About Ideological Purity and Solidarity

israelite-4-7-2016-ophir-pictureA couple of weeks ago, Ophir Toubul visited together with a few other activists of Tor ha-Zahav the mother of Elor Azaria, a soldier who is currently trialed for gunning down a Palestinian man without any self-defensive reason whatsoever. The visit was a public media-event, designed to showcase Tor ha-Zahav’s non-elitist embeddedness in the midst of Mizrahi Israeli mainstream. Toubul et al have not always been there: As many of the most prominent and fervent figures of the Mizrahi empowerment movement, they have spent their formative years working on effacing whatever was “Mizrahi” about them, so as to resemble as close as possible the country’s cultural-political Ashkenazi elite: They made themselves into secular, academically educated, and more or less left-wing men. Those, who heaved anti-Mizrahi racism on the table, were Mizrahim, who participated in urban, left wing, secular, read: Ashkenazi culture.

In line with this sociological positioning, the fight against anti-Mizrahi racism could be smoothly tied to the fight against the occupation: “Intersectionality” was the word of the day in any case, and the fight of one oppressed group could thus reasonably be configured as inseparable from the fight of another oppressed group. Theoretically compelling as this is, however, some irritating hard facts remained: For the one thing, it seemed that Palestinians did not really join the fight, as they had (and have) nothing to gain from allying with another marginalized group. They opted for the “Ashkenazi-Palestinian axis.” More troubling even, it seemed that even Mizrahi Israelis themselves did not flock in Mizrahi empowerment initiatives in any notable numbers: Not much of a surprise, the flair of anti-Zionist, secular Mizrahi men married to Ashkenazi women from Tel Aviv, did not quite appeal to them.

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Toubul’s visit of Elor Azaria’s mother is the radical end of a development that originates in the realization of above-mentioned hard facts. Earlier in history, Toubul had dissolved his Mizrahi cultural hipster platform Café Gibraltar, initiated the more politically explicit Tor ha-Zahav, and supported Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Mizrahi party Sha”S, in the last elections. It does not take much sophistication to detect a radical disruption from the more academically inspired, more “classical” left wing, and “ideologically clean” discourse, that characterized the earlier days of Mizrahi discourse: Toubul et al claimed a legitimacy to address Mizrahi concerns and needs in and of themselves, without previously educating Mizrahim into solidarity with Palestinians. Probably with a grain of despair, but with a greater grain of pragmatism, the foundational agenda of Toubul’s Tor ha-Zahav is, that substantial change of Israeli society in favor of Mizrahim will happen through the work of Mizrahim, and only Mizrahim.

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This is not to support the Tor ha-Zahav-visit of Elor Azaria’s mother. There is absolutely nothing that would somehow mitigate, let alone justify, Azaria’s murder of another human being. This was a hate crime, which is – needless to say – part of a larger context, yet that larger context does not turn the crime into “Elor Azaria is the son of all of us.” He is not.

This is to point out that more often then not, there do exist huge sociological and ideological gaps between the advocators of the diverse “empowerment” movements and those, who actually are to be empowered, between those public figures who opt for a participation of minorities and those who actually are embedded in those minorities. In the wake of the thwarted military coup in Turkey and Erdoğan’s “stabilizing” measurements, for example, many German left wing activists furiously terminated any future collaboration with any German Turk, who did not publicly condemn the president’s actions, as Lady Bitch Ray wrote in a public letter to Kübra Gümüşay, “if you stand in solidarity with ethnic and religious minorities, why do I see you solely in networks and cooperations with IGMG- and DITIB-affiliated headscarf-women, who issue zero critique against the Islamic patriarchy (…) and how does this fit the pro-AKP and pro- Erdoğan postings and insinuating Turkey-paroles of Betül Ulusoy on facebook?” Or in a more straightforward, “slightly” Sarazzinesk fashion, the head of Neukölln’s social democrats disclaimed that “it is part of her (Betül Ulusoys) image, that she advances freedom of thought and women’s rights – but this post (a facebook-post in which Ulusoy defended Erdoğan’s post-coup politics as an opportunity to get rid of some “dirt”) shows what kind of ideology is hidden behind her pose: that her attack against the law of neutrality is not motivated by a concern for women’s rights, but serves the aims of political Islam.”

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Again: I have not the slightest intend to defend either Erdoğan’s measurements, or to express sympathy with Elor Azaria’s mother. Yet, if the aim is to bridge the gap between the public proponents of empowerment and those, who are to be empowered, then the very last thing to expect is ideological purity as defined by left-wing academics. A quick glance at Jewish orthodox communities in Germany may suffice: Said communities do have, without doubt, a vital interest in forming political unions with Muslim communities, given that both are religious minorities and hence (in different ways) subject to anti-religious cultural racism. Yet, you won’t be able to organize with any Jewish orthodox community your next Naqba-exhibition, just as you won’t – with all likelihood and I am sorry if I am wrong – install an Armenia-exhibition in your neighborhood’s mosque.

If you enter the ring with the idea of collaborating solely with enlightened, politically woke academic left-wingers, you may very well have incredibly interesting, radical and smart discussions in your private kitchen, but the only benefiters of this will be you, your friends, and your tea-pot. This is, of course, legitimate: I’d be the very last person on earth, who’d sympathize with “the people’s” political views. I absolutely do not think that “the people’s” politics is by virtue of its being the view of the masses in any sense superior to the politics of Berkeley-style academic discourses, that ethical politics is a matter of the guts, instead of books. Yet the legitimacy and necessity of walled, elitist discourses notwithstanding, it seems about time to face the political consequences of walled, elitist discourses: the failure of Berkeley in terms of concrete, political impact. Thus, instead of dividing the world into “good and bad,” it seems about time to acknowledge that each and everyone has different interests, that go along different loyalties and solidarities, that cannot always be harmonized: No one, besides secular academic individuals, whose interests are being represented and protected in any case, have the privilege to opt for a clean “only good.”

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It may well be, that much of this post is inspired by my own positioning as a religious, orthodox Jew, whose ultimate solidarity is with the Jewish orthodox collective – even if my politics, at times, diverge from the accepted norm in said collective. This is, accordingly, not about being anybody’s poster girl, but about delineating an individual, non-negotiable realm, that exists despite those tensions: I will, for the life of me, not collaborate with people – Jews and non-Jews alike – who mock religious practice and authority, or who target orthodox Jews and Muslims as a bunch of retarded primitives. This is a deal-breaker. Nor will I discuss any single one orthodox “controversial” issue with anybody but the community that is going to bear the consequences of those discussions. This is then less about what’s “right” or “wrong” as judged from a super-human bird-eye perspective, but about the legitimacy of specific loyalties and solidarities, that co-exist in ambiguous tension with others.

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“As if He had Destroyed a Complete World”

After the flood when Noah offers animal sacrifices, God withdraws from earth. Upon smelling the incense of the animals’ flesh, He first acknowledges that human beings’ hearts have an evil inclination from youth onwards (Gen 8:21), promises that He will no longer destroy all life on earth, allows the consumption of animal flesh (ibid. 9:3), and announces within one and the same phrase the prohibition of bloodshed and the murderer’s capital punishment, to be administered and executed by humans themselves: “Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by a man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).

The human being’s role as judge is new: Even though Cain, after having killed his brother Abel, fears that someone might kill him on account of his act, God at this point in time still rejects the human’s role as judge and prevents the slaying of Cain. Only after the flood, in this world of Noah, murder is no longer punished by God, but by human beings. The setting up of courts is, accordingly, one of the seven laws that are according to the rabbinic tradition incumbent upon every human being, the “Noahide laws.” From the flood onwards, God, as if disappointed and demoralized by His creatures’ sinfulness, delegates the responsibility to install justice, including capital punishment for murder, to all of humankind.

Intuitively, the two “ends” of Genesis 9:6 – the prohibition of bloodshed and the capital punishment of a murderer at the hands of man – may give rise, at least in a contemporary reader, to a sense of tension, or a paradox: How can God state the absolute inviolability of human life, and at the same time allow human beings to execute capital punishment?[2] The background of this perceived tension is the common formulation of the demand to respect another human being’s life in terms of universal, or natural rights: Each and every human being has a right to physical integrity, the protection of life and well-being, as the notion of life’s immutability is ordinarily articulated in the “modern West.”

The difference between formulating respect for life in terms of universal rights versus as a prohibition of taking an innocent life, may at first seem a difference of form, rather than one of content. Both formulations seem to come down to the same thing: the prohibition of bloodshed. Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, p. 11) explains that “[t]he difference lies not in what is forbidden but in the place of the subject. Law is what I must obey. It may confer on me certain benefits, here the immunity that my life, too, is to be respected; but fundamentally I am under the law. By contrast, a subjective right is something which the possessor can and ought to act on to put it into effect. To accord you an immunity, formerly given you by natural law, in the form of natural right is to give you a role in establishing and enforcing this immunity. Your concurrence is now necessary, and your degrees of freedom are correspondingly greater. At the extreme end of these, you can even waive a right, thus defeating the immunity.”

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Marc Chagall, Cain and Abel (Lithograph 1960)

In biblical law then,  a murderer does not violate an individual’s “natural right” to physical integrity. A murderer commits a transgression that violates God, His “image” in mankind, His law and His entire creation. In line with this, the first commandment – the announcement God makes concerning Himself, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage” – and the sixth commandment – “Do not murder” – were read as parallels: “How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on another. It is written: I am the Lord your God (Ex 20:1; Deut 5:6) [on one tablet] and parallel to it [on the second tablet] it is written, Do not murder (Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16). Scripture teaches that regarding anyone who spills blood, it is as if he diminishes the image” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-hodesh, parasha 8). The first commandment is a mirror of the sixth commandment.

When a murderer is punished with humanly imposed death, he is thus not simply sanctioned for violating a divine command, such as any other transgressor: A murderer’s act is of no less than cosmic magnitude and dimension; it leaves a real mark on the world and affects the world as a whole, not just an individual’s “right” to physical protection and wellbeing. Accordingly, a murderer’s guilt is, as mSanhedrin 4:5 expresses, “as if he had destroyed a complete world.”

Murder needs to be addressed by the human community beyond the mere punishment of the murderer: When a murdered body is found and the murderer cannot be identified, a broken-necked heifer atones for the spilling of blood  (Deut 21:4-9); and an unwitting murderer has to flee to the “city of refuge” until the death of the officiating High Priest (Num 35:25 and 35:32). Even though in the first case, the murderer cannot be brought to justice and in the second case is deemed undeserving, the land, that was forced to absorb the spilt blood, requires atonement and the exile of the murderer. Murder is, as Devora Steinmetz describes, “[u]nique among crimes in that the act has an essential reality distinct from the legal responsibility of the perpetrator and the possibility of bringing the murderer to justice.”

As an act that effects a human’s relation with the world as a whole, with the land, with God and with other human beings, murder requires of necessity a “repair” at the hands of the world: “Whoever sheds a human’s blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made humans” (Gen 9:6) is a chiastic structure, repeating each word of the first clause in reverse order in the second. The second clause virtually mirrors the first, and thereby emphasizes, first, the exact correspondence of offense (murder of man) and punishment (death at the hands of man), and second, the recovery of the creation’s cosmic, metaphysical balance, as if a circle is being closed: When the murderer of man is punished with death by man, what has become out of balance is reinstated, the world’s injury is “fixed,” the land is being atoned for, and cosmic order is reinstalled.

Notes
[2] Cf. Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” in Menahem Haran (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume. Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion dedicated to Yehezkel Kaufmann on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, Jerusalem: Herbrew University 1960, 5-28 (pp. 15-16): “This view of the uniqueness and supremacy of human life has yet another consequence. It places life beyond the reach of other values. The idea that life may be measured in terms of money or other property, and a fortiori the idea that persons may be evaluated as equivalences of other persons, is excluded. Compensation of any kind is ruled out. The guilt of the murderer is infinite because the murdered life is invaluable. […] The effect of this view is, to be sure, paradoxical: because human life is invaluable, to take it entails the death penalty.”
[3] “For this reason alone was man created, to teach you, that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him as if he had preserved a complete world” (mSanhedrin 4:5, according to ms Kaufmann A 50, Budapest Akademia, and ms Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, 3173 (דה רוסי 13). According to the Vilna-edition and the ms Jerusalem Yad Harav Herzog of the Bavli, the text reads, “whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel.” Yet, the gemara on this mishnah in bSanhedrin 38a implies that the amoraim are commenting on a version of the mishnah, which does not contain the addition “of Israel.”
[4] Cf. also Sifre Numbers 161, tKeritot 4:3, bKetubbot 37b, mSota 9:7 and Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotzeah 10:8.
[5] Steinmetz, “Crimes and Punishments, Part II: Noachide Law, Brother-Sister Intercourse, and the Case of Murder,” Journal of Jewish Studies 55,2 (2004) 278-305.

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About “Male” Religion and “Female” Freedom

I.
At the peak of Germany’s latest “circumcision-debate,”[1] talkshow host Anne Will invited an orthodox rabbi, so as to let him defend the position of his folks. Inexperienced with contemporary religious tribunals, the rabbi brought forth what was, to him, the single one relevant argument: “If circumcision is going to be forbidden, we will continue in any case…because it is written in the Torah: On the eights day, his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev 12:3). Needless to say that with this explanation, the rabbi gave the audience the gratification of being easily identifiable as a religious fanatic: he was – as is obvious from what he just said – a fundamentalist one cannot reasonably talk to.

Of course, not all Jews quoted the word of God in order to illuminate circumcision’s raison d’être. Some willfully followed the choreography, which dominates religious tribunals from the Middle Ages onwards, and has the accused trapped in (of course futile) attempts to prove Judaism’s compatibility with Christian and/or secular notions of the truth. Whether such rhetorical compliance is a strategic choice or a matter of conviction – one thing is certain: Any speech about God in a secular space has to grapple with the ways, in which secularism has not only installed a division between earthly and divine power, but also rearticulated “religion” in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities and modes of governance.[2]

II.
Germany’s “circumcision-debate” did not come alone. The debate needs to be read as an integral part of the religious debates that preceded and followed it – most of which were directed against Muslims, Germany’s principal bearers of “religion.” This is not to deny the circumcision-debate’s unique qualities and dynamics, which developed when Germans figured that circumcision is not only a Muslim, but also a Jewish practice – yet, I hold that the circumcision-debate’s ideological context are all those debates, that had previously scrutinized, stigmatized and criminalized the religious practice of Muslims: The debate about the “meaning” of a hijab, about prayer in public schools and universities, about religious education in mosques or Islamic kindergartens, about Muslim girls’ participation in swimming lessons, about handshaking, to mention just a few.

A central element in all these debates is an anxiety about the subject’s free will and the way the latter is deployed vis-à-vis her body. During the circumcision-debate, for example, one of the most notorious and powerful arguments against the rite focused on the obvious lack of “free will” on the part of the child: How can the German State permit Muslim and Jewish parents to inscribe the bodies of their innocent minor offspring with an irreversible religious mark? How can parents force a religion upon a child that does not have the slightest understanding of what said religion is all about? More generally, this argument is time and again brought forth also against the religious education of children: Children should either grow “naturally,” without any “premature indoctrination,” or learn about every religious tradition, so that they may henceforth choose from among what they “liked best.” In order for a religious practice to be accepted at least by left-wing liberals in favor of “religious diversity,” it is thus crucial for this practice to pass as an expression of an individual’s free choice. Accordingly, both hijab-wearing women and their secular supporters defend the hijab in public spaces as an individual choice, and not as a religious obligation.

The practice of circumcision, however, does not fit this strategy. It completely undermines the standard arguments of left-wing liberals in favor of religious diversity and self-determination, because circumcision simply cannot aptly be described as “just another choice.” It is obviously not the child’s “choice,” but neither is it the parent’s “choice”: From a Jewish religious perspective at least, circumcision is not a choice among any number of equally worthy options. There is no marketplace of different practices, from which a “consumer” may pick whatever suits her best, because the body is here not a thing, which an individual owns and with which she can do whatever she is inclined to do. It is not a commodity to possess, analogous to a thing being purchased. It is, rather, something that defines the self long before the latter is able to capture itself in language (hence, the obligatory and pre-discursive character of circumcision). The rite’s opponents thus detected, quite accurately, that circumcision is, indeed, about subjugation, in which an individual’s “free choice” does not take center stage.

In this respect then, practices such as circumcision fundamentally contradict contemporary identity-politics, which do not recognize the body as a guarantor of stable (gendered) identity and a site of self-evident (masculine) power: In contemporary Europe, difference is no longer explicitly, in a socially acceptable way, articulated through reference to the body, that is, through gender and/or race. This does of course not mean, that gender has ceased to work, that it is an obsolete category. Rather, I’d suggest that difference, that was previously articulated in terms of gender and race, is today negotiated primarily in terms of “male” religion vis-à-vis “female” freedom: The face of Islam – again: Islam as the primary bearer of “religion” – is decisively decoded as male and black, that is, the “old” way of being male. It is autocratic, violent, physical, and dangerously virile, it even “conquers.” It is, if I may, everything the “new,” Western male was once, but is no longer. In contrast to the “old” manliness of religion/Islam, the “new” manliness – that is, the new way of exercising cultural superiority – entails a disavowal of the male body as a site of symbolic and actual power: the face of the New Right in Europe does not feature archaic machismo, but female leadership figures, and female self-determination against religious (male) authority as one its most prominent pet issues.

III.
My question then is: Are all those debates about the embodied practices of “religion” a reflection of a sense of insecurity regarding the cultural superiority of this “new” manliness? Or why do Europe’s “new men” feel such an urgent need to constantly hurt the bodily integrity of others, to unveil female hair, faces and bodies, to obligate children to shake hands, to circumvent the public bowing down in prayer, to define the proper look of the male sexual organ – to emasculate whatever reminds them of what was once, but is lost? Why do so many people attack the body in an age, which has stripped the body of any innate, intrinsic meaning? Is this because the enchanted body is (still) too desirable?

 

Notes:
9e67349cb1bec817b7bf99a4d976026d[1] For an analysis of previous German circumcision debates see Robin Judd, Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, Cornell University Press 2007.

[2] A person, who embodies a religious practice, that runs counter these notions, thus faces something like an ever-ongoing Fanonic moment: Even before uttering a first word, she has to take into account that her audience yields secularism a non-negotiable necessity and religion a threat – with the threat growing proportionally to her religion’s distance from modern notions of what a religion is, and how it should behave like.

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Who Is Mandolina?

On a late afternoon, a chilly spring-day, I rushed down Gihon Street of Jerusalem’s Abu-Tur neighborhood. I had to get to the main street’s bus station, to catch number 74 downtown. A few months earlier we had married, and moved from Nahla’ot to Abu-Tur, into an apartment of a house, that people referred to as “the last house of Gihon Street.” It was not that this street ended with our house – our house gained its appellation simply because it was the last house of Gihon Street’s Jewish part. Right next to it, the remains of a wall from the 67’-war marked the “border,” the border between “Jewish Jerusalem,” and the other, unknown, “Arab Jerusalem”: that part, which is – from the perspective of the city’s Jewish inhabitants – some kind of a white spot or a black hole, where the names of neighborhoods and streets become indistinguishable gibberish, where I would not get along, be lost, a total stranger.

Yet, a stranger I was also in “Jewish Jerusalem”: Women who looked like me were sitting in the bus next to me, reading Psalms, or calling their families on their mobile phones to organize the Shabbat’s set up – yet I had no family in Israel, and instead of Psalms, I had just discovered Talal Asad’s “Formations of the Secular.” Jerusalem’s German expats didn’t offer any refuge, too: as a convert, who deliberately chose to belong to the not-yet-enlightened Psalm-readers, I was referred to as a more or less pitiful person, whose academic brain melts away like a snow-man in the sun. I was, in short, an assemblage of unrelated parts, with myself (and my apartment, coincidentally) being located at an unidentifiable in-between place, where no other people were dwelling, where there was no recognizable community, no solidarity, no natural buffer-zone.

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On that chilly afternoon, on my way to the bus-stop, I met Mandolina. Mandolina – who did not have her name back then – was a cat, maybe one month old, not bigger than a fist. She was dwindled up in a bush next to the street, crying, because her belly was ripped open. There were branches, thorns, dust and dirt, and a bundle of blood, bowels entangled around legs, with a faint breathing body. Frantically, I searched for the phone-number of the city’s veterinary emergency. Someone picked up: Yes, they would come, but it may take a while.

I waited next to the bush. The hours passed by. The sun slowly vanished, the sky turned red, and the air became cold and serene. I am not sure, cat, what we are doing here, I told her. She kept on breathing; I kept on waiting.

It was dark already when the veterinary service arrived. With a pair of tongs, similar to those that are used to pick up rubbish from the street, they grabbed her, placed her in a metal cage, took my phone number, and drove away. She will not make it, they told me.

Mandolina, however, made it. Three days later, I got a phone call from the veterinary service: The cat had survived surgery, but it couldn’t remain any longer at the veterinary station. Outside, the chilly weather and the rain would turn the wound inflammatory, so if I could take the cat into my home? Yes, I said, sure, the cat can stay with me!

Again, she was locked up in a metal cage. When the veterinary service worker opened it, she ran out in total panic, crushed a few times against the walls, and eventually hid behind the fridge. Ok, he said, goodbye then.

For two weeks, she left her hideaway only during the nights, in order to eat some of the food, which I had placed next to the fridge. In the night, I heard her wandering around, yet as soon as she heard the rustling of my blanket, she ran back to the fridge, her refuge. We advanced in small steps: First, she stared at me when I was sitting at my computer, a few meters away from the fridge. Weeks later, she stared at me also when I was walking around in the apartment, hiding only when I came too close to her fridge. It took a few months, until she dared to touch my hand with her little nose. In the meantime, we had built her a little shack in the garden right next to our apartment’s window, from where she could jump in- and out. She never became fully domesticated.

When we left Jerusalem for Berlin, Mandolina stayed behind. I placed a full plate of food next to her shack – she immediately came to fetch it – and I closed the windows of our apartment, the garden’s backdoor, the apartment’s door, and left the “last house” of Gihon Street. I passed the place where I had found her, walked down the street to the bus stop, to the central bus station, to the airport. Our neighbors agreed to give her food, yet we lost contact with them. I have no idea what happened to Mandolina: for a few weeks, she probably waited for food to be placed next to her shack. I hope that she made it, and am tentatively optimistic: Even though she had always remained small, she had a strong survival instinct, and luck, too.

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When setting up my blog, one of the stages of registration entailed the naming of the site’s domain. I didn’t know that, unlike the blog’s title, I could of course not change the domain-name later on. And that’s how a blog called “Mandolina” came into being: It was simply the first name that came to my mind. She remained in my heart, if you wish to phrase it like that.

This name fits, however, because much of my writing here is a continuation of something, that started many years earlier in “Gihon Street’s last house,” during the time Mandolina was living in our garden (which was not officially “our garden” at all). The feeling of insecurity and melancholy of this time have vanished, yet still, the blog’s vantage point is that moment when turning from a self-evident, naturally belonging agent into an object, or a “problem,” of contemporary notions of “the good,” the reasonable, the right, the important. Of course, this means that this blog is not about pleasing the majority of readers: it is about re-thinking that, which pleases the majority of readers. It is, at the end of the day, about finding words for a vantage point, that is situated at the margin of a place, where street-names sound familiar, and glides into another place, that is the dominion of another law, quite literally. A place, where me and Mandolina gradually lost our panic, reassembled our selves, and tried to make sense of this fragile, particular beginning of a new life.

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The Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library in Oxford: An entirely Non-Academic Account

At some point in the course of my studies, I decided that I am not a manuscript-person. Maybe this was simply due to laziness, or haughtiness, or both: After working for a couple of months on the transcription of a Hebrew manuscript from Renaissance Italy (precisely: Yohanan Alemanno’s magnum opus, Hay ha-Olamim), I tossed all my work into the archive, and never opened the microfiche-pdf again.

On my way to the manuscript-collection of the Bodeleian library in Oxford I therefore did not expect anything overtly spectacular. Together with a group of some 15 academics, I had attended a (very cool) summer-school in a nearby castle-hotel, and after being transferred to downtown-Oxford for Shabbat, we were offered a guided tour through the Hebrew collection of the library. The chief-librarian, César Merchán, welcomed us at the entrance: An old building, high ceilings, a lots of marble, a security counter, lockers for bags and jackets, acclimatized air, silence. Like many times before, I sensed that old, academic buildings imbue their guests with an aura of authority, secrecy, importance, as if one enters a temple, in which matters of higher orders are being stored, made accessible only to the selected few – one immediately becomes a little too underdressed, a little too profane, a little too working-class.

Passing another few doors with locks secured by secret codes, we entered a room, into which César had previously moved some manuscripts. On a wheeled cupboard, one next to the other, they were waiting. César heaved a huge Mahzor upon a plastic-foam-construction on a table in the middle of the room, and let his hands wander through the pages. 13th century, Ashkenaz.

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For a quarter of a second, I thought that something’s utterly wrong here, that César is not really the Bodleian’s Hebrew chief-librarian, but a charlatan who had tricked his way illegally into the temple: How come, I asked him, that you touch the pages without gloves? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protective barrier between your hands and the 13th century? How can you touch something so fragile? “Oh no,” he said, turning to me, “there are two schools among librarians of manuscripts. One advocates the use of gloves, but the other holds that you have to feel the pages.” The use of any additional tool would not protect them, but reduce the sensibility of the hands, as nothing is more sensitive, more perceptive, than real skin. The preferred method of the Boldelain library is, therefore, literally “skin on skin”: the skin of human hands gliding over the skin of an animal, the parchment. A sensory meeting of the hands of the living, the active, the powerful, with letters, motionless on parchment, fragile, a thousand years old. Or maybe the other way around – for what would we be without those letters?

Ohhh, I murmured, and was reminded of the Brit of Joel: In an attempt to understand the medical dimension of the intervention, I had asked our Mohel if he would use any devises, or tools, besides the regular ones. But he assured me, that he would need solely his hands. Any “medical” addition would interrupt the procedure unnecessarily, and bear the risk of complication. Skin on skin, again.

The Mahzor measured some 50 x 30cm, with a width of approximately 15cm. Its script and layout were even, almost as if printed, without mistakes. One could see how the pages had been prepared: cut, smoothed, nearly invisible lines being embossed at each page, an incredible amount of work before the scribe had set his first letter on the parchment. Someone in our group rejoiced upon identifying at first glance a particular part of the Sukkot-liturgy: Did the scribe of this Mahzor ever imagine, that 1000 years apart from his own life, the eyes of a professor for Talmudic law would meet his letters, and mean precisely the same thing they meant to him? How many eyes, how many places, how many hands had this Mahzor seen? How many Jews have carried its weight, how did it survive? It must be heavy, I thought, its transportation not especially convenient, and difficult. Each page was illustrated with ornaments, fable-animals, human-beings without faces, colors and layers of gold. Meticulously, millimeter-by-millimeter, the illustrator had beautified each page, as if the immeasurable value of the words needed to be accompanied by material, aesthetic worth.

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Each page had a “micrography” at its bottom, which César explained us to be a particularly Jewish type of illumination. Mircographies are tiny, tiny Hebrew letters combined to form an ornament, that is, it is not the illumination of a letter, but the very use of the letter itself as a “limb” of the illustration. It is unknown what motivated this kind of artwork: possibly, it circumvents a prohibition of images, yet possibly, too, the use of a letter as a physical component of a larger image, or ornament, is also a visualization of the Jewish interpretative tradition: Viewed from above, it is an image, a coherent whole, an entire world, yet the closer you draw, the more you become aware of a multitude of components, details, interwoven one into the other, a “massekhet,” a web, made up of tiny little bodies of letters, each one in and of itself an indispensable, corporeal component of the universe.

César turned the pages, something he had done probably at least a dozen times before our visit. Despite British correctness and professionalism, his face seemed to be filled with admiration, affection, love for what he was doing.

On our way out of the library, we passed a few high-ceiled reading-halls named after people. Serious scholars dressed in neutral colors were sitting in rows above their books and manuscripts. No food, no drinks. If I had decided to become a manuscript-person, would I sit here, too? Would I be smart and patient enough to prepare a critical edition, or would I schedule as many coffee-dates as possible and sneak into facebook for digression? Would I be fond of my manuscripts like César? Glancing over the ethereal-looking scholars, I saw myself sitting on the ground with Joel, handling toys, strollers, bottles, bananas, ice-cream, invitations to the kindergarten’s summer-party, team-days, and the laundry, tired. I envied their tranquility, the quietness and cleanliness of their temple, their effortless appropriateness. The Mahzor was an expat here: It was written by the light of the sun and candles, it wandered through the hands of those, who prepared the parchment, the ink, the script, who illustrated it, who carried it from place to place on their backs, or in wagons, who recited its words on the Festival of Sukkot. A few of its pages had been damaged by the teeth of a mouse. It must have seen the fullness of life.

(César had advised us to look at the manuscripts in their digitalized form, accessible on the library’s website. A collection of micrography-highlights, for example, is here).

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Short Note: Post About Jewish Studies in Berlin

I just wanted to say that I took that last blogpost off the blog, because I cannot publish anything here, in my blog, before its “official” publication in a normal, traditional journal and/or presentation at a conference! I should have thought about this before, of course, but well…so my apologies.

If you have more questions, suggestions, critique etc. please feel free to contact me in private (via facebook or mail). It is important to have that conversation.

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About Mountains Being Held (Or: Another Take on the Issue of Commandments)

A famous, often-quoted midrash depicts the Giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The midrash has God holding a mountain in his fist, and the Israelites are assembled beneath it. God asks them if they would like to get this Torah: If yes, He would keep on holding the mountain, if not, He would just let it tumble down.

According to this midrash, God obviously didn’t bother whether or not His children wanted to receive His commandments. Whether or not they “like” them, whether or not they can make sense of them – God really could not have been interested less. For the Israelites at Mount Sinai, there was no process of intellectual understanding, let alone choosing, but a flash of force, and no way back.

To be forced to do something (or not to do something) is, according to our modern intuition, a negative thing. We value deeds, when they are the result of a conscious, well-informed, reasoned choice, when they are a result of our freedom, and hence, an authentic expression of our innermost selves. A deed, which was “forced” upon you, has no such value; it is, at best, a superficial performance, but does not express any intrinsic “truth.” If you do something without understanding it, possibly without even wanting it, you will sooner or later “free” yourself from it: Such deed being no more than an empty vessel, a letter without spirit, is doomed to fade into oblivion.

***

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I remember the morning after my wedding: I had to leave the house, and figured that I was expected to wrap my hair with some kind of scarf. Not that I’ve not thought about this before – yet, as long as matters remained abstract, as long as one is not really there, in that particular situation, the feeling is difficult to imagine: I was expected, from now on, no matter what, to wander around in public with my hair covered. It didn’t make sense to me at all: Why should all out of a sudden my hair be “nakedness”? Why should belief be related to my head looking like a potato wrapped in an unidentifiable pile of textiles? And why should women suffer yet another intrusion into their bodily autonomy? I do not let any fashion-magazine tell me that I should diet, so why should I let (male) religious authorities tell me what to put on my head? The only, really the only reason I covered my hair nonetheless was some dull sense of an obligation: I was a new religious Jew, and this is what was expected of me to do. Could I have rebelled against this? Yes I could. But I didn’t.

After a year of obligatory wrapping, we moved from Jerusalem to Berlin. I initially anticipated this move as a step into freedom: In contrast to Jerusalem, in Berlin no one would care for my head-covering and bestow religious significance to its presence or absence. At best, it would pass as some weird fashion-statement or hippie-thing. Whatever I would choose to do in Berlin, I thought, it would be my own free choice.

I simply continued: The wrap still looked awful, but it somehow, clandestinely, had sneaked into my self-image. Sometimes, as if to prove to myself that I was free, I took it off. But then, something was strangely missing, and it didn’t feel the right thing to do. Somehow, the way I saw myself in public now included some textile tossed on top of my head. I still argued that covering one’s hair does not have the same religious importance as the observance of the Shabbat – yet nonetheless, covering, at this point, gained more and more subjective importance: With a very active baby in the house, wrapping became one of the few daily “Jewish” things I would do. Other positive commandments got a little pale, but wrapping remained, possibly because it is such an exterior, visible marker – though now, it was no more a marker I carried so as to be recognized by others.

Going along with this, I also tried to make it look better (no, this is not a footnote): Our local department store’s “tichel-section” won me as its new faithful customer, and I acquired more colors and patterns, poufs, anti-slip headbands, experimented with a “half-wrap,” and had all kinds of hair-cuts. When trying to find a wrap-style that would look “ok” on me, and actively engaging this commandment, I also started to own it: I became its “managing director,” it became a tool I could use, maybe a little similar to the process of slowly internalizing a foreign language, and eventually mastering it, so that the sentences flow out without effort.

***

Today I’d not take off my wrap voluntarily – yet, I would have never ever come to this place had I rejected the idea of an “obligation” in the first place.

Did the mountain vanish? In a way, the mountain is still there: The obligatory nature of the commandments remains. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, if I “like” them, let alone understand them. But the mountain is no threat any longer: The subjugation to a commandment is the basis, upon which I can form an identity, and act in the world. It is because I do partake in this mitzvah, that I own it, and because I own it, I can also criticize certain aspects of it, and possibly, even make sense of it. It is mine. It is the place from which I can watch and interpret the world: A place that is not universal, but particular; a place that is not the end, but the very means (or: the tool?) through which I can be.

 

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