Monday, July 1, 2013

Undoing DOMA

It seems to me that the most interesting aspect of Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 as unconstitutional—Section 3 was the specific provision that effectively barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits even if they were legally married in the states in which they lived—was the way in which the court appeared to be allowing itself to be led forward not by what the justices suddenly found hiding behind the original text of the Constitution with respect to the issue at hand, but instead by the sea change in public opinion that has characterized debate on the matter of same-sex marriage in the course of the last two decades.

I recall my father once telling me—this may have been in the course of one of our several million conversations about the Vietnam War, usually conducted in my parents’ living room at the top of our lungs—that the world is neatly divided into leaders and people who, either by choice or necessity or circumstance, spend their lives being led forward by others. Back then, my father’s point would have been that Lyndon Johnson, whom my father admired and respected but for whom I and my peers had little use while the Vietnam War was raging, was in the former category. Was he right? History has been kinder to LBJ, I think, than the large majority of my fellow eleventh-or twelfth graders back then would have expected it to be.  Even I myself have mellowed over the years and, particularly after reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power (which covered the years 1958 through 1964), have come to see in our thirty-sixth president a complex man who, in some sense despite himself, accomplished certain truly great things while in office.  In the end, I’ve come to believe that history will eventually consider LBJ to be far more than the inadvertent beneficiary of his predecessor’s horrific misfortune, but my father’s fundamental assumption that people either lead in life or are led by others is what I want to consider here because it no longer seems to me all that true at all.

The notion that there are two categories of people and you by nature belong to one or the other, to the leaders or to the led, is the specific detail I want to challenge because that model itself seems flawed to me and simplistic. True leaders, it now strikes me, are, yes, those who exercises the qualities of leadership…but also those who—and in this thought lies the distinction between truly great leaders and despots—those who also understands that part of leadership, and particularly in government, is being led by the people they are trying to lead by allowing those people’s responses to their leadership gently but seriously to refine their own sense of how best to govern. There’s no simple way to say that, but the idea itself isn’t all that complicated: by growing along with the people as they morph into new versions of themselves because of a leader’s leadership, that leader too grows into a finer, better version of him or herself and thus concomitantly becomes able to govern both more intelligently and more sensitively. 

In the context of teaching, this notion will be more familiar. In the traditional classroom setting, the teachers are the people who teach and the students are the people who learn. But good teachers will tell you always that part of excelling in the classroom involves learning from the students they are theoretically teaching, by allowing those students’ responses to their lessons to inspire them, the teachers, to move forward in new, possibly previously unanticipated directions. In the end, all true education is always dialogue and never diatribe…and dialogue by definition must be a two-way street. It is simply not possible, therefore, to teach without learning. Nor is it possible to govern sagaciously and justly without being led forward to new levels of moral insight by the people one is theoretically serving as leader.  Education is symbiosis. So is government. And so, I think I see behind Wednesdays’ ruling in the Supreme Court, is the effective functioning of the justice system even at the highest level.

I have written several times about the issue of same-sex marriage in the course of the last two years. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find some of what I’ve written by clicking here, here, or here.)  There is, obviously, a lot to say about the issue, but the part of the issue that strikes me as its most remarkable aspect—and particularly in the wake of Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions—is how quickly things change, and how dramatically. I think that young people today, certainly including non-gay people for whom the issue has only theoretical rather than directly personal relevance, can probably not easily seize just how unimaginable it seems to people my age that this issue is being discussed at all, let alone sympathetically, at the highest echelons of political leadership.

The notion that same-sex marriage would be legal anywhere at all, let alone in two of the country’s three most densely populated states, New York and California, would have seemed unimaginable to most Americans even as late as just decades ago. And that is not to mention centuries ago: Thomas Jefferson’s efforts in 1778 to liberalize Virginia’s approach to gay people, or at least to gay men, by punishing the sexually active among them with castration instead of execution failed when the legislation voted instead to retain the death penalty. But that attitude was hardly peculiar to Virginia: prior to 1962, sodomy was forbidden in all fifty states and punishable, at least theoretically, with hard labor or imprisonment. It was in 1962, in fact, that Illinois became the first state to decriminalize same-sex relations. It took more than a decade for a second state to follow suit. By 2003, however, thirty-six states had repealed their sodomy laws and it was in that same year that the Supreme Court determined that the right to conduct one’s sex life as one wishes is one of the civil rights citizens are specifically guaranteed by the Constitution, thus making illegal all the remaining laws in the United States that restricted sexual activity conducted in private between consenting adults. 

In retrospect, it seems odd that the freedom to conduct one’s intimate life in accordance with one’s own proclivities was so widely ignored for so long.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s had almost nothing to do with gay people; it seems odd now to see a revival of the musical Hair (as I did a month ago at the Tilles Center) and to see people on stage modeling a mind-set in which civil rights is defined solely a racial issue—and to hear the same people presenting themselves as the models of “the mind’s true liberation” also making crass, unfunny jokes about gay people. Of course, the show only mirrored the rest of society in those days: the only gay people on television in those days were simpering, effeminate men or mannish, permanently unmarried women—and even they were never specifically labeled gay lest, I’m guessing, advertisers be scared off and the show end up being cancelled.

And yet things changed, and dramatically. How this happened exactly, who can say? Partially, the gay community itself mobilized after Stonewall and after Harvey Milk’s murder.  And partially the AIDS crisis led non-gay Americans to see their gay co-citizens in a new light, one that seemed wholly at odds with the unfunny stereotypes they saw on television or in movies. But the most likely explanation is simply that an idea whose time has come eventually gains steam on its own and slowly wins over people who are by nature fair-minded and reasonable.  From 1996 to 2013, the percentage of Americans favoring same-sex marriage rose from 25% to 58%.  The fact that an athlete or a movie or television star is gay is no longer considered shocking or scandalous. When a columnist in the Times wrote the other day that it seems unimaginable that the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 could be opposed to same-sex marriage, that sounded as correct now as it once would have sounded beyond unimaginable. If that doesn’t constitute a sea-change in public opinion, I’m not sure what would.

It’s clearly been a long time coming. When, in ancient times, a rabbi whose lesson was preserved in one of our ancient books opined that the sin of the generation of the flood that finally led to the annihilation of humanity was the public endorsement of same-sex marriage between men, his was a lone voice…but not one that would have been considered controversial, only perhaps a bit extreme. (He also mentioned the marriage of people and animals in the same context, apparently considering these to be parallel outrages.) And that was how things were for a very long time. The word homosexuality itself was only coined in the nineteenth century neutrally to name something that has always existed but which was not deemed real enough to warrant naming in a way devoid of opprobrium. (Other terms in use back then to describe same-sex attraction, all at least slightly insulting, were similisexualism, sexual inversion, antipathic sexual instinct, and psychosexual hermaphroditism.)  And yet…society has finally accepted that homosexuality is neither disease nor disaster, just an avenue of sexual expression that a distinct, but not minuscule, group within society finds natural and appealing. Nothing more, perhaps…but also nothing less.

When considered in this light, the Court’s decisions this week merely mirror that sea-change in public opinion. The sign of good government is the degree to which those who govern function not by issuing edicts and then punishing those who dare disobey, but as partners in a symbiotic relationship designed by its very nature to allow both parties, the governors and the governed, to grow morally and intellectually by learning from each other. The same, I now see, is true of the judicial system at the highest level: that the Court functions best when the justices understand themselves to be part of society as well as the ultimate arbiters of its rules, thus allowing themselves to grow along with the citizenry and to see fairness and reasonableness where they personally might once have seen the unimaginable or the ridiculous. The short term for that process is moral growth. And it is something we should not merely tolerate or begrudgingly accept as inevitable, but rather something we actively should foster, in government in general…and in the judicial system in particular.


I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by footage shown on television earlier this week of President Obama speaking in Berlin. It wasn’t the specific contents of his remarks that I found so arresting, however, interesting though they were in their own right and particularly with respect to the offer the president made to reduce the American nuclear arsenal by one third if a corresponding reduction by the Russians were also to be made. Instead, it was the setting itself that drew me in, and particularly the image of the president addressing thousands of Germans massed at the Brandenburger Tor, the great neo-classical gateway at the top of the Unter den Linden that came first to symbolize divided Berlin when it was shut by the Communists in 1961 and then eventually instead to symbolize the reunification of the city when it was reopened in December of 1989 following the demolition of the Berlin Wall. It was in that place, in fact, that President Reagan had taunted Mikhail Gorbachev two years earlier to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall.” And earlier than that, it was exactly there that exactly fifty years ago President Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It was there too that President Clinton spoke in 1994 about his vision for peace in Europe after the eventual end of the Cold War.  And just five years before that, it had been there that Leonard Bernstein gave the performance of his life when he led the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony just months after the fall of the Wall, one in which the words to Schiller’s Ode to Joy were restored to their original version so as to allow the singers to sing, not specifically of joy, but instead of freedom itself as the “spark of God, the daughter of heaven.”

I remember all of those events, including President Kennedy’s speech. (I was just wrapping up fourth grade in June of 1963, but I have a clear memory of my father responding—and not kindly—to the president’s declaration that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin” and that the proudest thing anyone could say of him or herself was therefore that he or she was a Berliner.  Uncharitably—or so the ten-year-old me thought at the time—my father wondered aloud if that thought included the 75,000 Jews left living in Berlin in 1939 after the rest, 100,000 in their own right, had already fled for their lives, if their greatest source of pride—had they not been almost entirely deported to the east and murdered, that was—would also have been that they too were from Berlin.) As the years have passed, my feelings have—oddly—both sharpened and mellowed. But the emotions that the images of President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate stirred up in me were not specifically connected to my memories of JFK or my father, but to, of all things, a poem I remember learning by heart as a schoolchild and which still has the power to affect me (even though it now strikes me that I must completely have misunderstood it back then). I am thinking of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” first published in a London newspaper in 1811 and the bane of junior high school students ever since, yet (now that I am finally mature enough to read it seriously and listen to the poet’s lesson) a truly great poem about a traveler in an antique land nevertheless, and one I believe I still know by heart.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.

It was on January 30, 1933, the night that the archfiend became the chancellor of Germany, that his followers—mostly storm troopers but also including a wide variety of fellow travelers of various sorts—marched in torch-lit procession through Berlin to the Brandenburger Tor. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see an actual, bone-chilling 90-second-long clip of that march by clicking here.) Celebratory marches were held through the Gate to mark the fiend’s fiftieth birthday in 1939, following shortly by victory celebrations marking the conquest of Poland and the defeat of France in 1940. The Brandenburg Gate came to symbolize the Nazis’ rise to power and then, as it somehow survived all the Allied bombing raids and ended up standing all by itself in the center of a ruined city of rubble and ash, it came to symbolize the Nazis’ defeat and the annihilation of their dream of world conquest.  Like the statue in the desert Shelley’s traveler came unexpectedly across—two legs of a once monumental statue set upon a base made of stone—the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes to me (and, I think, to many) one specific aspect of the Nazi debacle: the overweening, megalomaniacal hubris of the Führer that led, when all was said and done, not to a thousand-year Reich but to the unwarranted, senseless deaths of over seventy million people including about fifty million civilians. It wasn’t all that was left, the Gate, but it might as well have been: once the gateway to a place of learning, culture, and sophistication, the Brandenburger Tor came at war’s end to symbolize only arrogance, evil, and the hubris inherent in self-arrogated superiority.

Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

But it is not only the rise and fall of Nazi Germany that the images of the president at the Brandenburg Gate awakened in me. It was, after all, the members of the Soviet Politburo that President Kennedy and President Reagan were addressing in their remarks, not the leaders of Nazi Germany. For the Soviets’ East German vassals, the Brandenburger Tor was also a kind of a symbol. Located at the western edge of what was to become East Berlin, the gate came to symbolize the foundational myth of the German communists according to which they were, not the perpetrators of German war crimes, but victims themselves of Nazi barbarism. It was beneath the Brandenburg Gate, for example, that Marshal Zhukov, the deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Red Army, received his decoration from Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery in July, 1945, celebrating his success in defeating the Nazis.

But where is that most powerful of empires today, the Soviet Union, that most terrifying of enemies from whose nuclear warheads we—and here I return again to the fourth grade—hid under our desks with our hands clasped over our heads during all those special take-cover drills at P.S. 196?  Young people today cannot, I sense sometimes, quite seize how real the Cold War was in those days, how seriously Americans took the war-mongering of the Soviet Union’s leaders in those days. And rightly so! Hadn’t the communist empire extended across half of Europe and huge portions of Eastern Asia, including China? Yet last week, when President Obama opened his remarks in Berlin by challenging the Russians to consider a reduction in their capacity to wage nuclear war, presumably against the United States, his words had an almost quaint ring to them. Are we still worrying about that? I suppose we are and we ought to be…but the terror Mrs. Drayson struck in our hearts as she instructed us to hide beneath our desks and to remain there until the danger of nuclear annihilation passed—for the moment!—sounds, even to me, hard to summon up nowadays even if the Russians still do have a huge nuclear arsenal. Near Ozymandias’ legs lay his shattered head, its lips alone protruding from the drifting, yellow sand. Once the scourge of the world, the “sneer of cold command” on those lifeless lips of stone could now provoke only amazement…and not at his great power but instead at how quickly things change, at how even the most powerful empires can lose their potency and their ability to provoke terror, and at how at the end of the day military might is mostly bluster and boastful rage that simply loses its ability to terrify when the statue falls over and the kings’ lips lie buried in the shifting desert sand.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And that brings me to my actual topic for this week, the onset next Tuesday of the Three Weeks. Everybody knows that there is a cycle of annual Jewish festivals based on the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, their journey to Sinai, and their subsequent peregrination in the desert. But there is a second annual cycle impressed on the months of the Jewish year, one rooted in the story of the destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE and far less well known than the Exodus cycle. Starting with the fast of the Tenth of Tevet commemorating the onset of the Babylonian siege, the cycle moves forward through the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz (which is next Tuesday and which memorializes the breaching of the walls of the city by the enemies’ hordes) to the far-better-known fast of the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the actual destruction of the Temple and the final defeat of its defenders. (A final fast on the third day of Tishrei, the day following Rosh Hashanah, memorializes the assassination of the Jewish governor put in place by the Babylonians by hotheads who considered him a willing collaborator with his people’s archenemies.)  And it is the twenty-one days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av that is the Three Weeks referenced above.  The faithful observe those weeks by beginning the mournful practices that are amplified dramatically once the month of Av begins and which reach their somber apogee on the Ninth of Av itself. Why the Jewish people hasn’t jettisoned all of this now that Jerusalem is the proud capital of an independent Jewish state is a question for a different essay (and possibly a different author), but here I want to write instead about the Babylonians.

Except for university professors specializing in Near Eastern history, who has even heard of these people outside the context of this specific story? Once a powerful empire capable of waging and winning wars anywhere in the world its armies could reach, the Babylonian Empire was defeated in battle by Cyrus of Persia not fifty years after they themselves had destroyed Jerusalem, and with that they vanished by the stage of world history.  To those living then, their defeat and eventual absorption into the Persian Empire must have seemed unbelievable. But, in the end, nothing else remained, just as nothing eventually remained other than the pedestal upon which Ozymandias’ boastful words were engraved just a bit too soon for “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare” lay only endless miles of “lone and level sands”…and the echoes of the arrogant past reverberating into an empty, impotent present.

And that is what the president’s visit to the Brandenburg Gate awakened in me as we segue from his trip to Germany to our journey into the Three Weeks.  To the victims of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, their eventual disappearance from the stage of history surely meant nothing at all, just as the defeat of the Babylonians meant nothing to those who had earlier died defending Jerusalem. But there’s also the long picture to consider here…and it is precisely that way of thinking of things that lends the Three Weeks their grandeur and enduring meaningfulness. The Jewish people has known the world’s most powerful empires as its enemies. Each foe had the capacity utterly to destroy and mercilessly to vanquish yet ended up itself destroyed and vanquished instead, then unceremoniously piled onto what President Reagan memorably once called “the ash heap of history.” When I contemplate fasting on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, I usually think that I ought to have an image in my mind of the Holy City razed and devastated. I suppose I do, but alongside that image is also a mental picture of Ozymandias’ “vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing all by themselves in the middle of an endless desert and symbolizing both the ultimate fragility of power and the eternal nature of the Jewish people…and its inviolate right to the pursuit of its own destiny regardless of the machinations of evil empires as they come and go.

Leaks and Snoops

We have surely all been following the news story revolving around Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and contract worker for the National Security Agency, who leaked classified details to The Guardian and The Washington Post about the government’s clandestine electronic surveillance program known by the acronym PRISM. (PRISM stands for Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management.) As far as anyone knows with any actual certainty, PRISM is not used intentionally to gather information on any American citizen or on any individual present in the United States, but merely to listen in on foreign internet traffic that is routed through or saved on U.S. servers. This appears to be completely legal activity: section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 specifically permits the gathering of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. citizens located outside the United States. So if that’s what the NSA has been doing, there appears to be nothing specifically illegal about it. Nor, in my opinion, should there be. Our country has been targeted repeatedly by terrorists, some of them members of sophisticated international operations like the 9/11 perpetrators and others of them apparently amateurs like the Boston Marathon bombers. (The last word on that incident, of course, remains to be written.) But even the brothers who set the bombs in Boston were acting on their own, they still managed to do great damage at the cost of innocent human lives. They, of course, would have been beyond the reach of PRISM according to the section of FISA cited above. But which of us can possibly not be pleased to think of our government exerting itself maximally to make us safe and to protect ourselves and our families from threats that originate beyond our borders but which nevertheless have the capacity to wreak havoc in the homeland.

I have very little sympathy for people who disclose secrets they are sworn to keep, and particularly when their actions could conceivably make our government less able to keep us safe from harm. So for me the sole question of interest is whether the government is obeying its own rules. Indeed, that is the only real question on the table as far as I am concerned. The president has said unequivocally that the government is indeed doing so. Discovering him to be dissembling would be a blow to his prestige and reputation from which I doubt he could or would recover. But there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of that being the case.

Of course, if it turns out—as so many out there in the blogosphere seem to fear—that the government is actually using its vast information-gathering abilities to spy on U.S. citizens and to muck through their—our!—e-mail and voice mail and phone calls and text messages and hard drives and Dropbox folders and Skydrive folders and iCloud folders to see what they might conceivably find of interest, then that will be another issue entirely. As noted, the president addressed this issue specifically last Friday in a news conference and unequivocally told us to trust him that the very last thing the NSA has the time to do or any interest in doing would be to listen into citizens’ phone calls for no reason. That sounds reasonable to me—and, believe me, I would only pity the NSA drone assigned to read my e-mail or, unless he or she is planning in the near future to open up a Jewish Nursery School, to listen into my voice mail messages—and yet it is also unnerving to think that the government apparently has free access, or some sort of access, to the data banks of companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Of course, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires that the search of any citizen’s home or possessions must be judicially sanctioned in advance with the issue of a warrant and supported by probable cause does not apply to foreigners, only to American citizens. There is, therefore, no problem…if the government is obeying its own rules. In the meantime, all we can do is hope the president was being honest and frank when he assured us that we have nothing to worry about. (On the other hand, what else was he going to say? But let’s not go there until the path in that direction is paved with actual facts.)

And then there is the side issue of the NSA facility apparently being built in Utah.

When the prophet of old imagined a day when “the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the seabed,” he was clearly waxing poetic. The sea, when you stand on the shore and look out, not only seems endless and immense but also appears to have the quality of spreading out to cover whatever space is allotted to it by geography and geology. And so did the prophet imagine a messianic age in which the infinite knowledge of God would spread out in every direction to cover the entire territory of the earth and thus make all its inhabitants, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, into faithful and wise servants of the Almighty. That much seems clear, but going further and asking how much divine knowledge exactly it was that Isaiah imagined covering the earth’s landmass seems ridiculous. It’s a metaphor, a poetic idea, a symbol…and, as such, meaningful in terms of the truth to which it alludes without being precisely, literally, or measurably correct. Can knowledge even be quantified in any meaningful way? There is, after all, a specific amount of water in the world’s oceans. (The best estimate I could find on-line was 362 million trillion gallons, which is a lot of water.) So maybe there actually is a certain amount of knowledge as well!

If you are old enough to remember back to the 1980s, then you will recall the average home computer having had a hard drive with a capacity of twenty megabytes. Just a decade later, in the mid-1990s, the average home computer had about four times that much memory. Hold that thought, and let’s start over at the beginning. In computer talk, a bit is a single binary digit, a zero or a one. A string of eight bits makes up one byte, the unit capable of representing a single letter or punctuation mark. 1000 bytes makes up a kilobyte, which was once an important measure, but the computer I am using to write this has one terabyte of memory, which is the equivalent of more than one trillion bytes or more than eight trillion bits. (I haven’t mentioned gigabytes, but a gigabyte is merely one thousand megabytes, thus one one-thousandth of a terabyte.) I know these are big numbers, but stick with me as we transcend the numbers that regular people such as ourselves can install on our machines at home and move into a different realm entirely. One thousand terabytes is called a petabyte. One thousand petabytes is called an exabtye. And one thousand exabytes is called a zettabtye. A zettabyte is therefore equal to a number of bytes equal to 10 to the 21st power. (Think of a one followed by twenty-one zeroes.)

Now the combined storage space of every computer hard drive in the world in 2006 was estimated in a report issued by the International Data Corporation, a market research firm specializing in information technology, at 161 exabytes or about three million times the information contained in all books ever written. That same report, written under the direction of John F. Gantz, projected that by 2010 the total of information stored on the world’s computers would increase about six-fold to about 988 exabytes, which would be not even equal to a single zettabyte. (To review, a zettabyte is the equivalent of one thousand exabytes.) Are you still with me?

Last April, Fox News reported that the National Security Agency was building a data center south of Salt Lake City that would conceivably be able to contain five zettabytes of information, or more than five times the information contained on every computer in the world in 2010 if the IDC report was correct. Does that give pause for thought? It does to me! (Just to hone the imagine, you would have to stack 62 billion iPhones one on top of the other—which pile of telephones would reach up past the orbit of the moon—to achieve storage equal to one single zettabyte. And Fox News reported that the facility in Utah will be able to manage five times that much data.) So while the current furor about the government gathering information on citizens by listening into uncountable telephone conversations sounds far-fetched, citizens need to realize that, supposing the Fox report was correct, the NSA is already at work creating a facility that has the capacity to contain all the data on every computer and every smart phone in the world. Could a government bound by the Fourth Amendment ever actually have unfettered access to the machines and hard drives of American citizens without there being a discernible probable cause to suspect wrongdoing? At the risk of sounding naïve, it certainly doesn’t sound plausible to me. But, and this I also admit, we really are relying on the integrity of the government…and not on the notion that it would simply not be possible to invade and seize the full contents of every home computer and smart phone in the country.

And so that is where I left off worrying about Edward Snowden’s revelations of the last week. Clearly, wars in the future will be fought just as violently in the cloud as on the ground. Being prepared to face what are probably inevitably cyber-attacks against our citizens only makes good sense. Betraying government secrets one is sworn to keep because one has unilaterally decided to betray one’s own commitment to secrecy is a crime and should be punished as such. (Nobility of motive could, perhaps, be taken into account when it comes to sentencing the offender. And Edward Snowden does not appear to stand to realize any personal gain with the revelations he made last week. If anything, actually, just the contrary is the case since he could conceivably end up spending the rest of his life in jail.) But Americans also need to be aware that the data they store privately is finite and could—all of it—conceivably be stored in a single facility. That we are protected against such an egregious invasion of our privacy by the Fourth Amendment is comforting…but that should not lull us into assuming our rights will never be trampled simply because they haven’t been—at least not on the kind of massive scale now possible—in the past. Forewarned is forearmed! And, although I hesitate to be choshed bi-kh’sheirim, I also don’t see what harm it could cause for us all to take a moment this week to write to the president and to our representatives in Congress to remind them that we do not wish to become obliged to choose between safety and privacy, and that it is the job of our elected officials both to protect our country from outside attack and to protect its citizens from any unwarranted erosion of their civil rights.

The Oldest Scroll

I found myself a bit unexpectedly moved by the announcement the other day that a researcher at the University of Bologna feels certain that he has discovered the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll, one carbon dating confirms was written sometime between 1155 and 1225. (The carbon dating was done twice, first by researchers from the University of Salento in Italy and then a second time to confirm the results at the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois.) This does not exactly make it the world’s oldest copy of the complete Torah text, however, which would be the one found in the manuscript called the Leningrad codex, which was written in 1008. (The name derives solely from the fact that the book has been housed at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg since 1863, when it was given to the library by its former owner, the well-known Karaite bibliophile, Abraham Firkovich. Where and in whose possession the book was before it fell into Firkovich’s hands is not known.)

Older still is the Aleppo codex, brought to Syria by one of Maimonides’ descendants sometime in the late fourteenth century but originally written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a. But the Aleppo codex is incomplete, having partially been destroyed in the rioting in Syria’s largest city that followed the proclamation of Israeli independence in 1948. And neither the Leningrad nor the Aleppo codices is a scroll of the kind from which we still read in synagogue. (The word “codex” is the fancy word for what moderns call books, i.e., signatures of leaves sewn together, then bound into portable volumes.) Earlier than either, of course, are the 220 or so biblical scrolls found at Qumran, called collectively (along with the non-biblical scrolls and fragments) the Dead Sea Scrolls. But none of those texts is complete, as are also not the other earlier fragments of the Torah text: the so-called Nash papyrus which is probably as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but which was probably written in Egypt (including the Ten Commandments and the Shema, named after W.L. Nash, the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archeology who presented it to Cambridge University in 1903), the biblical texts found in the Cairo Genizah (the earliest texts in the Genizah go back to the 9th century C.E.), the biblical manuscripts found on Masada which all predate the Roman siege of 73 C.E., and the manuscripts found at the Wadi Murabba’at, which runs through the Judean Desert east of Bethlehem and down to the Dead Sea and in which fighters supporting Bar Kokhba in his disastrous rebellion against the Romans in 132 C.E. hid out and left behind some biblical manuscripts, including some Torah texts.

In other words, because the oldest extant complete text is not a scroll and none of the oldest scrolls is a complete text, this new scroll located in Bologna now becomes the oldest complete Torah scroll anyone can date with precision. The use of carbon-dating techniques is key because of the rules that govern the writing of Torah scrolls. Because it is not allowed, no Torah scroll has a colophon. (A colophon is an inscription at the end of a manuscript in which the scribe, not the author, identifies himself and usually mentions where and when the manuscript was written.) Also, the very distinctive styles of handwriting that make it easy to distinguish Hebrew manuscripts written in different places don’t come into play in Torah scrolls, which are all written in square Hebrew letters with little or no variation permitted. So the use of scientific dating techniques provides information that cannot otherwise be known absent a detailed history of the scroll in question.

How the scroll came to Bologna is not known, although it probably had something to do with Napoleon’s efforts to suppress monastic and religious orders of various sorts by, among other things, confiscating religious libraries. But even the Bolognese authorities themselves seem not to know for sure how they acquired the scroll. All that can be said with certainty is that it was acquired somewhere along the way by the library and assigned a seventeenth century date by a cataloguer in 1889 who was apparently the last person to inspect the scroll knowledgably. To his credit, the cataloguer, a man named Leonello Modona, added a question mark after the date. But that seems to have ended the history of serious inquiry into the scroll.

Until last year, that is, when Mauro Perani, a professor at Bologna, undertook to recatalogue the university library’s Hebrew manuscript holdings and realized easily that his nineteenth century predecessor had been closer to right with the question mark than with the part of his evaluation that preceded it. The scroll—and this is key—is not written according to the rules Maimonides laid down in his Mishneh Torah in 1180 and which have been considered authoritative ever since. For example, there are certain letters that are routinely adorned with tiny crowns in a post-Rambam Torah scroll. The custom itself is ancient—the crowns, called tagin in Hebrew, are mentioned in the Talmud in a fabulous passage attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that features Moses walking in on God while the Latter is personally affixing the crowns to the letters in the Torah scroll before revealing it to the Israelites—but the identities of the specific letters so adorned was apparently in flux for a while before finally being fixed as a point of law. This scroll, so Perani, seems to antedate the universal acceptance of that law. So if the carbon dating sets the terminus post quem for the scroll to be written in 1155, we are left assuming this scroll to have been written, probably, in the third quarter of the twelfth century.

It was a long time ago. And it was a tumultuous time, that third quarter of that particular century. The Holy Roman Empire was at war, more or less, with the Pope. (The Treaty of Venice in 1177 put an end finally to the fighting. But neither side was especially satisfied with the compromise.) The lands of Christian Europe under the leadership—some things really don’t change—of Henry II of England, Philip II of France, and the German emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were at war with a united Egypt and Syria under the leadership of Saladin in the series of battles and skirmishes historians now call the Third Crusade. (The war finally ended with the Treaty of Ramla, signed by Saladin and Henry’s successor, Richard the Lionhearted, in 1192, but neither side was especially satisfied with that compromise either and the war started up—this part of the protracted struggle between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East is now called the Fourth Crusade—less than a decade into the following century.) It was a time, in fact, of protracted warfare between Christendom and Islam on any number of fronts, mostly notably in Portugal (where the siege of Lisbon in 1147 finally expelled Muslim forces from that end of the Iberian peninsula) and in the Kingdom of Georgia, where King David the Builder finally expelled the Muslims and established a Christian kingdom in 1122. The Normans and the Celts were at war over Ireland. The Muslims and the Hindus were at war in India. The names of the players are mostly unfamiliar to most of us today—who, among those as far from Eleventh Grade as I am, can remember who Eleanor of Aquitaine was exactly (you get extra points if you can dredge up a single detail not related to Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of her in The Lion in Winter) or what King Stephen was all about (ditto, with respect to Ken Follett’s unflattering depiction of him in The Pillars of the Earth), not to mention then-famous but now truly-obscure personalities like King Valdemar of Denmark or King Roger of Sicily.

The Jewish world was in a state of remarkable creativity. Maimonides was alive in the twelfth century, working on the literary output that would eventually make him recalled as the greatest of all the medieval rabbis both in terms of political activity, literary output, spiritual grandeur, and scholarly expertise. The scholars collectively known as the Tosafot were at work composing comments to the Talmud that are even today serve as the foundation stone upon which of all serious Talmudic study rests. Judah Halevi was alive. So was Rabbenu Tam. But it was also a time of political insecurity. The Jews were expelled from Morocco in 1107. There were intense anti-Jewish riots in the Ukraine, notably in Kiev in 1113. The Jews of the Rhineland suffered during the Second and Third Crusades so horrifically that even today the experience of reading Ephraim of Bonn’s Book of Remembrance is beyond shocking…even for students of Shoah literature. The twelfth century also saw the first recorded instance of a false blood libel claim made against Jews when the Jewish community of Norwich, England, was accused of murdering a little boy named William in 1144. Forced conversions to Islam (the alternative was death) became the rule in Spain after the Almohadin seized control of the county in 1148.

And then, in 1171, the Jews were expelled from Bologna. There had been Jews in Bologna for almost a millennium at that point. (The exact date the community was founded is not known but there was already a Jewish cemetery in Bologna in 302 C.E.) Nor is it known precisely what led to the expulsion. It’s a footnote to European Jewish history, really, one of countless examples of meanspirited, pointless vengeance against a community of “others” obliged by circumstance to live under the rule of people only occasionally inclined towards inclusivity and respect for minority groups in their midst. And, of course, it is also true that the Torah scroll now carbon-dated to the years surrounding the expulsion from Bologna isn’t actually from Bologna. Judging from the physical evidence of the way its parchment leaves were ruled, the way they were sewn together, the kind of pen the scribe used, and the way the columns are laid out, the scroll was written somewhere in the Middle East, not in Italy. And yet…there is something remarkable about the fact that this scroll was found in Bologna. It was, after all, in that very place that the Torah was first printed in movable type in 1482. (If you can, click here to see a picture of the book and the very thorough description of it that was published when a single copy was auctioned off for a mere $566,495 at Christie’s in 1998.)

And so things change and don’t change. Most Jews today would find the Bologna scroll eminently readable and usable. It looks not dramatically unlike the scrolls in the aron kodesh of my own, or any, congregation. The world today is different from the world in which that scroll was written in a million ways. But the same world that endlessly morphs forward into ever-increasingly-sophisticated versions of itself also contains some immutable features that simply do not change. And that aspect of things is, for me and I suspect for many, represented the most meaningfully by the Torah scroll itself. The world may be in an endless state of flux…but the scroll in the ark looks much as it always has and, I hope, as it always will, its unchanging nature symbolic both of the immutable nature of God and the eternal nature of the people who bound in covenant to obey its laws and statutes. The Bologna scroll is merely the oldest Torah scroll formally to have its age established through carbon-dating techniques, after all. Still, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from the scroll coming to light in that specific city, of all places. In 1546, a Jewish charitable foundation was founded in Bologna in the charter of which the text of Isaiah was creatively altered to note that, a mere sixty-two years earlier, it had been from Bologna that had gone forth the Torah when its first printed edition appeared in that city. And now, unexpectedly, it turns out to be in that very place that the oldest dated Torah scroll is housed. Perhaps the medieval were right to pronounce the name of the city as though it were Hebrew, not Italian, and to call it bo-lan-yah, meaning “In this place dwells God.”