SIGD: The Ethiopian Jewish Festival 50 days after Yom Kippur

Last year, I decided to add “Sigd” to the list of Jewish and other holidays that help shape services at the Allied Jewish Chapel, now known as Kavod. I am repeating this tomorrow.

Sigd is a festival uniquely observed by the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, and some of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel gather to celebrate this occasion each year. It’s celebrated on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, 50 days after Yom Kippur, and in Israel, the Kneset recognized it in 2008.

Sigd links some unique aspects of Ethiopian Jewish life and history with a ceremonial recollection of the acceptance of the Torah in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah after the Babylonian Exile. Moreover, the text from the book of Nehemiah that is associated with its observance is recited every morning in the “Pesukei de-Zimra” section of the traditional prayer book, as one of the passages following the recitation of Psalms and introducing the daily recitation of Ex. 15, the “Song of the Sea.”

This passage is highlighted by the blue letters in the copy of Nehemiah below, and we will of course read it with special attention tomorrow.

(The following is mostly edited from Wikipedia and other internet sources).

Names: Mehlella (Ge’ez: ምህልላ, Hebrew: “מֶהֶללַה”‎; “Supplication”) also Amata Saww (ዐመተ ሰወ; “עמתה סו”; “Grouping Day”) or in its popular name Sigd (ሰግድ, “סיגד”; “Prostration”). (Sigd is the same root as Hebrew Misgad, English “Mosque” and Arabic  Masjid.) The root of Mehlella is the same as the “Hallel.”

There are two oral traditions about the origin of Sigd. One tradition traces it to the 6th century in the time of King Gebre Mesqel of Aksum (near the border of today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea) when the war between Jews and Christians ended and both communities separated from each other. The second tradition traces it to the 15th Century as a result of persecution by Ethiopian-Christian Emperors. The first mention of Sigd is from the 15th century.

Sigd symbolizes the acceptance of the Torah. Kessim (the leaders of Beta Israel) have also maintained a tradition of the holiday arising as a result of persecution by Christian kings, during which the Kessim retreated into the wilderness to appeal to God for His mercy. Additionally they sought to unify the Beta Israel and prevent them from abandoning the Haymanot (laws and traditions of Beta Israel) under persecution (Haymanot is related to the Hebrew word emuna “faith”). So they looked toward the Book of Nehemiah and were inspired by Ezra’s presenting the “book of the law of Moses” before the assembly of Israel after it had been lost to them during Babylonian exile. Traditionally in commemoration of the appeals made by the Kessim and consequent mass gathering, the Beta Israel would make pilgrimages to Midraro, Hoharoa, or Wusta Tsegai (possibly marking locations of relief from Christian persecution) every year to reaffirm themselves as a religious community.

It has features of a pilgrimage, in Ethiopia, some versions of the celebration included the bringing of stones to a hill outside the village, and putting them down in a circle, around the priests, who recite prayers. Stones symbolize submission (to God). The festival name Mehlalla is also used by Christians, but they celebrate it on Ascension Thursday.

For the Ethiopian community, this holiday reenacts the ceremony described in Neh. 9. In Neh. 8, there is a reference to reading from the Torah on 1 Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) and to the observance of Sukkot. In Neh. 9, we read that on the 24th of the month–presumably Marcheshvan although not clear to me—they had another assembly with a long speech, parts of which we will recite. The day was spent partially in fasting and prayer, and partially in feasting and celebrating. Today, the SIGD is celebrated in Jerusalem, usually in the Promenade south of Jerusalem, from which the Temple area can be seen, and it is a major component of Ethiopian Jewish identity. It recalls the Shivat Tziyon (return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile), Ezra and Nehemiah, and the commitment to retain both a general Jewish identity, and a specific Ethiopian Jewish identity as well.

One of the Prayers:

ה’ שמע אותנו שמע אותנו אלהינו.
ויאמר משה אשר התפלל בהר סיני מתוך האש
ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה אוכל לא אכל ומים לא שתה:
שוב ה’ תרחיק ממנו רעתך (כעסך),
הורד סליחה ורחמים על עמך ישראל.
מהר שמע אותנו…

באשר לא עזבנו אותך, מאמיניך, את האמונה שלך לא עזבנו…
מהר שמע אותנו.

“O Lord, hear us. Hear us O God!

Moses, who prayed at Mt. Sinai amidst the flame for days and forty nights, ate no food and drank no water, said: O Lord may you again distance your anger from us; bring down forgiveness and mercy upon your people Israel. Hear us speedily… in that we, your faithful ones, have not abandoned You, we have not abandoned your faith. Speedily hear us.”

This is the verse from Neh. 8:8, from the 1917 JPS version (Mechon Mamre website).

ח וַיִּקְרְאוּ בַסֵּפֶר בְּתוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים, מְפֹרָשׁ; וְשׂוֹם שֶׂכֶל, וַיָּבִינוּ בַּמִּקְרָא. {ס}

8 And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. {S}

And here is the account from Neh. 9 with the passage recited in the Synagogue highlighted.

1 Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth, and earth upon them. 2 And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the Law of the LORD their God a fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God. {P}

4 Then stood up upon the platform of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said:

‘Stand up and bless the LORD your God from everlasting to everlasting; and let them say: Blessed be Thy glorious Name, that is exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 Thou art the LORD, even Thou alone; Thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all things that are thereon, the seas and all that is in them, and Thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth Thee. 7 Thou art the LORD the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham; 8 and foundest his heart faithful before Thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Jebusite, and the Girgashite, even to give it unto his seed, and hast performed Thy words; for Thou art righteous; 9 And Thou sawest the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heardest their cry by the Red Sea; 10 and didst show signs and wonders upon Pharaoh, and on all his servants, and on all the people of his land; for Thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them; and didst get Thee a name, as it is this day. 11 And Thou didst divide the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; and their pursuers Thou didst cast into the depths, as a stone into the mighty waters.

12 Moreover in a pillar of cloud Thou didst lead them by day; and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light in the way wherein they should go. 13 Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spokest with them from heaven, and gavest them right ordinances and laws of truth, good statutes and commandments; 14 and madest known unto them Thy holy sabbath, and didst command them commandments, and statutes, and a law, by the hand of Moses Thy servant; 15 and gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and didst command them that they should go in to possess the land which Thou hadst lifted up Thy hand to give them. 16 But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their neck, and hearkened not to Thy commandments, 17 and refused to hearken, neither were mindful of Thy wonders that Thou didst among them; but hardened their neck, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage; but Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy, and forsookest them not. 18 Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said: ‘This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations; 19 yet Thou in Thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud departed not from over them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go. 20 Thou gavest also Thy good spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not Thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst. 21 Yea, forty years didst Thou sustain them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not. 22 Moreover Thou gavest them kingdoms and peoples, which Thou didst allot quarter by quarter; so they possessed the land of Sihon, even the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. 23 Their children also didst Thou multiply as the stars of heaven, and didst bring them into the land, concerning which Thou didst say to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it. 24 So the children went in and possessed the land, and Thou didst subdue before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. 25 And they took fortified cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all good things, cisterns hewn out, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit-trees in abundance; so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and luxuriated in Thy great goodness. 26 Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against Thee, and cast Thy law behind their back, and slew Thy prophets that did forewarn them to turn them back unto Thee, and they wrought great provocations. 27 Therefore Thou didst deliver them into the hand of their adversaries, who distressed them; and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto Thee, Thou heardest from heaven; and according to Thy manifold mercies Thou gavest them saviours who might save them out of the hand of their adversaries. 28 But after they had rest, they did evil again before Thee; therefore didst Thou leave them in the hand of their enemies, so that they had the dominion over them; yet when they returned, and cried unto Thee, many times didst Thou hear from heaven, and deliver them according to Thy mercies; 29 and didst forewarn them, that Thou mightest bring them back unto Thy law; yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto Thy commandments, but sinned against Thine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them, and presented a stubborn shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear. 30 Yet many years didst Thou extend mercy unto them, and didst forewarn them by Thy spirit through Thy prophets; yet would they not give ear; therefore gavest Thou them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. 31 Nevertheless in Thy manifold mercies Thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for Thou art a gracious and merciful God. 32 Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awful God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the travail seem little before Thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and on our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all Thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day. 33 Howbeit Thou art just in all that is come upon us; for Thou hast dealt truly, but we have done wickedly; 34 neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept Thy law, nor hearkened unto Thy commandments and Thy testimonies, wherewith Thou didst testify against them. 35 For they have not served Thee in their kingdom, and in Thy great goodness that Thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which Thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are servants this day, and as for the land that Thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it. 37 And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins; also they have power over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.’ {P}

This Shabbat, Parashat Toldot 5775, we also recall the victims of recent violence in Jerusalem, including recently the vicious, terrorist murders of four Jews and a Druze policeman at a synagogue in Har Nof. May the “gracious and merciful God… the great, mighty and awful God, who keepest covenant and mercy” (Neh. 9 31-32) grant peace to the Land and to all its inhabitants.

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2015 Wyoming Humanities Council: Seth Ward’s Humanities Forum Topics

2015 Humanities Forum Topics

Presenter: SETH WARD

Women in Judaism and Islam

Women’s roles have undergone dramatic changes in the past decades throughout the world, but women’s status issues remain controversial in many traditional religious societies. This talk will look at a selection of problems and developments in Muslim and Jewish communities, including issues of education, leadership, honor killing and female genital cutting, legal testimony, marriage and divorce, military service and much more.

Understanding the Middle East

Every week brings news from the Middle East. Conflicts seem never-ending. Democracy and human rights appear challenged. Violence grows ever more vicious. This forum will attempt to provide perspective on such issues as sunnis vs. shias, extremists vs. moderates, “religious” vs. “secular”, traditional tribal vs. modern national values, and conflict between Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religious groups and subgroups – all necessary to be an informed participant in debates about our roles in the region.

Middle East and Israel in Film

Films can provide a window into the deepest issues in the Middle East and Israel. This presentation requires equipment to show film clips which lend themselves to lively discussions

The presenter: Seth teaches Islamic history and religion at the University of Wyoming. He received his PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature from Yale University.

Contact: (303) 981-7561, (307) 766 9273, sward

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On Remembering the Holocaust through Art exhibited at the University of Wyoming’s Art Museum.

Remarks for Holocaust Remembrance Event
Nov. 11 2018.
Seth Ward

Here are the exhibit details:

Art and the Holocaust Faculty Response Panel
Hillel Student Group
UW Art Museum
November 11, 2014; 5:30 pm

William Gropper (American, 1897-1977)
War series, undated lithographs

 
Jack Levine (American, 1915-2010)
Mein Herr

 
Philip Reisman (Polish/American, 1904-1992)
Victory

 
George Biddle (American, 1885-1973)
Mussolini/Hitler: Let Her Bleed a While Longer, First 1937

 
Philip Guston (American, 1913-1980)
The Street, 1971

 
MaxWeber (Russian/American, 1881-1961)
Head of a Woman, Not dated

 
Frank Kleinholz (American, 1901-1987)
Say Cheese, 1963

(This is a rough draft for my remarks. The panel format will undoubtedly not give me enough time to read the entire statement).

Thanks for inviting us. Thanks to Rachel Clifton and to Noelle Johnson, whose vision, hard work and curatorial expertise created this exhibit and thanks for the readiness of my colleagues to participate in this panel. I note the recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; of Krystallnacht—the occasion for our annual Holocaust Remembrance Week—and that today is Veterans Day. Please also note that I am showing the Israeli film Kadosh by Amos Gitai later on this evening, in Coe Library in the screening room on the lowest level, room 123, after this evening’s event, you are all welcome to come.

I am glad that we are honoring cultural creativity in this year’s Holocaust Remembrance week, with an important exhibit of art by American Jewish artists who were alive in World War II. The pieces are all from the period before the emergence of the Holocaust as a theme in the US — esp. after the films Holocaust (1978, with Meryl Streep and others), the broader establishment of Holocaust commissions and memorial committees (starting in the 1970s) and esp. Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary film Shoah in 1985. To prepare for this panel, among other things, I looked at the retrospective catalogues of three of the artists, in our Coe library collections. William Gropper (1897-1977) is not only the best represented in this exhibit but probably also the most important and best known of the artists exhibited here. But my personal favorite is Jack Levine (died 2010), who among other things did a series on prophets and kings that has wide visibility in many synagogues. In addition to Gropper and Levine, I looked at Philip Reisman (1904-1992). These volumes have numerous images of the artists’ works, along with essays by art historians.

These volumes are: Jack Levine by Levine, with intro. by Milton Brown, compiled and edited by S. R. Frankel, (Rizzoli, 1989). William Gropper by Lozowick, forward by Milton Brown, (Assoc. Univ Press, 1983). and Philip Reisman, People are his Passion, by Martin H Bush, Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita, 1986.

Levine wrote a memoir to go along with the volume on his work. “Mein Herr” is not included in it, but it is similar to Levine’s “1932 (In Memory of George Grosz),” produced in 1959; Grosz—an extremely important artist of the period—had just died. “1932” is an image of von Hindenburg, Chancellor of Germany, handing the baton of power to Hitler after the elections. Levine talks of Hitler as being “silly” (p. 87), and his image can be seen as something of a lampoon — just as Levine lampooned Stalin in his “Stalingrad” (1970) with its “Kiss of steel.”  The Soviet leader’s adopted nickname “Stalin” means something like “Man of Steel”—and the image has him kissing a sword. Levine drew von Hindenburg because, although he repeated often that drew what he wanted, he admits that “the gas ovens were too horrible for me to face.” The horror of the Holocaust was never something Levine wanted to depict.

His memoir makes it clear that he was much more at home drawing the prophets and kings, or visiting the new State of Israel. This was not for lack of passion and awareness, as Milton Brown observes about the Social Realists–a group that Levine and Gropper were part of:  They “wrote off the majority of artists for their political obtuseness or lack of commitment at a time of world crisis” (p. 10)–but he observes that the group’s approach did not outlive the war.

Reisman also addressed contemporary moral issues. The piece in the exhibit is entitled “Victory” but, as Theodore Woolf observed in 1982 (Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 1982), Reisman is noteworthy “for creating an art that placed human and social values above purely formal or experimental ones.” Martin Bush, the author of the retrospective catalogue goes on to note that Reisman “was never afraid of any subject be it the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Germany or any complicated and hard-to-paint city scene” (91). Nevertheless, the Holocaust does not play a major role in his work. World War II and the destruction of European Jewry is far better represented in the works of William Gropper.

In describing Gropper’s work, Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) (Philadelphia, Assoc. Univ. Presses, 1983) cited Man Ray’s account of an art expert who discussed the wonderful balance in Picasso’s Guernica but said “not a word about Picasso’s rage at the bombing of Guernica.” Man Ray observed that “This explains youth’s revolt against esthetics.” (cited from NYT Magazine Sept. 6 1971). Lozowick says the formal elements were omnipresent in Gropper’s work–even in the thousands of cartoons and drawings he did over his career–“but so is human compassion, rage, and revulsions against Guernicas wherever they occur. (69). Gropper dedicated tireless energy to defeating the Axis with thousands of cartoons and drawings against Hitler and Mussolini, and a 1941 exhibit entitled “Meet the Axis.” (53) The exhibit features his War Series, and you can easily see motifs associated with the Nazi destruction of Judaism in these images. Gropper also commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and destruction with a series in the 1960s called “Dedication,” produced annually for a few years.

Our exhibit collects works of Jewish artists working in America during the Second World War, indeed, mostly working and exhibiting in New York. Many of them exhibited in the same galleries and are part of the same movements. Many were ardent communist sympathizers, and ardent opponents of Fascism, already in the 1930s. Jewish themes play an important role in their works, especially for Levine and Gropper; Gropper drew for the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts and included Yiddish in some of his cartoons. Many of our artists were collected by targets of the McCarthy era–and were called upon to testify either because of their communist sympathies or because of the sympathies of those who exhibited or bought their art.

All were collected by William Dean, a major contributor to our Art Gallery but about whom I have not been able to find anything.

A survey of Holocaust Art works today (not particularly scientific: I selected four books somewhat randomly from the Coe Library catalogue) shows that not only are these artists not represented in the discussion (at least according to the lists of works and the indices) but that discussion in recent decades emphasizes different themes. These volumes discuss works by survivors and first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust, or works that go beyond the specifics of the details to create an aesthetic memorial more clearly focused on the execution of Jews and its apparatus—perhaps one of the many modalities of Holocaust denial. Or the role of cultural creativity in the thought of (among others) Kant, Hegel and Adorno.[1]

Our artists responded to the Nazis, and to the need to address social and political causes. Their works form aesthetic memorials, to be sure, although generally the art serves the message of the individual artist or work, and fits in the artists’ artistic styles and subjects. Moreover, these works reflect a period in our cultural history in which humanity was still grappling with ways to reflect on the enormity of what happened, but “The Holocaust” had not yet become the symbol and narrative trope that was to emerge in the final quarter of the 20th century, at least not in the United States.

Levine was hardly alone in his inability to face the gas chambers in his art; nevertheless his art celebrates Jewish roots and survival. On the other hand, Gropper’s political and polemic messages show out clearly in the body of his work, with images that are clearly realistic, but also meant to memorialize and to express “human compassion, rage, and revulsion.”

Interpreting the Shoah through the lens of cultural expression must exist alongside the historical, moral and philosophical examinations. Moreover, these must exist alongside pragmatic responses and considerations. How can we possibly effect “Holocaust Remembrance”—our theme this week—given the enormity of the crime, and the immense significance we have come to attach to it as a foundational event shaping our world (perhaps even more than the Cold War or its end, symbolized just this week by the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall), or for that matter the Atomic Bomb or rise of militant movements self-identifying as Jihadi. The pragmatic issues of remembering the Shoah remain important: how can we express our revulsion at evil and the need to respond to it?

And examining cultural expression, we must be reminded of the growth of memory. Our exhibit displays a slice of cultural creativity of those who lived through the period in America, together with their audience, and strongly believed that their art should respond to the world as it is, and reflects the concerns of a time and generation in which our modern tropes of Holocaust memory were not yet formed. Their themes are strong reminders about the ways our own concerns reshape the way our creativity fashions memories in every generation.

Last Friday I heard a lecture by Carl Wilkens, who, twenty years ago was the only Westerner in Rwanda when it was undergoing the terrible genocide; his talk not only recalled the terrible events of that time, but also followed up some of the orphans who survived. His conclusion

“We are not defined by what we lost — what was taken from us. We are defined by what we do with what remains. “

I could not help but think that our artists did not merely articulate “what was lost”—and their revulsion at evil or their belittlement and lampooning of the perpetrators—but articulated the reality that the role of what today we might call “Holocaust Memory” helped determine what remained of Jewish society, but they also reflected a time and place in which “what we do with what remains” remained an important and more urgent concern.

Many thanks to Hillel at UW and especially to Rachel and Noelle for organizing this important exhibit and event.

Seth Ward

[1] The works I selected are Henry Pickford Sense of Semblance, Berel Lang Holocaust Representation: Art within the limits of history and Ethics, Toll, When Memory Speaks, and Bohm-Duchen, ed. After Auschwitz, Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art.

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“He who saves a single soul” – a well known parallel between the Mishna and Surat Al-Maida

I have often had occasion to refer to the important parallel between the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, Chapter 4 Mishnah 5 and the Qur’an in Chapter al-Ma’ida.

A famous text in Mishnah Sanhedrin, refers to Cain and Abel:

For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).  It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother”—meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. (M. Sanhedrin 4:5)[1]

In other words, the text argues that the wording of Genesis demei “bloods” can be interpreted to include not only Abel but all his potential descendants. They were destroyed, as it were, when he was murdered.

But the Mishna text goes on to apply this to all the descendants of Abel’s father, Adam, that is, everyone—the entire world, not just one line of descendants.

Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world.

(Readers familiar with the traditional text might notice that I am following the reading of the Mishnah as found in Kafah’s edition of the Commentary to the Mishnah by Moses Maimonides)[2].

This passage was made famous by Steven Spielberg, who quoted it in the beginning of Schindler’s List, and used it in a telling scene in the film, in which Schindler is told about the teaching by the Jews he saved.

The Mishnah text has a parallel in Surat al-Maida in the Qur’an, 5:27…32.   It too begins with Adam’s two sons (unnamed in the Qur’an).

And recite to them the story of Adam’s two sons, in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice [to Allah ], and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other. Said [the latter], “I will surely kill you.” Said [the former], “Indeed, Allah only accepts from the righteous [who fear Him].

But the Qur’an text continues with the discussion of the one son of Adam who murdered the other:

Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother.[3] He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?”

And Cain becomes “regretful.” Is it because of his regret that God made the decree, so similar to the text of the Mishnah?

Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption (fasād) [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.

A Christian theologian, Michael Lodahl, pointed out (what seems to me to be ironic!) that the Qur’an refers to a passage from the Mishna as being decreed by God—divine confirmation of traditional Jewish teachings about the ultimate source of the Oral Torah.[4]

But Lodahl’s enthusiasm was not shared by Muslim commentators on the web—a sure indication of the most popular interpretations of the parallel verses—who emphasized the superiority of the Qur’an’s formulation. While it is not particularly surprising to have Muslims assert the superiority of the Qur’an, it should be noted that such discussions typically use the difference in wording to continue the tradition of accusing Jews (along with Christians) of changing or ignoring the text of Divine commands. (Again, confirming the Divine origin of the Oral Torah even if the Jews did not preserve the text correctly!). Moreover, this attitude, and the charge that the pre-Islamic monotheists knew the Divine teachings but sinned, is in the Qur’an itself, which continues:

“Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors” (5:32).

The Mishnah text warns witnesses in capital cases. The witness whose testimony sends a man to his death is responsible for an irreversible judgment against the defendant, wrongly put to death—and against what he might have done and the children he might have had had he lived. The passage goes on to proclaim yet another advantage of the creation of a single ancestor: no one can claim ancestral privilege over another because ultimately, we all go back to Adam.

In the Qur’an, the context is a condemnation of the Israelites for sowing discord and corruption, for killing without justification, and for transgressing against God. The introduction to this passage refers to the people of Moses—the Children of Israel—being disobedient (fāsiqīn), and follows this verse with a reference to those who spread corruption (fasād), part of a motif in al-Ma’ida about the previous nations who had had covenants with God but broke them and did evil in the land.

So, with its reference to Cain and Abel, the destruction of future generations, and the statements about those who cause the death or preservation of a single person—even the reference to the crow—this Qur’an passage reflects the Mishna and other well-known Jewish texts. And, as Lodahl observed, the Qur’an text can be seen as confirmation of the divine origin of the Oral Law. But the Qur’an text is not linked with testimony in capital cases; while it is often understood in ways similar to the Mishna text (and to the way it is used in Schindler’s List), it also appears to fit in with the Qur’an’s approach to the Jews, and other ancient nations, that had had prophetic guidance and a divine covenant, but which it now sees as either vanished or superseded.

Seth Ward

[1] On this interpretation of “bloods,” see also Gen. Rabbah 22:9, Targums Onkelos, Neofiti, and Jerusalem Fragment targum on Gen. 4:10.

[2] Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1962-1967; This is the basis for the text posted by Mechon Mamre http://www.mechon-mamre.org/b/h/h44.htm. The traditional reading adds the words “among Israel.”

[3] On the crow teaching Adam how to bury: See Pirqe d’Rebbe Eliezer 21 towards the end. In this text, Adam learns how to bury by watching the crow. http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/vl/pirkeyeliezer/pirkeyeliezer03.pdf http://he.wikisource.org/wiki/%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%A7%D7%99_%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%99_%D7%90%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%96%D7%A8_%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%A7_%D7%9B%D7%90

[4] Michael Lodahl, Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side. Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 2010.

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Response to a question about forced marriage of widows in Islam

I am writing in response to a question about forced marriage of widows in Islam, with reference to the recent practices of the I.S. (the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”) and their justification of these practices. This is based on reporting in the LA Times http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-islamists-sexual-slaves-20141013-story.html.

The LA Times reporting is itself based on a piece in a very slick online magazine called Dabiq, Issue 4, (Dhul-Hijja 1435=lunar month beginning Sept. 25 2014, i.e., the current issue) which is available online at:

https://www.scribd.com/doc/242722468/Dabiq-the-magazine-of-ISIS-justifies-Slavery-Rape-of-Non-Muslim-female-POWs.

The reference to “marriage” and “widows” comes from the LA Times article to be sure, but only in language reportedly used by human rights organizations or victims—not in the language of the I.S. itself.  I.S. does not refer to this, instead refers to enslavement and forced concubinage.

BY the way, the Dabiq issue was posted on the Scibd website referenced above by a secularist, liberal activist from Canada, Tarik Fatah http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarek_Fatah , who has also posted on his Scribd website books and articles by himself and others arguing against this point of view: https://www.scribd.com/TarekFatah.

It’s clear that the I.S. has a millennialist orientation here: over and over again, they refer to “The Hour” in their justification.

The Qur’anic justification that first popped into my mind as background when asked about marriage of widows may be relevant in some ways—referring to marrying widows, up to four at a time. But it is not quoted here.  Not surprisingly, the verse quoted first is actually the “Sword Verse” (9:5) http://quran.com/9/5 and the reference to “capturing” there is actually not to enslaving them at all: the tafsir (commentary) on the quran.com website is the very popular Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which glosses the word “to capture” or “restrain” as to enchain them until it is clear whether they should be put to death or will adopt Islam. Indeed, a word-search for “widow” and “marriage” shows that these words do not occur in this article in Dabiq. Instead, the issue is whether the women must be killed or can be enslaved.

There is a large discourse about the Sword Verse and “moderate” Muslims (correctly!) point out a number of important contextualizations of the verse that tend to reduce its impact. Nevertheless, in classic Islamic law, this verse abrogates any verse that appears to contradict it.

Then the source goes on to argue that the Yazidis are not to be considered quite as bad as apostates, who must be killed or convert, but can have other options such as enslavement. But they are also not “good enough” to be able to pay the jizyah and live openly under Islamic protection. (“dhimma”—which refers to the protection of the Islamic state, a situation enjoyed by Muslims as well as Jews and Christians; the term is often translated as “toleration” as in “tolerated minorities”—and with good reason—but actually it should be noted that Muslims too enjoy the dhimma of the state. They would not be called dhimmis to be sure, and their status is neither dependent on paying jizya nor being humbled as would be the case for Jews and Christians (Qur’an 9:29)).

So enslaving their women is a good option—according to this argument. Among other things important for the author and audience of Dabiq, they see it as enabling the unbelieving women to have contact with Islam and to renounce their improper beliefs.  

In fact, the article suggests that this is a reinstatement of an ancient practice that was improperly cancelled—it seems to me they are referencing the enslavement of women in the wars of approx. 632-634 CE (right after the death of Muhammad). And, it is noteworthy that they argue that this is a sign of the approaching “Hour” – the end of history and Day of Judgment – in that a famous narrative about Gabriel teaching Muslims about religion refers to the slave girl giving birth to her master, and the increase in female enslavement makes this more prevalent, a  sign of the times. So this practice is justified and indeed reflects the current reality, according to their perception, reinstates a hallowed precedent, and fulfills a prediction about the nearing of the Hour.

For context, note that the Qur’an is hardly the only scripture that condones slavery. Slavery is intrinsic to Biblical law and practice, and probably universal around the globe up to only two centuries ago. The forced marriage of a captive woman is discussed in Deut. 21:11. It could be argued that the provisions for the beautiful captive and in general for Hebrew slaves are more generous than those envisioned by I.S. for Yazidis, but (a) modern human rights would condemn all slavery and (b) the Biblical provision for non-Israelites captured in wars generally did not even allow for the possibility of conversion to the Israelite faith; those captured in wars considered to be legitimate, or indeed, divinely required, are often to be put to death–and there were biblical precedents for killing all the women as well as the men, or all the women of marriageable age.

Please note that I am neither saying that “Islam” condones, nor that it condemns, rape and enslavement of women. Clearly, millennialist and what are often called with some justification jihadist or Islamist movements are in fact making this argument, and it has some traction among Muslims. And many of the Muslims who are arguing that Islam does not  or should not rape or enslave in our times are in fact secularists, or for other reasons have no traction among religious Muslims.

There are indications that a strong, consistent opposition to rape and enslavement is being articulated by religious, mainstream Muslims, in English and in traditional Muslim languages such as Arabic, and in pronouncements from imams in pulpits or in major publications. But it is not clear that they are doing so in journals as attractive as Dabiq, or even that they are winning any war of ideas with jihadists. Nor is it clear that the pronouncements are considered free of political taint by Muslims who might consider that many of those arguing against I.S. are working for governments opposed to I.S. or that they also have other political views that render them unreliable. Indeed, they are also not visible in Western reporting either: Note that in the LA Times article, victims and human rights activists were cited, but not Tarik Fatah or for that matter some of the very active, prominent, mainstream Muslims experts in religious law resident in their own backyard in California (Khaled Abou el-Fadl comes to mind) , who argue for strong opposition to jihadism.

Seth Ward

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Remembering my father, Aba Ward, אבא בן שמואל

This is a recording of the talk previously posted.

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On my father’s fourth Yahrtzeit: Aba ben Shmuel, (Aba Ward 1918-2010), zichrono livracha.

(This is a slightly edited version of the notes I used for the talk given at the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue, Sept. 10 2014.)

Thanks to Shlomo for asking me to speak tonight in memory of my father, whose yahrzteit is tonight and tomorrow. Its four years. Time passes fast.

My father was born Aba Warszawczyk in Kutno, in 1918. He lived on the outskirts of town, my grandfather had a neighborhood minyan in his home, and kept a sefer torah there. Dad was active in the Beitar youth movement. He was part of a youth mission that set out for Birobidhzhan, but was turned back by the Soviets. As a youth activist, he met Menachem Begin, who encouraged him to do what he could to get to Palestine. Dad encountered anti-Semitism in dental school in Warsaw and convinced his family to let him go to Pisa to continue his studies. But when he got to Italy, perhaps remembering Begin’s advice, he never got to school, and instead became involved with illegal immigration from the Adriatic coast to Palestine, and eventually made his way to Tel Aviv; he never completed his dental studies. He was not able to convince his family to send any of his siblings to Palestine. Only he, two cousins who previously moved to Israel and an uncle who had moved to America survived.

In Palestine he became active in Herut and Etzel. During the war he and many of his friends were part of a group of Palestinian Soldiers enlisted in the British Army. He saw action escorting Haille Selaisse from Egypt to Ethiopia, and fought in Greece, but spent much of the War in POW camps. I grew up with Hanukkah celebrated using some of the tunes Jewish soldiers from Palestine sang at a Christmas party arranged for them, with the berachot, and hopes to return home, sung in Hebrew to the melodies of well-known Christmas carols and hymns.

After the war, Dad returned to Palestine. Active in the Irgun, he was captured and imprisoned in Akko. Was he involved in bombing the King David Hotel? My brother and I like to think he was, but Dad never confirmed but also never really denied any of his activities with the Irgun. Dad says that a guard in Acco who knew that he was a fellow British Army veteran facilitated his escape, and he made his way the US in 1947.

After Dad died, my Mom reminded me several times that Dad could not speak much about his family until after I was born, his kaddishl. It was like him to emphasize establishing the future first before remembering the past. He worked hard to help secure Israel and strengthen youth and family activities, much more than for Holocaust remembrance.

Growing up, Dad helped me with Hebrew, and made sure that I and all my siblings had trips to Israel early on: I went in 1966. He also took my mother to see where he grew up in Poland. I am grateful that he was able to show me Warsaw and Kutno in 2008.

Dad was a local leader in the Zionist Organization of America. He worked hard to organize and especially to get people to attend and support events and fundraisers. I suspect his favorite event though was one he helped organize in which participants received a tea bag and instructions to brew a pot of tea, sit back in a favorite chair, and enjoy not having to go out to listen to speeches.

Dad was always able to bring people along to work with him. This trait was helpful in the ZOA, but he was able to bring along people in most things he was involved in. Dad enjoyed building things–from very tiny things, already working for a dentist when he was in gymnasium in Kutno–to very large things, such as a set for the Synagogue Youth Department Musical, or the floats for the Israel Day Parade in New York City. He built a deluxe grogger for the megillah reading, and an outdoor highly visible electric menorah, this last well before Chabad promoted the idea of outdoor menorahs. He was particularly successful in getting people who had come to help build sets or floats to actually wield a hammer. One day the synagogue’s Rabbi asked Dad whether he could use these skills to help people who wanted to learn how to build a sukkah. Working with lumber yards, Dad developed a modular design so that participants could simply order a certain number of panels. Back in the 1970s, relatively few individuals built sukkot in their homes and there were no sukkah kits. Dad gave sukkah classes for about thirty years, to people from Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island and elsewhere–and he sent plans to congregations too far away. His kit was described and circulated by the United Synagogue to member congregations–so you could say he helped thousands of people build sukkahs.

At home, our Shabbat evening dinner ritual included a portion of the prayer for the State of Israel and the defenders of our holy land.

In addition to providing for his wife and family, he was always concerned for the community, for youth, for Jewish continuity; he contributed to observance and identity through the sukkah program and the ZOA, and promoted pride in Israel and commitment to Israel’s security.

In our parasha, we have the famous text: ארמי אובד אבי Arami Oved Avi, understood in the Haggadah “as my father was persecuted…”–or the term oved is translated as “wandering.” Dad described the first part of his life in something of the same terms: for the first three decades, there was war and destruction and wandering from place to place. But he was grateful for over sixty years in which he could say, as the passage continues: שמחתי בכל הטוב אשר נתן לי ה’ ולביתי : “I have rejoiced in all the goodness that the Deity has given me and my family.” Moreover, the the Parasha continues with a prayer that captures his deepest hopes:—השקיפה ממעון קדשך מן השמים וברך את עמך את ישראל ואת האדמה “Look down from Your Holy heavenly abode, and bless your People Israel, and the Land.”

I am grateful for his love and devotion for almost six decades, and miss him greatly.

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