In pre-Israeli Days, Zionism was a dynamic, world-wide movement whose goal was the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine

In pre-Israeli Days, Zionism was a dynamic, world-wide movement whose goal was the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. In 1948, to the surprise of many leading Zionists and others, the goal was achieved. From then on, nobody could ever figure out what a Zionist was. Some say a Zionist is a Jew who tries to persuade a second Jew to give money to settle a third Jew in Israel. Zionism has become an ideal whose time has gone. Is a Zionist now someone who is friendly to Israel? Well, so are the non-Zionists – indeed, all Jews, not to mention WASP candidates for public office in America. Is a Zionist someone who contributes to Israel? Well, as Ben-Gurion puckishly used to remind the Zionists, the non-Zionists give more. So what is a Zionist? The Israelis (understandably worried that Israel is becoming an oriental or Levantine state) have a simple answer: if you claim to be a Zionist, you must come and live in Israel. The result is a thunderous silence. Aw, come on, say the Israelis, stop playing games, we need you. The silence now becomes eloquently ominous.

Albert Vorspan, My Rabbi Doesn’t Make House Calls: A Guide to Games Jews Play (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 102.

The parallels with the challenges for modern Israel are striking, for Solomon, like modern Israel, was essentially confronting “non-state actors”

The parallels with the challenges for modern Israel are striking, for Solomon, like modern Israel, was essentially confronting “non-state actors.” For Haddad the Edomite, an indigenous resident stripped of his territory, one might substitute Hamas or Islamic Jihad; for Rezon the Syrian, one might substitute Hizballah. As with modern Israel, neither threat to Solomon’s state was existential. Solomon was prepared to tolerate some level of violence in his more remote territories as long as he could preserve the peace in Judah and avoid entanglements with major foreign powers. That was not the case for those who ruled after him, whether in Judah or in Israel. Few of Solomon’s successors avoided major conflicts with other states. Modern Israel, likewise, cannot now and probably will not in the future be able to avoid conflict with states, whether with Iran or with some as yet unforeseen threat.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 11.

Rabbis Interpreting the Law According to the Needs of Those who Lived By It

Rabbis had a number of exegetical methods for expanding the parameters of the law while respecting the integrity of authoritative sources. Practical or inductive reasoning, or simply conjecture, could be used to reinterpret a talmudic passage, suggesting that the text is discussing something other than what it seems. The provenance of a troublesome legal text could be limited to circumstances dissimilar to what a jurist now faced, effectively neutralizing the legal impact of the original case. Precedents could be narrowed or broadened to afford such greater flexibility in dealing with a problem. If the situation was extreme, a text could even be deliberately misinterpreted in the course of developing a line of thought. A jurist had to separate a contemporary case from previous legal thought if he was to follow an independent approach. Hermeneutical methods, however, did not tell Jewish legalists when to attempt a reinterpretation of the law.
Perhaps in a simpler world, halakists could have ignored the comings and goings of daily life and let purely legal considerations shape all legal discussions. Yet, no rabbi could be oblivious to the practical implications of his decisions on individuals or the Jewish community. In each generation and in every locale, rabbis had to interpret the law in light of the needs of those who lived by it while respecting the integrity of a legal tradition that was believed to have emanated from Mount Sinai with all its details and specifications. Any ideal of searching for absolute truth was outweighed by other values and goals.

Edward Fram, “Jewish Law and Social and Economic Realities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Poland” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991), 4-5.


The Phrase “Standing on One Foot” in Parallel Literature to the Talmud

As has been called to my attention, the phrase “standing on one foot” may be found, for example, in the Satires of Horace, which include a criticism of Lucilius, whose copiousness Horace resolved to avoid: “In hora saepe ducentos ut magnum versus dictabat stans pede in uno” (“Often in an hour, as though a great exploit, he would dictate two hundred lines while standing on one foot”). Cf. Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, edited and translated into English by H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA, 1942), Book I, Satire 4:9-10, pp. 48-49, dated ca. 35 BCE. Fairclough notes that “standing on one foot” is proverbial for “doing without effort.” The parallel of the phrase is striking, and yet it need not surprise us that people of different cultural backgrounds find similar expressions, common themes, or other parallels. The question is whether in a given instance a historical influence of one on the other can be documented, or in the absence of historical evidence, whether an understanding of the one clarifies and helps us to understand the other better. The issue is thus not merely to find parallels in Latin or other non-Jewish literature to the phrase “standing on one foot.” In the case of Hillel’s statement in Avot 2.4, the Greek σχολή and σχολαστικός may give us an insight into a possible word-play in the Hebrew, and all the more so regarding the ambiguous passages about the ten batlanim: are the batlanim idlers who in any event have nothing better to do (as implied by the ordinary usage of the term), or do the passages refer with approbation to ten men who out of their concern for the community’s welfare avoid other remunerative occupations? Similarly, in the case of regel-regula, the Latin opens up a range of literary and perhaps even historical perspectives, which the literal Hebrew understanding of regel would never suggest.

Raphael Jospe, “Hillel’s Rule,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 1/2 (July-October, 1990), 50, n8.

The Misleadingness of Descriptors such as “Rabbinic Theology” and “Rabbinic Mind”

While generalizations about “rabbinic theology” and the “rabbinic mind” can be useful as gross characterizations and for heuristic purposes, they can also be misleading precisely because they are unrefined.  It is far too common to speak of the “sea of Talmud” (and, by extension, Midrash) and, since the same exegetical and aggadic traditions appear in many documents, to glean illustrations and prooftexts from a variety of documents across the board without regard to their chronology or peculiar literary characteristics and integrity.  The anthological character of this literature as a whole may easily cause us to overlook evidences of redactional-editorial activity in shaping, recasting, or restyling materials to fit their literary context in a particular document.  But once we recognize such activity and take into account the distinct literary characteristics of individual documents, we simply cannot treat this complex literature as a single fabric.

Richard S. Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Literature in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, eds. Jakob J. Petuchowski and Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem & Cincinnati: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University and Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 58.


Like the Kingdom of Judah, Judea and Samaria today are far more religiously and politically conservative than the rest of Israel

Like the Kingdom of Judah, Judea and Samaria today are far more religiously and politically conservative than the rest of Israel; a major proportion of the settler movement, if not a majority, is dominated by nationalist-minded Orthodox Jews. This is increasingly the case in Jerusalem as well, where the ultra-Orthodox haredim form a plurality and constitute the most potent political force in the city. That portion of Israel inside the Green Line, particularly the urbanized stretch along the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv to Haifa often referred to as “North Tel Aviv”, reflects many of the characteristics of the ancient northern kingdom. Dominated by secular values, far more prosperous and diversified economically, it is the heartland of what has been termed recently “the start-up nation.” The coastal area and its elites have little sympathy for the settlers, the haredim and the political and religious values they espouse.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), .9


The basic problem with Jewish life today is its overwhelming emphasis on crisis

The basic problem with Jewish life today is its overwhelming emphasis on crisis. We fight. We “weigh in”. We identify enemies and proclaim loyalties. We hold high-level meetings to discuss our “brand”. We defend Israel as though our lives were at stake or criticize Israel with the passion of a democratic evangelist. We accost those Jews who fail to enlist in the cause, as though any minute we may need them to storm Washington, as we did in the decades when a million of our brethren were imprisoned behind Soviet lines.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with combating activism or fighting the Iranian bomb. There are dangers out there, both political forces and simple ignorance that put Jewish life at risk. Our crises are not manufactured. But just as an individual’s life cannot be defined solely through his struggle for survival, isn’t there something disturbing about a Jewish identity defined principally by the constant effort to put a halt to terrible things? Welcome to fire extinguisher Judaism.
What’s missing is a coherent content to our identity, a positive message, a set of beloved things and ideas – other than ourselves and our organizations and the state we’ve built – to which we proclaim allegiance, in which we invest time and effort to understand, which we embrace as possessing the keys to ourselves and our future.

David Hazony, “Welcome to Fire Extinguisher Judaism” Moment (May/June 2010), 20.


The belief in a…

The belief in a future age when the righteous who had passed from this world would be resurrected to enjoy eternal bliss in a new and wonderful universal earthly kingdom of God, while the wicked would receive the punishment they had escaped before death, first took shape in the last centuries of Israel’s biblical history.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 281.

This interpenet…

This interpenetration of Jewish books and those of other cultures is emblematic of the modern Jewish integration into modern cultural and political mainstreams. With this integration has come increased regulation of published materials, in the form of state censorship and legislation governing copyright, plagiarism, obscenity, libel, and the like. These laws both restrict and protect the possibilities of Jewish books while situating them within national systems of authorship and publication. Conversely, Jewish books sometimes figure as potent symbols of Jewish ideas or of Jews themselves in modern political actions, notably in book bans and, during the Nazi era, book burnings that deliberately echoed medieval practice.

Jeffrey Shandler, “The Jewish Book and Beyond in Modern Times,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 379.