Earlier this month I spent a devastating, though fascinating, day in Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem and the Al-Amari refugee camp. Travelling with a friend, Rabbi Lee Bycel, shown the West Bank by a remarkable guide, Rami Nazzal (see what Rami does at www.beyondborderstours.com), I witnessed what I wished I hadn't. But I couldn't turn away from it, and I'll return before long.
Here's my account in The Jewish Week.
Alan Mintz was among the most significant figures of the Jewish academy of our day. He died suddenly on May 20, and sadly – he was only 69, and at the apex of a stellar, almost singular, scholarly career in Hebrew literature. Read his compelling and very personal essay in Mosaic of only a couple months ago, "My Life With Hebrew".
Donald Trump is a cowboy – and that's only the beginning. He's dangerous, impetuous and plays by his own rules. He surrounds himself with Stalinists, henchmen expert at creating "shock events" – rulings so outrageous as to cause chaos and division, all the while distracting the public from what's going down in private.
Normality and stability, the honoring of the rule of law and the upholding of civic norms – its all grown worse surprisingly quickly. Too many Republican leaders rationalize Trump's behaviors, while the Democratic bigwigs posture weakly.
Where did the grown-ups go?
And, so far, I'm only talking about domestic American matters.
What Trump will do on the Foreign Policy front might prove even more unpredictable and consequential.
The problem is that we just don't know what Donald Trump will do. Maybe he himself knows and maybe he doesn't. But his political henchmen, his side-boys in this rodeo, surely do – and they're more worrisome than Trump.
Not unrelated: I hope the Israeli leaders, Bibi and whomever else, don't fall for his love. The stakes are high and the costs steep.
I suppose it's clear what I think. More important, it's worth the extra minutes to know what seriously smart and essentially non-partisan observers now say.
Then pray. Then, whether in Canada or the U.S., keep your eyes wide open – and support better leaders the next time around. Then pray again and do good things for others in need.
Most everybody I know is feeling blue – agitated, really – these days. If we don't hate Trump, we're furious at Obama. If our churning isn't about either of them, it's to do with friends or family or the vacation that didn't go so well, or didn't go at all. Or, we just have the winter blues – what with the grim and the grey and the cold, and that's on the good days (at least in Toronto).
Had enough? Then give a few minutes to two of my all-time favourites: Darlene Love, backed by Bruce Springsteen and the E St. Band. And spread the joy!
Watch here (I dare you to only watch once).
Donald Trump's surprising victory in the U.S. election last month has brought the overwrought among my American friends to profess interest in Canadian residency. I won't hold my breath until they arrive at Pearson.
What I will do is to suggest they read these three pieces – which, read together, help to get at the meaning of Trump's triumph. Whether one approves of Trump or not (and for the curious about yours truly, see here and here), now is the time to reflect on what happened exactly – and why.
First up: President Obama's day-after-the-election interview with Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner. With regard to the results of the previous night, Obama is, as usual, enormously thoughtful – and not a little preening.
Next, Andy Smarick, writing in The Weekly Standard, is just as thoughtful about a culture of smugness to which (he says) all elites are vulnerable – and which blind them (us) from the reality before our eyes. If you read no other piece, this is the one.
Finally, Mark Lilla, the astute observer of American political (and religious) life, worries aloud in the New York Times about the corrosive impact of the focus on diversity these past couple of decades.
I'm familiar with a fair number of terrific congregational rabbis across the fruited plain of my home country, America – America, which, now in the wake of a bruising political battle, one replete with deceit, dysfunction and despicable behaviour, more than ever requires rabbis of wisdom and judgement to help guide the civic conversation.
There are many up to the task. Among them: Ed Feinstein, Janet Marder, Mordecai Finley, Alison Wissot, John Rosove, Naomi Levy, David Wolpe, Laura Geller and Sandy Ragins on the West Coast; Meir Soloveitchik, Cliff Librach, Stuart Weinblatt, Amy Scheinerman, Jeffrey Salkin, Josh Davidson, James Prosnit on the East Coast; Moshe Shulman, Susan Talve and Jonathan Miller in the geographic center. I agree with some on some matters, and others on other matters. I admire all of them.
I've called attention to several of the above previously, but for now, there's one rabbi you ought to know, if you don't already: Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th in Manhattan. Ammi, a classical liberal, is classically literate (as rabbis once were), and passionately loves America and Israel, both. Ammi thinks as well as anyone I know, and conveys what's on his mind with lucidity, depth and a dry wit.
Fortunately, he's quite easy to learn from through his splendid, made for watching and listening to Erev Shabbat sermons. Just go to: swfs.org/rabbismessages.
And, if of interest, see what I wrote about Ammi in 2014 when The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue feted their rabbi for his leadership. (Be sure not to miss the story of watching Ammi chant haftarah more than twenty-five years ago).
Here is my remembrance in The Forward of Tom Hayden – a remarkable man and an important teacher of mine (and not just when I was young). I was able to tell Hayden of my gratitude to him only two months ago now when he was already seriously ill.
I hadn't followed Olympic champion Michael Phelps closely until the recent Rio Games. By then I'd become curious about a man I finally understood was much more than the greatest swimmer ever.
"Yissurin shel ahavah" – sufferings of love, say the rabbis, are the hardest feelings to endure, yet they make us the most human.
Watch this 15 minute video about what Michael Phelps has been through to see what I mean.
In January 2012, I posted "Why Obama Wins This November" (referring of course to the US presidential election then unfolding). The blog showed a brief video of Barack Obama, oozing charm, channeling the crooner Al Green – the "Rev" himself – while at a Harlem fundraiser that month. (Watch here).
I didn't say much – no need to as it was clear that the Democrats, led by the casually hip president, were in cultural sync with an emerging American majority.
Well, likewise, and double-down at the least, with regard to another video from this past week. It too tells much about an increasingly hip culture in which media, politics, and cultural savoir-faire mix naturally. For any leader, political or otherwise, with sufficient cool to pull it off – wow. Those who can do so have awfully good chances of winning the day – to say nothing of the hearts of the people. That said, it has to be authentic.
I'm not only offering an observation about politics and this cultural moment – that's evident enough. Rather, I'm posting this because I like it. A lot.
I plead guilty to being charmed!
Forget for the moment some deep disagreements with President Obama. After being inundated this past year by an out-of-the-blue bombastic presidential candidate, and being bored for a couple of decades plus now by the overly scripted presence of another one – I found this refreshing. (Watch here and see if you agree).
Such charm and cultural chic hardly determines my vote. Neither, though, am I willing to dismiss it entirely.
Unlike the vast majority on the Left, and just about as many in the political Centre and even on the Right, I've long had a certain admiration for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He's hardly the hard-hearted ideologue he's often portrayed by half of his haters, and not quite the Machiavellian monster as depicted by the other half.
True, Bibi's ham handed and not always loyal – and that's just with those in his own government and Likud circle. He's secretive and often a party of one. In short, he's like too many other elected officials found in democratic nations. However, that's not the whole of the story or even its gist. Most of all – to my mind in any case – Netanyahu is strategic, pragmatic, gifted of vision, and to his core, a Jew who cares greatly about the Jews and the Jewish State. He will go down in Israeli history as the nation's longest serving prime minister, at least in part, because his citizens have trusted him most with their security – period. That's no small matter.
If you're still with me – both those of you who rather despise Bibi and those of you who secretly admire him – here in my defence are two things you should take a quick look at: first, Bibi's remarkable statement of solidarity with the LGBT community after the recent Orlando massacre (it's less than three minutes, you can watch here); second, Jonathan Tobin's brief analysis of the deal Netanyahu cut Monday with Turkey's Erdogan to reconcile Israel and Turkey after six years of tension and division (read here).
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, as have others previously, that while Classical Judaism developed primarily in response to what was heard, Greek culture was driven more by what was seen. Put more specifically, when it came to how you learned – and therefore how you thought – the Jews trusted the ear, while the Greeks trusted the eye. That's a part of what the philosophers are getting at in discussing "Athens and Jerusalem".
Of course, the world is not quite so black and white. "Jerusalem" and "Athens" often met and mingled – as they do to this day. Our best thinkers today know and name the world as did the Jews and the Greeks. What they share, in fact what has made both Greek and Jewish thought serious and enduring, is that they thought from the inside out. That is, they began not with what the larger crowd on the street was saying (almost always an echo of what was heard on the previous block) but rather with the inside: What they had learned the hard way, through reading, reflection and critical analysis. Only once that process was complete, would leading thinkers name the world, i.e., especially the world that mattered most, that of public affairs and politics.
The truth is, to do that well you had to rely more or less equally on what you absorbed from what you heard, as well as what you learned through what you saw. Athens and Jerusalem, both. Religious learning and worldly knowledge. Which is part of what drew the Jews of the ancient world – the leading rabbis very much included – to Greek philosophy and learning. They wanted to know more about the World and God and Man, as they sought to apply earned knowledge – now turned into wisdom – to the society and its affairs.
Which brings me to two of our best thinkers today. Two Israeli-Americans who, consciously or not, reflect both the classical Jews and Greeks; who think and then teach starting with significant interior lives honed by learning and reflection, by what they hear and see.
Like Paul Berman about whom I wrote last week (click here to read "Why Paul Berman is the Best"), David Hazony and Yossi Klein Halevi think and write with consistent depth and originality. To better know our world, you have to read virtually whatever they write – regardless of the topic.
David Hazony, author of The Ten Commandments, is editor of Tower Magazine out of DC. To understand what Barack Obama has sought and accomplished over the past seven and a half years, there's nothing better to read than David's recent piece, "The Mind of the President" (click here to read).
Yossi Klein Halevi, Sr. Fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of Like Dreamers, among other books. His recent major speech, "A Jewish Centrist Manifesto" suggests a way forward in a time of intense conflict – a way forward both for the Jewish State as well as for the State of the Jews (Read here).
Everybody wants to opine about a world in flux and in danger. Few, though, think with the nuance and intelligence of Paul Berman. Or have his substance and stylistic pen. He knows politics and literature, America and the larger world.
Essentially a man of the Left, Berman defies political categories. He prefers independence of thought to following the crowd or chasing after accolades. The author of unforgettable books – A Tale of Two Utopias, Power and The Idealists, The Flight of The Intellectuals and Terror and Liberalism, among others – Berman writes a regular column for Tablet, an online journal of Jewish affairs.
Here is "Terror and Oratory", Paul Berman's take on speaking about the Orlando Massacre.
Yesterday, the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) published a talk I gave on Erev Shavuot six years ago – surprising apparently to some who heard it at the time, as well as to others who read it in my book. Click here to read it.
In early March I rather reluctantly wrote that I was in for Hillary Clinton for the American presidency. Since then I've changed. Read here in the Jewish Journal why I'm now in for HRC more than ever.