On May 31, 2020, American Jewry lost a giant. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, the longtime president of Yeshiva University (YU), was one of the nation’s foremost defenders Orthodox Judaism and exponents of the Torah U’Madda—Torah and secular knowledge—philosophy that animates Modern Orthodoxy.

 

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The so-called “rise of the nones” is a trend that has been going on for decades in the U.S., as more and more Americans, when asked about their religion on surveys, are checking the box labeled “none.” With this trend strongest among millennials and members of Generation Z, the future seems clear: we are becoming a more secular country.

Or are we?

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Discussions about “cancel culture,” the practice of stigmatizing and ostracizing a person or institution deemed to have transgressed political correctness, have become ubiquitous in the United States. From the campus to the boardroom to the newsroom, the cost of having ever said or thought the wrong thing can now put one’s reputation and livelihood at risk. And there is no path for the accused to enjoy ablution, to wash away the sin of wrongthink. Public figures of all kinds, from politics to journalism, have been accused and tried in the court of public opinion without the ability to defend themselves. American culture seems to be undergoing a kind of revolution, fomented in social media, that is reshaping the contours of our public life.

In this podcast, Jonathan Silver is joined by Professor Gary Saul Morson to discuss his 2019 New Criterion essay, “Leninthink.” Morson’s essay is not about Lenin the man, nor is it about Lenin’s ideology. Leninthink is actually anti-ideological. It is a cast of mind, and a political tactic that utilizes ideology to wage political revolution. At a time when cancel culture threatens to tear down the universities, the museums, and the press, Morson’s study is more important than ever.

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Professor Wilfred McClay penned his essay, “The Soul of a Nation,” just three years after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The essay—a deep reflection on the history, nature, and future of American civic religion—was written in part as a response to the deep questions American were asking themselves about civil society, faith, and public life in the aftermath of moment of deep and profound crisis.

The United States again finds itself in a moment of pain and crisis. In the spirit of helping us think more profoundly about our soul as a people, we are rebroadcasting our 2017 podcast with Professor McClay revisiting his essay.

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Jewish institutions have not been immune from the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer camps and other revenue generators have been canceled, and donations are predictably down. What does this mean for Jewish life America—especially for the denominational infrastructure that has loomed so large for so long?

When the crisis is over, will congregants return to synagogues with renewed enthusiasm or will they continue to enjoy livestreamed services from the comfort of their homes? Will the liberal denominations—already plagued by declining memberships and tenuous commitment—be able to recover? Could the Reform and Conservative denominations merge some of their institutional infrastructure under the pressure of Coronavirus-induced changes, as the Union for Reform Judaism’s president Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently suggested?

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As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the United States and Israel, and those nations’ governments and public institutions responded with quarantines and social-distancing guidelines, the Jewish community was placed in a unique bind. Passover—the most widely observed holiday in the Jewish world, on which families and friends traditionally gather for the seder—was just around the corner. With the world on lockdown, what would the seder look like?

The liberal denominations of Judaism responded quickly, encouraging the use of now-ubiquitous video conferencing technology to host “Zoom seders” and providing guidance on how to do so. But the Zoom seder was not such a simple answer for the Orthodox, who generally refrain from using electronic devices and other technologies on Shabbat and holidays. In late March, a group of Israeli rabbis from the Moroccan community issued a radical ruling, permitting the limited use of Zoom on the seder night. But this ruling was met with swift backlash among the majority of the Orthodox rabbinate, which ruled Zoom seders forbidden.

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The biblical book of Exodus “not only recounts the founding of the Israelite nation, one of the world’s oldest and most consequential peoples…but also sheds light on enduring questions about nation building and peoplehood.” So writes Dr. Leon Kass in the introduction to his scintillating, profound, and meticulously close reading of Exodus, Founding God’s Nation, forthcoming from Yale University Press in January 2021. In this remarkable commentary, Kass masterfully draws out, line by line and chapter by chapter, the enduring moral, philosophical, and political significance of this most important biblical book.

In April 2020, just ahead of Passover, Mosaic published an excerpt from Dr. Kass’s book, as “The People-Forming Passover.” The essay focuses on the events of the night before and the morning of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt—events rehearsed each year at the Passover table—and on their significance in the formation of the Jewish nation. In this week’s podcast, Kass sits down with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver to explore and elucidate his essay.

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The so-called “right of return” is one of the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s thorniest issues. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, as many as 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven from what had been mandatory Palestine. Since then, and unlike most of the world’s other refugee populations, the official number of Palestinian refugees has not declined, but exploded. The United Nations has decided that the refugee status of the Palestinians passes down from generation to generation, so that children born today are classified as refugees in the same way their grandparents were—an attitude that is contrary to its policy for all other displaced groups. And as a consequence, even when neighboring Arab countries make an effort to integrate Palestinians and their descendants, they are counted as refugees.

Why did this happen? In The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz explain that the persistence of the Palestinian refugee problem is part of the broader Palestinian war—waged not only with rockets, knives, and bullets, but also through international bodies, NGOs, and the media—against the very existence of the Jewish state. They also show how Western indulgence of this manufactured problem has harmed the effort to achieve an end to the conflict.

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Have you ever seen the old murals that decorate the walls of Israel’s historic kibbutzim? They often feature young, brawny Jewish men and women working and plowing the land. They evoke the pioneering spirit of early Zionism: glorifying the mixing of sweat and soil, focused on what Hebrew labor could achieve through cooperation and collective action, and strikingly statist, even socialist. These murals are, in fact, a stark reminder that the Jewish state was founded in large part by Labor Zionists, and that the Israeli Left once dominated the country’s politics. Things have changed a great deal over the past 72 years. Israel is now a nation with a strong conservative consensus. The Labor Party of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir—the political organization that erected the governing structures of the country—has been reduced to a mere three seats in the 23rd Knesset. And a poll conducted earlier this month shows that if elections were to be held right now, the party that dominated Israeli politics for decades would not win a single seat in the next Knesset.

What happened? And what does Labor’s decline tell us about contemporary Israel? Earlier this week, the journalist and author Matti Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times examining “The Last Remnants of the Israeli Left.” In this podcast, he joins host Jonathan Silver to discuss the history and precipitous decline of socialist politics in Israel.

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Like so many nations around the world, Israel has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, the Jewish state has over 14,000 confirmed cases of the virus, and over 180 deaths. Among those who have suffered most from the pandemic are Israel’s ultra-Orthodox. The haredi public was slow to recognize the threat of the disease—keeping its synagogues and houses of study open even as the rest of the country closed down. Many haredim initially failed to observe the “social-distancing” protocols that have helped to slow the virus’s spread, and the results are clear: confirmed coronavirus cases in the haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in predominately ultra-Orthodox cities like Bnei Brak are among the highest in the country

Though things have begun to turn around, with more leading rabbis instructing their followers to observe social distancing to curb the pandemic, the question remains: why was the haredi public initially so reluctant so join the rest of Israel in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19?

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Yoga represents a $16-billion industry in the U.S., reaching an estimated 36.7 million people in 2016 alone. And the Jewish community enjoys it as much as any other. One hears of synagogue-sponsored yoga programs and yoga minyanim (quorums). Even a right-wing Orthodox educational organization like Aish HaTorah has seen fit to re-post on its website an item titled “How Orthodox Jews Taught Me Yoga.” In a stimulating Mosaic essay on the subject, Menachem Wecker asks if the very thing that gets people excited about yoga, namely that it is not just physical exercise but spiritual nourishment as well, should force us to think about how it relates to Jewish faith. How much of contemporary yoga, a product of today’s “wellness culture,” is still seriously connected to its Hindu origins? What about the statues and other visual representations of non-Jewish divinities that adorn so many yoga studios? Is yoga a form of contemporary idolatry?

In this podcast, Jonathan Silver is joined by the author Menachem Wecker to discuss his March 2020 essay, “Shibboleths and Sun Salutations: Should Religious Jews Practice Yoga?” published in Mosaic.

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With the recent agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, a governing coalition is at long last beginning to emerge in Israel. After three national elections in a single year, the Jewish state will soon have a regular cabinet and resume the work of government. It couldn’t have happened at a better time. The coronavirus pandemic will have significant effects on Israel’s politics and economy, while Israel’s citizens continue to live under threat of attack from enemies in the Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. And questions remain about what will become of the Trump peace plan, especially with American elections just a few months away. In this podcast, Jonathan Silver is joined by Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a member of the Department of Computer Science at Bar-Ilan University, and one of Israel’s leading conservative political activists and policy experts. They analyze the causes of Israel’s political crisis, explain how it finally came to an end, and probe the larger significance of these recent events in Israeli history. Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble. This podcast was recorded as part of an exclusive conference call for members of the Tikvah Society. If you want to learn more about joining the Tikvah Society, click here.

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In the past two months, the Coronavirus has spread rapidly around the globe, affecting nearly every nation in the world. As disruptive and damaging as this pandemic has been in the United States, Israel, and Europe, it has been far more devastating in Iran, where mass graves have been dug to bury its victims. Official statistics paint a dreadful picture of the situation there, but Iranian citizens have taken to social media to tell that world that the reality on the ground is even worse than these statistics suggest. After refusing for weeks to heed the advice of its own experts and impose social-distancing measures, the regime recently took the drastic step of canceling the annual celebration of its nuclear program. Why has the Islamic Republic been so hard hit? Is there any truth to the Iranian foreign minister’s complaint that American sanctions are to blame? And thinking strategically, what implications will the COVID-19 crisis have for the conflict between Iran and the U.S.?

In this podcast, Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran joins Jonathan Silver to answer these questions and more.

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Understanding the soul of a nation requires more than understanding the way it orders its laws and governing institutions. True understanding demands that we also look at a people’s culture—its art, its theater, and its music. In this podcast, we are joined by the author, intellectual, and Hartman Institute fellow Yossi Klein Halevi to explore the transformation of Israel music throughout the history of the Jewish state. We will look at the music that characterized Israel’s early years—music that emerged out of the Ashkenazi, socialist, kibbutz ethos of the Labor Zionist governing elite. We’ll see how, over time, Israeli music came to draw on its diasporic history, especially that of the Mizrahim—the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East—a shift that mirrors and illuminates broader changes in Israeli society over the past five decades.

 

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Over the past two decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has financed terrorism, civil war, and repression throughout the Middle East—and even in Europe and Latin America—while working to develop nuclear weapons. What can the U.S. do to pressure Iran to stop? And how can it do so without involving American forces in a costly and dangerous military confrontation?

In this episode of the Tikvah Podcast, we are joined by Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He looks at the future America’s Iran policy, and focuses in particular on one tool in the American arsenal: economic sanctions. Goldberg and our guest host, Tikvah alumna Talia Katz, discuss how the Trump administration’s sanctions build on the foundations laid by previous administrations and how President Trump’s approach differs from that of his predecessor.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt has long been one of the most admired presidents among American Jews. He led the nation out of the depression and ultimately brought a previously isolationist America into World War II. Together with Churchill and Stalin, he defeated the greatest Jewish enemy of the 20th century—Hitler and the Third Reich that elected him.

And yet questions have always lingered about the president’s conduct. Why would this friend of the Jews close the gates of the country to those fleeing certain death? Why didn’t the Americans bomb the tracks to the concentration camps and disable or destroy the death factories that the Nazis were operating there day and night? Moreover, why was the American Jewish community, so silent in the face of this neglect? Why did they fail to advocate for the Jews of Europe when so much was at stake?

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Since the administration of President Jimmy Carter, nearly every American president has sought to attain the holy grail of diplomacy: a solution to the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors. In some ways, the Trump Administration’s new peace initiative, “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” is merely another proposal for an American-brokered arrangement, the next plan in a line of many.

But its vision is based on political premises that reveal a fundamentally different understanding of American interests in the region. From its approach to Israeli settlements and the “land for peace” paradigm to the nature of its ambitions and its conception of America’s role, this new plan, whether it proves successful or not, could come to be seen as the beginning of new era in Israeli security and regional order.

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In the year 2020, we live in the shadow of the sexual revolution. The radical changes in sexual mores and family life that American society experienced in the 1960s and 1970s still reverberate today, having made their impact on everything from popular culture and public education to religious life and the most divisive political controversies.

What caused this massive social revolution? How should Jews think about what it has meant for our own way of life? And what vision of sex, romance, and family can Judaism offer the world?

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Kendra Espinoza is a low-income single mother from Montana who applied for a tax-credit scholarship program—created by the state legislature in 2015—that would allow her to keep her daughters enrolled in a private Christian school. But soon after implementing the program, the state banned any of the scholarship funds from going to religious schools, thus excluding Espinoza and her family from receiving support.

The ensuing legal battle made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue last month. The case implicates the religion clauses of the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and the notorious “Blaine Amendments” adopted by many states during the heyday of anti-Catholic bigotry in America.

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Since the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza denied the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, traditional Jews have had to contend with serious intellectual challenges to the doctrine of the divine origin of the Scripture. This challenge has only grown stronger in recent years, with many young Jews at elite universities encountering academic biblical criticism, and the growth of online projects like TheTorah.com exposing ever-greater numbers of Orthodox Jews to contemporary scholarship about the historicity of the Bible, the authorship of Scripture, and the Torah’s ancient Near Eastern context.

Are there rational and persuasive responses to the arguments put forth by Bible critics? Can Jews who value tradition and the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible engage with academic scholarship with intellectual integrity? Can those who seek wisdom from the best of Jewish and Western thought craft a coherent worldview? Should traditional Jews retreat from heretical challenges to their faith or engage with the academy on its own terms?

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