The Book of Naomi?

Haim Watzman

Mrs. Bond, my twelfth-grade English teacher, launched our class discussion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by asking whether we thought that the play had been misnamed. I’m sure that Mrs. Bond was one of many teachers who have used that same question to get student readers to think about the structure of that play. It’s a question that highlights the difference between a story’s pivotal figure—the one around whom the action revolves—and the protagonist—the whom the story is about.

The Book of Ruth, read in Ashkenazi Jewish synagogues on Shavu’ot morning, is often characterized as a biblical novel. Unlike the more convoluted and ostensibly historical narratives of the books of Joshua through Kings, Ruth is carefully structured and gives the impression of being an integral work written with authorial intent, rather than a patchwork of early sources reworked and reworked again by series of editors, each with his own agenda. But what sort of novel is it, and is it properly named?

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Appraising God: Reading Psalm 146

Haim Watzman

A preview of a conversation I’ll be leading at an all-night Shavu’ot study session this evening—happy holiday to all.

Ostensibly simple, theologically maddening, Psalm 146 is one of my favorite biblical poems—precisely, perhaps, because its ostensible simplicity is so maddening. And since it gets recited each day in the morning service, where it appears just after “Ashrei” and as the beginning of the hymns of praise that precede the prayer service proper, it’s hard to avoid.

The problem at the heart of this poem, and its daily recitation, is that it isn’t true. But before I get to that, let’s look at the structure.

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Mendelssohn And Monotheism–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

mendelssohn-symphonies-abbadoHazily, I notice that the kid working on his biceps is staring at me, and I suddenly realize that my mouth is hanging open and that my eyes are gaping. He’s in the gym, but I’m having a revelation on the shore of the Red Sea, thanks to the son of a Jewish apostate. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his fourth symphony with Italy in mind, but here, on the stationary bike at the Jerusalem pool, I’ve discovered the truth. It’s not about Rome – it’s about Jerusalem.
Revelation seemed distant, even impossible when, just a few minutes ago, I slouched in here like the beast of the apocalypse. At the beginning of May, the elation of liberation from Egypt has long since dissipated. I’m back in my routine – hours in front of the computer, and the usual, unremitting worries about my money, my children, my country, and my planet. From the high roof of Pesah I’ve plunged into the deep pit of the monotonous count of the Omer. The wilderness has literally enveloped Jerusalem on this sweltering, gritty sharav day, the air full of minute dull yellow grains of sand blown up from the vast deserts to the south.
So I was out of sorts when I climbed on the exercise bike for a ride to nowhere. Before me was half an hour that loomed like an eternity to be spent spinning like Ixion on his wheel. No doubt this is how the Children of Israel felt three and a half weeks after the Exodus, trudging through the desert, dusty and thirsty. I am reminded of the midrash that asks why God didn’t give them the Torah immediately after they left Egypt. They were worthy of it, said R. Yitzhak, but they were grimy with mortar and brick-dust. How could they receive the word of God? So they walked and walked and walked and it all looked like the same dreary place.

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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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