Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Less Bad Alternative

I didn’t expect to find the Supreme Court deliberations regarding the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 to be especially engaging. And, in some ways, I wasn’t disappointed. The Democrats said what their script required them to say. The Republicans said what their script required them to say. Nor did the justices themselves deviate much from the expected path: each asked sharper questions of the lawyers representing the side of the aisle with which he or she is generally not identified than of the lawyers representing the point of view usually associated with that justice, yet generally without abandoning the necessary mantle of presumed judicial impartiality regarding matters before the court. (I was initially amazed, but also impressed, that the justices felt they would, or even could, hear enough from both sides in just six hours to make it possible to render a decision. The darker side of my personality wondered if that was simply because they all already knew how they were going to vote and didn’t want to waste more than three days listening to pointless presentations. But maybe, to grant the system the benefit of the doubt, the complexity of the issues involved simply demanded that a time-limit be set that absolutely would require the lawyers representing the parties to the suit—the attorneys-general of the twenty-seven states trying to overturn the act on constitutional grounds and the federal government—to get as quickly to the point as humanly possible.)

But in other ways I was wrong. Almost to my surprise, I’ve found these last three days fascinating. For one thing, discussing the ideal way to define, and the best way to defend, the civil rights of our citizens is not something ever lightly to pass by. And, indeed, if one thing came through as I listened and read my way through the week, it was that both sides were staking out the very same ground as the territory they were claiming to wish to defend: the rights of the citizenry to live free lives in a free state (and in fifty free states) governed solely by laws designed to protect their freedoms and not to burden or encumber their rights or their freedoms. By any measure, that will always be a debate worth undertaking! And so I thought I’d write this week about the issue from that specific vantage point: without claiming the background or the expertise in constitutional law necessary to proffer a truly informed decision about the extremely technical legal matters that are now before the court (both of which—the background and the expertise—I surely lack), I’d like to approach the issue from the far simpler vantage point of a citizen whose rights both sides claim they have come to the Supreme Court to protect.

There are certain rights that we as a society have determined exist outside the framework of wealth or social status. I believe, for example, that we in this country are universally of the opinion that even the poorest of the poor are entitled to drink clean water; surely no one seriously thinks that parents who do not earn enough money to pay income tax and who therefore do not participate personally in subventing the costs involved in keeping our water supply clean and free of pollutants should be expected to make their peace with their children having to drink brackish, filthy, or contaminated water. We feel the same way about clean air; no one seriously argues, or ever would seriously argue, that we should reasonably permit levels of air pollution in towns and neighborhoods mostly lived in by people who earn too little meaningfully to participate in the effort to keep our air clean than we would ever tolerate in richer, more affluent places. When you think about it, we feel that way about a lot of things related to the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle—about the right to work in a smoke-free environment regardless of personal wealth or status, for example, or about the right of all children to be vaccinated against potentially life-threatening diseases as part of our national interest in protecting the public weal.

Clearly, there are also things in our world that we do deem appropriate to deny to people who cannot afford them. And there are lots of those things too, including some things that people of means would be loath to do without. In our society, for example, we do not consider owning an automobile to be a civil right despite the fact that finding a good job and earning a living is far easier in our society for someone who does own a car. Nor do we consider it to be the right of every citizen to have unfettered access to the Internet (also despite the fact that it must be impossible or almost impossible to find a job without such access) or to send his or her children to a summer camp in the country. Or to attend live concerts. Or to go to the theater. Or to see the Knicks play at the Garden or the Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium. The things in this category, we deem perks of wealth: if you can’t afford them, you have to do without them. And that, I suppose, is as it should be in a capitalist democracy: when simmered down to its most basic level, after all, the great perk of possessing wealth consists precisely of having the money to buy things you couldn’t have if you didn’t. Nor is that something to be decried or lamented, I don’t think: people shlep themselves out of bed in the morning and go to work precisely because they wish to have things they know they’ll never have if they don’t get up and go to work. (Nor is it fair to rephrase that thought to suggest that, in the end, it is greed alone that fuels our American society. What pushes us forward is the desire to live better lives, to be able to provide more for our children, to be able to be more generous with the needy, to better the world by bettering our own situations. To denigrate that grand set of internal impetuses baldly as “greed” seems, to say the least, meanspirited and more than a bit insulting to people, myself included, who work for a living.)

Health care, however, we have placed in the former category. Not because it must be there by law, but because we as a society have determined that it shall be there, that it should be there. As a result, we do not deny health care to sick people in our country. Public hospitals are barred from turning people away from merely because it is not obvious how exactly they are going to pay for whatever services are rendered. Even private hospitals are barred by the Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Law of 1986 from turning away patients in emergency situations. We underwrite vastly expensive programs like Medicaid specifically to provide health care to citizens and legal residents unable to afford their own health insurance. (And to say “vastly expensive “ is to say almost nothing at all: in 2010, the federal government spent $275 billion on Medicaid, up from $118 billion in 2000.) But not all the uninsured or under-insured qualify for Medicaid—and, according to the Census Bureau’s 2011 Current Population Survey, there were approximately 49.9 million Americans who did not have health insurance in 2010. So we are talking about scores of millions of people whom we can’t quite bring ourselves to shut out of the system, but who are personally not bringing anything into it. And that is the crux of the problem, as I finally understand it in the wake of this week’s hearings: we lack the heartlessness simply to tell people who can’t afford health insurance simply to do without health care, yet the burden of paying for that care ends up falling squarely on the shoulders of the insured. And that, it seems to me, was the crux of the matter as it played itself out in the Supreme Court this week.

So what do I think, I felt myself challenged to ask, as I listened along to the debate in the course of this last week. Is it the greater infringement on the civil rights of citizens for them—for us!— to be obliged by law to carry health insurance or pay a commensurate fine for failing to do so? Or is it the greater infringement on the civil rights of those same citizens to be unable to escape paying for other people’s health care just because the system operates on the backs of the insured and the taxpayers? Surely, both impact negatively upon the civil rights of the average (insured, tax-paying) citizen. It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with that! And so the question, as I think I heard it being framed, comes down to determining which constitutes the greater infringement on those rights, thus the greater evil, thus something for our nation to determine that it wishes to avoid even if it means opting for an alternative that is only slightly less unpalatable. The real alternative—making healthcare into a commodity and letting people who can’t afford it simply do without—seems to be unimaginable to most citizens, which reality frames the debate as being essentially between two alternate alternatives to that one. And thinking of the issue in that specific way is what transformed the hearings this week, at least for me personally, from something dull and perfunctory into a debate I felt drawn into and engaged by.

Our Jewish tradition understands the obligation to care for others to be a function of our obligation not to burden others by failing to care for ourselves. Therefore, our first obligations in terms of healthcare provision is for us to make sure we ourselves are properly looked after. And our obligations move out in concentric circles from there: first to our spouses and children, then to our parents and siblings, then to our extended families, then to our neighbors, then to other residents of our towns and cities, then to the wider world. At the heart of the matter, though, is the expectation that society functions best when the first responsibility of each citizen is to avoid burdening others by accepting responsibility for his or her own needs…and only then by expanding out one’s ability to attend to the needs of others in reasonably drawn concentric circles of obligation. That sounds like sound thinking to me. And so I find myself, after wading reading and listening all week, hoping that the baby does not end up getting tossed out with the bath water. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act turns out either partially or entirely to be inconsonant with constitutional law, surely a decision the Supreme Court is entitled to make, then I hope we can find a constitutionally-acceptable way for each of us, prosperous and less prosperous alike, to shoulder our fair share of the burden of healthcare in our country, thus personally to become responsible for our country being a place in which no one’s life is ever forfeit for lack of funds to see a doctor, and in which all citizens share reasonably and fairly in the costs involved with making that noble goal part of day-to-day reality for us all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Like all of you, I’ve been glued to the news this past week as the drama in Toulouse has unfolded day by day. As I write this, in fact, CNN has just announced that the police have confirmed the death of Mohammed Merah, the man who is said to have confessed personally to seven murders over these last two weeks, including the slaying of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two children Aryeh and Gabriel (ages six and three), Miriam Monsonego (age eight), Imad Ibn-Ziatan (age thirty, a French paratrooper), Abel Chennouf (age twenty-five, a corporal in the French army), and Mohamed Legouad (age twenty-four, a French army private). To say that each death was a tragedy is almost to say nothing at all because each of these young people—young soldiers serving in the defense of their country, innocent children on their way into school for what was to have been a normal school day, a rabbi devoting his life to the instruction of Jewish children—each of them embodied unlimited potential to do good in the world. Each had a future. Each had the potential to change the world. Now, of course, none will. Even their murderer, age twenty-three, is dead. And his death too is a tragedy—a tragedy because, instead of succumbing to the rage-filled hatred apparently instilled in him by his Al Qaeda handlers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he too could have had a future. He was a citizen of France, a pluralistic democracy. He was thus a heir, at least in theory, to French culture, to French learning, to the sense of égalité and fraternité that have characterized French society at its most enlightened since, well, the Enlightenment. He will have none of that now. Nor, obviously, will he have a chance to be presumed innocent before being convicted of his crimes and sentenced, as he surely would have been, to life in prison, thus even in defeat sending a valuable lesson to his co-citizens that mindless violence leads only to perdition, never to paradise.

Now, of course, none of that is to be. Rabbi Sandler will teach no more classes. His little boys will not grow to adulthood, nor will little Miriam. The three soldiers, all cut down in the prime of life by a fanatic who found it objectionable for French citizens to serve the French people in the French armed forces because of their ethnic origins outside of France, will serve no longer. And the assassin too will have no future, no possibility of redemption, no chance to seek atonement or repentance. The world, of course, will keep spinning. Toulouse, a provincial city that not one American in a thousand could have found easily on a map until earlier this week, will return to normal. Even Jewish life in that place will resume, diminished yet resilient, as the Ozar Hatorah school re-opens, as a new teacher is quietly hired to replace Rabbi Sandler, as the children’s cubbies are without drama or ceremony simply re-assigned to other children for their future use. In their barracks, the soldiers’ lockers too will be re-assigned. In the end, they will all simply vanish from the stage to be remembered vaguely as yet more victims of mindless terror. I myself don’t recall the names of the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were murdered in Mumbai in 2008. Or the name of the poor woman murdered at the Seattle JCC in 2006. (Just for the record , they were Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and Pamela Waechter. But I had to look that up, which I just did.)

It is natural to respond to the deaths of children differently than to the deaths of adults. And it is also natural to respond to the death of unarmed civilians differently than to the deaths of soldiers. But the key for us to remember is that these seven, a group of individuals unknown to each other in life, have somehow been linked permanently to each other in death. And I would like to consider what they have to say to the world not as individuals, but as a group formed in death, as people who would almost never have met had they lived yet who have ended up linked to each other both posthumously and permanently. What Rabbi Sandler would have made of Corporal Chennouf, or vice versa, I have no idea. Whether under other circumstances they could have befriended each other, I also do not know. At best, it would have been unlikely. But these unanswerable questions are not what I want to write about today.

The dead in Toulouse are, by any measure, an odd group: four Jews and three Muslims; two Franco-Israelis and five French citizens with no other passports or allegiances; four men, two boys, and a girl; a rabbi, three soldiers, and three schoolchildren. Together, they can serve to remind us that Muslims are as often the victims of terror as its perpetrators, and that the mindset of the terrorist is nowhere nearly as meaningfully rooted in political philosophy or in religion as in rage, in a kind of dementia so severe that even the murder of a little girl at point blank range is deemed not only justifiable but reasonable, even virtuous. Although they would surely bristle at the comparison, the terrorists of the world, in this like all true fanatics, have more in common with each other than with the more reasonable elements within their own religious or ethnic groups. That being the case, it is folly, I believe, to try to reason rationally with people who have embraced terror as a valid means of political self-expression, and for the same reasons that it is pointless to attempt to argue rationally with irrational people. The whole concept of being irrational is that you don’t see things rationally! And the whole concept behind the worldview that countenances the murder of children to make some vague point about your nation’s politics or some other nation’s policies or practices is no less bizarre. In other words, to describe the murder of Miriam Monsonego as a valid response to Israel’s insistence that the Hamas terrorists who control Gaza be inhibited in their ability to send missiles against Israel’s southern towns and villages is to abandon rational discourse and move into the realm of true craziness. That Nicolas Sarkozy said as much the other evening was heartening. But that there are quarters in the world in which Mohamed Merah will be celebrated as a martyr also goes without saying and that is not heartening at all.

We should not respond to violent irrationality by mouthing our own set of irrational platitudes. The Mohamed Merahs of this world are not going to calm down and become rational because we would like them to. Al-Qaeda is not going to morph into a political party worthy of participation in the democratic process, and neither is Hamas or Hezbollah. To confuse the kind of mindless rage that yields incidents like this week’s in Toulouse with the kind of dissent that is healthy for any democracy and crucial for its wellbeing is as pointless as it is outrageous. To descend so far into the pit of moral relativism so as not to be able to distinguish between reasonable military action taken in defense of one’s own country and violent terrorism undertaken with no specific goal in mind other than the murder of innocents is to come perilously close to abandoning moral thinking entirely.

And yet the world dithers. No less a personality than the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, came perilously close the other day to equating the murder of Rabbi Sandler’s children with the plight of the children of Gaza. Back-pedaling furiously, she tried (and is apparently still trying, although only semi-successfully) to undo the damage. But the remark itself was and is still out there, as is its raw, unpalatable implication that when Hamas terrorists locate their missile launchers in civilian neighborhoods and use local children as shields, the fate of those children is no less the fault of Israel than the death of the children in Toulouse. To decry that kind of skewered parallelism is merely to state the obvious. But I wonder how many people out there secretly agree with High Representative Ashton’s comments even as she labored to take them back.

Our job, other than making even more secure our schools and our synagogues in the wake of the Toulouse massacre, is to remind the world that once a forest fire is raging it becomes impossible to save any particular tree. And similarly will the world never be safe or secure until the notion of terrorism itself is made such anathema that no one will want to be labelled a terrorist. We have all become inured to the problem, so used to the regular flair-ups of unprovoked violence against innocent civilians that even 9/11 seems different from Madrid and London (and Mumbai and Buenos Aires and Seattle and now Toulouse, plus countless other sites of terrorist murder inside and outside of Israel) only in terms of the magnitude, scope, and intensity of the disaster. Is it imaginable, even remotely, that a time could come when the murder of innocents ceases to serve as the ultimate political statement? I’d like to think so. I actually have to think so. Because if I stopped thinking so, then I also would be obliged to abandon my belief in the ultimate redeemability of the world. And that, being the cornerstone of my faith, is not something I am prepared to give up lightly. Or at all, actually. The challenge, therefore, is not to wonder whether the peoples of the world could ever renounce mindless violence and live together in peace, but to ask ourselves what exactly it is we ourselves are doing to bring the world to the messianic moment, to the edge of redemption. And if the answer to that question is unsatisfying, then the proper response—and particularly as Jewish people everywhere prepare to celebrate the ultimate Festival of Freedom in just a few weeks’ time—is to see the tragedy in Toulouse as a burden we must all share: the perpetrator because he committed an unspeakable crime, his handlers in Pakistan and Afghanistan because they inspired incomprehensible villainy, and the rest of us because we have too easily made our peace with living in an unredeemed world.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The End of Knowledge As We Know It

Perhaps some of you felt the same peculiar pang in your hearts that I felt in mine when I opened the paper on Wednesday and read that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer exist as a printed work after the 2010 edition sells out, but will instead continue on solely as an on-line enterprise. I’m hardly in a position to complain, given that I can’t actually remember the last time I opened a printed encyclopedia to look something up. Nonetheless, and despite my own partial responsibility in creating the climate that led to the Britannica’s demise, I still find myself saddened by their decision and—this is the more rational part of the response—possessed of the conviction that some sort of line in the history of human intellectual pursuits has been crossed with their decision to acquiesce to the reality of the age of digitized information. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit too much to say. But it does feel momentous, the thought that future generations will not encounter culture or science packaged in anything like the way I first encountered them as a child.) So maybe I will complain, just not too loudly, lest I sound like one of those people who endlessly laments the disappearance of bookstores and record shops but who personally stopped buying books and CDs in stores once they became available on-line for less money and for less effort. But wait a minute…I am one of those people! And, that being the case, why shouldn’t I also regret that volumes that I personally haven’t opened in decades will no longer be updated and printed annually for me to continue not to consult? Why not? A bit of inconsistency never killed anyone! (For my younger readers, CDs were silver disks with music embedded in them that people used to buy before music began simply to waft through the air directly into people’s iPods. I’ll explain what books were some other time.)

We didn’t own a Britannica when I was growing up, but my Uncle Raph and my Aunt Molly did. It was kept in a low bookcase facing the front door of their apartment on Highland Avenue in Queens, so you couldn’t miss it when you came to visit. And I certainly didn’t miss it, not ever. I believe the story is that my uncle won it appearing on some radio quiz show long before I was born, which detail only added to its luster in my mind: the thought that one could actually win such a thing in a contest was only one step removed from my own fantasy that I might one day receive a set of books like that as a present for Chanukah or for my birthday. And I coveted those books! As some readers may recall, they were very handsome volumes, each bound in brown leather with golden letters on the spine that distinguished the tomes not only from each other but also from every other book I had ever seen. They even had a particular smell to them, those books, something hard to describe but not at all unpleasant. In my child’s eyes, those books were the embodiment of knowledge, the source of all truly reliable information, something to be proud of being related to someone who owned a full set of which. My father told me many times that my Uncle Raph, who was revered in our family both for the breadth and the depth of his knowledge (and who, incidentally, was one of the few true autodidacts I’ve ever met), had read the entire thing.

Could that be true? Even now, it seems unimaginable to me: I don’t know what edition my aunt and uncle owned, but the index of the 2007 edition listed a quarter of a million topics covered and another half million sub-entries under those topics. Even if the earlier editions were shorter (which I have no specific reason to think they were), that’s still an awful lot of reading even for a man possessed of my uncle’s thirst for knowledge and talent for mastering intellectual challenges. The World Book, which we also didn’t own but which many of my friends did have at home, paled by comparison. Everything paled by comparison. I wanted a Britannica at home, just like my uncle and aunt. I wanted to read the whole thing too, starting with the aardvarks and working my way through to the Zulus, just like my uncle did (or may have). And I wanted people to see our books too as soon as they stepped into our apartment and thus come to think of our home as a place in which people who truly revered learning. I was that kind of kid. (I heard that! Is it that obvious?)

It never happened. We never bought the books. I don’t recall even discussing buying them. I’ve certainly never read them, not entirely and not even mostly. When I need some information nowadays, even to find out when and where the Britannica was first published (1768-1771, in Edinburgh), I go to Wikipedia. It’s free. It’s always there. (I have the Wikipedia app installed on my phone, so it really is always there.) It’s remarkably accurate and generally, at least as far as I can see, free of bias. There’s a Britannica on-line site as well, but it costs $70 a year for full access. Part of me wants to pay, but the other part of me—I heard that too, but isn’t “frugal” a nicer way to say the same thing?—can’t quite bring myself to fork over the money. What for? So I can gather even more material I’ll never find the time actually to read? Plus, you can always amuse yourself, also for free, by perusing Wikipedia’s index of articles in Yiddish or Yoruba or Xitsonga. (There are editions of Wikipedia in an astounding 283 languages. Who even knew there were that many languages in the world to look things up in?)

The demise of the print edition has been coming for a long time. In 1990, they sold about 120,000 copies of the thirty-two volume set. This year, only a little more than two decades later, they printed a mere 12,000, of which they have managed to sell only 8000 copies at $1395 per set. It’s not that much money. For the same money, roughly, you can spend somewhere between 250 and 300 hours at the movies. But you could read the Britannica for years and years—really, for a lifetime—and never be done learning what there is to know in the world. And yet, as noted above, who am I to lament the demise of the printed edition? I myself wouldn’t dream of getting in my car and driving to a library to look something up in an encyclopedia, much of parting with $1395 to look that same thing up at home. Nor does anyone with an internet connection have to: for $70 you can have the whole thing in your pocket or your purse. And for free you can have Wikipedia, which paradoxically by its very existence proves the need for encyclopedias in the modern world, just not for printed ones bound in leather that weigh a ton and are the opposite of portable. (By way of comparison with the EB, Wikipedia has 21 million articles, 3.8 million of them in English. On the average month, Wikipedia receives about 2.7 billion pageviews from the United States alone. And since all the information lives in the cloud somewhere, it doesn’t take up any space at all, not on your bookshelves and not on your hard drive either. It’s just there, something in the spirit of what the psalmist described God as being nimtza me’od—“intensely present.”)

And so the world moves forward into unknown and unknowable future. Features of our childhoods that once felt absolutely permanent and fully real turn out to be fully impermanent and totally replaceable. The print edition of the Britannica was a kind of anchor for me as I was growing up and trying to invent myself, something the mere existence of which proved (at least to the young me) that knowledge was attainable (if not quite finite), that you could—if you only had enough patience and sitzfleisch—find in one single place more or less everything there was to know. So I was wrong, so what? I felt beckoned to by those books, called to see just what (I naively imagined) everybody else in the world knew about everything and that somehow only I had yet to find out.

My uncle and aunt are gone now, as are my parents and all of their siblings. That much of the world, we all know. But who ever thought the Britannica would vanish, that it even could vanish? I related to the article in the newspaper Wednesday not that differently from the way I responded at the end of Planet of the Apes when the monkeys come across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and you realize this has all been happening on earth: that the Statue of Liberty is a man-made thing that could somehow be destroyed is obviously true…but who can imagine it not being there watching over the harbor? I suppose one could say the same thing about the Twin Towers. But perhaps that is the big lesson to be learned from all of the above, both the horrific and the relatively benign: nothing is truly permanent, everything is in a constant state of change. As King Kohelet noted millennia ago, the rivers are constantly flowing in to the sea, but the sea never seems to fill up but merely exists in the context of ongoing change so that its apparent permanence is just an illusion and nothing more. Can the same be said of human knowledge, even absent the innately ephemeral nature of the printed books in which it has up until now been presented to the reading public? That, I suppose remains to be seen!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Queen Esther: The Day After

Friday is Shushan Purim, the day after “real” Purim that commemorates the fact that the Jews of Old Shushan were so successful in defeating their would-be assailants that they required a second day to mop things up, an element of their story to which we nod slightly by giving this day a special name and, frankly, not much else. Still, it’s a nice touch. How many other holidays commemorate a victory against would-be oppressors so massive and far-reaching that it couldn’t even be accomplished on a single day? Other than Purim, I can’t think of a one. (Mind you, how many massive victories over murderous anti-Semites are in the pool to consider? Not so many!) But I had an idea while listening to the Megillah the other night that perhaps we should respond to the peculiar feature of Purim having an after-holiday by considering the aftermath of the story itself.

We don’t ever go there. We get to the end of the scroll. The band is already warming up. They’re already frying up the falafel balls. It’s a challenge to keep people in their seats long enough to sing Shoshanat Yaakov, let alone to hang around to discuss the story of Purim in any detail at all. Perhaps that’s as it should be, even: Purim is about celebrating, and the huge party we have at Shelter Rock is always a huge amount of fun. So who doesn’t want to get the party started? And yet…thinking about where the story leads is a worthy way to lend meaning and dignity to the story that is at the heart of Purim observance. (The “what happens next” motif is not, after all, foreign to our way of analyzing our ancient books. What happens after the Torah narrative itself finishes with Moses’s death is told in detail, after all, in the Book of Joshua; we have just made a communal decision not to go there, but instead to begin reading the Torah again from the beginning of the scroll, that’s all. And Ruth, the other one of the five megillot with a clear narrative story line, in fact ends precisely by following the offspring of its protagonists for generations into the future.) Only the Megillah ends with a vague summary of how things wound up, but without peering even momentarily into the future or nodding to the “what happened next” questions that modern readers seem inevitably to want to ask about the characters in their favorite books.

If anything, the Megillah draws to its end with a surfeit of good news. King Achashveirosh invents a way to raise even more money by invented new taxes to impose on even the furthest flung reaches of his empire, thus making himself even more wealthy than he was at the beginning of the story (which, as you’ll recall, was already pretty wealthy). Mordechai ends up not only second-in-command to the king himself, but also formally, possibly even permanently, installed as the head of the Jewish community. (Moreover, the enormous power vested in him, the Megillah assures us, never went to his head, never made him imperious or overbearing, never made him into a self-absorbed little dictator so exaggeratedly concerned with the honor due his office as to turn himself into an ironic, if wholly unaware, parody of the very Haman whose downfall triggered the events that led to his own great success.) For their part, the Jews of the realm are safe under the protection of a wise and benevolent patron, their position in Persian society happily and unassailably secure. All, we are obviously supposed to imagine, is well for the Jews of Persia as the story ends with a brief final chapter clearly intended to wrap things up nicely and neatly.

But left unmentioned in this epilogue to the larger story is the player whose quick thinking and whose bravery were the true catalysts that led both to the people’s survival and to Mordechai’s amazing success, Queen Esther herself. Given that the maidens left unchosen to become queen were forever sequestered in a special harem placed under the watchful aegis of the eunuch Shaashgaz, we can suppose that no one simply walked away from the king’s bed in old Shushan and just went back home. And surely a queen would least of all have had that option available to her! And so we are left imagining poor Esther forever in place in the palace, a prisoner in a gilded cage stuck spending the rest of her life sleeping with her drunken nincompoop of a husband and either thinking the deliverance of her people to have been worth the price she was left forever afterwards paying or not thinking that. The questions that come next almost ask themselves. Did the Achashveiroshes eventually have children? Why wouldn’t they have?) But if they did, then was the next king of Persia himself a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother? Did Esther, having successfully come out of the closet to pursue her Jewishness openly once the events retold in the Megillah were well in the past? The next time the king asked her to ask for anything at all even unto half the kingdom did she ask that a mikveh be installed in the palace?

None of these questions has an answer. The story ends where it ends. Esther, far more of a literary figure than a historical one, exists only within the tale as told. But the question that readers are left with is one still well worth asking, and it is that specific question that Shushan Purim seems invariably to bring to my mind. Is the moral of the story that there actually is no bottom line, that anything at all is worth doing, any law worth breaking, any taboo worth ignoring, if it leads to the downfall of the enemies of the Jewish people? How that squares exactly with the obligation of fealty to the law every Jew theoretically bears as his or her part of the eternal covenant between God and Israel is a question that each must answer for him or herself. And yet, the Megillah’s deepest lesson—that the destiny of Israel is ultimately the responsibility of every single Jewish soul and that nothing (and certainly no norm of normal behavior) can be imagined to supersede that responsibility—cannot seriously be debated. Indeed, such is both the Megillah’s ultimate lesson and its most profound point. In fact, I imagine that it is that specific point that constitutes the ultimate reason Jewish people continue to read this story over and over. (Is that also the reason that the law requires that even a priest offering up sacrifices at the altar in the Temple abandon his efforts—which is to say, to abandon the formal worship of God—when the time comes to hear the Megillah read aloud? It could be!) And surely this specific lesson is the reason that the sages of classical antiquity declared that, although the advent of the messiah will eventually obviate the need to observe most Jewish festivals, Purim alone among the holidays of the Jewish year will never be considered obsolete or passé. Nor, taught the sages, will its back story ever be forgotten. Or its lesson regarding the role every Jew must play in fulfilling the destiny of the Jewish people ever be deemed to be of mere historical interest.

Obviously, Purim is about something that once happened, about a pogrom that failed to take place and about a people rising up instead to defend itself against those who were apparently already lining up to become their willing executioners. But it is also about Esther breaking so many different rules and going against so many different norms of Jewish behavior that they can barely be counted…and still being held up to the children, and especially to the girls, of every generation of Jewish people as a heroine who risked everything to save her people, and who in the end did save her people. By omitting to tell the rest of her story, the part that follows the story told in the Megillah, tradition is inviting the reader in, inviting all of his who gather annually on Purim to hear the Megillah to step into the narrative and ask ourselves if we have it in us to risk everything for the future of the Jewish people and to contemplate all that thought entails. Had Esther lost that beauty contest, she would have disappeared into the seraglio never to be heard from again. No one would recall her name, Nor would any of us know or care that she ever lived. But because she won—surely as much a gift of Providence as an instance of success deriving from her own efforts to risk her virtue to charm her sot of a king—she is not only not forgotten, but still, all these millennia later, cherished as a role model from whose example all may learn. Perhaps we can honor Shushan Purim, then, by asking what exactly actually it is that we have learned from her example. And then, once we have found it in us to answer that question, to proceed on bravely to the truly stress-inducing part of the exercise by asking ourselves whether we have internalized that lesson ourselves…and whether we have it in us to live up to the example Queen Esther set for us so many countless centuries ago.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Swimming in a Sea of Otherness

In my experience, one generally makes much more trouble for oneself in this world by opening one’s mouth than by keeping it shut. But that is apparently not always the case, as was amply evidenced the other day by Justice Salim Joubran, the only Israeli Arab among the fourteen judges on Israel’s Supreme Court, who managed to create a huge brouhaha in Israel without saying a word. The incident occurred the other day at a ceremony honoring the Dorit Beinisch, the ninth president of the Supreme Court on the occasion of her impending retirement. The ceremony ended, as these things invariably do in Israel, with the singing of Hatikvah. But Justice Joubran chose not to sing, a position he is widely understood to maintain on principle. Generally speaking, I admire people who hold fast to their principles and do not abandon them merely to curry favor with others. (Don’t most of us feel that way?) And in that sense I have to say that I admire the justice for having the courage of his convictions. On the other hand, there is something bizarre and unsettling about the image of a man occupying a position at the pinnacle of the justice system of his own country, yet finding it impossible to express his allegiance to country he serves simply by doing something as innocuous as singing its national anthem in public. But nothing in Israel is ever that simple! And although the whole incident is surely in the larger scheme of things just a minor kerfuffle, it so perfectly encapsulates the dilemma facing Israel as it moves into the future that I thought I would write about it today. Nor is this entirely without implications for the way we see our own country and its much-vaunted, yet often more-honored-in-the-breach separation of church and state.

Israel was founded as a Jewish state. Zionism itself is the sturdy philosophical structure built on that single foundational idea, a philosophy that self-defines as the political expression of the Jewish version of the natural longing all nations have to live in peace on their own land and to thrive within secure boundaries. When understood in that way, it feels entirely normal to me for the Jewish people to have its own state in its own homeland, to pursue its own cultural ideals according to its own lights on its own territory, to defend itself from its enemies in the manner of all nation-states, and to self-define in whatever way it wishes. Nor, given the way our people have too-often fared in the lands of our dispersion, is this mere political theory: over the years, Israel has provided refuge for Jewish people from uncountable diaspora settings where their very lives would otherwise have been in danger or at least in which they would otherwise have been unable to live as Jews freely and without impediment. Indeed, when the United Nations finally bowed both to reality and common sense in 1991 and revoked its resolution condemning Zionism as racism, it was merely nodding to the fact that Israel has the same right to self-define that is accorded naturally to every other nation on earth.

Or rather, not to every nation, but rather only the ones with their own property. The world, in fact, is filled with nations that are not awarded the right to self-define as independent states. The Inuit in Canada. The Maoris in New Zealand. The Navahos in our own country, and the Cherokees and all the other Native American nation-tribes. The Chechens in Russia. The Basques in Spain. The Bretons in France. The Copts in Egypt. The Lapps in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. The Tamils in Sri Lanka. You see where I’m going. Nations that merely exist are specifically not automatically awarded the right to exist as independent states, not by the United Nations or for that matter by anyone at all. So it is hardly possible convincingly to argue the Jewish right to self-definition with reference solely to the existence of the Jewish people. The Basques also exist! What was on the table in those dark years between 1975 (when the United Nations voted to equate Zionism and racism) and 1991 (when that hateful resolution was finally revoked) was not whether the Jewish people existed at all, but whether they were rightly to be considered a mere ethnicity with no natural claim to statehood or an actual nation that has the inalienable right to self-define. In the end, and slightly amazingly, the U.N. (at least in this one instance) did the right thing. But where does that leave Justice Joubran? Not in such a comfy seat, it turns out. And that is where the issue of principle comes into play.

Hatikvah, surprisingly, only became Israel’s official national anthem in 2004. But it was widely recognized as the national hymn since the state was founded in 1948 and long before that. (The British briefly banned the public performance of the song in 1919, apparently because they felt it too overtly identified with the political aim of the Zionist movement to rid Palestine of the British and to proclaim on its territory a Jewish state.) The song itself is about the longing of the Jewish people to live the normal life of a sovereign nation. Nor could its lyrics, which all together constitute one long, complex sentence, possibly be more transparent in that regard: “As long as in the inner heart the Jewish soul yet yearns, and as long as an eye still gazes towards Zion, towards the east, towards the future, our hope, the two-thousand-year-old hope to be a free people in our land, in Zion, in Jerusalem, has not been extinguished.” As sentences go, it’s a little convoluted. But as poetry it could not be clearer: as long as the Jewish heart yearns for Zion and as long as the eyes of the Jewish people are trained on the land of Israel, then the hope of the Jewish people to be a free people in its own land cannot truly be said to have been extinguished. The sentiment could not be more noble, but the reality is more messy: if you were an Arab Israeli—Justice Joubran is a Christian Arab, not a Muslim, but that’s hardly the point—would you be able to sing that song with the fervor a Supreme Court justice would naturally be expected to bring to his nation’s national anthem?

It’s not such an easy question to answer. The French-language version of the Canadian national anthem defines the great accomplishment of European Canadians as the conquest of the territory that now is Canada with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, but most Jewish citizens—if they even know the words in French—consider that a joke, an amusing comment on their nation’s past rather than a provocative insult to non-Christians in Canada today. Other nations too define themselves in terms of the majority’s sense of the nation’s inmost ethos. British law requires that the head of state be a member of the Church of England. Norwegian law requires that the king be a member of the Church of Norway. The president of Lebanon has to be a Christian, but the prime minister has to be a Muslim. (The deputy prime minister has to be a member of the Greek Orthodox faith.) Nor is any of this unusual in terms of the way the countries of the world conduct their affairs. All countries pass laws regularly intended to promote their national character in uncountable ways ranging from the languages that are taught in their schools to the specific days they endorse as national holidays to the designs on their national flags and coats of arms. And so too does Israel seek to promote itself as a Jewish state in a thousand different ways, including its choice of its national anthem.

I’ve just read the most interesting novel, a book called Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua. Born in Israel and fluent in Hebrew, Kashua is a graduate of the Hebrew University and writes regularly for Haaretz and for the local Jerusalem newspaper, Ha-Ir, as well as the dialogue for the Israeli sitcom Avodah Aravit (“Arab Labor”), which once won the award for best television series at the Jerusalem Film Festival. He is also an Arab who writes openly about the situation of Israeli Arabs and the bizarre, sometimes tragic, way in which they are inevitably caught between the dominant culture of Jewish Israel and their own Arab culture. It’s a painful book to read in some ways, affecting and upsetting at the same time, because it highlights the paradox with which Israel must live, and with which those of us whose hearts beat with Israel must therefore also live. We want Israel to a Jewish state. We want Jewish culture to flourish there. We want the gates always to remain open to Jewish refugees from wherever they must flee to safeguard their lives or their property or their heritage. We are nothing but proud of the degree to which Israel has managed all that. But we also want Israel to be a democracy in which all citizens are treated fairly and equitably, in which no citizens are by definition second-class or deemed to possess fewer rights than others. Most of the time we tell ourselves that there’s no real problem, that we American Jews feel fully possessed of the rights of citizens and have made our collective peace with living in a Christian society that, for reasons none of us truly understands, considers it rational for Christmas to be a national holiday and does not find it bizarre for there to be Christmas trees in post offices or public hospitals, let alone in the White House itself. It’s just how it is, we tell ourselves, and, on the whole, it’s not that bad. In fact, we are beyond fortunate to be here, to be citizens of this great democracy. And that we surely all know as well.

In my opinion, the Israelis who were outraged by the incident involving Justice Joubran last week are making a huge deal out of nothing. The man is a respected jurist and, by all accounts, an intelligent man. He has made his peace with who he is and with where he lives. He serves his country in a very public position and has, by all accounts, acquitted himself well. (He was, among other things, one of the three judges who upheld former Israeli president Moshe Katzav’s rape conviction last November.) So he doesn’t want to sing a hymn in public that ignores his people’s presence in the Jewish homeland and fails even to nod to the issue of their presence. He’s not the first. Ghaleb Majadale, the first Muslim appointed to serve in the Israeli cabinet, also got himself in hot water for refusing to sing the song, remarking at the time that the song was clearly written “for Jews only.” There were those who responded to that thought not by acknowledging its reasonableness (for the record, Majadale was certainly correct in his assessment of Naphtali Herz Imber’s original intention when he wrote Hatikvah in 1878), but by being outraged at his scandalous behavior. My counsel is for everybody to calm down. I could not feel myself to be more of a patriotic American, but I still avoid the post office in December as a silent (and, yes, meaningless and other than by myself unnoticed) protest against that irritating tree and all that it gratingly represents. It’s my small way of asserting, at least to myself, my sense that America has failed to live up to its own ideal of no religion being granted primacy of place, let alone “established” as our national faith. President Kennedy’s vision of an America “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials” is exactly right. That we come up short was not his problem, then, but it remains ours. (If you haven’t read President Kennedy’s remarks lately, originally delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, and you are reading an electronic version of this letter, then you can click here to read them in full. They are beyond inspiring!) And maybe that’s the way it should be, that it has to be: minority types make small gestures to assert their identity in a sea of otherness while nevertheless serving their nations and feeling proud and happy to do so. That’s how I feel about my country. That’s presumably how Justice Joubran feels about his. It’s even sort of how Sayed Kashua feels, although in a painfully raw, disconcerting way. I encourage all my readers to read his novel, Dancing Arabs. His second novel, Let It Be Morning¸ I’m just about to begin. A third novel is due out in the spring. I’ll read that one too, I’m sure.

Wanting Israel to be a multicultural democracy that embraces all its citizens and wanting Israel to be a Jewish state should not be incompatible ideas. The Norwegians seem to have figured it out. So have the Brits. And so will Israel. Not all paradoxes, after all, are fatal. There are those you can just learn to live with. I hardly go to the post office anyway.