Friday, January 26, 2018

The Minister of Loneliness

I found the announcement the other day by British Prime Minister Theresa May that, starting almost immediately, the U.K. is going to have among its leaders someone invited to serve as the nation’s official Minister of Loneliness more than slightly depressing. But maybe that was the wrong way to respond. The thought, after all, that the loneliness that plagues so many in our society is going to be addressed formally by someone specifically charged with finding ways to alleviate the alienation and sense of disconnectedness that makes people, even in the most densely populated urban areas, feel alone and untethered to society—and that that person is not going to be a solitary gadfly tilting at windmills but an actual government official with a staff, a budget, and (presumably) at least occasionally the ear of the Prime Minister herself—why should that be depressing? Just the opposite seems far more reasonable now that I think it through: here, for once, is a serious problem being addressed in a forthright manner. And, who knows? Maybe the Minister of Loneliness, nothing at all like the Minister for Silly Walks in the Monty Python skit, will end up doing some good in the world. Odder things have happened!
Once, this was—both abroad and here at home—a different kind of problem, one with roots in the individual psyches of specific lonely individuals but not with society at large.

In an earlier age, people lived their whole lives in the same village, or at least in the same community in a larger town or city. People’s lives were intertwined in a way that now seems, depending on where you’re standing, either quaint or vaguely oppressive. Neighbors were often each other’s relatives. But even non-related neighbors felt a sense of responsibility for each other and a deep sense of interconnectedness with each other. That old African saying Mrs. Clinton made such good use of over the years, the one that observes that it takes a village to raise a child, once reflected reality not solely in African villages, but all over the world. Certainly, that’s how life was in the shtetl my grandparents left when they emigrated and came here. And it was what life in these United States was like for most of our nation’s history.
Sociologists use the adjective “thick” to describe this kind of society in which people are not merely neighbors by virtue of physical contiguity, but individuals integrated into each other’s lives in dozens of ways, some obvious to all and others invisible to outside observers, but all palpable and meaningful. In such “thick” societies, people have their own possessions…but there is also a deep sense of obligation towards others that includes the responsibility to share with those others. And this concept of the “thick” community endures even today: the definition of a successful Jewish community (and I’m sure other kinds of communities too, particularly faith-based ones, but I speak whereof I know) is precisely one in which its members’ lives are intertwined, in which you can’t count how many meals you’ve eaten in your friends’ homes or how many naps you’ve had on their couches, in which people take each other’s tragedies personally and seriously, and which no one needs to explain the paradox of feeling more truly who you are by virtue of being tied in countless ways to a whole community of others whose sense of personal identity is also stronger and better because of their communal affiliation and involvement.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. There was a very interesting essay last month in Wired magazine in which the author, Jean M. Twenge, reflected on the unexpected fact that teenagers today report spending less than a third of the time attending out-of-school parties than teenagers reported doing thirty years ago in 1987. (To read the essay, click here.)  For young people, the explanation clearly has to do with the advent of the internet and, particularly, social media websites: why bother leaving home when you can party with a thousand friends at once on Facebook or Instagram? One young man sounded, I thought, particularly pathetic when he explained the decline in socializing from his personal perspective: People party,” Kevin explained, “because they’re bored—they want something to do. Now we have Netflix—you can watch…nonstop.” I sense that Kevin is not alone. The other day I noticed four teenagers, three boys and a girl, on the train going into Manhattan. They were clearly together, but they spent the entire trip on their phones—each of them presumably interacting with someone out there, but clearly not with each other. At all. I was reading, so I didn’t mind the quiet…but there was also something both peculiar and disturbing about the experience of watching young people so completely tuned in and tuned out at the same time.
Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson once described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is not to be confused with aloneness. People who like being alone are not morally flawed individuals. I myself like being alone—to read, to snooze, to study, to contemplate the universe. But perhaps I can afford to like time spent by myself precisely because I am part of such a complicated, involving community the rest of the time. And that really is the solution to the problem. (I should write to Mrs. May and tell her!) Loneliness—that wretched sense of being untied to the world, of specifically not feeling connected to the people around you, of turning to the world for support or sympathy and finding no one at all to be listening—that all falls away when people come together to foster a sense of interinvolved responsibility for each other’s welfare…and to form communities in which being woven into the warp and woof of the group is treated as a great good and as a blessing, and not as an oppressive, regrettable side effect of friendship.

In this country, fully half of those older than 85 live on their own, as do a third of people 65 or older. Now living on your own is not necessarily a bad thing—it can be sign of independence, well-earned autonomy, and resourcefulness. But it can also be the first step in losing touch with the world…and that is what happens to all too many of us as we get into our older years. Nor is this just an emotional problem; a University of California study I read about just a few weeks ago reported that individuals who reported suffering from serious feelings of loneliness “had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death.” And this too, from that same study: “The association of loneliness with mortality remained significant even after adjusting for age, economic status, depression and other common health problems.” (To read that article, click here.) Nor is it helpful to wave loneliness away as a mere mood: in a study published last year in the journal Cell, scientists at M.I.T. wrote to say that they had actually managed successfully to identify the region of the brain that generates feelings of loneliness, and could see that a mere twenty-four hours of isolation was enough to set the hormonal triggers for deep loneliness and its unwanted offspring: alienation, disconnection, and estrangement. Not surprisingly, the loneliness center is the next-door neighbor the “dorsal raphe nucleus,” the section of the brain linked to feelings of depression.
It sounds obvious enough that communal involvement is the antidote to loneliness. But the forces drawing people away from that simple solution are very strong. I myself am a good example. I personally do not feel at all lonely, but, even so…I used to go to stores to buy things, but now I almost exclusively shop online. I used to go to bookstores and record stores to browse around and see what might be of interest, but now I download almost everything I read or listen to. Joan and I do go to the movies…but it’s always an uphill battle when it’s cold outside, Netflix is only a few clicks away, and the selection is a trillion times greater than even the biggest multiplex can offer. And it’s free, or at least free-ish.

With respect to all of the above, I was struck by a passage I read the other day in an essay published in the New York Times by Dhruv Khullar, a physician associated with the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. (To read the essay, click here.) In it, Dr. Khullar writes that “Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.” So we’re not just talking here about an unpleasant sensation that has no ultimate importance for the trajectory of an individual’s life, but just the opposite: something to be considered in the category of smoking cigarettes or carrying around enough extra weight to qualify as obese as a factor in longevity itself (or the lack of it).

When I was a teenager, I read and was very taken with Admiral Richard Byrd’s 1938 book, Alone, in which he detailed his experiences when things went terribly wrong in the course of his second expedition to Antarctica in 1934 and he ended up living totally on his own for six months in an endless polar night while beings slowly poisoned by carbon monoxide escaping from a faulty steam pipe. For almost all of tenth grade, it was my favorite book! When I think back and wonder what exactly it was about the book that so captivated me, I suppose it must have been the courage Admiral Byrd displayed in handling both the situation and himself as he lived—as he barely lived—through a frigid six-month-long night. (It really is an exceptional book, one I still feel entirely good about recommending to readers all these years later.) But it was more than that, I think: there was something in Admiral Byrd’s account that the adolescent me—an only child with no siblings or grandparents and whose closest cousin was almost twenty years his senior—responded to easily and emotionally. (I was also a big fan back then of Thoreau’s Walden, and for the same reason.) But for all it was satisfying to know that people could live with loneliness, those books—and I should mention Clark Moustakas’ once-semi-famous book, Loneliness in this context as well—these books made it clear to me how important it was going to be for the post-adolescent me to find a real community of friends and like-minded souls.
Was that what propelled me so vigorously into seeking out the kind of Jewish community that JTS provided for me as a young man, and which I have devoted my entire professional life to trying to create for others? It might have been! But the basic principle—that loneliness is a barren, arid landscape to live out life in and that the only cure lies in belonging to a sturdy, well-structured community of neighbors and caring friends—insinuated itself into my consciousness as a young man and has resided there ever since.

Mrs. May is doing the right thing to appoint a minister to seek a solution for the problem of loneliness in society. But she could also just ask any member of a thick and traditional Jewish community and any of us could explain the whole thing to her easily.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Golden Door

When I first heard the President’s qualification of the countries that he would like to see fewer immigrants from, I was—to say the least—nonplussed. I was at first slightly amused to hear him use that word as an adjective, just as we did back in Queens when I was growing up. (President Trump and I are, after all, lantsleit, just not from precisely the same neighborhood.) But that sentiment wore quickly off and I was left, not amused by the public use of a term that once would have gotten someone of my generation suspended from high school for saying aloud in class, but appalled by the sentiment it so colorfully expressed.
It would be way too little to focus unduly on the vulgarity aspect. It was coarse and offensive. (As my late mother would have said, this is not the way nice people talk!)  But the word “vulgar” is not entirely correct in this context, at least not from an etymological vantage point. Derived ultimately from the Latin word for “crowd,” vulgus (pronounced with a w at the front and two long u’s: woolgoos), the word has been used in English since the fourteenth century primarily to sneer at behavior considered typical of the common people, of the “crowd” in the street. Other languages use a similar system for looking down on the masses too—the Greek hoi polloi (“the many”), the modern Hebrew word hamoni (an adjective derived from hamon “crowd”), and the Latin plebeius (derived from the regular word for the lower class, plebes) all mean the same thing. (The English word “plebeian,” now not so much in use, was once used similarly to denote behavior deemed common or commonplace.) But what was wrong with the use of that term was not its extreme colloquiality, but that it suggested an approach to immigration that feels not only contrary to our nation’s finest traditions but also deeply out of sync with what I’ve always considered to be one of the truly great aspects of our national ethos.

If anyone ever did, my great-grandparents came to our great nation from what they themselves—had they been given to expressing themselves foulmouthedly and had they known the English word—what they surely would have referenced using the President’s adjective as a country that was poor and undeveloped, a nation that had failed to provide them with even the most elemental of civil rights, and that—just to the contrary—had made the lives of the Jews unfortunate enough to live there into a kind of living hell. My paternal grandparents were born there too—in a small city called Nowy Dwór, about thirty miles to the northwest of Warsaw—and they came here specifically to re-invent themselves in this place and, if they could manage it (which they did), to flourish here as well.

Of course, they came here when all you needed to be accepted as an immigrant was to be free of disease and able to answer a few simple questions in simple English when the man at Ellis Island asked them of you. (I’m not entirely sure when they arrived, but it was definitely between 1899 and 1904.)  They were not well-educated Norwegians possessed of all the skills necessary effortless to self-integrate into American society. They did not have college degrees or any sort of professional training. They certainly did not have jobs waiting for them or, for that matter, homes pre-arranged and just waiting for them to move in upon arrival and set up shop. They were white people in the sense that they weren’t black people—but they were certainly what the people who would like to see our gates primarily open to white people, they were most certainly not what those people mean by white!  
With these thoughts in mind, I found myself drawn to the archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, accessible to all at, which I often do when I am in need of some historical perspective. And while I was coasting around there I found an article filed on January 1, 1924, entitled “America on Eve of Closing Gates to Jewish Immigration” that really stuck me as something worth sharing with all of you.  You can click here to read it for yourself and I strongly suggest that you do!

The basic idea is simple enough to seize: there were many, many Americans that could not stomach the thought that continued unrestricted immigration to our country might upset the balance between the overwhelmingly white and Christian majority and the various minority groups that, it was widely thought, were dramatically over-represented in the immigration statistics, and the Immigration Act of 1924 was intended to address that issue head-on. The authors of the bill, Congressman Albert Johnson (R-Washington) and Senator David Reed (R-Pennsylvania), focused on the nationality of would-be immigrants. But nationality itself was not quite precise enough for Senator Thomas Sterling (R-South Dakota), who was responsible for adding an amendment to the bill that would guarantee that no “racial” group would be overrepresented in its national quota because no “racial” group could henceforth constitute a larger percentage of the people admitted from that country to the United States as immigrants than they represented in the population back home. And who exactly do you imagine Senator Sterling, later dean of the George Washington University Law School, had in mind as he formulated his amendment? There’s no need to wonder too intensely—I can just quote the JTA article:
Senator Sterling, after introducing his amendment, frankly admitted to the JTA correspondent that it was aimed chiefly at the Jews who, he asserted, have been emigrating to American in disproportionately large numbers. The population of Poland, he said, is only 13% Jewish, but four Jews have been coming to every one Pole, and the same is practically true of Russia and Rumania. This is unfair to the predominating population of those countries, Sterling declared, who should be admitted according to their own proportion. Sterling denied prejudice against the Jews, assenting he was desirous only of giving the other peoples “a square deal.”

And it worked: about 120,000 Jews came to America in 1921; the year after the new quotas went into effect, 1927, the number was 10,000. A square deal…for whom exactly? Certainly not for Jewish people eager to flee oppression and re-invent themselves in the Land of Opportunity, now off-limits until enough ethnic Poles decided for some reason to abandon their homeland and seek their fortune elsewhere.

It would be unreasonable to lay Treblinka at Senator Sterling’s feet—surely no matter how eager he was to see fewer Jews immigrate to the United States, he could not possibly have conceived of the unimaginable hell to which he was inadvertently consigning those in whose face he was shutting the gates.  But those gates occupy a major part of my thinking on the matter as well because it was those exact gates, the ones to Ellis Island, that not thirty years earlier Emma Lazarus had characterized as a golden door when she imagined Lady Liberty herself addressing the immigrants arriving in New York Harbor on their way to a new life: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It was that specific invitation that called my great-grandparents and grandparents to this place.

After all these years I still cannot read those line about the golden door without tears coming to my eyes. And for one specific reason: because—and I know how crazy this must sound—because I have always imagined the Lady actually speaking those words aloud to my grandparents, then newly-weds in search of a new life and, of course, fully unaware of what the future had in store for the Jews of their town back home. In my mind’s eye, I can see my grandparents looking to the west, to the future, to America as the boat enters the harbor. But I can also see the Lady, and she is looking, not to the west, but to the east to greet them…and taking note as she does of the smoke rising in the distance (and in the future) from the ruins of the Nowy Dwór ghetto as the last Jews present were finally deported to their deaths on December 12, 1942, and the ghetto itself was burnt to the ground. My grandparents were safe. Their future children, including my father, were safe. And I myself only exist because they were, because they had someplace to flee to, to settle in, and to be grateful the rest of their lives to God for.
So, in my heart, it is precisely from the countries the President used such a tasteless, coarse term to denigrate that we should be permitting immigration. Why would Norwegians want to come here anyway—wasn’t it just last year that Norway, jumped three spots forward and displaced Denmark as “the world’s happiest country”? (We came in fourteenth. Click here for more details.) And the world’s least happy countries? Occupying the last five spots on the CNN list are Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Central African Republic. Do you see a pattern? I bet the President does too! But those are precisely the tempest-tost souls we should be welcoming to this place…and offering a place in the American mosaic, in the crazy-quilt of ethnicities and national origins that somehow together create the America that, precisely because of our rejection of prejudice and ethnic hatred, was and remains the envy of so many in our sorry world. The whole concept of America requires that our doors be open—yes, within reason, and surely only open to people prepared to embrace American culture and to participate in our American democracy, and who can demonstrate their willingness to become patriotic citizens in the style of the immigrants to these shores of generations past—to people fleeing oppression, misery, poverty, and prejudice back home. That’s what we do here…and I suppose we can make room for a few Norwegians too.  Maybe we can learn a thing or two about being happy from them!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Farewell to Appelfeld

Contextualization is the tool many, even perhaps most, authors who write about the Shoah use to make their stories believable. The first truly great novel rooted in the Shoah, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, sought to set the Shoah into the context of Jewish history itself. Vasily Grossman’s monumental book, Life and Fate, which covers a huge amount of territory including both Stalingrad and the fate of the Jews of German-occupied Russia and Ukraine, sets the horror into the context of the Red Army’s war against the Soviet Union’s German invaders. Even works like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance sought to explain the Holocaust by attempting to see it as part of the larger context of the Second World War itself. I could mention a dozen other books in this vein as well, all works that sought to make fathomable something by its nature essentially unfathomable by setting it in a larger frame and then by attempting to provide some of the other pieces of the puzzle that fit into that frame, somewhat in the same way that you can take a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t look like anything at all and grant it meaning by providing the other puzzle pieces that together with it create an image you actually can recognize easily.

But the work of Aharon Appelfeld, who died last week at the age of eighty-five, took the precise opposite tack and attempted to explain the Shoah through the exquisite contemplation, not of the whole, but of single ones of its pieces…and the tinier the piece the better. Such a minimalist approach risks being treated dismissively by people trained from childhood to seek understanding through the studied contemplation of “the big picture,” by people who want to explain any smaller thing in terms of whatever larger thing it is a part of.  But such people would be wrong: Appelfeld, in his forty-odd novels, was not just successful in laying the foundation for a truly meaningful sense of what the Shoah “meant,” but remarkably so. Of all his books, only one, The Ice Mine, is actually set in a Nazi camp. The rest are set either before, during, or after the Shoah…but none attempts to describe anything like the big picture and all focus instead on the experiences of single families or, in more instances than not, of single children facing a world that they cannot even begin slightly to fathom. And that child, of course, is Appelfeld himself, whose entirely literary oeuvre he himself once characterized as a life-long effort to understand his own story.

The stories he tells are both amazing (because they feature children surviving more or less totally on their own against unimaginable odds) and familiar (because so many pieces of so many of his stories will remind readers of incidents in the lives of survivors they know personally). But even readers unaccustomed to the kind of spare prose that says everything by saying almost nothing will find his books to be moving comments not solely on the Jewish experience during the Second World War, but on life itself, on what it means to be alive at all. 

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the fascists invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered in front of his eyes, and he and his father were deported to a camp from which he somehow managed to escape almost immediately upon arrival despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941. And he survived that way too, somehow managing to survive in the forest for three long years. (This part of his story is told through a child’s eyes in one of his last works, the children’s book Adam and Thomas which I just finished reading last week.) Eventually, he was “rescued” by some partisans who handed him over to the Red Army, where—because eleven-year-olds could not actually serve as soldiers—he was sent to the kitchen to work as one of his unit’s cooks. And then, when the war finally ended, Appelfeld—still not bar-mitzvah age—was interned on his own in a displaced persons camp in Italy. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, where he learned—but only eventually—that his father too had somehow survived. That reunion, between a fifteen-year-old who had basically raised himself and a father whom he assumed had been murdered years earlier, was the defining moment in Appelfeld’s life, albeit one not recounted in any of his books, not even in his 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life.

As noted, his books are almost all—at least in part—about children. And so, when read as a complete oeuvre—and I believe that I have now read all of Appelfeld’s books either in Hebrew or in English—the experience is like peering through some sort of semi-opaque scrim at a world that looks like our own but in which no one seems to realize that its appurtenances are made of papier-mâché that is destined by its very nature to dissolve once it starts raining in earnest…and that its people are merely tethered to the world rather than truly anchored in it.

We read about parents telling their children—and this scene repeats over and over and over—telling them that they’re going to have to hide in the woods (or in an attic or in a brothel or in a farmer’s barn somewhere) until someone comes to retrieve them, which almost never actually happens, and softening the blow of separation with a slew of hopeful promises. The war will soon be over. The deportations will end. The neighbors will surely protect us. The war just a passing disturbance that has nothing really to do with us at all, a nightmare we will soon barely be able to remember. These same promises reverberate through every book.

I wrote several years ago about Blooms of Darkness, the novel that won him the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the book that I think almost more than any says the most about the Shoah by saying so little. The story of a little boy stashed by his panicked parents in a local brothel that they clearly do not realize is patronized almost exclusively by German soldiers, the book describes how the givens of the world can alter in a twinkling as an entire civilization vanishes in the mist and a child wakes up suddenly to find himself living in an entirely different universe. The book itself is harrowing, and in a million different ways. But the end of the book really comes as close as anything I’ve read to creating a context for understanding the Shoah, and that’s what I thought I’d write about today as a way of saying farewell to one of the truly great authors of our day.

At the end of the book, the Germans withdraw and the brothel closes. For a moment, we think that the danger has passed, but now a new horror presents itself: Mariana, the prostitute, now risks being condemned by her countrymen as a traitor, as someone who spent the years of the occupation giving comfort to the enemy. They flee into the forest together, but Mariana is quickly found and arrested. Hugo, like his creator, is now all alone in the forest. He sees no way out, no solution. And so he voluntarily leaves the forest and finds his way to the jail in which his protector is being kept. And there he waits…for something. For justice. For Mariana. For his mother. For someone to watch over him. But nothing at all happens. Days come and go. He eats at a local soup kitchen, then returns to his post outside the jail lest he be absent when she exits the prison gates.

Eventually, the scales fall from his eyes and he realizes—to his amazement—that he is in his own city, in the city in which he was raised. It’s just a provincial city, not too big…and he somehow figures out in which direction lies the neighborhood in which his parents house stood and presumably still stands. And so he leaves the jail, leaves Mariana (she has already been executed, but he doesn’t know that), leaves the fragile platform life has offered him to stand on for as long as he can.

He begins to walk home. The city’s residents ignore him. He has no real way to know if he is going in the right direction. Somehow he perseveres, walking slowly and purposefully. But when he gets to his own street…everything is different. The shops are still where he recalled them being, but they all have different names. The synagogue has vanished. The Jewish people have all been replaced by Gentiles. He peers through the window of his own home and sees a different family with different children sitting down to dinner at his parent’s dining room table. He cannot fathom what has happened, cannot explain it, can only wait for his parents to return. And then, when he eventually tires of waiting, he turns his back on the past and walks away.

I haven’t even begun to do the passage justice. But that sense that everything is different, that nothing will ever be the same, that the world is illusory at best and malign and dangerous at worst, that the only safety rests within the confines of the human heart where remembering and forgetting can coalesce into some version of hope in the future—that is the core idea of which the book itself reads like so much extended midrash.

Appelfeld himself ended up in a D.P. camp in Italy, then found a new life in Israel. He ended up reasonably well—his found his father, and he also found the courage to marry, to become a father of three, to thrive in Israel, and to live and work productively into old age. But he remains—to myself and to many—the symbol not of the accomplished author and family man, but of the little boy in the forest attempting to fathom the unfathomable…and somehow to remain safe in the domain of wild beasts. May Aharon Appelfeld rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing for us all.

Thursday, January 4, 2018


Readers of these letters will know already that one of the areas that I find the most interesting—and also the most challenging— to write about is the precise way my commitment to the values that underlie our American republic meshes (or doesn’t mesh) with my equally strong commitment to the Torah-based values that inhere in traditional Jewish life.

That was the reason I chose to write a few weeks ago about the Supreme Court’s decision to consider the case of the Colorado baker who declined to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and why I continue to find that case so interesting. On the one hand, as someone unambiguously committed the notion that the civil rights of gay people deserve to be protected by law no less forcefully or fully than the civil rights of any other group within our American society, I can easily identify with the couple who felt discriminated against by the baker’s refusal to serve them. On the other hand, I also feel—and just as strongly—that it can never be a good thing—not for members of religious minorities but also not for the nation itself—for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to be attenuated by restrictive legislation or undermined by the courts. I wrote then how struck I was by the many articles and essays I read on both sides of the issue that appeared to consider the matter as unambiguously simple and clear-cut, whereas to me it seemed and seems thorny and complex.

I do not wish to write again about that specific case today, but rather to address a very interesting issue that I see growing out of it: the question of whether the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution should rationally be taken to include speech itself. The baker, after all, is not arguing that anyone has restricted his right to practice his faith at home or in church in whatever manner he wishes, but rather that custom-baking a cake for gay wedding reception would imply that he personally supports the notion of same-sex marriage and should for that reason only be something he has the constitutional right to decline to do. Leaving aside the question of whether non-verbal activity like baking a cake—even a super-fancy one—should be considered speech at all, I would like instead to consider the question of whether speech itself is can be reasonably qualified as enough of a religious act to be protected by the First Amendment.

Our Jewish tradition certainly thinks so, making blasphemy into the kind of capital crime so potentially injurious to the public weal that the entire people is called upon to participate together in the blasphemer’s execution. Nor does Scripture allow for the possibility that this is meant as some sort of kashrut-style prohibition meant to apply solely to Israelites: “as well the stranger as he that is born in the land,” the Torah solemnly announces, “when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.” So that’s clear enough, but what is being prohibited exactly? Our ancient sources go back on forth regarding the details, but those discussions mostly center around the question of what specifically someone would have to do actually to merit execution as a blasphemer—whether such a person has to curse God using the most sacred of divine names, whether it counts if someone curses another individual using that name of God as part of the imprecation, whether speaking in a vulgar way about God is enough to warrant indictment, whether insulting God’s Torah counts, whether the crime even can be committed by someone who does not speak Hebrew, etc. But the notion that speaking aloud in a way that disrespects the name of God is sinful and wrong is a cornerstone of our Torah’s approach to the morality of speech itself.

And that brings me to a remarkable booklet entitled Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws, published just this last July by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the federal commission with the mandate specifically to report on violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and to the Congress. It is, to say the least, an eye-opening read. (Click here to the see the full report online and here to see an abbreviated version.)

To my slight amazement, it turns out that a full third of the world’s nations, 71 countries in all, have laws that make blasphemy illegal. How this is specifically defined varies, but the basic principle is that there are 71 countries in which you can face serious punishment if you are convicted of having spoken out in a way deemed insulting to God or, in some cases, to religion itself.

Some of the countries on the list were no surprise at all, countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, and Syria. But others were amazing to me, particularly Western-style democracies like Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland, and Spain. Israel is on the list. And, most unexpected of all (to me personally, at any rate), so is Canada.

The laws themselves vary widely. But the punishments are severe in almost every case: of the 71 nations that have laws prohibiting blasphemy, 59 punish individuals convicted of the crime with imprisonment. In two other nations, Iran and Pakistan, convicted blasphemers risk execution. Two more, Russia and Kazakhstan, punish convicted blasphemers with compulsory or corrective labor. One country, Sudan, punishes the blasphemer with the kind of corporal punishment administered with a whip.  Ireland, Spain, and Switzerland levy fines against anyone convicted of blasphemy. Three countries, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia, do not have specific punishments enshrined in law and rather ominously leave the decision in the hands of the presiding judge.

I read it, but I couldn’t believe it. Canada really imprisons blasphemers? In what century? And yet…there it is, in the Criminal Code of Canada, article 296: “Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” Yes, the is a huge “but” that is also enshrined in Canadian law to the effect that no one may be convicted of an offense under this section of the code merely for expressing “in good faith and in decent language…an opinion on a religious subject.” So that softens the blow considerably: to qualify for your up-to-two years in prison, you have either to express your blasphemy hypocritically or to couch it in foul language. I was unable to discover how many Canadians, if any at all, have been convicted lately of blasphemy, but I suspect the number is quite low. In fairness, I should also note there is a bill before the House of Commons right now that would repeal the law in its entirety. But the fact that the law exists at all is what amazed me. And continues to amaze me!

What nations mean by blasphemy also varies. The law in Brazil refers to someone “publicly vilifying an act or object of religious worship.” The law in Bangladesh is much broader and makes indictable the individual who merely speaks in such a way that “hurts the religious sentiments” of another person. Finland takes a more biblical approach, specifically directing the law against any who “publicly blasphemes against God.” Article 173 of the Israeli Penal Code is somewhere in the middle and threatens with one single year’s imprisonment anyone who “publishes a publication that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others” or who “voices in a public place and in the hearing of another person any word or sound that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.” In Indonesia, anyone who expresses “feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt” towards any religion at all with the intention of discouraging someone from adhering to that faith or who speaks “disgracefully” about any religion is liable to up to five years in prison. You get the idea.

In America, of course, we have no such laws. The American approach was probably best summed up by Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who wrote in 1952 that, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” So that’s clear enough.

But what about me? I live within a tradition that takes blasphemy seriously and considers it the kind of offense that should apply to all, as a kind of universal wrong that society would do well to outlaw. But the American in me is with Justice Clark and finds the thought of punishing Americans for speaking out hostilely towards any religion—or towards religion itself or towards God—not something merely to be condemned a tasteless, but something wholly inconsonant with our democratic ideals as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

So I get the baker’s argument that he does not wish to be forced by the courts to “say” something he finds spiritually repugnant. I wouldn’t wish to be either. Yet, for all the reasons I detailed in my previous letter, I think the Supreme Court should nevertheless uphold the lower court's rulings and require that he not discriminate against gay couples merely because he doesn’t approve of same-sex unions. I suppose I can live with a little inconsistency when it comes to squaring my rootedness in Torah values and my devotion to the principles that underlie our American democracy. Just you’d think I’d be better at it by now!