in defense of jewish universalism and liberalism – a rampage

This past week I was assaulted twice by attacks on Jewish Utopianism.  I am not blameless.  I choose to expose myself to briefings and podcasts that run the gamut of Jewish and political thought, but I was nonetheless taken aback by a similar message from disparate sources all on the same day.

Daniel Gordis, during an AIPAC briefing and latter in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed [i] argued that the problem with Europe, the EU, The Left, our college youth and/or Conservative and Reform Rabbinic students (pick any or all of the above) is that they have missed or forgotten the core message of Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel.  Gordis is actually coming out with a book in August; The Promise of Israel (I have not read but see pre-publication review here). According to Gordis, these misguided leftists believe in a utopian universalism best optimized by John Lennon in his anthem “Imagine”.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Gordis is not original in his distaste for this, one of my favorite songs. His colleague at the Shalom Center, Ze’ev Maghen wrote a whole book, or in his words; rampage on it. (see: Imagine John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage)

I have also heard Michael Oren make this argument and Lennon reference. The water at the Shalem Center might be a tad bitter. [ii]

Gordis sets up a false dilemma by arguing that the opposite of Universalism is Nationalism.  He and those making the argument are either ignorant or disingenuous in suggesting that Judaism and Zionism, at their core are Nationalistic to the exclusion of Universalistic.

In a wonderful example of reduction ad absurdum, Gordis argues that any movement, political or cultural uprising which rejects any form of universalism (such as the EU, the UN, NATO etc.) is a de facto vote for Israel.  Ergo…. the vote for Brexit and the popularity of Trump …. is good for the Jews.

An understandable reaction to Gordis’s remarks would be to sit our college kids down, pull our Rabbinic students out of class and explain (with pained sensitivity) that their problem is that they are too idealistic.  Given the holocaust and continued enmity faced by our people, not to mention, a careful re-reading of Judaism and Zionism, Gordis would have us instruct our youth to spend more time defending the nation-state and less time imagining.

After listening to Gordis I drove home only to listen to the next podcast in my que from the Tikvah Fund: Norman Podhoretz on Jerusalem and Jewish Particularity .  Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine discusses what he calls the “scandal” of Jewish particularity.  Podhoretz argues that the Western Liberal world is scandalized by the Jewish idea of particularism. One would be excused if one left this interview believing that the Jews introduced the world to excessive paternalism, tribal pride and nationalism.

Hasn’t Podhoretz seen My Favorite Greek Wedding I and II?  The truth as Gordis and Podhotetz well know and as is easily demonstrated by the exploits of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Nazi and Soviet empires… nationalism was alive and well before and without the Jews.  To the contrary…. with their eschatology and non-cyclical concept of history the Jews may have actually introduced Utopianism and Universalism to the world (for better or worse…. mostly worse).

That the Hebrew Bible talks about a nation state, boundaries, military conquest and defense is hardly exceptional…. That it talks about a day when man will learn war no more, where boundaries and languages will disappear and all mankind will worship one God in peace… that was a novel idea.  And yes… where in addition to a physical Jerusalem there was and will be an ideal Jerusalem and an idealized temple (see Ezekiel 40 – 44 especially 43:11) and where the commandments of the Lord will be written not on tablets but on the heart of all man… That all predated Christianity and came from the Hebrew Bible and that was the scandal of Judaism . [iii]

I am not a big fan of eschatology and messianism but I am not guilty of the intellectual dishonesty required to proclaim that these utopian and universalistic ideas did not originate and grow in Judaism.

As to Zionism, for anyone to argue, as does Gordis, that for the majority of the secular Zionists (and the overwhelming majority of Zionist thinkers were secular if not downright anti-religious) the Jewish State was not some version of a utopia… is crazy. [iv]

Gordis and anyone who argues for Jewish particularism over Jewish universalism are misreading the real innovation of Judaism and setting up a false dilemma and a straw dummy.

The opposite of universalism is not nationalism. Nationalism is only the flip side of the coin… the opposite of both of these isms is realism, rationalism, compromise, nuance, common sense, critical thinking and in all other ways an appreciation of the crooked timber of humanity.  The opposite of Universalism is liberalism.

This middle way had no better spokesman than Isaiah Berlin who argued in the “steadfast defense of liberal values against their rivals both on the Left and on the Right.” Illiberals like Podhoretz critique Berlin’s Liberalism for authenticating relativism [v] and who am I to defend Berlin, but I do believe that if Nationalism can be critiqued for being tribal and Universalism can be critiqued for being naïve then Liberalism should have a place at the table. If we are to see a brighter future and connect with our youth (and the youth within us) then surely more focus and critical thinking need be brought to bear on Liberalism… with all its potential detours and warts.

I would prefer to engage our college age youth and young rabbinic students with respect for their idealism and to challenge them to subject their universalistic aspirations to the rubber of reality.  To follow Berlin in recognizing nationalism “with the insight that belonging, and the sense of self-expression that membership bestows, are basic human needs” and as Jews we/they more than anyone should appreciate these needs by our own people and by others. [vi]

There is a ten-year-old institute in Israel The Jewish Statesmanship Center which is systematically revising Jewish and Zionist thought in line with the Nationalism and particularism reflected in Gordis and Podhoretz… and successfully educating a new generation of leaders.  Those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of Jewish and Zionist thought need to support those who wish to establish a similar institute to educate and spread the best of liberal thought where universalism and nationalism, chauvinism and multiculturalism, heaven and earth       שָּׁמַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ are given equal weight and permitted, nay encouraged to dialectically advanced as the Jewish State prospers. (stay tuned).

One of the lectures that institute might offer could be on the utopian vision in Judaism and Zionism of a world without religion too… The lecturer might review the majority of Zionist thinkers who thought that religion was an archaic tool, the outgrowth of an unnatural life of a people deprived of country and language to be tossed once we have our state.  She might guide us through Talmudic texts that claim in the end-of-days there will be no mitzot (religion).

The commandments will be abolished in the future world (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 61b)

מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא – במסכת נדה דף ס”א ע”ב

We might even learn that the reason a pig is called a Hazir is because in the utopia of the future it will again be permitted (hozer) to the Jewish people….

“למה נקרא שמו חזיר שעתיד הקב”ה להחזירו לישראל” [vii]

Ahh … but I digress…

All I know is that on Shabbat I sing of Shabbat being a little taste of Imagine

Like the World to Come, the restful day of Shabbat (Mah Yedidut, Shabbat Zemirot)

מֵעֵין עוֹלָם הַבָּא, יוֹם שַׁבָּת מְנוּחָה,

And let myself indulge momentarily in an Imagine day that never ends…

May it be Your will that we merit a day when it is always a restful Shabbat – (Birkat Hamazon, Shabbat)

הרחמן הוא ינחילנו יום שכולו שבת ומנוחה –  ברכת המזון של שבת

And that I would feel very comfortable singing Imagine at my Shalosh Suedot…

Getting back to my week in podcasts…. Fortunately, the next podcast in my que was from Machon Hadar on a prayer that even Daniel Gordis says every Shabbat and at the apex of his celebration of our particular national deliverance from Egypt during the seder. [viii]

Nishmat Kol Chai, The breath of every living thing …. A prayer that while leaning universal, nonetheless seamlessly integrates the particularism of the Jewish people into a utopian and universal vision of the future….

The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Lord our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From this world to the World to Come, You are God, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior. He who liberates, rescues and sustains, answers and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king, helper or supporter but You!

God of the first and the last, God of all creatures, Master of all Generations, Who is extolled through a multitude of praises, Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy. Hashem is truth; He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers. Who raises the dead and heals the sick, causes the blind to see and straightens the bent. Who makes the mute speak and reveals what is hidden. To You alone we give thanks!

Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us. At first You redeemed us from Egypt, Hashem our God, and liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us. From sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us. Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Do not abandon us, Lord our God, forever. Therefore the organs that you set within us and the spirit and soul that you breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that you placed in our mouth – all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King. For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You; all hearts shall fear You; and all innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as it is written: “All my bones shall say, Hashem who is like You? You save the poor man from one who is stronger than he, the poor and destitute from the one who would rob him.”

The outcry of the poor You hear, the screams of the destitute You listen to, and You save. And it is written: “Sing joyfully, O righteous, before Hashem; for the upright praise is fitting.”

By the mouth of the upright You shall be exalted;

By the lips of the righteous shall You be blessed;

By the tongue of the devout shall You be sanctified;

And amid the holy shall You be lauded.

And in the assemblies of the myriads of Your people, the House of Israel, it is the duty of all creatures, before you O Hashem, our God and God of our forefathers to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt, adore, render triumphant, bless, raise high, and sing praises – even beyond all expressions of the songs and praises of David, the son of Jesse, Your servant, Your anointed.

And thus may Your name be praised forever- our King, the God, the Great and holy King – in heaven and on earth. Because for you it is fitting – O Hashem our God and God of our forefathers – song and praise, lauding and hymns, power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgivings to Your Great and Holy Name; from this world to the World to Come You are God. Blessed are You Lord, God, King exalted through praises, God of thanksgivings, Master of Wonders, Creator of all souls, Master of all deeds, Who chooses the musical songs of praise – King, Unique One, God, Life-Giver of the world [universe הָעוֹלָמִים  ed].

נִשְמַת כָּל חַי תְּבָרֵך אֶת שִׁמְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְרוּחַ כָּל בָּשָׂר תְּפָאֵר וּתְרוֹמֵם זִכְרְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תָּמִיד. מִן הָעוֹלָם וְעַד הָעוֹלָם אַתָּה אֵ-ל. וּמִבַּלְעֲדֶיךָ אֵין לָנוּ (מֶלֶךְ) גּוֹאֵל וּמוֹשִׂיעַ. פּוֹדֶה וּמַצִּיל. וְעוֹנֶה וּמְרַחֵם. בְּכָל עֵת צָרָה וְצוּקָה. אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ עוֹזֵר וְסוֹמֵךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה: אֱ-לֹהֵי הָרִאשׁוֹנִים וְהָאַחֲרוֹנִים. אֱ-לוֹהַּ כָּל בְּרִיּוֹת. אֲדוֹן כָּל תּוֹלָדוֹת. הַמְּהֻלָּל בְּכָל הַתִּשְׁבָּחוֹת. הַמְּנַהֵג עוֹלָמוֹ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרִיּוֹתָיו בְּרַחֲמִים. וַה’ אֱ-לֹהִים אֱמֶת. לֹא יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן. הַמְעוֹרֵר יְשֵׁנִים וְהַמֵּקִיץ נִרְדָּמִים. מְחַיֶּה מֵתִים. וְרוֹפֵא חוֹלִים. פּוֹקֵחַ עִוְרִים. וְזוֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים. הַמֵּשִׂיחַ אִלְּמִים. וְהַמְפַעֲנֵחַ נֶעֱלָמִים. וּלְךָ לְבַדְּךָ אֲנַחְנוּ מוֹדִים: וְאִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַיָּם. וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו. וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שְׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ. וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶׁמֶשׂ וְכַיָּרֵחַ. וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם. וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת. אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִין לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ. וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. עַל אַחַת מֵאֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרוֹב רִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים. הַטּוֹבוֹת נִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּנוּ וְעִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ

מִלְּפָנִים מִמִּצְרַיִם גְּאַלְתָּנוּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ. מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתָנוּ. בְּרָעָב זַנְתָּנוּ. וּבְשָׂבָע כִּלְכַּלְתָּנוּ. מֵחֶרֶב הִצַּלְתָּנוּ. מִדֶּבֶר מִלַּטְתָּנוּ. וּמֵחֳלָאִים רָעִים וְרַבִּים דִּלִּיתָנוּ. עַד הֵנָּה עֲזָרוּנוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ וְלֹא עֲזָבוּנוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ. עַל כֵּן אֵבָרִים שֶׁפִּלַּגְתָּ בָּנוּ. וְרוּחַ וּנְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּפַחְתָּ בְּאַפֵּינוּ. וְלָשׁוֹן אֲשֶׂר שַׂמְתָּ בְּפִינוּ.הֵן הֵם. יוֹדוּ וִיבָרְכוּ. וִישַׁבְּחוּ. וִיפָאֲרוּ. אֶת שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תָמִיד.כִּי כָל פֶּה לְךָ יוֹדֶה. וְכָל לָשׁוֹן לְךָ תְשַׁבֵּחַ. וְכָל עַיִן לְךָ תְצַפֶּה. וְכָל בֶּרֶךְ לְךָ תִכְרַע. וְכָל קוֹמָה לְפָנֶיךָ תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה. וְהַלְּבָבוֹת יִירָאוּךָ וְהַקֶּרֶב וְהַכְּלָיוֹת יְזַמְּרוּ לִשְׁמֶךָ. כַּדָּבָר שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כָּל עַצְמֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה ה’ מִי כָמוֹךָ מַצִּיל עָנִי מֵחָזָק מִמֶּנּוּ. וְעָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מִגֹּזְלוֹ: שַׁוְעַת עֲנִיִּים אַתָּה תִּשְׁמַע. צַעֲקַת הַדַּל תַּקְשִׁיב וְתוֹשִׁיעַ. וְכָתוּב רַנְּנוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּה’ לַיְשָׁרִים נָאוָה תְהִלָּה: בְּפִי יְשָׁרִים תִּתְרוֹמָם: וּבְשִׂפְתֵי צַדִּיקִים תִּתְבָּרַךְ: וּבִלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידִים תִּתְקַדָּשׁ: וּבְקֶרֶב קְדוֹשִׁים תִּתְהַלָּל: בְּמִקְהֲלוֹת רִבְבוֹת עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל. שֶׁכֵּן חוֹבַת כָּל הַיְצוּרִים, לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְהוֹדוֹת. לְהַלֵּל. לְשַׂבֵּחַ. לְפָאֵר. לְרוֹמֵם. לְהַדֵּר. וּלְנַצֵּחַ. עַל כָּל דִּבְרֵי שִׁירוֹת וְתִשְׁבָּחוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן יִשַׁי עַבְדְּךָ מְשִׁיחֶךָ:

וּבְכֵן, יִשְׁתַּבַּח שִׁמְךָ לָעַד מַלְכֵּנוּ הָאֵ-ל הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדוֹל וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ כִּי לְךָ נָאֶה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד  שִׁיר  וּשְׁבָחָה. הַלֵּל  וְזִמְרָה עֹז. וּמֶמְשָׁלָה. נֶצַח. גְּדוּלָה. גְּבוּרָה. תְּהִלָּה וְתִפְאֶרֶת. קְדֻשָׁה. וּמַלְכוּת. בְּרָכוֹת וְהוֹדָאוֹת לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ. וּמֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם אַתָּה אֵ-ל. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה מֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל וּמְהֻלָּל בַּתִּשׁבָּחוֹת. אֵ-ל הַהוֹדָאוֹת. אֲדוֹן הַנִּפְלָאוֹת. בּוֹרֵא כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים. הַבּוֹחֵר בְּשִׁירֵי זִמְרָה מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי הָעוֹלָמִים.

Shabbat Shalom

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[i] See: A Dose of Nuance: Brexit and the validation of Zionism, By DANIEL GORDIS  07/02/2016 see also The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism by ERIC COHEN APRIL 6 2015 Mosaic.

[ii] especially when drunk by 60-something expat American immigrants to Israel… for more on this see Alan Argush’s fine analysis here.

 

[iii] And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2: 2-4

וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית-יְהוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים, וְנִשָּׂא, מִגְּבָעוֹת; וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו, כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם

 וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְהוָה אֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו:  כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת–לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know the LORD’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jerimiah 31: 30-33)

 

[iv] Gordis, in a verbal response to my point that most of the Zionist thinkers were socialists was that he had said universalists and not socialists which is mute… all of these political movements called for a disruption in the existing capitalist and political structures in order to herald in a new age based on communal ownership and governance.  According to Gordis the only universalist Zionists were Buber, Einstein and the early Ahad HaAm (??)

[v]https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-dissent-on-isaiah-berlin/

[vi]  See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/berlin/#5.5

[vii] See footnote 30 http://www.aharit.com/A-12.php

[viii]https://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-resource/nishmat

imagine_peace_by_mcullenhightopp-d4fnfxf

 

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prove it

The problem with proofs is that they convince only the believer. The upside, is that proofs can provide an innovative out-of-the-box way of thinking. I will get to Yehuda Halevi’s proof for the authenticity of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai…. But first my favorite example of an unconvincing proof which gave birth to innovative, nay, paradigm-shifting thought.

Saint Anselm (1033 – 1109) proved God’s existence in the “ontological proof” as follows:

Agreed that God is a being of which nothing is greater. So …. since to exist is profoundly greater than not to exist…. [Think 1 million imaginary dollars as compared to 1 million real dollars] …  It follows that … God must exist.

Not convinced?  Want to construct a similar argument for unicorns or based on a crazy person’s imagination? It’s all in St. Anselm’s mind, you say? Well, according to the history of ideas, there’s a direct link between St. Anselm’s proof and the birth of the modern Cartesian philosophy of René Descartes who famously opined “I think therefore I am” …. All we can know is that we know….. Which gave birth to Phenomenology and Existentialism where all we can intelligently talk about is not any “real” world, but only experiences and phenomena as we perceive them, and on a higher level, patterns, perceived conflicts within the structure of our own thought. Ontological thinking gave birth to Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and to logical positivism where the only thing that is necessarily true, moral or intelligible is what our minds can conjure up themselves as not dependent on experience or can articulate in a language the mind can produce.

St. Anselm – Not bad for a Medieval Saint!

So, here is Yehudah Halevi’s (1075 – 1141) paradigm shifting proof (also referred to as The Kuzari Principle[i]):

The proof that the Torah was given at Sinai and that Judaism is superior to all other Abrahamic faiths is that you can’t bullshit 1.5 million people. [ii]

That’s it. If 600,000 men plus an equal number of women plus some precocious kids don’t disagree with a text which says they heard thunder and saw lightning from the Mt. and received the Torah, then it must be true. If the Torah, which these million-plus parents are willing to pass down to the next generation, contains prohibitions which make life difficult and opinions which are not popular, all the more reason not to question the veracity of the event that occurred at Sinai and the authenticity of the text in question.  [iii]

Halevi is convinced and his literary or actual King of the Khazars is convinced as well.  The public nature of the event at Sinai witnessed by a multitude is contrasted to the establishment myths concerning Jesus and Mohamed which were experienced, witnessed and documented by a select few.

Similar to Saint Anselm’s proof this proof is problematic and wouldn’t convert any non-believer.  We live in a world where conspiracy theories arise simultaneously with historic events, even if witnessed by billions of humans…. Think of the moon landing, or better yet, 911.  Humanity witnessed these events together, but there are millions of us who claim the events never happened, happened differently than meets the eye or that they were entirely fabricated.

Parents don’t pass on to children difficult or destructive character traits, beliefs or practices you say? Try that on any abuser, child of an abuser or anyone caught up in the cycle of generation’s old ethnic conflict perpetuated by hate and bias feeding on hate and bias.

So what’s the Paradigm shift hidden in Halevi’s argument? It is nothing less than a radical new understanding of “tradition” מסורה

If from Anselm we intuit that the individual and his interior mental perceptions are all that we can really know, from Halevy we are lead to conclude that as a social entity, a community, as a people, maybe even as a species, all we really know is our narrative of history, our story, our Tradition (מסורה).  As social animals all we really know is what has been passed down to us and which we pass on to our children…. not that it is true mind you… but that it is ours.  “we transmit therefore we are”. The activist corollary is that while we cannot create change by changing the “facts” we can own and create change by changing our interaction to those “facts” and to our history. Ultimately, receiving the Torah (קבלת התורה) means taking ownership of what, how and to whom our narrative is transferred.  By truly accepting the that which was given at Sinai we become בעל מסורה  Masters of Tradition.

The most forceful modern-day thinker to articulate this conception of Jewish faith as reaction and action triggered by communal experience is Emil Fackenheim who wrote God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections 1970.  Fackenheim is most famously known for his 614th commandment which exhorts us to continue Jewish life and deny Hitler a posthumous victory.  But what lies behind this one-liner is a complex and multidimensional philosophy of God as or in History מסורה

For Descartes and Kant, the surest belief is not what we experience or perceive but that we experience.  If for the phenomenologists and existentialists the only certain process that we can discern is the dialectical processes of the mind as filtered through the categories of our mind.  For Fackenheim the faith that constitutes and energizes us as social beings is not based on any historical event per se, but rather on the reaction to that event in the past, present and future and the action caused by that reaction.[iv]

Fackenhiem bases his thesis on a Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 “this is my God, and I will glorify Him” זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ

In a well—known Midrash it is asserted that what Ezekiel once saw in heaven was far less than what all of Israel once saw on earth. Ezekiel, and indeed all the other prophets, did not see God but only visions and similes of God; they were like men who perceive a king of flesh and blood surrounded by servants of flesh and blood, and who are forced to ask, “which one is the king?” In the sharpest possible contrast, the Israelites at the Red Sea had no need to ask which one was the King: “As soon as they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him’ “

Fackenheim coins a term he calls a root experience which he attributes to Martin Buber.  For the Jewish people, root experiences include the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the holocaust.

Buber writes:

What is decisive with respect to the inner history of Mankind . . . is that the children of Israel understood this as an act of their God, as a “miracle”; which does not mean that they interpreted it as a miracle, but that they experienced it as such, that as such they perceived ” it.. . .

The concept of miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined at its starting point as an abiding astonishment.  The . . . religious person . . . abides in that wonder; no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken his astonishment. Any causal explanation only deepens the wonder for him. The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to him wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, at an historical event, or at both together; always at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. They sense and experience it as a wonder. This, to be sure, is only the starting—point of the historical concept of wonder, but it cannot be explained away. Miracle is not something “supernatural” or “super historical,” but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however, for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named “Nature” and “History.” . . . [Highlighting here and throughout by ed]

Fackenheim elaborates:

The divine Presence thus far considered is a saving Presence. Salvation is not here, however, what it might be in a different religious context. It occurs within history, not in an Eternity beyond it, nor for a soul divorced from it, nor as an apocalyptic or Messianic event which consummates history. … At the same time, the divine presence requires the self and its freedom in the very moment of its presence.  There is no abiding astonishment unless we exist who can be astonished; moreover, the divine Presence – saving as well as commanding – remains incomplete unless human astonishment terminates in action.

Like Halevi (who surprisingly along with Saadia Gaon is never cited) Fackenheim requires the public nature of a root experience.  He writes:

At the Red Sea, however, the whole people saw, the lowly maidservants included, and what occurred before their eyes was not an opening of heaven but a transformation of earth – an historical event affecting decisively all future generations. … Moreover, as regards private, authoritative experiences, no Jewish believer could ever stake much on these.  Ezekiel’s vision may have been an experience of this kind.  What happened at the Red Sea and Sinai, in contrast, were public events, accessible even to the maidservants to the extent they were accessible to all. (pp 10 and 42)

Where Fankenheim goes beyond The Kuzari Principle is with regard to authentication and validation.  Fackenheim and Buber imply an open invitation for nondoctrinaire and heterodox reactions to the root experience.  For Fackenheim the root experience implies a challenge to participate and includes a risk of commitment. Fackenheim compares the multiplicity of reactions to the root event to the multiplicity of reasons a hypothetical Jew might participate in a Passover Seder:

… whereas as a historian he may and must suspend judgment, he cannot do likewise as a man and Jew, if only because every Passover Seder constitutes a challenge to participation. How can he participate? No longer in a religious immediacy which has never thought of stepping outside the Midrashic framework. Not at all in a stance of critical reflection which stands outside only and merely looks on. Nothing is possible except an immediacy after reflection which is and remains self-exposed to the possibility of a total dissipation of every divine Presence, and yet confronts this possibility with a forever reenacted risk of commitment.

Fackenheim’s essay is primarily focused on the Holocaust and the possibility or impossibility of God in history after that root event… hopefully my extensive quotations of his poetic and profound writing will entice you to read the original.  But the final element that Fackenheim introduces to Halevy’s “proof” paradigm is the fragmentary nature of any root experience, least of which being the experience at Sinai.

For Halevy the proof of Sinai is in the fact that everyone at Sinai not only shared an experience, but that they shared the same experience.  For Fackenheim the greatest threat to the root experience is reflective philosophical thought which would have us believe that the experience is uniform; general, unchanging and abstractable from history. (p16).   In contrast God’s presence in History requires Midrashic thinking which reflects upon root experiences but (i) is not confined to their immediate reenactment, (ii) becomes aware of the contradictions in these experiences, (iii) refuse to destroy the immediacy of these experiences even as it stands outside and reflects upon them, (iv) is conscious of the contradictions and fragmentary nature of these experiences and (iv) these experiences can only be expressed in story, parable and metaphor. For Fackenheim we must retell the old Midrash  – or create a new. (pp 20-21).

A contemporary scholar at Machon Hadar; Rabbi Jason Rubenstein has recorded a wonderful 3-part lecture on Revelation with the third and final part titled: Between “Mosaic Authorship” and “mosaic composition”: Hearing Conflict in Revelation and Revelation in Conflict (see here).  What Rubenstein argues, quite compellingly is that while in prior generations, the concept of truth and value was inherently connected to the concept of uniformity, consistency and harmony.  With the emergence of science and the internet of ideas, our concept of truth and value is rather associated with dissonance, multiplicity and a cacophony of ideas, images and sounds.  When describing what could be described as Yehudah Halevi’s concept of 1 million plus people all hearing the same message a Sinai, one of Rubentstein’s students exclaimed… if it were so “it would become flat, it would become dull ”

 

The truth is that pre Internet-of-ideas, this same confluence of passionately argued and differing opinions and visions was always present in the Midrash and Talmud and I would argue…. also at Sinai.

 

When all is said and done, our reading of Halevi through the lens of Fackenheim produces a radical new conception of what happened at Sinai (Mesorah) and for that matter our concept of God… which it turns out is God in, through, and by, human history.

“ ‘Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God’ (Isa. 43:12).   וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם-ה’, וַאֲנִי-א-ֵל That is, when ye are My witnesses, I am God, and when ye are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God?“  (p23)

The concept of God in and as history is ultimately that we need to live a life… as individuals but more so as a society… where we are and become the Proof itself.  What lies implicit in the giving of the Torah is an imperative on the part of the recipient to receive and transfer.  Implicit in the giving of the commandments is the underlying command to become the proof of the giving and transmission itself.  … to prove it….

—————–

[i] For the Kuzari Principle see here and for critiques see here, here , here  and here….

[ii] Kuzari Book 1:9

 

  1. The Doctor: Is not our Book full of the stories of Moses and the Children of Israel? No one can deny what He did to Pharaoh, how He divided the sea, saved those who enjoyed His favour, but drowned those who had aroused His wrath. Then came the manna and the quails during forty years, His speaking to Moses on the mount, making the sun stand still for Joshua, and assisting him against the mighty. [Add to this] what happened previously, viz. the Flood, the destruction of the people of Lot; is this not so well known that no suspicion of deceit and imagination is possible?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth.

 

  1. The Rabbi replied: I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moses with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant. and threats to the disobedient. Our belief is comprised in the Torah — a very large domain.

 

  1. The Rabbi: Surely the beginning of my speech was just the proof, and so evident that it requires no other argument.

 

  1. The Rabbi: In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him:’The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator. Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these, things. first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

  1. The chronology was established through the medium of those sainted persons who were only single individuals, and not a crowd, until Jacob begat the Twelve Tribes, who were ail under this divine influence. Thus the divine element reached a multitude of persons who carried the records further. The chronology of those who lived before these has been handed down to us by Moses.

 

  1. Al Khazari: An arrangement of this kind removes any suspicion of untruth or common plot. Not ten people could discuss such a thing without disagreeing, and disclosing their secret understanding; nor could they refute anyone who tried to establish the truth of a matter like this. How is it possible where such a mass of people is concerned? Finally, the period involved is not large enough to admit untruth and fiction.

 

  1. Al Khazari: Let us now return to our subject, and explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions became united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation, and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals, who supported one another in upholding the faith which it pleased God should be promulgated. Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful, or a king arises and assists them, also compels his subjects to adopt the same creed.

 

  1. The Rabbi: In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise. When a man succeeds and attains an exalted position, it is said that he is supported by God, who inspired him, etc. A religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.

 

  1. …. they came to the desert, which was not sown, he sent them food which, with the exception of Sabbath, was crested daily for them, and they ate it for forty years.

 

  1. Al Khazari: This also is irrefutable, viz. a thing which occurred to six hundred thousand people for forty years. Six days in the week the Manna came down, but on the Sabbath it stopped. This makes the observance of the Sabbath obligatory, since divine ordination is visible in it.

 

  1. The Rabbi: I do not maintain that this is exactly how these things occurred; the problem is no doubt too deep for me to fathom. But the result was that everyone who was present at the time became convinced that the matter proceeded from God direct. It is to be compared to the first act of creation. The belief in the law connected with those scenes is as firmly established in the mind as the belief in the creation of the world, and that He created it in the same manner in which He–as is known–created the two tablets, the manna, and other things. Thus disappear from the soul of the believer the doubts of philosophers and materialists.

 

  1. … The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals.

 

See: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/kuzari.html

 

[iii] See: Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions  Introduction, part VI pp 29-30.  Both Yehuda Halevi and Saadia Gaon cite the Manna as a proof to the existence and requirement of observing the Shabbat… and as the best example of a miracle, viewed by many, occurring multiple times and over time whose acceptance by subsequent generations is proof to its veracity.

 

When, furthermore, He says: And ye are My witnesses (Isa. 44:8), [Fear ye not, neither be afraid; have I not announced unto thee of old, and declared it? And ye are My witnesses. – הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי   ] He alludes to the marvelous signs and the manifest proofs witnessed by the [Jewish] people. These [were revealed] in many forms, such as the visitation of the ten plagues and the cleaving of the [Red] Sea and the assemblage at Sinai. Personally, however, I consider the case of the miracle of the manna as the most amazing of all miracles, because a phenomenon of an enduring nature excites greater wonderment than one of a passing character. Aye it is hard for the mind to conceive of a scheme whereby a people numbering something like two million souls could be nourished for forty years with nothing else than food produced for them in the air by the Creator. For had there been any possibility of thinking up a scheme for achieving something of this nature, the philosophers of old would have been the first to resort to it. They would have maintained their disciples therewith, taught them wisdom, and enabled them to dispense with working for a livelihood or asking for help.

 

Now it is not likely that the forbears of the children of Israel should have been in agreement upon this matter if they had considered it a lie. Such [proof] suffices, then, as the requisite of every authentic tradition. Besides, if they had told their children: “We lived in the wilderness for forty years eating naught except manna,” and there had been no basis for that in fact, their children would have answered them: “Now you are telling us a lie. Thou,

so and so, is not this thy field, and thou, so and so, is not this thy garden from which you have always derived your sustenance?” This is, then, something that the children would not have accepted by any manner of means.

[iv] See also: Fackenheim’s Jewish Philosophy: An Introduction Michael L. Morgan, and review by Michael Zank here especially:

 

According to Morgan, the early Fackenheim’s conception of the manner in which human agency is transformed into a religious response to revelation is reminiscent of the neo-Kantian conception of “self-fashioning.” It is within human consciousness that the contents of Jewish history, literature, folklore, and custom are elevated to the level of absolutely binding commandments. This transformation of the products of human inventiveness into the contents of revelation is also similar to what we might find in other mid-twentieth century hermeneutical theologians, especially Paul Tillich. But there is also a Barthian (or Rosenzweigian) element entailed in it, namely, when the condition of the possibility of any human response to revelation is seen as implicit in revelation itself. Without the “event” of revelation, no answer to revelation would be possible. Revelation remains initiated by God (though possibly eclipsed by the acute absence of God in the face of human suffering), which may be another way of saying that we are conditioned and embedded beings rather than absolute selves.

proof

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Be a visionary – pay your bills

In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), an order of the Mishneh dedicated to Wisdom,  Rabbi Yochanan said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of ones actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar (the son of Arach): A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours. (2: 10)

I was always impressed by Rabbi Shimon’s definition;

The best trait …. He who sees what is born

הרואה את הנולד

I thought that R. Shimon had the “vision thing” and like Herzl understood that

אִם תִּרְצוּ, אֵין זוֹ אַגָדָה

If you will it, it is no dream.

Turns out R. Shimon was more prosaic and his advice relates more to home economics, start-up financing and debt service. As the wonderful Hazan of my Westport Connecticut Conservative Synagogue; Cantor Luis Cattan, pointed out, the first part of our mishneh (the Raisha) is contrasted with the second part of the mishneh (the Seifa).

The opposite of a good eye, might be a bad eye, but the opposite of someone who does not envision the future is not a realist or short sighted pedantic …. It’s a deadbeat, maybe even a tax and spend progressive.   Oh well…

He said to them: Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To borrow and not to repay; for one who borrows from man is as one who borrows from the Almighty, as is stated, “The wicked man borrows and does not repay; but the righteous one is benevolent and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Said Rabbi Elazar: An evil heart. Said He to them: I prefer the word of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

Visionary

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wonder of wonders

I was privileged to see the new production of Fiddler on the Roof Starring Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht. Adam Kantor is amazing as Motel the tailor and when he sang Miracle of Miracles I realized that this song was a direct rendering of a favorite Midrash, which I am happy to share.

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon began: (Psalms 68:7) “God maketh the solitary to dwell in a house, He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity”*. A matron asked R. Yosi bar Halfa, saying to him: “How many days did it take the Holy One Blessed be Him to create the world?” He said to her: “[to] Six days, as it is written (Exodus 20) “Because six days God made the heavens and the earth.” She said to him: “What has He been doing since that hour and now?” He said to her: “The Holy One blessed be He sits and matches matches; the daughter of this one to this one, the wife of this one, to this one, the money of this one  to this one.”  [ed sounds like Tevye wrote that],  She said to him: “And this is His occupation! Even I could do so! How many servants, how many maidservants do I have.  In an easy moment I could match them.” He said to her: “If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult in the eyes of the Holy One blessed be He as splitting the Red Sea.”

‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Sometime after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ‘I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ (Straightway she summoned R. Jose b. ,Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’)1 Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ What is the proof? ‘God maketh individuals to dwell in a house’; He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (ba-kosharoth). (What does ‘ba-kosharoth’ mean? Weeping (beki) and song (shiroth): he who desires [his companion] utters song: and he who does not, weeps.)

B. Sota 2a; Genesis Rabbah 68:4; Zohar 3:45b;

אמרה לו: לכמה ימים ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו
אמר לה: לששת ימים, כדכתיב (שמות כ): “כי ששת ימים עשה ה´את השמים ואת הארץ.”
אמרה לו: מה הוא עושה מאותה שעה ועד עכשיו
אמר לה: הקב”ה יושב ומזווג זיווגים, בתו של פלוני לפלוני, אשתו של פלוני לפלוני, ממונו של פלוני, לפלוני.
אמרה לו: ודא הוא אומנתיה?! אף אני יכולה לעשות כן! כמה עבדים, כמה שפחות יש לי, לשעה קלה אני יכולה לזווגן.
   אמר לה: אם קלה היא בעיניך, קשה היא לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, כקריעת ים סוף.

הלך לו ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא. מה עשתה? נטלה אלף עבדים ואלף שפחות, והעמידה אותן שורות שורות. אמרה: פלן יסב לפלונית, ופלונית תיסב לפלוני, וזיווגה אותן בלילה אחת. למחר אתון לגבה, דין מוחיה פציעא, דין עינו שמיטא, דין רגליה תבירא. אמרה להון: מה לכון? דא אמרה: לית אנא בעי לדין. ודין אמר: לית אנא בעי לדא. מיד שלחה והביאה את ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא אמרה לו: לית אלוה כאלהכון, אמת היא תורתכון, נאה ומשובחת! יפה אמרת! אמר: לא כך אמרתי לך: אם קלה היא בעיניך, קשה היא לפני הקב”ה כקריעת ים סוף. הקדוש ברוך הוא מה עושה להן? מזווגן בעל כרחן, שלא בטובתן, הה”ד (תהלים סח): אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה, מוציא אסירים בכושרות. מהו בכושרות? בכי ושירות. מאן דבעי, אומר שירה! ומאן דלא בעי, בכי! אמר רבי ברכיה: כלשון הזה השיבה ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא, הקב”ה יושב ועושה סולמות, משפיל לזה ומרים לזה, ומוריד לזה ומעלה לזה. הוי אומר (תהלים עה): אלהים שופט, זה ישפיל וזה ירים, יש שהוא הולך אצל זיווגו, ויש שזיווגו בא אצלו. יצחק בא זיווגו אצלו, שנאמר (בראשית כד): ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה. יעקב הלך אצל זיווגו, שנאמר: ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע

Lyrics to Miracle of Miracles
music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles-
God took up Daniel once again,
Stood by his and side and- miracle of miracles-

Walked him through the lions den!

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles-
I was afraid that God would frown,
But like he did so long ago, at Jericho,
God just made a wall fall down!
When Moses softened Pharaohs heart, that was a miracle.
When God made the waters of the red sea part, that was a miracle too!
But of all God’s miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is that out of a worthless lump of clay,
God has made a man today.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles-
God took the tailor by the hand
Turned him around and- miracle of miracles- Led him to the promised land!

When David slew Goliath (yes!), that was a miracle.
When God gave us matter in the wilderness, that was a miracle too.
But of all God’s miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one I thought could never be:
God has given you to me.

L’Chaim!
—————-
* The first clause refers to marriage-making, the second to the release of prisoners. Therefore the two are declared identical as regards difficulty. (see)
Adam Kantor
 According to the Talmudic version, God’s miraculous efforts regarding arranging marriages only applies to second marriages:

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds;17  as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous.18  Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity!19  But it is not so; for Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: Forty days before the creation of a child, aBath Kol20  issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of A is for B;21  the house of C is for D; the field of E is for F! — There is no contradiction, the latter dictum referring to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage.

א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק כי הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה אמר הכי אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו שנא’ (תהלים קכה, ג) כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר’ יוחנן וקשין לזווגן כקריעת ים סוף, שנאמר (תהלים סח, ז) אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות איני והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד בת קול יוצאת ואומרת בת פלוני לפלוני בית פלוני לפלוני שדה פלוני לפלוני לא קשיא הא בזוג ראשון הא בזוג שני

 

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Ha lachma

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

Ha – This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

We begin the Seder in the vernacular. Aramaic – the lingua Franca of the Middle East and the first international language. How fitting for a story that spans so many generations, crosses so many borders and has inspired liberation for so many that it starts in a language which is supra-national. But the story of liberation transcends even language. We actually begin the Haggadah with a sound, or to be more precise, a breath. Ha We begin the seder/Exodus with the sound of the letter Heh, a sound that according to our tradition and many other ancient traditions, requires no movement of the tongue and therefore has the same meaning in any tongue.  According to our tradition God began creation with the sound of the letter Hey…

These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth w-he-n they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. (Genesis 2:4)

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם

When they were created – BeHebaram – Rabbi Abahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan said: BeHibaram, With [the letter] Hey He created. And what is this Hey? All the letters require the tongue and this [the Hey] does not require the tongue. Similarly, it was not with effort and not with toil that the Holy One created the world, rather, (Psalms 33:6) “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Bereshit Rabbah 12:10

 בהבראם – ר’ אבהו בשם ר’ יוחנן אמר: בהבראם, בה’ בראם. ומה ה’ זה, כל האותיות תופסין את הלשון וזה אינו תופס את הלשון, כך לא בעמל ולא ביגיעה ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו, אלא, (שם לג): בדבר ה’ וכבר שמים נעשו

 

Unlike Divine creation, human liberation requires a lot of preparation and work. God created the world and presumably redeemed us from Egypt without effort. One imagines God effortlessly  passing over the homes of the Hebrews.  Pesach – Passed Over – פסח

For the Hebrews, there was much pain, suffering, and physical and spiritual travail before the Exodus just as prior to a seder much physical and spiritual cleaning and other preparations are necessary.  According to tradition, the Hebrews left Egypt with great effort…  פִּסֵחַ limping… a different type of breath… maybe an in-breath.

But as the seder begins, maybe the aramaic text is inviting us to stop, gather our thoughts and center ourselves and exhale… before we begin our personal Exodus.

http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/33182?embed=1

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the evil son exposed

The images in our Haggadah reveal as much about the haggadah and those who used it as any commentary.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the diverse renderings of the Rasha; the evil son.

My favorite is from a Kibbutz Haggadah.  (for a full treatment of this subject see: Rabbi Mishael Zion’s blog post: Wicked: 20th Century Lessons from the Art of the Wicked Child.. I have borrowed liberally from this post as well as from Etan Mark’s haggadah published on Haggadot.com, in the captions below).

Kibbutz rasha

Tzvi Livni 1952, in this zionist renderings of the four children, the Wicked child is the financier-speculator in the shirt and tie, dollar bills creeping out of his shirt  “What is all this ‘avodah’ to you?” is reinterpreted. While “avodah” in the traditional Haggadah refers to “services,” the “cultic” rites of the seder, here it is translated as pioneering “agricultural” work, of making the desert bloom along with the military defense of the land represented by the towers.  In other Haggadot, it is the Labour-loving Socialist who is portrayed as the Evil son.

 

Siegmund Forst, USA 1959 many American Haggadahs of the 50’s and 60’s save the Wicked child’s place to the communist cousin.

Siegmund Forst, USA 1959 many American Haggadahs of the 50’s and 60’s save the Wicked child’s place to the communist cousin.

Rasha Syck Hagaddah

Poland 1939 – the wicked figure is a middle-aged bourgeois Jew dressed to show off his aspirations to Western European modernity. The wicked figure sports a riding crop, a cigarette with cigarette holder, and a stylish monocle. He is dressed in a hunting outfit with a jaunty Tyrollian hat with a feather, an ascot around his neck, silk gloves and sharp spurs on his leather boots. His stance is self-confident, self-contained and arrogant

 

Rasha as boxer

Leon David Israel, 1920 The Boxer as Rasha, 1920, illustrated by Lola The wicked child is a new kind of soldier. The culture of the naked physique, of sports, of the aggressive boxer is contrasted with a middle class seated scholar with a tie, glasses and a book. The passivity and introspection of the intellectual whose head is supported by his arm reflects the defensive status of traditional Jewish culture, when contrasted with the rise of American sports and perhaps contemporary Zionist youth movements that praised the values of the body. For example, two in a series of great Jewish boxers of this era were “Battling Levinsky” (nee Barney Lebrowitz, light heavy weight, 1916-1920) and Al McCoy (see Albert Rudolph, middle weight, 1914-1917)

 
Rasha Passover towel

Wicked son as Roman Gladiator seems to have been a popular theme .. here’s a detail from a Austrian/German Passover Towel, circa 1900, embroidered with the image of four sons that I recently purchased at Auction in Westport, CT.


But what I have never seen, is where the evil son, besides excluding himself from the other participants, is portrayed as an ostensibly observant Jew or an otherwise good guy with a fatal flaw.
Here is the text of the Evil son:

What does the evil [son] say? “‘What is this worship to you?’ (Exodus 12:26)” ‘To you’ and not ‘to him.’ And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא-לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל

The standard interpretation and corresponding image of the evil son is of the non-believer who separates himself from the Jewish community.  As Yossi Klein Halevi recently pointed out in a wonderful blog post, what indicts the evil son is not that he does not believe, but that he separates himself from the Jewish people.

“the Hagaddah’s definition of Jewish heresy offers us a precise definition of Jewish identity. The “evil child” of the Hagaddah refers to the Jewish people as “you” rather than “us.” Unlike Christianity and Islam, say, where heresy is the rejection of belief, for Judaism heresy is self-exclusion from the community.”

Halevi argues that it is not the wicked son’s lack of belief that damns him, but his self-exclusion.  It’s a great  blog post and important message… but Halevi nonetheless joins traditional commentators in assuming that the wicked son is a non-believer or non-observant.

But since, especially during the seder, every question is on the table, let me ask why don’t we assume that the evil son is in all other ways blameless and outstanding?  Who says he’s not a believer? And while I’m at it…. Why do we assume that that the community which this son excludes himself from …. is so virtuous?

Any reading of the Hebrew Bible will reveal the generation of the Exodus with a lot left to be desired. They murmured, complained and suffered from congenial stiffening  of the neck.  The truth is, even a cursory reading of the later prophets paint a picture of a Jewish People who stumbled and limped (ed the Hebrew word for lame is Pisayach פִּסֵחַ – same root as Pesach) a lot more than handled themselves in an upright fashion.

So here’s an image that I invite you to imagine for the wicked son. He’s a holier-than-thou self-righteous religious zealot…. beard, black hat and peyyot.  To be fair, maybe he’s an uncompromising liberal political activist who wishes to delegitimize the State of Israel or alternatively a religious nationalist settler who questions a secular Israeli’s connection and commitment to the Land. You probably could add a few more zealots of your own, but you get the idea.

Here are my alternative optics for the evil son.

This Haredi guy shows up at your seder and indignantly questions your right to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt.  “What could these laws and texts possibly mean to an Am HaAretz and Sabbath desecrator like you?  You, who accept same-sex marriage, support egalitarian prayer at our holy sites and convert any non-Jew who walks in the door.”

This child of the radical Left storms into the Seder screaming “How dare you celebrate  liberation and workers’s rights. How dare you Passover-wash your ties to Wall Street and your support for the Occupation and repression of Palestinians in Israel. This holiday of liberation means nothing to you!”

Maybe this child is a National Religious Settler who barges into our Seder and questions our right to sing Next Year in Jerusalem, a united Jerusalem, and laughs as we squeam when asking God to take vengeance on our enemies and conquer the land.

All of these caricatures are evil, not only, as Halevi argues, because they seperate from our community, but also, I argue, because they separate from our history and the crooked timber of our humanity.

These Evil children idealize the past at the expense of simplifying the present and delegitimizing a diverse group of people caught up in a complex world.  According to our traditions, those who left Egypt were a mixed lot (ערב רב) and we remain a mixed lot, struggling to survive in a tough environment and complicated, complex and not always solvable problems.  Those who left Egypt limped and complained and suffered from PTS, as do we.

The haggadah instructs us to “blunt his teeth” (הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו) ….. a strange phrase which seems to legitimize corporal punishment. In fact setting teeth on edge as the result of sour grapes planted by ones parents is short-hand for saying. Hey buddy, we all suffer the sins of our parents, we all have baggage, we are all refugees and victims. Non of our narratives are pure, non of our texts and rituals can be sanitized in accordance with your idealized version of progress. In fact sour grapes of our forebears causing their children to wince might be the seminal message of the Seder.  

The haggadah itself is an inelegantly edited compendium of conflicting texts and our liberation story, like the story of any liberation, whether national or personal … is messier than we’d like to admit.

Thus said Ezekiel 18 speaking of idyllic future times:

What mean ye, that ye use this proverb in the land of Israel, saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. … As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, committed robbery on his brother, and did that which is not good among his people, behold, he dieth for his iniquity. Yet say ye: Why doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father with him? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all My statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die; the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father with him, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son with him; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

מַה-לָּכֶם, אַתֶּם מֹשְׁלִים אֶת-הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה, עַל-אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  אָבוֹת יֹאכְלוּ בֹסֶר, וְשִׁנֵּי הַבָּנִים תִּקְהֶינָה

חַי-אָנִי, נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה:  אִם-יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עוֹד, מְשֹׁל הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה—בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל…

אָבִיו כִּי-עָשַׁק עֹשֶׁק, גָּזַל גֵּזֶל אָח, וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא-טוֹב עָשָׂה, בְּתוֹךְ עַמָּיו; וְהִנֵּה-מֵת, בַּעֲו‍ֹנוֹ

וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, מַדֻּעַ לֹא-נָשָׂא הַבֵּן בַּעֲו‍ֹן הָאָב; וְהַבֵּן מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה עָשָׂה, אֵת כָּל-חֻקּוֹתַי שָׁמַר וַיַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם–חָיֹה יִחְיֶה

הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַחֹטֵאת, הִיא תָמוּת:  בֵּן לֹא-יִשָּׂא בַּעֲו‍ֹן הָאָב, וְאָב לֹא יִשָּׂא בַּעֲו‍ֹן הַבֵּן–צִדְקַת הַצַּדִּיק עָלָיו תִּהְיֶה, וְרִשְׁעַת רשע (הָרָשָׁע) עָלָיו תִּהְיֶה

The Rabbis of the Haggadah are saying that there might come a time in the idyllic future where this proverb might not hold true….  A time that Ezekiel imagines where children do not carry the baggage left to them by their forebears and the shortcomings of their less enlightened peers do not slow them down, but… and here’s the message of the Haggadah…  in the meantime our teeth still sting from the sour grapes planted by our parents.  In the meantime, separating ourselves from our dirty past and complicated present, is not a luxury, is not idealism.. it is a sin, and it takes you off the stage.

While I have not found other sources for my interpretation, thanks to Sefira I did find a commentary called (very appropriately) Yismach Yisrael (rejoice Israel) which, while not making the evil son into a misguided idealist, does understand his question as questioning the bone fides and deservedness of the participants in the seder and the original generation of the exodus to participate in such a lofty mission.

The wicked one asks according to his wickedness: “What is this service for you?” (Page 67b) The wicked person argues that we do not deserve to be redeemed so all our efforts in performing these acts of divine service are a waste of time. Even worse, we are so sinful that these actions are really self-serving and not for the sake of God. The wicked person says that we perform them for you and not for Him!  We answer the wicked person by saying that “God did this for me” because of my trust and faith in Him. God redeemed us from Egypt even though we were immersed in the forty-nine levels of impurity and every aspect of our being was in exile. However, because we displayed real trust in God we were redeemed from Egypt even earlier then we were supposed to be redeemed. Had the wicked person been in Egypt he would not have merited this early redemption because he lacked trust in God.  (Yismach Yisrael on Pesach Haggadah p 51)

Maybe that’s a more positive answer that we can give the self-righteous evil son.. and by extension ourselves. Yes, we are the product of the mud from which we grew and yes, we sink or swim together, but if we have faith… blind as it is, that there is a spark of the divine in ALL of us, then by the grace of God, maybe together we can be redeemed…

SOnes with Question mark

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wise guy

Blessed is God, Blessed is He; Blessed is the One who Gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed is He. Corresponding [lit. against or opposite] to four sons did the Torah speak; The wise, the evil one, one who is innocent and one who doesn’t know to ask. (see  Sefaria )”

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה: אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Four Children is not a popularity contest.  The Wise Son is not meant to be a role model and the Wicked Son is not the big loser.

Against Four Sons against the Torah speaks   כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה

Think of “against” כנגד as in opposition. Against – כנגד asks us to engage in discourse and debate these personality types; to confront, admonish, affront…  Think of it as a pedagogic teaching-moment.  Think of the friction and counter-balance in a healthy relationship. Think of the first relationship, of Eve with Adam:

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.” Genesis 2:18

וַיֹּאמֶר הֹ אֱ-לֹהִים לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ

Rashi: a helpmate opposite him: If he is worthy, she will be a helpmate. If he is not worthy, she will be against him, to fight him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 17:3, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 12. See also Yev. 63a]   זכה עזר, לא זכה כנגדו להלחם  עזר כנגדו

The type of relationship and conversation demanded by the Torah for the Four Children is the same type of interaction associated with a marriage… If the child is missing the point of the Seder, you need to speak up for both your sakes.

When you think of “against” you can also think of  מתן תורה the Revelation at Sinai… This is after all how the haggadah introduces the Four Sons.

Blessed is He that gave the Torah to His People Israel    ברוך שנתן תורה לעמו ישראל

The Torah uses the same word כנגד when talking about the Children of Israel in juxtaposition to Mt. Sinai.

They [the Children of Israel] journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain [Mt. Sinai]. Exodus 19:2

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר

When the Torah confronts the four children think of a revelation, think of a life changing moment, an epiphany, an intervention.

Getting back to the Four Children,  let’s begin by leveling the playing field.  Each of these children desperately needs a wake-up call.  A gentle caress for some, a jarring blow for others… but trust me, all are missing the point of the Exodus/Seder.

And lets keep to the facts.  We know nothing about all of these types besides the one character trait which stands between them and an Exodus.

All we can say of the Wise son is that he is Wise.  He might be a bore, a miser, a fornicator, a dead-beat, or an arrogant son of a bitch.

The Simple Child might be an artist or clairvoyant.  The child who doesn’t know how to ask might be a survivor… Who are we to say?

And the Evil Child. The Evil child, besides the one character fault impugned,  might be or appear for all intents and purposes, a tzadik (righteous man).. more about that in my next post…

The personality trait that requires an intervention is the only one to which the Torah and by extension, we, the participants in a Seder, are meant to address.

The character deficit we are meant to address lies exclusively in his question and our answer.

I will focus only on the Wise son (in this post) and the Evil son (in my next post) because …. They interest me (and my guess.. you) the most and because it is these two that the text of the Haggadah singles out.

It is only for these two that we are told “and even you” אף אתה   should respond.  “And even you” is not simply emphatic, it is reflective and reflexive.    “And even you” is a tagline that we should recognize and that challenges us to venture a comparison.

Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: Ye shall walk after the Lord your God?( Deut. XIII, 5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; …But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, … so do thou also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, …  so do thou also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, …  so do thou also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, …  so do thou also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a)

להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב”ה מה הוא מלביש ערומים דכתיב ויעש ה’ א-להים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם אף אתה הלבש ערומים הקב”ה ביקר חולים דכתיב ירא אליו ה’ באלוני ממרא אף אתה בקר חולים הקב”ה ניחם אבלים דכתיב ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך א-להים את יצחק בנו אף אתה נחם אבלים הקב”ה קבר מתים דכתיב ויקבר אותו בגיא אף אתה קבור מתים

The expression אף אתה  “Even You” is used to dare us… in the one case to dare us to try to imitate God and likewise, in the Haggadah’s case, to dare us to find the “wise” and “evil’ child in ourselves.

The Haggadah is telling us “grownups” that you need this medicine too אף אתה.  You’re more similar to this child than you think אף אתה. You share the malady more than you might be willing to admit…. EVEN YOU.. need to speak this question and listen to the answer.

What does the wise [son] say? “‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?’ (Deuteronomy 6:20)” And accordingly [and even] you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, “We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice.”

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן

It seems to me that the Wise child has all the book knowledge and knows all the facts. But he’s missing something.  He like the Wicked child distances himself from the participants by saying “you” and not “us”. In the answer we are to give, we get a sense of exactly what he is distancing himself from.  We are to discuss the Passover Sacrifice – a historical artifact of a temple no-more and it’s replacement; the Afikomen replete with its folklore, superstition, and childish hide-and-go seek game to which it owes its brand identity…

We are to discuss with this Wise Guy son the cultural, emotional and historical baggage that our people, his people, carry.  And we are to discuss with him the unwritten, undocumented and unquantifiable, sometimes child-like, sometimes humorous, sometimes superstitious and sometimes ahistorical parodies and cultural tics that enable us to survive.  Most of all we confront him with two emotions not found in any text book.  Compassion and wonder.

Here’s where I leave you to your own wise guy answers and imagine how some of my favorite thinkers and story tellers might have answered

Abraham Joshua Heschel

 “ Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

(God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Abraham Joshua Heschel  p. 43) (see here)

Shlomo Carlebach

“Our holy Rabbis teach us that the chacham, the clever boy, is very beautiful as long as you think that being clever is everything.  The chacham is intellectual, he needs to be taught.  How about stopping being only intellectual? How about tasting the Afikoman, tasting the depths of life, feeling deep emotion and serving god with it? The clever person isn’t far away from the wicked person. “ 

“The Koznitzer Maggid says about Yachatz [the broken Afikomen], “The world is so broken, but our children can make the world whole again. We break the matzah; the small piece we keep, and the big piece – the bigger brokenness – our children take away.  Then they bring it back to us whole, to serve as the Afikomen at the end of the seder.” Our children they are the ones that are taking brokenness away from us.”

  The Carlebach Haggadah: Seder Night with Reb Shlomo by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach p 39-40 and 19-20

And best for last…

Chaim Potok in the Chosen when Reb Saunders explains why he stopped talking to his son Danny…

The Chosen 1The Chosen 2

The Chosen By Chaim Potok pp 285-6

 

Benson3

 

 

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