Monday, July 30, 2018

Basic Law: The Emperor's New Clothes

A critique of  Basic Law: Israel - The Nation State of the Jewish People on the Israeli Supreme Court Blog: HERE

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Becoming the Magi

My trip to Valdieri began on September 8, 1943 – long before I was born – when General Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio had agreed to an armistice with the Allies. Until that day, my father, Albert, along with his parents, Solomon and Esther, his brother Alter, his two sisters Mariette and Bella, and over 1000 Jewish refugees were grateful prisoners in the village of Saint-Martain-Vesubie in the Alps above Nice. There, the Italian Army was effectively shielding them from deportation by the Germans and the French.

On the following day, the Italian commander – who two months earlier had been the guest of honor at the wedding of my uncle Alter to his childhood sweetheart and former underground commander Sidi Templer – informed the Jews of Saint Martain that they could flee or follow the retreating Italian army to safety in Italy. My father, his family, like hundreds of others, followed the Italians on foot to the Col de Cerise and from there to the Italian village of Valdieri. Sadly, as Dr. Susan Zuccotti recounts in her book Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martain-Vesubie and Their Flight through France and Italy, what awaited them in Italy was deportation to Auschwitz by the German forces that had been sent to capture the retreating Italian soldiers and to restore Mussolini to power.

On September 18, 1943, German forces under the command of SS Captain Müller rounded up nearly 350 Jewish refugees sheltered in Valdieri. My grandfather, like many others, chose to decline the German army’s invitation to present themselves “on pain of death for themselves and all who helped them” (Zuccotti, p. 125). They fled back into the mountains. As winter approached, the surviving Jews were aided by selfless Italians from the area around Valdieri, as well as from Borgo San Dalmazzo and Cuneo. These rescuers, many of whom were working for a network established by a twenty-three-year-old priest named Francesco Brondello, risked their lives to hide and feed the hunted Jews. Among those brave people, but acting on his own, was Don Antonio Borsotto, the parish priest of the tiny hamlet of Andonno.

Antonio Borsotto
Father Borsotto knew the dangers. In September 1943, a priest in nearby Boves, Don Giuseppe Bernardi, had reportedly been doused with gasoline and burned alive for allegedly aiding partisans. But Father Borsotto was no stranger to danger. He had returned to the parish of Andonno in 1943, after serving on the Eastern Front as chaplain to the Second Alpini Regiment “Cuneense”. Of the 5,206 men of Father Borsotto’s regiment, only he and another 207 survived the battle of Stalingrad. Yet Father Borsotto did not hesitate. He offered to hide my father’s family in a room adjoining his church. He had already done so before when he had hidden another Jewish family. As my father later learned, Father Borsotto had hidden my father’s uncle Isaac and aunt Stella along with their two children, and my father’s cousin Velvel, in that same room. They had not felt safe in a small village where they feared their presence could too easily be discovered. They chose to move on to the anonymity of the larger town of Borgo San Dalmazzo, where they were promptly arrested and deported to Drancy, and from there to their deaths in Auschwitz.

My father’s family stayed in the room in safety until Christmas Eve 1943, when there was an knock at the door. They expected to see German soldiers when they opened the door. Instead, they met Italian peasants bearing gifts of food, blankets, warm clothing and firewood. And that is where the story of Antonio Borsotto’s extraordinary faith and courage truly begins.

On that Christmas Eve, Father Borsotto delivered an unusual sermon to the people of Andonno. He began by telling them about the persecution of the Holy Family by the Romans. He recounted the story of the birth of Jesus in a manger, and told of the visit of the Magi bearing gifts. And then he informed the people of Andonno that he and others were hiding persecuted Jews. “Tonight” he concluded, “you can be the Magi.”

Some might say that Father Borsotto was reckless. By revealing his secret, Antonio Borsotto risked death, and in that extraordinary act of faith, he urged all of the people of Andonno to become his accomplices. In that moment of revelation, Father Borsotto taught that the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ places real demands upon anyone who identifies as a Christian. In his call to action, Father Borsotto instructed his flock to love the stranger, free the oppressed and feed the homeless. He asked them to join with him in saving the world – to live in Christ even at the cost of their lives.

Four years ago, I began gathering the evidence needed to petition the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem to recognize Father Borsotto as Righteous
Canon Antonio Borsotto
among the Nations. I gathered testimony from my aunts Mariette Tisser and Sidi Sharon. Yad Vashem put me in touch with Elena Fallo, a researcher at
L'Istituto storico della Resistenza e della Società contemporanea in Cuneo. Elena interviewed the ninety-three-year-old Father Francesco Brondello. Father Brondello knew Father Borsotto, but he had not been aware of Father Borsotto’s help to Jews. That was not surprising. Father Brondello rarely spoke of his own efforts. He felt that what he had done was only normal. As he said to Elena Fallo, “It is the teaching of God.” Father Borsotto, too, had not discussed his work. When I spoke to his nieces and nephews about it, they said that although they had been very close to their uncle, he had never mentioned it.

Elena also referred me to Father Luca Lanave, a young priest who had written a thesis about the clergy in the province of Cuneo during the Second World War. In New York, I met with historian Dr. Susan Zuccotti.

Thanks to Elena Fallo, Luca Lanave and Susan Zuccotti, and the moral support and inspiration of my dear friend Archbishop Dr. Richard Clarke (Church of Ireland), I was able to compile a dossier verifying the facts related in the testimony of my aunts and recorded in my father’s memoir, Walking to Valdieri, which he completed on the night he died. I submitted the material and waited. My petition was approved. Sara Ghiladi of the Israeli Consulate in Rome called to tell me that the mayor of Valdieri, Emanuel Parracone, was planning a ceremony to award the medal and certificate to Father Borsotto’s family. I was asked to attend.

And so, my journey to Valdieri came to an end. Valerio, a police officer from Valdieri, picked me up at my hotel in Turin, and drove me and Sara Ghiladi to the Valdieri city hall. Over a hundred people, among them Luca Lanave, the mayors of the neighboring towns, members of the local press, and the students of the Valdieri elementary school, filled the hall. I spoke with Father Borsotto’s family in a mixture of broken Italian and halting French, gave them a letter written by my Aunt Mariette – the last surviving member of the hidden family – an album of family pictures prepared by her daughter, Susan, and a copy of my father’s memoir. An elderly woman sitting at the front said, “I brought food to a Jewish family. Did your family have a little girl named Bella?” I showed her pictures of my late Aunt Bella and of her sons and grandchildren. “And what about Susannah?” she asked. It took me a moment to remember that “Susannah” was my late Aunt Sidi’s nom de guerre. I turned to the pictures of her, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Finally, I was called upon to speak. As the mayor of Valdieri held a microphone to my lips, I began with the opening words of the opera Pagliacci: “Signore, Signori, scusatemi.” – Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me. I continued: “Canto in Italiano, ma non parlo Italiano” – I sing in Italian but I do not speak Italian – and then I relied upon my knowledge of Italian opera to hesitatingly read a statement that had been translated for me into Italian:

“Vorrei ringraziare tutti voi per essere venuti oggi ad onorare Padre Antonio Borsotto … Padre Borsotto diede una lezione di fede: egli rischiò la propria vita non solo per salvare la mia famiglia ma il mondo intero.” [I would like to thank all of you for coming today to honor Father Antonio Borsotto … Father Borsotto taught a lesson in faith. He risked his life not only to save my family but to save the entire world.]

Finally, Don Antonio Borsotto’s name is inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, joining the ranks of Father Francesco Repetto, Father Francesco Brondello, Father Raimondo Viale, Mother General Maddelena Cei, Mother Superior Benedetta Vespignani and Sister Marta Folcia who have also been recognized as Righteous among the Nations for their roles in aiding Jewish refugees from Saint-Martain-Vesubie. It is a small, inadequate but important tribute to Father Borsotto and to the people who answered his call to be the Magi, knowing that what he was saying to them on that Christmas Eve of 1943 was: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:40].

Avinoam Sharon

Rabbi Avinoam Sharon is a doctoral student in Talmud and Jewish Law at The Jewish Theological Seminary's Gershon Kekst Graduate School and a graduate fellow in the Cardozo School of Law's Consortium in Jewish Studies and Legal Theory

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Israel's Legal Case: A Guidebook

Israel's Legal Case: A Guidebook

This volume by recognized experts from Israel and abroad outlines Israel’s legal case on key issues of international law. As questions are raised over the legitimacy and morality of Israel's actions, the authors in this volume see Israel's actions as firmly rooted in international law. These scholars present well-reasoned responses to the charges of "occupation," "apartheid," and "colonialism." They also discuss the legal status of Israeli settlements, the West Bank security fence, and Israel’s borders.

Go to Berman Jewish Policy Archive - NYU Wagner

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Occupation Paradox: Anything but the Truth

On July 15. 2012, Ha’aretz ran an editorial attacking the State of Israel for issuing a military order intended “to deport peace activists”. The paper’s editors take a forthright stand on the protection of democratic principles. Unfortunately, they do so by making up a story that never was. Below, the  editorial confronts the facts:

  “The Israel Defense Forces top brass did not wait for the cabinet’s decision regarding the report issued this week by the Edmond Levy committee. ‏(The report ruled that the entire West Bank is not occupied territory and therefore rendered the Oslo Accords null and void.‏)”

What the Levy Report actually stated was that Israel’s military presence in the West Bank does not constitute an “occupation” as that term in defined under customary international law. That finding is not new. The point was made by Professor Yehuda Blum in 1968, in his article “The Missing Reversioner” (3 Israel Law Review 279).  It was and remains the official view of the State of Israel.

The argument that the territory is not under “occupation” in the sense that the term is employed in international law has nothing to do with the validity of the Oslo Accords. The Accords are not contingent upon defining the West Bank as “occupied”. The conclusion reached by Ha’aretz is simply incorrect and misleading.

Moreover, the criticism voiced in the opening sentence creates some imaginary relationship between the order issued by the IDF and the Levy Report. The two subjects are entirely unrelated. The Report concerns the status of the West Bank in international law, and the legal status of Israeli settlements. The military order grants the Immigration Police jurisdiction in the West Bank. Similar orders grant jurisdiction to the Israel Police, and the Prison Service. In the absence of such an order, none of those organizations would have authority to operate in the area. That has nothing to do with the findings of the Levy report. The linkage made by Ha'aretz is entirely imaginary. It is a red herring created by the editors in order to enable them to criticize the IDF.

“GOC Central Command Nitzan Alon has signed an order enabling the Immigration Police to operate in the occupied territories, including Area A ‏(which is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority‏). Chaim Levinson reported in Friday’s Haaretz that the Immigration Police are permitted to search Palestinians’ houses and detain any person the officer has “reasonable cause” to suspect of being there without a permit.”

These statements of fact are actually conjectures and untruths. The order signed by the general makes no mention of Area A.  The order also does not permit the Immigration Police to search a Palestinian home on the basis of “reasonable cause”. In fact, the order expressly states that the Immigration Police cannot search a dwelling without a search warrant issued by a judge. The assertion that a Ha’retz reporter made an incorrect report on Friday, does not make that report factually true on Sunday.

“The IDF spokesman commented that the order authorizes the officers to transfer foreigners staying in the territories illegally ‏(according to Israeli law‏) to Israel’s territory for the continuation of law enforcement procedures in their case.

Two years ago the Supreme Court ordered the release of two international activists, whom the Immigration Police arrested in Ramallah and wanted to deport. Justice Asher Grunis ruled the officers had no authority to act outside Israel’s sovereign jurisdiction. He also ruled that, according to the interim agreement with the Palestinians from 1995, the IDF has no authority to conduct searches in Area A for illegal sojourners. Every time it seems that terrorists who carried out attacks on Israelis had come from that area, Israel stresses that the agreement places the responsibility on the Palestinian Authority, which has taken over all the security and civilian authorities.”

The report of the Court’s ruling is essentially true. It was precisely in response to the Court’s finding that the Immigration Police lacks jurisdiction to operate in the West Bank that the state declared its intention to correct the legal situation. The issue then as now was not that of the rights of peace activists, but rather the status of the Immigration Police.

“A state claiming to be democratic and enlightened does not issue military orders to deport peace activists, who wish to protest against the iniquities of the occupation. The new order demonstrates the contradiction between the claim that the territories are not occupied, on the one hand, and the use of military orders on the other.”

The argument as to what a democratic state does or does not do in regard to “peace activists”  is not relevant. It’s only connection to the  issue is that the petitioners in the previously mentioned case were allegedly members of the ISM movement. The purpose of the order, as is clearly explained on the website of the IDF Chief Military Advocate’s Unit, is to address the issue of illegal foreign workers: “With the spread of the phenomenon of illegal residence in Israel, the Judea and Samaria region has also become a work destination for foreigners, who reside their unlawfully.”

“If the territories are not occupied, as the Edmond Levy report says, the Immigration Police do not require a military order to act beyond the Green Line. All that remains is to apply Israeli law to all West Bank residents and give them the right to vote and stand in elections.”

This statement is a continuation of the earlier misrepresentation of the concept of “occupation”. It makes the false assertion that if the area is not under occupation, then the Israeli authorities automatically have jurisdiction, But jurisdiction of the Immigration Police is not contingent upon the question of whether or not the West Bank is occupied territory under international law. As long as Israel has not extended its sovereignty to the area, the Immigration Police, or any other Israeli governmental agency, has no jurisdiction there unless it is granted such jurisdiction by the military authorities.  The statement regarding the application of Israeli law is simply a non-sequitur.

"The penetration of a civilian Israeli authority into Ramallah exhibits the huge abyss between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declarations about wanting to advance the two-state solution, and the existing Israeli policy, which is heading toward a binational reality."

This is an interesting political opinion, but is entirely unrelated to the issue, and cannot be supported by the fact that the Immigration Police have been granted authority to arrest and deport illegal aliens residing in areas under Israeli military rule.

As often seems to be the case, the editors of Ha’aretz appear to have forgotten that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to make up their own facts.

Avinoam Sharon

Thursday, June 16, 2011

International Law 101: The Kosher Ham & Cheese Sandwich

The father of modern international law, L.F.L. Oppenheim, defined three determining principles for the rules of warfare: Justification, Humanity and Chivalry. The use of force should be justified, it should be employed only to the degree necessary to overcome the opponent, and there should be “a certain amount of fairness in offence and defence, and a certain mutual respect” (International Law, v. II, § 67).

It should immediately be apparent that Oppenheim’s principles do not provide a precise formula for deciding questions of right and wrong. The principles are essentially guidelines for the exercise of discretion. Therefore, when I am told that some conduct is a clear violation of international law, I tend to wonder if the critic’s certainty is based upon a solid foundation in the law of armed conflicts, or upon a personal sense of moral indignation. I wonder if that confidence might be shaken if the critic were to consider the possibility that deciding questions of international law is much harder than calling strikes in a baseball game. It is like making a kosher ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Rabbi, may I eat a ham sandwich? That is a question rarely asked. After all, the answer seems obvious. Ham is not kosher. But, in matters of law, things are rarely that clear cut. Thus, if you were to get up the courage to ask a rabbi, he might actually tell you that while ham is not kosher, there are circumstances under which you may eat it anyway. For example, a soldier in hostile territory is not subject to the prohibition. So, if a soldier behind enemy lines asks: Rabbi, may I eat a ham sandwich? The correct answer would appear to be yes. 

Military commanders often face such ham-and-cheese questions. That the issues may involve life and death makes the consequences clearer, but it does not necessarily make the appropriate answer more obvious. While the red lines may be clear, the best choice among a number of lawful answers in various, often extreme circumstances may not be.

So, let us imagine that our soldier goes on to ask, Rabbi, I found some cheese in the fridge. Can I have a ham-and-cheese sandwich? The answer would still appear to be clear. A ham-and-cheese sandwich is not more unkosher than a ham sandwich. Since a soldier in enemy territory is permitted to eat non-kosher food,  the answer would again appear to be yes.

Unfortunately, if you gave the right answer – yes – you will be lucky to keep your job. Critics will attack you for telling an observant Jewish soldier that he is permitted to eat a ham-and-cheese sandwich, when, if you had any common sense, you would have told him to hold the ham and simply eat a cheese sandwich. You have shown that you did not see the full picture. You were not sensitive to all of the relevant considerations. Saying that your answer was legally correct will not save you. It is not enough to be right, you must also be smart, and in the eyes of many, you have been proven a fool.

So, if our imaginary soldier now asks you, “Rabbi, can I have that ham-and-cheese sandwich?” you will answer, without hesitation, forget the ham, have a plain cheese sandwich.

Unfortunately, critics will now attack you for putting the lives of soldiers at risk. The rules of engagement were clear: If you are in hostile territory, eat whatever you find. Now you have blurred the lines. What was once a simple yes-or-no question has become a matter of discretion. Now, every soldier in a muddy fox hole behind enemy lines will have to check if and which kosher supervisory agency certified the food he managed to forage after days of going hungry. Once again, you have shown that you did not grasp the full picture. You were not sensitive to all of the relevant considerations. The law was clear. Now it is not.

You will try to explain that while it is permissible to eat non-kosher food under such circumstances, that doesn’t mean that you must, or that eating kosher is forbidden when it is possible. You will argue that there was nothing wrong in telling the soldier to eat a cheese sandwich. After all, it was the common sense answer. But that will not help you. Once again, you have failed.

Having learned from experience, you are ready to try once more.

If our imaginary soldier asks you, “Rabbi, can I have a ham-and-cheese sandwich?” you will call the commanding general and ask him why soldiers in enemy territory are not adequately supplied. A commission of enquiry will be established. With luck, someone else will be blamed. Probably the hungry soldier.

The problem with questions of international law, particularly those concerning warfare, is that they address situations that often have no good answers. Like all moral questions, they do not present clear choices between right and wrong, but rather demand unavoidable decisions about bad and worse. Someone will suffer. Someone may die. You are left to decide who, when and how many. Every reasonably foreseeable outcome will have unfortunate consequences, and so, every possible choice will be open to criticism.

Although the example of the ham-and-cheese sandwich may seem to trivialize the issue,  it is not that different from other dilemmas concerning the law of armed conflicts. Like real questions of international law, all the right answers can get you into trouble.  And so, as in the case of the ham-and-cheese sandwich, the “right” answer may depend more upon your values and integrity than upon clearly defined laws and customs. Ultimately, for a person as for a nation, the right answer is an expression of our sense of justification, humanity and chivalry.

Avinoam Sharon

(c) 2011 Avinoam Sharon

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Iyunei Shabbat - Shabbat Hagadol

Passover marks the beginning of forging the children of Israel into a nation. On Passover, the nation of Israel became free. This event in Jewish history is referred to in various contexts in Jewish life. For example, in reciting the Sabbath kiddush we say: “It is the first among our days of sacred assembly that recall the Exodus from Egypt.” The explanation for the obligation to put on tefillin is that “with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (Exodus 13:9, and see 13:16). And the reason we are given for observing the commandments is: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 6:21).
But was the Exodus from Egypt an objective in and of itself, or was it a means to another end? What is the defining event that we commemorate on Passover?
When Moses is sent to Pharaoh, he is instructed to say: “I have said to you, Let my son go, that he may worship me” (Exodus 4:23). In other words, the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt is not the liberation of Israel for the purpose of being free, but rather the liberation of Israel to serve God. At Sinai, God offers: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5), and Israel responds, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8), and the covenant between God and Israel is sealed. Thus, it may be argued that the defining moment of the Exodus was not freedom from the yoke Pharaoh, but subjugation to the kingship of God. That being the case, perhaps the festival of Shavuot should be seen as the holiday celebrating the defining event in Jewish history.
However, arguably, neither liberation from Egyptian servitude, nor the kingship of God were the objective of the Exodus, but rather national sovereignty, as we perhaps may learn from the promises we recall at the Passover Seder: “I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord” (6:6-8).
It is, therefore, interesting that the only holiday that celebrates Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the modern celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. As for the theophany at Sinai, while we refer to Shavuot as zman matan torateinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – it is not described that way in the Torah or by the Prophets. The Torah refers to Shavuot as hag habikurim – the Festival of the First Fruits. No express connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah can be found in the Bible, nor is the connection mentioned by either Josephus or Philo. It is noted only later, by the sages: “R. Eleazar said: All agree in respect to Azereth [Shavuot] that it must also be ‘for you’. What is the reason? It is the day on which the Torah was given” (TB Pesahim 68b). But is it possible that the reason that the Torah does not dedicate a special holiday to these events is that they are the true subject of Passover?
1.      From the above, it would appear that Passover is the holiday that marks the defining event in Jewish history, but what is the defining event that it celebrates? Do the primary value lessons of Passover culminate in liberty and freedom, or does Passover mark the beginning of a process that leads to other objectives and values?
2.      In what sense is Israel’s identity forged by the Exodus, and in what sense is it forged by the theophany at Sinai and by taking possession of the Land of Israel?
3.      Should Passover be understood as a retrospective holiday that celebrates the past (the Exodus), or a prospective holiday that envisages the future (Sinai and/or the land of Israel)? How might our decision in regard to that historical perspective influence the value lessons of Passover?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion By Herman Wouk, (Little, Brown & Co), 183 pages, $23.99

Reading a great literary work can be a deeply spiritual experience. In exceptional moments, art allows us to hear God’s voice. Not surprisingly, when Noble Prize winning physicist and avowed atheist Richard Feynman told Herman Wouk that calculus is the language God talks, Wouk knew he had something, and it was something too valuable to be buried among the conversations with Feynman that he recalled in The Will to Live On: This is our Heritage (2001).

Richard Feynman had expressed an idea with mystical appeal, philosophical depth and the ring of a catchy title. Herman Wouk just couldn’t pass up a winning title simply because he lacked a suitably grand idea for a book to go with it. And so we got The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion.

A great book inspires superlatives. A truly bad one can be the basis for a really good laugh. But what does one write when an acclaimed author sets out to answer ultimate theological questions, promises to reconcile religion and science and explain faith in a post-modern world, but does not seem to deliver? Not surprisingly, kind reviews of The Language God Talks tend to avoid the book’s content and focus upon the author’s well-known biography, his past accomplishments, and perhaps comment upon his fluid, inviting writing style.

Wouk does not directly answer the questions he poses. In all his meandering through the American space program, Big Bang theory and Columbia University’s famous Core Curriculum, Wouk knows that the clash between his faith and Richard Feynman’s atheism is neither one of religion versus science nor one of ancient faith confronting contemporary culture. In This is my God (1959), Wouk wrote: “Modern theologians now take for granted – as the rabbis long ago suggested – that Genesis is a mystic vision of the origin of things, put in the purest and strongest words, intelligible to the child, inspiring to adult genius, clear enough to survive in primitive eras, and deep enough to challenge sophisticated cultures.” The man who wrote that knows that the differences between him and Feynman are not to be sought in the questions he poses as narrative hooks.

Wouk surely also knows that the awe of experiencing “the language God talks” cannot be rationalized. Explaining the experience of God’s “voice” is like describing the sensation of hearing a musical performance. Writing “da da da dah, da da da dah” will not evoke Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the mind of a person who has never heard it, any more than saying “the people saw the thunder and the lightening and the sound of the shofar” actually provides us with a rational understanding of the theophany at Sinai. Discussing the language that God talks requires common ground. Some shared experience or symbolism must serve as the metaphor that evokes the unique and otherwise ineffable consciousness. The point is made by German theologian Rudolf Otto at the beginning of The Idea of the Holy (1923): “The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience… Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther.”

Feynman’s atheistic gibe that Wouk should learn calculus because “it’s the language God talks” is a more profound insight into what Otto meant than anything Wouk says in his attempts to make his case for faith to the reader or the doubting physicist. Ultimately, the argument must come down to “you had to be there,” and rational argument will not take either Feynman or the reader back to Wouk’s Sinai.

Nevertheless, Wouk, the Columbia-educated Pulitzer Prize winner, seems convinced that he must provide an intellectual argument for his naïve faith. After devoting two books to telling what he believes (This is My God and The Will to Live On) he seems to need to say why he believes. But Herman Wouk the novelist knows better. What cannot be described or explained rationally provides poor material for a work of non-fiction, and all the more so autobiography, which well may be the least penetrating literary form.

The most revealing form of literature is the novel. In a great novel, the characters the author creates become independent of his will, and he must allow them to be what they must be. Although the author is not any of the characters, that sense of what his characters must be most intimately reflects who the author is and what he believes. Herman Wouk is a great novelist, and it is therefore in his novels that one must seek the answer to why, in a world in which one can so easily live without faith, he continues to believe.

At the beginning of The Will to Live On, Wouk wrote that since publishing This is My God, “I have been writing afterwards and epilogues to successive editions”. Ultimately, The Language God Talks is not an independent book; it too is an epilogue – an updated afterward to War and Remembrance. It is a personal note in which Wouk tells his readers that if they want to understand why he still begins his day studying the Talmud and putting on tefillin, they need only try to identify with the author of War and Remembrance. If they can do that, they will know the unspoken answers to Wouk’s questions.

Avinoam Sharon