Commentary Magazine


Topic: Talmud

More UN Anti-Semitism From Iran

Iran’s apologists and others seeking to head off the effort to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons have been doing their best to portray the Islamic Republic as a reasonable nation run by rational persons. The goal of these arguments is to assure the world that the ayatollahs and their minions can be trusted to keep their word if the West negotiates a deal that would allow the Iranians to keep a peaceful nuclear program. Others go so far as to assert that a nuclear Iran would not be a threat to the West or Israel because its leaders are neither suicidal nor really bent on Israel’s actual destruction. But the problem with the Iranians is that their ideology of hatred is so deeply embedded in their political culture that they can’t help but undermine the efforts of those seeking to polish their image even when the world is watching.

That’s what happened yesterday when the United Nations convened an international anti-drug conference in Tehran. At the event, Iran’s vice president greeted the delegates by telling them the key to understanding the plague of the illegal drug trade was, you guessed it, the Jews and Judaism. Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism, was responsible for the spread of drugs because it instructs its adherents to “destroy everyone who opposes the Jews.” As the New York Times reported from the conclave, European diplomats who came to make nice with the Iranians were “shocked.” But even this display was not enough to convince the West to connect the dots between this open display of hate and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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Iran’s apologists and others seeking to head off the effort to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons have been doing their best to portray the Islamic Republic as a reasonable nation run by rational persons. The goal of these arguments is to assure the world that the ayatollahs and their minions can be trusted to keep their word if the West negotiates a deal that would allow the Iranians to keep a peaceful nuclear program. Others go so far as to assert that a nuclear Iran would not be a threat to the West or Israel because its leaders are neither suicidal nor really bent on Israel’s actual destruction. But the problem with the Iranians is that their ideology of hatred is so deeply embedded in their political culture that they can’t help but undermine the efforts of those seeking to polish their image even when the world is watching.

That’s what happened yesterday when the United Nations convened an international anti-drug conference in Tehran. At the event, Iran’s vice president greeted the delegates by telling them the key to understanding the plague of the illegal drug trade was, you guessed it, the Jews and Judaism. Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism, was responsible for the spread of drugs because it instructs its adherents to “destroy everyone who opposes the Jews.” As the New York Times reported from the conclave, European diplomats who came to make nice with the Iranians were “shocked.” But even this display was not enough to convince the West to connect the dots between this open display of hate and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Rahimi’s speech was actually par for the course when it comes to Iranian discourse about Jews and Israel. Tehran is now one of the world centers of anti-Semitic propaganda. It shouldn’t be surprising when the second in line to succeed the Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says things like this:

The “Zionists” are in firm control of the illegal drug trade, Mr. Rahimi said, asking foreign dignitaries to research his claims. “Zionists” is Iran’s ideological term for Jews who support the state of Israel.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will pay for anybody who can research and find one single Zionist who is an addict,” Mr. Rahimi said. “They do not exist. This is the proof of their involvement in drugs trade.”

Mr. Rahimi … told stories of gynecologists’ killing black babies on the orders of the Zionists and claimed that the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was started by Jews, adding that mysteriously no Jews died in that uprising.

He also said the Talmud teaches Jews to think they are a superior race. “They think God has created the world so that all other nations can serve them,” he said. Halfway through his speech, Mr. Rahimi said there was a difference between Jews who “honestly follow the prophet Moses” and the Zionists who are “the main elements of the international drug trade.”

But the Western impulse willing to believe such statements are aberrations or irrelevant to policy is still stronger than common sense.

A European diplomat said afterward: “This was definitely one of the worst speeches I have heard in my life. My gut reaction was: why are we supporting any cooperation with these people?”

But the diplomat, who declined to be identified by name or country, defended his presence at the conference. “If we do not support the United Nations on helping Iran fight drugs, voices like the one of Mr. Rahimi will be the only ones out there,” he said.

At the conference, Antonio De Leo, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes representative in Iran, praised the Islamic Republic as a “key strategic partner in the fight against drugs.”

But though it is true the Iranians want to halt the flow of drugs across their border from Afghanistan, the persistence of belief in the idea that Tehran is a rational actor on the international stage is the real obstacle to stopping their nuclear ambitions. So long as Western nations are prepared to treat Iran’s government as a normal partner in trade and diplomacy, it will be impossible to muster support for a genuine effort to isolate them or to place sufficient pressure on Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

Though Western sanctions on Iran will be increased at the end of the month, such displays as this week’s drug conference in Tehran have convinced the ayatollahs they can defy the West with impunity. Three rounds of failed sessions of the P5+1 talks after similar failures in the past have not been enough to persuade the Obama administration the “window for diplomacy” is already closed.

But even were a deal of some sort were concluded, there is no reason to believe that an Iranian government so besotted with delusional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories could be expected to observe a treaty or to stop its drive to create a weapon with which to threaten the existence of the “Zionists.”

Rahimi’s speech is yet another warning that any diplomat tasked with negotiating with the Islamist regime has been sent on a fool’s errand.

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America’s Most Important Jewish Event?

Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

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Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

Steinsaltz and Koren seem to be up to something different. He reaches beyond even the basic vocalization of the Hebrew into brief English biographies of the various rabbis through whom the Talmud speaks and color illustrations accompanying the text, to say nothing of a planned iPad app. It is the manifestation of a mentality that is fully conversant in a Jewish tradition it feels uncomplicated reverence toward combined with a self-confident desire to use contemporary tools to make that tradition as accessible as possible for as wide an audience as possible. It creates a feel that gives you all the tradition of ArtScroll without any of the distance.

Orthodox publishing efforts in the United States often don’t get their proper due. Even a casual perusal of the offerings in any Judaica shop or through your smart phone or tablet computer of choice reveal a wealth of offerings in English or with English translation on nearly any Jewish topic imaginable. But they haven’t penetrated beyond those already within that community’s embrace. The new Steinsaltz English edition is therefore probably the best chance yet most American Jews have of accessing the central text of their tradition.

In his companion book The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz notes that all Jewish communities that have lost the study of Talmud have eventually disappeared. His creation of this latest piece of his great corpus testifies both to the depth of his scholarship and the seriousness with which he views his own observation.

Koren has now taken the first step in making the monument of their tradition accessible to all American Jews, regardless of their background or beliefs. If they take it up, the implications will be profound.

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Obama’s Absurd Claim About Judaism

Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

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Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

Perhaps what the president meant is that he’s known more Jews than other presidents. This too is an absurdity, as Ronald Reagan spent 30 years in Hollywood and had Jews coming out his ears. In fact, chances are Barack Obama knows less about Judaism than most presidents, except that he knows a lot of liberal Jews.

What the president does, without question, know a great deal about is the act of preening.

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