Hanukkah: A Celebration of Religious and Intellectual Creativity

According to ancient legend, the first halakhic dispute between two rabbis occurred during the time of the Maccabean revolt. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980) adduced this legend in developing his counterintuitive interpretation of Hanukkah, arguing that the eclipse of the law as a result of persecution led to the exciting proliferation of debates and arguments that enliven the Talmud and much rabbinic literature. After providing an introduction to Hutner’s life and thought, Yaakov Elman explicates his original take on the holiday:

Hanukkah represented for [Hutner] a watershed in Jewish history, with [its newfound] appreciation for the individual’s contribution to Judaism’s intellectual life. . . . Hanukkah reflects the transition [from biblical Judaism] to an intellectual rabbinic Judaism, where study and intellectual creativity became the foundation and the hallmarks of Jewish life. Before the early rabbinic sages, the tannaim, we do not hear of individual contributions to Torah study. And it is only with the advent of the tannaitic period that . . . value [is] placed on [the] individual’s contribution, despite the limitations of finite human understanding, [with] its doubts and disputes. . . .

The role of the individual is symbolized by the Hanukkah lights, which [represent] the individual contribution to the intellectual Torah heritage that grows and deepens with each contribution. And, as [Hutner] emphasizes, acknowledging individual contributions, and the unique contribution of each individual, improves the community [and the Jewish people as a whole].

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hanukkah, Kabbalah, Religion & Holidays, Talmud, Yitzchok Hutner


Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals