In Exile, at Home — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might have come from a second-hand shop and a dusty black kipah. He stroked his short beard as he walked up and down the rows of graves as the ox plows, stopping for a few beats at each to read the headstone. In the row in front of me he had to detour around t-shirt and shorts-clad twenty-somethings from a Birthright group, listening to a guide I couldn’t hear. Finally he arrived at the last full row, the one where I sat, with the lawn in front of it waiting for new tragedies.

He nodded at me, hugging himself. I nodded back. After a moment of hesitation he spoke.

“It’s cold here in Jerusalem,” he said

I shrugged. “Here we’re used to the seasons starting to change the week before Rosh Hashannah. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?”

“Tiberias,” he said. “Also Sura.”

I looked at him quizzically. “You mean the one just west of the Euphrates?”

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Advice to Dissent

Haim Watzman

Israelis often wail that the country lacks unity. But when most Israelis say “We need more unity,” what they really mean is “More people should agree with me.” Dissent can be a pain, but it’s essential—as is recognized by the Sages of the Talmud in the Horayot Tractate (4b). The Beit Midrash run for the last two years by Kehilat Yedidya last week finished its study of this tractate with just this insight.

Horayot deals with the issue of what happens when a court—a rabbinic court, which served as the chief legislative and moral authority of Jewish communities in Talmudic times—makes a ruling mistakenly. To do this, it reads Torah passages in Leviticus 4 and Numbers 16. These passages deal with a sacrifice called the korban shogeg, to be offered by a person or group of people who has violated a Torah precept without intention. While the Sages of the Talmud lived long after the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial service ceased, they continue to use this language. Assignment of responsibility for the error is designated by the assignment of the requirement to bring this sacrifice.

The question is: if a court makes a ruling that violates the Torah, does the ultimate responsibility fall on the court, or on the individual who obeyed the court’s instruction?

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Half-Rejoicing with Jerusalem

Haim Watzman

“Rejoice with Jerusalem,” says the prophet Isaiah. Recall its destruction whenever you celebrate, says the Psalmist. In two months time we’ll mourn its destruction with the fast of the Ninth of Av; today is Jerusalem Day, Israel’s celebration of its capital city. Both ancient texts and modern realities force us to conceive of the Holy City with the ambiguity of joy and sorrow and the complexities of war and peace.

If you’re a religious Jew, Jerusalem is not just another city. If you are an Israeli, you can’t not share the elation of that day in June 1967 when the Old City, blocked to Jews for 19 years, became accessible again. If you live in Jerusalem today, with your eyes open, you can’t help but see how disunited the city is, its Arab neighborhoods alien and invisible to its Jewish inhabitants.

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