The Neuroses of Heinz Kissinger

The recent release of the Nixon-Kissinger tapes has been reported widely in the Jewish community, particularly because of the latter's comment:
The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy, and if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.
There has been a lot of analysis of Kissinger's statement, as he is a German Jew and a Holocaust refugee. I immediately recalled the following section of Yehuda Avner's The Prime Ministers, which, incidentally, I cannot praise enough, and I'm glad to see that D.G. Myers gave it pride of place in his review of Jewish books published in 2010.
In the excerpt, psychiatrist Willie Fort, born Wilhelm Furtwangler in Germany, offers an extemporaneous diagnosis of Kissinger's neurosis and a glimpse at the shy and paranoid Jewish refugee beneath his projected self-assurance and arrogance. Posted with the permission of Toby Press.

Click on"fullscreen" for a clearer image, or follow the link to the scribd site.
The Neuroses of Heinz Kissinger2


The Atlantic on Half Shabbos?

There's a long article in today's Atlantic about the dilemmas caused by eBooks on Shabbat. It canvases some rabbinic opinion about whether there will be any kind of permit for it, ever. A few weeks back, I contended (in the final paragraph of this post) that a potential future dividing line might be between the display of stored data, like you have on an eBook, and creating new data, like texting. The former might become permitted, but never the latter.


A (Lost?) Teachable Moment with a Haredi Beggar at the Supermarket

As I wheeled my heavy shopping cart toward my car after procuring the victuals that would sustain my family of six for the week, I noticed a gentleman in Hasidic garb talking to another shopper, by all appearances asking for a dole. By the time I unlocked my car, he had made his way over to me and begun his charity pitch.

I said to him that if he would help me load my goods into my car, I would give him a tip. After a look of confusion briefly crossed his face, he agreed, and began placing bags into the car with alacrity. We conversed all the while:
Me: This is the way of the world, no? You work, you get paid.
Him: It's a mitzva to help out.
M: Indeed it is. After all, it says "when you see your enemy's donkey staggering under its burden..."
H: Chas Ve-shalom that we're enemies!
M: ...you didn't let me finish. Kal Va-chomer if it's your friend!
H: Exactly!

By that time, we had finished loading, and I reached into my wallet to offer a tip. He protested that he helped for the mitzva, not for the payment. I insisted that since I gave him the opportunity to fulfill a mitzva, he return the favor by giving me the opportunity to do a mitzva. He acceded and accepted my 10 NIS as long as it was clear to both of us that it was not in payment for his services.

I wonder, why did he so insist? Was it because he really didn't want the material reward to take away from his mitzva? Or was it because he was afraid to acknowledge the causal nexus between work and pay (it must be noted that 10 NIS for 2 minutes of manual labor is one hell of a welfare program)?

As my sister-in-law said, it was probably a little bit of both.

On that note, this "rabbinic yellow pages" has been making the rounds. Quite well done:


Introducing Kol Ha-Rav

[UPDATE: Kol Ha-Rav is only a few hours old, and already it has been cited on Goldblog. Given that the goal of our new blog is to introduce rabbinic voices such as R. Lichtenstein into the public discourse, I'd say, so far, mission accomplished]

Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim-Musings and I have created a new blog, Kol Ha-Rav. Its goal is to disseminate statements, in the original or in translation, of leading rabbinic figures of the past and present whose words address timely issues and offer a traditional rabbinic voice that is often, unfortunately, absent from public discourse on the issue at hand.

The first substantive blog post is up: Rav Lichtenstein's response to the ban on selling a home to a gentile in Israel.

Contact me if you wish to submit material for publication on Kol Ha-Rav.


Heidi and Mendy vs. Uri and Dahlia

[For some reason, my previous blog post, a criticism of the recent ban by some rabbis on renting and selling homes to non-Jews in Israel, did npt appear on some RSS feeds. Here it is.]

By now, everyone knows about the terrible Chillul Hashem caused by Heidi and Mendy on The People's Court. The explanation offered in VINis plausible and may absolve them, in the eyes of man if not the judge, of attempting to take the cleaners to the cleaners. For what it's worth, I believe the VIN write-up and give Heidi and Mendy the benefit of the doubt. It's important to keep in mind that "The People's Court" is not actually a court of law. The litigants agree to appear before the "judge" as a binding arbitrator. It is also worth recalling that the point of the show, like any show, is to provide entertainment.The judge's tirade at the end was certainly entertaining, whether or not it was just.

I still fault Heidi and Mendy for two things: the first is appearing on the show in the first place, as has been noted by many. The second is appearing wearing the wig she was wearing. In hindsight, it's easy to see how wearing a clearly expensive wig could cast aspersions on the whole story. From a tactical point of view, it probably would have won more points had she been wearing a kerchief of some sort.

Lest one argue that it is inappropriate to wear a kerchief to court, well, this is America of the 21st century, and folks can (and should) wear whatever they want on their heads as a religious expression. Don't believe me? Well, one rebbetzin wore a kerchief to the White House Hannukah party. Meet Rabbi Uri and Dahlia Topolosky of New Orleans (full disclosure: they're friends of ours; and he's a UMD alum - go Terps!):


In Praise of a Zionism that Remembers the Exile

A group of Israeli rabbis have signed a document forbidding the sale or rental of homes in Israel to non-Jews.  Unfortunately, the rabbinic voices of dissent (dare I say "of reason") are barely noted, though they're out there (as will be regularly updated on this facebook page).

It is hard to characterize an issue like this one: it has major political and diplomatic repercussions, on the surface the rabbis address it as a halakhic issue, and there is clearly a deeper ideological element. The halakhic discussion revolves around a precept called "Lo Tehanem" that forbids granting gentiles possession of part of the Land of Israel. The parameters of that prohibition are the subject of much halakhic debate (in recent decades, the precept has been invoked in discussions of the halakhic permissibility of trading land for peace and of the hetter mekhira, the symbolic lease of the entire land of Israel to a gentile during the Sabbatical year, thus enabling Jewish farmers to continue cultivating; ironically but predictably, some rabbis explain away lo tehanem in some instances while standing firm on it in others). Like any good halakhic debate, there is a range of opinions and voices on the matter. In some ways, however, this makes the conclusion reached by the signatories of the ban even more troublesome: given clear and mainstream halakhic precedent for leasing property to gentiles in the Land of Israel, and given the well-honed halakhic toolbox for finding leniency in extenuating circumstances (incurring the disapproval of the gentile world easily qualifies), rabbinic insistence on the "hard line" seems particularly disturbing. Granted, much of what it means to be Israeli is built on the repudiation of the exilic concern with "what the goyim will say." In that sense, I am indeed proudly advocating a healthy dose of galuti mentality.

The underlying ideology of the hard line position views any gentile presence on the Land of Israel as anomalous and, to the degree possible, worthy of elimination. This ideology has adopted Rashi's comments on Genesis 1:1 as a mantra (as Rav Beni Lau notes on p. 3b here - via Tomer): "If the gentile nations say that you are robbers who occupied a land not theirs, say to them: 'The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper (le-et asher yashar be-einav). When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.'"

Here, too, there is ample room for alternative positions, and that many tenuous assumptions must be made before such an ideological position supports a practical one. Here, too, the diplomatic and galuti tempering of real or ideal positions would prove useful. Not everything that is thought must be said.

More fundamentally, though, I take issue with the common understanding of Rashi's comments and propose an alternative reading, one that cuts to the heart of what Zionism, particularly religious Zionism, means.

The key phrase of Rashi's comment is "le-et asher yashar be-einav," which can be interpreted in two ways. The first way sees God's gift of the land as essentially arbitrary: God whimsically takes the land from one group and gives it to another, which is great for the beneficiaries of God's whimsy and tough luck for the dispossessed. The second way interprets the crucial phrase in a moral vein: God grants the land to those who are upright in His eyes, to whomever pleased Him, not to whomever He pleased. In context of Rashi's comments, the land was given to Israel because God, as Owner of this bit of real estate, reserved the right to grant it to whomever deserves it, and to withdraw it if present occupants prove undeserving.

A deeper analysis of this key phrase, "le-et ashe yashar be-einav," demonstrates that the latter interpretation is indeed the correct one. The source for this key phrase is Jeremiah 27:5 (a glance at the various translations of the verse indeed bears out the ambiguity of its meaning), part of a series of prophecies set at the beginning of the reign of Yehoyakim and warning the people of Judea that continued injustice would result in the loss of sovereignty to the Chaldeans. Given the context, it seems quite unlikely that Jeremiah meant that control of the land is based on God's whim.

Furthermore, as I've written before, the various forms of the phrase "yashar be-einei Hashem" appear throughout the Bible, and always refer to man doing that which is good and right in God's eyes, and is often contrasted with those who do that which is right in their own eyes. In Deuteronomy (6:18), the Torah specifically prescribes to "do what is upright and good in God's eyes (ha-yashar ve-hatov be-einei Hashem)." Given the moral force of the phrase in question elsewhere, it can hardly be construed as a morally neutral designation in this instance.

Finally, it would be terribly ironic if Rashi used the verse in question to prove that the Holy Land eternally belongs to the people of Israel, as in context it refers to God taking the land away from Israel and giving it to the Chaldeans! Nebuchadnezzar, not the Judeans, was "proper in God's eyes" at that time.

Of course, the implications of this reading for religious Zionism are profound. It means that the Jewish grip on the land is always tenuous, conditioned upon deserving it, living up to it, and doing that which God considers upright. The attitude that Israel belongs to the Jews by Divine grace, without having to earn it, was anathema to the Prophets, who saw justice and righteousness, universally applied, as the pillars upon which the Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel could be founded, and who saw failure to deserve the land as the direct cause of exile.


News Round-Up

  • Over 300 people attended our annual Kabbalat Shabbat Hannukah at the ancient synagogue at Umm al-Umdan, including the city councilman in charge of tourism and heritage sites. Last year there were about 150. One day soon, Shabbat Chanukah in Modiin will be a "thing to do."
  • I had a post planned entitled "the top 8 Chanukah songs besides the Maccabeats, Matisyahu, and Adam Sandler. Then DovBear came and did that and more (I had Lehrer, Stewart/Colbert, South Park, Hannukah Harry, and Oy Chanukah) - but he missed some good ones. Here they are:
    The LeeVeees: How do you Spell Hannukah?

    Fountainheads: I Gotta Feeling Hannukah

    Peter Paul and Mary: Light one Candle for the Maccabee Children


    Topsy-Turvy World: On Hannukah, Wikileaks, and Karl Marx's Dreidel

    As noted by Benjamin, the dreidel has not fared well in this year's Hannukah news cycle. Howard Jacobson and Marc Tracy justifiably call it a lame game, developing a trope implied by Jon Stewart in a (hilarious) video from last year. Attempts to parlay the lame toy into something cooler, like a Guiness record (note - I was a participant in the event a few years ago when UMD set the record), or invest it with symbolic meaning, end up being the exceptions that prove the rule. The game is inherently boring and skill-less.

    And yet.

    One of the more interesting symbolisms ascribed to the dreidel is articulated by R. Nachman of Breslov and appears in Sichot Ha-Ran #40, part of a critique of medieval cosmology. Translation appears in Tormented Master, p. 309):
    Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

    This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

    The thrust of this passage is a critique of Platonic essentialism, a critique that is echoed in a famous passage from Karl Marx (I developed this comparison a few years ago, in a Hannukah post):
    All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned...
    More broadly speaking, though, the "lesson" of the dreidel is that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which nothing is solid and stable and fixed. The origin of the dreidel that was told to me in my childhood-that when the evil Greeks came to the study hall to see if the Jews were engaged in the forbidden act of Torah study, these brave and studious Jews put away their books and took out the spinning tops- has itself been turned on its head; now, the Jewish army spies on draft dodgers to make sure they're really studying Torah or keeping Shabbat.

    We have been treated to an astounding example of this instability with the publication of the Wikileaks documents. Overnight, the distinction between enemy and ally became blurred and entire theories and narratives about foreign affairs collapsed like houses of cards, completely and inexorably altering the world's diplomatic landscape. Julian Assange and Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps there can be no stranger bedfellows (although admittedly R. Nahman and Karl Marx make pretty strange bedfellows), cite each other approvingly.

    So keep spinning that dreidel, lest you be caught of guard when the next tremor turns the seemingly solid surface beneath your feet into so much jello - hey, it's a jelly doughnut metaphor, too!