Not in God’s Name: Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Violence

Dear Josep,

Sooooooo…

Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:¬†Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)

I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. ūüėõ And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.

But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years–including links to my short stories at the end–for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!

Now, back to¬†Not in God’s Name.

The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”

Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.

Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t¬†real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t¬†real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t¬†real¬†Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.

Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.

It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone¬†killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)

But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?

Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism

The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.

Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is¬†altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really¬†are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.

The second key phrase is¬†pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.

Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.

This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.

Sibling Rivalry

“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher Ren√©¬†Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed¬†mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.

All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.

But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?

What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?

He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?

Does God Play Favorites?

I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.

The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.

What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing.¬†The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.

Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.

Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially¬†give back¬†what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.

Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were¬†not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with¬†power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with¬†responsibility.

In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.

Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.

What Then Must We Do?

“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.

“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”

Stay safe, brother.

With love,

Daniella

The Memory of Love: In Tribute to My Grandfather

Dear Josep,

In my (off-blog) recounting of my trip to the USA in February, I told you about a bittersweet encounter with my paternal grandfather, who I call Zadie (Yiddish for “Grandpa”). He died yesterday morning in his nursing home at the age of 90, and I want to tell you some more about him.

His name was Alvin (Al) Shames–Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina. He was born in Denver, Colorado, the only boy among three sisters. He didn’t tell me much about his childhood, but I know that his mother died when he was eight, and his father was away a lot, so he was basically raised by his two older sisters. Zadie’s family was traditionally Jewish, if not very observant.

He studied engineering at the Colorado School of Mines not far from Denver, and got his Master’s at Penn State. My Bubbie tells that her mother had a cousin living in Denver who was sick, and though my Bubbie’s family was very poor, her mother sent money to support this cousin. The cousin said that one day she would repay my great-grandmother’s kindness. Years later, when she had regained her health, she saw a young neighbor–Al Shames–waiting at the bus stop and asked him where he was going. He told her he was moving to Columbus to start his first job at Battelle Institute, and the cousin said, “Oh, I have family there!” (Just in case you thought “Jewish geography” is only a recent popular sport. ūüėČ ) She gave Zadie the contact information for Bubbie’s family, and when he arrived in Columbus, he gave them a call. Bubbie is the one who answered the phone and invited him to drop by.

I am blessed to be the granddaughter of two sets of couples whose lifelong romance is the stuff of legend. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary this June.

Al & Betty Shames, June 17th, 1951

They look awfully serious in that photo, but they were a hilarious couple. He teased her constantly. (If you ever wondered where I got my mischievous streak…) On one occasion when they were still dating, he disappeared for a while, and when he finally showed up again my Bubbie asked where he’d been; he told her he’d been in jail, and she believed him! Another time, after they were dating for a while and it was clear where things were going, he took her out to go dancing, and on the way to the bus stop, he told her that he had a gift for her. He took out a jewelry box… and inside it was a watch. She thanked him and put it on, and they kept walking. A few minutes later, he said, “I have something else for you…” and handed her an engagement ring.

(Might I note that Eitan also used a decoy–a box of chocolates–to throw me off when he proposed to me?! Those tricky Denver boys! One of the things I liked about Eitan when I first met him was how much he reminded me of Zadie.)

Bubbie and Zadie raised four children–a girl and three boys, of whom my father is the second-to-youngest–in Columbus, surrounded by cousins, uncles, and aunts. They always dreamed of moving to Israel, and when my dad was 9 or 10, they got on a boat and sailed across the sea to live in Hertzliya. Unfortunately, life here was very hard on them, especially the distance from family, and after three years, they returned to Columbus. In the time they were here, however, Zadie was an engineer for the Israel Aircraft Industries and was involved in the development of the Kfir.

When my dad was a teenager, Bubbie and Zadie decided to send him to a religious Jewish high school in Cleveland. I recently found a letter Zadie wrote to him during that time tucked among old photographs. He wrote that it was very hard for him to send my dad away to a boarding school at such a young age, but that he was confident that it was the only way my dad would have a good Jewish education. My dad’s experience at the school was difficult socially, but he did absorb a great deal of knowledge and fondness for Judaism, and became religious, starting to observe kashrut and Shabbat strictly. Bubbie and Zadie followed his example and started observing kashrut and Shabbat, too.

Right after my dad graduated high school, they moved to Long Island, New York. My dad went off to medical school at Boston University, where my parents met, married, and had my older sister. Then they moved down to Long Island for my dad’s residency–and that’s where I was born.

Zadie nicknamed me “Different Kid”. He said at the time that it’s because I was so different from my sister; she was outspoken, full of energy, and in charge, while I was quiet, pensive, and shy. My family moved to Pittsburgh when I was still a toddler, so I have no memories of living in New York; but my dad says hardly a month or two would go by without one of us making the 8-hour drive (!) to visit the other. My earliest memories of Passover Seders are from their dining room, the table set with Bubbie’s fine china, Zadie leading the Seder in his white¬†kittel, humming over his matzah ball soup. (He always hummed while he ate, and usually started off with “B’teyavon, gvirti!“–“Bon appetit, my lady!” in Hebrew–to my Bubbie.)

They missed Israel dearly and visited it all the time, especially after we made aliyah. Zadie loved everything about Israel: the people, the language, the food, the sunshine, and of course, the sense of being at home.

Zadie praying from a hotel balcony in Israel with his tefillin, tallit, and prayer book

He would take great delight in visiting the shuk, the open-air market in Rehovot or Jerusalem, sampling succulent summer fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.

I’m pretty sure he was the one who first made an acquaintance with Gloria Mound of Casa Shalom (who, as I’m sure you recall, passed away herself earlier this year). I believe he took an interest in crypto-Judaism and conversos even before I did.

He was an honored and well-loved member of his community in Long Island, serving for a while as president of the local synagogue. I have vivid memories of that synagogue–the scent of his cologne lingering in the wool of his tallit, mingling with the smell of wood varnish from the benches and old leatherbound books. He and Bubbie were also very active in Jewish and Israeli philanthropic organizations like the UJA, Hadassah, Yad Sara and Yad L’Kashish, contributing and volunteering. Judaism, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel were deeply, deeply important to him.

He began to suffer from dementia and other health issues several years ago, and was in a slow decline from that point forward. He and Bubbie had to move to Florida to an assisted care facility close to where my uncles live, and last year he was moved to a nursing home. The separation was very hard on my Bubbie. They’d been living together for almost 65 years.

The last two times I visited him he was not very verbal, and I was told he might not remember me. But when I walked in the room two years ago, he positively lit up and said, “It’s¬†you!

I wrote this poem shortly after my last visit with him in February.


Ghosts

To my grandfather
At Rosewood Health and Rehabilitation Center
I am the ghost of a little girl
With wide blue eyes and tangled blond hair
Doing cartwheels in the backyard
He searches me for her
As I ask him if he remembers
The copper tea set in the basement
“I don’t want to cry,” he gasps,
Reaching out to me
Through a fog of jumbled memories
But he cries.
I had never seen him cry before.
To me,
He is the ghost of a man
Who hummed while he ate his matzah ball soup
Who sneaked up behind my Bubbie washing dishes
And put his hands on her hips
And then walked away, shoulders shaking
In silent mirth
When she squawked her protest.
A man who made up songs
About his baby grandsons
And walking to the bank.
Now he lies in this nursing home bed,
Drained of color and joy and words and memory
Except the memory of love.
This he fights for with everything he has,
Clawing breathlessly through the fog
To make sure I know.
“I always loved you,” he chokes.
“Did you know that?”
I knew.
“Did I show it?”
Of course you did.
I fill the silence with stories about Seder nights and succah decorations.
He listens with glistening eyes.
“My little girl,” he murmurs.
“I turned thirty last week,” I smile
As if that makes any sense
In this physical universe we occupy together
“You were special,” he says.
I hold his hand.
We bask in the Florida sunshine.
I tell him that in Israel
The anemones are blooming,
And the almond trees.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
I surprise myself by answering immediately:
“Yes, I’m happy.”
And I think I mean it.
My last glimpse of him,
In a nursing home chair,
Surrounded by sterile white walls
And with nothing but a curtain
To mark his privacy.
His eyes are sad.
I don’t want to remember him like this.
I want to remember him
Playing w a l k I n g v e r y s l o w l y
And holding comfy contests at bedtime.
I want to remember him pinching my ear
And growling ‚ÄúGod love ya.‚ÄĚ
I tear myself away,
A smile still plastered on my face,
And I walk swiftly down the hall
Not looking back.


I don’t think I really understood the depth or power of his love for me until almost everything else was gone. I realized then that that love is something that has nurtured me since before I can remember, and will continue to sustain me for as long as I live. Jews say of the deceased, zikhrono l’vrakha,¬†“may his memory be a blessing”; his memory is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

With love,

Daniella

The Book of Jewish Food: A Refreshing (and Mouth-Watering) Ode to Jewish Cultural Diversity

Dear Josep,

Remember when there were all those videos going around of people sampling a certain type of ethnic food for the first time?

When the “Jewish Food Taste Test” came out from Buzzfeed, I was wary… and it was worse than I feared.

AAAAARRRRGGGHHH

First of all: this is not “Jewish” food. This is Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. At least half of the Jews in the world today live in Israel, and you won’t find a single one of these items on a restaurant menu here.

Second of all: this isn’t even the GOOD Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. Where is the brisket?! The corned beef?! The apple strudel?! The cheesecake? The bagels, for Heaven’s sake?

Manischewitz?! For real?! Come out here to the Gush Etzion Winery and I’ll show you some real kosher wine. And what is¬†that thing claiming to be a matzah ball?! I have never in my life seen one that big. And that’s setting aside the issue of whether it should be dense and chewy as in this video, or light and fluffy–a subject of bitter debate within the Ashkenazi Jewish world. (I am, and will forever remain, on Team Fluffy.)

The point is, there is a widespread (and super annoying) perception that Ashkenazi American Jews are the only kind of Jews that exist.

This point was driven further home for me in that review I got for¬†By Light of Hidden Candles recently that I told you about. I’ll reiterate for our readers: the reviewer was shocked and dismayed that a character used the phrase¬†inshallah. “To my dismay I found out that Daniella Levy is a rabbi’s wife, and more than anyone she should understand the non Jewish background of ‘inshallah’.” So for the record:¬†inshallah means “God willing” in Arabic. It was (and is) used by Arabic-speaking Jews just like it’s used by Arabic-speaking Muslims. Apparently it had never occurred to this reader that Jews living in Arab lands might speak… you know… Arabic.

It is with all that in mind that I thank God for Claudia Roden and her Book of Jewish Food.

My mother-in-law introduced me to this book years ago. She gave me her copy and highly recommended it, but in the age of Google, it is very rare for me to crack open a cookbook in search of a recipe; so it languished for several years, untouched, on our bookshelf.

I don’t quite remember what inspired me to start reading it. I might have been searching for a recipe I’d been lusting after: the incomparable sour¬†kubbeh soup I’d tasted at two weddings, for which Google seemed to yield no results. Sadly, the book didn’t provide a recipe for that particular¬†soup either, but it did devote a whole inset section to kubbeh¬†(semolina and beef dumplings; the Middle Eastern/North African answer to kreplach and wontons).

As I flipped through the book, I discovered that it isn’t so much a cookbook as a comprehensive anthropological/historical exploration of the entire Jewish diaspora through a culinary lens. Sure, there are recipes for gefilte fish, lokshen kugel and schmaltz, but there are also recipes for things like¬†brinjal kasaundi, a spiced eggplant pickle from one of the Jewish communities in India;¬†arroz kon leche, Sephardic rice pudding; hamam mahshy di lahm, Egyptian stuffed pigeon;¬†plof, Bukharan rice with chicken and carrots;¬†ftut, Yemeni wedding soup; etc., etc., etc. But more than recipes, there are fascinating descriptions of the communities in each of these places–every place there has ever been a significant Jewish community.

So I started reading it at the beginning, and read it cover to cover. I don’t remember ever reading another cookbook in such a manner.

Ms. Roden paints a vivid, colorful, and, of course, flavorful picture of each of these communities. I was especially fascinated to learn about the Jewish communities that have since gone all but extinct, in places like India, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. But there was¬†a section I, of course, found particularly useful: the history of the Spanish Jews. I had known that cuisine took an important role in the history of the Inquisition–that Jews were burned at the stake for making Jewish dishes, the most famous of which was¬†adafina, the Sabbath stew. Ms. Roden described how the dish was made, and how certain recipes among conversos developed from their Jewish background–ham, for example, being cooked the way they used to cook lamb.

When I started writing¬†By Light of Hidden Candles, I also found myself delving into the Sephardic recipes ¬†in the book. I developed a particular interest in quinces; I had never tasted them before, but I’d seen them appear briefly on supermarket shelves in time for Rosh Hashana, and I was curious about them. My experiments resulted in this little scene from the first chapter of¬†By Light of Hidden Candles:

*

I shook my head, sighing, and popped the fruit into my mouth. ‚ÄúHmm,‚ÄĚ I said, savoring its flavor. It was somewhere between an apple and a pear, with the texture of a potato. ‚ÄúWhat are these things?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúQuinces. Los membrillos. You‚Äôve never had bimbriyo?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think I understood half the words in that sentence you said just now.‚ÄĚ

Grandma shot me a look of incredulous exasperation. ‚ÄúWhat does your mother do in her kitchen?‚ÄĚ

*

In that spirit, here is a sample recipe from the book: the recipe Grandma Alma is making in that scene.

*

Bimbriyo

Quince Paste

(excerpted from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden)

Quince paste is one of the most characteristic features of Judeo-Spanish gastronomy.

4 1/2 lbs (2 kg) quinces
Juice of 1/2 lemon
5 cups (1 kg) sugar
More sugar to roll the pieces of paste in

Wash the quinces and rub off the down that usually covers them. Peel and quarter but do not core them. Put them in a heavy pan and cover with water. Add the lemon juice and cook for 2 hours. Then drain, keeping the precious liquid.

Remove the cores, seeds, and skins (they will already have given off their jelly-making pectin) and mash or process the fruit to a puree. Boil down the liquid to about 3/4 cup (175 ml). Add the sugar and the puree, and cook, stirring often, with a wooden spoon, over very low heat, being careful not to let it burn, until it thickens and begins to splutter. Then stir constantly until it turns into a rich garnet-red paste that comes away from the sides of the pan.

Let it cool a little before pouring into a wide shallow pan or tray lined with plastic wrap or wax paper, spreading it out to a thickness of about 3/4 inch (1 1/2 cm).

Leave for a day or so to dry out in a warm, airy place, before turning out and cutting up the firmed paste with a sharp knife into 3/4-inch (1 1/2-cm) squares or lozenges. Roll the pieces in granulated sugar and pack them in a tin or other airtight container.

*

We need more books like this one–books that showcase the incredible diversity within the Jewish people, and proclaim to the world, once and for all, that gefilte fish is¬†not the be-all-end-all of Jewish gastronomy.

With love,

Daniella

By Light of Hidden Candle[lighting Custom]s

Dear Josep,

So, after ostensibly “freezing” the text of By Light of Hidden Candles¬†(my upcoming novel) for formatting, my editor found a bunch of other issues and we did another feverish round of editing on a short deadline. Now the text is frozen for real (RIGHT, DON?!)–at least, barring any issues our beta-readers and early reviewers find in the galley.

On the day before we froze the text, I became aware of a potential issue that I hadn’t even thought of before. As one might surmise from the title of the book, Shabbat candles make several important appearances. I described, in great detail, my modern Jewish character lighting Shabbat candles–twice–in the manner I am familiar with; and then it came to my attention that Sephardi tradition is different from Ashkenazi tradition.

(And here, for a change, was an issue with the book that it would be completely pointless to ask you about! ūüėõ )

…Let me back up a bit and explain how this candlelighting thing is done.

There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing–and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!

So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic! ūüėõ

Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat; but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.

Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.

You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, with whom I have spent Shabbat; and I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candlelighting customs. So I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook and took an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.

That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected.

My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match.

My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.

My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.

My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.

My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.

My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered their eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.

My friend Yonit–who is Ashkenazi–pointed out that it doesn’t really help to ask individuals if you’re trying to determine what the custom of a particular ethnic group is. I explained that I’m not doing a scientific study here; I’m just trying to find out what people do. “I want what my character does to be at least somewhat connected to reality, so people don’t come after me with pitchforks yelling, ‘You Ashkenazi, what are you doing writing about Sephardi characters?!'”

At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to¬†call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaacov Ben-Tolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haket√≠a (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in T√©touan.

So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in T√©touan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown. (He blogs in Spanish and Hebrew with excerpts of his work; check out the Spanish one here!)

Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!

So I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!

“The results of my survey,” I wrote on the original Facebook thread, “are as follows: everyone does something different! And no matter what I write, some group somewhere will find a reason to come after me with pitchforks. Conclusion: practice self-defense against pitchforks!”

And now you must be wondering, after all this confusing research, what I decided to have my character do!

I took out all reference to covering eyes, and simply listed her actions: “I struck a match, lit the candles, and made the blessing…” leaving it ambiguous whether she makes the blessing¬†while lighting the candles or after.

“But you know what I’m going to get out of this?” I said to Eitan as I got ready to pick up R2 from preschool after finally resolving this issue on the manuscript. “A great blog post!”

ūüėČ

With love,

Daniella

P.S. to Little Torah Champions

P.S. Remember the awesome after-school program I mentioned in the previous post? The one that got my kids to stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot?

So, every week, they come home with a laminated card, often with a magnet on the back, about the value they studied that week. Last week, they came home with this:

What on earth, you may be wondering, is a picture of Messi doing illustrating a card about a value learned from the Mishna?!

R1 explained it to me: The value they were studying was¬†hakarat hatov, which literally means “recognizing the good”. The term describes a sort of humble gratitude: recognizing and acknowledging the good that someone (or Someone) has done for you, rather than taking full credit for all your achievements.

To demonstrate this value, their teacher showed them a video of a spectacular soccer game won by the Barcelona team. When Messi scores the winning goal, he points at the sky–as shown in the photo–and then points at the player who passed him the ball. Their teacher explained to them that even Messi, revered by practically every Israeli boy as the best soccer player in the world, recognizes that his accomplishments are not his alone, but are thanks to God–who gave him the talent and opportunities that brought him to where he is today–and to his team members, without whom he would never have been able to win the game.

And that is how you teach a group of soccer-obsessed Israeli boys about gratitude and humility!

I told you their teacher is a genius! ūüėČ

Little Torah Champions

Dear Josep,

So, last week was Shavuot. (If you need a refresher on Shavuot, click here!) I’ve mentioned before that there is a custom to stay up all night learning Torah on this holiday. Our town has a particularly rich and varied program for this purpose; lots of different kinds of classes and workshops and activities in different places (and different languages!) running until morning. Eitan and I usually decline attending any of them in favor of going to bed and feeling human the next day.¬†My two elder sons, however, had other plans.

H and R1¬†attend this after-school program called “Beit Yachad” (literally “the House of Together”). Each week they focus on a different value learned from Ethics of the Fathers in the Mishna. They have activities based on the¬†theme of the week, including working with the community and volunteering as well as artwork and putting on skits and stuff. The guy who runs it is an incredible and highly experienced educator who has an amazing way with children.

On Shavuot, they run a special program for children from first- through third-grade starting at 10:30pm and running, yes yes–all night. (Israelis in general and Tekoans in particular have a very blas√© attitude toward sleep hygiene. This is something that has always driven me crazy–especially as an intermittent insomniac¬†who really, really suffers when she’s sleep-deprived.) They go through all 48 values that they intend to address over the course of the year, and the children are rewarded with treats and prizes along the way.

Last year, when H was in first grade, he really wanted to go and I wasn’t sure how to make it work. I mean, he had just turned 7. What 7-year-old can stay up all night learning–generous bribery notwithstanding?! That year, I was asked to participate in an artist’s discussion panel as a local author, so we dropped H off at Beit Yachad at 10:30 and I figured I’d pick him up after midnight on my way back home. But when I got there, he begged me to let him stay.

I was torn between my American-helicopter-parent instincts–which screamed at me that it was utterly insane to leave my son here overnight and trust him to ask an adult to help him cross the street and come home on his own while I was still sleeping–and my Jewish-mother pride that my 7-year-old was begging me to let him stay up all night to learn Torah. In the end, the Jewish mother in me won, and I went home and slept very fitfully, worrying about him getting home okay.

The next morning, we discovered him asleep on the guest bed. He apparently did not have the energy to climb to the top bunk where he sleeps… but we also discovered that before he collapsed, he sat down at the table and drew, in pencil, a meticulously detailed drawing of the medal and prize tickets he had won for staying up all night. (He apparently forgot, in the fog of sleeplessness, that drawing isn’t allowed on Yom Tov!)

I posted it on Facebook last year and concluded: “My first time waking up to find my son sprawled out somewhere after a long night out, and puzzling over the bizarre evidence of his exhausted-stupor-induced activities. I had no idea it would start this early.”

He was totally psyched to do it again this year, and I was confident about letting him do it again. But I wasn’t sure about R1. He’s more sensitive to physical discomfort; he needs more rest and more space and¬†gets frustrated¬†more easily. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle an all-nighter at the tender age of 6. I wasn’t even sure he’d be awake at 10:30pm when the program started. But he was, and he wanted to go. So we told him to come home when he wanted to and to have an adult help him cross the street. Eitan took them over there at around 10:20–bringing along the remainders of H’s birthday cake–and we went to bed.

I awoke with the Muslims just before 4am, and saw that neither of the kids were home yet. I lay in bed listening to the muezzin and trying not to worry. (Always a successful tactic, as I’m sure you know.) I gave up around 5am and moved to the couch to read a book.

At 5:30am the two of them walked in the door, each with a huge trophy in hand.

I love that I live in a place where children are awarded giant trophies, not for winning at sports, but for their perseverance and commitment in pursuit of learning Torah values.

They caught up on sleep throughout the day and slept normally that night, thank God. And I am somewhat relieved to  have concluded this crazy period of Jewish holidays and family celebrations!

With love,

Daniella

Q & A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 4!

Yes, my friends! Traffic to LtJ¬†has been increasing steadily, hitting an average of over 2,000 views per month the last two months, so it’s time to celebrate with¬†yet another Search Term Q & A!

If you’re just tuning in, this is where I respond to various questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which then¬†led them to this blog. You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.

And now, without further ado:

“orthodox jews is creepy”

Creepy?!

Look how cute we are!!!

Your face is creepy!

(That is a really stupid comeback that Eitan and I constantly say to each other and for some reason, after almost 9 years of marriage, still find hilarious.)

“psalm 23, jewish commentary”

Ahh, yes! I see you found my relevant post on the topic.

“jews living in munich”

I do indeed have a guest letter from a Jew living in Munich! And I would love more guest letters from people of all sorts from all kinds of places! Hint hint!

“what do ultra orthodox jews do for fun”

I love this question!!!

Okay–first off–I’m not ultra-Orthodox, so this isn’t firsthand. Modern Orthodox Jews like myself are somewhere between secular people and ultra-Orthodox in terms of acceptable forms of recreation. I’ll elaborate on the differences as I answer the question.

So the thing to understand about how ultra-Orthodox Jews spend their time is that the #1 most important thing in their lives is the Torah: either learning it or practicing its teachings (a.k.a. keeping the commandments). Everything they do is supposed to be oriented towards this ultimate goal. Doing anything that is not oriented towards this goal is considered a waste of time. There’s even a term for it:¬†“bittul Torah”–wasting time that should be spent on Torah.

That doesn’t mean that they never have fun!

The fact is that joy and pleasure are built into Torah life. Every week we have these festive dinner/lunch parties (a.k.a. Shabbat meals) with friends and family. In the ultra-Orthodox community there are always lifecycle events to attend, like weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc., where it is a mitzvah to dance and sing and feast! Hassidic communities have huge events with their rebbes on Shabbatot, too. There are Torah classes or concert/prayer/learning gatherings to attend… and, of course, there are holidays every 3 seconds, and we’re happy with any excuse for more feasting, dancing, and singing!

As for more “everyday” forms of entertainment: ultra-Orthodox Jews generally do not watch movies (unless they were produced by other ultra-Orthodox Jews–a very small but growing industry), surf the Internet, attend secular concerts, or go to bars or nightclubs. They do hang out in parks and resorts, have picnics, go on hikes, and–as long as men and women are strictly separated– even go swimming. Many teenagers are involved in charity and volunteer projects to keep them off the streets. Better than video games and Snapchat for sure!

Modern Orthodox Jews do watch movies and surf the Internet and may attend secular concerts, but we don’t dance or swim in mixed company either. Swimming pools and beaches in areas with a lot of observant Jews have separate swimming hours for men and women.

“what symbol was used by agagites?”

Um… that… would be impossible to know, as the only source we have on them is the Bible, and it doesn’t mention anything about a symbol. Agagites are descendants of Agag, who was an Amalekite, and the only Agagite mentioned is Haman, from the book of Esther.

“alternative origins for haman the agagite”

What am I, the expert on Agagites now?!

Again–the only source we have for Haman the Agagite is the book of Esther. So the academic argument is¬†not so much about his origins as about whether he existed at all.

“www.danniella levy sex.de”

Oy, do you have the wrong number, my friend. Unlike the British porn star who apparently shares my name, I offer the Internet my intellect, wit, knowledge, love, insight, empathy, and skill with words. I think those are far more valuable assets. But, you know. To each his own.

“what is the headgear that jews wear?”

Good of you to ask! I see you found my post on that subject exactly: A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear. In a nutshell: religious Jewish men wear kippot (skullcaps) and/or hats of various sorts, and married religious Jewish women wear scarves, hats, or wigs.

“apologize letter because you are impostor”

To Whom It May Concern,

It has come to my attention, thanks to the advice from a Random Stranger on the Internet, that I am an impostor. I am not entirely sure how or when I began to impersonate myself, but rest assured that it was never my intention to do so. I am shocked and deeply regretful to learn that this is the case.

Please accept my sincerest apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

With respect,

Daniella Levy

“just checking in letter”

To Whom It May Concern,

I am just checking in, as per your request.

Many blessings,

Daniella Levy

“yes wear your head gear 651”

Um. Okay. I… will do that. Not sure what 651 means.

images of a christian girl apply local henna in ethiopia”

Huh. Well, no, that I don’t have, but I do have an image of my friends Hadar & Yossi, the latter of whom is of Ethiopian descent, at their henna party:

But they are Jewish, and in Israel, and he’s a guy. So… sorry.

“the craziest judaism belives”/”weird judaism beliefs”

Okay look, I’ll be the first to admit that we Jews do some pretty crazy things… but¬†in the weird belief department, I think we’re actually pretty boring.

I think it’s because we’re “mother religion” to both Christianity and Islam. So many of our beliefs overlap with theirs–ones that are¬†fairly universally accepted and palatable. Plus, we’ve been accused of being overly logical when it comes to belief, and I think our penchant for thinking things through very, very, very carefully means that we don’t tend to hold on to the really “out there” stuff.

We do have a mystic tradition, the Zohar/Kabbalah, which has some pretty weird stuff in it, but precisely because it takes a lot of maturity to place it in the proper context, we’re not even allowed to study it properly until the age of 40.

“www.oldest bable qur’an holybooks.mede only skin.com”

That’s… a diverse range of interests, Random Stranger.

“jew sick religion”

I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re using the word “sick” in its inverted slang usage, i.e., to mean “awesome”. Because I learned from my totally awesome Jewish religion that I should judge everyone favorably!¬†You can learn more about judging favorably here!

 

Any other questions?! Do feel free to ask!


Want to see previous Search Term Q & A’s? Here they are:

Search Term Q & A, Pt. 1

Search Term Q & A, Pt. 2

Search Term Q & A, Pt. 3

When God Speaks: Prophecy in Jewish Thought & Theology

Dear Josep,

One of the most interesting responses I got to my post about the Jewish view of Jesus was from a devout Protestant I know. She said most of it didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked… like, can’t stop thinking about it shocked… that Jews believe that prophecy stopped.” Do we believe, she wanted to know,¬†that the voice of God has manifested in other ways since then? Or that He stopped speaking altogether?

I gave her a brief answer on FB, but I’m going to use today’s post to answer her in full.

The question stems from of one of those misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity, where a certain word means one thing to one religion, and another thing entirely to the other.

What Is Prophecy?

In Judaism, prophecy is a direct dream or vision in which God Himself appears to the prophet and speaks to him (or her. Several prophetesses are mentioned in the Bible). We believe that Moses was the only one who spoke with God really directly–like, he would¬†just be hanging out, and God’s voice would speak in his ear, he would answer, and God would answer back conversationally. All the other prophets, we believe, experienced prophecy through a vision, dream, or the presence of an angel.

Now that I mention it–angels are another one of those words that we understand entirely differently from Christians. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, ◊ě◊ú◊ź◊ö, means “messenger.” We don’t believe that angels are the souls of deceased humans, nor do we believe that they have a will of their own. Only humans have free will according to Judaism. We believe that angels are sort of “channels” through which God carries out His will in the world. They’re sort of extensions of Him in a sense.

It’s all very mystical and strange and many of us don’t understand it.

But the most common way we encounter angels in the Bible is when a prophet has a vision about them, and in that case they usually appear in the form of a person–but not always.¬†Ezekiel describes them as these very odd-looking creatures with multiple wings and “wheels” and stuff. (See Ezekiel 1.)

From what I understand, the definition of prophecy in Christianity (at least Protestantism) is much broader than this definition.

So How Do We Identify True Prophecy?

If prophecy is a dream or vision in which God appears–how do we know whether a dream we had that predicted the future, or even a dream in which God or an angel appears to us, is just a dream and not a prophecy?

What about mentally ill people who claim to see God in visions or that they are the Messiah?

It’s a very perplexing issue!

Well thank God for Maimonides’¬†Guide for the Perplexed.

In the Guide and other writings, Maimonides explains that a person can only be granted prophecy if he has attained a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection. And he must prove his prophetic abilities, not by performing miracles (since these can be done through illusion), but by making accurate and detailed predictions of the future. Every single detail the potential prophet says must be true in order for us to believe that person to be a prophet. If even a small detail is wrong, he is a false prophet.

Also, Maimonides adds, if the person tells us to add or remove any of the commandments, we can know immediately that the person is a false prophet.

What Was the Purpose of Prophecy–and Why Did It Stop?

Prophecy was a kind of “direct intervention.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prophets because God needed to guide them in a world that was still completely pagan. Moses was a prophet because his job was to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and teach them the entire Torah. We believe that much of the Oral Law comes from clarifications that God gave to Moses regarding what’s written in the Torah.

Many of our sages liken the history of the Jewish people to the life of a child. When a baby is born, he is completely dependent on his mother to keep him warm, fed, and safe. As he grows up, he gradually needs his parents less and less, gaining more and more independence from them.

So it was with us. Initially, all our leaders were prophets. After Moses came Joshua, and then the Judges. We needed a very direct connection to God to know what to do. Eventually we shifted over to a non-prophet leader: a king. The kings of Israel and Judah were guided by prophets and sometimes experienced prophecy themselves, but their primary role was political, not spiritual.

Towards the end of the First Temple period, the role of the prophets shifted from a more gentle guidance to rebuke and warning. The Israelites were not following the commandments and were worshiping idols, and God sent prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah to warn them to turn back to the path of righteousness or they would be severely punished. It was during this period that we received the prophecies about the future and the Messiah who would eventually come after the destruction.

But those were the last direct words God delivered to us. Once we entered the exile, God stopped speaking to us through prophecy.

We don’t really know why. But we believe that God set it up this way on purpose–for us to take a more and more active role in our ultimate mission of “fixing” humanity.

In other words, God shifted the responsibility from Himself (with the prophets representing Him directly) to us.

“It Is Not in Heaven”

There is a very strange story in the Talmud that, I think, sheds light on this shift of responsibility.

Goes like this: There’s a debate going on in the Sanhedrin (what else is new) about the spiritual/ritual purity status of an oven owned by a guy called Akhnai. So most of the rabbis in the Sanhedrin argue that the oven is impure, but one guy, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, insists that it’s pure. Now, the way the Sanhedrin worked is that they ruled by majority. So no matter how senior or wise Rabbi Eliezer was, if he didn’t manage to convince his colleagues that he was correct, he be overruled.

When he failed to convince the other rabbis that he was correct, he performed a series of small miracles to try and prove his point: making a carob tree uproot itself, making a stream of water flow backwards, and the walls of the building begin to collapse on the Sanhedrin. When his colleagues remained unmoved, he shouted: “If the law is as I say–the Heavens will prove my claim!”

In response,¬†a voice sounded from Heaven and said: “Why do you not listen to Rabbi Eliezer, as the law is as he says?!”

Rabbi Joshua then jumped to his feet and shouted: “It is not in Heaven!

The Talmud then goes on to explain: “What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ [a quote from Deuteronomy 30] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah says: Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we no longer follow a voice from Heaven, since the Torah itself says [in Exodus 23]: ‘The majority rules.'”

And then the Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet was asked what God said in response to the incident. Elijah answered: “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'”

When I first learned about this story I thought it was ridiculous. GOD HIMSELF is supporting Rabbi Eliezer’s position!!! Isn’t the entire point of the Torah to fulfill God’s will?! If GOD HIMSELF supports a certain ruling, how can you oppose it?!

But that’s the thing.

God’s will is that we follow the precedents and rules He originally set up. Since the destruction of the First Temple, it is no longer up to God to determine how Jewish law will be upheld. He made it¬†our responsibility.

Even if we’re¬†objectively wrong.

Because this isn’t about objective truth. It’s about the spirit of the law. More than faith, more than inspiration, more than anything else, Judaism is about¬†tradition. (Cue Fiddler on the Roof. ūüėõ ) That link with our past, that responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants, is more important than the objective details.

It’s kind of a difficult concept to swallow. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate the wisdom of this story.

But Does God Still Speak?

Of course He does.

Just not quite that directly.

We believe that God speaks to us through history; through the events in the world and in our lives, from the establishment of the State of Israel to your favorite flower blooming on the side of the road.

We believe He speaks all the time. It is us who must learn how to listen and interpret the messages for ourselves–but with humility. We are skeptical of anyone who is 100% sure that “God spoke to them” and that know with certainty what He said.

I think this is a function of our “maturity” as a people. Apparently, we no longer need this kind of direct guidance. Instead, we have spiritual leaders–the rabbis and sages who interpret the Law. This system was set in place back in the days of Moses, apparently in anticipation that we would eventually reach this point. It reached its maturity in the early Talmudic period, when the Sages consolidated the system for interpreting the Law and applying it to new situations that arise.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote an essay called “A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet,” where he puts forth the argument that in our day, it is better for us to have a sage, who guides us to gently reach our own conclusions, than to have a prophet.

It’s kind of the difference between a counselor and a policeman.

Will Prophecy Be Restored?

Jews do believe that prophecy will be restored with the coming of the Messiah, who will, himself, be a prophet.

Until then, we continue to rely on the self-admittedly flawed system of rabbinic rulings, and try to figure out, to the best of our ability, how to do what God wants from us.

With love,

Daniella

A Damaged Mirror: A Holocaust Memoir Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen

Dear Josep,

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on Israeli Independence Day?

This very silly post.

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on the first day of Passover? I answered that on LtJ’s Facebook page last year:

(That’s matzah ball soup, for the record.)

So what do you get when St. Jordi’s Day dovetails with Holocaust Remembrance Day (which begins tonight)…?

Hmm.

How about my thoughts on a mind-blowing Holocaust book?

I met author & publisher Yael Shahar¬†because of another book her company published, in which a poem of mine appears: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. She contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy, and we ended up meeting at Jerusalem’s First Station complex, chatting over a couple of fruit shakes and exchanging books. (This fateful meeting eventually resulted in a publishing contract for my upcoming novel. But that’s another story. ūüėČ )

Yael handed me¬†A Damaged Mirror¬†with a warning: “I brought this for you, but I’m going to let you¬†decide whether to take it. It’s uplifting in the end, but the first half… it really… really brings you to Auschwitz, in a way not many other Holocaust books do. ”

I wondered how much worse this book could be from all the other books I’d read and movies I’d seen.

“Is it… graphic?” I asked.

She chewed on that. “Not… exactly. It’s just very… vivid. I couldn’t bear to look back over it myself after compiling it.” She said that Don–her husband and our trusty editor–edited and polished it for her.

But I’m a brave soul, and I took it home and after a while of preparing myself emotionally, I read the book.

Suffice to say, it lived up to her warning.

I wrote last year about the gradual structure of my Holocaust education, from a gentle story in first grade¬†to my standing in the gas chamber at Majdanek at age 17. I wrote then that my trip to Poland was the climax of my Holocaust education. I didn’t think another level could possibly exist.

Well, it did, and this book is it.

A Damaged Mirror¬†is a “novelized” memoir that tells the story of Ovadya ben Malka, a Jew from Salonika, Greece, who was forced to serve in the Sonderkommando at Birkenau; and Yael¬†herself, who was born with memories she could not have lived.¬†Her quest to learn what and how she remembers intersects with Ovadya’s quest for forgiveness and atonement for the unspeakable things he was forced to do under the Nazis. It reads like a thriller and¬†offers a deep and very raw exploration of the unfathomable moral dilemmas of the Holocaust; of free choice & responsibility, forgiveness & repentance, memory & destiny. It’s such an important book, for so many different reasons.¬†When I thought about writing a post about it I was overwhelmed by the task because there’s just so much to say. I’m going to limit myself to two of the main things I took away from the book.

A Brutal Reality Check on What Really Happened at Auschwitz

Many of us know, in theory, what happened on the trains and in the camps. But¬†there are things we gloss over just because they are too awful to think about; things I think most Holocaust survivors never even saw, and those who did couldn’t bring themselves to describe them in detail.

For example… it seems naive when I think about it now, but before I read A Damaged Mirror, I had this image in my head that at least the Jews who were gassed died the way people die from carbon monoxide poisoning: slowly drifting into sleep.¬†I didn’t realize it, but I’d been holding on to that image as a tiny glimmer of solace in the face of the unfathomable fact that millions of Jews died this way.

Ovadya’s descriptions of what he saw while clearing away the bodies shattered my illusions. I didn’t think it was possible to be any more horrified and devastated about the Holocaust than I previously was. I was wrong.

And that’s just the gas chambers. There was more.¬†Some of the images¬†he describes literally kept me up at night. In the days and weeks after reading the book, I’d be in the middle of some mundane activity and suddenly one of those images would come back to me and I would need to breathe and ground myself, reminding myself that I am safe and my family is safe… as though it were my own trauma I was reliving.

And you thought¬†Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal. :-/

Difficult as it was, I think people need to¬†know those details. Especially these days when people compare everything from Syria to Trump’s election to the Nazi regime. Reading the book gives you a very healthy, if difficult to swallow, dose of perspective.

Questions of Agency & Responsibility Under the Worst Possible Conditions

Without giving too much away: Ovadya struggles to reconcile with the things he was forced to do under the Nazis. He feels culpable; complicit in the atrocities. Many would jump in here to say: but he can’t blame himself for the things he did. He did them under the worst compulsion imaginable.

Nonetheless, the book presents some very deep and difficult questions: is it really true that he didn’t have a choice? Couldn’t he have chosen to die rather than do the bidding of the Nazis? Would that have been the better choice?

If we say that he didn’t have a choice–that means he was completely helpless and had no agency. It means that the Nazis won, in that they completely stripped him of his humanity–the power of free choice, which, according to Jewish tradition, is what differentiates us from other living beings. We would rather believe that we always have a choice; that the Nazis could take away our rights, our freedom, and our lives, but they could never take away our humanity. I, for one, don’t want to accept that they could. I refuse to¬†grant them that victory.

But if we say that Ovadya¬†did have a choice–that makes him at least somewhat complicit in what the Nazis forced him to do.

Reading the book, I not only wanted to forgive Ovadya, I wanted desperately for him to forgive himself. I wanted to know that he could find some semblance of peace and resolution, not just for him, but for me; because who knows how I would have acted under those same circumstances? Would I have had the strength of will to walk into the gas chamber willingly rather than have to clear it out fifteen minutes later?

And who knows if that really would have been the right thing to do? What about the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would never have been born?

Moreover, I wanted Ovadya to forgive himself because I felt that would be his one final triumph over the Nazis.

The book doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy conclusions. It really makes you think.

Kasva Press produced an excellent discussion guide called¬†Moral & Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust¬†which brings excerpts from the book along with questions for people to think about and discuss. You don’t need to have read the book; it stands on its own.¬†You can download it for free on their website here.

Yael informs me that Kasva plans to re-release A Damaged Mirror under a new title in the next year or so. In the meantime, it’s available through their website and all the major distributors, including Amazon (Amazon.es too ūüėČ ). Yael also blogs at¬†https://www.damaged-mirror.com/blog/.

Happy St. Jordi’s Day… and a meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Love,

Daniella

It’s That Day Again!

Just taking a brief break from de-Passover-ifying my kitchen to say: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOSEP!

Mmm, cake. I could do with some cake right about now.

Unfortunately because your birthday fell on the 7th day of Passover I am very unlikely to be able to recruit many random strangers to wish you a happy birthday, as is my tradition. Especially since Jews everywhere else in the world have another 24 hours of Passover to live through celebrate. But I would not want you to think I have forgotten. ūüėČ

I think I’ve been sufficiently mushy¬†about our friendship in recent months, including in our 10-year-friendversary post and my 1-year-book-birthday post. But I was flipping through a book of quotes by Rebbe Nachman of Breslev today, and, well, there was one that jumped out at me from the chapter on friendship…

It says: “The world was created in such a way that the pieces you need to complete yourself can be found with your friends. Be his student, and he will be your student.” (Likutei Moharan 24, 7)

It reminded me of a line you wrote in the foreword to LtJ: “…She has always been the teacher, and I have always been the student.”

Not so, my friend.

I have learned more from you than you can imagine.

Thank you for being you, and I hope you’ve been having a wonderful day!¬†Wishing you a year of good news, joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Much love from the Holy Land!