Sarah Moscovitz- Classes 26-27: The Beginning

Concluding the semester with the readings by Jonathan Sacks and William Tenn is a great way to not only wrap up the course, but also to allow us to contemplate the future of Jews and Judaism.

Throughout history, Jews have suffered hatred, persecution, and death (Crusades, Pogroms, the Holocaust, Pittsburg’s Tree of Life Synagogue) simply because they identified as Jews. Yet, they have somehow managed to survive and thrive. Perhaps, shockingly, even now, in a modern, highly educated, sophisticated technologically driven world, antisemitism remains strong and seems to be on the rise. Jews are still attacked and persecuted for being Jews all around the world. Israel, the Jewish state, is seemingly under constant siege, surrounded by enemies (Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas) who call for its destruction. In Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty First Century, Jonathan Sacks acknowledges the somber current reality facing Jews and Israel but delivers a positive “road map” for the contribution of Jews and Judaism for the betterment of the world. Judaism’s inherent belief in faith, renewal (“Tikkun Olam” – repairing the world) and hope are central to his theme and the basis for his being optimistic about the future.

Sacks suggests that rather than shy away and retrench in the face of Jew-hatred, Judaism’s past and future contributions to humanity are essential elements for the future well-being of humanity. Sacks posits that “Jews must take a stand, not motivated by fear, not driven by paranoia or a sense of victimhood, but a positive stand on the basis of the values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die: justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and dignity of the human person without regard to colour, culture or creed. Now is not the time to retreat into the ghetto of the mind. It is the time to renew that most ancient of Biblical institutions, the covenant of human solidarity made in the days of Noah after the Flood. Without compromising one iota of Jewish faith or identity, Jews must stand alongside their friends, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh or secular humanist, in defense of freedom against the enemies of freedom, in the affirmation of life against those that Sacks argues that faith “is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty…The Jewish people are ancient but still young; a suffering people still suffused with moral energy; a people who have know the worst fate can throw at them, and can still rejoice. They remain a living symbol of hope.”

The book sends a powerful message, that faith, renewal, and hope, which are the prime tenets of Judaism, can elevate mankind. The faith that is so embedded in Jewish survival according to Sacks, “inspired not only Jews but also Christian’s and Muslims, whose religion grew in Jewish soil, as well as others who respected the Jewish love of family, community, education, tradition, the pursuit of justice, the passion for argument and the Jewish sense of humor that can laugh in the face of tragedy. I believe that’s this is not accidental. Judaism was never meant for Jews alone. It contains a message for all humanity…” The message is one of love, peace, and equality. The late artist, John Denver’s lyrics (from Season Suite: Spring – a song my father played frequently), “rejoicing in the differences, there’s no one just like me, yet as different as we are, we’re still the same.” Indeed, this inspiring message is steeped in the very essence of Judaism. As a result, according to Sack’s narrative, Jews should not hide in the shadows, and isolate, but rather, motivate and inspire and be part of the contemporary conversation. That of course, requires Jews to be free to say what they believe and not fearful.

Sacks suggests that much of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s inspirational message for freedom emanates from Judaism (the Old Testament and prophets). In Dr. King’s extraordinary “I have a Dream” speech, “he quoted at length from Isaiah, 40:4-5, the passage Jews read on the ‘Sabbath of Consolation’: ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together….With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ At the time, Dr. King knew his life was in danger and “reminded his audience of the last day of Moses’ life. Moses knew that he would not himself be able to cross the Jordan, to which he had led the people forty years…. We’ve got some difficult times ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain-top…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.’ King’s “prophesy” of faith, renewal and hope were drawn from Judaism and central not only to its past but as Sacks suggests, its future as well. Like the title of Dr. King’s famous book, “The Audacity of Hope” the Jewish narrative is one of hope.

Sacks reasons that to understand how Judaism is foundational as a faith (a faith which Sacks contends belongs not to Jews alone but to be shared by everyone) to shape a better future, it is necessary to understand how Judaism differs from other faiths.  He points to “four strange, highly distinctive features of Judaism as a faith.”

The first he describes, is based on the Biblical story of Moses encountering God at the burning bush. When Moses asks God how he can describe God to the Israelites, according to many translations, the response is effectively, “I am who I am, I am what I am or I am- that is who I am.” Sacks points out that these are mistranslations. The correct translation should be “I will be what I will be,” which suggests that “God cannot be predicted or controlled.” This implies that the future will be different than the present or past and God will adapt accordingly – and so too, will the Jewish people. In essence, the true concept of God is not connected solely to the past (as in many religions) but the future as well. This in turn enables the concept of faith, e.g., God will be with me always.

The second element particular to Judaism, according to Sacks, is a sense of time. The ancients’ concept of time dealt with things cyclical such as the seasons (for planting, for harvesting, etc.). The Jewish sense of time is unique in that it applies to “change, progress, development, advance and originality.” In other words, Judaism is not a static religion, but one that puts an emphasis on the future. It is the embodiment of a better world to come.

Sacks’ third point of differentiation deals with the “nature of Jewish narrative.” Judaism, as Sacks suggests, starts with a compilation of stories. The Bible begins with the creation, morphs into Abraham and his story of faith, and the myriad of parables from Abraham and his children through Moses and the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. It continues with the stories of Prophets and Kings. One can glean from these stories that the Jews were seemingly always on the move, through the history of the diaspora, reclamation of a Jewish State and surviving and thriving through time, notwithstanding all the potholes along the way. The Hebrew Bible, like life, “is a story without an ending.” Sacks says, “in Judaism, we are always in the middle of a story whose ending lies in the future.” That narrative is what lies at the heart of the Jewish condition. The narrative is one of survival and it contains everything from tear jerking stories to humor even in the face of horror.

Finally, Sacks’ fourth of Judaism’s unique ideas is that “it is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future.” Judaism, according to Sacks, “invented the messianic idea.” To that end, he says that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity is that Judaism does not believe that the messiah has yet come. He summarizes that Judaism has four remarkable, related ideas that differentiate it from others and provide the basis for: a God whose name is in the future tense, a future-oriented concept of time, a literature whose stories always end in a future-not-yet-reached, and a golden age which belongs to the future.                    

Rabbi Sacks acknowledges that “Jews today face clear and present dangers. Antisemitism has returned in a fourth mutation (Sacks classifies four specific historical events or periods as stimulating antisemitism, e.g., 1) as Christianity evolved, Jews did not recognize it, thus becoming a source of hatred, 2) Massacres of Jews during the first Crusades in and around the year 1096, 3) The so-called period of Enlightenment in Europe in the nineteenth century and 4) the current antisemitism which is a mutant form of anti-Zionism), using the new media to globalize hate. The State of Israel faces relentless hostility on the part of its enemies, not to this policy of that but to its very existence as a non-Islamic, liberal Democratic state. Neither of these phenomena is as yet a mass movement; they are confined to small groups of extremists. But the extremists have learned how to use the new media to inspire widespread fear, and that is what Jews feel today.” In addition, “the Jewish people are internally weakened, by assimilation and out marriage on the one hand, divisions and factionalism on the other…. Antisemitism has been a recurring feature of Jewish history. Jews are no strangers to the danger.”

Sacks implies that Jews will have to find a way to live and thrive within the present world despite these impediments. Antisemitism is not going away. But for Jews to thrive and not just survive, Sacks argues that “something must change in Jewish hearts and minds: the sense of isolation, sometimes proud, sometimes fearful, that comes from seeing yourself as “the people that dwells alone ‘’. If Jews allow themselves to become complacent or become isolated, he reasons, “it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jews will find themselves alone.”  Combatting this will require an internal change (Jews will have to learn to have pride in themselves and not permit those who hate Jews, Israel, or Judaism, to bring them down) but also an ability to continue to inspire others to live a life based on the formational tenets of Judaism.

Again, faith, renewal (Tikkun Olam) and hope for a better future are, as Sacks asserts, for everyone, not just the Jews or Israel. These are the central tenets that Judaism has contributed to the world in the past and the same values that Jews and Judaism must contribute to the world in the future.

Meanwhile, William Tenn’s “On Venus, have we got a rabbi!” is a satirical story about Jews in the future. Accordingly, TV repairman, Sholom Aleichem Milchik tells an interviewer from Earth about Jewish life on Venus. Throughout the interview, Milchik makes jokes, talks about his wife’s complaints over their children not being married, mentions instances of antisemitism, touches on the status of Israel and the Neozionist movement, and speaks about religion and struggles within the Jewish community. The main focus of the story revolves around what it means to be a Jew.

One day, Milchik goes to the bathroom and sees three creatures in the bathtub, which he describes as “brown pillows, all wrinkled and twisted, with some big gray spots on this side and on that side, and out of each gray spot there is growing a short gray tentacle” (24). Milchik’s son, Aaron David, comes into the bathroom and tells his father that the creatures are the “Bulbas,” who are the Jewish “delegates from the fourth planet of the star Rigel” (25). In a state of disbelief, Milchik claims that they cannot be Jews since they do not “look Jewish,” and decides to attend the Interstellar Neozionist Conference along with the Jewish representatives across the galaxy (25). Undoubtedly, the question of whether the Bulbas are Jews was the main topic of debate at the Conference. First, the Committee Chairman asserts that the Bulbas cannot be Jews because they are not human. In response, Aaron David (who acts as the interpreter for the Bulbas) points out that there is nowhere in the Jewish texts where it is written that Jews need to be human. The Deputy Chairman responds with the argument, according to the “most fundamental definition of a Jew” is someone who is a “child of a Jewish mother” (27). Subsequently, the Bulbas insist that their mothers are in fact Jewish and propose that they can provide their birth certificates. As a result, arguments – both verbal and physical – erupt throughout the hall. In the midst of the chaos, one Bulbas climbs to the platform and recites the line from a Jewish prayer, “Modeh ani l’fonecha” (28). From this statement, the Bulbas mean to declare that they are Jews and demand from the other representatives whether they are accepted as Jews. In an attempt to answer the question of “what is a Space Age Jew,” the Congress turns to the High Rabbinical Court (29). Among the appointed members of the Court is the “Great Rabbi” of Venus, Rabbi Joseph Smallman.

During the trial, the Bulbas shared their story of how they ended up becoming Bulbas. According to their history, the Bulbas had been part of the Jewish community in Paramus, New Jersey and were “expelled to make way for a new approach to the George Washington Bridge” around seven or eight hundred years ago (31). This Jewish community fled to the fourth planet of the star Rigel, where the native Bulbas were already living. The Bulbas welcomed the Jews, and both communities flourished for a period of time. However, as the nation grew, the Bulbas began to blame the Jews for the wars, depressions, and dictatorships that ensued. As a result, the Bulbas persecuted the Jews throughout the years, and eventually stopped apologizing. Despite the years of pogroms and oppression, Jews remained and “continued their religious studies” (33). Finally, the current Rigel government “restored citizenship to the Jews and allowed them to send a delegation to the Neozionist Congress” (33). After all of this time, the Jewish community looked the same as the lowest class of Bulbas. Yet, the Bulba discovered that Jews throughout the galaxy blended into their environments as well (the black Jews in Ethiopia, blonde Jews in Germany, blue Jews, etc.) (33). Despite various interruptions, the Bulbas demonstrated that they were Jews through the evidence of their genealogical charts. Still, members of the Court did not believe that this was possible due to their understanding of biology. In a discussion about the case, Milchik’s brother argued that the Bulbas should convert to Judaism if they want to be Jews, but Milchik protested that it would be a “shameful mockery” to convert individuals who are already Jews (35). As he thought about it, Milchik’s brother questioned how Bulbas practice circumcision, to which Aaron David responds that the Bulbas “cut off a very little bit from the tip of their shortest tentacle” (35). After further discussion and debate about who is a Jew, Rabbi Smallman reached a final judgment. From the evaluation of instances throughout Jewish history, the court determined that the Vegans (aliens that persecute Jews and do not allow Jews into Israel) belong in the category of “goyische” aliens, or gentile aliens (39). Following that logic, if there can be goyische aliens, then there can be Jewish aliens. Since there are in fact aliens who live like Jews, face the same problems as Jews, and practice the same religion as Jews, there can be alien Jews. Therefore, the Bulbas are considered Jews, but they are placed in a separate category. Like most decisions, there were both positive and negative reactions on all sides. However, before they could begin their work, the Viceroy of Venus terminated the Congress for taking “too long” and “stirring up bad feelings” (39).

Ultimately, Rabbi Smallman becomes a celebrity of Venus and Milchik’s son, Aaron David, is able to attend a yeshiva under the funding of the Bulbas. With his son’s plans to move to become a rabbi in Rigel and the lack of plans for a wife, Milchik suggests that perhaps his future grandchild may be a Bulbas. In accord with the satirical tone throughout the story, Milchik concludes the interview with: “Let’s talk about something cheerful. How many people would you say were killed in that earthquake on Castillo?” (40).

Evidently, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty First Century and “On Venus, have we got a rabbi!” highlight many of the key themes we have studied throughout the semester. For example, both of these stories tell the Jewish story (including the covenant with God) and delve into the hardships and instances of antisemitism that Jews have faced – and continue to face – since the beginning of Jewish existence. Whether by humans or aliens, both Sacks and Tenn agree that antisemitism has always been present and is not going away. Yet, Sacks claims that instead of isolating themselves, Jews must have faith (in God and themselves) and engage in Tikkun Olam in order to thrive and make the world a better place. Tenn, on the other hand, appears to be more skeptical about the ability of Jews to be involved in the world. Even on another planet, Jews experience persecution and the history of pogroms and concentration camps continue. Perhaps, Tenn would suggest that Jews would be better off on their own planet far away from the rest of the universe. While I understand Tenn’s skepticism, I would like to believe that Sacks’ hopeful vision for the future is possible.

While the tension between the racial, ethnic, or national and the theological aspects of a Jewish identity is not new to modern or postmodern times, the rift between the two certainly has increased. Tenn’s story about the Bulbas may seem extreme, but it exemplifies the issues that Jews face in modern times and in the near future. As the world advances, we will need to consider the question of what it means to be a Jew even more than we do today. Hopefully, we can incorporate Sacks’ hopeful vision about the Jewish future and approach the upcoming struggles with kindness and understanding.

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Joseph Rosenbaum–Baruch’s Odyssey and the Case of Ethiopian Jewry

            The first thing that I think of when reading about the story of the Jews of Ethiopia, is their struggle to be seen as Jewish by the global Jewish community.  No less so with Baruch Tegegne’s story, which reminded me quite a bit of our earlier discussion of “who is a Jew?”  To my mind, although there is certainly a connection between the identity of Ethiopian Jews to that earlier conversation, there are also marked differences.  Mendelssohn, Hirsch, Geiger, the Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, and all the others we’ve discussed had ideas that, fundamentally, had their roots in the same notion of Judaism.  Regardless of their theologies, philosophies, understandings, or applications and critiques of Judaism and its practice, each of these men grew up in traditional Judaism; rabbinic Judaism, that, while it underwent many forms of disruption, could be traced back to the codification and redaction of the Talmud in the fifth and sixth centuries CE.  They stood in their respective times connected to a chain of transmission and interpretation of rabbinic law their ancestors had carried with them into exile after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.  As did members of many Sephardic and Mizrachi groups, and Yemenites, although the latter were relatively isolated for a longer period from other Jews. 

            Ethiopians are distinct in that their traditions predate by about a couple of centuries the advent of the Rabbinic Judaism either practiced or actively not practiced by nearly every other person who considers themselves to be Jewish.  There are certainly other groups of Jews with origins predating the destruction of the Second Temple, but unlike Ethiopian Jews, by and large these other communities were not cut off from the rabbinic Judaism that took hold in the early centuries CE.  As Tegegne notes, Ethiopian Jews had with them the Torah as well as other parts of Tanach.  They also had a form of Oral Torah, presumably related or dating back to the version which was still being transmitted orally before the Mishnah was redacted.  Altogether, the Judaism practiced in Ethiopia was at once greatly similar to rabbinic Judaism and incredibly different from it. 

            As Baruch’s Odyssey and Israeli history show, the existence of a non-rabbinic strand of Judaism with many thousands of adherents presented a strange problem for other Jews in general and for the Israeli government in particular.  What were non-Ethiopian Jews to do with a community which fell totally outside of their received traditions, whether they practiced them or not?  Tegegne refers to several possible origin stories and it is not entirely clear which one is the case, but regardless, by the time he was born, there had been recent contact with European Ashkenazi Jews.  By the time he went to Israel, he had been preceded there by several groups of his countrymen.  Overcoming the divide between Ethiopian Jews on the one hand and Western and Israeli Jews on the other is a central theme of the book. 

            In the beginning of the book, he relates the story of his childhood, living a similar life to that which his ancestors had lived for many centuries.  He then gets an opportunity to go to Israel as a teenager and stays for nearly a decade before returning home.  During that time, despite making some friends, he faces near-constant attempts by peers, teachers, governmental officials, and other Israelis he encounters randomly to other him and the rest of his cohort.  He is subjected to racism and doubt which strike at the heart of his Jewish identity.  As he observes many times throughout the book, his antagonists are consistently unable to reconcile the fact that someone who is black can also be Jewish, or even something similar to Jewish.  Once he is back in Ethiopia, he makes multiple efforts to help his community, buying land and building up a farm and village several times.  When a revolution deposes Emperor Haile Selassie, he is caught between the forces of the former government and those of the rebels, who soon establish a new Communist regime.  He is forced to flee the country along with his Christian friend Alam. 

            The second portion of the book is devoted to his circuitous route.  He travels through Sudan, Chad Cameroon and Nigeria, alternately relying on luck, the kindness of strangers, quick thinking, and quid pro quos with the people he meets.  Depending on the circumstances and who is asking, he is Ethiopian, Sudanese, Eritrean, or some combination thereof, in addition to being Muslim, Christian, and occasionally Jewish.  Upon arrival in Nigeria, he is eventually able to obtain employment on a Greek ship, which sails around the west coast of Africa and up to the Mediterranean Sea before passing through the Suez Canal and heading down to Singapore and then Australia.  He ultimately must fly back to Nigeria, where a couple of Israelis he meets suggest simply flying to Israel from there.  After some visa trouble he does make it to Israel, but there he runs into new troubles with the Jewish Agency and immigrant absorption services.  Ultimately, he is able to successfully work in several different jobs in Israel, as well as serve in the IDF and become an Israeli citizen. 

            However, he encounters new difficulties when the “Jewish question” rears itself again: the government rabbi he and his girlfriend Susan meet with to arrange their marriage refuses to do so because although he is willing to accept Susan’s Jewishness without question, he will not acknowledge that Baruch is equally Jewish.  This is in spite of the fact that by this time, both the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, have ruled that Ethiopians are Jewish and must be accepted as such.  Tegegne mentions that even in the case of Ethiopian men who went to a mikveh and had a hatafat dam brit (ritual drawing of a drop of blood from a man who was already circumcised), their Jewishness was rejected at first.  After effectively being rejected by the government rabbi, he acknowledges sarcastically that he and Susan will just have to go live in sin.  He calls out the rabbi for not sincerely wanting to advance the cause of all Jews and for being racist on his way out. 

            In the last part of the book, Tegegne tells the story of his involvement in efforts to bring more members of the Bet Yisrael community.  After several failed attempts, he is finally able to help bring a small group to Israel.  What is striking is the sheer magnitude of bureaucratic hurdles that he and they must overcome.  At each of the steps, from transport to Sudan, to waiting in refugee camps, to verifying status with the Jewish Agency as well as the Israeli government, to finally facilitating absorption in Israel, there are many roadblocks and setbacks.  Tegegne’s efforts led up to Operation Moses and then Operation Solomon, the best-known actions taken in support of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in which the Israel government facilitated the airlifting of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. 

            Two things that stands out over the course of the book are Tegegne’s persistence and his attitude.  Despite hostile people on all sides, governmental difficulties, and medical ailments, he manages to pull through on his journey to Israel and subsequently on his mission to help his people come home to Israel themselves.  After facing turmoil in Ethiopia, he becomes willing to endure anything over the course of his travels, and sometimes ignores advice and warnings from doctors to expedite the process.  So too when he’s making plans to get more Ethiopians to Israel, he sometimes forges ahead without heeding the instructions he is given from Mossad or other agencies.  His fiery righteous indignation perpetually burns within him, to the point that at key moments, he is utterly unafraid to speak what is on his mind and confront those who would do wrong by him.  Considering his and his people’s suffering, it is not entirely surprising that he sometimes becomes violent in reaction to injustices either against him or his community. 

            One surprising part of the book is the initial, years-long intransigence of the Israeli government in properly addressing the Ethiopian Jewish crisis.  Despite previous contacts with the community, it takes a lot of effort for the government to both prepare to rescue Jews from Ethiopia and actually follow through on doing so.  As the book recounts, it took many months from the conception of the idea until the landing of the first group of refugees in Israel, in part because governmental stakeholders disengaged from the plan before later rejoining.  They had to be convinced again and again that there was a real problem, and that further the safety of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and not just that of a random small group was in question.  This was true both for those left in Ethiopia and those waiting in refugee camps in Sudan.  I had been aware of both large operations, but not of the path taken to reach them.  But knowing that questions about the Jewishness of the Ethiopians and various forms of discrimination against them persisted for decades, including to this day, it is logical that the decision to rescue them had to win a difficult battle. 

            Baruch’s Odyssey and the story of Ethiopian Jews in general forces readers to contend with the question of “who is a Jew?” like almost nothing can.  The combination of a pre-rabbinic tradition with the attitude of other Ethiopians, other Africans, the Israeli government, and other Jews means that his legitimacy and safety and that of the rest of his community are constantly threatened and questioned.  As the book demonstrates, it was not enough to make it to Israel, which was hard enough on its own because of the process it took to convince everyone involved in the rescue operations that what they would be doing was worthwhile.  Nearly all of the officials involved in facilitating the Ethiopian aliyah were skeptical at one point or another that the olim had just as much basis and reason to come to Israel as any other group.  After their arrival, the absorption process was difficult; like Tegegne’s personal experience, both governmental employees (including rabbis) and other members of the public were confused by the identity of Ethiopians as black Jews.  Even following the successful absorption of each small group, it was a heavy lift to raise the plight of those who remained in Ethiopia for Operations Moses and then Solomon; not to mention the struggle of Ethiopians to integrate properly into Israeli society, both because of their unique culture and traditions and the hesitancy of the public to accept them. 

            It has now been over thirty years since Operation Solomon, and the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel numbers well over 100,000.  While great strides have been made, including the highly visible achievement of the first Ethiopian-born minister in the Israeli government two years ago, the presence and legitimacy of Ethiopian Jews still sparks debate.  Many non-Ethiopian Jews, if not most, have dropped the question of whether Ethiopian Jews count.  However, not all have, and people learning about the Bet Yisrael for the first time may wonder to themselves how their existence makes sense.  Will there ever be a time when Ethiopian Jews are just another group of Jews, albeit with a very unique history and culture?  What will it take on the part of Israeli society and the rest of the global Jewish community to fully accept them without contingencies, and to at least not ask the lingering questions they have out loud, if they still wonder?  Can those who still have doubts learn or come to understand something that can assuage them once and for all?  If there are other Jewish communities that also predate rabbinic Judaism, will they be come to be accepted more easily?  Hopefully, these questions will have positive answers, but I invite you all to consider them in the meantime. 

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Sol Bender- Hasidism

This week’s reading is essentially about the roots of the different sects of Judaism, especially emphasizing on Hasidism.

The first reading on “Modern Developments of Judaism ” focuses on the different sects of modern Judaism and those who discovered them and allowed them to flourish (a lot of which we have already discussed in class). Firstly the authors speak of Modern Orthodoxy and its roots. Basically, the main point of Modern Orthodoxy was to keep traditional Judaism, all the while continuing adapting to the post-emancipated world in Western Europe. The Modern Orthodox felt that the Reform movement was moving too far away from Jewish tradition, yet they believed that the “ghetto style” traditional Judaism needed to be somewhat modernized without taking away tradition such as the Halakhah. As we discussed in class, one of the pioneers of this movement was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Basically with his most famous writings, Nineteen Letters (also discussed in class) he speaks about how “the Torah is good together with the way of the world”. In other words, being Jewish and emancipated does not mean you have to lose one or the other, the Torah teaches morals and ethics that are always relevant to the contemporary world. Modern Orthodoxy spread throughout Germany but was not the most popular denomination due to its “balance”.

Secondly, the article speaks about the Reform Movement.  Reform Judaism began in Germany, with the revolutionizing idea that the Torah was not written specifically by Gd, rather it was written by different authors over time who were divinely inspired. Basically, they believed that  the Torah showed Ancient Jewish life, and that it had to be modernized to the contemporary world. Furthermore, some aspects of Halakhah could be disregarded. Reform Jews believed that Judaism was more about spirituality and not about actually following Jewish law. This mostly came from emancipation, where Jews did not want to be separate from the rest of society anymore with some even wanting to assimilate. At first Reform Judaism rejected Zionism because they felt that they were already home and did not need to go back to the holy land. This was also seen with how the Reform movement used the word “temple” ; a term that was only used to refer to the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem. They decided to use this term to show their devotion to their current nationality and to prove that this idea of returning to Zion was not relevant anymore. The Reform Movement also revolutionized the way synagogues worked, they introduced organ and choir music (like churches), introduced sermons and the usage of vernacular language. The first Reform synagogue was in Germany in Brunswick established by Israel Jacobson and was promoted by the leaders of Abraham Geiger (discussed in class) and Rabbi Samuel Holdheim. Holdheim basically introduced these ideas that men and women could sit together in Synagogue, men had to take off their hats during prayers and even change the Sabbath to Sunday (all Christian traditions). Reform Judaism also became popular in the United States due to the similar views they shared. The United States became the perfect place for Reform Judaism because Reform Judaism emphasized individualism and privatization of religion, while the United States also promoted individualism. The Reform Movement also enacted controversial decisions such as making woman rabbis, accepting homosexuality and changing matrilineal descent of Judaism. All these have caused a large split between the Orthodox community.

The next discussed sect was the Conservative Movement which also started in Germany. Basically, people started to believe that Reform Judaism was becoming too radical, therefore they wanted to make a sect that was in between Orthodoxy and Reform. Zecharias Frankel quit the Reform rabbinical conference because he thought they were too radical. He did believe that some aspects of Jewish law could be discarded because of modernity, yet he also believed that the Halakha and Jewish traditions still were essential to Judaism. He was more supportive of this idea of Jewish peoplehood than this idea of just being a religion. In the United States, one of the fathers of Conservative Judaism is known as Solomon Schechter, as president of the Jewish theological seminary of New York he created a base for Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism was especially popular in the United States. According to the reading 50 percent of American Jews are Conservative. However, they never gained a large following in other countries.

The fourth discussed sect of Judaism was Reconstructionism, founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the United States. Essentially, they believe that Judaism is not a religion but an inspiration of the Jewish people’s their culture, history, art, literature and music. Judaism is about civilization more than religion. They believe that Gd is not a a “Being transcending the Universe ” rather the force in one’s mind will allow for one to follow correct morals and ethics. Today, it is only composed of three percent of all Jews.

The fifth discussed sect of Judaism was the Musar Movement part of Orthodox Judaism. Essentially, this sect came from Lithuania and came against the Enlightenment movement in Western and Central Europe. They wanted their followers to focus more on religious texts such as the Talmud, Torah and Mishnah instead of secular texts. These texts were supposed to teach Jews how to act,  ethically, morally and through their everyday lives. The musar movement was mostly about instruction and following the law. 

Finally, the reading speaks about Hasidism. I thought it was especially interesting to see the difference between the way the “Modern Developments of Judaism” speaks of Hasidism, versus the way Elie Wiesel speaks of them. The Modern Developments of Judaism, speak of Hasidism in a more objective and factual way, while Elie Wiesel says many stories and questions that have been asked for years about the Hasidic Movement. I will speak firstly about the objective view of Hasidism and then delve into Elie Wiesel. 

Hasidism originated in Eastern Europe specifically in Ukraine. It had a larger following in rural areas of Eastern Europe from the lower class Jewish populations. Hasidism mostly came from the writings of the Kabbalah, which were these ideas based on Jewish mysticism. This mysticism delved into every part of the Torah and attempted to find meaning in all parts of it. Hasidism is thought to be founded by the Bal Shem Tov or Israel ben Eliezer. The term Bal Shem was given to individuals that were thought to have special powers. Nevertheless, the most influential one is known to be Israel ben Eliezer. He came from a humble background, where he became an orphan at a young age. He became educated on the Torah and Kabbalah and started to follow the ideals of the Kabbalah of Gd’s presence all around. He wandered throughout different small towns to spread wisdom and use his powers to help people. One of his main philosophies is that there are three types of love: “Love for Gd, Love of Torah and Love of Man.” The Bal Shem Tov emphasized that love from Gd also went to the more humble and impoverished Jewish populations as well. By the end of his life he is thought to have had 10,000 followers. One of the main beliefs of Hasidism is that because Gd is part of all aspects of life, humans should constantly be joyous of his creations. Being upset and sad, do not allow joy or “holy sparks” be distributed. One must not allow those feelings to entrap the joy, rather they have to release them. Additionally Jews receive redemption from the faults of Adam in the Garden of Eden through following Jewish law and being joyous. After the death of the Bal Shem Tov, Maggid of Mezihirich became the leader of Hasidism and allowed for the continuance of spreading of Hasidism. Maggid of Mezhirich also said anointed Hasidic leaders as Tzaadik (righeous men). Basically this position gave leadership to a specific well versed Hasid and they were meant to create more following and be in charge of their region.  

I found it especially interesting to learn about the beginning of the Chabad movement in this reading. Shneur Zalman founded the Chabad movement. He became the leader of Hasidism in Belorussia. Essentially he praised this idea that reason overrides emotion. He said that reason included wisdom, understanding and knowledge (abbreviated became Habad). His followers were more intellectual than other sects of Hasidism due to this idea of reason. Eventually they created a dynasty in Lubavitcher and gave rise to Zalman’s renown son the Rebbe Schneerson. 

Elie Wiesel focuses more on the stories of Hasidism and the more mystical view of Hasidism. The first chapter is solely based on Israel Baal Shem Tov, as I mentioned above, he is seen as the founder of Hasidism. Wiesel constantly mentions, however, that there is a lot of uncertainty and contradiction about him because there are barely any historical accounts about him . Some even deny that he even was a true person. He explains that the stories about the Bal Shem Tov may or may not be true or they also may be exaggerated. However, Hasidism is not about understanding the history of the Bal Shem Tov and trying to understand what was true or not from the stories that have been passed on, rather it is the job of Hasids to relay the stories as they were told. He especially says that Judaism is about receiving. The same way Jews received the Torah, Jews have to receive the stories of the Bal Shem Tov and then transmit them. He even quotes and says “that an objective Hasid is not a Hasid”. The stories of the Bal Shem tov use supernatural powers, and historians and other more secular Jews do not believe in them. The stories of the Bal Shem Tov require imagination and Hasidism promotes this subjectivity and imagination to understand the importance of the stories and lessons. Throughout this chapter, we hear different miracles and different stories of how he influenced and convinced the people around him of his powers and the importance of his teachings. Wiesel mentioned that his humble background also allowed for large support from the more impoverished to approach him. The Bal Shem Tov emphasized that a small prayer such as the Shema with great sincerity is much more powerful than praying all of the Torah without feeling anything. The Bal Shem Tov intrigued uneducated Jews, because he showed that one may not know much about Judaism, but the connection and devotion to Gd is of the utmost importance. Another main point he enforced was the importance of joy, he thought that joy is what lead to redemption with Gd. 

The second chapter speaks of some of Bal Shem Tov’s disciples and speaks about how they began to follow Hasidism in the first place. The stories range from Rabbi Yaakov Yosseph of Poloyne, Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz, Nahman of Kossov and others. Basically each disciple has a different story of the Bal Shem Tov and how they were intrigued by the Hasidic movement. Most of the stories begin with these individuals being hesitant and almost against these beliefs, until Bal Shem Tov changes their opinion with his wisdom or miracles. 

Finally,  we also read the chapter of the Maggid of Mezeritch. Basically in this chapter, Wiesel discusses how he is chosen to become the next leader after the death of the Bal Shem Tov. At first Maggid of Mezeritch did not have a pleasant relationship until the second time they met. He passed on many stories of the Bal Shem Tov and many of the times said that he was there. It is not clear if he actually was, but the stories were essentially being repeated by him. The Maggid was also charismatic like the Bal Shem Tov and was able to influence a crowd. He was also thought to have some powers and there are different stories in the book that show his wisdom and knowledge. Wiesel later exposes that there was another disciple that wanted to become leader, Yaakov- Yosseph of Polonye. He was known for being an important scribe of the Bal Shem Tov’s teachings. There is no clear reason why he was not selected leader, but it shows that there was competition for this position. At the last part of this chapter, Wiesel says that the Maggid abruptly moved to Onipol. They explain many theories as to why he moved, because he had accomplished everything he wanted to,  because he was ready for solitude or what I found most important is the opposition of Hasidism. 

The last part of the chapter of Modern Developments of Judaism, speaks of the struggle between the Hasids and Mitnagdim, who were more traditional Orthodox scholars who opposed these views. The supernatural powers and this idea that Gd is present in all physical things was seen as incorrect. At first Hasidism was not able to gain a lot of support in Lithuania, however in the 1770s once more Lithuanians began to follow the Hasidic movement, the Mitnagdim became more violent and opposed to their views. They asked for Hasidic Jews to be removed from Jewish communities, they burned Hasidic readings and even asked for them to be excommunicated. Both groups became hostile towards one another until they realized that they had to come together against their common enemy of secular Jews. In Wiesel’s story he also speaks of the rivalry between the Mitnagdim and the Hasidic Movement, and this is seen as one of the reasons for the Maggid to have moved. This chapter ends with the last words of the Meggiah “Keep together, stay united, always”, which explaining that keeping the Hasidic followers together and understanding the stories is important. 

I apologize for this long summary, but I felt that all these facts were important to understand Hasidism and the different sects of Judaism. I found these stories of the Bal Shem Tov especially interesting. Although I have been taught the different sects of Judaism, it was very interesting to read from Elie Wiesel and the different stories that have been passed on for generations about Hasidism. Some of the themes that I felt were very present in the story of the Hasidic movement were joy, mysticism and faith. Firstly, I thought of joy because Elie Wiesel constantly mentions the importance of joy for redemption. With pain and sadness, one is pushing in all the joy that comes from Gds creational surroundings. This joy about Gd and positive view is especially important in this reading.  I thought mysticism was especially important because Hasidism follows  For example, on page 29, when his disciples are thirsty and there is no sign of water, but then he saw a man carrying water back and forth for no reason. This demonstrates this connection of the physical world with Gd who had indirectly given them access to that water. Another important theme from Elie Wiesels story is faith. I thought it was interesting to learn about Bal Shem Tov and how most people have absolutely no historical facts about him. It is interesting to me that these supernatural and exaggerated stories are adamantly followed by the Hasidic movement. They constantly emphasize the importance of subjectivity and belief in these stories. I wonder how the Hasidic movement was able to gain so much support, with these intangible, supernatural stories. What do you guys think? Also what do you guys think would happen if someone like Bal Shem Tov would come out today to preach the same things he preached in 18th century, do you think he would be able to gain a following? 

Another part of the readings that I feel is interesting to discuss is the Chabad movement. In the first reading, they say that Chabad is seen to place reason above emotion. As I read Elie Wiesel’s story, I felt that the main part of Hasidism was about this unwavering emotions, feeling and spirituality toward God. For example, if one used their actual reasoning would they believe in these supernatural stories of the Bal Shem tov? The way joy is mentioned throughout the story is also interesting. For instance the importance of Joy for redemption which is an emotion not stemming from reasoning. I wonder how Chabad was perceived by other Hasidic dynasties? I also wish I could know more what they mean with reasoning before emotion since they are supporters of the Bal Shem Tov. 

I also feel like it is important to discuss how the divisions in the Jewish community will affect the future of the Jewish community. At the beginning of my summary, I speak about the different sects that modern Jews created. Pre-modern era, most Jews followed the same type of Judaism and did not have these large divisions. I wonder if these divisions one day will become so large that Judaism itself will have to split apart. For example, even the Hasidic movement was having disagreements with another Orthodox movement (Mitnagdim) even though they both support more religious and traditional views of Judaism. I want to ask you guys what you think of this! Do you think these divisions will eventually cause a split of Judaism, or do you think that these divisions could eventually be mended. 

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Trevor Kanter – Class 9: Is Judaism a “Thing?”

This week’s readings discuss details of Jewish life from the origins of the divide between Orthodox and Reform Judaism to a discussion of the “Science” that turns an idea into a Religion. While the overarching question this week is meant to determine whether or not Judaism is itself a “thing,” I found it more appropriate to question what kinds of “things” incorporated together make up the Judaism that I am familiar with today. 

Abraham Geiger’s “A General Introduction to the Science of Judaism” puts forth a series of prerequisites for the formation of a Religion. His scientific examination of Judaism begins with three major facets: a relationship between a national language and the development of an idea, consolidation of an idea within a single, historical people, and a transition from an idea as the expression of a particular people to a greater form of spirituality. Geiger asserts that the strength and persevering quality of Judaism lies in its possession of “both a language and a history as a nation.” Beginning first as an idea, Judaism had to originate in a “strong personality” whose influence cannot be separated from the idea itself. Geiger continues to say that rather than just an individual, a whole nation’s “views and its language will also impress their full individual character” upon the idea. Ultimately, the idea becomes the “particular expression” of that people– a “closed entity.” In order for this “idea,” which I have used in a vague manner to describe a collection of philosophical and cultural beliefs, to become spiritual, it must “become independent of the soil in which it first matured.” Through language and history Judaism has continued to transmit its “basic ideals to mankind as a universal heritage.” Thus, the Jewish idea became separate from the original people and took on a spiritual quality. Geiger comments that Judaism has “always had to engage in violent struggle,” and has resisted being fully absorbed into the spiritual and cultural movements of world history. This reminded me of one of the defining Jewish traits that Dr. Seeman mentioned in class– adherence to a community of struggle.

Jacob Katz’s “Religion as a Uniting and Dividing Force in Modern Jewish History” explores the effect of secularization, a term that Katz gives two definitions, on Jewish life. Katz’s first definition of secularization captures the general transition of public religious life to a “neutral society” where religion has been retired from the public sphere. The second definition refers to a specific transition of “concepts, symbols, and all kinds of stylistic elements” that previously existed in a religious context “into a purely profane context.” Severing ties with the Church was a “precondition for Jewish emancipation,” but the Christological influences remained present in the public sphere. Katz uses Immanuel Kant as an example of this process. Kant’s system of ethics, although secular, “was identical with what had been taught by Jesus.” In order for Jews to engage with Kant’s “secular humanistic” society, they had to face a demand that “fell just short of a demand for conversion.” This led to a divide between traditional Orthodox Jews who rejected this form of secularization and a new Reform movement of Jews who accepted it. Katz comments near the end of this reading that this divide between Orthodox and Reform Jews occurred at a time of particular “social and political security” for the Jews, the effect of which allowed many to feel comfortable disrupting their communal unity. This passage reminds me of American Jews today, many of whom feel secure and willing to disagree with each other publicly.

Rabbi Hirsch’s “Nineteen Letters,” of which I read the first two, contain a conversation between an enlightened man who has rejected Judaism and a Rabbi who explains the ongoing significance of Judaism through an enlightened lens. The first man, Benjamin describes Judaism as an unchanging, antiquated way of thinking that cannot hold significance in the new enlightened era. Rabbi Naftali responds by explaining that one’s purpose and meaning in this life can be discovered by reading the Torah in the sacred national language of Hebrew. He emphasizes that reading the Torah in Hebrew carries the weight of the history of the text as well. This point is similar to the Geiger passage on the Science of Judaism that described the importance of language and history to the consolidation of a new religion.

Ahad Ha Am’s “Sacred and Profane,” makes an important distinction between these two qualities of religion. The profane “instrument derives its worth from the end,” much like new technology created to achieve a goal with greater efficiency. In “sacred matters the end invests the instrument with a sanctity of its own.” The sacred instrument holds inherent spiritual value. For example, the Torah today is written “only on parchment, in manuscript,” even though there exist more efficient tools to achieve the same goal. The parchment and manuscript, as well as the content within, are sacred.

These readings describe Judaism as many “things.” Judaism according to Geiger is a philosophy, religion, language, and shared history. It is borne out of a specific people. Judaism is malleable to a degree, taking on new meaning as the world moves to new ways of thought. It is fundamentally different from other religions, specifically Christianity. Katz describes a particular resistance of German Jews to be baptized, even while ideological conversion under the guise of secularization was appealing to many Jews. For this reason, the spiritual quality of Judaism must be a different “thing” than that of Christianity. Judaism is evolving, as exemplified in the “Nineteen Letters.” It can adapt to a changing world, and, as Geiger puts it, “embraces all of mankind.” Judaism is sacred and its sanctity is also a “thing.” Here, however, Ha Am argues that the sanctity of Judaism is lost with the Reform movement, which strips the language and “practical observance” from the religion. I initially disagreed with this characterization on the grounds that the history and philosophy of Judaism remain with the Reform movement. What did you all think of this passage from Ha Am?

The second Geiger reading, “On Renouncing Judaism,” begins by describing a Jewish person who does not keep kosher, observe ritual law and festivals, and ceases “to view the talmudic precepts as binding.” This passage raises a question that has come up repeatedly in our class: “Can anyone who subscribes to such wholesale renunciation of Jewish Law still claim to be a Jew?” Essentially, is Judaism still a “thing” without the tenets mentioned above? Geiger writes that any person who holds a “pure faith in God” can be considered a Jew and that this is the “basic core” of Judaism. What about Jews who don’t believe in God (of which there seem to be many today)? Again, I am reminded of the adherence to a community of suffering, or struggle. There is something that continues to bind us all together, even without this “basic core” intact. I leave this question open, and I do not feel that I have an answer at this moment in time.

I look forward to discussing these readings and hearing your thoughts in class this week. Thank you for reading!

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Sabrina Mail – Classes 10-11: The Zionism Debates

This week’s readings focus on the theme of Zionism and the different approaches to what it means. The first reading, “The Development of Modern Zionism” is a holistic view of the movement’s origins and history whereas the readings by Theodore Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am delve into specific viewpoints by two of the movement leaders. I enjoyed reading these papers and learning more about different people’s perspectives on Zionism and the Jewish State. In the wider population today, the words ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionist’ have a negative connotation as it pertains to Israel, so it was interesting to read about Zionism’s roots and the true meaning of it.  While I am familiar with Theodore Herzl and his ideology, I had never heard of Ahad Ha’Am so was intrigued with “Slavery in Freedom” and what Ha’Am believed about Jewish emancipation. 

Zionism is a belief that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in the land of Israel, their historic homeland. As “The Development of Modern Zionism” explains, throughout the Jewish exile there was a constant focus on Zion and returning to the ‘Promised Land.’ This originally had a religious lens as many Jews believed the Messiah would come and restore the Jews to Jerusalem. During the rise of modern antisemitism and nationalism, many secular Jews began thinking about a return to Israel. Proto-Zionists, before modern Zionism arose in the late 19th century, had different ideas of what this looked like. Some of these included an army of Jews regaining the land, looking at it as a way to prevent too much assimilation, and fulfilling a Jewish mission. The catalyst of the first explicit Zionist organization and subsequent waves of migration to Israel was the terrible pogroms in Russia in the 1880s. Modern Zionism arose with Theodore Herzl in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair in France. The Dreyfus Affair led to a surge of antisemitism in France, which Theodore Herzl witnessed and which inspired him to write “The Jewish State” in response. The beginning of the 20th century saw increased immigration to Palestine as Zionism picked up steam and the Jewish State began to grow. 

To better understand their perspectives, here’s a quick synopsis of who Theodore Herzl and Ahad Ha’am are. Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) is credited with being the founder of modern Zionism and the Jewish State. He was an Austro-Hungarian, university-educated journalist that grew up in an assimilated Jewish family. Ahad Ha’Am (1856-1927) was born in Ukraine to a wealthy Hasidic merchant’s family. Born as Asher Ginsberg, he changed his name to Ahad Ha’Am, which is Hebrew for ‘One of the People.’ He became a Zionist while attending university but critiqued many of the Zionist organizations at the time. Their various upbringings, with Herzl growing up assimilated and Ha’am growing up religious had a big influence on their viewpoints. Herzl was a proponent of Political Zionism, believing in a mass migration to Palestine and a political and legal change in the status of the land. Ha’am was a proponent of spiritual Zionism. He stressed the importance of Israel as a spiritual center for Jewish people and thought it crucial for reviving the Jewish spirit. He also believed the decline of Judaism as a unifying factor in the Jewish identity hurt the Jewish determination to survive. He was very concerned with the fate of Judaism as a religion, which he saw as a bigger issue than the political fate of the Jews. 

In “The Jewish State,” Theodore Herzl discusses his understanding of “The Jewish Problem” and proposes a solution, which is the establishment of a Jewish state. He speaks frankly of the antisemitism Jews face, its causes and effects, and uses it to explain why his plan is so important. He discusses the Jews’ historical persecution, and the hardships Jews face regardless of where they live or their social status. He says he doesn’t think it will go ever away unless Jews are allowed their own state and to have sovereignty. He also discusses the idea of Jews as a people and says that idea is part of what makes it hard for complete assimilation, which he is against.

In his plan, he establishes two groups: The Society of the Jews and The Jewish Company. The Society will do the preparatory work and manage the diplomatic negotiations. The Company will help realize the business interests of the departing Jews and organize trade in the new country. He goes into detail on the immigration process, which will be gradual, and the order of the immigration waves. The poorest will go first to cultivate the soil and start building infrastructure, followed by those at a higher economic level. He discusses both Palestine and Argentina as potential homes and goes over the pros and cons for each. Although Argentina is very fertile, Palestine is the historic Jewish home and would inspire mass immigration. Herzl also proposes at length and in great detail what the establishment of the new state will look like and how it will come into being. For instance, some things he goes over are a seven-hour work day, the role of unskilled laborers, and methods for raising capital. 

Something I found interesting was comparing Herzl’s vision of a Jewish State with how Israel is today. For instance, Herzl thought the Jewish State would be neutral and would only require an army of volunteers. This is very different to Israel today which relies heavily on its drafted military to preserve its existence in a dangerous part of the world. Another example is when Herzl talks about the language in this new state. He rules out Hebrew and says it cannot be possible to converse in it. In reality, Hebrew was revived from its status as a dead language and is spoken conversationally in Israel. It’s interesting to see which parts of Herzl’s vision were realized and which didn’t come to fruition. 

Ahad Ha’Am wrote “Slavery in Freedom” in 1891 as a response to an article written by a prominent Jewish writer. The provoking title refers to the moral and intellectual slavery the Jewish people face as the price of so-called freedom, or Western Jewish emancipation. Ha’Am focuses on the situation of French Jews in his essay. He argues they face moral slavery because they’re not allowed to express certain views on Judaism and Jerusalem. One example of this is the way French Jews have to talk about their relations with Jews in other countries. They hide their innate connection to Jerusalem and can’t talk about the kinship Jews face across different nationalities. Another example is that Jews are told to consider France as their fatherland and it should come before their actual birthplace, Jerusalem. In order to really fit in, they have to emphasize their patriotism and downplay their Jewishness. This is where Ha’Am’s religious background comes into play as he discusses that Jerusalem is every Jews’ birthplace and we have a strong connection to it. Secular Jews may disagree with this perspective. If they’ve assimilated enough, they may consider the country they live in their home more than Jerusalem. 

Ha’Am also references the idea we’ve talked about in class on whether Judaism is a religion or nationality. He states that emancipated Jews gave up the idea of Jews as a people and instead allow themselves to be considered only a religion. By his strong response to this, it’s evident he considers Jews a people as well as a religion. He blames emancipation for and weakening the Jewish unity and the ties that connect all Jews to each other. I understand his point as in order to assimilate, Jews will want to appear as though they belong and forgo aspects of their lives that make them different. To fit in, Jews will not want to be perceived as having dual loyalties or being different than Christian Frenchmen. This unfortunately involves losing some of their traditions and downplaying certain aspects of Judaism. Judaism has survived for so many years because of the tight-knit community and the strength of the traditions that have been passed through the generations. Ha’Am was worried that the desire to assimilate would lead to Jews losing their sense of self and forgetting where they came from. He concludes by saying he doesn’t think emancipation is worth the moral and intellectual slavery that comes with it, and he wouldn’t trade his spiritual freedom for all the emancipation in the world. 

Overall, I agree with aspects of both viewpoints. I think Herzl was so influential because of the detail he went into while planning the Jewish state and the vision he had of it. He created a blueprint that other Jews were able to use and build off of to gain support for the movement. He didn’t underestimate the importance of political relationships and diplomacy, which he used to gain traction and global support. This was instrumental in the waves of immigration to Israel. He recognized the importance of strong global political standing in order for the Jewish State to be seen as a feasible option. I also think that Ahad Ha’Am makes some great points even if overall I agree more with the idea of Political Zionism. If all Jews completely assimilated, we would lose sight of who we are and what makes us a people. Yet I also think some assimilation is necessary as it’d be almost impossible for Jews to not assimilate at all. Nowadays, Jews are much more assimilated than they were during his time, which shows his concern that emancipation led to giving up the idea of Jews as a people was valid. We’ve talked a lot recently about whether Jews are a people or a religion, but back in their time it went without saying that the Jews were a people. This shows that we did have to give up the idea of Jews as a people in order to assimilate and that Ha’am was correct in his assessment. 

Potential Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think of Herzl’s proposed Jewish State? How does it compare to Israel today?
  2. Compare and contrast Herzl and Ha’Am’s points of view on Zionism. Which do you agree with more?
  3. Do you think the emancipated Jews truly faced a type of slavery and if so, do you think it was still worth it for the other freedoms they got in return?
  4. How would you describe the role antisemitism played in Zionism’s origins? Did the establishment of Israel lessen global antisemitism?
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Kylie Hall – Classes 5-6: Premodern Destinies: Ashkenazim/Sefardim: Women/Men

Kylie Hall

By Light Of Hidden Candles – Daniella Levy

Daniella Levy’s book, By Light Of Hidden Candles, is a beautiful and emotional journey filled with Sephardic Jewish culture and tradition, family drama, the struggles of interfaith relationships, discovering self-identity, and uncovering history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I was able to see major themes that we have discussed in class thus far like antisemitism, what it means to be a Jew, the prominent presence of food, and who the Jews are in general. I will discuss these ideas throughout this blog post. 

The book begins by introducing the very important Jewish family mission that has been passed down for many generations (with decreasing details and clarity) of thanking and repaying a Spanish family for helping them escape from the Inquisition by returning a ring with an eagle on it to them. The story is structured into three different types of chapters with three different narrators: Miriam, Alma, and Manuel. Through their different perspectives, we are able to see relationships develop, personal faith struggles, fears, and great joys. Alma Ben-Ami is a proud and passionate traditional, Sephardic Jew who has left nursing school to join the genealogy program at NYU where she will spend the semester abroad in Madrid. Her Jewish identity is a very big part of her life as she keeps Kosher, observes the Sabbath, prays often, and plans to only marry within the Jewish faith. She has moved away from her family in Albany to live with her quickly aging grandmother who she has a very close relationship with. Her grandma stays quite busy by constantly cooking Kosher food, working to keep her Judaica store in tip-top shape, ensuring that Alma marries a Jewish man, guaranteeing that her family’s Jewish identity is present and important, and trying to stay young and remember all that she can as she rapidly approaches death. She is proud and excited for Alma to be attending NYU and studying her family’s past which she is so passionate about. However, Alma’s parents and other family members are very concerned with money, career path, and success, and they see Alma’s degree as useless. After cleaning out her grandma and late grandpa’s Judaica store, Alma randomly (perhaps, fatefully) is trampled on by a valuable wooden box filled with all of the Ketubot (marriage contracts) in her family and the ring with the eagle itself! This unlocks her grandma’s memory of their family mission, she tells Alma all that she can remember, and Alma becomes intrigued, passionate, and hungry to learn more. This becomes the root of her research in Spain, and as the story goes on, she is able to uncover more and more details both at home and in Spain with the help of Manuel. 

Manuel Aguilar is a boy from Granada who moved with his mother to New York five years ago. He is a very talented and bright student studying Iberian Studies at NYU, speaking English and Spanish, and reading ancient 15th century documents with ease. At the beginning of the story, we meet Manuel as a devout Roman Catholic who is heavily considering becoming a priest. However, he is uncontrollably curious about Judaism. His father, who he loved very much, passed away from lung cancer. When he died, Manuel became very close with his priest (before he passed), Padre Carlos, who influenced him greatly and inspired him to want to become a priest. However, Padre Carlos did not have good thoughts to share about the Jews and warned Manuel and his other Catholic congregants to stay away from Jews and Judaism as a whole. Manuel’s mother, Raquel Elvira, is a protective and hard-working woman who loves living in America surrounded by good people. She has a very different relationship with and view on the Jewish people. She loves the Jews, often helps them out on the Sabbath, hates and disagrees with the way Padre Carlos used to speak about them, and believes that he was spreading “anti-semitic and racist garbage” (Levy, 48). From the beginning of the story, she looks out for blood spots in eggs (which is a Kosher practice), lights candles in the basement on Shabbat, supports and wants Manuel to be with Alma, and refuses to attend church. Although it seems obvious to us reading those facts now that she must have Jewish roots, it is not until the end that she becomes aware that she is, in fact, Jewish and not Catholic. With the immense help of Alma, Manuel is able to convince his mother to allow him to attend Madrid and continue his father’s work of uncovering his family past and proving that the Aguilar family was once royalty before being stripped of it, perhaps during the Inquisition, and moving to Granada to start fresh. 

Manuel and Alma become research partners, spend an immense amount of time together, and learn everything about one another. Alma helps Manuel explore his religious identity by taking him to the Chabad in Spain on Shabbat, teaching him about Jewish holidays and traditions, and introducing him to Rabbi Udi who helps him explore Judaism even more. He runs into many problems, questions, and doubts about Catholicism as a whole (like their belief that the only way into heaven is through baptism and believing in Jesus), and he feels a great connection to Judaism that he cannot shake. He is truly lost and does not know whether he still wants to become a priest, stay Catholic, or leave the Church altogether and convert to Judaism. While this great struggle is going on within him, Alma and Manuel uncontrollably catch feelings for one another and fall in love, as their families predicted. For Alma, this is absolutely unacceptable and forbidden, and she is very angry with herself for letting the relationship develop at all. As this forbidden love story progresses, the two discover the truth of their families’ pasts and how connected they are. Don Tomás and León are Manuel’s ancestors, and they are the family who helped Miriam and Abraham, Alma’s ancestors, escape from the Inquisition. The whole situation feels unbelievable and like the two were destined to meet and be together, but the problem of religion is not fixed. Their love and deep feelings for one another is especially revealed towards the end of the story when Alma’s grandma unexpectedly passes away after Alma’s last phone call with her did not end well. Alma is a wreck, Manuel comforts her, and the two get a little too close. Alma decides the best decision for her is to leave Manuel and never see him again in order to not let love get in the way of her Jewishness. Many aspects of Alma and Manuel’s situation reflect that of Miriam and León. 

 Miriam de Carmona is Alma’s ancestor living in the times of the Inquisition. She is the root of the ancient family mission, and within her chapters we see her struggle physically to come out alive from the horrible persecution of the Inquisition and mentally with her priorities, love life, and religious identity. She grapples with the important decision of surviving safely by becoming a conversa, forced to get baptized, be outwardly Christian, and hide her Jewishness, or risking her life as a martyr, willing to die as a Jew, for her religion. Miriam is a 16 year old Orthodox Jew living with her spice-selling father, Abraham, in the Juderia of Lorca, a very closed-off Jewish quarter. Abraham puts Miriam and himself at risk after making the dangerous yet brave and thoughtful decision to help conversos hold onto their Jewishness by sneaking them Kosher wine to drink and feel the holiness of G-d during the High Holidays. The Inquisition sees this as an act of corrupting the new pure “converts” with their old and sinful ways. They are saved and able to escape the wrath of the Inquisition with the help of Don Tomás and his son, León. They risk everything for the freedom of their Jewish friends, and as the story progresses, Miriam and León fall in love. Like Alma, for Miriam, this is disappointing and absolutely forbidden due to her passion for and commitment to Judaism. In the end, Miriam is left with the hardest and most important decision of her life: accepting León’s marriage proposal to her and ensuring her safety living as a conversa, or choosing to stay Jewish, leave León forever, and embark on a long and dangerous journey of moving to poor and unknown conditions in Fez with her father. This choice leaves Miriam in immense pain, yet she prays and feels moved to choose the ladder as she refuses to hide her Jewish identity. This is where León gives her the ring, and they depart ways forever.

The story ends happily and perfectly as Manuel discovers that his mother is Jewish, meaning that he is too according to Halakhah, Jewish law! He comes from a family of conversos who have hidden their Judaism for years, and Manuel and his mother just did not know it! This is exactly what Manuel needs to help him solve his religious identity crisis, and he decides that he feels connected to Judaism, wants to be fully Jewish, removes his cross from his neck, and gets to be with Alma, his love!  

Sorry for that long-ish summary, I tried to make it as short as possible, but I could not leave out some important details! Now, I will talk about the central themes that I saw in the book from our class thus far. First, there is a great amount of antisemitism throughout the entire story which reminds me of David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count. Obviously, the Inquisition is a huge example of antisemitic sentiment, as the Catholic church persecuted the Jews, wanted them completely gone, did not let them practice their religion in Spain, and forced them to convert, hide their religion, or if they were lucky, escape. Manuel’s great aunt is an example of the pressure that Jews felt. She is a Jew behind closed doors, but is openly Christian, living with a great cross hanging on her door. Another example of antisemitism that we see first-hand in the present is when Manuel and Alma are on the street in Spain, and they run into the group of neo-Nazi young men spray painting a swastika and making offensive, antisemitic jokes. Alma wants to defend herself and the Jews and tell the boys off, but Manuel stops her and potentially saves her life by showing the cross that he is wearing and, therefore, vouching that they are not Jewish. It is a sad, disgusting, and shocking scene to read, yet the presence of antisemitism in the past and present is a harsh reality that is tough to swallow. Also, the bad ideas and warnings that Padre Carlos spreads about the Jews to Manuel and the other Catholic congregants is an example of antisemitism. Another example is the security guard outside of the Chabad in Spain which shows the actions Jews are forced to take in preparation for antisemitic sentiment. This reminds me of my synagogue back home because there is always a police officer outside during every Shabbat and holiday. These are just a few of examples of the discrimination against and hatred towards the Jews within the story.

A second theme I saw while reading is the idea we have been discussing as a class: what it means to be a Jew. Miriam grapples with this question many times throughout the story. At the beginning, Miriam cannot understand why her father finds it important to help the conversos by giving them Kosher wine. She initially does not consider them Jews and calls them “pig-eaters” and sinners (Levy, 16). Her father tries to explain the immense difficulty of choosing between staying outwardly Jewish and dying versus converting, surviving, and staying in Spain. But she cannot fully understand that at this time and only considers Jews to be those who do not become conversos. Her father considers them Jews and attempts to help them hold onto their Judaism in any way he can. Miriam is unable to understand the great struggle that Jews go through in choosing to give in to the Inquisition and choose life or dying as martyrs. I think at the end of the story when she is forced to make this decision for herself, she is truly able to feel the pain and confusion. We see her praying to G-d looking out at the water, and we are able to see that her belief has changed when she says, “I don’t have to give up on the Torah entirely… I can still be a Jew in secret…” (Levy, 295). She experiences the severity and trouble of this decision and realizes that one can be a Jew in secret, yet it is difficult, painful, and delicate. As we know, she eventually chooses to not convert because she is unwilling to hide her Jewish identity. So, I am curious, do you all consider the conversos to be any less of Jews than someone like Miriam who chose to not give in to the Inquisition? In other words, do you consider martyrs more Jewish than the conversos? Is there even such a thing as being less or more Jewish? I think this is an interesting question with regards to what it means to be a Jew. I also think about when Manuel discovers that he is Jewish according to Halakhah because his mother is Jewish, yet he also says that he wants to be Jewish anyways. So another question I raise is, does Jewish law make someone Jewish or is someone’s Jewishness a decision from within?

I was also reminded of some of what we read in the Bible while reading this story, particularly of who the Jews are. I remember in class Professor Seeman talked about Sarcha (I very well may have that name wrong; I apologize) who answered the question of “what are Jews?” as “a people defined by antisemitism.” We all agreed that this is part of the definition, but not enough. I think that Abraham de Carmona would agree with our class because he attempts to answer this question on page 277 in the entire bottom paragraph. He says that the Jews are NOT just a people who suffer as they are oppressed and persecuted. They are a people who bravely face the worst hatred and misfortune, overcome it, and end up triumphant and even stronger with their unshakable faith in G-d. He references the Bible and says, “G-d promised our father Abraham that he would curse whoever curses us and bless whoever blesses us” (Levy, 277). He has faith in G-d’s promise and believes that the Spaniards will eventually face consequences for their actions. I also remember León asking Miriam why she does not just convert, and she says that G-d is protecting the Jews not punishing them and, “My life would be easier if I were a Christian. But I’m not a Christian. And I have no desire to be one.” (Levy, 190). Although it is very hard to be Jewish at times like this and feels like the Jews are always being punished, Miriam has faith and believes that G-d is keeping them alive and safe. This also reminds me of Exodus when the Jews are being exiled and oppressed, yet G-d promises to help them make it out alive. What do you all think of how Abraham and Miriam de Carmona answer the question, “who are Jews?” Do they help us in answering the question as a class? 

Lastly, food is very prominent in the entire story which reflects its importance in Jewish identity and culture. I think of the importance of the Kosher diet to Alma, Miriam, and the rest of their family, specific foods eaten on holidays, and the fast of Yom Kippur. Manuel is very confused why the Jews are so strict about their diet and dishes, and Alma says that they do it because G-d tells them to in oral tradition (Levy, 151). I am reminded of what Professor Seeman said when we were talking about Genesis about how food is central in Judaism, and food prohibition is how it all started with Adam and Eve not allowed to eat the fruit from the tree. I just find it very interesting that food and keeping Kosher is emphasized immensely in this book, and I think it reflects what we said in class on Tuesday about it being central in Judaism.

Thank you all for reading, I look forward to discussing these ideas with you!! 

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Hong JS-309: Reflection on “Jews Don’t Count”

In “Jews Don’t Count”, David Baddiel contemplates on the circumstances of the modern-day Jews in a socioeconomic perspective. Through his personal experience and the popular culture, David Baddiel reveals the awkward situation Jews around the world faced: persecuted by both left and right politics. There are two main themes in “Jews Don’t Count” including the “low-high status” racism on Jews and the argument on the “whiteness” of Jews’ identity.

David Biddiel claims that Jews are probably the only ethnic group which suffered racism for being both rich and poor. Because of the refugee status of Jews in world war II and the occupations Jews chose, they were being labeled as “lying, thieving, and dirty” by the racists. Like many other first-gen immigrants and refugees, racists love to mislead public opinions by blaming them for unemployment issues, societal instability… In one of Nazi German’s famous slogan “Jews are lice, they cause typhus”, it reflects on Nazi’s idea to consider Jews as subhuman and spread the diseases. When Germany occupied Poland and created the Jewish Ghettos, the impoverished living situation allowed the disease to spread quickly, while the public health system advanced racism toward Jews in regard to diseases. In addition, this racist stereotype remains over the past century. In 2020, when the riots broke out in Paris against Israel action on Palestine, the crowd shouted “dirty Jew” and “dirty Zionist shit”. Here, it’s depressing to see how people are associating all the Jews with Zionists. Biddiel, in particular, identified himself as a secular Jew which isn’t religious or associated with the state of Israel. Many other Jews like Biddiel who were born in a Jewish family which fleed from Nazi Germany, grew up learning the stories of their parents. They are the creatures of the age, not in any way have to be the same, think the same, or believe the same. However, in public eyes, this isn’t the case. The subhuman image of jews isn’t only being reflected through the Nazi propaganda, it also exists in many modern-day conspiracy theory. In those theories, Jews are portrayed as “humanity’s secret master” who controlled the global financial system and directed the public opinions through media controls. Baddiel listed numerous of celebrity’s public endorsements of this idea such as John Cusack; however the example that came to mind is Mark Zuckerberg. As a graduate from phillips exeter and Harvard, Zuckerberg became the earliest billionaire in human history. Yes, he is a Jew, and yes, he is the top five richest person in the world. But the tweets and public media around the world “suspects” Zuckerberg is a robot, a “Lizard” and those voices seem to have no problem at all. Isn’t this metaphoring the submanism of Jews? And if the people don’t understand the Jewish history context, they will be confused why this is such a matter. Jews in many American popular country are associated with capitalism which many left-wing commuist are opposing of. Biddiel highlights the outsider view of the leftists and how they believe that the Jews are the haves, and they are the have nots. So any attack on the rich Jews is considered a rebellion instead of racism from their POV. Although I agree with Biddiel’s claim, I would like to argue that Jews are not the only group being subjected to this type of racism. For the Chinese ethics in the United States, the poor Chinatown workers were usually being subjected to the dirtiness and lower class. In some extreme cases, like the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shooting: Chinese immigrant is also being labeled in a sexual way. On the other hand, due to the rising Chinese economy in the past decades, there are ongoing M&A activities abroad. And the rich Chinese capitalists are usually being labeled as “buying everything in the world” and “colonialism”. So this is a fundamental issue about racism, it doesn’t only exist in one particular group and certainly won’t stop in one particular group. 

“Are Jews white?” is a debate which has been going on for a while. David Biddiel believed that Jews are not white due to the fact that Whiteness is complex and cannot be judged just through appearance. For instance Yekkes Americans have nearly no physical difference than the White Americans, and if they don’t claim they are Jews, nobody will notice the difference. Therefore, some Jews decided to hide their identities by changing their last names and not reveal their Jewish origins. Many Maghrebi Jews can be easily identified as Jews due to their physical characteristics. However, regardless of the skin color and physical characteristics, Jews don’t possess the same amount of securities that the white people have. The majority and minority mindset are different, White American didn’t experience discrimination, genocide, and prejudice that older generation Jews had experienced. And those differences won’t be solved through money and power. Biddiel underlines the hierarchy of racism existing in the system, in which the Y words are not as serious as the N word in the public eyes. And the majority opinion on the issue of Jewish oppression is that if you are a Upper East Side Jew who has a summer house in Southampton, you are privileged. Which I think it’s true, if you are rich regardless of your ethnicity, you can enjoy more goods and services than the others. But as a whole group, Jews had suffered the most miseries than any others. Therefore, it’s not fair to use several people’s privilege to reflect the entire group’s privilege. It’s truly about how people feel, just like the introduction in Biddiel’s twitter account biography which is a simple of the word “Jew”. It reflects Biddiel’s belief of who he is: a Jew, not Jewish person. Only the acceptance of himself can lead him to find his true self. Although Biddiel didn’t give us the direct answer to his question about “Jewish Whiteness”, we can see clearly that Jewishness is far different than whiteness and cannot be treated equivalently.  

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