Wednesday, April 27, 2016

O Ḥevruta O Mituta

A number of interesting scientific studies were reported on in the press this week.

It was just this week, for example, that Nicholas Bakalar wrote in the Times about a new study published in the journal Nutrients that proved definitively that overeating, and particularly the over-consumption of fats, leads to drowsiness. The study, undertaken at the University of Adelaide in Australia, considered 1,800 Australian men and took into account many different kinds of data (including the men’s eating patterns, their weight-gain and -loss statistics, their status as smokers or non-smokers, their predisposition to suffer from depression, their waist sizes, and their level of physical activity) to come to its riveting conclusion. The results were impressive by any yardstick, but they were particularly satisfying for me personally because, as it happens, I have been conducting a similar experiment over the last forty or so years and, although my test group was considerably smaller, my data—all of it, particularly when Joan wasn’t home, empirically gathered by myself—has led me to precisely the same conclusion as the one to which their study led them. I feel so validated! And I knew I wanted to share that with you as soon as I read about their study!  Vivat experimentiam scientia!
But the study that I wish to write to you about, published in the scientific journal Heart (the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society) and also reported on in this week’s Times, is more surprising and far more provocative. This was a dramatically larger undertaking, one that analyzed data culled from the medical records of over 180,000 men and women. It did not, however, involve the testing or observation of actual patients, but was rather a kind of giant meta-study that drew from twenty-three different anterior studies of patients in an attempt to answer a question that I never thought even to wonder about: whether social isolation and/or a personal sense of loneliness could possibly be a meaningful predictor of future coronary disease or of a future stroke.

Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing exactly. In terms of the study, the former term was used to denote adults who have few social relationships or friendships, while the latter was used to describe people who are basically unsatisfied and unhappy with the relationships they do have even if they are not few in number. There is something inherently quirky about a study like this because, there being no scientific way to test for either loneliness or a sense of being isolated, the patients under study were labelled with either or both those terms solely by virtue of their own self-definition: if patients qualified themselves as being among the lonely or the isolated, then they were considered to belong to that group for the purposes of the study. Their medical histories, on the other hand, were a matter of medical record: the researchers took no note of anecdotal evidence and depended instead solely on medical records or death certificates for the data regarding the subjects’ histories of heart attacks and strokes. So it was by its very nature a kind of a hybrid built on analyzable scientific data and patients’ own sense of their place in the world.

There was no divergence in the findings regarding men and women. That much was interesting without being particularly surprising, but the results were, at least to me personally, beyond arresting: self-defining as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%. The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.  It is true, I should note, that the researchers attached a caveat to the effect that it was a review of observational studies and did not scientifically establish a medically-verifiable link between loneliness or isolation on the one hand, and heart disease or stroke on the other. But the data speaks for itself in a matter like this so clearly that it’s hard—at least for a non-scientist like myself—to imagine that it could be a mere coincidence that patients across the board—men and women, old and young, healthy and infirm—who described themselves as lonely or socially isolated were dramatically more likely to suffer from heart disease, and that this increased susceptibility seemed unrelated to any other obvious factors that might otherwise have put them in some different category regarding their likelihood for future heart problems or stroke.

The researchers themselves saw it the same way. In fact, the opening line of the introduction to the study sums up in a particularly stark way the way the scientists who conducted the study came eventually to understand their own data: “Adults who have few social contacts (i.e., who are socially isolated) or feel unhappy about their social relationship (i.e., who are lonely),” they wrote starkly, “are at increased risk of premature mortality.” And not only is that risk real, they went on to note formally, but it is statistically and scientifically comparable with other, far more widely accepted predictors of future heart disease, notably carrying too much weight and engaging in too little physical activity. So that sounds pretty definitive to me: feeling friendless or forlorn is not only a heavy burden to shoulder emotionally and psychologically, but has profound potential implications for an individual’s heart health and longevity. There’s a folk saying preserved and labelled as such in the tractate of the Talmud we’ve just finished learning at Shelter Rock that reads o chavruta o mituta, which means “either friendship or death.” Patrick Henry may have felt that living not-free was the social or moral equivalent of being a dead person, but our ancients had a more practical, apparently more medically correct notion: that living friend-free and without the support of a warm, sustaining community is not merely comparable to not being alive at all, it actually leads, or can lead, to an early demise.

And that thought brings me to take issue with one of the most famous passages in the Haggadah. As you know, I’m usually a great one for maintaining a sense of ongoing fidelity to the traditional text of our prayers. In Tzur Yisrael, we maintained almost all the most traditional phraseology, altering the received text here and there only to accommodate realities which seemed strange or even wrong to ignore. And I feel the same way about the Haggadah—attempts to “fix” this or that passage so as to make it conform more obviously to modern sensitivities always seem to fall flat when I consider them closely and the traditional text is almost always the one that speaks to me the most clearly.

But arguing for a traditionalist approach to liturgy doesn’t mean that I invariably agree with what I read. And I find myself at odds with one of our most famous passages this week: the story of the four sons who relate to their parents’ efforts to celebrate Passover so differently. I know most seder-attendees know the passage by heart, but let’s revisit it just for a moment. The wise lad is the one who asks all the right questions and he is appropriately rewarded for his curiosity with warm approval. No issue there! The simple lad is the one who takes note of the festival but can barely bring himself to formulate a coherent question. His mah zot (“what is all this?”) couldn’t be less eloquent, but he too is somehow rewarded for even his minor level of inquisitiveness with an answer simple enough for anyone at anyone to understand. No issue there either! Moving along, even the child who lacks the wherewithal to ask any sort of question is treated kindly…but the contrary son, the rasha, who excludes himself from the group is not to be treated kindly at all. Instead, he to be dealt with contemptuously and taunted with the possibility that, having taken himself out of the group in his own day, he would surely not have been taken from Egypt had he been a slave there in ancient times. And this, from a book that makes a special point of saying that all Jewish people are called upon to imagine that they themselves were slaves in the land of Egypt and would still be there had God not brought them forth with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. All…but apparently not him!

That seems harsh to me. The lad is, after all, present at his parents’ seder table. He observes what’s going on around him. His question, particularly in the Hebrew, isn’t that different from the wise son’s…only he hasn’t come to the point just yet at which he feels that he belongs to the group. He’s present yet absent, involved yet aloof, included yet excluded, in yet out. In other words, he’s standing on the wrong side of the threshold looking in, and tradition has chosen to focus on the spot he’s standing on rather than the direction he’s looking in. In a perfect world of my own making, such a young person would be spoken to gently rather than harshly, kindly rather than with the kind of acidulous contempt that will only make him feel even less a part of the group he is being mocked for not feeling part of…or not enough part of. To shove him even further away seems cruel or, at the very least, counterproductive…and now I see that my sentiments are mirrored by scientific research: the strength of community is not only satisfying spiritually, but the sense of belonging that comes along with membership in any traditional Jewish community is actually something that can lead to a long life. To turn a child away because he’s not there yet is thus, at least potentially, to shorten his life. To turn any people away merely because they feel disengaged is, to say the least, counterproductive: the correct response to people who feel disengaged is to engage them as though their very lives depend on it, which they apparently do. O chavruta, o mituta indeed!

People occasionally tell me that they’re not sure about retaining their affiliation with the synagogue after their children are done with the Religious School and they’ve made all the bar- and bat-mitzvahs they’re going to make. There are several different ways that this thought is couched when it’s put to me, but my response is always the same: what you get by belonging to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists is that you get to belong to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists. The twin specters of loneliness and isolation will never haunt those who belong because the traditional Jewish community is designed specifically to guarantee that no one ever needs to feel abandoned or deserted. And because, ultimately, friendship is at the core of community and serves as its defining feature: family is blood, but community is amity. And that, it turns out, is not just important because it leads to warm, fuzzy feelings about the universe. It’s important because finding your place in a community of caring friends is one of the things that staves of heart attacks, angina, and strokes. I might have said that from the bimah in the past as a kind of rhetorical flourish intended poetically to tout the advantages of affiliation. But who knew it was scientifically true as well?  It turns out my mother was right—you really do learn something each and every day!

At Shelter Rock, we foster communal friendship as best we can and that, more than any specific service, is what we offer our membership: the chance to belong to the kind of thick community in which people are allied by a sense of familiarity and emotional intimacy, and in which no one ever needs to feel bereft or forsaken. I suppose that truth visits us all in different ways at different times of the year, but I myself feel it particularly in the course of our holidays when we gather in the great sanctuary of the synagogue for Yizkor and as a community find the courage and strength to face our own mortality by staring down the past and the future as one extended, caring family of friends. Yizkor is about our lost loved ones, obviously. But it’s also about the living, the people who have come to remember and to mourn. The antidote for the kind of sadness associated with grievous loss is not gain of any sort, but the strength of community and the support engendered by the sustaining relationships community by its nature fosters. The discovery that being part of that rich circle of friends and neighbors also apparently staves off heart disease, thus extended our lives meaningfully, only makes me feel prouder of my membership in our little shtetl, our village in which none needs to feel lonely and in which despondency brought on by social isolation is the fate of no one at all who wishes it otherwise.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach 2016

One of the mysteries of life I have yet to unravel is how I can read the same passage over and over and over, year after year, and still see things that I’ve never noticed before or thought carefully about. I had just such an experience the other day as I was preparing myself to lead the seder meals at our home on Friday and Saturday nights and thought I would share it with you, and what I now understand the passage in question to be saying, as my pre-Pesach message for this year.
If there’s one piece of our Jewish liturgical heritage I know well, it’s the Haggadah. I’m not sure I could write it all out from memory, but I surely could manage big chunks of it more or less correctly…and with good reason: I’ve been leading seders at our home for thirty-five years and listening to my father lead the seder in my parents’ home for more than a quarter century before that. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t paying that much attention when I was three. But by the time I was seven or eight, I was totally captivated. Admittedly, I was an unusual child in that regard. (I heard that! But I was a normal child in other ways, or normalish.) But it somehow spoke to me, the Haggadah and the seder and the whole Jewish thing as the eight-year-old me perceived it. And although I surely didn’t set out to memorize it, I did internalize it…to the point at which its cadences and vocabulary have not only become part of how I speak but also of how I see and understand the world.

The passage I want to write about today is probably one of the best known, one of the ones everybody sort of knows by heart: the opening paragraph of the part of the Magid section of the Haggadah that leads directly into the children’s famous four questions. Ha laḥma anya di akhalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim, we begin, lifting the plate of matzah aloft for all to say: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.” And then we go on to sing out the twin declarations that lend Pesach its air of generosity and relational inclusivity. The first one, the easy one, translates simply as “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That seems straightforward enough, but the second one is another story entirely. In the Haggadah we use, the red-and-yellow ones that linger on from my childhood (and which seem somehow to multiply in our Pesach cupboard from year to year), the second declaration is translated “All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.” But that’s not at all accurate, it suddenly strikes me. In fact, it’s not even close. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.

The second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, harks back to ancient times and was an invitation to any who had somehow not made their own plans to join some other family in their home and to share in that family’s paschal sacrifice. In ancient times, the hallmark of Passover observance was the korban pesach, the pascal lamb which was the sole sacrifice in ancient times eaten entirely by its sponsors. Nor was that a mere perk of the festival: one of the very first commandments of the Torah is precisely that every Israelite must eat the meat of the paschal lamb (or, at least theoretically, the paschal kid) on the first night of Pesach. And the lead-up is part of the mitzvah as well: the twelfth chapter of Exodus (which readers who were in synagogue a week ago for Shabbat Hachodesh heard read aloud as the maftir reading) offers a sense of the whole procedure: once the new moon of Nisan is sighted, the Israelites must make sure they are ready to select an unblemished yearling lamb on the tenth of the month, forming groups large enough to guarantee the feasibility of consuming the entire animal on the evening of Passover. The lamb or kid must then be kept safe until the fourteenth day of the Nisan, Erev Pesach, at which time it is to be slaughtered. It must then be flame-roasted. Care must be taken to make sure none of the animal’s bones is broken in the slaughtering or cooking process. And its flesh must then be eaten as soon as night falls and the festival formally commences.

Some of the instructions given the ancients on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt did not become rituals of subsequent Jewish life, but others did: in our day, we may not come to our seder tables with sandals on our feet and walking sticks in our hands, but the ancients did indeed eat their roast paschal lamb with matzah and maror, just as the Torah commands, and just as do we too…by making our Hillel sandwiches of matzah and horse radish and eating it just before the seder meal is served, the precise point in the evening when the korban pesach would have been served and eaten in Temple times.

But the whole scriptural insistence that people organize in advance into groups, called ḥavurot, was also part of the ritual in ancient times. More to the point, the law that the korban pesach may only be slaughtered specifically for those who have signed on as members of the ḥavurah sponsoring the sacrifice. And although a korban pesach that is sponsored by a sole individual (presumably one with a very robust appetite, a point Maimonides makes specifically in his code) is theoretically kosher, it is not the desired practice.

When seen in this light, the second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, is an example of Jewish people deviating from the strict interpretation of the law to do the right thing by the lonely shlimazel who somehow didn’t sign on to any ḥavurah, who didn’t have a family to have Pesach with (why else would such a person have been wandering around in the street waiting to hear the declaration sung out from within someone else’s home?), who somehow failed utterly to prepare for one of the most important festival meals, perhaps even the most important, and who therefore is reduced to hoping against hope that someone will offer a last-minute invitation to join in their korban. It’s not allowed, obviously. The law on that point is entirely clear, and it’s more or less the simple meaning of Scripture anyway: to participate, you had to be part of the specific ḥavurah on whose behalf the lamb was slaughtered. The Torah returns to this idea several times, in fact, thereby promoting it as a key concept. And yet the liturgist chooses simply to ignore that part of things and instead to imagine a Jewish family seated around their table and, blithely ignoring the letter of the law, simply inviting anyone who has no other place to go to participate in their seder, to ingest the requisite olive’s bulk of meat from their own korban, to be part of their family group.

How can I never have seen that? And yet I never have, never even noticed that there was an issue. Now, of course, I can’t turn away, can’t not see it staring up at me and challenging me with its slightly disorienting message that generosity, hospitality, kindness, and compassion must always be allowed to divert our attention from legal details that risk leading us in the precise opposite direction. Nor should this sound like permission to demonstrate allegiance to the covenant by ignoring its terms: embedded in kol di-tz’rikh is the liturgist’s unspoken supposition that, because God is the moral ground of the world, the proper observance of God’s law may by definition never lead us to behave cruelly or uncharitably to the needy or to feeling justified, let alone virtuous, in excluding those in our midst who have no place to go unless we find a place for them at our table. So, by turning away from a detail, we may well end up embracing the deeper, more profound principle of which the rule in question was intended all along to function as a mere elaboration, thus somehow enabling us to reach for a more profound understanding of what, at the end of the day, it actually means to live lives bound in covenant with God. Clearly, this is a principle easily abused. But that only makes it even more incumbent upon us to focus all religious observance through the triple prism of morality, generosity of spirit, and kindness.

This concept rests behind many issues facing our world as we prepare for Pesach this year, but one comes the most readily to mind. There are a million reasons to close our doors to refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. We don’t know who these people are, not really. There appears to be no ironclad way to vet them either, not one that we can be absolutely certain will weed out potential terrorists, radicals, or jihadists. These people have no experience as citizens of a democracy such as our own and may not naturally subscribe to the principles that undergird our republic. For all these reasons, it makes sense a hundred times over just to shut the gate and tell them to go home. Or anywhere they wish…as long as it’s not here. Nor is it at all fair or reasonable that we take more immigrants than the wealthy Gulf states like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or huge Islamic nations like Indonesia or Malaysia.

But I find myself unsure of myself.  Kol di-tz’rikh reminds me that I only exist at all because my grandparents and great-grandparents left Poland and came here decades before Polish Jewry was annihilated. In their day, there was no quota system. Instead, would-be immigrants simply set sail for Ellis Island, where they were cleared for entry once it was determined that they were in good (or good enough) health. And it reminds me, not of the mere 908 people on the St. Louis in 1939—or not just of them, but even more so of the countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who could have been saved if the nations that were prepared to go to war with Germany had been concomitantly ready to open their gates to those whom the Germans were attempting to exterminate. That goes for our nation, of course. But it applies to Canada as well, home of the famous “none is too many” policy regarding Jewish refugees. And it surely applies to the U.K, which nation, even when the dimensions of the disaster befalling the Jews of Europe were patently obvious to all, still kept the gates to British Palestine shut tight. I understand that we can’t go back to just letting in anyone who shows up and doesn’t seem too sick. But surely there must be some way to welcome people fleeing for their lives to these shores, to make them feel welcome, to teach them what it means to be an American, to embrace them as potential friends. These people are predisposed to be hostile to Israel, our most reliable ally in their own region of the world, because that venom has been pumped into them by their leaders for decades. But even that does not have to be the last word on the topic—if we, and I mean by “we” our American Jewish community—reach out warmly and genuinely, then we can save these people’s lives and make them into worthy citizens of our great land…and help them understand that the right of Israel to exist is no different than the right of any state to thrive in its own place and to provide the kind of safe haven for its own people that they themselves are seeking in the lands of their would-be dispersion. Nor is this a matter solely of political theory: five hundred would-be asylum-seekers drowned in the sea the other day on their way to anywhere at all that would take them in. A few months ago, eight hundred would-be refugees drowned off the coast of Libya. To nod to the tragedy and the look away because the deaths of terrified children at sea is technically not our problem to solve requires too radical a re-definition of the words “our problem” for me to countenance this close to hearing myself piously intone the kol di-tz’rikh on Friday and Saturday evenings.

There are other issues too to consider in this regard. I’ll write about them in future letters, both on the macro level and on the micro, communal level. But the bottom line is that devotion to the law becomes more fetishistic than productive when the details are allowed to trump the principles that undergird them and give them their stature as sacred law in the first place. At the end of the day, the kol di-tz’rikh isn’t there to prompt us to obsess about kitniyot, but to allow the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom inspire us truly to be raḥmanim b’nei raḥmanim, individuals whose worldview is fully suffused with compassion and generosity, and whose Pesach observance celebrates freedom…not just from slavery, but also from harshness, cruelty, and apathy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about minor topics like politics, ethics, racism, and the unity of God, so I thought that the time really has come for me to address something of true moment: the burning question of whether Jews should or should not eat beans on Pesach. Nor am I alone in feeling this way about the matter: just last December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly—the most authoritative body of halakhic decisors in our Conservative movement—found the time to approve not one but two different responsa regarding the subject, one by David Golinkin and the other co-authored by Amy Levin and Avram I. Reisner. I don’t know Amy Levin personally, but I’ve known Rabbis Golinkin and Reisner for far longer than I didn’t know them…and I know how seriously they both take even the most minute questions that arise in Jewish law. I imagine Rabbi Levin feels the same way. And so do I: knowing full well that God lives in the details and always eager to feel the presence of the living God in my personal ambit, it seems—to say the least—counterproductive to avoid the very place where God is to be found the most perceptibly: in the details, including the most minute ones, of observance, of custom, and of law. Furthermore, as we all know (but sometimes act as though we didn’t), it isn’t actually possible to obey “the” law without obeying specific laws any more than it would be possible to speak in “language” without speaking in some specific tongue…and doing that requires familiarity with the rules that govern even the most apparently banal aspects of our everyday Jewish lives. And with that thought in mind, let’s bring on the beans.

And the rice as well. My grandmother would probably not have known the Hebrew word kitniyot, used generically by some speakers of Jewish American English to reference legumes of the specific variety that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally shun on Pesach, but she certainly would have known that Jews don’t eat rice on Passover. Or, at the very least, that Ashkenazic Jews don’t. (I doubt my grandma was much tuned into the distinctions of observance between different groups within the people Israel—for her and the rest of my family, “Jews” of the generic variety were the Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazic sort in more than plentiful evidence in her day in Brownsville. That there were other groups out there with their own ways and customs would, I imagine, have been known to her only in theory.) Nor would she have questioned the concept of not eating beans or rice on Pesach or been particularly impressed by the argument that there is something profoundly illogical about avoiding foods on Pesach that lack the capability, no matter how they are processed, of turning into chametz, the forbidden kind of leavened product the avoidance of which is the hallmark of traditional Pesach observance. Why would she have? Jews have hardly ever found illogic in and of itself to constitute a particularly vexatious stumbling block on the road to Jerusalem: we are, after all, a people that finds the act of sitting quietly and sewing to violate our conception of Sabbath rest, but not taking a three-mile trek through an ice storm to arrive in shul on a wintery Shabbos morning. So it’s illogical to avoid kitniyot on Pesach! So what?

I read both t’shuvot, both responsa, with great interest. They are of unequal length—Rabbi Golinkin’s effort is three time the length of Rabbi Reisner and Rabbi Levin’s—but come more or less to the same conclusion. Let me write about their argumentation first, though, and then I’ll tell you about their common conclusion and what I plan personally to do about it.

First of all, everybody notes forcefully that, from a strictly legal standpoint, only five kinds of grain—wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye—are in play at all at Pesach. It is only from one of those five grains, for example, that kosher matzah can be made for use on the festival. And it is only those five grains that, if not kept totally dry and then baked within minutes of being wet down as part of the kneading process, can turn into chametz, the generic name for leavened foodstuffs forbidden to the Israelites and their descendants on Passover. The Yerushalmi (that is, the Palestinian Talmud created in the Land of Israel in the course of the first five or so centuries of the Common Era) imagines this notion to be rooted in science and explains that the rationale behind the ruling is thus one of simple fact: these are the only grains that possess the ability to become chametz and it is for that sole reason that the prohibition applies solely to them. Whether that is true or not hardly matters, but what does count is that this restriction of the prohibition to bread made of the above-mentioned five grains is not merely a feature of talmudic reasoning, faulty or not, but a basic tenet of Jewish law it applies to Passover that appears in every major law code, including Maimonides’ magisterial Mishneh Torah (from which I teach on Saturday afternoons at the meal we serve between Minchah and Maariv), the Arbaah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (whose Torah commentary usually inspires my remarks at Shelter Rock on Friday evenings), and the Shulḥan Arukh itself, the bridge work created by Joseph Caro from his earlier commentary on Jacob ben Asher’s code that serves as the connector between medieval and modern Jewish law. So the matter sounds done and decided. There is, at any rate, no actual opposition in any code with which I am familiar to the idea that those five grains only can become chametz.

But nothing is ever that simple. And already in medieval times, different authors wrote positively about the concept of prohibiting kitniyot as well as “real” chametz on Passover. All try to come up with logical reasons to support the prohibition. Some note that the point was simply utilitarian: it was customary in one author’s day to make porridge out of rice or beans and to mix in wheat flour as a thickening agent, and since there was no way to tell just from looking at the porridge if that was or wasn’t the case, the more secure plan seemed simply to avoid that kind of porridge entirely. Others point out that it was actually customary in some locales to make bread out of pea meal or ground beans or rice…and it simply felt unseemly to have bread on the table during Passover even if it wasn’t chametz in the strict sense of the word. 

There’s something to consider there too, I think: it’s true that the prohibition has to do with leavened grain and not with bread per se, but it’s also true that, in a world without cellophane and plastic wrap, and also without pre-printed ingredient labels and brand names, it sounds like a poor idea to permit breadstuffs that no one can distinguish easily from “real” bread of the forbidden variety. And even if it were possible to tell what kind of flour was used to make a loaf of bread merely by looking at it, there is still something unseemly, even perhaps vulgar, about placing loaves of bread on the table during Passover even if they technically aren’t of the prohibited variety.

And from there we can go on to other authorities who either do or don’t feel that the prohibition is well-grounded or useful, but who felt simply that as custom as well-established as the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach cannot possibly be abrogated by one single rabbi but would have to be annulled, if it ever were to be, by the rabbinate of the day speaking as one. Since that never happened (nor, given the fractiousness and one-upmanship that characterizes rabbinic discourse in every setting and day, will it ever happen), we have no choice but to hold onto a widespread custom that has characterized Jewish life for centuries upon centuries.  That too sounds right to me.  Plus, we have a well-accepted and widely-invoked principle that minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, that the customs of our ancestors have been entrusted to us for safekeeping, and may therefore not be abandoned merely because they seem to have outlived their usefulness.

In the other column, we have all the reasons adduced by the authors of the new CJLS responsa mentioned above for abandoning the prohibition anyway, none of which strikes me as particularly convincing. Yes, vegetarians eat a lot of beans and so the prohibition of kitniyot rests unevenly on the shoulders of observant Jewish people taken as an aggregate. And it is probably also true that permitting kitniyot would permit people—or at least people who like to cook and who are good at it—to avoid pre-packaged Passover foods often sold to the public in the weeks before the festival at unconscionably high prices. But do we really think that people who buy packages of pre-prepared Pesach lasagna are going to decide to forego the expense merely because they could make a fava bean casserole for themselves instead? What if they like lasagna?
Moving down the list of reasons to permit, I agree that it surely is a fact—and an incontrovertible one at that—that many who hold tightly onto this and many analogous prohibitions do so not out of principle or logic but merely out of a basic fear of innovation when matters are ritual are concerned. Surely, innovation is a good thing…and particularly when it is principled and based on unassailable logic. And yet…part of the whole Pesach experience is the sense of keeping faith with the past, of recreating the past in the present, of inviting the spirits of those long gone from this earth into our homes as we do as they did, as we recreate the world they knew from inside their homes without caring that the world outside the walls of those homes has changed almost unrecognizably in the intervening centuries.

And it’s that specific notion, that the outside changes endlessly, but the inside—the warm, nurturing, endlessly spiritually rich home life of the men and women of the House of Israel—remains inviolate and unchanging, that speaks the most clearly and compellingly to me. The bottom line, then, is that I find the arguments for abandoning the custom unconvincing and unpersuasive, and so I am not planning to eat beans or rice—or any kitniyot—this Pesach.

On the other hand, I am pleased to remind you it has never been our custom to avoid kitniyot derivatives like oil made from legumes nor to avoid eating on dishes on which kitniyot have been served. Nor would anyone at all conversant with the halakhah ever argue that people who eat kitniyot on Pesach are transgressing any sort of biblical or rabbinic commandment.  There is no question that kitniyot are irrationally prohibited by Ashkenazic custom. But I embrace my role as the descendant of my own ancestors and find myself strangely uninterested in breaking with their pattern of observance merely to suit my own convenience.

As noted, I will not be eating rice this Pesach. But neither will I pretend that this CJLS-approved responsum does not grant legitimacy to the arguments against retaining the prohibition. Many of my readers know that I tend to find the maintenance of traditional mores and habits to constitute its own reward. To have a home in which my own grandmother would not feel comfortable eating on Pesach does not suit me at all! And neither does the fact that all my ancestors, including my parent and grandparents, are long gone from this world seem that crucial a datum to consider in this regard. So they’re gone…that only makes it illogical to maintain their standard of observance, not foolish. And, as noted, I can live with a bit of illogic if that’s what it takes to keep faith with all those countless ancestors whose presence I feel weighing down on me at Yizkor and whom I really would like, were it only possible, to invite in for a meal…and particularly for a seder.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Tale of Two Jonathans

I wrote last week about the degree to which Donald Trump reminded me of Andrew Jackson when I heard him (Trump, not Jackson) speak at AIPAC a few weeks ago. Today, I’d like to further hone the skill of finding traces of the imagined future in the recollected past with respect to Jonathan Edwards, a far less well-known personality but in his own way just as pivotal a one. I hadn’t thought of him or read any of his work in a long time. And then something J.J. Goldberg, of all people, said at the rabbis’ luncheon at AIPAC rang a distant bell with me, one it took me a few days to identify correctly.

J. J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, is not someone who immediately brings eighteenth-century Congregationalist clerics to mind. Nor did his topic at the luncheon, at which he shared the podium with Bret Stephens, formerly the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post and now a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, have anything to do with theology per se, Jewish or Christian. Instead, this being an AIPAC forum, he chose to speak about the error he believes we all make in assuming that the relatively unimpressive level of support for Israel we see among today’s Jewish college students is a function of their displeasure with this or that one of Israel’s policies. (Goldberg was speaking about college students, but the problem is hardly a feature solely of campus life: the Jewish blogosphere has long been grappling with the same issue as it applies across the board more broadly to our American Jewish community in general, Elliot Abram’s essay, “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” published earlier this week in the online magazine Mosaic only being the latest in a long series of essays on the topic, albeit a particularly interesting and intelligent one. But there have been many others too, some insightful, some provocative, some too partisan to be useful to any who don’t already share their authors’ opinions. If you are reading this electronically, click here to see what Abram had to say.)

Goldberg, however, was talking about Jews on campus. And his sense is that the responsibility, or at least the lion’s share of it, for declining levels of support for Israel among our young people rests with the older generation, their parents, who somehow expected them magically to embrace Zionism but who failed to create the context in which that kind of bedrock-level, gut-based solidarity with Israel takes root and, if properly watered, flourishes naturally. In other words, we—and I speak here as a member of my own generation—we have forgotten that the soil in which Jewish identification—and a sense of solidarity with other Jewish people and particularly with the Land of Israel—the sole soil in which that kind of commitment to personal identity flourishes is Judaism itself. The annual AIPAC Policy Conference is the largest annual gathering of Jewish people outside of Israel. Eighteen thousand delegates attended this year, and more than ten thousand of them were there because they were part of synagogue delegations, which is to say that they were there because their sense of personal responsibility for securing the future of the Jewish State is related directly to their devotion to their faith and its rituals and its festivals. But when our children suddenly find themselves in the overtly hostile environments that prevail in so many of our college campuses, settings in which anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism flourish because the administrators of those schools are concerned with every conceivable kind of prejudice except the kind directed against Jews, they lack the basic orientation towards Judaism itself that leads directly, and almost inexorably, to a deeply felt sense of dedication and personal responsibility for Jews everywhere…but particularly in Israel, where the Jewish population is regularly threatened with annihilation by large, powerful enemies like Iran. (That dismal description of our nation’s college campuses, by the way, is hardly my own observation but comes directly from the pen of Lawrence H. Summers, the president emeritus of Harvard University, writing in a blog on the Washington Post website. Click here and prepare to be seriously depressed.)

Bret Stephens agreed with most of these points, but it was J.J. Goldberg that made the stronger impression, at least on me personally, but arguing the point that, if we have failed to create a generation of millennials who feel personally aggressed against when the State of Israel is attacked, it isn’t because of whom the Prime Minister is at the moment or his party affiliation or any of his policies, but rather because we’ve failed to raise up a generation of Jews committed, not to Zionism, but to Judaism itself. In other words, both speakers—both possessed of dynamic, insightful intellects—were in easy agreement that what we’ve failed to do is to make the whole issue personal, to make it clear to the up-and-coming generation that this is not about Israel but about them, that enemies of Israel are their personal enemies, that we fool ourselves when we embrace the fantasy that we can make common cause with our enemies and not eventually be their victims anyway, that our behavior when the historical link between the People Israel and the Land of Israel is questioned or mocked is not a matter of personal political orientation, but part of a cosmic drama that has been unfolding since Israel stood at Sinai and accepted the burden of an eternal covenantal relationship with God on its recently enslaved shoulders.

And that brings me to Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps you can remember learning about him in eleventh grade. Perhaps not. By today’s standard, he lived a short life—born in 1703 and ordained (like myself) at age 24, he was a working clergyman for most his life, then president of the school that would eventually be called Princeton University for about five weeks before he died in 1758—but his influence was so great in his day that the great religious revival of his day, called The First Great Awakening by scholars of religion, can reasonably be said to be a national response to his preaching and writing(Other central figures were George Whitefield and Samuel Davies. But Edwards is the one whose works are still read.)

His most famous sermon, published in his day as an independent pamphlet and later in many collections of his writings, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” an elaborate midrash on the words le’eit tamut raglam (“their foot shall slip in due time”) taken from the Haazinu poem that appears in Deuteronomy almost at the very end of the Torah as Moses’s final effort to wax poetic before composing his final blessings and then climbing the mountain to his private death. It had been a while. I hadn’t really dipped into Edwards work since I read several of his sermons and his book the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue at Ramah Canada the summer I met Joan. But somehow it was the opening passage of that one sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that J.J. Goldberg’s remarks nevertheless awakened in me when I heard him speak at AIPAC.

Even though I doubt he could ever actually have met a Jewish person, Edwards begins by talking about the nature of the Jewish people. (The earliest mention of there being a Jew in Massachusetts, where Edwards lived for almost all of his adult life, dates back to 1649, but the first real Jewish communities in the Commonwealth were only established during the Revolutionary War decades after he died.) His understanding of Israel must therefore purely have been based on the Bible and on his intuitive sense of what it ever could mean to belong to God’s chosen people. On top of that, he obviously read his Scripture through the lens of Protestant Christianity. But he still got things pretty straight, particularly for someone of his time and place.

He begins by noting that the Jewish people, by virtue of the intimacy that inheres in its covenantal relationship with God, is always on the brink of destruction just “as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall.” (That is, after all, precisely what Scripture says in the verse Edwards chose as the title of his sermon.) Nor is this accidental or unearned: for Edwards, the natural situation of the Jewish people is precariousness itself. And then he moves forward with this idea that living on the edge of a sword is Israel’s natural condition, noting that Israel is “always exposed to sudden, unexpected destruction,” precisely because that kind of danger results from being the focus of God’s watchful gaze not unlike the way parents are always far more concerned with—and eager to respond to—their own children’s behavior than with other people’s. Nor will this precariousness always be the result of hostility on the part of others. Implied by the very nature of Jewishness is that the Jews “are liable to fall of themselves without being thrown down by the hand of another, just as he who walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.”  In other words, Edwards understands Israel to stand or slip, to thrive or decline, to flourish or perish, not primarily because of the machinations of others, including even Israel’s most violent, angriest foes, but because of their own inability to hew to the core concepts of Israelite faith, to embrace the commandments, to live lives of unremitting fealty to the terms of the covenant that binds them to God.

It only follows, then, that to prepare our young people to feel as personally and emotionally committed to the security and well-being of the Jewish state as their parents will have to involve commitment not to the Prime Minister of Israel, whoever he or she might be at any given moment, or to some leftist or rightist philosophy of political Zionism, but to Jewishness itself…and particularly to Judaism. By missing that point—and by deluding ourselves into thinking that we can transmit Jewish values without anchoring them in religion—we do our children (and, by extension, their children and their children’s children) a huge disservice.

Edwards, preaching in church, clearly understood the ancient Israelites to the be spiritual forebears of his own co-religionists far more meaningfully than of the world’s actual Jewish people. That much he makes clear as he moves forward with his remarks and it is there that we part company: for me, nothing could possibly be more axiomatic than the notion that today’s Jews are the spiritual descendants of their own ancestors. But before we part company on that point, Edward’s lesson is compelling, even to the point of being chastening. The world’s nations will be judged based on the way they relate to Israel. Individual Israelites need to accept the precariousness that inheres in membership in the House of Israel as their normal situation, together with all that suggests about the “real” nature of anti-Semitism. It is not possible to go to war with Israel without concomitantly going to war with the God of Israel…and any who forget that do so at their own peril. And that the ultimate weapon Jewish people have to protect themselves and their interests is to embrace the faith of their ancestors with all possible exactitude.

J.J. Goldberg said something like that at AIPAC and it inspired me to hear him say it. That it somehow brought to mind the words of a Puritan minister who lived more than 250 years ago probably says more about me than about either of these Jonathans, Goldberg or Edwards. But the notion that the way to secure future support for the State of Israel among the college-age offspring of the men and women of the House of Israel is to strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself—that notion resonates strongly with me and reminds me why it is I chose this particular path in life that I pursue…and why, even after all these years, I continue to think of my life in the pulpit as the m’lekhet ha-kodesh—the holy work—to which I was and continue to feel called personally.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Making America Great Again, Again

As a rabbi, I am barred by custom (and IRS regulation, in that I serve a not-for-profit charitable organization) from endorsing candidates for public office. This is something I scrupulously observe both because losing its tax-exempt status would be a catastrophe for Shelter Rock and also because I agree with the basic principle behind the rule and feel that a house of worship should indeed be above the political fray and thus able fully to welcome would-be worshipers and potential members of all political stripes and persuasion. That ability would be seriously compromised if it were overtly to be identified with one political party or with one specific candidate for office, and that’s why I think the rule is reasonable. But, all that being the case, I was all the more surprised last week when some responded to what I wrote about my experiences at AIPAC by asking if my words were a veiled effort publicly to endorse Donald Trump for office. To say the very least, that was not even remotely what I meant to say.

Nor is it what I said. What impressed me and impresses me still, on the other hand, was the way the man was able to command the full attention of the 18,000 people in the Staples Center in a way none of the other candidates—not John Kasich or Ted Cruz, but also, speaking frankly, also not Hillary Clinton—was able to manage. What he said, as noted, was bizarre—a strange pastiche of misinformation about the current administration’s record, childishly formulated insults directed openly and unambiguously at President Obama, and shameless pandering to the crowd…and all of that came to us lathered over with the kind of idiosyncratic strut and swagger that has come to be identified with the Trump campaign in general and in particular with the candidate’s oratory. It was not precisely an inspiring performance, but it was a riveting one. I wish you could all have been there to experience it with me. You might have found it horrifying, but you would surely also have found it arresting. Clearly, skill as a public speaker is not much of a qualification for national office. Some of history’s most horrific demagogues had that same ability to mesmerize with their oratory, after all. But so also have some of our greatest leaders. It’s a gift, to be sure. But it’s hardly a virtue.

Having said all that, I’d like to return to the question of Donald Trump’s candidacy this week and write about the slogan that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. “Make American Great Again!” isn’t an original Trumpism: Ronald Reagan used it to great success during the 1980 presidential campaign and others have used it since. For an amusing take-down of Trump’s claim to have authored the slogan, you can click here to see Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on the topic. But the slogan itself isn’t amusing at all, and for several reasons. Firstly, it seems to encapsulate the emotional/ideational platform on which vast numbers of Donald Trump’s supporters are standing and so deserves to be taken seriously by any who would explain the candidate’s success to date. Secondly, and perhaps even more to the point, the words “Make America Great Again!” seem to embody the candidate’s own sense of what his campaign is really about, the core concept regarding which the rest of the man’s rhetoric is mere elucidation and elaboration. And, finally, the slogan deserves our attention because its corollary assumptions—that American was once great but no longer is, that America can return to greatness by electing the right president, and that if Americans fail to restore their nation to its former glory then they will have no one to blame but themselves—are principles that could animate presidential policy and even Congressional legislation in the future in a way that could dramatically alter our sense of national purpose and our understanding of our own national destiny. And given even the possibility of a Trump administration, this is something all Americans should take seriously and thoughtfully.

The slogan itself may date back to 1979 or so, but the notion it encapsulates—that America must seize its greatness, not just hope for it—is dramatically older and has animated many different chapters in American history.  Nor is the underlying notion that even illegality should not be allowed to trump (sorry) the pursuit of our national destiny foreign to our national ethos: every single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was guilty of treason, yet we lionize them today as the fathers of our nation and consider their sedition not only virtuous but gloriously so. That may well be justified—as a patriot, I believe it is entirely justified—but thinking so puts us on relatively thin ice as we ponder the obvious question that that belief brings in its wake: how far from the secure terrain of decency and morality—and legality—may national leaders legitimately stray in pursuit of national destiny? That is the real question that should underlie our national response to much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Or perhaps we should ask that same question using even more pointed language by asking if, in the final analysis, anything at all can be deemed illegitimate or immoral if it brings us closer to national greatness? When people carp about the morality or legality of this or that remark that Trump has made regarding the policies he would pursue if elected, that is really the question that rests at the core of the matter. Surely, at least for the most part, his detractors feel that immoral or illegal deeds cannot be sanctioned even if they benefit the nation in other ways. But his supporters seem to feel, if I interpret their mood correctly, that by acting forcefully and unilaterally in our own national interests we simultaneously acquire the right not to care about whatever collateral damage to our nation’s reputation or moral standing in the world our actions could possibly bring about in their bold, buccaneer-style wake. That, to me is the core issue in play as the campaign—and particularly the campaign for the Republican nomination, unfolds.
The personality I’d like to discuss in this context, however, is not Donald Trump, but one of our greatest and worst presidents, Andrew Jackson. To most of us, he’s the man on the twenty-dollar bill. But to me he is the nineteenth century forerunner of the notion that no policy, no matter how harsh, illegal, or immoral, should be rejected if it serves our nation’s interests.

Our seventh president believed that our national destiny could not be pursued without enforcing a brutal policy of forced ethnic cleansing that would more or less rid the southeastern quadrant of our nation of its aboriginal inhabitants. And, indeed, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was first proposed a year earlier by Jackson himself and then signed into law by himself on May 28 of that year after it was passed both by the House and the Senate. To many, it must have sounded almost benign: the Indians, vastly outnumbered and widely considered morally and culturally inferior to the white citizenry of the states they inhabited, would be removed to lands further to the west where they could flourish unencumbered by the expectations or wishes of others. But that was not how things turned out and was probably never the real plan anyway as the notion of voluntary relocation soon gave way to a series of forced “relocations” of members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their own ancestral homelands to land west of the Mississippi then formally designated as Indian territory and today mostly located in Oklahoma. 

The name “Trail of Tears” eventually attached itself to the operation, and it was more than justified. The removal was by foot and wagon, obviously. Tens of thousands died. Even those who survived the trek westward suffered miserably from exposure, starvation, and disease. Existent treaties with most of the tribes affected were simply ignored. The cruelty of the operation was, in a world that had yet to experience the Nazis’ death marches, unimaginable and unprecedented.  When the Seminoles attempted to go to war with the federal government to prevent their banishment from Florida, a conflict known to historians as the Second Seminole War, the results were as bloody as they were predictable: the Seminoles lost. Thousands were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Those who stayed behind were forced onto reservations, but even that system didn’t last and the third and final Seminole War of 1855-1858 led to the eventual end of a meaningful Seminole presence in Florida. It was not our nation’s finest hour. Mostly, we ignore this part of our past: none of this is mentioned on the website detailing the accomplishments of our American presidents. (To take a look, click here.) It is, however, a cornerstone idea of the Broadway hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which won the Tony award for Best Musical Book in 2011, but in a peculiarly benign way that somehow identifies Jackson’s Indian policy with his desire to bring political power to the people by wresting it from the hands of the elite.

There’s lots more to say about Andrew Jackson. His so-called Bank War against the Second Bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve of its day, led directly to the Panic of 1837 that instigated a five-year depression that was probably the worst in our nation’s history before 1929. (Fortunately for Jackson, Martin Van Buren was well ensconced in the White House by the time things got truly grim and was thus obliged to bear the brunt of the national misery his predecessor’s policies had priorly induced.) But it was Jackson’s pursuit of what he perceived of as our nation’s destiny without regard to the treaties he had to break, the agreements he had to ignore, the misery he had to induce, or the deaths for which he had to bear ultimate responsibility—it’s that level of commitment to his personal vision of our nation’s greatness regardless of what the pursuit of that goal might entail that brings him to mind as I listen to Donald Trump promulgating many of his policies, and particularly regarding foreign affairs.

At the end of the Broadway show, the cast gathers to note that some hail Andrew Jackson as one of our greatest presidents but others damn him as the American Hitler. Those are strong terms, intended more to shock than to shed light on the man’s legacy. To compare Jackson to Hitler is as over-the-top as the parallel comparison to Trump that I’ve noticed lately on a dozen hostile websites. But what Jackson and Trump do have in common is their willingness to step over whatever boundaries it takes to pursue the greatness for which they perceived and perceive our nation to be destined. To argue that the greatness of our nation rests in its fidelity to the rule of law and to its willingness always to honor its commitments both to our allies and our citizenry would not impress either of them. But it impresses me…and when I think of America’s greatness, it is precisely in those terms that I think of it. Ours is a remarkable nation and I too believe that our nation is destined for true greatness. In my own conception, however, that greatness will be a function of the degree to which we remain true to the core values of our American republic, not the degree to which we are prepared to repudiate them to achieve some greater goal we see glittering off somewhere in the distance and cannot think of how to attain in any other way. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

AIPAC 2016

So there I was, settling in to listen (barring some huge surprises this summer and fall) to the future President of the United State speak at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., known to sports fans as the home of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals but the venue this week in which gathered more than seven hundred of my colleagues in the rabbinate and more than 17,000 other delegates for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, and wondering how I was ever going to succeed at describing this scene to you all. It’s a kind of a circus, the whole thing…and particularly the conference-wide plenary sessions. It’s not all talking, for one thing—and there are lots of infomercial-style presentations solely designed to remind the delegates just what an amazing place of accomplishment and potential Israel really is. Some of those presentations were truly touching—the two boys, one Arab and the other Jewish, who spoke to the convention about learning to be friends by playing baseball together; the poor girl born with no eyes who sang to the convention like an angel and reminded us all how powerful the artistic experience can be for young people seeking to find their place in the world; the paralyzed IDF veteran who demonstrated a new Israeli wheelchair capable of going down a flight of stairs without toppling over or endangering the person seated in it—and some of them less so. But the real point of the plenaries—as distinct from the countless sessions delegates sign up to attend and, obviously, other than the actual lobbying that goes on in the course of the delegates’ final day in Washington as all 535 voting members of Congress are visited by AIPAC delegates to press the case for maintaining the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and particularly as the ten-year strategic agreement, called the U.S.-Israel Memo of Understanding, comes up for renewal in 2018—the point of the plenary sessions was specifically to provide a venue for those vying for their parties’ presidential nominations this summer to speak clearly about their personal relationship to Israel and the kind of commitment level they feel regarding the special relationship between Israel and our nation.

Except for Bernie Sanders—who, to my mind at least, can’t conceivably have failed to understand the symbolic impact of being the only Jew among the final five to decline the invitation to speak in one of the plenaries—the finalists were all present: Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. For good measure, Paul Ryan—who I suppose must also harbor presidential aspirations focused on some future election—also came to call, as did Vice President Biden. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were present and spoke in dialogue together. Other speakers who impressed me were J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, and Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal columnist. But for all the others had lots to say—and I was particularly struck by Goldberg and Stephens, who addressed the rabbis’ and cantors’ luncheon—it was the presidential hopefuls upon whom the full glare of the spotlight shone.

To paint with broad strokes, they all stressed the same points. But not exactly. Mrs. Clinton openly mocked Donald Trump for his lack of foreign policy experience and invited the delegates to compare his record to hers. Interestingly, she also made a point of distancing herself from President Obama by remarking that one of the first things she will attend to after being elected is inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to be her welcome guest in the White House. Knowing she would be taking an unpopular stance, she bravely chose openly to speak about the reasons she backed the Iran deal. The crowd was respectful and attentive as she stressed the degree to which our nation under her leadership will lead the world in verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord and ignored the long-term implications of settling for a deal that covers only the next thirteen years. She lauded Israel for having elected a female prime minister decades ago…and got a good laugh by asking what exactly it could be that’s been keeping us Americans from following suit and electing a female president. And then she wished everyone a happy Purim too, her pronunciation (pure-rim) somehow adorable in its incorrectitude. But what was in a way the most interesting to me was the degree to which she didn’t even bother taking on Bernie Sanders or any of his policies, apparently not considering him her real opponent…or at least not in the senses that the future Republican nominee will be. (In that estimation, I suppose she is surely correct.)

As far as I could tell, John Kasich said nothing in his remarks that the other speakers didn’t all say. Bizarrely referencing himself as “the candidate with the deepest, most far-reaching foreign policy experience, he was either thinking solely of Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump (and thus setting the bar more than low to make his point)…or else it must have slipped his mind for the moment that Mrs. Clinton used to be the Secretary of State of the United States. Like his fellow Republicans in the mix, he spoke about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, about supporting Israel in the face of Palestinian hostility, and about his wish quickly to cancel the Iran accord. He was affable and eloquent; the crowd was polite and receptive.

And then we got to Donald Trump, who—at least for me personally—was the biggest surprise of the evening. I’ve heard many people speak in many different contexts, but I can’t recall any of them as having been mesmerizing. Trump was mesmerizing. He is not eloquent—certainly not in the same category of oratorical skill as, say, John Kasich or Mrs. Clinton—and there is a certain vulgar coarseness to his oratory even when he’s not insulting anyone in particular. But I’ve never heard a speaker able to hold the attention of that many thousands of listeners at once. When Ted Cruz was speaking (see below), people all around me were checking their email, talking to their neighbors, heading out to the restrooms, listening with all of one ear and some of the other. When Trump spoke, he had the full attention of every delegate I could see. That hardly makes him the best choice for president, but it was still remarkable to experience.

He’s a braggart, to be sure. (Mentioning that he sent Mayor Giuliani to Israel after 9/11 on his own jet was a nice touch. If he doesn’t end up as president, maybe he could just buy Air Force One and fly around the world in it anyway. And touting himself as the single living soul who knows more than anyone else—including, presumably John Kerry and President Obama—about the Iran deal generated some laughter, but it was far from clear to me that he was joking.) The rest of his remarks went to the heart of any number of matters, and the audience lapped it up. The responsibility for there not being peace between Israel and the Palestinians rests with the obstructionist Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem must be acknowledged as the capital of Israel. The United Nations is not a friend to democracy or freedom…and certainly not a friend of our nation or of Israel, and for that reason, he said, the United States under Trump’s leadership will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose any sort of agreement on Israel. The Iran deal, because it solely places limits on Iran’s military nuclear program for a certain number of years, put us all—and particularly Israel—in a “terrible, terrible situation.” The applause was thunderous.

So caustic and vituperative were Trump’s comments about President Obama that the AIPAC leadership felt the need publicly to apologize for them. Trump’s comments were insulting and I think many, myself included, were shocked that he would speak so disrespectfully about the President of the United States openly and without any apparent shame at all. But what was just as remarkable was the way the man had his finger on the pulse of the convention: it felt as though he somehow knew what to say to bring the audience to its feet again and again. His much-referenced neutrality regarding Israel and the Palestinians seems to have been completely dropped. His off-hand remark earlier the same day about having Israel pay for some part of the aid it receives (leaving unaddressed the question of whether that isn’t precisely what aid is: assistance you don’t have to pay for) was completely unreferenced in his remarks. The audience rose to its feet almost a dozen times in the course of his remarks. For those of us used to thinking of Donald Trump as a crass vulgarian, being present for Trump’s remarks was—to say the very least—a sobering experience. For someone like myself who keeps asking himself who exactly is voting for the man—and in such large numbers and why anyone would, it was instructive and more than a bit unnerving to see the man in action.

Trump was followed by Ted Cruz, who apparently wasn’t listening to Trump’s speech and so spent a serious amount of time lambasting him for his pledge of neutrality in the Middle East, a pledge Trump had more or less completely renounced moments earlier. His special twist on the Iran deal was to stress the connection he sees between that deal and the Munich Accord of 1938 that led to the Second World War and the Shoah. He mentioned Elie Wiesel by name, presumably to establish his own bona fides as someone who knows what the Holocaust entailed for its victims. And then, declaring that under his presidency, “the American people will stand together and say, ‘Never again means never again,” he more or less implied that a nuclear Iran will herald a new Holocaust…and that the Cruz administration will devote itself to preventing that from happening. He too was well received, although no one would describe him as mesmerizing. (I myself checked my email a few times while he was talking.) But he spoke passionately and clearly, intelligently too, and the audience was very respectful, rising to its feet for him too, and repeatedly.

So that was my trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference. I highly recommend the experience, including the day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, to all of you. It is a chance to become involved, to speak up and out, to join the ranks of people whose commitment to Israel is as practically-oriented as it is emotional or spiritual. Some have lately questioned AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship, but I saw no traces of any wavering in that regard during my time at the conference: AIPAC stands with the government of Israel, regardless of who leads it, and represents Israel’s best interests to our own elected officials whoever they may be. And for that reason alone, I’m proud to be a supporter! I detected no secret agenda in the mix of things at AIPAC, only satisfying evidence of the vibrancy of our American republic, a democracy in which the people have the right to assemble as they wish and to set forward their views to their elected officials precisely so that the latter may represent their constituencies faithfully as they legislate and govern our great nation.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Sorites Moment

Of the many childhood memories that have surfaced in these last weeks as the hundredth anniversary of my father’s birth came and went, one seems particularly trenchant to consider as this strangest of all presidential campaigns unfolds and we, unsure what to make of it all, look on and wonder only what might happen next.

“It’s impossible,” my dad once told the eleven- or twelve-year-old me, “to walk across a room.” Confused, I asked what he was talking about: obviously, you can walk across a room! How can you not? But no, my dad went on, you can’t. To cross a room widthwise, say, you must first walk through the first half of the space between two facing walls, and then—and only then—may you walk through the other half. But then, as you contemplate crossing the remaining half, it dawns on you that to do this successfully, you now again must cross the first half of what’s left of the room’s width, and then the second half. This you manage, and are now three-quarters of your way to the far wall. But to cross the remaining quarter, you must first traverse the first half of the remaining distance, and then you can cover the second half. But then, as you prepare to cross your final eighth…you realize that you must first cross the first half and only then can you cross the second half. You can all see, I’m sure, where this was going—even the boy-version of myself saw it eventually: no matter how much or how little ground is left to cover, you must first cross the first half and then the rest. So, theoretically, you cannot ever get to the far wall! And that, my father submitted, was why you can’t cross a room from one side to the other.
I was a clever lad, or I liked to think of myself as one, but this flummoxed me entirely. He was obviously wrong, wasn’t he? 

How could it possibly be impossible to cross a room on foot? I myself did it all the time! But what about his argument? Where was the flaw in it? I couldn’t find one, yet I also knew his premise was not only wrong, but silly, absurd. And that is where things stood until I finally got to college and learned that my father hadn’t made this up—or at least that others had made it up before him—and that there was a whole thing in philosophy called the sorites paradox. (The Greek word for “heap,” the word sorites correctly pronounced rhymes with “more tripe, please.”) First worked out by the unjustly obscure Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of Aristotle and who had a thing for paradoxes, the well-named sorites paradox is about the relationship between a grain of sand and a heap. A single grain of sand is obviously not a heap of sand. Nor are two grains side by side. Nor does it make sense to say that something as minuscule as a grain of sand could transform a non-heap into a heap. Still, if you slowly and methodically add grains of sand to the pile, at some point you do have a heap of sand.  And although that has to be true, it somehow also has to be not true, since its being true would imply the existence of a specific point at which a heap of sand would stop being a heap if you removed from it one single grain of sand…and that sounds ridiculous. How could removing a single grain of sand possibly ever change the status of a whole heap? How could an onlooker even tell it was missing?

I was reminded of both these versions of the paradox—I wisely omit the version that asks how the loss of a single hair can make a man bald—as I contemplated with dismay the whole controversy about the so-called Hitler salute that Donald Trump has been eliciting from his followers at some rallies as a kind of public pledge to vote for him on primary day.

Attempts to allay my ill ease have, at least so far, only been marginally successful. The long essay by Jessie Guy-Ryan published the other day on the Atlas Obscura website detailing the history of the salute (and referencing—and quoting at length—Hitler’s own explanation that, although the Italian fascists adopted it first, the salute had bona fide German roots that went back at least to the sixteenth century when the entire Diet of Worms used it, apparently spontaneously, to welcome Martin Luther into their midst) only provoked deeper anxiety in me. Nor did it calm me particularly to learn that that claim was apparently entirely bogus, as was too the Italians’ own insistence that the salute had its roots in ancient Rome. (Interested readers can consult Martin Winkler’s very interesting 2009 book, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology.) I suppose I should admit that I was slightly amused to read that the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance, written by one Francis J. Bellamy at the request of the then-popular Youth’s Companion magazine in 1892, eventually and for many years featured the exact same salute featuring the “right arm straight forward, angling slightly upward, fingers pointing directly ahead.” That Congress actually acted to end the possibility of America’s schoolchildren pledging allegiance to our flag using what by then was widely understood to be a Nazi gesture—the Flag Code was actually amended in December of 1942 to require that the Pledge be recited “with the right hand over the heart”—is, however, merely a historical detail that really only proves my basic premise: that by the middle of the twentieth century, the gesture in question was universally understood as a Nazi salute, not as a patriotic American one…much less a gesture of fealty to the Roman Empire. (If you’re reading this electronically, click here to see Guy-Ryan’s full essay.) 

That was certainly how Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist and self-defined “national socialist” who murdered seventy-seven people in 2011 (most of them children) in two separate attacks, understood it when he raised his arm in an Oslo courtroom last week to greet the public with the most overt non-verbal symbol of his own political philosophy he could manage silently.

On this side of the Atlantic, the whole brouhaha surrounding the raised-arm pledge that Donald Trump has been requesting of his followers at some rallies is in some sense a tempest in a teacup. There is an American Nazi party, to be sure, but Donald Trump is neither a member nor a supporter. Nor are his Republican supporters reasonably identified as crypto-Nazis who secretly sympathize with National Socialism. All of that is too much, hyperbole bordering on true craziness. And it surely also bears saying that Donald Trump himself has insisted that the pledge gesture has nothing to do with Nazism and has been intentionally misinterpreted by his detractors as a way of defaming his character. That may well be true—and yet the fact that we have come this quickly to the point at which a salute so widely understood to be an expression of allegiance to Nazism that Congress actually felt compelled to intervene has become something people can do in public without worry, without shame, without fear regarding their own reputations…that’s the sorites moment for me personally, the possible/impossible moment at which a single grain turns a non-heap into a heap. Is this just insensitivity, just tastelessness, just cluelessness? Or is it something else entirely? American Hindus do not walk around with swastikas painted on their heads, after all…and that despite the fact that the origins of the swastika are indeed in ancient India, where it appears to have been in use as a religious symbol as early as 3000 BCE. It may well be an ancient Vedic symbol symbolizing the cycle of seasons or the sun itself, but that’s not what it means today to the overwhelming majority of Americans.

I am a congregational rabbi. I don’t endorse candidates. I don’t encourage people to vote one way or the other. But somehow this whole issue of the Nazi-ish salute, layered over the candidate’s coy and bizarrely delayed repudiation of support from white supremacist and former KKK leader David Duke, his open and as-yet-unretracted remark that Jewish voters are only interested in supporting candidates whom they can control with their money, and my anxiety regarding the question of what the candidate “really” means by the neutrality he intends, if elected, to bring to American policy in the Middle East—the issue of a pledge so strongly reminiscent of the Nazi salute layered over all that makes me wonder which grain of sand it will take fundamentally to alter the sense of security under law American Jews have come to think of as natural and normal. That the candidate has a now-Jewish daughter and is the grandfather of Jewish grandchildren somehow only makes the waters murkier, not clearer, to my mind. Can the candidate really not know what the people whose salute his pledge overtly mimics would have made of his daughter’s choice to embrace Judaism or of his grandchildren’s Jewishness?

I am going to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference next week and am looking forward more than anything to hearing Donald Trump address the conference. (Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz will be there too, and I also look forward to hearing them. But I am eagerest of all to hear Trump, to experience the man personally, to hear him speak with my own ears.) I doubt he will ask the attendees at AIPAC to raise their arms and pledge their support! But I want to be there to listen attentively and count the grains as they gather and to see if I can personally solve Eubilides’ paradox as it applies to the day-to-day dynamics of American politics. Candidate Trump has said many things that feel at odds with our national ethos, with our most basic American values. Yet his numbers continue to rise as he collects more and more delegates to take along to Cleveland in July. Will the raised-arm pledge eventually be seen as that grain of sand that tipped the balance and made of a right-wing Conservative something else entirely? That, of course, remains to be seen.