Revisiting a Very Orthodox Rabbi’s Unorthodox Biography of His Father, Twenty Years after It Was Banned

Two decades ago, Nathan Kamenetsky, a prominent Jerusalem rabbi with impeccable ḥaredi credentials, self-published The Making of a Godol, a two-volume biography of his father, Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1985), who had been a leading rabbinic sage (or godol) of non-ḥasidic Orthodoxy in America. The book’s frank portrayal of its subject, and of numerous other revered sages, constitutes a radical departure from the hagiographies that have become mainstays of popular ḥaredi literature—so much so that it was swiftly condemned by prominent rabbis. The younger Kamenetsky quickly ceased publication; Amazon now sells the book for $2,503. Reading the book for a second time Marc B. Shapiro reflects on its virtues and idiosyncrasies:

Anyone lucky enough to have bought a copy of Kamenetsky’s book when it came out, . . . quickly saw what a curious book it was: chatty, psychologically acute, alternately gullible and critical, endlessly digressive, and compulsively readable (though the spelling and transliteration are a bit idiosyncratic). It also had a peculiar literary structure that could have been conceived only by someone who was raised in an intellectual tradition of commentaries and metacommentaries: the biography of the godol in question was just 67 pages long and ended in spring 1908, when “our protagonist,” as Kamenetsky refers to his father, was seventeen. All the rest was commentary, or rather notes and excurses and further notes spawned by these excurses (each distinguished by somewhat bizarre choices of headings and font).

Nathan Kamenetsky had an instinctive historical sensibility: he was interested in the minute particulars and realia of his subjects’ lives, and he had a knack for choosing the revealing anecdote. [Nonetheless], The Making of a Godol was in the tradition of ḥaredi historical works. Yet it was unique in that Kamenetsky did not generally censor either himself or his sources, nor, despite his belief in the intrinsic religious value of the study of great rabbinic scholars, was he interested in writing hagiography. By choosing not to portray the great rabbis as entirely selfless [saints], lacking any self-interest or ego, he bucked the conventions of his society. His g’dolim [great rabbis] are great, but they are not perfect.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish History, Haredim, Orthodoxy, Rabbis

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship