Category Archives: Jewish History

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, מלאך, 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. 😛 ) 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

Screenshot from the movie "Denial"

Responding to Antisemites: Was the Holocaust a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe?

Dear Josep,

Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to our regularly scheduled program. 😉

On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:

The truth is, I was fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised was too superficial.

Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
  • Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
  • Should this kind of discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
  • What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not indisputable historical fact?
  • Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?

All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:


Tell me something.

Nazis killed over 10 million people.
 
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
 
What makes you so special?
 
How are you better than say, Polish people?
 
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
 
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.

Well. That escalated quickly.

Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

When I informed you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.

You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”

So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.

Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?

Each option has costs.

The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.

The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.

…Well &$#^.

So, the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.

The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.

Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?

I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.

Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.

This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely responsible for all the world’s ills. Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating every last Jew.

They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was to dominate other races, not destroy them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.

The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of exterminating Jews.

In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.

Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.

And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.

…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.

Here’s hoping I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon. *grumblegrumble*

Love,

Daniella

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Awesome Jews of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel

Dear Josep,

Marrying another bookworm has had its perks. Back before Eitan’s eye issues made it impossible for him to read from print books without pain, he bought books all the time. Even though our current stock is only a small fraction of his original collection, and even though we’ve been living together for eight years, every once in a while I’ll go searching through his old books and discover something interesting.

This book was one such discovery.

Photo of book: Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman & Philospher, by B. Netanyahu

That’s not Benjamin Netanyahu, for the record; it’s Benzion, Bibi’s father, who was one of the most prominent modern scholars on late medieval Spain. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on any or all of his scholarly works on the Inquisition and the conversos (because hi, it’s me), and I was astonished to find this book on my own bookshelf a couple months ago. (Eitan says he bought it used someplace a long time ago and forgot it existed.) Don Isaac Abravanel is apparently B. Netanyahu’s first book, originally published in 1953.

In the months that followed I read the book and developed a keen interest in Abravanel. I found his character weaving itself into a short story I was writing during that time, which pushed me to read the book more deeply as well as some of Abravanel’s Biblical commentary in the original Hebrew. I knew Abravanel as “Abarbanel,” (the commonly accepted pronunciation of the name in the Jewish community)–at first as a Biblical commentator whose opinions were brought into my classes on the Torah and the Prophets, and then as a historical figure who had a pivotal role during the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. But this biography really brought everything together for me about his character and his role in history.

So allow me to introduce you to Awesome Jew of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel.

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.
A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437 to one of the wealthiest, most distinguished Jewish families in Iberia. His grandfather, Don Samuel, served three successive Castilian kings, and in the days of Enrique III, he had assumed the office of contador mayor–the highest position in Castile’s financial administration. He was outspoken in defense of Jews and Judaism in his native Seville, and the Jews of Spain considered him their leader… so you can imagine how shocked and horrified they were when he converted to Christianity, apparently voluntarily. As a result of his conversion, the older of his children cut off ties with him and moved to Portugal. Among those estranged sons was Don Judah, Don Isaac’s father.

Don Judah did well in Lisbon, apparently becoming a royal treasurer for João I, and Don Isaac was brought up with a great deal of wealth, familiarity with the nobility and royalty, and a thorough Jewish and secular education. He began writing Biblical commentary and philosophical works as a young man. And I can tell you as someone who translated bits of his writing to work into my story–the man was overflowing with the words of the Bible even when he wasn’t talking about it. The text I translated was mostly autobiographical, and yet every sentence made multiple Biblical references. If I was unsure about some phrase or other I just Googled it and immediately found it in Psalms or Jeremiah or Deuteronomy.

As an adult, he moved into a position of power under Alfonso V, who appointed him treasurer. But the problem with getting friendly with a king of Portugal (or any medieval monarch, for that matter) and establishing yourself in his royal court, is that there’s a fast turnover rate, and more often than not, the following king is going to suspect you of other loyalties. That’s what happened to Abravanel. When João II took the throne, he suspected Abravanel of treason and eventually put out a warrant for his arrest. Abravanel was certain of his innocence, but understood that he stood no chance of convincing the king, so he fled to Castile. The king seized all his assets. Thus Abravanel lost his entire fortune, and had to start over in a new kingdom.

But guys like Abravanel don’t really manage to keep a low profile. Abravanel employed his exceptional knowledge and skills, and slowly worked his way up the social ladder. His skills eventually came to the attention of one King Fernando of Aragon. Fernando and Isabel employed him as a financier, and he became second only to Abraham Senior as the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom. It’s interesting to note that despite everything, Abravanel seems to have had something resembling a good relationship with the Catholic Monarchs. Fernando was a very slippery, poker-faced kind of guy, managing to make everyone think they were getting along great while stabbing them in the back.

So, in 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs captured Granada and issued the Alhambra Decree, Abravanel was in a very unique and crucial position, having a place of power and esteem within the royal court. He and Abraham Senior worked tirelessly to cancel the decree. They had an audience with Fernando three times, appealing to his practical side, offering him an enormous bribe to be collected from the Jewish community. But Mr. Aragonese Poker-Face never committed to anything, always dismissing them with an “I’ll think about it” kind of response. Thus unsuccessful, they tried appealing to Isabel. With Isabel, Abravanel took an entirely different approach.

Writes Netanyahu: “He now spoke to the queen–the haughty, fanatic and often ferocious Isabella–not like her financial agent, not even like a cautious, diplomatic courtier. He spoke to her now like a scion of the House of David and as a representative of an unconquered–and unconquerable–people. He spoke to her, moreover, like a prophet of old, in daring, castigating and threatening language. If Isabella thought that, by measures like the expulsion, the Jews could be brought to surrender or to extinction, she was greatly mistaken. He pointed out to her the eternity of the Jewish people, that they had outlived all who had attempted to destroy them, that it was beyond human capacity to destroy the Jewish people, and that those who tried to do so only invited upon themselves divine punishment and disaster.”

Isabel’s response, too, echoes eerily prophetic through the annals of history: “Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king.”

And so, Don Isaac Abravanel failed to reverse the fate of his people. Abraham Senior converted to Christianity in order to stay in Castile, and Abravanel left with his brethren, losing his fortune and his honor for the second time.

Abravanel moved to Naples. Italy was very unstable at the time and he had to move around a lot in the coming years because of various wars. He eventually settled in Venice, and he died there in 1508.

Like all of his contemporaries, Abravanel struggled to make sense of the expulsion. As you know, it was one of the most highly traumatic crises in Jewish history, and many Jews found themselves in a place of deep discouragement and despair. Some feared that the expulsion marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish people.

Abravanel’s response to the crisis was a mystical/spiritual one. He wrote extensively about the coming of the Messianic era, and even calculated when the Messiah would come. He had some compelling arguments for the year 1503, but obviously, he turned out to be very wrong. When I read articles about Abravanel in the past and learned about this feature of his writings I found it annoying and depressing. He was so sure that the horrors of the expulsion marked the beginning of the Redemption with a capital R. And he we are, five hundred years later, still saying “Any minute now!”

But when I read Netanyahu’s take on this aspect of Abravanel’s philosophy, I saw it in a new way. One of the things I have learned about hope in the last few years is that it has intrinsic value that is completely detached from outcome. As I wrote on this article for Trish Hopkinson’s blog: “I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more… But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It’s a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.”

Abravanel gave the Jewish people hope.

He gave great detail and vivid color to a very theoretical idea of the bright future that lay somewhere ahead of all this gloom.

Our national anthem is called “The Hope” for a reason. Hope is what has carried us through and kept us moving forward even in the darkest of times.

For that, if not for the vast library of intriguing ideas and scholarship he left behind, and for his tireless efforts to make the world a better place for Jews and non-Jews alike… he deserves to be remembered as a great man, and an Awesome Jew of History.

Love,

Daniella


The previous Awesome Jew of History was King David! Is there an awesome Jewish historical figure you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

Confessions of a King David Fangirl

Dear Josep,

I was a rather unusual teenager in quite a number of ways.

For one thing, I hated shopping.

I never wore makeup–on principle–and rolled my eyes at the way my peers spent hours preening in front of the mirror.

While most girls my age spent their vacation time at the mall, the movies, or the beach, I was happiest cooped up in my room… writing novels.

Like the teenage girls they were, my friends swooned over the likes of Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, and… I can’t even remember who else was popular at the time. That’s how much I cared!

I, on the other hand, was a King David fangirl.

Yeah. The one from 3,000 years ago.

You see, the more I learned about him, the more I admired and identified with him. He was a poet-musician-warrior-prophet-king who was crazy in love with God. He played the lyre, felled a Philistine giant with a single stone, danced like a maniac in celebration of God’s glory, and cried his heart out in public on many occasions. He made some terrible mistakes, but he owned them. He was a badass with a sensitive and highly spiritual soul. His political actions set the stage for the most prosperous golden age in the history of the Jews, and he was the progenitor of what may have been the longest continuous dynasty of communal leaders in the history of humankind.1

Beat that, Orlando Bloom.
Beat that, Orlando Bloom.

 

Both of the upcoming holidays, Jerusalem Day and Shavuot, have a connection to King David. So I shall take this opportunity to unleash my inner fangirl, and tell you all about my favorite Biblical character. 🙂

Okay, so it turns out I can’t actually tell you all about him. I started writing my merry way through the juiciest moments of his life story as told in Samuel I, and by the time I got halfway through the Goliath story, this letter was already 1,000 words long!

So I’ll have to give you the highlights.

David, son of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem during the period of Samuel the Prophet. He was probably a child when the first king of Israel, Saul, was ordained. When Saul fell out of God’s favor for failing to carry out a commandment, God ordered Samuel to ordain David–then still a kid whose family apparently didn’t think much of him–as the new king. The Bible describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome.” Some interpret “ruddy” as meaning he had red hair, and you can see him depicted that way in many paintings. Most likely, though, it means he had a reddish complexion. Rosy cheeks, if you will.

Anyway. Soon after David’s secret ordination, King Saul felt the spirit of God leave him, and became quite depressed. Someone suggested finding a musician to play music and lift his spirits. Long story short, David became the first Royal Music Therapist.

Then the whole fiasco with Goliath happened–a story I assume you are at least somewhat familiar with. After his stunning defeat of the Philistine warrior, David became quite the rock star among the Israelites. He married the king’s daughter Michal and became best buddies with his new brother-in-law, Jonathan. (I believe these days we call it a “bromance.”) But Saul started to suspect David of trying to topple him from the throne, and started trying to kill him.

"So.... should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?"
“So…. should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?”

Michal and Jonathan helped David escape, and he ran into the wilds of Judah, hiding out in the desert with a little band of followers.

David spent the next period of his life scurrying around the Judean Desert trying to avoid getting caught and killed by Saul. There were a few close calls, and some confrontations that ended with Saul saying he was sorry and then changing his mind the next morning. (I believe these days we call it “bipolar.”) But David never attempted to take power during Saul’s lifetime and never dreamed of harming him. Heck, he cried like an idiot when he so much as tore the corner of Saul’s robe in a cave in Ein Gedi.

Anyway, Saul was finally killed in battle in the Gilboa, along with his sons, including David’s best friend Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen” is a famous line from David’s heartbroken lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the final chapters of Samuel I.

With the old king dead, David began his rise to power. First he ruled over Judah from the city of Hebron. (Remember, Jerusalem was still under the Jebusites at this point.) Gradually the rest of the kingdom accepted him as their king. He proved very capable in battle and eventually conquered Jerusalem and established it as the eternal capital of Israel. (That’s where Jerusalem Day comes in. Shavuot is traditionally considered to be the birthday, and death day, of King David.)

There are many more stories to tell from Samuel II, but the most important one is the Bathsheba scandal. You may have heard this story too. It stands as an example of something unique about the Bible as a historical document: it does not gloss over the mistakes and sins of our great leaders. What happened is this: King David was looking out his window one night and he saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. He was so overcome with desire for her that he ordered her brought to the palace, and when he discovered that she was married, he arranged for her husband to be placed on the front line of the battle, basically assuring his death. When the husband did inevitably die in battle, David married Bathsheba.

Not a pleasant story. Especially if you compare it with Saul’s sin. All Saul did was have pity on an Amalekite king and some sheep. David committed adultery and murder! Why was Saul’s kingdom torn from him, then, while David’s wasn’t?

Most sages argue that the difference is in their responses.

When Samuel came to rebuke Saul, Saul got defensive and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and only admitted that he had sinned after Samuel informed him that God had decided to discontinue his dynasty.

In contrast, when Nathan the Prophet came to rebuke David, David immediately said “I have sinned before the Lord!” He took responsibility and owned his actions. He did real teshuva. He did suffer consequences for his sin–the death of his firstborn son from Bathsheba, and the turmoil in his household (the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, etc.)–but God did not take the kingdom from him or his descendants.

There is another important figure in the Bible who exhibited this kind of accountability: David’s ancestor Judah. On two notable occasions,2 Judah showed a willingness to own up to his mistakes and accept the full consequences of his actions. Tradition has it that it was this character trait of Judah’s that made God choose him as the progenitor of the Davidic line.

I think the Bible makes a powerful statement through this. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is whether you try to make excuses and justify yourself, or whether you take responsibility, own your mistakes, and try to learn and grow from them. That, says the Bible, is the mark of a true leader.

When King David died, he passed the kingdom to his son, the wise King Solomon, who built the first Temple and ruled over Israel during a period of great prosperity and peace. We believe that the Messiah will be a direct descendant of King David, because God promised him that his dynasty would endure for eternity.

And now, I can’t finish a post about King David without mentioning the book of Psalms.

Tradition has it that the Psalms were composed by David, and if you read through them you will see that many of them begin with a statement about the author (usually David) and sometimes about the circumstances under which the psalm was written or for what purpose. Bible critics will argue that it was written much later by other poets, who used the context of King David’s life to lend their work legitimacy, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to believe that he did write at least some of them.

Either way, I think the spirit of this Biblical figure is encapsulated within the wrenching and uplifting words of these remarkably raw poem-prayers.

When you open up a book of Psalms, you find the full range of human emotion laid out before you: from ecstasy, gratitude, and hope, to terror, despair, and loneliness. You find expressions of ultimate closeness and oneness with God alongside explicit expression of doubt and fear of abandonment. The fact that David could say both “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23) and “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) makes me feel a little less alone in trying to reconcile those two sentiments that battle it out within me from time to time.

So… yes. King David was my teen crush and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.

Love,

Daniella

P.S. I’m thinkin’ this could be the first in a series of posts about important Jewish historical figures, called Awesome Jews of History. Is there a Jewish historical figure (or two… or five) that you’ve been curious about? (And by you, and mean you, Josep, and also you, blog readers!) Let me know!

P. P. S. Heck yeah, of course I dressed up as King David for Purim one year! Or at least… my interpretation of him as a kind of Biblical rock star. 😛

Yes, I know its a ukulele and not a lyre. A girls gotta work with what she has, aright?!
…with a ukulele. Look, a girl’s gotta work with what she has, a’right?!

1. Though the sovereignty of the Jews was ended after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews always maintained a special status for those descended of the Davidic dynasty, and chose their leaders from their number. During the Gaonic period in Babylon, up until around 1,000 C.E., Jews were governed by the Exilarch, who was a descendant of the Davidic line. Thus, one could say that the House of David ruled the Jewish people for more than two thousand years.

2. The first was during the scandal with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 37:26); the second, and more well known, was when Joseph framed Benjamin, and Judah took responsibility and offered to go to jail in his stead (Genesis 44:18-34).

How to Teach Children About the Holocaust (And How… Not To.)

Dear Josep,

You will be pleased to know that I have received several positive reactions to your foreword. Last week, for example, I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a bookseller about the book. When he asked me how you felt about the letters, I told him that you wrote a foreword about it, and he was quite enthusiastic. It seems I was correct that people would take an interest in your perspective. 🙂

One reaction I didn’t expect was actually from my dear friend Abi. You see, she studied education at one of the mostly highly regarded colleges for educators in the country, and there was one detail from your story that horrified her: that your school had taken you to see Schindler’s List when you were only twelve years old.

Before she said anything, it hadn’t occurred to me that that might have been a little young. But especially when you mentioned that during that same period they also had you read Man’s Search for Meaning and that you found it “brutal,” it struck me that maybe she was right.

Turns out, the actress who played the girl in the red coat was eleven when she saw it, and it was a little early for her, too…

As I’ve mentioned, I actually never saw Schindler’s List from beginning to end–just parts of it in between naps on the bus from Warsaw to Krakow during my trip to Poland. And I read Man’s Search for Meaning a few years ago, as an adult. I don’t know how they might have affected me if I’d been exposed to them at twelve years of age. Like you, I was a sensitive kid… but apparently unlike you, I was already six years into a very carefully constructed Holocaust education at that point.

You see, Abi explained, Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem, has specific guidelines for introducing children to this difficult topic. When I related my memories of how I had learned about the Holocaust, Abi said that what I described fit neatly into the guidelines she had been taught: a gentle story taught by the school principal when I was in first grade; a phone call with my grandmother; age-appropriate books (such as I Never Saw Another Butterfly and A Place to Hide); Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies; testimonies from survivors; visiting museums; and finally the climax of my Holocaust education, my trip to Poland in eleventh grade.

And when Abi pointed out the contrast between that gentle, gradual exposure and watching Schindler’s List, I was like, “Geez… no wonder he was traumatized!”

I suspect that the staff of your school did not feel a need to introduce you quite that gradually because, well, the Holocaust was not really part of your national history. There is a huge difference between teaching a group of students that “once there was a group of people massacred simply for being different,” and “once there was a group of people who could very easily have been you who were massacred because they were of your heritage.” Still, the Holocaust is a very difficult and disturbing topic for anyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t the only sensitive child who was hit perhaps a little too hard by this material.

Then again, if you hadn’t learned it so brutally, would it still have had such a strong impact on you? Would you have taken the same interest in Jews and Judaism? Would you still have ended up the curious recipient of my e-mails, immortalized as the “Josep” of Letters to Josep?!

Who knows? Maybe not! So I, for one, cannot hold it against your teachers. 😉

But. The conversation inspired me to search for the Yad Vashem guidelines on educating children about the Holocaust. I found that there is a whole website dedicated to it, with detailed instructions for educators and recommended materials and educational activities, but it’s all in Hebrew.

Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a summary of those guidelines in English. (Which you may, in turn, want to translate to Catalan, and send to your former school. 😛 )

Before I begin, however, I must point out that Yad Vashem is an Israeli organization, and their guidelines are oriented accordingly. I think that with non-Jewish children, you don’t need to be quite this delicate and methodical. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the child’s developmental stage and not expose a child to material that he is not emotionally equipped to cope with–Jewish or not–and to provide a supportive environment to help the child process what she has learned.


Preschool

Educating children on the Holocaust at this age primarily involves making sense of what the children have already heard and experienced from outside sources, and reinforcing a sense of distance and therefore safety.

It’s impossible for a Jewish child to grow up without hearing anything about the Holocaust. Israeli children, in particular, will hear the chilling sound of the memorial siren and see the world coming to a halt on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are going to need to be prepared for this. Our job as educators is to give them enough information to reassure them without giving them details that will frighten or disturb them.

Unfortunately I’ve had ample opportunities to read up on talking to young children about scary events in the world. The absolute worst thing you can do is pretend nothing happened. Children are extremely perceptive and they know when the adults around them are scared, shaken, or sad, even when the adults don’t express those feelings in front of them. So hiding information will only scare them more; their imaginations can be much scarier than reality!

Therefore, as with any frightening topic that children are exposed to, the idea is to give them the information they need while emphasizing the positive outcomes and reinforcing their sense of safety and feeling protected.

When we’re talking about the Holocaust, then, Yad Vashem recommends that we explain that “a long, long time ago, before you were born, in a land very far away, there were some very mean people who wanted to hurt Jews, and that makes people sad. But,” we will emphasize, “there were other people who protected and rescued them.” Since the children may have heard the word “Holocaust” or “Shoah” in Hebrew, we explain that this word means “disaster” or “something that happened that makes people very sad.” If they have heard of Nazis, we can explain that this is what the mean people were called.

Elementary School

Ages 6-8

In the first two years of elementary school, Yad Vashem recommends introducing the students to the topic in the following manner:

  • The educator who speaks to them about it should be one who has a significant and regular relationship with the students. This will help them feel supported, safe, and comfortable bringing up questions and concerns.
  • The topic should be introduced gently in the form of a story. Stories are a universal coping tool that humans have been using for thousands of years, and the familiar framework of the beginning, middle, and end helps give the information in a way that is safe and predictable.
  • At this age, the story should focus on one character. This allows the students to empathize and connect to the information on a human level, without being too overwhelmed by details and possibilities.
  • The story should introduce some basic concepts such as ghettos and yellow stars, and give a general sense of what was lost–families, communities, cultural assets, ideas–but should focus on overcoming hardship, heroism, and rescue. It is very important not to transmit a sense of helplessness to elementary-school-aged children.
  • The activity should not include simulations or graphic scenes or descriptions. Children at this age can be very disturbed by such images, even if (maybe especially if) it’s in their imaginations.

Ages 8-10

At this age we continue along the general lines outlined above. At this age, however, we expand the stories to focus on families rather than single individuals. This allows us to add more characters to the story and focus on the relationships between them. We can also expand the conversation to include universal ideas about taking a stand, such as in the case of the Righteous Among the Nations (what we call non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust).

Ages 10-12

Towards the end of elementary school we continue the trend of gently expanding the stories to include deeper and more difficult concepts. While we still want to be telling stories that focus on characters who survive, the story may also include characters with a relationship to the main character who perish. We still want to focus on rescue and helping one another, and not on violence and cruelty.

Middle School (Ages 12-15)

In middle school we can deepen the conversation, taking into account the emotional maturity of the students (which may vary widely). Yad Vashem recommends expanding the conversation from families to communities at this point. Now is the time to discuss questions of heritage and identity and the relationship between the individual and the society in the context of the Holocaust. At this point in the Israeli educational curriculum, this historical period has not yet been covered in history class, so when discussing the Holocaust we begin to fill in historical details they may be missing.

High School (Ages 15-18)

At this point the students have reached a level of emotional maturity where they can be exposed to the most difficult material about the Holocaust, and the conversation involves sorting out historical details, discussing ethical and moral questions, and questions of continuity and giving meaning to the deep crisis that befell our people. Most Israeli schools organize an educational trip to Poland to visit the ghettos and death camps, as discussed in last year’s post, to students in eleventh or twelfth grade (age 16-18).


If one were to ask me where to place viewing Schindler’s List and reading Man’s Search for Meaning along this timeline, I think I would recommend saving both for high school. I might consider exposing a particularly mature twelve-year-old to these materials, but certainly not as the first material he or she would encounter on the topic.

Instead, I would have recommended starting you off with Anne Frank’s diary.

It’s been translated into 67 languages, including Catalan, and several movies have been made about it.

The diary gives a vivid glimpse into the way families coped with hiding from the Nazis, but it is written from the hopeful and playful perspective of an insightful young teenager. It does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, and while Anne did not survive the Holocaust, the tragic end of the story is not recorded in her diary. The information on the raid and Anne’s eventual death in Bergen-Belsen are given in the afterword. I think this helps soften the effect without hiding the enormity of the tragedy, making it a really good introduction for an older child.

Just saying!

Love,

Daniella

Impostor Syndrome and the Burning Bush

Dear Josep,

Well… as you know, the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, and I’m having what researcher and author Brené Brown calls a major “vulnerability hangover.”

It’s what happens when you do something really brave, something that involves exposing yourself to vulnerability and taking a risk, and then afterwards when you step down, you look at yourself and go, “WHAT did I just DO?” and all you want to do is crawl under your bed and not come out for a good few weeks.

Yesterday my father-in-law arrived with a little stock of the books, and I got to hold one for the first time. It was sooo bizarre. Was it like that for you too?! Like, there’s a book in my hands. It’s a book, and I wrote it. What.

My dear husband found me standing there in a daze staring at the pile of books, and took this picture…

After the kids went to bed I sat down with one of the copies and wrote you a dedication. But not before Googling “how to autograph a book.” (Yes. I literally Googled it. Don’t laugh, I got some good tips! 😛 ) I’ll have to apologize for the mess of scribbles all over your title page… I was emotional and my hand was shaking. I’d been dreaming of that very moment for a long time.

Today I started trying to work on building my author website (well, author/translator/premarital counselor/whatever-the-heck-I-am-these-days website). And I found myself at such a loss. I mean… I’m a content writer, you’d think I should be able to write content for my own website! But I also suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome.

Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome? Caltech Counseling Center defines it as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

I have a beautiful example. You don’t know this, but LtJ was actually not the only book that came out this month with my name in the byline. A poem of mine was published in an anthology called Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. During the process of preparing it for print, the editors sent us the biographies we had originally submitted to make sure they were still up to date. Mine started off with “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem. That I wrote. That was going to be published. In a book.

How ridiculous am I?!

Thankfully, I am not alone in my ridiculousness. Studies show that about 70% of the population suffers from some degree of Impostor Syndrome. In fact, arguably the most important figure in the Jewish faith suffered from it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Moses.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the scene whether Moses encounters the burning bush and first hears God speak to him.

This is how it goes down: Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, right? And he comes across a really strange sight–a bush that is in flames, but is not being consumed by the fire. So he stops to check it out, and God calls to him and tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He then explains to Moses who He is and tells him that He wants Moses to go to Pharoah and tell him to let the Israelites go.

So, let’s just imagine for a second this happened to you. God Himself appears to you in a burning bush and tells you to go to the Prime Minister of Spain and tell him to let Catalonia secede from Spain. 😛 What do you do? Do you start asking questions? Do you tell God He must have made a mistake?! No! You say “Yes sir!” and get moving! (Make a note of this! 😛 )

But that’s not what Moses did: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 4:11)  God tells him not to worry, that He will be with him. But Moses is not convinced, and argues that the Israelites won’t listen to him and won’t believe him. So God reassures him further and gives him the turn-the-staff-into-a-snake trick to help prove that Moses was really speaking on His behalf.

But then Moses keeps arguing! He’s not a man of words, he’s got a speech impediment, couldn’t God just send somebody else? And God’s like, “Dude, I KNOW. I’M GOD. I gave you that speech impediment, remember?! Have your brother talk for you if you have to, but GO!”

Seriously. God Himself appears to Moses in a spectacular feat of pyrotechnics and what does Moses do? He argues. He protests five times in that one encounter.

“Seriously, Moses. You’re pushing it.”

He truly did not believe he was worthy of the task–even in the face of “information that the opposite was true.” Like, for instance, GOD HIMSELF telling him he was worthy.

Boy, he had it bad…

And maybe it was precisely this that led God to select him for this task. As I’ve mentioned before, the unique thing about Judaism as a religion is that it does not attribute its revelation to a single person, but rather to a whole nation. A week and a half from now, when we read the Haggadah and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are not going to mention Moses’s name even once. The Sages left his name out of the Haggadah on purpose: because the miracles of the Exodus should be attributed to God alone. If Moses had been a little more vain, he might have taken advantage of his position of power to create a cult of personality around himself.

Actually, right after the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to destroy the Israelites and make Moses and his descendants into a nation instead! And what did Moses say?

“Please! This people has committed a grave sin… please forgive them. But if not, erase me now from the book You have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

God grumbled back “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!” (Exodus 32:33), but I’d like to think that God was secretly smiling to Himself… in a metaphorical sense, of course. This is exactly why He had chosen Moses.

Surprisingly, Impostor Syndrome can actually be a predictor of high achievement. It’s the people who don’t suffer from it–people who think they know exactly what they’re doing–who are more likely to be frauds.

Maybe God should have mentioned this to Moses from the bush. 😉

Anyway–I’m looking forward to getting that copy to you!

Much love,

Daniella

A Jew by Any Other Name: Why Are Jews Called ‘Jews’?

Before this week’s post I just want to take a moment to thank you all for your support following the release of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism! I’ve sold almost 40 copies in less than a week, which, considering the fact that it’s self-published and I haven’t done a single thing to advertise or promote it yet, is pretty amazing. Y’all are incredible. Keep it up! And don’t forget to leave a review when you’re done reading–the book doesn’t have any reviews to its name yet, and they are very important.

And now for our regularly scheduled program!

(Prefer to listen? This post was featured on this episode of the Jewish Geography podcast🙂


Dear Josep,

A couple years ago when you visited here for the first time, as we were driving past the checkpoint, I said, “Welcome to Judea! Which, I believe, is Latin for ‘Jew-land.'”

“Really?” you said.

“Well, yes, sort of…” I responded.

I don’t remember how much of the historical background I explained to you, or how much you already know, but it occurs to me that it is pretty confusing–why were our ancestors referred to as “Hebrews” in the Bible? What about “Israelites”? When were we called “Jews,” and why?

The Hebrews

The use of this term in the Bible–ivri in Hebrew–is complex and somewhat confusing. Abraham was called a “Hebrew” even before he came to the Promised Land, and Joseph refers to the land of his origin as the “Land of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew root ע.ב.ר. (e.v/b.r.) indicates movement or passage, so the theory is that this term means, roughly, “that guy from way over there across the desert.” But the term was not only applied to the descendants of Jacob. If Abraham was an “ivri,” and Ishmael was his son, his descendants would be “ivrim” too. Same goes for the descendants of Abraham’s cousin Lot–Ammon and Moab–and of Isaac’s other son Esau, the Edomites.

Over time, however, the term Hebrew became associated specifically with Israelites. My (completely unprofessional) theory is that this is because of their status as strangers in Egypt. No one would call you Josep the Catalan in Catalonia; they would call you that if you lived in Castile, or France, or Italy. So while Ammon and Moab and Edom settled down in their own land and ceased to be known as “Hebrews,” a.k.a. “those guys from across the desert”… the Egyptians still referred to the descendants of Jacob that way.

The Children of Israel/Israelites

In Genesis 32, there is a strange story about Jacob meeting an angel and wrestling with him until dawn. When Jacob prevails, he asks the angel to bless him, and the angel gives him a new name: Israel.

So, the nation born from his lineage were called the Children of Israel or the Israelites.

But Jacob  had twelve sons, and each was the patriarch of an individual tribe: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Each of these tribes received their own portion of the Promised Land–with one exception: the Levites were given a special spiritual role, so they did not have land of their own. There were designated cities in each of the other tribes where Levites lived. Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each inherited their own portion of land, so the land of Israel was still divided into twelve portions.

By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0
By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) – 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0

Levites and Cohanim

So what was the spiritual role the Levites were given, and why? First of all, tradition has it that the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not enslaved, because they did not fall into Pharoah’s trap and refused to work for him. Whether or not that’s the case, Moses was from the tribe of Levi, and furthermore, the Sages teach that the Levites did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. On this merit, they were granted the privilege of being in charge of the holy work at the Temple.

The Cohanim–the priests–are a group within the tribe of Levi. They are descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, who was the first High Priest. They performed the sacrifices that were the crux of the Temple service. The non-Cohen Levites were primarily gatekeepers for the Temple, and musicians who played hymns accompanying the services.

Now, the Levites and Cohanim did not inherit any of the land, which, in an agricultural Biblical society, meant no livelihood. So those who did own land, the Israelites, were required to give contributions from their produce and livestock to the Levites and Cohanim. That constitutes a major part of the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, the mitzvot pertaining to working the land in Israel. Though we no longer have the Temple and cannot really observe these rituals, we still make symbolic gestures on their account. For example, when I bake bread, I take a little piece of the dough, wrap it in foil, and throw it in the oven to burn. (This, by the way, is one of those weird rituals that turn up in converso families. 😉 ) It’s in memory of the challah contribution that was supposed to be made to the Cohanim.

The lineages of the Cohanim and Levites were actually preserved through much of Jewish history, up until today, because even after the Temple was destroyed, they received certain special roles in the synagogue. That’s why, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods when people started adopting surnames, so many Jews became some version of “Cohen” or “Levi.” While Judaism is passed only through the mother, the tribal lineage always passed through the father, and in all European cultures, so does the surname. (Eventually, nu. Don’t get me started on your inordinately confusing naming customs in Iberia!) So while a Cohanic or Levite surname does not necessarily indicate those lineages, it very often does. Believe it or not, genetic research identified a particular pattern on the Y chromosome that is common to most Jews with a tradition of a Cohanic lineage. They call it the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

(And yes, to answer your next question, Eitan’s family does have a tradition of being descended from Levites.)

The Kingdom Splits

So… Joshua conquers the land, everybody settles in their portion, and all is well and good. (Okay, no, actually, it totally isn’t, but I’m not going to recount the entire first section of Prophets here!) Fast forward to King Solomon’s death. There is a dispute over who is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and at that point, the kingdom splits in two. It is now divided into the Kingdom of Judah–which includes the portions of Judah and Benjamin–and the Kingdom of Israel, which includes all the other tribes.

By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNoderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10872389
By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNo derivative work: Richardprins (talk) – Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0

The capital of the new Kingdom  of Israel, as you may have noted, is a city called Samaria. As you can see, the vast majority of the land that was actually a part of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah are what is now Judea & Samaria (also known as the West Bank).

So. Towards the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The ten tribes who lived in that kingdom were scattered throughout the vast empire–and were lost to history. In the ancient world, conquered peoples were often scattered like that with the purpose of disconnecting them from their homelands and assimilating them, and in the case of the ten tribes, it mostly worked. Here and there, there are stories of communities in Asia and Africa that maintained some semblance of Jewish practice, who may be descendants of the ten lost tribes.

Yehudim (Judans, Judeans… Jews)

So then we were left with the Kingdom of Judah. Its citizens were descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The Babylonians conquered it, destroyed the first Temple, and tried to do the with the Judans what the Assyrians did with the other ten tribes. But somehow, by some miracle that no historian or anthropologist can quite explain, we resisted assimilation, and maintained a strong core of identity that eventually led to the establishment of the Second Commonwealth under the Persians. But the majority of Judans stayed in Persia and Babylonia even when the second Temple was rebuilt.

The first time we are collectively referred to as yehudim is in the Scroll of Esther. In Chapter 1, it says, “There was an ish yehudi (a man of Judah) and his name was Mordekhai the son of Kish, an ish yemini (a man of the tribe of Benjamin).” This sentence effectively shows that the tribes of Judah (Yehuda) and Benjamin had become one, and were now both referred to as “Yehudim.”

Jew, jueu, juif, Jude, judío, yahud, yid (as in Yiddish)–all these terms are derived from the Hebrew name Yehuda.

Zionists, Israel, and Israelis

As you know, the term “Zionist” is not synonymous with “Jew” at all. (Unless, of course, you are an antisemite under the guise of an Israel-hater, but let’s not get into that.) In fact–you are a Zionist. A Zionist is simply a person who believes that the Jews have the right to self-determination in our historic homeland. The word comes from Zion, one of the names of the city of Jerusalem.

After the UN presented the Partition Plan in 1947, and it seemed like the establishment of a Jewish State was something that might actually happen in the near future, a question arose: what should the state be called?

The answer was not obvious.

In the course of writing this letter it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know the background for why the name “Israel” was chosen. So I Googled it, and found a letter that Aaron Reuveni, a writer and translator, sent to Haaretz in 1965. Reuveni claims that he is the one who suggested the name, and gave a description of his deliberation regarding the question. (Hebrew speakers can read it here.)

For two millennia we were identified as Jews–former citizens of the ancient kingdom of Judah. And the last time Jews had autonomy in the Holy Land, it was in a Roman province called Judea. So it would make sense to call it by one of those names.

But. The vast majority of the historic region of Judea was not included in the land designated for the Jews under the Partition Plan. “How can we call a country Judea when Jerusalem and Hebron are not inside it, and the Judean Mountains lie beyond its borders?” writes Reuveni. “Zion” was also considered and rejected, because Jerusalem was not going to be the exclusive capital of the Jewish state, and there can’t be a “Zion” without Jerusalem.

Another reason not to go with Judea, or with “the Jewish State” as an official name, was that that identity came to define our people when we were already in exile. The establishment of the State was a return to our roots. Reuveni writes that the numismatic evidence from throughout history indicates, “without a doubt: the Kingdom of Judah falls, but am yisrael chai (the Nation of Israel lives on).” He explains that while the use of “Judea” continued to appear on the coinage from the Hasmonean period, once the Romans took over, the use of the term disappeared; but during the Great Revolt (the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73 CE), the very first coin minted used the name “Israel” to refer to the land. This indicates that that name had returned to use.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3896426
Coin from the period of the First Jewish Revolt, circa 68 CE. The side with the fleur-de-lis says, “Holy Jerusalem,” and the other side says “Shekel Israel” (=Israeli shekel).

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0

Reuveni further argues: “An individual is a Jew, perhaps, but the collective is Israel.” It’s true; even when we were referring to ourselves as Jews, the term “Israel” was and still is often applied to communities or to the entire Jewish people as a collective. In Yiddish, for example, kehillos yisroel (the communities of Israel) referred to Jewish communities; klal yisroel and am yisroel were used to refer to the entire Jewish people.

So the name Israel was chosen, and became a modern national identity. In his letter, Reuveni addresses the question of non-Jewish residents of the land: “Won’t the non-Jews protest that the name ‘Israeli’ is being imposed upon them?” he writes. “What right and reason do they have to protest? The Jews who live in Syria are called Syrian Jews; the Arabs who will live in the State of Israel will be called Israeli Arabs.”

And so it was. 🙂

I think the whole discussion emphasizes how much of an anomaly Judaism is as an identity. The Israeli identity is a lot easier to explain: it’s a national identity, like French, German, Chilean, Malaysian. Judaism remains ambiguous and hard to pin down; it means very different things to different people. It can be a national identity, an ethnic identity, a racial identity, a cultural identity, and/or a religious identity. For me, it is all of the above.

Love,

Daniella

Between the Lines of the Scroll of Esther

Dear Josep,

As you know, I have always dearly loved the holiday of Purim. But not only because of the costumes. The story of Esther is really a great story, and the Scroll, if you look at it carefully, is quite a literary masterpiece. Especially when you learn how to cantillate it (or parts of it) for the congregation, as I have, you notice some really interesting things about it.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that occurred to me this year when I read along at the Megillah reading.

First: “Esther would not tell her lineage or her nationality, as Mordekhai had commanded her, for Esther kept Mordekhai’s orders as she had when she was raised by him.” (Esther 2:20)

Why?

Seriously, why did Mordekhai tell her to keep her lineage secret?

This wasn’t, like, Nazi Germany here. The king was clearly indifferent towards Jews, seeing them as just another group of people in his vast empire. There isn’t a clear indication in the text about the general feeling of the population towards Jews–just that of Haman, the villain.

And, I mean… think about this. You saw me trying to observe Judaism in a non-Jewish environment that was indifferent to my practices. Imagine if I had tried to keep the fact that I was Jewish secret. Wouldn’t that have made life so much harder for all of us?! Not that telling them that I was Jewish and had certain religious needs actually helped me, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The Judaism of Esther’s day was quite different from how we practice today, but she still had to keep kosher and observe Shabbat. Imagine a queen who refuses to eat anything but fresh vegetables at the royal banquet–or one who insists on only hiring Jewish cooks, and mysteriously retreats into her quarters and does nothing one day per week. Couldn’t she just have told them to begin with that she was Jewish, and made it clear that attending to her needs would be more trouble than it was worth? “Look, guys, this is all a big misunderstanding; I may be pretty and all, but I am high maintenance on a totally different level than all these other ladies here. Maybe let’s just call this off and I go home?”

Esther
“Seriously guys, I am super uncomfortable with all this.”

But actually, she comes off as extremely low-maintenance: “And when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Avihayil, Mordekhai’s uncle, who had taken her for a daughter, came to go in to the king, she requested nothing, except what Hegai, the king’s chamberlain, the guard of the women, would say, and Esther found favor in the eyes of all who beheld her.” (Esther 2:15)

So. Why didn’t she tell?

My theory about this is that the Scroll of Esther assumes that we know about an unspoken hatred of Jews that existed throughout the kingdom.

The reason I think that is because otherwise–the whole story with the decree against the Jews and then the decree against the decree just doesn’t make any sense.

Here’s what I mean. The story goes that Haman issued a decree in the king’s name that on the 13th of Adar, they would basically have a “Kill Jews Day.” (Like matar judíos, just without the lemonade. 😛 ) It wasn’t a Nazi-style systematic extermination of the Jews he was planning. He didn’t need it to come from the government or the army. All he needed to do was give permission for people who wanted to kill Jews, to just go ahead and do so.

Basically, the only thing standing between the Jews and genocide was the law.

That’s pretty disturbing.

Furthermore, when Esther begged the king to cancel the decree, he said he couldn’t–that once something had been decreed and sealed with the king’s seal, it could not be repealed. (That’s a pretty dumb rule to have, IMHO, especially when the king seems to be pretty moody and change his mind about things every few minutes. But no one asked me.) However, he said, you can issue another decree that the Jews may defend themselves when attacked.

In other words, all these decrees did, was give the green light for a war to happen. It unleashed the dark forces of hatred that were lying there in plain sight, but reined in in the name of law and order. “To destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, from young to old, little children and women, and their spoils to be taken as plunder.” There were people out there, tens of thousands of people, who were perfectly happy to take a day to just slaughter their Jewish neighbors in cold blood and steal their property–and this was a fact that was known and accepted as a given.

So no, maybe it wasn’t like Nazi Germany. It was more like Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where the local population, once given the green light to murder and plunder their Jewish neighbors, rose to the occasion with great enthusiasm.

In Chapter 9 of the Scroll of Esther it recounts the day of the war. The Jews gathered together and stood up to their enemies, and killed around 76,000 people–“but on the spoils they did not lay their hand.” They wanted it to be clear that this was a war of self-defense, not for personal gain.

Good thing the UN wasn’t around at the time, because we all know how they would have spun it. 😛

Anyway, back to Esther and Mordekhai. In the middle of the story, you find a highly poignant conversation between the queen and her uncle. Mordekhai tells her she must go to the king to plead for the lives of her people. This is how she responds:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who comes to the king, into the inner court, who is not summoned, there is but one law for him, to be put to death, except the one to whom the king extends the golden scepter, that he may live, but I have not been summoned to come to the king these thirty days.” (Esther 4:11)

Okay. Back up a minute here.

Why was it necessary for Esther to physically walk into the king’s inner court? We know from the rest of the story that all she did when she was there was invite him to a party, where she would invite him to another party, where she would finally plead with him for her people. Clearly, she was in no rush. Couldn’t she have sent a messenger to invite him to the party? Why did she have to risk her life?

Even if she couldn’t have sent a messenger, couldn’t she have done what Haman does two chapters later?  “And the king said, ‘Who is in the court?’ And Haman had come to the outside court of the king’s house, to petition the king to hang Mordekhai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.” (Esther 6:4) Meaning, apparently, there was an outer court, where people who wanted to see the king could come wait for permission to have an audience with him. Why couldn’t Esther go to the outer court and wait there? Surely someone would notice her and tell the king!

I was not able to find anyone asking this question in the rabbinic commentaries I checked. (If anybody finds something on this, let me know!)

So here’s Perush Daniella–based on the bits and pieces of related teachings I have heard. I’m going to do that Weird Jewish Thing where I answer a question with another question: Speaking of Esther’s method of getting the message across to the king, why the whole song and dance, with the two banquets? Why didn’t she just tell him right away? Okay, so maybe in his court there were a bunch of other guys around and she didn’t want everyone to hear what she needed to say to him. So she invited him to a private banquet with Haman. That makes sense. But then she still didn’t tell him! She said, “Come to another banquet tomorrow, and then I’ll tell you.”

Why all the mystery?! Spit it out, girl!

I took a class once where the teacher argued that Esther was making skilful use of dramatic tension to turn the tides against Haman. She wanted to make 100% sure that she had the king’s attention and sympathy on this matter, and she only had one chance to ask. So she did everything she could to pique his curiosity and make him crazy to know what she wanted. And we know she succeeded, because “On [the] night [after the banquet], the king’s sleep was disturbed…” (Esther 6:1) It doesn’t specify what was troubling him, but it’s easy to imagine him tossing and turning over his wife’s mysterious request. If you’ve ever had a woman tell you “We need to talk” and then make you wait to find out what is bothering her, you will understand his agony!

So I think the reason Esther needed to appear in his inner court was just that. “And it came to pass when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she won favor in his eyes, and the king extended to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the end of the scepter.” (Esther 5:2)

“When the king saw…”

He needed to see her.

He needed to see her lovely face, sad, pale, and weary from three days of fasting. It would be easy to shrug off a messenger or written invitation to a banquet. But to have the queen standing there, risking her life to come speak to you… he must have been crazy with curiosity. And that’s exactly what she needed.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.

Love,

Daniella

From Haman to Hitler: The Idea of Amalek

Dear Josep,

Adar II began this past Friday, so Purim is coming right up next week! This coming Shabbat, then, is known as “Shabbat Zachor”–the Shabbat where we read a passage from the Torah called “Zachor,” “Remember.” Here is the passage:

Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all the enemies surrounding you, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.

(Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

All men are required by Jewish law to hear this passage read in the synagogue on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim.

The commandment mentioned in this passage is one of the most difficult to swallow in the entire Torah. What could possibly be so awful about a particular nation that God would command us to commit genocide against them–men, women, children, and even livestock, completely obliterating any trace of their existence? Is God such a vengeful God that He would have us collectively punish a nation just because of something nasty their ancestors did to us once?! Isn’t this against the very concepts of justice and human rights that the Torah was supposed to be introducing to the world?! And why did God place the responsibility to obliterate Amalek in our hands? Isn’t He perfectly capable of collapsing civilizations through means other than warfare?

And anyway, who is this Amalek? Why is it so important to remember what they did to us in the desert?

And what does any of this have to do with Purim?!?!

To quote you upon exiting your first Jewish prayer service: “So many questions.” 😉

Last things first: the connection between Purim and the commandment of wiping out Amalek is very clear. Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was an Amalekite. Specifically, he is called “Haman the Agagite.” Agag was an Amelekite king who was defeated by King Saul in Samuel I 15. In that chapter, King Saul spared Agag’s life and that of some of his livestock. This was a direct violation of the commandment to wipe out Amalek, and he was severely punished for it; it was the sin that caused God to revoke his crown and pass the kingship to David!

So it seems that Haman’s very existence was the result of Saul’s failure to fulfill this commandment.

But mentioning the commandment before Purim is not just because it is relevant to the story of Purim. We read that passage to help us understand that Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia was not a once-off event. It was not a fluke, and Haman did not stand alone. He was just another manifestation of an epic spiritual battle that has been raging in our world since the dawn of humanity.

There is a movie called “One Night with the King” that tells the story of Purim. As movies go, it’s not the greatest, but it does have its moments. One interesting moment in the movie depicts Esther going to see what Haman is up to. She comes across him rallying his followers against the Jews. You will recognize the significance of the imagery right away. (The movie should start at the beginning of the relevant scene, which begins around 1hr 6min into the movie. You’ll get the idea within a minute or two, but listen to what Haman is saying about the Jews and what they represent, especially around 1hr8min.)

Here’s a screenshot in case you missed this:

A detail from Haman's rally. Subtlety is not one of this film's strong points.
The symbol of Haman’s “movement” from the movie.

What’s interesting is that using the image of the swastika is not just a cheap reference to Nazism. The swastika actually has its origins in that part of the world. It is an ancient Eastern symbol. The Nazis appropriated it because they claimed that the Aryan race had its origins in that part of the world, too.

Not that the film is a paradigm of historical accuracy in its use of symbolism; it also employs the Jewish star, and as we’ve discussed, that wasn’t actually an exclusively Jewish symbol until very recently. But this “interpretation” given by the movie hints at what Jews have been saying for 70 years: that the Nazis, like Haman, were the spiritual heirs of Amalek.

So… what does that mean?

Back in September I came across this fascinating article about Hitler’s antisemitism. I think it’s really required reading for anyone, and especially someone like you who is obsessed with WWII. 😉

In high school we were taught that one of the principles of Nazi ideology was that the Jews invented morality and the idea of human rights, human conscience, mercy, and ethics. As high school students we were like, “Um… this is a bad thing?”

According to Hitler, yes. Because he believed that the “natural order” was racial anarchy. Basically that humans should be like animals, the stronger “clans” taking up as much territory as they could. He believed that this whole business of “kindness” and “compassion” disturb that natural order.

And who introduced these ideas to humanity and infected the world with this terrible idea of having a conscience? The Jews, of course. And the only way to rid the world of these ideas was to rid the world of that race that introduced them, that embodies them, that represents and continues to perpetuate them.

In a sense, he was right. The ideas of human rights, conscience, ethics, morality–those are Jewish ideas and were spread by us and by our “daughter religions,” Christianity and Islam, in a world that was a lot more like what Hitler envisioned. These days people associate religion with violence and intolerance, as though religion brought these concepts to the world, when in fact it is the exact opposite; though Christians, Muslims and sometimes Jews fell short of our ideals, the fact is that the world is far less violent and intolerant than it used to be, and that is largely thanks to the widespread adoption of monotheism and the principles of the Abrahamic faiths.

But this is where Hitler was twisted. He thought that we were much better off before. That violence and intolerance were a natural part of life and the world was better off with humans in constant conflict with one another and the strong ruling over the weak. And it was the Jews, he argued–correctly!–that “perverted” the world from this “ideal” state.

That is why it was more important to him to destroy Jewish lives than to save German ones. He thought the German race was the superior one, but he wasn’t sure, and he was okay with it getting destroyed if the natural order was restored. Because more than he wanted to rule over a master race, he saw it as his life’s mission to restore the world to its “natural order.” And if that meant allowing other, stronger “races” to destroy his, so be it–as long as he rescued the world from the pestilence of Jewish conscience.

This is very different from the general view that he was this evil, megalomaniacal madman consumed with hatred and spite.

Hitler really thought he was saving the world.

Amalek, as a concept, is precisely this ideology. “Social Darwinism.” “Survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strong should be allowed to prosper, and that it is against the natural order of things to help the weak. There is no place in this world for mercy and compassion. There is only power.

This is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for.

He encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God.” The Amalekites had no respect for human dignity. They prayed on the Israelites “at the rear”–the old, the weak, and the weary, for no reason other than the fact that they were weak. As a nation, they may have gone the way of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans… but our battle with Amalek–the idea–is eternal.

It is, on the symbolic level, an externalized version of the battle between good and evil I described in this post about human nature. Amalek, yetzer hara (the “evil inclination”), the snake from the story of Adam and Eve, the Satan… in a way, these concepts are all different facets of the same thing. They are all illusions of darkness that are meant to help us learn to receive the Light.

I think this story is an archetypal allegory of the epic battle between Israel and Amalek that has waged ever since. History has shown us that the “spiritual heirs of Amalek” often target the Jews as their first victims. “It often starts with the Jews; it never ends with the Jews,” the grim saying goes.

While the truth of this idea resonates for me,  it does not allay my discomfort with the practical, non-symbolic aspect of this commandment. Some may argue that when it came to Amalek, there was no such thing as an innocent civilian…. but really? Newborn babies? Sheep? Cattle? I can stomach the idea that as a culture it was dangerous and needed to be wiped out… but isn’t there a gentler, more compassionate alternative than genocide? :-/

Thankfully, the actual Amalek nation having disappeared from the face of the earth long ago, it is not really a practical issue. Still, it’s something to struggle with… as we’ve elaborated in the past.

May we all merit to see the obliteration of the ideology of Amalek in our days.

Love,

Daniella


Before I go, I just want to once again draw your attention to my husband’s podcast, Jewish Geography.  Occasionally I read a letter to Josep as a segment on the show, and every time I do, I add a link to the relevant podcast at the top of that post. Last week he featured me reading “The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies!” and despite the bleak subject matter, it is a rather entertaining listen. 😉 Don’t forget to subscribe!

A Preponderance of Evidence

Dear Josep,

On Friday afternoon we were driving to my parents’ house to spend Shabbat there. It’s about an hour’s ride from here–out of the Judean Desert, into the Jerusalem Hills, and down into the coastal plain. We like to listen to music as we drive, and as we were driving, the first song from the movie The Prince of Egypt came on.

You’ve seen The Prince of Egypt, right? The opening sequence shows the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. We see Jochebed, Moses’s mother, slipping past the Egyptian soldiers down to the Nile River, where she places baby Moses in a basket and sets him afloat. His sister Miriam watches his progress from the reeds on the riverbank, until the basket floats into to the palace of Pharoah and Moses is taken in by Pharoah’s wife. (In the Bible, it is Pharoah’s daughter who finds him, but given how true the movie stays to the Biblical narrative most of the time, I forgive them.) Here’s a video of the whole sequence with the lyrics in English.

So I was sitting there in the car, listening to the lyrics:

Deliver us
Hear our call
Deliver us
Lord of all
Remember us,
Here in this burning sand
Deliver us
There’s a land You promised us
Deliver us
To the promised land

And I looked out the window of the car, and there it was.

The Promised Land.

The Menachem Begin Highway that cuts through Jerusalem
Ta da!

And all these people driving the cars on this road? The vast majority of them are the descendants, genetic and/or spiritual, of those slaves.

I am one of them.

Screenshot from The Prince of Egypt (c) Dreamworks 1998
Mind. Blown.

I’ve lived here for 19 years now, and most of the time I don’t really think about it. But every once in a while it hits me how completely absurd it is that I am here.

How totally ridiculous it is that the Jewish people still exist at all.

How entirely outrageous it is that a tiny minority such as us has impacted global history the way we have.

How utterly insane it is that we returned from a 2,000-year exile to establish a sovereign state–despite the constant efforts of our neighbors to destroy us–and resurrect our ancient language to become our vernacular.

I grew up with these stories as fact, so it doesn’t sound all that strange to me until I realize that this stuff has never happened before. Ever. In the history of humankind. To anybody.

Except us.

Even if you don’t believe a single word of the Biblical narrative… the story of my people is truly astonishing.

It reminds me of an article I read recently about how science is increasingly making the case for “intelligent design.” Scientists are starting to realize that the odds of any planet in the universe supporting life are less than zero… including this one. In other words, knowing what we know now about the overwhelmingly improbable conditions necessary for a planet to support life, the claim that it happened by chance is now starting to sound crazier than the claim that it happened by design. Like the famous example given by Rabbi Bahya ibn Piquda in 11th century Spain: “If a man were to bring before us a page of orderly script, which could not have been written without a quill, and he says ‘Ink spilled on the page and the script arranged itself,’ we would be quick to declare his words false…” (“Duties of the Heart,” 1:6)

That awkward moment when science says that being an atheist takes a greater leap of faith than being a theist.

But for me, this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about those moments when you look around you and you see God everywhere and in everything. Sweet moments that have become a lot rarer as I’ve grown older and my view of the world has become more complex. I still have so many questions why, and they can be suffocating and overwhelming and distancing. But every once in a while He’ll find a way to remind me that there is a preponderance of evidence of His love for me.

Love,

Daniella