Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour

The forgotten story of the arrogant, overbearing egotist who, with one speech, united the American Jewish community behind the Zionist idea and helped secure the Jewish future
Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver speaks at the 1948 Republican Convention. Photo by Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
 
Observation
Allan Arkush
Dec. 11 2013 10:38PM

Dateline: Washington, March 1948

A scant two months before Israel’s declaration of independence, it seemed the U.S. might retreat from supporting the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states. American Zionist leaders were desperate to reach President Truman, who refused to meet with them. So they turned to Eddie Jacobson, the president’s old business partner from Missouri, for whom the door to the Oval Office was always open. But, despite Jacobson’s plea that the president meet with Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, Truman wouldn’t budge. Then his friend tried a final ploy:

I happened to rest my eyes on a beautiful model of a statue of Andrew Jackson. . . . I then found myself saying to the President, almost word for word: “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. . . . Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. . . . I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.”

Truman kept silent for a bit, then looked Jacobson straight in the eye and grumbled: “You win, you bald-headed sonuvabitch, I will see him.”

The President’s session with Weizmann proved immensely important, effectively halting the opponents of Jewish statehood. And Jacobson remains to this day something of a folk-hero for many American Jews—despite the fact that Weizmann wasn’t really his hero (he later admitted that what he told Truman was a spur-of-the-moment fabrication). But if American Jews are in search of a true Zionist hero, a champion who deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated, they need only look to Abba Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi and Zionist leader who is today all but forgotten.

 

Silver’s life story—he was born in 1893 and died 50 years ago this past Thanksgiving—doesn’t fit neatly into the familiar picture of American Jewish history. Serving for decades as the rabbi of “The Temple,” a prestigious Reform congregation in Cleveland that observed the Sabbath on Sunday, he was not descended from old-line German-Jewish stock, as would befit the occupant of such a post, but a Lithuanian-born immigrant. Only fifteen years before being hired at The Temple, he was living on New York’s Lower East Side as a nine-year-old boy sporting sidecurls and speaking Yiddish. And yet he became an exceptionally successful congregational rabbi as well as a very reputable scholar.

Even more atypically, Silver was not someone whose greatness was evident at first glance—or at first hearing. To watch him in a video documentary or in one of the brief clips that have made their way onto YouTube is not necessarily to admire him. He seems stiff, artificial, almost preposterously pompous. One isn’t surprised to learn from his biographer, Marc Lee Raphael, that some people “found him arrogant, overbearing, domineering, egotistical, contemptuous, and an enemy of anyone who dared oppose him or one of his ideas.” His most readily available piece of writing, a speech delivered in August 1943 and reprinted in Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, may seem, on a quick reading, rather run of the mill.

In fact, it was anything but. As we shall see, this same speech, perhaps Silver’s single most powerful, most consequential, and most immediately effective act of public persuasion, exemplifies to a high degree the indisputable greatness of the man.

Today, in the aftermath of innumerable attacks on the American Jews for their failure to come to the aid of their European brethren during the Holocaust, it is easy to picture the community of that time as downright indifferent to the Jewish fate. And indeed many Jews, understandably fixated on America’s role in the wider war, may have preferred to remain ignorant or in denial of the specifically Jewish catastrophe. But by no means all: by 1943, activists in the Jewish community were acutely aware of the devastation that was taking place in Europe and wracked by their own inability to stop it.

This was particularly true of America’s Zionists, who a year earlier, in May 1942, had responded to the plight of European Jewry with a dramatic new initiative. Spurred by David Ben-Gurion and others, prominently including Abba Hillel Silver, 600 delegates from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Hadassah, and religious and labor-Zionist parties declared at a conference in New York that the postwar order envisioned by President Roosevelt—an order to be built on “foundations of peace, justice, and equality”—could not be realized without a solution to the wrenching problem of “Jewish homelessness.” Calling on the British Mandatory power to open the gates of Palestine to desperate Jewish refugees, the delegates then dropped their earlier reticence on the subject of actual Jewish statehood, insisting in the conference’s final plank “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”

The next step was to mobilize the entire American Jewish community behind this Zionist initiative, which would come to be known (after the hotel where the conference was held) as the “Biltmore Program.” In that monumental endeavor, Silver’s role was pivotal.

It also marked something of a personal turnabout. True, he had been a Zionist throughout his adult life and even earlier. In 1904, at the age of eleven, he was one of the co-founders of the Lower East Side’s Dr. Herzl Zion Club. But upon reaching maturity he had shifted his allegiance from political Zionism to “cultural Zionism,” a movement focused on solving not the problem of the Jews—i.e., statelessness—but the “problem of Judaism.” In 1917, explaining his position to a skeptical hiring committee at The Temple, he had articulated his commitment to the creation of a “spiritual and cultural center in Palestine” that would “galvanize Jewish life the world over.” Then and later, he would repeatedly assert that “the political thrust of Zionism is for me secondary.”

Only in the dire circumstances of the Nazi era did Silver come to understand that there would be no achieving Zionism’s cultural and spiritual aims without Jewish political independence—whereupon he tirelessly threw himself into helping to promote that overriding end. The chance came to form a united front on the issue came in August 1943, fifteen months after the Biltmore conference, as delegates representing virtually all of American Jewry assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

 

A significant majority at the Waldorf conference were affiliated with Zionist organizations, thus improving the odds of obtaining a full-throated call for a Jewish state. Still, there was strong opposition to be overcome. Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, influential president of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, was pushing for a watered-down resolution demanding removal of the British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine but omitting any mention of statehood. Several prominent Zionists were of similar mind. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, co-chair with Silver of the American Zionist Emergency Council, had cold feet; as Raphael writes, Wise “explicitly urged the delegates not to adopt the Biltmore program’s final plank.”

Silver himself had not been allotted speaking time at the Waldorf conference, but the militantly Zionist delegates of the American Jewish Congress had arranged to send him to the platform. No audio recording exists of the speech he proceeded to deliver—which may be just as well since we’ve lost the taste for his style of high public oratory. On this occasion, however, his words, which were in no sense overblown, are sufficient in themselves to convey their profound impact on those listening.

“The reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland,” Silver declared,

is not a playful political conceit of ours. . . . It is the cry of despair of a people driven to the wall, fighting for its very life. . . . . From the infested, typhus-ridden ghetto of Warsaw, from the death-block of Nazi-occupied lands where myriads of our people are awaiting execution by the slow or the quick method, from a hundred concentration camps which befoul the map of Europe . . . comes the cry: “Enough, there must be a final end to all this, a sure and certain end!”

How long is it to last? Are we forever to live a homeless people on the world’s crumbs of sympathy?. . . Should not all this be compensated for finally and at long last with the re-establishment of a free Jewish Commonwealth?

Is not this historic justice, and is this world today not reaching out so desperately and so pathetically for a new world order of justice?. . . Are we not deserving of it?

Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?

In the judgment of the Israeli historian Ofer Schiff, these words of Silver’s, which “overwhelmed the hundreds of delegates at the congress and brought many of them to tears,” reflect “the principled, American democratic meaning that Silver lent to the demand for the establishment of a national home.” I’m not so sure. It’s true that, in earlier speeches, Silver had explicitly linked the creation of a Jewish state to the overall American war aim of fostering a new world order. But there is a simpler explanation for why he electrified his audience at the Waldorf: he made them feel the agony of the Jews caught in Hitler’s web, preparing them for the climactic moment when he would hammer home the only logical answer to their kinsmen’s desperate predicament:

We cannot truly rescue the Jews of Europe unless we have free immigration into Palestine. We cannot have free immigration into Palestine unless our political rights are recognized there. Our political rights cannot be recognized there unless our historic connection with the country is acknowledged and our right to rebuild our national home is reaffirmed. These are inseparable links in the chain. The whole chain breaks if one of the links is missing. Do not beguile yourselves. Do not let anyone beguile you. . . .

The speech won the day. Weeping delegates rose to sing Hatikvah, over and over again, and then resoundingly moved to endorse the resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth. Rabbi Elmer Berger, the director of the newly formed American Council for Judaism—an anti-Zionist rump of the Reform movement—tried to make light of the event. (“No one could say that in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1943, the Jewish ‘people’ had asked for a Jewish state.”) But Tamar de Sola Pool, the president of Hadassah, better understood what had been accomplished:

We have now won over not merely individuals; we now have at our side whole national organizations with thousands and hundreds of thousands of members. . . . They are now flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. All that we stand for, all that we struggle for, has become for them, too an integral ideal.

 

Uniting the great majority of American Jews behind the Biltmore program did not, of course, bring that program to fruition. In the aftermath of the conference, the Zionists’ major task, in the words of Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the new president of the ZOA, was to “win the wholehearted approval of the American Government and people.”

The effort to obtain that approval, and then to sustain it, is not the most exciting part of the Zionist saga during those years, but it is nonetheless of central importance. After World War II, had the American government not become involved in the Palestine question and done what it did for the Zionist movement, a Jewish state would most likely never have come into being.

Ronald and Allis Radosh have made this abundantly clear in their recent A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, a book in which Abba Hillel Silver naturally plays a major role. The Radoshes do not dwell at length, however, on the crucial work performed by Silver in the period prior to the Truman administration. It was in those few years that he laid the basis for what was to come.

 

Right after the Waldorf-Astoria conference, writes Rabbi Leon I. Feuer, Silver’s Washington deputy, “Dr. Silver asked me (drafted me would be more accurate) to take a year’s leave of absence from my Toledo congregation, which generously consented, to take charge of the office of the Emergency Council which was to be opened in Washington and which would have to become the focus of our activities.” Before settling in the capital, Feuer spent some weeks in New York City organizing roughly 150 “active and enthusiastic local committees” dedicated to mobilizing Jewish opinion and action around the country. The extraordinary labors these activists would perform made them, for Feuer, some of “the unsung heroes of the struggle for the founding of Israel.”

Once in Washington, Feuer put together a core team that, under Silver’s leadership, strove

a) to inform and educate congressmen and other government officials and such other persons outside of government—reporters, editors, former government officials—who might be able to exert some influence on American policy, about the urgency of the Jewish situation in Europe as well as about the justice and legality of the Zionist cause; b) to develop as much opposition as we could in the same quarters to the [1939] British White Paper [reneging on the Balfour Declaration and strangling Jewish immigration to Palestine]; c) and finally to focus our efforts either on the introduction and passage through Congress of a resolution expressing opposition to the British White Paper, or to go the whole way and try to put the Congress on record as favoring the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war.

Feuer’s 1976 reminiscence, The Birth of the Jewish Lobby [sic!], gives due credit to Silver’s inspirational role but doesn’t say enough about the extent of his direct involvement in day-to-day affairs during this formative period. That story appears in an earlier book by Feuer, A Personal Memoir (1967). There he recalls how, “during the hectic period of the 1940s, when he was leading the Zionist campaign for American support,” Silver “was compelled to spend nearly every week from Monday to Thursday in New York and Washington.” He would then return home to Cleveland almost every weekend “to meet with his confirmation class, which he disliked missing, and to occupy his pulpit on Sunday mornings.”

Silver’s devotion to the task was, Feuer tells us, “simply indescribable.” He “traveled constantly, addressed literally hundreds of meetings, interviewed scores of prominent personages, and fought like a tiger to make the cause and his judgment of events prevail.” Feuer had known Silver and looked up to him from the time he was a teenager; his recollections of the man, if not exactly lyrical, help us not only to see him better but to understand the kind of admiration he was capable of exciting in the right company.

 

Harry Truman was not among that company. In fact, he couldn’t stand Silver, and his refusal to meet with him in early 1948 is one of the reasons why the Zionist leaders, at the end of the day, required the services of Eddie Jacobson. But the great leader of American Zionism deserves to be better remembered than Truman’s admittedly helpful buddy.

He also deserves to be better remembered than another man with whom he might be more appropriately compared: Judah Magnes. The California-born Magnes was one of a number of Reform rabbis who had broken early with the movement’s anti-Zionist outlook. An associate rabbi for a time at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and a leader of American Jewry in the 1910s, Magnes had left the U.S. in 1922 for Palestine, where he became president of the newly founded Hebrew University.

Like Silver, Magnes was above all a cultural Zionist. He differed with Silver, however, in seeing the political thrust of Zionism as not merely secondary but altogether expendable. “I should be willing,” he announced after the murderous anti-Jewish Arab riots of 1929, “to yield the Jewish ‘State’ and the Jewish ‘majority’” in favor of a bi-national, Jewish-Arab government. Under such a regime, he believed, it would be possible to create “a spiritual and intellectual center for Judaism and the Jewish people” without depriving the Arabs of Palestine of their legitimate rights.

This was a position from which Magnes never deviated. Nothing that happened subsequently, either in Europe or in Palestine, led him to reassess his view. During World War II, he led the opposition to the Biltmore program; after the war, he lobbied actively in Washington against the establishment of a Jewish state. As late as May 1948, after Eddie Jacobson had done his work, he was still urging President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall to replace the UN partition plan with a UN trusteeship over all of Palestine.

Magnes was not benighted; perhaps worse, he was an idealist. “Obstinate and single-minded,” in the words of the historian Arthur Goren, he was “a preacher turned political man who refused to accept the dichotomy between the moral and the real worlds.” This last aspect of his character, indeed, is what has made him a latter-day object of admiration among some Jewish intellectuals disaffected from the state of Israel and the Zionist cause. One shudders to imagine how things might have unfolded had Magnes possessed the talents and influence of Silver, a no less obstinate and single-minded preacher-turned-politician. Fortunately, he did not.

At a time of great crisis, Abba Hillel Silver saw very clearly that the immediate imperative was Jewish independence, and that in the absence of this, all dreams of Jewish cultural renewal in Palestine, let alone the fates of untold numbers of Jewish survivors and refugees, would go forfeit. He set aside everything else—everything—in order to fight tooth and nail for that overriding imperative. Only after independence had been won did he return to his earlier preoccupations as a rabbi and scholar, concerning himself in his later years with what he never ceased to see as Zionism’s task of preserving “the integrity of our spiritual heritage,” and transmitting it to the rest of the world.

________________

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

More about: Chaim Weizmann, Foreign Policy, Harry Truman, Israel, Jewish State, Nazism, Palestine, Zionism

 

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance

God wanted all of Amalek dead. Saul thought he knew better. What happened next?

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance
From The Death of Agag by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Feb. 26 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most weeks, the haftarah—a reading selected from one of the prophetic books of the Bible—is chosen because it shares some theme with the weekly Torah portion. This Shabbat (known as Shabbat Zakhor) is one of the exceptions: since it’s the Sabbath before Purim, the reading, taken from the book of Samuel (I, 15:1-34), involves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and the ancestor of Haman.

But the haftarah isn’t really about Agag, and it isn’t at all like the plot-driven book of Esther. It’s a character study, in which two personality types are examined. Unlike the story of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Joseph, where the difference was one of what you might call “learning styles,” here there’s a straightforward contrast between what you might call inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

The prophet Samuel is not altogether interested in what the people want. He warns them against this whole king business right off the bat. But they want a king, so he asks God on their behalf for a king. What they get is Saul. Saul cares rather too much about the people:

But Samuel said to Saul, me it was God sent to anoint you
as king over his people, over Israel,
and now obey the words of God.
So said the Lord of hosts: I will repay what Amalek did to Israel
That ambushed him on the way as he rose out of Egypt:
Now go and beat Amalek and eradicate all he has
And have no mercy on him
And put to death whether woman or man, from newborn to suckling babe,
From bull to lamb, from camel to ass.

And Saul called up the people and counted them using patches,
Twelve-hundred infantry and ten-thousand men of Judea.
And Saul came up to the Amalek camp and lay in wait at the river.
And Saul told the Kenites, Go, turn away, get down from Amalek-land
Or I’ll lay you to waste with them, whereas you dealt kindly
with all the children of Israel as they went up from Egypt,
and the Kenite turned away from among Amalek.

And Saul beat Amalek from Havila to Shur across from Egypt:
and he captured Agag king of Amalek alive
but all the people he eradicated by the sword.
But Saul and the people took pity on Agag
and on the best of the sheep and the cattle
and on the second-born and the horses and on all the goods
but all the livestock that’s scorned and melts away, that they eradicated.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say—
I regret having crowned Saul as king
For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
And it troubled Samuel and he clamored to the Lord all that night.
But Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning
And it was told to Samuel to say, Saul is come to the Carmel
and here he is erecting himself an altar,
and he turned and he passed and went down to Gilgal.

And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him,
God bless you, I have fulfilled the word of God.
But Samuel said, And what is this sound of sheep in my ears
And sound of cattle I hear?
And Saul said, They brought them from Amalek-land
For the people took pity on the best sheep and cattle
In order to sacrifice to the Lord your God,
but the leftovers we eradicated.
But Samuel said to Saul,
Leave off and I’ll tell you what the Lord said to me tonight.
And he told him, Speak.

And Samuel said, If indeed you are slight in your own eyes
You are head of the tribes of Israel and the Lord anointed you king over Israel:
And the Lord sent you on your way and told you
But you shall eradicate the sinners, the Amalekites,
and fight until you have finished them.
And why did you not obey the Lord but rather fall on the spoils
and do what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord?
But Saul said to Samuel, indeed I obeyed the Lord
And went the way the Lord sent me,
And I brought Agag king of Amalek, but I eradicated the Amalekites
And the people took from the spoils sheep and cattle,
the first of the offerings, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.

But Samuel said, Does the Lord want offerings and sacrifices
as much as obedience to the Lord?
Look, obedience is as superior to sacrifice
as obedience is to the fat of rams.
For a sin-offering is a rebellious charm: sin, and casting lots for pleading.
So you tired of the word of the Lord and he’s tired of you being king.

The other problem with taking your eye off the ball to listen to the people is that the consequences can be lethal and instantaneous. The commentators point out that from a legal point of view, Saul’s argument is perfectly valid: both he and the people took some spoils away to sacrifice at a more dignified time and place. But that’s not how Samuel understood it, and that’s not how the Lord sees it.

The crucial difference is in understanding the point of the exercise. The Lord wanted to exact a terrible vengeance for what He describes as an unprecedented and immoral attack on Israel at its time of weakness. There are many other tribes the Jews encounter in their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, but Amalek is singled out because they attacked like bandits at a time of weakness, not like an army defending tribal territory and giving the Jews a chance to fight back. Neither Samuel nor the Lord regards this military campaign as mere business as usual.

But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his  words
For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
For you tired of the word of the Lord
and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.

And Samuel turned to go but he gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
Though the victory is Israel’s, He will not lie and will not reconsider
For He is not a man to reconsider.
But he said, I’ve sinned, now, pray you, honor me before the elders
of my people and before Israel,
And return with me and I will pray to the Lord your God.

And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
And Agag walked to him in delight
and Agag said, indeed the bitterness of death has gone.
But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal. . . .

And Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day he died
because Samuel mourned over Saul,
and the Lord regretted having crowned Saul over Israel.

The aftermath comes a few pages later in the book of Samuel, in a passage not read in the haftarah. We are introduced to David with three separate stories, beginning with Samuel going to look for him and finding him the smallest and least impressive of his father’s sons, yet still being told by God to anoint him though he’s not tall and impressive as Saul was. Then there’s another story where David comes to court as a rather talented harp player summoned to minister to Saul and make him feel better because he’s rather depressed (and I think we know why). That’s a great testament to David’s therapeutic gifts but still doesn’t explain why the Lord wants him to be king.

But then finally we have the story of Goliath coming to curse the entire massed armies of Israel and nobody daring to take his challenge. Goliath then repeats his challenge while David is bringing food from home for his older brothers and, the story notes, David heard him. Whenever I read that line about David hearing Goliath, I always imagine a sound effect of scary music. You get this definite feeling the text thinks there’s going to be trouble. But why should there be trouble from this puny harpist? When David offers to accept Goliath’s challenge, Saul tries to dissuade him:

But Saul said to David, you can’t go to this Philistine and fight him,
For you’re a boy and he’s a man of war since youth.
But David said to Saul, Your servant was a shepherd to his father’s flock
and the lion and bear came to carry away a lamb from the herd
And I went after him and beat him and saved it from his jaws
And he rose up against me and I held him by the bristles
And beat him and killed him. Your servant beat both the lion and the bear
And this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them
Because he cursed the armies of the living God.

One thing you do not need to worry about with David, as this lyrical evocation of his days back on the farm makes clear, is that he’ll have mercy on somebody the Lord asks him to kill. David does not even think Goliath is human—just  another critter out there in the field, and he’s already killed plenty of critters. David, we see now, has been nominated as king because the Lord looked inside his heart and found him both spiritually gifted and entirely ruthless. As the high-holiday service notes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but sometimes the shepherd has to decide which sheep has to die.

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet. David eventually sins and pays a terrible price for his unbridled appetite in private life, but he always obeys the Lord as King and never loses sight of his function. Even if he falls victim to his own passions, he never falls victim to the passions of the mob. That is why he remains the one wielding the sword. Obedience is better than any number of offerings. Those who don’t obey but let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.

More about: Amalek, King David, Samuel, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kobi Gideon, GPO
 
Observation
Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“Until a few years ago,” wrote the New York Times’ Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren in a recent dispatch commenting on the lack of substance in the current Israeli election campaign,

there was no Hebrew word for debate. Then in 2012 linguists adopted the term “mamat,” whose root meant “confrontation,” which Yoni Cohen-Idov, an international debating champion, sees as symptomatic of what ails his nation’s political discourse. “Debate, the English word, consists of two elements—one is confrontation, the other is discussion,” he said. “If you’re rivals and you only shout at one another and make slogans, and you don’t discuss them in depth, that is not a debate.”

About the dismaying triviality of the politicians bidding for Israelis’ ballots on March 17, I couldn’t agree with Rudoren more. Nor would I blame her for her faulty Hebrew, even though had she bothered to check, she would have known that the neologism in question is ma’amat, not mamat, from the root ayin-mem-taf, found in the Bible in l’umat, “across from” or “facing.” Ma’amat was indeed adopted as a term for debate several years ago by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an official body of linguists and scholars entrusted with coining new Hebrew words.

No, the real culprit here is Cohen-Idov—and the Academy. The first is ignorant, the second misguided.

No Hebrew word for debate? This would be passing strange if true, since debate lies at the very heart of the Talmud and of the rabbinic tradition that is based on it. One would as much expect Hebrew to lack a word for debate as one would expect Arabic to lack a word for sand or Inuit a word for snow.

And in fact, it’s completely untrue. Hebrew has, quite apart from ma’amat, at least five words meaning “debate,” some going back 1,500 years or more.

The oldest of these is plugta, an originally Aramaic word deriving from the Aramaic/Hebrew verb palag, to divide or be divided from. Plugta is regularly used in the Talmud to denote a running argument between two rabbis or schools of thought and yields bar-plugta, a debating partner. This term is applied, for example, to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the tractate of Bava Metsiya, in which the two take opposing sides on a series of questions pertaining to the return of stolen property.

A second word for debate with ancient roots is pulmus, which comes from Greek polemos, “war.” In the Talmud, where it appears as polmos, it actually means war, but in later ages, like its English cognate “polemic,” it took on the meaning of a war of words. For the early rabbis, polmos Adrianus denoted the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian; in contemporary Hebrew, pulmus Bar-Kokhba refers to the ongoing scholarly debate over that rebellion’s causes and justifications.

Next comes nitsuaḥ, from the verb natsaḥ, “to triumph over.” In an oft-cited talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who performs a series of miracles to prove he is right in a halakhic dispute, the forces of nature that collaborate with him are scolded by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who tells them: “If rabbinical scholars are debating [menats'ḥim, literally, "striving to triumph"] in a matter of law, what business is it of yours?” From this comes the noun nitsu’aḥ, a debate, first found in the Middle Ages. In modern Hebrew, it has been joined by its synonymous reflexive form of hitnats’ḥut.

“But,” Cohen-Idov might counter, “none of these words designates a debate in the sense of a formal contest held in the presence of an audience and judges.”

True enough. Yet Cohen-Idov has apparently never heard of various medieval religious debates between Jews and Christians in which precisely such conditions prevailed. Probably the best-known of these took place in Barcelona in 1263, at the court of King James I of Aragon, between Naḥmanides or Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman and the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. Remarkably for the times, a panel of Christian judges ruled Naḥmanides the victor and awarded him a monetary prize. In Hebrew this event is traditionally known as viku’aḥ Bartselona, the Barcelona debate or disputation, from the biblical verb hitvake’aḥ, “to argue,” and other similar disputations were called vikuḥim, too.

“Surely, though, Hebrew deserves to have two separate words, one for an argument and one for a debate!” one imagines Cohen-Idov persisting, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language would clearly agree. Let viku’aḥ mean “argument,” let ma’amat mean “formal debate,” and we can all sleep better at night.

But we should have been sleeping well already. No two languages have identical semantic fields, and the fact that there are distinct words for W and X in Language Y is no reason to require them in Language Z. If Hebrew uses the verb lavash for putting on a coat and ḥavash for putting on a hat, does this mean that English needs different words for putting on hats and coats, too? And if Hebrew speakers do want to differentiate more explicitly, they have the option of saying viku’aḥ tsibburi, “a public vikuaḥ,” just as one speaks of “a public debate” in English.

Of course, English is a world-dominating language and Hebrew is not—and implicit in the Academy’s coining of ma’amat when viku’aḥ is available is the assumption that while English needn’t behave like Hebrew, Hebrew should and must behave like English. This is the truly objectionable part of it. If Hebrew speakers knew their own language better and took more pride in it, they wouldn’t think a new Hebrew word was called for every time an old one was not a precise equivalent of a word in English. It’s not only Cohen-Idov who is suffering from a linguistic inferiority complex. It’s the Academy of the Hebrew Language, too.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, Medieval disputations

 

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?
Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.
 
Observation
Feb. 12 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson scholar of ethics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays

 

Who Kissed/Killed First?

Does the English idiom “kiss of death” come from the story of Judas, or from the Sicilian Mafiaor both?

Who Kissed/Killed First?
From a poster for the 1947 movie Kiss of Death.
 
Observation
Feb. 11 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“The Kiss of Death and the Google Exec” was the name of a January 24 documentary shown on 48 Hours, a long-running CBS series featuring a weekly story about a crime, scandal, or mystery in the news—in this case, the alleged 2013 murder of a hi-tech executive by a California call girl now on trial for committing it. This was not the first film thus titled. That was the 1947 Twentieth Century Fox gangster thriller Kiss of Death, directed by Henry Hathaway and co-written by Ben Hecht. The latter’s passionately pro-Zionist A Flag Is Born, with the unknown young Marlon Brando in its cast, had played on Broadway the year before.

In ordinary language, of course, a “kiss of death” refers neither to an actual kiss nor an actual death; rather, it denotes something that spells a person’s or an undertaking’s doom. Its original meaning, however, is generally assumed to have been literal and to have come from the New Testament story about Judas, who accompanied the Jewish officials sent to arrest his master Jesus on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives following the Passover seder known as the Last Supper. As related in the Gospel of Mark: “And he [Judas] that had betrayed [Jesus] had given [the officials] a token, saying, ‘Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he.’”

Mark’s account, to tell the truth, is not quite logical, for if, as we are told, Judas arrived on the scene at the head of Jesus’ apprehenders, such a secret signal served no purpose; having already exposed himself as a traitor, he could just as well have pointed to Jesus and said, “That’s him.” Yet whether Mark misunderstood what happened, or whether Judas wished to kiss Jesus a sorrowful goodbye because even in his perfidy he loved him, or whether the kiss was invented by early Christian tradition to make Judas look even more diabolical, most contemporary English dictionaries agree that “kiss of death” owes its origins to this source.

But does it? Consider the following.

First, although one would expect a phrase deriving from the New Testament to have ancient or early-medieval roots, the first documented appearance of “kiss of death” in English dates to 1944, three years before the Twentieth Century Fox movie—and then, in a context far removed from Christianity. This was an item in the weekly pop-music newspaper Billboard, which, under the caption “Amusement Biz Booming in War Work Center But Bands Losing Out On Dollar Divvy,” published a story from Philadelphia about the low pay given musicians despite the wartime prosperity. The problem, Billboard reported, was less acute for the big, nationally known bands, but if the job-seekers were Philadelphians who “carry a local tag, it’s the kiss of death as far as price is concerned.”

Second, it’s widely accepted that “kiss of death” was brought to America by late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century immigrants from Sicily, where, as bacio della morte, it was a Mafia term. In his Mafia Encyclopedia, Carl Sifakis defines the bacio della morte as a way of informing “an opponent by a kiss on the lips that his days are numbered,” and mentions the celebrated kiss supposedly given in an Atlanta penitentiary by crime boss Vito Genovese to his fellow mafioso Joe Valachi, who was so frightened by it that he turned state’s witness in a bid for protection. Wikipedia agrees, citing the 1972 Hollywood movie The Valachi Papers and a scene in Part II of the The Godfather in which Michael Corleone, the son of the legendary Mafia capo played by an older Brando, kisses the lips of his brother Fredo after commissioning his murder. Yet Wikipedia then hedges by adding: “However much is based on fact and however much on the imagination of authors, it [the kiss of death] remains a cultural meme and appears in literature and films.”

Third, Italian sources suggest that there may be good reason to hedge. On the one hand, the Neopolitan psychiatrist and criminologist Corrado De Rosa writes that in the Sicilian Mafia, “a kiss on the hand is a sign of fealty, one on the cheek of fraternal solidarity, and one on the lips of condemnation to death.” But De Rosa is an expert on the Camorra of Naples, not on the Mafia, and the Internet word site Cosa Vuol Dire states that the bacio della morte of the Sicilian Mafia is traditionally given not to the intended victim of an assassination but to his appointed assassin, “in order solemnly to seal the sentence and wish its executor success.” Although Italian speakers, too, Cosa Vuol Dire observes, commonly use the expression in the sense of the kiss of Judas, “this is a mistake.” The Internet Dizionario Italiano concurs with this, while still other Italians writing on the subject, unable to quote anyone in the tight-lipped Mafia, are reduced to citing American movies as their authority.

This leaves us, I would suggest, with a number of tentative conclusions: 1) “Kiss of death” in the sense of an act or occurrence that dooms is a recent idiom in both English and Italian; 2) The Mafia’s bacio della morte was a kiss given to a designated “hit man” and had nothing to do with the New Testament story of Judas; 3) The expression was indeed brought by Sicilian immigrants to America, where it was confused with Judas’s kiss; 4) The first documented evidence of this confusion, applied figuratively to the Philadelphia music scene, is found in the 1944 issue of Billboard; 5) Reapplied literally to the Mafia, the same confusion became a “cultural meme,” as Wikipedia calls it, and even fooled experts like Carl Sifakis and Corrado de Rosa; 6) Today, Judas’s kiss and the bacio della morte have merged inseparably in popular speech.

None of which, I might add, is related to the Hebrew expression mitat neshikah, “death by a kiss.” But that’s a story for another day.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: History & Ideas, Judas, Mafia, New Testament, Philologos