Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story
Their Tragic Land
The covers of Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.
 
Observation
Dec. 18 2013 8:36PM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


The story of the Jews was told so effectively in the Hebrew Bible that it shaped and sustained them as a people from that time to this. But what happens now?

We live in an era in which the Jewish people, having suffered a catastrophic national defeat greater even than the one recorded in the book of Lamentations, went on to write a chapter of its history at least as remarkable as any in its sacred canon. In a single decade, bereft of one third of their number, and without the obvious aid of divine intervention, Jews redefined “miracle” as something that could be enacted through human effort. Over the past six decades, the vitality and civilizing restraint of the Jewish way of life, honed in almost 2,000 years of exile, have been made manifest in the regained conditions of a thriving Jewish polity—one that simultaneously has been under relentless and, lately, spiraling pressure from all sides.

Will authors rise to this occasion as ably as the biblical authors did to theirs? Two recent and well-timed accounts of modern Israel offer a useful framework for examining how the challenge is being met. At over 450 pages apiece, each book required years of research and gestation: ten in the case of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, five in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. So there is no question about the gravity of these authors’ intentions, or the definitiveness of their aims and ambitions. Those ambitions, moreover, have already been rewarded in the form of unfailingly warm, respectful, and serious attention in the American press—and in Shavit’s case by a place on the bestseller lists.

What, then, have they wrought?

 

Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation traces the intertwined lives of seven men of the 55th Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which won back the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A brief introduction situates the author himself circa 1967 as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His father, a Holocaust survivor, is so shaken by the terrifying lead-up to war—many in those months feared a devastating cataclysm—but then so relieved by its outcome that he takes his son to see Jerusalem at first hand. Fifteen years later, the son, already a journalist, immigrates to Israel. One day, he is inspired by an article on a reunion of the 55th Brigade to look up the paratroopers, hoping to write about them on his own. As his project expands into a book, he is struck by a fascinating division among the men that suggests the main arc of tension in his burgeoning story: the split in outlook between secular Zionists hailing from the world of the kibbutz and religious Zionists hailing from the world of the yeshiva.

Except for continuing to treat his subjects as a unit, Halevi tries to stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1967 to 2004, beginning with a detailed reconstruction of the battle for Jerusalem and then following the seven men at key intervals as they move into civilian life while also being drawn back repeatedly into their unit as reservists. A complicated grid, mainly unseen by the reader, weaves in and out of their intersecting lives, telling their back stories and highlighting their individual idiosyncrasies even as it connects them as a group to major historical developments over almost four tumultuous decades in their country’s life. In this way, above and beyond what we come to learn about each man, his family, his personal achievements and failures, we are shown the interdependency that persists among them as their attitudes, thoughts, and convictions play out in the context of an open society debating its future while under unremitting threat from without.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is one man’s personal account, almost confessional in its intensity, of the history of his country from the arrival of a great-grandparent in 1897 to the writing of this book in 2013. It, too, is arranged chronologically. Its seventeen chapters trace the history of early Jewish settlement of the land, the growth of collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), the advance of agriculture, housing, and scientific research, the early absorption of Holocaust survivors and expellees from Arab countries, and so on into the present. Each of these developments is situated in the geographical locations within Israel with which they are historically associated.

A fourth-generation Israeli, an influential columnist for the daily Ha’aretz since 1995 and a sought-after political commentator, Shavit writes with an insider’s familiarity, interviewing leading cultural and political figures as old friends who share a lifetime of assumptions and sometimes quoting his own previously published words as pithy statements on Israeli events and personalities.

In their contrasting approaches, the two books thus somewhat resemble the reportorial versus the editorial sections of a newspaper. That being so, it makes sense to begin with the one that reads like reportage, if of an extremely high literary order.

 

The photograph on the dust jacket of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers is of young, battle-exhausted paratroopers looking up at the newly won Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the center, the youngest of them, helmet in hand, will become an iconic image, epitomizing the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise: v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:16). Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, the culminating event in several months of apocalyptic tension and six days of ferocious fighting, released a sense of relief and joy unparalleled in the country before or since. It was something like this same sense of relief that Halevi was reaching for in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when he began seeking out the veterans of that earlier battle to see what had become of them.

In 1967, about half of the soldiers and 70 percent of the officers of the 55th Brigade were the products of kibbutzim; a much smaller proportion was made up of religious Zionists. The two groups disagreed about such things as the place of religion in Israeli and Jewish identity, but Halevi finds an essential commonality in their animating idealism. “[For] all their differences,” he writes,” religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.” Each side saw itself as laying the foundation of an ideal society—egalitarian in the one case, religious in the other, with the dominant form of utopianism being that of the secularists. In deference to their common zeal, he draws the title of his book from a passage in Psalm 126:

When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

Then our mouths filled with laughter,

And our tongues with songs of joy.

Then they said among the nations:

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us.

Like Dreamers then follows these men from their dream state into daily life—much as paratroopers drop from the skies to land on unyielding earth.

Halevi relishes the evolving diversity of his cast of characters. Among those from the kibbutzim there will emerge a managerial genius who helps move the Israeli economy from statism toward capitalism; a songwriter who strikes out from the farm to the city; a sculptor whose large-scale installations harness the physical resources of his kibbutz; and an anti-Israel spy who joins a terrorist network and gives his handlers in Damascus whatever they want to know about his military training. (You read that right.) The distance each of these individuals seeks from the collectivist esprit of his upbringing helps to explain why the kibbutz as an institution had to give way to a society of greater freedom—and perhaps even why one individual would use that freedom to betray it.

Among the religiously devout, temperamental and intellectual differences also disturb the initial unity of purpose. Several after 1967 become leaders of the settlers’ movement, which for a time enjoyed the support of the Labor government and continues to be supported by much of the country at large. Here Halevi may be simplifying his story-line when he writes that “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz movement became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” For the religious men in the unit, as his narrative shows, it is less a case of symbolism than of adjusting, like their secular counterparts but in different terms, to the non-ideological opportunities and obligations of a dynamic society under siege; when it comes to the settlements, the same can be said for Israelis in general.

No surprise to those familiar with Israel’s history, soldiering occupies a prominent place in this book, sobering in the degree to which it holds these particular men in its grip. In America, only professional soldiers are called up for successive tours of duty. But, scant years after the battle for Jerusalem, the reservists of the IDF’s 55th Brigade were fighting again, in even more traumatic conditions, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Then came 1982, when Israel undertook, in concert with Lebanese Christians, to drive the PLO out of Lebanon; during their second tour of duty that year, the battalion members could sense the eroding support of a country beginning to tire of ceaseless combat. Around the campfire there is talk of a colonel who has refused an order. Some of the men call him courageous, but a religious reservist invokes his eight-year-old son, according to whom it is permitted to speak against the government and forbidden to speak against soldiers—but also forbidden for soldiers to disobey an order.

“‘Why, Odi?’ I asked him. ‘Explain it to me.’”

“‘What will happen,’ said Odi, . . . ‘if there is a war and someone will say I don’t want to fight?’”

The reservist concludes, embellishing a rabbinic aphorism, “After the destruction of the Temple, prophecy wasn’t given only to fools but also to children.” A future generation of Israeli soldiers was beginning, at an early age, to balance civic and personal responsibilities in a democracy where the word of security officials was being subjected to doubt. In the decades after 1982, as Halevi demonstrates in his remaining chapters, the coils become only tighter, the conundrums more agonizing, opinion more polarized.

 

A reader whose taste I normally share told me this book left him dissatisfied. He kept losing track of the characters and had to keep thumbing back to the orienting “Who’s Who” at the front. I see his point, but nothing conveys the experience of daily life in Israel—where the boundaries between war and peace can be as permeable as those between Manhattan and the Bronx—better than Halevi’s back-and-forth between the contrasting yet contiguous spheres of battlefront and home front, secular and religious camps, collective and individual experience. By letting the men speak for themselves through interviews and memoirs, he also projects a feeling of unedited frankness and spontaneity.

The method works especially well in the case of the poet-singer Meir Ariel. In May 1967, just weeks before the outbreak of war, the popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed “Jerusalem of Gold,” expressing a longing for the Western Wall and the still-lost parts of the nation’s capital. Weeks later, King Hussein’s unanticipated attack on the Jordanian front, followed by victory in the resulting battle for Jerusalem, the song, with updated lyrics, turned into an anthem of reunification. Its patriotic fervor disturbed some on the Left. Drawing on his experiences in the city’s liberation, Ariel wrote an alternative version that he titled “Jerusalem of Iron,” registering the cost in the number of Israeli casualties (swollen by inadequate intelligence) and the lead needed to win that city of gold. Yet he insisted that his darker lyrics not replace but remain a commentary on the original song, and he declined to be lionized as a political protester.

Restive in the disciplining embrace of family and kibbutz, Ariel eventually drifted into religious life—not as a captive of any movement or party but on his own, looking for what he needed. Were Halevi a tendentious writer, he might have cast Ariel as the paradigmatic baal teshuva who “returns” to God and religion. Instead, we follow the unsteady path and tortured consciousness of a young man in an open society whose freedoms he has helped to secure.

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

 

To pass from Yossi Klein Halevi to Ari Shavit and My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is like moving from the admittedly buffeting winds of freedom into a long-term care facility. Shavit sets out, as he says, “to tell the Israel story” through family sources, personal history, and interviews. He begins his guided tour with the arrival of Herbert Bentwich, his great-grandfather, on an exploratory visit to the land of Israel in 1897, the same year Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basle. In then guiding us through the country’s geography and history, Shavit selects places where members of his family settled. Thus, Ein Harod, founded in the valley of Jezreel in 1921, is the book’s emblematic kibbutz, while the city of Rehovot, where Shavit spent part of his own youth, forms the background of otherwise disparate narratives about Israel’s citrus industry and its atomic project.

This recruitment of his family is not intended as family history, however. Shavit scarcely mentions, for example, Herbert Bentwich’s eldest son, Norman, a British Zionist activist and author of Israel Resurgent (1952) who was the more commanding historical figure of the two. From his family, as from the country, Shavit chooses only what he wishes to show.

Which is fair enough. But what does he wish to show?

“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” These sentences introduce us to the awakening consciousness, at the start of the Six-Day War, of the nine-year-old who in later passages will go on to experience the terrors of the Yom Kippur War, the Iraqi SCUD missiles falling on Israel’s civilian population in the first Gulf War, and the shooting, rock throwing, and suicide bombings of two Palestinian intifadas. In sum, according to Shavit, Israel’s victories, like Israel’s vitality, serve merely to camouflage “how exposed we are, how constantly intimidated.” Projecting his fear onto the national psyche, he foresees the day when the life of his “promised land” will “freeze like Pompeii’s” as Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses.

By age nine, any child with a passable Jewish education will have learned that the scouts sent by Moses to report on the promised land of Canaan committed a lethal sin when they instilled panic in the Israelites with accounts of the giants they had allegedly encountered there. (“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) The forty years of wandering through a desert that could have been traversed in a matter of weeks were divine punishment for the cowering faithlessness of these former slaves and their spineless guides.

Shavit is either unaware of the relevant Jewish lore or indifferent to its message. To be sure, fear is a rational response in a minority population living among hostile neighbors—but that is precisely why Jewish leaders have so often invoked this biblical episode to warn against undermining public morale. In my mother’s arsenal of daily proverbs, the only non-Yiddish saying she regularly incorporated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Although it tells a story of impressive national achievement, everywhere in My Promised Land the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom. In 1926, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz performs for thousands in a makeshift theater at Ein Harod. Here is Shavit’s take on what can only have been a thrilling occasion:

I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.

Several pages later, he comments on the spring of 1935, when the citrus harvest has enriched the villages surrounding Rehovot and “Jewish medicine” has brought progress to “desperate Palestinian communities.” Somehow, he writes, the “Zionists of Rehovot” have convinced themselves that, thanks to their altruism, “the clash between the two peoples is avoidable.” But this is delusion. “They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

So acute is Shavit’s anxiety that even the prospect of urban development suffices to darken an upbeat report on the integration of European and Arab Jewish refugees:

In 1957 [the moshav] Bitzaron is still encircled by breathtaking fields of wildflowers: autumn crocuses, asphodels, bellflowers, and anemones. But they are about to disappear. A wave of development is replacing them with more and more housing estates populated by more and more new immigrants who are rapidly become new Israelis.

Israel’s triumph—its valor, its initiative, its natural beauty—is real only as a foil for Israel’s tragedy, which is where the real emphasis falls in Shavit’s deceptively balanced subtitle. There is no humor or lightness in his telling—this, in a country that in 2013 ranks 11th in the world on the happiness index. Even his exuberant report on the sex, drugs, and gay scene of contemporary Tel Aviv serves as prelude to a lament on the widening gulf between secure and exposed sectors of the country—a gulf judged by him to position Israel, in its seventh decade, as “much less of a solid nation-state than it was when it was ten years old” (and the wildflowers were disappearing from Bitzaron).

 

What is all this about? One can see why it might be hard to tell the story of European Jewry in the 1930s without a sense of foreboding, given what we know of its fate. But why would a successful Israeli in a successful (if threatened) Israel unspool a narrative thread of decline and disaster reaching back into the 1890s, weaving a shroud in which to wrap his country’s irrefutable triumphs?

One obvious answer lies in the ceaseless Arab war against Israel, which began long before the emergence of the state and came to play an expanding role in the domestic politics of Arab and Muslim countries, in the rabble-rousing of their religious leaders, in the ideology of their terrorists, and increasingly, in our own day, in the mental formation of leftists and internationalists everywhere. In this reading, the drumbeat of aggression that frightened Shavit as a child would appear to have kept him traumatized ever after.

Yet the obvious does not apply here. For, according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them. The fear of attack with which the book opens yields immediately to its anxious echo—“For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation”—and the second anxiety supersedes the first. The obsessive foreshadowing is all about the wrongs that Jews have done or are about to do the Arabs, from the great-grandfather who fails to “see” their villages on his first journey through the land of Israel, to the kibbutzniks of Ein Harod who “burn the valley’s Palestinians,” to the 1948 war, and onward till today.

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

Nothing that happens to the Jews concerns them alone, so it is worth pausing here to consider what it means to substitute the Palestinian term naqba for Israel’s war of independence. In her recent one-volume Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira describes the special strains on the Jewish fighters of battles like Lydda’s that involved the highly trained Jordanian troops. As compared with Shapira’s meticulous account of what she rightly dubs an “Arab invasion,” Shavit’s Arabs and Muslims are deprived of agency, morality, and will. They are never seen to be plotting or planting, they never consider strategy or its consequences, they never indulge in moral reflection or compunction. “They suspect nothing,” “they cannot imagine what was about to happen,” and so forth. This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt.

Shavit’s precursors, who settled Israel, saw very well the Arabs and their villages; their failure lay in imagining people, like themselves, who had been living among and at the sufferance of others (in the Arabs’ case, mainly the Turks) and who would willingly have let others live among them. Some, indeed, did. But this is what Shavit cannot “see.” He will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior. In reporting on his meetings with Jewish religious figures or others of whom he disapproves, Shavit makes a point of telling us how he stands up to them in argument. Not so in his chapter “Up in the Galilee,” where his Arab friends assure him that Israel is doomed, and in response he merely reaffirms his love for them, asking, plaintively, “What will become of us, Mohammed?” No wonder they respond with contempt.

 

A further casualty of this book is journalism’s commitment to truth. Forecasts of doom are glaringly absent just where they are needed—and nowhere more so than in the section where Shavit describes how in the early 1990s he and his leftist political camp decided to bring “Peace, Now” by obscuring the declared intentions of Israel’s enemies.

In 1992, Israel elected a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin on a platform of no negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s terrorist organization, routed ten years earlier from Lebanon and now relocated to Tunisia. Subverting the democratic process, a few Israeli leftists, backed by an American millionaire, secretly plotted with Arafat to install him as head of a “Palestinian Authority” in return for nothing more than his word that he would keep the peace. Again with American help, they persuaded Rabin to accept this contract, very much against his better judgment. Israel thereby put the world’s leading terrorist in charge of protecting his prime target, and then proceeded to support and arm him.

Yossi Beilin, one of those who organized the meeting with Arafat in Norway, now admits they never considered the risks of PLO non-compliance. So when Shavit writes, “Peace was our religion,” he means, we acted idiotically through self-deception. In recounting this episode, he fails to look for where the dog lies buried (to adopt the Yiddish and Hebrew phrase). It does not help that, by now, Shavit recognizes the failure of the Oslo “peace accords” of 1993. In this respect, indeed, he early on distinguished himself from his colleagues at Ha’aretz. Nevertheless, he is still convinced that “[we] were right to try peace.” Instead of applying his professional acumen to investigating his and his friends’ part in the ensuing disaster, with its staggering loss of Israeli life, he limply seeks exculpation in his motives.

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a Jew. So did Shavit’s ancestors. But one can’t help wondering whether Shavit feels himself less elevated by Judaism than condemned to it. Missing from his description of Israel’s “Hebrew identity,” as he calls it, is any evidence of the powerful sense of identity that has enabled Jews through the ages to withstand the aggression of others. Of the superabundance of contemporary Israel’s Jewish culture—the poetry and song, the popular revival of piyyut (liturgical poetry set to music), the theatrical productions, the ferment of academic and intellectual life, not to speak of Jewish religious life tout court—vanishingly little appears in his book. Missing, too, are the finds of the City of David and the Second Temple, or the attachment to native soil that makes amateur archeologists out of so many Israelis; the ruins of Masada make an appearance as a contrived means of boosting military recruits’ feelings of obligation and allegiance. Yet why else except through the unbroken connection of Jews with their homeland would Israelis today be speaking Hebrew in the first place?

Cut off from its Jewish rootedness, Shavit’s Israel finds its main justification in the suffering and supposedly nightmarish fears of its Jews. But suffering is not a Jewish virtue, only the sometimes necessary price to be paid for the privilege of living as a Jew. Moreover, in a face-off between competing fears and miseries, how can the prospering Jews of a “start-up nation” ever rival the perpetually deprived Palestinian Arabs? In his book, they don’t.

 

Doing justice to the story of modern Israel requires the moral confidence to distinguish between a civilization dedicated to building and one dedicated to destroying what others build. Is it really necessary to reaffirm that the Jewish state rests on a foundation of moral and political legitimacy stronger than that of any other modern nation, or that Jews maintained their indigenous rights to the land of Israel both when they resided in Zion and whenever and wherever they lived outside it? In modern times, and in modern terms, those rights were affirmed repeatedly, both in international law and through the gigantic efforts of Jews themselves, who purchased great tracts of the land, won back expanses of swamp and desert, built industries and cities, and repopulated the country in an unparalleled process of ingathering and resettlement of refugees.

Since war remains, alas, the universal means of securing land when a claim is challenged, the Jews of Israel have had to defend their land more often than any other contemporary people. In peace and in war, Jewish sovereignty has required and still requires of them greater qualities of mind and spirit than those that maintained their ancestors for centuries in other people’s lands. If it took tremendous courage to reclaim the Jewish homeland, at least equal courage is required to sustain and protect it among people who are currently less politically mature than they. One can only hope that, in that monumental task, Israelis will manifest in their written and spoken words the same moral confidence that as soldiers they have shown in battle—and that those writing specifically in English will remember that, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, prominent among their present-day assailants are Western liberal elites.

_____________________

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish State, Kibbutz movement, Six-Day War, Yeshiva, Zionism

 

The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy

A nuclear deal is only the beginning. The president’s goal, at the expense of America’s allies, is full-fledged détente with Iran.

The Tectonic Shift in Obama's Iran Policy
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Observation
April 22 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When President Obama took to the podium in the White House rose garden on April 2, his mood was victorious. With evident pride, he announced that negotiators in Lausanne had reached a “historic understanding with Iran, which . . . will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In truth, the negotiators had reached no understanding, historic or otherwise. Obama was celebrating something that did not exist—at least not yet. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had failed to agree on a text describing the terms of the so-called “Lausanne framework.” In its place, each issued a separate “fact sheet.” On some key issues the documents contradicted each other; on others they were entirely mute. Statements from officials did little to clarify the discrepancies or rectify the omissions. One official statement even seemed to widen the areas of disagreement.

In his own speech dedicated to the Lausanne framework, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, flatly denied that an understanding had been reached. He also disputed specific provisions of the emerging deal as described by the Americans. For example, he dismissed Obama’s assertion that the framework would permit “intrusive” inspections. On the contrary, military sites were off-limits to inspectors, because, he explained, “one must absolutely not allow infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state on the pretext of inspections.”

If the gap between the two sides was this big, what possessed Obama to announce a historic breakthrough? The answer is that the president was eager to produce tangible proof of progress in order to prevent the Republicans in Congress from branding the negotiations a failure. He could fend off the Republican challenge, he calculated, by telling a tale of progress—by depicting the remaining disagreements as details to be ironed out rather than as insurmountable roadblocks.

Exaggerating the successes of Lausanne may have been a savvy maneuver against the president’s domestic critics, but it weakened his hand against the Iranians by telegraphing his deep personal investment in the negotiations. Failure to get a deal would now be a major embarrassment. Knowledge of this fact gave Khamenei an opening, which he exploited with his defiant speech. Not so fast, the speech signaled to Obama. In order to get the agreement that you’re already celebrating, you must pay—in the form of more concessions to me.

If past behavior is anything to go by, Obama will give Khamenei what he wants. Indeed, American concessions have propelled the negotiations forward at every stage. A good example of the established pattern is the fate of Fordow, the bunker under the mountain near Qom. At the beginning of the negotiations, Obama publicly stated that the existence of the facility was inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program. But after Khamenei announced his refusal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Obama agreed that Fordow would not close. In the latest round of negotiations, his position softened further. The bunker would not only remain open; it would also contain operational centrifuges.

 

Thanks to retreats like this one, it is Khamenei’s red lines, not Obama’s, that have determined the shape of the emerging deal—a fact that prompts the president’s critics to accuse him of fecklessness and/or naïveté. But these descriptions miss the mark. The president is not wedded to any set of specific demands. For him, the specific terms of the nuclear agreement are far less important than its mere existence. One of Obama’s greatest diplomatic successes is to have persuaded much of the world, including many of his critics, that the primary goal of his Iran diplomacy is to negotiate a nuclear arms-control agreement. In fact, the primary goal is détente with Iran.

In the president’s thinking, détente will restrain Iranian behavior more effectively than any formal agreement. In addition, it will also open the way to greater cooperation with Iran on regional security. Détente will permit the United States to pull back from the Middle East and focus more on its domestic priorities. Finally, it will vindicate Obama’s ethos of “engagement,” which he sees as a superior alternative to the military-driven concepts of American leadership championed by his Republican opponents. In short, détente will secure Obama’s legacy.

By contrast, Khamenei is pursuing highly specific goals. Three stand out above all others. He is seeking, first, to preserve Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure; second, to repeal the sanctions on the Iranian economy; and third, to abolish the international legal regime that brands Iran a rogue state. In all three areas, Obama has already satisfied his core demands.

True, significant disagreements still remain. One of the thorniest is the timing of sanctions relief, another dispute that Khamenei emphasized in his defiant speech. Whereas Obama says that sanctions should be lifted in a staged manner, Khamenei is calling for abolishing them immediately. Sanctions, he demanded, “must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement.”

How will Obama bridge the gap? He has two tools at his disposal. First, he will offer Khamenei what amounts to a signing bonus. Every piece of sanctions legislation passed by Congress gives the president the discretion to waive it if he perceives a national imperative for doing so. Using this waiver authority, Obama will unlock Iranian escrow accounts in China, India, Turkey, and elsewhere—accounts that hold somewhere between $100 and $120 billion. Some significant fraction of that amount, $50 billion according to one credible report, will be handed to the Iranians the moment they sign on the dotted line.

Next, the president will seek, and certainly receive, the UN Security Council’s approval of the agreement. Its stamp of approval will free the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, among others, to expand their commercial ties with Iran. And trade is not all that will grow. The deal will also generate increased Iranian-Russian military cooperation. Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of his intention to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran offered a foretaste of that cooperation.

The president’s offer of a signing bonus will be difficult for Khamenei to resist, because it will not limit his options in any way. On the contrary, it will increase them. Even if he has no true intention of honoring the terms of the agreement, it still makes sense for him to ratify it, if only to pocket the bonus and collect the other benefits that will thereupon accrue immediately. Later on, when Iran begins violating the agreement, the United States will likely try to re-impose sanctions. But it will now find the job of convincing the Security Council harder than ever before, for the simple reason that a powerful European commercial lobby will have come into being with a vested interest in doing business with Iran. Nor will there be any guaranteeing the support of the Russians and the Chinese for a resumption of sanctions. No matter what, Iran will negotiate from a position of much greater strength than currently.

Alarmed by this threat, the U.S. Congress is working on a bill that will give it the right to vote its approval or disapproval of the deal with Iran. However, a vote of disapproval can stop Obama only if it passes the House and Senate with a veto-proof majority—a very high bar to clear. So long as the president can convince just one- third of either the Senate or the House to support his diplomacy, he will be free to pursue his plan. Although there’s no guarantee the president will win the fight with Congress, the odds are strongly in his favor.

 

Détente may sound like a minor shift in American policy, but in truth it is nothing less than tectonic.

Obama has put an end to containment of Iran as a guiding principle of American Middle East policy. To be sure, he continues to pay lip service to the idea of countering Iran’s influence, but his actions do not match his rhetoric. In Syria and Iraq, especially, Obama has long been respectful of Iranian interests while treating Tehran as a silent partner against Islamic State (IS).

Détente requires Obama to demote all of those allies who perceive a rising Iran as their primary security threat. The process, which has been under way for many months already, is most advanced in the case of Israel. Of course, Obama has never admitted that he is demoting Israel. He and his senior officials prefer, instead, to blame the deterioration in relations on the personal failings of the Israeli prime minister. They have spared no effort to inform us of Benjamin Netanyahu’s myriad faults. His attitude toward Arab citizens of Israel, we are told, is bigoted; his failure to reinvigorate the peace process is indefensible; his readiness to serve as a pawn of the GOP is abject; and his supposed readiness to conduct espionage against the United States is treacherous.

The attacks on Netanyahu have been extraordinarily personal. Since the Israeli prime minister is the most persuasive opponent of the Iran deal, Obama is working to discredit him much as a defense attorney works to tarnish the character of the prosecution’s star witness. He is also teaching a lesson to other allies who might be tempted to speak out. And potential critics of the Iran deal are not in short supply. In private, the French, the Saudis, and most other Arabs all bemoan Obama’s policy. None of them, however, has stood up and directly attacked it in the manner of Netanyahu.

To reinforce the lesson, the president has given the Gulf Arabs a small taste of the chastisement he is holding in reserve for them. For example, in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama discussed the Gulf allies’ fears of Iran. These fears, he implied, were misplaced. In fact, Iran was not the biggest threat to their security; of greater concern is internal unrest. Young people, he explained, have no legitimate means to express their grievances, and so the top priority must be domestic political reform. In his interview, the president expressed keen interest in discussing with the Gulf states “how we can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [Islamic State] to choose from.”

Obama stopped short of accusing America’s allies of fueling the sectarianism and violence sweeping the Middle East, but the veiled threat was obvious. A week later, moreover, he made it more explicit when, in a discussion of Libya, he said the Gulf states sometimes “fan the flames of military conflict.” Whether to Israel or to the Gulf countries, Obama’s general message is the same: Iran is not the problem; you are. Get your own house in order.

While criticizing allies for their parochialism, Obama and his senior officials have a habit of praising Iran for its supposedly ecumenical spirit. “I think what the Iranians have done,” the president said in an interview last August, “is to finally realize that a maximalist position by the Shias inside of Iraq is, over the long term, going to fail. And that’s, by the way, a broader lesson for every country: you want 100 percent, and the notion that the winner really does take all, all the spoils. Sooner or later that government’s going to break down.” To hear the White House tell it, Iran could even serve as a role model for the Gulf Arabs.

 

Behind such statements is a new vision of the American role in the Middle East. In Obama’s eyes, the United States no longer leads a coalition dedicated to bringing order to the region. Instead, it is the convener of a grand negotiation between Shiite Iran and the Sunni powers. For over a year now, when describing the goal of his diplomacy the president has repeatedly returned to the same word: “equilibrium.” If the United States does its job correctly, he told Friedman, “what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [IS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”

The president believes that his détente policy—especially his willingness to compromise on the nuclear program—will convince the leaders in Tehran that the United States no longer sees their regime as an adversary. They will then work more cooperatively with Washington, especially in places like Iraq and Syria, where we supposedly share a common interest in stability and in defeating the Islamic State. At first this shift may alarm America’s traditional allies, but thanks to American mediation they will eventually drop their paranoid fears of Iran, and equilibrium will ensue.

The Saudi answer to Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium came recently when Riyadh organized a coalition of Sunni allies and intervened in Yemen. The intervention is certainly an effort, as advertised, to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But it was also meant to send a message to Obama: if you won’t organize the region to contain Iran, we will. To drive home the point, the Saudis gave Washington only an hour’s notice before commencing the operation.

Riyadh’s project of organizing the Sunnis, however, is fraught with difficulty. The three most influential powers—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—all agree, generally speaking, that an Iranian-dominated Middle East is undesirable. But beyond that, they have no unified vision. The three cannot even agree on a common Syria policy, let alone a strategy for the entire region. The stark fact is that there is no such thing as a Sunni bloc.

There is, however, an Iranian bloc: the self-styled “resistance alliance” that includes Syria, Hizballah, and a network of Shiite militias now operating in Iraq, Syria, and, increasingly, Yemen. The glue holding this system together is the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. By means of subversion and extortion, and by playing on sectarian divisions, the Quds Force is expanding Iranian influence throughout the region. No Sunni state has a military branch analogous to the Quds Force.

In short, Obama’s pursuit of equilibrium is strengthening the player, Iran, with the greatest tools for projecting power and influence and with the least respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors.

Other than Iran, the only power in the region truly capable of projecting military power effectively is Israel. But its small size limits its ability to carry out a strategy regional in scope. Moreover, the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict hinder cooperation with the Sunni powers. While the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel now dovetail to a remarkable degree, a historical chasm continues to separate Riyadh and Jerusalem. The two sides can coordinate quietly, but the impediments to overt cooperation will likely prove insurmountable.

The disarray and atomization among the anti-Iranian states in the Middle East means that they (like the American Congress) will likely prove incapable of mounting a decisive opposition to Obama’s détente. But their inability to stop it does not mean they will ever accept it. They will remain dedicated to contesting Obama’s policy, and they will continue to fight back against Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—not to mention new venues that will appear over time.

Détente, therefore, will deliver disequilibrium, the exact opposite of the effect intended. By negotiating an arms-control agreement, the president has shifted the tectonic plates of the Middle East order. And for tectonic plates, it takes a move of just inches to level whole cities.

More about: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Iran, Iran nuclear program, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why Israel's Memorial Day Turns into Its Independence Day

And why this week’s Torah portion fits into the spirit of both days.

Why Israel's Memorial Day Turns into Its Independence Day
Photo by Ari Bronstein/Flickr.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
April 21 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.


But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:
As you come to the land of Canaan
Which I’m giving you as your estate
And I put a plague of leprosy in a house
On the land of your estate,
Let him who owns the house come and tell the priest, saying:
Something like a plague has appeared to me in my house.
And the priest will command them to clear the house
Before the priest comes to view the plague
So that everything in the house won’t be contaminated.
And then the priest will come to view the house.

This week’s double portion of Tazria-Metsora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) is a curious amalgam of physiology and metaphysics. In Tazria we have what appear to be prescriptions, medical and social, for treating a class of illnesses that spread from people’s flesh to their clothes and call for them to be isolated lest they contaminate the community at large. In Metsora, where my opening quotation appears, the discussion moves on from persons to houses, and its prescriptions come into play only once the Jews enter the land of Israel.

This order—persons first, domiciles second—makes sense on a practical level, since the Israelites do not own houses in the desert. But on some other level it seems significant that only in the land of Israel can a contamination of buildings take place. What is it about the land that causes your house to be vulnerable to plague? In thinking about this Torah reading, I can’t help being struck by the fact that in the annual calendar of the synagogue it falls right around the time of Israel’s national memorial day, which is succeeded immediately by the celebrations of Independence Day.

And he’ll view the plague and if there’s a plague in the walls of the house
Greenish or reddish dips that appear indented in the wall
Then the priest will come out of the house to the door of the house
And quarantine the house for seven days.
And the priest will return on the seventh day
And see if the plague in the walls of the house has spread.

Then the priest will command them to extract the stones
Containing the plague and throw them outside the city
To an impure place.
And he should scrape the house clear of any house around it
And pour the soil they’ve scraped outside the city
In an impure place.
And let them take other stones
And bring them to replace the stones
And take other soil and plaster the house.

But if the plague returns like a rash
In the house after he’s extracted the stones
And after scraping the house and after plastering,
Then the priest will come to view
And if the plague in the house has spread
It’s a corrosive leprosy in the house; it’s impure.
And he’ll tear down the house and its stones
And its beams and all the soil of the house
And take it out of the city to an impure place.

In interpreting the two sets of plagues, the rabbis were themselves of different minds. They tended to treat leprosy, an “eruption” in the flesh, as a stand-in for a variety of personal and moral failings. When it came to the leprosy of a building, they turned practical, looking for ways to reduce the cost to the owner of treating it. Thus, they allowed the householder considerably more time to avoid demolition than the seven days mandated by the Torah; they even speculated, rather wistfully, whether the plague might have been sent in order to help him find money hidden in the walls by the previous Canaanite owner.

But there is no question that the source of the plague, whether in a person or in property, is metaphysical:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani quoted Rabbi Yohanan: plagues come for seven things: slander and violence and false oaths and incest and rudeness and theft and miserliness. (Tractate Arakhin)

Midrash Rabba divides the category of theft into two—taking what belongs to another, and stealing from the public—and adds blasphemy, cursing the Lord, and idol worship.

The Torah itself endows leprosy with a curious metaphysical duality. In Numbers 12, it is a punishment meted out to Moses’ sister Miriam for slandering her brother’s wife Tsiporah. Much later, when Uzziah king of Judea seeks to offer up incense in the Temple, thereby violating priestly prerogatives, he, too, is punished with leprosy and remains an outcast until he dies.

But something like the opposite occurs in Exodus 4:6 when Moses asks the Lord for a sign that will help him control the obstreperous Israelites. Along with His more dramatic wonders—burning bushes, staffs that turn into snakes—the Lord simply gives Moses a leprous hand that he can display as needed to catch and hold their attention. Here the plague doesn’t resemble a punishment so much as a divine miracle.

 

In short, these laws are not about containing the spread of leprosy; a non-Jew does not become contaminated by leprosy, nor does a non-Jew’s house. They are about the Israelites’ spiritual purity, and leprosy is taken as an external indicator of the level of that purity within the individual and/or the community. Moses’ God-given ability to produce leprosy on his flesh symbolizes his control of this commodity. One might see in the flashing of his leprous hand a prelude to the role played by the tribe of Levites, the descendants of his brother Aaron the high priest. In their future service in the Temple and its sacrificial system, they will become the diagnosticians and therapists of spiritual eruptions within the other tribes inhabiting the promised land.

But if the priest comes to call and view
And the plague has not spread in the house
After he plastered the house
Then the priest will purify the house
For the plague is healed.
And to atone for the house he’ll take
Two birds and a pine branch and two dyed hanks of wool and hyssop

And he’ll slaughter one bird over a clay vessel filled with spring water
And he’ll take the pine branch and the hyssop and two dyed hanks of wool
And the surviving bird
And dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the spring water
And spatter the house seven times
And he’ll atone for the house with the blood of the bird and the spring water
And the surviving bird and the pine branch and hyssop and two hanks of dyed wool.
But he’ll release the surviving bird outside the city
In an empty field and atone for the house
And it will be pure.

It’s this ceremony, in which one bird is killed and another remains alive and is released after being dipped in the blood of the dead one, that conjures up for me the time of year when the reading of Tazria-Metsora coincides with the annual ceremony developed in Israel to allow the transition from mourning to celebration, from Memorial Day to Independence Day.

 

It took a while. In 1949-50, the newly independent nation tried to mark both things—to celebrate independence and mourn those who died fighting for it—on the same day. It didn’t work. You cannot mourn and celebrate at the same time. Mourners are isolated in their grief, quarantined like an impure house and shut up in it with their grief for seven days.

In 1951, the families of fallen soldiers petitioned the government for a change. David Ben-Gurion, who at the time was both prime minister and defense minister, established a “public council for soldiers’ commemoration,” which duly recommended that the day previous to Independence Day be set aside as a “general memorial day for the heroes of the war of independence.” Still later, the scope of the mourning was expanded; now it is a “day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism.”

The day begins at sunset the evening before, with the sounding of a one-minute siren across the land; all stop in their tracks and observe a moment’s silence. The Israeli flag is lowered to half-mast at the Western Wall, and religious Zionists add prayers for the fallen soldiers in the evening service. The following morning at 11.00, a two-minute siren is sounded, and official mourning ceremonies begin at cemeteries all over the country. Many people take that day to visit their loved ones’ graves. The day draws to a close with the start of Independence Day celebrations at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the flag of Israel is restored to full staff and mourning merges into gladness and joy.

The sequence is designed to comfort the bereaved with the idea that their loss has secured the country’s independence. You may see the same symbolism at work in the bird that survives to be released into open country. The priest dips the live bird in the slaughtered bird’s blood, which has been mingled with the clean spring water, and together the two atone for whatever sin caused the plague in the first place.

The sages do not specify what those sins are, but, in keeping with their view that the laws of leprosy-in-a-house seek to quantify the particular challenges of being a decent human being if you’re a Jew in the land of Israel, they suggest guidelines. It’s a land, they say, that spits out the unjust. It’s a land in which moral failings will rot not just your insides, but your very walls.

Today’s mourners in Israel are impure not because they’re plagued, they’re impure because of their symbolically renewed contact with their dead; and so are all of their countrymen. Memorial Day allows all Israel to feel the loss again and to let go of it. Every year, Memorial Day relives the terrible cost of holding on to the land, thereby accentuating the great joy of possessing it that is celebrated the next day. One bird is dead, one is released to fly free, and we hope that when the priest walks away the house is pure and will continue to stand.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Israeli Independence Day, Leprosy, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

An Unknown Yiddish Masterpiece That Anticipated the Holocaust

Written in 1923, “In the Crucifix Kingdom” depicts Europe as a Jewish wasteland. Why has no one read it?

An Unknown Yiddish Masterpiece That Anticipated the Holocaust
From a portrait of Uri Zvi Greenberg by the Israeli painter Ziona Tager. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
April 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). He is a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.

 


In a dark Yiddish masterpiece that predated the Holocaust by two decades, the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg envisioned the annihilation of Jewish life in Europe. Today, seven decades after that vision became cataclysmic reality, as Jews this week observe the annual commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, and as the Jewish horizon in Europe darkens once again, his work speaks with fresh immediacy.

Greenberg (1896-1981) was not only one of Yiddish literature’s foremost modernists but arguably the greatest Hebrew poet of the last hundred years. If his name is unfamiliar today, that is because he inhabits a strange kind of cultural quarantine. Literary critics in Israel acknowledge his titanic stature, yet in a country that pays high honor to its writers, he has never been part of Israel’s school curriculum, and you won’t find him among the quartet of 20th-century Hebrew poets whose faces were recently added to Israeli banknotes. Nor is much of his work—including In malkhes fun tseylem (“In the Crucifix Kingdom”), which I offer here for the first time in English translation—available in English.

Raised in a Ḥasidic household in the city of Lvov, Greenberg began publishing poems in both Hebrew and Yiddish when he was sixteen. He experienced the horrors of World War I as a soldier impressed into the Austrian army, one of the few in his platoon to survive the bloody assault on Belgrade. After his return from the Serbian front to the devastated Jewish community of Galicia, he and his family were nearly murdered during one of the many postwar pogroms carried out by Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians. By the early 1920s, having moved to Warsaw and then Berlin, Greenberg concluded that both European civilization and the Jews’ place in it were on the verge of collapse, and that drastic steps needed to be taken.

At the end of 1923, putting Yiddish aside in favor of Hebrew, the poet emigrated to Palestine, where at first he placed his pen at the service of the Zionist left. By the late 20s, however, increasingly disillusioned with leftist ideology, he found a new home in Revisionism, the right-wing Zionist movement led by his fellow writer-activist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. For this apostasy, Greenberg was reviled by the left-dominated cultural establishment of Jewish Palestine and effectively hounded out of the country.

Back in Poland for most of the 1930s, renewing his literary activity in Yiddish, Greenberg urgently advocated Jewish emigration from Europe. His critique of the Zionist leadership in Palestine, which he viewed as both derelict in protecting Jewish life against rising Arab violence and perverse in its support for worldwide socialist revolution, found expression in an extraordinary collection of Hebrew poems, Sefer hakitrug veha’emunah (“The Book of Accusation and Faith,” 1937). Brilliant though they were, these caustic political poems sealed his fate as a cultural outlier from then onward.

It was Greenberg’s Holocaust poetry that gained him partial readmission to the Israeli canon. At the outbreak of World War II, having been warned that as a Zionist activist he was in mortal danger, Greenberg fled back to Palestine; his parents and sisters, who remained behind, were murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, he gave expression to his guilt, his rage, and his agonized love for the victims in a body of poetry collected in the 1951 volume Reḥovot hanahar (“Streets of the River”). While these poems, too, have had their political detractors, they were received by Israeli readers as indispensable literary testimony to the impact of the Shoah, and within that context it became, and has remained, “legitimate” to appreciate Greenberg’s work.

 

That is certainly the case with “In the Crucifix Kingdom.” Written in Yiddish in 1923 just before Greenberg’s first emigration to Palestine, the poem is a nightmarish depiction of Europe as a land of Jewish agony and death. Corpses hang from the continent’s trees, its rivers disgorge the naked bodies of murdered women, its soil is toxic with Jewish blood. Europe, in the poet’s description, is a land that produces not trees but “grieftrees” (veybeymer), not towns but “grieftowns” (veyshtet). The poet imagines his mother beheaded by a mob, his father freezing to death while waiting in vain for messianic deliverance.

The poem’s indictment of Christian Europe is searing and relentless. The impossible situation of the Jews in Europe, symbolized by the maddening and ever-present sound of pealing church bells, is to have been trapped within their role as the mythical Wandering Jew in a 2,000-year-long passion play. “Through the streets they bear with joy the man from Galilee,” writes Greenberg, “Yet I am of those other creatures, those blood-sucking Jews / In tattered prayer-shawls and straps around their arms.” Like other Jewish works of art from the first half of the 20th century—Marc Chagall’s crucifixions being the most iconic—the poem appropriates Jesus and Mary in order to decry the glaring illogic of a Christian culture that worships Jews while engaging in violence against them.

But, for Greenberg, no more reliable guarantor of Jewish safety is to be found in Enlightenment liberalism: another European artifact with Jewish roots. “And now we descend,” the poet writes acidly, “we come down from the ladder /We [ourselves] fashioned and raised: the spirit of Europe. / A love, universal, even for Jew-haters.” And while the poem ends with a hopeful vision of return to the ancestral Jewish homeland, with the speaker ready to exchange his European garb for an “Arab abaya” and Jewish tallis, it also expresses deep apprehension regarding Arab hostility and the crescent of Islam that “falls / Like a scythe upon my neck.” If Europe is a ghastly dead end for Jews, their future in the Middle East, scene of the murderous Arab riots of 1921, looms uncertain as well.

 

Resonant with other contemporary works in its expressionism and its apocalyptic tenor, “In the Crucifix Kingdom” is one of the great achievements of 20th-century Yiddish literature and of interwar modernism in any language. The English-language reader will at points recall T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” written at nearly the same time, with its “empty cisterns and exhausted wells.” (“For so long there has been no water in the wells,” writes Greenberg, “only curses.”) In my translation, I have tried to reflect the poem’s visionary intensity, its rhythmic force, as well as its unnerving emotional register, a hunted stoicism intertwined at times with the blackest of black humor.

The poem is often described as prophetic of the Holocaust. Even were it not for Greenberg’s later redefinition as a Holocaust poet, one can understand the tendency to view it this way, what with its imagery of genocide and poison gas. (The connection is reinforced in, for instance, the video accompanying this performance of Daniel Galay’s art-song setting of parts of the poem, sung by the talented Noa Bizansky.) Yet as in the case of the biblical prophets whose mantle Greenberg saw himself as inheriting, the poem is less a forecast of the future than a nakedly honest portrayal of the present. Greenberg’s poem does not warn that a catastrophe will happen, but that it is happening now. The poem demands a response adequate to the present reality, hard as it may be to face.

If the poem speaks to our own moment, then, it is not only for its seeming prescience regarding the Holocaust but rather as a call to meet the threats arrayed against the Jewish people today. Of course, with the dramatic reshaping of Jewish-Christian relations epitomized in Vatican II and its many positive aftereffects, and with the rise in America of warm evangelical concern for Israel, it is no longer church bells that signal slaughter. Nevertheless, in Europe the streets again turn red with Jewish blood.

Notes on the Translation: In order to maintain the poem’s incantatory feel, I have tried, with a few exceptions, to follow its alternations between iambic sections and galloping dactylic ones. As for my decision to render the “tseylem” of the title as “crucifix” rather than the more conventional “cross,” the Hebrew source of the Yiddish word—tselem means image and can also designate an idolatrous image-making—allows this license, and certainly the poem describes Jewish existence in Europe as an ongoing crucifixion. Finally, in my work I have benefited from Benjamin Harshav’s translation of the poem into Hebrew, and from a typically brilliant monograph on the poet by the critic Dan Miron (an English version appears in his The Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Literature).

* * *

In the Crucifix Kingdom
by Uri Zvi Greenberg
Translated from Yiddish by Michael Weingrad

A forest dense and black has grown upon the plains,
And vales of fear and pain deepen in Europe!
The tree-tops writhe in pain, in wild darkness, wild darkness,
And corpses from the branches hang, their wounds still dripping blood.
(These heavenly dead all have silver faces,
The moons anoint their brains with golden oil—)
And every cry of pain sounds like a stone in water,
While the prayers of the dead cascade like tears into the deep.

I am the owl, the keening bird of Europe’s griefwood.
In vales of pain and fear, blind at midnight under crosses.
I bear a brother’s plea to the Arab people in Asia:
Come guide us, wretched as we are, to the desert!
Terror overtakes my lambs when the half-moon falls
Like a scythe upon my neck—
My world-split heart wails in fear in Europe,
The lamb lies down with outstretched neck in the griefwood—
Wounded, world-split, I spit blood on the crosses in Europe.
(Tremble, you young and old, with heads of water in the griefwood!)

For two millennia a silence has burned beneath these trees,
A poison that collects in the abyss and festers—and I do not know
What all this means: two-thousand years of blood, of silence,
Yet not one mouth has cleared the poison spittle from its palate.
Each death at the hands of the goyim is chronicled in books,
Only the answer is missing, our answer to these deaths.

The griefwood grows so huge, and the tree-tops writhe in pain,
In wild darkness; such fear when the moon comes to look
And every cry of pain sounds like a stone in water
And the dripping blood of corpses is like dew within the sea—

Mighty Europe! Crucifix Kingdom!

I will celebrate a sabbath on a Sunday in your honor.
I will open up the griefwood and show you all the trees
Upon which hang the rotting bodies of my dead.
Enjoy, Crucifix Kingdom!
Come and gaze upon my valleys:
My wells lie empty in the waste with shepherds all around.
Dead shepherds with the lambs’ white heads upon their laps.

For so long there has been no water in the wells. Only curses.

*

You will not let us reach the sun. You murder those who try,
While the golden dream still rests upon their eyelashes.
Before the prayer for sunrise sinks into the void.

Hundreds of thousands of them run back to the griefwood
And from the eyes of sheep November peers
An evanescent gleam.

And there among the grieftrees children are born
Severity already in their blood: they wither
Even before the roses.

I will not plant the trees that bear you fruit,
Only my grieftrees are all set stripped and naked
Near you at the cross’s crown.

From dawn to dusk the bells swing back and forth
Upon your towers.
They drive me mad and tear into my aching flesh
Like mouths of beasts.

I hang my naked dead upon the branches,
I leave them there to rot, abandoned to all the constellations
That course through heaven—

In these nights of mine I fall into a dark well.
Jews that hang on crosses come to me in dreams.
I see their wild heads protruding from the windows
Of their houses
And they grumble in their wounded Hebrew:
Where is Pilate?

You cannot even see the threat that crouches by your heads.
A black prophecy pours poison in your sleep—you do not know;
Cathedral bells have robbed you of your ability to tell
When it begins.

Yet I speak to you a prophecy, the Black Prophecy:
From our valleys a pillar of cloud will rise
From our dark breath and bitter cries of pain!

Yet you will not perceive the horror in your bodies
The chatter will continue from your burning palates:
Jews! Jews!
As poison gas begins to seep into the palaces
And suddenly the icons scream in Yiddish.

*

No one is left standing. Shepherds lie stiff by trees
And rainbow colors glaze their eyes.

The stables burn. The sheep bleat madly. It blazes higher.
From all sides people carry wood to the pyre.
A little silver cross craves: Fire! Fire!

Submissively the flock comes to the field to die!
Bigger and bigger the whites of their eyes—like moons:

The grass is poisoned, in the water of the well—the plague!

Once again it is the morning after bonfire night,
Once again a tranquil night—

(A living shepherd, I flash a mephistophelean smile…)
The fearful houses stand with outlaw eyes,
With gaping wounds in all the grieftowns of the cross—

A last sheep left alive, from whom will you beseech mercy,
When your sheepfolds stand on Pilate’s land of pain,
Your pastures (bread and water) atop some smoking Etna!

*

On a wounded body a shredded tallis—the body
Is good in a Jewish tallis—so good in a tallis:
It keeps the wind from blowing sand into the gaping wounds.

A church-bell rings, the young and old grow feverish—
Cool your fever, Jews! I stand watch over the cemetery
With its open graves.
I bear the Jewish mark, a red gash upon my brow.

Ah, I am a king in a tallis of wounds and blood!
I will slaughter Shekhem and burn it down for the blood they spilled
On muddy streets,
On cobblestones,
In stables,
On the steps of churches.

Why else do they have pointed noses and grass-green eyes?
Why else do I have teeth in my mouth and a pair of knobby fists?

A ruddy hue spreads across the city walls—father,
What is it that you want to find with your silence?
It’s time to say the daily prayers.
The stars are coming out already . . . father,
Have you forgotten,
God is a watchman who keeps your flesh from shivering?!
Oh, it’s time for minḥah . . . the skies are all aflame . . . ah, father, ask for mercy!
The skies need mercy, too . . . even the skies above!
You think they don’t feel pain just as we do,
In the flesh of our bodies?

Are you dead? —I will say a name and they will sink,
The towers of the churches where they peal,
The crazy bells, and make you shake so much.
They will endure in memory alone (a story to be told)
The crosses on the steely roofs, and on the graves—
And from each graveyard, oh, by the thousands,
The Jewish soldiers will go forth with weapons
And shout a challenge to the four corners of the earth.

Does a golden circle not ascend at dawn?
Does a ruddy hue not spread across the city houses?

*

A frozen body in the setting sun—a Jew in Europe.
A house in grieftown. A city of nothing but bells and crosses,
Bells and crosses.

The embroidered curtain is gone. The door hangs off the ark:
A broken wing on a decent bird.

The head of the bird lies bloody in the ash-pot.

A penny candle glimmers red in the blackness of the ark,
In someone’s mouth, which is so dark.

My father still sits frozen facing the west
He waits for something great: to hear a shofar sound in the west:
The coming of messiah son of David, Rome in flames.
(So the casements seem to blaze, the crosses’ tips.)
It’s good for you like this, my frozen father.
Your swollen face in the redness of the setting sun.
You are like a sun.

Yet on the Christian street outside by the well
My mother stands and screams into the water down below:
Give me back my head, you wicked folk, it drowns!
What’s the matter, wicked ones? Is my head so dear to you?

The birds sing spitefully. The tree by the well,
Its apples ripe, is nourished by my mother’s screams
That start at dawn— :

Who knows where the mounted soldiers are, the savages
That dragged beautiful sisters through the villages?—

At night the rivers wail and the goyim tell of how

The stream leaves naked women on its banks.

*

Not only the tree by the well, they grow everywhere now,
Our grieftrees; though other folk feed on the fruit,
The apples that ripen on blood that they spill.

Autumn expands in the limbs of the people of Judah.
They no longer scream to the uppermost heavens.
In the valleys a scream, black as night, radiates from their bones.

The heavens are deaf and are blue. The scream never rises to God.
Yet the earth feels the misery borne in our feet,
And in kindness she speaks to our feet, saying:
Burrow, make places to sleep, leave your bodies in me,
Why wait any longer?

Nevertheless in the night a star-chorus rises and sings
And the sky is so tender, there is mercy in pain.
Except that the moon is so red that it looks more like Mars.

And Cain son of Adam falls down on his face at the threshold of Eden.

It reeks and the smell is of opium dens, of blood and of willows.
And God runs around on the snow in His uppermost heaven
And roars like the king of the beasts in the emptiness there.
And He wants to escape from His kingdom—such is His loneliness.

*

Father, what can a community of Jews do,
When God has abandoned His children, the shepherd his flock.
When autumn has entered our gardens and fog seeps into our blood.
Our home in the east is a waste land, a dwelling for jackals.
While here in the west our dwellings are gypsy tents,
Straw in the fire and chaff in the storm.

The days here are only to witness this blasphemy.
For us to stare at each other with black and swollen eyes.

At night the terror, a bird so dark, returns to its nest.

What can we do, this terrorized nation of Jews,
When the steeple of Rome towers over our heads,
And we are forced to hear bells toll by day and by night,
On our black sabbaths and black holy days.

Ah, what a curse to live out each day the way we live now:
Any minute a fire will break out under our feet,
From under the houses—
What can we do, this terrorized nation of Jews
With wives and children lamenting: woe for our lives!
And a bloody hue spreads across roof and windowpane.

How ghastly it is to grow up for nothing,
Like a rock in the street, except bodies are not rocks.
Bodies are made of flesh and blood and bone,
And feel the slice of a knife—

We’re powerless, father, to climb up the tower
And tear down the bells that are driving us mad.
To tear down the cross that stabs our copper skies—
So let us go down to the depths, father,
And dig under the earth, beneath all the foundations
And let our pools of poison seep into the globe. . . .

*

Of course I hate you all, a hate that reaches to my fingertips!
A hate that sets my limbs afire with the poison of this unsaid truth:

FOR TWO-THOUSAND YEARS TO BE THE WANDERING JEW YET NOT BELIEVE IN THE CROSS.

Three-sided is the shadow of my fear these two millennia.
Three-sided is the knife-blade of the pain that cuts my flesh.
I have wondered for so long: how can it be
That those who pray in Europe to Bethlehem
And sanctify the Bible—that they are the very beasts
Who dream of the annihilation of every Jew on earth?

The elders of our people know it better than the young:
Bright are the stars and dark the eyes:
“We live by a miracle here in the kingdom of lions.”

O true-true-true is that which my elders say:

The dead man in the church is not my brother, only Jesus.

Nor their Latin “Bethlehem” the Beit-Leḥem of my fathers.

And Mary Magdalene is not my Miryam of Magdala
With her veil of azure wool and her amphora of olive oil.

Still the hundred-thousand roar their Allelujah!
Through the streets they bear with joy the man from Galilee,
Yet I am of those other creatures, those blood-sucking Jews
In tattered prayer-shawls and those straps around their arms,
And in the year two-thousand I pour my bile out in song:

In the name of the son, this faith of millions is a lie!

Beit-Leḥem is a Jewish village!
Joseph’s son is one of us!

We Jews who dwell in Europe.

*

The fifteen million walk silently past you,
Bearing their punishment, eyes like black holes.
For ages they’ve carried a word in their blood
Yet they speak not a word to you now—
I speak to you now:
A poet and Jew in the crucifix kingdom.

With blood from their lungs, so many spit out
The griefword, the curse, and they don’t see the sun
Only moons floating white in the watery blue.

So many, so many, they go on and on
Over dry land and sea, and the wooden post too
That has one of ours bound to it
Crying out: my God, my God! into the void—

Punished, punished, the Jews remain silent
And do not say to you what I have said!

*

Of course I was born here in Europe
I grew up with you here at the crown of the cross:
A miserable willow by its private abyss,
Bethlehem was then just a story I heard,
Distant
And blue.

True, one is afraid with you here in the night:
That robbers will come through the windows
With axes and knives
To an innocent bed,
Or maybe it seems so only to my kind?

Do I dream when I hear them,
Or am I awake,
These screams for help that rise up to the skies?

To the Pale you dispatch me, from there to the seas,
From the sea to the desert where Arabs reside,
With crescent moons sharpened like scythes
For the necks of the sheep—

To the Hudson you ship me—where our brothers
Save dollars to take back to Europe, Jew money
To purchase the crown of the Slavs . . .

To Russia you drive me, the Bolshevik home
With a brother in power who doesn’t speak Polish,
And writes manifestoes to the people in Yiddish—

O homeland of pain in the Slavic kingdom!
Here is your sign for us: all of the graveyards,
Generations of Hebrews have lain decomposing,
Their bodies are nourishment for weeds and trees. . . .

So where can I go to seek out a place,
Where I will not hear you ringing your bells,
Where my eyes will not see your processions—

The only home left for me now is the depths
A welcoming gleam from the watery deep—

Yet I would not go down to the depths
While there is still dry land and bright stars.

Woe for my birth in the kingdom of Slavs
In the shadow of the cross!

*

Now is the time of the eclipse for you in Europe
It gives me some pleasure that your sun is eclipsed.
For thus does blood still flow in the veins,
The odor of sunset arises from clothes—

O your night will turn red at the crown of the cross!

Your skies that lie over the crosses, I hate them
For they are like brass and they weigh on our grief,
A burden of copper:
No rain for us here.
A curse has been placed upon fields stripped bare—

That you should endure what we have endured!

*

We eat autumn’s curse with bread from the fields.
We drink black despair with water from the well.

At night before bed we are given a serving of fear.

And so each day passes. Their fragrance is like that of willow trees
Shivering by dark rivers in the chill of November.

The owls come at night to mourn the dying of summer—

There by the river our shepherds sit dead
And the lambs run about at night in the wild
Vainly seeking a spring to quench their burning throats—

At dawn and at twilight the world is a beautiful world.
The dawn has its wonders to show, the twilight has wonders.
At night the earth and the body take pleasure from stillness.

Yet among us the old folk now rise from their beds
The darkness of night in their thoughts, like willows
In the chill of November,

In the pain of destruction.

*

Mother Mary of Magdala, how it pains me that they dragged you here,
Through streets in Europe,
Unholy Europe,
To mumble Latin in your honor.

When I enter a procession, for example,
To kiss your rose-of-Sharon lips,
And tell you
That they live
Here:
Jews,
Yes, wild Jews,
That they have wives,
That they have children,
Right here in this city,
This grieftown—

Then inevitably it happens that this skull of mine is cracked, the brains
Poured out into the street,
And they all go on with their procession—

Bloody, I pass by you, Mother Mary, and you do not know it,
And they mumble Latin in your honor.

*

Birds are flying—such is exile, this marvelous exile:
The great world with its bright and open heart:
At home throughout the world birds fly:
From the dawn runs a golden wheel

The waters of Babylon speak to our feet:

(Evening interrupts. In the air hangs a fog full of tears)

Come to us. You are an orphan. Without a home. That is your pain.
You are weary of travel. The roads go further still.
The shoreline is so vast—lie down and float with the currents
Until we reach the home of every depth and restlessness:
The great and distant sea.

So what say you, my withered father? What is your counsel, my pious mother?
Shall we obey? It is evening. The fog is full of tears.
Shall we lie down on our backs and float upon the currents
Until we reach the distant sea?

Would your eyes still stare at all the rosy dawns,
The magic sunsets, the daughters of the land?—
Yet rest, the home for all, is only there in the great sea . . .
Shall we obey?
It is evening.
The fog is full of terror—

*

The wafer is red, the host is an apple ripened on blood,
So the moons lie in the heart of the waters.

They lie that way for months at a time:

Christianity ripening.

And great is the crucifix kingdom on sea and on land.

By the rivers of Babylon what does it matter
If a channel is cut through the blood
That spurts from the roof of our mouth?

The body falls into the water, or the body is buried—
What does it matter, the feverish bodies are standing,
The living dead dressed in dark clothing,
By a pit, and the head of a woman is twitching within it.

A church rings bells when it’s time for a funeral,
A signal to mourn.
And a church has an organ to play hallelujah,
At black sabbath time in the streets, a signal to tell the destroyer
To mark all the doors of our houses with blood
The mark of Cain.

*

Of all black prophecies this is the blackest,
And yet I can feel it in all my bones.
So painful this prophecy, I suffer it always,
Each day in this Christian land of pain.

And now we descend, we come down from the ladder
We fashioned and raised: the spirit of Europe.
A love, universal, even for Jew-haters.
A kingdom of heaven for all human souls.

What a sunset, the red is so bright in our eyes:
The bonfires flare in the courtyards, some Jews
Run hither and thither, and none of them know
What to say: we are lost.
They are blind to the sunset, they ignore the abyss.
What they see is the windmill flapping its sails
Up and down in the poisonous void.
The windmill grinds wind and the wind has the odor
Of old cemeteries in the month of November.

What can I do, a traveler alone
With his Jewish blood frozen in fear
From nights of blind violence: a slaughter of sheep,
What will begin to awaken the dead,
The soldiers on Russian steppes, on Polish dirt roads,
What will make them get up and walk about
Just as they are, worm-eaten soldiers,
The Jewish dead of the Slavic kingdom.

The soldiers who died for the spirit rise only
At night, when I get into bed.
They come and approach my white bed
Just as they are, and they say: look at us,
Everyone ends up like us, everyone.

*

Ten will remain, ten wounded Jews, the bloody survivors,
To prove that our nation existed in this Christian land of pain.
Though they no longer come bloody to the gates of Rome: open!

So mysterious: that the kingdom of David has entered our blood
And this kingdom has territory in poor Lithuania:
And the kingdom dreams an obscure Jewish dream
In which birch trees are tiny and moons are huge,
And all of them melt at the head of the bed . . .
And the kingdom has grieftowns in Poland
(In the night there it often cries out in its sleep . . .)
And the kingdom possesses a wide land of grief in Ukraine
With numerous rivers where they slaughter the sheep . . .
And so on and on across the vast continent
An infinite griefland for graves to be dug
With a place for a windmill to hold up black sails:
Pleading for mercy from under the clouds
And pitching the gypsy tents of Jacob—
And the kingdom moves over the seas like the orb of the sun—

Ten will remain, with necks of sheep, with eyes like birds in fog
They will live forever, and birth children in fear:
Children with necks of sheep, with eyes like birds, with blood like roses at twilight.
At twilight a head protrudes from a window:
Its wailing pierces the stars.

*

Which red planet should I tell to hover in the sky
When the sun is eclipsed by the void of generations.
When I walk on roads and see my mothers sitting,
How they cradle in their laps their little murdered children
My slaughtered lambs,
My birds,
On the roads of Europe.

East-West-North-South—such fear beneath the crosses!
What then should I do with my good tear-laden arms?
Should I sit also by the roadside under black crosses?
And lull my lambs to sleep,
My birds,
Upon my knees?
Or should I stand and dig a cemetery here in Europe
For my dead lambs,
For my dead birds?

*

Such a sorrow-keening violin lies crimson in the clouds—
Find a corner for your prayers at sunset, father-mother.
Plead for me too, father-mother.

In the garb of Christians, your son in Europe
Is a homeless Jew,
Earlocks growing from his temples;
Well, the Christians do not see it—a sign my visage
Is covered by a fog—

Such a deep-toned mandolin is left within the fog—
Its groan of pain resounds at twilight when the stars appear.
A Jew so elegantly dressed
Walks around among the Christians
With a sabbath melody like summer.

Such a night of emeralds. The air is filled with incense
Blue opium and chamomile, frankincense and apples—
In my griefwood, wizened mother, the rising moon illumines
My dead upon the trees—

On our shoulders church-domes stand with their petrified messiah
And their silver candelabras—

*

Dress me in a wide Arab abaya, throw a tallis on my shoulder,
Suddenly my poor blood is ablaze with the once-extinguished east.
Go on, take the dress coat and necktie and patent-leather shoes
That I purchased in Eu-r-rope.

Put me on a horse: tell it to gallop and take me away to the desert.
Give me my sand. I leave the boulevards. I go to the sand of the desert.
A people is there with sun-bronzed youth, bodies naked in the blazing sun.
(No bells hang there above your head, only the constellations in motion.)
Then one of the youths of that sun-bronzed people opens his mouth in the desert silence
Burning for love, (it is twilight) . . . and he shouts to the stars: love.
And in answer a bloody blue torrent of water from the rim of the desert says:
LOVE. 

More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Poetry, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Yiddish literature

 

Have I Shared Too Many Secrets of Jewish Law?

My book opened the closed door of halakhic decision-making. Some think that process isn’t for public consumption.

Have I Shared Too Many Secrets of Jewish Law?
From Mishneh Torah Master of the Barbo Missal, c.1457. The Israel Museum, for Michael and Judy Steinhardt, by Ardon Bar-Hama.
 
Observation
April 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Shlomo M. Brody, an Orthodox rabbi and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars and serves as a presidential graduate fellow at Bar Ilan University Law School and a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.


It’s been five months since my first book was released, and my publisher and I have every reason to be gratified, if not overjoyed, by its reception. A revised collection of columns that first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the book, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, is in its second printing and, somewhat astonishingly for a work on so relatively specialized a topic, has even won a National Jewish Book Award.

But others, including some good friends, are decidedly less than happy. In presenting for a general audience the internal discussions of Jewish religious authorities on a host of controversial topics, including abortion and stem-cell research, cruelty to animals, civil marriage in Israel, and female rabbis, I have clearly ruffled some feathers. As I expected, some traditionalist readers have taken umbrage at my inclusion of lesser-known legal figures and opinions. Yet even a few generally open-minded thinkers have apprised me that it is improper for a work of popular literature to highlight the textual nuances and political overtones of debates within Jewish law. This is especially the case when an author (me) subtly offers his own opinion, thus leaving a reader without clear and authoritative guidance when it comes to actual religious practice. And what if a reader happens not to be committed to Jewish law in the first place?

In brief, according to my critics, the decision-making process of Jewish legal thought is not for public consumption, and much mischief can be wrought by exposing it to minds unequipped to grasp or appreciate its complexities. Note: the emphasis here is on the word “process.” Everyone agrees that Jewish legal norms, like all legal norms, must be clear and accessible. The law must be well known so that people can avoid transgression and properly fulfill the divine will. That was the aim behind the great legal codes of Moses Maimonides in the 12th century and of Joseph Karo in the 16th century, and so it should remain today. Yet while the bottom-line norm must be publicized for the good of all, the route by which the norm is arrived at need not be—and, some hold, should not be.

 

While famed for their robust and dynamic nature, Jewish legal debates were historically limited to a highly select group capable of mastering the intricacies and obscurities of legal language and concepts. Indeed, the talmudic rabbis not only declined to reveal these nuances to the masses but saw benefits to their concealment. One such benefit lay in the prevention of possible confusion and error (Shabbat 12b). In some circumstances, for instance, a stringent ruling might be issued to ordinary Jews while the scholarly elite, whose piety and punctiliousness could be relied upon, were vouchsafed a more permissive version (Ḥulin 15a). Another benefit lay in forestalling challenges to rabbinic logic: “When an ordinance is taught in the [land of Israel], its reasoning is not disclosed for twelve months lest there be some who might not agree with it and slight the ordinance itself” (Avodah Zarah 35a). Even when the talmudic rabbis did reveal a formal rationale for a decree, they might simultaneously disguise the social motivations or policy considerations behind it. Thus, when price gouging drove up the cost of turtledoves destined for sacrifice in the Temple, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, knowingly misrepresenting the law, ruled in such a way as to force sellers to lower their prices (Keritot 8a).

Such recourse to esotericism continued to play an important role in later Jewish history, despite objections that it might ultimately betray the law’s commitment to honesty and distort orally transmitted understandings. Nor was the practice limited to Jewish legists. Historians have pointed to parallel trends within Greek and Roman law and later enactments in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Perhaps more surprising is the continued role of deliberate obscurity in modern legal discourse. Meir Dan-Cohen, a professor of law at the University of California in Berkeley, has documented the “selective transmission” of normative rules in British and American criminal law and the resultant discrepancy between the law as taught to citizens and the law as administered by judges. While acknowledging the tension this creates with the ideal of the rule of law, Dan-Cohen defends its use in advancing important social values and policies. Guido Calabresi, formerly of Yale Law School and now a federal judge, has similarly noted that judges employ subtle “subterfuges” to bring legislative statutes in line with societal goals. And this is not to mention the many national-security directives that by their nature are hidden from the public.

All this, of course, cuts very much against the contemporary demand for candor, honesty, and transparency in everything pertaining to public life. By and large, however tolerant we might be of limited forms of “selective transmission,” we expect our leaders to be forthright about their decisions and the rationales for them, to disclose (or at least not to conceal) their social and political agenda and acknowledge the options they have chosen not to endorse.

The same ethos is shared by many traditionally observant Jews today who follow Jewish law or at the very least regard it as a deep source of guidance in their lives. To do so fully means to adopt the rulings of expert rabbinic authorities on a range of issues that touch upon personal, communal, and national welfare. Yet these observant Jews, generally better educated than their grandparents, also have access to original texts, modern translations, and Internet resources, and are acquainted with the claim that rabbinic texts are themselves reflective of particular historical circumstances and/or ideological presuppositions, and should be interpreted in that light. In exchange for their trust and religious commitment, such Jews expect greater transparency regarding today’s halakhic process.

 

And this brings me back to my book, which aims to satisfy that expectation. In it, on any given topic, I present the complete range of established opinions while also noting the significant ideological and historical factors behind them. Let me illustrate with three sorts of issues, each of which, during the writing of the book, confronted me with both a challenge and an opportunity.

First, there is a class of issues, ranging from the kosher status of gelatin, to whether one can remove respirators from the terminally ill, to the use of a microphone in synagogue services on Shabbat, on which many authorities have taken a largely stringent, prohibitive position. While certainly defensible, these rulings have also had their detractors, not only among those representing more liberal tendencies inside (or outside) Jewish circles but even from within mainstream Orthodoxy itself—to the point where many Jews will respond in disbelief when someone claims there is no legitimate dissenting view. Today, many observant Jews expect these minority opinions to be taken into account and wrestled with, forcing advocates of the majority position either to defend it or to adopt a different position in light of new contexts and arguments.

Second, in addition to demanding that scholars deal with counterarguments, today’s expectation of candor forces them to declare the policy considerations and value judgments that inevitably, and legitimately, have played a role in their thinking. This is especially the case when it comes to such hot-button issues as standards for conversion to Judaism, the role of women in Jewish public and ritual life, and, in Israel, the relationship between religion and state. When formulated properly, an acknowledgment of these factors enables an observant Jew to understand the context—the ethos and worldview—that, beyond legal logic or the needs of policy making, has helped to shape an author’s mindset. By affording a glimpse into halakhah as a system encompassing both specific programs and particular values, such openness can also impart greater appreciation of the animating principles of Jewish law.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the demand for candor encounters the disquieting fact that, along with the many morally uplifting views and sentiments to be found in Jewish law, there are opinions that can and do raise ethical qualms. These include, among other issues, the use of chickens in kapparot penances before Yom Kippur, some less-than-wholly altruistic rationales for the requirement to perform life-saving measures for non-Jews on the Sabbath, restrictions on the reporting of Jewish criminal behavior to government authorities, and halakhic endorsement of corporal punishment for children.

Some writers tend to downplay the existence of stringent or seemingly unenlightened opinions on these issues with the hope of promoting a more humanistic or gentler vision of halakhah. Yet in an age of unlimited access to information, this tactic ultimately backfires; controversial elements of the tradition are open for all to see. Moreover, directly confronting difficult or discomfiting halakhic opinions, whether tending to the conservative or the liberal side, can have a positive effect, elucidating the degree to which the legal vision informing them remains grounded (or not) in classical sources and advances (or retards) the divinely mandated mission of Jews to promote the right and the good.

In sum: legal esotericism, when executed properly, can indeed conduce to certain social benefits. But so can transparency—which, in addition to being demanded in the modern situation, brings with it many beneficial opportunities to preserve and advance the relevancy and vitality of Jewish norms in the 21st century. It was in hopes of serving that purpose that I set out to write A Guide to the Complex, and I’d like to think that the resonance it has achieved will work to that end.

More about: Halakhah, Religion & Holidays