Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mission at Nuremberg

I have occasionally mentioned the concept to you in these letters of the reductio ad absurdum, the idea that the truth of a statement can be successfully challenged by showing that it leads—logically and inexorably—to the affirmation of absurdity. How it works is simple. You start with a statement that could or could not be true. You then make a logical inference from that statement, then move on to infer something—logically and unavoidably—from that second inference. And so you move forward, step by step, inference by inference. If you eventually get to an absurd statement that obviously and undeniably cannot be true, then there are only two possibilities: either your logic was flawed somewhere along the line or else your original premise was untrue. To determine which is correct, you simply check your logic over and over. If the logic behind the progression of ideas proves impeccable but the arrived-at statement is still ridiculous and obviously untrue, then your original thesis has to have been false.

When talking abstrusely about theories and ideas within the context of the study of logic, it all sounds like a reasonable way to approach reality. But what about when the context is theology, not philosophy…when the original premise is not a simple statement that either is or isn’t true, but a dogmatic principle that the faithful pride themselves in believing as an expression of their religious faith? If you imagine, as I so vocally and strongly do not, that religious truths are simply not discussable in the same way that “regular” truths are, then I suppose the whole concept has no meaning at all—if the “proof” of the truth of a dogmatic principle is that someone believes it, then there really is nothing to talk about. (Among many others, that is one of the reasons I consider fundamentalism more silly than wicked.) But what if someone—someone like myself, for example—were not to believe that religious truths are somehow qualitatively different from “regular” truths, that things in this world can be unproven or even unprovable…but not both untrue and true at the same time? Could such a person successfully apply the reductio ad absurdum concept to spiritual beliefs?

That is the specific question that I was prompted—and prompted mightily and forcefully—to ask myself in the wake of reading Tim Townsend’s new book, Mission at Nuremberg. Published earlier this year by William Morrow, Townsend’s book is the story of the Reverend Henry Gerecke (pronounced to rhyme with “Cherokee”) and, to a much lesser extent, the Reverend Sixtus O’Connor, a Catholic priest. Reverend Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from Missouri, volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in 1943 at age fifty. At first, he was sent to Great Britain, where he ministered to wounded and very sick American and Allied soldiers. After D-Day in 1944, he was promoted to captain and sent to Europe. He ended up in Munich and personally ministered to the dead and dying in Dachau. And then, after V-E Day in 1945, he was asked if he would agree to serve as chaplain to the fifteen nominally Protestant Nazi officials who were going to be tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. He was also made to understand that, should the defendants be sentenced to death, he would be asked to remain in place until their executions. With great trepidation, Reverend Gerecke agreed to take on this assignment

 Father O’Connor was in much the same boat. Present at the liberation of Matthausen, he had been obliged to bury almost 3,000 prisoners in the three weeks following liberation and to give last rites before they died to another 2,000. Before the war, he had been a professor of classical languages at Siena College, a Catholic school in Loudonville, New York, near Albany. Yet he proved up to the job and, by all accounts acquitted himself admirably. And then the army asked if he would agree to serve as the Catholic chaplain to the six nominally Catholic defendants at Nuremberg.

Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler were, of course, dead at their own hands by then. But the men to be tried at Nuremberg were still the worst of the worst, war criminals in a category that the world had not only never known but could not possibly even have conceived of prior to the Second World War. Among Reverend Gerecke’s new congregants, for example, were Hermann Göring, the founder of the Gestapo and Hitler’s designated successor; Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production; Wilhelm Keitel, the general field marshal who was second only to Hitler in the German military hierarchy; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister. The others were no better, only, at least some of them, slightly less famous. That they were to be tried in a court of law rather than summarily executed merely for being who they were was itself a remarkable decision, one that, in my opinion, speaks highly both of American democratic values and commitment to fairness in justice above all: even these men were to be presumed innocent until they were proven guilty.

But Tim Townsend’s book is not about the propriety of the trials or the reasonableness of treating with fairness, equity, and justice men whose entire lives had been devoted to denying even the barest shred of fairness, equity, or justice to their own victims—and not just the six million martyrs of the House of Israel, but millions upon millions of others as well, each a victim in his or her own right of Nazi terror. On that specific topic, much has been written, most memorably (for me personally at least) Robert E. Conot’s 1993 book, Justice at Nuremberg. Many readers will surely recall seeing the 1961 movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, which starred Spencer Tracey, Burt Lancaster, and Judy Garland, and which was at the time a huge success—and not least of all because its release coincided with the execution in Israel of Adolph Eichmann. (Neither Reverend Gerecke nor Father O’Connor appears in the movie.) But the reasonableness or fairness of the Nuremberg trials—there were several different trials, all held in Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946—is not my topic for today.

One of the cornerstone principle of our Jewish faith is the power of t’shuvah, of repentance. For readers who know the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur well, this will come as no surprise. Indeed, our classical sources include a passage in which Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥmani attempts to explicate the verse from Psalm 69 in which the poet expresses his hope that his prayers be spoken at an auspicious moment and concludes that although the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes shut (which is why there are both auspicious and inauspicious moments for prayer), “the gates of repentance are always open.” And, indeed, that idea percolates through the liturgy to the extent that it feels almost like a commonplace notion. Even, the prayerbook declares, if an individual should return to God in repentance a single hour before his or her death…that penitent would be received in heaven as one free of sin. And which of us does not know by heart the famous passage in the U-n’taneh Tokef that declares that, along with prayer and acts of charity, t’shuvah has the ability to alter even more severe decree that may be decreed against a sinner in the heavenly court…and that this is so even if that verdict has already been recorded in the great Book of Life. 

We say that. We mean it. Or perhaps I should speak for myself. I say it and I really do mean it. I preach it as well, arguing, I hope forcefully, from the bimah that no past deed can stand in the way of the human spirit when, for once divested of arrogance and the need to self-justify, it embodies an individual’s return to God and to the ways of God. Readers who daven at Shelter Rock on the High Holidays have heard me say this a thousand times from the pulpit. It sounds right. It sounds basic, like the kind of dogmatic truth no one would ever think to deny. But today I approach it from a different vantage point, the one prompted by reading Townsend’s book: can the notion stand the reductio ad absurdum test?

It is, after all, one thing to say that people who have wilfully eaten unkosher food or been uncareful with Shabbat or ungenerous with the poor can renounce their sins and move forward towards a life in God. But if it is true that even the monsters on trial at Nuremberg were, in addition to everything else they were, human beings created in God’s image—do I truly believe that the power of t’shuvah was granted to them as well. 

The story of Reverend Gerecke’s work at Nuremberg was, in parts, hard to read without turning away. Knowing that he could only hope to bring his charges to a state of grace before their trials and their probable deaths by being friendly and forgiving, that was precisely how he behaved. He shook their hands. He spoke with them gently and kindly. He may have had Dachau and its execution mounds before his eyes always, but he knew that to succeed with these men he would have to bring them around to accepting the enormity of their crimes not by yelling at them or insulting them, but by holding out the promise—even for such men—of return, of forgiveness, of repentance, and of faith. And so that is what he did, inviting them to prayer services, offering to study the Bible with them, bringing them different kinds of books and pamphlets written to encourage faith and piety, and also cultivating relationships with the prisoners’ wives and children whenever possible.

And so I am left on the horns of a mighty dilemma. When I think of the degree to which the Nazis denied their victims even the most elemental justice, even the most basic trappings of human dignity or normalcy…and then force myself to imagine the Reverend Gerecke encouraging those victims’ murderers to come to chapel and renounce their evil ways…and to do so by promising that a renunciation of evil, even at the very last minute (like the prayerbook says), can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, to facing death secure in God’s mercy, to precisely the kind of inner peace that the Nazis labored to deny those whom they marked for destruction—I find myself nauseous with contempt for the whole tableau.  And yet, when I calm down, I find that I am able to ask myself the real question without flinching, or without flinching much: is the notion of treating the world’s greatest war criminals—the murderers of countless Jewish children—as potential penitents to whom the gates are never closed—is that the reductio ad absurdum that proves the ridiculousness of an idea that only sounds right when applied to fine and decent people such as ourselves who may have erred here and there in the course of a long year, but who are basically decent, good people in need of a bit of existential succor as a new year dawns and, with it, the prospect of starting fresh…if we can divest ourselves of the past year’s errors, sinful and otherwise.

Not being God, I do not have to decide how these things ultimately play out. I can’t imagine men like those executed at Nuremberg enjoying an eternity in paradise because they managed to renounce their sinful ways—as the Reverend O’Connor, by the way, specifically promised Hans Frank’s son Norman would be the case for his penitent father in a letter cited at length in the book—and yet it also seems impossible to imagine that the gates of t’shuvah aren’t really always open. Or that they are only open for some and not others. Or that different rules apply in this regard to Jews and non-Jews, all of whom bear God’s image and all of whom are God’s creatures. I suppose that if I force myself to take a stance, I would have to say that the Reverend Gerecke was right to do as he did, to encourage repentance and the renunciation of sin. How that eventually played out in the heavenly tribunal I think I also know…but whether that sense of the ultimate unforgiveability of unspeakable crimes against humanity makes it unreasonable to encourage even the most inveterate sinners to consider renouncing their evil ways, that is the part that remains unclear to me.  I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have had it in me to do as the reverend did. (I leave out the absurdity of imagining the US Army assigning a Jewish chaplain to the prisoners at Nuremberg, although that would have been a nice touch.)  But even though I know I couldn’t have done it…part of me is left admiring the man for his steadfastness, even as I am repulsed by the thought of these men knowing even a modicum of comfort as they made their way to the gallows.

I recommend Tim Townsend’s book to you all. The first few chapters—devoted to the history of the military chaplaincy and the story of the Reverend Gerecke’s pre-war life—are tedious and far too long. But once the story shifts to Nuremberg, the reading is riveting. I found myself challenged, and no less inspired than intensely irritated. What else could anyone ask for from a book about religion?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Crimean Non-War

In the wake of its apparent decision not to respond militarily to its own political dismemberment, the humiliation of the Ukraine is now complete. It feels easy to be outraged. Nor does last week’s referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted in favor of leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia, do much to lessen that sense of indignation. The bloodiest of all America’s wars, after all, was fought precisely over the right of a sovereign state to prevent by force the secession of any of its constituent regions…and most Americans—surely an overwhelming majority of Americans—feel that the Civil War was not only requisite if the nation was to endure, but also justified both politically and morally. (And we are talking about a monstrously blood conflict that took the lives of about 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians. By comparison, about 418,500 Americans died in the Second World War, which figure includes fewer than 2,000 civilians. But President Lincoln is not remembered as a warmonger, let alone a bloodthirsty one, but is consistently ranked as one of the three greatest American leaders, almost always vying for first place with Washington and FDR.) So it feels natural to respond with outrage to Vladimir Putin’s openly orchestrated effort to use the pro-Russian sentiment of the electorate as a fig leaf to grant at least some veneer of reasonability and justification to what would otherwise just have been an aggressive effort to seize somebody else’s property and annex it shamelessly and without regard for world opinion.

But that’s only one way of looking at the situation. And others are worth taking into account as well, particularly those that seem related to the way the world relates to Israel and its insistence that the Palestinians recognize the inherent Jewish nature of the state before any meaningful peace treaty be negotiated. One of the mysteries of political science is the random allotment of statehood to some ethnic groups but not to all. The Basques, the Chechens, the Lapps, the Inuit, the Roma, the Bretons, the Navaho, the Uighurs, the Ainu—all these are recognizable groups with their own cultures, their  own languages, their own senses of ethnic identity, but the world seems at peace with them having to make peace with being guests in someone else’s home permanently. (The Tibetans are the exception to the rule because plenty of people in the world actually do seem to care that Tibet was forcibly annexed by China in 1950…but, as the Chinese know all too well, Tibet is also the exception that merely proves the rule because, when all is said and done, words are cheap…and no one in the West is really ready to go to war with China to free Tibet, and least of all our own country.)

On the other hand, the world order has a place in it for extremely tiny nations. The 163,000 Lapps in northern Europe number more than five times as many as there are citizens of Liechtenstein, a country with full member-state status at the United Nations. I can make that point more clearly: there are two million ethnic Chechens in the world, which figure is greater than the population of ninety-four recognized nations in the world. (Palau, a member of the United Nations with the same one vote in the General Assembly as every other member, has a population of just under 20,000, about four times as many people as Forest Hills High School had students when I was in attendance.) In that light, it’s hard to argue that the Crimea, with a population of well over twice as many ethnic Russians than Ukrainians (58.32% vs. 24.32%, almost all the rest being Tatars), should categorically be permitted to chart its own course forward in terms of its national destiny. To ask the same question in other words: why should the Crimeans be Palauans when they could just as easily be Mohawks? That is the question that no one seems to be able to answer clearly or convincingly.

I wonder if any readers remember learning about the Crimean War back in high school. Does it jog your memory if I remind you that that was Florence Nightingale’s war?  I remember being very impressed as a teenager by the 1968 movie The Charge of the Light Brigade starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard, and going to the trouble—I was like this even then—of going to the library to get some books about the Crimean War so as better to appreciate the action in the movie and the background of its plot. (It really is a fabulous movie, by the way. If you have a chance to take a look, you won’t be disappointed.)  The background isn’t even all that complicated. On the one side were the French, the British, and the Turks. On the other side were the Russians. The whole thing had mostly to do with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the decision—which apparently seemed worth going to war over in the 1850s—of whether Russia or France was going to be designated the protectors of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population. When the Ottomans chose France, Russia went to war. So far, this had nothing to do with Crimea.  But then, in the spring of 1854, Britain and France went to war with the Russians (who had in the meantime invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, where modern-day Romania is). The Italians declared war the following year. And it was at that point that most of the fighting began to take place in Crimea.

Does this sound familiar? West and East are at loggerheads over who is going to exert the most pressure on people who really deserve just to be left alone. Russia is on one side. The Western powers, now joined by the United States, are on the other. Everybody claims to want nothing more than to protect the Ukraine…from each other. Why exactly the problem can’t be solved simply by letting the Ukraine be and everybody else just going home is simple to answer because this isn’t really about Ukraine and its territorial integrity at all. This is all about spheres of influence, rising and declining military and economic power, and who has the right to be recognized as the world’s most powerful nation or bloc of nations. It’s 1855 all over again!

Even more obvious is that no one really cares about the Crimeans themselves either. The large majority of residents are ethnic Russians, so why should Crimea be part of Ukraine? Crimea actually is part of Ukraine, so why can’t the Russians just accept that as placidly as they accept the existence of substantial numbers of Russians in the Baltic Republics? Or is that exactly where Putin is going to train his gaze after he’s done dismembering the Ukraine. What will be after that? Brighton Beach? You heard it here first!

But there really is a profound question here, and that has to do with the right of ethnic majorities to live in countries that conform to their own cultural values, language needs, religious sensitivities, and ethnic sympathies. And that specific version of the question brings me to Israel. The question of the occupied territories notwithstanding, the issue that seems the most vexing of all the problems that stand in the way of peace in the Middle East is really a philosophical one: do or do not the Jews of Israel, who together constitute more than three-quarters of the Israeli population, have the right to define their nation as a Jewish homeland, as one in which Jewish culture is deemed the national culture and others are welcome to exist…as minority cultures with protected rights but specifically not as the defining national culture? The Palestinians regularly balk at any suggestion that they recognize the inherent Jewishness of the State of Israel.  They seem, on the other hand, okay with Iran self-defining as an Islamic republic that at least on paper guarantees the rights of non-Muslims to live, if they wish, in an Islamic state and to practice their non-Islamic religions there.

And in that paradox lies my specific question: do ethnic majorities have the right to define the national culture of the countries in which they live or don’t they? No one disputes that Israel has an Arab minority. Some are Christians, although only about 122,000 out of more than 1,400,000. The rest are Muslims. None is Jewish. Yet the majority—acting, I believe, not out of imperialist disdain for others but out of a natural right of every nation to pursue its own national destiny as its citizens define it—has created a specifically Jewish state on the ground and, along with it, the expectations that minority groups accept the will of the majority.

And so we are caught on the horns of an interesting dilemma. Why shouldn’t the Crimeans choose their path forward? The American Revolution was “about” the right of a nation to self-define. The birth of Israel in 1948 was “about” the right of a nation to call itself into existence and to chart its own destiny culturally and politically. The same could be said of many other nations…but not of all groups that have nationalist aspirations. Our nation’s dithering response to the crisis is reflective of the ambivalence we feel about the whole question of who gets to decide when a nation, or part of a nation, is ready to decide its own destiny. History has somewhat arbitrarily awarded that right to some and denied it to others. Population doesn’t seem to matter. Geography, even less so. History, hardly at all. So we are left at loggerheads with ourselves: the American Revolution (people can secede from their own country) vs. the Civil War (secession is unlawful and can reasonably trigger war), the rights of nations to call themselves into existence vs. the rights of nations to preserve their territorial integrity at all costs, the reasonableness of using a national plebiscite to determine the will of the people vs. the unreasonableness of allowing the majority of citizens in one of  a nation’s regions simply to decide to leave their own country merely because they wish to go.

In the end, I think history—and justice—is on the side of majority rule. Small groups generally have to make their peace with being part of the larger societies in which they live. But when the majority of citizens seeks to change course and seek its destiny on its own, then I think that is how things should be. On the other hand, countries have the right to keep themselves united…and there was no visible sign of unrest among the residents of the Crimean Autonomous Republic until they were goaded into voting in a referendum more or less imposed on them by Russia. It is true that 97% of voters voted to rejoin Russia, but the kind of political re-assignment surgery that the Crimeans seem to favor has to be weighed against the right of a country to protect is borders and preserve its territorial integrity. The bottom line: the Ukraine has a right to hold itself together. That they’ve apparently caved in totally and allowed Russia to write their own foreign policy is either a sign of mature realism…or cowardice in the face of a very powerful neighbor. Which it is remains to be seen…but the path to nationhood, or even to political self-determination, has to be built on the evolutionary, ever-building desire to travel into a future of a people’s own devising…not a gift on a silver platter offered by an enormously powerful “friend” entirely focused on the pursuit of its own best interests. Those of us who favor a two-state solution in the Middle East are convinced that the Palestinians have earned the right to be masters in their own home…a right they share with Israelis and with the citizens of all legitimately-conceived nations.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Purim 2014

Purim is unusual in many different ways among the holidays of the Jewish year, but foremost among those ways has to be the festival’s twin themes of obscurity and arbitrariness.

The former is the one that people seem to notice naturally and easily. Queen Esther appears to be a pretty Persian girl who won a beauty contest, but she is really a Jewish girl whom Providence has set in place to save her people from destruction. Her uncle Mordechai appears to be some old guy hanging around the palace gate, but is really a watchful agent of redemption in his own right whose presence at the gate serves to provide Esther within the royal compound with a counterpart on the outside. Haman presents himself to the king as a zealous patriot concerned only with the king’s honor, but is actually a petty, mean-spirited blowhard whose motivation has solely to do with his personal need for self-aggrandizement. Even God’s watchful attendance of the events as they unfold is subtle and inconspicuous—the much-trumpeted detail that God’s name does not appear in the Book of Esther is meant to signal, not God’s disengaged absence from the events related in the narrative, but the subtlety of how things really do work in the world almost all the time: for every time a body of water parts in two to allow God’s people to pass between its watery walls (and there are, by the way, two instances in the Bible of that happening, not one), God intervenes in human affairs countless other times unobtrusively almost to the point of imperceptibility. With that theme, moderns can easily identify.

But I would like to write today about Purim’s other unique theme, the one that seems much less regularly to attract people’s attention or easily to suggest its worth as a spiritual value. Arbitrariness, after all, has a poor reputation in the world out there—perhaps not as poor as its even less esteemed first cousins, indecisiveness and equivocation, but poor nonetheless…and the last thing anyone would normally expect to be featured prominently in a book that purports to be “about” God’s forceful, if understated, role in human affairs in general and in Jewish history in particular is the concept of randomness or arbitrariness. And yet...there it is. The very name of the holiday itself is meant to be suggestive of the concept: the word purim is presented as a Persian word in the biblical text, which immediately pauses to translate it into “real” Hebrew: “In the first month, that is the month of Nisan, of the twelfth year of King Aḥashveirosh’s reign, he cast pur—what is called goral in Hebrew—before Haman, passing from day to day and from one month to the twelfth month, the month of Adar.”  Purim is just the plural of pur, just as one throws lots (also in the plural) by putting a lot of lots in the lottery.

There’s a lot packed into that little verse. (Hah!) Who the “he” is who cast the lots is not obvious, although we can easily enough imagine the presence in the palace of some official augur whose job description included being in charge of that specific task. But what the pur itself was, we are clearly not expected to know—that’s why the text immediately translates the term into “real” Hebrew. But what exactly is a goral? That too is part of the riddle. And hidden in the answer to that simple question is a key to unlocking the greater meaning of Purim…and particularly for post-moderns like ourselves unsure where exactly to seek evidence of God’s governance of the world.

The word goral appears seventy-four times in Scripture.  Mostly, it denotes a technique to make a simple choice between two things by not formally making one at all. On Yom Kippur, a goral is cast to determine which of the two goats is to be the people’s sin offering and which is to be sent off to Azazel, the wilderness from which it will not return and in which its death will atone for the unknown, thus unacknowledged, sins of the people. The details were simple. Two pieces of ebony wood (eventually these were replaced with lots made of gold)  were put in a wooden box called a kalpi that was large enough for the High Priest to put both his hands in at once. They would then put the two goats before the priest, one to his right and one to his left, whereupon he would reach into the box with both his hands and take out the two pieces of wood or metal, one of which had the words “For God” written on it and one that read “For Azazel.” The whole thing turned on which lot ended up in which of his hands: the lots in his left and right hands were applied to the goats to his left and his right respectively.

Later in Scripture, the Torah indicates that the specific parcels of land in Israel are to be awarded to the tribes using a system of lots that will allow Joshua to assign out parcels of land to the tribes of Israel without having to choose between them. (How exactly the system ended up offering the larger tribes the larger parcels of real estate—which Scripture makes clear was both logical and also what actually did happen—became the subject of a long, complicated debate between commentators, but perhaps the riddle is its own answer: the proof that divvying up the land by lots was being done with God’s assent—and, indeed, at God’s command—was reflected in an outcome that awarded more space to larger tribes.) And, indeed, the Book of Joshua describes in detail how this all worked, referencing the concept again and again as it describes the apportionment of the land following the defeat of the Canaanites.

Better known than that, however, will be the use of lots in the story of Jonah—also a feature of the Yom Kippur experience, and possibly for just that reason—in which the sailors on Jonah’s ship, unsure who has attracted the divine wrath reflected in the storm threatening to sink their ship. How exactly this is accomplished, the book does not specifically say, simply explaining that “they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.”

The key concept in all these stories is arbitrariness, but it points in each story in a slightly different direction. The goats were identical, but were to have entirely different destinies…and the use of lots was meant to underscore that the whole ritual was meant to be symbolic, that this wasn’t about the goats at all but about the people on whose behalf they would be offered up. All of the Land of Israel is God’s eternal gift to all the tribes of Israel…but the tribes had to settle somewhere if they were to retain their tribal identity…and so the land was parceled out entirely arbitrarily to stress the point that, for all the gift of specific real estate to specific tribes was requisite, it was not to be allowed to obscure the fact that the entire country was the entire nation’s patrimony.  The sailors on Jonah’s boat were, at least by self-definition, God-fearing men, but they could not look into each other’s souls…and so the lots were meant to place the matter squarely in God’s hands.

And that brings us to Esther. Haman casts the lots—or someone does—and the month of Adar comes up entirely arbitrarily. (This is all taking place, the story makes clear, almost a year in advance.) Then he (or whoever) casts the lots again and the specific date for the pogrom comes up. The king, ever eager to please, agrees to Haman’s request. And that settles it—the annihilation of the Jews of Persia is scheduled and, as all readers of Esther know, even the king of Persia cannot rescind his own decree. Here, arbitrariness points us, however, in a different direction. We want things to be predetermined. We like to fantasize that the definition of being God-fearing people is to accept that our destinies are in God’s hand, that we only imagine ourselves to the masters of our own destinies but that really, ultimately, we are only putty in God’s hands. We say, of course, that we want to be independent players, that we want to be the captains of our own ships, that we want to chart our own courses in life. But hiding behind all that self-absorbed bluster is the secret desire we all harbor not to be responsible for our own actions, not to have to bear the brunt of the blame when we fail to achieve the goals we ourselves have set, not to have to acknowledge ourselves as free agents who bear full responsibility for what we do in the world and what we fail to do.

Against all that is our belief, equally indefensible, that we can control the world by behaving one way or another, that we can fight back the dark tides of anti-Semitism merely by embracing our faith all the more strongly.  We fantasize that we are behaving worthily by supposing that we can govern the world by embracing the commandments and being even more steadfast in our resolve to keep them faithfully. That too, we all know, does not quite work as we all wish it did. But what would be the alternative? It is to that question that Purim provides the answer.

As another Purim is almost upon us, we would do well to face things as they are in this world…and to find peace and wisdom in the insecurity that doing so inevitably engenders. There is, Purim teaches us obliquely, a certain arbitrariness to the universe. Things happen, including bad things. The ancients put it pithily: ha-olam k’minhago noheig, the world spins merrily along whether we like it or not. That we would all like to come to faith from a position of strength—by believing that if we only believe intently and convincingly enough we will somehow bend the world to our will—is obvious enough, but the true path to Jerusalem rests in coming to faith imbued not with security but with insecurity, not hypnotized by the fantasy that can defeat our foes by eating enough matzah or shaking our lulavim vigorously enough, but sobered by our final recognition that we can only pray for God’s mercy…and, as the psalm says, by making strong and brave our hearts with trust in God’s ability to save.

In the end, the Jews of Shushan knew joy and gladness. The Jews of Vilna, on the other hand, knew almost total extermination. Were the former better people than the latter? Did they deserve their salvation more than their co-religionists would later on in Riga or Warsaw or Lodz? The key to Purim is not to embrace this story so tightly that it shuts out all the other ones that ended tragically…but to embrace the pur, the arbitrary nature of all human life that makes it not only rational but spiritually and emotionally requisite to face the future filled with hope…in God’s power to save, in the destiny of the Jewish people to survive, in the willingness of the world to act honorably and decently. To take that hope and to embrace it, but without also believing that we can rule history by so doing—that is the great lesson Purim holds out to the faithful.<

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

There are obvious differences between fiction and non-fiction, but the very best books in both genres have the same capacity to stop you in your tracks, to ask you if you really think what you’ve always thought you thought, if you even know what it is you’re talking about when you parrot some line you heard somewhere and accepted as cogent without really giving the matter anywhere near enough thought even to be entitled to an opinion. The books that have that kind of effect on me are generally works of fiction, but today I wish to write about a non-fiction book that, at least for me, has left me stunned…both by the author’s erudition and talent, but also by my own naiveté. The book is Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published earlier this year by Henry Holt and Co., and it really did take my breath away.

There have, it turns out—and here begins my descent into candor: how could I possibly not have known this?—there have been in the last half billion years, five so-called extinction events in which most kinds of living creatures on earth stopped existing entirely. It’s true that I somehow didn’t take Earth Science in high school—I vaguely recall having to choose between that and German—but, even so, these seem like big events for me to have passed by me so easily. I had, I think, vaguely heard of the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, which occurred about 252 million years ago and brought about the extinction of 96% of all sea creatures and about 70% of all land animals. (What triggered it, no one knows…but the smart money seems to be on some sort of massive volcanic activity.) The Cretaceous-Paleogene Event, I actually do remember reading about, possibly in the wake of seeing Jurassic Park when it came out in 1993—it occurred a mere sixty-six million years ago and, almost definitely brought about by what scientists delicately now call an “impact event” of some sort (probably a comet or an asteroid crashing into earth): this was the one that killed off the dinosaurs, or at least the ones that could fly and all land-based ones larger than modern-day cats. But the others? How could I never have heard of the Ordovician-Silurian Mass Extinction Event? (It’s not like it was a catastrophe on the scale of a tsunami or an earthquake that took the lives of thousands or tens of thousands: this was an event as a result of which sixty percent of all living creatures on earth died. The cause is unknown.) The other two—the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction Event and the Late Devonian—I also never heard of. Scientists are still arguing—and strenuously—about the details. Were these really separate events or all part of some ongoing, planet-life-long unfolding process of extinction and rebirth? Were they accidental—in the sense that they could also not have happened—or is the regular elimination of almost all living species part of what it means for life itself to evolve? Did the eventual appearance of human beings come about because of these events or despite them? And then the biggest question of all: are we done with all that…or do we need to consider the future of humanity in terms related to these events?

It would be easy not to care. The most recent extinction event took place, as noted, sixty-six million years ago, but the next-most-recent one occurred more than 130 million years before that. That feels like a very long time ago and suggests that, whatever the future brings, it will bring it along in such an unfathomably long time from now that it seems ridiculous to worry about it. (To put that thought in perspective, our own species, Homosapiens, has apparently been around for about 35,000 years, of which recorded history constitutes about the last ninth.) It all seems impossibly arcane…or rather that is how it probably would have seemed to me before I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, which I recommend to you all as truly challenging and very engaging. She’s also an excellent writer, which makes her book as much a pleasure to read as it is sobering—and beyond sobering—to contemplate.

Her thesis, all the more shocking for being put forward so clearly, is that we have something very real to worry about, that we are actually in the midst of a sixth extinction event, one she calls the “Anthropocene” because (as she meticulously and convincingly explains) it has been brought about solely by human activity. (The term itself was actually coined decades ago by the Dutch chemist, Paul Crutzen. But she makes it her own!) That alone makes this “sixth event” unique, obviously. But it also opens the door to wondering if we are bit players in a pageant so complex and so endlessly long that none of us could ever even begin to fathom the larger picture of what it means for us to live here on earth…or if we who have done this thing can now possibly also undo it.

Some of what Kolbert writes about, we mostly all know about, but, even so, what she has to say about issues like the shrinking down of the polar ice caps or the long-term effects of our willingness to dump more than 90 million tons of gaseous waste into the atmosphere daily is beyond shocking actually to read set out in plain language. Moreover, a lot of what she has to say was completely new to me. (To whet your appetite, you can read the transcript of a very interesting discussion she recently had with Washington Post writer Brad Plumer in which she explains what was hoping to accomplish by writing this book by clicking here if you are reading this electronically.) She writes anecdotally, drawing her readers in by allowing them to discover along with her what she’s learned about the world in the course of her research. Crucially, she distinguishes nicely between the kind of ongoing extinction and appearance of animal species that seems to constitute an ongoing, normal part of life on earth, and the kind of massive, entirely unprecedented extinction rate that is presently occurring among the earth’s fauna. And the book is also a complicated but very engaging travelogue as well in which the author takes her readers along on her trips to Greenland, New Guinea, Africa, Europe, and South America.

The reviews have been excellent. (I can particularly recommend the reviews by Al Gore that appeared in the New York Times and by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, that appeared in the Washington Post. If you’re reading this electronically, click here for the Gore review and here for Michael Roth’s.) The book is informative and well written, but the overriding emotion that readers will bring away from the book is one of grave responsibility: Kolbert cites the work of entomologist E. O. Wilson to the effect that in two centuries we have reduced biological diversity on our planet to the lowest level since the Cretaceous Period scores of millions of years ago. If readers don’t fully understand the ramifications of that thought and its implications for the future of the human race, they certainly will by the time they’re done reading.

I’m occasionally asked if I don’t find all this kind of geological speculation disconcerting given the fact that I’ve basically devoted my entire adult life to preaching the eternal value of a book that imagines the entire creation of the world and all its species to have taken place in six days. I can understand why it might seem that I should. But the reality is that I don’t find it unsettling at all. Just the opposite, actually—I find in encouraging to think that the relentless search for truth in all matters that characterizes human culture at its finest continues in our day to animate some of our finest thinkers by leading them to consider and reconsider the most basic questions of all: where we come from, how we got here, what we can learn from the past, where we could conceivably be going in the future, and what role humanity is destined—not doomed—to play in the pursuit of its own ultimate destiny. Ancient books use the tools of the ancients—primarily mythological theorizing, which our own forebears had the innovative idea of suffusing with the deepest faith in the reality of a Creator God, and lyrical spirituality—to explore these ideas and they succeeded admirably in creating a body of texts that have endured not for centuries but for millennia as testimony to human literary creativity. Medieval books focused the works of those ancients through their own perceptive prisms to grant them currency in a new age by allowing them to morph forward into ever more sophisticated iterations of their earlier versions. Moderns, and particularly our greatest scientists, are doing the same thing—responding to the questions people were struggling to answer thousands of years ago by creating new disciplines—in this specific case, particularly paleontology and osteoarcheology—-to provide new answers to ancient riddles.

I don’t find that irritating or upsetting. If anything, I find it challenging to see the task being passed to us, the task of taking these fabulously interesting theories about the history of the planet and suffusing them with our ongoing, ineradicable faith in God the Creator. As I never seem to tire of observing both on and off the bimah, every true statement by definition must be congruent with every other true statement. As a result, it hardly behooves us to ignore people who, possessed of remarkable insight into the nature of things, invite us to view the universe in a brand-new way.

At Shelter Rock, we have undertaken a “Green Initiative” to promote ecological awareness and activism in our community. Nothing that is or will be proposed is going to speak directly to the disappearance of the great auk, the last remaining one of which was strangled by egg-hunters in Iceland in 1844, or the decline of the great coral reefs that Kolbert writes about so passionately. And yet…once you start thinking in global terms or start imagining the history of the planet in terms of geological eons, you really can only proceed down one of two roads. You can find anything we do to be of such infinitesimal insignificance so as to make any effort on behalf of the world and its fauna or flora sound and feel ridiculous. Or you can decide to do…something. You won’t change the world. You won’t even affect it all that much. You certainly won’t bring back the auk. But you’ll have made yourself into a player, into someone who, not content to go down with the ship without at least attempting to survive, did what he or she could to avert the Sixth Extinction that Elizabeth Kolbert says is already well underway…but which could also—somehow, possibly—be reversed by the very same people responsible for bringing it about in the first place.

There’s a famous midrash that features imagines God taking Adam on the tour of the garden and showing him all the trees and plant life. “I’ve made all this for you,” God soothingly tells the first human, before getting to the real point. “Take care not to wreck it,” God continues, “because there simply won’t be anyone to repair it if you do.” There’s a certain naïve charm to that midrash…but behind the charm there is a monitory tone that we would be wrong to pass by too quickly. What Elizabeth Kolbert would make of such a text, I don’t know…but I can guess. “You made this mess,” I can imagine her saying. “And you can at least try to clean it up.”