Seeing Israel’s Fires as Divine Justice Makes a Mockery of Jewish Theology

As much of Israel was in flames, the chief rabbi of Samaria, Elyakim Levanon, declared that the fires were “divine punishment” for the government’s plans to evacuate the settlement of Amona, built in violation of Israeli law. To William Kolbrener, such simplistic explanations of human suffering insult the Jewish theological tradition.

If only the Regulation Bill—the Knesset move to legalize outposts in the West Bank—had already passed, Levanon assures us, then maybe the nation would have been saved from the punishment of the current wave of fires. “Until the threat of eviction is lifted,” he prophetically intones, “no rain will fall.” But the day the bill is passed, “that very day the rains of blessing will begin to fall.”

Notwithstanding Levanon’s pretense to know the divine mind, Jewish tradition warns against such speculative ḥutzpah. . . . [By contrast], Levanon’s version of the divine is a God tailor-made for his followers, a God who satisfies their simplistic political narrative, but also for the skeptical secular left because this God is so easily dismissed as a childish fantasy. Indeed, Levanon provides a straw-man of God and religion that would make any rational person think: Judaism is a primitive endeavor, a silly crutch for the weak and unenlightened.

But not all Jewish theologians act as God’s accountant, keeping track of the balances of divine reward and punishment. For Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing in 1956, the pronouncement in Genesis that the world is “very good” is made only from God’s perspective; man, however, experiences evil, suffering, and death as stubborn realities. Man, with his “partial vision,” Soloveitchik continues, cannot make sense of the universe, certainly not speculate about how God “governs the world.” . . .

[According to Soloveitchik], we cannot explain the existence of evil, but we can ask ourselves what to do when confronted by it. We might ask, for example: what forms of kindness and generosity can we offer to those who endure hardship, to those in Israel who were injured or lost their homes? . . . Soloveitchik may not, like Levanon, offer the consolation of theodicy, with pat explanations of suffering and evil, but he does appeal to the potential for human nobility, to transform the experience of evil into action—into the consolation of others who are suffering.

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Judaism in Israel, Religion & Holidays, Settlements, Theodicy, Theology


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy