Thursday, March 31, 2016

Making America Great Again, Again

As a rabbi, I am barred by custom (and IRS regulation, in that I serve a not-for-profit charitable organization) from endorsing candidates for public office. This is something I scrupulously observe both because losing its tax-exempt status would be a catastrophe for Shelter Rock and also because I agree with the basic principle behind the rule and feel that a house of worship should indeed be above the political fray and thus able fully to welcome would-be worshipers and potential members of all political stripes and persuasion. That ability would be seriously compromised if it were overtly to be identified with one political party or with one specific candidate for office, and that’s why I think the rule is reasonable. But, all that being the case, I was all the more surprised last week when some responded to what I wrote about my experiences at AIPAC by asking if my words were a veiled effort publicly to endorse Donald Trump for office. To say the very least, that was not even remotely what I meant to say.

Nor is it what I said. What impressed me and impresses me still, on the other hand, was the way the man was able to command the full attention of the 18,000 people in the Staples Center in a way none of the other candidates—not John Kasich or Ted Cruz, but also, speaking frankly, also not Hillary Clinton—was able to manage. What he said, as noted, was bizarre—a strange pastiche of misinformation about the current administration’s record, childishly formulated insults directed openly and unambiguously at President Obama, and shameless pandering to the crowd…and all of that came to us lathered over with the kind of idiosyncratic strut and swagger that has come to be identified with the Trump campaign in general and in particular with the candidate’s oratory. It was not precisely an inspiring performance, but it was a riveting one. I wish you could all have been there to experience it with me. You might have found it horrifying, but you would surely also have found it arresting. Clearly, skill as a public speaker is not much of a qualification for national office. Some of history’s most horrific demagogues had that same ability to mesmerize with their oratory, after all. But so also have some of our greatest leaders. It’s a gift, to be sure. But it’s hardly a virtue.

Having said all that, I’d like to return to the question of Donald Trump’s candidacy this week and write about the slogan that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. “Make American Great Again!” isn’t an original Trumpism: Ronald Reagan used it to great success during the 1980 presidential campaign and others have used it since. For an amusing take-down of Trump’s claim to have authored the slogan, you can click here to see Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on the topic. But the slogan itself isn’t amusing at all, and for several reasons. Firstly, it seems to encapsulate the emotional/ideational platform on which vast numbers of Donald Trump’s supporters are standing and so deserves to be taken seriously by any who would explain the candidate’s success to date. Secondly, and perhaps even more to the point, the words “Make America Great Again!” seem to embody the candidate’s own sense of what his campaign is really about, the core concept regarding which the rest of the man’s rhetoric is mere elucidation and elaboration. And, finally, the slogan deserves our attention because its corollary assumptions—that American was once great but no longer is, that America can return to greatness by electing the right president, and that if Americans fail to restore their nation to its former glory then they will have no one to blame but themselves—are principles that could animate presidential policy and even Congressional legislation in the future in a way that could dramatically alter our sense of national purpose and our understanding of our own national destiny. And given even the possibility of a Trump administration, this is something all Americans should take seriously and thoughtfully.

The slogan itself may date back to 1979 or so, but the notion it encapsulates—that America must seize its greatness, not just hope for it—is dramatically older and has animated many different chapters in American history.  Nor is the underlying notion that even illegality should not be allowed to trump (sorry) the pursuit of our national destiny foreign to our national ethos: every single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was guilty of treason, yet we lionize them today as the fathers of our nation and consider their sedition not only virtuous but gloriously so. That may well be justified—as a patriot, I believe it is entirely justified—but thinking so puts us on relatively thin ice as we ponder the obvious question that that belief brings in its wake: how far from the secure terrain of decency and morality—and legality—may national leaders legitimately stray in pursuit of national destiny? That is the real question that should underlie our national response to much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Or perhaps we should ask that same question using even more pointed language by asking if, in the final analysis, anything at all can be deemed illegitimate or immoral if it brings us closer to national greatness? When people carp about the morality or legality of this or that remark that Trump has made regarding the policies he would pursue if elected, that is really the question that rests at the core of the matter. Surely, at least for the most part, his detractors feel that immoral or illegal deeds cannot be sanctioned even if they benefit the nation in other ways. But his supporters seem to feel, if I interpret their mood correctly, that by acting forcefully and unilaterally in our own national interests we simultaneously acquire the right not to care about whatever collateral damage to our nation’s reputation or moral standing in the world our actions could possibly bring about in their bold, buccaneer-style wake. That, to me is the core issue in play as the campaign—and particularly the campaign for the Republican nomination, unfolds.

The personality I’d like to discuss in this context, however, is not Donald Trump, but one of our greatest and worst presidents, Andrew Jackson. To most of us, he’s the man on the twenty-dollar bill. But to me he is the nineteenth century forerunner of the notion that no policy, no matter how harsh, illegal, or immoral, should be rejected if it serves our nation’s interests.

Our seventh president believed that our national destiny could not be pursued without enforcing a brutal policy of forced ethnic cleansing that would more or less rid the southeastern quadrant of our nation of its aboriginal inhabitants. And, indeed, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was first proposed a year earlier by Jackson himself and then signed into law by himself on May 28 of that year after it was passed both by the House and the Senate. To many, it must have sounded almost benign: the Indians, vastly outnumbered and widely considered morally and culturally inferior to the white citizenry of the states they inhabited, would be removed to lands further to the west where they could flourish unencumbered by the expectations or wishes of others. But that was not how things turned out and was probably never the real plan anyway as the notion of voluntary relocation soon gave way to a series of forced “relocations” of members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their own ancestral homelands to land west of the Mississippi then formally designated as Indian territory and today mostly located in Oklahoma. 

The name “Trail of Tears” eventually attached itself to the operation, and it was more than justified. The removal was by foot and wagon, obviously. Tens of thousands died. Even those who survived the trek westward suffered miserably from exposure, starvation, and disease. Existent treaties with most of the tribes affected were simply ignored. The cruelty of the operation was, in a world that had yet to experience the Nazis’ death marches, unimaginable and unprecedented.  When the Seminoles attempted to go to war with the federal government to prevent their banishment from Florida, a conflict known to historians as the Second Seminole War, the results were as bloody as they were predictable: the Seminoles lost. Thousands were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Those who stayed behind were forced onto reservations, but even that system didn’t last and the third and final Seminole War of 1855-1858 led to the eventual end of a meaningful Seminole presence in Florida. It was not our nation’s finest hour. Mostly, we ignore this part of our past: none of this is mentioned on the website detailing the accomplishments of our American presidents. (To take a look, click here.) It is, however, a cornerstone idea of the Broadway hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which won the Tony award for Best Musical Book in 2011, but in a peculiarly benign way that somehow identifies Jackson’s Indian policy with his desire to bring political power to the people by wresting it from the hands of the elite.

There’s lots more to say about Andrew Jackson. His so-called Bank War against the Second Bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve of its day, led directly to the Panic of 1837 that instigated a five-year depression that was probably the worst in our nation’s history before 1929. (Fortunately for Jackson, Martin Van Buren was well ensconced in the White House by the time things got truly grim and was thus obliged to bear the brunt of the national misery his predecessor’s policies had priorly induced.) But it was Jackson’s pursuit of what he perceived of as our nation’s destiny without regard to the treaties he had to break, the agreements he had to ignore, the misery he had to induce, or the deaths for which he had to bear ultimate responsibility—it’s that level of commitment to his personal vision of our nation’s greatness regardless of what the pursuit of that goal might entail that brings him to mind as I listen to Donald Trump promulgating many of his policies, and particularly regarding foreign affairs.

At the end of the Broadway show, the cast gathers to note that some hail Andrew Jackson as one of our greatest presidents but others damn him as the American Hitler. Those are strong terms, intended more to shock than to shed light on the man’s legacy. To compare Jackson to Hitler is as over-the-top as the parallel comparison to Trump that I’ve noticed lately on a dozen hostile websites. But what Jackson and Trump do have in common is their willingness to step over whatever boundaries it takes to pursue the greatness for which they perceived and perceive our nation to be destined. To argue that the greatness of our nation rests in its fidelity to the rule of law and to its willingness always to honor its commitments both to our allies and our citizenry would not impress either of them. But it impresses me…and when I think of America’s greatness, it is precisely in those terms that I think of it. Ours is a remarkable nation and I too believe that our nation is destined for true greatness. In my own conception, however, that greatness will be a function of the degree to which we remain true to the core values of our American republic, not the degree to which we are prepared to repudiate them to achieve some greater goal we see glittering off somewhere in the distance and cannot think of how to attain in any other way. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

AIPAC 2016

So there I was, settling in to listen (barring some huge surprises this summer and fall) to the future President of the United State speak at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., known to sports fans as the home of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals but the venue this week in which gathered more than seven hundred of my colleagues in the rabbinate and more than 17,000 other delegates for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, and wondering how I was ever going to succeed at describing this scene to you all. It’s a kind of a circus, the whole thing…and particularly the conference-wide plenary sessions. It’s not all talking, for one thing—and there are lots of infomercial-style presentations solely designed to remind the delegates just what an amazing place of accomplishment and potential Israel really is. Some of those presentations were truly touching—the two boys, one Arab and the other Jewish, who spoke to the convention about learning to be friends by playing baseball together; the poor girl born with no eyes who sang to the convention like an angel and reminded us all how powerful the artistic experience can be for young people seeking to find their place in the world; the paralyzed IDF veteran who demonstrated a new Israeli wheelchair capable of going down a flight of stairs without toppling over or endangering the person seated in it—and some of them less so. But the real point of the plenaries—as distinct from the countless sessions delegates sign up to attend and, obviously, other than the actual lobbying that goes on in the course of the delegates’ final day in Washington as all 535 voting members of Congress are visited by AIPAC delegates to press the case for maintaining the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and particularly as the ten-year strategic agreement, called the U.S.-Israel Memo of Understanding, comes up for renewal in 2018—the point of the plenary sessions was specifically to provide a venue for those vying for their parties’ presidential nominations this summer to speak clearly about their personal relationship to Israel and the kind of commitment level they feel regarding the special relationship between Israel and our nation.

Except for Bernie Sanders—who, to my mind at least, can’t conceivably have failed to understand the symbolic impact of being the only Jew among the final five to decline the invitation to speak in one of the plenaries—the finalists were all present: Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. For good measure, Paul Ryan—who I suppose must also harbor presidential aspirations focused on some future election—also came to call, as did Vice President Biden. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were present and spoke in dialogue together. Other speakers who impressed me were J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, and Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal columnist. But for all the others had lots to say—and I was particularly struck by Goldberg and Stephens, who addressed the rabbis’ and cantors’ luncheon—it was the presidential hopefuls upon whom the full glare of the spotlight shone.

To paint with broad strokes, they all stressed the same points. But not exactly. Mrs. Clinton openly mocked Donald Trump for his lack of foreign policy experience and invited the delegates to compare his record to hers. Interestingly, she also made a point of distancing herself from President Obama by remarking that one of the first things she will attend to after being elected is inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to be her welcome guest in the White House. Knowing she would be taking an unpopular stance, she bravely chose openly to speak about the reasons she backed the Iran deal. The crowd was respectful and attentive as she stressed the degree to which our nation under her leadership will lead the world in verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord and ignored the long-term implications of settling for a deal that covers only the next thirteen years. She lauded Israel for having elected a female prime minister decades ago…and got a good laugh by asking what exactly it could be that’s been keeping us Americans from following suit and electing a female president. And then she wished everyone a happy Purim too, her pronunciation (pure-rim) somehow adorable in its incorrectitude. But what was in a way the most interesting to me was the degree to which she didn’t even bother taking on Bernie Sanders or any of his policies, apparently not considering him her real opponent…or at least not in the senses that the future Republican nominee will be. (In that estimation, I suppose she is surely correct.)

As far as I could tell, John Kasich said nothing in his remarks that the other speakers didn’t all say. Bizarrely referencing himself as “the candidate with the deepest, most far-reaching foreign policy experience, he was either thinking solely of Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump (and thus setting the bar more than low to make his point)…or else it must have slipped his mind for the moment that Mrs. Clinton used to be the Secretary of State of the United States. Like his fellow Republicans in the mix, he spoke about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, about supporting Israel in the face of Palestinian hostility, and about his wish quickly to cancel the Iran accord. He was affable and eloquent; the crowd was polite and receptive.

And then we got to Donald Trump, who—at least for me personally—was the biggest surprise of the evening. I’ve heard many people speak in many different contexts, but I can’t recall any of them as having been mesmerizing. Trump was mesmerizing. He is not eloquent—certainly not in the same category of oratorical skill as, say, John Kasich or Mrs. Clinton—and there is a certain vulgar coarseness to his oratory even when he’s not insulting anyone in particular. But I’ve never heard a speaker able to hold the attention of that many thousands of listeners at once. When Ted Cruz was speaking (see below), people all around me were checking their email, talking to their neighbors, heading out to the restrooms, listening with all of one ear and some of the other. When Trump spoke, he had the full attention of every delegate I could see. That hardly makes him the best choice for president, but it was still remarkable to experience.

He’s a braggart, to be sure. (Mentioning that he sent Mayor Giuliani to Israel after 9/11 on his own jet was a nice touch. If he doesn’t end up as president, maybe he could just buy Air Force One and fly around the world in it anyway. And touting himself as the single living soul who knows more than anyone else—including, presumably John Kerry and President Obama—about the Iran deal generated some laughter, but it was far from clear to me that he was joking.) The rest of his remarks went to the heart of any number of matters, and the audience lapped it up. The responsibility for there not being peace between Israel and the Palestinians rests with the obstructionist Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem must be acknowledged as the capital of Israel. The United Nations is not a friend to democracy or freedom…and certainly not a friend of our nation or of Israel, and for that reason, he said, the United States under Trump’s leadership will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose any sort of agreement on Israel. The Iran deal, because it solely places limits on Iran’s military nuclear program for a certain number of years, put us all—and particularly Israel—in a “terrible, terrible situation.” The applause was thunderous.

So caustic and vituperative were Trump’s comments about President Obama that the AIPAC leadership felt the need publicly to apologize for them. Trump’s comments were insulting and I think many, myself included, were shocked that he would speak so disrespectfully about the President of the United States openly and without any apparent shame at all. But what was just as remarkable was the way the man had his finger on the pulse of the convention: it felt as though he somehow knew what to say to bring the audience to its feet again and again. His much-referenced neutrality regarding Israel and the Palestinians seems to have been completely dropped. His off-hand remark earlier the same day about having Israel pay for some part of the aid it receives (leaving unaddressed the question of whether that isn’t precisely what aid is: assistance you don’t have to pay for) was completely unreferenced in his remarks. The audience rose to its feet almost a dozen times in the course of his remarks. For those of us used to thinking of Donald Trump as a crass vulgarian, being present for Trump’s remarks was—to say the very least—a sobering experience. For someone like myself who keeps asking himself who exactly is voting for the man—and in such large numbers and why anyone would, it was instructive and more than a bit unnerving to see the man in action.

Trump was followed by Ted Cruz, who apparently wasn’t listening to Trump’s speech and so spent a serious amount of time lambasting him for his pledge of neutrality in the Middle East, a pledge Trump had more or less completely renounced moments earlier. His special twist on the Iran deal was to stress the connection he sees between that deal and the Munich Accord of 1938 that led to the Second World War and the Shoah. He mentioned Elie Wiesel by name, presumably to establish his own bona fides as someone who knows what the Holocaust entailed for its victims. And then, declaring that under his presidency, “the American people will stand together and say, ‘Never again means never again,” he more or less implied that a nuclear Iran will herald a new Holocaust…and that the Cruz administration will devote itself to preventing that from happening. He too was well received, although no one would describe him as mesmerizing. (I myself checked my email a few times while he was talking.) But he spoke passionately and clearly, intelligently too, and the audience was very respectful, rising to its feet for him too, and repeatedly.

So that was my trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference. I highly recommend the experience, including the day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, to all of you. It is a chance to become involved, to speak up and out, to join the ranks of people whose commitment to Israel is as practically-oriented as it is emotional or spiritual. Some have lately questioned AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship, but I saw no traces of any wavering in that regard during my time at the conference: AIPAC stands with the government of Israel, regardless of who leads it, and represents Israel’s best interests to our own elected officials whoever they may be. And for that reason alone, I’m proud to be a supporter! I detected no secret agenda in the mix of things at AIPAC, only satisfying evidence of the vibrancy of our American republic, a democracy in which the people have the right to assemble as they wish and to set forward their views to their elected officials precisely so that the latter may represent their constituencies faithfully as they legislate and govern our great nation.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Sorites Moment

Of the many childhood memories that have surfaced in these last weeks as the hundredth anniversary of my father’s birth came and went, one seems particularly trenchant to consider as this strangest of all presidential campaigns unfolds and we, unsure what to make of it all, look on and wonder only what might happen next.

“It’s impossible,” my dad once told the eleven- or twelve-year-old me, “to walk across a room.” Confused, I asked what he was talking about: obviously, you can walk across a room! How can you not? But no, my dad went on, you can’t. To cross a room widthwise, say, you must first walk through the first half of the space between two facing walls, and then—and only then—may you walk through the other half. But then, as you contemplate crossing the remaining half, it dawns on you that to do this successfully, you now again must cross the first half of what’s left of the room’s width, and then the second half. This you manage, and are now three-quarters of your way to the far wall. But to cross the remaining quarter, you must first traverse the first half of the remaining distance, and then you can cover the second half. But then, as you prepare to cross your final eighth…you realize that you must first cross the first half and only then can you cross the second half. You can all see, I’m sure, where this was going—even the boy-version of myself saw it eventually: no matter how much or how little ground is left to cover, you must first cross the first half and then the rest. So, theoretically, you cannot ever get to the far wall! And that, my father submitted, was why you can’t cross a room from one side to the other.
I was a clever lad, or I liked to think of myself as one, but this flummoxed me entirely. He was obviously wrong, wasn’t he? 

How could it possibly be impossible to cross a room on foot? I myself did it all the time! But what about his argument? Where was the flaw in it? I couldn’t find one, yet I also knew his premise was not only wrong, but silly, absurd. And that is where things stood until I finally got to college and learned that my father hadn’t made this up—or at least that others had made it up before him—and that there was a whole thing in philosophy called the sorites paradox. (The Greek word for “heap,” the word sorites correctly pronounced rhymes with “more tripe, please.”) First worked out by the unjustly obscure Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of Aristotle and who had a thing for paradoxes, the well-named sorites paradox is about the relationship between a grain of sand and a heap. A single grain of sand is obviously not a heap of sand. Nor are two grains side by side. Nor does it make sense to say that something as minuscule as a grain of sand could transform a non-heap into a heap. Still, if you slowly and methodically add grains of sand to the pile, at some point you do have a heap of sand.  And although that has to be true, it somehow also has to be not true, since its being true would imply the existence of a specific point at which a heap of sand would stop being a heap if you removed from it one single grain of sand…and that sounds ridiculous. How could removing a single grain of sand possibly ever change the status of a whole heap? How could an onlooker even tell it was missing?

I was reminded of both these versions of the paradox—I wisely omit the version that asks how the loss of a single hair can make a man bald—as I contemplated with dismay the whole controversy about the so-called Hitler salute that Donald Trump has been eliciting from his followers at some rallies as a kind of public pledge to vote for him on primary day.

Attempts to allay my ill ease have, at least so far, only been marginally successful. The long essay by Jessie Guy-Ryan published the other day on the Atlas Obscura website detailing the history of the salute (and referencing—and quoting at length—Hitler’s own explanation that, although the Italian fascists adopted it first, the salute had bona fide German roots that went back at least to the sixteenth century when the entire Diet of Worms used it, apparently spontaneously, to welcome Martin Luther into their midst) only provoked deeper anxiety in me. Nor did it calm me particularly to learn that that claim was apparently entirely bogus, as was too the Italians’ own insistence that the salute had its roots in ancient Rome. (Interested readers can consult Martin Winkler’s very interesting 2009 book, The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology.) I suppose I should admit that I was slightly amused to read that the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance, written by one Francis J. Bellamy at the request of the then-popular Youth’s Companion magazine in 1892, eventually and for many years featured the exact same salute featuring the “right arm straight forward, angling slightly upward, fingers pointing directly ahead.” That Congress actually acted to end the possibility of America’s schoolchildren pledging allegiance to our flag using what by then was widely understood to be a Nazi gesture—the Flag Code was actually amended in December of 1942 to require that the Pledge be recited “with the right hand over the heart”—is, however, merely a historical detail that really only proves my basic premise: that by the middle of the twentieth century, the gesture in question was universally understood as a Nazi salute, not as a patriotic American one…much less a gesture of fealty to the Roman Empire. (If you’re reading this electronically, click here to see Guy-Ryan’s full essay.) 

That was certainly how Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist and self-defined “national socialist” who murdered seventy-seven people in 2011 (most of them children) in two separate attacks, understood it when he raised his arm in an Oslo courtroom last week to greet the public with the most overt non-verbal symbol of his own political philosophy he could manage silently.

On this side of the Atlantic, the whole brouhaha surrounding the raised-arm pledge that Donald Trump has been requesting of his followers at some rallies is in some sense a tempest in a teacup. There is an American Nazi party, to be sure, but Donald Trump is neither a member nor a supporter. Nor are his Republican supporters reasonably identified as crypto-Nazis who secretly sympathize with National Socialism. All of that is too much, hyperbole bordering on true craziness. And it surely also bears saying that Donald Trump himself has insisted that the pledge gesture has nothing to do with Nazism and has been intentionally misinterpreted by his detractors as a way of defaming his character. That may well be true—and yet the fact that we have come this quickly to the point at which a salute so widely understood to be an expression of allegiance to Nazism that Congress actually felt compelled to intervene has become something people can do in public without worry, without shame, without fear regarding their own reputations…that’s the sorites moment for me personally, the possible/impossible moment at which a single grain turns a non-heap into a heap. Is this just insensitivity, just tastelessness, just cluelessness? Or is it something else entirely? American Hindus do not walk around with swastikas painted on their heads, after all…and that despite the fact that the origins of the swastika are indeed in ancient India, where it appears to have been in use as a religious symbol as early as 3000 BCE. It may well be an ancient Vedic symbol symbolizing the cycle of seasons or the sun itself, but that’s not what it means today to the overwhelming majority of Americans.

I am a congregational rabbi. I don’t endorse candidates. I don’t encourage people to vote one way or the other. But somehow this whole issue of the Nazi-ish salute, layered over the candidate’s coy and bizarrely delayed repudiation of support from white supremacist and former KKK leader David Duke, his open and as-yet-unretracted remark that Jewish voters are only interested in supporting candidates whom they can control with their money, and my anxiety regarding the question of what the candidate “really” means by the neutrality he intends, if elected, to bring to American policy in the Middle East—the issue of a pledge so strongly reminiscent of the Nazi salute layered over all that makes me wonder which grain of sand it will take fundamentally to alter the sense of security under law American Jews have come to think of as natural and normal. That the candidate has a now-Jewish daughter and is the grandfather of Jewish grandchildren somehow only makes the waters murkier, not clearer, to my mind. Can the candidate really not know what the people whose salute his pledge overtly mimics would have made of his daughter’s choice to embrace Judaism or of his grandchildren’s Jewishness?

I am going to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference next week and am looking forward more than anything to hearing Donald Trump address the conference. (Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz will be there too, and I also look forward to hearing them. But I am eagerest of all to hear Trump, to experience the man personally, to hear him speak with my own ears.) I doubt he will ask the attendees at AIPAC to raise their arms and pledge their support! But I want to be there to listen attentively and count the grains as they gather and to see if I can personally solve Eubilides’ paradox as it applies to the day-to-day dynamics of American politics. Candidate Trump has said many things that feel at odds with our national ethos, with our most basic American values. Yet his numbers continue to rise as he collects more and more delegates to take along to Cleveland in July. Will the raised-arm pledge eventually be seen as that grain of sand that tipped the balance and made of a right-wing Conservative something else entirely? That, of course, remains to be seen. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Dead Babies of Babylon...and Other Biblical Challenges

One of the more irritating aspects of the latest spate of pro-atheism, anti-religion books that have been published in the last few years is their insistence on reading the Bible literally. In that regard, their authors forge a strange bond with actual fundamentalists, Christian and Jewish. But, whereas the latter respond to embarrassing passages in the Bible (that is, the ones wholly out of sync with the moral values we promote today as reasonable and rational) by insisting that they are God’s own words and that if we don’t understand them it’s because we’re not intelligent enough to perceive their “real” meaning, the former take them simply to be signs of what a really bad idea it is to try to live in harmony with books written millennia ago which, precisely because they are presumed to mean what exactly they say, in no way match our modern, well-honed sense of right and wrong.

Neither approach is all that rational. To reject the whole concept of there being sacred books reflective of God’s will in the world because we are unable to embrace some specific passages in some one of those books seems a bit like pitching out the baby with the bathwater. But to insist that every single thought expressed in any biblical passage must be embraced—and wholeheartedly—as an acceptable plank in the study, defensible moral platform on which all decent people naturally wish to stand, that seems more than a bit forced as well.

I encounter this all the time, both when I prepare remarks to deliver from the bimah and in my own writing. The Torah portion, Ki Teitztei, for example, opens with three stunning examples of this kind of passage, beginning with a passage describing the circumstances under which an Israelite soldier can force himself on an attractive female prisoner-of-war, the continuing with a passage requiring a father not to treat his sons equally when disposing of his estate (daughters don’t inherit at all unless there are no sons), and then concluding with a passage explaining under what circumstances parents can legitimately petition municipal authorities to execute a disobedient child who has turned (no doubt among other things) to gluttony and excessive drinking.  Surely none of these passages even remotely conforms to our modern sense of how ethically to encounter the world, but we read the full passage aloud when we get there in our annual lectionary cycle nevertheless, hoping quickly to move along to something more acceptable. But is that a reasonable compromise, reading the passage aloud in synagogue, thus acclaiming it both publicly and formally as sacred writ, and then dealing with its implications by hoping no one reads the translation before we move forward to some other, more morally justifiable passage? Should we attempt to rationalize, thus to find some acceptable layer of meaning embedded in the text somewhere? Or should we simply wave such passages away as reflective of the morality of a different age and leave it at that?

I recently came across a terrifically interesting symposium on just such a passage on a website I’ve been frequenting lately, It’s a remarkable site, featuring weekly essays by authors who uniformly try to merge a scientific, intellectually-justifiable approach to the text with a traditionalist orientation towards Judaism and towards religion in general. There’s so much there that I won’t even attempt to list the various essays you’ll find there, but I recommend it highly as a place to go for serious, thoughtful learning…the kind that mostly successfully integrates a traditional worldview with cutting-edge biblical scholarship.

The symposium focuses on Psalm 137 and particularly on its last verse. It’s a famous poem. Writing as one of the exiles shipped off to Iraq in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and the razing of Jerusalem, the poet begins with one of the Bible’s most famous rhetorical questions.  “We wept by the rivers of Babylon,” he recalls, “as we remembered Zion, and we hung our lyres on the willows along the riverbank. Indeed, when our captors demanded to hear some songs, some happy tunes, ordering us to ‘sing some songs of Zion for us,’ we couldn’t—for how ever could we sing divine hymns on foreign soil?”  And then, moved by his predicament, the poet takes a solemn oath, “If I should forget you, O Jerusalem,” he declares, “let my right hand too forget how to function; let my tongue cleave to my palate if I no longer remember you, if I fail to place Jerusalem at the top of the list of things that bring me joy.” So far, the poem is moving and deeply touching. But then the poet becomes angry, remembering the Babylonians crying out “Raze it, raze it down to its very foundations” as they set themselves to destroying the Holy City. And then he wraps his ode to frustration in the wake of catastrophe with a double observation, the first that “happy will be the one who pays back to you what you have done to us,” and the second grotesquely noting that no less happy will be the one who has the opportunity to seize the babes of Babylon and hurl them to their deaths by smashing their defenseless bodies on outcroppings of rock.

It’s that last thought that’s hard to process. To be angry, to be enraged, to be frustrated, to be miserable…all these emotions feel more than justified by the historical reality through which the poet apparently lived personally. To hope for payback, to pray that the enemy experience the horror it has inflicted on the House of Israel—that too seems reasonable, or at least rational. But to pray for the summary murder of babies—one doesn’t try infants in court for the crimes of their parents, after all—seems unbearable to read, much less to accept as a valid wish. Does the poet ruin his psalm by adding such a base, ignoble thought at the end? Should we suppress the ending, or perhaps the entire psalm, as tainted by a dishonorable wish that that poet, half-crazed in his misery, failed to censor? Or should we embrace the bracing thought that the enemies of Israel risk everything, even the lives of their babes, when they go to war with God’s people? Is that last thought a noble idea or an ignoble one, a profoundly monitory notion the nations of the world would do well to take to heart or an embarrassingly sordid fantasy to which the poet should never have given voice? How should we read biblical passages like Psalm 137?

The symposium, which you can find easily by clicking here, is fascinating. Jeremy Rosen, a Cambridge graduate with rabbinic ordination from the Mir yeshivah, suggest we consider passages like the end of Psalm 137 as poetic catharsis, as a therapeutic way to deal with unbearable pain not by carrying out one’s baser wishes but by finding the courage to express them and then to face them down. Eugene Korn, also an Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. in philosophy, writes about the way the classical rabbis themselves defanged these texts, accepting them as expressive of their authors’ basest inclinations and then laboring not to deny them their power but to reassign that power to more noble ends, thus taking the text not as a bitter pill to be swallowed but as an intellectual and moral challenge to be met.  Both those essays had strong effects on me and I think my readers will find them intriguing and interesting as well.

Erica Brown, author of many books and a columnist for the New York Jewish Week, writes cleverly about the poet’s motive in writing what he did, suggesting that by cursing the enemy in a way that no sane person could embrace honorably, he was inviting readers to understand that this is what happened to the infants of Israel whom the Babylonians seized, a bit of wartime reportage so ghoulish that he could only report on it obliquely by praying that the enemy be forced one day to swallow its own medicine. And Yehudah Gilad, a rosh yeshivah in Israel and formerly a member of the Knesset, take a similar tack, taking the poet’s ghoulish imprecation as indicative of the horrors visited upon the Jews themselves and forgiving the poet for taking such a potentially confusing way somehow to say what he simply could not say aloud any other way.

Tamar Ross, before her retirement a professor of philosophy at Bar Ilan, writes about the poet’s rage and how the exaggerated, wholly inappropriate curse at the end of his poem is mean to suggest rage so overwhelming that the enraged party no longer knows any boundary in seeking to express the emotion it engenders.

My favorite response, though, was by Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of Jewish studies at Duke, whose essay contextualizes the whole passage, bringing to bear not one or two but a dozen texts from elsewhere in the Bible and from ancient Assyrian texts as well. It’s a tour de force, one that encourages readers to read in context, to appreciate the way language was used in antiquity to threaten the foe with the horrific consequences that defeat will bring in its wake…and the specific way that threat applies to the foe’s wives and children. It’s very convincing, this argument that the problem itself doesn’t exist because the poet’s horrific wish that the enemy’s infants be murdered by being flung so violently against rocks that they explode (to translate the passage literally) is part of a large complex of literary devices used by poets and prose-authors in antiquity to express their hostility to their nation’s foes…and nothing more (or less) than that.

There are several more pieces on the website worth your time to read and consider, including one by Lee Buckman, once a rabbinic intern at Shelter Rock and now the principal of a Jewish high school in Toronto.  All are very interesting as separate pieces of work, but together they constitute a clear example of just how penetratingly and intelligently rabbis and Jewish scholars can grapple with serious moral issues when they set aside their preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy and explore the issues on their own merits and without prejudice born of prior convictions. is a remarkable resource. I encourage you to take a look, to read what interests you, and to find comfort in the fact that there are those out there, and myself surely among them, laboring to integrate the values of spiritual authenticity and intellectual integrity in the context of the thoughtful analysis of the bread-and-butter texts of the literary legacy of Jewish antiquity. It is a daunting task, and—particularly for the Orthodox-affiliated, a relatively thankless one. But there can be great nobility even in the most thankless task and I think my readers will find the material gathered at this particular website as inspiring as they will surely find it fascinating. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Unity of God...and Other Controversies

As part of our offering of Adult Education opportunities at Shelter Rock, I have spent seventy-five minutes every Friday morning for the last year and a half teaching two of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books, Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man. (The class is from 7:45 to 9:00 AM and all are welcome.) Both books were published more than half a century ago, Man Is Not Alone in 1951 and God in Search of Man in 1955, and both together—they were written separately, then marketed as companion volumes—constitute, at least in some sense, Heschel’s revision of Judaism (and religion in general) in light of the Shoah.

Perhaps that’s an unfair way to evaluate the books—Heschel doesn’t mention the Shoah other than obliquely in either book—but for a man as profoundly affected, including deeply personally, by the fate of European Jewry to have published these two books within the first post-war decade makes it almost impossible for me to read them any other way. They are complicated books too—well-written in Heschel’s occasionally too-florid English prose (English was, after all, his fifth or sixth language), sometimes a bit convoluted in terms of their inner logic, passionate and vivid in their rhetorical flourishes, and—at least in places—as dense as dense prose gets. And yet for all that, the books have withstood the test of time amply and well: even six decades after they were first published, they retain their rich vibrancy and their contemporary feel. I read them first when I was still in college—it was the same summer that I read Robert Pirsig’s great Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, so a very important season for me intellectually and religiously—and was beyond enthralled. Heschel died during my junior year of college, so I can’t say that my decision to enter the rabbinical school at JTS was motivated by my desire to study with him directly. But it would be more than fair to say that my emotional involvement with his books and his legacy made me feel that the school in which he taught was the one I wished to attend. And even though he himself was long gone by the time I finally arrived to begin my studies, there was more than enough of his spirit present in the institution still to convince me I had made the right choice.

Material we’ve been covering in our class provides an interesting backdrop to the story of Larycia Hawkins, the professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, who lost her job just last month after stirring up a huge controversy by choosing to wear a hijab—the Muslim woman’s head scarf—to work. Wheaton College is a four-year Christian liberal arts college near Chicago that self-defines as existing within “the evangelical Protestant tradition” and is well known, among other things, for having itself having served as a “station” on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping from the antebellum South and, later, for graduating the first black person to earn a college degree in the state of Illinois. So the school itself has a noble history, but what was interesting to me about Professor Hawkins was that she wore her hijab not as a sign of her own identification as a Muslim—she herself is apparently a deeply committed Christian—but as an act of solidarity with Muslims in our country who, she believed, are widely and unfairly condemned holus-bolus as terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers regardless of their personal politics or beliefs, and who could only benefit from a friendly outsider expressing her solidarity with them.

Whether she was behaving courageously or foolishly (or both) is hard to say. But what interests me—particularly in light of our eighteen-month-long reread of Heschel’s books—is specifically her justification for standing with our nation’s Muslims despite her own religious affiliation elsewhere: because Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she explained, the differences between their religions are all matters of detail not of profound principle. Presumably, she would say the same about Jews, the third leg of that particular stool. And there is admittedly a certain inner logic to her thinking on the matter: if there is only one God, then by definition must not all who worship the one God be worshiping the same God? And if we are all worshiping the same God, then must not the differences between religions just be cosmetic in nature, somewhat in the way the cuisines of different countries appeal to the palate differently and have differing flavors and textures, but are ultimately all fashioned from some combination of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals?

It sounds like so much innocent theological theorizing, but the international brouhaha that erupted—and that ultimately cost Professor Hawkins her job—suggested that she had somehow touched a deep nerve. In an essay in The American Interest, Peter Berger wrote the other week about a kind of counterpart decision by the highest court in Malaysia, which last month upheld a legal ban against Arabic-language Christian publications using the Arabic word for God, Allah, to refer to the God Christians worship. Failing to be impressed by the argument that the God of Christianity and of Islam must be the same God precisely because there is only one God, the court determined that the triune God Christians worship may never be referenced with the same word Muslims use for “God” because Christian dogma so distorts the absolute monotheism that Islam inherited from Judaism that the resultant deity, whatever pedigree it bears theologically or philosophically, simply is not the undifferentiated, wholly unified God revered by Muslims and, presumably, Jews. (To see Peter Berger’s essay, which I enjoyed very much, click here.)

Heschel falls directly into this debate in the earlier of the books, arguing that most people are moved to easily moved to piety through the cultivation of the sense of wonder, of absolute amazement (he calls it “radical” amazement), that derives directly from the humble contemplation of the grandeur of creation. And that that sense of faith in the Creator that derives directly from the contemplation of creation is the core concept of all religious thinking untainted by self-interest.

If that is so, then, the world’s religions—or at least those that are monotheistic in nature and do not fall prey to the pagan inclination to ignore the Creator and instead to deify creation itself—are all variations on the same theme. I remember reading somewhere that the difference between vanilla and chocolate ice cream—for all they taste different and look different—is some minuscule amount of flavoring, but that the chemical make-up of all flavors of ice cream is more or less exactly the same. Is the same true of religions, that they have different flavors but are essentially the same thing? In the first of his books, that’s approximately what Heschel suggests. And that is exactly the assertion that got Larycia Hawkins in so much trouble. The New Testament quotes Jesus as unambiguously saying just the opposite, that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Professor Hawkins would no doubt wave that away as a bit of chauvinist rhetoric in the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish gospel that can and should be ignored, or at least set aside, by serious Christians. Her employers, equally clearly, did not agree. But what would Heschel have said? That’s the interesting question for me personally! 

In God in Search of Man, Heschel takes an entirely different approach, writing primarily about Judaism and attempting vigorously to counter the suggestion that religions are exactly like flavors of ice cream that are different solely because flavoring makes them taste differently but not because they truly are different in any truly meaningful way. That surely was not what Heschel wanted to believe, nor, I’m sure, was it what he did believe. And God in Search of Man is his effort to explain himself more clearly on the matter.

It is fascinating to me that no ancient language has a word that corresponds to what moderns mean by the word “religion.” (The Latin word religio, from which our English word derives, means something more akin to “piety” or “devoutness.”) I’ll write one day about the interesting phenomenon of things that seem so obviously to moderns to exist not having been named in antiquity because they didn’t strike the ancients as existing at all—the fact that there was no words for what we mean by “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” in ancient times is my most interesting example, but there are also many others—but for the moment let’s consider religion in that light: as something that clearly seems to us to exist, yet which no one named in ancient times. Indeed, the notion that religions were things you could have one or another one of is a particularly modern idea that emerged from the study of comparative religion as it was first instituted in the nineteenth century in European universities. That specific way of thinking yielded the notion that the features of religion could be reasonably described in terms of other religions as well, the kind of thinking that leads to thinking of Ramadan as the Muslim Lent or of Easter as the Christian Passover. But what if the basic notion itself were flawed? There’s also no word for Judaism in ancient Jewish sources, by the way, and for a very interesting reason: because it did not strike the Jews of ancient times as even slightly correct to describe the relationship between God and Israel—and all that that relationship entails in terms of ritual, ethical, spiritual, and liturgical obligation—not as an elaborate, intensely sacred covenant but rather as a mere “ism” among countless others. That there are different religions in the world is true in the sense that countless cultures have evolved their own frameworks for spiritual development. But these spiritual systems exist on their own grids and in their own terms; they are specifically not each other’s equivalents in the way the world’s languages—or the world’s ice cream cones—essentially all are.

To wonder which of the world’s religions is superior to which other ones is thus itself almost a meaningless question, something like asking whether a chain saw or an oboe is the better “thing.” Both, surely, are things—they exist in the real world, they perform functions, they can be in good repair or broken, they are made of some combination of wood, metal, and plastic—but the comparison makes no real sense because they are not each other’s equivalents in any other sense at all. And the same can reasonably be said of the world’s religions—that they are not each other’s equivalents in any truly important way and so cannot meaningfully be compared, evaluated, and hierarchized merely because they respond to some of the basic needs of human beings to find meaning in life and solace in faith.

All that being the case, the firestorm of criticism Professor Hawkins was forced to endure was interesting for several reasons. First, because it is vaguely amusing that these ideas can still fire up so many people so passionately. Secondly, because the idea she put forward to justify her hijab was fully justifiable, there being only one God, but at the same time incapable of demeaning the adherents of any specific faith…most definitely including her own. That she was demeaned unacceptable as a faculty member as a result of her remarks about the oneness of God suggests a basic insecurity that demeans her former institution and suggests an unseemly uneasiness with the unity of the very God the faithful of all religions attempt to know…and to serve.