Wednesday, March 15, 2023

In this Moment: Herzog's Gambit; The Heavens are Aligned for Spring; The Shabbat 39


In This Moment

Zodiac mosaic from the 6th century Bet Alfa Synagogue in the Jezreel Valley

Shabbat Shalom!

A late winter snow can jar our internal clocks, but spring is on the doorstep, commencing this coming week. It's not exactly the Age of Aquarius, but the sun, moon and earth will be perfectly aligned on Monday and Tuesday. Our ancestors were keenly attuned to the cycles of nature and the movement of heavenly bodies, as evidenced by the many astrological symbols found in ancient synagogues, like the one shown above in the Galilee. This year, the vernal equinox, that moment when the sun and earth align perfectly so that day and night are of equal length, is precisely aligned with the new moon that heralds the start of the Jewish month of spring. That month later called Nisan, in the Torah is dubbed “Hodesh ha’Aviv” literally, “the Month of Spring.” This Shabbat is Shabbat-ha’Hodesh, which always immediately precedes the beginning of Nisan, reminding us that, Passover,also called the Spring Festival, is just a couple of moon phases away.


This Shabbat we also read the double portion Va’yakhel / Pekuday, which concludes Exodus and also concludes the lengthy description of the construction of the tabernacle in the Wilderness.  It was from this sacred work that the rabbis later defined the 39 categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat (see below for more on that).

So let's get springy for a moment...

“A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward.”

― Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

As I was driving down Westover Rd this week, what appeared to be a very large cardinal came flying across the street. I didn't have the opportunity to pull over, but it was one of those "My God, spring is coming!" moments that emerge from deep within the soul as an uttered blessing. Birds are great conduits for that - even those flocks of geese that gather in our cemetery and leave thousands of souvenirs. Let's just say that a funeral procession this week followed a circuitous, giant slalom route to the grave. Aldo Leopold had good things to say about geese, too. Here's the full quote that was excerpted above:

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges. A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.”

Click for today's (Thursday's) front pages:

Ha'aretz (English) (Hebrew)

Jerusalem Post

Yediot Ahronot

Today's Yediot headline:

"Herzog's Compromise"

Herzog's Gambit

The protests continue to grow, the pressure increases and the tension builds. See (above) the headline from Ha'aretz last Sunday, following yet another mass demonstration. Note the "Handmaid's Tale" attire on the women in the middle. See a pdf of that photo and the whole front page here.

On Wednesday night, President Herzog addressed the nation and laid out the elements of his proposed compromise.

Here they are, according to Axios:

  • Herzog's proposal appeared to seek to appeal to the ruling coalition by including reforms that would have limited the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down certain laws.

  • The proposal also would have limited the court's ability to cancel administrative decisions by the government on the basis of "unreasonability," including the appointment of ministers and policy decisions.

  • Herzog’s proposal would have changed the balance of power on the committee that appoints judges and cancel the veto power the judges on the committee have over the appointments. But appearing to appeal to critics of the government's plan, Herzog's proposal didn't give the coalition an automatic majority on the committee.

  • It also didn't include an override clause that enables the Knesset to cancel Supreme Court rulings. The override clause is one of the main tenets of the government's current overhaul plan.

  • Herzog’s compromise plan also proposed drafting a bill of rights for the first time since Israel was founded, which would have included passing a basic law to protect minority rights, not allow discrimination, and establish the principle of equality, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

  • Behind the scenes: Herzog’s plan was a result of consultations he conducted in recent weeks with experts, think tanks and liberal and conservative politicians, his aides said. According to press reports, Netanyahu was briefed about the proposal earlier on Wednesday and wanted to accept it, but backed off after Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is leading the judicial overhaul, threatened to resign. Levin hasn't denied the reports.

If something can come of this that will lead Israel toward a constitution, at long last, one that protects human rights and enshrines the principles laid out in Israel's Declaration of Independence and the Jewish values embraced therein, this will have turned out to be a very positive exercise. Imagine, Israel with a Bill of Rights! It's been discussed for decades (and here are some of the complicated issues involved). But that can only happen if the government is forced into accepting that compromise, which, considering Bibi already dismissed it out of hand, is hard to imagine still. Some of the prime fence sitters among American Jewish leaders and Likud Knesset members will have to show some kishkes and stand up for Israel's future - one wonders if they will ever see the light. The alternative, as Herzog sees it, could well be civil war.

See David Horowitz's coliumn todayA last, desperate, long-shot plea: Prime Minister Netanyahu, stop this madness (TOI) - Dear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a plea — a last, long-shot, desperate appeal to your patriotism, to your Zionism, to your concern for your place in history, to your conscience: Stop this madness.

We are now two weeks away from the deadline your government has set itself for the enactment of revolutionary legislation that you put in motion, that you appointed a justice minister and a committee chair to advance, that you built a coalition to vote into law and that you defend almost daily and absurdly as strengthening our democracy — legislation that will, in fact, shatter Israel’s foundational principles, proudly asserted in the Declaration of Independence, as a tolerant Jewish and democratic state committed to equality and personal freedoms. If you don’t heed President Isaac Herzog’s call to scrap a package of laws that neuters the High Court, the only body capable of defending all and any basic rights from being trampled by your duly elected coalition, we will mark this year’s Passover festival of freedom as a nation with its fundamental freedoms no longer protected from the tyranny of your majority.


White Supremacist Hate in Stamford

Meanwhile, we here in Stamford have been troubled by a sudden surge in hate-activity by white supremacy groups, including flyers distributed in the Pepper Ridge area last weekend. I'm encouraged at the proactive response of our elected officials and police. One question often asked at a time like this is whether giving more publicity to the act is playing into the hands of the hate group. Sometimes discretion might be prudent, but in a case like this, where entire neighborhoods are being terrorized, a strong, united community response is the most potent repellent. This is not a time for silence.

The 39 Shabbat Prohibitions

Based on this week's portion, which details the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, the rabbis determined 39 forms of labor prohibited on Shabbat. From those 39 come myriads of derivatives. See the key passage below. Then click on the passage to see a packet of information exploring each of the 39 "Avot Melacha," as they are called, the forms of prohibited Shabbat work.

The forms of labor (melacha) for various projects in the building of the tabernacle

(click and scroll to see pdf)

Introduction to Judaism, Session 2

The Bible and Ancient Israel

This second session discusses what is the Hebrew Bible, when was it written and who wrote it. Sources and charts for this and the prior session can be accessed here.

Recommended Reading

  • Finally available: Everything you always wanted to know about Judicial Reform but were afraid to ask (Daniel Gordis, Substack) Professor Netta Barak-Corren — rumored to be closely advising President Herzog — wrote a very balanced, much-discussed analysis of Israel's crisis that is finally available in English. Yes, it’s long. It’s 42 pages in English, more than 30 in Hebrew. But this is complicated stuff. What is unique about Professor Barak-Corren’s approach is that she is clear about what is “broken” in the current system and needs to be fixed, and at the same time, no less clear about why she considers the currently proposed changes very problematic and dangerous. If you really want to understand the essentials of what’s going on here (legally and legislatively), this is the paper to read. It just takes time and focus.

  • Why more American Jews aren’t protesting about Israel right now (Forward) - It’s not like American Jews don’t know how to demonstrate in large numbers. Hundreds of thousands marched and rallied for Soviet Jews during the 1970s and 1980s, and massive crowds have turned out in defense of Israel. In 2002, around 100,000 Jews descended on Washington for the National Rally in Solidarity with Israel. Though they have spoken out against the judicial reform and Smotrich’s incendiary comments about wiping out a Palestinian village, major establishment organizations like the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federations of North America, aren’t lending their stamp of approval to any protests. At the same time, the people who normally protest Israel — largely Palestinian organizations and their allies — don’t care much about preserving Israel’s democratic institutions, which they tend to view as hopelessly corrupted by decades of Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

  • This Changes Everything (NYT Ezra Klein) - 2018, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google — and not one of the tech executives known for overstatement — said, “A.I. is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire.” Try to live, for a few minutes, in the possibility that he’s right. There is no more profound human bias than the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. It is a powerful heuristic tool because it is almost always correct. Tomorrow probably will be like today. Next year probably will be like this year. But cast your gaze 10 or 20 years out. Typically, that has been possible in human history. I don’t think it is now.

  • How a little-known editor made God a bestseller by helping Americans let go of religion (RNS) One of the big questions of our time is: Why is religion in such trouble in contemporary America? And why is spirituality doing so well? Why are there so many spiritual but not religious people? I think Exman provides a genealogy of what I call the religion of experience, which is the most popular form of religion in the United States today. People see religion as a personal matter. They think it’s about feeling and experience more than it is about dogma or doctrine or ritual. They don’t think it takes place inside institutions. They think it takes place in the human heart.

  • Wanted: More Rabbis (Tablet Magazine) Non-Orthodox rabbinical schools across America are experiencing a significant decline in enrollment, affecting both these institutions and the American Jewish community at large as the demand for rabbis exceeds supply, particularly as baby boomers retire and others leave because of burnout. ...Across America, the religious landscape is changing. “People are engaging with religion in a much broader way than they used to, congregational attendance has declined, and affiliation is decreasing,” said Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplain Innovation Lab. “Rather than going to congregations, people are engaging in online groups, listening to podcasts, and spiritual entrepreneurs are making their resources available in different ways.” But rabbis are still in demand—a demand that outstrips supply, even as congregations shrink. This year, like last year, the Conservative movement—50% of whose rabbis in North America serve congregations—anticipates a shortage of rabbis to fill available positions, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told Tablet: “There is greater demand, along with smaller numbers of rabbis being ordained. Also, congregations want more rabbis to do education and engagement work. So congregations that used to think about one rabbi for 500 households now understand that in a time when it’s about relationships, they need more rabbis to serve their communities.”

  • What's more important? Being Jewish or doing Jewish? (TOI) - Conversion is a wonderful, personal, existential choice, not likely influenced by an intermarried rabbi’s spouse not converting. Moreover, while encouraging conversion can result in more people being Jewish, the message that conversion is preferred discourages interfaith couples and partners from different faith backgrounds from engaging in Jewish life in the first place. The net result of prioritizing conversion is fewer people doing Jewish.  

  • More on the ancient roots of the word Aviv, from the BDB biblical dictionary and the medieval commentary of Ibn Ezra. Imagine those first stalks of barley growing, fully two months before the wheat, as a reminder to our ancestors that spring's revival was fast approaching. It is no coincidence that the reborn Jewish nation's first all-Jewish city, Tel Aviv, incorporated that word into its name. For more about the biblical and post biblical names for this month, see also Why Do We Eat Matzah in the Spring? Nissan: Nissanu – from the Akkadian word for “first-produce.” The Mediterranean spring starts with the birth of newborn kids in the flock and the cutting of the first crops.
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