Thursday, August 29, 2013


There is a certain intractable feel to the situation in Syria, one that makes even trying to think clearly about the right course forward for our country and for the world—and, of course, for Syria itself—difficult to think about clearly or even all that rationally. I have come to think, though, that the decisions our government makes in the next few weeks—if not the next few days—have the capacity to alter the face of things in the Middle East permanently…or at least decisively.

On the one hand, the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is clearly a tyrant at war with his own people. Nor does it help the man’s image to judge him by the company he keeps:  the Syrian president’s chief external allies in the struggle to prevent the Arab Spring (if we can still call it that) from reaching his country are Iran, which has provided the Assad regime both with arms and Revolutionary Guard combat troops; Hezbollah, the terrorist state-within-a-state organization that has held Lebanon hostage now for decades; and, at least tacitly, Russia, whose only military bases outside the former Soviet Union are in Syria and which currently supplies the Assad regime with tanks and missiles, as well as with the technological support necessary to keep the Russian-built Syrian air defense system working properly. 

On the other hand, the rebels themselves aren’t such good guys either. The Free Syrian Army, it is true, is mostly about bringing down the Assad regime. But it has the support of groups that have entirely different goals in mind. The Syrian Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, for example, are radical islamist groups. The Al-Tawhid Brigade apparently has ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and shares their ideology. And it seems now clear that the opposition is benefiting from the support of al-Qaeda itself, as Rania Abouzeid reported in Time Magazine as early as last May—you can access the whole article, entitled, “Is al-Qaeda Intervening in the Conflict?”, by clicking here—and as others have subsequently corroborated.

Seeing how things are, many have adopted the “a plague on both their houses” approach. Just this week, for example, the Times published a detailed argument by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan Washington think tank originally associated with Georgetown University.  In his essay, Luttwak argues that the most cogent course forward for the United States and its allies would be to work towards creating a stalemate in Syria, one in which the struggle continues but neither side actually ever wins. Indeed, he writes that “it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy—posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.”  But working for a total defeat of the Assad regime would “also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquility on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.” That’s not exactly what Shakespeare meant when he has Mercutio pronounce a plague on both the Capulets and the Montagues, but it’s close enough.

That all seems clear enough…at least on paper. But the revelations this week regarding the use of chemical weaponry—and particularly the use of poison gas against civilians—make the situation even murkier and less simple to unravel, for me and, I suspect, for most Jews trying to decide how they feel about the possibility of American intervention in Syria.

On the one hand, no Jewish citizen can think through these latest revelations other than by filtering them through our own national trauma regarding tyrants who have no compunction about murdering innocents for political ends. The situations aren’t exactly analogous—Hitler turned to genocide in the context of a poisonous brew of anti-Semitism and unbridled hatred for the “other,” not because he was facing a popular uprising and simply didn’t care who died as long as he himself ended up winning—but the willingness to use poison gas on innocents to achieve a political or military goal is just too close to the reality through which our people lived for years for any of us simply to turn away in precisely the way we never tire of indicting the world for having done when it was our people who were being arbitrarily singled out for asphyxiation and murder.  Nor is it especially important that the numbers are not on the same scale. On June 13, the United States government announced that it had definitive proof that the Assad regime had used chemical gas against rebel forces, killing somewhere between 100 and 150 people. On August 5, video tape of a chemical assault in the suburbs of Damascus was released with the activists who released the video claiming that about 400 people had been killed or hurt by the gas. On August 21, it was reported that at least 635 people had been killed in a nerve gas attack in the eastern part of the country. The Shoah numbers are much, much higher, obviously. But the archfiend didn’t begin with six million victims, just with the ninety-one killed and thirty thousand arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938. Auschwitz hadn’t been built in 1938. Neither had Treblinka or Sobibor. It didn’t start with millions in Europe, nor has it in Syria. But it is not impossible to imagine thousands or even millions dying in Syria if the war is allowed to continue and the civilian population is deemed fair game and the asphyxiation of innocents is considered an internal Syrian matter for other countries to deplore but not actually to prevent.

Complicating all these issues is the fact that both relevant international treaties, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them, which basically renders them meaningless in the real world. Nor is it irrelevant that Syria is not a party to either agreement. The one relevant international covenant which Syria did sign, the 1925 Geneva Protocol which bans the use of poison gas in warfare, addresses the use of poison gas in wars between nations, not in the context of one nation’s internal effort to put down a rebellion by its own citizens. These points, and several other very pertinent ones, were brought together in an Op-Ed piece in Wednesday’s Times by Ian Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, which you can access by clicking here. Nor should we pass quickly by the main point of Hurd’s essay: that acting against Syria would be possibly moral, but almost definitely illegal. And so we come to the crux of our national moral dilemma: shall we hide behind the cloak of legality or step boldly forward outside the framework of international law, ideally together with other nations, to prevent the murder of innocents?  Would that be the just path to take forward? Or would we only be wading into someone else’s mud just because we can?

And so we are left with our original conundrum. A nation that has been at war with Israel since 1948 is murdering its own citizens in an attempt to put down a rebellion. Do we care? Should we care? It’s not an easy question to ask, let alone to answer.  Edward Luttwak’s argument that we should let the two sides battle each other down to a stalemate in which neither is victorious and neither the abject loser—which plan includes not caring much about the murder of civilians—sounds reasonable and unreasonable at the same time. (Luttwak clearly says in his opening paragraph that, as awful as the mass murder of civilians with poison gas may seem, we would do best to do nothing at all and thus not to intervene even ineffectively, because “a victory for either side would be equally undesirable for the United States.”)

I can’t go along with that. My entire life, as my readers know, has been framed as an elaborate, personal response to the Shoah. I’ve read so many books about the inaction of the Allies to intervene to prevent the annihilation of European Jewry—and particularly about FDR’s almost inexplicable, self-induced deafness to the issue—that I could never even begin to list them all here.  But I’ve also read books, and lots of them, about the unwillingness of the Catholic Church forcefully to intervene and about the reticence of Christian churches across Europe to bring the full moral force of their leadership and membership to bear to prevent the slaughter.  And I’ve also read endlessly about the willingness, even more inexplicable in my mind, of other countries—and many of them—who were at war with Nazi Germany to become complicit in the murder of their own Jewish citizens.  In the end, it comes down to whether it is moral or immoral to excuse the murder of innocents, including children, for any reason at all. Nor should we fall into the pit of moral relativism: I regret, as should we all, that babies died at Hiroshima and that there were children who died during the carpet bombing of Germany. But those incidents were part of an all-out war to defeat the greatest evil the world had ever seen, not part of a despot’s calculated effort to terrorize the citizens of his own country through the use of indiscriminate murder.

In my opinion, the path forward for our country should be to mobilize the nations of the world to act decisively to prevent the use of chemical weaponry against civilians wherever that seems likely to happen, including in Syria. To count on the United Nations for decisive action would be no less pointless than harboring the expectation that the Assad regime might rein itself in at this point. In the end, it will come down to good people refusing to be complicit in the murder of innocents…even if that complicity consists of nothing more than saying nothing, doing nothing, and—because it is, and by far, the path of least resistance—looking the other way and being content to hope for the best.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fifty Years Later

Every reader my age or older knows where he or she was when President Kennedy was assassinated half a century ago. I myself was on the second floor of P.S. 196 in one of the fifth grade classrooms. My teacher was Mrs. Edith D’Antona, who was famous (at least among the boys in our class) for having been Whitey Ford’s fifth grade teacher twenty-five years earlier.  It was a normal day, a Friday, and we were all looking forward to the weekend. Lunch was over and it was already well into the afternoon when Mr. Tauschner, our principal, appeared at the door looking even more grim than usual and signaled for Mrs. D’Antona to join him in the hallway. We children sat quietly and waited, not sure what was happening but clearly sensing something afoot. The boy behind me—how funny is it that I remember this clearly after so many years?—suggested that the Russians must have already bombed Washington and that we were about to be told to run home to say goodbye to our parents before the bombers arrived over Queens County. Someone else suggested that we must surely have won some prize or award and that they were just figuring out the right way to tell us the good news. I had no idea what was about to happen, but I knew from Mr. Tauschner’s face that it wasn’t good news we were about to hear. After a few minutes, Mrs. D’Antona came back into the room. Her face was ashen. She told us that the president had been shot and that the entire school was to assemble in the auditorium where we would all together hear further details as they were released. The rest of the story, you all know.

But this year marks not only the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but also of the March on Washington, the massive gathering of a quarter of a million civil rights activists and supporters in Washington in the course of which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  (The exact anniversary of the speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, is next Wednesday.) That means that the March on Washington, more correctly called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, took place less than three months before President Kennedy’s death. Did people find it surprising that the racial divide that seemed so unbridgeable just months earlier appeared to close as the citizenry, united in grief, struggled as one to find a way past their misery into a future divested of the most charismatic leader our country had had since FDR? If there were those who did, I was not among them. Perhaps it just slid past me.  I was, after all, only ten years old.

I have returned to Dr. King’s speech many times over the years, including just recently. At sixteen minutes, it wasn’t that long. (If you haven’t heard it lately and you are reading this electronically, you can hear it on youtube by clicking here.  To read a transcript of the text, click here.)  But, even at just slightly over a quarter-hour, the speech covers a lot of ground. I would like to write to you this week specifically about the specific effect on our American destiny that resulted from the specific juxtaposition of those two events, the King speech and the Kennedy assassination.

First, let’s remember the speech. Dr. King begins by describing the situation of black people in America in his day, comparing it emotionally and extremely unfavorably with the principle of equality for all that underlies the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He speaks about the civil rights workers’ plight, some of whom he acknowledges came to Washington direct from “narrow jail cells” where they had been detained because of their work for equality and justice, yet he optimistically qualifies their travails as “creating suffering” that will surely lead eventually to great things. He outlines the forms that prejudice took in his day—specifically making reference to discrimination in housing, in the hospitality industry, and in the nation’s polling places—and he calls  upon his audience to go back to their homes confident that “this situation can and will be changed.”  And then he gets to his dream, which he says is merely part of the larger “American dream.” 

Dr. King said that he was dreaming of an America that was living out the true meaning of its most basic creed, the one that declares that all are created equal.  He said that he was dreaming of a day when the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners could unselfconsciously sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  He said that he was dreaming of a day when even Mississippi, perhaps the state in which racial segregation was the most firmly entrenched, could become known as “an oasis of freedom and justice.” He said he was dreaming of a day in which Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the strength of their character. He said he was dreaming of a day in which black and white children could easily think of each other as brothers and sisters. And he wrapped up his dream by connecting all of these events to the prophet Isaiah’s great vision of a world characterized above all else by equity, by righteousness, by equality, and by a leveling off of the valleys and the mountain peaks of the world so that the world itself becomes a level playing field on which all may play unhampered by prejudice and free to bring solely personal merit to bear in the pursuit of success and achievement.

In other words, the dream part of the “I Have a Dream” speech was not about rancor or hatred, but about a vision of an America that could somehow come to recognize the involvedness of all its citizens in the great mission to establish a republic founded on equality, fairness, and justice for all. 

The first great test of that vision came not three months later when President Kennedy died.  Kennedy had won more than 70% of the black vote in 1960.  Under JFK, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent hundreds of federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders who were working to desegregate public transportation in the south.  When riots broke out at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran who had been admitted to the university, attempted actually to enroll in classes, President Kennedy sent in five hundred federal marshals to accompany him to the registrar’s building to assist him in the registration process. In the spring of 1964, the president sent several thousand troops to an Alabama air base to restore order to Birmingham after rioting broke out in the wake of Dr. King’s arrest and incarceration in that city, which King himself qualified as “the most segregated city in America.”  And JFK also federalized the Alabama National Guard physically to prevent Governor George Wallace from standing by his promise never to allow black students to enroll in the University of Alabama. It is true that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only voted by Congress into law after President Kennedy was no longer alive, but the groundwork for that piece of landmark legislation—which at once protected African Americans from discrimination in voter qualification tests; outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, theaters, and “all public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce;” authorized the U.S. Attorney General’s office to file legal suits to enforce desegregation in public schools, required the government to withdraw funding from any program that discriminated based on race, and outlawed racial discrimination in any but the smallest businesses—was laid during the Kennedy administration so obviously that even Lyndon Johnson himself in an address to Congress just five days after he came to office in the wake of his predecessor’s death said clearly about the pending legislation that "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

In retrospect, it seems to me that the first great test of Dr. King’s vision came with President Kennedy’s assassination. President Johnson could have turned back.  Many, including many in his home state of Texas, would have been happy if he had. But the nation was already in the thrall of Dr. King’s vision…and the notion that the bill that would be the crowning legacy of the Kennedy administration might conceivably not become law was simply more than the country could envisage. There was plenty of controversy.  About thirty percent both of the House and the Senate voted against even the compromise version of the bill. But the overwhelming majority of senators and congressman voted to enshrine in law the principles that Dr. King had imagined in his dream and that President Kennedy had brought the full force of the federal government to bear to make real. By crossing the line in time constituted by President Kennedy’s murder with its values intact, our country became committed to the realization of Dr. King’s dream.

When President Obama speaks next Wednesday in the same spot that Dr. King spoke fifty years earlier, no American will fail to note that even Martin Luther King didn’t dream of there being a black president in what could plausibly have been his own lifetime. (If he were alive, he would only be eighty-four years old. Kennedy, significantly older, would be ninety-six.) But the real shift in the politics of race in America has less to do with there being an African American president and far more with the sea change in attitude that has taken place since the 1960s, a shift so dramatic that there surely must be young people today who can’t quite imagine what the huge fuss back then was all about.

Americans have been bombarded for decades with books and articles detailing the character flaws both of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Some of these accounts have been lewd almost to the point of being defamatory. Others were merely nasty. I have no idea which stories are true and which not, but it seems clear that neither man was a saint. And yet somehow the brief trajectory in 1963 between August 28 and November 22 seems to me to have changed our country permanently. If President Kennedy had lived, he would surely personally have shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress.  The fact that he was able to do so posthumously testifies as much to his immense impact on the American psyche as it does to President Johnson’s principled fortitude. But it was the Reverend King’s speech, it seems to me, that changed everything…and which made unimaginable turning back from the course the country had begun to take towards civil rights for all. Before the end of 1963, President Kennedy was dead. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after leaving office.  All three men are, therefore, long gone from this world. And it is surely also true that all racial issues in our country are far from being solved. But those few months in 1963 set us on a course we continue to follow towards the vision from Isaiah prominently mentioned as part of Dr. King’s dream of a world with neither advantage nor disadvantage, with neither prejudice nor inequity, with neither justice for some nor injustice for all…a dream that so insinuated itself in the American psyche that even an assassin’s bullet could not weaken its hold on the future of a nation.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the institution of marriage these days, partially because of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage (about which I wrote in June) and partially because we’ve had a summer full of weddings at Shelter Rock, but mostly because my own daughter’s wedding is coming up in just two days. I know many of you have been here before and know more about this experience my family has been having over these last few weeks and months than I myself do—or rather, did…other than by observing others go through this sole one of life’s major rites of passage that stars someone other than oneself. (Having a baby is more about the baby than its parents only in theory. And that I do know from experience!)

These last few months have actually been very good for all of us. My daughter is marrying a fine young man. The home they are on their way toward establishing together will be, I think, one suffused with the finest values. We’ve met my daughter’s future in-laws now many times and look forward to having them as part of our extended family. It’s all good!  But I’ve also been thinking about marriage itself, not just about this particular marriage, and wondering about the concept itself and its future.

The numbers don’t bode well. In the years following the Civil War, there were three divorces in the United States for every one hundred marriages. By 1900, that 3% figure had risen to 7%.  But thirty years later, in 1930, the rate had risen further still to 16%. In 1940, there were twenty divorces per one hundred marriages. Amazingly, the rate more than doubled by 1946, reaching an astounding 43% in 1946. But then, for reasons that sociologists are still debating, the rate began—for the first time since Reconstruction—to decline, reaching 21% in 1958, just one single percent higher than it had been in 1940.  And then it began to rise again. In 1980, for the first time in American history, there were more than half again as many divorces as there were marriages in the United States. (These numbers come from Health Resources Administration study, 100 Years of Marriage and Divorce Statistics in the United States 1867-1967, which those of you reading this electronically can access by clicking here.)  Today, the rate is about 41%, which is to say that there are 41 divorces for every 100 marriages in our country. 

You can, however, beat the odds. Or you can try! A study undertaken by the National Marriage Project sponsored jointly by University of Maryland and the University of Virginia in 2011 called The State of Our Unions, came to some remarkable conclusions.  If you make more than $50,000 a year, your risk of divorce decreases by about a third.  If you are more than twenty-five years old when you marry, the likelihood that your marriage will end in divorce drops by about 24%.  If your parents are or were always happily married, then the chances of your own marriage coming asunder decreases by 14%, and the same is true if you are possessed of what you yourself define as “strong” religious beliefs.  For some reason, if you have a college decree, your chances of ending up divorced decrease by 13%. (You can find that report on-line at, where you can also order the report in hard copy for $10.)  It also matters where you live: the world’s lowest divorce rates are in Central and South America, while the highest are in Eastern Europe. (Of the ten countries with the highest rates of divorce, seven are Eastern Europe: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Moldova.)  I should feel buoyed by those numbers—I don’t live in Eastern Europe and I fall into every one of the “right” categories listed above!

Religion also matters: the rate of divorce among Jews is (by American standards) a mere 30%. (We are speaking here, obviously, of Jews by self-definition, so there may be individuals counted in that statistic that the Jewish community itself would not consider fully Jewish.) But there is no room for smugness here—the rates for both liberal and conservative Christian churches are lower (although only slightly so) than for Jewish America. That this specific statistic seems dramatically higher than the reality I know at Shelter Rock (and, indeed, in all the communities I have served as rabbi) is a truth I will ponder with you on another occasion.

And so we—as a nation, as a community, and as members of society in general—are left with an institution in flux, one that a large majority of citizens say they esteem and understand to constitute the foundation upon which society rests, but which itself only actually works for a portion of the people who embrace it as the theoretical foundation of their actual lives.

Our Torah starts from an entirely different vantage point: that marriage is not a useful societal convention or a handy way to structure family life (or not just those things), but a stage of life into which healthy people should reasonably hope to grow as they shed the trappings first of childhood and then of adolescence, and then finally embrace mature adulthood as grown-ups. The story in Scripture is almost clear, but far from transparent. And so, in honor of Lucy’s upcoming marriage, I would like to propose a new way to read the biblical story that we all know almost by heart, but which reads, in my opinion, quite differently in the original text than in most translations.

I’ll start with the detail everyone knows: God, done creating the oceans and the stars, makes a human being. That being is traditionally presumed to have been a male, but an equally interesting way to read the story would be to imagine that first being as have been created without gender at all, thus neither male nor female. That being’s name, Adam, sounds in English like a man’s first name. But adam means “human being” or “person” in Hebrew, and it is used consistently in the opening chapters of the Bible as a common noun, not as a name. (The being is, for example, referenced as “the” adam a full 21 times in the first three chapters of the Torah and only one single time without the article.) 

This being, God sets in the Garden of Eden to tend its flora and to watch over it. But the being ends up lonely, not merely alone, to the remarkable extent that God, unprompted, takes vocal note of how things are and observes aloud to the angelic host that a world population of one single person may not have been such a good plan after all and that it might be better for the being below to have a mate to help out with its various chores. At first, the concept of gender doesn’t seem to suggest itself and so God, meaning well, creates the animals of the earth and the birds of the sky and then brings them one by one to the adam to see if they will do. The adam duly names them, but he does not appear to be able to see any of them becoming his lifelong helpmeet, his lebensbegleiter, in any meaningful way.

And now we get to the point. As I now propose to read the story, God, seeing that neither the penguins nor the yaks have prompted the desired response in the human being’s breast, has a new idea.  And quite the idea it is, this Plan B that is forever after going to alter the course of human history. God, taking on the temporary guise of divine Anesthetist, puts the being to sleep and surgically effects the remodel: from one being are now to be two, one male and one female, and they are to be each other’s mates. The traditional notion that the being was male all along and how from man has now come woman is only one way to read the story and is based on the Torah’s comment that this new creature was to be called ishah because she was created from ish, the original human being. But it is also possible to read the story to yield the conclusion that this unexpected surgical realignment of things yielded not one but two new creatures, neither of whom would be identical with the original adam. Indeed, that could well be why the text here shifts and calls them not adam and adamah (which means something else anyway), but ish and ishah, man and woman.

And so we replicate this process as we start out in life as simple creatures happily looking after our chores—tending our little gardens and watching over our toys—but slowly, as childhood ends and we pass into adolescence, discovering dissatisfaction in our breasts where there was once nothing but contentment. At first we aren’t sure what to make of it all, but then, as time passes, the situation eventually clarifies and we finally come to understand what it is that’s ailing us: we are lonely, unhappy to be by ourselves even the paradise that is the parental home (for most of us, a true Eden in which food magically appears in the refrigerator, clean socks magically appear in our dresser drawers, and no bill addressed to us personally ever arrives in the mailbox). We cherish the love of our parents, but are unfulfilled nevertheless. And so we set out to find our life’s companions. And that point the Torah makes clearly too: “…and so does it come regularly to pass that an ish leaves his father and mother to cleave instead unto his ishah,  a cleaving so intense that the two, as it were, become one.”

And it is that search for that life-companion that signals the onset of real maturity, of adulthood. Most people seek mates of the opposite sex.  Not all. But all do yearn to return to this paradisiacal state of oneness that prevailed when the human race consisted only of the adam. And in that paradox—that movement forward is also movement backwards, that the yearning for the responsibilities of adulthood is also yearning for the responsibilitilessness of childhood, that wanting nothing more than life à deux is also wanting to return to the state of undifferentiated oneness that we recall as being part of our lives before we were weighed down by life’s endless burdens—in that set of paradoxes lies the secret of what marriage truly is: the framework in which we find the strength in the arms of someone we love truly and absolutely to set it all aside and to find in love itself the balm that heals our riven souls and allows to know peace as adults long since banished from Paradise.

I like reading Genesis like that. It’s an approach I’d like to return to in my preaching this year, and perhaps in my writing as well. But for the moment, I’d like to offer it to you all as neither lesson nor sermon, but merely as a blessing for my beloved child, for Lucy, and for her basherter, Shuki Cirlin, as they prepare to face life together as wife and husband.  May God grant them love! And may God grant them a lifetime of common purpose, shared responsibility, and selfless dedication to each other and to their union.  I wish that for them, but I also wish it for my sons and for all of your children and grandchildren as well. I go to a lot of weddings, as you all know…but this really is something special!