Passacaglia — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

A hand passed before my face and I jerked out of my reverie. A cool, almost chilly breeze was blowing from Bethlehem. The muffled sound of the wedding band, playing Levantine-tinged pop settings of verses from the Song of Songs and Jeremiah, filtered through the glass doors, blaring for a few seconds when a child ran in or out.

illustration by Avi Katz

The face to which the hand was connected belonged to Vardit, the bride’s best friend. Unlike the Aviya, whose demure pearl-white dress reached to the floor and had sleeves below the elbow, Vardit was sleeveless and in red. Her arms and face glowed from dancing.

“Bored?” she asked.

I removed the buds from my ears. “I needed a break,” I said.

“I needed some air.” She removed a pack of cigarettes from a small macramé bag she had slung over her shoulder and jokingly offered me one. I leaned back against a marble-faced pillar and surveyed the Judean hills. On this hill in southern Jerusalem you can see the Dead Sea on a clear day. At night, the hills to the southeast are mostly dark shadows, but most of the panorama is alive with the lights of Arab cities and Jewish neighborhoods.

“You look a little sad,” she said.

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God — Why Bother?

Haim Watzman

I’m not partial to faith healing and miracle stories. I like to keep my feet on the ground when talking about God. And so does my good friend Anne Hodges-Copple, who serves as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina.

So I was a little surprised when she sent me a recent sermon that centers on what looks ostensibly like a simple story of faith and healing. It happened recently when Anne went on a church mission to Belize, in central America.

Late one night, only about ten days ago, twenty-year-old Rachel woke up in her one room house on the outermost edge of San Mateo, Belize. Her husband and two young sons were still asleep. She looked over the swamp outside the window of the tiny box of a house she and her husband had built from discarded wood planks and scrap metal. Like other rather ramshackle dwellings nearby, her house was built on piles that rose above the soft ground created by filling in the lagoon with a dubious combination of sand and trash. San Mateo was created away from any land that could be valuable to developers and to keep poor workers and their families out of the sight of the thriving tourist industry of San Pedro. Despite the beautiful multi-hued turquoise waters of the Caribbean that surrounds Ambergris Cay, Rachel and her neighbors were surrounded by brackish water, and a ground so lacking in nutrients that the hardiest shrub had a difficult go of it.

Rachel awoke because she sensed something was wrong. As she told the social worker at Holy Cross Anglican School later that day, she felt something invisible move across the swamp and into her home. She felt something dark and sinister blow into the house. She closed the board door across the window. Shortly thereafter her youngest child, three year old Ronan, woke up crying. He called out in a terrified voice that crabs were eating him. Candles were lit and the child examined by worried parents. They could find no evidence of any bites. They could find no physical source of the child’s continued cries. They tried to soothe him, but he remained listless and distressed. Rachel feared that evil spirits had come into her house perhaps, upon her child.

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Serious Pluralism, Serious Judaism, Serious Democracy: Aryeh Geiger z”l

Haim Watzman South Jerusalem lost another of its pillars this week. Aryeh Geiger, a religious educator for whom the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin signaled the need for a complete revision of religious education in Jerusalem, passed away this week after a four-year battle with cancer. I, and my daughter Misgav, were among the many hundreds … Read more

Science and Religion and the Mufti and Me

Haim Watzman Readers interested in the science (specifically evolution) and religion debate might be interested in the exchange I’ve been participating in with the Grand Mufti and others over on Jewlicious. The GM defines the problem well, and I’ve tried to help him dispel some misconceptions. The gist is that it’s an error to say … Read more

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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Owning Jerusalem: Identity and Borders in the Holy City

Haim Watzman

I recall a gathering of journalists once many years ago at which a well-meaning but clueless intern told me that she worked in “Jerusalem, Israel” and then quickly corrected herself: “I meant just Jerusalem. I believe it should be an international city.”

In response to my Jerusalem Day post earlier this week, DanH asks a related question:

It has always seemed to me that, given the claims of both sides, the only long-term solution for Jerusalem is joint or autonomous administration, not just of the holy places, but of the whole city.

To idealists, and to some overwhelmed by the intractability of the Jerusalem problem, internationalization and joint Israeli-Palestinian rule over the Holy City sound like wonderful solutions. But, quite aside from the practical problems (recall Danzig, recall Trieste), they are wrong in principle.

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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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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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