Book Chat: Like Dreamers

— by Hannah Lee

The miracle of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 united a nation, and Jews all over the world celebrated its victory. That members of the 55th Brigade of paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem then led lives that split its small nation politically as well as religiously is the heartbreaking saga on how we have not merited the Messianic age of global peace, Olam HaBa.

After 11 years of interviews and research on seven of these paratroopers, Yossi Klein Halevi has brought forth his newest book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to justified acclaim. Born in Brooklyn, he first visited Israel that June of 1967 with his Holocaust-survivor father (who finally forgave God and re-gained his faith with Israel’s success) and he has lived in Israel for over 30 years. The book’s title comes from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.”

More after the jump.
While writing this labor of love, Halevi was troubled by the singular lack of voice; he thought it meant the book wasn’t speaking to him. Then in an epiphany, he realized that the cacophony of voices from his interview subjects was what defined himself as an Israeli Jew, one with conflicting views. He then constructed his book with alternating voices, allowing each central character to express his thoughts and views as they evolved over time. He spoke on Sunday before a standing-room audience at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.

His cast of characters include the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers. They served together and they exhibited a tremendous level of tolerance and cooperation. One protagonist, the secular commander Arik Achmon, noted how the religious reservists, whom he’d ridiculed as dosim (religious nerds), were keen on proving their worth and how they rose a half hour earlier each day to pray. Once when his soldiers were sent on leave but it was close to sundown that Friday, they chose to stay in camp rather than risk traveling on Shabbat. He noticed approvingly that they didn’t ask to be let out early. He then showed his respect by enforcing the kosher laws in the army kitchens (despite the paratroopers’ sense of being a law unto themselves), so that any soldier under his command would not feel uncomfortable.

The love was reciprocated: when a friend spoke about “religious paratroopers,” another central character, Yoel Bin-Nun, who taught Bible as a way to understand contemporary Israel, rebuked him, saying, “There are no religious paratroopers or secular paratroopers. Only Israeli paratroopers.” In another incident, when he was challenged by a kibbutznik, that if Bin-Nun could convince him that God exists and that there is a divine hand guiding the world, he was ready to become religious. But if he succeeded in convincing the rabbi that it’s all nonsense, the rabbi would become secular. “You’re asking me to give up my deepest beliefs,” Bin-Nun replied, with a smile. “Let each person observe and interpret in his way, but the Torah belongs to every Jew.  Shabbat belongs as much to you as it does to me.”

The disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was caught ill-prepared and lost over 2,500 men and over 7,000 were wounded, sobered the nation. Some realized that Israel’s survival required moral renewal. Two divergent paths emerged, formed by those for whom annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria (captured from Jordan in 1967) was a part of the redemption process and those for whom withdrawing from the territories, termed by them the West Bank, was the hope for peace. The liberators of Jerusalem were among the founders of the settler movement and the Peace Now movement. Another of them, Udi Adiv, became so disenchanted with Zionism that he traveled to Damascus in 1972 to create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground. He served 12 years in an Israeli prison. Their narratives will in time coalesce into hardened political positions.

Halevi spoke of the two promises of Zionism: normalcy to end anti-Antisemitism and transcendence to serve as a light unto the world. He sees the most interesting divide as the one from normalcy to utopia. Thus, both the kibbutzniks and the settlers (who wish to populate the whole of Judea and Samaria) are in the same camp as Utopians.

He then addressed the three failed dreams of Israel: the kibbutz movement, the settler movement, and the Oslo peace accords. Now Israel is bereft of a Utopian dream. Can it sustain itself without one? My rabbi recently spoke about the Torah portion of parshat Vayeshev, in which Joseph is asked to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the baker and the wine steward. The wine steward whose crime was a fly in the wine being served to the pharaoh was reinstated to his post, while the baker whose bread had a small stone was executed. While a fly might be disgusting, it is not life-threatening, but a pebble would prove a choking hazard. The lesson was that a threat from within could be greater than without. A great challenge for Israelis now is to build unity from among their brethren. When they respected each other and were united in their goals in 1967, they achieved miraculous results. May Am Israel re-gain its sense of purpose and harmony and see peace in our times.

Chag Urim sameach.

They’re Singing Midrash (But Not For Me)


— by Robert Margolis

At least there is the music, I tell myself.  Despite all of Christianity’s distortions and extreme misappropriations of Jewish concepts and traditions of mashiach (“messiah) — and we know with what often murderous consequences for Jews and Judaism, there is still (some of) the music inspired by the midrash. For, yes, Virginia, the ‘Story of the Birth of Jesus’ is a kind of midrash — certainly composed in midrashic style, its narrative components selected from the Torah and Nevi’im.  

More after the jump.
On Sunday afternoon, December 23, at the Kimmel Center, The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Handel Messiah maven Paul Goodwin, and with chorus by the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, performed George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah.  This work includes a “Hallelujah” movement nearly as famous as Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”.  The performance featured the voices of four soloists: soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Diana Moore, tenor John Tessier, and baritone Christopheren Nomura.  

Orchestra, Chorale, and soloists alike were all somewhat undermined, if not at times defeated, by what should have been the best ally and support to their performance, the Verizon Hall’s acoustics.  The instrumental music especially did not sufficiently project — it often felt muted and diminished in sound, to adequately convey whatever nuance of subtlety and power there is in Handel’s music.  No sound check, perhaps?  Or was it a need for more, or better, PA system amplification?  One would think in the performance of music proclaiming birth of a “Messiah,” the broadcast of the sound would be of excellent, triumphant volume.

Even more unsatisfying was the noticeably humorless, unnecessarily serious and stiff, severe even, attitude of the interpretation and performance.  Where was the joy?  This narrative is, after all, about a… child.  And a child plays with joy. The performance felt proximate to a child’s joy during the “Hallelujah” movement — for who can pronounce this Hebrew word of praise and invocation without feeling joy? Also in the For Unto Us A Child Is Born movement, I heard a bit of a child’s zetz and freilich I expected. (If you want to hear a really joyous performance of this movement, listen to Roches’ version which opens their CD We Three Kings.)

A child’s joy, laughter, and play, their spirit precisely, is ‘deliverance’ to a music composition so often encrusted with stifling sentiments and pieties, such as Handel’s Messiah. There was careful, cautious technique, yes, and precision tone too, both instrumental and vocal, in this performance, but not the Psalmist’s freilich before the Torah scroll.  

Perhaps next performance of Handel’s Messiah I shall hear a little more midrash, a little less ‘messiah’.  Next Year in Verizon Hall!

2012-2013 is the inaugural season of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin.  He will conduct a New Year’s Eve program that includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, J. Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” Waltz, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story.  Ticket and performance information: 215.893.1999 or the official website.

Hero Lives On Through IDF Torah Scroll Restoration Project

— by Toby Klein Greenwald

At the age of 17, boys in Israel receive their first draft notice. A fly on the wall can hear them discussing animatedly, with their friends, the units to which they hope they will be accepted. There are units whose names conjure up extra “prestige” — like the Shayetet (Israel’s Navy Seals), Duvdevan or Maglan.

But the most coveted assignment, for young men of sharpest wit and strongest body, is Sayeret Matkal — the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. It is an elite special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces, a commando unit that carries out the most dangerous and courageous operations, both in Israel and beyond its borders. The Entebbe rescue, in which commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed, was carried out by Sayeret Matkal. Even to be invited to what is called the “gibush” — the first intense level of screening — for Matkal, as it is called colloquially, is a badge of honor, and only a select few make it past that initial stage.

More after the jump.

In the Lebanon War of 2006, in which 44 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers were killed, the name of one man who belonged to Matkal stood out above the rest — “Moreno.” He was the highest ranking officer to die in that war, and the operations he performed during his career were so highly classified and so secretive that, to this day, it is not permissible to publish his photograph.

Moreno fell in combat towards the end of the war in a complex and secret commando mission, against the Hizbullah, in the Bekaa Valley. Among his commanders and his soldiers were those who compared him to Bar Kochba. One fellow soldier said, “James Bond films pale in comparison to Moreno.”

Who was Moreno?

Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno was born in France in 1971. His family made aliyah when he was a year old and he grew up in Jerusalem, attending religious high schools and belonging to the B’nei Akiva youth group. He studied in the pre-army yeshiva military academy Eli, completed a degree in Law while he served in the IDF, and also worked for the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), before he returned to the Matkal unit. He was married with three children.

According to a 128-page book, Silence is Your Praise, published in his memory, he worked constantly on his character traits. The book’s chapters include: Belief, Kindness, Religious Observance, Leadership, Modesty, Truth and Dealing with Crisis.

In an powerful Jerusalem Post column of August 22, 2006, Caroline Glick describes not only Moreno’s heroism, but his humble behavior, how he lived quietly with his wife and three children in a moshav near Sderot. Shaul Mofaz, former minister of defense, who had been Moreno’s senior commander in Matkal, described how he heard, after Moreno’s death, how Moreno and his wife, Maya, lived modestly, and helped four or five other families from his paycheck. Mofaz also said, “Emmanuel was a man of stature; an officer, a leader, but also an individual of iron will.”

In a series of interviews on the Moreno website, “M”, one of his comrades in arms, says, “He was one of the most talented warriors who ever lived in Israel. I think the comparison to Bar Kochba, [the leader of Jewish revolt against Rome between 132 and 135 AD], made by one of his commanders, is accurate. I’ve known many fighters, but I don’t think the Jewish people ever had one like Emmanuel — for both his faith and his heroism… He never thought about himself, only about the big picture.”

In 1994 Moreno took part in a sensitive military operation in which Mustafa Dhirani was captured by the IDF, in his family home, in the heart of Lebanon. Israel TV Channel Two reported that, at one point, Dhirani had held missing IDF pilot Ron Arad captive, and it was believed that his capture might lead to information about Arad. For years Dhirani would sleep with a loaded gun under his pillow. When the sayeret burst into his bedroom in the middle of the night, he didn’t even have time to pull out his weapon.

Member of Knesset Avi Dichter, a former soldier in Matkal, says, “He was one of the sayeret of the sayeret — a member of a group that was the most elite even from within the Matkal unit. There is no way of knowing how many lives were saved by some of the operations [in which he was involved]. A lot of glory that nobody knows about and apparently will never know about — is related to Emmanuel’s abilities.”

Naftali Bennett, today a front runner for the Bayit Yehudi party in the Knesset and a hi-tech business guru, who served with Moreno, says, “His value system was different. Generally, people have regard for people who have succeeded, who’ve made money, who have a degree, who have military ranks on their shoulders. With Emmanuel, all that didn’t count. What was important was if you’re a good person, how much you help, how much you care about the people of Israel.”

Bennett spoke to him a few days before he died. “He said, ‘This war will wake up the nation, will cause the nation to understand what’s going on…I had the impression from him that he was preparing for something, I had no idea what it would be or when… I was impressed by his calmness…I think about him all the time, ask myself what he would do in this situation or that…and I hope it will help us to be better individuals.”

His brother, who fought in the same unit, said that the last time they spoke, Emmanuel said he knew this was a difficult war and it would require a human toll, “And we spoke about the fact that we both have families, children, but if we had to, we were ready to sacrifice ourselves.”

Another brother, Rabbi Shmuel Moreno, says, “Emmanuel, like his comrades-in-arms, was a sealed vault – he took the key and threw it into the sea.”

Medals and Decorations

Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Jewish Heroism by the Jerusalem Conference. He was awarded the Medal of the Chief of Staff of the IDF. He was awarded the Medal of the Chief of the Intelligence Services for his life’s work. He was awarded many additional decorations for military operations, the nature of which, for security reasons, cannot be publicized.

At the azkara (memorial service) held for Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno, on the sixth anniversary of his death, a senior intelligence officer said,

From a place of anonymity, Emanuel became a national figure, an emulated role model for the nation, for young fighters, for commanders, for comrades, for his family…From a man who lived in the shadows Emanuel became a figure of distinction and renown… From a person who, in his lifetime, influenced military operations and command strategy, through his character and his connection with those to whom he was close, he became a figure who has impacted almost an entire people.

If Emanuel will enter our lives as a mythical figure we will miss the point. Emanuel teaches us about the possible, about how to accomplish today what we did not achieve yesterday. It is about how we will become a little bit better, yet we are still only human beings, not angels and not sons of angels.

From his death we can take with us love, courage, kindness, sacrifice, great faith and great joy among the sadness. Our lives that have been emptied of his physical presence are filled with a different presence…All this we can do because Emanuel is with us. And even though I am not a religious person in the usual sense, I can say that Emanuel can be with us, because God is with us and God is among us, within human beings.

And what is the meaning of God being with us? The meaning is that we, too, are creators of worlds – creators of our own internal worlds. The choice is in our hands.

SafraVeseifa -The Torah Scroll Project

The IDF is a professional, well equipped army with some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world. But Tzahal marches also on the power of faith and courage of warriors like Moreno, and on the mission of Am Yisrael as outlined in the Torah.

In April 2012, Rabbi Shmuel, head of the Beit Midrash of Derech AMI, the post-army Institute for Jewish Studies in Honor of Lt. Col Moreno, of blessed memory, initiated a project called “SafraVeseifa” — “The book and the sword.”

SafraVeseifa repairs sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) that have been damaged, often due to the rugged physical conditions in the field. “What distinguishes the IDF from other armies in the world,” the project directors say, “is that there is a Torah Scroll on each base, that strengthens their fighting spirit and reminds them about what they are fighting for.” Moreno’s family created the SafraVeseifa project as a tribute to his memory, and to the bravery and belief of those who serve.

Derech Ami has taken upon itself to repair the more than 200 IDF sifrei Torah that now invalid. The checking and repairing of the scroll must be painstaking and thorough. The Moreno scrolls undergo hundreds of hours of meticulous proofreading and editing, including a final computerized scan and check to ensure accuracy. The process takes between three months to half a year. The students of Derech AMI are being trained in this skill so that, in addition to their Torah learning, they will acquire a profession. The fact that they are studying in an institute dedicated to Moreno’s memory affords them additional motivation and inspiration in their work of tikun on the sifrei Torah.

When the scroll is pronounced “kosher” it goes back to “active service,” sent to an army base, and a re-dedication ceremony organized by the IDF, a hachnasat sefer Torah, is held. The project is dependent on donations, and the IDF permits the donor to decide in whose name he or she wants to re-dedicate the Scroll. The cost of repairing each sefer Torah is approximately $10,000.

In the first two months of the project, donations to repair five Torah scrolls were already pledged. It is apparently the aura of Moreno’s heroism that is prompting people to take part in this important mitzvah. Torah scrolls dedicated by Marc Belzberg of Jerusalem; Isaac Appelbaum of Oakland, California; the Mizell brothers of Denver, Colorado; and the community of Raanana, Israel will go to the Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon; emergencies and the IDF delegation to Poland; the unit of Emergency Preparedness of the IDF; and an Air Force base, respectively.

Uri Dopelt, who directs the Safra Veseifa project, was recently in the U.S. During his first week there, he received donations to repair fifteen more Moreno Torah scrolls.

The Zoo Rabbi Talks Torah

— by Hannah Lee

The last time the “Zoo Rabbi” came to Philly, I had a family emergency and missed Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s Bible-guided tour of the Philadelphia Zoo. This time, I caught both of his shiurim on July 22 at Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The advantage was that he could show photos and PowerPoint graphics for two lectures titled, The Challenge of Dinosaurs and Beasts of Prey in Jewish Thought.

More after the jump.
Born in Manchester, England and the son of a physicist, Rabbi Slifkin has been a life-long student of animal life. In 1999, he began teaching about the relationship between Judaism and the animal kingdom at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. He has since developed the Zoo Torah program, which he has since successfully operated in various cities in the United States as well as in Toronto, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. He’s also studying for a Ph.D. in Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Slifkin, his wife Avital, and their four children live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, along with an assortment of pets, which at various times has included chinchillas, squirrels, rabbits, guinea-pigs, hamsters, cockatiels, parrots, pheasants, parakeets, finches, quails, snakes, iguanas, geckos, chameleons, turtles, frogs, toads, basilisks, and fish.

Did dinosaurs exist? The Rabbi showed an impressive life-size display from one of the prominent science museums in this country and stated baldly that it’s all fake. To gasps of disbelief, he calmly clarified himself by explaining that the actual fossil bones are too delicate to present to the general public. So, how do we know they’d existed? From the fossil bones, footprints, eggs, and excrement left behind. (Although when he visited Dinosaur Ridge, Colorado, he was nonplussed by how many of the local residents had never bothered to see the famous footprints in their neighborhood.) He then passed around a baby tooth from a Spinosaurus which he said was 100 million and seven months old (because he’d obtained it seven months ago!). The crucial point was that in all the areas with dinosaur bones, there were no other bones of co-existing creatures.

What is the lesson is this? Rabbi Slifkin offered the most popular theories before citing the one that was most cogent. One is that God created the world with dinosaur bones in it. Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz in Derush Ohr HaChayyim notes that when the Bible says: “…and it was evening, and it was morning,” this implied that there had been other epochs. And the Mishnah refers to iguanodons that were 15 feet high and megalosauruses that were meat-eaters. Finally, the Kabbalah mentions destroyed worlds. But why would HaShem tease us so?

The second perspective is represented by Rabbi Eli Munk in The Seven Days of the Beginning, who notes that when the Bible states that six days occurred before the creation of Man, how long was a day before the Sun?  The latter came into being on Day Four, after vegetation was created on Day Three. Yom could refer to “an era,” just as “day” can refer to more than 24 hours as in The Day of the Jackal, the English thriller novel and movie of that name. So, six days can refer to billions of years and a shifting sense of time. However, says Rabbi Slifkin, this approach undermines the Torah by implying that nothing was learned or was accurate until science validated it.

The true value of Torah is as theological pedagogy, says Rabbi Slifkin. What was concurrent at the time of the Bible?  For example, the Babylonians’ creation tale is about a clash of the titans, deities who battle it out with each other. The goal of the Torah is to teach monotheism, that one God had created Everything. The Biblical message of the six days of creation is to create the setting for Man: History began with Man. All pagans worship the Sun, but in the Torah, the Sun appears only on Day Four.

What about the taninim, great reptiles, that appear in Genesis?  Yes, but they live only in the water. Pagans believe in great monsters of the sea, but the Torah demythologizes these legends, by placing them within the company of other creatures.

So, the important question is not where are the dinosaurs in the Torah? A better quest is what can we learn from the dinosaurs? There are several hypotheses about how the dinosaurs became extinct. The popular one is that a giant meteor or comet crashed — perhaps near the Gulf of Mexico — blotted out the sun, and flooded the land where the dinosaurs lived. However, this approach does not serve us well, as current science indicates that we’d have only one day’s notice before such meteor could strike again.

No, it’s a lesson of humility, says Rabbi Slifkin. Another lesson is that while dinosaurs, a term commonly used to refer to something obsolete, became extinct, Judaism is an ancient tradition that has survived — and thrived — into modernity.

The second shiur focused on contemporary creatures of prey, mostly on the bear, which is often cited as a symbol of anger in Jewish texts. Why is that?  Adult bears can weigh between 400 – 500 pounds, while the newborn cubs weigh less than half a pound. So, a mother bear has to invest a lot of time and energy into nurturing its young, thus forming a fierce bond. Anyone who threatens its young faces its wrath.

In the Biblical book of Daniel [7:2-5], Persia and Medea are represented by bears, Babylon by a lion, and Greece by a leopard. In the Talmud, Persians are said to eat and drink like a bear [Megillah 11a]. As we all know, bears hibernate in the winter, but in the spring and summer months they feast ravenously and indiscriminately. In the autumn, in a race against time to pack in calories before winter hits, bears can eat continuously; they can eat up to 200 pounds of berries in one day. Similarly, the Persians of Megillat Esther — as in the week-long feasts of King Achashverosh — are human examples of gluttony.

Another use of bear imagery is the creature that attacks when it is caught unawares. A brown bear is dangerous when it is surprised, when it thinks it’s being attacked. When one is careless in bear country, that’s the time when one could surprise a bear and cause it to attack. So, the Biblical Joseph’s death is attributed to “a wild beast [that] has consumed him.” A stronger imagery is when the Midrash Bereshit describes Potiphar’s wife as a bear, because Joseph was so carefree in Pharoah’s domain that he could curl his hair, thus God sets her against him [Rashi, Genesis 39:6]. Similarly, Jews in Persia were not on their guard.

Finally, the lesson of the Torah on bears is contrary to the rising popularity of the notion of mutual respect, that “if you love them, they’d love you back.”  As with wild animals, so with human enemies. Jews should know our enemies, but we should not delude ourselves that they’d love us back were we to love them.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin maintains two websites, zootorah.com and rationalistjudaism.com. You may download a sample chapter from the four-volume The Torah Encyclopedia of Animal Kingdom, to which Rabbi Slifkin has devoted over a decade of scholarship.