himself. He sees that his sons, too, are avoiding, each in his own way, important decisions about who they are and what they must do with their lives, and he wants them, too, to know and follow the truth about themselves.

Read moreLicht Observed: Evan Fallenberg’s “Light Fell”

Putting God in the World: Psalm 27 From Faith to Doubt to Action

Haim Watzman

There’s a canard that religious people hear again and again from their non-religious acquaintances: “I’m jealous. It must be such a comfort to be able to believe in God.” They haven’t read Psalm 27, which observant Jews recite twice daily from the beginning of the month of Elul (which began earlier this week) throughout the holiday season that concludes eight weeks later.

The psalm (Read the Hebrew text, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, and hear the Psalm read in the original Hebrew here) belies such a naïve view of the relationship between human beings and God.

Famously, this poem seems to run backwards, if your standard is the assumption that people pray so that their prayers will be answered. It begins with a declaration of confidence in God’s protection, goes on to pleading, then to expressions of loneliness and doubt, and ends with a determined affirmation of God despite the uncertainty the poet sees in the world around him. The disparity of mood is so great that some scholars have suggested that the psalm is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate works.

Read morePutting God in the World: Psalm 27 From Faith to Doubt to Action