Israel: Day 18

September 21, 2023 • 9:30 am

On Wednesday I spent about four hours at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and even that wasn’t long enough to see all the interesting stuff. There are four bits to peruse: archaeology (not just in Israel, but throughout the world), things reflecting Jewish life, art (including Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting), and, in a separate building (“The Shrine of the Book”), the Dead Sea Scrolls (only a bit of the original on display) and the Aleppo Codex (fully on display). As Wikipedia notes:

The Israel Museum (Hebrew: מוזיאון ישראלMuze’on Yisrael, Arabic: متحف إسرائيل) is an art and archaeological museum in Jerusalem. It was established in 1965 as Israel’s largest and foremost cultural institution, and one of the world’s leading encyclopaedic museums. It is situated on a hill in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Bible Lands Museum, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Its holdings include the world’s most comprehensive collections of the archaeology of the Holy Land, and Jewish art and life, as well as significant and extensive holdings in the fine arts, the latter encompassing eleven separate departments: Israeli Art, European Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings, Photography, Design and Architecture, Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and Arts of the Americas.

Among the unique objects on display are the Venus of Berekhat Ram, the interior of a 1736 Zedek ve Shalom synagogue from Suriname, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, a mosaic Islamic prayer niche from 17th-century Persia, and a nail attesting to the practice of crucifixion in Jesus’ time. An urn-shaped building on the grounds of the museum, the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada. It is one of the largest museums in the region.

I’m surprised they don’t mention the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in existence (there are older versions in Greek), also a big draw to the Museum. But more on that later. I’ll include some labels with the object to avoid taking a lot of time simply to retype them.

The entrance to the Museum Complex, which (save the Shrine of the Book) is in several interconnected buildings, is long and spooky, and reminds me of the underground connection between the two parts of Terminal 1 in O’Hare airport:

The connecting tunnel at Terminal 1 at O’Hare in Chicago:

But there are a few mosaics on the wall to distract you (click descriptions to enlarge)

There were at least a dozen of these eerie coffins:

Here’s one:

A piece of pottery that caught my eye:

And I loved these lions from the sixth century BC. I show one below:

It doesn’t look very fierce! And it has hooves!

An Egyptian statue of the cat-shaped god Bastet:

Another Egyptian cat:

Two locks of hair found at Masada. Could they be from Jews who decided to commit suicide rather than be captured as slaves by the Romans? We don’t know, and, as I’ve noted, the “mass suicide” story of Masada may be fictional.

A big mosaic; I photographed only part of it:

The centaur is on the right.

A famous bit of cuneiform writing, which fascinates me:

On to Jewish Life. Here’s a Jewish wedding dress from Morocco:

And a carriage devoted solely to carrying coffins (Hungarian, 19th century):

A 19th-century Jewish marriage contract (“ketubah”). As one site explains:

The ketubah is a unilateral agreement drawn by witnesses in accordance with Jewish civil law, in which they testify that the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of marriage, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

It is not a ceremonial document of scripture or prayer. That is why it is written in Aramaic, the technical legal language of Talmudic law, rather than in Hebrew, the language of the “Song of Songs.” Neither is it a state document establishing the new relationship of man and woman. It makes no mention of the confirmation of G‑d or of society. It is not an instrument of the privileged class, as in ancient societies, but one obligatory on every person. It is also not an affirmation of perpetual love. It is a statement of law that provides the framework of love.

The ketubah restates the fundamental conditions that are imposed by the Torah upon the husband, such as providing his wife with food, clothing, and conjugal rights, which are inseparable from marriage. It includes the husband’s guarantees to pay a certain sum in the event of divorce, and inheritance rights obligatory upon his heirs in case he dies before his wife.

It is not a mutual agreement; the wife agrees only to accept the husband’s proposal of marriage. It is assuredly not a bill of sale; the man does not purchase the bride. In fact, the ketubah represents the witnesses rather than husband or wife. Through this instrument they attest to the groom’s actions, promises, and statements, and to the bride’s willing acceptance of the marriage proposal.

I’m wondering whether the small letters at the lower left around the square are the signatures of the witnesses. Note both the Hebrew and the Aramaic.

NOTE: Joseph points out in the comments that the photo below is not a mezuzah but a megillah. I have crossed out what I wrote before and added what seems to be the correct information. This shows that I am not a very good Jew!

Below is a very fancy mezuzah, a container affixed to doorways in Jewish homes, each containing a klaf, a piece of parchment on which there’s verse from the Torah (see above). The scroll itself is a lot more important than the container, and, if prepared in the kosher way, can cost a lot more than the container (check Amazon).  When I owned a house in Maryland while I had my first job, there was a mezuzah attached to the front door frame, with the top pointing inward, as is the custom. That was one of my only concessions to religious Judaism, and I don’t have one now. Even secular Jews do it (see from the Wikipedia article below)

I didn’t write down the source or date of this mezuzah, but it’s very fancy, with a silver case and a very long handwritten klaf:

This is not a mezuzah, but a fancy megillah scroll in a silver case, which contains parts of the Bible read on special occasions (this one is small, about 6 inches long).  The Britttanica explains the scrolls:

Megillah, also spelled Megilla, Hebrew Megillah (“Scroll”), plural Megillot, in the Hebrew Bible, any of the five sacred books of the Ketuvim (the third division of the Old Testament), in scroll form, that are read in the synagogue in the course of certain festivals. The Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) is read on the sabbath of Passover week, the Book of Ruth on ShavuotLamentations of Jeremiah on Tisha be-AvEcclesiastes on the sabbath of the week of Sukkoth, and the Book of Esther on Purim. The reading of Esther on Purim is prescribed in the Mishna; other readings were introduced in post-Talmudic days.

The NY Public Library notes  that these are usually scrolls of the Book of Esther and are read on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text, read on Passover, that contains the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is not lifted from the Old Testament but recounts a similar story of Exodus. It was written no earlier than 170 A.D.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah (below) is very famous, as it’s the oldest surviving Passover Haggadah from Ashkenazi Jews. As it says below, it was written about 1300 A.D. Wikipedia has a long article on it that gives theories for why all the humans have bird heads, as in the photo below.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is so called because all Jewish men, women, and children depicted in the manuscript have human bodies with the faces and beaks of birds. Non-Jewish and non-human faces (such as those of angels, the sun, and the moon) are blank or blurred. Numerous theories have been advanced to explain the unusual iconography, usually tied to Jewish aniconism. The Haggadah is in the possession of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it is on permanent exhibition.

Here’s a later Haggadah, apparently from Moravia, and written four centuries later:

The Torah is the archetypal document of Judaism, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament. It is written by hand on a scroll that is kept in the synagogue and read at least once a week. See below for more information. In the bar mitzvah ceremony of becoming a man, a Jewish boy must be able to read from the Torah. (I was never bar mitzvahed because I flunked out of Hebrew school.)

Here’s a section of a Torah from the Museum. The calligrapher has do do a good job because, as it says above, if you make a single mistake, the entire document becomes worthless and you have to start again from the beginning.

There are dozens of fancy Torah cases in the Museum; here are two.

Menorahs are Jewish “candelabras” that burn oil and there are two types. Temple Menorahs have seven branches for fuel and are rarely if ever lit. All temples have one, but it’s mostly symbolic.

Here’s one from Wikipedia with the caption, “Reconstruction of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, created by the Temple Institute of Israel”

The more famous menorah is the Hanukkah menorah, which has nine branches with the middle one higher than the others. From Wikipedia:

Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Eight of the nine branches hold lights (candles or oil lamps) that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday; on each night, one more light is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited. The ninth branch holds a candle, called the shamash (“helper” or “servant”), which is used to light the other eight.

The Hanukkah menorah commemorates, but is distinct from, the seven-branched menorah used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Along with the seven-branched menorah and the Star of David, it is among the most widely produced articles of Jewish ceremonial art.

Why the extra branches? Here’s the classic explanation:

Miracle of the cruse of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן), or the Miracle of Hanukkah, is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud as one of the reasons for Hanukkah. In the story, the miracle occurred after the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and it describes the finding of a jug of pure oil that was to be enough to light the lamp for one day, but that lasted for eight days.

Here’s one from with the caption “A Hanukkah lamp from Lemberg in The Jewish Museum of New York. “

The Museum has dozens of menorahs of all types from around the world: here’s a wall display (click to enlarge):

And there are a ton of paintings in the art wing. I photographed three by famous artists, though hardly their best work.

From Gauguin:

An early and rather crude van Gogh:

And a not-bad Kandinsky, who’s one of my favorite artists.

More art, this time from the New World:

There was a special and rather grim exhibit of the garb that Jews put on their dead when they’re buried.  This male garb has a hat.

I believe these are shrouds for Jewish women:

There was a detailed outdoor model, quite fascinating, of what Jerusalem looked like in the Second Temple Period (ca 516 B.C.-70 A.D.), starting when the Second Temple was built and ending when the Romans put the Jews to flight. The caption is below:

Below: the very large reconstruction, showing the city walls enclosing houses, shops, and, in the center, the Second Temple, which now remains only in the Western Wall and other stuff buried in the Temple Mount.

The structure in the middle of the Temple presumably held the “Holy of Holies“, the inner sanctum that held the Ark of the Covenant said to contain the Ten Commandment stones. Only one person could approach it, the head priest, and then only once a year. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t even climb up the Temple Mount (allowed briefly a few times a week) for fear that they’d be stepping atop the Holy of Holies.

Click to enlarge:

There are two possible Western Walls here, so I took a picture of the two possibilities. Maybe a reader knows which one faced west.

Or is it this one?

The “Shrine of the Book” is famous mainly for holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, only one bit of the originals on display at once. (They’re alternated so they won’t fade.) They were written during the Second Temple Period and discovered in caves on the West Bank between 1946 and 1956. A bit about them from Wikipedia:

. . . the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with extra-biblical and deuterocanonical manuscripts that preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.  Almost all of the 15,000 scrolls and scroll fragments are held in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, located in the city of Jerusalem. The Israeli government’s custody of the Dead Sea Scrolls is disputed by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on territorial, legal, and humanitarian grounds — they were mostly discovered following the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank and were acquired by Israel after Jordan lost the 1967 Arab–Israeli War — whilst Israel’s claims are primarily based on historical and religious grounds, given their significance in Jewish history and in the heritage of Judaism.

The Shrine building is striking, and is modeled to resemble the tops of the jars in which the scrolls were found. Fountains and a pool surround it.

The eerie underground entry to the exhibits:

And an original bit of a Dead Sea Scroll, many of which are in bad condition; the text was painstakingly reconstructed.  You can make out the Hebrew letters.

Below is a facsimile of the most complete scroll:

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. The 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Dating from ca. 125 BCE, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some one thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known to us before the scrolls’ discovery.

The Aleppo Codex, written in Israel about 920 AD, is of comparable historical interest, and sits one level below the Dead Sea Scroll display. In this case you can see the original.

As I mentioned above, it’s the oldest extant version of the Bible in Hebrew, and has been used as a benchmark for accuracy by, among others, Maimonides. Much of it has gone missing, perhaps through theft.

Here it is on display:

And a close-up of the text, 1,100 years old:

Lovely gardens surround the Museum. Here’s an olive tree in case you haven’t seen one:

For some reason there are many rubber ducks on sale in the Museum Shop. Perhaps a reader can explain them to me.

Notice the variety, including devil ducks, surgeon ducks, Viking ducks, athlete ducks, and Santa ducks. What’s going on here? Is this Judaica?

Back in town: post-Rosh-Hashanah sale: mini shofars on sale for only five bucks!

And my customary lunch: a falafel sandwich with all the trimmings. I’ve had meat only once in Israel, and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol (I lose my desire to drink when I travel). I had a delicious meat lunch today, though, and you’ll see it in my next (and last) post from Israel.

Here are two women in he falafel shop. Their covered heads and long dresses led me to believe they were Orthodox Jewish women, but their clothing was strikingly attractive and stylish. I thus sent the photo below to a friend who had lived here, along with the question:

Are these women Jews (Haredim?). They have long dresses and big headscarves, but their clothes are pretty fancy.  They are buying falafel sandwiches.

And the reply:

Yes, they are. Fancy clothes are ok, as long as they cover. You are supposed to please your man for continuous procreation.

That made me laugh out loud, though it’s probably true.

Israel: Day 14 (and a bit of day 13)

September 16, 2023 • 9:15 am

It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and also Sabbath. All this means that Jerusalem is closed down tighter than Mitch McConnell’s mind, and even Donald Trump has more neurons than there are people in the street.  Here’s a photo taken about noon on Jaffa Street, one of the main streets of the city. It’s BARREN! The only people afoot are pious Jews on their way to and from shul:

I saw NO stores or restaurants open today—not one. This is a disaster for me, as I decided not to purchase the expensive breakfasts in my hotel, thinking that surely some Arab or secular Jew would be serving noms somewhere.

I was wrong. Perhaps in the Muslim quarter of the Old City they are dispensing dishes of hummus, but after a long morning’s walk I’m too tired to find out.  And so I’m resting in the afternoon heat, with my only food for the day consisting of cookies.

But enough tsouris. Here are a few photos from my visit yesterday to Yad Vashem, Israel’s huge memorial to the Holocaust.  It consists of several parts, including the dominant Holocaust History Museum, in which I spent over three hours, as well as a Children’s Memorial, which was closed, as was the Hall of Holocaust Art (though there’s plenty of that art in the Museum), and also closed was the Hall of Names, which tries to document every person killed in the Holocaust. Here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is located on the Mount of Remembrance, on the western slope of Mount Herzl, a height in western Jerusalem, 804 meters (2,638 ft) above sea level and adjacent to the Jerusalem Forest. The memorial consists of a 180-dunam (18.0 ha; 44.5-acre) complex containing two types of facilities: some dedicated to the scientific study of the Holocaust, and memorials and museums catering to the needs of the larger public. Among the former there are an International Research Institute for Holocaust Research, an archives, a library, a publishing house and the International School for Holocaust Studies; the Holocaust History Museum, memorial sites such as the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Remembrance, the Museum of Holocaust Art, sculptures, outdoor commemorative sites such as the Valley of the Communities, as well as a synagogue.

A core goal of Yad Vashem’s founders was to recognize non-Jews who, at personal risk and without financial or evangelistic motives, chose to save Jews from the ongoing genocide during the Holocaust. Those recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations are honored in a section of Yad Vashem known as the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. [One of these is Oskar Schindler, whose famous list is in the Museum.]

Yad Vashem is the second-most-visited Israeli tourist site, after the Western Wall, with approximately one million visitors each year. It charges no admission fee.

I was unable to make reservations online for some reason, but I showed up at opening time and was the first person admitted. Here’s Yad Vashem’s site on Mt. Herzl (where Theodor Herzl, the “father of Zionism” is also buried:

The Visitors’ Center is in front, with the large triangular History Museum behind it. Other places are scattered through the lovely wooded site.

No photos are allowed inside, so I took none. All I can say is that the Museum has a ton of stuff, arranged chronologically beginning when the Nazis took power, going through their gradual oppression of the Jews, the formation of ghettos, the camps and executions of Jews, and finishing (after several hours if you look at everything) with the Allied liberation of the camps, in some ways the most heartbreaking bit.

I’ll say only three things: of the Holocaust-related sites I’ve visited, this is one that, like Auschwitz, will change your life and view of humanity. Second, if you are in Jerusalem and don’t visit Yad Vashem, you’re making a huge mistake. Finally, given the tons and tons of evidence on display, anybody who denies the Holocaust is a blithering idiot. And yet many do; it’s as ridiculous as denying that the Earth is spherical.

Here’s Herzl’s grave, which I didn’t see, in a photo from Wikipedia. He died at only 44 of heart disease and was originally buried in Vienna. His remains were moved to Israel in 1949:

On the way back to town on the tram, there were quite a few ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim). Several, like this young man, were reading bits of the Torah and praying or reading aloud. (Note the diagnosic sidelocks, called payot). While I feel a genetic kinship (and, indeed, have one) with the Haredim, their beliefs—and especially the way they treat their women and pollute the minds of their children—appall me. Such is my inner conflict with religious Jews.

Back in town, there were police (with sniffer d*gs) and IDF soldiers everywhere, preparing for any holiday-related terrorism:

But on a nearby door, the Lion of Judah was there to protect me:

I went to lunch at the nearby place I call “Mr. Falafel,” because that’s what he looks like. A falafel in half a pita with all the trimmings, including fries, makes a satisfying lunch.

Yesterday’s lunch avec Fanta. I swear: I could survive on hummus and falafel alone, and they’re healthy!

Since today was a holiday, I figured I’d have a long walk around the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem: the Mea Sharim. Insofar as they can, the inhabitants here live the life of a 19th century shtetl: no t.v., no music, schools teaching only religion, all men dressed in black with religious accoutrements, and so on. Many of the women shave their heads, covering them with wigs and scarves, and must undergo ritual purification after their periods.

And of course shabbos is observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. I wanted to take photos, too, but tried to do so with some respect, not letting people see me with my camera. I realize that this too is disrespectful in a way, as I’m seeing these people as curiosities as well as humans, but sue me.

I’ve mentioned my cognitive dissonance about this group. They have so much diligence, and such respect for learning, but then squander it all on religious learning. Kids are brainwashed from birth, never getting a chance to have secular learning. Women are taught that their role is to take care of the home and breed prolifically; rarely do you see a mother without a passel of kids in tow. All this waste and oppression in the service of a delusion!

And yet why do I feel a kinship with them? I do not know.

Some photos from around Mea Sharim this morning. First a flag that I assume is the flag of Jerusalem:

The residents:

Haredim break out the fur hats, which can cost several thousand dollars, on special occasions like today. And remember: it’s hot!

Every haredi child I see breaks my heart. Their entire lives are mapped out for them, a life just like that of their parents:

Many of the haredim are poor and prefer to study the Torah rather than engage in jobs. The Israeli government, to its discredit, promotes this by giving them subsidies (ultra-Orhodox are also exempt from Army service). Some of the homes I saw were shabby, but I can’t say they’re all like that. When I took this photo I heard religious singing from within:

You never see a young family without a stroller, and often with four or five kids. The woman’s job is to have a big brood.

The man on the right is the only black Orthodox Jew I’ve seen in Israel.

All over the city are stickers showing the scary visage of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). But he wasn’t really scary, and was quite magnanimous for an Orthodox rabbi (read the bio):

From Wikipedia:

. . . known to many as the Lubavitcher Rebbe or simply the Rebbe, [Schneerson] was an Orthodox rabbi and the most recent Rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. He is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.

As leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, he took an insular Hasidic group that almost came to an end with the Holocaust and transformed it into one of the most influential movements in religious Jewry, with an international network of over 5,000 educational and social centers.  The institutions he established include kindergartens, schools, drug-rehabilitation centers, care-homes for the disabled, and synagogues.

Schneerson’s published teachings fill more than 400 volumes. . . He is recognized as the pioneer of Jewish outreach. During his lifetime, many of his adherents believed that he was the Messiah. His own attitude to the subject, and whether he openly encouraged this, is hotly debated among academics. During Schneerson’s lifetime, the messianic controversy and other issues elicited fierce criticism from many quarters in the Orthodox world, especially earning him the enmity of Rabbi Elazar Shach.

Schneerson moved to the US in 1941, eventually building his synagogue in Brooklyn. I visited there years ago, giving my non-Jewish girlfriend a tour of NY Judaism, and we were immediately swept up by Lubavitchers. She was spirited to the “women’s section” of the synagogue, where ladies were allowed to watch the real worship below from behind a small screen, while I was draped, despite my objections, with a yarmulke, a tallis, and tefillin wrapped around my arm. I was then forced onto the synagogue floor where hundreds of Lubavitchers were praying and davening. I refused to pray, of course, but they prayed over me, hoping that this would constitute a mitzvah that would hasten the return of the Messiah.

Curiously, many Lubavitchers believed that Schneerson was the messiah, and refused to believe he had died. Read about him on Wikipedia; he had an amazing life, working 18 hours a day every day and never taking a vacation.

Back to Jerusalem: I was getting famished and saw this sign, but of course the place was closed. Even as I write this my tummy is growling:

No soup for me! Kubbe has semolina dumplings in it. I won’t mention the soup dispenser in Seinfeld.

The lost and found police station, once the residence of the British consul:

Note the lions. This is what you get when you shoot into the sun with a dirty camera lens.

And, as I see so often, a sign where a terrorist attack occurred. Those who can read Hebrew are invited to translate it in the comments:

Jerusalem Monopoly—a “fast dealing property game.” I’m dying to find out what the properties are named.

Wait: I just found out!:

Locations include:

David’s Tomb
Teddy Stadium
Presidential Residence
Tower of David, Ammunition Hill, Mount Herzl
The Western Wall Tunnels
The Western Wall
The Kotel
The First Station
Montefiore Windmill
Old City Walls Promenade
Mea She’arim
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Lion’s Gate
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo
Chords Bridge
The Knesset
The Israel Museum
Mount of Olives
Mahane Yehuda Market
City of David.

This board game can bring Biblical locations to life. It also teaches some basic math and counting skills through all the wheeling and dealing among players. Monopoly: Jerusalem Edition can also be an effective Hebrew School teaching aid for children ages 8+.

A kitty outside my hotel, where I was looking in vain for food:

And a kitty on the window of a sushi joint. Hebrew readers: what is it saying?

Lord, am I hungry. Where is my manna?

NYT touts religion again: this time it’s Judaism

July 3, 2023 • 9:15 am

Every Sunday we get a paean to Christianity by Tish Harrison Warren, and yesterday we read Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe touting the advantages of Judaism—and of religion in general.  Wolpe isn’t as irritating as the  smarmy Warren, who provides only bromides. Wolpe seems like a nice and caring guy, and I’m sure he’s brought solace to many in his rabbinical duties. He’s also had his own tribulations: two surgeries for a brain tumor as well as lymphoma.  But can’t the NYT occasionally produce columns in praise of atheism and humanism? After all, there’s no good evidence for a God, and yet that viewpoint is resolutely ignored by the paper, which publishes piece after piece by people who think not only that there is a God, but a specific kind of God, like the Christian one (e.g., Warren).

According to Wikipedia, Wolpe is infamous among conservative Jews for questioning the historicity of the Old Testament:

On Passover 2001, Wolpe told his congregation that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Casting doubt on the historicity of the Exodus during the holiday that commemorates it brought condemnation from congregants and several rabbis (especially Orthodox Rabbis). The ensuing theological debate included whole issues of Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and editorials in The Jerusalem Post, as well as an article in the Los Angeles Times. Critics asserted that Wolpe was attacking Jewish oral history, the significance of Passover and even the First Commandment. Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hier wrote that “Rabbi Wolpe has chosen Aristotle over Maimonides, theories and scientific method over facts”. Wolpe, on the other hand, was defended by Reform Rabbi Steven Leder from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who argued that “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

Wolpe asserted that he was arguing that the historicity of the events should not matter, since he believes faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. Wolpe argues that his views are based on the fact that no archeological digs have produced evidence of the Jews wandering the Sinai Desert for forty years, and that excavations in Israel consistently show settlement patterns at variance with the Biblical account of a sudden influx of Jews from Egypt.

In March 2010, Wolpe expounded on his views saying that it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites with their traditions. This opinion is, in fact, shared by the majority of historians and biblical scholars. He added that the controversy of 2001 stemmed from the fact that Conservative Jewish congregations have been slow to accept and embrace biblical criticism. Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, are taught biblical criticism in rabbinical school.

It’s to Wolpe’s credit that he accepts the historical and archaeological evidence against the Exodus. As he says below, he thinks that religion isn’t really about “a set of beliefs to one assents.” He’s wrong, of course. Maybe that’s true for Wolpe, but why would there have been a controversy about the Exodus if some people didn’t adhere to the Old Testament claims? But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ll just add that you may know Wolpe from  his several debates about religion with Christopher Hitchens. Here’s one about the existence of God. (Note: it’s 90 minutes long.)

Click on the headline below to read, and you can find the piece archived here

This column seems to serve as Wolpe’s swan song: his retirement thoughts on the human condition and how it’s ameliorated by religion, which to him serves as a kind of social glue. (Wolpe’s statements are indented.)

For over a quarter century now, I have listened to people’s stories, sat by their bedsides as life slipped away, buried their parents, spouses and sometimes their children. Marriages have ended in my office, as have engagements.

I have watched families as they say cruel, cutting things to one another or, just as devastating, refuse to say anything at all. I have seen the iron claw of grief scrape out the insides of mourners, grip their windpipes, blind their eyes so that they cannot accept the mercy of people or of God.

After 26 years in the rabbinate, as I approach retirement, I have come to several realizations. All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize it in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through the brokenness.

This is what binds together a faith community. No religious tradition, certainly not my own, looks at an individual and says: “There. You are perfect.” It is humility and sadness and striving that raises us, doing good that proves the tractability of the world and its openness to improvement, and faith that allows us to continue through the shared valleys.

Well, I’ve never been a member of a “faith community,” even a Jewish one, but it seems to me that what binds a faith community together is a desire to belong to a tribe which whose members care for each other. That, plus the factors that make a tribe a tribe: shared beliefs.  Jews can never be members of a Christian faith community because they don’t think the Messiah ever came back. Nor can Muslims be members of either community because they think the Qur’an is the final and correct faith, and Muhammad is the prophet.  And that brings us to Wolpe’s misguided claim about religion not being about a “set of beliefs”:

I have had a privileged view of the human condition, and the essential place of religion on that hard road. Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?

Yes, religion is about the solace of being a member of a community. But, for most, it’s also about shared beliefs, something I discuss in Faith versus Fact.  Does a Christian community have any meaning if the members don’t accept the fact that Jesus came to earth as God/son of God, was crucified, and thereby gave us the possibility of eternal life?  Are Muslims not a community because they all accept the tenets of the Qur’an, dictated to Mohamed by an angel? In fact, Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life—a way of life based on shared beliefs about empirical circumstances. And so it goes for many religions: without accepting at least the existence of a divine being, most religions—and all Abrahamic religions—center largely on “a set of beliefs to one assents.”

Now as a heterodox rabbi Wolpe may indeed reject a conventional god. As he says in the debate below, he defines his god as something quite nebulous:

“God is the source of everything that exists, and God is someone, something, with whom a human being can have a relationship, and that you can live your life in alignment with a godly purpose. That any definition that is greater than that is in some ways to traduce God.”

But he has no right to pronounce on what religion is about for everyone else! And there’s ample evidence that he’s wrong.

In some ways, Wolpe’s claims are a final defense against the increasing secularization of America, which he mentions twice. Pushing back against that, he sees religion as, without question, a net good:

I know the percentage of those who not only call themselves religious but also find themselves in religious communities declines each year. The cost of this ebbing of social cohesion is multifaceted. At the most basic, it tears away at the social fabric. Many charities rely solely on religious institutions. People in churches and synagogues and mosques reliably contribute more to charities — religious and nonreligious — than their secular counterparts do. The disunity that plagues us in each political cycle is also partly because of a loss of shared moral purpose which people once found each week in the pews.

If lack of religion “tears away at the social fabric,” especially because religions promote charities, then you’d expect that atheistic countries would have a badly torn social fabric.  The evidence is against that—at least the evidence from Scandinavia, where government has simply taken over the care of sick people, old people, disabled people, and poor people. There is no lack of charity in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or other countries. (And virtually every European country has government-provided health care.)

Of course Wolpe doesn’t mention the bad things that religion does—things that Hitchens eloquently mentions in the debate above. Why are Jews demonized by many in the U.S., something mentioned by Wolpe in this article? It’s because they’ve inherited the legacy of being “Christ killers.” Why do Muslims and Jews battle each other to the death? Religion. Why did Hindus and Muslims kill each other during India’s partition in 1947, and continue to do so today? Religion, of course.  Now you can say that without religion people would find other reasons to kill each other and form tribes. That may be true, but religion is perhaps the greatest cause of tribalism in the history of the world, and I’m pretty sure that, had it never arisen, the world would be a better place.

Wolpe paints the Old Testament, even if it be fictitious, as a source of solace:

I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that patterns of life that might escape us become clear. Sibling rivalries and their costs are clear in the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The consequences of kindness emanate from the book of Ruth. We share unanswerable questions with Job and passion with the Song of Songs. The Torah acts as a spur and a salve.

But so do many other nonreligious works! If the Torah is more efficacious than these works, it’s because people believe those stories, something Wolpe says they don’t do. Otherwise, sibling rivalries, kindness, and questioning can be found in gazillions of nonreligious works of fiction and nonfiction. And, as reader Leo (who sent me this link) noted, “I guess he wants us to ignore the Bible stories about slavery, war, genocide, etc.”

In his last paragraph, Wolpe again claims that religion is a bulwark against creeping secularism and the social damage it apparently causes:

Religion may be on the decline in this country and in the West, but if you wish to see the full panoply of a human life, moments of ecstatic joy and deepest sorrow, the summit of hopes and the connections of community, they exist concentrated in one place: your local house of worship.

Well, they also exist concentrated in a better place: your local library.

The anti-Semites strike on Passover

April 10, 2020 • 1:15 pm

I occasionally hear from reader Stephen Listfield, a part-time rabbi. Today he sent me a note along with thirteen pictures, of which I show six below. His words are indented.

I’m a retired rabbi living in Atlanta.  I officiate part-time at a small congregation in Huntsville, AL; I am there for the  High Holidays and one weekend a month.  Mostly older people. They have zero full-time staff.  They do everything themselves, including all the prayers (except when I am there), all the food, all the maintenance, all the janitorial stuff.

Wednesday evening I conducted a Zoom Seder for the congregation.  On Thursday morning, a husband-and-wife minister couple drove by the synagogue and saw the array of “artwork” shown below.   Police are investigating.  No conclusions as yet.

Sending it along for whatever you might wish to make of it.

Happy Passover, for whatever you make or don’t make of the holiday.  (Quite irrelevant to the point of this message, but I say parenthetically that the supernatural part of the holiday — which, frankly, IS the essence of the holiday — is not my cup of tea.  But the message that Passover has come to universally represent, namely, the human right to freedom not only from slavery but (ideally) from every unhelpful constriction, fear, irrationality and neurosis. . . well, Passover can serve as a very powerful liberating message indeed.)

When I asked Stephen if I could reproduce his name, the name of his synagogue, and also show the pictures, he said “certainly” and added the following:

Some say don’t give publicity to the bastards.  Interestingly, and I know you’ll be interested in this, the entire disgusting mess was thoroughly cleaned within a couple of hours. . . largely via the volunteer help of several ministers and church laypeople who couldn’t come fast enough to express their solidarity and their tangible support.

That’s all great.

And yet I lean toward the opposite view: Let the oozing pus be exposed to some sunlight.  It might help disinfect some of humanity’s intractable and hateful germs.

Happy Passover, indeed!

Correction on story of Haredi Jews forcing an El Al flight to land so they wouldn’t be flying on the Sabbath

November 22, 2018 • 10:00 am

Three days ago I put up a post reporting on (and showing videos of) the distress of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews whose El Al flights from New York to Tel Aviv was delayed by weather. The sources quoted, and the tapes I presented, appeared to show that the Haredi passengers, extremely worried about flying on the Sabbath (that’s not allowed), verbally and perhaps physically abused the airline staff, forcing one of the two flights to be diverted so the passengers could be on the ground during Sabbath (the other flight couldn’t divert because of a passenger’s medical problem).

Reader Orli, however, called my attention to an article in Tablet noting that the scenario above was misleading on four counts. I’ll excerpt the Tablet report:

So what really happened en route from New York to Tel Aviv? As we now know, three noteworthy things: First, the delay was caused because the crew arrived at the airport three hours late. Sure, it was snowing, and the roads were a slushy hellscape, but virtually all of the flight’s 400 passengers realized that and had the good sense to allow plenty of time for travel. The professionals of El Al weren’t quite as attentive or wise.

Even more maddening, once the passengers, still on the ground and growing irate, learned that the flight would not land in Israel in time for Shabbat, many asked to return to the gate so that they could leave the plane and spend the weekend stateside before making other travel arrangements. The flight’s captain asked everyone to sit down and buckle up, promising his passengers that he was merely taxiing back to the gate. Instead, without providing any further updates, without adhering to the requisite safety protocols, and in blatant violation of his promise, he simply took off for Israel.

Under the circumstances, you’d understand why the passengers, having been disrespected and lied to, might be upset. But the best was yet to come: When Yehuda Schlesinger, a passenger aboard Flight 002 and a reporter for Yisrael Hayom, returned home from Athens, he saw the viral video that allegedly documented those rascally Haredi men flexing their muscles and threatening violence. He recognized the clip, because he had shot it with his smartphone on Thursday night and shared it on social media. There was only one small problem: The video Schlesinger took was of Haredi men singing and dancing to cheer each other up under difficult circumstances; the video shown on Israeli TV was edited and given a radically different soundtrack, one featuring men shouting in a menacing fashion. When Schlesinger, incensed, pointed this out to Israel’s Channel 10, they apologized and claimed that the soundtrack was swapped due to technical trouble. The term for that in Yiddish is fake news.

And the objectors weren’t all Haredim:

Far from being uniformly Haredi, as early press reports insisted, the passengers who rushed against the clock in Greece were a wildly diverse bunch: black hatters and wearers of knitted kippot, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, men and women from all across Israel with nothing much in common save for the tradition that has bound us all for millennia.

While I’m not trying to make light of the excesses of Judaism, which is as ridden with superstition as other faiths, I feel I have to correct my earlier report (I’m assuming here the Tablet story is correct). I’ve made a note on the earlier report that it is likely to be erroneous.