Thursday, February 14, 2019

When "Sorry" Isn't Enough


Like all of us, I suppose, I was surprised and more than just slightly taken aback by the revelation that the sitting governor of Virginia, a man known for his liberality and his commitment to civil rights, once placed a photograph of someone in blackface and someone else dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan outfit on his page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of 1984. Was either person in the photograph himself? He’s been oddly equivocal in answering what is in essence a simple enough question, but it hardly matters at this point—the bottom line was that he himself chose to place that picture on that page, which means that he either thought at the time that the photograph was funny enough to warrant permanent memorialization in that space or, even more disconcertingly, that it was in some way suggestive enough of who he was and/or what he stood for to make it reasonable for people looking back years later to remember him by looking at it.  As many have lately noted, it was a long time ago. But not that long! (The 1680s were a long time ago. The 1980s, not so much.) But the question isn’t really how long ago 1984 was, but whether the man who chose to adorn his yearbook page with racist images should be the governor of an American state now in the present, not in the distant or not so distant past. And another question asks itself as well: what kind of school would permit such pictures to be published in its yearbook in the first place? (Or is that one of those questions that is its own answer?)
But the focus in these last days has rightly been on the governor, not the school. Oddly, that confuses rather than clarifies the issue…because Ralph Northam has been a strong supporter of civil rights for all of his years in public service. So his non-racist bona fides—Northam left the field of pediatric neurology to become a United States senator in 2008—are not the issue at all. The question, therefore, is whether the past should outbalance the present…and whether apologizing for past errors of judgment should be enough to earn the right to move forward unencumbered by one’s own youthful stupidity.

The governor issued a statement in which he described the photograph as both “clearly racist and offensive.” And then he went on to apologize. “I am deeply sorry,” he said, “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service…The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”
That certainly sounds like a sincere effort to own up to what even his most ardent supporter would surely characterize as an error of judgment of monumental proportions. But is saying you’re sorry enough? Can you undo the past with mere words? Can regret in the present outweigh tasteless vulgarity in the past? Those are the issues I’d like to write about today.

At the heart of the matter is a fundamental philosophical question relating to the way the past relates to the present. Trees grow over the course of decades and their trunks become broader and thicker as the former outer layer of wood becomes one of the tree trunk’s inner growth rings and is superseded by a new outer layer. So, at least with trees, it’s all in there somewhere: the outermost layer of wood becomes interiorized as the past retains its physical presence within the ongoing tree. But is the same true of people? Is the eleven-year-old me in there somewhere? It’s hard to say. It feels as though he must be—where else could he be?—and yet the tree model doesn’t feel quite right: boy-me hardly lives within man-me in the same way that a tree’s inner rings are physically present within its trunk as living testimony to its past. Boy-me is more in there somehow than somewhere.
Nor is this mere philosophical musing: our entire criminal justice system rests on the principle that we bear responsibility for our own past acts because we are not ethereal projections or reconceptualizations of the people we were in the past but actually are those same people. And that, in turn, leads me to the pertinent question worth asking with respect to the governor’s racist tastelessness as a young man: since the deed cannot be undone but apparently does not rise to the level of criminal activity for which he could tried in a court of law, then what exactly should he do to address the issue? To that question, the chorus of responses has been varied and, each in its own way (I believe), off-mark. Giving him a pass merely because he doesn’t have a time machine and can’t return to 1985 to re-edit his yearbook page sounds idiotic to me. But maintaining that precisely because he can’t undo the past he should now withdraw into premature retirement and spend the rest of his days ruing a huge error of judgment from a quarter-century ago sounds not only excessive, but also profoundly counterproductive.

One of the features of our intellectual life at Shelter Rock is my annual series of lessons, undertaken every August and lasting through the High Holiday season, devoted to the section of Maimonides’ great law code, the Mishneh Torah, devoted to the law of t’shuvah. The Hebrew word, t’shuvah, is regularly translated as “repentance,” but the English words sounds to me like a slightly more august version of regret whereas t’shuvah involves constructively using some amalgam of remorse, shame, and guilt as a platform upon which to stand not while attempting to travel from the present into the past (which is impossible, see above) but while attempting to move meaningfully from the present into the future.
The text is rich and satisfying—challenging in some ways, but bracing in others and always inspiring. When considered alongside the book I think of as its companion volume, the ibbur Ha-t’shuvah (“The Book of T’shuvah”) by Rabbi Menaem ben Solomon Meiri (1249-1306)—an understudied and underestimated work that I come to esteem even more highly each time I open it—a path opens up for poor Governor Northam to consider as a way forward out of his self-inflicted predicament.

In our tradition, the past cannot be undone but it can be addressed profoundly and meaningfully. The first step is always a public confession: t’shuvah cannot be done in private, let alone in secret. If the misdeed under consideration involved harm to another person, then you have to beg that person’s pardon in person and out loud. If the person is no longer alive, then you must gather a minyan by the side of his or her grave and there confess your sin and pledge to become a finer person in the future who has learned from the error in judgment that led to the event being repented. In every case, the viddui (that is, the public confession of wrongdoing) is an essential element in the larger process.
And then, having stepped into the world, you need to step out of it and demonstrate your resolve to grow into a finer iteration of yourself through a regimen of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Jews, of course, have Yom Kippur as our national day devoted to doing exactly those things: fasting, engaging in various forms of self-denial, spending the day immersed in contemplative communal prayer. Rambam—as Maimonides is familiarly called even in scholarly circles—goes into all of this in great detail. And then, finally, he says this about the individual seeking to do t’shuvah for a specific misdeed: “Such a person,” he writes, “must be humble of demeanor and modest. If boors mock such a person by referencing the deed for which that person has repented by saying ‘you once did such-and-such a thing’ or ‘you once spoke in such-and-such a way,’ then the person who has done t’shuvah honestly will not respond in anger, but rather should listen carefully and take pleasure in their insults—because such taunts will lead to becoming even more ashamed of the past behavior in question and more filled with remorse, and that experience will not be degrading but elevating….”

And that is what I think Governor Northam should do. He seems to be a good man in many ways, but one who made a terrible mistake as a young man that now, all these years later, has hurt many people who must now wonder if they can trust him at all. There is a way forward and, speaking as a rabbi, I recommend our Jewish path of principled t’shuvah coupled with a public commitment to grow through this scandal into a finer version of himself, one even more devoted to the pursuit of civil rights for all than he has been in the past. A bit of public prayer probably wouldn’t hurt either.
And one more detail too, also from Rambam: “Once people have done t’shuvah for some specific misdeeds, it becomes absolutely forbidden to humiliate them by reminding them of their former misdeeds…and doing so is to break the commandment of the Torah that forbids individuals from oppressing each other unduly.”

Can this rule to applied to this last week’s other politician-apologizer, Representative Ilhan Omer (D- Minnesota), who seems so far to have made her mark on Congress solely by sending out anti-Semitic tweets and then apologizing for them? That will have to be the topic of a different blog posting!


Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Big Barn

The notion of the Jewish people constituting what moderns call a “big tent” is so basic to our worldview that it feels surprising to learn how differently our forebears in ancient times understood the concept of boundary and limit as it applies to individual Jewish souls.

Moderns understand Jewishness in terms of gateways negotiated, of which there are only really two: birth to a Jewish mother and the process of conversion. (As is well known, the Reform movement accepts as Jewish individuals with Jewish fathers as well, but that hardly changes the concept itself that there are still only two ways in: conversion and the circumstances of one’s birth.) To say the same thing in other words, we take Jewish status as an ineradicable feature of any Jewish person’s identity based on that person having entered through one of the two approved doorways. But, although the ancients would certainly have agreed regarding the ultimate indelibleness of Jewishness itself, they considered the right to participate in Jewish communal life as something different entirely. And that distinction is what I’d like to write about today.
The idea that the right to live within the Jewish community depends on an individual’s willingness to hew to certain basic norms of belief and behavior has roots in the Bible, where we read in dozens of different contexts that the individual who sins in some specific way is henceforth to be “excised” (which is just a fancy word for “cut off”) from his or her people.  Some of the offenses listed will sound, even to tolerant moderns, as basically incompatible with Jewishness—things like eating on Yom Kippur or engaging in various kinds of incestuous behavior. Other offenses, particularly those related to the Tabernacle, the priesthood, or the Temple, have fallen into desuetude over the years. But the concept itself that there are norms so basic to Jewishness that rejecting them should result in the formal exclusion of that individual from the community is itself an idea that has fallen so fully out of fashion with most that it will come as a surprise to many even to know that such a thing ever existed in the first place.

What I’ve written above is surely closer to the original biblical idea than its subsequent rabbinic elaboration, but the rabbis of classical antiquity, however they understood excision per se, most certainly also accepted as basic the concept of people being temporarily or even permanently banned from participation in communal life. Of these kinds of bans, the most serious were niddui (pronounced in three syllables to rhyme with “kerflooey”) and cheirem. If punished with niddui, an individual was basically shut out of the community for a week or a month. Such a person would not be countable as part of a minyan, was expected to behave roughly as mourners behave during their week of formal bereavement, and was forbidden the company of any other than his or her closest family. And the punishment was meant to fit the crime because the reasons one could end up in niddui were all offenses deemed, one way or the other, to weaken the community, to loose the bonds that tied its members to each other, or to bring disrepute on the community or its norms or ways. (For Maimonides’ list of actionable offenses in this category, click here and scroll down to paragraph 14.) Cheirem was more or less the same thing, but went on indefinitely.
These were the thoughts I brought to my consideration of the vote earlier this month by the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston to exclude from membership any organization that formally self-defines as being anti-Zionist or that supports the world-wide BDS initiative to boycott Israeli companies, individuals, or goods.

On the face of it, it hardly sounds like a daring decision—the details have to do with the membership in the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council of the local branch of the Workmen’s Circle, a venerable non-profit organization with a long history of involvement in the promotion of Yiddish culture, community education, and social justice issues (and a founding member of the JCRC itself) in the wake of that organization’s establishment of some sort of tentative relationship with the Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that is openly supportive of the BDS movement, emphatically opposed to American military aid for Israel, and unapologetically hostile to the Israeli government and its policies.
Whether the Jewish Voice for Peace itself is or isn’t hostile to the very existence of the State of Israel depends on whom you ask: the evidence seems at least slightly equivocal, although the organization’s willingness to endorse the language of genocide to describe Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the invitations it has extended in the past to convicted terrorists responsible for the murder of civilians, including American civilians, certainly seems—at least to me—to tip the balance more or less clearly. But I wish to address a different question this week, one not specifically related to the Boston JCRC decision or to the politics of the Jewish Voice for Peace or the Workmen’s Circle.

Is there a set of values that can reasonably be described as being so basic to the Jewish worldview that rejecting them should automatically put any who hold them at risk of being set outside our admittedly very large barn and no longer considered part of the community at all?
For a people so endlessly obsessed with its own numbers, excluding anyone at all sounds like an unlikely plan forward. And it is surely true that, at least historically, this kind of formal exclusion from communal membership was applied arbitrarily. One-time Communist luminaries Grigory Zinoviev (formerly Hirsch Apfelbaum) and Leon Trotsky (formerly Lev Bronstein), for example, were excommunicated by the rabbis of Odessa before being murdered, in 1936 and 1940 respectively, by Stalin’s willing executioners. Whether their political beliefs did or didn’t warrant their formal excommunication from the Jewish community is debatable, with cogent arguments suggesting themselves on both sides of the matter. But who today would defend the decision of the Amsterdam rabbinate in 1656 to excommunicate the twenty-three-year-old Baruch Spinoza, later—and still—acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers of modern times? (That was meant as a rhetorical question. The chief rabbi of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam declined to revisit the ban as recently as 2012. So that’s who!) Closer to home and even more outrageously, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the eventual founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, was famously excommunicated in 1945 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis because of his decidedly non-Orthodox approach to theology as expressed in his many books and essays and particularly in his edition of the Haggadah for Pesach.

So there is surely plenty of room for abuse. (The Mordechai Kaplan episode retains its ability to outrage me even after all these years.) But the more basic question is whether the barn should be supposed to have infinitely expandable outer walls or if, in fact, there should be a point at which a person with either of the appropriate credentials necessary to claim membership in the House of Israel in the first place—birth or conversion—should be deprived formally of the right to participate in the affairs of the Jewish community.
It's not that easy a question, and not least of all because I’m sure that there are plenty of rabbis out there who would gladly excommunicate myself and all my Rabbinical Assembly colleagues if they thought they could actually get away with such a thing. Still, one of the truly remarkable things about the Jewish people—and I say this seriously, not cynically—is that, even despite all the perverse pleasure we seem to take in vying with each other to see which inner-Jewish group can be even less respectful of which other, in the end we somehow are able to work together on matters of supreme importance without letting denominational affiliation get in the way. And, that being the case, I think that perhaps we probably could agree on certain standards that would lead, perhaps not to old-style shunning in the traditional sense of the term, but to a blanket—and universal—exclusion from the councils and organizations that define Jewish life in these United States. And, yes, I have a little list!

First and foremost on my list would be people who actively work to weaken the ability of Israel to defend itself at home or abroad, including at the United Nations. Rabbis and lay individuals who reject the legitimacy of the State would be on my list as well (no matter how huge or black their hats), as would those willing to make a separate peace with avowed anti-Semites or their unapologetic supporters for the sake of not being themselves excluded from some group (or march) in which they wish to participate. People who openly and shamelessly mock Jewish women, and particularly Jewish mothers and Jewish wives—those people, whether professional comedians or just tasteless jokesters, are on my list too, as are surely also all who defend the right of Holocaust deniers to publish their phony scholarship regardless of what they themselves insist they know to be the truth about the Shoah and no matter how passionately they feel called upon personally to defend the concept of free speech as a basic constitutional right.  
Those are my categories! Am I setting myself up as judge and jury? I suppose you could say the same thing about anyone who dares judge another soul outside a court of law where there actually are a jury and a judge present to determine the guilt of the accused. But I write whereof I know and among the things I do know is that the Jewish people needs to establish the perimeter of its barn and then, as one, to respect that outer boundary…even if that means that people whose Jewishness is undeniable are denied space inside. Do we have the courage of our most basic convictions? That is yet another way to ask the same question, albeit an even less palatable one to imagine hearing posed out loud by someone waiting for an actual answer!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Defending Dr. King's Legacy

It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with the notion that freedom of the press will always be among the most basic features of life in any democratic state. And, indeed, ever since December 15, 1791, when the first ten amendments to the Constitution were formally adopted, this has been true with respect to our American republic not merely philosophically but legally as well. That, surely, is as it should be. But, just as freedom of the press exists specifically to permit the publication of even the least popular ideas, so do citizens have the parallel right—perhaps even the obligation—to respond vigorously to published essays rooted in ignorance, fantasy, and a prejudicial worldview. And it is with that thought in mind that I wish to respond to a truly outrageous op-end piece about Israel—and, more precisely, American support for Israel—published in the New York Times last Sunday in which the author appears to have no understanding of ancient or modern history, no sympathy for any of Israel’s security needs, no ability critically to evaluate even the most baseless Palestinian claims about the history of the land, and no interest even in getting the facts straight.  
The author, Michelle Alexander, is formally employed as an opinion columnist at the Times. And her essay, published on Martin Luther King weekend, presented itself as the result of the author’s brave decision finally “to break the silence” regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It’s hard to imagine what silence the author imagines she has boldly broken by daring to criticize Israel viciously and in print—just lately the number of opinion pieces hostile to Israel published by her own newspaper gives lie to that notion easily. Nor was there anything at all new or groundbreaking in her essay, which mostly just parroted the same propagandistic claptrap the enemies of Israel cite regularly to justify their anti-Israel stance. But most outrageous of all was the suggestion that she was somehow keeping faith with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by finding the courage to speak out against Israel. That last point, then, is the first I will address.

I am personally too young to have been present in 1968 when, just a week before his horrific death, Dr. King came to the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, my own professional organization, and spoke these words: 
  • Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
Those were his final remarks about Israel, never revised or updated. How could he have? He was dead a week later! And, with his horrific end, his unqualified support for the right of Israel to defend itself against its enemies entered history as part of his formidable legacy, a legacy that touched on many areas of American domestic and foreign policy and not solely on the questions related to civil rights, non-violent protest, and race relations for which he is justifiably the most famous.

In her essay, Alexander broke no new ground. She seemed ignorant about Israel—about its history, its foreign policy, its long history of one-sided overtures to the Palestinians, its withdrawal from Gaza, and the restrained way it has responded not to dozens or hundreds but thousands of separate acts of terror aimed specifically at the civilian population over these last years alone—and neither did she seem to know, or care, how it was that Israel came to control the West Bank in the first place. But when boiled down to its basics, she seemed unable to move past her sense that the Jews who founded the State of Israel were colonialist interlopers from Europe who were intent on doing to the indigenous Arab population what the Belgians in that same era were attempting to do to the Congolese, the British to the Indians, and the French to the Algerians: seize other people’s land and then ignore the presence of those people other than when it came to subduing them and forcing them to serve their new masters. As I read it, that was the core of her argument.
The fact that the Palestinians have refused offer after offer to negotiate a fair, just peace seems to be unknown to her. Perhaps more to the point, the fact that there is nothing at all preventing the Palestinian leadership from doing what they should have done in 1947 and finally declaring a Palestinian State, then negotiating its borders with the neighbors and getting down to the business of nation building—this too seems not to have occurred to Alexander, who finds it courageous to support the notion of boycotting Israel (and who is paradoxically appalled by the publication of the names of individuals who support the BDS movement, although you would think she would be proud for their names—and her own name—to be known widely in that context). And she certainly has no interest in responding thoughtfully (or at all) to the inconvenient fact that the Arabs, hardly the indigenes, came to the Land of Israel in a series of invasions in the seventh century CE in the course of which they successfully wrested control of the land from its then Byzantine masters. (Nor was the Land of Israel the sole target of the Caliph Umar and his hordes back in the day: the Arab armies, true colonialists precisely in the style of the age of imperialism, also overran modern-day Turkey, Cyprus, Armenia, and most of Northern Africa.) On the other hand, there is every imaginable kind of evidence—literary, archeological, genetic, epigraphical, and numismatic—to support the argument that the ancestors of today’s Jewish people were present in the land in hoariest antiquity and have remained present, one way or the other, ever since. But of that truth, Alexander has nothing at all to say.

It’s true that there have been Arabs living in the Land of Israel for many centuries. But the detail Alexander passes quickly by is precisely that there is nothing at all preventing the outcome she clearly dreams to see: the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Middle East. If they will it to happen, then it will surely be no dream! (I’ve lost track of how many nations already recognize the non-existent State of Palestine as though it were an actual political entity.) Yet all the misery of the Palestinians, so Michelle Alexander, is exclusively the fault of Israel. The Jordanians, who ruled over the West Bank for nineteen years and kept the Palestinians interned in refugee camps, are not mentioned. The extraordinary acts of violence directed against Israel—the tens of thousands of missiles fired at civilian towns and villages within Israel from Gaza, for example—these too are left unreferenced. Perhaps the author considers each of those missiles to constitute a valid expression of political rage. But I would only begrudgingly respect her right to such an opinion if she were to write similarly about the people who brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11—that they weren’t terrorists or violent miscreants, just brave martyrs making a searing political statement.  
Alexander makes much of the fact that Martin Luther King apparently cancelled plans to travel to Israel after the Six Day War in 1967. She cites a phone call—but without saying to whom it was made or where recorded—according to which King based his decision on the fear that the Arab world would surely interpret his visit as an indication that he supported everything Israel did to win the war. That King had misgivings about this or that aspect of Israeli military or foreign policy is hardly a strong point—I myself  harbor grave misgivings about many Israeli policies, including both domestic and non-domestic ones—but infinitely more worth citing are Reverend King’s remarks the following fall at Harvard. Some of the students with whom he was dining began to criticize Zionism itself as a political philosophy, to which criticism King responded by asserting that to repudiate the value or validity of Zionism as a valid political movement is, almost by definition, to embrace anti-Semitism: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” And King’s final statement about Israel, cited above, certainly reads clearly enough for me!

To take advantage of the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution implies a certain level of responsibility to the facts. To be unaware that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 is possibly merely to be uninformed and lazy in one’s research. To write about the West Bank as though it were the site of a formerly independent Palestinian state now occupied by Israeli aggressors is either to be willfully biased or abysmally ill informed. But to write about Israeli checkpoints designed to keep terrorists from entering Israel without as much as nodding to the reason Israelis might reasonably and fully rationally fear a resurgence of violence directed specifically against the civilian population—that crosses the line from ignorance and poor preparation into the terrain of anti-Semitic rhetoric that finds the notion of Jewish people doing what it takes to defend themselves against their would-be murderers repulsive…or, at the very least, morally suspect. 
I have been a subscriber to the New York Times forever. My parents were also subscribers. In my boyhood home, the phrase “the paper” invariably referenced The Times. (If my father meant The Daily Mirror or The Post, he said so. But “the” paper without further qualification was The Times.) Much of what I grew up knowing about the world and thinking about the world came directly from its editorial and, eventually, its op-ed pages; that the writing in “the” paper was presumed unbiased, informed, and honest went without saying. That, however, was then. And this is now. I haven’t cancelled my subscription. Not yet, at any rate. And I really do believe that people should be free to express even the least popular views in print without fear of reprisal. But when someone crosses the line from harsh criticism of Israel to propose that there is something reprehensible about Israel defending itself vigorously against its enemies—that is where I stop reading and try to calm down by looking at the obituaries or the crossword puzzle instead.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dual Loyalties


I think most of us in the Jewish community take the accusation of “dual loyalty” as a feature specifically of anti-Semitic rhetoric. But the reality is that the insult itself, although always a popular way among anti-Semites to disparage Jewish Americans, has a far more complicated history than taking it “just” as a way of questioning the patriotism of American Jews would make it sound. And the philosophical underpinnings of the idea—the question of whether loyalty to one’s country by definition precludes the possibility of also harboring a deep sense of emotional, financial, or activist involvement in the affairs of some other country—is itself an interesting question to think through.
It is widely understood that the heart cannot love two other persons simultaneously with the exact same level of passion or vigor, and that, as a result, one of the two parties will always be the less loved and one the more no matter how pure one’s original intention to love them both equally well might have been. Indeed, it was the slow insinuation of this idea into our Western consciousness that led to even the most traditional Jews turning away from polygamy despite its scriptural bona fides and instead embracing the monogamous model in marriage. Nor is this just a non-binding instance of a custom falling into gentle desuetude: Rabbi Gershom ben Judah of Mainz formally interdicted polygamy in the year 1240—an amazingly daring move in his day in that it actually made (and makes) it forbidden to obey to least one of the 613 commandments according to the simple meaning of the text, which is surely how Scripture meant for it to be observed—and thus does it remain forbidden and not merely out of vogue for Jews even today.

What is true with respect to the love of another person is also widely understood to be true with respect to the love of one’s country. And, indeed, although fidelity to one’s spouse and allegiance to one’s country are hardly each other’s exact counterpart in every single way, there are features that both clearly do—and should—share. To consider the issue from an American vantage point, for example, I think it is entirely fair to say that the love of country that characterizes the patriotic citizen, rooted as it must be in a deep allegiance both specifically to the foundational ideas upon which the republic rests and more generally to the whole American ethos as it has evolved to our day, simply cannot co-exist with that citizen’s same level of allegiance to some other country and to its institutions and foundational ideas.
But does that concept of patriotic monogamy, so to speak, mean that citizens are somehow being untrue to the country of their own citizenship by caring deeply about, and feeling intensely involved in, the affairs of other nations? Is it an act of disloyalty for someone happily married to a loving spouse also to care deeply about other people—about a neighbor suffering from some terrible illness, say, or about a co-worker suddenly in danger of losing his or her home? Who would say it does? And yet the dual-allegiance derogation—with its implication that one cannot be a truly patriotic American if one also cares deeply about the affairs of another country and is emotionally or even spiritually caught up in that country’s affairs of state—continues to surface like an endlessly recurring infection that simply refuses to succumb until it has done the maximum damage possible…to those whose American patriotism it attempts to sully and, paradoxically, also to those who degrade their own allegiance to our nation’s democratic principles by using it to question the patriotism of others. And, yes, this does seem to be more focused on Jewish supporters of Israel than on others: I imagine Irish Americans care more about Ireland than most other Americans do, but I can’t recall anyone accusing them of disloyalty because of it.

Most recently, this has come up in the wake of a comment of Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Michigan, who openly and publicly suggested that people backing a series of pro-Israel bills in the House appear to hear to have forgotten “what country they represent.” The implication of that remark, tweeted out to her 280,000 followers on Twitter, is completely clear in its suggestion that any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate who actively and vocally supports Israel cannot be a truly patriotic American and so should not be trusted to serve in the Congress or imagined invariably to have the best interests of American citizens at heart. (The irony that inheres in the fact that Tlaib is both a Palestinian-American and an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause, yet presumably does not see herself as unsure what country she represents, went unnoticed only by some. See below.)
The “dual loyalty” mud has been flung at many others as well over the years. The internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans in West Coast concentration camps during the Second World War could only be justified with reference to the fear that, now that war had come, Americans of Japanese descent might reasonably have opted to preference allegiance to their ancestral homeland over loyalty to their adopted one. The 1960 presidential election was marred by opponents of John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, openly wondering if the then-candidate’s true allegiance was to our nation or to the Vatican. There are lots of other examples too, of course. But all have in common the basic notion that caring deeply, personally, and intensely about the security and wellbeing of a foreign state is a form—albeit a minor and unactionable form—of sedition. But is that a reasonable supposition? It is one thing, after all, for the Constitution to require that the President of the United States be a “natural born Citizen,” presumably because of the fear that any citizen who was formerly the citizen of a different country will necessarily harbor in his or her heart the kind of indelible allegiance to that country that would make it impossible to be wholly loyal to this one. When spelled out that clearly, that sounds ridiculous. Or at least to me it does! But to posit that citizens in general, and not specifically those seeking the highest office in the land, are by definition disloyal if they care deeply about the fate or wellbeing of specific other nations strikes me as being infinitely more so.

Two essays published last week spoke directly to this issue and I’d like to recommend them both to you.
Writing on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, Andrew Silow-Carroll cited a remark by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis dating back to 1915 in which he could have been addressing himself to Rashida Tlaib directly. “Multiple loyalties,” he wrote, “are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. Every Irish American who contributed towards advancing home rule [i.e., in an Ireland then fighting for its own independence from Britain] was a better man and a better American for the sacrifice he made. Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.” In other words, caring deeply about an ancestral homeland and feeling a tie of kinship and emotional affinity to its inhabitants is not a sign of disloyalty, much less of sedition, but rather a natural extension of the allegiance we all feel to our extended families. But Silow-Carroll’s comment on that passage is also worth citing: “The Brandeisian notion that ‘multiple loyalties’ make you a better American has guided and justified Jewish activism for Israel even before its founding in 1948. It’s based partly on Brandeis’ theoretical notion that loyalty itself is an admirable and fungible quality, like honesty or sobriety. And it assumes, as Brandeis did famously, that American values, Jewish values and Zionist values are fully aligned.” I couldn’t agree more. To read Silow-Carroll’s piece, click here.         

The other essay was by Alan Dershowitz and was published on the website of the Gatestone Institute. His essay is less about Tlaib herself, however, and more about the anti-BDS legislation whose supporters Tlaib was attacking. (To read the essay in its entirely, click here.) That legislation, intended to make illegal discrimination against entities (commercial or academic or otherwise) that do business with Israel, is being widely attacked in some circles as an attack on the freedom of speech promised all Americans by the First Amendment. He addresses that charge, I think effectively and—for me, at least—conclusively, and then turns his withering gaze to Rashida Tlaib herself and addresses her tweet: “Tlaib argues that ‘boycotting is a right and part of our historical fight for freedom and equality.’ Would she have supported, in the name of equality, the right of white bigots to boycott Black owned stores in the South or Black apartment renters in the North? Would she support the right of homophobes to boycott gay owned stores? Or the right of anti-Muslim bigots to boycott Muslim-owned stores or products from Muslim nations? If she were to support legislation prohibiting anti-Palestinian boycotts, how would she respond to an accusation that she ‘forgot what country’ she represents?...No one has accused Tlaib of forgetting what country she represents when she supports the Palestinian cause, even though Palestinian terrorists, acting in the name of ‘Palestine,’ have killed numerous Americans. Americans of any religion have the right to support Israel, and most do, without being accused of disloyalty, just as Americans of any religion have the right to support the Palestinian cause. It is both bigoted and hypocritical to apply a different standard to Jews who support Israel than to Muslims who support the Palestinian cause.”
What else is there to say? I couldn’t feel myself to be a more patriotic citizen of our great country. My deep commitment to the security and wellbeing of the State of Israel is not solely rooted in the fact that Joan and I own property there, but far more deeply in my conviction that the future of the Jewish people is inextricably tied to the fate of the State of Israel. I can’t even begin to explain why anyone would argue seriously that that makes me less of an American patriot.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Belgium Waffles

I found myself responding both wistfully and angrily to the news that Belgium, a country once known for its liberality and its tolerance, has outlawed traditional Jewish slaughter in its two largest regions …and no less so because the move seems motivated more by anti-Muslim sentiment (traditional Muslim slaughter was also outlawed) than by any specific interest in making Jewish life difficult or untenable, let alone by any real sympathy for animals. Indeed, the kindness-to-animals thing is entirely unconvincing, the issue specifically having to do with Jewish law (and Muslim law too apparently) requiring that animals being killed for their meat be both perfectly healthy and completely conscious when they are killed, thus precluding the common practice of stunning animals into unconsciousness before slaughter. But, at least as far as anyone can tell with any degree of certainty, animals that are dispatched by a trained shochet or the Muslim equivalent of one do die painlessly and instantly. So how can this be a serious animal-rights issue? The Belgian law also effectively outlaws traditional Hindu and Sikh methods of slaughter. 

Yes, it’s true that the kosher Jews of Belgium will be allowed to import kosher meat from other countries, notably from neighboring France where there is a large kosher meat industry. And it’s also true that the new law for the moment leaves the region surrounding Brussels unaffected. (It is surely just a matter of time before kosher slaughter is outlawed in the entire country, however, as the Jews of Brussels surely understand.) But none of those details makes any difference really, because hiding behind the laws is a basic attitudinal contempt for religion that preferences unproven—and, by most accounts, unprovable—theories about the inner lives of animals over the spiritual and religious needs of human beings. (Just for the record, our nation’s Human Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 specifically declared the Jewish method of slaughter to be the functional equivalent of stunning. For an interesting piece published a few years ago in The Guardian to the effect that stunning animals before slaughter is actually the inhumane way to go, click here. For a more elaborate setting forth of that same argument, click here.)
The ban is hardly something the Belgians themselves dreamed up.  Indeed, the European Union itself, wholly unconcerned with the spiritual needs of non-Christians, actually requires pre-slaughter stunning and merely allows nations to make religious exceptions. Belgium used to, now no longer will. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Slovenia already do not. (Of course, the EU wouldn’t ever say that it is preferencing Christians over non-Christians. But if laws adversely affect Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus…so who else actually is there in any of the lands of the EU who will be left unaffected by this kind of legislation other than Christians and people with no professed faith at all?)

There is also a commercial aspect to the ban: Antwerp, the capital of Flanders and a city with a Jewish population of over 20,000, is also the center of a thriving kosher meat industry, an industry that will now have to close its doors and terminate the employment of the people who work there. The story of one such factory—whose owner fired all his employees in advance of moving the operation to Hungary—was told in an essay by Cnaan Lipshitz published the other day on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website. (Click here to see the essay.) No doubt other factories and businesses will follow suit. None of this seems to matter to the authorities, however, who are hiding their complete lack of interest in protecting the rights of Jews behind a fig leaf of protecting the rights of animals.
I don’t profess to have an expert’s opinion regarding the issue of stunning, only to see clearly that the matter is largely undecided by people who do have a right to an opinion and that there are serious scientists who feel that stunning itself is the crueler choice. But the real issue here doesn’t have to do with animals or even with the laws of kosher (or halal) slaughter as much as it has to do with a creeping, and not that slowly creeping either, sense in the world—and particularly in Europe—that religious ritual in general, and Jewish ritual in particular, is something for secular governments to regulate.

A few years ago, I wrote two letters about the efforts in some quarters both at home and abroad to outlaw circumcision. (To revisit those letters, click here and here.) Those efforts have yielded some success in terms of public opinion, but there is still no country in the world that currently outlaws the circumcision of infant boys as a matter of law. Still, there are instances of countries enacting legislation that governs the practice itself. Australia, for example, does not permit doctors (or anyone) to circumcise babies in public hospitals, only in a private setting. (That really makes no sense at all—if it is permissible to do something at all, why should it not be permissible to do it in public?) Germany, not entirely unreasonably, only allows non-physicians to perform circumcisions on babies under the age of six months. Sweden, a bit excessively but also not entirely unreasonably, requires a doctor or nurse to be present during a circumcision (although not that the ritual itself be performed by a doctor or a nurse), and mandates the use of some sort of anesthetic to dull the infant’s pain. South Africa has outlawed circumcision for all boys under the age of sixteen other than for religious reasons. (That doesn’t affect the Jewish community, obviously. But it’s still an interesting detail that also makes little sense. If a practice is harmful, then why should it be allowed at all? And if it is not harmful, then why should it be denied to any?) 

None of these laws just mentioned is especially onerous in terms of its detail. But the real point here is whether the secular governments of secular states can embrace the notion that Jewish people—and the faithful, for that matter, of all religions—should be left free to pursue their own spiritual path without the unwanted and untoward interference of others. Making sure rituals that involve surgical procedures, even as minor as one as circumcision, are performed in a sanitary setting by people who are certified to know what they are doing doesn’t offend me at all. Why should it? Guaranteeing the safety of the citizenry is precisely what I do think of as the primary job of the government. But a clear line should always be drawn between enacting regulations that seek to make safe the populace and enacting laws that are aimed, no matter how many fig leaves their proponents don to avoid being labelled anti-Semites or worse, to make it impossible to live a traditional Jewish life…which certainly includes circumcising baby boys and eating kosher-slaughtered meat.

The brouhaha that seems periodically to surface about the traditional, but in the end not requisite, practice of metzitzah b’feh as a postlude to circumcision—the specific ritual features the circumciser sucking a bit of blood out of the baby’s wound with his mouth—is an excellent example of something that I feel should be regulated by law. The practice is unhygienic, puts the baby and the mohel—the circumciser—both at risk (although not to the same degree, obviously), and is absolutely not requisite despite the claims of those on the extreme right of the Jewish religious world to the contrary. (For a detailed, but endlessly interesting history of the whole controversy by Cantor Philip Sherman, a popular mohel in the New York region, click here. The essay is long, but also fascinating and quite well done.) But even here the issue on the table should be the simple question of whether this is or isn’t dangerous for the public—in this case for the baby and the mohel—and the law should reflect the answer to that question. Just for the record, there simply isn’t any requisite or indispensable Jewish ritual that involves the serious risk of harm to the individual undertaking it.

I couldn’t agree more that animals should be slaughtered in a humane way that involves as little discomfort or pain as possible. The Torah itself says as much by outlawing, and unequivocally, doing anything at all that causes pain to animals. Given the fact that many who have studied the matter think that the precise way to slaughter causing as little discomfort or pain as possible is to follow the Jewish laws relating to the slaughter of animals for food, I have to conclude that legislation outlawing kosher shechitah must be rooted in a different set of interests entirely. And I think my readers will all know in what soil that set of interests is rooted.

Jews have lived in Europe for millennia. There have been good times and bad, ups and downs, periods of acceptance and of the most catastrophic horrors. But I always imagined there would be a future for the Jews of Europe. Part of me still thinks that. And yet…as laws are enacted that basically say to the Jewish community that the government—that very institution that functions in a democracy as the embodiment of the national will—that the government doesn’t really care if you can or can’t live here, if you stay or go, if you survive as an intact community or vanish into the woodwork without retaining even vestigial allegiance to the rituals of your people’s faith, then maybe the time really has come to go. Would I stay on in a country that showed begrudging tolerance to the principle of religious freedom but which failed actually to extend religious freedom to its citizenry? Not if I had a choice I wouldn’t!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Heroes Slipping Away

Slowly, they’re all slipping away. I noted with interest and with regret the death the other day at age 112 of Richard Overton, the oldest living American veteran of World War II. He had an amazing story, actually: the grandson of slaves from Tennessee who grew up in Texas suffering the petty indignities routinely visited upon black people in the South during the first decades of the twentieth century, he was present at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima and so personally witnessed some of the most important events that took place in the Pacific theater of war and lived to tell the tale. There’s something very compelling to me in that story, something suggestive of the kind of heroic patriotism that would lead a man to volunteer for military service in the defense of his nation even despite the degree to which he personally had suffered from the racism that was at that time an endemic part of life for black Americans, and particularly in the South. For more about his life, click here.


Almost twenty years Richard Overton’s junior, Simcha Rotem also died last week. Rotem, born Szymon Ratajzer and known by the nom-de-guerre Kazik when he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943, was its last living survivor. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was so deeply engrained in my consciousness when I was a child that it’s almost surprising to me to recall that I was born a decade after it was brutally and decisively put down by Poland’s German occupiers. It was the sole example my father would bring up again and again as proof positive that the Jews of Europe did not just go to the slaughter like sheep in an abattoir, and I must have heard at least some of the stories connected with the uprising hundreds of times. As a result, Leon Uris’s book, Mila 18, was the first full-length novel I read about the Shoah—before, even, I read The Last of the Just—and is in some ways the literary foundation stone upon which rests my sense of myself as some kind of survivor after-the-fact: my father’s people came from a small town just outside Warsaw called Nowy Dwor and met the exact same fate as the Jews of nearby Warsaw. Published when I was eight years old, Mila 18 was only a former bestseller by the time I got to it. But that didn’t matter to me at all, as neither have done the various accounts published more recently documenting resistance by Jewish communities and individuals throughout occupied Europe—effectively putting to rest my father’s sense that Warsaw was our single effort, quixotic at best but more than real, to defy the Germans and prevent our own annihilation: none has meaningfully diminished the place the Warsaw Uprising occupies in my own Jewish consciousness. (For more on Jewish resistance during the Shoah, I recommend Doreen Rappaport’s book, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, published in 2012 and still widely available.)  In the world of my childhood, Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization who served as the leader of the uprising and who died at Mila 18 at age twenty-four, was the hero of all heroes.
To say that the uprising was a failure is almost to say nothing at all. German losses were seventeen dead (all but one killed in action) and ninety-three injured (including sixty members of the SS). Jewish losses were on a different scale entirely and were staggering: 13,000 killed in the course of the uprising and the remaining 56,000 residents of the ghetto deported immediately to Treblinka or Majdanek and murdered in those places upon arrival.

Just a few days before the uprising was decisively ended by German forces, there was a successful attempt to rescue some few of the Ghetto’s defenders. That this was attempted at all is amazing enough, but more amazing still is that the operation was successful and allowed many of the escapees to carry the struggle forward, adopting the techniques of guerilla warfare to harass and occasionally kill German soldiers and eventually joining forces with the Poles who launched the “other” Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944. And one of the organizers of this almost miraculous flight from certain death was Simcha Rotem, called Kazik, who died last week and was the last survivor of the fighters who participated in the uprising.
Kazik was a boy of eighteen in 1942. He was already a survivor, though, even then: several family members and his brother were killed when a German bomb fell on his family’s home a few years earlier. There are other names to mention as well. Mordechai Anielewicz was the commander of the Jewish Fighting Force inside the ghetto, for example, but there was also Yitzchak Zuckerman serving as the organization’s commander on the Gentile side of the barrier that defined the ghetto. And, in fact, it was as courier between Anielewicz and Zuckerman that Kazik made his greatest and more daring contribution to the effort to resist the German effort to kill every Jew in Poland. His adventures are both terrifying and remarkable to relate. He was stuck for a while on the Gentile side and had to try repeatedly to re-enter the ghetto. Eventually, he succeeded by wading through the sewers that even the Germans couldn’t figure out how to close. And then his moment of true greatness came as the final destruction of the ghetto was almost upon them all, and he was able—because he was so familiar with the Warsaw sewer system—to bring Zivia Lubetkin, one of the last surviving leaders of the uprising, and about eighty others to safety first in Gentile Warsaw and then, soon after that, in the forests surrounding the city. He himself spent the rest of the war helping Jews in hiding and then eventually participating in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. And then, after the war, he devoted himself to service on two different fronts: one, as a member of Nakam, the group devoted to exacting extra-legal vengeance on surviving Nazi war criminals, and the other as a member of Bricha, the group devoted to helping Jews immigrate to Mandatory Palestine despite the best efforts of the British to keep Jews out of their own homeland even after the Shoah deprived them of any other place to call home.

Although Kazik—who as Simcha Rotem ended up, of all things, as the manager of an Israeli supermarket chain until his retirement in 1986—was the sole remaining fighter when he died, there is still one single person left alive who was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto for as long as it existed: Aliza Vitis-Shomron was twelve years old in 1942 and somehow managed to survive after helping the cause along by distributing various kinds of leaflets in the ghetto before finally managing to escape.
When I was a boy growing up in Forest Hills, the survivor community was entirely different than it is today. For one thing, the survivors I knew as a boy were all young people—the parents, not the grandparents or great-grandparents, of my friends from elementary school. The word “survivor” itself was not in use back then, however, and I don’t believe I can recall any of my friend’s European parents using that word ever to describe themselves. They were far too interested in moving forward, in establishing a foothold in America, in learning to speak unaccented American English (a challenge successfully met only by some), in relegating the horrors of their own past to the swirling mists of history and living in the clear light of a safe, secure present. That people didn’t wish to speak about the past was a given in most households. I accepted that back then, never finding the nerve to ask even people I knew well about their personal stories. Almost the people in that category that I remember from my childhood are gone from the world now, though, and, although some contributed videotaped interviews to the Spielberg Holocaust Archive, most took their stories with them when they departed this world.

But at least I knew these people personally, whereas the great challenge in the future is going to be finding a way to raise up a new generation whose contact with Shoah survivors will either be minimal or non-existent. It’s already too late to meet anyone who belonged to the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, just as it is also impossible now to meet an American veteran who fought in the First World War.  (The last living person to have served in the Allied Armed Forces died last November at age 110.) This happens, of course, to all historical events: the last living veteran of the Union Army who saw combat in the Civil War, James Hard, died in 1953…yet the Civil War is not only remembered by historians but remains completely alive in our national consciousness as one of the defining events in the history of the republic. Can we do the same for the Shoah as the survivors—and particularly people like Simcha Rotem who were eye-witnesses to events like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—fade from the scene? That is the question that Rotem’s death challenged me to ask and which I invite you all to join me in the wake of his passing now also to ponder.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

At Year's End


I’ll be away next week, so this will be my last letter of 2018 to all of you, my faithful readers for all these many years. (For the record, this is my 442nd letter since I began writing them in 2007.  So those of you who have been reading along for all these years probably know me better than I sometimes think I know myself.) As regular readers know, I often like to riff off of recently published essays elsewhere. And so, for this final letter of a soon-to-be-gone secular year, I’d like to respond to an essay that appeared in the Sunday Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times. The piece, written by a Laura Turner (whom the Times vaguely identifies solely as “a writer”), was basically written to set forth the triple thesis that, to quote the author, you can’t go to church on your phone, internet church is not real church, and you cannot be part of an actual community by putting yourself in the company solely of virtual people.
It’s not that hard to see how we’ve come to a point at which such an essay sounds like a measured, thoughtful response to a phenomenon of modern life and not like the premise of a wacky science fiction novel.

I myself am a good example. I hardly ever go to the post office, because I conduct more or less all my correspondence by email. I rarely go to the bank because I pay all my bills electronically and deposit any actual paper checks I receive through my phone. (I can, however, also remember when that last part really would have sounded like science fiction.) Even though there are any number of large department stores within a fifteen minute drive of my home, I buy most of what I purchase online. All of these would once have been opportunities for interaction with other human beings, with neighbors and strangers, with people I might over years have come to think of as friends…or at least as familiar faces. There was some degree of pleasure in those encounters, even in the fleeting ones, but each has now been replaced by a streamlined process that permits me to accomplish wholly on my own what would once have required at least some actual contact with other people. Efficiency is a good thing, obviously. But there is a point of diminishing returns as well: it’s a lonely world we’ve constructed for ourselves, this ultra-efficient digital age in which it feels necessary to justify taking the time to do even something as inconsequential as buying a pair of socks when you can accomplish the exact same thing—and probably for less money—without even standing up from your computer, let alone getting in your car and driving somewhere.
So Laura Turner’s essay is addressing what really is just the next step in an already ongoing progression of societal innovations that purport to improve life by making some specific task doable without lifting your hands from the keyboard: the invention of the virtual congregation able to provide the succor and support of affiliation without imposing the tedious necessity on the would-be congregant of actually leaving home and sallying forth into the world, much less having to encounter actual people on a spiritual journey that, at least in a certain rarified sense, must be taken alone anyway.

But there’s alone all by yourself and there’s alone in the company of likeminded others. And Jewish legal tradition—which certainly acknowledges the intensely personal nature of prayer—is also very clear about the importance of communal prayer being undertaken within the bosom of an actual community. Indeed, our traditional texts go so far as to discuss—and entirely seriously—if a minyan of ten can be duly constituted of nine people well inside a room and a tenth merely standing in the doorway, or of nine people in a room and a tenth standing outside the building but looking in through an open window. As usual in cases like this, the exceptions prove the rule: our classical texts permit the three needed to recite the formal introduction to the Grace after Meals merely to be within eyeshot of each other and specifically not to have to be in the same room, but that is because, in the end, there is not imagined to be any enhancement for the individual in the spiritual experience of being part of the requisite three (called a zimmun). And, indeed, when we move up from the basic introduction liturgy to the slightly expanded version solely recited in the presence of ten, however, then mere visual contact is specifically deemed not enough and the ten have actually to be in the same room, in the same space.
There is some rational wiggle-room provided in the sources. Once the quorum is achieved, then even individuals who may not be counted in the quorum because they are not physically present may be permitted to respond when the liturgy requires a response. (For a detailed exposition of the whole issue—and the full range of halakhic options and possibilities—written by my colleague and my friend of forty-plus years, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner of Baltimore, click here.) And there is a whole interesting Pesach-related dimension to the discussion because the Torah’s original framework for requiring that worship take place in a single “place” has to do, not with prayer at all it turns out, but with the ingestion of the paschal lamb on the eve of Passover.

That Pesach angle is more pertinent than it might at first seem in that the whole concept seems to be rooted in the interesting notion that, because the festival exists specifically to commemorate the Israelites’ passage from slavery to freedom, the formal ingestion of the paschal sacrifice can only take place in the context of community because true freedom can only be attained in the context of community, of people occupying the same space, breathing the same air, making room for each other in their personal ambits and responding not to each other’s voice or image but to each other’s actual presence. If a tree falls in a forest where there is no one to hear it crash to the earth, there is no real sound produced. Whether that’s really true, who knows? (My physics teacher in eleventh grade said it was and she seemed pretty sure she was right.) But what’s indubitably true is the corollary idea relating to community: if we grow freely to the fullest flower of our personhood without the presence of others to note our growth, to evaluate it, and to respond to it, there is no real growth at all…only the self-generated illusion of spiritual, emotional, or intellectual progress.
But that notion—that true personal freedom does not derive from the unfettered ability to act as one pleases but rather in the cohesive sense of belonging that comes from participation in the group, in a minyan, in a community of supportive friends, in society itself—that notion feels slightly out of step with our American ideal of the self-reliant individual who stands on his or her own two feet, who specifically does not need input from others to know where he or she stands, and whose rugged individualism is the human face of the Constitution’s ideal of the natural right of people to exist according to their own lights and without reference to the opinions or prejudices of others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the greatest of all American essayists and nineteenth century thinkers, wrote about this stirringly and very convincingly in his essay, “Self-Reliance,” which I have read many, many times over the years. And so I, filled with the greatest respect for Emerson and his philosophy of life, could easily find myself on the horns of a serious dilemma, part of me standing with Emerson and seeing community as, at best, the platform upon which individuals stands as they grow towards freedom, and the other part of me understanding community not as the platform on which free individuals stand but as the context that grants them their freedom. But that dilemma does not really exist.

For millennia, the opposite of freedom was slavery. That was Emerson’s world, and his essay reflects that fact. (“Self-Reliance” was written in 1841.) But that was then and today the opposite of freedom for most moderns is loneliness, not chattel slavery. And that is why Laura Turner’s op-ed piece was entirely correct: because no one, not even the super-digitized hipster who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a bank or a post office, becomes less lonely other than by being in the presence of other flesh-and-blood people. Looking at images on a screen cannot provide the succor of presence any more than looking at pictures of food can provide nourishment. And there is no greater barrier to spiritual progress than the sense of aloneness that leads to alienation from society, disaffection with one’s neighbors, and creeping estrangement from God. I think I know enough of Emerson to risk saying that I think he would agree wholeheartedly if he knew enough of our world to form an opinion.
As 2018 draws to a close, I think of the way my community comes together when someone suffers a loss and how remarkable the shiva experience is precisely because of the remarkable level of inner-communal support we are able to provide because so many are so eager to help. I think of my own brief hospitalization a few weeks ago and how many people—more than I could keep track of—texted me and left me emails and voice mails, each trying to provide from afar some of that sense of communal support that each understood to be requisite to the healing process. And I think of what it means to so many of us to be growing older in the context of a rich, caring community of friends ready to reach out and shore us up when we start to list to one side or the other, or when we suddenly feel ourselves to be on shaky ground, or when we momentarily lose our self-confidence and fall prey to the fears we mostly manage to keep at bay. It’s a blessing, being part of any community…but my special blessing is to be part of ours. The Marlboro man may exemplify the individualist who can ride off on his own into the next chapter of his life because he serves as his own universe of discourse, as his own arbiter of taste and style, as his own judge and his own jury. But for me, life is with people…and it is involvement with others that sets me free, that makes me free…and that enables me to live free in a world of people trying to go to church on their phones and uncertain why it never feels quite right.