Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Barrett Hearings

 Like most Americans, I have been watching the race to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice of the Supreme Court with a strange brew of mixed emotions:

  • awe at how fast the Senate can move when properly motived (which is apparently not the case when it comes to acting decisively and meaningfully on behalf of America’s COVID-era unemployed),
  • amazement at the impressive, almost astounding, hypocrisy the Barrett nomination has elicited from both sides of the aisle as the Republicans effortlessly and unselfconsciously put forward the precise argument the Democrats put forward at the end of the Obama years in the wake of Justice Scalia’s death and the Democrats just as fervently insist on the correctitude of the position embraced at that time by the Republicans, a line of thinking that they could not possibly then have opposed more vociferously, and
  • anxiety regarding the prospect of there being on the Supreme Court a justice so openly and unabashedly committed to her conservative Christian faith. It’s that last thought that I’d like to write about this week.

The point that Judge Barrett is a deeply involved, fully committed member of her faith community has been made repeatedly in these last weeks. Like most Americans, I suppose, I was unfamiliar with the People of Praise community until the Barrett nomination brought it to the attention of the public. Nor is that at all odd that I hadn’t heard of it before—the community has, all together, about 1700 members, about a tenth of the number of students who attend Nassau Community College! But, even with such small numbers, it is an interesting community to consider from the outside: an organization that self-defines as a “charismatic Christian community” and membership in which is open to all baptized individuals regardless of their denominational affiliation. And that definition seems to mirror how things actually have worked out for the People of Praise: their website notes that among their members are professed and affiliated Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals, as well as a selection of other kinds of denominational and nondenominational Christians. (To read more on their own website, click here.) The group has its meetings on Sunday afternoons, in fact, precisely so as to allow members to attend church services in the congregations of which they are actually members. The website is very clear that People of Praise is a community of like-minded Christians working together to attain specific goals, not a church in the conventional sense of the word.

There’s no question that this is a very conservative operation. Until recently, the highest position a woman could hold in the community was that of “handmaid.” (The name has lately been changed to “woman leader.”) Each member is assigned a spiritual advisor called that person’s head. Men have male heads and single women usually have women as their heads, but the heads of married women are invariably their husbands. You get the idea.

No one is arguing, nor (I hope) would anyone, that Judge Barrett doesn’t have the right to affiliate with whatever spiritual community or faith group that she wishes. Nor, as I perceive it, is the problem some are having with the idea of her sitting on the Supreme Court tied specifically to the fact that she is a religious woman whose sense of purpose in life is strongly tied to her religious affiliation. It’s more bizarre than that, actually: the problem at least some of the people opposing her nomination seem to be having with Judge Barrett isn’t that she is affiliated with the religious group of her choice but that she clearly take the tenets of her faith seriously and has allowed them to shape her worldview. According to this line of thinking, it’s okay for Samuel Alito or Sonia Sotomayor to be Catholics because they are perceived—rightly or wrongly—as not being especially fervent believers. (Whether that is actually true or not, I have no idea.) Nor is this a specifically Christian issue: RBG’s Jewishness was celebrated, or at least tolerated, in at least some quarters precisely because she wasn’t actually a religious person who lived her life in strict accordance with the dictates of Jewish law, just a proud Jewish woman who saw no need to dissemble regarding her Jewishness. And the same is surely true, albeit in different ways, of Elana Kagan and Stephen Breyer, both of whom are openly identified as Jewish individuals but neither of whom is perceived—again, rightly or wrongly—as being especially observant. According to this line of reasoning, then, you can be publicly identified with a specific religious tradition and serve on the Supreme Court as long as you don’t take the tenets of that faith all that seriously. But Judge Barrett clearly does take her religion seriously. And that is where she is running into all sorts of trouble.

Traditionally, this race has been run in the other direction. The Constitution says unambiguously that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust,” thereby making it unconstitutional for anyone to be barred from any public office as a result of having failed a “religious test,” which is to say, because of not holding the dogmatic beliefs connected with any specific religion. In other words, not being a religious Christian (which is certainly what the Founders had in mind when they wrote about “religion” with no other qualification) may never be considered a just reason for not permitting someone to run for public office or, if elected, to serve. But here we have the inverse of that idea: someone who is being considered for public office whom many would bar because she does hold specific religious beliefs. When Senator Diane Feinstein turned to face Judge Barrett in 2017 at the latter’s confirmation hearing for her seat on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and observed that “dogma lives loudly within you,” she did not mean it as a compliment. Nor did anyone miss the point.

I was very impressed by an essay I read this last week by Meir Soloveitchik, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel on Central Park West in Manhattan. (Click here to read it too.) In it, the author—whose writing I’ve long admired—argues that religious affiliation has been deemed not to bar any citizen from holding public office, including judgeships, since the founding of the republic. In this regard, he cites the 1790 letter George Washington wrote to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in which he wrote that in the American republic citizens of all faiths would be granted the “immunities of citizenship,” including, obviously, the right to serve as public officials. And he—Soloveitchik, not Washington—concludes that it should be considered both morally and legally wrong to disqualify a nominee to the Court a priori because of the perception that that person is possessed of even fervent religious faith.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis of Washington’s letter rings true to me. But not invalidating someone merely because of her or his religious beliefs does not invalidate the actual question of an individual’s worthiness for the Supreme Court. Indeed, the whole point of having these hearings in the Senate in the first place is precisely to determine Judge Barrett’s suitability for the job. In my opinion, however, the question of whether she should be confirmed should be a answered primarily with reference to the degree to which she is prepared to commit herself unambiguously and wholly to upholding the Constitution and is prepared openly and no less unequivocally to say that she will never allow her religious beliefs to lead her into decisions that, for all she personally may feel them justified, run counter to her own interpretation of the Constitution. In other words, her confirmation hearings should be about the likelihood that she will adjudicate the cases brought before her in accordance with the Constitution, and that she will do so even if doing so runs counter to her own Christian values. To disqualify her for consideration because she cannot commit to upholding the law even when it runs counter to her personal beliefs would be wholly legitimate in my mind. To disqualify her because she is passionate about her religious beliefs or because of the specific nature of those beliefs, would not only be wrong, but would be a denial of the basic freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.


Thursday, October 8, 2020

Bad/Good Karma

Even the President’s fiercest critics were able—at least for the most part—to choke out at least some version of a get-well wish when the positive results of his COVID test were announced. But in most cases it didn’t take long for the writer (or speaker) to get to the real point.

There was Joe Biden’s wish for a “swift and successful” recovery for the President, followed by his acerbic observation that, of course, he wasn’t at all surprised that the President fell ill since he failed to follow the most elemental rules for fending off infection. Then there was the New York Times’ “Get Well, Mr. President” lead editorial in last Sunday’s paper, a wish the Editorial Board then felt the need to justify in twelve different ways lest anyone think they were motivated merely by sympathy for a sick person infected with a potentially deadly virus. Even better, at least in my opinion, was Bret Stephen’s column in Tuesday’s paper. (I admire Stephens and read his columns with great enthusiasm and interest, so I mention him in this context merely to illustrate a point.) He began by using a quote from John Donne (“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankinde”) to explain his wish that the President have a “full and speedy recovery,” then, lest anyone think he actually had any actual sympathy for the actual patient, went on to justify his get-well wishes in as many ways as he could think of (including the remarkable thought that we should wish the President well because, should he die, Mike Pence would make an even worse President). Stephens’ wrap-up line said it all. We should wish the President well, he wrote, “because it’s the right thing to do.” I’d just love having someone visit me in the hospital—poo poo poo—and tell me they had come to wish me a speedy recovery “because it’s the right thing to do.” Hah!

As far as I can see, however, there lies a single concept at the core both of all the editorial pieces I read and all the late-night TV hosts’ hilarious comments regarding the President’s illness: the concept of karma. What goes around comes around. You reap what you sow. At least in the end, you get what you deserve. At the end of the meal you prepare, you eat your own just deserts!

The concept of karma derives from the Hindu notion of rebirth after death and in that context means that the circumstances of your next life will be a function of the way you have conducted yourself in this and previous lives. Most non-Hindus will find the concept of endless reincarnation at least unlikely, but the underlying principle that—one way or the other—you eventually get what you deserve remains resonant with the public. I’d certainly like to believe it myself! The President mocked his own advisors who called for the nation to wear face masks in public. The President made a public display of the degree to which he refused socially to distance himself from others. The President repeatedly encouraged people not to take the possibility of infection with the novel coronavirus too very seriously, including at White House receptions hosted by the President himself. And so the universe finally took matters into its own hands and baked the man the cake he surely earned.  The universe, according to this line of thought, does not like being mocked and has no problem addressing the issue forcefully and, if necessary, virally.

The President’s comment the other day that his infection was a kind of “blessing in disguise” would work well with this line of thinking if his point had been that now, having experienced the terror of infection and the relief of recovery, he had learned to take the pandemic very seriously and was encouraging precisely the correct kind of behavior that the experts feel could go miles towards reining this crisis in. But that isn’t at all what he meant.

You don’t have to embrace Hinduism to seize the concept here. A famous verse from Proverbs (22:8) reads “Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster.” That sounds clear enough. But the prophet Hosea is even clearer: “You have sown wickedness,” he says to his wayward countrymen, “and now you shall reap evil.” Lady Wisdom herself steps forward in the Book of Proverbs and sums the whole concept up in three Hebrew words: v’yokhlu mi-p’ri darkam, she declares: In this life, you eat the fruit of the trees you plant along the way. Much later on, the first-century Sage Hillel would offer his own version in a much-quoted lesson from Pirkei Avot (2:6). Seeing a human skull floating on the water of a nearby stream, Hillel addressed the skull directly: “Because you drowned someone else, you yourself have now been drowned. But not to worry—the people who drowned you will eventually be drowned themselves.” That’s how it works in the world, Hillel was teaching. You harvest what you plant. You reap what you sow. You eat the cake you bake. You become what you make yourself into. You don’t always get what you want…but you always—at least eventually—get what you deserve.

Arguing to the contrary are all those people who smoke for decades and don’t end up with any of the various diseases associated with smoking cigarettes. And what about the righteous who suffer grievously in the course of their lives—if karma is such a thing, then why doesn’t the universe grant them the boons they deserve for living decently and behaving justly? And the corollary question also bears asking: if those who sow badness reap the disastrous consequences of self-made bad karma, then why does there seem to be now obvious correlation between moral bearing and wealth or, even more to the point, between moral bearing and good health? If karma is a thing, then how can decent people ever meet bitter, miserable ends? Maybe the Hindus are right that this only works in the very long run.

It’s a bit amusing to be pondering these thoughts with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so close in the rearview mirror: if one single idea underlies both holidays, it is that human beings are judged with respect to their ethical bearing, moral rectitude and fortitude, and commitment to justice and decency…and then, if found worthy, are granted another year of life suffused with God’s blessings. We sing it out with great gusto (or did in a pre-pandemic world), but we certainly don’t take it to the point of really thinking that the people who die in any given year were personally responsible for their own demises because of the bad karma they brought personally to their own life stories!

In the end, the President didn’t get COVID because of bad karma or because the universe wished to make an example out of him. He tested positive because he failed to observe the most elemental rules of safe conduct in this pandemic age we are living through and ended up hoist with his own petard.

When the psalmist wrote, “I was a lad and now have become old, yet I have never seen a righteous person abandoned or the child of such a person begging for bread,” he was giving into the same urge to believe that we are the authors of our own karma and then either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences in the context of our lifetimes. That line, familiar to all traditionally minded Jewish people because it concludes the Grace after Meals, is surely the most famous expression of the idea in the context of Jewish liturgy. Less well known—although invariably observed by myself—is the custom, also quite old, of reciting those words sotto voce, thereby nodding to their supreme logic at the same time we accept as obvious the fact that they are not literally true.

In the end, we are the masters of our destiny and fragile, brittle things that suffer in all sorts of ways that we have specifically not brought upon ourselves. Our own tradition lives with that paradox, with that discrepancy between what we believe and what we know. We say that the fate of all is written up in the great Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and the judgment sealed on Yom Kippur—but we also know that people die between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which should be impossible if their verdicts are only made final on Yom Kippur!

In the end, we live our lives seeking to control our own destiny through the creation of good karma and submitting to the will of God and knowing that in the fragility of human life inheres the arbitrariness of our personal destinies. Still, why tempt fate? If wearing a face mask is responsible behavior and socially distancing myself from others is the sign of decency and conscientiousness, then I will do those things to keep myself and others safe. I won’t say no to good karma. But I also drop my voice at the end of Birkat Hamazon lest I hear myself saying something that sounds vaguely pious but which is ultimately not a truth I can actually discern in the world.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

What One Person Can Do

I was intending this week to write about Tuesday’s presidential debate, but then I had the idea to write in a different vein entirely. I actually do have a lot to say about the debate and what its general tenor says about the state of our nation. But as we make our way through these days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot—which is to say between the day on which we own up freely and prayerfully to our own ethical shortcomings and the festival devoted to the formal acknowledgement of the fragility of the human condition and its ephemeral nature—in the course of these specific days, it struck me as a far better use of this space to invite you all to join me in looking at a specific individual, no less brittle and human than the rest of us, who nonetheless had it in him to live up to the image in God in which all are created. Why look down when we can look up?

Some of you may have noticed the story in the paper the other day about a thirteen-year-old Nigerian boy named Omar Farouk who lives in the northwestern Nigerian state of Kano and who had the misfortune to be overheard when, in the context of an argument with a friend, apparently spoke disrespectfully about God. Someone overheard him and made a report to the police, after which the boy was arrested, tried in a Muslim court of Sharia law, found guilty, and sentenced to ten years at menial labor in a local jail. (Nigerian law apparently countenances the existence of this parallel legal system and permits it actually to execute people convicted of capital offenses.) Nor can anyone accuse the Islamic court of being inconsistent: that same day that young Omar was sentenced, the court also sentenced a young musician of twenty-two named Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to death for having committed the same crime. So they must have considered that they were letting the boy off easy by only putting him in prison for the next decade of his life. And all this despite the fact that the Nigerian Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

I also noticed the story.  And then, pausing only long enough to be amazed that I, who have read so much about the Shoah and other instances of genocide, can still be surprised how harsh and cruel people can be, I turned the page and went back to reading about the dozen other disasters reported on that day and allowed the boy’s fate to fade quickly into the background. And I say that as someone who abhors the concept of blasphemy and who tries (mostly successfully) to avoid taking God’s name in vain. On the other hand, lots was going on. California was on fire. The Breanna Taylor grand jury decision had just been released. COVID numbers in New York were (and are) slowly rising. So a boy I never heard of living in a place I also never heard of was treated harshly in a way that no child should ever encounter. What was I going to do about that?

So that’s the difference between people who talk the talk and people like Piotr Cywinski who walk the walk. You’ve probably never heard of him. I also hadn’t, but I probably should have since he is the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and so a man charged with the preservation of the physical remains of a place of such unparalleled horror that even those words themselves seem inadequate. (For more about Piotr Cywinski, click here. For more about the museum he heads, click here.)

Like myself, Cywinski also read in the paper about Omar Farouk’s trial, conviction, and sentencing. And also like myself, Cywinski has no specific connection—or any connection—to Nigeria at all, let alone to the trial of one specific child in Kano State, a place to which he obviously also has no connection. It is true that Cywinski welcomed the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum in 2018, at which time the Buhari toured the site and spoke movingly about the experience. (For the official Nigerian government press release regarding President Buhari’s visit, click here.) But other than that one single meeting, there was no ongoing connection between the two. And yet Cywinski saw in their chance encounter a crack in the harsh escutcheon of a mostly uncaring world and the concomitant opportunity to shine some light through it into the darkness.

And so he sat down and wrote a letter to the President of Nigeria, a man whose visit to Auschwitz lasted, so the press release mentioned above, precisely one hour and ten minutes. And in that letter he asked the President to intercede on the lad’s behalf, writing as follows, “As the director of the Auschwitz Memorial, that commemorates the victims and preserves the remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, where children were imprisoned and murdered, I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence for humanity. Regardless of what [Omar] said, he cannot be treated as fully aware and responsible, given his age. He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities, and stigmatized physically, emotionally, and educationally for the rest of his life.”

So far, so good. But then he made an exceptional offer: as the master of a place in which countless children were murdered, he offered personally to go to Nigeria for the sake of a single child and serve a month of the boy’s sentence…and, at the same, time, to sign up another 119 adults from around the world to do the same thing so that the child’s 120-month sentence would be served by adults far more able to withstand the deprivations and menial labor of prison life than any child could or should.  Who these other 119 people are, Cywinski hasn’t said. Just that they exist and that there were far more than just 119 people ready to sign up and travel to Nigeria if the President would permit this actually to happen.

This would not be a popular decision for the Nigerian President to make. A mob of angry citizens took matters into its own hands the other day and burnt Yahaya Sharif’s home to the ground. Young Omar’s own mother had to flee from a similar mob intent on punishing her for having raised a blasphemer. Mobs in Nigeria have also killed individuals merely accused of blasphemy without waiting for anything as time-consuming as an actual trial.

And yet…whatever President Buhari’s decision finally is, the notion that the director of the Auschwitz memorial would offer to leave his home, his family, his workplace, and his nation voluntarily to accept incarceration in a Nigerian prison to spare a child he hasn’t ever met and of whom he only heard the other week when his sentence was announced—that is precisely the kind of gesture that gives true meaning to the old rabbinic notions that there are people who can acquire a portion in the World to Come with a single gesture…and that the possibility of bringing healing and repair to the world is not solely in the hands of saints and heroes, but also in the hands of ordinary people possessed of eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that cannot bear harshness and cruelty at all…and particularly, perhaps, when directed towards a child. Piotr Cywinski’s gesture is an illustration of just how profound a lesson a teacher possessed of the courage to do good in the world can teach merely by leading by example. Yesh adam she-koneh et olamo b’shaah achat. There are those who struggle for years and years to justify their place on earth…and others who do precisely that in as long as it takes to write a letter and make it public.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Rest In Peace, RBG

As I suspect it did all Americans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death took me by surprise. I knew she wasn’t in good health, of course: that much was public knowledge. But I didn’t understand how close to the end she was; perhaps she herself also didn’t. But regardless of who knew what and when they knew it, her passing constitutes a major loss for the Court and for the nation. In many ways, she exemplified the Jewish ideal of a life devoted fully and wholly to the pursuit of justice. For Jewish Americans, therefore, her loss was, if not more consequential than for other citizens, then at least more personal.

I will say, however, that I was surprised by the announcement that Justice Ginsburg’s body would lie in state at not one but two locations: for two days at the Supreme Court itself and then for a third day at the U.S. Capitol (where she will become the first woman ever to be awarded that posthumous honor).

Obviously, these are both huge honors that not everybody gets. And that’s really to say the very least: since 1852, for example, when Senator Henry Clay’s body was put on display in the Capitol, the honor of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda has only been accorded to thirty-six individuals, including twelve U.S. Presidents and four Unknown Soldiers. (The honor is automatically offered to deceased Presidents and former Presidents, but has to be accepted by the family of the deceased—which is why the bodies neither of Harry S. Truman nor of Richard Nixon lay in state in the Rotunda.) Otherwise, the honor is on offer solely by congressional resolution or, if that is not practically possible, then by unanimous approval by the congressional leadership. And then there is also the slightly lesser honor of “lying in honor,” as opposed to “lying in state,” a distinction with, as far as I can see, only two specific differences other than in name: the bodies of people who lie in state are guarded by an honor guard of five, each representing a specific branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, while the bodies of people who lie in honor are guarded by officers of the U.S. Capitol Police Force; and those who lie in state, like Justice Ginsburg, are laid out upon a catafalque originally constructed for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, while those who lie in honor are set out on alternate biers. For the record, Justice Ginsburg will not be the first woman at all to have her body on display in the Capitol; that honor already went to Rosa Parks. But Rosa Parks lay in honor, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg will lie in state. In any event, Justice Ginsburg will certainly be the first Jewish American to lie in state at the Capitol. And she will only be the second Supreme Court Justice offered that posthumous tribute, the other being William Howard Taft who was also a former President when he died in 1930. (She will therefore be the only Supreme Court Justice who wasn’t also a former President to be awarded the honor.)

The whole idea of delaying burial by putting the body of a deceased individual (even inside a casket) on display for days and days could not run more counter to Jewish tradition, which calls for a speedy burial followed by a week of mourning. And how much the more so when Yom Kippur, which will end the shiva week no matter how much or little of it has happened, is only days away. When the actual burial will take place has not been made public, only that Justice Ginsburg will be interred “next week” at Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband Martin, an Army veteran. (She will thus become the fourteenth Supreme Court justice to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, joining, among others, Earl Warren, William Rehnquist, President Taft, and Warren Burger.)

That she personally chose not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery didn’t surprise me—that die was cast when Justice Ginsburg’s late husband was buried there in 2010—but also stirred up some strange feelings in me, which have now installed themselves next to my feelings about the whole “lying in state” thing. Of course, these matters are themselves screen-issues that serve merely as the outer face of the inner question they mask: the degree to which the Jews of the United States are essentially Jewish Americans (whose bodies lie in state if they earn the right and who should more than reasonably agree if they earn the great honor of burial at Arlington) or American Jews (whose funerals should be scheduled for as soon as possible after they die and who should then be laid to rest in Jewish cemeteries among the other men and women of the House of Israel).

Is there a level of public service at which the good individuals do somehow frees them from the obligation to bow to the traditions of their own people? Queen Esther agreed to spend her days—and all of them, not just the ones told about in the book that bears her name—she agreed to spend her life as the wife of a Persian emperor and we endlessly valorize her courage, her daring, and her decisive pluck in the face of a looming catastrophe that she herself could possibly have avoided entirely but which would have surely resulted in the annihilation of Persian Jewry. Surely, we’re not going to carp about whether or not she had a kosher kitchen installed in the palace or a mikveh! But is the analogy truly apt? Justice Ginsburg was not, after all, set in place by kismet to rescue the Jews of America from some latter-day Haman! Still, she did find her remarkable way onto the nation’s highest court, where she devoted her entire career to the pursuit of justice, equity, and fairness. And she brought only renown to the Jewish community, who looked on her as an example of someone who rose to her position of great power not by hiding her Jewishness or dissembling in its regard, let alone by denying it, but by speaking openly and proudly of herself as a Jewish woman. She wasn’t exactly an American Esther, but in her own way she paved the path forward for American Jews—and particularly for American Jewish women—to think of no level of public service as beyond their station or beyond their grasp.

Back in 1988, I admired Joseph Lieberman intensely for his refusal to campaign on Shabbat when campaigning to represent Connecticut in the Senate. But when he himself moved away from that position in 2000 to become Al Gore’s running mate, I found myself unable to respect him less. Sometimes, you can control the moment and sometimes the moment controls you!

I suppose the expected response for a rabbi would be to decry the fact that Justice Ginsburg’s body will be put on public display for three long days until she is finally laid to rest in a place that is, at the same time, our nation’s most revered cemetery and a non-Jewish place of burial. And, at least on some level, I do feel that way and wish that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s final appearance in this world had been in keeping with the very Jewish tradition regarding which she so often spoke warmly and, no doubt, wholly sincerely. But I am also—and I say this fully aware of the paradox in my feelings—I also feel enormously proud to think of her casket resting on the Lincoln catafalque in the most august setting America has on offer and, yes, to think of her finding her final resting place among the greatest political, juridical, and military leaders of our nation.

One of the prices we pay for maintaining the integrity of our beliefs is having to endure the discrepancy, illogic, and paradox that come from sincerely holding beliefs that do not fit at all well together. Are there people the various components of whose worldviews are so well integrated that they simply harbor no mutually-contradictory or -incompatible beliefs? I suppose there might be, but I myself am not among them. And so, at the same time I am repulsed by the whole notion of delaying a Jewish person’s burial so that his or her remains can be put on display for admirers to admire and for viewers to view, I am also filled with pride at the various posthumous honors paid to Justice Ginsburg and I find myself able to mourn her passing without any ambivalence at all. She was a giant of the law and, at the same time, a Jewish American who exemplified the finest American and Jewish values. May her memory be a blessing for us all. And may she rest in peace.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah 5781

 King Sisyphus lives on in most people’s minds because of the punishment in Hell he was condemned endlessly to endure, but there’s also a back story worth considering. Sisyphus was king of Corinth (in his day called Ephyra), but he was not a very worthy regent. Stingy and dishonest, Homer features him incurring Zeus’s wrath particularly by inviting guests to his palace and then robbing and killing them. He also plotted to kill his own brother, which plot involved the seduction of his own niece. You get the picture. Not a nice guy! But the best part of the story, at least in my opinion, features Sisyphus in a hand-to-hand struggle with Death—personified in the myth as the god Thanatos—whom he actually vanquishes so completely that no one on earth can die for as long as Thanatos is under his control. For the Olympians, that is the last straw. And so we finally see Sisyphus sent by Zeus to Tartarus, the Greeks’ version of Hell, where he is condemned to spend all eternity rolling a huge bolder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom just before he gets to the crest. Over and over. Forever. And not only never succeeding, but—in my opinion, far worse—knowing full well he won’t ever succeed. I’ll paste in a picture of Sisyphus and his rock from an ancient Greek urn to help you get the picture even more clearly.

And so King Sisyphus became famous as the patron saint of pointless endeavor, of interminable striving to achieve an unattainable goal, of unending, permanent frustration. I remember reading Albert Camus’ book,
The Myth of Sisyphus, back in college—and finding the author’s suggestion that we are all Sisyphus as we spend the days of our lives trying, to speak in Camus’ own terms, trying to find a way around the absurdity that inheres in all human endeavor. I didn’t much like Camus’ book back then and I suspect I’d like it even less now. (I don’t think I’ve ever actually enjoyed anything of Camus’ that I’ve read, The Stranger and The Plague most definitely included.) But there is something about Sisyphus and his horrible fate that even to this day frames the way I think about the High Holidays and particularly Rosh Hashanah.

It would be easy to describe the work of the holiday season as essentially Sisyphean in nature. We live out our lives against the annual return of these penitential Days of Awe when we are bidden to seek God’s forgiveness for our moral missteps and ethical errors. We do our best, obviously. Yet we never get it quite right, never behave quite as we ourselves think decent and right. As a result, there’s something of Sisyphus’s fate in the way we approach the holiday season and its endless prayers for forgiveness from sin but without ever quite finding the inner strength to obviate the necessary to seek God’s mercy at all by comporting ourselves well in the first place. To speak in Sisyphean terms, we push and we push our personal boulders up to the top of our personal hills…but then Elul comes around the following year and we’re suddenly back at the bottom of the hill. With the boulder. I follow the logic in that line of thinking. But it’s never seemed that way to me.

Life is full of uncompleted and uncompletable tasks. We read the Torah in our synagogues according to an annual lectionary cycle that never ends: when we get to the end of Deuteronomy, we simple roll the scroll back to Genesis and start reading again. The liturgy we recite daily alters slightly as we make our way through the year, but not too dramatically or even all that noticeably; we say our prayers morning after morning and wrap up at the end of the book, but then we when we return to synagogue the morning after that and open the book to the same opening set of benedictions that opened the service the previous day. I remember someone once telling me that cleaning up the house before your kids move out is like shoveling the driveway while it’s still snowing: a pointless undertaking you’re going have to redo anyway and might as well not bother with until then anyway. But this isn’t like that at all, not really. Eventually, it does stop snowing. Eventually, your kids really do strike out on their own. But no matter how much energy you expend studying Torah, you don’t ever get to the end. You’re never done. You learn more and more, but all you really learn—presuming your own intellectual integrity—is how much more you have to learn and how very little you’ve actually accomplished. For some reason, though, that aspect of Torah study inspires me more than it depresses me. And so it is with these holidays now almost upon us. It would be simple to find it frustrating, bordering on pointless, to recite this year the same prayers for forgiveness and divine clemency we’ve recited for all the years of our lives, none of us having successfully obviated the need to bother with all that praying by actually living lives free of transgression, misstep, or sin.

I know how Sisyphus must have felt. And yet…I can’t quite bring myself to consider the High Holiday season as the Jewish version of Tartarus. Every time I open the Torah, even after all these years, I find new insights, new lessons I hadn’t noticed before, new puzzles I hadn’t noticed before and find myself eager to solve. Daily prayer makes me feel vigorous and refreshed, not bored or cynical. And coming to shul on Rosh Hashanah to begin the whole penitential season again does not make me feel failed or doomed, but alive with the possibility of growth, of insight, and of transformation. In other words, to describe our annual festivals as Sisyphean because we’re still pushing the same boulder up the same hill is to miss a crucial point here: that the specific experience of pushing our specific Jewish boulder up our specific Jewish hill is itself far more satisfying than frustrating. (To say the same thing in other words, these holidays are far more process- than goal-oriented.) For me personally, and I suspect for many others, the holiday season reminds us of our potential for growth, even late in life, as it invites us to contemplate the possibility of growing into a finer iteration of ourselves no matter how many holiday seasons we’ve all lived through.

No one would tell an athlete that it’s pointless to run around the same track day after day because the track will still be there the next day. Indeed, the point of exercise is not that the track be ran around or that the weights be lifted, but that the person running the laps or lifting the weights become stronger and healthier through the process. And that too is how I think of our holidays: as an opportunity to become morally and spiritually stronger through the set of ancient rituals about to be undertaken by Jewish people across the world, not as an endless series of tasks that never get done despite our best efforts.

So, the short answer is that, no, I don’t find our holiday labors Sisyphean, stultifying, or absurd. Just the opposite, actually: as a human being ever eager to grow intellectually, morally, spiritually, and ethically, I welcome the chance to push my boulder up to the top of the peak once again fully aware that the point is not that the boulder be moved through my efforts, but that I myself be moved…to a new place, to a new set of personal goals, to a new set of possibilities. Sisyphus lives on as the symbol of tedium; in my life, the High Holiday season lives on, year after year, as the embodiment of the possibility of growth. And I don’t find that tedious at all. Nor should anyone!



Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Lies Beneath Our Feet

 At a dig about four or five blocks from our apartment in Jerusalem, archeologists have unearthed the remains of a First Temple-period palace that appears to have been built shortly after the Assyrian siege of the city in the time of King Hezekiah, which is to say about 2,700 years ago. (For the full Times of Israel story, click here.)  In some ways, this is something that happens all the time in Israel, where archeologists are constantly finding traces of the past buried deep in the earth. I’ve written about some of those discoveries in this space several times, in fact. (To review some of what I’ve had to say in that regard, click here and here.) But in the context of Elul, the month of the Jewish year devoted to an entirely different kind of archeology (see below), I found this remarkable discovery not only to be interesting, but moving and meaningful on a spiritual level as well. It’s that latter lesson I’d like to share with you all this week.

The interesting part is easy to explain. Our Jerusalem home is a normal apartment in a regular building surrounded by other buildings and a huge garden promenade. Because it is, after all, Jerusalem, everybody knows—at least passively—that the piece of land our building occupies has been home to countless generations of Jerusalemites before us. But then a discovery like this comes along—and, really, the site is not even a ten minute walk from our home—to remind us that there were Jewish people living in our neighborhood, not just a hundred or even several hundred years ago, but twenty-seven centuries ago. And, of course, that thought brings on its own set of questions. What did my ancient neighbors look like? How did they dress? What did they eat? Would I be able to understand their Hebrew? Did they travel to the Temple by descending into the huge valley that separates our neighborhood, called Arnona, from the Old City and then climbing up on the ridge on the other side? Or did they follow the route the no. 78 bus still takes along the western side of the valley into the city center? Would these people have recognized me as one of them? And, more to the point, how would they even have understood that question?

For Americans, of course, the 8th century BCE is almost unfathomably far back in the past. (In New York, we award landmark status to buildings built in the 18th century and somehow still standing.) Nor is the story of the Assyrian assault against the capital of Hezekiah’s kingdom one of those biblical stories that has retained some measure of currency among educated, literate Americans. But for Jerusalemites, the year the neighbors down the block built their huge house overlooking the Old City is the year of a siege that everybody—not nobody—recalls at least having once learned about in school. As noted, the biblical story has a lot of holes in it, and not least of all because it remains unclear why the Assyrians ultimately chose to withdraw rather than moving on to seize the city. Did Sennacharib simply need his troops more urgently elsewhere? Or did the huge ransom Hezekiah paid—three (or eight) hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold, a talent being about 130 lbs.—did the ransom do the trick? And then there’s a third explanation in the biblical account of how God spared the city by sending an angel to finish off 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one single evening. The truth presumably lies somewhere between all those ideas and theories, but the bottom line is that King Hezekiah died in his early fifties in about 687 BCE without ever having to relinquish control of his capital city or his palace.

So the reason the siege was lifted is unclear. But that Jerusalem was besieged until the siege somehow lifted seems incontrovertible. And that siege seems to have been the context for someone—some wealthy citizen, perhaps even a member of the royal house—choosing to resettle outside the walls of the city and build a home on a verdant ridge that then as now looks over the valley directly at the Temple Mount and which now is about where our Jerusalem synagogue gathers on Tisha Be’av to chant the Book of Lamentations on the anniversary of the day about 120 years after the Assyrians went home on which the city actually was destroyed and its temple razed. And that is only appropriate since the same archeologists who found the remnants of the house are convinced that it was during that final siege of the city by the Babylonians (who in the meantime had taken over the role of dominant force in the Middle East from the Assyrians) that this palatial structure was finally destroyed.

I’ll paste in here a picture of one of the capitals they found, but what speaks the most directly to me is the thought that this palace—bearing mute testimony to the precise era in which the earliest version of Judaism was developed—that this magnificent home was there just beneath the surface of land along which Joan and I have walked countless times without knowing what lay just beneath our feet.

As I’ve written many times before, Elul is our month of introspection and self-analysis. For some reason, I always start by thinking about the past and wondering where it could possibly have gone to. The young tree is somewhere inside the mature one, its inmost rings deriving from the earliest stages of its existence. But is that how it works on the level of individual human beings as well? Or on the broader level of national identity? The palace from the time of King Hezekiah was there all along, supporting the present from beneath—but without making its own presence known, without intruding on the present, without forcing itself on the generation now occupying the space its original builders chose to build on. For two and a half millennia, it was just there.  But now that we’ve found it, how much the richer we are! Knowing that in the time of the kings of Judah, there were building crews putting up palatial homes in our neighborhood reminds me that the past does not have to be remain buried, that knowing what lies beneath the surface can lead to an enriched sense of one’s place in the world, to an intensified understanding of one’s identity, possibly even to an enhanced sense of destiny as the contemplation of the formerly unknown past suggests the possibility of a heretofore unimagined future as well.

As I make my way forward through Elul, I find myself wondering what lies beneath my feet. What part of my past is providing me with my place in the world without making its presence known or felt. What version of the younger me is resting just behind the visible surface of my life and influencing decisions I feel that I’m making independent of outside influences.  What historical relic known to none and whose presence is not even sensed by myself…what relic of my past or my family’s is there nonetheless. And how much richer my sense of self would be—and how much more focused and balanced—if I could only find the courage to dig beneath my own feet to see what lies beneath the soil upon which I stand as I move forward through the days of my life. The palace was there all along, of course. But now that archeologists have found it…now follows the possibility of listening to what it has to say and allowing ourselves to grow through that specific encounter with the past. I wish that for myself in these waning weeks of Elul. And I wish it for all of you as well!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Elul Conventions

Like most of you, I suspect, I’ve spent last week and this week floating in and out of the nightly Democratic and Republican convention coverage on television. I suppose political conventions are always three- or four-day-long infomercials pitched primarily at undecided voters, but somehow seeing it all (or mostly all) unfold on Zoom has made that feel even more acutely to be the case. Still, what was I expecting? Conventions are hardly the context in which politicians candidly and openly discuss their shortcomings, weaknesses, failures, or moral flaws. (That never actually happens, of course, at least not in public, let alone on television—only it somehow doesn’t happen even more acutely in the context of these massive quadrennial conventions.)

Just as I suppose also does every other American, I really do understand that it’s all about selling the product. It’s just hard for me to watch night after night without feeling just a bit like Diogenes the Cynic. One of the greatest Greek philosophers, he was as peculiar a man as they come. He declined a salary for his teaching and preferred instead to beg for coins in the marketplace. He chose not to live in a normal home, but preferred to sleep at night in a broken human-sized ceramic jug owned by the local Temple of the goddess Cybele and provided to him as the most basic lodging imaginable. He owned one single item, a clay bowl…until he realized he could scoop his food up with his hand and eat it that way, whereupon he smashed his bowl as a way of divesting himself of what he now saw as a superfluous possession. His most famous stunt—one among many—was wandering around Athens in full daylight with a lit torch in his hands. People would see him behaving so oddly and ask what he was doing, which was the whole point: he would then look at them and explain that he was out searching for an honest man. After two weeks of watching convention television, I know exactly how he felt!

Maybe it’s Elul. Of all the months of the Jewish year, none is as special—to me personally, at least—as Elul. Admittedly, it’s not an obvious choice. Elul has no holidays, no special days at all. For rabbis of all stripes, myself absolutely included, it is a time of frenzied writing and rewriting as the horrible prospect of having to stand up on Rosh Hashanah and not have the most compelling, interesting, and uplifting sermon possible ready to go looms large on the terror-horizon. On top of all that, I’ve almost always lived in places where it is beastly hot and humid towards the end of August, thereby making even something as normally refreshing as going for a walk to clear your mind and re-organize your thoughts a minor misery. And yet, despite it all, Elul is still my absolute favorite month, the month I look forward to all year. And that is for one reason only, really: because Elul is our national month of introspection, of self-scrutiny, of the kind of soul-searching that comes naturally to almost none and yet which is at the heart of the way in which traditional Jews prepare for the holiday season.

It is not a particularly pleasant undertaking, this effort to look deep within. And yet it can also be satisfying and inspiring, even encouraging. Indeed, the very thought that we are not prisoners held in place by the various negative character traits we’ve developed over the decades is the single most invigorating idea I grapple with each year.

Like most people, I claim to hate that feeling of being mired in a slough of my own making. But that’s only what I say to the world—that I hate feeling trapped in my own life—but the truth is that, like most people, I actually revel in that sense of being trapped, of living in a maze I’m not quite bright enough to exit, of having no real choice left in life but to accept who I am and to be the man I’ve become. After all, if I have no choice but to play with the cards that I’ve somehow dealt myself over the years, then why not just accept myself as I am and be done with it? Nothing is more satisfying, after all, than feeling optionless, therefore noble and rational in accepting how things are without whining or wasting endless amounts of time trying to alter immutable reality.

And then Elul comes along and says—wordlessly, in that weird out-of-language way that time speaks to its prisoners, which is everybody—Elul comes and informs us without saying a word that that isn’t really how things are, that we actually aren’t slaves at all. And that Elul-based realization is the lens through which I’ve been watching these last weeks’ political conventions.

The point of the conventions is to make you want to vote for a specific party’s candidate this November. That’s why they promote their nominees so aggressively: to inspire the undecided to decide for their ticket by depicting its occupants as all the things they party-czars have concluded undecided voters want the most to see in their leaders. Interestingly for parties so completely different in terms of their approaches to most things, these qualities are not all that different. And so are both candidates for president depicted by their promoters as having basically the same set of virtues: courage, compassion, insight, unbounded patriotism, and integrity. But, for all I also esteem all those things, what Elul makes me want to see in a candidate more than any of the above is a deep, abiding sense of humility.

I want a candidate to speak about the COVID-pandemic and say, look, I’m not a physician, let alone a trained epidemiologist. I’m not a scientist or a researcher. I’m a politician. And therefore I admit openly that I don’t really have any idea how to deal with this nightmare that has come upon us. But I will find people who actually are experts, who actually are trained professionals, who actually do have some ideas about how best to tackle the challenges that the pandemic has thrust upon us…and I will follow their advice. I will listen carefully. I’ll ask all the questions I can think of, but when a consensus emerges among our nation’s brightest and most qualified scientists about how to deal with this national catastrophe that has already taken so many from us, that consensus will be the basis for national policy.

My mother used to tell me that the sign of being a truly smart person is knowing what you don’t know. I doubt the teenaged-me knew what she was talking about. Or maybe I did on some level, but I doubt I understood just how profound a point my Mom was actually making. In the fifth act of As You Like It, when Duke Frederick’s court jester, a man named Touchstone, recalls the old saying according to which “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” he is saying more or less the same truth that my mother wanted me to embrace: that the key to wisdom is understanding how little, not how much, you know of the world and then acting accordingly.

Politicians are neither economists nor historians, neither scientists nor anthropologists. And that is precisely why the key quality necessary to negotiate the various straits in which the nation finds itself is humility. To understand the racial politics of our day requires a profound understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history…with a good background in the culture of race as it evolved even earlier on as the nation’s founders were creating the Constitution.  To understand the Middle East in all of its complexity requires not merely understanding the byzantine process that eventually led to the imperialist nations of Europe—and foremost among them France and the U.K.—carving up the Levant and creating make-believe nations that suited no one’s interest but their own, but a serious grounding in ancient history as well and, at that, in the various events of late antiquity of which the ethnic reality of today’s Middle East is reflection and development. To understand the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming—on the weather, on the sea level, on the quality of air and water, and on the potential for world-wide cataclysm within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren—to understand anything at all about the environment requires not only a background in geology, climatology, and physics, but—even more importantly—an overall understanding of how the various branches of scientific inquiry come together to create a cogent picture of what the next century might bring to our beleaguered planet.

No one—with no exceptions at all—is a master of all those domains, let alone of all those I’ve just mentioned and all the others I haven’t. Politicians, as noted, are neither scientists nor scholars. Perhaps that’s how things have to be. (That the German chancellor actually does have a doctorate in chemistry merely makes her the exception that proves the rule. But even Mrs. Merkel doesn’t have training in any of the other disciplines mentioned above.) Nothing feels easier than “just” saying that and moving on to moan about something else. But Elul teaches us differently. Knowing what you don’t know is real knowledge. Wisdom always rests on a foundation of profound humility. Promoting yourself as possessed of a meaningful plan for the future at the same time you seem unable honestly to evaluate your own lack of training in more or less every single one of the disciplines necessary to develop a game plan rooted in reason—that is just bluster and self-promotion. Elul doesn’t teach us to evaluate people who function without any awareness of their own limitations unkindly. But to lead the nation, the would-be leader needs to face the future with self-effacing humility and with a commitment to seek counsel from people who actually are entitled to their opinions. Nothing more! But, if a candidate wants my personal vote in November, also nothing less!