Thursday, February 16, 2017

Playing God

It’s funny how some events in the course of human history become universally understood as watershed moments and the individuals connected with them become correspondingly famous. The invention of the moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century is a good example: he’s famous, his invention is famous, and the shift from handwritten to printed books is widely understood as a true threshold in the development of world culture. You could say the same thing about James Watt’s perfection of the steam engine in 1781 or Alan Turing’s invention of the world’s first working computer, the so-called Turing Machine, in 1936. All famous men, all the well-known dates of famous events.

But other events fall away, just as do also the people connected with them. The real inventor of the moveable-type printing press, Han dynasty inventor Bi Sheng, is known to almost nobody today. Isaac Newcombe, the inventor of the steam engine that Watt was able dramatically to improve has long since been forgotten by all but historians of science. Charles Babbage, the British polymath whose 1822 “difference engine” was the forerunner of the computer, remains an obscure figure to most. My point in mentioning these three names is not to suggest that the people mentioned in the first paragraph don’t deserve their fame, which they all surely do. Rather, my point is to show how difficult it is to see these events when they are actually happening and to recognize them as momentous. Indeed, despite the fact that all three of the mostly-forgotten persons mentioned here—Bi Sheng, Isaac Newcombe, and Charles Babbage—managed materially to alter the course of human history through their work, all were eclipsed later on by the perfectors of their efforts not because the latter schemed to deny their predecessors their due but because, when the world finally got around to noticing that it was standing at a threshold moment, the people in the first paragraph were standing in the right place at the right time and not the people in the second.

Nor is it easy to notice when society has crossed a developmental line back across which it will never be able to step. And, indeed, all sorts of things that felt momentous in their day were proven later on not quite to be the breakthrough they seemed at the moment to be. I remember buying my first music CD and thinking that music would never be the same again. But that was then…and now the introduction of the music CD in 1982—for the record, a Philips recording of Claudio Arrau playing some Chopin waltzes—feels like a bridge between cassette tapes and the kind of audio files that seem to exist without physical space and which simply fly on command through the ether into the machines devised to 
play them.

And now I get to the real subject of this week’s letter: the joint announcement the other day by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine that they formally approve of the effort to modify human embryos by altering the genetic code in which are embedded the traits the people those embryos will eventually become will be able to pass along to future generations. It’s hard to know what to do with such an announcement. Is this one of those pivotal moments in world history that will be remembered as a real turning point in the development of human society, as a real break with the past? Or is it just a breakthrough moment in terms of human attitudes towards a specific kind of scientific research…but not a true threshold moment in the history of humankind? That is the question I’d like to explore this week.

The academies only noted their approval with respect to certain specific kinds of research, the kinds designed to enable the deletion of genes that cause “serious diseases and disabilities.” And even that is only to be considered acceptable when there exists no reasonable alternative to eradicating the disease by altering the genetic code of those who bear it into the world.

It feels unlikely, however, that the kind of discipline necessary to keep faith with those two strictures will be maintained for long. For one thing, the terms in play—the “reasonable” in “no reasonable alternatives” or the “serious” in “serious diseases or disabilities”— are open to a very wide range of definitions. Yet, even with that caveat, there surely are diseases that all would qualify as “serious” threats to health and disabilities that no one would think twice about referencing as “serious” disadvantages to the people obliged by circumstance to deal with them. It’s hard, for example, to imagine the argument against doing whatever it takes to eradicate Huntington’s chorea, a terrible affliction that leads through horrific disability to eventual death. And if there are unfortunates who carry the genetic code for that specific disease, but from whose gametes could be created an embryo that could specifically be altered not to bear that code and therefore not to have to fear the disease and its awful consequences or to risk handing it down to future generations—it’s hard to come up with a cogent argument against helping such people rid themselves and their descendants of a horrific genetic curse.

And yet there are those who look with disfavor on this kind of research, fearing that the moral and ethical brakes they deem requisite for looking positively on this kind of research will simply not be applied by all and, indeed, the whole specter of “designer babies” is something that really should give us all pause for thought.

Due to the development of something called CRISPR-Cas9, the concept is not as far-fetched as it once was. The first part stands for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats. The second part, Cas-9, is CRISPR Associated Protein 9, an enzyme that somehow has the ability to act as a kind of molecular scissors capable of “cutting” a strand of DNA at a specific point in the genome so that it can be deleted or adjusted.  Come again? I’ve been reading websites all week looking for a simple explanation. No luck on that front! Still, to read the best (and, yes, the simplest) explanations I could find online, click here and here. Really, you need a background in molecular biology even to begin to get how this works, but the ethical issues do not inhere in the science and it should be more than enough for laypeople like ourselves to understand that CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome-editing tool that works well enough for scientists seriously to be on the verge of learning how to alter the genetic code of the pre-born.

From a certain vantage point, you could argue that the ethical concerns that so worry so many are being overstated. After all, we all do what we can to help our children succeed in life! We specifically do not teach our kids just to accept their weaknesses and inherent shortcomings, and to leave it at that. Instead, we do what we can to help them succeed and consider it irrelevant if their eventually performance only comes after long hours of training, practice, rehearsal, study, exercise, etc.  So why exactly shouldn’t, say, tone-deaf parents ask a scientist to alter their genetic code to include the gene for musical excellence for future generations to enjoy? Yes, of course, that sounds a bit frivolous. But the arguments against sound just a bit puritanical (and I mean that in a negative sense): if a child overcomes a natural, genetically-based disability through hard work, perseverance, and dogged tenacity and dedication, we consider it praiseworthy. But, and here we wander onto ethically thinner ice, if the means of overcoming some specific innate, inborn obstacle comes from without—from a friendly genetic engineer altering the child’s potential skill set to delete the specific traits that will hold him or her from succeeding in that very same arena—then we consider that to be unfair and morally suspect. It feels that way even to me! But more difficult, and by far, is saying exactly how those two means of assisting a child excel differ ethically.

Yes, one avenue will be available to the wealthy before it trickles down to the middle class, let alone those who live in poverty. But in a society in which the same could be said of a thousand other things—SAT prep courses, the kind of personal training that leads to athletic excellence, private music or art lessons, summers spent in camps devoted to the cultivation of the specific skills necessary to succeed, travel to distant lands to learn languages or some skill available in that specific place—it feels odd suddenly to climb up onto a high horse with respect to this specific means of helping children succeed. Don’t we specifically not care that the wealthy can provide more for their children than the poor? We certainly behave that way in most other contexts! And to tell the child of well-off parents that he or she can’t be helped to overcome some congenital inability to succeed because of his parents’ wealth also seems a bit perverse. Isn’t helping some children better than helping none?

And yet I also see the other side of the coin…and clearly. There surely is something unsettling about the notion of altering the genetic code that yields the diversity that now characterizes human society. But to oppose scientific research that could eventually assist people in ridding society of gene-based diseases and defects seems impossible to justify morally. So perhaps the real question before us is not whether the report of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine is right or wrong to support the latter while strenuously arguing against using this kind of technology to improve the lot of future generations other than by ridding them of terrible diseases or defects, but something incredibly more difficult to decide: if it were to be so that this particularly genie, once out of the bottle, will be impossible to force back inside…then would the notion of ridding the world of Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs disease or beta thalassemia be worth the risk of scientists, both at home and abroad, crossing the line to create people who are better than they might otherwise be in other ways as well?

To condemn the possibility of altering the genetic make-up of embryos as “playing God” requires having a clear sense in mind of what that thought even means.  Every significant medical break-through has altered the world God made in a profound way that could reasonably be qualified as unnatural. Yet none of us regrets the eradication of smallpox or would dream of arguing that Edward Jenner was “playing God” in 1798 when he developed the world’s first effective vaccine for any disease at all. But wasn’t he doing just that?

It seems to me that we are crossing a huge threshold with the report of this last week endorsing the kind of research into the alteration of the genome that we both eagerly await and reasonably fear. Is it worth going forward and merely hoping for the best? Should we shove this particular genie back in the bottle and throw it into the sea?  If you want a clear answer, ask a potential parent who carries the Huntington’s chorea gene!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

There must be something of the nineteenth century in my character, given the number of nineteenth-century-books on my list of books that I’d say materially altered the way I think about the world. Some titles, you could probably guess on your own: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection are all there, although possibly not in the order you’d have predicted. But those are all works of fiction—fiction at its most sublime, yes, but fiction nonetheless—and there are non-fiction books on my list as well and among them is the book I wish to write specifically about today, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

It’s a remarkable book, even 176 years after it was first published in 1841. And it had a profound effect on me, one that altered my thinking in every way, even theologically, by bringing me to the realization that truths can elude almost everybody, that things that everybody “just” knows can just as likely be false as true, and that falsehoods can easily masquerade not merely as true statements but almost as societal axioms—that is, as the kind of “common knowledge” facts that people are made to feel foolish even to question, let alone to deny. It’s a big book (almost 700 pages in the edition I own), but it’s well worth the effort and the time necessary to read—indeed, almost every chapter is eye-opening and interesting. Mackay was a Scot who spent most of his working life in Belgium and England, where he worked as a lawyer without ever losing his predilection for writing. He was apparently the first to compile a dictionary of the language then called “Lowland Scotch,” the dialect of Gaelic spoken in the Scotland in his day. And he wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his masterpiece.

One by one, the author goes through beliefs that were either current in his own day or in some earlier time and shows how they achieved nearly universal credence despite the fact that there was no convincing evidence—and often no evidence of any sort at all—to support them. Let me quote the opening passage from the preface to the 1852 edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

And then he goes on to demonstrate that, to cite his own words, “men…go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Mackay and his book have repeatedly come to my mind as I have been contemplating the nation-wise brouhaha concerning the President’s Executive Order barring refugees from everywhere but Syria from entering our country for the next 120 days, refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely, and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering for the next ninety days. It may seem odd to reach back to a book written almost two centuries ago for insight regarding events happening now, but I have to say that I can’t recall ever hearing more people say more things that they somehow “just” know to be the truth without bothering to say how exactly they know themselves to be right, let alone unarguably true. And the more such “facts” are bandied about as though they were not groundless assertions but self-evident truths, the more I regret that Mackay isn’t around to prepare a twenty-first century edition of his book.

The President’s ban has maddened people because it was apparently promulgated without being formally vetted in advance by officials at the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security. I’m hardly an expert on these things, but that feels like a huge misstep: the people responsible for enforcing the President’s directive on the ground should probably have been given maximal, not minimal, time to prepare. But the specific problems connected with enforcing the two bans are not really the issue here…and it is precisely outside the issue of how exactly to enforce the ban that people on both sides seem to be campaigning for a place in an updated edition of Mackay’s book.

For people who support the Executive Order, the challenge seems clear. We are surely all in agreement that our government should not admit terrorists or criminals to our country merely because they present themselves as peaceful immigrants or refugees. And so, that being the case, the only convincing argument in favor of a ban on entering our country on the scale of the President’s Executive Order would logically have to be that the system to vet would-be refugees and immigrants that we already have in place is not working properly and that, time and time again, those charged with keeping our nation safe have failed to recognize dangerous, or potentially dangerous, people for what they are and so have naively and ineptly admitted them. That argument sounds persuasive, but it needs to be grounded in reality. Where is the list of those bad people we inadvertently let move here? Where is the list of terrorist acts, ones actually carried out or thwarted by law enforcement officials before they could be carried out, that people whom we incompetently let cross the border into our country either did manage to pull off or else clearly intended to pull off? If we have been screening people applying to enter our country ineffectually and inexpertly, where is the proof of that incompetence on the part of the very people being paid to keep us safe—proof that could only really be constituted by a long or even short list of bad people who somehow slipped through despite their best efforts to prevent such people from doing so. But there is no such list…or at least there has not been published any such list that I have seen.

That being the case, all those people insisting that the system is broken need to be asked a simple, pointed question: if the system is letting terrorists and criminals slip into our country, why can’t you list some of their names as proof positive of your assertion? And if the system isn’t actually broken, why do we need to fix it?

But the people on the other side of the aisle have their own unanswered questions to address…because so many assertions coming from the “opposed” camp also seem unsubstantiated and naïve. The President’s Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims per se, which fact is more than adequately demonstrated by the fact that there are dozens of Muslim nations not on the list and whose Muslim citizens are, therefore, not affected at all. Nor are non-Muslim citizens of the countries that are on the list free to enter our country: there was a story carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency just the other day about Jews from Iran and Yemen whose visas were cancelled before the Executive Order was put on hold by the courts. So it’s hardly true that the President has banned Muslims from entering our country…and yet I have heard and read people say exactly that now for days and days as though it were a self-evident truth.

Moving along, the assertion that we don’t have anything to fear from radicalized Muslims seems, to say the least, naïve. Perusing the Wikipedia page on “Islamic terrorism” (click here), it’s more shocking how many of these incidents—instances of barbarism that have led to thousands of deaths even just in the last twenty years—have been almost totally forgotten or are at least not regularly referenced in public discourse or in the press. So when people say that the President is behaving irrationally by worrying about the special security issues related to the admission of Muslim refugees or immigrants to our country, that seems, to say the very least, a bit naïve. The key, I think, is to avoid careening away from thoughtful caution and intelligent watchfulness towards xenophobia and the kind of blanket condemnation that makes it harder, not at all easier, to identify the bad guys: all Muslims are surely not terrorists, but there are large, well-funded groups of radical Islamicists out there who express themselves through violence and terrorism…and the foundation of whose worldview is precisely their particular version of Islam. Particularly bizarre, I should add, is hearing Jewish people who claim to feel a deep sense of allegiance with Israel—including, I am ashamed to say, some rabbis—who appear to feel called upon for some obscure reason not to take note of the phenomenon of radical Islamicist terrorism in the world and, just to the contrary, to brand as racist anyone who does. These people too deserve a chapter in Mackay’s book.

Our world would be a lot easier to negotiate if the prerequisite for being quoted in the press or appearing on television was that you had to read Mackay’s book and internalize its lessons. The basic facts in evidence are not only clear, but more or less universally agreed upon. All Muslims are not terrorists, and people who claim otherwise are simply wrong. There being versions of Islam that do promote the concept of worldwide jihad and for whom terrorism directed against innocents is fully acceptable, however, we need to guarantee that no Muslims admitted to our country are future terrorists because they do subscribe to the version of Islam that animates ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Shabaab, the Jemaah Islamiyah, Islamic Jihad, and the like…and people who do not see the cogency of that obligation really do belong in Mackay’s book as well. If the system we have in place to vet people from other lands who seek to enter our land to visit or to settle is not working, it needs to be fixed. But the burden of proof in that regard would normally have to rest with the people making that assertion…and just asserting it without being able to present any evidence to bolster such claim is also worth a mention in the next edition of Mackay.

It makes no sense at all to talk about excessive diligence in keeping our country safe and our co-citizens secure—if we were talking about keeping your children safe, would you recognize a level of “excessive” diligence? On the other hand, a former president of our congregation, a physician (and we’ve had several), once pointed out to me that doctors can cure any disease if it’s not considered crucial that the patient survive the curative procedure, but that this is generally not considered the very best way to practice medicine…even despite the 100% cure rate.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Subjective Remembrance

Of all the various events of the last ten days, saying which will have the most lasting effect on our national character—or our nation’s image abroad or its sense of itself at home—would be, to say the very least, challenging. But saying which event of that same time period was the most grotesque is actually simple: surely, it would have to be the spectacle of so many eager to take sides loudly and vehemently in response to President Trump’s brief statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the United-Nations-sponsored memorial day scheduled each year since 2005 for January 27, the day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.
The statement itself was innocuous enough. (I wonder how many of those who commented on it at such length and with such passion actually read it. Surely some…but also surely not all!) Because it was so brief, I would like to cite it here in its entirety:
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
A Martian visiting Earth and being presented with these paragraphs would probably find them moving. A wave of horrific violence, correctly characterized as one characterized by unfathomable depravity, engulfed the world and took the lives of countless innocents. Yet even in the context of such horror, there were those who chose to risk their lives to save at least some who would otherwise have surely been killed. And in response to those two thoughts—the loss of the many and the heroism of the few—our national leader pledges to devote both his years in office—and the rest of his life—to the effort of guaranteeing that the forces of evil never triumph over the powers of good, and that tolerance and love prevail in their place.
The response, however, was not as the President had surely expected or wished, and for one single reason: the omission of the detail that the primary victims of Nazi genocide were Jews, not “just” innocents chosen at random from the universe of the guiltless, struck many as vaguely sinister and not at all the kind of thing reasonably waved away as a function of mere naiveté. And that single fact—the President’s failure to identify the Jewish people by name in his statement—generated the storm of criticism that ensued, some of it thoughtful and some of it beyond shrill. 
As the days passed, new details emerged among which the most arresting was that the statement, which I don’t suppose anyone imagined President Trump himself wrote, was actually penned for the President by Boris Epshteyn, once the ten-year-old child of Soviet Jewish émigrés to this country but now a White House special assistant. But the Jewish bona fides of the author’s statement did little to suppress the anger over the perceived insult. In some ways, in fact, it only made people who were already angry even angrier.
There is no doubt that the Jews were not the Nazis’ only victims and the numbers of non-Jewish victims are both numbing and appalling: half a million Serbs, almost two million Polish civilians, almost three million Ukrainians,  somewhere between 2 to 3 million Soviet P.O.W.s, a quarter of a million Gypsies, another quarter of a million mentally-handicapped individuals, and hundreds of thousands of others: gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, Catholic priests, and more than thirteen million Soviet citizens (including the 1.2 million people who died during the siege of Leningrad alone between 1941 and 1943). And yet…it is also true that it was only the Jews that were the intended victims of genocide itself, the term used to denote the intentional effort to annihilate an entire people and to leave no survivors at all.  And that is where things get confusing: it is surely so that the Germans never intended to murder every single Pole or every Soviet citizen, just to bring those nations to their knees by decimating the population and thus weakening the national resolve to resist German rule. (The situation of the mentally handicapped is more complex, since the Nazis probably did intend eventually to rid the world of mental illness by murdering the entire mentally ill population…and yet that program, called Aktion T4 because it was headquartered at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, was in the end only used to kill German citizens and was not extended into occupied countries. Nor does it seem quite right to characterize mentally ill people as a nation that even could be the victim of genocide.)
And so we are left between a rock and a very hard place: not wishing to sound dismissive or unfeeling with respect to the countless non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, men, women, and children whose suffering was not only real but in many ways and details just as horrific as the misery inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe…but also not wishing to look past the fact that the Shoah itself—the Nazi war against the Jews—was a unique event both in world history and, needless to say, in Jewish history as well.
The figure of 11 million victims of the Nazis is probably incorrect—there is some evidence that Simon Wiesenthal came up with it himself without relying on the soundest of scholarship—but nitpicking about the number seems unworthy. (For a detailed account of that number and Simon Wiesenthal’s role in devising it, click here.) Nor is it a number without its own place in the history of Shoah memorialization: in establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, then-President Jimmy Carter made referenced to the 11 million victims of the Holocaust and there was, as I recall, no particularly vocal response at all. That figure appears all over the place as well, including as recently as last week, on the Facebook page of the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson’s unit. And I am personally aware of rabbis who regular reference the eleven-million victims of the Holocaust as though it would be unseemly to note the Jewish victims without folding the others into the batter so as not to appear concerned solely with Jewish suffering. I can follow that line of thinking easily. And the thought of turning the Shoah into some sort of ghoulish contest—and “ghoulish” would be to say the very least—to see who suffered more grievously or in larger numbers at the hands of the Nazis and those who chose to collaborate with them—the thought of entering into that kind of calculus of agony with other victims’ groups to see who wins the right to claim the more horrific fate under the Nazis seems revolting to me.
Under normal circumstances, no one would care. I myself, whose entire adult life has in a sense been guided by the self-imposed need fully and deeply to internalize the details of the Shoah and its deeply monitory message for my own generation and my children’s—even I can’t say with certainty that I would have reacted particularly negatively to the President’s remarks under normal circumstances. It was, I think I would have thought, impressive that the President even took note of Holocaust Remembrance Day, let alone bothered in the course of his first week in office to issue a formal statement in which he pledged to spend both the years of his presidency and the rest of his life after leaving office—a bit over the top, perhaps, but that’s what the man said—combatting the forces of evil exemplified by the Nazis.
But, of course, these are not normal times and we are not operating under normal circumstances. The presence among the White House staff of people who have been openly associated with anti-Semites, the open use of anti-Semitic slogans and graphic memes by the Trump campaign, the President’s own repeated, jarring use of the “America First” slogan in his Inaugural Address without any apparent awareness of the set of memories those words would awaken for an entire generation of Americans and particular for American Jews (for a brief history of the “America First” slogan, click here), and, most of all, the resurgence of the kind of rhetoric with respect to immigration that characterized our nation as its moral perigee during the FDR years when the gates remained shut even to children, let alone to adults, facing unfathomable torment and almost certain death—all of that provides the backdrop against which the President’s statement calls out to be read. And when considered against that background, the statement that the Martian I mentioned above would find both innocuous and moving, feels, to say the very least, unsettling.

I remember visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1977 and being shocked to discover that Anne’s Jewishness was left almost completely unmentioned in the displays on exhibit. That was my first experience of the Shoah universalized to the point of meaninglessness, of the effort to make the Shoah about oppression in general and not about anti-Semitism in its most extreme guise, of the notion that there was something at least slightly morally suspect in defining the Shoah as the apotheosis of rabid anti-Semitism and not, far less specifically, as an example of prejudice or extremism.  That was my first taste of that specific kind of anti-Jewishness, but not my last. I’d like to think that the President’s remarks were unfortunately but not maliciously phrased, that the omission of any reference to the Jewish people was a mere oversight by a naïve aide, that the larger concept that there even was a declaration is what we should be focusing on…and not on its specific wording. I’d like to think all those things! But whether that option will still be tenable a year from now—that is the real question for Jewish Americans—and for all fair-minded citizens—to contemplate as we move into the first months of the Trump administration.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Praying for the President

Regular worshipers at Shelter Rock know that we routinely recite a prayer for our nation as part of our Shabbat morning service, but I'm not sure that everybody realizes that I myself wrote that prayer as part of the effort to publish Siddur Tzur Yisrael back in 2006. It was a product of its time, too: written just a few years after 9/11, the sense of America as a nation under siege was audible throughout. (When a synagogue in Boston years later wrote to ask permission to use my prayer in their service and specifically asked me for permission to delete the line “May the wicked plots of whose would destroy us ever come to naught,” I acquiesced, suggesting—only mostly in jest—that we could compromise by shortening it to just “May the wicked plotz.” Either they didn’t think that was as funny as I did or else they didn’t feel the shortened line sufficiently undid what they clearly considered the line’s untoward bellicosity, but they didn’t go for it. I decided not to mind and so it entered their worship service as published in Tzur Yisrael, but without that single line.)

At the time, it felt uncontroversial to include such a prayer in our prayerbook. Later on, however, I began to get regular queries about it, some sincere and others merely serving as a means for the asker to express his or her negative feelings about the president on whom the prayer invokes God’s blessings. My stock response was (and is) to note wryly the illogic of not wishing to pray that God grant wisdom and insight to someone the asker clearly considers in dire need of both, and so the prayer remained (and remains) part of worship at Shelter Rock.

The idea itself of praying on behalf of the government and its officials is ancient. Shelter Rockers all know the words “Pray for the peace of your city for in its peace shall you too have peace,” but not all know how old they are. And they are very old indeed: the prophet Jeremiah spoke them in the first decade of the sixth century BCE after the Babylonians exiled large numbers of ruling-class Judahites in the day of King Jehoiachin to punish them for their unwillingness to acquiesce to foreign domination and for their rebelliousness. Nor was this just the prophet’s personal take on things, but an actual divine oracle. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, to all whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon,” the prophet reports in God’s name, “‘build houses and dwell in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit…Seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be carried away as captives and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace shall you too have peace.’” It’s true, I suppose, that the prophet doesn’t specifically tell the people to pray for the government, but praying for the peace of the city to which their captors had brought them comes to the same thing: the idea behind both efforts is to feel justified in praying to God for the city, for the nation, for its leadership…and all who exercise just and rightful authority in its governance. This is not presented as mere altruism either, for the prophet could not be clearer: the people’s security rests in the security of the larger place in which they live and in the success of its leadership in establishing that security.

The earliest reference to praying for the government per se, however, is probably in Pirkei Avot, where we hear that Rabbi Ḥananiah the Deputy High Priest, liked to tell people to “pray for the peace of the government, since were it not for the fear of the government people would swallow each other up alive.” He was in interesting personality in his own right, Rabbi Ḥananiah, serving as one of the few Temple officials to seek and attain rabbinic ordination, and thus serving as an unofficial link between the vanished world of pre-destroyed Jerusalem and the ongoing work of the rabbinic effort to create a version of Judaism that could survive the absence of the Temple. And this interesting personality makes an interesting point: that it behooves law-abiding citizens to pray for their government officials because it is the latter who are responsible for maintaining an orderly, peaceful society in which citizens specifically are not free to cannibalize each other’s work or property.

There were many attempts to formulate prayers for the secular governments of the countries in which Jewish worshipers lived, but the best known, called Ha-notein Teshu∙ah after its first words, was in very wide use by the middle of the seventeenth century. (For an interesting survey by Nathan E. Weisberg of earlier efforts to compose such prayers, click here.) The great Portuguese/Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), for example, cited it in English translation in a book he wrote to promote the idea that Jews should be allowed to re-enter and settle in England, declaring it to have be  the universal custom of Jews everywhere “on the Sabbath Day or other solemn feast,” to bless “the Prince of the country under whom they live, that all Jews may hear it and say, Amen.”

On American soil, the very first published Jewish prayer published in the New World, called a “form of prayer” and published by Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in 1760, contained the Ha-notein Teshu∙ah and specifically called upon congregants to invoke God’s blessings on “our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King GEORGE the Second, His Royal Highness, George Prince of Wales, the Princess Dowager of Wales, the Duke, the Princesses, and all the Royal Family,” and also “the Honourable President, and the Council of this Province, likewise the Magistrates of New York.”  That suited the moment well enough, I suppose, but by the time the prayer was published for public recitation at the founding of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia in 1782, the royals were gone and in their place was a reference to “His Excellency the President, and Honourable Delegates of the United States in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander of Chief of the Federal Army of these States.”  So we’ve been at this for a long time, praying for our national leaders sincerely and, I feel sure, without any sort of ironic overtone.

Over the years, I’ve noticed versions of the prayer that mention—to cite only nineteenth century personalities—Kaiser Wilhelm I, Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria. I’m sure there must be dozens of other examples—I’ve hardly conducted serious research into the matter and am only mentioning those names I’ve personally come across here and there in my literary travels. Nor was this a feature solely of Orthodox worship—by the time the Reform and Conservative movements started publishing their own prayerbooks, alternate versions of the prayer were routinely composed and used in place of the older version.  Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, for example, more or less all Conservative prayerbooks used some version the prayer originally written by Professor Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) that asked worshipers to pray that God “pour out His blessings on this land, on its President, judges, officers and officials, who work faithfully for the public good.”

We all know the joke from Fiddler: “Rabbi, may I ask you a question?” “Certainly.” “Is there are proper blessing for the czar?” “A blessing for the czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!” Hah! But behind the joke is a piece of reality: prayerbooks from nineteenth and early twentieth century prayerbooks published in Russia absolutely did include a passage in which God is asked “to bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards our master Czar Nikolai Alexandrovich, his wife the honorable Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, their son the crown prince Alexi Nikolaiovich, and his mother, the honorable Czarina Maria Feodoravna. And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.” 

To ask whether we should or shouldn’t pray for the welfare of our president based on whether we do or don’t approve of his policies, his politics, or his personal bearing is to miss the point almost entirely.

We live in an age of extreme uncertainty. Even those who voted for President Trump are uncertain what specific campaign promises he will fulfill, or at least attempt to fulfill, and which he will jettison as undoable or unworkable. (He surely would not be the first president to do that.) Nor is it clear, even to his most ardent supporters, what the priorities of this administration are going to be and how vigorously or rigorously those priorities are going to be pursued. Indeed, by electing a president with no prior experience in government, our nation has opted for a national leader who in many ways is himself a tabula rasa, and whose policies and political stances are clearly still works in progress. Like all Americans, I am hoping for the best. But when people ask me if I think we should continue to pray that God bless our President with “wisdom and with a profound and unyielding devotion to justice, equity, and righteousness,” I can only answer robustly in the affirmative. Why wouldn’t we pray for something we all—regardless of our politics and specifically regardless of how we cast our ballot in November—for something we all fervently want and which our country unquestionably needs?

Thursday, January 19, 2017


It was back in the summer of 1986 that NYPD Officer Steven McDonald, then only twenty-nine years old and with only two years of service behind him, was shot three times by Shavod Jones, a boy of fifteen. Jones had been hanging around the Harlem Lake Boathouse near the northern end of Central Park with two friends when Officer McDonald, thinking the boys looked suspicious, approached them and initiated a conversation. Jones responded by pulling out a .22-caliber revolver and opening fire, squeezing off four shots. One shot missed entirely. Of the other three, though, one hit McDonald in the head just over his eye, one hit his throat (and later made it impossible for him to speak normally), and one shattered his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. The stricken officer was immediately rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent hours of complicated surgery. He survived, but was left to live out his days as a quadriplegic able to breathe solely with the assistance of a ventilator. All three boys were arrested on the spot by other policemen patrolling the park.

New York was a dangerous place back then. There were, for example, 1907 murders in the city that year, as opposed to a mere 609 in 2015. I was already gone—we were away for nineteen years beginning in 1983, living in Israel, Germany, Canada, and southern California—but I recall all too well just how inured we had all become to the level of mayhem that seemed almost natural to the urban environment by the mid-80s. But even given the level of violence to which New Yorkers had become used—you may recall the line from Rent: “I’m a New Yorker—fear’s my life!”—Officer McDonald’s story was still horrific.  But his story was not only not over as evening fell on that awful day. It was actually just beginning.

The world kept spinning. The story faded from the headlines. The McDonald family found a way to cope, to move forward. Patricia McDonald, today the mayor of Malverne but then a pregnant newlywed facing a future that even a few months earlier would have been unimaginable, gave birth to a boy whom they named Conor Patrick.  Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, the then archbishop of New York, presided at the boy’s baptism in the Catholic Chapel at Bellevue. That the archbishop of New York would personally preside over the baptism of a child born to a police officer grievously wounded in the line of duty was not that surprising, nor was his willingness to conduct the ceremony in a hospital. But what was extraordinary was Officer McDonald’s statement, which he read aloud following the ceremony and in which he publicly forgave the boy who shot him. “I’m sometimes angry at the teenage boy who shot me,” he said, “but more often I feel sorry for him...I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.”

I remember reading those words back then. (To see the article about the baptism that appeared in the Daily News the following day, click here.) And I remember wondering what kind of man would have it in his heart to forgive someone who had brazenly and unhesitatingly attempted to murder him. It is certainly not without importance that Shavod Jones was just fifteen in 1986, but I didn’t have the sense that Officer McDonald forgave Shavod Jones specifically because of his age….

Steven McDonald died at North Shore University Hospital just last week after suffering a fatal heart attack. Strangely, his death came just a few days after Dylann Roof was sentenced to death after being found guilty of charges stemming from the cold-blooded murder of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in federal court in Charleston. And there too the specter of forgiveness loomed over the proceedings, at least as I myself watched them unfold.

Not all, but some of the relatives of the Charleston victims followed Officer McDonald’s lead and publicly forgave their loved one’s murderer. Nadine Collier, a daughter of victim Ethel Lance, spoke in court early on in the proceedings and publicly forgave her mother’s murderer using the same unambiguous language Officer McDonald did. So did the Reverend Sharon Risher, another of Ethel Lance’s daughters. Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza also died that day in Charleston, went on record formally forgiving Roof and publicly praying that God judge him mercifully. The sister of another victim, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, said simply, referring to her family, that “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray to God for your soul.”

Shelter Rockers all know how important Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower has been for me personally, both as a remarkable work of post-Shoah philosophy and as a moral guide, and I’d like to bring that story to bear in my effort to understand Officer McDonald’s behavior and the behavior of the relatives of the Charleston Nine mentioned just above.

For readers new to Wiesenthal’s book, its backstory will be very unexpected and challenging. In 1943, Wiesenthal, then thirty-five, was a prisoner of the Nazis assigned to a work detail near Lviv, once called Lvov, today the largest city in Western Ukraine but then the third largest city in Poland. The plot is a bit complicated, but the essential detail is that Wiesenthal ended up working in a hospital, where he agreed to a nurse’s request that he visit with a twenty-one-year-old S.S. officer named Karl who was dying of his wounds. Karl’s story tells is beyond horrific, even by Shoah standards, and involved his participation in the brutal murder of Jews in a Russian village in a way that resists description in normal language: to use words like bestial or barbaric to describe the Germans’ actions would be to say almost nothing at all. And then Karl, having confessed to his role in the slaughter, gets to the point: “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience . . . I cannot die . . . without coming clean . . . In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough . . . In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” Wiesenthal listened, then stood up and left the room without saying a word. When he returned the next day, Karl had already died.

The Sunflower is a collection of essays long and short by all sorts of interesting people—including Primo Levi, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Desmond Tutu, Albert Speer, and forty-eight others—answering Wiesenthal’s question, “Ought I have forgiven him?” The contributors are a varied lot, and their answers vary accordingly. No one, as I recall, dares castigate Wiesenthal for his silence, but some nonetheless write passionately in favor of forgiving. Others feel he did exactly the right thing, that only silence could possibly have constituted a rational response to Karl’s request. The Christian responses are mixed, as are the other non-Jewish ones. (One of the most interesting is the one by Dith Pran, author of The Killing Fields and himself a survivor of mass murder on the level of genocide in Cambodia, and he thinks that Wiesenthal should have provided the forgiveness Karl needed to die in peace.) The Jewish responses are also mixed, but not in the same way: some express a reluctance to decide at all, but the overwhelming majority write that it would have been morally wrong, even reprehensible, to forgive…and precisely because Wiesenthal himself wasn’t one of Karl’s victims and so lacked the standing—or the moral right—to forgive a murderer on his victims’ behalf.

Applying that line of reasoning to the relatives of the Charleston Nine who spoke publicly of forgiving their loved ones’ murderer works if what they meant was that they personally felt aggressed against and were thus prepared to forgive the perpetrator for what he had done to them, not what he had done to his victims. I can accept that. But Officer McDonald’s gesture was of a different nature entirely. Here was a man who himself was the victim of the pent-up rage and unbridled violence of his assailant. Unlike Wiesenthal and also unlike the relatives of the dead in Charleston, then, he truly was entitled to forgive. And his act, therefore, was all the more remarkable.

Was it real? If the judge at Shavod Jones’ trial had turned to Officer McDonald and said, “Well, if you forgive him, then so do I. The defendant is guilty as charged, but free to go,” would McDonald have been dismayed or pleased? (This is a fantasy question—judges cannot “just” let people convicted of attempted murder go free because their would-be victims agree to it.) Asking it that way is perhaps unfair…but, even more so, it’s to miss the point. Officer McDonald understood that greater than the burden of quadriplegia would be the burden of spending a lifetime weighed down by anger and the thirst for revenge, and so he looked at his boy-assailant and, instead of wishing him dead, wished him peace. It’s that willingness to forgive that I found and still find so remarkable and, to speak personally, so mysterious.

Shavod Jones was released from jail in 1995 at age twenty-five after eight years of incarceration. Four days later, he was dead from head injuries sustained when he and a friend lost control of the motorcycle they were riding recklessly down a street in East Harlem. So that was the end of Jones’ story, but Steven McDonald, who was promoted after being shot to the rank of first-grade detective, spent the rest of his life promoting the cause of reconciliation. He spoke often about the way his Catholic faith sustained him, and how he felt proud to be symbol to others of the ability to forgive. He even traveled to Northern Ireland at the height of the unrest there to promote the cause of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, making that trip in the company the Reverend Mychal Judge, the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department who was killed while ministering to others on 9/11.

The Torah forbids the faithful from holding grudges or refusing to reconcile when someone who has wronged us comes to ask for forgiveness. Rambam uses the very harsh term akhzari (“cruel”) to describe someone who refuses to forgive the sincere penitent who comes to seek forgiveness, and that surely is the model we should seek to emulate. But Officer Steven McDonald went far beyond the requirement of the law and offered his assailant forgiveness not as a response to the latter’s wish to atone, but as a spur to encourage him to seek atonement for a terrible crime. In my mind, that was the act of a truly noble man possessed of the ability not merely to allow reconciliation but actively to seek it out. That is beyond the letter of the law, to be sure. But embracing the moral basis for a law even if doing so requires going far beyond what the law actually requires is the mark, I think, of a truly noble spirit. And so I take note of Officer McDonald’s passing with great sadness and invite you all to join in the prayer that he rest in peace, and that his memory, and the fine example he set, be a source of blessing to his family and to his friends, and also to us all.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Two-State Solution

For as long as I can remember, the phrase “two-state solution” has been the foundation upon which all who would avoid the opprobrium of unreasonableness with respect to Middle Eastern politics wished to stand. In my letter today, I would like to revisit that phrase by reconsidering the fundamental political assumptions upon which it rests.

The “two-state solution” is an old idea with roots in the original Partition Plan of 1947, the U.N.-sponsored proposal to resolve the tension between the divergent national aspirations of the Jewish and Arab citizens of Mandatory Palestine by creating two states on the land that the League of Nations had awarded the British in 1923 when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and its bits and pieces parceled out to the various victorious parties in the First World War. There was a long backstory leading up to that plan, one filled with long-forgotten personalities and undertakings of various kinds, but the bottom line was simply that the land of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into three parts: a Jewish state in which Jews would constitute about 55% of the population, a larger Arab state in which Arabs would constitute 99% of the population, and a kind of international entity consisting of Jerusalem and some surrounding towns (including Bethlehem) in which Jews and Arab would be more or less evenly represented. The detail that the original British Mandate had included the 35,000 square miles of what then was called Transjordan (and which today is the Kingdom of Jordan), but that this land was specifically excluded from the plans for partition by the now long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, proposed by the British and ratified by the League of Nations and made irrelevant in any case once the British allowed the Hashemite family, originally from Saudi Arabia, to establish a kingdom east of the Jordan with themselves as its royal family in 1946—that detail remains to this day profound in the eyes of some and fully negligible to others. (Perhaps I should say that more clearly. To those who consider it an important detail, there already are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the ground of the original British Mandate: Israel and Jordan.  To those who consider Jordan so long off the table as to be a mere red herring in the discussion, the other state in any two-state solution would have to be a third state called Palestine.)

In the end, none of this matters because nothing came of the plan. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine declared independence on May 14, 1948. That settled their future, at least politically, but created one of the most vexingly perplexing what-if’s of modern history: what the world would be like today if the Palestinian Arabs had kept faith with the Partition Plan and had declared their own independence in the spring of 1948. That would have resulted in the desired two states west of the Jordan River, precisely as the United Nations had proposed. But, of course, that is precisely what didn’t happen. In the course of the few days following the declaration of Israeli independence, thousands of Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian troops swarmed across the border to prevent the Jewish state from really coming into existence. And the rest is history—the War of Independence ended rather inconclusively in the first half of 1949 with a series of armistice agreements Israel signed with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, but without a clear resolution of the Palestinian Arab question.  In a sense, the much-spoken-of “two-state solution” today is an attempt to recapture that missed opportunity of May 1948, that moment in history when the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine could have simply had their state by declaring their independence and then getting on with the work of self-governance.

Thinking about that alternate version of history is an intoxicating exercise in political fantasy. In my personal version, the two states would by now have long since settled the claims of each other’s citizens with respect to abandoned or lost property of real estate in the “other” state. Consequently, the world would have long ago come to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way that no one today seriously asks whether Brazil or New Zealand should exist as nation-states even though their national cultures actually were imported from elsewhere by colonialist settlers who had no prior relationship of any sort to their new land or its native culture, let alone the intense cultural and historical one that has linked the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for millennia. Would the Six Day War have happened? Would any of the wars that Israel has had to fight with its hostile neighbors over the last sixty-odd years occurred? By now, Israel and Palestine would have been each other’s chief trading partners for more than half a century and a lively cross-cultural artistic milieu would have created a sense in the world that Isaac and Ishmael can and do co-exist in the world, if not as full brothers, then at least as the two sons of a common father and as friends.

Oh well. That didn’t happen. But could it still? That’s the real question to ask as we consider the worthiness of the two-state solution regarding the elusive nature of which so many in so many different quarters endlessly wring their hands. In other words, the only reason to push for a two-state solution would be if such a plan could yield results something along the lines of the fantasy outlined in the preceding paragraph.

There’s no question that Israel would benefit mightily from a free, independent, liberal democracy to its east, one with which Israel would share a clearly-defined set of common goals and regional aspirations and in which Jews who wished to live, say, in Hebron would be welcome to settle. I can’t see why anyone would argue against that thought…but addressing the corollary question of whether it is a mere pipedream or a reasonable goal towards which rational people might choose to work—that is the real question to consider.

The prospects are not encouraging. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led directly to the establishment of a terror-state in that place under the malign governance of Hamas. On the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has fostered a culture that rewards terrorism, valorizes the murderers of Israeli civilians, and promotes a particularly virulent version of vicious and violent anti-Semitism among the children who attend its schools. The chances that an independent Palestine sandwiched in between Israel and Jordan would be nothing at all like Gaza feel, to say the very least, slim. And for Israel to create the possibility for a second Gaza to emerge on the West Bank would be sheer folly.

And that brings me to a different question, one broader and more challenging. Are nations capable of change? Are people? We say all the time that change on the micro-level of the individual is possible, that people absolutely do have the ability to abandon negative behavior patterns, to jettison unwanted and unsavory attitudes, to self-alter in accordance with a specific image one wishes to attain and feels called up to try to attain. We say that and, for the most part, we mean it. But is change possible on the national level? An entire generation of Palestinian youth has been raised to loathe Israel and hate Jews. (That’s a strong statement, but one I believe to be fully justified. Click here for more.) Can national cultures be led forward to finer versions of themselves, versions that repudiate negative traits and stances that have been consciously and purposefully bred into the consciousness of a people over scores of years? That seems to be the relevant question to ask as the Obama administration ends and the Trump years dawn.

When I consider the changes in our own national culture that have taken place over the years since I was in high school, it feels astounding—and all the more so because these changes appear to have occurred naturally rather than as a response to outside stimuli attempting to force us to grow in a certain direction. Same-sex marriage was unimaginable when I was in high school, for one important example. But an African-American president would have seemed equally impossible to me back then, as would any of a dozen other things that now seem commonplace, or at least unremarkable, but which once would have seemed revolutionary to the point of being truly unimaginable. But how exactly to foster that change is a different question. Yet, for all it is difficult to answer easily or simply, it is the issue at the heart of the matter: a two-state solution in the Middle East will require the Palestinians to embrace a level of tolerance, liberality, and progressive broad-mindedness of which the Gaza example is the precise antithesis.

Still, being naïve and being hopeful are not the same thing…and so I choose the latter while attempting to avoid the former and will close by offering a bit of visual encouragement with respect to the future of the two-state solution.

At the end of the eighteenth century, just when our own nation was starting up, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans, his Court Superintendent of Buildings, to create a massive monument to peace in the form of a decorative gateway leading into Berlin. The result was named the Peace Gate, but later became known as the Brandenburg Gate because it was built on the site of an earlier gate that marked the beginning of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel. It was and is one of the most well-known architectural monuments of Germany, possibly even the best known.

Here it is shortly after its construction, when Napoleon celebrated his defeat of the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806, in an artistic rendering of that moment in history by the noted French painter of historical scenes, Charles Meynier:

So the Gate of Peace got off to a bit of a rocky start, but no one—and certainly neither Friedrich Wilhelm nor Napoleon—could have imagined the horrors of Nazism and the way the Gate of Peace would one day appear festooned with the ultimate symbol of human depravity and moral corruption:

But just as surely as neither Napoleon nor Friedrich Wilhelm could have imagined Hitler, so could surely Hitler and his Nazi savages have never imagined this photograph, taken just last week in the wake of the horrific murder of four young Israeli soldiers out for a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem:

To say that Germany, the nation that brought the world the ultimate in moral depravity, could respond to the murder of four young Jewish soldiers by turning the Brandenburg Gate into an immense Israeli flag…but that the Palestinians cannot turn their back on terrorism, on Islamicist fundamentalism, on anti-Semitism, and on a self-wrought culture of implacable hostility to Israel—to me that seems, to say the least, an unlikely proposition. It seems impossible to imagine Palestinian growth in that direction and on that level, I admit. But to say that the picture reproduced just above would have seemed “unlikely” to Jews in the Lodz ghetto—that seems ridiculous almost the point of obscenity.

If someone had asked my father when America was going to be ready for a black president, he would have said—regretfully but with certainty—never…and he only died in 1999, a mere nine years before he could have seen with his own eyes just how wrong he was. If someone had asked a “regular” German citizen in 1944 when Germany would be ready to turn its most famous architectural monument into a symbol of national grief over the deaths of four young Jews killed by extremists, he would surely have given the same answer. But he too would have been wrong.  Will they one day say that of those among us who feel that there simply is no solution to the Palestinian question, that the Palestinian Arabs will simply never be able to renounce the parts of their national culture that make peaceful co-existence with Israel an impossibility or, at best, a pipe dream? Perhaps it’s the advent of a new year or maybe it’s just the way impending grandparenthood is already instilling a sense of uncharacteristic hopefulness in me, but I want to hope that that is exactly what they will say of those who feel that there is no solution in the Middle East, that no amount of negotiation or national growth could lead to reconciliation and peace. I can’t say that with certainty—I’m a rabbi, not a prophet—but it is my (secular) New Year’s prayer for us all.