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Who by the Sword, Who by Wild Beasts, Who by Hunger, Who by the Plague

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

In the supplemental prayer of The Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, we say these words almost mechanically, theoretically, because this is the text. But in Syria this is reality. The regime’s war against the citizens’ demonstrations, which began two years and seven months ago, has become a dirty, despicable and accursed war, where everyone is fighting everyone else. People from both sides have lost the likeness of man, thrown human values to the winds, lost any semblance of humanity, and have become predatory animals, (“and who by a wild beast”).

Assad’s army has besieged the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus because they serve as a corridor of passage to the capitol for the jihadists who come from Jordan and Iraq. In these neighborhoods in recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have been besieged, cut off from all sources of life: food, water, electricity, and from Asad’s point of view they might as well all die from starvation. These were the neighborhoods that suffered the great attack of chemical weapons on the 21st of August in which approximately 1500 people were killed, men, women and children. As a result of the hunger, a group of Muslim religious arbiters issued a ruling that allows the residents of these neighborhoods to eat cats, dogs and donkeys, in order to survive the siege and the starvation.

There are reports about places like Mu’adhamiyat al-Sham where there have been many cases of death by starvation because of the siege imposed on these places, in addition to cases when injured people have died because they did not receive treatment in time. In addition, there are places where diseases like cholera are rampant, which are caused by spoiled food, contamination of water and the environment, and from pests such as mice, rats, and snakes that multiply alarmingly in ghost towns and ruins of cities like Homs, Hama and Idlib.

Approximately seven million Syrians are destitute refugees in neighboring countries and within Syria. The approaching winter threatens to pose great harm to their health and their lives, as if the misery that people – if it is possible to call them people – have caused them was not bad enough. Because of the distress and poverty, the refugees do anything they can in order to live: the men work for pennies, and many women are forced to do unethical things in order to earn a piece of bread. Families sell their daughters in forced marriages, to get a handful of dinars and reduce the number of mouths that they must feed.

Asad’s army systematically refuses humanitarian aid organizations to operate in the besieged cities, claiming concern that the lives of the volunteers will be endangered by fire from the opposition. But soldiers of the opposition to the regime are not guiltless either: they fight with each other over ideological differences, mainly regarding the future of Syria: will it be a civil state or an Islamic state. In the city of Aleppo “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” is in control and the city is run by an Islamic court that imposes Islamic Shari’a by force of arm, whip and sword. Lately several tribes that live around Aleppo have announced that they have joined “The Islamic State” organization, in order to shelter in the shadow of the dominant force, and stay out of trouble.

The fact that children are present in the battle areas causes them severe emotional damage because of the terrible sights that they are exposed to. Children join the battle and take an active part in killing anyone who is thought to be an enemy. Asad’s militias, the “Shabiha”, are constantly on the lookout for the families of soldiers and officers who have deserted the army so that they can kill the men and abuse the women. In many cases they document and photograph this abuse to show it to those who are still serving, to discourage them from deserting.

This past month several dozens of jihad organizations operating in Syria came to the conclusion that the disagreements among them harm their fighting cause and strengthen Asad. This conclusion led dozens of organizations to put aside their differences and unify under an organizational umbrella by the name of “Jaysh al-Islam” – “The Army of Islam”. The other large organization – “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – is considering joining the “Army of Islam”, and it may be that “Jabhat al-Nusra”, which blessed the consolidation with “The Army of Islam”, will also join in the future.

The Undivided Past

Friday, October 4th, 2013

There are several words used in the Bible to describe the Jewish people. At one stage we were simply tribal. Then we became an “Am”, a people, a “Goy”, a nation, a “Mamlacha”, a kingdom. Post-Biblically, if the gentiles called us Jews, Judeans, Israelites, Hebrews, Yids, or whatever, we used “Yisrael” as the name of choice, in the main, which meant a people, a culture, a religion, a relationship with God and a land, all of that in varying and amorphous degrees. We knew what it meant, even if others were confused or bemused. It takes one to know one.

Under pagan empires religion was not a factor, just loyalty to an overarching regime or royal family. If you were a serf it was loyalty to your lord and village. Neither the Persian, nor the Greek, nor the Roman Empires cared how you worshipped or behaved, so long as you professed loyalty to the empire. Then Christianity emerged as the religion of the Roman Empire and other religions were marginalized. Ironically the bloodiest battles were within Christianity, between one theological variation and another. The same thing happened under Islam. Ideals soon got perverted by politics and as today, Muslims of different sects killed more Muslims than all their enemies put together and doubled. Freud memorably described this internal divisiveness as “the narcissism of minor differences”.

In the West, most Jews that non-Jews encounter are not particularly committed to being Jewish. For Jews like a Soros or a Zuckerberg, it’s an accident of birth, a minor casual affiliation, like belonging to the Church of England. And this explains why most of those in the West who think about the matter reckon that the Jews are not really too concerned about having a land of their own and that it was only the accidental intervention of imperialist powers that explains the Jewish presence in the Middle East. It was a misjudged adventure. And really the Jews ought to pick up and leave and stop being nasty to the indigenous population.

It takes an objective observer to notice that for millennia Jews have shared a powerful core identity, even if in almost every situation except when they were given a choice, most Jews actually abandoned the community of Jews. But it took a determined minority within a minority to fight hard, relentlessly, and ultimately victoriously for its Jewish identity.

In his book The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, David Cannadine writes:

“Egypt under the Pharaohs may have resembled a nation…but there was no accompanying sense of public culture or collective identity. As for the ancient Greeks, their limited pan Hellenic aspirations embodied in their shared language, Homeric epics and Olympic games foundered on the disputatious reality of their fiercely independent city-states. Similar objections have been made to claims that the Sumerians, the Persians, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, the Philistines, the Hittites and the Elamites were ancient nations, or that the Sinhalese, the Japanese or the Koreans might be so described during the first millennium of the common era. Only in the case of Israel does it seem plausible to discern a recognizable ancient nation with its precise though disputed territoriality, its ancient myths, its shared historical memories of the Exodus, the Conquest and wars with the Philistines, its strong sense of exceptionalism and providential destiny and its self-definition against a hostile “other” and its common laws and cultures. These were and are the essential themes in the unfinished history of the Jews this example has also furnished ever since a developed model of what it means to be a nation.” (p. 58)

Throughout exile we somehow did preserve a sense of belonging to a people, to a tradition, to a land, a sense of community, Klal Yisrael. This is why the problem of Israel in the Middle East, the Jewish problem, is so intractable. The overwhelming majority of Jews now living in Israel or the West Bank are committed to the notion of a Jewish people. It is not to be compared as ignorant opponents of Israel try, to a few British or white imperialists imposing themselves on a vast majority “other”. Some may try to delegitimize us by overturning a decision of the United Nations, but they cannot delegitimize or wish away the Jewish people.

Why Ted Cruz Speaks for Me

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Ted Cruz and his allies get it.  They get that Americans can’t afford to have Obamacare implemented against our groaning, near-collapse finances.  They get that we are disgusted (and alarmed) at the idea of being the GOP’s economic attrition strategy for the 2014 election: the strategy that says, “Let things get as bad as they’re going to with Obamacare, and then people will finally blame the Democrats.”  The problem with that strategy is that someone has to pay the price for it – has to accept the financial losses, which for many people could be disastrous, even permanently life-changing – and that someone is us.

Cruz – and Mike Lee in the Senate, along with Matt Salmon (AZ) and others in the House – show that they get what the stakes are, by being willing to take a big risk on a deliberate strategy.  They’re making an attempt they could actually be defeated in:  to galvanize the rest of the GOP and get it to take a risk.

Contrast that with the bet-hedging and consultation-begging we see from the GOP leadership.  Here’s where my confession of populism comes in:  I don’t recall ever having such a sense of revulsion against the air of protecting privileged insularity that hangs over Beltway insiders, both politicians and pundits.  As we understand it, GOP leaders sent unsolicited “opposition research” to Fox News on Sunday, in order to undermine Cruz in his appearance with Chris Wallace.  Karl Rove excoriated Cruz on the Sunday show for failing to properly “consult” with his colleagues.  Tucker Carlson, Charles Krauthammer, and even Brit Hume took up the cry on Monday’s Special Report, accusing Cruz of grandstanding, and personalizing their criticisms of him to a startlingly petty degree.

Meanwhile, as the GOP impugns Ted Cruz’s motives with slam-book-quality allegations, it quietly accepts Obamacare exemptions and special subsidies for Congress.  The whole scenario seems like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington come to life.  All that’s missing is misleading photos of Cruz making bird calls.

But the truth is, this isn’t Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – because the plot of Mr. Smith turned on a relatively small matter, one that might have had symbolism for the operation of the whole government, but that in a literal sense affected only a small number of citizens.  The implementation of Obamacare is the biggest issue America has dealt with since how to get rid of the atrocious institution of slavery, and what “union” and “states’ rights” mean.  It profoundly affects everyone who will ever be an American from this day forward.  Issues don’t come any bigger.   Obamacare is about government’s relation to the citizen; about what government can dictate and control in our lives; and about what our economic liberties will mean, not in a decade, not a year from now, but tomorrow — and for the rest of our life as a nation.

From where I sit, it looks like Ted Cruz gets that.  He gets that we can’t just sit still, paralyzed by bad press and Democratic talking points, and let these questions be decided through the back door by the implementation of brain-deadening regulations.  He gets that that’s what’s happening.  He recognizes that a time comes when risk must be taken: when it just isn’t good enough for the well-worn remedies of consultation and deferral to produce the same unsatisfactory outcomes that they always do.  This time, the cost of taking that risk-averse route is too high.

Cruz did what he had to do on Fox on Sunday, remaining on message with admirable rhetorical discipline.  What he said was an accurate and succinct representation of the alternative he and his allies are offering:  fund the government without Obamacare in fiscal year 2014, as the alternative to funding it with Obamacare.  Delay implementation of the individual mandate, if that’s the best deal we can get, but go for the most we can get while still funding the government.  Don’t shut it down.  I found him to be effective in getting his point across.

But the old-school GOP leaders won’t get onboard with that message, apparently preferring to emphasize that they haven’t been consulted with.  They might as well just concede the terms of the fight to the Democrats and have done with it.

There are an awful lot of Americans out here who don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop, as the predator in the dark stalks their jobs, insurance, and finances.  Despising these people and their worries about Obamacare and the trend of big government – in the manner of Harry Reid – is as much bad karma as it is bad politics.  Yet senior Republicans seem to join Reid in being annoyed with the people for not wanting to play the role of the sacrifice in an electoral-politics ritual.

Instead of deferring an Obamacare fight to a future point we can’t guarantee we’ll even reach – i.e., after a Senate victory in 2014 – Cruz and his allies propose to fight today, on ground we can at least define clearly and prepare for in the present.  Are they right?  There are arguments pro and con.  But I don’t hear GOP leaders making any of those arguments in a forthright or convincing manner – or in any other way, for that matter.

One thing we can guarantee: we, Republican leaders and voters, won’t come to a unified position on that by refusing to address the question on the terms proposed by Cruz and his allies.  Cruz is trying to force the issue, which accords it the weight and immediacy that I give it.  He’s carrying my water.  If GOP leaders want to lead, they need to get out in front of this issue.  Go in strong with Cruz to make the strategy theirs – give the people something to applaud or reject – instead of merely sniping from the shadows.

Yom Tov Sheni in Israel

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

This evening we celebrate Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. In Israel there is only one day of Yom Tov for both. Unless you happen to be a foreigner here.  Which I am. By foreigner I mean that I live outside of Israel and am here only on a visit. So I am required to keep 2 days of Yom Tov instead of one.  The second day is called Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galios.

Simchas Torah is a wonderful time of year. In the evening we celebrate the end of the annual Torah reading cycle with singing and dancing known as Hakafos.  In the morning we do it again. After which we read the last Parsha of Sefer Devorim, V’Zos HaBracha. Usually more than once in order to call up to the Torah (give an Aliyah to) all those present. Even children. We then start Bereishis anew.

I get to do this twice. I do not enjoy the second Simchas Torah at all.

I have this problem every year. After a joyous Simchas Torah celebration with my family on the first day of Yom Tov I find the second day to be an afterthought  and even a burden. Not very much fun to say the least.

For people who live here – it is a weekday. They drive. They listen to music. They use telephones and computers.  All while I am in Shul with a bunch of strangers whose only commonality is that we don’t live here.

The reason we celebrate 2 days is because of something called Sefeika D’Yoma. Before our Jewish lunar calendar was fixed, dates were determined by when the new moon began. This had to be witnessed and attested to in Beis Din. They would then spread the correct date of the new moon throughout Israel. That news would reach all of Israel long before Yom Tov. But it took longer to reach the Diaspora.  Which made the date of Yom Tov uncertain. Since we weren’t sure when Yom Tov actually began – we celebrate two days. (For reasons beyond the scope of the post it can only be off by one day.)

We now have a fixed calendar and there is no longer any doubt about which day Yom Tov begins.  Nevertheless we continue to celebrate two days because that is the custom that Chazal established during an era when it was needed. This is called Minhag Avoseinu B’Yodenu. We cannot change the Minhag.

The problem is that this extra day applies to foreigners (like me) even when we happen to be in Israel for Yom Tov.

But not everyone follows this Minhag. Chabad, for example, only observes one day in the spirit of “When in Rome – do as the Romans do.”  But most of the rest of Orthodox Jewish foreigners in Israel observe two days.

Interestingly, the Chacham Tzvi  didn’t think much of Yom Tov Sheni in Israel either. He wrote in a Responsum that if he had it in his power he would ‘do as the Romans do’ in the matter of Yom Tov Sheni in Israel.

I know that there are other people that also just observe one day of Yom Tov in Israel. But I am not one of them. My family Minhag is to observe two days. But the truth is… I think that the Chacham Tzvi and Chabad got this one right. It makes no sense to me for anyone to observe 2 days of Yom Tov in Israel – even if he is not resident there. But… it’s not my call.

Just thought I’d mention it and get it off my chest. Again.

Chag Sameach

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

‘Inch’allah’ Pulled from Israeli Film Festival in Australia (See Vid)

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Israeli Film Festival has cancelled scheduled screenings of award-winning French-Canadian film Inch’allah, following complaints it was “anti-Israeli” and should never have been part of the event, WA Today reports.

The decision to pull the film was made by Albert Dadon, chairman of the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange, which presents the festival.

Dadon said the inclusion of Inch’allah was “an error” in the first place, because the film was a French-Canadian production, not an Israeli film.

But the Australian-Jewish web site J-Wire quotes a festival patron, David Schulberg, who says he wrote the organizers condemning the inclusion of Inch’allah, which he called “anti-Israeli,” saying that it “gravely misrepresents the situation that exists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighting the alleged suffering of Palestinians at the hand of the Israelis by distorting and distending the facts on the ground”.

Schulberg also noted that the director, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, whose film is the tale of an Arab doctor driven to become a suicide bomber, was one of 500 Montreal artists who had signed a petition in 2010 supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Sol Salbe, who attended a Melbourne screening of Inch’allah, said he felt the removal of the film was wrong, and made for the wrong reasons.

Film critic and broadcaster Peter Krausz labelled the decision to withdraw the film from the program “appalling,” claiming it “makes us a laughing stock around the world.”

Here’s the plot summary of Inch’allah, from Rotten Tomatoes:

Chloe (Evelyne Brochu) is a young Canadian obstetrician working in a makeshift clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, where she treats pregnant women under the supervision of Michael (Carlo Brandt), a French doctor.

Facing daily checkpoints and the separation barrier, Chloe is confronted with the conflict and the people it affects: Rand (Sabrina Ouazani), a patient for whom Chloe develops a deep affection; Faysal (Yousef Sweid), Rand’s older brother, a fervent resister; Safi (Hammoudeh Alkarmi), their younger brother, a child shattered by war who dreams of flying across borders; and Ava (Sivan Levy), a young soldier who lives next door to Chloe in her apartment in Israel.

Her encounter with the war draws Chloe into an adventure that’s both deeply personal and as large as the land. She loses her bearings, is uprooted, and goes into freefall. There are trips that shake us and transform us. There are trips that shatter all of our certainties. For Chloe, INCH’ALLAH is such a trip.(c) eOne

Please share your impressions with us.


American Culture: How to Reconcile the Brutal and the Effete?

Monday, August 26th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

I’m deeply confused about American culture. Let me cite two incidents as examples and then talk about some attitudes I hear about from my son’s reports on visits with friends. Perhaps readers can explain this contradiction between the effete and the brutal.

Arriving in the United States, I go to the nearby Trader Joe’s food store. It is of course very PC. At the checkout counter, the clerk asks, “Have you returned anything?” I did a double-take. Is this a bid for higher taxes? A taunt to the 1 percent who shop there?

No, he explains that they have some kind of program about bringing back bags. “The people in Bethesda,” he smugly asserts, “are the smartest!”

By coincidence, I had just heard some article saying that using returned bags is potentially dangerous since there can be some food remnants that rot and may breed bacteria. (I certainly don’t know what is true scientifically.) Unable to resist, and out of curiosity, I said, “Maybe they are not the smartest,” and explained my concern.

Instantly, he changed his attitude, snarled and said, “They’re the smartest!” No contradiction would be tolerated. Anyway, he started it. But given all the waste involved in a supermarket business–let’s start with the packaging–the small but highly right-thinking-people gesture of reused bags strikes me as a laughable symbol. Not to mention the fact that Trader Joe’s isn’t giving out food to the poor or opening stores to take big losses in what Michelle Obama calls, “food deserts.”

Is this salvation on the cheap, like those in wealthy California coastal cities that take away the farmers’ water to save some obscure fish and then congratulate themselves on their enlightenment?

About the same time, I sit in a sandwich place and a song comes on the radio. My jaw drops. A female singer repeats the lyric, “I said drive, bitch,” apparently it’s a car-jacking? She just keeps going over and over again in a very aggressive tone. At the end, the sound effect indicates that the female driver has been shot and fell down dead.

I sat there speechless. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If there is a “war on women” isn’t it actually waged most vigorously in certain sectors of popular music? The same could be said of the music of the much honored Jay-Z or many others.

Now perhaps this is a silly taking of two extreme phenomena, and I’ll accept that verdict if that’s what you think. But it symbolizes perhaps a bigger thing. On one hand, American culture today (should I say popular culture?) is one of watch your language, goody-goody, we are just so virtuous. There is rap music and the message given to children in Politically Correct lessons.

On the other hand, though, on film, television, literature, music, and public discourse it is intolerant and at times proudly brutal. Is that a valid observation? And if so how is this tension reconciled?

During a visit to the United States, conversations among young teenage boys, who in school were subjected to intense indoctrination, run like this:

–They make fun of alleged gays among them, flinging the charge as insulting but then quickly adding, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

–They show very vile disrespect toward girls of their age. It doesn’t seem that there is any change over the decades, but there certainly isn’t a reduction of “sexist” attitudes. They discuss them far more openly. The concept of gentleman or even restrained behavior is gone, perhaps in conjunction with the musical examples. Attitudes that would once have been derided as “low-class” by the elite have now become common place. So how is there then an elite setting a good example?

–They use far more racial epithets and negative stereotypes of others than my generation, though it is covered by frequent accusations that this or that is racist. Dubbing of something as racism is used as a weapon, a description of something one doesn’t like.

–They see themselves as part of some downtrodden class even though they are financially well-off. For example, they talk about rich white people but when pointed out that they live in big houses, they say the houses are bigger in some other neighborhoods.

What’s Your Sin? Removing the Number One Stumbling Block in Your Life

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, we begin to take stock of our lives. Here are five fundamental and common sins. Which one is your biggest stumbling block?

Wronging others. We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.

Ask yourself, “Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I have hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Do I owe anyone money? Have I reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?”

You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.

Action steps: Can you recall any time you hurt someone, perhaps a friend, neighbor, family member, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still need to make amends and/or apologize.

Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike? Are there people you cannot be with and feel distaste just looking at them?

We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is good to limit contact with those who push our buttons. But we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward our fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…”

Some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults. Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and judge them favorably. In addition, think about their good points. Everyone has good qualities and has done good deeds. Search for and admire the good in others.

Action steps: Make a list of those you dislike. Write down their admirable qualities and the good they have done. Next time you see them, bring to mind what you wrote and try to give them a genuine smile and greeting.

Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we have wronged others, or that we hate them, it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We may ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Pirkei Avot reminds us, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it (2:21).”

When we hear about a difficulty or tragedy, often our reaction is, “What a pity. Thank God I’m not affected.” And we go on with business as usual. But we are affected: Our brothers and sisters are struggling. We have to ask ourselves, “How can I help? What can I do?” If you cannot provide physical, financial or emotional assistance, do not minimize the importance of including them in your prayers.

Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that individual and see if you can be of assistance.

Neglecting our relationship with God. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship is a day lost forever.

Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His blessings and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your highest good.

An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we do not talk during davening or leave the synagogue while the haftarah is being read.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/whats-your-sin-removing-the-number-one-stumbling-block-in-your-life/2013/08/22/

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