Thursday, May 31, 2018

Forty Years In

A few week ago, I mentioned in passing that this last May 14 was the fortieth anniversary of my ordination as rabbi. I wasn’t planning to make a big deal out of it—and I’m still not—but something in the news this last week drew me back to thinking about it, and in an unexpected way that I think I would like to share with all of you after all.
I started at JTS in 1974. It was a long time ago. Nixon had just resigned. That Petit fellow had just managed to walk from one of the Twin Towers to the other on a tight wire. All you could hear on the radio was “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. There were no cell phones, no personal computers, no internet providers. People deposited checks by handing them to flesh-and-blood tellers in brick-and-mortar banks. You rented a movie by walking to a video store and picking it out, paying for it, and carrying it home. I was barely 21 years old that fall, naïve and as unsure of myself as I was untried in the ways of the world.

But I did know where I was going, or at least where I wished to go. Something was drawing me to the rabbinate, something profound enough to have brought me to devote all my energy for more than a year to getting into the school at which I wanted to train for my future profession…and which now brought me to the front gate of JTS on the Sunday before the first day of classes eager to bring my twelve boxes of books and one valise of clothing up to my dorm room and then to get my parents back into the car as quickly as possible. But what was it exactly that brought me to that place and to that moment? Did I choose this path forward in life? Or did it choose me? Those are the questions that have been banging around in my head in the course of these last several weeks as I find myself crossing the threshold into my fifth decade of rabbinic life.
You’d think I’d know how I got here. And yet, when I try to compile a list of specific experiences that turned me from any of my earlier career ideas—some doable, others at least in retrospect probably not so much—to a life of service in the congregational rabbinate, I find myself uncharacteristically unsure of myself.

I’ve written in several different places about something that happened in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France on Erev Yom Kippur in 1972, not even two full years earlier than that Sunday afternoon that I found myself moving into the Brush Dorm at  JTS for the first time, although without revealing what I actually experienced in that greenish-purple meadow at dusk. (I won’t repeat the whole story here, but it’s available to anyone who wants to read about it in the “History is Destiny” chapter of my book, In Search of Wholeness, published by Moonstone Press in London, Ontario, about twenty-five years ago, but now available to all on my website at I’ve felt forever that that incident—that life-transforming moment that came upon me wholly unexpectedly (and without any prior warning) and which then vanished forever, leaving me turned from who I was prior to it into who I was a moment later and still am today—I’ve always felt that that incident had merely to be the icing on the cake, the culminative experience that capped all the others that led me up to it. How could it not have been? Isn’t that journeys work: you walk forward one step at a time until you finally step over the line that all the other steps brought you up to? Or do internal journeys that bring people to new places without moving them physically forward at all work differently?
It feels like journeys should be cumulative experiences, yet I consistently come up dry when I try to dredge up the others experiences and incidents that led me to that single moment in the Col de Saverne—the specific mountain pass in the Vosges where our bus broke down and I was forced to watch the sun set on Erev Yom Kippur for the one and only time in my life since earliest childhood (or since) that I couldn’t and didn’t attend services in a synagogue on the most sacred night of the year, didn’t go into the fast with a nourishing meal under my belt, and found myself entirely in the company exclusively of people for whom September 17, 1972, was just a warm evening at the tail-end of summer and not the most sacred evening of the year—when I try to come up with those “other” experiences, there appear to be none for me to list. Was I open to what occurred specifically because I was still reeling after hearing about the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics just eleven days earlier? It feels, at least in retrospect, that the two events—the one known to the entire world and the other known solely to me alone—it feels as though they must have been related. But it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. And it still doesn’t feel that way to me, not when I try to be perfectly honest with myself.

I was brought back to this set of thoughts this week when I read the remarkable story of Mamadou Gassama, the Spiderman of Paris. I’m sure you all saw the video clip—click here if you somehow didn’t—featuring this almost unbelievable feat of courage and physical strength. A child, a boy of four, somehow ends up hanging on for dear life as he dangles from the balcony of his parents’ apartment four stories up over a busy Paris street. His mother is out of town. His father has gone shopping and left him alone. He is out of the reach of the neighbors who are trying to encourage him to hold on. If he lets go, he will surely die when he hits the pavement. And in the street is a young man of twenty-two, an undocumented illegal migrant from Mali walking to a football game with his girlfriend. He has every reason to avoid attention, every sound reason to do whatever it takes to keep from being noticed by the authorities. And yet, possessed of almost superhuman agility and strength, he finds himself facing his destiny. If he acts and is successful, the child will live. If he does nothing, the child will almost certainly die. In his hands, therefore, is a decision he can’t have ever imagined having to make. Will he risk everything, including his personal freedom and his future in France, to save a little boy he hasn’t ever met and for whom he obviously has no personal responsibility? Or will he blend into the crowd of horrified onlookers as a mute witness to someone else’s tragedy and leave it at that?

What happened next defies explanation. Even after watching the video clip over and over, I still can’t quite believe he was able to do what he did, but he somehow managed to climb up the side of the building, leaping up from each balcony to the next higher one and the hoisting himself up, gaining his footing on the new balcony, then somehow hoisting himself up to the next story. The whole incident took less than thirty seconds. When he reached the railing from which the boy was dangling, he simply flipped himself onto the balcony like a trained acrobat and pulled the child to safety.

Yesh koneh et olamo b’shaah achat, the Talmud says: there are people who alter the entire course of their lives in a single moment. And this was clearly that kind of moment. A day later, Mamadou was sitting in the Elysée Palace with Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who offered him three things: a medal for his bravery, French citizenship, and a job as a Paris firefighter. In a single moment, his life’s path was altered utterly and completely. A day after that, he met with Lassana Bathily, his countryman who saved those customers in the Jewish grocery when a supporter of the Islamic State took other patrons hostage in 2015, and whose life was also utterly altered by a split-second decision he made to risk his life to save innocents not because he had to but because he could. (He also earned French citizenship as a reward for his selfless heroism.) When that happened, I wrote to you all about how my understanding of what it means to be a hero and how my personal definition of heroism seems always to be evolving. (To review that piece, click here.) And now I find myself revising my thinking yet again, this time to accommodate a young man of almost unimaginable athletic ability and agility who saw the chance to do good and took it, even though it could easily have cost him his future and his freedom.

What I experienced in the Vosges that Sunday evening in 1972 was nothing like that. It involved neither selflessness nor bravery. There was nothing at all heroic about it either, nor does it feel that way even in retrospect. Aval af ani kaniti et olami b’shaah achat: my life too altered in a moment and never resumed again the course along which it had been set for the years leading up to that moment. In a sense, my story was more like the prophet Amos’s, who was tending his sheep when suddenly he felt called to the charism of prophecy, or like Jeremiah who was quietly cooking his lunch when God first addressed him entirely out of the blue and asked him, of all things, what he saw before his eyes. (He answered, no doubt honestly, that what he saw before him was a pot of boiling soup.) Or perhaps like Ezekiel who was strolling along the Kebar River when the heavens suddenly opened over his head and he saw what he himself called mar’ot elohim, visions sent by God. None of these experiences required bravery or physical strength. None required advance planning or training. But all required intellectual integrity, uncompromising honesty, and the courage not to look away at what, after all, was right before their eyes.

I have made my way forward all these years attempting to be possessed of all three of those things. Like all of us, I’ve occasionally faltered. (Perhaps “occasionally” isn’t quite correct either.) But those were the gifts offered to me for the taking on that warm summer’s evening in the Vosges. It took me a while to take them up. I was not even a half-baked cake in 1972—just a junior in college who was idly thinking, possibly, of a life in our nation’s diplomatic service. That’s what drew me to France in the first place, by the way, the opportunity to perfect my French and improve my German. (And also the possibility of not being sent to Vietnam, which I’ll have to write about on some other occasion.) But sometimes you really can be koneh et olamkha b’shaah achat. The next week, I dropped all my German classes and all but one of my French courses, and enrolled instead in the university’s Institute for Semitic Languages, where I registered for all the Hebrew classes I was qualified to take. It was a confusing year in a million different ways. I was untested, untried, unsure of myself. But when our bus was finally repaired and I eventually got back to my dorm room on the Avenue de la Libération, I was a different person. And that is how I came to be who I turned into, and how I found my way into my life. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Guns and Cars

Yes, of course, when I looked at the pictures of the innocents gunned down in the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, last Friday, I felt some combination of anger and deep sadness. What kind of person could look at portraits of murdered children and not feel both those emotions welling up from deep within? And yet it’s also true that the incident itself independent of the victims—the actual scenario of a young person getting a gun somewhere, entering a school (in this case his own high school), and opening fire on whomever has the misfortune to be standing in his line of fire—the actual incident itself amazed me in precisely the opposite way: by failing to stir up the level of outrage that even I myself think any normal person should bring to his or her contemplation of an event like last week’s bloodbath at Santa Fe High. It’s just become so…so what? So routine, so almost ordinary, so weirdly and eerily banal? The sad truth is that it’s not even that easy after all these incidents for me to remember clearly which shooter attacked which school.
As a result, I found myself understanding easily when I listened to that video clip featuring Paige Curry, a seventeen-year-old student at Santa Fe. “It’s been happening everywhere,” Paige said. And then she added a thought that would have once been incomprehensible other than in a horror movie as the cellos start thrumming in the background. “I’ve always kind of felt,” she said, “like it eventually was going to happen here too.” And then, just to sharpen her point, she added the almost obvious: “I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I was just scared.”

I get it. I’m sure I’d be scared too if I was present in the same building as an unrestrained shooter. But would I be surprised? I think I personally would be. But, of course, I’m not a high school student, much less one in Texas, to whose entire lifetime these incidents have served as a kind of terrifying, if almost ordinary, background. (Today’s high school seniors were born after the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999, not before.) I was once a high school student, of course. And there were indeed school shootings across the land during my years at Forest Hills High. But what was absent in my day was the sense of randomness that the shooting incidents of these last years seem almost invariably to feature. There were, to be precise, exactly one dozen documented school shootings during the years I was in high school, seven of which took place in high schools or junior highs. The rest took place in universities or colleges, but the salient detail is that none was random: some, like the famous Kent State incident of 1970, took place in the context of political demonstrations; others were tragic, unintentional accidents; and still others, at least half, were targeted assassinations, usually of teachers or principals by disgruntled students. In other words, in none did a young person simply appear in school with a gun and just start shooting.
The earliest school shooting in the United States actually preceded the founding of the nation itself. It took place in 1764 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in the context of the now-long-since-forgotten war called Pontiac’s War in which native tribes banded together to protest British policies towards them. And it was thus, at least in their own minds, as an act of war that four Delaware Indians entered that town’s school building on July 26 of that year and shot to death the school’s principal, one Enoch Brown. Whether Greencastle can count as our country’s first brush with murder at school, or whether the murder of John Davis, the law professor at the University of Virginia who was murdered by one of his students on November 12, 1840, deserves to be considered the first American school shooting, seems to me at least debatable. (I believe the Greencastle incident is the only school shooting, even now, in American history that took place in the context of an actual war. But it seems odd to consider it an American event, given that the United States did not yet even exist.) But the more profound question is not which incident gets the most reasonably to be labelled our first school shooting, but whether we can stem this tide of senseless violence before it becomes even more endemic, even more a part of our national culture, even more inextricably woven into the fabric of our American ethos…and as such something that in the end simply cannot in any practical way be eradicated.

To my way of thinking, this is specifically not a Second Amendment issue and we have done ourselves no service by appearing unable to frame it any other way. Indeed, approaching the question from that vantage point—i.e., by wondering if Americans should or shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms or how that right should or shouldn’t be curtailed with respect to one or another subgroup within the citizenry—that seems to me to be the precisely least productive way to engage with this issue. Instead, this should be a considered a safety issue—and in the context of school shootings, a children’s safety issue—and the question framed, not in terms of the rights of citizens (or specific citizens) to own guns at all or specific kinds of guns, but in terms of the basic right of all citizens, most definitely including children, to be safe from harm as they go about conducting their daily affairs.
We’ve managed this in other areas, after all. In a truly remarkable essay published last November, Nicholas D. Kristoff made the remarkable point that, through a combination of innovation, legislation, and increased awareness on the part of the public, we have managed to reduce the likelihood of an American dying in an automobile accident by an unbelievable 95% since 1921. (To see Kristoff’s essay, click here.) Even more to the point is that we have done so not by prohibiting the use of cars, not by making cars increasingly less powerful with each model year, not by continually raising the age at which young people can get driver’s licenses, not by requiring background checks before permitting a dealer to sell a car to anyone at all, and not by requiring people to acquire government-issued permits to purchase motorized vehicles. Instead, we allowed what we know of cars—and, no less crucially, what we know of the people who drive them—to inspire innovation after innovation intended to diminish the likelihood of an American dying in a car accident.

We all know how this has been accomplished. Seatbelts were introduced in 1950 and eventually made mandatory in all fifty states. Federal safety standards were first imposed on automobile manufacturers in 1968. The national 55 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed on most American highways in 1974. Car safety ratings, giving consumers the opportunity to purchase vehicles based on the degree to which they were considered safe to operate by unbiased experts and not merely the degree to which they were touted as such by their manufacturers, were introduced in 1993. Front-seat airbags became mandatory in 1999. We introduced mandatory reporting of defects by car manufacturers in 2000. And the result? In 1946, there were 9.35 deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States. In 2016, there were 1.18 deaths per 100 million miles driven. That is a truly amazing statistic, one all Americans should bear in mind as they search for a way to make safe our schools and protect our children. It surely can be done. We just need to figure out how.
As Mount Kilauea continues to erupt in Hawaii, there has apparently been a resurgence of interest in Madame Pele, the traditional Hawaiian goddess of destruction imagined to govern that fiery mountain and to control its lava flow. I doubt most Hawaiians take these beliefs too literally, although there are apparently those who take them very seriously indeed. (Click here to read more.) Nor is the idea of a god or goddess of destruction unfamiliar to me—the Israelites themselves used regularly to flirt with the idea of bringing some version of Mot, the Canaanite god of death and destruction, into the Israelite cult as a kind of sub-deity deemed responsible for destruction and death in the world. The prophets inveighed against that kind of potential deviation from strict monotheism, but I can certainly understand the appeal of explaining away at least some of the terrible things that happen in the world by blaming them on perverse deities intent on bringing mayhem to the world. But when it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our land (and particularly the version directed at children or teenagers in school), it feels ridiculous to blame the situation on malevolent gun gods or on our national ethos, or in describing it as the inevitable consequence of our right to bear arms.

It’s easy to be cynical. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people say in the last little while that there simply is no solution, that if Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to rouse Americans to action than nothing ever will be. I suppose there’s something to that. But the dimensions of the problem need to rouse us to action anyway: if you include suicides, there have been more gun deaths in our nation’s history (about 1.4 million) than deaths in all the wars in which our country has participated since the Revolution itself (about 1.3 million, as Shelter Rockers who come to Yizkor all know). In most years, more Nursery-School-aged children die from gunfire than police officers risking their lives in the line of duty. We have created this situation and I simply can’t imagine that we can’t also solve it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Torture and the American Soul

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA now that former head Mike Pompeo has become Secretary of State, is facing stiff opposition on Capitol Hill primarily over two specific issues: the question of the use of torture to extract information from prisoners at a secret CIA “black site” detention facility in Thailand that Haspel supervised in 2002 and her role in the 2005 destruction of almost 100 videotapes of interrogation sessions, some of which are thought to have captured scenes of actual prisoners and detainees being tortured. Speaking indirectly to both charges, Haspel on Wednesday told the Senate Intelligence Committee that she will not reinstitute the brutal interrogation techniques that were in use in Thailand when she was in charge there and elsewhere. Haspel did not, however, condemn torture as an absolute wrong, thus suggesting that there may well be circumstances under which even the most violent, pitiless and ruthless techniques for eliciting information from detainees could be justified.

Most of the authors I’ve been reading lately who oppose the use of torture to extract information from prisoners fall largely into one of two categories.
Some understand the use of torture regardless of circumstances to constitute what legal philosophers call a malum per se, something that is morally wrong “in and of itself” in which moral wrongness inheres by its very nature, as opposed to the malum prohibitum, which term references the act that is wrong only because it is prohibited by law. (The law requiring people to drive on the right side of the road would be a good example of that latter—a perfectly reasonable law that forbids behavior no one would describe as intrinsically evil.)

Still others, perhaps less philosophically inclined, oppose torture on the practical grounds that they feel that it rarely, if ever, yields truly useful information because it merely brings the individual being tortured to the point at which he or she will say anything at all to gain relief and because information so acquired is therefore highly unlikely actually to be accurate. As an example, people in this camp point to the torture-obtained admission by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani national named in the 9/11 Commission Report as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” that he had recruited black Muslims in Montana to carry out future terror attacks, a confession that he later recanted and which apparently had no truth to it at all.
To help refine my own thinking on the matter, I’ve had recourse in the last few days to two important works: Torture: A Collection, an extremely interesting and rich collection of essays published by Oxford University Press in 2004 and edited by Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School; and a very long and detailed essay by Rabbi J. David Bleich called “Torture and the Ticking Bomb” published in 2006 in Tradition, the quarterly journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis. (Used copies of the Levinson book are available for purchase online for less than $2.50; to see Rabbi Bleich’s essay, click here.) In the Oxford volume, I was particularly taken with the essays by Miriam Gur Aryeh and Alan Dershowitz. But I’d like to focus primarily today on Rabbi Bleich’s argumentation.

After a long and very interesting survey of modern and pre-modern approaches to the topic, he turns to a specific question of Jewish law, the one concerning the ticking bomb mentioned in the title of his essay. He begins by noting that the Torah’s commandment at Leviticus 19:16 to the effect that one may “not stand idly by the blood of another” has been interpreted since ancient times to mean that there is a legal, not merely a moral, obligation to come to the aid of someone who’s life is in danger. And then he poses the question about torture against the background of that concept by proposing a situation in which terrorists have placed a weapon of mass destruction, say a “dirty” bomb or even a more sophisticated nuclear device, in a public place where it will take the lives of thousands if it explodes. And let’s imagine further than one of the terrorists, one who is considered at least likely to know the specific location of the bomb, is apprehended, but refuses to reveal what he knows. Is there a moral limit to the amount of force that may be applied to extract that information from such a prisoner?
There are lots of ways to approach the question. Is it a matter solely of numbers? In other words, the example above imagined thousands of lives on the line. But what if it were tens or hundreds of thousands? What if it were millions? And that is where the distinction between a malum per se and a malum prohibitum comes into play. Is the prohibition of torture a line that by its very nature may never be crossed? Or is it just a bad thing that rarely produces good results and that the law therefore rightly forbids…but which could be morally justified under certain specific circumstances? The Romans used to say fiat justitia et pereat mundus (“let justice prevail even if the world be destroyed”). Those words have a noble ring to them…but the acid test is not whether you would learnedly cite them in a law school application essay but whether you, who are on record as abhorring the use of torture, would dare say them aloud to someone whose children are in the city where the bomb has been planted and where it will probably, or even just possibly, explode if its location is not discovered in time.

Rabbi Bleich begins his analysis by introducing the concept of the rodeif, the “pursuer.” According to Jewish law, when someone’s life is in danger because that individual is being pursued by someone who appears intent on killing him or her, it is deemed permissible to save the individual being pursued even if the sole means available to do so requires taking the life of the pursuer. This is how the mandate not idly to stand by the blood of another mentioned above is applied in our sources: there is an absolute obligation to safeguard life and, in a situation in which one individual is attempting to kill another, it is not merely permitted but required to do what it takes to make sure that the pursued party survives even if doing so costs the pursuer his or her life.
In the situation described above, the one in which the apprehended individual has information about the location of the bomb, is that individual a rodeif? What if there is no evidence that this specific individual did anything at all—and certainly not that he armed the bomb or knows how to disarm it—but merely might know where it is. Is that enough to make him into a rodeif whose survival may be risked for the sake of saving others? That, Rabbi Bleich maintains, is the question at the heart of the matter. The prisoners the CIA waterboarded to make talk were not at that moment trying to kill anyone. But they had information, or possibly had information, that could have saved the lives of innocents. Does that justify doing what it takes to make them tell what they know? (And, no, you don’t get to have a different opinion if the innocents in question are your own children or other people’s.)

What comes through in Rabbi Bleich’s analysis again and again is how complicated this all is. When the prisoner is being tortured, there is often no way to know in advance if he possesses any usual information at all. Nor is it possible in advance to know if the information successfully elicited with have any worth. Also in the mix is the understanding of our Torah that the prisoner also has a sacred obligation to save human life. So getting such a prisoner to provide information that could conceivably save thousands is somehow both an assault on his physical being and a way of assisting him or her to behave ethically.
For most of us, it also depends how the question is phrased. When asked if torturing prisoners to see what they might know is morally defensible, for example, I think most of us would easily answer in the negative. But when asked if there should be limits placed on the CIA agents attempting to elicit information that could potentially save the lives of, say, a thousand school children, I think most of us would answer quite differently. Nor does this inconsistency have to do solely with the number of potential lives saved. When the question references physical pain, as in electrical shocks or simulated drowning, some of us would condone torture and others would oppose its use. But if the question were to be rephrased to reference sexual assault—for example, if we were to be asked to approve of a female prisoner being repeated and brutally raped to elicit information from her, even of the kind that could save innocents—my guess is that most of us would refuse categorically to condone the practice.

Finally, Rabbi Bleich mentions the concept of hora∙at sha∙ah, the temporary suspension of the law. Americans will think back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of habeas corpus, and to the detention without trial of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. But this notion that even the most basic laws may be suspended in times of great national peril is part of Jewish tradition as well and extends under certain circumstances even to the most basic prohibitions.  So, in the end, the question really is whether the war against our nation’s enemies, particularly violent extremists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, is enough to justify the suspension of our natural disinclination to condone torture as a “regular” means of eliciting information from our nation’s foes. Some will stick to the malum per se argument and say, with the ancients, fiat justitia et pereat mundus. But others will think back to 9/11 and recall that our tradition also teaches that saving even a single life is the moral equivalent of saving the entire world. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The House Chaplain

It came as quite a surprise to me the other day when I read that the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, was fired from his position as Chaplain to the House of Representatives by the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Why exactly Father Conroy was fired has not been made entirely clear, although the Speaker did insist that religion—and I know how odd this is to say—that religion wasn’t a factor here really and that he, the Speaker, although fully identified with Evangelical Protestant Christianity, was not prompted to act merely because he did not wish to have a Catholic priest as “his” chaplain. (Father Conroy was originally appointed in 2011 by Roman Catholic then-Speaker John A. Boehner.) Another suggestion, widely cited, was that the priest crossed a line—at least as far as the Speaker of the House was concerned—when, during the recent debate about the overhaul of the income tax system, he prayed in public that our lawmakers act to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under the new tax laws, but [rather] benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”  But it seems to me at best unlikely that such an innocuous prayer could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. (What should the chaplain have prayed for? That our lawmakers create a new tax code that will only benefit some specific Americans but not the country as a whole?) And it is so that Speaker Ryan took issue with that prayer, admonishing the chaplain for failing to stay above the political fray and apparently for also forgetting that he was in place solely to pray publicly for things so little contentious that no one could possibly care what the prayer said anyway. So maybe that was the reason!
The House itself responded along party lines almost to a person: of the 148 representatives to sign a letter to Speaker Ryan insisting that he reveal the precise reason or reasons that he dismissed Father Conroy, only one sole signatory, North Carolina representative Walter B. Jones, was a Republican. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, raised the interesting question of whether the Speaker actually had the authority to fire the House Chaplain in the first place. And she also revealed that Speaker Ryan had offered her a specific reason for wishing to be rid of the House Chaplain, one unrelated to that prayer about the tax code: because he had given an interview to The National Journal in which he spoke openly about sexual and workplace harassment issues, and in which he raised the possibility that the entire Congress was in the grip of a spiritual crisis the specific nature of which he did not identify.

I have no specific opinion about Father Conroy’s qualifications, having neither ever met the man nor heard him speak. But it isn’t the specific details regarding his dismissal that intrigue me, although I do have to admit that I’m curious how this will all play itself out. No, naïve citizen that I am, I was surprised to learn that the House of Representatives even has a chaplain hired (and paid a salary) to serve as its spiritual leader. Who knew?

Obviously, the ideal would be to have a House chaplain who has no specific allegiance to any specific religion. But, given that a chaplain is by definition an ordained individual trained in some specific faith tradition, seeking a chaplain who merely represented “religion” but not any specific one of the world’s religions would be something like trying to hire an orator to deliver an address in “language” but not in any specific one of the world’s languages. And yet, given the allegedly iron-clad wall erected by the founders between church and state, isn’t that exactly what we all should want, a chaplain whose allegiance is to “religion” itself, but not to any specific one of them? But wishing for that specific (impossible) thing means assuming Congress wants or needs a chaplain at all.

The first thing to know is that this all goes back a real long ways. After being prodded to action by Samuel Adams, the Second Continental Congress appointed one Jacob Duché, an Anglican priest, as their chaplain on September 5, 1774. There wasn’t even lip-service paid to the concept of nonpartisanship: Father Duché led the Congress in Anglican worship that day and delivered some extemporaneous prayers rooted in his Anglican tradition. Later, after the Constitution called into being a bicameral legislature, Congress resolved that there should be two chaplains, one for the House and one for the Senate. And, indeed, starting in 1789, chaplains were called upon to open both houses of Congress with a prayer. As the years pressed on, chaplains from different Protestant denominations were appointed to both houses of the legislature. This seemed fair to some, but not to all—James Madison, for one, was opposed to the whole practice on the grounds that, since it would be unthinkable to invite a Catholic priest or a Quaker to serve as chaplain, it was not in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution to invite solely Protestant clergy to participate. (Note that Madison was not proposing that the chaplaincy actually be opened up to Catholics or Quakers, just opining that because it was unimaginable to do so the best course forward would be to cancel the whole concept and have no one at all in the position.) I can’t even begin to imagine what people who considered the appointment of a Catholic priest to be inconceivable would have had to say about the notion of a rabbi serving as House chaplain, let alone an imam or a Native American shaman. Or rather, I can. There have, at any rate, been fifty-two different individuals who have served as House Chaplain. All were men. All were Christian. All but one were Protestants. Probably, I should hold onto my day job even if the position is currently vacant.
The Senate chaplaincy has a similar history. The Senate, meeting for the first time in New York in the spring of 1789, selected Reverend Samuel Provoost, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, to serve as its chaplain. This set a pattern and, when the Senate moved to Philadelphia the following year, that city’s Episcopal bishop was appointed chaplain. To date, there have been in total sixty-two chaplains of the Senate. All have been men. All have been Christians, all but one Protestants. The current chaplain of the Senate is Rear Admiral Barry C. Black (Ret.), a Protestant minister and former Chief of Navy Chaplains.
Over the years, there have been regular challenges to the practice. (For a detailed account of those challenges, click here to see an essay on the topic by Christopher C. Lund published in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 17:4 and a truly fascinating survey of our nation’s ever-evolving attitudes towards religion.) But none, including one suit that got all the way to the Supreme Court, has been successful. I certainly do not expect any to be successful in the future. But, contrary to what readers might expect, I do not wish that the chaplaincy were more inclusive and that, say, rabbis such as myself were invited to participate along with the clergy of all faiths represented in our American mosaic. If we’re going to have a chaplain serving Congress, I suppose he or she should be chosen from the full spectrum of religions to which Americans adhere. But far better, and far more principled in my opinion, would be the decision to dispense with the chaplaincy entirely.

It is never in the best interests of Jewish Americans—or, for that matter, of any Americans—for the wall between church and state to be breached, and that is so even in when the breach in question appears to be relatively benign and inconsequential. Why should anyone care, after all, if someone stands up when the Senate opens to recite some prayer that the members of the Senate either do or don’t listen to, but which none is obliged to take to heart or even to consider in passing? When considered in that specific light, the issue appears hardly to matter at all. Even I think that!
But when considered in terms of the larger picture, it does indeed matter. Several years ago, I explained in one of my weekly letters why I found the White House seder introduced during the Obama years so irritating. (To revisit those remarks, click here.) I also find the White House Christmas tree inappropriate to the point of almost being vaguely threatening. And I certainly do not, in some peculiar calculus of impropriety, find comfort in the willingness of the last few presidents to host White House Chanukah Menorah lighting ceremonies.

In my ideal version of America, the wall between church and state would truly be impermeable. The President has private quarters in the White House—that is where he or she should celebrate the festivals of his or her faith and where the symbols of those festivals should be displayed and enjoyed, just the same as in anyone’s private home. The Congress, on the other hand, should assert its impartiality by showing no favoritism to any faith at all.  And to imagine that the fact that all 114 of our congressional chaplains have been Christian men is not overtly suggestive of precisely the kind of favoritism (and gender bias) our national ethos supposedly derides, discourages, and disdains—that seems to me to be, at best, a fantasy rooted in our desire to be something that we have not yet quite become.

I have no real idea why Speaker Ryan dismissed the House Chaplain, but I wish he would move forward in the wake of that dismissal and suggest that the position itself be abolished along with its parallel in the Senate. Or, at the very least, that it should be filled by someone able to deliver an opening prayer in “language” itself…but not in any specific one.