The Great Medieval Rabbi Who Synthesized the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Traditions

By the 13th century, three distinct strands of rabbinic thought and scholarship had emerged: a Spanish and North African school, influenced by Arabic science and philosophy, that focused on grammar, theology, and using the Talmud to establish practical legal rulings; the school of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, or German pietists, centered in the Rhineland, that focused on meticulous observance, asceticism, moral perfection, and a unique variety of mysticism; and the school of the Tosafists (centered in northeastern France), who focused on sophisticated analysis of talmudic dialectics. Rabbi Asher ben Yeḥiel (ca. 1250–1327)—known as “the Rosh”—would bring these three strands together, as Tamar Marvin explains:

[Asher’s] father and first teacher was a student of Rabbi Judah the Pious, among the most famed of German pietists. He then seems to have spent some time learning in Tsarfat (northern France) before settling in Cologne (Köln), with which he is often associated. However, Asher made his way to Worms, becoming a leading student of the great Meir of Rothenburg. Meir, one of the last great Tosafists, passed to Asher the wealth of his scholarship.

Sadly, the situation in Germany began to deteriorate not long after Asher’s birth, compounded by the interregnum, when authority over German lands was in contest. (Periods of transition of power, and especially political uncertainty, generally spelled trouble for premodern people, and especially minorities such as Jews.) When Meir attempted to flee to safety, he was arrested. Into the fray, Asher was ineluctably thrust. His attempts to secure the release of his teacher, including a substantial pledge of his own money, show him to have been a wealthy and influential member of the [Jewish] elite.

Rabbi Asher learned well the lessons of Meir’s political entanglements . . . [and] made the very understandable decision to get out of Dodge. [Eventually], he made his way to Toledo, where at least one of his sons had already settled. There, in Castile, fumbling in Arabic and ostensibly the local vernacular, the Rosh rebuilt his life.

Rabbi Asher did much to introduce Spanish Jews to the methods of study of their French and German coreligionists, and the talmudic scholarship he produced in Spain became one of the cornerstones of future Sephardi and Ashkenazi jurisprudence.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Ashkenazi Jewry, Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, Middle Ages, Sephardim, Talmud

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