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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Democracy Still Matters

In his explanation of why democracy has lost its luster (in his mind and the minds of those who take him seriously) Roger Cohen, perhaps the most clueless columnist ever to write for the NY Times, writes: "Democracies seemed blocked, as in Belgium, or corrupted, as in Israel, or parodies, as in Italy, or paralyzed, as in the Netherlands."

Even though the generally clueless Cohen has been complimentary in regard to Ahmadinejad's Iiran, I was surprised at his unjustified swipe at Israel until he went on to advise us to "read the remarkable Tony Judt" whom he describes as: "a British intellectual transposed to New York whose rigorous spirit of inquiry epitomized Anglo-American liberal civilization".

When a person holds that opinion of Tony Judt - the reformed Marxist who repented his youthful Zionism and undesired Judaism by advocating the destruction of the state of Israel - it is understandable why he might take every opportunity to take gratuitous and irrelevant swipes at Israel. What isn't clear is why the Times publishes him. Is the readership of the Times truly made up of America's intellectually challenged?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How I Became An Evil Settler

Ha'aretz 13 September 2020:

I am a "settler." Because I am a settler, artists and members of the academic community - some of whom are my close friends - have decided to boycott my home. I am a settler, the archetypical Other of Israeli evil.

Otherness is the darling of people who hate. It allows people of every stripe, left, right and center, to dissociate from certain people as a dehumanized class without thought or regret, and to hate without pangs of guilt. Throughout history, Jews have played the role of Other. In the world community today, Israel itself often plays the role of Other. Now I am the Other. I am the Other because I am a "settler," and in the eyes of some, that is what defines me.

How did I become this embodiment of all that is wrong and unjust?

When I married, I had hoped to continue to live in Jerusalem, to raise my family in the city in which I had grown up. But the Israeli Government had different ideas. By the time I married, successive Israeli Governments - left and right - had pursued a policy of discouraging young couples from purchasing homes in the major cities, and of directing them to development towns and to the Territories. It was a policy that, for example, made it necessary for a young couple to put up as much as 60 percent of the purchase price of an apartment in cash in order to qualify for a mortgage or other housing loans, while providing free land and subsidized housing assistance of 85 percent and more of the cost of a home in "areas of national priority."

My wife and I did not want to live in an area of national priority. We didn’t want to leave Jerusalem. But after moving from one rented flat to another four times in five years, I wrote to the Minister of Housing. He replied. He advised me that generous incentives were available to those who moved to rural communities and to the Territories.

Like many in our situation, we began to look. We found a small community near the Green Line, overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport - a settlement "in the national consensus." It was a community that had been built after the Government had convinced the Supreme Court that it was absolutely needed to serve vital interests of national security.

Despite the high-sounding pronouncements of the politically correct, greater legal minds than Oded Kotler, Zeev Sternhell, Cynthia Nixon and Mandy Patinkin had determined that there was nothing illegal about building my home. And even after the Government of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin announced a policy of "drying up" the settlements, my community continued to receive preferential loans, grants and generous incentives from his Government.

But things have changed. Negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state have turned me and my neighbors into political pawns. The security barrier now separates us physically from the State of Israel. The two policies have contributed to rendering my home a valueless asset, an economic trap - a prison. Yet, no Israeli government, left, right or center, has been willing to state what will become of me or of my neighbors.

Like most settlers, I am a Zionist. I believe that settling the Land of Israel is about national self-determination. I believe - in true Zionist tradition - that Zionism is about Jewish national sovereignty in the Jewish homeland, not about its specific borders. I believe that the so-called "settler leaders" who declare their determination to remain in their communities even if they become part of a Palestinian state, represent a misguided minority that puts the Land of Israel before Jewish sovereignty. Their messianic view is not Zionism at all. It is a betrayal of Zionism.

A Zionist, by virtue of his ideals, must say that if the duly elected Government of the State of Israel has decided that a particular piece of territory is to be relinquished to another sovereign, or that a particular community does not serve the national interest, then he will move to a place where the Jewish national interest will be realized. The opposite statement is anti-Zionist.

Nevertheless, I am now dismissed as an irredeemable Other - unworthy of education, of culture and of support. I am condemned for my choices by those who have robbed me of choice. The signatories of the various petitions and supporters of the boycotts might bear in mind why I have become the object of their anger, hate and condemnation. It is because, like them, I dreamt and continue to dream of a better Israel. It is because, by and large, we value the same ideals. So, when they accuse me, they should bear in mind that I am guilty only by association with them.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

J. Weiner, A. Sharon & M. Morrison, Peacekeepers: Will They Advance Any Prospective Arab-Israeli Peace Agreement?

I . I n t r o d u c t i o n

The establishment of a peacekeeping force is widely accepted to be an essential part of any future Israeli-Palestinian peace. The final-status settlement proposed by the Clinton administration specified “security arrangements that would be built around an international presence.” In discussing the issue of security, American diplomat Dennis Ross, who was one of the American negotiators of the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the 1997 Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, and who served as President Clinton’s Middle East coordinator, has written: “The key lies in an international presence that can only be withdrawn by the agreement of both sides.”

Among the most prominent nongovernmental initiatives recommending the inclusion of peacekeeping forces are the “Geneva Accord” and the Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking, entitled “A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement,” drafted and signed by ten former senior U.S. government officials and presented to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama (the “Bipartisan Statement”).

Although the need for a peacekeeping force appears to enjoy broad support, it should be noted that the “Road Map”5 proposed by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations (together “the Quartet”) in 2003 does not suggest the inclusion of peacekeeping forces, although it does envisage a monitoring mechanism for its interim phases. Similarly, the 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative” does not include any mention of peacekeeping forces. Tellingly, however, former U.S. National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both of whom were among the authors of the Bipartisan Statement, have pointed out the need for supplementing the initiative with a multinational peacekeeping force.
It is against this background that the authors set out to examine, from an Israeli perspective, the feasibility of establishing a form of multinational peacekeeping force as part of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

For entire article click here

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A modest proposal for solving the kosher slaughter problem

One morning, when I was a child suffering from one or another of those children’s illnesses, our family doctor stopped by to see how I was faring before he left for a brief vacation. “Where are you going,” my mother asked. “Hunting,” the doctor replied. And in that lack of politically correct tact so typical of youth, I blurted out: “Jews don’t hunt!”

I was reminded of that recently, when I read of the decision of the New Zealand government to ban kosher slaughter – shehita – under the Animal Welfare Commercial Slaughter Code. I wondered if we, as Jews, should not be more understanding of New Zealand’s sincere desire to address the issue of cruelty to animals. The requirements of kosher slaughter are intended to minimize suffering. If stunning or some other method might reduce suffering even by a minute amount, should we not try to find ways to address that positively?

Clearly, New Zealand’s motives are pure. New Zealand is not Switzerland, where the hypocritical ban on shehita was prompted by historic anti-Semitism. Indeed, around the time the Swiss first set about outlawing kosher meat, they also began the process of creating forty-one federal hunting reserves so the compassionate Swiss could kill animals for sport.

But we are not concerned with the Swiss, but rather with New Zealand, which has admirably followed in the concerned footsteps of Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Spain.

Well, actually Spain should not be in the list at all. Spain only prohibits shehita of cattle. It would seem that Spanish sensibilities require that you first stun cattle before slaughter, unless you wish to torture the beasts in the corrida de toros.

As for Iceland, well, the Icelandic Hunting Club will be glad to help you hunt reindeer and seal, and boasts that its clients have achieved 100% success. Maybe Iceland isn’t a good example of a shehita ban that is not hypocritical. Maybe not Norway, either. In addition to offering the opportunity to hunt such big game as moose and reindeer, Norway offers the thrill of watching dogs chase deer to exhaustion.

I GUESS this leaves Sweden. Now, according to the official website, Sweden views hunting as “a wise, long-term use of renewable natural resources.”

Sweden recommends that people who wish to shoot moose first visit a moose-hunting training range. To ensure that a maimed animal does not suffer unnecessarily from a poorly placed shot, hunters of hoofed animals are required to have a trained tracker dog available on two-hour notice. After all, we wouldn’t want a wounded moose to suffer more than a few hours before it is dispatched by a conservation-minded hunter.

It would seem then that New Zealand stands alone in its sincere desire to prevent cruelty to animals by banning kosher slaughter. At least so one might suspect until one Googles “hunting New Zealand” and discovers “the ultimate New Zealand red stag trophy hunting experience.”

New Zealand Fish and Game describes game bird hunting as “one of the great social recreational sports where rewarding friendships are made and maintained for many years.” New Zealand sells hunting licences to adults over 18, to juniors between the ages of 12 and 18, and even offers hunting licenses for children under 12. It would seem that for the squeamish New Zealanders, kosher slaughter of chickens and cattle for food is more morally repugnant than taking children out for a day of fun and camaraderie, shooting animals with a bow and arrow so that they can hang antlers over their beds.

In looking at the laws and policies of the countries that ban kosher slaughter, one gets the feeling that there must be one of two underlying motivations: either anti-Semitism or a desire to regulate hunting and collect hunting license fees.

I am sure that all would loudly deny any anti-Semitic motive, even despite historical evidence to the contrary. That, of course, leaves only the desire to regulate hunting. And so I would like to suggest a proposal for solving the kosher slaughter problem.

I would recommend that Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Iceland and Norway recognize kosher slaughter as “Jewish ritual hunting.”

Spain can simply refer to kosher slaughterers as matadors.

By so doing, shehita will become an integral part of the sporting culture of each nation. It will contribute to the wise, long-term use of renewable natural resources and encourage camaraderie. Compassionately slaughtered kosher meat will become as socially acceptable as the venison cut from hunted deer, decorative antlers or the meat of bulls ritually tortured in the ring.

If this modest proposal will not mitigate suffering, at least it may serve to lessen hypocrisy.

Avinoam Sharon

The Jerusaelm Post 16 June 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Block Aid?

Strident demands to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza have been met with forceful arguments that lifting the blockade will endanger Israeli security. Both sides appear to assume that the end of Israel’s naval blockade will open the seaways and permit the free passage of goods to Gaza. While one side believes that this will bring unimpeded humanitarian relief to the residents of Gaza, the other believes that it will lead to the unhindered passage of advanced weaponry to the Hamas. The truth of the assumptions and assertions of both sides appears to be obvious. But upon examination, the assumptions and assertions turn out to be entirely false.

What would happen if the blockade were to be lifted?

The question of importing goods to Gaza was addressed in Annex I of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO, signed in Washington in September 1995. According to Article XIV (4) of that Agreement:

Pending construction of a port, arrangements for entry and exit of vessels passengers and goods by sea, as well as licenses for vessels and crews sailing on international voyages in transit to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, shall be through Israeli ports in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations applicable in Israel and in accordance with the provisions of Annex V.

In other words, in accordance with the Interim Agreement, vessels, passengers and goods cannot enter Gaza directly. Vessels bound for Gaza must anchor at an Israeli port. Goods cannot be imported directly into Gaza, and people cannot sail directly to the Gaza coast. All must enter Gaza through the Israeli land crossings.

In 2005, following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Israel declared its willingness to consider the establishment of a Gaza seaport, in accordance with arrangements to be agreed upon. In November 2005, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached an Agreement on Movement and Access from and to Gaza. The agreement included provisions for the commencement of construction of the Gaza port. The agreement was conditioned upon the preparatory work of a U.S. led tripartite committee to develop security and other relevant arrangements for the port prior to its opening.

In January 2006, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas won a majority in those elections. Upon coming to power, Hamas rejected the agreements made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. This led to the imposition of economic sanctions by Israel and the Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations), and of course, put an end to the envisaged opening of a Gaza port. The lifting of those sanctions was conditioned upon the renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of the previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Following the 2007 “Battle of Gaza”, in which the Hamas violently took control of Gaza, the sanctions on the Palestinian Authority were eased, while a blockade was imposed upon Gaza.

So, what would happen if the blockade were lifted? Nothing. At least, nothing would change in regard to the passage of vessels, people and goods to Gaza by sea. Such passage would still be prohibited, as it was prior to the blockade. The Hamas rejection of the agreements that would allow for a change in regard to movement of goods to and from Gaza would remain. Israel and the Quartet would still not recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government, as declared by the Quartet as recently as September 2009 in its call for “the re-unification of Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate Palestinian Authority”. In the current situation, with or without a declared blockade, the sea lanes to Gaza are closed. Vessels, persons and goods bound for Gaza must pass through Israeli ports and land crossings.

Blockade or no blockade, the territorial waters off the Gaza coast will still be patrolled and controlled by the Israeli Navy, as provided in Annex I of the Interim Agreement. Foreign vessels will still be prohibited from approaching closer than twelve nautical miles from the coast, as provided by the Agreement. The Israeli Navy will continue to exercise its authority, under the Agreement, to sail unimpeded in the waters off Gaza, and to “take any measures necessary against vessels suspected of being used for terrorist activities or for smuggling arms, ammunition, drugs, goods, or for any other illegal activity.” In other words, any foreign vessel approaching the Gaza coast performs an “illegal activity” regardless of whether it is carrying missiles, peace activists or humanitarian aid, and the Israeli Navy has the legal authority to stop it even in the absence of the blockade. That the Hamas – having usurped the legitimate power of the Palestinian Authority – may object does not change matters.

Ultimately, the legality of the blockade is not in question, nor is the lawfulness of its purpose. Arguing about the name or specific framework for imposing a maritime cordon on Gaza would seem rather a bootless exercise in practical terms. While the issue of what should or should not be permitted to cross the Israeli and Egyptian land crossings into Gaza is one that should be open to debate and reappraisal, calls for an end to the blockade are duplicitous at best.

Avinoam Sharon

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ramat Shlomo and Obama's Latest Snit?

The Jerusalem municipal planning commission announced the approval of a plan, and the American administration went ballistic.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist who writes what Americans like to read, regardless of the merit of his analysis, suggested that Vice President Biden should have gone straight to the airport. Apparently Mr Friedman thinks international diplomacy should be handled the way teenagers react to being told they can't have the car.

It strikes me that, viewed a little more objectively than from the pages of the New York Times, the incident might be appraised differently.

First, Let's bear in mind that the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo is not a deviation from Israel's express policy, a policy of which the Obama administration is well aware, and that Secretary of State Clinton recently praised as an unprecedented step toward advancing the peace process. And let us not forget that Ramat Shlomo is a Jewish neighborhood in a Jewish area of Jerusalem.

So, a municipal planning commission made an announcement that it had approved a plan that is entirely in keeping with declared government policy -- a policy which the US administration has praised, but of which it does not entirely approve due to its traditional refusal to accept Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem (in defiance of Congress). This happens when the Vice President is in town.

This can be seen as a little embarrassing, since it might have put Mr Biden in a slightly awkward position, but it was clearly not an orchestrated attempt to insult. Surely it was not like, say, inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House, which President Obama clearly did with wilful premeditation, intending to smack the Chinese in the teeth, knowing full well that no previous President had extended such an invitation.

It wasn't even as embarrassing or as nasty as say a Congressional committee declaring that a NATO ally -- Turkey -- committed genocide, after Turkey made it clear to the President that such a declaration might prompt a break in diplomatic relations.

This was just a case comparable to Ehud Barak being told by the TSA to take his shoes off at Dulles International Airport, or Shaul Mofaz being told he couldn't have a visa to the US because he was born in Iran. A little embarrassing. maybe a little dumb, and to be treated accordingly.

So, how did the US react to the discovery that the Prime Minister doesn't have absolute control over municipal planning commissions?

The Vice President showed up an hour late to a state dinner with Israel's Prime Minister -- a petulant, childish act intended solely as a personal insult to the PM. The protocol in such cases is, I believe, to tell the guest: "I'm sorry, you are late. The PM is no longer available. He has a tight schedule..." That is probably how Mr Biden would have been treated by any other PM of any other country. But Mr Netanyahu decided to overlook the insult.

But rest assured, Mr Biden would never have even considered showing up two seconds late to dinner with the PM of England, Canada, France, Russia or even Fiji.

Then, Mrs Clinton called PM Netanyahu to upbraid him. Again, as a matter of proper protocol, Mr Netanyahu should probably have told Mrs Clinton that if the President wished to speak with him, he had the phone number, and then he should have hung up. The unelected advisors of the President have no business telling off the heads of foreign governments. If the President wishes to do so, he may. The Secretary of State can call in Israel's ambassador to Washington to express her displeasure. She even might go as far as calling the Foreign Minister to discuss a matter of concern with him, while showing the respect and deference due a minister of a foreign government, but she has no business calling the Prime Minister of Israel to speak her mind. Rest assured, she would not allow herself that liberty with the PM of any other country.

So, I think maybe the US administration has taken a little gaffe that should have been overlooked, and deliberately used it with a heavy hand to show that it really really isn't Israel's friend, that it holds Israel in utter contempt and does not owe its government the minimal respect it would show to any other state.

I truly hope that that was what was intended, because the alternative is that the foreign policy of the United States is currently in the hands of people who think that the best way to handle a diplomatic setback is to stomp up the stairs and slam the door.

Avinoam Sharon