You are currently viewing archive for April 2012
Posted By The Stash

      But now, we are all mature enough to begin a new era of Israel engagement. That will not be easy. Just this week saw the suspension of an officer for hitting a Danish protester, travelling with Palestinian protesters, with a rifle butt. The video is not pretty to watch—and there certainly was some provocation—but it still looks excessive. Twenty years ago we would have simply accepted this because “Israel has to defend itself” but now we commend the IDF for suspending the officer from command pending a hearing. We commend Netanyahu for openly stating that this is not the conduct expected of an IDF officer. And, most important, we teach our students that this is what makes Israel so great: it is democratic. So democratic that its Supreme Court protects Palestinians from having land taken away from them. So democratic that it disciplines army officers and investigates them openly for actions against civilians. So democratic that its citizens vigorously debate issues through many newspapers and TV and radio. So democratic that it retains a proportional representation system that allows political chaos so every splinter group can have its say in the Knesset—and Arabs are represented too. So democratic that Gay Pride parades can take place despite the howls of Chareidim.

      Canada is a great country too. It became greater by speaking honestly about its past. The government confessed the truth about the Chinese labourers buried along the CPR Rocky Mountains right of way in unmarked graves because Europeans were too “valuable” to serve on dynamite crews. It compelled various groups to confess about the horrors of residential schools and their cultural genocide. The government apologized and compensated those affected by the Chinese Head Tax. We now take in refugees very generously. We are not perfect, far from it, but Canada is mature and seeks to grow by honestly evaluating its history and confronting the skeletons in the closet.

      And this is why Canada is admired. And this is how we should look at Israel. We need to applaud Israeli honesty at confronting some serious issues, and we should carefully but clearly signal our concern when Israeli actions do not measure up. And Israel is mature enough to hear our constructive criticism. We are not just here to send money—we are here to be constructively supportive of Israel. Our relationship with Israel is mature enough for us to recognize two key things. First, that try as we wish, we cannot change the way much of the world negatively views Israel. Israel will have to come up with better propaganda—and goodness knows it shouldn’t be hard given its brilliant successes in so many areas. Second, and far more important, a failure to learn and talk about Israel in the same sophisticated manner as we learn about other countries will only turn off our children. They need to see the good, the average, and the bad. They need to see that Israel is a country like any other with one important addition: it is a homeland and incubator for Jewish identity. When they see a few warts amidst much beauty, they will see a country that they can be proud of. And a country that by simple comparison puts all its neighbours to shame in so many ways.

      It is time to stop supporting Israel because “it will be there when they come for us”, or because “of pocketbook Zionism”. It is time to support Israel because it is the Jewish homeland and an incubator of Jewish identity. It is a country with so much to recommend it, that’s been around for so long, and has grown great with astonishing speed. There is nothing here to be defensive about—but much to be honest and prideful about. Happy birthday Israel!!

Posted By The Stash

     The State of Israel, whose 64th birthday we celebrated on Thursday, has been around for the majority of our lives. An annually dwindling minority recalls Jewish life before the rebirth of Israel. Israel’s existence is a fact for us, if not for our enemies. And that is something we should be very grateful for.

      But the relative security of Israel’s existence means that we have the obligation to begin to review how we Diaspora dwellers interact with Israel and the role it plays in our lives and Jewish identity. The State is beginning to re-examine how it looks at us, so we must do the same.

      Perhaps we should begin by observing that Toronto has one of the largest Israeli communities in the world. More to the point: not only is the community growing as emigration remains steady, but the government no longer calls emigrants by the pejorative “yordim”—those who have gone down from Israel. In fact, there is now a Minister in charge of Diaspora Affairs.

     This shift indicates that Israel is becoming less willing to follow the traditional Zionist line that “Israel is a Jewish homeland for all Jews”. Quite frankly, this “traditional” approach is far from what Herzl had in mind. Herzl never envisioned settled, comfortable, acculturated European Jews like him selling their possessions to make aliyah; that option was only for the persecuted Russian masses victimized by pogroms. Even now, with North American aliyah rates at all time highs, less than 5,000 Canadian and American Jews per year make aliyah. Why? Well, not only is life unprecedentedly wonderful here, but “we can go and visit Israel anytime we like”. How true, say the statistics. Almost 70% of Toronto Jews have visited Israel at least once, over twice the American rate. Many of these are young adults who participate in the “Israel Year” of their camps, in March of the Living, or Birthright.

     But we are faced with a paradox. Despite the fact that our young people experience Israel in unprecedented numbers they find it difficult to battle the lies of Israel Apartheid Week on campus. How can this be? Part of the problem is Israel’s lack of skills in public relations and telling its side of the story. But that’s for Israel to solve, and I have great faith they eventually will given some recent progress. The more serious problem is that, in an age of instant communications and great narcissism, too many myths of Israel are still circulating in Jewish formal and informal education. Israel has reached the age of maturity, and hopefully so have its supporters. For the first half of its existence, it was understandable that everything Israel did was praised to the skies and discussion of any negative issues was minimized. And certainly Israel, yet a fledgling fighting for its life, needed that sort of dutiful, almost knee-jerk support from Diaspora Jews. (cont'd in "Part 2")

Posted By The Stash

This week the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written an extraordinarily important d’var Torah that draws a deep parallel between the building of the Tabernacle, its well known relationship to Creation, and a novel explanation of why the laws of Kashrut are found in the same parasha. This will certainly reward your reading, and its argument lies at the heart of Intelligent Judaism. I have highlighted the key sentence.

Food for Thought

The second half of Exodus and the first part of Leviticus form a carefully structured narrative. The Israelites are commanded to construct a sanctuary. They carry out the command. This is followed by an account of sacrifices to be offered there. Then, in the first part of today's sedra, the cohanim, the priests, are inducted into office.

What happens next, though, is unexpected: the dietary laws, a list of permitted and forbidden species, animals, fish and birds. What is the logic of these laws? And why are they placed here? What is their connection with the sanctuary?

The late R. Elie Munk (The Call of the Torah, vol. 2, p. 99) offered a fascinating suggestion. As we have mentioned before in these studies, the sanctuary was a human counterpart of the cosmos. Several key words in the biblical account of its construction are also key words in the narrative of creation at the beginning of Genesis. The Talmud (Megillah 10b) says about the completion of the sanctuary, that "On that day there was joy before the Holy One blessed be He as on the day when heaven and earth were created." The universe is the home God made for man. The sanctuary was the home human beings made for God.

R. Munk reminds us that the first command God gave the first human was a dietary law. "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." The dietary laws in Shmini parallel the prohibition given to Adam. As then, so now, a new era in the spiritual history of humankind, preceded by an act of creation, is marked by laws about what one may and may not eat.

Why? As with sex, so with eating: these are the most primal activities, shared with many other forms of life. Without sex there is no continuation of the species. Without food, even the individual cannot survive. These, therefore, have been the focus of radically different cultures. On the one hand there are hedonistic cultures in which food and sex are seen as pleasures and pursued as such. On the other are ascetic cultures - marked by monastic seclusion - in which sex is avoided and eating kept to a minimum. The former emphasize the body, the latter the soul. Judaism, by contrast, sees the human situation in terms of integration and balance. We are body and soul. Hence the Judaic imperative, neither hedonistic nor ascetic, but transformative. We are commanded to sanctify the activities of eating and sex. From this flow the dietary laws and the laws of family purity (niddah and mikveh), two key elements of kedushah, the life of holiness.


Posted By The Stash

Part two (continued)

However, we can go further. Genesis 1 is not the only account of creation in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. There are several others. One is contained in the last chapters of the Book of Job. It is this that deserves close attention.

Job is the paradigm of the righteous individual who suffers. He loses all he has, for no apparent reason. His companions tell him that he must have sinned. Only this can reconcile his fate with justice. Job maintains his innocence and demands a hearing in the heavenly tribunal. For some 37 chapters the argument rages, then in chapter 38 God addresses Job "out of the whirlwind". God offers no answers. Instead, for four chapters, He asks questions of His own, rhetorical questions that have no answer:
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? . . .
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? . . .
Does the rain have a father? . . .
From whose womb comes the ice?"

God shows Job the whole panoply of creation, but it is a very different view of the universe than that set out in Genesis 1-2. There the centre of the narrative is the human person. He/she is created last; made in God's image; given dominion over all that lives. In Job 38-41 we see not an anthropocentric, but a theocentric, universe. Job is the only person in Tanakh who sees the world, as it were, from God's point of view.

Particularly striking is the way these chapters deal with the animal kingdom. What Job sees are not domestic animals, but wild, untameable creatures, magnificent in their strength and beauty, living far from and utterly indifferent to humankind:

Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? . . .
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high? . . .
Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? . . .
Nothing on earth is his equal- a creature without fear. He looks down on all that are haughty;
he is king over all that are proud. continued....

Posted By The Stash
This is the most radically non-anthropocentric passage in the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that man is not the centre of the universe, nor are we the measure of all things. Some of the most glorious aspects of nature have nothing to do with human needs, and everything to do with the Divine creation of diversity. One of the few Jewish thinkers to state this clearly was Moses Maimonides:

I consider the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible and the results of philosophy, namely that the universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being insists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings . . . (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 13).

And again:

Consider how vast are the dimensions and how great the number of these corporeal beings. If the whole of the earth would not constitute even the smallest part of the sphere of the fixed stars, what is the relation of the human species to all these created things, and how can any of us imagine that they exist for his sake and that they are instruments for his benefit? (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 14)

We now understand what is at stake in the prohibition of certain species of animals, birds and fish, many of them predators like the creatures described in Job 38-41. They exist for their own sake, not for the sake of humankind. The vast universe, and earth itself with the myriad species it contains, has an integrity of its own. Yes, after the Flood, God gave humans permission to eat meat, but this was a concession, as if to say: Kill if you must, but let it be animals, not other humans, that you kill.

With His covenant with the Israelites, God invites humanity to begin a new chapter in history. This is not yet the Garden of Eden, paradise regained. But, with the construction of the sanctuary - a symbolic home for the Divine presence on earth - something new has begun. One sign of this is the fact that the Israelites are not permitted to kill any and every life-form for food. Some species must be protected, given their freedom, granted their integrity, left unsubjected to human devices and desires. The new creation - the sanctuary - marks a new dignity for the old creation - especially its wild, untamed creatures. Not everything in the universe was made for human consumption.




User Profile
The Stash
11 Sultana Avenue, Toronto