November 16, 2018

Exodus As Performance Art?

John Legend as Jesus.

Most of the stories in the Bible are written using a traditional storytelling narrative format. It reads like a book. There is one glaring exception to this structural conformity in the Exodus story.

Immediately following the 10 miraculous plagues and their dramatic escape from Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one side, the Egyptian legions are in hot pursuit of their coveted slaves, while on the other, the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds impede the path of the fleeing Israelites. On God’s command, Moses stretches his arm over the sea and with a Harry Potter-esque flick of his staff, the waters recede. The Israelites dash across the channel to their freedom and the waters crash down upon the Egyptian hordes.

Here the Bible inserts its first, and only, musical number into the narrative. Inspired and awakened by their newfound freedom, Moses and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in the Song at the Sea — a spontaneous ballad offering thanksgiving to God. “I sing a song to the LORD for the LORD is highly exalted … The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

To me, nothing in the Bible requires a greater suspension of disbelief than this moment. Seconds earlier, the Israelites were rescued from certain death by the slimmest of margins. Sure, they felt great relief, but real people in real life do not spontaneously burst into song. That happens only in musicals.

The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text of the Exodus story. It is ready for Broadway.

When I want to say thank you in real life, I make a phone call. I write an email or send a text. I definitely do not grab a microphone, strike up the band lying in wait just in case I need to serenade somebody and sing a song of gratitude. But that does describe the Song at the Sea. The Israelites are saved, Miriam picks up a tambourine and Moses starts singing. It is such a cliche. A classic trope of musical theater or film — singing a wordy song instead of speaking like people do in real life.

I had this epiphany while watching NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC on Easter Sunday, along with 10 million other viewers. There are no songs in the original text of the Jesus story, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a musical version. But the Exodus story actually includes a “musical episode.” The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text. It is ready for Broadway.

Music possesses an extraordinary power to convey emotion more efficiently and effectively than words. Art does not always attempt to impart facts or historical truth. Rather, it moves us, inspires us, nourishes our souls.

In many places, the Torah is more like art than like real life. Torah is a collection of stories, ideas, rules and wisdom for improving ourselves and the world. Torah should move us, inspire us and nourish our soul. Sometimes performance art — even Torah — needs a shortcut like music to get us there.

The emotional peak of the Exodus is the moment our forefathers set foot on the other side of the sea and turned their heads to witness the entire Egyptian fleet drowning. In order to feel that moment, we need a shortcut. We need a song. At this point, we might even need an entire musical.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

To the Stranger Who Asked Me About Contradictions in the Bible

May you walk through this world as though
you’ve just come upon a garden. A once hidden
garden. You walked past its walls every day
on your way to and from work, never once
did it open its ivy green doors; but, now! Now!
Rejoice! Now! As if by mistake, the Divine Fool
has left open a door, once thought to be
set in stone; He has flung it wide open and
angels’ voices seep out from behind its walls
and sing to you!  Yes, you! In your ears, in a voice
only you can hear, they sing, “enter, enter,
come hither, sweet lover of all that is Good.”
And of course you concede and you follow
the lead of some ethereal usher whose hands
are the wind. Who guides your gate and your gaze
into the garden doors.

You walk between three arches
which frame three murals hung on
the opposite walls.

The first is of an aged woman with a basket of
grains upon her head; and upon the grains
rests a town, rising like bread.

The second is of several women standing
under a crescent moon, some young and
some old; all with arms filled with water,
as though their limbs were made to rock the sea.

The third is of a circle traced in ivy.

And there’s a fountain in the garden,
which you hear before you see.
Your eyes have left the murals
and belong to a statue now.
A statue of a woman whose newborn child
sits at her feet, rooted deeper than the soil.
Her eyes are set upon heaven.
And her child smiles: he knows
his destiny is set in stone,
belonging to a timeless entering of the garden.

The Akedah Dilemma

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac (excerpt), 1635

The binding of Isaac passage has posed a perennial problem for those affirming universal moral norms. Struggling with the dilemma of a God who commands Abraham to sacrifice his ‘chosen’ son has yielded a steady flow of creative interpretations. Herein my latest suggestion.

One way of presenting the Akedah challenge is to define the quandary that confronts Abraham as the choice between fulfilling the command to “Love the Lord your God” and the obligation to ‘Love Your Fellow as Yourself.” Which one has priority, the commitment to principle and law or the devotion to interpersonal love and relationship? Is the essential religious message that one must be prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Divine or that we must do everything in our power to sustain our human relationships? Is obedience and submission always the appropriate religious stance or is resistance and disobediences sometimes the more holy/moral response?

Here again, as in the Sodom episode, Abraham emerges as our radical mentor. At the moment that he refrains from sacrificing Isaac he demonstrates that the perceived contradiction between the two Love commandments is only imagined and that, at the deepest level, the fulfillment of the Love of God is achieved through one’s acting to Love one’s fellow human being. Indeed, Abraham concluded that the God with whom he is covenanted would never desire that he sacrifice his beloved son nor demand the violation of any other universal moral precept.

And so, once again Abraham the iconoclast shatters the idol of religious absolutism in favor of the moderating virtues of compassion, mercy and love.This is the gift of a religion that proclaims loud and clear: “and you shall live by means of the commandments”(Leviticus 18:5), to which the rabbis append, “and not die because of them”(Yoma 85b).

To life, and to a year filled with health, love and peace.


Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is Director Emeritus,UCLA Hillel


Rape in the Bible: A handmaid’s tale

Photo from Hulu

When biblical passages emerge in Hollywood products, they don’t usually provide a star turn for religion. More often than not, believers are portrayed as weird, kooky cultish types or dangerous fanatics. This trend cuts across religions: In Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the man who weathered God’s flood was a lunatic who nearly killed members of his own family. In the Showtime series “Homeland,” Islam and the Quran are promotional vehicles for terrorism. And let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the most brutally literal and political depictions of a biblical event in Hollywood history, portraying Jews as a bloodthirsty mob.

When Hollywood takes on religion, religion doesn’t usually look good. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Margaret Atwood best-seller turned television series on Hulu, is no exception. The dystopian tale posits a future when United States democracy has capitulated to an authoritarian regime rooted in religious fanaticism. When the effects of environmental degradation cause a scourge of infertility, reproductively healthy women are enslaved as childbearing surrogates. In a form of state-sanctioned rape, women are nothing more than ovaries with legs whose sole purpose is to serve the “commanders” and their barren wives.

Where on earth did Atwood find precedent, let alone justification, for this mass oppression and rape? I hate to be the bearer of bad news: The Hebrew bible.

The passage cited in the book and the show is from Genesis, in which Jewish matriarch Rachel is suffering from barrenness and tells her husband, Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

Torah readers know that this instance of offering up a maidservant as fertility surrogate is not the only one: Rachel’s sister Leah gives Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, who births Gad and Asher, whom Leah claims as her own. Earlier, when an aging Sarah cannot conceive, she offers Hagar to Abraham, and she births Ishmael.

Atwood’s appropriation of this ancient, uh, practice of state-sanctioned rape is disturbing for many reasons, not least for forcing a confrontation with what Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg calls “the unconscious” parts of our text. Neither in the case of Rachel nor Sarah does the Torah refer to this practice as “rape,” even as it openly acknowledges rape elsewhere, as in the rape of Dinah, the prevailing story of rape in the Bible but not the only one.

In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” edited by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Rachel’s act is given spiritual embellishment through metaphor and symbolism. To move from barrenness to fertility, she must bridge an equivalent gap between herself and God; by “employing” Bilhah as her surrogate, she engages in “imitative magic,” acting like the deity herself, claiming the body of another in the hope God will fertilize her, too.   

It’s a lovely flourish of literature, but of course the reality is cruel.

“It’s a moral gray area, which many, many biblical texts are,” Rabbi Rachel Adler told me.

Adler is the David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles and a renowned feminist theologian. She warned against biblical literalism.

“When I read the beginning of Genesis, I don’t protest a snake speaking Hebrew, a world created in six days or two archetypal humans in a garden,” she said. “The Torah is not a science book.”

As a Reform Jew, she favors a more historical, interpretive view.

“These are texts that come out of a society very different from our own,” she said, noting that slavery was common practice in the ancient world. “In our [society], slavery is an abomination. And using a woman to beget heirs outside of the marital relationship, and without the consent of the woman whose body is being used, is morally repulsive to us. The fact that people do certain things in biblical texts does not mean that we should do them, too.”

No wonder Hollywood is having so much fun with this. Bad religion makes for great storytelling. But is Atwood’s mirroring this practice an indictment of the Bible — or us?

“Atwood is pointing out ways that people who take a rigid, fundamentalist view of the Bible in our society can combine that with a kind of authoritarianism and fascism that reduces people, especially women, to a slave-like status, and justifies it in crude religious terms,” Adler said.

“If you want a symbol of subjugation,” she added wryly, “a woman is about the oldest, most ancient one you can find.”

But what about our vaunted Jewish matriarchs — Sarah, Rachel and Leah — who participated in this caste system of culturally sanctioned oppression?

“They’re part of a system,” Adler said. “And unless a woman understands that there’s a system, she’s an unconscious part of a system. In a system, everybody takes their place; unless they are conscious that it is a system and they seize the opportunity to resist.”

The same could be said of how we read the Bible, the Quran, even the U.S. Constitution: It’s on us to become more conscious of the texts we read and believe — and whether it’s bad policy or bad ritual, to resist.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

‘Homely’ ancient rock adds evidence of King David’s existence

Dimly lit, the stone slab, or stele, doesn’t look particularly noteworthy, especially when compared to the more lavish sphinxes, jewelry and cauldrons one encounters en route to the room where it is installed.

Indeed, in a Twitter post this fall, art journalist Lee Rosenbaum described the nearly 13-by-16 inch c. 830 BCE rock, which resembles an aardvark or elephant, as “homely.”

What’s significant about this stone — on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” exhibit running through Jan. 4 — is its inscription, which is the earliest extra-biblical reference to the House of David.

“There is no doubt that the inscription is one of the most important artifacts ever found in relation to the Bible,” Eran Arie, curator of Israelite and Persian periods at the Israel Museum, wrote in the exhibit catalog.

As is to be expected with a rock nearly three millennia old, the slab is missing considerable portions, and Arie’s translation of the remaining 13 lines of text is full of ellipses and bracketed additions. What is clear is that the Aram-Damascene king Hazael brags of having killed 70 kings, including of Israel and of the “House of David.” (The round number, scholars agree, is probably exaggerated, although Hazael did have a reputation for being ruthless and successful.)

The breaks in the stone neither obstruct nor obscure the “bytdvd,” or House of David, inscription, which remains “absolutely intact and clear,” said Ira Spar, professor of history and ancient studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey and a research Assyriologist at the Metropolitan Museum.

Epigraphers and biblical historians agree almost unanimously that the letters “bytdvd” refer to the House of King David, according to Spar.

“While it is clear that David was king of Israel, the archaeological evidence for the extent of his kingdom remains unclear,” he said.

Despite its “extraordinary inscription,” the rock, a seventh century BCE “Annals of Sennacherib” that tells of a siege of Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, and a 10th-century BCE “Taanach Cult Stand” that may feature a depiction of the Jewish God, have been “curiously” ignored in reviews of the Met’s exhibit, notes the Biblical Archaeology Society website.

Steven Fine, a professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University, agrees that the lack of attention is curious.

“It’s astonishing how little the Jewish press has noticed it,” he said.

Although the inscription has received scant attention, Fine says he has observed widespread public interest in biblical-era artifacts. When he led tours as curator of the University of Southern California’s archaeological collections in the 1980s, Fine reported hearing many “oohs” and “aahs” when he showed an oil lamp from the First Temple period.

“Why? Because they heard about King David,” he said.

“People care about this stuff. They don’t care about the Middle Ages that much. They care about biblical history … and it’s part of the grappling with secularization that makes this so important to some people.”

Even without this latest piece of evidence, Rabbi David Wolpe, author of the 2014 book “David: The Divided Heart,” said in an interview that there was near-unanimous consensus among scholars that David existed. But Wolpe, of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, added that “the size and scope of his kingdom were probably far less than was once thought.”

In the catalog for the “Assyria to Iberia” exhibit, the Israel Museum’s Arie wrote that the inscription’s matter-of-fact invocation of David’s name just some 150 years after his reign amounts to a “clear indication that the ‘House of David’ was known throughout the region and that the king’s reputation was not a literary invention of a much later period.” This, he adds, “clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem.”

Fine also thinks that most scholars accept a historical David, but he notes that some — those who align themselves with what is known as the Copenhagen School of biblical interpretation — don’t agree that David is a historical shoo-in.

“These things go in a range,” he said.

Although archaeologists tend broadly to be uncomfortable with text, Fine says, some might say that if there is a King David, he is “just a name” about whom we don’t know anything, while others would view David through the “eyes of Jewish history” and law.

Fine says public interest in biblical-era artifacts is good for the field, even if it is sometimes oversimplified on popular television programs.

“There wouldn’t be a field if it wasn’t for all this interest,” he said. “All of us started as little kids with that kind of stuff.”

Cleveland kidnappings: No one loves the stranger

I know what happened with those three women in Cleveland, how one man was able to imprison and torture them in the middle of a residential neighborhood for 10 years, even though he had grown children, brothers, cousins who visited the house for hours at a time. It’s not a pretty tale, but we’ve all heard it, although to a lesser degree, countless times before. 

Remember the command in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord your God loves the stranger … and you shall also love the stranger, for you were a stranger yourself in the land of Egypt”? Well, that’s not true in L.A., and it apparently wasn’t true in Cleveland, either. 

For years after I had moved here from Iran, I drew suspicious smiles and “are-you-just-weird-or-do-you-have-a-hidden-agenda?” glares. A mother at my kids’ school would spend half an hour in the parking lot telling me about the husband who had just left her because she was ill, and now she was alone with toddlers and no one to care for them or her, and I would ask if I could help in any way. The neighbor across the hall from me would cry over lunch about her son who had been in a coma for 15 years and how she cared for him at home and could hardly get away, and I would offer to fill in for her from time to time. Or I’d see a colleague get mistreated at work, a child teased, an old lady yelled at by her caretaker at the grocery store for taking too long to decide which brand of milk to buy. If I rose to their defense, it wasn’t just the tormentor who resented me; often, the one I thought I was speaking for was distrustful to the point of being hostile. 

I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I thought of every possibility but the most obvious one. 

Societies function through a set of entrenched boundaries. Some of these are spelled out and written into law; they are meant to create order and safeguard rights. The other boundaries, born of culture and custom, are often unspoken, even instinctive. Cross them and you’ll be sent into some form of emotional exile. 

In most traditional societies, these boundaries separate each tribe (the extended family, the members of an ethnic or religious minority) from all the others. Within, you suffer from a sometimes total lack of privacy but benefit from an equally formidable emotional support system. Their map looks like a jigsaw puzzle: Oddly shaped pieces fit together by some peculiar logic evident only in retrospect. 

In America, on the other hand, the map looks like a page from a grid notebook: Each individual or couple, while part of a larger whole, is ensconced safely, if alone, in a single little box. A person may expose herself, needs and vulnerabilities and all, to a near stranger, or on television and on the Web. She may do this merely to unburden herself, or to arouse the public’s sympathy or to become famous. But just about the only thing she doesn’t want is a display of pure empathy or an offer of guileless aid. 

Where I grew up, you did things for others because you were human and so were they. You relied less (or not at all) on government and institutions, taxpayer-funded organizations or troops of volunteers. The government was usually there to make you more, not less, miserable; rich people didn’t pay taxes, and the poor just paid to make others rich. You had only each other and your (and their) basic humanity. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as the Western model, but often it was more effective. Back there, if someone’s child disappeared, people remembered and remained vigilant long after the police had closed the case. They talked about it and asked questions and told the story to every newcomer for three generations. 

Back there, if you had a brother who had multiple locks on the basement door, you would know one way or another what he was guarding. If your father disappeared for an hour during a meal at his own house, or if your neighbor had naked women crawling around his yard, or an old man turned up at the park with a 6-year-old who resembled him, you would likely know enough about him to be able to connect the dots. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. 

There’s a difference between allowing people their space and privacy and making a conscious effort not to know because you don’t really care. Time and again here in L.A., I’ve seen one person look irritated and change the subject when another began to talk about a painful event or personal tragedy. An old friend of mine once sent out a mass e-mail to announce he did not want to hear about anything unhappy that went on in anyone’s life; bad news, he said, weakens one’s life force. 

So, yes, I may be completely wrong about Cleveland, there may be parts of this story that have yet to surface, but given what we know so far, I can tell you those women remained captive because the people on the outside didn’t care enough. The man’s family didn’t care enough about him or what he did to others to find out what lay behind the locked doors. The police didn’t think the girls mattered enough. And the neighbors? The neighbors were asleep in their little grids. That’s unfortunate, but it gets worse: The people on the outside didn’t care enough because they’ve been taught not to; because if they do, they’ll get punished for it in one way or another. 

Americans are a uniquely generous bunch. They’re splendid at organizing and effectuating aid, at answering a call to duty and committing acts of pure heroism. They rushed toward exploding bombs to save bleeding victims in Boston, drove across the country and inhaled poisonous debris for weeks at a time to sift through the rubble at the World Trade Center. They organize search parties for missing children and walk all night in mud and sleet, put their Ivy League educations to use in refugee camps and war zones. They’re good at donating and raising money for just about any cause. 

Then the battle is won, the search is over, and the once-formidable army of selfless and valiant givers breaks back up into a thousand lonely, self-sufficient cells. The lucky ones go home to a nuclear family — a spouse, a couple of kids who’ll leave home the minute they turn 18, maybe an aged parent. The rest have no one, or no home, to go back to. They might have saved 100 strangers from death or heartache, but they have no intention of saving themselves or each other from the neverland between intimate relationships and institutionalized charity. It’s the old pioneer spirit — break with the familiar, pack up your wife and children in a wagon, and do or die alone on the prairie. 

But the pioneer, make-it-on-your-own, build-a-new-world-or-kill-yourself-trying spirit, while hugely liberating and uniquely empowering, has its downside: Sit on the porch with a shotgun on your lap long enough and you’ll end up defending an empty, forgotten shell of a home separated by desert from other empty, forgotten shells. Or approach the lunatic on the porch and get shot at enough times and you’ll go home and put a dozen locks on your own door, live and let die. 

I still care about what happens to the “stranger,” but I know better than to step up and offer a hand. I find it at once sad and telling that the neighbor who responded to one of the women’s cries is being hailed as a hero. As if he did something most other normal beings wouldn’t do — aren’t expected to do. As if the normal course of duty is to hear a call for help and, because it comes from inside someone’s house, walk away. 

It would be easy for me to condemn such callousness except that I fear I’m increasingly guilty of it myself. I haven’t forgotten the awkward reactions or outright rejections I received from people when I believed we’re all bound together by our humanity. The woman crying about her husband in the parking lot never spoke to me again after I said, “I’d like to have you and your kids over for Shabbat dinner some time.” The neighbor with the son who was in a coma dialed the wrong number (mine), mistook me for someone else and said, “My neighbor called to ask if I need help; I wonder what she wants.” These days, I reserve my expression of empathy for close friends and family. I donate to charities and nonprofits knowing that this kind of aid, while important, is no substitute for a personal connection. Yes, it makes me less of a person. I believe this kind of detachment diminishes all of society, allows crimes large and small to go undetected. 

The only thing is, I’m still haunted by the anguish of the abandoned woman, the suffering and confusion of the old lady in the grocery store, the unjust firing of the colleague. I would much rather have had a part in helping heal the wound than spend years wondering what became of those people. I do see the distrustful neighbor from time to time, and though we only exchange polite greetings now, I can tell you that she seems no happier for all her well-guarded boundaries.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

What do I think about Zionism as a Turkish Muslim?

For the last couple of years — and especially the last couple of days — my Jewish friends all over the world have expressed their concern whether anti-Semitism is on the rise in Turkey. First of all Turkey has a population over 70 million. There is a great deal of diversity and plurality in Turkey. There can be some isolated events, individual statements but comments to present Turkey as a country becoming antisemitic are misleading and does not have any grounds whatsoever. Israelis and our Jewish brothers and sisters in general should not be concerned at all because there is no question of Turks' hating Israel or Jews in general, God forbid.

The Zionist conception of the devout Jewish people, who wish to live in peace and security in Israel alongside Muslims, seeking peace and wishing to worship in the lands of their forefathers and engaging in business is perfectly normal from an Islamic perspective. In that sense, as a Muslim I support Zionism. I fully back the devout Jewish people living in peace and security in their own lands, remembering God, worshiping in their synagogues and engaging in science and trade in their own land.

What is not well-known is that the Zionist belief held by a devout Jew and based on the Torah does not in any way conflict with the Koran. What is more, the Jews’ living in that region is indicated in the Koran, in which it is revealed that God has settled the Children of Israel on it:

“Remember Moses said to his people: 'O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples. O my people! Enter the Holy Land which Allah hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.'” (Koran, 5:20-21)

It is also revealed in the Koran that the Jews are a blessed people from the line of the Prophet Abraham and descended from the worthy prophets of God. There is no doubt that the Jews' efforts to migrate and build a homeland for themselves wherever they desire in the world is a most lawful demand. For that reason, it is the Jews' most natural right to wish to live in their own holy lands. Their ancestors lie buried in these lands, which are of the greatest significance to them. Indeed, God reveals in the Koran that He has settled the Jews in those lands they live in:

“We settled the Children of Israel in a beautiful dwelling-place, and provided for them sustenance of the best: it was after knowledge had been granted to them, that they fell into schisms. Verily Allah will judge between them as to the schisms amongst them, on the Day of Judgment.” (Koran, 10:93)

In another verse God says referring to Jerusalem:

“And remember We said: 'Enter this town, and eat of the plenty therein as ye wish; but enter the gate with humility, in posture and in words, and We shall forgive you your faults and increase (the portion of) those who do good.'” (Koran, 2:58)

And there are other verses of the Koran that indicate the right of Jews to dwell on the Holy Land:

“They say, 'If we follow the guidance with you, we shall be forcibly uprooted from our land.' Have We not established a safe haven for them to which produce of every kind is brought, provision direct from Us? But most of them do not know it.” (Koran, 28:57)

“And We said unto the Children of Israel after him: Dwell in the land; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh to pass We shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations.” (Koran, 17:104)

As revealed in the verses, God has settled the Jews in these lands, and Jews have the right to live freely on those lands, as do Muslims and Christians. This is also a promise of God for Jews to gather them in the Holy Land, only with the conditions realized. The words of the Torah state that God would only realize His Promise to the Jews on the condition that they love Him and obey Him:

“And when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy, 30:2-5)

I also would like to point out my thoughts concerning the remarks attributed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's that appeared in the international media. As it happens in all ideologies, people can impart different meanings to ideologies, faiths they practice or talk about. So sometimes it is important how people interpret things or what people understand, and carry into effect with those ideas.

The word Zionism also has several very different meanings. It would be misleading to bundle them altogether and automatically assume the Prime Minister Erdogan intended them all. The word Zionism is associated with the connection of the Children of Israel with the Holy Land as well as Biblical commandments that are required to be performed there. The word is also associated with the search of a community tied, together by a common religious and cultural heritage, for a homeland free from persecution. Lastly, the word is associated with the specific political and strategic policy decisions of various administrations of the State of Israel, which is often anti-religious.

In the first two usages, the word Zionism is used only in the positive, constructive sense, that is, the building of a nation. It does not imply any criticism or condemnation of any other group whatsoever, so it is definitely not in the same category as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. In addition, juxtaposing Zionism with racism does not have basis in these two understandings of the term because racism cannot be tolerated in this Torah binded Zionism:

“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

So I see it as particularly crucial for our Prime Minister Erdogan to make a clarification and explain that he is not against the concept of Zionism which represents the Jewish people's right to establish a state in Israel. But I find it important that he clarifies his intention and be specific about what he is being critical about rather than proscribing all the rights of Jews. And I would humbly ask him to discriminate what kind of Zionism he sees as a threat, or at least explain that he is referring to an understanding which represents a cruel version that is far away from the moral virtue that Judaism teaches. I am sure that he will offer a new explanation so that our Israeli brothers and sisters will feel comfortable about.

As a side note; in the wide-spread political arena of the whole Middle East, being opposed to Zionism, opposed to Israel and opposed to Freemasonry is a classical right-wing statement. In other words, when a person makes statements against these subjects, then he gains political power. If he is a writer or a leader of a religious group, then his position is strengthened. Therefore, someone who is anti-Masonic, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish is strengthened on the right. But I have to advocate the truth. My conscience will not permit the defamation and accusation of someone who has not committed a crime, a member of the People of the Book. That is incompatible with my religious belief. I do not say things so that some other people will approve of them or simply like what I have to say.

The Jews are the People of the Book, whom God created and praised for their good attributes and criticized for their errors, just in the same way He talks about Muslims. I as a Muslim believe that Jews must be able to live by their own faith and to live as they wish in their own country. God says in the Koran that the Jews exist, and it is perfectly normal for them to live in Israel. And thus, I want both the Palestinians and the Israelis to live fraternally in a friendly and amicable manner in the region in wealth and abundance.

Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at A9 TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. To reach her, visit or follow her on Twitter @SinemTezyapar

Megillat Esther — The book of the exile

Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar.  It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character that it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source –  Megillat Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Hanuka, the Jewish festival that is closest to it both in time and meaning.  Although the Books of the Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books, in the events that they relate, in the characters of the main figures, and in the religious-national issues looming in their background.  Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus;  the wicked, petty Haman; Esther whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant.  Commentators have also remarked that G-d’s name does not appear in the entire Megilla even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.

The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in one single issue – Purim is the Festival of the Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.  In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life of the Jewish people in exile.  Its  entire story, which looks like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in the years of exile.

Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to  destroy, and kill all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination?  Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another.  He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even  foolish and weak  tyrants can bring about terrible destruction upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales, who somehow becames the de facto ruler of the land, and decided that personal hatred, superstition, or any other kind of nonsense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening.

In Megillat Esther Haman is clearly a comic figure.  However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by so many tears and so much blood.  Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among the peoples of his  kingdom, whose laws are different  from those of every people, who do not  keep the king’s laws; and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly perfected during  the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then.  With minor variations, it is repeated to this day by modern-day  Hamans throughout the world.  We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure.  Today, we are afraid of him.

One can elaborate and illustrate how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther – that could have been funny, had it not been so tragic – has been repeating itself generation after generation, in different parts of the world.  The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures,  Ahasuerus and Haman ”  represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who  grow out of the fundamental evil of the Jewish existence in the exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned – the eternal scapegoat.

Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of thhe Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur during its rescue, stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible.  For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”  The Megilla teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.  Within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews…”, and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will not help even those who sit in the king’s own palace.  And that, despite everything, there is hope.

The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning  with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.”  May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megilla, when we will be able to read it truly frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

Is God a Democrat or a Republican?

With President Obama having just taken the oath for his second term in office, we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about substantive issues in ways that transcend party affiliations and divisions. We no longer have to debate how and for whom Jews should vote, and instead can confront the far more important question of what Jewish values teach us about the nature of a just society and the role and responsibility of the individual in shaping it.

Jewish teaching on this issue begins early in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 4, when we are introduced to the personality of Cain, who personifies injustice and serves as a model for what we must not become. In response to God's query regarding the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain offers a response which sets the foundation for Jewish morality: Am I my brother's keeper? (Gen. 4:9) The core of Jewish ethics may be summarized by the answer: “Yes. You are your brother and sister's keeper.” When you walk in the world as a Jew, you relinquish the singular perspective of self-interest and accept that the existence of others breeds responsibility to them. This responsibility is not the mere consequence of a social contract but a core aspect of what it means to be human. Others claim you, and their existence demands of you that you see them and respond to their needs.

In the Jewish tradition this principle gets translated into a Law of Non-Indifference which serves as the foundation for governing the relationships among human beings. “If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray do not remain indifferent. You must take it back to him….you shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

The defining feature of a Jewish public space is that it must be a safe one, safe not merely from harm, safe not merely from a Hobbesian definition of the state of nature as being a state of war of all against all, but safe in the sense that individuals who enter it know that their well-being is a concern of all who share in that space. A space is a safe one when all who inhabit it are “fellow keepers,” a space wherein the individuals recognize their responsibility to override their personal interests and not merely refrain from harming others but actually care for and respond to their needs.

The biblical law of lost property quoted above shapes a mode of behavior and consciousness whereby fellow citizens do not come into the public domain either to merely survive, or conversely, in search of benefiting from others' misfortunes. What could be more natural or simple than “looking the other way” when coming into contact with a lost piece of property. Who needs the hassle of trying to run down the owner? As a busy person, I don’t have time to be my brother's keeper, or more opportunistically, I can view such a moment as a prospect for personal gain. Who knows, I might reason, perhaps it is meant to belong to me. Perhaps it is a gift from God. In both cases the lens is actually a mirror: when I look at someone else's loss, I can only see myself, my needs and interests. Jewish tradition commands, however, that we walk in the public domain in a different way. At the heart of the ethic of non-indifference is the smashing of the mirror of self-interest to do what is just and right.

Jews in America have been blessed with the gift of freedom and equality and given the opportunity to not merely pursue our religious life free of persecution, but also the opportunity of full partnership in shaping the American public sphere. The First Amendment “wall of separation” between Church and State which Jews so judiciously protect, is meant to ensure that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its aim is to separate Church from State but not religion and religious values from the public discourse.

I don’t know whether God is a Democrat or a Republican, nor do I want to argue that one of them is more conducive to creating a just society. I do want to argue, however, that as Jews we are inheritors of a value system which has much to contribute to a public discourse about the nature of such a just society. As Jews we must be the enemies of indifference and the advocates of a social contract which educates and obligates all to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

America is in the midst of a serious discussion about its present and future identity and how the values which it holds dear ought to impact on issues such as universal health care, entitlements, deficits, gun control, and environment, to name just a few. As Jews our role in this discussion should not merely be expressed in the way we vote but in the way we bring the values of our tradition to shape this public discussion.

Cheerful and diplomatic, Ambassador Oren addresses L.A.

In a speech about the U.S.-Israel relationship delivered in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, drew on his expertise as a historian of the Middle East to illustrate the strength of the alliance between the two countries. Citing comments made by America’s presidents and founding fathers, Oren argued that the bond between the U.S. and Israel can be traced back to America’s Old Testament foundations.

“People read their Bible, and the spiritual connection between Israel and the United States is one of the reasons — I think one of the primary reasons — why support for Israel in this country is at a 20-year high right now,” Oren said.

Ever the polished diplomat, Oren, who has been stationed in Washington, D.C. since 2009, addressed the audience of more than 1,000 local Jewish leaders at the Saban Theater on Wilshire Boulevard at an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Los Angeles. It is the second address by a high-profile Israeli official to local Jewish community leaders in as many years, coming just 10 months after Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke to a somewhat larger crowd in Beverly Hills in March 2012.

But if Peres’ visit was a fete for a Nobel Laureate and an aging founder of the Jewish State, Oren’s served as a chance for local leaders to hear from the country’s top diplomat, the eloquent academic tasked with managing Israel’s most important international relationship.

“There is not a clearer thinker who better communicates what is happening in the world and what it means to us,” Federation Chairman Richard Sandler said in introducing Oren at the Saban.

Oren grew up in the United States and has taught history at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown Universities; he has, as ambassador, worked not just to strengthen America’s ties to Israel, but also to explain the relationship to audiences outside of Washington. While giving a 2010 speech at University of California, Irvine, Oren was interrupted repeatedly by Muslim protesters, who were subsequently tried and sentenced by a jury to perform community service for their disruptions.

That experience hasn’t driven Oren away from addressing university audiences — his schedule for this trip to the Southland includes an appearance at University of Southern California.

His audience at the Saban was extremely friendly. Even the questions tossed at Oren by Steve Edwards, host of “Good Day L.A.” on Fox 11, were gentle. Edwards, clearly aware of the perils of interviewing a diplomat who can only say so much – even when he’s not on stage – twice anticipated Oren’s noncommittal responses even before he had finished asking his question.

“You’re an ambassador, you’re a diplomat, you probably don’t even want to talk about this,” Edwards said introducing a question about President Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel’s nomination has met with some opposition from right-leaning groups who have taken issue with some statements he has made about Israel’s supporters in Washington and the strategy that should be pursued regarding the Iranian nuclear threat.

“I know you can’t really say anything, but I want you to say something,” Edwards concluded.

Oren non-response was as expected.

“Israel, out of respect for its democratic ally the United States of America, does not comment on nominations or confirmations by the Congress. We just don’t comment on it.”

“We look forward to working with the next Secretary of Defense,” he added.

Oren is functioning as Israel’s mouthpiece in Washington at a time when it can seem like America and Israel are talking past one another, particularly on the subject of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to move forward on plans for a settlement in a controversial area of the West Bank called E-1 late last year, President Barack Obama is reported to have said “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The quote first appeared in a report by Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg News on Jan. 14.

On Jan. 15, asked about “liberal Americans” who say that Israel’s construction in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace, Oren repeated the Netanyahu government’s party line.

“I think of them as shortsighted and not necessarily constructive,” Oren said. “Settlements are not the core of this conflict.”

To hear Oren tell it, the alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger, with the two countries cooperating on intelligence-gathering and conducting joint military exercises. And the policies of each country vis-à-vis the not-so-friendly countries in Israel’s neighborhood, Oren said, are remarkably similar.

Even on Iran, where there has been some disagreement between Israel and the United States about when the deadline for military action might be – Oren said that Israel’s redline sat somewhere between the spring or early summer of 2013 – Oren emphasized the agreement.

“We also recognize and appreciate that President Obama has said that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself if necessary, against any Middle Eastern threat or any combination of Middle Eastern threats,” Oren said. “Only Israel can best decide how to best defend its citizens.”

The parts of Oren’s presentation not focused on how deeply Americans love Israel were devoted to spelling out how wonderful Israel is. Oren crowed about the number of start-up companies in Israel and bragged that the Jewish state is now exporting wine to France.

Oren also explained how, before becoming ambassador, he had to officially renounce his American citizenship. David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General to Los Angeles, also a U.S.-born Israeli diplomat, had to go through the same process, as did Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“They read you your renunciation of rights,” Oren said, adding that he cried when they punched a hole through his American passport.

Oren said he’s still held onto his American accent, his “deep addiction to football,” and said that with all he’d given up to take his current position, the embassy officials still held out some hope.

“My wife, Sally, is still an American citizen, a dual citizen,” Oren said. “At the embassy, they told me that if she stays married to me, someday I can get a Green Card.”

Power of words: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny! 

Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal, and they can be used for incredible good or immense evil. Speaking into the microphone of today’s hyper-connected world enables us to both spread positive energy into the universe, and, sadly more often, spread negative energy, sometimes leading to violence. Both are known as going viral, and both are as ancient as the creation of the world and the essence of this week’s parashah.

Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, which will carry through for the rest of Genesis. Words are central to this parashah, as they are to the Jewish people as a whole. Our liturgy reminds us every morning, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being). In Vayeshev, words are crucial to the plot as Joseph “brings evil reports of his brothers” to his father (Genesis 37:2), and shares his dreams with his brothers and family, vocalizing private thoughts out loud without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Jacob, continuing the family tradition, expresses favoritism for Joseph in both words and actions, giving him the famous cloak of many colors, thereby driving his brothers to hate him so much that “they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Emotions are heated and the sibling rivalry is quite extreme. The Hebrew text in this parashah is replete with the words deebah (word), daber (speak), yaged (tell) and, sadly, sinah (hate). All of the words that Joseph and his brothers exchange only lead to more and more hate, eventually driving them to do the unthinkable: throw Joseph in a pit, sell him down to Egypt, and lie to their father by saying he died, ironically using the cloak of many colors, drenched in blood, as their alibi. Words, language, the very power God used to create our world, are thrown around in this parashah in such a negative way that the consequences are legendary. However, in the one place that words could have saved the situation, the text reports silence. Jacob has a chance to reprimand Joseph and the brothers, after the dreams, and the text says Jacob “shamar et ha’davar” (he guarded the matter). Rashi interprets this to mean, “He waited to see what would happen.” Precisely when words were needed to save the family unit, Jacob waited and was silent. It is not the only time this happens in Jacob’s life. 

The lessons of this parashah, to me, are: When do we speak and when do we hold our tongue? When do we share what we are feeling and when do we keep it to ourselves? Words, the precious gift that God gave us humans to communicate, can change the world, as in the great oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or they can destroy worlds, as in hate speech or bullying a kid at school. I see this parashah as calling us to teach our children how and when to speak, and how and when to keep quiet. Standing up for someone in need demands the courage of words; knowing when to ignore someone with silence or keeping our negative thoughts to ourselves demands wisdom. Joseph learns well, as the very dream-work that gets him into trouble at the beginning of the parashah is what saves his life in the dungeon of Pharaoh.

Kohelet said it best: “There is a time for speech and a time for silence.” May the Torah this week, and the lessons learned from some of the painful experiences we read about, teach us what to do before we speak, write or hit the reply/send button on our computers. Blessed is the one Who spoke and the world came into being: This is a great personal meditation before uttering, or choosing not to utter, our words. Shabbat shalom!

An interview with Ayelet Shaked

With the run-up to the first-ever internal primaries for the Jewish Home Party (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi) in full steam, one of the most hotly discussed issues is the candidacy of 36-year old Ayelet Shaked.

The co-founder and former chairman of the MyIsrael (Yisrael Sheli) national movement, the recipient of the 2012 Abramowitz Israeli Prize for Media Criticism and a close associate of Naftali Bennett – the two worked together in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the 2009 elections – Shaked is raising some eyebrows due to the fact that she, unlike Bennett, is a self-declared secularist.

Thus while Naftali Bennett is seen as taking on the old guard in his bid to become the new chairman of the Jewish Home Party, Ayelet Shaked is facing an equally difficult task in attempting to become the first secular member of Knesset for a party that was formerly known as the National Religious Party (Mafdal).  While no one doubts her strong pro-Israel credentials, not surprisingly the voices are divided within the national religious world regarding a secular candidate for a traditionally religious party.

After reading much about her in the Hebrew press, I decided to meet with her in a Tel Aviv café in order to get an up close impression of this up and coming star.

Yoel Meltzer (YM): You grew up in Northern Tel Aviv, not exactly the breeding ground for future right-wing stars.  This being the case, from where did you acquire your strong connection to many of the ideals of the religious Zionist world?

Ayelet Shaked (AS): I think originally a bit came from my home.  My mother was a teacher of Bible in Tel Aviv and my father was masoriti (traditional).  Every Saturday we went to synagogue and we made kiddush.  However, since the discussions at home tended to stay away from politics most of my political views I eventually developed myself.

Later on when I was in the army I served in the Golani and I became close friends with many religious Zionist soldiers.  This in turn strengthened my ideology.  I also spent part of my army time in Hebron and became friends with many people there, which also had an influence.  But overall most of my political views I just developed on my own.

YM: Was there any one person or a particular event that had a profound influence in shaping your world outlook and political views?

AS: Yes.  I remember when I was very young, perhaps 8-years old, I saw a debate between Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Shamir and I really liked Shamir.  So I think since then, even though I was just a child, I’ve considered myself right-wing.

YM: Before you announced your intention to run in the primaries of the Jewish Home party, did you expect the reaction your candidacy has triggered?

AS: I must admit most of the people are very warm and happy with my candidacy.  I receive many emails and messages in Facebook, people saying we support you and we’re very glad you’re with us.  They’re in favor of opening the divides and having real cooperation between different people in Israel.  I’ve also met many yeshiva students who have told me that their rabbis are very excited that I’m getting involved since they’ve been waiting for years for the party to stop being a closed one-sector party.  So overall I really believe that those who are opposed to my entering the party are a minority.

Having said that, I definitely expected there would be some opposition and I understand it.  I realize that my presence within the party makes some people uncomfortable.

YM: Have you been contacted by any of the rabbis or public leaders who are opposed to your candidacy on the grounds that you’re secular?

AS: No, none of them have contacted me directly.

YM: If one of them were to contact you, what would you say to him?

AS: First of all it’s his right and I respect that. Even though we may have different views we need to respect each other.  Nevertheless I would tell him that if we want to have a large party to the right of Netanyahu, one that is based on the Bible and Jewish values, then the party needs to be opened to secular and traditional Jews that identify with the values of the religious Zionist community.

I truly believe that if they open their heart and open their mind to cooperate with other people that share the same values, then we can have a big party.  Otherwise the party will continue with three mandates.

YM: Do you feel offended by their opposition or take it personal?

AS: No, this is politics.  I don’t take it personal.  As I told you I respect their view and it’s also a legitimate view.

YM: Given all of the above, why on earth are you getting involved davka in the Jewish Home Party?  Do you really need the headache?!

AS: I’m doing this because I believe in it.  I have many close friends who are religious Zionists and I think if we can be good friends, work together and serve in the army together, then there is no reason we should not be part of the same party.  Moreover, since we believe in the same values and hold similar opinions then I think we should go fight for them in the Knesset.

YM: It’s better to do this via the Jewish Home Party than via the Likud?

AS: It’s a dilemma.  I was a Likud member for many years.  The problem in the Likud is that every leader takes the Likud to the left.  It wasn’t easy for me to take this step.

YM: Okay, now that you’ve decided to go full steam ahead, what are the burning issues you’d like to address if and when you become a member of Knesset?

AS: The first item is to develop a strong Jewish identity in all of the Jews in Israel.  This needs to be part of the education system, not just in the religious schools but in the school of my son as well.  When Zevulun Hammer was the Minister of Education there was a specific department responsible for the Jewish identity in the schools. This needs to be reestablished.

I’m also already very involved, personally and via MyIsrael, in all the issues regarding the post-Zionist organizations and their attempt to change Israel from a Jewish democratic state to a “nation of all its citizens”.  So if I become a member of Knesset I want to be involved in hasbara (public diplomacy) in Israel and around the world in order to expose the intentions of some of the extreme left-wing organizations and stop their penetration into the country.  These organizations are involved in a wide range of anti-Israel activities such as the delegitimization of IDF soldiers, divestment of Israel around the world and aid for what they call African refugees even though most are in fact infiltrators.

Finally I’d like to encourage women to go out and work, to become involved in the business world, in public life or whatever they want.  Of course I’m only talking about women that want to do this.  I have friends who prefer to stay at home and raise their kids and I respect this.  But regarding those who want to work and have a career we need to find ways to enable this.

YM: Even if you should succeed in addressing these issues, what other areas of Israeli society need to be changed in order for Israel to become more in line with the type of country you’d like it to be?

AS: First of all I want to say that I believe Israel is a miracle and I think we’re a very healthy country.  We have a strong economy, a high level of mutual concern compared to other countries and overall there is a lot of good here.

The most important thing we need to do to make it even better is to reduce the socioeconomic gaps in the society.  This needs to be done through the education system so that a child in the periphery will have the same opportunities like a child in my Tel Aviv neighborhood.

YM: Let’s change the subject to Naftali Bennett.  After meeting a few years ago while working together in Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, when did the two of you decide to join forces in trying to make an impact in Israel?

AS: After both of us left Netanyahu’s office we tried to decide what is the best thing to do; to go back to the private sector or to remain in public life?  Personally I strongly admire the private sector and I told Naftali many times that if you can establish a big company that can create thousands of jobs, do it.  It’s one of the most important things in life to provide someone with a job.

For many months we continued debating this subject until Naftali decided that he wanted to devote his life to the people of Israel and that the best way to do this is through the public sector.  So he went to work with the Yesha Council and I returned to the private sector.

It was at this time, on the side from our new jobs, that we jointly created together the MyIsrael national movement. 

YM: What exactly is the MyIsrael movement?

AS: It’s a national movement of about 100,000 people that are mainly right-wing and share the same values and ideas.  There are so many people that want to be involved and give of themselves for various causes yet they don’t want to stop their lives.  So MyIsrael is a way, via the internet and Facebook, to activate these people for certain issues.  In many ways we’re like a large lobby group.  For instance we’ve pressured Knesset members to pass certain laws, we fought a campaign against Galei Tzahal (Israel Army Radio) and their predominately left-leaning agenda in order to have more balance in their programs and we stopped some boycotts of Israel.  Believe me, when 20,000 emails are sent to someone overseas who wants to boycott Israel he’s going to think twice.

YM: In addition to you and Naftali, who are the other members of your group that are trying to get in to the Jewish Home Party?

AS: First of all there is Rabbi Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF.  He actually hasn’t made up his mind if he wants to be a candidate but he’s very involved with us.  He shares the same views as us and believes it’s very important that religious and non-religious work together.  Naftali introduced him to me a few months ago and he’s actually the one who pushed me into this.  We’ve become very close and the three of us, Naftali, Rabbi Ronsky and myself, speak every day.

In addition there is Moti Yogev, the former Secretary General of Bnei Akiva, and Dr Yehuda David, the Israeli physician who fought for the truth in the Mohammed al-Dura story.

Of course there is also current MK Uri Orbach who was very instrumental in convincing Naftali to get involved and run for the chairman of the party.

YM: Regarding Rabbi Ronsky, is he a sort of spiritual advisor providing guidance to you and Naftali?

AS: He’s much more than just spiritual.  He’s working very hard, going to chugei bayit (parlor meetings), giving interviews and basically doing everything that I do.  Personally I really admire him.

YM: What does he have to say about all the controversy regarding your candidacy? Has he spoken to you about it?

AS: Sure, he’s spoken to me many times about the issue and he encouraged me to run in the primaries.  He’s so against the splitting up into separate sectors.

YM: What would happen if you receive a top spot in the primaries but Naftali loses in his bid to become the chairman of the party?  Do you think the party has a chance of making a real impact without Naftali as the leader?

AS: No, I don’t think so.  Without Naftali we’ll probably just get a few mandates.  Although personally I’ll still run it would be very sad if Naftali is not with us.

YM: On a technical note, what happens to the two candidates (out of a total of three – Naftali Bennett, Zevulun Orlev, Daniel Hershkowitz) who lose in the election for the party chairman?  Are they guaranteed a spot in the party or are they out of for good?

AS: They’re not guaranteed a spot but they can run in the list since the election for the head of the party is one week before the election for the rest of the list.  Therefore if someone wins by a big margin and there is no need for a second round, then the two that lose can run in the list with everyone else.  By the way, Orlev and Hershkowitz said that if they lose the election for the head of the party they’re not going to run in the list.

YM: I recently read that an internal committee of the Jewish Home Party decided to lower the amount of candidates that voters can choose in the primaries from five to three.  In comparison to the Likud primaries of 2008 where members were allowed to choose 12 candidates for a general list as well as a few more for regional spots and new immigrants, these numbers are ridiculously low.  They’re also lower than the 2008 Labor primaries where members chose between 5-8 candidates for a national list.

Why then, following the warmly received decision to finally open up the party to primaries, are they going in the opposite direction?  Do you think there are certain people that are trying to prevent your group from getting in?

AS: First of all I respect the tremendous effort of Rabbi Tropper to bring primaries to the party and I also respect the work of the committee.  However in this issue I think they made a mistake.  Although people were definitely pushing them, in the end it was their decision.  They said that it’s for the good of the party in that it will prevent the formation of internal groups.

Nevertheless, we asked for a revote of this decision since many voters are not happy with it.  Obviously most voters want to choose more than just three candidates.

YM: Let’s assume that everything goes as planned and one day Naftali becomes the Prime Minister of Israel.  If this were to happen, what would be your dream role?  Would you like to serve as his Foreign Minister?  Or perhaps Defense Minister or Finance Minister would suit you better?

AS: I think I’d like to be either Education Minister or Foreign Minister since both education and hasbara are close to my heart.  Then again, if Naftali becomes Prime Minister I think I can retire and enjoy life!

Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.  He can be contacted via

Biblical politics

Michael Walzer frankly announces at the outset of “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible” (Yale University Press: $28.00) that he is approaching the Scriptures not as a biblical scholar but as a political thinker.  “The Bible is, above all, a religious book,” he argues, “but it is also a political book.”

Walzer is a distinguished social scientist and a public intellectual of long standing. Tellingly, he has served as co-editor of Dissent magazine for three decades. He concedes, for example, that he is capable of reading the biblical account of the Tower of Babel as an anti-imperialist argument or as a defense of cultural pluralism.”  But he declines to do so: “[T]hat is the stuff of sermons.” And he concedes that there is no single authoritative reading of the Bible, not even his own: “[R]eligious believers, as well as skeptics and unbelievers, will disagree about the meaning of the biblical text and the political views of its writers.”

Since Walzer holds himself to a laudable standard of clarity and even transparency, he readily admits that he has “only a schoolboy’s knowledge of biblical Hebrew” and relies mostly (but not exclusively) on the King James Version “simply because of its beautiful English.”  He tells what he thinks rather than what he knows, because much about the Bible cannot be known with certainty, even by biblical scholars.  “Reading the Bible is a complex and speculative business,” he observes, “but it isn’t a business for which we need an invitation; we are all readers if we want to be.”

Not surprisingly, Walzer is attuned to the tensions and contradictions in the biblical text. He points out, for example, that God offers two covenants, one based on membership in a “kinship group” whose bloodlines can be traced back to Abraham and one based on willing adherence to divine law. “[H]ence it isn’t entirely implausible to say that there is no chosen people, only people who choose.” And he argues that the moral burden of the covenant has been “radically democratized,” precisely because “the avoidance of wickedness isn’t an obligation of leaders alone but of the whole nation.”

He also discerns the diversity of both belief and practice in ancient Israel that is buried just beneath the surface of the biblical text — “the textual residue of oral advocacy,” as he puts it.  God may be the law-giver at Sinai, but even the Bible concedes that God later falls silent, and so the task is taken over by “Israel’s secret legislators,” as Walzer puts it.  Since they rarely agree with each other, the old biblical laws are “pluralized” rather than revised or replaced. “The result of their choice was a written law,” explains Walzer, “that made possible those strange open-ended legal conversations that constitute the oral law of later Judaism.”

Perhaps the most provocative feature of the Bible is the prophet, a truth-teller who is willing to stand up to even the most powerful of kings, just as Nathan confronts David with his moral failings, although not always with impunity.  Monarchy, according to Walzer, “arises in Israel as an entirely practical response to the dangers of theocratic (charismatic) rule.”  If the king represents “the full and often contradictory set of human interests,” however, it is the prophet who speaks only of right and wrong. “Prophecy is at war with personal wrongdoing, later on with social wrongdoing,” he points out. “But the prophet is also at war with politics itself.”

Walzer, however, insists on pointing out the dark side of prophecy.  One complaint that the prophets make against kings is that they are insufficiently zealous and ruthless, which is the sin that caused Saul to forfeit the favor of God.  “Here were kings who pursued sensibly secular policies, fighting limited wars and signing treaties of peace,” observes Walzer, “when they should have consecrated their enemies to God and slaughtered them all.” Eventually, the prophets seem to realize that Israel’s days of conquest and slaughter are over: “We find in their writings the first hints of an alternative conception: that Israel is a victim nation, always at the wrong end of someone else’s agency.”

By the book of Esther, which Walzer singles out for its “radical newness,” God is wholly replaced by human agency.  “God is never mentioned in the story,” he points out, “nor does he come to the people’s aid.” Significantly, Esther and Mordecai succeed in saving the Jews of Persia from destruction only by ingratiating themselves with the king — “We may think of them as the first court Jews (though Joseph is a distant model)” — and they serve as important exemplars of a certain coping strategy that served the Jewish people well until the Shoah.

Indeed, Walzer explores how the politics of the Bible took on grave new meanings in the 20th century.  Historian Simon Dubnow, for example, argued that exile was not only the fate, but also the strength of the Jewish people: “State, territory, army, the external attributes of national power, are for you superfluous luxury.”  But the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz saw the same biblical story through the eyes of a Zionist pioneer: “When [he] called Mordechai an informer and a pimp,” explains Walzer, “he was hoping for a state that would make court Jews like him, like Esther too, unnecessary.”

“In God’s Shadow” always returns to the moral polarities that suffuse the Bible. “A God engaged in history is a dangerous God, for it is always possible to read his intentions and try to help him out, usually by killing his enemies,” Walzer points out. At the same time, however, the obligations imposed on the readers of the Bible can be profoundly exalting: “If anything in biblical politics is fundamental, it is this retail program, the social ethic of a covenantal community: do justice, protect the weak, feed the poor, free the (Israelite) salve, love the (resident) stranger.”

Countless authors possess the chutzpah that is necessary to come up with a fresh reading of the Bible, but very few succeed.  “In God’s Shadow,” however, is a rich and rare example of how new, provocative and illuminating meanings can be teased out of the ancient text.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Israeli lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari rips up, throws out New Testament

Israeli lawmaker Michael Ben Ari ripped up a copy of the New Testament and threw it in the garbage.

Ben Ari, of the National Union Party, had his legislative aide, Itamar Ben Gvir, photograph his destruction and released the photo Tuesday to the Israeli daily Maariv.

Lawmakers had received in their Knesset mailboxes copies of the new edition of the New Testament released by the Bible Society in Israel, which distributes Christian books in the country, Ynet reported. Some returned it to the society and others quietly disposed of it.

“Sending the book to lawmakers is a provocation. There is no doubt that this book and all it represents belongs in the garbage can of history,” Ben Ari said, adding that it “galvanized the murder of millions of Jews” throughout history, including during the Spanish Inquisition.

Government spokesman Mark Regev told Ynet that “We totally deplore this behavior and condemn it outright. This action stands in complete contrast to our values and our traditions. Israel is a tolerant society, but we have zero tolerance for this despicable and hateful act.”

Opinion: Shepherding the Bible

It’s common knowledge that the Bible is the “greatest book ever written.” No other book can match its power or wide appeal; no other book has been as studied, analyzed or debated. It’s the literary gift that keeps on giving, the book of books, the book for all eternity.

And yet, despite this extraordinary pedigree, in much of academia — particularly in the “non-biblical” fields of rational philosophy and political theory — the Bible is the Rodney Dangerfield of books: It gets little respect.

In part, this attitude can be traced to the influential German philosophers of the early 19th century, who generally dismissed the Bible as “superstition” and “revelation” in favor of the rigorous and classical Greek school of thought, which worships “reason” above all. While other philosophers, such as the English, did pay homage to the Bible in their philosophical works, the German school focused on rational thought and, to this day, this approach has dominated the halls of academia.

This is a missed opportunity that needs to be corrected, says Yoram Hazony, a scholar from Jerusalem who spoke recently at a Jewish Journal salon about his upcoming book, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (Cambridge University Press).

Hazony, the founder of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, believes the Bible has earned its rightful place at what he calls “the table of big ideas.” If you dig deep enough, he says, you’ll see that the Bible is more than a book of revelation or even a book of ethics — it is, in fact, a brilliant book of reason.

He gave an example of how the Bible can enhance classical Greek philosophy. One of the big ideas of the Greek school, from the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, is that man is nothing without the “state.” In this view, the state is the rational instrument that defined human identity and dignity — the instrument that spelled out the rules of civilized life. Socrates himself once said that he “would rather be dead” than find himself outside this cocoon of structure and reason.

But Hazony showed us that if you delve into biblical stories, like that of Cain and Abel, you find a more nuanced and independent view of civilized man and human identity. When God banishes the sinful Adam — the symbol of humanity — to toil in the fields, it is a curse for all future generations. Adam’s first son, Cain, accepts this banishment without question and follows in his father’s footsteps, doing the hard work of the land.

But the second son, Abel, decides he won’t accept God’s curse and chooses the much more idyllic life of the shepherd. That doesn’t stop him from showing his gratitude to God by bringing a sacrifice, just as his brother Cain does.

Now, you would think God would be more pleased by the sacrifice of Cain, as he is the one who respected God’s banishment.

But God is more pleased by Abel’s sacrifice. How could that be?

Hazony’s insight is that Abel is humanity’s “first dissident,” the precursor to epic moments in Jewish history in which other shepherds will challenge authority — most notably Moses, who takes on not only Pharaoh but even, at Sinai, God himself. There is something about this “Abel model,” Hazony suggested, something about this idea of man taking a risk, of embracing personal responsibility, of going his own way — and yet, still finding time to thank his Creator — that must have pleased God.

Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, this is the model that ended up defining the essential relationship between man and God: the model of partnership.

In this partnership, man certainly honors God’s authority but also reserves the right to challenge and wrestle with God, which deepens the relationship and makes it dynamic, even unpredictable. God accepts the notion of being challenged, and we, in turn, accept the consequences of this challenge.

And, just as in real life, we’re never sure how things will turn out.

Clearly, this is a more compelling view of civilized man than the Greek view of man beholden to an all-encompassing state. The God of the Bible, in all His glory and complications and mystery and wrath and loving-kindness and legalisms and threatening exhortations, is still a God that gives man a little space. Space to dissent, to try to repair, to mess up, and, yes, even to show God a thing or two.

While the authority in Greek philosophy is a state, the authority in Hebrew scripture is a state of being.

Thus, from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, we can draw a more complex and refined view of man’s relationship to authority. Hazony says the Bible is full of such “big ideas,” ideas that can enrich not just the world of philosophy, but other academic areas, among them political theory, sociology and psychology.

In essence, Hazony is on a mission to put the greatest book on earth at the heart of academic study. He knows the obstacles — the Bible has suffered from the stigma associated with religion in general: blind faith, supernatural stories, strict obedience, fanaticism and the absence of intellectual rigor.

But he’s undaunted. You might say Hazony is a modern-day Jerusalem shepherd who is challenging authority — and has no idea how things will turn out.

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

Make the Old New Again: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

At the ripe age of 8, I learned the Peter Allen song “Everything Old Is New Again.” It may have been an unusual choice for an 8-year-old to crave hearing over and over. But for me, this song was synonymous with dance class, doing the soft shoe that landed me on stage for the annual spring recital: “Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day, dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.”

When I was 8, I didn’t really understand the power of these words. There was nothing that was old in my young memory, except the adults that surrounded me. Yet as we all age, eventually we do remember more and more things that once were new. Remember that fresh, pure feeling that washed over you when you gained a new perspective, a different way of looking at the world? For some it is the birth of a child. For others it is a new job, or moving to a different home. For some it is traveling somewhere new, to view the world from a different angle.

We cling to these experiences to keep them fresh in our minds and in our hearts. We hope to be like children again, to experience the world with a fresh set of eyes. We want to bottle those feelings, later uncork the bottle, take a whiff of that “newness” and shed our adult baggage to experience the world again with purity of heart and clarity of soul.

As we begin a new book in our Torah reading cycle, we immerse ourselves in our ancestors’ attempts to do the very same thing. In the world of ritual purity our biblical ancestors knew, they strove to recapture the new, to be pure in their approach to God. As they defined and prepared their korbanot, their sacrifices, they aimed to strip down to the basics and to cleave close to God, to feel new again.

Leviticus Rabbah, a great collection of rabbinic commentary, tells us that when children first begin their Torah study, they begin with the book of Leviticus. Why? Because children are pure and fresh, and this book is all about attaining this level of purity and closeness to God through sacrifice. In the rabbinic mindset, children did not immediately dive into the messy narrative of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis, but rather they were first exposed to the orderly world of priestly purity to encounter God. 

As adults, we can make the connection between the need for purity and freshness in our spiritual lives and the drive to rediscover the childlike purity of the fresh and the new. We revitalize ourselves by making “the old new again” or by crafting experiences where we truly discover something new. Reacquainting ourselves with the “new” is a risky venture and requires thoughtful planning and effort. It is altogether too easy to stick to the routines that define our lives. But instead, take a step back … back to the purity of childhood, and put yourself in a new and unfamiliar situation. This is how we have the potential to cleave to God as we experience the world in a new way. As the midrash tells us, the book of Leviticus is for children. As the cabaret song tells us, “dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.” This is how we discover the path to the divine: Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, and renew yourself.

Rabbi Susan Leider is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am ( In July, she will become the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif.

Haman’s fall: Diaspora dreams in the Biblical Book of Esther

Even if you’re a serious student of the Bible, you might not know what the Book of Esther is doing there, in the Bible. Don’t worry though, nobody else knows either. Although it tells of near-tragedy, it is written melodramatically, almost as a farce; and it is very hard to read with a straight face. It tells how the exiled Jewish people that had been living peacefully in the Persian Empire were saved by Queen Esther from a genocidal plot designed by an evil minister named Haman. The story and its style are altogether out of keeping with the other texts canonized as the Bible. In fact, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther even once.

We want to suggest two ways of reading Esther that may help explain its awkwardness and make it more palatable. One focuses on its message, the other on its medium. Before tampering with the book’s message, it should be noted that it forms part of a section of the Scriptures known as the “five scrolls,” the other scrolls being the Books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. There appears to be a common denominator to these books, aside from their being very short:  each of them has a special interest in Diaspora. Together they seem designed to raise questions about the appropriate response to living in the Diaspora.

Diasporas pose the dilemma of relating, at one and the same time, to an often hostile “host” society and to the collective memory of a homeland. The Five Scrolls—separately and together—are an invitation to consider that delicate balance. They offer four generic responses: Return, Remain, Revenge and Take-Over (or Rule).  We call them Diaspora Dreams. One is the desire to return to one’s homeland. A second is the wish to remain in the Diaspora. The third is a determination to take revenge on usurpers of the homeland, or oppressors abroad. The fourth is the ambition to take over, or rule, the place where one finds oneself.

Of the Five Scrolls, Esther fascinates most because it provides particular insight into diasporic Dreams. It contains three of the four dreams, Remain, Revenge, Take-over—completely leaving out the most obvious Diaspora dream: Return. Unquestionably, Remain is the predominant Dream in Esther, along with Revenge and Take-over. It is not hard to guess why stories of defamation, dire threat, and its reversal should appeal to Diaspora Jewish communities. It’s a fantasy of deliverance without—or maybe with—the assistance of a miracle.

Living under a King’s protection has been a pattern of the Jewish Diaspora for centuries and so the story fits all too well. Over the years, there is a long list of tyrants who qualify for the part of Haman. Not all of them begin with the letter H, and not all of them preside over Persia. Some do. But all are doomed to fall. More broadly, Esther’s message is that normalcy, even if abnormally achieved, is a worthy dream.

Yet as noted above, Esther’s narrative and style is anything but normal, at least by biblical standards. Unlike others of the canonic texts, it celebrates its heroes and its villains in carnavalesque style, and sets the mood for the fun and games and occasional debauchery which mark the Purim holiday.  Indeed, the Esther story has been continually performed as a play (purim spiel) in European Jewish history.

In this spirit, we noticed that the verb “to fall” appears in the text, both literally and metaphorically, with seemingly exaggerated frequency, as if to call attention to a hidden message. The preponderance of “Falling” and “bowing” prompted us to search for other gestural or postural verbs in the text, and thus we found numerous other verbs such as “to rise,” “to sit,” “to mount.” Along with “fall,” these other jerky movements—bowing, prostrating, standing, mounting (a horse)—activate the text, giving the Book a vaudevillesque quality. That, in turn, led us to consider another wild possibility, namely, that the Book was originally performed as a puppet play, in which jerky up-and-down movements on the vertical axis are the dominant pattern.

This possibly preposterous suggestion would explain why Esther is so different in its literary style from the other books of Bible—an observation posed on top—and so fitting to be performed as a Purim Spiel. For it was integrated into the bible as the script of puppet show or a play—not of the dreams of a prophet or the musings of a sage.

But extending the notion of Esther as puppet show may also explain a crucial component of the meaning of Diaspora and the nature of its dreams. God, we noted on top, is conspicuously absent from the book of Esther. But should the story of Esther indeed be the script of a puppet show, that absence would actually be an overwhelming behind-the-scene presence: God would be the puppeteer.

In biblical thought, God dwells in his city, in his temple. With the exile of his people from that Temple and city, God too, in kabalistic thought, goes into exile. Once the Jews are in Diaspora, God is no longer present in the material world, and the “shchina” goes into exile (“gallut ha-shchina”). The deity of the Diaspora is the puppeteer pulling the strings, but never visible. The Diaspora dream of Remain is expecting God to bring redemption from behind, or rather above, the lively scene.

Whether a bed, or help figuring out what to do in one, some kosher options for Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day, for a people tasked in the Bible with being fruitful and multiplying, what goods are good for the Jews?

Perhaps sex toys from an Orthodox-oriented website that are not supposed to make you blush? Or maybe your pleasure for these long winter nights is a new bed made in Israel that is as flexible and modern as you are?

Since the name of the Israeli manufacturer who makes the beds is Aminach, which in Hebrew means “my people rest,” we’ll take it easy and test their Sapapa line of contemporary beds first.

Its flagship store for the line, located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Studio City, carries a variety of “extreme” day, trundle, adjustable and folding beds—designs that they promote as being “beyond the conventional.” As I walked up to the store, a sleek, cherry red convertible sofa in the storefront window caught me by surprise.

In the Bible, Jacob sleeps on the ground with a rock for a pillow. With that kind of design heritage, I expected these Israeli designs to be functional and utilitarian—but they were stylishly hot, too.

“It’s called Check-In,” said Hila, the store’s saleswoman, who demonstrated how with one hand the design went from couch to bed.

“Let’s try the mattress,” I suggested to my wife, Brenda, who had come along for just such a contingency.

We were both surprised at the firmness and comfort of the queen size mattress. “In Israel, everyone prefers hard mattresses,” said Hila, who had grown up on a kibbutz, adding that “Aminach is Israel’s third-largest employer.”

Sapapa is a pun—a play on the Hebrew word for couch, sapa, and an Arabic word, sababa, which roughly translates to “cool.” According to the brochure, the beds are cool, hot, exciting and extreme. All of that goes for $2,000, not including set-up and delivery, for the Check-In model.

Looking around the showroom, the Freedom design immediately raised my sleep number. Wrapped in red, and equipped with a hand-controlled mechanism that raised and lowered both the feet and the head, we couldn’t resist trying it out. On the $3,450 bed I played with the controller, eventually settling on raising both ends. If a good night’s sleep is the best aphrodisiac, then this design might be rated triple ZZZ. Given another moment, Brenda and I both would have fallen asleep.

Since some of the beds come equipped with blue lights and speakers in the headboard, I wondered about other add-ons. “Do they also come with vibrators?” I asked, for which Hila shot me a look of disdain. I had meant to say “massagers,” but perhaps the other nomenclature would be more appropriate for Kosher Sex Toys, the next stop on our journey to Feb. 14.

Before we examine this “kosher” collection of very personal gifts, let’s first consider the need for vibrators, stimulators, whips and shackles on a Jewish web site. The mission of Kosher Sex Toys is to “provide married adults with products that can help enhance their intimate moments without involving crude or indecent pictures or text.” The website promises that nothing on the site “will make you blush,” and product pictures do not feature models.

Get the picture? It’s everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to look at—but apparently not afraid to use. The business, located in Lakewood, N.J., a city with a large Orthodox population, would seem ideally situated to service this niche market in what Inc. magazine estimates is a $2 billion industry.

Many of the items available for sale—vibrators, lube and bondage gear are among the offerings – are sold as well on other sites.

“It’s our attitude and how it’s sold that makes it different,” said founder and CEO Gavriel (his wife made him promise not to use his last name).

“Handcuffs are on my best-seller list. I am surprised at how well the bondage stuff is doing,” he said. “Whatever makes people happy.”

At first blush, a sex toy web site operated by an Orthodox Jew might seem unusual, but Jews and sexual aids go way back. In the Bible, Rachel, the barren wife of Jacob, asked her sister Leah for some mandrakes, a root found in the Middle East that may have had aphrodisiacal qualities.

I was curious why a sex toy site was needed in the Orthodox community, so I contacted the certified sex therapist who takes questions on the site, Dr. David Ribner, chairman of the sex therapy training program at the School of Social Work at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“While Jewish law and tradition have long recognized the centrality of sexual satisfaction to a successful marriage, only recently have we been witness to more public efforts to promote this goal. Kosher Sex Toys is a step in this direction,” Ribner said.

Not being Orthodox, but wholeheartedly agreeing with Ribner about the centrality of “sexual satisfaction to a marriage,” I perused the site’s wares. After examining the people-free photos and clinical text, I still wasn’t quite sure how a product called a Panther worked. I got that it was a $116.50 “dual stimulation” providing a souped-up handheld vibrator (four batteries required). But what about those beads? Was a letter to Ribner in order?

It wasn’t until I visited another site and watched a video of the Panther powered up and operating (but not in use) that I understood the full function of the device. My wife, who also viewed the site and the video, felt the same way.

One of the site’s advantages—unrelated to your denominational orientation or sexual proclivity—is that various products on the site are designated phthalate free. The compounds, which have been banned in toys sold in the United States, are plasticizers still often used in the manufacture of sex toys to soften PVC vinyls.

According to a 2011 news story on the ScienceDaily website, a Columbia University study suggests “that prenatal exposure to these phthalates adversely affects child mental, motor and behavioral development during the preschool years.”

Gavriel says he researches each of his more than 300 items but does not personally test them, adding that “I only want to carry things that are safe.”

The Goods: Items from under $10 and up.

Sapapa, with locations in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Toronto. Call: (855) SAPAPA-5 for more information.

Déjà Vu, all over again: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

It’s a new year and we are beginning a new book of the Torah — Exodus. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the same old problem. Anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, rears its ugly head.

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, scapegoats the Jews and turns them into the enemy, a pattern that has been repeated too many times over the centuries. Sadly, anti-Semitism is not just a history lesson; it’s also current events.

Mark Steyn of the National Review points out that the “oldest hatred didn’t get that way without an ability to adapt: Once upon a time on the Continent, Jews were hated as rootless cosmopolitan figures who owed no national allegiance. So they became a conventional nation state, and now they’re hated for that.”

Anti-Semitism, the main subject of this week’s Torah reading, can be a controversial topic of discussion. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, will be the first to tell you. In December, Gutman explained why he felt it was important to differentiate between older forms of anti-Jewish hatred and a newer growing anti-Semitism in Europe, which stems from the tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Who decides what constitutes anti-Semitism? The very act of trying to differentiate one kind of anti-Semitism from another is itself “simply anti-Semitic,” as U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put it.

In this week’s Torah reading, what was at the core of Pharaoh’s anti-Jewish outlook?

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land’ ” (Exodus 1:8-10).

Why did Pharaoh assume the worst and think that the Jews posed a threat to Egypt? Did he really believe the Jews would support Egypt’s enemies? Weren’t the Jews always loyal to Egypt? Wasn’t it Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s own dreams and guided him through Egypt’s recession and economic crisis? Why did Pharaoh choose to ignore this obvious chapter of Egyptian history?

Conspiracy theories and the incitement of hatred can lead to discrimination against minorities, as we see in this week’s parasha.

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy text, fraudulently claims an international group of Jews seeks to control the world. “The Protocols’” author intended to stir up animosity against the Jews.

Accusations of dual loyalty among American Jews are common in the blogosphere, and some bloggers refer to Israeli supporters as “Israel firsters.” This false claim posits that pro-Israel Jewish Americans put Israel’s interests over American interests. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that these bloggers “are guilty of promoting dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cooper reminds us that not too long ago, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” made the accusation that American Jews exercise a uniquely malevolent influence over American foreign policy.

These charges have been around since 1920, when Henry Ford said, “Wars are the Jews’ harvest,” and Charles Lindbergh in 1940 condemned Jews for conspiring to plunge America into World War II.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently, “The standing ovation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] got in Congress this year was … bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

There is a well-known rabbinic phrase, “maaseh avot, siman l’vanim” — what happened to our ancestors in the Torah, is a sign for us, their children. Let’s make sure we carefully read this week’s Torah portion, so that we know how to respond to these false and misleading derogatory statements, and so we can properly deal with this irrational prejudice.

Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.

“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ”  (Genesis 6:11-13).

Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical

manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.

And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,

“I place before you a blessing and a

curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.

Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!

From Pain to Peace Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

My daughter just returned from Vietnam. When we heard her travel plans, her father and I struggled not to react as we did 40 years ago when someone pronounced the words, “I’m going to Vietnam.”

It is a testament to the Vietnamese people that they warmly welcome us as visitors. I think back on the 40 years since men (boys, really) of my generation struggled with the possibility of going to Vietnam, and I marvel at the healing process that makes friends of enemies and turns war into peace. I also think back to my own struggles “in the wilderness these past 40 years.” For in 1971, my mother and my sister both died.

“Ekev” — this week’s parasha — means “consequences.” As I ponder the collective trauma of the Vietnam War and my own personal trauma, I am filled with gratitude to know that unending rancor and suffering is not the inevitable consequence of hardship.

Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human.

We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. A saying I once heard, “Grief is the knife that carves the space for the heart,” resonates with the last paragraph of the Kaddish, which reminds us that the end of mourning should be peace. But how do we find the compassionate heart of peace when we are so torn by the turbulent emotions that come in the wake of the losses that come with war — war between countries and war within the psyche?

We sit, our tradition tells us. While shiva, the seven-day period that follows a burial, translates as “seven,” it is also a homonym for the Hebrew word “to sit.” For seven days we sit, surrounded and sustained by community, looking for, in the words of the Mourners’ Blessing, “HaMakom,” “a Holy Place of Comfort” (actually, a name of God) “in the midst of those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.” We look for comfort amid others who have known grief and carved hearts of compassion — hearts that have learned the Kaddish’s ultimate lesson: Seek peace.

Perhaps this is the intention of the biblical directive that those who encounter death, on the battlefield or elsewhere, should remain outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 31:19). They need time to ponder the consequences of acting precipitously after a trauma.  They need to sit.

But it doesn’t happen. Not only do we rarely sit shiva, more often than not we recoil from mourning rituals. Determinedly, we return to the world we once knew, demanding that it not be inexorably changed by our loss. We harden our hearts, remaining frozen by the contraction of heart, which happens at the moment of trauma. We don’t take the time to be taught by the fact of mortality or to listen to the words of the Kaddish. The consequence: We find no place for refining the heart. No space is created for tears to melt our trauma and soften our hearts or for anger to propel us to create the world, as it ought to be. We remain frozen, and our unprocessed trauma, pain, tears and anger ricochet through the generations and are acted out as depression, abuse and war. We don’t seek peace. We seek revenge. The consequence: more death.

These last 40 years have brought me a life I never could have imagined. I have traveled a wilderness through what poet Deena Metzger describes as a “wormhole,” in which my “assumptions about life [had to] dissolve to create a doorway through which something new [could] enter.” I welcome my daughter home from a vacation, unimaginable 40 years ago, as I anticipate Moses’ words during Elul, the month of reflection, and repeated on Yom Kippur, when he “place[s] before [us] life and death, the blessing and the curse,” and exhorts us to choose life “so that [we] and [our] descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). As this New Year approaches, may we sit in the midst of those who have made the courageous and surprising choice to cultivate life and peace as a consequence of heartbreak. May we find in our hearts the willingness to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Courage to Lead: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

We ended last week’s parasha with the Jewish nation crying as quasi-leaders sinned publicly with Midianite women, who had come into our camp at the Moabites’ behest.

We would have no rest from these Midianites, nor from their Moabite agitators. God ultimately would warn us to avoid such nations utterly — not even to wish Moabites or Ammonites well (Devarim 23:7).

The Moabites and Ammonites stemmed from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. The Midianites were our “cousins,” descended directly from Avraham and Keturah, whom Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Hagar, mother of Yishmael. Although Yitro, high priest of Midian, had proved himself a friend, opening his home to Moshe and even giving his daughter Tziporah to be Moshe’s wife, Yitro had been unique — a theological dissident who alienated his people by rejecting their idolatry. Brazen locals brutalized his daughters at the well.

Our problems with our “cousins” among the nomadic Midianites, the Ammonites and the Moabites continued through the generations. In the Age of Judges, Ehud had to save us from Moav, Gideon saved us from Midianite persecution, and Yiftach later saved us from Ammon. Thus it continued through the era of the Kings: Shaul’s wars with Moav and Ammon (I Shmuel 14:47), David’s (II Shmuel 8:2-3, 23:20) and through the books of Kings. There was no simple Peace Now plan or clever Oslo accord that could solve the interminable and insoluble problem defining Jewish destiny from time immemorial: being surrounded by “cousins” sworn to uproot Jews from Israel.

We saw in last week’s parasha that standing around, crying and wringing hands solved nothing. It never does. Most people knew right from wrong but maybe did not know what to do or lacked the courage to get involved. In the face of national paralysis, Pinchas emerged and, seeing catastrophe consume the camp, acted boldly. For that courage, he was awarded an eternal covenant of the Kehunah (priesthood).

We all see the need for action in the face of compromised Torah values — assimilation, self-hating Jews joining flotillas to Gaza and the like. And we cry. Very few emerge to lead. Yet the Jewish leader’s role often is difficult. Jewish history is replete with stories of rabbis standing alone when the demand of the hour fell on their shoulders, while others buried their heads, grateful for his presence, but remaining cowardly silent, afraid to lose friends or business associates.

The Chofetz Chaim shares his father’s parable of a merchant who is about to travel the seas in search of wealth. He asks others to accompany him, but only one man accepts his offer. They depart, and no one hears from them again until years later, when they both return with precious gems, wealth beyond description. From that day forward, others live with regret that they had not journeyed, too.

Although some rabbinic families are multi-generational, the American rabbinate is not dynastic. Most everyone has the opportunity to attain Torah greatness. In Bereshit 46, Dan numbers only one son (and hard of hearing, at that) compared to Binyamin’s 10. But by this week’s parasha Binyamin numbers 45,600 while Dan numbers 64,400 (Numbers 26:41-43). Yesterday’s numbers are not today’s. Today’s realities are not tomorrow’s. Yeshiva doors are open to new, future leaders. Moses did not become a leader until he was 80. How old are you?

Rabbi Elazar says that Pinchas actually had not been designated a Kohen until he killed Zimri. Yet the “late-blooming” Pinchas ultimately is progenitor of the Kohen Gadol dynasty. He merited greatness because he opted to risk life, not merely to wring hands. By acting, he brought atonement to the entire Jewish people. Sforno explains that God forgave because at least they did not criticize Pinchas after he arose.

He saved the nation even though, as Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch observes, he was but one man, performing but one deed. As Rav Hirsch writes, a true peace advocate fights against the enemies of truth. Cynics, claiming the mantle of “peace-loving,” may condemn him as “Disturber of the Peace — dividing the community.” It is the paradox of history that peace often comes only when — amid hand wringing — the courageous few risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Their risks are great, but they are the people of spirit to whom we owe all. In the end, we tell them, “We were behind you all along.” And it is true.

The Bible: What it says and means

Now that another presidential campaign season is upon us, you can count on a fair amount of Bible-thumping between now and election day.  But if you wonder what the Bible really says about abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment and other contemporary concerns, the real answers are to be found in “The Bible Now” by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press: $27.95).

Friedman, a distinguished scholar who holds academic chairs in Jewish studies at both the University of Georgia and the University of California, San Diego, is the author of, among many other books, the best-seller “Who Wrote the Bible?,” which remains the single best introduction to theories of biblical authorship for the lay reader.  Dolansky is an assistant professor of religious studies at Northeastern University and author of “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Relationship Between Magic and Religion in the Hebrew Bible.”

Friedman and Dolansky acknowledge that the Bible can be a highly controversial book that means different things to different readers. “You can feel any one of a thousand feelings about it, but one thing you should not do is ignore it,” they write. “The stakes are high enough that we cannot afford to be ignorant or sloppy about it.”

Their approach is based on an exacting and meticulous examination of what the biblical text actually says and means, a task that calls on their expertise in ancient languages and, especially, the translation of those texts into English.  Thus, for example, they point out that the famous story about Sodom and Gomorrah does not necessarily refer to homosexual conduct of any kind, and the love between David and Jonathan is a matter of metaphor rather than sexual orientation.
“[T]he prose and poetry texts that people most often mention with regard to homosexuality,” they warn, “do not shed any light at all on this subject.”

They take a very different approach to biblical law, where we sometimes find explicit prohibitions against sexual conduct of various kinds, including “a straightforward prohibition of male homosexuality.”  They drill down to the underlying values that were meant to be served by such a prohibition, an exercise that often produces surprising and even shocking insights.  Thus, for example, the authors point out that the Hebrew Bible does not prohibit sexual contact between women, and they argue that the explanation can be found in the ancient practice of polygamy.

“Men with two wives, or even harems, had opportunities for group sex and for voyeurism of female homosexuality,” they frankly explain.  “Today it is a fantasy for men, which they can view [on the Internet and in other media], but for men in the ancient world it was an option, at least for men of wealth who could afford it.”  And so, since the biblical law codes were written by male authors, “men were not about to forbid female-to-female contact.”

Sometimes, the most telling fact about the Bible is what it doesn’t say.  On the hot-button issue of gay marriage, for example, the authors point out that “the laws in the Torah in fact hardly address any matters of getting married at all.”  Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is clearly not consulted as a source for marriage law since the rejection of polygamy by most Jews and Christians “suggests that they do not feel bound by the Hebrew Bible’s conception of marriage.”

The same is true for abortion.  The biblical texts that arguably relate to abortion “are few,” insist Friedman and Dolansky, “and questionable.”  The commandment against murder in the Ten Commandments, for example, is not helpful because the biblical authors carefully distinguished between “killing” and “murder” — and only murder is flatly prohibited.  Translation from ancient Hebrew into contemporary English can be controversial, they concede, but not here.  “Words have meanings, sometimes clear, sometimes not so clear,” they write. “This case is clear.”

Thus the case for or against abortion owes nothing to the Decalogue. “One can be against abortion or for it,” they explain. “One can have a strong conviction that abortion is murder or that it is not.  But everyone should understand what this commandment means.” And they point out that “the only explicit reference to abortion in the Hebrew Bible is rarely cited in debates” — a disturbing passage in the Book of Jeremiah in which the prophet wishes that he had never been born in the first place. (Jer. 20:14-18).  Precisely because it is poetry rather than law, “one would be well advised to use caution when factoring it into any contemporary view on abortion.”

Sometimes the framing of the biblical texts is based on simple but unarguable historical observations that are external to the Bible itself.  Why does the Bible prescribe capital punishment for so many misdeeds?  “The most likely reason,” they propose, “is that there were no prisons.”  So the fact that Bible sanctioned capital punishment in remote antiquity does not mean that we are morally entitled to put criminals to death today. “[O]ne cannot just say that the Bible has execution and that this is therefore a support for using the death penalty,” they write. “Countries today have other options.”

Friedman and Dolansky are accomplished and respected scholars who bring their knowledge to bear on all of the contemporary issues under discussion in “The Bible Now.”  They invite us to consider the nuances of meaning in biblical Hebrew, the fine points of Middle Assyrian Law, the ancient medical text embodied in the Ebers Papyrus, and much else besides.  But they are also capable of addressing a lay readership with perfect clarity and explaining even the most abstruse concepts in plain English. That is what makes “The Bible Now” not only an important book but a useable one.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

Who wrote the Christian Bible?

Plenty of Bible scholars have attempted to explain what they know and what they do to a general readership.  But only a few of them do it quite as well as Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. His books on the Bible, including such bestsellers as “Misquoting Jesus,” “God’s Problem,” and “Jesus, Interrupted,” are like a cool drink of water — clear and bracing.

The same can be said of his latest book, “Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are” (HarperOne: $26.99).  Ehrman explains how Christianity, which is theologically committed to what he calls “truth claims,” has sometimes relied on scriptural texts that were not written by their putative authors.  “The Bible contained errors,” he writes of his own early revelation as a young Bible student. “And it if contained errors, it was not completely true.” 

It’s significant that Ehrman frankly uses the word “forgery” to describe texts that are often more delicately referred to as “pseudonymous.”  He takes his fellow scholars to task for blurring the distinction between these two terms: “It is often said – even by scholars who should know better – that this kind of ‘pseudonymous’ (i.e., ‘falsely named’) writing in the ancient world was not thought to be lying and was not meant to be deceitful,” he writes. “[T]his view is flat-out wrong.”

Ehrman reveals the theological motives that inspired ancient forgers to affix the names of other writers to their own work.  An early Christian named Marcion, for example, believed that “the God of the Old Testament was the Jewish God who created this world, chose Israel to be his people, and then gave them his law,” and that the Christian God was a different deity who “sent Jesus into the world…to save people form the wrathful God of the Old Testament.” To persuade his fellow Christians to embrace the unsettling notion of two contesting gods, Marcion and his followers came up with texts that they falsely attributed to Paul. And, for his efforts, he was denounced as a heretic.  Not all ancient forgeries, however, were the handiwork of heretics. Indeed, Ehrman shows why six of the so-called “Pauline letters” in the New Testament were probably not written by Paul himself.

Perhaps the most compelling sections of “Forged” for the Jewish reader are focused on the role of Jewish-Christian rivalry in composition of some phony Christian texts. Precisely because Jews in the ancient world did not accept Jesus as the promised messiah, some books were written in the name of authoritative figures “to show the brilliant truth of Christianity and the horrendous errors of the Jews.”  Significantly, as Ehrman points out, the authors of some of these forgeries argued that “it was not the Romans, but the Jewish leaders, or event he Jewish people themselves, who were responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion.”

Then, too, Ehrman puts the writings of the Gnostics, whose versions of the Gospels are already well known to modern readers, into a new and illuminating context. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, reputed to be the work of the twin brother of Jesus, is a famous text, but Ehrman explores the Book of Thomas the Contender, a book that is attributed to the same author and conveniently endorses the theology that was embraced by the Gnostic sect and condemned as heretical by Christian orthodoxy. “It is another Gnostic forgery,” writes Ehrman, “produced to oppose the teachings of other Christians…”

Ehrman, as a Christian scholar, is concerned with the Christian scriptures, but he could have made the same case about various books in the Hebrew Bible, too. After all, while Ehrman points out that “Matthew probably did not write Matthew, for example, or John, John,” modern Bible scholars also concede that Moses did not write the Five Books of Moses. But for any reader who cares about the Bible, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, “Forged” is a wholly fascinating book. Above all, because it reveals the fingerprints of flesh-and-blood authors on the pages of holy writ, Ehrman’s latest work is further evidence that “[t]he Bible is a very human book.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author of “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization,” is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He blogs at


Early Holy Land photos surprise viewers in 1800s

With the introduction of photography in 1839, pioneer practitioners of the nascent medium flocked to the Holy Land, expecting the glorious biblical scenes imagined by Renaissance painters, but finding instead mainly dusty villages and a largely ramshackle Jerusalem.

One disappointed visitor in 1867 was the American Samuel Clemens, who, under the pen name of Mark Twain, wrote in “The Innocents Abroad” that “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”

Yet, the 21st century visitor to the exhibition “In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th Century Photography,” through Sept. 12 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, will be amply rewarded.

The daguerreotypes, salted-paper and albumen silver prints, and stereoscopic views may lack the subtlety and color of modern photography, but they offer a fascinating glimpse of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian inhabitants of that era.

Jerusalem, with a population of 9,000, is hardly the shining city on the hill, but its skyline is dominated by the magnificent Dome of the Rock, and the pious Jews praying at the Western Wall testify to the unbroken connection of the Jewish people to the city.

Most of the early photographers were French and British, with the Maison Bonfils studio, founded by France’s Félix Bonfils, particularly active in scouring the hinterlands. Bonfils, his countryman Louis Vignes, and such British pioneers as James Robertson, Francis Frith and Sgt. James M. McDonald, took their bulky equipment to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jaffa, Gaza, the Dead Sea and the Jordanian rock city of Petra.

The first photographers, like those who came later, were not above “enhancing” their works to meet the expectations of their Bible-loving customers and boost sales.

Félix Bonfils may well have been the founding father of Photoshopping. Finding a view of the Jordan River uninspiring, he combined multiple negatives to add a picturesque Arab with a camel and a tented encampment of pith-helmeted British tourists.

Such photos soon became all the rage in Europe and North America, spurring Jewish immigration and a boom in Christian tourism.

Among the latter were many Americans, whom Twain viewed with a jaundiced eye. Describing the “solemnity and silence” of one particular desert site, he added, “Behold, intruding upon a scene like this comes this fantastic mob of green-spectacled Yanks, with their flapping elbows and bobbing umbrellas.”

Also drawn to the Holy Land were Christian missionaries, who sought to convert the local Jews “but met with little success,” the exhibition brochure notes.

A side attraction are the early 19th century maps of Jerusalem and Palestine, with a vast area east of the Jordan River, stretching from the Sea of Galilee to the Gulf of Akaba, designated as an uninhabited “Great Syrian Desert.”

The exhibit continues at the Getty Villa through Sept. 12, along with the exhibit, “Apollo from Pompeii: Investigating an Ancient Bronze.” Admission is free, but parking is $15 and advance reservations are required. For more information on the exhibition and related events, visit

Ears, Toes and Thumbs: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

Author Hillel Halkin, reviewing the Koren Sacks Siddur in the spring 2010 Jewish Review of Books, recounts a charming story that he heard from his father:

“My father, who prayed with great kavanah [concentration] yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever … once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a 10th Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely looking candidate, he asks: ‘Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ says the Jew. ‘What can I do for you?’ ‘You can join a minyan for Mincha,’ the man says. ‘I’m afraid that’s impossible,’ answers the Jew. ‘Why?’ asks the man. ‘Because I’m an atheist,’ says the Jew. The man gives the Jew a withering look. ‘And where,’ he inquires, ‘is it written that an atheist doesn’t have to say Mincha?’ ”

For Judaism, the best way to pray is with a minyan. Halkin notes, “Praying in a minyan is different from praying alone, less because of the additional prayers said by the worshipers than because of the human solidarity established among them.”

The human solidarity that the minyan offers is a mirror image of what the Jewish community is all about. In Jewish tradition, recited in the Shabbat Musaf service, those who “faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community” are the ones who are blessed. Likewise, those who dismantle the community structure are denounced in the harshest of words.

In this week’s Torah portion this lesson is taught in an unusual way. Parashat Metzora is a continuation of last week’s Parashat Tazria, in which we learn about the Metzora, a person who contracts a specific skin disease, perhaps leprosy or a form of psoriasis, for what the Talmud, in Arachin 16a, describes as a punishment for, among other sins, lashon harah, speaking evil against others.

The Torah continues the discussion in this week’s portion by focusing on the purification procedure for the Metzora whose symptoms have been healed. The Metzora is instructed to bring three different sacrifices followed by what would appear to be a most unusual ritual.

“The Kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the Kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified and on his right thumb and his right toe” (Leviticus 14:14). The Kohen also performed this same formula with leftover oil as well.

Strangely, this procedure wasn’t just limited to the Metzora. The Torah taught us in Exodus 29:20 that when the Kohanim were inducted into their priestly service this very same ceremony was performed on their ear, toe and thumb. What possibly could connect the Kohen and the Metzora, two diametrically opposite people?

Perhaps we can suggest that the Kohen represents the leader par excellence of the community. His role was to represent the community in its service in the Holy Temple. As he was inducted into service, the three parts of his body that are needed most for one to serve the community well, namely his ears, toes and thumbs, were anointed for this purpose. The Kohen’s hands and feet are the limbs responsible for moving the body, while the ears are responsible for hearing the pain of others and responding accordingly.

The Metzora is the antithesis of the Kohen. Unlike the Kohen who unites the community, the Metzora’s evil tongue divides society and destroys unity. In order to be rehabilitated, the Metzorah must recognize the important role communal unity plays. Hence he follows the exact same procedure that the Kohen experienced on the day the Kohen was inducted as community leader.

In his book “The Prime Ministers,” Yehuda Avner, speechwriter and adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, recounts how Menachem Begin hid from the British in 1946 disguised as a rabbinic student. During that period, Begin attended a little synagogue located near his hideout. Reminiscing years later, Begin recalled, “What a great little shul that was. There I found solace when life in the underground was at its harshest. That little shtibl became a part of my daily life. The balei batim — congregants — were wonderful: a cross-section of hard-working Tel Aviv craftsmen, small shopkeepers, laborers and artisans. They were true amcha, solid, down-to-earth, patriotic citizens. I regularly attended their evening Talmud classes, both because I enjoyed them and because they reinforced my cover.”

The Jewish community must represent “amcha,” the composition of all elements of the Jewish people. It is our job to see to it that the communal fabric stays strong, allowing all Jews to be counted in our minyan, for that is the antidote to the Metzora.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

The Bible’s true story

Timothy Beal is a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of 11 books about the Bible and religion. Raised as an Evangelical Christian, he came to realize that the Bible is not quite what it seems and certainly not what it is advertised to be in certain strict religious circles. His revelations about the Bible, so to speak, are at the core of “The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), an engaging but also challenging re-reading of the sacred texts in the full light of history.

“I was coming to see it as a cultural construction, ‘the Word as we know it,’ with a fairly short history and a less than promising future,” he writes of his changing views of the Bible. “The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty.”

Beal is frank and sometimes funny. “I tended to approach the Bible as though it were a divine oracle of truth, the ultimate Magic 8 Ball,” he writes of his own youthful encounter with the sacred text. “Ask it a question and it would give you God’s answer.” He is bold enough to share the disturbing answer that it provided when he asked: “Does Joanne like me?” The biblical reply, as it turns out, was a rather disturbing reference to the “privy member.”

But he is quite serious in asking his readers to look at the Bible in a wholly new way.  “Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular,” he writes. “There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been.” Rather, the religious texts of early Judaism and Christianity consisted of “many different scrolls and codices, variously collected and shared in many different versions, with no standard edition.”

Today, as Beal points out, the authority of the Bible as a received text is imperiled by the culture in which we live. More than half of the students in Beal’s college classes on the Bible, he observes, “came to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ than from actual biblical texts.” And yet, “while Bible literacy is about as low as it can get, Bible sales have been booming,” including metal-clad and waterproof editions, “Biblezines” and “Manga Bibles,” and much else.

“The Rise and Fall of the Bible” is mostly about Christian uses of the Bible. But the argument he makes about the Christian scriptures applies with equal force to the Jewish religious texts: “The history of the Bible is one of perpetual revolution,” he writes. “[B]iblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself.  Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. The Bible canonizes contradiction.”

Beal insists that his own faith has not only survived his study into the origins of the Bible but has been strengthened by it. And his book turns into a sermon on the spiritual value of not knowing the answer to every question: “[F]aith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity, as we ride our questions as far into the wilderness as they will take us,” he concludes. “Biblical literature hosts that journey.” 

Beal understandably focuses on what he regards as the abuse of the Bible in Protestant circles. But he writes as an expert in the Hebrew Bible — two of his previous books are focused on the Book of Esther — and he seeks to show his Christian readers the Jewish roots of their own faith. Indeed, for the Jewish reader, one of the most resonant and affecting passages in “The Rise and Fall of the Bible” is when he explains how Jesus would have read aloud from the Book of Isaiah: “Jesus would have chanted the passage in an elevated melodic, style,” he writes. “He would have sung it into speech.”

For me, the scene captures something of what Beal has done here. His book is concerned with the place of the Bible in the here and now, but he clearly hears the music in the text, and when he asks us to consider the use and misuse of the Bible in history, politics and culture, Beal does not overlook the sublime role it can play in the human experience. In fact, he celebrates it.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

Dead Sea Scrolls going online

The Dead Sea Scrolls will go online in a project launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The project, part of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the authority, will image and digitize the entire collection of 900 manuscripts comprising about 30,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments.

The Antiquities Authority is collaborating with the Google R&D center in Israel to upload the digitized Scrolls images, as well as additional data that will allow users to perform searches across a broad range of data in a number of languages and formats.

The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project is being funded with a major gift from the Leon Levy Foundation, with additional major funding from the Arcadia Foundation and the Yad Hanadiv Foundation.

It is the first time that the collection of Scrolls will be photographed in its entirety since the 1950s.

The images will be equal in quality to the actual viewing of the Scrolls, according to the Antiquities Authority.

“We are establishing a milestone connection between progress and the past to preserve this unique heritage for future generations,” said Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “At the end of a comprehensive and profound examination, we have succeeded in recruiting the best minds and technological means to preserve this unrivaled cultural heritage treasure which belongs to all of us, so that the public with a click of the mouse will be able to freely access history in its fullest glamour.”

Wildlife preservationists fight expansion, seek to bring back animals of the bible

As the population of Israel grows, so do the requests for building and expansion within the small country.  Unfettered growth and expansion has nature conservationists throwing up their arms.

“The laws that we have today on planning are not strict enough in order to protect open landscape and natural landscape,” said Yehoshua Shkedy, a professor at Hebrew University and scientist with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA). “The government is trying to move now a new law that is trying to make things easier for developers.”

Expansion is just the latest fight Israeli wildlife preservationists have taken up since the state’s creation. In 1962, the government enacted a conservation law to help restore the wildlife population decimated by hunting and wars within the region. Many of the animals of the region were either extinct in the area or on the verge of becoming so. For example, of the nine mammals mentioned in the Bible as fit for consumption (Deuteronomy 14: 4-5) — roe deer, Persian fallow deer, gazelle, addax, bison, oryx, wild goat, wild ox and ibex — only the gazelle and the ibex remained in Israel by the 1960s.

Since then, the INNPPA has reintroduced several of the animals that were driven from the region. Their most successful reintroduction has been of the Persian fallow deer, which now has a population of around 500 throughout several regions of the country.

The largest of the fallow deer, the Persian fallow stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, weighs 90 to 220 pounds and has a yellowish-brown coat with white spots, and flattened antlers similar to those of a moose. The Book of Kings tells that the animal was tithed to King Solomon by his subjects. Now they are either closely watched or live in fenced-in areas protected by the INNPPA or other conservation groups.

The conservationists’ worry is that all their work could be undone by the bulldozers in upcoming expansion projects.

Shkedy said that when his parents moved to Israel in 1947 they had a dream of agriculture and development. But, he said, times and circumstances have changed a lot since then.

“I think today, my generation and my kids’ generation have to change this aspiration, this vision. We have to conserve and protect rather than develop and invest. We should keep in mind that we didn’t come to this country just because we wanted to see a sea of houses. We came to this country — I’m not religious — because of biblical things,” he said.

The animals Shkedy is protecting are part of that biblical history. But, for many conservationists, the reintroduction of animals is not a matter of the history of the land but the importance of nature.

“Reintroductions are vitally important to return functions to the ecosystem that were lost,” said David Saltz, a professor with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University. “The idea is that reintroductions return species to the area [from which] they were lost, and what records do we have of what existed there? The Bible.”

Using biblical animals as a stepping stone is just one way conservationists are able to reach out and draw attention to their cause.

“Using the biblical item in order to convince others it’s important — this is the way to go,”  Shkedy said. “We can use the Bible as a kind of lighthouse.”

Synagogues Working to Be More Open to Gays


NEW YORK (JTA)—The newsletter sent out last month by Temple Israel of New Rochelle contained the usual sort of announcements, including a reminder about the synagogue’s upcoming Purim carnival, mazal tovs and condolences, and information about a social event at a local steakhouse.

But a small notice about a screening of the film “Hineini: Coming Out In a Jewish High School” reflected a quiet change at the Reform synagogue in suburban New York.

The screening is part of an overall push by Temple Israel to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. In recent months, the synagogue has edited its membership forms to accommodate diverse family structures, and it now advertises in the gay press and with gay advocacy groups. It also plans to train teachers to be sensitive to issues related to sexuality.

Prompted by the experience of a teenager in the community who was teased when he revealed his homosexuality, momentum built last year when the synagogue hired a new youth director who is openly gay.

“On some level, I kind of view myself as a poster child and that these kids and the adults need to see somebody in the community who fits the description,” said Barry Shainker, the youth director.

Shainker says that while changes are programmatic, the goal is to make such inclusiveness routine.

“Of course in some ways, our goal is to put ourselves out of a job,” he said. “In a few years this will be a no-brainer. What could be a 30-minute discussion at a board meeting becomes a 30-second vote in the future.”

Temple Israel is not alone: A recent conference in New York attracted a cadre of about 60 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conference, organized by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which seeks to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. A similar program took place March 1-2 in Los Angeles.

“There isn’t going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented at the New York conference, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming. The survey found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews, although only 33 percent of the 997 synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

The impetus for adopting a more welcoming approach comes from a critical mass of gay members or from policy questions such as the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Caryn Aviv.

“It has shifted people’s perceptions because they’re having personal interaction with gays and lesbians,” said Aviv, who co-authored the study with Steven Cohen.

To be sure, some synagogues have consciously welcomed sexually diverse Jews for years. For example, Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform congregation with 1,700 families, made such a decision based on what members believed was “right.”
“It was untenable to them that gay and lesbian Jews wouldn’t have a home,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin said.

The synagogue is working with the Boston-based advocacy group Keshet to become a so-called “safe school,” meaning it will train teachers to address bias and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

Temple Israel recently conducted a focus group with some of its LGBT members to find out what as a community the synagogue could improve. Last year the synagogue hosted a program on transgender and gender expression. In the past there was a LGBT chevra, or social group, and the synagogue sent dozens of people to rally at the Massachusetts State House in support of equal marriage.
“Acting publicly around justice issues is another way that we are proactively welcoming,” Kolin said.

At the conference in New York, representatives of other synagogues shared their “best practices.”

At Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, b’nai mitzvah students discuss gender diversity in Jewish texts. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta has adopted a “brit,” or contract, that stipulates the inclusive values of the community. Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s synagogue for GLBT Jews, has published a new prayer book in which the prayers for life-cycle events—including marriages and baby namings—are not printed in the conventional order, so as to promote the idea of diverse family life.

According to Debra Kolodny, the executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a critical part of being inclusive is to have leadership that reflects diversity in sexual orientation, and that LGBT perspectives are heard and integrated into teaching and services.

“So it’s just kind of normative,” she explained. “I think inclusion presumes that there is an ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ ”

At Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Piedmont, Calif., the congregation’s inclusiveness was on display last summer when seven same-sex couples married in a group ceremony staged in reaction to the state’s Proposition 8.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s executive director, said the ceremony “was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values.”

For gay and lesbian Jews, having programs and sermons targeting them—combined with a generally welcoming attitude—make congregations more inclusive.

When Joseph Antenson was shopping for a synagogue several years ago, he sought a congregation that had obvious participation from gay and lesbian members and where there was no “separate but equal” status. His desire to hear a rabbi take a proactive stance from the bimah was part of his attraction to B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Sure, we’re welcoming,’ but just don’t talk about it,” he said.

In general, Antenson noted with regret, the Jewish community has not been at the forefront of welcoming gays and lesbians into synagogue life.

Antenson, a lay leader and member of the marriage equality, membership and interfaith committees at B’nai Jeshurun, said that when he told fellow congregants about his partner, “I never got a reaction.”

Half of the members of the marriage equality chevra are straight and at B’nai Jeshurun, it is common to celebrate the anniversary of a gay couple, or to see a gay or lesbian couple celebrating an aufruf.

“It’s public evidence that we welcome gays and lesbians, and they are full members of the congregation,” Antenson said.

But according to Aaron Weininger, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change in cultural assumptions must accompany concrete actions.

“There are so many ways to engage the issues,” he said, citing films such as “Hineini” and programs like LGBT Shabbat dinners. “It is not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and.’ ”

While Weininger noted there is no “one size fits all” model, he said synagogues should be asking whether they are engaging all members of the community.

“Because LGBT Jews have been marginalized and alienated for so long, there does need to be a certain level of awareness,” he said. “The more messages our synagogues send that are pro-inclusion, the more younger people coming out and identifying as LGBT feel safe.”

Still, he and others noted, a shift in attitude in Conservative congregations is linked to the movement’s policies regarding gay rabbis and cantors.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., said his congregation was ahead of the curve and had been since the mid-1990s, when the synagogue was asked to participate in a gay marriage ceremony.

“I think that the Conservative movement in its official capacity sort of caught up to what we’ve been doing,” said Allen, who served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality in the early 1990s.

Allen said in lieu of programs targeting LGBT members, his congregation has adopted a welcoming mind-set.

“We didn’t make a special gay slot on our board,” he said.

Gay members serve on the board because they are involved and supportive of the synagogue.

“For many years, people did not feel they could talk about the core of who they were,” Allen said. “I think all we’ve done is open the door and allow people to walk in.”