When Books Are People, and People Books

July 13 2020

For the past several years, Princeton University Press has been putting out a series of short “biographies” of “great religious books,” which include everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Song of Songs to the Lotus Sutra and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The books in the series describe the origins of the texts under consideration as well as the way they have been received and interpreted over the decades or centuries. Reviewing some of the Jewish-themed volumes, Shai Secunda considers the series’ underlying conceit:

Centuries before Paris became known as the City of Light, it was remembered by Jews as the city of flames, flames which consumed cartloads of Jewish manuscripts following the infamous trial of the Talmud (also known as the Disputation of Paris) in 1240. The burning of books, from the kingdom of France to Nazi Germany, is one of many kinds of outrages perpetrated upon the Jewish people throughout their history, yet it has inevitably been experienced as an unusually cruel punishment inflicted upon the body politic. . . . The [1240] conflagration of sacred books inspired a Hebrew lament that mourned the loss as if it were a real massacre of human lives.

The intimate interrelations between people and books are a remarkable feature of rabbinic society, where Jewish sages are recognizable by the title of their scholarly achievements. Thus, the pious Lithuanian rabbi Israel Meir Kagan is known by the name of his book on the laws of slander, Ḥafets Ḥayyim (“Desirer of Life”), and the Galician scholar Yehuda Heller Kahana goes by the name of  his work Kuntres ha-S’fekot (“Notebook of Uncertainties”). Observing a group of rabbis seated around a Sabbath table, the narrator in an S.Y. Agnon tale says, “They sat one next to the other like holy books in a book closet. What one contained the other lacked, and what one lacked the other contained.”

The flipside of this bibliophilic equation is just as true: books are (almost) people, too. When a prayer book or other sacred text falls, Jews lovingly kiss it like a child hurt at play. In the synagogue, Torah scrolls are dressed up in sumptuous garb and presented as kings who divide their time between the dignified repos of the ark and the jubilance of a royal procession. On the holiday of Simḥat Torah, the scrolls are lovingly embraced and twirled like partners at a ball. When they decay, they are buried alongside scholars who dedicated their lives to Torah study.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Books, Judaism, S. Y. Agnon, Simhat Torah

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy