Critiques of Beinart in a Nutshell

I’ve spent a week reading more by and about Beinart than I really care to. In my earlier post on the issue, I focused on some details he got wrong. A deeper critique of his entire framing is called for - and has largely been delivered. Here is a summary:
  • His failure to really contextualize Israel’s shift toward the right wing as having to do with Hamas and Hizbollah (aside from a couple of “to be sure”s). One could easily argue that general sympathy and identification with Israel begets an understanding of (if not agreement with) its current policies, and that the claim that the disaffection of the young generation is due to Israel’s misdeeds, real or perceived, places the cart before the horse. They’re critical of Israel because they don’t feel a connection to it, not the other way around.
  • His failure to contextualize the turn of American Jews away from Zionism as part of the larger trend of American Jews turning away from Judaism. To be sure, there are disaffected Jews who are strong Zionists and engaged Jews who are not Zionists, but Beinart’s talking about major trends, so we will, too. The people who tend to be engaged in Judaism tend to be Zionist. The people who tend to be disaffected from Judaism tend to have antipathy toward Zionism. Beinart basically acknowledges this but then fails or refuses to connect the dots. Instead of “the Orthodox are Zionist because they are strongly connected to Judaism, and Zionism, or the love of and desire to live in the Land of Israel, is a core Jewish value” you get “the Orthodox are Zionist because they’re a bunch of obscurantist fascists.” Ever heard of Ockham’s razor? He does not address the Jewishly engaged non-Orthodox, but I suspect you’d find a lot of proud liberal Zionists there.
  • His failure to contextualize the alleged polarization of liberal Zionists into liberals and Zionists as part of the general polarization of American politics, i.e., part of the problem people have with Israel is that it’s a “red state.” I would imagine that the overwhelming majority of the people Beinart sympathizes with are to be found among the 78% of Jews who voted Democrat. That’s fine. But note that the rhetoric that’s been coming out of the Democratic grassroots lately – Republicans, too, by the way – is really very marginalizing. Israel’s government is by no means more conservative than the one that ran the US for 8 years in recent memory. However, the rhetoric in the US has reached such a fever pitch that people have begun to feel a dissonance between support for a state that elected a conservative government and their own liberalism. Israel's shift to the right has been far more mild than Beinart makes it out to be. The problem is that in the minds of many American liberals, being a conservative has become a crime of the highest order.
  • He oversimplifies the Israeli political spectrum as being Yvette Lieberman vs. Zeev Sternhell. In a follow up piece, he referred to “Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians.” Man, oh man. I wish politics were that simple around here.
  • His failure to note that Israel’s political system works off of proportional representation, not regional first-past-the-post election. In PR parliaments, you get many nuttier and more extreme parties with representation. Israel has what, 18 parties in the current Knesset? (That’s a hell of a lot for a non-democracy.) America has 2 parties. Israel’s largest 2 parties control less than half of the Knesset. To put it in perspective, if the US had a PR system, all of a sudden Rev. Al Sharpton and Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader and who knows who else control major chunks of Congress, and the Dems or GOPers would have to get into bed with SOMEBODY in order to create a governing coalition. It could get unwieldy, I’d imagine. Perhaps Israel needs electoral reform (i.e., perhaps it could use a bit LESS democracy and find a way to limit all but a handful of major parties); that’s a very different issue than suggesting Israel has more of a racist or extremist element than any other country, US included, that would justify such antipathy.


Segula Subscriptions

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I spent a good couple of hours at the TEREM Emergency Medical Center last night with out oldest. She cut her chin at the park yesterday afternoon and we had to get it glued back together. No big deal; kid no. 2's done that at least 3 times already.

I know that it's hackneyed to talk about the humanity that one sees in hospitals, the fact that Jews and Arabs care for each other, and the like. Pesh wrote a real tear-jerker about it here. Then again, when you encounter it in real life, you tend to take a step back to appreciate it.

TEREM was founded by Rabbi Dr. David Applebaum, an ER physician and a musmach of R. Aharon Soloveichik, who embodied many of the highest ideals of Judaism and consequently Zionism. He and his daughter Nava were tragically killed by a suicide terrorist while sitting at a cafe on Emek Refa'im St.on the morning of Nava's wedding.

There is a portrait and brief biography of Rabbi Dr. Applebaum at every TEREM center (there are currently 6); in a sense, the TEREM centers are a living testament that the values of humanity and care can overcome the monstrous hatred that cut short the life of its founder.

On a different note, Pesh and I have found that our oldest has picked up some antipathy toward Arabs. She certainly did not pick it up from our home, but, let's face it, there are certainly friends she could have picked it up from. Not too long ago, we were driving in the car and she pointed to a community and asked who lives there. I told her that it is an Arab community, and she said, "I hate Arabs." I stopped the car and let her have it.

Last night at TEREM (which was plenty busy treating a real cross-section of Israel's population), I happened to notice that the doctor who treated her was Arab. He was not wearing his ID badge outwardly (and I can only speculate as to why), but I noticed based on his accent (and his inability to pronounce the 'p' sound - 'im zeh koreh ba'am acher'), and the discharge summary confirmed it. My daughter did not notice.

On the way back home, I asked my daughter if she liked her doctor. She said she did. "Was he a good doctor?" "Yes." "Was he nice?" "Yes." "Did he take good care of you?" "Yes." And then I let her in on it - "You know that your doctor was an Arab." She was shocked. It was one of those moments that every parent and teacher lives for where some connection is made in a profound way. In Hebrew we say "yarad ha-asimon." The token dropped (a metaphor based on what used to happen when you made a call from a coin-operated public phone - as soon as the connection was made, the token dropped). This morning, she was proudly telling her mother and siblings all about her Arab doctor.


Moshe and R. Akiva as Givers of Torah

The following is the outline for the shiur that I am giving tonight. Many of the elements are based on what I wrote many years ago here, but I obviously think differently about some things now. The text is from Menachot 29b.
R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters. He said: “Master of the Universe, who is holding You back?” He answered, “There will arise a man in the distant future, Akiva b. Yoseph by name, who will derive heaps of laws from each jot.”

·        According to R. Zadok, Keter is the “space between the lines.” Moshe was given a text and mastery of the text. The Torah was given at a particular time and place, and its meaning was particularly comprehensible to that time and place. Over time, as conditions changed and the laws of the Written Torah no longer addressed elements of their lives and prophets were no longer present to provide guidance directly from God. Torah study replaced prophecy. This is the beginning of the development of Torah She-ba’al Peh, which reaches its zenith in the generations after the Churban, with R. Akiva. In order generate new meaning from the Torah, he had to search between the lines of the text – in the margins and in context. Keter is also a kabbalistic concept that refers to the sublime unity that undergirds all of reality, the oneness of God that unifies all of the multiplicities of this world. Moshe never had to seek that oneness because everything was cut and dried for him. There is no machloket in Torah she-biktav. R. Akiva, who had a profound encounter with machloket in the form of his 2 rebbeim, R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, was challenged to find the Divine unity underlying difference. This he was doresh the ketarim, he sought a framework that would allow for the Torah’s development even as it countenanced dispute.

“Master of the Universe, permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn around.”

·        “Front” and “back” together constitute a mystical category. “Front” refers to the direct visual recognition of something, what we might call gestalt, that does not necessarily know the particular details. It’s a whole picture. The “back” is something that requires more detail for recognition to occur. Greater scrutiny. In terms of Torah, Moshe’s knowledge was of “front” – he spoke with God “Panim el Panim,” whereas R. Akiva’s knowledge was from a greater distance, piecing together an image without having gotten a good look. To get to R. Akiva, Moshe has to turn around, turn away from God’s face. R. Zadok connects R. Akiva here with Otniel ben Knaz, who similarly reconstructed Torah that was forgotten in the generation after Moshe with his intellect. This pattern of reason displacing revelation recurs throughout history.

Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows of students, and he did not know what they were saying. He was deflated.

·        Eight rows – back of the classroom, like first, second, etc. violin.
·        Based on the above, we understand full well why Moshe could not understand R. Akiva’s shiur. R. Akiva’s Torah was completely unrecognizable from the perspective of the Written Torah. It goes further, too; I have very little doubt that the Rambam would be lost in a shiur by R. Chaim Brisker, even though the latter is essentially expounding on the writings of the former. This is almost built into the process of development of the Oral Torah, as we shall see.
·        Another point – some have tried to mitigate this implication, the idea that Moshe’s knowledge of Torah was incomplete, by suggesting that he simply hadn’t been given the Torah yet. This clearly goes against the thrust of the Gemara. The Gemara is trying to be provocative by saying this, challenging us.
·        Moshe is anxious because he is afraid that the Torah will suffer discontinuity. If the giver of the Torah does not recognize R. Akiva’s Torah, then in what sense is it the Torah?

But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said, “Rebbi, what is your source for that?” and he replied, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai,” he was comforted.

·        This is an almost mythic moment. Not only are Moshe and R. Akiva the quintessential givers of Torah – Moshe of the Written and R. Akiva of the Oral – they’re, to an extent, opposites. Moshe’s children did not follow in his footsteps, and R. Akiva’s parents were converts. There is no greater statement of the fact that the Torah is not a birthright. R. Tzadok speaks about the special love of Torah that a convert has – the Torah is revealed through them (Yitro, Rut, R’ Akiva); they give up the ‘easy life’ to come to Torah. R. Akiva is even possibly a descendant of Haman (mibnei banav…). His Torah even constitutes, on some level, an act of rebellion against God (nitzchuni banai…), an insistence on relying upon his own intellect to create new meanings – and not necessarily even correct meanings – from God’s Torah. Moshe’s comfort here lies in the fact that their greatness finds expression through his Torah. He is able to bridge to future generations not by heredity, but through the encounter of his Torah with the fresh, eager minds of those who are drawn to Torah through pure love.
·        Perhaps Moshe also takes comfort in the fact that this development remains anchored to his Torah. In the mind, everything is possible. R. Meir’s students could give 150 reasons why the forbidden should be permitted. But there remains an anchor – be it the Written Torah or more importantly tradition – that forces the Torah to adopt a practical dimension. After the theoretical shiur klali, there must be a bottom line. Someone must tell the Jews what to do. This, too, is the legacy of Moshe.
·        Finally, the fact that R. Akiva attributes his position to Moshe shows that despite the changes, there is a continuity. It might not be a straight line of development, and at some point it may become unrecognizable, but the chain is unbroken. Every part of the ship of Theseus may have been replaced, but we’ve been sailing on it the whole time, so we treat it as the same ship.

Thereupon he returned to God and asked, “Master of the Universe, You have such a person, yet You are giving the Torah through me?”

·        If this is the future of the Torah, why not skip straight to that? Why can’t the Torah be given in the form that R. Akiva would put it in? Why not skip straight to the Mishna Berura, or what have you, and dispense with the whole Written/Oral dichotomy?

He replied, “Be silent; thus it arose in My thought.”

·        God’s answer really is an answer. It’s not merely “because I said so,” although we have the advantage of hindsight that Moshe did not have. In this world, a Moshe is a prerequisite for a R’ Akiva, Rashi for Tosafot, Rambam for R’ Hayyim, and childhood for adulthood. As crazy as it sounds, G-d response was akin to a parent telling his child “you’ll understand when you get older.” There must be a naïve, almost childlike acceptance of the Torah before one can begin to wrestle with it. The Torah must be given to children, to the dependent and infantile generation of Moshe, and not to the rebellious and cocksure generation of R’ Akiva, to descendants of Haman. This relates to the na’aseh/nishma dichotomy that we discussed last year – there must be an uncritical consent to act before true understanding can begin to happen. Had God held the mountain over the likes of a R. Akiva, He might not have gotten away with it. This process of acceptance followed by grappling is part of God’s plan. God gave man the ability to seek and discover and create with his intellect. In order for the Torah to develop through the channels of a developed mind, it must first be embedded in the mind before it begins to develop. This is what arose in God’s thoughts.

Then Moshe asked, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward.’ He said, “Turn around.” Moshe turned around and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls.

·        Is this ‘the reward?” Why did God show him that? It seems that God is playing a cruel joke on Moshe. Is this really R. Akiva’s reward?

 “Master of the Universe,” he cried, “this is the Torah, and this is the reward??!” He replied, “Be silent; thus it arose in My thought.”

·        I think that God’s answer really is an answer, and it is essentially the same as the previous answer. This is the downside of development and of intellectual creativity. Rabbi Akiva was flayed for the same reason that he was able to give a shiur that Moshe could not understand. His fate is truly the “payment” for his Torah. R. Akiva represents the emergence of the Torah from childhood into adulthood. As many can attest, this transition is a form of rebellion, an independence of mind, a willingness to reestablish old relationships on one’s own terms. R. Akiva, by furthering the cause of Torah by speaking it and teaching his own understanding of it – even at the risk of his own life - invited disaster. Such a person will always be misunderstood, antagonized, and figuratively if not literally, torn to shreds and cut down to size in public opinion. Such is the fate of innovative thinkers who insist on pushing the limits of human thought. Such was the fate of Socrates. Such was the fate of Galileo. Martin Luther King Jr., and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Such was also the fate of the Rambam, Ramchal, R. Kook, and R. Soloveitchik. The path to the future is a dangerous one for all those who dare blaze it. In God’s plan for the world, development follows acceptance and adulthood follows childhood – but there is a price to be paid for making that transition.


The Beinart Article

I saw the Beinart article that everyone is abuzz about early this morning as I was scouring the web for articles with potential for JID. I didn't get a chance to really read it until much later in the day. My "blink" reaction is to loathe the article. Now I just have to figure out why.
To be sure, it is very well written and thought provoking. And for the most part I believe that his large brush strokes are pretty good. There is definitely a split between Zionist and universalist/non-Zionist (hard to say which it is; human nature tends to confuse pluralism and apathy) young Jews, and the first group tends to be more religiously committed.
And yet, I think he way oversimplifies on so many levels, and is simply off on many others.
  • Take, for example, this line: "Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age." This is a great example of the American hubris that he apparently wrote an entire book in criticism of. Whatever the reasons for the fall of liberal Zionism in America, they are very different from the reasons for the decline of liberal Zionism in Israel. It smacks of "we know what's better for the Israelis than Israelis do." The sad reality is that the average American Jew - right or left - is terribly ignorant of the entire issue.
  • It's really disturbing how he lumps all of Orthodoxy into one camp - even shoehorning Shas and UTJ in there. 
  • It's funny how he describes the Orthodox as being uncritical of Israel, when it was in fact the Orthodox who have been amongst the fiercest critics of Israel's and Zionism's secularism. I'm not talking about Neturei Karta here; it's standard Haredi rhetoric, and not only. The fact that they're not criticizing what YOU'RE criticizing does not make them uncritical.
  • He quotes a stat that only 25% of American Orthodox Jews are in favor of a two-state solution. I'd wager that it was a lot less a generation ago, just as it was a lot less amongst the general Jewish population a generation ago. So "not moving toward the center as fast as everyone else" is the same as "moving to the right?"
  • The assumption that being on the right wing presumes "naked hostility toward Arabs" and then backing it up with disingenuous or irrelevant facts - failing to note, for example, that Netanyahu openly advocated a 2-state solution less than a year ago while noting that 20 years ago he sang a different tune. Is it impossible that some people went right because of beliefs other than "naked hostility?"
  • If I were to point to a common denominator, it's that he misreads the Israeli political scene, erroneously assuming that it is similar to American Jewish opinion, and especially when it comes to the different demographics within Orthodox Judaism.
I'm still stuck between "blink" and "think" - I feel like I haven't figured out my main reason for disliking the article.


Two Thoughts on Supreme Court Justices

Thought #1: The Brandeis students who are fighting to keep Ambassador Oren from delivering the commencement address on the grounds that, inter alia, "commencement has been hijacked to serve as part of a debate about Middle Eastern politics" might want to consider who the author of the following quote is (hint):
The Zionists seek to establish this home in Palestine because they are convinced that the undying longing of Jews for Palestine is a fact of deepest significance; that it is a manifestation in the struggle for existence by an ancient people which has established its right to live, a people whose three thousand years of civilization has produced a faith, culture and individuality which enable it to contribute largely in the future, as it has in the past, to the advance of civilization; and that it is not a right merely but a duty of the Jewish nationality to survive and develop. They believe that only in Palestine can Jewish life be fully protected from the forces of disintegration; that there alone can the Jewish spirit reach its full and natural development; and that by securing for those Jews who wish to settle there the opportunity to do so, not only those Jews, but all other Jews will be benefited, and that the long perplexing Jewish Problem will, at last, find solution.

Thought #2: Now that it looks like all members of the US Supreme Court will be either Catholic or Jewish, let's try a little thought experiment. Is it conceivable that the Israeli Supreme Court will ever have no secular Askenazim? Not that there's anything bad about appointing secular Ashkenazim to the court per se, but it took a long time for the US to mature to the point that it fully trusted non-WASPS to take on the responsibility of the judiciary. It has been less then a century since the appointment of the first Jew to the Court, less than 50 years since the appointment of the first black, less than 30 years since the appointment of the first woman, and less than 2 years since the appointment of the first Latino. By contrast, Israel traditionally has one religious, one Sephardic, and one Arab member - no more and no less. That's starting to change a bit now - with the appointment of Hendel, there are now two religious justices (Hendel and Rubenstein). One Sephardi (Levy) and one Arab (Joubran). That's 4 out of 15 that are not secular Ashkenazim. I wonder if Israeli civil society (and the judicial appointments process) ever matures enough for Arabs, Sephardim, and dosim to form a majority of the court (like they form a majority of the population).


Street Names

This gives a whole new meaning to this.
Still building then burning down love.
I want to take shelter from the poison rain.

Note: This is not the first time I've looked to U2 as a source to create drash.