Saturday, July 06, 2013

Changing the Cognitive Map by (Re)Naming.

Here is the dvar Torah, I gave today at my synagogue last Shabbat.

Dvar Torah,
Parshat Mattot Ma’asei
July 6, 2013

Shabbat Shalom

This weeks’ parsha is Mattot-Ma’asei. It is a double parsha, and it ends the book of Numbers. Next week we start the book of Deuteronomy, which is essentially a series of speeches by Moses to the People of Israel just before he dies. Nothing actually happens in Deuteronomy – it simply recaps past events and provides instruction for the future – so in a very real sense, this week’s parsha is the end of the narrative story of the Torah.

The parsha opens with the Israelites camped on the plains of Moab just across the Jordan River from Jericho. Soon they will cross the river to begin their conquest of the Promised Land.  The Parsha begins with instruction regarding the laws of women’s vows. Next God commands the Israelites to engage in some unfinished business with the Midianites – who had dealt treacherously with them a few parshot ago. A particularly brutal war ensues, which the Israelites win.

At this point the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert is over, and they are now getting ready for the upcoming invasion of the Canaan. But before the Torah’s narrative ends and the story picks up again in the Book of Joshua, there is another brief, though significant digression. Two and half tribes, Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasheh, ask to stay behind on the East Bank of the Jordan.  The Reubenites and the Gadites, owned much cattle, and they noted that the land on the east side of the Jordan River – and which had previously belonged to the defeated Midianites, Amorites and Bashanites -  is especially well suited for cattle grazing. They approached Moses, and ask that these lands be given to them as their permanent holdings. Moses asked them, somewhat rhetorically, if they expect the rest of the Israelites to go to war in Canaan while they stay safely back on the east bank. Wouldn't that undermine the enthusiasm of the rest of the Israelites for crossing into the Promised Land? Moses compares their request to that of the spies who surveyed the land and then turned the minds of the Israelites against invading, thus angering God and bringing punishment on to all of the Israelites.

The Reubenites and the Gadites reply, in Numbers 32, verse 16:
We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be ready and armed to go before the children of Israel …; but let our little ones dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. (Num 32:16-17)

Thus they volunteer to serve as shock-troops in the vanguard of the Israelite army, but only if their children can stay in fortified citied on the east bank of the Jordan. On hearing this, Moses agrees to their request.

The Torah then goes on to relate, in Numbers 32 verses 34-38:
The Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Arorer, Atroth-Shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran as fortified towns or as enclosures for flocks. [And] The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, El-aleh, Kiriat-haim, Nevo, Baal-meon – some names being changed  – and Sibmah; (Num 32:34-38)

I was struck by the almost casual throw-away phrase “some names being changed”, and it is on verse and on this phrase that I want to focus the rest of my dvar Torah. You may wish to open you chumashim to that verse – Numbers 32:38 – to see how it is translated in your particular chumash and to better follow the rest of the dvar.

In Hebrew the phrase “some names being changed” is “musabbot shem” and it is, as we shall see, an awkward phrase, and there is not universal agreement on how to translate the phase.  But the translation “some names being changed” is in agreement with Rashi – the premier medieval commentator - who writes on this verse:

Nebo and Baal Meon were names of pagan deities, and the Amorites named their towns after their deities, and the descendants of Reuben changed their names to other names. This is the meaning of “musabbot shem”- that Nebo and Baal-Meon, were changed to another name.

Therefore, language similar to “some names being changed” is the translation found in virtually every English Chumash.

Let us look a bit deeper at both the linguistics and the concept behind the phrase “musabbot shem.”

The word “shem”  should be familiar to us, and is usually translated as “name”, as in “Baruch Hashem” – “Bless the Name” - ,  or the “Baal Shem Tov” – the “Owner of a Good Name.”
But what of the word Musabbot? It occurs previously in the Torah, in Exodus 28 verse 11. The context is the clothing of the High Priest, and of some jewelry – engraved onyx - that is to be sewn into the shoulder pieces of the ephod. The verse reads.

With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, shall you engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be enclosed in settings of gold. (Ex 32:11)

The word translated here as “enclosed” is “musabbot”. So here, in this case at least, the word “musabbot” seems to mean “set within” or “enclosed in’ or “surrounded by” – most probably from the Hebrew root “sovev” meaning to turn, as in the Hannukah song – “Sevivivon Sov Sov Sov …”

If that is the proper translation in our verse too, then what could “surrounded by names” possibly mean.  Can it really mean that the names have been changed.
Professor Zvi Betzer of the Hebrew Language Department of Bar-Ilan University doesn’t think so. He thinks that modern translations have been overly influenced by Rashi’s commentary. Indeed he thinks that if  musabbot – an admittedly rare word – means “surrounded”, then “shem’ must not mean “name” in this context, but something else. Betzer argues that, in this context, shem ”means“ towers or walls, and the phrase “musabbot shem” means “surrounded by walls.”

He makes 5 arguments to support his claim:

First, the end of the verse in question – Numbers 32:38 reads – “they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.” This is unambiguous.  Why then, he asks would  it be necessary to have the same thought expressed twice in the same verse. Clearly the first half of the verse with the phrase “musabboth shem” must mean something else.

Second, in the story leading up to this verse, the Reubenites and the Gadites expressly ask to leave their children in fortified cities. We are also told explicitly that the Gadites rebuilt captures towns as fortified or enclosed. So why would the story of the Reubenites not include the fortification of their towns.

Third, the Septuagint – the oldest known translation of the Bible into Greek – translates the phase “musabbot shem” as simply “enclosed”,      leaving    “by walls” as being obvioulsy implied.

Forth, both the 1st century translation of the Torah into Aramaic  - the  “Targum Eretz Yisrael” - and  the 8th century translation -  “Targum Yonatan” (neither of which should be confused with the better known and much more authoritative Targum Onkolos)  translate the phase as “surrounded by towers” and “surrounded by high walls” respectively.

Fifth, Betzer brings examples of other places in the Bible were shem might more properly mean “tower” than “name”. 

·         In II Sam. 8:13 we find: "(Vaya'as David shem) And David made a SHEM when he returned from smiting Aram in the valley of salt". It is difficult to translate shem as 'name' or 'fame' in this context, since the Biblical combination "asah shem," meaning 'to make a name for oneself' demands to be followed by the preposition “le atzmo” or "for oneself". Rather, better to understand the verse as meaning David erected a tower which would serve as a monument to commemorate his conquests.

·         Another example, this from the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis – here we have the verse: "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a SHEM  for ourselves (vena'aseh lanu shem)" (Genesis 11:4). Thus the plan was to fortify themselves by erecting a tower and a wall, otherwise – to quote the protagonists in the next verse -  "we will be scattered all over the face of the earth". Therefore, "na'aseh lanu shem" in this context does not describe their desire to gain fame, but is parallel to the first half of the verse, and the entire verse simply means let us build a tower and a wall.

·         Similarly, in Isaiah we have the famous phrase "yad vaSHEM” which is generally translated as "an everlasting memorial". But here, shem is simply parallel to yad, - which unambiguously means ‘monument’ in this context.  Better to translate the phrase as ‘a monument and a tower’, argues Betzer.

Betzer concludes his article with the following:

It is … possible to maintain that in Biblical Hebrew the word shem underwent a process of meto-ny-my (the use of one word for another which it in some way hints-at or suggests). [Thus] the word shem came to signify not [just] "name" alone, but also the objects on which names were carved (e.g. a wall, a tower, or a memorial).

*  *  *
So much for the linguistic argument about the phrase “musabbot shem”.  But what of this whole concept of renaming geographic place names.

No matter whether we side with Betzer or Rashi in our understanding of the phrase “musabbot shem”,  there can be no doubt that, according to the Torah,  the Reubenites did, in fact, change the names of the towns they occupied. As noted above, the end of verse 38 states unambiguously “they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.”

And if that is not enough, just 3 verses later we read:

Jair the son of Manasseh went and conquered villages, and called them the Villages of Jair. And Nobah went and conquered Kenath and its surrounding villages, and called it Nobah, after his own name. (Num 32:41-42)

Dr. Yisrael Rosenson, President of Efrata Teachers College in Jersualem, in an article published by Bar Ilan and commenting on Betzer’s article, makes the point that the act of changing names and of the acts of conquering, occupying and re-building are intimately connected -  or at least they should be in his opinion. He points out that the Israelites were commanded in Deuteronomy 12:3 to “tear down their alters …[and to] obliterate their names ….” He ends his commentary with the following:

The primacy of Reuben, first-born of all the sons and first to establish a foothold in the land [of Israel], creates a sort of proto-structure to serve as a significant model for what is to come, contemplating the essence of the process of settling the land, combining jointly the acts of building and re-naming that are a necessary part of eradicating the memory of idolatry.  …  Changing the physical map by building and [changing] the cognitive map by naming are what characterize the act of settling the land.

Dr. Rosenson, is not writing in a vacuum, he is a religious Zionist writing in a publication of Bar Ilan University a bastion of Religious Zionism. I have to assume, that he is quite consciously defending and encouraging what has been common Israeli practice for many years and certainly since 1948. Changing the physical map by building and [changing] the cognitive map by naming.

Various estimates have it that between 352 and 432 Arab towns and villages were depopulated during the 1948/49 Israel war of independence. Of these at least 200 have been renamed, while most of the remainder were simply destroyed and their lands absorbed into neighbouring towns, villages, kibbutzim, and moshavim. Some examples include:

·         Masmiyya became the moshav Bnei Reim;
·         Majdal  became the City of Ashkelon;
·         Sheikh Munis became the Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Ramat Aviv, where Tel-Aviv University now stands;
·         Deir Yassin, site of the infamous 1948 massacre, became the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Givat Shaul Bet;
·         and Katra became the town of Gedera, where I myself lived for 9 years.

To be sure, Israel is not unique in changing geographic names. Some contemporary world examples include:

·         my mother’s home town of Stanislawow Poland is now Ivano-Frankivsk Ukraine;
·         the capital of Norway, Oslo was renamed Chritisana  in the 17th century in honour of the King Christian V of Denmark who ruled Norway at the time, and it was only renamed Oslo again in 1925;
·         in 1975, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City;
·         St Petersberg became Leningrad in 1924, and in 1991 it was changed back to St Petersberg again;
·         and Pile of Bones North West Territories is now called Regina Saskatchewan.

But in few places, I think it is safe to say, have we seen such a scale of geographic name changes as in Israel. Moshe Dayan, speaking in 1969, said:

"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. [Today] you do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don't blame you because [the old] geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehoshu'a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

Naming something has always been an act of power. To name something is to have power over it, and moreover to publicly proclaim that power. And in this sense Israeli Jews, by renaming villages, are (like and the ancient Reubenites) simply declaring their power over the Palestinians (or in the Biblical case, over the Amorites). But, declaring power to what end? Renaming also has other purposes.

Re-naming can be done for ideological reasons – to wipe out idolatry as Rashi suggests, or to wipe out Tzarism as in the case of St Petersberg becomimg Leningrad, or to wipe out communism as in the case of Leningrad becomimg St Petersberg.

Renaming can be done to give respect to someone important, as in the case of Oslo becoming Christiana.

Renaming can be done for nationalist reasons as in Christiana becoming Oslo again.

Renaming can be done for aesthetic and/or commercial reasons, as in Pile of Bones becoming Regina.

Or it could be done for any combination of these reasons.

But another very important effect of, and reason to, rename geographic names is to re-write history. To say that “we” have always been here, and “they” are interlopers. Alternately, in rare case, renaming can be used to acknowledge that “they”  - the disempowered group – are also part of the cultural and political make-up of the society. Rare examples of this later case include.

·         Frobisher Bay was renamed Iqaluit – the original Inuit place name, meaning “place of many fish”;
·         Streetsville and Port Credit were merged and renamed  Mississaugua, after the first nations tribe that once occupied the land present day Toronto;
·         and of course, York was renamed Toronto in 1834,  reverting to its original Indian name.

Israel, is of course the opposite case; one of changing geographic names to deny, as much as possible, the history of the previous occupants of the land, and their “de-population” in 1948/49; and to undercut any possibility of,  or  claims by, them to return.

So much did the State of Israel pursue this policy of historical erasure that in the years 1949 through 1952, not only did it rename over two hundred Palestinian towns and villages, it also systematically physically destroyed dozens, if not hundreds, of such town and villages as well. (Perhaps this was justified as an analogue to the Biblical injunction to “tear down their alters” which appears in the same verse as “obliterate the names.”.)  Most of this destruction was done at the direct order of the government and with State resources. Most of the rest was done by the Jewish National Fund, which became the owner of most abandoned Arab property.
Of course, not all Jewish Israelis agreed with this policy, and we have dissenting voices recorded in both the cabinet records and in the popular press. The following poem appeared in the Hebrew daily Al Hamishmar on 19 May 1950. (The translation is my own.)

(Abandoned Village - Daniel Ben Nachum - Al HaMishmar 19.5.1950)

Heavy smoke rises over the village,
Gushing dark from the doors of earth homes,
Creeping through melon fields on the hillside,
Clawing up 'gainst olives and dates.

In a skip the fire leaps to a patch of wild thorns,
Glides along the Jordan through the rushes.
It spreads from the village to the tel - and returns,
And silently engulfs all, and ignites.

In armoured bulldozer, between rifle and blade,
All feelings gone numb and hardened of heart,
In this war, there's no awe, there's no mercy.

And thus ends in dark smoke - empty village, silent witness:
Musty shacks, joyous feasts, babies cries, mothers' songs.
Disappeared! - In dark smoke, as bitter as tears.

*  *  *
So what are we to make of all this conquering, destroying, rebuilding, and renaming?

Is renaming illegal? Certainly not.

Is renaming immoral?  Probably not.

Is it tragic? It certainly is if you are on the losing side.

Is renaming and obliterating   effective in changing the average person’s view of History and Geography? Yes, it most certainly is,     and that, I think, is the point.  

When we lived in Gedera in the 1980s, if you asked an old timer for driving directions to Jerusalem, he would probably tell you, to go out of town on route 40 southbound and then turn left at  Masmiyya.  Masmiyya was the Palestinian village that used to be at the junction of route 40 and route 3. Today that junction is just called Tzomet Bnei Reim, and probably no one under 50 has any idea where or what Masmiyya once was. 

What it once was, was a town of about 2500 people. Most of those people, if they are still alive, and most certainly their children, are living somewhere in Gaza.  And most Israeli’s have no idea: out of sight, out of mind. Bnei Reim was built ex nihilo – out of the desert – and those people in Gaza are just hateful lunatics.

Renaming place names may or may not be necessary to build a national consciousness, but it has a price. That price is forgetting. I personally don’t think we should forget. Judaism, it seems to me, is too invested in honesty and is too committed to remembering.

We may not be able to change history, but at least we owe it to ourselves to know it.

Shabbat Shalom

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Blogger gn said...


8:36 pm  
Blogger Yehuda said...

Amazing! Very well written, this should be required reading for anyone claiming that Palestine was a "land without people for a people without land". Hard to believe some people need to be reminded that the "Lunatics" in Gaza are refugees and descendants of refugees from all over Israel

9:56 pm  

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