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.
Chanukah (pronounced Ḥanukah, but has a million different spellings, and I’ve always preferred Chanukah) is the most famous of Jewish holidays. But it is actually a minor rabbinical holiday, of less importance than most of the other Jewish holidays. So why is it so well-known, you wonder?
One word: Christmas.
Many cultures have a holiday around the time of year. Skeptics would say this is a remnant of ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. I would say, there is something about this time of year that people are drawn to. When the darkness is greatest, we are most compelled to search for the light.
So what is the darkness that the Jews encountered that compelled us to find the light of Chanukah?
You have probably heard the story before, so I’ll be brief: the story of Chanukah goes that during the Hellenistic period, the Greek ruler over Judea made laws that were increasingly anti-Jewish and oppressive, banning circumcision and kosher slaughter, institutionalizing idol worship, and defiling the Holy Temple. A motley band of Jewish fighters–the Maccabees–rebelled against the Greeks, and in a series of miraculous battles, won back Jewish sovereignty over the land and over Jerusalem, and were able to restore the Temple and rededicate it to the service of God. (The word Chanukah, חנוכה, means “dedication.”) But, the story goes, there was one problem: when searching for pure oil to use to light the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that burned constantly in the Temple, they were only able to find one small bottle—enough oil to burn for one day. It would take eight days to acquire a new supply of pure oil. The miracle of Chanukah is that after they lit the Menorah, expecting it to go out after one day… it burned, and burned, and burned, for all eight days. That is why we light the nine-branched chanukiyah for Chanukah—one candle for each day, and one with which to light the others. We start with one candle on the first day, and add a candle every night until there are eight.
On the surface, we’ve got a nice “David and Goliath” style story here of an unlikely military victory, plus a nice little miracle that has to do with a lamp. But what is the real light here, and what is the real darkness? Is the darkness the oppression of the Greeks, and the light, the light of the Menorah in the Temple? Or is there something else to this story?
Let’s zoom in a little on the period before the Maccabees. If you were picturing the Jews looking on in horror while the Greeks went about their hedonistic shenanigans, think again. As you full well know, Greek culture was not just about oppressing Jews—it was an incredibly powerful and advanced culture, with superior science, philosophy and technology, and there was a lot that was attractive about it. Western culture as we know it today is built on the marriage between the Greek culture and Judeo-Christian values. And Jews have always liked to be on top of the latest and greatest progress in the world. So many, many Jews embraced the Greek culture and adopted it as their own—and began to shed their Jewishness. They agreed with the Greeks who scorned Judaism as being primitive, backwards and irrelevant. It was time to move forward in the world and become part of real progress, instead of clinging to their tragic past and the covenant with God that their forefathers had broken.
Does this sound familiar in any way…?
If I asked you what the greatest danger to Judaism is and has been throughout history, you might answer oppression, hatred, and antisemitism. I beg to differ. The greatest danger to Judaism is assimilation.
Assimilation means losing sight of what it is that makes us special. It means losing sight of our purpose, our essence, our unique contribution to the world. It means allowing our unique voice to be swallowed up into the cacophony and confusion of humanity’s global conversation. Assimilation is darkness.
God said, “Let there be light.”
We believe that God created humans to elevate the world to a higher spiritual place. And we believe that God chose us as a nation to guide our fellow humans to that place. To be a “light unto the nations.”
See where I’m going with this?
The real darkness in the story of Chanukah was not the external force of the Greeks’ oppression; the real darkness was doubt. Doubt that our identity, our message, our traditions had anything to say to the Greeks, doubt that they had importance in the grand scheme of things. And the light was more than just the Menorah that quietly burned eight times as long as it should have. The light was the essence of the Jewish people, which has survived a hundred times as long as it should have, which has refused to be extinguished despite the sound and fury of hundreds of cultures that swept the world, only to fade over time. But our light never faded. It burned, and burned, and burned. And in the midst of it all, the Torah is the “candle for our feet, the light to our path” (to slightly paraphrase Psalms 119:105), whispering in our ears the truth that God spoke to us at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the pillar of fire that continues to lead us through the desert to the Promised Land.
And as more and more Jews see no reason to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, and their children and grandchildren lose all connection to that past, it is more important than ever to emphasize this message of Chanukah. There is something special about you and the people you come from. Something that God gave you, making you who you are and giving you the unique mission only you can complete. That is your light. Own it.
“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.”
On that note… I wish you a holiday, and indeed a life, full of light, full of the truth within you. And I pray that you will never be afraid to own your light, and let it shine on everyone around you.
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.↩
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)
This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.
What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).
Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.
When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.
“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days” — Leviticus 23:15-16
It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )
The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”
So why are we counting up instead of down?
Good question. 😛
According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.
This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.
Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.
The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.
So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.
Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?
Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.
Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.
Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉
So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:
1) The end of the aforementioned plague;
2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;
3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…
And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.
Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.
But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/