Monday, November 30, 2009

My Back Porch: So Much for Human Rights and the Obama Jive

The news is full of Netanyahu's decision to capitulate to Obama, and freeze construction in Judea and Samaria. This move is, ostensibly, in order to give the Palestinians an opportunity to return to the negotiating table. Everyone know this is a non-started, which the Palestinians rejected even before it was announced. The reasons for this rejection are beautifully laid out here. So the only thing that Bibi's freeze will do is to deny tens of thusands of people, most of whom voted for Bibi, their rights to live where they choose and to do as they wish with their homes. In addition, Obama and Bibi have now denied thousands of Israelis and Palestinian workers their ability to earn a living, since if there's no construction, there are no jobs.

Now that's alot of people, a number that's hard to comprehend. So, I'll make it easier. I'll provide a human interest example, mine.

We moved to Gush Etzion thirteen years ago. For years, we had hoped to renovate it. The trouble was that the zoning laws allowed for very limited expansion, certainly not enough for a family of seven, very tall people. Finally, the zoning laws were changed and we got the legal ok to add on in the back, so that we'd have room for our family. Now come Obama and Bibi and inform us that we can't fix our home, which is fully paid for, sits on land that was never owned by Arabs, and lies in the heart of a settlement bloc that everyone knows will always be part of Israel (even Jimmy Carter said as much). In addition, the Arab and Jewish craftsmen, suppliers, and builders will be out of work. this, in a bad economy, to boot.

My outrage at this move, more than the personal inconvenience, is my native outrage (bred in me as a Bostonian) at anyone telling me what I can or can't do with my house (as long as I comply with building ordinances). How comes Jews have no right to build legally, while Arabs build illegally on both sides of the 1949 border? What right does a foreign potentate have to interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign state and ally? (Except that he knows that he can bully us but not righteous states like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.)

Bibi, unfortunately, will pay the electoral price of bowing low to Obama (as Obama will be haunted in 2012 by the picture of him bowing to the Saudi King). In the meantime, I feel violated. As well I should.

[UPDATE: Jameel confirms the above and adds some trenchent thoughts.]

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part III)

In the introduction to his translation of R. Bahya Ibn Paquda's Hovot ha-Levavot, R. Judah Ibn Tibbon sets out the three key criteria for responsible, accurate translation:

1) Total mastery of the language of the original
2) Total mastery of the language of the translation, and
3) Total mastery of the subject matter of the work being translated.

The same criteria could easily be applied to academics, generally, and Jewish Studies, in particular. One must be thoroughly fluent in the languages of one's sources and in the subject matter. Since the language in which one is writing mediates between the sources and the reader, then absolute precision in translating concepts, modes of thought and sources is so critical as to be obvious.

Unfortunately, in many places, it is not obvious. Now, shoddy scholarship is not limited to any one group, or to any geographic location. It happens in Israel, as much as the Diaspora. ( Film historian, Shlomo Zand's obscene excuse for historiography is a recent case in point among Israelis. Zand embodies the exact opposite of Ibn Tibbon's sober assertion. He doesn't understand his sources and he isn't trained.)

However, as an American trained historian, it pains me to see that the most egregious situation is to be found in North America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe). It's not just a question of individual writers. As time goes on, the problem becomes increasingly structural (justifying manuscript boy's bottom line).

Briefly put, far too many PhD's in Post-Biblical Judaism and Jewish History lack basic Jewish literacy both in languages and Jewish Literature (broadly conceived). The result is nothing less than tragic. Some simply produce shoddy, 8th rate studies that may show awareness of other fields, but which scream ignorance of the sources that they are, prima facie, explaining. (I recently came upon a published paper on liturgy by a professor of Jewish Studies who didn't know the difference between חצי קדיש and קדיש תתקבל. Similarly, a study of Nachmanides was recently issued that was so egregious that a reviewer had to really stretch in order to find something positive to day about it. In other words, the number of academics to whom Haym Soloveitchik's strong words of protest apply is ever increasing. These, then become the mentors of the next generation, with all too foreseeable results.

Alternatively, aware of their deficiencies (or, being simply uninterested in the more substantive areas of Jewish Studies) scholars of Judaica opt to teach and undertake research in which Jewish literacy is less of an obstacle. In such cases, students are instilled with a less than total, or balanced, view of what Jewish civilization and experience comprehends.

Now, there are wonderful, brilliant, creative, responsible and broadly read scholars of Jewish Studies in the Diaspora. Many could teach the Israelis a thing or two about scholarship, and how to go about it (e.g. here, here, and here). Over all, though, the American scene appears (increasingly) to be the mirror-image of its Israeli counterpart. Thus, the Israeli foundation is sound, while the superstructure is weak (if one ever gets to building beyond the foundation). Abroad, elaborate buildings are constructed on severly compromised foundations.

The weight of the future, therefore, lies in teaching Israeli-trained scholars to build, and to build with vision. After all, כי מציון תצא תורה.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Break

I'm not going to rehash the arguments in favor of celebrating Thanksgiving. My distinguished friend, and colleague, Rabbi Michael Broyde, has done a yeoman's job on that count (here). I would like to add one footnote to the position associated with Rav Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Broyde writes:

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Nefesh HaRav, writes:

"It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik."

Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it. Indeed, there were instances when Rabbi Soloveitchik implied to his students that he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving, although shiur [class] was always held on Thanksgiving.

There is no need to imply that the Soloveitchik family celebrated Thanksgiving together. In Boston, this was a well known fact. Indeed, anyone who was in the Rav's class knew that shiur on Thanksgiving morning was moved up to 9AM in order to allow him to return to Boston in time for dinner at one of his sisters' homes.

[On a personal note, we're having Thanksgiving Dinner tonite (Shabbat). You see, in Israel we work on the last Thursday of November. Plenty to be thankful for, however.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part II)

I recently heard the following story from a colleague: A student, specializing in one department, submitted a research proposal that involved subject matter that is generally identified with different department. The proposal was rejected on the grounds that topics associated with other specialties don't belong in that specific department.

Now, if the argument had been that the student did not possess the skills to deal with the two areas under discussion, there might have been room to talk. Even then, why not require the student to take 'x' courses or, in some other manner, gain the necessary expertise to undertake the project?
There is something fundamentally wrong with this type of academic 'territorialism.' Why, for example, was a prominent scholar of Halakhah once pilloried for having the temerity of addressing the interface between Halakhah and mysticism, on grounds that were reminiscent of R. Eleazar b. Azariah's retort to R. Aqiva (B. Sanhedrin 38b): 'Akiva, what have you to do with Aggadah? Confine yourself to Nega'im and Ohalot!' If one acquires the necessary skills, why not?

Specialization is a fact of contemporary academic life. However, there is a difference between specialization and compartmentalization. When I was growing up, a well known piece of advice was: 'Be a Jack of All Trades, and a master of one.' I believe that this should be the guiding principle of scholarship. This was one of the most important lessons that I learned from the late Prof. Isadore Twersky ז"ל. Knowledge is unified, and thus inter-related. Typically, he based this contention upon the encyclopedic nature of the writings of Maimonides (along with other medievals, to be sure). The central point is well taken. Jewish literature and history are fundamenally inter-textual and inter-contextual, respectively. Similarly, the the lines between genres of writings that Jews created, and between the Jewish and Gentile societies that they inhabited, were eminently permeable. While a person certainly needs to specialize, he equally needs to acquire as wide an awareness of the broader historical and intellectual context of his subject. Moreover, if one writes about Rashi and Ramban, for example, that should require learning the basics of medieval Hebrew poetry (and, or, piyyut). Or, perhaps, a dip into contemporary French and Catalan poetry too.

This lesson was driven home to me recently when I ended up finding something (not yet published) of significant Halakhic and historucal significance, in a collection of medieval poems. I was able to read and crack the poems because I spent a year studying medieval Hebrew poetry with the unforgettable, Prof. Yisrael Levin (a recent israel Prize winner), when he was on sabbatical in Boston. Literacy, yes. Specialization, not necessarily. It is enough, though, to undertake a study of halakhic implications in the poems of certain medievals. On the other hand, the article would have been rejected as a thesis topic because of כלך לך אצל נגעים ואהלות.

And that, in fact, is why I described myself and many of my American compatriots, as 'misfits.' It's not just a question of responsible scholarship obliging one to 'think out of the box.' It's that we take such broad view, intellectual history as a given. (In a sense, it's an academic חומרא). Unfortunately, far too many of our colleagues here don't really understand what we do, never mind the methodologies we employ (e.g. History of Ideas). Instead, because we are a bit less centered upon manuscripts and archives, we can be made to feel, well, inferior and dismissed as such.

This situation can certainly be rectified, to the benefit of all involved. That, however, requires another posting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part I)

I've long considered writing about, what I see as, a central frustration that I've encountered in my professional life in Israel. I've held off, I suppose, out of a mixture of professsional anxiety mixed with the feeling that I need to 'get it right' before I 'put it down' in writing. Yesterday, though, a heartfelt conversation with a fellow Harvard expatriate made me realize that I should start putting the issue on the table. Clarity will, hopefully, follow repeated attempts at expression.

There is, it seems to me, a fundamental disconnect between the way that Israeli and American trained historians go about their business. Israeli scholars, at least those in Jewish Studies, are trained to be first rate philologians. Manuscripts, text reconstruction, and philological analysis are their bread and butter. That, surely, is as it should be. After all, how can one possibly say anything about the past if the supporting evidence is not firmly determined? In other words, if you don't know what the past said, how can you report it, much less evaluate it?

That having been said, I can't shake the feeling that many of my Israeli colleagues (who I hold in the highest regard) pay a very high price for their heavy emphasis upon manuscript work. Somehow, it seems to manacle them. So much effort goes into philology, that there is not enough time to acquire other, equally important, skills that would allow them to properly interpret the sources over which they pore. To begin with, there is not enough of a sense that one must read widely and deeply in order to develop the kind of literary and historical sensitivity that texts require. That demands fluency in languages other than Hebrew (and a bit of English). For medievalists, it requires German, French, Italian and Latin (at least). The reading material requires primary sources in those languages, not only skimming some scholarly articles.

In other words, one needs to cast a wide net, in order to comprehend the text in front of you. One needs intellectual and cultural perspective, openness to other disciplines. If one confines oneself, to iron-clad time frames and specific literary genres, one runs the risk of being trapped in a methodological box, when scholarship actually demands that one think out of the box, in an attempt to see the larger picture. That type of box also leads to less than deep thinking and analysis, and a subsequent misrepresentation of the past. [Everything, of course, has its limits and those who go to the opposite extreme (e.g. nefarious PoMo'ists like Shlomo Zand) also miss the point. Media aurea, you know.]

Now, obviously, no one can know everything. That does not, however, excuse scholars from becoming literate in field outside of their area of specialization. Yet, that it exactly the problem with the way that Israeli scholarship is organized, to everyone's detriment. Talmud is not allowed to mix with History; Literature with Philosophy; Economics with Education and so on. Whoever organized this system forgot that while one must obviously pick one's focus, life itself is integrated and complex. The result is very much like the Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The only difference is that scholars with blinders don't really share ideas and insights. So they're not only blind, but deaf and mute, as well.

I believe that the Israeli academic emphasis on text is essentially sound. It certainly is better than the abject lack of Hebrew literacy and textual skills that mark far too many Jewish studies professionals abroad. Nevertheless, it's time to remove the blinders, open our ears and mouths.

The ones to help with this, are those of us who were trained abroad and moved here. Of that, I will write, IY"H, next time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Farce of the Century: The Twin Towers Trials

As always, Charles Krauthammer said it best:

Travesty in New York

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, November 20, 2009

For late-19th-century anarchists, terrorism was the "propaganda of the deed." And the most successful propaganda-by-deed in history was 9/11 -- not just the most destructive, but the most spectacular and telegenic.

And now its self-proclaimed architect, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, has been given by the Obama administration a civilian trial in New York. Just as the memory fades, 9/11 has been granted a second life -- and KSM, a second act: "9/11, The Director's Cut," narration by KSM.

September 11, 2001 had to speak for itself. A decade later, the deed will be given voice. KSM has gratuitously been presented with the greatest propaganda platform imaginable -- a civilian trial in the media capital of the world -- from which to proclaim the glory of jihad and the criminality of infidel America.

So why is Attorney General Eric Holder doing this? Ostensibly, to demonstrate to the world the superiority of our system, where the rule of law and the fair trial reign.

Really? What happens if KSM (and his co-defendants) "do not get convicted," asked Senate Judiciary Committee member Herb Kohl. "Failure is not an option," replied Holder. Not an option? Doesn't the presumption of innocence, er, presume that prosecutorial failure -- acquittal, hung jury -- is an option? By undermining that presumption, Holder is undermining the fairness of the trial, the demonstration of which is the alleged rationale for putting on this show in the first place.

Moreover, everyone knows that whatever the outcome of the trial, KSM will never walk free. He will spend the rest of his natural life in U.S. custody. Which makes the proceedings a farcical show trial from the very beginning.

Apart from the fact that any such trial will be a security nightmare and a terror threat to New York -- what better propaganda-by-deed than blowing up the courtroom, making KSM a martyr and turning the judge, jury and spectators into fresh victims? -- it will endanger U.S. security. Civilian courts with broad rights of cross-examination and discovery give terrorists access to crucial information about intelligence sources and methods.

That's precisely what happened during the civilian New York trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. The prosecution was forced to turn over to the defense a list of 200 unindicted co-conspirators, including the name Osama bin Laden. "Within 10 days, a copy of that list reached bin Laden in Khartoum," wrote former attorney general Michael Mukasey, the presiding judge at that trial, "letting him know that his connection to that case had been discovered."

Finally, there's the moral logic. It's not as if Holder opposes military commissions on principle. On the same day he sent KSM to a civilian trial in New York, Holder announced he was sending Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, (accused) mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole, to a military tribunal.

By what logic? In his congressional testimony Wednesday, Holder was utterly incoherent in trying to explain. In his Nov. 13 news conference, he seemed to be saying that if you attack a civilian target, as in 9/11, you get a civilian trial; a military target like the Cole, and you get a military tribunal.

What a perverse moral calculus. Which is the war crime -- an attack on defenseless civilians or an attack on a military target such as a warship, an accepted act of war that the United States itself has engaged in countless times?

By what possible moral reasoning, then, does KSM, who perpetrates the obvious and egregious war crime, receive the special protections and constitutional niceties of a civilian courtroom, while he who attacked a warship is relegated to a military tribunal?

Moreover, the incentive offered any jihadist is as irresistible as it is perverse: Kill as many civilians as possible on American soil and Holder will give you Miranda rights, a lawyer, a propaganda platform -- everything but your own blog.

Alternatively, Holder tried to make the case that he chose a civilian New York trial as a more likely venue for securing a conviction. An absurdity: By the time Barack Obama came to office, KSM was ready to go before a military commission, plead guilty and be executed. It's Obama who blocked a process that would have yielded the swiftest and most certain justice.

Indeed, the perfect justice. Whenever a jihadist volunteers for martyrdom, we should grant his wish. Instead, this one, the most murderous and unrepentant of all, gets to dance and declaim at the scene of his crime.

Holder himself told The Post that the coming New York trial will be "the trial of the century." The last such was the trial of O.J. Simpson.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sunni Forum: Non-Genocidal Jews aren't Frum Enough

Most of us are unaware of just how many Muslim websites there are. [Hint: Take the number of Torah Websites and multiply by google.] Since these are set up for internal use, they can be extremely enlightening.

Today, I came across this illuminating exchange, here:

Any one knowledgeable about Jewish law please explain how this verse has been interpreted by the Jews who sympathize with Israel: Deuteronomy 20: 12, When the Lord they God hath delivered it (meaning a besieged city) unto they hands, thou shall smite every male therein with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shall thou take unto thy self.

This could be used to justify killing everyone in Palestine by Israel. I could be wrong because:
1) The verse is not interpreted literally, or
2) The Israelis are not religious and so what the Bible says holds no weight for them.

My question is,
does this verse have any weight in today's war against the Palestinians?

Possibly, but I would really doubt it. The vast majority of Jews have abandoned those aspects of their shariah; you could say that some of the hardcore, Jewish settler fanatics may be motivated by such passages, but I think it's a little egregious to suggest that the entirety of the Israeli people support such a mentality. Most Jews have been so heavily influenced by European philosophies that they essentially ignore those more displeasing
aspects of their deen.

The answer is instructive. OTOH, it asserts that Jews don't observe these law. OTOH, he attributes that to 'European Philosophies.' IOW, the Jews have sold out to the West and betrayed their Deen, i.e. their religion (which was given, according to them, by Allah). Thus, Jews are damned, no matter what.