A Case of Identities — Necessary Stories column, Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman All year I work hard to reinforce my Jewish-Zionist-Israeli conception of myself and to instill it in my children. I talk to them about the importance of serving their country, by serving in the army or by going to college in Sderot; about how we must preserve our heritage and traditions. And about … Read more

Jewish Literature As It Ought To Be: Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience”

Haim Watzman

Last month I published an essay in the Jewish Chronicle of London in which I asserted that something is missing from most of the literature being produced by and about Jews today: “What I seek are books that, without being bound by conventions of religion and history, nevertheless use familiarity with and respect for the past as an instrument for thinking about the future of the Jewish people and what it means to be part of that collective.”

Had I read Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience before I wrote that, I would have written: I’ve found it. This is exactly what I mean.

Disobedience presents us with the most intriguing, unusual, and complex love triangle I’ve seen in contemporary fiction for quite some time. Rabbi Krushka, the spiritual leader of a small, straight-laced, insular, and conventional Orthodox community in London’s Hendon neighborhood, has passed on. He groomed as his successor his nephew, Dovid, but Dovid lacks his uncle’s charisma and native wisdom. Even worse, Dovid is married to Esti, a woman known for her long silences. She doesn’t mix much with the community’s women, she’s born no children, and everyone thinks that she’s more than a tad weird.

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Losing Our Religion: The Unfortunate Need for a Secular Israeli Identity

Haim Watzman

In his recent post on the conversion obstructionism of Israel’s established church, Gershom wrote: “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” He’s right, but it’s sad that he is.

The secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish—and therefore who belongs to the state’s majority culture and ethnic group—is a religious definition. True, that’s partly an artifact of Israeli politics, but not just. It’s a definition with roots in deep in Jewish religion and history, and in the way the Jewish nation views itself. And it’s something to be proud of.

The halachic position is that a person need not be Jewish to be close to God. Being a member of the Chosen People means being subject to special duties, but it gives you no monopoly on righteousness or spirituality.

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More On The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

In response to my post The Torah-Who Needs It, “Haskalah” asks:

Can a Jew “think hard about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be, without the Torah?” Did no one do so before the first Sha’vuot? In short, is it possible for a Jew to be moral and ethical and responsible without being observant?

It’s possible for anyone, not just a Jew, to be moral, ethical, and responsible without being religious or observant. And, as I noted in that post, observing the Torah’s commandments does not automatically make the observer a moral person.

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The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

So what do we need this Torah for anyway? Why should our lives be bound by a collection of tales and precepts that claims to have been conveyed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus? It’s a legitimate and important question as we embark, tonight and tomorrow, on Shavu’ot, the holiday that commemorates the revelation at Sinai.

The psychological view is that human beings need a framework, discipline, and the Torah provides us with a life-plan that makes us better people. The problem with that is that if we look around us we can see people who are meticulous in their observance of ritual but are not just or righteous in their ways. The sages had a name for this kind of person: naval be-reshut ha-Torah-a scoundrel with Torah sanction.

The simplistic view is that God made a deal with us and, if we keep up our end of the bargain by observing the commandments, we get rewarded. The problem is that, objectively, if we put this concept to empirical test, it doesn’t work. The rabbis knew that. On page 9b of the Berachot tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Zeira performs just such a test. Discussing the proper order of prayer, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Elyakim declares that everyone who goes straight from the blessing of redemption into the Amidah prayer can suffer no harm. Rabbi Zeira shoots back: “I went straight from redemption to prayer and I was harmed.”

And there are other answers-we observe the commandments because that’s what Jews have always done (well, usually, until recently), or to get back at Hitler and his like, who wanted to rid the world of the Torah.

What’s clear is that the Torah doesn’t guarantee any of these things. It doesn’t automatically make us better people, it doesn’t automatically reward us, it doesn’t guarantee Jewish continuity. So why bother?

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Department of Hope: Celebrating Israel’s 80th

What could Israel look like in 20 years, if we do things right? My article looking forward is now online at the National Post in Canada:

In Israel, 2028, Ibrahim Abdullah Hapalit is the reigning literary star. His first novel, Sinai, is based on his childhood escape from Darfur, across Egypt and the Sinai desert to the promised land. The last chapter, "Light," describes his parents’ ambivalence when he asked to light a Hanukkah menorah so he could be like the other children in his school. Critics rave over Hapalit’s Hebrew, built out of Biblical language and the Chinese-West African slang of south Tel Aviv’s immigrant alleys.

In Israel in the summer of 2028, no visitor to Jerusalem would skip outdoor Friday night services on the promenade overlooking the Old City from the south. Dozens of congregations meet there, a grand bazaar of Jewish religious styles. Rabbi Sarit Avihai,

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Is God a Republican?

Poor God. You created the world, you are the power and glory, but everyone thinks you’re a Republican.

But the association of the Most High with the most right-wing doesn’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny. Conservatives, after all, love order. They want today to be like yesterday, and tomorrow to be like the day before yesterday.

But then they’ve also got this all-powerful God who, they believe, intervenes in their lives, in politics, and in everything else on a daily, ongoing basis. But wait a minute–if God is constantly intervening in the world, that means the world operates according to God’s will, not according to any established laws. A world ruled by an omnipotent, interventionist God would, on the face of it, be totally unpredictable. Tomorrow would most certainly not be like today.

That’s not a very conservative proposition.

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Swimsuit extras: Pipes Dreams

Reading your last post , Haim, I suspected that you’ve been hacking into my thoughts. Not about swimsuits per se , but about Daniel Pipes’s curious belief that swimming in mixed company is a democratic duty.

Strangely, I spent a day once with Pipes. A dovish friend of mine with an interest in the Middle East was then active in the Middle East Forum (MEF), Pipes’s organization. I’d recently published my book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount , and my friend arranged for me to give two talks for the MEF – a lunch in New York, a dinner in Philadelphia. We took the train together between the two cities. Pipes was polite, energetic, intense. His eyes moved quickly when he talked. Did I say he was intense? He reminded me, strangely, of Bassam Jirrar, a Hamas-linked sheikh whom I’d interviewed for the book, and who’d been amazingly hospitable while explaining numerological hints in the Quran that Israel will be destroyed in 2022.

Sometime during the day, as I remember, Pipes gave me an article of his to read,

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South Jerusalem’s Swimsuit Issue

Mondays are women’s nights at the Jerusalem Pool, where I swim every day. From the hours of six to nine p.m., this South Jerusalem pool is closed to me simply because I’m a male. On Wednesday nights, women get the same treatment.

Daniel Pipes spends some of his no doubt precious time chronicling swimming pools in North America and Europe that have separate men’s and women’s hours. These pools have instituted separate sex hours to accommodate Muslims, where as in the case of the Jerusalem Pool, it’s to accommodate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews.

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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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Southern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently

“Ancient Jerusalem Safari” said the sign on the side of the open-sided bus. It was parked this morning in the lot at the end of the promenade that stretches from UN Hill almost to Hebron Road. The promenade is an arc of stone walkways and stairs, of lawns and landscaping with a view northward of the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock, which appear just close enough to be reachable, just far enough off to still be the double-page color illustration of the city at the end of the quest that I read about in a childhood book whose name I’ve forgotten but whose story I think I’ve remembered for a moment when I wake from a dream.

The promenade may be my favorite spot in South Jerusalem, partly because of the view and the quiet, partly because both Palestinians and Israelis spend time there. Riding my bike there on a weekday, I’ll pass Israeli joggers and women from Jebal Mukkaber in ankle-length dresses and sneakers out for their health walk. On one park bench I’ll see a young Orthodox couple, on another a young Palestinian couple – both having found a place public enough that it’s not immodest to be meeting there, private enough that they can really talk. In the morning, I usually pass several Jews praying by themselves, facing northward. In the afternoon, I’ll see a Muslim or three, kneeling toward the south. On Saturday afternoons, families from both sides of towns are picnicking and playing soccer. Whole congregations – especially ones that give women a role – come here to pray on the night of Tisha Be’av or at dawn on Shavuot instead of walking to the Western Wall, where the crowds of ultra-Orthodox brook no innovations in worship.

But on the middle days of Pesah and Sukkot, the promenade sprouts moveable police barriers and private security guards.

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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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