Wednesday, June 22, 2005


You know you've been in yeshiva too long when you try to say a sentence in Hebrew and an Aramaic word comes out instead.

The Israeli I was talking to understood, though.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Annan Kofei

"Vayomer Elokim, na'aseh et haadam b'tzalmenu kidmutenu..." (Breishit 1:26)

This verse is a favorite of those who would like to prove that Tanach acknowledges the existence of multiple deities. Not only does the word "Elokim" literally mean "gods" (though elsewhere the plural simply indicates a greater level of respect, similar to the "royal we"), but God uses the plural "let us make" in stating His intention to create mankind. This explanation can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the third-person narrator of Breishit, when speaking of God, uses the singular form both in this verse ("vayomer") and consistently elsewhere. The question remains, though, why God chose to use the plural here. Who could the "us" under discussion have included, other than God Himself?

Many commentators, including Rashi, Rashbam, Radak, and Sforno, suggest that the remaining members of "us" are the angels. Either the creation of man was so important that it called for a public proclamation before the audience of the time, or else God wanted to ask the angels' permission before creating a creature that would take their place as the most important beings in the universe, other than God.

An irrefutable explanation, but I wanted to explore other possibilities. Specifically, I wondered if the remaining members of "us" were not the angels, but the chimpanzees.

Why the, um, chimpanzees?

The scientific evidence we have today indicates that humans form a species of great ape, descended from an ancient ape ancestor. The difference between us and other apes, of course, is that we have a sense of morality and can be held to an ethical standard. At some point in the evolution of the apes, God implanted these qualities into a humanoid ape, and the first human was created. Thus, the apes supplied the bodies of mankind, while God supplied the souls. It was a joint effort, and the roles of both parties is indicated by the words "na'aseh", "b'tzalmenu", and "kidmutenu".

Both Ramban and Radak provide explanations which are similar and congruent to this idea. According to Ramban, "God created ex nihilo only on the first day, and afterwards, from the created basics he fashioned and made... and the statement regarding land animals was 'May the earth bring forth'; thus, regarding man 'we will make', i.e. I and the aformentioned earth will make man - that the earth will bring forth the body from its basics as it did with land animals... and [God] will give spirit from above." One could read this as indicating that man came directly from the earth, but I see it as no stretch to say that man came from animals which themselves came from the earth, as the theory of evolution suggests.

The next verse, though, seems to upset this framework. "Vayivra Elokim et haadam b'tzalmo, b'tzelem Elokim bara oto, zachar unkeva bara otam." God is mentioned as creating three times here, while the animals (or the earth) are not mentioned at all! But - look closely at the verbs - in the last verse we had "naaseh" - "we will make". Here, the verb is "bara" - "created from nothing". The word "bara" is rare and the fact that it occurs three times in one verse should make us look closely. Clearly the animals were not creating from nothing - only God has that power. But while God was off conjuring up the soul, it makes sense to say that the apes were going about their daily business at the same time. Only the miraculous element - the creation of the soul - is worth mentioning in the text, so while verse 26 indicates that both God and nature were to be involved in the creation in man, just half of that story made it into the narrative of verse 27.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Al Homotayich Yerushalayim Hifkadti Shomrim

Last Thursday Gush offered a tiyul for foreign students to see the "security barrier" around Jerusalem. While along most of its length the security barrier consists of a fence running through rural areas, its most controversial parts around Jerusalem are mainly large concrete walls. Being the batlan that I am, I decided it was worth a few hours to get a good look at the structure which has recently been the focus of so much world attention.

Going in, we were curious as to what perspective would be presented on the trip. Gush has a reputation for being left-wing as far as yeshivot go, but I've seen little of that since I came, and someone told me that the terrorism of the last few years has moved everyone to the right. Gush still seems to have none the messianic R' Kook-inspired fervor I saw at Yeshivat Or Etzion my first shabbat in the country, nor any underground terror cells like the one recently discovered two bus stops away at Bat Ayin, but there seems to have been an immense hardening of opinion and much increased pessimism as to the Palestinians' intentions.

Our tour guide, as she told us, works with the "Ir Amim" organization, which (as far as I can tell) promotes understanding and consideration between Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites in the hope of minimizing mutually destructive behavior and making an eventual peace agreement possible. Technically this puts her into the category of wacko hippie left-wing peace activists (i.e. characterized by lofty universal ideals paired with an utter lack of moral or practical perspective), but she seemed surprisingly open and honest compared to the so-called "peace activists" I am used to. At the beginning she said "I'm not trying to give you propaganda - I want to give you all the facts, and you can decide whether it's a good thing or not" - and she did a good if not perfect job of sticking to that formula.

We started out at Gilo, on the south edge of Jerusalem. Here the barrier changes from a double fence to a wall as it reaches the edge of Bethlehem. The guide explained how the route and type of fence were reasonable here. As she said, it's impossible to put fences in built-up areas, and all the Arabs here are on one side, with the Jews on the other. The only inconvenience to Palestinians is that a few of them can't reach their olive groves on the other side of the barrier, but as the guide said, that's an understandable inconvenience given the security needs.

Then we got back in the bus and drove northeast - past the new and heavily debated neighborhood of Har Homa, then right through the Arab parts of the city. I was a little nervous going through these neighborhoods in a bus whose decoration proclaimed that it was owned by a West Bank settlement, but the windows were bulletproof and several of us were carrying (unloaded?) assault weapons, so we were probably OK. The only angry Arab we met the whole way wanted us to move more quickly so that he could get out of his parking space.

As we went the guide told us about the standard of living in the Arab neighborhoods and how much lower it was than in then Jewish ones (though, she said, it was extremely high relative to the West Bank as a whole). She also mentioned that the level of municipal services provided was much lower in Arab than in Jewish neighborhoods. And, in fact, the roads here were mostly one lane each way, twisty, slow, and probably dangerous - much different from the broad and landscaped arterials which you find in West Jerusalem (though, oddly, they were less congested than those West Jerusalem roads). But as the guide also said, most Jerusalem Arabs have made a political choice not to vote in municipal (Israeli) elections, so the lack of services provided seemed to us to be their own fault - they can't really complain if they have the opportunity to change the situation and don't. (For the most part they choose not to vote in Palestinian elections either, and thus have apparently screwed themselves over in every possible way.) Also, nearly every Arab house looked much nicer than the typical buildings you find in Jewish neighborhoods. Possibly each of these Arab buildings houses an extended family, unlike Jewish residences which include only a nuclear family, usually in a single apartment. But still, the degree of ornamentation visible makes it hard to argue that these people are living in dire poverty. If only I could have a brand-new three-story stone house with a balcony overlooking the Temple Mount.

We stopped in Jabel al-Mukabar, east of the Tayelet, where there was a good view of Abu Dis (outside the wall and the city) and Ras al-Amud (inside both). Here the wall passes through a densely populated area where no Jews live - or did, until recently. The guide pointed out two Jewish houses in open areas directly abutting the "inside" of the wall. By making the Israeli side of the wall more Jewish, these houses (which may soon be expanded into a larger settlement called I think Kedmat Tzion) increase the likelihood that the wall becomes a permanent border with a mixed population on the Israeli side. The guide pointed out that including those Arabs in Israel may be less advantageous for Israel than conceding the small chunk of East Jerusalem on which they live to a future Palestinian state. I think she was entirely correct in saying that this should concern the right wing, even as it decides one way or the other which policy to support.

Next we drove to the end of the barrier in Abu Dis. Here the old road from Jerusalem east to Jericho is entirely cut off by the wall, which however ends just north of the road. (When it became unsafe for Jews to drive through Abu Dis probably a decade ago, a bypass road was paved several kilometers to the north.) The wall does not extend past this point because plans call for it to turn east from here, into the West Bank, and the Israel Supreme Court is still deciding whether to allow this. Here, numerous slogans such as "Norway Supports Palestine" have been spray-painted onto the wall. We took the liberty of adding our own. Where someone had written "This wall shall fall" in marker, we crossed out the last two words and wrote "saves lives" instead. We wrote "Gush Etzion supports" over another comment about the wall. In the middle of this a police jeep stopped and threatened to arrest us for graffiti-ing the wall. Lots of fun.

As I said, the wall simply ends in Abu Dis. North of this, the streets have been blocked off with fences or short concrete barriers, which stop cars but are relatively easily climbed over. Also, if you live on the "border" here, you can apparently go out your front door to get to one side of the barrier, and out your back door to get to the other side. If the border residents were nice, they would open their backyards to the children and old ladies who right now have to climb over the fence or concrete barriers. Of course, in a few months there will probably be a 30-foot concrete wall here and it won't matter. (As a side note, I've yet to discover why the wall is considered so ugly. Yes it's 30 feet tall, but its size looks reasonable as it passes 30-foot-tall buildings. And sure it's made of bare concrete, but nobody complains that city streets are ugly, when they're also 30-foot strips of concrete. Of course the wall isn't an architectural asset to the city. But the suicide bombings it is designed to prevent clearly aren't assets either.)

After a stop at Har haTzofim where we discussed the planned extension of the fence east to Maale Adumim, we drove to the Kalandia checkpoint at the north edge of the city. This is a nasty, hot area with swirling dust, trucks, and crowds of impatient people waiting to cross into or out of Jerusalem. It must not be fun to be either a soldier or a Palestinian here, and this is probably a place where everyone learns to hate "the other side". The army is apparently building new facilities to ease the wait here. The guide mentioned this to as us a counterpoint to her complaint that right now there are only two places where Palestinians can enter Jerusalem, and that both are overcrowded. We were only too glad to get back in the bus and take the brand-new Begin freeway (whose northern part is an environmental atrocity - but that's another story) back home to Gush Etzion.

Perhaps this story deserves an ending, but as this has already so long, I will leave further thoughts to the reader(s).