Photo: Tomeriko
Asa Kasher
Photo: Tomeriko

Asa Kasher on Judaism

What would Professor Kasher ask Ecclesiastes if they were to meet? What book would he bring with him to the synagogue on Yom Kippur? The author of the IDF’s ethical code answers our questions

Which biblical character would you like to meet, and what would you say to him? 

I would like to meet the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. I don’t know who he was, but I know what he was. He was amazingly wise and extremely sad. His wisdom was revealed to me in the courageous assessment that “this too, is vanity,” and even more in his balanced teaching that “there is a time for everything under the Sun.” I once taught the entire book, verse after verse, commentary after commentary. Ultimately it seemed to me that the sad spirit of Ecclesiastes is the spirit of a bereaved man. I would like to ask the author about his sadness.


Which commandment in Judaism would you eliminate?

I would like to exchange the arrangements dealing with women’s role in religious life for more egalitarian arrangements. I would like to see a synagogue that is not designed in a way that gives men a central position and women a secondary or even marginal position.


Which commandment do you view favorably?

The commandment, “You shall have no other Gods”—this has no substitute in terms of the depth of the idea, or the extent of its application, or the strength of the obligation, or the stability of the emotions. I look at every attempt to give any human issue a supreme, definitive, pagan status through the lens of this commandment. There is nothing bad about loving your people, for example, but there is something bad about pagan nationalism. I have written an entire book about this idea and I’m sure that I could write another book and yet another.


What did Moses say to God after he received the Torah?

Moses spoke to God: “Yes, ‘Moses received the Torah at Sinai,’ but what can you expect when the people come to receive from me the Torah that I received at Sinai? And what will happen when their children come of age and can receive from their forefathers, or not receive from their forefathers, the Torah that they received from Moses who received it at Sinai? And what will happen when their children’s children come of age? Is the receiving of the Torah a never-ending trial? And what is this noise that comes to me from the bottom of the mountain, the voice of a jubilant nation? What are they dancing for, before I have reached them with the tablets in my hand?”


What is your Yom Kippur like?

Usually I’m in the synagogue with a prayer book and an old book that is interesting and appropriate. It’s almost always a book about morals, a book about personal qualities, about weaknesses that can be overcome, about virtues that can be achieved, about the good qualities that we can aspire to and even reach. Only very rarely am I not in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Once, the day the Yom Kippur war broke out, I was in Berlin. Far from home, far from any synagogue. A painful memory.


What period in the Bible would you return to, and why?

I'd like to return to the time of the prophets, especially the time of Jeremiah. I would want to know the special human circumstances from up close and discover what was special about his virtues that granted him the ability to prophesy. What was so special about Jeremiah’s qualities and his ways that they gave the king the ability to both persecute him and to love and admire him?


Who is a rabbi or religious person that you especially admire?

I would like to meet the first of my ancestors named “Kasher” (meaning “kosher” in Hebrew). I know about my family going back many generations, but I don’t know the Kashers past my father’s grandfather. “Kasher” was the name of a position in the Jewish communities of Europe. The community chose Kashers, and they chose the community leaders and other office-holders. It is reasonable to assume that the Kashers were honest, models of ethical behavior. It’s no wonder that I would want to know the first of my ancestors who held this special position.


What do you remember from Bible lessons?

I remember mostly the homework from Bible lessons in school. I remember the exhilaration in preparing homework in the library of my late father Shimon. Looking for the appropriate book, pulling out a nice book, leafing through an old book, I remember all these things. My entire way of life “remembers” this. I remember, too, the burden of learning things by heart, chapter after chapter, verses too numerous to count, but not too numerous to remember. This memorization, as foreign as it looks in today’s shallow, hasty, spoiled times, was good practice.


What is a food that makes it worthwhile not to keep kosher?

I have no such food. On the contrary, the possibility of drawing a line, of restricting foods, strikes me as extremely important, and is also near to my heart. Permitted foods aren’t of much interest to me. Sometimes I enjoy them, but mostly I need them the way a car needs fuel. On the other hand, forbidden foods are of great interest to me when I encounter them because they allow me to give the Jewish style of self-restraint a central place in my life.


What is lacking in the Jewish calendar?

The Israeli calendar includes the two-day combination of Memorial Day and Independence Day. This is a deep, moving, and immutable combination that is like no other. Unfortunately, no format has been designed for marking Independence Day that has a content and form acceptable to many people. The content has a clear expression of the major significance of independence, the form has moving ritual, which repeats itself and preserves its freshness as well. For years we have been holding an “end of Memorial Day and Independence Day seder,” and I'd like for many other people to do that.


What is Jewish culture, in your opinion?

A person’s culture is a collection of concepts, the ideas and outlooks from which he forms the meaning of life and the practical expressions of this meaning. The Jewish people’s religious tradition includes this collection—deep, varied, and inexhaustible. This is Jewish culture in its traditional format. It is appropriate to add to it the soft, fresh, promising expansion of the Jewish people’s Hebrew tradition, which is mainly the tradition of the Land of Israel. The world is full of alternatives, you can learn something from each of them, but only this is our culture in every sense of the word.


Which Jewish holiday do you like best?

I like Rosh Hashanah, and I like Passover. I like Rosh Hashanah because it creates the opportunity for renewal: to do soul-searching, to decide to change, to turn over a new leaf, to start a special chapter, to take a first step on a better path, and this is all within me. And I like Passover because I like the Passover Haggadah, everything the texts arouse in me from my biography, and everything the many editions bring with them from history. And it’s all between me and my family, in the past and in the present.


Asa Kasher is a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize recipient. He is a researcher and an activist in the fields of military ethics, medical ethics, journalistic ethics, and scientific ethics. He is also the author of the IDF’s ethical code


פרסום ראשון: 02.19.07, 16:25
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