Thursday, September 27, 2018

Preparing for the End

And so we finally come to the end of our festival season. Not quite, but almost! Shemini Atzeret, the next-to-last stop on the holiday bus line, looms before us in all its mysterious opacity and then, finally, we get to Simchat Torah…the last stop of all before it’s all finally really over and the “real” year really begins with all of its tasks and challenges.
All of our Jewish festivals have features that are to some degree out of sync with the modern world, but Simchat Torah is in some ways the most egregiously out of step with the values moderns espouse and which we teach our children to esteem. In a world that values efficiency, Simchat Torah is about doing something—in this case, pondering the text of the Torah and mining in its quarries for new meaning and renewed inspiration—in a way that couldn’t possibly be less efficient:  by reading it aloud slowly and precisely, over and over and over, year in and year out. In a world that values speedy attention to pressing matters, we could not possibly do our pondering more ponderously…or more laboriously. And, of course, we don’t just read the text out loud, we chant it according to a set of musical notes that, because they are not actually written in the scroll, must be memorized in advance. It’s true that those signs serve as a kind of bare-bones punctuation system, but what they really do is make it impossible to race through the text at breakneck speed even for the most accomplished reader. Instead, each word is sung out, thus of necessity separately pronounced and individually presented to the congregation for its ruminative contemplation. Most Americans, of course, are done being read to when they learn how to read in first or second grade. But shul-Jews are never done…and we never quite finish either: as soon as we get to the last few lines of the Torah, we open a different scroll to the very first column and start reading again. Again.

We train our students in school to read as quickly as possible. I remember occasionally having to read several hundred pages from one class to the next in college and graduate school, which, since I was generally taking at least four or five courses at once, meant having to develop the skill not only of reading at top speed but also somehow of retaining all, or at least most, of the insane number of pages I was attempting to read at once. I took notes, obviously. But even that had to be done according to a streamlined system that didn’t impede my progress too dramatically. The key was to find the right balance between volume and comprehension: reading without recalling content was useless, but not getting through the reading assignment before the next class was not a very good plan either! In the end, I learned how to read very quickly, which skill I retain to this day. And I remember most of what I read too. So there’s that!
But there’s reading and there’s reading…and to participate in the annual reading of the Torah requires learning to read extremely slowly, carefully, and deliberately. It requires being open to insights hiding behind the details of a confusing narrative or a complex exposition of details regarding some abstruse area of law. Mostly, it requires a level of humility that no professor in grad school sees any point of attempting to instill in his or her students: listening week in and week out to the weekly lesson, on the other hand, requires bringing a level of surrender to the enterprise that stems directly from knowing that the same text read this week will be read aloud next year (and the year after that as well), yet knowing that none of us will ever truly get to the point at which we’re done learning, at which we’ve simply managed to squeeze all the juice there is to have from that particular orange, at which there is simply no point to review the same text again again. The bottom line is that you can’t read Scripture too slowly, too deeply, or too carefully! But who in our modern world wants to do anything slowly at all?

This much I know from shul and from study. But how surprised was I to learn just recently that I’m not alone—that Jews are not alone—in their devotion to the art of the slow read.
As far as I can tell, the earliest non-Jewish author to write positively about the experience of reading slowly was, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche, who described himself in the introduction to his The Dawn of Day as a “teacher of slow reading.” Okay, that was in 1887, but he was only the first of many who argued that the relentless emphasis on reading quickly has had a peculiarly negative effect on Western public culture. In 1978, James Sire published How to Read Slowly, a call-to-arms in which he invited Americans to learn how to read thoughtfully, not racing to get any specific book finished but instead using the experience of reading as a kind of internal gateway to ruminative speculation about the world through the medium of the written word. In 2009, his work was followed by John Miedema’s Slow Reading, an interesting book in which the author finds traces of encouragement to read slowly in classical sources and then moves slowly forward to find similar kinds of ideas in works from later centuries as well. Then came Thomas Newkirk’s 2012 book, The Art of Slow Reading, And then came David Mikics’ Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, published by Harvard University Press in 2013.

Mikics comes closest to what Jews mean by reading slow. He identifies slow reading with intensive, thoughtfully ruminative reading and approvingly cites Walt Whitman, who wrote that “reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, a gymnast’s struggle…Not the book so much needs to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.” That’s pretty much why we read the Torah over and over in shul: not because the book needs to be read but because the kahal needs to be read to…and through the experience of being read to and thus obliged to consider word by word an ancient text, and to do that same thing over and over without being bored or irritated—that is what we mean by the book being a door to step through into the world behind the world, into the space that Plato labelled “the world of ideas” but which Jewish people know as the world behind the great parochet that separates the day-to-day world of human goings-on from the larger picture of the human enterprise, the one in which we participate willingly not because we can or because we must, but because we wish to see ourselves as willing witnesses to God’s presence in history, and as harbingers, each of us, of the redemption promised by the very scroll we read so deeply and thoughtfully year after year after year.
David Mikics is a professor of English at the University of Houston. I have used and enjoyed his edition of Emerson’s essays since the book came out in 2012; when I’ve occasionally discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson in these weekly letters, I’ve almost always been relying on the text Mikics published and on his thoughtful introductions and notes. In his book, he distinguishes slow reading from its partners in insight, “close reading” (a term coined at Harvard more than half a century earlier by Professor Reuben Brower) and “deep reading” (a term coined by Sven Bikerts, the author best known for his Gutenberg Elegies, the subtitle of which, “The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” tells you most of what you need to know about this thesis). Mikics book is very worthwhile…and worth reading slowly and carefully. 

Much of what he writes will be challenging for all who care deeply about the fate of the written word in the digital age. But large sections of the book—written in an engaging, very appealing style—will be resonant in a special way for Jewish readers. We are the original slow readers! And Simchat Torah is our annual festival devoted to the celebration of that very concept. So, as we prepare for the final days of our holiday season, I encourage you all to focus on the larger enterprise in play: the celebration of slow, intensive, deep, close reading that is the hallmark of the way Jews relate to the sacred text. Each word, after all, is a gateway to the world behind the world, to the sacred space in which the knowledge of God, for all it comes to us dressed up in language, is not language or anything like language…but an amalgam of hope, faith, courage, and dreamy optimism. The bottom line: you really can’t read too slowly…and Simchat Torah is our annual opportunity to pay public homage to that quintessentially Jewish idea.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sukkot 2018

There are some paradoxical things about Sukkot that flavor the specific way the holiday feels for most of us. For one, there’s its peculiar proximity to Yom Kippur. There is, of course, the famous tradition of going out to the backyard after the end of the fast to put a first nail into the sukkah that will be built over the next couple of days. But who really does that? And even if there are, as there surely must be, people who actually make a point of beginning to build their sukkot right after they break their fasts, the reality is that there isn’t ever really enough time to work at anything like a reasonably leisurely pace. Plus the handful of days between the two holidays are work days for most—and in years like this one when one of the four days (Yom Kippur falls on the tenth of Tishrei and Sukkot on the 15th) is Shabbat, then there’s even one day less than that to work. So there’s that.
And then there’s the seasonal thing. This paradox is mostly a diasporan affair: the rain-free sunny summer season is about to segue into the rainy season in Israel, but those of us who live in a temperate climate and for whom Sukkot signals the onset of autumn—in some sense always, but not always as dramatically as this year when Erev Sukkot is the second day after the autumnal equinox—for us, the joy that is supposed to attend the festival (and Sukkot is called exactly that in our prayerbook, z’man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing) is tempered somewhat by the fact that the fall is suddenly upon us and with it the end of lush, verdant summer and the eventual onset of bitter-cold, snowy winter. It is that sense of autumn as the swing season that lends the magnificence of the fall colors their slightly wistful overtone, in fact: they are truly gorgeous…but the botanists among us know that those brilliant reds and yellows are merely harbingers of the annual death that frigid winter brings to the world of growing things. And, whether we are expert botanists or not, I think most of us bring that sense of things to our sukkot as well: they are surely gorgeous…but what they also are, are flimsy huts that a strong wind can easily knock over, and which provide almost no real protection against anything, including not against something as relatively benign as rain. So we are left with a kind of almost romantic ambivalence about Sukkot not at all too different from the way we look at autumn foliage: impressed by the great beauty of our gorgeous Shelter Rock sukkah, but also unsettled by the fleeting nature of that beauty and struck also by its impermanence, by its deeply ephemeral nature, and by the fact that, for once to speak literally, it truly is here today and gone tomorrow. Coming just a few days after Yizkor, how can that thought not remind us of ourselves? So that’s part of it too!
The first of my Sukkot paradoxes, the one about its position on the festival calendar, there’s not much to do about. But the second is the one that requires some attention: Sukkot is after all, the festival of our rejoicing. In old Jerusalem, it was the annual backdrop for the biggest of all annual extravaganzas which the public was invited into the Temple precincts to enjoy, a gala performance that included music, dance, juggling, and displays of acrobatic and pyrotechnical prowess. To find the joy, however, perhaps we need to look past the sukkah—with its autumnal overtones and recall that it isn’t the only symbol of Sukkot and that there are also the lulav and etrog to consider.
The famous “four species” were used in the ancient Temple in roughly the same way  that we use them, plus in some additional rituals that haven’t survived into our day. For most moderns, though, the specific symbolism behind the specific species in play—the palm frond, the myrtle twigs, the willow stalks, and the lemony etrog—is more than just a bit opaque. Yes, any shul-goer has heard a million sermons attempting to unpack the meaning of the four and their ritual juxtaposition on Sukkot—I’ve given more than a few of them myself—but the ultimate meaning feels elusive. That, however, is a peculiarly modern problem: the ancients seems easily to have found in the lulav and etrog a compelling symbol of release, restoration, and redemption. In other words, our forebears found in the lulav and etrog a kind of counterbalance to the melancholic ambience that even the most stunningly beautiful sukkah seems somehow to suggest.
When Judah Maccabee and his army liberated the Temple in 164 BCE, he decreed that the celebration marking his victory should take the form of a long procession of people carrying lulav and etrog to make of his success—later to be memorialized as the festival of Chanukah—into what he himself called “Sukkot in Kislev.” In other words, when the Temple was finally back into the traditionalists’ hands, the way they marked that victory was to mimic the missed opportunity properly to celebrate Sukkot and have a kind of a late-fall redo in the rainy Hebrew month of Kislev, which delayed version of Sukkot later morphed into a festival with its own name, Chanukah, and which lasts for eight days precisely to suggest its origin as a second Sukkot. (For Americans, that means that Chanukah is in some ways the Jewish equivalent of Thanksgiving, which holiday was also inspired by Sukkot.) To understand Judah’s interest in redoing Sukkot, though, moderns will need to know that the palm frond—the most visible and recognizable part of the lulav and etrog combination—was widely taken in ancient times as a symbol of military victory.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple, one of the first decrees issued by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was that the lulav, which to that point had only been in use on the first day of the holiday other than in the Temple itself (where it was waved and used on every day of the festival), was to be used everywhere on every day of the chag, thus subtly suggesting to all that there are different kinds of victory and that, for all the Romans had successfully won the war, the Jews could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…by remaining faithful to the covenant, by making Jewish life flourish even in Roman Judaea, and by using the symbolism of the lulav to inspire themselves to further both those goals.
Just sixty years later, when Bar Kokhba led the final Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the 130s, he made sure that his soldiers were all outfitted with a lulav to use on Sukkot, as well as with an etrog, and the requisite myrtle twigs and willow branches. Amazingly, his letter to one Judah ben Menashe ordering that enough sets be brought on the backs of two donkeys (that would be a lot of lulavs!) to his men stationed at Ein Gedi has survived and was published in 1971 by Yigal Yadin. (If you are reading this online, click here to read the full letter.) And to make his point even clearer—the point that the prospect for military victory was ideationally embedded in the concept of allegiance to the Torah through the specific commandment to take up the four species, and particularly the lulav on Sukkot—he had the largest of the coins he had minted, something called a silver tetradrachm, display a picture of the (now ruined) Temple on one side (surrounded by the words “For the Redemption of Zion” in ancient Hebrew script) and…the lulav and etrog on the other. The symbolism, unfamiliar to us, would have been crystal clear to Bar Kokhba’s audience. 

And so we are left, we moderns, to seek equilibrium in the contemplation of our upcoming festival’s two major symbols. From the sukkah, we are meant to learn to appreciate the fragility of life and its ephemeral nature, and to accept the challenges that inhere in its awful brevity. From the lulav and etrog—and particularly from the experience of waving them in shul and circumambulating the sanctuary while the cantor prays for the redemption of the world—we are meant to learn that there are different kinds of victory in the world…and that although the military version is the most widely sought after out there in the big world around us, there is also the spiritual version that beckons and reminds us, as we approach Sukkot especially, that each of us has the ability to alter the course of history for the better. Bar Kokhba, of course, failed militarily in his revolt against Rome. But all these years later—almost two full millennia—the Romans who opposed him are long forgotten while his name remains treasured by all who value the struggle for freedom from the yoke of oppression. So who really won? Perhaps that would be a good thing to ponder as we shake our lulavim this year and wonder what we could possibly do ourselves…to be remembered two millennia from now for the bravery we display and the good we do!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Gedaliah: Forgotten But Not Gone

The Jews of Israel are facing a complex, totally daunting set of decisions. The neighbors are either violently hostile, apathetic, or disengaged. None of those nations’ national leaders is precisely as advertised; all are bound up in a dozen different, not entirely compatible, alliances and less formal relationships. The Jewish citizenry, having known defeat, now must decide whether to attempt to snatch some version of scaled-down victory from its voracious jaws. And the questions that churn and roil at the core of the matter are easy to formulate but almost impossible answer with any sense of certainty. Should the concept of living in some sort of acquiescent peace with the nation’s enemies be described as the only practical choice left, something akin to plucking a brand from the fire before it too turns into ash and then being content with something instead of nothing at all? Or would such a devil’s compromise more reasonably be qualified as act of serial betrayal: first of the nation’s dead, then of its vanquished army, after that of its royal family, then of its foundational principles, and finally of its own national destiny? Those were the questions facing the surviving citizens of Judah in the first decades of the sixth century BCE after the Babylonians successfully razed Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, exiled thousands upon thousands of citizens to distant towns across the desert in what today is called Iraq, and then forced the king of Judah to watch on in horror as his own children, the natural heirs to his throne, were slain before his eyes…after which he himself was blinded so that his sons’ lifeless bodies would become the last things he would ever see in his lifetime.
And now a new personality appears on the scene, a fellow of whom we haven’t heard in any of the narratives surrounding the last decades of the Kingdom of Judah. He comes from an illustrious family, this Gedaliah. His father, Achikam, was an intimate of the prophet Jeremiah and is credited with having saved the latter’s life on at least one occasion when the government was after him and intent on ending his career as Israel’s prophet of doom once and for all. His grandfather, Shaphan, was an intimate of Chilkiah, the High Priest of Israel during the reign of King Josiah, the last great king of Judah and both the father of three of its last four kings and the grandfather of the fourth. But of Gedaliah himself we know nothing other than as regards the series of incidents which, at least in the end, made him famous. His personal seal, however, has survived as testimony to his real existence as a historical personality.

After the military defeat of the national army and the removal of the king from its royal throne, Judah was—to say the very least—at a crossroads. That it was henceforth to become a mere province in somebody else’s empire went without saying. But to what degree of self-governance the surviving, non-exiled citizens of decimated Judah could still aspire—that question was very much still up in the air. As was the degree to which the nation’s surviving leadership could or should be prepared to compromise without crossing the line from political flexibility to treason.
Particularly daunting for those of us looking back on all of this through the mist of history is the obligation to consider to their situation without allowing what we know would eventually happen to color our perception of the situation as it existed in what was for them the present tense. Yes, we know that Babylon’s days were already numbered, that not fifty years later their own empire would be seized by Cyrus, king of Persia, and folded into the Persian Empire. We also know that the exiles and their children still in the east would be permitted by Cyrus to return home—his declaration permitting that constitutes the final sentence in the Bible—and that there would yet be an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel, albeit a short-lived one that only thrived until the Romans decided that Israel would make a worthy addition to their own empire. But, of course, the people facing the future as the ruins of Jerusalem were still smoldering knew none of any of this…and so had to make their decision about the future based solely on what they actually did know. That’s how history works when you’re actually living through it and not contemplating its vagaries from the comfort of a well-appointed undergraduate seminar room.

The Babylonians, having exacted their tribute and incorporated Judah into their empire, were ready to grant the survivors some version of home rule. Why not? The victory was theirs. The nation’s riches had been carted off as the spoils of war. The king of Judah was their prisoner and his heirs had been executed, thus making it more or less impossible for any attempt to re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel to succeed. So why would they care if the Jews looked after their own affairs—home rule would only lessen the burden on their “real” masters! And so Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon and now master of Israel, somehow found Gedaliah ben Achikam and made him governor of Judah, now the Babylonian province of Yehud.  To keep him safe (and no doubt also to keep an eye on his doings), Nebuchadnezzar also installed a company of Babylonian soldiers at Mitzpeh, a town near Jerusalem. And Gedaliah got right to work too, encouraging people to work the fields, to re-establish the nation’s vineyards, to attempt to re-invent the nation’s commercial life. What he really thought about his own situation, who knows? But he saw a chance to preserve at least some version of Jewish life in the homeland of the Jewish people…and he took it.
Was he a Quisling whose primary interest in serving his nation’s masters was to save his own neck? Or was he a practical man who determined that, in the wake of the almost unimaginable catastrophe that had overwhelmed his people, something was better than nothing? Jews in our day will be unable to consider Gedaliah’s situation without thinking of the Jews who served the Nazis as guardians of the ghettos. Were such people trying, in an impossible situation, to create at least some order and thus to make it possible to hope for some version of survival for at least some of the people? Or were they simpler enablers who made the work of the Nazis that much simpler by enforcing even the most horrific of their directives? It’s not that simple a question to answer, not with respect to the Shoah and also not with respect to Gedaliah’s situation all those centuries earlier.

The people who feel betrayed by such willing cooperators—whom they invariably call “collaborators”—tend to vote with their machetes.  It is, for example, widely believed that Chaim Rumkowski, the “chairman” of the Lodz ghetto who oversaw the deportation of tens of thousands from the ghetto to the death camps, including more than 13,000 children, was himself bludgeoned to death by Jewish members of the Sonderkommando after the Nazis, seeing no more use to make of him, deported him to Auschwitz as well. And Gedaliah too was murdered, the story of which is told in detail in the biblical Book of Jeremiah.
It is a sad story and a terrible one, but not such a complicated one. There were people who were not delighted with Gedaliah’s efforts to live in peace with his country’s masters. And one of them, a certain Ishmael ben Netaniah, who was a member of the royal family (and who no doubt saw his own chances of somehow coming to the throne slipping away as a version of Judah without a king on its throne was becoming more and more of a reality with every passing day)—this Ishmael murdered Gedaliah in cold blood and then fled across the Jordan to a neighboring kingdom where he had already been granted refuge. And that was the end of Gedaliah.

Except in our Jewish tradition it wasn’t, however, because the day on which Gedaliah died became a fast day so universally observed that a mere half century later, a different prophet, Zechariah ben Berechia, could refer vaguely to the “fast of the seventh month” as though it were completely obvious to what he was making reference. (It’s true Yom Kippur also falls during the seventh month, but the context makes it obvious that he isn’t referring to that that fast.) And we are still observing it, at least formally rededicating ourselves each year to the proposition that Gedaliah was more of a good man who paid an unwarranted price for his efforts on behalf of his people than he was a fool or a flunky, let alone a traitor.
I’ve been thinking about Gedaliah all week. His issue, after all, is still on our table…and in a dozen different ways. Finding the precise boundary between compromise and self-defeating acquiescence is as challenging accurately to locate now as it was then. Are attempts at compromise wise or foolish when the enemy speaks the language only of brutality and terror? As we pass the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accords (and the famous White House handshake between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat), does it make sense to work towards finding a middle ground with people who show no signs of wishing to negotiate at all? Or is picking up your own big stick the only reasonable response to someone brandishing a big stick and threatening to hit you with it?

The Fast of Gedaliah is, to say the very least, under-observed. Should it be revitalized as an annual opportunity to remind us always to seek accommodation with our enemies, thus to create the framework for the kind of shared endeavor that can lead, at least sometimes, to a lessening of hostility? Or should we fast on the anniversary of Gedaliah’s assassination to remind us that accommodation is reasonable in defeat—the Babylonians had already completely devastated Judah when Gedaliah was appointed governor over the surviving few—but that victory is always preferable to compromise…and particularly when you are fighting a foe who shows no overt interest in actually living in peace regardless of the terms offered? These are the questions that tradition lays at our feet as a new year dawns and, as we nod at least in passing to Gedaliah’s death, that it invites us to ponder thoughtfully and carefully as we move forward into it.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Books and Mirrors - As A New Year Dawns

The month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is well known as the traditional time for reviewing the year, reflecting on our behavior and general comportment, owning up to our shortcomings, and finding the resolve to face the season of judgment, if not quite with eager anticipation, than at least with equanimity born the conviction that we can and will do better in the coming year. You often hear the Hebrew phrase ḥeshbon ha-nefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul” in this regard—and those words really do capture the concept pithily and well: thinking of our lives as ledger-books in which our instances of moral courage and ethical inadequacy stand in for the accountant’s credits and debits works for me and will probably suit most. There is even a book with that title—Sefer Ḥeshbon Ha-nefesh by Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, written in 1808 and the only rabbinic work known to have been directly influenced by the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—which I wrote about to you all a few years ago just before Pesach. (To review what I had to say there, click here.)
How exactly to go about this is a different question, however. I suppose some people really can just sit down and review the year week by week, noting where they personally feel themselves to have come up short and resolving to respond in a way more in keeping with the moral code they claim to espouse when facing analogous situations in the future. For most of us, though, that process—although theoretically possible—is not that practical an approach to the larger enterprise: who can remember the days of our lives with clear-eyed enough exactitude to analyze deeds from months ago with the certainty that we are remembering things precisely correctly? Fortunately, there are other ways to see ourselves clearly and for many, myself included, the simplest answer is to use a mirror.  Not a real one, of course, in which you can only see the reflection of your outermost appearance. But there are other kinds of mirrors available to us, some of which have the ability to reflect the inner self and which can serve, therefore, more like windows into the soul than the kind of mirror you look into each morning when you brush your teeth and see yourself looking back with a toothbrush in your mouth.

For me personally and for many years now, that mirror has always been a book I’ve chosen to read or re-read during Elul in the hope that it will allow me to see myself reflected either in its plot, in the way some specific one of its characters is depicted, or in the world it describes. Over the years, I’ve chosen well and less well. But when I do somehow manage to choose the right book for Elul, that choice makes all the difference by allowing me to see myself in the depiction of another far more clearly than I think I ever could have managed on my own.
This year I read Marcos Aguinis’ novel, Against the Inquisition.  Although the author is apparently very well-known in his native Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world, I hadn’t ever heard of him until just this last July when Dara Horn published a review of the new English-language translation by Carolina de Robertis of his most successful book, called La Gesta del Marrano in Spanish, in Moment magazine. The review was stellar (to read it for yourself, click here) and left me intrigued enough to buy a copy with the intention of it being my Elul book for this year. It wasn’t a big investment, so I wasn’t risking much. (Used paperback copies and the e-book version are both available online for less than $5 each.) But it turned out to be exactly the right choice: I just finished it earlier this week and found myself truly astounded both by the author’s literary skill and, even more so, by what the book has to say about the nature of Jewishness itself.

Seeing myself in the protagonist, Francisco Maldonado da Silva—a real historical figure who lived from1592 to 1639—was simple enough. Imagining myself reaching the level of piety, self-awareness, courage, and moral decency he exemplified in his life and, even more so, in his death—that was the mirror into which I found myself peering as I read Aguinis’s book. I don’t have to be him, obviously. But I do have to be me. And so the question is not whether I could learn Spanish and move to the seventeenth century, but whether I have it in me to be me in the same sense that the book’s protagonist was himself. If the concept sounds obscure when I formulate it that way, read the book and you’ll see what I mean: I can hardly remember feeling more personally challenged by a novel, and more eager to accept the protagonist as a moral role model. Against the Inquisition is a historical novel, of course, not a non-fiction work of “regular” history. But it tells a true story…and the opportunity to read the story, to take it to heart, to be moved incredibly by its detail, and to feel transformed by the experience of communing with a great Jewish thinker through the medium of his art—that is the gift Against the Inquisition offers to its readers.
The plot, fully rooted in the real Francisco Maldonado da Silva’s life story, is beyond moving. The details of Jewish life in Latin America in the late 1500s and the early 1600s will be obscure to most readers in North America today. But the short version is that all of South America except Brazil was part of the Spanish Empire back then. And the Catholic authorities (whose power over the region’s secular rulers was almost absolute) were dedicated not merely to making the practice of Judaism illegal, but to ferreting out even the vaguest traces of Jewish practice of belief that might still be lingering among the so-called “New” Christians, the descendants of those Jews who chose conversion to Catholic Christianity over flight when the Jews were exiled from Spain and Portugal, but at least some of whom retained a deeply engrained sense of their own Jewishness intact enough to pass along to their children and their children’s children as well.

Da Silva’s life story as retold in the book is remarkable in almost every way. His father, a physician harboring a deep, if secret and entirely illicit, devotion to his own Jewishness is eventually discovered and punished so cruelly and so degradingly that it beggars the imagination to consider that his torture—which is certainly not too strong a word to describe his treatment—was undertaken by men who considered themselves not only deeply religious but truly virtuous. But the meat of the novel is the story of how exactly the physician’s son Francisco, who also becomes well-known and highly respected doctor, is made aware of his Jewishness and then finds it in him not to dissemble so as not to be caught, but, at least eventually, to embrace his Jewishness and his Judaism openly and fearlessly. That kind of behavior was not tolerated in Spanish America, and the consequences for Francisco are, at least in some ways, even worse than the physical abuse and public humiliation to which his father was subjected.
The last chapters particularly are seared into my memory. You know what’s coming. You know that there’s no other way for the book to end. You understand that the protagonist, Francisco himself, sees that as clearly as you do. And yet you continue to hope that you’re wrong, that some deus ex machina will descend from the sky and make things right. You know you’re being crazy by hoping for such a thing—and, if you are me, you already know that the auto-da-fé of January 23, 1639, in Lima, Peru, was perhaps the largest mass execution of Jews ever undertaken by the Catholic church, a nightmarish travesty of justice undertaken in the name of religion in which more than eighty “New” Christians were burnt alive at the stake for the crime of having retained some faint vestige of their families’ Jewishness—but you continue to delude yourself into thinking that perhaps the author will take advantage of his novelist’s prerogative to just make up some other ending.  That Francisco is depicted as having the means of escaping his prison cell but instead uses his freedom to visit other prisoners and encourage them to embrace their Jewishness and to accept their fate with pride and courage—that detail alone makes this novel a worthy Elul read.

My readers all know who my personal heroes are. Janusz Korczak, who chose to die at Treblinka rather than to abandon the orphans entrusted to his care. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to wartime Germany to preach against Nazism and eventually to play a role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, for which effort he paid with his life. And now I add Francisco Maldonado da Silva, who chose to die with dignity and pride as a Jew rather than to run off and spend his life masquerading as something he was not and had no wish to be. Could I be like that? Could I live up to my own values in the way these men did? Could I be me the way they were them? I ask these questions not because I wish to answer them in public, but merely to show that they can be asked. They can also be answered, of course. And that is what Elul is for: to challenge us to peer into whatever mirror we choose…and ask if the man or woman we could be is looking back, or just the woman or man we ended up as. That is the searing, anxiety-provoking question the holidays about to dawn lay at our feet. If you’re looking for the courage to formulate your own answer, read Against the Inquisition and I’m guessing you’ll be as inspired to undertake the ḥeshbon ha-nefesh necessary to answer honestly as I was.