“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Robert Frost (“The Exposed Nest”)
The sections on purity and impurity in the book of Leviticus—which make up nearly a quarter of the book—are some of the most difficult for the modern reader of the Bible. The laws are complicated, the terminology obscure, the theological or moral message (if there is one) far from obvious, and some of the details (leprous houses, impure females) seeming logically or morally suspect. Even for the religiously observant Jewish reader, these passages, dealing with areas of halakhah rendered moot until the ultimate restoration of the Temple, may have little resonance.
One of the most confounding of such passages appears at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13). Here God tells Moses that when a woman gives birth to a child, she is impure for several weeks, after which she must offer two distinct sacrifices: an “olah,” or burnt offering, and a “ḥatat,” or sin offering…