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)
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?”
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 76,000people–“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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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:
Hear our call
Lord of all
Here in this burning sand
There’s a land You promised us
To the promised land
And I looked out the window of the car, and there it was.
The Promised Land.
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.
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.
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.
While poking around the Internet for information on Sunday’s elections in Catalonia1, I came across this article about the preservation of the Catalan language. I had wondered myself how your people managed to maintain your language, despite hundreds of years under regimes that not only had different official languages, but tried to suppress yours. It’s actually quite remarkable. Many nations far bigger and more powerful have disappeared without a trace, and their languages with them. Yet despite the fact that there has not been an independent Catalonia for centuries, the Catalan language and culture are thriving. How have they survived?
The author of the article argues that it is precisely that attempt at suppression that made the Catalans all the more determined to preserve their language and traditions. The concept made me smile, because it sounds very familiar. You have often told me that “the Catalans are like the Jews of Spain,” and while I think Spain did a fairly outstanding job oppressing its actual Jews, I understand a little better what you mean now.
In this postmodern world of globalization, nationalism is becoming a relic of a previous age. Liberal progressives have begun to see nationalism as tribalism, the kind of grouping together that leads to hatred and discrimination and oppression of minorities. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is celebrated as an ideal vision of a peaceful world: no borders, no nations, no religions, just everybody being together as one. A liberal humanist Messianic vision, if you will.
But that song, and the idea behind it, always struck a sour chord with me. (And not just because of the unimpressive poetry. “I’m not the only one… the world will be as one,” you call that a rhyme…? Sorry, Beatles fans.) Sure, it sounds great for humans to be able to live and move freely and safely wherever they like. I’m all for that. But if you take this idea all the way, to a world that is one huge homogenized “soup” of humanity, removing all differences… wouldn’t this come at the expense of diversity? What if each of these nations Lennon proposes to dissolve has something different and unique to contribute, influenced by the unique conditions under which it formed? Franco’s vision of a homogeneous Spain struck me as a microcosm of the problem with Lennon’s idea. He said to your people, “Oh, stop with your silly insistence on being different from the rest of us. We are all Spaniards.” While I appreciate the compassionate and respectful intentions of humanists who argue that we should all be one, and of course agree with the idea of connecting over our common humanity… on some level, aren’t they saying, “Oh, stop with your silly insistence on being different from the rest of us. We are all humans”?
And that’s without even getting into the “no religion” thing. I know that the popular opinion these days is that religion is also a destructive force, responsible for much of the violence in the world. I beg to differ: human nature is responsible for the violence in the world, and for distorting religion to justify it. I would argue the opposite: religion is responsible for introducing the concepts of self-discipline, respect and compassion for fellow man, and upholding human rights that the Western world takes for granted today. But that’s beyond the scope of this post. Hopefully I’ll write more about it in the future.
Back to Franco. Faced with his oppression, the instinct of your people was to defiantly cling to your identity. No dictator was going to tell you who you are. We Jews had much the same reaction to all the regimes that tried to oppress us.
I think that, like many other “isms” in the world, nationalism is a neutral concept that can be used for good and for evil. When using it for evil, nations use it to exclude and oppress others; but when using it for good, nations use it to know themselves, to have a strong sense of purpose, and to move forward together as a group with a common destiny. Nationalism, at its core, is the belief that your nation has its own unique and important contribution to the story of humanity–through its language, through its traditions, or through its culture. It is the assertion that you have a right to be who you are, and to love who you are, and to embrace what makes you different, as a people.
Without even getting into the question of Jewish nationalism (a.k.a. Zionism), we Jews have gotten a lot of flak for referring to ourselves as the “Chosen People.” I know it sounds like an elitist idea. But it doesn’t mean we think we’re better than anyone else. It means that we believe we have an essential and unique role in the story of humanity.
And one must admit, it’s pretty hard to deny that we do. As Mark Twain famously put it in his 1899 essay, “Concerning the Jews”:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
I think a good way to explain how Jews view our role in the human story is an essay by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, a Jewish physicist and philosopher, called “If You Were God.” He proposes a thought experiment, whereby the reader is asked to imagine that he is given the mission to create a healthy and compassionate society on an island of several tribes that are belligerent and exploitative of one another. While the reader is given full “power” to do whatever he wants on the island, it is of crucial importance that he not reveal himself, because the islanders would not be able to handle it and would be reduced to a vegetable-like state of dependence on the all-powerful being that controls their island. Rabbi Kaplan’s suggested solution is to introduce a tribe of “infiltrators”–people who can teach the islanders about kindness and compassion towards one another. You can read the full essay here (and I highly recommend it, as my summary can hardly do it justice).
But I think the best summary of all is this incredible animated essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he released shortly before Rosh Hashana this year, adapted from his recent book Radical Then, Radical Now. I watched it over and over and it brought me to tears every time. Every word he says here expresses exactly how I feel about what it means to be a Jew.
Again, no one quote can do it justice, but in our context, this one is the most relevant: “I admire other civilisations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world. Aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.’ This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give. This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and still challenges the moral imagination of mankind.”
With the future of Catalan independence still uncertain, all I can do is wish you that through being what you alone are, you will give to humanity what only you can give, and pass it as a gift to the next generation, and they to the next, regardless of who holds sovereignty over Catalonia. Your people has already proven its stamina in preserving its uniqueness under challenging conditions. May you always take pride in your people, and use your nationalism to spread your unique light in the world.
Oh and by the way, I hear that among the first steps the Catalan government is planning to take towards independence, is setting up the foreign office and embassies in other countries.
*cough* Just saying.
1. For those who have no idea what we’re talking about: on September 27th, a very important general election was held in Catalonia (where Josep is from), which is currently an autonomous region in Spain that has been mulling secession for a long time. The election was important because the question of declaring independence was the top item on the agenda, and the winning party had committed to seceding from Spain within 18 months. Things are uncertain, however, since that party did not win an absolute majority, meaning it must create a coalition, and it has significant differences with the other pro-separation party in the parliament. Of course, the government of Spain refuses to accept the idea of Catalonia’s secession, and will do whatever it can to prevent it, further complicating matters. The situation will hopefully become more clear after the coalition is made, and especially after the general elections in Spain in December. (How’d I do, Josep?)↩
2. The flag flown by Catalan separatists, La Estelada, features the Senyera–the red and yellow striped Catalan flag–with a blue triangle on the left that has a white five-point star on it. Nu, so I added a point.↩
So there I was, innocently Googling around, trying to find an accurate English translation of a lovely pearl attributed to King Fernando: “Limonada que trasiego, judío que pulvarizo.” (“Trust me, you don’t want a translation of that,” says you.1 If you think that’s bad, keep reading.) I mean, I had the basic idea, but the sentence structure is unnatural to English, and I wanted to be sure I understood. Finally, I managed to find a site that gave a decent translation. I’m not linking to it here, and here’s why: it was a blog in English, written by a European Muslim, containing information about how the “Jewish lobby” in Spain controls the media, and Israel is the root of all evil, and there is a Jewish scholar who confirms that blood libels were actually true.
So today, I’m going to offer up a counter to The Crazy on my little corner of the Internet, by discussing some antisemitic stereotypes and myths, and debunking them. (I should qualify this for your sake and mention that you actually probably know most, if not all and more, of this. Well, write your own blog. 😛 )
The Blood Libel
Right. So this myth is the most infamous of them all. The claim is that Jews sometimes kidnap non-Jewish children, kill them, and use their blood to bake matzah, the special bread of Passover.
…Now, anybody who knows anything about Jews or Judaism knows that this is an utterly preposterous accusation. Setting aside the shocking reprehensibility of such a thing and the fact that kidnapping and killing a child of any origin is strictly prohibited by the Torah, there are another two simple, technical reasons why the claim holds no water:
1) No part of a human, or anything produced by the human body, is kosher–except mother’s milk (and then there are mixed opinions about whether adults may drink that). Even more so, there is is specific thing about blood–albeit the Biblical prohibition is against consuming animal blood (even from kosher animals), but human blood is also prohibited by Jewish law.
…Given how obsessive-compulsive Jews are about the laws of kashrut and Passover, the mere notion that Jews would do this at all, let alone as a religious ritual, is so completely out there, it’s not even… it’s just… it’s…. I… just no.
So how did it become such a popular lie?
Well, accusing a people of cannibalism is a highly effective way to dehumanize them. The blood libel actually predates Christianity–Apion, a Greek historian in Alexandria from the 1st century, describes the priests at the Temple cooking and eating Greeks as part of the religious ritual. But during the Middle Ages, it gained particular popularity because it fit well into the Christian narrative about the Jews and their role in the world. The narrative, as you know, is that the Jews were supposed to be God’s chosen people, but we screwed up when we rejected Jesus, so God rejected us and scattered us throughout the Diaspora as a symbol of what happens to people who do not accept Jesus. Our status as a persecuted minority suited this narrative very nicely. Furthermore, think about the idea of communion: according to Catholic tradition, the unleavened bread (which is rather similar to matzah) and the wine not only symbolize the flesh and blood of Jesus, but actually become his flesh and blood, and consuming it is part of an important weekly ritual in your faith. Accusations of Jews desecrating the Host and otherwise sabotaging proper Christian observances were very common, so you could see how the blood libel would fit into all that.
These days, the blood libel has shifted from Christian lands to Muslim lands. Fanning the flames of Jew hatred is not particularly difficult, and antisemitic Muslims gladly adopt the classic Christian tropes that confirm what they want to believe about Jews. A video was recently circulated showing Sheikh Khaled al-Mughrabi, a religious teacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the payroll of the Waqf, giving a sermon that comprised an impressively comprehensive list of antisemitic tropes both ancient and modern. One of the things he says is: “On the holiday of Passover it is forbidden for them to eat regular bread. These matzahs were not kneaded in the regular way, but rather with the blood of children. In the end it reached the point where they were burned in Germany, because of these things, because they kidnapped young children.”
Now I’m going to repeat this again in case someone missed it: the blood libel is an outrageous and ridiculous lie, easily debunked by learning the first thing about Jews and Judaism. Unfortunately, most antisemites don’t bother to do so.
Antisemitic? But Arabs Are Semites Too!
Yes, Arabs are Semites too. “Antisemitism” is a fairly inane term for what was previously referred to as judenhass–Jew hatred. It was first used in the 19th century, when Western European thinkers began to speak of “Semitic” races as being inferior from “Aryan” races. These people were talking specifically about Jews, not Arabs. So antisemitism became the accepted term to describe hatred of Jews; possibly because it sounded more “sterile,” more “scientific,” than “Jew hatred.” I know that some people–for example, that Catalan former politician you admire, Pilar Rahola–prefer “Judeophobia”. The problem with “Judeophobia” is that it implies that what we are talking about is fear of Jews, not hatred of Jews. (“Islamophobia,” which has become the accepted term for hatred of Muslims, has the same problem.) Some prefer “Anti-Judaism,” but that implies a hatred of Judaism as a religion as opposed to Jews as people.
So, I stick with “antisemitism”, for lack of a more accurate term that is widely recognized.
Unfortunately, the “Arabs are Semites too!” argument is often used to distract from the very real problem of Arab antisemitism, as if the semantics mean that Arabs can’t actually hate Jews. The numbers show otherwise. According to the recent ADL global survey on antisemitism, 49% of Muslims worldwide harbor antisemitic attitudes; in the Middle East and North Africa, that number rises to 75%. The prevalence of antisemitism in Arab lands is substantially higher than anywhere else in the world.
So attempting to redefine antisemitism as hatred of Jews and Arabs is not constructive and possibly harmful, because it takes away the power of that one universally recognized term for hatred of Jews. When we don’t have a specific name for something, it is much harder to fight it. While racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia are all types of bigotry that stem from the same dark places of fear of the “other” in the human psyche, they are also distinct and have different causes and characteristics, and should not be lumped together.
And now, back to you Christians:
The Jews Killed Jesus
Ummm no. That would be the Romans.
Well… there are some ways of interpreting some passages from the Gospels in a way that would make you think we were responsible. This was used to justify a lot of violence against us in the past. In 1965, the Catholic Church released a declaration, Nostra aetate, which states the following: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
The Jews Control the Banks and the Governments
Listen. Throughout most of European history, Jews were banned from many of the respectable and reliable trades–not allowed to join guilds, own land, etc. So we were forced to be creative, think outside the box, and take greater financial risks. We happen to be a clever and adaptive bunch, who rose to the occasion. (And, some may argue, have a special fairy dust of Divine assistance. 😉 ) As a result, sometimes, some of us became very wealthy. Furthermore, because of the Christian ban against loaning money with interest, moneylending became a good way to make a living, since it was in high demand. Education is of utmost importance in Jewish society, and we always had a higher than average literacy rate, so we were producing a lot more literate, sharp-minded people than the general population, and very often, when given the opportunity, we rose to the top faster and more easily than our non-Jewish counterparts. Kings and heads of states liked to employ Jews to handle their finances because we exhibited particular talent with economics. Unfortunately, this also meant that often we were employed as tax collectors, which obviously strengthened the hatred against us and the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbers.
On a tangent, it is interesting to compare and contrast the progress and welfare of other groups under similar circumstances. For example, the Roma people (also known as the Romani people or Gypsies) were also a persecuted minority in Europe who faced many of the same challenges that we did. I have been reading about them lately and it’s fascinating to note the parallels. As I read, I noticed two main differences between our responses to our respective persecution:
1) Jews moved in; Roma stayed out. Through much of history, the Roma people tended prefer to keep to themselves, living in the outskirts of cities or in the open country. Jews, on the other hand, clustered around cities whenever they could, and when given the opportunity, often dove right in to try and have a positive influence on their “host” societies.
2) Jews preferred to remember; Roma preferred to forget. We Jews carry our history around with us like a great weight on our shoulders. We cling to it because for us, it defines who we are, and helps us remember our purpose and goals in the world. As a general rule, this is not true of the Roma. They prefer to shed the weight of the past and live in the present. The study of the history of the Roma, and campaigns to cultivate and preserve Roma culture, are relatively recent phenomena. They suffered greatly throughout the 1,000 or so years of their presence in Europe, from persecution to massacres to slavery, but according to what I read, if you ask a Roma about the history of his people, he is most likely to shrug and say he doesn’t know. Contrast this to the Jewish tradition of holding a Passover Seder every year. This clinging to our past deepened our roots, our identity and our passion.
I think both of the above preferences worked in our favor in contrast to the Roma.
The Jews Are Secretly Plotting World Domination
So… if you look at world history and the influence of the Jews on the events and culture of humanity, I can see how you might think something fishy is going on here. Jews make up a fraction of one percent of the world population. And yet our presence is strongly felt in all positions of influence, especially the sciences, medicine, and entertainment, completely out of proportion to our objective numbers. Ashkenazi Jews make up 2.2% of the USA population, but they represent 30% of faculty at elite colleges, 21% of Ivy League students, 25% of the Turing Award winners, 23% of the wealthiest Americans, and 38% of the Oscar-winning film directors. 22% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish. How does that make sense?
Basically there are three possible explanations:
1) We are a particularly gifted group of people. Cambridge University published a study that found that Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ that is 20% higher than the global average, so this is a fairly solid theory. You might explain this in a variety of ways–our strong emphasis on education, for example, and building a culture in which smarter people were more likely to have lots of children (as opposed to medieval Christian society, where all the gifted people went off to become priests, monks, and nuns…).
2) The aforementioned “Divine fairy dust”
3) It’s a conspiracy!!!
Well… you’d think if we were running the world, we’d be a little better at getting people to like us, no? The recent ADL survey I mentioned found that 1 in 4 adults in the world harbor antisemitic attitudes. 1 in 4! The blog I mentioned at the top of the post which complained about the “Jewish lobby” controlling the Spanish media… I can hear you laughing at that one all the way from here. You have to be a special kind of crazy to watch the mainstream news–especially in Europe–and think that it portrays Jews (not to mention Israel) positively.
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”
“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
Long story short, if we’re plotting world domination, we suck at it.
But, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion!
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an antisemitic hoax first published in Russia in 1903, which claims to be the protocols from a meeting of Jews in which they discuss their plot for world domination. It was exposed as fraudulent by The Times of London in 1921, and stands as one of the best-known and most-discussed examples of literary forgery. Wikipedia covers it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book, along with Mein Kampf, still enjoys great popularity, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
So It’s Not the Basis for Zionism?
No, it’s the basis for a lot of antisemitism, is what it is. Zionism is nothing more than Jewish nationalism: the belief that the Jewish people has a right to an independent state in its historic homeland. Those who claim it to be anything else–racism, an ideology involving the oppression of others, part of an overall Jewish plot to dominate the world–are merely subscribing to the old antisemitic tropes. The Jews are a nation and have as much a right to nationalism as the French, the Argentinians, the Japanese and the Catalans. As you know very well, modern antisemites have found that they can get away with a lot of the same things if they simply switch the word “Jew” to “Zionist.” But we can’t get too far into the connection between antisemitism and criticism of Israel, ’cause we’ll be here all day.
So, back to the Jews and the media:
The Jews Control the Media
No, we don’t. However, we do have a disproportionately high presence in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Jews practically invented the entertainment industry in the USA. Why is this? Well… it is known that a lot of the best art is produced from a deep place of struggle and suffering, and if that’s the case, the Jews had a lot of material to work with. More than that, I have always said that dark humor is the #2 Jewish coping mechanism… right after kvetching (=Yiddish for “complaining”) 😉 We practically invented stand-up comedy because… we are funny. Making light of tough situations is our specialty; we’ve been at it for at least 2,000 years. The Talmud itself has lots of jokes. “Jewish humor” is defined in Wikipedia thus: “The long tradition of humour in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash from the ancient Middle East, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal and often anecdotal humour originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years, including in secular Jewish culture. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American and Russian comedians have been Jewish.”
This is not because we are trying to take over the world and brainwash your children. It’s because we have something to say, and we’re good at saying it; and we have endured a lot, and channeling the struggles through creative expression, particularly of the humorous sort, is an excellent way to cope with them, one which is encouraged in our culture. When I studied medical clowning, we had a class about the use of humor as a coping mechanism during the Holocaust. The lecturer brought examples of jokes that were told in the concentration camps, and I remember being astonished that they could possibly find these things funny. “You had to be there,” I guess? (No thanks.) But as I mentioned in my “updates” from the war last summer, I find great relief in using humor this way during tough times, and fortunately for me, it strongly characterizes Israeli culture. Just recently, under the shadow of what we feel is a very dangerous deal with Iran, the Israeli phone company Bezeq produced a completely ridiculous advertisement featuring a Bezeq salesman bursting into the Iranian parliament, preventing them from “pressing the red button” at the last minute, to deliver his sales pitch. Here’s an Op-Ed from the Times of Israel describing what is so quintessentially Israeli about the ad, and what it expresses about the Israeli spirit in times like these.
The Jews Are Greedy and Cheap
This myth is rooted in everything described above. I think all you need to bust it is to check out some listings of Jewish charities and free lending societies, or take a look at how many Jews are involved in philanthropy. In a 2010 survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 5 out of the 6 top philanthropists in the USA were Jewish. 19 out of the 53 named were Jewish. (Remember how we mentioned that Jews make up only 2.2% of the population in the USA…?)
Charity is a very important commandment in Jewish law. In fact, the Hebrew word for charity is צדקה, tzedaka, from the root צ.ד.ק. which means “justice”. The word “charity” comes from the Latin root carus, meaning “dear”, and the Old French word charite, love for one’s fellows. The word “charity” connotes that giving to the poor is a thing you do out of the goodness of your heart. The word “tzedaka” connotes that giving to the poor is a thing you do because it is just. We are required, by Jewish law, to give 10% of our income to the needy.
Aside from all that, I’ll state the obvious: Jews are people. Some of us are tall, some short. Some introverted, some extroverted. Some nice, and some mean. Some generous, and some greedy. Just like every other society.
The Jews Are Traitors
It’s not hard to see where this one came from. Jews were always “the other,” “the outsider,” and often maintained connections with their brethren in foreign lands. We sometimes looked different and spoke a weird version of the local language. For most of history Jews weren’t even recognized as citizens in their host countries.
In modern times, this manifests as believing that all Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their native countries. The fact is that countries that are hostile to Israel tend to be just as hostile to Jews, so that’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. In any case, Jews have faithfully served in most modern European armies as well as the US and Canadian armies, and many of us are very proud of our native countries.
The Jews Are [Whatever You Hate]
If you make a list of the complaints against Jews over the course of history, you’ll come across a pretty amazing pattern. It looks something like this:
The Jews are filthy rich and greedy
The Jews are dirt poor and disgusting
The Jews are arrogant and elitist and refuse to mingle with non-Jews
The Jews are taking all our jobs and trying to infect the purity of our race by marrying our women
The Jews are capitalist pigs
The Jews are communists
The Jews are immoral and cheat and lie
The Jews invented the socialist sense of morality and the idea that we should help the weak, to undermine the strength and purity of our race
The Jews are uncultured peasants
The Jews are infiltrating our art, culture and science to infect it with their inferior ideas
Jews are all dark, and therefore inferior
Jews are all white, and therefore enjoy “white privilege” and oppress non-white minorities
We can’t win, can we?
In his book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg describes how, since ancient times, Jews have been used as the ultimate symbol of the “other.” In this way, antisemitism differs from other forms of racism; it is not just the Jews who are hated, but the idea of Jews. Something about hatred of Jews transcends time, space, and divides between cultures; it seems to be embedded deep in the core of Western identity. That’s how antisemitism remains just as strong, if not stronger, in countries where no Jews are present. Spain–which was “Judenrein” for around 450 years–is a good case study on this. Up until the 1970’s, you could still find people “throwing stones” where the Jewish quarter used to be on Good Friday. And it was you who brought my attention to a lovely Holy Week tradition in northern Spain called “matar judíos“–“kill Jews.” Today, the phrase in that context means drinking spiked lemonade. One can imagine what it used to mean. (And the reason I was looking for that quote from King Fernando was because some say the tradition evolved from it.)
Jews Have Big Noses
Apparently, this stereotype developed through Christian depiction of Jews in art throughout the Middle Ages. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that we were depicted as classical villains, and it is common for villains to be portrayed as ugly and with exaggerated features. Here is an article about the evolution of the “Jewish nose” trope.
While we’re here and talking about distinctly Jewish features… as mentioned above, the European stereotype was that Jews were dark, often with curly dark hair, brown eyes, maybe dark skin. As opposed to this fair, blue-eyed child with typically “Aryan” features.
THE JEWS ARE SUPER AWESOME (except when they’re not)
So in contrast to all this ickiness from Europe, you have bizarre phenomena like the popularity of the Talmud (or more accurately, a sort of distorted, abridged, reworked version of it that resembles Aesop’s Fables more than the actual Talmud) in South Korea. In East Asia you are much more likely to find people who have positive stereotypes of Jews… basically that we are all geniuses. We recently had a friend over for Shabbat who has lived and spent a lot of time in East Asia, and he told us about some guy who said that when he was a child, the doctors were very impressed with his intelligence and said that he “has the brain of a Jew.”
But this is still harmful, because it is very easy to cross the bridge between “the Jews are all geniuses” to “the Jews are geniuses and they won’t share their wealth with us.” The same South Korea that is obsessed with the Talmud came off very badly in that ADL survey on antisemitism: 53% of South Korean adults harbor antisemitic attitudes. Ouch.
Stereotyping is harmful no matter how positive.
People are idiots.
1. Roughly, “For every lemonade I drink, I will crush a Jew.” King Fernando (also known as Ferdinand) and Queen Isabel (also known as Isabella) were the King and Queen of Spain in 1492, who kicked off the Spanish Inquisition and expelled all the Jews from Spain. Yeah. We are not fans.↩
I mentioned before that the 17th of Tamuz marks the beginning of a period of symbolic mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Practically speaking, what this means is that we observe the same customs of symbolic mourning that we do during the first 33 days of the Omer: we don’t attend live concerts (and have varying customs on what kind of music we listen to), don’t buy new clothes, and don’t get haircuts (and men don’t shave their beards). In Hebrew, the period of the Three Weeks is called “Bein HaMetzarim.” This is could be cleverly translated into English as, “Between the Dire Straits.” (Since you are not a native English speaker, I want to make sure you understand this: “Meitzar” is both a “strait”, as in a channel connecting two bodies of water, and a flowery Biblical word for trouble or distress. “Dire straits” is an English expression that means “very serious trouble.” Google translates the phrase into Catalan as “dificultats.” Sounds like an understatement to me….) The Sages teach that this is a period during which “the Prosecutor speaks against us” (as in Satan; see my section on the Jewish concept of Satan in The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife), meaning that God judges us more harshly. So we try to kind of “lay low” during this period, avoiding important business interactions or other endeavors that require Divine assistance.
From the first day of the month of Av (or if you’re Sephardi–which, um, I guess you are! :P–from the Saturday night before Tisha B’Av), the symbolic mourning intensifies. Ashkenazim call this period “the Nine Days.” Sephardim call it, “hashavua sheḥal bo,” “the Week on Which It Falls.” We no longer bathe for pleasure or wash our clothes (unless it’s necessary for hygienic purposes), and we don’t eat meat or drink wine. (I guess you Catholics might call that “fasting.” 😛 ) We also do not build houses or move into new homes during this period.
“Tisha B’Av” means the Ninth of Av, and it is the saddest day in the Jewish year. On this day, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and then, by Divine poetry (or bizarre coincidence, for those who believe in such things), the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the same date several hundred years later.
It so happens that a number of other great calamities befell the Jews on this day on the Hebrew calendar, and during this period in general. The last Jew left the shores of Spain on Tisha B’Av in 1492. A number of disasters connected to failed attempts to restore Jewish sovereignty over Judea after the destruction of the Temple also happened on Tisha B’Av. So, too, with a number of critical events during the Holocaust. Heck, just last year, I was rudely awakened on the morning of Tisha B’Av by an air raid siren… :-/ Like I said. Not a good time for the Jews.
So as I elaborated in my letter about Jewish fasts, Tisha B’Av is a major fast day, meaning that we refrain from eating, drinking, washing for pleasure, wearing leather shoes, anointing ourselves with oil, and sexual relations, from sundown to nightfall the next day. We also sit on low stools, like mourners sitting shiva, for the first part of Tisha B’Av (until midday, at which point the Temple had already been destroyed); nor do we greet each other, because we are not allowed to greet mourners, and we are all mourning on this day. On the evening of Tisha B’Av, after the usual evening prayer service, the book of Eikha (Lamentations) is read in the synagogue while everybody sits on the floor. It was written by Jeremiah the Prophet and describes the desolation in Jerusalem after its conquest by Nebuchadnezzar. Then a series of Kinnot (poetic lamentations) are read.
At midday on Tisha B’Av we begin a gradual process of emerging from mourning. We may sit on normal chairs from midday onward. After the fast ends at nightfall, we continue to observe the mourning customs of the Nine Days, until midday on the following day, the 10th of Av. The reason for this is that the Temple was still burning until midday on the 10th. Then we fully emerge from mourning. (This year, the 9th actually falls on Shabbat, and we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat, so the fast is observed on the 10th. That means that this year, we will fully emerge from mourning as soon as the fast ends.)
So. Obviously, this destruction-of-the-Temple business was seriously bad news for the Jews. One might ask: why? Why don’t we fast to commemorate other great disasters in Jewish history, like the Holocaust, or the Cossack massacres, or the Crusades, or the expulsion from Spain, or… sheesh, take your pick, we’d be fasting every day of the year! :-/
The Temple was the place where God and man embraced, where the limited physical reality of human existence touched the eternal. The very physical work that involved the service of the Temple–the sacrifices, the contributions, the incense, the rituals–were a way to tangibly connect with God. And that is why, originally, our entire religion, our entire service of God, centered around the Temple.
When God gave us the Torah, He had a vision for us. He would be our God, and we would be His people. The Holy Temple would serve as a meeting place between humanity and the Divine, not only for the Jewish people, but for the world in general. We were to serve as a model nation, showing the world what a society could look like if it follows God’s word. We were to be a “light unto the nations;” to spread morality and knowledge of God throughout the world. God promised us that if we kept His commandments and stayed loyal to Him, He would bless us and protect us, and make us a “nation of priests.” A majority of the book of Deuteronomy is a speech that Moses gives the nation of Israel in which he goes over the commandments again, along with God’s promise. But, God said, if we failed to keep the commandments, and strayed to worship other gods, He would curse us, and send us scattered from the land.
Basically, God presented us with an Ultimate Plan for the Redemption of the Universe. The plan was, we inhabit the land and set up a model kingdom right in the heart of the world, on the crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe, where most world civilizations would have the chance to come in contact with us, and thus influence them to give up idolatry and immorality and embrace God and Godliness.
Unfortunately, we failed to create this model society. We succumbed to the temptations to be like other nations, to serve other gods, including our own “evil inclinations”, and eventually God had to fulfill His promise: He destroyed our kingdom and our Temple. We lost our direct connection to Him. According to Judaism, there has been no prophesy since the destruction of the First Temple. The last of our prophets was Malachi.
The rest… I’m going to step my current self aside and give my 20-year-old self the stage. This is an excerpt from a ridiculously long letter I wrote to you eight years ago on Tisha B’Av, July 24th, 2007.
So you see… it’s not really the destruction of a building I’m mourning as I sit here close to the floor with my face unwashed and my stomach empty. It’s the destruction of a certain kind of relationship. When we were in this land with our Temple, we were so close to God. We were living as a “light unto the nations”, a kingdom to shine as an example to the nations of the world and let them see how a fair and just society can look like. But we blew it.
My eyes fill with tears as I write this. We blew it. We failed. We broke the covenant. And God could not let us live here, together, any longer. He had to disperse us among the nations, where we would be hated and persecuted for two thousand years. Where we would be massacred and expelled and tortured and ridiculed throughout the centuries. Don’t you see?
The destruction of the Temple is the root of all Jewish suffering.
If we hadn’t ruined it, if we hadn’t been so stupid, none of that would have been necessary to teach our lessons to the world! We wouldn’t have needed to suffer so much to spread our ideas! All of it, all those coincidences on Tisha B’Av, and all those massacres during the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsions from everywhere, and the pogroms, and the Holocaust–all of it was part of the Divine Plan B, implemented after we messed up Plan A.
So what now? It seems that God is knocking on our door again, by some miracle giving us back the Promised Land and Jerusalem… but again, the world is poised against us. Will we mess it up again? Or will we somehow succeed in taking this chance to reestablish that role we’ve been missing for 2,000 years?
Right now I feel the urgency of this question as our government and our society slide downhill. God doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land with leaders who lie and cheat and sexually abuse.1 He doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land selfish and divided. I do believe, with all my heart, that bringing us back to Israel was the beginning of the process of redemption… but I’m so afraid of the shaky ground on which we stand. What if He has to destroy this process and go through it all over again?
So we fast and we pray and we hope that we are strong enough, that we are ready to be what He wanted us to be. The whole purpose of the Jewish faith is to hone us into a model society, one that is loving and helpful to all others, that supports those who need support, that trusts in the One God and believes only in Him. On Tisha B’Av we long to become that society… without more suffering. Without more slaughter and bloodshed and hatred. We mourn the days that we had the chance to be that way, and we pray for a second chance in the days to come.
And that, my dear friend, is the meaning of Tisha B’Av.
May we all merit to see the redemption of humanity soon–whatever you believe that may mean. (And if you’re wondering what I believe that means… stay tuned. 😉 )
1. A few weeks before I wrote the excerpted letter in 2007, then-president of Israel Moshe Katsav resigned from his presidency after being accused of rape and sexual harassment. He was eventually found guilty, and he is currently serving a maximum sentence of 49 years in prison.↩
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And now, the post:
The 17th of the Jewish month of Tamuz falls on this coming Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the period we call “the Three Weeks,” which culminate in the major fast of Tisha B’Av, the day the Temples were destroyed. But I’ll get to that in a later post. The 17th is observed as a minor fast day. But this year the fast will be observed the following day–the 18th–because we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat. (Yom Kippur is the only exception to this rule.)
Virtually every religion on earth has some tradition of fasting. For Jews and Muslims, this means refraining from partaking in any kind of food or drink during the day. For Catholics, and other Christians who practice fasting, it is a lot more, shall we say, open to interpretation. At most, it means going without food, but not water. And it usually means reducing one’s intake or refraining from certain types of foods, generally food that has been historically considered high-class or festive such as meat, dairy, eggs, and the like.
Well, while I’m wasting away without food or water on a sweltering summer day while my kids run hyper circles around me and destroy the house, I will think of you, dear Catholics, and your self-imposed temporary veganism, and I will shed a tear. (That’s a whole drop of water that could have been in my cells. You should be deeply moved.)
Ahem. Now that I’ve got that out of my system:
Why Fast at All?
Why is it that so many religions have this tradition of reducing or refraining from eating or drinking? I think at its most basic, this is pretty simple to explain: eating and drinking are some of our very basic animal needs, but free will was given to humans by God, and fasting is using that free will to distance ourselves from our animal nature, therefore bringing us closer to our spirituality and to God.
Now, if you’ve been really paying attention all these years I’ve been gabbing at you about Judaism, you will be asking, “Wait. Aren’t you always saying that Judaism is all about sanctifying the mundane and channeling our basic human needs for a higher, holier spiritual purpose–in direct opposition to other religious concepts of distancing ourselves from the mundane?” 10 points to Ravenclaw1! You are absolutely right. In Judaism, the way we normally relate to the basic animal needs of eating and drinking, is to sanctify them–be that by using them to celebrate the Sabbath, a holiday, a mitzvah (such as a wedding or circumcision ceremony), etc., or by simply reciting a blessing over the food.
Why do we fast, then?
So the thing is, in Judaism, fasting is less about spiritual uplifting, and more about expressing grief, sadness and regret. You know how when you’re really stressed out or depressed, you can’t bring yourself to eat anything? That’s what fasting means to us. Fasting is what we do as an expression of communal grieving, or to express the regret that is essential to the process of repentance. That isn’t to say that we don’t believe in fasting as a means to spiritually cleanse ourselves and/or bring ourselves closer to God the way it is done in other religions; it’s more of an “and” than an “either/or”.
The Jewish Fast Days
As I have mentioned before, there are two major fasts on the Jewish calendar. They are Yom Kippur, and Tisha B’Av. Both of these fast days are entire blog posts in and of themselves, so I’m not going to get into too much detail here; I’ll focus on the aspect of fasting.
Yom Kippur, which means “Day of Atonement,” is unique among the Jewish fasts in that is the only Biblically proscribed fast, and also the only fast day that is also a holiday. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the 10th day of the Jewish year, and it is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The purpose of Yom Kippur is to atone for all the sins we have committed over the year. God commands us to refrain from five things–eating and drinking, sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes, and anointing ourselves with oil. The Torah says specifically that the purpose of this abstinence is to “cause ourselves to suffer.” If we do this on Yom Kippur, He promises, and sincerely repent for our sins, He will “wipe the slate clean.”
The other fasts on the Jewish calendar are all rabbinic.
Tisha B’Av, the other major fast day, is the day both Temples were destroyed, and has generally been a particularly, shall we say, unlucky day for the Jewish people. We’ll get into that in a later post.
The Fast of Gedalya, a minor fast which falls the day after Rosh Hashana, mourns the assassination of the leader of Judah after the destruction of the first Temple, killed by another Jew due to political disputes. If not for this murder, there may have been a hope of maintaining a significant and continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel even under Babylonian occupation. The murder signified the nail in the coffin of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land.
The 10th of Tevet, which falls soon after Chanukah, was the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple a few hundred years before the common era. (The exact date of the destruction is under dispute.)
The Fast of Esther, which takes place the day before Purim, commemorates the fast that Queen Esther of Persia fasted as she planned to risk her life to visit King Ahashverosh and ask him to spare the Jews.
The 17th of Tamuz commemorates the Roman breach of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Major vs. Minor Fasts
There are several differences between major and minor fasts:
1) Duration: Major fasts begin at sundown and end at nightfall the following day, meaning they last 25 hours. Minor fasts begin at daybreak and end at nightfall the same day, so they usually last somewhere between 14-18 hours (longer in the summer, obviously).
2) Restrictions: On minor fasts, we are only prohibited to eat and drink. On major fasts, we are also prohibited from the other four “afflictions” of Yom Kippur–sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes (considered to be a luxury back in the day), and anointing ourselves with oils or perfume. On Tisha B’Av, since it is a day of mourning, we also have some restrictions to do with mourning–on which I’ll elaborate in later posts.
3) Strictness: Yom Kippur is the strictest of them all–in fact, the punishment the Torah lists for eating on Yom Kippur is even more severe than that of breaking Shabbat. As a rule, every Jew above the “age of mitzvot” (twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy) is required to fast. But obviously, if fasting would put one’s life in danger, one may not fast. People who must eat and/or drink, by doctor’s orders, if possible, do so in small amounts at fixed intervals (less than “a cheekful” (around 30ml) of liquid and a matchbox-full of food every 4-9 minutes); this allows them to technically “fast” according to the guidelines of the Sages. If they can’t do this, they eat and drink normally. All Jews (barring children and those with a doctor’s order not to fast) must fast on Tisha B’Av, too; but if one has a medical reason not to fast or to break the fast, he eats and/or drinks normally, since it is a rabbinic fast and therefore less severe. Pregnant and nursing women, as a general rule, are required to fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but one should always speak to a doctor and a rabbi she trusts before fasting to get specific guidelines for when and how to eat and/or drink if she starts to feel unwell.
On minor fasts, on the other hand, anyone who is ill, pregnant, or nursing is automatically exempt, and if someone starts to feel ill or weak enough that s/he must lie down during the fast, s/he is allowed to break it.
Isn’t Fasting Torture?
This is such a First World Problem. Thank God that in our day and age people have no idea what it might be like to go an entire day without eating or drinking.
Everybody experiences fasting differently; some people are hardly affected at all, and some people are totally incapacitated by it. Most people feel kind of weak and shaky by afternoon, maybe a little dizzy; some people get headaches. Many people feel a kind of adrenaline rush towards the end of the fast, where suddenly they feel more energetic and kind of light-headed; the mood during Ne’ilah, the last prayer on Yom Kippur, often reflects this.
For most people, me included, it’s not exactly fun, but it’s not all that bad, either.
Breaking the Fast
Contrasting with Ramadan, there is no special meal on which Jews break their fasts. On Yom Kippur, the festive meal is actually eaten before the fast. On Tisha B’Av we also have a symbolic “last meal” before the fast, sitting on the floor with some bread and salt (symbolizing the poverty of our ancestors under siege), and a hard boiled egg with ashes on it, to symbolize our hope for the rebuilding of the Temple out of the ashes.
So when the fast ends, we simply eat and drink normally. In Israel there are always articles going around before Yom Kippur about what to eat before the fast (lots of “light” protein, like fish or chicken, and “slow carbs” like whole grains that take longer to digest) and after the fast. After going a full day without eating and drinking, it is recommended (from a medical standpoint) to start with some juice or other sweet drink to rehydrate and get your blood sugar back up, accompanied with a light snack like cake or crackers; then, after a little while, to have a bigger meal. Many synagogues offer some drinks and cakes to congregants after the services on Yom Kippur.
Okay, so, what is so very terrible about the destruction of the Temple, that we designate four fasts, including a major one, to mourn for it?
Stay tuned, and you shall have the answer. 😉
1. In the category of Ridiculous and Insignificant Non-Sequiturs on Which I Offer a Far Too Detailed Explanation:
In the course of writing this letter, I wanted to use the phrase “10 points to [Hogwarts House name]” to express my approval for a hypothetical good question. But I realized that, though from knowing Josep I was fairly confident he would identify with Ravenclaw, I had never discussed the matter with him. Now, I have an established tradition of sending Josep random, bizarre questions out of the blue, but this one surpassed them all. And to my shock and horror, he responded that he has never read Harry Potter. Thus, I was forced to conduct an emergency Sorting in the Hat’s absence:
So, if you, too, suffer from this grievous, gaping hole in your general knowledge, behold, an explanation: in the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are divided into four competing “houses”. Students are sorted into one of the houses according to their dominant character traits by an animate hat called the Sorting Hat. (The traits listed in my message to Josep above correspond to the houses as follows: 1. Gryffindor, 2. Ravenclaw, 3. Hufflepuff and 4. Slytherin.) Teachers can award points to a student’s house as a reward for good behavior, or take away points to punish bad behavior.
Thus: “10 points to [Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin]” is a phrase that expresses approval or celebration of achievement, especially in an academic setting.
Why am I telling you all this on a blog about Judaism and Israel? BECAUSE YOU SHOULD KNOW, THAT’S WHY. Now go read Harry Potter, you Philistine. (…In Josep’s defense, my husband, too, has this grievous, gaping hole in his general knowledge. I will forever hold this against both of them. 😛 )
(So there’s the longer answer I promised, Josep. 😉 Aren’t you glad you’ve wasted everybody’s time on this silly footnote?!)↩
So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.
As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.
A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.
In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.
Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity
So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛
The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.
That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the Karaites, a movement that emergedaround the 8th century,are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.) There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.
Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and Mizraḥim tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.
This is a general term for mainstream traditional Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.
Within this category you will find the ḥaredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because ḥaredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).
Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.
Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive sensibilities. So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative version of halakha, and there can be a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.
Now… you being a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”
So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years. While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting halakha to better suit Western values feels like taking a ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.
There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.
Religiosity in Israel
While Reform and Conservative communities do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this. Secular Jews (ḥiloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (ḥaredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (ḥaredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the ḥaredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. 😛 )
Ḥaredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.). Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American ḥaredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli ḥaredim.
It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and ḥaredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.
Ḥaredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf or hat.
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.
Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)
Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.
So what is Ḥassidism? It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Ḥassidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Ḥassidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.
So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Ḥassidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Ḥassidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.
This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.
Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Ḥassidim and Lithuanians apart. Ḥassidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/ḥaredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Ḥassidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Ḥassidic ḥaredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Ḥassidim are more rationalist in their approach.
I mention all this because there are two particular Ḥassidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future. Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Ḥassidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)
The first sect is Chabad (pronounced Ḥabad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure). They are also known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Ḥassidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us 😛 but we love them anyway because they do great things!
The other Ḥassidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.
Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:
…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. 😛 Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.
So this is actually “from the archives”; a kind of “revamp” of a letter I sent Josep about a year ago, including my answer to a follow-up question he asked. I expanded it a bit and decided to split it into two entries. In this entry, I will address Jewish cultural identity, and ethnic subgroups within Judaism (edot), and in the next entry, I will discuss religious denominations and “spiritual approach (Hassidism vs. non-Hassidism)”.
Now, before I proceed I must make a big disclaimer: this is a two-part blog series, not a book, and therefore these categorizations are going to be extremely general. There are many groups and subgroups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.
You asked: It has always struck me how Judaism is both a religion and a cultural group. How can you differentiate those? And how do you live those discrepancies?
As an observant Jew, I don’t differentiate them. They are completely interlocked.
Let me put it to you as an allegory. I would use Catalonia as an example but your weird political situation makes things messy. 😛 Let’s say you were born in Italy to Italian parents. So for you, being an Italian means two things: 1) that you are part of the Italian nation/ethnic group, and 2) you are a resident of Italy. As an ethnic Italian, you are Italian no matter where you were born or where you choose to live. That’s simply your DNA, and the culture of your parents. As a citizen of Italy, however, you enjoy certain rights and responsibilities, just by right of the fact that you were born there. So in this context, you can either be a “good” Italian citizen, who abides by the laws of his country, or a “bad” Italian citizen, who doesn’t follow the laws of his country. Still, no matter what you do, you will always be Italian, whether you’re a good citizen or not.
Now, I am not an ethnic Italian and I never will be. But say I decided that I wanted to become a Italian citizen. I can’t simply declare myself Italian because I identify with the Italian cause, am a fan of Michelangelo and Vivaldi, and enjoy pizza. 😛 I would either have to have been born there, or I would have to undergo a process of absorption and live up to certain criteria–living there for a certain number of years, etc., and of course observe the laws of the place, before I would be accepted as a citizen by the Italian government and start to enjoy my rights.
So… being a Jew first and foremost means that you were born into the Jewish nation. That you are a descendant of Israel (Jacob). (You know why we’re called Jews, right? The whole thing with the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel and the ten tribes who were lost to history?) God did not select us as a group with a common faith, but as a people with a common DNA. He gave the Torah to us as a sort of national contract, kind of like a constitution. We accepted it upon ourselves as a nation, and therefore we, as a nation, are obligated to keep it. So you can think of the faith aspect of Judaism as a “spiritual citizenship” that is unique to the Jewish cultural group. Being born into the Jewish nation automatically grants you the rights and responsibilities of that “citizenship”. Whether you choose to uphold those responsibilities does not change your ethnic status. A person born to a Jewish mother will always remain a Jew in my eyes no matter what faith he professes. But as a Jew I believe he has certain obligations that he is not upholding if he does not keep halakha (Jewish law). A person who was not born to a Jewish mother, however, does not have any obligation to keep the Torah, as he was not born into the “spiritual kingdom” of Judaism, and is therefore not bound by its constitution.
Having said that Judaism is a cultural identity, the fact that we have been scattered among the nations for so long means that there is great ethnic diversity within the unified ethnicity of Judaism. We call these subgroups edot.
Ethnic Subgroups within Judaism
The main differences between the different ethnic subgroups, in terms of Jewish practice, are prayer liturgies and varying customs in how to perform the mitzvot (commandments). But we are all Jews: we all observe the same holidays, keep kosher, and mostly, our lifestyles and beliefs are very similar. One reason Jews were so successful in business historically is that we maintained ties with our brethren throughout the world; we had more in common with each other than with the surrounding population. Some edot have holidays or traditions that are specific to them, like the Moroccan Maimuna and the Ethiopian Sigd, but the major holidays are the same. Israel is kind of a “melting pot” of all these different cultures, and you’ll find a lot of Jews marrying into other ethnic subgroups and creating interesting hodgepodges of these traditions and customs. As you may have noticed about me, I find other cultures fascinating and love to learn about the different kinds of Jews there are and how they do things differently.
Anyway, here are the general ethnic categories:
“Ashkenaz” is the Hebrew word for what is now known as the general area of Germany/Austria. However, the term Ashkenazi refers to all Jews of Eastern European descent, including German/Austrian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, etc. An overwhelming majority ofJews today are Ashkenazi–somewhere between 70%-80%.
Anyway, as you know, both Eitan and I are Ashkenazi Jews. My ancestors came from Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Eitan’s also came from those general areas, as well as Austria. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, whereas about 45% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi.
“Sepharad” is the Hebrew word for this Mediterranean peninsula:
You can find it referred to this way in the last few books of the Jewish Bible, so I believe the term predates even the term Hispania. In modern Hebrew, it refers to modern Spain.
In general, people tend to refer to Jews as being either Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and this is not quite accurate, as you’ll see in a moment. The reason North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Jews tend to be referred to as Sephardi is because after the expulsion, the Spanish Jews who were forced to move to those places completely dominated the culture. So the next category–Mizraḥi–overlaps with Sephardi in some places. Sephardi Jews–at least in the pre-Holocaust days–could be found in Italy, Holland, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans as well as North Africa.
I should mention here that Roman Jews in Italy are sort of a category of their own in terms of customs and liturgy. But they are a pretty small minority.
“Mizraḥ” means “east”, and this is a general term used in Israel to refer to Jews of North African, Middle Eastern or Eastern descent. This includes Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and native Israeli Jews (a.k.a. ones who lived in Israel before the establishment of the State and the “ingathering of the exiles”), though as I mentioned many of these are also considered Sephardim; Indian Jews; Yemenite Jews; Iraqi and Iranian Jews; Kurdish Jews; Bukharan Jews, etc. etc. Each one of these groups has distinct characteristics… and, of course, cuisine 😉
The reason that Sephardim and Mizraḥim make up a majority of Israeli Jews even though Ashkenazim are such an overwhelming majority is what you probably know from spending time in the countries of their origins: these places are very hostile to Jews these days. Many Mizraḥim were forcibly expelled from their countries of origin when Israel was founded. Talk about a refugee problem. Some of them had to be rescued by the IDF, like the Yemenites and the Iraqis.
I want to specifically mention Bnei Minashe, a group from India that claims to be descended from the tribe of Menashe (one of the ten tribes that vanished after the first exile). Many of them converted and moved to Israel. There is a significant community of them in Kiryat Arba, the settlement right next to Hebron.
Ethiopian (Beta Israel)
The story of the Ethiopian Jews is a really amazing one. It is believed that the community first moved to Ethiopia during the time of King Solomon, and they were eventually cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, but they maintained many Jewish practices, including reading the Torah, keeping kashrut, and observing the Sabbath. They referred to themselves as Beta Israel, the house of Israel. There is speculation that they are descended from another of the lost ten tribes–the tribe of Dan. But because they were cut off from all the Talmudic/rabbinical responsa, they did not observe many of the rabbinical laws that became part of Jewish tradition later. (For instance, they did not celebrate Purim or Chanukah.) They were officially recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate as Jews a few decades ago, and many of them were brought to Israel via airlift. They did have to undergo a symbolic conversion process to counter any doubts that remained (because there was some controversy about it in the Rabbinate), but most Ethiopian Jews in Israel today are considered completely Jewish.
Yes, believe it or not, there is a small Jewish community in China that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, which grew when Jews fled Europe during the wars. I have never met anyone from this community, but apparently they exist…
…So as you can see, there is great ethnic diversity within the global Jewish community. And if anyone wants to argue that we are racist for not allowing intermarriage, s/he’ll have to contend with the fact that a white Jew has much less of an issue marrying an Ethiopian, Yemenite, or Indian Jew than a white non-Jew. But I know you know the intermarriage thing isn’t about race or any sense of superiority, but about preserving Jewish continuity–as we discussed it in the past. Not to say that racism isn’t a problem among Jews–just like it is among everybody else. :-/ Here in Israel, it’s much more accepted than in the USA to stigmatize and make jokes about ethnic stereotypes. Ethiopians tend to deal with the worst of it. (There have been a number of big protests recently about racism against Ethiopian Israelis, and I hope that the dialogue on the topic that was created as a result will help improve the situation.) But Jews do tend to identify with people who have experienced similar struggles, and many Jews were involved in the Civil Rights movement in USA during the 60’s for this reason.
That concludes part I. Next week, God willing, we’ll tackle religious denominations and Hassidism.
The 28th of Iyar, 5727 (June 7th, 1967), was a historic day for the Jewish people. It was the day our eternal capital, Jerusalem, was reunited, and we regained access to our holiest site–the Temple Mount.
Yes, I said Temple Mount. Because while the Western Wall is generally known as being the holiest site in the world for Jews, that isn’t actually true. The Western Wall was just the retaining wall of the platform on which Herod’s renovated Second Temple stood two thousand years ago. What was so important to us was the Temple itself.
I keep mentioning this Temple, and it’s been many years since I explained to you what it was.
So in honor of Jerusalem Day, which we will celebrate this coming Sunday, let me tell you the story of the Temple and of Jerusalem.
HaMishkan (The Tabernacle)
After we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai–an event on which I will elaborate soon, as Shavuot is right on the heels of Jerusalem Day–God commanded the Israelites to build something called the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. (“Mishkan” means “dwelling place”.) It was a sort of portable structure that contained a courtyard and a tent (the Tent of Meeting).
The courtyard contained the Copper Altar, which was used for the ritual sacrifices that were made there regularly as part of our service of God, as well as the washstand (for ritually washing hands–that’s where our tradition of washing before eating bread comes from!).
The Tent of Meeting contained two chambers. The outermost chamber was called the “Kodesh” and contained the Menorah (elaboration in this entry), the Table with the 12 “showbread”, and the Golden Altar (for incense).
The innermost chamber was called the Holy of Holies, and as the name implies, it was the holiest place on earth for us, wherever it was at the time. Only Moses and Aaron were permitted to enter, and only at designated times; and after their deaths, only the High Priest could enter, and only on Yom Kippur at a specific time during the service. What was so special about this place? It contained the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-plated box that carried the original Tablets of the Covenant that Moses received at Mt. Sinai, upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.
Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple)
We carried the Mishkan with us through the desert, and eventually, when we settled in the Land of Israel, the Mishkan was set up permanently, not in Jerusalem, but in Shilo. Shilo is a little town in Samaria, and recent excavations there are uncovering what may very well be the place where the Mishkan once stood. (This is one of Eitan’s favorite places to take tourists. It’s an amazing site.) Samuel the Prophet was conceived after his mother Hannah prayed at the Mishkan in Shilo, and he was raised there by the High Priest, Eli, until he became a prophet. (See the opening chapters of Samuel I.) Samuel was the prophet who crowned the first kings of Israel: Saul and David.
It was King David who first raised the idea of building a Temple, a permanent structure for the Mishkan. “See now,” he said to Nathan the Prophet in Samuel II 7:2, “I live in a house of cedar, and the Ark of the Lord dwells within curtains.” God, however, did not want David to build His house, and the Sages say that this is because David fought many wars and “his hands were stained with blood”. God wanted the Temple to be built in a time of peace. So He promised David that he would have a son who would continue his dynasty, and that son would build the Temple.
And that is what happened. King Solomon, son of David, built the First Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. Religious scholars place its construction at around 832 BCE.
Why a Temple?
Let’s back up a second here. We’re talking about the world’s first monotheistic religion, the first religion to worship a single, omnipresent God who was not manifested in any physical object or person. So why would we center our worship of Him around a physical building, and the physical objects therein? Isn’t that a little too much like the idol worship we were supposed to be obliterating?
When instructing Moses on the construction of the Mishkan, God said, “They shall make for me a Temple, and I shall dwell within them” (Exodus 28:8). Notice that He didn’t say, “dwell within it“. The idea was not for God to manifest Himself in a physical object or place. He said “dwell within them“–the People of Israel. The Mishkan was not for Him, it was for us. It was meant to orient us towards Him and His service, so that awareness of Him would dwell within us. We never worshiped the building or its contents. They were tools that we used to worship God.
I heard a wonderful class by Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller about teaching one’s kids about the Temple and its importance. She suggests giving an explanation like this: “You know how sometimes, when you get home from school, you can tell that Mommy is already home, even if you don’t see her or hear her voice? Maybe you see her coat hanging in the hall, or you smell her perfume, or there’s just something about the way the house is different when Mommy is home. That’s like what it was with the ‘Shekhina’–God’s presence–at the Temple. We can’t see Him or hear His voice, and of course He is everywhere, all the time. But when we had the Temple, we could really feel His presence.”
The Temple was the place where God and man embraced, where the limited physical reality of human existence touched the eternal. The very physical work that involved the service of the Temple–the sacrifices, the contributions, the incense, the rituals–were a way to tangibly connect with God. And that is why, originally, our entire religion, our entire service of God, centered around the Temple.
The first mention of Jerusalem in the Bible, according to our tradition, is in Genesis 22–Mt. Moriah, where Abraham brought his son Isaac to be sacrificed. It came under Israelite control in the time of King David, who captured it from the Jebusites. The name Yerushalem or Yerushalayim first appears in the book of Joshua. The source of the name is unclear. Our Sages teach that it is a combination of the name Abraham gave the site of the (aborted) sacrifice of Isaac, “[Hashem] Yira’eh” (“God will show Himself”), and the town of “Shalem”. The root sh.l.m. (ש.ל.ם) means “peace” or “whole”.
King David made Jerusalem the capital of the tribe of Judah, and of the Kingdom of Israel. Aside from the mystical implications (Isaac’s sacrifice and Abraham declaring that spot a place where God will show Himself), this was a highly practical choice. It was a defensible mountain on the border of Judah and Benjamin, close to the center of the kingdom, with the necessary water sources and a good climate for agriculture.
Jerusalem is also known as Zion, Ir HaKodesh (“the Holy City”–or in Arabic, Al-Quds), and the City of David, among others.
A Portable Judaism
Here’s the thing, Josep. Judaism, as a religion, has undergone great changes in the thousands of years it has been around. And the biggest changes were a result of the destruction of the Temple, which forced us to shift from a service that centered around that physical space, to a “portable” service that we could carry with us throughout exile.
The significance of this shift, and the fact that it was able to happen at all, cannot be taken for granted. As I mentioned, when the Temple stood, our service of God looked very, very different from the way it looks now. Animal and produce sacrifices and contributions were made regularly and for varying reasons and purposes, some of which were burned on the (copper) Altar and some of which were consumed by the Priests (Cohanim) or the Levites. The three major holidays were characterized by a nationwide pilgrimage to Jerusalem. All men were required to make that pilgrimage at least three times a year. This is what the “original Judaism” looked like.
When the First Temple was destroyed, the leaders of the Jewish community had to figure out how to keep Judaism alive in Babylonia. It was then that the institution of the synagogue was first established. As I mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, when we were granted permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, the leaders Ezra and Nehemiah established a number of practices to keep Jews connected to the Torah and to the Hebrew language. The Second Temple was built under their leadership. It was that Temple that was defiled by the Greeks and rededicated by the Maccabees. The building was later expanded by King Herod under the Romans. Jesus was born while it still stood, and it was destroyed by the Romans 70 years after his birth.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism encountered another huge crisis. The study and transmission of Jewish Law was forbidden under Roman law, and great teachers risked–and gave–their lives to continue teaching and passing on the tradition. The framework of halakha that we use today to apply the Law to current circumstances was solidified during this period. The Oral Law, which was originally not supposed to be written down, was nonetheless preserved in writing in what eventually became the Talmud. The global center of Jewish thought and development now shifted to Babylonia and the great schools of Sura and Pumbedita. Jews continued to live in the land of Israel wherever they were allowed until the modern era, but the ritual practice of Judaism had successfully adapted itself to exile.
Nonetheless, for two thousand years, we have continued to mourn the destruction of the Temple and to yearn for Zion. We have begged God to return us to our homeland and “renew our days as in the old times”. Our dream is to return to the original practice and closeness to God that we experienced when the Temples stood. For two thousand years, at the close of every Passover Seder and Yom Kippur fast, we have proclaimed: “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!” This, for us, is the Messianic vision. Zionist Jews such as myself believe that the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel is “atchalta d’geula“–“the beginning of the redemption” in Aramaic; a step on the way to the Messianic Era. (Unfortunately, we still seem to have a long way to go…)
The month after Shavuot, we will enter a period of mourning for the Temple that has been practiced and preserved throughout the Jewish diaspora. The Ninth of Av, the day the Temples were destroyed, is still the saddest day of the Jewish year, and a major fast day second only to Yom Kippur. For two millennia, Jews prayed and cried at the remaining wall of the Temple, which became known as the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall. In Israel, we simply call it “the Kotel”–“the Wall”.
During the War of Independence in 1948, the Jordanians took control of the Temple Mount and the Old City, so when the State of Israel was finally established, our most treasured parts of Jerusalem were not part of it. But on that fateful day in June, 1967, an emotional cry was heard over the army radio: “The Temple Mount is in our hands! The Temple Mount is in our hands!” When the fighting died down, throngs of Jews flooded to the Western Wall to pray and give thanks to God for returning our precious holy site to our hands–the first time in two thousand years that the Temple Mount was under Jewish sovereignty. To this day, we celebrate Jerusalem Day with a lively procession from the center of town to the Western Wall, where there is singing and dancing and great rejoicing. (Unfortunately, in the last few years, there have also been clashes and incidents of verbal and physical violence against Arabs in the Muslim quarter, which is despicable, and totally against the spirit of the day. I fervently pray that there will not be any such incident this year.)
The Temple Mount is definitely not in our hands. 🙁
To me it is so ironic that what is actually the holiest and most important site for Judaism is the only place in Israel where the basic human right to religious freedom does not apply to Jews (or to Christians). And it is absolutely infuriating to me that this is the status quo and that this issue is not even part of the discussion about the Israeli-Arab conflict. The unrest that erupted in Jerusalem this past fall were partly due to a rumor spread among the Muslims of some kind of Jewish plot to take over the Temple Mount. We don’t want to take over the Temple Mount. We just want to be able to visit and pray there freely. The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron is holy to Jews and Muslims alike, and there is a perfectly acceptable arrangement there that allows people of both religions to pray and worship there without incident–despite the fact that Hebron is also a focus of great political controversy. It is beyond me why a similar arrangement at the Temple Mount would be so offensive and threatening to Muslims.
Isiah prophecies that when the Messiah comes, “Also those sons of other nations that join the Lord to serve Him, and to love the Name of the Lord, and to be his servants… I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in the House of My Prayer… for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.” (Isiah 56:6-7)