Thursday, May 19, 2011


I’m not a huge fan of biographies. I have, of course, read plenty of them over the years and some I really have enjoyed immensely. (Robert K. Massie’s biography of Peter the Great comes right to mind, for example. As do—to think off the top of my head of books I’ve truly liked—Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, Joel Kraemer’s biography of Maimonides, Maynard Solomon’s biography of Beethoven, and Kitty Kelley’s great book about Sinatra.) Others, not so much. The problem always seems to be either too much detail (Peter Gay’s, Freud: A Life for Our Times come to mind in that regard) or, less often—as, for example, in the case of that same author’s book about Mozart—too little. For what it’s worth, I generally like autobiographies even less. Mind you, I just read one which will interest Shelter Rockers endlessly and regarding which I am publishing a separate review in the June issue of the Shelter Rock bulletin. But why give away that surprise here when the bulletin itself will come out in just a few weeks?

Having said all that, I’ve just finished reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His name, the author’s I mean, will be known to some of you for his book about William Wilberforce, the man responsible for bringing both the slave trade and slavery itself to an end in the British empire. (I haven’t read that book, actually, but I’d like to. It is, more formally: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, published by HarperOne in 2007. Maybe I’ll make it next year’s pre-Pesach read when slavery seems a reasonable thing to be thinking about. I’ll let you all know what I think then.) But will the subject’s name be any more familiar to most of us? Like most of you, I think I vaguely knew that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who lived and worked in Nazi Germany. But the details of his life—and specifically his role in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and the horrific story of his execution at the personal order of his intended victim on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the fall of Berlin and a day short of a single month before the collapse of Nazi Germany—were unknown to me. Nor can I say that I would have been able to say anything at all about the rest of his life’s work or his legacy before reading Metaxas’ book. In fact, I only came to the book because it came highly recommended to me and, like you (I hope), I generally make it my business to follow up on a good lead when someone whose literary taste I trust recommends a book I haven’t heard about. Sometimes that doesn’t quite work out as planned, of course, but most of the time it leads me to all sorts of interesting books I would otherwise probably not even come across, let alone actually read. But I have to say this was an exceptional experience, reading this book. And I recommend it to you wholeheartedly as something well worth your time. The book's full title is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published in 2010 by Thomas Nelson.

Generally speaking, rabbis (I guess) are not supposed to recommend that people read deeply inspiring books about the clergy of other faiths. But why should that be, really? In the end, the quality I admire the most in clergymen and women of all stripes is not the specific degree to which they hew to details of the religious systems to which they subscribe, but the degree to which their work is characterized by a sense of absolute and unyielding intellectual and spiritual integrity. And it is in that light that I found myself not merely enjoying a masterful biography set in the first four and a half decades of the twentieth century against a backdrop that includes Berlin, London, and New York, but feeling beyond inspired by the story of a man who embodies the concept of spiritual integrity in a way that all people who subscribe to religious beliefs, most definitely including ourselves, should not only respect but also honor, and honor deeply.

Bonhoeffer grew up in Berlin. In every sense, his was a golden childhood. His father was one of Germany’s best known and most accomplished neurologists. His mother was from one of Germany’s most distinguished families. He had an older brother who died in the First World War and two sisters, one of whom later married a man who was also part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler and who was executed on the same day as his brother-in-law, and also who was eventually honored at Yad Vashem as one of the righteous Gentiles who risked everything to save Jewish lives. There was plenty of money, plenty of prestige, education at Germany’s finest schools, a large home staffed by servants, and large servings of pre-war Germany culture at its finest. Against all odds (and also against his father’s wishes), Dietrich chose theology as his field of academic interest. But (in this one way not unlike myself) he eventually found life in the academy to be too far removed from the actual lives of the people he truly wished to serve, and so he chose instead to pursue a career in the actual ministry. Eventually, he served congregations in Germany and then in England. He was in New York on the eve of the Second World War, where he was especially influenced by the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., then the minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He could have stayed. He could have settled into a nice life in New York and known about the war by reading about it in the newspapers. But instead he made the first of the decisions that would alter the course of his life permanently and lead eventually to the gallows because, even though he was totally free and safe in New York, he felt called by God to return to Germany and to attempt to influence the faithful to oppose Nazism and to depose its leader.

To give you more of a sense of the man and his moral worth, let me cite a letter he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, then a professor at the Union Theological Seminary across from JTS on Broadway, explaining his decision. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote in August of 1939, “that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security." He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic. And thus was the man’s eventual doom sealed years before he had an actual inkling of what exactly lay in store for him.

Metaxas’ book makes it clear in a way that no other book I’ve read just what this decision actively to work against the Nazis meant in the circles in which Bonhoeffer travelled in the first years of the war. For us, the Jewish question will always crowd out everything else. That is undoubtedly just as it should be: if we don’t remember our own martyrs, who will? As a result, though, we tend to think of wartime Germans as monolithically evil. I notice myself doing that as well, but there were also Bonhoeffers to consider, men and women who could not simply stand back and do nothing. In the end, none of them was successful. None brought down the government. None managed to assassinate the arch-fiend himself. But they existed and, at the risk of their own lives, they did what they could to topple a regime that was not merely criminal in terms of its activities but truly demonic in terms of its worldview, its ruthlessness, and its disregard for the elemental value of human life. Reading about these people would be stirring enough. But watching Bonhoeffer evolve in terms of his faith in God—and, yes, I mean to say his Christian faith, since Bonhoeffer was a deeply pious Christian in every aspect of his demeanor, behavior, and personal philosophy—from a merely concerned citizen who didn’t like the direction in which his country was headed to a man who, to quote the founder of his own church, simply “could do no other” because of the conviction that turning away from the struggle against Nazis would be tantamount to renouncing God and faith in God—watching such a man evolve is both stirring and very inspiring.

We talk a lot about the importance of incorporating the struggle for social justice into our religious lives. We mean it, of course, but, in the end, we also find it more than possible to look away—or rather most of us do most of the time—when what is involved crosses the line from talking to doing, from opining that right must be done to actually taking steps that could lead to danger or arrest in the cause of justice. Whether reticence to put oneself on the line for others is simply hardwired into the human condition as a feature of our very human will to survive or whether it would more accurately be described as self-serving fecklessness (and thus as a flaw in, rather than as a basic feature of, human nature) is a question for philosophers to ponder. But to be inspired by the story of a man who gave his life to bring down a tyrant and whose last words, imbued with the approach to martyrdom that is characteristic of religious faith at its finest, were “This is…for me the beginning of life“—that is not solely for philosophers to ponder but for all who adhere to any set of religious beliefs at all to admire, and to admire deeply.

There are lots of features of Christian theology I find perplexing. There is a long, bitter history of Christian anti-Judaism that gets in the way of any positive appraisal of the role Christianity and its adherents have played in the life of our people. The founder of Bonhoeffer’s church himself was the author of one of the most viciously anti-Semitic tracts ever published in the pre-Nazi era. And yet…you will find it impossible to read a book like Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer without being moved. And it is therein that the book’s great merit lies and why I recommend it to you: here was a man who, for once, was the real deal, a man of faith whose beliefs led him only to good, only towards justice, only towards the conviction (for which he paid with his life) that life in the service of God cannot mean other than undertaking a lifelong struggle for justice in the world for all of God’s creatures.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Time Travel

In all those Hollywood movies about time travel, the key concept is not just that you manage to travel to some earlier era (like in Peggy Sue Got Married or The Terminator) or into the future (like in Planet of the Apes or The Time Machine) or to travel both to the past and into the future (like in the Back to the Future trilogy), but that you get to take your own personal present along for the ride when you resurface in whatever era you manage somehow to attain. Indeed, in all of the above mentioned films (and also in a thousand others, I’m sure), the plot turns on the fact that, even though the time traveler is surrounded by people who are living in their own present tense, the traveler him or herself gets to know what’s going to happen (if he or she is visiting the past) or some crucial detail about something that has already happened (if the plot concerns visiting the future). And the same is true, of course, of all the great books on the same theme: when Mark Twain’s Hank Morgan leaves 19th century Hartford (of all places) to spend time in King Arthur’s England, the plot turns over and over on the fact that he knows all about what the world will be like a millennium and a half into the future while all the people around him are moored to their own present. (Do they still read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in high school? It was briefly my favorite book when I was fourteen or fifteen!)

There is no such thing as time travel. (Oh yeah? So where are all the visitors from the future?) Or, if there is, then it exists—at least so far—solely in the speculative realm of theoretical physicists, science fiction authors, and Hollywood screenwriters, not in the day-to-day lives of actual people who, as things are, cannot take a train to 1952 the same way any of us can take the PATH train to Hoboken for the price of a ticket. But although none of us can actually vacation in the nineteenth century, it turns out that what we can do is visit from afar…and it was that truth that came home to me as I spent time earlier this week wandering around in the newly launched JTA Jewish News Archive, which lives at
JTA is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Its very name suggests its origins in an earlier age, which is precisely correct: it was founded in 1917 by one Jacob Landau (who at first called it the Jewish Correspondence Bureau) with an eye towards collecting news stories about Jewish communities all over the world and making them available in digest form to newspapers, magazines, and other interested parties for further dissemination. In the world before the internet, this was, of course, a huge undertaking that involved the coordination and verification of correspondents’ reports gathered in dozens of different locales and under all sorts of different circumstances, including dangerous ones, and their integration with each other into some sort of coherent narrative. The JTA morphed forward through the years from telegraph to tickertape to fax machines and finally into its current status as an on-line site that now does electronically exactly what it used to do mechanically: collect news stories concerning Jews from all over the world, verify them as carefully as possible, and then disseminate them to the media and to the public. (Take a look at this week’s edition, for example, at You can also subscribe to a newsletter called “The JTA Daily Briefing,” which digests the major stories JTA is covering at any given moment by signing up at

But the archive, with its own website, is something entirely new. And also something truly remarkable because it specifically does not provide readers with anything like the kind of thoughtful analysis a university professor or seasoned author would bring to an analysis of Jewish history. Books like that obviously have their place in the world. I read them myself all the time! But this is far more in the category of raw data than processed information…and spending time on the site is truly like traveling back in time. You can read the work, for example, of reporters in Vienna in 1938 who thought they well understood the beyond ominous implications of Austria’s willing self-annexation to Germany in March of that year, but who had no way even of beginning to imagine the extent of the horrors that were soon to ensue. But it is precisely because they did not know what the future was to be that their reports are so interesting and, at least in places, so touching. In other places, particularly in Shoah-related stories, the plain way things are said—without the embellishment someone controlling the larger picture would almost inevitably bring to the account—is chilling. The Babi Yar massacre (in the course of which more than 30,000 Kiev Jews were massacred in the course of two days in September 1941) was first reported in the West by JTA, but the report, filed on November 16, 1941, is all of two sentences long. The number of the dead is incorrect—the report speaks of 52,000 victims—but it is the tag line that is truly chilling as the reporter notes almost in passing: “Similar measures, though on a smaller scale, have been taken in other conquered towns.”

One way to browse the archive is to choose a day and to see what was going on. On that same day that the report about Babi Yar first appeared, for example, JTA also filed a report on the bravery of Jewish soldiers fighting in the Red Army against the Germans. And there were also featured that day a very interesting story about the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, manned in 1941 almost exclusively by Jewish refugees from Central Europe, embarking on its first Egyptian tour, as well as one about the formation in Ottawa of the first Air Cadet Flight Corps designed specifically to encourage young Jewish Canadian men to train as fighter pilots. I chose a few dates at random just to see what was going on. On my father’s tenth birthday, which fell on February 23, 1926, for example, JTA reported that after two failed attempts the Jewish students at the University of Chicago had finally managed to open a Jewish students’ organization. And also that unknown terrorists had managed to blow up a train on the Haifa-Damascus line. (Some things change and other things don’t seem ever to change. But how cool would it be to take the train from Haifa to Damascus!) And also that the Smithsonian Institute in Washington determined finally to abandon plans to build an observatory on Mount Sinai. And also, slightly chillingly—this is what I meant about visiting from the future—that America’s rabbis were being invited to enter a contest to find the best sermon preached in America on the subject of eugenics that was being run by the Committee on Cooperation with Clergymen of the American Eugenics Society. (Nazism basically ended any popular support for the pseudo-science of eugenics, the effort artificially to manipulate the gene pool of a nation or of a group within society. But how odd to imagine rabbis being invited entering such a contest just a decade before the Nazis came to power!) The rest of the day’s affairs feel entirely regular: a brand new JCC in Washington D.C. was dedicated, the Turkish press was chided by the chief rabbi of Turkey for publishing anti-Jewish stories, a new system for delivering fresh water into Jerusalem homes was announced by the municipality, etc., but the snapshot of how things were on that specific day is itself worth contemplating, coming as it does with neither the baggage of hindsight nor the burden of ex post facto analysis. And there are a lot of these snapshots to contemplate because every single day between January 1, 1923, and December 31, 2008 is represented on the website. Trust me, you’ll love time travel!

Some dates will call out all to be visited all by themselves. I spent time the other day at May 8, 1945 to see how V-E Day felt to the reporters writing for JTA as it was actually unfolding and May 16, 1948, to see how Truman’s recognition of the newly independent State of Israel was covered. I visited June 8, 1967, to see how they reported on the liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. And I went to June 22, 1953, to see how JTA covered the funeral of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Of course, I also went to the day I was born! I’ve always known that I was born on the day after Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mount Everest and the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London. (My mom once told me those were three very exciting days, each in its own way!) But now I also know that on the day I was born in Manhattan, vandals destroyed the stained glass windows in the sanctuary at the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, the police in Jerusalem announced the discovery of a large cache of weapons collected by a Jewish extremist group called Brit Kanaim (Covenant of the Zealous), Konrad Adenauer’s cabinet approved the a draft regarding future reparations payments to Shoah survivors, and the South African Board of Jewish Deputies celebrated its “Golden Jubilee Congress.”

As noted above, there really is no such thing as time travel. It is a fabulous fantasy, one that has intrigued people since ancient times. But the opportunity the JTA Archive website affords to travel back to specific days in the past and to see how the events of that day seemed to the people on the ground and in the moment, while not exactly time travel in the classical sense of the term, is still an amazingly rich experience. Now that I’m done watching the Eichmann trial on youtube—or rather, now that I’m done watching as much as I could take—I’ve taken to browsing the JTA Archive and seeing what’s there. So far, what I’ve found has been endlessly intriguing, and I think you’ll feel the same way.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bin Laden Dead or Alive

For the last few days, I’ve been challenging myself to say precisely why the death of Osama Bin Laden has not triggered in me personally the same jubilation that it appears to have sparked in the large majority of our countrymen and, indeed, in people all around the world. Partially, perhaps, his death almost seemed anti-climactic, coming as it did in the wake of an amazing winter and spring during which huge swaths of the Muslim world turned decisively away from the docile acceptance of totalitarian rule and, by standing up to demand the basic rights and freedoms we Americans so often—too often—take for granted, appeared publicly and forcefully to be repudiating the kind of fanatic islamicism associated with Bin Laden and his ilk. And partially I suppose it had to do with the sad truth that his death will not bring back to life any of the 2,977 people who died on the ground and in the air in New York, Washington, and Shanksville on that September day almost ten years ago. But I suppose I regret most deeply of all that the fiend responsible for so much misery and for so many deaths—and it would not be unreasonable also to add to our losses on 9/11 all those others who have died in the War Against Terrorism since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan, by some estimates as many as 1.2 million civilians along with almost six thousand American servicemen and women—I regret that the man who bore the personal responsibility for loss on that kind of scale was not taken alive and brought to trial.

By that thought, I do not mean to second guess the Navy SEALs who conducted the raid in Abbottabad by supposing both with the luxury of hindsight and from a very safe distance that they should or could have exerted themselves more strenuously to take their prisoner alive. Lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge of how military actions like that are conducted and disinclined always to question the integrity of our troops, the last thing I wish to imply is that the SEALs should have done differently or better. Yet, for all the outcome may have been unavoidable, I still find myself regretting that it didn’t turn out otherwise, that Bin Laden was executed not upon being apprehended but after having been found guilty in a court of law or in a military tribunal. As I mentioned to you last week, one of the movies that influenced me the most deeply during my adolescence was Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg starring Maximillian Schell, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, and many others including Marlene Dietrich and a young William Shatner. The movie, which featured actual footage of concentration camp atrocities taken by American soldiers after those camps were liberated, was the one of the first major movies with a Shoah theme and it affected me in a way that few other movies ever have. The plot itself was fictionalized—and the movie is specifically not based on the actual Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and ideologues that took place in 1945 and 1946, but on a secondary trial of four Nazi judges that took place in 1947—but the moral lessons of the movie, that no one is above the law, that even individuals accused of the most heinous crimes against humanity have the right to defend themselves in court, and that the agony of the Nazis’ victims specifically did not obviate the need to bring their murderers to justice rather than merely to murder them in the same summary fashion in which they murdered those victims, are what impressed me the most deeply.

If you haven’t considered Nuremberg in a while, take a look at a contemporary American newsreel made in 1946 just after sentence was pronounced against the twenty-four defendants by clicking here. I’ve seen it before. I just watched it again. No one feels more strongly—no one could feel more strongly—than I that death was, if anything, too lenient a punishment for the authors of such unspeakable aggression against the Jewish people and against so many millions of others. And yet I find myself beyond moved by the fact that when the guns fell silent and Europe was at peace, the natural desire of all civilized people to punish the guilty was subjugated to a deeper sense that justice could only truly be pursued by prosecutors in a court of law. Would Hitler himself have been in the dock at Nuremberg had he not taken his own life? Surely he would have been, as equally surely would have been Himmler and Goebbels. In a sense, I regret that the three of them did not stand trial and that they had the luxury of choosing the hour and circumstance of their own deaths; that should have been denied to them just as they themselves denied to their victims. But even without them the trial at Nuremberg stands in my mind for the ultimate victory of civilization over anarchy, and of human decency over bestial depravity. If you haven’t watched Judgment at Nuremberg lately, or if some of my younger readers have never seen it, you should. I believe you will find it just as deeply moving as I did.

I feel the same way about Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of wartime Japan who was not only responsible for Pearl Harbor but also for the murder of millions of civilians in China, the Philippines, and Indochina, as well as for the deaths of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners-of-war. He attempted to commit suicide before he could be arrested, but was unsuccessful—there is some gruesome irony in the fact that a man responsible for the deaths of so many millions could not quite manage to kill himself even though his doctor had drawn a charcoal circle on his chest over his heart—and was brought to trial, then convicted and sentenced to death in November, 1948. The sentence was carried out the following month. Why Emperor Hirohito himself was not tried as a war criminal as well, I can’t personally understand. But what matters to me the most personally is not whether any specific individual was or was not tried, but that in post-war Japan just as in Germany the rule of law was deemed sacred and even the worst war criminals, Tojo included, were not just shot, but given a fair trial and then executed after having been sentenced to death.

And, of course, I feel the same way about Eichmann. Last week, I wrote to you about the effect reading Gideon Hausner and Isser Harel’s books had on me as a young person and about the pride they instilled in the me. But that pride was not only in the daring and the expertise of the Israelis who successfully tracked Eichmann to Argentina and then spirited him back to Israel for trial, but in the fact itself that they did not simply shoot him upon finding him. Surely, they could have. They probably could also have managed to cover up the murder and make it look like some sort of crime that got out of hand. They could have done a lot of things, but the Israelis understood that simply to shoot a man like Eichmann would have been far too easy a way out for him. A man with the blood of millions on his hands needed not merely to be executed, but to stand trial, to be forced in a court of law to explain himself, to attempt to defend himself…or, if he preferred, to admit to his guilt and throw himself on the mercy of the court. In either event, he would have ended up dead. But as things played out, his death was not merely justice for his victims, but also catharsis for the rest of us. By extending to him the basic human right to mount a defense against his accusers that he would never have dreamt of according his own victims, Israel distinguished itself as a state motivated by the quest for justice, not merely for revenge. It was among Israel’s finest hours. I wrote last week about watching the trial over these last few weeks on youtube, an activity I continue to recommend to you. (You can see the trial in the original here and with an English voiceover here.) It is upsetting viewing, to be sure. But it is also ennobling and deeply satisfying to see justice take its course.

And that is what I would have wished for Bin Laden as well. I would have welcomed the opportunity to hear a case built against him, for him to have been granted the right to speak in his own defense, for him to be treated precisely as people put on trial in democracies should always be treated. Once convicted, I imagine he would have been sentenced to death. Of course, the outcome would have been the same. But the death I would have preferred for Bin Laden would have been so much the more satisfying one precisely because it would have come as punishment not as avoidable/unavoidable happenstance.

I suppose my reluctance to be overjoyed over the circumstances of Bin Laden’s death puts me in tiny minority of Americans. And surely I am beyond pleased to know that one of our most dangerous enemies has been permanently neutralized and his ability to harm others just as permanently ended. I just wish he had met his end after having been forced by a court to accept the full responsibility for his bad deeds and for the misery and suffering he brought to so many in our country and abroad, not in a hail of bullets. In the end, what’s done is done. But I challenge you to watch or to re-watch Judgment at Nuremberg and not regret that it was Osama bin Laden’s fate to be cut down while resisting arrest rather than tried and convicted in a court of justice.