Thursday, September 3, 2015

Watching the Watchman - An Elul Meditation

Am I the only American my age who didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school? I certainly could have read it—the book had already been in print for seven years when I began tenth grade and hasn’t ever really stopped selling: to this day, the book has sold an almost unbelievable thirty million copies.  But I somehow didn’t read it then and, as the years passed, I continued not to have read it…until just a few years ago when Joan patiently explained to me that admitting to not having read To Kill a Mockingbird was not much worse than admitting to never having read Heidi or The Lord of the Rings. Remembering the “three strikes you’re out” rule all too well from my single season in Little League as an eleven-year-old, I knew I had to act quickly. So Mockingbird it was. (It really wasn’t much of a choice.) I downloaded a copy, set to reading…and was completely enthralled. After being disappointed so many different times by books that I was told I simply had to read, here for once was something that I actually did have to read: a story that was inspiring, riveting, clever…and extremely well-written. The characters were nuanced, balanced, and believable. The story—unbelievable in a certain sense, but unfolded so artfully that in the context of the book it hardly feels that way at all—the story was uplifting in the best sense of the word. (And I write as someone who generally finds fiction widely touted as “uplifting” mawkish to the point of being off-putting and anything but inspiring.) I loved the book. I’m sure all of my readers who read the book when they were teenagers will agree that it more than deserved the Pulitzer it won in 1961, the year after its initial publication, as will all who have read it since.


The part of the book I loved the most, of course, was the depiction of Atticus Finch. Everybody thinks of him as looking like Gregory Peck, the handsome actor who played him in the 1962 movie and won an Oscar for his efforts. I suppose even I think he looked the part, but it is hardly Atticus’ dashing good looks that make him the hero of the book: it is his simple dedication to the cause of justice that leads him, a white lawyer in Alabama in 1936, to defend a black man accused of rape not because he feels sorry for the man or because he is personally eager symbolically to strike a blow against the endemic racism of his time and place, but simply because he believes the man to be innocent of the charges brought against him and wishes personally to ensure that he is defended in court vigorously and competently.  He clearly knows that he is going to lose, that all black men accused of violence against white women lose when tried in court in his time and place. He knows that, but somehow feels unable to desist from mounting a compelling, more-than-competent defense. When he loses and his client is convicted, he begins calmly to plan Tom’s appeal. When Tom, in despair and knowing all too well that the appeal too will fail, takes his own life (or rather provokes his own murder in a sequence as horrifying as it is riveting,), Atticus personally takes himself into the black part of town to bring the grim tidings personally to Tom’s widow, Helen.

Far from being a plaster saint (as New Yorker critic, Thomas Mallon, called him in print a few years ago), Atticus’ depiction seemed real to me. I spent eleven years in and out of Waycross, Georgia, where I had a student pulpit for seven of my eight years at JTS, and for all the years after that until I took my first full-time pulpit in 1986. I was hardly an expert, but I did spend a lot of time in a very southern part of the South…and, although Mockingbird was set in the 1930’s, decades before I was born, the feel of the book rang true to me, as did the ambiguous, complicated relationship between black people and white people that I myself witnessed and personally experienced during those formative years as I figured out the ins and outs of serving a tiny Jewish community as its only, albeit very part-time, rabbi.

Until this year, To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only book. She was (and is) widely acknowledged as one of twentieth-century America’s finest authors, mentionable in the same breath as William Faulkner (nineteen novels, 125 short stories, twenty screenplays, and six collections of poetry), John Steinbeck (sixteen novels, five collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books), and Ernest Hemingway (ten novels, ten short story collections, and five works of non-fiction).  And now, in 2015, at age eighty-nine, Harper Lee has suddenly become the author of a second published novel, Go Set a Watchman.

The whole story of how the book came into print is complicated and not specifically what I want to write about here. But the short version is that Watchman, although set twenty years after Mockingbird, was actually Lee’s first book. Widely described as a the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the book is not in any sense a draft of Lee’s famous book: it merely concerns the same characters, or some of them, twenty years after the story that made them famous. So it’s hard to know what to call it—it is a sequel (in the sense that it tells the story of what happened later on to the people depicted in the first book) but also a kind of prequel (in that it was written first, presumably before even the author herself knew what would eventually become the backstory to the book that made her famous. The reviews, or at least the ones I personally read, were not particularly kind, taking some sort of critics’ perverse pleasure in noting its flaws, in observing that it would never have become a bestseller if the other book, the later one, had not paved the way for its great success with its own stupendous success. (And stupendous is hardly an exaggerated term to use in this context: To Kill a Mockingbird still sells about a million copies a year.) But what the critics pounced the most mercilessly on was the depiction of the older Atticus Finch, now revealed (or, I should say, prevealed) to be neither a lawyer-saint nor a true hero, but a man of his time and place, a racist whose view of black people was negative in the extreme, paternalistic, and base.

I read Go Set a Watchman this summer in Jerusalem. I can see why the publisher to whom Lee sent the manuscript sent her back to her study to reset her story in an earlier day and to turn a depressing tale about racism in Alabama in the 1950s into an uplifting (that word again!), deeply satisfying tale of moral courage in the face of almost universal adversity. You could practically hear the crowing behind the prose in some of the reviews I came across. You see, he wasn’t such a great man…in fact, he wasn’t great at all. He was a man of his time and place, a man whose defense of poor Tom Robinson was the aberration not the constant, the deviation from the norm rather than the norm itself. And, indeed, life in Maycomb, the town in which the story is set, is depicted in a particularly unappealing way throughout the book. Even the black people who in Mockingbird are mostly shown to be as noble as they are oppressed, are in Watchman mostly depicted unappealingly…including the saintly Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, who has turned into a bitter, angry older woman whose deep affection for the narrator when she was a child seems not to have outlasted her long years of employment in the Finch household.

As we make our way through the month of Elul, the month that precedes the High Holiday season during which Jewish people are bidden to devote time to introspection, to self-analysis, and to the stress-inducing work of looking in the mirror without flinching or turning away even from the last appealing part of what they see therein reflected, I’d like to suggest a different way to read both books.

The great debate the publication of Watchman has ignited is regularly framed as a question of which Atticus, the almost-fifty-year-old of Mockingbird or the almost-seventy-year-old of Watchman is the “real” Atticus, the depiction of the man as he truly was and not just for a long moment how he somehow appeared to be. Nor does the debate itself seem too serious: almost universally, the assumption seems to be that the older man, the one possessed of racist sentiments and a deeply prejudicial worldview, is the “real” man, his earlier iteration a kind of aberrant blip that made him briefly seem other than he truly was.  But, of course, Atticus isn’t a real man at all—this is a work of fiction, after all—just a literary character depicted at two different moments in a life that never happened other than in the pages of two novels. There are, therefore, no other incidents in his life: just these two moments artfully and intriguingly set forth for us to compare and to weigh one against the other. He isn’t really either man; he is both and neither: two sides of a coin that exists only within the literary constructs of the author’s imagination.

Taken seriously as a literary character, then, Atticus is two different things: a fine, decent man who rises to greatness when a door somehow opens through which only someone possessed of the finest moral virtue would have the courage to step and a man of his time and place who, like most of us, exists as one person among many and takes for granted what everybody in Maycomb believes to reflect, not a meanspirited and racist worldview, but simply how things are. In other words, by taking the books as snapshots of a man at two different moments in his otherwise non-existent life, a portrait is drawn that should be very familiar to all of us.
Just like in art, perspective is only attained in fiction when an author has the skill to draw two portraits in relationship to each other convincingly. And so we are left with a kind of a literary portrait that, because Harper Lee is a very talented writer, suggests the kind of perspective that can be simultaneously unsettling and stirring.  And now that I can view Atticus with some perspective, I feel closer to the man than ever before. He is me, in a real sense…not because I harbor secret racist sentiments, but because I too am a child of the world in which I live, of the society in which I labor and function. Mostly, that’s what everybody is. But occasionally, through some unexpected juxtaposition of circumstances and impetuses, through some combination of unseen forces…we can (and occasionally do) rise to greatness. Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson was not an aberration in the sense that the author told us a lie about who he was and what he could have done. (Authors of fiction can’t lie, of course—whatever they say happened is exactly what did happen; that’s the whole premise of fiction.)  But it was an aberration in the best sense of the word, an example of a regular person rising unexpectedly to greatness and doing, even if just that one time, something remarkable, something noble and good, something worthy of the great praise and respect his depiction in Mockingbird correctly earned him the minds of millions.

As we pass through Elul, we should take that to heart. We are all children of our time and place. We all believe what everybody believes, just as we all take for granted what the world around us tells us to be true. We are thus all enslaved to the givens of the universe in which we thrive…but we are also all capable of greatness, of stepping away—even if just for a moment—from the norm, from the expected, from the predictable. We are all capable of shucking off the shackles that mostly hold us successfully in place and setting them aside as we rise, unbidden but fully really, to greatness. That, I think, is how to read Atticus in light of this new perspective offered by Harper Lee’s new novel, as a call to readers to notice that, for all we live in prisons fashioned of the ideas society imposes on us, there actually is no lock on the jailhouse door, that we all really do possess the power to step into the light…and to behave nobly and decently, even greatly, even if most of us turn back into mice when midnight strikes. That is the message of both books read at once, and it is a fine and very welcome set of ideas to take along with us as we prepare to enter the season of judgment and repentance that begins in just a few short weeks. I recommend both books highly and suggest that they would make excellent Elul books for people eager to gain perspective on their own lives as the season of judgment is almost upon us.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Deal

In just these last few weeks, the amount of material published in print and online regarding the JCPOA—the so-called “Iran Deal” signed in Vienna on July 14 between the Iran, the European Union, Germany, and the five members of the United Nations Security Council—has become so voluminous that no one could possibly read all of it, let alone digest it all thoughtfully or thoroughly. Nor has anyone’s approach emerged as “the” interpretation of the deal’s implications with which all others must either agree or take issue; even a basic consensus about what the details of the deal actually mean has yet to emerge in the kind of unassailable way that would make it easy to agree, at least, about what it is we are so passionately disagreeing about. As things stand, listening to politicians and talk-show pundits (not to mention rabbis) untrained in science, let alone in the intricacies of nuclear physics, give forth passionately about “break-out times” and centrifuge types is, to say the very least, unedifying and nothing like the kind of thoughtful, fact-based analysis for which the moment calls. It feels a bit as though we’re trying to focus on a moving target while we ourselves are also in motion. I’ve hardly read anything at all that isn’t directly contradicted by something else I’ve read.

The President, clearly, has his own interpretation of the deal, one he has put forward forcefully now on many different occasions. The political leaders of all countries who negotiated and signed the agreement have also come out strongly in favor of its implementation. What else did anyone expect David Cameron or Angela Merkel to say? Nor did it come as a real surprise that the Iranian political leadership has mostly spoken out favorably about the deal their own representatives negotiated with the West or even that the Ayatollah Khamenei did. To my way of thinking, all those naysayers who have made the basis of their opposition to the deal the fact that the very people who negotiated it, or whose representatives did, are spreading out over the globe to sell their own product—all those naysayers whose basis for saying nay is the fact that the deal is supported by its own authors sound just a bit naïve: speaking honestly, who didn’t expect the deal to be enthusiastically touted as a magnificent achievement by those people who spent years negotiating its terms? To me personally, none of their comments matter much: when I walk into a Ford dealership, I expect the salesperson to try to sell me a Ford and certainly don’t take offense when that is precisely what happens. That does not mean, however, that I feel morally bound to buy one.

The response from Israel’s political leaders has also been entirely along predicted lines. Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the deal as “capitulation.”  Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely used the expression “historic surrender” in her analysis of the deal. Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, described the situation as “grave and dangerous.” Others had even harsher things to say, but even those Israeli politicians that did voice some sort of cautious support for the deal did so out of the conviction that something was better than nothing…and that facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran in ten or fifteen years is better than facing one now. With that, surely no one could rationally disagree. But is that a good enough reason to encourage Congress to lend its support to a deal that is merely better than nothing? That is the question facing our nation as I understand it this third week in August as Congress approaches the midway point in its self-mandated sixty-day review period.

I’ve just returned from five weeks in Jerusalem, and I did not hear one single Israel speak enthusiastically and unreservedly about the JCPOA as a great achievement that no thinking person should reject. But neither did I encounter a populace preparing for its own nuclear annihilation. Instead I heard people speaking with a strange mixture of resignation to reality and confidence in the future…and it is that specific man-in-the-street Israeli response that, fresh from five and a half weeks in Jerusalem, I wish to write about today.

From the Israeli point of view, there was, to be sure, something of the theater of the absurd in the whole negotiation process, but this was mostly a direct outgrowth of the fact that Israel was excluded from the negotiations somewhat in the way that Czechoslovakia was not invited to the table in 1938 as countries—as countries not one of which at the time had any idea how much was really at stake—sat down to negotiate its dismemberment. (When the doctors finally convinced my father a few years before he died to agree to the amputation of his left leg, the discussion was a bit surreal…but at least he was being asked to agree to the amputation of his own leg, not someone else’s!) And so there Israel was, firmly on the sidelines, its presence neither wished for nor required…while the world thoughtfully discussed how much time would be reasonable for Iran—a nation that has openly, shamelessly, and repeatedly declared its wish to annihilate the State of Israel and to murder all of its Jewish citizens—how much time Iran should reasonably have to wait before acquiring weaponry so powerful that even the successful deployment of a single bomb would be sufficient to wreak almost unimaginable damage to Israel’s cities, its farmland, and its people. In the end, the fact that the people to whom the specifics of the deal will almost inevitably matter the most were personae non gratiae at the table at which it was being worked out simply led most Israelis to consider the whole enterprise more akin to some sort of dark, post-modern tragedy in which the people whom the play is about never actually appear on stage…and the people who do appear on stage only think that they play is about themselves.

When I put my ear to the ground, I heard two themes occurring and recurring all summer when the table talk turned to Iran and “the deal.”

The first had to do with the fantasy that this whole prolonged negotiation was about the security of the West as much as it was about Israel. The President has made that point repeatedly. But does anyone really think that the chances that the Iranians might one day launch a premeditated nuclear strike against France are even remotely similar to the chances that the Iranian leadership might one day strike out mindlessly, violently and (if they are a nuclear power) unimaginably murderously against Israel? When our nation and Israel are vilified in the Iranian media as the greater and lesser Satan, does anyone truly conclude from that parallel usage that it is just as likely that Iran might declare launch a nuclear missile strike against Cincinnati as against Tel Aviv? Surely no thoughtful observer thinks either of those things. But, if that is the case (which is surely is), then why vilify the Israeli leadership for being unwilling to embrace a deal that basically puts on hold for a decade or fifteen years a potentially devastating threat to its security that is highly unlikely ever truly to matter to any of the countries who negotiated the accord? Even just lately, I continue to hear people talk about a nuclear Iran as a threat to our country. I suppose that a nuclear Iran would, by its very existence, destabilize the Middle East and thus by extension also bring untoward, unwanted consequences to our country as well. But to compare the threat a nuclear Iran would constitute, say, for the U.K. with the threat it would constitute for Israel just makes Israelis laugh. It makes me laugh as well…but not quite as heartily as I wish it did. I mentioned my father before, so I’ll mention him again: his expression for that kind of laughter would have been bitter gelechter, bitter laughter, the kind that leaves a sour taste in your mouth…and that only exists to hold back tears of frustration and tension.

The second has to do with the childish, naïve willingness of the world to assume that a maniacal dictator who openly speaks of his wish to murder the six million Jews of Israel couldn’t possibly mean it, that only crazy people take that kind of political rhetoric seriously.  This too I’ve been hearing constantly, the mostly recently from someone who called into a radio show I was listening to in the car the other day. “Didn’t the naysayers,” the young man asked, “realize that the Iranians would be risking everything by launching such an attack against Israel, that the consequences for their own country would be devastating and impossible to calculate in advance? They’d be crazy even to consider doing such a thing…so why are we so worried about it?” I’ve reconstructed his remarks here from memory, so I can’t vouch for the exactitude of the quote…but that was the general gist. And it is precisely that kind of naiveté, that kind of good-natured ignorance of the fact that the history of the world is peppered with examples of nations so fully in the thrall of their own anti-Semitism that they behaved precisely in the way the caller found so unlikely, risking everything to go war with its own Jewish citizens—it’s that kind of utopian worldview that no student of Jewish history can find at all rational and which Israelis, almost all of whom study Jewish history in high school and all of whom are fully schooled in the history of their own country, find so childish and so unwise. Why, after all, would the Iranians cheat? They’d only get in trouble! But what if giving vent to their violent anti-Semitism—and to judge from the rhetoric of their leaders, we are speaking about people whose loathing for Israel knows no bottom line—what if their unyielding desire to destroy were to be more important than avoiding whatever consequences their actions might conceivably trigger? What then? That was the question I heard asked over and over during my weeks in Israel this summer.



And so we now enter the second thirty days of the Congressional review period, the crucial half. My representatives in Congress are split on the issue: two against, one for. I feel that myself. I admire Senator Schumer for his principled stand in the fact of what must have been overwhelming pressure from the White House to toe the party line. I admire Congressman Steve Israel for doing the same thing and for the same reason. I don’t see any reason to argue this ad hominem, but I also don’t see any way in which the deal as negotiated comes even close to fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the sort of absolute way that everybody, myself included, understood it to mean at the time. And that being the case, I can’t quite imagine how Senator Gillibrand, whom I heard with my own ears last winter repeat and personally endorse the president’s pledge that our country would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, can feel honorable supporting the bill. On the other hand, I can’t quite turn away from the hope that buying a decade’s time at least creates the possibility for the kind of meaningful regime change that could at least possibly put an end to Iran’s support for world-wide terror and its endlessly bellicose hostility toward Israel. I find that a very improbable prospect, one no one as familiar with Jewish history as myself could reasonably be expected to embrace as likely. But it does constitute a noble hope…and hope itself is never something reasonably dismissed as pointless or foolish. And Jewish history teaches us that as well.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Happiest Countries

Synchronicity—the fantasy that the simultaneous occurrence of apparently unrelated events has meaning beyond mere coincidence—has always seemed a slippery concept for me. And yet it happens from time to time that I have two contiguous conversations that seems uncannily related to each other even though the people I’m actually speaking with don’t even know each other, let alone regularly (or ever) coordinate what they have to say to me. Other times it’s more of a literary phenomenon for me—I read two books or even two essays contiguously and find the meaning of both enhanced dramatically by their juxtaposition…even though they are only juxtaposed in terms of my personal reading habits, something the author of neither could possibly have anticipated.

I had an experience like that this week. First, I was very taken with Evelyn Gordon’s essay posted on the Mosaic website about her feelings regarding this year’s Better Life Index, an annual global survey published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and was prompted to read about it elsewhere in even more detail. (To see Gordon’s essay, click here.) What interested me particularly were the twenty-two specific factors identified as those the most tied to a sense of contentedness on the part of the individual and thus statistically brought to bear to figure out which of the surveyed countries have the citizens the most rationally described, to use the simplest term, as “happy.” (The OECD has thirty-four members states, including the U.S., Canada, Israel, and most of the European Union, but two non-members countries, Russia and Brazil, were included in the survey as well.) The factors were interesting in their own right and included, among other things, the respondents’ level of reported satisfaction with life itself, their sense of being in basically good health, their average amount of disposable income (that is, what’s left over when the bills are paid), their life expectancy, their overall level of satisfaction with the places in which they live, and their sense that they have “quality support networks” to rely on in times of trouble. It strikes me that it would be an interesting exercise to challenge myself to say what my personal twenty-two factors would be, the ones that I myself feel together constitute the definition of happiness. But now that I’ve had a chance to contemplate the ones in use in the OECD survey, they really do seem well chosen and reasonable. And so I continued to read.

The first four nations on the list—those countries whose citizens’ responses indicated a level of personal contentment with the givens of their lives that superseded the analogous level in all other countries included in the survey—were no surprise: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland are stable, prosperous places with good school systems, first-rate health care, no rational reason to fear an attack from some rogue state beyond their borders eager to annihilate them, and a highly developed sense of pride in their national culture. Neither did numbers six through ten particularly surprise me, and for roughly the same reasons: Norway, Australia, Canada, Holland, and New Zealand are all wealthy places self-endowed with fine cultural institutions, excellent hospitals, first-rate universities, etc. But it was the country in fifth place (that is to say, the country of the thirty-six nations surveyed that ranked fifth in terms of the happiness of its citizenry) that surprised me mightily: little Israel. Also interesting is that it’s been more than five years since the United State was in the top ten, but I somehow find that easier to explain to myself than Israel’s presence on the list.

So there I was contemplating this very interesting list when my reading time was suddenly invaded by a different report, the much-awaited, wholly surprise-less, report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict. It’s impressive, actually, that after having squandered its moral capital with respect to Israel more or less utterly that the U.N. even bothers going through the motions of writing and publishing these reports. And yet they do. The successor to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that was so biased against Israel that its own author, Richard Goldstone himself, eventually retracted his support for the most egregious of his own findings, this report appears to be just one more U.N.-based, knee-jerk effort to condemn Israel and thus informally to buttress its enemies. Its first chairman, William Schabas, turned out to be a paid consultant for the PLO and was duly gotten rid of. (Apparently there are levels of public hypocrisy too much even for the United Nations.) Another member was chosen because of his expertise in racism and racial discrimination, neither of which areas of expertise had any relevance to the Gaza controversy. Most damning of all was the fact that the study was commissioned by, of all groups, the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body so overtly and unabashedly hostile to Israel that it has taken the time to pass more resolutions against the Jewish State than against all other countries combined. (The Human Rights Council also commissioned the Goldstone Report in 2009.) Surprisingly, the report did criticize Hamas for its rocket attacks against Israeli towns—each one of which unambiguously targeted civilians—and, even more surprisingly, for Hamas’s extrajudicial execution of alleged collaborators, none of whom was tried, let alone vigorously defended, or convicted in court. But that, at least to me personally, sounded like so-much window dressing provided to provide the whole undertaking with an aura of evenhandedness. Back in March, when Secretary of State Kerry warned the Human Rights Council that its obsession with Israel risked “undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” he was really saying the very least. And this week’s report could reasonably be taken the Council’s insolent response to that sober warning.

But it isn’t specifically to take on the United Nations that I am writing today (or to wonder aloud, although I surely do, why the United States pays a whopping 22% of the budget of such a useless, morally bankrupt organization), but to describe my response to reading both reports, the United Nations Report on Gaza and the OECD’s 2015 Better Life Index report, one after the other. Some of the reasons Israelis are so happy are obvious. Of the thirty-six countries surveyed, Israelis have the eighth highest life expectancy and the eighth highest sense of their own good health. Surely, that counts for a lot! But what about the whole sense of dread and impending doom that any normal person who reads the New York Times or listens to NPR would expect to weigh Israelis down and make them, not the fifth happiest nation in the OECD (plus Brazil and Russia), but morose and fully consumed with anxiety and existential dread? And yet…Israel is number five in this year’s survey, ahead of every nation considered other than Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. It isn’t money. (The average Israeli’s disposable income in 2014 was about $22,000, in the top of the bottom half of the nations surveyed.) And it certainly isn’t a sense that peace is close at hand. (0% of Israelis think that, which statistic I just made up but feel fully confident is correct.) 87% of Israelis, on the other hand, said they felt they personally had a strong support network backing them up in times of stress or trouble. But more telling still is that Israel was tied for fourth place when it came to the percentage of its citizens who said, simply, that they were satisfied with their lives.

So perhaps the real question has to do with that last statistic. What is it that makes people feel content despite everything in the world that could legitimately be brought to bear to make them unhappy? Israelis couldn’t possibly have more reasons to be worried. The prospect of a nuclear Iran is probably at the top of the list, as it certainly should be. But there are a million other reasons for Israelis to be unnerved by the universe and specifically by their contemplation of their place in it. And still they win fifth place in the personal-happiness sweepstakes, ahead of nations far more commonly thought of as wealthy, secure, places like Austria and Ireland.

In my opinion, what makes people happy is specifically not money or the level of luxury that characterizes their daily lives, but a sense of meaningful purpose, a sense of attainable destiny. To speak on the level of the individual, nothing is a surer guarantee of personal contentment than the belief that one’s life is purposeful, that one’s efforts have meaning far beyond the confines of one’s daily list of chores or one’s job, that one’s daily routine is part of a much larger program of meaningful endeavor that grants life the kind of meaning that transcends its day-to-day details. This, I’ve seen a million times over in the course of a career serving three different congregations: feeling purposeful, useful, and productive—and not merely busy, let alone overwhelmed with busy-ness—are the constant predictors of happiness in life. And what is true of people is, I’m guessing, also true of nations. America is a good example—for the 239 years that our nation has existed, its periods of greatest success and cohesiveness have been in the course of those years the most characterized by a shared sense of national purpose, and our most devastating retreat from national happiness—the War Between the States in which more than half a million citizens died at the hands of other citizens—was characterized specifically by unresolved differences over what precisely our national destiny was to be.
Israel’s great strength is its sense of national purpose. Indeed, the very notion of responding to history instead of merely attempting to endure its relentless vicissitudes—and responding to violence, prejudice, and hatred not with rage or rancor but productively and creatively by creating a safe haven for Jewish people in the homeland of the Jewish people—that is the story against which to interpret the contentment of Israel’s citizens. The majority of Israel’s Arab minority is made up of people who see a role for themselves in the only country of which they are citizens. The world seems to find that odd, but to me it isn’t any more weird or inexplicable than imagining Jewish citizens like myself buying into the national cultures of countries in which Jewish people constitute a tiny minorities, yet in which they have come to feel they have a place nevertheless.


When I am in Israel, it’s that sense of national purpose that always makes the strongest impression on me. It is wherein lies the nation’s true strength—in its sense of itself as existing at the confluence of history and destiny, and imbued with a deep, ineradicable sense of national purpose. That, I believe, is why Israel is the fifth happiest nation in the OCED.  And, of course, it’s also why I’m so proud to be off next week to spend the summer in Jerusalem. Joan and I aren’t citizens of Israel…but its sense of purposeful destiny is fully ours as well.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Blackishness

Our American culture values the concept of self-determination almost above all else: whatever else it might mean in the rarified strata of political theorizing and governmental policy, the concept of charting your own course forward, of being master of your own destiny, of living exactly as you wish to without regard for the expectations of others or attention to their wishes—these manifestations of the basic right to self-define according to your own lights are at the heart of what Americans understand to be the very definition of personal freedom. When the license plates in New Hampshire declare that its citizens would prefer death to being unable to live free, for example, it is to that specific aspect of freedom that I’ve always imagined them to be referring. It is certainly what Patrick Henry meant in his speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775 when he scoffed at those who would live as slaves if that were the price of living at all and famously declared, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death.”

Traditionally, this much-cherished right to self-definition was understood to encompass all possible courses forward in life that one might popularly or unpopularly choose to follow. And so have we systematically worked in our country at demolishing artificial barriers in the academy and the workplace that served solely to thwart the best efforts of individuals to attend some specific school or to find employment in some particular field because of factors wholly unrelated to their actual qualifications for that school or that job. We have been relatively successful in this effort, but other barriers were granted a pass because they seemed to be rooted more in physical reality than in the inherent right to self-define. Our country, for example, is grappling with the apparently insurmountable problem of deciding what to do about twenty million or so aliens who reside here illegally…and no one has suggested that the problem could simply be solved by allowing them the right simply to self-define as Americans, much less qualifying the possibility of doing so as an inalienable right. That, clearly is not how it works!  On the other hand, the recognition of the rights of gay people to self-define as such and then to be accorded the same rights as others regardless of that specific aspect of self-definition has been one of the more astonishing developments in our nation over the last decades. But the distinction between the two groups merely underscores the basic principle: gay people may self-define that way because they actually are gay; illegal immigrants may not self-define as Americans because they aren’t Americans…and because nationality is simply deemed too deeply rooted in legal status and personal history to be altered at will.

One of the more interesting features of the social history of the last several decades has been the slow evolution of attitude regarding aspects of personal status once deemed fixed in nature but now understood to be far more fluid than previously assumed.  The whole Caitlin Jenner story has to be the most striking example of how public opinion develops in the light of an ever-maturing understanding of the human condition.  Once upon a time—and surely within the lifetimes of all readers of these lines—she (or rather she in her former iteration as Bruce Jenner) would have been condemned as a freak or, more kindly, as a deranged person who, although obviously a man in every way, was nonetheless suffering from the delusion—pitiable but certainly not for that reason justifiable—that he was actually a woman. The whole concept of gender dysphoria—and the deeper issue of whether it is a mental disorder in the “real” sense of the term or merely in the sense that homosexuality was so listed by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973—is confusing to most, myself included. I feel sympathetic to anyone who feels ill at ease in his or her own skin, who feels that the only way to survive (let alone to thrive) in society is to suppress an aspect of oneself that feels basic and indelible. Whether the course society has adopted—to insist on relative certainty and then to endorse the concept of doing what it takes, including surgically, to “become” the gender one feels oneself truly to be—turns out to be the wisest way to address gender dysphoria remains, I suppose, to be seen. But the fact that we have evolved to the point at which the discussion is out in the open and is about whether gender and sex are distinct enough to be addressed separately in a physician’s effort to treat the whole person who is his or her patient—that itself constitutes a huge advance over the name-calling that would have attended any effort to discuss the matter at all seriously even just decades ago. And that, regardless of any other aspect of the debate, surely constitutes a big step forward for a society that wants to think of itself in terms of its moral bearing as continually evolving.

And now we come to race, the issue I would like to discuss in today’s letter. Race is, at best, a slippery concept in our culture. People self-define as white or black, but the issue itself is rarely actually thought of as one of self-definition and it would be the odd person out who would argue that black people are black because they self-define as such. On the other hand, being “of” one specific race in our society, for all it obviously to do with parentage, also has to do with appearance: the President of the United States is biologically as white as he is black, yet he is universally described, including by himself in his own books, as a black person. Similarly, the notion of being a black person who looks like a white person doesn’t compute in our culture: blackness is how you look, as is whiteness…so to argue that someone with none of the racial features of black people could somehow nonetheless be a black person makes no sense. And that brings us to the case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official from Spokane, Washington, who appears to have assumed the racial identity of a black person without having the parentage that generally goes along with that setting on the dial.

The details of her story are fascinating to consider. Born to two unambiguously white parents, her childhood pictures look like any white child with pale skin and blond hair. (She later claimed to have had a black birth father to go along with her white stepfather, but that appears not truly to have been the case.) Later she became a successful artist and also an outspoken leader in the struggle for civil rights both in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho (where she was the education director of the Human Rights Education Institute, a grass roots anti-discrimination organization founded when Idaho was home to the Aryan Nations white supremacist group, and a teacher at North Idaho College, a community college) and later in Spokane (where she was president of the local NAACP chapter and a teacher of courses in black history and culture at East Washington University). Somewhere along the way, she also began to self-identify as a black person, thereby presenting even her supporters with an interesting question to consider. Is there such a thing as racial identity by self-definition? American culture does not generally recognize that right with respect to ethnicity; no matter how totally familiar with Irish culture someone might be, that person cannot actually become an Irish-American merely by wishing it so. That sounds, at least to my native ears, rational: in our cultural milieu, an Irish-American person is someone who came here from Ireland or whose parents or at least ancestors did…and since it is a label rooted in immutable personal history that cannot be altered by wishful, after-the-fact thinking, it follows that it cannot magically be self-assigned. On the other hand, American society more than endorses the concept of conversion when applied to religion. I myself have assisted many non-Jewish people in their efforts to convert formally to Judaism and thus to become fully and really Jewish: we accept Jews by Choice in our community so completely that even that expression itself is only used to discuss the concept of conversion itself but never publicly to label individuals who come to Jewish life as adults or to single them out from Jews born to the covenant.

And so Rachel Dolezal has presented America with an interesting dilemma, and precisely as racial tension mounts in the wake of the recent incidents involving the deaths of unarmed black men and teenagers at the hands of police officers. There are many books that I could recommend that would be pertinent to serve as the literary background for the debate. Just two years ago, for example, I read the remarkable book by James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published in 1912. Johnson, who eventually became the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University and from 1920 to 1930 led the NAACP, had light enough skin to pass for white and began his twin careers in law and music as a white person, only eventually realizing that his blackness could only be ignored at the price of his own self-esteem and sense of internal integrity. The book, even after more than a century, is compelling and very interesting, and I recommend it highly as a strong case for the ineradicableness of racial identity. A similar case was made in Philip Roth’s 2000 book, The Human Stain, which presents the issue from the reverse direction: the book is about one Professor Coleman Silk, a black person who has been passing as white (and Jewish) since his Navy years. In between those two (at least chronologically) was James McBride’s 1996 book, The Color of Water, in which the author’s white mother is depicted as spending her life attempting, never fully successfully, to self-identify as a black person. All of these books are about the question raised by the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s right to choose her own racial identity, and all are very worth reading.


When the Civil Rights movement was in its heyday during my high school and university years, I would never have imagined that all these decades later America would still be suffering over issues directly related to race and racial discrimination. And yet…here we are! Perhaps this whole incident will be justified—other, of course, than with respect to the intolerable infringement of a citizen’s natural right to privacy regarding her own life decisions—if it leads us as a society to reject both the notion that race is a function purely of biology and the fantasy that race is an assumable label to be adopted at will.  Like all deep identities in our culture—and surely like Jewishness, which is the “ness” I personally know best—race is a heady mixture of things, at least some of which resist easy definition.  We think of those laws that once attempted to legislate blackness or whiteness in terms of percentages as somewhere between creepy and funny. (The Louisiana legislature, for example, passed a law in 1970 defining as black anyone who had in his or her veins one thirty-second “Negro blood.”) But to sneer derisively as such oafish efforts to say who is and who isn’t black is one thing…but to say clearly what we actually do think race is—that is significantly more complicated. Perhaps the time has come to attempt to address that issue on a national level. To say what race means or should mean, it only feel rational to begin by attempting to say clearly what it is exactly that we think race is.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jerusalem

Like many of you, I’m sure, I read about the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the status of Jerusalem—or rather, about the status of the Holy City as far as United States passports are concerned—with a sense of uncertainty about how exactly to react, and not least of all because this is a personal issue for me: my oldest son was born in Jerusalem and, indeed, although my passport says that I was born in the United States (a country) and Joan’s says she was born in Canada (also a country), Max’s says he was born in Jerusalem (not a country).

The hospital in which Max was born was indeed in Jerusalem: the Misgav Ladach Maternity Hospital was located on Chovshei Katamon Street in West Jerusalem in 1984, just half a block from the apartment we were living in at the time on Haportzim Street. (The hospital was originally located in the Old City, but moved to where it was in 1984 after the War of Independence ended with the Old City of Jerusalem remaining in Jordanian hands. It’s since moved to King Hezekiah Street, also in West Jerusalem.) And that specific building in which Max was born, later a synagogue and now a community center, is on property that has only been part of three jurisdictions since the sixteenth century. From 1516 until 1920, it was under the control of the Ottoman Turks. From 1920 to 1948, it was under the control of the British. And from 1948 until the present, it has been part of the State of Israel. All that being the case, you could reasonably ask why this is an issue at all.  It’s a good question!

The Supreme Court did not frame its judgment in terms of Israel’s sovereignty or lack of sovereignty over its own capital city, but rather in terms of the President’s right to set foreign policy and not be hampered in that effort by congressional legislation. The case itself was simple enough. In 2002, Congress passed a bill requiring the Secretary of State to list “Israel” as the country of birth of citizens born in Jerusalem if that request is formally made by them or, if they are children, by their parents. (Even that rankled a bit at the time—do Americans born in Paris have to ask formally for France to be given as their country of birth on their passports?) Still, that sounded as though it would settle the matter once and for all, but although President George W. Bush did sign the bill, he also issued what is called a “signing statement” in which he protested that that law interfered “with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.” And then, as a result of the President’s statement, the Department of State proceeded to ignore the law and specifically not to accede to the requests of American citizens born in Jerusalem or their parents to have their passports list “Israel” as the country of their birth.

This did not sit well with the parents of Menachem Zivotofsky, American citizens whose son was born in 2002 after Congress passed its bill and who, perhaps naively, expected the government to obey its own law. Noting that Menachem is unambiguously possessed of American citizenship, his parents took issue with the government’s refusal to honor their request that their son’s passport reflect that actual circumstances of his birth—that it took place in the State of Israel—and not some fantasy-perception of how things are in the world that imagines that Jerusalem is not actually part of any country at all—surely not part of the Ottoman Empire or the British Mandate of Palestine, neither of which exists, but also not part of the State of Israel, which surely does.

The arguments on both sides were persuasive. On the one hand, the lawyers defending the Zivotofskys’ right to have the actual country of their son’s birth listed on his passport convincingly argued that no normal person would imagine that a thirteen-year-old’s passport possesses the magic power by its very existence to set American foreign policy or that the status of Jerusalem could possibly depend on minor administrative details like the specific way the country of a child’s birth is indicated on his or her passport. Furthermore, they argued, it is incontestable that Congress has the power to regulate passports, which right it seems odd to imagine does not include determining what data may or may not be recorded on them. On the other, the government’s attorneys argued forcefully that it would undermine the President’s power to set foreign policy were the government he heads to issue documents at odds with American foreign policy, thus further muddying waters that are already more than muddy enough, and that the fact that the United States does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem should be the determining factor and not a boy’s personal wishes or his parents’. Nor, apparently, the will of Congress.

Behind all the polite argumentation rest serious issues. Justice Sotomayor came as close as anyone to speaking honestly when she finally said that the real problem with the law Congress passed is that it requires the Secretary of State to say something untrue, and I quote, “that someone born in Jerusalem [was] actually born in the State of Israel.” And suddenly, after all that endless speechifying, there it was right out in the open, the issue behind the issue and the real reason this detail of how someone’s place of birth is or is not indicated on his or her passport matters in this specific context: that for Justice Sotomayor Jerusalem is not part of Israel and it does not behoove our government therefore to say that it is. What country she thinks it is part of, Justice Sotomayor didn’t say. It can’t be Palestine, because Palestine does not exist as a sovereign country. It could be Jordan, I suppose…but could that really be what the justice thinks, that the Six Day War unlawfully wrested control of Jerusalem from the Jordanians? But in that case, how could it not be relevant that Jordan never actually controlled West Jerusalem?

Other justices were just as blunt. Justice Scalia suggested that the government’s position was rooted in its wish not to irritate certain foreign nations, only rhetorically to pursue his own line of reasoning by asking why, if it undeniably falls within Congress’s power to regulate passports, it should matter whom Congress does or doesn’t antagonize by exercising that power as it sees fit. Most reasonably of all, Justice Kennedy asked why the State Department couldn’t simply comply with the law, list “Israel” as the country of birth of Menachem Zivotofsky and the other 50,000 Americans like him (including Max Pascal Cohen), and print some sort of disclaimer in his and their passports indicating that that listing was not meant to reflect the position of the United States government with respect to Jerusalem’s ultimate status.

Not everybody is born somewhere. There is a certain legal ambiguity that attends people born on ships at sea and on airplanes in the air. Eventually, I suppose, the law will have to deal with the citizenship of people born on space ships or on other planets. But it is already possible here on Earth to be born on dry land, but in no country at all.  People born in the various zones of occupation established by the Allies after the collapse of Nazi Germany, but before the establishment of its successor states in West and East Germany, were not born in any country, for example. But that is not the case here. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel in precisely the same way that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso or that Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan: because its citizens chose it as their capital and regard it as such. That Israelis should be denied that basic right to establish their capital wherever they wish—a right denied as far as I can see to no other nation at all—needs to be defined not as a mere administrative detail or, more bizarrely, as the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage brought on by some fancy legalistic wrangling between Congress and the White House, but rather as part of the larger effort afoot in the world to deny the Jewish people the basic right to self-definition accorded all other peoples. If the nation of Palestine ever actually comes into existence, then its citizens will have the same right to choose their capital and determine their own destiny. Why shouldn’t they? But denying Israel the basic right to construct its own society in a way that suits its national character, its sense of history and destiny, and the wishes of its people to live as they please is hardly a constructive step forward towards peace. Indeed, decisions like this week’s only add fuel to the fire fanned by the forces of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and make Jewish people like myself feel even less sure that the world truly endorses our right to chart our own course forward through history at all.

I wish I could take all of my readers along to Jerusalem when Joan and I go next month. At least some would be very surprised by what they’d find, I think, and particularly by the way that Jerusalem—or at least West Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City—are no less fully Israeli in their nature, tenor, and ethos than any other town or city in Israel.  To walk around the city, for example, and to see the full panoply of Jerusalem residents—sabras and olim, tourists and citizens,  religious fundamentalists and spiritual liberals, men and women, young and old, soldiers and students—to see all that and to experience it personally, and then to hear a Supreme Court justice announce blithely that Jerusalem isn’t really part of Israel…that opinion will strike any rational observer not only as being at odds with the facts in evidence but also silly and utterly wrong. For better or worse, Jerusalem is Israel no less meaningfully than Tel Aviv is or than Eilat is. Like any city, it has its issues to contend with.  And the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are certainly entitled to live as they see fit and to construct a cultural milieu as suffused with Arab values as West Jerusalem is with Jewish ones. But to contend that Max—or Menachem or any of the other 50,000 U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem—was somehow not born in Israel is not really a defensible argument except perhaps in the rarified realm of legal theory and certainly will have no cogency at all to anyone on the ground walking the city’s streets and seeing what I see every day I am present in that place.


Joan and I only own one home…and it is in Jerusalem, Israel. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law that would have required the government to allow those two words—Jerusalem and Israel—to appear contiguously on 50,000 American passports seems to me somewhere between pernicious and foolish, and as indefensible as it is fully divorced from the reality I personally know.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Sure They Can!

I’ve loved Herodotus—the witty, clever, occasionally ribald author whom Cicero famously called the very “father of history”—ever since I was obliged by benevolent circumstance to spend a year with him in graduate school, wading through long sections of each of the nine books (one, they say, for each of the nine muses who inspired him) and being—I was a bit naïve as a young man—being amazed at how contemporary and relevant an author who lived about 2500 years ago could be. This was the 1970s. I wasn’t entirely sure about people who were over thirty, let alone over two thousand. And yet…this guy really did get it, I recall thinking as I wandered deeper and deeper into his work and found in Herodotus a kind of kindred spirit, someone whose ancient worldview seemed oddly similar to mine. I thought of Herodotus the other day, actually, because of something someone else said—in this case, Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Israeli general and intelligence expert who served until recently as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs—regarding the perceived tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and also about his and my shared obsession with the dangers posed by a belligerent, well-armed, and supremely well-financed Iran to Western culture as we have come to know it.  (If you want to know what Herodotus thought about the latter, the passages from his Histories relating to the war in his own day between Iran and Greece were published in William Shepherd’s excellent translation by Cambridge University Press in 1983 in a volume called Herodotus: The Persian War, a used copy of which book you can buy—what a world this is!—for as little as one penny on Amazon.com. If you want to know what I think, come to Shelter Rock almost any Shabbat morning this month and you’ll go home with an earful.)

The passage from Herodotus that came to mind will be familiar to at least some readers not from the ancient’s Histories at all, but because John Steinbeck quotes it in East of Eden. It’s a short passage and, because attempting to do better than Steinbeck would require hubris that even I couldn’t muster, I’ll just cite it in the master’s own prose:

Herodotus, in The Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not have asked if he had not been worried about the answer. ”Who,” he asked, “is the luckiest person in the world?” He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, “Do you not consider me lucky?” Solon did not hesitate in his answer. “How can I tell?” he said. “You aren’t dead yet.”

It’s a great story. Formally, it’s about a conversation that, if historical, must have taken place even longer-ago than Herodotus’ lifetime. (Croesus, king of Lydia, reigned over his kingdom in what today is western Turkey from 560 to 547 BCE. Solon, the famous Athenian jurist, was his much older contemporary.)  But, more than that, it’s about the relationship of optimism to pessimism, about the reasonableness of allowing one’s confidence in the sturdiness of the status quo to outweigh one’s knowledge about the way things in our world have the capacity, even the tendency, to change on a dime…and rarely for the better.

Solon’s line “You aren’t dead yet” is the part that’s stayed with me all these years, corresponding in its own arch way to my father’s joke about the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist.  The Jewish pessimist, you see, is the one who says, “Oy, things couldn’t get any worse,” while the Jewish optimist is the one who replies brightly, “Sure they can!”  The joke is funny because, these being Jewish people, even the optimist is a pessimist! But the notion that only someone with no real knowledge of the world will feel secure that things will remain as they are is at the base both of Herodotus’s funny story and my dad’s joke. But even if the parallel isn’t quite exact, Solon was still surely right that it’s only possible to diagnose someone as truly lucky once that person is done with life and thus immune to its ever-shifting vicissitudes, just as my dad’s pessimist knows all too well that there is no actual bottom line to how bad things can get, that nothing is fixed, that all is in flux, that the world is a quivering leaf ready to fall from its bough far more than a marble pillar set unshakably and permanently on its base. 

And so we come to General Kuperwasser. Responding to Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with President Obama in the Atlantic that I attempted to analyze from the bimah last week at Shelter Rock, the general chose to frame his take on the interview in terms of the ancient and ongoing tension between optimism and pessimism. (Giving his hand away, he references “pessimism” as “realism.” But it appears to come to the same thing! If you are reading this electronically and you haven’t read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, click here and it should come right up on your screen.)

Starting with a simple question, General Kuperwasser begins rhetorically by asking why it is that the president seems so much more irritated with Prime Minister Netanyahu than with President Abbas, particularly given the fact that it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who scuttled the latest American attempt to broker a peace deal between them.  Surely, his pique should be directed at the side that refused to accept his formula for negotiation! Yet that appears not to be the case. Time and time again, in fact, the administration seems ready to ignore even the Palestinian leadership’s most egregious sins, preferring instead to take Israel to task for not behaving precisely as the White House would wish it to. That, so the general, is the question worth asking. And he knows the answer too, he writes, finding it rooted not in global politics at all but in the ancient struggle between two competing worldviews, optimism and (what he calls) realism.

As the general sees things, President Obama is “a remarkable proponent for the optimist approach, [because] he fundamentally believes in human decency and therefore [also] in dialogue and engagement as the best way to overcome conflict.” And it is because of his fundamental belief in the power of reasonableness, particularly when coupled with the siren call of self-interest, that his working supposition is that Islamists, even the radical ones who hold the real power in Teheran, can be gotten to buy into the concept of a globally civil society in which conflicts are resolved in the context of peaceful discussion and negotiation, by heads coming together rather than by heads being chopped off.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a realist motived by an essentially pessimistic worldview. He looks across the border at the war in Syria, at the chaos in Iraq, at the violent misanthropy of ISIS, at the misery that Hamas has brought to Gaza, at the demise of democracy in Egypt, at the imperious presidency of President Abbas (now in the tenth year of a four-year term), at the near-anarchy in Yemen…and he, Netanyahu, is not prompted to embrace the sense of fundamental human decency that lies at the core, so the general, of President Obama’s worldview. And so, General Kuperwasser concludes, what is creating the tension between Israel and its most powerful ally is not a difference of opinion rooted in some specific detail about this or that dunam of land, but a divergence of fundamental philosophical orientation, the president being an optimist in the true and literal sense of the word and the prime minister playing the role of the self-proclaimed optimist in my father’s joke who is—and this is why the joke is funny—even more pessimistic than his friend who only thinks he’s a pessimist but who hasn’t fully accepted the truth about how things truly are in this world of misery and woe.

When framed that way, I find myself somewhat stymied. As an American, I bring the president’s fundamental optimism to my worldview as well. In 1903, Helen Keller published a remarkable essay called, simply, “Optimism,” which I still recall reading when I was in high school, and which I still think of as one of the simplest and most affecting expressions of native American optimism ever written.  (At Forest Hills High, we were always interested in the literary works of famous neighborhood residents. If you are reading this electronically, click here for a free copy of the Keller essay. Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills from 1917 to 1936.)  Indeed, when she looks into the future—and this was a woman who only looked at anything through the matrices of her own intelligence—and writes of her ability to see in the distance a “brighter spiritual era” slowly emerging, “an era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor; one taskmaster, God,” I find myself moved…but ultimately unconvinced. Or maybe that’s not even precisely correct because I do see that world in the future…but between here and the great redemption of the world that the prophets promised, I see the great obligation of nations endowed with vision, virtue, spirit, and a will to justice to struggle against the dark forces allied against all of the above values.

To paint the tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as rooted in the former’s subcutaneous anti-Semitism and the latter’s uncompromising Jewishness is to exaggerate the situation to the point, I believe, of falsehood. No one who reads a transcript of the President’s remarks at Adas Israel in Washington last week could seriously think otherwise. But I do believe that General Kuperwasser has seized on a basic truth: that the tension between them derives neither from prejudice nor irrational dislike, but from a fundamentally different worldview. The President is suffused with typical American optimism. He believes, as I wish I did too, that all people are basically good, that behind the bluster of political rhetoric invariably rests the equally well-rooted will to do good and to govern justly. Anne Frank thought that too. (Or she did while she was still safely hidden away in the Achterhuis and free to pen entries in her diary. Whether she revisited those thoughts later on obviously cannot be known.) Furthermore, I believe that most Americans share a basic sense regarding the fundamental goodness of the world and its peoples.

The Prime Minister shares the basically dour worldview that history has beaten into the Jewish people. He looks out at the world at Israel’s neighbors and sees predatory enemies waiting for the first sign of weakness, for the first intimation that Israel’s will to defend itself might be flagging, for the first reasonable opportunity to strike successfully and to defeat the Jewish state. He sees no reason to suppose that the violent anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership is feigned or that their oft-repeated desire to annihilate Israel is mere rhetoric. If there’s one thing we learned from our contemplation of our own history, it’s to take our enemies at their word…and always to take their rhetoric, including at its most brutally vituperative, fully seriously. The Prime Minister, therefore, is a pessimist. Or, if you approve of his approach, a realist.  General Kuperwasser clearly thinks he has it right and that our President is hampered, not strengthened, by his optimism. I hope he’s wrong. Time will tell. 


In the end, though, maintaining the traditional American belief in the ultimate worth of an essentially optimistic worldview is no substitute for remaining vigilant and strong, for declining to trust people whose behavior in the past has not even remotely earned that trust, for taking anti-Semites at their world when they speak openly about murdering Jews or destroying Israel, and for insisting on that the basic right to defend one’s people and one’s nation can never be subjugated to policies rooted, not in sober analysis of the facts in evidence, but in native optimism about human nature.  And that, more than my natural propensity to see the good in all people and to share my nation’s natural optimism about the world, is what guides me to my state of extreme wariness regarding the proposed deal with Iran soon to be upon us. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Freedom of/from Religion

The House Civil Law and Procedure Committee of the Louisiana State legislature wisely voted last week—and by a 10 to 2 majority—to “return to the calendar” House Bill 707, popularly called the Marriage and Conscience Act, effectively ending any chance for the bill to be voted into law by Louisiana’s legislators this year. Less wisely (at least in my opinion), Governor Jindal responded to this development by announcing his intention simply to issue an executive order that will, in his own words, “accomplish the intent of House Bill 707” anyway, in effect executing an end-run around his own state’s legislature. Unwise doesn’t mean illegal or immoral, of course: if the laws of Louisiana permit the governor to circumvent the people’s elected representatives by issuing orders with the force of law, then he is by definition not behaving illegally by exercising that right. (You can’t, after all, behave illegally if you are behaving legally.) But the whole concept of this kind of so-called “religious freedom” legislation is an issue that needs to be resolved through the medium of sustained, thoughtful national debate, not through gubernatorial grandstanding.
I’ve written to you at length about the various initiatives to enact so-called “religious freedom” laws that purport to guarantee that no citizen ever be required by law to act contrary to his or her religious principles, most recently about eighteen months ago when I expressed myself regarding similar legislation that was then pending in Arizona and which was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see that letter by clicking here.)  When put that way, these laws sound like the kind of “apple pie” legislation that no one could seriously oppose. What, indeed, would be the opposing argument? That a nation that has enshrined freedom of religion among its most sacred principles should not grant its citizens the legal right not to betray the principles of their faiths to suit the wishes of others? And yet it turns out to be far more complicated than that.

When the issue on the table has to do with a florist refusing to sell flowers to a couple for use as centerpieces at their same-sex wedding—the specific issue that prompted my letter to you a year and a half ago—it feels easy to know how to feel: surely it does not actually contravene anyone’s principles to sell flowers to gay people to use as they wish! You can only argue to the contrary if you can say clearly what specific principles those would be, yet the need not only to identify such principles, but to identify them with those held by large numbers of other citizens, actually is the sticking point here. No one is going to argue seriously that people in our nation should not be free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience and thus to choose what faith publicly or privately to embrace. But the question on the table is more nuanced than that and has to do more with the issue of whether citizens should not also be free to determine for themselves what spiritual principles they wish to guide them forward in life in an absolute way unfettered by any obligation to conform to the standards of others. Should that freedom be extended to principles personally held by some individual who perceives them to constitute part the spiritual platform upon which he or she stands? Or should it only extend to the principles of “real” religions that everybody’s heard of? If the law requires the government to develop a list of “officially recognized faiths” in that regard, would it be a positive or negative development? Is religion essentially private and personal? Or is it, almost by definition, a group enterprise? If the latter, how large must the group be to matter? Can tiny groups count? People like myself who belong to minuscule religious minorities would be well advised to think so! And yet our nation’s religious leaders are not at all unified regarding the issue. Many oppose this kind of “Religious Freedom” legislation. Many, but not all! Just the other day, for example, I noted that fifty Orthodox rabbis took it upon themselves to write to Governor Jindal in support of the then-pending legislation.

The rabbis make a compelling case. They conjure up the specter of synagogues being sued for refusing to permit non-kosher caterers to serve meals on their premises or for declining to host interfaith marriages. Surely, most Americans who think of these as reasonable activities would find it correspondingly unreasonable for a couple to be refused service merely because they wish to serve ice cream after their roast beef at their own wedding reception, or because a bride and groom have decided to have a Jewish wedding even though only one of them is technically Jewish. The rabbis argue that laws like the one proposed for Louisiana, not unlike the similar bill signed by Governor Mike Pense into law in Indiana last March, would prevent there being legal consequences for declining such business on the grounds that accepting it would require a businessperson to contravene his or her religious principles. If a few gay couples are inconvenienced when some specific florist or caterer declines their business, then that, the rabbis suggest, would indeed be a small price to pay to preserve freedom of religion in our country. (If you wish to read more, click here for the text of the rabbis’ letter and the names of its signatories.)

I suppose I can see both side of the issue—nor do I feel that it isn’t ever appropriate or wise to compromise on some sincerely held beliefs for the sake of preserving or strengthening others deemed even more crucial to the public weal. (President Lincoln may have been right or wrong to suspend writ of habeas corpus on a nation-wide basis in 1862, but the concept itself that it can be reasonable to suspend some specific civil rights in times of great upheaval seems to me beyond debate.) Indeed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 specifically decreed that  government can “substantially burden” a person's exercise of religion if doing so advances an important national interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court determined that the federal act does not apply to the governments of individual states, as a result of which decision almost half the fifty states have now enacted state laws designed to protect citizens for behaving in accordance with their religious values. But hiding behind the question of the reasonability of these laws is another one that strikes me as fundamental to the discussion, yet which seems for some reason rarely if ever to be aired in public.

Who gets to speak for a religion? Or, to ask an even more basic question, who has the right to determine what a religion is, or what the adherents of a religion must believe or how they must behave? If we are going to countenance laws that permit citizens to ignore the law when they are acting out of religious conviction, then must we not first determine who gets to decide what the principles of a given faith actually are? Can citizens themselves come up with the spiritual principles they then wish to exercise their First Amendment right to pursue as their personal spiritual path forward through life? It seems odd to extend spiritual sovereignty only to groups and not to individuals. But even if we were to go that route, then would we not need first to say clearly how big such a group must be, and what specific hoops its adherents must jump through for their religion to be recognized as such by the justice system?
Governor Jindal clearly thinks that “religious” opposition to same-sex marriage is wide-spread enough, and inherently defensible enough, to justify making it illegal for the state to take action against people who bring that specific conviction to life by refusing to have anything to do commercially with same-sex weddings. But what if someone held a similarly profound and guileless conviction that interracial marriage was sinful? That’s a far less widely held view today, obviously. But why should one citizen be granted the protection of law and another not merely because the latter’s principle is less popular than the former’s and thus has fewer adherents among the voting public? What if someone were honestly and genuinely to feel him or herself visited by the spirit of prophecy and vouchsafed truths that run counter to cultural norms that prevail in our society? Surely the adherents of faiths that feature belief in an omnipotent God do not want to argue that the same God who made heaven and earth would not be able actually to tell somebody something! But what if that something involves a deeply unpopular idea, one that endorses behavior that is currently illegal?

It’s a slippery slope indeed for people whose holy Scriptures endorse bigamy and slavery—do we want to argue that people who sincerely believe those institutions are religiously mandated should be protected from prosecution because they act out of profound spiritual conviction? Is the use of peyote in religious ritual, the original issue that prompted the 1993 federal act mentioned above, widespread enough to make sanctioning its use like the granting of special dispensation to certain specific religious groups, including my own, to use wine during worship during the dark days of Prohibition? The story behind that law is instructive. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled against two Native American substance-abuse counselors from Oregon who had been fired from their jobs because they tested positive for peyote, a hallucinogen used as part of worship at their church. It was a close 5-4 decision, but the final verdict was that the use of peyote was not protected by the First Amendment. And instructive too is Justice Scalia’s justification of his own nay vote. Allowing someone to break a law because of religious conviction, the justice wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civil obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”  That may have seems like a real possibility but, in the end, the people spoke and the federal bill was passed. The right to worship as one chooses was deemed to trump legislation that prevents such worship by outlawing some necessary part of it. But religion is not just rite and ritual…and so we are left on the horns of a mighty dilemma with respect not so much to the use of wine or peyote, but with respect to public behavior prompted by what a citizen perceives as his or her religious principles. Should the right to act in concert with one’s deeply held spiritual convictions be deemed so sacrosanct as to warrant the interruption of other citizens’ civil rights?  Or should the blanket right of all citizens to be treated justly and fairly under the law trump the right to act in accordance with one’s faith?


We have entered into a debate that feels as though it is about the rule of law, but is actually about the nature itself of religion itself. Since government should, in my opinion, never try to breach the wall between church and state, laws that require the government to determine on its own the worth of devoutly held spiritual principles constitute a dangerous turn away from the rule of reason. Citizens should be permitted to follow the spiritual path of their choosing in accordance with their own consciences. Citizens should never be permitted, however, to trample on the civil rights of others as part of their own spiritual discipline…and that should be a foundational principle that applies regardless of how sincerely the individual in question believes in the worth of some specific part of that discipline. To worship the God in whose image all humankind is made by denying the innate right all human beings possess to chart their own path forward in life without being hampered by others’ principles—that seems like an iffy enterprise to me at best, and—particularly when used to justify discriminatory behavior that impacts negatively on the civil rights of others—as something far more pernicious than that.