The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 2: Between biblical criticism and religious belief

Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

This exchange focuses on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press). You can read part 1 here.


Dear Dr. Berman,

A big part of your research — as you mentioned in your first response — is searching for examples of inconsistent narratives and laws similar to those of the Torah in other ancient Near East texts. I would like to ask you how this could affect the attitude of practicing Jews toward the Torah.

Now, on the one hand, it seems that challenging the multiple texts and “the editor did so out of duress” explanation could result in a more unified, less chaotic Torah. This reading could present the Torah as a book with more internal coherence than most scholars assume, perhaps making it easier for some to treat it as divinely-inspired scripture.

On the other hand, examining the logic of the Torah in juxtaposition with sources like the Kadesh Inscription of Ramesses II or Babylonian law could be seen as stressing just how much the Torah is a work of a distinct time and place, one that shares a Mesopotamian way of thinking and writing that is very different from ours. This could make it harder for some believers to accept the uniqueness and singularity of the Jewish book of books.

My question: what kind of effect, if any, do you expect your book could have on its more religiously-inclined readers’ understanding of the Torah as a divine text?




Dear Shmuel,

Indeed, many people ask: Is not the Torah eternally valid and above time? Don’t we slight the Torah when we propose that it expresses itself in a manner that is culture-dependent or more relevant for one generation than another? These questions are crucial not only when we consider Orthodoxy’s engagement with biblical criticism. They are critical whenever we wish to study the Torah on its surface, peshat level.

My approach to the issue derives from that of Maimonides. He maintained that reading the Torah in its ancient context is a sacred enterprise and does not denigrate the sanctity or “eternal” nature of our sacred Scriptures. Instead, he believed that many matters in the Torah can be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world. In fact, such study for Maimonides has theological significance: it allows us to discern God’s caring and fostering nature.  Maimonides knew, as we all do, that healthy development of all kinds is always a process. When the Torah issued commandments that were cloaked in the language of the ancient world, and resembled the practices common in the ancient world, he saw this as evidence of the Almighty’s guiding path of slow, spiritual growth afforded Israel.

Maimonides bemoans the fact that he is so removed in place and time from the ancient world and cannot fully appreciate the reforms inherent in many of the mitzvot. He writes that he sought out every book in the world about ancient practices so as to understand as much as he could about ancient Near Eastern culture. Doing so enables him to discern the prudence and wisdom of the Divine hand and the Divine plan. Maimonides maintains that many of the Torah’s commandments are a broad mélange of continuities and discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern practice. A deep recognition of the interplay between the two enables us to apprehend how the Almighty nurtures Israel’s spiritual development in incremental steps. As I have argued elsewhere, seeing the Torah in this comparative light allows us to see it as a treatise of political thought that was light years ahead of its time, and at an astounding divide from anything that existed anywhere in the ancient world.

Even as I propose engaging ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, I realize that for many there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you open up James Pritchard’s classic work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts it just doesn’t feel like a holy endeavor; it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re in any way engaging in the sacred command of Torah study– talmud Torah. In fact, there’s almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness—kedushah—is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam—and I would add, other Torah luminaries such as R. Levi b. Gershom (Ralbag), and Abarbanel—freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah.

Yet, if there are aspects of the Torah that are indeed best understood in ancient context, in what sense is the Torah “eternal”?

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined. Do we mean that its meaning is fixed, singular and eternal? Such a position contravenes fundamental tenets of rabbinic Judaism. If this is the sense in which the Torah is eternal, then there is no room for any interpretation at all. All ages would need to understand the Torah in exactly the same manner. The “eternal” nature of the Written Torah, its multifaceted richness, is found only through the medium of the interpretative process of the Torah She-be’al Peh. The Sages teach that there are seventy “faces” to the Torah. The simplest meaning, the peshat, is sometimes time-dependent, addressed to the generation that received the Torah. But our tradition has never limited itself to understanding the Torah according to its peshat level alone. Rather, it has put a premium on rabbinic engagement with the text, enabling other meanings to radiate throughout the millennia, and allowing new perspectives and interpretations to thrive. This is not some apologetic innovation of the rabbinic period. Rather it is part of the warp and woof of the five books of the Torah themselves: for many great sages—R. Zadok of Lublin, the Zohar, the and R. Isaiah Ha-levi Horowitz (the Shel”a)—the commandments of the book of Deuteronomy are the interpretations and reapplication by Moses of God’s earlier laws, now calibrated for the new challenges of life in the land of Israel.


The last Jews of Spain

I was in Spain the day before Simchat Torah when my Israeli friend suggested we honor the holiday by walking through Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – La Juderia de Sevilla.

It was a terrible way to celebrate.

Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – or, rather, what once functioned as Sevilla’s Jewish quarter, before pogroms, massacres and expulsions – is bring-your-meds depressing.

A map outlining places of interest lists several sinagogas (synagogues), abruptly followed by the explanation, “actually,” this is now Iglesia [church] de Santa Maria la Blanca or Convento de Madre de Dios. On one side of the map is a quaint little reconstruction of an enclosed area that was once home to the second largest Jewish community in the Kingdom of Castilla. Today, all that remains are a few dinky pieces of the wall that delineated the quarter, and I probably don’t have to tell you what’s left of the Jewish cemetery.

The story of Spanish Jewry is now a story of remnants. It is the story of much of Jewish Europe, defined mostly by what is missing, by exclusions and absences.

Sevilla’s Jewish museum, if one could call it that, is but a room with few artifacts and some text on the walls. It is a poor testament to the rich history of Spanish Jewish life, a once-thriving medieval culture that produced some of Jewish history’s most honored philosophers and poets — Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, among them. Oddly, more wall space is devoted to Susona Ben Suson, the reputedly beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant and Jewish converso (convert) who fell in love with a Christian nobleman and then betrayed her father and her people.

The dirty little secret about the Spanish Inquisition is that even after Jews converted to Christianity to save themselves, they were subject to “estatutos de limpieza de sangre,” discrimination and reprisals resulting from their lack of pure Christian blood. When a group of Sevillan conversos hatched a plot to take back their city and halt these reprisals, the pretty Susona Ben Suson told her lover, who then dumped her and had everyone else killed. According to one legend, Susona died a recluse, having asked that her skull be nailed to the doorpost of her house in order to remind others of the consequences of betrayal. Another legend says the Inquisitioners burned her alive.

The story Spain tells about Sephardic Jewry can sometimes seem schizophrenic, oscillating from the glories of the Golden Age to the ignominious Inquisition. It carves Spanish Jewish history into distinct chapters, suggesting one period was good, and the other, bad. 

But Moisés Hassán-Amsélem, a Sevillan native of Moroccan and Algerian Jewish descent, tells another story. “Life for the Jews in Spain was never that great, as some historians would say,” Hassán-Amsélem told me during an interview.

The 48-year-old educator (and a non-practicing attorney) is Sevilla’s go-to tour guide for the Jewish quarter; he is a Jewish history autodidact and lives in an apartment of wall-to-wall books. He also lectures on Holocaust studies and anti-Semitism at the local public university, Pablo de Olavide. He scoffs at the notion that there ever was a Spanish Jewish “Golden Age” when Jews prospered and three religions co-existed in peace and harmony – “This is a myth,” he said.

Hassán-Amsélem became a tour guide because he wanted to introduce visitors to a different perspective than that of official Spain. In the 1990s, eight cities decided to work together to create a network of Jewish quarters – Red de Juderías de España – in order to encourage and promote tourism. “Jews became an attraction,” he said wryly. And it worked: Today, there are 24 cities in this network, and Hassán-Amsélem said he conducted more than 220 tours last year.

“But how many of these cities have something to show? Hassán-Amsélem asked. “Not many.”

Hassán-Amsélem is bothered by how the official record romanticizes the past. “You realize there’s not that much to see [in these quarters] because after 500 years, so much has been destroyed.” In Barcelona, for example, a Jewish cemetery was turned into a quarry – a cheap place to buy stone, which then became the building blocks of the city. “You can still see a façade with Hebrew letters carved into it,” Hassán-Amsélem said of one of Barcelona’s Jewish-tour stops.

Today, official statistics suggest that where once there was a Jewish community of 200,000, only 40,000 remain. But even that census, Hassán-Amsélem told me, is probably exaggerated: “I don’t see it,” he said, suggesting the actual population is probably somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000, with the biggest communities in Barcelona and Madrid.

After generations of living in exile in North Africa, Hassán-Amsélem’s parents decided to return to their ancestral home in Sevilla. In 1963, his father organized all the Jewish émigrés into the “Israelite Community of Sevilla,” which today claims between 100 and 120 families – the size of one very small synagogue in Los Angeles.

“I am not very optimistic,” Hassán-Amsélem said of the future of Spanish Jewry.  “The number of Jews in Spain is not growing. I don’t know for how long the communities will survive. Places like Sevilla? I am quite pessimistic. I don’t think there are enough Jews to be able to go forward.”

Spain’s recent repatriation efforts – an offer of citizenship to Jews whose ancestors might have been expelled – are a lovely gesture, but the requirements of new potential citizens are not demanding enough to tip the scales of Spain’s Jewish future. 

Spain is also, after all, a Catholic country. And the continuing weakening of its Jewish presence is akin to the general languishing of the Jewish presence throughout Europe.  “There is still a lot of prejudice,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “People are still very ignorant of what being a Jew means – a lot of people [still] think that Jews killed Jesus, and that the Jewish expulsion from Spain happened because Jews were controlling all the finances.”

So the Spanish-Jewish homeland was never totally glorious or golden. And now, when the Jews have their promised land, Israel, even there peace continues to evade them. In every iteration of Jewish history, bounty and blessing are punctuated by violence and loss: Loss of cities, quarters, whole communities, countless artifacts and millions of lives.

“Sometimes I feel myself like a dinosaur, like I should be in a museum from 500 years ago,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “I don’t know if there is any future, but there is a present. And I try to open the eyes of the people; it’s like ‘You see? I’m Jewish. I look like any other person. I have no horns.’”

But he also said that even his very best efforts as an educator are challenged by the situation in Israel.

“Nobody cares that every day a Jew is stabbed in Israel – that doesn’t count, that’s not part of the news. The problem will be when [days from] now, Israel will bomb spaces in Gaza and the whole world will say ‘Jews are all like the Nazis.’ And Spain is part of that, unfortunately.

“This is what Europe has become.”

Celebrating the murder of Jews

What happens when extremism dominates a whole society?

When I saw thousands of Palestinian civilians celebrating the cold-blooded murder of four rabbis praying in a synagogue, I had to ask myself: Could I ever imagine thousands of Jews celebrating the murder of four Muslim sheiks or four Christian priests?

I was sick to my stomach the day that a fellow Jew, Baruch Goldstein, murdered Muslims praying in a mosque. Of course, the vast majority of the Jewish world condemned the murders unequivocally. Jews didn't celebrate and hand out candy on the streets, as crowds of Palestinians did after the synagogue attack.

The public celebration of murder is a medieval moment, a sign that things have gone over the edge. It’s not enough for world leaders to condemn the murders – they must condemn the public celebration of these murders.

Of course, behind these celebrations are decades of Jew-hatred that has marinated Palestinian society. Go on the Palestinian Media Watch Web site and you’ll see what I mean. It is a museum of Jew-hatred and glorification of terror officially sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority.

So-called moderate leaders like Mahmoud Abbas routinely glorify murderers of Jews. So why should we be surprised when so many of his people rejoice at the atrocity of four rabbis being slaughtered while they were praying?

Just like any country, Israel has its share of haters. But in Israel, when racial tensions flare up, you have a president who’s not afraid to say things like, “The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.” You can look at that comment two ways – either as confirmation of Israel’s sickness or as a demonstration of Israel’s culture of self-criticism. I choose the latter.

I can only imagine if Mahmoud Abbas did something similar, if he were to stand up to his people and say: “These murders are repulsive enough, but these celebrations only add dishonor to our society. They are a sickness. There is no grievance that should ever justify the celebration of murder. We must stop hating Jews and find ways to live with them in peace, security and dignity. That is the only way we will ever reach peace and the creation of our own state.”

The great irony, of course, is that it is the ability and courage to call a society “sick” that creates better societies.

One wonders how Israeli President Reuven Rivlin would have reacted to the sight of thousands of Jews celebrating the murder of Muslim shieks. Is there any doubt he would have gone ballistic? Has any Palestinian leader ever even criticized the Palestinian celebration of murder?

Hatred transcends grievances. The minute a society uses its grievances to justify its hatred– whether this grievance is occupation or terrorism– is when a society loses. It’s the brutal candor of people like Rivlin that keeps Israel from falling off the edge. When the teaching of hatred comes from the top, as it does all too often in Palestinian society, you can only feel sympathy for the children whose hearts are being poisoned. 

After the attack on the synagogue in Har Nof, I received this email from a friend in Jerusalem:

Together with the rest of Israel I heard the news of the attack in Har Nof this morning with horror, anguish and fury. A few hours later I also learned that among the dead was Moshe Twersky, a distinguished Rosh yeshiva in the Haredi world but also my friend and hevruta from Maimonides days. I just returned from his funeral, where one could see all of his worlds converge. Given the circumstances, it was telling that the thousands who gathered were totally silent, with not one cry for revenge. Thank G-d we have not followed in the footsteps of our enemies. Baruch Dayan Emet.”

I reflected on that silent crowd of mourners when I saw images of Palestinians celebrating the murders. The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether we say that one society is better than the next. What really matters are the values that are being taught.

And on that front, I can tell you that if you teach Jew-hatred in your schools, media and mosques, you will create an extremist society. That’s something every peace lover should cry over.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Maimonides, the man and the exceptional genius

To call someone “the greatest” in any field is to invite argument. Human achievement and its evaluation are an uncertain business and make such triumphalism suspect.  Yet, there is one man who is consistently, invariably referred to as the greatest Jewish scholar of the last 2,000 years. Considering the range and genius of Jewish wisdom through the centuries, the standing of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, evokes both astonishment and awe.

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah arranged and codified all the Jewish laws that governed life in his day. This task required not only a comprehensive mastery of talmudic literature and its byways, but also a power of organization, selection and judicial sagacity that would have been a crowning achievement for a great scholar’s lifetime.  In addition, the book is composed in a lucid, flowing Hebrew that reads easily 1,000 years later.  

Yet, this same man, who died at 69 in 1204, also wrote the single most-important work of Jewish philosophy in our history, “Guide for the Perplexed,” and he wrote it in Arabic, which was the language of philosophers of the day.  

While compiling this extraordinary record of achievement, Maimonides was the most eminent physician of his day, tending to the Sultan of Cairo, maintaining an active correspondence with Jews all over the world who wrote him for advice, and consulting with Jews and non-Jews on matters both spiritual and medical. If his life were not so well-documented, one would suppose him a myth. 

So formidable is this man that in Jewish scholarship there exists a sort of unspoken credo similar to Shakespeare in English literature or Goethe in German literature: If you want to test your scholarly chops, you write about these epochal figures.

Newly translated into English is the book on Maimonides by one of the most accomplished Jewish scholars in the world, Israeli professor Moshe Halbertal.  It is a masterful performance. 

Halbertal begins with “Moses the man,” telling Maimonides’ life story and reminding us of the travails of his family and his own personal struggles. Maimonides’ family fled Almohad persecution in Spain, settling in Fustat, right outside of Cairo. Maimonides’ brother, David, was his friend and support — in the classical rabbinic manner of Ephraim and Menasseh, one was a merchant and supplied the family with resources, and one studied and became a scholar. When David drowned at sea on a voyage to India in 1177, Maimonides was inconsolable: “But the heaviest blow, which caused me more grief than anything I have experienced to this day, was the death of the most saintly man I knew, who was drowned while journeying in the Indian ocean. His little daughter and his widow were left with me.” In a later letter, Maimonides writes, “For almost a year after receiving the sad news I lay on my couch stricken with fever, despair, and on the brink of destruction.” Across the centuries, the sorrow touches our hearts and reminds us that even those who are giants of philosophy and faith are not immune from anguish. 

After outlining his life, Halbertal ushers the reader through the stands Maimonides takes in the philosophy of halachah, beginning with his youthful work, the commentary on the Mishneh, published in his early 20s. Already Maimonides is inclined to systems, seeking coherence and consistency, and given to an anti-mythological and anti-superstitious reading of the Jewish tradition. From trivial to grand notions, Maimonides will be resolutely rationalistic. So when the Talmud suggests magical cures for illness, Maimonides views these as measures intended to psychologically reassure the afflicted. When the prophet foretells that in messianic times the lion will lay down with the lamb, Maimonides explains this as a prophecy that big nations — lions — and small nations — lambs — will dwell together in harmony.  

Writing in prose “several orders of magnitude above that of halachists (legalists) before and since,” Maimonides offered the Jewish world a comprehensive legal code, disdaining sources to make it less confusing for the reader. Criticized for this lack of “footnoting,” Maimonides planned to go back and source his rulings, but the tremendous demands made upon him prevented him from ever accomplishing that task. 

As befits one who wrote (along with Avishai Margalit) an illuminating book on idolatry, Halbertal reminds us that Maimonides’ great battle was against idolatry not only in the world, but in the mind. He insisted that Jews should not carry images of God in their heads, and the truly learned would understand that part of Judaism’s battle with the world was a philosophical battle for the ultimate reality of the intangible. After all, uniquely among the people of the ancient world, the Temple did not hold a picture or image of the Jewish God. As Tacitus reports in his Histories, when the conquering Roman General Pompey entered the holy of holies, he found it empty.  

Maimonides wrote his great philosophic work, “Guide for the Perplexed,” in response to the challenge of Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotle. Islamic scholars of the age were similarly grappling with this challenge, as did (most prominently) Aquinas in Christianity. Some of Maimonides’ thoughts in the “Guide” were set in deliberately confusing or ambiguous ways, and he states at the outset that deeper meanings will be hidden from the reader. Since it was penned, careful readers have indeed disagreed about central questions in the “Guide,” and Halbertal helpfully provides the four basic schools of readership, which he calls the skeptical, the mystical, the conservative and the philosophical. Each has plausible readings of certain parts of the work. Halbertal explores for us Maimonides’ position on evil, providence, the reasons for the commandments and other questions that arise in religious life throughout the ages. 

All of the approaches to the “Guide,” however, share a recognition of Maimonides’ battle against idolatry, his “focus on the causal order and the wisdom inherent in it as the most substantive revelation of divinity” and his innovative “rejection of the distinction between what is within the Jewish tradition and what is external to it.” Maimonides insists that philosophy and science both have a place in Jewish thought, and he claims that truth from all sources must be harmonized with the tradition.  

For a figure as protean and promethean as Maimonides, no single work will be close to the final word. Among the many books about Maimonides’ life and contribution, Halbertal’s is learned, thoughtful and compelling.  It reminds the reader why, even in his lifetime, people began to say of the man often called the “great eagle” that — “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”

Purim: There’s something about Esther

If I were assigned the task of writing a biblical-style script for a play or a movie, the Book of Esther is the last place I would turn for inspiration. The word “biblical” conjures up images of God, prophets, dreams, visions and supernatural miracles — all of which are strikingly absent from the Book of Esther. Not once does God’s name appear in this book, and none of the main characters are prophets or religious leaders. As for the outcome that came to be known as the “Miracle of Purim,” it is told in absolutely human terms, with no divine manifestation or supernatural miracles determining the outcome.

Contrast this with the Torah, the ultimate source of inspiration for a biblical-style story. All the classic biblical ingredients are present in the Torah. God is ever-present, regularly communicating with prophets in dreams, burning bushes and pillars of fire. When it comes to supernatural miracles, no book does it better than the Torah. God’s creation of the world, splitting of the sea and speaking the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites at Mount Sinai are among the most outstanding divine manifestations in all of human history.

Yet, for the polar opposites that they are, the Torah and the Book of Esther share something very deep. They are the only two books in the Bible that, according to halachah, must be written on a parchment scroll by a scribe and must be read from such scrolls during public readings in the synagogue. By contrast, the prophetic selections read in synagogue as haftarot may be read from a printed book. Despite the absence of God’s name or of supernatural miracles, the Book of Esther became the “Torah Scroll of Purim.”

The Torah and the Book of Esther meet up in the Talmud. Tractate Megillah teaches us the laws of how to properly write Megillat Esther (megillah means scroll), as well as the appropriate times for its public reading on Purim. During the discussions about the Scroll of Esther, Tractate Megillah branches out to discuss the laws pertaining to the public reading of the other scroll in Judaism — the Torah. In a fascinating transition from the scroll without God’s name to the scroll in which God is everywhere, Tractate Megillah creates a unique halachic bond between the Scroll of Esther and a Torah scroll. 

The drama of the unique relationship between these opposites intensifies.

In his final halachic entry on the Laws of Purim, Maimonides teaches:

In the Messianic era, all of the biblical books of the Prophets and Writings will be nullified, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the Torah and the Oral Law, which will never be nullified (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah, 2:18).

What does this seemingly peculiar relationship between the Torah and Megillat Esther imply? What is it about Megillat Esther that sparked the masters of Jewish tradition to have it written and read like a Torah scroll, and then to declare that it shares a unique destiny with the Torah as one of Judaism’s two eternally everlasting books? 

Jewish tradition places Megillat Esther on a pedestal, on par with the Torah, to teach us that experiencing God’s miracles does not lie exclusively in the realm of the supernatural. The so-called “classic biblical ingredients” — prophecies, miracles and even the constant mention of God’s name — are not the only ways to experience God. The rabbis sanctified Megillat Esther as a hidden manifestation of the divine, inspiring us to have faith that God is ever present in the world, even when that doesn’t seem so obvious. 

By seeing Megillat Esther as the “Torah Scroll of Purim,” the rabbis actually raise the bar in deepening our understanding of God and miracles. It’s easy to believe in God when you witness supernatural miracles or hear God’s voice speaking to you from heaven. But when Esther somehow becomes the chosen queen, and the very enemy that sought to destroy the Jews ends up destroyed — all without the sea splitting — can we rise above our secular “all’s well that ends well” reading of Esther and read this story as a miracle? 

Ever since the close of the prophetic period (roughly 2,700 years ago), the only God we have known is the one “presented” in Megillat Esther. God no longer speaks to us from mountaintops, and we do not have prophets with whom God interacts. From the story of Mordecai and Esther all the way to our current experiences as a Jewish nation, the hidden God of Megillat Esther — for better or for worse — is the only expression of God that we have known. 

The Torah and Megillat Esther indeed share much in common. The parchment, the calligraphy and the eternity of their distinct spiritual messages bond these texts forever. But more than the Torah, it is Megillat Esther — today and all the way through the Messianic Age — that truly challenges us to find God, both in our personal lives and in our national existence as Jews.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is developing the SEC into the first Sephardic think tank for the Jewish world. Follow his blogs at or at

In the wake of Boston Marathon bombings, Israeli Independence Day fetes are toned down

Israeli Independence Day celebrations in Boston were muted and security was increased in the wake of bombings that left three dead and dozens injured at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Mike Rosenberg, director of community relations at Maimonides, a Jewish day school in suburban Brookline, said an event Tuesday commemorating Israel's 65th anniversary had been toned down out of respect for the victims of the attack and their families.

“Messages have gone out to parents and students that in the context of yesterday's events, there will be no dancing and more [words of Torah],” he said.

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston called off a flag-raising ceremony for Israel's Independence Day, leaving its flags at half-mast.

Shira Strosberg, the school's director of communications, said security in and around its campus was ratcheted up.

“We are obviously saddened and everybody came to school today with a heavy heart,” she said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the bombings.”

At a Yom Haatzmaut celebration in Los Angeles Monday evening, sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, security was tightened signifcantly, a spokewoman said, and prayers were offered both by Israeli Consul General David Siegel and by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the event's honoree.

No one has taken responsibility for the two explosions near the finish line and there was no indication Jewish institutions were at any particular risk. Nonetheless, community officials told JTA they remained vigilant.

Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at

Can we help?

My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”

The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

Ancient sources yield health and diet wisdom

Many diet books promise a better, thinner you in a ridiculously short amount of time, but conventional wisdom holds that many diets stop working by about 6 p.m.

Two recent books — “The Life-Transforming Diet” (Feldheim, 2007) and “The Jerusalem Diet” (Gefen, 2007) — offer approaches intended to help Jewish dieters make changes in eating styles that would work in the evening as well as during the day.

Diet books don’t often include approbations from rabbis, but they’re appropriate for “The Life-Transforming Diet,” a structured eating plan based on the writings of physician and Torah scholar Maimonides.

Adapting this 800-year-old diet, author David J. Zulberg presents a plan for long-term changes using the scholar’s prescriptions for self-improvement.

Maimonides was uncannily accurate in many of his suggestions, including a focus on preventive medicine, reducing salt and red meat and adding daily exercise.

“Overeating is like poison to the body and it is the main cause of all illness,” he wrote.

In addition to practical diet considerations during Sabbath meals, “The Life-Transforming Diet” offers useful information on nutrition, fat choices and Maimonides’ views on red meat. (“Only eat meat if you are bored with chicken.”)

His list of bad foods, from aged meat to moldy food, is remarkably similar to the American Institute for Cancer Research’s list of foods to avoid. But some of the ancient advice doesn’t always translate to a modern audience: “Sometimes I drink soup made from young roosters and then go to sleep.”

And then there’s the difference in lifestyle. In Maimonides’ time, “daily life included physical labor which required a greater caloric intake. Today, people need to eat less to balance the energy equation. Unless you are a professional athlete, you just cannot eat that much,” said Jodi Newson, director of nutrition services for Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group in Beverly Hills.

Newson suggests that a book can help people make a change, but says that studies have borne out that it’s also important for dieters to seek guidance from registered dietitians or support groups.

“A book cannot encourage you when you hit a plateau,” she said.

Still, one can’t go wrong with Maimonides’ advice that “a person should eat only when he is hungry and he should drink only when he is thirsty.”

“The Jerusalem Diet” doesn’t address how to eat so much as “why” we eat.

ALTTEXTJudith Besserman and Emily Budick refer to their plan as an “appetite for life” and employ guided imagery to unearth the reasons behind overeating.

Besserman, a practicing psychotherapist in Jerusalem and New York City, runs weight-loss groups based on guided imagery techniques adapted from Colette Aboulker-Muscat, a Jerusalem psychotherapist. Emily Budick is a professor of English at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The authors note that most people already use imagery in some form when trying to lose weight (i.e., visualizing a new outfit for an event). Besserman and Budick suggest using such imagery to understand our relationship to food, and then change habits to feed the “slimmer, healthier self” instead.

Simple exercises that involve breathing are used to identify the roots of eating patterns and to visualize your plate to determine whether the food is there for you to gain, maintain or lose weight.

Guided imagery “translates the stories of our life back into a language we can understand” so that dieters can take steps toward weight loss, according to the authors.

But turning to a book to learn guided visualization techniques might be a tall order.

One exercise, “The Moment After,” is supposed to give the reader the feeling of satiety, as if you’ve eaten a chocolate bar. Even after the exercise, I still want the real thing.

“Visualization is not easy to do on your own. You may want to start with someone who can guide you,” said Shelly R. Cohen, a Los Angeles psychotherapist in private practice.

Cohen says that visualization of a healthier self can lead to hopefulness, an important element to ensure effective change.

“It’s always important to identify and address underlying problems that create an obstacle to weight loss, whether they be physical or psychological,” Cohen said, adding: “Weight loss is tricky, and different things work for different people. Just find whatever works for you.”

Tamar Sofer lives in Los Angeles and writes about nutrition and disease prevention.

Survival hinges on being light unto nations

It’s impossible to augur the future of the Jewish people. It can only be summed up in two words: “I hope.”

In a paradoxical sense, the current political, economic and military
strength of the Jewish people does not suggest much self-confidence. We never before have had such a strong army and such a powerful state, just as we never have had such a great support network and influence as we have with today’s worldwide Jewry.

Nevertheless we are fearful. Every day we worry about our future and wonder if there still is hope for us. We fear annihilation and destruction. We see foes behind every shadow. Is this security? Are the fruits of independence and sovereignty the loss of the Jewish people’s faith in “netzach yisrael,” the eternity of the Jewish people?

We have tremendous national experience in survival and in forging means of existence in the face of a hostile world. But we have yet to develop a national strategy for times of respite, acceptance and equality, whether in our sovereign nation or in our Diaspora society.

The question for our future is, can the Jewish people, the vast majority of whom live today in the democratic hemisphere, survive without an external enemy?

The key to that future doesn’t really depend on our military or political strength but in decoding the Jewish genome that succeeded in getting us through so many challenging periods.

The Jewish people never survived merely for the purposes of survival or subsisted solely for the purpose of subsisting. Judaism and the Jews can survive only if we, connected with one another, are aimed toward a goal far larger than physical survival. We must aim for the destiny of the entire world and think about our contribution to humanity.

This is how we gave the world the notion of liberty, expressed during the exodus from Egypt in the eternal cry, “Let my people go.” This was the humanistic universalism of the prophets, and this is the Jewish ethical lesson for the world’s generations.

Without enlightened universal humanism, the Jewish people do not justify their existence or the heavy price we and others pay with suffering. A state and sovereignty are only the means. The question must always come back to a means to what, a state for what.

The strategy for the Jewish people can be found in our past. We must return to a position in which our contributions to the world will be so vital and unique that neither we nor the world can afford to forgo our existence.

In the medieval era, when the daughters of Judaism — Islam and Christianity — blossomed, Maimonides said, “There is no difference between our days and the messianic era except for the subjugation of the nations.”

What he meant was the only difference between history and post-history is that in the messianic era, nations will not subjugate other nations, people will not conquer other peoples, individuals will not humiliate or oppress other individuals, men will not abuse women.

This universal Jewish call for peace, equality and justice, which preceded all the modern revolutions, is still relevant and far from being fulfilled.

The fulfillment of Maimonides’ grand humanistic dream is undergoing the incredible experiment of our generation. As the nation of victims, we must not claim for ourselves a monopoly on suffering. We must not be closed or apathetic to the sufferings of others “because our trauma is bigger than yours.”

We must transform our suffering to a model for the world — of good against evil, of light against darkness. The cry “never again” means never again for anyone who is suffering, never again for anyone who is persecuted, never again to the evildoers and the malicious — not, heaven forbid, never again for the Jews alone.

The Jewish future means undergoing a revolutionary change from Holocaust to recovery, from trauma to trust, from victim to protector of victims, from an era of enslavement to an era of fellowship.

We will secure our existence by being a model for the world and for ourselves. We must go from a nation of victims to a nation that is of the righteous among the nations for the entire world. We must be there for suffering people around the world who need us as we needed others — even though, except for a few isolated cases, there were no others there when we needed them.

We can have no loftier a national goal. It carries on its wings the promise for the future of the Jewish people in these enlightened and open modern times into which we have been fortunate enough to have been born.

This piece was translated from Hebrew by Uriel Heilman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency associate editor.

Avraham Burg is a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and author most recently of “Defeating Hitler” (2007).

Rebbe Road

If the great Maimonides ever came back to life and found himself in Los Angeles, chances are he’d look for a house on a small street called Detroit, between Oakwood Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, one block west of La Brea Avenue. There are no holier streets in Los Angeles.

This little discovery happened thanks to my 10-year-old daughter, Mia, who informed me recently that she had volunteered me to be a driver for her upcoming class outing. Little did I know what kind of class outing it would be: a minitour of a very Jewish neighborhood — not my neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, but the neighborhood of Hancock Park.

Our tour guide was Mia’s fifth-grade Chumash teacher at Maimonides Academy, Rabbi Moshe Abady. The tour is actually called a “Kollel Tour,” because the feature attraction is a visit to the two kollels, or Talmudic study halls, of the neighborhood.

You will never understand the Orthodox world until you understand the idea of the kollel, which originated in Eastern Europe in the 19th century as a way to keep yeshiva students in a Torah-learning environment after they get married, and also nurture Torah scholars, teachers (“rebbes”) and experts in halacha, or Jewish law, who would make rulings for their communities.

In America, the kollel movement was started after World War II by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founder of Beth Medrash Gohova, a large yeshiva in Lakewood, N. J. Since then, kollels have opened across the country in all major cities, becoming a key catalyst for the growth of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox movements in America.

On the West Coast, the oldest and best-known kollel is called the Kollel Los Angeles, started by Rabbi Chaim Fasman 30 years ago and located on Beverly Boulevard, across from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the only cafe where I’ve seen Cholov Yisroel milk, which is imported from Israel and is favored by many ultra-Orthodox.

The first kollel we visited with Rabbi Abady was a smaller Chasidic kollel on La Brea Avenue called Yechiel Yehuda, where we met with full-time student Chaim Unger, who gave the schoolchildren a minioverview and answered their questions. I don’t remember his exact words, but I have a clear memory of his message and body language: There is no better way to be a Jew and to serve God than to study His Torah.

How do you make money, one child wanted to know. Unger said that the kollel helps a little, his wife works a little and they basically just get by. I couldn’t resist asking how he could physically sit down and learn all day and most nights. Didn’t he ever feel like moving or running or swimming, just to get the blood pumping? He gave me this strange look, mumbled something about his wife having a Stairmaster and then explained how the study of Jewish law can be so draining that it is like a workout.

Rabbi Abady then walked us over to the Kollel Los Angeles, where the kids had lunch and heard from two more full-time kollel members. The message was the same: Learning Torah is heaven. I’ve rarely met such happy people. There is nothing they’d rather do than spend all day analyzing the intricacies of a talmudic tractate.

When I met up with Rabbi Abady a couple of weeks after the tour on a rainy Sunday night at the Coffee Bean across from the kollel, he acknowledged that one of the criticisms of kollels in general is that it doesn’t seem fair that married men with children should study full time and not work. But, he says, students are screened carefully; the money they get from the kollel is too little to attract slackers; women consider it an honor to be married to a Torah scholar and, most importantly for the community, kollels can transform the Jewish life of cities and neighborhoods.

Here in Los Angeles, the kollels of Hancock Park have been feeding the community for years with leaders and Torah scholars — such as Rabbi Gershon Bess, who is part of the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of California, heads the highly successful Kehilas Yaacov synagogue and is a world-renowned halachic expert, and Rabbi Yaacov Krause, who runs the prominent ultra-Orthodox Toras Emes day school and is the head rabbi at Young Israel of Hancock Park.

What I gathered, after listening to Rabbi Abady, was that in the Torah-observant world, having a world-class kollel is like a city having a world-class symphony orchestra. The orchestra attracts the best musicians; the kollel attracts the best students. Even if you are not a classical music aficionado, there’s a civic pride in knowing that your city has something majestic and superior.

For the Jews of Hancock Park and for many others, a world-class kollel is something majestic and superior.

And that includes the Jews on that little block of Detroit Street, where Rabbi Abady started his class outing as if he was a tour guide with a “Map to the Stars.” With a look of reverence on his face, he walked us down the block and showed us how virtually every house belonged to a Torah scholar and prominent member of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.

Over coffee Sunday night, he jokingly called that block the “holiest street west of the Mississippi,” while reminding me that many of these scholars have been involved with the local kollels, primarily the Kollel Los Angeles. Hancock Park would never be what it is today without the kollels, he said.

In that case, my friends of Pico-Robertson, fasten your seatbelts. The rabbi confirmed that a world-class kollel is quietly starting in our neighborhood, under the tutelage of two Torah giants of Hancock Park: Rabbi Baruch Gradon and Rabbi Daniel Danishefsky. It is currently being housed in Beth Jacob Congregation, and from what I hear, it’s already attracting major talent from Lakewood.

The great Maimonides, if he returns, will now have another neighborhood to look at.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Shmuel of Arabia

It must have been quite a scene in that little courthouse in Jerusalem. Rav Qapah, a Yemenite Jew who sat on the Jerusalem Beit Din (court of law), was hearing a case involving a commercial dispute between a Jew and an Arab.

At one point, the beit din heard testimony from an Arab judge who was serving as a witness. Rav Qapah asked his first question in Arabic. The Arab judge did not answer. Rav Qapah asked again. The Arab judge just sat there, speechless.

Rav Qapah wondered if the Arab judge could not understand his Arabic. After a long pause, the Arab judge said no, that was not the problem. He was speechless because, as the story goes, Rav Qapah’s Arabic was so pure, so perfect, so luminous, the stunned Arab judge thought he was hearing the voice of the prophet Muhammad himself — from a Jew, no less.

That was many years ago. Today, here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, Rav Shmuel Miller cracks up when he tells that story. He’s got a whole bunch of them, stories that speak to the ancient connection between Jews and the Arab language.

In fact, Rav Miller has more than stories. He’s an expert in Arabic. He can learn Torah in Arabic, and often does. In the pristine shul that he built in his backyard, he teaches his sons and others how to study Jewish texts in Arabic. If it were up to him, there’d be many more Jews learning Arabic.

It’s not obvious why this Jewish man would have a passion for a language that today is too often associated with suicide bombers and radical Islamists. Here is a French Orthodox rabbi who has studied at the top yeshivas in Europe; an expert in Talmud, philosophy and mysticism; a lover of Jews, Torah and the Hebrew language; a sofer who writes mezuzahs and Torah scrolls in perfect Hebrew calligraphy; and yet, when the subject of Arabic comes up, his eyes light up like he’s one of the kids at the Munchies candy store on Saturday night.

I know the emotional arguments. I’ve been hearing them for years from my parents, aunts, uncles and their friends who grew up in Morocco. They have nostalgia for the past. They love Arabic music, and they’re crazy about the language. It’s a little like my Ashkenazic friends who wax about the joys of Yiddish. There are words in the Judeo-Arab dialect spoken by my parents that light up the heart like no word in French or English can.

I remember this one word I was particularly fond of: “Shlemto.” If one of her kids would do something wrong, my mother would use that word to convey that “I really love this kid, but I really wish he wouldn’t do that, but at the same time, I want everyone to know how much I still love him even when he does something that really annoys me.”

That’s with one word. There are many others.

In the Morocco that I remember, Arabic was the daily language of emotion.

But what about for Rav Miller, a rabbi who was born and raised in France? His first language is French, then Hebrew. Where does his mad love for Arabic come from?

If you see him, you get some clues. There’s a regal, Lawrence of Arabia quality to him. Short beard. Piercing eyes. Always upright. He looks like he’d fit right in with the romantic mystics of the Middle Ages.

But beyond that, after hanging out with him for the better part of a year since I moved to the hood, and seeing him give classes at my place on everything from the patriarchs to Spinoza, I have a simpler explanation for his Arabian passions.

He loves Arabic because he loves Judaism.

Take his love affair with Maimonides. He wanted to read “The Guide to the Perplexed” in the language in which it was written, so he studied it in Arabic. He says this gave him a deeper, “more palpable” understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you “apprehend” or “take in.” It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood. Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.

Similarly, by studying Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari in the original Arabic, Rav Miller got a more subtle take on the problematic notion that Jews are the “chosen people.” Looked at superficially, the idea of being “chosen” can easily offend other groups by suggesting racial superiority. In Arabic, however, the notion of the Hebrew segula (chosen) is more layered. The Arab term khassuss speaks to a one-to-one intimacy with God. In the original Arabic text of Rabbi Halevi, Jews are more likely to be the “particular, singular, private” people, rather than the more blunt “chosen” people. It’s about intimacy, not superiority.

How’s that for a disconnect? The language of Osama bin Laden and Hamas can teach the Jews some important subtleties about their own faith.

That does take a little getting used to.

Maybe that’s why Rav Miller has no illusions about Arabic classes ever catching on in the Jewish world. Of course, that won’t stop him from continuing to give his own classes to his inner circle, and from spending long nights poring through ancient Arab texts written by Jewish sages.

One thing he won’t do is talk about politics. That’s not his trip. He did make a slip the other day, however, when he made an offhand remark wondering what it would be like if Jewish leaders started talking to Arab leaders in Arabic.

I have no idea if that would help the peace process, but I am sure of one thing: More than a few Arabs would be left speechless.:::::::::::::::::

Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite

The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.


Students Seek Justice for Americans in Israel

Armed with reams of notebook paper and plenty of pens, 600 yeshiva students rallied for legislation that would support American families whose loved ones have died in Israel at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

In honor of Yom HaZikaron (the Jewish Day of Remembrance), students from Yeshiva University High School (YULA), Maimonides Academy, Emek Hebrew Academy, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and West Valley Hebrew Day School gathered at B’nai David Judea Synagogue in Los Angeles on Tuesday, May 6 for YULA’s third annual memorial rally and letter-writing campaign. This year’s event was in memory of Yael Botwin, a Los Angeles teenager who was murdered in the September 1997 Palestinian bombing on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

After hearing heart-breaking stories of lives lost, students wrote letters to U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urging them to co-sponsor the Koby Mandell Act, which would create a special unit in the Justice Department to pursue Palestinian terrorists who have harmed Americans. Last year’s rally led to co-sponsorship of the bill by several representatives, including Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

"I think it’s important to pass the [Koby Mandell Act]. I don’t know why it hasn’t received more attention," YULA senior Motti Klein said.

Ezra Pinsky, another YULA senior, has a personal interest in the act, as he plans to study at a yeshiva in Israel upon graduation from high school this June.

"I’d like to know that America is going to take actions against those who could be threatening me," said the 17-year-old, clutching his letter. "It’s not going to be a pleasant year if I’m in danger."