Posted by: zachmargulies | January 2, 2012

a quick thought on Liberal Judaism

One of the central tenets of liberal Judaism is that we make informed choices.  The Reform movement’s mantra of “Choice through Knowledge,” even if often ignored in the Reform movement itself, is still a significant thread that runs through the liberal Jewish world, and which I strongly believe in.  Even in the Conservative movement, which nominally adheres to Halacha, the way that Halacha is perceived by the Rabbis follows this approach.  The Conservative Rabbinical authority is not bound by the majority opinion, as in Orthodoxy, but is free to choose any opinion amongst traditional sources and elevate that as the (or a) halacha.  And with a 2000 year tradition, pretty much any opinion can be upheld by traditional sources – you just need to know how to apply them.  In other words, Rabbinic “Choice through Knowledge.”

This has been especially relevant in the Conservative Movement’s recent reappraisal of Homosexuality in Judaism, and in the not as recent reappraisal of Egalitarianism (equality between men and women).  I think none of us would argue that those were the wrong decisions, but the Halachic arguments (from an Orthodox perspective) seem a bit forced.

This is certainly how I choose to live my life.  Although much of my day to day practice falls in line with Halacha, I don’t consider myself Halachic.  I don’t surrender my free will to rabbinic authority (not even Conservative Rabbinic authority), but instead make individual decisions based on what seems right to me.  “What seems right to me” has evolved significantly as I have become more informed, but I still have not relinquished my right to decide for myself.  I still hold firmly by “Choice through Knowledge.”

BUT RECENTLY, one line in the shma has been nagging at me.  Num. 15:37-41 (also known as the third paragraph of the Shma) is the section in which God commands Moses to tell the people to wear tzitzit (blue tassels on the corners of their clothes).  The justification (15:39) is as follows:

וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות יי ועשיתם אותם, ולא תתרו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר אתם זונים אחריהם

See it (the tassel) and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, so that you will not follow after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you whore.  

In other words, we say this twice daily to remind us that our hearts and eyes are deceptive.  The author understands that human nature is to do whatever seems right, regardless of what we are told.  The point of the tzitzit is to have a constant reminder that our judgement is imperfect, and that we are easily led astray by what we believe to be right in the moment.  This is not to say that humans are naturally evil, and that we willingly do wrong.  The point here is that we think we are doing right, and that sometimes we trust our own judgement to a fault.  The tzitzit is there in order to rein us in, and remind us that our judgement is not always (or in the case of Numbers, never) to be trusted over Divine Law.

This directly contradicts the basis of liberal Judaism, which tells us that sometimes, we do know better than the Halacha which has been passed down to us.  The Reform Movement understood the import of those words, and excised them from the shma, so that the “words which I command you today,” are only to “love the Lord your God” with no mention of the dangerous side of free-will.  Like much of Reform thought and practice, I support the question being raised here but not the response.

Numbers here is right; our judgement is often incorrect, especially in the moment when we don’t take time to reflect on the right course of action.  If we always did what we thought was right or justifiable, without consideration of the implications on our future practice, or more generally on the consequences of those actions, then we may easily be led astray and “whore” after flawed goals.  So far, this seems like a pretty good argument for following Halacha.

The Reform Movement, however, and Liberal Judaism in general, also have a good point.  Sometimes, after long reflection, Halacha is just wrong.  The most obvious examples are the two cited above – how can we say that God’s Law encourages the subordination of women and the exclusion of homosexuals from the community?  After a century of intense debate and reflection, society has for the most part decided that morality dictates something different than Orthodox Halacha.  And if Halacha is immoral, then it has lost all legitimacy, and does not deserve my allegiance.

That seems to leave the Conservative approach – an enlightened and liberal approach to halacha, while still retaining the halachic system.  That way, there are still community standards, but not ones we find morally reprehensible.  This seems like the best system to run a community, and it probably is. For a community to work, there must be standards and norms that people can respect, and the conservative system seems to include the best of liberalism and maintenance of standards.

Communal standards, however, are not what interest me.  I’m too much of an American to sign onto the Halachic system, in which rabbis, who may or may not have my best interest at heart, get to make every personal decision for me.  As a relatively intelligent person, I balk at the lack of self determination.   I can abide by the idea that, in a community, we should be bound by (relatively liberal) community standards, but I still refuse to surrender my free will completely in non-communal settings.

SO HAVING rejected all communal halachic systems, I am still left with the nagging reminder twice a day that my own judgement is not always to be trusted.  The only solution, it seems, is to develop a Personal Halacha.  A system in which I am free to make decisions about my own life, but which is a system, none the less.  In investigating each issue ahead of time, I would not fall into the trap of “following after my heart and after my eyes,” and just doing whatever I like, regardless of consequence.  In creating a personal halacha, I have the best of individualism and halacha, with fewer of the dangers of each.  For this to work, it requires both consistency and knowledge.  This is essentially a return to “Choice through Knowledge,” but with the added emphasis on consistency, to safeguard against the dangers of flippant decisions.  It is also an abandonment of a term which has become an excuse to do whatever one wants, regardless of tradition.  The function of the tzitzit, then, would be to remind myself of my own standards, as informed by Jewish tradition; that I should only deviate from the tradition when I have thought the issue through, and developed an alternative personal standard.

I understand that in a personal halacha, there is no guarantee that I’m right.  But I at least find that preferable to surrendering autonomy to people I don’t trust are necessarily right, either.

Posted by: zachmargulies | December 3, 2011

the Third Incarnation

Hi all!  It’s been a long time since I updated this blog, and I thought it might be time to resurrect it for a second time.  I stopped writing when my stay in Israel (the raison d’etre of the blog) was over, but I still have some (hopefully interesting!) things to say, so we’ll see where this goes.

We’re in the middle of finals now, so I can’t justify writing a blog post this week, but if all goes well, then I should start writing again after that, so keep a look out!


As for the new name: Since I’m no longer studying at Pardes, I decided the name wasn’t appropriate anymore.  I drew the reference for this blog from a line in the Medieval poem, “D’ror Yikra:”

דעה חכמה לנפשך / והיא כתר לראשך  de’eh hochmah l’nafshecha / v’hi cheter l’roshecha

Seek Wisdom for your own sake / and she will be a crown for your head

Posted by: zachmargulies | June 15, 2011

Shavuot: a Temple Holiday without a Temple

I know a lot of my posts have been about how holidays are celebrated in Israel, but I hope you’ll bear with me through one more.  I promise, no more!

Last week we celebrated Shavu’ot – the “Festival of Weeks” and the forerunner to Christian Pentecost.  Like most Jewish holidays, it was originally an agricultural celebration, marking the end of the wheat harvest, but was Rabbinically associated with the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai.

While the other two Pilgrimage holidays (Pesach and Sukkot) have special rituals that do not need to be performed at the Temple, Shavuot is entirely Temple-dependent.  The main event of the day was to present “first fruits” at the Temple, but now without a Temple, the holiday had to be reinvented as a celebration of Torah.  Instead, people stay up all night studying, and then perform the morning service at dawn.

Being here in Jerusalem for Shavuot was particularly meaningful, as the site of the destroyed Temple.  After dinner, several of my friends and I went over to Pardes, where we attended a fascinating class taught by one of my teachers, Judy Klitsner, on “Aveira goreret Aveira” (one sin leads to another) through the story of Achav’s theft of Navot’s Vinyard in the Yizr’el Valley (I Kings 21).  After that, we went to a class by a Gemara teacher from Hadar about the connections between Elisha ben Avuyya (aka “Aher” – the apostate), and the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot.  After doing some independent learning on Hoshea, we left at around 4:30 in the morning.

While staying up all night studying is great, it can be done anywhere.  What was special about this Shavuot was that we were in Jerusalem, where Ancient Israelites used to travel to from miles around every year.  So when we left, we joined tens of thousands of other people throughout Jerusalem walking up to the Old City.  The stream of people lead us from Emek Refaim down into valley west of the city, and up a path to Mt. Zion, where we entered the old city through the Zion Gate.  From there we followed the crowds down to the Kotel, the closest that Jews are allowed to the Temple Mount.  Most people stopped at the Kotel, but we continued down a bit to the Southern Wall excavations, under Robinson’s arch, an ancient staircase that led up through the Royal Palace courtyard and into the Temple.  Because of the Haredization of the Kotel, this is the only place where men and women are allowed to pray together.  It was much quieter here, with only 50 or so people, and everyone together in one minyan.

While the other two Pilgrimage Holidays have certainly gained something by retaining non-Temple related traditions, there is something unique about celebrating Shavu’ot in Jerusalem.  Over the course of Pesach and Sukkot, I never made it up to the Old City, because there was enough ritual to keep me occupied at home in Baka.  I honestly could have celebrated those holidays in Tel Aviv or Haifa without noticing the difference.  The lack of other obligations on Shavuot, however, allowed me to experience the holiday in a glimmer of its original sense as a pilgrimage to the Temple.  The early morning ascent up Mount Zion, and then shacharit amongst the ruins of Robinson’s arch was far more meaningful than anything I had experienced at home.

In a way, we gained something from being excluded from the mess at the Kotel plaza.  We had a quite prayer service directly in front of the Temple Mount, all amongst the stones of the fallen arch and the ruins of shops on the ancient Tyropoeon street.  The Kotel may be closer to the Temple, but it has been sterilized and cleansed of any reminder of destruction.  There is certainly something to be said for being reminded of the reasons why we no longer have Temple holidays during our reenactment of them.

Hopefully, I will be able to return to Jerusalem for future Shavuots, as this seemed to me to be really our only remnant of pilgrimage left in Judaism.

Posted by: zachmargulies | June 5, 2011

Memorial Day and Yom HaZikkaron

Earlier this week, I was talking with a friend who works for an American company, and she mentioned that she had a day off.  I was confused for a minute, since she works all the time.  Then she reminded me that it was Memorial Day in the US.  Having just recently witnessed the the big four Israeli secular holidays (Yom HaShaoh [Holocaust Day], Yom HaZikaron [Memorial Day], Yom HaAztma’ut [Independence Day] and Yom Yerushalayim [Jerusalem Day]), I started thinking about what Memorial Day means to us in the US.

As far as American holidays go, Memorial Day always seemed pretty low on the list.  July 4th and Thanksgiving are really the only two that hold any meaning for me.  The only significance of the others – Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day – is a day off school, and a month’s worth of tv ads for Macy’s ___ – Day Sale.  So it was unsurprising that without the day off and no tv ads, I had no idea that Memorial Day had even happened.

Compare that to the four days here.  The first two were Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day).  On both occasions, the main event of the day was a siren which sounds across the country for a full minute.  I’m sure you’ve all seen the pictures of Israelis standing to attention, but it was amazing to actually see it happen.  When the siren rang, all the cars on the road stopped, everyone got out and stood silently in the street until it was over.  On Yom Hazikaron, something like a third of the country visited a cemetery.  In a country where everybody knows somebody who died in one of the wars or somebody who was killed in a terrorist attack, Memorial Day has real meaning.  The national culture has a lot to do with it.  When night falls the day before, the radios switch over to contemplative music, and the news stations spend the day trying to catch people not observing the moment of silence in order to make an example of them.

Even more interesting is the proximity of Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haaztmaut (Independence Day).  The one immediately precedes the other.  There is an implicit statement in the placement – that one can only properly celebrate Independence if it is preceded by paying tribute to the people who made it happen.  The country spends a full day of sadness and respect, and only then, does it celebrate.  At nightfall, the mood switches over, and having duly honored the builders of their country, Israelis go wild in celebration.  The entire center of town, from the market on one end to the Old City on the other, turns into one massive party, with all of young Jerusalem dancing in the streets.  At every intersection is another famous Israeli band, and in-between people dance till four in the morning.  The next day is a little more laid back, with everyone turning out to parks for barbecues.   I think it is precisely because of the connection between Memorial and Independence Day that the celebration is so great.  When Israelis take the time out to respect their fallen soldiers, they understand all the more so the great gift that they’ve been given.

This is mirrored a few weeks later by Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem reunification day).  It celebrates the day that Israelis seemingly miraculously retook the Old City, including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  All day, people party like on Independence Day, except on this day, people start in the West, and make their way to the Western Wall in the East.  By the end of the day, everyone is in the Old City, again, in a giant, flag-waving, dance party.

Also interestingly, both days take on a semi-religious flavor.  Though not required, many people recite Hallel, a series of psalms of thanksgiving, which are usually reserved for religious holidays of celebration, when God gave us the gift of Freedom, or Torah, etc.  Both the foundation of the state of Israel, and the return to Jerusalem are taken by many as miraculous gifts from God, on par with the exodus from Egypt.  The are seen as the fulfillment of the Biblical promises that Israel will be returned to Zion.

Given all of that, it is refreshing and illuminating to see a country where the national holidays are taken seriously, even religiously; not just as an excuse to party, but as a time to reflect on the sacrifice and miracles that brought about Israel’s creation and continued survival.

Yom Yerushalayim celebration at the Kotel

Posted by: zachmargulies | April 6, 2011

Excavating Tel Burna and Spring in Israel

(or almost)הנה הסתו עבר, הגשם חלף הלך לו

Lo, the winter has passed, the rains have gone, gone away (song of songs, 2:11)

Again, it’s been too long since my last post.  I’ve been studying hard at Pardes, and not much has changed.  But finally, Spring is here!  And with that, the first dig season of the year.

Some friends of mine from the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Drs Itzik Shai and Joe Uziel, have started up their own excavation at Tel Burna, a Judahite city just up the road from Safi.  The tel was occupied in the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages (as a Canaanite city), and was settled in the Iron Age as a Judahite fortress city (likely Biblical Libna, home town of Josiah’s wife Hamutal- cf. 2Kings 24:18).  Its strategic position in the Shephelah, particularly its view over much of the Philistines’ territory, makes it an especially useful site to study Philistine/Judahite cross-border interactions during Judah’s monarchic period.  After its abandonment towards the end of the Iron Age (near the end of the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah), it lay largely unsettled, meaning that the Iron Age remains are undisturbed by later periods (unlike at most other sites).  Needless to say, I was very excited to get the chance to dig here!

The dig was, for the most part, composed of two groups: IBEX (International Bible Expedition?), a study abroad program for The Master’s College in CA; and a group of teenage Israelis on a mechina year between high school and army service, in which they take classes for fun and go on trips (such as archaeological digs).  Because both groups had their own accommodations, the rest of us commuted to the tell from home every day.

Being able to drive to the site every day (about a 45 minute ride), was wonderful at this time of year.  The road descends down from Jerusalem through the dramatic Judaean Hills, over tell Beit Shemesh (where the ark was brought after its stay in Philistia), through the Elah Valley (site of David’s battle with Goliath), and across to the edge of the Shephelah.  Having been in this area only during the summer, it was incredible to see the difference.  The whole way down was through lush, rolling green hills, and through bright green forests, not the dusty brown forests of the summer.  The hills are covered in yellow and red flowers, and are completely unrecognizable from when I had last seen them.

The difference on site was just as striking.  During the summer, digging without shade is horrible, if not dangerous.  Last week, we had no need for shade, since the temperatures didn’t get above the mid 70s.  It was the most pleasant time I have ever spent digging in Israel.

While the majority of the work took place on top of the tel in the Iron Age fortress, I was placed with another friend from Safi, Chris McKinney, in the presumed Late Bronze lower city.  The area had not been opened, so we spent the first couple days opening three new squares.  It took until the end of the first week before we found architecture, but we came up with a number of finds in the process.  Most interesting were two broken ceramic masks (see here for a picture).  While we didn’t come up with many answers for the area, we set the stage for great finds this summer.

Week two, I discovered the downside of digging in the spring.  Starting Monday, a huge rainstorm hit Israel, making it impossible to dig for the rest of the week.  So instead, we took that time to wash and read pottery (picture), which made a nice dent in the work for the summer.

After having been inside studying for the last couple months, it was great to be out in the field again.  We got a good week’s head start on the summer season, which I am really looking forward to.  If anyone is interested in the site (or in joining us this summer!), here is the blog.  I leave for Prague and Dresden tonight, so hopefully I’ll have an update up at the end of next week!

Posted by: zachmargulies | February 17, 2011

Thoughts on Gemara

About a month ago, we began our second semester at Pardes, giving us the chance to switch up our class schedules.  I had been studying Tanakh, and enjoying it, but I didn’t find the Tanakh course offerings for the new semester very interesting.  Instead, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to start studying Gemara in an intensive way, especially since I would have plenty more opportunities to study Tanakh in the future.  At first, it was difficult, especially getting through the passages in Aramaic (a language that I had never learned).  Now, after having gotten a bit more comfortable with the material, I feel at least as if I have a grasp of the form and type of discussion that takes place in the Gemara.

In my level, we’re learning Masechet Sanhedrin, a section of the talmud dedicated to the legal courts, crimes, punishments, etc.  For the last couple of days, we’ve been working through a passage dealing with בן סורר ומורה – the wayward and rebellious son, who, according to Tanakh (Deut. 21:18-21), is to be brought by his parents before the elders of the town to be stoned to death.  The rabbis are extremely disturbed by this, and spend many pages limiting every aspect of the case, using every trick available to them.  They limit the age at which it can take place to just a few months in his early teens; they insist that it can only be because the son has both eaten too much (exclusively kosher) meat, and drunk too much wine, and only in the presence of worthless people, while not involved in a communal meal.  The son must have stolen the money for the meat and wine from his parents, bought it for a cheap price, and not eaten it in the house.  Even the relationship between the parents is brought to bear on the case: the mother must be equal to the father in appearance and stature, and they must both agree to bring their son before the court (ie, the father can’t decide alone, or intimidate his meek wife into it).  The list goes on and on.

In other words, they essentially box the entire situation out of existence.  The Rabbis even admit as much, בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות – that such a case has never and will never take place.  They then go on, bringing up other examples of halachic cases that could never happen: the destruction of a rebellious Israelite city and how to deal with a “leprous” house.  In all three cases, it seems that the rabbis are disturbed again by the fact that there would be a halachic discourse on a situation that is effectively impossible.  Why are they wasting their time?  How could God prescribe a law that has no practical application?

I have had similar questions concerning Gemara, which is why I originally chose to study Tanakh rather than Gemara.  Why waste my time with a text that has no practical value to me, and which I don’t even really esteem literarily?  I don’t accept many of their guiding principles when approaching the Tanakh, and so many of their answers strike me as hollow or, worse, just wrong.

When confronted with these questions, the rabbis offer two different answers.  One possible approach is represented in all three cases – a rabbi speaks up and declares that he himself has witnessed such a case, thereby proving the value of the law.   I find this to be a cheap response, which represents what I dislike about rabbinic thought.  There is no evidence whatsoever of such a morally degenerate Jewish city being proscribed by fellow Jews, and yet a rabbi makes this false claim, in order to bolster a faulty system.

The rabbis do, however, give another answer to the question למה נכתב – why is such a law written?  דרוש וקבל שכר – seek, and receive fulfillment.  In other words – there is value in the process, not just in the laws derived from them.

I haven’t yet made up my mind on how valuable this text is to me.  This is part of my tradition, which always has some draw, and the rabbis do bring up interesting questions.  Their project of adapting an ancient text to their modern era is certainly worthy, as is its continuation into our modern time.  Whether or not I find it relevant to my life is another question, but until I figure that out, I’ll take their advice: seek, and receive fulfillment.  Whether I accept the conclusions that they reach, or my own in response to questions they pose, for the time being, I can accept that there is value in the process.

Posted by: zachmargulies | December 14, 2010

a view from Nablus

After the overview of my Chanukkah break, I wanted to go into a bit more depth about one of my day excursions.  A good friend of mine, Zak, a Palestinian Christian who owns a shop in the old city, and I were talking, and I mentioned that I wanted to see some of the West Bank cities, but didn’t quite know how to go on my own.  He offered to take me, and this week, since I didn’t have class, I took him up on the offer.  He works with a Christian organization that teaches English in Nablus, and so on Wednesday, I got up early in the morning and made my way (via Rosh Hodesh tefillah with Women of the Wall) to the East Jerusalem bus station, where I caught an Arab city bus (I didn’t even know they existed!) to Beit Hanina, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where my friend lives.

We picked up some other teachers in Beit Hanina, and from there made our way into the West Bank.   The rapid change in scenery is incredible – from built up, green Jerusalem, the landscape changed immediately to sparsely populated (well, less densely populated), arid hills, sloping down towards the Jordan River valley.  It really seemed like going back in time – in Jerusalem, all of the villages have merged together into one sprawling city, but just over the wall, the landscape is dotted with small villages, each with its mosque, still independent of each other, with farmland in the valleys between.

As we went farther north, the landscape got greener, and more interesting.  The whole while, Zak was telling me about the places we were passing.  One of the ironies of the present situation is that the real home of the Israelites is the Judaean and Samarian hill country (ie, the modern-day West Bank), and the land on which Israel proper is built belonged largely to others, especially the Philistines or the Edomites.  So as we drove along, we passed the sites of many of the major events of the Bible; Shilo, where Hannah prayed for Samuel’s birth, and just down the road, Eli, named after the site at which the high priest Eli died after hearing of the loss of the Ark to the Philistines.  It was strange to see this area almost entirely devoid of Jews – the place which seems most natural for them to be is the place where they are least welcome.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrived in Nablus (Biblical Shchem, where Shimon and Levi avenged their sister’s rape by slaughtering the town’s inhabitants; and the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel).  Nablus is situated in the valley between Mt. Ebal (the mountain of curses) and Mt. Gerizim (the mountain of blessings, and the later site of the Samaritan Temple, which stands, rebuilt, today). Today it’s a pretty non-descript town, with an unattractive, rubble-strewn downtown.

We drove straight to the school, which was located in an office building up the hill.  Inside, there were about 20 women waiting for us, and after a few minutes of chatting, we began the lesson.  The main teacher gave a lesson on family words (mother, aunt, great-grandfather, etc.), and then split us up into discussion groups, each of us taking a few people to help make sentences with their new vocabulary.

These conversations were probably the most interesting part of the day – it really put into relief for me the difference between their world and mine.  While they all had interesting things to say, one conversation was particularly memorable.  When it came to one girl’s turn (who was my age), she talked about her fiancee who was killed last year.  She didn’t say by whom.  As we were talking later, she asked where I lived and if I missed home.  I said not terribly – that I’m only here for a year, and am having a great time exploring a new country.  She couldn’t really understand that – she had never left Nablus, and couldn’t imagine spending even a day away from her family, much less an entire year.  When I told her I lived in Jerusalem, though, she mentioned that it was her dream to one day see Jerusalem.  That comment stuck out at me – I, a 22 year old American guy, could travel the world, live in Jerusalem, and cross nearly any border I wished, whereas she, a 22 year old Palestinian girl, had never left Nablus and had never seen the closest city.

Later as we were driving back, after checking out the city and picking up some local treats, Zak asked me what I thought of the school.  I told him that I thought they were incredibly nice people, and that I had enjoyed my day.  He then asked if I could imagine these same women being under a 100 day 24-hour curfew that had been imposed on Nablus not too long before, sometime toward the end of the intifada, in which anyone who stepped outside was shot.  None of them had mentioned that, nor mentioned Israel at all, in fact.  They didn’t use our conversation to demonize Israel to me, although they could have.  Just to talk.  Zak then explained why he came every week: in his eyes, giving these women access to the wider world, through contact with foreigners and through English, was the only way to solve the conflict.  Give people a greater perspective, and access to better opportunities, and they will respond to crises in a more positive way.

I don’t know if I agree that this sort of thing will have as big an impact as Zak hopes, but it is certainly an invaluable service nonetheless.  I didn’t leave Nablus thinking Israel was necessarily in the wrong, or that the veil of injustice had somehow been pulled away from my eyes, but rather with a better sense of real people living on the other side of the wall.

Posted by: zachmargulies | December 9, 2010

Chanukkah break

Yet again, it’s been way too long since my last post. I seem to start every post that way… maybe I’ll get better at this eventually.

Instead of giving the normal Christmas break that American schools give, Pardes, and Israel in general, has a winter break for the eight days of Chanukkah.  Chanukkah this year ran from last Wednesday night through today (Thursday), which means we go back to school on Sunday. Though many people take this time to travel outside of Israel – to Egypt or Jordan, usually – I ended up staying here.  I did, however, get plenty of travel in.

It is especially fun to spend Chanukkah in Israel, because here, the holiday is really about Chanukkah.  In the US, given the pervasiveness of Christmas, Chanukkah gets subsumed under the “Holiday Season” as a kind of Jewish equivalent to Christmas.  Here, there is no Christmas to speak of, and so the anticipation of the season is all focused on Chanukkah, and the special foods, the public displays and the types of discussions we have are all geared towards the Maccabean victory/miracle of the oil (take your pick), rather than the amalgamation of the US at this time.  Every night I could see all my neighbors lighting their candles in the windows, and hear others in my building singing the traditional songs.  Just like with Shabbat or the other holidays, there really is something to living in an observant Jewish city.

Stations of the Cross, Jerusalem

Since we’ve been spending so much time on Jewish topics, a friend and I decided to see a few of the Christian sites here over break.  For our first outing, we stayed here in Jerusalem, and walked the Via Dolorosa – the street which Jesus is said to have walked bearing the Cross.  All along the street, from where he was condemned by Pontius Pilate, to the site where he is traditionally believed to have been crucified and buried, there are numbers (often with associated churches or chapels) marking the stages of the procession.  It was fascinating to walk along that path, and learn some of the stories that I had never heard.  All along, we passed pilgrims, some of them singing or carrying full sized crosses themselves, reenacting the Passion.  Once we got into the Holy Sepulchre, we followed a Catholic processional around the building.  This wasn’t a mass, but some other sort of ritual rites being performed.  While I was watching the procession, I thought a lot about the similarities between this and the service of the Kohanim in the Temple.  The priests do all of the rituals and singing, while the faithful are allowed to stand behind them and watch.  It seemed so unfulfilling.  It gave me a new perspective on what happened in the Temple – the Priests do all of the work in the Temple, and the common men are allowed to watch from outside.  And as for the women- they might as well stay at home.  Though we pray for the restoration of the Temple everyday, I’m not quite sure this is something I really want…


On Monday, we decided to go a little further afield, and check out life on the other side of the wall.  We took one of the Arab buses from the Damascus Gate to the border crossing, where we crossed over to the West Bank.  In some ways, it changed noticeably – all Hebrew vanished, replaced entirely by Arabic.  In other ways, it was the same – a mob of pushy taxi drivers still tried to take advantage of us as soon as we crossed over.  We made our way to the Church of the Nativity, an ancient Roman/Byzantine Basilica in the center of town.  After that, we wandered the town, got some lunch, and walked along the security wall, looking at all the Pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish graffiti.   On our way back, we stopped off at the Tomb of Rachel, a building entirely surrounded by the wall, in order to keep it protected from attacks.


On Wednesday, I went with a friend to Nablus to teach English to Palestinian women.  This post is already too long, and this deserves a full post, so more on that later.

Ein Kerem and the Jerusalem Forest

On our final day of break, we had planned to go to Nazareth, but we were too slow in the morning, and by the time we finished breakfast, it was too late to spend any time there.  So instead, we stayed in Jerusalem, and took a short hike through the Jerusalem forest to Ein Karem, a gorgeous and quaint town on a nearby hill.  We sat and had lunch, and then ambled around until we found a convent with a garden and view of the forest and hills.  Later, we stumbled upon the birthplace of John the Baptist, housed in an ancient and ornate church in the center of town.  So while we didn’t get to see Jesus’s hometown, we did get to see his precursor’s.  We then walked back through the forest with a fantastic view of a fiery Jerusalem sunset the whole way.  All in all, a very relaxing and pleasant day.

So that was my Chanukkah!  Shabbat tomorrow, and then it’s back to school early Sunday morning!

Posted by: zachmargulies | October 18, 2010

“Only in Israel”

One night last week, I was walking along Pierre Koenig Street near my house, and got to a red light at the intersection across from Pardes.  It was pretty deserted at that time of night, with only a few cars and pedestrians out.  While I was waiting, a van pulled up next to me, completely covered in spray paint, blasting some Jewish dance song (I think this one, or another like it).  They stopped at the red light, and five or six Breslovers (members of a Jewish hasidic sect), jumped out and started dancing in the intersection and on the roof of the van.  They danced around for about thirty seconds until the light turned green, at which point they quickly piled back into the van, and drove away, leaving the street as quiet as before.

This is just one example of the frequent experiences that leave me thinking, “Only in Israel…”  Whether it’s something crazy like Jews dancing in the street, or mundane like hotel check-out time on Saturdays being after sunset, I’m constantly reminded that this isn’t just any country.   In some ways, Israel is a lot like America – a Western, First-World country, with all the amenities of home.  But the culture here is so thoroughly Jewish, that it’s hard to think that for long.  When I walk to school early in the morning, it’s completely normal to see men with tefilin running around, or when walking downtown to be grabbed off the street to make a minyan.  I guess what’s striking to me is that in the US, the majority culture is Secular/Christian, which everyone is expected to understand, while Judaism is just one of many minority religions, which most people understandably have little to no knowledge of.  Here, on the other hand, what would be completely esoteric in the US is considered just a normal part of mainstream culture.  People assume you’re Jewish, and that you share a certain level of common background.  In a way, it’s fun to be a part of the majority culture, and I’m sure I’ll have many more stories like the one above over the next few months.

Posted by: zachmargulies | October 10, 2010

learning at Pardes

Now that I’ve been here for over a month, I’m getting into the routine of classes at Pardes, and have a pretty good idea how the rest of the year should look.  They way we learn here is very different from the way we learn in college; in college, classes meet two or three times a week for an hour at a time, and the bulk of the work is done at home, alone.  Study here is much more communal.  After shacharit (the early morning service), and breakfast together, we all break off into classes for the rest of the day.  The way most classes work is that the teacher gives a short lesson at the beginning of class, and then sends us off to the beit midrash (literally something like “house of searching/interpretation” – actually a library), which is stocked with all sorts of Jewish texts.  There we study the source texts for the bulk of class time in chevruta (study pairs) – reading and discussing the texts.  Then we reconvene, and the teacher goes over what we should have discovered, and adds his/her own interpretation of the text.

The chevruta style of learning really appeals to me – while I do appreciate lectures, this is a much more active way of learning the material.  We are given the sources, and the opportunity to take whatever we want from them, discussing and exploring issues that interest us.  When it’s a good match, I feel like I can almost learn more from my chevruta than from the teacher’s recap lesson (although they always call us to points that we missed in the beit midrash).  I’m lucky to have two very well matched chevrutas, Daniel and Aviva, and I’ve been learning so much from them.

Pardes has a few different tracks of study, which allows students to personalize their learning a little more.  I’m in the Intensive Tanakh track, which means that my classes are focused on aspects of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and its interpretation by the later commentators, and that I don’t have a Mishna or Gemara class (late antique and early medieval rabbinic discussions), like most other students do.  My morning classes are “Themes of the Prophets” where we start with a close reading of Isaiah, and then use it as a jumping block to explore the same themes as discussed by other prophets; and “Bamidbar” (the book of Numbers), where we use the late Medieval commentators liberally to gain an understanding of the text.  My afternoon classes are “Bereishit” (Genesis), where our teacher likes to compare similar seemingly contradictory stories from elsewhere in Tanakh; “Intellectual Immersion in Halachah” where we take issues in Jewish Law and try to understand what guiding principles are being kept in balance when halachic judges make rulings; and “Parshat HaShavua” (weekly Torah portion), which is a short one hour class taught in Hebrew discussing interesting point in the weekly reading.  Finally, I’m taking a class on Jewish Philosophy, where we compare differing views on philosophical issues in Judaism.

Outside of the set, 8:30 to 5 classes, there are other opportunities for learning, as well.  Once a week, my friend Daniel and I sit down for a few hours to study Maimonides‘ “Guide for the Perplexed,” an absolutely brilliant Medieval philosophical work, drawing heavily on Greek and Islamic traditions.  Daniel was a philosophy major in college, which helps a lot, since this is my first introduction to the subject.  This is probably my favorite study time, since we really can take it in whatever direction we want.

I am also taking a couple night classes – one learning how to chant the book of Esther, which is read on Purim, and another on scribal art, where we learn to write Hebrew calligraphy, using quills and parchment.  Both are lots of fun, and not so intensely academic as the rest of the week’s classes.

So that’s a sum up of what my classes look like at the moment.  I’ll try to write a bit more in depth about some of the things we are covering in class later.  If there’s anything you want to hear more about in particular, let me know and I can write a post on it!

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