Thursday, January 11, 2018

Farewell to Appelfeld

Contextualization is the tool many, even perhaps most, authors who write about the Shoah use to make their stories believable. The first truly great novel rooted in the Shoah, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, sought to set the Shoah into the context of Jewish history itself. Vasily Grossman’s monumental book, Life and Fate, which covers a huge amount of territory including both Stalingrad and the fate of the Jews of German-occupied Russia and Ukraine, sets the horror into the context of the Red Army’s war against the Soviet Union’s German invaders. Even works like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance sought to explain the Holocaust by attempting to see it as part of the larger context of the Second World War itself. I could mention a dozen other books in this vein as well, all works that sought to make fathomable something by its nature essentially unfathomable by setting it in a larger frame and then by attempting to provide some of the other pieces of the puzzle that fit into that frame, somewhat in the same way that you can take a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t look like anything at all and grant it meaning by providing the other puzzle pieces that together with it create an image you actually can recognize easily.

But the work of Aharon Appelfeld, who died last week at the age of eighty-five, took the precise opposite tack and attempted to explain the Shoah through the exquisite contemplation, not of the whole, but of single ones of its pieces…and the tinier the piece the better. Such a minimalist approach risks being treated dismissively by people trained from childhood to seek understanding through the studied contemplation of “the big picture,” by people who want to explain any smaller thing in terms of whatever larger thing it is a part of.  But such people would be wrong: Appelfeld, in his forty-odd novels, was not just successful in laying the foundation for a truly meaningful sense of what the Shoah “meant,” but remarkably so. Of all his books, only one, The Ice Mine, is actually set in a Nazi camp. The rest are set either before, during, or after the Shoah…but none attempts to describe anything like the big picture and all focus instead on the experiences of single families or, in more instances than not, of single children facing a world that they cannot even begin slightly to fathom. And that child, of course, is Appelfeld himself, whose entirely literary oeuvre he himself once characterized as a life-long effort to understand his own story.

The stories he tells are both amazing (because they feature children surviving more or less totally on their own against unimaginable odds) and familiar (because so many pieces of so many of his stories will remind readers of incidents in the lives of survivors they know personally). But even readers unaccustomed to the kind of spare prose that says everything by saying almost nothing will find his books to be moving comments not solely on the Jewish experience during the Second World War, but on life itself, on what it means to be alive at all. 

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the fascists invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered in front of his eyes, and he and his father were deported to a camp from which he somehow managed to escape almost immediately upon arrival despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941. And he survived that way too, somehow managing to survive in the forest for three long years. (This part of his story is told through a child’s eyes in one of his last works, the children’s book Adam and Thomas which I just finished reading last week.) Eventually, he was “rescued” by some partisans who handed him over to the Red Army, where—because eleven-year-olds could not actually serve as soldiers—he was sent to the kitchen to work as one of his unit’s cooks. And then, when the war finally ended, Appelfeld—still not bar-mitzvah age—was interned on his own in a displaced persons camp in Italy. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, where he learned—but only eventually—that his father too had somehow survived. That reunion, between a fifteen-year-old who had basically raised himself and a father whom he assumed had been murdered years earlier, was the defining moment in Appelfeld’s life, albeit one not recounted in any of his books, not even in his 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life.

As noted, his books are almost all—at least in part—about children. And so, when read as a complete oeuvre—and I believe that I have now read all of Appelfeld’s books either in Hebrew or in English—the experience is like peering through some sort of semi-opaque scrim at a world that looks like our own but in which no one seems to realize that its appurtenances are made of papier-mâché that is destined by its very nature to dissolve once it starts raining in earnest…and that its people are merely tethered to the world rather than truly anchored in it.

We read about parents telling their children—and this scene repeats over and over and over—telling them that they’re going to have to hide in the woods (or in an attic or in a brothel or in a farmer’s barn somewhere) until someone comes to retrieve them, which almost never actually happens, and softening the blow of separation with a slew of hopeful promises. The war will soon be over. The deportations will end. The neighbors will surely protect us. The war just a passing disturbance that has nothing really to do with us at all, a nightmare we will soon barely be able to remember. These same promises reverberate through every book.

I wrote several years ago about Blooms of Darkness, the novel that won him the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the book that I think almost more than any says the most about the Shoah by saying so little. The story of a little boy stashed by his panicked parents in a local brothel that they clearly do not realize is patronized almost exclusively by German soldiers, the book describes how the givens of the world can alter in a twinkling as an entire civilization vanishes in the mist and a child wakes up suddenly to find himself living in an entirely different universe. The book itself is harrowing, and in a million different ways. But the end of the book really comes as close as anything I’ve read to creating a context for understanding the Shoah, and that’s what I thought I’d write about today as a way of saying farewell to one of the truly great authors of our day.

At the end of the book, the Germans withdraw and the brothel closes. For a moment, we think that the danger has passed, but now a new horror presents itself: Mariana, the prostitute, now risks being condemned by her countrymen as a traitor, as someone who spent the years of the occupation giving comfort to the enemy. They flee into the forest together, but Mariana is quickly found and arrested. Hugo, like his creator, is now all alone in the forest. He sees no way out, no solution. And so he voluntarily leaves the forest and finds his way to the jail in which his protector is being kept. And there he waits…for something. For justice. For Mariana. For his mother. For someone to watch over him. But nothing at all happens. Days come and go. He eats at a local soup kitchen, then returns to his post outside the jail lest he be absent when she exits the prison gates.

Eventually, the scales fall from his eyes and he realizes—to his amazement—that he is in his own city, in the city in which he was raised. It’s just a provincial city, not too big…and he somehow figures out in which direction lies the neighborhood in which his parents house stood and presumably still stands. And so he leaves the jail, leaves Mariana (she has already been executed, but he doesn’t know that), leaves the fragile platform life has offered him to stand on for as long as he can.

He begins to walk home. The city’s residents ignore him. He has no real way to know if he is going in the right direction. Somehow he perseveres, walking slowly and purposefully. But when he gets to his own street…everything is different. The shops are still where he recalled them being, but they all have different names. The synagogue has vanished. The Jewish people have all been replaced by Gentiles. He peers through the window of his own home and sees a different family with different children sitting down to dinner at his parent’s dining room table. He cannot fathom what has happened, cannot explain it, can only wait for his parents to return. And then, when he eventually tires of waiting, he turns his back on the past and walks away.

I haven’t even begun to do the passage justice. But that sense that everything is different, that nothing will ever be the same, that the world is illusory at best and malign and dangerous at worst, that the only safety rests within the confines of the human heart where remembering and forgetting can coalesce into some version of hope in the future—that is the core idea of which the book itself reads like so much extended midrash.

Appelfeld himself ended up in a D.P. camp in Italy, then found a new life in Israel. He ended up reasonably well—his found his father, and he also found the courage to marry, to become a father of three, to thrive in Israel, and to live and work productively into old age. But he remains—to myself and to many—the symbol not of the accomplished author and family man, but of the little boy in the forest attempting to fathom the unfathomable…and somehow to remain safe in the domain of wild beasts. May Aharon Appelfeld rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing for us all.

Thursday, January 4, 2018


Readers of these letters will know already that one of the areas that I find the most interesting—and also the most challenging— to write about is the precise way my commitment to the values that underlie our American republic meshes (or doesn’t mesh) with my equally strong commitment to the Torah-based values that inhere in traditional Jewish life.

That was the reason I chose to write a few weeks ago about the Supreme Court’s decision to consider the case of the Colorado baker who declined to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and why I continue to find that case so interesting. On the one hand, as someone unambiguously committed the notion that the civil rights of gay people deserve to be protected by law no less forcefully or fully than the civil rights of any other group within our American society, I can easily identify with the couple who felt discriminated against by the baker’s refusal to serve them. On the other hand, I also feel—and just as strongly—that it can never be a good thing—not for members of religious minorities but also not for the nation itself—for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to be attenuated by restrictive legislation or undermined by the courts. I wrote then how struck I was by the many articles and essays I read on both sides of the issue that appeared to consider the matter as unambiguously simple and clear-cut, whereas to me it seemed and seems thorny and complex.

I do not wish to write again about that specific case today, but rather to address a very interesting issue that I see growing out of it: the question of whether the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution should rationally be taken to include speech itself. The baker, after all, is not arguing that anyone has restricted his right to practice his faith at home or in church in whatever manner he wishes, but rather that custom-baking a cake for gay wedding reception would imply that he personally supports the notion of same-sex marriage and should for that reason only be something he has the constitutional right to decline to do. Leaving aside the question of whether non-verbal activity like baking a cake—even a super-fancy one—should be considered speech at all, I would like instead to consider the question of whether speech itself is can be reasonably qualified as enough of a religious act to be protected by the First Amendment.

Our Jewish tradition certainly thinks so, making blasphemy into the kind of capital crime so potentially injurious to the public weal that the entire people is called upon to participate together in the blasphemer’s execution. Nor does Scripture allow for the possibility that this is meant as some sort of kashrut-style prohibition meant to apply solely to Israelites: “as well the stranger as he that is born in the land,” the Torah solemnly announces, “when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.” So that’s clear enough, but what is being prohibited exactly? Our ancient sources go back on forth regarding the details, but those discussions mostly center around the question of what specifically someone would have to do actually to merit execution as a blasphemer—whether such a person has to curse God using the most sacred of divine names, whether it counts if someone curses another individual using that name of God as part of the imprecation, whether speaking in a vulgar way about God is enough to warrant indictment, whether insulting God’s Torah counts, whether the crime even can be committed by someone who does not speak Hebrew, etc. But the notion that speaking aloud in a way that disrespects the name of God is sinful and wrong is a cornerstone of our Torah’s approach to the morality of speech itself.

And that brings me to a remarkable booklet entitled Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws, published just this last July by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the federal commission with the mandate specifically to report on violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and to the Congress. It is, to say the least, an eye-opening read. (Click here to the see the full report online and here to see an abbreviated version.)

To my slight amazement, it turns out that a full third of the world’s nations, 71 countries in all, have laws that make blasphemy illegal. How this is specifically defined varies, but the basic principle is that there are 71 countries in which you can face serious punishment if you are convicted of having spoken out in a way deemed insulting to God or, in some cases, to religion itself.

Some of the countries on the list were no surprise at all, countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, and Syria. But others were amazing to me, particularly Western-style democracies like Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland, and Spain. Israel is on the list. And, most unexpected of all (to me personally, at any rate), so is Canada.

The laws themselves vary widely. But the punishments are severe in almost every case: of the 71 nations that have laws prohibiting blasphemy, 59 punish individuals convicted of the crime with imprisonment. In two other nations, Iran and Pakistan, convicted blasphemers risk execution. Two more, Russia and Kazakhstan, punish convicted blasphemers with compulsory or corrective labor. One country, Sudan, punishes the blasphemer with the kind of corporal punishment administered with a whip.  Ireland, Spain, and Switzerland levy fines against anyone convicted of blasphemy. Three countries, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia, do not have specific punishments enshrined in law and rather ominously leave the decision in the hands of the presiding judge.

I read it, but I couldn’t believe it. Canada really imprisons blasphemers? In what century? And yet…there it is, in the Criminal Code of Canada, article 296: “Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” Yes, the is a huge “but” that is also enshrined in Canadian law to the effect that no one may be convicted of an offense under this section of the code merely for expressing “in good faith and in decent language…an opinion on a religious subject.” So that softens the blow considerably: to qualify for your up-to-two years in prison, you have either to express your blasphemy hypocritically or to couch it in foul language. I was unable to discover how many Canadians, if any at all, have been convicted lately of blasphemy, but I suspect the number is quite low. In fairness, I should also note there is a bill before the House of Commons right now that would repeal the law in its entirety. But the fact that the law exists at all is what amazed me. And continues to amaze me!

What nations mean by blasphemy also varies. The law in Brazil refers to someone “publicly vilifying an act or object of religious worship.” The law in Bangladesh is much broader and makes indictable the individual who merely speaks in such a way that “hurts the religious sentiments” of another person. Finland takes a more biblical approach, specifically directing the law against any who “publicly blasphemes against God.” Article 173 of the Israeli Penal Code is somewhere in the middle and threatens with one single year’s imprisonment anyone who “publishes a publication that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others” or who “voices in a public place and in the hearing of another person any word or sound that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.” In Indonesia, anyone who expresses “feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt” towards any religion at all with the intention of discouraging someone from adhering to that faith or who speaks “disgracefully” about any religion is liable to up to five years in prison. You get the idea.

In America, of course, we have no such laws. The American approach was probably best summed up by Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who wrote in 1952 that, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” So that’s clear enough.

But what about me? I live within a tradition that takes blasphemy seriously and considers it the kind of offense that should apply to all, as a kind of universal wrong that society would do well to outlaw. But the American in me is with Justice Clark and finds the thought of punishing Americans for speaking out hostilely towards any religion—or towards religion itself or towards God—not something merely to be condemned a tasteless, but something wholly inconsonant with our democratic ideals as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

So I get the baker’s argument that he does not wish to be forced by the courts to “say” something he finds spiritually repugnant. I wouldn’t wish to be either. Yet, for all the reasons I detailed in my previous letter, I think the Supreme Court should nevertheless uphold the lower court's rulings and require that he not discriminate against gay couples merely because he doesn’t approve of same-sex unions. I suppose I can live with a little inconsistency when it comes to squaring my rootedness in Torah values and my devotion to the principles that underlie our American democracy. Just you’d think I’d be better at it by now! 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Wedding Cakes

Chanukah is behind us, but the issue of religious freedom that animates the festival remains fixed on our American agenda as something fully embraced but somehow not quite fully defined. That strange duality surfaced just recently in a particularly challenging and interesting way in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case in which regard the Supreme Court heard arguments just the week before last.
The backstory is simple enough to recount. In 2012, Jack Phillips, the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, declined to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple on the grounds that doing so would require him to betray his own religious principles—thus in effect violating his civil rights by denying him the freedom of religion promised to him and to us all by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, went to the Colorado Civil Rights Division, arguing that their civil rights had been violated when the baker refused them service and asking that Phillips be ordered to serve them just as he would any other affianced couple who wished to purchase a custom-made wedding cake.  In response to the investigation which then ensued, Phillips informed the Civil Rights Division that he did not refuse to sell them a cake due to their sexual orientation, but rather because he could not create a cake that would celebrate their marriage. The Civil Rights Division stated that Phillips’ response was a difference without a distinction, and that he did not have a free speech right to turn down the couple’s request.  The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, upholding that decision, noted that if Phillips was willing to create cakes for opposite-sex weddings, he had to do so for same-sex couples too. And then, in December 2013, an administrative law judge determined that Phillips had indeed violated the Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, in effect ruling that no Coloradan may violate another’s civil rights even if he or she is being motivated to do so by religious principles…and that the sincerity with which those principles may well be held is not consequential in a case like this: citizens of our free land are fully free to believe what they wish and to join whatever church they prefer and to practice whatever faith they wish, but bakers still cannot deny service to a gay couple any more than they could to black people or Jewish people or any recognizable group within society. The matter appeared to be resolved.

Masterpiece Cakeshop appealed the decision, but lost again, in May 2015, when the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the determination by the administrative law judge, ruling that businesspeople cannot justify otherwise illegal discrimination with reference to even genuinely and earnestly held religious principles. Then, the following April, the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the lower court’s ruling. The matter again appeared to be resolved.
But nothing is ever that simple. Jumping into the mix, a conservative legal nonprofit, the Alliance Defending Freedom, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and, just this last June, the court agreed and scheduled oral argument for the first week in December. And that is how we got to this particular place in our nation’s apparently never-ending effort to reconcile the right of individuals to be guided by their religious beliefs and spiritual principles with the right of other individuals not to be discriminated against by people being guided by their religious beliefs and spiritual principles.

One interesting feature of the debate as it has unfolded in the blogosphere and on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers is how simple the issue appears to seem to at least some people on both of its sides. For at least some of the people supporting the baker, there’s hardly a matter worth debating here: what could possibly be less complex than a case featuring an individual who does not wish to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own religious principles, a right guaranteed by the part of the First Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees religious freedom? But on the other side the matter appears—at least to some—to be a no-brainer as well: what could possibly be more obvious than the right of individuals not to be discriminated against by bigoted individuals who are specifically barred by law from translating their prejudices from malign, but ultimately protected, feelings into actual workplace policies?

Both those approaches are simplistic, because the issue at hand is not really whether we should permit discrimination or curtail freedom (both of which really are constitutional no-brainers), but rather how to imagine a society in which people do not feel obliged by law to abandon their principles and in which no individual or group within society has to deal with prejudice, subtle or overt. No one, after all, is asking the baker to abandon his principles or his opinions, only to create a custom-made cake for customers who do not share them. (In fairness, I should note that Phillips was prepared to sell them a wedding cake, just not to create a custom-made one.) But, of course, his contention is specifically not that his he is somehow being enjoined from practicing his faith, but rather that, by forcing him to sell the gay couple a custom cake, the government is obliging him to behave in a way that suggests acquiescence to beliefs that he does not hold. The issue, therefore, is whether religious freedom does or should involve non-verbal expressions of opinion that are made outside the sphere of religious activity or worship. When put that way, the question becomes very interesting indeed…and not at all simple.  
There are several different issues here to unravel. The first, probably the most important, has to do with the nature of speech itself. The baker is arguing that serving a cake custom-made by him—and thus imbued with his creativity, artistry, and artisanal skill—at a same-sex wedding reception is in effect forcing him to “say” something that he is not comfortable “saying” in public, and that that is true even despite the fact that he has sold the cake to someone else and thus no longer owns it personally. But is that really true? I go to a lot of weddings, but I don’t believe it has ever struck me to imagine that the baker has created the wedding cake as a kind of formal endorsement of the union being celebrated. So to argue that selling a wedding cake to someone is the equivalent of making a public statement regarding the worthiness of the nuptials being celebrated is just not true. No one thinks that! The day of my daughter’s wedding was one of the highpoints of my entire life. I had a fabulous time. We had a lovely cake. I may even have eaten a piece (who can remember?), but where it came from I have no idea. The caterer provided it, but I’m sure she didn’t bake it herself! So she bought it…but from whom, and whether that individual him or herself actually baked it personally, I also have no idea. I’d be amazed to learn that the baker even knew my daughter or son-in-law’s name…or anything at all about them. But what is certain is that there was not a single person at the wedding who imagined that the baker, whoever it was, was attempting to speak to us through the medium of his or her cake, much less formally to endorse Lucy and Shuki’s union. Nor do I have any idea if it was or wasn’t “custom-made” for our wedding. Indeed, I’m not even exactly sure what that means with respect to wedding cakes.

For me personally, the far more interesting question to ponder has to do with the question of whether, or how, non-verbal speech should be protected by law. The issue is only ridiculously applied to people who supply cakes to weddings. (What if we had commissioned a special kind of floral displays for the tables—would the florist also be “speaking” to our guests and to us through his or her floral arrangements?) But what about someone whose work is recognizable and easily attributable, someone like an haute-couture fashion designer. Does such a person have the right to decline to sell a dress to someone of whom he does not approve on spiritual or ethnical grounds for fear that the public, seeing that dress on that person, will conclude that that designer was saying something supportive by selling the dress in question to specific person who purchased it to wear in public? If I know the name of the designer who made the gown Mrs. Kennedy wore to the Inaugural Ball in 1961—which detail amazes even myself—then I’m sure half of America must know who made Mrs. Obama’s dress or Mrs. Trump’s. So those designer’s names really do inhere in their work—should they then have the right to decline to sell their dresses to people they do not wish to be seen wearing them in public?
When put that way the issue seems less simple, but the crucial detail is that it is specifically not forbidden by law for bakers and dressmakers to turn away customers because of political affiliation or the identity of a potential customer’s spouse. But the law does prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. And, at least in Colorado, based on sexual orientation as well. And that is why the baker did not win in either Colorado court: not because he didn’t wish to create a cake for someone’s wedding, but because he was choosing to decline that sale based on an illegal factor.

I suppose the baker could argue that he was not discriminating against the gay couple because they were gay…but merely because they wished to serve the cake they wished him to create for him at their same-sex wedding. That’s an interesting argument, but it still ends up in the same place: the baker sincerely believes that same-sex marriage is wrong…and that belief led him to decline to serve—by doing what bakers do for their clients—two specific would-be clients. He will argue that he was ready to sell them a non-custom-made cake, just not one suffused with his confectionary artistry. Can the law tolerate that specific distinction? We’ll find out soon enough!
In my opinion, the right to subscribe to whatever articles of faith one chooses cannot justify trampling on the civil rights of others. You are entitled to your beliefs. But you cannot use them to justify discriminatory practices in the workplace or the marketplace. Or anywhere. Freedom of religion grants us all the right to seek God along whatever pathway our consciences dictate, not the right to use our spiritual principles to behave in a prejudicial manner towards others.

The Supreme Court should uphold both earlier Colorado decisions and find that the baker violated the couple’s civil rights by declining to serve them…and that the sincerity of his beliefs should not be considered a mitigating factor. Nor does the distinction between selling them just a cake and creating a special wedding cake for them seem too meaningful to me. Isn’t that what bakers do, sell the cakes they bake to people who wish to buy them?

Thursday, December 7, 2017


As the whole world knows, the United States has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced plans to move the embassy there. I know the proposed site of the new embassy quite well—it is only three blocks from our apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood known as Arnona, and roughly twice that far from the existing consulate. (Why we would need a consulate and an embassy that close to each other has yet to be revealed, at least to me. Presumably there’s a concept here!) But the specific site of the proposed new embassy is hardly the issue—other than with respect to its location on the Israeli side—barely—of the so-called Green Line that separates the land that was part of the State of Israel before 1967 both from land that belonged to Jordan and territory that was formally designated as no-man’s-land back then and which belonged neither to Israel nor to Jordan. Far more important is the decision itself…and the implications and ramifications such a decision will inevitably entail.
In his remarks, the President played down the decision as a mere recognition of facts on the ground. And although there is something to be said for analyzing things that way, Jerusalem not being the theoretical or hypothetical capital of Israel but a fully functioning seat of government with all the buildings and bureaucracy that such a designation entails, it is also just a bit glib and fails to take into account all the myriad reasons any rational observer could easily martial against making such a move at this time. Nonetheless, I believe the President did the right thing. And I’d like to use this space this week to explain why I think that.

First of all, it’s hard to fault the President for obeying the law. I am thinking specifically of the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which passed the Senate by a 93-5 vote and the House of Representatives by a 374-37 margin, and which called upon our government formally to do both things President Trump did this week: recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and grant teeth to that recognition by locating our embassy there. That being the case, it would be entirely legitimate to wonder how to we here at all, twenty-two years after the passage of that bill into law by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature. It’s an excellent question, one that apparently occurred to our nation’s senators as well—who voted unanimously (90-0) last June to adopt a resolution calling on the President to abide by the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
Formally, the answer has to do with the fact that the Constitution reserves the conduct of foreign policy to the President, for which reason Section 7 of the bill formally permits the sitting President to suspend the implementation of the bill’s provisions for a six-month period if the President reports to Congress that such a suspension is necessary to protect our nation’s security. And that is exactly what has happened for each six-month period since the law went into effect in 1998: Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, all of whom openly derided the bill as unwarranted interference by Congress with the President’s right to conduct foreign policy, also—I’m sure entirely coincidentally—concluded that moving our embassy to Jerusalem would somehow adversely affect our nation’s security. Since it’s hard to imagine in what specific sense our nation’s security depends on the specific address of our embassy in Israel, President Trump correctly chose to obey the law of the land and not to flout the will of the people with reference to some threat to national safety that no preceding president even bothered to try actually to identify. So there’s that.

And then there’s the reality on the ground to consider. Even looking past the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel in every meaningful sense, denying Israel the right to determine all on its own where its capital city should be located—a right not even questioned with respect to any other country of the world—implies that the Jewish claim to Jerusalem is somehow spurious or bogus, a view mostly put forward (other than by crackpots who revel in their ignorance of history) by the kind of haters who also question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland. To insist that, alone among the nations of the world, Israel does not have the right to establish its capital wherever it wishes is tantamount to saying that Israel is not an autonomous country in the sense that the other countries of the world are, that for some reason it alone among the nations of the world needs the permission of others to conduct its own business as it sees fit.

And then there is the history issue to deal with as well. Part of the Palestinian propaganda campaign intended to make people question the right of Israel to exist has taken the form of ongoing disinformation regarding the history of Jerusalem itself. There have been, by universal scholarly consensus, Jews living in Jerusalem since around the tenth century BCE. Jerusalem was the capital of David’s kingdom and Solomon’s, and was then the capital of the Kingdom of Judah for as long as it existed. Later, it was the capital of the Maccabees’ kingdom, and it has been universally acknowledged, both by Jews in the Land of Israel and throughout the diaspora, as the spiritual center of all Jewish life ever since. Indeed, the fact that Jews who take prayer seriously pray for the well-being and security of the city three times a day is not irrelevant to this discussion. Nor is the fact that every observant Jew prays for the peace of Jerusalem when reciting the Grace after Meals over the course of a lifetime’s worth of meals. The Burial Kaddish we recite at graveside even includes a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem so that the last words an individual’s spirit might possibly hear before setting forth for the Next World are infused with a people’s love for its holy city. Jerusalem is so deeply woven into the warp and woof of Jewishness that it simply cannot be excised, without Judaism suffering the same fate any heart patient would meet if his or her cardiologist decided to solve the problem simply and efficiently by removing the patient’s heart and hoping for the best.

To question the historical relationship of the Jewish people to Jerusalem—which is the only real reason to question the right of Israel to declare Jerusalem as its capital city—is to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish faith itself. This is not a position anyone who does not wish to be perceived as the walking embodiment of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism should ever feel comfortable being associated with, let alone espousing openly.

And then, on top of all that, there is the question of the Palestinians, who also wish to designate Jerusalem as the capital city of their state.  If this week’s decision does any real good, it will lie in convincing the Palestinians once and for all that they can have the state they claim so ardently to desire, and they can have it almost instantly and with Jerusalem as its capital. That, of course, will require sitting down with the Israelis and hammering out a final agreement that will suit all parties to it…and it is precisely that that the Palestinians seem unwilling actually to do. When I hear people castigating Israel for denying the Palestinians a state, I can’t quite understand the argument—it seems to me that the Palestinians could declare the independence of their state tomorrow with the almost full approval of the entire Arab and Western worlds, work out the details, and move forward from there with Jerusalem as their capital as well. If the Israelis can have their capital in West Jerusalem, why can’t the Palestinians have theirs in East Jerusalem? (The President specifically noted that this week’s decision does not move away from our commitment to the notion of Israel and the future state of Palestine negotiating its borders as part of an overall peace agreement.) But the world has appeared all too willing to let the Palestinians go on and on for years about the unfair way they are being deprived a state of their own when the reality is precisely the opposite. It’s the Catalonians and the Chechens (and, yes, the Navajo and the Cherokees) who can’t have their own country, not the Palestinians…who can have one simply by declaring their independence, negotiating the border, and getting to work building their nation. Who would say no? Haven’t 135 of the world’s nations already recognized such a state even without it actually existing? If moving our embassy to Jerusalem prods the Palestinians into meaningful action (and not into the kind of senseless violence that will ultimately lead nowhere at all), it will have been worth the ruckus the President’s announcement is sure to provoke in an already hostile world and its already hostile media.
We—we who stand with Israel and who believe in Israel’s inalienable right to exist and to flourish—we have been expected to look on without choking as the United Nations and its various affiliates, most notably UNESCO, approve more and more poisonous, deeply anti-Semitic, ahistorical, amoral, and profoundly offensive resolutions calling into question the ancient, ongoing, and permanent Jewish ties to Jerusalem.  So now, for once, a formidable power in the world—the United States government—has decided to act forcefully and meaningfully on behalf of the Jewish claim to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city. I have to say that it’s good to feel marginally less alone than we usually do.  More than that, actually. A lot more.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


People seem to expect rabbis—and I’m sure other clergypeople too, but I speak of what I know—people somehow expect rabbis to find the study of science unsettling, off-putting, and slightly threatening. Paleontologists have proven that dinosaurs existed, but they’re not mentioned in the Bible. Geologists have proven categorically that the world is something like 4.404 billion years old, but if you add up all those “begats” featured in Scripture you can barely get our planet’s age over 6000. Anthropologists have proven the existence of all sorts of classes of humanoid life that preceded our own, but the Bible describes Adam, the first man, as a fully recognizable example of Homo sapiens sapiens—our own subspecies—who is able from the get-go to speak, to till the soil, and to sew leaves into skirts. All of these are served up regularly as examples of reasons for people of faith to be wary about data that appears to contradict the simple meaning of the biblical narrative, but I’ve never been able to buy into that kind of skittishness. Indeed, the simple thought that, logically speaking, no two true statements can ever contradict each other—all truths by definition being congruent with all other truths—that seems to me a far more solid foundation on which to stand when viewing the world in its fullness and attempting to commune meaningfully with its Creator. The challenge, of course, is to find a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole without turning away from inconvenient, irritating, or disturbing data, which effort requires above all else not super-human intelligence but rather a deep sense of humility. Arrogance, not science, is the enemy of faith.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between science and religion a lot since I began reading about ‘Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped reddish rock about 800 meters (that is, about 2624 feet) long that just recently passed by the earth on its journey from somewhere to somewhere else. (Its very apt name is derived from the Hawaiian for “messenger arriving from afar.”) When it was first noticed by scientists from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy peering through the Pan-STARRS1 telescope located at the Haleakala Observatory last month, it looked like “just” another asteroid. Then, for a while, they though it was “just” a comet. Then, noting that ‘Oumuamua lacked most of the basic characteristics of comets, they went back to labelling it an asteroid…but the story has turned out to be much more complex than that.

In fact, ‘Oumuamua is now believed to be the first interstellar object within our own solar system that scientists have managed unambiguously to identify as such. Where it came from, no one can say. How long it travelled through interstellar space to get here is also unknown, as is its chemical composition. The most logical explanation for its existence has to do with the theory that, when solar systems are formed—and there are countless solar systems out there, there 2,701 planetary systems already identified by scientists almost definitely being the tiniest sampling of what scientists think are probably tens of billions of them out there in the cosmos—when these planets-around-a-central-star systems are formed, some material is cast off towards the edge of the system and then travels off into interstellar space where it might possibly one day chance upon some other solar system. The scientists’ assumption is that ‘Oumuamua is such a piece of rejected rock that has flown along for countless eons before coming unawares to visit for a while in our house.

It is definitely not from here. For one thing, it’s moving much too fast to have originated in our solar system. (The so-called “asteroid belt” between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains about 750,000 asteroids or comets, some of them hundreds of miles wide, so their common properties are well known.) For another, ‘Oumuamua’s orbit pattern is unlike any “normal” meteor or asteroid as well, which makes it impossible for it to have started out anywhere around here. And it’s already sort of gone—at least from the purview of land-based telescopes like the one in Hawaii. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescopes, in orbit since 1990 and 2003 respectively, can see it still and will be able to watch it pass by Mars next month. But after that it will disappear from even the Hubble and the Spitzer as, traveling at a speed of 28 miles per second, ‘Oumuamua finally passes by Jupiter next May. These are very big distances we’re imagining here: it will need until 2022 to pass by Neptune and will only arrive near Pluto in 2024. And then ‘Oumuamua will be gone for good. Or at least gone from our view, from our gaze…if not entirely from our imaginations.

Other than with reference to their common cigar-like shape, ‘Oumuamua is not anything like the spaceship that brought baby Kal-El to Kansas after Krypton blew up. It has no passengers, is not packed with data intended to document a distant but now-long-lost civilization, was not “sent” to us by anyone at all. And yet it speaks to me…and profoundly and suggestively.

Like the prophets of old, ‘Oumuamua has slipped past the gates of our solar system to stand up briefly in our planetary town square and tell us something deeply unsettling…about ourselves, about our place in the world, about the unreasonableness of our wholly unearned arrogance with respect to the rest of the universe. I can imagine ‘Oumuamua taking a quick look at the earth as it whizzes by us, noting our greatest accomplishments—our most impressive buildings and bridges, our most exquisite artwork, our vast libraries containing at least most of the 130 million books published since the dawn of printing, our space-based telescopes that allow us to see farther into the cosmos than any human beings before us ever could have dreamt of seeing.  And I imagine it chuckling to itself as it prepares to deliver its brief message before disappearing forever:

You have invented an incredibly complex system of culture and society, whereas I am a piece of reddish rock flying aimlessly through space. I am bound to no planet, to no solar system, to no master at all. I don’t even have the burden of a specific name: my name (in this, rather like your prophet Moses) is just something one of your people made up the better to speak of me to others. But I have been places you not only haven’t seen but can’t even begin reasonably to imagine. And, unlike yourselves, my journey will end so far in the future that even I cannot imagine what it would mean for that many years to pass, just as you surely also can’t. So we are nothing alike!

Or are we?  After all, you too cannot say from whence you come, from what source your soul arrived in you and granted you personality, identity, and a sense of self real enough to distinguish you from every other living creature.  Nor can you say where you are going when your time comes to abandon life to the living and move on to the next stage of existence.  So you don’t know where I have come from and you don’t really know where you came from either. You don’t know where I’m going and you don’t know where you’re going either. Maybe we’re more alike than we both thought at first!

We’re both here for the twinkling of an eye, for a moment, for the amount of interstellar time that matches the time it takes one an earthling to take a single breath. Yes, I am traveling at 28 miles per second, which speed none of you could ever attain. But you are traveling at breakneck speed through the days and years of your lives nonetheless…and, just as I cannot, so also are you unable to slow down or, even if it were possible theoretically, to speed up. You can only move forward, just like me, day by day, month by month, year by year…as destiny brings us both to the edge of what we know of the world and then propels us into the part of which we know nothing at all. So look upon me therefore and see, not a piece of space garbage, but a sermon in stone, a lesson, a thought worth pondering. We’re both here for a moment and then gone to whatever awaits us past the boundaries of knowledge and experience. I’ve gotten used to my journey and I’m making the best of what time I have here. (I have been on the move for hundreds of millions of your earth years, after all.) I suggest you do the same!

And that is why I neither fear nor feel threatened by science. If God is the truth of the world, then how can any true statement be other than divine praise? If God exists in reality, then how can anything else that exists threaten faith? If ‘Oumuamua is part of God’s universe, then who is to say that it didn’t come our way to teach us a lesson or to deliver a sermon…possibly even the one I wrote for it and presented above.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Talking About Bad Behavior

I didn’t give the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal too much thought at first. I noticed the story in the newspaper, of course, but dismissed it as yet another example of some Hollywood guy I had slightly heard of being accused of behaving poorly by a variety of women he must have imagined would never jeopardize their chances to be cast in one of his movies by reporting his misconduct to anyone at all, let alone to the police or to the public. To the extent the story engaged me at all, I suppose I was pleased that these women had found the courage to come forward and imagined that the police would now go on to determine if there were grounds for an arrest. And, if he were indicted of an actual crime and if he ended up tried in a court of law and if he were to be found guilty, that he would end up being sentenced by the court to some appropriate punishment. Doesn’t that exact thing happen in the courts of our country every single day? So why, I think I thought, why was this even news at all?

But what I didn’t foresee—nor, I think, did many of us—was the tsunami of accusations of predatory sexual misconduct levied against various people that followed—including at least one former president of the United States, several prominent actors, producers, directors, authors, photographers, political pundits, and comedians, a candidate for the United States Senate, and a host of lesser-known personalities.

Some of the accusations involve behavior that took place in the distant past, but other charges relate to far more recent times. Some of the charges are vague, but others are very specific and detailed. Some sound just a bit far-fetched, but others sound—at least to my ear—entirely plausible. Given that the presumption of innocence is one of the bedrock values of our justice system, the question I wish to explore today is not related to any of the specific charges anyone has made about anyone else. Nor do I have anything particular to say about the response of any particular police department or any specific public prosecutor to any of these accusations. (Their job, of course, is specifically not to presume guilt in the wake of accusation, but simply to investigate carefully and thoughtfully when one individual accuses another of wrongdoing and then either to charge or not to charge someone with a crime based on the outcome of their investigations.) But I’m more interested in people who have spoken out in public to accuse others of poor behavior without there being any chance at all of an arrest…either because the person accused has died in the interim, because the incident happened so long ago that the statute of limitations for that crime makes indictment a legal impossibility, because there were no witnesses to the alleged crime and no evidence to adduce in a court of law, or—in some cases—because the alleged incident involved behavior that, for all it may be have been loutish or boorish, did not involve the breaking of any actual laws. In cases like that, should people come forward to speak out? Or is that just so much loshon horo, that to say: gossip of the sort that decent people should avoid not only speaking themselves but even listening to. That is the question I’d like to explore this week.

It’s not that easy a question to answer. Our Jewish tradition has an extremely strong animus against talebearing. Scripture itself makes this explicit and rabbinic sources seem never to tire of finding ever more extreme language with which to condemn the intentional spreading of gossip, libel, or calumny outside the legal context. Indeed, there are a whole series of ancient texts that equate gossip with murder! And another set of texts that make explicit the point that the prohibition against gossip applies equally when the report is true and when it is false! So extreme, in fact, is the rabbinic aversion to telling tales in public about other people’s poor behavior that the rabbis imagined that the Torah actually needs formally to permit people to testify in court about other people’s bad behavior…and precisely because testimony in which one citizen speaks out in public about another’s bad behavior would otherwise be forbidden as talebearing and gossip. Nor are these strictures solely concerned with the one doing the talking: the classical sources also make it clear that the prohibition against talebearing involves not only telling damning tales about others, but also listening to them. So making a case against speaking up other than to report misconduct to the police or to give testimony in court would be relatively easy to make.

But, even despite the sources referenced above, the evidence of tradition is nonetheless equivocal and, in fact, there are many instances in which the general prohibition about speaking poorly about others is waived. It is not considered slanderous, for example, for an employer to answer honestly if a former employee has given his or her name to a potential future employer so that the latter can ask the former about the employee’s skills and work ethic, and this is so even if the honest answer to the question asked reflects poorly on the employee.  Nor is it prohibited to alert someone to some potential danger even if doing so involves saying something about a third party that under other circumstances would be prohibited as gossip or slander.  And, as mentioned above, it is not only not prohibited but legally required that eye-witnesses to wrongdoing step forward to give testimony in court even though this will obviously almost often involve speaking ill of the accused individual.
Most crucial for the issue under discussion, the fact that the very verse in the Torah that prohibits talebearing goes on to warn against “standing idly by the blood of another” was taken by the rabbis unequivocally to mean that it is actually forbidden to remain silent when speaking out might prevent harm to some innocent third party. The rabbis understood that wrongdoing, and particularly sexual misconduct, is more reasonably to be taken as a function of character than of opportunity. And, that being the case, it seems reasonable to think of wrongdoing as something in which wrongdoers habitually engage rather than as solitary occurrences that unpredictably occur when weak-willed individuals find themselves just one single time at the malign confluence of opportunity, desire, and recklessness. In my opinion, this is the context in which we should evaluate the rightness or wrongness of coming forward to report on predatory behavior directed against oneself outside the context of making a report to the police or giving testimony in a court of law.

We live in a world of almost unimaginable vulgarity. Indeed, we have all become so inured to profanity, tastelessness, and crudity that we barely notice it any longer. Even principled opposition to such things sound ridiculous to most of us or, at best, schoolmarmish and priggish. Imagine, for example, someone who were simply to refuse to watch movies featuring obscene language, or someone who made the conscious decision not to attend theatrical performances that featured indecently dressed actors or actresses, let alone naked ones. There are such people in the world…but which of us would want to be thought of as the kind of naïve, culturally backwards person so unattuned to the reality of modern culture as actually to be offended by its excesses? Nor do I speak as a beacon of virtue in this regard—I myself go to such shows and see such movies without giving the decision to purchase my ticket even a moment’s thought. Perhaps that’s simply how things are in this world we have constructed for ourselves…but that is also the context in which people feel free to behave in ways that would once have been considered not merely degenerate, but truly debauched. This is not to excuse the behavior of the sexual predators among us—just to observe that all of us together have chosen to create, and then to tolerate, a world in which sexual predators feel free to act, some on the supposition that they will never be caught and others simply because they don’t really see what’s wrong with their behavior. They are the wrongdoers, to be sure. But we, speaking for society itself, have created the stage upon which they have been able to perpetrate their wrongdoing. And when we are done being titillated by the avalanche of detailed accusations we have heard and read over these last few weeks, it would be more than appropriate to consider what we as a society have wrought. And also what we could conceivably do to create a world in which immoral, predatory behavior is not merely against the law, but something ordinary people—men and women alike—consider truly unimaginable.
And that brings me back to my initial question. Should people speak up if there is no chance of bringing the people they are accusing of wrongdoing to justice? I think that the question has to turn on the likelihood that a public accusation will rescue future victims. If the accused party, say, is dead—and there is therefore nothing to be gained by the accusation other than besmirching the reputation of someone who cannot defend him or herself—I think it would probably be best simply to remain silent.  If there is a reasonable expectation of legal action against an aggressor, then speaking up is not only allowed but requisite. If there is no chance of legal action, however—for example, if the statute of limitations makes an indictment impossible—then the issue has to turn on the possibility of saving future victims from a predator’s grasp by speaking up. If that possibility exists, then victims should come forward even if there is no reasonable expectation of an arrest or a trial, let alone a conviction.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guns in America

We give hurricanes and tropical storms names—or the World Meteorological Organization does—primarily to make it possible to reference them without having to remember their precise dates and where exactly they made landfall: talking about Harvey, Irma, and Maria is a lot simpler than trying to reference them as “that storm in Texas back in August…or was it September?” or “that hurricane that ended up on the other side of Florida from the one they expected it to savage.”  But although naming them surely does make it easier to talk about them, it also personifies them in a strange way that makes them sound less like unavoidable natural disasters and more like unwanted visitors whose arrival could presumably have been prevented had we only thought in advance to turn off the porch lights and pull in the welcome mat. (By the way, did you know there are only six lists of names used for storms in each separate ocean region, each series repeated every six years other than when super-storm names like Katrina are permanently retired and a new name starting with that letter is chosen? Click here for a list of the names of future storms through 2022.) Still, the practice is probably more useful than wrong-minded, and it is at any rate here to stay.

We don’t have a similarly adorable way to refer to the perpetrators of mass shootings, however. Partially that is because the shooters actually have names and so hardly need new ones assigned to them. And using their real names feels right for another reason as well—because it is makes it feel more natural just to blame the shooter for the shooting and be done with it than to ask if society itself bears any responsibility for these horrific acts of bloodshed. And that impetus to look no further than the shooter to explain the shooting is incredibly strong. Indeed, when the President said the other day that the massacre in that Texas church was “about” mental illness and not guns, he was merely giving voice to the siren sentiment that Sutherland Springs had nothing to do with society itself, just with some crazy person who ran amok with a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle in his hands. And what could that possibly have to do with anyone other than the shooter himself?  Yes, it is true that there is the horrific mistake made by the Air Force in this specific case to take into account—an error that allowed a man with a criminal record for uncontrollable violence to purchase a gun he should have been forbidden by federal law to acquire—but that detail, for all it is truly upsetting, is also strangely re-assuring. It was just an error, you see: if the Air Force had correctly entered the shooter’s domestic violence court-martial into the proper federal government data base, then he would indeed have been barred from purchasing the weapon he used to murder all those innocents at the First Baptist Church last Sunday and his victims, including a dozen children, would still be alive. So it’s all about Devin P. Kelly, the shooter. And it’s a little bit about the Air Force. But it’s easy to insist that it’s not about anyone but the shooter…and particularly not about people who hadn’t heard of him or Sutherland Springs, Texas, until last Sunday.

That, however, is only one way to interpret things. If the President is right that this and similar crimes are all manifestations of mental instability on the part of the shooters and thus unrelated to questions of gun safety or gun control, then our nation—that had thirty times as many gun murders in 2015 than Canada, Australia, or Spain—should also have thirty times as many mentally-ill citizens. But I cannot find any survey that suggests that that is even remotely how things are. France, for example, is just behind us in terms of percentage of citizens treated for mental illness, but had one-thirtieth the number of gun murders that we did in 2007 (the last year for which I could find accurate figures)…just the same as the countries mentioned above.  So, whatever these figures ultimately mean, they clearly do not mean that we have thirty times the gun murders that other countries have because we have thirty times as many deranged citizens in our midst. (For two interesting surveys comparing the prevalence of mental health issues in various countries, click here and here.) But if that is the case, then why do we have these endless mass shootings to contend with in our country?

Part of the answer does indeed have to do with craziness, but not with the craziness of the shooters. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted last March and April, a full 11% of Americans responded that they did not feel that it should be illegal for mentally ill people to purchase guns. In a Quinnipiac University National Poll conducted last month, 12% of the respondents who live in households with guns responded that they saw no reason for a nation-wide ban on the sale of guns to people convicted of violent crimes. The response from respondents who live without guns was, in a sense, even more astounding: 15% of those responders—all of them people who themselves do not own guns—agreed that there was no need for such a national ban of gun sales to violent criminals. But even harder for me personally to fathom is that 7% of people who live with guns and 4% of people who don’t feel that there is no need to subject would-be gun purchasers to any sort of background checks at all—in other words, that guns should be sold in America in roughly the same way Starbuck’s sells coffee: to whomever walks in and has the purchase price in hand. And one final statistic to ponder: when asked if they agreed with the thought that a ban on the sale of guns to people convicted of violent crimes would reduce gun violence, 39% of people who live in “gun households” disagreed, as did 25% of people who live in households without guns. (Click here to see these statistic in more detail.)

I find all of the above unfathomable. Who are these people that don’t think that keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals would reduce gun violence? It’s a good question, too: if 25% and 39% average out at 32% of our American population, that would be about 104 million people who don’t see a clear correlation between criminals owning guns and crimes that involve the use of guns being committed. Clearly, I’m missing something here. But what could it be?

The right to bear arms is part of our national culture, part of our distinctive American ethos. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to belong to armed militias—presumably envisaged by the founders as state-wide fighting forces called into existence to defend the citizenry against outside aggression—but already in our nation’s infancy this was interpreted to guarantee the right of individual citizens to bear arms even outside the framework of organized fighting forces. And the notion that reliance on a central government to make and keep the citizenry safe is invariably going to be a good idea is not a point anyone even slightly conversant with Jewish history can or should argue as though it were a self-evident truth. And so I find myself torn in different directions here, wishing the Jews of Kovno, say, had been armed when the Germans came to take their children, but—without feeling naïve or foolish—simply not believing that kind of danger to be plausibly something we could ever encounter in America.

In my heart, I really do think that America is different…and that the foundational ideas upon which our republic rests and for which it stands really do guarantee our safety more than a Ruger AR-556 in each of our broom closets ever could. And, that being the case, I simply don’t see how anyone can read the Second Amendment to imply that every citizen, even mentally ill individuals or people convicted of violent crimes, has the right to own weapons capable of murdering fifty-eight people in a matter of minutes, as Stephen Paddock did last month in Las Vegas when he started shooting from his hotel room window at concert goers gathered below. When the President said with respect to the massacre in Texas last week that this was a “mental health issue at the highest level,” he was entirely right—but not in the way he meant. Yes, I’m sure that Devin Patrick Kelly will be posthumously diagnosed as deranged. But truly crazy is a nation in which scores of millions of citizens do not believe that making an effort, even an only partially successful one, to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and mentally ill individuals would reduce gun violence in our land.

Clearly, this problem is not going to be solved with one grand gesture by Congress. But small steps forward are also worth taking. Writing in the Times last week, Nicholas Kristof offered a heartening parallel by pointing out that our nation had one-ninth the deaths in automobile accidents in 2016 than in 1946, and that those seventy years of progress can be explained by the slow, incremental introduction of more and more innovative practices that simply made fatalities in cars less likely: seatbelts, air bags, child safety seats, etc.  That is a dramatic change from my father’s generation (my Dad was 30 years old in 1946) to my kids’ generation (my younger son had his 30th birthday earlier this year). And it happened simply because there was a concerted, unambivalent national will to make it happen. And because scientists of various sorts were able to find ways to make cars safer without making them undrivable or unbearably slow or unwieldy. If that happened, and it did, then guns too can become safer. And the laws that govern their use can be made tighter in rational and reasonable ways…and without strangling or stunting the gun-owner’s legitimate right to bear arms. Take a look at Kristof’s article (click here), and you’ll see what I mean. Small steps are worth taking…even if they only yield truly dramatic results over decades.

If Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to bring us to our senses, it’s hard to imagine what would be. And yet…it simply doesn’t seem possible that there is no way at all to reduce gun violence in America. All that is required is some unequivocal national resolve to act…and creative, inspired leaders prepared to lead us up out of this morass into which we have sunk.