Letters, Winter 2021

Et Tu, Jewish Review?

I was sad to see the Jewish Review of Books jumping on the anti-China bandwagon, with Dan Blumenthal’s article “Belt, Road, and Risk” (Fall 2020). Although one can fault the Chinese government for its serious failings with regard to religious freedom, its treatment of minorities, and its human rights abuses, and although America does have legitimate commercial concerns vis-à-vis trade with China, we ought not to fall prey to American anti-China rhetoric—not on the subject of Chinese-Arab relations, nor on the issue of Chinese-Israeli relations, and not on the problem of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants.

While it’s certainly your right to publish whatever you choose and to align your publication politically any which way you want, I have to ask, “What gives?” China and Israel have strong relations in so many fields. And what has China ever done to our people other than to be hospitable? Why this intense loathing of the People’s Republic of China in yet another Jewish publication?

Anson Laytner
President, Sino-Judaic Institute

Dan Blumenthal Responds:

Mr. Laytner describes my article as expressing “intense loathing of the People’s Republic of China.” I’d call it a sober analysis. I have the most profound admiration for China and its impressive people, but I am deeply troubled by the regime that runs it, the Chinese Communist Party, as are millions of Chinese citizens who suffer under its tyranny. It’s worth noting just how quickly Mr. Laytner moves past China’s “serious failings with regard to religious freedom, its treatment of minorities, and its human rights abuses” and “commercial concerns,” the last of which includes espionage and wholesale theft of intellectual property. Indeed, the CCP has engaged in the greatest illicit transfer of wealth in human history. For other concerns, I direct the interested reader back to my article.

The Akedah Conundrum

In his review of Aaron Koller’s Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (“Take Your Son . . . ,” Fall 2020), Abraham Socher is puzzled as to why Koller worries so much about the practical consequences of the Kierkegaard-Soloveitchik understanding of the Akedah, which calls for the subordination of personal conscience to divine decree. After all, Socher points out, Koller mentions “not a single instance when anything remotely like such religious terrorism or even incivility has actually been justified by an existentialist reading of the Akedah.”   

Koller’s argument should be understood as part of the current debate within Modern Orthodoxy over the legitimacy of religious change. Statements by Soloveitchik, such as “Take the knife and slaughter yourself for my sake—thus commands the awesome God,” help buttress the view that people aggrieved by their treatment by halakhic authorities—such as women whose former husbands withhold the get and gays suffering communal rejection—should sacrifice their personal happiness and obey God’s will, and Koller clearly disagrees.

Lawrence Grossman
Jamaica Estates, New York

Reading Abraham Socher’s review of Aaron Koller’s book Unbinding Isaac, I think there is yet another interpretation of the Akedah that owes more to Aeschylus than to the rabbis. The terrifying test put to Abraham was not a test with a right or wrong answer. It was instead a diagnostic test, administered by God in order to gather crucial information about God’s chosen people and people in general. Would even the best of human beings kill his own son if commanded to do so by God? As Kant noted, Abraham could have said no. That he did not told God something about humans and about their relationship with their deity. Once God had the diagnostic information, Isaac could be released.

The Akedah showed that the relationship between God and man needed a change, a reboot. Humans needed more guidance than just occasional voices from heaven. They needed Torah. Without law, humans and God could freelance in how they treated one another. With Torah, they had a contract that bound them to each other through ideals and norms. The human desire to please God became regulated and channeled through a statutory scheme. The consequence of the Akedah, therefore, is Sinai, with the ram’s horn blasted there as the link. A similar notion is found in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter leads to rounds of revenge that seem interminable until Athena intervenes and establishes a legal system in Athens to replace sacrifice and vengeance. Both the biblical author(s) and Aeschylus demonstrate a profound knowledge of the human condition, and both appear to reach the same conclusion.

Fredric Brandfon
via email

Abraham Socher’s review of Unbinding Isaac covers a multitude of interpretations and issues raised by the Akedat Yitzchak. Yet the most obvious import of that central biblical episode is not made explicit.

The brit milah following the angel’s staying hand preempted forever ritual sacrifice of human lives by the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the time of the patriarchs, that abolition marked a radical break with surrounding cultures and, disparate theologies notwithstanding, constituted the beginning of Judaism as a humanistic moral exemplar.

One might speculate that an expiatory drive to sacrifice people on one altar or another, perhaps satisfying aspects of Freud’s death instinct, is universal. Variably disguised expressions of such urges, frustrated by Judaic influences, may be understood to have surfaced repeatedly in a cyclic return of the repressed throughout history. Benign transformation of sacrificial practice into the Christian symbolism of crucifixion may be one such expression. The Shoah, guided by Nazi pseudoreligion, may be a very different, tragically malignant manifestation.

Donald Mender, MD
Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association

Abraham Socher Responds:

I thank Lawrence Grossman, Fredric Brandfon, and Dr. Donald Mender for their thoughtful responses to my review of Aaron Koller’s book on modern interpretations of the binding of Isaac. I suspect that Mr. Grossman is right that Koller thinks that Rav Soloveitchik imported the religious attitude Kierkegaard called “the teleological suspension of the ethical” into Modern Orthodoxy and that this has led, as it were, to the sacrificing of individuals on the altar of halakha. The problem is that he only hints at this argument and never demonstrates a connection between Rav Soloveitchik’s readings of Genesis 22—which I, too, find troubling and one sided—and the problems to which Mr. Grossman alludes.

I sympathize with Mr. Brandfon’s Aeschylus-inspired interpretation of the Akedah in which God’s test of Abraham was purely diagnostic and never presupposed the legitimacy of human sacrifice, but doesn’t it let God off too easily? After all, the angel tells Abraham that he has passed the test, “for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me” (Gen. 22:12). By the way, it sounds to me like there are some points of contact between Mr. Brandfon’s understanding of the way law replaces sacrifice and the late René Girard’s theory of societal violence, sacrifice, and religion, though it should be noted that Girard’s theory is deeply Christian (and Hegelian).

Finally, while I do not doubt that there is a thematic connection between Isaac’s ordeal and circumcision, Dr. Mender has made a very interesting mistake. There simply is no “brit milah following the angel’s staying hand.” On the contrary, Isaac was the first boy in the Bible to be circumcised at eight days in the chapter before the Akedah (Gen. 21:4), which happened sometime between, say, five and 39 years later, depending on one’s interpretation of biblical chronology here. Perhaps Dr. Mender’s psychoanalytic presumptions led him to misremember the biblical text.

None of these theories contends with the biblical idea that God is, in one sense or another, owed not only the first fruits of one’s field but the firstborn of every womb, out of biblical gratitude. The Akedah and its interpretations are surely a sublimation and transformation of this notion, but one must begin with that central fact of biblical theology, as disturbing as it may be.

Crazy Rich Mizrachim?

I read Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s review of Jonathan Kaufman’s recent book (“Crazy Rich Sephardim,” Fall 2020) about the Sassoons and Kadoories and the history of the Jewish community in Shanghai with great interest because I lived in Japan for over a decade, and one of my dearest friends was born in Shanghai to a prominent Jewish family in the 1930s.

I must take objection, however, to the headline for the review. While “Crazy Rich Sephardim” is a cute play on the title of a recent novel and film about Chinese and other Asians, the Sassoons and Kadoories and families such as the Ezras hailed
from Baghdad and other places in the Ottoman Empire. They had no connection to historic Sepharad (Spain) or North Africa and the Mediterranean.

It would have been more appropriate to use a headline such as “Crazy Rich Mizrachim,” because Jews whose ancestors hailed from Iran and Iraq identify as Eastern rather than Spanish.

Warren Soiffer
via email

Sarah Abrevaya Stein Responds:

Scholarship on the Baghdadi community of Shanghai often describes it as “Sephardic,” though its members had no historical ties to the Iberian Peninsula and spoke no Judeo-Spanish; nor, until the early 20th century, did they consider themselves Sephardic. But when it comes to families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, “Baghdadi” is also shorthand since it tends to be applied to any Jewish descendant of Ottoman Mesopotamia. “Mizrahi” was not a term employed widely by the Baghdadi Jewish community in southeast Asia. It found its firmest footing within the context of the State of Israel, where it was used to both homogenize and disenfranchise “Eastern” Jews, who were and remain an internally diverse population. There is nothing we historical wonks like more than to debate these questions among ourselves—nothing, perhaps, except landing upon a fun title from time to time.

Return to Kissinger?

In his review of Barry Gewen’s The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (“Tragedy and Power,” Fall 2020), Dennis Ross contends that a new, Kissinger-style approach to Israeli-Arab diplomacy is needed because “both Israelis and
Palestinians [have] lost faith in each other.”

This kind of both-sides-ism was unfortunately typical of the mindset of the old State Department “peace processors,” among whom Ross was a central figure. It is an attitude that is, however, completely at odds with the facts.

Israel’s loss of faith in the Palestinian Arabs is based on a simple observation of the facts. The Palestinian Authority (PA), under Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas, promised peace but waged a terror war. The Israeli public’s faith went up in the smoke and flames of hundreds of PA-sponsored suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings and—arguably the turning point in the shattering of the peace process—the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to smuggle 50 tons of weapons into Gaza in early 2002 aboard the Karine A.

By contrast, the Palestinians’ “loss of faith” is part of the PA leadership’s diplomatic strategy. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has surrendered (to the PA) the territories where 98 percent of the Palestinian Arabs reside, it has withdrawn from 100 percent of Gaza, it froze all settlement construction for nine months (in a vain attempt to restart negotiations), it released thousands of imprisoned Arab terrorists, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to offer the PA a sovereign state. The fact that the Palestinian Arab leadership keeps turning down Israel’s offers and refusing to reciprocate Israel’s many concessions demonstrates not a “loss of faith” but rather an unyielding commitment to the goal of destroying Israel.

Moshe Phillips
National Director, Herut North America
(US Division)—Jabotinsky Movement

Josephus’s Jonah

I like Stuart Halpern’s fine article (“Jonah: The Sequels,” Fall 2020), but since he mentions James Kugel, I would add that Kugel has argued Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews is a gloss on the biblical text. It is quite possible that what Josephus writes was what many Jews at the time believed was the true story of Jonah. Just as we have learned to take Rashi and other commentators as a key to how to understand the Bible, we can probably see in Josephus, as Kugel persuasively argues, how his contemporaries or immediate predecessors read the Jonah text.

Samuel Heilman
via jewishreviewofbooks.com

Getting One’s Oxymorons Right

With all due respect to Allan Nadler (“Spinoza in Warsaw,” Summer 2020) and your correspondent Arnold Wishnia in the Fall 2020 issue, the term Nekhtiger Tog does not translate as “yesterday’s today.” It’s an important and commonly used idiom. The word Nekhtiger is not derived from nekhtn, “yesterday.” Nekhtiger is the adjectival form of the word nakht, “night.” A “nightly day”? An oxymoron, used when something is impossible or as unlikely as a day that is also night.

Dr. Irv Goldfein
Southfield, Michigan


Our review of The Last Kings of Shanghai (“Crazy Rich Sephardim,” Fall 2020) included two errors. Victor Sassoon was the great-grandson of David Sassoon, not his son. The Sassoon family was driven out of the opium trade not by the First Opium War but by a law passed in the early part of the 20th century that made the drug illegal.


Suggested Reading

Double Lifers

Double Lifers

Michal Leibowitz

In 2006, a blogger known as Baal Habos posted about a former rebbe who had once compared heretical media to “a hole in the head.” By then he had become a “ba’al ha-bos” (roughly, a family man), with a position in the community he wasn’t comfortable giving up, he had acquired plenty of holes in his head and wanted to discuss them—anonymously.

Common Clay

Common Clay

Shai Secunda

Virtually nothing of Babylonian Jewry of the talmudic period, from the 3rd to the 6th century C.E., has survived beyond the Babylonian Talmud itself to help contextualize or confirm the many things the text tells its readers.