Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

When I was a student at JTS, the two American holidays that were observed at our daily minyan were Thanksgiving and Independence Day. (And by “observed,” I mean that the exceptionally depressing penitential litany known as Tachanun was omitted from the worship service on both those days. You can’t say we seminarians didn’t know how to party back in the day!) I don’t recall wondering much about that practice at the time, but from the vantage point of all these years it actually does make sense to me that the minyan took note of those specific days because they are precisely the ones on the American calendar that correspond the most obviously to values Jews cherish and should generally be happy to promote. Freedom is the more obvious one, I suppose: we have our own Festival of Freedom, after all, so it’s not much of a stretch to honor our own nation’s version of Pesach, the national festival of independence from Britain that even at the time reminded our nation’s founders of Israel’s liberation from bondage to Pharaoh.

Thanksgiving is more of a stretch. But cultivating a national sense of gratitude and beholdenness to God for the good in our lives is as Jewish a value as it is an American one, and that makes it more than reasonable to devote energy to nurturing that particular virtue. It is, however, not as easy a task as Americans tend to think. And that—the specific reason that it isn’t as easy as it looks—is what I’d like to write about today.

It will come as a surprise to many that the Book of Psalms actually has a poem in it entitled “A Thanksgiving Hymn.” It’s a short poem, complete in only five verses, and focuses on the concept of thankfulness itself, on the quality of feeling beholden to God for all the good in our lives that prompted the ancients to offer the sacrifice called the todah, the thanksgiving sacrifice. (The poem was probably intended to be recited as part of the sacrificial ritual, although in what specific way can no longer be known.) It appears in my own translation of several years ago in my edition of the Psalter, Our Haven and our Strength, published by Aviv Press in 2004, but, in honor of Thanksgiving this year, I’d like to translate it anew here with just a bit more literary latitude than I allowed myself back then. So here goes:

A Thanksgiving Hymn

All who live on earth:

Sound a teruah blast on the shofar to God Eternal.

Serve God Eternal joyfully.

Come before God in gladness.

Know well that the Eternal is the God who made us…and not we ourselves who did, for we are God’s people, the sheep who graze in God’s pasture.

Come into God’s imbued with gratitude and into God’s courtyards with songs of praise on your lips.

Give thanks to God—for that is the way for humankind truly to bless God’s name, for God is truly good and God’s mercy truly does extend over the whole earth, as does God’s loyal faithfulness to every single generation.

Readers who know the Psalms well will notice quickly that I’ve translated according to the received text here, not according to the way that the word lo (written in the traditional text with the two letters lamed and alef) is consciously misspelled by traditionalists to yield an entirely different word with a wholly different meaning. But my decision to translate the text as it has come down to us is not at all without precedent and, in fact, that is how one of the most interesting ancient homilies based on this psalm reads it as well. So let’s start there.

The homily, really just a fragment of an ancient sermon, is preserved in Bereshit Rabbah, an ancient collection of midrashim and lessons based on the Book of Genesis. And the passage, taught in the name of one Rabbi Judah ben Simon (in his day was one of the great rabbinic preachers of Roman Palestine), suggests that the psalmist’s point was not merely to promote gratitude as a virtue worth emulating, but to say something far sharper and more challenging about the concept of gratitude itself and specifically to address the question of why exactly it is so difficult truly to embrace.

At first blush, the question will strike most moderns as almost simplistic: you look around at the world God made, you take stock of the boons God has granted you, you feel fortunate to have garnered so many of God’s choicest blessings…and that makes you feel grateful. Why should that be complicated or difficult? Doesn’t everybody do that?

Rabbi Judah apparently didn’t think so. And so, starting from that specific vantage point, he reads the psalm as though gratitude were something that the average soul needs intentionally and mindfully to cultivate, something it is entirely possible to wish to feel but actually to be unable to summon up at will within one’s own bosom…which is not at all the same thing as paying lip-service to the concept because you’re convinced that you are supposed to feel that way or even because you want to feel that way. And the barrier to feeling deeply thankful for all you have is precisely that idea that almost two millennia later someone would label solipsism.

The word will not be familiar to almost anyone, but it suits Rabbi Judah’s lesson to a tee. Coming from two Latin words mashed up into one (solus, which means “only” or “alone” and ipse, which means “self”), it references the notion that no one can be sure that anything other than him or herself is real. It’s not that crazy an idea. Since all we know of the world is based on the perceptive abilities we bring to our contemplation of existence and since our perception of everything is based on the specific way our human brains interpret the sensory data we collect by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the things in our world, there is almost by definition something subjective about all that we know of the world. So the solipsist takes that thought and runs with it, wondering how anyone can be sure that anything at all really exists other than him or herself. And this rarified, pretentious, more than slightly sophomoric approach to existence leads, probably almost inexorably, to the second dictionary definition of solipsism: “extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.”

Most of us believe the world outside ourselves exists…and we believe it pretty firmly. But it is precisely the traces of the solipsistic worldview that most of us manage somehow also to harbor deep within the way we understand the world—it is those enduring traces that, in the opinion of Rabbi Judah, constitute the barrier that keeps most of us from truly embracing the quality of gratitude. It’s a lesson worth taking seriously. Faith in God, the rabbi teaches, must be predicated on the bedrock assumption that, to quote the psalmist, “it was God who made us,” and, to quote the rabbi, “not we who created our own selves.” In other words, the injunction to enter the gates of God’s city imbued with gratitude rests on the rejection of the self-centered, deeply self-referential supposition that, in the end, it is we who have created ourselves, who were and are as the authors of our own existence, of our own lives...and who have only managed to fool ourselves into believing that what we perceive of the world outside ourselves is fully real. Perhaps a three-way comparison would help clarify: the narcissist doesn’t notice the rest of the world; the egotist doesn’t care about the rest of the world; but the solipsist isn’t even sure that there is a rest of the world. There’s some of all three in all of us. And each constitutes its own stumbling block on the long path over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. (The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, so the challenge for passengers is not to be strong enough to pull a sleigh or to be knowledgeable enough to navigate the woods, but to be fully present in the sleigh and on the journey…both to thanksgiving and to Thanksgiving dinner.)

Rabbi Judah finds scriptural support for his notion in a different biblical book entirely where, in a famous passage, the prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh—he means to reference Pharaoh Neco II, the king of Egypt in his own day—as an obese hippopotamus wallowing naked in the mud of the Nile and not just vaunting himself as though he were the god who made the Nile, but moving on from there to spout the ultimate in solipsistic nonsense: “I even made myself,” the prophet imagines the king declaring (and presumably concomitantly daring any of his subjects to wonder how exactly that could possibly have worked). What the king meant—or rather what the prophet was imagining the king of Egypt would or could have meant had he actually been a talking hippo—who knows? But what the prophet himself meant is crystal clear: in the king of Egypt he saw a megalomaniac so self-absorbed as really to think of himself as his own progenitor, as his own creator, as the sum total personally of all that he could be totally certain existed in the world. Now that’s solipsism!

And it was this uncertainty about the reality of reality that Rabbi Judah imagined to be the great stumbling block over which one who would truly approach God’s temple in gratitude must be careful not to stumble.

The rabbi makes a good point. To feel truly thankful to God requires seeing our place in the world clearly and honestly, accepting our ultimate insignificance in the great scheme of things, wondering not whether the world outside our narrow purview exists at all…but whether we deserve to claim even our tiny place in the fullness of God’s creation. In other words, the prerequisite for gratitude is humility, that underrated virtue to which all pay lip service but almost no one truly embraces wholeheartedly. There’s a bit of solipsism in all of us, some part of each of our worldviews that stops at the outer edge of our own bodies, of our own space. We claim to care about the world and its peoples. But mostly we care about ourselves…and precisely because most of us are far more like hippo-Pharaoh than we’d like to think.

So this Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in contemplating the 100th psalm—that’s the poem translated above—and in its ancient cadences to find the path forward to celebrating our American Thanksgiving filled both with a sense of awe-struck wonder at the gifts the Almighty has bestowed on us all and with equal measures of humility and gratitude for what we have in this world. We are not all that is. But neither is God all that is. (Pantheism is no less silly than solipsism, just in a different way.) We’re in this together, clearly. And Thanksgiving is our national day of acknowledging that fact, of stepping away from the fantasy that we ourselves are the Torah and the universe around us, mere midrash…and of embracing the core value of humility in the contemplation of the world so as fully and wholeheartedly to embrace gratitude to God for the good in our lives.

For those of you who will read this before or on Thanksgiving, I wish you a very happy holiday. For those of you reading it afterwards, I hope you had a wonderful time on Thanksgiving with family and friends…and that the barriers we ourselves sometimes place on the path to true gratitude proved easily scalable and fully surmountable. I wish that for all of you, of course. And I wish it for myself as well!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pompey's Ghost

One of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history is also one of the least well known and involves personalities that most moderns will not even have heard of. It is a seamy story about people working at cross-purposes with their own best interests, about people unable to see the forest for the trees (that expression could have been coined to describe the people I’m about to tell you about), and about the horrific consequences of being so blinded by self-interest as to not notice the enemy hordes gathering patiently at the gate and waiting…not to attack (why should they?), but simply to walk in and take what they want when everybody who should be resisting their advance is simply too distracted to seize the implications of their arrival.

The story I want to tell is about two first-century BCE brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, but to tell their story well I need to start just a bit earlier on. Everybody knows that the Maccabees were successful in establishing an autonomous Jewish state in the Land of Israel. But what came next is specifically not all that well known. At first, the Jewish state was merely autonomous without being fully sovereign, but that murky status segued quickly enough into something more like “real” independence...and then, in the year 104 BCE, about six decades after the “Chanukah story” events, Judah Aristobulus, a great-nephew of Judah Maccabee (he was the grandson of Judah's brother Simon), declared himself king of the Jews and reigned as such...but only briefly. He died, in fact, after only a single year on the throne, but his willingness to self-coronate as king had a lasting effect on the entire course of Jewish history. He was succeeded by his own brother, a man known to history as King Yannai. (In more scholarly circles, he’s often called Alexander Jannaeus.)

Along with his throne, King Yannai also inherited his brother's wife, a woman named Salome Alexandra who was thirteen years his senior. And this was quite the woman, this Salome: she was the wife of two different kings...and then, after her second husband died, she herself ascended to the throne and ruled the nation on her own as its sole regent, as its queen. And then she herself died in 67 BCE. The men mentioned above, Hyrcanus and 
Aristobulus, were her and King Yannai's two sons.

And now we get to the meat of my story. As the last reigning king’s oldest son, Hyrcanus was entitled to ascend to the throne. Which he did. Briefly. After three months of enduring his big brother’s rule, Aristobulus had enough and attempted to seize the throne for himself. What followed was, by all accounts, a horrifically violent civil war involving foreign mercenaries, back-stabbing advisors (among whom Antipater, the father of the future King Herod), terrible civilian casualties, and internecine violence on a level that I’m guessing would previously have seemed unimaginable.

And then things took a turn from the merely bloody to the truly tragic.

Watching all this unfold from a safe perch afar off in Damascus was the famous Roman general Pompey, the conqueror of Spain and a brilliant enough military tactician to understand that Rome could rule the entire Levant if it ruled Judea. What his original plan was, none can say. But as things turned out he hardly needed to put any plan into effect at all, only to watch on as the Jewish state descended into civil war and weakened itself to the point that resistance to Rome would be impossible even if anyone had been paying attention.

For their part, the Jews appear to have failed utterly to notice the wolf’s fangs jutting out from beneath the mask of civility Pompey presented in Damascus as he received group after Jewish group, each begging for his support and somehow not seizing the fact that the Romans had their own plans for the future (or rather, the non-future) of the Jewish state. Appearing to be interested in restoring the peace, Pompey arrived in Jerusalem in 63 BCE. And then the façade of phony benignity fell away and the wolf, just a moment earlier a welcome guest in the henhouse, revealed his true nature.

Josephus, the first century CE historian, records that 12,000 people died defending the Temple alone from Roman intruders. To stress the fact that he was in total charge, Pompey committed the ultimate sacrilege: he stepped into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum penetrated only once annually on Yom Kippur by the High Priest of Israel. And that was that. Having made his point, he then allowed the Jews to run things on the Temple Mount starting almost immediately because he had already made the point he had come to make: that Judea was henceforth under Roman domination and that future resistance would be futile. To make that point even more forcefully, Pompey leveled the walls of the city. And then, because he could, he imposed harsh new taxes. To appear conciliatory by offering the Jews some thin veneer of autonomy, Pompey allowed Hyrcanus, his nominal ally, to call himself king. But at the same time he appointed a governor, a man named Gabinus, to wield the real power in Pompey’s absence. And so ended Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel until 1948 CE, a cool 2,011 years later.

Pompey then returned to Rome, apparently expecting to be made emperor but equally apparently not fully understanding the extremes to which the other candidate for the position, Julius Caesar, was willing to go to secure the position they both wanted. What happened next, and the impact the long struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar ended up having on the Jews of ancient Judea—that is another story entirely that I’ll write about some other time.

For today, though, the image of hostile foreigners watching on with glee as the unity of the Jewish people is eroded through bitter internecine violence—and, even more to the point, through an almost pathological inability to compromise meaningfully and substantively—that image should be shocking enough even without knowing the full scope of the debacle that was then yet to come.

Does this sound at all familiar?

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you all about the grotesque, insulting resolution passed by UNESCO that more or less denied—or at least ignored—the Jewish claim to Jerusalem as an integral part of our heritage and as the capital of any number of ancient Jewish kingdoms and political entities, as well as the modern State of Israel. If I could have expressed my contempt for that kind of deeply anti-Semitic manipulation of the facts of Jewish history to serve the perverse political ends of our enemies any more clearly, it wasn’t for want of trying. But, as I wrote there, there is something far more sinister afoot here than merely lying about history; the UNESCO vote is part of a world-wide campaign to delegitimize Israel by calling into question details of ancient history that no serious scholar doubts and which have been part of the narrative of Jewish history for centuries upon centuries. (If you wish to review my remarks with respect to UNESCO, click here.)

All that being the case, you would have expected the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the lands of our dispersion, to respond by uniting around the relics of our ancient past, by showing the world that, despite the riven, divided nature of the Jewish people with respect to even the most important issues, on this one point we are in total agreement: that Jerusalem was the capital of ancient Israel, that the Temple Mount is the site both of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple as well, and that the remaining bits and pieces of the Temple—and primarily the Western Wall, the largest visible piece of the ancient site—are the common property of all who claim membership in the House of Israel. And, indeed, showing a united front to our enemies would have been a simple, effective way collectively to spit in the eye of our foes and to make it clear that they can pass all the resolutions they wish…but that the past remains by its very nature inviolate and as such unchangeable by even the most hostile resolution. And it would also have served to remind the world that the Jewishness of Jerusalem is not a topic that rational people debate any more than they discuss whether the Civil War ever actually happened…or whether the Shoah did.

But all of that is precisely not what happened. The endless wrangling around the Kotel, the Western Wall, spilled over into actual violence last week as the government of Israel, led by feckless leaders unable or unwilling to put into effect the agreement they themselves brokered last year between the extremist rabbis who have traditionally run things at the site and the various groups of non-Orthodox Jews who reasonably and justly wish not to be excluded from the holiest of all Jewish sites because they refuse to sign onto the fundamentalist fanaticism that the other side openly promulgates.

This has been going on for a very long time. The agreement of last January was hammered out between a number of interested parties: the Women of the Wall group, the Reform Movement in Israel, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, the wall’s areidi rabbinical leaders, the Jewish Agency, and the Israeli government. It wasn’t what we had always wished for, but the agreement constituted a big compromise for all sides and it was something that we all felt we could live with. Except for its Orthodox signatories, who immediately began working to undermine a compromise to which they themselves had just agreed, going so far as to file a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court barring its implementation.

This led to a counter petition filed in the Supreme Court demanding that the Court order the compromise agreement to be implemented. And then, when it finally became more or less clear that the Israeli government too was backing away from its own commitment, the decision was made to move forward unilaterally, which led to a large-scale act of civil disobedience that involved carrying ten Torah scrolls from the Dung Gate, the city gate nearest the Kotel Plaza, to the Western Wall Plaza last week. It did not go well. There was violence. There was shoving. There was name-calling of the vilest, most grotesque variety. The level inner-Jewish disunity on full display for the world to contemplate was beyond appalling. It was Hyrcanus and Aristobulus all over again: real foes massing outside the gates…and the people inside ignoring the real danger and choosing instead to spend their time screaming hateful epithets at each other.

The Jewish people has real enemies, serious, deadly foes working intently to deny the Jews of Israel the right to chart their own destiny in their own place. Some of these enemies are well known. Others wear sheep’s clothing when they come to call. But all are united in their hatred of the Jewish state and the people Israel.

And the response of the rabbinic leaders into whose hands the most sacred of all Jewish shrines has been entrusted and their followers? To devote energy, resources, and endless time to disparaging non-Orthodox Jews and to refusing to live up to their own public commitment to compromise. The fault rests equally with the government of Israel and its hapless leadership, and with the areidi rabbis who cannot stand the thought of anyone other than themselves sharing in the governance of Judaism’s holiest site. The battle isn’t over. In a sense, it’s hardly even truly been joined just yet. What Prime Minister Netanyahu truly thinks, I have no idea. But what Pompey’s ghost thinks…I know all too well.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


When my mother died back in 1979, I remember being surprised that the emotion that seized me first of all was not grief but amazement. I was a young man, but not a child. I understood how sick she was, and how long she had been suffering from the disease that finally took her. I knew she had been hospitalized repeatedly and that her curative options had been slowly exhausted as the years had passed. I knew all of that, yet when she actually breathed her last, my first response was to be amazed—stunned, actually—that this could possibly have happened. My friends, trying to be kind, attempted to nudge me along toward a more appropriate response. Eventually, of course, I accepted what had happened and I was able to grieve. But my first response—and it must have made quite an impression on me since I can still remember this all these years later—my first response was simply not to be able to believe that she had actually died. And that, despite every single reason I ought to have had to see the train barreling down the tracks towards my mother clearly and to understand what happens to people who get in the way of speeding trains.

For some reason, that memory surfaced in me earlier this week as I, in this like all Americans, began to adjust to the prospect of a Trump presidency: long before any other emotion seized me, I was simply amazed. And so too were the nation’s pundits and pollsters, almost all of whom—including some very conservative writers—had clearly considered a Clinton victory almost to be a foregone conclusion. Honestly, if a space ship from Neptune had landed on earth Tuesday and deposited at the polls some of the 1.8 million dead people the Pew Center reported last month are still registered to vote, some of the columnists I read on Wednesday couldn’t have sounded more surprised. (If you missed that Pew Center on the States study, chastening in its own right, click here.)

How can so many have been so wrong? That’s the question I’d like to explore today.

Sometimes, it’s just a result of willing yourself to see what you wish was there, of rank self-delusion. Of that, the Brexit vote is the best example. Last February, in a move he came to regret deeply, then-P.M. David Cameron announced a nation-wide referendum in which Britons would be asked to express themselves on the matter of continued membership in the European Union. He did this because he was certain, as were all his advisors and the rest of his cabinet, that Britons would vote overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. and that the matter could finally be laid to rest with a nation-wide plebiscite. But they were completely wrong. It wasn’t an overwhelming vote to stay at all; indeed, 52% of those casting ballots voted to leave the E.U. The “go’s” had it. The P.M. resigned. There is at least a reasonable chance that the United Kingdom will be gone from E.U. by the end of March 2019.

But that model doesn’t quite work here. Wishful thinking is a powerful force, but many of those who were the most surprised by the outcome of the election were themselves firmly in the Trump camp. They too misread the mood of the nation, but not because they didn’t wish things to be otherwise than they imagined them to be. What actually happened is what they had hoped would happen…so the inability of so many to see a Trump victory as a distinct possibility, let alone as a probability, was not merely a function of the fanciful thinking of some. There was something else afoot here, something more ominous.

The phrase “two solitudes” was originally the title of a novel published in 1945 by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan in which he detailed the peculiar way that English and French Canadians manage to live in the same country without ever actually encountering each other. The expression is far more used these days in Canada, I believe, than the book itself is read. But the idea itself can serve as an answer to the question at hand.

That awareness that others do not see what we see when we look out at the world is disorienting. Canada has come simply to live with it. I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever meeting or encountering, even in passing, a French Canadian. As many of you know, I speak French fluently. But I somehow managed to live all those years in Canada without ever reading a French-language bestseller, without ever seeing (not even once) a movie made in Quebec, without ever attending a play by a Quebec playwright. I suppose it must be similarly possible to live in Quebec and have no contact with the cultural trappings of Anglo-Canada. Two solitudes there were in Hugh MacLennan’s day and, for better or worse two solitudes was what I encountered during our years on the ground in Canada. I can’t imagine things have changed much since our return to the States in 1999.

The Canadian model feels more right than the British one in figuring out the answer to my question about how so many can have been so wrong.

We have a big country. Few of us have the time to spend months, let alone years, driving around and meeting our fellow citizens. When someone with real literary talent does undertake a journey like that—someone like a John Steinbeck, a Jack Kerouac, or a Robert Pirsig—they can turn the experience into a bestseller precisely because so few have the time or the means to undertake such a journey. And, perhaps as a result, we have settled into an American version of the two solitudes. Almost sixty million people voted for Donald Trump, only slightly fewer than those who cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. But the Trump supporters—scores of millions of people—were invisible to the pollsters and the pundits, to the columnists and commentators. They were out there. They weren’t hiding. There were a lot of them too. But they simply didn’t attract the attention of the people who were theoretically being paid to see them and to take the way they would most likely vote into account.

As an American, this blindness—this almost systemic inability to see the other half of the electorate clearly or even at all—is a distressing, counterproductive feature of our national culture. But for Jewish Americans, this inability to see the other crosses the line easily from counterproductive to sinister.

No one, I think, can have read more books about the Shoah than I myself have, but my personal predilection has always been for personal memoirs, for the stories of actual people who lived through the events they describe. Each memoir is, obviously, a personal story. But read together as a body of literature, they do have traits in common.

When, for example, I read the books written by German Jews who survived to tell their tales, I’m always struck by the way they answer the obvious question of why they didn’t leave when it was still possible. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. The Nazis hadn’t made any secret of their deep, visceral anti-Semitism. If anything, they had been vocal and public about the degree to which they loathed their own nation’s Jewish minority. Violent attacks against Jews had already begun, although obviously not on the unimaginable scale later to come. So why didn’t they just leave? It was legal to go. There wasn’t, at least not at first, a flood of would-be emigrants vying for visas for countries that could have provided safe havens. It was legal to transfer money out of the country. The Nazis, at least at first, encouraged Jews to flee.

So why didn’t they go? It’s a good question…and they all offer the same set of answers. They couldn’t imagine Hitler would win. They couldn’t imagine anyone at all would vote for him, let alone that well over a third of the nation would. They felt certain that their non-Jewish countrymen wouldn’t ever vote for a party that stood for racism, xenophobia, and, above all, anti-Semitism. But they were all wrong. And they were wrong because millions were invisible to them. And for the simple reason that they couldn’t see their neighbors, they failed to notice how many millions upon millions of them were miserable, felt ignored, and couldn’t get anyone truly to pay attention to their plight. By the time they revised their sense of how things were, it was—for most, at any rate—way too late.

The model isn’t precisely right. What we have in our country is not so much a large, restive, angry minority growing stealthily into a majority of the citizenry, but two halves of the electorate occupying the same ground but somehow nevertheless invisible to each other. No one saw Donald Trump getting almost half the votes cast because no one saw the almost sixty million people who voted for him. Not clearly. For some, not really at all. And that is the monitory lesson this year’s election should have for us now.

To live in peace in a nation devoted to the propagation of its national ideals requires being part of the citizenry not merely by virtue of having the right passport or having been born within the nation’s borders, but because you have come to think of yourself as part of a larger populace that you are prepared to see clearly in all its variegated variation. For a nation of hundreds of millions of people, this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Iceland is a nation with a third of a million citizens, more than 92% of whom are ethnic Icelanders. Fostering a sense of national unity in such a place can’t be that difficult. But we don’t live in Iceland. And the challenge inherent in that specific thought—that this isn’t Iceland and that we have fallen far short of the ideal of seeing our fellow citizens clearly and hearing when they speak—that is the lesson I suggest we all take away from Tuesdays’ election as we move into a new world of our own fashioning.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


As we approach the final days of the presidential election, I find myself in a quandary, both forbidden by the so-called Johnson Amendment from saying anything at all that could be construed even obliquely as an endorsement of any candidate running for office, but also eager to express myself on the importance of the choice facing us all both in terms of its potential short- and long-term impact on our nation. (I expressed myself a few weeks ago about the Johnson Amendment itself and the wrongheaded way it muzzles our nation’s clergy precisely when the voice of spiritual leadership should be the most publicly audible from the pulpits of our nations’ houses of worship. If you would like to review that diatribe, click here.) And now, almost suddenly, here we are: coming down to the wire and facing the obligation to exercise our franchise as the free citizens of a democratic state. Why exactly is it that I’m not permitted to tell you what I think?

What I can write about, however, is how important this election is. Whoever wins next week has an excellent chance of serving for eight years. Since John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, only nine presidents have failed in their bid for a second term: John Quincy Adams in 1828, Martin van Buren in 1840, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All the rest of our presidents who sought re-election after their first term in office were re-elected.

And there’s also a not unreasonable chance that whoever is elected next week as vice president will end up in the White House as well: fourteen of our American presidents served previously as vice presidents, eight by moving up when the sitting president died, one by being in place when the president resigned, and five by running for election and winning. That being the case, there’s at least some chance that the Oval Office will be occupied through 2032 by someone on the ticket this year. And that should be a very sobering thought for us all to take to the polls on Tuesday.

We Americans are a peculiar people in many regards, but our approach to leadership is particularly strange. We claim, often vociferously, that we want to be led by strong, dynamic leaders. But there is something in our national character that works at cross purposes with that concept: we want to be led wisely, bravely, and intelligently, but we also don’t want to be led at all…and, indeed, we often bristle at the suggestion that the people cannot simply lead itself forward to wherever it is we as a nation wish to arrive. And that populist ambivalence, it seems to me, is particularly noticeable in the specific way we relate to candidates for president: we say we want strong, independent leadership at the top, but we also find it off-putting when a candidate appears too strong…or too independent. We denigrate such people as “loose cannons” and warn against granting them too much power. But we also seem wary of would-be leaders who appear solely to follow the party line and to espouse views widely held by others. We want our leaders to be idiosyncratic, autonomous thinkers and party loyalists, soft-spoken gentlepeople and persuasive putters-forward of their own ideas and theories, fully self-confident and original thinkers and humble servants of their parties (and then, when elected, their constituencies), larger than life trailblazers who live life large and traditionalists possessed of the common touch of “regular” folks with whom all can easily identify. We don’t like our leaders to be too different than ourselves. But we also want them to be entirely different than ourselves: more forceful, more intelligent, more savvy, and more brave. No wonder we need three years and eleven and a half months to choose a president!

As we approach the polls next Tuesday, I propose we think not solely about the positive or negative traits of the individuals whose names will appear on the ballot, but about the concept of leadership itself. We are, after all, choosing a national leader! So perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves what exactly the traits are that we wish the leader of our nation to embody. Since one of the skills I’ve tried over the years to hone is the ability to look forwards by looking backwards (something Jews are supposed to be particularly good at), I propose we find the answer to our question by looking back in time. Way back!

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. (He was co-emperor for the first eight of those years, then reigned solo until the year of his death.) The last of the so-called “good emperors” of Rome (a term coined by, of all people, Niccolò Machiavelli), Marcus Aurelius is known to the ages primarily because of the one book he left behind, an untitled work commonly known by the made-up name, Meditations. (The work appears under other names as well. The edition I use the most often, for example, is called The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Emperor of Rome.)

It is, by any measure at all, a truly remarkable piece of work. I first encountered it years ago in graduate school when some tiny part of it was assigned to us as a translation exercise in Greek class. I found the emperor’s Greek impossible—and I was in my third year of Greek at the time—but there was something about the book itself that drew me in and, in the end, I was completely enthralled both by the book and its author.

The emperor undertook to compose his book as a kind of exercise in values clarification: as far as anyone can tell, he wrote solely for himself while camped out in a series of military camps located in modern day Serbia and Hungary and made no effort in his lifetime to publish his work for the consideration of others. But that hasn’t kept it from being read and admired by countless others. (For what it’s worth, Bill Clinton once commented that it was his favorite book of all.)

The author was a leader in every possible sense of the word: politically (he was, after all, emperor of Rome), militarily (he spent half his reign dealing with the war with Parthia in the east and the other half fighting Rome’s ongoing war against the Germanic tribes to the north), and intellectually too (his book is the most complete ancient work detailing the philosophical school known as Stoicism, of which he was an acknowledged master). That being the case, it isn’t surprising that the emperor turns in many different passages to the question of leadership itself, wondering aloud what makes a truly great leader and asking himself deeply and honestly if he personally qualified as one.

The great leader, he writes, is characterized almost above all else by self-control and never forgets that it is never constructive to react to an offense by becoming overtly irritated or annoyed. And he has a handy trick for developing that kind of self-control: “to maintain control over your emotions,” he writes, “simply remember that life is short” and that the person you offend today may well be someone whose support you desperately need tomorrow.

In a different passage, he writes about how crucial it is that leaders not think too highly of themselves. Indeed, he observes, seeing others err makes true leaders feel humble, not arrogant. “You’re just like them,” the emperor writes, “and you’ve made the same mistakes too.” It therefore behooves the true leader to respond to the errors and misdeeds of others by attempting to set a fine example for those people to follow, not by becoming puffed up with unearned pride merely because, just this once, someone else fell prey to his or her own baser instincts.

And another thing as well: the emperor remarks on several occasions that the true leader is always willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to wrongdoers and, particularly in the absence of proof to the contrary, to assume them to have been acting out of ignorance rather than malice. More people behave poorly because they do not understand how to behave well than because they wish to be reprehensible human beings. And so the thoughtful leader responds to wrongdoing by attempting to guide the wrongdoer back onto the right path, not with punitive rage or with insults.

Elsewhere in his book, Marcus notes that great leaders never permit themselves to succumb to anger. And his comment is particularly trenchant in this regard: “Anger invariably does more harm to the individual who gives into it,” he notes, “than the things that caused it in the first place.” And so one of the ways leaders lead is by example in this specific regard: by declining to display anger even when provoked and always by striving peacefully to resolve even the bitterest of disputes.

True leaders, Marcus writes, understand that society is the name we give to the complex set of relationships that bind people to each other.  But, even more to the point, great leaders are possessed always of the conviction that individuals “come into the world specifically to help each other,” and that this truth is neither obviated nor proven false by the fact that there are people in the world who betray that principle with their actions daily. Leaders are thus the guardians of society itself, along with its norms and the virtuous principles that undergird its daily functioning, not merely the masters of the individuals who constitute that society. Power for its own sake is anathema to the emperor, the most powerful man in the world in which he lived: the point of being powerful is to enable restraint. And leaders never forget that the worth of virtue cannot be vitiated by the unvirtuous.

Nor do they ever forget that dignity and self-worth are basic human affects that need neither to be earned or justified by individuals, and that innate worth, being part of the human condition, cannot be forfeited through poor behavior. And true leaders hold even the basest members of society in esteem as human beings possessed of the potential to do good.

And, finally, truly great leaders understand that the only truly undefeatable weapon in anyone’s arsenal is kindness itself. Indeed, the emperor writes that only those possessed of true leadership ability will find the inner strength to behave compassionately. “What,” the emperor asks rhetorically, “can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness?” It sounds like such a simple concept…but how many of us possess the strength of character to behave that way always? Not a lot! But we can and should demand exactly that virtue of those who would lead us forward.

And those are the emperor’s insights into leadership. This was a man who sat at the pinnacle of power in his day, a man who commanded the armies of the world’s only superpower. He possessed unimaginable wealth. He wielded absolute power. He could overrule any court, including any military tribunal. In Marcus’ day, even the once all-powerful Roman Senate was unable to override the emperor’s decrees and was subservient to his decrees. In short, he was the most powerful man in the world…a phrase we hear repeatedly applied to the President of the United States.  And yet, possessed of power on a scale of which even dictators today can only dream, he felt the key to fine leadership ultimately to lay in the leader’s ability to exercise self-control, to retain an ongoing sense of fidelity not to power or to wealth but to virtue, and to consider compassion the most powerful of all the tools of governance.

As we approach the polls on Tuesday, I suggest we ask not which candidate most accurately mirrors the way we feel about this or that specific issue facing our nation, but which candidate has the ability truly to serve as our nation’s leader…and not in the banal, slightly degraded way that term is so often used today in common discourse, but in the way Marcus Aurelius used it to denote one whose ability to govern derives neither from strength nor from wealth, but from virtue.