Thursday, December 23, 2010

Considering WikiLeaks

Like many of you, I’m sure, I had only vaguely heard of WikiLeaks until this year. I’m not even entirely sure that I understood that WikiLeaks and Wikipedia were different operations or—since I’m being totally honest—that wiki itself has become an accepted word in English, albeit a newly minted one, with its very own definition. (According to the 10th edition of Collins Dictionary, a wiki is a web application that allows anyone who visits the site to edit content on it. It’s also used as a kind of an adjective, as in the phrase “wiki technology,” but it seems mostly commonly to be used as a prefix in the names of such sites.) But WikiLeaks itself is far bigger than its etymology, and that much by now everybody knows.

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by individuals who have never been identified, but is represented to the public by the now famous/infamous Julian Assange, who coyly describes himself merely as a member of the organization’s advisory board. The concept behind the operation is also a bit unclear. In its own self-conception, WikiLeaks exists to publish data intended to embarrass repressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet Union, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, but also, to cite their own website, “to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” To further these ends, the organization claims to have amassed a data base of more than 1.2 million documents, all presumably obtained from self-proclaimed whistle blowers who wish to embarrass the organizations, governments, or individuals to whose files they somehow have access. What the “real” motivation behind all this effort is remains unclear, however. (Even the use of the “wiki-“ prefix is misleading in that the website run by the organization specifically does not allow readers or users to add their comments.) But real enough is the praise the organization has garnered. For example, WikiLeaks won The Economist’s New Media Award in 2008 for exemplary service to journalism.

Up until this fall, most people probably knew of WikiLeaks it because of the huge amount of purloined data the organization has made public relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (92,000 documents related to Afghanistan were leaked to the press in July of this year, followed in October by a staggering 400,000 documents relating to Iraq.) But now WikiLeaks is primarily known for its release on November 28 of the first 220 of an alleged quarter of a million diplomatic cables sent from 274 United States embassies located in almost every country of the world. These cables, most rated confidential but not top secret, cover an almost unbelievably wide array of subjects including nuclear disarmament, American efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, and the war against terror. Nor has WikiLeaks acted alone. Also complicit in the effort to bring these cables to the attention of the public are the five newspapers and magazines—El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France, The Guardian in the U.K., Der Spiegel in Germany, and The New York Times—that have undertaken to publish them. For its part, WikiLeaks has announced its intention to release the rest of these diplomatic cables, presumably eventually all 251,287 of them, in small batches over the next few months. What the unpublished cables contain, who knows? But I think we can be certain that they are all being published specifically because they are deemed embarrassing to our government or our nation in some specific way.

The question I would like to discuss today has to do with the specific way we should relate to the release of these documents. Are the five news media organizations that have undertaken to publish the material acting illegally or immorally? Surely the essence of investigative journalism is the concept of finding out things and bringing them to the attention of the public! And in many other cases in which newspapers have uncovered information that has led to the arrest of criminals or to the public humiliation of people behaving immorally or deceitfully, it is surely true that the public has responded enthusiastically and positively. (Think, for example, of the decision by the New York Times in 1971 to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, which effort revealed the degree to which the federal government had willfully misled the American public regarding the war in Vietnam and American activities in Cambodia and Laos.)

On the other hand, there is something that feels beyond wrong about taking what is in essence private correspondence between individuals and making it public. There was once a time when you could be pretty sure that no one had read a letter addressed to you merely because it arrived in your mailbox still sealed. Those days are, of course, long gone. I have no deep understanding of how e-mail works, but I know that the letters that appear in my in-box have travelled through the machinery of a variety of internet service providers on their way from my correspondent’s computer to my own. Surely it would be possible for any number of unscrupulous persons surreptitiously to read my e-mail as it makes its convoluted and complex way into my in-box. Is it reasonable to expect privacy this far down the pike from the concept of a sealed envelope being brought by a team of actual human beings from the mailbox in which it was deposited by its writer to the home of its intended recipient? That, I think, is the right way to frame the question regarding the morality of WikiLeaks’ behavior.

We have our own tradition to take into consideration. It’s amazing how little well-known the figure of Rabbenu Gershom, called by his admirers the Light of the Exile, is in our own day given the degree of renown he once enjoyed. Rashi who was born around when Rabbenu Gershom died, said that all Ashkenazic Jews were almost by definition his disciples. (Rashi actually was a kind of grand-disciple of his in that his own teacher, Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar, was Rabbenu Gershom’s student.) And Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), popularly known as Rabbenu Asher and who himself was one of the greatest of all medieval rabbis, wrote that the teachings of Rabbenu Gershom were so widely accepted that they may as well have been handed down to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Rabbenu Gershom was a leading figure in his day for many different reasons, but the most important event in his professional life was the rabbinical synod he convened in the year 1000 to ratify a number of radical innovations he wished to promulgate. It was at this synod, for example, that the formal ban against polygamy for all Ashkenazic Jews was announced and accepted. And it was also at this synod that the decision was made to prohibit any divorce from being finalized unless both parties to the marriage in question are in agreement that their union be ended, an enormous step forward for women and for women’s rights. The third matter the synod considered was how to relate to Jews who were forced to abandon Judaism. (This was a highly personal matter for Rabbenu Gershom because his own son abandoned Judaism in the wake of the 1012 forced expulsion of the Jews from Mainz, the city in which Rabbenu Gershom worked and lived.) And, finally, it was at this synod that Rabbenu Gershom promulgated his formal ban against reading other people’s mail. The concept was simply that written letters, clearly a form of speech, were henceforth to be considered subject to the laws of gossip and talebearing that govern oral communication. And so just as one has the right to presume that the words one utters will not be heard by anyone other than the individual to whom one is speaking, so does one have the right to suppose that one’s letters will not be read by anyone other than the party or parties to whom they are addressed.

In its own way, this is a parallel thought to the way people have the right to assume that their assets will be distributed according to their instructions after they die. They themselves will not be present to control the situation, but the right inherent in the concept of owning something is deemed to include the right to bequeath it posthumously to whomever one wishes. Similarly, one can obviously not control what happens to a letter once it leaves one’s hand. (How much the more so is that true for e-mail!) But one nevertheless has the right to expect that it will neither be diverted nor stolen, and that no decent person will read what has sent in writing by one party to another merely because the possibility exists to do so.

I think the same principle applies to WikiLeaks. It is one thing, after all, to publish public documents and thus to bring them forcefully to the attention of the public, and another thing entirely to steal letters sent from one individual to another—and diplomatic dispatches are in essence letters being sent from one person to another through the private mail system operated by the diplomatic service—and then to share their contents with anyone who can afford to purchase a copy of Le Monde or El Pais. Whether some greater good was served by making public these dispatches is hardly the point because the deed itself is forbidden, just as one is forbidden to gossip even if one can discern some salutary benefit that might somehow result from doing so. The fact that we live in an age that so little respects the privacy of the individual that such a thought sounds novel almost to the point of being radical, however, says a lot more about modern society and culture than about Rabbenu Gershom or the reasonableness and morality of his edict.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Small Step Forward

Almost obsessively, the Torah returns and returns again to the topic of the strangers among us, admonishing us to be kind and generous with aliens in our midst both because we ourselves were once oppressed outsiders in a land not our own and also as part of the general obligation the Torah imposes on the faithful to be charitable to the disadvantaged, the distressed, the disenfranchised, and the distressed. The question of why the Torah can’t let it go, can’t just say it once and be done with it (as it says once and is then done with other commandments we have come to think of as central to our Jewish way of life), can’t just issue the command and expect the faithful to respond obediently to an eminently reasonable divine behest to be compassionate and humane…that is one of the great riddles the Toray gently lays down for the ruminative contemplation of its students.

Perhaps it has to do with the concept of invisibility. When Ralph Ellison published his masterwork, Invisible Man, in 1952, he was writing formally about the lot of black people in America. But in a less formal way he was also writing about the way society first belittles, then marginalizes, then eventually condemns to invisibility those to whom the members of its dominant classes have no real idea how to relate. Like all great books, Ellison’s is both plot-specific and plot-general, both about the people it depicts and also about the world, about society, about people whom the author does not pause to mention at all but whose stories are nevertheless embedded (invisibly!) in the warp and woof of the narrative. I suppose most of my readers will have read Ellison’s book somewhere along the way, even if only as an assignment in a high school English class. If you've never read it, it’s still worth reading even all these years later, still insightful and still very interesting. But I mention it today not specifically to recommend a good book, but because that concept of invisibility-in-full-sight seems relevant both to understanding why the Torah returns over and over to the concept of being considerate and sympathetic to the strangers in our midst—because to be kind to such people one must first learn to see them—and also to an issue facing our country as the year draws to a close.

All my readers know, I think, that I find the lot of illegal aliens in our midst as intolerable as the issue of how to resolve the problem appears to be intractable. On the one hand, we are not a nation given to coddling lawbreakers, which is by definition what illegal immigrants are: people who have declined to play by the rules and who have simply shoved their way to the front of the line, thus ignoring both our laws and those patiently waiting their turn to apply for legal residency. On the other hand, however, is the problem not as it exists in some sort of public-policy vacuum but in the real world of flesh-and-blood men and women. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research organization, there are currently about eleven million foreigners living illegally in the United States, about three-quarters of them from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

That staggering, almost unfathomable number, cannot be passed by lightly: we are talking about an incredibly large number of people who collectively have created a concomitantly huge number of social problems both for the citizenry and for foreigners residing legally in our midst. Some of these are so well known that they hardly bear repeating. Illegals work, but they do not pay taxes and thus do not shoulder their fair share of the costs connected with government services from which they profit. They are the regular and repeated victims of crime, but they cannot phone the police for help when they are robbed or assaulted. They drive, but they are mostly afraid to apply for driver’s licenses and thus, generally speaking, fail to carry even the minimal insurance that the government requires drivers all to carry. They become ill like the rest of us too, of course, but they rarely carry health insurance because the forms they would have to fill out to apply for coverage solicit information that would risk identifying them as illegals. And, if their parents dare send them, the children of illegals attend schools in which they are obliged constantly to dissemble lest their lack of status be uncovered and the government duly notified. One thing I believe all Americans can easily agree on is that the situation as it has evolved to this point is intolerable from a dozen different standpoints and must somehow be resolved.

Nor is there any point in putting the blame on the government for having failed to prevent illegal immigration in the first place. It is undoubtedly true that increased funding for better border patrolling could have stemmed the flow of illegals over these many years that the problem has taken to develop to its current gargantuan dimensions. There are probably a lot of things we could have done to prevent this situation from evolving as it has, actually, but wasting time now on recriminative speculation about what we could possibly once have done will not move us any closer to resolving the issue. And resolve it we must! It is simply intolerable for us to accept as a permanent feature of life in these United States that millions upon millions of people can be assaulted with impunity, swindled without the fear of subsequent punishment, and allowed to cost the taxpayers uncountable millions while being unable to contribute legally to the coffers they themselves help annually to drain.

Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted by the underwhelming margin of 216 to 198 to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act. Usually referred to by its acronym as the DREAM act, this legislation was sponsored by two Democrats and a Republican and addresses specifically young people who (a) arrived illegally in the United States when they were still younger than sixteen years of age, (b) have lived here for at least five years, (c) have received a high school diploma or its equivalent, (d) are at the present time younger than thirty-five, and (e) are known to be of good moral character. In other words, the DREAM act is an attempt to deal with the specific class of young people who came here illegally as children, but who have lived here for a serious portion of their lives, have been educated here, and who have not gotten into any sort of trouble during their years in America. The bill does not, however, give these people a free pass to citizenship. What it would do, however, is to grant such young people six years during which to attend college or to serve in the United States military. And then, at the end of those six years, supposing an eligible young person completes a significant portion of his or her post-secondary education or military service and is not convicted of a major crime (or any crime connected with drug use), then such a person would be eligible not for citizenship but for the kind of legal permanent residency that could eventually lead to citizenship. This is hardly a free pass. But it is a thoughtful way to deal with one small part of the larger issue, the part involving young people with limited or no ties at all to any other homeland and whose foreign citizenship is more a factor of where their parents grew up than of their own lives or cultural attachments or emotional allegiances. It is a small step forward towards resolving a problem that all goodhearted citizens must insist be resolved one way or the other. And I personally think it is worthy legislation that deserves to become law.

On September 21, the Senate failed to muster the sixty votes it would have taken to end the filibuster of the bill. (The vote was 56-43 to continue the progress of the bill.) The following day, on September 22, Richard Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, introduced the bill again, this time acting together with Republican Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana, and Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senior senator from Vermont. The bill was then defeated in the Senate for a second time. On November 16, President Obama announced his intention to introduce the bill into the House of Representative where, as noted above, it passed. The wrangling in the Senate now continues with the bill being tabled, then re-introduced, then threatened with an ongoing filibuster, then withdrawn for consideration some other time (but presumably within the life span of the 111th Congress), the re-proposed. The bottom line is that either the bill will pass within the next week or so or it won’t. I understand the unwillingness of some people to grant free rides to people who snuck on the bus without first bothering to buy a ticket. But I also see the wisdom of trying to begin to solve this major issue for our country by addressing the case of children caught up in the web of illegality and subterfuge because of other people’s bad decisions. It isn’t much. It barely even qualifies as a partial solution to the bigger question. (It is estimated this legislation could clear the way to citizenship for no more than 13,000 of the eleven million illegals in our midst.) But I believe this is a step in the right direction. It is kind. It is generous. And it is fully in harmony with the Torah’s endlessly repeated injunction to behave charitably, humanely, and benevolently with the strangers in our midst.

One caveat, however: I do not believe it would be appropriate or right to allow young people who become citizens under the DREAM act to be allowed later on to sponsor their parents’ immigration if those parents came here illegally. For adult illegals, a process has to be evolved on a separate plane of discourse that leads either to their return to their native lands or to the acquisition of American citizenship in a way that conforms to the laws of our country and does not insult the dignity of all those who have immigrated here legally and by the book.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nazi Hunting

Only in our peculiar world could a man’s motives be questioned for doing what it takes to identify the Nazi official who signed the orders that led to his family’s murder, then for actually locating the man, and, by falsely befriending him, getting him to admit his involvement in the massacre that ensued once the orders were carried out by some others of Hitler’s willing executioners.

As always, the details are only part of the story. The Nazi is Bernhard Frank, now a doddering man of ninety-seven but once the right-hand man of Heinrich Himmler. Characterized by Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles as an “avid, zealous, passionate, and committed Nazi,” Frank’s signature appears on orders that led directly the massacre of the Jews of Korets, a town in the Ukraine, on July 28, 1941. The man who falsely befriended him is Mark Gould, a forty-one year old resident of Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, Gould is not Jewish. Or not exactly Jewish—he has a non-Jewish mother and was adopted by her Jewish husband and apparently feels connected enough to his adopted father’s family to have undertaken to find out who murdered the Korets wing of the family. Nor is Gould your average Nazi hunter. Burdened by a complicated background that involved a rough-and-tumble adolescence in Texas, he became interested enough to find the documents that authorized the annihilation of Korets Jewry, then somehow found his way to Germany, had the idea to impersonate a Neo-Nazi sympathizer, and managed to worm his way into the inner circle of the man who signed his stepfather’s family’s death warrant. There is basically no way that Frank will be brought to justice. He’s almost a hundred years old. He’s been living openly ever since the war. He actually published a book about his wartime activities. (German-language readers can order a used copy of Als Hitlers Kommandant from for a mere nineteen euros.) He has never been charged with war crimes and there are no outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was just a cog in a killing machine. But without those cogs the machine could not have functioned. Stephen Smith of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California wrote about him using these words: “Of all the Nazis that have surfaced over the years, Bernhard Frank sends the biggest shiver down my spine not because he was an outright killer, but because he was active right in the heart of darkness, at the epicenter of the Holocaust, at the scene of the crime. For some reason we let him get away with it.” Yet despite the quixotic nature of the whole undertaking, Gould and a cousin of his filed a federal civil law suit in Washington D.C. the other day against Bernhard Frank. The specific damages being sought were not disclosed. Since there will never be a trial or the outcome of a trial, it hardly matters. So why, the world seems hell-bent on wondering, would anyone launch such a hopeless suit against such a very old man? Can’t we just let bygones be gone by?

The New York Times began its story in Wednesday’s paper cynically by wondering aloud if Gould’s real interest could not possibly be in landing a fat book contract followed by a presumably even fatter movie contract. An article that appeared in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, the other day derided Gould’s claim that Frank was complicit in the murder of his ancestors as “pure junk,” his signature on the order that led to their annihilation a mere detail akin to a secretary’s initials at the bottom of a letter the boss is sending out. (Not only that, but the author supposes that no elderly Nazis should really be allowed to confess to anything since, as a friend of the article’s author put it, “Old Nazis watch a lot of telly too. Sometimes they can’t even remember if they were at Auschwitz or Austerlitz.”) So, if I understand the argument correctly, because some Nazis are senile, they all must be. And because it took an elaborate killing machine to murder that many Jews it hardly makes sense to prosecute single ones of them merely because they haven’t had the good sense already to have died. And, besides, it wasn’t like Frank was in charge of the Holocaust. He was just following Himmler’s orders!

I don’t know why the way this story was reported has irritated me so much. I guess I like the idea that even now, even this many decades later, no Nazi murderer can fall asleep at night fully secure that he won’t end up on the front page of the New York Times or Yediot Acharonot (where the story first appeared) exposed for his role in the mass murder of innocents. And the fact that a man would go to great extremes to find the man who signed the order that led to his family’s extermination not because he really expects to win any damages but simply to show that only the death of the perpetrator means that justice can no longer be served here on earth does not seem farfetched or peculiar to me. Just the opposite, in fact: it strikes me as rational, sane, and supremely moral. I don’t know this Gould fellow, but I think I’d probably like him. His lawsuit certainly seem rational to me, even despite the impossibility of actually winning any meaningful damages! Why can’t the point simply be for the truth to be known?

Part of the problem has to do with the gradual way Americans have turned away from the horrors of genocide. On the wildly popular television show Glee the other night, there was a toss-away jokey line about the My Lai massacre. (Do you all remember My Lai? It was there in Vietnam that 347 civilians, including elderly people, women, and babies, were murdered by a non-rogue unit of the American Army on March 16, 1968. Many of the women were raped before being killed. A considerable number of the corpses were mutilated posthumously. Now there’s a topic worth making jokes about on a national, prime time television show specifically aimed at teenaged viewers!) A few weeks ago, in another attempt at family-based humor, the same show featured Carol Burnett as the mother of one of the regular characters and we were all supposed to think it was hysterical that this shrill harridan was—get this!—a Nazi hunter by profession, by which they presumably meant (given the context) that she was wealthy enough to be able to spend her time gallivanting around the world looking for former Nazis and bringing them to justice. (That there are people in the world devoted to bringing surviving Nazi war criminals to justice was not the point. The point was how funny it was supposed to be to think that a woman depicted so ridiculously would have such a suitably ridiculous profession. You were supposed to laugh.)

In the end, by responding to gags like that on incredibly popular television shows not with outrage but with indifference, we create a world in which the effort of some troubled soul to make known the man who promulgated his family’s death sentence seems almost ipso facto peculiar. (I wonder if Mark Gould thought Carol Burnett was being funny by mocking the efforts of those who really do wish to see justice served. My guess is not.) Of course, in a world in which Broadway not merely tolerates but awards a full dozen Tony Awards to a show featuring funny Hitler and his funny storm troopers singing gaily about their plans to overrun France, what’s a throwaway line on television worth? We need to rein ourselves in a bit, I think, and do what it takes to remind ourselves that there is nothing even remotely funny about genocide. Nor, I believe, is there anything pathetic or bizarre about the desire to see justice served, even if only symbolically and even at almost the last conceivable minute.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chanukah 2010

Before I wish you all a very happy Chanukah in homes filled with light and with the pleasures of family life at its richest, I’d like to tell you about the most horrific article I read in the newspaper last week. At first, I almost thought it was funny. But then, upon reflection, I realized that it was not at all funny and that, if anything, it was almost unutterably depressing. But what I’ve gleaned from my thinking about that article has something to do with the wishes I have for all of you this Chanukah, so let me start with gloomy and move on to cheerful.

The article, which I’m sure many of you also saw, appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago and featured its author’s breathless appraisal of a fabulous new phenomenon that has arrived in the Jewish world: rabbis who train children for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs on the internet. The author, I’m guessing not a member of the House of Israel, couldn’t get over how great this was. The children don’t have to waste all that time in Hebrew School. Their parents don’t have to bother being members of a synagogue at all. These rabbis will train their children (without every actually meeting them), then appear (this time apparently in person) to conduct “a bar-mitzvah” or “a bat-mitzvah” (whatever that means) in some non-synagogue setting of the child’s or his or her parents’ choosing. So the whole experience is a win-win. The kids are spared all that unnecessary learning. (One boy interviewed for the article noted that in the synagogue with which his parents were formerly affiliated they tried to make him learn his prayers by heart, presumably including at least some that he wouldn’t even have needed at his bar-mitzvah. Can you imagine!) And the parents are spared all that unnecessary expense. So everybody ends up happier and better off. And it’s not like they don’t have a rabbi at their disposal too!

What is missing, however, is the foundation upon which the whole thing rests in the first place, the experience of ushering a child into a real community formed of real people who have undertaken to create a Jewish presence in the place in which they live. One of the things we try our best to manage at Shelter Rock is to usher our bar- and bat-mitzvah children across that particular threshold into feeling that they personally are members of our congregation and not merely the sons and daughters of members. And along with that goes the sense, which we also try to foster, that the klei kodesh of our congregation are not only their parents’ rabbi and cantor, but their own as well. But, of course, none of this can happen if there is no community to come forward to the Torah for the first time in, if the experience of becoming bar- or bat-mitzvah is an end unto itself that leads nowhere at all beyond the pleasure of the moment. The experience should not be about learning any specific thing or about acquiring some useful synagogue skill, but about accepting that with adolescence comes the obligation to see oneself as a real person, as a member of the community, as someone who exists as a Jewish person in his or her own right (and not merely as the child or grandchild of such people). That, in my mind, is what it means to become a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah. And it is, or should be, the seminal experience in any adolescent’s Jewish coming-of-age.

Even more perverse, at least to my way of thinking, is an even more peculiar phenomenon also reported on in that same piece in the Times. I refer now to the concept of the on-line synagogue, one in which a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah can be celebrated with no one being physically present at all as worshipers, or rather their spectral e-presences, gather on Skype or in some other internet chat room to daven electronically (if that’s what you’d call it) somewhat in the manner of ghosts gathering for Yizkor but without the gravitas or the grandeur. That there is no halachic basis for anything like this goes without saying, not to mention the impossibility of squaring traditional Shabbat observance with any sort of Shabbos minyan that requires participants to be seated at their computers in order to participate. But leaving all of those issues aside, what strikes me as the most peculiar is that anyone would want to be part of such an undertaking in the first place. We really are our own worst enemies!

Community life is maddening. It brings together all sorts of people who under other circumstances might not necessarily wish to have much to do with each other. It requires learning to compromise, to listen to others, to accept that one pays one’s dues and gives one’s gifts and still can’t always have one’s way in every decision the synagogue undertakes. It requires dealing with other people’s parents and with other people’s children…and with a wide range of other people’s tzuris including many specific problems that most of us could be just as happy not knowing about at all, let alone feeling called upon somehow to deal with. But for those of us to whom life without affiliation in a traditional, warm Jewish community is unimaginable, it is all somehow worth it nevertheless. There is a certain sense of community, of mutual support and succor, and of acceptance that only comes from being part of a great community. In that sense, we at Shelter Rock are fortunate and blessed to have this place to call our own. I feel that way myself, considering myself much more a member than an employee of our congregation. And I’m pleased that my children feel that too…even though we only moved here when they were already in high school.

I suppose it is against these feelings of the supreme worthiness of synagogue affiliation that I read that irritating article in the paper the other week. I try to respect the work of all my colleagues in the rabbinate, but what do these people think they’re doing by leading the parents of Jewish adolescents away from synagogue affiliation, away from the warmth of community, and away from the richness of Jewish life as it can only be experienced within the warp and woof of a congregation of real people? We are not, after all, talking about providing internet-based bar- or bat-mitzvah instruction to children in Antarctica or in the Amazon rain forest who simply cannot attend “normal” Hebrew Schools, but about people who live all around us on Long Island (or nearby) every single one of whom could be a member of a synagogue. Really, could anything be more clear than that the way to produce committed, engaged, involved Jewish young people is to usher them into vibrant traditional communities? Apparently it’s not that clear to everybody. But it is perfectly clear to me…and, I hope, to all of you as well.

And that brings me to Chanukah. We, all of whom are privileged to belong to our wonderful community, should feel doubly blessed at Chanukah this year as we gather with our families and in our community to feel the light of God’s presence in our midst reflected in the clear light of the Chanukah candles. We, who have found our way to this place, need to feel not just fortunate but truly blessed to have each other in our lives…and to feel that the young people we usher into Jewish adulthood on our bimah are similarly blessed to have a community like our own in which to grow up. The thought of davening like an incorporeal phantasm in some chat room in the cloud gives me the willies. But even more than just finding the idea weird and unappealing, contemplating such a thing reminds me how grateful we must all be for what we have!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Saadia and the Spectrograph

In the Great Books class I’ve been teaching on Monday mornings, we’re just about to wind up the section of the year devoted to Saadia Gaon, the tenth century rabbi who was in many ways the father of Jewish philosophy. Preparing myself to teach this class has been a very interesting experience for me. For one thing, Saadia’s great book, The Book of Opinions and Beliefs, was one of the books I studied the most intently years ago when I was preparing myself for a career in the rabbinate. But even more to the point is that Saadia’s work is in many ways based on the principle that has come to rest at the center of my own philosophy of Judaism, the notion that, all truth being by definition congruent with all other truth, any effort to insist that some article of religious truth can be just as “true” as its parallel within the world of science without it mattering that they overtly contradict each other is, also by definition, somewhere between bogus and ridiculous. Indeed, the underlying principle that I believe should guide all religious thinking is precisely that things cannot become true because people simply repeat them over and over, that truths must actually be true (and not merely acclaimed as such) for them meaningfully to serve as the foundation of authentic religious life, that there cannot be any such thing as truths which are true within the context of religion but false everywhere else.

I’ve said these things in a dozen different ways from the bimah more times than I can remember. But even I found myself stopping to scratch my head the other day when I read in the newspaper about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that the space shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to carry off into space next February. Everything about the experiment is larger than life. It has taken about sixteen years to get this one experiment ready. And the undertaking will have cost about one and a half billion dollars by the time the Endeavor takes off. The machine itself—which the reporter described as looking like a huge corrugated rain barrel containing eight tons of magnets, wires, aluminum, silicon, iron, and assorted electronic gizmos—is extraordinarily complex. But what matters any of that? (Besides, what’s a billion and a half bucks anyway? The mayor of New York is about to spend that much over the next two decades to reduce the amount of sewage in the city’s waterways and that planned expenditure didn’t even make the front page of the paper.) On the other hand, what actually is unbelievable is what the spectrometer is intended to do once it gets into outer space.

This is one of those things that people can talk about but not really comprehend. Or maybe there even are people out there who combine the kind of background in physics with the kind of imaginative power it would take to make it possible even to begin to understand what this is all about, but all I can do is try to explain even without any real idea what I’m talking about. The basic concept is that all that stuff they told you in high school about how all things—including the universe itself—are made of molecules composed of atoms, and that those atoms themselves have constituent parts called neutrons and electrons and protons (and maybe some other –ons that even your teacher wasn’t quite sure what they were or did)—it turns out that all that is only partially true. It is true, in the sense that those things really do exist. And it is also true that matter is composed of atoms and molecules just as your physics or chemistry teacher told you. But it is apparently also true—or at least possibly also true—that all that we perceive to exist could just be a kind of opaque scrim covering a universe of dark matter, also called anti-matter, that exerts its own mysterious force on all that exists. The reporter writing in the Times last week, Dennis Overbye, referred to this counter-universe as a “vast shadowy realm of invisible ‘dark matter’ whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.” And that brings us to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrograph, the mission of which is to capture some of the emanations coming from this alleged shadow universe and thus to prove the existence both of dark matter and the anti-universe in which it resides beyond and behind what we perceive as reality. (I told you I don’t really understand this. Who could? I suppose Samuel Chao Chung Ting, the MIT professor behind the experiment, must understand it. At least I hope he does! But he won a Nobel Prize in physics and I took a year of physics in eleventh grade, so we’re not exactly playing on the same team, Professor Ting and myself.) The rest of the story has to do with the Big Bang, another thing I only sort of understand, and the reasonability of imagining any primordial antimatter actually still to exist. What the difference is between finding any of this matter and finding mere intimations of its existence, for example in the form of anti-electrons called positrons, is hard to say. Or at least it’s hard for me to say. But the basic concept—that with one grand experiment humankind will take a quantum leap forward by leaping as far back into the past as it is possible to conceive of anyone ever even imagining it would be possible to go—that, for all my lack of training impedes me really from understanding what Professor Ting is attempting to accomplish, that idea engages me totally.

And so we go back to Saadia. He was a truly amazing man, one of the very few individuals of whom it can be said honestly that he was a true innovator and pioneer in every single field to which he turned his formidable intelligence—not only philosophy and theology, but also linguistics, liturgy, and law. A polymath and a true genius, Saadia understood that the notion that religious faith can only be embraced after checking one’s intellectual integrity at the front door makes a mockery of religion. And so the concept when encountering a world of ideas like the ones connected with Professor Ting’s spectrograph is not to wave the whole thing away as inimical to faith, anti-matter not being mentioned by name in the account of the creation in the Bible, but to embrace the indescribable as a way of reminding ourselves yet again that it is the ideas that rest at the core of the biblical narrative that count, not the ancient garb in which they were presented to ancient readers who hadn’t ever heard of electrons, let alone positrons. The bottom line, as noted, is that all truth must by definition congruent be with all other truth. If the Torah is true and Professor Ting’s theory pans out and appears also to be true, then there therefore must be some way to embrace them both without retreating into illogic or self-referential silliness. To paraphrase the Talmud, if you don’t see how two absolutely true statements can fit together, then the problem probably has a lot more to do with you than with them! I feel that way when I read stories like the one about the spectrograph in the newspaper. Who knows what it’s all about really? But I feel as humbled by my own lack of real scientific education as I feel awed by the possibility that the world we see really is only a thin patina coating an inner core of unseen, unfathomable reality. The author of the 104th psalm clearly had it right when he enthused, “How many are the things You have made, O Lord! Truly, everything that exists somehow suggests Your wisdom.” That seems right to me. And it is surely a notion Saadia easily would have both understood and embraced!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Ghosts of Lublin

I don’t usually like to write about related topics on consecutive weeks, but I’d like to make an exception to that rule and write about a truly unique art project undertaken in the Polish city of Lublin last June by Israeli artist Ronen Eidelman.

First, let me tell you something about the artist. Born in New York, Eidelman—known on the web and, I suspect, professionally as well mostly by his first name, Ronen—grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Jaffa. Hebrew readers may know him as the founder of the very hip on-line journal called Erev-Rav ( or the one called Maarav (at; click on the tab marked “English” for a big surprise), but he will be mostly unknown to American readers. That is a shame, because his projects are uniformly provocative, interesting, and, in my personal opinion, incredibly cool. I could write about any number of them too, but the one I want to write about here today is his street-art project called “Coming Out in Lublin.” (You can find a whole list of other projects to inspect and enjoy at The title is a bit unfortunate—I’m guessing the artist left the States before the expression “coming out” came to mean what it’s come to mean in contemporary American English and the exhibition has nothing at all to do with gay people or issues—but that’s an unimportant detail that should not be allowed to distract viewers from the artist’s truly amazing achievement.

Most of my readers will know more about Lublin than about the contemporary art scene in Israel, but let me present some of those details anyway. The first Jews came to Lublin in the fourteenth century at the invitation of King Casmir III. By the sixteenth century, the Jewish community ran a kind of autonomous city-within-a-city in Lublin and was the third largest Jewish community in Poland. As a sign of how integrated into public life the Jewish community was, the king of Poland granted the rabbis who headed the great yeshivot in Lublin the same rights as university professors in 1567. The Jewish community knew its share of violent troubles too, but it always seemed able to come back to full strength after even the most devastating attacks. By 1862, there were nine thousand Jews in Lublin. But just forty years later as the nineteenth century drew to a close, though, there were nearly 24,000 Jews living there. And by 1941 there were about 45,000 Jews in Lublin, which figure included many refugees from outlying villages and towns whom the Nazis forced into the Lublin ghetto. But far worse horrors than cramped living quarters were coming. The deportations to Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdaniek, the latter only two miles away, began on March 16, 1942. Others were not deported at all, but merely murdered in nearby forests. The final deportation took place on November 3, 1943—as far as I can tell there were no survivors of these deportations—and with that the story of Jewish life in Lublin drew to a temporary close. It is true that about five thousand survivors settled in Lublin after the war, some of whom were apparently hoping to resume some version of their pre-war lives as Polish Jews, but almost all fled for good after the post-war pogrom in Kielce. There are today about twenty Jewish residents of Lublin, all fifty-five or older.

And that brings me back to Ronen Eidelman’s work. The concept was simple enough. The artist created life-sized black-and-white photographs of Jewish people who lived in Lublin during the years leading up to the war. He included people of all sorts—religious and secular, young and old, traditional and modern, communists and Zionists, bundists and nihilists, hasidim and yeshivah types, and whomever else he could find to represent some identifiable group within pre-war Polish Jewry—and then he pasted these full-sized portraits on the buildings in Lublin in which the people in the pictures actually lived during the years leading up to the war. Mostly, these houses were in the oldest part of the city. Some were in the actual ghetto. Others were in what was then, in the 1920’s and 1930s, the newer part of town. Where the buildings themselves no longer existed, Ronen pasted the photographs in nearby alleys or on fences, utilizing whatever available flat surface was closest to where that specific family or person lived. And beneath each of the pictures, he pasted a large poster bearing one of four questions specifically designed to make modern-day Polish residents of Lublin highly uncomfortable. (That is the point of art, isn’t it? To make uncomfortable the complacent and creatively to irritate? Surely that is the specific point of street art! And Ronen Eidelman is very good at it!) But the questions themselves are not what I expected them to be at all.

I expected the artist’s questions to be accusatory. I expected the artist to want to challenge modern-day Lublin residents to ask themselves how their parents and grandparents—or, if the citizens in question are old enough, how they themselves—could have allowed the Nazis to perpetrate crimes on that level of brutality in their city without rising up in even futile rebellion against what everyone must surely have understood to be evil itself made manifest in their midst. I expected the whole thing to be about blame and the apportioning out of after-the-fact responsibility, but that wasn’t the thrust of the exercise at all. And, in a sense, just the opposite was the case: Eidelman’s concept was not to assign responsibility at all but simply to wonder out loud (and slightly aggressively) how many modern-day citizens of Lublin are the descendants of Jews who managed to survive somehow by managing to pass themselves off as ethnic Poles and then who forgot to turn themselves back into Jews after the war ended. And so the questions have nothing to do with who was responsible for the depravity and barbarism of the German occupiers of wartime Poland, but with the hidden Jewishness of some unknown, and unknowable, percentage of the overtly (but only overtly) Polish citizenry in place in Lublin today. The questions were obviously all posted beneath the photographs in Polish so residents could read them, but the English translations will give you the idea clearly enough. “Have you always felt different from your friends?” “Does your family hide a great secret?” “Does your grandmother mumble in her sleep in a foreign tongue?” And the most devastating question of them all to put to a young Pole who has never even remotely considered that he or she might actually be a descendant of one of the handful of Lublin Jews who survived in hiding: Jakim Żydem Jesteś? “Just what kind of a Jew are you?”

Take a look at the slide show of the exhibition posted on the artist’s website at It took me several viewings to take it all in, but each time I went through the slides I found more to notice and to consider. (I also found more to admire.) And then, just when you think you’re done, comes the unexpected ending most viewers will completely have failed to anticipate as the artist presents about half a dozen slides showing the photographs ripped down, vandalized, and defaced. Clearly, he was pressing some buttons that at least some Lublinites found highly unpleasant to have pressed in public! And at least some of those people responded violently, thus subconsciously (or possibly not subconsciously) playing their part in mimicking the way an earlier generation dealt with the annihilation of the Jews in their city either passively by tolerating their treatment at the hands of the occupiers or else actively by assisting in their eradication. In some ways the final slides showing the photographs mostly missing is the most impressive part of the show because that, almost more than the original images themselves, suggests the reality of Jewish life in Lublin today: the occasional living person surrounded by uncountable armies of ghosts, some fully present but most only, even in ghostly terms, barely there.

Coming to terms with the Shoah—to the extent that any of us can—means confronting the ghosts. We tend to think of the Holocaust in terms of the survivors in our midst. That is surely natural, but it also behooves us to remember that the survivors were the anomalies and that, since we’re talking about Poland, more than nine out of ten Polish Jews were murdered during the war. So even thinking clearly about the Shoah means cultivating the ability to see the ghosts. And that Ronen Eidelman ran with that thought and actually made them visible—even just for a few days in a sunny Polish June sixty-five years after the end of the way—is ample proof of how some things can only really be said meaningfully through the medium of artistic expression, how art can speak profoundly in a way that even the most accurate textbook simply cannot.

Even though, as Shelter Rockers all know, I am not generally afraid of ghosts, I’ve never gone to Poland, land of my father’s people. (I have had many opportunities over the year, including at least one chance to go for free as a kind of chaperone for a school trip.) On my own terms, I’m able easily to welcome the ghosts into the sanctuary for Yizkor. But there is something about confronting them in such unimaginable numbers that keeps me away from the great-grandparents’ shtetl and from the places in which the Jews who didn’t flee in time ended up. Seeing Ronen Eidelman’s exhibition, even on line, made all of these feelings real to me in a way that I generally prefer not to acknowledge. But that too is the point of art, I think: to force just the kind of internal growth that comes from being pried away from one’s comfort zone and forced to look at ghosts from whom one prefers—I should say, from whom one vastly prefers—generally to hide.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kristallnacht 2010

Next Tuesday evening marks the seventy-second anniversary of Kristallnacht, the great nation-wide pogrom in Germany and Austria that in the eyes of one eye-witness “changed everything.” As indeed it did! Up until that point, Nazi anti-Semitism, for all it was virulently promulgated and for all Jews living under Nazi rule had prior to 1938 suffered indignation after indignation as their civil and human rights were slowly—and through an exquisitely “legal” process—taken from them, the ultimate horrors of the Shoah were first accurately presaged by the events of November 9-10 during which almost a hundred Jews were murdered, about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps where more than a thousand eventually died, and almost two thousand synagogues were either ransacked or burnt to the ground.

That the Nazis meant business was no secret even before Kristallnacht. But that they were prepared to know no restraint at all of any sort—in other words, that they were prepared to sink past the savage to the level of the truly inhuman—that first became crystal clear to the world outside Germany (and perhaps also to many inside the Reich as well) as the sun rose on the tenth of November and, as sometimes occurs in the course of human events, the landscape was nothing at all like it was the previous day. Not for the Jews, certainly. But also not for the Germans who crossed a line that night back across which they themselves would soon be powerless to retreat. For people like myself who feel obliged by the facts to interpret the events of the Shoah in terms of the possibility of nations choosing to join the realm of the demonic, Kristallnacht is suggestive of the great truth that once nations (in this not unlike people) sell their souls to the devil they can only buy them back when the devil is ready to deal. And, as any student of Jewish history knows all too well, Samael rarely if ever folds his cards while still ahead in the game. (Do readers know who Samael is? I’ll write in more detail about him another time, but the short version is that he serves in kabbalistic mythology as king of the demonic realm, thus as the embodiment of depravity, debauchery, and evil. I hope one day to write a book about the Shoah in terms of traditional Jewish demonology. One day!)

Nor does it seem odd to me that, at least at Shelter Rock, we mark the annual observance both of Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah, the memorial day for the martyrs of the Nazi era observed on the twenty-seventh day of Nisan each spring. Obviously, they’re related. They’re even intimately related, but they also have different messages to impart. Yom Hashoah—or more properly Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Velagevurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day”—is a day devoted to remembering the martyrs, to forcing ourselves not to look away from the camps and the execution pits, from instances of moral degeneracy and brutalization too numerous even to count let alone truly to fathom. Kristallnacht is about the Shoah, but also about the years leading up to the Shoah, about the way a nation slowly turned from decency to perverse criminality of the most violent and terrible kind, about the way that things can change for the worse almost (at least at first) without anyone taking too much notice or understanding the implications of the present for the future. Kristallnacht is thus not solely about remembering, but also about the need to remain ever vigilant in the defense of human rights and in the ongoing and never-ending battle against anti-Semitism. And it is about our obligation to turn away from the fantasy that somehow politics has to do far more importantly with the government itself and those who serve in it than in any truly consequential way with the people governed by that government. (How many times have you heard someone voice the opinion that governments come and go but the lot of the governed remains basically the same regardless of who is in power? Kristallnacht exists to negate that opinion totally and absolutely.) We do want to believe that things never change. We all enjoy thinking that change itself is not only not inevitable but almost impossible, that how things are is how things always will be. There’s great comfort in that sense of permanence, but the Jews of Germany found out just how quickly and totally things can deteriorate on the evening of November 9, 1938. We gather to remember the events of that evening partially out of solidarity with the ghosts of the kedoshim and their legacy, but also to re-affirm our own commitment to remaining ever vigilant, ever watchful, ever aware of how things are out there in the great big world beyond the confines of our happy, slightly insular community. On Yom Hashoah, we close our eyes to the world and focus on remembering our martyrs, our kedoshim. On Kristallnacht, we open our eyes to the world and focus on the ways we must labor to make the world safe for our own children and grandchildren.

As many of you know, Joan and I (and also baby Max) lived in Germany for two years in the mid-1980s. I haven’t written much about those years, but I’d like to write about one specific aspect of our stay in Heidelberg here and specifically with reference to our first Kristallnacht on German soil.

It was an odd time in our lives. We thought we had left New York for one year so I could spend two semesters as a fellow at the Hebrew University. But then I was approached by Shmaryahu Talmon, a professor of Bible in Jerusalem who also served as the rector of the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. He asked if we would consider spending a few years in Germany, if we would like to be part of the great effort to re-establish Jewish learning and Jewish culture in Germany. It sounded beyond intriguing. The salary was exceptional, even by American standards. Our stuff was all in storage anyway. Max was years away even from attending Nursery School. (He was four months old when we arrived in Heidelberg.) I felt challenged by the obligation to deliver my lectures in German, a language I could read well but which I had little practice speaking even informally. But I also felt myself drawn to the enterprise…and not least of all because of the role the Shoah played even in then in my thinking about my own Jewishness and my place in the world. There was something about seeing this place up close, about matching the fantasy to the reality, about actually encountering these monsters in their own lair. And, of course, also about serving the Jews who remained in Germany and meeting Jewish students of a kind I had earlier barely known to exist.

We settled into a nice apartment in Rohrbach, once its own little village but now part of greater Heidelberg. It was, we soon realized, the real thing we had somehow wandered into. The nice lady downstairs mentioned to me in passing one Sunday morning as she was leaving for church that her fiancé had fallen “in the east.” (She didn’t need to add on which side he had been fighting.) The slightly demented old guy in the apartment across from ours actually had been a Nazi soldier, which detail he shared with me one evening as I came home to find him moving most of his furniture onto the landing between our two front doors as part of some imaginary air raid drill he was internally reliving. Even the nice couple upstairs, he an Australian and she a German dance teacher, kept an enormous, larger-than-life-sized bust of Golda Meir (of all people) hidden in a huge armoire in their living room as some sort of weird, slightly creepy, way of affirming their non-Nazi-ness to whomever they felt inclined to make that point. It was, in a word, both just as we had imagined it was going to be and also nothing at all like what we had imagined Germany would be like. But I had signed a contract to remain for two years…and so there was nothing to do but make the best of it. At the very least, we told ourselves, our German would improve!

Up the road a piece from our apartment house was the site of the Rohrbach synagogue burnt to the ground on Kristallnacht. I learned this soon after we arrived not by being told about it, but simply one day on the way home from the grocer’s by walking past a low pillar emblazoned with the single Hebrew word chai that a nearby plaque noted marked the spot of the former synagogue. I had heard about Kristallnacht my whole life. To some degree, I had internalized the horror and allowed it to become a motivating factor both in my career choice and in the direction in which I grew to adulthood both in terms of my Judaism and my Jewishness. Our next neighbor when I was a boy was a woman who had experienced the events of Kristallnacht in Vienna and who had escaped Austria barely a month or two later. So I certainly knew all about the events of November 9, 1938…but somehow none of that prepared me for that moment on a crisp, fall day when, carrying two bags of fruit and vegetables, I suddenly found myself standing on the all-too-real site of a synagogue actually burnt to the ground in the course of that horrific night.

Later, I found a book in the university library and read up on the details. The Nazi Student Organization began its work that evening in Heidelberg proper, taking as its first priority the destruction of the beautiful synagogue on the Grosse Mantelstrasse that at that time had served Heidelberg Jewry for three quarters of a century. By the time they were done, it was already 4:30 in the morning, but their leader, a man named Chelius, urged them on towards Rohrbach, about a kilometer or so south of the then city limits, where they attended to the destruction of the synagogue on the Rathausstrasse there as well. First the contents of the synagogue was taken into the street and burnt to ash. The fire department was in attendance, but only to make sure the fire didn’t spread to neighboring buildings. The police, apparently not considering any crime to be taking place, stayed away entirely. The most prominent Jewish resident of Rohrbach, a man named Siegmund Beer who lived just up the Rathausstrasse from the synagogue was arrested and, along with 150 other Heidelberg Jews, sent to Dachau. The synagogue building was left an empty shell, but not fully destroyed. Soon enough, however, it was declared a danger and torn down properly. And thus the religious life of a Jewish community that had existed in that place for hundreds of years came to an end.

In the course of our years in Germany, I walked by that pillar almost every single day. I imagined that eventually I would stop noticing it, stop feeling duty-bound to stop and ponder its implications, stop feeling obliged to stop in my path every single time I walked by to read the plaque again. But that never happened and, in the end, I never failed to stop, never failed to read the inscription, never failed to pause for a moment to ask myself how I could live in that place and among those people. In the end, I suppose I must have grown tired of asking myself that question.

After two years, we left. I only knew one other Jew in Rohrbach, the elderly man who served the synagogue in Heidelberg proper—in those days just a prayer room over a store but now a full-fledged synagogue with its own building—as its shammas. If there were other Jews in Rohrbach, they didn't present themselves to me. As we packed up and looked after selling our car and finding a way to ship our stuff to Vancouver, I remember wondering who would stop to ponder that marker and its plaque once we would be gone. Was it rational to expect the locals to care? They were mostly born after the way. Even the older ones hadn’t personally destroyed the Rohrbach synagogue and so had every reason not to feel involved in the matter. (If any members of the SA-Studentensturm group that actually had destroyed the synagogues in Heidelberg and Rohrbach survived the war and settled in Heidelberg after the war, I obviously had no way to know. But I preferred to imagine them all consigned to whatever depth of hell is reserved for people such as themselves and their leaders. Imagining that any of them might yet have been alive and well and living in my neighborhood was just too much to imagine. I preferred to close my eyes to that being even remotely possible. But in my heart I knew I was lying to myself…and that too was why we felt eventually that we had to leave.)

And we did leave, only returning for a few days’ visit twenty years later. In 2006, two decades after packing up and leaving, Joan and I decided to spend a night in Heidelberg on our way to Israel. We wanted to see how it looked, how our house was faring, what the school and the new synagogue looked like. But mostly I wanted to walk up the Rathausstrasse and visit that pillar and its plaque. Which I did. It looked the same. It was a cool July day. No one was around. It was just Joan, me, and the ghosts. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but reunions can only be heartfelt to a certain degree when one side says nothing at all. But silent or not I knew them to be present. And I found myself glad to have given two years of my life to honoring their memory with my daily pilgrimage to the site of their synagogue…and happy also to have left and, until that very moment, never to have returned.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Religion in America

My dad used to say that the key to being a smart person is finding it irritating as hell not to know stuff. I may have slightly over-internalized that thought as a teenager, but even all these years later I still found it irritating—and I say this more or less proudly—only to have gotten fourteen out of fifteen questions right on the Pew Center’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. You may have seen the results of the survey written up in the newspaper a few weeks ago. I did…and was curious what it was all about. I went on line. Even though the results had already been tabulated, a shortened quiz version of the longer survey that was used to generate those results was available on-line for the curious to try their hand at. I took the quiz. I pride myself on knowing a lot about religion. (It is my métier, after all.) And I’ve never limited my reading to books concerned solely with my own faith or my own faith community. But I still didn’t get 100% on the quiz—which, even more irritatingly, my friend Chaim, the rabbi at Beth-El in Massapequa, did get when he took the same quiz—because I didn’t know that the American preacher who was the most directly responsible for the Christian revival movement of the 1730’s and 1740’s called The Great Awakening (or, more precisely, the First Great Awakening) was Jonathan Edwards, the leading Christian theologian of the colonial era. I had certainly heard of Edwards. I even read his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” somewhere along the way. (If I remember correctly, I found it way over the top and just a bit scary.) But I didn’t remember to connect his name with the Great Awakening, much less recall that he is generally credited with having been personally responsible for it. So that was it for me. No perfect score. No gold star. (Since I’m sure you’re all curious, my incorrect choice was Charles Finney, the 19th century New York City preacher who I now know was properly part of the Second Great Awakening of American evangelical Christianity. Oh well—you can’t know everything. At least I knew it wasn’t Billy Graham!)

But I write about the Pew Center’s survey not only to tell you about my personal experience taking the quiz, but to reflect with you on some of its implications. I didn’t really do that poorly. Only 1% of the public got a perfect score. According to the Pew Center’s own calculations, I did better than 97% of the people who took the quiz. But there is, to say the truth, only scant comfort in that thought, because I wish to reflect with you today neither on Jonathan Edwards’ place in our national culture nor on Charles Finney’s, but on the general state of almost shocking ignorance about religion that seems to be the rule rather than the exception to the rule in modern American culture.

The real survey, as opposed to the quiz I took, consisted of thirty-two questions on various aspects of religious life and was taken by 3,200 Americans. The results can be analyzed in dozens of ways (and readers can see most of those ways conveniently tabulated at, but no matter how you organize the data, the results are shocking in terms of what they have to say about the level of ignorance Americans display both about the religious beliefs and practices of their co-citizens and also, even more amazingly, about their own religions. It is, after all, one thing to note that fewer than half of all American know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist or that only slightly more than a quarter of Americans know that the religion of the vast majority of the citizens of Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim country—is Islam, and quite another to note, as the Pew survey revealed, that more than half of America’s Protestants failed to recognize Martin Luther as the individual whose writings and teachings inspired the Protestant Reformation or that more than four out of ten Catholics do not appear to know that their own church teaches that the wine and bread used in the Communion ceremony actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus, a mystical idea called transubstantiation which is at the very heart of Catholic theology.

Naturally, I was most interested in what the Pew survey had to say about what Americans, and specifically Jewish Americans, know about Judaism and Jewish culture. Here too it is not that simple to know how to spin the data. That fewer than half of the respondents knew that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening does not surprise me especially. Nor do I find it particularly surprising to learn that fewer than one in ten Americans knows that Maimonides was Jewish. (Also not that surprising, but far more depressing, is the discovery that two out of five Jewish Americans were unable to recognize as one of our own the man who could entirely reasonably be acclaimed as the greatest rabbinic mind of the last millennium. But, for the record, it is also worth noting that the question about Maimonides was the question on the survey that the least number of respondents answered correctly.) Still, Jews are better educated about religion than most: 73% of Jewish respondents got more than half the answers right, a percentage exceeded only by Mormons (74%) and self-proclaimed atheists/agnostics (82%). And then there is the fact that a full 94% of Jewish Americans knew on which day of the week Shabbat begins, which detail, as noted above, would come as news to more than half our nations’ citizens. At least that!

Also of interest is what the Pew survey discovered about what Americans know of the role of religion in public education. That religion-specific prayer is forbidden in public schools appears to be very well known almost to all. (Almost 90% of those polled knew this to be so.) But that it is specifically not forbidden to teach classes in comparative religion or to read passages from the Bible in a class on world literature or in the context of some other class not intended as religious instruction was far less well known: fewer than a quarter of American knew that it is not forbidden to teach biblical texts in public schools and only a third were aware that public schools are allowed to offer courses in comparative religion. Jews did far better than the average in both areas of knowledge, as we generally did in questions involving knowledge of other people’s religions. Indeed, Jews appeared to be far more knowledgeable than any other faith group when it came to identifying central symbols or rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And Jews did even better than the national average of Christian respondents when it came to answering questions about Christianity! (More Jews than Christians, for example, knew that Mother Teresa was a Catholic.) So we seem to know a lot about other people’s religions, even if we occasionally forget some fairly important details about our own.

What I saw coming through over and over in the Pew data is the strange image of a nation of people who are deeply devoted to religion without being all that interested in the details, not the details of other people’s faiths but also not the details of their own belief systems. And the only way I can think of reasonably to process that thought is to suppose that it is the idea of religious faith itself, and the pleasure of belonging to a faith group, that Americans find appealing…and that they find that appeal not really to extend beyond the satisfaction of communal affiliation to the extent actually of feeling obliged to master the details of their chosen faith’s theological details or ritual rules, let alone of feeling some concomitant obligation to master the ins and outs of religions they themselves have not embraced. We see that in our house as well, of course, in the phenomenon of people who feel supremely comfortable with their Jewishness but far less drawn to Judaism itself. (The old joke you all know, the one that ends “No, Rabbi, what we want is just for you to speak about Judaism,” isn’t actually all that funny, predicated as it is on the supposition that the concept of there being such a thing as Judaism is far more appealing to shul-goers, or at least to the shul-goers in the joke, than any of its actual constituent beliefs or rituals.) And, indeed, there are versions of Judaism out there that formally reject intellectual probity in favor of the kind of feel-good Jewishness that, their proponents hope, will draw Jewish people without simultaneously chasing them off with a barrage of unwanted details.

With respect to that aspect of modern Jewish life, the solution is simply to realize that the choice itself is bogus, that there is no inherent reason to have to choose between a version of Judaism that is honest and intellectually sound and one that is spiritually attractive. I believe—and I have devoted my entire career to the propagation of this thought in one way or another—that it is entirely possible to embrace a kind of Judaism that is challenging intellectually, scrupulously honest, devoid of self-serving chicanery…and also deeply emotionally satisfying. In a real sense, all my writing and preaching, and all my teaching over the last three decades, has built around the desire to demonstrate the reasonableness of that single thought.

In reading the Pew Center report, I was buoyed slightly by realizing that the choice so many in the Jewish world seem to feel obliged to make between embracing the warmth of communal fellowship and actually feeling called upon to master the details of a complicated ancient faith has its parallel in other religious spheres and among other American faith groups. Clearly, there are others in parallel boats on the same stormy sea we ourselves are attempting to navigate. Is that good news? Maybe not in the long run…but surely there’s some comfort to be had in knowing that we are not alone, and that the huge challenges we face are also faced by other groups! At least that!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Oath

Those of you were at Shelter Rock for Rosh Hashanah heard me speak about the Chilean miners who were then still imprisoned beneath the earth and who were at that time only expected to be rescued, if indeed they were going to be rescued at all, towards the end of the year. Partially because I myself suffer from a mild form of claustrophobia but also because it was a story of such compelling human interest, I found myself both horrified and wholly engaged by the story. And, like so many millions of people all over the world, I found myself praying that they would eventually be rescued and that these poor men would somehow find a way to remain healthy of body and spirit until that rescue could take place.

As everybody knows, los treinta y tres are now free and, at that, long before the end of the year. And, just as I knew was going to be the case, I could not take my eyes off the television as they were released one by one from that strange rocket capsule thing that descended so slowly, even (I thought) majestically, into the bowels of the Chilean earth and then returned time and time again bringing one of the miners to the surface, then disgorging him into the daylight. There is a lot to admire in these men—the fact that they seemed so hale and in such good spirits as they emerged from the mine can only mean that they watched over each other well during the months of their unwanted and unwarranted captivity, that they did what it took to safeguard their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. But the single most surprising detail about the whole episode, at least for me, came when it was revealed that the miners had taken a solemn oath not to reveal anything of what actually happened during the sixty-nine days they were underground and particularly during the first weeks when they were truly desperate and could not really know that they would ever be located, let alone rescued.

This is going to be a challenging oath to keep. For one thing, the miners—none of whom could remotely be described as wealthy and some of whom live very basic lives at what North Americans would easily recognize as the poverty line—these miners who have so little are now being bombarded with offers from a truly endless array of international newspapers, magazines, and television networks eager to buy their stories for however much money it is going to take to get them to speak. And some of those stories could indeed be worth a lot, especially if the interviewee comes up with the kind of sordid details people buy magazines and tune into television shows specifically because they are always hoping to hear! But, at least so far, the oath seems to have been maintained and the men are sticking to their promise not to reveal whatever there is that they took the oath in the first place because they wished to keep private. The world, of course, is somewhere between confused and irritated.

Indeed, to read some of what I’ve seen on the internet in the last few days, you’d think the miners were somehow behaving immorally (or, to say the very least, perversely and in a manner wholly contrary to their own best interests) by refusing to divulge details that, in the end, are their private business in some rarified sense but which the world nonetheless needs and wants to know. Indeed, so unused are we to that kind of reticence in the face of potential profit that some of the sites I’ve seen just lately are referring to the miners as “holding out” for higher offers. That they would negotiate their betrayal of their own promise to each other for even larger sums of money than were first offered—that everybody can understand! But that working men with no great fortunes would decline offers of easy cash merely because they gave their word to each other not to reveal whatever it is they felt was better left undisclosed regarding the behavior of all or some in the very grim early weeks of their subterranean captivity—that seems beyond the ability of people in the media even to fathom, let alone to respect. Who, I can almost hear them asking to themselves, ever heard of people who didn’t want to be paid to tell their story?

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about that poor boy from Rutgers who killed himself after what ought to have been a supremely private moment was not only spied upon by his roommate, but actually broadcast by that roommate over the internet for all to see. As far as I could tell, the world seemed eager to focus that story through the prism of the suicide’s gayness and surely there is that aspect of the story to consider as well. But as much as that story was about a young man unable to come to terms with having his sexual orientation made public, it was also about the violation of his basic right to privacy. I wrote to you about his story in those terms, but now the story of the Chilean miners seems to me in its own way to be about the same issue and so I find myself focusing on it again and wondering what it would take for society to right itself in this specific way and to create a world in which the sense that every individual is entitled to his or her privacy would be the default setting that all would final natural and normal.

I suppose the journalists attempting to bribe the miners to betray their promise to each other are hoping for something more lurid and far more likely to sell newspapers and attract viewers than three dozen men doing daily calisthenics and reading to each other. The fact that religious faith was a key factor in sustaining the miners and that they apparently held daily worship services in the mine is not what the tabloid journalists assigned to the story are hoping to write about! Nor does it seem to compute that the kind of men who asked for Bibles and rosaries to comfort them during their weeks below surface would also be the kind of men who would need to protect each other with the kind of oath of silence they actually took. Indeed, for many the oath itself is a kind of tacit admission of salacious goings-on of the kind of which the men would naturally wish for no one to learn. Why else would they promise so solemnly not to reveal the truth about their time underground?

I myself have no idea what went on, no specific inkling if the men behaved well or poorly (or if some of them did or didn’t). But I find great nobility in their decision to keep the story to themselves and not to sell it to the highest bidder. Despite the fact that that kind of reticence seems to fly against everything modern culture tends to valorize—the quick buck, the fifteen minutes of fame, the possibility of getting a walk-on role in a movie about oneself and one’s entourage, the Oprah interview—it also rests upon a series of suppositions that, as I’ve written to you on many different occasions, I believe moderns have jettisoned far too easily and thoughtlessly.

Sometimes we accidentally, or at least unintentionally, become privy to information about other people that has the potential to shame, to humiliate, or to hold up those other people to ridicule. In our secular Western culture, we have evolved the peculiar notion that there is something almost hypocritical—or, at the very least, peculiar—about keeping such knowledge to ourselves. The miners’ story could serve as a welcome antidote to that strange idea. And, indeed, the example they set for the world with their oath of silence should, I think, be the most meaningful part of their legacy. People do not need to know everything about everything. You are entitled to your privacy even if the things you are attempting to keep private are not the kind of salacious or grossly indecent things that supermarket tabloids would likely feature on their front pages. I dare say that the miners’ oath reflects the fact that not everybody behaved as nobly as they possibly could have in the early days when it was entirely reasonable to think they were not going to survive, that the mine would end up being their tomb. I admire them for choosing to keep secret information that might possibly humiliate or shame any of them. Am I curious what specific kind of poor behavior prompted their promise not to speak? My roots in secular Western culture make me feel almost obligated to be curious. But I really do know better. And I am actually far happier being impressed by the miners’ decision as a group to behave well than being titillated by the details of how one or several of them responded to the hopelessness of those first days of being buried alive by behaving in ways that now, in retrospect, might seem undignified or unworthy. I often joke that the secret to success in the rabbinate is mastering the art of the unexpressed thought. That surely is true (as it is, I suspect, in many other professions as well), but there is a larger truth underlying that jokey thought: that society as a whole is far better served by its members feeling far more nobly called upon to keep still their tongues and to mind their own business than to labor to bring to light every squalid detail about life on earth one can possibly uncover or, even more challengingly, already knows.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Appelfeld, Follett, Zimmermann

One of the most mysterious rabbinic techniques for deriving meaning from Scriptural texts is called hekeish, literally “juxtaposition,” and is based on the supposition that discrete texts concerned with unrelated topics but which nonetheless appear as contiguous sections of the Torah can nonetheless shed light on each other because of that contiguity. It’s a bit of an obscure concept within the art of rabbinic commentary, but I find myself applying it more and more to books that I’ve just happened to read one after the other…and noticing how what I read in one volume appears to shed light on what I’ve read in the other book despite the fact that the latter volume appears at face value to have nothing at all to do with the first book. This too, I realize, is an obscure idea. At the very least, it’s an unlikely interpretive avenue to travel down. And yet…it keeps happening to me!

Just a few weeks ago, I finished reading Aharon Appelfeld’s great book, Blooms of Darkness. Appelfeld, who writes in Hebrew, has published five books since Blooms of Darkness first came out in 2005, but this is the most recent of his books to appear in English translation. I have read, I believe, all (or at least almost all) of the sixteen of Appelfeld’s novels to be published in English over these many years, but this last one I attempted, and succeeded, to read in the Hebrew original. For those of my readers who can manage Hebrew, it’s absolutely worth the effort of reading his books in language in which they are written. Appelfeld’s Hebrew is literary, but not at all stuffy or overly ornate. He writes in simple, declarative sentences. He never uses two adjective where one will do. What he writes about is stark, even in places shocking, but also oddly familiar. He writes mostly about the Shoah. And more often than not his protagonists are children.

Blooms of Darkness, in Hebrew Pirchei Haafeila, tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Hugo. His father has been deported, presumably to his death. His mother, terrified, decides to go into hiding but knows it will be safest for them both if Hugo and she are separated. And so, after several failed attempts to find someone willing to risk harboring her child, she manages to contact a girlhood friend of hers, a Ukrainian woman name Mariana, and to extract from her a commitment to hide young Hugo. It is never made entirely clear, however, if Hugo’s mother understands that Mariana is a prostitute and that the house in which she lives, and in which she intends to hide Hugo, is a brothel. She surely does not understand that the clients of brothels in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were almost exclusively German soldiers. But even if she does know all that—we never quite find out how much she knows about Mariana’s life—she still has had no choice but to follow through on her original plan…and so she deposits Hugo there and then she disappears. We don’t find out her fate. I hope many of my readers will be prompted to want to read Appelfeld’s book so I don’t want to give too much away. I will say, though, that the final few chapters were beyond riveting. Here, in a few masterful strokes, the artist has managed to depict the state of the Jewish people itself at the end of the war: the losses unfathomable, the sense of near-total alienation from what were once familiar, or even friendly, surroundings so total as to be irreversible, the inability to see more than a few minutes into the future widely understood to constitute far more of a blessing than a curse. You’ll feel drained when the book finally ends. Yet I recommend it very highly. And I plan to read more of Appelfeld in Hebrew. (He has published almost three dozen works of fiction since his first book came out in 1962 and I haven’t read any of them in the original except for this one, so I won’t run out of books to choose from any time soon.)

The day I finished Blooms of Darkness—and I read in Hebrew about a third as quickly as in English—there arrived on my doorstep a behemoth of a book that I had pre-ordered on months ago and then forgotten all about: Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I’m a big Follett fan. His books I’ve also read all of. Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were, I think, my favorites. In the decade after Pillars, he brought out a number of books that weren’t, in my opinion, up to his usual standard. But then he returned to form with World Without End and now he has embarked on the Century Trilogy, a projected series of which Fall of Giants is the gargantuan first installment. (And even when he was down, he wasn’t out. A Dangerous Fortune, which came out a few years after Pillars of the Earth, was terrific.)

Fall of Giants is a big book—it’s almost a thousand pages long—and concerns the interwoven paths of four families, one Welsh, one English, one Russian, and one German, in the years between 1911 and 1925. There are plenty of Americans involved too, including a cameo by a surprisingly unappealing Woodrow Wilson. Like most Americans, I don’t know as much as I should about the First World War. Even back in high school I remember not quite getting it, not understanding how a war that appeared to be fought over nothing at all could possibly have cost the lives of almost ten million soldiers, including 126,000 Americans. (The numbers are almost unimaginable: if included are the definitely dead, the presumed dead, and those grievously wounded in battle, the grand total of the killed and the maimed was well over thirty-seven million.) In a sense, Follett’s book is an attempt to use the medium of fiction to explain, plausibly if perhaps not definitively, how this could possibly have happened, what could possibly have brought humanity to the kind of brutal insanity that led to death on a scale that even a few decades earlier would have been thought unfathomable.

Clearly, the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 was the decisive factor in the eventual victory of the Allied Powers. And to a great extent Follett’s book is about what brought that about. Americans were dithering. President Wilson was openly committed to America remaining neutral. Even the loss of 128 American lives when the Germans torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in 1915 did not draw America into the war!

And then came the Zimmermann telegram. It’s a long, complicated story that Follett makes the centerpiece of his argument. Readers interested in the long version should read Barbara Tuchman’s first-rate book, The Zimmermann Telegram, but the short version has to do with the fact that the Germans had not used their submarines against civilian targets since the Lusitania, but were planning to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1. Fearing that America might respond by entering the war, the Germans evolved a plan that was set forth in a telegram the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent to the German ambassador in Washington in January of 1917 with the request that he forward it to the German ambassador in Mexico City. The offer was simple: if it appeared likely that the United States was going to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the ambassador was to approach the Mexican government and invite them to ally themselves with Germany. The Germans, the offer made clear, would respond by joining Mexico in militarily pursuing its efforts to return to Mexican sovereignty Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as some other lands lost in the Mexican-American War of 1848. The rest, so Follett, is history. The Americans were clearly supposed to be so terrified of suddenly finding a Germany army massing on its southern border that intervention in Europe would become impossible. But the Brits managed to intercept the telegram and somehow to decode it. The contents was passed along to the Americans and revealed to the American public on March 1, 1917. America declared war on Germany on April 6. The Mexicans appear never even to have considered going to war with the United States.

It’s a long and crooked road from Room 40, the famous code-breaking section of the British Admiralty, to that lonely street depicted in Appelfeld’s novel as a boy from whom everything except life itself has been taken heartbreakingly walks slowly towards his former home to see if his parents have returned. (We know what he will find, or we think we do. Only Hugo has no idea.) And yet, there is also the breathtaking implication of Follett’s book as he leads us forward into the post-war era to consider. Because the Zimmermann telegram was decoded, he asserts, America entered the war. And it was because America entered the war that the Allied Powers won. And it was then because the Allies won and imposed on the losers a wholly ungenerous peace treaty that impoverished Germany, led to hyperinflation, and savagely humiliated the average German-in-the-street (none of whom had elected to go to war and almost two and a half million of whom had died in a conflict the point of which most would have been unable to explain, let alone cogently justify), National Socialism with its promise of future grandeur and restored military power—and also with its savvy understanding that blaming the Jews (who were present and could not defend themselves against the onslaught of a wholly hostile government) was going to play better than blaming Germany’s woes on foreigners with whom no German had any actual contact—was able to gain first a toehold, then a foothold, then eventually to come to power and thus to be in a position to self-grant its demented policies the authority of law.

And yet…Follett’s other suggestion, that absent American intervention the war would neither have been won nor lost by anybody at all but simply ground to a halt and been declared over, leads to that kind of historical “what-if” thinking that is so alluring and upsetting at the same time. If the telegram hadn’t been intercepted, would the United States have joined the war? If we hadn’t joined the war, how would the war have ended? If it had ended in a kind of draw without Germany being plunged into a pit of demoralization, poverty, and indebtedness from which no relief was imaginable, would the Nazis have come to power? You see where I’m going…and although one never finds out the answers to questions like these, they are still instructive to ponder.

We spend a lot of time telling ourselves that nothing matters, that no one can change the world, that we are all small fry in a world that barely pauses to notice regular people such as ourselves. But then we read a book like Ken Follett’s latest novel and suddenly it seems possible to imagine that the fate of the world rested, just for a day or two, in the hands of a single cryptographer in London who personally altered the course of history simply by doing his job. Is that so? No one can say or ever will be able to say. But it should give us pause for thought, we who too go to work every day and do things we like to imagine are not of any “real” consequence. That thought both appalls and appeals, the former because it confirms our sense of being personally unimportant in the greater scheme of things and the latter because it also allows us not to feel especially responsible for much more than ourselves and our families. But sometimes…our actions really do count and in ways that no one, least of all the actor him or herself, could possibly be expected to imagine in advance. Perhaps, in fact, that is the real lesson I learned from reading Follett on the heels of Appelfeld: that the noble path in life is to suppose that everything we do can and possibly even will have consequences far beyond anything we could even begin to fathom. The key, as always, is to be energized by that thought rather than paralyzed by it….and always to behave in a way that reflects the humility that kind of potential (unpredictable and indiscernible though it may be) can and should engender in us all.