יום שלישי, יוני 26, 2007


East and West

Just over three months ago, when musing about the states created by the post-WW II partition of British India, I asked why India succeeded, and...

Why not Pakistan? It is almost self-evident that East and West were not going to be viable in one state (lesson for Gaza and the West Bank?)

(But, I wondered, why has even post-second-partition Pakistan been essentially a failed state?) Little could I have imagined just how soon after those remarks Palestine would degenerate into its own separate statelets of East and West.

I have never been convinced that the "two-state solution" was viable. How many states with swaths of another state's territory between its parts have been viable? The US (with Canada separating Alaska and the rest). Not too many others. There is Russia's Kaliningrad, which, from what little I know, is pretty much a failed society. Cabinda has a separatist movement vis-a-vis the rest of Angola. These sorts of arrangements are bound to be difficult at best, if relations with the state between the two separate components are not good. And, even if the two-state solution were implemented tomorrow, mistrust between Israel and Palestine would not go away soon.

The events of the last weeks certainly have not shaken me of the view of non-viability. Which is not to say that I have a better solution. Occupation forever? One state? Three states? Gaza and the West Bank absorbed into neighboring Arab states? None of these looks too likely to succeed, either.

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יום חמישי, יוני 21, 2007


Summer Solstice

The summer solstice is here, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. We Jews have festivals for three of the four major sun-earth events of the year (Chanukah near the winter solstice, Pesach around the vernal equinox, and Rosh Hashanah around the autumnal equinox). I have been thinking about why we don't have one for the summer solstice.

The summer solstice for many centuries has been marked by various pagan festivals. However, there is no holiday on the Jewish calendar to mark the summer solstice, despite the obvious fact that other holidays like Chanukah and Passover are built on the backs of pre-Jewish pagan celebrations (as are Christmas and Easter, too). Nonetheless, as the OC Register (not my favorite paper, but whatever) article just linked notes:

some modern Judeo-Christian groups are reviving solstice worship. [Let's assume the writer intended that to be taken as not worship of the solstice but worship on it.--ed]

"Many of those who grew up in Jewish and Christian religion want to see the modern holidays in their agrarian origin," Lucas said. [Amein--ed] "These green Jews and green Christians are incorporating the solstice into their current practices." [Hey, Green Jew, that's me!--ed]

Some religious groups point to biblical passages that may have occurred on the summer solstice, including the verse in Joshua 10:12 in which Joshua stops the sun in the sky. (The term solstice is actually from two Latin words meaning "sun stands still.")

"There is also a legend that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden on the summer solstice," said Rabbi Jill Hammer, director and cofounder of Tel Shemesh, a Jewish organization focused on the celebration of nature. "In the Jewish tradition, the summer is always about this trade-off: abundance but also danger. The summer is about exile and sorrow and loss."

Tel Shemesh offers a description of its summer-solstice ritual. As for the Joshua 10 reference above--and which my previous post was about--it refers to the narrative of the battles for the conquest of Canaan (as re-told well after the events). Often ancient battles stopped at nightfall (night-vision technology being rather primitive back then); might the battle have taken place at the summer solstice?

"Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still" by Gustave Dore, (d. 1883) (courtesy Wikipedia.)

Some tradition says the battle was on 3 Tammuz. While we can't possibly know (even if the battle itself ever occurred, for that matter), if it did occur on 3 Tammuz, the impending night after the standing still of the sun indeed would have been very dark (being just days past the new moon).

Of course, each of the solar seasonal transitions (equinoxes and solstices) marks an important transitional point for the grower of deciduous fruit trees in a Mediterranean climate (such as the Land of Israel or southern California). At the winter solstice, the trees are in their deepest dormancy, while at the vernal equinox most of them are blooming or have just set their fruit. Now, at the summer solstice, we are approaching peak season for the fruit of the deciduous trees.

The "production cycle" for the deciduous fruits and other crops may have much to do with why there is no Jewish holiday tradition at this time of year. Unlike in the winter and spring, there are few natural forces that seem to contend with one another in "battles," the outcome of which will determine the farmer's bounty for the coming harvest (completed shortly after the autumnal equinox, at which we have Sukkot!). In the winter, we worry about warm days preventing good flower-bud set and about not having enough rain. In spring we worry about too much rain, or early heat and drying winds. For an ancient people being slowly weaned off polythesim, each of these battles was a temptation to stray and "bow before other gods" (paying homage to the god of rain or the god of sun, or whoever.)

Here at the summer solstice--the tension between "abundance but also danger" notwithstanding--we have the bounty of sunlight, the warm days and calm nights, almost no threat of major storms (in Mediterranean climates), and thus little to threaten the fruit.

Summer thus offers few temptations by those other gods, but plenty for which to give thanks to the One.


Source note:

The connection between agriculture, mono- vs. poly-theism, and the Jewish festivals is developed in a terrific book by Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980). There is nothing in that book about the summer solstice, however, because of there being no significant Jewish tradition about this solar event. There is an interesting discussion about Tu B'Av, however, but one thing at at time! That's not till next month.

Much of this post is cross-posted at my other blog, which means I am getting less and less serious about this semi-anonymity thing.

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Atheist siddur?

Wait, that's an oxymoron, right? Excerpts and very lively discussion at Jewschool.

My favorite from the comment thread: When someone appeared to suggest this would be as bad as adding "imahot and Jesus" to the Amidah, and someone else asked if that commenter really meant to equate imahot and Jesus, Amit said:

sounds good to me: “magen avraham, poqed sarah, vetzolev yeshua”

I must admit that I needed to go to the dictionary to check out what a couple of those key words meant, but after doing so, I thoroughly second Radical Cleric's follow-on:

That’s fantastic. I love it. Anyone who doesn’t know Hebrew, this phrase is so funny it should make you want to learn it. ‘Schoiach to Amit.
I think I am going to have to make a point of keeping up with Amit's blog.

יום שישי, יוני 15, 2007


One moon, but never standing still

It's the 29th of Sivan. And that means I have completed my first moon cycle as a Jew!

It also means that Rosh Chodesh Tammuz is just two days away. Tammuz, the month in which the summer solstice will occur, and the time for reading the book of Joshua and its stories of the conquest of the Promised Land:

12 Then spoke Joshua to HaShem in the day when HaShem delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: 'Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.'

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

The last month has been above average on the "busy" scale, with hardly time to stand still and reflect. But the summer is ahead, and in less than a week we will enjoy the extra light of the longest day of the year, when the sun stands still for us, even if just for just a moment.

Speaking of light--Shabbat Shalom!

יום שלישי, יוני 12, 2007


Professor Finkelstein's tenure case

Norman G. Finkelstein, a political science professor at De Paul University, was denied tenure by a vote of his university's campuswide committee on promotions. On the department's website, he is defined as a scholar of "theory of Zionism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Nazi holocaust."

Finkelstein has received considerable attention for a book, published by the University of California Press in 2005, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. The book has generated considerable controversy (putting it mildly). I have not read the book or a review of it, but from various news stories I am aware of the spat he got into with Alan Dershowitz over this book and some of his other work. Dershowitz reportedly wrote a letter to DePaul against Finkelstein's tenure. Now, I am normally quite ready to back anyone who gets into a spitting war with Dershowitz. But is Finkelstein's academic career really falling victim of his own controversial views?

Finkelstein and his supporters allege that he was denied because of the views he has articulated in the book and other published items. If that is the case, it would be a bad day for academic freedom. However, is it the case? I know little about the standards for tenure at DePaul. The university is not really "on the map" for political science. I know of one study that lists the top 200 political science departments in the world (using a methodology that I consider the best of the many rankings out there). DePaul does not make the list. So the standards for tenure in political science at DePaul presumably are a bit lower than in the circles I am more familiar with. Still, when I downloaded his curriculum vitae from his academic site, I was rather surprised. The man received his Ph.D. in 1988 (from Princeton), the same year as yours truly. Nineteen years is a very long time from Ph.D. to tenure, had it been granted. (I was awarded tenure in 1995, a bit earlier than average, but not by a lot.) It is also a long time to have had only two books published by a university press (besides Beyond Chutzpah with UC, there was The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifadah Years, published by University of Minnesota Press in 1996) and apparently no articles in academic journals. I also note that Finkelstein lists Noam Chomsky (who is not a political scientist) as one of his two references. The other is Avi Shlaim, whom I had not heard of before, but who is a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict and is at Oxford. Nothing inherently wrong with these references--the lightning-rod nature of Chomsky notwithstanding--but when one is seeking employment or promotion in an academic field, one normally has references within the discipline.

In short, while I can't pretend to offer judgment on the justification, yet alone the motives, of this tenure denial, a quick glance at his record does not exactly allow us to reject the hypothesis that the decision had to do with his academic productivity and impact on the discipline of political science.


יום שני, יוני 11, 2007


Why Jewish: The Left-Libertarian (or Green) Connection

The following is a continuation of the posting of excerpts, somewhat revised, from the various essays I wrote in preparation for my conversion. (The link in the first paragraph refers to one previous post in the series.)

So, here I am, binding my life to that of the Jewish people. All of the experiences I have related so far about getting in touch with the traditions and history preceded any synagogue attendance, any classes, and even any significant reading about Judaism, let alone thought of conversion. And all of my experience in what is now just over one year since I first entered our synagogue, all the study and preparation, have reinforced at the intellectual, as well as emotional, level, what a correct decision this is. The more I learned, the more it was clear that Judaism was the right fit for the sometimes-amorphous worldview that I already held.

First, Judaism combines a commitment to the individual’s education and betterment while at the same time maintaining a strong attachment to communal well-being and responsibility. In politics I have always had a liberal outlook. Yet at the same time, I have always been dissatisfied with classical liberalism and a modern secular society that too often glorifies individual material pursuits with minimal regard for their impact on the larger community. Over the past year, at the same time that I have finally gone from being non-religious to Jewish-identified, I have also gone from a nonpartisan left outlook to formal Green party affiliation.

The Green parties worldwide are what we political scientists, ever deft at naming things, call “left-libertarian.” Libertarian means freedom for the individual from restrictions imposed by hierarchies of human creation—principally the state. Left means the promotion of social justice and egalitarianism through seeking limits on the pursuit of private profit and uplifting the weak in society.

What is too often neglected by leftists and libertarians alike is that one without the other inevitably leads to oppression. Libertarianism without egalitarianism means the freedom to pursue private gain even when it entails losing sight of the communitarian maxim that “we are all in this together.” Egalitarianism without libertarianism means toleration of an oppressive state that interferes with private life and stifles the individual human’s ability to innovate.

I firmly believe that, whatever the partisan political affiliation of any individual Jew, Judaism is fundamentally a coherent set of left-libertarian principles—probably the most coherent combination of these values ever devised. As summarized in words attributed to Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?" Our Jewish traditions have entailed a remarkable relative lack of hierarchy, especially in the liberal streams of Judaism that go back at least to the time of the Pharisees. The only real hierarchy is that between God and humanity, and even that is tempered by the mutual responsibility of the covenant. We are commanded to look after the poor and the stranger in our midst—left principles—yet we are encouraged to develop our individuality and to make our own choices—libertarian principles. These are fundamentals of left-libertarian thinking. This connection between left-libertarian, or green, politics and Judaism is one that I hope to develop over time in action within both Green and Jewish organizational contexts, and perhaps one day in my academic research as a professional political scientist. The connection may not be original, but it is underdeveloped and underappreciated.

(Other reasons to be posted in the near future!)

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