Judaism’s Particularism Protects Al Aqsa

There can be only one.

Highlander (1986)

In the 1986 film “Highlander”, immortal demi-gods roam Earth, interacting with people but caring mostly about other immortals. They live knowing that they must confront others like themselves and battle to the death, because in the end, only a single one can exist.

Monotheistic faiths often behave similarly.

Adherents of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have fought each other for supremacy. Many wars demanded death or conversion. As it related to places, the victor often took over holy sites and either demolished them or changed them to the winner’s religion, demonstrating superiority of their God.

Consider the Hagia Sophia in today’s Istanbul, Turkey. The building was originally built as a church around 537CE. When Ottoman Muslims conquered the city in 1453, they converted the church into a mosque. It remained so until the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, when shortly thereafter, the secular Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned it into a museum. In the summer of 2020, Islamist Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted it back to a mosque, angering much of the western world.

Christianity and Islam battled for superiority in Europe and in the holy land for centuries. From 1095 to 1291 the church waged several crusades. The demand for armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem set the region on fire, with the paltry number of Jews in Europe and holy land left as victims on both sides.

When Christians ultimately failed to take Jerusalem, they turned to purge the Jews and Muslims of Europe. Various edicts preceded and followed the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492 and in Portugal in 1497. Thereafter, Muslims were effectively routed from the peninsula, virtually completely by early in the 17th century.

Polytheists fought with monotheists as well. When Alexander the Great came to the Jewish holy land, he Hellenized the region. When the Romans came a few hundred years later, they destroyed the Second Jewish Temple and installed pagan gods. They renamed Jerusalem and the region in an attempt to vanquish the monotheist Jews.

Jews however, have uniquely not waged religious wars. While Christians and Muslims have long histories of invading lands and forcing people of different faiths to convert, Jews have no such imperative.

The reason is quite simple and completely misunderstood by non-Jews. While most religions contend that their belief system is supreme and that adherents to other faiths are either an affront to their god(s) and/or are doomed to damnation, Judaism is a particular faith, not a universalistic one. It does not demand that people of other faiths convert or that they are damned. It was always designed to be a local religion in the land of Israel for a specific tribe – the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Other faiths are free to worship as they desire.

The notion seems conceited to many and has sometimes led to anti-Semitism.

How can a supreme God produce a bible just for one community? If that were true and others want such relationship with God, they need to become the new Jews. This replacement theology placed Christians as the successors to Jews through Jesus. Islam held much the same, replacing Christians via their prophet Mohammed.

The Jews contend that they didn’t supplant any faith nor have they been supplanted. However, they do object to their religious places of worship being destroyed.

While Christians and Muslims may seek to place the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque on top of the Jewish Temple Mount to show that their faith is supreme and replaced the old, Jews have no such dogma. There is no desire to “supplant”; just to have their own place of worship once again.

The Old City of Jerusalem including the Jewish Temple Mount/ Al Aqsa Compound. The Dome of the Rock has the gold dome in center right. Slightly below it is the al Aqsa Mosque with a gray dome.

Today, Islamic fanatics shout that “al Aqsa is in danger” to foment a jihad against the Jews. It is based on tenets not found in Judaism but in their monotheistic faith. Jews simply want to pray on the Temple Mount and rebuild their temple, but not to confront or show superiority to Islam.

The sentiment is captured in the Jewish Bible in a section read on the eighth day of Passover, in the book of Isaiah. While Isaiah 11:6 is famous, reading through to ninth sentence captures the fuller message:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

That “holy mountain” is the Jewish Temple Mount. It can house the monotheistic faiths that believe in peace and coexistence. “The wolf will live with the lamb” will occur when the world’s great religions internalize their common bonds and stop fighting each other for dominance. Together, “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” enabling the Third Jewish Temple to exist beside the al Aqsa Mosque.

The Islamic false perception that al Aqsa is in danger is rooted in its own conception of religious superiority and how it is manifest. When Muslim leaders internalize that Judaism has no such ethos, hopefully it will welcome the building of the Third Jewish Temple and help realize the vision of the prophet Isaiah.

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Active and Reactive Provocations: Charlie Hebdo and the Temple Mount

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The Karma of the Children of Israel

The second book of the Pentateuch is called “Exodus” in English but called “Names” in Hebrew due to the opening lines. In reviewing the first ten sentences of the book, there is seemingly a deeper message about the names themselves.

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:

רְאוּבֵ֣ן שִׁמְע֔וֹן לֵוִ֖י וִיהוּדָֽה׃

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah;

יִשָּׂשכָ֥ר זְבוּלֻ֖ן וּבְנְיָמִֽן׃

Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin;

דָּ֥ן וְנַפְתָּלִ֖י גָּ֥ד וְאָשֵֽׁר׃

Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

וַֽיְהִ֗י כָּל־נֶ֛פֶשׁ יֹצְאֵ֥י יֶֽרֶךְ־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שִׁבְעִ֣ים נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם׃

The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.

וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא׃

Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃ (פ)

But the sons of Israel were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

And he said to his people, “Look, the nation of the sons of Israel is too numerous for us.

הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”

Genesis 1:1-10

The first sentence opens with calling Jacob by his changed name “Israel” before switching to his birth name “Jacob.” The text then lists all of the names of Jacob’s sons and subsequently pivots back to “Israel” after Joseph and his brothers died. At the end of the section, not only does the text pivot to using “sons of Israel” to include women and later generations but the new king in Egypt goes further in calling them a “nation of the sons of Israel.”

There is clearly more to appreciate in the names employed.

Birth Names of Human-Tension

The names given to the Jewish forefathers are explained inside the text in Genesis with some rationale given of how the parents felt at the time of the baby’s birth. Often, the names portend events in the future.

Consider how Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a child (Genesis 18:12) and then later Abraham named him Isaac (Genesis 21:3) after the Hebrew name for laughter. Sarah seemingly approved of the name (Genesis 21:6) only to soon witness Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael making fun of him (Genesis 21:8). Isaac’s name was an omen of things to come or perhaps served as the catalyst for how people perceived him. Maybe both.

One can see the impact of names when reading about Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben. Born to an unloved wife, Leah, Genesis 29:32 describes one of the saddest baby-namings in the Bible: “Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” How that name must have weighed on Reuben! To carry a name that shows his mother was unloved! With Leah’s sister as another wife and two handmaids also producing half-brothers, the family dynamic was extremely difficult. When his mother’s sister Rachel died years later and Jacob opted to still not enter Leah’s tent but that of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, Reuben was apoplectic and raped Bilhah (Genesis 35:22).

The bible is deliberately silent on Jacob’s reaction to the event, stopping the story mid-sentence and starting a new paragraph with “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.” Seemingly, Reuben is not punished by his horrific act and remained part of the collective twelve sons. Perhaps Jacob acknowledged that it was Reuben’s obligation to fight for the honor of his spurned mother, maybe even uniquely among Leah’s six sons, as he bore the name of desperate love.

Jacob himself was named by his mother Rebecca for the contentious relationship he would have with his brother Esau. In Genesis 25:23, God told Rebecca that two nations were struggling inside her womb and she named Jacob in Genesis 25:26 because he was clutching the heel (ekev in Hebrew) of Esau. This highly fraught relationship continued for years until an angel renamed Jacob in a night struggle, seemingly redoing the struggle in Rebecca’s womb. This time, Jacob came out on top but instead of clutching the heel of the winner, he incurred a permanent limp. As the victor, he was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:29) “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” It was only at this point, stripped of a name that carried the significance of brotherly-confrontation, that Jacob met with Esau who had come to meet him with a 400-person army. Peace prevailed.

Karma of the Nation of Israel

After reviewing the nature of how parent-given names influenced the lives of the biblical forefathers, we can take a fresh look at the opening sentences of Exodus in a different manner.

From the middle of the first sentence through the sixth, the Bible names Jacob and his sons by their parent-given names with Joseph separated from everyone – twice. First, he is described as already living in Egypt and then specifying his death while not listing any other deaths in the family. Seemingly this fits the narrative to come, that a new Egyptian king did not know Joseph. A casual reader would infer that the new king did not know how Joseph saved the entire region from starvation and made Egypt into a rich and powerful nation.

But such a linear reading could have been accomplished without starting and closing the section with the name “bnai Yisrael,” at first being the sons of Jacob, then the extended family and ultimately entire nation of Israel.

The birth-named middle section is a family set upon itself. As sons of Jacob, they were dysfunctional to an extreme: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery after throwing him into a pit; the sons lied to their father that Joseph was dead; Reuben raped his half-brothers’ mother. The list goes on. This family of Jacob was a quarrelsome bunch, quite distinct from Joseph whose position was established in Egypt. The Egyptians tolerated the sons of Jacob only because of – and under the control of – Joseph.

Joseph Lowered Into The Well By His Brothers, by Peeter Sion (1620-1695)

When Joseph died and a new king arose, it was not so much that the new king no longer appreciated what Joseph did for Egypt as much as he no longer saw a small fragmented family under the control of an Egyptian prince. Instead, the “sons of Israel” had become generations and ultimately a “nation of the sons of Israel,” large and no longer under the control of a reliable Egyptian. As alarming, this rag tag group had a blessed name, meaning that it will prevail in dealing with “beings divine and human.” This unnerved the new king.

She’mot, the Book of Names, is not only a story of how a family became a nation, but how such family matured beyond individual names of personal conflict to realize the full-potential of its divine name.


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Rabbis as Political Leaders

The first part of the Hebrew bible showcases leaders who exhibit a full range of leadership qualities and attributes. The first monotheist, Abraham, was a religious leader who spoke with God, a military leader who fought battles, and a skilled negotiator who struck treaties with foreign kings. In later books of Old Testament, as the Jews took kings in Israel, the word of God was often imparted by a prophet who kept the ruler in line with God’s desires in a division of labor.

As Jews lost their holy land, the spiritual leaders assumed greater responsibilities to lead the community. Acting as administrators, the rabbis often made poor decisions, such as Rabbi Akiva who backed the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 132CE which almost led to the complete destruction of the Jewish people. Thousands of years later, many prominent rabbis in Europe did not lead their communities to flee to either the holy land or the United States and they perished in the Holocaust. Even today, many brilliant rabbis are not enforcing health protocols amid the pandemic, leading to hundreds of deaths.

It is therefore important to take note and appreciate a rabbi who was able to lead on a local, national and international level both on a spiritual and political basis. Such was Lord Jonathan Sachs who passed away on November 7, 2020.

Lord Sachs was not only the rabbi of the largest synagogue in England, but served as the Chief Rabbi of England who had a seat in the House of Lords. He wrote 25 books, was a professor at several universities and spoke around the world. He stood before English Parliament to clearly denounce anti-Semitism in a speech heard around the world. His message for compassion, love of every Jew, contributing to society, love of God, love of learning, commitment to Israel and building interfaith bonds made him a favorite among Jews and non-Jews around the world.

Lord Jonathan Sachs

God created the word through division, separating light and darkness, water and land, and man and woman. Over history, humanity saw similar benefits and instituted mechanisms to separate powers such as military, political, judicial and religious. So it is a rare situation for a leader to earn the respect of so many beyond an anointed title. Such was Lord Jonathan Sachs, an Orthodox rabbi who not only led the spiritual lives of the Jews of England but inspired people of all faiths around the world. May his memory be a blessing.


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Jews, Judaism and Israel

There are many debates being waged around the world about whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, how it is possible that some Jews may be against Israel, and why some Jews who do not believe in either God or religion are still considered Jews. This article will not tackle all of those issues but will seek to define, segment and size the nature of Jews, Judaism and Israel to better frame discussions on those topics.

Judaism

Judaism is a religion that takes the source of its teachings from the Five Books of Moses. Biblical scholars over thousands of years have interpreted the various events and commandments found in the Old Testament to frame how a Jewish person should act and live. The approaches changed over the millenia, with some sects like Sadducees, Essens and Karaites fading away while the Pharisees survived with the publication of the Talmud.

Over the last few hundred years, newer religious denominations came about including Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. Each adopted different approaches as to whether the Bible was written by God or was simply divinely-inspired, and how to translate the ancient stories into relevant lessons for today.

Jews

Jews are most often defined by their lineage. Abraham, the father of monotheism, is considered the first Jew in Judaism. His grandchild Jacob became known as Israel and Jacob’s sons were the basis for the twelve tribes and the nation of Israel. Jews consider themselves direct descendants of these biblical characters.

According to the Orthodox and Conservative streams of Judaism, a person’s religion is decided by matrilineal descent (the religion of the mother), while the Reform and Reconstructionist groups have a broader allowance, in that they include patrilineal descent as well. Converts are also welcomed as Jews (although they are not encouraged) and tradition maintains that the new Jews do not only take upon themselves the religion, but the ancestry of Jews as well. A convert’s new Hebrew name will be “______ son of Abraham” or “_____ daughter of Sarah” to show that they are now included as part of the heritage of Jewish peoplehood.

Israel

Judaism is a unique religion in that it has ties to a specific piece of land. The Bible clearly relays to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the descendants afterwards that the land of Canaan is their inheritance. The Bible describes specific commandments that can only be kept in Israel, and to this day, every Jew around the world prays facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel.

Jews have always lived in the LAND of Israel. Indeed, they were the only religious group to move to the holy land throughout the 19th century and Jews have been a majority in the city of Jerusalem since the 1860’s, BEFORE the push for Jewish sovereignty and advent of Modern Zionism.

Jews, Judaism and Israel

Despite the intersection of Jews, Judaism and Israel, not every Jew follows the religion nor lives in Israel.

Religion and Zionism In Israel

There are roughly 14.2 million Jews alive in the world today. Of that total, roughly 6.7 million live in the Jewish State of Israel. There are another 2.3 million non-Jews that live in Israel, with a population that now exceed 9 million.

  • Religious Jews 3.4 million
  • Secular Jews 3.3 million
  • Non-Jews 2.3 million
    • Total 9.0 million people in Israel

The Pew Forum estimates that Haredi and Orthodox Jews account for 10% and 12% of Israeli Jews, respectively, with Conservatives and Secular Jews accounting for 28% and 49% of the Israeli Jewish population, respectively. Using a Venn diagram, one can plot the 3.3 million Secular Israelis as being Jews connected to the land of Israel (People + Land) but not to the Religion.

Among the religiously-affiliated Israeli Jews, the Haredi Jews are the least Zionistic, while most of the other streams are very passionate about Israel having Jewish sovereignty. The black hat/ Haredi community is less enamored with the Modern Jewish State as it is not based on Orthodox religious law and many believe that such a state should only come into being with the arrival of the Messiah.

Denomination Population% Total Zionist% Total
Haredi 10% 0.7 10%            0.1
Orthodox 12% 0.8 100%            0.8
Conservative 28% 1.9 95%            1.8
Secular 49% 3.3 90%            3.0
Total in millions 6.7 5.7

If one were to assume that only 10% of the Haredi population are Zionists and almost all of the other denominations are Zionists, roughly 1 million Jews in Israel today would not be considered ardent Zionists.

This is not an oxymoron, and goes to the nature of the confusion of different people’s opinions about Zionism. Many Jews living in Israel are against the GOVERNMENT, not the idea of Jews living in the land. Haredi Jews consider themselves anti-Zionist because they think a secular Jewish state has no legitimacy in the Jewish holy land. However, they believe very strongly that the land is the Jewish holy land and they have the right to live Israel. This is in sharp contrast to Muslim anti-Zionism around the world which believes both that the Israeli government should be destroyed and that Jews should be expelled from the land.

Diaspora Jewry on Israel and Judaism

A little more than half of world Jewry lives outside of Israel, roughly 7.5 million people. The vast majority of diaspora Jews live in the United States (over 5 million) with France, Canada and the United Kingdom accounting for over 1 million more.

The United States is a bit of an anomaly compared to Jews around the world, with strong Conservative and Reform movements. In much of the rest of the world, Jews are either Orthodox or secular. In considering the breakdown of Jews in the Venn diagram, assumptions are made for the 5.3 million Jews in the U.S. and then for the rest of the world.

America Population% Total Zionist %  Total 
Orthodox 10% 0.5 50%            0.3
Conservative 18% 1.0 70%            0.7
Reform 35% 1.9 40%            0.7
Unaffiliated 37% 2.0 20%            0.4
Total in millions 5.3 2.1

The Pew Forum estimated the breakdown of Jewish denominations in the United States and the percentages for people who consider themselves Zionists are educated guesses. The Conservative denomination is assumed to be the most pro-Israel, as the Orthodox group includes Anti-Zionist Haredi factions. Using these figures would suggest less than 40% of American Jewry is pro-Israel.

Different percentages are used in making estimates in the rest of the world, below:

ROW Population% Total Zionist %  Total 
Orthodox 25% 0.6 60%            0.3
Conservative 10% 0.2 70%            0.2
Reform 30% 0.7 40%            0.3
Unaffiliated 35% 0.8 40%            0.3
Total in millions 2.2 1.1

The figures for the 2.2 million Jews in the rest of the world are broad estimates. In some countries like France, 60% of the population is Sephardic which almost always considers itself Orthodox, even when not actively practicing Judaism. In general, the unaffiliated/ Reform account for a majority of the population.

Among the diaspora Jews outside of the U.S., Israel holds a more significant role as they suffer more discrimination and are much more likely to emigrate to the Jewish State. Using these figures – which are arguably low – approximately half of the Jews in the rest of the world would be considered active Zionists, 10% more than American Jewry.

Laying out these figures in the Venn diagram above shows that there are about 5.6 million affiliated Jews, of which roughly three-quarters are pro-Israel. This compares to approximately 8.5 million unaffiliated Jews of which only 45% are pro-Israel.

**This breakdown might be viewed by many as unfair. For example, according to Pew, 87% of American Reform Jews consider themselves only Jews through Peoplehood and not religion, while 50% of Unaffiliated Jews felt the same way. This would suggest 4.0 million Affiliated American Jews (both People and Religion) as opposed to the 1.5 million used in the chart above.**

However, the concept remains the same. There are Jews who consider themselves only Jews in the notion of peoplehood, those who consider themselves both Jews by peoplehood and religion, and further, those within each camp who consider themselves tied to Israel (whether they live there or not) and those who do not. The warring factions within the Jewish people of Zionist/anti-Zionist and Jewish anti-Semites often breakdown among these categories.


Jews, Judaism and Israel are all deeply connected yet are distinct at the same time. Before delving into the nuances related to antisemitism and anti-Zionism, it is important to understand the important interrelationship of land-government, people and religion while also acknowledging the varied preferences among Jews in how they define themselves and convey their passions.


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Israel’s Nation-State Basic Law is Not Based on Religion

There are a few democratic countries that do not have formalized constitutions such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the State of Israel. These governments occasionally issue broad laws to outline the basic principles of government. Israel did just that in July 2018.

Israel’s 2018 Basic Law of the Nation-State of the Jewish People was interesting for what it omitted as much as for what it included.

The focus of the law was about the connection between the nation, the land and the people. Specifically, the law outlined the connection between the modern state of Israel, the Jewish people and the Jewish Holy Land.

But the law clearly omitted the religion of the Jews, Judaism.

The law had no preamble about the God of Judaism’s forefathers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the way that Ireland begins its constitution about Jesus and the Trinity.

The law did not declare Judaism as the State of Israel’s official religion, nor did it declare that there was an official “church” or head rabbi in the country. Such laws are found in several democracies such as for Roman Catholicism in Costa Rica and for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Greece.

Israel’s Basic Law did not declare that the leader of the country needed to belong to the official government church. Such a law can be found in Denmark’s constitution regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The law did not mandate that Judaism must be taught in school, a law that is found about Catholicism in Malta.

The law did not even state that Israel’s laws are based on Jewish values and inspired by the Jewish prophets as was stated in the country’s Declaration of Independence. Such a statement about Christianity features prominently in the constitution of Norway. Panama’a constitution mentions “Christian morality,” while Peru’s constitution calls out the “Catholic Church as an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral formation” of the country.

As a matter of fact, the Basic Law seemed to go to pains to not even refer to religion.

The law refrained from using the words “God,” “Judaism,” “Holy Land,” “sacred,” or “religion” anywhere in the text. While the law declared the “Hatikvah” as the national anthem, that anthem similarly avoids using any religious language. That’s in sharp contrast to 34 democracies that use “God” or “Lord” in their anthems including Canada, Italy and Switzerland, and others that specifically refer to Christianity such as in the Netherlands and Romania .

The 2018 Basic Law simply detailed that the Jewish people were connected to the land of Israel because of history. Yet in doing so, the law opted to not also underscore the deep religious and unique connection that Jews have for all of the land of Israel, and particularly for Judaism’s holiest city of Jerusalem.


Seal of King Hezekiah found at the southern Temple Mount in Jerusalem
who reigned c.715 – 686 BCE

The emphasis of Israel’s 2018 Basic Law related to the essence of Jews are a people, not adherents to a religion. International law in 1920 recognized “the historical connexion of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” In 2018, Israel took that same step of laying out the long and deep connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel, realized in the modern state of Israel.


Tel Dan Stele from c.840 BCE found in southern Syria referring to the “House of David”

Jews are the modern Israelites that had kingdoms in Canaan, Israel and Judah. Israel’s 2018 Basic Law affirmed that historical connection between the people and the land, and laid out the initial markings which characterize the reincarnation of the indigenous people in the modern State of Israel.

It is remarkable that Israel chose not to define itself by religion when so many democracies do so.


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Wearing Our Beliefs

There are a number of English expressions in which people describe their inner feelings by describing their external appearances.

For example, “Being comfortable in one’s skin” means exuding confidence and being content with one’s appearance.  The expression “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve” dates back hundreds of years. It is meant to convey the openness of one’s emotions for the world to see. The inner feelings are plain and visible for review, scrutiny, appreciation and/ or scorn.

What an individual decides to show to the outside world oftentimes says a lot about their personal beliefs and emotions.

The way a society dresses people, also says much about such society’s beliefs.

Nazi Germany Enforced Dress Code

During the Holocaust, the Germans made certain undesirable people wear badges on their outer-garments so the people could be easily identified. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars. Gays wore pink triangles. Jehovah’s Witnesses had purple ones. These symbols were not chosen by the individual as an outward expression of their faith, but by an evil society that chose to mark people for abuse, imprisonment, torture and death.

In the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, prisoners were tattooed by the Nazis beginning in autumn 1941. The numbering system etched into the arms of men, women and children, was used almost exclusively on Jews. The system allowed the Nazis to track and process hundreds of thousands of people who were not killed immediately. The ink relayed the cold reality that these prisoners were not in charge of their bodies anymore. Society no longer recognized their names nor humanity.

The evil of Nazi Germany was not simply that they viewed the “Aryan race” as superior – they viewed others as less than human.  The Nazis marked the clothing and bodies of those Untermensch to relay the Aryan perception of these sub-humans.

auschwitz tattoo

Jews Wearing Tefillin

Jewish tradition is an important component of the Jewish religion. While there are specific laws in Judaism, such as wearing phylacteries/ tefillin, the manner in which some Judaic laws are carried out changes according to custom.  Some people wrap the tefillin around the arm in an outward motion, while others wrap them going towards the body.  Some traditions have the entire name of God appearing on the hand while others only write a portion of the three letter name of God.

When a person wraps the tefillin straps around the fingers, he recites a quote from Hosea 2:19-20: “V’erastich li l’olam; v’erastich li b’tzedek u-v’mishpat u-v’chesed u-v’rachamim; v’erastich li b’emunah; v’yadat et adonai.
And I will betroth you to myself forever; and I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy; and I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness, and you will know God.”

teffilin
Grandfather, father and two sons wearing tefillin
(photo: First.One.Through)

Just one generation ago, the dominant force in Europe labeled Jews and stole their humanity.  Today, when Jews put on tefillin, they assert themselves and declare their connection to both God and family tradition.


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Abraham’s Hospitality: Lessons for Jews and Arabs

The biblical portion of Vayera showcases stories of the patriarch Abraham welcoming strangers. The stories of Abraham’s hospitality became incorporated into the ways that the children of Abraham think of themselves today. However, the nature of the hospitality of Arabs (descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael) and Jews (descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac) diverge in many ways.

Giovanni_Andrea_de_Ferrari_-_Abraham_and_the_Three_Angels
Abraham and the Three Angels
by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari (1598-1669)

Man and God

Jewish perspective: Judaism prides itself in being a religion of actions, not faith. God gave the Jewish people 613 commandments to follow, some of which are active (make the Sabbath holy) and others that are passive (don’t kill). A division could also be made of laws between people (like murder) and those between man and God (like the Sabbath).

A casual observer of religions would imagine that laws about God would take precedence to laws about people.  The Jewish organization Limmud, posted an article about Vayera, which argued the opposite.

During the story of Vayera there was an encounter between Abraham and God. In the middle of the conversation, Abraham asked God to wait so he could welcome three strangers that were passing his tent. The author of the Limmud article, Jeremy Rosen argued that Abraham’s action taught Jews a lesson for today, “that however primary God is, there are certain types of human crises or obligations that are so important that one can actually tell God to wait. In the end religion must enhance our relationship with other humans.

Islamic perspective: The website “OnIslam” is dedicated to educating Muslims on a variety of subjects. An article on hospitality and the “joy of honoring others” made a clear effort to differentiate between the kind of hospitality that Muslims extend, and those of non-Muslims. The true concept of hospitality is not something that is widely practiced in most non-Muslim countries. For many non-Muslims, the entertainment of guests is of primary importance in many cases for worldly reasons only, not rooted in real hospitality for the sake of God. In Islam, however, hospitality is a great virtue that holds a significant purpose. Being hospitable to neighbors and guests can increase societal ties as well as unite an entire community. Most importantly, God commands Muslims to be hospitable to neighbors and guests. There is a great reward in doing so. Hospitality in Islam is multi-faceted and covers many different areas in addition to the hospitality that we show guests who visit our homes.”

In Islam, hospitality is performed because it is commanded by God. The act of hospitality may have benefits of creating communal harmony, but it is a derivative of the second degree. The primary obligation is to follow God’s command, and He commands all Muslims to be hospitable. God’s command leads man to action, and such action may, in turn, lead to friendship and social cohesion.

The difference in the approach of the religions is both subtle and significant. Judaism has a value system of helping others. Welcoming a stranger takes precedence to a direct conversation with God. In contrast, Islam focuses on obedience to God’s commands. Hospitality happens to be one of those commands and is therefore performed – within the bounds of religion.

Hospitality Today on a National Level

It is interesting to look at the nature of hospitality on a national level and how the one Jewish State handles hospitality compared to various Muslim countries (note that there are many Muslim countries, like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, that are NOT Arab and descendants of Abraham).

Welcoming Refugees
Israel: Israel has an incredible record when it comes to welcoming Jews from around the world. Whether in bringing Jews that were persecuted in the Arab world in the 1950s, or Russian and Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s, Israel took in so many Jews from around the world, that they dwarf the number of European Jews who came to the country due to persecution in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

Those Moroccan, Yemenite, Ethiopian and Russian refugees received Israeli citizenship immediately. They got housing and job training. They had teachers to teach them a new language (Hebrew) and lessons about incorporating into a society that was completely foreign to their old way of living.

Arab/ Muslim Countries: The Middle East has witnessed a large number of wars and corresponding waves of refugees fleeing the battles. Many Arab countries did not welcome their fellow Arabs.

  • When Arabs left the British Mandate of Palestine to Lebanon and Syria in 1948-9, they were forced to live in refugee camps. They were not offered citizenship nor given an opportunity to have white color jobs. Those conditions continue for their children and grandchildren almost 70 years later.
  • When the PLO sided with Iraq when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, Kuwait expelled roughly 360,000 Palestinians that were living there.  Fellow Arabs that were neighbors for 75 years were evicted en masse because of the actions of people hundreds of miles away.
  • Most recently, the millions of Arabs fleeing the civil war in Syria, and ISIS in Iraq have been shut out of the wealthy countries of Saudi Arabia; Qatar; Bahrain; United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.  Westerners may wonder how these oil rich countries are not embarrassed to refuse to welcome fellow Arabs, especially as Europe and America open its doors.  Only Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey (Muslim, but not Arab) have shown these refugees Islamic hospitality.

Welcoming “Others”
Israel: The phrase in the bible “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18) has been interpreted by various scholars as both a model for treating fellow Jews and for interactions with all of mankind.

  • When Israel declared independence in 1948, it granted 160,000 non-Jews citizenship.  When Israel reunited Jerusalem after Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs attacked it in 1967, it offered citizenship to all non-Jews.
  • When Menahem Begin became prime minister of Israel in 1977, he brought in and gave citizenship to roughly 300 Vietnamese people fleeing their country.
  • Today the country is grappling with how to deal with Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers as many Israeli Jews believe in the principal of hospitality, even while the government considers issues of safety.

Arab/ Muslim Countries: The Arab countries do very poorly in regards to their hospitality with non-Muslims.

  • When Jordan seized Judea and Samaria in 1949, it expelled all of the Jews in the area and forbade them from even visiting their holy sites in Jerusalem.
  • Today, Mahmoud Abbas has laws preventing the sale of any land by Arabs to Jews and has demanded a new country to be established devoid of Jews.
  • After Israel was founded, the Arab countries forced over 850,000 Jews to flee their homes where they had lived for generations.

Helping Others
Israel: Israel has a reputation of rushing to assist countries around the world suffering from natural disasters.  Whether from earthquakes in Turkey or Haiti or tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, Israel is on the scene with disproportionate numbers with life-saving assistance.

Arab/ Muslim Countries: The Arab world typically does not send much assistance to countries in need.  That fact is surprising since it is a core tenant of Islam.  OnIslam states: “In Islam, hospitality extends well beyond the walls of the home. Being hospitable also means having good manners and treating others with dignity and respect. Hospitality can be applied to the greater community and Muslims must strive to help out whenever there is a time of need. Natural disasters, for example, often result in community turmoil as residents grapple with the aftermath. This provides Muslims with an excellent opportunity to pitch in, whether delivering hot meals to those affected or donating gently used items to someone who has lost everything.”

However, the Charities Aid Foundation did rank some Islamic nations among the most generous in the world, including: Malaysia; Indonesia; and Iran in the top 20.  However, none of those three countries is Arab.  Israel, the Jewish State, ranked number 32.


Abraham taught Jews and Arabs about the importance of hospitality.  Each group interpreted his acts of kindness through their respective prophets and teachers over the centuries, with Jews extracting a primary value of the kinship of men, while Muslims placed hospitality as just one of God’s commands to be observed.  Jews learned a life-lesson from Abraham; Arabs stifled that more human example and took the message of hospitality from the Quran.

The children of Abraham – the Jewish State and the Arab states – should all be mindful of the importance of hospitality in their dealings today.


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The End of Together

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“Cast thy bread upon the waters”

שַׁלַּח לַחְמְךָ, עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

On the holiday of Sukkot, Jews are reminded of the fragile nature of life. They live in temporary huts for a week and read Ecclesiastes, a philosophical book from the Old Testament. The book reviews the concept of a delicate life, and underscores the need to extend beyond one’s physical boundaries: to establish a good name that survives past death; and to learn about God who is not confined to the physical world.

King Solomon, the author of the book, mostly expounds upon the frivolousness of daily physical activities through the opening chapters. Towards the end of the book in chapter 11, he explores the nature of uncertainty in the world:

  • Ecclesiastes 11:1 begins with “casting bread upon the waters.”
  • To verse 5 “thou knowest not what is the way of the wind
  • and verse 6 “for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good

We do not know what will happen in life. We do not know which piece of bread will catch a fish, what kind of fish it will be, or whether it will be worthwhile to eat. As such, one could conclude that we should use our best efforts to put several pieces out there in the right environment and hope that a “favorable wind” will yield an amazing catch.

With that idea in mind, “First One Through” began.

Knowledge surpasses the physical world, and in a digital world, is easy to “cast many pieces of bread upon the waters.”

The articles and posts of FirstOneThrough were made to educate and entertain people about Israel and Judaism. The posts have been shared directly with family and friends of Israel, who in turn, passed them along. Due to Facebook, Twitter, email and other sources, the posts circled the globe to 110 countries and have been read 25,000 times since the launch six months ago in May 2014:

  • The main readers have been the US (55%) and Israel (15%)
  • Significant readers come from: Australia; UK; and Canada, which together account for 16% of views
  • Modest readership came from: South Africa; Netherlands; Germany; Brazil; France; Denmark and Sweden which totaled 6%
  • 98 other countries accounted for 8% of views

The Arab and Muslim countries read the posts as well, including: Turkey; UAE; Malaysia; Indonesia; Pakistan; Egypt; Saudi Arabia; Morocco and Lebanon. There were a handful of readers from: Kuwait; Iraq; Tunisia; West Bank; Jordan; Qatar; and Yemen.


Ecclesiastes does not end with the discussion on uncertainty in chapter 11. The book concludes that anything in the physical word – even spreading knowledge – is subject to uncertainties and frailties due to the physical limits of people. However, reason and intent are the “hidden thing” behind “every work“.  Hopefully sharing the posts on the merits of Israel and Judaism covers the good intent of the sender, and enables the recipient to gain knowledge, and have the good judgment to pass it along as well.

“The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.”

סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי-זֶה כָּל-הָאָדָם

“Flowing with Milk and Honey”

On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, Jews have a tradition of eating fruit (usually an apple) dipped in honey. People eat the tasty combination and pray for a sweet new year. The meaning of the apple-and-honey combination extends deeper into the physical land of Israel and human behavior.

The Bible uses the expression “a land flowing with milk and honey” for the first time in Exodus 3:8, when God tells Moses at the burning bush that he will bring the Jews to a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. The biblical commentator Ramban (Nachmanides b.1194-d.1270) said that the phrase has nothing to do with milk or honey. “Milk and honey” refers to the nectar of the fruit, and a land “flowing with milk and honey” is an expression used for a particularly fertile land that could produce abundant and juicy fruit.

The saying is used several times in the bible, each time meant to convey the richness of the land of Israel. In some cases, the phrase is paired with a threat or caveat. In Exodus 33:3-4, God uses the expression after the sin of the Golden Calf:

“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you,
because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn.”

Years later, when the spies returned from scouting the land as the people of Israel prepared to enter it, the spies paired the richness of the land with a warning in Numbers 15:27-28:

“it is also flowing with milk and honey and here is its fruit,
however, the people who dwell in the land are fierce.”

The promised land is identified as rich and fertile, but there are obstacles to getting it. God warns the Jews that their own behavior could keep them from reaching the land. Conversely, the spies described how other people may try to keep them out of the land. God’s words of warning direct the people to improve themselves or risk never reaching Israel; the spies caution that enemies will fight them for the land. God tells people to look inward; the spies, outward.

As Jews around the world welcome in the new year, they consider more than just the sweetness of the foods they eat. The honey dripping from the apple is a reflection of the fertility of the land of Israel. To continue to merit that promised land, Jews must consider and always improve upon their own behavior. Internalizing the blessings of Israel and the necessity to behave properly will fortify the people to defeat its enemies.

Let the New Year of 5775 be a year full of blessing for the land and people of Israel.

The End of Together

Over July 24-6, 2014, a chapter of religious pluralism ended in the city of Mosul, Iraq and its sister city across the Tigris, the ancient city of Ninveh. The Islamic militants of ISIS forced out all of the Christians, and blew up the Tombs of Seth (son of Adam and Eve) and of the Prophet Jonah.

Jonah

Jonah was the last prophet considered holy to each of the monotheistic religions. His story was unusual in several respects which enabled him to capture the imagination and dreams of Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Thousands of years ago, Judaism was the only monotheistic religion. The people in the Middle East practiced a variety of religions and worshiped many gods. The non-Jews were not particularly interested in the Hebrew Bible, and the Bible – seemingly – did not address them. The prophets in the Old Testament almost universally addressed the Jews: the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

That held true until Jonah. Jonah was given an unusual task by God: leave the land of Israel and go to a far away land because the people there did not behave properly:

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it;
for their wickedness is come up before Me.

The story of what comes next is famous. Jonah fled from God and boarded a ship that was tossed in a storm. The sailors reluctantly threw Jonah overboard to appease his angry God whereupon Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. After three days, the fish vomited him onto land to fulfill his task of admonishing the people of Ninveh. The people of Ninveh – including the king- took Jonah’s words to heart, repented, and all was forgiven.

The story of Jonah has many messages. The Jewish rabbis consider them so important that the only time the story is read in synagogue is on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. The lessons of Jonah include that:

  • Repentance through prayer and action can save a great city (Ninveh) and a lone individual (Jonah in the fish);
  • It is not sufficient for Jews to only be concerned with the welfare of their people, but must work to help others as well;
  • A person should not run from a divine mission;
  • God is everywhere, and you cannot hide from Him

For Christians, the story of Jonah is not just about prayer and repentance, but about rebirth. They consider the story of Jonah’s reemergence from the great fish after three days as a precursor to the resurrection of Jesus.

For Muslims, Jonah was the only one of the twelve minor prophets mentioned in the Koran. Mohammed was said to recognize the holiness of Jonah and referred to Ninveh as “the city of Jonah”.

Three monotheistic religions embraced the mission of a man who (perhaps reluctantly) tried to help other people change their ways, while not trying to make them change their religion.


Religions in Modern Iraq

When Iraq became an independent state in 1932, roughly 120,000 Jews lived in the country comfortably. However, when the UN voted to partition Palestine in 1947, the Iraqi government and people turned on the Jews. Pogroms and public hangings became celebrated events. Operation Ezra & Nechemia from 1949 to 1951 got most of the Jews out of the country, with the balance leaving over the 1960s and 1970s. Almost no Jews remain today.

The Christian community in Iraq extends back roughly 1600 years, before the founding of Islam. As recently as 2003, the number of Christians in the country numbered about 1.5 million. However, the numbers declined rapidly during the US-Iraq war. In 2014, ISIS took over much of the country and actively pushed to remove Christians. In Mosul, the Christian community was given a choice that had historically been put before Jews in various countries over the past 1000 years: convert; pay a huge tax; or be killed. There may only be 100,000 Christians left in the country by the end of 2014.

ISIS belongs to the Salafi movement of Islam which is against the worship of the dead, and therefore opposes the use of tombs as shrines. They have destroyed many tombs of Muslim leaders, in addition to those that are important to Jews and Christians. They razed the tomb of Seth, the fifth person created in the Bible (not as famous as his siblings Cain and Abel) for the same reason. They are also slaying fellow Muslims who practice differently by the thousands.


Religions- God and Practice

During the time of Jonah, most people believed in many Gods. When Jonah addressed the sailors on the ship and the king of Ninveh, they readily accepted the words of the Jewish God – not exclusively- but alongside the other Gods they worshiped. Their openness to various Gods let them listen and pray openly together. Such receptiveness to a new God was not universal as demonstrated by the Greeks and Romans who defiled the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem centuries later.

As new monotheistic religions emerged – first Christianity and then Islam – that openness was further challenged. As each religion accepted a single God, the uniqueness of each religion became based on either: 1) unique Gods; or 2) the same God, but with a different set of practices. If the Gods were different, then only one religion could be correct. If the religions had the same God, then distinction between them was based on the method of worship and priorities.

Religious scholars debate whether the monotheistic religions all believe in the same God, just with different names and observances. In practice, the religions have battled each with the fervor of unique Gods for centuries: Muslim invasions; Christian Crusades; enforced Inquisitions. Religious wars scar most of mankind’s history.

For Muslims, it has been intra-religious battles that have been the bloodiest. Since 1948, 90% of all deaths in wars involving Muslim countries have been at the hands of other Muslim countries. In 2014, ISIS killed many more Muslims than other religious groups, and Syrian President Assad killed many more Muslims than people of other faiths. The peculiarities of practice position the battle lines.


The Demise of the Shared

July 2014 yielded a sad watershed moment. The Tomb of Jonah, whom Jews, Christians and Muslims all revered as a religious leader, was demolished. The Tomb of Seth, for whom Bible believers consider a common forbear, was destroyed. In a single week, religious fanatics dismantled physical and metaphysical symbols that united the three monotheistic faiths. If the religions shared a common God, they had a common prophet. If they had different Gods, they still had the same forbears. The tombs were not just shrines to the ancients; they were opportunities for Jews, Christians and Muslims to meet and re-establish their common bonds today. No longer.

Thousands of years ago, a Jew left his homeland to help non-Jews. He did not seek to convert or change their methods of worship, just to pass along a message from God to end evil behavior. He became a celebrated hero to billions of people of different faiths and different practices. As recently as 70 years ago, Jews, Christians and a variety of Muslims (including Sunni and Shiites) prayed together at the tomb of this common hero. But the advance of bigotry consumed them: first they got rid of the Jews, then the Christians. Now they are ridding fellow Muslims.  God’s message through Jonah of reaching out to “others” has been replaced by man’s effort to destroy the “others”.  Perhaps that was the original wickedness of Ninveh 2600 years ago.


Part of the magic of the story of Jonah was that there were no casualties: Jonah; the city of Ninveh and all of its inhabitants; the sailors; and even the fish, all escaped harm.

In today’s dark reality, we may marvel more at that part of the legend and forget what we all have lost.


Sources:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/25/after-leveling-iraqs-tomb-of-jonah-the-islamic-state-could-destroy-anything-in-the-bible/

http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt1701.htm

http://www.newsweek.com/isis-destroys-shiite-mosques-and-shrines-iraq-257683

http://www.jewsnews.co.il/2014/07/25/muslims-just-made-history-in-mosul-killing-and-exiling-every-last-christian/

http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/07/26/ISIS-destroy-Prophet-Sheth-shrine-in-Mosul-.html

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/iraqijews.html

http://nypost.com/2014/07/27/iraqs-abandoned-christians/

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-militants-destroy-tomb-jonah-mosul-1458469