In current discourses on modern Israeli literature, the names Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman typically dominate the discussion. But how often do we hear the name Haim Sabato? Who is Sabato, and why is his writing often compared to Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author S.Y. Agnon?
Sometime during the 13th century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed “Sefer HaChinuch” (“The Book of Education”). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot.”
During our Sephardic Film Festival this past week, we screened a film telling the intriguing and inspirational life story of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Uziel’s motto was “Loving Truth and Peace.”
He had only God’s endorsement. Otherwise, this newly chosen leader of the world was a virtual unknown. He didn’t campaign for very long; he suddenly appeared on the scene, going on to change the world. Who was Abraham, and why was he chosen? What was the purpose behind choosing him to become God’s representative on Earth?
There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators. It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982. I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.
“Our Passover seder is translated into Arabic,” I used to tell my friends in school. “Arabic?” they responded in bewilderment. “That’s so weird! How could you translate a seder into Arabic? Isn’t Arabic the language of the enemy?”
This week I write to you from Jerusalem, inspired by the headline story from this past Tuesday ‘s Ha’aretz. On the first morning of my trip, here is the headline I woke up to: “New Orthodox Rabbinical Group Puts Israeli Women at Its Head – Hopes to Counter Creeping Religious Extremism.” The name of this new organization? Beit Hillel – an appropriate name for an organization that seeks to represent the moderate voice in Judaism.
When my wife Peni and I decided to take our kids to Israel for Sukkot, we knew that we would have a great time. We knew that Sukkot, referred to in our prayers as “Zman Simchateinu” (“Our time to rejoice”) would especially be celebratory in Israel. But we never could have imagined what awaited us.
Last night my family and I went out with some friends to the Pantages Theatre, where we took a musical journey back in time. For over two hours, the Broadway production of “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles” took us through the tumultuous 1960’s and the great Beatles songs that came to define that decade. From the innocence of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to the provocative “Revolution” and the contemplative “Let It Be,” we danced, laughed, cried and “Twisted and Shouted” to the sounds and sights of a unique era in time.
Thirty-nine years ago, Dov Indig, a young soldier in the Israel Defense Force tank corps, sat on guard duty in the Golan Heights. Joining him was a reserve soldier, many years older than Dov. During their four hours of guard duty, they engaged in a deep conversation about religion. It must have been a fascinating exchange; Dov came from Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where students combine Torah study and military service in combat units, and the reservist came from a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, the epitome of secular Zionism.
How many commandments are there in the Torah? To most people the answer is simple: 10.
True, there are those who know the Torah contains 613 commandments, but the majority of people believe that there are only “The Ten Commandments.” For them, the 613 figure comes as a shock. And even among those who are aware of the 613, you will sometimes hear, “Yes, I know, but there are really 10 ‘big’ commandments.”
Last week, I came very close to witnessing the Prophet Zechariah’s vision of many nations gathering together in Jerusalem to worship God on Sukkot. I was actually not in Jerusalem, but if the Israeli Ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, is considered Israeli soil, then I came awfully close.
Nine years ago, while attending the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly (GA) in Chicago, I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk — known for bestsellers like “The Caine Mutiny,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” and “The Winds of War” — address the opening plenary. What many do not know is that Wouk is a yeshiva-trained Orthodox Jew who studies Talmud daily.
Someone would probably be labeled a hippie if he or she were to use the English word “peace” as a greeting or an expression when parting. Yet in Hebrew, the standard “hello” or “goodbye” is shalom (peace), and the word carries no modern cultural or political connotation.
Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27): It was brief. Jacob, head of the House of Israel, met with Pharaoh, King of Egypt
Sukkot is 'z'man simchatenu' -- our season of rejoicing. It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy meals with guests, to sing, to study and to appreciate life. It is a time 'le-shev ba-Sukkah,' to live life to its fullest -- in the sukkah.
Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) Throughout Moses' dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.
Parashat Chukat (Numbers 20:1-22:1) Who was Miriam? She is the only woman in the Torah who bears the title "Neviah" -- prophetess. So who was she?
What prompted Agnon, a master of original writing, to create an anthology of rabbinic texts relating to Shavuot? As an author with a deep connection to his religious roots, Agnon related to the experience of Shavuot, a celebration of the centrality of books in Judaism.
Both the composition and inclusion of "Had Gadya" into the Passover haggadah are shrouded in mystery.
This popular Aramaic song, chanted at the end of the seder purportedly to keep the children awake, is dated no earlier than the 15th century. Composed of 10 stanzas, "Had Gadya" follows a cumulative pattern similar to "The House That Jack Built," where a new detail is added in each stanza.
How do we build a House of God? How do we achieve the spiritual mandate that God placed upon the community when asking of them to build the Mishkan, the dwelling place of God? Anybody who serves a community as its spiritual leader understands that the nature of my question has little to do with the architectural plans of the building, rather it addresses the religious and spiritual atmosphere we are challenged to create within the four walls that we call our "House of God."
In his magnum opus on the history and development of Jewish civil law, "Ha-Mishpat Ha-Ivri" ("Jewish Law"), Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon remarks that basing a viable modern legal system on Jewish Law is no easy task -- "it calls for great intellectual effort, creativity and boldness."
While the questions associated with incorporating Jewish civil law into Israel's legal system are complex and beyond the scope of this column, I do wish to pose one modest question: Is it possible, in select instances, for the principles and spirit of Mishpat Ivri to serve as a quasi-legal and moral guide on certain matters of Israeli policy?
Throughout our history, my family's descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on "staying in the land and digging wells," despite "the famine." So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story -- the story of a survivor -- that is really their story.
I am not sure how your rabbi would react if you sat in the pews reading T.S. Eliot or William Faulkner, but if you were found poring over the pages of 1966 Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon's "Days of Awe," originally published in Hebrew as "Yamim Noraim," I trust most rabbis would happily approve. So would Agnon. In his introduction, Agnon states that he created this book so that one may read it "between prayers," as a way of intensifying one's spiritual experience during the High Holy Days.
It was July 12, 1984, my first day on the Ketziot basic training base, my new "home" as an IDF soldier in the Givati Infantry Brigade. One by one, we were issued what was then the standard IDF infantry weapon, the Israeli-made Galil rifle.
Everybody wanted to be in Moscow this past weekend. Leaders from all over the world flew in to partake in history: President George W. Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder all made it, as did President Moshe Katzav of Israel.
A book's opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book's journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.
The Passover seder is both a reader's experience and a moviegoer's. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?
Realities teach us that building a Jewish State is a complex project, one that requires military strength, spiritual vitality and financial security.
In the fall of 1989, I began the process of pursuing rabbinical ordination. Although I would eventually be ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, I did commence my studies as a Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) student, opting to do my first year at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles (this was pre-Ziegler School, when the UJ served as a feeder school to JTS in New York).
"The economy is very sick," Netanyahu said. "There is no money in the till, and we have a deficit of NIS 30 billion."
As the recession continues in Israel, Bank of Israel economists expect unemployment to climb to 12 percent, meaning that more than 300,000 Israelis will be out of work this year.
Would any principal ever consider changing the Bible curriculum from Genesis to Leviticus? Genesis to Leviticus? You mean the Book of Leviticus, including this week's Torah portion Parshat Tzav, which deals with animal sacrifices and burnt offerings?
Today, I struggle with my grief for Ramon as the "international hero" and for Ramon as the man who my family and I were privileged to meet, break bread with and get to know personally.
The art of public speaking is a special gift. In the anthology "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History" (Norton & Co., 1997), New York Times columnist William Safire collects 200 of history's outstanding instances of oratorical eloquence.
He divides this compendium of great speeches by categories, including Memorials and Patriotic Speeches; War and Revolution Speeches; Tributes and Eulogies; Sermons; Inspirational Speeches; and Speeches of Social Responsibility. Among the outstanding public addresses are Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.
Given the atmosphere in the Middle East today, it is hard to believe that just seven years ago, on Nov. 6, 1995, a Jewish funeral took place where the deceased was surrounded and eulogized by Jews and Arabs. Yes, this week marks the seventh anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin's funeral. Rabin was publicly eulogized (in this order) by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, King Hussein of Jordan, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Jew, followed by an Arab, followed by a Jew, followed by an Arab, all standing together at one graveside in Israel, eulogizing one Jewish leader. Children born that year in the Middle East probably have a hard time understanding how such an integrated funeral was really possible, given the Middle East they have witnessed since they were born.
Was Rabin's funeral, which brought together Jews and Arabs for one brief moment, the first of its nature in the history of the Middle East?
In the particular historical consciousness of the Jewish people, there has always been a familiarity with "jihad" as representative of an Islamic method of conquering populations by means of the sword.
Here we were, 18-year-old kids who barely knew anything about life, and being entrusted with weapons that had the potential to save lives or to take lives.
Although it might seem a little early for Passover discussions, Jewish law does mandate that one should begin studying the Passover laws and details at least 30 days before the actual holiday. This is probably because no holiday requires more detailed preparation than Passover. Most of the preparations for this holiday tend to focus on koshering our homes, kitchens and utensils, and, of course, the menu for the big seder meal. What we often seem to forget is that the seder is not a meal, per se, nor a gathering to sing Hebrew folk songs, but it is an educational experience that requires no less preparation than koshering your oven or preparing your main dish.
So many people seem to be concerned with the question, "Who wrote the Bible?"
September 11, 2001.
This morning, America woke up to the same nightmare that my parents did on February 6, 1985. On that morning, my parents in Los Angeles heard the news that a suicide bomber had attacked an Israel Defense Forces convoy in Southern Lebanon. Reports of casualties varied from 50 injured to 100 killed. My parent's ultimate nightmare was that their son, who had enlisted in the IDF seven months earlier, was a part of the convoy that had been attacked.
While leading a tour of Israel for a group of college kids in the summer of 1995, I read a newspaper headline that described a newly issued halachic ruling by 15 rabbis -- with former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira at their helm: "The evacuation of West Bank IDF military bases poses a threat to Jewish life, and therefore, by halachic decree of this rabbinic council, all religious soldiers in the IDF are to refuse military orders to take part in any such operation."
As a Sephardic Jew representing a heritage of tolerance, intellectual honesty and tradition, my perspective on the recent "Exodus controversy" -- which is not rooted in anger, name-calling or popular "marketplace theologies" which have characterized certain responses in this city -- is that of the classical Sephardic Bible commentators, whose method has been described as "the persistent demand for logic."
Honesty, morality and ethical behavior -- these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee's wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."
No, I am not demanding a recount, nor am I calling on the Supreme Court to hear the case one more time.
Zionism. Remember that term? We don't hear it too often anymore. Many Jews seem uncomfortable with the term Zionism, saying it's "too strong" or it "breeds nationalism." Some of Israel's leading historians have gone as far as declaring this current period in Israel's history as the "post-Zionist era" - whatever that means. The virtual silencing of the word Zionism in our educational, religious or political vocabularies make the days when we enthusiastically took to the streets to fervently protest the United Nation's infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution seem like ancient history.
Dr. Norman Lamm, the president of New York's Yeshiva University, once told me of a professor he knows in Israel who does not consider himself an observant Jew but who insists that his children maintain one halachic practice at home: "Birkat HaMazon" (the grace after meals). Lamm explained this peculiarity as the professor's belief that the Torah's commandment that we should give thanks for our food is an ethic that every child should be taught, so that at every meal they will never forget to appreciate the food on the table.
In Hebrew, a "scholar who lacks sense" reads as talmid chacham b'li sechel. In any language, it sounds like an oxymoron. I first heard this in reference to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, who this week called Holocaust victims "reincarnated sinners," and Palestinian Arabs "snakes." I took great offense when I first heard people referring to Yosef in this way.