Larry Gordon: Talmudic Peace


5tjt1.gifIt’s a curious repetitiousness. If someone says that he’s not going to benefit from his friend, or his neighbor, or his wife, the implications of his exact words—what he says and how he says it—are discussed again and again. The current daily daf of Tractate Nedarim (“Vows”) seems, on the surface, to drone on about nearly the same things day after day, with a few very fascinating digressions every now and then.

Perhaps all the reiteration communicates the message of how vital it is to be scrupulously careful about what you say and how you say it. While that’s a good idea all the time, and indeed a necessary formula to maintain all kinds of personal and other peace, there is something in the language of the Talmud here that has to make you think. One of the messages is precision in the way words are used. No phrase—not even any syllable—can or should be considered superfluous.

At the other end of the equation, it is equally important to listen with attentiveness to what is being said, what is intended by any particular combination of words, and what type of thoughts are generating those words. The power of speech is the most important element of who we are, and it differentiates us from other living organisms.

But sometimes that which seems like redundancy or exactly what you heard or saw the day before can be puzzling. Take the current talks between Israeli officials and their Palestinian counterparts now taking place. For the last few weeks, almost as if keeping stride with the daily daf, there’s been a back-and-forth that makes you want to take a second look, pull up your chair to your Gemara or your computer screen, and analyze the ideas, the utterances, and the writings a little more deeply and with more attention.

For the past few months, on a daily basis, this has been the recurring theme: Mr. Olmert says that, while he is negotiating with the Palestinians, he is not discussing Jerusalem, as per his commitment to the Shas party, which is an integral component of his current ruling coalition. A few hours after that, a Palestinian leader or party to the negotiations issues a statement or tells a reporter that Olmert’s comments are unfounded, that the future of Jerusalem is very much on the agenda, and so on.

The next day, Olmert’s people or he himself says that it’s not true—that there is no discussion about dividing Jerusalem, that Jerusalem will remain united and the eternal capital of Israel. They add that there is no ongoing discussion between the parties about what will be the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem. Then, to either clarify or muddle things further, the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, issues a statement that says that Jerusalem is not on the official agenda, but that it is on the unofficial agenda. This is interpreted as meaning that it is being discussed “under the table,” which is also a violation of the commitment to Shas.

To make things better, or maybe it’s worse, the Palestinian spokesperson agrees and disagrees at the same time. He tells reporters that Jerusalem is being discussed both “on the table and under the table.”

So if a man makes a neder, a vow, that he will not enter a house, is he allowed to be in that house? It’s possible that he would still be allowed in the house. His vow was to not enter the house; that means, perhaps, that his stated commitment was to not pass through the doorway or cross the threshold, but no one said anything about not being in the house. If he or she can figure out a way to be in the house without entering the house, then has the vow been violated?

So, maybe the Olmert people said that Jerusalem would not be placed on the agenda. And maybe they kept their commitment with the aid of some Talmudic logic and circumvention, all within the confines of their promise to Shas. Now if there is anyone who can appreciate these maneuverings, it has to be the Torah scholars who rule, run, and serve inside the Shas party’s political machine. So how did Jerusalem get on the agenda if the commitment was to not place it there? The key to the whole equation might be the comment about the city being discussed “under the table.”

The confirmations, denials, and reiterations can make anyone dizzy. Who’s telling the truth? Is there anything resembling the truth here—is there any truth within a thousand miles of any of these statements? Mr. Olmert, when further asserting that he is willing to make painful concessions for peace, usually quickly follows this up by saying that he can assure anyone listening that Jerusalem will not be divided. After these statements are released, we are customarily treated to a Palestinian announcement that says that Israel and the Arabs have already drawn up a secret, not-so-secret, agreement on how to divide Israel’s capital city.

But wait a second—what is the real meaning of the word divide, anyway? While there are varying definitions subject to interpretation, most frequently to divide something means to split it. To split an item, whether it’s a piece of cake, a tray of sushi, or a capital city, usually means to split evenly or cut in half. Ehud Olmert might be dreaming about separating or breaking apart sections of Jerusalem, but I doubt that he is planning on cutting it in half. So he’s on the mark when he says he has no plans to divide Jerusalem. Break it up? Maybe. Divide it? Definitely not.

This approach may be covered in Nedarim, too, in the section of the Talmud about the man who promises not to use anything that belongs to his friend, or vows not to have benefit from anything that his friend or neighbor possesses. The scenario in the Talmud deals with two men who are in this situation but who are also partners in a field. The Gemara paints a scenario where the man is allowed to walk anywhere in the field that he desires, because, it can be argued, he owns a theoretical half of the land, in which case wherever he steps can conceivably belong to him.

If this kind of approach could be applied to Jerusalem, Olmert and the others would probably jump at the opportunity. If only he could sell Israel’s enemy on the concept that on whichever area a person steps in Jerusalem, whether Arab or Jew, those “dalet amos” (four cubits) belong to that person. It can be called a portable peace process—wherever you step, the solution to the Jerusalem problem steps with you. We may have something here, but I don’t think Mahmoud Abbas knows this shtickel Gemara.

And then there is the issue with Shas. Not “gantz Shas” (the entire Talmud), but rather the political party that keeps saying, or promising, or swearing/vowing to leave the Olmert government if Jerusalem is discussed. Can you imagine in the wildest scenario that Abbas and Olmert or Livni and her counterpart, Abu Ala, have not discussed Jerusalem? Or is it that they only discussed amongst themselves how to keep the Jerusalem discussion off the agenda? If that’s the case, then indeed the Shas redline has not been crossed. This week, Shas leader Eli Yishai changed his carefully crafted word combinations to say that if talks on Jerusalem “continue,” his party will bring down the government. In the past he’s always said that if talks “begin” on the capital, his party is out. This is seen as acknowledgment that talks on Jerusalem are certainly ongoing.

Now, I understand the Shas party’s promise is to become effective at the time that the division of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital goes on the agenda. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that talks are ongoing and that Olmert will quickly and sneakily—when done—announce that the two sides have reached an agreement on Jerusalem. Olmert, for his part, said the day before, through his spokesman, that he had met with Mr. Abbas and that the topic of Jerusalem did not even come up in their two-hour meeting. Abbas said that of course they discussed Jerusalem. To this, Foreign Minister Livni said that at the Annapolis conference in November, it was understood that “nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.” This could mean that until there is a meeting of the minds on an issue, the discussion on that issue may not have even technically existed.

We’re getting to the point here where neither the lies nor the truth are believable anymore. For the past two weeks, the Arab side has been saying that negotiations without Jerusalem’s status at the top of the list of priorities was pointless. Then they finally get together and the subject does not come up? Did they forget? Then there is this wild idea about trying to come to an agreement about everything and leaving the sensitive talks about Jerusalem to the very end.

This strikes me as absurd. Why spend possibly years discussing other things when you know that when you finally get to talk about Jerusalem there is no basis for an agreement and the process will eventually collapse? And then there is the observation by Olmert that Abbas is the only chance for peace with the Palestinians. He says that if we don’t hurry and make peace with him, there is no other like-minded Palestinian leader anywhere on the horizon. If that’s the case, I believe that this alone is a reason not to enter into any agreement with Abbas. He is already 72 years old, and there are media reports that he is ill, but that his illness is being kept secret (or as secret as possible in the Mideast) so as not to dash the hopes of Israel in its generosity in distributing land for a Palestinian state. Additionally, even if he is well, Abbas—like his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat—has so far not kept one agreement struck with Israel to date. So where are we rushing?

And finally, after Wednesday’s meeting in Jerusalem, the parties agreed to expand the committees to discuss other areas of eventual peace. The objective is to do that so as to distract attention away from what is called “core issues.” One of those areas to be discussed and reported to the media on regularly is the “culture of peace.” That means making efforts on both sides (mostly the Arab side) to stop incitement. This might include curbing pronouncements by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who says that not only is Jerusalem occupied and in need of being ceded to his people, but that Gilo, Ramot, Har Nof, and other areas are occupied, too.

Our Sages say to learn Torah and to “learn it and learn it again, because everything is in it.” Who would have thought that it includes this two-timing, double-talking, laden-with-trickery-and-deception peace process? Indeed, thankfully, it’s all there.


  1. As soon as I saw in the first paragraph the words, “Tractate Nedarim (”Vows”) seems, on the surface, to drone on about nearly the same things day after day, with a few very fascinating digressions every now and then…”

    I stopped reading.

    Any writer who has so very little Torah knowledge as to consider Maseches Nedarim “droning on” doesn’t deserve the time of day.

    YW should refrain from giving voice to those who do not carry the Mesorah of Torah. Any “Tom, Dick and LARRY” can write a newspaper – but if it doesn’t have the backing of Gedolim, we should stay away from it. And Mr. Gordon, obviously, didn’t show his article to a single Gadol before publishing his “newspaper.” His take on Maseches Nedarim would have been axed immediately, IMHO.

    Perhaps the author should spend more time really learning Gemorah and less time putting out the print-drivel known as the 5 Town Jewish Times.

  2. man, some people are so critical and nasty of others. Maybe, if you dont have something nice to say, you should keep it to yourself. I think thats even more important.