A friend from Newton posted this link to the shul chat list before Pesach. It’s by a couple of Chabadniks who really potchkee the lyrics, but set it to catchy music. (I always thought “Ashkenazi” had more music in it than “Sephardi”; now I’m convinced of it.) My kids and I love it. I hope you enjoy it too.
Archive for April, 2011
Last year, I committed the very great heresy of telling my father that I would discourage any of my children from attending American colleges or universities. (This from the woman with a bachelor’s and three master’s degrees from American institutions.) My reason at the time was the overtly hostile attitude toward Israel on many American university campuses, but on further reflection, it goes much deeper than that. It really spreads to the American academic culture’s attitude toward the West in general.
I don’t think it’s either realistic or necessary for everyone in academia to be pro-Israel. A country so different from America, in such an incomprehensibly hostile neighborhood, and full of such internal and external complexity, is difficult to fathom for the American mind, nurtured in safety and isolation from immediate threat. Yet those who would advocate academic boycotts against Israel overlook the fact that Israeli academic institutions, like those outside Israel, are overwhelmingly liberal in bent, and are some of the places most critical of Israel inside this country. Those who advocate an economic boycott would be loathe to part with their cellphones, instant messaging, computer chips, and life-saving medical advances (the latter of which are made available even to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, for free). And those who criticize Israel’s politics seem astonishingly forgiving of the violently racist, sexist, and human rights-violating policies of the other nations in this region which don’t draw nearly the same fire from the West as Israel.
No, it’s really more the abandonment of intellectual honesty, search for truth, and acceptance of complexity in favor of one-sidedness, double standards, and oversimplification in the service of political bias that has really gotten my goat about American academia. When I was in graduate school in English, my professor had us read the late Edward Said’s theories on “Orientalism” (basically an historically bankrupt accusation of imperialism by the West in its view of the rest of the world). I told her I failed to see how this work bore any relation to reality, much less the literary theory we were supposed to be studying. She asked if I had a text she could substitute for this one, and I said no. How could I possibly justify replacing one profoundly flawed text for another? A few months later, I sat in on a social studies class at Boston Latin school in which the teacher assigned the students an essay on capital punishment. The students were given the choice at the beginning of class of which side to take, but then the teacher launched into a 30-minute tirade about the evils of capital punishment, its racial inequality, its brutality against the innocent, and the fact that Black men are disproportionately put to death because of it. No information or perspective was provided about the views of those who support it, and by the end of the class period, there was little doubt in the students’ minds about which side they would be expected to take in their essays. And when I neared the end of my teacher training and was applying for teaching jobs, I was grilled by a very irritable English department at a local public high school not about my teaching methods, my mastery of English and American poetry, prose, and drama, how I might implement the department’s curriculum, or how to deal with a class of students of different levels of ability, but which non-Western texts I would be prepared to teach in my classroom.
Not long ago, I read a very interesting article by Bernie Reeves (“Can Niall Ferguson Save Civilization?”) about the current state of higher education in America. I was surprised at how sharply it homed in on exactly what has made me uncomfortable about so much of contemporary American educational culture. The shift from being stuffy, stodgy places where the ancients (Greek and Latin) were read, memorized, translated, and sometimes even (gulp!) critiqued, to the current climate of anti-Western, anti-classical, anti-religion, anti-American, anti-anything-that-dead-white-men-would-have-done is documented, along with the accompanying abandonment of much of what used to constitute academic rigor and discipline.
I’m not saying that the good old days (long before I was ever in college) were the gold standard by which all education should be judged. I recently read Yankee From Olympus, a delightful biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in which the author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, is positively withering in her description of Harvard College’s curriculum and teaching methods during Holmes’s era, which included rote memorization, discouraged debate, and shunned modern languages, sciences, and philosophy newer than the Romans. In contemporary education, there must be a balance between the study of where we’ve been and the possible directions we may be going. History must not hide the flaws of the past, but must focus on motivation and intention, not just misdeeds, and English must include the acquisition of skills such as close reading, vocabulary, structure and mechanics of prose and poetry, as well as a breadth of content which reflects the history, development of ideas, and experience of the English-speaking world. I think non-Western works should not be avoided altogether, but must be chosen carefully and taught in appropriate context at the high school level, and explored in greater breadth and depth at the college level to show students with (by then) a strong background in Western civilization the ways in which non-Western though and experience differ.
One example of how not to teach non-Western experience was provided by a commenter on Reeves’s article, who reported how a child came home having studied a story about a Japanese child sick from nuclear poisoning following the US bombing of Hiroshima. The teacher, it turned out, had not explained why America had dropped the bomb, or what would have happened if they had chosen not to. Such incidents sow the seeds of anti-Americanism by erasing all context for the nation’s actions and focusing instead on the oppression of the powerless (civilians, children, foreigners, people of color) by the brutal, powerful West (America, Europe, and later on, perhaps Israel). For people who teach this way (many of them, according to Reeves, 1960s campus radicals who later became college professors), history is about reading heart-rending accounts of racist atrocities, the evils of religion, the sins of the powerful against the weak, and the general revision of the way things have been taught in the past, as though everything our parents and grandparents learned were lies and whitewashes of the truth. The belief seems to be that the side of the victors (i.e. those who write history) has already been told, and it’s time to hear the other side, but the fact is that the victors’ version has been pushed aside in recent decades, and the losers’ version is all too often the only version taught. Those who teach this way seem more interested in dividing the world between good and bad, right and wrong, celebrated and vilified, than in understanding the sometimes complex truths behind what they see. After all, it’s harder to feel strongly about one side or another if it’s gray rather than black or white. It can be unsettling when things in the world don’t line up according to a binary system of good and bad. It’s s embarrassing to discover that you know less than you thought on a subject. It’s easier to discredit the side you don’t agree with than to suspend judgment pending understanding. Reeves writes,
Since the new radical doctrine was incubated in socialist realism, the first objective was to manufacture equality via a perverse affirmative action initiative by elevating underdeveloped nations to equal status with the world’s greatest cultures. It was sold as ‘multiculturalism,’ and, consistent with leftist screeds, hid behind the skirts of a noble outcome – ‘inclusiveness’ – i.e. it is good to study and respect all cultures rather than emphasis on the big achievers.
In this disguise, the real dirty work was undertaken: dismantling and de-emphasizing the achievements of the western world by dramatizing its sins in order to ‘apologize’ to the victims of imperialist exploitation and racism. To enforce the new credo on campus, the ‘politically correct’ police attacked and discredited those that dared defy the party line, labeling offenders as racist, chauvinistic, homophobic, or, of course, imperialistic. In the cloister of academic freedom, free speech was extinguished.
One need look no further than the intimidation of pro-Israel students in university classrooms, Israel Apartheid Week activities, and the booing offstage of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (himself a historian with an illustrious academic career) at UC Irvine to see the evidence for Reeves’s assessment.
It’s distressing to see so many intelligent, well-meaning people with their brains turned off. Such people are unable to view the world the way it really is, and this leads to such far-fetched beliefs as Secretary of State Clinton’s that Bashar Assad is a reformer, that Muammar Qaddafi was a reformer (in between the Lockerbie plane bombing and the current civil war in Libya, long enough to put Libya in the chair of the UN Human Rights Council), and Israel is an apartheid state. Reeves believes that “college graduates since the mid-80s are hopelessly clueless when it comes to comprehending current events . . . see themselves as the cause of society’s and the world’s problems . . . and have no information or skills to frame or interpret, even as the information society serves up instantly accessible information.” A year ago, I had an exchange with a reader following a post in which I commemorated the 90th anniversary of the San Remo Convention which established boundaries for a Jewish state to include all of what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Kingdom of Jordan. (Jordan and its British-fabricated monarchy was set aside for the Arabs at a later date, reneging on the internationally recognized San Remo agreement.) This can be found in multiple histories, and the map I posted was an accurate reflection of the outcome of the conference, but the reader couldn’t accept these facts as true 1) because the map was published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (an instrument of oppression and disinformation, it seems) and 2) the reader apparently couldn’t grasp that anyone would really offer the Jews that much territory (a fair assessment in light of Britain’s perfidy in reneging on this and all subsequent agreements with the Jews, and the world’s acceptance of Arab aggression and numerous attempts to annihilate the Jews).
I would like to think that Reeves’s article (like many on the American Thinker site) is alarmist and an overreaction. While I don’t necessarily share his belief that current anti-Western thinking in American academia is the result of Soviet-era, KGB-implemented “active measures,” my own experience—as well as what I continue to read in the press about America—seems to support his bleak prognosis. (And I’m not even counting here the kind of talkbacks one reads at the end of online articles.) It can be discouraging to someone who enters college hoping at last to gain a handle on the world and its workings to discover that it’s far more complicated and slippery than he or she had ever imagined. But what’s the alternative?
David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, never fails to impress me. His Friday columns, sometimes commentary and insight, sometimes incisive interviews, always inform, always lend perspective to the complexities of life in Israel. But last Friday’s interview with Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University who has advised the IDF and co-written its Code of Ethics, may well be the best thing he’s done yet. (While I didn’t agree with everything Kasher says, JoeSettler on the Muqata blog has a more detailed critique of Kasher which is worth reading for an alternate perspective.)
One often hears supporters of Israel boast that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. But what does it mean to be a “moral army”, and further still, the “most moral army in the world”? Horovitz and Kasher’s conversation (which took up nearly three full pages—no advertising—of the paper; it’s good to be the editor) fleshes out that claim. Here is the article link, but as it is very long, I’ll treat you to a few highlights.
A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning. To go shopping. To go to work. To go out in the evening. A routine way of life. Nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that.
At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state. Everybody.
One important distinction Kasher makes is between “innocent” civilians and “non-dangerous” civilians. In any Arab territory where Israel’s enemies dig in, there are likely to be Arab civilians who support the work of Israel’s enemies. They may willingly give over their property to the terrorists, help and sustain them, or do nothing more than agree with their methods and their goals. As long as they are not actively firing on Israel, they are considered “non-dangerous” and harming them must be avoided as much as possible. This does not make these people innocent, but it does distinguish between their intentions and their actions.
In addition to being highly conscious of the necessity to maintain human dignity and disrupt the lives of civilians as little as possible while fighting combatants in their midst, Kasher and the IDF have reevaluated their attitude toward putting Israeli soldiers in harm’s way. In the past, as in an action carried out in Jenin in 2002, where soldiers were sent into a highly dangerous situation to try to avoid civilian casualties. As a result, 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush there. Kasher looks back on that decision as a mistake, and has this to say about the new thinking regarding sending soldiers into potentially deadly situations:
But if a neighbor (a civilian living in a terrorist-infested area) doesn’t want to leave, he turns himself into the human shield of the terrorist. He has become part of the war. And I’m sorry, but I may have to harm him when I try to stop the terrorist. I’ll do my best not to. But it may be that in the absence of all other alternatives, I may hurt him. I certainly don’t see a good reason to endanger the lives of soldiers in a case like that.
Sometimes people don’t understand this. They think of soldiers as, well, instruments. They think that soldiers are there to be put into danger, that soldiers are there to take risks, that this is their world, this is their profession. But that is so far from the reality in Israel, where most of the soldiers are in the IDF because service is mandatory and reserve service is mandatory. Even with a standing army, you have to take moral considerations into account. But that is obviously the case when service is compulsory: I, the state, sent them into battle. I, the state, took them out of their homes. Instead of him going to university or going to work, I put a uniform on him, I trained him, and I dispatched him. If I am going to endanger him, I owe him a very, very good answer as to why. After all, as I said, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?
. . .
And why did we send them to that particular theoretical house we’ve been discussing? Because there were armed terrorists in it who were attacking Israel. There was no choice. But now you want to send soldiers into that house just in case, by chance, there’s still someone inside, who doesn’t want to leave. You want me to send in soldiers to pull him out? Why? Why do I owe him that? I have issued so many warnings and this man has refused to come out. I haven’t got a strong enough reason to tell that soldier he has to go in. This man has been warned five times and decided not to leave. Therefore he took the danger upon himself. After all those warnings, one has to act against the terrorists and those of his neighbors who have decided not to leave, and not endanger the lives of the soldiers.
Kasher also adds that timing plays a large role in deciding when to act to combat terrorists:
I can always ask myself, in all kinds of circumstances, maybe there’s a different way to stop this terrorist or that attack. Maybe I have more time. If there’s time, if there’s an alternative means, then that’s fine. When he was IDF chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon once said that he prevented a targeted strike at [Hamas military commander Salah] Shehadeh when his daughter was right next to him. (Shehadeh was eventually killed in a targeted strike in 2002, in which 14 other people were killed, including his wife and nine children. Then prime minister Sharon later said he would have aborted the operation had it been realized that it would cause those other fatalities.) Ya’alon evidently knew there would be another opportunity and that he could take the risk of waiting longer to strike. It wasn’t now or never.
In response to the charge of “disproportionality,” particularly surrounding Israel’s prosecution of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, he has this to say:
The world in general doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality, first of all, is not about numbers. The question of proportionality, according to international law, is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. And secondly, also according to international law, it is a consideration for the commander in the field, because only the commander in the field can make the judgment: What does he gain from what he’s about to do and what is the collateral damage he is likely to cause? With Israel, we fire and two minutes later, the UN secretary-general is already accusing us of using disproportionate force. On what basis does he make that assumption? How can he possibly know?
With flotillas forming to bring “humanitarian aid” to Gaza, an Iranian arms shipment recently intercepted in the Mediterranean, and accusations that Gaza is an “open air prison,” Kasher points out the following:
Since they are arming themselves relentlessly, via weapons-laden ships, via the tunnels, my self-defense requires those controls. I don’t want to have to depend on Iron Dome to shoot down the missile. I want the missile not to reach Gaza from Iran in the first place. So I maintain the sea blockade, which is unquestionably legitimate according to all the laws of war at sea, to prevent them from bringing in the weaponry. And the same goes for the land crossings. We don’t allow free access, because it is likely to endanger us.
We have “effective control” at the borders – on what goes in and out. But we don’t have effective control inside. Hamas is the de facto government of Gaza; Hamas has effective control there. And therefore Hamas is responsible for the fact that there are terrorists mixed in with their non-dangerous neighbors. They carry the responsibility for that.
International law is constantly invoked against Israel, which is accused of violating it every time it takes measures to protect its citizens from the threats of terrorism (despite the fact that at security conferences on targeted killings and other military matters, no country’s representatives have disagreed with Kasher’s views, including the Red Cross). Kasher explains how the current landscape of warfare diverges from the assumptions behind international law:
International law was created … amid assumptions that war was a case of army against army. Uniformed forces. Civilians at the side. In those circumstances, what’s accepted internationally is acceptable to us. By and large people respect this. These are laws that apply to classic war situations.
But now, when we are in a war with organizations, not states, all the assumptions collapse. Why are states signed up to international treaties? For reasons of political prudence, not high morality: If I don’t harm his civilians, he won’t harm my civilians, and we’ll both benefit. If I won’t kill his prisoners, he won’t kill my prisoners; I won’t fire chemical weapons at him, and he won’t fire chemical weapons at me. It’s all reciprocity.
But now, in our situations, there is no reciprocity. Israel is always trying to minimize the collateral damage it causes its enemies, and its enemies are always trying to maximize the damage – not collateral; they are really aiming for the citizens.
This takes us back to where this interview started: It doesn’t mean Israel will now act in the way its enemies do. But you see now that Israel has to act according to its interests and its standards, and not according to some kind of picture that is common to Israeli and its enemies. This whole notion of reciprocity has disappeared.
The powers that be outside Israel are always urging Israel to take “risks for peace,” to exchange land for a promise of a change in behavior (usually with a despotic, corrupt, non-representative government acting without a popular mandate which can easily be overthrown, as we saw recently with Egypt), and to trust Israel’s security to apathetic parties like UNIFIL in Lebanon, which has done nothing to protect Israel’s security as Hizbullah has carried out terror attacks and steadily rearmed itself in Southern Lebanon. Kasher’s views on Israel’s need to defend itself, despite all this urging to risk our security is in the following statement:
I was born here and my parents came here long before World War II. I didn’t go through the Holocaust. My wife did. My wife is a survivor. What lesson do I learn from World War II? That we cannot rely on anybody else. That when it’s time to protect ourselves, there’s no one else we can rely on. And we have no exemption, ever, from thinking about how best to protect ourselves. And if the enemy puts children on all the roofs of the buildings from which it fires on us, we will not capitulate to them. It’s a tragic situation, but we won’t capitulate.
There is much more to this article than I’ve excerpted here, and for those wishing to educate themselves on the way war is being prosecuted against terrorist, non-national entities, on the IDF, its decision-making and its operations, and on the ethics involved in current conflicts, this is the best thing I’ve come across ever.
Refael Daniel Aryeh ben Tamar, the 16 year old Beit Shemesh boy critically injured in the recent missile attack on a school bus by Gaza terrorists, succumbed to his injuries and passed away yesterday.
In slightly better news (but only slightly), the exhaustive joint Shin Bet, IDF, and police investigation into the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar last month at last turned up two teenage vermin from the Arab village of Awarta. The unrepentant teens, spawn of families with terrorist histories and rap-sheets, said they hoped to die martyrs, but they have it backwards; the Fogels died martyrs, and they will simply enjoy the good life in Israeli prison with the rest of their ilk who have been caught.
However, I would like to make an offer to any other would-be martyr: Come to my house, and I’ll be glad to help you die. For free.
I don’t like going into the seder thinking more about Amalek than Yitziat Mitzrayim, but one did eventually lead to the other, and as Rav Binny Freedman said in his parasha shiur last Shabbat, the Exodus is not the end; it’s only the beginning.
Seven-year-old Peach’s new favorite CD is the Cap’n’s recording of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” From my perspective, it’s not the most brilliant or textured collaboration of Lloyd-Webber and Rice, but it has some clever lyrics and does some great stuff musically (like have Reuben tell Jacob about Joseph’s “death” in a country-western song, and have Pharaoh’s song about his dreams be in the style of Elvis who, the Cap’n reminded me, was nicknamed “The King”).
Peach helped me clean the kitchen on Friday and we listened to the soundtrack twice through. I asked her a few questions about the story to get the facts straight (she could answer them all), and at the end, I observed how devastating it must have been for Jacob to think his son was dead for years, and only be reunited with him shortly before his own death. Peach agreed that that may have been the case but said, “But the brothers saved the Jewish people when they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.” How? I asked. “Well, the Ishmaelites took Joseph down to Egypt and sold him into slavery. Later on, he told Pharaoh what his dreams meant, and told Pharaoh to save up food for seven years. That saved everyone from starving, including Joseph’s family when they went to Egypt because there was no food in Canaan. If Joseph had stayed home with his family, no one would have told Pharaoh to save up food, and everyone would have died.” From the mouths of babes (and Torah-educated babes, no less) . . .
Now I’ve just got to ask her why the Jews had to be slaves in Egypt.
One of the great sources of chizuk (strength) I have found in my life as a converted Orthodox Jew has been meeting other families where one or both partners are converts to Judaism. Sometimes they have a Jewish father, like I have, and sometimes they traveled the long and winding road to Judaism without the beacon of their own heritage to guide them.
A friend of ours recently wrote a piece for The Jewish Week entitled “Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family,” addressing interfaith marriage from the vantage point of someone who, with his non-Jewish wife, made the journey from an interfaith marriage to a marriage in which both partners are now Jewish, living traditional Jewish lives (in Israel) and rearing their children as fully identified Jews. The jumping-off point of the article is the new interfaith haggaddah being promoted by high-profile intermarried couple John and Cokie Roberts (Cokie of National Public Radio fame), and their promotion of intermarriage as “the new normal.” Our friend Harold Berman’s piece, which makes important points about what kind of Judaism is being offered to interfaith couples and the fact that interfaith marriages don’t always end up where they begin, especially when children come along, takes issue with the Roberts’ version of Judaism as a way of life that coexists naturally alongside other faiths in the same household.
When the piece was published, Harold contacted me and provided the link to the Jewish Week‘s page posting his article, but also gave me the “uncut” version, which contained a few points he’d wanted to make but which didn’t make the final edit for publication. Here was a deleted portion that I found particularly meaningful:
Several years ago, before my wife became Jewish, she taught music to a Harvard undergraduate who had grown up in an interfaith family. One day, as they were talking about her background, the student said wistfully, “It would just be nice to know who I am, to have a clear religious identity.” Not every interfaith child feels this way. But as a community, we should have the confidence that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.
The times are changing, but not in the way many people think. Orthodox synagogues are burgeoning. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who grew up with little Jewish background have transformed themselves into observant Jews, as have increasing numbers of non-Jews. Intermarried-to-Orthodox families like mine are becoming more and more common, and can be found in virtually any Orthodox synagogue, and among our neighbors in Israel where we live.
And increasing numbers of intermarried families are searching for a substantive Judaism they don’t always find in their temples and JCCs. Just go into any Chabad and you will see them. It’s time for us, as a Jewish community, to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.
I felt through much of my childhood and young adulthood the same way that Harvard undergraduate felt, uncertain of my religious identity. At the age of nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, they scoffed and said, “You’d hate it. They’re not allowed to do anything. You wouldn’t last a week.” I never spoke of it again, but I continued to think about it, and when I eventually decided to take the plunge and convert, my parents were surprised, but I wasn’t. It was what I’d always wanted to be. The interfaith household in which I grew up, which was never truly committed to either Judaism or Christianity, wasn’t enough for me. I needed more, went out, and found it.
Harold’s point that while there is a strong trend toward assimilation in America, there is also a movement of secular Jews and interfaith couples toward more traditional Jewish practice, is an important one. Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has noted that in interfaith relationships, the Jewish partners (especially male partners) tend to downplay the importance of their Jewish faith for fear of offending or pressuring their non-Jewish partners, giving rise to a belief by the non-Jewish partner that Judaism is less important to their partner than their own religion is to them. By taking Judaism seriously, delving into its wisdom, practice, and ritual, families searching for meaning gain a greater appreciation of Judaism’s profound substance, rather than the notion among many non-religious Jews that since Judaism is part of the foundation on which democracy is based, it is nothing more than American liberalism.
I agree with Harold that it is essential that Jews of all stripes welcome interfaith couples into their midst. By showing interfaith couples that Jews are a people rather than a band of “a few good men,” traditional Jews have the opportunity to provide a window on how Judaism is lived day-to-day, and offers as much learning, meaning, history, community, and spiritual connection to the Divine as anyone could need. My acceptance by Reform Judaism allowed me to enter the Jewish world from non-halachic, secular Judaism, and the welcome I received by Orthodox Jews in Israel, and later in Newton, Massachusetts, was what allowed me to find my resting place at last. Not everyone will necessarily gravitate toward Modern Orthodoxy as I did, but knowing that the world of tradition is fulfilling, accessible and welcoming may help other families not content to negotiate their identities to find one they can all share.
The 16 year old boy critically injured in last week’s anti-tank missile attack on a school bus in Israel (the son of the lovely people who owned the Chinese restaurant in Beit Shemesh where we used to eat) is fighting for his life in Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva. Please pray for Refael Daniel Aryeh ben Tamar. (The Refael was added to his name as a result of this life-threatening injury. May he be granted a refuah shleima.)