Thursday, August 25, 2016

At Home and Abroad

Where does the self reside, that fully unique, private, idiosyncratic part of ourselves housed in, but wholly distinct from, our physical bodies? It sounds like the kind of question only an undergraduate could ask, let alone attempt to answer…but it’s nevertheless one I’d like to pose this week. And answer as well, if not definitively then at least with reference to some of my experiences this summer in Israel.

Some readers will surely have read earlier this summer about the wedding of Jeni Stepien and Paul Maenner, who were married on August 5 in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, a borough in Allegheny County just east of Pittsburgh. The wedding could have been, as weddings go, ordinary…but several factors made it remarkable. The first, the dour one, is that the bride’s father, a chef, was murdered one evening in 2006 as he walked home from work in a local restaurant. For a brief while, the family harbored some home that he might survive. But then he died of his wounds and, as a final, graceful gesture of letting-go, Michael Stepien’s family donated his organs, including his heart, to donors across the country waiting for transplants. A police investigation ensued. It took almost two years, but eventually an arrest was made. A trial followed that ended with the conviction of the accused, one Leslie L. Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Later, in accordance with a decision of the Supreme Court curtailing the right of lower courts to impose that specific sentence on convicted defendants who were minors at the time their crimes were committed, the sentence was altered to forty-years-to-life, plus a three-to-six-year consecutive term resulting from the defendant’s conviction on a firearms charge. The murderer was sixteen in 2006, eighteen when he was finally arrested, and nineteen when he was convicted; his victim was fifty-three. Both, coincidentally, were the fathers of two.

And that brings me to the second reason the wedding was remarkable. The bride, missing her father more than ever as she prepared to walk down the aisle without him, hit on the idea of inviting the man who received her father’s heart to accompany her instead. She knew his name—the specific organization that dealt with the donation and distribution of his organs allows donors and recipients to know each other’s identities and to establish some sort of relationship if they wish—but they hadn’t ever met in person. And so, not knowing how he would respond, she sent him an invitation. He accepted. It wasn’t too long a journey—Arthur Thomas, the man in whose chest now and for the last decade beats the heart that was originally the bride’s father’s, lives only one state over, in New Jersey—but it still can’t have been the simplest decision for him to make, and for lots of different reasons. But make it he did. And now we can fast-forward to the wedding and…there he is, standing next to the bride when she suddenly pauses halfway down the aisle to place her hand on his chest and thus to feel, if not exactly her father’s beating heart, then at least her father’s heart beating. I feel very moved by that image just writing this out—I can hardly imagine what it must have been like actually to be there and watch her place her hand on this stranger’s chest and sense her father’s nearness on her wedding day. What fatherless bride wouldn’t wish for the same thing?

Was Michael Stepien really there on his daughter’s wedding day? Surely none of us thinks deceased organ donors remain in some obscure way alive for as long as their donated organs function, much less that the people who receive those organs somehow, in some magical way, become—in addition to who they already are—some version also of the people whose organs they’ve received! And, yet, to dismiss her gesture as mere symbolism, as just a gesture of remembrance that effectively created the false but satisfying sense that her father was nearby when, of course, he was not there at all—that doesn’t feel quite right either. We all understand that the heart is the organ in our chests that pumps blood into our circulatory systems, not the seat of emotion or intelligence as which we regularly reference it in common speech: when lovers declare that they love each other with all their hearts, we understand well enough what they mean…but none of us thinks that their hearts are actually capable of loving independently of their brains…or, speaking honestly, at all. The heart is a muscle, a pump, a machine…not the seat of personality. But if the heart is not the seat of personhood, then where does the part of us that is who we truly and uniquely are, where does it reside? That’s the question!

I found myself thinking about these matters repeatedly as I wandered around Jerusalem this summer and marveled at how at home I somehow feel in a place that isn’t really home at all. Some few of you reading this have actually visited with us on Gad Tedeschi Street. But even without having had the actual experience of spending time with us in Jerusalem, all of my readers know how deeply connected we are to that place and how emotionally tied to it we are. Occasionally, people ask which is the “real” me, the one who lives here and vacations there or the one whose home is there and who works here? It’s a confusing question even to formulate, let alone honestly to answer. I’m not even entirely sure it makes sense even ask why the inner me needs to reside anywhere at all other than, like salt in a stew, invisibly but fully really within the confines of my physical perimeter. Don’t what-I-am and who-I-am have almost by definition to occupy the same space, thus to coincide neatly with where-I-am?

It’s me when I’m there, obviously. But it’s a slightly different version of me. In Jerusalem, I live in a different home. I drive a different car. I daven in a different shul. I have a different phone number (and, until we finally bought our own SIM cards this last year, a different phone as well). Indeed, not unlike an actor who looks like a different person in every show in which he is cast but who, beneath all that make-up and costuming, is essentially and always the same person, I too am the same person wherever I find myself. And so the answer is not that one is the more real me and the other, the less real version…because the true me is exactly the same in both places, maybe just dressed up a bit differently to suit the setting.

But for all it’s surely so that it’s me in both places, there is a dimension to life in Jerusalem that feels unique when I’m present in that place. I notice it in different ways. I sleep soundly there, and I have long, elaborate dreams that I can remember upon awakening with far greater frequency than I can here at home. I daven differently there too…finding different sections of the t’fillah to speak to me in different ways. Because the custom in Jerusalem is for kohanim to pronounce the Priestly Benediction with their arms aloft daily (and twice on Shabbat and chag, as opposed to only on weekday holidays as is our custom in the Diaspora), I feel a connection to my own ancestors—and to their specific stream within the larger river of Jewish consciousness that leads from history through reality to destiny—in a different, uniquely deep way. It’s me in both places. But there is a level of enhanced sensitivity to almost every aspect of my Jewishness in the Holy City that is hard to describe in mere words.

The other question we’re constantly asked—whether we intend eventually to leave North America and settle permanently in Israel—is also a question with no answer.  Like everyone, we have invented our own lives…and have dealt ourselves the cards we hold. When I’m there, part of me misses our “real” home on Reed Drive and our friends and our community. When I’m here, part of me misses the whole scene we by now slip into more and more effortlessly upon arrival. And yet I’m more of here than of there, in many ways more at home at H-Mart than at Supersol-Deal, more (and far more) rooted in the soil of the land I actually was born in than the one I could, in some alternate universe, have been born in had my great-grandparents headed east instead of west on their way out of Poland and Belarus.

It’s good to be home. I fall easily into my familiar ways here, reconnecting with the world that is our native setting here, slipping into patterns honed over years of service to the Jewish people and, more specifically, to Shelter Rock.  The real me is the only me there is: a man at home in two different places, whose Jewishness is rooted both in the diasporan experience and in the soil of Eretz Yisrael, whose sense of purpose derives alternately from the propagation of Judaism and Jewishness in the context of service to a community of like-minded fellow travelers eager to live rich, sustaining, profoundly Jewish lives and from a vibrant, meaningful connection to the Holy Land and the Holy City.

In the end, I’m a stew of many ingredients that combine to create the specific individual who I have willed myself to become. Being made of many things is not a sign of confusion or of indecision, however, as much as it is the natural human condition and, at that, the specific aspect of our humanity that reflects the one great thing that distinguishes humankind from the animal kingdom: the ability we all share to perceive the world and then to self-create along the landscape thus fashioned.


The bride in my opening story who felt her father’s presence as she put her hand to that stranger’s chest was not succumbing to self-serving fantasy…because the heart is as good a symbol as any for the constellation of attributes that create the individual. Her father was there because she willed his presence into being with her hand and her own beating heart…just as we all create ourselves through the sheer force of our desire to exist in the world along the lines we will into existence. And that’s my story as well: I am who I am because of my roots and because of my branches, because of what I do and what I am, and because of the specific feel to the settings in which I choose to flourish…and, for as long as I can, in which I hope to grow forward creatively and productively into the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Return to Alonei Yitzchak

Now that we’re back in the States, our whole time in Israel seems to me like a dream. But it wasn’t a dream, of course, just five restorative, relaxing, productive weeks in Jerusalem that went by all too quickly!

Over the year’s we’ve gotten used to some aspects of life in Israel—it no longer seems that odd to me, for example, when the plumber pauses in the middle of fixing the shower drain to tell you the story of his parents’ aliyah—and less used to others. (I still can’t quite figure out exactly why property has to be registered by its owners in twelve different registries, including one that even our lawyer says only exists in Israeli law as a relic of the Ottoman Empire and on the crucial nature of which the non-existence of the actual Ottoman Empire does not seem even slightly to impinge.) And whatever Israel lacks—it’s almost impossible, for some reason, to find a lime for sale in the nation’s supermarkets or a can of black beans—it more than makes up for with all the things you really cannot find anywhere else: shops in the shuk that only sell halvah, health clubs that open on Tisha Be’av afternoon but with the usual deafening music turned off out of respect for the fast, restaurants with one single main dish on the menu and people lined up around the block to get in, and more guns than I’ve ever seen anywhere in public (including, occasionally, in synagogue on Shabbat) combined with a murder rate lower than a full 117 of the world’s other nations. (Do I have to add: “including our own”?) It’s that kind of place.

I feel safe and secure in Israel. Contrary to the image of Israel constantly being broadcast by the news media in this country, the streets are filled with people out and about, the cafés are filled with people drinking coffee and watching the world go by, the shopping malls are filled with shoppers (including, at least in our neighborhood and also completely contrary to what the news media would want you to think, lots of Arab families shopping alongside Jewish families), and the synagogues—or at least the synagogues Joan and I frequent—are filled with an interesting mix of types who seem not to have heard about the much-discussed chasm between the religious and the secular in Israeli society and who are content to be themselves and to seek spiritual fulfillment where it might be found…and not according to some pre-ordained labeling plan devised by sociologists or, worse, the authors of op-ed pieces.

I want to return to the events of this summer several times in my letters over the next few months, but today, to inaugurate my tenth year of writing these weekly letters, I’d like to tell you all about a single afternoon we had in Israel a few weeks ago, one that stays with me still and was both remarkable, deeply satisfying…and as strange an experience as I’ve had in a long time.

When I was thirteen years old, my parents sent me to Israel for the first time. It was a long time ago. I hadn’t ever been on an airplane. I hadn’t ever been to another country, let alone one on the other side of the world. I certainly hadn’t ever left my parents other than to go to summer camp…and the camp I attended as a boy was owned by the best friends of my father’s oldest sister which meant that I wasn’t too far from their watchful gaze even in camp, or at least from their watchful gaze by proxy. And the decision itself to send me along to Israel with the American Zionist Youth Foundation, defunct since 1995 but in its day the major organizer of youth trips to Israel, was unexpected for another reason as well because my parents, Jewish to the core, were at best arm-chair Zionists who themselves hadn’t ever been to Israel. And, on top of all that, my parents were slightly over-protective types…and particularly when it came to matters concerning their only child, which led to the strange paradox of them being willing to send me off to Israel with the AZYF before they felt comfortable letting me take the subway into Manhattan by myself. But somehow it all came together and off I went.

The cost was $700 for seven weeks including airfare. Since camp in those days was $500 for eight weeks, the experience cost significantly more than another summer at camp would have. And yet my folks seemed not to care about that at all, only that I have this specific experience they for some unspecified reason wished me to have. And so off I went with a suitcase filled with all the wrong clothing (my parents seems to have missed the part about it never raining in Israel in the summer, nor about the temperature not really ever dropping down below freezing during August); an envelope filled with lirot purchased by my mother at the Bank Leumi on Queens Blvd. for me to spend on snacks and souvenirs; and, because it was, after all, Israel, a single yarmulke for me to wear if unexpectedly obliged to cover my head somewhere along the way.

We were lodged at a youth village called Alonei Yitzchak adjacent to Givat Ada, not far from Binyamina, Pardes Chanah, or Zikhron Yaakov. The program was far more like camp than the kind of tours kids go on today: we spent most of most of our days in our village, having classes in the morning and swimming or hiking in the afternoon. A few times a week we went on tiyyulim to different parts of the country, which part of the experience culminated in a three-day trip to Jerusalem. This was, of course, the bad old days. Jerusalem was a divided city. The Old City, the meat-and-potatoes of any tiyyul to Jerusalem today, was in a different country…and the Jordanian soldiers easily visible through the Mandelbaum Gate at the end of Shmuel Hanavi Street did not look at all friendly as we peered through the barricade and attempted to photograph them with our Kodak Instamatic 100s. Nor was this the Israel of today. Significant numbers of the amenities I had come to think of as normal parts of life—televisions in every home, public telephones that worked more or else always, free toilet paper in public restrooms—were not much in evidence. You could only phone home from a post office. Smaller roads, including the one that led from Givat Ada to Alonei Yitzchak, were unpaved. And yet I loved the whole thing. The pioneering spirit was alive and very well in our village. The landscape, the food, the laissez-faire attitude of our counselors (who slept apart in their own cabin, leaving the boys’ dorm solely to us boys after lights-out), the whole Jewish feel to the place (so unlike what I had previously encountered at home or in shul)—I loved the whole thing. And it altered my life, that summer: in a very real way, my journey through adolescence to the specific version of adulthood I ended up adopting as my own—that journey began that summer at Alonei Yitzchak.

I left at the end of August in 1966. I’ve never gone back…not because I couldn’t have figured out how to get there, but because the place itself somehow came to exist—for me personally, at least—on the cusp of memory somewhere across the insubstantial boundary between recollection and reality. I remembered the place clearly. I returned to it a million times over the years as something brought to mind some aspect of life at Alonei Yitzchak…but only in my mind, only as a journey through my own recollective consciousness to some shore beyond an uncrossable sea, not as an actual journey to an actual place.

And now this summer’s story begins. Joan and I were having lunch with our cousins Lionel and Joyce in Zikhron Yaakov. It was a hot day, but there was a nice breeze and I was fully relaxed as it somehow came to me that Alonei Yitzchak must be somewhere nearby. (I once wrote to you all about the strange experience I had coming to realize that my great-grandparents’ shtetl actually exists as a real place in today’s Poland, that it has a website and a football team, that you can actually go there. This was something like that. Click here to revisit that piece from 2009.) I took out my phone, opened Waze, and was amazed—truly amazed, as odd as that must sound—to learn that Alonei Yitzchak was all of eighteen kilometers from where we were sitting. We got in the car—our cousins are very good sports (plus it was our car) and Joan was intrigued—and off we went. Twenty minutes later, we were there.

I got out of the car and approached the guard. (There certainly wasn’t an eight-foot-high retractable gate when I was last there; I don’t actually recall there being a gate at all.) He asked what I wanted. I, slightly flummoxed, told him I had spent a summer there fifty years earlier and was hoping I could look around a bit. Unsure how to deal with someone who wanted to walk back into the place after being absent for half a century, the guard phoned the director, a young man named Yaakov who showed up after a few minutes and unexpectedly enthusiastically took us all inside. The place was mostly unchanged. The foliage was the same, including the peculiar (but not at all unpleasant) scent of the place that I suddenly recalled after all those years away. There had been improvements, obviously: a much nicer pool, a huge dining hall far larger than the one I recalled, many more cabins and bunks than were there in 1966. But, in every essential way, the place was the same as it was when I left. I eventually found my bunk, still standing (like myself) after all these years. As I approached that part of the place, I kept noticing boy-me slipping around the corner each time grown-up-man-me tried to turn around quickly enough to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the past. Whether or not he was consciously allowing me to see him at all, I can’t say. But he was there—not my ghost exactly or some spectral version of myself, but the boy-version of the man-version both present enough in the same place for long enough to make reasonable communion on some possible/impossible level outside the normal flow of moments. And then it was over. I stepped out of the twilight zone, rejoined Joan and our cousins, got in the car and drove back to Jerusalem. It was, to say the very least, a strange experience.

The rings of wood that date back to an old tree’s earliest years are right there beneath the bark and blea, invisible to outside observers but nonetheless fully present. Archeologists make their living recovering the artifacts of ancient civilizations lying beneath the sand and soil of the places in which they once flourished. But what becomes of the children we once were? Are they in there somewhere, like the rings of a tree or the clay vessels embedded deep within the tell? Or do they exist only within the barely-real realm of memory itself, the phantom landscape this side of the Lethe that only exists—to the extent it exists at all—within the mind? The boy I kept catching glimpses of at Alonei Yitzchak was clearly real…but what exactly even I myself mean by that thought is hard to say. I suppose he was as real as I myself am: a function of my conscious will to exist only tangentially related to the need for physical things to exist in physical space. All I can say with certainty is that boy-me was there no less really than man-me was. The whole experience, even with several sightings taken together, lasted seconds. The whole visit to Alonei Yitzchak was less than an hour. Less than five hours after we paid the bill at lunch, we were back in Jerusalem.


In one of his greatest stories, Hermann Hesse noted that youth is a place out from which lead only one-way streets. I first read that story in college—Hesse wrote in exceptionally clear, precise German tailor-made for people learning the language—and have forgotten most of the details. But that line stays with me still, and it was in my mind as we drove back to Jerusalem and, almost for the first time, it struck me that there might be more to Hesse’s story—and specifically to that single line in his story—than I thought when I first encountered it in college. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Looking Back and Ahead

One of the books I’m planning to read this summer is Chuck Klosterman’s book, But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, published earlier this month by the Blue Rider Press, a Penguin imprint. (Klosterman, whose work appears regularly in Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, is best known for his acerbic essays evaluating pop culture and modern mores. His books Eating the Dinosaur and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs will be familiar to at least some, I’m sure.)  I bought the book because its slightly outrageous theme—how our world will appear to people attempting to evaluate and explain it five hundred years into the future—called out to me. What he has to say, I’ll find out soon enough. But I thought that I’d take my leave of you all for the summer by answering the question, or attempting to answer it, first on my own.

To begin to wonder how we will seem to people in the distant future—in the first weeks of summer in 2516, say—we would probably do best to think for a long moment about how people five hundred years in our past seem to us. 1516 was a long time ago. And I find myself able, therefore, to make its events sound distant and wholly unfamiliar. But I can also make the year 1516 sound fully familiar and recognizable….and I find myself able to do both those things on the transnational level and on the level of the individual.

On the global level, I could, for example, describe a world that has nothing at all to do with our own, a world of treaties no one’s ever heard of (the 1516 Treaty of Noyon, for example, in which France—to our thinking oddly—granted hegemony over Naples to Spain in exchange for Spain recognizing France’s claim to Milan, or the Treaty of Brussels, signed that same year, that established peace between France and the Holy Roman Empire) and battles like the Battle of Younus Khan that are obscure today even to relatively astute students of world history. But I can also describe the world of 1516 in a way that will be strangely familiar: that year half a millennium ago featured a Middle East in turmoil (the Battle of Younus Khan, fought near Gaza City, was basically fought between the Turks and the Egyptians to see who would be the dominant force in the region), Europe in endless agony over the degree to which its nations wished to be each other’s allies (the Treaty of Brussels, also mentioned above, was at least in part about the degree to which the nations of Western Europe could function as partners and peaceful neighbors), countries vying with each other to do business in ever-increasing volume with China (Rafael Perestrello, a cousin of Mrs. Christopher Columbus, became the first European to arrive by sea in mainland China for the purpose of developing trade relations in 1516), and Europeans being somehow able to integrate republican ideals with vicious anti-Semitism (the Jews of Venice were forced from their homes into a ghetto, Europe’s first, in 1516 as well). Putting it that way, the world of 1516 doesn’t sound so foreign, does it?

And that dual way of looking at the past that works on the macro level works just as well on the personal level.  The world in 1516 was wholly alien from the one in which we live…but only in a certain sense. There were, obviously, no cars, no trains, no electric lights, no internet, no television (even not cable), no recorded anything, no computers, no nukes, no e-books, no telephones, and no cellophane. I could make a much longer list of things too we take for granted that were unknown in the sixteenth century, but that’s only one way to think about life five hundred years ago….and in a different sense life was not at all that different from life today. Young people grew up and fell in love. Parents struggled over the right way to raise their children. Children felt burdened but also challenged by the demands put upon them by their parents. Students studied to pass their examinations. Soldiers served in their nation’s armies. Composers wrote music. Painters painted. Preachers preached. Teachers taught. Dancers danced. The old found the young brash and foolish. The young found their elders annoying and stodgy. Employers found their employees lazy and demanding. Employees found their bosses imperious and greedy. People feared illness and death, but people became sick and died anyway. Babies were born. Eggs were hatched. The sea was filled with fish. That doesn’t sound so unfamiliar, does it?

And now we move to the future. It is 2516 or, as I expect the Jews will privately call it, 6276. Everything will be different and nothing will be. I can’t even begin to imagine what technology will be like. Even the most basic questions about life in the twenty-sixth century resist answering. Will human beings still live only on earth? Will computers still be external machines that people use to do things, or will their abilities by then be so fully internalized into the body that people and computers will no longer exist as independent entities? Will the countries of today’s world still exist? For that matter, will any countries exist…or will globalization at a certain point make it bizarre to think of the world’s peoples divided down into national states instead of as fellow-citizens of a global republic? Will we have visited nearby stars? Will their citizens have visited us? How much of today’s landmass will be submerged beneath a vast global ocean once the ice caps melt entirely? Will there still be Coke? To none of those questions, do I have any ready answers.

And yet, on the other level, the level of the individual, I imagine that things will be unchanged. The heart will still follow its own rules.  People will occasionally wake up next to the wrong person and have to bear the consequences of their own folly. Friends will fall out and reconcile…or not. Children will live up their parents’ expectations in some ways and disappoint them in others. People will yearn for wealth, only to discover later on how little money can really buy. People will grow older as the years pass, but only some will succeed at doing so gracefully. Parents will describe their children’s favorite music as noise; children will know their parents well and not at all. Siblings will occasionally resent each other. Love will be elusive…as will also be happiness. No one will really think he or she is earning enough or being compensated adequately. The sky will still be blue.

If I can narrow my gaze to the world I know best, things will also change and be the same. Nations will rise and fall, but Israel, the am olam, will endure…always on the brink of disaster but never quite vanishing from the pageant of history. When people imagine that only the ḥareidi world will survive and the rest of us—including everybody not self-isolated into hermetically-sealed communities and self-deprived of the option of going out into the real world and earning a living there—that we will eventually assimilate into the general population and be gone from the world, they’re missing the point of being an am olam, an eternal people, in the first place. There will always be people, I fear, for whom intellectual and spiritual integrity are inconstant with “real” religious life, but in my opinion it is those people who are far less likely to survive the onslaught of time. To hide, after all, only works for as long as you can remain hidden; when that option no longer exists, the only remaining choices will be to live in a world you have no training to encounter or else to flee to even more remote hideaways located in even less accessible places. Eventually, all who play that game will lose…and those whose faith requires engagement with the world and who can therefore adapt to an ever-changing environment without resenting the challenges life places upon the living—those, in my opinion, will be the ones who endure.

When I compare the Jewish world of 1516 with the one I imagine for 2516, the details change but the pillars upon which the world stands—Torah study, public and private worship, and a thick sense of inner-communal responsibility—remain the same. The seas will rise, but Jerusalem will endure. The sonim will cackle and jeer, but the power of a single individual reciting the Shema with a full heart and a willing spirit unsullied by ulterior motive will prove mightier than even the most oppressive regime. It’s hard for me to imagine the world dishing out worse punishment than the Jewish people has already endured, yet the divine spirit that guides and protects the House of Israel—as regretfully opposed to individual Israelites—exists outside the context of action and reaction, of violence and stoic endurance. The Jews of 2516 may wonder how we ever survived our own history…but much would be fully familiar if we could only peer through the looking glass that far into the future. There will still be children falling asleep at Pesach seders. Rabbis will still be wondering what to say about Parashat Tzav. The price of truly fine t’fillin will still seem exorbitant (including to those who shell out the dough and buy them anyway). And no one, even half a millennium from now, will truly understand what the etrog is meant to symbolize. All this will endure! And, in the end, the part that never changes will prove more profound than the part that does. In that regard, the history of the am olam is the same as the story of any individual: the part that changes as the years pass, for all it feels distressing to contemplate, is the less crucial part of the mix…and the part that is inviolate and unchanging, the spark of divinity that animates the soul and which exists without reference to time past or time future, that is the part that matters, that truly counts.

A week from today, I hope to be sitting at my other work desk, the one located on Gad Tedeschi Street in Jerusalem, and working on some of my summer writing projects. I am never more at peace, never more relaxed or more focused, than when I sit at that desk and look out at the walls of the Old City hiding in the distance behind the tall trees that line Rechov Ha-askan, the street that leads from our neighborhood north towards the Haas Promenade, one of Jerusalem’s loveliest look-out points. There is real peace for me in that place…and I wish I could share it will all of you. Barring any unexpected adventures like we encountered in 2014, I’ll write to you all again upon our return. In the meantime, I bless you all from afar and in advance with the peace of Jerusalem, and pray that God keep us all safe until we are together again in August.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Life and Death

Last week, I wrote about my disinclination to lump the people killed in Orlando together as “victims” of an armed madman’s rage or even as "people" whose horrific deaths were somehow more terrible than if they had been murdered in some less dramatic way as individuals rather than en masse as a group. A number of readers took issue, asking me if I really thought that there was something inherently demeaning to each deceased individual in the suggestion that his or her death was more awful than it would otherwise have been because of the numbers involved. Given that I’ve said the same thing many times about victims of terror in several other contexts—that, human life being of inestimable value, there is something slightly off about taking context into account when evaluating the deaths of innocents—I was slightly surprised by those responses. And yet, even now after having rethought the issue over these last days, I stand by my original remark and continue to believe that, had Omar Mateen killed one single person instead of fifty, that person’s death would be no less awful to contemplate—and the loss to the world no less acute—because forty-nine other people weren’t killed by the same crazy person on the same evening. As I wrote last week, each person murdered in Orlando was a world unto him or herself, a universe of history, ability, intelligence, and potential. As the great Hans Fallada wrote, “every man dies alone and on his own terms,” i.e., as an individual, as a person, as a complete world.

That there is something perverse and demeaning in the effort to evaluate the worth of a human life is key. Indeed, for most Americans the whole notion of assigning a specific value to a specific person’s life sounds like something connected to the slave trade in olden times, a wretched, degrading effort that rested on the traders’ ability to maximize profit by “correctly” determining the dollar-value of any particular man, woman, or child put up for sale. (Just for the record, when the Bible discusses the case of the naïf who pledges the value of a specific person to the Temple, a pledge both ridiculous and so inherently sacred that it cannot simply be set aside or ignored, it fixes the specific amounts to be paid based on age and gender specifically to avoid the possibility of people actually attempting to say what a specific individual is worth monetarily. I’ll write about that very interesting chapter some other time.) When expressed as a philosophical concept, the concept that life is of incalculable value sounds relatively inarguable. But the corollary notion that the lives (and, by extension, the deaths) of specific individuals can also not be rationally or ethically hierarchized feels seriously less undisputable…at least most of the time and in most contexts.

We establish such hierarchies all the time, after all. There are more people in need of all varieties of organ transplants than there are donors, and so must the regulatory agencies that supervise such procedures establish a way to determine whose life among those in need, say, of a new kidney or heart is more worth saving. The version of the famous “trolley” conundrum that imagines the conductor of a runaway train having to decide whether to steer a train he cannot stop towards a terminally-ill elderly man or a healthy child is another good example: for all we claim that no one can assign actual worth to any human life, it would be the rare person indeed who would say that it doesn’t matter what the conductor decides because the death of a centenarian suffering from an incurable disease with just weeks to live is no more or less tragic than the death of a seven-year-old in excellent health who could conceivably live on for eighty or ninety more years and whose potential contributions to the world cannot yet even be imagined. And even if some among us would argue that there is something inherently wrong in saying that the life of a child is more valuable than the life of an elderly person, then surely even they would admit that the situation feels different when the numbers are ratcheted up sufficiently and the conductor’s choice is differently imagined to present him having to choose between aiming his train at a single old man and a group of fifty or eighty children. Or between steering his runaway train towards an elderly man and his ailing wife, and aiming it at a nuclear power plant that, if seriously enough damaged, could conceivably spew radioactive material into the atmosphere and end up harming or even killing countless thousands. In such cases, it feels possible to determine the relative value of two sets of human lives without transgressing any ethical boundaries. But how to do it and what criteria to bring to bear in making such a decision—that is a different matter entirely.

Horrible things have happened in our world just recently. An eleven-year-old girl from Bexley, Ohio, was killed earlier this week when a tree struck by lightning fell on her cabin in a summer camp in Bennington, Indiana. A little boy from Omaha died after being snatched by an alligator from some shallow water at the edge of lagoon at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Fourteen boys and girls aged nine to eleven, none of whom was wearing a life jacket, died when the raft they were paddling around on in Lake Syamozero in the part of northwestern Russia called Karelia capsized during a sudden storm. And all this has happened since the horrific murder of fifty young people out for a night of carefree dancing and flirting in Orlando.

To say that each of these horrific incidents is each other’s precise equal because, the value of life being unquantifiable, the loss of any life is a tragedy no different from the loss of any other life sounds reasonable enough at first blush. But is that really how we feel? The girl from Ohio was the victim of a terrible accident that, truly, none could have foreseen. The little boy in Florida, not so clear: given that five alligators were taken from the lagoon after the boy’s death and that the boy was obeying the sole sign in the area that merely said “No Swimming,” a sign that most parents (myself included) would easily take to mean that swimming is forbidden but not splashing around at water’s edge, it feels as though there must be some real responsibility of both the moral and legal varieties to be assigned. Does that make the boy’s death more tragic than the girl’s? When put like that, the question feels bizarre even to pose aloud. But agreeing that a disaster none could have foreseen is different in kind from—and thus reasonably deemed more awful than—one that could easily have been averted doesn’t feel as though it constitutes a rejection of the principle that no individual’s life can be judged more valuable than anyone else’s.

The situation regarding the children in Karelia make this point even more forcefully: this disaster happened at a holiday resort in which the children were theoretically being watched over by responsible adults, yet they were permitted out on a huge lake without life jackets despite cyclone warnings being in effect for the region. (Four adults, including the director and deputy director of the hotel and two water-safety instructors have been taken into custody and will probably face criminal charges in the matter.) So although it feels wrong to attempt, however ridiculously, to determine which loss of life constituted the greater tragedy, it also feels natural to categorize these horrors in terms of the degree to which they could possibly have been avoided. In other words, attempting to evaluate the pristine value of any human life seems wrong. But establishing a hierarchy based on the degree to which a given individual’s death could have been averted feels not only right, but reasonable and just. But is that what we want to assert: that the loss of life can best be evaluated in terms of whom there is to blame? The children in Russia died because the people theoretically watching over them were inept and irresponsible. But what then should we say about the dead in Orlando, none of whom died because of ineptitude or incompetence on the part of others but who were gunned down in cold blood by a murderer who knew exactly what he was doing? Does the fact that they were brutally executed make their loss different in kind from the death of that poor child in Indiana who died when a tree fell on her bunk?

In my opinion, the most reasonable approach to these issues would be to agree that we can assign a degree of tragedy to deaths based on the degree to which they could possibly have been averted without contravening the basic principle that human life is possessed of incalculable value.  But another idea suggests itself to me as well: that, without attempting to evaluate the worth of lives, we can entirely reasonably assign value to deaths based on the posthumous good they inspire.

And that brings me to my final example of a young person who died last week: Mahmoud Rafat Bardran, a fifteen-year-old Palestinian teenager in the wrong place at the wrong time as members of the IDF opened fire on Palestinians who were attempting to murder Israeli civilians driving west on Route 443 outside Jerusalem by throwing rocks and firebombs at randomly chosen cars. The dead boy does not appear to have been among those attempting to take innocent Israeli lives; he and some friends had gone swimming after breaking their Ramadan fast and were returning home in a taxi when their vehicle was accidentally hit by gunfire. To describe his death as a tragedy does not require any specific moral courage; how can the accidental death of a teenager not be deemed tragic? In that sense, he joins the others as innocent victims of circumstance. But by mentioning such a politically charged death in the same context as the others, I sharpen my earlier point: his life was worth no more or less than anyone else’s, but the worth, so to speak, of his death will be determined posthumously by the effect, if any, it has on the world.

There is already no dearth of individuals lining up to assign blame. For some, his death was, to quote one Palestinian official, a “cold-blooded assassination.” That seems to me an example of almost grotesque grandstanding by someone prepared to stand on the back of a dead child to score some political points, but to wave his death away as mere collateral damage only works if you are prepared to share that thought with his grieving parents, if you are prepared to say that the unwarranted death of an unarmed teenager riding home in a taxi is somehow less tragic than the death of an innocent murdered by terrorists while eating ice cream in the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv.



The stories are not each other’s equivalents. The Palestinian boy was killed accidentally by people behaving nobly in the defense of innocents, whereas the people at the Sarona Market were killed by people behaving criminally and, to say the least, ignobly. But, in the end, none of them deserved to die…and that’s my exact point:  no innocent life is more or less valuable than any other, but deaths can be evaluated in terms of what they bring in their wake.In most contexts, this pill feels easier to swallow because it doesn’t feel like there could be another side to the story: who could argue against more sturdy bunks in summer camps, more clear signage at resorts where alligators might possibly be lurking near children playing in shallow water, or more stringent safety training for people charged with watching over children in boats or on rafts? In the context of the Middle East, however, nothing is ever that simple. Still, what single incident could be more likely to move the parties involved to seek and find a way peacefully to co-exist in the same corner of the world than the death of a child? You could say the same about all the other victims of terror or of the response to terror, of course, including the victims of last week’s horrific shooting in Tel Aviv. But what if this specific incident were somehow to bring the world to its senses? It feels unlikely. It could hardly be more unlikely. But unlikely isn’t impossible…and with that hopeful thought in place, I conclude my ninth year of writing weekly with this, my 355th more or less consecutive letter to you all.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Orlando Furioso

Part of me wants it to be a gay thing. A closeted gay man, out only to himself and the people he meets surreptitiously on dating sites that allow him to mask his identity (and so not actually out to them either in any meaningful way) finally finds bearing the burden of being himself only to himself too great to bear and he snaps. Seeking out a club full of happy gay people enjoying an evening of dancing and partying, none of whom appears to be viewing his or her sexual identity as an unbearable burden, he decides to take the ultimate revenge on them for daring to live their lives unencumbered by subterfuge and unsaddled by shame.  Living in a state in which assault rifles are sold in strip malls to anyone over eighteen years of age who has never been charged with or convicted of a felony, convicted twice of drunk driving, involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, or the subject of a restraining order, the man buys a gun and lots of ammunition, then sets out to make the point as viscerally as possible that he is nothing like those weirdos who go dancing in gay nightclubs. There’s something virtuous about this narrative too, because it focuses on the victims and remembers them as innocent targets of violent prejudice rather than merely as innocent bystanders who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that sense, explaining this as a kind of anti-gay pogrom carried out by a sole Cossack honors the memory of the dead by refusing to obscure the reason they died in a way that referring to Orlando as an example of “senseless murder” would suggest: it wasn’t senseless, because it was fully intentional. And it is a satisfying narrative for the nation as well because it makes the whole thing about the shooter, thus something we can move past simply by turning the page and reading instead about some other catastrophe somewhere.

Another part of me, however, wants it to be about guns. That too is a satisfying narrative, or a semi-satisfying one. A man who is clearly crazy—because how could someone who carries out the cold-blooded murder of strangers enjoying an evening out in a dance club possibly not be a deranged person?—a man who is obviously deranged takes his place in the unholy line-up of other crazy people who have committed mass murder with guns. Some of the citizens on that line-up have become famous or semi-famous, like Jared Lee Loughner, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Nidal Hassan, or Dylann Roof. Others, like James Holmes, Wade Page, Syed Farook, and Tashfeen Malik, all of whom committed terrible crimes, somehow failed to gain the attendant celebrity generally accorded to mass murderers in our country. But they all are united in my mind by the fact that they had, all of them, easy access to the guns they used to kill and didn’t have the moral strength to resist the demons that urged them forward to perpetrate their horrific crimes. (For the record, James Eagan Holmes murdered twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. Wade Michael Page murdered six people in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, earlier that same year. Farook and Malik were the perpetrators of the massacre in San Bernardino last December.)

It’s satisfying, this narrative, partially because it explains something that would otherwise feel inexplicable, partially because it explains—or rather explains away—the crime as the insane act of a deranged individual and leaves us free to draw the conclusion we all so desperately want to draw: that no further action is required, that crazy people always do crazy things, that this was a disaster…but not one that could have been prevented. And that seems key as I survey the opinions flying around the blogosphere: that we, the people, find a way to believe that we didn’t do anything wrong, that he, the insane perpetrator, is—or rather, was—the criminal. If he were still alive, he could be tried in a court of law. But he isn’t and so he can’t…and with that grim thought in place, those who embrace this version of the narrative too are free to turn the page and read about something less distressing.

This is the narrative put forward by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and his fellow filibusterers, whose basic point was that, if gun purchases were more restricted in certain specific ways, then fewer bad people would have guns. Leaving aside Second Amendment issues, there are still deep problems with this narrative.  Criminals are by definition law breakers, so tightening up existing laws will only affect people who are law-abiding. Furthermore, guns like hunting rifles, which no one would dream of banning entirely, can also be used to commit horrible crimes. Most important of all, the sheer number of guns out there at the moment—about 300 million according to the Congressional Research Service—makes it unlikely that any effort to change the rules for acquiring guns would matter much for decades, if not scores of years, to come.  But the “guns narrative” is satisfying nevertheless because blame renders cogent the inexplicable. And that, more than anything, seems to be exactly what we want: for this whole incident to be explicable.

And then there’s the Islamicist narrative, the one that casts Orlando not as Charleston, but as San Bernardino. An American-born Muslim of Afghan descent is somehow radicalized and embraces the barbaric militarism of Islamic extremism. Pausing in the middle of the massacre to reiterate to some random 911 operator that he was acting as an ISIS operative, the murderer in this narrative too grants us the right to qualify his act as explicable…because he himself has explicated it. Seeking to murder innocents as a way of expressing his hostility to Western culture in general and the country of his birth—our country—in particular, the shooter was, according to this narrative, neither crazy nor confused. Indeed, according to this narrative, he was entirely aware of what he was doing, which was doing his best to bring to these shores the kind of terror that the residents of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq know all too well and which ISIS has already brought to Paris and Brussels. The question of whether Omar Mateen was a “real” ISIS operative is irrelevant: either he was or he wasn’t, but the bottom line is that it hardly matters if he was a self-appointed operative or one taking specific instructions from his handlers across the sea because, regardless, he killed not for personal gain or out of any animus against any of his victims, but as an act of Islamic martyrdom. There is something satisfying about this narrative as well. It grants international stature to what would otherwise be a solely American tragedy. It explains the deed, however perversely, as a kind of political statement rather than one prompted by “mere” insanity. But although it is true that no one seems to know how to prevent these acts, it is also true that even as draconian a measure as Donald Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslim immigration or even entrance to our country would not address the danger posed by home-grown jihadists like the Omar Mateens of this world.

The key to all of the above narratives is that they all attempt to explain a deed that would otherwise be deemed inexplicable…but none is entirely convincing. The world is full of closeted gay men who do not turn to mass murder to express their frustration with their lot in life. Millions of people buy guns and behave fully legally and responsibly with them. The large majority of Muslims who live and thrive here do not become radicalized or intoxicated with the siren call of Islamicist martyrdom. So all of these lines of explanation say something about what happened in Orlando, but none explains it entirely.

By almost every conceivable measure, we are a sophisticated nation. But a lot of the cutting-edge culture in which we take such pride is, I fear, a mere patina the only obscures the child-like, impulsive, cowboy deep within the American soul. We pride ourselves on being a nation of peacemakers and consensus builders. But I begin to wonder if that isn’t only how we enjoy thinking of ourselves…but if, just beneath the surface, we aren’t a nation of gunslingers that not only doesn’t truly abhor gun violence, but secretly—or not so secretly—revels in it. We couldn’t possibly loathe more the violent extremists who perpetrate terrorists attacks on innocents at home and abroad, but there is something in our collective American soul that admires violence, that is just a bit fascinated by it. We abhor murder and rape. But Hollywood turns out an almost endless series of movies that pander shamelessly to a movie-going public that is far more transfixed than repulsed by acts of savagery and violence. We speak endlessly about how much we yearn for peace. But no one buys video games that feature peoples living in peace and learning pacifically to co-exist in God’s world.

To blame Orlando on the degree to which the shooter turned his back on our gentle society to embrace the fiery rhetoric and siren call of the barbarian elements in his own religious world…is at least a little to miss the point. Since 9/11, ninety-four Americans have died at the hands of violent jihadists. By comparison, about half as many people, forty-eight, have died at the hands of far-right extremists. (Click here for both complete lists.) But in the years between 2001 and 2014, almost 221,000 people in the United States were victims either of murder or non-negligent manslaughter. For American men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, gun homicide is the third-leading cause of death. If every single day of the year France were to endure a mass shooting like the one last year that took 130 innocent lives, their annual rate of gun homicides would still be lower than ours.

And that is the dark side of the story: that Omar Mateen, disgruntled and enraged, was tapping into something dark and terrible deep within the American psyche that doesn’t hate violence anywhere nearly as passionately as we never tire of saying that we do. That he perpetrated a crime of unspeakable evil goes without saying. But for Americans merely to wave him away as a crazy person without acknowledging the degree to which we have created a culture that accommodates violence and fosters a Wild-West kind of gun culture that no one seems to know how to defuse—that would be an example of self-serving rhetoric at its least introspective.

I can’t even bring myself to look at the portraits of the dead. As I wrote a few weeks ago in an entirely different context, each was a universe of experience and potential, a world of intelligence and emotion. Each had a backstory and a future to invent. None was a victim or a fatality; each was the whole world. As a nation, we must mourn our dead and pay homage to their memory. To do so while simultaneously looking away from the incredible number of gun homicides in our country and wondering how we can stem that vicious, horrific tide…that is not to honor them at all, but to treat their deaths like statistics instead of taking their loss as a moral challenge that the nation that lost them should and must now face.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ruth, Naomi, Hillary

Our rabbis, clever sages who knew how to read exquisitely slowly and carefully, found something fishy in a word in the Book of Ruth that most people who know the book well, myself surely among them, have passed by a thousand times without thinking to notice, much less thoughtfully to interpret.

The word in question is only nineteen verses into the story. Naomi, a widow old enough to have married off both her sons but also young enough to imagine herself bearing more children, has decided to return from Moab, her current domicile, to her homeland, to Judah. What she was doing in Moab, the country across the Jordan from Judah, is simple enough to explain: there had been a terrible famine at home and so Naomi and her husband Elimelech moved east to wait it out in a place where there was apparently plenty of food. But things in the Bible (or in life) never go quite as planned. Elimelech died in Moab, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Eventually, they married, choosing local girls as their wives. But things in the Bible (or in life) really never do go as planned and, before the famine wound down, the boys—now young husbands—themselves died. And so was Naomi left with two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

And now the story begins to get interesting. The famine finally ends and the three prepare to remove to Judah. But even though they actually do set out on their journey, they don’t get very far before Naomi comes to her senses and tells her daughters-in-law that they don’t owe this to her, that it would be more than acceptable to her for them to return to their parents’ homes and revert to their original status as Moabites of Moab. There do not appear to have been formal conversion rituals in the time in which the story is set, the era of the Judges that followed the initial conquest of Canaan, so the women’s status is at best ambiguous: they had been married to Israelites and so were deemed Israelite themselves, but now that their husbands are dead and buried, they’re in ethnic limbo—not exactly Moabites any longer but connected to Israel only by ties that were buried with their husbands.  Orpah demurs briefly, but eventually she takes Naomi up on her offer and goes home. But Ruth sticks with Naomi and Naomi, because she can clearly see how committed to going along with her Ruth is, eventually relents. And so the two of them, Naomi and Ruth, set forth from Moab on their not-too-long journey to Judah, to a homeland Ruth hasn’t ever known.

And now we get to our word, one among the 2,039 that together constitute the tenth shortest book of the Bible. The phrase in which our word appears is in relatively easy Hebrew: va-teilakhna sh’teihem ad bo·ana beit-lechem. And it’s easy to translate too: “and so the two of them walked together until they reached Bethlehem.” So far, so good…but there’s a tiny issue with the second word: if we’re talking about two women, it should be sh’teihen, not sh’teihem. The latter word would work if the plural subject referenced two men or even a man and a woman. But if it’s two women, then the rules of grammar require a feminine suffix and the word would then be sh’teihen. But it isn’t. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.

The Torah takes a dim view of crossdressing, formally forbidding men to dress up like women and women, like men. (You occasionally hear this verse used to condemn transgendered people presenting themselves other than as their biological bodies would suggest they should, but that seems exaggerated to me: even the ancients understood Scripture here to be speaking specifically about people who dress up like members of the opposite gender to gain entry to places that only women or men are allowed for their own dishonorable reasons.) But the Book of Ruth is set in a time when the laws of the Torah were either not widely known or not widely observed—there are several examples of this in the book—and so our sages imagined the masculine suffix (which is not even a word, just a single letter) there to hint to us that Naomi and Ruth dressed up like men for their journey home to Judah.

It was, apparently, that kind of world. No one was too safe on the nation’s highways. But men were safer than women and so Naomi and Ruth made the choice to be men, or at least to present themselves as men, to go where only men safely could go. And it worked: eventually they arrived safe and sound in Bethlehem and our story commences in earnest.

It’s that image of Ruth and Naomi dressed up like men that stays with me. They could, of course, have demanded to be treated fairly and equitably. They could have asserted their natural right to travel on the nation’s highways unmolested and unbothered by predatory males eager to take advantage of women traveling on their own. They could have done a lot of things, but they chose, if not actually to masquerade as men permanently, then at least to present themselves as manly enough to discourage would-be assailants or harassers.

As I reread the Book of Ruth this last week as part of my lead-up to Shavuot, I was struck by the fact that my study was interrupted by the A.P.’s announcement that Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, which would make her the first woman nominated by a major political party to run for President. If she wins, of course, she will be the first woman in our nation to serve a President.

Given our nation’s more than slightly conflicted attitude towards gender in general, Mrs. Clinton now finds herself in a strange situation. If she is perceived as behaving “like a man” (a thought further complicated by the fact that it’s hard even to say what that means exactly), then she risks alienating all those who are drawn to the possibility of allowing a woman to crash through the ultimate glass ceiling and serve her nation as our first female president. But if she insists on behaving “like a woman” (whatever that means), then she will clearly lose the votes of a certain slice of the electorate that would only be able to countenance a female president if she appeared somehow to be manly enough to make her actual gender an irrelevancy.

Confusing the soup even further is the fact that the notion of gender-based affect is itself suspect in the minds of most forward-thinking citizens. On the one hand, we want people to behave according to a canon of norms associated with their gender and are unkind to people who appear to want to sit on one side of the aisle and vote on the other: consider the difference between calling a man manly and a woman mannish, or between referring to a woman as possessed of womanly virtue and man being called effeminate. But on the other we also seem eager to tear down irrational gender-based distinctions in life and culture—in a world in which women routinely become doctors and men routinely go into nursing, it seems slightly retro for there even to be separate Oscar categories for “best actor” and “best actress.” (Indeed, in a world that would never countenance referring female dentists or lawyers as dentistesses or lawyeresses, it feels quaint even just to use the word actress these days to refer to female actors.)

All that being the case, Mrs. Clinton’s gender constitutes a complicated riddle for Americans to work through. Nevertheless, even people who are not planning to vote for her can surely take pride that we have set to rest yet another instance of irrational gender-based bias, just as the nomination and election of President Obama can be celebrated by all, including his non-admirers, as the ultimate example of America setting the ultimate race-based barrier to rest.  So the simple fact of Mrs. Clinton being a woman should be something Americans should celebrate without reference to her specific policies or chances actually to win the presidency…and surely also not with reference to the degree to which she appears to embody or not to embody a set of stereotypes associated with womanliness or femininity. (Are those words synonyms? The fact that I’m not sure is also a point worth pondering.) It should surely be possible to celebrate Mrs. Clinton’s accomplishment without getting stuck on the ridiculous question of whether she is an appropriately female woman or an excessively mannish one…whatever those terms mean in today’s America. But when I think of poor Naomi and Ruth—two heroic figures whose bravery and cunning led, albeit a bit circuitously, to the birth several generations later of King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, and thus will lead, bi-m’heirah b’yameinu, to the eventual redemption of the world—when I think of them forced to pretend they were men to take their rightful place in their own society lest they come to harm on their way from the margins to the center, I also think of Mrs. Clinton and marvel at how far we’ve come.

No one has been formally nominated by anyone at all, yet the 2016 presidential election has already turned into one of the oddest presidential campaigns our nation has known. But even before anyone wins, the American people itself has won by following its rejection of race-based limitation—informal and surely illegal but wholly real until it suddenly wasn’t—on a citizen’s right to run for the highest office in the land with a rejection of the parallel gender-based limitation, one also un-enshrined in law and rarely mentioned in polite company but also entirely real in terms of the effect it had on women’s aspirations for political office.

I suppose Bernie Sanders deserves mention in this complex of ideas as well. He was, after all, the first Jew (and also the first non-Christian) ever to win a state in a presidential primary. So it feels right to see his campaign—and his twenty-three primary wins—as constituting a kind of third leg in the repudiation of irrational prejudice based of race, gender, or religion.


Maybe our nation really is growing up! Others paved the way, obviously. (Shirley Chisholm, for example, cleared a path both for President Obama and for Hillary Clinton when she, a black person and a woman, ran for president in 1972.) And the issues in play remain complicated. But the days of women having to dress up, either literally or figuratively, like men to be considered worthy candidates for public office are clearly over. And so our nation joins India, Israel, Germany, and the U.K.—as well as many smaller countries like Ireland and Iceland—in setting aside as irrelevant the concept of gender when it comes to choosing an able national leader.  My own feelings about all of this year’s crop of candidates are fairly conflicted. (More on that in the months to come.) But I know progress when I see it. And I think therefore that Mrs. Clinton’s designation as the presumptive candidate should be something of which we can all be proud. If her nomination leads to a national discussion of gender-based issues—and particularly to the timely demise of the notion that men or women are supposed to “be” one way or the other, and that failing to behave according to these pre-conceived norms is a sign of mental confusion, emotional distress, or moral turpitude—then that would be a very positive development indeed.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Harambe

So a scorpion is standing on the bank of a wide river wondering how he’s going to get across when he suddenly notices a frog dozing on a nearby lily pad. Seeing an easy solution to his dilemma, he approaches the frog and asks if the frog would agree to swim across the river with him, the scorpion, on his back. The frog thinks for a minute, then declines. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” he asks reasonably. The scorpion, having expected the question, has a good answer at the ready. “Obviously I won’t harm you. Why would I? If I were to sting you,” he notes entirely plausibly, “you would die and we’d both drown.” The frog considers the response, then helpfully agrees to take his fellow creature across to the other side. And so they set off for the other bank and are just about exactly halfway across when the scorpion suddenly does sting the frog. As the venom seeps into the frog’s bloodstream and the paralysis sets in that will now kill them both, the frog summons up whatever strength he has left to ask the scorpion why he could possibly have chosen to do such a thing…and particularly because the scorpion’s betrayal of his own promise will now inevitably lead not only to the frog’s death but to the scorpion’s own demise as well. “What can I do?” the scorpion replies just before they both slip beneath the water. “It’s my nature….”

It’s a famous story. I remember it being told to great effect in The Crying Game, Neil Jordan’s terrific 1992 movie starring Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and Jaye Davidson. But it’s way older than that. In the Talmud, for example, we read that Samuel, one of the greatest talmudic sages, once took note of a frog swimming across a river with a scorpion on its back. When they reached the other side, the scorpion stung some unfortunate soul who just happened to be passing by. That’s how these things work, Samuel then commented: when your time is up, your time is up…and even the least likely partnership can be brought to bear by Providence to enforce God’s edict.  That’s not exactly the same story, of course, nor does it teach the same lesson, but the image of the frog with a scorpion on its back is exactly the same…and that specific image appears as well in Sanskrit and old Persian literature where it is featured in stories that use it to good effect to teach different lessons of various sorts. A full survey of such ancient stories would take us too far afield of the topic I want to write about this week, but the interesting detail is that the image itself of a frog ferrying a scorpion on its back across a river is a constant…and the lesson taught in the version cited above—that the difference between animals and people is precisely that animals are hard-wired to act in certain specific ways and have no control to behave otherwise— is certainly worth taking seriously. Nor should we pass blithely by the corollary of that thought: that people, in this wholly unlike animals, do have that kind of control…if they choose to exert it to overcome their natural inclination to behave in some specific way that their moral compass recognizes as wrong or perverse. In other words, all God’s creatures come predisposed to behave in certain ways. But only humans possess the ability to override those predispositions and thus to behave as they see fit, not as their natures demand.

That story and its moral popped into my mind the other day when I was reading about the death of poor Harambe, 17, the 450-pound silverback gorilla shot dead the other day by a zookeeper at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The story is essentially a simple one. A family of five—a mother and her four children—were enjoying a day at the zoo when suddenly one of those kids, a little boy of three, somehow climbed through the protective barrier intended to keep visitors from coming too close to the animals they’ve come to observe. He fell into a shallow moat intended to keep the gorillas from approaching the barrier and was plucked from the waters by Harambe, whose intentions were not at all clear. I’ve watched the video several times (click here to see it if you haven’t) and concur, without any specific zoological training to buttress my opinion, that the only thing that was clear was that nothing at all was clear. At moments, Harambe appears to be acting almost protectively towards the child, helping him to his feet and almost gently touching the boy’s hand. But then he begins to drag the child by his feet first through the water and then across the floor of his enclosure, the little boy’s head bouncing up and down on the concrete as he is dragged off. What would have happened next, no one will ever know, of course, because Harambe was almost immediately shot dead by zoo workers who then rescued the boy.  The boy, fortunately, was not terribly hurt physically. If he was traumatized by the incident, I don’t imagine we’ll ever find out. Nor do we need to know. Three-year-olds are resilient, though, and we can reasonably hope for the best in his regard.

The real question has to do with the gorilla. Harambe was a very strong animal. The point was made by the director of the Cincinnati Zoo that silverbacks can crush coconuts with their bare hands, an image no doubt put forward because of the similarly in size between a coconut and a three-year-old’s head. (I’m guessing it takes a lot more strength to crush a coconut.) Because they can take up to seven minutes to work, the use of tranquilizer-darts was not feasible in a situation like this one. Nor was there much time to consider how to respond, much less to debate the matter thoughtfully or to take counsel with experts: a child’s life was in danger and the zoo officials had to decide on the spot whether to save the child by the only effective means available to them or to tranquilize the animal and hope nothing too bad happened while the darts took their time to work. Nor was it at all helpful that there was a crowd of onlookers, including the child’s mother, screaming while this was all unfolding, thus potentially unnerving or upsetting the animal and prompting him to act more, not less, violently than he might otherwise have. So the situation was grave, the amount of time to weigh options was negligible, and the assumption that Harambe, a noble-looking beast whose pose and affect are both almost human in his official portrait (reproduced above), would somehow rise up over his animalness to behave gently and kindly towards the boy was zoologically absurd. It is true that gorillas are generally herbivores, so the chance that Harambe might have mistaken the boy for his lunch were almost nil. But that he could easily have inadvertently killed the boy is, as far as I can see, beyond question.

All that being the case, the hue and cry over the decision to save the boy by shooting the gorilla dead is all the more bizarre. What makes human beings human is precisely our ability—often ignored but always real—to direct our own behavior by engaging in a process of moral decision-making that we can then use to override the genetic predispositions with which we, as animals ourselves, come pre-equipped at birth. We do have the ability to behave gently and kindly when our genetic predisposition would be to act violently and without regard for the safety or well-being of others. But gorillas are, in the end, animals. They can be adorable and they are certainly more sophisticated beings than cockroaches or field mice. But they lack the ability to reason morally in the sense that human beings do…and we forget that at our own peril. The zoo staff in Cincinnati acted correctly, making the split-second decision to value human life over an animal’s even if that animal belongs to an endangered species. The bottom line: you’re only allowed to value the life of a gorilla over the life of a little boy if you would be prepared to stick to your guns if the boy in question was your own son or grandson. Otherwise, you’re just posturing to make a point over the potentially dead body of somebody else’s child.

What interests me about this whole story are its implications for the way we view the world in general. All living human beings belong to the species homo sapiens (“wise person”); the other species that once compromised the larger homo genus—homo erectus, for example, or homo neanderthalensis—are long gone. It’s just us now…and the specific name we have chosen to assign to ourselves declares that our distinctiveness from our forebears lies precisely in that we—as opposed to they and certainly to non-human fauna—are capable of bringing some combination of learning, understanding, and ethical insight to bear in the decision-making process that we ourselves celebrate as the very hallmark of being human.

And yet we continually decline to allow that specific dimension of humanness to serve as the foundation stone upon which we stand as we view the world. Stereotyping, imputing to others an animal-like inability to override genetic pre-sets when attempting to find a moral path forward, deriding fellow-humans as beasts who specifically cannot behave other than violently or harshly—all of these prejudicial approaches to the world merely excuse unethical behavior by making it somehow a consequence of the fault in someone else’s stars rather than the result of unprincipled decision-making.

When I hear people, for example, attempting to excoriate terrorists who murder innocents by saying things like “that’s just what those people are like,” or “they’re violence-prone reprobates, so what do you expect?” or comments of that sort, all they’re really doing is excusing their behavior with reference to the inability of the perpetrator to decide not to perpetrate his or her crime. In fact, to attempt to insult people with reference to their genetic make-up, their religion, or their nationality is actually to say the precisely opposite thing—that they are somehow not fully responsible for their actions. That’s the stance we have to combat, I believe.  Harambe would not have been responsible for his actions even if he had killed that child. But that’s precisely because he was an animal, not a human being.

I’ve occasionally noted from the bimah that every single guard at Treblinka or Majdanek was once an innocent babe nursing at its mother’s breast, that none of them—despite ending up among the most grotesquely depraved criminals ever to walk the earth—none can have his or her actions excused with reference to religion, nationality, or political affiliation. Each chose the path of utter depravity and indifference to human suffering. Each wholly and totally rejected the concept that life is a gift from God, that the life of every individual human being is of inestimable value. Each embraced criminality on a scale never before known to humankind. But none had to! Just as none of the 9/11 murderers had to choose a life of terror and violence. Perhaps in our day, that lesson is even more important to say out loud. Islam didn’t make them do it. Their Saudi (or Egyptian or whatever) citizenship didn’t make them do it. Their teachers or imams didn’t make them do it either. Each had the possibility of choosing to revere life and to behave decently towards others, yet each chose to behave otherwise. To deride their crime as a function of their faith and not as the decision made by those specific people to behave in that specific way—that is not to damn them but to excuse them. And the same is true of every other knife-wielder or suicide bomber.

Harambe’s death was a tragedy. A poor beast who did nothing wrong was obliged to pay with his life for behaving naturally and normally. If any good can come from this whole incident at all, however, it would come not from encouraging us to think ill of animals, but from reminding us all exactly how it is animals and human beings differ.