Letters, Summer 2017

Foucault on Yom Kippur

On a recent Shabbos I strolled home after shul and picked up the latest edition of the Jewish Review of Books. The parsha (Vayikra, the first five chapters of Leviticus) was still in my mind, with its detailed enumeration of the steps to be taken when a person, a leader, or the entire community of Israel finds that he, she, or it has mistakenly (b’shgagah) committed an impermissible act. The Torah lays out the steps and explains that if the steps are followed properly the priest will atone for the sinner and he will be forgiven. As explained in a mishnah we read every single morning of the year, the chatat (sin) offering is a meal, consumed by the kohanim among whom will be the man to whom the sinner brought his sacrifice and to whom the sinner must have declared it as such. The procedure is clearly designed to be a confession and expiation of sins.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, on learning, from Francoise Mirguet’s review of How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture (“Repent, Repent,” Spring 2017), that neither the Torah nor any other part of the Jewish Bible knows anything of repentance. Even Jonah—who we read, of course, on Yom Kippur, the day mandated by the same book of Leviticus as a day for, well, I had thought it was the day of atonement, but apparently that was made up later—says nothing about repentance. Indeed Jonah’s psalm in Chapter 2 does not mention repentance or teshuvah.  But Chapter 3 is the locus classicus of the concept, which is why we read it on Yom Kippur afternoon: There the king of Nineveh orders everyone in town—man and beast—to wear sackcloth and to cry out to Elohim with force, and to return (ve-yashuvu) each person from his bad path and from the violence that was in their hands.

Even more foolish than reading Jonah 2 while ignoring Jonah 3 is the insistence on reading the Torah through the eyes of that careful parser of religious texts, Michel Foucault, to reach the conclusion that fasting is not about repentance but about (as every-thing for Foucault is about) power relations. One fasts, apparently, to kowtow to the superior force of the Big Man in the Sky with a Beard who will punish us if we are bad, in the hope that if we put our heads down He won’t hurt us. We should ignore the Torah’s own words, in which we are given a reason for the Yom Kippur fast: “You shall afflict your souls.” This day of fasting is a day of kapara (atonement).

Far from repentance being an exclusively Greek concept, I have a hard time remembering where, in the Odyssey, the Iliad, in anything written by Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, or Aristotle, anyone engages in repentance or is urged to do so. Indeed, it is in the ancient Greek world that we find an angry man, in the sky, with a beard—Zeus—armed with lightning bolts and a temper, who must be placated and who cannot be defied.

That the Torah’s conception of the interior of man, and the conception (if it is only a single conception) of human nature that animates the rest of the Hebrew Bible, are different from the Greek conception of human nature, and from the post-Enlightenment, post-Renaissance, post–French Revolution idea(s) of human nature that animate(s) the zeitgeist now, is an irrefutable truth. That the concept of self-examination as we do it today is different from the concept of return as the Torah created it is therefore, necessarily, also true. But the idea that there is no teshuvah, and no repentance, in these foundational Jewish books is silly—even if one ignores the canonical Jewish commentators on those books. 

The evolution of these concepts, in the Jewish canon and beyond, is a serious question.  It deserves a serious answer.  A review, and a book, that ignore the basics is not serious.

Jerome M. Marcus

Narberth, PA

Francoise Mirguet Responds:

Thank you to Jerome M. Marcus for actively engaging David A. Lambert’s book and my review. To repent is “to review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do.” David A. Lambert’s thesis is that the notion of self presupposed in the Hebrew Bible does not allow for such a capacity of introspection and inner transformation. This does not mean that the Tanakh is not preoccupied with sins and other actions judged inappropriate; the way to deal with them, however, does not quite correspond to an inner process prompted by regret. Let us look at the texts mentioned by Marcus. Leviticus 16:29–30 prescribes that, on yom ha-kippurim, “You shall afflict yourself [nafshoteichem] and shall do no work.” I translate the term nefesh as “self” and not as “ soul” as some translations do. Indeed, it is well attested that the notion of “soul” is quite foreign to the Hebrew Bible. Nefesh is rather an organ of the body, but can also refer, as a metonym, to the full human being. The self-affliction prescribed by Leviticus is thus embodied; it manifests itself in the fast. By this interruption of bodily and economic activities, the community recognizes its dependence on the divine. It is the deity who removes the sin, through the atonement performed by the priest, as Lambert argues. The biblical text does not hint at introspection or regret. Even confession of sin does not necessarily entail inner change. I invite Mr. Marcus to re-read Jonah 3: Nowhere does the text mention that the Ninevites became aware of their transgressions, regretted them, and took the resolution to transform. What we find instead is a process of communication with the divine, expressed by bodily practices (such as fasting and crying), and an exhortation, by the king, to turn away from evil ways. The removal of sin, as Lambert notes, is a condition for receiving divine care; it happens, however, through actions, not through mental exercise. 

Mr. Marcus is right that there is no repentance to be found in Homer, Sophocles, or Plato; it is during the late Hellenistic period (in the works of Plutarch, for example) that the notion of repentance starts to emerge. 

I would stress that a study like Lambert’s neither delegitimizes repentance nor diminishes the biblical text. Quite the contrary: The development of repentance, by Hellenistic Jews, bears witness to their capacity to adapt their practices to changing conceptions of the human self, while keeping scriptural traditions alive. Further, uncovering how the Hebrew Bible perceives the self provides us with distinctive resources to reflect on human experience. It makes reading the scriptures all the more relevant: The Tanakh is not just a reflection of today’s beliefs and practices, including core ones like repentance; it reveals its own original ways to deal with human challenges. 


Ben-Gurions Yiddish

In his fine review of The Story of Hebrew (“Adventure Story,” Spring 2017), Alan Mintz related Lewis Glinert’s assertion that David Ben-Gurion “insisted on the suppression of Yiddish in official life in the country and refused to allocate resources to the preservation of its culture.” I think it is important to note, however, that Bundist and other Yiddishist propaganda has tended to exaggerate the extent of the persecution of Yiddish in Israel. Avrom Sutzkever’s great Yiddish journal, Di goldene keyt, was, after all, published in Israel from 1949 to 1995 with the financial support of the Histadrut, the Israeli Labor Federation, which was in control of Mapai, Ben-Gurion’s party. Yiddish culture continued to flourish in Israel in libraries, newspapers, the performances of the comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher, and in other forms as well. In fact, the decline of Yiddish in Israel was parallel to its decline in the United States and for the same reasons.

To the extent that there was a campaign against the use of Yiddish in the public sphere in Israel in the 1950s, Ben-Gurion was not its instigator. He spoke Yiddish, wrote long articles in the Forverts, and gave interviews in Yiddish. Indeed, he opposed the members of his government, from his own party, who wished to prevent the appearance of a daily newspaper in Yiddish, as I learned from the Yiddish historian Rachel Rozansky. Yes, he gave preference to Hebrew from his early childhood. This does not make him a persecutor of Yiddish. The myth of Ben-Gurion’s negative attitude to Yiddish is based mostly on some remarks he made in 1945 after a speech by Rozka Korczak, a partisan from the Vilna Ghetto, at a council of the Histadrut. When the “Linke Poalei Zion” (a small Marxist Yiddishist party) protested vehemently, Ben-Gurion’s words were stricken from the minutes. It is not certain what he actually said, but whatever disparaging comments he may have uttered should not outweigh the evidence.

Anita Shapira
Tel Aviv, Israel


Rabins Solution?

As a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995, I read Dennis Ross (“A Life with Consequences,” Spring 2017) with more than a passing interest. Ross asserts that Yitzhak Rabin “would not have let Israel become a binational state,” and adds, “Whether Israel will have the political leadership to prevent that outcome is something that only time will tell.” The implication is that the creation of a Palestinian state (which Ross has long advocated) is the way to prevent Israel from becoming “a binational state,” and Israel’s current leaders, unlike Rabin, may not have the wisdom to realize that.

But, in fact, Rabin found a different way to prevent Israel from becoming a binational state, and he implemented that policy during his lifetime: In 1995, he withdrew Israel’s forces from the areas where 98 percent of the Palestinian Arabs reside. With that move, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians came to an end. There is no danger of a binational state, because the Palestinian Arabs will never be citizens of Israel and never vote in Israeli elections. They are residents of the Palestinian Authority; they vote in Palestinian elections (when the PA lets them!). For the past 22 years, the PA has run its own schools, hospitals, courts, police and security forces, and pretty much everything else that a state does—the only real exception being the right to import planes, tanks, and Iranian “volunteers.”

Remarkably, Mr. Ross makes no reference whatsoever to these far-reaching concessions that Rabin made, concessions which completely changed the political and demographic map of the region: The “demographic threat” is no more, the “occupation” of the Palestinians ended long ago, and the Palestinians have a state in everything but name.

Stephen M. Flatow
Long Branch, NJ

Dennis Ross Responds:

Stephen Flatow responded to my review of the Itamar Rabinovich biography of Yitzhak Rabin by taking issue with my conclusion that Rabin would have acted to ensure that Israel would not become a binational state. He argued that Israel won’t become a binational state because Palestinians will never be allowed to vote in Israel and have been running their own affairs since the Palestinian Authority was created. He is surely correct that Rabin made concessions in the hopes of making peace. But he is not correct to say that the Palestinians run their own lives. Israel retains control over movement, over all import and export, over the ability to conduct business, and over many aspects of day-to-day life. When Israel approves—as it just did—the Palestinians developing industrial zones in two Palestinian cities, Takkumiya and Jalame, easing traffic restrictions at the Allenby Bridge, and construction in Area C, these are all welcome moves, but they also remind us that Israel controls much of what Palestinians can do. It is why Ariel Sharon spoke of ending “occupation” when he was prime minister long after the Palestinian Authority was created. It was why he also said, “We want for the Palestinians to run their own lives in their own country, a democratic state in Judea and Samaria.”  

One can argue that a Palestinian state would be a threat to Israel. One can argue that it is too big of a risk to run. This is an honest argument, and it is understandable. But it comes with a price: If nothing is done to change the path that Israel is on, it will become a binational state. Younger Palestinians are already saying, “Let the Israelis stay where they are and let’s just have one person, one vote.” Many internationally will resonate to such an argument with little or no concern for Israel’s needs. I don’t want Israel to become a binational state, even though I understand that a two-state outcome any time soon is not in the cards, especially given the wide gaps between the parties and the absence of an answer for ending Hamas’s control in Gaza. That is why I favor Israel building only in the settlement blocs and not outside them in the midst of what at some point could be a Palestinian state. Israel’s security will not be compromised by such a step even as its Jewish democratic character is preserved.     


The Lamp and the Flame

I enjoyed Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s review of Steven Fine’s new history of the menorah (“The Lamp of Zion,” Winter 2017) and her exchange with Jacob J. Gross (“The Menorah and Its Flame,” in Letters, Spring 2017). With regard to Gross’s strong claim that “it is clear for the Jewish icon, it is not the vessel itself that is of sacred value (as would be the case, for example, regarding a Jesus-less cross in medieval Christian art) but rather the flames,” and that the flames on left and right of the menorah were almost always pointed toward the central one. Readers may be interested to learn of a recently discovered mosaic on a synagogue floor at Horvat Kur in the Galilee, which depicts a menorah composed of seven oil lamps. What’s interesting is that the lamps themselves are oriented toward the middle lamp (three from each side) while the flames themselves point up. The middle lamp has its flame in its middle, which is highly unusual, being oriented neither to the left or right. Thus, here it is the lamps themselves and not their flames which are facing the middle. This, it seems to me, strengthens Alexander’s response that “the menorah compelled interest initially as an object among other Temple objects and then later as a vehicle for its redemptive flames.”

Steven Fraade

Yale University

via email



  1. gwhepner

    I totally agree with you that nephesh does not mean “soul.” While denoting“self,” as you corretly claim, it also perhaps anticipating the concept of consciousness, since the first thing that First Man does after God Greates him as nephesh hayyah (Gen. 2:7) is to find a name for every nephesh hayyah in the Garden of Eden (v. 20). By accomplishing the task he provides God, who the verse says is watching him , evidence of a consciousness that enables him to distinguish between himself and other animals and, indeed, to distinguish the difference between one animals and another. Rashi perhaps anticipated this interpretation when pointing out that First Man's nephesh hayyah exceeded that of all other animals because of his ability to know and to speak.

  2. gwhepner

    I appreciate your response to Jerome Marcus in the Summer JQR. I totally agree with you that nephesh does not mean “soul.” While denoting“self,” as you corretly claim, it also perhaps anticipating the concept of consciousness, since the first thing that First Man does after God Greates him as nephesh hayyah (Gen. 2:7) is to find a name for every nephesh hayyah in the Garden of Eden (v. 20). By accomplishing the task he provides God, who the verse says is watching him , evidence of a consciousness that enables him to distinguish between himself and other animals and, indeed, to distinguish the difference between one animals and another. Rashi perhaps anticipated this interpretation when pointing out that First Man's nephesh hayyah exceeded that of all other animals because of his ability to know and to speak.

    In addition I would like to point out to you what you already surely know, and which greatly strengthens your argument. The laws of Yom Kippur, including the fasting that is required on it, are described in Lev. 16:29-34 as a post-script to the preceding section of laws which deal, as Milgrom has pointed out and I do in my book Legal Friction, with the purification not of individual Israelites but of the sanctuary.

    Finally I would like to add something that occurred to me when reading Meir Soloveitchik's article in the current issue of Commentary, “David, We Hardly Knew Ye.”.Wondering why King David gets a pass for his grievous sins, he suggests that it is because he said to the prophet Nathan, who was chastizing him, "I have sinned against the LORD," asa is commonly regarded as the autor of Psalm 51,which includes the words: "For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." These words arguably reflect a process of introspection, don't they?

    [email protected]

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