Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas

Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas


Howard Adelman

In the blog before the last one, I wrote about three young people who did not seem to have a religious bone in their bodies and who also seemed to have no sense of the sacred. In last Friday’s blog I wrote about the competition over defining holiness between Korah, who found holiness in everyone and Moses and Aaron whom God anointed as holy. A commentator wrote me that taking the side of Korah meant that if humans were already holy, they did not need to improve and the whole enterprise of Judaism would have been aborted. I countered by suggesting that seeing holiness in each human was not to be equated with seeing perfection. In today’s blog and a discussion of Parshat Chukas (Numbers 19-21) I want to zero in on the concept of holiness.

In Judaism, the mount where the temple stood by its very designation is viewed as sacred. We know it is sacred more from how that sacred place was profaned that through the sacrifices and God’s presence. We are ending two weeks of the three weeks of mourning that began on Canada Day, I July and the 17th of Tamuz that leads up to Tish B’Av ordained to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, each a Beit Ha’Mikdash. The sacred place was made profane in that destruction. But sometimes profanity is smashed as when Moses confronted the Israelites who had built and worshiped the golden calf as if it were holy. So the holy and unholy are regarded as opposites that are complementary. If Moses smashed a golden calf, the Syrian Governor burned a Sefer Torah on the Mount, a destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning. Finally, King Menashe committed the ultimate unholy act and placed an idol right on the Beit Ha’mikdash, an act of destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning.

But what has all of this to do with Parshat Chakas that describes the perfect red heifer, the parah adumah, and the laws applicable thereto? What has all of this fight between the holy and the unholy have to do with the military destruction that runs through Parshat Chakas, beginning with the destruction of the Canaanite army quickly followed by the defeat of the Moabites and the Amorites. And all the time the Israelites kvetched. There was not enough water. Living conditions were terrible. And when God responded by making them really miserable by infesting the camp with poisonous snakes, Moses had to get rid of them with the magic of his copper snake and save those who had been bitten.

The Israelites were (and remain) a recalcitrant lot. They were an unholy people because a holy people obeys because they are commanded to obey, not because they understand why they are obeying or because obeying fits in with how we feel or think or because we want to set off our own will against that of another.

A person is holy because he obeys. That is why Korah is seen as betraying his priestly role, because he went beyond kvetching and challenged instead of obeying. A place is holy because one is willing to sacrifice one’s life for that place, not simply to win it, but to prevent that place from being desecrated, from being used to burn a sefer Torah, from being used to construct an idol, from being destroyed itself. Moses was seen as a uniquely holy one because he was chosen to obey God’s commands without question.

If this is so, why do I sympathize with Korah? Why do I suggest that Moses ran a kangaroo court in dealing with Korah’s protest? Why do I portray Moses, who is a prophet like none other, who is supposedly holy like no other, who is privy to the secret of the red heifer, but not the secret of who God is, why do I portray Moses as a manipulator and a sophist who twists words and meanings?

In Judaism, the prime injunction is neither to Know God nor oneself, but to obey Him in spite of your profound ignorance, not to know oneself, but to understand that the highest degree of wisdom is to enact decrees (chukot), to implement orders that you not only do not question, but have no right to question, to live a life that expresses chukat ha’Torah.. And not only do you obey without question, obey without inquiry, but recognizing that it is a mitzvah, a blessing, a good deed, to do so with the best of one’s ability and, thereby, become a pure being in the doing. And in order to perform that act of eliminating what defiles a place, one must ensure that one is not defiled oneself.

A sign that you have done so? You do not kvetch. You do not complain that there is no water. You do not complain that there is no food. Moses failed his people, not by giving into their complaints and using his rod to bring forth water, but for calling them rebels because they were such kvetches, because he insulted and degraded the people and did not see in them their potential for holiness. Moses was unlike Korah, not because he sinned by giving in to populism, not because he did not sufficiently trust God, but because he did not sufficiently trust the people that God had chosen to be His bride. So Moses, even though he was holy like no other, even though he knew the secret of the red heifer, was not holy enough to enter the land of Israel, not holy enough to stand on the Beit Ha’Mikdash. And he was not holy enough because even Moses did not have enough faith in God to sanctify God in the eyes of his children. (Numbers 20:12)

So what does one do if one loves the study of Torah enough to sacrifice time to earn money, time to be spent on pleasures, but not to fulfill it, not to become holy and not to serve to make Israel a holy place? That is the central question – not to be or not to be. So in Parshat Chukas, God spoke to Moses and Aaron to inform them that the statute of the Torah required them to locate and acquire a perfectly unblemished cow that had never worked a day of its life, that had never pulled a plow, and to have it slaughtered by a Kohen and participate in voodoo by dipping your finger in its blood and sprinkling that blood before, not on, the Holy of Holies, and then burning the entire red heifer until there is absolutely nothing left but ashes, ashes to be used paradoxically with water to make oneself clean,, including the Kohen who must be cleansed from participating in the slaughter of the red heifer.

Why should ashes of such a rare pure and unblemished cow that has been sacrifices serve as “an everlasting statute for the children of Israel”? Why is the central issue and top priority in Israel washing the body of the dead to purify it before burial? Is this not an act of necrophilia? Why is the corpse which dies, if not death itself, considered unclean? Why does Saul in the movie Son of Saul become so obsessed with cleaning the body of the corpse he regards as his own son and insist on a proper burial. Why does he end up washing that body in a fast flowing stream as he tries to bury it, and does so even though it may sabotage the revolt as well as efforts to record the horrible events that occurred in Auschwitz/Birkenau?

And what about the others? What about the non-Israelites? A message was sent to the King of Edom to let the Israelites pass in safety. But the King of Edom refused, did not grant a right of passage and blocked the path of the Israelites towards the promised land. When Edom came forth with a vast force and a strong hand, when he refused a right of passage, Moses was ordered to sacrifice his brother, the High Priest, on top of Mount Hor where Aaron died before he could lead the Israelites to smite the Edomites. This was followed by the destruction of the King of Arad and his Canaanites at Hormah.

In spite of these victories, the Israelites kvetched even more. So the horde of venomous snakes attacked them until Moses once again used the magic of his copper staff to smite the serpents. Even though Moses had more cause this time, he did not put down the bride of God, he did not give in to the propensity to denigrate his people, God’s people, but, in spite of their obvious inadequacies – and his own – to express pride in who they were and not shame at whom they were not. And Moses did so even though he had been found unworthy of entering the land of Israel. Moses saw that he had made the greatest mistake of his life, but owned up to it and carried on with his responsibilities even though he knew it would be without personal reward.

The slaughter of the Edomites and the Canaanites was followed with victories over the Moabites and King Sihon of the Amorites, And the Israelites took possession of all their lands. This happened again in 1967. And the Jewish people were once again divided. Some said hold onto that land because it is sacred and God delivered it to us as our holy land, a land that we must be willing to die for. Others said give it back. We have enough land on which to live and thrive and we can live and thrive best if we live side by side with our neighbours in peace. But those neighbours on that land, or many of them, particularly their leaders, refused to acknowledge the right of the Israelites to live not only on the land captured in 1967, but even on the land they made their own in 1948. Jews might be allowed to live there on sufferance, but not by right and certainly not on the Beit Ha’Mikdash.

So more and more Jews became convinced, not of God’s promise, but that they had been given no choice, that they had to continue living on all of the promised land that had been captured. In the greatest irony, the non-Israelites served that ancient promise even more so than the Israelites and the Jews throughout the world. Only the so-called dedicated few, the zealots, rejected the idea that the Israelites had to live in accordance with the natural laws of force, for they were few in number and did not constitute a huge army that the Israelites had assembled when they first conquered the Holy Land. These Jews rejected both the idea that Jews were destined to live in accordance with natural laws, including the “natural” laws of realpolitik.

They also rejected what was an even more alien principle for them, that Jews were like everyone else entering the modern world, the contemporary world, the world that worshiped existence, that worshiped the greatest idol of all, the belief that the world was made so that the self could experience it and live in the present rather than for the sake of the future, in the belief that everyone had his own personal truth and that being authentic to that truth was the ultimate commandment, a “truth” that rejected the sense of sacrifice, a truth that rejected the sense that one must be willing to die for what is holy, a truth that rejected the duty to become holy in following a commandment that seemed out of this world and not part of it, but a commandment that most of all rejected the idea that the holiness of the command from the other world did not command the killing of others, though it acknowledged the necessity of doing so if the armies of those others rejected one’s holy obligations.

So how do those who are holy or, more accurately, who aspire to holiness, address their fellow Jews who regard such a concept of holiness as crazy, as absolutely nuts, as other worldly, for any address starts with the premise they reject, that there is an authority which you not only do not know or understand, but whom you cannot even question. The irony is that the quester has more in common with the secular existential individual who lives for his or herself in the contemporary world, rejecting any source of authority, even a source in reason and logic, outside his or her own personal sense of what is right and wrong. For those in quest of holiness and those convinced that holiness lies within themselves without any external reference at least both believe in a holiness; those who conform to the rules of realpolitik do not.

In accordance with the lesson of Moses, who failed to live up to that idea of holiness, of obeying a God one did not and could not understand, those in quest of holiness must trust their fellow Jews, both those who reject the sacred altogether and are simply devoted to national survival in accordance with the rules of international force, and those who only see holiness as residing within, without any external reference, who revere diversity and difference because there is no universal holiness, there is no one God. Those in quest of divine holiness must follow the commandment not to “diss” their fellow Jews, not to lose faith in the bride of Israel even when they willingly become servants of the enemies of Israel as in the case of Jewish Voices for Peace. The dictum is not to love thy neighbour as oneself, but to love one’s fellow Jew even though he kvetches all the time and seems to have lost all faith in God. Those in pursuit of holiness must reject the notion that Korah held that there is something of the holy in every one of us, reject the notion put forth by a philosopher/teacher in a Jewish Conservative seminary (the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) such as Alan Mittleman (Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter), reject the case of this contemporary Baruch Spinoza who took the belief in the spark of the holy in each individual to its logical conclusion.

But those in quest of holiness must not reject such advocates as simply kvetchers who betray God, for they are all part of God’s people, and the people as a whole are always holy even if the individuals within, including those who openly pursue holiness, are not. And even if those who pursue holiness must contend with what they regard as the sacrilegious belief that holiness is immanent within each one of us, these pursuers of the holy cannot reject these others. They cannot thrust them into a man-made purgatory. For the kvetchers of realpolitik must confront what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik insisted upon, that with the advent of modern science and quantum theory, there were no absolute natural laws to serve as a reference point while those in pursuit of holiness must accept that these blind followers of faith in the absolute laws of nature must not only be tolerated, but must be embraced. So too the kvetchers of existential angst remain part of the Jewish people and their contribution to that people; however alien, they must not be rejected even if their particular beliefs are.

And where do I stand among the kvetchers espousing realpolitik, among the dropouts who seek to realize an ephemeral holiness within themselves and believe that the right to choose is our most sacred blessing, among those who implicitly and explicitly join the enemies of Israel and help foster its possible destruction, and among those who believe that holiness can only be achieved by strict obedience to a God one does not and cannot understand? I stand amongst them all, yet apart from them all, and that is not my pride, but my failing. For in revering detachment and understanding most of all, I sin more than all the others in reverence for the greatest idol of them all – abstraction instead of commitment, in a belief in reason rather than holiness, in a belief in thought rather than an inner sensibility, and the contradictory belief that empathetic understanding and objectivity can be reconciled. My faith in reason and in this fundamental contradiction of reason, is my ultimate failing and why I will never be holy.

The absolute may be with us at the start, and, indeed, at every point along the way when we believe we have located the absolute. But what happens when we accept at one and the same time that each version of the absolute will prove empty and false, that the absolute that is with us from the start in the process of emptying itself for our sake will only carry the promise, not of fulfillment, but of the experience of more and more emptiness? There is an answer for me, and that is the problem with such an answer. It is an answer for me and not for us. I have no answer about how to unify the Jewish world and how that Jewish world can be accepted in the wider world around. I pursue tikkun olam in full recognition that the concept of social justice is merely a ghost of its real meaning, an obligation to correct the defects of the cosmos and not simply the social organization of the world of humanity. My only solace – I live amongst contenders for different concepts of faith even if I cannot live within any one of them.

Combatting BDS: Individual Exposés and Economic Reprisals

VII: Combatting BDS A1 and A2


Howard Adelman

The organized Jewish community has been very active in combatting BDS. Whether BDS required the time and resources devoted to that battle and whether that expenditure of time and effort has been effective will not be the focus of this blog. Rather, I will survey the various techniques used to deal with BDS and, in passing, sometimes assess both the effectiveness and mode of engaging in combat. For obvious reasons, most of my illustrations will be Canadian even though a great deal more effort is being expended in the U.S. Further, although the list appears to make each category a totally separate one, the illustrations will make clear the enormous overlaps between and among the categories. The list of a dozen techniques used can be divided into two broad categories, A) Aggressive and B) Defensive.

A) Aggressive
1. Individual Exposés
2. Economic Pressures
3. Lawfare
4. Political Pressure – The Green Party of Canada
5. International Diplomacy
6. Character Assassination
a) Association with violence
b) Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism
B) Defensive
1. Community Education – a fundamental existential issue
2. Celebrity Endorsements
3. Long term Leadership Development
4. Long term Coalition Building
5. Research on BDS and on Effectiveness of own methods.
In this and following blogs I will describe and to some degree analyze each type of response.

A1. The Individual Exposé

I will explore one recent exposé in depth rather than trying to cover a number of them over the years. B’nai Brith Canada was active in bringing to the attention of both the Catholic School Board in St. Catharines as well as the head of St. Catharine of Siena Separate School the fact that they had in their employ a teacher, Nadia Shoufani, who taught special ed and ESL, but who also glorified terrorists and terrorism both in public rallies (2 July 2016) and on her Facebook page. At the 2 July Al-Quds Rally in Toronto, she was recorded as stating that, “Palestine will be liberated…Glory to the martyrs.” She made very clear that she was not just referring to the occupied territories on the West Bank, but all of Mandatory Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. At that rally, she praised Ghassan Kanafani and Georges Ibrahim Abdallah of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a proscribed terrorist group in Canada. And she asked those in the audience to join the BDS campaign.

In addition, she also celebrated convicted terrorist, Samir Kuntar (the report omitted that Samir had crushed the skull of a four-year old Israeli girl) and characterized him as a hero and martyr. The Jewish agency report on this issue did not include the way the little girl was killed. Samir had killed an Israeli policeman and in the effort to kidnap an Israeli family in Nahariya – not in the West Bank – and killed the father. After he had smashed the child’s head on beach rocks, he totally crushed her skull with the butt of his rifle. Perhaps these details were omitted out of sensitivity to the family or because a recitation of blood and gore is, in the end, counter-productive.

Nadia also accused the Israel security forces of engaging in extrajudicial murder for “neutralizing” (i.e. killing) Muhammad Nasser Tra’ayra (spelled Tarayah in the B’nai Brith communication), a Palestinian from the nearby village of Bani Na’im, the murderer of thirteen-year-old Hallel Yaffe Ariel whom he stabbed in her back as she slept in the “settlement” of Kiryat Arba near Hebron. Kiryat Arba is a re-introduction after 1967 of a pre-1948 Jewish settlement that had been razed by the Jordanians. Muhammad had scaled a security fence to carry out the murder. The B’nai Brith dispatch did not mention that the settlement of Kiryat Arba existed prior to the 1948 war.

The B’nai Brith dispatch did not mention that Hallel Yaffe Ariel was also an American citizen or that Muhammad Tra’ayra was nineteen years old (the IDF originally reported that he was seventeen), only six years older than his victim. Nor did the report mention that the Palestinian governor of Hebron had paid a condolence call to the “martyr” who killed Hallel. The report did not explain whether B’nai Brith had also contacted the Dufferin-Peel District School Board where Nadia Shoufani also taught. Nor did the report mention that Nadia was affiliated with the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, Actions4Palestine and was a director of the Arab Canadian Cultural Association.

Nadia had also praised Muhammad Tra’ayra’s cousin, Sarah Tra’ayra, who tried to revenge Muhammad’s death by trying to stab an Israeli policeman in revenge and was also killed. Nor did it quote one of Nadia’s statements made at the rally: “I urge you not to be silent. I urge you to speak up, to resist this occupation and support the steadfastness of Palestinians. Support the resistance in any form that is possible. (my italics) I urge you to support the BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel.” Nor was a selection of her many statements on her Facebook page re-quoted. “Please join us in activities supporting the [Palestinian] intifada… Humiliate them. They all worth [not more than] the shoe of every fighter and every martyr.” (12 February 2016)

It is not yet clear what the outcome has been of the investigations launched by both the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and the St. Catharines Separate School Board. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) had also contacted the Dufferin-Peal Board. Nor is it clear why neither BB nor FSWC highlighted Nadia’s connection with BDS. Nor did either organization publicize that Nadia is on public record as being an inferior teacher, except in the category of “easiness.” “Nadia Shoufani is a classical studies teacher at Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board located in Mississauga, Ontario. When comparing Nadia Shoufani’s ratings to other teachers in the province of Ontario, Nadia Shoufani’s ratings are below the average of 3.87 stars. Additionally, the average teacher rating at Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board is 1.0 star.”

I was not able to discern the principles of simplifying and writing the brief public release in the communications of either BB or FSWC. Was it simply the need for brevity in press releases the explanation?

A2. Economic Pressures

My focus has largely been on educational and, to some extent, cultural boycotts of Israel, but the economic boycott of Israeli goods and services has been the backbone of the BDS movement. I will deal with indirect economic pressures under Lawfare in the next section. In reviewing the literature in combatting BDS, it is notable that organized Jewish agencies do not appear to have launched reprisals against commercial establishments that support BDS by refusing to order Israeli-made products. I could find no list equivalent to the BDS list, either because the leadership in the Jewish community have decided that publishing such a list would be counter-productive or because it has not undertaken the research to prepare such a list.

In contrast, BDS has targeted a very wide variety of Israeli goods from kitchen tools such as supplied by what has become one of Israel’s best known products (because of the boycott), SodaStream, cupcake decorating kits made and sold by Amav toys (Tip Top Toys, Taf Toys and Ofrat Baby Toys are also on the list), cosmetics such as those of Ahava but also by Dead Sea, Nevo, Sea Spa and many of the products of The Body Shop, Eden Springs Water, which BDS alleges began in the Golan Heights and which sells bottled water in eighteen different countries, Carmel Wines and Golan Heights Winery (also Tishbi and Psagot Wines to name just a few more), dairy product such as Mahadrin that sells Greek yogurt, textiles used by Victoria Secrets and the Gap, Stanley Black and Decker hardware, pharmaceuticals, fresh produce such as dates also by Mehadrin, Tekoa Mushrooms, Israeli diamonds – a major part of the diamond trade, services like Airbnb because they include places to stay in the settlements, as well as a long list of security services, including Hewlett Packard, commercial products such as construction vehicles made by Caterpillar, and, as might be expected, military products not likely to be purchased by consumers such as Uzi machine guns and the wide variety of military equipment sold by Israel Aerospace Industries and Israel Military Industries, perhaps the best known among a wide variety of Israeli military equipment providers. The list is very long and clearly very varied, but, for some reason, it does not seem to have included banking, financial and insurance services as far as I have been able to find out.

There seems to be no consistent set of criteria for inclusion. The reason can include being produced on the West Bank or simply used on the West Bank, ones that employ Arab workers and ones that do not, ones that obtain its raw products from the Dead Sea even if obtaining such products preceded the 1967 war, products of Blue and White Industries, in part because blue and white are the colours on the Israeli flag, skin products made from Moroccan oil because it is an Israeli company using Morocco oil but which may appear to be a Moroccan company because of its name. However, as a BDS spokesperson has written, “We are here focused on companies based primarily in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Though they have explored boycotting international companies doing business with Israel, they have largely avoided that even more arduous route. But the companies, products and services may also have nothing to do with the West Bank.

While BDS supporters in Canada have been putting stickers on products made in Israel, such as Sabra hummus, Keter and SodaStream products, Glutino biscuits, dates and tangerines at grocers, and at hardware stores in Montreal, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Brampton, and other towns in British Columbia, I was unable to find that anyone had been charged with interfering with retail sales by illegally putting one’s own label on a product sold by a store.

In other words, though there are a wide variety of civil society counter-measures that could be taken which would at the same time win loyalty for Israeli-made products, it is not clear why these strategies have not been pursued. Are they too costly to organize and/or do they enhance the BDS publicity? Or has the counter-BDS movement simply relied on a more centralized campaign discussed in my next blog to make BDS efforts illegal.

With the help of Alex Zisman

VI BDS and the University

Cultural Anthropology, BDS and the University


Howard Adelman

Jonathan David Haidt is a Professor of Ethical Leadership and a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business; he specializes in the psychology of morality. In a dialogue about his concern with how communities bind together and, in that binding, also close their minds, he “began to see the social sciences as tribal moral communities, becoming ever more committed to social justice, and ever less hospitable to dissenting views.” He claimed that universities have developed into a monoculture. “Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.”
Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

As Jonathan replied, “They’re so devoted to social justice, and they have accepted the rule that you can never, ever blame victims, so if a group of victims makes demands [however ill-conceived], you cannot argue back. You must accept the demands.” “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists. They’ve taken the first step towards censoring Israel. They’re not going to have anything to do with Israeli scholars any more. So it’s now – it’s the seventh victim group.” In addition to African-Americans, women, the LGBT community, as well as Latinos, Native Americans and people with disabilities, the seventh group does not consist of the Israelis ostracized, but Muslims. These seven groups, whatever empathy they deserve – and most deserve a great deal – become immune to criticism and occupy a protected status. Further, under the concept of “intersectionality,” each group is strengthened in the blindmindedness in dealing with it by seeing the oppression of each as a manifestation of a singular larger evil force.

When values other than truth become primary in universities, when truth gets thrown under the bus in favour of perceived social justice, the university has lost its way. “What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics.” I personally first experienced this years ago in a union meeting of our faculty at York University. I was shocked to hear faculty shout abuse and shut up an esteemed colleague who was raising questions about a proposal to give the union authority to call a strike. He was not even disagreeing, just asking a question. And he was shouted down. I felt very ashamed to have been part of organizing a union where members not only behaved in that way, but were allowed to behave that way.

When I appeared on a panel on the Middle East in Osgoode Hall’s Moot Court at the university about fifteen years ago, the situation had become much worse, the language more degrading and the sense of a mob culture much more apparent. Categories of oppression multiply and certain language was placed off limits at the same time as a new callous and rude language became more prevalent. I have been told that over the past thirteen years since my retirement from York University, the situation of creeping censorship combined with enhanced callous language has become even worse. As Haidt said, “Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.” So one kind of speech, discourse and behaviour that fosters a free exchange of ideas is ruthlessly suppressed while another alternative form of discourse or repression and angry rhetoric displaces it in the name of “social justice’ rather than truth. Bullying of gays, of blacks, of women has correctly been countered only to see bullying for “free space” rather than free speech moved to centre stage.

But there has been a growing backlash. It is coming from students who graduate with a great deal of debt from studies in the humanities and social sciences but lack marketable skills, even of political thinking as they have increasingly been submerged in ideological thinking. The backlash is coming from business leaders who find that many of the students who graduate lack the most basic skills required to work in the corporate world. The backlash is coming from parents who end up supporting their children well into their twenties and then find that the jobs they get are as bell hops and desk clerks, receptionists and waitresses or waiters, chefs and salespersons. They ask why they sent their children to university in the first place and why, after they get a degree, they have to go back to study at a community college in a skills-based program. And the backlash is also coming from government torn between one huge part of a province’s obligations to health versus the increasing costs of higher education. As the electors age, concessions shift to that segment of the population that is getting larger, those who are older.

But worst of all, the students are uneducated. This past weekend I spent three days with three different university graduates who did their undergraduate studies in different parts of the world, one at York University. All three were exceedingly nice and decent. They were pleasant, trustworthy and eager to please. They were hardworking and willing to carry out anything asked of them. But they lacked initiative. They were also cut off in a peculiar way, more attached to communication with their cell phones – with texting and messaging – than with interacting with each other and with me on a deeper level, even as they told stories of their travels and adventures in the world and their love of different kinds of food. Patrick Deneen in his essay, “How a Generation Lost its Common Culture” in Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities, called his students who matched the three young people I spent a long weekend with as “know nothings.”

These graduates of universities had only the vaguest sense of politics. They knew little about not simply the Hebrew and Greek classics, but of the development of the enlightenment. They had only the vaguest notion of sociology, though that was the major of one of these young people. But none of the three had gone to an A-grade university. Deneen’s students, by contrast, were from Princeton, Georgetown and Notre Dame. Yet, though they were superb test-takers – which perhaps only one of the three I spent time with probably was – and earned A’s, they were neither passionate nor invested in a specific issue or subject. They were like the three I spent the weekend with – somewhat detached and deeply involved in their own personal search for adventure and a desire to taste and experience the world, but with no depth of historical knowledge evident of that world.

Do not get me wrong. They were a delight to talk to. They were respectful and cordial both to one another and to me. They loved hearing narratives based on experience, but were not interested in narratives rooted in literature or history. One no longer really read. Another had been reading the same book for six months, but was too busy with work and having experiences to spend much time with it. And it was a title and author I did not recognize. A third when asked whether he saw movies and which ones, replied that he saw an excellent children’s cartoon that I think was made by Pixar.

They were extremely tolerant of differences – racial or sexual – and genuinely respected differences, but without a passion for exploring those differences. Tolerance for them meant not judging the other. Not one was religious. They grew up on three different continents, yet seemed to have far more in common with each other than with any of the students with whom I went to school. At the same time, they were terrifically decent. They exhibited a sense of caring for each other and helping one another in work and chores. They were very fair in sharing food and responsibilities. They were liberal and two who met a year ago through me had kept in touch on Facebook. In my contact with them, what each valued most in the world was their personal liberty to explore that world on their own terms.

Though each respected the family that raised them – and each seemed to have devoted parents – not one seemed particularly loyal and attached to their parents or their siblings. Every one of them respected people who requested them to do something, but disliked being told to do something; respect for others did not include respect for authority. Most of all, not one of them seemed to have a religious bone in their bodies in the sense that they thought some place or some person worthy of regarding as sanctified. One loved Dubai of all places; another loved a day flight to Miami; a third found what was most exciting was what was under the sea that she explored through deep diving.

I write this, not because I carefully selected the three as a sample – the choice of these three was somewhat arbitrary. I write about them because, other than the fact that probably not one of them could come close to competing with Patrick Deneen’s A-students from top universities, they otherwise seemed remarkably like his description of his own students. They loved peer gatherings, but not standing and fixed communities. They detested hierarchy and not one of them had any respect for tradition. Mass killings, genocide, wars in Syria all seemed far away, yet each was drawn to treating strangers well. In other words, they were the ideal liberal students that Jonathan Haidt described in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But they were not ideological liberals who seemed to be very bothered by Donald Trump or very interested in the American race for the presidency.

Most of all, they were filled with trivia, and what they do not know, they look up on their cell phones by the minute. Want to know what the population of Barrie is? Want to know the density of the traffic flow returning to Toronto? Want to know about the life of a tent caterpillar whose nests we were eagerly destroying? All could be learned with great acuity and fluidity by pressing a few buttons and reading what they found.

In one of my very early books, The Holiversity, I described how the university we were attending was evolving from a discipline-based Sanctuary of Method into a Social Service Station focused on solving problems out there in the real world. I anticipated that in 50-60 years that type of university would also morph into something very different again, the Consumer University, the university not so much a market place where great ideas clashed, but the university as a collection of market stalls like those in small town fairs or those at a local market where people bring items to sell. The university was evolving faster than I ever thought possible into a cafeteria university where students come to taste the various wares on offer, and, like those attending Deneen’s great universities, each had studied a different social science only to become ignorant that their civilization had become committed to “civilizational suicide” in Deneen’s words.

Clyde Kluckhohn described five options in structuring time. All three of these young people lived in the fleeting present while updating their skills and trying to improve their positions. Why? To get as much as possible out of life while aging without a past and where the future is a foreign country that lies around the next corner to experience. They were very different than the dominant culture that had constituted America and its devotion to a greater future.

“In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.” And if there is anything they value more it is the negative value of not being limited or handicapped. They are committed to detachment and mutual indifference except to their own tastes and sense of wonder at what the world has on offer.

They are not members of a res publica, but non-members engaged in a race individula. And if a student wants to escape this solipsistic world, where does he or she or it go? Into engaged ideology rather than engaged intellect, whether that ideology be the anti-Zionist pursuit of an ephemeral sense of social justice or a more conservative ideology with far fewer members defensive of family, community, respectful of status and protective of those closest to them in need. Most of all, the latter are very defensive of an older social fabric rather than the happenstance mini-shorts of the present. As Haidt describes it, one ideology – the dominant liberal one – is at war with a minority more cultural communitarianism, even if liberal in a different way. The ideologues each have an heir that tries to lead the rest into battle, but most abhor activism of this sort, though the call for social justice has a greater appeal to their moral tastes.

Are Deneen and Haidt but the intellectual heirs of Alan Bloom decrying like Cassandra the end of the world we once knew? In part. In good part. But they also offer an explanation for why the university is at once an excellent breeding ground, not just for cultural anthropology as an engaged discipline and for BDS, but why that call for engagement and support of BDS falls on essentially instinctively empathetic but also deaf and dumb ears. The students quietly accede to the appeal, but in their passivity ensure BDS falls on dry and sterile ground where only mummies walk. In the vacuum, universities, particularly those with an activist history, habitually drift toward an activist left monoculture according to Richard Vedder attacking from the right as the university drifts into a place where faculty are wards of the state, anyway at least 50% of them who have gained tenure in an average public university, where administrators are now their bosses and where students have become their customers.

The fight becomes one between different ideologies of attachment, an abstract one versus very personal ones and the central issue becomes which group has suffered the greatest victimhood, us in defence of the whole world or us against the whole world, whether that us be Zionists, members of Islam fearing Islamophobia, or evangelical Christians repelled by the solipsism of the new dominant ideology. Even within Israel and Israeli academic institutions, the battleground of identity politics becomes the dominant hegemonic discourse among activists. The ideological uncompromising radical activists disdain dialogue in favour of confrontation while the soft liberal ideologues prefer dialogical interchange between different groups in promoting evaluative rather than engaged scholarship, in promoting an understanding of differences rather than a clash between and among differences, but neither side providing any more general ground for resolving those differences.

One of the results of this radical shift is that, as Leonard Saxe documented at the AIS meeting in Jerusalem from his empirical studies, Jewish students on campuses in North America are subjected to an increase in verbal abuse as a fact of life at the same time as more Jewish students, though still a minority, feel connected with Israel, and more than half of the Jewish students, like the students described above, remain blissfully ignorant of the BDS effort to boycott Israel. Most of those who are aware are, perhaps less blissfully, ignorant of the anti-Zionist foundation of BDS. BDS is not simply a movement opposed to settlements in the West Bank. Further, campuses with the most perceived anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere were Canadian, with the only close completion coming from Mid-Western state schools and the California state system.

Even more significantly, while Zionism now occupies a central place in collective Jewish life, most Jewish students were dramatically ignorant about Israel. Of the 60% who even check into current events in Israel, the vast majority of these do not follow the policy debates there. So even if they feel a connection, there is very little intellectual connection. As indicated above, this is but a reflection of the state of mind of the majority of students on campus about public affairs more generally. Thus, the students are ill-equipped to deal with comments that Jews have too much power, that Israelis are Nazis and practice apartheid, and even that the Holocaust is a myth. Most Jewish students, surprisingly, often know little more about the Holocaust than they do about Israel. They are certainly unable to review the different sides of the argument claiming anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. Ironically, the more liberal they were, the less capable they were of defending Israel from many extant criticisms of Israel.

Thus, Saxe concluded that countering Jewish ignorance was the great problem, not engaging in conflict with BDS. But how does one conduct an educational program on campuses that revere historical ignorance and where community leaders see the strife on campus only in ideological defensive terms?

With the help of Alex Zisman

BDS V: An Ideology of Intellectual Activism

The Intellectual Roots of AAA’s Support of BDS: Part V
An Ideology of Intellectual Activism


Howard Adelman

With the exception of this past Friday and Monday, in the last of four previous blogs I wrote on the subject of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes, among other things, the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Israeli academics and non-Israelis who are open to dialogue with Israelis. The adherents vary. Some BDS supporters boycott only Israeli academic institutions and their representatives in the name of human rights. Some even declare that they are not opposed to Zionism, even though the “charter” of BDS insists it is at the forefront of the resistance movement against Zionism. The Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI) within the American Anthropological Association (AAA) managed for a while, before a general referendum defeated by a narrow margin the proposal to endorse BDS, to make AAA one of the very few leading academic professional organizations to back BDS. My last blog on BDS reviewed the last three years of this political debate within the AAA. In this blog, I want to explore why the AAA was so susceptible to such an appeal by offering an intellectual analysis and critique of the rationale for AAA’s engagement in advocacy. In my next and last blog in this BDS series, I will probe why universities have appeared to be fertile ground for advancing, and, in a small number of cases among students, backing the BDS cause.

Engaged anthropology is the general rubric used to rationalize the involvement in and support for BDS by the activists in the AAA. (See the special issue of Current Anthropology 51:2, October 2010 entitled “Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas,” that followed the AAA annual 2008 conference called, “Inclusion, Collaboration and Engagement.”) Engaged Anthropology operates at six levels, at each level expressing an increased involvement:
• A basic commitment to respect informants
• Sharing and support with the communities with which anthropologists work
• Teaching and public education
• Social critiques in academic and public forums
All of the above are consistent with traditional academic norms.
• Collaboration with cultures under threat versus hierarchical approaches
• Advocacy
• Activism

Though I have worked with cultures under threat (Indochinese refugees, Sri Lankan refugees, victims of the Rwanda genocide), though I have advocated on behalf of Syrian refugees and I have also engaged in involved activism, and although these activities are informed by my research and scholarship, I do not regard that activity as part of that research. They are simply expressions of my role as a responsible member of civil society. I might ask some relevant professional associations to speak up on an issue, but I would not think of asking the Canadian Philosophical Association to take a controversial stand favouring one side on divisive social issues, let alone try to get my fellow philosophers, individually or through our scholarly association, to take such a stand. Instead, I might invite colleagues to participate in information dispersal and advocacy organizations, but I would never label them as collaborationists if they took an opposite position. I just do not believe that intellectual inquiry is based on an either/or dichotomy, especially where one side accrues the virtue and the other side is cast into purgatory. Self-righteous commitment is not the essence of my ethics of engagement.

For an ideology that insists upon a discipline contributing and adapting to global realities, it is surprising how often this mostly postmodernist approach, which defies a correspondence theory of truth and the existence of a singular reality as a point of reference, specifically adopts the position of insisting what reality is. Admittedly, some defenders of the new engaged anthropology regard the shift into postmodern symbolism and hermeneutics as a deviant sidetrack. Nevertheless, whatever mutation was regarded as mainstream, a shift had taken place away from a correspondence model of truth.

Further, for a perspective that also lauds critique, it is actually shocking to read how un-self-critical much of engaged anthropology is and closed to in-depth structural critiques that examine the effects of funding shifts to give preference to so-called engaged research. The support of BDS is merely the most extreme of the range of efforts by ABIAI to transform the discipline of cultural anthropology and make engaged anthropology the core of the discipline and, in the end, enlist more and more anthropologists into a postcolonial approach to their work. Talk about an imperialist approach to anti-imperialism!

Somehow, the reverence for diversity and breadth does not translate into a conception of itself as a discipline. As engaged anthropology seeks to achieve a virtual monopoly in the field of cultural anthropology, it also began colonizing archeology, physical or biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology as well as the overlapping turf of its cousins, cultural sociology and social psychology. As engaged anthropology claimed a unique perspective on the dialectical interaction of the microsocial with macroeconomic and political forces, it often pushed aside and/or ignored much of the valuable work of sociologists, economists and political scientists. But in the minds of its advocates, that could be explained by accusing these social scientists of being secret collaborationists and apologists for the reigning power. More generally, engaged anthropology, along with its committed sociological cousins, insisted that their political agenda should be at the centre of public policy, not the work of political scientists and economists.

For a discipline that allegedly reveres history and context, it is revealing to discover how often peer-reviewed articles display an ignorance of history and a deliberate distortion of context, all in the name of its esteem for the rights and dignity of all humans and the promotion of social justice. Even more seriously, under the rubric of advancing human rights, engaged anthropology often ostensibly offers witness to organized social violence, sometimes implicitly and at other times explicitly. Though engaged anthropology is spread thinly over numerous social problems as diverse as climate change and the performance and effects of health systems, from war, racism and genocide to economic development, I cannot tell you how many times I have found that these practitioners ignored acknowledged experts in these areas coming from other fields. For example, did Jean or Stephen Schensul in the field of economic development even read Albert Hirschman?

On the other hand, virtually every committed student of my generation, regardless of discipline, read Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montagu. Sixty years ago, I specifically remember being mesmerized by a lecture by a Harvard scholar and cultural anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn (Mirror of Man), in Convocation Hall (the hall held 1,600 and was packed) in, I believe, 1956 at the University of Toronto. (Clyde Kluckhohn died a very few years later at a relatively young age of a heart attack; his or their work was continued by his wife, Florence.)

Though Kluckhohn was a pioneer in ethnographic analysis and intensive longitudinal observations as well as the utilization of empathetic reenactment of thought patterns, famed as both a scientist and a humanist, the lecture that I heard was more narrowly focused on five different senses of time among a specific group of Navaho whom he had studied for decades and four neighbouring cultural groups, the Zuni, Spanish-Americans, Mormons and Texas Homesteaders in the American South. He was the one who introduced me to values theory and the idea that our moral dichotomies of good and evil, our orientation to nature, our sense of personality development and of human relations, particularly between male and females, parents and children, but most importantly in my view, if not his, our sense of time, of past, present and future and their relationship to one another.

I have ever since taken Clyde Kluckhohn as a model both for respect for sensitivity for differences, nuances and variations, as opposed to homogenization, while searching for uniformities, of activism while insisting on accuracy and objectivity, of appreciation for factors that fostered dynamic change while, at the same time, respecting and appreciating traditions, and pushing me towards understanding the power dynamics of domination and subordination. I see it as a seminal betrayal of

Clyde Kluckhohn, the first elected president of AAA, when these activists in AAA are in quest of monopolization instead of appreciating the values of different methodological approaches, quite aside from the deprecation of developed scientific standards. Kluckhohn, in contrast to these ideologists, saw no conflict in working for the government during WWII, possibly for the predecessor to the CIA, studying Japanese morale and the cultural foundations for sustaining that morale at a very high level, while subsequently becoming a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. He was both an academic’s academic as well as a committed public intellectual devoted to practical issues.

It would be helpful if the current school of engaged cultural anthropologists were as active in defining the differences between them and these famous progenitors instead of simply appropriating them for the development of their way of utilizing anthropology. One did not have to be an engaged anthropologist to protest against the McCarthy persecution of academics in the fifties or the efforts to challenge the entrenched racism in the American south during the decade of the sixties or the misuse of anthropology in the study of Laotian Hill Tribes during the Vietnam War. One did not have to become a neo-Marxist to criticize the misuse of academic research or to resist attacks on the independence of academic disciplines by the power of the state.

I have not been able to find a single analysis and critique of the self-representation of engaged anthropologists as moving ever onward and upward, while suffering periodic setbacks, to the liberal vision of progress in intellectual history, even as political and economic history seems to be portrayed as in decline. If identities were constructs, what about critiquing their own self-identity? Deconstructivist and Foucault-type post-colonial theoretical perspectives are taken as givens rather than being themselves subjected to rigorous critique. Self-critique focused on the limitations of academy-based cultural critique in contrast to critical engagement, activist research and advocacy. In spite of favouring the latter, proponents of engagement research noted pockets of resistance and “considerable silence about the kinds and degree of advocacy and activism that would be supported within the discipline and especially within the academy.”
Engaged anthropologists assumed a privileged ethical position for engaging in research. Research without advocacy was considered collaborationist. Anthropology was beginning to be redefined as not even just advocacy, but demanded activism and revolutionary encounters with established power instead of rather than as a complement to detached observation and analysis. They regarded the latter as relegating what is being studied to being an object, a sign of deprecation, instead of examining these intellectual approaches as providing a standard of objectivity.

Support for BDS comes as a logical outcome of such an intellectual shift rather than as a result of an objective and detached study. The practitioners accept a number of premises:
• Zionism is a particularist enterprise concerned only with one group, Jews, and indifferent to the needs of others
• Zionism planted itself in Palestine on the coattails of colonialism and, as such, was and remains a colonialist enterprise
• The problem is not just settlements in the West Bank or even Zone C of the Oslo Agreement, but the Zionist enterprise of settlement altogether
• Zionism continues to be a presence in the Middle East only because it is supported by the imperialist forces behind globalization.
• Engaged anthropologists contend that traditional human rights discourse, that usually targeted limiting state interference in individual rights, while also requiring the state to enforce human rights protections, does little for the Palestinian cause because Palestinians have been the victims of this imperialism and colonialism AND not just the abuse of its own members by the state, thus truer to the universalist discourse of human rights

“Liberation of the beloved Al-Aqsa Mosque and Palestinians from under the occupation of Zionists by the courage provided by the Islamic Revolution and a globalized approach to systematically fighting dominance and Zionism on International Quds Day, have bestowed upon Resistance Front strength and unflagging spirit which had made of Resistance an iron fist against any compromise with illegitimate regime of criminal Zionists.” This is not a statement of engaged anthropologists at the extreme end of the revolutionary spectrum, but of the Revolutionary Guards of Iran determined that Israel not exist in twenty-five years. But it could just as well have been made by this so-called vanguard group of engaged anthropologists, but without such colourful language.

That is why Ken Stone of IJV (Independent Jewish Voices), ABIAI and large groups of engaged anthropologists can make common cause. An academic discipline has been redefined to fit a so-called revolutionary program. Its own history has been described as an exercise too often in serving colonial and imperial interests. Thus, applied anthropology in the United States is depicted as a mixture of New Deal humanitarian liberalism and progressive industrial management ideology. British applied anthropology provided a humanitarian advisory function for colonial administration in Africa. Cultural anthropology itself morphed into institutional anthropologies, such as educational anthropology, thereby replicating positivist approaches to social science in economics and sociology, defining research as a normal part of modern society’s institutional activities and betraying its authentic identity. By the end of the seventies, cultural anthropology had reached its nadir of detachment from modern society with its exclusive focus on the study of tribal and possibly non-urban societies.

However, this imperial success brought with it a revolt against the so-called sins of capitalism, colonialism and male patriarchy. The current conflicts within AAA are heirs of this thirty-five-year-old battle. It is difficult to predict whether the vote defeating support for BDS by AAA by a very narrow margin is a sign that BDSers have reached a nadir and will now enter on a slow decline, or whether, the defeat was just a second act in a longer struggle in which BDS will be reborn and reborn, again and again. Tomorrow I will deal with why universities have become such a hospitable petri dish for a Trotsky-like continuous revolution to culture politically activist cells rather than to understand and comprehend various cultures.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism

Orthodox Judaism in Opposition to Reform Judaism


Howard Adelman

The mentality of Orthodox radical opponents of Reform is not that you are either with us or against us. Rather the point is that, as long as you do not challenge our (the orthodox) sacred mission, whatever else you do and however atheistic or indifferent you are to religion, you are not a threat. You live beside but not fundamentally in opposition to the holy spirit. But if you question whether God is on our side – on the assumption that God does indeed take sides in such arguments – whether “we” are the holy bearers protecting the word of God, then you are a heretic and Reform institutions and rabbis should be shunned by the Orthodox community. For the argument is about which segment of Judaism embodies holiness. Secular Jews do not claim to be holy so they are no threat; cooperation with the secular world is fine. But if one claims to be Jewish in a religious sense, but you are not halachic Jews in accordance with minimal requirements by the Orthodox, then that is beyond the pale.

For what is at stake for these spokesmen of Orthodoxy is the most important matter of all – the salvation and redemption of the Jewish people. Secular Jews may work towards that redemption through Zionism even if their intention is not to advance towards a religious redemption. Unconsciously, “they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah.” They retain a spark of holiness. Reform Jews, however, claim to offer a different path to redemption or, even worse, advance themselves as religious Jews while ignoring the whole task of redemption. They have deliberately chosen to extinguish that spark of holiness. They are despoilers who undermine both God and the Torah as God’s holy word. Better to ignore the claims of Torah than offer interpretations that disavow its essential holiness.

The secular merely do God’s work indirectly. Reform Jews are evil and undermine God’s word. They are “like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism.” The limb must be amputated to save the body politic of Judaism. For Reform offers an alternative religious route that denies Oral Law as a source of religious legal authority. Reform is heretical because it plunders Torah without revering it and “uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos.” In the Reform movement, man, not Torah, defines what is true and what is good. Reform “denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments.” There can be no truck with the devil, no compromises or cooperation, though this does not apply to individuals, only institutional efforts to gain even the slightest entry in Israel and gain legal and public legitimacy.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

The issue is not which movement does or does not embody holiness, but rather Orthodoxy insisting this is what is at stake. In contrast, Reform argues that the law of the land, the law of a secular state should not be used to adjudicate such a debate or even confirm that this is what is at stake in the debate. My argument is that the Orthodox are truly following in the steps of Moses in defining heresy, in defining who and what embodies holiness, in defining who are the elect of God, and most importantly, insisting that this is the debate while the opposition insists it is about arrogance, about quashing other views, about a failure to listen, about usurping political and legal authority to advance one’s position using spurious arguments that distort the nature of the debate.

Though this debate may seem like a family or in-tribe argument, I suggest, especially in light of my reading of Korah, that it has wider implications. What follows is an article by Rabbi Baruch Efrati distributed by Arutz Sheva in preparation for a forthcoming conference on Reform and Israel. It puts forth this Orthodox position. After that brief paper, I include two very different responses to my interpretation of Korah. Tomorrow I will return to discussing BDS and its intellectual roots.

Op-Ed: The critical difference between the Reform Movement and secular Jewry
Arutz Sheva has received a position paper written for the Zion and Jerusalem Conference to take place next week on the topic of the Reform Movement and Israel.
Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 7:38 PM

Rabbi Baruch Efrati

Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky
In contrast to the words of individual rabbis who called on Israel to cooperate with the Reform Movement, our message is a call to stand firm and declare, in the immortal words of the Prophet Isaiah “Your plans will not be realized nor will your words be upheld, because G-d is with us.”

Let us explain our stand on the matter.

Historically, G-d fearing Jews approached the Zionist Movement in one of two ways. Some turned their back on the Zionists because most of the new movement’s adherents were not religious. They placed prime importance on negating anything secular, thereby protecting their communities, but also ignoring earthshaking Jewish national developments. Rabbi Kook, zts”l, did not respond that way, but sought to join the Zionists, to be involved and try to raise the spiritual level of our people, of every sector, by imbuing their endeavors to return to Zion with an aura of holiness.
Rabbi Kook spoke and wrote often on the uniqueness of Israel and on the obvious and revealed Redemption that was taking place before his eyes. Non-observant people of integrity, he said, do not come here to be free to lead a decadent and erring way of life, but because unconsciously, they long for the truth and Divine light found in the Torah. Ideological secularism is being revealed in confused souls whose hidden inner desire is the light of the Almighty, the light they lacked in the exile before our nation’s coming back to life here. The secular world is one of impurities. but in its depths there is a spark of holiness that keeps it alive – and that allows the appearance of the true Jewish soul to come to the fore.

This viewpoint led Rabbi Kook to have faith in the tikkun that the secular Zionists would experience, and, he believed that even those most adamant in their antagonism to the Torah would return once the vibrant and holy light of the Torah was apparent to them – and in the end, they would contribute much to the revival of G-d’s Word in Israel. We believe in the Almighty Who has stretched out His hand to redeem His people, he said, and all the vicissitudes of Israeli culture are attempts to reach spirituality, to search for the grandeur of a G-d without limits – and will, eventually, lead to tikkun.

In contrast to Rabbi Kook’s loving and empathetic approach to the non-observant Israeli, he castigated the Reform Movement vehemently in his writings, and wrote the following letter to American Jewry, which he saw as fated to disappear because of the activities of this movement:
B”H, The Holy City of Jerusalem (may it be rebuilt speedily in our time), 1922
To our brothers, to the beloved and holy congregations in the United States of America and Canada, may G-d protect them, those who seek to keep the word of G-d, believe in the heritage of Moses, the Written and Oral Law, G-d’s Covenant with the people of Israel: Greetings to you from the Holy Mount of Jerusalem.
My dear Brothers,
The state of true Judaism as it is upheld by the faithful in your midst has been brought to my attention and it breaks my heart. The despoilers have come, those who have destroyed the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and are even now are causing many to abandon the G-d of Israel and His eternal Torah – They, the inventive Reform leaders to whom many, even from within the faithful religious camp have been drawn unwittingly, uproot the foundations of the world that are intertwined with the basic principles of Torah and Judaism.

And these cracks are in the wall of sanctity, evidenced in the words that are publicly uttered, the actions that leave their mark on entire congregations, including the way synagogues are constructed and what customs they follow – and they go from evil deed to evil deed, one sin leads to another, destruction brings on more destruction, to the point where they have laid their hand on the holy mesorah, in place from the beginning of time, that mandates separate prayer sections for women and men.

We know what happened to the first despoilers who began destroying and abandoning the original Jewish tradition and heritage, we know what happened to them, that almost all of them are lost to the people of Israel, having left the faith along with their offspring. Many of them have been swallowed up without a trace by the non-Jewish world, and those who have not yet been lost are like an atrophied limb festering in the nation’s body, devoid of Torah and the light of true Judaism. Our eyes see this and are filled with longing for them, while the best of them regret the sin of their fathers once they see the spiritual ruin that it spawned.

There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.
Why did the sainted Rabbi Kook have such a vastly different attitude to Reform Jewry than the one he evinced towards secular Jews? Why didn’t he seize the opportunity to call for cooperation with the Reform Movement the way certain rabbis do today? Why did he refer to them using sharp names such as: “despoilers,” “destroyers of the vineyard,” “wreckers,” “uprooters of eternal foundations,” “instigators,” “cut off from the house of Israel,” “atrophied limbs in the body of the people” – epithets that the rabbi never used in describing anyone except the Reform Movement and Jews who converted to become heretical Christians?

The answer is crystal clear. The secular world and the observant world live side by side. The non-observant have chosen wrongly, the Rabbi felt, but they are open to tikkun because of the light spilling over from the religious world existing beside them and their sacrifices for the Jewish people. The secular Jewish world does not want to take over the religious world from a theological point of view, but to live beside it – hence, the possibility of influencing that world, listening to its hearts’ desires, elevating its holy sparks to their heavenly source. The secular are actually non-observant Orthodox, they do not present an alternative organized religion that turns transgressions into an ideology intended to take the place of the Torah. They have not invented a made up religion but are in the midst of a process where secularism is withering and faith is blossoming, as one can see over the last few years in which there is constant strengthening of ties to Torah, baruch Hashem.

In contrast, the Reform Movement has a “progressive” ideology that wishes to exchange the Oral Law’s G-d-given message. It does not wish to ask questions about the Torah but to create a religious empire of its own. It has an organized theology that grants legitimacy to transgressions and turns them into religion. There is no possibility of living side by side, but a battle over who will lead the nation. Our dialogue is thus one between enemies, not lovers. It is either we or them, the holy or the ritually impure and their ideological rebellion against the Oral Law.
Isaiah describes idol worship as gaining strength because it justifies man acting according to his baser desires. When a man bows to idols, he is really bowing to himself and his desires, turning his sins into an ideology and sanctioning them a priori as religious activities. Idols were always lascivious or murderous in their design, and an example of this is Ashtor, a nude female holding weapons of war and symbolizing lust and bloodshed. The idol is really the worshipper himself, he alone decides what constitutes ethical behavior with no heavenly agent above him. The lust for idol worship is so pervasive, that people would sacrifice their own children to prove their loyalty, but really succeeded in proving that they were true to their basest instincts and not to a Supreme Being who restrains and sets limits for human behavior.

The Reform Movement originated in a form of heresy that wished to establish a new religion based on plundering that which is holy. It is a model that does not speak of raising one’s level of purity in order to accept the Torah, but uses ideological terms to lower the Torah to accept our desires and the modern liberal western ethos (some of whose beliefs are beneficial to man in themselves). It does not sacrifice children, but it sacrifices G-dly values in the same fashion, and that is just as grave.

The Reform Movement wishes to accomplish exactly what its name says, to effect a critical change in the foundations of Torah, putting man in the center to define truth and falsehood, good and evil. It denies G-d’s revelation to us through prophecy and the Holy Temple, denies the eternal life he planted in us through the Torah commandments. Its goal is not to strengthen efforts to achieve a higher plane, as Israel’s non-observant Jews do, but to lessen and remove the sanctity of Jewish tradition. It does not believe that Jews are the Chosen People and wants the world to unite, as do the Christians, under one faith – that of belief in man, his desires, his wants. The Reform Movement is against a biological definition of the Jew, instead emphasizing his personal feelings and self-definition.
This is not Judaism.

Confronting this heresy, there are no compromises and no cooperation. Just as no one would join forces with the man who steals his wife and wrecks his home, so there can be no joining of forces with a movement that wishes to do the same to our home, the State of Israel, to our Jewish identity, to our Torah-true values.

As I have written before, this movement made a strategic decision to infiltrate the State of Israel from the United States and to change the balance of power in Israeli society so that the religious world would not continue to be a place of commitment to mitzvot and the guidance of Heaven, but, become, instead, a folkloristic tradition. The movement donates large sums of money to yeshivas and other organizations and it is hard to stand strong in the face of this temptation, so that one can already discern their devious influence on rabbis and concepts in the religious Zionist world.

This has to be the rule: i
Individual Reform Jews are our brothers and we will welcome them warmly as part of the Jewish people (those that actually are Jewish), and we are prepared to explain their mistaken view of Judaism to them if they wish to listen. However, we will wage an everlasting war against their ideological movement, a war that does not affect our relations with individual members There is no way to justify granting the Reform Movement the slightest entry, and neither legal nor public legitimacy in the state of Israel.

Two shining luminaries, the High Priest of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and the High Priest of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Hakohen Kook, were unequivocal about this issue and came out strongly against legitimacy and cooperation with this misguided and destructive movement. At the same time, they told us to love every Jew. We, their students and the students of their students must grasp the folds of their garments and not swerve from the path of our Torah, even if we have to pay a high price – literally and figuratively – for our principled stand.

What now follows is a selection of two responses to my commentary on Korah, including my reflections on them.

Comparing Moses to Kim Jong is inexcusably offensive and misses the whole point of the Korah narrative, showing he was wrong and Moses was right. For if Korah’s doctrine had prevailed, Moses’ project would have been aborted then and there. The teachings of monotheism would have been checked. For if these tribes already are the holy people of Yahweh, no further reforms are necessary and no further struggles need to be waged. This Moses cannot accept. He knows that the people have a long way to go; and he fears they may never get there if instead of hallowing themselves through the new teachings, they look upon themselves as already holy. (See Buber,Moses,p.190,in Irving M.Zeitlin, Ancient Judaism: Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the present).

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Of course, the point of the narrative is to show that Moses was right and Korah wrong. But on what basis? Due process? A fair hearing? Further, Korah’s protest was not about the project itself, but about how decisions were being made, and, even more, about the attitudes behind them, even if behind it all there was a deeper challenge. If the argument is made that Korah stood for a reactionary position in insisting that the people were already holy and, therefore, did not have to undergo further change, that is a separate argument. I merely read the text as asserting that all of holiness is not embodied by the top leader but shared to some degree by the people. It is not about perfection having been achieved. I said in my blog that I was not favouring Korah’s argument or the way he challenged Moses. What I argued is that the challenge was deformed and Korah was subjected to a kangeroo court.

As for the substance of the issue – the holiness of the people – I would consider that Korah, in arguing that the people were holy, was not so much proclaiming an accomplished task as insisting on a form of populism, a reference used to oppose Moses’ assuming all power through reference to a higher authority rather than in his own name. Populism, of course, is a frequent way of challenging authorities and has its own problems. Even if Moses had done that fairly and with consideration, it would be another matter. But Moses dealt with the matter through distortion, escalation and, as another reader noted (see below), by displacing responsibility. The true richness of the text comes through in that, while history is written by the victors, there is no real effort to whitewash Moses. He is on display with all his faults.

What happened to Korah and his fellow protesters was indeed worthy of Kim Jong-un. I, obviously, do not care for idolizing heroes in Jewish history or rationalizing their actions in terms of the future justifying a drastic action in the present that goes beyond the pale, which I have a sense Martin Buber did, but such an analysis would require a separate examination than the one I provided.

A very different response follows.

From the perspective of a non-religious, agnostic reader, who is largely ignorant of the contents of both the Torah and the Bible but eager to learn from the learned so as to become a better person: This situation reminds me of more contemporary vertical hierarchies where people on the ladder hide behind the higher up when it comes to assuming individual responsibility: “I am just a simple administrator and executor of the Board’s wishes. If you don’t like what I am doing, you are in effect criticising the leadership above, not me. They had put me into this position, it was their choice, ask them if you have questions regarding their decisions.”

Moses does not engage at all in a discussion of Korah’s points (like a good manager would do), he immediately escalates the issue to the Board. This is cowardly authoritarian move, disrespectful to Korah, who after all has all the human qualities to get promoted into the same leadership position. Moses hides behind the Board’s authority, and “tells on” Korah’s move to them, without trying to solve the disagreement at the level where it was raised. He does not at all assume leadership, appropriate to his position, but places all the responsibility onto the higher-ups. Plus, Moses attempts to silence Korah and his followers by “threatening” them to tell on them to the “boss.” In this move Moses acts like an ass- kisser, sure in his belief that the “boss” will take his side, regardless of the fairness or unfairness of the situation. As if that was not in poor enough judgment, Moses tries to divide (and further intimidate) the followers of Korah. It is to their great (and wholly unappreciated by subsequent interpreters) credit that they do not cave, despite the tremendous potential (and, as we know, ultimately actual) repercussions.

Like any ass-kisser, Moses first tells on them, and then quickly “pleads” to the boss to save the “wrong-doers” in order to present his role in this whole scene as squeaky clean. First he had explained his actions as the “boss” made him do it, then as the “rebels” forced him to report their move to the authorities. Nowhere does Moses claim that it is his sovereign decision to act the way he acts because, e.g., this is the ethically right thing to do. Is he aware of his ethical wrongdoing in his heart of hearts? Most cowardly, authoritarian ass-kissers seem not aware. “The Fuhrer made me do it!” is how far their justification of their acts go. Moses is all too banally human after all, which does not excuse, only explains his actions.

What is more disappointing is god’s response. He simply takes the ass-kisser’s word for it and “reorganizes” the company with mass lay-offs, and that without severance pay: he just gets rid of it all, never asking himself whether his choice in appointing Moses and Aaron to top managers was the right one in light of the situation and Moses’ cowardly role in it. He also does not check individual participation in the alleged rebellion: all must go: a tyrannical move. Like all tyrants, god does not tolerate dissent. If we read this under the unshakable belief that god is always right then there is nothing more to add…

If we read it however as a negative case study for bad management in a business course it all makes sense. After all, not leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land right away (milk and honey notwithstanding) upon reports of this being a high-risk undertaking on account of the powerful and hostile locals was not a bad move after all. It may be deemed as the decision of a low-risk taker; nevertheless, it could have been explained and discussed and the other leads’ opinion asked and maybe put up for vote. But all that was not done: the Israelites remained in a fully dependent child-like relationship with the authority at that time, where discussion, not to mention dissent were not tolerated. This may have been a realistic depiction of leadership of the times when the text was conceived, in which god was created in the image of well-known human characteristics and dynamics. The question is: have we evolved at all since that time?

Korah Number 16


Howard Adelman

The section is most often labelled Korah’s Rebellion and not just Korah. I initially avoid such a heading lest we beg the question in labeling Korah’s protest as a rebellion. Instead, one of the questions I ask is whether this is fair question.

The text says that Korah and his fellow “rebels,” each a chief of a congregation, each chosen by that congregation, each a well-recognized leader among them. The text does say that they “rose up.” But that could simply mean that they stood up at a general meeting of the Israelites. They certainly stood up in opposition to whatever Moses and Aaron were planning to do. But according to the text, Korah began with a personal attack. Korah accused both Moses and Aaron of elitism, of giving themselves a special holy status denied to the rest of the Israelites.

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (16:3)

How did Moses respond? Like a Muslim today, he “fell on his face,” he lowered himself in a beseeching way to Korah. At the same time, his words were anything but beseeching. They were defiant. Wait until morning, Moses told Korah. Then God will determine who is holy and who is not, that is, whom God favours and whom he does not. The determination of holiness and favouritism seem to have been equated. Favouritism means that they have been chosen. How is this determined? By the one God chooses to draw near to Him? So holiness, favouritism, proximity to God and the determination of holiness are all equated.

It is self-evident that Korah has made a serious tactical error in challenging both Moses and Aaron. He had allowed his words to be twisted so that the protest was made in Moses’ terms. Korah had asked why Moses and Aaron were acting “holier than thou” and Moses twisted that to mean a question, not about arrogance and self-inflation, but about proximity to God and His holy word. Moses then raised the stakes even further. He accused Korah of going too far in charging Moses and Aaron with arrogance and self-importance. For it was NOT they that has assumed their roles. God had cast them to perform those tasks. The challenge was really against God’s choice, not the actions of Moses and Aaron.

Then Moses made a third charge. He accused Korah and his co-protestors of ingratitude, not to Moses but to God. “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you?” (Numbers 16:8-10) God chose you to be rabbis. Now you challenge God’s choice of me to be your political leader and Aaron to be the High Priest. In other words, the charge of arrogance was just a cover and a superficial attack. They were challenging whether or not Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God. “I’ll show you,” Moses seemed to be saying, “who God has chosen. Who is the holier one!”

Then the fourth charge comes like a hammer blow. Not only are they accused of demeaning Aaron and Moses, challenging the holiness of each and challenging God’s choice, but of seeking the priesthood. Not political power. Not of trying to take his position. But of trying to displace Aaron. That is not just a question about God’s choice, but defiance against it. “And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram before him in an effort to divide the opposition. But both disobey his summons. They are sticking with Korah and the protest. And now we first learn of the substantive issue behind the protest while trying to reverse the path of the verbal sparring back to the home ground of the protest, accusations that Moses and Aaron are being arrogant and self-important. “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:14) Moses and Aaron were leading them back to the wilderness for forty years ostensibly because 10 out of 12 scouts reported back about how strong their enemies were and challenged the attack plans.

Now on top of challenges of arrogance, efforts to push themselves as occupying the holy ground, naming their protest an exercise in ingratitude to God given their own chosen status as religious leaders among the people, and even efforts to usurp the position of High Priest, Moses turned to God and pleaded innocence of any effort to act against them. They feared being tortured and their eyes burned out and refused to come before Moses. “And Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Moses claims innocence of any power trip because he neither threatened them nor took anything from them. But he did ask God to reject their sacrifices. He did ask God to take away their religious roles. Is that not an act of revenge simply for launching a verbal protest and alleging that Moses and Aaron had been arrogant?

So Moses went back to his original position. He gave up on trying to divide the protesters but, instead, summoned them to come beside him and Aaron before the Lord. “We will now see who is right.” Each one of the 250 rabbis was to bring his censer (see Numbers 4:14; also Leviticus 16:12), the brass bowl in which they put coal and burned incense, What happens? It is unbelievable! God appears before the whole congregation of the protesters and asks Moses and Aaron to step aside so He can “consume” the others. Then Moses reverts to divide and rule again, this time not asking Dathan and Abiram to back away from Korah, but asking the other 247 local religious leaders to back away from the rebellious triumvirate.

They presumably refuse and stay loyal to Korah and the other two leaders. The protesting priests, as well as their families and children, are summoned to watch whether Korah, Dathan and Abiram will be consumed by the Lord, giving an ironic twist to the report of the ten scouts that the land would consume them. The earth literally opens up and swallows them, not just the three leaders, but all 250 of the protesters – and before their wives and children. Then they seemed to have been destroyed a second time and in a second wave, God consumed them in fire.

The two versions are not incompatible. Imagine earth torn with a big rift and hundreds being swallowed up and falling into the hot lava. But the issue is really not how two sources are merged in a single story, but the politics of escalating a verbal protest into a rebellion and sentencing the rebels to death for simply criticizing the leadership. Further, the Israelites themselves and not just their leaders lose 14,700 people to a plague before Aaron manages to stay the wrath of God.

Today we might compare the actions of Moses and Aaron to that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but without displacing the initiative onto God, for Kim Jong-un is revered as if he were a god. Today we watch Kim Jong-un subjected to American sanctions for the first time while Moses (and Aaron) are treated as the heroes of the story. I am not suggesting that the initial protest against the high-handedness of Moses was correct and certainly not that it was carried out in the best way given that Moses and Aaron held all the reins on the use of coercive power. But Moses’ response has to be read objectively as extremely unfair in both the interpretation of the challenge and certainly grossly unfair and even wicked in the response.
But that is not the interpretation handed down. Moses’ assertion that they were not just accusing him of usurping authority but accusing them of undermining God’s authority is presumed to be valid by religious fundamentalists.

“Korah and his rebellious group had no idea who God is and they ultimately had no fear of God. The bible said they gathered against God and his anoited and the Lord destroyed them. You would believe that the rest of the people would have learnt a lesson, but they continued to rise against the anointed of the Lord and paid again with their lives. People have to learn obedience.”

Reform Judaism does not dissent either. Here is the official summary.
“Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)”

Korah is relegated to the status of one of the great villains of the Torah and Moses is not only totally exonerated, he is virtually beatified for his behaviour. Incivility is attributed to Korah and not to Moses simply because Korah accused his leader of arrogance against the background of Moses and Aaron leading the people back to the wilderness simply because 10 of the 12 scouts thought success in conquest would be too costly and that there was a high risk of failure. Instead, the narrative is treated as a tale of obedience and disobedience, and the punishment, deemed appropriate, for the latter. Simply challenging authority and suggesting it is arrogant and insensitive is enough to deserve being condemned to death. It is outrageous!

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Ten International Film Previews

1. Coming Home (Chinese)
2. You Call It Passion (Korean)
3. A Decent Engagement (Indian)
4. A Separation (Iranian)
5. Mustang (Turkish)
6. Footnote (Israeli)
7. The Source (French about North Africa)
8. Poli Opposti (Italian)
9. Barbara (German about East Germany)
10. The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (French)

Ten International Film Previews


Howard Adelman

These are not reviews per se, but sketches and reflections on what these films may say about the world today and one country in that world. They are not representative of their country. Their selection depended on films that I have watched in the last week, mainly on the flight home from Israel. The list excludes the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, on which I wrote three blogs. The compilation is not comprehensive either – no Russian films, no Latin American films and no films from Black Africa. The order of the previews is arbitrary, simply traveling from east to west and then south to north.

Coming Home (China)

First shown at Cannes in 2014, the title of this film in Chinese literally translates as The Return, a name that makes far more sense in terms of the plot and theme. For the film is about a professor, Lu Yanshi (Lu played by Chen Daoming), sent away to a “re-education” camp during the Cultural Revolution who returns twice to his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu played by Gong Li) and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina. [I know that referring to Lu – the husband – and Yu – the wife – can be very confusing; it was while watching the movie, at least for the first half hour. But that is how they refer to one another.] The first time when he escapes, his family is intact, but he is re-arrested when he tries to meet his wife. He returns a second time when he is rehabilitated years later. In neither case does he come home, for the first time he cannot reach home and the second time there is no home to come to; intervening events have destroyed “home” in any meaningful sense except the physical.

The film is superbly acted, but it is far more than a domestic drama or even an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. The film is an allegory of recognition. In fact, Yanshi, the name of the professor, literally means “how to recognize” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the term is more often associated with passionate romance, definitely not the passion of the next film discussed. Yet this is a film of passionate romance on the deepest level.

When the professor first returns and encounters his daughter whom he has not seen in over ten years – he was arrested when she was four years old – she does not recognize him as her father or her responsibilities to him. Ironically, this loyal child of two revolutions – a communist and a cultural one – only knows personal ambition. As a direct result of this failure of recognition, and the trauma of a blackmail Yu was forced to endure, Lu’s wife will suffer amnesia and no longer recognizes her husband when he returns a second time. The movie offers an allegory that suggests that it is one thing for greed, blind ambition and power mongering behind a Cultural Revolution to produce an authoritarian and repressive state. It is perhaps even worse when contemporary China enters a state of amnesia about that period creating a double calamity for the victims.
You Call It Passion (Korea)

Newspaper stories can be about publishers and the pursuit of power, such as Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, or about juxtaposing a journalist’s ethos of setting truth against power by covering the tale of two very different but dedicated, determined and diligent journalists (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) trying to uncover the Watergate scandal. Or it can be about a hard bitten reporter who turns out to be a very good detective as James Stewart did in Call Northside 777. Newspapers used to be excellent backdrops for interweaving glamour and intrigue, money and power, ambition and ethics. This is no longer the case as newspapers struggle to stay alive in the world of the new media. This tale of the tabloid press is a little bit of all of these themes, but never seems to focus on any of them as it narrates the tale of a very bright but innocent newspaper intern, Do Ra-hee (Park Bo-young) who joins the workforce of a very large, likely pulp, newspaper in the entertainment section that is more about scooping for scandals than it is about allowing readers to get greater insight into the artists and entertainers in Seoul.

Though the intern is a woman who looks like a teenager to a North American, this is no weak feminist track like Front Page Woman. The movie is about getting the scoop on a famous young male actor, but as a cross between the reporter as detective as well as one torn by ethical concerns when offered material by “a reliable source” that could destroy a career but enormously advance that of the young reporter. I initially thought the movie was going to be a contemporary Korean remake of the classic Hollywood tale It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but this time with a young female rather than male reporter trying to get the goods on a celebrity. But the closest this movie gets to the hard bitten reporter is the entertainment editor, Ha Jae-kwan (Jung Jae-young), who yells at his journalists to put passion into their jobs and make passion what their jobs are about. But the movie is really about saving their own jobs by uncovering economic skulduggery. The film is a lesson in lack of direction where a movie fails to decide at the core what it is about. Neither comedy nor romance, neither exposé nor ethical drama, neither a poem to a journalist’s passion for truth nor deconstruction of an editor’s drive to get a scoop while being a bit of both of the latter, the movie is a lightweight addition to the genre of newspaper movies.

A Decent Engagement (India)

India makes excellent movies, from Bollywood entertainment to serious court room films about justice, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. This is clearly not one of them. Put an American hunk into an Indian setting where he is finally to meet the love of his life in a traditional arranged marriage and you have the basic elements of tension and conflict, comedy and romance. But not one of them is in evidence here. The situations are clichés. The script is terrible. The film is not helped when the lead cannot decide whether he is mentally challenged or an innocent abroad or, more accurately, an American with the patina of an Indian in Delhi. As soon as the lead opens his mouth, we learn that he cannot act. The best part of the movie is the plethora of scenes of Indian life that serve as fillers to a threadbare script, but also serve as a respite from a disastrous movie.

A Separation (Iran)

Iran has wonderful directors and actors. In a country with a built-in stress between creativity and repressive control, especially under the auspices of religious law, the opportunities for exciting and great films certainly exist, even if the conditions for exploiting the opportunities are extremely difficult. Asghar Farhadi’s movie walks that line with a great sense of balance. It is a simple courtroom drama about the unintended consequences of competing but legitimate personal interests and priorities clashing where both truth and a hierarchy of norms are both very unsettled in spite of the claims of Sharia law to have a monopoly on both.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) may love one another, but Nader is attached to his father who suffers from dementia while Simin wants to ensure that their daughter has a future. Thus, past and future clash in the present. And the film is greatest in showing that there are no easy answers as two excellent actors pursue that task.

Mustang (Turkey)

Set in a small remote agricultural village far from Istanbul, Mustang is an absolutely wonderful film. There is no difficulty in determining on which side of the modernity-tradition divide the female director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) falls, as five very close sisters grow up in the home of their aunt and uncle who fall back on protection and policing when the first threat appears on the horizon to the couple’s reputation. The girls, all with a great sense of joie to vivre that is wonderfully portrayed and at all times infectious, is viewed from the perspective of and also driven mostly by the youngest, a mustang determined not to be tamed.

The film begins with the will to live and celebrates life’s joyful, comedic and happy moments, but gradually, and very gradually, descends into claustrophobia in a house made into a prison for confining the human spirit before the plot turns to loss, the greatest being the camaraderie among the five girls, and eventual tragedy. The movie is touching without in any way being cloying, funny without being farcical, and horrific without any of the usual exposure to gross torture. And though clearly on the side of freedom and feminism, the movie somehow manages not to be didactic. Unlike the Indian film above, all the beautiful cinematography of landscape and life are integral to the flow of the film.

Footnote (Israel)

This is one film I did not see in the last five days. But not for lack of trying. Since I was flying from Israel, I was looking forward to watching one of the many excellent Israeli films. I could speculate why I could not find one, but instead I will simply add a footnote to an excellent 2012 Israeli film about both the love and the competition between a father and a son who happen to be in the same realm of scholarship. But there is a difference. The father is engaged in pilpul, a minute engagement in teasing out inconsistencies and insights from small passages in the Talmud. The son, by contrast, is a populizer of Judaism and a public intellectual instead of probing into the minutiae of scholarship.

I loved the movie, not simply because it was about the real tension I experience between the minutiae of scholarship and the desire to communicate to a larger audience, but because the movie was about the fact that neither aspiration can substitute for love within the family, and especially between father and son. To do so with an acute comic sense is masterful. The brilliant hilarious scene of s cluster of great scholars crowded into a tiny office to resolve a dispute offers the humorous side of Israel, precisely because it exemplifies what is so maddening and tragic about the wonderful country.

The Source (France about North Africa)

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata provides the template for this contemporary version of women in a small village using a sexual strike to force their underemployed men to undertake work that can ease the burden of their overworked and treacherous effort at carrying water back from a well. Instead of striking for peace in opposition to the Peloponnesian War, these North African women declare a sexual war to overcome the resignation to and backwardness of crippling tradition. Like the Turkish movie above, Mustang, the setting is in a small remote village. Like Mustang, the film flirts with the comedic against a backdrop of hardship, but that is physical as much as it is moral. Both films are about women in motion that brings forth the poetry of that action.

In this film, an outsider Leila (Leila Bekhti) is married to a village teacher. Rather than the youngest daughter of a family acting as the spur to upset the settled applecart because there is neither a road nor a cart to bring the water from the village well, Leila organizes the protest against assigning women to carrying water hanging from a pole slung across the backs of the women, including pregnant ones. The result of the current obsolete system leads to a disproportionate number of miscarriages and deaths of children. Unlike the Turkish film, and unlike Turkey itself these days, Radu Mihaileanu imbues his movie with love and hope rather than tragedy and despair.

Poli Opposti (Italy)

This movie is a sophisticated contemporary comedy set in a thoroughly modern world, not only one where sexual repression has been removed, but where the women have become the hard bitten, cold and insensitive ball breakers, and the men have been transposed into sensitive souls. Often funny, always very well acted, this traditional version of a comedy of opposites that attract and fall in love, is conceived in an inverted mode. It is a delight to watch precisely because credibility is not a stake. The female warrior divorce lawyer (Sarah Feiberbaum) and her son are saved from being cast into the cold of an unloving world by a sensitive human relations counsellor (Luca Argentero) who believes in pushing cooperation and dialogue rather than exacerbating already deep divisions. If Lysistrata informed The Source, the sophisticated comedies of traditional Hollywood provide the template for this movie, but it is updated by reversing the archetypal male and female roles.

Barbara (German about East Germany)

The story portrayed in Coming Home of abuse by political authorities in China was mirrored by events in East Germany. But Barbara is a film about voyeurism rather than intimate love in the face of oppression. Nina Hoss plays a brilliant physician, not sent to a re-education camp, but to the boonies because she applied for an exit visa. Lu Yanshi just wanted to return home. Barbara just wants to get out. Escape, not unlike that of Huckleberry Finn, a book she reads to a patient and escapee she is protecting. But Barbara had become hardened, not by male abandonment, but by male domination and real repression. She smokes heavily and smiles rarely. But when she does, she lights up the screen.

Though a failure in trust imbues both Coming Home and Barbara with an enormous degree of tension, it is all the more oppressive in Barbara because it appears to be so total and comprehensive leaving very little room for humanity and empathy. Yu in Coming Home develops cold and expressionless eyes, but they are sometimes awakened and we delight in the joy and sensitivity of those rare occasions. The same look, however, in the landlady in Barbara is menacing rather than simply vacant. Both films record the devastating effects of state oppression with great attention to detail, but the regime of surveillance, the informers in East Germany, are omnipresent and anonymous. In the love story of Lu and Yu, the informers are intimates and the party secretary is portrayed in a sympathetic way. East Germany and Stasi reached a dead end; If Coming Home is any indication, there is some hope that China can overcome or get around oppression because, after the Cultural Revolution, room has been made for inter-human sensitivity and empathy even as the government retains its iron grip on society in general and the country suffers from collective amnesia.

However, excellent films can emerge from the worst conditions.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (France)

Two sisters, one glamorous, cold and self-serving, Iris (Emmanuelle Béart), the other, Joséphine (Julie Depardieu), mousy, intellectual and self-effacing, one oblivious to the needs of her son, the other sensitive but often clumsy in dealing with the needs of her two daughters, especially the older one who is so caught up in the attraction of the glitter of her aunt, provide the core of this story of recognition both on the inter-personal and collective level but from a radically different standpoint than Coming Home. In Yellow Eyes, the deceit is obvious and eventually self-destructive. That is why it is a comedy. In Coming Home, the failure of recognition becomes buried deep in the broken families resulting from the Cultural Revolution.

The acting is brilliant as is the direction by Cécile Telerman. One of the greatest rewards in watching foreign as well as American films is observing women come into their own as great directors. When the variety of directors throws light, not only on the screen, but on and into the world in which we live, the rewards are enormous.

With the help of Alex Zisman