Thursday, September 29, 2016

As a New Year Dawns

One of the most famous tropes of our High Holiday season is the notion of the great Book of Life that God is said to keep in heaven and in which are imaged to be recorded the details of our destinies…but specifically not as predetermined at birth but rather as annually recalculated with respect to our success at living up to our own values.

It’s a bit of a difficult image to seize, however. There are about seven and a half billion people living in the world today. Does each have page? That would be one fat book if each does! Or do only those who formally submit themselves to God’s judgment on an annual basis have specific pages? That would make the book considerably thinner! But what of the rest of everybody in that case? Surely, you can’t escape the consequences of your own behavior merely by stepping outside the game in the manner of a jaded athlete who realizes at a certain point that he can guarantee never losing another game simply by not playing! Whatever else it is, life is surely not that kind of game!

And then there are all the fairly dour implications of the concept that we mostly choose blithely just to ignore. If our fates are sealed in the great Book of Life as the gates swing shut in the last moments of Yom Kippur…then does that mean that all who die in the course of the year that follows were sentenced to death by God? What else could it mean? And, indeed, the most famous of all High Holiday prayers, the Unetaneh Tokef, takes just that tack, not only promoting the plausibility of taking all of this literally, but actually going so far as to list the various fates to which God might choose to condemn those unfortunates not written up for another year of life. But even that we all take with a huge grain of salt. Drowning, dying in a fire, starving to death, being strangled…it’s a gruesome list that many can recite almost by heart. But does any of us really think that that is how it works, that people who die in some horrific house fire somewhere were sentenced to death-by-conflagration by their heavenly Judge and were specifically not the victims of a horrible accident or of someone’s deadly carelessness? Surely no one really thinks that! And we think that even less with respect to the victims of crime, that their assailants were merely fulfilling God’s decree for the individual in question and so were not really guilty of having committed a crime at all! Even saying that feels obnoxious and wrongheaded. It certainly feels unjust. But saying what then the Unetaneh Tokef actually does mean—or could mean or should mean—is not quite as simple as it feels that it ought to be.

And yet, despite it all, there is still something deeply attractive about the notion that we are all in God’s hands not metaphorically or merely poetically, but really and actually…and to the extent, even, that the future trajectories of our lives are not arbitrary or accidental but the thoughtful, rational, entirely justifiable response of God to our own behavior, to our own actions, to our own moral worth. In a sense, that notion all by itself is what transforms Rosh Hashanah from “just” a New Year’s celebration into something like the annual Jewish season of being taken seriously, of asserting that what we do matters, that how we act counts. Almost more to the point is the corollary to that idea, which is as arresting theologically as it is challenging spiritually: that the universe has a moral core and that the degree to which we earn the right to our place in it depends on the degree to which we make ourselves worthy of life itself, of the gift of life.

Where the whole concept came from is hard to say. In the Torah, for example, there is explicit reference to such a book, but it’s difficult to say if the passage in question is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically.  The context is a dialogue between God and Moses in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. God is more than annoyed with the Israelite and is considering their permanent eradication from the human family. Moses, ever his people’s advocate, takes it upon himself to attempt some sort of reconciliation. “This people has committed a great sin by fashioning for itself a golden god,” he admits humbly, “but even so I beseech you to forgive their sin. But if that should prove not possible, then erase me as well from the great book You have written.” That’s the first we hear of such a book and we are, naturally, confused: is Moses speaking poetically or is he making reference to some actual thing he somehow knows to exist in heaven, to an actual ledger in which the fates of all who live are recorded? God seems to presume the latter: Don’t worry, God says semi-soothingly, only “those who sinned against me shall I erase from My book.” So there is such a book! Or was God merely picking up on Moses’s image without meaning inadvertently (if an all-knowing Deity even can act inadvertently, that is) to endorse it as a reference to an actual thing? It’s hard to say!

But it’s in the Psalms that the idea has its first real traction…and it’s those two texts I’d like to present to you today.

In the 69th psalm, the context is almost clear. People who know the Psalms only from a distance tend to imagine it to be a collection of irenic odes to faith and are therefore unprepared for the level of violence, fear, and anger that characterizes so many of the poems in the book. The 69th psalm is a good example: the poet, like so many of his colleagues, feels despised and rejected by his peers and by his family. He is in fear for his life as well…and switches metaphors repeatedly so as to convey the feverish nature of the assaults he must somehow try to live through. He has no problem cursing his enemies too, which he does broadly and venomously, praying that God’s wrath overtake his foes, that their homes collapse, that they be stricken with blindness and that their bones become brittle and broken. And then he waxes theological in effort effectively to curse his enemies: “May they never atone sufficiently for their sins to warrant that You judge them charitably. / Indeed, may they be erased from the Book of Life and not written up with the righteous.” And there it is, almost baldly put: the poet imagines a Book of Life in which the righteous are written up for good…and from which the poet prays his enemies’ names never appear. Or that, if they somehow do appear in the book, then that they be erased. Permanently.

It’s an angry curse, but not the only reference to a divine book preserved in the Psalter. In the 139th psalm, the poet is written from a different vantage point entirely. Serene in his faith, the poet imagines God to have been watching him not just since the moment of birth, but long before that: “You knew me,” he writes, addressing God, “as an embryo, as a lump of unshaped protoplasm / You saw me even then for all that I was with Your own eyes; / each detail of my development you noted down in Your book. / All my days were thus charted, even the very last one.”  So it’s not just a book of judgment and verdict, but a kind of log of each of our lives…God’s book is literally the story of each of our lives starting with our earliest pre-born iterations and continuing up until we draw our final breaths and are no longer.

And it was that book—that book which is a log of our lives and the notebook in which Judge God notes down our fates and the record book in which King God keeps track of all humankind the better to rule over them justly and equitably—it was that book that made its way into Unetaneh Tokef and became the symbol par excellence of our holiday season.

But there is one final verse from the Psalms to quote in this context too. A different poet, the one whose poem became our 56th psalm, is in a state of high anxiety. He being watched…and he knows it. His enemies are constantly on the lookout for some misstep, for some critical error of judgment they can use to bring him down. He has his faith as his sole bulwark against those who would do him harm. But does he have the good deeds to warrant God’s protection? I sense we might think that he does, but the poet himself, in the manner of all truly righteous souls, doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, he thinks of himself as unworthy, as base. All, he says, that he has to offer on his own behalf are tears—the copious tears of ill ease and apprehension he has shed over the years and continues to shed as he contemplates his enemies’ possibly lethal wrath. But where are those tears now that he needs them to speak out on his behalf? That’s the question! And the answer is, to say the very least, unexpected: “You catch my tears,” he says to God, “you catch them all in your divine wineskin. / Is that not exactly the same as recording my deeds in Your great book?”

And that is the idea I wish to offer to you all as my personal yontif gift to you all. The notion that, amidst all the splendor of the heavenly throne room, the Almighty has room for—of all things—an old wineskin in which are kept the tears shed by people who yearn for a better world…and that that wineskin is stored beneath the throne of God because nothing on high is more precious than those tears, which the Creator lovingly preserves as a reminder of the nobility of the broken heart, of the soul rent asunder—that notion is something for us all to keep close to our breasts as we make our way through the holiday season.

And the poet’s suggestion that a single tear in that wineskin is worth a page of words in the Book of Life itself is also worth keeping close at hand. To be irritated with the world is easy enough. To be disappointed in ourselves, easier still. But to find the emotion necessary to elicit even a single real tear of regret or remorse…and for that tear to inspire us to reframe our lives for the better…that is the real challenge, and precisely for the reason the psalmist gave: because that single tear is worth a whole page of flowery prose in the Book of Life. To stand before God divested of our finery and without the usual armor of word and accomplishment separating us from our divine Parent, and for all we have to offer to be one single tear prompted by the pure, unadulterated desire to live better and more meaningful Jewish lives—that is the poet’s gift to us all, and it is my yontif gift to you all as well.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Regular readers of these letters know that I have returned many times to the question of what constitutes a true hero in an age that so clearly values celebrity over moral valor.

Years ago, I wrote in that vein about Miep Gies, the woman who was personally responsible for hiding the Frank family in German-occupied Amsterdam. (To reread what I had to say about Miep Gies, click here.) More recently, I wrote about Janusz Korczak, the teacher who chose to accompany the children in his charge to their deaths, and to his, at Treblinka on August 6, 1942, rather than abandon them to their fate merely because that option was available to him. And in that same piece I also wrote about Lassana Bathily, the young Muslim man from Mali who selflessly risked his life to hide however many Jewish patrons of the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris back in January 2015 when it was suddenly under attack. (To read what I had to say about him, and also about Janusz Korczak, click here.)  And it was just this last February that I wrote about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the American officer captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge who put his own life on the line rather than assist the Nazis in identifying the Jewish prisoners they had captured. (To reread that letter, click here.)

All of these people had different stories that unfolded in different places and against different backgrounds. But the one thing they had in common—with the obvious exception of Korczak, who died before he could comment on his own behavior—is their common disinclination to describe their own actions as heroic. Let me quote specifically Lassana Bathily in that regard. Upon being granted French citizenship as a reward for his actions at the Hyper Cacher, he said the following: “People say I am a hero, but I am not a hero at all…I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.”  Using different language, that’s what all of the people mentioned above said or, I think, would have said had they had the opportunity: that there is something odd, perhaps even a bit perverse, about using words like “heroism” and “bravery” to describe simple acts of decency and kindness to others…and that this is true even in the extreme situation: whatever the real definition of heroism is, it should not be simply doing the right thing. When I put it that way, it sounds like an obvious truth.  But does any of us really not think of Sgt. Edmonds—who refused to abandon the men in his charge with the barrel of a German officer’s gun pressed to his forehead—as a hero? And so we have a bit of a paradox: the notion that normal decency should never be described as bravery or heroism sounds right enough, but we balk at following that thought through to its logical conclusion by agreeing with Lassana that he was just behaving normally and not heroically at all when he risked his life selflessly to help innocents.

And now we come to the Sharps, Waitsell and Martha, the subject of a very well done documentary by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky that aired earlier this week on PBS.  By all accounts, the Sharps were unlikely people to end up remembered primarily for their death-defying sacrifices to rescue Jews and other dissidents from Nazi-occupied Europe. Waitstill, born in 1902, descended from some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was as born-and-bred a Yankee as they come. Martha, originally Martha Ingham Dickie, was born in 1905 and trained as a social worker at Northwestern University before marrying Waitstill in 1927, the year after he graduated Harvard Law School and the year before he walked away from a very promising career as a lawyer and decided instead to become a Unitarian minister. 

Once the Rev. Sharp was ordained, the couple settled in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he became pastor of the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills in 1936. It must have seemed like an idea situation for them both: a respected pulpit, a lovely home, a peaceful town, a promising career. They eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. If some visitor from the future had come to Wellesley one Sunday morning and, taking a congregant or two aside, had showed them pictures of the Sharps’ trees along the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem and explained what exactly it meant to be honored in that place with that kind of memorial, I’m sure it would have been only slightly less believable than being told their minister and his wife were from some other planet and were only visiting Earth temporarily while the mother ship refueled at some interplanetary docking station. (The Sharps were the second and third Americans so honored. Roddy Edmonds was the fifth.)

It all began innocently enough with an offer from the Unitarian leadership that the Sharps take on the assignment of leading the church’s effort to assist refugees in Prague in finding countries of refuge and ways to travel to those countries. They had no anterior reason to feel engaged by the plight of European refugees or of Jewish victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. They had no ties to Europe at all. Yet, feeling called to act even though it meant leaving their children in the care of others while they would be away, the Sharps accepted their church’s offer and were present in Prague when the German Army, not stopping at the borders of the Sudetenland (which had been offered up to Germany by the French, Italians, and British as a kind of desperate peace offering at the Munich Conference the previous September), occupied all of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.  For the next six months, the Sharps traveled in and out of Prague, personally bringing would-be refugees to the embassies of different countries that might agree to take them in, visiting prisoners in prison to attempt to secure their release, and attempting to arrange safe passage for many of the most severely persecuted people, including many Jews, whom they met and resolved to help.

At a certain point, it became clear that the Sharps were facing arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo. They fled to Paris, were reunited there (after Waitstill had been denied permission to re-enter Czechoslovakia), and returned home. But they didn’t remain in Wellesley and the following year, in 1940, they returned to Europe to pick up where they left off. They arrived in Paris on the eve of the German occupation, however, and were soon obliged to relocate to Lisbon. (Eventually, they also opened an office in Marseilles.) In the course of their time in Europe, they assisted not hundreds but thousands of refugees to escape Europe. Not all were Jews, of course—many were political dissidents or just ordinary citizens who spoke out against Nazism and were now considered enemies of the Reich—but there were among those the Sharps saved many Jewish people, including especially many children.

This was, I hardly have to stress, not “regular” social work of the sort in which social workers routinely engage. Speaking at Yad Vashem, the Sharps’ daughter referred to her parents as “ordinary people” who did what they did not because they thought of themselves as heroes but simply because they could not imagine stepping away from the opportunity to do immense good in the world for others.

Those words, “ordinary people” stay with me possibly because I too think of myself as an ordinary person, not as a natural-born gibbor who laughs at danger or seeks out opportunities to demonstrate my innate bravery to the world. And, in most senses of the word, the Sharps probably were ordinary people. They went to college, married, worked, became parents, planned for the future. In most ways they must have resembled most people of their time and place. And yet…when the world was on the brink of war, when the savagery of the Nazis was becoming widely known to all who cared to see, when the opportunity beckoned to step into the light and to do something extraordinary, the Sharps responded easily, almost casually.  That they did not come to think of themselves as heroes once the war ended and they returned to their “regular” lives is probably a function of the same set of character traits that drew them to risk everything to do good in the first place. And it is that specific combination of character traits—the willingness to risk everything do good, and the disinclination to label such willingness as heroism—that draws me to the Sharps and their story.

Labeling people who do good as heroes mostly serves solely to make people who do not think of themselves in that way feel reasonable about doing nothing in the face of other people’s suffering…and particularly when alleviating that suffering would involve considerable risk. And yet what were the Sharps if not heroes? Years ago I read Hans Falluda’s truly great novel, Every Man Dies Alone. Set in Nazi Berlin, the book tells the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, called the Quangels in the novel, who undertake a futile, fully hopeless campaign of civil disobedience against the Nazis. Their efforts are both pathetic and incredibly noble; they risk everything to resist evil and, in the end, they pay an awful price for their refusal to do nothing. It’s an extraordinary book, one I recommend to all students of human nature precisely because the Quangels too cannot stand being thought of heroically and insist that they are simply behaving righteously and patriotically. But as the book enters its final chapters and it becomes clear how things are going to end up…I find myself unable not to think of them as true heroes, as people who exemplify the kind of selfless bravery I like to think I too would be able to summon up in an analogous situation. May I be spared ever from finding out if I’m right!

Standing up and risking everything to do good is heroism at its most exemplary, even if part of being a hero apparently involves not seeing oneself in that light. To honor such acts, though, by distancing ourselves from the possibility of mimicking them is to miss the point almost entirely. We honor our heroes by allowing ourselves to imagine doing as they did, thus growing into finer versions of ourselves because of the example set for us by others. Perhaps that is what it means to be a hero: to inspire others to do good…heroically.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Standing Up by Sitting Down

All readers who know me personally know that I’m not exactly a sports-guy. I occasionally follow baseball, although always from a safe distance and rarely in person at an actual game. I’ve attended exactly one NHL game in my life and one NBA game. I’ve never been to a professional football game and, no, I hadn’t ever heard of Colin Kaepernick until two weeks ago. But I’ve heard of him now!

For readers even more clueless than myself when it comes to professional sports, Colin Kaepernick, age 28, is a quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, by all accounts, a remarkably good player and a true asset to his team. For people who do not follow football, however, he came to prominence only a few weeks ago when, before a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers at the end of August, he pointedly and publicly declined to join his teammates in standing up during the playing of the National Anthem. During a subsequent interview, he explained his decision to remain seated as a matter of principle and an expression of his reluctance to show pride in a nation that, to use his own words, “oppresses black people and people of color.” Furthermore, he commented that, in his opinion, it would be an act of personal selfishness to garner the respect of onlookers by appearing to respect the flag when, again to quote his exactly words, “there are bodies in the street and people…[are] getting away with murder.”

Then, in the 49ers final pre-season game on September 1, Kaepernick modified his protest gesture and, instead of remaining seated, instead knelt down during the playing of the national anthem. This, he subsequently explained, was his way of continuing his protest while at the same time showing respect to former and current members of our Armed Forces.

As could certainly have been anticipated, Kaepernick’s behavior was vocally lauded in some circles and just as loudly deplored in others. Some few other professional athletes have followed suit both as a way of expressing support for his gesture and, presumably, because they feel the same way about the state of the nation. The National Football League responded to the incident by issuing a bland statement noting that players are only encouraged to stand for the national anthem, but not specifically required to do so. For their part, the 49ers’ management weighed in with a more pointed statement that, by begrudgingly recognizing the right of any individual player to choose whether or not to “honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens” by standing during the anthem, somehow managed to be supportive and insulting at the same time. It didn’t take long for Kaepernick’s behavior to turn into a national cause célèbre with people of all sorts and with no ties to professional sports quickly taking sides and expressing themselves, some very aggressively, one way or the other.

One interesting argument put forward has to do with the national anthem itself, the Star-Spangled Banner. For most of us, it’s a thing, a relic, a hymn…something that has always been there and presumably always will be part of our national culture. We learned it, or at least its first stanza, when we were children. It’s notoriously difficult to sing, but at P.S. 3 we did our best to sing it out with gusto as the opening part of our weekly schoolwide assemblies. I don’t recall learning much about its history. I’m sure I didn’t understand what it was all about. I liked the part about America being the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the rest of it was, to say the least, obscure. I’m sure I had no idea who exactly the “we” in the song were who watched the stars and stripes gallantly streaming o’er the ramparts. I’m not entirely sure I even knew what ramparts were back then, let alone which specific ramparts we were singing about the flag flying o’er.

Later, I filled in the details on my own. Francis Scott Key was thirty-five years old when, on September 14, 1814, he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British navy. Watching through the night to see if the flag was yet flying o’er the fort, Key was so inspired when, by dawn’s early light, he saw the same flag he had noticed in the last gleaming of the previous evening’s twilight still proudly flying over the fort that he was moved to song. Or at least to poetry. Key himself called his poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” but once it was set to a then-popular tune the song became widely known instead as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It became a popular patriotic hymn instantly, but slightly surprisingly—to me, at any rate—was only made our national anthem 117 years later by a resolution of Congress on March 3, 1931, which was subsequently signed into law by President Hoover.

At P.S. 3, we only sang the first verse. Nobody ever sings anything but the first verse. That, it turns out is all for the best, because later on the song takes a decidedly racist turn. Possibly. The background for that part of the poem has to do with the success the British had during the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815 and of which the Battle of Baltimore was a prominent part) in recruiting American slaves to fight on their side by promising them their freedom in the wake of a British victory. These escaped slaves became the “Colonial Marines,” which regiment helped the British win the Battle of Bladensburg on August, 24, 1814, the victory that led directly to the occupation of Washington and the torching of the White House later that same day.

And it was possibly with reference to those slaves that Francis Scott Key wrote the now-infamous third stanza of his poem in which he wrote, slightly obscurely, that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. / And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

There are a dozen different ways to interpret those lines. Some take the “slaves” in question to be the British themselves, who—unlike the Americans—were still ruled over by a despotic monarch. Others imagine the lines to be referencing American sailors seized by the British and impressed into service as seamen in the Royal Navy. But, as far as I can see, most take the reference to be precisely to those American slaves who, disgusted with their lot in a slavery-tolerant United States, saw their best hope for freedom to lie with fighting for the British. That white America was not amused goes without saying. That Francis Scott Key, who was present for the Battle of Bladensburg as a volunteer aide, was enraged at the sight of escaped slaves fighting for his nation’s enemy, ditto: the burning of the White House shook Americans’ sense of their own security and the ability of their government to defend its own institutions, and was in its day probably no less traumatic than the attack against the Pentagon on 9/11 in terms of the degree to which it made the citizenry feel vulnerable and nervous.  That slaves didn’t feel the same level of patriotism in their bones that their masters did hardly needs to be justified. But that we don’t actually ever sing that third verse, or any of the song other than its first stanza, is also key: those lines may be regrettable and, if they do reference the Colonial Marines, they certainly suggest a deplorable worldview in which a nation founded on the bedrock principle of the freedom of the individual somehow managed to tolerate slavery nonetheless. But, at the end of the day, no one—not anyone, really, other than historians and scholars—knows about any of this.

To argue that the national anthem, and I quote from an online essay I read just the other day, “literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans,” is so exaggerated a claim as to be essentially meaningless. (For those interested, click here to see that essay.)  The War of 1812 was, in a sense, the true birth of our nation. Forgotten by most and confused by many with the Civil War (just ask yourself how many Americans can distinguish easily between the roles played by Fort Sumter and Fort McHenry in our nation’s history?), the War of 1812 signaled, not the birth, but the coming-of-age of our nation.

Independence had been achieved not even thirty years earlier when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. But, as we all know, being born is only the first step towards adulthood, towards maturity, towards “real” existence in the world of grown-ups. As children, we take our first steps, gather our wits about us, learn about the world. We grow into adolescence, test the boundaries, experiment with all sorts of possibilities…and then, at a certain moment, we step over the line into autonomy, into the state of personal freedom that characterizes true adulthood. And the same is true for nations. Becoming an independent American nation was a bloody, violent process. But once American independence was achieved, the next great question was what this newborn child would grow up actually to be. That, as with us all, was the great challenge facing our nascent nation at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Things were not great. American trade was being inhibited by the British War with France. As many as 10,000 American sailors had been seized by the British and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. The British were actively fomenting armed revolt by native Americans on the western frontier. The time had clearly come for America to test its resolve to defend its own interests, to stand up for itself in the forum of nations, to insist that it be granted the rights of sovereign states. Finally, the people could take no more and, on June 18, 1812, President Madison signed a declaration of war already approved both by the House and the Senate.  The battle was joined. The great American victories at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and, eventually, New Orleans made victory inevitable. When the Treaty of Ghent was ratified by Congress on February 17, 1815, America’s place as a sovereign state, and as a force to be reckoned with, was secure.

And that brings me back to Colin Kaepernick. I can’t imagine that he had the Colonial Marines in mind when he chose to disrespect the national anthem as a way of giving voice to his concern for the plight of African-Americans, nor did he indicate even in passing that he did. A few years ago, I wrote to you about Justice Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab justice of the Supreme Court in Israel, who created a huge brouhaha by declining to sing Hatikvah at a ceremony honoring one of the other Supreme Court justices on the occasion of her retirement from the bench. His disinclination to sing aloud the ode to Zionist principles that is his nation’s national anthem was just as widely condemned and lauded as Kaepernick’s parallel gesture all these years later. I wrote there (click here if you wish to read my comments for yourself) that I thought the whole matter was a tempest in a teapot, a huge amount of rancor generated by a simple act of personal courage.

Whether Justice Joubran should have allowed his allegiance to the State to trump his personal discomfort is a question I could cogently argue in both directions. And I feel the same way about Colin Kaepernick. His gesture was defiant and angry. He no doubt meant it to be both those things. But it’s important to take it for what it was, not what it wasn’t. It was a public way to attract attention to the cancer of unresolved racism gnawing at the underbelly of our national culture. It was not meant to insult the anthem or, I suspect, the nation for which it stands, one that, for all it may yet provide liberty and justice for all in precisely the same way, indubitably is already the land of the free and the home of the brave…including some brave enough to put their reputations and future earnings’ potential on the line for the sake of saying something challenging and provocative that fate has somehow granted them the audience and the framework to say powerfully and loudly.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Losing Me

How should we respond when allies, or people we thought of as allies (and still wish to think of that way), turn their backs on us? I suppose the answer depends on the context and on the details: if the people whose actions we are evaluating were personal friends or business associates, if there was a well-thought-out point to their decision to behave as they did or if it was a mere act of thoughtlessness, if the upshot of it all is that we are left merely with hurt feelings or if the consequences of the deed in question will be far-reaching and long-lasting in truly consequential ways, and if we—speaking wholly honestly—can say with certainty that we ourselves did nothing to provoke the incident. These are the questions I bring to last summer’s decision of the Black Lives Matter organization to label Israel an apartheid-state in its recently-published official platform and to accuse it of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinian people. At the very least, that made me personally—and morally, if perhaps not fully legally—into an accessory to genocide. I did not take it well, particularly because the real cause the organization exists to espouse is so personally resonant with me, and so meaningful.

To say that our nation has a racial problem is not something with which any thoughtful person would wish to argue. Black Americans, for example, comprise roughly 13% of the American population, yet 37% of the people arrested annually on drug-related offences in the United States are African-Americans….and no one considers that a mere function of the fact that three times as many black Americans as white ones use illegal drugs.  Just a few years ago, the United States Sentencing Commission determined that, on the whole, black people convicted in court receive 19% longer sentences than white people convicted of the same crimes. Some studies I’ve seen lately say that there are jurisdictions in which the police frisk 85% of the black people they pull over for driving offenses, as opposed to 8% of whites similarly pulled over.

All these statistics, of course, are open to interpretation. And, also to be sure, different groups put forward different sets of statistics to make their very different points regarding all the matters mentioned above.  Still, what does seem clear as day is that there are issues here in desperate need of sorting out, and it also bears saying that the issues do not have to do solely with police- or court-related matters: there is a certain inarguable inequity between the races in employment, education, and banking in our country as well.

And then there is the actual matter of black people’s lives. Here too the numbers are confusing. In 2015, twice as many white people as black people died in police shootings, but the percentage of black victims so killed was double the percentage of black people in the population. If the statistic is redone to include only unarmed civilians, the percentage of black citizens in the mix jumps from 26% to 37%. Again, there are dozens of websites offering not only different interpretations of these statistics, but different actual statistics. And the background against which these statistics need to be considered is itself a moving target depending on whose analysis you find the most persuasive. Labelling police officers as trigger-happy racists is beyond insulting to people who face incredible challenges in their daily work, including the daily obligation of making split-second decisions regarding their own safety and the safety of others. But to say that there are issues here in desperate need of resolution feels like the kind of statement that stands easily on its own. There’s a problem. It needs a solution. Upon that much, we can surely all agree.

All that being the case, the Black Lives Matter organization hardly need to prove, and least of all to me personally, why it needs to exist. But when the organization chose not to draw me in to the ranks of its supporters but instead to accuse me of being party to genocide…that’s where they lost me.

Let’s discuss this whole concept of genocide. According to Palestinian sources, there were 1.4 Palestinian Arabs living in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948. Earlier this year, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics determined that the global Palestinian population stands now at just under 12.4 million, about half of whom live in Israel or the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and half live in other countries. If Israel were committing genocide against the Palestinians, shouldn’t the numbers have gone down, not up? After the Second World War, there were six million fewer Jews in the world than in 1939. After one hundred horrific days in 1994, there were almost a million fewer Rwandans, of whom about 300,000 of the dead were children. The population of Cambodia declined by about 3,300,000 from 1970 to 1980 as a result of the in-house genocidal policies promulgated by the Khmer Rouge against its own people. Those numbers suggest how genocide actually works: regardless of the details, the numbers go down as the killing continues.

Even the rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, which vigorously opposes a continued Israeli presence on the West Bank and which had been openly allied with Black Lives Matter, issued a statement condemning the use of the language of genocide as a casual insult: The military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as “genocide,” and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, had this to say along similar lines: Whatever one’s position on the relationship between Israel, its Palestinian citizens, and the residents in the West Bank and Gaza, it’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as “genocide.” And the Platform completely ignores incitement and violence perpetrated against Israelis by some Palestinians, including terror inside the country and rocket attacks lobbed from Gaza. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not new but have been challenges that have faced the Jewish state since its inception more than half a century ago.

I couldn’t agree more. And I write as someone strongly predisposed to take civil rights matters to heart, as someone who does not need even slightly to be convinced that the fantasy many of us once maintained that racial discrimination was a thing of the past was just that, a fantasy in need of some serious revision. But to accuse Israel of genocide without being able to point to the actual killing fields, to the execution pits, to the gas chambers, to the extermination camps…or to the ever-declining numbers of their victims as the slaughter progresses—that is not just inaccurate, but libelous and insulting in a way that few charges made against Jewish people—or any people—could possibly match.

At the end of the day, an organization that promulgates hatred against Jews—and I don’t see how the use of the genocide-charge to defame Israel could reasonably be described otherwise—such an organization is not worthy of the support of decent-minded people. The decision of the leaders of Black Lives Matter formally to drive from their ranks anyone who stands with Israel is, I suppose, their decision to make. But it excludes me personally from feeling drawn to their ranks or interested in being known publicly as a supporter.

But where does that leave us actually? To walk away from the racial issues that divide our nation would be a huge error for the Jewish community. The Black Lives Matter movement is hardly the only organization that is working towards healing the wounds that racism inflicts on our society! The cause itself—the effort to create a color-blind society in which all citizens are treated equitably and fairly—could not be more worthy of universal support and should surely not be dismissed as something solely for the victims of racism to pursue. Our American nation is facing a problem that many of us imagined was quickly on its way to becoming a feature of the past, something we imagined our children would soon find strange to the point almost of being bizarre to contemplate in the way kids today find it odd to learn that women have been allowed to vote in our country for less than a century or that there was a time when it was illegal in every single state for gay men to pursue their intimate lives on their own terms and privately…and that the first state to repeal such laws—Illinois in 1962—was not joined by a single other state for almost a full decade.

To imagine that it isn’t possibly both to pursue the goal of racial equity in our nation and to refuse to associate with people who use groundless, deeply vituperative rhetoric to accuse Israel of pursuing a Nazi-style agenda of extermination against the Palestinians—that seems to me illogical in the extreme. I myself am proof positive that it is possible to do both those things and feel both those ways: I have nothing but contempt for racism and those who pursue a racist agenda…and yet I will never knowingly associate with people who make common cause with enemies of the Jewish people or of the State of Israel.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Being Halakhic

In the English-language press in Israel and, just lately, here in our American Jewish press as well, I’ve lately noticed the word “halakhic” being used to qualify not behavior or rituals, but people. That may seem like a natural extension of the earlier usage, but the whole notion of describing someone as being “halakhic” strikes me as yet another blow to the nuanced, thoughtful definition of the word halakhah that, at least in my personal opinion, should be nurtured and fostered by all who hope to see Judaism retain its relevance and its appeal to a new generation.

The word itself, the Hebrew word halakhah, is used widely (although, other than in academic prose, almost solely by Jewish authors) to denote Jewish law in all of its jurisprudential detail and maddening intricacy. To be a master of halakhah does not mean merely to be an observant Jew, therefore, but truly to be conversant in a legal system that is known both for its precision and its almost byzantine complexity. To embrace halakhah, on the other hand, requires, not scholarly bona fides at all, but rather a humble willingness to step into the world of Jewish observance as governed by an ever-evolving system of legalized norms based on ancient principles that have morphed forward through the ages to the point in their development that they have attained to date. Neither of those concepts—becoming a master of halakhah and embracing halakhah as the measure of daily behavior both within and without the context of formal worship—seems particularly obscure to me. And yet I somehow balk at the thought of people “being” halakhic, as though that were a thing that you could be or not be, something like being a college graduate or a convicted felon. Both those things you can say in an instant if you are or aren’t…but is “halakhic” something you can that unambiguously choose to be or not to be? That is the question I’d like to explore in this space this week.

The word halakhah, itself not a word in biblical Hebrew, nevertheless has its roots in the classical language, and in two contexts that suggest its two aspects nicely: the standard verb used to denote walking or traveling in classical Hebrew is halakh, which has a far more obscure homonym used several times in the Book of Ezra to reference some obscure travelers’ tax imposed on wayfarers in the Persian Empire. Both antecedents are relevant: although in rabbinic literature the term is mostly used to denote the correct legal opinion in a potentially confusing context, the term came in later times to refer both to the life-path followed by people eager to live in sync with the laws of the Torah and also to the sense those people have that their choice of that specific course forward in life is not rooted solely in their will to live in that particular way but by a deep sense of obligation that hovers over the whole enterprise…thus making it, in some possible/impossible way, their personal choice to live lives governed by law not by choice at all but rather imposed on them from the outside by Heaven itself.

In our world, the term halakhah has come to denote the set of rules, norms, laws, and obligations that have evolved as the context in which Jewish people seek communion with God through the medium of allegiance to the covenant that binds the people Israel and the God of Israel. On that more or less all would agree. But fewer appear to know that those norms and rules have their own developmental trajectory in the world, one fully consonant with the etymological component of the term that suggests the notion of halakhah as journey rather than as destination, as process rather than product, as something you do rather than something you are.

Hold that thought…and let’s talk about grammar instead, at least for a moment. Languages evolve naturally from generation to generation as words change in meaning and as grammatical rules are abandoned and others adopted. That much seems obvious. Indeed, the sign of a vibrant, living language lies precisely in the ability of its speakers easily to understand each other despite the fact that speakers of that same language from half a millennium earlier in history might find it impossible to understand people speaking in their own language all those centuries later. Verbs particularly morph forward in unexpected ways, but the hallmark of native speakers is that they can easily and naturally identify exceptions to the standard rules as authentic or inauthentic. As a native English speaker, for example, I recognize “he sung a song” as a legitimate variant of the way I myself would express that thought, but “he becomed a dentist” as an obvious error that no native speaker would ever make.

And that brings us to grammar, the attempt of scholars to create patterns that explain, and thus can also predict, how a given language works. I suppose things may have changed, but when I was in school, grammar was a tetchy thing: verbs that appeared not to fall into one of the categories scholars determined as the rubrics that governed a given language’s verbal system were characterized with language almost always related to deviancy or defect. Sometimes they were called “weak” verbs; other times they were labeled “deficient” or “corrupt” instead. The specific terms changed from language to language—and I studied a lot of languages in my undergraduate and graduate school years—but the common denominator was that the terminology used to describe verbs that marched to their own drummers was always insulting, as though the verbs derided as corrupt or deficient were, like naughty children, willfully refusing to follow the rules imposed on them. Despite the use of such bizarre language, however, all the existence of such verbs really proved was degree to which the grammarians studying that particular language had failed to understand the system perfectly.

The study of halakhah is a bit like that, I think. There is, clearly, a strong sociological element to halakhah that scholars tend to ignore: when behavior patterns (or liturgical norms or the specifics of ritual practice) fail to suit the rules devised by scholars, they are derided as somehow deficient, inauthentic, or aberrant rather than as living proof of the dynamism of the larger enterprise.

Our Jewish observance is rooted in the system described in the columns of the Torah, but exists independently of our best efforts to explain it or categorize its elements. There are whole areas of Torah-based law, for example, that are widely ignored by all, and for no obvious reason other than the people’s blanket rejection of their underlying principles…which category includes people who would bristle mightily at that thought. Even in the most observant communities, for example, I don’t believe there are people who follow Scripture’s unambiguous instruction to bequeath a double-share of their estates to their eldest sons and leave it at that. (There is a complicated way to manipulate the laws of gift-giving and estate planning so as to appear to be leaving a firstborn son his double share but without that son actually ending up with twice as much as his younger brothers, but that only proves my point: even the people who don’t just ignore the unambiguous injunction to leave firstborns a double share of their parents’ estates don’t actually leave their firstborns that double share at all. Nor, as far as I know, do regular Jewish people disinherit their daughters if a family has at least one son despite the clear instruction of Scripture to do exactly that.) Our tradition exists independently of our best efforts to categorize its norms in many other ways as well, including liturgically.  For example, we routinely label as the fulfillment of Torah law rituals that do not constitute the fulfillment of any law of the Torah at all—eating maror at the Passover seder in these post-Temple years when there is not paschal lamb of which to partake with those bitter herbs, for example, or performing the n’tillat yadayim handwashing ritual before eating “regular” food, as opposed to holy foodstuffs like t’rumah (the ancient grain tax paid by the populace to the priests of ancient Israel and which had to be eaten in the context of ritual purity). Behaving as though the mikveh can bring those who bath in it to a state of purity in our post-Temple world is also a chimera, yet the world is filled with people who insist exactly the opposite to be the case.

We continue to evolve standards of behavior that appear to exist outside the system as conceptualized by even our most adventurous scholars. Why else would I constantly notice, particularly in Manhattan, very ritually punctilious people who would never enter, let alone dine at, any other non-kosher restaurant routinely drinking coffee at Starbucks and not appearing to mind the fact that the same barista who served them their coffee is serving other patrons non-kosher meat sandwiches? And then there are aspects of halakhic observance that simply come and go. There was a time when people routinely referenced Erev Rosh Ḥodesh, the eve of the new moon, as “the lesser Yom Kippur” and fasted on that day as a means of atoning for sins committed during the month then concluding. The greatest rabbis endorsed the custom—Rabbi Moses Cordevero, the sixteenth century kabbalistic master, and Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, called the Holy Shla after the initials of his greatest work, the Shnei Luḥot Ha-b’rit, for example—but I’ve never actually heard of anyone fasting on that day. Are there some who do? I suppose there might be…but none I’ve ever come across. Nor have I ever met anyone who fasts on Mondays and Thursdays during the weeks on which the first eight Torah portions of Exodus—called by their acronym Shovevim Tat—are read aloud in synagogue even though this was once a relatively wide-spread custom. (Again, the existence of some obscurantists somewhere who do do this is hardly the point—there are exceptions to every rule, but my point is that the custom itself has completely fallen away and is surely unknown to the vast majority of Jewish people who otherwise consider themselves observant Jews.)  Halakhic observance is always in flux, always morphing forward to suit new norms of behavior and an ever-evolving sense of morality. The Talmud is filled with rules that fell into desuetude centuries and centuries ago, but it’s hard to think of that as a tragic development: life, including spiritual life, is growth…and that is so both on the personal and on the national level.

And that is why it strikes me as odd to use the term halakhic to qualify an individual. To live within the four ells of halakhah is to subjugate one’s will to the will of heaven. That much any rabbi would affirm easily as the noblest of goals. But to accept that that level of submission to God is itself a moving target, one that is permanently in flux and that thus requires of those would attain it not mere allegiance to a fixed set of rules but rather extreme sensitivity to the tenor of the world, to the most widely respected ethical norms, and to the ability of the Jewish people to remain faithful to a system built on a firm foundation of immutable principles and norms that is somehow also ever-evolving into its next finest iteration—that is why it takes not just perseverance but a truly supple intellect to be the kind of Jewish person the men and women of the House of Israel should all aspire to become. And that is why it seems spurious to me to label people as “halakhic,” as though it were something you could just be, like a diabetic or a Democrat: the halakhah is a framework for spiritual growth across the years of a lifetime and not a goal in and of itself to attain and then be proud of having attained.