Thursday, February 26, 2015

Agency in Matters of Crime and Sin


The Talmud on five different occasions repeats what eventually becomes a recurring refrain in later Jewish books:  ein shali·aḥ li-d’var aveirah, the concept of agency does not apply in criminal matters. It sounds like a dry point of law, the kind of legal adage only a lawyer could love (and, at that, only a certain kind of lawyer!), yet just behind its dry exterior lurks a deeply engaging concept that, were it only phrased more invitingly, would beckon to most as something very well worth their time to consider.

Maybe I should start with a different principle. Sh’luḥo shel adam kamohu, the Talmud also declares, meaning simply that individuals’ legally-appointed agents are “like” them, that among the rights Jewish law finds basic to the human condition (or at least to the Jewish version of the human condition) is the right to appoint a stand-in to act legally on one’s behalf, to bear one’s power of attorney. Therefore, whatever legal action an individual can undertake on his or her own, that person has the right to appoint another to undertake as his or her agent…and this right extends even to intimate areas like marriage and divorce. Nor does the agent have to be a lawyer or even someone particularly knowledgeable about the law—it merely suffices for the agent to be someone that an individual wishes to act on his or her behalf. So the principle merely encapsulates what you would probably have supposed to be the case anyway: what you instruct your agent to do and that agent does, it is as if you yourself had done that thing

But there’s an exception…and that brings us back to the first principle I cited: if you tell your valet—I’ve been catching up on Downton Abbey since we’re back from London, regarding the recent bizarre Jewish plot twist in which I may eventually write —if you tell your valet to steal a chicken and he successfully manages to purloin the desired bird, then you yourself should be responsible because, as noted, the agents of individuals are “like” those individuals and act successfully “as” them by virtue of their formal appointment to do so. But that is not the case at all with the chicken…because ein shali·aḥ li-d’var aveirah, because there simply is no concept of agency in the context of criminal or sinful behavior. Thus the valet ends up stuck holding the bag (or, in this case, the chicken) and, if apprehended, will then be obliged to answer for his own behavior without having the right to blame the whole sorry episode on you (or on Lord Grantham). Indeed, the Talmud even formulates a famous rhetorical question to sharpen its point with respect to the agent’s culpability: divrei ha-rav v’divrei ha-talmid, divrei mi shom·in, the text asks: if someone were to get contradictory instructions from a wise sage and that sage’s lowly disciple, whom would the clever individual choose to obey?  The answer should be obvious: if the valet has to choose between listening to his crooked master’s corrupt order to filch a fowl and eternal God’s sacred injunction never to steal anything at all, his obligation is to ignore his master and follow the command of his heavenly Parent.

These are the thoughts that I bring to the news of earlier this week that a federal jury has found the Palestinian Authority and the PLO liable for supporting six specific terror attacks against American citizens and ordered those groups to pay to those victims or their estates $218.5 million…or rather $655.5 million, since the U.S. Antiterrorism Act of 1992 automatically triples whatever damages a jury awards to victims of terror when those victims or their families seek remedy in federal court. That’s a lot of money, closer to a billion than to a penny! But it still took the jury less than two days to come to its verdict.

The original incidents that prompted the suit, particularly the 2002 bombing of the student cafeteria at the Hebrew University (where I personally ate more times than I can recall during my post-doc year in Jerusalem), stand out as particularly terrible instances of violence aimed solely at civilians. The 2004 bus bombing by a suicide bomber, also in Jerusalem, will be less easily recalled because it took place among so many similar events. Yet, for the families of the thirty-three people killed and the more than 400 wounded in the six specific events the court considered, these attacks will neither fade away nor ever be forgotten.  The victims of these attacks were not exclusively Americans, of course. But the Americans among them had the ability to respond in a way that others did not. Their lawyer, Kent A. Yalowitz, summed things up neatly enough: “If you kill or injure Americans,” he said unambiguously, “the long arm of the American law will come after you.”

And now we come to the point. The Palestinians, naturally enough, tried vigorously to have the suit dismissed. But U.S. District Court judge George Daniels denied their bid last November, finding that the plaintiffs had enough evidence that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority supported the groups whose members carried out these attacks to the extent necessary to warrant trying them in a court of law. And so the trial proceeded, and ended last Monday with the verdict cited above. Something one of the lawyers representing the defendants, however, gave me pause for thought. Why, he asked, should the defendants be asked to pay compensation for deeds they did not personally commit? Even if some of the perpetrators were definitely shown to have had personal ties to either organization, how would or could that make the organizations themselves responsible? Shouldn’t we apply our own adage to the situation and consider liable the bombers who murdered all those people in cold blood but specifically not those who sent them into the fray even if they did provide them with funds, weapons, and encouragement? What about there being no concept of agency in the context of criminal behavior? Surely one could make at least some bricks from that straw!

Yet, curiously, I don’t feel that way at all. Instead, it seems to me that the concept of being held legally liable to make compensation to the victims of crimes one indirectly caused or sponsored is nothing at all like being found guilty of murder in a criminal court. Nor should it be!  Neither the current leadership of the PA or the PLO, nor any of their members, was found guilty this week of murder, after all. Instead, those organizations were found sufficiently responsible for the terror attacks that took the lives of the plaintiffs’ relatives or seriously harmed them physically or mentally to make it reasonable to oblige them financially to compensate the victims of those attacks. And that concept—that an individual responsible for causing harm to others bears responsibility for that harm even if he or she did not inflict it personally on anyone at all—that too is a well-enshrined principle of Jewish law with unimpeachable scriptural bona fides.

Legal culpability and moral responsibility are related concepts, of course…but they are surely more of cousins than siblings, let alone twins. To say that murderers are guilty of murder, not those who encourage them to kill, sounds rational enough. But to extrapolate from that thought the notion that people who are materially responsible for terror attacks—by promoting violence, by paying the perpetrators, and by encouraging those perpetrators to feel justified in murdering innocents—to argue that such people should not bear any responsibility for those attacks merely because they didn’t carry them out personally seems, at least to me personally, an unarguable assertion.

Two weeks ago, Herr X, an as-yet-unnamed ninety-three-year-old citizen of Germany was charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, crimes he allegedly committed when he was an SS guard at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944 and participated in the killing of that many people.  (He should not be confused with a different unnamed man, also ninety-three, whom German prosecutors charged last September with being an accessory to 300,000 murders at Auschwitz.) But these two are charged with actually being part of a killing machine, actually being present and actively involved in the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people. They didn’t personally operate the gas chambers. But they were part of the team that worked to murder the large majority of prisoners who arrived in that place for as long as it existed. They are therefore facing criminal proceedings, as well they should. (I find the argument that they should be spared prosecution because of their age laughable. How many of the people who argue in that vein would stick to their guns if the defendant stood accused of playing a role not in the deaths of European Jews but of their own children? Let me answer that for you: not a single one.)

The principle that there can be no concept of agency in matters of crime or sin seems noble to me. In a just society people should and must bear responsibility for their own actions, for their deeds and misdeeds. The person who murders deserves to be punished as a murderer and no one other…but that thought certainly should not absolve those who foster violence, who condone terrorism, or who send suicide bombers to their deaths with words of encouragement and bizarre promises about the rewards terrorists can expect to reap in the next world. To say with Scripture that each of us must bear the consequences of his or her own actions is a kind of a no-brainer in my mind. But to reach out, as our American justice system did this week, to inflict severe penalties on those who foster violence directed specifically against civilians is in my mind not only rational and reasonable but fully just. To speak openly and proudly about suicide bombers as heroes and national champions is grotesque. To abet such acts precisely in the way the Palestinian leadership has over the years is wholly irresponsible and reckless, and it is morally wrong as well.

Whether the plaintiffs will find a way to acquire the monies awarded them this week is, obviously, a different question than whether those awards were justly made. But that those plaintiffs are entitled to be compensated for the wrongs perpetrated against them or their late relations by those who actively abetted those wrongs—that seems as obvious to me as it is rational and reasonable.  The Federal District Court in Manhattan acted wisely last week in taking a decisive stand against two organizations that have long lionized terrorism and encouraged terrorists to feel reasonable about attacks against unarmed innocents whose sole “crime” is their presence as Jews on the territory of the Jewish state.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Da Li-f'nei Mi Atah Omeid


In the chapel at Shelter Rock, there is a piece of framed Hebrew calligraphy hanging on the eastern wall that reads da li-f‘nei mi atah omeid, “know before Whom you are standing.” The expression goes back to a story in the Talmud featuring Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the most famous sages of his day, who was lying on his death bed when his disciples came to visit to ask for some final bits of his wisdom, for some final advice regarding the best way to be sure of a portion in the World to Come. There were several, it turned out. And one was to be certain, when turning to heaven in prayer, “that you know before Whom you are standing.” Those words grace the eastern walls of countless synagogues and sanctuaries. But they don’t only constitute sage advice when applied to someone standing in prayer before the Almighty. Indeed, they can constitute sage advice in a fully secular context as well. And that is how I have been thinking of them just lately as I attempt to know before whom, not I personally, but our nation and its allies are standing.

It was in that exact spirit that I finally forced myself—and “forced myself” is saying the very least—to watch the 22-minute-long video of the execution of  First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was burned to death by his ISIS captors on January 3. (He was promoted posthumously to the rank of captain, but was a first lieutenant at the time of his death.) I didn’t want to watch. What normal person would? Still, I asked myself, should I not want to know before whom we are standing, whom we have engaged in what could easily turn into a “real” war and not just an extended series of air attacks? And so I did watch, finding myself both unable to look directly at the screen yet also unable to look away. (If any readers find it hard to understand how it could be possible to feel both ways at once, you can find the video easily enough with a very simple Google search. I won’t provide the precise URL, but I will tell you that it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to find it if you wish. If you do watch, you can trust me that you will understand instantly just how it can be possible to be utterly repulsed and fully arrested by the same set of images at the same time.)

He’s a handsome young man. He looks like the twenty-six-year old that he was. The video begins with a long harangue directed against Kasasbeh’s country, Jordan, and showing pictures of the Jordanian leadership palling around with President Obama. Then, clearly speaking under duress, the prisoner starts by berating the Hashemite kingdom for its participation in the war against ISIS. He is seated at a table and clearly trembling as he goes on to talk quietly about his mission, the one that ended with his plane, an F-16 fighter jet, crashing near Raqqa, Syria. Kasasbeh, bruised but relatively hale, is shown next walking amidst rubble at the scene of an apparent Western coalition air raid. And then we get down to it as Kasasbeh now appears confined in a black steel cage wearing a day-glo orange jump suit and watched over by nine of his captors. A backtrack plays rhythmic Middle-Eastern-style music. An ISIS assassin lights a long fuse that leads directly into the cage. And then we watch on—we the viewers and we the world—as this poor soul is set on fire and, fully engulfed in flames, collapses to the ground. A group of armed militants wearing beige balaclavas and camouflage-style fatigues too watch on, their demeanor grim and calm as their prey is mercilessly murdered before their own eyes. At the end of the video, a reward is offered for the murder of other coalition pilots. And then, to make that last point just a bit sharper, the video actually names several high-profile figures within the Jordanian Air Force and displays the words “Wanted Dead” next to their names and faces in English and Arabic. This is ISIS. These are the people before whom our nation now stands.

This is not my normal behavior.  I, who can’t read enough about the Shoah, somehow shy away from viewing actual horror footage. When it was announced that Alfred Hitchcock’s long-supressed and apparently intensely graphic documentary about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops in 1945 had been restored and that it was going to be made available this year for viewing along with a new documentary by Andre Singer about the making of the original one, for example, I found myself strangely uneager to see either. The older one, saddled by its producer Sidney Bernstein (Hitchcock was technically Bernstein’s advisor) with the bizarre name German Concentration Camp Factual Survey, was left unfinished for seventy years and only finally restored last year by film scholars at England’s Imperial War Museum, then screened for the first time at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. (It’s easy to joke about the irony of such a movie having its premiere in such a venue, but it was also brave and honest for the festival leadership to allow it to be shown. It can’t have been an easy decision.) German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is seventy-two minutes long, but only twelve minutes of actual footage from that original film made it into Singer’s documentary, called Night Will Fall and widely broadcast in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and the U.S. (It was broadcast here on HBO and remains available to HBO GO subscribers for free.) I could watch it this weekend! Maybe even I will…but also maybe I won’t. It’s hard to explain why I feel so reticent about seeing graphically portrayed what I read about almost obsessively. It feels that way even to me. I feel that I should see it…and, eventually, I know that I will. Just maybe not this weekend.

And then, on a kind of a roll, I watched the short video, only sixty-seven seconds long, about the January 30 beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It begins with a black screen on which appear the words in English: “A Message to the Government of Japan.” We then see an ISIS man, the man called Jihadi John by the press, speaking English with what British listeners seem unanimously to agree is a strong London accent as he berates the West for daring to go to war with ISIS, which he references as the Islamic caliphate, and threatens Japan with further reprisals.  Goto is wearing the same day-glo orange outfit that the other prisoners in these videos wear. He is kneeling during the opening harangue and appears strangely calm. Probably, he was drugged. He is clearly conscious, though, and he closes his eyes when his captor grabs at his collar and pulls the fabric tight. We then see him, the captor, raise his knife and press it to Goto’s neck, but then the screen fades and the next thing we see is Goto’s body lying on the ground with his severed head perched grotesquely atop his chest.

That was enough for me. More than enough, actually. I got the idea.  I hate looking at things like this. I don’t even like make-believe horror movies, let alone real ones. And yet I felt that I wanted to see these videos, that I for some reason needed to see them. It’s easy to talk about barbarism, easy to reference the actions of hostile nations and entities as brutal or ruthless or inhumane. In short, it’s easy to insult…and particularly when those insults serve not truly to harm those against whom they are hurled but, more profoundly, to insulate us from having to look at reality directly and squarely in the eye. The world was once filled with reports about the brutal treatment to which were subjected the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. I mentioned just a few weeks ago Jacob Apensziak’s horrific Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published at the end of 1943 which recounted in excruciating detail how a full million Polish Jews had already been slaughtered. The world was unconcerned. Or perhaps that is too harsh: the world was concerned…but without actual footage not to dare look away from it was possible for the world, and by “the world” I certainly include FDR and the rest of our American political leadership, to convince themselves that the annihilation of European Jewry was not their problem. Would they have had the nerve to look away if they had actual footage of the camps to not dare look away from, if they had seen with their own eyes the execution ditches, the selection ramp, the gas chambers, the crematoria? It’s hard to say, of course. But in my heart I think that images speak to us differently than do words…and I also believe that the absence of that kind of graphic evidence of the Nazis’ crimes is what made it possible for so many to make hard their hearts and, in the end, to do nothing to save the Jews of Europe other than to struggle to win the war before the last one among them was finally murdered.

The king of Jordan knew what to do. He was in Washington when the video depicting Captain al-Kasasbeh’s execution was released, but he flew home immediately and began his response by ordering the execution of two al-Qaeda prisoners whose release had earlier been demanded by ISIS, and regarding whose release he had previously authorized negotiations aimed at bringing Captain al-Kasasbeh home safely. Then he sent dozens of fighter jets into the sky to hit ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. And then he announced that this was the beginning, not the end, of his response to the pilot’s murder. That kind of forceful, instant response aimed at fighting fire with fire was, I believe, entirely justified. King Abdullah felt personally challenged to respond, and respond he did. We are slowly turning the tide against ISIS say the pundits who analyze such things and of that we Americans should surely be proud. But refusing to look at the actual images presented in those videos will end up weakening, not strengthening, our resolve to act vigorously and decisively in a war that feels different in many ways from other conflicts in which our nation has engaged over the last decades. We need to force ourselves not only to know, but actually to see, whom it is we are facing, who is standing before us.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Losing Richard von Weizsäcker

At first blush, there don’t appear to be many reasons for me to have been an admirer of Richard von Weizsäcker, the first democratically elected president of a united Germany since Paul von Hindenberg in the 1930s.  Born in 1920, von Weizsäcker served in the German Army during the Second World War, eventually attaining the rank of Captain and personally participating in the invasion of Poland that began the war. (Nor was he one of “those” Germans who later claimed that they had no idea that European Jewry was being annihilated on his watch. Instead, von Weizsäcker freely admitted that he was reliably told by a comrade-in-arms about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity in 1943 and knew from then on that the rumors he had earlier heard about Hitler’s war against the Jews were true.) Nor do the reasons I should not be one of his admirers end on V-E Day: in 1947, he had it in him to serve as assistant defense counsel when his father, formerly an SS-Brigadeführer, was put on trial for his role in the deportation of French Jewry. And then, when it was all over, von Weizsäcker went to law school, got married, produced a family…and put the war and its horrors behind him as he made his way forward in the world. Eventually, he went into politics, winning a seat in the Bundestag in 1969.

So for all those reasons I really should not admire President Von Weizsäcker, who died few days ago, or hold his legacy in regard. But that is not at all how I feel, and I feel challenged by my own sentiments to explain (to you, possibly a bit to myself) why that is.

He advanced in politics with the years, serving as the Vice President of the Bundestag, then as the Mayor of West Berlin, then as President of all Germany, which office he assumed in 1984, the same year I myself moved to Germany to take up a teaching position at the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. So we started new jobs the same year and in the same country…but at the time I had no sense of the role that he would eventually play in the history of my personal relationship to Germany and to its history of ruthless brutality and aggression against the Jewish people.

As readers of these letters know, I am as deeply involved with the legacy of the Shoah as any non-survivor possibly could be. This is the soil in which my beliefs, theological and moral, have grown for decades; just last week I wrote to you about the seminal experience of my adolescence being the reading of books of eye-witness testimony regarding the efforts fully to exterminate the Jewish population of occupied Europe. So it may seem odd to some of you to imagine someone such as myself willingly choosing to move—and with a wife and a five-month-old baby, no less—to the very country that even then served as the backdrop for more nightmares than I could write about in a thousand weekly letters. In retrospect, the decision surprises me as well. I could have stayed in Israel. (We had spent the previous year in Jerusalem, where I had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University, and I had an offer to take up a lectureship at the University of Haifa.) I could have returned to New York and settled back into my career as a teacher at Hunter College or JTS. I could have done a lot of things…but somehow I ended up moving to Heidelberg.

This was, as noted, the mid-1980s. All those decommissioned Wehrmacht soldiers who were in the twenties when the war ended were still only in their sixties. Nor was the presence of former German combatants merely theory for me: I had one student who eventually revealed to me that his grandfather had been a guard at Majdanek. (He, the grandson, spoke Hebrew fluently, had studied for years in Israel, and eventually became a Lutheran pastor.) The place was filled with people like that, individuals trying to find a way to be German without turning away from the nation’s own history. Nor was this solely a story of individuals wrestling with their heritage: the nation itself was still very much in the throes of coming to terms with its past. It was both an exciting and an intimidating place for me to live as I took my place in the Jewish community and attempted to convince myself, mostly successfully, that the effort to restore Jewish learning to Germany was both a noble and a legitimate response to history and that I was lucky to be part of it.

And then it was suddenly 1985 and the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, called V-E Day by ourselves and Stunde Null (“Zero Hour”) popularly by the Germans themselves, was almost upon us. Mostly, it was gratifying to see the Germans wrestling with the heritage bequeathed them by their forebears. 

But it was also creepy and weird being there, something like accidentally overhearing a discussion so intimate and so intense that you can’t stop listening even though you have no actual right to be present in the first place.

This was the context for two events that eventually dominated the anniversary itself, one upsetting and weird and the other intensely hopeful and encouraging.

The upsetting event was President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. Mostly forgotten now, the controversy had to do with the president’s agreement to accompany West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a German military cemetery (the president was going to be in Germany anyway for a G7 economic summit in Bonn) as a sign of the friendship between the United States and its former foe. The Germans suggested the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery, just ninety miles from Bonn, but somehow forgot to mention that among the buried in that place were forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS. President Reagan should have backed off right then, but instead made one error of judgment after another. First, he insisted that he would go despite the mounting protests at home. Then he made the almost unbelievable comment in a public speech that, in his considered opinion, the Nazi soldiers buried at Bitburg were, and I quote, “victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” And then, for good measure, the president specifically declined to add a visit to a concentration camp to his itinerary as a way of offsetting his visit to Bitburg, a decision later reversed.

For me, living as I was in Germany, this whole controversy was upsetting. Did the President of the United States really think that members of the Waffen-SS, defined at Nuremberg as a criminal organization and thus specifically not merely as just another branch of the German military, did he really think that its members were somehow victims? Victims of whom? Were the rubrics I had come to see as self-evident: guilty and not guilty, perpetrator and victim, persecutor and persecuted—were these already becoming passé? I wasn’t a huge fan of President Reagan for other reasons, but I always considered him a moral, decent man. Was I all wrong…about him? Or was I wrong about the universe? I was unsettled and ill at ease throughout the whole incident, and found myself wishing for nothing more fervently than that he would just go and get it over with, then let the matter disappear into the mists of history.

President Reagan went to the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery on Sunday, May 5, 1985. The war in Europe ended at midnight on May 8, 1945, so the fortieth anniversary of Stunde Null was just three days in the future. I had many moments in Germany during which the pressure to explain why exactly I was there was crushing, but I can’t remember three more unpleasant, upsetting days than those three between Bitburg and V-E Day 1985. 

And then the day came…and President Von Weizsäcker spoke in the Bundestag. I remember this like it was yesterday; the entire country, certainly all of Heidelberg, was listening to the radio or watching this on TV. We were too. (The speech was carried live on the American Armed Forces Network, which we for some reason were able to access at home in Rohrbach, with subtitles for non-German speakers.)  And in his words, I found solace and a sense of hope restored that President Reagan’s visit to the graves of the Waffen-SS had almost entirely eroded.

He spoke slowly and in measured tones, using a kind of literary German that was somehow deeply impressive without sounding stodgy or old-fashioned. He spoke openly, and without shilly-shallying, about the responsibility all Germans bear for the sins of the Nazis and how this national burden cannot be sidestepped by individuals with reference to their own lack of indictable culpability. And, remarkably, he spoke about Stunde Null as a moment not of defeat or capitulation, but of liberation. This was not at all how Germans in the 1980s were used to thinking about their past.

Openly and calmly, he mocked those who, when the truth about the Shoah became known, hid behind a false veil of unknowing and claimed, because it so suited what they perceived to be their own best interests, that they knew nothing of it. I wish to quote his words directly because they meant so much to me then and remain resonant with me after all these years:

The perpetration of this crime was in the hands of a few people. It was concealed from the eyes of the public, but every German was able to experience what his Jewish compatriots had to suffer, ranging from plain apathy and hidden intolerance to outright hatred. Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported. The nature and scope of the destruction may have exceeded human imagination, but in reality there was, apart from the crime itself, the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, who were young and were not involved in planning the events and carrying them out, not to take note of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything….

And then he turned to Bitburg and, without once mentioning it or President Reagan, he spoke about the difference between legal culpability and the burden of memory. “There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation,” the president said reasonably. But then he continued to observe that guilt, “like innocence, is not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. . . . All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. . . . We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion. . . . There can be no reconciliation without remembrance." Those are deeply wise words and they address what was then the major stumbling block in the path leading to Germany coming to terms with its past, the insistence that the individual who was not at Treblinka and who did not personally beat anybody to death should be free to forget the whole thing and leave it for those who did those things to work through. Yes, individuals—and particularly those born after the war—bear no personal responsibility for the Shoah or for the war if they themselves did nothing to be guilty of, just as none of us bears any legal responsibility for the deeds of others. But that, von Weizsäcker said clearly, is neither here nor there…and the real question is how a nation, acting in concert as a nation, can confront its own history and thus prevent that history from serving also as its destiny.



The death of Richard von Weizsäcker is a real loss to the world. Singlehandedly, he made me feel able to spend the rest of our time in Germany free (or almost free) of the sense of crippling absurdity that could otherwise have been my constant companion, able to function without crumbling under the weight of what I knew of Germany and its past. I came away from listening to that speech, which I then bought as a pamphlet a few days later and read and reread, with a sense of hope in the future. He was a truly good man, one who found the courage to face his own past and, in so doing, to invite his countrymen to follow his example. It is in no small part because of that speech that Germany has come as far as it has in confronting the legacy of Nazism. And that, particularly when compared to other countries that remain wedded even today to a fanciful, entirely self-serving, conception of themselves as victims of the Nazis rather than as their willing collaborators in the war against the House of Israel, is not something to move quickly past at all. May he rest in peace and may his memory inspire Germans to face their past and, in so doing, to seek a worthy future for their children honestly and without pretense!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seventy Years On

Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, we cross a line—a personal, often private, always wholly idiosyncratic line—that leads us from being one tadpole among many to growing into the individual man or woman we eventually become. For many, that line is constituted by a discovery of some sort, by a moment of revelation that grants the child in question a worldview that, for all it might be (and surely is) similar in some ways to other people’s, is in its essence that child’s alone. As a result of crossing that line, we begin to see the world through our own eyes and thus, eventually, to become ourselves in a way that serves eventually as the hallmark of the kind of individuation that leads eventually to the assumption of true identity. In our American culture, this line is often presumed to have something to do with sex, with finding out about how that all works in the adult world, with taking first tentative steps towards romance and intimacy. For others, particularly for those who suffer grievous loss as young people, it has more to do with encountering death, with the experience of finding oneself face to face with the truth about life’s brevity and awful fragility. But for me—and I somewhat paradoxically see this more, not less, clearly as I become older—for me personally, the boundary line between tadpole and man had to do with learning the truth about Jewishness in the twentieth century, the century I was born just a few short years after the precise midpoint of which and which remains the foundational context, even now, for my sense of who I am and what I am to do in the world.

My initial exposure to the Shoah was through the large number of refugees who lived in the neighborhood in which I grew up. My American-born parents never spoke of the Shoah, but neither did the survivors in our midst. I knew they were from Europe, obviously. And I understood too that they had gone through “a lot” before landing in Queens. But that “a lot” was as far as my parents went when the topic came up, which it only rarely did. Were they protecting me from the truth about the world? I suppose they were, at least a little. Or were they willing themselves not to know something about the world that all of us would prefer not to know? That was surely part of it too. But it also bears saying that I think my parents felt that they were being kind and generous by allowing the neighborhood refugee types to “get past” (that was another of my parents’ expressions) their earlier experiences and embrace life in these United States without being endlessly burdened by memories of earlier misery. The bottom line was that the chasm between wartime Europe and post-war Queens was deemed unbridgeable by my parents…and they definitely considered that a good thing for all concerned.

I always knew there was something I didn’t know. How I knew that, who knows? But children are sensitive even to subtleties of language and inflection…and I always “just” knew that there was more than I was being allowed to know, just as I somehow knew that the numbers on the arms of some of my friends’ parents were not just “wartime tattoos” as my Dad once said to me vaguely when I screwed up my courage and asked. It’s hard to conjure up the precise feel of things after all these years, but my parents’ disinclination to discuss the Shoah was part of their general disinclination to discuss the past at all: the last thing my parents wanted to think was that they were somehow less than 100% American because they lived in a neighborhood (and belonged to a community) that included so many immigrants and refugees. Nor did they ever wish to discuss their own families’ origins in Europe—that too was a taboo topic in my boyhood home. My father occasionally mentioned the name of his parents’ shtetl in Poland, but only under duress and always with the clear sense that Nowy Dwór was Polish for “hell” and that only an insane person would wish to know more. My mother told me once in passing that she thought her father came from Odessa—I was too young at the time to realize how odd it was that she wasn’t sure—and it was only as an adult, after I undertook some research of my own, that I realized that she was more likely recalling the fact that the ship he took to North America left from Odessa but that he himself was more probably from the town of Zembin in Belarus. But these were isolated moments of unguarded recollection, and the far more general rule on Yellowstone Blvd. was that the past was gone forever and that that was a good, even a very good, thing. In a certain strange way, my entire adult life—and certainly my professional life—has been a kind of reaction against that will to forget what I have made it my life’s work to remember.

The entrance to the Hebrew School wing of the Forest Hills Jewish Center is on 69th Road, a street on the south side of Queens Boulevard that is exactly one block long. Upon entering, all the action was to the right—the school office, the Game Room where young scholars loitered over Nok Hockey tables until the beginning of class, the washrooms, the principal’s office and the rabbi’s, and the classrooms themselves. To the left was a door leading to the great sanctuary featuring the remarkable, slightly scary Ark of the Law created by the great artist, Arthur Syzk. But between the entrance to the building and the entrance to the sanctuary was a tiny library and it was there that I, even then proudly uninterested in Nok Hockey or Foosball (the other diversion provided to distract early arrivers from potential mischief), sought refuge when I arrived early for school, which was always.

Even today I can conjure up the peculiar, not unpleasant, odor of that room—some mixture of tobacco (smoking was allowed indoors in those days), old books, perfume, and coffee. It was there that I first began to read about Jewish history and about Jewish life in versions other than the one I knew from home. And it was there as well that I eventually noticed the books on the very top shelf just to the left when you entered, books stored so high up that even an adult, let alone a child, could not possibly have reached them without standing on a stool or a stepladder. We children were not granted access to those books, but the titles were visible. And it was there, in the contemplation of that shelf of books, that I first began to realize that there was more to being a Jew in the mid-twentieth century than I knew about.

The books were a mixture of famous and, even today, relatively unknown. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was there, but so was Jacob Apensziak’s The Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published in the winter of 1943-1944, and chronicling the agony of the first million Polish Jews to die at the hands of the Nazis. And there was another book with a similar, but much longer, title on that shelf as well: Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the German Nazi Death Camps Established on Occupied Polish Soil During the War 1941–1945, a book that it took me almost a year to get through because I could only read it when the librarian was away refilling her coffee cup or using the washroom. (The book I read, I now realize, was an abridged translation; the full book was only published in English translation in 1970.) Shirer, I only skimmed. (I was only twelve or thirteen years old, after all.) But the other two books I read, page by page in the course of more than two years, in their entirety. And it was there that my own journey began, with those unimaginable stories, with the testimony of people whose experiences were not so much unbelievable as unimaginable, with accounts the details of which imprinted themselves on my consciousness so deeply that they remain there to this day, enhanced—but also unaffected—by decades of further reading on the topic.

I never told my parents about any of this, but I was as drawn to those books as I was repulsed by them. And yet I was powerless, even as a bar-mitzvah boy, to step back, to stop reading, to look away. In some ways, that was the seminal experience of my childhood, those stolen minutes of reading forbidden books…and I can see how reasonable it would be to see my life’s path reflected in that experience of finding out in that specific way what it meant to be a Jew in a world of horror from which my own family had somehow escaped.

This, then, is the background I bring to my consideration of the
seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, up until just recently a strangely unchronicled event. (By comparison, for example, Vasily Grossman’s account of the liberation of Treblinka, available now as a chapter in his remarkable A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945, is among the most powerful—and by that I mean powerful to the point of overwhelming—pieces of on-the-scene journalism related to the Shoah that I’ve ever read.) Until this week, that is…when the Russian Defense Ministry, responding to a bogus claim by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna that Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainian troops, finally released—after seventy years of refusing to make them public—a batch of first-hand accounts by officers and soldiers of the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army who liberated the 7,500 survivors of Auschwitz that were still present in that place on January 27, 1945. (For more details about the release of these accounts and testimonies, click here.) None has been released in official or unofficial translation, and the photographs that were released are blurry and will be difficult even for Russian readers to decipher. But what counts is that these accounts exist and will now be available to all who wish to know first-hand what that day was like…not from the vantage point of the prisoners but from that of their liberators. I can’t wait for these stories to be published, and I will report back to you all when I’ve read them and tell what I’ve learned. Even if there are no surprises in terms of historical detail, though, the experience itself of communing with those present on that fateful day through the medium of their own recollective prose…that will be a prize for all those, like myself, whose lives have been informed and shaped by the experience specifically of reading about the Shoah and vicariously living through its horrors.

If it is true that life is a journey—and how could it not be?—then this is my specific journey, the path I have wandered forward from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. I am not a survivor in the sense that I was born after the war and am neither the child nor the grandchild of anyone who perished. But there is also a category of survivor to which I do belong: the category those who live their lives against the background of the Holocaust and who willingly or unwillingly bear the burden of history on more or less strong shoulders. The Shoah is not where I was, but it is who I am. As I contemplate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and anticipate the testimony of the liberators, that burden feels marginally lighter…as if those brave soldiers from so long ago join me, even if surely posthumously for most, in supporting the weight of history and thus in making it that much easier to bear.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Je Suis Lassana


There is no word in classical Hebrew for “hero” in the sense in which we use the term in American English. The usual translation, gibbor, derived from a verb that means   “to prevail” or “to overcome,” is used generally to denote an individual of remarkable physical strength or particular moral stamina. When Scripture labels King Nimrod as a gibbor tzayid (literally, a “hero of the hunt”), for example, it presumably means that he was a powerful, strong guy whose strength wielding his weaponry made him notably successful at the hunt. In Pirkei Avot, on the other hand, when Ben Zoma famously asks “Who is the [true] gibbor?”, his answer—that such a label can only be properly applied to someone possessed of the strength of character to master his or her own inner drives—reflects exactly the other definition of the term. In other words, Ben Zoma is teaching that while any run-of-the-mill Hercules can lift a car or wrestle a tiger to the ground, only those able through the sheer force of their own moral bearing to overcome their endemic inclination to sin, to behave poorly, or to turn from virtue are truly entitled to be called by the title gibbor. But that is not exactly what the word “hero” has come to mean in common discourse.

I’ve returned to this topic many times in my letters to you. As a teenager, I had two heroes: Miep Gies and Henryk Goldszmit, known to the world by his pen-name of Janusz Korczak. From the latter, we obviously heard nothing after his supreme act of unparalleled heroism: this was the man who chose to accompany the 196 orphans in his charge to Treblinka on August 6, 1942, where he and they were murdered upon arrival, rather than accept the offer of safe passage to the Aryan side of Warsaw credibly made to him by the then-active Polish underground. Would he have considered himself a hero? As a young man, I certainly thought so. And, indeed, it was in just that light that I read the various versions of his story obsessively in those years…always wondering if I could have passed that test, if I myself would have chosen service to the children in my care—children whose lives I could not possibly imagine being able actually to save—over the easy-to-rationalize decision to save my own neck and thus to be alive in the future to serve other children. (If any readers are curious to read more about this man who more than anyone at all shaped my sense of honor, the one-two punch is first to read Betty Jane Lifton’s excellent biography of Korczak called The King of Children: the Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, published in 1988 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, and then to read the man’s own Ghetto Diary, originally brought out in 1978, but now republished by Yale University Press with an introduction, also very compelling and well done, by the same Betty Lifton.) To finish with Korczak, I can only quote William Blake’s famous poem, “Auguries of Innocence.” The beginning, everybody knows: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an Hour.”  But later on, he gets to the part that stays will with me still, the part that he could have written about Janusz Korczak: “He who mocks the Infant’s Faith / Shall be mock’d in Age and Death. / He who shall teach the child to Doubt / The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out. / But he who respects the Infant’s faith / Triumphs over Hell & Death.” Really, what else is there to say? For what it’s worth, Blake absolutely considered himself a kind of latter-day prophet…so maybe he actually was writing about Korczak!

Miep Gies, I’ve also written about before. (If you wish to reread what I wrote about her on the occasion of her death in 2010 at age 100, click here.) As many will surely recall, she was the woman who put her own life on the line to save Anne Frank and her family, as well as the others in hiding with them. (You can learn all you’ll need to know from her 1987 book, Anne Frank Remembered, in which of course she tells her own story as well.) Unlike Korczak, Miep Gies survived the war and so was able to comment on the way she was hailed as a true hero. And that is exactly how she was celebrated in the post-war years. Yad Vashem recognized her as a selfless rescuer and planted a tree in her honor on the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles on its grounds. Queen Beatrix of Holland knighted her for her bravery. Germany itself offered her the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic. Austria, her homeland, awarded her its Grand Decoration of Honor. I’m sure she was flattered by all the attention. (Who wouldn’t be?) But she balked mightily at being called a hero, writing in the introduction to her book words that stay with me still, “There is nothing special about me,” she wrote. “I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.”

I’ve cited those words to you before because they are so deeply resonant with me: here was a woman who apparently believed that doing the right thing, putting the needs of the persecuted first, acting forthrightly to save the lives of people in danger of being put to death for professing the wrong faith or embodying the wrong ethnicity, obeying the inner voice of virtue and justice that most of us prefer to drown out most of the time lest it lead us off the path of self-gratification and self-absorption—here was a woman who believed that it did society no good to apply the “hero” label to people who simply do the right thing…and that we would do better to create a society in which doing those things was considered not the province of the uniquely brave or the saintly, but the reasonable path forward for the common, average person raised from childhood to embrace virtue and to do good.

And that brings me to this week’s hero, Lassana Bathily. A Muslim originally from the West African nation of Mali, Bathily was working at the Hyper Cacher grocery store in the Porte des Vincennes neighborhood of Paris when Amedy Coulibaly burst in on January 9 in an insane attempt to divert the attention of the police from the pursuit of his fellow-travelers, the Charlie Hebdo murderers. Immediately upon entering the market, Coulibaly shot four patrons dead, all Jewish people doing their pre-Shabbat shopping in an unremarkable market in a distant suburb of Paris that none would ever have expected to be the scene of anything like what then ensued in that place. Acting quickly and wisely, Bathily led fifteen shoppers, including a two-year-old child, to a cold storage area in the basement of the building where he locked them inside, took the key with him, then managed to escape up an elevator shaft to the street where he was able to give the police the key, tell them what was going on inside, explain where exactly Coulibaly was holed up, and draw a floor plan of the store. Unsure if he was friend or foe, the police initially treated him hostilely, handcuffing him and forcing him to the ground. But the truth became clear soon enough, and Bathily was hailed a true hero, as someone who risked everything to save people whose lives might well otherwise have been forfeit.

To reward Bathily for his efforts, the French government acted quickly and dramatically, cutting through what might otherwise have been years’ worth of red tape to grant him French citizenship at a ceremony attended by the highest officials, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.  But it was Bathily’s reaction that caught my attention the most dramatically. (You can watch him deliver his very brief remarks by clicking here. He speaks in French, but NBC News provides English subtitles.) He had been hailed as a hero across all of France. Benjamin Netanyahu himself referred to him in precisely those terms in a speech praising his bravery and his selflessness. But the man himself chose to speak of his deeds much in the manner of Miep Gies. “People say I am a hero,” he said quietly, knowing the world was listening carefully. “But I am not a hero at all,” he continued, “I am Lassana. And I will stay the same. I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.” The video clip is remarkably moving and I think I’d think so even if I weren’t so emotionally tied to the whole incident in Paris and its aftermath. Here is a man who, like Miep Gies, felt right in rejecting the accolade “hero” for merely having done the right thing, for simply having behaved decently and bravely, for having seen people in terrible danger and having done what it took to make them safe.

I could not admire that approach to life more. I have spent my whole life wondering what kind of person I am, if I could have been a Korczak, a Miep Gies, now a Lassana. May God spare me from finding out in the way any of them did! But these individuals who rejected—and I’m feel sure Korczak too would have scoffed at the idea that he was properly to be labelled a Superman-style hero for declining to abandon terrified children to their fate—these three whose example suggests that the ability to behave extraordinarily is specifically not something best relegated to a handful of exceptional people but embraced by ordinary people like ourselves who, like it or not, absolutely are possessed of the ability to behave magnificently when, in the twinkling of an eye, the path to moral greatness opens before us and we must decide on the spot whether to flee or take that first step towards selflessness and virtue—these are my heroes, the people I wish the most ardently to consider myself up to following whose example. Listen to Lassana’s soft-spoken remarks—they last all of forty-five seconds—and, if you dare, ask yourself what you would have done, if you could have behaved in that way when, in the space of a second or two, greatness was thrust upon you…and the choice to embrace it bravely was yours to make. The question is not whether you could have shimmied up that elevator shaft. The question is whether you could have decided to risk everything…to do good, to save a child, to embrace virtue not as a superhuman hero…but simply and plainly as yourself. That is the question to ask…and, if you dare, to answer honestly.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Martin


Eventually, we all leave home. For most in our tiny subsection of the universe, we go to college. Some head off to participate in some gap-year program in a distant land. Others go to serve in our nation’s Armed Forces or in some other nation’s. Ideally, this is a gentle experience, this leave-taking, one in which the sense of caring parental oversight is delicately replaced by the less overtly watchful but no less real and responsible guidance of…someone: an R.A. in the dorm, a superior officer, a counselor of some sort. For many, the first big step away is presaged years earlier by an experience in summer camp where one leaves home physically, but acquires no actual responsibility for one’s life in any truly meaningful sense: even bedtime is pre-ordained in camp, as is the time you can swim in the lake and what happens if you’re caught smoking in the woods behind your cabin. You’re on your own, but also not on your own; your counselors are adults in a certain sense…but most campers have the insight, I think, to realize even at ten or eleven that their college-aged counselors are not quite adults in the sense their parents are. They too, it turns out, have a whole slew of rules to follow if they don’t want to be expelled from Eden on the next bus heading south. Or north. Or wherever….

I myself had a different experience, one that in retrospect still, even after all these years, seems odd for me to contemplate. Before I changed course entirely and set sail for the rabbinate, I was preparing myself for a career in the diplomatic corps. I was taking courses in French and German all along, then added in Russian and Chinese. I liked my studies, then liked even more the opportunity that was suddenly presented to me to spend a year abroad in a country unlike my own, in a place like the one to which I was still vaguely fantasizing our government would send me as a well-meaning torchbearer of American culture and beneficence. I should have gone to Israel. I wrote a letter to myself that I placed in my desk drawer at home in which I said that I hoped this worked out for the best, but that if it didn’t I wanted later on to remember that I went into it knowing I was learning the lines for a play that had already closed. The full force of my intellectual curiosity was focused on the Hebrew language at that point…and on classical Jewish texts. (Later on, when I returned for my senior year, I would have a wholly unsatisfying experience studying both—language and text—with a teaching faculty at Queens College that featured both highly qualified academics and totally unqualified others who simply got the job because they had the word “rabbi” before their name or could speak Hebrew adequately.)  But that was all to come in the future…and so, packing up my things, I said goodbye to my parents and, clutching my $200 round-trip, open-ended Air France ticket to Paris, I flew to Europe.

To say that I landed in a different universe is to say nothing. I grew up in Jewish Queens. Our elementary school was closed on Sukkot. Or maybe not closed closed…but de facto closed because no one went to school on Jewish holidays. I had no non-Jewish friends. The handful of non-Jewish families in our apartment house were not known to me as such; I remember being vaguely surprised when I asked my father why the doorman had to work on Yom Kippur and he explained to me that Joe wasn’t actually Jewish. I was amazed! Eventually, I figured things out a bit. (It turned out Pete, my barber, also wasn’t Jewish.) But this was an intensely ethnic neighborhood in those days, Forest Hills. I certainly never had to tell anyone I was Jewish! And, besides, who could I have told who didn’t know it already?

And then…I landed in France. I spent a few days in Paris in a hotel near the Gare du Nord, then headed to Reims for a two-week introduction to French university life. I was skating along on the surface, understanding every twelfth word, trying to be brave, to complete the assignments as they were handed out…and then that part of things was over and I was escorted to my new home, a men’s dormitory on the outskirts of Nancy not too far from the university. I knew no one. I could barely speak French. (I could read Corneille and Racine well enough, but there was no emphasis at all on speaking in college language courses in those days.) I was not only the only Jew, but also the only American. (This was la Francophonie in its fullest flower—my dorm mates were from Chad, Niger, Laos, the Seychelles Islands, Madagascar…places like that. Not a Quebecker in sight! There were a few English students, it turned out, but it took some time to locate them.) The city was plastered with anti-Israel posters, most showing one or two scary-looking fedayeen brandishing machine guns and the words Palestine Vaincra (“Palestine Shall Vanquish”) in huge black letters beneath their booted feet. I felt intimidated and alone, unsure of myself, insecure in the extreme. And then…about two days after my arrival, news came of the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich.

For my dorm mates, it was just a news story. No one seemed too upset, let alone devastated. Life went on. The guys in the dorm responded, I suppose, not unlike the way I responded the other day when I opened the paper and read about the massacre of twenty shoppers at a market in northern Nigeria the other day by a ten-year-old suicide bomber, a little girl: I felt awful, sickened, horrified…then turned the page and read about something else. The fact that I could barely understand the radio and was ashamed to admit it out loud…plus the fact that it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, that I really didn’t know what these people all around me did or didn’t think about Jews or about Israel, that I had no idea what any of my new neighbors thought of those posters—together those anxiety sources alone were enough to paralyze me and made me feel not only lonely, but truly alone. Eventually, I found my way to the city’s sole synagogue with the intention, maybe, of finding some kindred souls, of making some friends, of seeing what kind of Jewish life my new city had to offer.

This is the background I bring personally to the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher massacre. I was raised to find no complicatedness at all in thinking of myself as a full-fledged American and as a proud member of the House of Israel. My parents were both deeply patriotic; neither ever missed an election, in the case of my mother even when she was only weeks from her death. Our synagogue was packed to overflowing the Friday evening following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 because we were responding to a horrific American tragedy by speaking in our own language, just as did the nation’s Catholics and Lutherans, and just as also did countless other groups within the warp and woof of American society. The debates others have reported to me experiencing in their youths between their American and Jewish identities were not part of who we were in Jewish Forest Hills; I think I would have thought it crazy even to ask there were some substantial issues to debate in that regard.

But what I found in France was different. I’ll never forget the pile of newspapers at the door to the sanctuary that the older men all used to wrap their tallis bags up in so as to carry them home unobtrusively. I never did that myself…but I eventually began to wonder if perhaps I should have been following their example. The supermarkets had kosher food, but it was a big secret: you had to know in advance which brands were kosher because they bore no “mysterious” Hebrew or non-Hebrew markings that might have identified themselves as such. Nor did the handful of kosher places in Paris that I was eventually directed to have any overt signage: you had to scrutinize the menu to get the idea. No one, not even the rabbi, wore a kippah in the street. (The rabbi wore a hat and everybody else, including the most observant families, went bareheaded.) And yet…the synagogue was a huge building, one so imposingly massive that even the Nazis eventually gave up on the idea of demolishing it and used it as some sort of storage facility. It was right there on the Boulevard Joffre, too, facing the city’s railway tracks and as prominent as any public building could be.

And so that was how it was in this new world for me, this strange combination of presence and reticence, of formidability and shyness, of being there proudly and prominently…and also not wishing to be noticed. Eventually, I settled in. I made some friends, began to be invited for Shabbat and occasionally for other things as well. I bailed out of all my French and German courses and registered solely for courses in Hebrew offered by the university’s Centre des Langues Sémitiques. I found myself in the company of a strange group of teachers and an even odder group of students, but I felt I had found my home. I liked going to class. I got to like living in the dorm. (My friend from the Seychelles Islands invited me to his parents’ home—in Paris, not in the Seychelles—for Christmas, which was quite the experience.) I eventually became a bit malnourished after trying to avoid unkosher food in the restaurant universitaire, which was basically impossible. It’s a whole story, that year I spent finding myself and deciding which course my life would take forward. Eventually, I came back to New York (a teenager no longer—I came back a day or two after my twentieth birthday), indicated my intent to start over and complete a major in Hebrew in my senior year, applied to JTS, was eventually accepted.

But the ill ease that now haunts the Jews of France is familiar to me. These were people whose communal ancestors have been present in France for far longer—for centuries upon centuries longer—than any of our ancestors have been present in North America.  And yet theirs is a host civilization that is Catholic in a way that our American cultural milieu is republican…a detail that mystifies outsiders a bit given the lack of commitment to Catholic dogma or ritual that characterizes secular French society as a whole. (For a survey of recent attitudes and practices, click here.) Or maybe it’s not the Catholic thing per se, but the notion that the nation itself is its own ethnic group, that outsiders are welcome but that there is no way to become French in the way Americans mean it when they talk about “becoming” an American. Tolerance towards others is laudable, but it doesn’t necessary make those others feel like they belong. And so the Jews of France are a kind of a puzzle: so totally integrated into the fabric of French society that there is no corner of French life closed off formally or de facto to Jewish citizens, yet also unsure how deep their roots in French soil would have to go for it to be physically impossible to uproot them or how willing their neighbors are to understand that tolerance and acceptance are not the same thing…and particularly in their extreme versions.

If any of you can understand French, click here to hear a remarkable clip of a longer speech by Manual Valls, the Prime Minister of France. He speaks boldly and clearly, very forcefully and articulately…and his message couldn’t be clearer: La France sans les juifs de France n’est plus la France (“France without the Jews of France would no longer be France.”) This is just the kind of life preserver that French Jewry needs now to embrace, shaken to the core by these attacks and worried about their future in a way that American Jews can understand intellectually perhaps, but not really emotionally.  It is a stirring clip—I wish I could find a way to present it in translation to you, although you can click here for a summary—and one that makes Manual Valls a true hero in my mind, someone who said what needed to be spoken aloud and was apparently unworried about the response his remarks might trigger, which response was at any rate warm and very supportive.

So I hope there’s hope. I feel very connected to the Jews of France, as connected as I am deeply concerned. My prayer is that the community there find the courage not to flee but to stand its ground, to deepen its commitment to its own self-preservation, and to find the strength necessary to raise a new generation of proud, young French Jews.  And if the events of last week serve as a wake-up call for the rest of France to the dangers of allowing Islamicist extremism flourish among home-grown, disaffected French youth, then perhaps some good can yet come from this horror.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Life After Death

The first time I saw a dead person, I was on the Q53 bus headed south. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. It was a hot Sunday in June and three of us—myself and two friends—were heading to Rockaway Beach. In the seat in front of me was a black woman whom I had noticed when we got on because she was suffering from some version of vitiligo, a skin condition that leaves those who suffer from it with large, pale patches of de-pigmented skin all over their bodies. She was an elderly woman too, someone I would have offered my seat to had she been standing (I was a peculiarly polite teenager), and she was wearing a huge sun hat. But she wasn’t standing at all—she was seated right in front of me when suddenly, somewhere near where Ozone Park turns into Howard Beach, she slumped forward in her seat and then, a moment later, fell to the floor of the bus. The driver pulled over, then came back to investigate, then called for help on the kind of two-way radio provided to bus drivers in those days  for use in emergency situations. (This was long before cell phones, obviously.)  

A few minutes later—it felt like hours, but can’t have been more than ten or twelve minutes—an ambulance and several police cars arrived. I was right there—the action was unfolding in the aisle next to my own seat—while they attempted to revive her, but, even though no announcements were made to the riding public, I could tell that they hadn’t been successful. A gurney was produced; her body was taken off the bus. The best part of the story is that the bus then continued on its route and we ended up spending the day swimming and sunning ourselves at the beach as planned. But that experience stayed with me and, in some extended sense, stays with me still.

More than anything, I remember being struck by how things really can change on a dime. You get up in the morning, decide to spend your day off at the beach. You gather up your things, put on a big hat with a large brim to protect you from the sun, make some sandwiches, fill a thermos with coffee…and then you fall over on the bus to the beach, draw your last breath, and are no more. A few days later, you are buried in the earth…and that, except for the hole your death has left in the hearts of those you’ve left behind, is more or less that. Or is it?

We all wonder about what comes next, if anything comes next. And, as we age, deciding whether death is a wall or a door is the question that comes to rest at the heart of how we think about life itself. As a rabbi, I’m supposed to be an expert on all sorts of things that regular people don’t or can’t know about. And, indeed, people ask me all the time what happens after death, a question made more, not less, poignant by the fact that it is almost invariably asked by people who have no real expectation that the answer they receive will be more than the answerer’s personal fantasy. And yet ask it they do, using a thousand different ways to express that same thought. Is death a gate in the fence, a door in the wall? Is it a transfer to the next bus, a portal to whatever lies beyond, a ladder to the next level? Or is it none of the above and just the last scene before the credits roll, the last chapter before you close the book, the final chord before the orchestra packs up and goes home? Our Jewish tradition is bit vague about the aftermath of the individual, preferring instead to train its gaze on the death of death itself that the prophets promised the messianic era will bring in its redemptive wake.  But what of the individual who lives and dies in a pre-redeemed world? Where does that person (or, to make the question sound less loony, that person’s soul or self) go, if indeed he or she or it goes anywhere at all? What, to ask the question slightly more sharply, do people mean when they say that they are saying Kaddish for some deceased person? For them, how?


I peruse the bestseller lists in the Times’ Book Review every weekend and have been long struck by the number of bestselling books by authors who purport to know exactly what happens after the curtain only appears to fall on human life as we know it, on our individual human lives. Some of these books are almost unbelievably successful: Pastor Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven Is For Real has sold a cool one million e-books since it was released in 2010 and is still on the Times’ list of non-fiction paperback bestsellers. I’ve been watching it there now for years—when it slipped off the top ten into the top twenty last month, it had been there for an unbelievable 206 weeks.  Dr. Eben Alexander III’s book Proof of Heaven spent 94 weeks on the list and keeps re-appearing in the top twenty even now. This week, I finally gave into my own sense of curiosity and read both books.


Heaven Is For Real is the odder of the two. Written by a pastor about his young son Colton’s experiences in heaven during an emergency appendectomy, the book has the strange feature of presenting the personal testimony of someone who only speaks to the readers through someone else’s voice. 
It’s an odd voice too, the father’s, one so given to using babyish euphemisms for basic body functions that it feels as though a shy child unused to speaking to adults were addressing the book’s readers rather than a grown man. It’s hard to take an author seriously who uses words like that in written prose, yet the enormous success of the book speaks for itself…and also for the degree to which it apparently addresses a need felt keenly enough by its million-plus readers to warrant actually buying the book and not waiting for a library copy to become available. Some of it is a bit silly—the author seems inordinately impressed that his son reported that he could “see” his father, a Christian pastor, praying for him when he was in the O.R. while his mother talked to someone on the phone in another room, two actions that he must have “seen” countless times before—and some of it sounds somewhere between ghoulish and delusional. (I’m thinking of the boy's parents’ ecstatic response to the news, delivered by their four-year-old, that while wandering around heaven he had run into the fetus his mother had miscarried before he was born, now grown up to be a happy little girl fully alive in death. But creepier still is the parents’ playful banter about how each now hopes to predecease the other so as to garner the right personally to name their heavenly daughter before the other one can get to it. Did I mention this guy has sold more than one million e-books?)


The rest of the story is what you’d expect. Little Colton meets Jesus. He runs into his dad’s late grandfather. (Pop has, and I quote, “really big wings.”) He comes across the archangel Gabriel and John the Baptist and gets a long, scary look at Satan. He has a brief sit-down with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he has all the “right” experiences that any child raised in his father’s church would be expected to have. He learns nothing surprising (except perhaps that miscarried fetuses grow up in heaven), nothing doctrinally suspect, nothing even remotely upsetting. In other words, he is the living embodiment of theory according to which heaven is where everything you believed but couldn’t prove turns out actually to be right, thus the living epicenter of self-validation that beckons to all in our doubt-riddled, uncertain, unbalanced world.


I also read Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven. A neurosurgeon exactly my age, Dr. Alexander had the misfortune to contract bacterial meningitis in 2008. The disease left him in a deep coma and it was while he was comatose that he found himself in a place that he later identified as heaven. It’s difficult to summarize the experience, which is described richly and fully, and at great length, in the book; part of it had to do with being mired in a kind of heavy, tangible darkness that was simultaneously brimming with light. There was a beautiful girl riding on a giant butterfly escorting him into an immense void. Different parts of the experience, the doctor labels the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View (it makes sense, sort of, in the book), the Gateway, and the Core. And this author also runs into a dead sister

in heaven, although the story here is more complicated: after finally making contact with his birthparents (Dr. Alexander was adopted as an infant), he discovers that he has a full brother and sister (his teenaged parents eventually married and had more children) but that a second sister had died. And, it turns out, it was exactly her, the late sister, who was the beautiful girl in the powder blue and indigo dress bathed in heavenly light on the butterfly’s wings. It took a while to recognize her when the author was finally out of his coma and saw her photograph for the first time, but he was eventually certain that his late sister, a woman whom he had never met and whose picture he had never seen, was the woman sent to lead him to the Core, to Om, to God. You get the idea.

So the question for me is why I find this all so hokey and unlikely. I am, after all, in the business of encouraging people to believe in the some version of life after death. I regularly chant the memorial prayer in synagogue that concludes with the wish, which I sing out fervently, that the soul of the deceased find repose in paradise, secure and safe beneath the protective wings of God’s fully present reality in that place. I unveil tombstones that have carved into them the prayer that the soul of the individual interred in that grave be bound up in the bond of life everlasting. I talk about ghosts all the time from the bimah, particularly during Yizkor. And, indeed, the notion of the durable soul is a bread-and-butter concept for Jewish theology, one of the foundational ideas upon much of the rest rests.


It is true that, at least technically speaking, neither Colton Burpo nor Eben Alexander actually died. Yet both perceived what happened to them as a kind of dying nonetheless and their perception of the state into which they entered as akin to what most pre-dead people think of as heaven, as the “other” world, as the ultimate reality of which this world of brick and mud we inhabit is the merest and least consequential shadow.  I should be proud that I was right all along, that there is a universe of light behind the door through which all must pass, that all you see is precisely not all you get. And, yes, a little bit I do want to believe that these accounts—and all the other Near Death Experiences you can read about in dozens of similar books—that the Christian symbolism in these books is merely an instance of people singing in their own voice, looking out at the world through their own eyes, interpreting the uninterpretable in terms of their own prior beliefs. But mostly it seems to me that these books, for all I want to believe, prove nothing at all. At the end of the day, neither book explains how its author knows that this wasn’t just a huge hallucination to which its author fell prey. A pleasant, endearing, very attractive hallucination, to be sure…but ultimately just a projection of prior beliefs on the blank slate of a mind at rest either artificially (like the boy under anesthesia) or tragically (like Dr. Alexander in his coma).


Of course, the fact that neither book is especially compelling doesn’t mean that there isn’t a world beyond the world, that death isn’t a door, or that the soul isn’t durable enough to outlast the body that houses it on earth. All of those ideas are part of our sacred tradition…but, at least for the time being, they can be cherished as prayers, as hopes, even as sacred promises, but not embraced as statements of proven fact that none but the wilfully obtuse could rationally deny. But that’s not such a bad thing…prayer is a powerful thing and surely none of us knows in advance which of all our prayers will be answered!