Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Who Went

Autobiography is a suspicious genre at best: generally speaking, the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own stories. For one thing, people almost by definition tell their own stories from their personal vantage points, presenting as obvious truths details that others would see entirely differently. That must seem like an obvious truism, but it’s not that easy to keep in mind as you read along, enthralled by the story being told and forgetting to remember that every story, even the compelling one you are being told by the talented author of the book you are reading, has another side…and would sound entirely different if someone else were telling it, the author’s spouse, for example, or one of his or her parents, or one of the police officers the author is accusing of brutality. Nonetheless, it’s a popular genre. And one of the most popular of its sub-genres is constituted of exposés by escapees, by people who have escaped from…somewhere. From prison. From slavery. From a cult. From an oppressive home environment. From an abusive marriage. From a horrific boarding school. From somewhere!

Some of these books specifically chronicle their authors’ successful escape from the religious cults that earlier on had claimed their total allegiance, books like Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief or Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. And then there is a whole sub-category of Jewish authors who write about their “escape” from the hasidic (or super-frumm non-hasidic) communities in which they either were raised or ended up living.

There are a lot of these books, mostly by women. Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Childhood, Judy Brown’s This Is Not a Love Story, Chaya Deitsch’s Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are only some of the better-known examples, but there are others out there as well.  Some of you may have seen the only recently-made Yiddish-language movie I know of, Adam Vardy’s Mendy, which details its protagonist’s unexpectedly uninteresting journey from his insular community in Brooklyn to a community of hasidic escapees in Manhattan. The movie was irritating, actually—not well written, not well acted, and not particularly compelling. But at least it was a man’s story…which made it almost unique. (I suppose I will probably eventually read Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament once I get past the vulgar title and the even more vulgar book jacket illustration. Or maybe not.)

And now I have just finished reading Shulem Deen’s memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, the author’s account of his painful decision to leave the Skverer hasidic community in New Square, New York, and to re-invent himself more or less from top to bottom even though his decision ultimately cost him not only his marriage and his community, but any meaningful contact with his children as well. But rejection by his neighbors did not herald rejection by the reading public and the book was almost incredibly well received. It won a National Jewish Book Award in 2015. Far more improbably, it was named one of Star Magazine’s “Fab 5 Can’t-Miss Entertainment Picks.” And more improbably even than that (which is saying something), it was named one of the “forty-three books to read before you die” by the Independent, one of Britain’s leading online newspapers.

It is a painful read, and particularly for those of us who come to the topic with our own set of complicated biases and preconceptions.

Like many of my generation, I grew up imbued with a strangely idealized conception of the hasidic world, one developed without the benefit of having ever met an actual hasidic person or visited a hasidic community or synagogue. They were everywhere in my childhood, those people. The walls of one of best friend’s parents’ apartments featured a series of decorative plates, each emblazoned with the image of a sole hasid dancing in apparently ecstatic prayer. My own mother once needle-pointed a pillow cover featuring in silhouette some hasidic men holding open books. In the same vein but even more popular were pictures on black velvet, not of dogs playing poker, but of hasidim engaging in some sort of raucous discussion, presumably about some holy matter, and gesticulating dramatically with their hands.  During my two summers at the UAHC Eisner Summer Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the words “hasidic prayer service” were used to denote a service without real (or any) liturgy—one more akin (I only realized years later how funny this was) to a Quaker meeting than anything a real hasid would recognize—in which people were asked to sit quietly in each other’s contemplative company until someone thought of something to say, something like the Shema or a line from a popular song. And, of course, there were the two volumes of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that served as the basis for a thousand divrei torah at camp and back home in Junior Congregation as well.

Even my own parents fell under the spell occasionally, speaking reverentially of hasidim as the ones who would keep the embers glowing even after the rest of us lost interest and moved on.  But, even despite all of this worshipfulness, I don’t recall it ever striking me how odd it was that I hadn’t ever met an actual hasid despite the fact that the great hasidic communities of Brooklyn weren’t more than a thirty-minute drive from Forest Hills and could be visited easily. Nor do I recall it dawning on me that the people on the plates and pillows were depictions of actual human beings who, had anyone wished, could presumably have been easily located, encountered and enjoyed in person.  And so things remained until I actually did meet my first hasid, a fellow my age named Summy (short for Isumar) who occasionally davened at the same quasi-hasidic shtibl in Forest Hills in which I occasionally attended services during my JTS years when I was back home with my parents for Shabbat. (Why I chose to attend services there when I would have been far more warmly welcomed elsewhere is a different issue, one I’ll write about on some other occasion. The other worshipers, at any rate, weren’t hasidim at all—just the rabbi and his innumerable sons were, plus Cousin Summy who occasionally escaped—his word, not mine—from Brooklyn to have what he called “shabbos in the country.” That he thought of Forest Hills as “the country” should have been my first clue that our worldviews were not going to mesh easily. And yet we were, in some sense, friends: two young men who got along and liked each other…and each of whom was familiar with a part of the world regarding which the other was very curious.)

From Summy, I got a clear sense of the “other” side of the story…and it was not at all a pretty picture. Even after all these years, I hesitate to repeat much of what he told me on our Shabbos-afternoon walks. As I think back, I don’t recall it ever striking me to wonder if he was being fully honest with me. (Were there really Manhattan brothels that catered to hasidic young men eager to test things out before marriage? I certainly believed him then, but now I find myself less certain.) Still, that relationship provided me with my first inkling that hasidim were real people who existed in the real world. Since then, of course, I’ve met other hasidic types, some impressively learned and others childish and naïve. But none has ever made the impression on me that Summy did when I was in my early twenties and still trying, albeit not yet too successfully, to figure out the Jewish world and my place in it.

So that is the baggage I personally brought to Shulem Deen’s book. In some ways, his is an unusual story. Born to baal-teshuvah parents in Boro Park, he hardly came from a hasidic family at all…yet he was drawn to the hasidic life to which he was exposed in New Square and, after some dithering, he bought into it more or less holus-bolus. He married as a young man in the typical hasidic style, then went on to have five children in rapid succession. On the outside, he was a “regular” hasid, wearing the whole get-up, sporting sidelocks that if uncurled would have hung down as far as his waist (a point he makes in passing but which stays with me for some reason), expressing public disdain for even the slightly glimmer of modernity that somehow managed to pierce the community’s almost impermeable boundaries. But on the inside, the author was a work very much still in progress. Reading how he first became aware of the fact that anyone, even a hasid, may borrow books from a public library, and how he acquired a radio, then a television (which he kept hidden in a cupboard and only dared watch when his children were fast asleep), and then a computer, his story reads more like a traditional Bildungsroman than a prison escapee’s journal.

The depiction of hasidic life in the book is as unappealing as it is slightly charming. The community really does stick together. And its members are depicted positively as men and women of deep and unquestioning faith. To say that they take their observance seriously is to say almost nothing: these are people who have chosen to subjugate every aspect of their lives to the kind of punctilious religious observance that is the hallmark of traditional hasidic life. And yet…for all they are as strict as strict could be (and the Skverer hasidim are among the strictest in terms of their observance and their standards), they are depicted in the book as harsh and judgmental, as petty and meanspirited, and as capable of remarkably cruelty towards each other. In one of the book’s most shocking passages, the author openly admits to having participated personally in a criminal effort to defraud New York State out of serious sums of money by producing false reports regarding the standards that prevail in one of the community’s yeshivahs. All in all, and even despite the occasional rays of light that shine though, Deen’s is not an attractive portrait of hasidic life and, in the end, no reader will find it even slightly surprising that the author wanted out.

But reading from my personal perch, what struck me was how Deen, for all he was ready to abandon his community and his family, and fully to reject the hasidic lifestyle, was unable to shed his community’s fundamentalist worldview. In other words, his escape was from black to white, from the strictest level of observance possible to absolutely nothing at all: this man whose payos once hung down to his waist is depicted by the end of the book as blithely living outside even the most elemental norms of Jewish life and as having no level of discernible Jewish observance in his life at all. The possibility of living a rich, meaningful, satisfying Jewish life characterized by both intellectual and spiritual integrity seems not to have dawned on the author: he left everything and moved on to nothing without, it seems, even considering that his problem might be with the know-nothing fundamentalism that characterizes hasidism at its least appealing, not with the foundational stuff of Judaism itself upon which every Jewish community from the most to the least liberal rests…including many into which the author could easily fit. 

It’s a good book and worth your time to read. It’s troubling and not a little sad. But it’s also provocative and very interesting. I resisted reading it when it first came out in 2015 for some reason, but a Shelter Rocker recommended it to me the other week and I decided to give it a chance after all. I’m glad that I did!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jubilees

Jewish life is cycles inside of cycles: the daily cycle of prayer, the weekly cycle of Sabbath observance, the monthly sanctification of the New Moon, the annual cycle of festivals, the seven-year sabbatical cycle related to debt release and land use, the twenty-eight year cycle relating to the recitation of Birkat Ha-ḥamah, the Blessing of the Sun…and the granddaddy of them all, the fifty-year jubilee cycle that brings all lands in Eretz Yisrael back to their original owners and completes the manumission of indentured servants. But that’s it—no cycles are longer than that final one, a half-century being most of most people’s lives, I suppose, and the notion of having calendrical cycles longer than the average human life span just didn’t really make that much sense…and particularly in ancient times, when life expectancy was that much less than it is nowadays.

So fifty was a big number of years in ancient times. And, today, I’d like to write to you about three different fifty-year anniversaries that either just passed or are about to come up, each of which affected the fifty-year-younger me in ways that I am certain I didn’t understand at the time and perhaps even couldn’t have.

It was fifty years ago exactly that Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, was published in the spring of 1967 and became an instant bestseller, remaining on the Times’ bestsellers’ list for thirty-nine weeks. I read it that summer at camp and was completely taken with it. But although I was myself only one year younger than the book’s protagonists, Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders, I could not possibly have been less like either of them—perhaps more overtly not like Danny Saunders, the son of a hasidic rebbe who in Williamsburg who is not only being raised in a hasidic community but who is also being raised by a father who refuses to engage in ordinary conversation with him and who only speaks to him at all about serious religious or spiritual matters…but also not at all like Reuven Malter, a boy being raised in a more “normal” Brooklyn Jewish home, but a strictly observant one nevertheless, under the aegis of a gentle father who is also a world-renowned Talmud scholar. I was neither of these boys! But, bringing to bear that peculiar Jewish ability to remember the future, I somehow understood, even at fourteen, that I was already on the path forward that would eventually become my life’s journey…and that successfully traveling its trajectory was going to require that, for all I wasn’t ever going to be either of them, I was somehow also going to have also to be them both.

The following winter, I read Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, the book which more or less guided me through my adolescence. It was a very popular book back then—I’m guessing not a few of my readers also read it in the course of their high school years—and it too featured two protagonists who were wholly unlike each other. Narcissus is the scholar who finds his greatest joy in intellectual achievement, while Goldmund wanders the world and samples its pleasures freely and with almost Dionysian abandon. But although the book is about how different and how similar the two of them actually are—in the end, each ends up wishing he were more like the other—and how each of us, to find balance and joy in the world, needs somehow also to “be” them both, I already had in place the antipodes that would delimit my life’s journey, and they were Reuven and Danny, not Narcissus and Goldmund. For better or worse, that is how I got to be me…if not precisely then certainly in broad terms. But the struggle depicted in the book between religiosity and scholarship, between losing yourself and finding yourself in Jewishness, between finding solace and guidance in other people’s books and writing your own story over and over in your own (the boys trade places with Reuven, the scholar’s son, becoming a rabbi, and Danny, the rebbe’s son, becoming a psychologist)—even at fourteen, I understood that this was to be my own slightly impossible path forward in life.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell myself, not really. But in retrospect I can see that I knew it clearly, and I think one of the first real intimations of my future life that I had came to me as I read The Chosen. I eventually read all of Potok, just as I eventually read all of Hesse. I liked all of both authors’ books too, although some more and others less. But nothing ever equaled either book in either author’s oeuvre in terms of the effect it had on the adolescent or post-adolescent me.

The second thing that happened a full fifty years ago that altered the course of my life forward was the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles released on my fourteenth birthday. (You see, it really was all about me!)

Young people today, unused to the way things were in ancient times when music wasn’t free and certainly didn’t come to you by floating magically through the air into your “device,” will find it difficult to imagine the impact that single album had on an entire generation. It was the Beatles’ eighth studio album, not their first. And it wasn’t that there weren’t other bands out there recording innovative, interesting material. But there was something in Sgt. Pepper that changed everything, even despite its relative brevity. (The whole album, all together, isn’t forty minutes long.) But I knew every lyric to every song, as did more or less everyone I knew anywhere near my age. We used and re-used phrases from the album endlessly in our casual speech. We could identify every single one of the fifty-seven living people and nine wax figures on the cover. The music itself took on something of the sacred, each track being intoned endlessly by ourselves in ninth grade as though the album were a collection of hymns reverently to be chanted as part of daily worship. I still had a month left of junior high school when the album came out, but that was a mere detail…and I was so ready for whatever was going to come next precisely because Sgt. Pepper served as a kind of a gateway into an unknown future, and not just for me alone either but also for more or less an entire generation. To this day, I know every word of every song. At least until James Taylor released his Sweet Baby James album in 1970, I thought of “Within You, Without You” (the only non-Lennon/McCartney song on the album) as my personal anthem. I could identify any song from its opening second or two. If The Chosen was where I was going, Sgt. Pepper was where I was. And it opened up to me the possibility of traveling there under my own steam, propelled forward by the sheer power of my own will to be as I wished and to become who I wished.

And, of course, we are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the single most transformational event in post-Shoah Jewish history. I will have a lot more to say in its regard when we get to Yom Yerushalayim on Wednesday, May 24, the actual anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian control and the re-unification of the city, but today I’d like to speak of the anniversary in far more personal terms.

My first visit to Israel was in 1966, the year of my bar-mitzvah. But that trip, transformational in every meaningful way possible, was only the prelude to what was to come. (For more about that trip and the effect it had on the adolescent me, click here and here.)

I loved Israel in 1966, but it was more than a bit of a third-world country in those days. The public telephones didn’t work too well. You could only phone overseas from a post office. Major roads were unpaved. The restrooms in the bus stations were by American standards unspeakable. Yet there was an intoxicating feel of newness and adventure everywhere, and the pioneering spirit our teachers spoke about endlessly in Hebrew School was fully tangible at every turn.  I was not only impressed, but, in the deepest sense of the word, I was overwhelmed. Nothing felt the same to me after that trip—certainly nothing back home in Forest Hills, but also nothing at all elsewhere in the world either—but, in the end, it was the Six Day War itself that sealed the deal and made me feel that Israel was not only a noble undertaking destined to have a profound impact on Jewish history, but that the future of the Jewish people was going to be indelibly and inextricably tied to the future history of the State in a way that was already making it impossible to think of one without simultaneously thinking also of the other and which would eventually shape my own sense of the meaning of Jewish history in our time.

And that was the story of my fourteenth year. Out there, the world was focused on the summer of love as it was unfolding in San Francisco, New York, and London. (I actually attended—or at least put in a nervous appearance—at the Be-In in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow that spring, which I remember as being remarkably like its depiction in Miloš Forman’s movie version of Hair. But that will have to be another story for another time.) But for me, it was the year of three things backed up by three other things—the Six Day War backed up by my experiences a year earlier in Israel, The Chosen backed up by Narcissus and Goldmund, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band backed up by every album I owned that came before it and which created the hole where the rain got in, and got my mind to wondering where it could go oh, where it could go. Oh! And where I went too, as it turned out. 




Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Art of the Deal

President Trump has come under particularly harsh fire lately for appearing not to know some basic facts relating to American history, at least some of which—that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, that Frederick Douglass lived in the nineteenth century, or that Andrew Jackson died more than fifteen years before the Civil War began—are generally considered to be more or less common knowledge. But it is also true that at least some of the above gaffes, all of which the White House tried to spin in a less embarrassing way once they were out there burrowing their way through the blogosphere and the online and print media, appear to be legitimately interpretable as mere slips of the tongue rather than proof positive that the President is unfamiliar with even the basic details of our nation’s history.

But one of the President’s recent remarks—his offhand comment the other day in an interview with Selina Zito on Sirius XM that the Civil War could have been avoided had someone of sufficient persuasive force fully trained in the art of the deal, perhaps someone like himself, been available to broker a compromise between the federal government and the states threatening to secede—struck me not only as not entirely wrong, but as something our nation would do well to take seriously and to ponder thoughtfully and maturely. (Just for the record, the notion that the President feels that he personally could have averted the Civil War is not something I came to on my own: in an interview with Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, President Trump apparently said openly that he believed that he personally could have “done a deal” to prevent the War Between the States from breaking out. To hear Jon Meacham report on that incident, just that click here, and listen carefully about 3.5 minutes into the clip.)

But the topic I wish to broach today is not whether the President’s sense of his own abilities as a negotiator is or isn’t grandiose, nor do I want to return to the topic of the degree to which Donald Trump is legitimately to be seen as a latter-day Andrew Jackson, whom he specifically mentioned in the Selina Zito interview as someone (someone other than himself, apparently) who could have prevented America’s bloodiest war if he had been in office at the time instead of the series of hapless losers who occupied the White House in the decade before Fort Sumter: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, Jr. (I wrote about the similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump more than a year ago in the context of then-candidate Trump’s promise to make American great again. Click here to revisit those comments.) Instead, I’d like to focus on the question that lurks behind the President’s comments about the Civil War. Is war ever truly inevitable? Are all wars the result of failed efforts to prevent them? Does every war begin because no sufficiently skilled negotiator rose up before the actual commencement of hostilities to broker the kind of deal capable of bringing the sides to a non-violent solution to their dispute?

We can start with the President’s example, the Civil War, which was preceded by many attempts to find a compromise with which both sides could live. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, proposed by Henry Clay and supported by ex-President Thomas Jefferson, that attempted to preserve a permanent balance between slave-states and free-states. There was the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which attempted to mollify the southern states, particularly South Carolina, in the wake of the so-called Nullification Crisis of the mid-1830s. There was the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to deal with the slave/free status of new territories won in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and which effectively, in the opinion of most historians, did delay the outbreak of hostilities by a full decade. (Just for the record, the single most odious piece of legislation ever passed by our American Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was part of that package. So compromise does not invariably lead the parties to it down a noble path.) And then there was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, engineered by Stephen A. Douglas, which effectively repealed the Compromise of 1820 by allowing the residents of both Kansas and Nebraska, then territories on their way to becoming states, to vote on whether to allow or forbid slavery within their borders. Those are the best-known examples, but there were also scores of other efforts to avert a war. As every eleventh grader knows, none of these efforts succeeded in the long run. And because no lasting compromise was reached, somewhere between 750,000 and a million Americans died…including more than 50,000 civilians on both sides and more than 80,000 slaves. So the question can be framed even more sharply: if the leaders on both sides had been able somehow to imagine the extent of the coming carnage, would they then have become able to find enough common ground to prevent the conflict?

It feels natural to insist that they could have. The North could have made its peace with the southern states’ right to secede—wasn’t the United States itself founded by people who insisted on their own right to secede from Britain? The South could have made its peace with there being legitimate limits to the rights of individual states in a union of united states. Everybody, had they only been able to see the mountains of cadavers on the ground at Gettysburg or Chickamauga in their magic crystal balls, would surely have understood the necessity of coming to terms without going to war!

But could they really have? When we are talking about territorial disputes relating to borders or property or money, it feels ridiculous to say that compromise is not always be an option. But once we begin to talk about institutions like slavery—an institution that treated human beings like chattel and which subjected people to brutality and violence that even beasts of burden are generally spared—when talking about something like that, is it rational to suppose that compromise could have been achieved? In the end, either slavery was going to be tolerated—perhaps restricted to certain areas or forced to function with limits imposed upon it, but nevertheless allowed to exist—or it wasn’t. When viewed that way, it feels strange to imagine that compromise could ever have been possible: what sort of grey area could possibly exist between legal and illegal?

Ben Winters’ novel, Underground Airlines, which I read last year, imagines a compromise averting the Civil War, but it is not a very realistic one. In the author’s fantasy, Lincoln is assassinated before even taking office and in the context of a traumatized nation in deep mourning a compromise is reached that allows slavery to endure in six states only. Georgia eventually gives up slavery in exchange for some hugely profitable government contracts and the two Carolinas merge into one state, thus yielding four states, the so-called Hard Four, in which slavery has endured into the twenty-first century. And so the book opens with a federal agent, himself a former slave, trying illegally to use his influence to gain his wife’s freedom and almost succeeding. But the book’s premise just does not ring true because, in the end, no one truly committed to the abolition of slavery could ever be party to a “compromise” that does not abolish slavery. When moral issues are involved, there is always a bottom line…and the existence of such a line precludes the possibility of compromise in its regard: like all lines, everything else in the universe has to be on one of its sides or the other!

Applying this idea to other contexts is both frustrating and slightly intoxicating. World War I, fought over issues that even today resist easy description and which yielded to the combatant nations only devastation and death, could surely have been averted by agile, clever diplomats. But could World War II have been averted? The world never tires of mocking the leaders of France, Italy, and Britain for their effort to avert war with Germany through a compromise with Hitler that did not actually involve any of the above-mentioned nations losing any of their own territory or ceding any of their own citizens’ rights. (I’m not sure that it is even legitimate to reference an agreement as a compromise if it doesn’t require the any of the parties to it to give up anything at all. At Munich, the Germans got what they wanted and the others gave up nothing at all except other people’s territory.) Nor was the failure of the Munich Agreement of 1938 end-result-neutral: it also gave the Germans almost a full extra year to prepare for war, which time made victory, at least in the initial German effort to overwhelm nations to the east and west, far more likely.

Could Israel’s endless war with its Arab neighbors have been averted by compromise? That too is a question worth asking…and particularly in the wake of Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, which this week celebrated the sixty-ninth anniversary of Israeli independence. Here too, it’s a matter of what you mean by compromise. The Partition Plan itself was a compromise, of course: the lands under British control east of the Jordan were excluded, and the remaining territory of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into two new states, one Jewish and one Arab. The yishuv accepted the compromise, but the Arabs did not…and so went to war with the fledgling State of Israel shortly after independence was proclaimed on May 14, 1948. So, yes, compromise could have averted the ensuing bloodshed, but there would have had to be two sides willing to compromise, not just one.  From the Arab point of view, no compromise was deemed possible if it led to the permanent establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. And so the answer here too has to be no: once the Arabs rejected a compromise the United Nations itself had formally endorsed, there was no real possibility of averting conflict without the Jewish side giving up their right to exist as an independent people in their own land.


So the President was both right and wrong in his comments about the Civil War. The chances that Andrew Jackson, had he been president in 1860, could have averted the war feel very slim. (The fact that Jackson, like four of his six predecessors in the White House, was himself a slaveowner hardly makes it feel likely that he would have brokered a deal that involved the abolition of slavery.) Nor does it seem particularly likely that even a deal-maker like President Trump himself could have negotiated such a deal successfully: in the end, either the states were going to be more powerful than the union that bound them to each other or it wasn’t…and slavery was going to endure somehow and somewhere, or it wasn’t. Once moral issues are in play—issues that by their nature resist compromise, like slavery or genocide—compromise becomes indistinguishable from acquiescence. And the inverse is also true: acquiescence to evil can never be rebranded as fair-minded compromise, not can the principled decision to look away from intolerable horror ever be justified with reference to how much better it would be if people just set their issues aside and choose to live in peace by ignoring evil.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Breaching the Wall Between Church and State

A case currently before the Supreme Court is one that Jewish citizens should take very seriously…despite the fact that it appears to have nothing to do with Jews at all.

The case has to do with Lutherans, and specifically with a church in Missouri, the Trinity Lutheran Church in the town of Columbia. At first blush, the whole issue seems wholly unremarkable. The church operates a daycare center and a preschool on its premises, and maintains a playground in which the children can play outdoors. But the playground has a surface that could be dangerous if a child falls, and so the church had the idea of replacing the hard surface with a rubber one. That sounded like a sensible plan forward and so, upon hearing that the State of Missouri was actually offering grants to playground operators to make that specific improvement using the rubber salvaged from recycled tires, the church applied for one…only to be turned down cold because the state’s constitution specifically prohibits the state from spending any public funds “directly or indirectly in the aid of any church.”

This understandably irritated the church leadership and prompted them to sue the State of Missouri on the grounds that the state’s prohibition was in violation both of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. To a non-lawyer like myself, neither argument feels too compelling. The First Amendment forbids Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, but that feels like quite the stretch here: the State of Missouri is not forbidding the church from having a rubberized surface in its playground, just declining to pay for it. Nor is it obvious in what sense having one or another sort of playground could be described as the “exercise of religion” in the first place. Moving along, the Equal Protection Clause argument prohibits any state from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” which means that the law must always be enforced evenly and fairly, and specifically that the rights and freedoms enshrined in our laws cannot be imagined to apply to some citizens but not to others. But bringing the Fourteenth Amendment to bear in this context too feels a bit tenuous: to say that the State of Missouri is denying equal protection under the law to the members of the Trinity Lutheran Church by declining to buy them something sounds like weak argument to me! And then, just to muddy the waters a bit more, the Governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, announced last week that Missouri will no longer discriminate against religious organizations in the evaluation of grant applications, including applications for improvements like the resurfacing of outdoor playgrounds. That sounds as though it obviates the need for a court decision, since the change in policy has in effect decided the matter in the church’s favor. But neither side apparently wishes for the Supreme Court not to reach a ruling, the one side fearing a change back to the earlier policy under some future administration, and the other side—in effect defending a state policy that no longer exists—feeling themselves nobly fighting to maintain the traditional separation between church and state. This, is, however, hardly a question just for Missourians to worry over.

To understand the larger picture here, it’s necessary to know something about the so-called Blaine Amendment. This goes back a long ways. In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called for a constitutional amendment that would formally prohibit the federal government from using public money to fund “sectarian schools,” by which expression he meant non-public schools run by religious organizations. Shortly after that, Congressman James G. Blaine, a Republican from Maine, proposed just such an amendment. It was, to say the least, contentious. Congress, in fact, was split: the bill passed in the House of Representatives by a whopping 173 votes, but failed to clear the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary for a proposed amendment to be sent to the states for ratification.  There is, therefore, no specific constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of public money to fund religious schools.

But on the state level, things were and are different. In the wake of the failure of the Blaine Amendment on the federal level, all but ten of the states approved similar amendments to their own state constitutions. (For the record, the ten are Arkansas, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia.) And most of those amendments remain in effect to this day. An effort to get rid of the "Blaine" amendment in Florida in 2012, for example, failed, as have similar efforts over the years in New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Massachusetts. Only one state, Louisiana, had such an amendment once but doesn’t now, but that didn’t come about as the result of a successful effort to repeal the law but rather by the adoption in 1974 of an entirely new state constitution. As far as the Missouri playground goes, then, it is in a state that has a “Blaine” amendment in its constitution and that theoretically prohibits the state from approving the expenditure of public funds for improvements to religious institutions, including schools.

Judging the matter from where I personally sit and look out at the world is complicated.

On the one hand, the children who attend the preschool in the Trinity Lutheran Church are citizens of Missouri whose parents pay the taxes that fund the government’s initiatives on behalf of the state’s citizenry, including its children. So, you could argue, why shouldn’t they benefit from a program designed neither to foster religion in general nor to promote any specific kind of religious observance, but merely to make some of Missouri’s children a bit safer when they play outdoors? When put that way, it sounds more than reasonable for the church to get its grant! On the other hand, though, the arguments against using public money to redo the surface of that playground also sound cogent to me: by not extending grant money to churches even when they operate in a way that does not specifically promote religion, Missouri is—or, rather, was—guaranteeing that none of its citizens would end up indirectly breaching the traditional war between church and state by being forced to see their tax money funneled to religious institutions that are traditionally supposed in our country not to rely on public funds.  It’s also interesting to me that none of the authors of any of the essays and articles I’ve read in the last week about this topic appears to know much about preschools…or at least not enough to wonder out loud if it is conceivable that a preschool or a daycare run by a church does not teach religion to the children enrolled there. We have a preschool at Shelter Rock and we certainly do our best to teach the boys and girls about our festivals, our rituals, and the basic tenets of our faith as part of the educational program we offer. Are we supposed to imagine that the programming at the church’s preschool does not teach, thus promote, Christianity at all? Not a single Bible story? Not a tiny Christmas tree? I don’t think so!

Related to all of this—and not even in a particularly subtle way—is the whole question of parochial school vouchers.

For all the years Joan and I lived in British Columbia, we found it natural for the province—the Canadian equivalent of the state—to pay for the secular education of children in Jewish day schools and other parochial settings, thus leaving their parents’ tuition payments to cover the costs connected with the specifically religious instruction also offered by the school. This arrangement is not at all contentious: British Columbians are all used to the idea that it only makes sense that the children of all citizens who pay their taxes receive the benefit of a free secular education, not just those who send their kids to schools run by the province and not by religious societies. (Why this only applies in some provinces is one of the mysteries of Canadian life, one with roots in the original efforts of the nation’s founders to bring Quebec into the original confederation in 1867. Perhaps I’ll write about that some other time.) And it’s not a bad arrangement at all: all children are served, all taxpayers receive some bang for their buck, and the province plays no role in the religious education of the children in parochial schools.

Here, on the other hand, the wall between church and state is supposed to be impenetrable and fully opaque. The siren call of tuition vouchers—in effect, the imposition of the Canadian system on the American one—is more than seductive…surely, we would all like nothing more than for day school education to cost less, ideally dramatically less, and thus become accessible to larger numbers of children! Could it be possible for the government to underwrite the cost of children’s secular education without breaching the wall between church and state? That, and not whether there should be such a wall in the first place, is the right question for our Jewish community to be asking.

I know from first-hand experience that such an arrangement can and does work in B.C. But it is also true that, at least in my opinion, no good can ever come to the Jewish community from any effort to breach the wall meant by our Founders to keep the spiritual and religious lives of Americans completely away from government control. We have all made our peace with the petty chinks in that wall that characterize American life at its least inclusive: a calendar of federal holidays that specifically includes Christian festivals, the almost universal presence of Christian symbols in post offices and other governmental venues in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the apparently annual White House seder (I’ll write about my strongly negative feelings in that regard on some other occasion), federal postage stamps celebrating the religious holidays of some faiths (including our own) but not others, and the use of Bibles as part of the oath-taking ceremony in court and in public investiture ceremonies, including the presidential inauguration. (To be fair, not every president has taken the oath of office with his hand resting on a Bible. But only John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt chose not to do so.)  We can and do live with all of that. But diverting public funds to underwrite church-run schools, daycare centers, youth groups, senior centers, etc., is in a different category entirely and is not something to which we should quietly acquiesce.


The Canadian system may well be something we could and should consider. But, in the end, the question is whether that could be done without weakening the wall our founders erected between church and state, which consequence will never be in our best interests. We are a tiny people who constitute less than 2% of the population in these United States. There are ten times as many American Catholics, and almost twenty-five times as many American Protestants, as there are American Jews. It’s true that we occupy a much larger place in the American psyche than our numbers would appear to justify. But, in the end, we are a small minority that flourishes precisely because the government keeps out of religious affairs and leaves us to chart our own course forward as we see fit. It will always be in our best interests to maintain that specific aspect of the status quo. The Supreme Court should not work at cross-purposes with our founders’ clear vision of not only a division between church and state, but an ironclad wall between the two.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yom Hashoah 2017

This coming Monday, April 24, is Yom Ha-shoah V’ha-g’vurah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. (That last part, the Hebrew word v’ha-g’vurah, adds a reference to those who bravely resisted and did what they could to impede the progress of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Why it is so routinely left off the day’s name, particularly in the diaspora, is an interesting question in its own right, one I’d like to address on another occasion.) But, whatever its full or less full name, the day is almost upon us. Again. Where it came from is slightly obscure, but not that interesting a tale: the need was felt early on to create some sort of memorial day on which all those who left behind no one at all to mourn their passing could jointly be remembered by the Jewish people as a whole, and the date of the 27th of Nisan was set into Israeli law in 1953 with an act jointly signed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben Zvi, and quickly adopted in Jewish communities around the world. It and I are therefore exactly the same age. Readers who know me personally will find that more than reasonable.

Choosing the right date was a contentious business in the beginning. The original idea was to fix Yom Ha-shoah on the day in 1943 that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The problem there was one of practicality rather than anything else: the uprising began on Erev Pesach, and it simply didn’t make sense to establish a national memorial day on the day before Passover when the entire Jewish people would be otherwise occupied and majorly distracted. Other days were proposed, among them Tishah Be’av, the midsummer fast commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem both by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and the Romans in the first century CE, and the Tenth of Tevet, a minor wintertime fast day associated with the onset of the siege against Jerusalem in biblical times. Neither ended up being adopted in Israel, but other dates have gained currency outside the Jewish world. Of these, best known probably is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognized by the European Union since 1950 and by the United Nations since 2005, and scheduled annually on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army in 1945.  Other nations too have formally adopted the January 27 date, including Germany, the U.K., Sweden, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy. Poland, for obvious reasons, sticks with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising according to the secular calendar, April 19. Austria observes its Memorial Day against Violence and Racism in Memory of the Victims of National Socialism on May 5, the anniversary of the liberation of Matthausen by the American Army in 1945. A handful of other nations have adopted still different dates; some Canadian provinces have—in my own opinion rather touchingly—adopted the Jewish date, 27 Nisan, as an annual day to remember the k’doshim of the Shoah.

What surprises me still, even after all these years, is the ambivalence with which the Jewish world itself approaches the one day on the calendar that you would think all would adopt emotionally and wholly unambivalently. Yet there is no agreed-upon liturgy for the day. The Megillat Yom Ha-shoah (“Yom Ha-shoah Scroll”) published jointly by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel and the Rabbinical Assembly in 2003, is in use in some Jewish communities but remains unadopted, even unknown, in most venues. There is no agreed-upon addition to the prayer service akin to the paragraphs added for other fast days, including minor ones, or for Chanukah and Purim. It is not anyone’s custom to fast on Yom Ha-shoah, despite the fact that all the days formally connected to the siege of Jerusalem in ancient times—days like the Tenth of Tevet mentioned above—are observed in traditional communities precisely as fast days. Nor has anyone invented any sort of ritual for Yom Ha-shoah other than the custom within Conservative Jewish communities of lighting a yellow twenty-four-hour memorial candle to memorialize the dead and to recall the yellow stars so many were forced by their German overlords to wear before being sent to their deaths. There are thus many Jewish communities, including some otherwise characterized by intense devotion to punctilious observance, in which Yom Ha-shoah passes more or less wholly unnoticed.

One obvious answer, although not one I personally find all that compelling, is that the 27th of Nisan is not the anniversary of any specific event and was chosen primarily because it falls a few days after Pesach and a week before Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, Israel Independence Day. That may sound a bit random, but the choice was neither accidental nor arbitrary. Indeed, the parallel between ancient and modern times was precisely the point: the week of Passover celebrates the redemption of the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt and their flight to freedom, and the week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha-atzma∙ut was similarly meant to memorialize the passage from the depths of catastrophe the Jews faced in Nazi-dominated Europe to the security offered by the independent State of Israel and its mighty army.  Even the specific Zionist orientation that animates the notion of the Jewish people moving from near annihilation in Europe to the exhilaration of independence in a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel has its ancient parallel in the Passover story: the Israelites, for all we Americans like to imagine them longing for freedom in the modern American sense, specifically did not long to become free citizens of some future Egyptian republic, but specifically wished to leave Egypt all together and settle in the land that God had promised to their ancestors, the Land of Israel, and there to establish themselves as a free people in its own land.

Is the ill-ease engendered by that kind of thinking about the perils of diaspora life the reason our American Jewish community has failed to find a way to make Yom Ha-shoah into the kind of annually cathartic day of remembrance it deserves to be? It might be!

We—and by “we” I mean particularly we American Jews—have, after all, managed more or less totally to suppress the “real” meaning of Passover and to replace it with the yearning for human rights and for personal freedom.  Nor do we ever stress the fact that Passover by its very nature promotes the view that the need for the Israelites to be redeemed from slavery in the first place was a function of their own ancestors’ tragic error of not returning to Canaan after the famine that brought the original seventy to Egypt in the first place ended a mere five years after their arrival.

When Jacob died a dozen years after the famine ended, the Bible reports that a huge entourage of Israelites—a maḥaneh kaveid me∙od—solemnly bore his body back to Canaan. That story, generally skipped over by most as filler between the extended story of Joseph in Egypt and the account of Israel’s enslavement and subsequent liberation from bondage, is worth considering carefully. First, we read of Jacob’s death at ripe old age, unimpressive only by biblical standards, of 147. Then, after a forty-day mummification procedure and a subsequent seventy-day period of formal mourning, Joseph approaches Pharaoh obliquely through some palace officials to ask permission to return his father’s body to Canaan for burial in Hebron in the sepulcher of his grandparents and great-grandparents, and where Jacob himself had buried his wife Leah. Why Joseph, the grand vizier of all Egypt and Pharaoh’s second-in-command, couldn’t just address Pharaoh directly with such a rational, easily justifiable request is not made clear. Nor is it explained why, after being approached obliquely, Pharaoh doesn’t respond similarly indirectly…but the text couldn’t be clearer: Joseph, strangely and uncharacteristically reticent, approaches Pharaoh through an intermediary, but Pharaoh, seeing no reason for go-betweens, responds directly to Joseph almost as a friend. “Go up to Canaan,” he says reasonably and generously, “and bury your father as you swore to him you would.”

Nor does the Torah omit to describe the entourage: Joseph went to Canaan accompanied not only by representatives of the pharaonic court plus “the elders of Pharaoh’s house” and “the elders of all Egypt,” but also by the entire House of Joseph, including his brothers and his father’s entire household. Indeed, the Torah makes a specific point of saying that every single adult Israelite traveled to Hebron to participate in Jacob’s burial, leaving behind only the livestock and the children.

By leaving their children behind, they were obviously signaling their intent to return. But was that the only course open to the House of Israel? Why couldn’t they have taken the children with them and just not returned? They weren’t slaves, after all, but still welcome guests at this point in the story. And even if Joseph himself would possibly have found it difficult simply to give notice and abruptly leave Pharaoh’s employ, surely a man of his unparalleled power could have arranged for his family to return to their homeland. The famine that brought them to seek refuge in Egypt, after all, was over! And that surely had been the plan in the first place!

But none of that happened. Joseph, his brothers, and their entire entourage simply turned around after the burial and went back to Egypt. A few lines later, the Book of Genesis ends. And then Exodus begins with the arrival on the scene many years later of a Pharaoh who felt no sense of allegiance to Joseph’s people and who, fearing their huge numbers and questionable loyalty to their host nation, set himself to thinning their numbers and enslaving them. The obvious question of why the Israelites chose to live on in Egypt instead of returning to their homeland in the course of the scores of years that passed between Jacob’s death and their enslavement is left unasked and unanswered. (Just to make that a bit clearer, Joseph was fifty-six years old when Jacob died. He himself died fifty-four years later…and the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites came to the throne after—perhaps even long after—that. So there was a very long period of time when the Israelites could have gone home. Yet none did.  Nor is the argument that they had to stay because God had predicted to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a land not their own for four centuries all that compelling; they could surely have left if they had wished to and allowed the divine prediction to play itself out some other way!


As we pass from the last days of Passover to Yom Ha-shoah and then to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, I am always reminded of the way the past inheres in the present…and how particularly this is true when I ponder the patterns that repeat over and over in Jewish history. The State of Israel does not exist because of the Shoah and would surely have eventually come into existence anyway. But the notion that the precise circumstances that led to independence were integrally related to the catastrophe that decimated European Jewry during the Second World War does not leave me alone either. In the end, I think that the 27th of Nisan was just the right date: commemorating no single event, the date is suggestive of the Passover journey that precedes it and the week that leads forward to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut. Both could be rightly characterized by the Haggadah’s expression of a trajectory from g’nut to shevaḥ, from degradation to redemption. And both deserve to be considered thoughtfully and taken deeply to heart by all who would feel ennobled, not merely damned, by thinking of themselves as situated at the precise fulcrum between the past and the future, between history and destiny.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Benedict Option Option

After reading an essay by Emma Green in The Atlantic, I resolved to read The Benedict Option, a brand-new book by Rod Dreher published just a few weeks ago. (Readers may be familiar with his 2015 book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, which was very movingly written in the wake of his sister’s untimely death—and which I liked very much—or with his essays for The American Conservative, where he is currently a senior editor and weekly blogger.) Since it’s a book unlikely to land on the night tables of most of the people who read my weekly letters, but more importantly because it inspired me to think about our Jewish world in a new way, I thought I’d use this opportunity to bring the book and its author to your attention and to explain why I found his work so relevant and so personally challenging.

The book is a flawed work in many ways, and not only in terms of the author’s apparent inability to believe that “regular” people (i.e., citizens who are specifically not members of some vast conspiracy devoted to the furtherance of its own secret agenda) could simply believe in marriage equality and in the unambiguous right of gay people to be treated fairly, decently, and equitably in the marketplace and the workplace. That, along with his remarkably harsh view that in vitro fertilization should be outlawed as a version of mass murder no less heinous than abortion itself (the author’s other major bugaboo), would be more than enough to make most of us outside his world want to distance ourselves from the man and from his judgmental, harshly unforgiving worldview. But that would be a mistake, because he has something remarkable to say anyway…and it is something I think we should all feel challenged to consider honestly in terms of our own precarious place in the world.

The basic principle behind The Benedict Option is that the war between traditional Christians and their secularist enemies for America’s future is over and that, because (in the author’s opinion) the good guys lost, American Christians who believe in the principles that underlie their faith—and in the pursuit of a society rooted in its values and its time-honored sense of virtue—should abandon the fantasy that they can influence American social policy at all, and least of all merely by voting for Republican candidates. The author’s estimation of President Trump in this regard is particularly insulting, but what he has to say about the rest of the President’s party is only slightly less disparaging…and the bottom line in both cases is in any event the same: the author believes that the nation has turned decisively and irrevocably away from its Christian roots, the people have abandoned the only kind of Christianity worth preserving (which is, of course, the author’s own), the liberal churches have sold their birthright for a mess of tasteless (in both senses of the word) porridge that can neither sustain nor even really nourish them, and the secular/humanist/pro-LGBT (these are all used as roughly synonymous terms) forces that exist, as far as the author is concerned, in a permanent state of war with the spiritual heritage of “real” Christianity have won the day and will not relinquish their victory easily or, to speak realistically, ever.

It’s a harsh appraisal of our world. And it follows unsurprisingly that the author idolizes the monastic life—and particularly the version of that life connected with the sixth century CE saint, Benedict of Nursia, revered by Christians as the patron saint of Europe and famous both as the founder of a dozen communities for monks in Italy and also as the author of the Rule of Saint Benedict, a work in 73 short chapters about how to live a rich Christian life in retreat from the secular world. Dreher does not, however, think that the real solution to the modern Christian’s problems lies in retreat into secluded monasteries and convents—or at least not for those not personally called to the cloistral life—but rather in a different kind of withdrawal, one that entails a permanent retreat, if not from the entire public square, then at least from those parts of it that make it impossible for the faithful to remain true to their ideals while in it. He takes this idea quite far—strongly recommending that Christians withdraw their children from public schools, that Christians undertake to the greatest extent possible solely to patronize each other’s businesses, that efforts to influence those outside the Church be abandoned while congregations instead work on strengthening their devotion to their own heritage without the risk of pernicious outside influence, that parents severely limit their children’s exposure to television and particularly to the internet, and that, at least ideally, Christians withdraw from the urban nightmare that prevails in America’s godless cities and retreat to smaller towns in out of the way places—just like the author’s home town in rural Louisiana—where the world will just leave them alone and in peace. That, in a nutshell, is the Benedict Option.

From a Jewish point of view, there’s a lot to say.  Here and there throughout the book, the author nods to the success of certain communities within the larger world of Jewish Orthodoxy in achieving that kind of separation from the world. And, indeed, we all know of communities in Williamsburg and Crown Heights that function roughly according to Dreher’s plan by avoiding public schools, living in closed communities, doing business solely or at least mostly with each other, denying their children contact with the world via television or the internet, etc. What Rod Dreher would actually make of such communities if he were actually to have to live in one of them for a few months is not hard to imagine. And also amusing is the author’s apparent belief that the specific lifestyle he so admires is how all Orthodox Jews live, not the lifestyle of a mostly marginalized subset within the larger Orthodox community. But those are just details, and the larger, more important challenge laid down at the feet of Jewish readers by The Benedict Option has do with us and our future, not with the author and his or his community’s.

I am not particularly interested in asking how specifically Jewish Americans fit into the author’s plan for the future, although that would surely be an interesting question to hear him attempt to answer without sounding regretful that we even exist in his—our—country. On the other hand, the chances that American Christians are going to embrace the author’s proposal, let alone embrace it holus-bolus and retreat from the world in order to have the time thoughtfully to re-acquaint themselves with the works of the earliest Church fathers are nil. Individuals might well be inspired by reading the works of John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople…but we simply do not live in the kind of idea- or principle-driven world in which the author’s idea could conceivably—in my own opinion, at any rate—gain serious traction.

But what does interest me is the kernel of Dreher’s idea: that, instead of endlessly beating their heads against walls they cannot possibly break down, spiritual communities would do better to focus inward and devote themselves to the cultivation of their own gardens. In some ways, we have led the way in doing just that: although I’d be hard pressed to find a way to describe the inclusion of Christmas on the list of federal holidays as anything other than an egregious offense against the separation of church and state, most of us have long since stopped caring or worrying about it. The same could be said of the off-putting presence of Christmas trees in federal post offices and in countless other governmental venues, but we certainly haven’t followed through with the other part of the equation, the part that calls upon us not solely to ignore that which we cannot alter, but also to turn within and work at fostering the kind of Jewish community that would thrive within its own boundaries precisely because it would derive its energy from its own inner life and not by campaigning endlessly for the approval of others.

Like Rod Dreher and the people for whom he’s written his book, we too are not called to the cloistral life. And, indeed, the idea of securing a Jewish future by retreating into closed communities in out-of-the-way hamlets (like Kiryas Yoel, for example, except seriously more remote) would interest almost none of us. But what does appeal to me is seeking the Jewish future not by endlessly campaigning for the approval of the world, but by strengthening the community from within.

In other words, the Jewish version of the Benedict option would have us giving up the endless moaning and groaning about our numbers—and, even more to the point, our ability to manipulate those numbers to get the world’s attention—and instead turning our attention to the propagation of a kind of Jewishness that was once basic and ordinary…and which has, in our day, become—to say the very least—rare.  Most of my readers will never have heard of John Chrysostom (just for the record, one of the originators of literary anti-Semitism)…but neither will they have heard of Bahya ibn Pakuda or Joseph Albo, just to name two of our greatest and most profound authors and thinkers almost completely forgotten by “regular” Jewish people outside the world of academe.

The most basic skills of Jewish life—being able to participate easily in Jewish worship, for example, or having enough Hebrew to read and understand basic classical texts…or even to follow along in a Ḥumash when the Torah is read aloud in synagogue—skills that were once the bread-and-butter abilities of any educated Jewish soul have become the province of the especially trained. Nor is this a problem merely of the masses: we have acknowledged leaders in our communities who have more or less no familiarity with the classic works of Jewish literature, no visible allegiance to Jewish ritual, no knowledge of Hebrew…and who don’t seem to feel even slightly burdened by their own ignorance. More to the point, perhaps, we have undercut out own ability to be in awe of our own culture heroes by tolerating a Jewish world in which those heroes are not only not revered in Jewish circles but are almost entirely unknown, their very names familiar to almost none.

If Dreher is right about his world, could he also be right about ours? Could the future of Jewish life in America end up having solely to do with our ability to create a kind of Jewish cultural milieu so rich with meaning, so suggestive of spiritual possibility, and so endlessly alluring both intellectually and emotionally that by ignoring our numbers we paradoxically end up increasing them? Dreher laments the degree to which the most foundational classic works of Christian theology and spirituality are largely ignored even by people who self-define as enthusiastic Christians. The same could surely be said of the Jewish community, but what I took from Dreher’s book is the thought—the siren, endlessly alluring thought—that it doesn’t have to be that way…and that the way forward could well be the way backward, the way out could well be the way in, and the way to grow could surely be, at least in the long run, not to care particularly if we grow at all. Now that would be an innovative approach to the endless questions we never tire of asking about our future but that none of us seems able cogently and convincingly to answer!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Balfour, A Century Later

Last week, I wrote to you about the various issues I see hiding behind the assertion I hear made constantly that the only path forward to peace in the Middle East is the so-called two-state solution. Today I would like to go back even further in time than the Transjordan Memorandum of 1922 that I mentioned in passing last week, and consider the document upon which the two-state solution itself rests, the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Nor is this just ancient history: as its one hundredth anniversary approaches this fall, the Declaration was suddenly back in the news last summer when the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Malki, told Muslim leaders gathered in Mauritania that the Palestinians intend to sue the United Kingdom in international court to force it to rescind the Declaration and to indemnify those who suffered financial damage because of its promulgation. At first, this sounded more amusing than sinister, something like some white supremacist group suing the federal government to force them to void the Emancipation Declaration—or, even more amusingly, the Thirteenth Amendment—and indemnify all those poor slaveholders who suffered financial distress when their “property” was summarily taken from them. Or, even more to the point, like a teary nine-year-old with a skinned knee threatening to sue Sir Isaac Newton to compel him posthumously to withdraw the laws of gravity that drew him to the ground when he fell off his bicycle and hurt himself…without realizing that the laws of gravity are no more dependent on Sir Isaac than the inalienable right of the Jewish people to thrive as a free people in its own national home were dependent on Arthur James Balfour.

Clearly, the suit won’t go anywhere. It isn’t even obvious in what court such a case could, or would ever, be tried. But the Palestinian leadership was right about one thing, though: the Balfour Declaration—and all it implies—is in many ways at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

It would be easy to wave it away as nothing more than a late expression of British colonialist imperialism: if the British Empire could seriously talk about its “ownership” of countries all over the globe like India or Kenya to which it had no moral, legal, or historical claim without feeling foolish, so why should they have felt odd announcing that they look with favor on efforts to realize the nationalist ideals of the Jewish people in its own homeland as though this were a point in need of British endorsement? But, as usual, there is more here than meets the eye…and a reasonable case can be made that the Balfour Declaration retains, even a century later, its importance as an important stepping stone towards the eventual founding of the State of Israel.

Of all the world’s wars, World War I remains the most confusing for most of us. It appears not to have been fought over any serious issue. Its alliances seem more like arbitrary couplings of nations than the thoughtful affiliation of nations with similar ideals and agendas. The casualties were almost unbelievable—about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians killed, another six million (soldiers and civilians) missing and presumed dead, and about 20 million (also a combined total of civilians and soldiers) wounded in some serious way. It ended, as everyone knows, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, and was formally wrapped up (at least as far as our country was concerned) with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. And then came the divvying up of the losers’ territory, both at home and overseas.  Austro-Hungary was dismembered entirely. German overseas colonies like Tanganyika, Togoland, Namibia and Cameroon went to the British and the French.  And the part of the Ottoman Empire that wasn’t Turkey itself was parceled out to the victor nations as well: France received League of Nations mandates to run Syria and Lebanon and the U.K. received mandates to run Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan. It was all much more complicated than that…but the basic principle is that the Land of Israel, dominated by the Ottoman Turks since Selim the Grim defeated the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1516 and added Israel to his empire, was placed under the governance of the British.

An interesting question to ask is why the United States, which more than happily acquired bits and pieces of the Spanish Empire after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, did not have any of the territories taken from the loser nations placed under its authority. That too is a complicated issue, but it mostly has to do with Woodrow Wilson, who had no interest in taking on the governance of foreign lands to which the United States had no moral or legal claim. This, of course, suited the other victor nations just fine!) And so the Brits came to Israel.

What exactly they thought they were getting themselves into, I have no idea. They knew plenty of the place, because they had participated in battles against the Turks in Palestine starting with the First Battle of Gaza in 1917 and continuing up until the final fall of Jerusalem to General Edmund Allenby in December of that same year. Or perhaps that’s exactly the point—because they had fought the Turks on the soil of the Land of Israel, they came away feeling entitled to add its territory, if not precisely to the empire as a colony, then at least to their in-those-days vast sphere of global influence as land under the legal stewardship of Great Britain. The locals were not consulted, not the Arab ones and surely not the Jewish ones.

Jewish immigration was well underway as the First World War was wrapping up—the so-called First Aliyah began as early as 1882 (in the wake of the anti-Semitic agitation that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881) and had melted seamlessly into the wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah around 1904. Indeed, about 70,000 Jews came to Ottoman Palestine between the early 1870s and the end of the First World War. (Just as an aside, that figure can be very interestingly compared with the fact that about 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe during those same years; the rest, my ancestors among them, headed west, not east.) Added to that figure were, of course, the small number of Jewish souls who simply lived in Israel, whose families hadn’t ever fled, who didn’t need to realize their Zionist longing by immigrating to Palestine because they hadn’t ever lived elsewhere. And, of course, there were also the descendants of earlier waves of Jewish immigration—those who came with Rabbi Yehudah He-hasid in 1700, for example, or the thousands who came in the 1740s along with Rabbi Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto and Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar. So the Jews of Ottoman, now British, Palestine were well established in their ancestral homeland as the First World War came to its eventual end and had no intention of renouncing their dream of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

There were, of course, also Arabs living in the land and they were actively hostile to the notion of a Jewish state. It was already clear in the 1920s that this was going to lead either to peaceful compromise or endless friction, and it was in the context of that morass of mutual mistrust and apprehensive suspicion that U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent his now-famous two-sentence letter to Walter Rothschild, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917. The letter read as follows:

His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

It was already a jam-packed month for the Brits. The Battle of Beersheva, in which the British eventually beat the Turks soundly, was still underway. The Battle of Mughar Ridge, victory in which was considered indispensable if the British were to fulfill their plan of seizing Jerusalem by year’s end, was about to begin. Clearly, the British felt that they needed the support of the yishuv more than they needed to worry about irritating the Arabs…and that, rather than a sudden surge of unprecedented philo-Semitism, was surely what motivated the British to make their unexpected “declaration” when they did.  And that is exactly what did happen. The Jews of Turkish, soon to be British, Palestine were
energized. They clearly understood that their future lay with the land passing from Turkish to British rule, which is why General Allenby was greeted by the Jews of Jerusalem as a conquering hero when he, combining the role of military hero with pilgrim, got off his horse and walked almost humbly on foot through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City on December 11, 1917. The Arab population, needless to say, was not at all pleased and saw the British move as a craven effort to win the support of Jewish residents as they attempted to secure Palestine for themselves in the post-war period. Craven, it surely was. (They have that part right.) But what if the British, acting wholly in their own best interests, also came down on the side of reasonableness and justice? Does one necessarily preclude the other?

It was a time of new ideas. As noted in passing above, President Wilson was personally responsible for insisting that the treaties that ended the First World War grant self-determination to the peoples of the losers’ empires rather than merely award new baubles to the victors’ own colonial holdings. His nation—our nation—wanted nothing of other people’s countries. But Wilson was thwarted in the end by allies who were prepared to concede the right of self-determination to the peoples of Europe, but not the Middle East or Africa.  And it was thus as a kind of a compromise that the notion took hold that the territories of the vanquished should be awarded not as colonies to the victors, but as temporary mandates, in effect as trusteeships of the League of Nations, until the people of those places could be trained to govern themselves. Leaving aside the almost surreal paternalism, racism, and chauvinism hiding behind such an idea, the foundational idea—that nations have the right to govern themselves—is not only sound, but entirely so. And so the San Remo Conference of 1920 awarded the “mandate” to rule over Palestine to Britain.  Two years later, the League formally included the Balfour Declaration in its formal vision for the future of Palestine, thus charging the British with working towards the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.

And so things worked out that Lord Balfour, with two brief sentences, altered the course of world history by indicating that his government would shoulder the burden of governance in Palestine until the Jews were deemed capable of governing themselves. Eventually, the League of Nations endorsed the notion that the Jewish people, like any people, is entitled to govern itself on its own land and in its own place. And this just and reasonable policy was eventually transmitted to the United Nations which, before it turned away from its own ideals and became a grotesque caricature of its former self, ended up promoting its own version of the two-state solution when it ordered that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. And that is how the two-state solution ultimately has its origin in the Balfour Declaration.

And then, less than two decades later, came the Shoah—the ultimate demonstration of the consequences of Jewish powerlessness in the world. The blood of the martyrs called out then and still calls out…inviting all who dare to ponder their fate and determine in its light whether or not the League of Nations was right in adopting the Balfour Declaration as the basis of its own policy with respect to Jewish self-governance in the Land of Israel. The Balfour Declaration was key in giving Zionism a respectable home among the political philosophies that the world brings to bear in determining which peoples’ right to self-govern are given international credence and which not. To imagine that the British weren’t acting in their own best interests would be naïve in the extreme. But, at least for once, their own best interests led them to help actualize the Jewish dream of a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel…and we should applaud, and not cynically, a remarkable and remarkably daring statement that, in a few lines, granted to the Jewish people the natural right of all peoples to chart their own future forward in their own place and according to their own lights.