Was the Mysterious Master of 20th-Century Jewish Thought an Eccentric Genius, or a Charismatic Fraud?

Both Elie Wiesel and the Russian-born French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas considered themselves disciples of an enigmatic vagabond who went by the name Chouchani; so too did several esteemed figures in the field of Jewish studies. But Chouchani, whose real name was Hillel Perlman, published nothing, and most of what is known about his thought comes in the form of gnomic pronouncements quoted by his admirers. Now a large trove of Chouchani’s notebooks, after being carefully safeguarded by one disciple, have been made available for study. Yoel Finkelman writes:

His nomadic life apparently began in childhood, when his father tried to profit from him as a kind of intellectual circus freak, having him perform feats of memory in front of amazed crowds in Lithuania. In the years that followed, Chouchani memorized vast swaths of the Jewish canon—from the Bible to rabbinic literature to Jewish philosophy. He spoke an extraordinary number of languages fluently and, according to legend, would speak with the accent, intonation, and local dialect of whomever he happened to be speaking with.

Chouchani dressed poorly, paid little attention to his hygiene, and could be more than a little unkind to his students, often castigating them for their ignorance and leaving abruptly without saying goodbye. Stories told about him describe an enigmatic, manipulative, and belittling mentor. Could Wiesel, Levinas, [and others]—each a brilliant intellectual with wide experience and a deeply moral personality—have fallen for the manipulations of an abusive narcissist?

The most intriguing sections of Chouchani’s notebooks contain notes on talmudic passages and biblical verses. But these passages are nothing at all like essays, or even study notes, that one might sit down to read. . . . David Lang (the archivist at the National Library of Israel who cataloged the archive) and I spent weeks painstakingly transcribing, studying, and trying to unpack a section of fewer than 150 words. It contains implicit references to dozens of biblical verses and talmudic passages and has something to do with the metaphor of being a servant or slave of God and what it means to be such a servant in a fatalistic universe. . . .

The suggestion that human beings and the forces of nature do God’s will whether they are aware of it or not—and that consequently the world, even or especially the post-Holocaust world, contains God-induced suffering—is provocative, . . . but I do want to suggest caution. The enthusiasm of discovery can easily lead to overreading. We might confuse a half-developed sentence fragment for a fully developed thought. We might convince ourselves of the profundity of Chouchani’s writings before actually finding evidence of it.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust, Jewish Thought

Why the White House’s Plan to Prevent an Israel-Hizballah War Won’t Work

On Monday, Hizballah downed an Israeli drone, leading the IDF to retaliate with airstrikes that killed one of the terrorist group’s commanders in southern Lebanon, and two more of its members in the northeast. The latter strike marks an escalation by the IDF, which normally confines its activities to the southern part of the country. Hizballah responded by firing two barrages of rockets into northern Israel on Tuesday, while Hamas operatives in Lebanon fired another barrage yesterday.

According to the Iran-backed militia, 219 of its fighters have been killed since October; six Israeli civilians and ten soldiers have lost their lives in the north. The Biden administration has meanwhile been involved in ongoing negotiations to prevent these skirmishes from turning into an all-out war. The administration’s plan, however, requires carrots for Hizballah in exchange for unenforceable guarantees, as Richard Goldberg explains:

Israel and Hizballah last went to war in 2006. That summer, Hizballah crossed the border, killed three Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. Israel responded with furious airstrikes, a naval blockade, and eventually a ground operation that met stiff resistance and mixed results. A UN-endorsed ceasefire went into effect after 34 days of war, accompanied by a Security Council Resolution that ordered the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in disarming Hizballah in southern Lebanon—from the Israeli border up to the Litani River, some 30 kilometers away.

Despite billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer support over the last seventeen years, the LAF made no requests to UNIFIL, which then never disarmed Hizballah. Instead, Iran accelerated delivering weapons to the terrorist group—building up its forces to a threat level that dwarfs the one Israel faced in 2006. The politics of Lebanon shifted over time as well, with Hizballah taking effective control of the Lebanese government and exerting its influence (and sometimes even control) over the LAF and its U.S.-funded systems.

Now the U.S. is offering Lebanon an economic bailout in exchange for a promise to keep Hizballah forces from coming within a mere ten kilometers of the border, essentially abrogating the Security Council resolution. Goldberg continues:

Who would be responsible for keeping the peace? The LAF and UNIFIL—the same pair that has spent seventeen years helping Hizballah become the threat it is today. That would guarantee that Hizballah’s commitments will never be verified or enforced.

It’s a win-win for [Hizballah’s chief Hassan] Nasrallah. Many of his fighters live and keep their missiles hidden within ten kilometers of Israel’s border. They will blend into the civilian population without any mechanism to force their departure. And even if the U.S. or France could verify a movement of weapons to the north, Nasrallah’s arsenal is more than capable of terrorizing Israeli cities from ten kilometers away. Meanwhile, a bailout of Lebanon will increase Hizballah’s popularity—demonstrating its tactics against Israel work.

Read more at The Dispatch

More about: Hizballah, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden