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

 

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"
Photo by Edsel Little/Flickr.
 
Observation
March 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.


From Ken Ehrenburg comes this query:

A fellow shul-mate and I are engaged in a small dispute that I hope you might settle or illuminate. He has maintained for a long time that calling the repast that precedes the end of the Sabbath shalosh se’udot in Hebrew is grammatically incorrect, since this means “three meals” rather than “the third meal” [the first two being Friday-night dinner and Saturday lunch], which would be ha-se’udah ha-shlishit. I, on the other hand, have argued that this usage could be a form of synecdoche, whereby a part is referred to by means of the whole. What do you think?

The oddity of calling the Sabbath’s third meal “three meals” has struck me, too. Until now, I must say, I thought Ken Ehrenburg’s fellow synagogue-goer must be right. In Eastern Europe, the Sabbath’s third meal was called sholesh suddes, as it continues to be by many Orthodox Jews today; this is the Yiddish pronunciation of Hebrew shalosh se’udot, and I had always assumed it to be a Yiddish garbling of Hebrew grammar that was subsequently introduced into Hebrew itself. Such an assumption made historical sense, because the se’udah shlishit was accorded special importance in Jewish ritual by the Eastern-European movement of Ḥasidism, which observes it in the synagogue with singing and chanting in a highly charged religious atmosphere, and Ḥasidic authors were notorious for their mangling of the rules of Hebrew.

Still, I was never quite satisfied by this. Even Ḥasidism mangled Hebrew only so far, and sholesh suddes, which substitutes the Hebrew cardinal number shalosh for the ordinal number shlishit, and puts it before the noun it modifies rather than after the noun where it belongs, would seem to go well beyond that. Could there be another explanation? Ken Ehrenburg suggests what this might be.

The tradition of a third Sabbath meal goes at least as far back as the early centuries of the Common Era, there already being mention of it in the Talmud. In talmudic times, it was the practice, with the exception of Sabbaths, to eat only twice a day, once in mid-morning and once in the evening. Yet even in our own age, when three meals a day are the norm, Orthodox Jews skip breakfast before the Shabbat-morning prayer, with the result that they, too, would eat only two Sabbath meals were it not for the se’udah shlishit. The talmudic tractate of Shabbat gives as the tradition’s source a verse in Exodus (16:25) about the manna: “And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for it is the Sabbath today, today you will not find it in the field.” Three “today’s,” the rabbis reasoned, equal three portions of the manna provided by God in the desert, which was not gathered on the Sabbath.

Although this exegesis probably served to rationalize an already existing custom of celebrating the Sabbath by eating an extra meal, it lent the meal rabbinic authority. Still, only in 16th-century Palestine, with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the Sabbath’s third meal come to be considered the time of special divine grace that it was later thought to be by Ḥasidism as well. And it was only in Eastern Europe that the se’udah shlishit became the shalosh se’udot or sholesh siddes.

I asked an acquaintance steeped in Jewish sources if he knew the reason. His answer was that he believed there was a discussion of the matter in Divrey Emet or “Truthful Points,”a collection of homilies by the Ḥasidic master Yakov Yitzḥak Horovitz (1745-1815), also known as “the Seer of Lublin,” but he couldn’t remember where in the book I would find it. Fortunately, Divrey Emet is a short volume, and three-quarters of the way through it I came across the passage in question. In commenting on the verse in the book of Numbers (24:19), “And out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,” Horovitz writes:

The rabbis of blessed memory have said that whoever eats three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three calamities: the pangs of the [coming of the] messiah, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the retribution of hell. And I have heard it said that the reason the third Sabbath meal [se'udah shlishit] is called “three meals” [shalosh se'udot] is that partaking of it is [like] partaking of all three. For, in the first two, the eater is hungry and enjoys his food while observing the commandment “And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight” [Isaiah 58: 14]. But this [third] meal is entirely for the sake of heaven, since, having no appetite, he [who eats it] acquits himself of all [three]….This is why it is called “three meals,”’ because a commandment is named for what completes it.

In other words: eaten a few hours after a large lunch, at a time when one does not really feel hungry, the third meal alone truly fulfills the commandment to eat three Sabbath meals, the other two of which would be eaten anyway. This explanation, which testifies to the Yiddish usage of sholesh suddes being common in Eastern Europe already over 200 years ago, is precisely the one offered by Ken Ehrenburg: the third meal is called shalosh se’udot because it stands for all three. The term is indeed a synecdoche.

Whether the Horovitz-Ehrenburg thesis is historically correct, I can’t say. All in all, though, it seems to me more likely than the mangled-Hebrew theory. And in case you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the biblical Jacob, kabbalistic tradition associates each of the Sabbath meals with a different patriarch: the Friday-night dinner with Abraham, the Saturday lunch with Isaac, and the se’udah shlishit with Jacob. Forcing oneself to eat once a week when not hungry is a small price to pay for being spared the apocalypse of Armageddon and the fires of Gehenna.

More about: Religion & Holidays, Shabbat, Talmud

 

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh

You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind. What’s the point of such a Shakespearean portrayal?

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh
From Pharaoh Notes the Importance of the Jewish People, 1902, by James Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 19 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.


The Sabbath service this week marks the imminent onset of the month of Nisan, in which Passover occurs. Appropriately enough, a special reading from the Torah, harking back to the portion of Bo in the book of Exodus, is added to the week’s regular portion of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). Here I want to concentrate not on the specific verses (Exodus 12:1-20) from Bo that are read, or rather reread, on this Sabbath but on its overall narrative of the unfolding relationship between Pharaoh and the Lord as mediated by the Lord’s instrument Moses.

The central issue of Bo is what is within the body of Egypt, whether the body in question is that of Pharaoh, or the body of the people of Egypt who are an extension of the sovereign’s body, or the body of the land of Egypt. And not only what is within the body but outside it, what belongs and what should be expelled, what will enter without permission and what will finally be released unwillingly, spat out like poison or bile.

The very first verb of the reading is bo, come, and this divine instruction to Moses (“Come unto Pharoah” . . .) uses precisely the same verb that in Genesis instructed Abraham to “come unto” and impregnate Hagar, the barren Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the Lord instructed Moses to enter Pharaoh physically. But the appearance of that particular verb at this particular juncture alerts us to a whole series of intimate and unjust relationships in the Torah. The series begins with Sarah’s oppression of Hagar, continues with Joseph’s enslavement of all Egypt, rebounds upon the Israelites in Pharaoh’s subsequent enslavement and oppression of them, and enters into its culminating episode here as the Lord instructs Moses to come unto Pharaoh before the Lord Himself will enter into Pharaoh’s most private and intimate space: his mind.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh
For I’ve given him a heavy heart and his servants, too,
To put these marks of Mine in him
And to make you tell your son and grandson how I abused Egypt
And My marks that I put in them, so you’ll know I am the Lord.”
And Moses and Aaron came unto Pharaoh and told him,
“So says the Lord, God of the Hebrews:
‘How long will you refrain from responding in My presence?
Send out my people to worship Me.
For if you refrain from sending My people
I’ll bring locusts over your border
And they’ll cover all visible land,
You won’t be able to see the land.’” . . .

And he turned and he left Pharaoh’s presence
And Pharaoh’s servants said to him:
“How long will this ensnare us—
Send the men to worship the Lord their God.
Do you not realize yet, Egypt is lost?”
So Moses returned with Aaron to Pharaoh
And he told them, “Go, worship the Lord your God;
Who’s who that’s going?” And Moses said,
“We’ll go with our boys and old men, with our sons and our daughters,
Our sheep and our cattle we’ll go
For it’s God’s festival for us.”
And he told them, “Let it be so, the Lord be with you when
I send out you and your children—
Look how there’s evil over your face.
Not so; kindly go, just the males, and worship the Lord
Because that’s what you’re asking.”
And Pharaoh drove them out from his presence.

In addition to what you might call the special effects of the ten plagues, which I’ll largely omit here, what’s beguiling in this portion is the acute portrayal of Pharaoh as petulant villain. But he’s not two-dimensional; he’s more than three-dimensional. You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind, turning on a dime, arriving almost at the point of cooperating and then withdrawing again like an insecure businessman not quite capable of closing a deal. The irony of his consenting to Moses, swiftly followed by the outburst about how Moses and Aaron are scheming to deceive him, followed by the noblesse-oblige condescension of his polite “request” that the males go without their children, followed finally by the curt dismissal of Moses and Aaron, gives you a Shakespearean portrait in just two or three lines.

And it’s not over.
But Pharaoh was quick to call Moses and Aaron
To say: “I’ve sinned to the Lord your God and you.
But now bear with my sin just this once
And petition the Lord your God to remove from me just this death.”
And he went out from Pharaoh and petitioned the Lord
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart
And he didn’t send out the children of Israel.

Rabbis over the centuries have tied themselves in knots to prove that Pharaoh had freedom of choice, free will, that he was able at any point to release the Jews but chose not to. A literal reading of the text shows that this was not the case. Not only does the Lord declare at exactly what point He will allow Pharaoh to come to his senses, He also tells Moses that He’s not interested in Pharaoh’s coming to that point. He wants to pummel Pharaoh into submission, and it does not suit His purposes for Pharaoh to have free choice, let alone to make an intelligent call.

Time and again, the Lord reinforces Pharaoh’s heart. Two different verbs are used for this action, which is often flattened in English translation into a single “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” On the one hand, He makes Pharaoh anxious, literally makes his heart heavy; on the other hand, He makes him proud—literally strengthens his heart. This is the cycle by means of which a losing hand or two become a total bust. Pharaoh is meant to be left incapable of running a lemonade stand, let alone the mightiest empire on earth.

And Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go worship the Lord
Just your sheep and cattle will be deposited,
You children can go with you, too.”
But Moses said, “You shall also put sacrifices and offerings in our hands
To make for the Lord our God,
So our livestock will go with us,
Not a hoof will be left behind
For from them we’ll select to worship the Lord our God
And we won’t know how we’ll worship the Lord till we get there.”
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart and he balked at sending them
And Pharaoh told him, “Get away from me,
Take good care you don’t see my face again
Because the day you see my face you’ll die.”
And Moses said, “Just as you say. I will not look on your face again.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “One more ache
I’ll bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt,
After that he’ll send you from here as he’d send a bride,
He’ll drive you in droves out of here.” . . .

And Moses said, “So says the Lord,
Around midnight I’m going out into Egypt
And every first born in Egypt is dead
From the first born of Pharaoh who’ll sit on his throne
To the first born of the maid behind the millstones
And every beast of burden’s first born
And there will be a great shriek in the land of Egypt
Such as has never been and such as won’t be again
And to all the children of Israel
No dog will wag its tongue, neither man nor beast
So that you know the Lord discriminates between Egypt and Israel
And all these servants of yours will come down to Me
And bow to Me saying, ‘Go, you and the people at your heels’
And after that I’ll go.” And he went from Pharaoh’s presence in a fury.
But the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh won’t listen to you—
So as to increase the examples I’ll make of the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh’s warning to Moses not to look on his face again lest he die is both pathetic and accurate. When Moses does see Pharaoh again, it is at Pharaoh’s request and it’s the middle of the night—when nobody can see anything. By then, Pharaoh’s the one begging Moses to intercede so that he himself won’t die in the general carnage.

And it was midnight and the Lord struck every first born in Egypt
From the first born of Pharaoh who’d sit on his throne
To the first born of the prisoner housed in the pit
And every beast of burden’s first born.
And Pharaoh rose that night
And all his servants and all Egypt did, too
And there was a great shriek in Egypt
For there was no house without a corpse in it.
And he called Moses and Aaron at night, saying:
“Get up and get out from inside my people,
Both you and the children of Israel, and go worship the Lord just as you said,
Your sheep too, your cattle too; take what you said
And go—and bless me, too.”

This is the final humiliation: Pharaoh is reduced to asking Moses to pray for him and, as Moses prophesied, to make a sacrifice in his name to the implacable God who has come over his borders, into his houses, and finally into his mind. When the text specifies that the Lord kills not the child of the maid (as promised previously) but the child of the prisoner in the pit, it is no slip of the pen. The Lord went walking to the place where Joseph started his great ascent in Egypt by foretelling what would happen to Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants.

In this portion of Bo, we revisit first Hagar, then Joseph, before seeing how the cycle of slavery and abuse is finally ended with the Hebrews having undergone a 400-year punishment for abusing Hagar, and with Egypt, in turn, being crushed completely in order to pluck the Israelites back out of it like pips from an orange. The Lord started a cycle with Abraham that he would complete with Moses, only to make the great point, reiterated a total of 36 times in the Torah: do not abuse the stranger, because you were a stranger in Egypt. The subtext is clear: do not do again what you did then, nor ever do what they did to you, because what I did to them I can do to anybody.

More about: Bo, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Pharaoh, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayikra

 

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?

When we ask for guarantees of our safety, we’re met with speeches and calls for patience. This is not living.

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?
In the wake of a nearby explosion, a man enters a Jewish community centre in Malmo, southern Sweden, in 2012. DRAGO PRVULOVIC/AFP/GettyImages.
 
Observation
March 18 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political adviser and an activist in support of Israel.


They canceled Jewish winter camp. It sounds like a little thing, but in Sweden, where we have very few venues in which to lead our Jewish lives, it means a great deal. Winter camp is a yearly highlight, a place where our children can learn and play with other Jewish children, without worry. This year, they won’t be able to go, and for a simple reason—because it’s not safe.

The decision to cancel the camp was a reaction to the terrorist attack in neighboring Denmark, where Dan Uzan, a volunteer security guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue, was shot dead while protecting a bat-mitzvah party in progress inside. The Jewish community in Sweden was already reeling from news of the massacres in Paris a month earlier; with this latest murder, the peril came too close for comfort.

Of course, things did not start with these particular events. In a 2013 survey conducted by the European Union’s agency for fundamental rights, 76 percent of European Jews said that anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years, and 29 percent said they contemplated emigrating. Perhaps most astonishing, of those who said they had suffered a physical attack, fully two-thirds had chosen not to report it since they were convinced the police would react passively. Since that time, we European Jews have experienced some of our darkest days in over 60 years, from defaced synagogues and cemeteries to riots and assaults on Jews in broad daylight. This past summer, the floodgates opened wider as Israel’s war in Gaza erased any subtle (and largely disingenuous) distinctions that may have existed between anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism.

Back in the summer of 2013, I read Michel Gurfinkiel’s sweeping essay in Mosaic on the threatened state of European Jewry and was moved to write him a letter. The editors then kindly published it as a response to his analysis. In it I described the particular difficulties and dangers facing a Jew in contemporary Sweden, and announced my intention to stay and fight for the future of Jewish life in the European Diaspora. As the situation in my country worsened, I ended up—as I again reported in Mosaic—filing for asylum in my own country on grounds of religious discrimination. My act was aimed at raising public consciousness and eliciting from my government at least an acknowledgment of reality. But despite the publicity my filing attracted, no such acknowledgment was forthcoming. Nor did my action garner any significant support within the official Jewish community itself; to the contrary, I was not spared ridicule for my alleged hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Now that there are policemen with automatic rifles outside our children’s schools, guards outside our synagogues, and no go-zones in our cities, the community has at last awakened to the harsh truth. This is no longer a matter of fighting a ban on kosher slaughter, or of retaining the right to circumcise our sons; at risk is the security of each and every Jew in the country, whether affiliated with the community or not, whether religiously observant or not, whether politically left, right, center, or none of the above.

As more and more people, including communal leaders, are voicing their anxiety and alarm, and attracting the notice of the media, the sheer intractability of the problem is also emerging, sometimes with startling nakedness. A couple of weeks ago, a major public-radio station interviewed Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador to Stockholm. ‎During the interview he was asked: “Do the Jews themselves have any ‎responsibility for the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?”‎ Naturally, the ambassador was stunned. “I reject the question ‎altogether,” he said. “It’s like asking a woman how she has contributed to the fact ‎that she is being raped. I don’t think there is any provocation on the part of the Jews; they just exist.”

‎After the show, Sveriges Radio issued an apology; but the cat was out of the bag. Starkly illuminated by this “unfortunate incident” (their term) was the extent to which anti-Semitism, far from being the property of marginalized and uneducated individuals, as the comfortable trope would have it, is built into the psyche of the establishment. The apology itself was but a gesture, and gestures, in lieu of change, are mainly what the European Jewish minority is seeing.

 

Rallies, speeches, a solidarity ring around a synagogue as in Oslo: these are no substitute for the actual guarantee and protection of civil rights, for actual inclusivity, for actual religious freedom; they are at best a way of treating symptoms while ignoring the disease. We are being urged to join others in striving for peace and understanding, as if all along we have been striving for something else and need to assume our share of responsibility for the campaign being waged against us. The marches, the one-off visits of dignitaries to synagogues, the solemn frowns of sympathy: all instruct us to be patient and do nothing until we reach the point where there will be nothing left to do.

They canceled the Jewish winter camp, and men with automatic weapons are guarding our schools. Our children will not forget this; fear and hate—their fear, others’ hate—are now somehow coterminous in their minds with the very nature of Jewish life. We European Jews have been here before.

In 2014, immigration to Israel from Western Europe went up by 88 percent over the previous year, corroborating the trend already emerging in the 2013 survey. Jews are leaving Europe in record numbers, and more are thinking about it. I am now one of them. In my first contribution to Mosaic I wrote that I was absolutely determined to stay and fight for a strong Jewish life in the Diaspora. “We want to live,” I said. Today I don’t know what’s next for me, or for Europe. But I know that for my children and for me, this is not living.

More about: European Jewry, Jewish world, Politics & Current Affairs, Sweden

 

How Lev Tolstoy Became Leo Tolstoy

Why do we Anglicize some names and not others?

How Lev Tolstoy Became Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1908. By Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a pioneer in color photography. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
March 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].

Margalit Tal of the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati has a question that is shorter than the name of her workplace. “When and why,” she asks, “did Lev Tolstoy become Leo Tolstoy?”

It would seem that Tolstoy, who had the given Russian name of Lev and the patronymic of Nikolayevich, was himself responsible for becoming Leo in English. A member of the nobility, he published his books in Russian as “Graf [Count] L.N. Tolstoy,” and when in 1878 the American translator Nathan Haskell Dole put out the first English edition of one of them, Tolstoy’s youthful war memoir The Cossacks: A Tale of the Caucasus in 1852, the name on the title page, phonetically spelled, was ” Lyof N. Tolstoy.” Dole’s 1889 translation of War and Peace did the same. But an earlier, anonymous French rendition of the novel, published in St. Petersburg in 1879, gave its author’s name as “Comte Léon Tolstoȉ.”

This was in itself a translation, the name Léon meaning “lion” in French as Lev does in Russian, and Tolstoy obviously approved of it and probably suggested it, since the St. Petersburg edition of La Guerre et la Paix was published, as stated on its title page, “with the authorization of the author.” And when a second English translation of War and Peace came out in 1904 in the now-classic version of Constance Garnett, a personal friend of Tolstoy’s who must have consulted him about it, Comte Léon Tolstoȉ was Anglicized to Count Leo Tolstoy. (Such an Anglicization had already appeared in Aline P. Delano’s 1894 English translation of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.) Although “Count” was eventually dropped, all subsequent English editions of Tolstoy’s books kept the Leo.

This was, it must be said, unusual. Dostoyevsky was always known outside of Russia as Fyodor, not Theodore, Chekhov as Anton, not Antoine, Antonio, or Anthony. The same has held true in recent centuries of practically every other well-know foreign author, painter, musician, or outstanding figure in other fields. Why should Tolstoy have wanted to be Léon or Leo rather than Lev?

Was he thinking of Russia’s Piotr Velikiy, called Pierre le Grand in French and Peter the Great in English, or of Ekaterina Velikaya, Catherine la Grande or Catherine the Great? Did he perhaps aspire to become a world-historical personage like them? Generally speaking, it is only the great whose names have sometimes been translated in passing from one language to another, so that apart from royalty, with whom it has been done commonly (e.g., Henry, not Henri, the First of France; William, not Willem, the Silent of Holland), we have in English such cases as Joan rather than Jeanne of Arc, Francis rather than Francesco of Assisi, and Christopher Columbus rather than Cristoforo Colombo or Cristóbal Colon. There are a few examples of this from modern times as well: Iosif Stalin is always Joseph in English and the current pope is Francis, too.

 

Yet Stalin, popes, and Tolstoy aside, modern name translations are almost never found in the public sphere. No one would dream of calling the French president Frank Hollande instead of François, or his Argentinean counterpart Christine Kirchner instead of Cristina. But has anyone noticed that, when they are not being Bibi and Buzhi, the two main contenders in Israel’s soon-to-be-decided electoral campaign are routinely referred to by the English media as Benjamin, not Binyamin, Netanyahu and Isaac, not Yitzhak, Herzog?

Is this mere coincidence? I’m not so sure. It’s true, of course, that Israeli politicians have not generally had their names translated in this way. Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir were always Yitzhak, Moshe Dayan never became Moses, and Shimon Peres isn’t Simon. Yet when one looks at contemporary history books, works of scholarship, and articles in the media, one encounters a curious phenomenon. Here are some entries culled by me from the index of a compendious 2002 collection of essays by noted scholars entitled Cultures of the Jews: A New History: “Bar Kokhba, Simon”; “Judah [not Yehuda] ha-Nasi”; “Ibn-Gabirol, Solomon” (not Shlomo); “Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon)”; “Abravanel, Isaac”; “Gaon of Vilna (see Elijah [not Eliyahu] ben Solomon [not Shlomo] Zalman)”; “Ba’al Shem Tov (Israel [not Yisra’el] ben Eliezer)”; “Kook, Abraham Isaac” [not Avraham Yitzhak]; “Tchernikhovsky, Saul” (not Sha’ul)”; etc. The list, needless to say, is partial.

Imagine picking up a book called Cultures of Europe and reading about Leonard da Vinci, Michael de Cervantes, John Sebastian Bach, John Jack Rousseau, Lewis van Beethoven, George William Hegel, Paul Picasso, and Frank Kafka! And yet this has been the norm in Jewish studies for the past 200 years and remains so, even though the scholars in question would never use anything among themselves but the Hebrew names that Jewish tradition has always used.

Why is this? The probable reason, I think, has been the desire of Jews to make accessible to the non-Jewish world a minority culture whose strange-sounding names become more familiar when translated into equivalents, like Israel, Judah, Moses, Solomon, and Elijah, that are known to most people from the Bible. Although it’s not necessarily any easier to say Johann Wolfgang Goethe than it is to say Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, the feeling has been that if Yitzhak becomes Isaac, readers will breathe easier—to say nothing of the TV viewers who will learn next week if Isaac beat Benjamin or vice-versa. I find this silly. Although Yehuda Halevi may be a bit more digestible in English as Judah, he is also a bit less himself. But I would say the same thing, I suppose, about Lev Tolstoy.

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

More about: Arts & Culture, Leo Tolstoy, Philologos