Thursday, June 22, 2017

Choosing Life

One of the most often-repeated talmudic aphorisms notes that “all Israel is responsible for each other,” a noble sentiment, surely, but one that most of us set into a set of larger and smaller concentric circles of obligation: we feel most of all responsible for our closest family members, then for more distant relatives, then for neighbors, then for the other members of the faith- or ethnic group with which we identify the most strongly, then for the other citizens of our country, and then for all humankind. Some of us go one step further too and include the inanimate world as well in the scheme, promoting the conviction that, as part of collective humanity, we have a kind of corporate responsibility not solely for the other residents of our planet, but for the planet itself. Eventually, in some distant age, the circle will probably widen to an even greater extent to allow for feelings of responsibility directed towards the inhabitants of the other populated planets with whom we will eventually learn that we share our galaxy.

None of the above will strike anyone as at all controversial. And even if some specific people might well order their circles differently—feeling more responsible for neighbors than for distant relatives, for example—the concept itself that responsibility for people other than ourselves inheres in our humanness hardly sounds like an even remotely debatable proposition.  But saying wherein that responsibility lies exactly—and how that sense of responsibility should manifest itself in law—is another question entirely.

The system of common law that undergirds American jurisprudence holds that one commits a crime by doing some specific illegal thing, not to failing to do something...and this principle applies even when the thing not done involves coming to the aid of someone in distress. There are, however, several exceptions to the rule. If you yourself are personally responsible for the other party being in distress, then you are in most cases deemed responsible to come to that person’s aid. Parents have an obligation to rescue their children from peril, as do all who act in loco parentis (like the administration of a child’s school or the staff in a child’s summer camp). Spouses have an obligation to rescue each other from peril. Employers have an obligation to come to the aid of workers imperiled in the workplace. In some places, property owners have a similar obligation of responsibility towards people invited onto that property; in others, that obligation extends even to unwanted visitors like trespassers. Otherwise, there is no specific legal obligation to come to the assistance of others. And this is more or less the way American law has evolved as well: other than with respect to the specific exceptions mentioned above and in Vermont, people are generally deemed to have no legal obligation to assist others in distress, much less to risk their own wellbeing to do so. Indeed, although all fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, have so-called Good Samaritan laws on the books that protect individuals who come to the aid of others from subsequent prosecution in the event of mishap, or some version of such laws, Vermont is the sole state to have a law on the books that actually requires citizens to step forward to help when they see others in peril or distress.

These last several weeks, I have been following with great interest the case in Taunton, Massachusetts, that culminated in the conviction of involuntary manslaughter of Michelle Carter, 20, in a case that involved a suicide for which she was not present and which her lawyers argued she therefore could not have prevented, but for which the court deemed her in some sense responsible nonetheless.

The story is a sad one from every angle. It revolves around two troubled teenagers who met while vacationing in Florida and subsequently began an intense twenty-first-century-style relationship that was primarily conducted digitally through emails and text messages. (After returning home to Massachusetts, the two only met in person on a few rare occasions.) But digital though their relationship may primarily have been, it was clearly intense. She was suffering from an eating disorder; he suffered from suicidal tendencies and had actually attempted suicide before, which fact he disclosed to her. At first, she was supportive and encouraged him to seek counseling and not to harm himself. But at a certain point, she became convinced—and we are talking about a teenager here not a mature adult, let alone a trained therapist—she became convinced that suicide was the right solution to her friend Conrad’s problems. And so she encouraged him, as any friend would, to do the right thing. “You can’t think about it,” she texted him on the day of his death. “You have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”

Convinced that she was right, Conrad drove his truck to the secluded end of a K-Mart shopping plaza and prepared to asphyxiate himself with the fumes from his truck’s exhaust. And then we get to the crucial moment, at least in the judge’s opinion. Suddenly afraid and apparently wishing not to die, or at least willing to rethink his commitment to dying, Conrad got out of the truck and phoned his friend Michelle. Her response was as clear as it was definitive: “Get back in,” she told him. And he did, dying soon after that.

Was she responsible for his death? You could say that she did not force his hand in any meaningful way, that she merely told him to do something that he could have then chosen not to do. Or you could say that she had his life in her hands at that specific moment and that she chose to do nothing—not to phone his parents, for example, or 911—and thus was at least in some sense complicit in his death. “The time is right and you’re ready…just do it, babe,” she had texted him earlier in the day. That, in the judge’s opinion, was just talk. But when Conrad’s life was hanging in the balance—when he was standing outside the cab of his truck and talking on the phone as the cab filled with poison gas—and she could have exerted herself to save his life but chose instead to encourage him to get back in—that, the judge ruled, constituted involuntarily manslaughter in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And, as a result, Michelle Carter is facing up to twenty years in prison.

Involuntarily manslaughter, defined as behavior manifesting extreme indifference to human life that leads to the death of another, seemed to the judge to suit the details of this case. But what if Michelle truly believed that Conrad would be better off dead, that the dead rest in peace or reside in a state of ongoing bliss in heaven? What if she felt it was his right to die on his own terms and when he wished? What if she felt that he was right in his estimation that he would be better off dead than alive? Should she be held responsible for his death if she felt she truly believed any of the above? As someone who has spoken in public countless times about the dead resting in peace and their souls being resident in paradise beneath the protective wings of God’s enduring presence, there is something deeply unsettling for me personally even to ask that question aloud! Surely, I could answer, the metaphoric lyricism we bring to our efforts to deprive death of its sting aren’t meant to be taken literally, and certainly not to the point at which the taking of an unhappy person’s life feels like a justifiable decision! But what if someone did take them literally and then, not actually acting, chose not to act because of them—should that be considered criminal behavior?

I am neither a lawyer nor a legal scholar, so I won’t offer an opinion about the verdict in the Carter case per se, other than to note that the verdict is controversial and may ultimately be reversed. But the burning question that smolders at the core of the matter—what it ultimately means to be responsible for another—is not something anyone who claims to be a moral person can be at peace being unable to answer. The sense of the interconnectedness of all living things that we reference so blithely in daily discourse can serve as the platform on which all who would enter the discussion may stand. And, surely, the responsibility towards others that develops naturally from our sense of society as a network of closer and more distant relationships is undeniably real. Still, it feels oddly difficult—both morally and apparently legally—to say precisely what it means for one individual to bear responsibility for another.


The most-often repeated commandment in the Torah requires the faithful to be kind to the stranger, to the “other,” to the person who is not yourself…which is all people. Theologically, being solicitous of the wellbeing of others is a way of acknowledging the image of God stamped on all humankind. Whether criminalizing the willful decision to look away from that divine image is a good idea, or a legally sound one, is a decision for jurists, not rabbis. But the notion that all behavior that shows disrespect, disregard, or contempt for others—and thus denies the principle that all human life is of inestimable value regardless of any individual’s circumstances—is inconsonant with the ethical values that should undergird society is something we all can and should affirm. When the Torah commands that the faithful Israelite “choose life” over death, it is specifically commanding that the faithful ever be ready to step into the breach to save a life in peril and thus to affirm our common createdness in God and the responsibility towards each other that derives directly from that belief.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Presidents and Emperors

Since I’ve been writing lately about the way I related to various events of 1967, I thought this week I’d write about yet one more: the performance of MacBird! I attended with, of all people, my mother. For readers too old or too young to remember back that far, MacBird! was a play by Barbara Garson starring Stacy Keach (at the very beginning of his career) and Rue McClanahan (long before she became the sexy one on The Golden Girls) that ran for almost a year at the Village Gate in 1967 and 1968, and which basically accused Lyndon Johnson of complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Layering the actual details of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ’s subsequent assumption of the presidency over the plot of Macbeth (with some side-dollops of Richard III and Hamlet), the show in its day was considered too radical for a real Broadway house and was relegated to the West Village, then (as now) the Manhattan-theater-scene equivalent of Siberia.  My mother, already slightly radicalized and by then a card-carrying member of N.O.W., was curious enough to want to see the show. I wanted to see it too…and I apparently wanted to see it badly enough to suffer the ignominy of going along with my mother. (And, for readers who were never teenaged boys, let me assure you that that we are talking about serious ignominy here.) Besides, I told myself, who would actually see me walking down Bleecker Street with my mom?

It was June, the same June on the first day of which the Sgt. Pepper album was released— a major cultural watershed-moment in my own life, as explained in this space a week or two ago—and during the first weeks of which Israel won the Six Day War. It was also the month of the Monterey Pop festival, the precursor to Woodstock that catapulted both Jimi Hendrix and The Who to real fame in America and brought them both, particularly Jimi, to my personal attention. It was, to say the least, an interesting month, that month of my fourteenth birthday. And, as if all the above weren’t enough, it was also the month I went with my mother to see MacBird!.

No one, not then and surely not now, actually thought or thinks that Lyndon Baines Johnson might possibly have played a role in the assassination of John Kennedy. Nor did anyone imagine (admittedly impossibly) that Johnson’s subsequent rise to real power was best understood as some sort of mystically-conceived prequel to House of Cards, the Netflix series that is precisely about the ascension to the presidency of an unprincipled, corrupt demagogue, the character of whose wife truly does feel as though it’s been modelled at least on part on the character of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. But it mattered little that the point wasn’t actually to indict the sitting president of his predecessor’s murder, but merely to suggest the ultimate corruption of the political process…and the way that the fate of the nation had somehow come to rest in the hands of someone whose primary focus was not on the welfare of the nation he was charged with leading, but with the furtherance of his own personal political agenda. It was, as is all biting satire, overstated. But it caught the attention of the public, seemed somehow to capture the spirit of the time, and had a respectable 11-month off-Broadway run followed by productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

Johnson, remembered now primarily for his “Great Society” legislative package and for his “War on Poverty,” was in 1967 primarily perceived by America’s radicalized youth as the bogeyman of the Vietnam War, as the man primarily responsible for the tens of thousands of American casualties—more than 22,000 American servicemen and women had died in Vietnam by the evening I saw MacBird! with my mother—in a war regarding the legitimacy and reasonableness of which the American people were, to say the very least, strongly divided. It wasn’t the fairest assessment. LBJ inherited Vietnam from Kennedy, who—at least in a sense—inherited it from Dwight Eisenhower. (The first American servicemen to lose their lives in Vietnam died in 1959.) And Johnson was, in a real sense, playing a zero-sum game by trying to fight a war in a distant land that had the inarguably noble goal of saving an ally from being overrun by Communist forces eager to reunite Vietnam as a single entity under the totalitarian leadership of its ruling cadre and, at the same time, not having the popular support at home to do the job successfully and effectively. Instead, we attempted to shore up the troops of the unpopular non-communist regime without understanding just how little support its leaders had among their own people. It was, therefore, a loser’s game. And, as happens when people play loser’s games, we lost. But that was still years in the future when I was making my way from the subway to the theater with my mother in June of 1967 and praying I didn’t run into anyone I knew from school on a theater date with my mom.

I was brought back to that whole experience just this week as I read about the turmoil the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has engendered, turmoil serious enough to prompt two major funders, the Bank of America and Delta Airlines, to withdraw their support for the production.  Of course, all this controversy will paradoxically make it impossible to get tickets to see the show, but that, of course, was hardly the goal...which was to signal the former sponsors’ lack of interest in having their corporate names attached to a biting piece of overtly political theater that is openly and sharply disrespectful of the current President and First Lady, and which they feared could possibly be taken as calling for the assassination of the former.

Gregg Henry plays Caesar as Trump, depicting him as a self-absorbed, preening tyrant who bathes in a golden bathtub that matches his shock of golden hair. His wife Calpurnia, played by Tina Benko, dresses extremely well and speaks with a distinctly Slovenian accept. You get the idea. Any student of Shakespeare knows that Julius Caesar is far more about Brutus than it is about its own title character, somewhat in the way The Merchant of Venice is far more about Shylock than Antonio, the actual merchant mentioned in the title. (Brutus has at least four times as many lines as Caesar, and the psychological tension—the exquisite psychological tension—that gives the play its relentless, unsettling energy derives from Brutus’s efforts to negotiate his way through a maze of conflicting obligations relating to comradeship, patriotism, honor, and duty.)

Nor is the notion of “updating” Julius Caesar to suggest its enduring relevancy anything new: as recently as 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis featured Bjorn DuPaty dressed up and made up to look eerily like Barack Obama in the title role in a production that appears not to have offended any major corporate sponsors at all. Of course, the concept there was to warn the public about the vulnerability of our first black President, not to encourage his murder! So here we have the same play, the same lines, the same plot—and even the same update concept of presenting Caesar as our sitting president—and yet the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production has provoked twin tidal waves of emotion, one responding as though the production were openly to be promoting the murder of Donald Trump and the other as though the principle of free speech itself were somehow to depend on Delta Airlines renouncing its right to choose to which cultural events it wishes to lend its name and where it wishes to spend its money. Both sides are just a bit overstated.

The function of art in society is to irritate and to provoke. But to imagine that the specific thing the Public is trying to provoke with this production is the murder of President Trump is really to misunderstand the play.  The key to the play, both as I remember understanding it in eleventh grade when it was explained to us by Mr. Bergman and as I understand it today, is to show how, although the assassination of Caesar was undertaken by people who surely felt themselves to be acting in their nation’s best interest, Caesar’s murder a true catastrophe for Rome…and, at that, one from which the Roman Republic never recovered. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. Civil war ensued. Within a few years, Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, emerged as emperor of the newly-invented Roman Empire and democracy was gone from Roman soil for millennia. By acting violently to preserve democracy, the conspirators managed to destroy it instead.

The enduring brilliance of Shakespeare’s play lies in the questions it manages obliquely to ask. How far can the citizens of a republic legitimately go to preserve their nation by removing a leader working at cross-purposes with what they perceive to be the nation’s best interests? Who among the citizenry have the right to self-select as the nation’s saviors…and at what point does it matter that the path to salvation lies in violence?  Does the fact that no assassins can say with certainty what the consequences of their lawlessness will be mean, ipso facto, that all instances of extra-judicial violence are morally wrong…or merely ill-advised? Students of the Bible will think of Pinchas, valorized in the Torah precisely for having been so repulsed by the decadent, vulgar behavior of a fellow Israelite that he took it upon himself personally to serve as that individual’s judge, jury, and executioner. Students of history who feel deeply regretful about the failure of the famous plot to murder Hitler in the summer of 1944 will surely not feel that it is always wrong to act unilaterally to defeat a brutal tyrant. The simplest of assertions—that violence is always wrong, and that citizens may never act on their own violently to solve their nation’s problems—becomes far more complex in the discussing.


To the extent that the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar will usher its audience into the complexities of that discussion, it should be hailed as a legitimate piece of provocative theater. To the extent it reminds all who view the play just how devastating the consequences of even the most well-intentioned act can be, it will serve not as a spur to violence but, just to the contrary, as an argument against violence and lawlessness. To the extent that the Public’s production promotes the view of its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, that Shakespeare’s ultimate point is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods [will ultimately] pay a terrible price and destroy their republic,” it should be hailed by all as a civics lesson for us all.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hope for the U.N., Possibly

Like most Americans—60% according to a recent Gallup poll—I think the United Nations is doing a poor job living up to its self-assigned task to serve as the one international forum in which all the nations of the world are welcome peacefully to work out their disputes. I suppose different Americans must come to this negative impression from different directions, but, at least for me, the determinative factor will always be the incredible bias the body has shown towards Israel for the last half century— a kind of almost visceral prejudice that has on many occasions crossed the line from “mere” hostility to the policies of this or that Israeli government to overt anti-Semitism.

Nor am I alone in my sentiments. In a remarkable show of non-partisan unity, the entire Senate—including all one hundred U.S. senators—signed a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Gutteres last week in which they asked him formally to address what they called the United Nations’ “entrenched bias” against Israel. Nor was the letter particularly subtle: by pausing to remind the Secretary General that the United States is, and by far, the largest single contributor to the U.N. budget—in 2016, the U.S. paid out an almost unbelievable $3.024 billion to keep the U.N. running, a sum that exceeds the contributions of 185 of its member states combined—the senators sent a clear message that that kind of almost unimaginable largesse cannot be expected to continue if the U.N. fails to treat all its member states, Israel most definitely included, fairly and equitably.  They didn’t need to issue an actual threat either—just mentioning the budget was, I’m sure, more than enough.

The letter, written by Senators Marco Rubio and Christopher A. Coons (a Republican from Florida and a Democrat from Delaware, respectively), also mentioned with great enthusiasm and approval the work of Nikki Haley as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.  And she deserved her shout-out too: it’s hard to remember the last time Israel had a defender as unwilling to mince words as Ambassador Haley. The Trump administration has had trouble, and continues to have apparently serious trouble, filling any number of crucial diplomatic posts. But the President chose well when he selected Nikki Haley to represent us in Turtle Bay. Americans should all be proud to have a person of her eloquence and candor in place in what must be one of the world’s most trying diplomatic postings.

Ambassador Haley, for example, made it crystal clear just last Tuesday that the U.N. Human Rights Council—a council of buffoons whose sole interest in the world appears to lie in decrying Israel’s every perceived misstep while blithely looking the other way when other states trample on even their citizens’ most basic rights—when she, speaking with her usual forthright directness, specified that the U.S. might simply withdraw from the council unless it abolishes its infamous Agenda Item 7, which guarantees that there will never be a meeting of the council in which Israel is not singled out for censure. Such a move would hardly immunize Israel against legitimate criticism. But it would, at the very least, put Israel on the same footing as other member states—the basic definition of being treated impartially and objectively in any legitimate forum. And it would also mean that the Middle East’s one true democracy will no longer endlessly be condemned with knee-jerk resolutions full of fury but signifying nothing, while states like Iran, Syria, and North Korea—all states in which the basic human rights of the citizenry count for nothing or almost for nothing—are ignored. (Resolutions condemning Israel at the Human Rights Council outnumber similar resolutions regarding all other countries combined.) Such a disparity would be almost funny if it weren’t tragic, but it’s part and parcel of what the U.N. does and, by extension, is. Therefore, Ambassador Halley was in my opinion entirely correct to indicate that continued hostility toward Israel on that level could conceivably trigger a U.S. withdrawal. She was certainly speaking for me personally when she said clear that “[The Human Rights Council’s] relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”

Yet there may be subtle signs that things are changing. Last month, Secretary General Gutteres took the extraordinary step of personally rejecting a U.N. report that used the language of South African apartheid to describe the plight of the Palestinians on the West Bank by saying clearly that it had been published without his approval. Nor does the Secretary General appear to be afraid to speak out in public. Just last April, for example, he appeared personally at a plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress and addressed world-wide anti-Semitism and his own organization’s systemic anti-Israel bias in the same speech. (He was, for the record, the first U.N. Secretary General ever to visit an international forum of Jewish leaders.) Addressing the first issue, he pledged personally to be “on the front lines in the fight against anti-Semitism,” which specific kind of racist hatred he condemned unequivocally as “absolutely unacceptable.” And he also pledged that the U.N. would be in the forefront of a world-wide campaign to eradicate anti-Semitism from, in his own words, “the face of the earth.”

That much was impressive enough.  But then, almost unexpectedly, he went on to commit himself to working towards a reform of U.N. policies regarding Israel because, again to quote him precisely, “Israel needs to be treated as any other state.” And then he went even further, stating that he believes that Israel has an unequivocal right to exist, that Israel has an equally non-negotiable right to live in peace and security with its neighbors, and that “the modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the existence of the State of Israel.” (He presumably meant to reference the right of Israel to exist, not its actual existence—even its most implacable foes concede that there is such a place even if they wish things were otherwise.)

So there’s that. And then there was the almost unbelievable news last May that Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., was elected by 109 nations to became the first Israeli to chair a permanent U.N. committee, the General Assembly’s Sixth (Legal) Committee. And now, on the heels of that unprecedented achievement, Danon has been elected vice president of the U.N. General Assembly, his term to begin in September and to last for one year. It is true that he is not the first Israeli to serve as vice-president. (That honor goes to former Ambassador Ron Prosor in 2012.) But even so…given the level of vituperative animus against Israel that characterizes so much of what the United Nations does, it was remarkable to learn that an Israeli was elected to any position of authority at all. It isn’t much—there are, for the record, 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly—but it’s surely something to celebrate for those of us who, despite everything, continue to harbor some hope that the U.N. could yet live up to its founders’ vision and become a force for good in the world.

And that sense of faint hope inspired me to return to an essay by Ambassador Danon himself that was published on the Politico website earlier this year in which he argued that the time has come for Israel to be granted a seat on the Security Council. (To see the Politico article, click here.) It’s an important article, one I earmarked to return to and then somehow never quite did…but now that I have reread it, I would like to suggest it to you as something very worth your time and consideration.

The ambassador begins by pointing out how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel was poised to compete for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council was overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by the vote by that same body last December to question the historicity of the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. Ignoring not centuries but millennia of history, and mocking the work of a world of disinterested historians and archeologists, the Security Council voted on December 23 to recognize the Western Wall not as a Jewish holy site inextricably bound up both with the history and the destiny of the Jewish people, but as a Muslim shrine illegally occupied by Zionist usurpers intent on imposing their fantasy-based worldview on a world that should know better. (To reread my response to a similar UNESCO-based resolution earlier last fall, one so one-sided and biased against Israel that UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova herself felt the need to distance herself from it, click here.)

Nonetheless, Danon argues, the time has clearly come for the U.N., if it truly wishes to shed some of its shameful reputation, to welcome Israel onto the Security Council.  To be so elected, Israel will need the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly. But if it surely won’t be easy, it also shouldn’t be considered an impossibility. Israel has paid more into the U.N. budget over the years than the other 65 countries invited to sit on the Security Council as non-permanent members combined. And Israel has a clear role to play in encouraging the Security Council to enforce its own resolution 1701, which forbids the entry into Lebanon of any foreign armies or arms but which has mostly been ignored as Iran has poured arms into Lebanon to arm Hezbollah, now considered to have upwards of 150,000 rockets aimed at Israeli civilian centers.  Most of all, inviting Israel onto the Security Council would signal in a meaningful way that the decades of discrimination against Israel during which the U.N. has squandered the considerable moral capital it once had and sullied its reputation among all fair-minded people would finally be over.

As all my readers know, I could hardly think less of the United Nations. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I was a child, the U.N. was often held up as an example of the way that the world had turned a corner away from violence and bloodshed as the primary means of settling disputes and embraced the cause of mutual respect among nations and the peaceful resolution of conflict. One of my mother’s prized possessions, which I still have somewhere, was a letter bearing the first United Nations stamp issued and postmarked in New York on October 24, 1951. She, and so many of her and my dad’s generation, felt that the U.N. was the best hope for a world in which the horrors of the Second World War would never be replicated.  That sounds almost laughable now…but, who knows, maybe the U.N. could somehow regain its moral stature and thus also its potential. Electing Israel to the Security Council would be an unmistakable signal that the organization has turned a corner.




Friday, June 2, 2017

The Ein Gedi Scroll

Ein Gedi is one of the most beautiful places in Israel—a lush, verdant oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea (not far from Masada) that is a favorite with tourists and natives alike, a lovely place to swim, to hike, and to picnic. We did all three of those things when we were there two summers ago, plus we visited the ruins of the ancient synagogue there that archeologists have now more or less completely unearthed. First built in the beginning of the third century CE, the building lasted for more than three centuries until it was destroyed in a fire and for some reason not rebuilt. But it is not merely its age that recommends it as a must-see for visitors, but rather its magnificent (and huge) mosaic floor and its many ancient dedicatory inscriptions and public warning texts. It is, all in all, an extraordinary place to visit, one that leaves you feeling imbued with a sense that the ancient holiness of the place has somehow survived all these many centuries since Ein Gedi was a thriving Jewish community supported by profits derived for the most part from the manufacture of balsam for export.

The synagogue is oriented towards the north, and for the same reasons that synagogues in North America are oriented towards the east: because that was the direction in which lay Jerusalem, the Holy City. And there, in the northern wall, is the niche where the Ark of the Law must have stood in ancient times. Much more modest than the arks featured in most modern synagogues, the arks in ancient times were little more than portable wooden boxes that served as repositories for the sacred scrolls they housed. (In most places, the ark was stored for safety elsewhere than in the sanctuary, which was never locked, and specifically brought into the room when it was time to read aloud from the Torah.) No such ark from antiquity has survived, but there are many pictures of such arks that have, and scholars have a relatively clear idea what the typical one must have looked like.

About fifty years ago, the archeologists who were first working seriously on the ruins in Ein Gedi found an ancient scroll not far from the niche in which the Ark would have stood in ancient times. But it was not legible or even openable, just a lump of carbonized parchment that had fused into one blackened mass and that, it was thought, would never give up its secrets. And that is how things stood for half a century…until just last fall when scientists at the University of Kentucky under the leadership of Professor W. Brent Seales perfected an almost unbelievable way of “reading” scrolls like the Ein Gedi one that would crumble to dust if anyone tried forcibly to open or to unroll them. Since we’re just past Shavuot, I thought it would be interesting to read about an actual ancient scroll and to contemplate its fate.

The SciNews website has produced a remarkable video explaining the technique, which you can see by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal also produced a video presentation on the topic, one just a bit more technical and seriously more sophisticated. (To see it, click here. Both videos are well worth watching and supplement each other nicely since each is only about three minutes long.) As I understand it, the basic concept is that the scroll is sliced open sideways digitally by utilizing a process that makes it possible to read the ink on each unimaginably narrow sliver in light of the ink on the ones adjacent to it, something like taking a rolled-up newspaper and slicing into incredibly narrow strips with a butcher’s knife, then attempting to read an article by inspecting each piece of confetti sideways and trying to figure out what piece of which letter is featured on each of its one-millionth-of-a-millimeter wide strips. It’s hard to describe—I’m sure it was even harder than that to invent—but the videos referenced above do a yeoman’s job of making it sound almost simple. And so, from a lump of ancient animal skin long since fused into a charbroiled rock, the team in Kentucky, working with teams from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, managed to produce this:




And, of course, they managed not only to “unwrap” it (that is actually what they call the process: “virtual unwrapping”), but to read it as well: it turned out to be the earliest biblical text featuring the so-called Masoretic text that is the “official” text of Scripture that we read aloud weekly in synagogue and preserves the text we know as Leviticus 1:1-9 and 2:1-11.  How old is it exactly? Very old! The original carbon-14 dating effort yielded a date around 300 CE, but the Hebrew script itself suggests an even earlier date to some.  Ada Yardeni, one of the world’s experts in ancient Hebrew script, wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Textus, for example, that she felt confident assigning it a date in the first century CE, a date seconded by Emanuel Tov, another leading voice in the field. And the fact that the scroll—which appears to have originally featured only Leviticus, not the entire Torah—mirrors “our” text exactly is key.

Until now, the oldest biblical texts were the ones discovered at Qumran, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, and at other nearby sites like the Wadi Murabbaat, but these texts deviate in thousands of ways from the “received” text that the synagogue promotes as the correct, authentic text of the Torah. But it was hard to argue that point persuasively when all the oldest manuscripts deviated in a thousand details, most admittedly picayune nonetheless real, and there simply was no evidence of “our” text being extant in earliest times. Nor was this just  a point for scholars in graduate-school seminar rooms to debate—Judaism as we know it is the religion the rabbis of classical antiquity developed based on their elaboration of the law as found in Scripture, but their techniques of elaboration were often based on interpreting the most minor discrepancies between parallel or adjacent texts…and obviously rests on the fundamental assumption that the text of the Torah with which they were working was “the” sacred text so fixed and so invariable that it made sense to interpret even slight discrepancies between twinned or adjacent passages.

But now we actually do have evidence that the text that the Masoretes promoted as “the” received text was out there precisely when the rabbinic movement was getting off the ground in the first century CE, that the text we regard as “the” text of “the” Torah was in use precisely when the rabbis began their endless work of interpretive exegesis and created Judaism as we know it.  This is a huge discovery and constitutes a similarly huge validation of perhaps the most basic assumption of all regarding the text of the Torah: that the text we read weekly in synagogue is the precise text the ancients studied and promoted as the basis for the purposeful worship of God through the medium of obedience to the commandments of Scripture.

Professor Marc Z. Brettler of Duke University published an essay setting forth the reasons he finds this Ein Gedi scroll to be of the greatest importance and I recommend that work to you as an excellent place to begin reading. You can find that article, which appeared on the thetorah.com website last fall, by clicking here. Good follow-up pieces to look at would be Daniel Estrin’s article published on The Times of Israel website (click here) or Nicholas Wade’s piece in the New York Times last September (click here).

The technique perfected at the University of Kentucky will now be used to unlock countless other treasures preserved physically but until now deemed unopenable, unreadable, and unusable.  Prime among those up-until-now unrecoverable treasures is the vast library of charred, fused scrolls—more than 300 of them—found back in 1752 at Herculaneum in Italy, a smaller town destroyed in 79 CE by the same volcanic eruption that annihilated Pompeii, in a villa that scholars believe belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Those scrolls were acquired by (of all people) Napoleon and given to the Institut de France in Paris, where they now reside…mute for millennia and now ready, perhaps, finally to speak.

Who knows what other treasures this new technique will yield? The Herculaneum scrolls alone could produce dozens of unknown texts from antiquity, but for me personally the virtual opening of the Ein Gedi scroll will always be of primary importance. We know such much, but also so little about Jewish antiquity. Regular readers will know this as a key concept for me personally: how little and how much we know about the past, and how we must learn to balance those two thoughts rationally and reasonably. The library of ancient Jewish texts is voluminous…but also filled with gigantic lacunae. We have almost no records of actual synagogue life, for example. We have no ancient prayerbooks to consult, no minutes of public meetings, no documents relating to the inner workings of the schools that produced the documents that we revere as the “stuff” of rabbinic Judaism. Why the synagogue at Ein Gedi owned a scroll that featured the Book of Leviticus alone none can say. Did they read from it during the service? That would certainly not be what we would expect by reading rabbinic documents that require that the Torah be read from a full scroll featuring all five of the Torah’s constituent books! But the rabbis did not control the synagogues of Roman Palestine any more than rabbis today control the synagogues in whose pulpits they serve today. Was the scroll used for study? That seems more likely, or at least as likely. But why was it stored then in a synagogue? Was the synagogue a school? (We regularly call a synagogue a shul in Jewish American English, generally glossing by the strangeness of referring to one institution by a word that literally denotes another.) Did single-book scrolls circulate in antiquity long before the text of Scripture was available in what we would call books or the ancient prototypes of modern books? Where could you buy such a thing? Were there public libraries? Did ordinary people own such scrolls? Were they somehow part of private worship, as opposed to the public reading of the Torah as part of the worship service? And what of this specific scroll? Who wrote it? Who owned it? Who used it? And why, after the conflagration that destroyed the synagogue and burnt its scrolls, did no one bury this specific scroll? Was that just an accident? Or is the story, now lost forever, far more complex and interesting than one of mere happenstance? To none of these questions do scholars have anything at all like definitive answers.

And so the Ein Gedi scroll, now that it speaks, prompts far more questions than it answers. But it is through the contemplation of just such objects that we grow wise as we look back and remind ourselves, not how much, but how little we know of the past. The study of history has the capacity to make us arrogant; far more reasonably should it make us humble. And yet there is strange power in old things: contemplating this ancient scroll—even without feeling in awe of the technology that made it readable—reminds us of just how long people have been gathering on Shabbat morning to hear the Torah read aloud…and allows us just for a moment to step out of time and join the worshipers in the old Ein Gedi synagogue and, as we sit quietly and contemplate the scene unfolding around us, to espy a slender scroll on a wooden shelf in a rickety bookcase on the shul’s southern wall and, alone among the others present, to know something of its fate. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Yom Yerushalayim 2017

I surprised myself this last Wednesday with the degree of emotion I found myself bringing to Yom Yerushalayim this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, then felt surprised by the fact that I felt surprised at all.

It would not, after all, be a stretch to refer to the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem by
Israeli troops on June 7, 1967, as the most momentous event in Jewish history since the founding of the state itself in 1948. (Jerusalem Day—Yom Yerushalayim in Hebrew—is observed on the anniversary of that day according to the Hebrew calendar, the 28th day of the month of Iyar, which fell this last Wednesday even though anniversary according to the secular calendar is still a few weeks off.) Nor, for once, does it seem exaggerated to speak about the reunification of the city in salvific, perhaps even messianic, terms: the restoration of the city, riven in two by war, to something akin to the psalmist’s vision of Jerusalem as a “unified city of tightly-knit together precincts” felt then and still feels to me now not merely like a great military victory, which it surely was as well, but as much—and perhaps even more so—like a hurdle successfully leapt over on the way to the great redemptive moment that Torah teaches will come to all humankind at the end of days. I’m not sure I can remember precisely how the ninth-grader I was then processed the events of June 1967 as they unfolded. But I am completely certain about how they feel to me a half-century later, as I look back on the Six Day War and contemplate its larger meaning.

Regular readers of my weekly letters and blog posts know that I have written at length in other many other places about my relationship to Jerusalem, sometimes focusing on my first trip there the year before the Six Day War when I was only thirteen years old (click here), sometimes about the experience of our oldest child being born in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes on the experience of acquiring a home in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes about the question of American foreign policy with respect to the status of Jerusalem (click here), and sometimes about the United Nations and its hate-filled, perverse, and deeply anti-Semitic stance with respect to the Holy City (click here or here.) In all those pieces, however, I tried to capture some aspect of my deep emotional commitment not only to the poetic idea of Jerusalem as the city of God that functions as the nexus point between heaven and earth, but to the actual city of golden stone that has existed physically and fully really at the epicenter of Jewish history since the days of King David more than three thousand years ago. Nor do I feel any need to choose between the two approaches: I am drawn to the city both as a theological concept suggestive of the deepest and most moving ideas about the world and the place of Israel among the nations and to the actual, physical city in which we are summertime residents and very happy property owners.

It’s interesting, now that I think of it, that the name Jerusalem does not appear in the Torah, where the city is invariably referenced slightly (or more than slightly) mysteriously as “the place in which God has chosen to cause the divine name to dwell.” Text historians have their own explanation for that strange detail of the biblical text, but for me it is part of a larger set of ideas regarding the nature of holiness itself.

Moses, the national hero par excellence and a man of unparalleled holiness, too is left unnamed in the Torah. The name Moses, after all, was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter because his life was saved when he was drawn from the river, and the word for “drawn” sounds a bit like the Hebrew version of Moses’ name. But, of course, Pharaoh’s daughter would have spoken Egyptian, not Hebrew, so presumably our biblical tale is a kind of Hebrew-language retelling of how Moses got whatever his Egyptian name was, presumably one that sounded like the Egyptian word for “drawn.”  But in either event his parents must have given him a name when he was born, months before he was deposited into the Nile in a basket or drawn from the river to safety. Surely that was his “real” name, the one his parents gave him…and yet it is nowhere recorded in Scripture. So in a very real sense Moses too has no name.

Nor does the Land of Israel. Other lands are named freely: the Land of Egypt, the Land of Goshen, the Land of the Philistines, the Land of Moab, and more. The pre-Israelite version of the land has a name too, of course: it is always referenced as the Land of Canaan. But the Canaanites are destined quickly to pass from the scene…and the land’s future name, “the Land of Israel,” is not mentioned in the Torah at all. The phrase, it is true, appears elsewhere in Scripture (although in fewer than a dozen places). But in the Torah the land is only referenced either by its soon-to-be-former name or by one of a handful of handy circumlocutions: the land that God promised to your ancestors, the land that God shall cause you to inherit, the land that God is granting you as your eternal patrimony, the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But nowhere in the Torah do we learn what the Land of Canaan will be called once the Canaanites vanish from the scene of history! So the Holy Land, surely the holiest of lands, too has no name…or at least not one in the simple sense that Laos and Ecuador do.

Even the great desert sanctuary to which the Torah devotes so many endless columns of relentless detail—and which houses not only the sanctum called “the Holy Place” but also the inmost sanctum called the Holy of Holies (that is, the holiest of holy places)—too has no name, not really: it is referenced merely as a mishkan, a slightly obscure term that denotes the resting- or dwelling-place of something or someone. And so the great sanctuary is called the mishkan of God, the mishkan of God’s glory, the mishkan of the testimony (i.e., of the tablets of the law that were preserved in the inmost sanctum), the mishkan of the Tent of Meeting (i.e., the tent that functioned within the holy precincts as its most sacred space), etc. But other than being reference as the dwelling of God or the resting place of some specific thing…it too has no “real” name at all.

In its own premodern way, Scripture nods to the almost ineffable sanctity of certain things by leaving then unnamed. The idea is clear enough—that, since human language is rooted in human experience and the quality of holiness derives from a realm completely outside the boundaries of the human experience, the most honest thing anyone can say about anything truly suffused with holiness would be to say nothing at all, a point made most famously of all by the author of the 65th psalm, who opened his poem with the bald assertion that, with respect to God, the Holy One of Israel, “the only [true] praise is silence itself.”

And so it is with Jerusalem itself, now and for many centuries named and called by its name, but still characterized by an aura of innate holiness that can surely be felt and vaguely described, but never fully defined.

I was, as I never seem to tire of relating, a boy when I first entered Jerusalem. To say I was naïve and untried in the ways of the world is to say almost nothing at all. I was, in every sense, a junior high schooler (this was the summer before ninth grade, almost a year before the Six Day War). I had only the rudimentary Hebrew of a Hebrew School student and no knowledge at all, let alone any sort of sophisticated understanding, of Jewish history or Jewish philosophy. I was me, obviously. But I was still a golem in every meaningful way, something akin to the block of marble in which David was imprisoned until Michelangelo set him free by chipping away the part that didn’t look like David. I was in there somewhere! (How can I not have been?) I obviously had no idea what the future would or could bring, but at that stage I wasn’t even sure what I wanted it to bring. But something in the place spoke to me even then, even without me being able to understand even a fraction of what it might have had to say. As I stood at the Mandelbaum Gate and attempted to take some snapshots with my Instamatic of the Old City’s walls looming tall behind the Jordanian soldiers glaring at me from just beyond the barricade, I felt a kind of kinship with the past and the future…and with the history and destiny of the people Israel and the Land of Israel that stays with me still.

A half-century plus a year has passed since I stood in that place. A year later, the Mandelbaum Gate came down and the city was freed from Jordanian occupation. Six years later, in 1973, I arrived back in Jerusalem, this time as a counselor on an AZYF teen trip to Israel, and it was then that I entered Jerusalem—or at least Old Jerusalem—for the first time. In a real sense, I haven’t ever left. The notion that Jerusalem is or ever could be anything other than the eternal capital city of the Jewish people doesn’t mean that we cannot or shouldn’t share it with others who too find holiness in its sacred precincts. But no accommodation to any sort of political reality can affect the bond between the Jewish people and its eternal capital city, a bond that exists not only outside of time, but also outside of language. The psalmist composed a simple prayer, and it is those words that have been in my mind all week. Shaalu shalom yerushalayim yish’layu ohavayikh, he wrote, addressing himself to the House of Israel: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem so that those who love the city may too only know tranquility.” That is our prayer too, of course, and this as well: May God grant that Jerusalem always be the capital of a strong, proud Israel, and may the city itself soon serve as the House of Prayer for all peoples of which the prophet wrote all those many centuries ago.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Who Went

Autobiography is a suspicious genre at best: generally speaking, the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own stories. For one thing, people almost by definition tell their own stories from their personal vantage points, presenting as obvious truths details that others would see entirely differently. That must seem like an obvious truism, but it’s not that easy to keep in mind as you read along, enthralled by the story being told and forgetting to remember that every story, even the compelling one you are being told by the talented author of the book you are reading, has another side…and would sound entirely different if someone else were telling it, the author’s spouse, for example, or one of his or her parents, or one of the police officers the author is accusing of brutality. Nonetheless, it’s a popular genre. And one of the most popular of its sub-genres is constituted of exposés by escapees, by people who have escaped from…somewhere. From prison. From slavery. From a cult. From an oppressive home environment. From an abusive marriage. From a horrific boarding school. From somewhere!

Some of these books specifically chronicle their authors’ successful escape from the religious cults that earlier on had claimed their total allegiance, books like Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief or Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. And then there is a whole sub-category of Jewish authors who write about their “escape” from the hasidic (or super-frumm non-hasidic) communities in which they either were raised or ended up living.

There are a lot of these books, mostly by women. Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Childhood, Judy Brown’s This Is Not a Love Story, Chaya Deitsch’s Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are only some of the better-known examples, but there are others out there as well.  Some of you may have seen the only recently-made Yiddish-language movie I know of, Adam Vardy’s Mendy, which details its protagonist’s unexpectedly uninteresting journey from his insular community in Brooklyn to a community of hasidic escapees in Manhattan. The movie was irritating, actually—not well written, not well acted, and not particularly compelling. But at least it was a man’s story…which made it almost unique. (I suppose I will probably eventually read Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament once I get past the vulgar title and the even more vulgar book jacket illustration. Or maybe not.)

And now I have just finished reading Shulem Deen’s memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, the author’s account of his painful decision to leave the Skverer hasidic community in New Square, New York, and to re-invent himself more or less from top to bottom even though his decision ultimately cost him not only his marriage and his community, but any meaningful contact with his children as well. But rejection by his neighbors did not herald rejection by the reading public and the book was almost incredibly well received. It won a National Jewish Book Award in 2015. Far more improbably, it was named one of Star Magazine’s “Fab 5 Can’t-Miss Entertainment Picks.” And more improbably even than that (which is saying something), it was named one of the “forty-three books to read before you die” by the Independent, one of Britain’s leading online newspapers.

It is a painful read, and particularly for those of us who come to the topic with our own set of complicated biases and preconceptions.

Like many of my generation, I grew up imbued with a strangely idealized conception of the hasidic world, one developed without the benefit of having ever met an actual hasidic person or visited a hasidic community or synagogue. They were everywhere in my childhood, those people. The walls of one of best friend’s parents’ apartments featured a series of decorative plates, each emblazoned with the image of a sole hasid dancing in apparently ecstatic prayer. My own mother once needle-pointed a pillow cover featuring in silhouette some hasidic men holding open books. In the same vein but even more popular were pictures on black velvet, not of dogs playing poker, but of hasidim engaging in some sort of raucous discussion, presumably about some holy matter, and gesticulating dramatically with their hands.  During my two summers at the UAHC Eisner Summer Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the words “hasidic prayer service” were used to denote a service without real (or any) liturgy—one more akin (I only realized years later how funny this was) to a Quaker meeting than anything a real hasid would recognize—in which people were asked to sit quietly in each other’s contemplative company until someone thought of something to say, something like the Shema or a line from a popular song. And, of course, there were the two volumes of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that served as the basis for a thousand divrei torah at camp and back home in Junior Congregation as well.

Even my own parents fell under the spell occasionally, speaking reverentially of hasidim as the ones who would keep the embers glowing even after the rest of us lost interest and moved on.  But, even despite all of this worshipfulness, I don’t recall it ever striking me how odd it was that I hadn’t ever met an actual hasid despite the fact that the great hasidic communities of Brooklyn weren’t more than a thirty-minute drive from Forest Hills and could be visited easily. Nor do I recall it dawning on me that the people on the plates and pillows were depictions of actual human beings who, had anyone wished, could presumably have been easily located, encountered and enjoyed in person.  And so things remained until I actually did meet my first hasid, a fellow my age named Summy (short for Isumar) who occasionally davened at the same quasi-hasidic shtibl in Forest Hills in which I occasionally attended services during my JTS years when I was back home with my parents for Shabbat. (Why I chose to attend services there when I would have been far more warmly welcomed elsewhere is a different issue, one I’ll write about on some other occasion. The other worshipers, at any rate, weren’t hasidim at all—just the rabbi and his innumerable sons were, plus Cousin Summy who occasionally escaped—his word, not mine—from Brooklyn to have what he called “shabbos in the country.” That he thought of Forest Hills as “the country” should have been my first clue that our worldviews were not going to mesh easily. And yet we were, in some sense, friends: two young men who got along and liked each other…and each of whom was familiar with a part of the world regarding which the other was very curious.)

From Summy, I got a clear sense of the “other” side of the story…and it was not at all a pretty picture. Even after all these years, I hesitate to repeat much of what he told me on our Shabbos-afternoon walks. As I think back, I don’t recall it ever striking me to wonder if he was being fully honest with me. (Were there really Manhattan brothels that catered to hasidic young men eager to test things out before marriage? I certainly believed him then, but now I find myself less certain.) Still, that relationship provided me with my first inkling that hasidim were real people who existed in the real world. Since then, of course, I’ve met other hasidic types, some impressively learned and others childish and naïve. But none has ever made the impression on me that Summy did when I was in my early twenties and still trying, albeit not yet too successfully, to figure out the Jewish world and my place in it.

So that is the baggage I personally brought to Shulem Deen’s book. In some ways, his is an unusual story. Born to baal-teshuvah parents in Boro Park, he hardly came from a hasidic family at all…yet he was drawn to the hasidic life to which he was exposed in New Square and, after some dithering, he bought into it more or less holus-bolus. He married as a young man in the typical hasidic style, then went on to have five children in rapid succession. On the outside, he was a “regular” hasid, wearing the whole get-up, sporting sidelocks that if uncurled would have hung down as far as his waist (a point he makes in passing but which stays with me for some reason), expressing public disdain for even the slightly glimmer of modernity that somehow managed to pierce the community’s almost impermeable boundaries. But on the inside, the author was a work very much still in progress. Reading how he first became aware of the fact that anyone, even a hasid, may borrow books from a public library, and how he acquired a radio, then a television (which he kept hidden in a cupboard and only dared watch when his children were fast asleep), and then a computer, his story reads more like a traditional Bildungsroman than a prison escapee’s journal.

The depiction of hasidic life in the book is as unappealing as it is slightly charming. The community really does stick together. And its members are depicted positively as men and women of deep and unquestioning faith. To say that they take their observance seriously is to say almost nothing: these are people who have chosen to subjugate every aspect of their lives to the kind of punctilious religious observance that is the hallmark of traditional hasidic life. And yet…for all they are as strict as strict could be (and the Skverer hasidim are among the strictest in terms of their observance and their standards), they are depicted in the book as harsh and judgmental, as petty and meanspirited, and as capable of remarkably cruelty towards each other. In one of the book’s most shocking passages, the author openly admits to having participated personally in a criminal effort to defraud New York State out of serious sums of money by producing false reports regarding the standards that prevail in one of the community’s yeshivahs. All in all, and even despite the occasional rays of light that shine though, Deen’s is not an attractive portrait of hasidic life and, in the end, no reader will find it even slightly surprising that the author wanted out.

But reading from my personal perch, what struck me was how Deen, for all he was ready to abandon his community and his family, and fully to reject the hasidic lifestyle, was unable to shed his community’s fundamentalist worldview. In other words, his escape was from black to white, from the strictest level of observance possible to absolutely nothing at all: this man whose payos once hung down to his waist is depicted by the end of the book as blithely living outside even the most elemental norms of Jewish life and as having no level of discernible Jewish observance in his life at all. The possibility of living a rich, meaningful, satisfying Jewish life characterized by both intellectual and spiritual integrity seems not to have dawned on the author: he left everything and moved on to nothing without, it seems, even considering that his problem might be with the know-nothing fundamentalism that characterizes hasidism at its least appealing, not with the foundational stuff of Judaism itself upon which every Jewish community from the most to the least liberal rests…including many into which the author could easily fit. 

It’s a good book and worth your time to read. It’s troubling and not a little sad. But it’s also provocative and very interesting. I resisted reading it when it first came out in 2015 for some reason, but a Shelter Rocker recommended it to me the other week and I decided to give it a chance after all. I’m glad that I did!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jubilees

Jewish life is cycles inside of cycles: the daily cycle of prayer, the weekly cycle of Sabbath observance, the monthly sanctification of the New Moon, the annual cycle of festivals, the seven-year sabbatical cycle related to debt release and land use, the twenty-eight year cycle relating to the recitation of Birkat Ha-ḥamah, the Blessing of the Sun…and the granddaddy of them all, the fifty-year jubilee cycle that brings all lands in Eretz Yisrael back to their original owners and completes the manumission of indentured servants. But that’s it—no cycles are longer than that final one, a half-century being most of most people’s lives, I suppose, and the notion of having calendrical cycles longer than the average human life span just didn’t really make that much sense…and particularly in ancient times, when life expectancy was that much less than it is nowadays.

So fifty was a big number of years in ancient times. And, today, I’d like to write to you about three different fifty-year anniversaries that either just passed or are about to come up, each of which affected the fifty-year-younger me in ways that I am certain I didn’t understand at the time and perhaps even couldn’t have.

It was fifty years ago exactly that Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, was published in the spring of 1967 and became an instant bestseller, remaining on the Times’ bestsellers’ list for thirty-nine weeks. I read it that summer at camp and was completely taken with it. But although I was myself only one year younger than the book’s protagonists, Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders, I could not possibly have been less like either of them—perhaps more overtly not like Danny Saunders, the son of a hasidic rebbe who in Williamsburg who is not only being raised in a hasidic community but who is also being raised by a father who refuses to engage in ordinary conversation with him and who only speaks to him at all about serious religious or spiritual matters…but also not at all like Reuven Malter, a boy being raised in a more “normal” Brooklyn Jewish home, but a strictly observant one nevertheless, under the aegis of a gentle father who is also a world-renowned Talmud scholar. I was neither of these boys! But, bringing to bear that peculiar Jewish ability to remember the future, I somehow understood, even at fourteen, that I was already on the path forward that would eventually become my life’s journey…and that successfully traveling its trajectory was going to require that, for all I wasn’t ever going to be either of them, I was somehow also going to have also to be them both.

The following winter, I read Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, the book which more or less guided me through my adolescence. It was a very popular book back then—I’m guessing not a few of my readers also read it in the course of their high school years—and it too featured two protagonists who were wholly unlike each other. Narcissus is the scholar who finds his greatest joy in intellectual achievement, while Goldmund wanders the world and samples its pleasures freely and with almost Dionysian abandon. But although the book is about how different and how similar the two of them actually are—in the end, each ends up wishing he were more like the other—and how each of us, to find balance and joy in the world, needs somehow also to “be” them both, I already had in place the antipodes that would delimit my life’s journey, and they were Reuven and Danny, not Narcissus and Goldmund. For better or worse, that is how I got to be me…if not precisely then certainly in broad terms. But the struggle depicted in the book between religiosity and scholarship, between losing yourself and finding yourself in Jewishness, between finding solace and guidance in other people’s books and writing your own story over and over in your own (the boys trade places with Reuven, the scholar’s son, becoming a rabbi, and Danny, the rebbe’s son, becoming a psychologist)—even at fourteen, I understood that this was to be my own slightly impossible path forward in life.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell myself, not really. But in retrospect I can see that I knew it clearly, and I think one of the first real intimations of my future life that I had came to me as I read The Chosen. I eventually read all of Potok, just as I eventually read all of Hesse. I liked all of both authors’ books too, although some more and others less. But nothing ever equaled either book in either author’s oeuvre in terms of the effect it had on the adolescent or post-adolescent me.

The second thing that happened a full fifty years ago that altered the course of my life forward was the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles released on my fourteenth birthday. (You see, it really was all about me!)

Young people today, unused to the way things were in ancient times when music wasn’t free and certainly didn’t come to you by floating magically through the air into your “device,” will find it difficult to imagine the impact that single album had on an entire generation. It was the Beatles’ eighth studio album, not their first. And it wasn’t that there weren’t other bands out there recording innovative, interesting material. But there was something in Sgt. Pepper that changed everything, even despite its relative brevity. (The whole album, all together, isn’t forty minutes long.) But I knew every lyric to every song, as did more or less everyone I knew anywhere near my age. We used and re-used phrases from the album endlessly in our casual speech. We could identify every single one of the fifty-seven living people and nine wax figures on the cover. The music itself took on something of the sacred, each track being intoned endlessly by ourselves in ninth grade as though the album were a collection of hymns reverently to be chanted as part of daily worship. I still had a month left of junior high school when the album came out, but that was a mere detail…and I was so ready for whatever was going to come next precisely because Sgt. Pepper served as a kind of a gateway into an unknown future, and not just for me alone either but also for more or less an entire generation. To this day, I know every word of every song. At least until James Taylor released his Sweet Baby James album in 1970, I thought of “Within You, Without You” (the only non-Lennon/McCartney song on the album) as my personal anthem. I could identify any song from its opening second or two. If The Chosen was where I was going, Sgt. Pepper was where I was. And it opened up to me the possibility of traveling there under my own steam, propelled forward by the sheer power of my own will to be as I wished and to become who I wished.

And, of course, we are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the single most transformational event in post-Shoah Jewish history. I will have a lot more to say in its regard when we get to Yom Yerushalayim on Wednesday, May 24, the actual anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian control and the re-unification of the city, but today I’d like to speak of the anniversary in far more personal terms.

My first visit to Israel was in 1966, the year of my bar-mitzvah. But that trip, transformational in every meaningful way possible, was only the prelude to what was to come. (For more about that trip and the effect it had on the adolescent me, click here and here.)

I loved Israel in 1966, but it was more than a bit of a third-world country in those days. The public telephones didn’t work too well. You could only phone overseas from a post office. Major roads were unpaved. The restrooms in the bus stations were by American standards unspeakable. Yet there was an intoxicating feel of newness and adventure everywhere, and the pioneering spirit our teachers spoke about endlessly in Hebrew School was fully tangible at every turn.  I was not only impressed, but, in the deepest sense of the word, I was overwhelmed. Nothing felt the same to me after that trip—certainly nothing back home in Forest Hills, but also nothing at all elsewhere in the world either—but, in the end, it was the Six Day War itself that sealed the deal and made me feel that Israel was not only a noble undertaking destined to have a profound impact on Jewish history, but that the future of the Jewish people was going to be indelibly and inextricably tied to the future history of the State in a way that was already making it impossible to think of one without simultaneously thinking also of the other and which would eventually shape my own sense of the meaning of Jewish history in our time.

And that was the story of my fourteenth year. Out there, the world was focused on the summer of love as it was unfolding in San Francisco, New York, and London. (I actually attended—or at least put in a nervous appearance—at the Be-In in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow that spring, which I remember as being remarkably like its depiction in Miloš Forman’s movie version of Hair. But that will have to be another story for another time.) But for me, it was the year of three things backed up by three other things—the Six Day War backed up by my experiences a year earlier in Israel, The Chosen backed up by Narcissus and Goldmund, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band backed up by every album I owned that came before it and which created the hole where the rain got in, and got my mind to wondering where it could go oh, where it could go. Oh! And where I went too, as it turned out.