Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sauce for the Goose

I seem to have touched a real nerve last week in my letter to you all—I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as much feedback as I did after writing last week about the specific way I found myself thinking about Second Amendment issues as we got ourselves ready for Purim and the details of the story behind the holiday imposed themselves on me slightly differently than they had in the past.

Especially engaging, apparently, to you was my musing about the endlessly interesting question of why the country was so willing to embrace the reasonableness of sedition in 1776 and so mercilessly unforgiving a mere eighty-odd years later when the southern states tried to travel down the very same route by unilaterally renouncing allegiance to the government of their own country, then proclaiming their intention to live in a new state carved out of the old one and possessed of a government more in tune with its citizens wishes and beliefs.  Responding to your interest, it seems to me now that an even more provocative way to frame that same question would  be to wonder whether the founding fathers, and particularly the Virginians among them (including particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison), would have sided with the federalists or the secessionists when it came time either to go to war to defend the union or to acquiesce to the departure of the deep-Southern states who wished to form their own country.  As I wrote last week, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were, after all, all people who had once been loyal, law-abiding subjects of the king of England, yet who felt finally that the chasm that had lately opened up between the direction in which they perceived their own best interests to lie and the way that the British authorities insisted autocratically on ruling over them was simply too wide to bridge other than by declaring their independence from Britain and daring the Brits to make them take it back.  But an even more sharp way to pose that same question would be to ask what exactly is it that makes Americans lionize Abraham Lincoln for going to war to prevent secession and punish sedition while holding poor King George, who also went to war to prevent secession and punish sedition, in contempt as a doddering fool who cost scores of thousands their lives merely because he was incapable of seeing the justice of the colonists’ cause and the wisdom in acquiescing to their entirely reasonable demands?

One approach to answering these questions is to remember, as Jay Feldman (Shelter Rock’s most well-published letter writer, and by far) reminded me the other day, that the victors pretty much always get to write the history books.  Therefore, we consider the colonists’ cause just because they won the war. Had they lost, we—perhaps still British subjects, but even if not—would consider them disloyal traitors to crown and country and have long since forgotten most of their names. The same applies to the Civil War—the union won, so we consider the rebels to have been, well, disloyal traitors. Had the southern states won, on the other hand, we could call the conflict the War of Southern Independence or the Confederate Revolution, or something like that, and have long since made our peace with sedition-sauce for the goose being, almost by definition, something the gander has occasionally to make his peace with being basted in.  And by now northerners like ourselves would surely harbor no specific animus against Confederate citizens, just as the British today seem to have gotten over the whole Revolution and made their peace with the existence of the United States on territory that was once part of their self-proclaimed, yet politically real (and for a long time more or less viable) empire.

All of the above sounds reasonably cogent to me, but another way of approaching the issue would be to frame the issue not in terms of history or politics, but in terms of philosophy.

I’ve occasionally written to you about my distaste for moral relativism, the school of philosophy that presumes that there can be no fixed point against which beliefs or actions can be measured other than the vantage point of the believer or the actor.  It sounds complicated when put like that, but the concept itself is actually quite simple. If you think you are behaving well, then you are behaving well. If you think of yourself as a freedom fighter, then you are a freedom fighter…no matter how widely the rest of the world unsympathetically condemns you as a terrorist. If you believe yourself to be justified in renouncing your allegiance to the crown, then you are justified in renouncing your allegiance to the crown…and that thought is unrelated to the way the man or woman wearing the crown in question may feel about your decision. Rightness rests in the conviction that one is behaving rightly. Wrongness means, almost by definition, acting counter to what you yourself think right. There is, therefore, no absolute concept of right or wrong, only an ever-shifting ethical landscape against which people either do or do not behave in ways consonant with their own sense of rightness and wrongness.

By framing the question that way, the answer suggests itself that the reason that the nation responded differently in 1776 and 1860 had to do with Lincoln’s rejection of this concept of an inherently anchorless moral code. To say that because it was just for the colonists in the 1770s to declare their independence as a valid response to tyranny did not imply, apparently not even remotely, to our sixteenth president that it must also be so, therefore, that the secession of the southern states was reasonable or justifiable.  In other words, the fact that the thirteen colonies seceded from the British Empire, so to speak, did not imply that the southern states had ipso facto the right to secede from the union. Resistance to tyrants may well be obedience to God (as Thomas Jefferson famously said) but that absolutely did not imply to Lincoln or to his supporters that the union could be unilaterally dissolved by dissenters who falsely castigated our president as a tyrant and unfairly denounced Congress as an agency of his tyranny. It’s a compelling argument, although today I wonder how popular it would be today if our country were facing a serious threat to its unity because one or several states wished formally to secede. Would we go to war again to prevent that from happening? I doubt it.  And if we did it certainly would not be enthusiastically.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how this specific concept of moral relativism is still alive and well in the world out there. Because Israel is reputed to have a nuclear arsenal, it must ipso facto be reasonable for Iran also to have one. The counterargument that the fact that the Iranian government is a world-wide sponsor of terror that speaks openly and enthusiastically about its hope someday to annihilate the State of Israel by murdering its citizens makes it entirely reasonable to work to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power without it being unfair that Israel is left to its own devices—that seems unconvincing to all who consider that what’s sauce for the (Israeli) goose must be sauce too for the (Iranian) gander. And, besides, who’s to say that the violent militants that the Iranians sponsor are terrorists? They don’t think of themselves that way! So how different is Iran from any other nation that outsiders condemn for failing to live up those outsiders’ standards and instead charting their own course according to their own lights? How about it simply being right and reasonable for Israel to have the mightiest arsenal of weaponry possible, and wrong and unjust for countries committed not to peaceful coexistence but to aggression, violence, and belligerence not to be permitted to acquire even more powerful weapons with which to threaten the world and its peoples?

It all seems obvious to me. But there are many out there that seem to see things entirely differently. These are the people who can’t quite understand why it is reasonable for Israel to respond forcefully (and, yes, militarily) when, since 2001, more than 15,000 rockets are sent across the border with Gaza aimed at civilian targets and eventually causing more than sixty deaths, and unreasonable for terrorists to blow up discotheques and pizza restaurants where children are dancing or dining.  These are also the people who can’t quite see the difference between the people on the Exodus in 1947, desperate refugees trying to slip past a blockade designed to prevent desperate refugees from settling peacefully in their own homeland, and the thugs on the Mavi Marmara in 2010, who also attempted to slip past a blockade of the Israeli coast but only to show their support for a terrorist regime that chooses to express itself politically by murdering innocents, including children.  Or the difference, for that matter, between the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in the 1980s specifically to install a puppet government that it could control and the U.S. involvement in that same country now which, flaws and set-backs and all, is basically about supporting a democratically-elected regime that is committed to playing its part in the war against terror.

Americans are by nature a fair, just people. We have enshrined in our Constitution a basic approach to society that is anchored in the sense that everybody deserves a hearing, that freedom of speech is reasonable precisely because everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. And yet President Lincoln’s example speaks to me profoundly and loudly these days. Surely, he was a proponent of free speech! But to make the leap from that thought to the notion that no one, no matter what views they espouse, can ever simply be wrong—not because they have no right to their opinions, but because some opinions are simply unjust and morally wrong—that is a notion President Lincoln, I believe, would have found beyond  peculiar, and so do I!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Purim 2013

When it comes down to it, the great debate about the scope and intent of the Second Amendment as it applies to private gun ownership in America has to do, almost more than anything else, with issues related to trust and confidence. The United States was born in revolution, but we rarely pause to consider what exactly that means. But what it means exactly is key to the debate about guns.

Our founding fathers and their supporters were British subjects until they unilaterally declared themselves no longer to be. Like all subjects of the Crown, they were considered obliged by virtue of that status to obey the edicts and statutes promulgated by Parliament, to accept the king as their sovereign and to remain loyal to his governance, and to conduct their affairs in accordance with the laws of the empire of which they were citizens and the motherland from which about half of them originally came. (The rest came almost exclusively from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France, Sweden, and, of course, Africa, black slaves constituting about 19% of the total population according to the 1790 census. Only half the citizens of Colonial America either came from England or were descended from people who did.)  The decision unilaterally to renounce fealty to the king and obedience to laws promulgated by Parliament in his name was, by any normal definition of the term, sedition. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence speaks boldly about the colonists’ decision unilaterally “to dissolve the political bands” which had previously bound them to Britain and then goes on slightly defensively to justify that decision with a long list of specific grievances, some of them multifaceted, that, in the opinion of the signatories to the declaration, made rational and reasonable (if no less seditious) the decision to part company with the empire, thereby renouncing allegiance to the law of the land, and to pursue a national destiny as a “free and independent”  state.

And so, at the very moment of our country’s birth was also born the tension that would continue for centuries to exist between the basic human right to renounce the rule of tyrants—a right at the core of the biblical story of Israel’s unilateral decision to renounce fealty to Pharaoh and to seek destiny as an independent people—and the equally basic societal obligation to ensure the security of the citizenry by not permitting citizens unilaterally to renounce the obligation to obey laws that they find onerous or unjust, a principle also buttressed by ample biblical precedent.  The Second Amendment, adopted as law in the winter of 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights and suffused with more maddening ambiguity than a single sentence of less than three dozen words should ever be permitted to possess, appears both by its content and its language to represent the tension between the two sides of the argument. Because a “well-regulated” citizens’ militia is basic to the security of those very citizens, the right of citizens to “keep and bear” arms shall not be infringed upon. But the right of the citizenry to form armed militias and then to renounce loyalty to their country is nonetheless strictly forbidden. Indeed, the Sedition Act of 1798 made it a formal crime to attempt to attempt to overthrow the government of the United States.

The Civil War, the bloodiest by far of all conflicts involving Americans, was specifically about the tension between those two thoughts. And today, all these many years later, the issue remains unresolved. Do citizens have the right to bear arms outside the permissibility of forming armed militias to protect them against whatever tyrannical government might someday seize power in Washington? If the right to bear arms is limited to the context of the armed militias mentioned in the amendment, then what sense can it make for it to be considered treason for the citizenry to rise up in armed rebellion against the federal government, as the states of the Confederacy did during the Civil War? But how can the right to band together to fight tyranny justify the ownership of assault weapons by citizens who do not belong to militias and whose sole reason for possessing them must therefore be assumed to be other than the defense of freedom?

These are the thoughts that occupy me as we approach Purim, our national Jewish festival of conflicted messages. Over the years, I’ve written my pre-Purim letter about different ones of these conflicts, but today I would like to write about the way the story of Purim relates to the issues outlined above.  The Jews of Persia were clearly unarmed. Indeed, when the king’s decree went forth to the effect that “it was the king’s will that every Jew, including the children and the elderly, even infants and women, were to be annihilated, murdered and exterminated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, that is of the month of Adar, whereupon their personal possessions would be free for all to plunder,” no one seems to worry that the Jews might fight back in any meaningful way, least of all that they may have the time and, more to the point, possess the arms to form a well-regulated citizens’ militia that could defend the foe’s intended victims from their would-be murderers. Indeed, the Jewish response to the forthcoming pogrom was not to gather up the arms they had priorly been permitted to keep and to bear, but instead to pre-sit shivah for themselves “by fasting, weeping, and declaiming their misery loudly and sorrowfully…by donning sackcloth and smearing themselves with ash.”

When Haman is finally denounced and summarily executed for his treachery, Esther and Mordechai ask that the decree of annihilation be withdrawn but soon learn that that cannot happen because royal edicts may never be made void merely because the king wishes to change his mind. Esther and Mordechai quickly shift to Plan B, one which will work just as well and possibly even better than the mere withdrawal of the original edict. They make their proposal and the king, delighted to have a way to fix things without contravening any of his nation’s laws, agrees instantly, then issues an entirely new edict that grants Jews “in every city of the kingdom the king’s permission to organize local militias with the express purpose of defending the Jewish population by endeavoring to destroy, exterminate, and annihilate the thugs of every people and ethnicity who were planning such ill for them, including those people’s children and their wives, and then by plundering all their possessions.”

The text doesn’t say so, but we are apparently supposed to imagine that we are talking about armed militias—the only really useful kind—and that the king’s edict thus also provided for weaponry to be provided to them.  The moral of the story—that armed militias organized in the defense of a citizenry that would otherwise be their foes’ easy marks are a good thing—comes through loud and clear.  Indeed, had the Jewish militias permitted by the king’s edict been in existence previously, perhaps Haman would have thought twice before manipulating the king into granting royal sponsorship to the pogrom he was so eager to schedule.

Nor will American Jewish readers attempting to fit the story of Purim into their thinking about Second Amendment issues be able to consider the issue without reference to the Shoah. The Jews of Europe—and, at least until the early 1930’s, the Jews of Germany foremost among them—trusted their governments. They believed that the citizenship they bore would guarantee their civil rights, that the positions of authority and power they held in their own country’s judiciary and in its government, as well as in its academic and military institutions—that the degree to which they were integrated into the warp and woof of their country’s institutions of culture and governance made obsolete the need to consider the possibility of needing “well-regulated” armed militias to defend themselves against…against whom exactly? Their own government? Their own neighbors? Their own armed forces? The very prospect must have seemed like a nightmarish fantasy and, at that, one far more rooted in biblical reality than contemporary reasonableness.  The Jews of Hungary felt the same way. So did the Jews of Romania and France, as did the Jews of Poland and Lithuania. We all know how wrong they were…but the question is not really whether they were reasonably or insanely naïve in their estimation of the degree to which they were safe in their own house, but what lesson the obligation tradition places on every Jewish soul to listen carefully to the story of Purim over and over, year in and year out, is meant exactly to teach.

Thinking about the Jews of Shushan responding to their imminent annihilation by weeping and fasting, then layering that image over the mental images that never quite leave us of Treblinka and Sobibor, of Babi Yar and the Ponary Woods…and then layering those nightmarish images over the babies of Newtown shot down by someone with no political agenda at all  whose personal demons prompted him to murder children—that experience of wondering when guns in the hands of citizens is healthy and good, and when it merely fosters pointless massacres like the ones at Blacksburg or Aurora or Littleton, that is the set of emotions I am bringing to Purim this year.

Mostly, it’s a lot of fun, this holiday. I like the noisemakers. I like the food. I like the vodka. I like, sort of, dressing up for the Megillah reading. I’ve written to you over the years about how long it took me really to grow into this holiday, how I started out thinking it to be a huge affair about a massacre that didn’t happen. But I’ve grown into it over the years, and each year I seem to find more and more profundity in the customs and ceremonies associated with Purim, in the story of Esther itself, and in the larger issues that form the foundation upon which the rest comfortably or uncomfortably sits.   To take the story seriously, especially in these United States at this point in our evolution as a free society, requires spending at least some time contemplating what might have happened—what almost definitely would have happened—had Esther not, beyond improbably, have become the queen of Persia and been in place bravely to save the day. It’s one thing, after all,  to parrot Mordechai’s hopeful line about salvation surely coming from someplace else had Esther been unable or unwilling to put her life on the line to save her people and another to imagine where exactly the unarmed Jews of Persia would have found the wherewithal to survive their would-be destroyers’ onslaught. I too like to think that Mordechai was right…but so surely also must have thought the Jews of Warsaw, at least some of them up until the very end.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Extra Ecclesiam

Like most of you, I’m sure, I found scant comfort in the days following the Newtown massacre in watching video-journalists endlessly dissect the incident on television or in reading the uncountable number of newspaper and magazine articles that purported to explain how this unimaginable horror could actually have happened. But I did find some solace in watching the video of the interfaith memorial service attended by President Obama that took place in the auditorium of Newtown High School a few days after that most horrific of days. It was a moment of coming together for a nation that felt unsure how to respond to senseless, random act of terror that, even for a nation as inured to gun violence as the incidents of these last few years have made us, seemed at the time almost unbearable even to contemplate, let alone possible to explain rationally. That service was an opportunity for a shell-shocked nation to affirm the possibility that the solution to senseless violence could possibly lie, not in the promulgation of ever-more-complicated laws governing gun ownership (or not solely in such laws, although it certainly seems like a good plan to put in place new, tighter rules designed to keep guns out of  the hands of criminals, potential criminals, and mentally-ill persons), but in the propagation of faith. I have all sorts of mixed emotions about Second Amendment issues, but that idea—that in embracing the commonality of faith that binds together people striving to live together in an upright, decent, kind world lie the first steps toward a solution to our problem with gun violence—that idea resonates powerfully with me. Could the way to stop the killing be as simple as getting people to embrace the commandment not to kill?

Newtown is a small town. The population is only just over 27,000, about the same as Glen Cove or Plainview. When we talk about the town’s clergy, therefore, we are talking about a few people. Nevertheless, represented at the service were somehow all the major faith groups in our nation. As most of my readers will probably recall, the Jewish community was ably represented by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown.          The Christian community was represented by a wide range of clergymen and women representing the Roman Catholic Church and a wide variety of Protestant denominations. There were spokespeople representing the Muslim and Baha’i communities in Newtown as well.  As noted, President Obama was present, but so was Connecticut governor, Dannel P. Molloy, and Newtown’s First Selectman, a kind of mayor, E. Patricia Llodra.

It was a moving service. Rabbi Praver read the forty-sixth psalm, an ode to faith in the face of disaster that speaks of God as a refuge in times of trouble and as an ever-present source of strength to people in crisis. Others read passages from other sacred books. Some read prayers composed specifically for the occasion. The president spoke, I thought, eloquently and movingly. I came away from viewing the service feeling encouraged and reminded of the way religion can be a powerful force for good in American society.

Not everybody was as pleased as I, however. The Reverend Bob Morris, a local Lutheran minister, was sharply reprimanded by the president of his own denomination, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, for participating in the service and in so doing possibly inadvertently to have suggested that there might be something worthy and meaningful in religions other than his own or, apparently even worse, that the distinctions between the religions represented were less crucial than the values they share and the articles of faith they hold in common.  Chastened, or at least feeling obliged publicly to appear chastened, the Reverend Morris duly apologized…although only for offending members of his church and not specifically for participating in the service. I’m sure there are lots of ways to construe that demand for an apology and the apology itself, but it seems to me that together they say clearly that nothing—apparently including the wish to comfort the parents of murdered children—should reasonably ever trump a Lutheran clergyperson’s obligation never to offend the members of his church by appearing even indirectly to endorse the reasonableness of belonging to other churches, let alone of embracing other religions and the dogmas they espouse.

This whole strange pas-de-deux yielded a remarkable firestorm of criticism directed mostly against the Lutheran Church, which was accused of being intolerant, arrogant, and narrow-minded. Stung by the sharpness of the criticism, the church then issued a statement the other day apologizing for demanding the apology in the first place and noting that the church, after all, does respect people of “deep religious conviction.” Probably wisely, the statement said nothing about the worth of the deeply-held religious convictions those religious people deeply hold.

For most, the whole incident has been a huge embarrassment. The last thing anyone needed to do in the wake of Newtown was to sow the seeds of intolerance or interfaith acrimony; the Lutheran Church, while continuing to affirm its conviction that there is inherently something base and wrong in appearing even casually to show respect to the spiritual paths of others, at least seems now to realize that refusing to participate in the Newtown service would have looked terrible and sent a bizarre, meanspirited message to the world in an hour when all Americans were calling out for solace, not  narrow-mindedness. For many, the fact that just eleven and a half years ago the same synod of the same church suspended a pastor for participating in a post 9/11 interfaith service in New York made the whole imbroglio this time ‘round even more upsetting.

For many years, I was very involved in interfaith work. It isn’t as simple as it sounds. Our Jewish tradition has built-in respect for non-Jews who live moral, decent lives in accordance with the basic ethical principles that tradition imagines God to have shared with all humanity after the flood in Noah’s day.  But far less easy to square with our modern inclination to grant to others the respect we demand and expect for ourselves are the laws in our tradition that condemn without compromise any religion that promotes believe in a multiplicity of gods, or that promotes the notion that the use of plastic imagery in worship is acceptable.  Well known too are the long, complicated deliberations in the writings of the medieval regarding the question of how Jews should relate to Christianity or to Islam.  More recently, but paradoxically less well known, are the writings of contemporary rabbis attempting to say clearly how modern Jewish people should relate to religions like Buddhism that are so unlike Judaism, and in so many different and decisive ways, that it is difficult even to decide if the strictures that govern attitudes towards other faiths should even be considered relevant to the discussion. And, of course, layered over all of the above is the fact that so many of the groups in question have been so unremittingly hostile to Judaism that it seems odd to spend time worrying about the precise way we should relate to them at all.

The Christian world has grappled with these issues for a long time. It was, for example, third century Saint Cyprian of Carthage who first used the expression extra ecclesiam nulla salus to encapsulate the dogmatic notion that there could be no concept of salvation outside of the Christian Church, a notion that has continued to be affirmed over the centuries as Catholic dogma. Within the Protestant world, the solo christus doctrine, according to which redemption can never be sought in the context of a direct relationship between an individual and God—the very relationship that Jews recognize as the ultimate goal of all worthy spiritual endeavor and the only plausible setting for personal redemption—retains its currency among many denominations. To understand that kind of theological nullification of Judaism as benign takes more charity than I can muster. Nor is the idea unrelated to the history of anti-Judaism within the Christian Church. Indeed, the notion that the real reason for deploring anti-Semitism is so that Jewish people will eventually agree to abandon Judaism is stated unambiguously even today on the website of the Lutheran Church. (Readers viewing this electronically can see the statement by clicking here, then selecting “denominations” and then “other denominations.”)

It’s taken me a long time to work through these notions. For those unfamiliar with these ideas, Rosemary Ruether’s great book, Faith and Fratricide, will be especially worth reading to gain a sense of the way they developed within the world of Christian thought over the centuries.)  That there are apparently those in the Lutheran Church who found the willingness of one of their own pastors to appear in public with the clergy of other faiths unacceptable means that these exclusionary doctrines are alive and well…at least in the minds of some. In the end, though, we Jews have elements of theological chauvinism in our own tradition too, elements that have only lately been highlighted with an eye to eliminating from Jewish teaching the notion that the election of Israel to live in an eternal covenantal relationship with God precludes the possibility of other nations and cultures paving their own paths forward to spiritual fulfillment. We are hardly, therefore, in a position to cast the first stone…but what we can and should do is to signal our willingness to work through these matters with representatives of other religions and, if it were only possible, to create an atmosphere in which no one is ever called on the carpet for appearing to have shown undue respect to members of other faiths.

Finding the courage to affirm our commitment to our own spiritual path without feeling concomitantly obliged to look down on others who have chosen to pursue their journeys along alternate paths requires a certain level of self-assuredness that many lack. Indeed, I wonder if those who are the least able to respect the religious traditions of others—and specifically not because they begrudgingly admit that we are all possessed of the same civil right to worship as we please but because they truly accept the worth of those alternate traditions—suffer most of all from a lack of confidence in the strength and worth of their own spiritual path. If that is correct—and it seems to me plausible that it might be—then the solution is not to insult as narrow-minded those who found the Reverend Morris’s participation in that memorial service in Newtown objectionable, but to invite them to consider the possibility that precisely in the affirmation of the worth of their own tradition lies the strength, real even when dormant, to see the image of God reflected clearly in the faces of all men and women who seek  spiritual fulfillment through the medium of religious belief and religious observance.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Something truly amazing happened the other week. I am not referring to Ed Koch being buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery in Upper Manhattan (regarding which I have nothing to say, or rather nothing I wish to say out loud), but to an event that happened, of all places, in Long Beach, California, at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, when scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge came to town to report on their analysis of data retrieved from NASA’s Kepler Space Observatory. 

The Kepler Observatory, launched in March of 2009, was sent into space specifically, to quote the NASA website, “to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxyto determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have [earth-like] planets.”  That sounds like a reasonable thing for NASA—and for humankind—to want to know, and the results have been, to say the very least, astounding: since the mission began almost four years ago, Kepler has located an amazing 2,740 planets orbiting 2,036 stars.  That alone would be more than impressive—especially given that just a a few decades ago, no planets at all outside our solar system were known to exist—but the truly amazing part has to do with the way scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge have managed to use the Kepler project's data to extrapolate that, in their very learned opinion, there must be "at least seventeen billion" Earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone. That’s a lot of planets! And they are rotating, so this montah’s announcement, around approximately 17% of the approximately 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. 

To say the same thaing in different words, that means that scientists now estimate that there is an earth-size planet rotating around one out of every six stars in the galaxy. (To be exact, by “earth-sized” they mean somewhere between 85% the size of the earth to 1.25 times larger as our planet. If planets more than 1.25 times the size of the earth—the so-called “super-earths”—are included, the number is even higher.) Interestingly, the stars around which these earth-like planets are rotating are not all similar to our sun. In fact, many of these planets—technically called exoplanets, the name for planets outside our solar system—are rotating around stars called red dwarfs, which are both smaller and cooler than our sun. (The importance of that thought is that a planet “like” earth could rotate much closer to such a star and still have surface temperatures within the range deemed compatible with life, or at least with life as we know it.  If you are reading this electronically, click here to see all sorts of graphics posted at that make all these numbers dramatically easier to digest.) 

I’ve always been a great fan of the American space program. Alan Shepard became the first American in space just a few weeks before my eighth birthday. I was twice that age, sixteen, when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the moon. (I know exactly where I was too when he took those steps: lying flat on my back on a blanket in a field in Burlington, Vermont, looking up at the moon and trying to figure out how long before I was hearing his words on my tiny, tinny transistor radio they had actually been spoken on the moon. I also remember whom I was lying on that blanket next to, although I’m not sure exactly what became of her since.) I even remember being a summer-school student at JTS in the summer of 1976 when the Viking 1 lander set down on Mars and almost instantly started sending back color photographs of the Martian landscape. And, of course, I also remember being in my office in Heidelberg in January of 1986 when I heard that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up almost upon take-off, just as I remember being in the middle of my first year at Shelter Rock when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas in 2003.There is a sense out there, I think, that rabbis—and probably clergy people of all faiths—are supposed to be at least slightly unnerved by science or at least wary of the implications of its boldest theories and discoveries.  

But that basic assumption—that faith and science are basically incompatible disciplines, and that we can only truly embrace one if we are prepared to ignore the implications of the other—has never been especially resonant with me. I feel confirmed in my faith, content with believing what I feel called upon to believe and actually do believe about the world, about God, about the nature of religion and, particularly, the nature of my own religion as it exists in the physical world…but also fully open to the discoveries of modern scientists not begrudgingly but openly and enthusiastically. I have always felt uncomfortable with the so-called “two truth” theory whereby scientific truth and religious truth are deemed simply to exist in different universes of discourse, thus obviating any need for them to be reconciled at all! And more than just uncomfortable, to speak more honestly: all truth by definition being congruent with all other truth, the divide-and-conquer approach to science and faith seems to me disingenuous to the point of being false. Yet the world seems certain that science is enemy of faith!

It was with these thoughts in mind that I read Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, published last year in the U.S. by Schocken Books. Sacks, the outgoing Orthodox chief rabbi of the U.K., seems as enthralled by science as I am, and as little inclined to accept as reasonable the notion that to be a person of faith means, ipso facto, that one has to deny the veracity of the great discoveries of science or, at the very least, to ignore them. The chief rabbi writes with passion and with great intelligence about his own journey to faith, but also about his life-long love of science and scientific writing. Much of what he writes will strike readers—or at least North American readers familiar with the Jewish world as it exists in our place—as surprisingly inconsonant with the views and attitudes generally associated with Orthodoxy. But here is a man who writes with fire in his belly about something he appears truly to believe, as do I: that the notion that religion can only exist where science is ignored basically means that religion can only truly be embraced by naïfs who live in a make-believe world of their own making and must therefore be rejected—and rejected firmly—by people who wish to remain equally committed both to intellectual and to spiritual integrity.  I recommend the book to all of you. It is smart, extremely well written, and challenging in a healthy, provocative way. I liked it, and I think you all will as well.

But what about all those exoplanets? If the people from the Harvard-Smithsonian are right, there are seventeen billion planets in our galaxy alone that are “earth-like.” Clearly, most are incapable of supporting life as we know it. Perhaps they cannot support life at all…but surely within all those uncountable planets there surely could be one single one on which life developed in a way analogous to the way it did on earth.  Tau Ceti f, a mere 11.9 light years from here, orbits a sun-like star and has an Earth Similarity Index of 0.71. (The Earth Similarity Index is based on the degree to which a planet’s surface is like the surface of earth and the parallel degree to which its atmosphere and weather are similar. Mars, for example, has an ESI of 0.66, Venus a mere 0.44.) Further off, super-earth Gliese 667C c has an ESI of 0.85, the highest of any known exoplanets. If it turns out that KOI1686.01, discovered tentatively but not yet conclusively by Kepler, actually exists, it is expected to have as its ESI an astounding 0.93.  You get the picture. Almost definitely, we are not alone.Didn’t we always sense that? Looking up at the nighttime sky, we see the tiniest fraction of what’s really out there…and yet the stars that we can see even without a telescope feel innumerable.  Contemplating the possibility—what now seems in light of these latest announcements, the overwhelming probability—that there are other planets out there on which have evolved life should be unnerving. 

What does that say about the creation narrative in Genesis? Where does that leave people who wish to imagine that human life on earth is the pinnacle of God’s creation? What if the residents of Gliese speaks about the special destiny of their people to bring redemption to the universe, or at least to their own planet? I suppose the answer to all of those questions depends on us as much as on the data itself. Will we respond to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life in the manner of enraged children overwhelmed by the discovery that their father also has some family in Peru or Tasmania or Mallorca that he’s been living with on all those business trips abroad he always claimed to need to be making, including children who miss him when he’s on what they think of his endless business trips to here?  

Or will we find in the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe the context finally to grow into the state of abject humility that our sages suggest is the requirement not only for knowing God, but even for knowing of God. The prophet Amos, probably because his book is so short, doesn’t get enough play, but he was one of the greats. Living in the eighth century B.C.E., he too faced a people in love with their own importance and, particularly, with their own uniqueness and it was to them directly that he addressed some of the most famous rhetorical questions recorded in the Bible. God, the prophet says, appeared to him at the side of the altar in the Temple to charge him with bringing a truly remarkable message to the people. The greatest enemy of faith, God taught him, is arrogance and unearned pride. To find, therefore, in the story of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt “proof” that no amount of poor behavior will ever alter God’s ongoing commitment to preserve and defend the people is, the prophet learns, the definition of supercilious foolishness. “I took you forth from Egypt,” Amos is told to say in God’s name to Israel.  That much is true, but do you imagine that I care more for you than for, say, the Ethiopians? I brought you forth from Egypt, yes…but did I not also bring forth the Philistines from Kaftor, and the Arameans from Kir? You never heard of those places? Well, the faithful of those nations probably don’t know much about My role in your history either! But to imagine that God’s involvement in the history of your people somehow precludes God’s involvement in the history and destiny of other nations—that is the kind of arrogant nonsense that leads away from, not toward, the embrace of destiny in the context of faith.It’s a great passage. (You can find it easily in the ninth chapter of Amos, the last in his book.) And it should suggest the right way to respond to the announcement in Long Beach last week.  

To contemplate the universe in its fullness—and that, only to the extent to which we are currently capable and certainly not in any ultimate way—should inspire not despair but the deepest humility.  What we know of the world is the tiniest part of what there is to know. What we know of the universe—including its uncharted reaches that lie so far beyond our own galaxy that we cannot even properly imagine what it is we know nothing of—is barely what a newborn knows of the world in its fullness and richness.  The enormous strides forward we have made in the last decades will eventually be derided as the tiniest of baby steps forward towards understanding our place in the universe. And yet…instead of finding all of this threatening or upsetting, I find it, if anything, ennobling and humbling. I feel the truth of the creation story not in its details, but in the satisfying thought that the unimaginable complexity of creation actually does mirror its unknowable Creator. And I think that is the right way for all thinking people of faith to respond to the astronomers’ report not of hundreds or thousands, but of billions of planets out there…Earth among them to be sure, but also (the ones I’ll call) Kaftor and Kir…and (the one the world calls) Tau.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Superbowl Madness

As someone who belongs neither to the forthright 44% of Americans who indicated in a poll earlier this week that they were “very likely” to watch the Superbowl on Sunday nor to the equivocal 22% who declared themselves “somewhat likely” to watch the game, I was nonetheless very interested in the Public Religion Research Institute poll—available to those reading this electronically by clicking here—that yielded those numbers. And there was a lot to be interested in! There was, for example, the arresting detail that, although two-thirds of the country is either very or somewhat likely to watch the game, only 3% of Americans identify strongly with either the Baltimore Ravens or the San Francisco 49ers, the two teams playing in New Orleans on Sunday.  How that works—and why all the other people (i.e., the ones who presumably don’t really care which team wins because they’ve failed emotionally to bond with either) are going to tune in, I have no idea. Maybe they just like watching football. Maybe it’s the commercials. Maybe they’re hoping that some famous person’s clothing will unexpectedly fall off during the halftime show.  But, speaking realistically, how many times a century could that possibly happen?

The part that interested me the most, however, was the statistic—both fascinating and slightly weird—according to which more than a quarter of Americans—27%, to be exact—apparently believe that God will play a decisive role—presumably the decisive role—in determining who wins the Superbowl because, in fact, they believe that God plays a role of some sort in determining the winner of all sporting events. (How that thought correlates with the detail, also revealed in the poll, that almost twice as many Americans—which is to say, well more than half our co-citizens—believe that God rewards athletes possessed of faith in God’s existence with success and good health, I’m not sure. Perhaps the concept is that they are rewarded with personal success, but their teams are not rewarded with victory unless God has some additional other reason for granting their teams victory on the field. The poll didn’t go too deeply, or really at all, into theological detail.)

It isn’t, to be sure, a majority position. But how various groups within our American mosaic respond to the question of whether victory in the Superbowl is or is not going to be the result of divine favor is also instructive. Among evangelicals and minority (i.e., black and Hispanic) Christians, more than 40% believe that the team that wins the Superbowl is going to be the one God will have chosen (or perhaps already has chosen) to win. That number can be compared to the fewer than one fifth of “regular” (i.e., non-evangelical, more mainstream) Protestants who feel that way and even fewer (although still an amazing 12%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans. In some ways, the final statistic is the most amazing of all: more than one in ten Americans who have no religious affiliation at all expect God to determine the victor in Sunday’s game.

Other results of the poll surprised me slightly less. More than a third of Americans living in the South expect that the victor on Sunday will be the team God chooses to win. That compares slightly reasonably with the 28% of Midwesterners, the 20% of Easterners and the 15% of Americans living in the west of the country to hold a similar expectation regarding the way the winning team will achieve victory.

You would expect –or at least I would have expected—more of a split between Republicans and Democrats than the poll revealed to exist, but I certainly would have expected there to be more Republicans who see God as the ultimate Umpire. The poll suggested otherwise, however: 25% of the country’s Republicans say God will decide who wins on Sunday, while 28% of Democrats feel that way.  Nor does either group differ that much from Americans with no party affiliation, 26% of whom hold that view.  So this is clearly not a party thing anymore, really, than it is a regional one.

Mysteriously absent from the poll is any reference to Jewish Americans. Are our numbers so small as to be negligible in a survey like this? Or did Jewish respondents just laugh at the question without answering it formally, thus accidentally eliminating themselves from the final tabulation of responses? Nor is it obvious to me what exactly it means for God to decide who wins a sporting competition. Does it mean, for example, that God detects the team that is more deserving of victory because they have practiced harder and learned to play the game better and directs good fortune their way? But why wouldn’t the more practiced team of better players win anyway? Or is it just the opposite the case, which is to say that God detects which teams’ players are more virtuous and possessed of finer morals, and then grant that team the win even if they are neither as talented nor as well-practiced as their opponents? But if that is the case, then why is it that the teams that actually play better seem so regularly to win over opposing teams featuring less skilled players who play less well? Or is the idea perhaps that God rewards virtue by making the team possessed of more godly character traits into better players who win their games because they then play better than their opponents and deserve to win?

For Jews, the notion of a God Who sits around in heaven and decides (to change metaphors) who is going to hit which golf ball the farthest in which tournament is not likely going to be one that gains much traction. Our tradition speaks endlessly about God as the just Judge of the world, as the heavenly arbiter of right and wrong, and as the living Source of justice in human society. But the specific way God rules the world is far more complex, and far more subtle, than simply sitting around and either arbitrarily or not arbitrarily handing out wins and losses. Is it invariably the case that less virtuous litigants lose in court, or that the Olympian athlete possessed of the finer set of moral values invariably wins the gold? If that were so, as so many seem to think, then it should be possible to work that idea in reverse and identify the most virtuous of men and women in our society by charting the degree to which they have been successful in their chosen competitive arena. But that does not seem quite right either—as adequately demonstrate any number of famous, successful athletes who have been proven, generally after-the-fact, to have behaved poorly or even criminally wrongly in their private lives.

The burden of faith cannot be made lighter by mouthing slogans or insisting on the truth of notions that none can demonstrate. The majority of citizens of our country apparently expect  victory in the Superbowl to go to the team that wins the game by playing it on the ground, not that is awarded victory by an unseen Spectator watching the game from heaven. But the minority that feels differently constitutes—if the poll is right that 27% of Americans hold that view—something like eighty-four million people.

That so many Americans are possessed of such a bizarre, almost childish view of God’s role in human history is not something in which we who take religion seriously should take any specific pride.  The Talmudic expression ha-olam k’minhago noheig means that the history of the world and its citizens unfolds in its own natural way with reference neither to what should or could be, nor to how things would be if God insisted on micromanaging the affairs of humanity. It would be just, the Talmud notes, for stolen seeds to punish their purloiners by refusing to sprout in the ground, yet they can and do grow regardless of who plants them. It would be just and morally reasonable for illicit coupling never to lead to conception, but that happens too.  And so too does it occasionally happen, I think, that teams that have failed ethically or morally to have earned their victory are victorious nonetheless. The world keeps spinning along! But what our faith does teach us, and insistently, is that justice is absolute…only that to perceive it requires standing further back from the arena of human affairs that any of us could ever really manage. It requires seeing this world and the next world, this generation and countless generations to come. It requires stepping outside of the merciless flow of moments to allow history and destiny to coalesce in a present moment too brief for any adequately to fathom in all of its inner complexity, let alone to evaluate in terms of its cosmic importance. It requires understanding that the story is bigger than any of us, bigger even than any of us can imagine…and that it has to do with the destiny of humanity, with the role each of us plays in moving humanity forwards towards redemption, and with the place of the House of Israel in the family of nations…not with who wins a football game. Even the kind with really, really cool commercials and halftime shows in which, yes, sometimes famous singers’ wardrobes malfunction.