What Was He Thinking?

By seeking reconciliation with Iran, Washington alienates its allies and contributes to ever greater mayhem in the Middle East.
<em>President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013.</em> Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Observation
Aug. 6 2014 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.


On Friday July 25, as war raged in Gaza, John Kerry delivered a draft ceasefire agreement to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who then presented it to his security cabinet for consideration. Because the proposal granted Hamas a significant political victory—acquiescing, up front, in a number of the terrorist group’s key demands while failing even to mention Israel’s two primary concerns of infiltration tunnels and rockets—the ministers unanimously rejected it.

When unnamed officials leaked the document to Israel’s habitually left-leaning press, along with an account of the government’s thinking, a firestorm of indignation erupted—not, however, at Netanyahu but at the American Secretary of State. The views of one highly respected journalist were typical. Kerry’s proposal, he wrote, “raises serious doubts over his judgment. . . . It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation but an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East.”

The journalist in question, Barak Ravid, is the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, the flagship publication of the Israeli Left. Remarkably, Ravid was not alone among his colleagues. Some of the most vituperative attacks on Kerry came from critics of Netanyahu—columnists and others who regard the prime minister’s support for Israeli settlements as the greatest impediment to peace with the Palestinians.

What accounts for this unprecedented show of unanimity? Wartime solidarity, in part—but only in part. No less dismaying to the Israeli Left was the way Kerry’s proposal shunted aside both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a mad rush to embrace Hamas, Turkey, and Qatar as trusted interlocutors. In the eyes of Israeli leftists, the PA and Egypt are essential to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, and any proposal that diminishes their standing is ignorant and misguided.

“It’s not clear what Kerry was thinking,” Ravid wrote. Indeed, Kerry’s Israeli critics assumed that he was not thinking at all. One commentator accused him of a “rookie mistake.” But this evaluation assigns responsibility to the wrong man, and incorrectly identifies the nature of the miscalculation. The true architect of the fiasco was not Kerry but President Obama, and the blunder was no tactical mishap. Rather, it was the logical product of a grand strategy, and fits seamlessly into an unmistakably broad pattern.

All across the Middle East, the traditional allies of the United States, just like the Israeli Left, feel that Obama has betrayed them. Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis, and Turks, despite the very real differences among them, nurture grievances similar in kind to those expressed on the pages of Haaretz. Ravid’s question—“What was Kerry thinking?”—deserves to be recast. It would get closer to the heart of the matter to ask what the president was thinking.

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: the president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

 

During the latter decades of the cold war, American presidents developed a strong sense of “our team” and “their team” when it came to the Middle East. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that attitude persisted—even as “their team” transformed itself from the Soviet camp into Iran’s so-called Resistance Alliance, which includes such otherwise disparate partners and proxies as Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Obama has abandoned that conception entirely. To be sure, he still pays lip service to countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. But in practice, nothing could be farther from his mind. Last January, he offered what is undoubtedly a more accurate account of his thinking when he mused about Iran becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . [Sunni] Gulf states and [Shiite] Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

Two key assumptions inform this line of reasoning. First, the president posits that Iran is now a defensive power. Holding on for dear life in the volatile Middle East, it has no sustained interest in undermining the United States, which might even serve as its ally in countering Sunni extremism. Second, Hamas and Hizballah are similarly defensive—and ready, under the right circumstances, to moderate their aggressive hostility.

In brief, President Obama now thinks of the region’s politics in terms of a roundtable. Everyone seated at it is potentially equal to everyone else, and the job of the United States is to narrow the gaps among antagonists in an effort to bring the system to the desired state of “equilibrium.” It was precisely this concept that informed American diplomacy over the Gaza ceasefire. Although the administration was quickly forced to backpedal and abandon its proposal in the face of opposition from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the incident illustrated starkly how its Ahab-like fixation on a grand bargain with Iran has created a culture that makes stiffing American allies just a normal part of doing business.

Is it necessary to point out that those allies see the politics of the region very differently? They envisage not a round table but, at best, a rectangular one, with their team sitting on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. They expect the United States either to join their side or to tilt heavily in their favor.

They also see something else: the complex and multiform divisions on the ground that make the Middle East so challenging. In addition to the rift between Iran and its opponents, there also exists a rivalry between those states, preeminently Turkey and Qatar, that support the Muslim Brotherhood and those, preeminently Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that oppose it. Because Hamas is both an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a proxy of Iran, these two rivalries have intersected in the Gaza war—which is why, in the eyes of Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Hamas represents a double threat. Even though the spectacle of a Jewish military victory over a Palestinian adversary is profoundly unpopular on their own streets, they are eager to see Israel crush that threat.

When John Kerry developed his ceasefire proposal, he largely ignored all this, and particularly the preferences of Riyadh and Cairo. Not only was he enhancing Hamas’s power and prestige but, through his courtship of Turkey and Qatar, he was also offering it a path out from under the thumb of the Egyptians. Still worse, Kerry’s proposal was a windfall for the Iranians, who have played an indispensable role in building Hamas’s military machine and who, even as Kerry was working to settle the conflict, egged Hamas on against Israel. Whether Kerry consciously intended to benefit Iran is immaterial. The roundtable approach to Middle East problems, the fruitless search for equilibrium, automatically works to Iran’s advantage.

 

No wonder, then, that Obama’s policies are in a shambles. It is impossible to succeed in the Middle East without partners, and so long as he remains bent on empowering Iran and its proxies (who, for their part, continue to make no secret of their loathing for the United States), America’s traditional allies will withhold their own support for Washington’s initiatives. This fact raises a question: when it finally becomes obvious not only that the president’s policy will never work but that it has, in fact, contributed to producing ever greater mayhem and carnage in the region, will he reverse field? 

The answer is no. Early on his presidency, perhaps even before he was inaugurated, Obama resolved that he would be remembered in history for pulling the United States back from the Middle East—for ending wars, not starting them. The roundtable approach is his scenario for what should replace the American-led order of yesteryear. To admit that an equilibrium with Iran is a chimera—and that instead of ending wars he has helped prolong and multiply them—would be tantamount to renouncing his cherished legacy.

The president has already displayed an extremely high tolerance for turmoil in the Middle East, and he will display an even higher one before entertaining the notion that his strategy is profoundly misconceived. “Apparently,” Obama said in a recent press conference, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world, and so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backward. That’s been true in the Middle East.”

Our current step backward will undoubtedly last for at least two more years—at untold cost to the region, to us, and to “our team.” As Libya crumbles, Syria and Gaza burn, and the “caliphate” leaves a trail of headless corpses from Baghdad to Damascus, more rivers of blood will flow. America’s allies are on their own. 

_______________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

More about: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Hamas, Iran, John Kerry, Middle East

 

The Vanished Jews of Oria

Negotiating for a country home, a classical singer and cantor uncovers traces of Italian Jewry’s medieval golden age.

<em>Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter.</em> Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
Sign for Oria's Jewish Quarter. Daniel Ventura/Wikimedia.
 
Observation
July 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Mark Glanville, a bass baritone, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, New Israeli Opera, and on the recital stage, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir.


Five years ago, I had never heard of Oria, let alone its Jews—even after a decade of regular sojourns in Puglia (Apulia), the southeastern province that occupies the heel of Italy’s boot. Traces of Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Arabic, French, Norman, Spanish, Turkish, German, and even Gypsy culture: all these I had encountered. But I’d concluded that this remarkable region wasn’t a place where Jews had made much of an impression.

True, I knew the story of San Nicandro, some of whose inhabitants had converted to Judaism at the oddest time imaginable, just as Hitler had begun massacring communities all over Europe. True, too, remnants of an earlier Jewish population could be found at the functioning synagogue of Scolanova at Trani, in Puglia’s north. Descendants of 13th-century forced converts to Christianity under the Angevins, they had continued to practice their faith in secret until free to return openly to Judaism. But these days? Reveal your Jewish provenance to a Pugliese, and he’ll likely smile and say you’re the first Jew he’s ever met.

So when, answering an ad for a 17th-century country mansion (masseria), I parked for the first time outside one of the entrances to Oria’s medieval center and beheld in front of me a giant bronze menorah, I was astonished. But I shouldn’t have been. As a plaque on the wall announced, I was at the entrance to the Rione Giudea (Jewish quarter), and more specifically in the Piazza Shabettai Donnolo.

My real-estate agent enlightened me further: though the town had once hosted a significant community, there had been no Jewish presence in Oria for about a thousand years. Delighted to learn that I was a Jew myself, he drove me down the tiled central street of the old Jewish quarter, whose twisting alleys, blind passageways, and tiny lanes decorated with archways, portals, and steep stairways struck me as reminiscent of the ancient Middle East or North Africa.

As weeks passed, and negotiations for the masseria drew to a close, the agent put me in touch with an Orthodox British Jew named Graham Morris who recently had been visiting Oria on a regular basis, often escorting groups of American Jewish tourists around the town’s Jewish landmarks. In his first email to me, Graham remarked that he was fond of telling “the worthies in Oria that at the holiest hour of the holiest day of the year, several million Jews sing a hymn crafted in Oria a millennium ago!”

This got to me. As the regular High Holy Days cantor at a synagogue in central London, surely I had to be one of those millions. And indeed Graham’s “hymn” turned out to be Ezkerah Elohim, a piyyut (liturgical poem) composed by Amittai ben Shephatiah, who lived in Oria in the 10th century. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the hymn is recited during the final supplications of the Yom Kippur service, and I had been chanting it for twenty years.

I remember, oh God, and lament
When I see every city built on its foundations
And the City of God degraded to the nethermost pit.

The thought that a prayer of such importance had been written in this quiet, forgotten southern Italian town where I had just bought a home made me shiver.

Cantor Tzvi Weiss sings Leib Glantz’s setting of Ezkerah Elohim.

 

What had life actually been like in this beautiful town, set in an agricultural landscape dominated by olive groves and vineyards? Through Graham Morris I came to meet Giuseppe d’Amico, whose short book, La Communità Ebraica Oritana e il suo Rione (“Oria’s Jewish Community and its Quarter”), provides as good an introduction as any to the subject. A septuagenarian teacher of classics who still entertains himself by writing Latin elegiacs and ancient Greek alcaics, d’Amico took me to the site of the Jewish cemetery, its tranquil charm marred only by a telecommunications tower visible for miles around. From here, he was able to point out the perimeter of the much larger medieval town in which the Jewish community once lived. Oria had been a city of considerable importance, and the Jewish cemetery was situated just outside it.

D’Amico reeled off a few salient points of local history. Most notable was the black year of 925, when a Saracen army sacked the city, killing 6,000 of its men and taking 10,000 women and children prisoner. Among the dead were no fewer than ten rabbis, a figure itself suggestive of a sizable Jewish presence. Later, guided by d’Amico’s book, which is infused with the same passion as his speech, I gleaned a fuller portrait not only of the town and its Jews but of the rich Jewish history of Puglia itself.

Greek-speaking Jews had lived in Puglia since Roman times, and it was here that rabbinic scholarship gained its first foothold in Christian Europe. A medieval legend explains how talmudic erudition spread from its older center in Babylonia (Iraq) throughout the Mediterranean. It seems that four rabbis, having set sail from the port of Bari—Puglia’s largest city— were captured en route and sold into slavery at various locales. Ransomed by the local Jews, they proceeded to plant the seeds of Torah study in Tunisia, Egypt, and Spain. Ashkenazi Jews, too, trace their intellectual heritage to Puglia. Jacob ben Meir Tam, the great talmudist of 12th-century France, is said to have declared—playing on Isaiah 2:3—that “the Torah shall come forth from Bari, and the word of the Lord from Otranto.”

In this setting, Oria’s Jews exhibited their own brand of scholarly activity. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, in addition to numerous religious and mystical works, they produced important scientific and medical treatises, plus an important work of history (more on this below). Whether they were equally productive as farmers is uncertain, but an 11th-century manuscript copy of the Mishnah bears marginal annotations in the obscure and colorful dialect of southern Puglia, written in Hebrew script and referring almost entirely to agricultural terminology and procedures. “Mittene litame cannizza i vardezzona” (spread a wattle of dung and grass), says one, citing a technique for protecting trees from harmful insects. “Karmenatu in unu filatu intessutu” (carded, spun, and woven) says another, referring to the preparation of wool.

In Italy’s most fertile zone, were Oria’s Jews no less a people of the land than their neighbors? Oria’s chief product at the time was cloth, especially silk, and Mediterranean Jews, one scholar writes, were in general known “as planters of mulberry trees, breeders of silk-worms, weavers, and dyers of silk and purple fabrics. They carried the art into Sicily and became its chief promoters and artisans there. . . . From Sicily it was easily transmitted to Italy where it was developed with equal skill and enterprise.” It is thus quite possible that this was a trade in which the Jews of Oria also excelled and to which their wealth may be attributed.

 

To return to that work of history: through d’Amico I was introduced to the extraordinary Sefer Yuḥasin (“Book of Genealogies”) a hodgepodge of legend and chronicle written by a certain Aḥimaats ben Paltiel in 1053 and known also as “The Chronicle of Aḥimaats.” I saw a copy in the town’s library: an elegant edition with parallel Hebrew and Italian texts and commentary by Cesare Colafemmina, the subject’s foremost authority.

Sefer Yuḥasin (not to be confused with the later work of that name by Abraham Zacuto, 1452-ca.1515) was the first book to shed light on Jewish history during the period long dismissed as the “Dark Ages.” Surviving in a single manuscript copy, Aḥimaats’s book was rediscovered in 1869 in Toledo in a codex dating from the 14th or 15th century. Colafemmina believes it to be one of the Jewish texts stolen from the long-suffering Jews of the Roman ghetto and carried off on 38 carts one night in April 1753 by agents of the Vatican.

Its significance cannot be underestimated. Sefer Yuḥasin sets the southern Italian Jews of that period, as well as such important figures as Amittai ben Shephatiah, the author of Ezkerah Elohim, in their correct historical context. Basing themselves on Amittai’s mournful output, scholars had once placed him either close to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE or, alternatively, at the end the 11th century (just after the First Crusade). Thanks to Sefer Yuḥasin, we now know that he wrote in the 9th century, in the wake of the brutal persecutions initiated throughout the Byzantine empire by the icon-worshipping emperor Basil I (867-886).

Of course, as a true historical source, Sefer Yuḥasin is unreliable. But it is highly readable and entertaining. Among its accounts of miracles wrought by wonder-working rabbis is the tale of Abu Aaron of Babylon (773-816), who visited Oria in the middle of the 9th century and  found there “tents of study set up by rivers, planted and thriving like trees by the waters, schools established, rooted like cedars growing at the side of flowing streams.” Aḥimaats tells us how Abu Aaron restored to human form a boy who had been turned into a mule by an evil sorceress and bound to a millstone “to make him grind as long as he lived.” Another miracle, wrought by none other than Shephatiah, father of the poet Amittai, relates to the historically verified edicts of Basil I, in which Jews of Puglia who failed to convert were ordered to be crushed in an olive press.

“Basil had a daughter whom he loved as the apple of his eye,” Aḥimaats informs us. “An evil spirit tormented her. He could not find a cure for her. He spoke to Shephatiah in secret and with earnest entreaty said, ‘Help me, Shephatiah, and cure my daughter of her affliction,’ and Shephatiah answered, ‘With the help of the Almighty, I will surely do so.” Shephatiah then exorcised the spirit, stuck it in a leaden chest, and dropped it into the sea. When the delighted emperor invited Shephatiah to request a boon, the latter replied, “in sorrow and bitter weeping, ‘If thou, my lord, wouldst favor Shephatiah, let there be peace for those engaged in the study of the law. Do not force them to abandon the law of God, and do not crush them in sorrow and affliction.’”

Basil, infuriated by this request, which he perceived as spurning his offer, nonetheless issued an edict “commanding that no persecution take place in the city of Oria.” But Oria was to be the exception. For “then the wicked king continued to send emissaries into all the provinces and ordered his agents to fall upon [the Jews], to force them out of their religion and convert them to the errors and folly of his faith. The sun and moon were darkened for 25 years, until the day of his death. Cursed be his end.”

Though we also learn from Sefer Yuḥasin about the later, brutal incursions of the Saracens, responsible for the devastation of 925, it is the Byzantines for whom Aḥimaats reserves his ire—perhaps because, while the Saracens targeted all of the citizens of Oria, irrespective of religion, Basil’s legislation was rooted specifically in anti-Semitism.

The strangest aspect of Sefer Yuḥasin is not what is written in it, but what is left out. The chronicle contains no mention of Oria’s greatest son, Shabbetai Donnolo, whose name graces not only the square where I first became aware of the Jews of Oria but also a street and a hospital in Tel Aviv. Why a hospital?  Donnolo’s milestone work, Sefer ha-Mirkaḥot (“Book of Mixtures”), was the first medical text to be written in Italy after the fall of the Roman empire and the oldest Hebrew medical text in Europe. It also makes generous use of non-Jewish sources. (Could this have struck the ever-proud Aḥimaats as an unforgivable transgression?) Donnolo was also an accomplished poet, the author of an important work on astronomy and astrology, and the coiner of many Hebrew words and phrases still in use today.

While Aḥimaats’s anger is stirred by the Byzantines, Donnolo’s own bitterness was quickened by the Saracens who in 925 destroyed his community and sold him into slavery. It is he, I realized when I came to read Andrew Sharf’s The Universe of Shabbetai Donnolo, who detailed the atrocities committed by the Arabs in that fateful year, not least among them the murder of the ten rabbis.

 

What would Shabbetai Donnolo have thought had he known that Arabs were to return to Oria a thousand years later in rather different circumstances? I had arranged to meet Giuseppe d’Amico just outside the old Jewish quarter where I would be translating his reconstruction of local Jewish history for the benefit of a group of 80 Anglophone Jewish tourists who had come to Puglia to celebrate Passover. D’Amico began by repeating Donnolo’s bitter threnody on the events of 925, and I thought I detected a contemporary overtone in his words.

To an outsider, Oria’s streets may have seemed calm, but its citizens were uneasy. At the town’s corners and cafes, young men from Tunisia—home territory of the Saracens who had ravaged the town a millennium earlier—were congregating every day. They were refugees who, after arriving by boat in the wake of the 2011-12 Arab Spring, had been sent to a holding camp halfway between Oria and Manduria, five miles away. Indeed, our group had been advised to take a detour to our next stop, a tiny 16th-century synagogue, lest we bump into any of these Arab youths as they drifted aimlessly about, warned by notices in their language not to linger at café tables for longer than fifteen minutes.

In Manduria itself, a contingent of military police was on hand to prevent any local outbreak of violence. But this was gratuitous; most of the Tunisians were waiting in the camp, hoping to receive permission to leave an area where they had no prospect of employment and head instead for relatives in France. Quite a few had already done so after a mass breakout from a former World War II U.S. airbase. Meanwhile, some had harmed themselves protesting their internment; one had set himself alight, another was killed on the road. Thus did the latest Arab invasion of Oria and its environs bespeak both tragedy and farce.

As for the Jews, in their old quarter one can see the only freestanding building in the town’s historic center. What looks like a rather unprepossessing, whitewashed, modern family home, d’Amico believes was once a synagogue. “My grandparents used to circle its walls at times of illness in the belief they would be cured,” he told our party. “The Jews of Oria were famous doctors and pharmacists, so it makes sense. They brought light to this town at a time when the rest of Italy was darkened by barbarian invasions.”

Most modern Oritani share d’Amico’s pride in their town’s Jewish heritage. Each September, a festive conference is held in the city and papers are read to mark the ancient Jewish presence there. But it would be naïve to infer from such nostalgic philo-Semitism that the town holds contemporary Jews in equal esteem. Following Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year, I was privy to the following exchange on Facebook between two Oritani, one of whom had “friended” me on the site:

A: What’s the matter with those awful people? You’d think after what happened to them [in the Holocaust], they’d have learned!

B: It’s a shame [the Nazis] didn’t finish the job and wipe that filth off the face of the earth.

I have never met the authors of these words, and I hope I never will. I also firmly believe that none of my own Oritano friends and acquaintances shares these all-too-frequently expressed sentiments of our historical moment. Still, even as I continue to enjoy my own privileged status as the first Jew to return to Oria after a thousand years, I am mindful of a fact that one should never lose sight of: it is as easy to idealize dead Jews as it is to demonize living ones.

More about: History & Ideas, Italian Jewry, Middle Ages, Piyyut

 

Were Reuben and Gad Right to Ask Moses for Land on the Other Side of the Jordan?

Wherever Jews live, God lives within them.

<em>From</em> Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, <em>by Arthur Boyd Houghton.</em> Wikimedia.
From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
July 16 2015 12:01AM
About the author

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


The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.

As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:

But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”

As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:

But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”

So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?

But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.

And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.

 

It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.

The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.

But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”

If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.

Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.

. . .

And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.

 

The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.

The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:

But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.

Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Rashi, Religion & Holidays, The Monthly Portion

 

What's so Bad about Paganism?

Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?

<em>The winter solstice at Stonehenge.</em> Flickr/brentbat.
The winter solstice at Stonehenge. Flickr/brentbat.
 
Observation
July 15 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].

Richard Samuelson writes about my recent column on the Hebrew term avodah zarah, “foreign worship”:

Your discussion [of rabbinic laws concerning paganism] raises a question. What exactly is the proper definition of the term “pagan”? Is paganism only a thing of the past? Peter Gay, the great historian of the Enlightenment, speaks in his books of “modern paganism,” and many elements of modern life in the West seem to be pagan, a repudiation of classic Jewish ethics that goes from the worship of God to the worship of nature. Or am I mistaken?

I don’t think that Mr. Samuelson is mistaken. In general, one of the errors we often make about ancient polytheism, which is what the word “paganism” has traditionally referred to, is to dismiss it as a more primitive stage of religion than monotheism, and therefore as a relic of history. Yet just as monotheism developed in antiquity from its simpler biblical form to the more sophisticated Judaism of the early rabbis, so polytheism evolved, too. The high paganism of Greco-Roman culture and the Roman empire, which reached its acme in the first centuries CE just before being destroyed by Christianity, produced elevated modes of worship, important philosophers, great poets and prose writers. Intellectually, let alone artistically, it was in no way Judaism or Christianity’s inferior.

The roots of this dismissal, of course, go back to the Bible. “Their idols are silver and gold,” typically says the Psalmist of the gods of the peoples among whom the Israelites lived. “They have mouths but they speak not; eyes they have, but they see not.” As perceptive as the biblical authors were about many things, they themselves were blind to the fact that no thinking polytheist ever confused an idol representing a god with the god it represented. Biblical monotheism understood paganism, whose conception of the world was not necessarily simple-minded, no better than paganism understood biblical monotheism.

The Christian scorn for paganism, inherited from Judaism, can be found in the word “pagan” itself. It derives from Latin paganus, which originally meant, in pre-Christian times, “rustic” or “villager,” and also had the derogatory sense of “hick” or “yokel.” Paganus in turn is from pagus, a rural district, whence come words like French pays and Spanish país, “country,” Italian paesano, “fellow countryman,” and English “peasant.” Paganus came to mean “non-Christian” or “polytheist” because Christianity made its first strides in the Roman empire as a largely urban religion and spread more slowly to the countryside, where the old gods continued to be worshiped longer. All of this was reinforced among Christians by the word’s pejorative sense.

A variant form of “pagan,” “paynim,” from old French paienime, was once also common in English but has long been archaic. Interestingly, another now-archaic word, “heathen,” which was in the past used more often than “pagan” as a designation for non-Christians or (in biblical times) non-Israelites, has a similar history. It derives from Old English haethen, “heath dweller,” or from an even earlier Germanic word (compare German Heide, meaning both “heathen” and “heath”) referring to someone like a cowherd or shepherd who lived on uncultivated land. Even when most farmers had been Christianized, paganism held on in outlying areas where farmland yielded to pasturage. The heathen was the bumpkin whom the true faith had not yet reached.

Even today, in our increasingly post-Christian age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Take the case of Hinduism, the one great polytheistic religion of antiquity that has survived and still flourishes. In an essay published a few years ago, Arvind Sharma, an Indian professor of comparative religion at McGill University, wrote:

Is Hinduism a pagan religion? . . . [It] at first blush appears to conform to [definitions of] paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous and therefore pagan. . . . There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of one and the same God.

And yet that the “different gods . . . represent the various forms of one and the same God” is precisely the message that the high paganism of the Roman empire was preaching in the early centuries of the Christian era! Read such pro-pagan works as the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry’s Against the Christians, or the 2nd-century Apuleius’ wonderful novel The Golden Ass, and you’ll see that Sharma’s description of Hinduism applies to them, too. Were he less defensive about it, he would embrace Hinduism’s pagan nature rather than deny it.

Whether one can justifiably speak, as does Peter Gay, of a “modern paganism” that is post-theistic rather than polytheistic is, I think, a largely semantic question. Certainly, there are ways in which contemporary Western culture resembles the paganism of antiquity—for instance, as Mr. Samuelson observes, in its sacramentalization of nature, or in its veneration of physical beauty. Without a doubt these are things that both Judaism and Christianity were traditionally opposed to and that they identified with the paganism of antiquity. But the paganism of our own times, if such it is, also has much to distinguish it from the paganism of old, and the use of a so highly charged a word to characterize it may not contribute to the quality of the discussion.

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

More about: History & Ideas, Paganism, Religion & Holidays

 

Diving and Divinity

How a Bible scholar with a yen for scuba diving ended up introducing Judaism to Christians on a remote island in Fiji.

<em>A six-rayed sea star.</em> Wikipedia.
A six-rayed sea star. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
July 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel, and a research fellow at the Herzl Institute. He is the author most recently of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.


Sunset on a Friday evening: clouds have descended on the lush mountains surrounding this grassy campus as young people, dressed in their Sabbath best, cross the central lawn to gather in a large common room. In the stillness, I’m transported back to my teenage years and Friday evenings at my Jewish summer camp—until suddenly my reverie is interrupted: “Dr. Joshua! Happy Sabbath, happy Sabbath to you!” The nearest synagogue is over 1,700 miles away, and I’m in Sabeto, a village on the Fijian island of Viti Levu in the South Pacific.

There are two passions in my life. Primary is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—which I have the good fortune to study and teach and write about as a professor of Bible in Israel. Second is scuba diving. Currently on sabbatical, I’d indulged a longstanding dream to travel to a world-class diving destination—and, while there, to teach Tanakh.

As a diver, my sights had long been long set on Fiji, whose underwater mountains of candy-colored coral, teeming with reef sharks, offer some of the best diving in the world. But Fiji is two ten-hour flights from Tel Aviv, and to fulfill the itinerary I had in mind I would have to observe Shabbat in a place with no Jewish community and no Chabad presence. Scouting out venues in Fiji that offer Bible, I’d noticed that one, Fulton College, was associated with the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, of whom I knew nothing except that in some fashion they observed Saturday as a holy day of rest. Surely, I reasoned, it would be better to spend Shabbat with them than within the walls of my hotel room.

But would they see it the same way? An inquiring e-mail made its way to Steven Currow, the college principal, who graciously invited me to spend Shabbat on the campus and while there give a range of talks on Judaism and the Bible. Contacting a European member of his theology department, I asked about topics that might be of interest. “Well, few of us have ever really met a Jewish person before,” he replied. “Could you offer a lecture about those boxes you wear in the airport?” I happily agreed.

 

There is no church edifice at Fulton College. Instead, communal gatherings are held in an enormous open-air hangar. This allowed me to remain outside during prayer services on Friday evening before entering to present my talk. I was struck by the melodies, which were reminiscent of black American spirituals, and by the fact that all of the hymns were in English. Later I learned the reason why: Fulton students come from all over the Pacific islands, and even on a single island it’s common to hear more than one language being spoken. Hence, instruction and prayer at the college are conducted in the local lingua franca, a heavily accented English.

My first talk, following the ceremony ushering in the Sabbath, went well. “Dr. Joshua,” gushed the college pastor, a native Fijian who had earlier sent me an enthusiastic e-mail, “it is an enormous privilege that you are here with us. And what you said tonight is so important. I have arranged that tomorrow all of the elders from around the region will come to hear your talk and shake your hand.” I was a bit unsettled by the intensity of his response. At home, my lectures and sermons are well enough received—but nothing like this. I was reminded of a Hebrew saying that a friend of mine likes to invoke: eyn navi be-iro, “no one is a prophet in his own hometown,” or: you’re only a star when you’re on the road. I couldn’t remember the prophet who said it, but the name would come back to me soon enough.

For dinner, I was invited to the home of Steven Currow and his wife Nerrisa. Would this feel like a Shabbat dinner, I’d wondered? I needn’t have. There were just the three of us, and, like me, Steven had dressed for the occasion in a white shirt and dark slacks. Intent on serving only what I could eat, my hosts had prepared a meal consisting of a bounteous salad followed by a large platter of local tropical fruits, the whole served on a table set beautifully on a white cloth. To finish off, Nerissa produced fig bars whose wrappers bore the kashrut certification of the Orthodox Union.

Adventists engage in formal Bible study every Sabbath morning, focusing on the same weekly reading worldwide. In order to be able to express themselves in their native tongue, the Fulton students had broken into smaller groups, the Polynesians in one corner, the Melanesians in a second, the Micronesians in a third, and, in a fourth, those students and faculty, remnants of the fall of the Tower of Babel, who spoke in diverse other tongues but also knew English. This was the group I joined.

The morning’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, was a passage narrating how Jesus’ teachings had developed a following in some parts of the land but not in Nazareth. We read Luke 4:24: “And I tell you all with certainty that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I had found the voice behind my Hebrew proverb: Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the course of the day I had many conversations with Fulton students about their lives and their communities. One young man approached me with struggle visible on his face. “May I ask you a question about marriage?” he asked. “What does the Bible say about taking several wives?” As I began measuring my response, he continued: “My grandfather is the chief of our tribe in the Solomon Islands. He has four wives, and he says there is nothing in the Bible that forbids this.”

 

“Your grandfather is absolutely correct,” I said to the young man. “In fact, we find in the Bible many stories about families where a man has married several wives. And I can tell you that not a single one of those families is happy. It’s not for me to offer you instruction as a religious authority. But I’ll say this: you can enjoy the pleasure of having several wives available to you, or you can enjoy the intimacy and the bond that comes with monogamous union. You can’t have both. The choice is yours.”

As Saturday ended and the sun sank over the open-air hangar, the students again sang hymns, and again I was struck by the melodies, by the loveliness of their voices, and by the frequently exquisite harmonic effects they achieved. It had been a more beautiful Shabbat than I could possibly have imagined.

At the same time, though, I felt within me a certain tension that runs through rabbinic literature: how to regard the observance by non-Jews of commandments that Judaism traditionally considers a particular inheritance of the Jewish people? A prime example is the laws of kashrut, which aren’t universal moral teachings but, to the contrary, precepts by which Jews are deliberately separated from other human beings. The observance of Shabbat is often cited as a second example—but, for me, the power of this community’s Sabbath observance had challenged the notion.

Some guardians of Jewish law, fiercely protective of the commandments as a trust given to the Jewish people alone, maintain that no meaning whatsoever inheres in the attempted observance by non-Jews of Shabbat and kashrut. But Maimonides in the Middle Ages and many contemporary authorities on Jewish law maintain otherwise. To them, non-Jews who recognize the Torah as the word of God and wish to observe the commandments may receive divine reward, and are to be regarded positively.

Was my time among the Adventists of Fiji shedding further light on this question? Part of me felt as if someone had gone into my closet and come out wearing my best suit—and looking pretty good in it.

 

The diving portion of the trip began the next morning at Rakiraki on the island’s northern coast. If my trip had already brought me experiences far from my usual comfort zone, the diving part would be no different. Back-flipping off the boat into a spinning swirl of bubbles in an azure sea, I was propelled into an incredibly thrilling universe entirely disconnected from normal existence. Moments later, in the total silence of the undersea world, I was alongside a 50-foot cliff of lavender and yellow polyps of coral. From the left, a school of small red fish made its way in my direction; from the right, another school of glass-colored fish. As the two converged around me, a five-foot reef shark swam quickly by. Looking up at the columns of light streaming down into the water I couldn’t help wondering: if there were no one to behold all this, would it still be as ravishing?

No less eye-opening than the dive itself had been the long boat ride to the site. Our pilot, Choelly, or “Joe” as he introduced himself to the English speakers, was listening to a discourse on a Fijian-language radio station. Hearing words like “Solomonolulu,” “Moabitelula,” and “Sidonitalula,” I recognized the context: passages in the biblical book of Kings about Solomon’s lapse of virtue in his dalliance with foreign wives. “Joe,” I asked, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, sir, Adventist!,” he beamed, and his eyes lit up when I proceeded to tell him about my Sabbath at Fulton College. “Joe, while I’m here, would you like me to come to your village and speak about the Bible?” Certain that the village elders would be pleased, he made a date with me for that same evening.

Nakorokula was established some 80 years ago when rival tribes in another part of the island chased out some inhabitants. The population, drawn from two clans, numbers some 70 souls. No one owns a car, and inside the village there are no roads at all. Electricity arrived in 2012.

In pitch-black darkness, our taxi wound its way down a dirt path. At the first structure in the village—a small thatched hut—a man was pounding loudly and (to me) rather forebodingly on bongo drums. My hosts allayed my anxiety: “This is our call to all of the village members to gather together for a significant occasion.”

Escorted by two elders, I entered the common room to find the entire village—men, women, and children—seated on mats on the floor, with some of the youngest children already sleeping on pillows or in their parents’ laps. The villagers sang a hymn in my honor, this time in Fijian, and once more I was struck by the resonance and richness of the voices and how naturally the singers broke into harmonies.

I began my talk by telling them how privileged I felt to be with them, and expressing gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people for the Fijian men in arms who participate in UN peacekeeping operations on Israel’s northern and southern borders. After I spoke for a while, we opened the floor and the questions came in earnest:

“Could you tell us please the history of your people?”

Who is the man who led your people back to the holy land?”

“What tribe are you from?”

“Does your wife wear the hijab?”

It was no surprise that, as Adventists, they were most interested to hear about Jewish Sabbath observance. Here I note that the Adventist church discourages a lengthy code of official rules for Sabbath conduct. Rather, each community institutes its own norms for instilling the special Sabbath spirit—although a common recommendation is that cooking for the day be concluded before sunset on Friday. “Like you,” I therefore opened confidently, “we do all of our cooking on Friday”—only to notice that the villagers were exchanging uncomfortable glances. Sensing that there must be some debate and perhaps contention over the issue, I backtracked. “Before I tell you about my Sabbath, let me tell you about my Friday.” I then described what a typical Orthodox home looks like in the hours preceding Shabbat, concluding that, in our experience, the greater the effort on Friday to get everything done in the kitchen, the greater the rest and peace in the house on the next day. Every woman in the room smiled and nodded in approval.

An especially fascinating moment came when a woman asked if we separated tithes on the Sabbath. Adventists dedicate a tenth of their earnings to the church, and evidently bring the money to worship services on the Sabbath itself. I said that we don’t touch money at all on the Sabbath, not even to give charity, and no beggar would think to extend his hand on that day. This really struck home. On the taxi ride back, one of the two elders, after conversing with the other in Fijian, announced a decision: henceforth, tithing in Nakorokula would no longer be done on the Sabbath. “You are absolutely right about money,” he said to me. “When your hand is in your pocket, your mind is in your pocket.”

 

But if the villagers gleaned something useful from me, I benefited even more from them. During the course of the evening in Nakorokula, one man had asked if I knew the origin of the name “Fiji.” As I struggled to remember what I had read on the subject, he proudly interjected: “‘Fiji’ means First Israelite Jews’ Island.” Stunned, I looked around the room, but no one was laughing at his invented acronym. Fearing to embarrass the man in front of his village, I also feared offending the whole village by correcting him. I decided to play it safe and register polite interest in this newfound insight.

As it turned out, no else dared correct him publicly, either, at least not in my presence as the honored guest. But as we returned to the waiting taxi, one of the two elders—they had been speaking to each other in Fijian—broke into English. “Mbale,” he began, addressing his colleague, “that was the first time I ever heard that explanation for the name ‘Fiji.’ Have you heard it before?” “No,” said Mbale,” that was also the first time I heard that explanation.” I was blown away. By staging this innocent dialogue, they had managed to make clear to me that, lest I think them a community of kooks, they knew their etymology perfectly well and that “Fiji” did not remotely mean the Promised Island—a feat they had accomplished with such delicacy as simultaneously to avoid shaming or disparaging one of their own.

Back in Israel, when first conceiving the idea of combining the word of God with an undersea adventure, I’d facetiously dubbed my plan the Jonah Project. In the biblical book named for that notoriously reluctant prophet, Jonah flees God’s summons by putting to sea on a boat manned by supposedly heathen sailors. When the sea begins to storm violently, he is content to let all aboard perish rather than acknowledge his identity. But the sailors spare no effort to save his life, thereby offering a living lesson in the divine attribute of compassion.

To achieve insight into God’s ways, Jonah had to remove himself from home and seek the society of strangers, only then to find himself undersea, alone and terrified, in the belly of a great fish. Sometimes a rabbi and professor must depart his comfort zone and dive into worlds, on land and beneath the waves, entirely disparate from his own, there to apprehend the fullness of the Almighty’s blessings.

More about: 7th Day Adventists, Arts & Culture, Asia, Religion & Holidays, Scuba diving