Letters, Summer 2011

Springtime for Arabia?


While I agree completely with Mr. Sharansky that it has been a great mistake to over identify with the autocratic regimes in the Middle East in the interest of the bleak goal of “stability,” I cannot share his optimism that a genuine Arab Spring has occurred or is in the offing.

Nonie Darwish, an ex-Muslim woman from Egypt, recently noted that none of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square featured calls for separation of church and state, or equal rights for women.

I would also note that while Mr. Sharansky made his own epochal contribution to the fall of the Soviet Empire, the biggest “remnant” of that empire—Russia—has so far failed to complete a transition to freedom or democracy, and shows no near-term signs of doing so.

Ron Thompson
Fairfax, VA

Hailing to the Chief


In his review, Rabbi David J. Wolpe makes the astonishing claim that Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has “constantly endeavored to breach the walls separating Jews from one another.”

It is certainly true that he began his tenure with this intention. His 1993 book One People? urged the promotion of a Judaism that was inclusive rather than exclusive, and which spoke of other Jews in no language except “the language of love and respect.” What actually happened was that by 1995, his educational initiative entitled “Jewish Continuity” dissolved due to its rabbinical chief’s hasty retreat from the promise to fund projects irrespective of their precise denominational origins. In January of that year, Sacks used the columns of the sectarian
Jewish Tribune to launch a spite-laden attack on adherents of the Masorti movement, whom he publicly condemned for having “severed their links with the faith of their ancestors”.

Rabbi Wolpe does briefly deal with the national furor that followed publication of Sacks’ infamous letter in early 1997 to the Haredi leader Dayan Chanoch Padwa, excusing his intention to speak at a public memorial meeting for the late Reform rabbi and Auschwitz survivor Hugo Gryn. It needs to be stressed that in that letter, Sacks denigrated not merely the Reform movement but Hugo Gryn personally, whom he described as oso ha-ish-the phrase used in the Talmud to refer to Jesus of Nazareth.

As Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks entered upon his ministry as a modernist, intent on promoting an Orthodoxy that embraced modernity as a divine gift. He even went so far as to publish a volume, The Dignity of Difference, in which he argued that Judaism—his Orthodox Judaism—did not have a monopoly on truth, and could learn from other faiths. In his encomium, Rabbi Wolpe does not make it clear that there are in fact two different versions of the book because, in order to placate the ultras, Lord Sacks simply rewrote it, consigning as heresy dogma what he had previously

Most surprisingly, Sacks’ central involvement in a succession of costly disputes at London’s Jewish Free School (of which he is the religious authority), and which involved (inter alia) his refusal to sanction the admission to the school of a pupil accepted as Jewish by the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. Sacks’ decision was famously condemned by the British Supreme Court as a breach of UK race-relations legislation.

Further, it is difficult to disagree with Shmuley Boteach’s observation that “with the notable exception of Limmud, which started as an independent, grassroots initiative, not a single new idea for Jewry has come out of Britain in the twenty-plus years that Sacks has presided over it.”

Professor Geoffrey Alderman
University of Buckingham, England



In his review of what must be close to Chief Rabbi Sacks’ entire chef d’oeuvre, Rabbi David J. Wolpe says, “What Orthodoxy requires is precisely what Conservative and Reform Judaism reject. Unity for the Orthodox can mean nothing more than inclusion: The non-Orthodox are wrong, but still Jewish. Unity for liberal Jews, however, means pluralism, even allowing for significant differences between the Conservative and Reform movements.”

Is this true? Doesn’t Wolpe’s Conservative Judaism hold that there are halakhic lines that ought not be crossed (about the Sabbath or conversion, say) and theological propositions that cannot be true (for instance that there are three gods, or no god at all)? And if so, doesn’t Wolpe think that Rabbi Sacks and his fellow Orthodox Jews are demonstrably wrong to ignore the results of biblical scholarship and the full import of feminism? Doesn’t his pluralism look a lot like Sacks’ tolerant inclusion?

There is, of course, the alternative: that liberal Jews don’t really hold to any absolute truth claims or inviolable principles, but it is hard to see how that would count as a virtue.

Liat Cohen
Toronto, Canada


David Wolpe Responds:

Both of these letters reflect the inevitable tension described in the review, and in Rabbi Sacks’ work. Pace Liat Cohen, drawing some boundary is not the same as insisting on a single boundary. As Professor Alderman points out, the recognition that other religious approaches have truth (not a good technique, or an effective lesson, but genuine religious truth) from which we might learn, is one ideologically opposed to Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sacks found himself caught (perhaps, impaled) on the horns of this dilemma more than once, since his instincts appear to battle within him. One might say that his intentions were upended both by his constituents and the demands of traditional ideology. Again, it will be interesting to learn his thoughts once he is no longer in the position of Chief Rabbi. 

This is perhaps the brightest dividing line between pluralism and inclusion. Conservative Judaism does not permit everything, but it is also not imperialistic in its claims: It recognizes that other denominations and other traditions have genuine religious truth. The open acceptance of historical change even in fundamental matters and the willingness to incorporate the religious ideas of other traditions mark a pluralism that is not anarchy. The slippery slope is where we all live; ideological purity is an illusion. Those who maintain the illusion reject change even as they unwittingly embody it. Those who slide on the slope sometimes grasp for footing, but for all their problems, they know where they are.



Straw Man?


Derek Penslar’s review of Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust invites readers to respectfully consider a book that, as Penslar describes it, attempts to defeat the Zionist argument by demonstrating that the Arabs were not responsible for the Holocaust, and so should therefore not be asked to remedy that great sin by having their land taken away and given to the Jews who had been wronged.

But who has ever claimed otherwise? If the argument for Zionism had really been predicated on the Holocaust, what were all those Zionists doing in Palestine before World War II? Further, what is one to make of the entire Jewish prayer book as it has existed, largely unchanged, for tens of centuries, and which puts the memory of Jerusalem in our mouths at each of our three daily prayers; at every meal; at the end of every seder; whenever we comfort a mourner, just to mention a few examples. Arguing that because the Arabs did not operate the ovens at Auschwitz Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state is not only to invoke a non sequitur; it is also to ignore why Israel actually exists.

As summarized (respectfully) by Penslar, Achcar’s argument about the Mufti is both internally inconsistent and an aggressive and unsuccessful effort at whitewashing—not the man, but his followers. When many other Jewish and Arab leaders were struggling to find ways for Jews and Arabs to co-exist, the Mufti was the man who—successfully—led Arabs away from that path and toward their refusal to acknowledge an independent Jewish political entity. Sixty years after Israel’s founding, and thirty-five years after Husseini’s death, his urging to “kill the Jews wherever you find them” is repeated and acted upon by far too many. Admitting Husseini’s Jew-hatred, but claiming he was of no importance in the Arab world, is a poor effort to make excuses for many people who deserve to be condemned. 

Perhaps most outlandlishly, Penslar suggests that the Arabs were “dumbfounded” by Israelis’ invocation of the Holocaust with regard to the Six-Day War, as if it was just silly for those paranoid Jews to take Nasser seriously when he amassed 100,000 troops in the Sinai and said, “Our goal is clear: to wipe Israel off the map.”

Jerome M. Marcus
Lower Merion, PA


Derek Penslar Responds:


I fully appreciate Mr. Marcus’ concerns and anxieties about Israel’s situation vis à vis the Arab world, and in my review I made his point that the case for Zionism rests in the Jews’ right to self determination, not the Holocaust alone.  The value of Achcar’s book is its attempt to show how the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust has distorted Israeli perceptions of the Arab world and triggered Arab Holocaust denial, which he unreservedly condemns. My review contained many criticisms of Achcar, but he is well worth listening to, as he is trying to speak across the great divide that separates Israel from its enemies.



Cooking By Any Other Name


I learned some things from Michel Gurfinkiel’s review of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan, for example, that Rue Manin (near the Buttes Chaumont park) and Porte de la Villette are new Jewish food centers.

But Gurfinkiel does a lot of quibbling: “The book doesn’t have a very French title: Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. Quiche is more American fantasy than true French staple; no one eats kugels in France nowadays; and the French do not speak of ‘cooking’ but rather of ‘cuisine or ‘the table.'”

The book was written for an English-speaking—and not a French-speaking—audience. Did the reviewer come to my house? I happen to make kugels in France nowadays. And while the French words for cooking are cuisine and la table, the English and alas very ordinary word for those terms is cooking, as unchic and banal as that word might be!

Sheila Malovany-Chevallier
Paris, France

Crossing the River


Your publication is stimulating, informative, and comprehensive. However, someone must have been emulating air-traffic controllers and thus missed an obvious error.

Vanessa Ochs’ review discusses two haggadahs with a connection to the capital area: Cokie and Steve Roberts’ interfaith work, and the venerable “Wahington Haggadah” at the Library of Congress. The review locates the former “just across the Potomac in Bethesda” and the latter as “back on the DC side of the Potomac.” Since I live four blocks from the Roberts’ home, I can assure you the one does not have to cross the Potomac to get to Washington from Bethesda, MD. In fact, one does not have to cross that river anywhere in Maryland to reach the District. If one crosses the Potomac, one will find oneself in Virginia, where your reviewer apparently lives. I hope she has a good GPS.

Other than that basic flaw in geography, your Spring 2011 issue is quite good.

Daniel Mann
Bethesda, MD



Suggested Reading

Who Doesn’t Love Roald Dahl?

Who Doesn’t Love Roald Dahl?

Dara Horn

There’s nothing quite like the realization that what you thought was an empowering work of art is actually a 200-page exercise in trolling. It took me more than 30 years to figure out that I’d been trolled by Roald Dahl.

Big Tent

Lance J. Sussman

The American religious landscape that Uzi Rebhun sketches out in his new book, Jews and the American Religious Landscape, is marked by virtually boundless freedom and pluralism, as well as increasing fragmentation, due to the growth of “self-searching and religiosity by choice.”