As we soon hope to celebrate Pesach, we encounter a rather unusual biblical instruction which very well reflects the David Cardozo Academy and its unique philosophy.
The Torah (Shemot 12: 1-28, 43-47; Devarim 16: 1-8) states that the korban Pesach (Passover lamb) had to be eaten on the eve of the first day of Pesach in the Temple. It warns us that under no circumstances was it to be boiled. Instead it had to be roasted. This is very strange, since the Torah rarely tells us how to prepare our food. The only other exception is found in Bamidbar (6:19) concerning the Nazir whose sacrifice needs to be boiled.
What is the meaning behind this?
Maharal, in his commentary on the Haggadah, explains that there is a basic difference between boiling and roasting. Boiling is an act that assimilates, while roasting separates. When boiling, we draw several other ingredients into the object we are boiling. These ingredients assimilate with the object, which absorbs and even adapts itself to the added components. It also expands, absorbing the other ingredients, and becomes soft and begins to disintegrate.
Roasting, however, does the reverse: its main function is to expel. Not only does it remove all the blood, but it also separates all ingredients that are not essential to the meat. As such, it shrinks the meat and makes it tough and impenetrable. This, explains Maharal, is the symbolism of the korban Pesach. At the time of the Exodus, when the people of Israel are to become a nation for the first time, it is not yet possible to allow any (spiritual) absorption from outside. No external influences that could compromise its essential spiritual nature may be permitted. The formation of the nation must involve a courageous stand against the culture in which it endured a 210-year exile.
But this is not an ideal situation. No nation or religious movement can live in isolation. Nor should it have to. Rather, a nation must develop the inner strength to open itself up to other cultures and ideologies without losing its own identity, even in the slightest way. This is the reason why the Torah makes this requirement to roast only once a year and forbids boiling of the meal that celebrates the beginning of Judaism. But it does not prohibit cooking and boiling throughout the rest of the year.
This is characteristic of the Jewish Tradition. Once its foundations have been well established and the structure of Judaism stands like an unshakable mountain, it is able to weather any unwelcome influence from without. More than that, it is then capable of absorbing all forms of genuine human wisdom if they will add to a deeper understanding of Judaism, and will grant the Jew a greater commitment to his tradition. The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, “…in being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism.”
But to ensure that Judaism will succeed at this, it will first have to guarantee that it is well grounded.
Israel’s political and rabbinical leaders will have to learn this lesson. To believe that Judaism can survive without constant hitchadshut, innovation, is just as dangerous as believing that secular culture will provide the answers to Israel’s problems. Our nation must stand on tradition and innovation while being open to the great resources which the world offers us.
Modern Orthodoxy may have become too impressed with secular scholarship and no longer be able to offer its followers enough spiritual challenges, thus losing its appeal to our young people. On the other hand, the Chareidi / “ultra-Orthodox” community has gone to the opposite extreme; it must learn not to be afraid of the outside world. While it is true that the secular world has many attractions that are not in the spirit of Judaism, it cannot be denied that there is much to learn from its wisdom. It may not yet be holy, but it carries the potential to become holy.
We need to give our young people so many reasons to be proud of their great Jewish mission that non-desirable influences from outside will have no appeal. This, however, will require a type of education different from that which is offered by most Jewish high schools, Women’s colleges, and Yeshivot today.
There has perhaps never been a need for Judaism more than today. Many cherished hopes of mankind lie crushed, and Judaism holds profound answers to some of these problems. If we inspire our youth to be pioneers instead of just followers, we can create a new movement that young people would love to join. If they realize that the future of mankind depends on them as committed Jews, many would be equipped to overcome the often hollow challenges offered by some aspects of the secular world. Simultaneously there won’t be a need for withdrawal in isolation.
This is what the David Cardozo Academy stands for. It has already made a deep impression on many young people. It will press forward and will succeed.
As Jews, we must never forget what we are fighting for.
Como pudimos ver en la parashá Tazria, los sabios identificaron a tazra’at – la condición que afecta a la piel humana, las vestimentas y las paredes de las casas – no como enfermedad sino como castigo; y no por cualquier pecado sino por uno específico, lashón hará, el hablar mal de otro.
Esto plantea una pregunta obvia: ¿por qué este pecado y no otro? ¿Por qué hablar mal de otro es peor que, digamos, la violencia física? Hay un viejo dicho inglés que dice: “Palos y piedras me podrán romper los huesos / pero las palabras nunca me dañarán.” Es desagradable oír maldades de uno, pero nunca es más que eso.
Tampoco hay en la Torá una prohibición específica de hablar mal de otro. Sí existe una prohibición contra el chisme: “No debes dar vueltas como chismoso en tu pueblo” (Levítico 19: 16). Lashón hará es parte de este precepto mayor. Maimónides lo define de la siguiente forma: “Hay un pecado mucho mayor que entra dentro de esta prohibición (de chismosear). La ‘mala lengua,’ que se refiere a la persona que habla despectivamente de su semejante, aun cuando lo que dice sea verdad.” (1)
Los sabios van más lejos para enfatizar su gravedad. Es, dicen, como los tres pecados cardinales juntos – la idolatría, el derramamiento de sangre y las relaciones sexuales ilícitas. (2) Cualquiera que emplee la mala lengua, dicen, es como si negara a Dios. (3) Asimismo afirman: está prohibido vivir en la cercanía de los maledicentes, y aún más, sentarse con ellos y escuchar sus palabras. (4) ¿Por qué motivo meras palabras son tratadas tan seriamente en el judaísmo?
La respuesta se conecta con uno de los principios más básicos de la creencia judía. Existen culturas antiguas que adoraban a sus dioses porque veían en ellos los poderes: rayos, truenos, la lluvia, el sol, el mar y el océano que representaban las fuerzas del caos; y a veces animales salvajes que los conectaban con el peligro y el miedo. El judaísmo no era una religión que alabara el poder, a pesar de que Dios es más poderoso que cualquier deidad pagana.
El judaísmo, como otras religiones, tiene lugares sagrados, personas sagradas y rituales consagrados. Sin embargo, lo diferencial del judaísmo es que es de sobremanera una religión de palabras sagradas. Mediante palabras Dios creó el universo: “Y Dios dijo: que se haga…y así fue.” A través de las palabras Él se comunicó con la humanidad. En el judaísmo, el lenguaje en sí es sagrado. Es por eso que lashón hará, el uso del lenguaje para dañar, no es una ofensa menor. Significa tomar algo que es sagrado y utilizarlo con fines no santos. Es una señal de profanación.
Después de crear el universo, el primer regalo de Dios al hombre fue el de poder usar palabras para denominar a los animales, y de ahí el uso del lenguaje para clasificar. Ese fue el comienzo del proceso intelectual que es la señal distintiva del Homo Sapiens. El Targum traduce esta frase: “Y el hombre se transformó en un ser viviente” (Génesis 2: 7) como “espíritu parlante.” Los biólogos evolucionistas consideran que fueron las exigencias del lenguaje y la ventaja que esto les daba a los humanos sobre otras formas de vida, lo que dio lugar a la expansión masiva del cerebro humano. (5)
Cuando Dios buscó frenar el plan de los hombres de Babel de construir la torre que llegara al cielo, simplemente “confundió su lenguaje,” haciendo imposible la comunicación entre ellos. El lenguaje sigue siendo fundamental para la existencia de los grupos humanos. Fue el crecimiento del nacionalismo del siglo XIX lo que llevó a la disminución gradual de los dialectos regionales a favor de un único lenguaje compartido a través de todo el territorio sobre el cual la autoridad política tenía soberanía. Hasta el día de hoy, los diferentes lenguajes que existen en una nación son fuente de fricción social y política, como en el caso de los anglo y francoparlantes en Canadá; los que hablan holandés, francés, alemán y valón en Bélgica; y los que hablan español y vasco (también conocido como Euskadi) en España. Dios creó con palabras el universo natural. Nosotros creamos – y a veces destruimos – con palabras el universo social. Por lo tanto, el primer principio del lenguaje en el judaísmo es que es creativo. Creamos mundos con palabras. El segundo principio es no menos fundamental. El monoteísmo abrahámico introdujo en el mundo el concepto de un Dios que trasciende el universo, y por lo tanto no puede identificarse con ningún fenómeno dentro del mismo. Dios es invisible. De ahí que los íconos y toda imagen religiosa sean señales de idolatría.
¿Cómo hace entonces un Dios invisible para revelarse? La revelación no era problema para el politeísmo. Los paganos veían dioses en la panoplia de la naturaleza que nos rodea, haciéndolos sentir insignificantes en su vastedad e impotentes ante su furia. Un Dios que no puede ser visto ni siquiera representado mediante imágenes requiere un tipo de sensibilidad religiosa marcadamente distinto. ¿Dónde puede encontrarse ese Dios?
La respuesta, nuevamente es: en las palabras. Dios habló. Le habló a Adam, Noaj, a Abraham, a Moshé. En la revelación ante el Monte Sinaí, Moshé le recordó a los israelitas: “El Señor les habló desde el fuego. Escucharon el sonido de las palabras pero no había ninguna imagen; sólo una voz” (Deuteronomio 4: 12). En el judaísmo las palabras constituyen el vehículo de la revelación. Profeta es el hombre o la mujer que oye y enuncia la palabra de Dios. Ese era el fenómeno que ni Spinoza ni Einstein pudieron comprender. Podían aceptar la idea de un Dios que creó el cielo y la tierra, la fuerza de las fuerzas y la causa de las causas, El que originó lo que hoy día llamamos el Big Bang, el Dios arquitecto de la materia y generador del orden. Según la famosa frase de Einstein, “Dios no juega a los dados con el universo.” De hecho, la fe en el universo como producto de una única inteligencia creativa subyace detrás de la mentalidad científica desde sus inicios.
El judaísmo llama a este aspecto de Dios Elokim. Pero nosotros creemos también en otro aspecto de Dios que llamamos Hashem, el Dios de las relaciones – y las relaciones existen en virtud del lenguaje. Porque es éste el que nos permite comunicarnos con otros y compartir con ellos nuestros temores, esperanzas, amores, planes, sentimientos e intenciones. El lenguaje nos permite transmitir nuestra interioridad a otros. Está en el corazón mismo del vínculo humano. Un Dios que haya creado el universo pero que no pueda hablar o escuchar sería un dios impersonal – un dios incapaz de comprender lo que nos hace humanos. Adorar a ese dios es como inclinarse ante el sol o una computadora gigantesca. Podríamos cuidarla pero ella no podría hacer lo mismo con nosotros. Ese no es el Dios de Abraham.
Las palabras también son importantes de otra manera. Podemos usar el lenguaje no solo para describir o afirmar. También podemos usarlo para crear nuevos hechos morales. El filósofo de Oxford J. L. Austin llamó a este uso especial del lenguaje “expresión performativa.” El ejemplo clásico es el de hacer una promesa. Cuando la hago, creo una obligación que hasta ese momento no existía. Nietzsche consideró que la capacidad de hacer una promesa constituye el nacimiento de la moralidad y la responsabilidad humana. (7)
Así arribamos a la idea que está en el corazón del judaísmo: el brit, pacto, no es otra cosa que una promesa mutuamente vinculante entre Dios y los seres humanos. Lo que define la especial relación entre el pueblo judío y Dios no es que Él los condujo de la esclavitud a la libertad. Hizo eso también con otros pueblos, dice el profeta Amós: “No saqué a Israel de Egipto, a los filisteos de Caftor y a los arameos de Kir?” (Amos 9: 27). El hecho es que en Sinaí Dios e Israel pactaron un juramento mutuo que produjo un vínculo eterno.
Pacto es la palabra que une al cielo con la tierra, la palabra emitida, la palabra escuchada, la palabra aceptada y honrada de buena fe. Por esa razón, los judíos pudieron sobrevivir el exilio. Pueden haber perdido su hogar, su tierra, su poder, su libertad, pero aún tenían la palabra de Dios, la palabra que Él dijo que nunca rescindiría ni dejaría de cumplir. La Torá en el sentido más profundo, es la palabra de Dios, y el judaísmo es la religión de las palabras sagradas.
Se comprende que el mal uso o abuso del lenguaje para sembrar sospecha o disenso no solo es destructivo. Es sacrílego. Es tomar algo sagrado, la capacidad humana de comunicar y de esa forma juntar alma con alma, y usarla con los fines más abyectos, para dividir alma de alma y destruir la confianza de la cual dependen las relaciones no coercitivas.
Según los sabios, ese es el motivo por el cual el autor de lashón hará fue castigado con la lepra y forzado a habitar fuera del campamento. El castigo fue proporcional a la acción:
¿Qué tiene de especial la persona afectada por tzara’at que, según la Torá, debe “vivir solo; debe habitar fuera del campamento” (Levítico 13: 46)? El Santo, Bendito Sea dijo, “Ya que esta persona buscó crear la división entre el hombre y su esposa o entre una persona y su comunidad, (será castigado siendo dividido de la comunidad) que es el motivo por el cual dice “Que viva solo, fuera del campamento.”
Yalkut Shimoni I:552 (8)
En el judaísmo, el lenguaje es la base de la creación, de la revelación y de la vida moral. Es el aire que respiramos como seres sociales. De ahí la afirmación en Proverbios (18: 21): “El poder de la muerte y la vida está en la lengua.” De la misma manera en Salmos: “Cualquiera sea el que ame la vida y desee ver muchos días buenos, que guarde su lengua de la maldad y su boca de la mentira” (34: 13-14).
El judaísmo emergió como respuesta a una serie de preguntas: ¿Cómo pueden los seres humanos finitos conectarse con un Dios infinito? ¿Cómo pueden conectarse unos con otros? ¿Cómo puede haber cooperación, colaboración, acción colectiva, familias, comunidades y nación sin el uso coercitivo del poder? ¿Cómo podemos construir relaciones de confianza? ¿Cómo podemos redimir al ser humano de su soledad? ¿Cómo podemos crear la libertad colectiva de tal forma que la mía no pueda ser conseguida a costa de la tuya?
La contestación es: mediante las palabras, palabras que comunican, palabras que unen, palabras que honran al Otro Divino y al otro humano. Lashón hará, “hablar mal del otro”, al envenenar el lenguaje destruye la base misma de la visión judaica. Cuando hablamos despectivamente de otros y los disminuimos, nos disminuimos a nosotros mismos y dañamos la ecología misma de la libertad.
Es por eso que los sabios toman tan seriamente a lashón hará, porque lo consideran como el más grave de los pecados, y porque afirman que todo el fenómeno de la tzara’at, lepra en las personas, hongos en las vestimentas y en las casas, era la forma de Dios de hacerlo público y estigmatizarlas.
Nunca tomes livianamente al lenguaje, nos da a entender la Torá. Pues fue a través del lenguaje que creó Dios el mundo natural, y a través del lenguaje creamos y sostenemos nosotros el mundo social. Es tan esencial para nuestra supervivencia como el aire que respiramos.
Maimónides, Mishné Torá, Hiljot Deot 7:2.
Ver Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: William Morrow, 1994); Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2010).
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).
Friedrich Nietzsche, ensayo número 2 en On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
No country in history has ever given back to a sworn enemy militarily essential territory that has been captured in a defensive war.
Predictably, the European Union opposed the U.S. recognition of the annexation. But it provided no compelling argument, beyond its usual demand that the status quo not be changed.
Has any European country ever handed over high ground, captured in a defensive war, to a sworn enemy? Recall that at the end of the first and second world wars, European countries made territorial adjustments to help preserve the peace. Why should the European Union subject Israel to a double standard it has never demanded of itself? The answer is clear: The European Union has always acted hypocritically when it comes to Israel, and this is no exception.
No reasonable person would ask the Israelis to give the Golan Heights to the Syrian mass murderer Assad. It would be suicidal to hand the high ground overlooking Israeli towns and villages to a madman who would use it to target Israelis civilians with chemical barrel bombs, as Assad has done to his own citizens. No country has ever returned a battleship captured in a defensive war to an enemy sworn to its destruction. In addition, the Golan Heights is a big battleship that would be used to attack Israel.
The Golan Heights is not like the West Bank, which has a large population of civilians who regard themselves as occupied or displaced. The civilians who lived in the Golan Heights before Israel entered it on the last day of the Six-Day War were largely Druze. Whoever remained there are far better off living in Israel than in Syria. Since Assad began his campaign of murder, many Golan Druze have already become Israeli citizens. As one of the 25,000 Arab Druze stated in a recent LA Timesarticle, “No doubt that Druze and Israelis in the Golan enjoy a level of safety and security that can’t be compared to life on the other side… Each night at dinner, he says he reminds his children that while they are well fed, there are children in Syria with nothing to eat.”
So, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights is not about people; it is largely about military advantage. No country in history has ever given back to a sworn enemy, militarily essential territory that has been captured in a defensive war.
The issue is not whether Israel should give back the Golan Heights now. Virtually everyone agrees it should not. Moreover, it will not. No Prime Minister of Israel, no matter how far to the left, would ever think of ceding the Golan Heights to Assad. The area is high ground that the Syrians used to shoot down onto the Israeli farmers laboring in the valley: it was a shooting gallery.
Israel will remain in control of the Golan Heights for the foreseeable future. The only issue is whether Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights should be recognized by the United States and other countries. It should, for several important reasons.
The reality on the ground is that Israel will never give up the Golan Heights to Syria, unless it is part of a negotiated resolution with a peaceful, democratic Syria that has agreed to end all belligerency and recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is unlikely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. If it were to happen, there would be nothing to stop Israel from ceding the annexed Golan Heights to Syria as part of an enduring peace deal. There is therefore no real harm in Israel’s decision to annex it and the United States’ decision to recognize that annexation. Furthermore, the decision to annex and recognize the annexation removes the Golan Heights from the status of occupied territory and recognizes the status quo as both de facto and de jure realities.
I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with U.S. President Donald J. Trump two weeks before he announced his decision. I provided him with the battleship analogy, which he seemed to appreciate. I told him that I thought the Sunni Arab world might complain, but that they really do not care about the Golan, which has no religious significance to Islam. There were in fact, some minor protests, but nothing of significance.
Predictably, the European Union opposed the U.S. recognition of the annexation. But it provided no compelling argument, beyond its usual demand that the status quo not be changed. Israel’s control over the Golan Heights has been the status quo for more than half a century; and Israel’s legitimate need to control the heights has only increased over time, with war in Syria, and the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah military in close proximity. Would the European Union demand that Israel now hand over the Golan Heights to Assad? Has any European country ever handed over high ground, captured in a defensive war, to a sworn enemy?
Recall that at the end of the first and second world wars, European countries made territorial adjustments to help preserve the peace. Why should the European Union subject Israel to a double standard it has never demanded of itself? The answer is clear: The European Union has always acted hypocritically when it comes to Israel, and this is no exception.
So three cheers for President Trump for doing the right thing. I will continue to criticize him if and when he does the wrong thing — such as separating families at the U.S.’s southern border.
That is what bipartisan means: praising the President I voted against when he does the right thing, and criticizing presidents I voted for (such as Barack Obama) when they do the wrong thing (such as abstaining on the Security Council Resolution declaring Jewish holy places to be occupied territory).
Israel’s continuing control over the Golan Heights increases the chance for peace and decreases the chances that Syria, Iran and/or Hezbollah will be able to use this high ground as a launching pad against Israelis. That is good news for the world, for the United States and for Israel.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of The Case against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump (Hot Books, January 2, 2019), and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Gatestone Institute.
Sarah Blake, author of ‘Naamah.’ (Collage by Alma/via JTA)
JTA via Alma — In the Hebrew Bible, we get the stories of few women: There’s Eve, obviously. There are the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. There’s Queen Esther, our Purim heroine, and Judith, a Hanukkah heroine. There’s Miriam the Prophetess, Moses’s sister who danced the whole night long; Hannah, the first woman who prays; Ruth, the first convert.
But notable are the women who aren’t named. (Only around 10 percent of the 1,400 or so individuals given names in the Hebrew Bible are women.) Take Noah’s Ark, for example. We learn all about Noah, of course, but have you ever wondered about his wife, the woman who became the matriarch of all future generations of people? Me neither, before reading Sarah Blake’s new book, “Naamah.”
In “Naamah,” Blake reclaims the tale of Noah’s wife, who goes nameless in the Bible. In the novel, Blake has named her Naamah (she chose the name from the Book of Jubilees, an ancient text that tells the same stories that are in Genesis, but with greater detail; Noah’s wife, in this telling, is named Na’amah. But Judaism — outside of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community – doesn’t recognize the Book of Jubilees as canonical).
We had the opportunity to chat with Sarah Blake about “Naamah,” matriarchs, feminist retellings, and how she never wants to break a reader’s heart.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What led you to want to tell Naamah’s story?
I was re-reading Genesis for a poetry project I was working on. I couldn’t believe in re-reading it how much of the story of the ark I hadn’t understood; it hadn’t really made it through to me that it was over a year that they were stuck on that ark. Looking at what that would’ve meant to the adults involved, given the task of being with every animal on earth, on an ark, for over a year … it just sounded hopeless and terrifying and noisy and sickening. I got really attached to the idea of the woman that would’ve been the wife and the mother and the person who had to survive all of that. I wanted to get to know her, and how she would’ve survived, and I wanted to offer her ways of escape and see what she would do with them. There were endless things that kept drawing me towards her story, and all the different parts of it.
Illustrative: Life-size figures of animals inside the Noah’s Ark in Dorderecht in 2013. (Courtesy of De Ark van Noach)
Did you learn the story of Noah’s Ark growing up?
I had heard it in — this is so bizarre — Quaker meetings, a few times when I was seven. But, I already knew the story at that point [because] I remember when they told me, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t know when I actually first heard it.
Do you wish it was taught differently to kids? Or told differently?
I do find it very surprising that the retelling of the story of the ark is quick. The 40 days and 40 nights is what you think is the long part; the rain is what’s quite impressive, or it always was to me. In my mind I was like, oh man, 40 days and 40 nights, and then there’s enough water on earth to cover trees and mountains! And then I just thought, the rains went away and then they got off.
So that was a big part that struck me, when [Genesis says], ‘Oh yeah, God didn’t think about it for a while, and then he did, and he’s like, okay, I’ll start this drying process. And here will come a wind, and here will come a place where it drains out.’ There are a few little details about it, but even then, it takes months. And then there’s the birds — in the story I was taught, I don’t even think I got the birds. So I’m not sure I necessarily need to see that… but I would like if more retellings got into how large and long and weird the 14 months is.
There’s implications that the building of the ark takes years. So the whole [story] is kind of flattened, and doesn’t seem as terrifying cause their lives are so long. If you were told now you’re gonna make a boat for three to five years of your life, and then live on it for a year, and then start from scratch, I would be like, ‘I’m gonna be older by then! I don’t know what I’ll be like, or capable of, or what hormonal situation I’ll be in!’ [Laughs]
But I do like how that adds to the magical nature of it — of everyone just being like, ‘Yeah, sure, we will do all of this, and we’ll do it in the time it takes, and we won’t stress about how long it takes, and we’ll just keep walking away from our life to build this giant ark, and return to people that we know are going to die.’ The whole time, did they not tell them they were going to die? There are still questions that I feel like I really didn’t get to answer that I want answered myself.
What was your research process like?
I did re-read Genesis more times than I can count. And I researched animals a lot, and I researched things as they came up. So, a lot of it would be extrapolations on better documented periods of history, like Sumerian culture and Egyptian culture. But mostly: I didn’t research too much, because I really wanted to have the freedom to give her what she needed and focus more on her emotional life. I tried to be just more faithful to Naamah herself, and what I thought she might do.
Illustrative: Noah’s Ark (1846), a painting by the American folk painter Edward Hicks
You write, “The longer she is on the boat, the less she trusts Him, and His feelings toward her, and His choice of her for matriarch.” I never really thought too deeply about the story of Noah’s Ark, that his wife would be the matriarch for everyone in the future. Can you talk a little about this, and how the idea of “matriarch” weaves through the story?
It was hard to imagine being the woman that would be told all of the rest of the world, for the rest of time, would be able to trace back to you.
I mean, that is insane!
That seems insane. It seems when it happens to other people — in stories, in mythical tellings — it’s less pronounced than it was here. Here, they were pulled away from everyone else, watched everyone die, got stuck on water, and didn’t know how long that would last. And then they knew that from there, it would be their job, and if they didn’t create all of life, that would be it. So it’s this incredible drive to want to create people, but also know that as you did, you were going to create a world that had begun with you.
I was really taken by Naamah’s relationship with Bethel, her lover before the flood. Why did you choose to include that story and create that character?
I was really taken by the idea of everyone being hundreds of years old. They’re not as specific about [age] with Naamah, but they are with Noah, [who is] around 500 or 600 years old [Genesis 5:32]. So, I assumed that she was, too. And I assumed their marriage was probably centuries old. Because the other little detail you get [is] that after the boat, you find out that [their son] Shem, when he has his first son, is 100 [Genesis 11:10]. Which meant that in their terms of thinking, that is young-ish. So, that implies to me that Naamah and Noah had probably been married since around 100 years old.
Now you’ve got a marriage that’s centuries old. And, to me, it seems quite natural that marriage was going to mean something different, and that other serious relationships would probably come in and out during that time period, and that wouldn’t be a horrible thing, but just an inevitable thing.
Bethel I saw as one of Naamah’s most recent loves. And I didn’t talk about whether [Naamah and Noah] had more over the years, and who those would’ve been, but in my head, they had existed. Bethel arose really naturally to me in understanding just the length of time [before the flood]. I fell in love with Bethel. I thought she was a really necessary character to put a little bit of release on the tragedy that was the flood; it was something that Bethel wasn’t terrified about. If you only had it from Naamah’s perspective the whole time, I think the flood would’ve been this one-faceted tragedy that I’d always imagined it as, and I wanted the flood to have a little more depth. It still confuses me, the ways in which some people thought it was a good thing. God obviously thought it was the right thing… I was really drawn to all of that.
Illustrative: Ark of Noah, a Dutch Christian organization, created a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. (Courtesy of Ark of Noah Foundation)
How do you see your story fitting into other feminist retellings of the bible? Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” immediately came to mind for me.
I know, and I have to read “The Red Tent,” I can’t believe I haven’t read it! I know it’s about Dinah, and I’ve written a few poems about Dinah — and I think that story is remarkable as well.
But yeah, I can’t answer that question too well. In talking about retellings recently, I realized I haven’t read too many retellings outside poems because I’ve been a poet for so long. I do know a lot of [poetry] retellings, like Marie Howe’s work, a series of poems in “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time,” about Jesus’s mother Mary. And then her newest book of poems is called “Magdalene,” about Mary Magdalene. A. E. Stallings does these great poems about the Greek myths, and so does Louise Glück and Rita Dove, and there’s all these amazing persona poems that are often giving voice to character you’re somewhat familiar with. Like Carmen Jiménez Smith takes on some of the fairy tales. So the poetry world I feel like is what got me poised to really think about retellings. I’m just usually thinking about them happening much more quickly than a 300-page novel.
The novel feels a lot like prose poetry, it flowed so beautifully. I noticed your previous books are all poetry; what was this transition like for you, from the world of poems and shorter works to a novel-length story?
It was shocking to me, actually. In college, as part of the creative writing minor, I had to write short stories and I was dreadful at it. I just avoided fiction. I took a lot of classes in grad school studying short stories as a form; I loved to read them and write essays about them and how they work and all their craft choices and putting them in the context of their time — I love all of that. But I just avoided writing them forever, because I just didn’t understand prose.
My mother would always say, “Just wait ’til you’re older.” I didn’t know why she had such confidence, but she did! [Laughs.]
And then, in 2016 with the election, I was feeling kind of lost. I was working on these persona poems, and I had already written a few poems about Naamah. And a friend had asked me to write a short screenplay, just to see what that would be like, and I sent it to her, and that was about Naamah. I just couldn’t get her out of my head. And I [thought], I’m just gonna have to sit down and let whatever comes out, come out. I poured out a few thousand words of writing pretty quickly. And I was like, oh my gosh, I think I’m writing prose, and then I just kept making time for it as my son was in school, or at the Y doing classes.
I fell in love. I wanted to spend time with Naamah every day, and that meant writing this novel. She took me through a time of feeling really hopeless and unsure of how to move forward, unsure of what to look at and tell my son about what was happening. Naamah helped save me, it felt like.
Ensemble of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ (IntensivTheater/ Jenny Brill)
Besides Naamah, what’s your favorite biblical story or heroine?
As a high schooler, I became quite obsessed with “Jesus Christ Superstar.” My mother always was playing soundtracks. We had cassettes, and I think I wore out my “Jesus Christ Superstar” cassette until it didn’t play anymore…
One side of my family is very Jewish, and one side is very Catholic, but neither of my parents were interested in having religion inside the house. We celebrated the holidays. And we had a lot of Jewish dinners. Because it was through the dinners, my experience of Judaism was the ritual. I saw more of the prayers, the seders — I didn’t get the stories until later.
Obviously, Eve is amazing. And I really enjoy Dinah’s story. I really enjoyed rewriting Lot’s wife in poems. [In my poem “Lot’s Wife”] I have it that she turned into salt, but that was like just for a minute, and then she turned back again, and she just runs away from everyone.
As an adult, I’m realizing that some of the reasons I was less interested in [biblical stories] was me making assumptions that I think were kind of passed down through the patriarchy. If I actually look at those stories with my own contemporary feminist understanding, they are women I can identify with. It kind of made the Bible open up to me in a whole new way, to realize those stories can look very different.
But I would say in my childhood growing up, I just loved Judas. I’m sure that’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” talking, but who doesn’t want to sing all of Judas’ parts really badly?!
Last question: What do you hope readers take away from “Naamah”?
I hope it’s a really empowering and joyful experience. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially as I start new projects: If I’m gonna write novels, which is totally new to me, and have this totally different relationship to a reader than I’ve had before, what interests me the most? For me, I think it is joy and empowerment. I don’t ever want to break a reader’s heart. Not that there can’t be heartbreaking things, but I don’t ever want to do that.
As we saw in Parshat Tazria, the Sages identify tzara’at – the condition that affects human skin, the fabric of garments, and the walls of a house – not as an illness but as a punishment, and not for any sin but for one specific sin, that of lashon hara, evil speech.
This prompts the obvious question: Why evil speech and not some other sin? Why should speaking be worse than, say, physical violence? There is an old English saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones/but words will never harm me.” It is unpleasant to hear bad things said about you, but surely no more than that.
There is not even a direct prohibition against evil speech in the Torah. There is a prohibition against gossip: “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people” (Lev. 19:16). Lashon hara is a subset of this larger command. Here is how Maimonides defines it: “There is a far greater sin that falls under this prohibition [of gossip]. It is ‘the evil tongue,’ which refers to whoever speaks disparagingly of his fellow, even though he speaks the truth.”
The Sages go to remarkable lengths to emphasise its seriousness. It is, they say, as bad as all three cardinal sins together – idol worship, bloodshed, and illicit sexual relations. Whoever speaks with an evil tongue, they say, is as if he denied God. They also say: it is forbidden to dwell in the vicinity of any of those with an evil tongue, and all the more to sit with them and to listen to their words. Why are mere words treated with such seriousness in Judaism?
The answer touches on one of the most basic principles of Jewish belief. There are ancient cultures who worshipped the gods because they saw them as powers: lightning, thunder, the rain and sun, the sea and ocean that epitomised the forces of chaos, and sometimes wild animals that represented danger and fear. Judaism was not a religion that worshipped power, despite the fact that God is more powerful than any pagan deity.
Judaism, like other religions, has holy places, holy people, sacred times, and consecrated rituals. What made Judaism different, however, is that it is supremely a religion of holy words. With words God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be…and there was.” Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy. That is why lashon hara, the use of language to harm, is not merely a minor offence. It involves taking something that is holy and using it for purposes that are unholy. It is a kind of desecration.
After creating the universe, God’s first gift to the first man was the power to use words to name the animals, and thus to use language to classify. This was the start of the intellectual process that is the distinguishing mark of Homo sapiens. The Targum translates the phrase, “And man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7) as “a speaking spirit.” Evolutionary biologists nowadays take the view that it was the demands of language and the advantage this gave humans over every other life form that led to the massive expansion of the human brain.
When God sought to halt the plan of the people of Babel to build a tower that would reach heaven, He merely “confused their language” so they were unable to communicate. Language remains basic to the existence of human groups. It was the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century that led to the gradual downplaying of regional dialects in favour of a single shared language across the territory over which a political authority had sovereignty. To this day, differences of language, where they exist within a single nation, are the source of ongoing political and social friction, for example between English and French speakers in Canada; Dutch, French, German, and Walloon speakers in Belgium; and the Spanish and Basque (also known as Euskara) languages in Spain. God created the natural universe with words. We create – and sometimes destroy – the social universe with words.
So the first principle of language in Judaism is that it is creative. We create worlds with words. The second principle is no less fundamental. Abrahamic monotheism introduced into the world the idea of a God who transcends the universe, and who therefore cannot be identified with any phenomenon within the universe. God is invisible. Hence in Judaism all religious images and icons are a sign of idolatry.
How then does an invisible God reveal Himself? Revelation was not a problem for polytheism. The pagans saw gods in the panoply of nature that surrounds us, making us feel small in its vastness and powerless in the face of its fury. A God who cannot be seen or even represented in images demands an altogether different kind of religious sensibility. Where can such a God be found?
The answer again is: in words. God spoke. He spoke to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, as Moses reminded the Israelites, “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12). In Judaism, words are the vehicle of revelation. The prophet is the man or woman who hears and speaks the word of God. That was the phenomenon that neither Spinoza nor Einstein could understand. They could accept the idea of a God who created heaven and earth, the force of forces and cause of causes, the originator of, as we call it nowadays, the Big Bang, the God who was the architect of matter and the composer of order. God, Einstein famously said, “does not play dice with the universe.” Indeed, it is ultimately faith in the universe as the product of a single creative intelligence that underlies the scientific mindset from the outset.
Judaism calls this aspect of God Elokim. But we believe in another aspect of God also, which we call Hashem, the God of relationship – and relationship exists by virtue of speech. For it is speech that allows us to communicate with others and share with them our fears, hopes, loves, plans, feelings, and intentions. Speech allows us to convey our inwardness to others. It is at the very heart of the human bond. A God who could create universes but not speak or listen would be an impersonal god – a god incapable of understanding what makes us human. Worshipping such a god would be like bowing down to the sun or to a giant computer. We might care about it but it could not care about us. That is not the God of Abraham.
Words are remarkable in another way as well. We can use language not just to describe or assert. We can use it to create new moral facts. The Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin called this special use of language “performative utterance.” The classic example is making a promise. When I make a promise, I create an obligation that did not exist before. Nietzsche believed that the ability to make a promise was the birth of morality and human responsibility.
Hence the idea at the heart of Judaism: brit, covenant, which is nothing other than a mutually binding promise between God and human beings. What defines the special relationship between the Jewish people and God is not that He brought them from slavery to freedom. He did that, says the prophet Amos, to other people as well: “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). It is the fact that at Sinai, God and Israel entered into a mutual pledge that linked them in an everlasting bond.
Covenant is the word that joins heaven and earth, the word spoken, the word heard, the word affirmed and honoured in trust. For that reason, Jews were able to survive exile. They may have lost their home, their land, their power, their freedom, but they still had God’s word, the word He said He would never break or rescind. The Torah, in the most profound sense, is the word of God, and Judaism is the religion of holy words.
It follows that to misuse or abuse language to sow suspicion and dissension is not just destructive. It is sacrilege. It takes something holy, the human ability to communicate and thus join soul to soul, and use it for the lowest of purposes, to divide soul from soul and destroy the trust on which non-coercive relationships depend.
That, according to the Sages, is why the speaker of lashon hara was smitten by leprosy and forced to live as a pariah outside the camp. The punishment was measure for measure:
What is special about the person afflicted with tzara’at that the Torah says, “He shall live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46)? The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “Since this person sought to create division between man and wife, or a person and his neighbour, [he is punished by being divided from the community], which is why it says, ‘Let him live alone, outside the camp.’”
Language, in Judaism, is the basis of creation, revelation, and the moral life. It is the air we breathe as social beings. Hence the statement in Proverbs (18:21), “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Likewise, the verse in Psalms, “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (Ps. 34:13–14).
Judaism emerged as an answer to a series of questions: How can finite human beings be connected to an infinite God? How can they be connected to one another? How can there be co-operation, collaboration, collective action, families, communities, and a nation, without the coercive use of power? How can we form relationships of trust? How can we redeem the human person from his or her solitude? How can we create collective liberty such that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours?
The answer is: through words, words that communicate, words that bind, words that honour the Divine Other and the human other. Lashon hara, “evil speech,” by poisoning language, destroys the very basis of the Judaic vision. When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage the very ecology of freedom.
That is why the Sages take lashon hara so seriously, why they regard it as the gravest of sins, and why they believe that the entire phenomenon of tzara’at, leprosy in people, mildew in clothes and houses, was God’s way of making it public and stigmatised.
Never take language lightly, implies the Torah. For it was through language that God created the natural world, and through language that we create and sustain our social world. It is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe.
 See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: William Morrow, 1994); Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2010).
 J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, essay 2 in On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
In the early part of your life, you spent 12 years studying at various ultra-Orthodox Chareidi yeshivot, beginning with Gateshead, and later on at Mirrer Yeshiva and other kollels in Yerushalayim. Eventually you would leave that realm and enter the Modern Orthodox world, which fuses Torah with secular philosophy, psychology, academia, and non-Jewish religious texts.
Rav Shagar, who was a renowned Religious Zionist Rosh Yeshiva, encouraged his modern students to embrace what he called “the authentic Chareidi,” the good qualities found in the ultra-Orthodox world—their passion and dedication to God.
Rav Cardozo, even though you eventually left the Chareidi world, would you agree with Rav Shagar’s idea of the “authentic Chareidi,” that there is something modern Jews can learn from the Chareidi world? Do you see any positive qualities and values that you learnt from your time spent in the Chareidi world?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
This is a very complex question, and I’ll probably need several “Thoughts to Ponder” to explain what I stand for. I hope I’ll succeed.
I consider myself neither Modern Orthodox nor Chareidi. I have big problems with both denominations. And I definitely don’t identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. However, I certainly admire many aspects of the Modern Orthodox and Chareidi communities. And I’ve learned a lot from the Reform and Conservative ideologies, their religious struggles and crises, and their disagreements with the Orthodox perspectives.
I very much like the idea of Rabbi Shagar’s “authentic Chareidi.” Chareidim have a lot to offer in terms of passion, commitment, and religiosity. But they fail miserably in other extremely important matters. The same is true with the Modern Orthodox. They, too, have a lot to offer in terms of dealing with the modern world, but it seems to me that they’re obsessed with secular studies at the expense of religious passion, which has disastrous consequences.
All of this has to be properly explained, and I’ll try to do that later. First, something more personal as an introduction:
The Need for Multiple Conversions
Although, as you know, I converted when I was 16 years old after having discovered Judaism on my own, over the years I got so used to it that it nearly died within me, even though I honestly believed that I did very well, religiously speaking. One day, however, I woke up and asked myself: Where have you been all these years?Are you sure you still want to be religious and Jewish? I went through the motions but had lost the essence of what it means to be religious. Also, I started to question certain Jewish (Orthodox) beliefs, since my knowledge of the Jewish Tradition had increased considerably, as did my secular knowledge. Besides belief in the divinity of the Torah, which was challenged by the academic community of Bible scholars, there were some severe moral problems with the narrative of the Torah, even more so with some of the divine commandments, and certainly with several rabbinic edicts.
But above all, it was the feeling that I was really a completely secular person who lived a halachic life. This may sound strange but I think that to this day, many religious Jews—especially the Modern Orthodox—live with this kind of ambiguity. And I believe that I belong in the same category. Perhaps the difference is that I’m terribly disturbed by it and it gives me no rest, although I try not to show it.
So I really need to start all over again. It’s a kind of surgery, but this surgery is going on for years and the anesthetics are wearing off. It’s important to realize that nobody can inherit religion, not even from oneself. It has to be an ongoing discovery. I converted when I was 16, but over the years I’ve come to realize that to convert only once is almost meaningless. Nearly every Erev Shabbat I immerse myself in a mikveh (ritual bath), and when I step into the water I say to myself: Let’s see if this time it will make me into a real Jew. Last time I failed. I did not get it. I couldn’t and still can’t “touch” real Judaism—neither its implication nor its transforming power. Sure, this is not an easy way of living, but for me it’s the only way.
Johann Sebastian Bach, My Wife’s Wig and Leaving the Establishment
Whenever I listen to Bach’s phenomenal music, I feel as if I was hit with an uppercut to the chin and remained unconscious for several hours. That should also, and even more so, happen when I exit the mikveh and try to enter Judaism once more, but it doesn’t. And that’s my problem. I’m still not entirely Jewish in the spiritual sense of the word. I still don’t get as overwhelmed by Judaism’s music as I do by Bach’s. And what I would like to achieve is to have my students and fellow Jews enter the mikveh together with me and ask ourselves: Are we really Jewish? Are we constantly being transformed by the tradition called Judaism?
The awe-inspiring sense of the presence of God is the awareness of being known by God. God and Judaism are a challenge rather than a notion. How do I reach them? Is it possible? I still don’t know because I haven’t yet gotten out of the mikveh. I’m still standing in the water and waiting. If I don’t get out, I’m defeated. Or am I? Perhaps we only need to keep on trying. But seriously trying, and not just by being very careful halachically. And I want others to try as well. Perhaps more cannot be expected from us.
This is indeed very painful. But who says that a person should live without pain, especially if that means living a life of conventional notions and mental clichés? To be a Jew is to know and feel that one lives the unbelievable. I admit that my life is far from easy but spiritually it is surely unbelievable and “painfully beautiful.” But is that enough? Looking back, I believe that my life turned out to be very unusual if not a little absurd. When I was young and it all happened—my so-called transformation and conversion—I thought it was very ordinary. Who, after all, lives a normal life? But now that a good part is behind me and I’m surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I realize that it’s all really very strange.
Here I am with these children, all of whom are religious, including some Chareidim with payot (sidelocks) behind their ears, and most of them living in Israel, and I wonder how this all happened.
When I see my wife with a sheitel (wig) on her head, I realize that in my earlier religious days I took this for granted, while now—more than 50 years later—I’m suddenly shocked and question the validity of it. I can’t see anything normal about it. Who in the name of God hides her hair and puts on a wig! This needs not only an explanation, but deep soul-searching to discover the meaning and the experience behind it.
It seems like yesterday that I was at a non-Jewish school playing with a non-Jewish girl whom I was sure I would marry one day; yet now my wife wears a sheitel and I find myself speaking with my grandchildren about a difficult Meshech Chochma (a famous commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk [1843-1926]). I sometimes think that God has a great sense of humor. But why does He try it out on me?
I think that over the years I became more consciously religious, but that also meant I had to leave the religious establishment, as far as my ideology and sometimes even as far as conventional Halacha is concerned.
So it is not at all what some people think when I question Judaism or Halacha—that I have turned my back on Judaism. The truth is that today I have not only a much better appreciation of it, but also a deeper commitment to it.
The Calvinistic Dutch
However strange this may sound, there is another problem. I’m Dutch! Dutch Jews—and, by the way, German/Swiss Jews as well—have always been inflexible and terribly Calvinistic. Everything was done the “proper” way and neatly arranged in mental boxes. That was even truer of Orthodox Jews. I am reminded of a story concerning Rabbi Meir Shapira, the Rav of Lublin and one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of his time. When he came to Frankfurt’s Orthodox community, they showed him a kosher ice cream emporium. Rabbi Shapira saw a large notice stating: “All our products are frozen under the supervision of the Rabbinate.” “True,” he could not help saying, “of the whole of your Judaism!”
They were Calvinistic shomrei mitzvot (observant of the Jewish tradition and Halacha) with a flavor of Christian theological behavior. Their top hats were often just as important as their tallitot, if not more! I still see this in some of my Dutch friends—even those in Israel. They try hard to break out of this Calvinistic harness but don’t seem to succeed. And above all, I surely see it in myself as well. When I laugh at them I’m also laughing at myself! We can’t help it. It’s in our genes! There are positive aspects to it, of course, but it has confined many Dutch Jews, denying them the chance to try new worlds and turning them into constrained behaviorists. The difference with me is that while my mentality is not so far from theirs, my weltanschauung has totally broken with that world. But I carry the genes!
For all these reasons, I cannot relate to the great Chareidi rabbis who today are the spokesmen of this community. While there may be some great people among them, they do not speak my language and I don’t speak theirs. They remind me of Rabbi Shapira’s description: frozenness. Nevertheless, there are no doubt exceptions.
Being a Western Sephardic Jew
The same is true concerning me, being a Portuguese Sephardic Jew. The Sephardic rabbis in Israel are even further removed from my culture, since they came from Middle Eastern and North African countries with their own culture. They have very little in common with the Western Sephardic mentality, where I come from. The latter is really a very nice tradition: deeply religious, flexible, and very cultured. But over the centuries that the Portuguese Jews stayed in Holland they also became very Calvinistic.
Only in later years was I able to understand these worlds and appreciate them for what they are, although my views on many matters are far removed from theirs. It was, however, very refreshing that there were some Sephardic halachists who showed tremendous courage and clearly spoke my language. They understood the situation of Jewry in the 20th century better than most of their colleagues. I’m thinking of the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chacham Ben-Zion Uziel, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa Rav Yosef Mashash, and some others.
So I get caught up between all these worlds.
The Idolization of Rabbis
Another factor that plays a role in my difficulties with the Chareidi community is the idolization of what they call the gedolei hador (the great ones of the generation). That never sat well with me. I had always understood that Judaism taught us to stand on our own feet, and to ask great rabbis for their halachic rulings only when the questions were complicated. One could, of course, also ask their advice on matters, but these were never to be considered halachic rulings that had to be followed. Around the time that I came to Israel, it started to become fashionable to view these people as faultless. They were turned into almost divine beings.
When I discovered the Religious Zionist world—including the writings of Rav Kook, Rav Eliezer Berkovits, Rav Yehuda Amital—and even some who didn’t belong to the Orthodox world but were deeply religious, such as Franz Rosenzweig and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel— a new world opened up for me. Though they were never considered by the Chareidi establishment to be gedolei hador, they were, in my opinion, much greater than some of the Chareidi gedolim, but I was completely ignorant of them. Besides having a broad understanding of Jewish law, they were independent thinkers and real tzaddikim. But since no one gave them much attention, I wasn’t aware of them. This was also due to the fact that they were never seen as “gedoleihador” by their own followers because the whole concept of a gadol hador, as understood by the Chareidi world, is completely foreign to the Religious Zionist community.
One more word about the idolization of rabbis: When I was learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, a very Chareidi institution, there was little of that. Everyone had enormous respect for the rabbis, but there was no idolization. They gave advice, but it was never turned into a ruling if it was not of a purely halachic nature. In fact, any attempt to idolize them would have made them deeply upset. But now we’ve been introduced to an even more disturbing dimension of this—Da’as Torah—a type of semi-prophetic insight of the rabbis, which is to be seen as the final, objective word on any issue, as if God Himself has spoken. I find this a little amusing, since these rabbis, who have so many varied and even opposing opinions, all claim to have Da’as Torah. It’s difficult to see how that works. And if they would respond to this difficulty by saying that there are many opinions within Da’as Torah, then we’re back to square one!
I do, however, believe that there is something that I call “Ruach haTorah.” Something can be said in the spirit of the Torah, and that can include many opinions!
The Marvelous but Isolated World of Gateshead Yeshiva
Let me also say that my many years of learning in the Chareidi Gateshead Yeshiva in England were very important to me and gave me much happiness. Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira and Rabbi David Brodman, both remarkable people to whom I owe a lot for having taught me so much, were serving in the Amsterdam Rabbinate and fought for me to get into this illustrious yeshiva. But there was a lot of adjusting to do. When I got in, I was not prepared for the shock that I suffered. I still remember that my father took me there, and once we entered this strange world we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the families who hosted us, but it was millions of years away from anything we knew. Hundreds of bachurei yeshiva, all in black suits and hats, walking around nervously, shouting at each other while learning Talmud—this was not exactly what we were accustomed to. My father wanted to take me home immediately and rescue me from this obscure world. Remember, I was only 16! I recall asking myself what made me want to be part of this insulated world, which seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the outside world, not even the larger Jewish community. However, I kept silent and asked my father to let me stay. He left a few days later with a heavy heart. This was one of the most difficult moments in his life.
Anyway, I threw myself into the deep waters of yeshiva life, which was both very painful and wonderful. I missed my family and their lifestyle, and for many months I would write a letter to my parents weekly that I was coming home to attend university. But whenever I threw myself into the Talmudic studies, I felt great and would decide not to send the letter. I forced myself to get into this fascinating world of chakirot and pilpulim (sharp Talmudic inquiries and argumentation) only to once again long for the “other” world. It was a strange situation that I never really got used to. I believe that I remained the insider-outsider even to this day. Today I watch myself watching myself. It makes little sense but is a great experience! It feels like watching yourself in a mirror while looking in a couple of mirrors one behind the other, so that you see yourself in multiple copies, each one true but different from the others.
It’s important to mention that Gateshead Yeshiva was not Yeshiva University in New York. There were no secular studies, and there were no “enlightened” people in the conventional sense of the word. There was no place to have a coffee in a kosher restaurant, and surely no opportunity to meet a girl. The girl who later became my wife, Freyda Gnesin, was also in Gateshead at the same time. She studied in the famous Gateshead Jewish Teachers Training College, known as Gateshead Seminary. There were several hundred girls there and its many buildings were only a few hundred meters away from my yeshiva. But that was an optical illusion. In truth, they were living on another planet, light-years away. There was no contact with this seminary’s residents. I knew Freyda from the Dutch town of Haarlem, where we used to meet at the synagogue and had become friends. Sometimes I wanted to speak to her, but how could I in Gateshead? My trick was to try to get her on the phone by pretending that I was her brother. The problem was that everybody knew she had no brother! But it still worked. We would also meet at the home of a partially Dutch family that was extremely nice to me and helped me through this difficult time at yeshiva. The mother of this family was of Dutch origin and had some concept of a more secular Jewish community, such as the one in Holland. So their home became somewhat of an ir miklat (city of refuge).
The Timeless Yeshiva World and Spinoza.
The fascinating thing about the yeshiva was that it existed outside any concept of time. Once you were inside, you couldn’t sense that it actually operated in the 20th century. It could have been the 12th or 17th century, and no one would have known the difference. All externals disappeared. This was a world unto itself, made up of singularly focused people learning Torah in full force. There was no walking out to the street for a few minutes to get some fresh air. Not only was it dangerous, since so many drunken people wandered around, but it was considered bitul zman (a waste of time). There was only one thing: to throw yourself into the Talmud. This wasn’t a Jewish university for religious studies; it was life in the messianic age. Most of the yeshivot in Israel have nearly nothing in common with Gateshead. Perhaps in B’nei Brak or in Meah Shearim you can find a few, but even in those places there’s an atmosphere where one can walk around and have a talk over a cup of coffee in a restaurant next to the yeshiva. None of that existed in Gateshead.
And therein lies my problem. I loved this world and felt like a fish in water, but subconsciously I knew that this was not the real Jewish world. It couldn’t have been because there was a huge gap between this world and what the Talmud told us about real Jewish life. Something didn’t make sense. We were reading texts that described the greatest sages as farmers and businessmen who discussed the financial world, interest, damages, sexuality, agriculture, farming and so on. But in our world in Gateshead there were no farms, no animals running wild destroying a neighbor’s property, and not one of our rabbis was a farmer or peddler. There were only our shtenders (lecterns), on which the Talmud was placed and at which we were able to study its fascinating text. But the distance between what the text described and what the yeshiva was all about was the distance between heaven and earth. And that’s where I got stuck.
It reminded me of Spinoza, who in some way was a bachur yeshiva. He lived in a small room in Rijnsburg, the Netherlands. That was his beit midrash (study hall) and, like the yeshiva students, he almost never left it. There he built his universe and wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics. But just like in the yeshiva, his deep thoughts, insights and noble feelings, which are timeless, are not of this world. They are ahistorical, and that is exactly what makes them suspect. I love many of Spinoza’s ideas, but I am certainly not a Spinozist. His ideas are so beautiful that for most people they’re totally unreachable. His famous sub specie aeternitatis, in which he tried to see everything from the perspective of eternity, is beautiful but for the most part unreal. Spinoza’s problem was that he wasn’t married and didn’t have children, so he never had to deal with a crying baby in the middle of the night, or stepping on a toy while looking for a pacifier! Or making sure his marriage wouldn’t fall apart. To a certain extent, the same problem existed in Gateshead Yeshiva. While the Talmudic text was generally—although not always—very down to earth, the rabbis and students lived in Spinoza’s universe.
I kept asking myself how this would work in real life. Although the Talmud is down to earth most of the time, the question that needs to be seriously considered is whether its laws can be implemented in a sovereign Jewish state. I think they can. But only if we make use of its many minority opinions and understand the meta-halachic background to all these laws, which takes into account the social conditions, which have drastically changed in the last 1600 years since the Talmud was written. We should also not forget that there was a very different perception of religiosity then.
Judaism was badly compromised. It became purely religion, only to be experienced in the synagogue or Jewish home, because the Jews had lost their homeland and a large part of Judaism was made inoperable. The Talmud was actually a product of the diaspora and deeply influenced by it.
What if the Talmud had been written while the Jewish commonwealth was still fully operating? You get a partial taste of this in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was written in Israel. The truth is that this is a huge and complicated problem. The question that must really be asked is whether the Talmud needs an upgrade, since many of its presumptions are part of a world that no longer exists. But perhaps we can say something about this another time. (See my new book: Jewish Law as Rebellion: A plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications.)
I never completely left the Chareidi world. It’s true that I became critical of it (more about that later), but my roots are definitely there. Gateshead Yeshiva shaped me and I have strong nostalgic feelings toward that world. What was most amazing about the yeshiva staff was its absolute integrity. The roshei yeshiva were close to being angels. They lived lives of absolute purity. There were no politics and no self-aggrandizement; only total simplicity. In the earlier days of the yeshiva, there was nothing to eat and the roshei yeshiva saved every little bit of food and gave it to their students.
They lived their lives as Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, the only difference being that they had no arrogance, only humility. This made a deep impression on me. There was no competition between them, no scandals, and no quarrels—just Torah in all its sublimity. There was Rabbi Moshe Schwab z”l, who was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guide) of the yeshiva, brother of the famous Rabbi Shimon Schwab z”l of Washington Heights. Rabbi Moshe gave mussar shmoozen. They weren’t intellectual discourses like Kant’s sophisticated insights about ethics; they were emotional, often spontaneous, outbursts of love for God and humans. They would lift us up to heaven and ask of us to be supreme human beings and Jews. Those moments are unforgettable. Nothing in the world comes close to those experiences. Later, it was Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon—today’s mashgiach in the illustrious Lakewood Yeshiva in the United States—who would give beautiful and inspiring talks on parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion). I would cling to every word. Today I may not agree with some of their opinions, but it was certainly deeply inspiring!
Anti-Semitic and racist graffiti spray-painted on a building in Oklahoma, April 3, 2019. (Facebook)
At a time when anti-Semitism is resurging in the world and there is a lot of discussion about what anti-Semitism is, the relevance of the early 20th century fabrication, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, has never been greater.
The Protocols, concocted by the Russian tsarist police in the early years of the 20th century, was allegedly the secret plans of Jewish leaders on how to take over the world. In 24 chapters the plans of the Jews to gain control of the banks, the media, armed forces and every institution were explicated and described.
Unfortunately, this total fabrication was widely believed to be the real thing, used to justify murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews after the Russian Revolution. It was also a key source of propaganda for the Nazis. It continues to circulate, particularly in the Arab world.
The Protocols’ relevance today lies in helping in the understanding of what are the unique characteristics of anti-Semitism.
By looking at why this particular fraud was perpetrated, why it was so widely believed, and why it has had such a devastating historical impact tells us much about what makes anti-Semitism different than other forms of hatred. And why it continually reemerges and why it is so difficult to combat.
Hatred of Jews shares with other forms of prejudice – racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism – certain traits, including xenophobia, the fear of the other, discrimination, and stereotyping.
Recognizing the commonalities of hate enables groups to work together to combat hate in the broadest sense.
On the other hand, like a physician, one also needs to understand what makes a particular form of prejudice unique.
The Protocols speak to that hard-core unique element of Jew hatred. It is no accident that when individuals sought to create the ultimate anti-Semitic document they focused on an alleged conspiracy of secret Jewish power.
This is particularly noteworthy considering that at that time, in the early 20th century, the Jewish people had no real power. Indeed, even some 40 years later, when the Nazis were launching their Final Solution against the Jews of Europe, the great tragedy of the Jews was that at the worst possible moment, the Jews were completely powerless– no country, no military, no place to go, no political influence.
The reality of the Jew had nothing to do with the fantasies that predominated about Jews.
This was evident in the Middle Ages where Jews were accused of all kinds of things – blood libel, desecrating the host, poisoning the wells.
This was true in the modern world where Jews, often at the very same time, were accused of being the secret party behind capitalism and communism.
So, no surprise when enterprising anti-Semites came up with the idea of creating a document to put the Jews in the worst light, they expanded on the fantasy of Jews planning to gain world control.
They knew what they were doing because millions of people already believed such preposterous ideas. When the document first appeared, it rang a bell of recognition. Yes, that is what we always believed about the Jews, about why the world is what is. This was seen in a trial in Bern, Switzerland in which an individual was on trial for illegally disseminating the Protocols. Numbers of witnesses testified to it being a complete fabrication. When the defendant was asked about these testimonies, he responded: they make no impact because all one has to do to is look around and see that that is exactly what the Jews are up to.
And so to today’s resurgence of anti-Semitism. It is exactly because the essence of anti-Semitism is the notion of secret Jewish power that anti-Semitism is surging both on the right and the left. In an environment where each side sees the other often as the enemy sets the stage for conspiracy theories, the favorite of which is that about Jews and power.
On the right, it’s Jews who are seen as controlling government or Jews are not being loyal to the nation but to some external power, or Jews being behind liberal politics, like welcoming refugees.
On the left, it takes the form that Jews are the power behind evil capitalism, or Jews control Middle East policy or Jews again are loyal to a distant power. In Soviet days, Jews were accused of “cosmopolitanism” – today as loyalty to the Israeli “enemy.”
The centrality of the accusation of secret power means three important things about anti-Semitism. First, it means Jews can always be scapegoated by demagogic political leaders whenever there is a crisis. When Malaysia went through a difficult economic recession, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested that his people were suffering because of Jewish control of international currency.
Second, because there is a strong political element to this core of anti-Semitism, it goes far beyond the personal and can inspire public action against Jews. If Jews are secretly poisonous and powerful, society has to protect itself from this threat.
Third, sometimes Jews are most in danger not when they are discriminated against but when they are doing well. The secret Jewish power accusation then seems even more valid. This is an unusual characteristic that applies more to anti-Semitism than other forms of bigotry.
This understanding of what is unique about anti-Semitism alerts society never to be complacent about this disease.
Because it is based on a fantasy about Jews, it means that whenever anxiety roils civilization, Jews undoubtedly will be a target.
Es muy fácil criticar a los demás, pero es difícil tomar conciencia de lo qué tu haces.
No quiero ser como la madre que tuve… me choca cómo tal persona actúa… no voy a criticar nunca a alguien como él me criticó… ¿Te suena conocido? ¿Cuántas veces juras no actuar como lo que te molesta, pero actúas exactamente como temías?
Es muy fácil decir “yo no quiero repetir los malos ejemplos”, pero es difícil cambiar. De hecho, de nada sirve asegurar que no vas a hacerle a otros lo que a ti te molesta, sin antes, enfocarse en lo que se desea hacer realmente.
Es vital pasar por un periodo de desintoxicación o reorganización mental y emocional, obteniendo patrones de comportamiento efectivos.
Cuando solo se crítica y se vive culpando a otros, te conviertes en ese juez cruel y te sometes a una lucha de emociones negativas, que impiden lograr una conexión efectiva con el mundo. Esta acción llena de frustración, enojo y repulsión. Además, no por el solo hecho de criticar, uno garantiza que podrá llegar a ser mejor persona del ejemplo que tanto aborrece.
Cuando uno asegura que no va a repetir los comportamientos, o los errores de las personas que más criticó, hace un pacto complicado con su propio inconsciente. Se enfoca en los aspectos negativos y sin querer… lo que se promete no hacer y tanto se critica, se convierte en una predicción asegurada.
Más pronto de lo que se imagina, esa actitud se torna en la profecía que hace que el comportamiento sea justo como lo que uno juró nunca ser. Esta predicción, se convierte en una sombra que persigue y recuerda las promesas y los falsos juramentos que no se pudieron cumplir.
Cuando uno se propone a dejar de hacer algo, o a actuar de alguna otra manera, sin antes concientizarse de sus acciones, tomar responsabilidad o cuestionar los pensamientos personales, no puede cambiar, ni convertiste en una persona más efectiva.
Para romper con la autocondena, uno debe hacer un esfuerzo para diluir sus pensamientos negativos; los cuales se dan por instinto. (Éstos, están dirigidos para encontrar rápidamente lo malo, el peligro, lo repudiado).
Para cambiar, es importante buscar la manera de redirigir la precepción y encontrar aspectos positivos y nobles, que nutran a los pensamientos positivos. Desde luego, otorgando el benéfico de la duda, sin asumir que la persona, hace lo incorrecto, lo indeseado o actúa por molestar.
Hay que aprender a buscar lo constructivo y encontrar modelos eficientes que ayuden y construyan relaciones. Hay que estar en busca de inspiración y motivación para actuar asertivamente. La mejora de la calidad de vida, proviene de una mente sana y tranquila. De pensamientos positivos y de la alegría para vivir, del amor propio y de la compasión por las personas que viven atormentadas por sus demonios.
El enojo y la repulsión, sólo nutren la parte negativa del pensamiento, entorpecen la forma de actuar, confunden a la persona y no dejan nada bueno, ni aportan una visión efectiva para vivir mejor.
La receta: Decretos positivos
Conciencia – reconocer y aceptar a las personas y las situaciones
Actitud positiva – agradecer todo lo que se tiene, buena disposición, encontrar lo bueno
Perspectiva – ubicar el contexto de la realidad aceptando lo positivo y lo negativo
Reflexión – cuestionarse y meditar continuamente para redirigir los pensamientos personales
Amor propio – quererse a sí mismo y querer tener una buena calidad de vida
Afirmación positiva para redirigir los pensamientos:
Soy una persona positiva, noble y tengo buena voluntad. Tengo pensamientos positivos. Encuentro lo bueno en todas las personas. Acepto a mis padres, familiares, amigos, mis compañeros de trabajo, etc. Deseo el bien a toda persona. Siento alegría, y paz desde lo más profundo de mí ser. La vida es buena, me sonríe. Agradezco la oportunidad que tengo para vivir.
Como se pueden redirigir los pensamientos:
Los pensamientos positivos mejoran la calidad de vida y ayudan a tener mejores relaciones personales. Al reemplazar los sentimientos negativos o angustiantes, uno adquiere un balance emocional, que facilita encontrar modelos que inspiran y aportan ejemplos positivos para actuar.
Etiquetar a las personas sólo limita la forma en que se les percibe. Hay que tener cuidado cuando uno etiqueta a la gente, porque cuando uno insiste en que una persona es de tal forma, la manera de relacionarse con ella, hace que la percepción se haga real, como una profecía autocumplida, para bien o para mal.
Enfocarse en los resultados que se desean alinea efectivamente la forma de pensar. Las emociones son percepciones subjetivas y personales, sólo confunden y alteran la apreciación. Para lograr cambios efectivos es recomendable fijarse objetivos claros, y enfocarse en los resultados sin involucrar la forma de sentir.
“No critiques tanto lo que te molesta. Haz las paces con lo que te choca, ten compasión por los demás, y libérate. Solo asi podrás ser mejor”.
Shabbat is observed on the seventh day of the week in fulfillment of the biblical commandment: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God.” (Exodus 20:9-10) In accordance with the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sunset and ends on Saturday night with the appearance of three stars. All Jewish days begin at sunset. This is based on the wording of the Creation story in Genesis 1. At the end of the description of each day, we find the phrase: “And there was evening, and there was morning…” Since evening is mentioned first, the ancient rabbis deduced that evening is first.
While Shabbat occurs on Friday evening and Saturday, it is more than simply another day of the week. It is a special day and we invest it with specialness. Friday and Saturday come automatically, but Shabbat takes place only when we make it happen. We prepare for Shabbat by the clothes we wear, by the meals we eat, by the lighting of Sabbath candles, and by chanting the Kiddush over wine to set apart this special time.
Shabbat is such a special time that it has been likened to the Messianic Age. A well-known midrash expresses this thought:
When God was about to give the Torah to the Jewish people, God summoned the people and said to them: “My children, I have something precious that I would like to give you for all time, if you will accept My Torah and observe my commandments.”
The people then asked: “Ruler of the universe, what is that precious gift You have for us?”
The Holy One, blessed by God, replied: “It is the world-to-come (the Messianic Age)!”
The Holy One, blessed be God, said: The Shabbat is a sample of the world-to-come, for that world will be one long Shabbat.”
Shabbat at Home
Shabbat truly becomes what it was meant to be as we bring it into our lives. We begin to create a Shabbat atmosphere by preparing our house for Shabbat. This need not be a monumental or cumbersome task. For instance, playing Jewish music while you clean can help create the Shabbat mood, and you can learn a lot of Jewish songs in the process. Bringing is some fresh flowers make the house more Shabbosdik (Yiddish for having a Shabbat atmosphere).
Friday night is a time for a special meal. The table is set as befits a visit by a queen since Shabbat is metaphorically seen as a queen. It is a time to use the best table linens, dishes and silverware. On the table are the candlesticks and candles, a Kiddush cup and wine, one or two loaves of challah covered with a challah cover.
It is traditional greet one another with a special greeting on Shabbat. Some say “Gut Shabbos.” This is Yiddish for “Have a good Sabbath.” This greeting is prevalent amongst those of Ashkenazi ancestry and those born in Europe. Another common greeting is “Shabbat Shalom.” This is Hebrew for “Sabbath Peace” and expresses the hope that one will have a peaceful Shabbat. This Hebrew greeting is used by those from Israel or of Sephardic ancestry. After the founding of the modern state of Israel, when many Jews began learning modern Hebrew, this phrase grew in popularity.
Tzedakah on Shabbat
Many households begin Shabbat by observing the mitzvah of tzedakah. While tzedakah is often translated as “charity,” it does not really mean charity. The word is based on a Hebrew root meaning “righteousness” or “justice.” The mitzvah (a religious obligation, which flows from the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God) of tzedakah places on every Jew the obligation to right the injustices of society. One of the ways we do this is by contributing money to help individuals or groups who are in need themselves or who are engages in helping others.
The lighting of candles ushers in Shabbat. The practice is a rabbinic institution, which, over the centuries, has become the tradition. According to Jewish tradition, the woman of the household generally lights the Shabbat candles. However, since the lighting of candles is a requirement of Shabbat observance, not necessarily tied to gender, men or women may light them.
Jewish custom requires a minimum of two candles, since the fourth of the Ten Commandments occurs in two separate sections of the Torah in different form:
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
More than two candles may be kindled, but the usual number is two. It is customary to use white candles made especially for Shabbat, but candles of any color may be utilized so long as they will burn for a substantial length of time into the evening.
Orthodox Jews light Shabbat candles approximately fifteen to twenty minutes before sundown. During the summer, Shabbat candles are often lit somewhat earlier, since nightfall comes so late in the evening. Jewish tradition dictates, however, that no candles are to be lit once sundown passes. This practice is not strictly observed in Reform Jewish homes, where Shabbat candles are usually lit immediately prior to the Shabbat meal, whether before or after sunset.
Lighting the Shabbat Candles
According to traditional observance, one would not light a fire once Shabbat has begun. Thus, we light the candles before saying the blessing, since the blessing marks the beginning of Shabbat. However, since a blessing always precedes an act, we cover our eyes while reciting it so as not to view the burning candles until after the blessing has been completed.
The procedure, then, is as follows:
Light the candles.
Cover or close the eyes.
Recite the blessing:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and commanded us to kindle the Shabbat candles.”
The Friday Night Shabbat Kiddush
Kiddush means “sanctification.” It comes from the same Hebrew root as the word kadosh, which means “holy.” Exodus 20:8 is the fourth of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (to sanctify it). The Rabbis interpreted the word “remember” as an injunction to sanctify Shabbat both at its beginning and at its end. The Kiddush fulfills the mitzvah at the beginning of Shabbat, the Havdalah service at its conclusion.
Wine is a symbol of joy and life in Judaism. While no specific reference to wine in relation to the Kiddush appears in the Torah, the Rabbis declared that the Kiddush should be recited over wine (“. . . borei p’ri hagafen“). Out of sensitivity to those who had no wine, however, the Rabbis also ruled that the Kiddush may be recited over the challah. In such a case, the Motzi is substituted for the prayer over the wine.
While it is customary for at least one adult male to recite the Kiddush, this ritual is a requirement of Shabbat itself and not necessarily the sole domain of men or women. Men or women may recite or chant the Kiddush. In addition, all those who are present at the table should join in the Kiddush, if they so desire.
There is no prescribed form or design for the Kiddush cup. Custom has resulted in beautiful cups being designed especially for Shabbat, to honor the Shabbat and its special significance. But any cup or glass may be used, the only traditional requirement being that it contain at least 3.3 ounces of wine.
The b’rachah (blessing) “. . . borei p’ri hagafen” refers to the fruit of the vine. Traditionally, the wine should be made from grapes and not other fruits. If there are members of the family who do not drink wine, they may recite the Kiddush over grape juice. Reform Jews may or may not observe kashrut and therefore use kosher or non-kosher wine and grape juice as they choose.
The traditional Shabbat Kiddush consists of three sections:
A section from the Creation story in the Torah describing how God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and hallowed it (Genesis 1:31-2:3).
A blessing over the wine.
A blessing over Shabbat itself.
There is a beautiful story that some say explains this order. The rich people and the poor people had an argument over which b’rachah should come first. The rich people said: “The blessing over Shabbat should come first. What is wine? We can have wine every day of the week if we wish!” The poor people said: “The blessing over the wine should come first. Shabbat is special to us. We wish to honor it. But, for us, wine is a sacrifice. We have to save and scrimp to have our wine for Shabbat. Have respect for our sacrifice. Put the blessing over the wine first.” The Rabbis debated. Finally, it was decided that the blessing over the wine should come first, out of respect for the sacrifice of the poor. Before we drink the wine, we wish each other “L’chayim” (to life).
The Shabbat Challah
Challah refers to “dough” and specifies the special twisted loaf of bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and other special occasions. Jewish tradition calls for a b’rachah (blessing) expressing thanks to God before eating any food. It represents a recognition that people owe a measure of gratitude to God for providing food for all living things.
Tradition holds that two whole challot (plural of challah) should be used on Shabbat as a remembrance of the double portion of manna that fell in the desert so that no Jew should have to gather food on Shabbat (Exodus 16:22-32). Another interpretation is that the two challot fulfill the biblical injunction articulated in the two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) and ” Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12).
The challah is covered, often with a special decorative cloth before it is served. If a knife is used, it too is covered. The Rabbis used the challah as a vehicle to teach two important Jewish values: human dignity and the preciousness of peace.
As one looks at the Shabbat table, one notices that the Shabbat candles are in beautiful candlesticks and that the wine is held up in a lovely Kiddush cup. While the b’rachot over them are being recited, the challah lies alone on the table. The Rabbis, seeing this, decreed that the challah should be covered, lest its feelings be hurt by its seemingly secondary status. One rabbi said: “This teaches us concern for the feelings even of inanimate things. And if this is the case, how much more so we should be concerned about the feelings of human beings.” Thus, we cover the challot as a lesson in human dignity.
But why cover the knife? On Shabbat, our thoughts are of peace and harmony. The knife, in contrast, is seen as a weapon of war and violence. The knife is covered, then, to remove from sight any visible token of violence in the world. There is another tradition that no knife at all should be used, as a reminder of the prophetic verse: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). The challot are then broken apart by hand, with pieces distributed to all present. Whatever the practice, however, the lesson of the preciousness of peace is paramount.
Saying the Motzi over the Challah
1. The challot are uncovered and the Motzi blessing is recited as follows:
Baruch atah Adonai,Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread out of the earth.”
Others sitting at the table should either join in reciting the blessing or answer “amen” at its conclusion.
2. The challot are then sliced or broken apart, with pieces distributed to all present.
3. Before eating the challah, it is also traditional to salt it. There are several explanations for this practice. One interpretation is that salt is a spice and thus appropriate to use on the special eve of Shabbat. Others explain that the salt reminds us of the biblical verse “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Genesis 3:19). The challah thus serves as a tangible symbol of the Jewish values of gratitude to God, the uniqueness of people, the quest for peace, and the dignity and worth of every individual- all important and appropriate themes for Shabbat. There is also a connection to the sacrifices done in the Temple in Jerusalem, in which salt was used on all the offerings on the altar.
Blessing One’s Children on Shabbat
There is a Jewish custom in which parents bless their children on Shabbat. This beautiful tradition derives from one of the most touching of biblical stories.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37). The brothers lied to Jacob, his father, and told Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Years later, Joseph, who was by now governor over Egypt, was reunited with his brothers in a moving biblical tale of sibling reconciliation (Genesis 45). Joseph then brought his father to Egypt in order to care for him in his last years.
When Jacob lay on his deathbed, he summoned Joseph in order to bless him. Joseph entered with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. The Torah records this touching scene in Genesis 48:8-11, 20:
And Israel [another name for Jacob] beheld Joseph’s sons and said: “Who are these?” And Joseph said unto his father: “They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.” And he said: “Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.”
Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him and kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said unto Joseph: “I thought that I would never see your face again; but God has let me see your children also.” . . .
And he blessed them that day, saying: “By you shall Israel [the Jewish people] bless, saying: God make you as Ephraim and as Menasseh.”
We relive the story of the blessing of the children through a simple Shabbat ceremony, just after blessing the candles and before the Kiddush. The parents place both hands on the child’s bowed head and recites the following blessing:
Y’simcha Elohim k’Efrayim v’chiM’nasheh.
“May God make you as Ephraim and Menasseh.”
Y’simeich Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Racheil, v’Lei-ah.
“May God make you as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.” (These are the four Matriarchs of Jewish history.)
The parents then pronounce the traditional threefold benediction over all the children together:
May Adonai bless youand care for you.
May the light of Adonai‘s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May Adonai‘s countenance be lifted upon you and give you peace.
If there are memories that last a lifetime, a parent’s blessing is surely one of them. This ritual, sometimes neglected, is a meaningful addition to every family’s Shabbat celebration.
Celebrating Shabbat in the Synagogue
Another very important aspect of Shabbat is community. The community gathers for worship each Shabbat, reaffirming our covenantal tie to God and to one another. Some synagogues have their major Sabbath service on Friday evening while others have it on Saturday morning. The service consists of prayers and readings in Hebrew and English (the amount of Hebrew and English varies from synagogue to synagogue), songs, a Torah reading, and a talk or sermon. In many temples, after Shabbat evening services there is an Oneg Shabbat (joy of the Sabbath) at which refreshments are served and there is an opportunity to socialize. Following Shabbat morning services, there is a Kiddush in the synagogue. After the blessings over the wine and the bread, people exchange Shabbat greetings.
One of the things that makes this day so special is that we eat so well. Many people have a special meal following the morning service and another smaller meal (seudah shelishsit) before sunset.
Just as there is a ceremony welcoming Shabbat, so there is one to mark its conclusion. It is called Havdalah, which means “separation.” The ceremony takes place on Saturday night after sunset. The lights are usually off or kept dim. It consists of blessings over wine, spices, and a braided candle. While it resembles the Friday night ceremony in many ways, there are some differences as well. Wine is used at both ceremonies. Two candles and a braided challah are used on Friday night while, on Saturday night, one braided candle with many wicks is used. The new element in the ceremony is the blessing of sweet-smelling spices. There is an explanation offered for this ceremony. Because Shabbat is such a special day, each Jew receives an extra soul at the beginning of Shabbat, which departs at the end of Shabbat. To revive us, because we’ve lost this extra soul, we smell spices at Havdalah, bringing some of the sweetness of the Shabbat with us into the week. The climax of the ritual is when the candle is doused in the wine, and we stand in the darkness of the new week. But the darkness is not one of hopelessness; it is a time when we confront the new week with a vision of what we must do to bring about a better world. We sing the song of the prophet Elijah, symbol of the messianic future – a time when the world will be perfected.
Rest, worship and study are essential elements of Shabbat observance. The principle of Shabbat is to sanctify time. The whole of Shabbat is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more than lighting candles, drinking wine, or attending a service. We sanctify Shabbat by setting it apart, making it distinctive, and differentiating it from the rest of our week. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has written: “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
Los críticos de la decisión estadounidense de reconocer la soberanía israelí sobre los Altos del Golán interpretaron erróneamente el significado legal del preámbulo de la Resolución 242 del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU, de noviembre de 1967, que contiene una referencia al principio de “inadmisibilidad de la adquisición de territorio por la guerra”.
Los estudiosos jurídicos han establecido una distinción entre la confiscación de territorio en las guerras de agresión, que es ilegal, y la confiscación de territorio por un Estado que ejerce su legítimo derecho a la defensa.
En una publicación en el American Journal of International Law en 1970, Stephen Schwebel, quien se convirtió en el asesor legal del Departamento de Estado de los Estados Unidos y luego presidente de la Corte Internacional de Justicia en La Haya, escribió sobre el significado legal de esta diferencia. También citó al gran erudito británico Elihu Lauterpacht, quien argumentó que “el cambio territorial no puede ocurrir adecuadamente como resultado del uso ilegal de la fuerza”.
¿Qué pasa con los casos del uso lícito de la fuerza? A raíz de la Segunda Guerra Mundial se implantaron importantes cambios territoriales en Europa. Por ejemplo, Alemania perdió tierras considerables en Polonia y en la Unión Soviética. Estaba claro que la Carta de la ONU reconocía el derecho de los Estados a usar la fuerza en defensa propia, tal como es el caso de la entrada de Israel en los Altos del Golán.
En 1967, en el Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU, la Unión Soviética fracasó cuando se comprometió a obtener la condena de Israel como agresor en la Guerra de los Seis Días, perdiendo la votación por 11 a 4. Los soviéticos luego fueron a la Asamblea General y fracasaron otra vez. Estaba claro para los Estados miembros de ambos organismos de la ONU que Israel había actuado en defensa propia.
Tampoco es cierto que la decisión del Golán represente un nuevo cambio importante en la política de Estados Unidos. En 1975, el presidente Gerald Ford le escribió al primer ministro Yitzhak Rabin que los Estados Unidos “darán gran importancia a la posición de Israel con relación a que cualquier acuerdo de paz se pronuncie sobre la permanencia de Israel en los Altos del Golán”.
En 1991 el secretario de Estado James Baker escribió una nueva carta al primer ministro Yitzhak Shamir reconfirmando la carta de Ford. En 1996, el secretario de Estado Warren Christopher escribió al primer ministro Benjamín Netanyahu, volviendo a comprometer a Estados Unidos con la carta de Ford.
Hay dos argumentos principales que se usan con frecuencia para criticar la decisión del presidente Trump de reconocer la soberanía israelí sobre los Altos del Golán.
El primero se centra en el estatus legal de la captura por parte de Israel de los Altos del Golán de manos de Siria en la Guerra de los Seis Días en 1967 y su posterior decisión de extender su ley al área. Los críticos de Israel argumentaron que el Estado judío había violado el derecho internacional. Por extensión, dicen que el movimiento de Estados Unidos tuvo el efecto de legitimar una situación ilegal. Se armaron con una mala interpretación del significado legal del preámbulo de la Resolución 242 del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU de noviembre de 1967, que contenía una referencia al principio de “inadmisibilidad de la adquisición de territorio por la guerra”.
Esta posición conduce a una segunda afirmación común en los críticos de la decisión de Estados Unidos de reconocer la soberanía israelí sobre los Altos del Golán.
Se dice que la medida del presidente Trump representó una brusca ruptura en la política de Estados Unidos sobre este tema. Así, un columnista del Washington Post escribió el 22 de marzo: “Ningún presidente ha reconocido el control de Israel sobre los Altos del Golán. Trump cambió eso con un tuit”. ¿En serio?
El hecho es que los estudiosos jurídicos han establecido una distinción entre la toma de territorio en guerras de agresión, que es ilegal, y la toma de territorio por un Estado que ejerce su legítimo derecho a la defensa.
Así fue como, cuando los diplomáticos aceptaron la frase “la inadmisibilidad de la adquisición de territorio por la guerra” se referían a la guerra agresiva, no a la guerra defensiva.
En una publicación en el American Journal of International Law en 1970, Stephen Schwebel, quien luego se convirtió en el asesor legal del Departamento de Estado de los Estados Unidos y luego en el presidente de la Corte Internacional de Justicia en La Haya, escribió sobre el significado legal de este diferencia. También citó al gran erudito británico Elihu Lauterpacht, quien argumentó que “el cambio territorial no puede ocurrir adecuadamente como resultado del uso ilegal de la fuerza”.
¿Qué pasa con los casos del uso lícito de la fuerza? A raíz de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se implementaron importantes cambios territoriales en Europa, a medida que los territorios del eje pasaron al lado de los aliados. Por ejemplo, Alemania perdió tierras considerables en Polonia y en la Unión Soviética. Schwebel se refiere a la decisión de la ONU al final de la Guerra de Corea de respaldar los reclamos de Corea del Sur sobre “territorio sustancial” al norte del paralelo 38.
En última instancia esas reclamaciones no se hicieron efectivas, pero estaba claro que la Carta de las Naciones Unidas reconocía el derecho de los Estados a usar la fuerza en defensa propia, como es el caso de la entrada de Israel en los Altos del Golán, y que esto tenía implicaciones en las modificaciones de los límites anteriores a la guerra.
¿Cómo sabemos que Israel no fue el agresor en 1967? En ese momento, en el Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU la Unión Soviética se comprometió a obtener la condena de Israel como agresor en la Guerra de los Seis Días. Fracasó perdiendo el voto por 11 a 4. Los soviéticos luego fueron a la Asamblea General y fallaron una vez más. ¿Cómo se puso la Unión Soviética en una situación tan precaria? Fue tan claro como el día para los Estados miembros de ambos organismos de la ONU que Israel actuó en defensa propia.
Como se señaló anteriormente, los críticos acerca de la decisión del Golán de la administración de Trump también dicen que representa un cambio importante en la política de Estados Unidos en el Medio Oriente. Sin embargo, eso no es cierto. A partir de 1975, con la carta del presidente Gerald Ford al primer ministro Yitzhak Rabin, Estados Unidos dirigió una serie de cartas en las que expresaba su política sobre los Altos del Golán. En su momento, Ford escribió: “Estados Unidos no ha desarrollado una posición final en las fronteras. Si lo hace, le dará mucho peso a la posición de Israel con relación a que cualquier acuerdo de paz se basará en la permanencia de Israel en los Altos del Golán”.
Estados Unidos mantuvo vivo en el tiempo el compromiso de Ford. En 1991, en el contexto de los preparativos para la Conferencia de Paz de Madrid, el secretario de Estado James Baker escribió una nueva carta al primer ministro Yitzhak Shamir reconfirmando la carta de Ford.
También hubo una tercera carta. Durante el trabajo de la administración Clinton en la negociación del Protocolo de Hebrón, el secretario de Estado Warren Christopher escribió una carta de garantía al primer ministro Benjamín Netanyahu, con fecha 19 de septiembre de 1996, que volvió a comprometer a Estados Unidos con la carta de Ford.
Estas cartas no constituían un reconocimiento formal por parte de Estados Unidos de la soberanía israelí sobre el Golán, pero sí indicaron que en algún momento en el futuro, cuando haya “desarrollado una posición final en las fronteras”, podría decidir otorgar ese reconocimiento. Ese momento ha llegado. Claro que hubiera sido bueno si todo esto estuviera sucediendo en el contexto de un tratado de paz israelí-sirio.
Pero ahora se ha revelado hasta qué punto el presidente sirio Assad cometió asesinatos en masa de sus propios ciudadanos. La paz real no está a la vista, pero la idea de que Estados Unidos eventualmente reconocería la soberanía israelí en los Altos del Golán sobrevivió. Bajo la presidencia de Trump “eventualmente” se convirtió en “el día de hoy”.
En resumen, la declaración de Trump no fue una brusca ruptura en la política de Estados Unidos, sino un cumplimiento de esa política cuarenta y cuatro años después de que se articuló por primera vez.
Quizás el aspecto más importante de la decisión de Estados Unidos de reconocer la soberanía israelí sobre los Altos del Golán se deriva de su contribución a la estabilidad.
Históricamente, desde 1949 a 1967, Siria abusó de su Acuerdo de Armisticio atacando granjas y pueblos israelíes en Galilea, situados a 1700 pies por debajo del Golán. Siria se unió a la coalición de guerra árabe en 1967, lo que llevó aún más al fracaso del antiguo sistema de armisticio. Finalmente lanzó un ataque sorpresa a Israel en 1973.
Hoy, el régimen sirio se alió con Irán e invitó a las fuerzas armadas iraníes y a las milicias chiitas bajo su mando a desplegarse frente a Israel y los Altos del Golán. El general Qassam Suleimani, comandante de la Fuerza Quds de la Guardia Revolucionaria, ha propuesto que esta fuerza llegue a 125 mil hombres. El comandante adjunto del Cuerpo de Guardias Revolucionarios Islámicos declaró en el verano de 2018 que estaba esperando órdenes para erradicar el “malvado régimen” de Israel.
Claramente existe un agresor con intenciones hostiles en el norte de Israel, llamado Siria, y un Estado que puede verse obligado a defenderse, a saber, Israel.
Dadas estas condiciones, el reconocimiento por parte de Estados Unidos de la soberanía israelí sobre el Golán es una forma diplomática de castigar al agresor y recompensar a la parte que ha sido víctima de la agresión. Los Estados que se niegan a hacer esa distinción no solo están socavando la seguridad de Israel, sino que también están debilitando una piedra fundamental de un futuro orden mundial.