What's Wrong with Fiddler on the Roof

Fifty years on, no work by or about Jews has won American hearts so thoroughly. So what's my problem?

Ruth R. Wisse
June 18 2014 6:00PM

No creative work by or about Jews has ever won the hearts and imaginations of Americans so thoroughly as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and next year will have its fifth Broadway revival.

Everyone enjoys this show, whose musical numbers—“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker,” and others—not only enliven Jewish weddings but are commonly understood to represent something essential about Jews and Jewishness. Jeremy Dauber opens his new biography of Sholem Aleichem with Fiddler because Fiddler is how the beloved Yiddish author is known—if he is known at all—to English readers. “Forget Sholem Aleichem,” writes Dauber, “there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.” And Dauber ends the book by tracing the stages through which Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters were transformed by successive translators and directors into what, by the time the movie version of Fiddler was released in 1971, the New Yorker’s normally severe critic Pauline Kael would call “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Soon after the stage production opened in 1964 (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, with Zero Mostel in the title role), I was urged to see it by my teacher, the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who had just completed his History of the Yiddish Language. Unlike some purist defenders of Yiddish culture who were expressing mixed feelings about a classic work being hijacked for the American stage—and in contrast to several highbrow Jewish intellectuals, offended by what Irving Howe blisteringly called the play’s “softened and sweetened” nostalgia—Weinreich was delighted that Sholem Aleichem’s masterwork would be accessible to audiences who could never have come to know it in the original. He even defended as legitimate some of the changes that had been introduced in order to appeal to an American audience. I, too, loved the show, not least because Yiddish literature had become my subject of study, and I appreciated the boost.

Even livelier than the stage production was the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Chaim Topol, which exploited the freedoms of the film medium to veer still further from the original Yiddish conception. By this time, though, my own reservations about the enterprise had begun to mount. In the original series of stories and in all of their many adaptations for the Yiddish stage, whenever Tevye is defied by his daughters and challenged by his potential sons-in-law, he emerges morally intact. This is how we learn to appreciate his resistance to the historical forces that are trying to undo him. Economic hardship, Communism, internationalism, materialism, persecution, expulsion, and, by no means least, romantic love: powerless as he may be to stop their advance, Tevye is not mowed down by any of them.

So thoroughly does Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye command the plot line and its outcome that even Hava, the daughter who converts to Christianity in order to marry her Ukrainian lover Fyedka, does not get the better of him. However persuasive her arguments for a universalist ideal may be—why should God have separated people into Jews and Christians, and isn’t it time we repaired the breach?—Tevye does not sanction love over the integrity of the Jewish people. Nor do his paternal feelings for Hava excuse her defection; instead, he pronounces her dead to the family and observes the traditional seven days of mourning. Only when she repents does he accept her back; only because he has stayed firm is she able to return to a still-Jewish home.

Of course, it was the generous side of Tevye’s nature that made him so readily adaptable for an American audience. An observant Jew who prides himself on being able to quote traditional sources, he is also an accommodating parent who jokes at his own expense and uses prayer as an opportunity to argue with God. He may be conservative in his beliefs, but he is liberal in his instincts. Indeed, much of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s stories about him pivots on the tension between his faith and his doubts, his tenacity and his lenient heart. But this only makes all the more striking the single point on which he will not yield. His “No!” to Hava is the dramatic and emotional centerpiece of the work.


And here the critics were right: the authors of Fiddler took the stuffing out of the derma. In both the Broadway and film versions, Tevye not only makes his peace with his daughter’s conversion and marriage but accepts the justice of her Christian husband’s rebuke of him as the couple departs for Cracow, Poland. (Ultimately, they would go to America.) “Some,” says Fyedka, “are driven away by edicts—others [that is, he himself and Hava] by silence.”

Let’s understand what lies behind this sentence. Fyedka is daring to equate Tevye’s refusal to accept Hava’s conversion to Christianity with the czarist persecution of the Jews of Russia. The accusation is outrageous and brutal—but to it, Fiddler’s Tevye replies meekly: “God bless you.” Charged with bigotry for upholding the integrity of the Jewish people, he ends by endorsing the young couple’s intermarriage as the benign culmination of a leveling ideal. We might be tempted to turn Fyedka’s accusation against the accuser: some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews. But the “others” in this case include the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero without any apparent awareness of what they have done. 

A similar insouciance characterizes a recent “cultural history” of Fiddler on the Roof. Entitled Wonder of Wonders, after one of the show’s catchiest musical numbers, it is written by Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia. In this abundantly researched study, we can follow the path by which Sholem Aleichem’s drama of Jewish resistance evolved into a classic of assimilation. Although Solomon doesn’t make the connection, the process she describes closely resembles an earlier transmutation of a different Jewish work for the American stage: namely, the replacement in the 1950s of the original dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, by the novelist Meyer Levin, with a thoroughly de-Judaized version by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

As is well known, Levin fought back. He could not abide the suppression of the Diary’s gritty Jewishness in favor of the upbeat, treacly, universalized message voiced by Anne in the Broadway production’s most quoted line: “[In] spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Over the decades, Levin’s pursuit of intellectual and moral restitution became an obsession, which is the one-word title he would give to his story about the American Jewish theater and the Jews. By contrast, Alisa Solomon hails the triumph of all that Levin mourned, writing with cheerful mien about Fiddler’s shift from kosher to “kosher-style.” Her celebratory work has won the plaudits of reviewers and academics alike.


I voiced some of my concerns about Tevye’s theatrical fate in my 2001 book The Modern Jewish Canon, and I return to them now with broader questions. Certainly, the authors of Fiddler were not the first to sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos. One day, I’d finally sat down to read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 classic German drama Nathan the Wise, a plea for interreligious tolerance I had often seen praised for its positive representation of the Jew who is its title character. Nathan’s wisdom and nobility were known to have been modeled on the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But just as, in real life, Mendelssohn’s offspring left the Jewish fold, so, too, Lessing’s fictional Nathan leaves no Jewish heirs. It struck me that I would much have preferred a lesser Jew at the head of a large and living family to this generous paragon who leads his people to a dead end. It was as though the Jew could be celebrated only at the expense of his tribe’s survival, which is just the sort of happy ending that the team of Bock, Harnick, and Stein provide for their wise Jew, Tevye the Dairyman.

In fairness, I should note that Jews are not the only people whose integrity the authors casually cancel. Fyedka, an aspiring Ukrainian intellectual with his own sense of universal responsibility, leaves with Hava for Poland in generous-hearted protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. Poland: really? Here our American authors betray little familiarity with, or patience for, the kind of ethnic-religious-linguistic-national rivalry that claimed—and has continued to claim—the lives and loyalties of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles.

Liberal fantasy delights in improbable unions, and Fiddler on the Roof approaches the issue of Fyedka, Hava, and the Jews much like Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy Cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, got married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/. . . danced by the light of the moon.” In the same cockeyed spirit, Sholem Aleichem’s adapters, liberating the couple from the complicating features that sustain Tevye and the Jewish people, blithely ignore the likelihood that staying in Cracow would only have embroiled them in new enmities and eventually landed their descendants in Auschwitz.

It was the Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill who, having married a Gentile woman and abandoned his earlier Zionist commitment, supplied Americans with their own enduring image of harmonious amalgamation in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. The happy ending that Zangwill conjures up for David Quixano, a quixotic Jew who seeks refuge in America, takes the form of marriage with the daughter of the pogromist from whom he had managed to escape in Russia. Thus does the American melting pot liquefy the antagonisms and violence of Europe in a bland but warming stew.

Zangwill’s concept of misfortune is associated with threat from without. Sholem Aleichem’s concerns were all about the collapse of Jewish confidence from within: flight from Jewish responsibility, erosion of Jewish language, the snapping of the chain of Jewish transmission. Evidently, by the time we come to mid-century America and Fiddler, Sholem Aleichem’s talented adapters were all too ready to assume that the past was truly past, and that the problems of the Jews, like the “Jewish problem,” had finally been solved.

What is it about America—or about the American theater—that leads to such assumptions? I have often wondered why the team of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein gave up their original idea for West Side Story as a story about Catholics and Jews on New York’s Lower East Side. Could it be that only the substitution of Jets and Sharks as the warring parties allowed them to imagine a truly tragic outcome? To fight and die—albeit unintentionally—as the lovers do in Romeo and Juliet, and as Tony, the white Jet, does in this American adaptation of Shakespeare, is to possess something one is willing to fight for, like family honor or group pride. Puerto Ricans or Poles might go to the mat for such values—but Jews?

I suspect Bernstein and Robbins couldn’t imagine Jews in such a scenario—and certainly not when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was already becoming commonplace. In fact, in every Al Jolson or Benny Goodman story, it is the Jewish parents who must demonstrate their largesse by accepting their son’s marriage to a Christian. Refuse, and they would be labeled bigots, which is precisely the fate visited on Tevye by his American handlers.


Guaranteed rights, freedoms, and civic obligations were the great gifts that America offered its Jews, and these, combined with upward mobility, were surely enough to be grateful for even when marred by discrimination. Toleration came somewhat more gradually, but faster to Jews than to “people of color,” and the lure of assimilation was correspondingly stronger among Jews than among many other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, many liberal Jews became so wedded to the universalist ideal as to become intolerant of fellow Jews who wished to stay identifiably Jewish.

This illiberal form of liberalism, practiced by Jews as well as non-Jews, has always objected to the nexus of religion and peoplehood that has historically defined the Jews and their civilization. Judaism invites in anyone who truly wants to become a Jew, but differs from universalist creeds in not expecting or requiring that everyone do so. Paradoxically, this makes Jewish Jews more tolerant of others than those who cannot abide the idea of a people apart—like Fyedka, who equates Tevye’s stubborn Jewish loyalty with czarist xenophobia. With that in mind, one might venture that if Fiddler on the Roof marks a high point in American Jewish culture, the triumph of American-style Fyedkaism represents its low.

Great art requires a moral seriousness that allows for the possibility of tragedy as well as the relief of comedy. Sholem Aleichem endows Tevye with this potential. His concluding words in Sholem Aleichem’s concluding chapter are: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” The conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof, in Alisa Solomon’s approving summary, shows that Tevye belongs nowhere, which she takes to mean that he belongs everywhere. Meaning, everywhere the “old God of Israel” is not.


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: Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Aleichem, Tevye, Yiddish


Are the Origins of "Abracadabra" Jewish?

The first written reference to the magical utterance was in a Roman text. Did it have earlier roots?

July 2 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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

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

Among the many things said about President Barack Obama in Ally, the new book by Israel’s ex-ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, there is one that few readers may have paused to reflect on. Yet in reading Ally, I couldn’t help wondering about the assertion, made midway through Oren’s controversial analysis of Obama’s character as a product of childhood experience, that the president’s “pervasive belief in the power of words . . . reminded me of the ancient Aramaic incantation ‘Abracadabra,’ meaning ‘I speak therefore I create.’”

For a moment, forgetting all about AIPAC, Iran, and the state of Israeli-American relations, I found myself asking: is abracadabra, one of the few five-syllable English words probably known to every five-year-old speaker of the language, really Aramaic in origin? And if it is, does it mean what Michael Oren says it does?

It’s a word, it turns out, with a long written history. The earliest reference to it occurs in a Latin text, Serenus Sammonicus’ De Medica Praecepta. Serenus was the physician of the Roman emperor Caracalla, who reigned from 188 to 217 CE, and in treating of fevers and colds he prescribes an amulet on which is written:


This amulet, writes Serenus, should be worn around the neck for nine days. On the morning of the tenth day, the patient should rise before dawn and discard the amulet in a flowing river, whereupon he or she will be cured.

How many fevers or colds were gotten over in this way, I don’t know. Yet the magical logic of the treatment seems clear. As the eleven letters of abracadabra diminish day by day, so does the power of the illness until, by Day Ten, when only one letter is left, it has been weakened enough to be cast off.

Medical spells of this sort were common in antiquity and were practiced by Jews as well as Gentiles. The Babylonian Talmud speaks of a condition known in Aramaic as shabrirey, a temporary attack of blindness brought about by contact with an aquatic demon named Shabrir. This was treated, according to the tractate Avodah Zarah, by means of the incantation shabrirey, brirey, rirey, irey, rey, which gradually shank the demon’s hold on the blinded person. “Abracadabra” was no doubt such a charm, too.

But if the ancient purpose of the word seems clear, its origins are anything but. “I speak, therefore I create” is Oren’s version of a hypothetical Hebrew (not Aramaic) phrase suggested by others before him: evra k’divra,“I create as is the spoken word”—an implied comparison of the healer’s magical powers with those of the biblical God who created the world by speech alone. Not only, however, is such a phrase unknown to rabbinic or other Jewish tradition (from which it supposedly was absorbed, perhaps via Jewish Gnostic circles, into Graeco-Roman culture), it makes no sense in terms of the gradual diminution of the letters on the amulet. Why would the healer want to diminish his own powers?

Numerous other explanations of abracadabra have been given, none of them any more convincing. Its source has been proposed as Aramaic avad k’davra, “it has perished like the plague.” (Alas, though this interpretation provides the “killing curse” of Avada Kedavra in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, no Aramaic word davra corresponding to Hebrew dever, “plague,” exists.) As the invention of Jewish Christians, abra being an acronym of Hebrew av, ben, and ruaḥ ha-kodesh, “father,” “son,” and “holy spirit,” and kadabra of ha-kadosh barukh hu, “the Holy One Blessed Be He.” (This strikes one as far-fetched—and, once again, why the diminution?) As Abrasax or Abraxas, the supreme archon or ruler of this world, considered an evil demiurge in certain forms of Gnosticism. (This name is indeed found on many ancient amulets, but how did its ending change from “sax” or “xas” to “cadabra?”) As a nonsense word formed from “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d,” the first four letters of the Latin alphabet. (How, though, unless we are dealing with an ancient placebo, would a nonsense word have affected a demon?) And on and on.

One of the more recent ideas concerning abracadabra’s reputed Jewish provenance comes from the late Amram Kehati, an Israeli student of Jewish mysticism who argues that the word is a garbling of Hebrew ארבע-אחד-ארבע, arba-eḥad-arba or “four-one-four.” As far as I can follow Kehati’s reasoning, it’s that ancient Hebrew or Aramaic magic spells against demons must have consisted of nine rather than eleven characters, nine being a symbol of evil in the Jewish numerology of the age, and that the demon’s name was shrunk by progressively removing the letters on either side of the middle one until that alone remained; arba-eḥad-arba, its ḥet pronounced by the gutturally-challenged Romans as a hard “c,” would thus have been a generic term for all such spells, not a proper name in one of them. Yet while it’s a nice theory, there’s no external evidence to back it up. On the contrary: shabrirey (שברירי), the only example of such a Hebrew/Aramaic spell that we have from talmudic times, has six letters, not nine.

Where does abracadabra come from? It’s anyone’s guess. When, in the first of 125 separately published fascicules that eventually comprised the entire work, the Oxford English Dictionary said of it “origin unknown,” the date was 1884. Nothing much has changed since.

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

More about: Aramaic, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Magic


How Israel Got Taken

The new memoir by Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, tells all—except for one thing.

<em>Michael Oren speaking at an Atlantic Council dinner in 2013, while he was still Israel's ambassador to the United States.</em> Atlantic Council/Flickr.
Michael Oren speaking at an Atlantic Council dinner in 2013, while he was still Israel's ambassador to the United States. Atlantic Council/Flickr.
July 1 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.

“More than [about] policy…, Barack Obama was about ideology and a worldview often at variance with Israel’s.” These words constitute the thesis statement of Ally: My Journey across the American-Israeli Divide, the new memoir by the historian Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington from 2009 to 2013. Given the grave urgency of the regional and international challenges facing the Jewish state, and given what is widely perceived today as a severe crisis in America-Israel relations, the book couldn’t be timelier—as the instantaneous media ruckus attending its publication amply testifies.

Not that Oren is breaking new ground in his claim that the American president is less concerned with pragmatic results than with fidelity to a preconceived ideology. Nevertheless, as a well-placed, first-hand observer, his validation of the claim is in itself a highly welcome and noteworthy event. Oren tempers the statement by assuring his readers that Obama doesn’t roll out of bed every morning to ask, “How can I undermine the Jewish state today?” But from the moment the ambassador took up his post in 2009, it was obvious that Obama had (in Oren’s term) his “kishke” obsessions—and these gut obsessions included, among other things, creating a Palestinian state and reconciling with Islam.

And that wasn’t all. In general, Oren writes, Obama also sought to downplay the military dimension of American foreign policy, to distance the United States from traditional allies, and to work through international organizations. Taken together, all of these inclinations, the ambassador understood, spelled trouble for Israel: “a traditional ally, heavily dependent on American might, and at odds with . . . international organizations.”

Where Israel was concerned, Obama’s approach led shortly after taking office to a rejection of “the ‘no daylight’ principle”—the idea, popular in conservative circles, that the United States should huddle closely with Israel on all issues affecting its security. As Oren reports, Obama scoffed at the very notion. “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs,” he told a group of Jewish leaders in 2009. (Although critics of Oren have accused him of inventing this supposedly longstanding axiom of American policy, the fact remains that Obama very consciously formulated a converse principle.)

Early in his first term, the president also made a point of picking a loud and public fight with Israel. In order to show that the United States was changing direction, to enhance America’s credibility in the Muslim world, and to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on notice that a new sheriff was in town, Obama insisted on a total freeze on Jewish settlements. And his definition of the concept was extreme. As Oren writes, the president defined “settlement” as any Jewish community on the West Bank built east of the 1949 ceasefire line, and “freeze” as meaning no construction of any kind. This policy, too, deviated sharply from previous practice; the Bush administration had raised no protest over building in areas that, under the terms of any conceivable peace plan, would remain part of Israel.

No Israeli prime minister of any stripe could have acceded to Obama’s demands; for Netanyahu in particular, compliance would have spelled political suicide. According to Oren, however, Netanyahu did make extraordinary efforts to conciliate the American president. Most notably, he became the first Israeli prime minister to agree to a ten-month moratorium on building starts—to no avail. Moreover, in a major public speech Netanyahu became the first Likud leader to accept the two-state solution: a controversial and statesmanlike act that deeply angered his right-wing base. Yet this, too, won him no plaudits. The reaction from Washington, Oren comments, “was tepid, at best, suggesting that the prime minister had merely performed a long-overdue duty.”

In addition to consciously violating the “no daylight” principle, Obama, in Oren’s telling, also violated the “no surprises” rule—the notion that the two governments should work closely together even to the point of sharing drafts of major speeches before delivery. Here again Oren’s critics have accused him of conjuring up a nonexistent utopian age of Israeli-American cooperation. Yet even if the “no surprises” rule is an exaggeration, he is obviously on to something real. Soon enough, the most egregious violation of the rule would turn out to be Obama’s decision to negotiate secretly with Iran, Israel’s declared mortal enemy. How many presidents, prior to Obama, had treated Israel in so cavalier a fashion? Hiding from the Israelis the existence of talks with their most powerful foe was hardly a recipe, to put it mildly, for building trust.

Oren, however, left Washington in the fall of 2013, before news broke of the clandestine talks with Tehran. By the time the Israelis and Americans were grappling with the issue intensively, he was out of the picture. From this point forward in the book, he writes as a historian, not as an eyewitness, and when it comes to Iran, his historian’s judgment on the Obama presidency is very harsh.


Ally has enraged the White House. The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, has taken to Israeli radio to denounce its claims as “imaginary” and phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu in protest, demanding that he disavow Oren. (Netanyahu declined.) Also furious with the former ambassador, whom they see as an opportunist and an apostate, are Obama’s liberal American Jewish supporters and the Israeli left. After all, these critics point out, in Israel’s March elections Oren ran on the list of the Kulanu party, a rival of Netanyahu’s Likud, and during the campaign he laid the responsibility for the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations not on Obama’s doorstep but on Netanyahu’s. In panning his book, Oren’s left-wing critics have therefore depicted it variously as a crass effort to turn a profit or as a blatantly political maneuver.

In response, Oren has characterized these criticisms as ad-hominem and as themselves politically motivated. He is correct—but only partially so. His critics have tweezed out very specific inaccuracies in the book and used them as a basis for dismissing the entire argument. Oren’s central thesis, however, hardly depends on his personal testimony. The notion that the White House has an ideological approach to Israel is by now so well substantiated that the only people who reject it are, to borrow one of Senator John McCain’s favorite lines, the president’s “blood relatives and paid staffers.”

Still, the critics are right about one thing: when all is said and done, Ally is indeed a politician’s memoir, and it exhibits the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. As a description of Obama’s foreign policy, it is ironclad. As a compelling account of Israeli efforts to grapple with the ideologue in the White House, it can disappoint.


Two distinctly different authorial personas inhabit this book. Michael Oren 2.0 claims to have had the president’s number from the start. But this keen-eyed observer, on whom nothing is lost, coexists uncomfortably with Michael Oren 1.0, who came to America not to criticize the Democratic president but to win his trust and to serve as a bridge between him and Israel’s prime minister. In that effort, Oren 1.0 cultivated the liberal Democratic elite and worked in close coordination with the weathervanes of American liberal opinion: preeminently, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who receives well over twenty favorable mentions in Ally. As an American, an Ivy League graduate, and a bestselling author, Oren 1.0 presented himself to Obama’s supporters, and especially to Obama’s Jewish supporters, not as an envoy of the Likud, to which he held no allegiances, but as a native son and trustworthy friend.

During Obama’s first term, White House advisers assured the Israelis and the American Jewish elite that nuclear nonproliferation was one of the two or three issues dearest to the president’s heart. A trace of this assurance appears in Ally when Oren lists nonproliferation as one of Obama’s “kishke” issues. The president’s supposed dedication to staring down Tehran led many Israelis to conclude that he would always be their most stalwart ally on Iran. This was certainly the thinking of Oren’s good friend Jeffrey Goldberg who, during the 2012 election campaign in the U.S., channeled the common wisdom of Obama’s Jewish supporters. “Netanyahu would be wrong to root for Romney,” Goldberg wrote, in words so quaint they sound almost as if they came from a different century. “Barack Obama is the one who’s more likely to confront Iran militarily, should sanctions and negotiations fail.”

Given Obama’s trustworthiness—so the reasoning went at the time—Israel should bend over backward to accommodate his political needs. Netanyahu’s famous “time bomb” speech before the United Nations in September 2012 was one such effort at accommodation. It signaled to Obama that, in the prime minister’s mind, zero hour had not yet approached and that Israel would launch no attack against Iran before the presidential election in November. The speech was a great relief to the president, who, Oren reports, called to thank Netanyahu immediately afterward.

Oren 1.0 does not say precisely how he advised Netanyahu before the UN speech, but throughout the book he is seen repeatedly urging the prime minister to adopt a conciliatory stance toward Obama. So it stands to reason that he supported the speech, complete with its climb-down from the threat of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet eventually it would become clear that the president’s true emotion was not gratitude to Netanyahu but disdain. In an interview with Goldberg about two years after the climb-down, an anonymous senior administration official, reliving the episode, bragged about how the president had forced Netanyahu, the “chickenshit,” to go sit in the corner.


That Oren is now persuaded that the ideologue in the White House is not to be trusted or appeased is indeed significant—and altogether honorable. Unfortunately, the ghost of Oren 1.0 is not so easily laid. Consider, for example, that in January of this year, Oren, out of office since 2013, publicly criticized Netanyahu for accepting the invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a joint session of of the U.S. Congress. “It’s advisable to cancel the speech . . . so as not to cause a rift with the American government,” Oren said. “Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”

In an interview with Goldberg shortly after the speech, Oren not only lamented the damage he felt Netanyahu had done to U.S.-Israeli relations, but also identified the American conservatives as a grave threat to those relations. In Ally, he reinforces this assessment by noting the distress of his wife, Sally, over the decision of many members of the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott Netanyahu’s address. “Everything we worked for, all we built,” Sally lamented. “It’s gone.” As for Jeffrey Goldberg, he still today professes to believe that Netanyahu is primarily to blame for the deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations; that Obama sincerely frets over Israel’s security like a Jewish grandmother worrying over her grandchild; and that the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran is the least bad option for Israel.

These propositions are part and parcel of a political myth—one that enables liberal Jews and others to retain their traditional political identity even as their party and their president, an icon of liberalism, abandon Israel and repay its concessions with contempt. That these same propositions also contradict the core thesis of Ally as presented by Oren 2.0 raises a question: why is Oren 2.0 so reluctant to admit just how much and for how long Oren 1.0 bought into the mythical beliefs of his favored interlocutors in Washington?

In interviews, Oren has explained that he rushed his book to press in order to raise an urgent alarm about the Iran deal—a very bad deal that poses an existential threat to the state of Israel. In the face of such radical danger, Oren implies, diplomatic protocol is a nicety that Israel simply can’t afford. In other words, he is now basing his decision to publish a book excoriating Obama on an appeal to the same considerations that impelled the prime minister to reject his, Oren’s, January criticisms and go through with the speech to the U.S. Congress. Oren 2.0 fails even to acknowledge the contradiction.

At one point in Ally, Oren notes that “the worst word one could call an Israeli [is] a freier— Hebrew slang for a sucker.” Though Oren 2.0 refrains from admitting as much, he now appears to have concluded that, especially with respect to Iran, Obama played Israel and its liberal American supporters for suckers. Ally, a book with a resoundingly strong message, would have been that much stronger had it dispensed with the historian’s voice and told a simple story that everyone can understand: I got taken.

More about: Barack Obama, Israel & Zionism, Michael Oren, Politics & Current Affairs


Anti-Semitism and the New Russian Idea

There’s a new national ideology forming in Russia—and “the Jews” play a big part in it.

<em>Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at the "Business Russia" forum in Moscow on May 26, 2015.</em> Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks at the "Business Russia" forum in Moscow on May 26, 2015. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.
June 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, has just been released by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

Vladimir Putin’s steely nationalist rule has raised fears in the West of a return to Soviet-style dictatorship in Russia. But what many outsiders fail to understand is that the country is still in a period of ideological transition, with a new national idea gradually emerging from the Marxism-Leninism of old. Among the more noteworthy aspects of this new “Russian idea” is the explanation it provides for the upheavals of the 20th century and the country’s perceived current decline. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such overarching narratives, Jews play a disproportionately significant role.

Home to a prominent anti-Semitic tradition under the tsars, and again under the Communist regime that replaced them, Russia has long been seized by the “Jewish question.” During the Soviet Union’s first two decades, many among its key leaders were themselves Jewish—and Marx himself, of course, was of Jewish origin—but within the party apparatus, though less strong at the top than in the middle and lower echelons, there was a great deal of animosity toward Jews.

Today, thanks in part to still-lingering consciousness of the Holocaust, open anti-Semitism is démodé. It is unthinkable, for example, to regret publicly that Hitler killed too few Jews, or to deny that he killed any at all. But underlying anti-Jewish sentiments persist and have found alternate means of expression, notably through the simple replacement of “Jews” and “Judaism” with “Zionists” and “Zionism.” Yesterday’s accusations of bloodthirstiness, perfidy, and licentiousness have, for the most part, given way to revisionist accounts of the satanic “Zionist” influence on Russia’s historical path.

The content of these works ranges from the relatively sane to the utterly bizarre and lunatic. Their quantity, however, has lately reached an all-time high, even as the number of actual Jews living in Russia is at a historic low. (Émigré Jewish speakers of Russian in greater New York may now equal or outnumber Jews currently living in Russia itself.) What explains this recent surge?

One partial answer lies in the enduring Russian fascination with para- and metapolitics, especially conspiracy theories, the appetite for which has never been met by any homegrown tradition of detective fiction; there is no Russian Sherlock Holmes or Jules Maigret, for instance. Another answer lies in the more or less complicit attitude of Russia’s current political and intellectual elites, some of whom support the anti-Semitic campaign and would even see it intensified (though others caution against overdoing it). But really to understand the phenomenon’s sources and aims, one has to delve into its inner logic. That anti-Semitic paranoia should flourish under today’s circumstances speaks volumes about the contemporary Russian mindset, and demands attention.


To survey the vast recent output of “anti-Zionist” propaganda by Moscow publishing houses would be a heroic undertaking. Fortunately, given how repetitive such works have become, focusing briefly on just one work by one author will do the job before we move on to more formidable figures.

Vladimir Bolshakov is the author of Blue Star against Red Star: How the Zionists Became the Gravediggers of Communism (2014). This is the final installment of a trilogy, the first two volumes of which, With the Talmud and the Red Star and Khazaria and Hitler, were published in 2013. The latter titles alone are weird: the Talmud was never seen together with the Bolshevik red star, and what possible connection could link the medieval kingdom of Khazaria, which briefly adopted Judaism, and Adolf Hitler who in all probability never heard of it?

The trilogy’s third volume only deepens the mystery. Its back cover announces that, in the early 1970s, international Zionism, operating through the offices of Golda Meir—then Israel’s prime minister but originally, Bolshakov claims, an ally of Communism—launched a subversive campaign against the Soviet Union and eventually became its “gravedigger.” These are indeed sensational allegations, and one wonders how such remarkable facts and world-shaking events could have escaped notice by contemporaries and historians alike. Why on earth would Golda—around the time of the Yom Kippur war and at a time of terrible danger to the young state of Israel—have taken the reckless and politically suicidal step of declaring war on a superpower?

In support of such disclosures, Bolshakov cites “Iron Felix” Dzherzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, as Soviet intelligence was called in the regime’s early days, to the effect that on certain issues Zionists and Communists could perhaps find common ground. He does not reveal when or where Dzherzhinsky said this, let alone that Dzherzhinsky was never in a position to influence basic issues in Soviet or Communist policy; in his day, the political police and espionage apparatus were not remotely so powerful as they later became. Nor is Bolshakov himself, who once labored at the lower levels of the Soviet propaganda apparatus, and virtually all of whose “quotations” are of a similar cast, in a position to tell us how important decisions were made in the Kremlin.

Still, his account is valuable in conveying the mood within the Soviet elite in the decades after the death of Stalin in 1953. He is deeply convinced that the Zionists—of whom, he says, there were a great many in Moscow—played a sinister role throughout this period and even into the post-Soviet age in the 1990s and afterward. Consider Vladimir Zhirinovsky, now the head of Russia’s third-largest political party and one who enjoys the reputation of being staunchly and reliably anti-Zionist. Zhirinovsky’s mother was Russian; but, asked on one occasion about the nationality of his father Wolf, he replied, suspiciously, only that Zhirinovsky père had been a lawyer from Lviv (Lvov). Bolshakov assures us that the son is not to be trusted.

Bolshakov also tries to lay to rest any impression that Jews ever faced discrimination behind the Iron Curtain. Far from it, he claims: they were—and remain—all-powerful. In fact, so pervasive has their influence been that anyone critical of it has found himself subject to persecution. Conscientious journalists who warned against Jewish conspiracies were exiled to faraway countries like Australia and New Zealand. True, Bolshakov admits, a few Russian patriots were sometimes able to publish books and articles exposing the Jewish cabal, and lower-echelon “anti-Zionists” were occasionally protected by those higher up in the hierarchy, including editors of leading newspapers like Pravda and some in the party propaganda machine. But on the whole, he insists, anti-Zionists had to be extremely cautious not to exceed certain limits lest they face professional discrimination or banishment to the Gulag.

Bolshakov bitterly accuses many highly placed party leaders of dereliction in their duty to guard Russia against the Zionist threat. In his account, even those not directly in the thrall of the Zionists are depicted as turning a blind eye to the danger; one such was Leonid Brezhnev, the hardline General Secretary of the Communist party who led the USSR from 1964 to 1982—but who allegedly (according to Bolshakov) had a Jewish wife. We also hear frequently about the iniquities of the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary 1985-1991), along with those of his adviser and evil genius Alexander Yakovlev. As for today, although Bolshakov and those who think like him would not dare attack Vladimir Putin for such sins, they show no similar forbearance when it comes to other members of the ruling group.


If Bolshakov’s paranoid anti-Semitism can be described as merely a symptom of the new Russian idea, the roots of the phenomenon go back farther and deeper—and its branches now extend to the highest echelons of Moscow’s current post-Communist elite. Perhaps the most interesting and influential star in the firmament is Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), who in the new ideology of the Putin regime may be thought of as the equivalent of Marx and Lenin rolled into one.

The son of a Russian father and a German mother, Ilyin was born in Moscow, studied philosophy and theology, and in 1922 was expelled following Lenin’s orders on board the famous “philosophers’ ship” of suspect intellectuals. Settling first in Germany, he welcomed the advent of Nazism, regarding it as a counterforce to liberalism and Jewish influence. He even worked for a certain period in the Nazi propaganda ministry under Joseph Goebbels; although losing his job in the wake of a personal intrigue among Russian émigrés, he continued to believe sincerely in Hitler as a bulwark to the spread of Communist infiltration in Europe. Warning constantly of the Jews’ control of the media in the Weimar republic, and of their overwhelmingly harmful influence, he was hardly troubled by their subsequent fate under the Nazis. Nor did he grasp the other consequences of the radical cause he supported, including the murder in its name of millions of “subhuman” Russians.

Even after the war, Ilyin regarded fascism as a positive force, criticizing it only for being insufficiently religious in inspiration, a fault that in his view eventually caused its downfall. Indeed, he had preferred Mussolini to Hitler because of the former’s more positive attitude to the church, and, on the same grounds, Franco and Salazar to other dictators. (If Russian religious thinkers, for their part, tended to doubt the depth and sincerity of Ilyin’s religious attachments, it was because they found in his works more of German philosophy than of orthodox belief and dogma.)

Having lost his job in Germany, Ilyin moved to Switzerland with the help of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. He remained a fascist sympathizer until his death in 1954, though, when it came to Russia, he favored monarchy over fascist dictatorship.

The 21st-century rediscovery of Ilyin by Putin and his friends was a momentous event. Putin took a personal hand in arranging the philosopher’s 2005 reburial in Russia, and has sent his works as Christmas presents—and mandatory reading—to all of Russia’s regional governors. As one of his ministers put it, “God gave Ilyin the gift of prophecy.” He is virtually the only thinker cited in Putin’s own speeches and articles, and the same goes for the public utterances of the regime’s other leading figures. He is regarded, in short, as the most farsighted Russian political theorist of modern times, particularly when it comes to his strongly voiced nationalism and unwillingness to acknowledge the presence in Russia of other nationalities and minorities and their rights. (Less attention is paid to Ilyin’s economic and social views, which broadly speaking were those of the “Solidarist” movement, a kind of Christian alternative to Communist-style collectivism, quite out of fashion in contemporary Russia.)

To be sure, the enthusiasm has by no means been universal, even on the right. To one political writer, for example, Ilyin is not just a suspect figure but an outright enemy. After all, had he been a true Russian patriot, the Bolsheviks would surely have not just exiled but killed him. And is it not indicative that, during his Berlin exile, meetings of the Russian émigré intellectuals took place in a building placed at their disposal by B’nai B’rith, the Jewish “Masonic” lodge? On this view, what is needed for the new Russia is not the wishy-washy and half-hearted anti-democratic ideology of someone like Ilyin, but something far more robust.


And this brings us back to Vladimir Bolshakov and Blue Star against Red Star. In the last third of that book, Bolshakov suddenly swerves to focus on masonstvo—the Masons. This in itself is no great surprise: as students of the subject know well, zhido-masonstvo, the alleged Jewish-Masonic conspiracy, has long been a main obsession of Russian anti-Semites. From here on in the “Zionists” in Blue Star against Red Star become amalgamated with or even subordinate to the Masons and their lodges: the true engineers, along with the people who were their tools, of all of the major and most of the minor political developments in modern history. In Russia, their nefarious activities are said to have included both revolutions of 1917: the non-Communist February one, marking the end of the Russian empire and the creation of the Russian republic, and the October one, marking the Bolshevik takeover.

But if Lenin was a Mason, along with Trotsky and the other members of the Communist leadership, in what way were the “Zionists” responsible for their crimes? The answer, it seems, is that for Bolshakov and his comrades, “Zionism” and the battle against it have always been the core issue, and all other political controversies—including the relative merits of Communism versus tsarist autocracy—are secondary. Indeed, educated Russians who continue to believe in the old party-line version of Communist and Soviet history are now in a minority, and even those who like Bolshakov himself pretend to be guardians of the Communist flame have adjusted themselves to the new line. They may still accept a small part of Marx’s teachings, and preeminently his virulent essay on the Jewish question, but they pointedly distance themselves from his Russophobia as well as from the internationalist thrust of his doctrine, not to mention his economic prescriptions. The new Russian idea, after all, is not socialist, and not even national-socialist, but state-capitalist.

All of this is bound to cause major attacks of dizziness. Bolshakov at one point fingers the late Meir Kahane as the principal cause of Communism’s demise, but a few pages later his villain is the playwright Arthur Miller, and just a few pages after that the Russian politician Gennady Burbulis, an associate of Boris Yeltsin in the first post-Communist government who is now best known as president of the association of Russian short-track speed-skaters. Can such a farrago of nonsense possibly gain credence among a significant number of people in positions of responsibility in a major country?

One would like to doubt it, but in fact there is no clear answer. Putin himself does not believe in “anti-Zionism” or in the Judeo-Masonic fantasy; even the nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, probably the most prominent contemporary peddler of more sophisticated conspiracy theories, has declared that those who disseminate primitive “anti-Zionist” idiocy are doing more harm than good. Yet Putin still professes to be guided by Ivan Ilyin.

And herein lies the significance of the Bolshakov trilogy: not that it is exceptionally extreme or foolish but, to the contrary, that it is representative, and that there is a flood of others just like it. There is still no generally agreed-upon party line in the new Russia; some of the power elite, including apparently the army general staff, seem to go well beyond Ilyin—who was no believer in conspiracy theories, and, as a Christian, would hardly share the Asian (or Eurasian) fantasies of some ambitious present-day Russians.

Just who will come out on top in the struggle for power under and after Putin, and what kind of new ideology will eventually prevail, is still anyone’s guess. But whatever the outcome, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the grimly prominent role played by anti-Semitism in this unfolding drama.

More about: Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Vladimir Putin


Mutiny in the Bible

What happens when the people rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

<em>From</em> Punishment of the Rebels<em>, 1482, by Botticelli.</em>
From Punishment of the Rebels, 1482, by Botticelli.
Atar Hadari
June 19 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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

For this week’s reading about the mutiny of Koraḥ (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32), we take you first not to Judea or the Sinai desert but to medieval England and the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard II. There the divinely anointed ruler of the land is accosted by two quarrelling noblemen, one of whom is his cousin Bolingbroke. Richard reassuringly addresses the other, Mowbray, who is threatening the kingdom through this dispute:

Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,
As he is but my father’s brother’s son,
Now, by my sceptre’s awe, I make a vow,
Such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul.

That phrase “my father’s brother’s son” came back to me when viewing an illustration that accompanies this week’s reading in the Daat Mikra edition of Yeḥiel Moskovitz. It is a family tree. On it, you can see that the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi had three sons and eight grandsons; one of the grandsons begat Aaron and Moses, another begat Koraḥ. And that leads us to the questions that stand at the crux of this reading: does greatness depend on blood line, or is it innate to the individual person and his particular qualities? How should the Jews be ruled, and what on earth does the Lord want?

Back in medieval England, when Richard’s naïveté and greed have allowed Bolingbroke to grow more powerful and demonstrate a just grievance against him, Richard comforts himself with the backing of heaven:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for His Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

Yet this reliance on heaven does not quite obscure from even Richard’s eyes the fact that his right is entirely dependent on his might. When his arrival on the field of battle is delayed by a day and he loses vital support, there is less talk of angels:

But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till so much blood thither come again,
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
All souls that will be safe fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.

It doesn’t go quite like that for Moses and for the successive waves of rebels he and the Lord face in this week’s reading:

But Koraḥ son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took himself
With Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet the sons of Reuben
And they rose before Moses
With men from among the children of Israel
Two hundred fifty leaders of the community
Who’d be consulted as the need arose, reputable men
And they assembled against Moses and Aaron
And said to them, You’ve more than enough.
The whole community is sacred, and the Lord is within them.
So why do you raise yourselves over the Lord’s assembly?
But Moses heard and fell on his face
And spoke to Koraḥ and all his community saying,
Come morning and God will know who’s His and who’s sanctified and who’ll sacrifice to Him
And whoever He chooses shall sacrifice to him.

Just as Richard II’s story revolves around inheritance and what piece of earth, what ceremonial duties, and what filial duties belong inalienably to a particular cousin, this story, too, revolves around what rightfully belongs to whom, what is given and what is taken, and what, finally, the Lord wants. The story starts with Koraḥ taking himself and all the people he leads away from the general community. It continues with Moses directing them to the censers or fire pans—tools of the priestly office they are coveting—and pointing out that in addition to taking you have to give, and you start by setting the censers alight. Nor will that be the end of what burns in this story.

 Do this: take yourselves censers, Koraḥ and all his community,
And give them to the flame and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow
And let the man whom the Lord chooses for Himself be the sacred one.
You’ve more than enough, sons of Levi.

Moses signs off his instructions with a tart echo of Koraḥ’s opening sally: whoever is High Priest is not in office for just one sect, he is in office for the whole house of Levi and the whole community. And as the story keeps reiterating that Koraḥ is not alone, that he is indeed leading a community, it also keeps emphasizing that with every question he asks, Koraḥ is actually breaking down the greater community into a smaller interest group. He is doing the opposite of what a leader is meant to do.

But Moses said to Koraḥ, Pray listen, sons of Levi,
Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you from the community of Israel
To draw you to Him to worship the worship of the Lord’s abode
And stand before the community to serve them?
And He drew you near and your brethren sons of Levi with you
But you ask the priesthood, too?
That’s why you and all your community are set against the Lord.
But Aaron—what’s he that you should rail against him?
And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav
But they said, “We won’t come up.
Is it too little for you that you took us up from a land running with milk and honey
To put us to death in the desert
But you must also lord it and lord it over us?
You didn’t even bring us to a land running with milk and honey
Or give us an estate of field and vineyard.
Do you want to put out the eyes of all those men? We will not go up.”
And it stung Moses greatly and he said to God,
“Do not attend to their offering,
I’ve borne with more than one of those jackasses
And never done wrong to one of them.”
But Moses said to Koraḥ, “You and all your community
Be sure you are before the Lord,
You and they and Aaron tomorrow
And take each man his censer and put incense on them
And sacrifice before the Lord each man his censer,
Two hundred fifty censers,
And you and Aaron, each man his censer.
And each man took his censer and gave them to flame and put incense on them
And stood at the meeting tent door with Moses and Aaron
And Koraḥ assembled all the community against them at the tent door
And the Lord’s glory appeared before the whole community

Here we have the key element that’s missing in Richard II’s story. There, the concept of divine anointment is a relic of biblical social organization; here, you still have the source of that organization: the essentially mysterious, essentially unpredictable force that will appear as and when He pleases and speak through exactly whom He pleases. But when He speaks, the text notes pointedly, He speaks to the whole community. He’s not interested in splinter groups:

But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
“Separate from within this community
And I’ll finish them this instant.”
But they fell on their faces and said,
“God, God of the spirits in all flesh,
Shall one man sin and you erupt at the whole community?”
But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the community to say:
Be risen from around the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram.”

Somewhere in his letters Raymond Chandler cites an example of gangster argot, “Be missing,” whose threat impresses him because of its restraint. The same sense of imminent violence is in the Lord’s terse suggestion to the Israelites that, since Moses and Aaron have persuaded Him not to wipe out the lot of them, they should be what Koraḥ & Co. have accused Moses and Aaron of being, namely, raised above their particular element of the community.

And Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram
And the elders of Israel followed him
And he spoke to the community, saying:
“Please turn from the tents of these wicked men
And don’t touch anything of theirs
Lest you perish in all their sins.”
And they rose up from the abode of Koraḥ, Datan, and Aviram all around.
And Datan and Aviram came out petrified to the openings of their tents
With their wives, sons, and babies
And Moses said, “By this you’ll know
I was sent by the Lord to do these deeds
And not by my own heart.
If these should die as any man dies
And the appointed lot of any man be their lot,
Then it was not the Lord Who sent me.
But if the Lord create a creation
And the earth gape its mouth
And swallow them and all that’s theirs
And they go down alive into the underworld,
Then you’ll know these men provoked the Lord.”

This is the first in a series of miracles in this saga. In marked contrast to the ten plagues that smote the Egyptians, we’re not presented with a mounting sequence of severity. On the contrary, the Lord seems to toss off His biggest miracle first. Moreover, in a story that revolves around gifts given and taken, not only are these people not the Lord’s, but He also has no desire for anything belonging to them, nor does He want people touching anything belonging to them. So superfluous are they to His requirements that the earth opens up to swallow any trace that they ever existed. Except, of course, for the censers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Tell Elazar son of Aaron the Priest to pick the censers from among the burnings
And scatter the fire away.
But since they sanctified these sinful censers with their lives,
Make them into a plating for the altar
For they sacrificed them before the Lord
And they were sanctified and shall be a sign to the children of Israel
That no strange man who is not a descendant of Aaron
Draw near to offer incense before the Lord
And be like Koraḥ and his community”—
As the Lord said by the hand of Moses.

You’d think that would be the end of it, with the Lord having gone ballistic, so to speak, at first strike. But the true consequences of Koraḥ’s rebellion are only beginning; the cracks he was exploiting in the social order are only just starting to come apart, and the same can be said for that little earthquake that swallowed him and 250 of the best and brightest. Amazingly enough, it turns out they had opened the door for thousands of others to keep arguing.

But the whole community of Israel railed the next day at Moses and Aaron, saying:
“You have put to death the people of the Lord.”
And it was as the community assembled against Moses and against Aaron
And turned to the meeting tent
And here it was engulfed in the cloud.
That the glory of the Lord appeared.
And Moses and Aaron came before the meeting tent
and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Rise from within this community
and I’ll finish them this instant.”
And they fell on their faces
But Moses told Aaron, “Take the censer and give it light from the altar
And put incense on it and go quickly to the community
And atone for them
For the eruption has gone out from before the Lord, the plague has started.”
And Aaron took what Moses said and ran into the assembly
And here the plague had started among the people
And he gave the incense and atoned for the people
And he stood between the living and the dead
And the plague halted.
And there were fourteen thousand seven hundred dead
From the plague, aside from those dead over Koraḥ’s words.

There’s another miracle still to come, but for me this is the dramatic climax of the story. You could not have a more marked contrast between the calculated self-seeking of Koraḥ’s party, signaled in the censers they brought to lobby selfishly for office, and the spectacle of Aaron simply “taking what Moses said” and leaping into the multitude who were dropping like flies, waving the incense around and stopping the plague bodily: surely a first case of the Torah not being in heaven but on earth and of the tools the Lord had given being used, despite Him, as a bulwark against social disruption.

Yet, astonishingly, even this plague is not enough. The Jews are still complaining!

But the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
“Speak to the children of Israel and take from them
Staff by staff one for each father’s house, from all the leaders of their fathers’ houses,
Twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff,
and Aaron’s name you’ll write on Levi’s staff
for there’s one staff for their father’s house.”

If you’re still wondering whom the Lord wants to be offering His sacrifices, you have a little hint here of how the next act is going to play out. Aaron’s is the name to be written on the staff that represents the entire house of Levi, including Koraḥ’s party had they still been alive, and including all of his various cousins. At the end of the next miracle sequence, the question of whom the spoils and duties of office belong to will finally be settled.

And lay them in the meeting tent
Before the testimony that I will testify to you there
And it shall be that the man I choose, his staff shall bloom
And I will calm away from me the children of Israel’s complaints that they rail against you.

When—surprise!—Aaron’s staff proceeds to flower and brings forth fruit, the reinforced social order that results from all this rebellion is spelled out in meticulous detail:

And the Lord said to Moses, Return Aaron’s staff
To before the testimony as a preserved sign
To sons of strife so their complaints at Me shall end and they won’t die.
But the children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying:
“Look we’re expiring, we’re lost, all of us lost,
Everyone who creeps close to the Lord’s abode dies. Are we done expiring?”
And the Lord said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your father’s house with you
Shall bear the sin of your priesthood
And your brothers too in Levi’s staff, you father’s tribe you’ll bring close with you
And they’ll attend you and serve you, and you and your sons with you
Before the meeting tent
And they’ll keep your watch and the watch of all the tent.
But to the holy vessels and the altar they won’t come close
And they won’t die, neither they, nor you.
And I here take your brothers the Levites from among the children of Israel
To you as a gift they’re given
To the Lord
To worship the worship of the meeting tent.
But you and your sons with you
Shall keep your priesthood
Over every aspect of the altar
And from the temple to the holy of holies
And you’ll worship the worship as a gift I’ll give your priesthood
And the stranger who comes close will be put to death.”

Here then is the resolution of the story’s complex weave of giving, taking, filial inheritance, and personal worth. The priesthood is a gift the Lord gives to Aaron and to Himself. The service of the Levites is a gift the Levites must give and the Lord likewise gives to Himself—they hold the office to serve, not to gain. And in each case the office is equally deadly. Not only is Aaron’s cousin as much a stranger who can’t touch the altar as the member of any other tribe, but even Aaron’s sons themselves can die if they don’t offer the offerings appropriately. Fighting plagues is not glamorous work.

Still, as late as the Middle Ages, you can hear among Jewish commentators an echo of Koraḥ’s anguished, jealous cry. Here is Moses Naḥmanides (also known as Ramban):

This is the point of the flowering of Aaron’s staff for the house of Levi, for it flowered for the whole house of Levi and in their due. And it’s possible that since it was known by [means of] the staff that the Lord does not desire firstborns but desires the tribe of Levi, so the priesthood shall belong to Aaron without rancor, for he was the most honored of the tribe and the leader among them with the staff and the dignity of that tribe was fitting to him. But it’s not right in my view, because Gershon [and not Aaron’s grandfather Kehat] was the first-born son of Levi.

Isn’t what Naḥmanides insists on seeing as an injustice exactly the claim of all the brothers, from Cain to Ishmael to Esau and Joseph’s eleven siblings, who demand to know why the eldest did not get his due? But that’s precisely the point: it isn’t about being the eldest, and it isn’t finally even about being born to the right father.

Going back to Shakespeare, after defeating Richard II in battle and becoming Henry IV, Bolingbroke gets his own play (two plays, in fact) and in due course has to explain to his own wayward son Harry why he made a better office-holder than the man he deposed:

The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets. . . .

So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes. . . .

And in that very line, Harry, standest thou;
For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation: not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more.

The figure conjured up by this picture of Richard II is Koraḥ, the cajoler and inviter of idle discontent, not Aaron the silent instrument of Moses’ bidding, the man who does not utter a word when the Lord strikes down his sons for bringing strange fire. It is restraint, finally, that this story is all about. Restraint by Moses of his own anger and the Lord’s anger, restraint of competitive urges within the community because the entire community is threatened by them. At the end of the story, instead of gaining high office, the Levites are cemented into their subsidiary role, and what Koraḥ’s rebellion has elicited is a chapter-and-verse detailing of exactly how that subordinate status is going to be preserved in perpetuity. It’s not about the glory of office, it’s about the glory that’s revealed quite unpredictably. And the person fit for office is not the one who wants a priestly robe; it’s the one who’s ready to dive into the dying mob.

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