Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part II Security American Jewish Military Service

Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part II Security

American Jewish Military Service

by

Howard Adelman

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, accused his own Deputy Foreign Minister and fellow Likud member, Tzipi Hotovely, for admonishing American Jews for not “fighting for their country.” “There is no place for such attacks, and her remarks do not reflect the position of the State of Israel.” A government statement was issued stating, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns Tzipi Hotovely’s offensive remarks regarding the American Jewish community.” Netanyahu himself said, in response to her comments that, “To reject them (the Jews of the Diaspora) is a very big mistake… They are not obliged to adopt our exact way of seeing and interpreting Jewish identity.”

Hotovely claimed that the tension arose because of a failure of American Jews to understand the complexities of the geopolitical situation and to adequately empathize with the plight of Israelis threatened by rocket attacks and terrorists. Progressive Jews urged the Prime Minister to fire her for “offensive comments” against American Jews. They claim that she said that American Jews were “too comfortable” to understand Israel. The heat of the responses grew so high that Hotovely was forced to apologize. “I salute every American Jew who joined the IDF, or who fought during World War II. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I apologize.” She added that she “was cognizant of the great contributions American Jews have made to the State of Israel.”

She clearly misspoke when she said American Jews never serve in the military. However, in the context, it is clear that she meant “most American Jews”. What had she originally said? “Maybe they’re too young to remember how it feels to be a Jewish person without a Jewish homeland, without a Jewish state.” US Jewry “never send their children to fight for their country.” “Most [American] Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq. Most of them are having [sic] quite comfortable lives. They don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets, and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel deals with on a daily basis…This is the reason for the distancing between US Jews and Israel. American Jews contribute a great deal to Israel, but they cannot condition their connection to Israel on the government’s policies. We need to remember that the past few years have seen stormy discussions about Judaism and identity. These arguments are a healthy part of democracy.”

Were these remarks offensive? Did Hotovely attack American Jews? Did she admonish American Jews for not fighting for their country whether “their” referred to the US or Israel or both? In my reading of her remarks, they were intended to be more descriptive than judgmental. If so, was her description accurate? Is it accurate that most American Jews do not serve in the military?

It is interesting to note that, in addition to Jews on the right, especially in Israel who came to Tzipi’s support, they were joined by neo-Nazis. A neo-Nazi internet site thanked the Deputy Foreign Minister for “admitting” that Jews don’t serve. The Daily Stormer columnist, Lee Rogers, wrote that Hotovely “exposed an ‘inconvenient fact’ that Israelis and American Jews don’t want to talk about.” According to those antisemites, Jews do not want to talk about their antipathy to American military service at the same time as Jews are among the most vociferous voices on the right in American politics. Jews do not fight in wars; they just promote them, so the propaganda goes. Paul Wolfowitz, a neo-con architect of the Iraq War, is the one at whom they aim most of these barbs. Further, the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby is accused of promoting wars in the Middle East that directly benefit Israel.

Was Hotevely right or wrong on facts? Was the seemingly disproportionate response to her remarks stimulated because her statement could be used to reinforce a stereotype propagated by the extreme Right? Or because it exacerbated already existing Israeli-US Jewry relations? Or both?

What are the facts? Of course, Jews have served in the American military, some in very prominent positions. This has been the case since the War of Independence. Look at the role of Solomon Bush in that war. Francis Salvador was revered as the “Paul Revere of the South.” In the War of 1812, which Canada won, though the US won in the peace agreement, Uriah P. Levy as the first Jewish Commodore was a real war hero. In the Civil War, Jews served on both sides, Moses Jacob Ezekiel was a Confederate soldier. Benjamin Levy was a Yankee soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honour. And Lewis Morrison, a Black Jew, was an officer on both sides, in the Confederate Army until 1861 and in the Union Army after that. The most famous was Brigadier General Edward S. Salomon of the Union Army.

If we leap to the Second World War, estimates suggest that Jews served in the armed forces in higher proportions that their percentage of the population. Many made distinguished contributions. Ellis M. Zacharias, a Captain, won a Silver Star and served as Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Robert Rosenthal was a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF. Maurice Rose was the Major General who received the unconditional surrender of the Germans. Of course, because of his portrayal in Hollywood films, the most famous one of them all was David “Micky” Marcus, an army Lieutenant Colonel, a flier who received the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross and then went on to serve the IDF as a Brigadier General. There was also Reform Rabbi Max Eichhorn who took part in the liberation of Dachau.

Jews also held prominent positions in the Korean War – Tibor Rubin received the Medal of Honour. In the Vietnam War in which Jews were better known for their disproportionate role in opposing the war, Jeffrey Feinstein was a Colonel and flying ace. In the post-war history of the American armed forces, Admiral Hyman Rickover was the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” General Robert Magnus was a Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Norton A. Schwartz served as Chief of Staff of the USAF.

What about American wars in the twenty-first century, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan? Just prior to those wars, Hal Glassman in Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm was a Seargent Major who earned the Legion of Merit and also served in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the twenty-first century, the estimable list continues: Eric Greitens, Rhodes Scholar and US Navy Seal; Brad Colbert in the US Marine Corps; Admiral Michael Boorda who served as Chief of Naval Operations; Rabbi Michael Cohen served in Afghanistan. The head of the USAF currently is General David Lee Goldfein.

However, the data may be misused by antisemites in their accusations that Jews are unpatriotic, use gentiles to fight their wars and are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for country and flag, in the last fifty years, Jews have not served in the American armed services in proportion to their population in the country. That shibboleth may have been proven wrong when applied to Jews serving in the German Army in World War I, but it is generally correct when applied to Jewish US military service in the twenty-first century in contrast to WWII where 4.23% of military personnel were Jewish though Jews constituted only 3.3% of the population.

The popular and even prevailing sentiment that Jews exempt themselves from military service in America, may be exaggerated, but it is not false. Even though military records are not kept regarding religion, using various other techniques, related to their proportion of the population, if Jews were to serve in proportion to other groups in the country on average, only about 25% of a number that might be expected serve do. This takes into consideration that perhaps 40-50% of Jews in the armed forces nowhere indicate that they are Jewish but instead check the box stating “unaffiliated,” either because they are secular, oppose public declarations of religion or even fear anti-Semitism.

This fact of under-representation may not be the result of their being Jewish but more likely the disproportionate numbers of Jews in the Middle Class which also sends relatively few of its sons and daughters into the military. Nevertheless, 44 American Jews in the military, such as Marine Lance Corporal Jeremy M. Kane in Helmand Province, died in Iraq and Afghanistan and only one-third of those 44 were registered as Jews. In the Jewish Daily Forward 2011 article, “Profiles of Our Fallen,” the number was 37. Even if all had been registered, Jews in this century would still make up smaller percentages that their proportion of the population might suggest.  Of 5,775 Americans killed in 21st century wars, the number of Jews constituted only .64%, not the 2-3% that their proportion of the American population. In the case of women casualties, Jews made up 50% not 2-3% of the total since Airman Elizabeth N. Jacobson was one of the two women who died in during her service in the military.

Nevertheless, Tzipi Hotovely was generally accurate when she said that, “Most [American] Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq. Most of them are having [sic] quite comfortable lives.” She was also accurate when she said that most Jews in America live comfortable lives and are not subject to rocket attacks as are Israelis. Though her factual foundation was generally on target, was her analysis? It seems reasonable to conclude, based on facts, that American Jews do not bring the same experiential history to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further, that may have some bearing on explaining why most American Jews are relatively dovish compared to Israeli Jews.

Were her facts and analysis accurate when she implied that American Jews condition their support of Israel on whether they agree with government policies? Without going into detail my analysis suggests that American Jewry, certainly organized American Jewry, continues to support Israel despite most of its members disassociating themselves form Israeli government policy. If all American Jews are taken into consideration, including the 60-70% who have little or no connection with their Jewish identity except perhaps a nominal one, then one might be just in concluding that a clear majority of American Jews are unsympathetic to the policies of the current government of Israel.

There may be up to 200,000 Jews of American origin in Israel. But that is from a population that makes up the bulk of the Jewish Diaspora. Currently, less than 2,000 American Jews each year out of five million make aliyah to Israel. 60% have never visited Israel, though most take vacations around the world. So why was Tzipi slammed onto the canvas by her fellow Likud member and Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? Was she at fault for being unpolitical, for saying that which most leave unsaid, that there is a major chasm between the attitudes of Israeli Jews and those of American Jewry? That does not mean, however, that American Jews do not “understand” Israel. Having a different experiential background does not disqualify one from understanding. It is even possible that detachment allows for a better insight.

That is why, in part, leftist Israeli Jews often call on American Jewry to save Israel from itself. The Left is also drawn nostalgically to a period when American and Israeli Jews were more united, when Israel had a more pronounced image of a nation risen from the ashes, an underdog and, at the same time, an idealistic nation. The Left has used the controversy to criticize both Tzipi and the Prime Minister for covering up the rift between Israel and American Jewry when the rift must be clearly examined and faced. If there is a disconnect, as Tzipi claims, the fault perhaps should be placed at the feet of the current government. That is why, I believe, Netanyahu was so angry at Tzipi for her remarks. It raises a specter that the PM would prefer to keep swept under the rug. As David Bedein of the Center for Near East Policy Research opined, “Tzipi Hotovely told it like it is, and broke the taboo of not saying that most young Jews abroad do not emulate their peers in Israel who look forward to the day on which they enlist to serve their country.”

Would any Jewish leader either in Israel or in the Diaspora suggest that young Jews in the Diaspora should adopt the same sense of obligation of Israeli Jews and serve in the IDF? Relatively few do now. There are less than 2,000 Jews from abroad volunteering for such service each year. The vast majority of Jewish youth in the Diaspora cannot grasp that the vast majority of Israeli Jews accept service in the IDF as a rite of passage, including most on the Left.

To be continued Part III Different Views of Palestinians

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part I Religion The Western Wall Controversy

Israel-Diaspora Relations: Part I Religion
The Western Wall Controversy

by

Howard Adelman

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s right-wing Deputy Foreign Minister, was at the centre of a heated controversy over remarks she made on Israeli-diaspora relations in an interview on Tel Aviv-based i24News TV Channel on the topic of relations between Israel and US Jewry last Wednesday. (https://ca.video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=Hotovely+on+Israeli+Arabs#id=4&vid=8e2673cfc0e64a6cd1d52480e8136874&action=view). Lauded by some right-wing commentators, but harshly denounced by both the left and her own Prime Minister, three questions arise. What did she say that ignited such a fury? Was the fury deserved? What does the heated debate indicate about Israeli-Diaspora relations?

In the actual interview she insisted that she was using her position in the cabinet “to bring American Jews closer to Israel.” She expressed the hope “that more Jews from North America immigrate to the Jewish state.” She also observed that there was a “growing tension between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.” That tension, if I interpret her correctly from that interview, revolved around three issues; the Jewish question; the security question and the relationship of Israeli Jews to Palestinians.

Hotovely was not speaking out of ignorance of America. At 18, before her army service, she had spent a year in Atlanta as part of her National Service. For her whole political life, Israeli-Diaspora relations have been a centerpiece of her political career. Did what she say sound like an attack on American Jewry? Were the remarks offensive? Were they even a rebuke of American Jewry? Did she indicate anywhere that she rejected Diaspora Jews? Did she convey a message that she denigrated the support American Jews gave to Israel? Was her intention to increase the widely observed increasing chasm between American Jewry and Israel? She actually said, “I think it’s a very important goal to bring American Jews closer to Israel, this is one of my goals,” In her apology she said, “I see us as family.”

Did her remarks deserve the severe reprimand of Benjamin Netanyahu? Her generalizations must be seen against the background of three specific issues that exemplified Israeli Diaspora conflicts over religion, security and relations with Palestinians – the conflict over prayer at the Western Wall, her comments on American Jewish contribution to the military related to defence, not simply of Jewish but of Western values, and, third, the very recent cancelling of an invitation from Princeton’s Hillel for Hotelely to address the student body, a cancellation issued on the day she arrived to give her talk. Hotovely had denounced Palestinians for appropriating Jewish history. I will deal with each in turn in this and subsequent blogs.

As far as the increased tensions between Israel and US Jewry over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, when practicing their commitment to egalitarianism in prayer, Reform and Conservative Jews had been relegated to praying at a section of the Western Wall near Robinson’s Arch not visible to the general public. After some mediation by Natan Sharansky, a historic agreement was reached in January of 2016 to define three spaces at the Western Wall where different groups of Jews would be enabled to pray according to “established custom”: a men’s section – the main Western Wall plaza to be formally designated as a place for Orthodox worship – a women’s section at the upper Western Wall prayer site where the Women of the Wall organization protesters would no longer be able to pray using prayer shawls, tallit and Torah scrolls, and a third much upgraded section near Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian prayer.

The Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian section founded in 2000 had been previously significantly upgraded in 2013 under Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, but the changes had been considered totally inadequate. Further, critics claimed that the space still reified two classes of the Jewish people. In July, Anat Hoffman, director of both the Women of the Wall prayer rights group and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, prepared a video depicting the Ezrat Yisrael facility as providing “a second-rate platform for second-rate Jews.” The rising influence of an intolerant religious establishment’ was declared “an existential threat to [Israel’s] future.”

In response to that and the billboard campaign in Israel titled, “Free the Western Wall – Enough of Charedi Control,” Rabbi Yaakov Menken of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a North American Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox group, called on the Reform and Conservative movements “to stop dividing the Jewish people.” Supporters of the status quo threatened to leave the government if the compromise solution was passed into law.

Netanyahu’s effort to cater to the Orthodox and the Haredim on the issue of the Western Wall may not have been necessary. If it was necessary, it might only be a stopgap measure. Just yesterday, Israeli Health Minister and United Torah Judaism party leader Yaakov Litzman resigned from the government following the government’s decision to allow Israel Railways to conduct maintenance work during the Sabbath. However, the debate over the Wall versus the debate over Shabat railway maintenance are not parallel. Litzman may have resigned, but the Torah Jewish Party did not even threaten to leave the coalition. Instead they adopted a waiting game to ensure in practice a balance between the public’s need for safe and continuous transportation and respect for the Jewish sabbath. Perhaps they might do the same over the Wall controversy if the Prime Minister had pressed ahead with the compromise. Netanyahu evidently was not willing to take a chance.

In the Sharansky compromise, the egalitarian section was to be governed by a committee headed by the chairman of the Jewish Agency with representatives from Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America and the government o that committee. The administrator of that section would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The three sections were to have a common security entrance; all would be visible to visitors. In February of 2016, the Israeli Cabinet approved the compromise which was to be formally concluded by passing an amendment to the 1981 Law of the Holy Sites. The Prime Minister declared the Western Wall to be “a place that is supposed to unite the Jewish people.”

Led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform Movement held its first official prayer at the Western Wall to celebrate the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel. The assembled worshippers recited the shehecheyanu blessing to mark the special occasion. In the egalitarian service, both men and women joined together in reading the Thursday portion of the Torah. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, declared that, “The prayers of hundreds of people and reform rabbis at the Western Wall is the ultimate answer to the incitement of the ultra-Orthodox leadership.” The law would be reaffirmation that all Jews, whatever their beliefs, could regard Israel as home and could visit “this place and not feel like visitors, quietly and meekly taking our place, but in full voice, be who we are, saying ‘this too, is our place.’”

However, in a subsequent service at the site, Haredi men scuffled with the worshippers and tried to disrupt that service. Security guards threatened to spray Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs with mace. A group of Orthodox Jewish organizations petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the establishment of the egalitarian section. Further, under threat of his Orthodox partners – Shas and United Torah Judaism – seceding from the government and forcing an election, the government did not upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The historic agreement was never passed into law. In June 2016, Netanyahu postponed the implementation of the agreement, which, given its long gestation period and promise of quick action, was an effective reneging of that agreement.

As the contending parties waited for a Supreme Court ruling on the dispute, participants in the egalitarian movement avoided any physical conflict by largely staying away from the Wall, a decision leading to that section being virtually vacant on the 17th of Tammuz commemorating the day on which the IDF breached the walls of the Old City and captured it in 1967. Not only the Orthodox, but the government as well offered the emptiness as proof that the Reform movement was only interested in scoring political points and not worshipping at the Wall.

In December 2016, Haredi Orthodox Knesset members from the Jewish Home and the Likud parties submitted a bill to the Knesset to prevent non-Orthodox public prayer at the Western Wall. However, in January of 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a ruling that greatly upped the ante. It did not endorse the compromise but went much further. The Court ruled in favour of women being allowed to read from the Torah in the women’s section at the Western Wall. The Court also declared that an egalitarian prayer area set aside at Robinson’s Arch did not constitute access to the holy site.

The Court issued an injunction that gave the Wall’s Orthodox administrators and state agencies 30 days to show cause why women cannot pray “in accordance with their custom” and allow them to pray as they choose. Women would no longer be body searched at the entrance to preclude them from entering the women’s section with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs. Women of the Wall greeted the ruling as follows: “Today, we have come much closer toward implementation of the Western Wall agreement on gender equality and religious freedom at the Wall.”

Both the government and the Western Wall administrators ignored the injunction. In July 2017 the government did not unfreeze the compromise but did promise to expand and upgrade the egalitarian section of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch. In August, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate claimed that the Israeli Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the intrareligious struggle concerning both egalitarian worship and the rights of women to worship as they chose in the women’s section. The Court, they claimed, had entered the political arena to advance government and feminist issues. Current practice did not interfere with freedom of worship.

Of course, the battle was really over rights at a national site and not over the rights to worship in different synagogues and in different places. In September, the Supreme Court reprimanded the state for its failure to implement the plan for the egalitarian section in accordance with the compromise agreement of January of 2016. Deputy High Court President Elyakim Rubinstein expressed the Court’s exasperation since the Cabinet had endorsed the compromise agreement. “Things have been dragged out forever and without any limit.” The most pressing issue was the state’s failure to implement the agreement, but the Religious Services Minister refused to sign onto the new regulations.

Rubinstein went on to insist that the issue concerned the unity of the Jewish people. “Whoever doesn’t want pluralism can go to the northern [Western Wall] plaza, and whoever does can go to the southern plaza; we are a Jewish people.” The Reform movement all along had insisted that ultra-Orthodox leaders “continue to incite and we continue to create a more pluralistic and tolerant reality in Israel.” Divisiveness was promoted by Haredi actions. The Haredi and parts of the Orthodox establishment, in contrast, viewed the progress and expansion of liberal ideas as sewing the seeds for the destruction of Judaism as a religion of unity.

However, the organized Jewish community leaders in America had a very different view of the situation than the Haredi. American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris decried the Israeli government reneging on the compromise agreement. He declared that the failure to implement Supreme Court decisions was a “setback for Jewish unity.” Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, insisted that the failure of the government to carry through on its promise was a “slap in the face” to Diaspora Jews. Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, went further. The actions of the Israeli government had deepened “the already accelerating divide between Diaspora Jews and Israel.”

Against this background, Tzipi Hotovely’s comments that the Reform movement had made a religious issue into a political one must be understood. She had suggested that Reform Jews were not really interested in praying at the Wall since Robinson’s Arch was virtually empty when it could be expected to be full on the 17th of Tammuz. Though her words were not divisive, though she only insisted that American Jews and Israeli Jews were informed by different experiences of threat, experiences which explained their attitudes, though she could be criticized for faulty analysis and significant errors in phrasing and in fact, nothing she said had been an insult to American Jewry and nowhere rejected American Jewry. Her “error” had been far more serious: Hotevely had adopted the Haredi line in a religious dispute, something the Teflon PM had always sought to avoid.

The Haredi position can be summarized. American Jews were making a mountain out of molehill, politicizing a debate over the Western Wall when they showed no significant inclination to pray in any significant numbers at the egalitarian section already set aside for egalitarian prayer. They were fighting for equal recognition, not the right of egalitarian prayer.

In that assertion, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox description was accurate, The Western Wall was the greatest symbol of identity and religious rights. Though Tzipi took the Haredi line in her support of government policy, earning thereby the criticisms of progressives, Netanyahu supported only the Haredi practice in place while taking the dominant American position on egalitarian prayer as a matter of policy. Tzipi Hotovely had failed to walk with one foot going forward and the other backwards. For her inability to walk in two directions at once, for her lack of skills as a contortion artist, she became a target for Netanyahu’s anger as well as the barbs of the Reform and Conservative movements.

To be continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s allegedly very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no indication in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of the above senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is depicted as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by connecting beauty with moral excellence. Nor is the value based on considering women as having different kinds of beauty or only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty. Finally, that beauty and attention to it is not considered by me to be a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Joseph flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. In the Torah, there is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.