Monthly Archives: April 2007

Thinking About Zionism

This entry was posted in History, Holidays on by .

Next week we’ll celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and before the partying starts, we thought we’d spend this week being a little more introspective about Israel and Zionism.

Toward this end, Matt Plen has written a comprehensive and incredibly sophisticated article for us about the ways in which Zionist thinkers have thought about the Palestinians.

According to Plen, few Zionists seriously thought Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land,” and he guides us through Hertzl’s Altneuland, Hashomer Hatzair’s Marxism, Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, and into the present.

Perhaps most interesting, is the early (Socialist-inspired) belief that economics would settle the potential conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jews.

Until the 1930s, for example, David Ben Gurion believed that as the economic growth caused by Jewish immigration enhanced the Palestinian Arabs’ standard of living, they would gradually come to appreciate the benefits of Zionism; the conflict would thereby be neutralized. This prognosis was shattered by the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, at the peak of a cycle of economic growth. The Labor Zionists had failed to take into account the nationalist, ideological basis of the Arabs’ opposition to Zionism. That reality now became painfully clear.

You can read the full article here.

Posted on April 16, 2007

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My Rebbe’s Rebbe

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Since the beginning of the school year, The Commentator, Yeshiva University’s newspaper, has featured article-length reflections on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s legacy written by a variety of former students.

Like the excellent series of reflections on YU edited by Menachem Butler a couple of years ago, The Commentator should again be praised for including voices that have, for the last few decades, been generally silenced at YU.

One such person, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, was a beloved history professor at YU during the 1960s. But Rabbi Greenberg’s relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik preceded his time at YU. The two met when Rabbi Greenberg was a graduate student at Harvard.

Rabbi Greenberg’s reflections on the Rav were published in the most recent issue of The Commentator and are available here.

Of particular note: Rabbi Greenberg’s sense that Rabbi Soloveitchik kept a tighter theological leash on those who studied with him at YU.

Some of my more ‘controversial’ views are rooted in the Rav’s insights or openings which I admittedly pushed further then he did. Examples: The Rav’s teaching that Hashgachah (e.g., the unfolding of the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel) had ruled against the anti-Zionist Roshei Yeshiva (= most of his family and his world) which I applied to a more fundamental critique of their cultural policies.

The Rav’s argument that all Zionists who shared the covenant of fate of the Jewish people were legitimate partners in the covenant which I applied to the non-Orthodox religious denominations in the U.S. as well. In Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav’s use of the term “Hester Panim muchlat” to describe the Shoah. If Hester Panim represents the absolute hiddenness of God – then what is the additional meaning of muchlat – what is hester panim? I understood this to mean that a position beyond God’s hiddenness, i.e., loss of faith is a phenomological possibility when one is inside the world of the Holocaust.

In my experience the Rav cut me a bit more slack. Throughout my life, he always listened respectfully with a smile and appreciation and cogent feedback even when he disagreed. It seemed to me that he was more tolerant of my exploring beyond his boundary line than he would have been with a talmid muvhak.

The archive of other articles about Rabbi Soloveitchik can be found here.

Posted on April 12, 2007

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Jewish Genius

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The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray has published an article in this month’s issue of Commentary Magazine that is already raising journalistic eyebrows — and is sure to raise even more.

Murray picks up where Gregory Cochran and company left off, citing the unusually high level of Jewish influence in the arts and sciences and tying it to a supposed above-average mean IQ.

The IQ mean for the American population is “normedâ€? to be 100, with a standard deviation of 15. If the Jewish mean is 110, then the mathematics of the normal distribution says that the average Jew is at the 75th percentile…

The key indicator for predicting exceptional accomplishment (like winning a Nobel Prize) is the incidence of exceptional intelligence. Consider an IQ score of 140 or higher, denoting the level of intelligence that can permit people to excel in fields like theoretical physics and pure mathematics. If the mean Jewish IQ is 110 and the standard deviation is 15, then the proportion of Jews with IQ’s of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.

Murray — who outs himself as a Scots-Irish Gentile from Iowa at the beginning of the article — is, of course, jumping into controversial waters here: polite company, we’re told, should avoid discussing the intersection of race and genetics. But I don’t fault Murray for raising a difficult issue — though I may fault him for taking such a wildly speculative take on the subject.

Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending believed that the genetic predisposition to intelligence was limited to Ashkenazic Jews and began to develop in the Middle Ages as these Jews became increasingly involved in sales, finance, and trade — occupations that privileged intelligence.

Murray, however, believes that Jewish intelligence goes back much further. He spends significant time focusing on the intellectual demands of Judaism and a 1st century call for universal (male) education.

To study the Talmud and its commentaries with any understanding requires considerable intellectual capacity. In short, during the centuries after Rome’s destruction of the Temple, Judaism evolved in such a way that to be a good Jew meant that a man had to be smart…

I suggest that the Jews who fell away from Judaism from the 1st to 6th centuries C.E. were heavily concentrated among those who could not learn to read well enough to be good Jews — meaning those from the lower half of the intelligence distribution. Even before the selection pressures arising from urban occupations began to have an effect, I am arguing, the remaining self-identified Jews circa 800 C.E. already had elevated intelligence.

Murray goes on to argue for an even earlier proclivity for intelligence that seems to weaken the structure of his article, but leaving that aside, I wonder about the historical veracity of his ideas.

Murray would have us believe that your average Jew was capable of serious scholarship: “Jews were commanded by God to heed the law, which meant they had to learn the law. The law was so extensive and complicated that this process of learning and reviewing was never complete.” This might be correct, but my instinct is otherwise. I assume that study and scholarship was, for the most part, the purview of an intellectual elite.

I’ve sent some emails out to historian friends for some insight into this, but if any of you readers know the history of Jewish lay-education, feel free to weigh in.

In the end, however, Murray’s speculation about the role of Jewish education is not even essential to his argument. He continues to imagine Jewish intelligence further and further back in history until he arrives at Moses and concludes by abandoning his genetic discourse in favor of a theological assertion that may or may not be meant as a joke.

Insofar as I am suggesting that the Jews may have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses, I am naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge. Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?

At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God’s chosen people.

None of this is meant to refute claims of Jewish accomplishment or mean IQ. But with such a sensitive subject, one might expect a little more rigor — and sensitivity — than Murray seems to offer.

Posted on April 12, 2007

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He’s Back…

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Nathan Englander’s long-awaited follow-up to his amazing story collection For the Relief on Unbearable Urges will be published later this month.

His first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, is about a Jewish man — named Kaddish Poznan — in Argentina in the mid-1970s whose son is “disappeared” during the country’s unrest.

Englander kicked off what’s sure to be a publicity frenzy with a very funny interview in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

For a first novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases� seems unusually inventive, avoiding the familiar account of adolescent angst and giving little sense of your own history as an Orthodox Jew educated at a yeshiva in suburban Long Island.

It’s true. In terms of personal experience, my only other option was to set this novel at the Roosevelt Field mall. But it would still be about the same thing — community and identity and injustice. It would still be about Kaddish.

MORE…

Posted on April 11, 2007

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Tikkun Olam Watch

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Recently, in a four-part series published in the Charlotte Observer, my old college roommate Binyamin Appelbaum, broke a huge story about another corporation — Fortune 500’s Beazer Homes — taking advantage of the little man.

Southern Chase was a new kind of subdivision for Beazer, an experiment in selling low-cost homes to low-income families.

The strategy was a financial success for Beazer.

But the neighborhood fell apart.

Seventy-seven buyers have lost homes to foreclosure in a subdivision of 406 homes. That’s about one in five, more than six times the national rate…

…an Observer investigation found Beazer acted in ways that made a high rate of foreclosures inevitable. Beazer not only built the homes in Southern Chase, it arranged mortgage loans for two-thirds of the buyers. The company used that control to arrange larger loans than some buyers could afford. That allowed it to include the cost of financial incentives in the price of homes.

Some of Beazer’s actions violated federal lending rules, the Observer found. (MORE)

Now, thanks to Binyamin’s reporting, Beazer is the subject of an investigation launched by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

So kudos to Binyamin. Here’s journalism at its best — a reminder that sometimes writing can make a difference.

Posted on April 6, 2007

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Kafka in Bronteland

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

A few weeks ago, Tamar Yellin won the first $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher.

Since the announcement, I’ve heard mixed things about the book, with some people praising the judges’ decision and others a bit shocked by Yellin’s purple prose.

I haven’t read The Genizah yet, but I did pick up Yellin’s short story collection, Kafka in Bronteland, which significantly impressed me.

I discuss the book in my latest column for the Jerusalem Post.

Posted on April 6, 2007

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Roth and Bellow, Again

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Philip Roth has won another award, the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, named for his good friend and fellow Jewish American legend.

MORE…

Posted on April 5, 2007

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MJL Editorial Internship

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MyJewishLearning.com is seeking a summer intern to work out of its New York, NY headquarters. This intern will work closely with the editorial staff on the enhancement of all areas of the site.

Candidates must have strong research, editorial and writing skills, as well as a solid background in Jewish studies and experience working with the internet. This is a part-time position, up to 20 hours per week, with a stipend of $10/hour. If interested, please send cover letter, resume and two writing samples to lili@myjewishlearning.com by April 30th.

Posted on April 5, 2007

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Pour Out Thy Wrath

This entry was posted in Holidays, Texts on by .

Over at Contentions, Hillel Halkin has posted a thought about one of the Passover Haggadah’s most difficult texts: shfokh hamatkha, in which we ask God to pour divine wrath upon the nations that do not know God.

Writes Halkin:

I would counsel those Jews who are embarrassed by the shfokh hamatkha to reflect that, precisely because it’s a prayer for divine and not human vengeance, it’s more an abjuration of vengeance than a call for it. In fact, the salient thing about Jews in terms of vengeance is not — as the anti-Semites would have it — how vengeful they are, but rather, how incapable of taking revenge they seem to be…

I myself have never had any problem with the shfokh hamatkha. I say it loudly and cheerfully. The Jews and Israel have plenty of enemies, and I wouldn’t mind them all dropping dead tomorrow; as for the rest of humanity, my friend’s daughter-in-law included, I wish it nothing but the best. I’m glad, though, that thoughts, especially my own, can’t kill. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in the wish for vengeance. But its implementation is best regarded as God’s business. That, I should think, is the philosophy of the shfokh hamatkha.

Halkin makes an interesting theological move here. He spiritualizes vengeance — removing it from the practical human realm — by stressing the fact that only God is the avenger. While this may make the text more palatable for Halkin, it doesn’t necessarily make it fundamentally less problematic.

Halkin may not believe that it is our job to enact vengeance, but certainly there are some religious folks out there who could take this text as a call to arms. Must Halkin think of those people when he decides to recite this text “loudly and cheerfully”?

There are, of course, several other options. One could recite the text solemnly, aware of its power, humbled by the truth that we do have enemies, disturbed that we could sometimes use a little divine wrath, and hopeful that one day we won’t.

Then there are the alternative texts, some of them listed in this MJL article, including this one from a 16th Century Hagaddah (though, in all likelihood, the text was added in the 20th century):

Pour out your love on the nations who know You
And on kingdoms who call Your name.
For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob
And they shield Your people Israel from their enemies.
May they merit to see the good of Your chosen
And to rejoice in the joy of Your nation.

Posted on April 5, 2007

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Israeli Certainty

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

According to a new poll, 85% of Israelis believe in God, while 12% are atheists. The interesting part of the statistic: Only 3% of Israelis are undecided.

Is it just me, or is that a bit too much certainty?

Posted on April 2, 2007

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