Jewish consciousness in the coming months will be dominated by major anniversaries related to Israel–the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN partition vote, and then, next April, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence. Each of those markers has complex associations which we will consider in due course. To frame these words of Torah I would like to consider not the 69th birthday of the State of Israel, but rather the state of the Jewish people 70 years ago, in May 1947, before the UN vote and before the State was declared. What was Jewish life like in 1947?
During WW II between 11-20 million people were displaced, many of them Jews; many, of course, were not only displaced but murdered. At the end of the war the conquering armies tried to repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin, and 6 million or so people were returned “home,” but over a million could not or would not be repatriated; many of these were Jews. By 1947 there were about 850,000 displaced persons living in DP camps, a number that gradually subsided over the next five years, though the last camps were closed only in the late 1950s.
For the Jews of Europe, 1947 must have seemed particularly hopeless. Over a millennium of Jewish life in Europe, much of it robust and secure, was now in shambles. Families were splintered and destroyed; Jewish villages and urban communities were blotted out. America remained out of reach for most refugees, and the British blockade on Palestine kept many Jews from reaching the land of Israel. Jews had been persecuted by Christians, and also by Muslims, for many centuries, and the desperate hope placed by many in socialism had failed to create a universal sense of brotherhood and solidarity. Religious faith was at a nadir, and the simple claim that God would be a the guardian of Israel seemed ludicrous. Continue reading
It might have been Parashat Shmini that put the idea of becoming a rabbi in my head. No, not the part about the two young priests getting zapped, but rather the detailed laws of kashrut. I grew up eating “glatt treife,” but by the time I was 13 I bought into the kashrut system as a way of cultivating self-control and awareness of the potential for holiness in every bite. I was one of the only teens who regularly attended services at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ (one of the others was named Benjamin Sommer), and somehow I got invited to make a presentation each week to the b’nai mitzvah. My presentations grew increasingly elaborate, no doubt trying the patience of our distinguished (and terse!) Rabbi Andre Ungar, reaching their apotheosis with an impassioned plea for kashrut one Shabbat morning. Weirdly, the congregation applauded, and my grandparents (who did not keep kosher, though Nana waited an hour to serve ice cream after eating meat) kvelled. Well, it took another decade to sort things out, but that is a decent origin story for my rabbinate.
And so it is to kashrut that we turn, but in a very strange way. The Torah’s code is reasonably specific about the criteria for kosher mammals and fish, but as for birds, all we get is a long list. What distinguishes the “impure” birds listed in Leviticus Chapter 11 (and Deut 14) from edible avians is not specified, though many have noted that the banned birds are all predators (yet I suppose that worms consider chickens to be predators). We can’t really say for sure what each listed species corresponds to in modern identifications—is a nesher really an eagle, or perhaps a vulture? (…”and I shall bring you on vultures wings” doesn’t have the same ring).
For today what really interests me is the ostrich, which is identified here as בת היענה. Literally, this could be read as “daughter of the ostrich,” though BDB suggests (p.419) perhaps “daughter of the desert or steppe.” In other words, it is a bird that dwells in the desert, as ostriches tend to do. The rabbis, however, took its name literally and they asked, why does the Torah mention the ostrich’s offspring? Continue reading