Thursday, February 27, 2014


I’ve never been to Arizona. Or maybe I have, even…but just to drive through a tiny corner of the state on our way from Las Vegas to St. George, Utah, where Joan and I once spent a few remarkable days visiting Zion National Park. It was an uneventful twenty minutes. And yet I seem continually to be drawn to write to you about different issues relating to the Grand Canyon State. 

A few years ago, I wrote to you about the brouhaha that surrounded Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the bill that required law enforcement officials to demand papers guaranteeing an individual’s legal presence in the United States if there was some reason, however vague, to suspect illegality afoot. (For a review of what I wrote in that regard, click here.) I’ve also expressed myself on the reasonableness of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit to do so, a law that Arizona has in common only with Vermont and Alaska.  (Click here.) But today I wish to write instead about an issue that remained unresolved as I began to write to you this week and was only resolved—at least temporarily—while I was still thinking about the issue and deciding how to express myself to you in its regard.

As all my readers know, I am always very interested in the specific way that the concept of freedom of religion intersects with civil rights legislation. Just last week, in fact, I wrote in support of the late Reverend Jamie Coot’s argument that his right to handle poisonous snakes as part of religious worship should be guaranteed under the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment. Some readers took issue with that stance, pointing out that a citizen’s right to commit suicide is not guaranteed by law and that handling copperheads and rattlesnakes without any protection is not that different a concept. But, of course, it isn’t really the same concept at all…and precisely because the Reverend Coots was attempting to demonstrate the extent of his faith, not to take his own life.  In matters such as this, surely intent matters—we don’t prohibit downhill skiing because some people have accidents on the slopes that cost them their lives! (And the numbers are not on the side of skiers—in the last 110 years or so, somewhere between eighty and one hundred snake handlers have died in the line of duty. Fifty-four skiers died on American slopes in 2012 alone.)

And that brings me to the proposed legislation that Governor Jan Brewer finally vetoed late Wednesday: Arizona House Bill 2153/Senate Bill 1062.  There were several ways to analyze the bill. Its supporters argued reasonably enough, that it merely guaranteed that citizens could never be held liable legally for declining to do something that violates their religious beliefs. That sounds appealing enough, but it was possible to say the same thing in a far less palatable way: if it had become law, Bill 2153/1062 would have empowered businesspeople to refuse service to anyone at all if they felt that serving that person or those people would violate a tenet of religious beliefs they hold “sincerely.” That would have meant, for example, that someone who “sincerely” believes that gay people should not be permitted to marry simply could have declined to provide flowers for such a same-sex wedding or to agree to work as a photographer or a caterer at such an affair.  The focus of the debate, in fact, had to do exactly with same-sex weddings.  But how the law would also have applied to people whose “religious” beliefs involve attitudes that we would normally label as racist or misogynistic is less clear. If someone “sincerely” believes that women should not work outside the home, would that person then have had the right to decline to hire women to work in his factory and get away with that kind of discrimination merely by describing his belief as “religious”? It was hard to read the bill any other way!

It was easy for many to climb on the bandwagon and speak out forcefully against legislation that would have permitted discrimination in the work place, something Americans tend to agree is ipso facto a bad thing.  Certainly, I would not enjoy being turned away from a cruise ship by someone whose religious beliefs include the notion that Jews and non-Jews should not be permitted to mingle on the same boats! (How I would respond if I heard that some religious Christian butcher was turning Jewish patrons away because of his belief that Jews should only eat kosher meat…is a good question. Probably, I’d be irritated. Amused, but also irritated.) And yet…at the same time that it is surely the case that allowing people to justify discrimination with vague reference to “religious” beliefs could easily turn into a very slippery slope, I also feel strongly about the inviolate nature of religious freedom and believe that it should be curtailed only (as I wrote last week) when some specific act would infringe unduly on the civil rights of some other citizen. Nor is it reasonable to extend that kind of unfettered religious freedom only to some and not to others—which point the Reverend Coots made forcefully in the Wall Street Journal essay I quoted last week and with which I agree wholeheartedly: either freedom is for all or it really is for none, and it really is true that a society is only as free as its least free member.  So what it came down to in Arizona, really, was whether discrimination rooted in religious was going to be deemed rational or irrational…and who specifically was going to get to decide which is which. (My own preference if the governor signed the bill—that I personally be granted the right to decide—was probably doomed to appeal solely to myself. And I don’t even live in Arizona, so it wouldn’t even have been that practical a path forward even if Governor Brewer did unexpectedly name me personally as the ultimate arbiter of religious reasonableness. Mind you, I’d have done an excellent job!)

Let’s discuss that concept of rational discrimination in a bit more detail.  We speak out forcefully against discrimination, but what we mean to oppose is irrational discrimination based on details that should be considered irrelevant. So no one thinks it unreasonable for the Department of Motor Vehicles to discriminate against blind citizens by declining to issue them driver’s licenses.  And no one minds that men are denied access to women’s changing rooms in department stores, or vice versa, or that shopkeepers are required by law to discriminate against children by refusing to sell them cigarettes. These are all examples of discrimination, but we as a society have decided to consider them examples of the benign, rational version of the concept. What society has come to consider morally reprehensible is irrational discrimination, the kind that excludes people from membership in country clubs based on their race, or that refuses to consider people for positions they are qualified to hold merely because of their gender. These are universally agreed-upon as pernicious examples of groundless prejudice. But there are other kinds of discrimination that society appears to feel less strongly about.

When a white man in a Michigan hospital insisted last year that no black nurse be permitted to touch his newborn child and several black nurses launched a lawsuit charging the hospital with capitulating to the patient’s racist demand, I don’t think any of us would have any difficulty knowing how we would vote if we were on that jury. But if an elderly female patient—a nun, perhaps, just to sharpen the image—were to insist that only female nurses be allowed to bathe her or to help her dress, the water suddenly seems murkier. (But what if she only wanted assistance from a Catholic nurse? The water suddenly seems murkier still.)  Or if a Shoah survivor were suddenly to insist that the gardening firm he has hired agree never to send to his home even fully-qualified non-Jewish gardeners because his family’s gardener back in Europe was the one who discovered their hiding place and turned them into the Germans—that’s crazy, of course, but do we really want the criminalize the specific kind of craziness that has its irrational roots in horrific trauma and personal upheaval? Perhaps we can just endure a bit of madness for the sake of being kind to damaged persons!

And that brings me back to Arizona. When Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, declined to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding last year, Attorney-General Bob Ferguson charged her with violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act.  She was, therefore, treated no differently than if she had refused to provide flowers for the wedding of two black people or two Jewish people. Arizona’s proposed legislation was intended to protect florists and other businesspeople by creating a loophole in the law: if their disinclination to serve the public was rooted in religious beliefs, then they were specifically not going to be deemed in contravention of the state’s anti-discrimination laws. And so Arizona stood at a complicated crossroads: neither option was fully good (and it would surely be optimal for everybody to have unfettered freedom to act in accordance with the tenets of their faith and the absolute right never to have to face irrational discrimination of any sort), so the question was more precisely which option was going to be less bad for Arizonans: enduring some rank discrimination for the sake of leaving freedom of religion unattenuated or accepting that religious freedom must sometimes be curtailed for the sake of living in a society characterized by as little discrimination in the workplace or the marketplace as possible.

As you all know by now, I’m sure, Governor Brewer vetoed the bill. I believe she acted correctly and in the best interests of the citizens of her state. And yet…I also believe that the right to freedom of religion has to be considered sacrosanct. Writing as a member of a tiny religious minority, how could I feel otherwise? And so, when the issue surfaces in a different state, which it surely will, I believe that the solution should rest in a narrower construction of what it means exactly to hold a religious belief.  To compare the right of a Jewish employee not to work on Shabbat or any of our no-work festivals—both of which are expressions of unambiguous, universally accepted religious obligation—with the “right” of a shoe-shine-person not to shine the shoes of a man on his way to his own same-sex wedding seems, to say the very least, exaggerated. Is it really a tenet of anyone’s faith not to sell flowers to people because of the use to which those flowers are going to be put later on? Or to shine their shoes? Or to bake them a cake? The concept of exempting people from anti-discrimination legislation based on those people’s religious convictions should be put in place…but in the narrowest way possible so that it protects actual religious practices and beliefs—for example, the Jewish photographer who turns down a wedding scheduled for Shabbat afternoon—but not the use of such practices and beliefs as a smokescreen for sneering at people with whom one does not agree or of whose lifestyle one does not really approve. To sanction discrimination in the workplace or the marketplace based on religious practices that don’t really exist other than as attitudes directed towards other people and which only serve to make prejudice sound more rational or less wicked—that should be as illegal as any other form of irrational discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or age. In my opinion, Governor Brewer did the right thing. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Relying on Miracles

One of the more widely-quoted rabbinic adages, ein somkhin al ha-neis, has never sat quite right with me. Its literal meaning is clear enough—it means unambiguously that one must “never rely on miracles”—as is its obvious implication that it would be sinful consciously to put oneself in danger and then to challenge God to alter the normal rules of nature to prevent what would otherwise be the natural consequence of one’s actions from ensuing.  Nor is that an idea that I have trouble justifying in terms of the way I perceive the world actually to work: only a fool would attempt to “prove” the existence of God by jumping in front of a speeding train so as to create a good context for the wary to come to faith by seeing a clear example of God’s saving power.

Nor is this just an obvious observation, but rather one with clear biblical and talmudic bona fides. The Torah itself could not be clearer, formally designated as one of its negative commandments the obligation never to “test” God. The Talmud spells this out with even greater clarity, however. “One must never intentionally put oneself in danger,” the talmudic master Rabbi Yannai warns, “on the supposition that one will be miraculously saved, lest such a miracle fail to occur.” But then Rabbi Yannai goes on to deliver the real zinger: “And,” he adds sharply, “if such a miracle somehow were somehow to take place, then there would be a real price to be paid by the saved individual.” I’m translating loosely here—the literal meaning of that last phrase is that the store of merit that such a person might well previously have stored up through a lifetime of good deeds and piety would be docked accordingly in the wake of such an unexpected (and otherwise unpaid-for) gift of divine beneficence—but the meaning is clear enough either way: God may occasionally deploy a miracle or two to save the dunce who intentionally puts him or herself in danger, but there will nevertheless always be a price to pay if said dunce has intentionally created the scenario from which he or she needed to be saved with the specific idea of testing God…which is precisely what the Torah says one may never do. Even Samuel, Israel’s last judge and among the greatest of the prophets, thought twice about anointing David as king even though God specifically commanded him to do just that…because he feared Saul would kill him for doing so—an entirely reasonable fear, since he was in effect firing Saul by anointing his replacement on the throne—and he, Samuel, apparently was disinclined simply to suppose that God would necessarily step in to save him if he intentionally placed himself in danger…even if it was God Who had commanded him to do exactly that!

And that brings me to the late Pastor Jamie Coots, star of the National Geographic reality show “Snake Salvation.” Pastor Coots, probably America’s best-known snake handler, was bitten last Sunday by a snake in his church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, but insisted just on going home instead of seeking medical treatment. Apparently, someone called 911 anyway, but when EMT workers arrived at his home later in the day, the pastor again declined treatment. An hour later, he was dead.  Pastor Coots knew perfectly well the risks—the whole idea of handling poisonous snakes is to risk everything for the sake of “proving” one’s faith and he spoke openly and proudly about his involvement in this specific variety of Christian worship repeatedly and forcefully, both on television and elsewhere.  “To me,” he once said, “it’s as much of a commandment from God when He said, ‘Thou shalt take up serpents’ as it was when He said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’”

For their part, the National Geographic people waxed proud of having provided Pastor Coots with the televised reality show that served as his national platform. "Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith," an NG spokesman said. "We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time." 

Several New Testament verses appear to say that true believers will be safe from the venom of poison snakes. Jesus is cited in the Gospel of Luke, for example, as saying “Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents.” And in the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Jesus promises his followers as he sends them forth into the world that they shall cast out devils, speak in tongues, be impervious to poison snake bites and to poison, and be able to heal the sick by placing their hands upon them.  In a sense, the Book of Acts goes even further when it reports that Paul of Tarsus actually was bitten by a poison snake on Melita, an island in the Adriatic Sea off the Croatian coast, and yet came to no harm.  How that translates into feeling commanded to handle poison snakes and then decline medical treatment when bitten, I’m not sure. It doesn’t read that way to me. But I don’t write today to analyze, much less to critique, other people’s religions! Instead, I want to think along with Pastor Coots’ most interesting statement on the matter. 

He published it, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal last October under the heading, “The Constitution Protects My Snake Handling” and it is a piece of unexpectedly compelling writing. The pastor mentions the New Testament verses mentioned above. He points out that the custom of “proving” one’s faith by handling poisonous snakes, mostly copperheads and rattlesnakes, is more than a century old and had been a feature of Christian worship in Appalachia from southern New York to northern Alabama for all those many years. He also admits freely that he understands that the practice is illegal. In his own state of Kentucky, for example, the use of any kind of reptile as part of religious worship is prohibited, which is why the pastor was arrested in 2008 after the authorities found seventy-four snakes on his property. But the pastor remained unrepentant. In fact, all the incident, and several similar ones that followed, served to do was to bring him to question the meaning of religious freedom in America, which is what the main portion of his WSJ piece is about.

In that article, Pastor Coots compares his faith to Christian Science (in which adult church members are deemed to be behaving legally when declining medical treatment for illness) and to Judaism (in which, he notes, stretching the point just a bit, adults are legally permitted to withhold food and water from their post-bar/bat-mitzvah, but strictly speaking underage, children on Yom Kippur). The article ends with the strongly-put reminder that religious freedom is one of the cornerstones of American culture and should be an absolute right. He quotes President Obama’s 2010 remarks regarding the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero and endorses the president’s promise that the government will never treat different religious groups differently. But, he laments, Pentecostal churches are often in poor, rural areas and the reality in America today is that freedom to worship according to one’s wishes and principles is a luxury only always offered to the well-heeled members of well-known faiths, but not invariably to those who adhere to smaller faith groups that promote unfamiliar rituals or ideas. Today, the only state in which snake handling is legal is West Virginia, and that only because Article III of that state’s constitution specifically prohibits the passage of any law of any kind that “promotes or prohibits a religious practice.” The situation in the other forty-nine states, in the pastor’s opinion, constitutes a shameful infringement on the freedom of religion offered to all citizens without distinction or prejudice. 

I read of Pastor Coots’ demise as an outsider. His way was not my way, nor were our spiritual paths forward in life even remotely similar.  To me, the prospect of wrapping a copperhead around my chest and then trusting in God to keep the snake from killing me seems to be a direct violation of the Bible’s injunction not to test God. And Rabbi Yannai’s lesson—that it will be occasion divine displeasure, not favor, if the snake somehow fails to inject its lethal venom into me—also stays with me as I contemplate the concept of attempting to strengthen faith by flirting with death.  And yet, even despite my own disinclination to court the near-death experience as part of my own religious path, there is something I find in Pastor Coots’ story to admire. 

We speak about faith all the time as though it were an elusive property, something to be sought after but never quite acquired absolutely or fully definitively. We say ein somchin al ha-neis, but by those ancient words we mostly seem to mean that it feels unwise to test our faith in the cauldron of actual day-to-day reality by seeing if it actually works, if God can actually rescue us from peril. (For post-Shoah Jews, the notion of testing God in that way moves easily from the absurd to the grotesque.) Nor is there any indication in the Torah that God will save the faithful from snake bites as once long ago when the Israelites were led through a “great and terrible wilderness where were venomous serpents and scorpions.” If anything, in fact, the implication of that remark is that the safe passage of the Israelites through the wilderness was a forty-year-long miracle…and miracles are something upon which we are formally forbidden to rely. And yet…to read the words of a man of faith who, having perceived the true test of belief to be the willingness to risk death, actually put his money where his mouth was…and who then paid the big price for having refused, even at the last minute when his point was already made, to pull back and let doctors keep him alive to preach another day—that kind of example both unnerves and also attracts me.

I don’t see myself risking death for the sake of faith. But I see the pastor’s point about the specific way that freedom of religion is doled out to some in our country but not always to all. (Catholics and Jews got a pass during Prohibition with respect to the use of sacramental wine, for example, but even today Rastafarians—other than in Washington and Colorado, I suppose—are prohibited from using cannabis as part of worship.)  I never saw “Snake Salvation,” although I’d like to see a few shows if they’re ever re-run. I find the concept itself of testing God to be, to say the very least, spiritually counterproductive and theologically unappealing.  His way was not mine, nor do I wish it was. But I find it impossible not to admire an articulate man of faith who risked everything to keep faith with faith as he understood it. And I agree with the pastor’s main point in his newspaper column: if freedom of religion is to mean anything, it must be extended wholly and without exception to all groups…even those who promote practices that seem weird or alien. If no one is affected but the worshiper him or herself, who (to quote the Pope) are we to judge?

Friday, February 14, 2014


Why does the snow have this weird, atavistic effect on me almost always? I sit in my nice warm study and look out my double-pane glass windows at the snow falling…and, instead of reminding myself how fortunate I am to live in a nice warm house with an intact roof and cable TV, somehow I find myself imagining—wistfully!—my great-great-great-times-ten-thousand-grandparents sitting in their Pleistocene cave by a roaring fire wearing mastodon pelts—I imagine these looking something like my mother’s mink stole, except much, much larger—and watching the very same snowy scene unfolding outside the cave’s rocky entrance. Did they wonder what their great-great-great-times-ten-thousand-grandson would look like or in what kind of cave I would live? Did they imagine me snuggling up with my pet glyptodon, or whatever glyptodons would eventually evolve into, and watching it snow while I wonder about them and their lives? (This is a fantasy—glyptodons were actually armadillos the size of cars and my Pleistocene ancestors certainly would not have had the insight to imagine the world’s fauna evolving over countless millennia from the animals they knew in their world into the ones that exist today.) For some reason, I find that a satisfying fantasy…and not a silly Flintstone-y one at all taking place in make-believe, cartoonish Bedrock either, but a more realistic one featuring ancestors actually sitting in a cave somewhere snuggled up in wooly mammoth stoles, grunting at each other in their proto-Neanderthal language, and watching it snow. Is that experience encoded somewhere in my DNA?  I suppose it could be! (How could I not have had Pleistocene ancestors? Mustn’t we all have?)

But even without the abstruse genetic theorizing, the snow has always called to me. I like to walk outdoors in it. I especially like skating in outdoor rinks that are surrounded by snow-laden trees. I’m sure I’d like skiing if I wasn’t more afraid of killing myself. (Why do I always think of Sonny Bono when I think of skiing and not, say, Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me? No need to answer!)  I even like books about snow! I read Orhan Pamuk’s book, Snow, a few years ago and loved it, for example, but more evocative is a different recollection, one from my childhood: I remember my father reading some children’s book version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Snow Image to me when I was a little boy (we had very eclectic reading tastes at the Cohens’ and young people’s versions of the classics were big on Dad’s list) and being less, not more, upset than my dad when the little girl melts at the end. (Does anyone read that kind of thing to children anymore? If not, they should!) But on a day like today I don’t feel like reading about snow any more than I feel like shoveling the driveway. (And you can trust me that I don’t feel like shoveling the driveway at all.) And so, stuck indoors, I turn to fantasy.

Snow pops up in our classical literature in unexpected places. There was Benaiah ben Yehoyada, David’s general and personal bodyguard, whom Scripture recalls, among other things, as once having killed a lion with his bare hands in a pit filled with snow. There’s King Solomon’s caustic observation that honor becomes a fool exactly as much as snow suits the sultry summer.  There’s Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days seated on his fiery chariot throne garbed in garments “as white as snow.” That passage is cited over and over in later rabbinic literature, but far more familiar to readers will be the famous line from the Eishet Chayil (which was originally part of the final chapter in Proverbs) that notes that a woman of true valor has no fear of the snow because she makes sure her kids only go out into it wearing bright scarlet outfits, thereby (I’ve always assumed) not needing to worry that they might become lost in all that frozen whiteness.

But for me personally, the passage that comes to mind always when it begins to snow is the 147th psalm. It shouldn’t be unknown to at least some readers: it is, after all, part of the preliminary morning service every single day of the year…and with no exceptions at all. Still, it somehow retains its obscurity even despite such liturgical prominence. (Could that have something to do with the number of people present each morning for the so-called “Chapters of Song” that begin morning worship? It could!) Still, it is a remarkable poem, one of my personal favorites. And so, on this snowy, frigid morning, I’d like to travel with you all back…not to my Pleistocene great-times-a-million grandma, but merely to old Jerusalem.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the poet as an older Levite. Many of his poems have become classics, yet the need to write, to compose, to produce remains strong even in his older years. His wife is ready for him to retire. So are his children, each of them all grown up now and married, each the parent of his or her own children. But the need to compose, to write…it remains as strong as ever with this guy.  His world view, in fact, is shaped by the relentless need to find new subject matter, new things to write about, new topics to focus through the internal lyric prism that has served him so well over all these many years. And so, a bit bowed by the years but nowhere near broken by them, our Levite gets up out of bed one morning to find the city covered in snow.

It doesn’t snow that often in Jerusalem. It did this year, and with a vengeance. But most years…not so much or even not at all. In other words, snow—then as now—was both a huge problem for Jerusalemites…but also an unexpected treat. For children, it was something to play in. For shopkeepers, also then as now, it was a something to shovel away. For photographers (only now), it was something to record on film, then try to sell to tourists. But for our Levite (only then)…it was a challenge. He had begun a poem that was going well, one that focused on the notion that, despite all the contractors and workers in the municipality’s employ, it was only right to acknowledge God as the city’s “true” builder, as the divine source of its wellbeing. Choosing cleverly to play that thought off against God’s “other” roles in the poet’s conception—as Healer of the wounded, as Consoler of the downhearted, as Maker of the countless stars that twinkle in the nighttime sky not as astronomical marvels per se but as signs of God’s watchful, benevolent presence even during nighttime hours when the lonely and dejected often feel their worst—the poet has begun what has the potential, he thinks, to be a great poem. Moreover, the poet’s half-done ode to God’s enduring presence in the world featured other interesting juxtapositions—the one, for example, that features God both as the humbler of the unjust…and also as a God who watches over the chicks in a raven’s nest. 

And then the poet woke up, fully intending to finish his poem and send it over to his editor for a final work-through…and saw, instead of ravens’ nests in the trees across the courtyard, a wall of snow falling from the sky and covering his city. And so a progression of ideas suggested itself, one that worked both as an ode to God’s endless protectiveness and the slightly unnerving manifestation, at least on that specific morning, of God as the Maker of snow and winter storm.

The poet brews a pot of whatever Jerusalemites drank in the mornings. Not coffee, I don’t think. (I believe coffee was first cultivated in the fourteenth century CE.) Maybe some sort of herb tea. At any rate, the pot is brewed. The Levite’s wife is off to the shuk to buy some bread and some ḥummus before the weather gets even worse. And the Levite, our poet, sits down to write.

“O Jerusalem, praise God,” he begins. Then he hesitates and starts over, this time trying for a bit more emotion by including a list of reasons for the gratitude he is trying to inspire: “O Zion, laud your God,” he begins again, “that God Who has fortified the bars on your gates and blessed the children in your midst, Who has made peaceful your borders and satisfied you with the choicest wheat, Who sends divine speech to earth…”  He looks up and re-reads what he’s written. It’s good, he thinks. It will, at any rate, go over well with the choirmaster…and nothing gets published in old Jerusalem unless it has already been set to music, unless the Levitical choir has already begun to sing it in public, thereby whetting the public desire to purchase copies to take home and enjoy privately and personally. But then...he suddenly looks up and the scene unfolding outside his window arrests his attention.

It’s snowing. But it’s not just snowing. It’s a remarkable scene, one he barely recalls seeing before. The flakes are huge and fluffy, and appear to be floating on the air before they fall to the ground. There’s wind too in the air, and the downy flakes are revolving around unseen axes in some sort of meteorological pas de deux with unseen columns of wind that serve as the invisible partners of the entirely visible snow.  And so, taking a long draught of his herbal tisane, he looks out at the storm and continues his paean to God. “...Who covers the  earth with snow as though it were a blanket of wool,” he writes. Then, liking where this is going, he moves forward.  “And Who scatters frost on the ground as though it were ash, Who hurls chunks of ice to earth as though they were mere breadcrumbs—and who can withstand the cold God sends to earth?”

The Levite looks up for a moment. This is just where he wants to go—framing divine beneficence with the terror that divinity might almost accidentally inspire when, even for just one morning, the gloves are off and the full force of God’s power is briefly on full display. 

The poem needs a conclusion.  But how exactly to wrap this up…that is a different question. It needs to be uplifting, even stirring—our poet knows the rules!—but it can’t be maudlin or, worse, silly. It needs to inspire…but in just the right way. And so the poet looks out again at the swirling columns of snow and thinks of…of all things…spring. “But it is also God Who sends a word to melt all the ice,” he writes, feeling reassured by his own confidence, and Who sends a warm wind that makes the ice into flowing water. Furthermore, it is God Who reveals this power totally to alter everything with a single word to Jacob, just as the divine statutes and laws were once revealed to Israel—and these, the poet imagines, is “something God does not do for other nations, peoples that consequently do not  know the ways of God as does Israel.”

He sits back. The fire is burning inside, but the air outside is frigid. How he’s going to make his way to the Temple for choir practice, he has no idea. They haven’t invented galoshes yet. The average Jerusalemite’s idea of a winter coat is a toga made of slightly thicker wool than its own springtime version. He hasn’t left the house, and he’s already cold. But his poem is good…and he knows it. He sits back to read, then to re-read, what he’s written. He likes what he’s written, but something is missing, some final statement that, without gilding the lily, will wrap up the poem and make it both memorable and publishable. For a long moment, he considers his options. And then, finally certain that he has it right, our Levite adds one single word at the bottom of the page: “Hallelujah.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Triple Play

The Mishnah rather dolefully ordains that once the month of Av begins, we are already bidden to adopt some outer trappings of mournful regret so as to get in the right mood for Tisha Be’av. (The fast day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem falls nine days later, on the ninth of the month.)  Later, the talmudic sage Rav embraced that idea—what could be more Jewish than getting an early jump on being miserable?—but added to it a far less depressive corollary: that just as we are to make despondent our demeanor and behavior once Av commences, so, once the month of Adar begins, are we to increase the outward signs of joyful celebration connected with the festival of Purim. That sounds more like it!

We’re into Adar now, albeit the first of two that this year brings. And Purim, the “first” Adar technically being the additional one, falls during the second Adar and so is invariably a month before Pesach regardless of how many months there may be in any particular year. So we’re not quite up to singing Purim songs in the Nursery School yet…but we’re getting there. And we’ll start soon enough telling the story of Purim too, both to our Nursery School children and also in the Hebrew School. It sounds like it should be fun. It even is fun, but it’s also a challenge each year to find a way to tell the joyous tale of Purim without mentioning en passant that the story begins with a vicious madman attempting to exploit his influence on the king of Persia to arrange for the brutal annihilation of the entire Jewish population of the empire, as the Megillah itself notes, “from youth to elder, including babes and women.” It seems a little heavy for three-year-olds.

I invariably see two paths before me: I can either omit mentioning Haman’s plans (in which case the rest of the story basically makes no sense) or I can water it down to “he didn’t much care for Jewish people” or even “he was just a big bully who couldn’t stand not getting his way” (which basically makes the whole thing sound more like Haman was planning a schoolyard fracas than a proto-Shoah). What I never quite feel comfortable doing is telling the story like it is, maniacal plans to murder an entire Jewish community not only not omitted but highlighted as the essential foundation upon which the rest of the story rests. Our teachers don’t even like it much when I sing the “real” words to “Once There Was A Wicked, Wicked Man” and get to the part about Haman “trying to murder all the Jews, though they were not to blame, sir.”

An outsider might think this issue is “about” Purim. But that outsider would be wrong…which would become obvious if he or she were to return to school a month later and hear me trying to tell the story of the Exodus without mentioning the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt “from the firstborn of Pharaoh seated upon his throne to the firstborn son of a maidservant hiding behind her mill.”  At least Tisha Be’av falls during the summer, which means that I don’t generally need to explain to children the part in Eichah in which Jeremiah describes the populace of Jerusalem so demented by hunger and thirst that they descended, among other things, to cannibalism.

These are our stories, the tales that rest at the root of our worldview, of our understanding of the specific way that the present functions as a kind of evanescent boundary between history and destiny. They all have at their core two thoughts, each equally essential: we face extreme hostility but we always prevail. (Or at least we always have prevailed!)  And they both appear so essential to our sense of who we are that even when they would otherwise be absent, we make a special effort to introduce them. The horrific story of the death of the ten martyrs doesn’t really have anything to do with Yom Kippur. But what would the Musaf Service on Yom Kippur be without a vivid description of the unimaginably horrific deaths suffered by Rabbi Akiba and the other sages? And then, as if reading about the Romans skinning Rabbi Akiba like a hunter might a rabbit weren’t enough, we now have a new High Holiday prayerbook at Shelter Rock, one that brings into the mix the misery of the Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades, the Jews of Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, and the Jews of Europe during the Shoah. Machzor Lev Shalem is brand new. But even as a child, I found myself drawn—and simultaneously repulsed—by the story Rabbi Bokser included in his version of the Musaf Service about the ninety-three young Jewish women in wartime Warsaw, teachers in a Beis Yaakov school there, who chose suicide over being forced to submit to the carnal depravity of their German overlords. It was all I could think about for most of the time I sat there as a child—old enough to read but not quite old enough to know how to process such a story—as the nine-year-old me sat in shul huddled up against my father’s tallis and wondered what in the world this whole Jewish thing was really about and why exactly I felt so drawn to it.

And now we have the answer! Or not the answer to the question of the nine-year-old me about the ninety-three maidens exactly, but the larger question: is this kind of endless focusing on the horrors of the past good for the Jews or not? I’m not even sure I would have phrased the question that way…until I read the other day that Amy Chua, whose book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother caused such a huge sensation when it came out in 2011, is now publishing a new book, co-authored with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, about an even more non-P.C. topic than the superior child-raising techniques of Chinese-American families: the specific reasons for which some ethnic groups in the United States consistently outperform other ones. 

In this land of opportunity, this is not at all what any of us wants to hear. We want to believe that no groups are favored here, that the opportunities offered to children from one ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural group are identical to those available to all. Clearly, that isn’t true. But even though we all know and more or less accept that wealthy school districts are permitted (by law, I mean) to provide more for the students in their charge than poorer ones, we bristle at the thought that potential is tied to more than money. But that notion in turn only makes the question that this new book, called The Triple Package and published this week by Penguin Press, tries to answer more interesting: if we labor so assiduously to provide the same basic set of opportunities to all, why do some groups regularly outperform others. The authors write about Mormons, about the Miami Cubans, about Igbo Nigerian immigrants, about Indian and Chinese Americans…and, yes, about us, about Jewish Americans.  People don’t know what to do with these statistics partially because they feel more than a bit racially-motivated. It’s obviously more complicated than that, yet the data gathered seems to suggest clearly that the statistics are real and that membership in some groups simply does appear to provide a path towards academic success or, particularly, success in business that other groups do not, or perhaps cannot, provide. And the authors, both professors of law at Yale, have set out to figure out why that is.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for you. But I will say that it boils down to three things that all the groups that overachieve seem to have in common: a long, keenly felt history of victimization, an enduring, almost indelible sense of superiority, and the kind of remarkable stick-to-it-iveness that encourages working towards long-time goals over short-term ones. One way or the other, then, those three things—insecurity, arrogance, and the ability to favor the long view over the short one almost always—seem to constitute the triple threat that propels groups that have it to success and inhibits success in groups that lack it.  Other than the ability to work for long-term goals, these are not especially flattering traits. And yet the authors feel that it is all that the Igbos, the Mormons, the Miami Cubans, the Jews, and the other groups they identify as peculiarly successful have in common.

I don’t know many Mormons or Igbos. But when I apply these conclusions to our community…I find myself drawn back to my childhood. I think about the stories I was told in school and at home—tales of Pharaohs and Hamans, stories about the barbarism of the Crusaders, about the cruelty of Ferdinand and Isabella, about the horrors of the Cossack massacres of 1648 and 1649, about terrors of the Shoah—and I wonder if they didn’t provide that background of insecurity that Chua and Rubenfeld identify as one of the pillars of success. The second pillar—confidence born of an innate sense of superiority to one’s tormentors—that was also a feature of my Hebrew School education: each tale of disaster finished with our teacher—I remember particularly Mrs. Tripkowitz and Mrs. Bergman in this regard—with the teacher triumphantly pointing out that even despite the savagery and brutality to which our people were subjected by their oppressors…it was we, not they, who survived. They, we were endlessly reminded, are actually all gone. The ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrian Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Cossacks, the Nazis—all gone forever from the stage of history while our tiny people, the victims of unparalleled brutality at the hands of all of the above, endure throughout history as one after another of our foes perishes and vanishes. Was it that combination of victimhood and confidence that yielded the stick-to-it-iveness that in turn led to the remarkable success of so many Jewish Americans?  It’s hard to say…although I have to admit that there is something in the argument that is very resonant with me. I’ll read the book and report back to you! And if you read it, I’d love to know what you think too.

Can it last? Other than the Mormons, all the “triple package” groups the authors identify are primarily immigrant groups. That specific self-conception—as strangers in a strange land—cannot survive more than a generation or two. As we think of ourselves less and less as an immigrant group, will our remarkable number of Oscars and Nobels diminish concomitantly? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough!