The Times of Israel
The Blogs: Leonard Grunstein
Nov 3, 2017, 7:18 AM

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Communicating a sophisticated and nuanced message, which resonates with most people and
throughout the generations, is no mean task.
Mere words may not be the most effective way to accomplish the result. How powerful would a
slogan like “don’t sacrifice the children” be in ancient times, in a world permeated with human
sacrifice? The sacrifice of children was a part of the ordinary ritual of worship to pagan deities.
In that kind of a society, why would anyone think twice because someone flashed a placard
stating don’t?
Media wizards today might suggest using an authoritative figure as a spokesperson. A dramatic
and compelling story line would help, especially if combined with strong visuals that grab the
attention of the intended audience and stir the imagination.
It should be no surprise that G-d would do no less. In this week’s Torah reading[i], G-d enlists
Abraham in this very kind of project. It is commonly referred to as the Akedat Yitzchak (Binding
of Isaac) or, simply, as the Akedah (Binding). The title refers to the fact that Isaac was bound, as
discussed below. Its primary theme is the absolute rejection of human sacrifice.
The drama depicted in the Bible is authored and directed by G-d. Abraham is cast in a very
challenging role. He is renown for his opposition to idolatry and all of the nefarious practices
associated with it. He is also the Biblical paradigm for virtuous conduct and graciousness. Yet, in
this morality play, he has the part of an awe struck ideologue, intent on sacrificing his very own
son, because he believed G-d wanted him to do so. The role contradicts his very being; but that is
a part of the heightened dramatic effect Without G-d’s direction, Abraham would never have
conceived of doing what the script prompts him to do. In another ironic twist, G-d says to
Abraham, please, bring his son Isaac along, to play the part of the child.
The action in this intriguing drama begins with a message from G-d that is ambiguous. G-d
directs Abraham to bring his son up upon the mountain he would show him. G-d does not
expressly say sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering, as some might suggest. The one and only true
G-d prohibits[ii] human sacrifice. Why would G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice any human being,
let alone his son, in order to worship him[iii]? Indeed, the Midrash[iv], Rashi[v] and the Ibn
Ezra[vi], each point out that G-d didn’t mean for Abraham actually to slaughter his son Isaac, as
a human sacrifice. Rest assured, as the Talmud[vii]reports, G-d never intended to harm
Isaac[viii]. Is the apparent misunderstanding a way to heighten the suspense? Could it be that
Abraham might actually sacrifice his own son? Like any good mystery, we are compelled to read
on to the climactic conclusion.
What about Isaac’s role in this drama? He was 37 years of age[ix], at the time. Was he a willing
participant? The Talmud[x] reports that Isaac may have precipitated his being cast to play this
part. It seems that Isaac and Ishmael had a contretemps. Ishmael claimed he was the better man
because, while Isaac had been circumcised, involuntarily, when he was 8 days old, Ishmael had
done so voluntarily, at 13 years of age. Isaac’s response is noteworthy, because it exhibits his
character and force of personality. He doesn’t take Ishmael’s challenge lying down; he responds
in kind. Isaac asks, rhetorically, if Ishmael thinks he can provoke and intimidate him with just
one organ. Because, Isaac declares, if G-d were to say to him sacrifice his entire body, then he
would do so.
Isaac’s role in the ensuing drama is also a study in contrasts. Abraham, his elderly father, has
waited so many years to have a miraculous child with his aged wife, Sarah. He loves his son
Isaac and would do almost anything for him. Isaac is the blessed child, who G-d promised[xi]
would inherit Abraham’s mantle, fortune and right to the land of Israel. He is to be the next stage
of development of the nation, which Abraham founded. Is the good, gentle and kindhearted
Patriarch of the new nation now supposed to sabotage all his dreams and blessings by killing his
own wonderful son?
Isaac, like Abraham, must similarly act totally out of character. He is not the one who is
supposed to go gently into the night. He is the strong one, who believes in strict justice and
restraint[xii]. He is willing to fight and sacrifice himself for a just cause. As the Bible[xiii] later
describes him and some of his exploits, he is a very successful farmer, cattleman and
businessman. He is unyielding in the face of wrongdoing and does not back down. When the
Philistines, who are jealous of his success, bury the wells that his father Abraham dug, he digs
them up again. Is he now just to be docile and lay down and be sacrificed by another? It would
appear so, because Isaac even helps his father tie him up so that he doesn’t involuntarily become
unyielding at the last moment.
Father and son with characters that are so different and actual personalities, which are so at
variance with the roles they are called upon to play. The irony is palpable and the scenario is
memorable. For three long days, they travel together to one of the mountains in the Land of
Moriah, which G-d will select, where a sacrifice is to be made. Abraham brings along the wood,
the fire and the ritual knife. Isaac notices and asks, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering.
Abraham says G-d will provide the lamb for the burnt offering. Will they clash? Will Isaac try to
save himself? After all he is a strong man in his prime and could easily overpower his aging
father. It’s a heady mix of dramatic devices and that’s the point. We are compelled to know; how
will it end?
Maimonides[xiv] analyzes the Biblical text and concludes it speaks to people in a language they
can understand. This is a critical insight. He characterizes the entire presentation as a form of
morality play. It is not so much about the story itself; rather it is about its being a vehicle to
communicate the message intended to be conveyed. It would appear to have been a most
effective one because here it is 4,000 years later and we’re still talking about it. Consider how
powerful it was to cast Abraham in the role of the father willing to sacrifice his child. Most
discussions about the matter begin with questions. How could G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice his
child? How could Abraham have thought to do so? Why didn’t Abraham question G-d, like he
did with the decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Isn’t the whole story antithetical to our
traditions? But that’s the point; it’s about generating this kind of interest and reaching the
conclusion of the story. G-d didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham didn’t do so.
Maimonides explains that this is the sole object of this so-called trial of Abraham, depicted in the
Biblical text. It is designed to teach mankind what is proper conduct and worthy of belief. It is
not about testing Abraham. G-d already knew what was in Abraham’s heart. G-d did not need a
test to confirm this[xv]. Rather, Maimonides notes the meaning of the phrase “to know” used in
the Biblical text[xvi] means so that all people may know. Human sacrifice is wrong. This is so
whether it is in the name of idolatry or the one true G-d[xvii].
There are also subtler aspects to the lesson. There are limits to what may be done in the name of
love or awe of G-d. Maimonides cautions that false prophets may arise preaching messages that
are inconsistent with this principle and he urges don’t believe them. This message is particularly
poignant in our times. G-d does not desire the faithful to drive a truck into innocent pedestrians
in order to kill or maim them, in his name or otherwise. Proclaiming Allahu Akbar, while doing
so, doesn’t change this basic truth. Anyone who says otherwise is not speaking in G-d’s name;
don’t be misled.
Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi[xviii], further develops the theme of the Akedah expressed by Maimonides.
He too explains that it was not a test to prove Abraham’s mettle. Rather, it was a means of
publicizing the principle that G-d did not want human sacrifices. The Akedah was designed to
inform the world of this fundamental principle of faith. In modern parlance, it was a teachable
moment. It was designed to uproot, undermine and weaken the established, albeit mistaken,
belief, embedded in the hearts of the people, that it was noble to sacrifice children to their deities.
Has the world changed so much since then? Boko Haram and Isis are enslaving children, brain
washing them with an ideology of violence, akin to idolatry and coercing them into being
terrorists. Is that any less a form of human sacrifice? An even more glaring example is the
modern suicide bombers and their mentors. They not only do not treasure life, they operate on
the assumption that killing people, in the act of so-called martyrdom, is the quickest and surest
way to enjoy heavenly delights. There are those who honor them and celebrate the taking of
innocent lives. Don’t they understand that G-d abhors human sacrifice? Even more mystifying
are the educated and cultured individuals, who should know better and yet sometimes justify or
otherwise condone these terrorist acts. Don’t they appreciate they are helping to perpetuate the
canard that this form of human sacrifice is somehow acceptable? Is the ethic of a life well spent
performing good deeds for the benefit of mankind no longer a virtue? Is the lesson of the Akedah
lost on them?
Abraham and Isaac were of one mind in this mission to publicize the Torah’s message of
restraint and the value of life. When it comes to human behavior, there are boundaries that
should not be crossed. The primary purpose of the Akedah was to prevent human sacrifice. The
Midrash[xix] explains that when they approached Mount Moriah, Abraham asked Isaac whether
he saw what Abraham saw and Isaac answered yes. Their united devotion to the mission was
symbolized by their walking together, as one.
The Shaarei Orah[xx] points out that it took both Abraham and Isaac, acting together, to bring
this message home to the world. Abraham’s character is associated with kindness and
compassion, which is equated to the divine attribute of mercy. Isaac’s character is associated
with strength, which is equated to strict justice. The Bible relates how Abraham grabbed hold of
the fire and the knife. These were Isaac’s weapons of war. In essence, Abraham was,
symbolically, tempering Isaac’s innate strength and the power of strict judgment, by softening it
with kindness and mercy. Unbridled strength that is not tempered with goodness is not a virtue.
The world cannot function based only on ruthlessly enforced judgments, because if this were the
case then it would have been destroyed long ago. The attribute of mercy is what keeps so many
alive and able to repent and earn forgiveness. The combination of these virtues is represented by
Isaac assisting Abraham to tie him up. Their walking together represented the symbiosis they
achieved, which better enabled them to face the world and overcome its challenges.
It is about self-control, boundaries and balance when it comes to the exercise of strength and
power. It is suggested that it is also about applying those same standards to virtues such as
kindness. This is because even an excess of kindness can be harmful. In medicine, it is
sometimes necessary to inflict some pain in order to cure a life-threatening malady. Allowing a
terrorist to continue a murderous spree instead of shooting the terrorist, because of concern about
his life, is not a virtue. There are so many things in modern life that require a balance between
strict justice and mercy. This is especially so in the way we bring up our children.
There brings to mind another dimension of concern. It is a more subtle and nuanced forms of
sacrificing children. It happens so casually as to be almost ignored. We strive so hard to bring up
our children well and to assure they are successful in life. Educating our children, with a dual
curriculum in day schools devoted to combining a Jewish and secular education, is a priority.
But, then, inexplicably, many peremptorily end the formal Jewish education of their children, at
age 18, in order to send them to a wholly secular college.
Why, at a critical juncture in their maturity process, throw children, who are unprepared to meet
the challenges, into the harsh and unforgiving environment of the university campus life and
culture? How can they be expected to deal with the juggernaut of antisemitism, in the form of
BDS and anti-Israel movements, bullying, the culture of permissiveness and no boundaries,
alone and away from the nurturing environment and support of home?
Living the life of classic Judaism, as a part of society, requires a modicum of sacrifice. Our life,
at its best, is a study in limitations and boundaries that cannot be crossed. We live within walking
distance of synagogues, don’t violate the Shabbos (including erecting an Eruv to enable us to
carry) and eat kosher. Why all of a sudden is this not important for our kids? After striving so
hard and spending so much treasure to enable our children to live, grow up and be educated in
these traditions, why, suddenly, at age18, is it off to college and fish or cut bait? Come on! What
kind of life are we providing for them on campus? We’re certainly spending a fortune for the
privilege; but is it well spent? Are we not casually consigning our children to another form of the
proverbial fiery furnace and to what end? How can they be expected to resist the urge to join
with their erstwhile friends at frat parties on Friday nights or sports events on Saturdays? It’s not
something we would condone at home. However, it is a prevalent and eminently endearing facet
of campus life. Are we, together with our children, ensnared, like the ram in the Akedah?
How do we break out of this trap and confused way of thinking? There has got to be a better
way. Perhaps, there is and it’s grounded in the same principles of boundaries and balance, which
are a fundamental part of classic Judaism. There are very fine colleges, like Yeshiva University,
which are dedicated to this same balanced approach to life. We all want a better life for our
children; but in the process we can’t sacrifice them. Let the kids learn a little more, mature and
really grow up. A bachelor’s degree is just the beginning. There’s time to think about the best
graduate and professional schools.
Our guiding principle must be, don’t sacrifice the children.

[i] Genesis 22:1-19.
[ii] See Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Leviticus 18:21 and 20:3 and Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:5.
[iii] See the Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Sifrei
Devarim 81:6.
[iv] See Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[v] In his commentary on Genesis 21:1.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, at page 4a and Rashi commentary thereon. In this
regard it should be noted that the ram caught up in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13),
which was ultimately sacrificed by Abraham, was a part of G-d’s master plan of creation (see
Avot 5:6).
[viii] Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi, in the Gevia’ Kesef, noted below, points out that Abraham never lit
the fire for the sacrifice, as a precaution, so that the smoke wouldn’t accidentally suffocate Isaac.
[ix] See Bereishis Rabbah, Chapter 55, which states that Isaac was age 37 at the time of his
argument with Ishmael, noted above. The Akedah occurred thereafter. See also Genesis 23:1,
which records that Sarah was 127 years of age at the time of her passing on, after hearing about
the Akedah. Since, as noted in Genesis 17:17, Sarah was 90 years of age at the time of Isaac’s
birth that would make him approximately 37 years of age at the time of the Akedah. The Targum
Yonatan on Genesis 22:1, though, states Isaac was age 36 at the time of his argument with
Ishmael.
[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 89b.
[xi] Genesis 17:19.
[xii] These are definitions of the term “Gevurah”, a quality, which is ascribed to Isaac. See Zohar
on Parshat Lech Lecha, in Volume 1, at page 39a, of the Aramaic/Hebrew edition, by R’ Yehuda
Yudel Rosenberg.
[xiii] Genesis 26:12-15.
[xiv] Guide to the Perplexed 3:24.
[xv] See Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 22:1.
[xvi] Genesis
[xvii] See Sefrei Devarim 81:6. See also Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on
Deuteronomy 12:31.
[xviii] In his work, Gevia Kesef, Chapter XIV (Page 217, et. seq. of the translation by R’ Basil
Herring, published by Ktav in1982).
[xix] Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[xx] A kabbalistic work by Rav Yosef Gikatillah, in the Fifth Gate, Sixth Sefirah, 54.

 

On Wednesday Oct. 24, Dr. Daniel Rynhold, professor at Bernard Revel Graduate School, and Dr. Michael J. Harris an affiliated lecturer at Cambridge sat down to discuss their recently co-authored book Nietzsche, Soloveitchik, and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  Dr. Aaron Koller, also of Bernard Revel Graduate School, moderated the well attended book talk at Shakespeare and Co.

The title of the book is jarring because it connects Friedrich Nietzsche, a nineteenth century German philosopher known for his atheism and critique on religion, with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a twentieth century Orthodox Talmudic scholar and philosopher.  While there are irreconcilable differences between the two figures, Dr. Rynhold and Dr. Harris show that, surprisingly, there are many striking commonalities as well. They argue that Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy responds to Nietzsche’s critique of religion, and reveals an understanding of traditional Judaism that absorbs Nietzschean themes and is thus immune to Nietzschean critique.

Though Nietzsche absolutely rejected God and religion, he was concerned with finding value in a post-metaphysical world. Rav Soloveitchik absolutely affirmed the truth of God and Judaism but side-stepped metaphysical inquiry and focused instead on the meaning of the life of faith in this world. Nietzsche routinely criticized religious systems as being psychologically unhealthy and “life-denying.” He argued that man should always be striving to affirm life. Rav Soloveitchik argued that Judaism is life affirming. He emphasizes that this world, Olam HaZeh, is preferable to the World To Come, Olam Haba. Rav Soloveitchik quotes from Rabbi Yaakov “one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the world to come” (Ethics of the Fathers 4) and notably does not quote Rabbi Yaakov’s other statements which privilege the World to Come. Nietzsche’s conception of a strong individual is one who can creatively express themselves. Rav Soloveitchik depicts the highest level of halakhic observance as one which does not feel like it is compelled but rather as if it were an  autonomous expression of one’s innermost being.

Drs. Rynhold and Harris hope that this book will be an important contribution. It offers scholarly analysis of the philosophical positions of Nietzsche and Rav Soloveitchik. More than that, it hopes to allow Jews today to think about their religion in more sophisticated ways and infuse Judaism’s system of practice with meaningful thelogies.

 

Seminar on Ancient Judaism Features Renowned Biblical Scholar 

by Michael Bettencourt

Dr. Elaine PagelsDr. Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, gave a talk on Thursday, October 25, titled “Exegesis of Genesis 1 in the Gospel of Thomas,” as part of the Seminar on Ancient Judaism, an initiative co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost, Yeshiva University and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

Dr. Pagels is best known for her research into early Christianity and Gnosticism, explicated in The Gnostic Gospels, published in 1979, which explored conflicts in the early history of the Christian church revealed in the Nag Hammadi library, 13 leather-bound papyrus books discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

The Gospel of Thomas, the subject of Pagels’ 2003 book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, was found among the papyrus volumes. It contains a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which, according to Pagels, can be found in one or more of the other four official gospels but some of which stand entirely on their own.

The subject of her talk concerned the differing portraits of Jesus that emerge when Thomas’ gospel is weighed against the synoptic gospels, especially the manuscript written by John, which Pagels suggests was drafted as a rebuttal to the picture of Jesus in Thomas, where Jesus is presented not as a divine entity but as a teacher seeking to help people discover the divine light within themselves.

In John, as well as in the other authorized gospels, she noted, the focus is on each person’s duty to know who Jesus is and accept his divinity because only by that knowledge will they will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In Thomas, Jesus’ words enjoin people not to know him but to know themselves, since that is the only sure path to a sure salvation. “The Jesus represented in Thomas’ writing,” said Dr. Pagels, “tasks his disciples and all those who hear him with discovering the light within themselves.” When the disciples ask Jesus to tell them how they will end, he responds by saying, “Have you then discovered the discovered the beginning so that you inquire about the end?”, emphasizing that they will only know their ending  if they do the work of exploring their own beginnings: “If they say to you: ‘From where have you originated?”, say to them: ‘We have come from the Light…’”

Pagels pointed out that coming “from the Light” also meant coming from a place where souls were unified and “not divided by categories, such as your gender or name or passport,” a point she has explored in more depth in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, written in 1988, where she investigated the views of women presented in Jewish and Christian teachings.

There are three more lectures planned for the Seminar: Shai Secunda (Bard College) on Thursday, February 14, 2019; Loren Stuckenbruck (University of Munich) on Thursday, March 14, 2019; and Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham University) on Thursday, April 4, 2019. For more information, contact Rabbi Ari Mermelstein at mermels@yu.edu.

 

It was nonstop partying, day and night, for days on end.

There was pageantry, with musicians playing countless musical instruments. The greatest rabbis danced before the assembled crowds of men, women, and children. They also juggled torches and performed daring acts of acrobatic prowess.

Our celebrations today are more subdued, but they are no less joyful. We gather family and friends to partake in festive meals al fresco, in the temporary booths — called sukkot — that we’ve erected outdoors. The occasion is an experience of pure joy. There is much for which to be grateful. We’ve prayed, fasted, performed acts of contrition, confessed, repented our sins, and through God’s perennial gift of Yom Kippur, been forgiven.

We survived and have a new lease on life.

Gratitude is a powerful emotion. It may be defined as a person’s recognition that the good he or she experiences is due, at least in part, to something outside of his or her self. It is the subject of a number of scientific studies, which analyzed some of the benefits resulting from expressing and feeling gratitude. They include better physical and mental health; greater mental strength and resiliency; a sense of overall well-being, happiness, and reduced depression; forming and building stronger relationships; and connecting to something larger than the person, like a higher power.

One of the studies found scientific evidence that these positive effects of gratitude are long lasting and sustainable. Interestingly, this required more than just an unexpressed feeling of gratefulness; it had to be combined with some action. The study relied on the act of expressing gratitude by recording it in a journal. It found that repeatedly expressing gratitude and the resulting good feelings experienced, in effect, caused the brain to be rewired. In essence, the more gratitude practiced, the more attuned the person becomes to it; and correspondingly, the more the person could enjoy the psychological benefits it engendered. It became a self-perpetuating feature.

These are extraordinary benefits. Who would have thought that by simply expressing gratitude such overwhelmingly good results could be achieved? Is it any wonder then that we are commanded to begin the new year by showing our gratitude through the joyful celebration of the holiday of Sukkot?

I remember well when we first arrived in New York City, in the late 1950s. We lived in an apartment on Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. We didn’t have our own sukkah and shared the use of communal sukkot with others. There we would meet members of our extended family, friends, fellow members of the synagogue, and strangers. Everyone was cordial, in keeping with Sukkot’s festive nature. We all became one happy family, enjoying the setting, the holiday atmosphere, and each other’s company.

The simplicity of the setting fostered an informal and relaxed atmosphere. As children, we much appreciated the freedom it afforded. Apartments were small and eating areas even more so. We would feel so constrained when our parents entertained company and we had to sit quietly and not spill or break anything at a formal meal. In the sukkah, there was no wallpaper to stain or fine furniture to scratch. We were encouraged to sing and enjoy the occasion, like everyone else.

Sometimes we visited the great sukkot of the Lubavitcher and Bobover rebbes nearby. These were special occasions. As young children, it was difficult to see above the crowd. My father, of blessed memory, would raise us up above his head to glimpse a peek of the rebbe and take in what was going on around us. The rhythmic swaying and singing of the masses of people gathered to celebrate mesmerized us.

I also remember the presents that my dad, of blessed memory, gave to mom and each of us on Sukkot and the other Jewish holidays. It was only much later when I studied Talmud, that I learned that this was an ancient custom. It was designed to provide a tangible means for sharing the joy and creating a spirit of happiness in the home. It gave everyone a reason to rejoice on the holiday.

The meals also were special and included wine for kiddush, gefilte fish, meat, and a cake mom baked for dessert. On Simchat Torah, during the second day of Sukkot, there was also homemade stuffed cabbage. Mom also stocked up on nuts, dried fruits, chocolates and other store-bought sweets for the holidays. We didn’t get treats like this every day and we were very grateful. It fostered our sense that the holidays were a special time and encouraged our observance. It created an atmosphere of excitement and helped bring joy into the home.

Maimonides discusses the special commandment to be exceedingly joyful on Sukkot. It certainly is about enjoying the festive meals, but he cautions that there is more than just that. It is important to invite the less fortunate to share in the holiday meals. Limiting the experience to the personal pleasure of digesting a good meal is not the joyful observance of the commandment; it’s about sharing the joy with others.

There are also other boundaries on behavior that must be observed. Thus, drunkenness, levity, and foolishness are inappropriate. At the same time, he cautions that a person not be too haughty and dignified to express joy. Each day of the holiday observance should also be divided so that a part is devoted to prayer and Torah study too. The combination of all these wonderful experiences is a part of what makes Sukkot so special.

The Talmud states if you do something wholeheartedly, then God will help you to succeed. The divine presence rests on a person because of his or her joy in performing a commandment. The psychic reward of doing something joyfully, with all your heart, is enormous.

I do believe that this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Torah observance. It requires that both the mind and body be engaged in doing something. Thinking about it alone doesn’t do the trick. Mindlessly doing something is also not as satisfying. It’s the combination, which yields a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and pure joy. It truly is one of the secrets of life.

Let’s spread the good vibrations by inviting one and all to share in festive meals in the sukkah. Spice it up with a pithy d’var Torah and the singing of upbeat holiday tunes. When we were young, we participated in sukkah hops, walking from sukkah to sukkah to bring the exultation of song and good cheer to everyone. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the joy of Sukkot.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
 

Academic Prize For Scholarly Form Of Blood Libel: Scholar maintains IDF seeks to maim Palestinians to exploit them more easily.

by David Berger for the Jewish Week

At a week-long conference on anti-Semitism held in Vienna in February, I presented a paper addressing responses to the blood libel through the ages and assessing modern historiography on its origins and impact. The final section, which dealt with contemporary accusations against Jews and/or Israel that some observers have labeled blood libels, highlighted The Right to Maim,[1] a recent book by Prof. Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University published by Duke University Press. The book has now been awarded the National Women’s Studies Association’s Alison Piepmeier Book Prize for scholarship focusing on feminist disability studies.  Even amidst the moral and intellectual wreckage that litters the academic landscape with respect to Israel, this award stands out.  I consequently present a slightly revised version of the final section of that presentation.

At the current historical juncture, the relevance of the blood libel transcends the renewed historiographical interest that marked the last four decades.  First, the libel itself persists in the statements and writings of some far from marginal figures in Arab countries and to a lesser degree even elsewhere.  Second, it has become such a paradigmatic specter for Jews that some accusations leveled at Israel are reflexively characterized as blood libels.

Many hundreds of academics signed a statement before and shortly after the outbreak of the first Gulf War alerting the world to the possibility that Israel would take advantage of the distraction caused by the fog of war to take action against the population of the West Bank “up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing.”[2] The authors cite support by elements of the Israeli coalition for “transfer” of the Palestinian population, identify two members of parliament who allegedly advocate forcible expulsion, and assert that politicians regularly suggest such expulsion.

In fact, support for such action in the Israeli government was vanishingly negligible, and there was nothing remotely resembling a government plan to carry out such a policy.  Even had there been substantial support, the notion that millions—or at least hundreds of thousands–of West Bank Palestinians could have been expelled (to Jordan? to Lebanon? to the Sinai? to Syria?) during the course of a war when Israel was preoccupied with defending its civilian population against missile attacks, and this would go more or less unnoticed because the fog of war would distract world attention, is beyond risible.  The historian Gavin Langmuir proposed a term to characterize the blood libel, the host desecration charge, and the well poisoning accusation.  These figments of the anti-Jewish imagination should, he said, be termed “chimerical anti-Semitism.”  Here we encounter chimerical anti-Israelism.

Most recently, Duke University Press has published Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim, whose thesis has been described as a blood libel.  Puar asserts that Israel’s policy of shooting dangerous demonstrators or attackers in a manner that avoids killing them should be seen as a strategy of maiming the Palestinian population in order to create a debilitated people more easily subject to exploitation.  Written in the highly sophisticated language of theoretical discourse current in certain historical and social scientific circles, it has led a significant number of academics to shower the author with extravagant praise.

At the very beginning of the volume, the reader encounters a preface entitled “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement based on the alleged cry of the unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Ferguson.  While the author, whose support for the movement suffuses the entire preface, does not tell us that the victim actually said this, neither does she tell us that two investigations concluded that the assertion that he did is unequivocally false.  Thus, the attentive reader knows immediately that this author suppresses truth in the interest of political/ideological commitments.

Here are a few examples of the level of argument in this book.

“For many on both sides of the occupation, it is better to ‘die for your country’…than to face a life with a body that is deemed disabled.”  The last part of the sentence is a formulation that would not occur to anyone on either side of the conflict.  Puar invents it to lay the groundwork for the continuation, to wit, “‘Not killing’ Palestinians while rendering them systematically and utterly debilitated is not humanitarian sparing of death.  It is instead a biopolitical usage and articulation of the right to maim.”[3]

Even Puar cannot easily depict the roof knocks and phone calls intended to warn civilians before bombings in Gaza as part of a campaign to maim, but she is undaunted.  Such measures provided very short notice, they were useless for residents who are not mobile, and in the case of phone calls, they appear more like a “’reminder of how powerless [the Gazans] are’ given the control that Israel has over the telecommunication networks.” [4] These arguments do not even begin to address the undeniable reality that these tactics constituted efforts to avoid civilian deaths (and maiming), and they underscore the lengths to which Puar will go in pursuing her imaginary thesis.

Similarly, she presents Israeli attacks on Palestinian medical facilities, ambulances, and health workers as part of an intentional policy to debilitate.[5] There is not even a gesture toward finding a member of the IDF who indicates awareness of a policy of deliberate targeting of medical infrastructure and services because they treat the ill, disabled and wounded.  Since some Israeli soldiers have made vigorous, public assertions of unethical behavior by members of the IDF, and it is virtually impossible that this purported policy could have been kept secret from all soldiers and officers with such inclinations, the absence of such a reference speaks volumes.

Building on a hyperbolic statement by a Gazan Water Utilities official that it would be better if Israel would just drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza, she asserts with evident agreement that he is essentially saying that “it is as if withholding death—will not let or make die—becomes an act of dehumanization: the Palestinians are not even human enough for death.”[6]

It is by no means improper to classify this book as the rough equivalent of the blood libel.  Moreover, its publication and reception point to a development that is no less troubling, namely, the corruption of the academy.  During the Beilis ritual murder trial of 1913, the prosecution was hard pressed to find an academic who would testify that the blood accusation is true, and it had to mobilize a priest from Tashkent who was easily, if cleverly, discredited under cross-examination.  The Right to Maim was not only published by a respected university press.  It bears an effusive blurb from the prominent academic Judith Butler, and when a talk that Puar delivered at Vassar College on this theme was attacked in a Wall Street Journal article, nearly 1,000 academics ranging from distinguished professors like Rashid Khalidi of Columbia to graduate students–most of whom have no expertise in relevant fields– wrote a letter to the president of the university containing a similarly effusive declaration of the quality of her work and her standing as a scholar. [7] Thus, my instinct that a book like this, for all its footnotes and hyper-sophisticated jargon, should be ignored because of its manifest absurdity is, I am afraid, misguided.  Academics who care about Jews and Israel, and even those who care only about the academy itself, face a daunting challenge.

[1] Durham and London, 2017.

[2] See https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2003/01/30/15682691.php.

[3] P. 108.

[4] P. 129.

[5] Pp. 133-134.

[6] Pp. 140-141.

[7] https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScDn20C13D2HcLpZEEawm4XjIeiFuny7UVylu7vrBbF9a3R5Q/viewform?c=0&w=1.

David Berger is Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University.