Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Har Nof

We use the word “dumbstruck” in English colloquially to qualify the state of being amazed or astounded, but rarely literally to describe the state actually of feeling unable to speak, of having thoughts that simply resist being put adequately into words.  Yet that is exactly how I feel today as I try to find the language in which to express myself about the murders in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. To qualify the attack against the B’nai Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem as bestial seems almost insulting to the animal kingdom. But merely to qualify the murder of innocent men at dawn’s first light, men wrapped in tallis and t’fillin as they stood in silent prayer before the Almighty and, reciting the silent Amidah, attempting to commune with the divine through the medium of contemplative prayer—merely to qualify an act like that as depraved or degenerate seems almost to say nothing at all. And so I, who pride myself on my vocabulary, for once find myself actually unable to find the right words to translate the emotions filling my heart into words that belong to “regular” language. And yet…since you are all my faithful readers and particularly because I am, by longstanding prior agreement, ceding the pulpit at Shelter Rock to our rabbinic intern Mitchell Berkowitz this Saturday morning, I feel that I somehow must find a way—some way—to put into words the feelings that have been steadily growing within my heart since I first heard the horrific news.

I probably shouldn’t have clicked on that link on my screen. But I felt ignoble, perhaps even cowardly, looking away—if this is what it means to be a member of the House of Israel in the twenty-first century, then how could someone such as myself choose not to look? And so I did look…as I’m sure did almost all of you also…and, suddenly, magically, there we all were: in the sanctuary of the Har Nof synagogue, looking with horror at the prayerbooks drenched in blood, at the floor of the sanctuary awash in the blood of men who had devoted their lives to the study of God’s word, to obedience to God’s commandments, and to the service of God’s people. And there too, in other photographs, were the bodies of the k’doshim themselves, the blood still oozing from their wounds easily visible through the flimsy fabric of the prayer shawls that had been pressed into service as temporary shrouds.

Echoing the ancient midrash, I heard myself as though from a great distance asking the plaintive, unanswerable question: zo torah v’zo s’kharah? Is it possible that this is the reward for a lifetime of good deeds and piety, that this is what you get for having spent a lifetime wholly devoted to God’s law? But from deep within came the answer to my own question, an answer I hadn’t ever heard before even though I must have asked that question aloud a thousand thousand times in the course of all these many years of trying to set pictures from the history of Israel into the frame of a theology rooted in God’s eternal watchfulness over Israel and innate goodness, and despite the fact that the answer was coming to me not from without but from deep within my own consciousness. And that answer was simply that the reward of piety is the gift of sharing the fate of the Jewish people with all that entails, the gift of being privileged to bear the brunt of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world, the gift—yes, the gift—of sharing the fate of millions upon millions of Jewish men, women, and children who died as martyrs for the sanctification of God’s name. May God save us and those we love from such rewards! And yet that voice from deep within said those things, and then fell silent as though daring me to repeat them to you.

In 2001, I was in my second year as editor of the quarterly journal, Conservative Judaism.  After 9/11, it felt strange to publish our fall issue without saying something about what had happened and it fell to me to decide what form that message should take. I remember feeling that I was in an impossible situation: saying nothing was out of the question, but saying something required having something to say. And dumbstruck was exactly how I felt: not merely inarticulate or ineloquent but actually unable to find the words to express what it meant to me personally to see carnage on that level visited on our nation by an enemy to whom the murder of innocents was a great accomplishment and not an act of total surrender to moral depravity. I had a month or so to think the matter through.  Different suggestions were made, but in the end I decided to follow no one’s advice but my own and to offer our readers a fresh translation of Psalm 11, an ancient ode to steadfastness in the face of violent aggression, and to accompany that translation with an explanation of how that poem struck me as possibly able to offer solace to a wounded nation just barely beginning to take in the breadth and depth of the tragedy that had struck our nation literally out of the blue.  And so I began my translation and ended up feeling that I had at least responded thoughtfully and possibly even helpfully. It was the most difficult page and a half I can recall ever writing. If you are reading this electronically and you’d like to see how it read, you can click here to see it.)  Only years later did it dawn on me that I may subconsciously have been struck by the way the number 11 looks a bit like the Twin Towers and thus been prompted to seek solace in that specific psalm. Or maybe not…even to me that sounds odd to say out loud after all this time has passed.

Even though a few days have passed since the events in Har Nof, I am still reeling. I, who for so long championed the concept of a two-state solution in the Middle East, suddenly see only ash and dust where that image once stood before me so appealingly: if there really is no bottom line, no level of barbarism or grotesquerie to which the foe will not stoop, then how could it ever be possible to live peacefully and securely with such people as neighbors and friends?  I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am, actually. But I am, as you all know, what I read. And what I’ve been reading in the course of these last few days has not been encouraging. I read reports of officials handing out candy to children in the streets of Gaza to encourage them to celebrate the murder of the Jerusalem rabbis. I read the report of how John Kerry had to exert maximal pressure on Mahmoud Abbas before he agreed to issue a statement opposing the murder of innocents, as though this were a daring position for a statesman who wants to lead his people to statehood to take. And I read President Obama’s tasteless, tone-deaf remark equating the Israeli and Palestinian people in terms of their yearning for peace, a comment made on a day when the New York Times, which I’m guessing is delivered to the White House as well as to my house, featured a photograph of Arab men dancing in the street to celebrate their people’s great achievement in murdering innocents at prayer in a house of God.

In the spirit of my effort of 2001, I would like to offer you all a psalm, the 120th. It is a short poem, complete in just seven verses. And it is one of the so-called “songs of the steps,” one of the fifteen songs that the Levites are said to have sung as they stood on the fifteen rounded steps in the Temple that led down from the central courtyard to the easternmost one. So it is, to say the very least, a very old poem…and one that was once sung in ancient Jerusalem in the epicenter of Jewish spirituality that was our holy Temple.


The poet stands for peace. He is peace, he says…but he lives in a bad place and all his neighbors do is tell lies about him, threaten him, and attack him violently. But the poet’s response is neither violent nor political, but spiritual: assailed by relentless foes, he turns to God and prays for deliverance. He tries to reason with his enemies, observing that all his violent foes can hope to get for their efforts are stockpiles of weapons…but that violence only breeds more violence and almost never leads warring individuals to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts. And then, fortified by his refusal to abandon the ways of peace no matter how severely provoked, he makes a firm, personal commitment never to be unready for peace even if his enemies choose to go to war with him instead. He will defend himself. He will possibly even win. But he will never take pleasure in war, and will always consider war a tragedy ideally avoided, never a path joyfully taken. His most famous line is complete in just two words: ani shalom. I am peace. I am peace itself. My life is oriented around prayers for peace, around deeds of kindness and justice that lead to peace. I will respond to aggression if I must. But that will never alter who I am, or what I personally stand for. Ani shalom, he writes. Not I am for peace or I am in favor of peace. But I am peace itself…and no one will be able ever to force me to abandon that single one of my core values, the spiritual foundation upon which I stand and make my stand.


May the events of this last week strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to be forces for good—and particularly for peace—in the world. The State of Israel, as we all know, faces barbarism and enmity that knows no bottom line. The great hope of the foes of Israel is that they might eventually force us to become like them. That is one thing that I feel certain will never happen. And I will not stop saying that even if doing so provokes our foes to go to war against us.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Green Prince

Like many of you, I like spy novels. Over the years I’ve read, I think, most of John le Carré, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum, and I know I’ve read all of Ian Fleming’s books. I’ve read lots of others too, and, although I haven’t gotten yet to Daniel Silva (which is particularly strange given that Joan has read every one of his Gabriel Alon books and is a huge fan), I certainly hope to one of these days. But saying wherein exactly lies the appeal of the genre itself—that is a more complicated thing to attempt. Partially, of course, spy novels—particularly when they’re well written—are engaging because they’re so exciting: just (I’m supposing) as in the real world of espionage, the characters in these novels are always changing identities. Loyalties are always shifting, never fixed, always at least slightly flexible. Even bravery itself is a negotiable commodity in that it can characterize people who themselves are admirable but who are in the service of pernicious, even evil, governments…and so can thus be both a negative and a positive trait depending on circumstance: to be good, it is hardly ever enough “just” to be brave!

When I force myself to consider the issue thoughtfully, however, I think that what I like the most about the genre is precisely the flimsiness of the foundation on which the whole storyline almost inevitably rests, the way that “nothing is as it seems” becomes not a strange variation on reality, but how reality itself functions…so that even towards the end of the book, you are still not entirely sure which team some of the characters in the novel, even occasionally including the most important ones, are playing on or for. In that, these books feel as though they mirror an aspect of life we mostly like to ignore in favor of a much more secure sense that we can say easily who’s who in the world, and where all the people around us stand. I understand that preference. I feel that way myself—that security comes specifically from knowing how everybody feels about every conceivable issue—but I also know that in the real world, just like in the world of literary fiction, people are often not quite (or not at all) as they seem.

Outside the literary framework, however, it’s hard to know how to feel about espionage….and particularly when it involves an individual choosing to aid his own nation’s enemy. How we think about such cases usually depends entirely on which nation we ourselves belong to. We think of Germans who chose to assist the Allies during the Second World War to be moral heroes, for example, by conceptualizing them as men and women who were able to overcome their own natural inclination to support the state of which they were citizens to serve the cause of justice and liberty precisely by working to destroy Nazism. Americans, on the other hand, who betrayed our nation during the Cold War by passing secret information to the Soviet Union, we think of as criminals and worse than criminals…and we do not much care if they themselves felt that they were behaving nobly or serving the finer, more just cause.  But it really is more complicated than that makes it sound: Benedict Arnold, after all, is recalled as a traitor not because he betrayed the king to whom he had sworn his allegiance, but because he found himself ultimately unable, or at least unwilling, to abandon his sworn allegiance to that king.

The reasonability of betraying one’s country will therefore depend fully on who is doing the evaluating—a citizen of the country harmed or helped by the treachery.  But what if right and wrong were not relative concepts at all but absolute ones…and there were therefore causes that were just and good, and others that were wrong absolutely? How could it not be morally right to serve the cause of good…and how could that moral obligation possibly be contingent on the circumstances of one’s birth or the color of one’s passport? But if that is the case, then who exactly gets to serve as the ultimate moral arbiter, thus as the final decision-maker regarding right and wrong (let alone good and evil) in the world of international politics? And so we come full-circle back to the obligation of individuals to identify the path of decency and take it…regardless of the opinions of others who see things entirely differently.

All this by way of telling you about a remarkable experience I had in Washington two months ago when I attended a pre-chag AIPAC summit for rabbis from all over the U.S. and had the opportunity to hear Mosab Hassan Yousef speak about his life and his book, Son of Hamas, which was published in 2011 by Tyndale Momentum. Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas and one of its West Bank leaders. Raised to consider his father a hero, Mosab slowly grew away from his father’s politics. And, as he did, he concomitantly became aware of something else as well: that his position in the Palestinian world as his father’s son gave him an opportunity not only to know about all sorts of secret things, but—far more to the point—to prevent innocents from being killed in terrorist attacks, and lots of them. That awareness grew slowly, however. His first arrest by Israel came at age ten, when he was found throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada. That incident in 1988, however, was only the first time he was arrested and imprisoned, and he was in and out of Israeli prisons for almost a full decade. What happened during those years is the least clear part of the story. He was arrested, then released, then re-arrested. In the course of his various incarcerations, it became clear to the Israelis who exactly he was…and, more to the point, that he was considered by many to be, as the oldest child in his family, his father’s most likely successor.

One thing led to another. By 1997, Yousef had become a full-fledged informant for the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency that is Israel’s CIA. And he remained in place, feeding the Israelis information that saved uncountable numbers of innocent lives, for a full decade. Called the Green Prince by his Israeli handlers, he claims personally to have provided Israel with enough advance notice to save Shimon Peres himself from an assassination attempt in 2001. And then, in 2007, he no longer felt he could maintain his cover and he left the Middle East to settle in San Diego, breaking permanently with his family and his people. Making the story even more complex, he also converted to Christianity in 2005, which faith remains even now as the framework for his decision-making in life and his sense of his place in the world. And even the end of the story to date is fraught with exciting, yet wholly unlikely, details. The United States, recognizing that he had been arrested multiple times as a Hamas operative, attempted to deport him. And he would surely have been sent back to Ramallah, where he would almost certainly have been killed, had not his Israeli handler, one Gonen Ben-Itzhak, come forward to defy protocol and risk his own arrest by publicly revealing his own identity and testifying on Yousef’s behalf.

The book is remarkable. The movie based on the book, called The Green Prince and directed by Nadav Schirman, is scheduled for release in a few weeks and promises to be incredibly exciting. (To see the preview, click here.) But reading the book was nothing like meeting the author. I could hardly believe he “just” walks around like a regular person with a bodyguard and without any obvious way to defend himself against a universe of people who must think of him as the ultimate traitor. But there he was…wearing torn blue jeans and a t-shirt like any American twenty-something—he’s actually thirty-six years old—and sitting on a folding chair right in front of me with Gonen Ben-Itzhak by his side.
He looked, to say the least, unassuming. He spoke quietly in accented, but fully understandable English. He chose his words carefully, but it was also obvious that he must have given the speech we heard a thousand times. Nor did he appear to be even slightly surprised by any of the questions that were put to him after his talk ended. And yet he couldn’t have seemed more genuine or less interested in saying what he could easily have guessed his audience wished to hear. The fact that he came dressed in torn blue jeans, which struck me at first as an odd, possibly even disrespectful, way to come dressed to address 300+ rabbis, later on affected me less negatively: here was someone who has lived through so many iterations of himself, I think I thought, that he simply has no more energy to present himself other than as he actually is. And who he is, is what we saw: a man who turned his back on his family and his people for the sake of doing good in the world. We talk glibly, all of us, about being opposed to terrorism, about being appalled by the concept of murdering innocents to make political hay. But here, it struck me, is a man who did far more than talk about being opposed to terror, but who risked (and surely continues to risk) his life for the sake of fighting terror and saving the lives of countless innocents.  Ben-Itzhak said that in so many words, actually, that the world is filled with people who owe Yousef their lives and don’t even know it.

So who is this Yousef? Is he a traitor to his people or a hero who saw an opportunity to do good in the world and took it? Is allegiance to one’s people by definition moral? We surely don’t think that...except when it is our own country that the person turning his back on his country is turning his back on. But I see things differently. I admire Yousef neither because he chose to aid Israel in its war against terror nor because he found the courage to break with his father. I admire him because he saw himself at a crossroads and chose what appeared to him to be the path of justice and decency despite the price he obviously knew perfectly well he would end up paying…if he survived long enough to pay any price at all. That kind of moral excellence is sorely wanting in our world. It manifests itself here and there, often surfacing in the least likely contexts. But it surfaced in Mosab Hassan Yousef. I felt honored to meet him and to hear him speak. And inspired by what I heard to recommend his book to you all. It is difficult reading in parts—he does not hold back at all when he describes his experiences in Israeli prisons—but also exhilarating and encouraging. There are, it turns out, people prepared to pay whatever price is exacted from them for doing good in the world. And we live in a better world because of them.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Kristallnacht 2014

This Sunday is the seventy-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Reich-wide pogrom that in the minds of many signaled the beginning of the Shoah…or, at the very least, the beginning of the last chapter in the story of European Jewry on the eve of its annihilation. Used to marking the day since most of us were children, it might be interesting to pause for a moment to ask why exactly it is that this specific day has retained its draw on the consciousness of world Jewry. There is, after all, a Holocaust Memorial Day that is observed each spring on the 27th of Nisan, a week or so after Passover. That day, chosen originally to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 but then moved to a date later in the month to avoid conflicting with the observance of Passover, is our annual opportunity to remember the martyrs and pay honor to those who found the courage and had the opportunity to resist.  (The actual uprising in Warsaw began on Erev Pesach in 1943, as the Jewish world outside of Europe was preparing to sit down for its traditional seder meals.)  So why have we doubled up our observance and added a second Yom Hashoah, as it were, in the fall?

You could say that the question itself is flawed, that Kristallnacht is not really anything like Yom Hashoah. It’s not a real holiday, for one thing, not even in Israel. Everybody goes to work. Schools are open. There are no specific observances, rituals, or prayers that have been developed to assist the Jewish world in its effort to commemorate the day. Nor has there been any effort, as far as I know, even to take note of the day in the context of our daily prayers…and this from a people that reacts liturgically to the weather in Israel. And yet, despite the fact that we have done nothing at all to make Kristallnacht into anything more than a day on the calendar to be noted in passing, the day itself somehow refuses to vanish from our consciousness…and, despite our best efforts to ignore it, remains as a kind of thorn in our side, or perhaps more exactly as a kind of pebble in our collective shoe: something we find irritating and upsetting to have to deal with, yet which we seem unable just to forget about and move past instead of endlessly dwelling on.

The numbers more than justify our obsession. A thousand synagogues destroyed in a single night. More than seven thousand businesses either totally or partially destroyed. Ninety-one Jews murdered. Thirty-one thousand arrested and sent to concentration camps. An uncountable number of Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and communal offices ransacked. Buildings can only stand if they are set on foundations that can support their weight.  In my mind, Kristallnacht—the date marking the open, unabashed descent of Germany into the realm of the truly demonic—Kristallnacht itself is the foundation on which the death camps were built.  As we pause to ponder Kristallnacht on this strange year with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Treblinka behind us and the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz still to come in January, the seventy-sixth anniversary of the “night of broken glass” takes on its own dismal poignancy.

Among my more guilty reading pleasures are the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The author of almost eighty novels and one of America’s bestselling authors of all time with an estimated 100 million books in print, Burroughs is best known today for his series of twenty-five books about Tarzan, the prince of the jungle originally known as John Clayton, the Viscount Greystoke. Somewhere along the way, I think I read them all. (In the 1984 movie, Greystoke, Tarzan was upgraded to earl, presumably on the assumption that most Americans wouldn’t know what a viscount was.) 

The basic story, I’m sure we all know at least more or less. Tarzan’s British parents are marooned on the west coast of Africa after surviving a mutiny on board their ship. Soon thereafter, his mother dies of some mysterious illness and his father is killed by Kerchak, the leader of a tribe of super-intelligent, highly socialized apes into which the baby viscount is adopted.  And there, among the Mangani (Kerchak’s tribe of apes, one wholly unknown to Western zoologists), the infant, now called Tarzan, is raised by Kerchak himself and his ape-wife, Kala. (Just for the record, it’s taken me this long to realize how funny it is that Kerchak’s bride is named Kala.) Several of the books focus on Tarzan’s unusual adolescence (and to call it unusual is really to say the very least). But then he eventually does grow up, and it is as a young feral man that Tarzan makes the acquaintance of an American woman, Jane Porter, who coincidentally has been marooned on the exact same beach on which Tarzan’s own parents washed up twenty years earlier. Eventually, Jane finds a way to return to the United States and Tarzan, smitten, follows her. One thing leads to another and after some time they marry and, at least in some of the books, move to England, where they have a son, Jack, to whom they also give the ape-name Korak. Things, however, do not work as planned and, unable to stand the hypocrisy of civilization, Tarzan, Jane, and Jack eventually return to Africa to settle there and have even more adventures.

I loved those books as a teenager, even preferring them to the series of twelve movies featuring Johnny Weismuller made between 1932 and 1948 but shown endlessly on television when I was growing up. But their recurring theme—just how paper-thin the veneer of civilization, and particularly Western civilization, really is—now feels ominous to me, and particularly as we prepare to take note yet again of the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It was Burroughs himself who made up the phrase “the thin veneer of civilization,” in fact, and he used it repeatedly in his books, beginning with The Return of Tarzan in 1912.  But it could not apply more aptly here, as we contemplate not just any country, but one of the most supremely civilized, cultured nations of the world—a nation that gave birth to the finest composers and philosophers, to linguists and poets, to scientists and to artists—turning almost overnight not just to anti-Semitism, but to a barbaric version of racial hatred so intensely brutal as to be almost unimaginable even in retrospect. 

There is no better place to begin reading about Kristallnacht than Martin Gilbert’s Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, published by HarperCollins in 2006. It is, to say the least, grim reading as the author chronicles the destruction, the murder of elderly Jews, the degradation of Jewish women in particular, and the rest of the horrors that occurred on that one evil night.  But somehow the contemporary accounts, written by reporters and others present on the ground in Germany who even then could not possibly have imagined Treblinka, are chilling in an especially unsettling way. Hugh C. Greene, for example, published an account of his own experiences in Berlin on Kristallnacht in the Daily Telegraph just two days after the fact: “Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun.’”  It’s hard to know how to respond to a paragraph like that. Or rather, it’s not that hard at all.

At least for me personally, watching over all of this is Tarzan himself, dressed up like a member of the landed gentry but never forgetting that he personally has come to symbolize what he learned in the jungle before he met Jane: that it’s all a façade, all the thinnest of patinas…that civilization itself is the flimsiest of cloth covers masking the demonic potential that lies buried in the darkest recesses of the human soul….and that that thinnest of cloths can fall to the ground and reveal the beast within as soon as society lets down its guard even slightly.

You can see signs of this truth almost everywhere if you find the courage to look straight on without turning away. You could easily have seen it in the streets of Paris last summer, when what was billed as a pro-Palestinian march degenerated almost without warning into a frenzied mob of anti-Semitic thugs chasing Jews off the street, attacking a local synagogue, and calling—not for a revision of this or that Israeli policy vis-à-vis Gaza—but for blood, the blood of the Jews of France. You can see it when patrons line up to buy tickets for an opera featuring Nazi-style invective against Jews so they can “decide for themselves” whether the production has merit instead of being, as civilized people would and should be, repulsed by the idea even of contributing to the success of such a production. And you can certainly see it for yourself on the campuses of American universities, where the demonization of Israel and the portrayal of the Palestinians as the victims of Israeli imperialism regularly spills over into rank, undiluted anti-Semitism directed at Jewish students regardless of their personal politics. (I was shocked—truly shocked—just recently to read a recent piece by Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the Times of London called “As I See It: The Academic Intifada,” which sketches out the extent to which America’s campuses have become infected with overt anti-Semitism in a way that even a decade ago would have seemed somewhere between implausible and impossible. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to read her essay.) So, in the end, Tarzan really did have it right: it’s all the thinnest of patinas behind which we pretend to be safe…and, slightly paradoxically, the degree to which we own up to that unpalatable truth is the degree to which we will be able to withstand the onslaught when the patina dissolves, as it occasionally must and does, and we are left staring at what lies exposed behind its no-longer-existent opacity.


And that, I think, is why the Tarzan stories are so appealing, because in a sense they are just book-length midrashic elaborations of this one specific idea: that the thin veneer of civilization can crack at any moment, that the demonic is never that far from the surface, that there is no point of diminishing returns when it comes to being on guard for signs that the veil is slipping, the patina dissolving, or the veneer cracking. Kristallnacht is that midrash set to history…and I believe that it is precisely for that reason that we find it so impossible to look away…or not to pause on the awful night to remember what happened seventy-odd years earlier to people who, just like ourselves, thought of themselves as citizens not of Tarzan’s jungle, but of the most sophisticated, civilized, cultured country ever to exist.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Being Mortal

You all know, I’m sure—or at least all Shelter Rockers do—that I spend a lot of my time in hospitals, rehab facilities, nursing homes, palliative care wards, hospices, funeral chapels, cemeteries, and houses of mourning.  In our culture, that is an unusual set of venues to spend one’s time in, let alone for an individual actively to seek out, and so much on both counts so that frequenting them in the context of professional obligation is more or less the sole explanation that is deemed reasonable or acceptable for hanging out in such places at all; people who don’t have to spend time in such places but who choose to haunt them nonetheless are generally deemed—to speak the most charitably, not the least—morose or depressive. Surely, it is generally supposed, no one normal would choose voluntarily to rub his or her nose in the ephemeral nature of human life or in its tragic brevity, let alone to do so repeatedly.

That one must occasionally brush up against death goes without saying. That much we surely all know. But in our culture, doing so is deemed a tragic necessity rather than just a natural part of what it means to be alive, to be a human being. And illness, particularly severe illness, is in exactly the same category: something normal people prefer to know nothing of, yet which all of us must occasionally deal with…until either the patient’s death or recovery relieves us of the obligation to remove our blinders and see human life as it actually is for longer than is absolutely necessary.

This is not how things always were. When I was in graduate school at JTS, I taught part-time at Hunter College in the Comparative Religions program.  It was a great gig for me, my first foray into “real” university teaching. (One day I’ll reveal how I got the job, including the ghostly role my mother played posthumously in getting me hired.) I taught an introduction to Judaism course (no surprise there), but I also taught two survey courses, one comparing various religious civilizations’ attitudes towards love and sex, and a parallel course in those same cultures’ attitudes towards death and mourning. Surprisingly, the latter was as popular as the former. (Go figure!) I loved teaching those courses, loved seeing how my students’ minds were opened up to ideas about the most basic features of human life in other eras and cultures, ideas that were often almost entirely at odds with the views regarding those same things that they had learned at home and at school over the years that preceded their enrollment in my course. I hope my students enjoyed taking those courses as much as I enjoyed teaching them! Not that it’s particularly relevant, but Joan and I became engaged one spring day during the hour I had free between those two classes! (What could be more romantic after all than meeting for a quick lunch between love and death?)

In the death and mourning course, we read books that treated death not as an unspeakable horror to be ignored for as long as possible and then begrudgingly given in to but rather as the ultimate challenge in life, books like the Ars Moriendi, the early fifteenth century book written by an anonymous Dominican monk to teach the faithful how to face death with dignity, poise, grace, and nobility born of faith. (The original book was written about 1415, but derivative works continued to be published, including in English, for centuries. And if I remember correctly, Jeremy Taylor’s The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, first published in 1651, was the one work we read in the original.)  Nor was this specifically a Christian phenomenon: we also read the Egyptian Book of the Dead and its Tibetan counterpart, the Bardo Thodol. (My fondness, now regretfully dormant, for Tibetan literature derives directly from teaching that book at Hunter too!) Interestingly, I knew of no Jewish works that addressed the issue of how to die well specifically, so I began to collect stories from the Talmud and various works of ancient midrashic lore that were about the deaths of famous rabbis and to translate them for my students. (Decades later, that initial collection of stories expanded into the commentary featured in the margins of Zot Neḥemati, the prayerbook Shelter Rock published several years ago for use in houses of mourning.)

Taken all together, these books and ancient texts suggested that dying well could and should be the final chapter in the book of living well…and that it should be the rule, rather than the exception, for people’s deaths to mirror the values that characterized their lives. Of course, these works predated modern medicine. The stretch of time between realizing one’s time was up and one’s time actually being up was usually brief—weeks or even days, sometimes just hours. Nor did people expect to live beyond what we today consider early middle age. And there certainly did not exist the technology to keep people suspended between life and death almost, at least in some cases, permanently.  All that is surely true…and yet the notion that it should be possible to let go gracefully and with one’s values and sense of self fully intact continues to beckon seductively, if too often impractically, from the world of good ideas that exists somewhere beyond the world of how things actually are.

And then, just this week, I read Atul Gawande’s latest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End. Published by Metropolitan Books earlier this month, Gawande’s book is as shocking as it is challenging…and the fact that Gawande is a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, the former recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and a staff writer for the New Yorker only makes it harder to dismiss what he has to say as fantasy or pie-in-the-sky silliness. If there is one book you read about science, medicine, health, or American culture this year, I think that Being Mortal should be it. I was blown away.  And I say that as someone who has dealt with the issues he raises almost every day of my professional life and who could not be more familiar with many of the venues he describes or the issues he wishes to place on the table for national discussion.

Gawande’s central point is that, no doubt in response to the litigious nature of American society, the facilities that deal with our elderly once they are too infirm or sure of themselves to live on their own have so over-prioritized safety that the actual wellbeing of the patients entrusted to the staffs of those facilities is considered either as an afterthought…or, more often than not, is not taken into account at all.  What people need as they age and become less able to care for themselves, Gawande writes, is to feel—not safe, or at least not just to feel safe—but purposeful, to be enabled and encouraged to think of themselves as active participants in their own lives, not as the passive recipients of others’ well-meaning ministrations.  He tells at length the story of his own father’s decline, writing both as a physician and as the patient’s son, and suggesting his father’s example as the template we should strive to make basic to our conception of how the elderly infirm should be treated.

In a sense, Gawande’s book is about the practice of modern medicine itself. He doesn’t pull any punches either, asking openly what good is served by many of the standard procedures we have come to think of as not only normal and natural, but intrinsically salutary.  But mostly his is a book about the ideational platform upon which modern medicine rests. He writes, obviously as an insider. He is an insider, as much of one as anyone ever could be.  Yet he has the self-assurance to write honestly and openly about the flaws he sees in the way he himself, and by implication others in his field, act in ways that they perceive to be in their patients’ best interests but which, in fact, often do nothing of consequence at all other than purchase a slightly prolonged life with whatever sense of inner peace and wellbeing that that same patient might otherwise have known at five to midnight, then at four, then at three.

It is a chilling book to contemplate in the sober light of day. He writes anecdotally, recounting the stories of many of his own and other physicians’ patients with specific attention to what was done well and what poorly, to which interventions served the actual needs of the person in the bed and which the needs of those people’s caregivers to feel that they had left no stone unturned, no avenue of plausible therapy unexplored…but without asking the simplest and most basic questions that should have been asked of the patients themselves.  He writes with bitterness but also with kindness, with scathing self-awareness about the nature of his own profession but also with gentle acceptance of the various forces in American life that have led us to this specific point in our efforts to care for the elderly in our midst in the specific way we have come to think of as reasonable and kind. He is somehow forceful without being strident…and the concepts he places gently but firmly on the table for his readers’ consideration are precisely, at least in my own opinion, the ones that we need to address if we wish truly to think of ourselves as a nation that looks after its own well.


To read a book and to feel both elevated and challenged is a remarkable experience; it is what reading is supposed to bring to the reader but only rarely does. This is not a book for the faint-hearted or the easily upset. It is a clarion call, however, to all who think they might someday grow old or be obliged to care for someone in the last stages of life to consider and reconsider what they think they know of the aging process and its attendant infirmities.  How things can change, I have no idea. But that things do evolve as society embraces as its foundational concepts new ideas and then allows its institutions to morph into finer versions of their earlier selves in light of those ideas—that too seems incontrovertibly to be how things do work in the world.  Gawande has laid down a challenge to us all. I hope that his book inspires us all to ask ourselves how things could be better…and then to figure out how to move towards making the vision he has regarding the way things could be at the end of life into the reality we know not from books but from everyday life as we one day come to know and live it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reading Slowly

When I was in college, the single most important skill necessary to succeed was the ability to read quickly and to retain all or at least most of what you were reading. In graduate school, that ability—which I cultivated assiduously, as did all my classmates—was even more crucial: there were weeks when we were expected to read hundreds of pages of material and somehow digest it all.  You were allowed, obviously, to take notes. That I did, and voluminously…but, in the end, there was simply too much to master solely by jotting things down: to succeed you needed to be learning the material as you were reading, after which you could rely on your notebooks to remind you about the details.
The very last skill anyone wished to cultivate was the ability to read slowly. And, indeed, why would anyone have wanted or needed to work on reading slowly anyway? Isn’t slowly how children read when they are just learning how to sound out words? That works well in second grade, but aren’t you supposed to transcend that part of your elementary school education as you grow older and learn how to read more quickly and with ever more successful retention of the material? That surely was the way the concept was sold to us as children. And college and graduate school merely reinforced the concept.

But I’m also a slow reader, at least sometimes, and that specific skill was taught to me by Professor Elias Bickerman. Like many of my Seminary professors, Professor Bickerman was a character. But he was also a remarkable scholar possessed of a truly supple intellect and, even in the context of JTS in the 1970s, remarkable erudition. Born in 1897 in Kishenev, he was a mere lad of six when the horrific pogrom of 1903 not too subtly presaged the violence of the Shoah. As soon as he could, he left…first for Germany, where he studied and later taught at the University of Berlin until 1932, escaping to France when it was no longer tenable for a Jew to teach in Germany. He lived and taught in Paris until 1940, when it was necessary to flee again. And so he came to New York, teaching at the New School, then at Columbia, then at JTS. (He lived and taught in Los Angeles at the American Jewish University, then the University of Judaism, in the early 1950s as well.) But it was in his final professional incarnation as a professor at JTS that I knew him and studied with him. When he died in 1981, I had been his pupil for years.

Readers unfamiliar with his work should start with his entry-level book, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (published in 1962 and still in print more than half a century later), in which the author sets the larger picture of Jewish history in the centuries before the Chanukah story we all sort of know at least something of in the larger context of world politics and the military, social, and economic realities of the day. He also wrote many other historical works, including true classics in their field, but I’d like to focus on the man in the classroom here…because it was in that specific setting that I learned the art of reading slowly.

Very slowly! My first course with Professor Bickerman was in the Septuagint, the translation of the Bible into Greek commissioned by King Ptolemy II in the first half of the third century BCE and thus the oldest surviving translation of Scripture into any language at all. It was going to be, I thought, fascinating…to see how the ancients understood the Hebrew text, to feel them struggling to find ways to convey the way the Hebrew felt to them in their own language, to see them developing, even occasionally inventing, new terms to explain ideas that had no obvious parallel in the cultural milieu in which they were working.  And so there I was the first day, my newly purchased Septuagint on the desk in front of me, ready to wade into waters I had wanted to sample for quite some time. And in walked the professor. He looked a bit disheveled, but when he spoke—he certainly didn’t bother with anything as mundane as taking attendance, asking who we were, distributing a reading list or a syllabus, or assigning any specific work to us—when he spoke, he spoke with the clear, powerful voice of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say. And his first sentence on that first day stays with me still. “I am here,” he said, “to teach you how to read slowly.”

And “slowly” was to say the very least. Our classes were ninety minutes long. The first two, comprising a full three hours, he devoted to the first word on the first page, geneisis, the Greek version of the title we all know, “Genesis.” Where did this title come from, he asked. The Torah itself has the text of Genesis in it, obviously…but it has no title at all in the scroll we read from in synagogue. The rabbis made up names for the books of the Torah the more easily to reference them. But those names have mostly fallen away and will be familiar to almost no one. The names we do recognize (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) are the Greek ones. But where did they come from? And what of the “other” Hebrew names, the ones in use by Hebrew speakers today? Each is the name of the opening verse in the book, apparently. But where did that practice come from? And so he began to answer his own questions, leading us through—this was done entirely without notes, incidentally—through a thousand different side topics. Greek books and Latin books. The use of titles in Aramaic literature and even in Egyptian literature. Which books first had titles and what those titles were. The question of who named Homer’s ancient epic poems. The use of names to designate Sanskrit books in ancient India, and the endlessly fascinating (who knew?) question of whether the sages of Jewish Palestine in antiquity had any contact with India or with Indian literature.

You get the idea. It took two days…and then Professor Bickerman forced himself to move on…to the first word in the actual book after the title. Or rather to the first two words: en arkhei, “in the beginning.” Is that what the Hebrew b’reishit means exactly? Why two words instead of one. In the beginning of what? Is that normal Greek or were they mimicking the Hebrew? And to what effect? This all took another class or two. By the end of the semester, we had finished, maybe, eight verses. And that was with leaving out lots of side topics on which Professor Bickerman would have liked very much to expatiate, but which we had nowhere near enough time to consider even in what our teacher would have considered cursory detail. It was a year-long course. The second semester opened up, as I recall, on the third day of creation.

Somehow Simchat Torah, our annual festival of finishing the Torah and starting immediately to read it again—this closing festival in our long holiday season always brings Professor Bickerman and his class to my mind. I read a lot, as you all know. And I read quickly, as you’ve probably intuited by now. I rarely read books a second time. And when I do it is almost always to revisit some issue that I recall only vaguely and wish to remind myself about.  For all those reasons, Simchat Torah constitutes a kind of challenge for me…the challenge laid down for me all those years ago by my teacher at JTS who only wanted to teach me how to read slowly. And so we do exactly that in synagogue. We read slowly. Over and over, the same texts, the same stories, the same laws. As it is, we probably read far too quickly…but at least we never stop revisiting passages we have already read so many times that we almost know them by heart. There’s always something, always some ore hidden beneath the surface we have yet even to notice, let alone successfully to mine. Reading quickly is good for graduate students, I suppose. But reading slowly is the thing, the art that leads to the true pleasure of the text.

When Professor Bickerman died in 1981, I was working as the assistant to the librarian at JTS and it fell to the librarian, in those days Professor Menachem Schmelzer, and to me to visit Professor Bickerman’s home to get an initial sense of how many books the JTS library was about to acquire according to the terms of his will.  We did our work quickly, as I recall, just counting shelves and estimating the number of volumes on each. But as I wandered around in his space and looked at the books that were his lifelong companions, I could almost hear his voice challenging me to see this huge mass of printed books before my eyes, but not to lose track of the lesson he himself taught me: that reading quickly is useful, but reading slowly is sublime.

And that is what I would like to tell you as we approach Simchat Torah. It isn’t dull or uninteresting to hear the same text again. It is crucial—not because you may not recall this or that detail in the book, but because you haven’t ever heard it before at this specific moment in your life, at this particular point in your own intellectual and spiritual development. You’ve read it before, to be sure. But too quickly—trust me on this—and with too great an emphasis on completing the task at hand. Perhaps this year we should all focus on the far more difficult task of reading slowly…and finding in the slow, considered contemplation of Scripture a highway towards communion with the living God, whose divine spirit inheres in each sacred word of our holy Torah. Finding that possible is the challenge Simchat Torah—as we begin to read again—lays at our feet. Will we respond successfully and productively? That remains to be seen!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sukkot 5775

Is there something perverse, or at least bizarre, about celebrating the beginning of a new year precisely when the physical world is winding down, as its season of burgeoning growth ends and the earth itself begins its slow but inexorable descent through decay and decline into its annual experience of frozen, lifeless—or at least apparently lifeless—sleep?  A little bit, there is!

You’ve surely noticed the changes afoot in the world just lately, in our world. A flash of yellow or even red leaves here and there…not the full monty of autumnal color just quite yet, but the intimation of that riot of color that seems so alive and yet which, as any sober botanist will tell you, is actually a sign of decay and deterioration: healthy, growing leaves are green, not red!  A chill in the air early in the morning when you head out to retrieve the paper from the driveway or to put the garbage cans on the curb before the appointed pick-up hour.  (I found myself reaching for a jacket the other day without even thinking about it much as I headed out to minyan in the morning. And I was glad I did!) The neighborhood cats seem to be gearing up for the winter too, although even I am not entirely sure what I mean by that—they just seem to be out and about more obviously at dusk, perhaps gathering up acorns  for the cold winter months to come. (Do cats eat acorns? If I were a cat, I suppose I’d know.) I’ve seen a few more raccoons wandering around the neighborhood too just recently. The squirrels look a bit more plump than usual too, including the one with the huge tail who likes to sit on our deck and watch me work there in the late afternoon.

And so is born the paradox of our temperate climate: the physical world in these tepid latitudes is never more beautiful or more soul-stirring than when it is on the verge of its annual demise. 

Why do I love it so? And I do love it. In fact, I’ve always loved the fall colors, always felt myself stirred in a deep, visceral way by the yellow and reds of autumn. I like the way the world turns green in springtime and, like everybody, I like the warm summer weather. (For some reason, I particularly like swimming in the ocean. And that is definitely something that I only do when the weather is at its warmest.) But there is something in the fall…in the smell of the leaves as they fall to the ground, in the brightness of their colors, of the strange blueness of the sky particularly when the air is cold and the sunlight bright and yellow…there is something in all of that that moves my soul and makes me feel part of the natural world in a way that the other seasons suggest a bit but fail actually to stimulate in any truly meaningful way.

Sukkot is part of that set of ideas as well. It is, by all accounts, an odd holiday. We build sukkot that thin the boundary we generally wish to be thick and firm between indoors and outdoors, between the civilized world symbolized by our climate-controlled, electronically secure, comfortably upholstered homes and the natural world that exists uncontrolled by ourselves beyond the boundaries of our property.  And then, having thinned the boundary, we proceed to ignore it as we transgress (to use the word literally for once) in both directions: we bring our china and our stemware out into the natural world, into the flimsy hut that can barely protect itself, let alone ourselves and the treasures we casually deposit within its burlap walls…and we take the lulav and bind willow and myrtle twigs to it, then clasp the whole bundle to the etrog and hold it as we sing the Hallel in praise of the God Who made the world and its bounty, but we do so specifically not outdoors in the context of all that bounty but indoors…in our wholly indoor sanctuaries where, unlike in the sukkah,  we do not feel ourselves half-inside and half-outside at all, but fully and comfortably indoors.

It’s an outside/inside sort of festival the Jews celebrate as the world surrenders to putrefaction in a blaze of glory that itself symbolizes the degree to which life itself can only truly be loved by those who understand its brevity, its ephemeral evanescence, its essential transitoriness.  And so what we are left with as we contemplate our festival in the context of its season is the notion that, truly, nothing is ever as it seems. The security of inside and the insecurity of outside meet and coalesce in the even more basic truth that true security in the world can only come from within, from faith, from confidence born of the knowledge that there is a God in heaven Who watches over the world and Whose essential nature constitutes its moral core.  The beauty of the autumn leaves meets the underlying knowledge that what that beauty really signals is the beginning of the end, the death of life, the onset of the harshest season of the year…and those two notions somehow yield—or should yield—the realization that, far more than spring is birth and winter death, the cycle is the thing…and the notion that the world cycles through its seasons in an endless progression of birth and death, of growth and decline, of gorgeousness and bareness, has at its heart a deep truth that the wise will willingly embrace: that creation itself is meant neither to terrify nor to embolden, but to prompt feelings of deep gratitude and beholdenness to the Creator, author of the earth’s bounty and its cycles of life and death.


And so, with those confused, not fully congruent ideas embraced and proclaimed as simple truths (the hallmark of the successful preacher being precisely that ability to make incongruous ideas sound as though they fit together so well that only a fool would feel the need to choose one over the other), I wish you all a satisfying, meaningful, and spiritually transformational Sukkot this year. At Shelter Rock, we’re having about 350 to dinner in our beautiful and elegantly decorated giant sukkah. Tomorrow, lunch will be served serially (not cereally, or at least mostly not) in a succession of neighborhood sukkot including Joan’s and my own. Throughout the festival, we will be eating and drinking in these flimsy backyard huts that will paradoxically make us feel more, not less, secure that the world is a place of majesty and beauty, and that creation itself—and particularly in its lush gorgeousness—is the only adequate mirror in which mortals can catch even a fleeting glimpse of their Creator.  And in that thought rests the beauty and the profundity of one of the great festivals the Torah offers us as respites from our workaday lives. I wish you all a chag sameiach and, one last time, a shanah tovah for you and your families.