The Cantor's Blog-August 9th

Mon, 08/08/2016 - 4:06pm -- lcanfield


Cantor’s Blog

To boldly go where too few have gone before

Bitter Waters

My brother always famously told his grandkids that if they wanted to whine, they’d have to go outside.

For the next two weeks, I’ll be studying Biblical whining at Pardes with Dr. Harold Markose.

He just became a grandfather and received his doctorate in Bible (which he proudly told us ‘in order of importance’) and before he married 33 years ago, his last name was Mark and his wife’s was Kose, hence: Mark + Kose = Markose! (The first couple I knew who did this married a little more recently, Andy and Paula Pepperstone).

He asked us all to rate ourselves on our attitude towards the question of the Bible’s authorship: 1. All Divine. 5. All Human. 3. Divine inspiration with Human input. The class was all over the place (and he didn’t let us get away with easy avoidance). In case you’re wondering, I was a three with the caveat that I think it’s important to read the Torah with the glasses of #1 at times to get the full impact of the document’s intent.

The Masoretes of Tiberius who completed their work of adding syntax and vowels to the final Jewish Bible ended up creating two surviving codices, only of one of which is complete: the Leningrad Codex. The Aleppo Codex had roughly 1/3 destroyed or lost during the persecution of Jews in Syria in 1948 during the War of Independence. Apparently, the occasional scrap can be found in private possession by those who thought it would be a protective talisman in escaping from Syria.

Dr. Markose spoke of the ancient languages that are tools in helping to discern the deeper meanings of Biblical words, especially Hapax Legomena, those words that only appear once in the Bible. For instance, when Esau demands some of his brother’s lentil stew, he says Hal’eeteini na — ‘feed me’ is the contextual meaning but, why not say ta-acheeleini (a more common word for ‘feed me’)? In Akkadian, the root for the word used by Esau means ‘forced feeding.’ Thus the Hebrew word at least connotes the idea of real hunger — that Esau is so tired and hungry that he needs his brother to force feed him so he doesn’t die. The text doesn’t prove, however, whether Esau is prone to hyperbole.

But, on to our topic! There’s whining to be heard!

Complaining in the Torah. We, the Israelites of the Torah, especially in Exodus and Numbers, are well known for complaining. The class considered some of the words that might signify complaining: LUN (to complain in Modern and Biblical Hebrew); KHL — To gather people together (not necessarily to riot but it can lead to that); TZAK — to cry out; NTZY — to fight (as the two Hebrews whose fight Moses breaks up only to be rebuked himself: “Will you kill us like you did the Egyptian?”); MRD — to rebel; RYV — to fight.

Dr. Markose pointed out that both sets of text we will delve into are liminal, transitional moments, times of insecurity: both right after our liberation from Egypt and the anticipation of entering the land some forty years later.

The first text we tackled as a class was the paragraph immediately following the song at the sea and the dancing and celebration led by Miriam.

Here’s my paraphrase of the section:

The Israelites walk for three days and can’t find water. They arrive at what seems like an oasis and the water is bitter; it’s so bitter the place becomes remembered as ‘The-place-of-bitter-waters’ or Marah. They complain to Moses, What will we drink? Moses cries out to God, God throws him a stick and Moses throws the stick into the pool of water, sweetening it. There did God create a legal system and Moses tells the people that they are to follow God’s rules so that the same illnesses visited on Egypt will be avoided as the divine presence is the source of the Israelites’ healing.

The question was raised as to whether the water was actually dangerous to drink or just not what the people were used to. When one really thinks about it, it seems odd that a mere stick thrown into it would ‘heal’ the water unless it’s God’s divine magic (which could certainly be the point of the story). After a great deal of discussion by the class, at least one thread of interpretation emerged as follows: The word Mar, or bitter, is very similar in sound and spelling to the word for rebellion (in 19:10 when a similar story of getting water from a rock is concerned, the Israelites are called ‘HaMorim’ Rebels). Further, in the section of Numbers which deals with the suspected woman, the Sotah, she is required to drink water that is ‘embittered’ (mayim m’ar’rim’) to see whether she is actually guilty or not.

Reading this from a 21st century perspective, the Sotah ordeal seems to be an intentional psychosomatic trick on the woman — if she has a negative reaction to the ‘dirty’ water, it’s because she knows she’s guilty (there are plenty of ‘ordeals’ in the history of the world that are far more brutal and don’t depend on the power of suggestion, such as poison, drowning, fire, boiling oil, etc.). If she’s not guilty, there is nothing in the dusty water that will cause a serious immediate health reaction (unless she’s very unlucky and has an allergy to something in the water).

Since the same word is used for the Sotah’s water as the ‘bitter’ water encountered by the Israelites, perhaps they are simply ‘spooked’ by the water that tasted different than what they were used to and the act of putting the wood in the water changed their attitude towards it and it actually tasted sweeter to them thereafter.

Following this, we are given a hendiadys, a connection of two words that equal more than the sum of their parts (examples include: ‘hot and heavy’, ‘good and mad’): ‘Chok uMishpat’: the idea of legality; further we are guaranteed good health if we follow God’s commands.

Read this way, God seems to be saying, I’ll give you a pass on this one. You’re free, for goodness sake! Get used to the water tasting differently than it did under slavery! I’ll cut you some slack this time.

BUT from now on our relationship will not be based on ‘magical thinking’ like a stick in water making it sweet. Now it will be based on your following my system of rules. Got it?

Again, as my brother used to say to his grandkids, “If you want to whine, you have to take it outside. No whining in the house.”

Based on what we’ll be studying the next couple of weeks, I think we’ll be outside a lot!

The King and His Daughter


Classical midrash developed over an 800 year period in Eretz Yisrael: 450-1200 CE. It consisted of primarily three types:

1. Exegetical: Verse by verse intepretations.

2. Homiletical: Sermonizing.

3. Narrative: Rewrite the biblical narrative, filling in the gaps, in a connective story form.

Rambam said that those who read narrative midrash as literal were fools but that those who dismissed it entirely were GREATER fools. There’s much we can learn from midrash without taking it literally especially if we take into account the fact that those who wrote these midrashim didn’t necessarily assume they were to be understood as Truth writ large.

Some midrashim are popularly believed as actually having been written in the Torah, for instance, that the golden calf jumped off its pedestal and grazed (I never heard that one before).

Our instructor, Nechama Goldman Barash gave more detail to the ‘Abram in the idol store’ midrash than I had ever studied. Apparently, a man comes into the store and is sent away by Abram who confronts him with the question of how he could believe in a physical object that was created just yesterday. However, when a woman comes in with a grain offering, Abram realizes she is truly a believer so he doesn’t dissuade her. Instead he breaks all the idols in the store with a hammer except for the largest one in whose hands he places the violent instrument of destruction. When his father enters, Abram explains that all the idols fought over the meal offering until the largest one broke them all using the hammer. His father turns his son over to Nimrod the king. Nimrod says to Abram, let’s worship fire and Abram says, how about water that puts it out? How about clouds that cause the rain? And eventually, how about MAN!? (Ultimately, Abram seems to want Nimrod to reach the narcissistic place of realizing that he wants to be worshiped himself.) In the end Nimrod throws Abram into the fire. When he comes out, Abram’s brother Haran is asked, whom are you with, Avram or Nimrod? Having witnessed the miracle, Haran chooses Avram, but because his belief is not pure he dies in the fire.

I had known the basic story but not in such depth. More importantly, I hadn’t realized it was all motivated by the verse in which Haran dies ‘al p’nei’ on the face of his father. He dies as a result of rebuking his father’s idolatry to his face. Genesis 11:28 “And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.” I had thought it was a simple ‘filling in the gaps’ of why Abram was chosen as our patriarch in the first place. I’m sure that was also a motivating factor for the imaginative heft of the story.

The classical midrash doesn’t treat the prophets but does get into anything with narrative potential: the five books of Moses and the Megillot in particular.

The texts that we will concentrate on during the next two weeks are the parables of the King and his daughter. Generally the King is God and the daughter is us but not always.

The first one we worked on together is one in which God is the king and his gold/diamonds/pearls are lost but they can be found with a wick that costs next to nothing. Inspired by Song of Songs, this midrash suggests that the Torah, even if it is lost, can be easily recovered if we will only illuminate it with our minds and souls.

The text we were assigned to study in hevrutah concerned the growing daughter of the king who is too old to be addressed publicly but, for her own honor, should have a sedan chair made for her so he can address her there. The ‘apirion’ would have been like the tinted limo of the ancient world. It confers both distinction and privacy. If God is the king and we are the daughter, this explains the need for the ancient Temple in which a representative would be met in private but with distinction and in a central/public place.


Yesterday we studied a Midrash in which God would speak with His daughter (us, the people of Israel) everywhere when we were young but when we reached maturity He required us to set up a special place to meet when we felt it appropriate. The rabbis seem to be suggesting that a miracle based belief in God is not becoming in a mature relationship with the divine. Miracles made sense when we were young and childish but a real relationship with the Holy One of Blessing is made of sterner stuff. Sinai was dramatic and necessary when we were ‘children’ of God; as adults, our relationship must be based on conversation and reciprocity.

In Exodus Rabbah there is a different parable proposed. In this case, God is the King and the daughter isn’t us but the Torah whom God has given the Israelite people in marriage. God can’t live without her (the Torah in this case) but also can’t keep her with Him forever so asks that we (the son-in-law king) make a chamber ready so God can at least be near His daughter. The implied vulnerability of God in the relationship with us and Torah is striking. There’s almost a King Lear situation in which we can make decisions against God’s will and although the divine can object from his chamber, he is merely a guest in our palace. The rabbinic/Talmudic tale of the oven of Achnai in which a voice of God protests the majority of rabbis are mistaken is coherent with this midrash. In that story, the rabbis overrule God saying the answer is ‘not in the heavens’ and God has to acquiesce.

In an earlier text related to the Song of Songs, God is more transcendent and his angels are the vulnerable parties. They are worried that if He gives the Torah (daughter) to Israel (king) to marry that He will go live with them and never come back! God assures them that the daughter will be given in marriage but God’s abode will remain in the heavens with the angels.

Finally, we looked at a somewhat disturbing text that would have delighted Freud in all sorts of ways. I can still hear the word ‘Transference’ in a Yiddish dialect (although I don’t think Freud spoke Yiddish…and his dialect was most likely German). This is also from the Midrash of Song of Songs.

Rabbi Yochanan reports the story of Rabbi Simon ben Yochai who asks Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yose: Did your father ever tell you the meaning of the verse fragment from Song of Songs 3:11: ‘the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him’? Rabbi Eleazar said, As a matter of fact he did! Here’s what he said:

A king had a daughter of whom he was very fond, too fond really and called her his sister. That wasn’t enough so he called her his mother! (All three designations are ‘proven’ by verses cited but the last one requires a rewriting of a Hebrew word in Isaiah to make ‘mother’ out of ‘nation’ l’umi to ul’imi.)

Rabbi Simon ben Yochai liked the interpretation so much, he kissed Rabbi Eleazar on the head.

Once we get beyond the sexual innuendos and discomfort, there are two issues worth noting according to this parable: 1. God’s relationship with us becomes more and more intimate: a daughter is not as close as sibling (a full sibling shares a womb even if not at the same time) and no one is as close to us as our mother from whom we emerge — we are literally a part of our mother’s body before we are born. 2. The idea that we are God’s mother is very empowering one.

It almost implies that when we study and teach Torah we are birthing God into the world.

You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty compelling. Even with the transference.



We began our study today on a rabbinic explanation of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who, we are told, are consumed by God’s fire after bringing a ‘strange fire’ of their own. There are series of commentaries on why they were taken, some explain what sin they committed to deserve it; others suggest that they were actually innocent and such things happen sometimes; others that they were actually holy.

The midrash we studied suggested they had committed some sin much earlier than the last day of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert when they were taken, that they had done something deserving a death sentence already before or during the Sinai experience. The parable tells us that God didn’t want to ruin His daughter’s wedding (Sinai) so delayed the punishment of the best men (Nadav and Avihu) to a time when He would be celebrated (the Dedication of the Tabernacle in His honor).

We began then the study of the story of Yiftach, Jephthah, from the book of Judges, chapter 11. Yiftach is the son of a prostitute and his half-brothers born of his father’s wife keep him away from any inheritance and kick him out of his home Gilad. Jephthah allies himself with other less worthy misfits and social castoffs and creates a viable fighting force (echoes of King David). When Ammon decides to fight the Israelites to regain the land it lost 300 years prior before the entrance to the land of Canaan, his brothers come back to him and urge him to lead them to victory.

He is outraged but eventually agrees to come back with the condition that he become their leader upon his successful military campaign. They don’t wait and put him in charge immediately. Jephthah tries diplomacy first. He argues with the Ammonites that 1. The only reason the Israelites took the land was because they were attacked first after asking for simple passage. 2. They won fair and square — didn’t the Ammonite god Kmosh give the Ammonites some victories too? Are they going to give those territories back to their vanquished? 3. The Moabites who also lost land in this same campaign haven’t come to us for redress. 4. It was 300 years ago! Where have you been all these years?!!!

The Ammonites don’t accept his diplomacy and Jephthah is forced to go to war. Before fighting he makes a vow with God that whoever comes out of his house first to greet him upon his victory will be given to Him as a burnt offering. The language is not unlike that used in the Akeidah story when God demands of Abraham his only son Isaac. It turns out that Jephthah has an only child as well, a girl (whose name we are not given).

He should know that his vow was meaningless — the Torah very explicitly prohibits child sacrifice — but he seems unable to find the ability ot undo the vow, to recognize its folly. Perhaps he believes that, like Abraham, God will swoop in to avert the decree. Alas.



Early midrashim on Jephthah and his daughter are pretty scathing and bold in their criticism not just of Jephthah and Pinchas (the High Priest of the time) but of God!

In the first we studied, based on the story of Abraham’s servant who sets up a test to determine who Isaac’s wife should be, the midrash teaches that there were four who asked God improperly and that God answered fittingly in three out of four. The servant created a ‘test’ for the woman at the well who would be Isaac’s wife. She would need to give him a drink AND make sure his camels were given water as well. Any woman could have answered that call, even one inappropriate for Isaac, but God made sure that Rebekka showed up on cue.

Similarly, Caleb and Saul vowed they would wed their daughters to anyone who could win a specific battle. Again, a totally inappropriate match for these high born young women could have stepped up to the plate, but God made sure the military heroes would be appropriate.

It was only when it came to Jephthah that God responded inappropriately. What if a dog or a pig or a monkey come out first to greet him? Would Jephthah sacrifice an inappropriate animal to Me? I’ll show him. I’ll send out his daughter.

The question arises: Couldn’t God have arranged for a goat or a sheep?

It’s the unasked question. According to two sages, Jephthah should have known he didn’t have to sacrifice her in any case. According to one he was accountable for a donation to the Sanctuary; according to the other his declaration was null and void so he owed nothing. If one declares an unclean animal as a sacrifice it’s as if he said nothing, so says Reish Lakish; how much more so would a child sacrifice be unacceptable!

The High Priest Pinchas could have released Jephthah from this vow as well. But both men were too proud to approach the other believing each was more important and deserved to be approached first. Between the birth mother and the midwife, as the saying goes, the baby was lost.

According to a later re-written version of the midrash in Tanchumah, Jephthah’s loss was due to his lack of Torah knowledge. The midrash follows a similar trajectory (sans the three other examples of inappropriate vows) leading to the liability of both Jephthah and Pinchas and adding their punishments. Jephthah’s bones were scattered and Pinchas’ holy spirit left him.

The midrash further adds a very assertive and insistent daughter, however, who does seem to know her Torah quite well. She first points out that human sacrifices are not allowed. Dad responds that his vow was explicit. She adds that Jacob promised a tithe of all his possessions but did not sacrifice a tenth of his children! Even Hannah who did offer her child did not have him sacrificed but only had him work for the priest.

The daughter goes to the Sanhedrin who can’t find a loophole for her. After the sacrifice God is angry with Jephthah explaining that He didn’t even accept Isaac as a sacrifice, why would he want the daughter? The midrash leaves as an open question why God didn’t intervene for her as for Isaac.

Medieval commentators, with the exception of Ramban, tend to shy away from the possibility that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter. The most ingenious interpretation involves dissecting the words of the vow itself. This is how it is normally translated: “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Rabbi David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra choose to change the ‘and’ in that sentence to ‘or’ as the letter ‘vav’ in Hebrew can be read either way: “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, OR I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” The implication is that EITHER Jephthah will dedicate the first thing that comes out to the Lord (which could include a life of service, a donation to the sanctuary or some other form of dedication) OR if it’s an animal that can be sacrificed to God THEN he will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.

The general consensus among those medievalists that can’t stand the idea that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter is that he basically set her up in a single convent, never to marry for the rest of her life. The ‘Samuel’ option was not available as she could hardly be dedicated to the Lord AND her husband according to medieval limits of imagination and social norms.

Some of the midrashim actually give Jephthah’s daughter a name which she lacks in the book of Judges. One is Sh’eilah, literally Question, for all the challenges she places before her father to dissuade him from the sacrificial option.

According to Tikvah Frymer-Kensky in Reading the Women of the Bible the book of Judges presents a downward trajectory of social cohesion and success at least partly connected with the continual deterioration of its treatment of women. Jephthah’s daughter is an example in the middle of the book. The end of Judges features the abuse, rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine in Gibea in a scene that reminds us of Sodom and Gomorrah without the angels to intervene with the violent townsfolk.

At the beginning of the book of Judges, so we can end on a higher note, Caleb offers his daughter to whomever wins a crucial battle. The winner is an appropriate match for her but Caleb offers her a plot of land in the Negev and she complains there’s no water. He responds with an offer of a far more irrigated land holding.

If only Jephthah’s daughter had been as successful an advocate for her life as was Caleb’s daughter Achsah for her material needs.

Stolen Lulav


When I was a student at JTS my roommate’s car was broken into. There’s a rule in New York that you don’t leave ANYTHING visible in the car in order to discourage such violations. He was very strict about this rule. What he couldn’t understand is why someone would steal his Lulav and Etrog. AFTER Sukkot was over!

I began studying the issue of the stolen Lulav in Talmud class this morning which was clearly concerned with a date palm being shaken while Sukkot is still very much in progress.

The Mishna begins by saying that a stolen or dry Lulav is unfit for use as is one from a tree used for idolatry (an Ashera) or a Lulav picked from a city that has been excommunicated or worse due to rampant idol worship (Ir Nidachat).

As we begin studying in our three-person hevrutah my first question (which has not yet been asked of the instructor) is why there’s even a question about a stolen Lulav. How could anyone even think it might be a viable vehicle for praise to God? Are the rabbis implying that there are vehicles of mitzvah that ARE effective even when stolen? Tallit? Mezuzah? T’fillin? Don’t worry — I’ll ask tomorrow.

The Gemara seems to wonder why the Mishnaic redactor hasn’t suggested a differentiation between using the Lulav the first day versus the second. After all, the Torah verse only tells us to ‘Take’ the four species on the first day. It’s only rabbinic interpretation that extends the mitzvah throughout the week, particularly after the destruction of the Temple where it would have been so practiced.

The Gemara seems to take in stride that a dry Lulav would be unusable regardless of what day it might be used. Rashi says this is due to the general rule that all mitzvoth need to be performed in as beautiful a way as possible (Hiddur Mitzvah) whereas the Tosafoth argue that the specific beauty of the Lulav is connected with the very name of the Etrog (Pree Etz HADAR — the fruit of the BEAUTIFUL tree) with which it’s enjoined. In a more expansive sense, it seems that these four species represent different botanical devices for consuming water and our shaking them is intended, at least in part, to ensure a successful rainy season to come. How could a ‘dry’ Lulav possibly lead to a good rainy season?

By bringing a verse from Malachi which criticizes the ancient Israelites for bringing lame, sick and stolen sacrifices, the rabbis argue that it doesn’t matter what day the Lulav is used; it’s just as unviable for use if stolen as if it were physically deformed. The technical phrase they use is Mitzvah haBa’ah baAveirah — a Mitzvah which comes to us through a transgression. To what extent are the rabbis of the Talmud equating the command to shake the Lulav with the ancient sacrificial system as it is one of the few practices from the ancient Temple we still perform with a similar physical object as we did back then?

More significantly, and relevant to the context in which Israelis live, Jews in particular, to what extent does the rough and tumble of political calculation as it effects religious institutions and practices sully the very performance of the mitzvoth they perform?

I don’t intend to answer that.

By the way, I don’t think the police in New York ever figured out what happened to my roommate’s Lulav.

Sinat Chinam? Dr. Gafni on 70 CE


In the middle of his presentation, Dr. Isaiah Gafni told a story about a Hanukkah TV show which featured him and two politicians back when there was basically one TV station in Israel. Each year they’d invite a Kenesset member on the left and right and a historian to keep them honest in discussing why the Hasmonean state fell.

The pol to his right (literally and seemingly figuratively) said the reason was because of the internal strife of the sons of the most militarily successful Hasmonean, Alexander Yanai and his wife Salome (who served as queen for 9 years after his death). Aristobulus and Hyrcanus disagreed about how to proceed with the oncoming Roman military and this dissension created the opening for Pompey to conquer the Hasmonean state.

The pol to his left (he refused to name either of them) said it was because the kingdom was overextended and corrupt.

Dr. Gafni suggested that Rome was hugely powerful. It had just taken over the Seleucids in Syria and was on its way to conquer the Ptolemies in Egypt and Judea was quite simply on the way.

He posed the following questions: If Aristobulus and Hyrcanus had put up a united front, would Pompey have said, “Oh, my goodness -- let me find a small kingdom with more internal dissension for me to add to the Roman Republic’s growing empire!’? Or, conversely, had Salome and her sons been pious and incorruptible rulers would the Roman general have said, ‘We can’t conquer Judea -- they’re just too good!’?

There was so much to remember in Dr. Gafni’s talk, it will be hard to share it all, but I’ll try to hit the high points. He’s an incredibly clear and focused speaker and helps to sacrifice sacred cows with a great deal of humor and panache.

He began by questioning the very rabbinic notion that the Temple was destroyed due to Sinat Chinam or baseless hatred between internal Jewish factions during the revolt. It’s not as though there isn’t some truth to that but, as he pointed out, there are very few people he’s ever hated about whom he said, This is baseless hatred. They all deserved his hatred whole heartedly.

The most obvious dissension extant in the late Second Temple period was that between the Sadducees and the Pharisees but that wasn’t likely to precipitate the events which led to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. They didn’t like each other but had reached a modus vivendi. For the most part, the Sadducees, despite their greater wealth and status than the Pharisees, were forced to go along with the extra rabbinic rules that had crept into the written law.

But there were some factions that were not so tolerant. The sons of light and darkness, those described in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, imagined a war between them and the establishment which they believed had violated the covenant and deserved to be violently removed.

When Josephus describes the Jewish Wars, writing when the victors Titus and Vespasian are still alive, he accuses his brethren of being rebels from the moment Pompey conquers Judea in 63 BCE. 20 years later, when writing the Jewish Antiquities, at a time when both emperors are dead, he fast forwards to the post-Herodian era when Judas (the son of a brigand who had been put to death by Herod himself) begins the Sicarii rebellion from the Galilee. Josephus suggests that following the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes that this Judas (no relation to the one in the Gospels) comes up with a 4th philosophy not based on any Jewish source, the idea that submitting to any secular ruler is a form of idolatry. His son Menachem ends up raiding the armory of Masada (back before it was the final battle ground of his successor Elazar ben Yair) and bringing back those arms to take over the defense of Jerusalem during the revolt. The Zealots, who are often assumed to be the same as the Sicarii, are a similar violent rebellious group which begins in Jerusalem.

Josephus is careful in re-writing the history of the Maccabees, following the first book slavishly except when terms of Zealotry are used. Those are carefully and elegantly censored from Josephus’ Antiquities.

One of the causes of the rebellion was the fact that in mediating between disputes of Jews and other peoples in Judea, the Romans almost always sided against the Jews. When the Greeks of Caesaria goaded the Jews into a fight by placing an idol at the entrance to their synagogue, the Romans sided with the Greeks. After all, they considered themselves the successors of the Greeks. Similarly there’s at least one case in which Josephus records a Samaritan-Jewish dispute going against us because of a bribe by the former.

Finally, Dr. Gafni writes of the Eschatological (end of days) theology that was embraced by some of the rebels leading to Jew-on-Jew violence up to the last minute, even when it was clear that all was lost, even when the only thing left for the Romans to do in Jerusalem was to storm the Temple itself. There were those who believed that salvation would come from the most desperate of times but only if the evil were purged. Thus there are midrashim that come out of this strand of theology that claim the purpose of the 9th plague in Egypt was to allow the Israelites to kill off and bury it’s own rebels in such a way that the Egyptians would not see them. This is clearly not part of the Biblical story but, as is true in so many cases of midrash, those who write it are generally writing from the perspective of their own times and not the era in which the Biblical story actually took place. The reason it’s set in Egypt is that the liberation from Mitzrayim is considered the very template of redemption by Jewish commentators throughout history. If it made sense then, it would have made sense in the last stages of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.

Being a good historian, and knowing that all historical analogies are flawed, Dr. Gafni didn’t insert any specific suggestions as to whether there were similarities between the situation in 66-70 CE and today.

I think that was wise.

An Afternoon in Tel Aviv


Connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has never been an easy task. Even now, as we head down towards the first Hebrew city created in 2000 years, we are told why the Ottomans chose to connect Jaffa and Jerusalem with this route: Christian pilgrims wanted the route from the Jaffa port to include Abu Ghosh, an Arab town that hosts a Crusader Church, one of the places where tradition tells the pious that Jesus appeared after the resurrection.

The light rail under construction between the two cities will make make the current 45 minute car ride (and 80 minute train ride) into a 28 minute commute.

The feel of Tel Aviv is very different from Jerusalem. Although there wearers of kippot and even a black-hat community in the White City their presence is far less ubiquitous than in the monotheistic capital of the world.

Currently, Tel Aviv is the most ‘single’ city, the youngest Israeli city and the city with the highest percentage of people who work but don’t live there.

The first 5 streets in the modern city of Tel Aviv whose construction began in 1909 for 66 families were the central street of Hertzl with 4 intersecting perpendicular streets: Rothschild, Ahad Haam, Lilienblum and Yehuda Halevi. The first community building was not a synagogue but a High School, the Gymnasia. In the early sixties, Tel Aviv decided to take down the school and build the largest tower in the middle east (at the time) Migdal Shalom, the Shalom Tower. Quite soon, they regretted their decision. Not only is Israel no longer host to the tallest building in the Middle East, but the Shalom Tower isn’t even the tallest building within a five block radius!

Tel Aviv may be the only city named after a novel, Theodore Hertzel’s Old New Land whose Hebrew translation is Tel Aviv. A Tel is a mound of earth that conceals an ancient civilization (Tel Aviv has no such mound but it is intended to represent the renewing of an old civilization). Aviv means Spring which is the seasonal stand-in for the renewal of life.

Yair Lapid, before he was a member of the Kenesset, wrote of Tel Aviv that it was the dream of the founders that it be divorced from the troubles and burdens of the history-bound cities that preceded it: Jerusalem, Tiberius, Haifa, etc. Although it’s a lot to expect Tel Avivians to be as easy-going and carefree as Madrilenos or Parisians (pre-terrorist-attacks), residents of Copenhagen or Amsterdam, they can always dream, aspire.

When the families of Neve Tzedek, the first suburb of Yaffo, decided to create Tel Aviv, it wasn’t because they had a housing crisis. They wanted a new city, a city that would create an alternative for those Jews who felt they had to live in a big cosmopolitan city like New York. We’ll give you New York! They said.

We went to the Trumpeldor Cemetery even though he's not buried there -- it’s on his street. The cemetery goes back to before Tel Aviv existed -- it was far outside of Jaffa and was begun as a way to bury two people who died of cholera away from the city center of the time. Now it’s a five minute walk from the center of Tel Aviv.

Our guide suggests that since Hertzl has his own cemetery named after him in Jerusalem, this one should be called Ahad Haam and stand as a parallel site of importance. They were contemporaries but were at loggerheads about the meaning and purpose of the Jewish commonwealth. Hertzl left the first Zionist Congress stating that in 50 years there would be a Jewish State. Ahad Haam left saying he felt like a mourner at a wedding feast.

Hertzl simply wanted a place for Jews to call their own so they could live in safety from European anti-Semitism. As far as he was concerned the state could be the Jewish version of Berlin or Vienna or Paris, just as a refuge for the Jewish people. Ahad Haam objected that if we were not to invest in re-creating Jewish culture and civilization, the project would be for nought. Unlike the religious, Ahad Haam believed that Jews created their own history and culture and God -- we needed to continue to develop the project for the future of the Jewish people. He observed Shabbat not because he was religious but because, as he said, "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."

The cemetery includes the graves of other Israeli greats including the first mayor, Dizengoff, an Israeli Prime Minister, Moshe Sharet, the poet Shaul Tshernichovsky, Ahad Haam and at least three singers: Ofra Chaza, Shoshana Damari and Arik Einstein.

Across the street from the cemetery is a synagogue with signs asking for help in keeping the city from demolishing it.

During my free time, I went to nerd central: the Tel Aviv Cinemateque where they were beginning a 5 day Animation Festival. I didn’t stay for the films but did buy a couple of keepsakes from the many featured tables of comics and souvenirs: the book of an art exhibit called Eishet Chayil including ‘Wonder women’ from a Jewish and Israeli perspective as well as a cute book mark in which a suitor recognizes his girl friend’s love of chocolate and flowers leading to his buying for her a gift of chocolate flowers.

Since I know my wife loves both but only the kind of quality chocolate that doesn’t come in the shape of flowers, I bought her the bookmark (she loves books too...).

In case you’re worried, on Shabbat she’ll get flowers and good chocolate.