Joy Is the Supreme Religious Emotion: Just Ask Deuteronomy

Sept. 2 2016

In 1659, three years after Jews had been allowed to return to England, the famed diarist Samuel Pepys visited a London synagogue to attend a memorial service. He returned four years later and—not realizing it was the holiday of Simḥat Torah—was shocked by the wild celebration he encountered. While Pepys would not have witnessed such rejoicing on any other day of the year, Jonathan Sacks argues that Judaism ranks joy, when properly understood, as the most spiritually profound human feeling, and identifies this as a key message of the book of Deuteronomy:

The root s-m-ḥ [meaning “to rejoice”] appears once each in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but twelve times in Deuteronomy, seven of them in [this week’s Torah reading of Re’eh]. What Moses says again and again is that joy is what we should feel in the land of Israel, the land given to us by God, the place to which the whole of Jewish life since the days of Abraham and Sarah has been a journey. . . .

The biblical word for “happy,” ashrey, is the first word of the book of Psalms and a key word of our daily prayers. But far more often, the Hebrew Bible speaks about simḥah, joy—and they are different things. Happiness is something you can feel alone, but joy, in the Tanakh, is something you share with others. . . .

[Søren] Kierkegaard once wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve. It takes religious courage to rejoice.” I believe that with all my heart. So I am moved by the way Jews, who know what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still see joy as the supreme religious emotion.

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More about: British Jewry, Deuteronomy, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Religion & Holidays

Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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Read more at Jonathan Spyer

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine