Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts about Two Giants of Hebrew Literature, Separated by 900 Years

In his short story “The Sign,” the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon recounts hearing of the murder by the Nazis of the Jews of Buczacz, the Polish city where he was born. The story ends with the narrator sitting in his Jerusalem synagogue, reading one of the works of the great medieval Spanish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol—whose masterful liturgical poems can be found in many prayer books—when Gabirol’s ghost appears to bring him the sad tidings. Stuart Schoffman reflects on the story itself and on the two luminaries of Jewish literature who are its main characters:

The towering medieval poet will be on my mind as I search my soul on Yom Kippur. His best-known work, Keter Malkhut, a magisterial meld of Jewish theology, Ptolemaic cosmology, and personal confession, is read on Kol Nidre night in various communities. A tiny sample, as translated by Peter Cole: “Who could speak of your wonders,/ surrounding the sphere of fire/ with a sphere of sky where the moon/ draws from the shine of the sun and glows?”

Little is known of his life. Born in Malaga in 1021, 1022, or maybe 1026, Solomon ibn Gabirol lived in Saragossa and died circa 1057 or thereafter, maybe in Valencia. . . . He was orphaned young and suffered from a painful skin disease. His massive Az’harot (literally, “Warnings”) is a verse rendition of the Torah’s 613 commandments, all the dos and don’ts in a dazzling acrostic that Gabirol wrote when he was sixteen, or so we are told. . . . Ibn Gabirol was also a prolific secular poet and a neo-Platonic philosopher famed in the Christian world as Avicebron, the author of the treatise Fons Vitae (The Fountain of Life).

Agnon ends “The Sign” in the local shul in Talpiot [the Jerusalem neighborhood where he had settled in 1929], a humble wooden shack where the narrator recites Gabirol’s Az’harot. The doors of the Holy Ark open, and he sees the kingly figure of a man. Gradually he realizes this is Gabirol himself, and weeps. . . . [T]he mystical visitor weaves a memorial acrostic [about Buczacz] that the narrator cannot remember, but “the poem sings itself in the heavens above.” If Rabbeynu Shlomo [“our teacher Solomon,” as Agnon calls him], shows up on Yom Kippur at my shul in Jerusalem—and why wouldn’t he?—I have a question or two to ask him.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hebrew literature, Holocaust, S. Y. Agnon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yom Kippur


The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law