Author Archives: Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky

About Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.

Hebrew Typography

Reprinted with permission from

Jewish Ideas Daily


In the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew language is the very stuff of creation. The Talmud tells us (Menahot 29b) that Rabbi Akiba would derive new laws from the “crowns” of Hebrew letters. In the Kabbalah, the shape of the letters is said to reflect the shape of God’s own inner being. What type of type can do justice to any of this?

As a distinctive script, Hebrew emerged from its Phoenician and Canaanite origins at roughly the turn of the first millennium B.C.E., eventually adopting the Aramaic (in talmudic lingo, “Assyrian”) look during the Second Temple period. In some ways a no-frills alphabet, Hebrew has no uppercase, capital letters, or italics; vowels float around the consonantal letters, or are left to the reader’s memory and imagination. But the basic framework has proved fertile ground for visual creativity.

The Evolution

Over the centuries, three Hebrew “hands” emerged: the formal square or block letter, which, in its thinner Sephardi version, became the most popular printed font ; a semi-cursive known today as “Rashi script,” the visual calling card of rabbinic texts;  and a cursive, flowing hand for everyday correspondence.
hebrew letters
The invention of movable type in the late 15th century was seized upon by Jews in Italy and Spain who were literate and hungry for books. The standard was set by the Soncino family, which from 1484 to 1557 published works in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Non-Jewish printers with their own attraction to the Hebrew classics included Daniel Bomberg of Venice (died 1549), who developed an elegant typeface for the first printed Talmud, and Guillaume Le Bé (1525-1598), who, working in Venice and Paris, created almost twenty Hebrew fonts. To the north, Prague’s Jewish printers developed Gothic, Ashkenazi-based fonts in the 1520s; Amsterdam became a printing center in the 17th century.  All these set the typographical templates for the entire Jewish world.

Modern Hebrew

Modern times saw new technologies and new sensibilities. Frank-Ruehl, named for the early-20th-century Leipzig duo (a cantor and a graphic artist) who designed it, transposed Sephardi script into Art Nouveau. As “Rashi script” was abandoned by all but traditionalists, new sans-serif faces expressed the geometric design principles of the Bauhaus school and the shaking-off of layers of tradition. Closer to our own time, graphic designers strove to unite the old with the new: Ismar David and Zvi Narkis created the popular fonts that bear their surnames; Fransizka Baruch’s new Ashkenazi style greets today’s readers of Ha’aretz.

Talmud: An Explanation

Reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.

There is no getting away from the Babylonian Talmud. Love it, hate it, or both, this monumental work, so unlike anything we generally think of as a book, has been central to Jewish life for a millennium and more, managing time after time to find new readers and to summon new forms of reading.

In the English-speaking world, the Talmud is becoming better known thanks to initiatives like the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll translations. Less well-known are the scholars whose labor is shaping how the Talmud is likely to be read and understood for generations to come. Of these, one of the most significant is Shamma Friedman, whose collected talmudic essays, mainly in Hebrew, have recently been published. Friedman, a soft-spoken American who moved to Israel in 1973, has pioneered in the effort to get into the workshop of the Talmud’s many editors and offer a glimpse, painstakingly arrived at, of how the great compilation came to be. Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Friedman studied at the University of Pennsylvania before immersing himself in the Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary under the tutelage of Saul Lieberman and Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Both men were former students of Jacob Nahum Epstein, who, at the Hebrew University in the 1930s and ’40s, had delved into the foundational questions of how the talmudic texts came to be brought together over time and how the different parts relate to one another.


Image by Barbara Freedman,

The traditional “back story” of the Talmud is put forth in the 10th-century “Epistle” of the great Babylonian scholar Sherira Gaon. It is an invaluable source for reconstructing the generations of sages and students, and the chains of transmission, that yielded the Mishnah and Gemara, which in turn, and together, make up the Talmud. Yet many questions are left unanswered by Sherira. When and how were the Mishnah and Gemara, both of which were Oral Torah, written down? What exactly was the role of the post-talmudic Savoraim, the “explainers” who, Sherira says, “rendered interpretations akin to judgments”?

Illegal Immigrants in Israel

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

In 2010 the Israeli cabinet granted status to 800 children of guest workers while, pending appeal, ordering the deportation of 400 others. In the ensuing public reaction, some thought the measure too severe, others too generous. No surprise there: as Western Europeans and Americans well know, the problem of migrant labor is by no means unique to Israel. But each situation has arisen out of specific constellations of history, policy, and circumstance—and, in Israel, an added dimension is the complex relationship among the longstanding societal values of work, solidarity, and Zionism.

The Beginning of the Problem

After 1967, the Israeli economy turned increasingly to Palestinians as a source of unskilled labor. A decline in the numbers of these workers set in during the first intifada in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s the Palestinians’ place in the workforce had largely been taken by foreigners. The disparity only grew larger in the early years of this century with the second intifada and its associated terror.israel face

Today, non-Israeli workers number anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000, more than half of whom are in the country illegally. Chinese construction workers, Thai farmhands, Filipina home health-care aides—these, along with other laborers and African refugees, are by now familiar if undefined presences in Israeli life. Although efforts to deport illegals began in 2002, they have hardly progressed since then.

Ethical Questions

It is easy to tick off the problems caused by the present situation. The import of cheap foreign labor, advantageous to the employers who draw on it, serves to depress the wages of low-skilled Israelis and to drive Israeli Arabs in particular out of the workforce. The foreign workers themselves are regularly low-paid and ill-treated, contributing to an atmosphere in which workers’ rights seem altogether more readily expendable.

Another far-reaching problem is the corrosive effect of exploitation and income inequality on the bonds of solidarity among Israel’s diverse citizenry. During the decades of early state-building, Labor Zionist leaders sought through socialist means to minimize class differences that might undermine Jewish nationalism.  Though their religion of manual labor was never universal, the ethos it represented was crucial to the new state’s self-definition.  Today, amid growing income disparities—and wide unemployment among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews—social cohesion is further diminished.

Yehuda Amital

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

In July 2010, several thousand people gathered in Jerusalem for the funeral of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, an extraordinarily complex figure whose journey took him from prewar Hungary, via the Holocaust and the 1948 War of Independence, to the elite of the rabbinic world, the heart of Israel’s military, the hilltops of Judea, and eventually the Israeli cabinet. Throughout, the yeshiva he founded and led, and the ideal of Torah study it embodied, were central to his life and teaching.

He was born in 1924 into a Hungarian-Jewish milieu where the ideological lines among contending factions, religious and otherwise, were less sharply drawn than in Russia and Poland. After losing his family in the Holocaust, which he spent in a labor camp, he made his way to Jerusalem, resuming his Talmud studies in one of the great traditional yeshivas where his evident learning made up for the “error” of his Zionism. Already in Hungary he had discovered and embraced the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook, whose themes—Jewish national and spiritual revival, universal ethics, the significance of the people and land of Israel—would, along with the Holocaust, set the terms for his evolving thought.

religious zionism

Courtesy of Yeshivat Har Etzion.

As a soldier in the War of Independence, Amital wrote the first programmatic article on the religious and moral meaning of being a religious fighter. In the 1950s, he helped create the institution of the hesder yeshiva, which combines religious study with military service.  As the numbers of these yeshivas grew after the 1967 war, he would become a liaison between them and the military’s command echelons, with which he developed close ties.  During this period he was also asked to head a new yeshiva being created in Gush Etzion, where a network of pre-state Jewish settlements had been destroyed in the 1948 war. The yeshiva became a flagship of the settlement movement as a whole, and his pioneering role there turned him into a public figure.

Three Blessings

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

The Jewish prayer book (siddur) is thick with texts: blessings, thanksgivings, and petitions, instructions, theological claims, and historical memories. Some traditional texts bear especially outsized burdens. In this respect, few can rival three lines that begin “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me…” and conclude, respectively, “a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.”

These three blessings, a standing provocation to all sorts of sensibilities, are at the center of a new book on the Jewish liturgy. Its author, Yoel Kahn, traces their history from antiquity down to the present, illuminating how they have been interpreted, revised, translated, excised, and, in varying ways, restored.

The three lines are embedded in a string of similarly-worded formulas that open the preliminary morning prayers known as birkhot ha-shahar or the “dawn blessings.” Most of these thank God Who “gives the rooster understanding to distinguish day from night…gives sight to the blind…clothes the naked…raises those who are bent down,” and so forth. They appear in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and, as presented there, are meant to be recited in private at home as one starts the day: awaking, opening one’s eyes, dressing, standing upright, and so on. Today we might call them an exercise in mindfulness, aligning our consciousness with the acts that knit together our daily routines and, as Kahn points out, heightening our awareness of God’s hand at work in the world.

Where Do They Originate?

The three blessings in particular seem to have originated outside Jewish circles. From the third century B.C.E., we find written record of a quip, ostensibly attributed to Socrates, that expresses gratitude for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, Greek and not barbarian. An analogous one-liner circulated in Zoroastrian circles. The Jewish formula, a version of which first appears at about 200 C.E., was unconnected with the dawn blessings and was recorded in a different tractate of the Talmud (Menahot 43b).
morning prayers

Rav Ovadia Yosef

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

One of the more outsized personalities in Israel’s history was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the longtime head of the Shas political party. Rav Ovadia, as he was known, rose from a poor and undistinguished family to the summit of rabbinic–and then political–leadership through the sheer force of his learning and personality, and the coincidence of his passions with some of the deepest currents in Israeli society. The foreign public knew of him, vaguely, as a right-wing fanatic. But the truth and perhaps the tragedy of the man were far more complicated and fascinating.

Born in 1920 in Baghdad, he came to Jerusalem with his family at the age of four. From early on, he displayed a stupendous photographic memory, a prodigious capacity for study, religious fervor, and scholarly ambition, all fused in fierce traditionalism and equally fierce independence. By his late teens he was both a rising star in the Sephardi rabbinic world and a beloved teacher of Jerusalem’s day-laborers and tradesmen.
rav ovadia yosef
His ability to merge the intellectual elitism of the yeshiva with a common touch was to become one leitmotif of his career. Another was his pride, together with his boiling resentment of those who ignored or dismissed his accomplishments. Foremost among the latter were the members of the Ashkenazi establishment, religious and secular alike. They would come to regret it.

Rising through the ranks, Rav Ovadia served as a rabbinic judge in Cairo, Petah Tikvah, and Jerusalem, and as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, teaching all the while. In dozens of immensely learned books and countless rulings, he staked out a distinctive judicial philosophy with two components.

The first was encapsulated by the slogan “to restore the crown to its former glory (l’hahazir atarah l’yoshnah). The “crown” was the tradition of Sephardi halakhah that had come to full fruition in Joseph Caro, the 16th-century author of the still-authoritative law code, Shulhan Arukh. This tradition, in Rav Ovadia’s view, had been contaminated if not downright smothered by centuries of Ashkenazi stringencies, dialectics, and arrogance. By returning to Karo as the starting point, and creating a uniform and pristine Sephardi halakhah, he hoped to forge an authoritative and centralized body of Jewish law that could stand on its own vis-à-vis the governing institutions of the secular Jewish state. It was an ambitious program, buttressed as always with formidable learning, and it led him to override existing authorities and customs in a way that unsettled many, including within his own Sephardi camp.

Orthodoxy’s Power

The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s

Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities

, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

The survival–indeed, flourishing–of

Orthodox Judaism

is one of the many mind-bending surprises of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Orthodoxy has successfully managed to retain its hold on established Judaism and, in forms as wildly varied as the

Settler Movement



, has reshaped the public sphere and remade public policy.

In the US, where, by contrast, Orthodoxy must compete in a vigorous marketplace of beliefs, it has successfully crafted networks of institutions and ideas, distinctive practices and mores, and is increasingly visible in both Jewish communal life and American civil society. In both places, which together comprise some eighty percent of world Jewry, Orthodoxy has been able to win new adherents, even as those born into the fold drop off, a sign of genuine, if certainly complicated, dynamism.

Orthodoxy is not the only contemporary religious movement that seems to be beating the historical odds and giving modernization theory a run for its money; and that complicates the lives, not only of sociologists, but of so many of us–Orthodox people included–who have long been operating with a distinctive story of modernity.

Supposed to Die Out?

Once upon a time, the Western story went, there was religion. A powerful phenomenon in its time, it had become tamed in the cool light of reason, an intermittently helpful and most often harmless handmaiden to the great and steadily-advancing projects of secularism and modernity. There were, to be sure, some who tried to hop off the Progress Express, indeed at times turn it around; they were called “Fundamentalists” and were to be pitied, really, and, when needed, put in their place.orthodox jewish scribe

The Multiple Loyalties of American Jews

“Dual loyalty” is back. Whether Jews are actually disloyal to the United States–in favor of loyalty to Israel– is a matter of debate, but there is no doubting that the pejorative, of “dual loyalty” is in currency and increasingly credible in ways not seen in the last 50 years. This, of course, is a deeply chilling development. But it is also a spur to thinking about the broader issues of Jewish identity in America.

American and Israeli flags

The March 2006 essay written by political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer was both catalyst and bellwether for this trend. In “The Israel Lobby,” Walt and Mearsheimer argued that American supporters of Israel were advocating policies counter to America’s national interest. The fact that genuinely eminent scholars (and Realists no less!) were drawn to these formulations at all is an expression of the dark post-9/11 times in which we live, when the world seems unpredictably unsafe and the United States is less certain of its course in that world.

What Does Loyalty Mean?

The question of “dual loyalty” is, among other things, an interesting point of entry into several dimensions of American-Jewish identity. But first, let’s put some things on the table. 

What does it mean for Jews, some at least, to vote for an American president, first and foremost, based on his policies toward Israel and only secondarily on his views on a range of other issues? What would it mean for an American Jew to advocate a specific policy injurious to the United States but helpful to Israel? 

These are not unreasonable questions, and can and ought to be asked of any discrete group, certainly one with strong ties to a foreign country. Indeed, the American idea of citizenship is based on a shared civic identity binding together disparate groups with other sorts of identities. American political thinkers from the Federalists onward have tried to understand how this essentially liberal and cosmopolitan citizenship can weave together a polity. 

I think it fair to say that any American citizen who advocates a policy that can in no way reasonably be construed as serving America’s interests is no longer making a good faith policy argument and can only justify themselves, if at all, on humanitarian grounds. 

Israel’s 2006 Elections: With a Whimper, Not a Bang

The breathtaking events of late 2005 and early 2006 promised an extraordinary shakeup in Israeli politics. 

In November 2005, Amir Peretz’s surprise win over Shimon Peres in the Labor party primary, and his decision to pull Labor out of the government, precipitated a series of dramatic changes. Until then, two bottlenecks were stopping up the system: Ariel Sharon was stuck in a party, Likud, that he had founded but had long since outgrown, while across the aisle, Peres’ stubborn refusal to yield his personal ambition paralyzed Labor. So determined was Peres to make his way back into the Cabinet Room–maybe even the Prime Minister’s Office– that he had crippled one generation of successors and threatened to do the same to another.

A New Party is Born

The eclipse of Peres set in motion a stunning realignment. Sharon defected from Likud and, with centrist defectors from Labor, created a new party: Kadima. With Kadima, Sharon could pursue the policy trajectory he had already introduced and, in what long-time Labor MK Haim Ramon termed "the Big Bang," resurrect a broad ruling center resembling the historic MAPAI of Ben-Gurion, through whose ranks he and Peres had risen.

Sharon’s stroke in January 2006 seemed to put Kadima in danger (though it also helped it by removing Sharon’s corruption scandals from the public agenda). But Kadima, now led by Sharon’s designated successor, Ehud Olmert, survived, pointing to the underlying suasion of that broad consensus. It finally seemed as though the Knesset would assume the rough shape of the body politic it purported to represent. It would leave most of the territories while retaining the major blocs, not out of love for the Palestinians, but to distance Israel from them; and it would accept free markets sans Bibinomics–the aggressive capitalism of Benjamin Netanyahu. At long last, the endless horse-trading and thin coalitions that had bedeviled Israeli politics for so long would be behind us.

The truth turned out to be more complicated.

Ariel Sharon and the Messianism of Force

In 1983 I attended the founding meeting in Jerusalem of Netivot Shalom, a Religious Zionist peace movement. 

Addressing the assembly, among others, was Rabbi Yehuda Amital, an extraordinary figure: Holocaust survivor, Haganah veteran, a creator of the network of hesder yeshivot which combine study with army service, founder and dean of a major yeshiva in Gush Etzion, the Plymouth Rock of West Bank settlements. A passionate theologian, Rabbi Amital had been a leading figure and thinker of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in its heyday. Now, years later, with the Israeli Army mired in Lebanon, he concluded that it was time to change course and made his case with no diminution in passion.

“There are three kinds of false messianism afoot in the Land of Israel,” he said, “Gush Emunim, Peace Now, and Ariel Sharon.”

ariel sharonHe continued: “We live in a complex reality and each proposes a simple answer: Gush Emumin offers faith, Peace Now offers good intentions, and Ariel Sharon offers force. Not one of them is sufficient. All three are necessary, each balancing the other in their place and time.”

I have, in the last two decades, often thought about Rabbi Amital’s speech, and certainly now, with the eclipse of Ariel Sharon. 

Military Man

Ariel Sharon’s passing from the political scene elicited waves of public sentiment and genuine concern that are, for anyone who has followed the last quarter-century of Israeli politics, nothing short of astounding. That Arik Sharon, who for decades was perhaps Israel’s most divisive, reviled, and feared political figure (and that’s saying something) at home and abroad–that he of all people should be regarded so tenderly, seems to prove once again that Israel is the land of miracles, the kind that leave you scratching your head.

Arik Sharon, the human bulldozer, mushroomed out of some deep fold of Israeli and Zionist history: Company commander in the 1948 war, commander of the legendary Unit 101 and thus one of the creator’s of Israel’s forward-leaning military ethos, out-and-out hero of the 1973 war, architect of the megalomaniacal and disastrous Lebanon War–the ruination of a generation–and the master-builder of Israel’s settlements; a fighter seemingly from birth, he gave no quarter, plunging headlong from one adventure to another.