Thursday, January 22, 2015

Je Suis Lassana


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Life After Death

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chanukah 2014

As many of you know, we had a remarkable guest at Shelter Rock last week. Both performance pieces by Helen Gottstein, originally of Australia but now for many years a proud Israeli (and a neighbor of ours in Jerusalem), were excellent and very well received, but it was a sequence in her second presentation that suggested to me the topic I wish to write to you all about this week. And it’s a Chanukah-based point at that! (Non-Shelter-Rockers reading this who might be interested in bringing Helen to perform in their communities can find out more on her website at www.helengottstein.com. I think I can promise you that you won’t be disappointed!)

The Shabbat afternoon performance was called “Four Faces of Israel” and featured Helen depicting the same basic set of issues as seen and interpreted by four different women of today’s Jerusalem. There was no introduction at all, though, and she just started speaking as a ḥareidi woman from one of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities. People who attended Friday evening obviously understood that she was acting. But at least some who were present on Saturday but who hadn’t been there the night before didn’t realize that this was an act and took her actually to be the woman she was portraying…and, not fully seizing that this was theater, responded vigorously to some of the things she said, and particularly to her sharp comments about the legitimacy of the secular government of Israel in this unredeemed, pre-messianic world. Her argument—or rather, her character’s argument—was a familiar one: that, because the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is meant only to come on the other side of the redemptive moment, the establishment of a secular Jewish state will only impede and can in any event surely not hasten the dawn of redemption. By definition, she said, a secular government in Israel established and sustained through human effort is an abomination; the legitimate government will be the one established by a messiah of the House of David sent to gather in the exiles, to preside over the resurrection of the dead, and to usher the world into the state of post-messianic salvation promised by the prophets of old.

We’ve all heard that before. But it struck me while listening to her that there could be an interesting way to respond that actually is fully rooted in our tradition, one that has to do with the story of Chanukah as it is often told…or rather mistold.  I wrote about this detail in a letter to you all about five years ago, but now I see it in a new light…and so I would like to write about it again now and draw a new conclusion as a way of responding to the argument put forward by Helen’s ḥareidi woman character.

Everybody knows at least the basic outline of the story of the miracle of Ḥanukkah. The Temple had been desecrated by the minions of the evil King Antiochus. Finally, after a great battle and at the cost of many live, the Maccabees soundly defeated the king’s armies and retook Jerusalem. Their first job, of course, was to re-establish the ongoing service in the Temple that functioned in ancient times as the core of Jewish worship, as the living symbol of ongoing Jewishness in the world. This was a complex undertaking and there were obviously many different parts to this effort, but the most potent symbolically was the rekindling of the great candelabrum that stood housed in the chamber just to the east of the Holy of Holies. In that sanctum stood three sacred appurtenances: the aforementioned candelabrum (that is, the golden m’norah), the table upon which rested the showbread that was changed from week to week, and the golden incense altar. Each was a potent symbol in its own right and each was restored by the conquering heroes. But it was specifically with respect to the rekindling of the golden m’norah that the story of the Ḥanukkah miracle unfolded.

The m’norah had to be lit with pure olive oil that had been bottled under the supervision of the High Priest. The oil was kept in small jugs, each able to hold one day’s worth of oil. And this is where the story as preserved in our ancient sources deviates from the way the story is almost always told. In both versions, the trigger to the miracle is the discovery of one single jug of oil still bearing the seal of the High Priest. That was good…but not quite good enough: it took a full week to prepare olive oil in the specific way that guaranteed its ritual acceptability but there was now in reserve only enough oil for a single day, and so a miracle was wrought to symbolize God’s willing participation in the rededication of the Temple. But what exactly was that miracle? As told to me as a boy, and as repeated by myself to countless Nursery and Hebrew School children, the miracle had to do with the oil: they kindled the golden m’norah and then, instead of burning up and out, the oil somehow diminished only slightly that first day, then a little more the next day, and a little more the day after that. In fact, the oil burnt down so slowly that by the time it actually was all gone, enough time had passed for new oil to have been successfully prepared. The m’norah, representing God’s holy presence in that place, remained lighted.

The only problem is that that is specifically not how the story is told in the Talmud, its sole ancient source. In that version of the story, the miracle has to do with the jug that was only large enough to hold one day’s supply of oil. Yet, when they poured the oil out into the cups of the m’norah, there was somehow still oil left in the clay jug. And so they poured it out a second day, then a third. This went on for eight whole days, the magic jug never running dry even though it was only large enough—or rather it only looked large enough from the outside, something like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag—to hold enough oil for one single day. It was the jug itself that was the focus of the miracle then, not really the oil: the point isn’t that this was magic oil that burnt and burnt without burning up, but that this was a magic jug out from which oil could be poured over and over without the jug ever running dry.

So who cares? They’re not the same, the popular and ancient versions…but surely they’re close enough for the difference to be unimportant. But, as Flaubert wrote, God lives in the details and the effort to parse this specific detail leads, circuitously but not unconvincingly (I hope), to a way to respond to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady and her harsh dismissal of the legitimacy of the modern State of Israel and its democratically-elected government.

We’ve heard of that magic jug before! Shul-Jews will know it from the haftarah for the Torah portion called Va-yeira. More literary types will know it from the beginning of the fourth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. But in any event the story concerns a poor widow who, confronted by debts she could not manage, implored the prophet Elisha for help. (Once the premier disciple of Elijah, at this point in the biblical narrative Elisha is a prophet in his own right possessed of the ability almost supernaturally to help people—later on this same chapter, he resurrects a dead child and restores the boy to his mother—and to do good in the world.) And help her he does! She reports that all she has in the house of any value is a jug of oil, whereupon Elisha tells her to go to all her neighbors and to borrow as many pots and jars as she can. Then, when she returns home, he instructs her to pour the oil from her single jug into one of the borrowed pots. She does so, but there is still oil left in the jug so she pours what’s left into a second pot. Or she thinks that’s what she’s doing, but it turns out that there is still oil left in the jug! You see where this is going, I’m sure. She fills up all the many borrowed pots, the oil not running out until the very last pot was filled to the brim. And then Elisha solves her problem easily: “Sell the oil,” he tells her, “and pay off your debtors…and you and your children can live on the rest!”

After the reign of King Solomon, the Jewish kingdom split in two. The biblical historians are united in their estimation of this development: the southern kingdom of Judah—with its David-descended king and its capital at Jerusalem—was legitimate, and the northern kingdom of Israel was illegitimate and ought not to have existed. That opinion is expressed countless times in Scripture…but there’s a problem: on at least three separate occasion an authentic prophet of God appears nonetheless to confer legitimacy on the non-David-descended king of the north, thus implying divine acquiescence to the reign of a king whose kingdom should not have existed in the first place. And one of those prophets was none other than Elisha ben Shafat, the very man of God who wrought the original miracle with the jug of oil. (Nor is there any ambiguity in the story: Elisha is depicted as sending his own disciple to anoint one Jehu ben Nimshi as king of Israel with the specific, unambiguous words “Thus saith the Lord: I anoint you king of Israel.”)

And why would the rabbis have sought to tell a story about Chanukah that brought Elisha to mind? The answer rests on a detail that most of my readers will probably not know: that after the Maccabees were done being war heroes and Temple restorers, then became sufficiently enamored of their own authenticity and self-arrogated authority to declare themselves kings of Israel…despite the fact that they were kohanim of the tribe of Levi and not descendants of David at all. By bringing Elisha subtly to the story, then, the rabbis were crafting a kind of a response to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady. The Maccabees weren’t “real” kings of Israel, they are saying almost clearly, just usurpers who arrogantly and illegally wore a crown they had set upon their own heads. (Maccabean kingship didn’t last that long either—only about forty years, starting in about 104 BCE.) But they were, the rabbis are signalling subtly, to be remembered for the good they wrought, not for their sinful hubris. They were, therefore, somehow inauthentic without being fully illegitimate and the moral of the story is that the day-to-day governance of the nation can sometimes unfold outside the specific path forward to the great day of national redemption of which the prophets spoke, a path which only the naïve will imagine was not going to have any detours at all along the way.


And that is what I would say to Helen’s irritating lady. Yes, I would say, it’s true: the government of Israel is led by individuals who were chosen not by God but by the voting populace. Their decisions are made not by rabbis, let alone by prophets, but by the leaders the people have set at their helm in positions of power and trust. The will of the people, as in any democracy, is thus the guiding force in the governance of the nation, even when it is impossible (which is all the time) to know if specific decisions made do or don’t correspond precisely to the will of God. Just like the Maccabees in ancient times, the government of modern Israel exists without reference to the great redemptive narrative that has always guided, and which continues to guide, the fortunes of the Jewish people in a generally hostile world.  Yet, despite that, it is a force for great good, a government of the people that reflects the national will of Israel in a way no self-appointed leader ever truly could. And that is the specific lesson Elisha steps invisibly—but not entirely unreally—into the Chanukah story to teach. It’s a lesson the ḥareidi population of Israel and their fellow-travelers elsewhere in the world would do well to learn: sometimes the good of the people rests in what is good for the people, not in the details of the cosmic endgame towards which the House of Israel ever strives.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Basic Law

A few weeks ago, on November 23, the Israeli cabinet by a vote of 14 to 6 approved a piece of draft legislation called “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish people” that calls for the establishment of a so-called “Basic Law” that would establish the essential Jewish nature of the state as the legal foundation upon which all other governmental policies would thence forth have to rest.

For most of us looking in from the outside, the intense, emotional debate regarding the proposal that then ensued seems, to say the least, like a lot of fuss over nothing at all. Isn’t Israel already a Jewish state? (When someone uses the expression “the Jewish state” to refer to one of the countries of the world, after all, does anyone have to wonder which specific country is being referenced?) Nor is this just a convention of modern speech: the Declaration of Independence promulgated by the nascent nation’s leadership in 1948 referred specifically to “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” And then, getting even more precisely to the crux of the matter, independence was declared using the following words: “Accordingly, we, members of the People’s Council, representative of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel to be known as the State of Israel.” How much clearer could they have been with respect to the Jewish nature of the Jewish state they were attempting to establish in the Jewish homeland?  (If you are reading this electronically, you can access the full text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, still stirring even after all these years, by clicking here.) And so we come to this week’s riddle: if the Jewish nature of the state is formally and unambiguously embedded in the declaration that established the nation’s independence, then how could it possibly be a matter of controversy for Israel now, sixty-six years later, to affirm in law that aspect of the state’s essential nature?

Nor, for the record, do the supporters of the proposed legislation see themselves as opposing the intent of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, just the opposite is the case: the second paragraph of the proposed Basic Law specifically says that its purpose is “to secure the character of Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish people in order to codify…the values of Israel as a Jewish democratic state in the spirit of the principles of its Declaration of Independence.” (To see the full text of the proposed law, click here.) And that brings us to our second riddle (which is really just a secondary version of the first): if the proposed Basic Law merely resumes and re-asserts the ideals set forward in the founding document of the state, then why would anyone consider it controversial or provocative?

Nothing in Israel is ever so simple, however. There is, for example, wide-spread expectation is that the Prime Minister will personally alter the current text of the proposal before submitting it to the Knesset so as formally to guarantee the civil rights of all Israeli citizens. (The proposal itself already includes a clause that reads that “each resident of Israel, without regard to his religion or nationality, shall be entitled to strive for the preservation of his culture, heritage, language, and identity.” So the PM’s addition would just be a way of underscoring an idea already included in the text of the proposed legislation that also appears explicitly and unequivocally in the Declaration of Independence as well.) Yet, in the warp and woof of that specific issue—the one of the basic compatibility or irreconcilability of a nation’s core concept of itself as possessed of a specific ethic character and its commitment to function as a democracy in which no citizen’s right to cultural or spiritual self-expression is any different than any other’s—in that specific issue rests the core of the controversy that has erupted in many different circles regarding the essential defensibility of the proposal and its reasonableness.

On the face of it, nations in our world are routinely awarded the right to self-define in terms of national culture. Iran self-defines as an Islamic Republic and the world seems fine with that. That seems reasonable in light of the fact that 99.3% of the population in Iran actually is Muslim, but what about the case of European countries that similarly self-define as the homeland of their largest ethnic group yet where the percentage of actual people belong to that nation’s eponymous ethnicity is far lower? I read a very interesting essay in the Washington Post last week by Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, in which he reported that there are seven European Union countries that themselves have “nationhood” clauses in their constitutions that declare that country to be the homeland of its largest ethnic group. By way of example, he points at the constitution of Latvia, which speaks unambiguously about “the unwavering will of the Latvian nation to have its own State and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture….” That sounds relatively non-controversial, but the numbers suggest that otherwise could or should be the case: more than 99 out 100 Iranians may be Muslim, but only 62% of the population of Latvia are ethnic Latvians—a number that compares interestingly to the more than three-quarters of the Israeli population that is Jewish. Yet the world seems irritated neither with Latvia nor with Iran for self-defining in terms of their national culture…but only with Israel for attempting to enshrine its national mission to promote its own ethnic heritage in law.

In many ways, Kontorovich writes, Israel is more liberal than its EU critics. The head of state of Israel, for example, is not required by law to be Jewish—and, indeed, Majalli Wahabi, a Druze, served as Acting President of Israel briefly in 2007—but that is not the case in the twenty-two other countries that specifically do require by law that their head of state subscribe to a particular religion. (Of those countries, seventeen require that the head of state be a Muslim.) And in addition to those nations, another nineteen require that their ceremonial (i.e., not-formally-political-power-wielding) monarchs be of a specific religion…and in that group are included such bastions of human-rights-based democracy as the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. So that would make a total of forty-one countries that insist that their prime minister, president, or sovereign represent the faith that that nation wishes to recognize as its own…a recognition that simply ignores the fact that, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, every one of those countries has large or small minority groups among its citizens who are not of that religion at all.  If you are reading this electronically, you can read the two parts of Professor Kontorovich’s article by clicking here and here.)

I suppose part of the question has to do with the image of a nation as the aggregate of its citizenry. When one of Israel’s great poets, Amir Gilboa, wrote about the process that led to Israeli independence in 1948, for example, he didn’t choose to describe the process in terms of national or international politics, but instead as the awakening of the nation to the realization of its own existence: “It sometimes happens that a man awakens one morning with a start,” he wrote, “and realizes that he is a nation, then begins to walk as he calls out in peace to all he meets.”  And because we all think of nations in that way—as the large and complex version of the individual—we naturally attribute the same human rights to nations that we do to people, the rights to self-definition, self-determination, and cultural self-expression foremost among them.  It is precisely in that sense that it feels natural and normal for the United Kingdom to self-define in terms of its national church and to require its monarch serve as the titular head of that church. (Among her many titles, Queen Elizabeth has the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.) And it is in that same sense that it feels reasonable for so many nations, in Europe and elsewhere, to self-define in terms of their national heritage: it feels normal for the Spanish Constitution to make Spanish the nation’s only official language, even though I’m sure that irritates those many citizens of Spain whose mother tongues are Catalan or Basque. They live with it, I suppose. What else? So too the Bretons in France and countless other ethnic groups housed in nations whose majority culture they do not share.

Given the world’s willingness to accept the right of nations to self-define in terms of their majority culture, the avalanche of criticism levied at Prime Minister Netanyahu for endorsing the legislation and offering to bring it to the Knesset for approval is hard to explain…and particularly coming, as so much of it does, from nations that themselves openly and unabashedly self-define in terms of their national culture. Israel could not be clearer in terms of its commitment to safeguard the rights of its minorities. (It bears mentioning in this regard, that the Palestinian state that France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, and Sweden seem so eager to recognize that even the fact that it doesn’t actually exist is no deterrentthat that state specifically plans not to permit Jews to live within its boundaries as a protected minority group: why else would they care so fiercely about the presence of Jewish settlements in a future Palestinian state given that their residents would represent less than 10% of the population? By way of comparison, Arabs constitute 20% of the population of Israel.)


In my opinion, hiding behind the ferocious opposition in so many quarters to the Basic Law is uncertainty whether Israel has the right to exist at all. Why else would its right to self-define culturally or linguistically be so contentious an issue? 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two Solitudes

Like all of you, I’m sure, I was still trying to digest the news from Ferguson, Missouri, when I heard that another grand jury—this one far closer to home in Staten Island—had declined to indict a white policeman who caused the death of a black citizen.  Do these decisions indicate that the system is working well, that citizens are successfully resisting pressure from without so as to reach conclusions that they consider rational and fair? Or do they constitute a sign that the system is corrupt and broken, that the criminal justice system simply evaluates the worth of the lives of some citizens differently than the lives of others? It’s easy to find people who believe both those things, and fervently. Having no specific information about either case other than what I’ve read in the newspaper, I am hardly writing today to bring any new facts to light. But I do think that there are lessons to be learned about life in our American republic both from these decisions…but even more so from the responses to them.

A reasonable case could certainly be made that the system in both states, Missouri and New York, worked properly and exactly as planned by our nation’s founders. The state presented evidence to a grand jury that it felt warranted putting a citizen on trial. Deliberations took a very long time—twenty-five days over a period of three months in Missouri and about six weeks in New York—and finally the members of the grand jury, determining that the evidence shown to them was not sufficiently compelling to warrant proceeding to trial, declined to indict. As far as the criminal justice system goes, the matter ends when the people speak. (There have, however, been reports that federal officials are investigating whether the police officers’ actions deprived Eric Garner and Michael Brown of their civil rights, in which cases they may well decide to pursue the matter in federal court.)

This being a republic governed by law and not a totalitarian dictatorship, the power of the police becomes dramatically lessened once someone enters the court system and the reality—the happy reality—is that people in our great land specifically do not disappear into the gulag never to be heard from again because the government suspects them of having committed a crime. Indeed, the power quickly passes to the people in such matters: the police are in charge of conducting criminal investigations, but the people—represented in this context by the grand jury—are charged with coming to their own conclusion about the reasonableness of trying accused individuals in courts of law. The power of the state is thus formally and legally made subordinate to the will of the people, which is exactly how things are supposed to function in a society in which, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the government is defined as being of, by, and for the people. So you could ask why it is that everybody is so upset. The people exercised its prerogative to swim against the tide in both courtrooms…and that disinclination to behave in the expected way surely may be interpreted as a sign of a very healthy democracy populated by citizens secure in their rights, men and women who do not see or wish to see themselves as servants of the government or its officials…much less as marionettes who have no choice but to raise their arms when their handlers pull their strings.

Both decisions were nevertheless received poorly in many quarters, and that really is to say the very least. Indeed, many ended up thinking that these cases somewhat paradoxically serve merely to show just how powerless at least some segments of the “people” actually are…and concomitantly how powerful the police and the government. Tempers flared. Demonstrations, some more akin to riots, ensued and continue to ensue. A general sense of despair, frustration, and ill ease has descended on the nation, albeit for different reasons in different quarters, and there it rests and will rest, I fear, for some time. I think it would be fair to say that no one, except perhaps the personally exonerated individuals in both cases, feels too satisfied at this point with either decision. Particularly in the Staten Island case—a case in which the unarmed victim was hugely outnumbered by armed police officers and was committing (or rather was perceived by police officers on the scene to be committing) an offense so low-level that it surely came as a surprise to many, myself included, that it even is a crime to sell a cigarette that legally belongs to you to someone willing to purchase it—the decision not to indict seemed hard to square with what the public knew of reality. Having Eric Garner on video repeating the words “I can’t breathe” several times while he was apparently being choked to death only added to the public’s astonishment at the grand jury’s decision. (If you want to see for yourself, click here to see the amateur video on the website of the New York Daily News.) But, of course, it also bears saying that none of us was present to hear the testimony provided to either grand jury and that, therefore, none of us is in a position to evaluate their evaluation of that testimony in any meaningful way.

The phrase “two solitudes” was originally the title of a novel published in 1945 by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, who detailed in his book the peculiar way that English and French Canadians had managed in his day to live in the same country for centuries without ever actually encountering each other, let alone actually integrating into each other’s society. The expression is far more used these days in Canada, I believe, than the book itself is actually read. But the idea itself is worth bringing south over the border to consider just how apt a concept it is to apply to American society. Poll after poll reveal the same divide regarding questions about the basic institutions of society: whether the courts are truly color-blind, whether the police are, whether the grand jury system functions without respect to the race of the accused individual, whether public schools truly offer the same education to children in every neighborhood, whether promotions in the workplace are truly unrelated to the race of the individual hoping to advance, whether jury pools meaningfully reflect the ethnic and racial make-up of society, etc. No matter how many polls I consult, in fact (and most specifically including the Pew Research Center poll released just last week that focused on the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson), the data seems invariably to point to the fact that black and white Americans inhabit different universes of perception, discourse, and assumption, that black people and white people in our country have somehow evolved the strange ability to look at the same thing and see two different things. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see that Pew Center poll.) This cannot be a good thing for a nation that wishes to lessen, not sharpen, the legacy of race bequeathed to latter-day Americans by their race-obsessed forebears.

Nor is this specifically “about” discrimination per se. Clearly, we have succeeded into doing away with the overtly racist institutions of yesteryear—segregated schools, white-only lunch counters, anti-miscegenation laws, etc., not to mention slavery itself. The elimination of formal, judicially-endorsed discrimination based on race was obviously a great accomplishment, but the whole concept of living in the same place and different places at the same time is a different concept entirely and one that deserves attention in its own right.  I know how they feel: I too feel ofttimes as though I inhabit my own universe, one set over the one in which the rest of everybody lives and flourishes, and which I can see clearly and understand easily—I was, after all, raised and educated here—but, in the end, one I am in without being fully of. I sense many of my co-religionists feel similarly. In fact, I know they do.

That awareness that others do not see what we see when we look out at the world is disorienting. Canada has come simply to live with it. I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever meeting or encountering, even in passing, a French Canadian. As many of you know, I speak French fluently. But I somehow managed to live all those years in Canada without ever reading a French-language bestseller, without ever seeing (not even once) a movie made in Quebec, without ever attending a play by a Quebec playwright. I surely would never eat poutine anyway, but I can’t even recall seeing it for sale in our end of Canada, let alone actually served to anyone. I suppose it must be similarly possible to live in Quebec and remain totally unfamiliar with the cultural trappings of Anglo-Canada. Two solitudes there were in Hugh MacLennan’s day and, for better or worse two solitudes was what I encountered during our years on the ground in Canada. Perhaps things have changed since we left fifteen years ago.



This reality—that different groups within society can look out at the world through entirely different sets of spectacles—has a benign and malign side to it. The benign side has to do with the specific way diverse internal perceptions of the world can lead to a healthy flowering of ethnic or racial consciousness. But there is also another side, a darker and more dangerous side to the concept. When a law-abiding black citizen who has never been in trouble with the police in his life says, as I heard someone say on the radio the other day, that he feels panic rising when he sees an armed white police officer walking down the block and passing by the front of his house, and the average white citizen feels secure and safe, not panic-struck, when he sees a police officer patrolling in his neighborhood, then we have to address the issue not by calling each other names or denigrating each other’s feelings, but by asking simply how that could possibly be in our free, democratic country. And then, if we have the courage, we have to dare to answer the question honestly and forthrightly, and then see where that leads us. The key, I think, is in accepting that we all see the universe differently, that we all interpret the light that enters our eyes according to our own givens. Whether that ability to see the world idiosyncratically and personally becomes a source for good in the world or whether it becomes a force for inner-societal divisiveness, discord, and disunity—that is the issue put squarely down on the table by both grand jury decisions for Americans to ponder and, if they can, to resolve as part of our never-ended quest to create a more perfect union both to establish justice and surely also to insure domestic tranquility.