Hot Topics

Makom’s Hot Topics aim to ask Jewish questions of Israeli current affairs.

Designed to be short, accessible, and challenging, each Hot Topic attempts to ask us to align our Jewish identity with the ongoing drama of Israel and the Jewish People.

We are currently experimenting with a double-format – two pieces from two different perspectives on the same issue… Comments are welcome!

From Wagner to Zilber – Dikla Rivlin-Katz

 

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Some eighty years ago this discourse arose about whether an artist’s creation stands on its own without reference to the beliefs of the artist – with the refusal of the Israeli Philharmonic to play the compositions of Richard Wagner.

On 12th November 1938 the Philharmonic Orchestra had planned to perform “Lohengrin”. Since Kristallnacht had taken place only three days previously, the conductor Eugene Shenkar decided not to play Wagner. This was not an official or institutional decision: Just the gut feeling of the conductor and the fellow members of the orchestra about the connection between Wagner and the Nazi Party. There were no anti-Semitic lyrics, or anti-Jewish names of the works. The Philharmonic decided not to play the works because of their human connection. Since then the Israeli Philharmonic has never played Wagner in a publicized event. To Full Post

From Pomegranates to Woody – Robbie Gringras

 

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My favorite character from the Chazal period, the Rabbis of the first and second century, is Rabbi Meir. He was a smart cookie. He was married to a strong and smart woman, and was an original thinker. At the same time, his superior intellect made him slightly suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was said, (admiringly or disapprovingly) that he could argue a point of law one way, and then argue it equally fluently the other way. When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.

 When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.

 

Meir’s most famous moral and intellectual choice was in his ongoing friendship with R. Elisha Ben Avuya. Ben Avuya had been the top scholar of his generation until he lost his faith and was excommunicated. In the moral universe of Chazal, to renounce one’s faith was disgraceful. Like being a child abuser in our days. In the Talmud his name was obliterated, his teachings were accredited to “the other”, and no one was allowed to come near him, let alone study with him. R. Meir, my hero, totally ignored this ban. He continued to study with his old friend and teacher, arguing: “When one eats a pomegranate, one can spit out the seeds yet still gain sustenance from the juice.” Quite apart from the fact that this is actually more difficult that it sounds (ever tried it?), it is also more morally complicated than Meir admitted. To Full Post

Iran and Chanukah

November 26, 2013 by

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So while I always get confused about whether we light the Chanukiah from the right or from the left, I never get confused about the cumulative effect. First night is only one candle, second night is two candles, and the final night is the whole dark-banishing lot.

This morning, trying to get my head round the Iran Breakthrough/Deal/Compromise/Capitulation, I was reminded of the old argument about which order we should light the Chanukiah.

Bet Shammai, concerned for the correct and truthful representation of things, insisted that on the first night of Chanukah we should light all of the candles, reducing the number every night until the final night only one candle should be lit. This is in correct and proper representation of the amount of light in the day, which in December diminishes every day. Just as light is falling in the world, so should it decline in the house.

Bet Hillel just could not accept this reasoning. However rational and true, the Shammai ruling was just too depressing. I often like to think that Hillel appreciated the aesthetic side of things: Increasing the light daily is just prettier and lifts the soul. Bringing light to banish the darkness gives us hope.

So here we are on the cusp of Chanukah, with the results of the Geneva talks gradually being assessed and judged. Not being a nuclear physicist nor an international statesman myself, I find myself switching between columnists like one might switch between Shammai and Hillel. Sometimes I see clearly we are heading towards darkness. Sometimes towards the light.

And maybe this Chanukah, as we light ourselves a symbol of increasing optimism in defiance of the reality outside, I might also pray for a miracle.

 

Assassination and Education

October 8, 2013 by

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This year it will be the 16th Memorial Day of the Assassination of Rabin. Every event that repeats itself year on year presents an educational challenge, but unlike traditional Jewish holy days, the shape of this Memorial Day is being formed in the here and now. And I ask myself what will make this Memorial Day into something different from other value-laden days like May Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Columbus Day? Is there anything to be learned from a political assassination? Did the world learn anything from Kennedy’s assassination? Martin Luther King’s? To Full Post

The Paradox that was R. Ovadia Yosef z”l

October 7, 2013 by

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What was the secret of the charm of Rav Ovadiah Yosef?

On the one hand there were his fans and followers through fire and water who related to every word of his as holy; yet on the other, a whole swathe of Jews who saw him as a leader whose statements were hurtful and communally insensitive?

How is it possible that there can be those who saw him as a great leader who established the tent of the Torah, and others who saw him a leader of a crowd of primitives?

How can it be that a man of phenomenal intellect and superlative expertise in all areas of Judaism, failed again and again by shaming and slandering other leaders? To Full Post

Hot Topic – Donations for fire-bombed Islamic Center

June 6, 2013

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An Islamic Center in North West London has been destroyed by fire.

It is strongly suspected that this was a racist arson attack, in “revenge” for the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by Jihadists.

Key members of the Jewish community in Britain have pointed out that the center is in an area of London that is heavily populated by Jews. They have begun mobilizing to raise money for the rebuilding of the center. As one UK Jewish leader pointed out: “There are 60,000 Jews in the borough of Barnet. If every one of us were to donate the equivalent of $25, we would have a million pounds to give towards the rebuilding of the center.”

Responses have been overwhelmingly positive, and a search is on for a charity that would be able to receive the funds.

At the same time, some fundamental questions about the philanthropy of the Jewish People have been raised:

One person responded to the call by saying that this should not be the Jewish community’s responsibility or priority, when funding is short, Jewish educational programs are closing down all the time, and when the Muslim community has not tended to endear itself to the Jewish community. 

Another responded by pointing out that one million pounds would have saved Jerusalem’s Bikur Holim from closure. There is also no doubt that a million pounds would also save a significant number of welfare programs within the Jewish community of Britain.

Where should our charity be directed?

What principles should govern our choices?

What would you do, and why?

Coalition-building in Israel

February 12, 2013 by

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The Israeli elections are not yet over. 

After the public has cast its vote, the Prime Minister-designate must form a coalition. This process, which can take a month and sometimes longer, tends to be viewed with great distaste by public and politicians alike.

Yitzhak Rabin z”l coined the word “Go’alitzia”, which forever blended the Hebrew for coalition, together with the Hebrew for “disgust”. 

Yet it is clear now more than ever that a coalition must be built out of parties who chose to define themselves as different one from the other. How to create a unity out of difference must inevitably require compromises.

Can we ever reach our peace with compromise? Is there a moral and trustworthy way of reaching a compromise? 

We believe that Avishai Margalit’s book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises” offers a fascinating way to begin to think about coalitions, and many other issues in Israel whose solution will require engagement with compromise.

 

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Palestinian recognition at the UN

December 4, 2012

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On the 29th November observer status was granted to the Palestinian Authority by the United Nations.

Israel’s government has strongly condemned this move, that unilaterally bypasses the already-battered Oslo Accords.

In turn, Israel’s responses to the move of the Palestinians and the United Nations have drawn unprecedented criticism, even from those who did not support the UN’s decision.

Israel now stands more isolated than ever – a phrase repeated so often in the past few years that it deserves further consideration.

What does it mean for our nation to be isolated among the other – seemingly united – nations?

Jewish tradition points us in at least two different directions.

The prophecy of Bilaam (Numbers 23:9), that presents the Hebrews as:

הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב  

It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

 

And on the other hand the adjuration from Talmud Bavli (Ketubot 111a):

שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל שלא ימרדו באומות העולם

The Holy One adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world.

 

Which approach would seem to be more relevant and applicable today?

Is isolation our fate, or the result of our actions?

What are the existential costs or the benefits of such isolation?

Who’s Afraid Of The Reform? – Rabbi Benny Lau

June 11, 2012 by

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The first Reform Rabbi will now receive a salary from the State, it was decided last week. Rabbi Benny Lau, a modern orthodox leader, wrote this article in response. It first appeared in Hebrew in Makor Rishon, a newspaper closely identified with the National Orthodox public.

 

The decision of the Legal counsel to the government, to permit local councils to employ non-orthodox Rabbis on the payroll of the State, allows us to open up the subject of funding for religious services in Israel. It is no secret that the deep connection between politics and religion means that religious services arouse both concern and distaste. The issue of Rabbis’ salaries gives the public an ever-growing feeling that there is no correlation between those receiving salaries and the people who are supposed to receive their services. Too many times we find that someone can be sitting in the office of Community Rabbi, when no one in the neighborhood even knows his name. To Full Post

God exits – a portrait of Israeli Jews

January 30, 2012

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Beyond the fact that it has one of the cutest typos in the Jewish world, the latest Guttman-Avi Chai report into the beliefs, observance, and values of Israeli Jews has much to teach us.

Faith

An overwhelming 80% of Israeli Jews believe that God exists (or is that “exits”?), and 67% believe that Jews are the Chosen People. Some more secular anti-religious commentators (who make up only 3% of the population, apparently) have found this worrying, though the survey did not explore people’s interpretations of what being a Chosen People may mean. 

Democracy and Judaism

Most Jews in Israel 73% believe that Judaism and Democracy are not mutually exclusive, while an overwhelming 85% believe that Haredim should be drafted into the army. Coming back in the other direction, 34% fear that Jews who do not observe orthodox religious precepts “endanger the entire Jewish People”.

With regards Israeli Jews’ relationship to the Jewish world, we would point out a few interesting details.

Any heterogeneous Jewish community around the world would be over the moon to find that 90% of the community see Seder Night as important, 60% make kiddush on a Friday night, and even 20% study the night away on Shavuot. Who says that diaspora Jews have nothing in common with Israeli Jews?

Israel-Diaspora Relations

Auguring less happiness in the direction of Israel-Diaspora relations would be the resonant number 48 – the minority percentage of people who accept non-orthodox conversions.

Similar cause for future concern may also be the way in which Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations are not on the list of self-definitions. 54% are Haredi, Orthodox, and Traditional (not the same as Conservative, however it may translate!) while the rest are simply secular – differentiated only by the degree to which they dislike the religious.

As headlines fly in the Jewish and Israeli media, pulling out choice excerpts from the report, we encourage you to look at the research yourselves, and share with us your insights.

The 30-page abstract is here, and the full report here.

 

 

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