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A Novice’s Reflections on the Talmud, Five Years On

Aug. 24 2017

Five years ago, following the seven-year cycle known as Daf Yomi, the literary critic Adam Kirsch began reading one folio page of Talmud every day, in his case in English translation. He notes what he, as an “unobservant” Jew without prior talmudic education, has discovered:

Because Jewish law is so encompassing, covering every area of human life, the Talmud deals with everything under the sun. Medicine and astronomy, architecture and geometry, cuisine and cosmetics—these facets of ancient life are captured in the Talmud in all their living reality. Then there are the major subjects of the various tractates: the prayer service; the organization and operation of the Temple; the holidays and their rituals; Shabbat and its many restrictions; marriage and divorce; real estate and commerce; contracts and court procedure. For the rabbis, all of these elements went to make up what they knew as Judaism. The Judaism most of us know in the 21st century is a very different thing; under the pressures of modernity, science, and assimilation, we have lost touch with that ancient heritage.

This is not simply to be regretted—we have gained as well as lost, and alienation from the past is not only a Jewish experience. But I think that many modern Jews feel a longing to give their Jewishness a deeper meaning, a spiritual and intellectual content. We know we are Jews—the world wouldn’t let us forget it even if we wanted to—but what does being Jewish mean? That is the great modern Jewish question, and much of our thought and literature is devoted to answering it. But there is no real way of understanding what Jewishness means unless we understand what it meant; and for that, the Talmud, the text that stood at the center of Jewish life for more than a thousand years, is essential. Without it, we can hardly expect to know what our ancestors thought, or even more importantly, how they thought.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Judaism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

How Lebanon—and Hizballah—Conned and Humiliated Rex Tillerson

Feb. 21 2018

Last Thursday, the American secretary of state arrived in Beirut to express Washington’s continued support for the country’s government, which is now entirely aligned with Hizballah. His visit came shortly after Israel’s showdown with Hizballah’s Iranian protectors in Syria and amid repeated warnings from Jerusalem about the terrorist organization’s growing threat to Israeli security. To Tony Badran, Tillerson’s pronouncements regarding Lebanon have demonstrated the incoherence of the Trump administration’s policy:

[In Beirut], Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait—as photographers took pictures and video—before Hizballah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. secretary of state fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region. . . .

Prior to heading to Beirut, Tillerson gave an interview to the American Arabic-language station al-Hurra, in which he emphasized that Hizballah was a terrorist organization, and that the United States expected cooperation from the “Lebanon government to deal very clearly and firmly with those activities undertaken by Lebanese Hizballah that are unacceptable to the rest of the world.” . . . But then, while in Jordan, Tillerson undermined any potential hints of firmness by reading from an entirely different script—one that encapsulates the confused nonsense that is U.S. Lebanon policy. Hizballah is “influenced by Iran,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon”—which apparently makes being “influenced by Iran” and being a terrorist group OK. . . .

The reality on the ground in Lebanon, [however], is [that] Hizballah is not only a part of the Lebanese government, it controls it—along with all of the country’s illustrious “institutions,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces. . . .

[Meanwhile], Israel’s tactical Syria-focused approach to the growing threat on its borders has kept the peace so far, but it has come at a cost. For one thing, it does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched. Also, it sets a pace that is more suitable to Iran’s interests. The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon. Not only have the Iranians been able to fly a drone into Israel but also their allies and assets have made gains on the ground near the northern Golan and in Mount Hermon. As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.

To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy—and fast. Rather than leaving Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hizballah-controlled order there.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Politics & Current Affairs, Rex Tillerson, U.S. Foreign policy