Friday, September 29, 2006

The Ten Worst Jews

I thought it would be a useful idea before Yom Kippur to try to work out who were the worst Jews in recent times. The blogosphere is so busy, talking about rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, the tail-end of Jewish life is not being adequately covered. I think of it as a sort of anti-rebbe baseball cards. The exercise is not that easy, so I want to confine my first set of awful Jews to ten. I’m looking for ten people who were famous and acted in such a way that they were a shame to the Jewish people. I’m not interested in some isolated Son-of-Sam- like psychopath. There are 3 subcategories, the mass murderers, the apostates and the self haters.

Let’s start with Lev Davidovich Trotsky. I would start with Lenin, but it’s only a rumor that he’s Jewish. Trotsky is all ours. Even though in his last years he became an opponent of Stalin, he was the people’s commissar for war and the commander of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. In these positions, he managed to make his own unique contribution to the history of mass slaughter. He was a leading player in the dictatorship that led to Stalin. Stalin killed forty million people. A pox on all three of them..

Rosa Luxembourg, the fiery communist leader of the German communist Party is my next choice. She was a true believer in communism, which in my book is not a sin and doesn’t qualify one for a 10 worst list. She joins this elite group because of her Bolshevik politics of refusing to join with other democratic socialists. Her legacy together with Trotsky’s was felt in the 30’s when the German communists adopted the cynical slogan that the worse things get, the better it will be. Their refusal to join with the socialists led to the electoral victories of the Nazis and allowed Hitler to come to power. Communism deserves some of the responsibility for Hitler gaining control. 10 million dead here, 10 million there, after a while it adds up.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Everyone of a certain age knows their story. At the time there were some questions concerning the case, but over the years the evidence has accumulated that they spied for the Soviet Union and were responsible for transferring hydrogen bomb secrets to Stalinist Russia, which in turned triggered the Cold War and a huge arms buildup. I can understand people being communist; I can not understand how people could have spied for Stalin.

I would say the most self hating Austrian Jew of the 20th century period was either Karl Kraus or Otto Weininger. Kraus wrote a satirical anti-Semitic magazine that was witty, sharp and appealing to German speakers. Today it is difficult to know what all the fuss was about, but everyone including Freud and Wittgenstein read him diligently. He converted to Catholicism and was not fond of Jews to say the least. Weininger wrote a major anti-Semitic and misogynist work, Sex and Character. Here once again, everyone from Freud to Wittgenstein read the book, and it was widely used by proto Nazi groups. He committed suicide, not a minute too soon.

The case of Freud is different. He certainly was no tchachke. He married his wife partially because he was attracted to her lineage as the granddaughter of Chacham Bernays, the Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Hamburg. Once married, he didn’t allow his wife to light candles on Friday night. His mother spoke only Galitzianer Yiddish, lived with him to a ripe old age, yet he always denied knowing how to read Hebrew letters. I think he was lying so as to make himself appear more assimilated. As he got older, he got a little better. He said a nice word or two about Zionism and he never denied being a Jew. There was a fair amount of Jewish self-hatred in Freud, but I would not consider him one of the ten worst Jews, if for no other reason, that his discoveries changed the world and Jewish life for the better. He analyzed the great Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim, and he helped the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, the RaSHa’’B, overcome his depression. His self-hatred was not much worse than the young Herzl or the novelist Arthur Schnitzler

My next choice is a triplet of important Jewish women philosophers, Simone Weill, Edith Stein and Gilian Rose, all of whom became apostates. There is a large literature on Weill. Alasdair MacIntyre has just written a philosophical appraisal of how Stein came to be a Carmelite nun. Stein was murdered in Auschwitz and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II. In a wonderfully erudite and learned review Rabbi Arnold Wolff wrote of Rose “In the last hours before her death, Rose was received into the Anglican church. Her admirers, particularly her Jewish admirers, were and remain dumbfounded, since she had professed a critical loyalty to Judaism for all of her adult life.” I learnt a lot from Gilian Rose, and continue to think about her. Shame on all of them.

Hannah Arendt is my next choice as a self hating Jew. She is only a temporary member, depending on how it all turns out when her correspondence is unsealed. I will write more about her in future blogs..

Dorothea Mendelsohn was the daughter of the famous philosopher and student of Reb Yonason Eybischutz, Moses Mendelssohn. After she married Simon Veit, she flipped her sheitel and ran off and married the romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel. She wasn’t the only Orthodox women in the Berlin of the 1790’s to leave their husbands, convert and marry a German Christian. Six of her Orthodox Jewish friends converted. What earns her a special place in Jewish history is that she convinced her siblings and nephews and nieces to do the same. The more I read about her and the other Berlin salonieren the more problematic they become. Something was very wrong in the Orthodox Jewish community of 1790’s Berlin. I have no clue what caused these rich, educated and cultured women to convert. I believe the Rav of the community at the time was the author of one the side commentaries in all the standard editions of the Yerushalmi, the Korban Haedah. He must have been clueless.

Margherita Sarfatti was an Italian Jewish woman who was Mussolini’s mistress from 1911 well into the 20’s. In turn, she became an important writer and cultural advisor for Italian fascism. Susan Sarendon portrayed her in the Tim Robin’s movie “The Cradle will Rock” (1999). She was colorful, very bright, but she was also an apologist for some very bad people. She managed to live through the Second World War by going into exile in Argentina and lived to a ripe old age.

The Jewish husbands of Alma Mahler namely Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel. Mahler was a great composer who converted to Catholicism ostensibly because of his desire to advance his career. I’m not so sure. If one listens to the early symphonies, it is possible to detect fragments of nigunim. By the time you get to symphony 8,9, and 10, they sound, at least to my ear, very much the sort of music one would write if redemption in the Catholic sense was on one’s mind. Schoenberg, an equally impressive composer, after converting to Protestanism saw his mistake and returned to Jewish life. One has the feeling with Mahler that as the years went by he entered into the Catholic mind frame. Franz Werfel was a novelist and a screenwriter. He lived with Alma Mahler during World War II. Alma was a Nazi sympathizer. He also wrote the book and the screenplay for the Catholic propaganda movie “Song of Bernadette.” Not nice for a Jewish boy.

10 My last choice is Rabbi Kaufman Kohler and the other authors of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. I ask the interested reader to compare the 1885 platform with the new much more mentschlich Reform Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1999. It took Reform Judaism fifty years and more to recover from the hatred of ritual and the anti Zionism of the 1885 platform. The goals of the Hamburg reformers in the 1810’s were truly modest in comparison to the radical revisionist ideas that culminated in the 1880’s. I would be interested in hearing from readers that have a different take on the consequences of the anti Zionism, pro-assimilation ideas of classical reform.

The best example of a Jewish self-hater was John, the author of the fourth Gospel, the Logos guy, but that’s going quite a ways back. It is true to say, however, that if it weren’t for John, there would have been far fewer inquisitions and pogroms over the years. In general, Jewish self-hatred is more of a European phenomenon, and is not so obvious in America or Israel these days. Why this is so is a longish story, but essentially it has to do with the conditions that the Germans set for entry into the body politic. It bent many Jews out of shape.

Finally I offer an alternate candidate a man who in the mind of far too many is a good man, a hero…Dr. Baruch Goldstein. I figure the crowd that rejects Kohler and Co. will have no problem with Goldstein and vice versa.

The new field of ‘debit Jews’ is wide open (ARE THEY the Ketanim? Sounds odd. Maybe the PC word ‘challenged’ would work. Also dopey. Let’s say the optimal name is one more unsolved problem in this burgeoning science). I welcome all suggestions. It is still possible to get in on the ground floor.

A gemar chasima tova to all.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lubavitch and Heresy

There is a serious issue I want to raise about Lubavitch other than heresy and mass psychosis. (They are heimisher guys, so what’s a psychosis here or a heresy there.) In traveling around the world I have found, more than once, there are perfectly fine congregations in a town, many of which are struggling to find members. Along comes this Lubavitcher kid, somewhere in his twenties with his bashert at his side, and sets up shop right next door.

Lubavitch functions somewhat like a McDonald’s franchise. All the good locations are already taken. When a Lubavitcher emissary retires, he tries to recruit his son or some other family member, and with some justification. The retiree built up the Chabad house from scratch. When a young person shows an interest in going out into the field, (becoming a meshulach), the Upper East Side of New York is already taken. He can go to Papua, New Guinea or Nowheresville, Arkansas. The young man grabs onto Arkansas even if it already has a minyan. The upshot is that many a minyan with 15 people morphs into two minyanim of 7.5 each. The Lubavitchers undoubtedly will argue that it is not a zero sum game. When they come into a town, they expand the market. They feel they will create a much more dynamic place than the weak synagogue that is already there. They may be right in this contention, but such has not been my experience.

One final problem…what are we to make of the failure to excommunicate the Lubavitchers? I know there are a lot of reasons why there has been no serious attempt at excommunication. For one thing, people traveling around the world eat in Lubavitcher kitchens and if they were excommunicated, their food would not be considered kosher. Another story that one hears is that Orthodoxy has turned into Orthopraxis. If your behavior is Orthoprax (you behaviorally perform all the mitzvoth), you can believe in the tooth fairy; no one is going to give you a hard time. There is something to this idea, though not at the level of the individual. No one is hesitant to denounce an individual as a heretic (apikorus). The reluctance is to take on seventy thousand people.

Whatever the exact explanation, and there may be many, it is part of a growing trend in American Jewish life in all denominations. Heresy and breaking of denominational ties is breaking out all over. Some good examples are:

The University of Judaism in Los Angeles is much more “progressive” than the Jewish Theological Seminary and appears to be going its own independent way.

There are all these uppity women who are challenging Modern Orthodox practices with tefila groups and greater participation of women in the services. They dream of equality with men.

The phenomenon called Jewish Renewal, which is growing very quickly and is independent of all denominations and, I would add, of all rabbinical discipline, presents a challenge to the very idea of a rabbi.

The emergence of a non-denominational rabbinical school in Newton, Massachusetts headed by the distinguished theologian and kabbalah scholar Rabbi Arthur Green, raises the very interesting question of whether a rabbi is inextricably tied to a denomination. Why can’t there be an Allgemeiner Rabbi? Why can’t there be a rabbi who is not Orthodox or Conservative or Reform…she is just a rabbi? Woooo…heresy.

Radical Carlebach minyanim, Berkley style chavurot, gay and lesbian congregations, and many more local weird groupings.

(In Boulder, Colorado I encountered a minyan that went mountain climbing every Shabus morning. When they got to the top they had a short service, some meditation and climbed down. I forgot to ask if the kidush was on top or bottom of the mountain. In Rome I came across a congregation of Libyan Jews that made hakafoth twice, one after the other; once for members who closed their stores before sundown and the second for those who felt the need to keep their shops open until after dark. No one went home until the very end. )

What some see as heresy, others see as the creativity and vitality of American Jewish life. I, myself, don’t have the stomach for Jewish Renewal or for some of the more progressive chavurahs springing up around the country. Neverthess I believe it is important to overcome one’s natural conservative instincts for the sake of religious creativity and free competition. I see Lubavitch as the most distinguished and serious of such groups. They are the best example of a dynamic group of Jews who cannot be contained or easily classified under the traditional denominational structure of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Heretical or not I say more power to them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lubavitch and the Moshiachisten

The case against Lubavitch is straightforward enough. There are sizable groups inside Lubavitch that believe the last and seventh rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is Moshiach (the Messiah). The Rebbe, as they like to call him, died in 1995. At this point the believers, known in Yiddish as the Moshiachisten, split into a bunch of factions….He’s here but invisible, He is roaming the earth and there have been sightings, He’s coming back, He’s somehow connected to the Godhead… I have lost track of the variants. Somehow He died and the chassidim constantly visit the gravesite, BUT He is also alive and still here.

All these views have two fatal flaws…the idea that the Rebbe is Moshiach is cracked, bordering on psychosis, and also deeply heretical. It is not very different from parts of Christian theology. Lubavitch is retracing in a slightly different terminology much of the patristic history of the early church. The church fathers spent half a millennium and two dozen schisms trying to work through the metaphysics of a God who became man. Their collected writings on this topic are close to 500 volumes. It is unsettling almost unbelievable to see Lubavitch go down this same road.

There is also the problem that like the Shia and the neo-Sabbateans of the 18th century Lubavitchers have a tendency to dissimulate their true beliefs. I have had the experience of a Lubavitcher look me straight in the eye and deny he had anything to do with the Moshiachisten, only to discover years later that he is one of the most extreme believers. At this point I just don’t care what any particular Lubavitcher believes. I would conjecture that a consequence of Lubavitch concealing its true beliefs is that these beliefs eventually become permanently obscure. Many Lubavitchers may no longer be certain what they believe. They recite the yechi adonainu catechism and whatever else is required and they get on with their lives. If I were caught up in such a maelstrom I would do the same.

In reading the comments on Lubavitcher blogs I was struck by two things: the high spiritual level (madrega) of the participants, their faith (emunah), their deep knowledge of and interest in chasidus. These guys really care what happened in the chasidic world in the last 250 years, and not just in Lubavitch. They are obsessed with the Vilna Gaon and his decree of excommunication against chasidim. They rattle off deep chasidic ideas at ease. At the same time the pain the Moshiachisten schism is bringing on the entire community is palpable. In many cities they have already split into two with competing schools and shuls. It is so sad to watch such a wonderful community bring itself down. My limited experience with Lubavitcher people is that they are warm, friendly, good people. These are people who ARE the way one would want a chasidish person to BE, warm, serious, committed, intelligent, energetic. Watching a not insubstantial part of the Lubavitch community go off the deep end is painful, even to a total outsider like me.

The Orthodox community has not excommunicated the Lubavitchers, though there were certainly murmurings to that effect , the most notable being the remark of Reb Eliezer Shach , the famed head of Ponovizh Yeshivah. He said if he were younger, he was then in his nineties, he would take it upon himself to drive them out of the Orthodox world. What has happened is that the Orthodox has generally kept their criticism to a minimum, but has allowed Lubavitch to drift out to sea, cut off and isolated. Nothing good comes from the isolation of Lubavitch. There is a tearing of bonds to all other chasidic groups and to the general charedi community. Lubavitch ends up talking to less religious Jews or to the most alienated secular Jews. It is true they were always isolated, even in Russia, but never like this. All other chasidic groups intermarry, thus forming a rich tapestry of family ties across communities. Lubavitch at this point in time can only marry off their children to other Lubavitchers. I feel particularly sorry for the widowed and divorced Lubavitcher baal-teshvas. Charedi and Strict Orthodox Jews in general will not be meshadech (intermarry) with Lubavitch.

I think Lubavitchers delude themselves partially because they are taken in by their own propaganda. I’ve seen Lubavitch literature saying there are a million/two million strong. Well, if you have two million people that also think the Rebbe is Moshiach, it is not so lonely. This misperception is reinforced because wherever a Lubavitcher goes out, to a synagogue, his kid’s schools, a wedding, he only sees other Lubavitchers. I think it’s useful to actually guess the total number of Lubavitchers. In Crown Heights, the 2000 U.S. census says there are 21,600 people in Jewish households. Let’s count them all Lubavitch. People know how many missions Lubavitch has sent all over the world, though I don’t. Let’s say a thousand chabad houses with five Lubavitchers per house for a total of five thousand. Kfar Chabad in Israel, let’s be generous, 20,000 people and rounding off to the nearest ten thousand, there are a total of 50,000 Lubavitchers. Let’s say each Chabad house has 20 congregants who not only daven there but truly ARE Lubavitch. We get a total of 70,000.

How do they come up with a number like a million? I think it’s like this… a Lubavitcher mitzvah- tank sets up shop on some main street, manages to put tefelin on twenty five people a week, and informs 770, the headquarters of Lubavitch, he is attracting 1,400 people to Lubavitch per annum. If a Lubavitcher somewhere in Kratzmichstan rounds up twenty sefardi Jews to come to shul on Shabbus, all twenty count as Lubavitch. If they have a fundraiser, and a thousand people send in checks, a thousand more Lubavitch. If a hundred of these people show up in a Lubavitch shul, another hundred Lubavitch.

I remember when I was young, Lubavitch, in Crown Heights, was almost as large as Satmar. I don’t consider it a great success story if so many years later they have twenty-one thousand. I am guessing many of the baal-teshuvas they are so proud of having evangelized come in the front door and, after a few years, leave. There is no question Lubavitch does good work in many parts of the world, but they are nowhere nearly as influential as they try to project.

To Be Continued…

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Blogger Unorthodoxjew

The blogger Unorthodoxjew (UOJ) has decided to call it quits and taken down his blog from the internet. He will be missed by his hundreds if not thousands of readers. The man exposed child molestation in the Orthodox community and much else. He served, despite his many faults as an ombudsman to the charedi community. After a while the Kolko case turned absolutely bizarre. The affair morphed into something much darker and seedier, if that is possible. In fact, I find some of the latest revelations including the material about Rabbi Belsky and his beth din impossible to believe. There were days the charges and countercharges came at such a fast and furious pace it was impossible to sort it all out. I have spent more hours than I care to admit reading all this gossip, only to end up confused and bewildered. I have this recurring wish/fantasy that the documents are forged, there are no scandals, the rabbis are as perfect as can be.

My basic feeling about the blog is this: If what UOJ said is basically true, even if he made a mistake about some detail or other, he was right to publicize the material no matter what the consequences, even on the internet. People are entitled to know any and all obvious wrongdoings of their leaders. Liberal Jews should know that Orthodoxy is not always pure and holy. If they are not true then what the blogger UOJ did was totally, totally unconscionable. Although I find myself believing much of what UOJ initially said, mostly because I have not seen anyone stand up and show how and where he is mistaken or lying, he has done the entire cause a disservice in going about it in such a half crazed way.

UOJ’s blog did have its share of problems. There were times when he tried to destroy totally the idealization Ultra Orthodox Jews have for the rabbinate. As I have argued more than once, Idealization of the historical rabbinate is the libidinal juice that lubricates the delicate mechanism called Ultra Orthodoxy. Destroy the idealization and everything will change. Every cheeky blogger, including me, is to some extent committed to truth and realism, even when it is unfavorable. Nevertheless, there are responsible limits. I think it is bad public policy to keep on making the rabbinate look bad, unless the story has a specific practical current purpose, such as exposing perverts and their enablers. I would like to give a concrete example of inappropriate badmouthing of a rabbinical figure.

UOJ attacked out of the blue the late Rosh Yeshivah of Baranowicze Reb Elchanan Wasserman z’’l. It had absolutely no relevance to his subject of sexual predators in the Orthodox community. In this game of Monday- morning- quarterbacking UOJ pointed out, I assume for the moment correctly, that Reb Elchanan made a horrible ex-post error in judgment in refusing the American visas that were being offered to his students immediately before the war. There goes Reb Elchanan over a cliff. Tear up his baseball card. I, for one, would want details. Did he tell Mike Tress or whoever offered the visas to tear them up, give them to some other yeshivah or what? Did he say I know I am going to die, but I miss downtown Baranowicze? The actual decision to murder all the Jews was made in 1941. This story must have happened around 1939. Turn it a little one way or the other and it takes on a different flavor.

I think I remember reading somewhere the great leader of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck had the opportunity to leave Berlin, and chose to stay with his community. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943, survived and went on to lead a productive life. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe was in America in the 30’s, returned home, only to return at a later period. Here is Rose Friedman, the wife of Milton, at age 94, in an interview in the WSJ (7/22?). Rose: ''…that is one of the problems. When immigrants come across and want to remain Mexican.''Milton:'Oh, but they came in the past and wanted to be Italian, and be Jewish…''
Rose: “No they didn’t. The ones that did went back.”

There are terrible stories in obscure historical works, sometimes buried in a footnote or appendix, including serious charges against the previous Belzer and Satmar Rebbes. It was a dark time. Some Rabbinical ‘saints’ (tzadikim) acted badly, for which they will be brought to account by history and in heaven. All one needs is to read Gerald Zuriff’s courageous, balanced and well documented book Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States: The Activities of the Vaad Ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee, 1939-1945. The chapter on how the visas to Shanghai were allocated is just horrible and heart breaking. (Also relevant is Mendel Piekarz’s (Heb.) Ideological Trends of Hassidim in Poland during the Interwar Period and the Holocaust.) History is not a secret, and when it comes to scholarship and wissenschaft there can be no a priori restrictions. A scholar must always be free to tell what he believes to be the truth, irrespective of consequences.

The material about Reb Elchanan, assuming it is true, would be appropriate in my opinion in any comprehensive rabbinical history of the period. It should be situated against the context of the times, his worldview and the worldview of his peers and teachers, his total achievements over a lifetime and the legacy he left behind. Was Reb Elchanan unique in this respect? Did every UO rabbi think the same way? Was there a difference between pulpit rabbis and heads of yeshivot? Did the German rabbinate have the same attitudes as the Lithuanian? Did he have the moral right to decide for others without ascertaining their preferences?

My feeling is that to use just this Reb Elchanan story from 65+ years ago in the context of a blog about a child molesters and their enablers is an exercise in malevolence against the leadership as a whole. They don’t deserve it; even if the collective leadership in Brooklyn or Baltimore has been lax in uprooting child molesters in the schools. I am not arguing the story should be repressed. I am saying it should not have been revealed on the UOJ blog.

Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l had an aphorism that went like this “Not everything that you think, do you say. Not everything that you say, do you write down on paper. Not everything you write, do you publish.” I daresay if he were alive today, he would add “Not everything that you publish in historical journals do you put on an internet site dealing with sexual predator rabbis and read by an anxious, vulnerable and somewhat unsophisticated readership.”

There is a need going forward to keep up the work begun by UOJ. Rabbi Yosef Blau has acted courageously and with intelligence in dealing with sexual predators in the Modern Orthodox community. The charedi world needs someone of his stature and gravitas. If the rabbinical leadership forgets about this issue and returns to business as usual, the next time such cases arise they will no longer be the tinok shenishbaw defense ‘’who knew such things happen in our community.’’ Now they know; the ball is in their court.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Pope Screws Up

The Pope got himself into a whole lot of trouble the other day when he said “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Apparently, the Pope believes that Islam is a violent religion spread by force. As if we didn’t know this already.. Anyway, he got as good as he gave, and I don’t feel particularly sorry for him or the Catholic Church. Jews remember very well that when the Church was in power, they didn’t hesitate for a minute, to try to convert Jews forcibly and against their will, the best example being the history of the inquisition in Spain. Nor should we forget that it was the Christian soldiers who tried their luck in four separate Crusades= jihads to regain the Holy Land for their religion. In the process, they managed to massacre many a Jew and Muslim simply for refusing to convert. Although both Islam and Christianity have nothing to be proud of, Islam until the birth of the State of Israel was slightly better to the Jews than Christianity. The story is comical any way you look at it. These Muslims are thin-skinned and are prepared to riot at the slightest insult. They don’t look like a confident evolved religion. They panic whenever there is the slightest debate or criticism. One would think the Pope had published a cartoon in Denmark.

In his speech the Pope also repeated his basic trashing of secularism and modernity. Why is it that the religious always think of secular people as the enemy? I mean, it’s not as if scientists in basements of labs are cursing out the pope while they pursue their thankless task of acquiring knowledge. If one of these secular, godless, scientists came up with a cure for a disease the pope might someday acquire, I’m sure he would line up with everyone else and not be too concerned about its origins. It appears that Christians are afraid of Muslims and the secular, Muslims are afraid of Christians and the secular, while the secular are just secular. The anxiety concerning secular people is odd given that God is on the side of the religious.

I also find totally absurd the attempt by Catholic and other conservatives to take the Pope’s very superficial rant as THE major philosophical statement about jihad and what we are against. Here is my one of my least favorite public intellectuals, Father Richard John Neuhaus making the argument, but the same dribble is everywhere including Brett Stephens in the WSJ and others: ‘’The kernel of the axiom asserted by the Pope is this: To act against reason is to act against the nature of God. Christianity presents itself on the basis of reasonable truth claims that are to be engaged and to be presented as persuasively as possible in a reasonable manner. Along the way he asked the question whether or not there is not a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam. Whether Islam understands God as a god who is disengaged from what we mean by reason. A god who is radically sovereign, radically transcendent and whose will is exactly what he declares his will to be no matter how arbitrary or capricious. That Allah could even command that you worship idols and you would be obliged to worship idols. In the Christian understanding there could be no place in religion, Christian, Islamic or other for the use of violence. This statement will in retrospect be looked back upon as the most important statement by a world figure since 9/11 with regard to what may be the biggest single question facing Western civilization in the next century. And it turns out finally to be a theological and philosophical question about the nature of God.’’

Let me understand….transubstantiation, papal infallibility, the incarnation the resurrection, the trinity…should I go on…are all the marriage of reason and faith, reasonable truth claims, unlike those Muslims who are believers in mere faith and God’s will. Is the cause of jihad the pure monotheism of Islam and rejection of the intellectualism of Aquinas and Averroes for the voluntarism of Ockham and Duns Scotus. Is the rejection of the perennial Catholic philosophy the cause of all the recent troubles? Somehow I doubt it. In the Torah God commanded the genocide of Amalek and the native Canaanite inhabitants of Israel. The Torah is full of God’s arbitrary commandments and His rage at being disobeyed. Somehow over the years Jews have managed to avoid jihad.

I think the Jews acted nicely in this whole affair. The Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter in Arabic criticizing the pope to a leading Sunni scholar in Qatar. "Our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths. Even when there is a struggle between nations" Amar added, "it cannot be turned into a war of religions.” Rabbi Menahem Froman added, “Every Jew who learns the writings of the great sages knows that our great thinkers wrote in the Arabic language, lived in Islamic states and participated with the great Muslim thinkers in the effort to explain the words of God.”

The religious Jewish leadership is groping to find some way to make contact with the Muslims. The other day there was this crackpot scheme approved by Rabbis Yosef and Steinman of reaching a hudna (Arabic for cease-fire) with Hamas. The proposed hudna would be between Hamas and the Jewish people - not with the state of Israel - to circumvent Hamas's refusal to recognize the Zionist entity. The Lebanese war brought the proposal to a premature close.
However, the underlying sentiment is of interest. Rabbi Jakobovits explained it this way, "The Islamic world has deep concerns about the penetration of liberal, secular values and lifestyles into the Middle East. The charedi community understands their sensitivities and mentality and feels threatened by the same phenomena. The charedi community could play a key role in dialogue between the West and Islam because we live in two worlds, one deeply religious and the other liberal and pluralistic. Today in the West the assumption in dealing with Muslim extremism is that moderation and tolerance are the keys. But what the West does not understand is that there is something threatening in that approach, both to the charedi mind and to a deeply Islamic mind. Both charedim and Muslims see multicultural society as an anathema. The West, which has the power, needs to assure Islam that no one is going to try to force a multicultural worldview on them. Otherwise the clash with Islam will only get sharper and sharper.”

Actually, there are two approaches to this situation. The more popular approach is that it is ridiculous to expect the world to go back to medieval times. The Arab-fundamentalists simply have to get with the program. The fundamentalists seem to feel, to quote one commentator, “that if post-medieval progress in the world made their values unworkable, then it was the world’s fault, and the world should be stopped in its tracks. This is a bit like the Flat Earth society resolving to retro-authenticate its views by nuking the earth flat” (Melik Kaylan, WSJ 9/18/06). As with all such 'there is nothing to talk about, no one to talk to' approaches, it sounds great but leads nowhere.

I am not a fan of this tough love approach to Muslims. I think the charedi community is on to something in thinking that there might be some middle way between Western secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. I admit I have no clue how to start a dialogue or use the insights of Orthodox Jewish life in modulating the rawness in Islamic fundamentalism.

I wonder what would happen if President Bush got up one day and said that we as Americans have a lot to learn from Islam about modesty and the proper way to dress. As much as we value freedom, Bush would say, we also value the family and God. Harmless but the sort of thing Muslims might eat up. We teach them, they teach us, etc., etc. He’ll never say it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Rosh Hashana Sermon

There are hundreds of Jewish bloggers. Few if any, me included, talk about deep issues in Jewish thought, ethical or metaphysical or even psychological. Why is that? Why are so many of the blogs either fundamentally unserious or when serious frequently stale and clichéd? At the level of middlebrow culture bloggers are a welcome addition to the Jewish scene. They make every attempt to tell it how it is, and the anonymity of the internet enables them to be spunky and frequently audacious. It is at the level of high culture that bloggers fail to make any headway.

There are tens of thousands of advanced students of Talmud, maybe more than a 100,000 world wide. In Europe there were never more than 12000 – 14000 yeshiva students. There never has been such a quantitative explosion of Torah studies in the history of Judaism, Why are the chidushei Torah, the essays and comments on Talmudic issues, so second rate, so uninteresting. Almost every new sefer (book) of import in Torah studies has been written by someone trained in Europe. The American successors are a lame bunch. Most recent seforim are likutim, anthologies, repackaging older material every which way. Why is that?

Why are there no serious Jewish philosophers inside the Jewish world? There have been some major philosophers in the last century who were Jewish. A few had thoughts on Judaism, but they were essentially outside Jewish life and have virtually no religious Jewish readership. Three examples are Benjamin, Derrida and Levinas, each a major figure that continue to be studied at universities. In the Jewish world most have never heard their names. Few have read their books. And to tell the truth few would have any interest or even be capable of understanding what they were saying. I am not puzzled why these philosophers are unread. I want to know why are there so few home grown major thinkers?

I seem to remember Dr. Chaim Soleveitchik used the word ‘anachronism’ in describing the rebirth of Jewish life in one of the versions of his much discussed essay Rupture and Reconstruction. An anachronism is something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time: The sword is an anachronism in modern warfare. The intuitive idea was that Jewish life was not allowed to develop naturally because of the Holocaust. When it came back after the war, religious Jews attempted to recreate a version of Orthodoxy that was supposed to have existed at an earlier more idyllic time. A composer who would write today in the identical style of Mozart is not a mini Mozart…he’s nothing. So too a culture of Yiddishkeit that makes every effort to be derivative lacks freedom and courage to be itself. The imagined past is always watching. I would go one step further. I am not sure traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora ever developed naturally. Much of traditional life in Europe, though not anachronistic, existed in a ghetto isolated in many areas from events and trends in the larger society outside the ghetto. It never developed in a natural way, i.e. in an environment that was free and open to the new ideas that were circulating in the larger European society.

I do know this….most serious native born American religious Jews are afraid of their own shadow. They are terrified of stepping out, getting ahead of anyone else. The burden of the past weighs so heavily on their shoulders; it crushes much of the generation’s natural creativity. The current generation of Talmudists sees no way other than slavish emulation of their predecessors as a way forward. Their attempt to become like scholars who flourished in earlier centuries and in different milieus means they can’t say anything new, anything interesting. In Harold Bloom’s jargon, the anxiety of influence is so great, we, our generation, cannot produce strong, new thinkers, not in Talmud, not in haskafah and not in philosophy, chasidus or kabbalah. We are a generation of pygmies.

The Torah has seventy faces, facets. Only a few have been developed. So many more remain to be created/revealed/developed. Maybe it’s our fear of the past, of our societies, of being isolated and alone that is holding us back from becoming what we should become. We walk around covering out tracks, afraid we will become the object of derision and gossip. Is it absolutely necessary that for every intellectual baby step, we must find some proof text in a medieval rabbinical source so as to cover our backside? We live in apocalyptic times, (beikvata dimeshicha), in a time when we can already see signs of redemption Maybe it’s our conservative clinging to what we have and know that is holding up the spiritual redemption. It is high time we stopped being so afraid and develop some intellectual courage. The alternative, I am afraid is complacency and mediocrity.

L’shana tova. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Gedolim Are Losing Their Grip

The internet blogs are becoming a subversive element in the Orthodox world. For the first time ordinary people, guys who went to yeshiva for a while and went on to lead non-rabbinical lives are having a chance to talk publicly, bitch, vent and say what’s on their minds. The results are extraordinary.

I read not so long ago the comments on the blog called chatzpem concerning physical violence in yeshivas. Over a hundred people wrote in, furious about being beaten by their teachers in elementary school in the 50’s and 60’s. Everyone is agreed it is not happening today, but apparently back then there was a fair amount of frasking (slapping), paatching and knuckle rapping. Most everyone agreed that horrible as it was, they did grow up, remained in the community and are getting on with their lives.

The significance of all this brouhaha is that now the victims have a voice. They can write for the whole world to see that their 4th grade teacher, Rabbi X that no good such- and- such was an s.o.b, a rashaw, (very, very bad), a- this and a- that. And the sadist if he’s alive, and his family and children, will learn soon enough of the pain he inflicted on young and innocent children. Until now the victims were marginalized and silent. The teachers continued to strut in front of their classrooms while the victims were nursing their wounds in private.

The same thing is happening with pulpit rabbis who beat up on women, and school rabbis who molest their students, the Tendler and Kolko cases being the most spectacular. The public reality is no longer a monopoly of the rabbis with their old boy network and tendency to protect their own. The internet and blogosphere in general, and not just the Jewish section is much less deferential to celebrities than the culture as a whole. The rabbis function to a large extent as the religious version of celebrities.

There is also a shift in power away from the newspapers. The big six, The Jewish Press, Jewish Week, The Forward, Yated, Hamodiah and Der Yid, can no longer control the conversation. As an example, The Jewish Press with it’s over the top inflammatory editorials, (come to think of it, the entire paper is an editorial), was discredited, I’d say demolished by the blogs when the newspaper came to the defense of Tendler and Kolko.

A final example: When Rabbi Eliyashav and Co. banned the Slifkin books on the grounds that evolution is heresy and obviously false, that didn’t end the conversation. It started it. A couple of thousand pages later and they are still talking about Slifkin and the age of the world. (My theory is that bloggers will keep on talking about Slifkin until Jews will become so bored with the topic, there will be a takanah ( a new rule ) that everyone will accept, forbidding anyone ever to mention the name Slifkin ever again.) Twenty years ago when the charedi rabbinical leadership, the gedolim, said X that was it. The conversation was over. Now The Jewish Press is talking about Slifkin. The Rabbis are to some extent losing their stranglehold, in the area of haskafah, (outlook, ideology, dogmatics) and in other areas as well.

We are witnessing a sort of decentralization of power away from the traditional shtetl oligarchy of the important rabbis and the influential rich people. What I think will evolve is more of a triangular distribution of power, the third center being the bloggers and the many people, in principal everyone, who send in their comments or follow the conversation. In any society when there is a movement toward greater democracy, political life becomes messier. A famous argument against true participatory democracy is that attending all the meetings and listening to everyone have their say can drive anyone to drink. Living near Chicago I can certainly see the advantages of machine style efficiency, at least at the local level. In the shtetl called Orthodoxy, life has certainly become more interesting, messier, and louder because of the din and buzz of the internet.

Even though the internet is changing Orthodox political life, the gedolim are too insular and rigid to provide a creative response. They are beginning to wake up to the new realities, and they don’t like what they see. The internet is working for the benefit of Modern Orthodoxy (MO) in their ongoing battle with their Ultra brethren The MO is dominating the internet, with many content filled websites. The same is true for the blogosphere. Most bloggers are MO / YU guys having a conversation with themselves. The first impulse of the UO rabbinate was to ban the internet. It won’t work. Rabbi Matthisyahu and Rabbi Avraham Schorr can talk until they are green; there is no chance to put the genie back into the bottle, even in Lakewood or Flatbush. The internet with its cheekiness, gossip and high spirits is here to stay. If I were Rabbi Schorr, a man who has a deep and powerful Torah outlook but is hysterically opposed to the internet, I would allow someone to transcribe my thoughts to a blog, and try to push the internet conversation towards greater depth and seriousness. I think the future is on the internet and the charedim are missing a huge opportunity.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We Think We Got Tsurus

The more I read about the Middle East, the more depressed I become. Woe unto us. What is going to happen? How does life take such a turn for the worse so quickly? It is going to be a difficult century.

When I look at the greater world, I realize that there are many horrors much worse than anything that has happened in the Middle East, even if we include Iraq. I have read in various newspapers there was an inconclusive election in the Congo which was applauded as a promising move forward. Though the Congolese civil war was supposed to have ended four years ago, the newspapers say the fighting and the chaos continue to kill about 1200 people each day, mostly from hunger and disease. In all, nearly 4 million people have died as a result in the conflict since 1996, almost half of them children under the age of five. Though the Congolese war ended officially in 2002, its legacy of violence will kill twice as many people this year as have died in the entire Darfur conflict which began in 2003. The conflict has been the deadliest for children in the past sixty years. In no other conflict have children borne such a disproportionate degree of the burden. About 30,000 children have been forced into militias while untold thousands of girls have been raped. One in four children in the Congo dies before the age of five because of hunger and disease.

Unlike Darfur, the world has just forgotten this place. The mayhem is a result of a free for all between many different combatants with different acronyms, yet no one has uttered the word genocide. The last time the word genocide was uttered in the context of the Congo was when the 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by their fellow countrymen the Hutus in neighboring Rwanda in the spring of 1994. When the Hutus who carried out the genocide fled to the Congo, the world did not intervene when Rwanda invaded the Congo in pursuit of these Hutus, and with the help of Uganda formed an alliance of pillage and mayhem.

I read the newspaper everyday. I must say that while these four million people were dying, it was not even once on the front page of the newspapers. There was hardly any coverage. I don’t believe the major newspapers and wire services even have a correspondent in the Congo. The Economist and Le Monde occasionally carry a piece from a stringer. The NY Times should stop calling itself ‘the newspaper of record’ and rename itself ‘the newspaper after the fact’. Why are they so cheap? Why are they so cowardly? Now that the horrible war in Northern Uganda is coming to an end, there was yesterday a non- informative story on the front page. Again, after the fact.

Many of the genocides and mass murders of the last century were done when the world was not paying attention. Who knew of Pol Pot and the Cambodian Communists? Who knew Mao was slaughtering millions of people? The same for the Rwanda massacre and now in the Congo. There was a reason Hitler and the Nazis did not publicize their decision to exterminate the Jews. Even in cases where intervention is not feasible, it is criminal to allow these horrible crimes to go unreported as they are happening.

I think there is something to be said for a Wilsonian foreign policy that allocates attention, foreign aid, and if necessary intervention in accordance with the number of people that are dying. If more people are dying in the Congo then in Darfur, we ought to be paying more attention to the Congo. The neo-Conservatives have incorporated elements of high-minded Wilsonian foreign policy, but their criterion for intervention has not been particularly humanitarian. I would think saving millions of lives is more important than promoting democracy. If the Reform Jewish idealist believers in tikkun haolam would form an alliance with the Evangelicals the policy of idealist intervention would have some more political heft. The difficulty is that Evangelicals favor non-governmental small projects; they are reluctant to sponsor government interventions. The tikkun haolam crowd has difficulty focusing on one project; they are so busy telling the world how to solve any and every problem. For an example of engaging in too many tikunim see the vidui, confession of sins in this months Tikkun magazine. I didn’t know so many sins were humanly possible.

Postscript: There is an eye opening article on the Congo in the summer edition of Z, a magazine of the far left. The authors claim that 10 million people have died in the Congo since 1988. If correct we have all lived through a period where far more people died than in the Holocaust, and the world was totally silent. So much for the slogan Never Again. The article has no footnotes, though it does provide names of American corporations that benefited from the looting of the Congo. In principle the claims are verifiable. The article understands the almost universal silence about the Congo as a consequence of the business interests American corporations and others have in exploiting/stealing the mineral wealth. A similar thesis is presented in John Le Carre’s new novel The Mission Song.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Future Wars In the Middle East

I think when we contemplate what’s ahead for all of us in this coming century it is worthwhile looking at what happened in the past century. I found these statistics in an article by Niall Ferguson in the current issue of Foreign Affairs very helpful. Summarizing his already concise discussion, the First World War killed 10 million people plus 9 million that died of influenza as a consequence of the war. World War II came in at 59 million dead. There were sixteen wars throughout the last century where more than a million people died and a further six wars that claimed between half a million to a million. There were fourteen wars that killed between a quarter of a million to half a million. When you add this all up somewhere between 167 and 188 million people died in the twentieth century because of war.

President Bush and many others have argued that there is a causal link between democracy and peace. In fact, this was one of his main rationales for going into Iraq. The reader will remember how he praised Nathan Sharansky’s book The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, where the thesis is developed that democracies tend not to go to war with one another.

There was a rise of democracy throughout the last century but it didn’t seem to stop the number of wars, except between two democratic states. If you exclude the world wars, most of the violence occurred because of civil wars or because of genocidal campaigns against civilian populations. Rwanda and Russia are examples of the first, while Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia are examples of the second. In Iraq we have a little of each. We haven’t heard much lately from Sharansky.

Looking back at the historical record, when imperial empires decline and heterogeneous ethnic groups live next to each other, the probability of war increases. The end of Communism in Yugoslavia led to 200,000 deaths and a million refugees. Sectarian violence after the breakup of the Soviet Union caused 150,000 deaths and 1.5 million refugees in Georgia, Abkhazia and Nagorno –Karabakh. In Tajikistan 50,000 people died violently after the fall of the Soviet empire. (Robert Kaplan ,WSJ, 9/0606).

The United States, in its own clumsy way, has played the role of an imperial power in the Middle East ever since the end of World War II, when the British and French colonial empires collapsed. Our main concerns have always been secure oil supplies and the stability of the Saudi regime on the one hand, and the security of the state of Israel on the other. As of right now, the American empire is in decline in the Middle East. If we knew an honorable way out, we would leave Iraq and allow the Iraqis to fight their civil war and sort things out by themselves. We have no easy solution to the problem of the ascendancy of Iran and its new imperial aspirations. Looking just at the historical record, one would have to conclude the chances of wars in the Middle East into the foreseeable future are high.

The numbers dead on both sides in the various Arab –Israeli wars is much smaller than the casualties of other ethnic strifes. There are two ways of reading this statistic. The first is that the attention the world and Hashem pays to Israel prevents the wars from getting out of hand. The second is that sectarian violence generally produces many deaths. If Israel and the Arabs keep at it, eventually there will be a regression to the mean

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Modern Orthodoxy and Ethnic Cleansing

There was a bit of brouhaha about my post on ethnic cleansing. The issue was whether I had overstated my case in associating American Modern Orthodox Jews with the settlers on the West Bank. The details of the complaints and my acknowledgement of saying something misleading can be found in the comments section of Thursday’s blog.

Yossi Beilin, the leader of the leftwing Meretz party, has called upon attorney general to prosecute Eitam for incitement to racism. Eitam is a reserve brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and former chairman of the National Religious Party. He is even today a charismatic and radical figure in Israeli politics. He left the party in 2005 when moderates tried to recapture control, and went on to join the extremist National Union. Now the two parties have combined, and Eitam is back in business. His words must be taken seriously. The Forward asked several Orthodox leaders to address Effie Eitam’s comments. They went like this:

Rabbi Yosef Blau, president of the Religious Zionists of America, said that Eitam’s view is not the mainstream view and not the view of most Religious Zionists. He went on to say that "Eitam should not be judged by this one incident, since his remarks could have been the result of a heated outburst within the “context of a group of Arab Knesset members going to Syria, at a time when Syria has self-defined itself as an enemy of Israel. I’m not prepared to say, ‘Throw this one out of the Knesset, throw that one out of the Knesset’ every time someone says something’."

I disagree. I think even if he said it in an outburst of anger, he should be minimally asked to retract his comment and say that it was a result of anger. If he’s not prepared to do so, then he stands by them and consequences should follow.

The Forward then turned to Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University. He also offered criticism, while cautioning against a rush to sanction Eitam. “I can understand what drives General Eitam, but I do not at all concur with his conclusions. Israel prides itself as being the only true democracy in the Middle East, and that is an asset, as well as a moral obligation, that I would not want to forfeit. At the same time, I would not go to the other extreme, and charge him with racism, because what bothers him are national groups that are presumably disloyal to the state, not ethnic or religious groups. It is therefore wrong in my opinion to persecute and prosecute General Eitam — but it is important to dissociate ourselves from this dangerous policy.”

How does anyone know the Arabs, not individuals but the group as a whole, are disloyal? Have they committed multiple acts of treason, in which case they should be prosecuted? Has Rabbi Lamm conducted a survey and would he know what they really believe if they answered the survey? If they said they were loyal would he believe them? If they said they want a bi-national state are they automatically a fifth column? Shouldn’t the burden be on Effie Eitam to prove disloyalty, and not assume it, since he’s ready to kick them out? Eitam described Arab Knesset members as “a fifth column, a league of traitors of the first rank.” If he can prove it, he should bring charges; if he can’t, he should shut up, or so it seems to me.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, the ritzy congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a senior member of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate said “I think he points to a very serious problem for the State of Israel, and I don’t know what the solution to that problem is. I think you have a very large percentage of the citizens of Israel who are not loyal to the state but rather to the sworn enemies of the state, but I don’t know how to solve that problem.”

Perhaps Rabbi Lookstein should consider such measures as equal opportunity for Israeli-Arabs, equal per capita expenditure of state funds to municipalities irrespective of ethnicity and recruiting more than token Israeli-Arabs for prominent positions in the media and in government. It might help. Maybe God forfend a little affirmative action. When people have a larger stake in a system, they are more inclined to support it enthusiastically.

Rabbi Basil Herring of the Rabbinical Council of America said he could not provide a complete reply until he’d consulted his board. “What I can certainly tell you now,” he said, “is that we will not endorse those statements.” It is comforting to know that the RCA will not endorse Effie Eitam’s position. I’m not quite sure what else Rabbi Herring has to find out from his board before he can condemn the remarks.

The ADL and the AJC, liberal American Jewish organizations, said what I believe is the right position. “Calls by public figures to ban minorities and expel them from their homes are abhorrent. These are irresponsible statements advocating collective measures that the ADL totally rejects.”

What I want to know is why we’re supposed to be empathic and understand where Eitam is coming from, and why we should not rush to judgment? Why all the hemming and hawing, on the one hand-on the other hand, unless what Eitam said reverberates, at least to some extent, with the leadership of Modern Orthodoxy. It is possible that Ultra Orthodox leaders would have said the same, though I doubt it. They may agree with Eitam but he’s not one of them and they wouldn’t expend any energy to help him out. It is also true that there are Modern Orthodox Jews who would not hesitate to bring charges of incitement against Eitam. My point today is a narrow one. In my opinion the responses of these prominent Modern Orthodox leaders was tepid and inadequate.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Orthodoxy and the Housing Market

My title reminds me of the well-known joke about ‘Elephants and the Jewish problem.’ Nevertheless, the connection between real estate and Orthodoxy is not far-fetched at all. In fact, I’m going to argue that the most important event in the last year for Orthodox Jewry has been the decline in housing prices around the country.

As everyone who has not been asleep for the last thirty years knows, housing prices have had an incredible surge, and have been one of the best investments anyone could have made during the period. People have been saying for quite sometime that real estate is a “bubble” and will eventually burst. I think it was sometime before my bar mitzvah when I first heard this remark and I’ve been waiting ever since. It looks like this time it might be for real.

The best evidence is what the housing stocks are doing. To use a technical term from stock market analysis, they are all in “drerd.” The declines have been greater than fifty percent in every housing stock on the big board, and only a brave man would say there isn’t going to be another twenty percent decline in the coming year. Many of these stocks are even trading below book value, which they are wont to do during severe declines in housing activity. Housing starts are down, the inventory of unsold existing homes is at a thirteen year high, and builders’ confidence is at a fifteen year low.

The optimists think it will be a “soft landing.” The pessimists think it will be a bust. Many people bought houses as investment properties speculating that the price will keep on going up. Now that the market has turned many are trying to get out with a profit, however small. Others panicked and bought homes they couldn’t afford because they were worried they would be priced out of the market. It’s important to recognize the market has turned without a major increase of interest rates. Those of us old enough can remember the days under Jimmy Carter when Fed Funds were over 13+ percent. A five percent rate on Treasury notes is not very high by recent historical standards.

The soft landing people are not worried by the fact that housing prices are 3.8 times median income, which is quite high by historical standards. They say since mortgage rates are low, the real cost of owning homes has not increased that much. Basic to the soft landing view are two big ifs, interest rates will remain stable at this level and there won’t be a recession. The bust people think that all it would take for a big increase in interest rates is for foreign investors to cut down on their purchases of Treasury paper. Second, if the housing market continues to decline, there is every chance of a recession since housing plays such a big role in our economy. If there is a recession, housing demand will soften and marginal owners will be incapable of making their mortgage payments. I could go and talk about the role of ARMs , the cashing out of equity via home improvement loans, the role of subprime lenders and much more….but none of these wrinkles changes the basic possibilities.

If it is a bust, it’s not going to be over in a short period of time. It will take a couple of years for the market to begin going up again. The prices that will go down the most are presumably the prices of homes that have gone up the most. So if you live in South Dakota, you’re in pretty good shape. However, if you live in New York, Florida, or in California, where prices have more than doubled in the past five years, it is reasonable to expect a more serious decline. All of this is good news for Orthodox Jews. They are “long children, short houses”…they have as a family unit many more young children who have yet to buy a home relative to the rest of the population. Liberal Jews being on average older with fewer children can be said to be ‘’long houses, short children’’. A decline of $100,000 in a home saves a person, say, $120,000 on interest plus the principal plus the extra money that he can now earn elsewhere. It’s a tidy quarter of a million dollars, or more… times four children is a million dollars. In the last year, most Orthodox families became wealthier by a million dollars, even if they can’t bank it.

I think it’s important for every person who is in the market for homes for themselves or their children to form a considered judgment as to whether housing prices are going to stabilize in the next year or two or continue to go south. One good way to start is to pick a town or neighborhood of choice and begin observing the changes in the number of ‘For Sale’ signs. The situation in heavily Orthodox areas is more complex. Here there is such an unsatisfied demand for homes because of the extraordinarily large increase in the frum population; buyers might be willing to pay up even during a general housing decline. It is a much harder call. Despite this caveat Orthodox families can still reap major benefits in newer and up and coming Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. (Like Evanston. LOL.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ethnic Cleansing

I believe a underlying subtext in the ''There is no one to talk to'' line is ethnic cleansing. Effie Eitam, the former head of the NRP and an honest, blunt politician came right out and said it on Tuesday. '' We cannot be with all these Arabs, we'll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from the political system.'' Avigdor Lieberman a much smarter man and the head of a major right wing mostly Russian party talks of rearranging and rationalizing the boundaries. I hear a wink- wink in Lieberman’s rearranging of the human furniture. Maybe I am overly sensitive. On the internet blogs there is the refrain ''America and Spain did it to the Indians, Germany, Russia, Poland and the Ukraine did their share of forcing unacceptable ethnicities to leave, so why can’t we?" Nebech. Poor us. It must be the world’s anti Semites ganging up on Israel.

Modern Orthodox criticize the charedim for blindly obeying the rabbis, i.e. the Daas Torah doctrine I discussed on 8/13. They never say a word of criticism of the mostly Modern Orthodox settlers, who slavishly follow the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (1864-1935)and his even more radicalized son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982). A charedi guy is a fanatic …his rabbi says bugs in the lettuce and he scrubs away…the rabbi says cover your woman’s hair, he plops a sheitl on her head. The Modern Orthodox settlers are enlightened, college educated, derawchehaw darkei noam, (immersed in the ways of gentility and moderation). They are merely ready to fight in perpetuity for Eretz Yisrael hashelamaw, the whole land of Israel. As Malcolm Hoenlein, the President of the Conference of the American Jewish Organizations put it earlier this year ''an Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates.'' He exaggerated. He should have said an Israel from the Sinai to the Jordan. We’re not talking about Monsey glatt kosher; we’re talking endless wars with all that such wars entail. I ask you, who is the moderate, who is the fanatic?

The occupation even when combined with the forced removal of Arabs is not genocide. It is not a holocaust. The Jews had the bad luck they were not ethnically cleansed. If Hitler had simply rounded up all the Jews and dumped them somewhere, our ancestors would still be alive. There never would have been a holocaust.

What is possible in one century is not possible in another. During the great age of exploration, and then during the period when Europe and America acquired colonies and became imperialistic powers, the standards of international law were non existent. There was no law of nations, no Geneva conventions. Entire countries belonged to an individual, as was the case of the Congo and King Leopold. No one said a word. He slaughtered to his hearts content. These days it’s becoming more difficult to be a mass murderer. Some nations still get away with it. Sudan in Darfur is an example. There are others. Israel kills less than two thousand Lebanese inadvertently, and the world gets hot and bothered. I agree there is a double standard at work. If Israel tried exporting Arabs all hell will break loose.

These days ethnic cleansing is not for wusses. You need to have an authoritarian personality, somebody like Lieberman. His measure of possibility is the post-Stalin KGB. He walks around shocked how people can worry about civil rights of criminals and terrorists. The same holds true for many of the tough guys on the Israeli right. They think it’s the self hating leftists, with all their litigation on behalf of the Arabs, and their constant chatter about rights that are the problem; and of course the whole world. The people of the world are a bunch of anti-Semites, so it’s understandable. It’s the Beilins of the world and the Shulamit Alonis and Yossi Sarids and those Reform Rabbis in Israel and America. These elitist softy lefties are preventing Israel from doing what needs to be done. The leftists, boogeymen that they are, even got to Sharon.

I was having dinner the other week with a Modern Orthodox couple who make their home on the West Bank. The Mrs. says to me with a twinkle in her eye…''If you want to know how evil Sharon is, (for pulling the settlements out of Gaza), I’ll tell you. Sharon is sooo evil, even the malach hamawveth, the angel of death won’t have him.'' Cute, funny and a bit frightening.

A Shabbus meal, two left wing and six right wing people:
What is to be done? Woe unto us. The matzav (situation) is terrible…
What about talking with the Palestinians?
Are you nuts…with whom…how can you trust Hamas, Iran…They want to murder us...Do you remember Oslo …we gave them…and they…and we offered... and they respond with terrorism, suicide bombers...It’s liberals like you …We should take every Arab and *#@!...

OK, no talking …So what is your plan? (Long silence)
We need bitachon, trust in Hashem (God). Without emunah, faith, we are goners…

So why can’t we have bitachon and emunah in Hashem and negotiate?
Are you nuts…how can you trust Hamas, Iran…etc?

I say it’s not the tiny Israeli left that is the problem but the leftist inside everyone’s minds and hearts. In the most radical Kahanist there is still a residual of humanism and compassion that says ethnic cleansing is not the way to go.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

There Is No One To Talk To

It all depends how the dialogue starts. If we begin in the standard way, we will fight forever. The standard way goes like this:

Israel lives in the Middle East. In the Middle East they understand only force. The proof the Arabs understand only force is there is no one to talk to. There is no one to talk to because the Palestinians have no interest in negotiating a settlement, and because the ones you could have talked to have all been killed or muted by their radicals. Hamas and Hezbollah are our enemies. All they want is to kill us and drive us into the sea. The only way to respond to a group who is only interested in killing us is by killing them first or by killing a sufficient number so that they will be afraid to start any hostile activities. If the Palestinians keep on fighting it is because we have not used sufficient force. What can’t be achieved by force will be achieved by more force. If after all these wars the situation with the Palestinians continues to deteriorate it is because we have been much too gentle and much too kind. It indicates we must get tougher and apply harsher measures, because in the Middle East they understand only force…

There is an alternative way to start the thinking process: If Israel had signed a peace treaty with Syria and returned the Golan we would also have peace with Lebanon. It would also have isolated Iran. We didn’t sign a peace treaty with Syria for one reason. We wanted to keep the Golan.

Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service and a cabinet member from Kadima recently said, "In return for a true peace with Syria or with Lebanon, I think that what we did with Egypt and with Jordan is legitimate here as well." Dichter said that meant a return of the Golan in return for a full peace with Syria. A Syrian legislator Suleiman Haddad said “If Israel really wants peace with Syria it has to endorse openly the land-for-peace principle. Then there would be no problem." Olmert said in response to Dichter "When Syria stops support for terror, when it stops giving missiles to terror organizations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them." Olmert called Syria the "single most aggressive member of the axis of evil." "I am the last person who will say I want to negotiate with Syria." There have been no hostilities with Syria for 30 years. I assume Syria will support terrorists until the negotiations with Israel are concluded. If we won’t start talking until they stop supporting Hezbollah we will never negotiate. We can keep the Golan indefinitely, but we are then back to the ‘’there is no one to talk to’’ and a Lebanese War every couple of years.

We occupy the West Bank for one reason. We want to maintain the settlements. Without an occupation the Palestinian resistance would be significantly diminished. The reason the Palestinians in Gaza continue to fight, even though we just evacuated the settlements in Gaza, is that the West Bank and Gaza are considered by them and the whole world to be one unit that will in time be the Palestinian state. Although Gaza has been returned, the occupation of the West Bank continues. The kassam rockets come from Gaza and not the West Bank because Israel occupies the West Bank and the Palestinians lack the ability to produce and fire these weapons while being occupied.

It took 3- 4 men a couple of hours to go to war. It takes forever to restart negotiations. Why? The honest answer in my opinion is this: Israel is not going back to the 1967 border because it wants to retain the settlements and the Golan. Given Israel’s decision and the refusal of the Palestinians and Syrians to accept this outcome, there is no one to talk to. The Palestinians and Syrians also can and do say with some justification ‘’There is no one to talk to. The Israelis will never give up the Golan and the occupation.”

I understand that most everyone has a strong opinion on this topic. I also recognize that those who favor negotiations are in the minority. As I understand the position of the majority it is better to retain the West Bank and fight in perpetuity than to compromise and negotiate an agreement, because even if they were willing for a moment to think of a two state solution there is no one to talk to…. So the whole idea of negotiations can be pushed aside. We keep on wondering why most of the world is so anti-Semitic, why life is so uncertain, why we must continue to fight.

Since 1967 Israel has refused to say in advance what it will accept as its borders in a final settlement, because why should they, there is no one to talk to. I would say there is always someone to talk to….announce you are willing to return to the 1967 borders with appropriate adjustments and appeal directly to the Palestinian people to negotiate. Sit back and see what happens. If nothing happens, go to sleep, get up the next morning and try again. I fail to see how there can be a bad time to talk of peace. We have had 14,000 days since the occupation to make a deal. Was there never anyone to talk to?

Israel might try acknowledging they made some mistakes in the occupation. The mere acknowledgement of errors would go a long way to dampen the rage of the Palestinians. They are angry because of what has happened to them since 1947, but raging because no one acknowledges their grievance. Israel cannot possibly satisfy all their demands. It can acknowledge they are hurting. It costs Israel nothing.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Poverty and the Occupation

In yesterday’s blog, I discussed the effect of the occupation on Diaspora Jewry. Today I want to consider another side effect of the occupation. Each of these arguments may not be conclusive, but when you add them up they indicate why it is so important to try to arrive at an agreement with the Palestinians.

Dollars, or rather shekels, are fungible. A dollar you spend on one project, you can’t spend on another. It is because of this reason that all assurances Israel gives to America that it will not use the 3 billion dollars of aid to establish new settlements are meaningless. There’s one budget, and if America gives 3 billion dollars to Israel there’s an additional 3 billion dollars to be spent elsewhere, including the settlements.

In the past year 100,000 Israelis joined the ranks of the poor, more than half of them children. The number of children living under the poverty line is 35.2 percent of all Israeli children, 1,630,500 children in all. The number of poor families increased to 20.6 percent of all families. (As an aside, poverty is highest in Jerusalem where 56 percent of the children and 42 percent of all the residents were poor.) All this happened despite the general improvement in the economy.

Defense Minister Peretz, can say again and again the increased demands of the military establishments will not come at the expense of the resources needed to alleviate poverty. His reassurances are not convincing. The military needs big bucks to replace equipment used in the war, to provide better training and preparation for IDF for the next war, for new reinforced tanks and much more. Israel cannot rest until it finds some method of neutralizing the Hezbollah missiles. The next generation will reach Tel-Aviv and Israel cannot allow that. There is no guarantee that in war, chemical and biological warheads will not be used. Which Prime Minister will be able to deny the IDF the funds needed to mount a successful defense? I think it’s safe to say that as long as the Israeli –Palestinian conflict goes on poverty will keep on increasing.

Suppose there was a mutual agreement to the Arab-Israeli conflict along the lines of Taba or the Saudi proposal such that there would be no more wars. Just suppose… what the Germans call a gedanken experiment. Israel would be in a position to significantly reduce its defense budget. It would also be able to shift the funds that are used to build the endless infrastructure of the West Bank to other areas. As a result of these savings, let’s imagine, poverty can be reduced by twenty percent. The price would be Arab sovereignty in East Jerusalem, a contiguous Arab state and the loss of the Golan, etc. My intuition is that the settlers would prefer to hold on to the territories rather than give them up and reduce poverty.

I say the settlers are idealistic, sincere and selfish. They care for no one but themselves. They don’t care about the effect of endless wars on Israeli society. They don’t care about the worldwide growth of anti-Semitism. They care about Chevron and Tapuach.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why Europe Hates Israel ?

Most polls show that Europeans sympathize with the Palestinians much more than with Israel, especially in Britain, Spain and France.

The Economist (8/19/06) lists some of the reasons.

Europe has a growing and disgruntled Muslim population. The ruling classes and the media feel it is important to be “even-handed” and not to upset a particularly sensitive minority.

European anti-Semitism is certainly a contributing factor. The Muslim population has more than its fair share of anti-Semitism. And as we all know, Europe has had a long and disastrous flirtation with anti-Semitism. Against this idea is the somewhat shaky distinction being anti-Semitic and being anti-Israel. Even when it is conceded that in this context the two come to the same thing there is polling data showing that in Central Europe, there seems to be more anti-Semitism and more support for Israel. In fact the political right in Europe, which was linked to anti-Semitism in the past, is now more supportive of Israel. In England, the conservative party which had its share of genteel anti-Semitism for many years, is now more supportive than the Labor party. In Italy the Berlusconi’s right-wing party and the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance are more pro-Israel than the left. In Spain the Socialist prime minister wore an Arab headscarf during the Lebanese war and was criticized by the center right opposition.

The left at this point is very anti-American and their extreme hatred of Bush and his policies has spilled over to Israel. As Israel has grown closer and closer to America, the country has come to embody everything the Europeans are opposed to. Europeans think of Israel as standing for war, nationalism, and conflict, while the E.U. has graduated to the more noble ideas of love, peace, and federalism.

The left now controls most of the E.U. governments and much of the media. Initially, in the fifties, the left saw anti-Semitism and fascism as the products of the right so they were pro-Israel. After ’67, Israel came to be seen as a neo-colonial superpower and the Palestinians were viewed as the oppressed and displaced. Forty years of Israeli arguments to the contrary (hasbara) has had only negative effects.

The growing anti-Semitism around the world ,in my opinion must be addressed or it will grow even stronger. Europe is a home to many Jews(close to 2 million) and a place almost all Jews want to visit. It would be terrible if European anti-Semitic and anti- Israel feelings kept on growing to a point where the Jews would be forced to leave, or to a point where no Jew will feel safe walking the streets. If America is hated by the Europeans it is an inconvenience. If the Jews are hated the cost is considerably higher. Our world will shrink to Israel, America and a few English speaking countries. In calculating the cost vs. the benefits of the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan we should also not forget to include the effect of the occupation on anti-Semitism around the world. A world where there is peace between the Israelis, the Syrians and the Palestinians would not eliminate anti-Semitism. It would take the Arab-Israeli conflict off the front page and eliminate much of the purported grounds for anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli feelings. If the Palestinians and Israelis found an acceptable compromise, Israel would no longer be the poster boy in the clash between radical Islam and the West. I think it would help dampen the anti-Semitism of the European left.

The World Jewish Congress released a statement on 8/29. It said in part “It appears that a drastic deterioration has occurred in the security of dozens of small Jewish communities around the world. Additionally, heads of Jewish communities have recently alerted us to a new wave of anti-Semitic incidents around the world, making it apparent that many Jews feel insecure, isolated and abandoned” ‘’The situation in the Middle East is not just Israel's problem, but it reflects small Jewish communities all around the world," Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress Policy Council, said.

There are 240,000 Jews living on the West Bank. There are 8 million Jews living in the Diaspora; at least 2.5 million are vulnerable to anti- Semitism. Singer is making in an oblique and diplomatic way the exact same point I was presenting in the last paragraph. I am pleased to see the WJC is standing up for the interests of Diaspora Jewry.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Life After Bush

Israeli officials recently expressed some concern that a Democratic Party less sympathetic to Israel will win theCongressional elections and the Presidential elections to come. Haaretz is saying the obvious when they noted that the disappointment with President Bush and the hostility toward him have strengthened the influence in the Democratic Party of groups among whom Israel is not popular.

Zbigniew Brzezinski delivered a paper this past summer that does confirm these fears. The reader will remember Brzezinski was Carter’s National Security Adviser. He is a critic of Israel along the lines of Jimmy Carter. I think his position is a close approximation of what American Middle East policy might look like if AIPAC and the Evangelical Protestants didn’t exist. Here are some highlights:

‘’The experience of recent times teaches us that neither Israel nor the United States in the final analysis have the capacity to impose a unilateral solution on the Middle East. Only neo-cons think that either the United States or Israel can impose a solution.

I do not see Israel being able to change the mindset of the peoples involved and particularly not by use of force. Use of force can achieve certain short-term objectives; perhaps even today in Lebanon Israel might achieve some modest success in interdicting some Hezbollah military capability. But use of force breeds its own antithesis: the mobilization of deeper resistance, the radicalization of those around you, and a growing sense of outrage and determination to survive.

The difficulty in resolving the Middle East crisis is increasing rather than decreasing and that the hostility is hardening. The number of moderates is diminishing, and the prospects for protracted violence is growing,

The parties that are fighting now in the Middle East, particularly the Israelis and the Palestinians can never resolve their conflict peacefully, no matter how much they try, no matter how sincere they may be. And when they are sincere, unfortunately it is not synchronized to the sincerity of the other side, and more often than not, one or the other is not sincere. Quite often, neither is sincere. As a result, there has been no peace in the Middle East.

The solution can only come if there is a serious international involvement that supports the moderates from both sides. That means a deliberate peace effort led by the United States, which defines openly in a semi-binding fashion how the United States and the international community envisage, the outlines of the accommodation. In short, the kind of adoption of the Geneva Accords or the Taba formulations or some of the formulations by Clinton at Camp David, accompanied by very explicit indication that rejection by the Palestinian side will gravely affect our degree of support and acceptance for the Palestinian regime and exactly the same vis-à-vis Israel.

If we’re not prepared to do that, then we might as well kiss the prospects for peace goodbye. Right now every indication is that we’re not prepared to do that. Worse than that, we have abandoned our traditional position from being a mediator and have adopted a policy of almost complete partiality and that contributes to the intensity of the conflict.’’

In 2001 at Taba a solution was almost reached that provided for two-states, with the Palestinians receiving a workable state not truncated or walled-in. The Palestinians would give up the right of return to Israel, recognize Israel explicitly and condemn terrorism unequivocally. What Brezinsky is hinting at when he says that our degree of support and acceptance of Israel will depend on Israel accepting these plans is this: If Israel rejects the plan the U.S. would continue to support Israel’s existence, but no longer act as if Israel’s interests and U.S. interests are identical. It would end its military and economic support of Israel. While I understand the potential leverage America has on Israel, I do not understand what leverage we have with Hamas. We do not give them any support or recognition today. How can we give them any less? On the other hand I would think the Palestinians even under a Hamas régime would be tempted to sign such an agreement, since it would end the occupation and give them a state. Israel is the party that would be most likely to resist.

Many presidents would have liked to impose a settlement, certainly Bush1, Carter and Clinton, but were held back by domestic political pressure, primarily the Evangelical Christians, the Jewish vote and AIPAC. Brzezinski’s views are held by many left of center Democrats. Stanley Hoffman, a respected Jewish foreign policy academic made the exact same proposal in a recent issue of New York Review of Books. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in late July showed a large gap between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to support for Israel. The poll showed that among Republicans an overwhelming 84% say they sympathize more with Israel (1% sympathize more with Arab states); by comparison, just 43% of Democrats do so (12% sympathize more with Arab states). Many feel Jewish neo-cons working in Israel’s interest were the determining factor in our going to war in Iraq. The emergence of a newly energized left wing of the Democratic Party as evidenced by Lieberman’s loss in the primaries is not good for Israel.

The Republicans are being held back primarily by their major constituency, the Christian right. The Democrats don’t have to worry about these Evangelicals since whatever they do they will not get their vote. The most likely way a a Taba type plan will be imposed on Israel and the Palestinians is after the election in ’08 and a Democratic victory. I would hazard a guess that 40-60 percent of American Jewry is liberal, anti neo-conservative, anti Likud and anti occupation. At least 80 percent are anti Bush. It is difficult to imagine a President friendlier to Israeli settlement on the West Bank than Bush2.

I would think the best time to negotiate a deal is while Bush is still around and American policy is so very supportive. The next administration even if it is Republican will not be as friendly.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Israeli Politics After Lebanon

Initially after the war everyone said the Israeli government will fall. The recriminations and blame were almost endless. Let us list just some of the accusations.

Hezbollah will not be kept out of the south and will not disarm .There is no effective mechanism to stop the flow of arms from Iran via Syria. The kidnapped prisoners have not been released. Our deterrence capabilities have been degraded.

The war was poorly prepared, the equipment was sub-standard, and the food and water supplies for the soldiers were inadequate. There was a shortage of ammunition that required an airlift from America.Most of the soldiers lacked proper training. 160 Israelis -one quarter of them civilians-died in the fighting.

The politicians held back for several days crippling the final push to the Litani. The reserves were not called up right away.The chief of staff, mistakenly believing that Hezbollah could be knocked out from the air, discovered too late that ground troops would be needed.

Military intelligence was inadequate. Not enough was known about the weapons or the bunkers. There was no anticipation that the Iranian anti tank missiles could penetrate the Israeli tanks. It appears that in the area of electronic warfare, the enemy was superior, which is really frightening.

Although the defense budget grew from 2002 to 2005 it didn’t grow enough and in any case the money was misspent by the generals.

Israel was attacked by 4000 Hezbollah rockets. Half a million citizens became refuges or were forced into bomb shelters. The bomb shelters were dilapidated. The emergency supplies for the north were inadequate. There were serious failures in everything related to the home front.

The Israeli politicians did not realize that the air strikes that destroyed the Lebanese infrastructure would cause the Lebanese people of all religions to focus their anger on Israel and not Hezbollah. Olmert and his advisers thought the Lebanese would turn on Nasrallah and Hezbollah.

Who is to blame? Take your pick…Olmert, Peretz, Halutz…there is more than enough incompetence to go around. They repeatedly made decisions which cost the lives of soldiers and civilians. Their biggest sin was that the initial decision to go into battle stemmed from inexperience, an aroused feeling of honor and machismo and an inability to look one step ahead. My guess it that Olmert and Co. will try to put much of the blame on the Americans… Condoleeza made me do it.

The major military lesson of the war is that a strategy that relies mostly on air power, a bad idea Israel imported from the U.S. cannot win a war against guerrillas. It remains to be seen if Israel will have the determination to increase its ground forces, and keep them properly equipped and trained. It is always politically easier to buy another weapons system.

The real political problem is that it is will take time for serious political alternatives to develop. The aftershock of the war has not set in, and it remains unclear what are the political lessons to be learnt from this defeat. Assuming that the convergence plan is dead at least for the immediate future, the Kadima party must create some more general ideology. Are they Likud light, Labor plus? In general what is the ideology of a centrist party in the present circumstances? Peretz , the head of the Labor party and the defense minister is on his way out. There are more than enough Labor Party ex-generals who will challenge his leadership at the next opportunity. Meretz is also in disarray, having split over the war. The left has to regroup and work out its position on the Iranian threat. Even Netanyahu’s Likud with its message of being even tougher on Hamas rings a bit hollow. Over 200 Palestinians have been killed in this last campaign. Hopefully it will yield some results.

There are no outstanding candidates in any of the parties. An election at this sensitive time might very well bring about a renewal of the right and far right. The anger at the conduct of the war should benefit the Likud and the far right party of Avigdor Lieberman perhaps significantly. Shas, having stayed loyal to the agenda of social welfare might pick up some votes. The religious parties might gain a seat ….maybe the Pensioner party would lose a seat or two, since they have not said a word of any import since the election. The big losers should be Labor and Kadima. The end result will be a more divided Knesset with a weakened center. I know many people will say a Netanyahu –Lieberman combo makes sense at a time of national humiliation. Those of us who believe in a social democratic Israel find a government of Likud and Israel- Is- Our- Home a bitter pill. My sense of the situation is that a majority of the Knesset would rather stick with the incompetents they know than stir the polity with a new election in the hope of finding a better government.

Tzipi Halivni, the foreign minister was not in the inner circle of geniuses who went to war after Nasrallah issued his challenge. If she would present some credible new ideas she would be a formidable challenge within Kadima to Olmert. The biggest criticism of her current performance is that she lacks a network of influential friends in the current administration. Other critics argue she was not sufficiently active during the war in presenting Israeli’s position to the various foreign chancelleries. She obviously needs some more experience.

A woman prime minister would be of great public relations value in Israel’s fight with its enemies. Israel was considered the underdog until the 1967 war. Ever since then Israel is considered by many a neo-colonial superpower while the Palestinians are the oppressed and displaced. A woman prime minister would tend to soften this image. A second benefit is that a woman Prime Minister might even help everyone, Palestinian and Israeli, Arabs and Jews to climb down from their self defeating macho cum honor posturing. It might be harder to pick a fight with a woman called Tzipi.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mathematics vs. Talmud

Grigory Perelman, the man who solved one of the seven most difficult mathematics problems in the world, is such an other-worldly character that he actually refused the Field Prize, which in the eyes of many, is even more prestigious than the Nobel Prize. Dr. Perelman, 40, has declined previous mathematical prizes and has spurned offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities.

Dr Perelman resigned from his academic position, perhaps because of anti Semitism. He lives with his mother. Apparently he does not want to emigrate. Even more remarkable is the fact that he has shown no interest in pursuing the $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute is offering to anyone who solves the Poincare conjecture. All that would be required is for him to publish his results in a recognized journal, and show up at an award ceremony. Having finally solved the problem after more than 10 years' work, he posted his conclusion on the internet, rather than publishing his explanation in a recognized journal. "If anybody is interested in my way of solving the problem, it's all there - let them go and read about it," said Dr Perelman. "I have published all my calculations. This is what I can offer the public." Interviewed in St Petersburg last week, Dr Perelman insisted that he was unworthy of all the attention, and was uninterested in his windfall. "I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest," he said. "I am not saying that because I value my privacy or that I am doing anything I want to hide. I just believe the public has no interest in me.” He continued: "I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing.”

I am convinced that, although he lives IN this world, he really is not OF this world, but resides in some higher realm where us mortals cannot enter. I don’t think such an idea is particularly mystical. If one takes a Platonist line on the reality of mathematics, there is no reason why such a transcendental world must be equally available to everyone. Maybe great mathematicians are like idiot savants that can calculate calendars into perpetuity or factor the primes of very large numbers in their heads.

There has been a long discussion over at DovBear on the relative merits of advanced Talmudic study and Mathematics. The issue became confused right from the start because it was conflated with a second and independent question whether Torah study has any practical value. So after endless comments, the Philistine question “What do you do with Torah?” is still raging. My response to that question is Torah study need not have any practical value. No different than art for arts sake, or pure mathematics for mathematics sake. The purpose of Torah is more Torah. Jews are Torah’s way of creating more Torah.

The more interesting question is how does one compare the greatness of a Perelman with the greatness of accomplished Talmudic scholars? The consensus of the DovBear crowd seems to be that the scholars are clearly inferior. I both agree and disagree. My view is that mathematics at the level of Perelman is much more difficult than any individual problem in Talmud. Most, if not all Talmud scholars, would fail to get anywhere close to the mathematical depth required to solve such world class problems. Talmud people would like to believe that if they turned their full attention to the arts and sciences they would be enormously successful. The view is a conceit based on ignorance and narcissism.

There are different kinds of intellectual power. Talmud requires an enormous scope over a large literature; it requires certain strength of character, and a different kind of creativity. I would say not only Talmudists but almost every great philosopher would not get close to solving Poincare’s conjecture. But who was greater, Plato, Kant, Nietzsche to name just three or Perelman, Wiles (of Fermat’s Last Theorem fame), etc? In my mind, Plato and the other great philosophers are far greater in intellectual creativity than any mathematician, even though they are incapable of doing what mathematicians do. In the same way, great Talmudist /Rabbis are just greater people all around; they are humanly deeper and have a more comprehensive vision. They frequently are first rate politicians and leaders.