Thursday, December 24, 2015

Church and State

I’ve never fully understood how exactly it can be constitutional for Christmas to be a federal holiday in a nation that endlessly prides itself on how carefully it guards the boundary between church and state. I come to the issue, therefore, from precisely the opposite direction from all those outraged types who write letters to the editor at this time of year to express their indignation at having received a “Happy Holidays” card from their newspaper deliverer or local school board instead of a bona fide Christmas card, or their irritation over their end-of-the-year office party being thrown to celebrate not Christmas but something fully non-specific and only vaguely festive like “the holidays” or, even more bizarrely, winter itself. I didn’t get a “holiday card” this year from the Obamas—perhaps (but even I myself don’t really think this) a subtle response to all those e-mails about the Iran deal—but I did get one from the Bidens and the Andrew Cuomos…and, true to P.C. form, neither mentions any actual holiday. (The Cuomos’ card wishes us well during the “holiday season.” The Bidens’ wishes us “many blessings in 2016.”)  It’s an unsubtle ruse. I know what they mean. They know that I know what they mean. And I know that they know it too. (The holly wreaths with red ribbons adorning the windows of what I suppose must be the Biden home—their “real” home, I think, not Number One Observatory Circle—on the cover of their card are the giveaway.) Still, I’ve calmed down over the years. I no longer find it annoying to be wished a merry Christmas by salespeople trying to be friendly and pleasant, or not too annoying. I cleverly but probably over-subtly register my pique with the whole thing by avoiding malls and post offices, even banks, in December as best I can. I suppose I can live with the White House having a Christmas tree. But I still don’t fully understand how it can be legal for the government formally and purposefully to foster the public celebration of a religion-specific festival in a nation of self-proclaimed disestablishmentarians.

Nor is the point that I simply disagree. It’s also that I’ve never been able quite to understand why Christians who take their faith seriously would even want people outside the church to glom onto their best holiday, one possessed of the kind of deep spiritual significance that can only be diluted by bringing into the mix people for whom the holiday has no religious meaning at all. Isn’t it just a bit insulting to people who take their Christian faith seriously to suggest that even non-belief in the most basic articles of that faith does not constitute sufficient reason not to celebrate its festivals? I can’t see how it could not be! And so, when I see those bumper stickers encouraging Christians to put the Christ back into Christmas, I’m in complete agreement because I too would like nothing more than for Christmas to turn back into a Christian holiday possessed of deep meaning for the faithful, something that it would be absurd, even mildly offensive, for non-Christians to embrace at all, let alone enthusiastically. Is it really all about selling toys? I suppose that is probably is!

Nor do I feel this way only about other people’s religions: I am an equal-opportunity Grinch. When I hear that the White House is having yet another Pesach seder and that the President and First Lady are both planning to attend, I feel a sense of dismay tinged with guilt: the latter because I realize I’m supposed to be thrilled that the leader of the free world is willing to make such a public display of the warmth he feels towards his Jewish co-citizens, but the former because I don’t really want non-Jews to co-opt Jewish rituals to make some sort of dramatic statement about their own liberality without actually embracing any of the ideas or concepts that undergird the rituals in question. When I read a few weeks ago about the President hosting a festive menorah-lighting ceremony at the White House, I felt the same mix of pride and ill ease. I get it—I’m supposed to be thrilled that Jewish Americans are welcome to perform Jewish rituals in the White House. But shouldn’t the most public of our nation’s buildings specifically not be the backdrop for religion-specific rituals that all Americans neither can nor should embrace? Nor do I fix my gaze in this regard only on the government: I find the endless efforts of Chabad to set up those giant, weirdly-angular menorahs in the public square equally unsettling. Surely, they’re acting out of conviction. But I can’t help thinking that every step we take towards weakening the separation of church and state—an expression, by the way, that most seem to suppose comes from the Constitution, but which was actually coined by Thomas Jefferson years later—is a step towards weakening our right to pursue our spiritual path without interference from outside parties, most definitely including the federal government. Or any government.

This year, though, my feelings about the separation of church and state are different than the past because it seems to impossible to consider these issues any longer without bringing Muslim America into the mix. Our 2.7 million Muslim co-citizens are clearly having a rough time. Article after article in the newspapers I read and at the on-line news sites I frequent are detailing almost daily how complicated a time this is for Muslims who must grapple with the fact that there are lots of people out there who are selling a version of Islam radically (to use precisely the right word) different from their own. And it seems slowly to be dawning on American Muslims that, particularly after San Bernardino, it will no longer be enough merely to insist that the jihadist version of their faith is just a perversion of Islam and thus not something “regular” Muslims need to think or worry about. (That, of course, is precisely what the Islamicist radicals behind all these terrorist strikes say about non-radical Islam! For the most recent of these articles, this one by Laurie Goodman and published in the New York Times earlier this week, click here.) But precisely when it feels like the right thing to do would be to encourage American Muslims to break formally and absolutely with the extremists in their midst by getting the President to welcome American Muslims to the White House for another Eid al-Fitr banquet like the one he hosted last June (in other words, by creating the sense that American Muslims can be part of our national fabric in the same way that Christians and Jews can be and are), that is precisely when I think we should redouble our efforts to re-erect the once unscalable wall between church and state that has slowly been eroded over the last decades.

American Muslims have a huge problem on their hand. They themselves are not such a unified group. They are slowly awakening to the fact that there are among them jihadists like the San Bernardino killers…and that the responsibility for tolerating the kind of extremism that leads to violence cannot solely be set on the shoulders of overseas clerics. My sense is that we would do well to make it clear that our secular government does not instruct its citizens what to believe or what spiritual path to follow, that the whole concept of religious freedom only works if the sole role the government plays in the internal workings of American faith communities is to play no role at all. If Muslims wish to renounce jihadism and terror, then they are going to have to stand up and be counted…on their own and in their own communities and mosques. 

Just recently, I read about something called the Muslim Reform Movement, a tiny organization headed by just fifteen Muslim leaders from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Denmark that has begun to take matters into their own hands to foster a version of Islam that is liberal, tolerant, and broad-minded. (To see more about the organization, click here.  To read a very interesting editorial that appeared two weeks ago in the Boston Globe about the group, click here.) I know that many of us view efforts like this with extreme skepticism. I feel that way myself. And, given the fact that there are something like 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the influence of these thirteen brave souls will be, at least at first, severely limited. Still, the solution cannot be imposed from without: what Islam will be like in 2070, or thereabouts, when the number of Muslims in the world surpasses the number of Christians, is in the hands of today’s Muslims. Merely paying lip service to pluralism and tolerance will not be anywhere near enough. And, yes, to raise the issue that (at least for most) dare not say its name, leaving Israel out of the mix would also constitute a grave error: if Muslims are going to foster an American version of Islam that is truly pluralistic and progressive, then they are going to have to find a way to embrace the reality of Israel and the presence of the Jewish state among the nations of the world. Absent that, the whole undertaking will be, at least as far as I myself am concerned, doomed to irrelevance. If I can live with an Islamic Iran, then America’s Muslims can live with a Jewish Israel.

American Muslims do not need to be patronized by the government with special White House photo ops; they need to be left alone to chart a course forward that will affect the history of the world in a positive way by renouncing violence and terror…and embracing the core values that rest at the center of American culture, and the separation of church and state foremost among them. Many of you—both congregants and readers—have responded negatively when I’ve written or preached about this possibility in the past, expressing the notion that I am living in a fool’s paradise if I think that Islam could possibly embrace the liberal values that are the beating heart of the Western democratic enterprise. I suppose I could be. (I’m a rabbi, not a prophet!) But the Pew Research institute projects that there will be 2.8 billion Muslims in the world by mid-century…and that number makes it crucial for us in this country to support the moderates and liberals who would reform Islam. Could these people succeed? It is hard to say. Certainly, the odds are against them. But it is precisely in our country, where the wall between religion and government was meant by our founders to be iron-clad, that the kind of protestant Islam that the world so desperately needs could possibly take root and flourish. The chances of success are not good at all. But not good is better than non-existent…and so, as a new year dawns on our troubled land, I suggest we take “not good” as the best option available and see how far we can get. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015


I have generally been an admirer of Dennis Prager’s writing, and particularly of the books he jointly authored with Joseph Telushkin. Nonetheless, I found myself aghast at a piece he published the other week on the website, the on-line presence of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, in which he writes acidulously about people who wish to find a dignified place in the world for transgender people. He admits readily that it must be “awful” to go through life possessed of the conviction that you are a prisoner in your own body, that your gender and sex are so out of sync that you can’t find a place for yourself in the world, that neither of the doors at the end of the hall leading to the restrooms (the one labelled “Men” and the other, “Women”) feels as though it describes you in quite the same way it appears to describe everybody else in the world, or almost everybody. But when he turns his withering gaze to people (like myself) who feel for such people and wish to find a way for them to function in society other than as outcasts and freaks (and other than by telling them they simply can’t go to school, can’t join a gym, can’t use a public restroom, can’t frequent a public swimming pool, etc.), he seems to have forgotten the pain that he himself acknowledges surely must result from feeling trapped in your own skin and writes as though gender dysphoria were just another thing someone somewhere made up to justify special treatment for some tiny group of whiners who don’t want to play by the same rules as the rest of the world.

Then, to add fuel to his fire, he turns to his readers and attempts to explain how, given the Torah’s prohibition of crossdressing, any Jewish person could possibly fall for the whole transgender scam in the first place. (The fact that transvestitism and gender dysphoria are not at all the same thing appears unknown to the author.) First, he suggests shamelessly that those who don’t share his view about transgender people must obviously also believe, and I quote, that “the Torah is essentially useless as a guide to living,” and that, whenever their own opinion differs from that put forth in Scripture, they must be the kind of spiritual egotists who simply assume that the Torah, not they themselves, must be wrong. And then, as if that line of thinking weren’t insulting enough, he offers an alternate explanation: that any who feel for transgender people must clearly have been tricked by their own sense of compassion into betraying the values of their faith and their God.

I don’t want to write here about the issues of transgendered people per se. It’s a big topic that I hope to address in more detail at a later time and it’s also true that my own thinking is evolving slowly as I learn more and read more. Instead, I’d like to discuss the concept of compassion…and particularly in light of the suggestion in Prager’s article that allowing one’s sense of compassion to justify the effort to bring one’s allegiance to Scripture into sync with one’s sense of right and wrong is a sign of spiritual depravity, or at least of one’s arrogant assumption that one is more able than God to find the boundary line between right and wrong.

Compassion, for most people, is an apple-pie value, a moral attribute so unambiguously virtuous so as to make it odd even to question its worth. The word in English suggests as much: the “com” part means “with,” and the “passion” part comes from the Greek word for “suffering.” Thus “compassion” is the quality of being able not solely to suffer in your own right, but to feel—or at least to feel sensitive to—the misery also of others. Compassionate people, therefore, live at the intersection of sympathy and empathy, always trying to be guided not only by the way they themselves feel, but also—and perhaps even more so—by the way they imagine other people feel. The compassionate individual, therefore, is someone who understands that kindness does not imply moral weakness, let alone depravity, but moral strength: it is the quality of seeing the world through another’s eyes and acting accordingly not because one is too stupid to have an opinion of one’s own, but because one has enough respect for others also to respect their opinions and the specific way they view and interpret the world.

To apply the concept to the transgender people of this world is not to be weak-willed or foolish, let alone immoral. It is merely to look at someone suffering in the world and, instead of mocking that person for having to struggle with issues with which you yourself have been spared from having to grapple, finding it in your heart to wish for that person to find a path forward in life that does not involve endless degradation or self-denial. Prager’s coarse prediction that treating transgendered people with compassion will lead directly to schools being required, eventually by law, to allow young people with boys’ bodies to parade around naked in the girls’ locker room seems beyond exaggerated: the idea that embracing compassion will lead directly to public vulgarity seems to me to posit a bizarrely narrow sense of how people suffering from gender dysphoria—and particularly young people—could be helped without that help impinging on the natural rights of all people to feel secure and safe in public washrooms and in their swimming pools’ changing areas and in the locker rooms at their gyms. (The locker room issue is real, to be sure: click here and here. My point is that there’s something inherently bogus about supposition that the only choices are to tolerate inappropriate, unsettling behavior or to treat transgender young people harshly and without compassion. Surely, a nation as clever as our own can come up with a solution that leaves the dignity of all parties intact!)

And then Prager goes on to give another example of misplaced compassion leading its adherents down the road to perdition: race-based affirmative action. Affirmative action is the kind of complicated concept, the constitutionality of which the Supreme Court itself is currently attempting to unravel. Nor is it obvious, constitutional or not, how effective a tool it actually is. The latest argument against, usually referenced with the word “mismatch,” implies that giving students drawn from underrepresented minorities places in colleges to which they might not otherwise be admitted is actually a disservice to them, since they cannot possibly compete with the “regular” students who got into those schools in the normal way and without any extra help. This, in Prager’s opinion, constitutes yet another example of how compassion can lead past “just” political correctness to actual harm.

Justice Roberts makes sense to me when he notes that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And there are surely many real reasons to consider the whole “mismatch” issue seriously. Just lately I’ve read two pieces on the topic on the website of the Washington Post which impressed me and which I recommend to my readers. In one of them, Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, argues persuasively that the best interests of minority students are not served by helping them into schools in which they are unlikely to succeed. In the other, by Richard Rothstein, senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California [Berkeley] School of Law, the author makes an equally persuasive argument that the whole “mismatch” issue is exaggerated and that the only practical way to deal with the hurdles young black students face as they make their way forward in the world is to make sure that they are not denied educational opportunities that by all rights should be theirs. Both make excellent arguments, but, regardless of which view eventually prevails, the underrepresentation of certain racial, ethnic, and social-class-based minorities in our best universities is a real issue to be pondered by Americans devoted to equality and, yes, possessed of a spirit of compassion for the disadvantaged. (To see Sander’s piece, click here. To see Rothstein’s essay, which originally appeared in American Prospect, click here.) In any event, both authors clearly have the same larger goal in mind: the creation of a color-blind society in which race neither enhances anyone’s chances for success nor detracts from it. Nor would either argue, I suspect, that there is anything base about feeling compelled by one’s sense of compassion for the underprivileged to work for a more just society. To determine how best actually to help is a different issue. But to argue that compassion itself is the problem is, at best, a perverse argument to make at all, and particularly for someone as steeped in Jewish tradition as Dennis Prager.

Prager’s essay ends with a rhetorical question: “If the Torah is not our guide, who or what will be?” It sounds like such a simple choice when put that way: either we embrace the Torah and allows it to guide us forward, or else we discard it and choose a different book or individual as the font of wisdom from which we drink and as our moral guide through life. But that is more of a fool’s choice than a serious one. We hold fast to the Torah as our tree of life and we endlessly study its intricacies and riddles. But for all our endless lip-service to notion of the Torah as God-given Scripture suffused with its Author’s divine spirit, we are not biblical Jews whose sole allegiance is to the simple meaning of Scripture and neither have Jews ever believed that it could be possible to be faithful to God’s law while behaving immorally at the same time. To look at someone who is riven with conflict about his or her gender-identity and not to respond with kindness, with compassion, and with a willingness to work to find a way for such people to know the kind of inner peace that comes naturally to people not afflicted with gender dysphoria—that would be to turn our back on the lessons the Torah teaches to see the divine image in all humankind…and to bring only compassion and kindness to bear in evaluating the downcast and the marginalized in society. And it would also be to ignore the fact that being compassionate is specifically listed in Scripture as one of the thirteen attributes of God, a virtue therefore to be cherished and embraced by all who would walk in God’s ways.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Chanukah 2015

As I was reading the paper the other day, I unexpectedly came across an article about some parallel scientific studies being undertaken in Denmark and in our country. At first, they sounded like the kind of detailed, complicated studies which only scientists could love…or even understand. But then, upon further reflection, I found myself drawn to them and wishing to learn more. And then, entirely unexpectedly, my thoughts turned to one of the riddles of Chanukah…and I found a plausible answer sitting right before my eyes.

When I was in high school, the concept of genetic heritage was presented to us as a kind of code embedded in our cells that we are able to pass along to our offspring if and when we manage to reproduce. As opposed to, say, citizenship, which can be passed along from parents to children but which has no physical aspect to its existence, we were taught to think of our genetic heritage as something fully real in the physical sense (because genes, teensy-weensy though they may be, exist as actual, physical things) and thus not that different from money or property or any other part of a parent’s estate that a child might acquire as a gift from a still-living parent. 

How it all worked was a bit mysterious, surely more than slightly arbitrary. Unless they are identical twins, for example, siblings receive different sets of these gifts from their same two parents. This accounts for the differences between them and was explained to us with reference to the fact that children have two parents, not one, and that the various parts of those parents’ genetic heritage combine in different ways on different conceptive occasions to create different genetic gifts to a couple’s different children. But our genetic heritage was presented to us not only as arbitrary, but also as immutable: you can do what you can to resist the siren call of your genes but they constitute a gift—generally some combination of blessing and burden—that cannot be altered, only inherited and gratefully accepted, actively resisted or passively given in to. I didn’t really understand the whole thing then and I’m sure I don’t fully understand it now. But one thing that was completely clear, even to my tenth-grade self, was that genetics is unalterable destiny, something to be pleased about or struggled against but about which you can’t do a damn thing! Nor, needless to say, can you control the contents of your own future genetic gift to whatever offspring you may eventually produce.

Apparently, I was wrong. In 2010, several professors at the University of Copenhagen found that they could alter the sperm of male rats not by addressing their genetic make-up at all but rather by subjecting them to different sets of experiences. One set of rats, for example, was made obese by being fed very high-fat foods. This was a post-birth phenomenon, obviously. So, at least theoretically, the rats—none of whom was predisposed to obesity—should not have had a higher percentage of obese offspring than rats that were fed a normal diet. But they did. And so began a long, complex set of experiments intended to determine if the genetic heritage bequeathed to offspring can be altered by experience.  In 2013, a group of scientists led by Adelheid Soubry, a molecular epidemiologist at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, attempted to perform a similar experiment on human subjects and concluded that experience can indeed alter a man’s sperm in a way that affects the genes a man bequeaths to his offspring. And now the Danes have published a study in a very respected journal, Cell Metabolism, that supports that conclusion. (The science is complicated and I won’t attempt to review it here. It has to do with the way sperm is or isn’t altered by experience to bring certain features of that man’s genetic heritage to the fore. The genes themselves are not supposed to self-alter through the experience of experience. But if the specific way they configure in the context of reproduction can be weighted differently by some specific experience that the man in question has had, then it more or less comes to the same thing. Or at least it does from the vantage point of the embryo that inherits that man’s DNA configured differently than it might otherwise have been.)

Others are less sure about how meaningful the results really are. Many of the arguments against accepting the results of these studies are very complex but, to the extent I was able to follow them, also very interesting. To learn more about these studies, both for and against, click here to read the article by Carl Zimmer mentioned above that was published in the New York Times last week. To read a précis of the Cell Metabolism article (not recommended for people who last encountered the study of biology in tenth grade), click here

I’m hardly in a position to offer an opinion about the worth of the research, but I find it fascinating nonetheless…and not solely because of its implications for our understanding of the human reproductive process. What I find fascinating is the possibility that the role of experience might be no less meaningful on the national level as a people moves forward through history and bequeaths its national culture to new generation after new generation.

There’s no question that Judaism itself—as well as its much maligned stepsister, Jewishness—has developed over the millennia. Every student of the Bible can see how different modern Jewish religion is from the faith depicted in the pages of Scripture. But Judaism today isn’t only different from the Israelites’ religion in biblical times. It is also dramatically different from the Judaism described in the Talmud and even, in profound and meaningful ways, from the Judaism of medieval times. That religions develop over dozens of generations is hardly a great discovery. But what makes religions develop in the specific ways they do develop? What makes some innovations successful and others wholly unsuccessful? Why does an entire people barely pause to notice when whole bodies of scriptural law are summarily dropped—I’m thinking, for example, of the elaborate laws that the Torah sets forth governing inheritance, laws more or less universally ignored today including in the most pious circles—while other practices dating back only three or four centuries have not only established themselves as authentic Jewish rituals but are universally observed in every synagogue community? Are these developments entirely arbitrary? Or is it possible that experience shapes the genetic code—or whatever you’d call it on the national level—that passes silently and subtly from generation to generation? In other words, we are used to thinking of history as the result of Jewishness—what happened to us being a function of who we are—but what if the reverse were true (or also true) and history were rationally to be understood as the set of nation-wide experiences that rests invisibly at the generative core of Jewish life not unlike the way the sperm itself that conveys a man’s genetic heritage to his newly conceived child vanishes into the embryo and is never heard from again other than by manifesting itself in the nature and culture of the man that embryo eventually grows to become?

It would be interesting to think of Chanukah in that vein. It’s not a biblical holiday. Lots of other events of arguably equal importance historically failed to turn into holidays. (One of the few books from outside the standard rabbinic literary corpus to survive intact from the early rabbinic period, Megillat Taanit, is basically a detailed list of thirty-five such politically and historically important days.) Chanukah should have been in that category—a week of days on an ancient list during which eulogizing and fasting was forbidden because of some positive historical event that once happened. But somehow that isn’t what happened.  The experiences of exile and restoration, of being assaulted by a hostile culture and having to find a way to preserve our national cultural heritage despite the pressure to adopt what is touted to us as “world” culture (and thus by definition something superior to our rinky-dink set of beliefs, customs, stories, and ceremonies), the experience of finding the courage to stand up to the world and refuse to vanish merely because a set of self-appointed pundits can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to be a modern nation according to their definition of the term…that set of experiences related to the nation growing up spiritually, nationally, militarily, economically, and, if one can say such a thing about nations, emotionally…that was something that shaped our national DNA permanently and left us different than we otherwise might have been.

That a man’s experiences in life can alter the destiny of his children by affecting his sperm in specific ways is a tantalizing notion. Whether it’s true, who knows? But that the same could be true of national cultures—that they are not so much the source of national experience as they are the product of those experiences’ effect on the transmission of that culture to subsequent generations—that theory strikes me as truly tantalizing. It could go a long way to explaining why Chanukah, which shouldn’t really have been a festival in the first place and which certainly doesn’t feel like it merits the major place on the Jewish calendar it now occupies, has taken such a prominent place in our festal calendar. The rabbis of ancient times had no difficulty permitting the blessing recited while the Chanukah candles are lit to refer to God as having commanded us to kindle them. That that commandment appears nowhere in the Torah, which fact the rabbis surely knew perfectly well, makes perfect sense—Judah Maccabee lived a full millennium after Moses. But perhaps the rabbis were onto something nevertheless. Could it be that God ultimately sanctifies the House of Israel specifically by allowing this concept of experience-altered reality to guide the nation’s religious practices? Could the plan all along have possibly been that, no matter how far afield of Scripture Jews allow their faith to develop, they will always feel themselves under God’s watchful protection and truly to be sanctified by God’s commandment to act in harmony with their own historical experience and its exigencies? That is the thought I offer you to ponder as Chanukah draws to a close and we move on to less festive weeks and, presumably, the eventual arrival of “real” winter.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

As the Seas Rise

Every marriage has its compromises, and one of ours has to do with so-called “disaster” movies. I am drawn to them and Joan (occasionally) endures them. She uses the unappealing expression “disaster porn” derogatorily to qualify this specific peculiarity in my set of otherwise urbane and sophisticated artistic tastes and I keep my peace. I recall the rabbi who married us pointing out when we met him before the wedding that compromise in the context of marriage doesn’t mean meeting each other halfway exactly, but rather requires that each party go a good three-quarters of the way towards the other’s position so as to create a huge swath of middle ground that can easily accommodate inexactitude in terms of just how far one is prepared really to give in to effect the compromise in question. It was good advice. I offer it to my own brides and grooms all the time. I recommend it highly to all my married readers. But why I am drawn to these generally terrible movies…that is the more interesting question to ponder.

Knowing, or at least sensing on some level, that this all has to do with my obsessive reading regarding the Shoah and its horrors, I suppose I like these movies because, oddly, they all have happy endings. In Armageddon (1998), an asteroid the size of Texas threatens to destroy all life on earth, but Bruce Willis—albeit at the cost of his own life—saves the day at the very last minute. In Deep Impact (1998), a comet plunges into the Atlantic and creates a kind of mega-tsunami that devastates life on the Atlantic coasts of North America, South America, Europe, and Africa…but a last-ditch effort to blow up a second comet—one that would finish all the first comet’s survivors—actually is successful and life on earth ends up going on after all. In Independence Day (1996), it’s a fleet of huge, hostile (very hostile!) alien warships that attack earth and threaten to destroy life as we know it, but Randy Quaid, also at the cost of his own life, saves the day by discovering how to destroy the aliens’ spaceships once and for all. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), it’s the weather—a lot of weather!—that render most of Asia, Europe, and North America uninhabitable. New York turns into an arctic wasteland with a mean temperature daily of -98° F., but eventually the storms abate. Survivors are located. The President returns from his Mexican exile. The effort to rebuild commences. Life goes on.

I could go on too. Contagion (2011) was about deadly viruses only eventually neutralized.  Volcano (1997) was about a volcano that suddenly erupts in downtown Los Angeles and wreaks unimaginable havoc. I even liked Pompeii (2014), which at least spared us the expected treacly ending as all the principals end up engulfed in the pyroclastic flow. But at least the rest of the empire survives! When I force myself to think clearly, I suppose the Shoah connection isn’t all that hard to explain either. What student of Jewish history could not like movies featuring horrific forces that threaten to destroy life as it was known in some specific place (Earth, Pompeii, L.A., etc.), but that in the end are themselves always defeated. There are always survivors. Life always goes on. Indeed, as the credits role, life is always already going on. And it is that weird combination of terrifying and uplifting, of horrific and hopeful, of unspeakable and encouraging that seems to draw me to these movies both as a lover of exciting movies and as a student of Jewish history.

But no one had to pay to see this week’s disaster epic unfold: all anyone had to do was turn on the television or open a newspaper to peruse the reports from Paris—how quickly the phrase “reports from Paris” has come to mean something entirely different than it did two weeks ago!—as the various reports coming out of the Climate Change Conference being held in Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris, from last week through next week were disseminated through the world’s media.

The basic concept is simple. The world, acting in concert, need to find some way effectively to stem greenhouse gas emissions lest we experience—and not in the distant future either but in most of our lifetimes and certainly in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes—horrific things on a terrifying scale: extreme weather, worldwide drought, massive wildfires, disruption of the food supply, the spread of dangerous pathogens, and a rising sea that could eventually submerge many of the world’s greatest cities. To cut back these emissions to a level that the planet could manage to absorb without raising average temperatures would require a gargantuan amount of good will among nations that would be basically unparalleled in the annals of human history. That is unlikely enough, but the fact that the conference is being held under the auspices of the United Nations makes it feel even less likely that anything good will come of it. Nor is the history of efforts to address the problem on the scale necessary to make a difference at all encouraging. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a promising start, but the United States never signed on (considering that it placed an unfair burden on developed nations and risked seriously harming the U.S. economy) and developing countries like China and India—among the world’s worst greenhouse gas offenders—weren’t included at all. The 2009 Copenhagen Conference devoted to the same issues on the table today led more or less nowhere. And yet, more than 150 nations have stepped up and offered to do at least some of what it’s going to take to save the world from itself. Presumably, more concessions will be wrung out of the willing participants before the conference ends a week from today. Altruism among nations being even rarer than altruism among individuals, it all feels like a huge long shot…and yet if enough nations truly come to believe that the fate of the planet really is hanging in the balance, perhaps the results will be at least enough to make some sort of meaningful difference. Don’t these movies always end up with the world being saved?

For me personally, it’s the image of the sea rising that makes the greatest impact. Perhaps it’s a biblical thing. The trope of the sea rising and the poet’s sense of himself about to drown only to be saved at the very last minute is, after all, a regular feature of biblical imagery. And the prayers that are triggered by the fear of drowning as the water rises are as heartfelt as they should be famous. When, for example, the ancient whose poem became our sixty-ninth psalm wrote “let the deep not swallow me / let the mouth of the pit not close over me / answer me, O Lord,” it’s hard for people who take the dangers of climate change seriously not to empathize, and deeply.  Or consider Jonah’s heartfelt prayer: “You flung me into the depths of the sea / so that its currents surround me / and its waves pass over me…/ I feel the water rising to take my life / the depths slowly encompass me / seaweed swirls around my head / I can see the mountains rising from the floor of the sea / the earth is sealed off from me….”  But Jonah, of course, was saved from death in what would otherwise have been his watery tomb. And, indeed, the story of only almost drowning is a feature of Israelite history written small and large: first Moses almost drowns and is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter unwittingly acting as God’s agent of salvation, and then the entire people Israel itself almost drowns and is only saved because God creates walls of water that enable them to cross the seabed to safety. And, of course, the great exception merely proves the rule—the death of all people in the world but eight in the days of Noah’s flood—by reminding us that the waters rose once and could conceivably rise again. At the end of the story, after all, God’s promise not personally to annihilate humankind again with a flood does not mean that humankind will not be able to accomplish that all by itself!

As always, there are naysayers who insist that the governments of the world are cooking the books to create an atmosphere of world-wide hysteria they will then exploit for their own ends. But, at least as far as I can see, an overwhelming number of scientists, including those do not see any evidence of a significant rise in sea levels in the course of the nineteen centuries that preceded the twentieth, believe that the sea level has been steadily rising since 1900 somewhere between .04 and .1 inches a year. And this phenomenon, they explain as being caused basically by two factors, both triggered by human activity: one-third of the increase is due to the sea itself expanding as it warms, while the other two-thirds has been caused by glaciers and other land-based ice formations (particularly in the Arctic and Greenland) melting. (For more details, click here to read a page of facts produced on the topic by the National Ocean Service. And it also bears noting that the sea ice surrounding Antarctica is growing, not shrinking…but click here to see NASA’s explanation of how that unexpected detail too fits into the larger picture of a warming planet.) Just to put things into even more vivid perspective, scientists have concluded that if just the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland alone were to melt completely, world sea levels would rise about 197 feet. Since about 634 million people live less than thirty feet above sea level, that’s a pretty terrifying statistic. All in all, the prospect of a rising sea is beyond terrifying, and not solely for the 44% of the world’s population that lives within ninety miles of the sea…and I say that not only as someone who lives on an island jutting out into the ocean, but as a member of the global community.

Will something meaningful come out of the Paris conference? It’s hard to say. The Pope is on board, having described a world-wide failure to produce profound change as an act of global suicide. So are more or less all the leaders of the free world. But there are plenty of nay-sayers. Some (although fewer and fewer) doubt the science. But others are opposed for other reasons entirely. In our country, for example, the House of Representatives just this week passed a pair of resolutions that would forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing the rules announced earlier this year by the President to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The argument at home and abroad against committing to profound cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are the same ones levied against Kyoto: the developed world is being asked to shoulder an unfair part of the burden, and the responsibility of the governments of every nation, including our own, is to act on behalf of its citizenry…which means declining to take actions that will harm the national economy.  And yet, this really isn’t a movie. The waters really are rising. The nations of the Pacific Islands—places obscure to most of us like Tuvalu, Tonga, and Kiribati—are already contemplating the possibility of disappearing from the map entirely as the waters cover over their landmass and leave them to exist solely in the realm of history.  Whether the Kiribatians will, like Jonah, be saved in the end by being swallowed up by a giant fish seems, at best, unlikely. But disappear they surely will—or at least their country will—as the waters rise and the world, focused as always on the bottom line, dithers.  Or could the future unfold differently? The answer will be available to us all next week!