Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chanukah 2014

As many of you know, we had a remarkable guest at Shelter Rock last week. Both performance pieces by Helen Gottstein, originally of Australia but now for many years a proud Israeli (and a neighbor of ours in Jerusalem), were excellent and very well received, but it was a sequence in her second presentation that suggested to me the topic I wish to write to you all about this week. And it’s a Chanukah-based point at that! (Non-Shelter-Rockers reading this who might be interested in bringing Helen to perform in their communities can find out more on her website at I think I can promise you that you won’t be disappointed!)

The Shabbat afternoon performance was called “Four Faces of Israel” and featured Helen depicting the same basic set of issues as seen and interpreted by four different women of today’s Jerusalem. There was no introduction at all, though, and she just started speaking as a ḥareidi woman from one of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities. People who attended Friday evening obviously understood that she was acting. But at least some who were present on Saturday but who hadn’t been there the night before didn’t realize that this was an act and took her actually to be the woman she was portraying…and, not fully seizing that this was theater, responded vigorously to some of the things she said, and particularly to her sharp comments about the legitimacy of the secular government of Israel in this unredeemed, pre-messianic world. Her argument—or rather, her character’s argument—was a familiar one: that, because the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is meant only to come on the other side of the redemptive moment, the establishment of a secular Jewish state will only impede and can in any event surely not hasten the dawn of redemption. By definition, she said, a secular government in Israel established and sustained through human effort is an abomination; the legitimate government will be the one established by a messiah of the House of David sent to gather in the exiles, to preside over the resurrection of the dead, and to usher the world into the state of post-messianic salvation promised by the prophets of old.

We’ve all heard that before. But it struck me while listening to her that there could be an interesting way to respond that actually is fully rooted in our tradition, one that has to do with the story of Chanukah as it is often told…or rather mistold.  I wrote about this detail in a letter to you all about five years ago, but now I see it in a new light…and so I would like to write about it again now and draw a new conclusion as a way of responding to the argument put forward by Helen’s ḥareidi woman character.

Everybody knows at least the basic outline of the story of the miracle of Ḥanukkah. The Temple had been desecrated by the minions of the evil King Antiochus. Finally, after a great battle and at the cost of many live, the Maccabees soundly defeated the king’s armies and retook Jerusalem. Their first job, of course, was to re-establish the ongoing service in the Temple that functioned in ancient times as the core of Jewish worship, as the living symbol of ongoing Jewishness in the world. This was a complex undertaking and there were obviously many different parts to this effort, but the most potent symbolically was the rekindling of the great candelabrum that stood housed in the chamber just to the east of the Holy of Holies. In that sanctum stood three sacred appurtenances: the aforementioned candelabrum (that is, the golden m’norah), the table upon which rested the showbread that was changed from week to week, and the golden incense altar. Each was a potent symbol in its own right and each was restored by the conquering heroes. But it was specifically with respect to the rekindling of the golden m’norah that the story of the Ḥanukkah miracle unfolded.

The m’norah had to be lit with pure olive oil that had been bottled under the supervision of the High Priest. The oil was kept in small jugs, each able to hold one day’s worth of oil. And this is where the story as preserved in our ancient sources deviates from the way the story is almost always told. In both versions, the trigger to the miracle is the discovery of one single jug of oil still bearing the seal of the High Priest. That was good…but not quite good enough: it took a full week to prepare olive oil in the specific way that guaranteed its ritual acceptability but there was now in reserve only enough oil for a single day, and so a miracle was wrought to symbolize God’s willing participation in the rededication of the Temple. But what exactly was that miracle? As told to me as a boy, and as repeated by myself to countless Nursery and Hebrew School children, the miracle had to do with the oil: they kindled the golden m’norah and then, instead of burning up and out, the oil somehow diminished only slightly that first day, then a little more the next day, and a little more the day after that. In fact, the oil burnt down so slowly that by the time it actually was all gone, enough time had passed for new oil to have been successfully prepared. The m’norah, representing God’s holy presence in that place, remained lighted.

The only problem is that that is specifically not how the story is told in the Talmud, its sole ancient source. In that version of the story, the miracle has to do with the jug that was only large enough to hold one day’s supply of oil. Yet, when they poured the oil out into the cups of the m’norah, there was somehow still oil left in the clay jug. And so they poured it out a second day, then a third. This went on for eight whole days, the magic jug never running dry even though it was only large enough—or rather it only looked large enough from the outside, something like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag—to hold enough oil for one single day. It was the jug itself that was the focus of the miracle then, not really the oil: the point isn’t that this was magic oil that burnt and burnt without burning up, but that this was a magic jug out from which oil could be poured over and over without the jug ever running dry.

So who cares? They’re not the same, the popular and ancient versions…but surely they’re close enough for the difference to be unimportant. But, as Flaubert wrote, God lives in the details and the effort to parse this specific detail leads, circuitously but not unconvincingly (I hope), to a way to respond to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady and her harsh dismissal of the legitimacy of the modern State of Israel and its democratically-elected government.

We’ve heard of that magic jug before! Shul-Jews will know it from the haftarah for the Torah portion called Va-yeira. More literary types will know it from the beginning of the fourth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. But in any event the story concerns a poor widow who, confronted by debts she could not manage, implored the prophet Elisha for help. (Once the premier disciple of Elijah, at this point in the biblical narrative Elisha is a prophet in his own right possessed of the ability almost supernaturally to help people—later on this same chapter, he resurrects a dead child and restores the boy to his mother—and to do good in the world.) And help her he does! She reports that all she has in the house of any value is a jug of oil, whereupon Elisha tells her to go to all her neighbors and to borrow as many pots and jars as she can. Then, when she returns home, he instructs her to pour the oil from her single jug into one of the borrowed pots. She does so, but there is still oil left in the jug so she pours what’s left into a second pot. Or she thinks that’s what she’s doing, but it turns out that there is still oil left in the jug! You see where this is going, I’m sure. She fills up all the many borrowed pots, the oil not running out until the very last pot was filled to the brim. And then Elisha solves her problem easily: “Sell the oil,” he tells her, “and pay off your debtors…and you and your children can live on the rest!”

After the reign of King Solomon, the Jewish kingdom split in two. The biblical historians are united in their estimation of this development: the southern kingdom of Judah—with its David-descended king and its capital at Jerusalem—was legitimate, and the northern kingdom of Israel was illegitimate and ought not to have existed. That opinion is expressed countless times in Scripture…but there’s a problem: on at least three separate occasion an authentic prophet of God appears nonetheless to confer legitimacy on the non-David-descended king of the north, thus implying divine acquiescence to the reign of a king whose kingdom should not have existed in the first place. And one of those prophets was none other than Elisha ben Shafat, the very man of God who wrought the original miracle with the jug of oil. (Nor is there any ambiguity in the story: Elisha is depicted as sending his own disciple to anoint one Jehu ben Nimshi as king of Israel with the specific, unambiguous words “Thus saith the Lord: I anoint you king of Israel.”)

And why would the rabbis have sought to tell a story about Chanukah that brought Elisha to mind? The answer rests on a detail that most of my readers will probably not know: that after the Maccabees were done being war heroes and Temple restorers, then became sufficiently enamored of their own authenticity and self-arrogated authority to declare themselves kings of Israel…despite the fact that they were kohanim of the tribe of Levi and not descendants of David at all. By bringing Elisha subtly to the story, then, the rabbis were crafting a kind of a response to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady. The Maccabees weren’t “real” kings of Israel, they are saying almost clearly, just usurpers who arrogantly and illegally wore a crown they had set upon their own heads. (Maccabean kingship didn’t last that long either—only about forty years, starting in about 104 BCE.) But they were, the rabbis are signalling subtly, to be remembered for the good they wrought, not for their sinful hubris. They were, therefore, somehow inauthentic without being fully illegitimate and the moral of the story is that the day-to-day governance of the nation can sometimes unfold outside the specific path forward to the great day of national redemption of which the prophets spoke, a path which only the naïve will imagine was not going to have any detours at all along the way.

And that is what I would say to Helen’s irritating lady. Yes, I would say, it’s true: the government of Israel is led by individuals who were chosen not by God but by the voting populace. Their decisions are made not by rabbis, let alone by prophets, but by the leaders the people have set at their helm in positions of power and trust. The will of the people, as in any democracy, is thus the guiding force in the governance of the nation, even when it is impossible (which is all the time) to know if specific decisions made do or don’t correspond precisely to the will of God. Just like the Maccabees in ancient times, the government of modern Israel exists without reference to the great redemptive narrative that has always guided, and which continues to guide, the fortunes of the Jewish people in a generally hostile world.  Yet, despite that, it is a force for great good, a government of the people that reflects the national will of Israel in a way no self-appointed leader ever truly could. And that is the specific lesson Elisha steps invisibly—but not entirely unreally—into the Chanukah story to teach. It’s a lesson the ḥareidi population of Israel and their fellow-travelers elsewhere in the world would do well to learn: sometimes the good of the people rests in what is good for the people, not in the details of the cosmic endgame towards which the House of Israel ever strives.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Basic Law

A few weeks ago, on November 23, the Israeli cabinet by a vote of 14 to 6 approved a piece of draft legislation called “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish people” that calls for the establishment of a so-called “Basic Law” that would establish the essential Jewish nature of the state as the legal foundation upon which all other governmental policies would thence forth have to rest.

For most of us looking in from the outside, the intense, emotional debate regarding the proposal that then ensued seems, to say the least, like a lot of fuss over nothing at all. Isn’t Israel already a Jewish state? (When someone uses the expression “the Jewish state” to refer to one of the countries of the world, after all, does anyone have to wonder which specific country is being referenced?) Nor is this just a convention of modern speech: the Declaration of Independence promulgated by the nascent nation’s leadership in 1948 referred specifically to “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” And then, getting even more precisely to the crux of the matter, independence was declared using the following words: “Accordingly, we, members of the People’s Council, representative of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel to be known as the State of Israel.” How much clearer could they have been with respect to the Jewish nature of the Jewish state they were attempting to establish in the Jewish homeland?  (If you are reading this electronically, you can access the full text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, still stirring even after all these years, by clicking here.) And so we come to this week’s riddle: if the Jewish nature of the state is formally and unambiguously embedded in the declaration that established the nation’s independence, then how could it possibly be a matter of controversy for Israel now, sixty-six years later, to affirm in law that aspect of the state’s essential nature?

Nor, for the record, do the supporters of the proposed legislation see themselves as opposing the intent of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, just the opposite is the case: the second paragraph of the proposed Basic Law specifically says that its purpose is “to secure the character of Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish people in order to codify…the values of Israel as a Jewish democratic state in the spirit of the principles of its Declaration of Independence.” (To see the full text of the proposed law, click here.) And that brings us to our second riddle (which is really just a secondary version of the first): if the proposed Basic Law merely resumes and re-asserts the ideals set forward in the founding document of the state, then why would anyone consider it controversial or provocative?

Nothing in Israel is ever so simple, however. There is, for example, wide-spread expectation is that the Prime Minister will personally alter the current text of the proposal before submitting it to the Knesset so as formally to guarantee the civil rights of all Israeli citizens. (The proposal itself already includes a clause that reads that “each resident of Israel, without regard to his religion or nationality, shall be entitled to strive for the preservation of his culture, heritage, language, and identity.” So the PM’s addition would just be a way of underscoring an idea already included in the text of the proposed legislation that also appears explicitly and unequivocally in the Declaration of Independence as well.) Yet, in the warp and woof of that specific issue—the one of the basic compatibility or irreconcilability of a nation’s core concept of itself as possessed of a specific ethic character and its commitment to function as a democracy in which no citizen’s right to cultural or spiritual self-expression is any different than any other’s—in that specific issue rests the core of the controversy that has erupted in many different circles regarding the essential defensibility of the proposal and its reasonableness.

On the face of it, nations in our world are routinely awarded the right to self-define in terms of national culture. Iran self-defines as an Islamic Republic and the world seems fine with that. That seems reasonable in light of the fact that 99.3% of the population in Iran actually is Muslim, but what about the case of European countries that similarly self-define as the homeland of their largest ethnic group yet where the percentage of actual people belong to that nation’s eponymous ethnicity is far lower? I read a very interesting essay in the Washington Post last week by Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, in which he reported that there are seven European Union countries that themselves have “nationhood” clauses in their constitutions that declare that country to be the homeland of its largest ethnic group. By way of example, he points at the constitution of Latvia, which speaks unambiguously about “the unwavering will of the Latvian nation to have its own State and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture….” That sounds relatively non-controversial, but the numbers suggest that otherwise could or should be the case: more than 99 out 100 Iranians may be Muslim, but only 62% of the population of Latvia are ethnic Latvians—a number that compares interestingly to the more than three-quarters of the Israeli population that is Jewish. Yet the world seems irritated neither with Latvia nor with Iran for self-defining in terms of their national culture…but only with Israel for attempting to enshrine its national mission to promote its own ethnic heritage in law.

In many ways, Kontorovich writes, Israel is more liberal than its EU critics. The head of state of Israel, for example, is not required by law to be Jewish—and, indeed, Majalli Wahabi, a Druze, served as Acting President of Israel briefly in 2007—but that is not the case in the twenty-two other countries that specifically do require by law that their head of state subscribe to a particular religion. (Of those countries, seventeen require that the head of state be a Muslim.) And in addition to those nations, another nineteen require that their ceremonial (i.e., not-formally-political-power-wielding) monarchs be of a specific religion…and in that group are included such bastions of human-rights-based democracy as the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. So that would make a total of forty-one countries that insist that their prime minister, president, or sovereign represent the faith that that nation wishes to recognize as its own…a recognition that simply ignores the fact that, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, every one of those countries has large or small minority groups among its citizens who are not of that religion at all.  If you are reading this electronically, you can read the two parts of Professor Kontorovich’s article by clicking here and here.)

I suppose part of the question has to do with the image of a nation as the aggregate of its citizenry. When one of Israel’s great poets, Amir Gilboa, wrote about the process that led to Israeli independence in 1948, for example, he didn’t choose to describe the process in terms of national or international politics, but instead as the awakening of the nation to the realization of its own existence: “It sometimes happens that a man awakens one morning with a start,” he wrote, “and realizes that he is a nation, then begins to walk as he calls out in peace to all he meets.”  And because we all think of nations in that way—as the large and complex version of the individual—we naturally attribute the same human rights to nations that we do to people, the rights to self-definition, self-determination, and cultural self-expression foremost among them.  It is precisely in that sense that it feels natural and normal for the United Kingdom to self-define in terms of its national church and to require its monarch serve as the titular head of that church. (Among her many titles, Queen Elizabeth has the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.) And it is in that same sense that it feels reasonable for so many nations, in Europe and elsewhere, to self-define in terms of their national heritage: it feels normal for the Spanish Constitution to make Spanish the nation’s only official language, even though I’m sure that irritates those many citizens of Spain whose mother tongues are Catalan or Basque. They live with it, I suppose. What else? So too the Bretons in France and countless other ethnic groups housed in nations whose majority culture they do not share.

Given the world’s willingness to accept the right of nations to self-define in terms of their majority culture, the avalanche of criticism levied at Prime Minister Netanyahu for endorsing the legislation and offering to bring it to the Knesset for approval is hard to explain…and particularly coming, as so much of it does, from nations that themselves openly and unabashedly self-define in terms of their national culture. Israel could not be clearer in terms of its commitment to safeguard the rights of its minorities. (It bears mentioning in this regard, that the Palestinian state that France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, and Sweden seem so eager to recognize that even the fact that it doesn’t actually exist is no deterrentthat that state specifically plans not to permit Jews to live within its boundaries as a protected minority group: why else would they care so fiercely about the presence of Jewish settlements in a future Palestinian state given that their residents would represent less than 10% of the population? By way of comparison, Arabs constitute 20% of the population of Israel.)

In my opinion, hiding behind the ferocious opposition in so many quarters to the Basic Law is uncertainty whether Israel has the right to exist at all. Why else would its right to self-define culturally or linguistically be so contentious an issue? 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two Solitudes

Like all of you, I’m sure, I was still trying to digest the news from Ferguson, Missouri, when I heard that another grand jury—this one far closer to home in Staten Island—had declined to indict a white policeman who caused the death of a black citizen.  Do these decisions indicate that the system is working well, that citizens are successfully resisting pressure from without so as to reach conclusions that they consider rational and fair? Or do they constitute a sign that the system is corrupt and broken, that the criminal justice system simply evaluates the worth of the lives of some citizens differently than the lives of others? It’s easy to find people who believe both those things, and fervently. Having no specific information about either case other than what I’ve read in the newspaper, I am hardly writing today to bring any new facts to light. But I do think that there are lessons to be learned about life in our American republic both from these decisions…but even more so from the responses to them.

A reasonable case could certainly be made that the system in both states, Missouri and New York, worked properly and exactly as planned by our nation’s founders. The state presented evidence to a grand jury that it felt warranted putting a citizen on trial. Deliberations took a very long time—twenty-five days over a period of three months in Missouri and about six weeks in New York—and finally the members of the grand jury, determining that the evidence shown to them was not sufficiently compelling to warrant proceeding to trial, declined to indict. As far as the criminal justice system goes, the matter ends when the people speak. (There have, however, been reports that federal officials are investigating whether the police officers’ actions deprived Eric Garner and Michael Brown of their civil rights, in which cases they may well decide to pursue the matter in federal court.)

This being a republic governed by law and not a totalitarian dictatorship, the power of the police becomes dramatically lessened once someone enters the court system and the reality—the happy reality—is that people in our great land specifically do not disappear into the gulag never to be heard from again because the government suspects them of having committed a crime. Indeed, the power quickly passes to the people in such matters: the police are in charge of conducting criminal investigations, but the people—represented in this context by the grand jury—are charged with coming to their own conclusion about the reasonableness of trying accused individuals in courts of law. The power of the state is thus formally and legally made subordinate to the will of the people, which is exactly how things are supposed to function in a society in which, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the government is defined as being of, by, and for the people. So you could ask why it is that everybody is so upset. The people exercised its prerogative to swim against the tide in both courtrooms…and that disinclination to behave in the expected way surely may be interpreted as a sign of a very healthy democracy populated by citizens secure in their rights, men and women who do not see or wish to see themselves as servants of the government or its officials…much less as marionettes who have no choice but to raise their arms when their handlers pull their strings.

Both decisions were nevertheless received poorly in many quarters, and that really is to say the very least. Indeed, many ended up thinking that these cases somewhat paradoxically serve merely to show just how powerless at least some segments of the “people” actually are…and concomitantly how powerful the police and the government. Tempers flared. Demonstrations, some more akin to riots, ensued and continue to ensue. A general sense of despair, frustration, and ill ease has descended on the nation, albeit for different reasons in different quarters, and there it rests and will rest, I fear, for some time. I think it would be fair to say that no one, except perhaps the personally exonerated individuals in both cases, feels too satisfied at this point with either decision. Particularly in the Staten Island case—a case in which the unarmed victim was hugely outnumbered by armed police officers and was committing (or rather was perceived by police officers on the scene to be committing) an offense so low-level that it surely came as a surprise to many, myself included, that it even is a crime to sell a cigarette that legally belongs to you to someone willing to purchase it—the decision not to indict seemed hard to square with what the public knew of reality. Having Eric Garner on video repeating the words “I can’t breathe” several times while he was apparently being choked to death only added to the public’s astonishment at the grand jury’s decision. (If you want to see for yourself, click here to see the amateur video on the website of the New York Daily News.) But, of course, it also bears saying that none of us was present to hear the testimony provided to either grand jury and that, therefore, none of us is in a position to evaluate their evaluation of that testimony in any meaningful way.

The phrase “two solitudes” was originally the title of a novel published in 1945 by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, who detailed in his book the peculiar way that English and French Canadians had managed in his day to live in the same country for centuries without ever actually encountering each other, let alone actually integrating into each other’s society. The expression is far more used these days in Canada, I believe, than the book itself is actually read. But the idea itself is worth bringing south over the border to consider just how apt a concept it is to apply to American society. Poll after poll reveal the same divide regarding questions about the basic institutions of society: whether the courts are truly color-blind, whether the police are, whether the grand jury system functions without respect to the race of the accused individual, whether public schools truly offer the same education to children in every neighborhood, whether promotions in the workplace are truly unrelated to the race of the individual hoping to advance, whether jury pools meaningfully reflect the ethnic and racial make-up of society, etc. No matter how many polls I consult, in fact (and most specifically including the Pew Research Center poll released just last week that focused on the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson), the data seems invariably to point to the fact that black and white Americans inhabit different universes of perception, discourse, and assumption, that black people and white people in our country have somehow evolved the strange ability to look at the same thing and see two different things. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see that Pew Center poll.) This cannot be a good thing for a nation that wishes to lessen, not sharpen, the legacy of race bequeathed to latter-day Americans by their race-obsessed forebears.

Nor is this specifically “about” discrimination per se. Clearly, we have succeeded into doing away with the overtly racist institutions of yesteryear—segregated schools, white-only lunch counters, anti-miscegenation laws, etc., not to mention slavery itself. The elimination of formal, judicially-endorsed discrimination based on race was obviously a great accomplishment, but the whole concept of living in the same place and different places at the same time is a different concept entirely and one that deserves attention in its own right.  I know how they feel: I too feel ofttimes as though I inhabit my own universe, one set over the one in which the rest of everybody lives and flourishes, and which I can see clearly and understand easily—I was, after all, raised and educated here—but, in the end, one I am in without being fully of. I sense many of my co-religionists feel similarly. In fact, I know they do.

That awareness that others do not see what we see when we look out at the world is disorienting. Canada has come simply to live with it. I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever meeting or encountering, even in passing, a French Canadian. As many of you know, I speak French fluently. But I somehow managed to live all those years in Canada without ever reading a French-language bestseller, without ever seeing (not even once) a movie made in Quebec, without ever attending a play by a Quebec playwright. I surely would never eat poutine anyway, but I can’t even recall seeing it for sale in our end of Canada, let alone actually served to anyone. I suppose it must be similarly possible to live in Quebec and remain totally unfamiliar with the cultural trappings of Anglo-Canada. Two solitudes there were in Hugh MacLennan’s day and, for better or worse two solitudes was what I encountered during our years on the ground in Canada. Perhaps things have changed since we left fifteen years ago.

This reality—that different groups within society can look out at the world through entirely different sets of spectacles—has a benign and malign side to it. The benign side has to do with the specific way diverse internal perceptions of the world can lead to a healthy flowering of ethnic or racial consciousness. But there is also another side, a darker and more dangerous side to the concept. When a law-abiding black citizen who has never been in trouble with the police in his life says, as I heard someone say on the radio the other day, that he feels panic rising when he sees an armed white police officer walking down the block and passing by the front of his house, and the average white citizen feels secure and safe, not panic-struck, when he sees a police officer patrolling in his neighborhood, then we have to address the issue not by calling each other names or denigrating each other’s feelings, but by asking simply how that could possibly be in our free, democratic country. And then, if we have the courage, we have to dare to answer the question honestly and forthrightly, and then see where that leads us. The key, I think, is in accepting that we all see the universe differently, that we all interpret the light that enters our eyes according to our own givens. Whether that ability to see the world idiosyncratically and personally becomes a source for good in the world or whether it becomes a force for inner-societal divisiveness, discord, and disunity—that is the issue put squarely down on the table by both grand jury decisions for Americans to ponder and, if they can, to resolve as part of our never-ended quest to create a more perfect union both to establish justice and surely also to insure domestic tranquility.