On the Large Stones of Parashat Ki Tavo; a yahrtzeit talk.

This is a talk given at EDOS Aug. 30 2015 in memory of my late father, Aba Ward (1918-2010), whose yahrtzeit occured that evening. It is mostly a summary of remarks by Dr. Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk, in his book Kankanim. The images of dad are from a visit to Warsaw, with my wife, brother and niece, and with Rabbi Schudrich; from a family reunion with my mother (ad meah ve-esrim), and another photo of him alone.

The “large stones” are the kind of project he would have liked: a large, very visible symbol of Jewish learning that would be easily accessible to all Israel, and reflect commitments to various types of broad, Jewish education.

May his memory be bound up in the binds of life.

Kankanim, by Moshe Pinchuk

Kankanim, by Moshe Pinchuk

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Edits to Hatikvah post

I made some edits in my post about the “New” wording of Hatikvah. Among other things, I added images of an arrangement of Hatikvah by Hanina Krachevsky (1877-1925) (with the new wording) courtesy of the Jewish National Library’s digitizing project.


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On the definition of Jerusalem in US Policy, in the light of the recent Supreme Court Ruling

A colleague wrote a professional group I am in, asking about the definition of Jerusalem used by the US, in the light of the recent US Supreme Court ruling in the Zivitovsky case. This is a case in which a person born in Jerusalem sued to have his place of birth listed as Jerusalem, Israel in his passport, not just Jerusalem.

As far as I can tell, Jerusalem is defined by the US for municipal purposes by the current Israeli municipal boundaries, but the Jerusalem Consulate General is an independent mission, representing the United States in its district and providing services to American citizens. In this case, the Jerusalem Consulate General district is defined as including Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

As for the Supreme Court ruling, I have to read the Decision more closely and in full to comment at greater length. Nevertheless, the quotes in the news, and a brief reading of the text itself, indicate to me that the ruling supports the President of the United States’ position that Congress should not interfere in foreign policy, and is based on the following language—which I have copied form the summary section of the ruling:

“…as a matter of United States policy, neither Israel nor any other country is acknowledged as having sovereignty over Jerusalem.”

This is reported as having been US policy since the time of Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel. However, this is specifically related to consular documents such as recognition of a birth of a US citizen abroad, recognition of nationality, and passports, and is based on the understanding that passports “will be construed as reflections of American policy,” and appears to be part of a broader political policy described as allowing the listing only of the city of birth, without recording the country in certain cases. Presumably, in other aspects of US activity that are not “construed as reflections of American policy” the definitions might be different.

In reviewing some of the literature about the ruling, I saw some references to other consular documents, such as certification of the death of a US citizen, in which this issue might also arise.

Some time ago, I attempted to read as much as I could on official State Department websites and to ask some questions via phone and internet queries. I got a muddled reaction. I would not characterize my research as comprehensive. One part of this research was to answer theoretical questions, but another was practical, and had nothing to do with passports and similar documents. Rather it related to groups of students I bring to Israel. I had to determine what rate to use for per-diem reimbursement of meals and incidentals; my university uses the Dept. of State (DOS) rates, which differ by country and city within a country. Moreover, I used DOS country reports for preparing certain materials for risk management purposes. At least technically, it was also appropriate to know about US consular offices to prepare for the possibility that consular issues might need to be handled in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

It’s not clear that US policy has to agree across all lines. In particular, I was told by several respondents that the US recognizes the green line (1949 Armistice lines) as it was on June 5 1967, and that for municipal purposes, the US accepts municipal boundaries as they are in place in practice, including in Jerusalem. Of course this might imply to some that it recognizes the annexation of areas over the Green Line that are within the municipal boundary. But conversely we should consider that, for example, the same approach means that areas that were annexed, that are inside the Green Line, were previously considered as unambiguously part of Israel, but are now considered as not having recognized sovereignty.

The new Jerusalem consular section which provides American citizen and visa services is on David Flusser Street, on the Green Line.

Jerusalem is its own independent mission, representing Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Thus Jerusalem is a separate district in the list of countries for DOS purposes. There are not many such “countries”– Hong Kong is another example.

Apparently consular issues relevant to Jerusalem should be handled by the US Consulate in Jerusalem, but I noted that the Zivitovsky passport was issued in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem.

In country reports, the country heading used by DOS for its report is “Israel, The West Bank and Gaza” and includes references to Jerusalem.

Regarding the per diem, I do not know the relevant US policy, but my reading of the Independent Mission suggests that those using DOS per diem rates should use the Jerusalem rates for all places in the scope of the Jerusalem Independent Mission (including such places as Bethlehem and Efrat). The DOS website does not distinguish between Jerusalem the city and any other location in the Mission district, as it does for most countries.

I welcome any comments by those better able to advise about the diplomatic and legal issues.

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Do Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God?

Do Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God?

Seth Ward

(I wrote this some time ago and find it has never been posted to this blog!).

Do Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God? This is of course a central question, perhaps the central one, in dealing with what to make of another religion.

Some people feel they can give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question. My choice, if limited to only “yes” or “no” would be “yes.” Perhaps the most telling reason for this is that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews had and have no problems whatsoever referring to God as Allah, despite the presence of other words in the Arabic language that might be considered more neutral, less specific to Islam. But any one-word answer to our question will be useful only in limited contexts, meaningless in most, and prone to overemphasize similarities or differences. Moreover, the answer is too easily dependent on the context of the question, the questioner and the respondent, and misses the main point of monotheistic faiths.

Let us examine four statements:

1. Muslims, Christians and Jews are basically Monotheists and as such must maintain that there is only one God.

2. Muslims, Christians and Jews each maintain distinct propositions about God, and members of the other confessions recognize certain of these propositions as denials of their own faith.

3. For some believers, disbelief in certain propositions about God or belief in certain propositions rejected by these believers, means either disbelief in God or invalid belief in God.

4. Within the framework of the monotheistic religions, “God” in Islam, Christianity or Judaism is necessarily, in each case, the One God, the only God there is. So positing the question about whether these traditions believe in the same God is something like asking whether they recognize the same current President of the United States. These religious traditions deny the validity of certain beliefs of the other, or recognize the object of other beliefs as “not God” or a involving “wrong ideas about God”) but a literal understanding of “Do the three faiths worship the same God?” basically makes no sense within the framework of monotheistic religious beliefs.

For many monotheists asking the question about whether the three faiths worship or recognize the “same God” is, ultimately, a question about whether the three faiths each worship or recognize the “One God.” There is another way of asking the question, however, which I will return to below.

Each of these religions is remarkably similar in certain beliefs about God: each considers God to have created the Universe, created Man, and indeed, for each, the Man God created is called Adam. Each talks of Revelation, of Redemption and Judgment, and of God requiring a certain type of lifestyle and certain patterns of worship, charity, community.

But the revelations are different—even different in type: the different traditions talk of the centrality of Sinai, Christ, and Qur’an in ways that make them each very distinct. And we need look no further than this to see how it impacts on whether the God worshipped by the three faiths is the same or not. For those who truly believe in Sinai as the archetype of Perfect Revelation which needs no completion, what need or even purpose can there be in Christ, as understood by Christians? Similarly, for Trinitarian Christians, those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and the Holy Spirit as the third element of the Trinity do not truly accept God. And for those who accept Jesus as Christ and Lord, what need is there for an additional revelation in the Qur’an? And some Muslims would say that those who profess that there is no god but God yet do not accept that Muhammad is His prophet—or maintain that Muhammad was sent by God but only to his own people or maintain that the Qur’an is something less than the eternal Word of God directed at all mankind—deny a basic Truth about the deity.

There are some considerations internal to each of the three religious communities which can give practical perspectives about the question: Maimonides, a Jewish scholar who died in 1204, provided a scheme in which Islam and Christianity are seen as part of a Divine plan to promote true knowledge. Of relevance to our question, he (and many Jewish authorities since his time) saw Islam as having the true teaching about the unity of God, although lacking the true teaching about the authority and authenticity of revelation at Sinai, which Christianity has. For most Muslims, Islam is understood as seeing Jews and Christians as sufficiently monotheistic that when they “pronounce the Name of God” over animals slaughtered for food, their meat can be eaten, although the Qur’an declares that Jews and Christians nevertheless associate others with God. What is common to some of these discussions, however, is the assumption that the others have incorrect beliefs about God, not that they deny God.

So far, I have spoken about whether each faith can believe that the other worships the One God. For some within each faith, the propositions are so different that this is denied. There are those within Islam who consider Judaism and Christianity to be so misled as not to worship the One God at all. They are “Kafirun”—“Deniers”—just like the idolaters of old. Still, this is not necessarily a position that the Gods are different: it is a position that “our faith worships God and their faith worships Satan.” We have still not addressed the question of whether it is “the same God.” Again, within the perspective of monotheism, or of religious thought, this is a rather difficult and probably meaningless distinction.

What about scholarship and “critical analysis” of the situation? One can bring points from philology and linguistics (mostly words used to name or describe God), history, rituals, theology and philosophy, and other areas. The most important example is the common usage of “Allah,” as pointed out above. It seems to me that this type of study is appropriate to our course, but does not lead to any better answer to the question. Instead, it leads to a history of how the concept, nomenclature, rituals and beliefs came to be, not whether the God worshipped by each faith is “the same.” But this is a different question than the one which was being discussed here.

More to the point: Islam believes that the Islamic religion is the true religion of all the prophets. The message God sends to all Prophets is basically the same: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad came bearing the same message. They came with “books”—in some cases, this is understood to mean specific scriptures, and Muslim sources talk about the scriptures of Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus (Jesus’ scripture is “Injil” i.e. the Gospel, a book, according to Islam, written by Jesus containing the Word of God as revealed to him). What is consistent with the Qur’an and Islam among the beliefs and practices of Jews and Christians is true—and what differs is the result either of careless or purposeful (and thus perfidious) changes introduced by Jews or Christians. This extends not necessarily to the specific details of the prayer and alms—how much to give, at what times, and so forth, but the obligation to pray and to give charity.

In summary: for monotheists, it is most correct to say that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship God, while they understand God in ways that are similar in some ways and different in others. It is foolish to attempt to prove that “Allah” is different from “God.”

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On Netanyahu, US, and Iran negotiations

One of the reasons for this Blog is to edit responses to student postings in online courses and repost them here. I read a comment by a student about Netanyahu’s speech about Iran; the exigencies of course grading and spring break are such that I did not read the student post until a few days after the recent Israeli election. This is edited from my comments.

I am not sure how important Netanyahu’s statement on Iran was for his reelection, although obviously the success or failure of attempts to "spin" the talk to his credit or detriment in Israeli politics played a role. Speaker Boehner is now going to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu, so the ramifications both for Israeli and US politics will continue.

Netanyahu said that he felt it was appropriate to address the Congress and the US Public on this matter of vital security to Israel. I do not know whether it was "right" to speak to Congress although I do not think there was any forum available to him that would have had the same impact. It is hard to imagine a politician like Netanyahu politely turning down an opportunity to speak to the US Congress!

What about US Iran policy?

My feeling is that the likelihood of an agreement that we in the US would consider to be a "good deal" is and always was low, despite presidential enthusiasm. I believe that we should be worried about making an agreement about nuclear power with Iran that focuses on Iran’s nuclear capacity without also focusing on the policies that contextualize it and their record on such things as human rights and exporting and supporting violence.

It’s hard for me to see Iranian nuclear development outside the context of Iranian attempts since 1979 (the Iranian Revolution) and especially in the last decades, to exercise and project their regional power. Part of this is projecting nuclear-weapon readiness.

I do not know if they needed Saddam Hussein to illustrate the power of ambiguity– but consider Saddam’s policy about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saddam successfully projected power and fear by obfuscating on weapons of mass destruction. Whatever you might think about whether the US and others were mistaken about WMD in the early 21st century, Saddam did not take steps to make it crystal clear that he had destroyed any WMD he might have had, and no longer was producing them. Instead, he protected his sovereignty, and took steps that made it difficult for inspectors. In my humble opinion, this was part of his policy of instilling fear in his populace—serving him far better than openness. After all, if WMD were clearly found or not found, either way, would have been worse for him—losing credibility or losing fear. He paid for this by having his country invaded and eventually his countrymen execute him.

Israel also has a policy of "nuclear ambiguity"–most experts assume that Israel has had nuclear weapons since the 1960s but neither confirms nor denies — and presumably this is a very successful part of its deterrence.

To return to Iran: I cannot see Iran backtracking in any public way that might imply that they were "losing" to the Americans or that they lacked the ability to become a nuclear-armed state in the very near future. The proposed 10-year limit is part of this plan, so are limitations on what they will give up in order to remove sanctions.

But for me the far greater problem is that Iran is supporting violence in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, mistreating its population, carrying out gruesome public executions, and carrying on with its anti-American rhetoric. I do not see progress in promoting narrow American national interests in any of these areas, with the possible exception of such narrow considerations as Iranian support for Iraqi military fighting the Islamic State–but Shi’a-Sunni strife is part of the reason that the Iraqi military is not as effective as needed, and the Iranians do not seem to have any interest in an effective Iraqi military for its own sake. I do not think the situation in Syria would be better if Bashar al-Asad simply went into exile, nor do I think the Iranians are the only ones supporting him, but their support for the Ba’th regime enabled it to commit atrocities.

Negotiations: I am attracted to Obama’s implication that negotiation is good. But I am not convinced this is true in the long run. President Obama himself has discounted the likelihood of some of the most important potential results of negotiating with Iran—for example Israel’s hope that they will stop threatening Israel and for that matter, hopes that they will change their public stance about the US—and even more important, that they will stop exporting terror and stop destabilizing governments (such as the Yemeni government that was friendly to the US).

In the Israeli sphere, negotiations in 2014 had the appearance of movement, and the continuation of negotiations led to a period of quiet. But all hell broke out in Gaza when the negotiations failed as they were probably destined to from the start. It’s not at all clear to me that negotiations in the Middle East that have no hope of actual success do anything more than allow more time for frustration to build up. I’m not convinced this is true either, but I am convinced that blind assumption that negotiating is good is no better than most other blind assumptions and might be a lot more dangerous in this case. I am not a prophet: I do not know what will result when and if current negotiations between the US and Iran fail, but I am not particularly hopeful that the negotiating process, regardless of its results, will succeed in creating a safer world.

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Narratives, Cultural Production and Musical Value

Narratives, Cultural Production and Musical Value

A talk by


UW Religious Studies Department

for the joint concert of the Laramie Civic Chorus and Colorado Hebrew Chorale,
Holly Dalrymple and Carol Kozak Ward Conducting
March 8 2015
Buchanan Fine Arts Center—Concert Hall

This concert featured works by Paul Ben-Haim and a presentation by Estelle Nadel, Child Survivor.

This is my first opportunity to speak on this stage since the Fine Arts Center was renamed, and I am honored to use this opportunity to thank former UW Pres. Buchanan for his contributions to our university.

Thanks to Prof. Holly Dalrymple for her leadership in assembling today’s program, and to my wife, Carol Kozak Ward. And to the members of the Laramie Civic Chorus and the UW Music Dept. for their support and exceitement. I would like to acknowledge my department, Religious Studies, and express our gratitude to Wyoming Humanities Council, Laramie Jewish Community Center’s Asimow Lecture Fund in memory of Fred Homer, for supporting this program with Estelle Nadel’s presentation, and Hillel at UW.

And thanks to Professor Joshua Jacobson, (Northeastern University) founder and music director of one of America’s premiere choral organizations, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, for helping ensure Holly, Carol and I would be in touch.

Holly asked me to open today’s program with a few remarks. I have chosen to speak briefly about narratives, cultural production and musical value. I will mention Paul Ben-Haim at best only in passing, as Holly will speak about him and the Kabbalat Shabbat in greater depth later in the program.

Salomone Rossi (c. 1570-c1630), was employed by the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he was concertmaster for some 40 years. His sister, usually known as Madama Europa, may have been the first Jewish opera singer. He is especially known for his contributions to the development of baroque-era secular madrigals and the development of the trio sonata. Like Paul Ben-Haim, Rossi wrote music for the synagogue that matched the latest style; however, he was the first to publish his arrangements. All the indications are that in the early 17th century, popular hymns such as Adon Olam and Yigdal were sung in several Italian synagogues by multiple voices in the latest artistic styles—to packed multifaith audiences! Rabbi Leone di-Modena (1571-1648) convinced his friend Salomone Rossi to publish 33 settings—and he wrote a responsum, a religious legal treatise, to justify the adoption of this popular musical style for the synagogue.

Rossi’s compositions may well have continued to be sung in some Italian synagogues, but, much as was the case with Bach, he did not have broad recognition early on. Bach’s music was popularized by Mendelsohn; Rossi’s pieces were popularized in the 19th century by S. Naumbourg and Vincent D’Indy, who published most of the synagogue compositions in 1877; the facsimile reproduction of Naumbourg and D’Indy’s publication in the 1950s and especially the beautiful critical edition by Baroque Musicologist Fritz Rikko in the 1960s–as well as recordings at that time—established the importance of Rossi’s beautiful music.

Our final piece today is Szmerke Kaszerginski’s anthem, Zol Shoin Kumen di Geule, set by Kaszerginski to a melody ascribed to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine.[1] Kasczerginski was part of a circle of young poets and activists in Vilna during the Nazi occupation, and worked together with his friend Avraham Sutzkever, first to save Vilna’s rich cultural tradition and archives of YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) from the Nazis. Sutskever and Kaszerginski escaped from Vilna and fought as partisans; immediately after the war, back in Vilna, the Soviets indicated interest in preserving YIVO and its documents, but Sutzkever and Kaszerginski quickly saw that these treasures had to be rescued once again, this time from the Soviets. So they once again salvaged Vilna’s rich cultural history, this time by smuggling boxes and suitcases to New York where YIVO had relocated. Sutzkever moved to Israel but Kaszerginski embarked on yet another endeavor to save cultural treasures: he went around to DP camps to record and preserve the poetry and songs sung in ghettos and Concentration camps. Our piece today, Zol Shoin Kumen di Geule, “Redemption should come soon” was a message along the lines of “Happy Days are around the corner” and was a fixture of his concerts and visits to the camps.

Cultures translate unique individual and social realities and deeply held beliefs into works of art, which, at their best, transcend the specifics of their origin. Jewish liturgy, the Holocaust and the State of Israel are three key components of the Jewish heritage that shape all Jewish cultural expression in recent decades.

Estelle Nadel has lived a life in the culture of song since the liberation of her village; today she will share her story of survival as a child in Poland.

The simple exuberance and optimism of Israeli culture was captured by the late Arik Einstein, perhaps the embodiment of the quintessential Israeli actor, and songwriter, whose “You and I will change the world” now is inscribed on a monument outside his apartment in Tel Aviv.

Amen is a modern prayer bridging secular and religious elements.

Hashivenu, with its hope for “renewal as of old” concludes both the weekly Torah service and the annual reading of the Book of Lamentations on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Ben-Ury’s round has become a classic response to the Holocaust; so popular that it is rarely credited as anything other than a folk song. It has been sung for many years at summer camps on Tish’a BeAv, by groups visiting Auschwitz, and at memorial concerts. And it reflects a robust tradition of round-singing, inherited from Central Europe, going back to Mozart, F. Kuhlau and others, that flourished in pre-State Palestine and in the State of Israel.

A final note about the western performance tradition. The American concert hall is no stranger to a small number of choral works in Hebrew—Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Bloch’s Sacred Service come to mind. Like music originally written with texts in German or Latin, the best music in Hebrew and Yiddish, like any great art, easily transcends its cultural context. Rossi and Ben-Haim, and the shorter more popular pieces that are part of today’s program, form part of a body of music with superior quality and universal appeal. This corpus deserves greater visibility, not merely in performances in Jewish contexts but in choral conferences, at universities, and among community choruses. These works are as accessible as any other body of music, and share in the major heritage, historic and artistic traditions that shape our world.

Seth Ward

[1] This office was established by the British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in order to replace the “Haham Bashi” of the defeated Ottoman Empire; the Hebrew-Calendar anniversary of its establishment by the way was yesterday.

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Thoughts For Shabbat Shirah, Denver CO 2015

Talk 30 Jan 2015.docx

Talk 30 Jan 2015

East Denver Orthodox Synagogue

Parashat Beshalah

Shabbat Shirah

Several individuals have asked me to post a copy of a talk I gave at EDOS on Shabbat Shirah. I am grateful to Dr. Phil Mehler for asking me to speak, and to my wife for insisting I write out my thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom

It’s hard to imagine saying anything this Shabbat without recalling our late friend, Rabbi Yisrael Rosenfeld, zichrono livracha, who died earlier this week–only a few days shy of the 70th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz.

[My colleague, friend and former student Kobi Penland has written beautifully about remembering Auschwitz and its liberation this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in her blog; click here.]

The Russians liberated Auschwitz on the Sabbath—it was the 27th of January, corresponding with the 13th of Shevat, Shabbat Shirah; Rabbi Rosenfeld used to recall his liberation by giving a Dvar Torah every year on this date.

10 years ago, after a large gathering of survivors to mark the 60th anniversary, an Israeli proposal to have the date remembered annually as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was adopted at the UN. This year, the 70th anniversary of the liberation, was marked around the world; you all read the accounts that speculated that this may be the last time a “round number” anniversary will have any significant gathering of survivors.

Permit me to offer my own remembrance of HaRav Rosenfeld. His studies at Herzliyah Hebrew Teachers Institute, back at a time when it was one of the four ranking such Institutes in America, (together with the Teachers’ Institutes of Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston). Rabbi Rosenfeld knew that I worked briefly at Herzliyah in a much more difficult period of its existence, when the Hebraist-Zionists of Herzliyah had combined with the Bundists of the Arbeiter Ring and the Yiddisher Lehrer Seminar (or “Samovar” as one of my senior colleagues at that time used to call it) and it was a shadow of its former self.

Rabbi Rosenfeld was a student of one of the more unique Hebrew educators of America, Daniel Persky, who perhaps most eloquently represented Herzliah’s Hebraist tradition. He spoke a pure, correctly accented but Ashkenazi Hebrew, wrote textbooks and columns, including for the Hebrew Labor paper HaDoar, and among other things translated the US Constitution into Hebrew. He was famous – and feared—for demanding standards, and for his motto Eved HaIvrit Anochi. “I am the slave of Hebrew.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld uniquely combined this strain of Maskil-style Hebrewism, the attention to standards, ready publication of essays and Hebrew textbooks, and broad Jewish education—with knowledge and a strict commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. A rare combination, and much to rare today. May his memory be a blessing יהי זכרו ברוך.

Shabbat Shirah takes its name from the Biblical poem—the Shirat Ha-Yam (Song of the Sea, Ex. 15) that is recited in synagogue the Torah reading—and Shirat Devorah (Song of Deborah, Judges 5) is the Haftarah. Today it is the occasion in many synagogues in Denver and throughout the country for musical programs. For example, at the BMH-BJ-The Denver Synagogue, the Cantor and the men’s choir will grace services tomorrow.  There is a program at Rodef this weekend, a concert at Congregation Sinai tomorrow night, and much more. Tomorrow at the Kavod, I’ve prepared a transliteration to help the seniors there join in singing E-l Adon, Sim Shalom, Alenu and some of the other prayers.

But if we are to honor Shirah–“poetry” as well as “song” –by going beyond the reference to the Shirah in the Torah and Haftarah, and recall the liberation of Auschwitz on Shabbat Shirah, perhaps we should spend some time with poems and songs associated with the Holocaust.

I attended services on the East Side in New York, just after the attack at the Hyper Cachere in Paris. The Rabbi there referenced Bialik’s famous poem Al Ha-Shechitah, written some forty years before the Holocaust, after Bialik visited Kishinev. Rabbi Skydell picked out the final verse for special attention in the aftermath of the Paris attacks:

וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם

נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן

עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –

וְיִקֹּב הַדָּם אֶת-הַתְּהוֹם

יִקֹּב הַדָּם עַד תְּהֹמוֹת מַחֲשַׁכִּים

וְאָכַל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ וְחָתַר שָׁם

כָּל-מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַנְּמַקִּים

And cursed be the man who says:

Avenge!  No such revenge – revenge for

the blood of a little child – has yet been

devised by Satan.  Let the blood pierce

through the abyss!  Let the blood seep

down into the depths of darkness, and

eat away there, in the dark, and breach

all the rotting foundations of the earth.

Those who survived Auschwitz took Bialik’s advice by and large. They knew in their guts that it was impossible to fathom the evil that had destroyed their world—they focused not on revenge, but on rebuilding new lives, in Israel, in America, and elsewhere—on teaching, on preserving, on Jewish continuity.

The most famous song associated with surviving Auschwitz is probably the Ani Maamin. It is most often ascribed to  R. Azriel-David Fastag (1890-1942), one of the two most prominent developers of the songs for which the court of the Modzhitzer Rebbe was famous. Fastag deported from Warsaw to Treblinka in 1942. The story goes that he began singing this song on the cattle-car—and gradually everyone joined in. He challenged those in the car to volunteer to try to bring this song to the Modzhitzer Rebbe, reportedly offering “half his portion in the world-to come” to anyone who would do so. Reports about how and where Fastag’s melody came to the Modzhitzer Rebbe’s attention differ in details—and ultimately its fame may have much to do with his influence and the stories of how the song survived—but the melody quickly gained recognition, and was sung in America and Palestine in remembrance ceremonies. It eventually gained a place in the liturgies developed not only for Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) but also for Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day.

Time does not permit much elaboration; a small part of my research agenda has include research into cultural production during the Holocaust, or the way it is remembered in Song; particularly the Zog Nit Keinmol and other anthems from the period; and the songs and poems from the camps and ghettos gathered by Schmerke Kaszerginsky. (who, together with his friend the poet Avraham Sutzkever, had been instrumental in saving the immensely important cultural and historic archives of YIVO first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets, reuniting them with the YIVO after it had moved to New York.


This slot is dedicated to a dvar Torah, and I would like to return to suggest, very briefly, how this concept of Shirah fits into a paradigm suggested by Torah.

A few days after our ancestors left Egypt, they felt surrounded on all sides. The Divine advice was simple: Moses tells them “God will fight for you, va-atem taharishun and you will be silent.” Sometimes, we should not say anything, presumably, this was not even a time for prayer. Indeed, God rebukes Moses for crying out, and tells him to get moving—and the Midrash supplies a famous example of action though: Nachson ben Amminadav enters the Red Sea as an act of faith.

After our ancestors realized they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians, they sang a hymn of praise to God.

But while this Sabbath is named for this hymn, the Torah Reading does not end there. Instead, it ends with Moses on the top of a hill, with Aaron and Hur holding his hands. As long as Moses held his hands up, the Israelites were successful. In the end, Vayahalosh Yehoshua et Amalek v’et amo lefi harev. Joshua subdues Amalek and his people by means of the sword. The verb Vayahalosh indicates not complete conquest, but “weakening”—Amalek, epitomizing evil and cruelty, survives (unlike the Pharaonic army that drowned a few days before).

Then what happens?

There are three responses at the very end of the Torah reading:

  1. We remember, by writing and speaking: God tells Moses to write a memorial in a book, speaks to Joshua “in his ears.”
  2. We are reassured: God assures Joshua—and all of Israel—that He will wipe out the memory of Amalek.
  3. We build: In this case, Moses builds a mizbeah, an altar.

So too—we must always remember, and always speak, although what we speak about is unspeakable; perhaps this is why shirah, poetry and song, help us to articulate, help us write down in books, and keep the memory alive in our speech.

We must reassure each other that in the end, God will ensure that the wicked will be wiped out, not merely weakened.

And, like Moses, we must build—places of memorial, places for growth.

Shabbat Shalom

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