From Communist Romania to the Kabbalah of Jerusalem

Anyone who has engaged in the academic study of Jewish mysticism knows that there are two dominant scholarly approaches to the subject: that of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) and that of his erstwhile student Moshe Idel, now professor emeritus at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. In the following passage, extracted from an interview by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Idel describes his journey from the Romanian hamlet where he spent his childhood to the university where he would spend his career:

I was born into a traditional Jewish family in 1947 and I grew up in a small shtetl in northern Romania, Targu Neamt, where Jews survived the war. Like other boys in traditional Jewish families, I started my schooling at the age of three in the traditional ḥeder. Romania was now under the Communist government and one could not remain in a Jewish school for long. I had to enroll in a secular grammar school when I was about six.

This meant a very sharp move from a Yiddish-speaking environment of Jews only to a Romanian-speaking secular school with non-Jews, who were totally different people from the Jews I knew as a young child. The shift entailed broadening my linguistic and cultural horizons and exposing me to Communist ideology and propaganda.

Idel goes on to describe how as a doctoral student, he began to develop his signature approach to the history of Jewish mysticism:

[W]hen I started to read the kabbalistic texts extant exclusively in manuscripts, I had at my disposal theories about religion that did not help me at all to understand the texts. While it is true that we never enter the interpretation of texts without some preconceived notions about the text, when you truly attempt to fathom the text, you are lost and you are alone.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Gershom Scholem, Hebrew University, Jewish studies, Kabbalah, Romania

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood