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How Coffee Paved the Way for Mystical Night Vigils

Oct. 21 2016

A century ago, there was a widespread Jewish custom to stay awake all night on the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah—the final day of Sukkot, which falls this Sunday—and recite a fixed order of scriptural and rabbinic readings known as a tikkun. A similar all-night tikkun is still observed by many on the late-spring festival of Shavuot. Although these practices can be traced back to the middle ages, later kabbalists imbued them with mystical significance. They became widely popular, writes Elliott Horowitz, only when coffee made them possible:

[B]oth these study vigils [on the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah and Shavuot] began to spread through the Ottoman empire during the 16th century, the same century in which coffee first arrived, changing the possibilities, both sacred and profane, of nightlife in such cities as Cairo, Damascus, and even Safed, [the capital of kabbalah at the time]. . . .

In contrast to their rapid reception in Ottoman Jewish communities after the Spanish expulsion, the Shavuot and Hoshanah Rabbah vigils spread more slowly to the Jewish communities of northern Europe, where coffee arrived considerably later as well. This can be seen in the comments of Isaiah Horowitz, whose book Shney Luḥot ha-Brit was completed in Jerusalem during the 1620s and published posthumously in Amsterdam in 1648-1649. Horowitz, who had served as a rabbi both in Frankfurt and in his native Prague, had clearly not encountered the Shavuot vigil in either of those cities, for he described it in his wide-ranging work only as having “spread throughout the land of Israel and the [Ottoman] empire.”

The Hoshanah Rabbah rite was described there similarly as “practiced in the land of Israel, like the night of Shavuot,” but including both study and prayer. Although Horowitz . . . had not encountered either vigil in his native northern Europe, his enormously influential work . . . was instrumental in their spread from the elite circles of Safed kabbalists to ordinary Jews.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hoshana Rabbah, Isaiah Horowitz, Kabbalah, Religion & Holidays, Shavuot

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