Erdogan says Trump's Mideast peace plan 'absolutely unacceptable and Talmudic Law-understanding it and US and Israeli leaders Announce Major Policy Changes at Kohelet Policy Forum Conference By Israel Kasnett and US Ambassador Friedman Revealing the Brilliance of Trump’s Strategy
Yehuda Lave is an author, journalist, psychologist, rabbi, spiritual teacher and coach, with degrees in business, psychology and Jewish Law. He works with people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning, business advice on saving money, and spiritual engagement
Erdogan says Trump's Mideast peace plan 'absolutely unacceptable
Turkish president blasts Trump plan, calls Jerusalem "sacred for Muslims", condemns proposal to leave city under Israeli control.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lambasted a Middle East plan unveiled by US counterpart Donald Trump as "absolutely unacceptable" in comments published Wednesday.
"Jerusalem is sacred for Muslims. The plan to give Jerusalem to Israel is absolutely unacceptable. This plan ignores Palestinians' rights and is aimed at legitimizing Israel's occupation," Erdogan said, quoted by CNN Turk broadcaster.
"The plan outlined will not serve peace or bring about a solution," he added.
Trump revealed Tuesday the long-awaited plan aimed at resolving the Israeli-Arabconflict, saying Jerusalem would remain Israel's "undivided capital".
As part of the plan, future Palestinian statehood would be based on a series of strict conditions -- including requiring the future state to be "demilitarized" and Hamas to be disarmed.
Turkey-Israel relations are currently tense while Erdogan regards himself as a champion of the Palestinian Authority's cause.
When Washington recognized the capital of Israel as Jerusalem in 2017 and moved the embassy there, Turkish officials repeatedly criticized Trump's decision.
US Ambassador Friedman Revealing the Brilliance of Trump's Strategy
Last month at the Kohelet/Shilo Policy Forum Pompeo Doctrine Conference in Jerusalem, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the following regarding the legality of settlements in Judea & Samaria: "the name Judea says it all. It is the biblical heartland of Israel. You don't need a PhD or a law degree to know who has a good claim to this land," he said. "The answer, with all due respect to the scholars, is just obvious. Because it's so obvious, because the right of Israel to settle in Judea and Samaria is so obvious, the goalposts started to move."
We are so thankful to President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador David Friedman for moving the goalposts to be finally be based on fundamental truths.
Upon closer consideration of Trump's new Vision for Peace, there is a huge amount to like about it. First, and least importantly, it is bringing out the true colors of the Israeli left. "Peace Now" condemned the plan, which just goes to show that, despite their name, they are not interested at all in peace – only in opposing any claim that the Jewish nation has to the Land of Israel, and ultimately in destroying the country. The Labor-Meretz party also condemned the plan, which shows that, despite their decades of policy, Labor is nothing more than Meretz, and that both are interested in not in peace but in weakening Israel. If they continue to stridently oppose the plan, both parties combined may find themselves outside the Knesset come March 3. That would basically eliminate the Israeli left from serious Israeli politics.
On the right, there is also opposition, which comes mainly from two groups. One is made up of people who live in Judea and Samaria, and not even all those who live there. There are serious arguments to be made against the plan from those residents and those arguments deserve to be heard and addressed in a serious manner. The second is from those on the right who refuse on principle to consider anything that holds out even the tiniest potential for an Arab state within the Land of Israel. Their opposition is understandable, given the historical and Biblical Jewish claim to all of the Land of Israel. But they completely miss the point of this plan. In a certain way, so do the more serious opponents among the residents of Judea and Samaria.
The point of the deal is something that can only be seen between the lines. Despite what his political opponents may claim, Donald Trump is no idiot. Neither is anyone among his "peace team". He and they knew exactly what they were doing.
US and Israeli leaders Announce Major Policy Changes at Kohelet Policy Forum Conference By Israel Kasnett
) It's not often that the public hears major announcements from leaders. So when a number of top American and Israeli political figures appeared at last week's Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, it was clear they had something important to share. The conference focused on the aptly named "Pompeo Doctrine," a statement by the Trump administration in November that Israel's settlement enterprise is not illegal under international law.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in a recorded address, opened the conference by announcing that the United States is "disavowing" the 1978 Hansell Memorandum, a State Department memo that claimed Israeli settlements violate international law.
This was the first major development announced at the conference.
Pompeo said, "We're recognizing that these settlements don't inherently violate international law. That is important. We're disavowing the deeply flawed 1978 Hansell memo, and we're returning to a balanced and sober Reagan-era approach."
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman spoke at the conference and confirmed that U.S. policy also states that "Israelis, Jews have the right to live in Judea and Samaria."
He highlighted the three major long-standing issues that the Trump administration has changed. First, the U.S. officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its embassy there. Second, the United States recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory. Third, the United States has now recognized that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria do not violate international law.
Regarding the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically in terms of Judea and Samaria, Friedman said "the proverbial goal posts have moved and moved—to the point today where they are no longer even on the field."
Friedman went on to say that "the Pompeo Doctrine does not resolve the conflict over Judea and Samaria, but it does move the goalposts back onto the field. It does not obfuscate the very real issue that two million or more Palestinians reside in Judea and Samaria. … The Pompeo Doctrine says clearly that Israelis have a right to live in Judea and Samaria. But it doesn't say the Palestinians don't. Rather, it calls for a practical negotiated resolution of the conflict that improves lives on both sides."
The second somewhat big announcement was by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he repeated his previously declared pledge that his government "will not allow the uprooting of any community, Jewish or Arab, under any peace plan."
"The principles are simple," he said. "Israel has and will continue to have security control west of Jordan, Jerusalem will never be divided, and settlements will not be uprooted."
The third piece of interesting news was announced by Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. He told the conference that he is establishing a special task force to prevent illegal Palestinian construction in Israeli-controlled areas of Judea and Samaria, known as "Area C."
Bennett also announced that he would work to develop and legalize unauthorized outposts throughout Judea and Samaria.
These three important announcements are major and positive developments for those who believe that Israel is on the right side of history.
Avi Bell, an Israeli professor of law at the University of the San Diego School of Law and at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS that what Pompeo said was "very simple and obvious."
"The real question," said Bell, "is why does he have to say it at all? It is a wonderful act of courage for him to say that simple truth [that settlements are not illegal according to international law]. Of course they are not, per se, illegal!"
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, was deeply satisfied with Pompeo's declaration. "American policy is now clearer than ever; Jews living in Judea and Samaria is not a crime," he told JNS.
"For decades, the obscure Carter-era memo was used as justification for anti-Israel policies, despite the fact that its conclusions were rejected by subsequent administrations," he said. "Pompeo's statement makes clear the U.S.'s wholesale rejection of the legal theory that holds that international law restricts Israeli Jews from moving into areas from which Jordan had ethnically cleansed them in 1949."
"The notion that it is not a war crime for Jews to live in the areas of Judea and Samaria is not rocket science. It is not an exotic position," he added.
Kontorovich noted that there are plenty of people who argue that it's impossible to present Israel's side since the international community has already made up its mind that settlements are illegal, and that Judea and Samaria is not "disputed," but rather "occupied."
"That treats our international and diplomatic rights like a game show. If international law were a game of 'Survivor,' we would have been voted off the island a long time ago," he quipped. "But it is not. There are principles, and those principles need to be consistent across context, and they are demonstrable."
"I hope soon other countries will also follow the visionary leadership of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo," he said.
A Shul With A Story: Shomrei Emunah – Keepers of The Faith By Judy Waldman
Kedusha. That is the word that kept reverberating through my mind as I walked into the Shomrei Emunah synagogue and it only heightened throughout my visit.
I knocked on the door of the magnificent edifice at the corner of 52nd Street and 14th Avenue in Borough Park and was greeted by Mr. Shloime B. Ellner. I introduced myself and explained that friends in Florida had recommended Shomrei Emunah for an article. I could hear a shiur being given in one room. The only other person I could see was a solitary figure in a large study sitting at a table with an open sefer. Mr. Ellner told me that Rav Shmuel Dovid Friedman spends so much time learning that he has very little time to spare so I should have my one question ready for him. Mr. Ellner unlocked the door to the study and it was the beginning of an incredible one-hour experience with Rav Friedman – an hour of heightened kedusha.
My one question was a generic: "What can you tell me about your shul?" The Rav started with a story about HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, with whom he has a close and long-standing relationship. On one particular visit to see him in Bnei Brak in the 1980s, Rav Chaim told of a man who needed a medical procedure to save his life. It was very expensive, $10,000 per week, and could Rav Friedman raise the money. Rav Friedman came back to New York not sure how he could raise that amount of money every week. He decided to put ads in newspapers. Amazingly, every single week the money was raised, $8,000 a week from the ad in The Jewish Press.
Rav Friedman then told me that all these years he had never expressed hakaras hatov to The Jewish Press and was happy to be able to thank the newspaper and its readers.
Rav Friedman continued to speak of HaRav Kanievsky and reached into his wallet where he kept a small packet with a half-shekel coin that had been blessed. I was honored when he gave it to me to keep.
Congregation Shomrei Emunah was established in 1907 and in 1910 built a Romanesque Revival style yellow brick edifice, which it still occupies today. Numerous talmidei chachamim founded Shomrei Emunah. Over the years it has become known as "The Mother of Jewish Institutions" due to the offshoots that were established from it: Beth El (see A Shul With A Story, June 26, 2019), Congregation Anshe Sfard, and Bnai Yehuda. Shul members were also credited with establishing organizations such as Yeshivas Etz Chaim (Hebrew Institute of Borough Park), Borough Park's first Jewish day school and a very popular yeshiva and Israel Zion Hospital, now known as Maimonides Medical Center.
A long line of distinguished rabbis served the kehillah, which might be why the Chofetz Chaim was known to have said that Gedolim traveling to America should visit Shomrei Emunah upon arriving. Rabbi Wolf (Zev) Gold was the shul's rabbi from 1928-1935. Rabbi Gold was the founder of the Williamsburg Talmud Torah and is credited with being the first President of the Board at Mesivta Torah Vodaas and the one who chose the name of the now iconic yeshiva. During those early years, numerous esteemed rabbis visited the synagogue including Rav Elchonon Wasserman, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz.
Dr. Harry Wohlberg was Shomrei Emunah's rabbi from 1935-1973. Rabbi Wohlberg was also a professor at Yeshiva University during that time and later served as Vice-President of the Religious Zionists of America. Rabbi Wohlberg served on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America in addition to being a trustee of Bar-Ilan University. Rabbi Wohlberg's three sons were all rabbis. Rabbi Jeremiah Wohlberg recalls going to shul in the 1950s and seeing a large contingent of emigrants, many of them Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms. The shul was also known to be staunchly Zionist. Shomrei Emunah hosted all of the leadership of the Zionist movement prior to and subsequent to the establishment of the State of Israel. Rabbi Zev Gold, who had made aliyah at that point, was one of the original signatories on Israel's Declaration of Independence.
The renowned Rabbi Yaakov Pollak, zt"l, who was niftar this past May, served as the Morah D'asra from 1973-2008. Rav Friedman told of the heroic efforts and success of Rav Pollak in rescuing the manuscripts of Rav Yitzchak Eizik Krasilschikov, known as the Gaon of Poltava, from Russia. During the 1970s, Rav Pollak made numerous trips every year behind the Iron Curtain to rescue the Poltava Gaon's twenty-volume dual-commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi (twenty thousand pages) and other great works; all were transferred and removed in secret and accomplished with great humility. Thus what is recognized as the clearest and best explanation of the Talmud Yerushalmi is still learned in batei medrashim today in large part due to Rav Pollack.
Since 2008, Rabbi Aviezer Cohen has been the shul's spiritual leader. He has given a Gemara shiur, Chevras Shas, between Mincha and Maariv for over 40 years. He is a talmid of Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik of Yerushalayim and of Rav Aharon Kotler.
While many in Boro Park are at the chassidishe end of the spectrum, Shomrei Emunah still offers a place for all people living in the community. It is a true makom of learning and tefillah.
This still vibrant shul has a profusion of minyanim and shiurim. There are 2-3 weekday minyanim for Shacharis, one for Mincha, and two for Maariv. Attendance numbers in the hundreds and an average Shabbos sees 60-70 women in the ezras nashim. There is a 7am minyan for Shabbos, a 9am minyan with a chazzan, and a 9:15 minyan without. The 7am Shabbos minyan was started so that family members with a relative in nearby Maimonides Hospital could daven early and then go to the hospital or nearby nursing homes. It's the earliest of its kind in the area.
In its heyday, when mainstream Orthodox Judaism was at its peak in Boro Park and Shomrei Emunah was the jewel, the shul saw 500-600 people on a typical Shabbos. My friend who recommended I visit told me that Rabbi Pollack was his mesader kedushin. He spoke affectionately of Shomrei Emunah smiling as he recalled the men wearing top hats as they sat in the seats of honor at the bima.
One sign of the vitality of Shomrei Emunah today can be seen in the success of its numerous daily shiurim. There are two daf yomi shiurim, one in English and one in Yiddish, classes on TalmudYerushalmi, Mishnayos, and others given over in Hebrew, English, or both. The Avos Ubonim learning program draws approximately 150 participants on motzei Shabbos. Twice this year the shul was misayem Shas.
Back to my original question. The Rav shared that some years ago there was a regular shiur with about 15 men. One day, without forethought and not knowing why, he asked if there were any men who had given $100,000 to a worthy cause. Many hands went up. The Rav then asked if anyone had given $250,000 and a few hands went up. Rav Friedman said, "That's my shul. Everyday working men, attending shiurim, and no one knew the generous amount of money each had given to tzedakah."
Rav Friedman gives two shiurim a day, and is perhaps better known for his recordings on kolhalashon.com. The Rav gave me a USB drive with thousands of his lectures. Can you imagine, thousands of opportunities to learn!
Before leaving the study, Mr. Ellner showed me bookshelves of seforim written by Rav Friedman. Rav Friedman wrote close to one hundred popular seforim on various topics on the Shas. As Rav Chaim told him to write seforim on Talmud Yerushalmi, Mr. Ellner explained, "Rav Friedman writes chiddushim and collects mefarshim and he's like the Artscroll of Talmud Yerushalmi."
Mr. Ellner, by the way, has a Master's degree in mental health counseling. Outside of his shul responsibilities, he works with different modalities in the milieu of holistic healing. More depth, knowledge, and wisdom emerging from the great minds of Shomrei Emunah.
It must be all of the learning that contributes to the kedusha. Not just in the Beis Medrash or in Rav Friedman's stories, it emanates from the walls themselves. There is a warmth to the smell of old leather seforim and the vintage ambience of a room long used studiously; it was a surreal and very special experience to have ruchnius transformed into tangible air. Rav Friedman said that he would like to refurbish the shul, that halacha requires a shul to be beautiful. Ahh, but the name Shomrei Emunah, Keepers of the Faith, so represents the beauty of this very special shul with a lot of stories… and what is more beautiful than a shul with kedusha.
Title: The Oral Law: The Rabbinic Contribution to Torah sheBe'al Peh By Rabbi Gil Student
Is there any value in trying to understand the origins and development of the Oral Torah? The Five Books of Moshe were dictated by G-d to Moshe and the remainder of the Bible was written by various prophets under inspiration. Where do the Mishnah and Talmud come from? More important than authorship of the great Jewish works is the origin of their laws and ideas. Does a committed Jew gain anything from exploring all that has been written on this subject?
Rebellious Jews have long rejected the Oral Torah, whether Sadducees, Karaites or otherwise. In response, great rabbis have addressed the history of the Oral Torah. For example, Rambam discusses the history, theology and technical details of the Oral Torah in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah and his classic halachic work, Mishneh Torah. Like others, Rambam had to work backwards in reconstructing this description.
The Mishnah and Gemara spare little room for methodical descriptions of the Oral Torah. The Mishnah focuses on laws and the Gemara adopts a style of free-flowing discussion rather than methodical progression. By doing so, the texts more effectively teach the ideas and methods of the Torah, engaging students in its direct study rather than talking about the Torah's background. Instead, we have piecemeal comments across rabbinic literature, by different rabbis living in different times and places. Unlike in later generations, at that time there was no need for a comprehensive catalog. As often occurs in Talmudic study, the puzzle pieces are put together slightly differently by various commentators.
In The Oral Law, Rabbi Chaim H. Schimmel summarizes the consensus approach based on Rambam's writings and subsequent discussions. Originally published in 1971 with comments from Rav Simcha Wasserman, and extensively revised in 2019 with a new foreword by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, this book systematically explains the history and methods of the Oral Torah utilizing a combination of yeshiva-based texts, such as Rav Elchanan Wasserman's Kovetz Shiurim, with moderate academic treatments of the subject, such as Prof. Chanoch Albeck's Mavo Le-Mishnah.
Broadly speaking, the Written Torah was given in the Sinai Desert together with an Oral Torah that contains instructions on the details of the laws and additional laws and ideas not recorded in writing at that time. Throughout the subsequent centuries, both the Written and Oral Torahs were taught and observed. Additionally, methods to interpret the Written Torah (hermeneutic rules) were given together with the text, so the Sages could appropriately understand the sacred writings and – most significantly – deduce laws from the biblical words.
Here is where confusion arises and debate ensues. Sometimes the Sages decreed new laws – rabbinic legislation. Sometimes they interpreted the text using the hermeneutic rules. The former is de'rabbanan, of rabbinic origin and not claimed to have come down to us from Sinai. The latter is de'oraisa, biblical law. When the rabbis used these hermeneutic rules, which we can see debated throughout the Midrash and Talmud, were they using hermeneutic rules to derive new laws and details, or were they merely finding hints in the text for traditions already existent in the Oral Torah from Sinai?
To the Talmud student, this is a big question. We spend so much time breaking our teeth trying to understand these clashing interpretations. Are these just hints for what the Sages already knew or did they really believe they were deriving new laws from these textual cues? Rambam leaves room for both but does not tell us how often each method is used. The great Malbim of the nineteenth century, who was defending Judaism from Haskalah critics, argues at great length that these are legitimate derivations. Rav Yitzchak Halevy, in his classic history Doros Harishonim, harshly criticizes Malbim and argues that the Sages mostly searched for hints to laws they already knew from tradition. Rabbi Schimmel gently asks in a footnote why, according to Rav Halevy, the Sages of the Talmud debated "so fiercely" what he considers to be mere hints.
Rabbi Schimmel's greatest contribution, aside from his organization and clarity, is his discussion of the rabbinic mind. According to the author, the Sages used logic and moral reasoning (sevara) to interpret the text and derive laws. Rav Simcha Wasserman, in one of his comments to the book, disagrees that logic is a unique category and classifies it as one of the hermeneutic rules. The Oral Torah, and Judaism as a whole, is based on logic and morality. According to Rav Shmuel Landau (son of the Noda Bi-Yehudah), the Sages applied to a law that seemed to them contrary to reason (sevara) the limitation of "ein bo ela chidusho," a restriction against expanding the law. Rabbi Schimmel expands this by applying it to moral reasoning, as well. The law itself must be moral, even if we cannot fully comprehend it, but the Sages refrain from expanding this law because they found it morally surprising, contrary to the conclusion they would have reached on their own (see Lechem Mishneh, Hilchos Mamrim 7:11).
Rabbi Schimmel concludes his discussion with a quotation from Rambam's Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Me'ilah 8:8), encouraging people to search for explanations of the Torah's laws but cautioning against treating lightly laws you may fail to understand. If something seems illogical or immoral to the student, he needs to refine his understanding of the Talmud or his skills of logic and sense of morality.
Rabbi Schimmel addresses many more, equally complex subjects. He distinguishes between a legal fiction as found in British law and an artifice (ha'aramah) found in Jewish law. The former is intended to circumvent the law while the latter is designed to strengthen and guard the law. The author also discusses rabbinic enactments and legislation – their textual legitimacy and their authority. He addresses the writing of the Mishnah and its redaction, and its relation and contrast to Midrash. These subjects have been widely treated but Rabbi Schimmel presents them in a clear and very relevant way to the contemporary reader, adding his own insights along the way. This book was a classic when published and, on revision, has managed to become a new classic all over again. A beginner will benefit from this overview as he delves into the world of the Talmud while an experienced scholar will appreciate the work of putting together all these disparate pieces into a comprehensive whole.
The Cairo Genizah And Anwar Sadat By Saul Jay Singer
The Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Coptic section of Old Cairo, one of the only surviving remnants of the once glorious Jewish Egyptian community, stands on the place where, according to local legend, Pharaoh's daughter retrieved baby Moses from the bulrushes along the Nile River.
There are many other legends associated with the synagogue, including one that identifies it as the site where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple when they were expelled from Jerusalem. The synagogue is most famous, however, for its genizah, an enormous storeroom containing material mostly from the 10th-13th centuries. Long-abandoned and discovered only in the 19th century, it contained hundreds of thousands of sacred and secular manuscripts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Arabic.
Its contents included works of momentous theological significance, such as an original 2nd century copy of the Hebrew proverbs of Ben Sira; a 10th century vellum copy of Saadia Gaon's Torah translation into Arabic; handwritten documents by Yehuda Ha-Levi, R. Yosef Karo, and R. Isaac Luria; and the world's two oldest haggadot.
Original AP newspaper photo, June 24, 1992: "Workers outside the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Babylon, Old Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Organization has been restoring Egypt's oldest synagogue for 10 years with money from the World Jewish Conference [sic]."Other documents ranged from the conventional and ordinary, such as the doodling of a child learning the Hebrew alphabet, miscellaneous business invoices, and mundane correspondence; to blasphemous manuscripts and works of magic and superstition; to marriage contracts and prenuptial provisions.
Fortunately for us, rather than burying their sheimos (documents and works containing G-d's name) and other materials, the Jews of the Ben Ezra community, for some unknown and inexplicable reason, stored the material in a literal hole in the wall where the arid Egyptian air facilitated their preservation for many centuries.
This unparalleled archive, a veritable treasure of historically important Judaica, constitutes a unique window into all aspects of Jewish life at the time, including the religious, commercial, political, social, and cultural life of the Jewish community; its internal connections and communications; and its relationships with broader Christian and Muslim societies.
After Alexander the Great's conquests, Jewish communities extended through the Greek world, and many Jews settled in coastal cities such as Alexandria as part of the Pharaohs' great colonization effort. By the dawn of the Roman era, Egypt had perhaps the largest Jewish population in the world, but the relatively decent relationship between Egyptian Jews and Rome ended with the 2nd century Bar Kochba revolts against Trajan and Hadrian in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Jewish life in Egypt improved dramatically, however, under Islamic rule; from the 10th through 12th centuries, a huge Islamic empire extended through the Middle East and North Africa, and some 90 percent of the world's Jews lived in its territory.
Although some documents from what became known as the Cairo Genizah contain gruesome details of Jewish persecutions through the centuries, including eyewitness accounts of the horrors of the First Crusades, other material upended centuries of prevailing historical theories regarding the mistreatment of Jews and the harsh restrictions placed upon them by their Islamic masters.
These records demonstrate that Islamic rulers promoted Jewish self-governance and that Jews were not only tolerated but, to a large extent, integrated into Egyptian social and commercial life. Cairo became the capitol of the Fatimid Caliphate, a dynasty that ruled from 909-1171, with a large Jewish population settling there.
Jews, though subject to Islamic law, were allowed to erect synagogues. The date of the founding of the Ben Ezra Synagogue cannot be determined, though records from the Genizah suggests that it may predate 882, when the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria sold a church and its grounds to Abraham ben Ezra, a Jewish native of Jerusalem. (The synagogue was not named for the purchaser but, rather, for Ezra the Scribe of Biblical antiquity.)
Nineteenth-century scholars assumed that this transaction was the origin of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, but contemporary researchers argue that this assumption is likely false given that the purchasers of the church were disciples of Babylonian Talmudical academies while the Ben Ezra congregation followed the rival Jerusalem academies.
In about 1012, when Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of all Jewish (and Christian) places of worship, the original Ben Ezra Synagogue was torn down. Based upon studies of an incredible carved wooden Torah ark door known to belong to the synagogue (which is now jointly owned by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York and well worth seeing in person), it is estimated that the Ben Ezra was rebuilt in approximately 1030, when caliph Ali az-Zahir sanctioned reconstruction of synagogues and churches.
In 1168, the Islamic vizier Shawar ordered the burning of the city of Fustat, the original Arab-Muslim capital in Egypt and now part of Cairo, to prevent it from being conquered by the invading Christian Crusader army. This order included the deliberate burning of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The year 1168 in Fustat is also important for another reason: It is the year the Rambam (Maimonides), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and commentators, established residence in Fustat, only a short walk from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where he lived for 36 years until his death in 1204.
There is evidence that the Rambam lived in Fustat for the very purpose of gaining access to the vast assemblage of writings in the Genizah. However, though he served as Nagid, or leader, of the Egyptian community, as a follower of the Babylonian Talmud he was not a member of the Ben Ezra synagogue. Nonetheless, some of the most important documents found in the Genizah include portions of his Mishneh Torah, a draft of Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), correspondence in his own handwriting, and missives discussing his life and work, all of which constitutes the primary source for much of what we know about him today.
Because Jews were generally secure under Egyptian rulers during the Middle ages, Cairo became one of the biggest centers of Jewish life and a leading storehouse for Jewish knowledge, much of which found its way to the Cairo Genizah.
After accumulating documents for five centuries, the Genizah documents inexplicably became forgotten during the Ottoman period until the late 19th century, when Romanian Rabbi Jacob Saphir (1822-85) became the first person in centuries to appreciate the significance of the Genizah, which he described in an 1874 book.
During the rebuilding of the synagogue (1889-92), an enormous pile of Genizah documents were left outside in the open, during which time Egyptologist Count Riamo d'Hulst studied some of them. In December 1896, Solomon Schechter – a scholar, educator, Conservative theologian, and president of the Jewish Theological Society of America – undertook the first in-depth, contemporary academic investigation of the Genizah documents before arranging to have them sent to various university libraries, where they are still studied today.
Prior to 1948, Egypt was home to some 75,000 Jews, but the Egyptian government expelled most of them in the aftermath of Israel's birth so that, at most, 100 mostly elderly Jews remain in Egypt today and less than a minyan reside in Cairo. Although the Ben Ezra Synagogue no longer functions as a congregation, it is a Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains the most visited Jewish site in Egypt – although one could argue that the pyramids, which we all know were built by Jewish slave labor, are actually Egypt's top Jewish site.
Surprisingly, one person who was very much concerned about the preservation of the Ben Ezra Synagogue was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat (1918-81), who succeeded President Gamal Abdel Nasser upon his death in 1970, is celebrated for being the first Arab leader to visit Israel (November 1977); for going on to sign the Camp David Accords (1978); and for making peace with Israel, which led to both his being awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize and his assassination by radical Islamists.
In this October 11, 1980 correspondence written from Cairo on his presidential letterhead a year before his murder, Sadat writes about the development of what he calls "the Compound of Religions in Sinai," which is actually the Cairo Multi-Religious Compound containing the holy sites of all three Abrahamic religions, including the Coptic Christian Hanging Church, which dates from the third century; Amr Ibn Al'As Mosque, the first mosque in Egypt; and the Ben Ezra Synagogue:
It is with a deep sense of recognition that I have received your kind message together with the (3) dollar cheque you were good enough to send me as a contribution on your part to establishing the Compound of Religions in Sinai.
It delights me very much, on this occasion, to hail your humanitarian feelings and noble sentiments as well as your highly appreciated keenness to support this project which will help deepening the correct understanding of the Heavenly Messages and serving the principles of justice, fraternity and peace.
Thanking you once again for that kind gesture on your part, I wish you the best of health, happiness and success.
The structural integrity of what is known as Historic Cairo, the site of the Multi-Religious Compound and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, has historically faced many challenges – some natural, such as earthquakes and salty groundwater seepage, and some preventable, including environmental pollution, high population density and, in particular, a history of poor maintenance and governmental neglect.
Some substantive conservation efforts were undertaken in the late 19th century, but the 1952 Egyptian revolution slowed such efforts to a virtual halt. In the wake of the Six-Day War (1967), the Ben Ezra Synagogue was abandoned but, ironically, it was this very abandonment that led to an increased awareness of the importance of preserving Egypt's heritage, which became even more pronounced when foreign embassies moved into the area and rejuvenated life there.
Since the 1960s, the synagogue had been in structural decline due to, among other things, foundational damage caused by rainwater seepage, groundwater, and soluble salts. It was in this environment, particularly after Historic Cairo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, that Egypt undertook to establish and sustain the Compound of Religions. As our letter demonstrates, this endeavor was strongly supported by President Sadat; it is not often that a head of state writes a personal note to thank a donor for a three-dollar contribution!
It was Sadat's initiative that led to the first serious discussions about restoring the Ben Ezra Synagogue. After the Camp David Peace Accords were signed in September 1978, a meeting between Philip Klutznick, president of the World Jewish Congress (and later President Carter's Secretary of Commerce) and the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs led to an agreement pursuant to which the WJC undertook to finance a project to further the spirit of Camp David, which became a plan to repair and renovate the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
Years after the commencement of the restoration effort, the synagogue held a reopening ceremony in March 2010 that was attended by Israel's Ambassador to Egypt. However, because the celebration included a traditional "L'Chaim" – i.e., the drinking of alcohol – Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities canceled the synagogue's official unveiling, which was scheduled to take place a week later.
This year, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced that it would allocate $71 million to restore Jewish holy sites in Egypt, but, after a mass public furor, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority qualified its statement, declaring that the money would be spent on restoring the three holy sites in the Multi-Religious Compound of Historic Cairo. Nonetheless, much of the Egyptian public, focusing on the Ben Ezra Synagogue, protested that the project should be paid for by wealthy foreign Jews rather than penurious Egyptians.