Hearing vs Reading the Bible

The play between orality and literacy in Jethro

When did the Israelites become literate?

If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai.  It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “ the letters” that God shows him.  Moses quails at his assignment.

But don’t worry, God reassures him, “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign.”

The Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses:  a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.

But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to  the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention.  God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”

One century on Rav Kook Street, yearning for Klal Yisroel

People mistakenly believe that peace in the world means that everyone will share common viewpoints and think the same way. True peace, however, comes precisely through the proliferation of divergent views. When all of the various angles and sides of an issue are exposed, and we are able to clarify how each one has its place — that is true peace. The Hebrew word shalom means both ‘peace’ and ‘completeness.’ We will only attain complete knowledge when we are able to accommodate all views — even those that appear contradictory – as partial perceptions of the whole truth. Like an interlocking puzzle, together they present a complete picture.”      – Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, Ein Eyah

3983304098My grandfather was born in Jerusalem in 1899. He was the eldest son of a religious Zionist family. When he moved to Brooklyn in the 1920s, he lost the black attire and strict orthodoxy of his family, but not his Zionism, and we grew up in love with Israel. This summer, my brother and sister decided on a whim that the three of us would go together, sans spouses or children. It would be the most time we spent together since 1969.

    We AirBnb’ed our digs and found a sleek condo in a new building on Rechov HaRav Kook, just a few steps from Jaffa and Ben Yehuda Streets, the heart of the modern Jerusalem. At the time, I remember thinking there was something auspicious about it, since our great-grandfather was Rav Kook’s assistant.
    On Shabbat, I intended to walk to the Chabad synagogue in the Old City. I took one step outside and was blasted by heat that was extraordinary even for Jerusalem this early in the morning. At the last minute, I chickened out and went next door to Beit HaRav Kook where visitors to our building were invited to Shabbat services.
beitharav
  Beit Ha Rav Kook, circa 1930. Arabs smartly huddle in the shade while a British soldier stands guard and another exercises in the midday heat.  As Kipling said, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen…”
    I climbed the stairs to the shul. Pictures of HaRav Kook and testimonials to him lined the hallway. After all, he was one of the greatest rabbis of the twentieth century, known in the religious world for his mystical writing and saintliness, and became the first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Palestine. He created an inclusive vision of religious Zionism, reaching out to all the Jews – Klal Yisroel – settling Palestine, not just the zealously Orthodox Jews of the Mea Shearim or B’nei Brak. While religious Jews kept the flame alive for two thousand years by yearning to reclaim Zion and rebuild the Temple, in reality it was the secular pioneers that were actually doing the work of building Israel. These mostly non- and sometimes anti-religious men and women in shorts and bush shirts drained the swamps of Tel Aviv, created the kibbutzim, and died fighting the British and the Arabs. Rav Kook likened them to the original builders of the Temple. He viewed them as part of the Divine plan that would create Zion and hasten the coming of the Messiah. For my family, this mighty legacy trickled down as the ferocious Zionism we imbibed from Pop: Israel was the fundamental mission of the Jews, a project so large and daunting it needed all of us, no matter what we eat or how we dress or pray.
    When I got upstairs to the sanctuary at Bet HaRav Kook, I saw a mixed congregation of about 50, mostly Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and a few local yeshiva bochers.

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 8.27.46 AM
Beit Harav Kook. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST). The condo building where we stayed is shown on the left.

After prayers, the crowd dwindled until there were just a few of us left around a table. I introduced myself to the Rabbi – his name was Mermelstein – and the others. One woman launched into the story of her grandfather. He had been a student of Rav Kook’s before emigrating to Canada around 1925. With tears in her eyes, she said how moved she was to be there. It dawned on me that this must have been Rav Kook’s original home in Jerusalem, thus the street named after him. In the mid-1920s, Rav Kook created a yeshiva here (now at another site in Jerusalem, Mercaz HaRav – Center for the Multitude; a Palestinian terrorist massacred eight students there in 2008), but for the last year Rabbi Mermelstein has been reviving Rav Kook’s home and the yeshiva, hoping to create a spiritual and learning center at this site dedicated to his memory and teachings. 

    “Your grandfather and mine must have been mates,” I told the Canadian woman.
    I weighed in with the story of my own grandfather. Pop’s father, Rav Menachem Porush, was Rav Kook’s assistant. As the eldest son, Pop was being groomed to be his father’s successor. But then, Pop lost his young wife in childbirth. He was only 19. Unable to overcome his grief and at odd ends, he went to Rav Kook for advice.
    Rav Kook told him to travel to Paris to visit his uncle, Itzchak Porush, and return after a few months. Pop followed part of the advice and indeed went to Paris, but he never did return. Instead of going back to his family, Pop went on to New York. Why? The question became one of those legendary family mysteries, Pop’s Lost Years, that we raised again and again, each time with ever more exotic speculations. Meanwhile, he eventually met my grandmother Dora Morowitz in Brooklyn and started another family. 

    He kept another secret from us, one that we didn’t discover until almost half a century later: a child had survived his wife’s death, a daughter named Rivka. The grieving father, before he left for Paris, had given his newborn daughter to his parents to watch and as it turns out, raise as one of their own. When he didn’t return, Rivka was brought up thinking she was just the youngest of many siblings, the eldest of whom had disappeared in America. She was, after all, only about a year younger than my grandfather’s youngest actual sister. But a family portrait is coming into focus, one with a genetic disposition for keeping secrets.
    Pop kept his secrets from his sons, my father and uncle, and of course his grandchildren. He never hinted to any of us anything about the story of his dead wife and living daughter. After we find out, we suspected that Bubby Dora knew all along, the two of them adamantly silent co-conspirators. On the rare occasions Pop referred to Rivka he called her “my sister.” He did send money to the family in Jerusalem regularly, even through the Depression when he could hardly feed his own family. Even when things were better, it couldn’t have been easy for a man who, though he spoke six languages, had worked as presser since 1927 and never even owned a car. Yet, no one realized it was actually child support. 
    In the summer of 1970, as I was getting ready to visit Israel for the first time, Pop gave me the address of Rivka in Jerusalem and made me promise my first stop would be to visit her. Even then, knowing he was surely about to be exposed, he called her “my sister.” I landed at Lod (now Ben Gurion) Airport at 4 in the morning and hitched a ride with a grizzled sabra in a beat-up Austin Mini-Cooper. After hauling me all the way to Jerusalem, he dropped me off inexplicably on a side street about three blocks from my aunt’s address on Rechov Bar Ilan. I was jet-lagged and had no idea where I was, so I wandered the empty streets in a daze for another hour.
    A donkey-drawn milk cart filled with rattling bottles clip-clopped by.  I shouted out in my execrable American accent, “Rechov Bar Ilan?” to the Yemeni driver. He squinted at me, his face framed by long payess and a kippah, and I saw in his eyes how alien I must have seemed: a long-haired, bearded pseudo-derelict in bell bottom jeans and t-shirt, carrying a large, neon yellow backpack. I following behind the milk cart down the middle of quiet, pre-dawn Jerusalem streets, stopping as he made his deliveries at every door. It must have seemed like a scene out of Fellini, not that there were many showings of Fellini films in Jerusalem in those days.
    Finally, I came to 24 Rechov Bar Ilan and knocked softly. After a few moments, a startled woman opened the door, two grown sons behind her. For a moment she was shocked, then it dawned on her who I was – Pop had written ahead to warn her – and she screamed, laughed and cried at the same time, clapping her hands to her face and then together and then reaching out to hug me and bring me inside. After all, I was the first-ever visitor from her American family, even if I was a hippie with a yellow backpack.
    Although my Hebrew was bad, I understood clearly one of the first questions she asked me after fixing me tea and cookies: “How is my father Shlomo.” I didn’t ask her to re-state the question, my first impulse.
    “Fine,” I responded. “Tov.
    Over the next few days, I tried to clear up my confusion without seeming stupid, and in bits and pieces I heard the whole story of Pop and his flight from Jerusalem from Rivka’s son, Dani. He was about my age, was on leave from the Israeli army, was more “moderni,” and we quickly hit it off. 
    “My mother grew up thinking she was Saba (grandfather) Shlomo’s sister,” he told me. “Then when she was sixteen, a stupid girl told her she was adopted and her father left her. My mother cried a lot. Stupid girl.” 
    Hiding behind my deficient Hebrew, I tried not to let on that it was all news to me, although I’m pretty sure Dani suspected the truth. Then he asked the mournful, angry question, a question that must have burnt through the generations of my Jerusalem family since 1920: “Why didn’t he come back?”
    I didn’t say, “That’s what we all want to know, too.”
    From the Egged bus station a few days later, I sent a telegram to my father. He and my uncle came over soon after to visit their new-found half sister and nephews and nieces. I know my uncle held and as far as I know still holds a grudge against my grandfather for his secrecy. My father was more philosophical about it, though when I tried to talk to him he just gave me a look and a nod, as if finding out the truth had explained a lot about my grandfather.
    I told a brief version of this story at the kiddush table at Bet HaRav Kook. After hearing it and the Canadian woman’s saga, Rabbi Mermelstein said, “Come with me.” He led the us to the front of the building and we stood before two tall, narrow wooden shutter-doors. He unhooked an old wooden latch and opened them, like the doors of an ark. A velvet rope hung across the entry to a spare, almost ascetic, office. He pulled apart curtains and sunlight streamed into the room, flooding a small desk and bookcases with light.
    “This was Rav Kook’s home office. As you can see, it’s been preserved just as it was since his death in 1935.” He unhooked the rope, and we crowded inside the room. “Dignitaries from all over the world came to visit him right here, including Chagall and even Einstein!”
    He took down a volume of Talmud from the bookcase and opened it on the desk, pointing to Rav Kook’s own commentaries scrawled in the margins. As sunlight splashed across the fine, small handwriting, an entire century condensed into one thick and heavy moment, like a collapsed star. As a young man, my grandfather might have sat in this very office, in that very chair, when Rav Kook gave him that fateful advice to go to Paris, setting in motion a chain of events and secrets that led, a century later, to my presence in this room on Rechov HaRav Kook.


August 2017

[PS: You can donate to help the resurrection of Beit HaRav Kook here

Who will be better for the Jews, Clinton or Trump?

(I wrote this Sept 12, but it was too hot and drove my friends nuts and made my enemies spew intolerable amounts of hatemail, so I protected it behind a password.  I outed it today because there continues to be a lot of crazy hysteria about the Trump Presidential transition team coming from the sore-losing and fearful left. This is not the sort of resistance that will defend us against Trump’s rising tide. Trump’s deeper pull stems from deeper currents. The usual noise in the mediasphere, slapstick attack and panic, empty reassurances and rational defenses and denials, didn’t help avert his rise to power and won’t stop its inevitability now.

I believe this prediction is as true today as it was two years ago. I don’t think Trump has an ideology other than Trump. He is not an anti-Semite or philo-Semite. He is not anti- or pro-Muslim or -Hispanic or -birth-control or anything else. He stands for nothing but his own self-regarding gaze in this postmodern panopticon of buzz and power. Since I am the only person in the world who opposed Trump and explained that his win was inevitable and also why (in my Trumposaurus Rex Acts 1, 2, and 3 in March, May and July of 2016) this one may be right, too. – DP

trillaryThe Trillary (Photo: Imgur)

Based on my 99.6% success in predicting the path of Trump so far, my pals have asked me to weigh in on the subject most on their minds (after the question of whether Trump can really win, to which I answer, as I have since February, “Yup.”)

That is, Who is gonna be better for the Jews, Clinton or Trump?

Well, if you’re seeking the definitive answer, you’ve come to the right place. I won’t keep you waiting.

It’s BOTH.

Clinton might be better for the Jews in America in the short-term but much worse for Israel and thus Jews in the long term.

Trump might be better for Israel, but probably much worse for the Jews in America.

To the extent you believe the fate of Jews is entwined – mystically, sociologically, historically, whatever – with the fate of Israel, you can weigh this in getting the right answer and making your final choice. I think the real question is, Who is gonna be worse for the Jews, Clinton or Trump? 

Clinton bad for Jews

Clinton is gonna be bad for Israel. She is most likely to do nothing to derail the crooked, inconceivably awful, deceptive, delusional, insanely bad, bad, bad not-good atrocity of the Iran nuclear deal, in which President Barry “Bags O’Baksheesh” Obama gave murderous Iranian ayatollahs a pathway to the Bomb plus $150 billion above the table and $1.3 billion (as of today) in unmarked foreign bills on a night flight to Tehran below the table. With the money, Iran will continue to prosecute its promise to wipe out Israel. It will continue to sponsor terror attacks on Jews in the Diaspora directly and through its Shi’a terror proxies like Hizbullah, to show that Israel can’t protect Jews around the world and just because they hate Jews anyway. When they get their Shiite Terror Bomb in ten years or so, they will diminish Israel geopolitically. The Very Bad Iran Nuclear Deal, along with miserable calls in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine, has already diminished the U.S. on the world stage.

Iran will nip at Israel’s heels in the hope of provoking a conventional war with Israel some time in 2026. With my incredible powers of super-prophesy I predict it will be on a Tuesday. They will quickly escalate rhetoric and provocations so they can rattle their nuclear sabers and the nerves of everyone in the world.

Heck. Who knows. Maybe the Ayatollahs are just fuck-nuts crazy enough with Jew-hatred and apocalyptic zealotry to drop the Big One.

Clinton good for the Jews?

On the other hand, Clinton’s brand of rational, left-of-center failed policies are soothing to the hereditary home-brewed religion of many American Jews: racial tolerance, investment in education, and social liberalism. Trouble is, it’ll be done the Clinton Way: you’re gonna have to pay to play, this time pouring trillions down the gullet of failed programs in ever-more-expensive health care, taxes, and education for your children, and trillions in  foreign debt to make trade friends with our sworn global enemies like China. When you wake up to find your wallet slimmer and your children’s future mortgaged – it will be a Tuesday – it will be too late. And no matter what Jews believe now, if Israel is weakened or destroyed, they will be put in jeopardy sooner or later as long as they continue to identify themselves as Jews.

Trump bad for Jews

Trump, well… who knows what Trump will do? He will do no more and no less than what any president would do. As long as that president is a fat, bullying, lying, self-absorbed, defensive, never-been-spanked eight-year-old with over-developed gonads and poor impulse control, who can’t believe his luck at having awoken in the body of a greedy, bloated, pathologically narcissistic billionaire in bed with a naked Melania.

I don’t believe Trump is anti-Semitic or has any plans whatsoever to hurt Jews. He’s almost mishpachah, with his kids’ entanglements and all. In fact, I don’t think Trump has any plans at all except to bask in the panoptic reflection of the entire world holding a mirror to his self-absorption. Why should he think or do much of anything, since he is already getting heroin-grade bumps to his one passion, hearing his name and seeing his image every minute of every hour of every day in every media outlet on TV or in print since at least last November?

Insofar as the sober adult part of Trump is interested in getting more money to build more pyramids to the glory of his name, he knows those hits promise the MORE FOR ME that comes with media attention, as he learned from his apprenticeship in reality on tv, no matter what the outcome in November (BTW, I predict it will be on a Tuesday). What a wet dream this has been for him!

But here’s the rub. His brand of demagoguery has throughout history been bad for Jews.

Lacking any rational plan or ideology or even what would pass as cognition at all, his authenticity and the boastful promises that spill from him are alluring to hopeful haters. Narcissists like Trump summon lizards. The lizard brain riding the body known as The Donald has sung to the awfullest and most ignorant instincts in us all. This doesn’t mean you’re awful or ignorant if you hear the lizard’s jungle drums. I know some fabulously rich, fabulously educated, and fabulously savvy folks who are going to vote for Trump because they can’t stand another minute of Clinton’s garden-variety venality or inauthenticity or lies, or can’t bear another minute of Obama’s failures  and betrayal of America and lies which they sense Clinton will continue, and they are willing to roll the dice.

On the other hand, if they start telling me they know what Trump is going to do, I call them liars. I’m the only super-prophet in town, and Trump’s policy paths are dark, dark, foreclosed even to my 20-20 future vision.

Trump good for the Jews?

Trump will be good for the Jews because he will, thank God, take away their pain at watching the failure and fecklessness of Obama and the Democratic Party.

Also, they will no longer have to answer the embarrassing question: “Without using the word ‘Trump’, name one thing Hillary Clinton has done that’s worked out for America or for you?”

On a personal note

All the red-faced screaming confrontations from friends and hate-mail I’ve received (discounting the run-of-the-mill Jew-hating ones) have been from Democrats who believe I’ve endorsed Trump. When I respond with saintly patience that though many months ago I described and explained the Trump phenomenon on a scientific basis with reference to the pathogenesis of resonant cybernetic feedback loops between public and private limbic regions of the cortex, I absolutely have never endorsed Donald Trump for President.

But the problem with my Democrat friends is they believe explaining is excusing. I explained Trump, therefore…

Their other problem is that I merrily attack Democrats like Obama, Kerry, and Clinton. They can’t bear it. This illustrates why Trump might very well win: Democrats are babies. They are so enraged by him (again, a flip side of The Lizard Brain Phenomenon I described), they cannot engage in any reasonable discourse that might admit that for all her rationality, Clinton is a woefully damaged, crooked, venal, compromised and possibly criminal politician who has done nothing right for the public good in light of which even reasonable people are looking for an alternative, even a bag of vanity like Trump. No, they say, only deplorable ignoramuses will vote for Trump.

Me, I’m waiting for Tuesdays to stop. I hate being right all the time.