Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The Ideal Torah Government

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Korach, about the eponymous revolutionary who sought to change the social structure of the nation in the Wilderness. Korach infamously accused Moses and Aaron of consolidating all the power for themselves and their family. After all, the supreme leader was Moses, the high priest was his brother Aaron, the military chief of staff was best friend Joshua, and the chief of the Levites was cousin Elitzafan. The final straw may have been when, at the end of last week’s parasha, God promised the kohanim numerous privileges for their priestly service (Numbers 15). Understandably, many did not like this. Korach argued that “we are all holy”, not just the priests. As Rashi comments, Moses did agree with Korach in principle, however, the reality is that people are not the same. Moses replied to Korach with something often echoed today by those on the political right against those on the left: equality does not mean sameness.

Interestingly, the Zohar (I, 17a) tells us that Korach represented the left side of Gevurah, while Moses and Aaron stood on the right side of Chessed. It seems the divide between Left and Right already existed over three millennia ago! There is an important message here for today: we would actually expect the platform of Korach to be on the side of Chessed, “kindness”, the side of unlimited giving—after all, they want everyone to be equal and the same and receive the same benefits. And we would think that Moses should be on the left side of Gevurah, “severity”, separation, and restraint. Yet, the Zohar says it is exactly the opposite. Trying to make everyone the same is not an act of kindness at all, and will ultimately fail. The real Chessed is the position of Moses and Aaron: we are indeed equal, and should have equal opportunities, but people are not the same, and sameness cannot be imposed on society.

The total failure of the Soviet Union proved the futility of attempting to impose sameness in the form of communism and excessive socialism. The kibbutz movement in Israel was closer to the original communist ideals, and was voluntary, not imposed. It enjoyed far more success than the USSR for a time, but ultimately floundered anyway. Such utopian societies sound good in principle, but never work in reality. As the old saying goes, one who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart, and one who is still a socialist at age 40 has no brain. Still, Jews have played prominent roles in communist history, and antisemites often accuse Jews of pushing socialism. (Ironically, antisemites also accuse Jews of being greedy capitalists at the same time!) What is the actual Jewish approach to proper government and social structure? How does the Torah envision the ideal society? Continue reading

The Surprising Story of Russia, Ukraine, and the Jews

At the turn of the 8th century, a new power arose in the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas. This power was the Turkic people known as the Khazars. Around 740 CE, King Bulan of the Khazars made a fateful decision to convert to Judaism. Many in his royal family converted with him. The Khazar kingdom continued to spread far and wide, and its coins (bearing the inscription “Moses is the [True] Prophet of God”) have been uncovered by archaeologists as far as England to the west and China to the east.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

In their rapid expansion, one of the new towns that the Khazars established was on the Dnieper River, and they called the town “Sambat”. Historians are uncertain what this word means or where it comes from. Considering the Jewish background of the Khazar kings, it is quite likely that the name comes from the legendary Jewish river, the Sambatyon. It was long believed that the Lost Tribes of Israel—exiled back in the middle of the first millennium BCE—had been resettled in distant lands past the mysterious Sambatyon River. The name “Sambatyon” itself comes from “Shabbat”, as it was said the Sambatyon River would only be calm on the Sabbath, when it could not be traversed. It is possible that the Khazars who founded this town were Jews who believed the Dnieper was the Sambatyon. Or it could be that they were Jewish settlers who stopped there one Shabbat to rest, and realized it was a good place to stay, hence the name. Whatever the case, by the 10th century, Sambat was better-known by another name: Kiev.

The Byzantine king Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913-959) wrote in his De Administrando Imperio that three Khazar brothers named Kyi, Shchek, and Khoriv established “the stronghold of Kyiv, also called Sambatas.” For some time afterwards, Arabic sources refer to the city as Zanbat. In Russian history, though, the region is always referred to as Kievskaya Rus’, the very birthplace of “Mother Russia”.

Rise of the Third Rome

Kievan Rus’ in the 11th Century

In the middle of the 8th century CE, a group of Slavic settlers founded a new city, Novgorod (literally “new city”). However, they could not defend themselves against raids and attacks from surrounding tribes. In 862, they invited the Scandinavian king Rurik to take control. He did, and turned Novgorod into a powerful city, conquering neighbouring towns and tribes. His son, King Oleg, continued the expansion and, in 882, conquered Kiev. The growing kingdom was called Rus’, either in honour of the founder Rurik, or from rootsi, his Viking “rowers” that first came across the Sea to these lands. The name later gave rise to beleya-rus’, “White Russia”, ie. Belarus; to Ruthenia; and to Rossiya, Russia itself.

The Rurik Dynasty continued to wage war with the Khazars to the south for decades. The famed “Schechter Letter”, one of the greatest historical finds for understanding Khazaria, describes the battles fought against the Rus by Khazarian kings and generals with names like Benjamin, Aaron II, and even Pesach! By the end of the 10th century, Khazaria had all but disappeared. Some have posited that its many Jews fled north and west, giving rise to the Ashkenazi Jewish community (for why this is incorrect, read here). Others state that Khazaria continued to exist into the 1200s, until the Mongol invasion of the region that formally put an end to many other political entities. Continue reading

Science and the Great Flood

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about the Great Flood, when “all the fountains of the great deep split apart, and the floodgates of the skies opened” (Genesis 7:11). While it is easy to understand the rain that fell upon the Earth “for forty days and forty nights”, what is the Torah referring to when it speaks of the waters of the deep? Why does it say that the “great deep” had to be “split apart” (נִבְקְעוּ֙) to bring forth these waters? And the biggest mystery of all: how was there even enough water to cover the entire Earth with water anyway, up to the tallest mountains? Upon closer examination, we find that these mysterious waters of the deep actually hold the key to solving the entire mystery of the Flood.

Kola Superdeep Borehole

In May of 1970, Soviet scientists began drilling into the Earth’s crust in the far north of the Kola Peninsula between Norway and Russia. Their goal was to dig the deepest hole ever, and uncover what is really happening in the Earth’s innards. Nine years later, they broke the world record for depth, reaching almost 10 kilometres underground. They hit the deepest point in 1989, reaching 12,262 metres. Beyond this, they could no longer continue, for the temperature was much higher than expected (over 180ºC) and the rock became far too porous.

Along the way, the scientists found some bizarre things. One was small fossilized lifeforms more than 6 kilometres down, where lifeforms should not—and should never—have existed! Another shocking discovery was that the porous rock deep below was completely saturated with water. More recently, scientists from Northwestern University examined rocks from the mantle (which emerged from volcanoes) and found that they were composed of 1.5% water. After further research, they concluded that there is three times more water beneath the Earth’s crust than there are in all of the world’s oceans! The temperature down there is very high, but so is the pressure, keeping the water liquid and squeezing it out of the porous rocks. With this in mind, we can solve a number of great mysteries.

First, we now have a scientific source for where much of the water for the Flood came from. Rain clouds alone would not have been enough. Note how the Torah mentions the waters of the great deep first, before mentioning the rain, implying that the former was the more significant source of water. Second, we can better understand the Torah’s precise language, since it says the depths had to be “split apart” for the floodwaters to emerge. This splitting apart would certainly be required for all that water in the mantle beneath to emerge. Third, we can actually solve a scientific mystery for the baffled scientists at Kola who found fossilized ancient lifeforms deep below: Perhaps those lifeforms ended up there when the floodwaters returned underground and the surface closed back up, sealing lifeforms from above down beneath in a place where they otherwise could never have gotten.

There is one more wonderful confirmation of all this when we look at the way our Sages described the Flood: the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) states that the floodwaters that came from below, “between their legs”, was boiling hot! This was measure for measure justice from God, since the people “sinned with heat, so they were punished with heat”. Heat here is a euphemism for sexual sin, and since the pre-Flood generation abused their nether regions, “between their legs”, God made sure that those floodwaters that came from below were boiling hot. Recall that the scientists at Kola were surprised that the temperature below was much hotter than they expected (yet the water remained in liquid form). They had to stop drilling because the rock was too mushy and “like plastic”. It is worth adding that the same page of Talmud says the water from below was not only hot, but also thick.

“Setting the Earth Upon the Waters”

There is one more fascinating mystery that can be solved with the scientific discovery of the Earth’s inner waters. Each morning, in Birkot HaShachar, we thank God for “setting the earth upon the waters” (רוקַע הָאָרֶץ עַל הַמָּיִם). This blessing troubled me for years. What does it mean that the earth is set upon the waters? Earth’s crust is set upon the rocky mantle, lying above the molten core—and the waters are resting upon the crust! It all seemed backwards. Yet, now we can see, as is often the case, that the Sages phrased it correctly all along: the crust is resting upon a mantle that is full of water, three times more water than in all the oceans! With that, we can appreciate this berakhah much more deeply, and recite it with ever-more kavanah.