Posts Tagged ‘The New Republic’

Begging To Differ

May 20, 2010

Well, it looks like the article by Peter Beinart that I referred to in my last post has generated some pointed responses and heated debate. A lot of the criticism leveled against his argument boils down to accusations that Beinart is:

  1. Alarmist (vis à vis what he views as growing “fascist” – or at least anti-democratic – tendencies through the increased strength of the settler movement and among the parties currently in power in Israel);
  2. Too blind to the fault of the Palestinians in the failure to reach a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  3. Incorrect in his estimation of the level of alienation of young American Jews from Israel;
  4. Defending a type of Zionism and Judaism (the liberal kind) whose death knell has supposedly already been sounded.

A caricature of Peter Beinart

In my opinion, it is definitely worth reading some of these responses to Beinart, as well as a rebuttal by Beinart himself to one of them. The discussion is complex, and the arguments really make you think. They also make me wonder whether there can really be a significant place for moderation and centrism on this issue going forward.

However, from my perspective as a professional who has been around the Jewish education block more than a few times, I do think that Beinart’s characterization of the split between Orthodox young people and more religiously liberal ones is correct. Zionism and love of Israel continues to be a given in Orthodox schools’ curriculum, but liberal Jewish schools and synagogues struggle to teach a Zionism that is not the default national-religious type that comes so naturally in the Orthodox institutions. It is not a coincidence that as of late we have seen large amounts of money and time go in figuring out how “to do Israel education” in the 21st century. I can also vouch for the fact that young Jews today are extremely keyed into the universalistic and ethical aspects of Judaism – to social justice, human rights and tikkun olam. Indeed, that is now a major focus of many Israel travel programs designed for Jewish teens and 20-somethings.

Click here to read Jonathan Chait’s critique of Beinart’s article, published in The New Republic.

Click here to read Beinart’s rebuttal to Chait’s piece, published in The Daily Beast.

Click here to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview of/conversation with Beinart in The Atlantic. (It’s in two parts, with more to come.)

Click here to read David P. Goldman’s dismissal of Beinart’s article as an unintended eulogy for liberal Judaism and an ineffective rehash of points already known, published in First Things. I have to say that I was disturbed by Goldman’s lumping together of secular Judaism with all liberal Judaism, as though there is no place for a religious attachment to Israel on the part of practicing and involved non-Orthodox Jews.

And finally, you can click here to read Bradely Burston’s column in Ha’aretz, which is an example of the warnings- from within Israel – against the Israeli “fascism” to which Beinart has referred.

I know – this is a lot of reading. However, I found it wasn’t a slog at all, because it was interesting and important. You may (amazingly), as I did, get through it all without even getting a headache.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


The Beauty of Disease

February 6, 2010

H1N1 (Swine flu) virus sculpture by Luke Jerram

One would generally not view disease as a beautiful thing. But disease and the organisms that cause it are part of nature, and Judaism recognizes the beauty of nature. Jewish tradition provides us, for instance, with blessings to recite when we encounter natural wonders such the vastness of the ocean or the colors of a rainbow. There are ones we can say upon hearing thunder or discovering a new species for the first time.

For Jews, this appreciation for nature is attributable to an awe for God’s Creation. Jews, however, do not view Creation as perfect, but rather consider humans as partners with God in making the world that God gave us an even better place. Hence, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the answer as to why so there are so many Jewish doctors.

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The boast of “My son, the doctor” has been heard coming in an uninterrupted stream from the mouths of Jewish mothers for millenia. Sherwin B. Nuland wrote an excellent article called, “My Son, The Doctor: The Saga of Jews and Medicine,” for The New Republic in 2005, providing a thorough explanation for this phenomenon. He explains that the fact that approximately one third of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah refer to the cleanliness of the human body and the maintenance of health led the Rabbis of the Talmud and later scholars, such as Maimonides, to conclude that the goal of the prevention and treatment of illness and the consequent prolonging of human life was to serve God.

“It was a Maimonidean precept that the purpose of keeping the body healthy is to enable the unhindered pursuit of knowledge of God, and of the perfect morality for which God is the model. The study of medicine, in sum, is a religious activity.”

Nuland went on to highlight that Jewish medicine derives from Greek medicine (and that in general, there really is no “Jewish medicine,” because Jews have always adapted their practices to the cultures in which they lived), which looked to natural science for cures. God’s having given free will to humans and enjoining us to “Choose life,” signaled to Jews that care of our bodies was up to us. No wonder, then, that there are so many Jews in the fields of medicine and scientific research.

“And so the rabbis of the Talmud taught in the presence of a heritage of ethics and with the conviction that the preservation of life is a basic teaching of their religious system of values, to be carried out by human action, existing as an instrument of divine will, yet applied independently of the divinity’s direct intervention. Though God is the ultimate healer–and indeed, in several dramatic biblical passages God chooses to intercede in order either to cause or to cure illness–God is not to be used by mankind as a medicine. When sickness occurs, a doctor is to be sought out, an imperative clearly articulated by Maimonides: ‘One who is ill has not only the right but also the duty to seek medical aid.'”

Medical professionals, whether they work in the lab or in the clinic, encounter daily the marvels of natural processes and the devastation they can wrought on the life of a human being. How exciting it is to make scientific discoveries and advances, and how painful it is to see patients suffer and die if treatment is unsuccessful. Nature is beautiful, but disease is ugly.

Conceptual artist Luke Jerram

This dichotomy is also not lost on those of us who happen not to be physicians. British conceptual artist Luke Jerram‘s exploration of the tension between microbes’ devastating beauty and their devastating impact on humanity has resulted in an exhibition called “Glass Microbiology.” He, with the help of expert glassblowers, has created sculptures of viruses and bacteria of exceptionally intricate – and jarring – beauty, as is expressed in the following letter the artist received from a stranger last September:

Dear Luke,
I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.
I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.
Thank you.

Jerram’s sculptures allow us to contemplate the realities of disease, reminding us that it is a very physical presence in our world. Jerome Groopman, a doctor I very much admire, and who happens to be a practicing Conservative Jew, has written and spoken about the relationship between medical science and religion. The two are not mutually exclusive of one another; science does not make belief in God obsolete. But, he like the hundreds of generations of Jewish doctors who have come before him, knows that in the Aleinu prayer we proclaim that our role is l’takken olam m’malchut shaddai, to repair the world in the sovereignty of God. God may be ultimately in charge, but it is our job to study nature and heal the sick:

“As much as I wish there were miracles — boom, my hand’s fixed — those are fantasies. What Judaism teaches us is the knowledge that we’re created with reservoirs of resilience. We are created with the capacity of wisdom, which means judgment — not just knowledge, but the ability to assess and weigh that knowledge to make choices. Very integral in Judaism is the sense of hope. There is capacity to improve. What it takes is drawing on gifts of science with mobilization of the spirit.” (, 2007)

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.