Studying The Torah: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Jewish Press, Oct. 18, 2019
Remembering Edward Shils: Joseph Epstein, Commentary Magazine, September 2019
When I was asked to speak at last week’s conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center, I think my heart actually skipped a beat. Arendt, the German-born political philosopher who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and eventually settled in New York, is the thinker who has most deeply influenced me, and racism and anti-Semitism are two topics I think about constantly, the most pressing issues of our time. It was the perfect combination of topic and venue, and the list of confirmed speakers included luminaries whose work I had read, whose writing and thinking I deeply admired.
Watch video of the conference here.
“I am so incredibly humbled to be included in this event and I accept with great honor,” I wrote back to Roger Berkowitz, the founder and director of the center and organizer of the conference.
I was invited to host a breakout session of my choosing, and I proposed a workshop on navigating other people’s opinions in the age of Trump – a topic of deep importance to my work as Opinion Editor of The Forward, where we insist on representing the full gamut of legitimate opinion. Ten days before the conference started on Thursday, I found out I would also be one of three people on a panel called “Racism and Zionism: Black-Jewish relations,” and moderator of another session, with Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish literature and scholar of Jewish history and culture, and Shany Mor, an Israeli thinker who is affiliated with the Hannah Arendt Center.
I prepared eagerly. I read everything Wisse had written on anti-Semitism, and formulated some questions to probe at the areas where our views diverged. I wrote up my thoughts the charge that Zionism as racism – a holdover of Soviet propaganda that I looked forward to debating, as well as polling that shows African-Americans overall to be more pro-Israel and less sympathetic to the Palestinians than white liberals.
And for the breakout session, I planned to divide the audience into small groups and ask them to pretend they were running an Opinion section in these polarized times. Their task would be to create a set of rules governing their imagined section to determine who gets in and who does not. But like in a democracy, they would have to come to a consensus about those rules.
I never got to say or do most of these things.
When the conference began Thursday morning, I was warned that protesters from the Bard chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine planned to interrupt my panel with Wisse and Mor. I was surprised they were not targeting the one on Zionism, but the one on anti-Semitism, the only panel of about 20 over the course of the two-day program where three Jews would be discussing the topic. “But we’re not even talking about Israel,” I said to the conference organizers. “How does that make sense?” …. [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The rash of physical attacks against Jews in Brooklyn and Manhattan began almost a year ago. We have cellphone and street camera footage of many of the attacks, and they are coming from assailants bellowing “Allahu Akbar” and from younger black and Hispanic men often yelling “dirty Jew.” They sneak up on Jewish-garbed citizens using bricks and stones, breaking bones and smashing eyes. There was no mainstream media discussion about this until a few weeks ago, and the major Jewish establishment organizations were basically silent as well. Even now, none of these Jewish organizations are flexing their muscles or evincing anywhere near the type of outrage we should expect.
You can be sure that if the attackers were white or Jewish and the victims Black, Muslim, or Hispanic, the establishment alphabet Jewish organizations (ADL, AJC, NYF, JCRC, Conference of Presidents, and Federations) would be the very first organizing protests against racism and pontificating about something rotten within American society.
My grievance is not why general society is doing little, since most Americans have no clue about what is happening in Boro Park, Williamsburg, or Crown Heights. But the major secular Jewish organizations do know! Nor am I perplexed about why this is not at the top of the list of many officeholders and politicians. After all, the “machers” from the Jewish organizations are not knocking down their doors nor raising Cain — something Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, CAIR, and Ocasio-Cortez would certainly do if their people were being assaulted by outsiders. Beyond doubt, the establishment Jewish organizations would themselves be knocking down doors right alongside them. They, as they always do, would be proclaiming “how the most important Jewish value is the protection of minorities and fighting racism.”
Actually, it is President Trump who has made more of an issue over anti-Jewish remarks coming from the mouths of high-profile members of minority communities than our own Jewish establishment “leadership.”
Many of those running Jewish organizations and non-Orthodox synagogue and temples have for decades made helping other minorities the centerpiece of their ideological life and, thus, will never spotlight the anti-Semitism coming from members of the minority community, since it would shatter all they believe in. It might get in the way of “dialogue,” which is their most precious template, though it usually is a dialogue of what we Jews can do for you and not what you can also do for us. Years after the 1992 Crown Heights pogroms, the ADL finally acknowledged that its unwillingness to defend the Lubavitch community was a fear of jeopardizing their loyalty to the Black civil rights movement. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
When I was Chief Rabbi, I had wonderful friendships with other religious leaders, not least with the two Archbishops of Canterbury during my time. This was part of a profound healing that has taken place between Jews and Christians in the post-Holocaust era, after many centuries of estrangement and worse. We respected our differences, but we worked together on the things that mattered to both of us, from climate change to the alleviation of poverty.
On one occasion the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, made a curious request. “We are embarking on a year of Reading the Bible. Do you think you might do something similar within the Jewish community?” “Of course,” I replied. “We do it every year. There’s only one word we might find problematic.” “Which word is that?” he asked. “The word ‘reading,’” I said. “We never simply read the Bible. We study it, interpret it, interpret other interpretations, argue, question, debate. The verb ‘reading’ does not quite do justice to the way we interact with the Torah. It is usually more active than that.”
I might have added that even the phrase keriat haTorah, which is usually taken to mean, reading the Torah, probably does not mean that at all.
Keriat haTorah, properly understood, is a performative act. It is a weekly recreation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is a covenant ratification ceremony like the one Moshe performed at Sinai: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people, and they said, “All that the L-rd has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Shemos 24:7), and like the covenant renewal ceremony celebrated by Ezra after the return from Babylon, as described in Nechemiah 8-9.
Keriah in this sense does not mean reading in the modern sense of sitting in an armchair with a book. It means declaring, proclaiming, establishing and making known the law. It is like what happens in the British Parliament when the bill gets its final ‘reading,’ that is, it’s ratification.
So the Torah isn’t something we merely read. It involves total engagement. And what has made that engagement possible is the rabbinic concept of Midrash. Midrash as I understand it (there are, of course, other ways) was the rabbinic response to the end of prophecy. So long as there were prophets – until the time of Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi – they brought the word of G-d to their generation. They heard it; they declared it; the Divine word lived within the currents and tides of history.
But there came a time when there were no more prophets. How then could Jews bridge the gap between the word then, and the historical situation now? It was an immense crisis, and different groups of Jews responded in different ways. The Sadducees, as far as we can tell, confined themselves to the literal text. For them Torah did not renew itself generation after generation. It had been given once and that was enough.
Other groups, including those we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, developed a kind of biblical exegesis known as Pesher. There is a surface meaning of the text but there is also a hidden meaning, that often has to do with events or people in the present, or the end of days, that were assumed to be coming soon. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
I miss my friend Edward Shils, as I miss many other now dead friends. But these others are dead for me in a way that Edward isn’t quite. He seems never to have left me, and I can write about him today in a way I couldn’t when he died—being enabled, by the passage of time, in the phrase of the House Un-American Activities Committee, to “name names” in a way that wasn’t possible then.
An academic of renown in his own time who passed away in 1995 at the age of 85, Edward published four volumes of essays and papers, a book on civility, another on tradition, a selection of portraits of intellectuals and scholars, and more. But his writing, which often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel, does not convey anything like the full force of his extraordinary personality—a personality that was an amalgam of Samuel Johnson and H.L. Mencken with a strong strain of Jewish wit, Yiddishisms included.
In his will, Edward left me two Jacob Epstein busts—Epstein’s great bust of Joseph Conrad and his self-portrait—that sit in our dining room and a 26-volume collection of the essays of William Hazlitt; and to my wife he left a set of elegant Wedgwood dishes—blue and white, trimmed in gold—that we invariably refer to as “the Edward dishes.” I often think of his remarks on various subjects. Along with recalling amusing things he had said, I occasionally find myself imagining things he might have said. A number of years ago, for example, when at the Ravinia Music Festival, I noticed Edward’s and my lawyer Martin Cohn and his wife walking down to their expensive seats, she wearing a wide-brimmed summer hat, and I thought, channeling Edward, “Marty Cohn is the kind of Jew who buys an extra seat at a concert for his wife’s hat.”
Soon after his death, I had a call from the obituarist of the London Times, who, checking his facts, asked, “He came from railroad money, did he not?” No, he distinctly did not. Edward’s father, a Jewish Eastern European immigrant, was a cigar-maker, a man who sat at a bench in Philadelphia and rolled cigars for a living. Other people thought Edward was English. In World War II, he was seconded to the British army, and because of his proficiency with German was charged with interviewing prisoners of war. That led to a job at the London School of Economics. Later he become a fellow at Kings College, Cambridge, subsequently moving on to become an honorary fellow at Peterhouse at the same university.
By that point, he had acquired not so much an English as a mid-Atlantic accent, which was highlighted by his adoption of a slightly anachronistic vocabulary. He said “district” instead of “neighborhood”; he might call a woman’s dress a “frock”; I had him remove the word “wireless” from an essay he wrote for the American Scholar, when I was that magazine’s editor, and replace it with “radio.” So far as I know, he owned no leisure clothes, never appearing outside his apartment without hat, suit, tie, and walking stick.
The phrase “reinvented himself” doesn’t apply to Edward. Rather, he had an idea of what a serious person should look, speak, and be like, and through force of will he, more than approximated, became that person. He also internationalized himself. During the 1950s, he spent large swatches of time in India. He knew German academic life from the inside, and Isaiah Berlin, R.H. Tawney, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and most of the other leading English intellectuals and scholars of his time were personal acquaintances, in some instances friends. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
For Further Reference:
Why Progressive Anti-Semitism — and Why Now?: Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, May 7, 2019 — The New York Times International Edition recently published an anti-Semitic cartoon of a dachshund with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Is It Safe to Be Jewish in New York?: Ginia Bellafante, NYT, Oct. 31, 2018 — Just past midnight on May 1, a young rabbinical student was walking home on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn when he thought he was being followed. A moment after that intuition struck, two men grabbed him, threw him against a car and started punching him.
‘I Will Make of You a Great Nation’: Michael Medved, Commentary Magazine, October 2019 — Starting in 1881, some 2.5 million desperate, destitute eastern European Jews washed up on American shores to connect an ancient text to a young nation’s sense of its own special destiny.
The Magic of an ‘Etrog’: Rokhl Kafrissen, Tablet, Oct. 11, 2019 — Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to marry me. He bought me books about yeshivas and steak dinners at Le Marais.
This week’s French-language briefing is titled: COMMUNIQUE Octobre 18- Ce que l’abandon des Kurdes par Trump implique pour Israël
CIJR wishes our friends and supporters Shabbat Shalom and a chag someach!
Because of the Jewish holidays – Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – the Briefing will return on Wed. Oct. 23, 2019