Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking Forward to 2013

As 2012 draws to a close, the traditional barrage of end-of-year columns is well under way. The year’s ten best books. The year’s ten worst fashion blunders. The year’s ten defining political moments. The year’s ten greatest movies, and the year’s ten worst. As a result, I decided to finish off my year of writing to you all by making my own decimal list. But what was I to make a list of? That was the question! I considered my ten favorite books, but I’ve already written to you about at least half of them and don’t much like repeating myself. I thought of the movies, but I don’t believe I actually saw ten movies in 2012 (and half of the ones I did manage to see I saw in the last ten days, so my list would hardly reflect a fair sampling of the year’s cinematographic output anyway). I briefly considered rating my weekly letters and telling you which ten I myself thought were the most worthy, but that job seemed more reasonably to fall to my readers than to myself. But then, after considering my options, it struck me that what I really want to list are the prayers I hold in my heart for 2013.

My first prayers are for our country. As I wrote to you last week and as I’ve spoken about several times now from the bimah, the epidemic of gun violence in our country simply cannot be allowed to go on unchecked.  I continue not to think of this as a Second Amendment issue per se, but rather that this is only tangentially related to the constitutional guarantee that American citizens be allowed to form armed local militias. Nor do I believe that this is solely about the scourge of extremely violent video games that has desensitized an entire generation to the reality of what guns actually do to people in the non-digital world.  And I also don’t think it is really about our nation’s failure pre-emptively to incarcerate mentally ill persons merely because some specific citizen could conceivably commit a violent crime one day. All of those are issues to consider. Some of them are burning problems with which society must come to terms. But my prayer for our country—the first of my prayers for 2013—is that a national consensus emerge that we simply cannot allow things to continue the way they have been. And that the incidents of gun violence that have lately cost the lives of so many innocents are, contra the gun lobby, simply not the price we pay for living in a free society. My second prayer is an outgrowth of the first: that Americans open their eyes and look north to Canada, and across the sea to Japan, and across the other sea to Ireland and to Holland, and see that the possibility exists of modern, first-world, industrialized countries not living with what has lately come to feel like the monthly slaughter of innocents by deranged people with loaded guns in their hands. Both of those prayers would have been on my list after Newtown, but now after Webster as well…how can any of us not close the year in prayer for an end to all of this senseless horror?

And that brings me to my second set of prayers, the ones in my heart for Israel as 2013 dawns.  The hostility of the world towards Israel continues unabated in most quarters.  The United Nations, once a beacon of hope in the world, couldn’t act fast enough to reward the Palestinians for their unprovoked rocket attacks against Israeli civilians by voting significantly to enhance their status in the General Assembly. The level of anti-Israel sentiment in Western Europe seems only to rise as it becomes mixed in with overt, unadorned anti-Semitism. Most of the world seems to have made its de facto peace with Iran becoming a nuclear power.  But despite it all, I still feel confident—and, inexplicably, incontrovertibly so—that Israel will find a way to survive and to thrive. My third prayer, therefore, is that that the citizens of Israel not lose heart and retain the same level of faith in their own future that I myself somehow seem unable not to feel. My fourth prayer, however, is that the Jews of the diaspora, remembering that in Israel’s peace lies too their own, remain just as fully supportive of the Jewish state as its own citizens are. Dissent is healthy in a robust democracy, but we have seen too many prominent Jewish people, including rabbis, publically embracing policies that cannot be construed as anything but inimical to Israel’s long-term chances for survival. My prayer is that those voices fall silent, and that we find it in us somehow to speak in one voice forcefully and unambiguously in support of Israel both in our own country and also in the forum of nations.

My fifth and sixth prayers are for the world itself.  I could almost hear the cellos doing that tremolo thing in the background that movie makers use to signal imminent disaster as I read an article just last week in the paper about how Antarctica is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world. The good news, sort of, is that the actual breakup of the Antarctica ice sheet will probably take hundreds of years. The bad news is that it appears to be coming…and will result in a rise of world-wide sea levels by at least ten feet. I don’t know why that specific detail, its long-term consequences lying perhaps as far in the future as the founding of New Amsterdam lies in the past, seems so ominous to me. We all know that something is afoot. The weather has changed noticeably in all of our own lifetimes. How to interpret the data, how to decide whether this is just what the earth “does” in the course of its glacial progress through the millennia or if we are seeing something new that humanity itself has brought about, how to know what in either event there is to do about it…or if there even is anything we could do that might matter at this point—to none of these questions do I have even tentative answers.  And so my fifth prayer is that even the most inveterate naysayers finally get on board and that the human family, finally acting in concert, recognize that the Creator gave us this world to tend and to keep…or to destroy through our own inability to see the consequences of our own actions. And my sixth prayer is that God grant us the wisdom to know how to be stewards of our planet not merely in theory, but in practice as well. And that we find it in us to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to preserve life as we know it on our planet not merely for our children and their children, but for our descendants far in the future  whose very lives will depend on the actions we do or do not take to address problems that we are mostly unable even fully to fathom in all their complexity and the solutions of which are, at least to date, known to none.

My seventh prayer is for my own congregation at Shelter Rock. As we enter our second half-century, we are faced, as you all know, with daunting challenges. Some are purely fiscal and will only be solved by Shelter Rockers being generous enough to grant Shelter Rock the financial stability it will need to flourish. Other challenges have to do with demographics and with changing attitudes among Jewish young people. And still others have to do with the place of religion itself in a digital world that offers venues for conversation and companionship, even for counseling, that to some make organized congregational life superfluous.  And so my prayer for Shelter Rock is that God grant that our members maintain their traditional levels of generosity when it comes to sustaining our synagogue, and that we all remain faithful to the ideals that led the founders of our congregation to build in this place and to create the kind of community we have managed over these more than five decades to build, to nurture, and to sustain.  As important as money is, we cannot solve all our problems by writing checks. We must also look into our hearts and imagine, then re-imagine, what a Jewish community possessed of so many of God’s gifts could develop into as the years pass if  we remain faithful to our vision, if we remain wholly devoted to each other’s welfare, and if  we are able to step aside from the concept of survival for its own sake and instead embrace a plan for the future that is rooted in our common desire to make of this place a house of prayer for all people and a beacon of sustaining hope in the great mission of Israel to bring redemption to the world. And that too is part of my prayer for the coming year.

My last prayers are for my family and for my readers. As many of you know, this is going to be a big year for Joan and for me. Our first child to wed will marry, please God, in August. I know many of you have been where we are about to go (and many of you have been there many times over, including with respect even to grandchildren), but for us this is a whole new ballgame. I’ve always known that a child’s wedding would be an emotional event, but I hadn’t really understood just how deep my feelings would go, how much of an emotional game-changer this whole series of events would turn out actually to be. I’ll write more about this in coming months, I think, as Joan and I figure out how you do this exactly. But my prayers for now you can probably already guess. For my dear daughter, I pray only that God grant her a happy marriage with a husband who loves her and whom she loves, and that the home they establish be a blessing for themselves and for all who know them. For my sons, I pray that God grant that they too spend the years of their lives living with people they love in homes filled with devotion, dignity, and warmth.  And for all of you I reserve my tenth and final prayer. May God grant you all the happiness Joan and I are feeling as we contemplate the first of our children’s weddings. Surely, there is no greater source of joy in the world than seeing your children thriving and happy and well. That, unberufen, God has granted us. And so I finish by wishing you exactly the same! May God bless you all with pleasure from your children and may 2013 bring you all good health and all of God’s choicest blessings. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012


In written music, there is a symbol called the caesura. It looks like two bold slashes across the top of a line and it means something almost unique in the complicated world of musical notation: that the counting of time ceases and only resumes when the conductor gives the nod to the orchestra to continue playing or when solo performers feel the moment to resume upon them. That sounds interesting enough in its own right, I think—that the system in effect permits time to stop and to stay stopped for as long as the conductor or performer wants—but it’s also interesting to compare the caesura to a similar, but not quite identical, concept in musical notation that has the same effect but an entirely different philosophical underpinning. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself….

In musical notation, different kinds of notes denote the length of their duration with respect to each other. A conductor can have the orchestra play a piece of music at a faster or slower tempo, therefore, but if the musicians are reading their music carefully, the relative length of each note will remain constant: no matter how fast or slow the piece is being played, therefore, a half note will always be twice as long as a quarter note and a quarter note will be twice as long as an eighth note. But musical notation also allows a composer to step out of the system by marking a given note with a sign called a fermata, something like a half-circle with its ends pointing down and a dot in the middle. With this sign, the musician is given the right to hold a note for as long as he or she wishes…regardless of how long the note “should” be held. Are you still with me? It’s a way of handing the right of personal, creative expressivity to a performer, a way of permitting a pianist or a cellist or any musician, even a singer, to hold a note for as long as seems right at the moment. And rests too can have fermatas over them…which denote that the performer or the conductor can prolong a pause in the music for as long as seems right at the moment.

The fermata, therefore, is part of the system. It permits a performer or a conductor to respond to his or her own sense of artistry, to the feel in the room, to the specific kind of magic the music has summoned up in his or her breast at some specific moment: at a specific performance or in some specific place, or even in the course of a specific time of that person’s life. It is freedom…but wholly within the system. It is artistry absent anarchy, thus expressivity well within the confines of the very system it briefly ignores.

The caesura is different. It is wholly outside the system. It isn’t about the length of a note or a rest licitly being extended here or there, but about the system itself halting in its tracks. Counting isn’t prolonged—it ceases entirely. We are not talking about elongation, even of silence, but of a break between two parts of the piece…and one the conductor or the performer can hold onto for as long as seems necessary to make that specific point: that what is about to come is wholly different from what came before.  Caesura comes from the Latin word meaning “break” or “gap” and that is exactly what it denotes:  a break that separates totally what came before from what follows. It is, and by far, the rarer of the two signs because it denotes the rarer of two foundational emotions: the desire totally to start anew as opposed to the desire slightly to reform.

I believe there are fermata moments in history too, as well as caesura moments. In my mind, a fermata moment would be when the normal rules are stretched for a moment to accommodate some new development in history or even within society itself. In the wake of a big storm, a city suspends the alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules that generally pertain. The system is left intact, just briefly put on hold. Then the snow melts, at least eventually, and the rules go back into effect. This is a fermata moment: malleability without revolution, flexibility that—in the minds of most—enhances the system by making it more responsive to the needs of the people it was presumably invented in the first place to serve but without suggesting a break with the past. Just the opposite, actually: the fermata is licit creativity well within the confines of the system that tolerates it occasionally.

But there are also caesura moments in history, moments when the counting stops entirely, moments where that break is not about the inherent elasticity of the system but about the repudiation of the system itself.

I believe that the most meaningful response to the events of last week would be for Americans, speaking for once with one voice and without respect to partisan politics, to declare Newtown to be, not a fermata in the ongoing history of the American people, but a caesura moment, one that will permanently separate what came before from what will not have to follow.  The assaults on innocents that preceded last Friday’s massacre are known by the names of the places in which they occurred—Aurora, Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Tucson, etc.—because, like hurricanes, they have simply become too numerous to keep straight in our minds without giving them names. Gun violence has reached such epidemic proportions, in fact, that even the statistics sound made up, too fantastic actually to believe. Is it really possible that 2,800 children die from gun-inflicted injuries every year in our country? Is it possible that more preschoolers die from gun violence each year than police officers in the line of duty? Is it possible that someone dies from a gunshot wound every twenty minutes in our country, day in and day out, week after month after year? I believe all of the above statistics to be correct. But even I can’t quite believe them to be true.

There are clearly a lot of issues involved here. In my opinion, however, this is not “about” the Second Amendment per se, or not chiefly about it.  That amendment, widely interpreted as granting citizens the right to own guns unless the government has some overriding reason to prohibit them from doing so, is seen by many as the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of our citizenry. Thomas Jefferson himself once said that “the strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” The large majority, if not all, of our founding fathers clearly agreed with that sentiment. Nor can or should Jewish Americans divorce their response to Jefferson’s quote from their feelings about the Shoah, about the helplessness that ensued in uncountable quarters throughout Europe as a fiendish government went to war with the unarmed Jews of its vassal states. But I do not believe that the right of citizens to bear arms is the real issue here. Criminals will always ignore the law. Irrational people by definition behave irrationally, and that irrational behavior can include acts of extreme violence. The overwhelmingly large majority of Americans who own guns do not murder other people with them.

Nor do I believe that this is about our national failure to care thoughtfully and kindly with the mentally ill among us. The Newtown shooter seems clearly to have been a troubled young man. If he had been convicted of a serious crime, he might have been sent to prison. But for someone who is just a bit off—withdrawn, surly, disconnected, weird, even creepy—we have no obvious solutions: surely people in a democracy cannot be locked up because they might commit a crime some day! But when guns, including semi-automatic weapons, can easily be acquired by “regular” people who have no obvious need for them, they become simultaneously available to anyone with access to that person’s home, including (as in Newtown) that person’s children and friends, not to mention that person’s cleaning lady or plumber or carpet cleaner.  And somewhere in the warp and woof of those two issues as they intersect—the impossibility of keeping guns out of the hands of people who merely have access to the homes in which they are licitly kept and our national disinclination to treat the unusual among us as advance criminals whose activities the government should reasonably restrict—in the space between those issues lies the real problem, the one we appear to have no idea how to solve.

We live in a society that considers violence normal. In a study undertaken by Professor Norman Herr of the California State University at Northridge, the average American child will have “seen” eight thousand murders on television before finishing elementary school. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see the study here.)  After a while, that  level of violence becomes normal, acceptable, even expected in the context of what television depicts as normal, day-to-day life. And, of course, it never really seems to matter much either because the actors who are killed show up the next day on other shows as good as new! Slowly, children learn that guns are normal, that violence perpetrated with guns is normal, that death is coterminous with the end of a TV show, and that, ultimately, it is rational to regret that guns kill people…but only in the manner that people regret that terrible diseases also kill people, or that hurricanes or tsunamis do, but not to feel personally challenged to do anything about it.

Where do we go from here? The President and many members of Congress have been talking in these last days about the need to begin a serious nation-wide effort to find a solution to these horrific acts of random violence that are plaguing our land. That’s laudable, but the citizenry must now also speak out and give notice that we are going to hold our elected officials to their word, that we will settle for nothing less than an effective solution to this terrible disease that has infected our society. I believe that Newtown has the capacity to become a true caesura moment for American society, an event by its very nature so horrific that nothing can now be the same as it was.

As I mentioned from the bimah last week, there are large, first world, industrialized countries out there like Japan or Holland that have the tiniest fraction of gun-related fatalities that we do. Those countries are all democracies, all places in which the rights of the citizenry are considered sacrosanct, yet in which massacres like Newtown simply do not occur. That being the case, I intend to keep my representatives in the Congress and the President on notice that no aspect of domestic policy matters more to me at this moment than finding a solution to this epidemic of gun-related violence. Citizens seeking a meaningful way to respond to Newtown should do no less.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Heroes in Dreamland

I suppose we all live in our own dreamlands, which is to say that we all have our personal, idiosyncratic sets of running motifs that characterize our dreams over and over in different guises and settings.  Or is that a feature of more of nightmares than other kinds of dreams? It’s hard to say! Some of these themes, of course, we mostly all share and will thus be familiar to most. I myself, for example, have had a set of recurring dreams since adolescence that feature the concept of the visible but inaccessible escape route from disaster and the attendant frustration that comes from seeing a way out that I somehow cannot quite get to or arrive at.  That is one of the recurring themes in Shoah nightmares for most of us, I think, but it also surfaces—I speak personally here, but I hope not too personally—in other kinds of dreams set in utterly ahistorical contexts. It’s also interesting to me how reticent most of us are to speak in public about our dreams.  Perhaps we have all been a bit over-influenced by the kind of classical Freudian approach that posits deeply personal meaning to our dreams, including at deep psychic levels that we ourselves cannot quite comprehend.  Vaguely convinced that this somehow must be so, we then conclude that by telling our dreams we risk revealing secrets to others that we ourselves have yet accurately to identify, let alone successfully to confront.  Is that why most people keep their dreams secret? It could be!

Perhaps it is because I have had that particular dream—the one about the inaccessible escape route—a thousand times that I have always been drawn to the stories of heroes who, transcending the concept of escaping from danger, instead choose to run towards it for the sake of serving a higher and more noble end than mere self-preservation. Hannah Szenes, for example, was safe in British Palestine when she volunteered at age twenty-three to parachute into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia for the sake of participating in the effort to rescue at least some of the Hungarian Jews being deported daily by the tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Of her end, we all know: captured by the Germans, she was executed by a firing squad on November 7, 1944. Gone all these years, she yet lives on in my mind—and I know also in the minds of so many countless others—as the exemplar of the true hero, the one who chooses to risk everything to do good and who ends up paying with his or her life for the privilege of having done so. (Less often mentioned, but equally worthy of mention are the two men who joined her on her mission, Peretz Goldstein and Yoel Palgi. Goldstein was captured and sent to the concentration camp at Oranienburg, where he too died. Palgi escaped capture and managed somehow to return home, eventually writing one of the more extraordinary Shoah-based memoirs, Into the Inferno: The Memoir of a Jewish Paratrooper behind Enemy Lines, first published by Rutgers University Press in 2002.  For me personally, all three exemplify heroism at its finest.) 

Playing the same tune in a somewhat different key was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, regarding whose 2011 biography by Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published by Thomas Nelson) I have written to you all in detail. (For readers reading electronically, you can find my review of Metaxas’ book by clicking here.) Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister, was safe in New York in 1939, teaching theological students at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and children in the Sunday School of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem under the tutelage of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. Yet he chose to return to Germany, traveling across the ocean on the very last steamship to carry civilian passengers from New York to Hamburg in 1939. Eventually, he became involved in several different plots to assassinate Hitler, which failed efforts culminated in the famous 20 July Plot in 1944 in which Bonhoeffer was a key player. For his troubles, he was arrested, then imprisoned, then sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was hanged just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Here was a man from a wealthy family who had already escaped, who was free to live his life as he saw fit. But like a fireman rushing into a burning building, he felt called to return to Germany to attempt to do good in the worst of all situations. Had he succeeded, the lives of countless innocents would possibly have been saved. He too was thus a hero and, in my personal estimation, a kind of a saint.

And that brings me to today’s topic, the death last month of Birger Strømsheim at age 101.   Strømsheim was born in 1911  in Alesund, Norway. After the Germans invasion of Norway in 1940 and the subsequent coup d’état that left collaborator Vidkun Quisling in charge of a fascist government more than ready to carry out even the most nefarious of the Nazis’ plans, the Strømsheims fled to England. Soon, Birger Strømsheim became part of the so-called Special Operations Executive invented by the British to coordinate resistance in occupied Europe. And it was from there, from the safe haven he had found for his family in England, that Strømsheim agreed secretly to return to Norway to attempt to blow up the German-controlled Norsk Hydro Facility in which it was suspected, apparently correctly, that the Germans were attempting to create the “heavy water” necessary to create nuclear bombs.

Undertaking the mission must have been a terrifying prospect. The facility was located in Rjukan, in the forbidding, frozen Telemark region of Norway. An earlier effort by a different team of exiled Norwegians had failed; the plan had been for the Norwegians to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the plant by British soldiers who would follow, but those soldiers were captured, tortured, and executed. The Norwegians went into hiding, leaving the Norsk plant operating, and thus creating the need for a follow-up mission. The second mission, the one for which Strømsheim volunteered, parachuted into the Telemark, managed somehow to find the first team, and together both teams proceeded successfully to destroy the building that housed the facility. The team then scattered and Strømsheim managed to ski more than 200 miles to safety in Sweden all by himself.  Some of you may have seen the 1965 movie, The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, which recounted the stories of both teams’ efforts. But even if you didn’t see it—and I myself never have, although I’d like to—the concept itself is inspiring. (Strømsheim’s obituary in the Times mentioned the amusing detail that he himself didn’t like the movie because he thought it made the mission seem too glamorous!) Nevertheless, here was a man who knew the evils of Nazism, who managed somehow to escape with his family to safety while escape was still possible…and yet who volunteered to return to Nazi-dominated Norway for the sake of doing good and, even more accurately, for the sake of preventing what would surely have been the most unimaginably horrific scenario of them all—Nazi Germany successfully developing nuclear weaponry—from becoming reality.

In my dreams, all I want is to flee from danger. But there are people in the world who, possessed of the sense that they can do good, run toward danger, toward burning buildings, toward the risk of capture and execution.  

I’ve occasionally cited Miep Gies in my letters to you. She was the woman who hid Anne Frank and her family and sustained them in hiding—and who coincidentally also died a few years ago almost at age 101—but she always bristled at being called a hero, feeling that moral, decent, just behavior towards those who are in danger or who are suffering should be considered the norm, not something exceptional that only special people would undertake. I see her point—and I feel humbled by her humility—but I also disagree. There are heroes among us…of all stripes and sorts, men and women, Jews and gentiles, older and younger. What unites them is the common willingness they all seem to have to be willing to risk everything to do good. We should do our best to be inspired by their example.

I can’t write about Strømsheim and his seven colleagues, all of whom were true heroes, without pausing to consider the possibility of a nuclear Nazi Germany. Surely no prospect, even this long after the fact, could possibly be more terrifying than the thought of the Nazis having weapons at their disposal that could have turned London and Washington to dust. And yet…how eager the world seems to discount the possibility of the extremists who run Iran actually using nuclear weapons against their enemies—and not only against the greater and lesser Satans but also against other Muslim countries that appear to be drifting away from fanaticism and fundamentalism towards democracy and liberal values. I have written in this space many times about the importance of insisting that our government stick to its commitment to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. (The scenario unfolding in Syria should only make it more clear why the leaders of Iran should not, when the inevitable rebellion begins, have the capacity to annihilate their own people.)  All of our leaders, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, have said all the right things in this regard, and repeatedly. Our job is merely to hold them to their word as best we can by supportively writing to the White House and to our representatives in Congress to remind them that no issue of foreign policy matters more than preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. None of us is being asked to parachute into the Telemark (or into Teheran) and to risk our lives for the sake of preventing a brutal regime from acquiring weapons of truly mass destruction. But, even not on skis, we can still all try to do the right thing! 

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Two or Three State Solution

It’s been an interesting week for the synagogues of Manhattan. On the positive side of the ledger, one Ahmed Ferhani, a resident of Queens, pled guilty both to conspiring to blow up Manhattan synagogues (if he had specific ones in mind, their names were not released to the public) and to conspiring to acquire the weapons necessary to do so. Justice Michael Obus is expected to impose a sentence of ten years in prison. The length of the sentence, significantly less than the twenty-five years that could have been imposed had the accused gone to trial and been convicted, reflects the grand jury’s rejection of the prosecution’s initial argument that the plan was to destroy the synagogues when they were filled with worshipers not late at night when they would likely be empty. In any event, the length of the sentence has to be considered in light of the fact that Ferhani is very likely to be deported back to his native Algeria after he serves his sentence, thus severely limiting his ability to blow up any buildings at all, synagogues included, on American soil. So, for once, it’s a win for the good guys.

In other news, the response of the leadership of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of Manhattan’s largest congregations, sent out an e-mail to their members lauding the vote at the United Nations upgrading the Palestinians to the status of “nonmember observer state” as “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.” (That a message written by the rabbis of a Manhattan congregation to its membership would be considered worthy of front-page coverage in the New York Times is interesting in its own right.)  The e-mail, which then went on to encourage congregants to come forward to celebrate this marvelous accomplishment in the forward march of the Palestinians to statehood, was then followed up with some furious backpedaling by its authors, who now insisted that went out was a draft of the intended final copy that omitted several key points. Whether the initial e-mail went over well or poorly depends on whom you ask. In that front-page article in the Times, which those reading this electronically can access by clicking here, some congregants quoted were delighted while others were horrified. The comments collected on the Times’ website were equally varied. Some were truly appalling. (I am thinking, for example, of the self-defined-as-Jewish writer who wrote that she “hate[s] Zionism as the last vestige of nineteenth century German ethnic-based nationalism,” whatever that could possibly mean, other than that the writer must live on some other planet than Earth.) Others were thoughtful and thought-provoking. There were hundreds upon hundreds of comments to sift through, far too many for me to tally on my own in terms of which side of the argument the majority tended to favor.  But I did get the sense that the people who self-identified as members of Bnai Jeshurun seemed mostly to be accepting both of their leadership’s right to express itself openly even on sensitive topics and also of the message in the e-mail itself. The letters to the editor that followed, presumably chosen for publication because they reflected the range of viewpoints expressed in the fuller tally of letters received, were equally equivocal, including those written by rabbis.

It being a free country, people can say what they wish to whomever they wish about, mostly, whatever they wish. But the question I want to write to you about this week has to do not with the question of whether the rabbi or rabbis of a synagogue should or should not feel free to speak out forcefully even when it is clear that the opinion being putting forward will be controversial, but with the question of the U.N. vote itself.

We often speak with at least tepid enthusiasm about the so-called “two-state solution,” the latest iteration of the original concept of partition of the Holy Land that the United Nations, still in its glory days, voted to impose on the British Mandate of Palestine as the Brits prepared to pull out and something needed to take its place. As we all know, that “something” was intended to be two states to be carved out of the territory of the mandate, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews of the yishuv, realists above all else, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it and instead of peace chose war, thus laying the groundwork for the world still to be discussing the concept of partition in the context of potential and possibility rather than as ancient history all these many decades (and wars) later.  Ironically though, and not at all irrelevantly, is the fact that two states, one Jewish and one Arab, actually did come into being on the territory of the original British mandate: Israel and Jordan. But the  world seems unable to seize that fact and instead remains fixed on the concept that, Jordan for some unfathomable reason having been awarded the right unilaterally to remove itself from the equation whenever anyone seriously discusses the future of the Palestinians, the two states envisaged by the framers of the original partition plan must now emerge not on the larger territory of the original British Mandate (which itself was, at best, an artificial entity that came into being after the First World War without any specific reference to ethnicity or population on the ground) but instead on the territory of the Jewish homeland.

The numbers are intriguing to contemplate. In 1945, the official figure for the population of the British Mandate was 1,764,520, of whom 60% were Muslims, 8% percent were Christians, and 31% were Jews. (One sole percent of the population belonged to none of the above groups.)  Jordan today comprises 35,637 square miles. Israel today, even including the disputed West Bank, covers 8,522 square miles. So let’s see…one third the residents of Mandatory Palestine were Jewish. But Israel today is only one quarter the size of Jordan, thus only one fifth the size of the original Mandate. And now the latest version of the partition plan (always more politely referenced in the press as the “two-state solution”) would make Israel even smaller. Also worth taking into consideration are today’s population figures: Israel now has a population of almost eight million, while Jordan, four times as large, has just 6.5 million residents, almost a full third of whom are Palestinians. So what could make more sense than making Israel even smaller by giving part of it away to form a different Arab state than the one that already exists on the territory that the League of Nations designated as the British Mandate of Palestine in 1920?

Nonetheless, the large majority of Israelis, realists above all else, have embraced the two-state solution, as has the Israeli government itself. In the American Jewish community, we all, almost, have. The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun, running with that ball, claimed to see only good in the decision of the United Nations’ decision to nudge the Palestinians forward into thinking of themselves as one of those two states. That none of these joyful supporters of the United Nations’ decision seem to care that the Palestinian leadership itself has yet unequivocally to agree to live in peace with Israel seems not much to matter. That just a few weeks ago, the Palestinian leadership of Gaza was attempting to murder Israelis with rockets aimed almost solely at civilian targets also seems not much to matter. That Mahmoud Abbas, representing the “good” Palestinian leadership, does not seem to have anywhere near the political clout to bring the various Palestinian groups together to declare independence and then to negotiate peace with Israel also seems not much to count.  (That Abbas’ sole published work is The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and Zionism, a book that referred to the Shoah as a “fantastic lie” and a myth, seems to matter, except apparently to me personally, even less.) All that matters is that Israel be pressured into agreeing to someone setting up some sort of state on land that any unbiased observer would refer to as the heartland of the Jewish homeland…and that the exertion of external power to bring that about, even from as morally discredited a source as the United Nations, is therefore a positive development.

To my way of thinking, the true tragedy of the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the way it will eventually be resolved is almost entirely clear to all thoughtful observers. Eventually, somehow, the Palestinians will acquire the absolute right to govern their own affairs. The rights of Jews legally to live in Palestine will have to be considered no less sacrosanct than the right of Arabs legally to live in Israel. People who have lost property will need to be compensated, both Arabs whose property has somehow passed into Jewish hands and the Jews of all the Arab lands whose property has somehow passed into Arab or Muslim hands. The right of Israel to self-define as a Jewish state with a non-Jewish minority will have to be accepted, no matter how begrudgingly, in the same spirit that the world accepts Iran’s right to self-define as an Islamic republic with a non-Muslim one. The Palestinians, I believe, would do best to insist that Jordan be redefined as Palestine, then renegotiate the western border to include land owned by Palestinians and to exclude land contiguous with Israel owned by Jews. Barring that—and I acknowledge that that is completely unlikely to happen—the Palestinians will have to make their peace with living in peace with Israel, then move forward from there to living in some sort of tight economic federation with Israel that will allow both peoples to flourish financially while preserving their right to self-define and to chart their own course forward in the manner of sovereign nations.

Last week’s U.N. vote will eventually be a footnote in a very long story, not a turning point. The policy of our American Jewish community and its institutions should be guided by the single principle of always acting in the best interests of the Jewish people in Israel and in the diaspora.  That doesn’t mean blindly supporting whomever happens at any given moment to be leading the Israeli government. It does, however, mean exactly what it says. Every issue should be considered in its own right and subjected to the single question referenced above regarding the best interests of the Jewish people. Breaking ranks with the Israeli leadership should be undertaken only in the truly extreme situation, when the action under consideration can rationally be valued over presenting to the world a united Jewish people prepared almost always to stand with the elected government of Israel. And then only when the moral path is fully and unambiguously clear to all. Suggesting that Israel should take the almost unimaginably big step of formally relinquishing its claim to the very heartland of its ancestral territory for the sake of peace when the other side has yet even to say unequivocally and clearly that its sole interest is in living in peace with Israel, and neither in denying its right to exist or its inherent Jewish nature, that seems, to speak the most kindly, like an exercise in wishful thinking that Pollyanna herself may well have found excessive. And supporting gestures intended only to encourage the Palestinians to think that they can have their state without such a state acquiring the obligation to live in a secure, just, and peaceful relationship with Israel—that sounds to me like folly itself.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Living Forever

Was Plan A for human beings to be immortal and thus never to know death? It’s a good question, even a critical one. Yet the Bible is more than a bit equivocal about the answer.

Lots of people read the biblical text in lots of different ways. The way to read the narrative that seems the most cogent and reasonable to me, however, seems to require focusing on the fact that Adam and Eve were never specifically forbidden to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, but were instead ordered never to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Moral Discernment (the one popular called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Leaving aside the arresting question of why God would not have wished the first two human beings to have ingested as much as there is to know about the difference between right and wrong (supposing that is what “good” and “evil” in the tree’s name are meant to denote), we are left pondering God’s pensive, almost broodingly introspective, lament at the end of the story, the one in which God justifies the decision to expel Adam and Eve from the garden.  “Look what it’s all come to,” God says grimly, “now that human beings have transcended their humanity and become almost divine in terms of their ability for moral discernment. The next thing that will happen is that they will reach out and take also of the fruit of the Tree of Life, then eat it and live forever.”  That sounds as though the Tree of Life, the fruit of which presumably has the power to grant immortality to those who eat it (“…then eat it and live forever”), was there all along for Adam and Eve to enjoy. It wasn’t forbidden. It was clearly visible there in the garden. (The narrative elsewhere places the Tree of Life at the very center of the garden, presumably to make explicit the point that no one seeking the tree could possibly fail to find it.) Humanity thus had a chance to transcend its native mortality and presumably eventually would have…had Eve not listened to the serpent, and Adam not to Eve.  But because they did sin, they were denied the right—which they appear to have priorly possessed—to overcome the innate limits life placing on the living and thus to live on forever.

If that’s the right way to read the story—and I know there are others—then Plan A and Plan B were the same plan with respect to the possibility of dealing death out of the deck entirely: human beings were created mortal and lost the ability to overcome that aspect of how things were by disobeying a direct divine edict that appears to have nothing to do with mortality at all. So the story is one of nothing, not something, happening.

What would have happened had Eve instead gotten Adam to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life when they still could have? Would they have continually aged, growing older and increasingly decrepit with each passing year, then each century, then each millennium? Or, as most of us fantasize in this regard naturally, would they have attained the fullest measure of adult health and then just stayed there, the key to immortality being the absence of aging as much (or perhaps even more so) than the absence of death? Since their descendants would presumably also have been immortal, the problem usually featured in fantasy and science fiction novels to explain why no one would ever really want to live forever—the concomitant obligation to watch everybody you know and love eventually pass away while the immortal one lives on forever,  doomed to existence in a never-ending loop of love and loss—would not be such an issue. Nor would the obvious problem of convincing the government to issue a passport or a driver’s license to someone several thousand years older than the next oldest person waiting on line.

When I was in college, I remember reading the now-mostly-forgotten novel of Eugène Sue, The Wandering Jew, and being sufficiently entranced by the idea to want to read more, only eventually to find the theme almost totally  co-opted by anti-Semitic authors in whose works the concept of living forever—and particularly when the immortal in question was Jewish—was depicted as punishment rather than reward, and as a fate in many ways worse than death. (In that regard, I especially recall being shocked by first exposure to My First Two Thousand Years, a novel by Georg-Sylvester Viereck, the once well-known Nazi sympathizer who, among other things, invented the genre of gay vampire fiction.) There were other books as well, mostly now forgotten, that tempered my enthusiasm for the theme…and yet the concept itself of transcending death (and, ideally, disease and decrepitude as well) remained and remains a major fantasy.

And so it was with all that in mind that I encountered the almost unbelievable article in the paper the other day (accessible to readers seeing this electronically by clicking here) that reported on the discovery of an immortal being. Neither an eternally wandering Jew nor a half-mechanical cyborg, the being in question is, of all things, a lowly jellyfish, one of the kind known technically as a Turritopsis dohrnii. I’ve always hated jellyfish. I had an unfortunate encounter with one at the beach—or rather in the ocean off Rockaway Beach—when I was a child and haven’t really revised my sense of jellyfish as disgusting squishy things that contribute nothing to the world. (I’ve since learned that there are people who eat jellyfish, and particularly the kind called the cannonball jellyfish. Interested readers—and how could anyone really not be?—can find a long, fascinating account of one man’s effort to eat his way through the edible jellyfish of the world on, a very interesting site well worth the visit for dozens of other great essays as well.) But maybe I need to revise my thinking.

Jellyfish are not much like people. They have no brains. (I heard that. But they really, physically, have no brains.) They have no hearts. (Ditto.) They have one single orifice that serves them as the counterpart, to put the matter as little disgustingly as possible, of both ends of our alimentary canals. Feh! But the biggest, fattest way they are unlike humans is that they appear to have the Benjamin Button-like ability when they are old and weary not to die, but instead to initiate a complicated regenerative path that regresses them backwards through the stages of growth they have earlier experienced until they return to the original polyp state from which they developed in the first place. The polyp then begins the generative process from scratch, slowly developing back into a mature jellyfish. This is not quite like lobsters, which creatures have the amazing quality of not growing weaker or less fertile as they age and which, because they display what scientists call “negligible senescence,” could theoretically live permanently until captured or killed.  Nor are jellyfish in this regard exactly like planarian flatworms, which have the remarkable—the truly remarkable—ability to regenerate lost body parts and, when split lengthwise or widthwise, simply to morph into two separate worms, each free to pursue its own destiny…and also to turn itself into two more discrete worms. That is surely a kind of immortality, but it is not at all the jellyfish’s. Indeed, as far as I can tell, there has emerged a scholarly consensus that the ability scientists attribute to the Turritopsis dohrnii is unique in the animal kingdom. (Benjamin Button was a fictional character invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so he doesn’t count.)

So it turns out that there is such a thing as immortality. When we fantasize about living forever, most of us think more along the lobster model of simply not aging, not weakening, not surrendering to senescence and its attendant indignities. Very few of us fantasize along the flatworm model. But what of the jellyfish model of reaching the end of the line and then turning back? It’s a bit like a New York City subway train that has no room to turn around in its narrow underground tunnel and so simply heads off backwards along its route to the beginning of the line, the first car becoming the last and the conductor merely moving to the other end as the train moves forward in that direction. Eventually it must become impossible even for the subway personnel to say with certainty which is the front of the train. Or perhaps the point is more exactly that both ends are its front, that it has no specific front, that the lead-off car in whatever direction the train is headed is its front. For the moment. Until it reaches the end of the line again. And it turns around again. And heads off again in the opposite direction. Just like a jellyfish!

I didn’t much like Benjamin Button, although I thought Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett did admirably well with what struck me then as a ridiculous storyline.  Perhaps the key to finding the concept appealing lies in a detail I passed just a bit too quickly by above: that Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, in addition to having no natural limit to their lives, also have no brains. They therefore, I’m supposing, have no memories, thus also no frameworks for evaluating the progress and regress  of their lives through the years: unlike Brad Pitt’s character in the movie, they do not recognize high school when they get there again after having gotten to the end of the line and turned back to head off to the beginning. And in that perhaps lies the answer to the question: life as we know it—made rich with memories of things past, the texture of evolving relationships, the pleasures and anxieties of family life as it brings us forward from being the children of our parents to being the parents of our children,  the challenges of overcoming the obstacles that life throws down in each our paths, even the worries that accompany our march through the decades towards an indistinct, uncharted future—that kind of life can only be savored in one direction. We are neither subway trains nor jellyfish, neither lobsters nor planarian flatworms. Nor are we characters in a play hired by an unseen playwright to depict ourselves in some cosmic drama none of us can step far enough back from fully to fathom. We are…just ourselves, anchored in time and challenged to make meaningful the years of our lives not despite their finite nature but precisely because of it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

As Thanksgiving dawns, I find myself very pleased with the news from Israel. All of you surely know that a ceasefire has been in effect between Israel and Hamas since last evening. And, as I write, it appears to be holding. Of course, a ceasefire is just that—a cessation of hostilities—not a guarantee of permanent, lasting peace.  I suppose it is possible that ceasefires can eventually morph into permanent states of non-violent co-existence even between enemies unwilling for political or emotional reasons to sign a formal treaty pledging their commitment to mutual non-aggression, something along the lines of what has been in effect between the two Koreas since even before I was born. Obviously, that would be preferable to war! But the great goal that lies off in the distance, but away from which none should dare turn, is not to settle for a mere cessation of hostilities in Gaza, but to work ardently and purposefully forward towards the establishment of a “real” peace between Israel and the Palestinians, both those in Gaza and those on the West Bank.

I know it sounds almost unimaginable that this could ever happen after so many years of enmity and so much bloodshed. But Korea, in a sense, is the anomaly. If Germany and France—after the Seven Years’ War, after the Napoleonic Wars,  after the Franco-Prussian War, after the two World Wars (and I mention only the wars of the last three hundred years)—if after that much endless barbarity and bloodshed, Germany and France can live in peace, then it seems ridiculous to assume that Israel and the Palestinians could not also move past their state of mutual hostility and live as neighbors and even, as is surely the case with France and Germany today, as allies. The same could be said about present-day Germany and Poland. Or about Russia and Finland. Or about the United States and Great Britain. Or between Denmark and Sweden. (For the record, Denmark and Sweden went to war on eleven separate occasions between 1521 and 1814. But who can imagine closer allies today?) Or, for that matter, about the United States and Vietnam, a nation to which we granted “most-favored-nation” trading status less than thirty years after the fall of Saigon. U.S. losses in Vietnam were horrific, our losses exceeding fifty-eight thousand dead. But countless millions died in the conflicts mentioned just above. And yet in all these cases, war was followed not by a ceasefire (except in Korea) but by some version of peace. (Can you imagine any scenario at all, no matter how fantastic, that could lead to a war between the U.S. and Vietnam today?) That the day will one day come when we will say the same thing regarding the Middle East is my Thanksgiving prayer for the world, one in which I invite you all to join me.

A point of special interest for me in the events that led to the ceasefire was the specific role played by Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi last week encountered his own “threshold” moment, a first opportunity to test his mettle on the international stage not as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or as the president of Egypt per se, but as a statesman, as a diplomat, and as a peace maker. Did he pass the test? It appears that he did. Whether this turns out to be a truly defining moment in the after-history of the Arab Spring, on the other hand, remains to be seen.  In other words, the hope we all harbor—that the reform movements that swept away Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and Gaddafi turn out not merely to have led to the installation of extreme-Islamicist regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya that are no more respectful of those nations’ citizens’ human rights than the dictatorships they replaced—that obviously remains to be seen. And yet, I feel at least tentatively hopeful at how this has played itself out so far.

President Morsi appears to have understood that this was his moment, that once the Turks fully alienated the Israelis with ridiculous show trials and endlessly vituperative language, the cup passed to his lips…to see if he could act both as a leader of the Arab world and as a reliable friend of the United States and as a man of peace granted a unique opportunity to end an armed conflict in his neighborhood that could easily have turned into a full-scale war. I am not enough of a Pollyanna to imagine that President Morsi is planning any time soon to abandon his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization implacably hostile to Israel’s very existence. But I feel buoyed by the knowledge that when the opportunity came to make peace or to wage war, President Morsi—who the press are reporting had six separate in-depth phone calls with President Obama in the course of the final few days before the ceasefire was declared—saw himself as someone uniquely positioned to bring an end  to the conflict, or at least to a temporary cessation of hostilities.  Will he move forward from here to an attempt to broker a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Certainly, he can’t do any worse than anyone else who has tried! And maybe this really will turn out to be Mohamed Morsi’s personal “only-Nixon-could-have-gone-to-China” moment.

Am I dreaming? Maybe a little bit I am! But I find myself unexpectedly filled with hope this Thanksgiving morning…and I invite you to join me in my dream, even if just for the duration of the day. And who knows? It’s true that you eventually wake up from even the most pleasant dreams! But it is also true that there are dreams that somehow manage to transcend their original setting deep within the brain and to become part of  extra-cranial reality! My personal hippocampus spins out the same kind of bizarre, often inexplicable, nighttime fantasies all of you know from your own private dreamscapes. But it is onto the campus of the world that I would like to focus my personal Thanksgiving prayer. Peace has returned to Gaza and to Israel. Those in a position to do good from the outside—and principal among them Presidents Obama and Morsi, and Secretary of State Clinton—behaved forcefully and admirably.  I  believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu had no choice but to respond forcefully to protect the citizens of Israel against aggression that no nation at all would tolerate. And yet he too found the strength to desist when the other side signaled its willingness to stop its attacks against Israeli civilians. Even the leadership of Hamas—so grotesquely willing to valorize suicide as a legitimate means to accomplishing with violence what seems unattainable through negotiation—found it in them to agree at least to a temporary peace. So far, I guess, so good. But now the hard part starts, the part that’s going to require political leaders to take unprecedented chances and for national populations to agree to compromise on what they have heretofore been told were things regarding which no concessions would or should ever be possible.  It’s all a dream…and it’s also my Thanksgiving prayer for you all, and for the world.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Protecting the Calumniated

When it comes to traveling the highway of moral integrity, the gray areas are always the most interesting to negotiate. When things, after all, are unambiguously right or wrong, it may take a bit of moral muscle to do the right thing (or to resolve not to do the wrong one), but there’s not much fodder for internal debate. What’s to discuss?  If some specific path forward in life is unambiguously wrong or inarguably right, then what would the discussion even be about?  But when a sober, thoughtful person—or when society as a whole—looks at a path leading off in some specific direction and can’t quite say with certainty that it taking it would be right or wrong, that’s when the most interesting ethical discussions really do take place.

I was thinking about this part of moral reality as I contemplated the bizarre—and mercifully brief—side-show regarding poor Elmo that unfolded in the course of this last week.  It wasn’t really about Elmo, of course.  Elmo is a fictitious character on Sesame Street who is only as real as the puppet that depicts him. But the puppeteer whose voice he bears really does exist and his name is Kevin Clash. Clash has been the voice of Elmo for almost three decades, a long time by any standard but an eternity in terms of performers working on single television shows. How many shows have even been on the air for that long?  (Sesame Street, currently in its forty-third season, is the longest-running children’s show ever. Of other children’s shows, only Romper Room ran for more than forty years.  But that show went off the air almost twenty years ago.)  Clash has been enormously successful in his role, having won twenty-three daytime Emmys for his depiction of Elmo, a furry, red-haired, monster with a high, squeaky voice.  There were three other actors who played Elmo before Clash came to the role in 1985.  But this week’s story had nothing to do with his talent as an actor or puppeteer.  Nor does it have anything to do with that insane person who paraded around Central Park last summer decked out in a full-sized Elmo suit spouting anti-Semitic and racist drivel to any who had the misfortune to walk past him and linger long enough to listen.

The short version is that a man came forward anonymously and, speaking through a law firm based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, accused Clash of having had sexual relations with him when he was an underage minor.  (In New York, having sexual relations with persons under seventeen years of age constitutes a felony if the other person is over twenty-one. In Pennsylvania, it is a felony for someone over the age of eighteen to have sex with a person under eighteen.  If Clash’s accuser specified where the alleged incident took place, that detail was not made public.)  On Monday, Sesame Worship, the producers of Sesame Street, announced that, in wake of the accusation, Clash was going to take a leave of absence from his job. This was widely reported in the press, the accusation against Clash printed universally by people who had no actual idea whether or not he was guilty. Two days later, on Wednesday, the accuser changed his mind and announced that, after all, he had been an adult when he and Clash had sex. Sesame Workshop quickly put the matter behind them, releasing a statement about how pleased they were that all concerned can move on from what they called, saying the very least, “this unfortunate episode.” Clash himself released a similar statement about how pleased he was that “this painful allegation has been laid to rest.” End of story.

Or is it? Because Elmo is so popular and so widely known, the story was reported all over the world. Clash, who may have not wished for details of his private life to be publicly known to everyone in the universe who reads a newspaper, now joins all sorts of others accused of sex crimes but then not actually convicted of them. Does it matter? It would to me!  Yet the outcome seems peculiar: the man who did nothing now gets to be known across the world—Sesame Street, or some local version of the show, is seen in 140 different countries around the globe—as someone who was once accused of molesting an underage teen, while the man who falsely accused someone of a serious crime (for as-yet-undisclosed reasons, but surely not because he was genuinely wrong about how old he was when he and Clash knew each other) gets his identity shielded by the press so that even after recanting the story the young man’s name has still not been published.  Does that seem right?

I understand all the arguments for the almost universal practice among journalists to protect the identity of people who accuse others of sexual wrongdoing. Surely, they argue (not unreasonably) it will inhibit people from coming forward if they know that the press will publish their names and describe, often in detail, the incidents they are coming forward to report.  And it is equally obvious to me that people who genuinely were the victims of sex crimes should have the right to proceed with their lives without having their names forever linked to crimes they themselves did not perpetrate. Why should a victim pay any price at all for someone else’s wrongdoing? All that makes sense to me. But what of the falsely accused? Does the press do society a favor or a disservice by publishing the names of people who have merely been accused of doing bad things, but who in many cases (like Kevin Clash’s) have yet even to be arrested, let alone tried and found guilty in a court of law.

The Torah unambiguously forbids talebearing and gossiping. The point, sometimes missed by moderns, is that the prohibition does not apply only to lies, but also to the truth. Indeed, it seems especially important to stress the degree to which the Torah prohibits telling stories that put another in an unfavorable light even if the information is fully correct. (There is a slight difference of terminology regarding true and false gossip, but the basic principle is the same: you may neither lie nor tell the truth about another if the statement in question is going to cast the subject of your remark in a bad light.) And yet the same Torah that forbids telling tales about others not only permits but requires public trials, trials in which accusers are invited to come forward and to speak openly and freely about those whom they feel have wronged them. Furthermore, it is considered a mitzvah  to come forward with relevant testimony, even though, technically speaking, the person of whom the witness has come to speak ill has yet to be convicted of anything at all. Also, trials are always to be conducted in the light of day. Indeed, certain specific kinds of cases are to be tried not only in public, but in the city gates—the most public of all places—presumably to dissuade people from risking sinful behavior that will ultimately and publicly ruin their reputations. None of these laws seem overly concerned with the subsequent reputations of the accused and then exonerated.

The Torah is an ancient book and reflects the customs and mores of the ancient world. Our job, therefore, is to allow its legislation to mature in the context of our own moral vision and this, I think, is an instance of the world having changed so drastically so as to require a bit of revised thinking. I believe that journalists have made the right decision to protect the identities of victims even in the absenceof conclusive evidence. But in a world in which internet journalism has made it possible for a false accusation against a well-known celebrity to appear almost simultaneously on the screens of millions upon millions of viewers in every country of the world, it seems wrong to rely on ancient precedent when the possibility exists that someone accused of a heinous crime could be totally innocent of the charge.  That’s why we have trials, after all: to determine the guilt of the accused. And that is precisely what it means for accused persons to benefit from the presumption of innocence, that we do not assume that someone is guilty merely because he or she is accused of a crime.  

Yet, if the accusation turns out to be untrue and the accused becomes the victim and the accuser, the perpetrator, then the damage has already irrevocably been done because the cloak of anonymity cannot retroactively be offered to a falsely accused person. And so the Kevin Clashes of the world are stuck bearing the opprobrium that comes from being identified in the press after having been accused of wrongdoing regardless of  the specific outcome in any particular case. What would be so bad about journalists protecting the identity of someone accused of a terrible crime, and particularly a sex crime, until the police determine that that person should be arrested and the members of a grand jury agree to return an indictment and a trial is conducted and the accused is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Yes, it’s true that freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of democracy. But does our American democracy really rest on my right to know that some unnamed person dislikes Kevin Clash enough to tell what was apparently a horrific lie about him? If it isn’t true, why do I need to know about it at all? If it’s just a false accusation, how could society not be better off if journalists protected its members from suffering the after-effects of public assaults on their good names rather than ruining people’s reputations based on hearsay?

Kevin Clash himself seems ready to move on and to forget the whole thing. But society should use this incident as an opportunity to revisit the way the press deals with mere allegations that have not even resulted in an arrest…and wonder how the system could be made to take into account the possibility of the accused turning into the victim…not of sexual misconduct, but of calumny.