Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Accountant

We have become used to the fact that the survivors’ numbers are dwindling. 1500 survivors of Auschwitz gathered in January of 2005 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army in 1945, but just one-fifth as many came to Poland this last January to mark the seventieth anniversary. Nor is that at all surprising. There were no children among the survivors of the camps. The liberated teenagers of 1945 are in their mid-eighties today. And those who were older than that then are older than that now as well. But more surprising to notice, at least to me personally, is that the perpetrators are also dwindling. There were, after all, also no children working in any of the camps…and so the survivors in those ranks—the actual murderers and their countless willing accomplices in the Nazi war against the Jews—they too are dwindling and becoming fewer and fewer with each passing year.

Given that their survival into old age itself could entirely rationally be taken as an insult to their victims, it seems odd even to suggest that one could, let alone should, care. Nor is it irrelevant in this context to note how many of those who made the camps into the world’s most efficient killing centers faced neither prosecution nor, needless to say, punishment for their crimes. (Of the roughly 6,500 men and women who ran Auschwitz from 1941 to 1945, no more than fifteen percent were eventually convicted of war crimes.) Some comfort comes from knowing that death is the great leveler of the playing field of justice…and that the only court from which escape is possible is the earthly tribunal, not the heavenly one. I actually do find great comfort in that thought, but I still find it unpalatable in the extreme to imagine the men and women who ran Auschwitz returning to their homes and their families after the war ended, free either to regret or not to regret their role in the murder of millions but otherwise unencumbered by their past lives as purveyors of genocide.

But now, almost at the very last moment, the rules of the game have changed. When the war ended and the war crimes trials conducted by the Allies were finally over, the German government focused on prosecuting the upper-echelon Nazis who actually gave the orders that those who were “just following orders” were following. But things changed with the successful prosecution in 2011 of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews at Sobibor. And although Demjanjuk remained technically innocent under German law because he died while his appeal was still pending (see above, regarding the heavenly tribunal), his conviction made possible the redirection of German prosecutorial efforts towards those who by their actions were merely complicit in the murder of millions. 

And now that the trial of Oskar Gröning has begun, we can see what that idea looks like when translated from the language of legal theory into the nuts-and-bolts like of the German criminal justice system.  Oskar Gröning is ninety-three years old. He walks with a walker. He looks his age. But once he was a handsome twenty-year-old member of the SS who volunteered for work at Auschwitz and was thus part of the human machine that murdered about 300,000 people in May, June, and July of 1944. (Even though he worked at the camp from 1942 to 1945, the indictment specifically references his work during those three months, during which time 137 trainloads of deported Hungarian Jews arrived at the camp, because these were the specific months regarding which viable witnesses were available to testify.) His specific job was only tangentially related to the murder of those 300,000 people, however: it was his assignment to collect the baggage from the arrival ramp after its owners were either sent to their deaths or processed as slave laborers. He was considered trustworthy, apparently, because part of his job involved personally removing any bank notes he found in the baggage. (He would then tally their sums and send the bills along to the SS office in Berlin, thus earning his grotesque nickname, “The Accountant of Auschwitz.”) And he was an enthusiastic participant as well: in a 2005 BBC documentary, he said openly that as a young man he believed that killing Jews, including children, was “the right thing to do.” So he was a willing executioner whose duties did not actually involve murdering anyone at all. Does that make him guilty or innocent? And if the former, then guilty of what exactly? That is the question I’d like to write about this week.

It’s a complicated question that goes far beyond the simple question of what role in someone’s murder an individual actually has to take to be indicted as that person’s murderer. Forty-six states, including New York, have felony murder rules, for example, that hold individuals who participate in a felony liable for any deaths that occur in the course of the commission of the crime. That rule is hardly applicable in Oskar Gröning’s case—the deaths of those who died in the camps was hardly a function of the Nazis’ wish to steal from them—but it illustrates the concept of liability going far beyond the actual trigger-puller to those “merely” constructing the context in which an innocent’s death took place. The defendant himself, speaking clearly and in easily-understandable German, framed the question as well as any could. “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit,” he said unambiguously as he addressed the court. And then he went on to say that he was prepared not merely to acknowledge his moral guilt but to do so before the victims “with regret and with humility.” He asked for forgiveness as well. And then, turning to Judge Franz Kompisch, he admitted his lack of legal expertise in the matter. “As concerns guilt before the law,” he said almost humbly, “that will have to be your job to decide.”

Well, doesn’t that complicate things! How simple it would be to condemn the unrepentant Nazi, the monster who after all these years still cannot understand how he can have done wrong by following his superiors’ orders, how he can possibly have been expected to know that it was wrong to murder children when the Führer said otherwise. That would be a true no-brainer. But here is a man who openly admits his guilt, who did not limit himself to the language of tangential complicity when speaking of himself in court but who spoke instead of actual moral responsibility. Clearly, he knows what he did was wrong. Does that make his prosecution unnecessary? On the one hand, if we routinely assert that ignorance of the law is no excuse for wrongdoing, then certainly knowledge that one did wrong also shouldn’t be!  On the other, we are talking about a young man not old enough in 1942 even to buy a beer at a bar today in New York State who was party to monstrous crimes more than seventy years in the past? Is it reasonable to pursue him? Is it just? Or, given his age and his willingness to confess his moral complicity plainly and unambiguously, is it pointless or excessive to do so? You will find people vehemently arguing in both those directions on the editorial pages of the world’s newspapers and, with far less abandon, in the blogosphere. Nor is it obvious what the punishment should be if he is found guilty. Any sentence to prison at all would in effect be a life sentence. It’s easy enough to play the Javert in a case like this, but is that what we really think should happen…not to faceless murderers who aren’t actually on trial but to Oskar Gröning himself, the nonagenarian who actually is?

If I could address the court, I would deliver a sermon in two parts. First, I would argue that finding the accused not guilty despite his willing participation in mass murder would be not only be an insult to the Nazis’ victims but also a true perversion of justice. Nor does it seem important to me that the accused personally did not actually kill anyone with his bare hands because he was part of a team that as an aggregate of well-disciplined and well-organized co-workers was fully responsible for what they did in that place. But then, having made the case for conviction, I would move on to argue against incarceration as the man’s punishment. John Demjanjuk, who was convicted of being complicit in the murder of just one-tenth the number of victims in Gröning’s case, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. But what would be the point of sentencing a ninety-three-year-old to 500 years in prison? In my opinion, the man—frail but fully lucid and easy to understand when he speaks—should be sentenced to a life sentence to be served in the high schools of Germany. He should be obliged to spend a full five days of every week he has left telling his story, describing the ramp and the selections he witnessed, describing as best he can what he saw…and explaining how in a handful of years he personally moved on from being an innocent child in the German equivalent of middle school to the kind of young man who willingly volunteered for service in hell. He should be obliged to write his own story too, providing in his own words a lesson for future generations about how quickly—how unbelievably quickly—after losing one’s moral compass one can find oneself murdering babies, secure in the fantasy that one is behaving morally and patriotically.


By being sentenced to spend his remaining years bearing witness to what he himself saw and experienced, perhaps some good could come from this trial that comes more than half a century too late for “real” justice. Oskar Gröning has already won. He lived out his life in peace and calm. He married, became the father of two sons. He became an avid stamp collector. Barred from the banking industry because of his membership in the SS, he became instead a manager at a glass factory. He had a good middle-class life in a peaceful Germany city and lived, as the world now knows, into advanced old age. Nothing that can now happen can change any of that. But some good can come from his conviction if now, as the very last perpetrators pass from the scene, one of them were to serve as a living icon of the power of repentance not to undo the past or make innocent the guilty, but to inspire others to understand that, in the end, the boundary line between saint and sinner is narrow, not broad. And that to step across it requires nothing more complex than the simple willingness to harden one’s heart, to look away from the light…and to believe that one is too little important for one’s deeds to be of any real consequence.  If the court is curious, that’s what I think should happen next.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Be Cured You Have To Be Ill

While campaigning for re-election in 2011, President Obama famously noted that his attitudes towards same-sex marriage were, to use his own word, “evolving.” And so, clearly, have his opinions about other issues relating to the gay community, which evolution reached its latest stage just this week when the President formally announced his opposition to so-called conversion therapy (also called reparative therapy) undertaken to alter sexual identity. The president did not explicitly call for congressional legislation to ban the practice, but merely encouraged the eighteen states currently considering laws that would do just that to persevere and thus to join California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., where this kind of therapy is already forbidden by law. Presumably, the President would like the other thirty states to follow suit. But even without the intimation of future federal legislation, this was the first time the issue was brought so forcefully to the fore as part of a larger national debate about the place of gay people in American society.

White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett explained the President’s stance in terms of the efficacy of the therapy, nothing that “the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”  And that appears to be the widely accepted view in the medical community as well. As early as 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher published a report in which he wrote that he knew then of no evidence at all that sexual orientation can be changed. Later studies have confirmed that sentiment.  Even Robert Spitzer, the renowned psychiatrist whose 2003 paper endorsing the potential worth of therapy undertaken to change sexual orientation was very widely cited by groups in favor of the practice, even Dr. Spitzer himself has backtracked, describing his own work as “fatally flawed” and apologizing to the gay community for proffering claims about the efficacy of conversion therapy that he now realizes remain unproven. Nor is this a new line of thought: Freud himself wrote in his 1920 essay, “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” that “in general to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse.” In other words: none at all.

All that being the case, it’s hard to imagine what the fuss is about. Surely no one is in favor of it being legal for snake-oil salespeople posing as therapists to offer cures that do not work, just as no one thinks pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to market drugs that don’t actually do anything or that hospitals should be allowed to permit procedures that merely make the hospital lots of money but do not actually have any sort of salutary effect on the patients who undergo them.  So the President’s stance is hardly too daring a one, just a rational commitment to the more-than-widely-accepted principle that only effective forms of medical or psychological treatment should be permitted by law. But hiding behind this specific discussion is a different, far more interesting one.

White House Senior Advisor Jarrett wrote plainly that conversion therapy should not be allowed because it doesn’t work.  But what if it did work? In other words, what if some way were to be found to alter sexual identity? It’s true that no one seems to know how to do it. But medical procedures we’ve come to think of as ordinary—dialysis, in vitro fertilization, coronary bypass surgery, to name three among a thousand—would also once (and in the lifetimes, I think, of most of my readers) have been dismissed as undoable fantasies. So let’s say that someone somewhere comes up with an actual way to alter sexual identity. Let’s posit it works too, and with no other effect than the desired one. Would it be morally wrong for citizens who wished to be differently oriented to avail themselves of it? Valerie Jarrett used the word “unethical” to describe conversion therapy, but the context of her remarks suggests that she meant that it is unethical because it is foisted on naïve souls as efficacious, which it clearly is not. But what if it were efficacious. What if it did work? Would it still be unethical? To my way of thinking, that is the far more interesting issue and it’s the one I’d like to write about this week.

We live in a society that encourages people to live free, to be what they wish to be, to self-alter if self-alteration is perceived as the path towards future happiness. That much sounds like apple pie, like something you couldn’t debate because there wouldn’t be any rational reason to oppose the concept. People who weigh too much go on diets to lose weight. People who have no natural musical talent take piano lessons because they want to learn how to make music nevertheless and we think that’s admirable, particularly in adults. People who feel held back by their lack of formal education go back to school, even later in life, to self-improve, to self-transform, to become the men and women they feel they could be and they wish to be. So the notion of being dissatisfied with who or what you are and wishing to morph into a version of yourself that better suits your conception of who you could or should or would be…that notion is as basic to the bedrock American value of self-reliance as it is fundamental to the right of every individual to live as he or she wishes and according to his or her own lights.

But is that the right framework for discussing the question of self-alteration when it touches something as basic as sexual orientation? Not fully apt is the parallel that comes to mind the most easily: the one to the kind of hormonal and surgical therapy intended to help transgendered, or potentially transgendered, people overcome the lack of correspondence they feel between gender and sex. People who suffer from gender dysphoria are possessed of the conviction that they actually are men or women even though they were born into the world in bodies that specifically do not conform to that aspect of their internal identity. But the audience for conversion therapy is hardly made up of gay people who feel that they really are straight people who have somehow been born into the world encased in the psyches of gay people. (I’m not even sure what that would mean.) Instead, the candidates for this kind of therapy understand themselves truly to be gay people, but wish that that weren’t the case…and so they turn to therapy in the hope, apparently the vain hope, that it might alter that aspect of their internal selves and make them not into someone they already truly are, as might a young person in the transgender context, but into someone they aren’t but wish they were. So that parallel doesn’t really work.

Nor is the parallel to plastic surgery entirely right. People, for example, who submit to surgery because they wish they had different shaped noses or breasts, or less plump bellies or more shapely posteriors, are eager to alter some aspect of their appearance so that they will be more pleased with the way they look, not to change something so deeply embedded in the psyche that to alter it would really be to change into a different person almost entirely. So to compare the alteration of one’s sexual identity to the alteration of the shape of one’s nose is to make too little of the one and too much of the other. I don’t suppose there’s any specific reason for people who can afford such procedures not to look as they wish, but, in the end, there’s a reason that kind of surgery is qualified as “cosmetic”: because it is cosmetic and affects only the outer shell, not the inner core, of the person undergoing it.

More relevant than the search for parallels in other arenas of modern life, however, is the fact that desire to alter one’s sexual orientation—always in the direction of gay to straight, of course, and never in the opposite direction—is generally rooted in the kind of self-loathing that society should discourage rather than promote. Thinking you would look better with straighter teeth or a tinier nose doesn’t strike me as something intrinsically negative or harmful because the post-surgery individual with the desired teeth or nose is fundamentally the same individual as the pre-surgery one. But sexual identity, I believe, is more like gender itself: something that is so basic to the integral self that to alter it truly is to alter who that individual is. Many times in the course of all these years of marriage I’ve been told that “if I were a woman, I’d get it.” Clearly, I know what Joan means: that women see things differently than men and, if I were a woman, so would I.  But, her implied meaning notwithstanding, the thought itself doesn’t really make any sense: if my mother had given birth to a baby girl on the day of my birth instead of myself, I would hardly be myself except that I’d be a woman. Gender is too basic, too deeply rooted in the most interior aspects of the psyche, too ineradicable for it to be reasonable to imagine oneself being exactly who one is except of the opposite gender. That person, had my mother done that thing, would be someone entirely different than me. She wouldn’t have my name or look like me. (That poor thing if she did!) But she also wouldn’t have had my experiences, wouldn’t have grown up seeing the world through my eyes, wouldn’t have become who I am except for some few physiological and endocrinological details.  I think we all feel that way about gender, but I think it’s true about sexual identity as well.


And that’s why society is doing well to be moving away from this kind of therapy. It’s not relevant that it doesn’t work. Lots of things in the world used to not work and now they do! What’s relevant is the notion that the desire to undergo conversion therapy is almost always routed in the deeply internalized lesson that being gay is some sort of moral defect that needs to be fixed, that it is a disease that only a crazy person would wish to suffer from instead of being cured of. As the father of a gay man, I have learned not to think of gayness as a burden to be shouldered stoically and bravely, but as a deeply embedded feature of personality. To wish a gay person straight is to wish that person not to exist, and to deny the right of the self—one’s own self or someone else’s—to exist on its own terms is tragic. Gay people who are so miserable that they see no step as too extreme to take to eradicate their sexuality should be helped…not to become different people even if that were possible, but to embrace their inner selves and the constellation of affects that is theirs alone. Only then will such people find the kind of inner peace that is only truly available to those who understand that self-acceptance is the threshold across which all must step who would be accepted by the world beyond the self, by the world of others, by the world of neighbors and potential friends.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On the Sesquicentennial of President Lincoln's Death

As our nation prepares to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s death next week, his yahrtzeit seems especially poignant to me personally…but possibly not for the reason some of my readers may think. (Speaking more precisely, his yahrtzeit was actually this last Wednesday since he died on the fifth day of Pesach in 1865, just one day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the rest of the world is planning on observing the anniversary of his death next week on Wednesday, April 15, the secular date of his death 150 years ago.)

With the publication just last month of Jonathan Sarna’s gorgeously illustrated and extremely interesting Lincoln and the Jews: A History and the mounting of a rich exhibition at the New York Historical Society called “Lincoln and the Jews” (which Joan and I actually went to see last Wednesday on the actual fifth day of Pesach), there are more than enough ways to read up on the relationship between our sixteenth president and the American Jewish community of his time. (It was a small community in those days of about 150,000 souls in a larger American population in 1860 of more than 31 million. The community, however, even then was burgeoning; a mere twenty years earlier there had only been one-tenth as many Jewish Americans amidst their then-17-million co-citizens.)  Much has been made, for example, of Lincoln’s early friendship with one Louis Salzenstein, whose store served as regional post office in Athens, Illinois, when Lincoln himself served their common district as regional postmaster.  Nor was “Old Salty” Lincoln’s only Jewish friend in his pre-presidential years: the names of Abraham Jonas and Julius Hammerslough, among many others, are well known to history buffs as living “evidence” of Lincoln’s willingness to accept Jews as friends and colleagues. And some of those many others are highlighted in the Historical Society exhibit, including the president’s flamboyant chiropodist and confident Issachar Zacharie, and his photographer friend Samuel Altschuler, whose clean-shaven portrait of the future president taken in April of 1858 is also on display. (The Altschuler portrait is on loan from the Library of Congress. Chiropodists today are more commonly called podiatrists. The exhibit will be open to the public through June 7.)

Later on, of course, President Lincoln became famous as a great defender of Jewish rights when he personally countermanded General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11, which expelled Jews from certain areas of the occupied Confederacy in January of 1863. (That episode, by the way, is covered in great and definitive depth in a different book by Jonathan Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, which was published by Schocken in 2012 and which I can also recommend highly.) Less widely discussed, but surely just as relevant, is the fact that Lincoln appointed seven Jews as generals in the United States Army and in 1862 went personally to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to amend the existing law to grant rabbis the right to serve as chaplains in the Armed Forces of the Unites States. (Upon the passage of the law in July of that year, Lincoln then personally appointed three American rabbis, Jacob Frankel, Bernard Gotthelf, and Ferdinand Sarna, as U.S. Army chaplains.)

Also well-known is the report by Mary Todd Lincoln that, in the last week of his life, the president commented to her that one of his great hopes was one day to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. And, of course, well documented too is Lincoln’s great love for the Hebrew Bible and particularly for the books of the prophets and the Psalms, from which he quoted often both in public and private speech.

All that is compelling evidence regarding Lincoln’s warm feelings towards the American Jewish community of his day and his willingness publicly to be seen as a defender of the rights of its members to live freely and fully as American citizens. But in this world of never-ending turmoil in which we seem to be living, Lincoln—in my mind, at least—stands for something else even more compellingly.

In Lincoln’s day, just as in our own, our country was facing unprecedented challenges. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, seven states had voted to secede from the union and had formed the Confederate States of America. Then, after the attack on Fort Sumter just one month after his inauguration, four more states joined the original seven to bring the total up to eleven. (After those eleven states declared their independence, the Union consisted of twenty free states and the five border slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia—that did not secede.) The issues on the table in need of immediate resolution were military and economic, obviously, but the most profound ideas at the true heart of the conflict were philosophical ones…and it is on them, or rather one of them, that I would like now to focus.

The United States itself was formed when the original thirteen colonies declared their self-arrogated right to declare independence because, in their own words, the right “to dissolve political bands” unilaterally and to assume “among the powers of the earth, a separate and equal station” is among the basic human rights shared by all peoples. In other words, our Founding Fathers based their claim to statehood on the fact that, because their lawful ruler had made it impossible for them to pursue their own destiny in the specific way they wished—i.e., as a self-constituted entity of like-minded citizens united as one in the desire to self-govern according to principles they considered to be self-evident truths—that in and of itself made it lawful for them to secede (to use the loaded term in this context) from their own country and to set out on their own independent course forward as an independent nation.  And now, by asserting their right to assume their own separate and equal station among the powers of the earth, the leaders of the southern states were in effect throwing down to Washington the same gauntlet that our nation’s founders had thrown down to London.  This, to my way of thinking, was the true challenge that the secessionist states laid at the feet of the nation’s leadership and, once he assumed office, specifically at the feet—those same feet cared for so assiduously by the faithful Dr. Zacharie—of President Lincoln. Would what had long-since been accepted as kosher sauce for the gander now too be kosher for the goose? Or would the president simply refuse to preside over the dissolution of his own country despite the obvious challenge of precedent rooted in his country’s own history?

Jefferson Davis, in a long series of speeches and essays defending the legitimacy of the Confederacy, returned again and again to the example of the founding fathers, sometimes expressing himself in the context of the right of each individual state to chart its own destiny and other times arguing that the right to secede from the national union was inherent in the decision of each state to join in the first place. (Readers who want to learn more about Jefferson Davis’ thinking on each of these matters have only to get a copy of his own The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published by the Confederacy’s only president in his own old age and still in print more than 130 years later. I’ve always wanted to read that book…and now that I’ve recommended it, perhaps I even will!)

But Lincoln, who knew the published works of our Founding Fathers as well as did Jefferson Davis, had his own way of reading history. In his First Inaugural Address, he spoke of his belief that by its nature the union of the states that collectively formed the United States was perpetual and irrevocable. In other speeches and addresses, he pursued that line of thinking further. Obviously, he insisted, the Founding Fathers were not acting within English law when they broke with England. But the difference between their actions and those of the leaders of the Confederacy was that the former were acting in accordance with moral principles—as famously listed in the Declaration of Independence itself—whereas the leaders of the Confederate State of America were not. The American Revolution was thus an exercise of a moral right that depended for its legitimacy on the ethical principles prompting it and not on the law of the country being revolted against, which idea would be an absurdity that would render ipso facto all rebellion illegitimate.

In others, President Lincoln was the opposite of a moral relativist. For him, the imperative that should guide a nation forward is not conformity with past practices or some indefensible argument that what’s right and legitimate in one context must logically be both those things in every other context as well. And it was that conviction, that the quest for the greater moral good must always be the principle that guides nations forward, that made Lincoln into the greatest of all our presidents, one prepared to put all on the line to do what seemed to him right and good.  To justify immoral behavior—and particularly on the level of nations—with reference to historical parallels but without caring—or even without caring enough—what is just in any given situation…that is precisely where nations begin down the road to perdition. And it was exactly that line of reasoning that made it feel natural and right for the federal government not to acquiesce to the secession of states eager to be free, among other things, to own slaves and to treat them as beasts of burden. I am well aware of the argument that Lincoln’s own attitude towards slavery evolved over the years. But it seems to me that at the core of the conflict between the states was the wish of one side to preserve a life style built on indignity, injustice, and a denial of basic human rights to millions—there were more than 3.5 million slaves in the states that voted to secede from the Union—and the wish of the other side to grow towards a finer model of societal living, towards basic respect for human rights, and towards an eventual renunciation of slavery as a legitimate commercial institution.

In our day, I hear constantly—and read constantly on the op-ed pages of our newspapers as well—thinking rooted in precisely the kind of moral relativism that President Lincoln would never have found sound or cogent. Our sixteenth president believed there to be nothing immoral in favoring the right side in a dispute even if doing so almost by definition means not treating both parties to that dispute in precisely the same way…and so, if we truly wish to think of ourselves as his heirs as we pause to take note of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of President Lincoln’s passing, should we.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pesach 2015


As Pesach bears down on us—or is it we who are bearing down on it?—it seems natural for our thoughts to turn to the concept of freedom that serves as the beating heart of the Passover story. We are, after all, bidden by Scripture not once or twice but on four different occasions to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt to our children in the course of our holiday observance…and the concept of freedom from bondage is surely the foundation stone upon which all the rest lies. But like all great ideas—like justice, for example, or like beauty or truth—freedom is an easier idea to embrace than actually to define.

Has Indiana (and the other nineteen states that have passed similar “religious freedom” laws) made its bakers more free by allowing them legally to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples if their religious scruples prevent them wholeheartedly from embracing the concept of marriage equality? Or has it made them less free by declining to assist them in shucking off their burdensome prejudice against gay people and thus concomitantly allowing them to proceed through life weighed down by their own intolerance? (If you’re not sure how you feel, let me refocus the issue by asking if those same bakers would be more free if they were permitted not to serve Jews because they feel religiously compelled not to “participate” in Jewish religious ceremonies, including weddings? Or would they be less free…and for the same reason, mutatis mutandis, I gave above regarding gay people and wedding cakes?) Did the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 make our nation more free by constraining businesses eager to maintain a drug-free environment from firing Native American workers who test positive for peyote usage if those workers used that drug in the context of Native American ritual? Or did it make our country less free by making it that much more likely for our Indian population to become enslaved to drugs that are illegal for the rest of society because they are deemed intensely dangerous? Are the citizens of Norway and Sweden less free because their governments have passed laws forbidding kosher slaughter, thus depriving the Jews in their midst of the possibility of living lives fully in conformity with the ritual requirements of their faith? Or are they more free because, absent this legal restriction on their activities, some of the above might have continued to slaughter animals in the manner of their ancestors for millennia…but without being able to prove, because no one knows how to do so categorically and definitively, that the animals slaughtered instantly with razor-sharp machetes suffer less pain than those killed in the industrial-style abattoirs favored by the Scandinavians? People see all of the above issues (except maybe the one about bakers and Jewish wedding cakes) from both of the sides mentioned…but both sides can’t be right because legislation simply cannot make you more and less free at the same time. And thus we see just how simple it is to embrace the concept of freedom and how difficult actually to define it in the context of modern life.

On the level of the individual, the question of what constitutes true liberty is equally complicated. Is freedom really just another word for nothing left to lose? When Janis sang it out, I surely believed it. (Was the fact that she had already died by the time her song topped the U.S. singles chart a contributing factor to how taken back then I was with the song and with that specific definition of freedom? Maybe it was—being free of the world and its woes certainly signaled, at least on some level, to the adolescent me that she was entitled to an opinion about the ultimate meaning of freedom! And the fact that she didn’t write the song—“Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster and was originally recorded by, of all people, Roger Miller—couldn’t possibly have mattered less to myself at eighteen.) But, now that I rethink the matter…do I really think that? Is freedom achieved when one can act as one wishes without having to care about, or even to know of, the consequences of one’s actions? Are free individuals the ones whose actions are prompted solely by their desire to do some specific thing at some specific moment, acting precisely as though they really did have nothing to lose by their actions no matter how outlandish or unpopular or bizarre?

Or is freedom something else entirely? At its most basic, the story of Passover is the story of an enslaved nation that yearned to be free and, indeed, the story we tell at Passover is the story of Israel’s transformation from a nation of slaves bound in service to the king of Egypt into a nation of free men and women willing and able to seek their own destiny without reference to the needs or wishes of others. But, contra Kris and Janis (and, yes, Roger too), the Israelites had everything to lose by crossing the sea to freedom. They had been slaves…but slaves with homes and gardens, with families and food, with jobs and the benefits that came along with those jobs. They were not free to do as they pleased…but they were free not to have to pay taxes on their (non-existent) incomes or pay rent for their (employer-provided) homes or to worry about the things that we in our day spend all our time worrying about. In other words, they were free from many of the burdens of daily life…but they were not free to worship as they chose, to come and go as they saw fit, to work wherever and whenever they wished, to assemble as they liked, or to chart their own course forward through life as individuals and collectively as a nation—and that, in the end, is what made them slaves. For a while, things simmered on a low heat. But then, eventually, their misery attracted the attention of God “Who heard their groaning and remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” The rest of the story I suppose you all know.

Like most of my readers, I feel burdened by the endless exigencies of daily life—by the bills and the taxes and the countless other obligations that devolve upon us in the course of a year—and would like nothing more than magically to be freed of them all (other, of course, than in the way we shall all eventually be). But real freedom, I have come to believe, has nothing to do with money…and everything to do with the pursuit of personal destiny. I would like it if my car magically filled itself up with gas whenever the tank runs low. That would free me from having to drive to a gas station and fill it up myself…but that would not make me free in the true sense of the word, just free from some irritating chore I’d be just as happy not to have to do or to remember to do. What makes me truly free…and I do think of myself as a truly free individual…what truly makes me free is the freedom I have to pursue my own destiny, to travel forward towards the personal redemption in God that awaits all who seek it, to live my life in accordance with the values and strictures Scripture places upon the faithful…without needing the approval of others, the endorsement of the government, the affection of all those who would be delighted if I abandoned my faith and joined theirs instead, the esteem of people who find the very existence of the House of Israel in our day somehow to be offensive to their own religious bearing, or the support of people who for some reason feel personally prohibited from just leaving me be to live according to my own lights and the requirements of the covenant that compels me personally  to serve the God of Israel as a willing worshiper.

In other words, freedom—the kind of freedom that rests at the core of the Pesach story—is the freedom to step into the briskly-flowing stream of moments that leads from history to destiny, from the past to the future, from the ancient Tabernacle to the future Temple, from Sinai to Jerusalem, and from long-since-gone past to still-to-come future. It means not to obsess about whether to eat beans or rice on Pesach or to become so lost amidst the trees that the majesty of the forest eludes you entirely or even mostly, but truly to see yourself personally both as a harbinger of redemption and a sentinel standing guard over the divine values that the world out there more often pretends to respect than actually allows to guide our nation forward. Like most of us, I would be pleased to be in charge of the universe. But being free has to do with self-governance and the right to self-determination, not with the ability to dominate others.

Being free means being free to speak out and to speak up. It means being free to insist that our elected officials honor their own promises and stick to their own words. (I’m obviously thinking this week of the President’s oft-repeated unambiguous promise that he would personally prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear power, but the notion of insisting that our officials consider their word to be their bond should be sacrosanct in every context and always.) It means losing our inhibitions about being “too Jewish” in public, in the sometimes harsh glare of the streetlamps that illuminate the world outside our community. And being free means not feeling obliged—or even inclined—to justify our pursuit of the great goals of Jewishness to their natural ends. We come, obviously, from a nation of compulsive explainers. That, I suppose, is just who are—that and a nation of compulsive complainers and debaters—and I don’t suppose anything can be done about it. But feeling free of the need endlessly to self-justify in the public square—that, in my estimation, is a big part of what it would mean for diasporan Jews truly to be free.

I love this time of year. (I’d love it more if I were totally certain no more snow is coming, but what can I do about that?)  I love the feel of the house being spotless, of the Pesach dishes all being in place on their Pesach shelf-liner things, of the cases of wine in the living room beckoning (is this too weird to say?) and encouraging me to set my own inhibitions aside and truly to tell the story to my children yet again…and to remind them that being free isn’t acting free or doing free only, but actually feeling oneself caught up in the service of the God Who functions as the Freedom of the World, as the Author of its history and its destiny…and also as the Author as well of the destiny of the House of Israel as we make our way through the millennia to the great dénouement that will eventually surprise us all actually by coming and ushering us to land as different from this world of dust and mud as was once Eretz Yisrael, a land flowing with milk and honey, from Egypt and its siren stewpots.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Much Power to the People?



I have returned many times in these letters to the question of democracy and how it should or could operate in the context of our American republic and its commitment to the free exchange of ideas, freedom of religion, and (particularly) freedom of speech. Those values are simple to embrace in theory, after all—what would be the alternative anyway, being opposed to freedom of speech?—and neither is it especially daring to opine, as I also often have, that freedom of speech is meaningless if it doesn’t extend to unpopular, including extremely unpopular, speech as well. The last time I wrote about this topic was when the controversy about the Met’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer was raging. And it was in that context that I wrote, meaning it wholeheartedly, that the issue to be debated was not whether the librettist had the right to express her opinions in a public document or even if the Metropolitan Opera has the right to mount whatever productions it wishes on its own stage…but whether mounting that specific opera at that specific time was the right thing for them to do, the just and moral thing…as opposed to something merely permissible by law. Clearly, producing The Death of Klinghoffer was the Met’s legal right. But I felt then and feel now that the opera was insulting to the memory of a Jewish martyr who died al kiddush ha-sheim and that that, in and of itself, made its production morally repugnant to me personally. But I did not go so far as to argue that the Met should have somehow been banned from producing The Death of Klinghoffer. Nor do I believe that the laws that prohibit defamation or calumny should be interpreted so broadly as effectively to prohibit citizens from speaking harshly, critically, or even insultingly about each other. Lying in public about someone and publicizing untruths in that person’s regard should be prohibited, not interpreting others’ words or actions in whatever light someone chooses, including harsh, angry, unforgiving light.

And that brings me to the bizarre case of one Matthew G. McLaughlin, a California lawyer who is attempting to gather the requisite 365,880 signatures necessary to place a home-grown initiative on the state ballot for the consideration of its citizens, whose approval would effectively make the proposition into law in California.  The notion that the citizenry should play an active part in its own governance will sound rational enough to most Americans and, indeed, many who live in states other than California are envious of the freedom Californians have to bypass the legislature entirely and, in effect, to enact laws on their own without the involvement of their elected officials at all. It sounds appealing to me too! But how different all that fine rhetoric sounds when considered in light of the details of the McLaughlin initiative: it is his proposal not only that same-sex sexual relations be made illegal, but also that the law mandate the execution by firing squad of parties found to have engaged in such relations. (Just to make the proposal more bizarre, the proposition defines same-sex relations as instances in which an individual merely “touches a person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification.”)  By comparison, the distribution of “sodomistic propaganda” to underage individuals would be punished merely by a one million dollar fine, ten years’ imprisonment, or—less bad, or at least less consequential, than the alternatives—deportation from California for the rest of the offender’s life.  Are you still feeling that citizens should be free to propose whatever laws they wish and, supposing they get enough support (the precise figure in California is 5% of the number of people who voted in the previous gubernatorial election), place them on the ballot for the approval or disapproval of the citizenry? It sounds so reasonable and so democratic—and so totally in sync with the values for which our republic stands—when considered in a vacuum, and yet so grotesque when considered in light of the actual kind of laws people are capable seriously of proposing for the consideration of the public.

To label the McLaughlin initiative as morally monstrous is almost to say nothing at all. Nor is there even the slightest chance of 365,000+ Californians signing onto the initiative, let alone of it becoming law. Nor is there any real question that such a law would not be thrown out by the courts instantly even if it did somehow garner enough votes to pass. So the gay citizens of California have nothing to worry about and nothing to fear….but that is not the question I’d like to discuss, which is far more complicated than whether or not McLaughlin’s barbaric initiative is a good or a bad idea. The question I’d like to ask is about drawing the line between granting the citizenry the right to self-rule and refusing to allow bigoted, hate-filled propositions even to be set before the electorate for their consideration. Where exactly is the line between protection and paternalism, between allowing for the free expression of ideas and allowing the free expression of ideas unless they’re revolting and repulsive? 

Does the fact that our courts are charged with overriding, thus voiding, legislation that violates the Constitutional rights of the citizenry have as its natural corollary the notion that any citizen should be permitted to put forward any proposition at all for his or her co-citizens’ consideration? In other words, should we muzzle those in our midst who hold unpopular, including grotesquely unpopular views, merely because the views they espouse are repugnant to most, or should we permit the public promulgation of any idea at all precisely because the courts are charged with prohibiting legislation that violates citizens’ civil rights? The notion that freedom of speech must extend to unpopular speech is a cornerstone of American culture. But should that freedom extend to the possibility of proposing laws…or does that come too perilously close to the possibility of a prejudiced, angry majority materially altering the basics of American legal culture merely because it can? If you’re not sure where you stand and you don’t mind feeling even more uncomfortable, imagine that the proposition in question outlawed circumcision or kosher slaughter and made engagement in either act punishable by death. Would you still be that willing to consider freedom of speech utterly sacrosanct? Or would placing limits of the kind of legislation that citizens can sponsor suddenly seem rational and reasonable?

The foundation stone upon which American society rests is the freedom of the individual. Looking at the free elections of 1933 in which 43% of German voters voted the Nazis into power makes us all shudder—how much simpler it would be to condemn those elections if they had been crooked! And yet none of us thinks that the fact that the Nazis won somehow legitimized the reign of terror that ensued, leading eventually to war and the deaths of scores of millions. Was the Second World War then the fault of the courts? Or was it the fault of the electorate for choosing to be governed by madmen? Or was it merely the fault of the perpetrators themselves and not those who voted them into office? Surely, the cause of justice would have been served by a powerful, independent judiciary striking down law after law that the Nazis managed to have voted into law in the Reichstag. But that, of course, didn’t happen, nor could it have happened once the judicial system itself became corrupt and debased. Does the fact that we in our nation have a fiercely independent judiciary mean that our citizens should be permitted to propose whatever they wish because our courts will surely annul all unjust laws? Or does history teach us all too clearly not to count on the courts—which in our nation do not come with their own militia to protect them and safeguard their integrity—and not to permit the citizenry even to consider laws that are rooted in irrational hatred, prejudice, bigotry, or intolerance?  That is the question the McLaughlin initiative throws down before us for our consideration.

Our Torah can be read to propose a different model for civil governance, one rooted in obedience to God and in the sense that no human initiative can be considered legitimate unless it derives directly from divine law. Indeed, our enormous library of legal books and texts are all framed as efforts to translate the values of Scripture into the warp and woof of daily life as real people actually live it. In a secular society, that thought works as well, albeit with the Constitution instead of the Torah as the foundational document upon which the republic rests. But that, in the end, should be the determinant. In my opinion, no proposition should be placed before the electorate for consideration that, if enacted, would by its nature violate the rights of citizens. To find virtue in allowing such laws first to be passed and only then struck down or not struck down by the courts is to place too much power in the hands of people interested primarily in pursuing their own personal agendas. To sneer at the McLaughlin proposition because it is so patently and obviously wrongheaded and morally repugnant…but then to throw up our hands and feel that we are somehow betraying our national ideals by not permitting the populace to vote on it…that, I believe, is a kind of abdication of moral obligation on the part of the government. Kamala D. Harris, the attorney general of California, should simply refuse to put the proposition on the ballot and dare its sponsors to sue her in a court of law if they feel their rights unduly trampled upon by her decision.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jewishness and Judaism

And so, yet again, a nice couple was sitting in my office the other week. They were young and attractive-looking, mid-twenties, well-groomed...but also nervous and slightly ill at ease. Trust me, I know the look. And I also know not to press them, just to let them get to the point on their own. And eventually they do get there. They’re in love. They’ve lived together for months, sometimes years. They want to get married. But one of them isn’t Jewish and that, they claim only recently to have learned, is going to be a problem if they wish to get married at Shelter Rock (or any Conservative or Orthodox synagogue). That part, of course, isn’t true: they’ve known it all along (or the Jewish party certainly has), just haven’t overly focused on it or wanted particularly to deal with it. But the time has come and I have finally taken my modest place, yet again, on a happy couple’s checklist: hire band, find florist, buy wedding dress, talk to rabbi, send out “save-the-date,” make up guest list, etc. Sometimes      I’m closer to the top, sometimes not.

And then, having finally arrived at the actual point of our meeting, we start to talk more seriously about what’s involved. First, the easy stuff. If the non-Jew in the room is the future groom, I find some delicate way to inquire about circumcision. I mention the mikveh, also in as disarming a way as possible. And then we get down to addressing the elephant in the room, the issue that all concerned, myself most definitely included, would prefer ignoring altogether: that there is no such thing as converting to Jewishness, only to Judaism…and that, I explain kindly but also clearly, that is going to involve taking on a regimen of religious ritual and practice that, even liberally construed, will require making some rather dramatic changes in life as almost certainly lived to date.

I know that’s not what they want to hear. The Jewish partner is almost invariably not strictly observant, which detail is often revealed as though its revelator expects it to surprise me. He or she has no problem with being Jewish, he or she assures me. And I know that even before I hear it: the very fact that the couple has come to see me in the first place is itself ample testimony to the fact that the Jewish party in the relationship feels warmly and strongly about his or her Jewishness. And with that we come to the crux of the matter: the couple has come to me so that I can convert the non-Jew in the room to Jewishness, to membership in the House of Israel, to a sense of cultural and emotional attachment to the Jewish people…but not necessarily to Judaism and all that that entails.  He wants her (or vice versa) to laugh at Jewish jokes, to know the difference between kreplach and kneidlach, to feel comfortable in Jewish settings and among Jewish people… not actually to insist on going to shul on Shabbat and keeping a kosher home, let alone meticulously and with attention to all those innumerable details! That’s not always how it is, of course. There are those who seriously do wish to make Judaism into their spiritual path forward, into the context for future spiritual growth…and who are willing to do what it takes to sign on. But more often than not we come to an impasse that no one in the room is entirely sure how to negotiate.

With such couples, the sticking point is that they want Jewishness not Judaism, ethnicity not religion, culture not halakhah. Every rabbi in every pulpit has met these people…and we are specifically not talking about people to whom none of this Jewish stuff matters at all. Just to the contrary, we are talking about people who have gone so far as to consult with a rabbi to see about solving what they perceive as an impediment to the wedding (and possibly even the marriage) they want. I do my best to explain, I hope kindly, that there simply is no such thing as converting to Jewishness, that I can help them if they’d like...but probably not in the way they’d prefer. Mostly, they’re semi-amazed I’m not willing to do anything at all so that they can have the Jewish wedding they presume, not entirely incorrectly, I hope that they do end up having. And so we reach a bit of an impasse, me wanting to help and not knowing exactly how to proceed and they wanting me to work my magic to make their problem vanish but not really being fully prepared to tote their half of the barge.

In other contexts, it goes without saying that ethnicity is a closed shop: there simply is no way in our American culture to become an Irish-American or an Italian-American. You can marry it. You can learn the cultural trappings that go along with it. You can learn to pass (or you can try)…but in our culture the term “Polish-American” is reserved solely for immigrants from Poland and their descendants, not for people who know how to polka or who like kielbasa but whose ancestors came here from anywhere but Poland. (Perhaps that’s a bad example—two of my own grandparents actually did come here from Poland but I’m still not a Polish-American, at least not in the sense in which the term is normally used.) But whereas ethnicity in our culture is a club you can’t join, that is specifically not the case for religions, which you actually can join. And that’s where the confusion comes in: Jewish-Americans function both as a faith group and as an ethnic group. But only one of the above admits converts…and, at least for some, that constitutes a serious, if unexpected, dilemma.

I’m writing about all this because I’ve just recently read a book by Roberta Kwall, director of the DePaul College of Law Center for Intellectual Property Law and Information Technology and the director of the university’s Center for Jewish Law and Judaic Studies in Chicago, in which she argues that this much ballyhooed distinction between religion and culture is, at least in the Jewish context, a bit of a chimera. Her book, entitled The Myth of the Cultural Jew and published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, argues cogently, in fact, that the notion that there even is such a thing as Jewish culture that exists independently from the Jewish legal heritage—in other words, that Judaism and Jewishness are discrete entities that only occasionally overlap in the lives of some specific Jewish people but which can otherwise exist fully independently of each other—that that notion itself is flawed and essentially inarguable. And then she sets herself to proving her point.

Because the author is a professor of law and not a rabbi, she writes from a vantage point not usual for authors of books about Jewish life. And because she is personally engaged by her material, she writes from the heart and not in the detached manner of legal scholars discussing points of law or legal theory. Moreover, because she is trained academically in law and not in Jewish studies, she has the advantage over many of seeing through her own eyes and then interpreting what she sees in light of her own training, not unlike the way in his day Theodor Reik, a trained psychoanalyst with a Ph.D. in psychology and the sole important disciple of Freud not to have been trained as a physician, was able to write remarkable books about Jewish life bringing his own training to bear and specifically not relying on what Judaic scholars imagined to be obvious or self-evident. (For an excellent example of Reik’s genius, I recommend his essays on Kol Nidre and the shofar that constitute the second half of his book, Ritual: Four Psychoanalytic Studies.)

Professor Kwall’s title summarizes her argument, but I should let the author speak for herself. “Cultural Judaism absent any connection to Jewish law,” she writes, “is an impossibility. Why? The answer lies in the assertion that Jewish law and Jewish culture are forged together in the composition of Jewish tradition.” And then, masterfully, she goes on to explain why she thinks that to be the case. Choosing her examples carefully, she shows that Jewishness itself—the cultural baggage Jews carry wherever they go and with the weight and scope of which they identify fully or, if they remain at all engaged by their Jewishness, at least partially—that Jewishness cannot successfully be analyzed as mere ethnicity without reference to the halakhah, to the law that underlies even the least overtly “religious” aspects of Jewish life.

It’s an intriguing argument, one made all the more appealing by the author’s background in the American legal tradition and her awareness of how interrelated American law and American culture truly are. (I should probably mention that I know the author personally and am thanked in the introduction for having read the manuscript and commented upon it before it was finally published.) Throughout the book, the author demonstrates her conviction that, to quote a recent on-line blog posting she created to bring her book to the attention of a wider readership, “Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space.” This is not the dispassionate work of a disinterested pedant. Indeed, when Kwall writes that her interest in seeing the book through to completion was ignited by her passion for Judaism, as well as by her desire to transmit that passion to her children, no reader will have any trouble believing her.  It’s a remarkable book, a tour de force all the more remarkable because its author is not a rabbi, not a Judaic scholar in the traditional sense, not a Talmudist at all. She is, however, very insightful, very bright, and full of the wisdom she brings from her own field of scholarly expertise to the domain of Jewish studies. I recommend her book to you all!


A fair number of interfaith couples that come to see me decide to pursue conversion to Judaism and end up getting married under a chuppah. Others, probably most, either end up hiring far more liberal rabbis than myself to perform their weddings without requiring conversion at all or else they give up on the idea of being married under a chuppah entirely.  It’s always a painful moment, at least for me personally, when I realize that I probably won’t be seeing a couple again now that I’ve made it clear what conversion to Judaism entails. But Roberta Kwall’s book made me feel better about our refusal to treat Jewishness and Judaism as divisible quantities…and our concomitant insistence on seeing them as threads living tradition that simply cannot exist independently of each other. That actually is what I think—and my occasional encounters with Judaism absent Jewishness and the inverse, Jewishness absent Judaism, both of which I have experienced personally and uncomfortably, only make me more sure that we are doing the right thing by declining to make conversion to Judaism “about” Jewish foods or Jewish jokes. I like most Jewish foods and I inherited a million Jewish jokes from my father…but neither of those things would mean much without the ritual framework that grants Judaism both its cultural dignity and its ultimate spiritual worth. And that is what I tell the couples who come to see me even if it’s not precisely what they were hoping to hear. And sometimes they even listen!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

At the Nergal Gate


Like many of you, I’ve been watching on with some combination of horror and incredulity as ISIS has set itself to destroying the artistic and archeological heritage of Iraq…and I’ve been particularly drawn, also with bewildered disgust, to the actual video released by the iconoclasts themselves (for once to use the term literally to mean “destroyers of images”) so that the world can see their handiwork for itself. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see an edited version with English-language subtitles provided by the New York Times—42 seconds out of an original 300—by clicking here. You can see the full video, but without the subtitles, by clicking here. Both are very worth watching.) 

The video begins with a young bearded man wearing a huge Muslim-style yarmulke explaining that Muhammad himself ordered “us” (by whom he presumably means all devout Muslims) to remove and obliterate statues—I’m quoting here from the English subtitles—and then goes on to note that his prophet’s companions heeded well his command as they captured and conquered various countries in the region. As he speaks, the camera pans some of the Mosul Museum’s treasures. (The Mosul Museum is Iraq’s second largest gallery of ancient art, following only the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in terms of the richness of its collection of antiquities.) And then we get down to it. One after another, men climb up to the top of the pedestals on which these ancient treasures are, or rather were, displayed…and push them over onto the ground, where they are smashed to dust. And then, presumably as statues were encountered that were too big merely to topple with the force of a single person’s body weight, we see ISIS zealots using pick-axes, hacksaws, and electric chisels to destroy statues, busts, and other, mostly larger, works of ancient art. Nor do they invariably just let them fall to the ground: in some cases we see them using their sledge hammers to smash the topped statues and truly to pulverize them.  


And then we are suddenly outside the museum at the famed Nergal Gate, once a city gate of old Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, where we see zealots smashing the gigantic human-headed eagle-winged bulls, called lamassu, that were intended to symbolize the city’s determination to remain safe and secure from marauding outsiders. Nor was Mosul the only setting for ISIS’s iconoclasm. In Nimrud, in northern Iraq, ISIS militants used bulldozers to destroy one of the nation’s most important archeological sites, the remains of the capital of King Shalmaneser I (d. 1245 BCE).  And many experts imagine that ISIS’s eyes will now turn to Hatra, known to movie-buffs as the setting for the opening scene in The Exorcist but in its own right one of the most culturally significant and well-preserved cities from late antiquity in Iraq.

The world has reacted with predictable outrage. The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell, for example, described ISIS’s activities in Mosul as an act of “catastrophic destruction.”  Other authorities used similarly strong language. A UNESCO official, for example, said that the ISIS “extremists are trying to destroy the entire cultural heritage of the region in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and rewrite history in their own brutal image.” But when I watch these videos—and particularly the longer one, the one without subtitles—I feel myself drawn into the story in two distinct ways, each related to my personal worldview and Jewish faith.

For one thing, these people are not as foreign to us as all that.  In the world out there, who even knows who the Assyrians are?  It is true that there are sects of modern-day Iraqi and Syrian Christians who call themselves Assyrians, but the real Assyrians—the ones whose archeological remains have fallen victim to ISIS’s sledgehammer…what average American even knows when or where they lived? To us, on the other hand, these are familiar names. Whom the world calls Tiglat-Pileser III, Jews (or at least Jews who know their Bible) know almost familiarly just as Pul, the tyrant whom King Menachem of Israel bought off for a mere thousand talents of silver. It was the Assyrian king Shalmaneser IV who besieged the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel and died during the siege, leaving it to his successor Sargon II fully to defeat Israel and to take the ten tribes of Israel who lived there into captivity, never to be heard from again. And it was Sargon’s son Sennacharib, known in the Bible as Sancheiriv, who laid siege to Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah and who would probably have succeeded in conquering and razing the city if…something hadn’t happened. (The Bible says that God sent an angel successfully to take out 185,000 of his soldiers, which naturally cooled his ardor to continue with the campaign considerably. 

Sancheiriv, on the other hand, left a report of the campaign considerably more flattering to himself but with roughly the same ending.) Plus, of course, it was to Nineveh itself that the prophet Jonah was sent…and what Jew doesn’t know that story almost by heart?  So when American newspapers pause at length to explain who these Assyrians were whose art is being demolished in Iraq, we whose lives are shaped by the study of Scripture skip quickly ahead to the meat of the story: we know these people well and hardly need to be introduced to them formally as though they were strangers newly come to the ball.

So the eradication of these monuments is also an attack, at least indirectly, on our history as well. But there’s another aspect to the story that draws me in, one dramatically less simple to negotiate. What these ISIS guys are doing is, after all, also not so foreign to us…for the Torah too commands the Israelites not merely to turn away from the idolatrous rituals of the Canaanite and their gods, but actually to destroy their statuary and all the plastic appurtenances of their faith. Nor is there anything even slightly ambiguous about the many passages that command the faithful to “pulverize their altars, destroy their worship-steles, chop down their worship-trees, and incinerate their idols.” And something along those lines must well have happened, because, indeed, most of the nations whose cultural artifacts Scripture condemns and orders utterly destroyed have indeed left behind…nothing at all.

Yes, it’s true, of course, that the larger context in Scripture justifies the destruction of these idolatrous artifacts with reference to the worry that encountering a thriving, lively cultural milieu without destroying its plastic imagery could lead to the Israelites intermarrying with the Canaanites or, perhaps even worse, to settling into a kind of peaceful co-existence with the very nations from whom God has chosen to take their ancestral lands and grant them to the newly-freed Israelites.  So the parallel is hardly exact: the Bible sees a real possibility of Israel being seduced into the worship of alien deities, but ISIS is acting out of a fundamentalist loathing for all statuary connected with ancient polytheistic civilizations even though there is no conceivable possibility of Iraqi Muslims abandoning their faith and choosing instead to worship the gods of ancient Assyria.

But, even so…there is something challenging in those words from the Torah, words that command that a nation not merely be defeated militarily but that its cultural artifacts be destroyed utterly and, needless to say, permanently. Did our ancestors actually do that? It’s true that there are no actual accounts in Scripture of Israelites pulverizing Canaanite idols with the ancient equivalent of sledge hammers (which, now that I think of it, probably were sledge hammers). But that is thin balm indeed, the thought that it might not have happened. Far more important to consider is the fact that the Torah wants it to happen, wants the cultural heritage of ancient Canaan not to exist at all, not merely not to be embraced.

Whether or not the Torah was presenting an accurate picture of the cultural dangers that faced the Israelites with their entry into Canaan, who can say?  Scripture clearly thinks so! But, regardless of how things were then, more relevant is how things are now. And now, given that the works of sublime artistry that ISIS has destroyed were ponies in a race that has been behind us not for centuries but now for millennia…that surely has to be the relevant point. Nor do moderns understand the legitimate rivalry between religious worldviews as something rationally or reasonable adjudicated through the demolition of the accouterments of one side by the faithful of the other. Indeed, we live in a world in which different faiths seek to attract people to their houses of worship and to their worship services by appealing to them intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally…through the media of the printed word, the broadcast speech, the uploaded video, and the proffered podcast. The notion of seeking to spread the good word about one’s own faith is something moderns have come to think of as a normal feature of a vibrant, diverse religious society.  But the notion of going to war with ancient statues for the sake of eradicating their non-existent pull on the heartstrings of the faithful…that is not proselytism but savagery, not participation in thoughtful, respectful debate but the negation of the notion that that kind of debate between people of different worldviews itself is something worthwhile and potentially productive. 

The destruction of the lamassu of Nineveh, statues that Jonah himself may well have walked past on his way into Nineveh, was unjustifiable barbarism with no rational justification. Speaking of Jonah, by the way, he himself plays an unexpected role in this story as well: ISIS blew up his tomb, or his alleged tomb, in Mosul just last July. (If you haven’t had enough yet, click here to watch the tomb being demolished by a man with a huge sledge hammer.) We live in a world in which the once unimaginable has become commonplace. You would think that someone who has read as much Shoah-based literature would be impervious to tales of brutishness and barbarism. I’d have thought that too. But we’d both have been wrong.