Wednesday, November 14, 2018

GAZA: You call these options?

1. Israeli Pyrrhic victory – winning means you get to keep Gaza

2. Ousting Hamas on behalf of the PLO/Fatah/Palestinian Authority and then turning over Strip to these morally bankrupt and corrupt and thugs. This approach would also unite the two Palestinian Arab entities without any recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland (anywhere) in Palestine

3. Status quo – keeping in mind Hamas does not want the Strip to be refurbished or economically viable - it wants things more or less where they are

4. UN Trusteeship for Palestine – but this would require tremendous international leadership and an admission that the Palestinians Arabs are far from ready for independence. Aint gonna happen

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Looking at US elections from Zionist viewpoint - Snap Judgement

Here is what I ask:

What kind of Democrats won?

What kind of Republicans won?

My "pro-Israel" yardstick:

1. Against pushing Israel back to the 1949 Armistice Lines

2. Against flirtation with Hamas, Fatah or BDS (the rebranded long-standing Arab boycott of Israel)

That’s it.

Criticism of Israeli policies is fair game. Especially if it is informed and contextualized.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


With just the right amount of razzle-dazzle, Martin Goodman takes us through the origins of Judaism and how we got to where we are today.

Covenant: God, people and land

A History of Judaism
Martin Goodman
Princeton University Press
656 pages; $39.95

Here we are in season 3,517 (give or take) of “Jewish History – The Saga” and it is time to recap. That is because every generation needs its historians to put the story in fresh perspective. As English historian E.H. Carr argued, the facts do not speak for themselves. 
Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism is not, strictly speaking, a history of the Jewish people but more of their religion — or as I prefer to think of it, their civilization. There is an overlap, but they are not the same. While Goodman covers the calamities and heartbreaks of Jewish life — endemic internecine divisions, expulsions, Christian teachings of contempt, ghettoization, inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust, and Islam’s rejection of a national home for the Jewish people anywhere in Dar al-Islam — he does not dwell on them. His primary focus, as the title implies, is on developments within Judaism. 

For Goodman, there can be no Judaism without the covenant, and his history grapples with how Jewish civilization has interpreted the covenant over time. Judaism has never been static, yet it has a core. He writes: “At root, certain religious ideas percolate through the history of Judaism and render contemporary notions such as Secular Judaism, an affiliation divorced from any belief in God, problematic.” This claim reminds me of how the eminent psychologist Carl Jung put it: “Bidden or not bidden God is Present.” For Goodman, the covenant binds God “specifically to the Jewish people and lays special duties on them in return.” For me, the covenant is broader: the contractual relationship between the God of Israel, the people of Israel, and the land of Israel. It is a triad that expresses the foundational myth of Judaism. 

Goodman’s book appears just months after the publication of volume two of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews. Schama is a masterful storyteller. He knows a great deal about a great deal. His readers mostly don’t mind when he goes off on a tangent because the ride is so vivid. Who cares if Schama takes a few flamboyant liberties in his combined history of the Jews and of Judaism? But ask me which book I would recommend for anyone who wants a clear, skillfully synthesized one-volume work and I would refer them to Goodman’s. With just the right amount of razzle-dazzle, he takes us through the origins of Judaism, explains the evolution of its creed, the far-reaching influence of Rabbinic Judaism, the challenges of modernity and the many, many schisms along the way. 

There is no official starting point to Jewish history. Schama begins around 475 BCE in Egypt in order to trace the origins of Jewish identity. Heinrich Graetz, the 19th-century historian, begins his multi-volume history of the Jewish people just as the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. Max Margolis and Alexander Marx commence their 1927 A History of the Jewish People in Mesopotamia at the Euphrates. For Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews it is Hebron: “This is where the 4,000-year history of the Jews, in so far as it can be anchored in time and place, began.” Berel Wein in Echoes of Glory goes back to 400 BCE and the rise of Persia to set the stage for his description of the rebuilding of the Second Temple.   

Goodman, who is president of the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at (but autonomous from) Oxford, begins A History of Judaism in the first century CE with Flavius Josephus, born Yosef ben Matityahu — and the best source, he says, for insight into how the Jews understood their sacred history. Not that he takes everything Josephus writes at face value. “What really happened matters much less than what Jews believed had happened,” he argues. He does not dismiss sacred history as fabricated. However, he thinks some biblical narratives were “manipulated by later generations to teach moral lessons to their contemporaries.” 

History gives us the chance to take the long view. “It is an error to imagine that Jewish identity was secure and unproblematic before the complexities of the modern world,” writes Goodman. During the First Temple period, they even quarreled about centralizing the cult of sacrifice in Jerusalem (one would have thought that the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem would have settled the matter). 

A Shabbat prayer reads: “Turn us to thee, O Lord, and let us return; renew our days as of old.” However, the days of old were not all they were cracked up to be. Solomon’s kingdom splintered after his death (928 BCE), Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE (hence the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel), Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon overwhelmed Judea in 586 BCE, and the Ark of the Covenant disappeared from history. When Persia defeated Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and, under Ezra (458 BCE), to rebuild their temple (c. 515). Many preferred to stay put by the Rivers of Babylon. Still, writes Goodman, the Jews of the Diaspora “shared a concern for the welfare of the Jerusalem Temple and its cult” even while they felt free to develop local forms of piety.

Within this chronological map, A History of Judaism also serves as a primer to Jewish practice and ritual. Goodman weaves in, and contextualizes, the Jewish holidays. The Purim story is set during the early Second Temple period (perhaps 357 BCE), Hanukkah around 164 BCE. Festivals we observe today have their origins in ancient pilgrimages. “Three times a year, on the great festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles), the Temple was transformed by the arrival of great crowds of pilgrim,” Goodman writes.

On the political front, the Jews squandered their political capital and became a Roman curatorship (in 6 CE). A rebellion (beginning in 66 CE) — its reasons still debated — led Rome to take Jerusalem in 70 CE, destroy the temple and exile the Jews. But wait. Goodman throws in this fascinating nugget: “Josephus claimed, probably correctly, that Titus would have preferred not to destroy the Temple, but once the building had been set alight in the dry August heat of Jerusalem, it was impossible to save.” The destruction was unintended: “In the chaos of the siege a fire started by a lighted brand flung into the sanctuary by a Roman soldier spread rapidly out of control and attempts by Titus to save the building were in vain.” 

Theology (what we believe), what we think we know (based on secular learning), and how we practice the Jewish religion are not necessarily in sync. I always wonder if those who identify as “Orthodox” realize that Orthodox doctrine holds that God literally revealed the Torah on Mount Sinai and that the Talmud was (at the very least) divinely inspired. Modern Orthodoxy provides no wiggle room on the principle that the Torah is from heaven. To be Modern Orthodox means mostly a willingness to engage with the world, in contrast to being Haredi and seeking insularity.

Although Goodman describes himself as observant, I am guessing he might consider himself post-denominational. He describes Judaism as a religion “rooted in historical memory, real or imagined.” The biblical books “were composed by many different authors” with different motivations “over a long period and it would be naïve to expect a consistent theology.” The takeaway message for me is the idea that while our rituals, practices, prayers, and way of living Jewishly were not set out at Sinai, but rather evolved over thousands of years, this does not diminish their sanctity. 

For those who believe that Judaism is the best course of life (for Jews, anyway), it is partly because sages such as Shimshon Raphael Hirsch taught that decency and respect for the other is paramount (Derech Eretz Kadma L'Torah). “Six of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai relate to human behavior in relation not to God but to other humans,” Goodman tells us. You want social justice? Judaism demands that when harvesting grain, the owner of a field should leave what’s in the corners for the poor. Among the ancient civilizations, only Judaism “forbids the taking of interest.” Slavery based on race as practiced in the New World was emphatically alien to the ethos of Judaism. Those who wrote the sacred texts wanted us to aspire to menschlichkeit.

Can today’s progressive and traditionalist Jews show menschlichkeit toward each other? It seems that streams in Judaism coexisted during the Second Temple era. Pharisees emphasized an oral tradition and introduced, probably under Greek influence, the idea of reward and punishment of souls in an afterlife. The probably more marginal Sadducees rejected the legitimacy of non-written traditions and believed that God did not directly intercede in human events. These camps shared space in the Temple, Goodman writes. Josephus probably offered a skewed view of the Sadducee in order to make them seem like pure biblical literalists, posits Goodman. A third (by no means final) doctrinal camp was the Essenes: ascetic, monkish, believers in the resurrection, communist-like in their lifestyle, obsessed with the scatological, anti-slavery and misogynist. Go figure. 

With the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism enters a new phase. Synagogues take on new importance though they had been a feature of village life in Eretz Israel as well as in the diaspora already during the Second Temple period. The Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Babylonian Talmud (completed around the sixth century) set the stage. Goodman posits that the “rabbis in six century Mesopotamia were well aware of the extent to which the Judaism they practiced and taught had evolved from the scriptures they believed had been handed down from Moses.” Creating a diaspora-friendly Judaism required reimagining or inventing some festivals. Shavuot becomes a celebration of the giving of the Torah. Simhat Torah comes along to celebrate the completion of the Torah-reading cycle. The Talmud reframed the message of Hanukkah from one of nationalism to the supernatural — a day’s supply of pure olive in the rededicated Temple burned for eight days. 

Judaism like any creed has parameters, but no one can credibly claim that their particular stream is authentic or the original. Prayers evolve or are injected with new meaning, Goodman shows. For instance, by the high Middle Ages Kaddish took on an additional role as a memorial prayer for the dead. Rabbinic scholars developed halacha citing the Talmud, itself a compendium which dates back to the Babylonian Exile and codified only circa 500 CE. Responsa (questions and answers) continues to evolve and contend with legal (Halachic) issues in daily life. 

Goodman walks us through a host of seminal books and authors putting each into context. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki or Rashi (whose day job was in viticulture) wrote commentaries that elucidated biblical and Talmudic texts. Maimonides (day job: physician) provided an accessible citation-free Mishneh Torah, guidelines for how to study, pray, repent — have sex even. Thanks to the printing press — the social media of the late Middle Ages — Rashi’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses practically went viral after 1475, and the Talmud became widely disseminated after 1523. Goodman points out that “The printing of halakhot began to spread norms and expectations far beyond any specific locality” so that by the 1500s Jewish law was “codified as never before.” 

Religions have defining garb and fashions. If you define yourself by the style of your kippa, then consider that only in the 13th century did Jewish men begin covering their heads in the synagogue. A contemporary trend among some Orthodox is to wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) that dangle outside their trousers below the knee. 

Schism is intrinsic to Judaism. The Karaites of the 9th century CE rejected the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. Sabbetai Zevi in the 17th century and Jacob Frank in the 18th century were charismatic figures who claimed to be messiahs and left the Jewish world traumatized once they were exposed as charlatans. Kabbalah, mysticism and the Book of Zohar (redacted in the late 1200s) presented innovative spiritual opportunities but also theological risks. 

Among those who popularized what had been esoteric Kabbalah were the Hasidim. When Hassidism first appeared, it was vehemently opposed by the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) and the rabbinic mainstream who became “Mitnagdim” (opponents) partly out of fear that some Hassidic rebbe would go down the path of Sabbetai Zevi. In the late 1770s, Mitnagdim might excommunicate Hasidim. Today Hassidim and Mitnagdim get along better. In Israel, they campaign for the Knesset under the same United Torah Judaism banner. Why? Think about Tom Lehrer’s satiric lyrics: “Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Moslems and everybody hates the Jews!” In the same vein, the Hassidim may “hate” the Mitnagdim but everybody hates the Reform, a catchall phrase among the insular ultra-Orthodox for progressive Judaism of any stripe.

With 18th-century enlightenment and later political emancipation, Jews could, in theory, become equal citizens of the Jewish faith or jettison their identity altogether. How one might both blend in and be Jewish sometimes engendered radical experimentation — hence the Reform movement which evolved first in Germany and then in the US. Reform’s revolutionary schemes included discarding Hebrew, kashrut, and Shabbat. When the extreme was reached the reverse set in. In the United States, by 1937 the sociology and demography of the Jews in the pews demanded a more middle-of-the-road Reform Judaism, Goodman explains. Both Orthodoxy and Reform disapproved of political Zionism yet both streams contributed leading Zionist personages. 

The Conservative movement sought to steer a middle way and left “open even central issues about the notion of revelation and observance of halakhah,” writes Goodman. The movement, he notes, is presently in crisis. Those in the middle of the road get hit by cars coming from both directions. 

Progressive Judaism has never taken off in Israel where many Israelis are non-practicing Orthodox and often shockingly religiously illiterate. Israel’s political system has spawned the institution of the chief rabbinate, nowadays in the firm control of the ultra-Orthodox. The rabbinate is responsible for marriage, divorce and conversion (and has narrowly defined “who is a Jew”). 

Paradoxically, the ultra-Orthodox establishment operates a parallel, more insular “Eida Chareidis” which regards state rabbis as slackers. Money is no problem for the Eida Chareidis since numerous kosher products, from milk to mineral water, require the imprimatur of both the state rabbinate and the Eida for sale in kosher supermarkets. Money being fungible, Eida cash runs into the coffers of the Peleg Yerushalmi sect which violently opposes not merely service in the Israel Defense Forces but statutes that require Haredim to register at the draft office to receive a routine deferment.

One of the dubious innovations of the Haredi world, as Goodman shows, is the idea propagated by the Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) that “that which is new is forbidden according to the Torah” making virtually any innovation strictly forbidden. Haredim give paramount authority to Joseph Karo’s 1565 Shulhan Arukh or Code of Jewish Law and its 1864 abridged version. Those who profess to live in strict adherence to rules laid down over 1,300 years ago or their hardline incarnations necessarily part ways with Jews who might refer to the Shulhan Arukh as one of many sources in deciding how to live an observant lifestyle in the 21st century. 

Zeal has its limits and many Haredim have workarounds and dispensations to access the gadgets and paraphernalia necessary for modern living.   

Goodman wants to end on a positive note so posits that “Rabbinic literature is replete with stories of rabbis who agreed to disagree.” However, he is also realistic and leaves the reader with an open question: “Will the violence which in recent decades has begun to characterize religious disputes between Jews, especially in the State of Israel, escalate, or will it subside as it has so often over the past 2,000 years into a grudging acceptance of difference?” 

Stay tuned.


(c) copyright asserted by Elliot Jager 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Israel faces military and security challenges

Expert available to meet with VIP individuals, couples, families or delegations

To complement the work of certified tour guides and help visitors make sense of Israel’s political system & political culture.

For those who might benefit from a fair-minded wide-angle briefing covering the country’s internal divisions and external regional dilemmas

To enhance and deepen understanding of Israel by going beyond the 24/7 news cycle. 
Especially suitable for return visitors who have seen the sites and are ready for a deeper look at Israel’s polity.

Dr. Elliot Jager now a Jerusalem-based journalist and non-fiction manuscript editor was a New York University political science lecturer from 1988 to 1997

An experienced presenter, he is a past editorial page editor at The Jerusalem Post (where he worked for 11 years), former Jewish world editor at The Jerusalem Report, was founding managing editor of Jewish Ideas Daily (Mosaic) and a former night editor at Newsmax

His 2017 book, The Balfour Declaration Sixty-Seven Words – 100 Years of Conflict told the story of what is, arguably, the most crucial political letter of the 20th century and why it still matters. 

Elliot will customize his 60 to 90-minute briefing to suit interests and schedules. He can meet you, your guest or client over breakfast before they start their day of touring or when they are back at their hotel or at his Jerusalem office. 

Fee: NIS 1,200 (+ VAT if applicable)     

SMS or WhatsApp:  972 50 205 2604   

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