Thursday, May 19, 2016

Obama at Hiroshima

President Obama is planning to visit Hiroshima on his forthcoming trip to Japan next week to attend the Group of Seven meeting at Ise-Shima, and thus to become the first sitting American president to pay a visit to one of the only two cities in the world ever totally to be devastated by a nuclear bomb. (Nagasaki, of course, was the other city. The other presidents to visit Hiroshima were Richard Nixon in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1984, the former before he became President in 1968 and the latter after he left office.)  The G-7 has its own agenda, obviously. But the decision to visit Hiroshima calls for consideration in its own right.

Presumably to head off criticism in advance, the White House has announced in no uncertain terms that the President will not apologize for the American decision to use atomic weaponry to end the Second World War when he visits Hiroshima. Nor, indeed, has any other of our other post-war presidents done so, although President Eisenhower’s publicly-expressed regret for our nation’s use of “that awful thing” to bring the war to a close probably came the closest. But his off-hand expression of regret was hardly an apology, nor did anyone (including most definitely the Japanese) take it that way.

My own feelings about Hiroshima are complicated. On the one hand, the loss of civilian life was truly horrific. About 140,000 civilians are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, about half of whom died on the day of the attack itself. (In addition, about 20,000 Japanese soldiers also died on that day in that place.) An additional 80,000 died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki two days later, also half of whom died instantly.  Whether or not the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was justified depends on the vantage point of the person asking the question, but no one can dispute the fact that the attacks were fully successful: Japan surrendered unconditionally not even a full week after Nagasaki and with that ended a war that took the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people, constituting more than three percent of the entire population of the planet.

Comparing the number of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the number of dead at Pearl Harbor—by comparison a mere 2,471—is, to say the very least, ridiculous: the men and women who died at Pearl Harbor were murdered—executed in cold blood by a nation that was specifically not at war with the United States—whereas the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were citizens of a country that not only was at war with the nation that attacked them, but which had itself initiated the war with its horrific surprise attack on our naval forces in Hawaii in the first place. The number of people murdered by the Japanese regime between the invasion of China in 1937 and the end of the war—5,400,000 by most estimates, to which must be added the more than half a million POWs who died in Japanese custody and the tens of millions who died in China, the Philippines, and other countries occupied by the Japanese of various combinations of disease, deprivation, and occupation-induced misery during the war years—seems a more reasonable figure to discuss in this context, but even that gargantuan figure doesn’t really work: the more than 300,000 civilians that the Japanese executed at Nanking alone during the winter of 1937-1938, for example, were killed for no military reason at all, whereas the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can reasonably be said to have saved all those civilians and soldiers, including most definitely American and other allied soldiers, whose lives would have been forfeit in the land invasion of Japan that would surely have ensued had the war not ended when it did. Whether more or fewer Japanese civilians would have died in the course of a massive land invasion than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is, of course, unknowable. What is certain, on the other hand, is that they would surely not have been the same people who died on those days in August 1945…which means that uncountable numbers of Japanese civilians who survived the war also owe their lives to the American decision to do whatever it was going to take to bring the war to an end.

What I keep reading, including in comments by Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, is that the President’s decision to visit Hiroshima is related more to his vision for a nuclear-free future than to his feelings one way or the other about the ultimate rightness or wrongness about President Truman’s decision to authorize the attacks of August, 1945. I suppose that make sense—nuclear weapons have only been deployed twice in the history of our planet, and so the most dramatic place for the President to make what will probably be his last major appeal for nuclear disarmament would have to be one of the sole sites, other than test sites, ever to experience the actual force of a nuclear explosion.  And yet, even though that thought has a certain cogency to it, any number of factors—including not least of all our current relationship with Japan—will prevent the President from speaking openly and fully honestly about the events of August 1945 and require that he focus himself instead on the horrors of war generally without indicting—and certainly not forcefully—the Japanese as the authors of their own debacle. Nor will he feel free to opine, even obliquely, that the barbarism that characterized the behavior of Japanese forces in the lands they occupied during the war—and the millions of dead in those countries, and particularly China, at their hands—simply required that the war be ended by whatever means were available to whomever could deploy them and that, in the end, nothing else mattered more. Even less likely is the possibility that he will choose to quote President Eisenhower’s famous remark that the sole immoral act possible when fighting against demonic enemies like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan would have been to lose the war.

But even if the President could speak totally openly, does it really behoove us to enter into the kind of ghoulish calculus that would likely follow his assertion, unproven and unprovable, that more lives were saved than lost by President Truman’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons against Japan. My guess is that it probably is true, but do we really want to go there? The civilians who died at Hiroshima were not personally responsible for Pearl Harbor or the rape of Nanking. They were, as is inevitably the case for so many in wartime, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—innocents, including babies and young children, who were incinerated to end a war they personally didn’t start and in which they, speaking specifically of the children, didn’t play any role at all.

Not to regret their deaths, let alone actually to blame the dead for their own fiery demise, would be an example of moral depravity. And I say that as someone who thinks President Truman did make the right decision to bring to the war to an end with the means he had available to him and who considers himself a moral, decent person who would never step over dead babies on the way to perform even the most moral or praiseworthy act. The moral conundrum is acute, then: to approve of the bombing means to look past the victims and in essence to blame their fates on their own nation’s leadership, but to wave away their deaths as mere collateral damage in an otherwise fully justified military action requires that the waver-away be made of sterner stuff than I personally am. In my own opinion, since the President will be constrained both by the strictures of good taste and the realpolitik of the day from speaking totally openly at Hiroshima—and since the moral puzzle is insoluble, yet to speak on the subject at all is by definition to present at least obliquely one side of the argument as one’s own—it would probably have been a better idea not to go at all.

When I was a senior in high school, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally a full-issue-length essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1946 but subsequently published and republished many times as a stand-alone book, Hiroshima focuses solely on the individual fates of a handful of people present in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded and makes it more or less impossible to think of the people incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a faceless mass of indistinguishable dead people. Being a child of my time, I read Hersey’s book in the light of our nation’s ongoing experience in Vietnam. But being as well the teenaged version of my future self, I also read it in light of Auschwitz and resolved never again to speak of “the dead” without recalling that the gas chambers were not filled with “people” or with “victims,” but with an endless number of individuals, each an entire universe, each a world of passion and culture, of intelligence and potential. Nor was it again possible for me to think of the dead at Hiroshima as a faceless mass of unfortunates.

As I contemplate President Obama’s coming visit to Hiroshima, I find my mind turning—slightly unexpected and probably not entirely fairly—to the events of December 7, 1970, when Willy Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees before the monument marking the spot that was once the entrance to the Warsaw Ghetto as an act of personal remorse and national contrition. “Under the weight of recent history,” he later explained, “I did what people do when words fail them. In this way, I commemorated millions of murdered people.”

In a sense, Chancellor Brandt had it easy. He represented the nation that perpetrated evil in the world on a previously unimaginable level and brought unprecedented levels of human suffering to countless innocents. It must have been wrenching for him to go to that place and do that thing…but he did it and his reputation as a man of honor was established permanently, at least in my mind, on that day and at that specific hour.  But President Obama is facing an altogether more vexing challenge. Like Willy Brandt, he represents a nation that brought about the deaths of countless innocents. But he does not represent a nation that acted indecently or immorally at all, but, just to the contrary, he represents the nation that defeated the forces of demonic evil and helped establish democratic governments not only in the countries occupied by the fiends and their allies, but in the perpetrator nations as well. He has, therefore, nothing to apologize for…and yet to use that truth as an excuse for looking away from the horrific loss of life our best efforts to win the war brought to people who were neither the leaders of their nation nor the perpetrators of their horrific policies in the countries they occupied—that would not behoove the leader of the Free World even slightly.


And it is that precise conundrum I wish the President had chosen simply to avoid by flying directly home after the G-7. To walk the tightrope before him and to speak honestly and candidly about the legitimacy of America’s efforts to win the war at all costs, and at the same time neither to demean the civilians who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor to blame them for their own deaths—that is a challenge that I’m not sure can be successfully met at all. Willy Brandt was correct that there are some things that really cannot be said in words. But the gesture he chose to give voice to thoughts that could only be expressed outside of language is certainly not one available to the President, and neither does he have the option of appearing in that place but saying nothing at all.  The world will be listening next week to what he does choose to say…and so will the ghosts. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Israel at 68

Earlier this week, I delivered the eulogy at the funeral of a woman I knew my entire life, Helen Levy, and whose children—one slightly older and one slightly younger than myself—I’ve also known forever. I mention that because I want to retell here a detail about Helen’s parents, Jacob and Bertha Bloch, who had the unimaginable experience as newlyweds of living through the greatest of life’s joys and the most horrific of life’s disasters on adjacent days in 1926. On the first of those days, both in mid-March, Bertha gave birth to twin daughters. Helen and Rebecca were their first children, and I’m sure Jacob and Bertha experienced the same indescribable happiness we all feel as our children—and particularly our first children—are born. But the babies were preemies and they met with entirely different fates: Rebecca lived for one day and then died, whereas Helen lived into her tenth decade and died in her nineties last week. As a rabbi, I’ve made the observation countless times to people I was trying to help through analogous situations that the heart is a wide thing that can accommodate all sorts of emotions concurrently…and specifically including emotions that feel as though they shouldn’t be able to co-exist in the same space. And that, although a cup of coffee can only be hot or cold but not both, the human heart therefore somehow can be happy and sad at the same time. And, most of all that there’s no percentage in feeling obligated to choose between discordant emotions that both feel equally real to the person experiencing them: you can just be both those things—happy and sad, joyful and miserable, accepting and angry—and leave it at that. So it’s a contradiction, I often finish up by pointing out…so what? Not everything has to be so logical!

I mention that story today in this space because I find myself bringing the same set of emotions to the twin “yom ha’s” that Israelis and Jewish people everywhere observed this last week: Yom Ha-zikkaron, Israel’s memorial day for the fallen of the IDF (as well as those who died in the struggle leading up to statehood in 1948), on Wednesday, and Yom Ha-atzma·ut, Israel Independence Day, on Thursday. Like twin panels in a medieval diptych, these two days function as separate entities commemorating different and distinct things…but are only fully intelligible in each other’s light. They are two, therefore, because they are two: two adjacent days with two names that do two different things. But they are also the same thing, and in just the same way that silence and sound are the same thing, and light and shadow. They exist, obviously, on their own. But what they truly mean, or should mean, to all who see in the creation of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel a tangible harbinger of redemption only comes to the fore fully when they are viewed in each other’s light. And, of course, also each other’s shadow.

In a world in which Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state is still routinely brought into question by all sorts of people who should know better—and who would never dream of wondering if Iran has the right to self-define as an Islamic republic or if Pakistan or Afghanistan do—the juxtaposition of Yom Ha-zikkaron and Yom Ha-atzma·ut feels particularly ominous.

In all, 23,477 individuals—men and women, young and old, draftees and volunteers, native-born and immigrants—are recognized as have given their lives in the struggle leading up to independence and in the wars Israel has had to fight, including the War of Independence itself, since independence was declared on May 5, 1948. This figure includes regular soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, but also members of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, the Israel Police Force, the Israel Prison Service, and the Jewish Brigade that fought with the British during the Second World War. Each was a universe, a world of potential extinguished by an enemy bullet or by a terrorist’s bomb. Each died al kiddush ha-shem, as an act of martyrdom suffered for the sake of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. And each, by definition, did not live to see how the world would or would not react to his or her death, and thus to know with certainty that he or she did not die in vain. To tell each of their stories would take a lifetime, obviously. And yet, taking them together as an aggregate also seems slightly wrong…not insulting, to be sure, but also not entirely accurate because, in the end, they weren’t members of some club or players on the same team, but disparate individuals brought together in our collective Jewish consciousness only posthumously. The figure mentioned above, by the way, specifically does not include Israeli victims of terror attacks against civilians, who are also memorialized in Israel on Yom Ha-zikkaron in a different set of ceremonies, and who are now said to number over 3,700 individuals. (That figure includes those who died at the hands of terrorists since 1920.)

It's easy to wax lachrymose in contemplating these numbers. Indeed, it would be hard not to feel that way…and particularly for those of us who have family and friends in Israel whose children serve in the IDF and who bravely put their lives on the line daily to keep their nation safe and secure. And yet regret alone cannot be the antidote to the kind of melancholy inspired by the contemplation of loss on this scale. Particularly for those of us on the sidelines—whose children do not serve, whose nation is too well established in the forum of nations for anyone to doubt its right to exist, and who never wonder as we get onto a bus or a train if there just might possibly be among our fellow travelers someone planning to kill us—it feels wrong to allow regret to constitute our sole response to Yom Ha-zikkaron. Israelis, of course, do move on: they transition from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut with a national torch-lighting ceremony that formally marks the end of national mourning and the onset of national rejoicing. But how exactly should those of us ensconced in the diaspora respond?

We could, of course, just mimic the Israelis and move on too from being weighed down by loss to being buoyed by a sense of gratitude to God that we live in the right age to experience the reality of an independent Jewish state. And, of course, to a certain extent that is what we do. But the transition is never fully real, at least not to me. Just as the Blochs cannot possibly have separated their emotions as they prepared to bring their one daughter home and to bury the other, and thus must simply have had to learn to live with both sets of emotions, so do I feel it impossible to separate my emotions entirely and simply to live through the one and then move on to the next. That sounds like it would be the rational way to proceed. It probably would be the rational path forward. But, at least for me personally, it just doesn’t work.

Looking on things from this specific vantage point of the nexus point between these two days of remembrance and celebration, I feel more than ever how true the ancient oracle was that characterized Israel as an am badad yishkon, as a people set apart. I feel this in a thousand different ways, each distinct yet part of a larger picture.

Israel is subjected to criticism of many kinds never leveled at other nations, its representatives so regularly treated with contempt in the press and on college campuses that most incidents go unreported in the mainstream press.

Israel’s effort to defend itself against a bloodthirsty enemy eager to cause as many civilian casualties as possible with ceaseless rocket attacks specifically targeting civilian centers is derided as excessive by citizens of countries who would never, not in a million years, tolerate that kind of violent aggression against its citizens.

Despite the fact that it was the Palestinians who walked away from the Oslo Accords at Camp David, and thus from the very autonomy they now insist Israel is somehow withholding from them, the onus for the ongoing stalemate in the Middle East is somehow always placed on Israel and only rarely, other than by Israelis, on the Palestinian leadership. In this thought, I include many of our own political leaders and those in countries we reasonably consider to be our allies.

Despite the fact that Iran has openly and shamelessly proclaimed its interest in wiping Israel off the map and murdering its citizenry—and despite the fact that any other country in the world that openly expressed its interest in annihilating some other country among the family of nations would be pilloried as an enemy of world peace and then fully or at last partially ostracized, Israel’s vehement objection to last year’s agreement that will lead directly, and long before children born this week will graduate high school, to an Iran unfettered in the fulfillment of its obvious wish to acquire a nuclear arsenal, was mocked by many, including many of our co-citizens in this country, as were those who spoke out against it.

Despite the fact that the world is rife with countries shamelessly pursuing aggressive, hostile policies against neighboring countries or against their own civilian populations, the United Nations seems incapable of focusing its attention anywhere at all other than on Israel and its alleged misdeeds. To say that the United Nations has long since squandered whatever moral capital it once possessed is surely true…but contemplating its hypocrisy does not undo the effects of its policies or make its double standards any more palatable.

Despite the fact that Israel has integrated immigrants from more or less every country on earth and made them into proud Israelis, Israel is characterized not as the world’s most successful melting pot society, but rather as the heirs of South African apartheid…and specifically because they do not wish to allow people pledged to their own annihilation enter the country at will and mix freely with the civilian population, a policy that is specifically not applied to Israel’s Arab citizenry who face no special restrictions at all in terms of where they go, with whom they assemble, and what they say. There is even an Israeli Arab on the Supreme Court of Israel, Salim Joubran. I do not recall there being any black judges on the Supreme Court for as long as it existed under real apartheid in South Africa.


For all these reasons, I feel a certain mix of pride and ill ease as I join together with all right-minded Americans, and with friends of Israel in every country, to celebrate the sixty-eighth anniversary of Israeli independence. As my readers must all know by now, the only home Joan and I own is in Israel. To the extent that the purchase of an apartment can be considered a kind of political statement, it was one we were and are both proud and pleased to make. It isn’t much, our two-bedroom on Gad Tedeschi Street, but it’s ours and we feel happy and secure when we’re there. Similarly, our tiny State of Israel, the 149th largest nation in the world (right after El Salvador in terms of square mileage), isn’t much either in terms of size, but it is nonetheless the single greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the last two thousand years…and that is surely something for all Jews, and all who would call themselves their friends, to celebrate. There is every reason to feel uneasy as we pass from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut this year. But, in the end, I suggest we allow ourselves to get over that…and to join all people of good will everywhere in celebrating the independence of the Jewish State. If the State of Israel were an Israeli citizen, it would be gearing up to retire and access its pension at age sixty-eight. But that’s only how it works for people: the State itself at sixty-eight is just attaining the fullest flower of its potential—and that, surely, is something to celebrate with unconflicted emotion. May the Rock of Israel bless the State of Israel and ever keep it strong, safe, secure!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Yom Hashoah 2016

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you all about the sorites principle in philosophy that illustrates how things can be possible and impossible at the same time. The word sorites, the Greek word for “heap,” lends its name to the principle because Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, used the image of a heap of sand to illustrate the principle: no one would call one grain of sand a heap, nor is it possible that something as tiny and inconsequential as a grain of sand could possibly change a handful of such tiny grains into something as large and consequential as a heap…yet, if you slowly add one grain of sand after another, there logically must be a moment at which you actually do have a heap of sand in front of you. Logically, somewhere in the process there must have been one grain that made the difference, one gain of sand that somehow—and all by itself—turned a tiny mound into a heap. And that is how something can be possible and impossible at the same time.

But Eubilides’ principle works in reverse as well: if you start with a huge heap of sand and start slowly and methodically to remove grains of sand from it, there must be a specific moment in the process at which you suddenly don’t have a heap of sand in front of you…but that leaves you puzzling over the obvious question of how something as minuscule as a grain of sand can possible make that much difference? How could anyone even notice if a single grain were missing from a huge mountain of sand? And yet…it both has to be noticeable and also can’t possibly be noticeable, which leads to the same conclusion: that things can indeed be possible and not possible at the same time.

My mind wandered back to Eubilides on Yom Hashoah this year, the day the Jewish people sets aside to honor the martyrs of the Nazi Holocaust.  We, in our world, think of survivors as older people. And, indeed, they surely are: the camps were liberated seventy-one and seventy-two years ago, so thirteen-year-olds then would be eighty-five now. But, other than children in hiding, there were no thirteen-year-old survivors (or almost none). And that leaves us today with a survivor community mostly in its upper eighties and nineties.  We’ve gotten used to thinking of them that way…but it wasn’t always like that. They didn’t used to be this old. And they surely didn’t used to be this few. As many of you know, I grew up in Forest Hills, not fifteen miles from the home in which Joan and I live now. When I was a boy, Forest Hills was filled with survivors…but they weren’t octo- and nonagenarians: they were young men and women in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out how to construct new lives for themselves in a new place. All had suffered grievous losses. Some had lived through the murder of their entire first families. But there they were—and in huge, impressive numbers—trying their best to re-invent themselves, to learn to speak English well, to find jobs, to establish homes, to create families. This all made a huge impression on the young me. My own parents were Yankees, born and bred in these United States. But all around me I saw different kinds of Jewish people from many different places…and that sense that there was far more to this whole Jewish thing than the Hebrew-School-version of myself could imagine was, I think in retrospect, part of the set of influences that led me into my career and into my studies, and also into my life.

Not all refugees throve in their new homeland, of course. Nor did those survivors who settled elsewhere, even in Israel, all do uniformly well. If any of my readers haven’t read Amir Gutfreund’s remarkable novel, Our Holocaust, describing his life as a young man growing up in a town outside Haifa almost entirely settled by survivors, I can’t recommend it too highly. If you want to get what it means to have survived, that’s the place to start. (Gutfreund, one of Israel’s most talented authors, died tragically of cancer earlier this year at age fifty-three, but he left behind a body of work that would be impressive even for an author with decades longer to work.) Some of the people in his book do remarkably well, but others of his characters are lost to the world, stuck in an endless loop of misery and recrimination, unable to loose the shackles that others imposed on them and that they themselves seem unable to shake off entirely or, for some, even at all.  Some few in his book really are mad. But most are just regular people trying to find some comfort and pleasure in life even if it means facing down almost unimaginable trauma and simply refusing to surrender to it. I recommend the book to all very highly as a true tour de force, but the bottom line—both within Gutfreund’s book and outside its covers—is that even in Israel the number of survivors in our midst is dwindling.  And that thought—somehow both banal and chilling at the same time—is what I bought to Yom Hashoah this year along with a sense of marvel that these people exist at all, a sense of wonder at their achievements (and the unsettling questions regarding my own mettle that the contemplation of their lives inevitably stirs up in me), and a sense of abiding regret that future generations will know these people only from a distance—through their books and their Spielberg interviews, and through the stories they tell and to which we, even now, we avidly listen.
Earlier this year, on what would have been my own father’s 100th birthday, the world lost Samuel Willenberg, the sole remaining survivor of Treblinka.

The camps had certain underlying principles of brutality, barbarism, and depravity in common, but they differed dramatically one from the other in terms of their final chapters.  By the time the Germans had done their best to empty out Auschwitz as the Red Army advanced, for example, there were only 7,000 prisoners left in that place to liberate. By the time American forces reached Buchenwald, on the other hand, there were four times that many prisoners present. (The wrinkle in that detail is that about ten thousand of those who were liberated at Buchenwald had survived death marches to that place from Auschwitz and a handful of other camps.) The numbers in other places, however, were dramatically and tragically smaller. In Sobibor, for example, where over 170,000 people were mercilessly murdered, there were precisely fifty-eight survivors. The numbers in Treblinka were even more shocking: of the three-quarters of a million people murdered in that place, only sixty-seven are known to have survived and Samuel Willenberg was among of them. He was not, however, present gratefully to be liberated when the Red Army arrived because even more amazing than the fact that he survived at all is the fact that he survived by escaping the camp after the famous prisoner revolt in that place in the summer of 1943. His odds of survival were not good: of the 200 or so escapees, all but 67 were recaptured and summarily murdered. Making his story even more incredible, Willenberg survived even though he didn’t manage to escape Treblinka unharmed—he was shot in the leg as he leapt over the top of a barbed wire fence after climbing up a pile of unburied bodies temporarily stacked up against it and from there somehow catapulting himself over the top—but he did manage to get away.

Born in 1923 in Czestochowa, Poland, Willenberg was still a teenager when he was deported to Treblinka and became the sole survivor of the three transports that arrived at the camp that day, each of which included twenty packed cars of prisoners. (Even that part of the story is amazing—the Germans needed a bricklayer to help build something and, since that was the fictitious occupation he reported upon arrival, they took him onto the work force instead of killing him with all the other sixty boxcars full of innocents.) After his escape, he made his way through the forest and eventually came to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Home Army and spent the rest of the war fighting his personal war with the Germans with the Polish resistance. He participated personally in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then, after the war, emigrated to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv. He married and raised a family. And he wrote a book, Revolt in Treblinka, which, although not the sole book by someone who escaped Treblinka, is riveting and very worth reading. (For readers interested in the same story from a different vantage point, I recommend The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, originally written and published in Yiddish, but since 2012 available from Pegasus Books in English.)  And then, just this past February, Sam Willenberg died at age 93. He was the last living survivor of Treblinka.

I watched the survivors in our midst with some combination of awe and nervousness. They were many, it was true, but I knew what had happened—or I thought I did—to those who were not rebuilding their lives in Forest Hills because they and their families had ended their lives in execution pits and gas chambers. I took comfort in their numbers, however, telling myself that, had my family fallen into German hands during the war, we too surely would have been among the survivors. Weren’t we also living in Forest Hills, just like so many of them? I know better now—times six million—but back then, thinking the survivors to be rules rather than exceptions, I imagined us as some sort of honorary members of the survivor community nonetheless…and particularly once I learned the fate of the Jews of my great-grandparents’ shtetlach in Poland and Belarus. The indomitable spirit of the survivor community is what buoyed me as a boy…and what gave me the sense of self that, in some profound ways, I carry with me even today. And that is why the death of Sam Willenberg made such an impression on me. My children, of course, know many survivors. But their own children will know them only at a distance, and my children’s children…at even more distance than that.

Eubilides’ principle is at work here: the loss of one single survivor can’t logically make that much difference to the larger picture. How could it? And yet…somehow, as the years have passed, the picture has changed dramatically: where there was once a mountain, there was at first just a heap. But now that heap has itself diminished and will soon enough just be a collection of disparate grains of sand. And that makes it that much more important for those of us who knew and know these people, and who heard their stories firsthand—it is that much more crucial for us to make sure that their stories do not vanish with them…and that their personal testimony is not merely recorded, but cherished and made available to future generations.


We did our part at Shelter Rock this week, coming together to hear the testimony of a woman who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson, and who participated in one of the so-called “death marches” when the war was almost over and the Germans were eager to empty the camps of those they hadn’t managed to kill. We listened, recording the details we had mostly all heard before…but the point wasn’t that we learn this or that detail, but that the testimony itself be given, and that it be spoken and recorded. All that, we managed to accomplish. But how will future generations recreate the experience of actually knowing people who lost everything and yet who managed somehow to survive? That is the unsettling question that is left to churn and roil around within me as we move past Yom Hashoah this year, sixty-three years after it was inaugurated in Israel as a national and international day of remembrance and more than seventy years after the end of the war.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

O Ḥevruta O Mituta

A number of interesting scientific studies were reported on in the press this week.

It was just this week, for example, that Nicholas Bakalar wrote in the Times about a new study published in the journal Nutrients that proved definitively that overeating, and particularly the over-consumption of fats, leads to drowsiness. The study, undertaken at the University of Adelaide in Australia, considered 1,800 Australian men and took into account many different kinds of data (including the men’s eating patterns, their weight-gain and -loss statistics, their status as smokers or non-smokers, their predisposition to suffer from depression, their waist sizes, and their level of physical activity) to come to its riveting conclusion. The results were impressive by any yardstick, but they were particularly satisfying for me personally because, as it happens, I have been conducting a similar experiment over the last forty or so years and, although my test group was considerably smaller, my data—all of it, particularly when Joan wasn’t home, empirically gathered by myself—has led me to precisely the same conclusion as the one to which their study led them. I feel so validated! And I knew I wanted to share that with you as soon as I read about their study!  Vivat experimentiam scientia!
But the study that I wish to write to you about, published in the scientific journal Heart (the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society) and also reported on in this week’s Times, is more surprising and far more provocative. This was a dramatically larger undertaking, one that analyzed data culled from the medical records of over 180,000 men and women. It did not, however, involve the testing or observation of actual patients, but was rather a kind of giant meta-study that drew from twenty-three different anterior studies of patients in an attempt to answer a question that I never thought even to wonder about: whether social isolation and/or a personal sense of loneliness could possibly be a meaningful predictor of future coronary disease or of a future stroke.

Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing exactly. In terms of the study, the former term was used to denote adults who have few social relationships or friendships, while the latter was used to describe people who are basically unsatisfied and unhappy with the relationships they do have even if they are not few in number. There is something inherently quirky about a study like this because, there being no scientific way to test for either loneliness or a sense of being isolated, the patients under study were labelled with either or both those terms solely by virtue of their own self-definition: if patients qualified themselves as being among the lonely or the isolated, then they were considered to belong to that group for the purposes of the study. Their medical histories, on the other hand, were a matter of medical record: the researchers took no note of anecdotal evidence and depended instead solely on medical records or death certificates for the data regarding the subjects’ histories of heart attacks and strokes. So it was by its very nature a kind of a hybrid built on analyzable scientific data and patients’ own sense of their place in the world.

There was no divergence in the findings regarding men and women. That much was interesting without being particularly surprising, but the results were, at least to me personally, beyond arresting: self-defining as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%. The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.  It is true, I should note, that the researchers attached a caveat to the effect that it was a review of observational studies and did not scientifically establish a medically-verifiable link between loneliness or isolation on the one hand, and heart disease or stroke on the other. But the data speaks for itself in a matter like this so clearly that it’s hard—at least for a non-scientist like myself—to imagine that it could be a mere coincidence that patients across the board—men and women, old and young, healthy and infirm—who described themselves as lonely or socially isolated were dramatically more likely to suffer from heart disease, and that this increased susceptibility seemed unrelated to any other obvious factors that might otherwise have put them in some different category regarding their likelihood for future heart problems or stroke.

The researchers themselves saw it the same way. In fact, the opening line of the introduction to the study sums up in a particularly stark way the way the scientists who conducted the study came eventually to understand their own data: “Adults who have few social contacts (i.e., who are socially isolated) or feel unhappy about their social relationship (i.e., who are lonely),” they wrote starkly, “are at increased risk of premature mortality.” And not only is that risk real, they went on to note formally, but it is statistically and scientifically comparable with other, far more widely accepted predictors of future heart disease, notably carrying too much weight and engaging in too little physical activity. So that sounds pretty definitive to me: feeling friendless or forlorn is not only a heavy burden to shoulder emotionally and psychologically, but has profound potential implications for an individual’s heart health and longevity. There’s a folk saying preserved and labelled as such in the tractate of the Talmud we’ve just finished learning at Shelter Rock that reads o chavruta o mituta, which means “either friendship or death.” Patrick Henry may have felt that living not-free was the social or moral equivalent of being a dead person, but our ancients had a more practical, apparently more medically correct notion: that living friend-free and without the support of a warm, sustaining community is not merely comparable to not being alive at all, it actually leads, or can lead, to an early demise.

And that thought brings me to take issue with one of the most famous passages in the Haggadah. As you know, I’m usually a great one for maintaining a sense of ongoing fidelity to the traditional text of our prayers. In Tzur Yisrael, we maintained almost all the most traditional phraseology, altering the received text here and there only to accommodate realities which seemed strange or even wrong to ignore. And I feel the same way about the Haggadah—attempts to “fix” this or that passage so as to make it conform more obviously to modern sensitivities always seem to fall flat when I consider them closely and the traditional text is almost always the one that speaks to me the most clearly.

But arguing for a traditionalist approach to liturgy doesn’t mean that I invariably agree with what I read. And I find myself at odds with one of our most famous passages this week: the story of the four sons who relate to their parents’ efforts to celebrate Passover so differently. I know most seder-attendees know the passage by heart, but let’s revisit it just for a moment. The wise lad is the one who asks all the right questions and he is appropriately rewarded for his curiosity with warm approval. No issue there! The simple lad is the one who takes note of the festival but can barely bring himself to formulate a coherent question. His mah zot (“what is all this?”) couldn’t be less eloquent, but he too is somehow rewarded for even his minor level of inquisitiveness with an answer simple enough for anyone at anyone to understand. No issue there either! Moving along, even the child who lacks the wherewithal to ask any sort of question is treated kindly…but the contrary son, the rasha, who excludes himself from the group is not to be treated kindly at all. Instead, he to be dealt with contemptuously and taunted with the possibility that, having taken himself out of the group in his own day, he would surely not have been taken from Egypt had he been a slave there in ancient times. And this, from a book that makes a special point of saying that all Jewish people are called upon to imagine that they themselves were slaves in the land of Egypt and would still be there had God not brought them forth with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. All…but apparently not him!

That seems harsh to me. The lad is, after all, present at his parents’ seder table. He observes what’s going on around him. His question, particularly in the Hebrew, isn’t that different from the wise son’s…only he hasn’t come to the point just yet at which he feels that he belongs to the group. He’s present yet absent, involved yet aloof, included yet excluded, in yet out. In other words, he’s standing on the wrong side of the threshold looking in, and tradition has chosen to focus on the spot he’s standing on rather than the direction he’s looking in. In a perfect world of my own making, such a young person would be spoken to gently rather than harshly, kindly rather than with the kind of acidulous contempt that will only make him feel even less a part of the group he is being mocked for not feeling part of…or not enough part of. To shove him even further away seems cruel or, at the very least, counterproductive…and now I see that my sentiments are mirrored by scientific research: the strength of community is not only satisfying spiritually, but the sense of belonging that comes along with membership in any traditional Jewish community is actually something that can lead to a long life. To turn a child away because he’s not there yet is thus, at least potentially, to shorten his life. To turn any people away merely because they feel disengaged is, to say the least, counterproductive: the correct response to people who feel disengaged is to engage them as though their very lives depend on it, which they apparently do. O chavruta, o mituta indeed!

People occasionally tell me that they’re not sure about retaining their affiliation with the synagogue after their children are done with the Religious School and they’ve made all the bar- and bat-mitzvahs they’re going to make. There are several different ways that this thought is couched when it’s put to me, but my response is always the same: what you get by belonging to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists is that you get to belong to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists. The twin specters of loneliness and isolation will never haunt those who belong because the traditional Jewish community is designed specifically to guarantee that no one ever needs to feel abandoned or deserted. And because, ultimately, friendship is at the core of community and serves as its defining feature: family is blood, but community is amity. And that, it turns out, is not just important because it leads to warm, fuzzy feelings about the universe. It’s important because finding your place in a community of caring friends is one of the things that staves of heart attacks, angina, and strokes. I might have said that from the bimah in the past as a kind of rhetorical flourish intended poetically to tout the advantages of affiliation. But who knew it was scientifically true as well?  It turns out my mother was right—you really do learn something each and every day!


At Shelter Rock, we foster communal friendship as best we can and that, more than any specific service, is what we offer our membership: the chance to belong to the kind of thick community in which people are allied by a sense of familiarity and emotional intimacy, and in which no one ever needs to feel bereft or forsaken. I suppose that truth visits us all in different ways at different times of the year, but I myself feel it particularly in the course of our holidays when we gather in the great sanctuary of the synagogue for Yizkor and as a community find the courage and strength to face our own mortality by staring down the past and the future as one extended, caring family of friends. Yizkor is about our lost loved ones, obviously. But it’s also about the living, the people who have come to remember and to mourn. The antidote for the kind of sadness associated with grievous loss is not gain of any sort, but the strength of community and the support engendered by the sustaining relationships community by its nature fosters. The discovery that being part of that rich circle of friends and neighbors also apparently staves off heart disease, thus extended our lives meaningfully, only makes me feel prouder of my membership in our little shtetl, our village in which none needs to feel lonely and in which despondency brought on by social isolation is the fate of no one at all who wishes it otherwise.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach 2016

One of the mysteries of life I have yet to unravel is how I can read the same passage over and over and over, year after year, and still see things that I’ve never noticed before or thought carefully about. I had just such an experience the other day as I was preparing myself to lead the seder meals at our home on Friday and Saturday nights and thought I would share it with you, and what I now understand the passage in question to be saying, as my pre-Pesach message for this year.
If there’s one piece of our Jewish liturgical heritage I know well, it’s the Haggadah. I’m not sure I could write it all out from memory, but I surely could manage big chunks of it more or less correctly…and with good reason: I’ve been leading seders at our home for thirty-five years and listening to my father lead the seder in my parents’ home for more than a quarter century before that. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t paying that much attention when I was three. But by the time I was seven or eight, I was totally captivated. Admittedly, I was an unusual child in that regard. (I heard that! But I was a normal child in other ways, or normalish.) But it somehow spoke to me, the Haggadah and the seder and the whole Jewish thing as the eight-year-old me perceived it. And although I surely didn’t set out to memorize it, I did internalize it…to the point at which its cadences and vocabulary have not only become part of how I speak but also of how I see and understand the world.

The passage I want to write about today is probably one of the best known, one of the ones everybody sort of knows by heart: the opening paragraph of the part of the Magid section of the Haggadah that leads directly into the children’s famous four questions. Ha laḥma anya di akhalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim, we begin, lifting the plate of matzah aloft for all to say: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.” And then we go on to sing out the twin declarations that lend Pesach its air of generosity and relational inclusivity. The first one, the easy one, translates simply as “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That seems straightforward enough, but the second one is another story entirely. In the Haggadah we use, the red-and-yellow ones that linger on from my childhood (and which seem somehow to multiply in our Pesach cupboard from year to year), the second declaration is translated “All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.” But that’s not at all accurate, it suddenly strikes me. In fact, it’s not even close. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.

The second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, harks back to ancient times and was an invitation to any who had somehow not made their own plans to join some other family in their home and to share in that family’s paschal sacrifice. In ancient times, the hallmark of Passover observance was the korban pesach, the pascal lamb which was the sole sacrifice in ancient times eaten entirely by its sponsors. Nor was that a mere perk of the festival: one of the very first commandments of the Torah is precisely that every Israelite must eat the meat of the paschal lamb (or, at least theoretically, the paschal kid) on the first night of Pesach. And the lead-up is part of the mitzvah as well: the twelfth chapter of Exodus (which readers who were in synagogue a week ago for Shabbat Hachodesh heard read aloud as the maftir reading) offers a sense of the whole procedure: once the new moon of Nisan is sighted, the Israelites must make sure they are ready to select an unblemished yearling lamb on the tenth of the month, forming groups large enough to guarantee the feasibility of consuming the entire animal on the evening of Passover. The lamb or kid must then be kept safe until the fourteenth day of the Nisan, Erev Pesach, at which time it is to be slaughtered. It must then be flame-roasted. Care must be taken to make sure none of the animal’s bones is broken in the slaughtering or cooking process. And its flesh must then be eaten as soon as night falls and the festival formally commences.

Some of the instructions given the ancients on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt did not become rituals of subsequent Jewish life, but others did: in our day, we may not come to our seder tables with sandals on our feet and walking sticks in our hands, but the ancients did indeed eat their roast paschal lamb with matzah and maror, just as the Torah commands, and just as do we too…by making our Hillel sandwiches of matzah and horse radish and eating it just before the seder meal is served, the precise point in the evening when the korban pesach would have been served and eaten in Temple times.

But the whole scriptural insistence that people organize in advance into groups, called ḥavurot, was also part of the ritual in ancient times. More to the point, the law that the korban pesach may only be slaughtered specifically for those who have signed on as members of the ḥavurah sponsoring the sacrifice. And although a korban pesach that is sponsored by a sole individual (presumably one with a very robust appetite, a point Maimonides makes specifically in his code) is theoretically kosher, it is not the desired practice.

When seen in this light, the second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, is an example of Jewish people deviating from the strict interpretation of the law to do the right thing by the lonely shlimazel who somehow didn’t sign on to any ḥavurah, who didn’t have a family to have Pesach with (why else would such a person have been wandering around in the street waiting to hear the declaration sung out from within someone else’s home?), who somehow failed utterly to prepare for one of the most important festival meals, perhaps even the most important, and who therefore is reduced to hoping against hope that someone will offer a last-minute invitation to join in their korban. It’s not allowed, obviously. The law on that point is entirely clear, and it’s more or less the simple meaning of Scripture anyway: to participate, you had to be part of the specific ḥavurah on whose behalf the lamb was slaughtered. The Torah returns to this idea several times, in fact, thereby promoting it as a key concept. And yet the liturgist chooses simply to ignore that part of things and instead to imagine a Jewish family seated around their table and, blithely ignoring the letter of the law, simply inviting anyone who has no other place to go to participate in their seder, to ingest the requisite olive’s bulk of meat from their own korban, to be part of their family group.

How can I never have seen that? And yet I never have, never even noticed that there was an issue. Now, of course, I can’t turn away, can’t not see it staring up at me and challenging me with its slightly disorienting message that generosity, hospitality, kindness, and compassion must always be allowed to divert our attention from legal details that risk leading us in the precise opposite direction. Nor should this sound like permission to demonstrate allegiance to the covenant by ignoring its terms: embedded in kol di-tz’rikh is the liturgist’s unspoken supposition that, because God is the moral ground of the world, the proper observance of God’s law may by definition never lead us to behave cruelly or uncharitably to the needy or to feeling justified, let alone virtuous, in excluding those in our midst who have no place to go unless we find a place for them at our table. So, by turning away from a detail, we may well end up embracing the deeper, more profound principle of which the rule in question was intended all along to function as a mere elaboration, thus somehow enabling us to reach for a more profound understanding of what, at the end of the day, it actually means to live lives bound in covenant with God. Clearly, this is a principle easily abused. But that only makes it even more incumbent upon us to focus all religious observance through the triple prism of morality, generosity of spirit, and kindness.

This concept rests behind many issues facing our world as we prepare for Pesach this year, but one comes the most readily to mind. There are a million reasons to close our doors to refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. We don’t know who these people are, not really. There appears to be no ironclad way to vet them either, not one that we can be absolutely certain will weed out potential terrorists, radicals, or jihadists. These people have no experience as citizens of a democracy such as our own and may not naturally subscribe to the principles that undergird our republic. For all these reasons, it makes sense a hundred times over just to shut the gate and tell them to go home. Or anywhere they wish…as long as it’s not here. Nor is it at all fair or reasonable that we take more immigrants than the wealthy Gulf states like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or huge Islamic nations like Indonesia or Malaysia.

But I find myself unsure of myself.  Kol di-tz’rikh reminds me that I only exist at all because my grandparents and great-grandparents left Poland and came here decades before Polish Jewry was annihilated. In their day, there was no quota system. Instead, would-be immigrants simply set sail for Ellis Island, where they were cleared for entry once it was determined that they were in good (or good enough) health. And it reminds me, not of the mere 908 people on the St. Louis in 1939—or not just of them, but even more so of the countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who could have been saved if the nations that were prepared to go to war with Germany had been concomitantly ready to open their gates to those whom the Germans were attempting to exterminate. That goes for our nation, of course. But it applies to Canada as well, home of the famous “none is too many” policy regarding Jewish refugees. And it surely applies to the U.K, which nation, even when the dimensions of the disaster befalling the Jews of Europe were patently obvious to all, still kept the gates to British Palestine shut tight. I understand that we can’t go back to just letting in anyone who shows up and doesn’t seem too sick. But surely there must be some way to welcome people fleeing for their lives to these shores, to make them feel welcome, to teach them what it means to be an American, to embrace them as potential friends. These people are predisposed to be hostile to Israel, our most reliable ally in their own region of the world, because that venom has been pumped into them by their leaders for decades. But even that does not have to be the last word on the topic—if we, and I mean by “we” our American Jewish community—reach out warmly and genuinely, then we can save these people’s lives and make them into worthy citizens of our great land…and help them understand that the right of Israel to exist is no different than the right of any state to thrive in its own place and to provide the kind of safe haven for its own people that they themselves are seeking in the lands of their would-be dispersion. Nor is this a matter solely of political theory: five hundred would-be asylum-seekers drowned in the sea the other day on their way to anywhere at all that would take them in. A few months ago, eight hundred would-be refugees drowned off the coast of Libya. To nod to the tragedy and the look away because the deaths of terrified children at sea is technically not our problem to solve requires too radical a re-definition of the words “our problem” for me to countenance this close to hearing myself piously intone the kol di-tz’rikh on Friday and Saturday evenings.


There are other issues too to consider in this regard. I’ll write about them in future letters, both on the macro level and on the micro, communal level. But the bottom line is that devotion to the law becomes more fetishistic than productive when the details are allowed to trump the principles that undergird them and give them their stature as sacred law in the first place. At the end of the day, the kol di-tz’rikh isn’t there to prompt us to obsess about kitniyot, but to allow the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom inspire us truly to be raḥmanim b’nei raḥmanim, individuals whose worldview is fully suffused with compassion and generosity, and whose Pesach observance celebrates freedom…not just from slavery, but also from harshness, cruelty, and apathy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Beans

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about minor topics like politics, ethics, racism, and the unity of God, so I thought that the time really has come for me to address something of true moment: the burning question of whether Jews should or should not eat beans on Pesach. Nor am I alone in feeling this way about the matter: just last December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly—the most authoritative body of halakhic decisors in our Conservative movement—found the time to approve not one but two different responsa regarding the subject, one by David Golinkin and the other co-authored by Amy Levin and Avram I. Reisner. I don’t know Amy Levin personally, but I’ve known Rabbis Golinkin and Reisner for far longer than I didn’t know them…and I know how seriously they both take even the most minute questions that arise in Jewish law. I imagine Rabbi Levin feels the same way. And so do I: knowing full well that God lives in the details and always eager to feel the presence of the living God in my personal ambit, it seems—to say the least—counterproductive to avoid the very place where God is to be found the most perceptibly: in the details, including the most minute ones, of observance, of custom, and of law. Furthermore, as we all know (but sometimes act as though we didn’t), it isn’t actually possible to obey “the” law without obeying specific laws any more than it would be possible to speak in “language” without speaking in some specific tongue…and doing that requires familiarity with the rules that govern even the most apparently banal aspects of our everyday Jewish lives. And with that thought in mind, let’s bring on the beans.

And the rice as well. My grandmother would probably not have known the Hebrew word kitniyot, used generically by some speakers of Jewish American English to reference legumes of the specific variety that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally shun on Pesach, but she certainly would have known that Jews don’t eat rice on Passover. Or, at the very least, that Ashkenazic Jews don’t. (I doubt my grandma was much tuned into the distinctions of observance between different groups within the people Israel—for her and the rest of my family, “Jews” of the generic variety were the Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazic sort in more than plentiful evidence in her day in Brownsville. That there were other groups out there with their own ways and customs would, I imagine, have been known to her only in theory.) Nor would she have questioned the concept of not eating beans or rice on Pesach or been particularly impressed by the argument that there is something profoundly illogical about avoiding foods on Pesach that lack the capability, no matter how they are processed, of turning into chametz, the forbidden kind of leavened product the avoidance of which is the hallmark of traditional Pesach observance. Why would she have? Jews have hardly ever found illogic in and of itself to constitute a particularly vexatious stumbling block on the road to Jerusalem: we are, after all, a people that finds the act of sitting quietly and sewing to violate our conception of Sabbath rest, but not taking a three-mile trek through an ice storm to arrive in shul on a wintery Shabbos morning. So it’s illogical to avoid kitniyot on Pesach! So what?

I read both t’shuvot, both responsa, with great interest. They are of unequal length—Rabbi Golinkin’s effort is three time the length of Rabbi Reisner and Rabbi Levin’s—but come more or less to the same conclusion. Let me write about their argumentation first, though, and then I’ll tell you about their common conclusion and what I plan personally to do about it.

First of all, everybody notes forcefully that, from a strictly legal standpoint, only five kinds of grain—wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye—are in play at all at Pesach. It is only from one of those five grains, for example, that kosher matzah can be made for use on the festival. And it is only those five grains that, if not kept totally dry and then baked within minutes of being wet down as part of the kneading process, can turn into chametz, the generic name for leavened foodstuffs forbidden to the Israelites and their descendants on Passover. The Yerushalmi (that is, the Palestinian Talmud created in the Land of Israel in the course of the first five or so centuries of the Common Era) imagines this notion to be rooted in science and explains that the rationale behind the ruling is thus one of simple fact: these are the only grains that possess the ability to become chametz and it is for that sole reason that the prohibition applies solely to them. Whether that is true or not hardly matters, but what does count is that this restriction of the prohibition to bread made of the above-mentioned five grains is not merely a feature of talmudic reasoning, faulty or not, but a basic tenet of Jewish law it applies to Passover that appears in every major law code, including Maimonides’ magisterial Mishneh Torah (from which I teach on Saturday afternoons at the meal we serve between Minchah and Maariv), the Arbaah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (whose Torah commentary usually inspires my remarks at Shelter Rock on Friday evenings), and the Shulḥan Arukh itself, the bridge work created by Joseph Caro from his earlier commentary on Jacob ben Asher’s code that serves as the connector between medieval and modern Jewish law. So the matter sounds done and decided. There is, at any rate, no actual opposition in any code with which I am familiar to the idea that those five grains only can become chametz.

But nothing is ever that simple. And already in medieval times, different authors wrote positively about the concept of prohibiting kitniyot as well as “real” chametz on Passover. All try to come up with logical reasons to support the prohibition. Some note that the point was simply utilitarian: it was customary in one author’s day to make porridge out of rice or beans and to mix in wheat flour as a thickening agent, and since there was no way to tell just from looking at the porridge if that was or wasn’t the case, the more secure plan seemed simply to avoid that kind of porridge entirely. Others point out that it was actually customary in some locales to make bread out of pea meal or ground beans or rice…and it simply felt unseemly to have bread on the table during Passover even if it wasn’t chametz in the strict sense of the word. 

There’s something to consider there too, I think: it’s true that the prohibition has to do with leavened grain and not with bread per se, but it’s also true that, in a world without cellophane and plastic wrap, and also without pre-printed ingredient labels and brand names, it sounds like a poor idea to permit breadstuffs that no one can distinguish easily from “real” bread of the forbidden variety. And even if it were possible to tell what kind of flour was used to make a loaf of bread merely by looking at it, there is still something unseemly, even perhaps vulgar, about placing loaves of bread on the table during Passover even if they technically aren’t of the prohibited variety.

And from there we can go on to other authorities who either do or don’t feel that the prohibition is well-grounded or useful, but who felt simply that as custom as well-established as the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach cannot possibly be abrogated by one single rabbi but would have to be annulled, if it ever were to be, by the rabbinate of the day speaking as one. Since that never happened (nor, given the fractiousness and one-upmanship that characterizes rabbinic discourse in every setting and day, will it ever happen), we have no choice but to hold onto a widespread custom that has characterized Jewish life for centuries upon centuries.  That too sounds right to me.  Plus, we have a well-accepted and widely-invoked principle that minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, that the customs of our ancestors have been entrusted to us for safekeeping, and may therefore not be abandoned merely because they seem to have outlived their usefulness.

In the other column, we have all the reasons adduced by the authors of the new CJLS responsa mentioned above for abandoning the prohibition anyway, none of which strikes me as particularly convincing. Yes, vegetarians eat a lot of beans and so the prohibition of kitniyot rests unevenly on the shoulders of observant Jewish people taken as an aggregate. And it is probably also true that permitting kitniyot would permit people—or at least people who like to cook and who are good at it—to avoid pre-packaged Passover foods often sold to the public in the weeks before the festival at unconscionably high prices. But do we really think that people who buy packages of pre-prepared Pesach lasagna are going to decide to forego the expense merely because they could make a fava bean casserole for themselves instead? What if they like lasagna?
Moving down the list of reasons to permit, I agree that it surely is a fact—and an incontrovertible one at that—that many who hold tightly onto this and many analogous prohibitions do so not out of principle or logic but merely out of a basic fear of innovation when matters are ritual are concerned. Surely, innovation is a good thing…and particularly when it is principled and based on unassailable logic. And yet…part of the whole Pesach experience is the sense of keeping faith with the past, of recreating the past in the present, of inviting the spirits of those long gone from this earth into our homes as we do as they did, as we recreate the world they knew from inside their homes without caring that the world outside the walls of those homes has changed almost unrecognizably in the intervening centuries.

And it’s that specific notion, that the outside changes endlessly, but the inside—the warm, nurturing, endlessly spiritually rich home life of the men and women of the House of Israel—remains inviolate and unchanging, that speaks the most clearly and compellingly to me. The bottom line, then, is that I find the arguments for abandoning the custom unconvincing and unpersuasive, and so I am not planning to eat beans or rice—or any kitniyot—this Pesach.

On the other hand, I am pleased to remind you it has never been our custom to avoid kitniyot derivatives like oil made from legumes nor to avoid eating on dishes on which kitniyot have been served. Nor would anyone at all conversant with the halakhah ever argue that people who eat kitniyot on Pesach are transgressing any sort of biblical or rabbinic commandment.  There is no question that kitniyot are irrationally prohibited by Ashkenazic custom. But I embrace my role as the descendant of my own ancestors and find myself strangely uninterested in breaking with their pattern of observance merely to suit my own convenience.


As noted, I will not be eating rice this Pesach. But neither will I pretend that this CJLS-approved responsum does not grant legitimacy to the arguments against retaining the prohibition. Many of my readers know that I tend to find the maintenance of traditional mores and habits to constitute its own reward. To have a home in which my own grandmother would not feel comfortable eating on Pesach does not suit me at all! And neither does the fact that all my ancestors, including my parent and grandparents, are long gone from this world seem that crucial a datum to consider in this regard. So they’re gone…that only makes it illogical to maintain their standard of observance, not foolish. And, as noted, I can live with a bit of illogic if that’s what it takes to keep faith with all those countless ancestors whose presence I feel weighing down on me at Yizkor and whom I really would like, were it only possible, to invite in for a meal…and particularly for a seder.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Tale of Two Jonathans

I wrote last week about the degree to which Donald Trump reminded me of Andrew Jackson when I heard him (Trump, not Jackson) speak at AIPAC a few weeks ago. Today, I’d like to further hone the skill of finding traces of the imagined future in the recollected past with respect to Jonathan Edwards, a far less well-known personality but in his own way just as pivotal a one. I hadn’t thought of him or read any of his work in a long time. And then something J.J. Goldberg, of all people, said at the rabbis’ luncheon at AIPAC rang a distant bell with me, one it took me a few days to identify correctly.

J. J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, is not someone who immediately brings eighteenth-century Congregationalist clerics to mind. Nor did his topic at the luncheon, at which he shared the podium with Bret Stephens, formerly the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post and now a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, have anything to do with theology per se, Jewish or Christian. Instead, this being an AIPAC forum, he chose to speak about the error he believes we all make in assuming that the relatively unimpressive level of support for Israel we see among today’s Jewish college students is a function of their displeasure with this or that one of Israel’s policies. (Goldberg was speaking about college students, but the problem is hardly a feature solely of campus life: the Jewish blogosphere has long been grappling with the same issue as it applies across the board more broadly to our American Jewish community in general, Elliot Abram’s essay, “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” published earlier this week in the online magazine Mosaic only being the latest in a long series of essays on the topic, albeit a particularly interesting and intelligent one. But there have been many others too, some insightful, some provocative, some too partisan to be useful to any who don’t already share their authors’ opinions. If you are reading this electronically, click here to see what Abram had to say.)

Goldberg, however, was talking about Jews on campus. And his sense is that the responsibility, or at least the lion’s share of it, for declining levels of support for Israel among our young people rests with the older generation, their parents, who somehow expected them magically to embrace Zionism but who failed to create the context in which that kind of bedrock-level, gut-based solidarity with Israel takes root and, if properly watered, flourishes naturally. In other words, we—and I speak here as a member of my own generation—we have forgotten that the soil in which Jewish identification—and a sense of solidarity with other Jewish people and particularly with the Land of Israel—the sole soil in which that kind of commitment to personal identity flourishes is Judaism itself. The annual AIPAC Policy Conference is the largest annual gathering of Jewish people outside of Israel. Eighteen thousand delegates attended this year, and more than ten thousand of them were there because they were part of synagogue delegations, which is to say that they were there because their sense of personal responsibility for securing the future of the Jewish State is related directly to their devotion to their faith and its rituals and its festivals. But when our children suddenly find themselves in the overtly hostile environments that prevail in so many of our college campuses, settings in which anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism flourish because the administrators of those schools are concerned with every conceivable kind of prejudice except the kind directed against Jews, they lack the basic orientation towards Judaism itself that leads directly, and almost inexorably, to a deeply felt sense of dedication and personal responsibility for Jews everywhere…but particularly in Israel, where the Jewish population is regularly threatened with annihilation by large, powerful enemies like Iran. (That dismal description of our nation’s college campuses, by the way, is hardly my own observation but comes directly from the pen of Lawrence H. Summers, the president emeritus of Harvard University, writing in a blog on the Washington Post website. Click here and prepare to be seriously depressed.)

Bret Stephens agreed with most of these points, but it was J.J. Goldberg that made the stronger impression, at least on me personally, but arguing the point that, if we have failed to create a generation of millennials who feel personally aggressed against when the State of Israel is attacked, it isn’t because of whom the Prime Minister is at the moment or his party affiliation or any of his policies, but rather because we’ve failed to raise up a generation of Jews committed, not to Zionism, but to Judaism itself. In other words, both speakers—both possessed of dynamic, insightful intellects—were in easy agreement that what we’ve failed to do is to make the whole issue personal, to make it clear to the up-and-coming generation that this is not about Israel but about them, that enemies of Israel are their personal enemies, that we fool ourselves when we embrace the fantasy that we can make common cause with our enemies and not eventually be their victims anyway, that our behavior when the historical link between the People Israel and the Land of Israel is questioned or mocked is not a matter of personal political orientation, but part of a cosmic drama that has been unfolding since Israel stood at Sinai and accepted the burden of an eternal covenantal relationship with God on its recently enslaved shoulders.

And that brings me to Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps you can remember learning about him in eleventh grade. Perhaps not. By today’s standard, he lived a short life—born in 1703 and ordained (like myself) at age 24, he was a working clergyman for most his life, then president of the school that would eventually be called Princeton University for about five weeks before he died in 1758—but his influence was so great in his day that the great religious revival of his day, called The First Great Awakening by scholars of religion, can reasonably be said to be a national response to his preaching and writing(Other central figures were George Whitefield and Samuel Davies. But Edwards is the one whose works are still read.)

His most famous sermon, published in his day as an independent pamphlet and later in many collections of his writings, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” an elaborate midrash on the words le’eit tamut raglam (“their foot shall slip in due time”) taken from the Haazinu poem that appears in Deuteronomy almost at the very end of the Torah as Moses’s final effort to wax poetic before composing his final blessings and then climbing the mountain to his private death. It had been a while. I hadn’t really dipped into Edwards work since I read several of his sermons and his book the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue at Ramah Canada the summer I met Joan. But somehow it was the opening passage of that one sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that J.J. Goldberg’s remarks nevertheless awakened in me when I heard him speak at AIPAC.

Even though I doubt he could ever actually have met a Jewish person, Edwards begins by talking about the nature of the Jewish people. (The earliest mention of there being a Jew in Massachusetts, where Edwards lived for almost all of his adult life, dates back to 1649, but the first real Jewish communities in the Commonwealth were only established during the Revolutionary War decades after he died.) His understanding of Israel must therefore purely have been based on the Bible and on his intuitive sense of what it ever could mean to belong to God’s chosen people. On top of that, he obviously read his Scripture through the lens of Protestant Christianity. But he still got things pretty straight, particularly for someone of his time and place.

He begins by noting that the Jewish people, by virtue of the intimacy that inheres in its covenantal relationship with God, is always on the brink of destruction just “as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall.” (That is, after all, precisely what Scripture says in the verse Edwards chose as the title of his sermon.) Nor is this accidental or unearned: for Edwards, the natural situation of the Jewish people is precariousness itself. And then he moves forward with this idea that living on the edge of a sword is Israel’s natural condition, noting that Israel is “always exposed to sudden, unexpected destruction,” precisely because that kind of danger results from being the focus of God’s watchful gaze not unlike the way parents are always far more concerned with—and eager to respond to—their own children’s behavior than with other people’s. Nor will this precariousness always be the result of hostility on the part of others. Implied by the very nature of Jewishness is that the Jews “are liable to fall of themselves without being thrown down by the hand of another, just as he who walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.”  In other words, Edwards understands Israel to stand or slip, to thrive or decline, to flourish or perish, not primarily because of the machinations of others, including even Israel’s most violent, angriest foes, but because of their own inability to hew to the core concepts of Israelite faith, to embrace the commandments, to live lives of unremitting fealty to the terms of the covenant that binds them to God.

It only follows, then, that to prepare our young people to feel as personally and emotionally committed to the security and well-being of the Jewish state as their parents will have to involve commitment not to the Prime Minister of Israel, whoever he or she might be at any given moment, or to some leftist or rightist philosophy of political Zionism, but to Jewishness itself…and particularly to Judaism. By missing that point—and by deluding ourselves into thinking that we can transmit Jewish values without anchoring them in religion—we do our children (and, by extension, their children and their children’s children) a huge disservice.

Edwards, preaching in church, clearly understood the ancient Israelites to the be spiritual forebears of his own co-religionists far more meaningfully than of the world’s actual Jewish people. That much he makes clear as he moves forward with his remarks and it is there that we part company: for me, nothing could possibly be more axiomatic than the notion that today’s Jews are the spiritual descendants of their own ancestors. But before we part company on that point, Edward’s lesson is compelling, even to the point of being chastening. The world’s nations will be judged based on the way they relate to Israel. Individual Israelites need to accept the precariousness that inheres in membership in the House of Israel as their normal situation, together with all that suggests about the “real” nature of anti-Semitism. It is not possible to go to war with Israel without concomitantly going to war with the God of Israel…and any who forget that do so at their own peril. And that the ultimate weapon Jewish people have to protect themselves and their interests is to embrace the faith of their ancestors with all possible exactitude.

J.J. Goldberg said something like that at AIPAC and it inspired me to hear him say it. That it somehow brought to mind the words of a Puritan minister who lived more than 250 years ago probably says more about me than about either of these Jonathans, Goldberg or Edwards. But the notion that the way to secure future support for the State of Israel among the college-age offspring of the men and women of the House of Israel is to strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself—that notion resonates strongly with me and reminds me why it is I chose this particular path in life that I pursue…and why, even after all these years, I continue to think of my life in the pulpit as the m’lekhet ha-kodesh—the holy work—to which I was and continue to feel called personally.