Thursday, June 22, 2017

Choosing Life

One of the most often-repeated talmudic aphorisms notes that “all Israel is responsible for each other,” a noble sentiment, surely, but one that most of us set into a set of larger and smaller concentric circles of obligation: we feel most of all responsible for our closest family members, then for more distant relatives, then for neighbors, then for the other members of the faith- or ethnic group with which we identify the most strongly, then for the other citizens of our country, and then for all humankind. Some of us go one step further too and include the inanimate world as well in the scheme, promoting the conviction that, as part of collective humanity, we have a kind of corporate responsibility not solely for the other residents of our planet, but for the planet itself. Eventually, in some distant age, the circle will probably widen to an even greater extent to allow for feelings of responsibility directed towards the inhabitants of the other populated planets with whom we will eventually learn that we share our galaxy.

None of the above will strike anyone as at all controversial. And even if some specific people might well order their circles differently—feeling more responsible for neighbors than for distant relatives, for example—the concept itself that responsibility for people other than ourselves inheres in our humanness hardly sounds like an even remotely debatable proposition.  But saying wherein that responsibility lies exactly—and how that sense of responsibility should manifest itself in law—is another question entirely.

The system of common law that undergirds American jurisprudence holds that one commits a crime by doing some specific illegal thing, not to failing to do something...and this principle applies even when the thing not done involves coming to the aid of someone in distress. There are, however, several exceptions to the rule. If you yourself are personally responsible for the other party being in distress, then you are in most cases deemed responsible to come to that person’s aid. Parents have an obligation to rescue their children from peril, as do all who act in loco parentis (like the administration of a child’s school or the staff in a child’s summer camp). Spouses have an obligation to rescue each other from peril. Employers have an obligation to come to the aid of workers imperiled in the workplace. In some places, property owners have a similar obligation of responsibility towards people invited onto that property; in others, that obligation extends even to unwanted visitors like trespassers. Otherwise, there is no specific legal obligation to come to the assistance of others. And this is more or less the way American law has evolved as well: other than with respect to the specific exceptions mentioned above and in Vermont, people are generally deemed to have no legal obligation to assist others in distress, much less to risk their own wellbeing to do so. Indeed, although all fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, have so-called Good Samaritan laws on the books that protect individuals who come to the aid of others from subsequent prosecution in the event of mishap, or some version of such laws, Vermont is the sole state to have a law on the books that actually requires citizens to step forward to help when they see others in peril or distress.

These last several weeks, I have been following with great interest the case in Taunton, Massachusetts, that culminated in the conviction of involuntary manslaughter of Michelle Carter, 20, in a case that involved a suicide for which she was not present and which her lawyers argued she therefore could not have prevented, but for which the court deemed her in some sense responsible nonetheless.

The story is a sad one from every angle. It revolves around two troubled teenagers who met while vacationing in Florida and subsequently began an intense twenty-first-century-style relationship that was primarily conducted digitally through emails and text messages. (After returning home to Massachusetts, the two only met in person on a few rare occasions.) But digital though their relationship may primarily have been, it was clearly intense. She was suffering from an eating disorder; he suffered from suicidal tendencies and had actually attempted suicide before, which fact he disclosed to her. At first, she was supportive and encouraged him to seek counseling and not to harm himself. But at a certain point, she became convinced—and we are talking about a teenager here not a mature adult, let alone a trained therapist—she became convinced that suicide was the right solution to her friend Conrad’s problems. And so she encouraged him, as any friend would, to do the right thing. “You can’t think about it,” she texted him on the day of his death. “You have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”

Convinced that she was right, Conrad drove his truck to the secluded end of a K-Mart shopping plaza and prepared to asphyxiate himself with the fumes from his truck’s exhaust. And then we get to the crucial moment, at least in the judge’s opinion. Suddenly afraid and apparently wishing not to die, or at least willing to rethink his commitment to dying, Conrad got out of the truck and phoned his friend Michelle. Her response was as clear as it was definitive: “Get back in,” she told him. And he did, dying soon after that.

Was she responsible for his death? You could say that she did not force his hand in any meaningful way, that she merely told him to do something that he could have then chosen not to do. Or you could say that she had his life in her hands at that specific moment and that she chose to do nothing—not to phone his parents, for example, or 911—and thus was at least in some sense complicit in his death. “The time is right and you’re ready…just do it, babe,” she had texted him earlier in the day. That, in the judge’s opinion, was just talk. But when Conrad’s life was hanging in the balance—when he was standing outside the cab of his truck and talking on the phone as the cab filled with poison gas—and she could have exerted herself to save his life but chose instead to encourage him to get back in—that, the judge ruled, constituted involuntarily manslaughter in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And, as a result, Michelle Carter is facing up to twenty years in prison.

Involuntarily manslaughter, defined as behavior manifesting extreme indifference to human life that leads to the death of another, seemed to the judge to suit the details of this case. But what if Michelle truly believed that Conrad would be better off dead, that the dead rest in peace or reside in a state of ongoing bliss in heaven? What if she felt it was his right to die on his own terms and when he wished? What if she felt that he was right in his estimation that he would be better off dead than alive? Should she be held responsible for his death if she felt she truly believed any of the above? As someone who has spoken in public countless times about the dead resting in peace and their souls being resident in paradise beneath the protective wings of God’s enduring presence, there is something deeply unsettling for me personally even to ask that question aloud! Surely, I could answer, the metaphoric lyricism we bring to our efforts to deprive death of its sting aren’t meant to be taken literally, and certainly not to the point at which the taking of an unhappy person’s life feels like a justifiable decision! But what if someone did take them literally and then, not actually acting, chose not to act because of them—should that be considered criminal behavior?

I am neither a lawyer nor a legal scholar, so I won’t offer an opinion about the verdict in the Carter case per se, other than to note that the verdict is controversial and may ultimately be reversed. But the burning question that smolders at the core of the matter—what it ultimately means to be responsible for another—is not something anyone who claims to be a moral person can be at peace being unable to answer. The sense of the interconnectedness of all living things that we reference so blithely in daily discourse can serve as the platform on which all who would enter the discussion may stand. And, surely, the responsibility towards others that develops naturally from our sense of society as a network of closer and more distant relationships is undeniably real. Still, it feels oddly difficult—both morally and apparently legally—to say precisely what it means for one individual to bear responsibility for another.

The most-often repeated commandment in the Torah requires the faithful to be kind to the stranger, to the “other,” to the person who is not yourself…which is all people. Theologically, being solicitous of the wellbeing of others is a way of acknowledging the image of God stamped on all humankind. Whether criminalizing the willful decision to look away from that divine image is a good idea, or a legally sound one, is a decision for jurists, not rabbis. But the notion that all behavior that shows disrespect, disregard, or contempt for others—and thus denies the principle that all human life is of inestimable value regardless of any individual’s circumstances—is inconsonant with the ethical values that should undergird society is something we all can and should affirm. When the Torah commands that the faithful Israelite “choose life” over death, it is specifically commanding that the faithful ever be ready to step into the breach to save a life in peril and thus to affirm our common createdness in God and the responsibility towards each other that derives directly from that belief.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Presidents and Emperors

Since I’ve been writing lately about the way I related to various events of 1967, I thought this week I’d write about yet one more: the performance of MacBird! I attended with, of all people, my mother. For readers too old or too young to remember back that far, MacBird! was a play by Barbara Garson starring Stacy Keach (at the very beginning of his career) and Rue McClanahan (long before she became the sexy one on The Golden Girls) that ran for almost a year at the Village Gate in 1967 and 1968, and which basically accused Lyndon Johnson of complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Layering the actual details of the Kennedy assassination and LBJ’s subsequent assumption of the presidency over the plot of Macbeth (with some side-dollops of Richard III and Hamlet), the show in its day was considered too radical for a real Broadway house and was relegated to the West Village, then (as now) the Manhattan-theater-scene equivalent of Siberia.  My mother, already slightly radicalized and by then a card-carrying member of N.O.W., was curious enough to want to see the show. I wanted to see it too…and I apparently wanted to see it badly enough to suffer the ignominy of going along with my mother. (And, for readers who were never teenaged boys, let me assure you that that we are talking about serious ignominy here.) Besides, I told myself, who would actually see me walking down Bleecker Street with my mom?

It was June, the same June on the first day of which the Sgt. Pepper album was released— a major cultural watershed-moment in my own life, as explained in this space a week or two ago—and during the first weeks of which Israel won the Six Day War. It was also the month of the Monterey Pop festival, the precursor to Woodstock that catapulted both Jimi Hendrix and The Who to real fame in America and brought them both, particularly Jimi, to my personal attention. It was, to say the least, an interesting month, that month of my fourteenth birthday. And, as if all the above weren’t enough, it was also the month I went with my mother to see MacBird!.

No one, not then and surely not now, actually thought or thinks that Lyndon Baines Johnson might possibly have played a role in the assassination of John Kennedy. Nor did anyone imagine (admittedly impossibly) that Johnson’s subsequent rise to real power was best understood as some sort of mystically-conceived prequel to House of Cards, the Netflix series that is precisely about the ascension to the presidency of an unprincipled, corrupt demagogue, the character of whose wife truly does feel as though it’s been modelled at least on part on the character of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. But it mattered little that the point wasn’t actually to indict the sitting president of his predecessor’s murder, but merely to suggest the ultimate corruption of the political process…and the way that the fate of the nation had somehow come to rest in the hands of someone whose primary focus was not on the welfare of the nation he was charged with leading, but with the furtherance of his own personal political agenda. It was, as is all biting satire, overstated. But it caught the attention of the public, seemed somehow to capture the spirit of the time, and had a respectable 11-month off-Broadway run followed by productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

Johnson, remembered now primarily for his “Great Society” legislative package and for his “War on Poverty,” was in 1967 primarily perceived by America’s radicalized youth as the bogeyman of the Vietnam War, as the man primarily responsible for the tens of thousands of American casualties—more than 22,000 American servicemen and women had died in Vietnam by the evening I saw MacBird! with my mother—in a war regarding the legitimacy and reasonableness of which the American people were, to say the very least, strongly divided. It wasn’t the fairest assessment. LBJ inherited Vietnam from Kennedy, who—at least in a sense—inherited it from Dwight Eisenhower. (The first American servicemen to lose their lives in Vietnam died in 1959.) And Johnson was, in a real sense, playing a zero-sum game by trying to fight a war in a distant land that had the inarguably noble goal of saving an ally from being overrun by Communist forces eager to reunite Vietnam as a single entity under the totalitarian leadership of its ruling cadre and, at the same time, not having the popular support at home to do the job successfully and effectively. Instead, we attempted to shore up the troops of the unpopular non-communist regime without understanding just how little support its leaders had among their own people. It was, therefore, a loser’s game. And, as happens when people play loser’s games, we lost. But that was still years in the future when I was making my way from the subway to the theater with my mother in June of 1967 and praying I didn’t run into anyone I knew from school on a theater date with my mom.

I was brought back to that whole experience just this week as I read about the turmoil the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has engendered, turmoil serious enough to prompt two major funders, the Bank of America and Delta Airlines, to withdraw their support for the production.  Of course, all this controversy will paradoxically make it impossible to get tickets to see the show, but that, of course, was hardly the goal...which was to signal the former sponsors’ lack of interest in having their corporate names attached to a biting piece of overtly political theater that is openly and sharply disrespectful of the current President and First Lady, and which they feared could possibly be taken as calling for the assassination of the former.

Gregg Henry plays Caesar as Trump, depicting him as a self-absorbed, preening tyrant who bathes in a golden bathtub that matches his shock of golden hair. His wife Calpurnia, played by Tina Benko, dresses extremely well and speaks with a distinctly Slovenian accept. You get the idea. Any student of Shakespeare knows that Julius Caesar is far more about Brutus than it is about its own title character, somewhat in the way The Merchant of Venice is far more about Shylock than Antonio, the actual merchant mentioned in the title. (Brutus has at least four times as many lines as Caesar, and the psychological tension—the exquisite psychological tension—that gives the play its relentless, unsettling energy derives from Brutus’s efforts to negotiate his way through a maze of conflicting obligations relating to comradeship, patriotism, honor, and duty.)

Nor is the notion of “updating” Julius Caesar to suggest its enduring relevancy anything new: as recently as 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis featured Bjorn DuPaty dressed up and made up to look eerily like Barack Obama in the title role in a production that appears not to have offended any major corporate sponsors at all. Of course, the concept there was to warn the public about the vulnerability of our first black President, not to encourage his murder! So here we have the same play, the same lines, the same plot—and even the same update concept of presenting Caesar as our sitting president—and yet the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production has provoked twin tidal waves of emotion, one responding as though the production were openly to be promoting the murder of Donald Trump and the other as though the principle of free speech itself were somehow to depend on Delta Airlines renouncing its right to choose to which cultural events it wishes to lend its name and where it wishes to spend its money. Both sides are just a bit overstated.

The function of art in society is to irritate and to provoke. But to imagine that the specific thing the Public is trying to provoke with this production is the murder of President Trump is really to misunderstand the play.  The key to the play, both as I remember understanding it in eleventh grade when it was explained to us by Mr. Bergman and as I understand it today, is to show how, although the assassination of Caesar was undertaken by people who surely felt themselves to be acting in their nation’s best interest, Caesar’s murder a true catastrophe for Rome…and, at that, one from which the Roman Republic never recovered. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. Civil war ensued. Within a few years, Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, emerged as emperor of the newly-invented Roman Empire and democracy was gone from Roman soil for millennia. By acting violently to preserve democracy, the conspirators managed to destroy it instead.

The enduring brilliance of Shakespeare’s play lies in the questions it manages obliquely to ask. How far can the citizens of a republic legitimately go to preserve their nation by removing a leader working at cross-purposes with what they perceive to be the nation’s best interests? Who among the citizenry have the right to self-select as the nation’s saviors…and at what point does it matter that the path to salvation lies in violence?  Does the fact that no assassins can say with certainty what the consequences of their lawlessness will be mean, ipso facto, that all instances of extra-judicial violence are morally wrong…or merely ill-advised? Students of the Bible will think of Pinchas, valorized in the Torah precisely for having been so repulsed by the decadent, vulgar behavior of a fellow Israelite that he took it upon himself personally to serve as that individual’s judge, jury, and executioner. Students of history who feel deeply regretful about the failure of the famous plot to murder Hitler in the summer of 1944 will surely not feel that it is always wrong to act unilaterally to defeat a brutal tyrant. The simplest of assertions—that violence is always wrong, and that citizens may never act on their own violently to solve their nation’s problems—becomes far more complex in the discussing.

To the extent that the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar will usher its audience into the complexities of that discussion, it should be hailed as a legitimate piece of provocative theater. To the extent it reminds all who view the play just how devastating the consequences of even the most well-intentioned act can be, it will serve not as a spur to violence but, just to the contrary, as an argument against violence and lawlessness. To the extent that the Public’s production promotes the view of its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, that Shakespeare’s ultimate point is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods [will ultimately] pay a terrible price and destroy their republic,” it should be hailed by all as a civics lesson for us all.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hope for the U.N., Possibly

Like most Americans—60% according to a recent Gallup poll—I think the United Nations is doing a poor job living up to its self-assigned task to serve as the one international forum in which all the nations of the world are welcome peacefully to work out their disputes. I suppose different Americans must come to this negative impression from different directions, but, at least for me, the determinative factor will always be the incredible bias the body has shown towards Israel for the last half century— a kind of almost visceral prejudice that has on many occasions crossed the line from “mere” hostility to the policies of this or that Israeli government to overt anti-Semitism.

Nor am I alone in my sentiments. In a remarkable show of non-partisan unity, the entire Senate—including all one hundred U.S. senators—signed a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Gutteres last week in which they asked him formally to address what they called the United Nations’ “entrenched bias” against Israel. Nor was the letter particularly subtle: by pausing to remind the Secretary General that the United States is, and by far, the largest single contributor to the U.N. budget—in 2016, the U.S. paid out an almost unbelievable $3.024 billion to keep the U.N. running, a sum that exceeds the contributions of 185 of its member states combined—the senators sent a clear message that that kind of almost unimaginable largesse cannot be expected to continue if the U.N. fails to treat all its member states, Israel most definitely included, fairly and equitably.  They didn’t need to issue an actual threat either—just mentioning the budget was, I’m sure, more than enough.

The letter, written by Senators Marco Rubio and Christopher A. Coons (a Republican from Florida and a Democrat from Delaware, respectively), also mentioned with great enthusiasm and approval the work of Nikki Haley as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.  And she deserved her shout-out too: it’s hard to remember the last time Israel had a defender as unwilling to mince words as Ambassador Haley. The Trump administration has had trouble, and continues to have apparently serious trouble, filling any number of crucial diplomatic posts. But the President chose well when he selected Nikki Haley to represent us in Turtle Bay. Americans should all be proud to have a person of her eloquence and candor in place in what must be one of the world’s most trying diplomatic postings.

Ambassador Haley, for example, made it crystal clear just last Tuesday that the U.N. Human Rights Council—a council of buffoons whose sole interest in the world appears to lie in decrying Israel’s every perceived misstep while blithely looking the other way when other states trample on even their citizens’ most basic rights—when she, speaking with her usual forthright directness, specified that the U.S. might simply withdraw from the council unless it abolishes its infamous Agenda Item 7, which guarantees that there will never be a meeting of the council in which Israel is not singled out for censure. Such a move would hardly immunize Israel against legitimate criticism. But it would, at the very least, put Israel on the same footing as other member states—the basic definition of being treated impartially and objectively in any legitimate forum. And it would also mean that the Middle East’s one true democracy will no longer endlessly be condemned with knee-jerk resolutions full of fury but signifying nothing, while states like Iran, Syria, and North Korea—all states in which the basic human rights of the citizenry count for nothing or almost for nothing—are ignored. (Resolutions condemning Israel at the Human Rights Council outnumber similar resolutions regarding all other countries combined.) Such a disparity would be almost funny if it weren’t tragic, but it’s part and parcel of what the U.N. does and, by extension, is. Therefore, Ambassador Halley was in my opinion entirely correct to indicate that continued hostility toward Israel on that level could conceivably trigger a U.S. withdrawal. She was certainly speaking for me personally when she said clear that “[The Human Rights Council’s] relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”

Yet there may be subtle signs that things are changing. Last month, Secretary General Gutteres took the extraordinary step of personally rejecting a U.N. report that used the language of South African apartheid to describe the plight of the Palestinians on the West Bank by saying clearly that it had been published without his approval. Nor does the Secretary General appear to be afraid to speak out in public. Just last April, for example, he appeared personally at a plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress and addressed world-wide anti-Semitism and his own organization’s systemic anti-Israel bias in the same speech. (He was, for the record, the first U.N. Secretary General ever to visit an international forum of Jewish leaders.) Addressing the first issue, he pledged personally to be “on the front lines in the fight against anti-Semitism,” which specific kind of racist hatred he condemned unequivocally as “absolutely unacceptable.” And he also pledged that the U.N. would be in the forefront of a world-wide campaign to eradicate anti-Semitism from, in his own words, “the face of the earth.”

That much was impressive enough.  But then, almost unexpectedly, he went on to commit himself to working towards a reform of U.N. policies regarding Israel because, again to quote him precisely, “Israel needs to be treated as any other state.” And then he went even further, stating that he believes that Israel has an unequivocal right to exist, that Israel has an equally non-negotiable right to live in peace and security with its neighbors, and that “the modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the existence of the State of Israel.” (He presumably meant to reference the right of Israel to exist, not its actual existence—even its most implacable foes concede that there is such a place even if they wish things were otherwise.)

So there’s that. And then there was the almost unbelievable news last May that Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., was elected by 109 nations to became the first Israeli to chair a permanent U.N. committee, the General Assembly’s Sixth (Legal) Committee. And now, on the heels of that unprecedented achievement, Danon has been elected vice president of the U.N. General Assembly, his term to begin in September and to last for one year. It is true that he is not the first Israeli to serve as vice-president. (That honor goes to former Ambassador Ron Prosor in 2012.) But even so…given the level of vituperative animus against Israel that characterizes so much of what the United Nations does, it was remarkable to learn that an Israeli was elected to any position of authority at all. It isn’t much—there are, for the record, 21 vice presidents of the General Assembly—but it’s surely something to celebrate for those of us who, despite everything, continue to harbor some hope that the U.N. could yet live up to its founders’ vision and become a force for good in the world.

And that sense of faint hope inspired me to return to an essay by Ambassador Danon himself that was published on the Politico website earlier this year in which he argued that the time has come for Israel to be granted a seat on the Security Council. (To see the Politico article, click here.) It’s an important article, one I earmarked to return to and then somehow never quite did…but now that I have reread it, I would like to suggest it to you as something very worth your time and consideration.

The ambassador begins by pointing out how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel was poised to compete for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council was overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by the vote by that same body last December to question the historicity of the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. Ignoring not centuries but millennia of history, and mocking the work of a world of disinterested historians and archeologists, the Security Council voted on December 23 to recognize the Western Wall not as a Jewish holy site inextricably bound up both with the history and the destiny of the Jewish people, but as a Muslim shrine illegally occupied by Zionist usurpers intent on imposing their fantasy-based worldview on a world that should know better. (To reread my response to a similar UNESCO-based resolution earlier last fall, one so one-sided and biased against Israel that UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova herself felt the need to distance herself from it, click here.)

Nonetheless, Danon argues, the time has clearly come for the U.N., if it truly wishes to shed some of its shameful reputation, to welcome Israel onto the Security Council.  To be so elected, Israel will need the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly. But if it surely won’t be easy, it also shouldn’t be considered an impossibility. Israel has paid more into the U.N. budget over the years than the other 65 countries invited to sit on the Security Council as non-permanent members combined. And Israel has a clear role to play in encouraging the Security Council to enforce its own resolution 1701, which forbids the entry into Lebanon of any foreign armies or arms but which has mostly been ignored as Iran has poured arms into Lebanon to arm Hezbollah, now considered to have upwards of 150,000 rockets aimed at Israeli civilian centers.  Most of all, inviting Israel onto the Security Council would signal in a meaningful way that the decades of discrimination against Israel during which the U.N. has squandered the considerable moral capital it once had and sullied its reputation among all fair-minded people would finally be over.

As all my readers know, I could hardly think less of the United Nations. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I was a child, the U.N. was often held up as an example of the way that the world had turned a corner away from violence and bloodshed as the primary means of settling disputes and embraced the cause of mutual respect among nations and the peaceful resolution of conflict. One of my mother’s prized possessions, which I still have somewhere, was a letter bearing the first United Nations stamp issued and postmarked in New York on October 24, 1951. She, and so many of her and my dad’s generation, felt that the U.N. was the best hope for a world in which the horrors of the Second World War would never be replicated.  That sounds almost laughable now…but, who knows, maybe the U.N. could somehow regain its moral stature and thus also its potential. Electing Israel to the Security Council would be an unmistakable signal that the organization has turned a corner.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Ein Gedi Scroll

Ein Gedi is one of the most beautiful places in Israel—a lush, verdant oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea (not far from Masada) that is a favorite with tourists and natives alike, a lovely place to swim, to hike, and to picnic. We did all three of those things when we were there two summers ago, plus we visited the ruins of the ancient synagogue there that archeologists have now more or less completely unearthed. First built in the beginning of the third century CE, the building lasted for more than three centuries until it was destroyed in a fire and for some reason not rebuilt. But it is not merely its age that recommends it as a must-see for visitors, but rather its magnificent (and huge) mosaic floor and its many ancient dedicatory inscriptions and public warning texts. It is, all in all, an extraordinary place to visit, one that leaves you feeling imbued with a sense that the ancient holiness of the place has somehow survived all these many centuries since Ein Gedi was a thriving Jewish community supported by profits derived for the most part from the manufacture of balsam for export.

The synagogue is oriented towards the north, and for the same reasons that synagogues in North America are oriented towards the east: because that was the direction in which lay Jerusalem, the Holy City. And there, in the northern wall, is the niche where the Ark of the Law must have stood in ancient times. Much more modest than the arks featured in most modern synagogues, the arks in ancient times were little more than portable wooden boxes that served as repositories for the sacred scrolls they housed. (In most places, the ark was stored for safety elsewhere than in the sanctuary, which was never locked, and specifically brought into the room when it was time to read aloud from the Torah.) No such ark from antiquity has survived, but there are many pictures of such arks that have, and scholars have a relatively clear idea what the typical one must have looked like.

About fifty years ago, the archeologists who were first working seriously on the ruins in Ein Gedi found an ancient scroll not far from the niche in which the Ark would have stood in ancient times. But it was not legible or even openable, just a lump of carbonized parchment that had fused into one blackened mass and that, it was thought, would never give up its secrets. And that is how things stood for half a century…until just last fall when scientists at the University of Kentucky under the leadership of Professor W. Brent Seales perfected an almost unbelievable way of “reading” scrolls like the Ein Gedi one that would crumble to dust if anyone tried forcibly to open or to unroll them. Since we’re just past Shavuot, I thought it would be interesting to read about an actual ancient scroll and to contemplate its fate.

The SciNews website has produced a remarkable video explaining the technique, which you can see by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal also produced a video presentation on the topic, one just a bit more technical and seriously more sophisticated. (To see it, click here. Both videos are well worth watching and supplement each other nicely since each is only about three minutes long.) As I understand it, the basic concept is that the scroll is sliced open sideways digitally by utilizing a process that makes it possible to read the ink on each unimaginably narrow sliver in light of the ink on the ones adjacent to it, something like taking a rolled-up newspaper and slicing into incredibly narrow strips with a butcher’s knife, then attempting to read an article by inspecting each piece of confetti sideways and trying to figure out what piece of which letter is featured on each of its one-millionth-of-a-millimeter wide strips. It’s hard to describe—I’m sure it was even harder than that to invent—but the videos referenced above do a yeoman’s job of making it sound almost simple. And so, from a lump of ancient animal skin long since fused into a charbroiled rock, the team in Kentucky, working with teams from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, managed to produce this:

And, of course, they managed not only to “unwrap” it (that is actually what they call the process: “virtual unwrapping”), but to read it as well: it turned out to be the earliest biblical text featuring the so-called Masoretic text that is the “official” text of Scripture that we read aloud weekly in synagogue and preserves the text we know as Leviticus 1:1-9 and 2:1-11.  How old is it exactly? Very old! The original carbon-14 dating effort yielded a date around 300 CE, but the Hebrew script itself suggests an even earlier date to some.  Ada Yardeni, one of the world’s experts in ancient Hebrew script, wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Textus, for example, that she felt confident assigning it a date in the first century CE, a date seconded by Emanuel Tov, another leading voice in the field. And the fact that the scroll—which appears to have originally featured only Leviticus, not the entire Torah—mirrors “our” text exactly is key.

Until now, the oldest biblical texts were the ones discovered at Qumran, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, and at other nearby sites like the Wadi Murabbaat, but these texts deviate in thousands of ways from the “received” text that the synagogue promotes as the correct, authentic text of the Torah. But it was hard to argue that point persuasively when all the oldest manuscripts deviated in a thousand details, most admittedly picayune nonetheless real, and there simply was no evidence of “our” text being extant in earliest times. Nor was this just  a point for scholars in graduate-school seminar rooms to debate—Judaism as we know it is the religion the rabbis of classical antiquity developed based on their elaboration of the law as found in Scripture, but their techniques of elaboration were often based on interpreting the most minor discrepancies between parallel or adjacent texts…and obviously rests on the fundamental assumption that the text of the Torah with which they were working was “the” sacred text so fixed and so invariable that it made sense to interpret even slight discrepancies between twinned or adjacent passages.

But now we actually do have evidence that the text that the Masoretes promoted as “the” received text was out there precisely when the rabbinic movement was getting off the ground in the first century CE, that the text we regard as “the” text of “the” Torah was in use precisely when the rabbis began their endless work of interpretive exegesis and created Judaism as we know it.  This is a huge discovery and constitutes a similarly huge validation of perhaps the most basic assumption of all regarding the text of the Torah: that the text we read weekly in synagogue is the precise text the ancients studied and promoted as the basis for the purposeful worship of God through the medium of obedience to the commandments of Scripture.

Professor Marc Z. Brettler of Duke University published an essay setting forth the reasons he finds this Ein Gedi scroll to be of the greatest importance and I recommend that work to you as an excellent place to begin reading. You can find that article, which appeared on the website last fall, by clicking here. Good follow-up pieces to look at would be Daniel Estrin’s article published on The Times of Israel website (click here) or Nicholas Wade’s piece in the New York Times last September (click here).

The technique perfected at the University of Kentucky will now be used to unlock countless other treasures preserved physically but until now deemed unopenable, unreadable, and unusable.  Prime among those up-until-now unrecoverable treasures is the vast library of charred, fused scrolls—more than 300 of them—found back in 1752 at Herculaneum in Italy, a smaller town destroyed in 79 CE by the same volcanic eruption that annihilated Pompeii, in a villa that scholars believe belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Those scrolls were acquired by (of all people) Napoleon and given to the Institut de France in Paris, where they now reside…mute for millennia and now ready, perhaps, finally to speak.

Who knows what other treasures this new technique will yield? The Herculaneum scrolls alone could produce dozens of unknown texts from antiquity, but for me personally the virtual opening of the Ein Gedi scroll will always be of primary importance. We know such much, but also so little about Jewish antiquity. Regular readers will know this as a key concept for me personally: how little and how much we know about the past, and how we must learn to balance those two thoughts rationally and reasonably. The library of ancient Jewish texts is voluminous…but also filled with gigantic lacunae. We have almost no records of actual synagogue life, for example. We have no ancient prayerbooks to consult, no minutes of public meetings, no documents relating to the inner workings of the schools that produced the documents that we revere as the “stuff” of rabbinic Judaism. Why the synagogue at Ein Gedi owned a scroll that featured the Book of Leviticus alone none can say. Did they read from it during the service? That would certainly not be what we would expect by reading rabbinic documents that require that the Torah be read from a full scroll featuring all five of the Torah’s constituent books! But the rabbis did not control the synagogues of Roman Palestine any more than rabbis today control the synagogues in whose pulpits they serve today. Was the scroll used for study? That seems more likely, or at least as likely. But why was it stored then in a synagogue? Was the synagogue a school? (We regularly call a synagogue a shul in Jewish American English, generally glossing by the strangeness of referring to one institution by a word that literally denotes another.) Did single-book scrolls circulate in antiquity long before the text of Scripture was available in what we would call books or the ancient prototypes of modern books? Where could you buy such a thing? Were there public libraries? Did ordinary people own such scrolls? Were they somehow part of private worship, as opposed to the public reading of the Torah as part of the worship service? And what of this specific scroll? Who wrote it? Who owned it? Who used it? And why, after the conflagration that destroyed the synagogue and burnt its scrolls, did no one bury this specific scroll? Was that just an accident? Or is the story, now lost forever, far more complex and interesting than one of mere happenstance? To none of these questions do scholars have anything at all like definitive answers.

And so the Ein Gedi scroll, now that it speaks, prompts far more questions than it answers. But it is through the contemplation of just such objects that we grow wise as we look back and remind ourselves, not how much, but how little we know of the past. The study of history has the capacity to make us arrogant; far more reasonably should it make us humble. And yet there is strange power in old things: contemplating this ancient scroll—even without feeling in awe of the technology that made it readable—reminds us of just how long people have been gathering on Shabbat morning to hear the Torah read aloud…and allows us just for a moment to step out of time and join the worshipers in the old Ein Gedi synagogue and, as we sit quietly and contemplate the scene unfolding around us, to espy a slender scroll on a wooden shelf in a rickety bookcase on the shul’s southern wall and, alone among the others present, to know something of its fate.