How Humphrey Bogart Came to Cite a Jewish Legend

In the 1948 film Key Largo, a character played by Bogart mentions a “fairy story” that explains the existence of the philtrum—the small hollow above the lips. This is a variation on a traditional Jewish legend—no doubt known to the movie’s Jewish screenwriter—that first appears in the Babylonian Talmud. It states that an angel teaches every fetus the entire Torah in utero; at the moment of birth, the angel smacks the baby on the mouth, causing it to forget what it has learned. Abraham Socher comments on the tale’s meaning, and origins:

The philosophical point that seems to hover over this talmudic passage and its later elaborations is that learning is really an act of recall. As Joseph B. Soloveitchik once wrote, [the Talmud] “wanted to tell us that when a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something . . . familiar, because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.” As Soloveitchik and others . . . recognized, this seems to be a version of Plato’s famous theory of knowledge as recollection. However, it’s worth noting that although these texts speak of the unborn child as forgetting, they don’t explicitly describe its later learning as remembering.

The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew] of Prague came close when he suggested that the angel slaps the unborn child’s mouth to create “a lack and a desire,” by which he seems to have meant both a desire to nurse and a desire to learn. But the Maharal lived in 16th-century Prague when Plato was, once again, on every intellectual’s lips. Some 200 years later, Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk explicitly argued that if we hadn’t learned Torah before we entered the world it would be impossible to grasp it now—a ḥasidic footnote to Plato.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hollywood, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Maharal, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, 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