My friend and co-board member of the Society for Crypto Jewish Studies and editor of its newsletter La Granada, Debby Wohl Isard, sent me the Uncle Jed’s Barbershop announcement. I am happy to repost it here.

This is lightly edited from what she wrote me about the piece:

My brother David Wohl is the composer for “Uncle Jed’s Barbershop” opening this weekend for a limited time run in Denver.

The storyline may be based on events within an African-American family, yet the encompassing theme is one of TESHUVAH, returning and repairing. Great music representing several decades situates scenes in time and carries the show through its narrative. Ken Primus, whom you may recall as the Broadway original character ‘Old Deuteronomy’ from CATS plays the lead. It is a treat to be in his presence and hear him on stage as Uncle Jed.

The official press-release is attached and you can find more about the show on Facebook through FB page, set up in the name of the show.

I urge you to get tickets soon and even inquire about group sales for your choir members. Also, on a personal note, if you know anybody who knows somebody in the theatrical production business, please share this with them. This show is Broadway bound as soon as they have the means to take it there….


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Women and the Islamic State

Here is a streaming version of a talk I gave at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne, WY. Many thanks to Robin Papaleka of the Laramie County Public Library for organizing this series. There are several more items in this series–if you are reading this in Sept. 2015, please consider coming to the library for the other talks.

Please contact me if you would like the PowerPoint or the narrated PowerPoint on which this talk is based.

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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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