The Complexities of Purim

Purim is a holiday whose meaning is shrouded in mystery. The only clear element is what we are commanded to do on Purim as set forth at the end of the Scroll of Esther: read the Megilla, hold a festive meal, and give gifts to the poor. This last mitzvah is not an administrative detail of a system of social justice. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to pay a tax of half a shekel, as we read onShabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar. But gifts to the poor are another matter; giving charity is an expression of the direct, mutual economic responsibility between people.

Learning the language of profound tolerance

I wish to first of all thank the Schechter Institute and the Award Committee who chose to award me, along with Eti Ankri, the honor of receiving the Liebhaber Prize, named for Rabbi Marc and Henia Liebhaber z”l, leaders in the North American Jewish community. There are two aspects to a prize – recognition for the past, and expectation of the future. Looking back over the many junctures of my past, I recall an abundance of tolerance as a way of life. Of these, I wish to mention three central influences.

The Circle of the Seder Plate; The Cycle of Our Fortunes

When recalling my Jewish childhood, the first memory that comes to mind is from Seder night – the immaculate house, the set table covered with a white tablecloth, the taste of the holiday foods, and primarily the feeling of contentment after long days of hard work and preparation. The stars of the evening were the children, for whom the Seder was fashioned as a unique and fascinating experience, engaging all of the senses in order to allow us to absorb both the explicit and hidden messages of the Haggadah. The telling of the story was led by my grandfather, who would stand and hold the full Seder plate over the heads of the participants, as a symbol of abundance, blessings and success, while those seated would sing with great fervor, “This is the bread of our affliction… all who are hungry may come and eat…next year we shall be free.”

What is the halakhic status of an uncircumcised Jew?

May an uncircumcised Jew have an aliyah, serve as a sheliah tzibbur, have a Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish wedding or burial? Does it make a difference if he or his parents refused to circumcise him for ideological reasons or if he was prevented from having a brit milah [circumcision] by outside forces, such as the Soviet regime?

When Should One Correct the Torah Reader?

n some synagogues the Gabbai corrects the Torah reader every time he makes even the slightest error in pronunciation or cantillation, while, in others, the Gabbai only corrects the Torah reader if he/she makes and error which changes the meaning of the text. Which practice is more correct?

The War of Cultures: An Evolutionary Analysis

At the Schechter MA graduation ceremony in Jerusalem a few months ago, the master of ceremonies, Jacky Levy, a well-known Israeli media personality, asked a poignant question in the context of the awarding of the Rabbi Marc and Dr. Henia Leibhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance in Israel, of which he himself is a recipient. The Liebhaber Prize was established 18 years ago in the wake of the political/religiously motivated assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Why are there no foundations supporting religious fanaticism by granting yearly awards at universities throughout the world?” asked Jacky in his comical yet sardonic fashion. In a more somber tone he continued, “Why do people even need to be rewarded for what we all perceive to be the norm: moral and ethical behavior?”

The Descent of Man

The sad truth is that billions of dollars are given not only to reward but to encourage religious extremism. Countries go out of their way to fight vicarious battles in lands far removed from their own backyards.  Tycoons do indeed send money to train terrorists to do their bidding – all the while sitting or hiding out in some luxurious protected haven far from the “action” they seed.

What we are seeing is not simply a battle of who can throw more money at their values, but rather, a much more complicated behavioral process worthy of analysis. Let me attempt to provide a context based on evolutionary principles to explain this modern Western phenomenon.

We are, indeed, biological beings, given to biological, environmental pressures like our non-human relatives.  If we ignore biology, we will likely find ourselves fighting against it; a truly impossible task.  I cannot convince anyone in a short article of the importance of biology. If you are convinced already, then read on.  If you are not, suspend judgment and… read on.

What we are seeing today on the geopolitical landscape is the on-going biological evolutionary battle between the strategies of extreme “in” and “out-group” cooperation. “Out-group” actions adopt an evolutionary-behavioral strategy that dictates that I cooperate with everyone – those who are part of my societal group AND with those who are not part of my group as opposed to “in-group” behavior which demands cooperation only with my own societal group while advocating competition with the “out-group”; in other words, cooperating with my societal group while competing with others for evolutionary/economic resources.


Cooperation, or its biological underlying characteristic—“altruism,” as a strategy has been adopted by western culture and the cooperation-competition mix as adopted by other cultures.  Let me say at the outset, that neither strategy is “better” than the other.  Indeed they both have their foibles, and when we look at humanity over evolutionary time, each has succeeded as the dominant strategy during different eras.  I believe that taking an evolutionary view can help inform both cultures in ways that can prevent the collapse of the very fragile world’s systems that have evolved.

The tendency to cooperate or to compete exists in all species, including humans
How can evolutionary theory help us understand this phenomenon?  We must first accept the following maxim: that the tendency to cooperate, that is, to act altruistically; or to compete, that is to act selfishly, exists in every member of every species, including the species we call human.  We all know people who are overly and overtly competitive.  And there are those who can be classified as overly cooperative – even to a fault. Most of us are located somewhere on this spectrum.  As a result, both of these attributes can be assumed to be distributed evenly among the population of humans (homo sapiens).

Enter societal norms.  Long ago, the United States made a societal decision to be a cooperative-altruistic group.  Indeed, when compared to the European efforts,America’s success to maintain a society of more than 350,000,000 individuals and fifty sovereign states in a mode of cooperation is not an easy feat.  From an evolutionary standpoint the US is a stellar example of the success that can be achieved with the strategy of cooperation.  We may be seeing a drop in the strategy as partisan politics resurge, but overall, the success is unparalleled in world evolutionary history;  so successful that the result may have intoxicated its followers.  The system is imperfect, agreed. And injustices are perpetuated in the name of the “cooperative”. There are competitors who break through and take economic advantage at the expense of the cooperators.

Remember that when we say an altruistic group, we mean that the group has made a decision (perhaps below awareness) to behave cooperatively.  But the individual members of the group still maintain some of the competitive tendencies.  When this is the case, selfish individuals tend to excel. As long as the homeostasis of the society keeps the competitive individuals in check, then the competition can be tolerated. This is how Western society can produce Bill Gates, Apple Inc., Warren Buffet and even Bernie Madoff.

To some degree the US has tried to export this strategy, attempting to convince other cultures to join a world-wide altruistic cooperative strategy.  However, a strategy cannot simply be infused into a society the way sugars and salts can be put into the body.  Some societies have been resistant to cooperative strategies, but it is important to note that it has been possible to identify certain cooperative strategies even among the leaders of non-western cultures and societies. But it is a false assumption that I can treat the world as I can treat even a mega-society like the US: the laws of large numbers just don’t apply to really large numbers.  The US strategy was born at a time before mass communication and the thirteen original colonies numbered far fewer than 350 million.

As a result of this societal decision to cooperate, western society and culture has left itself open to the pitfall of smaller altruistic groups who are often taken advantage of by competitive groups.  Not because the world population behaves like a tribe on the savanna, but because the scale is different. When trying to understand the problem, we are again playing with small numbers.  The number of cultures that play the cooperation-competition game on a geo-political level is not really that big.  We have the US-European axis on one side and, for the sake of argument, the Iran-Qatar-ISIS-Hamas axis on the other.  It is true that similar patterns can be seen between the US-Europe and eastern Asia constellations, but with the exception of North Korea, the war in the Far East is over economics and minimal bloodshed is a value held by both sides.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of the former.

A scenario that allows for the competitors to gain the upper hand, at least a short-lived upper hand is definitely a possibility today. The “cooperators” at first tend to “cooperate themselves towards extinction”.  But then, their own selfish, or at least self-preserving instinct kicks in.  On small or even medium scale societies this tends to preserve the long term balance; a time frame varying in length and dependent upon the size of the populations.  Smaller groups can react faster than larger groups for reasons that seem obvious.  It’s simpler to coordinate 10 or 15 or even 70 individuals than it is millions.  And when we are talking about the small number of world leaders we must realize that they have millions at stake when they choose either competition or cooperation as a strategy.

So if we look at the world-wide allegory and take the globe as the village it has, in some sense become, we essentially see a village that has decided to cooperate. But like in the local village, the global village has its competitors and cooperators.  The cooperative discourse has become so intoxicating that it has left a wide opening for the competitors to play their evolutionary role.  The competitors will take advantage of this hole and the cooperators will scratch their heads saying, “Why can’t they just play nicely – why can’t they just cooperate with us?  After all, they do cooperate with themselves.”

And the competitors smile, letting their cooperative façade confuse the trusting cooperators – trust being the mode of operation of the cooperation – while out competing with them for the resources of popular support.  In fact, it’s even more insidious than that.  As the Cooperating West notes, the competitors such as ISIS, Iranto name just two, know how to cooperate with themselves.  So the West assumes that all they have to do is find the right key to unlock the cooperative drive and turn the in-group cooperation towards the out-group as well.  Evolutionary models teach us that the competitors don’t just turn into cooperators.  No matter how hard the cooperators try.

Ultimately evolutionary theory predicts that the cooperators fight back. The damage along the way may be great. And, in the words of evolutionary biologist DS Wilson…”Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.  It just takes time, resolve and action.

The ideas above come from my own synthesis of Evolutionary Psychology literature. For those interested in further reading, I have collected a list of articles below. They are all available online.

Notes and Bibliography for Further Reading

Richard Sosis has a few articles that can help us understand what we are fighting. His perspective is one that informs much of my teaching. See his website for more articles like these:

Sosis, Richard (2011) Why Sacred Lands are not Indivisible: The Cognitive Foundations of Sacralizing Land. Journal of Terrorism Research 2:17-44.

Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism   Abstract: Evolutionary theories of religion and sacred values are essential for understanding current trends in terrorist activity. We clarify religion’s role in facilitating terror and outline recent theoretical developments that focus on four cross-culturally recurrent features of religion: communal participation in costly ritual, belief in supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts, separation of the sacred and the profane, and adolescence as the critical life phase for the transmission of religious beliefs and values. These four characteristics constitute an adaptive complex that evolved to solve problems of group cooperation and commitment, problems faced by all terrorist organizations. We examine how terrorists employ these features of religion to achieve their goals and describe how terrorists utilize costly rituals to conditionally associate emotions with sanctified symbols and signal group commitments. These sanctified symbols are emotionally evocative and motivationally powerful, fostering in-group solidarity, trust, and cooperation. Religious beliefs, including promised rewards in the afterlife, further serve to facilitate cooperation by altering the perceived payoffs of costly actions, including suicide terrorism. Patterns of brain development unique to adolescence render this the ideal developmental stage to attract recruits, inculcate sacred beliefs, and enlist them in high-risk behaviors. We conclude by offering insights, based on our evolutionary analysis, concerning conflict resolution when sacred values are in dispute. Key Words: cooperation, religion, ritual, sacred values, terrorism

Alcorta, Candace S. and Sosis, Richard (2013) “Ritual, Religion, and Violence: an Evolutionary Perspective” in the Handbook of Religion and Violence, eds. M. Juergensmeyer, M. Kitts, M. Jerryson, pp. 571-596.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Burt, A., and Trivers, R.  (2006)  Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements.Cambridge,HarvardUniversity Press

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversity Press.

Alcorta,Candace S, Phillips, Erika J. and Sosis, Richard (2012) “Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism” in Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, eds. T. Shackelford & V. Weeks-Schackelford, pp. 233-253.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Bulbulia, Joseph and Sosis, Richard (2011) “The Behavioral Ecology of Religion: The Benefits and Costs of One Evolutionary Approach” in Religion 41:3, 341-362

Sosis, Richard, “Why Sacred Lands are not Indivisible: The Cognitive Foundations of Sacralizing Land” (2011) in Journal of Terrorism Research 2:17-44.

Trivers, R. (2004) “Mutual benefits at all levels of life” in Science, 304: 964-965.

Trivers, R. (2009). “Genetic conflict within the individual” in  Sonderdruck der Berliner-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschschaften, Berlin: 14: 149-199.

Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2008). “Evolution ‘For the Good of the Group’” inAmerican Scientist, 96, 380-389

Wilson, D.S. and E.O. Wilson (2007). “Survival of the Selfless” in New Scientist, Nov. 3 pp 42-46.

What Can We Learn from our Sources about the War in Gaza?

Rabbi Golinkin wrote this responsum in January 2009. Unfortunately it is relevant once again.

* * * * *


Much has been written about the current war against Hamas in Gaza. What can we learn from our sources about the current conflict?


This responsum is based on my articles in Insight Israel, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 76-79 and Insight Israel, Second Series, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 193-199. For further discussion of some of these issues, see Rabbi Brad Artson, Love Peace and Pursue Peace, New York, 1988; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “A Time for War and a Time for Peace”, Los Angeles, 1987; Rabbi Reuven Kimelman in: Steven Katz, ed., Frontiers of Jewish Thought, Washington, D.C., 1992, pp. 309–331; Yitzhak Blau, Tradition 34/4 (Winter 2000), pp. 39–60; Torah Sheb’al Peh 43 (5762) (five articles).

During the past eight years, Palestinian terrorists have fired many thousands of rockets at civilian targets inIsrael. To be more specific, since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, in order to allow the Palestinians to govern themselves, and December 31, 2008, terrorists  fired 6,300 rockets and mortars at civilian targets in Israel. Finally, on December 27, after many explicit warnings, the State of Israel decided to react by bombing launch sites, terrorist bases, homes of Hamas leaders and some 600 tunnels which have been used to smuggle weapons and rockets. It then sent in ground troops in order to stop the constant barrage of rocket attacks on civilian targets. The moral situation is extremely complex because the Hamas terrorists purposely hide behind civilians, in Mosques, schools and even hospitals. It is difficult for our soldiers, officers and leaders to know what to do.

Our Sages taught us in Pirkey Avot (5:22) “hafokh bah vahapekh bah d’kholah bah”, “turn it and turn it again for everything is in it”. That is why, in times of trouble, Jews have traditionally gone “back to the sources” in order to find comfort and guidance. The sources below attempt to do just that.

I) Palestinians Are Not the Seven Nations

There are some Jews who want to kill Palestinians or expel them from Israelon the basis of the biblical obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-18). However, King Solomon already ignored this command and did not destroy their descendants (I Kings 9:20-21). Furthermore, our Sages emphasized that this command does not apply to other nations (Midrash Tannaim to Deut. 20:15, ed. Hoffmann, p. 121) and Maimonides ruled that the memory of the seven nations “has been lost” (Laws of Kings 5:4). He  may have based himself on Mishnah Yadayim 4:4 that Sennacherib King of Assyria already came up and mixed up all of the nations. Therefore, the law of the seven nations has not been applicable for over 3,000 years.

II) Self-Defense

On the other hand, there is no doubt that it is permissible to kill terrorists in self-defense, for the following three reasons:

a) The Torah rules that if a “thief is discovered tunneling [into a house for housebreaking] and is beaten and dies, there is no blood guilt in his case” (Exodus 22:1). Rava explained that the thief assumes that the home-owner is going to defend his property and he, in turn, will be willing to kill the homeowner. Therefore, the Torah is telling us: “If somebody comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). In other words, if someone tunnels into anindividual’s home in order to steal, and even more so if he intends to kill that person, that person should kill the attacker as an act of self-defense. It is worth noting that the Torah gives the example of tunneling, one of the standard activities of the Hamas terrorists.

b) Furthermore, a group of Jews is allowed to defend itself against attackers, even on Shabbat. This was first determined by Mattathias and the Maccabees, after the Greeks killed 1,000 Jews on Shabbat – men, women and children – because they would not defend themselves. “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places” (I Maccabees 2:29-41).

The Talmud ruled (Eruvin 45a) that if a group of non-Jews besieged Jewish towns on Shabbat in order to kill Jews, the Jews go out in their armor and desecrate Shabbat. Furthermore, in a border town, the Jews go out in their armor and desecrate Shabbat even if the non-Jews only came to rob the town. And so ruled Maimonides (Laws of Shabbat 2:23) and the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 329:6-7). The Rema adds (ibid.): “and even if they have not yet come but only want to come”. In other words, in a border town, a pre-emptive strike against the enemy is permissible on Shabbat even in order to protect property; kal vahomer, how much the more so, to protect lives on a weekday.

c)   Finally, two sources go much further. They state that a war of self-defense is not only permitted but rather required. Midrash Shmuel determines (22:2, ed. Buber, p. 110) that David’s war against the Philistines – which was self-defense – was a mitzvah, a commanded war, or a hovah, an obligation. Moreover, Maimonides ruled (Laws of Kings 5:1) “which war is a commandedwar? …to helpIsrael against an enemy who attacks them”.

Thus, according to Jewish law, if a person comes to kill you, you should kill them first; a group of Jews is allowed to fight on Shabbat in self-defense; and a war of self-defense is a mitzvah or obligation.

III) The Attitude toward POWs and Non-Combatants

On the other hand, there are sources which warn us not to harm prisoners or innocent people.  We are told in the Second Book of Kings (6:21-23) that the Prophet Elisha asked God to temporarily blind the troops of Aramand he then led the troops to Samaria. The King of Israel asked Elisha: “Shall I strike them down?” Elisha’s reply is not entirely clear, but according to Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (ad loc.), he replied: “Would you strike down with your sword and bow people whom you captured?!

Similarly, Philo of Alexandria stated in the first century c.e. that Jews do not kill non-combatants (The Special Laws 4:224-225):

The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done little or nothing amiss, shows what I would call a savage and brutal soul.

When I was a reservist in the IDF, I used to guard Palestinian prisoners. I therefore know from first-hand experience that Palestinian prisoners are treated well. Indeed, the prisoners had better living conditions than the reservists who were guarding them, including couches, TVs, stoves and more. As for non-combatants, that is obviously a major challenge in Gaza, which is densely populated and where the terrorists use civilians as human shields as standard procedure. Nonetheless,Israeltakes great efforts not to harm civilians and there is a ceasefire every day for three hours in order to allow trucks of food intoGaza.

IV) Two Words of Warning Before Every Battle

We must teach our soldiers to remember two sources when they go out to fight our enemies:

1. When Jacob heard that Esau was coming, it says: “And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed” (Genesis 32:8) and themidrash explains: “frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill” (Genesis Rabbah 76:2; cf. Ginzey Schechter, vol. 1, p. 60 and Rashi on the verse).

2.  When Israel left Egypt“the angels wanted to sing. Said God:“My handiwork [=the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea — and you are singing?!” (Megillah 10b).

V) A Jew Must Share in the Distress of the Community

We have learned in Ta’anit fol. 11a:

Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and one of them separates himself from them, then the two ministering angels who accompany every man come and place their hands upon his head and say, ‘So-and-so who separated himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community’. Another Baraita [Tannaitic source from ca. 200 c.e.] taught: When the community is in trouble let not a man say ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.’ For of him who does so Scripture says, “And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine – Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die (Isaiah 22:13).”…But rather a man should share in the distress of the community, for so we find that Moses, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community, as it is said, “But Moses’ hands were heavy, and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon (Exodus 17:12).” Did not then Moses have a bolster or a cushion to sit on? This is then what Moses meant to convey, “As the Israelites are in distress, I too will share with them. He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation”. Perhaps a man will say, “who is there to testify against me? The very stones of his house and its beams testify against him…In the school of R. Sheila it was taught: The two ministering angels who accompany every man testify against him…R. Hidka says: A man’s own soul testifies against him… And some say: A man’s own limbs testify against him…

The message of this passage is clear: when Jews or the State of Israel are in trouble, other Jews must share in their distress by taking part in solidarity missions and demonstrations and by donating tzedakah in order to help those in distress. Some cynics say that missions and demonstrations are a waste of time; they are not. They give encouragement to the Jews of Israel who are constantly criticized by the United Nations and many countries and they strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants. During the past few weeks, Schechter students and staff have donated food and toys to communities near Gaza and hosted families and children who sought respite from the rocket attacks. This is at it should be. Jews must share in the distress of the community.

VI) Israel and the Nations of the World

The next passage appears in Midrash Esther Rabbah (7:13, to Esther 3:9, ed. Vilna, fols. 12c-d):

“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed” (Esther 3:9). Resh Lakish said: When the wicked Haman said to Ahashverosh: “Come let us exterminate Israel”, Ahashverosh replied: “You cannot prevail against them, since their God will not entirely forsake them. See what he did to the kings who preceded us and who laid hands upon them and who were much mightier and more powerful than we are. Whoever comes against them to destroy them and whoever schemes against them is wiped out and becomes a byword to all mankind. How much the more so we who are not equal to those others. Let me hear no more of this.” In spite of this, the wicked Haman pressed this upon Ahashverosh on every occasion, and tried to persuade him to oppress Israel. At length, Ahashverosh said to him: “Since you are so insistent, let us consult the wise men and the magicians.”

He thereupon convened all the wise men of the nations. When they were all assembled before him, he said to them: “Is it your desire that we destroy this nation? They all replied with one voice: “Who is he who presumes in his heart to do so!” (Esther 7:5)… If you destroy Israel, [the world cannot stand]; for it stands only through the merit of the Torah which was given to Israel… Furthermore, all the idolaters are called strangers before [God]… whereas the Israelites are called near ones… Furthermore, they are called sons, as it is written “Israelis my son, my firstborn (Exodus 4:22)… And if a man seeks to lay hands upon the relatives and children of [God], how shall he escape, since He rules over those above and those below, and the soul of all living is in His hand to raise up or to cast down, to kill or to bring to life? Take a lesson from the previous kings who transgressed by laying hands onIsrael; see what happened to them, as for instance to Pharaoh and Sennacherib.”

Haman thereupon said to them: “The God who drowned Pharaoh in the sea and performed for Israel the wonders and mighty deeds of which you have heard is now old and cannot do anything, since Nebuchadnezzar has already gone up and destroyed His house and burnt His temple and exiledIsraeland scattered them among the nations. Where is His strength and might, since He is now old?!…

When he spoke to them in this fashion, they came round to his opinion and agreed to destroy Israel, and they wrote letters and signed them… [Their letter details how the Jewish people “took advantage” of the poor Egyptians, Amalekites, Sihon and Og, Midianites, and Sisra.]

The author of Kohelet wrote (1:9) “v’ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh”, “there is nothing new under the sun”. This midrash, which was apparently edited in the eleventh century (see Zunz-Albeck, Hadrashot B’yisrael, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 129-130), could have been written yesterday. All we need to do is substitute Haniyeh or Ahmadinejad for Haman; and the United Nations for “all the wise men of the nations”. It should be noted that “the wise men of the nations” do not tell Ahashverosh not to destroy the Jews because it is immoral; only because it is too dangerous. When Haman tells them that the Jewish God is now weak and unable to protect the Jews, they immediately agree to kill all of the Jews. The United Nations as a body does not want to destroy the State of Israel, but there is no question that many of its members want to harm the State of Israel if they think they can get away with it.

VII) “Af Al Pi Khen” – Despite it All

Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Palestinein 1909. He was an important proponent of Labor Zionism and made important contributions to modern Hebrew literature. He wrote the following passage in a book review published in 1917:

Our youth throughout the world must now know the truth about the Land of Israel.  They should know that the place is not a bed of roses, that the land is poor, hardly magical, settled by others wherever something could be done, hard to settle where it is still unsettled… Wages are low, food is scarce and expensive, the needs are greater than our capacity; lofty spirituality can be found at every corner, and on top of that, malaria eats up body and soul…

All of this should be known in the Jewish Diaspora, and should give birth to a sentiment of  “af al pi khen” – “despite it all” in the hearts of our youth!  That same “despite it all” that should come at the end of all the negative calculations… Despite it all!  Especially when in Eastern Europe the future is very grim, and the present is very gloomy – for there is nothing to lose, for the yearning calls to start everything from scratch and whatever happens, happens!… And only that halutz[pioneer], whose “despite it all” becomes part of his very being, only that halutz  who is ready for everything – and not only in words, only he should be allowed to come. He and no one else. 

Yosef Hayyim Brenner, Ketavim, Tel Aviv, 1978-1985, p. 1622. My thanks to Rabbi Dr.Einat Ramon for sharing this passage and to Rabbi Ramon andEtka Leibowitz for their preliminary translation.

Af al pi khen – despite it all – this has been the motto of the State of Israel since it was founded. Arab armies and terrorists have been trying to destroy the State of Israel since 1948 and yet we have built a vibrant Jewish State which is the only democracy in the Middle East. We shall persevere despite it all because “The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalms 121:4).Am Yisrael Hai!

David Golinkin
17 Tevet 5769

Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at  The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.


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What Does Jewish Law Say about the Murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir and other Attacks Against Innocent Arabs?

During the past few years we have witnessed a growing phenomenon of “price tag” attacks in which religious Zionist teenagers attack innocent Arabs and deface Mosques as revenge for specific terror attacks or for Israeli government decisions about destroying illegal homes or settlements. On July 2nd, in the wake of the brutal murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah hy”d, six young religious Jews apparently kidnapped and brutally murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir