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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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)

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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