Archive for the ‘bible’ Category

The Optical Illusions of the Soul

November 20, 2011

Google “optical illusions” and you will pull up a huge number of moving and stationary, black-and-white and color, geometric and random drawings that have in common the ability to look first like one very definite image, and then like a totally different one, to the normal human eye. I just finished reading a Dan Simmons novel, Flashback, which had pretty much the same effect on me, not for the first time. Reading Ayn Rand does the same thing. So do some of the postings on this blog. They make me acutely aware that my fondest dream may be your worst nightmare. Dunno whether I am the only person for whom my fondest dream may be my worst nightmare. That, of course, is why we Wired Sisters are multiple.

I’ll start with the religious version of this phenomenon, which I used as a Rosh HaShanah discussion last year under the title The Abrahamic Split. Some bibliographical and linguistic notes: Rabbi Michael Lerner is the author of Jewish Renewal. “Milhemet Mitzvah” is, in traditional Jewish thinking, a war which is commanded by the Holy One, as opposed to wars which are either optional or forbidden. The only one of these that everybody seems to agree on was the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, the subject matter of the second through fifth books of the Bible. “Midrash” is how the various scholars explain what the biblical characters did between the installments of the text. What Woody Allen does at the end of this discussion is also midrash. Maimonides was a twelfth-century rabbi, scholar, philosopher, and physician, whose views of scripture often seem to come out of left field. So here it is. Next posting will be the political angle.

Over recent decades, we have become conscious of a double voice in the Jewish tradition, a voice on one hand of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and on the other of “remember Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:17.) Those of us who follow political and religious controversies are all too aware that this double voice is duplicated in Islam ([Qur’an, Sura 2:256] “There shall be no compulsion in religion…. [Sura 18:29] Proclaim: “This is the truth from your Lord,” then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve”, and on the other side [Sura 47.4] “When you encounter the unbelievers, Strike off their heads. Until you have made a wide slaughter among them…” Similarly, Christians can quote the Gospel of Matthew: ” Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 44-45) Or they can call down the wrath of Heaven in the form of Crusades, new and old. Before the Crusades, after all, was the Jihad. And before the Jihad was the Milchemet Mitzvah. After a while, some of us find the lazy way out. We decide that the Holy Blessed One was speaking only in the words of love and mercy. We who hear that voice, among all the Abrahamic faiths, can talk to each other. But we need pay no attention to those, in all three faiths, who hear the voice of cruelty and revenge. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in Jewish Renewal, even suggests that that voice is not the voice of God at all.

Let us leave aside for the moment Whose voices those are, on both sides of the Abrahamic split. Let’s look at where, historically, they are first heard. I think the Jewish tradition first hears them both, side by side, in the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is the root narrative of all three of the Abrahamic faiths (Genesis 22:1-19.) Abraham hears the voice of the Holy Blessed One, at night, tell him to take his son up to the Mount and “offer” him. Michael Lerner will tell us that that was not the Holy One’s voice. Maimonides will tell us that it was a prophetic vision meant to show us how far one may be expected to go in obedience to Heaven—but that the actual Akedah may never have happened at all. The Muslims tell us that the son designated for offering was Ishmael, not Isaac. The Christians tell us that the whole thing prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. But let us assume for the moment that what Abraham heard was really the voice of Heaven. He certainly behaved as if he believed that. He took the two “lads” (midrash tells us they were Ishmael and Eliezer) and Isaac, and all of the paraphernalia of sacrifice except the sacrificial animal, and walked three days toward a place “to be announced.” When they got there, Abraham apparently knew this was the place, even though he did not hear any divine voice saying “Okay, here you are. Up on that mountain there.” He looked up and there it was, without so much as a “You Are Here” sign.

But Abraham also never quite comes out and says that Isaac is to be the victim. Is this because the voice in his vision told him only to “offer” his son, and not to kill him? Some of the midrash points in that direction. Other midrash, coming from the time of the Rhineland massacres a thousand years later (when the Crusaders stopped off on their way to the Holy Land to kill enormous numbers of Jews), will not accept that lawyer-like parsing of words. That midrash depicts Isaac preparing himself to be killed, and asking his father’s help to be a worthy victim. Indeed, in some of that body of midrash, Isaac is actually killed, and then revived.

At any rate, Abraham sends the “lads” away, binds his son on the altar, and raises his knife. And then he hears another voice. The text says it is the voice of an angel or a messenger, but we are familiar by now with the ever-shifting line between the Holy One and the angels, between Principal and Agent. “Lay not your hand on the child,” that voice says, “nor do anything to hurt him.” Abraham, confused, stops, frozen, his arm raised. He is here to do what he has been commanded. Now he is commanded to stop. What does he do now?

Completely distracted from what he has so painfully nerved himself to do, he looks around, and sees a ram. The Ram. Sees him “after,” “behind,” in Hebrew “achar.’ The Hebrew in such a construction, would normally have been “acharav”—behind him. Midrash makes much of the oddness of the locution here, based on its axiom that the Holy One does not waste words. Does “achar” mean, as it often does, “in the future”? Maimonides thinks so. Is Abraham seeing the generations after, looking back on the story as we are doing now, and asking himself, not only “what does the Holy One want me to do?” but “what does the Holy One want all of us to do, for generations to come”? Abraham, after all, is a prophet. Prophets have visions. They see the future. Or futures.

The Ram is caught in the bushes—“basbaq,” a locution that, in modern Hebrew, means something like “in the turmoils of everyday life.” Which is something more likely to happen to us than to rams. Or is Abraham the one who is caught in turmoil? At any rate he resolves the turmoil by taking the ram from the bushes and substituting him for Isaac on the altar, where he completes the offering.

The midrash makes this ram the raw material of Jewish ritual for centuries afterward. “The ashes of the parts burnt upon the altar formed the foundation of the inner altar, whereon the expiatory sacrifice was brought once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the day on which the offering of Isaac took place. Of the sinews of the ram, David made ten strings for his harp upon which he played. The skin served Elijah for his girdle, and of his two horns, the one was blown at the end of the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the other will be used to proclaim the end of the Exile, when the “great horn shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and they that were outcasts in the land of Egypt, and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.” And of course we have been blowing the ram’s horn, the shofar, during the Days of Awe, for the same purpose. For the purpose, in fact, of making us hear once again, and again and again, that other voice of Heaven, holding us back from the ultimate violence.

The only midrash I have been able to find that brings these two voices into simultaneity, if not harmony, comes from, of all people, Woody Allen.

“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “But thou said —”
“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er – not really … no.”
“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

But the Tradition is not comfortable with that view either. We do not discard one of the divine voices in the Torah because it is cruel, or cast doubt on its reality because it was “only” a prophetic vision, nor because the Holy One was only joking. All of those are tempting, and we are honest with ourselves about the temptation. But in the end we side with the Sanhedrin, as it ruled between the strictness of the rabbinic school of Shammai and the humility and humanity of the school of Hillel: Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayyim—These and those are both the words of the Living God—but the law—our law, because we are only human–must follow the merciful school of Hillel.


Wanderer (fiction)

November 2, 2011

It was my usual Sunday afternoon visit to my grandfather. He sat by the window of the cluttered, faded West Rogers Park apartment, looking out over the park as a cloud of dust and noise blew toward us from the softball game. I picked up my glass of iced tea from the stack of Yiddish magazines between us, and crunched an ice cube as he said, “Malkeleh, how would you like a free trip to New Jersey next month?”

To keep from swallowing it, I spat the ice cube back into the glass and stared at him. “That’s certainly the strangest offer I’ve had in a long time.”

He handed me a leaflet, English on one side, Yiddish on the other. “Meeting of Holocaust survivors,” it said. “July 3-8.” So much for my Fourth of July weekend in the Indiana Dunes. “Free, you said?” It had taken a while for the magic word to make its way from hearing to consciousness.

“Free, Malkeleh. My doctor and your grandmother won’t let me out of Chicago any more–some nonsense about my heart the doctor keeps saying. So if I can’t go, at least you can. Maybe get a story for that socialist rag you edit. Or even to sell to a real magazine.” He was always trying to bait me into a political argument.

Today it was too hot to rise to the bait. Besides, he was right–a story from a Holocaust survivors’ convention probably could be free-lanced for some fairly decent money. To hell with the Dunes. They’d still be there on Labor Day. “All right, Grandpa, I’ll go.”

He grinned broadly. “Wonderful. Here are your tickets and registration.” I stared down, dumbfounded, at the envelope he handed me. “I knew you wouldn’t turn down a free shot at a story.”

I sighed. Sometimes Grandpa was too much for me. “Now, look, Malkeleh,” he went on. “There’s one thing I need you to do when you get there. It shouldn’t take much time, and then you can do whatever you want. But promise me you’ll do this. There could also be another story in it. Okay?”

I nodded, resigned, and took out my notebook. He went on, “At all these conventions, they have a bulletin board or something, where people can try to find other people they knew in the camps or before, or at least find out what happened to them. There is someone I want you to find, a man by the name of Heschel Josefson. He may also go by the name of Tolya Baumann. I knew him in Auschwitz in ’44. Probably he isn’t even alive now–he was an old man then. If he is still alive, that would go a long way to prove what he told me then. But anyway, somebody else may remember him, and I would want to know that too. Somebody may know where he is now, if he is still alive. I want to know anything you can find out about him, anything.”

“And if I do see him?”

“Then tell him who you are, remind him that I met him in Auschwitz in ’44, in the carpentry section. He may not remember me. If he does, ask him whether the story he told me then was true. If he doesn’t,” he thought a moment,” Well, you are supposed to be a journalist. Interview him. Get everything out of him that you can. Everything.”

“But what am I supposed to be looking for? What did he tell you in Auschwitz in ’44?”

He shook his head, firmly. “If he will tell you, fine. If I tell you, you will think it is only an old man’s craziness. The whole point of sending you–the reason I would have gone myself if I could–was to find out if it is. You must hear it from him or not at all. If you do find him, and if he tells you, I want you to promise you will call me and tell me, whenever it is, day or night, right away. All right?”

I had ready visions of how Grandma would respond to a 2 AM call. “Only if you promise Grandma will let me talk to you whenever I call, day or night.”

He nodded firmly. “For this, even your grandmother will bend a little. I will see to it.”

I got up and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Grandpa. If I do get a story out of this, I’ll give you credit somewhere, I promise.”

And that was how, a month later, I found myself walking into a reception hall at a small Catholic college (of all places) in southern New Jersey, to don a name tag that said, in English “My name is Molly Berman” and in Yiddish “Mein name ist Malkah Berman.” At the front of each room were a clock, a crucifix, and a No Smoking sign. It became readily apparent that no one at this gathering would pay any attention to any of them. As soon as I dumped my bag in my assigned room, I went to what these people called the Communication Center, to post a notice, in Yiddish and English, for Heschel Josefson, aka Tolya Baumann, last seen in the carpentry section of Auschwitz in 1944, or anyone who knew him. Then I stopped at a desk full of bright lights and whirring disks, where a motherly-looking woman was typing things into a computer, and gave her the same information. There was a bit more whirring, and then she looked up from the screen. “He’s not registered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We expect a lot of walk-in registrations at the last minute. If he does come in, your message will be waiting for him.”

The program, as it turned out, was divided into three parts–some general speakers, mostly historians of various kinds, and two sets of workshops, one for survivors and one for the children and grandchildren of survivors. I marked off the things most likely to generate a good story on all three lists–I could use my press credentials to get into the survivors’ workshops if necessary.

My first marked item was a speech by a historian on revisionist views of the Holocaust–recent reinterpretations, included purported “debunkings”–from outside the Jewish community. He went through the usual stuff about Arthur Butz and the Canadian lawsuit, and the Neo-Nazis. “The other set of interesting revisionist developments is religious,” he went on. “A whole body of fundamentalist Christian thinking is starting to emerge, to the effect that, oh yes, we are perfectly willing to grant that the Holocaust happened, but what really matters is why it happened. And why it happened, my friends, according to these people, is that we continue to adhere to our foolishly obstinate rejection of their messiah. It used to be enough for just one of us to be condemned to eternal wandering. Then it was all of us, to live as a conquered, despised, and scattered people. Now the stakes have gone up again–six millions dead for theological wrong-headedness. Including, of course, large numbers of baptized Christians of Jewish extraction, at least one of whom is now a candidate for canonization by the Roman Catholic church, which should cast some doubt on the logic of this neo-fundamentalist argument. They are very vague about the next eschatological escalation, but no doubt it could involve exploding a nuclear device in Israel.

“There was a comedian a few years ago, whose name I do not remember. His routine also is fairly dim in my mind now, except that it was based on the thesis that, sometimes when you think all the people in your life are characters in the movie in your head, you discover you have wandered into someone else’s movie, with disastrous results. These neo-fundamentalists have cast us in their movie, without bothering to ask us first. What frightens me is that we may be called upon to do our own stunts!”

I spent the next day going to lectures and panels, and in between, interviewing some delightful women who gave me recipes and household hints from the old country. That evening, on my way back to my room, I saw a note on the bulletin board, neatly folded with my name on the outside. Inside, in neatly printed Yiddish, it said, “If you want to talk to Heschel Josefson, meet me at dinner by the soup kettle. If you want to talk to me afterward, bring a bottle of slivovitz. Not Israeli.” I spent the next half hour finding out from the lady at the computer where to find slivovitz and what kind to buy if not what she called the Israeli rotgut. I picked up a bottle of the highly recommended Czech version (apparently the problem was that the really decent plum brandy had come from Yugoslavia until the recent unpleasantnesses had ruined the business) and waited at the soup kettle. I was about to give up, when a leathery old man with very little hair stopped, looked down at the bottle, and said, “Good, the Czechs make the only decent stuff these days. I am Heschel Josefson. Or I was in 1944. Today, I call myself Emmanuel Bauman. “

“Malkah Berman. Hillel Berman’s granddaughter. He wants to know if you remember him from Auschwitz in 1944.”

He did. We talked about the camps, how he had survived and escaped, how my grandfather had done the same. We had dinner, and then went up to his room with the bottle and a couple of glasses purloined from the cafeteria. He sat back on the bed with his drink. I sat in a chair by his desk, nursing one glass of the remarkably powerful brandy through the whole evening, while he finished the rest of the bottle.

He spoke mostly in Yiddish, a very Germanic, almost courtly version of the language, and every now and then slipped into Hebrew, or English, and then back again. I will not try to reproduce it.

“I remember telling your grandfather a part of this story. We never had time to finish the conversation. If he wants to know the rest of it, now that there is time, I will be glad to oblige. Yes, you may turn on the tape recorder if you wish.

“This is now 1992. I was in Auschwitz in 1944. I was in London in 1962. I was in Kishinev in 1905, and then moved to Berlin. I moved to Vienna in 1925. I was in various places in Russia and Poland during the 19th century. I do not grow older. I do not get sick, thank heaven. I do not sleep very much. This gives me a great deal of time to read.”

I was skeptical, but willing to keep listening. “How do you make a living?” I asked. “Or are you retired?”

He chuckled briefly. “To get a pension, one has to have documents. For a while during the 1940s, I was a competent forger, but I prefer not to forge my own documents. I need very little to live on, and I can earn it doing odd jobs. I am still a sofer—I can write Torah scrolls and mezuzahs and ketubahs. I can do carpentry, but only small things, no heavy lifting. I make a few dollars these days as shammes—in English I think they say sexton—of a shul. I come in every morning to open the shul, clean up after services, things like that.

“Do you want to know where I have been for the last two thousand years, or where it all started?”

The last two thousand years. Was I in the middle of a Mel Brooks routine? Well, Grandpa had paid my way here to listen to this story. I was prepared to listen. “Where did you leave off when you were telling my grandfather? Do you remember?”

He filled his glass again. “I think I was working my way backward, and I had gotten as far as the Chmielniczki pogroms. Do you wish me to continue that way, or begin at the beginning?”

“Begin at the beginning, I think. If we have time, we can fill in the gaps later.”

“Very well, then. I was born in Nazareth. Back then, it was the back country. People there were poor, uneducated, the Romans were sucking the life out of the place. My father was a working man, a carpenter. My brothers were fishermen, except for my oldest brother Yakov, who also worked in the shop. We learned to read the Torah, learned our father’s trade, went to the synagogue to pray and study. And every now and then, we’d get to hear the rabbis arguing with each other, talking about how ordinary people could live by the Torah. We got to hear arguments between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. I was fascinated. I became—what do they call it now? —a groupie. Whenever I could get away from the shop, I went around with the rabbis from Bet Hillel. My father was not happy about it. Said it was bad for business. But my mother and my wife accepted it. Some of my friends and cousins and brothers starting going around with me, too. I wasn’t the only one like that, of course. In those days, a lot of young men were hanging out with the rabbis. It was the only way people as poor as we were could see beyond the poverty and the work and the struggle.

“When I was 30, my father died. My brother Yakov took over the shop and took care of our mother. For the first time, I felt free to do what I had worked for all my life, to be a rabbi, a preacher. I had what you would call a shtick, a routine. I told stories. Some of them were funny, some of them were kind of pointed. A lot of them were about people we all knew. That got people interested. Then they would listen to the d’var torah—connecting torah to people’s real lives. Mostly I followed Bet Hillel. Hillel always seemed like more of a mensch, he understood how hard life could be for poor people and he didn’t want to make it any harder.

“The first couple of years, I stayed in the back country, just walking around from place to place. My friends and a lot of my cousins and brothers came with me. My mother and my wife and some of the other women we knew traveled with us a lot of the time too, once they realized it was the only way they would ever get to see their menfolk. It wasn’t easy, but living at home was hard too. We felt as if we were doing something that mattered, not just trying to stay alive another day.

“The third year, we decided to go to Jerusalem. Going for the big time, you know?”

“’If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere’?” I sang softly.

“Exactly. Like coming off the road and going to Broadway. We went up at Succot—you know, the harvest festival in the fall, when everyone was commanded to go to Jerusalem if they could. It was exciting, noisy, crowded, for us greenhorns it was a little frightening. You know what they do now in shul at succot—everybody marching around waving branches and singing ‘Hoshia-na’? Back then, they did it in the streets. For a week, the city was one big parade. When we first came into the city, a couple of my younger cousins—just kids, never been away from home before—thought all the celebrating was to welcome us to the city. We teased them about that for a long time.

“We had a place to stay. Nothing fancy, but one of the men who sometimes came to learn with us had a place in the city and didn’t use it much. And then I started teaching on the Temple steps. A lot of rabbis did that, and people who had the time just came around and learned from whoever was there. Kind of like Washington Square, or Hyde Park or the Agora, you know? We got some tough audiences, but it was exciting. Sometimes somebody from Bet Shammai, or one of the priestly clique, or even somebody who wasn’t Jewish at all, would come around and heckle, or ask trick questions to try to make the rabbi look stupid. It was a great free show for the locals. The Romans didn’t like it, but mostly they left it alone, because closing it down would just have left a lot of angry young men walking around with nothing to do.

“Most of the time, my friends and I managed to stay out of trouble, for the first couple of months. Then things started getting tense. I got into a fight with a money-changer.” He stopped, thought a minute. “This needs explanation. People went into the Temple mostly to make sacrifices, and mostly they didn’t bring their own animals to sacrifice, because they were coming from a distance, and the animal could die on the way, or anyway get sick and skinny and ugly, and you wouldn’t want to sacrifice something like that. So instead you’d sell your animal—or whatever you sold for a living—and bring the money to Jerusalem. But the money was Roman money. It had Caesar’s image on it—” he spat, decorously, “And that made it treyf. You couldn’t bring it into the Temple. You had to either buy your animal outside, from the dealers there, or exchange your Roman money for Temple money and take that inside to buy an animal. Sometimes you got a better deal buying the animal outside, sometimes it was cheaper inside. But always, you got cheated. The moneychangers and the livestock dealers both overcharged because they knew people couldn’t go anywhere else. Like popcorn at a movie, you know?

“Anyway, this time, I saw an old woman going up the steps. She had a couple of pigeons in a cage. They looked pretty mangy, but they were obviously all she could afford, and she had brought them at least halfway across town. And one of those gonifs got in her way and tried to tell her she couldn’t bring her own birds in, she had to sell her birds and then buy Temple birds—and of course, lose money on both ends of the deal. Anyway, she had every right to bring her own birds; the guy was just being a schmuck. And this went on for a while. In those days I was young and hotheaded and strong and stupid. Finally I couldn’t stop myself, I just grabbed the gonif and threw him down the steps. That started a brawl between my friends and the priestly gonifs—couple of black eyes, my brother Yehuda’s nose got broken, and this friend of ours–his name was Shimon but we called him Rocky, a big dumb guy—knocked a couple of Temple guards unconscious. Oy, we were young and stupid then!

“After that, the Romans started watching us. Then some heckler, who I still think might have been a provocateur from the priests, showed me a Roman coin and asked if it was permitted to pay tribute to Caesar. I couldn’t even figure out who this schmuck was being paid by—I could say ‘yes’ and start a riot, or say ‘no’ and get arrested. So I just stared at the coin until finally the answer came to me. I asked him, ‘whose face is on this coin?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ the heckler said. ‘Well, you can’t use it in the Temple, right? So you can’t use it to pay one of those gonifs in the Temple, but you can use it to pay the gonifs in the Presidium. Or you can quit using cash at all—go off the books and let the gonifs make their money off somebody else.’ I think, after that, I was a marked man.

“Pesach was coming up, and the soldiers were everywhere. Three or four men couldn’t walk down the street together without being followed, or stopped, or searched. They called us things—the words they used, a lady shouldn’t hear, and our women had to hear it all the time. They grabbed at the women, roughed up the men for no reason, just to make sure we knew who was the boss. They want to prevent a riot during the holiday, they said. What did they expect, treating us like that?

“I think some Roman spy maybe infiltrated my chevra. I will never know for sure. We got together on the first night of Pesach, for the meal. It wasn’t quite like the seders today, but it was a big, important meal. We were nervous. I think we all had a feeling something bad might happen. We drank a lot of wine, and sang until late at night. When we went outside, we decided to walk for a while to clear our heads. My little brother Yehuda went down the street the other way from the rest of us, to take care of our tzedakah. There was a beggar down there that we always took care of when we could. On the way, Yehuda told Rocky later, he heard a couple of priestly thugs talking about the Romans arresting me.

“He ran back to warn me, but he was scared to death he might be too late. When he finally caught up with us, he shouted ‘Yoshi, Yoshi, thank heaven you’re still safe,’ and hugged me, from relief. And the Romans, who had been following us, moved in and arrested me. I think they couldn’t tell which one of us was me until then. Probably they thought we all looked like. Most of us probably did look alike, we were all related. But Yehuda blamed himself. By the time I came back, he was dead. They found him in a field with his guts cut open. We never found out how it happened, but I think if he hadn’t blamed himself, he would have been more careful.” He sighed.

“The soldiers were a brutal bunch with a nasty sense of humor. They took me back to the guardhouse first, and beat me up pretty badly. Then they whipped me. That was pretty much standard procedure, really bad. Then one of the officers came in and said, ‘Hey, guys, you know what this—‘ I won’t use the word, Malkeleh—‘you know what he’s here for? He says he’s a king, that’s what.”

“Did you really say that?” I asked.

He shook his head, disgusted. “No, of course not. I said the Holy Blessed One was our king, our only king. And once I said the Holy Blessed One who is our king is also our father, so that makes us royalty too, and we should never let the Romans make us feel like garbage. But they took that to mean I was claiming to be a king. So they got an old dead branch of leaves, tied it into a circle and put it on my head, threw a rag around my shoulders, and put a broom in my hands, and took turns bowing down and saying ‘All hail, your majesty.’ When they got tired of that, they started a really rough game of blindman’s buff. That went on until I was brought in for what they called a trial. It wasn’t what people today would call due process. Some man I’d never seen before said I claimed that Caesar wasn’t our king, that I was a king. Which was more or less true, even though I had tried to stay out of politics because my mother worried so much. Well, she was right. They gave me the usual sentence, crucifixion, and dragged me out.

“Let me tell you about crucifixion. It was a horrible way to die. It was very public, very visibly horrible. That was why the Romans used it, to make an impression that could last a couple of generations and keep the locals terrorized and quiet. They crucified people in very public places. Sometimes, you couldn’t go out for a walk in any city without seeing somebody nailed up. They crucified a lot of people. Men and women and sometimes even children. There was no single way to do it. They just used whatever was handy and did whatever they felt like doing, as long as it involved hanging somebody up on something, causing a lot of pain, and eventually killing him. They were great improvisers, the Romans.” He spat again.

“I was already weak and in a lot of pain. I was at the same time resigned to dying and very frightened of dying this particular way. I was praying like I had never prayed before. I knew that I wasn’t any better or more worthy or more important than any of the hundreds of other Jews who had been crucified for the Sanctification of the Name. So mostly I prayed for my friends and my brothers and cousins, and my wife and my mother, that they would be safe once I was gone, and that they could go on without me. I prayed for all of us—the Jewish people—that we would be delivered from the Romans someday. And, knowing what my rabbis had taught, I tried to pray the Romans, and the priestly gonifs, would repent and stop oppressing us.

“The particular way they crucified me was they nailed my feet to the post and then tied my arms to the cross-piece, which was on a level with my head. So if I didn’t stand up to my full height, I couldn’t breathe. But standing hurt, because of the nails.

“Usually, if they thought you weren’t dying fast enough to finish up before the end of their shift, they’d come along a couple of hours later and break your legs so you couldn’t stand, and then you’d suffocate. But I never got to that point. My mother, who was a very resourceful woman, knew some of the women in the Chevra Kadishah, the charitable society that tried to help prisoners. One of the things they did was come by the crucifixions when the soldiers weren’t paying much attention, and give the prisoners a special drink, from a sponge on a stick. The drink had some kind of anesthetic in it. What it was, I don’t know, maybe an opiate. The prisoner would lose consciousness, or at least not feel much pain. My mother knew some people with money—some of them learned with me—and she got enough together to get the women to give me an extra strong dose. I don’t know if they meant it to kill me, which would have been a real mitzvah, or just to make me look dead. They must have bribed the soldiers to look the other way, and the next thing the Romans knew, I was apparently dead. To make sure, they jabbed a spear into my side. It must have caught on a rib, because it did not bleed, so they figured that dead men do not bleed, so I must be dead, and they took me down.

“Another one of my mother’s rich friends had his own private mausoleum, in a garden behind his house, in a very exclusive part of the city. They took me there—they told me all this later, I do not remember any of it. The next thing I remember was lying on a stone shelf in a quiet cool dark place, and my wife sitting beside me, dripping water into my mouth.

“I stayed there for three days. By that time, the festival was pretty much over and the soldiers had gone back to their garrisons. I was smuggled back to Nazareth in a wagon full of carpets, and spent the next few weeks getting my strength back.

“After that, I lived a very quiet life. I went back to the carpentry shop, went to synagogue every week, but never taught again. My mother died, and then my wife. We never had any children. She had miscarriages and stillbirths, one after another. I think from what I have read since then it may have been an RH factor incompatibility. I couldn’t persuade her to stop trying, even though I told her again and again that she was worth more to me than ten sons. The last stillbirth killed her.” He wiped his eyes.

“The Romans got more and more oppressive. Finally we were at war again. Some of the people who had followed me were living in Jerusalem, but I had a very bad feeling and I sent them a message to leave. Some of them did. The city was besieged and sacked, and the Temple—“ he stopped, took a deep breath, then went on, “You know that part of the story. I was in Nazareth, but we heard as soon as it happened. I wanted to die. We all did, even people who had never seen the Temple. Just knowing it was there had meant we were still living in God’s world, only now it was gone, and where did that mean we were? I was seventy years old then, and ready to die.

“That was when I had the dream. I think it was a dream. It might have been a vision, maybe a hallucination. All I know is that I saw myself in the carpentry shop, but not as it was now, the way it had been when my father was alive and working there. I could smell the wood dust and hear the saw and see the sun coming in the window and feel its heat. Then the sun got brighter and brighter, until all I could see was the light. I heard a voice. First it sounded like my father, but then it became deeper and more intense until it made everything vibrate around me and swallowed me up. It said, ‘What you see now, happening to your people, is only the beginning. Because of you, your people will be hunted and exiled and murdered again and again, for as long as the damage you have done persists.’ I was completely farblondget, confused. ‘What damage have I done?’ I said. And then I saw myself, standing in front of a crowd years and years before, and I was telling them, as I had told them then, ‘I and the Father are one. Who sees me sees the Father.’ What I meant was, I am a human being made in the image of the Holy Blessed One. My face—and yours, and every other human face—is all we can ever see of the Holy Blessed One, and it is all we need to see.

“Then I was seeing a whole sequence of visions. People bowing down to pictures and statues of a young crucified man and praying. Jews being tortured and murdered and synagogues being burnt, and always on the banners of those doing the burning and torturing the picture of this same crucified man. And I realized that it was meant to be my picture.

“The voice said, ‘Until your people are free from the danger and the damage you have brought upon them, you will live and see the consequences of your own actions.’

“I was about seventy then. I have never grown any older since then. I have never been ill. I am quite sure that if an anvil fell on my head, or my bed burned while I slept in it, I would die. But otherwise, I am cursed to live a very long time.”

“And to wander?” I asked. “When did the vision say that?”

“It did not need to say that, Malkeleh. The wandering goes with the long life. If I stay in one place more than about twenty years, without aging or dying, people get suspicious. Being burned at the stake would kill me, too. So I move on, and change my name. I have used maybe ten or twelve different names. For a while I called myself Ahasuerus, but nobody could spell it. But yes, the wandering is a curse, because it has always taken me to wherever Jews are being tormented and murdered in a particular generation. Some generations, things are peaceful everywhere, and I can live out my twenty years quietly. But I know that if any horror is happening to our people, I will be there to witness it. For a while I tried to second-guess the curse, to move to a place where Jews were living in honor and safety. ”

“Like Spain in the 14th century?”

“Exactly. Or Germany after Kishinev. That was how I came to be in the camps where I met your grandfather. I do remember him. He was a tough young man with a good heart. I hope he is well now.”

“If he were well, he would be here instead of me. But he is comfortable, and I will tell him you remember. I think he did not want to die wondering.”

“Do you intend to publish this story, now that you have it? And if you do, will it be a news story?” He smiled, mischievously,

I shook my head. “You know better than that, Mr. Josefson. If this finds its way into print, it will be fiction or perhaps even fantasy, like all the other stories about you.” The bottle was empty. “How close are you to moving on again?”

“Probably another year or two. I have no idea what name I will use, or where I will go this time, or how I will make a place for myself there. Would you like me to get in touch with you when I decide?”

At first, like any writer about to lose an interesting source, I was about to say yes. Then I stopped and thought about it. My skin began to crawl. “No, Mr. Josefson, no thank you. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to talk to you. Good night.” I picked up the bottle and the glasses and took them back to the kitchen. On my way back to my own room, to call my grandfather, I passed the bulletin board, where a notice of tomorrow’s lectures was posted. One of them was titled, “Where will the next Auschwitz be?”

Jane Grey

Original Sin and the Market Economy

June 20, 2011

Many years ago I used to work with a Jesuit, who told me once that after his first month of hearing confessions, he no longer believed in original sin. “Nothing original about it,” he told me. “Just the same thing over and over.” We know, from centuries of observation, that the market economy is basic to human nature. Put a bunch of people on a desert island, and within a generation, if not less, they will be buying and selling in complete obedience to the law of supply and demand. Every experiment in non-market economies that post-industrial humanity has tried—from the communes of Oneida and Amana to the Soviet Union—has dissolved into its fundamental market essence. The only partial exception is the Israel kibbutzim, and they merely replace the individual, as a player in the market economy, with the group.

It has become fashionable to conclude from this factual situation that the market economy is not only natural to the human personality and society, but a Good Thing, as Cellar and Yeatman (authors of 1066 and All That) would say. In fact, that is a wholly separate question.

Virtually every religious tradition recognizes that human nature is flawed. Many of the things that are natural to the human being are Bad Things. The depth and reparability of the flaw may be defined differently in different theologies, but even the most optimistic—that of Rousseau, for instance—cannot escape the reality that this fundamentally good, free being has somehow managed to produce a society everywhere that puts people in chains. Even those who have defined our world as the best possible do not necessarily believe it is good. So why do we so optimistically list the market economy among the good things humanity has invented (like indoor plumbing and the smallpox vaccine) rather than the obviously bad things (like war and torture) or even the dubious achievements (like the beeper, the boom box, and the singing commercial)?

I suspect the answer is that the people most interested in encouraging the acceptance of the market economy as a Good Thing are those who profit from it the most—who can also, by definition, afford the biggest PR budget. They can even afford to disguise a large portion of that budget as subsidies to academic and managerial research.

From the point of view of, you should pardon the expression, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the undiluted market economy is nothing short of an abomination. One of the central premises of that tradition is the ultimate importance of every human being, made in the divine image and likeness. The market economy takes the position that everything is either a commodity, with a market value, or worthless. The market value of a person is defined by what s/he owns or by what s/he can produce for other people. Those people who own nothing and can produce nothing (because they are too young, too old, too sick, or lacking any marketable skills) are worthless. The undiluted market economy, as adumbrated by Ayn Rand, for instance, has no room for them. The minute such an economy feels any strain of scarcity—in a war, for instance—it will dispose of them, or at any rate do nothing to keep them alive. A pure market economy whose members feel affluent at the moment may continue to support these “useless mouths”, either from force of habit or sentimentality or most likely from the diluting influence of some non-market theology, whether it be what we normally recognize as religious, or one of the more secular theologies of socialism or communism. But we define that generosity as a luxury, a failure in our otherwise clear-headed realism.

However, our society (like almost every society on the face of the earth) still likes to think of itself as being based on non-market religious or quasi-religious values. Like just about every other society, except some of the socialist- and communist-related ones, it is not willing to recognize its religious tradition as being anti-market, even in part. It is not willing to recognize even the possibility of conflict between its supposed moral foundations and its economic system, much less to try to explicate a right relationship between the two.

That’s a relatively new problem. In the Middle Ages, all the major Christian theologians had something to say about the right conduct of economic affairs. So, by the way did the eminent Muslim theologians of the same period. So did the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and their successors who commented on it until fairly recently. We now consider that kind of discussion fundamentally illegitimate, or at any rate pointless. Marx and Lenin are largely responsible for this problem. “Scientific socialism” means that economic systems no longer require moral underpinnings, any more than the law of gravity does. What the followers of Marx and Lenin seem to have missed is that the scientific laws of economics (whatever they may be) can be misused by bad people just as the law of gravity was misused by the people who dropped Jan Masaryk out the window. And science has no argument to offer against this misuse.

In fact, whether Marx and Lenin were conscious of it or not, the “scientific socialism” they formulated was a theology, a statement of how things ought to be rather than how they are. By refusing to recognize that reality, they undermined of their own ideas, and the legitimacy of any moral critique of the natural behavior of human beings and human societies.

We need to take up that hallowed task again, from the point of view of the tradition with which I am most familiar, the Jewish tradition. Since our society still pays lip service to the “Old Testament” as part and parcel of the Christian tradition to which it also pays lip service, must of this analysis is at least consistent with the official values of the larger society.

So let’s begin with Genesis I, 27: “in the image of God He created them…” The creation narrative has always been interpreted in the Jewish tradition to point to the infinite significance of every human life. One of the reasons God began the creation of the human race with a single couple, we are told, is to emphasize that saving a single life is equivalent to saving the whole world. The rabbis tell us that we are all descended from Adam so that we cannot tell each other “my ancestors were greater than yours.”

From there, we can look at the Book of Deuteronomy, with its extensive social legislation. It makes two main social policy points: 1) no property is permanent. Slaves are to be liberated every seven years. The Jubilee, every fifty years, requires the return of land to its original owner and the forgiveness of debts. What we call ownership is more of a long-term lease from the real Owner of everything—God. And 2) several classes of people are under special divine protection: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, and the Levite. What they have in common is that they do not—cannot—own land, which, in an agrarian society is the only link to the means of production. Lacking that link, they are given instead certainly divinely-legislated rights: in the case of Levites, to tithes and sacrifices; in the case of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor, tithes, gleaning, and the leftovers of the olive and grape harvests, as well as the right to be paid before sundown on the day their work is performed. Arguably, this was the first affirmative action legislation. The author recognizes that it is not natural for human beings or human societies to grant these rights to their least fortunate, most “worthless” members. So the book drives its legislation home with dire threats of the penalties for disobedience—military defeat, exile, drought, famine, plague and disorder.

This theme recurs among most of the major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos. They inveigh against “doing what comes naturally”, whether the lawless behavior in question is sexual, culinary, juridical, or economic. The whole point of being the Jewish people is not “doing what comes naturally” in any of these areas. That is our side of the Covenant. The Other side is that, if we violate our obligations, we will suffer exile and destruction—but eventually (after we clean up our act) we will be forgiven and restored.

The Jewish tradition has its own way of talking about “doing what comes naturally.” We call it the Yetzer ha-Rah, the evil impulse. Some Christian theologians equate it with original sin. But the rabbis are a lot more pragmatic. “If it were not for the evil impulse,” we are told, “No one would ever get married, produce children, do business, or build a house.” In short, “doing what comes naturally” is essential to individual and collective human existence. “Natural” economic behavior—the market economy—is one of the essential things the evil impulse enables us to do. But the evil impulse has to be carefully controlled, by the Yetzer ha-Tov, the good impulse, and the divine commandments. Including, of course, the commandments protecting poor and powerless people.

In short, the impulses that power the market economy are no worse than sexual libido, but they are also no better. The market economy does an efficient job of creating and distributing wealth among the people who can afford to participate in it. It does a terrible job of providing for people who can’t afford to participate. Which is fine, as long as we have some other way to provide for such people. As long as we do not make claims for the market economy beyond its real competence.

Today’s discussion of welfare revolves around the words “work” and “responsibility.” They are the shibboleths of both sides. Nowhere in the rhetoric of either side do we hear words like, “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” still less any intimation that people in these categories have a divinely-legislated right to our support. Nowhere do we see any recognition, on either side, that some people—the very young, the very old, the disabled, the unskilled—cannot reasonably be expected to work or bear responsibility for their own support, and nonetheless have a right to live and therefore a right to our support. We have allowed the market to dictate not only our economy but our morality. We would be better off deriving our morality from Newtonian physics (which tells us that what goes around comes around) or the kindergarten code (take turns, clean up your own mess, don’t hit), the game of checkers (as enunciated by the Baal Shem Tov—make one move at a time, always move ahead rather than backward, but when you get to the final rank, you can make any move you want), or even the sign the Chicago Transit Authority used to post at the back door of buses: “Wait for light, then push.” The market economy is driven by the flaws in our nature. To make a livable society, we must place that economy under the limits set by our better natures and the commandments.



May 29, 2011

Recommended Reading

I have a client who now resides in a nursing home and is in the early-to-middle phases of dementia. She is also a sci-fi fan, so whenever I clean out my bookshelves, I take the proceeds to her. I am discovering that, while that improves the quality of my life, it doesn’t necessary change hers all that much. Because one of the few so-far-unheralded upsides of dementia, at least in its early phases, in that you get what I have always wanted—multiple opportunities to read the same book for the first time.

Among the books I have especially wanted multiple shots at in this way are John Brunner’s line of speculative novels: Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Jagged Orbit (1970), The Sheep Look Up (1972), and The Shockwave Rider (1975.) And I spent a fair amount of time wishing there was somebody around right now who writes that kind of stuff, preferably in batches rather than an occasional one-off like Orson Scott Card’s Empire and Hidden Empire (okay, that makes them a two-off, I guess.) I think I’ve found one—John Barnes, author of Mother of Storms, Directive 51, and The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky.. Unlike Brunner and Card, he does dabble in the Irwin Allen school of writing (one damn disaster after another), but in the process he takes a serious look at the trajectories of current social, technological, economic, and political phenomena. Consider this a recommendation.

The Unknowing God

For a period that lapped over into my college years, the existentialists told us that the human race is engaged in a frantic effort to become god. As I think about it these days, I am increasingly convinced that many of us already are god, and we are failing to notice it (and falling down on the job) to a dangerous extent. Me, for instance. Most of my days I spend working, on the phone, on the computer, at the office, in court, at home running around finding things (and of course losing things and not realizing it till later), shopping, and so on. If in the middle of all this, I sit down and call the Wired Cat, and she comes over to me, sits down at my feet, and reaches out her front paw to pat my leg, to which I respond by reaching down to rub her head between her ears and down to her neck, for her this is a religious experience. Her divinity has taken time out from managing the universe to communicate with, relate to, and pleasure her. Sometimes, like most divinities, I do things she really doesn’t like, such as taking her to the vet. She seems to accept this as good for her in some way that I understand and she doesn’t. She’s lucky enough to have a divinity who doesn’t do any of the awful things to her that one hears about on Animal Planet (Mr. Wired is an Animal Cops junkie and a hard-core groupie of Anne-Marie Lucas.) But if it did, she’d probably accept that too, as most domestic animals seem to. The ones who have been too utterly traumatized retreat into the animal counterpart of atheism—the feral life. (Atheism is not actually the right word—I am not the first to wonder if there is a word for somebody who believes in the Holy One but just doesn’t like H* very much.)

And of course, to our children, and to most of the children we come into extended contact with (as teachers, for instance, and maybe as pediatric health professionals), we are also god. (Note the lower-case initial, used—as Grace Slick explained when she named her kid “god”—so we won’t get stuck-up about it.) So far as the kids can tell, we (especially parents but adults in general to a considerable extent) run the universe, and occasionally take time out from doing that to interact with the kids, for better and for worse.

The Bible actually plays with this idea. For instance there are two or three references to judges as gods. (One suspects some of the human authors of these passages spent some time on the bench themselves—certainly ordinary human judges have always tended to see themselves as some kind of deity.) Moses is told that he is going to be “in the place of G-d” to Pharaoh, and that his smoother-talking brother Aaron will be his “prophet.”

And there is a story about a rabbi (Hasidic, I think) who, upon being told that somebody he knew was an atheist, said something like “Well, that’s good. It means that if he sees somebody who is poor or in trouble, he won’t just say ‘G-d will help him,’ he’ll get up and actually do something for the guy.” Even professionally religious people may have a kind thought for people who, not believing in a divinity, feel obliged to fill in for H*.

Which, if you accept the hard-core deterministic schema of the behavior of all non-human entities, means that human beings and their actions are the only preserve of free will in the universe, and thus also the only rational place for the divine to operate, by inspiration and impulse. Many rational religious people have trouble believing that the Holy One has ever made the sun stand still or water run uphill, but will accept a divine push toward extraordinarily decent human behavior—in other words, that we are not exactly in the hands of G-d, sometimes we are the hands of G-d.

Jane Grey
War is the End, part II

Does anybody else remember the study that told us we could have won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people by giving $10,000.00 to every man, woman, and child in that country, and still have spent less than the $686 billion we actually spent on the war? (Another sourcing problem, obviously.) Anyway, Cecil Adams, of “The Straight Dope” has heard from a history scholar who says the North could have bought and freed all the slaves in the then-US for something like $72 billion in present-day dollars, which was also considerably less than the overall cost of the Civil War, especially if you reckon costs and damages on both sides, which of course all ultimately came out of US GNP. This once more tells us that wars are almost never “about” their official causes and purposes, which could almost always be implemented a lot more cheaply, easily, and with less violence. War itself, or some so far unknown concomitant of war, makes it an irreplaceable element of human polity.

Red Emma

Life Among the Condonauts

I just opened a mysterious envelope from a fellow resident of our condominium building, to discover that, as a member of the condo association, the Wired Household is being sued by another member of the association and by our really heroically estimable janitor, for the alleged misconduct of the erstwhile chair of the association, our upstairs neighbor. This is a peculiarity of condo law-—in order to obtain a remedy for some misbehavior by condo association officers, you have to sue the association, even if you are a member of it. Which means that you are, in a sense, suing yourself. You are certainly costing yourself money. All the costs of defending the suit come out of the pockets of the residents. We could even wind up paying the costs of the other side. This damn thing has got to be mediated, ASAP.

I am the only attorney I know who lives in a condo (for 31 years now) and has never served on the board. I really want to keep it that way. Lawyers are easy marks for pleas of communal obligation. But condo boards are a time sink. I just sent a frantic email to the plaintiffs asking them to please consider mediation. Yikes!


Sam Harris and the Fundamental Things: Do They Apply?

March 4, 2011

Well, not exactly. Sam Harris, the affable atheist who claims that a system of morality can be established by scientific thinking, leaves a hole in his system big enough to drive a juggernaut through. He starts with the age-old utilitarian presumption that pain is bad and pleasure is good, and the even more preposterous presumption that everybody agrees on those two truisms.

Let’s look at the purely material facts. It took medical science, in the guise of the National Institutes of Health, until the late 1960s to discover that physical pain is bad for you. Duuuh. Until then, it was regarded as, at best, merely a symptom, an indicator of some other problem. It was useful, and interesting, only to the extent that it was a valid and scalable indicator (that is, that severe pain indicated a serious problem, while minor pain correlated with a minor problem. Which in fact ain’t necessarily so.) The use of anesthesia for surgery goes back to the ancient Greeks and their contemporaries in India and China. But it was used, not because it made the patient feel better, but because it’s easier to operate on a patient who can’t fight back. Medical science (such as it was) was perfectly fine with pain in situations that did not inconvenience the physician or, more especially, the surgeon. (Docs here, please feel free to argue this point.) Which is why anesthesia for childbirth was not widely used until the late 19th century, and faced strong opposition from both the medical profession and religious authorities then.

Religious authorities. Ah yes, there’s the rub. There’s where Sam Harris meets his unacknowledged opposition. Genesis 3:16 portrays the Holy One telling Eve, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth.” So the Victorian divines told their medical opposite numbers, who are you to mess with the divine plan? Women are supposed to have pain in childbirth. It took Queen Victoria herself to overwhelm these pronouncements by having her 7th, 8th, and 9th children delivered with the assistance of chloroform. (Her Majesty was in many ways not all that Victorian. She was also one of the first people in England to have a telephone in her home.)

Well, okay, Jeremy Bentham had propounded, long before Victoria made pain relief in childbirth socially acceptable, the philosophy of utilitarianism, the goal of which was the greatest good (which he pretty much equated with pleasure, or at any rate the absence of pain) of the greatest number. But the church authorities didn’t like him much better than they liked anesthesia. From their point of view, Bentham was barking up the wrong tree. Material well-being was irrelevant to them. And that point of view did not die out with the Victorians. It is still with us today. Innumerable religious thinkers even today tell us that suffering is not merely inevitable but, in many instances, good for us.

The most intelligent and graceful defense of this position is probably that of C. S. Lewis, in his two masterful books (separated by 20 years and the death of his beloved wife), The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed. Suffering, he tells us, is the Holy One’s tool for helping us become better and ultimately perfected.

The Roman Catholic view of suffering was that the sufferer could “offer up” her suffering as a form of prayer, or more accurately a form of sacrifice, to help redeem the world. Dunno whether this is still current. There is something to be said for this approach to unavoidable pain—it gives it meaning, and may thereby make it more endurable. But, at least in the Middle Ages, and even today in some monastic and ascetic communities (such as, famously, Opus Dei), people have been encouraged to deliberately seek out pain, and even inflict it on themselves, in order to be able to use it, either for one’s own spiritual improvement or for the redemption of the world, or both. Orthodox Muslims seem to follow these same paths, up to and including self-inflicted suffering.

The Jewish tradition, while it does not encourage voluntary suffering, is realistic about the prevalence of unavoidable pain (as one would expect from its history.) We believe in relieving pain and suffering to the extent possible given the science and technology of the day, but we also try to confer meaning on unavoidable pain. That’s the whole point of the Book of Job.

The Buddha teaches that suffering is intrinsic to normal human existence (that’s the First Noble Truth), and that most of the ways we use to avoid or lessen it don’t work (that’s the Second one), but that enlightenment as to the true nature of human existence can enable us to transcend it (that’s #3.)

The Stoics did a lot of thinking about suffering too. They were, so far as I can tell, the first to stand the inevitable why me? on its head and ask why not me? Who am I to be exempt from the normal costs of human existence? Why should I find my own suffering any more problematic than the much greater suffering of enormous numbers of other beings, past, present,and future? They did expect this contemplation to make suffering more endurable, which is a little hard for us moderns to accept, but it’s still an approach worth taking.

Sam Harris is, of course, a neo-utilitarian who doesn’t even give credit where credit is due (thereby, according to the Talmud, postponing the redemption of the world. But I digress.) For his fellow neo-utilitarians, his argument is perfectly sound. But he’s ignoring a large proportion of the human race, which is downright dangerous, and for sure isn’t good science, since it skews the rest of his sample. Sure, it is possible to establish a utilitarian morality which is scientifically valid, if you start with utilitarian premises and are addressing only other people who accept those premises. That’s not science, that’s just technology.

Jane Grey

Dueling Loyalties

June 24, 2010

The public uproar about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the Mavi Marmora has created a new crop of discussion of “dual loyalties.” Curious, I did some searches for the phrase. It turns up almost entirely in three contexts: the relationship of American Jews to Israel, the relationship of Barack Obama to Indonesia and/or Kenya, and the relationship of Hispanic Americans to Mexico, in roughly that order of frequency.

I also occasionally get invited to participate in various Zogby polls, on which one of the routine questions is whether I consider myself primarily a citizen of my town, state, country, or the planet Earth. I always answer “the planet Earth,” not because I am a diehard environmentalist or a world federalist, but because it’s the closest answer to “God’s creation,” which is what I really do consider myself a citizen of.

The standard and expected answer (judging from the “dual loyalties” results) is apparently “the United States.” I’m not even going to get into the “right or wrong” stuff that often accompanies this discussion. Even Zogby seems to assume that one’s first loyalty should be to a governmental body of some sort (“planet Earth” is obviously an afterthought.)

More to the point, there seems to be a universal assumption that everyone should have a single, primary loyalty.

I have known a couple of people with a single, primary loyalty. I have heard of a few others. They were all dangerous monomaniacs, whom I would not entrust with the care of my worst enemy’s dog. No morally competent human being reared outside a box, a cage, or a desert island can have a single, primary loyalty. Multiple loyalties are a part of the human, social condition. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” says E.M. Forster, “I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

On the other hand, compulsory clerical celibacy is one way organizations reduce the possibility of conflicting loyalties. There is something to be said for it. Arguably, Gandhi should have chosen a celibate life, judging from the difficulties endured by his wife. In fact, probably a lot of Great Men, and some Great Women, would have done better to eschew matrimony and, even more so, parenthood. There are some careers, mostly undertaken by males, BTW, which really do not combine well with parenthood.

But even celibates have loyalties to family, friends, and communities which can conflict with and sometimes override loyalties to country, ideology, or institution. Celibacy doesn’t solve the problem of conflicting loyalties, it just reduces its scale a bit. To be a human being living in a society more complex than the primordial cave necessarily entails balancing competing loyalties. Adam and Eve became fully human when they chose loyalty to each other over obeying the divine command. We Jews do not necessarily consider this a “Fall.” Arguably, it was a major step up. Abraham got the complete message several generations later: if loyalty to G-d requires sacrificing your child, loyalty to your child comes first.



April 1, 2010

or, Walter Mitty Meets the AntiChrist

This is maybe not a fair way to describe Hutaree, since apparently most of their members have some real combat experience. But they do sound more like re-enactors than real terrorists. Their alleged plot to kill a cop and then blow up his funeral procession is a nasty one (considerably more so than the Catonsville Nine’s alleged plot in the 1970s to kidnap Henry Kissinger.) But I’m not sure they were any more serious about it than the Merry Band of Berrigans. I’m also not sure that getting married with their guns at the ready is much different from getting married to their guns. And they’re just too upfront to be real, an FBI dream (and possibly an FBI setup, like the Catonsville Nine.) If I were a real terrorist, I would probably use a re-enactor cover for our group, and nobody would notice us until it was too late.

The legalities of prosecuting them may be complicated, too. The closest analogy would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to whom the Selective Service (during WWII, I think) denied conscientious objector status because the Witnesses believe they are not merely permitted but obligated to fight in the final battle between Good and Evil, and therefore are not opposed to “all war”, as required by law. The Supremes took the rather improbable position, not that this final battle is a metaphor, but that it is simply not going to happen, so that the Witnesses could, if they wanted to, qualify for CO status. [Most of them, BTW, demanded clergy status instead, got turned down, and ended up in prison. But I digress.] Since, presumably, that is also the battle Hutaree is training for, the case against them may not hold up any better than the case against the Witnesses, unless the Supremes in the meantime have decided Armageddon is a real war.

The “official” Michigan Militia has disowned Hutaree (rather like the “official” IRA disowning the “provisional” IRA) without necessarily denouncing the principles of that group. The spectrum of right-wing dissent seems to have become denser than it was 20 years ago. One hopes that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is the most competent monitor of such groups, recognizes the possibility that government provocateurs are behind the whole thing. Your tax dollars at work.

Red Emma

Lies, Hypocrisy, and Other Good Things

February 18, 2010

We have just finished celebrating the birthdays of George (“I cannot tell a lie”) Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. Perversely, this spurs me to wonder if perhaps truth-telling is overrated. The Bible, BTW, does not endorse it wholeheartedly. Some biblical religions do, some don’t. I don’t claim to know enough about Islam to deal with this issue. But our current cultural and legal valuation of truthfulness is at best self-contradictory and at worst outright hypocritical. It is now, in many places, a crime to inflate one’s resume (though not, apparently, to lie to a job applicant during an interview.) Using a pseudonym now borders on illegal. The law has not yet dealt with telling a date you’ll call when you have no intention of doing so, or giving an over-eager suitor a fake phone number (I used to use Dial-a-Prayer.) But it’s only a matter of time.

Okay, once a history major, always a history major. Here’s what the Bible (the Jewish scriptures, to be exact) says about truthfulness:

In Genesis XVIII, 12-13, after G-d tells Sarah that she (at the age of 90) will bear a child, Sarah responds pretty much the way most women would: “At my age I’m going to roll in the hay again? And my husband is no spring chicken either.” But when G-d recounts this conversation to her husband, Abraham, He diplomatically leaves out the part about Abraham’s age. (From this the rabbis deduce that, if even the Holy One will lie to preserve peace in the family, it is permissible, and may in some situations be mandatory.)

In Exodus I, 15 – 20, Pharoah orders the Hebrew midwives “When you bring the Hebrew women to birth, you shall look at the [baby’s] genitals; if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, then she can live.” But the midwives feared G-d and did not do what the King of Egypt ordered them, but kept the babies alive. And the King of Egypt sent for the midwives and said to them “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are like animals, and by the time the midwife gets there, they’ve already given birth.” And G-d, we are explicitly told, dealt well with the midwives. Clearly, the biblical Author approves of their conduct.

Similarly we have the lies told by Rahab to protect the Israelite spies hiding in her house in Joshua II, 1-4, and by Michal to protect her fleeing husband David from the wrath of her father Saul. The upshot seems to be that lying is permissible in a good cause, the cause favored by the Holy One. Whereas Leviticus XIX, 16 tells us not to “go up and down as a talebearer among your people,” regardless of whether the “tales” in question are true or false. Truth told for a bad purpose is wrong; lies told for a good purpose may be praiseworthy.

The rabbis of the post-biblical and talmudic era had a slightly different, and more varied, take on this issue. For instance, someone who is seriously tempted to commit a scandalous sin (probably something to do with lust) is advised to “go away where he is not known, let him put on black clothes, don a black cloak, and do the black deed that his heart desires, rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.” (Moed Katan 17a–(R. Ilai))

On the other hand, they also urge those aspiring to virtue to quote correctly (Meg. 16a), to engage in commerce honestly (Makkot 24a), and not to speak one thing with the mouth and another with the heart (Baba Metzia 49a). We are also told that any scholar whose inside is not like his outside is no scholar (Yoma 72b)

These inconsistencies make more sense in the light of anthropological analysis, such as that of Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival), who tells us that “deception for the sake of the task” is generally accepted or even praised in warrior/nomadic cultures (viz, the Trojan horse) but really frowned on in mercantile cultures. So we get the Jacob cycle, which is a battle of the pastoral tricksters, and then in the Holiness Code, Lev. XIX: 35-36, we get all kinds of stuff about honesty in weights and measures which the rabbis expand into general business honesty. Post-biblical Jewish culture, of course, is entirely mercantile, so this is the tradition that gets carried on, at least partly because nobody legislates against what nobody does.

A couple of digressions: rabbinical mercantile ethics require honesty not only about what is actually being bought and sold, but about possible gains and losses from a transaction. Modern theories of negotiation, however, presume that compromise is possible only if the possible gains don’t get into the picture.

And what about that ultimate bastion of warrior culture, West Point, and its minutely onerous honor code? . The code forbids cadets to “lie or cheat or tolerate those who do.” It has been in effect officially since the 1920s, and unofficially since the founding of West Point in 1802. What would Jane Jacobs say about this? In absence of any comment from her on the subject, I venture to suggest that it is not meant to outlast graduation and commissioning. Either it is a really pervasive form of hazing, or a form of verbal discipline equivalent to the physical discipline of the “brace” posture. Among the West Point and Annapolis alumni who subscribed to the honor code were Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later engaged in elaborate and successful deception about D-Day, and a much less successful lie about U-2 spy plane flights over the USSR; Maxwell Taylor, who collaborated in years of multi-layered deceit of the American people about the military activities he was carrying on in Southeast Asia on their money and in their name; and world-class perjurer Oliver North.

Anyway, getting back to religious views of truth and lies, Christian views on the subject vary from the Jesuit (“mental reservation” is sometimes justifiable) to the Kantian (it is never ever permissible to lie, no matter how noble the purpose.) The Jesuit approach begins with whether there is an obligation to tell the truth about a particular subject to a particular person. If someone demands from you information to which they have no right, and will not take “none of your business” for an answer, you have the right to use “mental reservation”–that is, to tell part of the truth and withhold the rest, “reserving” it silently in your mind. The classic example is of the person approached by a mugger and asked, “Do you have any money?” The person has every right to respond “No,” with the unvoiced addition, “Not for you, anyway.”

But Sir Walter Scott, writing only a few years later than the Jesuits, in
The Heart of Midlothian
, depicts a young Scottish working woman, Jeannie Deans, who walks from Lothian to London to plead with the Queen for her sister’s life. Along the way, she is accosted by Bad Guys (p. 284). “Stand and deliver,” one of them tells her. “I have but very little money, gentlemen….,but if you’re resolved to have it, to be sure you must have it.” The brigand responds “This won’t do…. We’ll have every farthing you have got, or we will strip you to the skin….” But his colleague points out “No, no Tom, this is one of the precious sisters, and we’ll take her word for once without putting her to the stripping proof. Hark ye, my lass, if you’ll look up to heaven and say this is the last penny you have about ye, …we’ll let you pass.” In other words, her religion (presumably hard-line Calvinist Protestantism, the ultimate mercantile religion) forbids her to lie, even to robbers, so they will believe her if she tells them she has no money. This is, by the way, a very minor plot excursion in the novel; the issue never comes up again, and Scott does not consider it especially important.

Enough of historical scholarship. What about US law over the last 40 years or so? (more…)

Bigotry and Low Expectations

November 6, 2009

No, this isn’t about the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” I just did that to catch the eye. There is no heat in my office, my hands are cold, and the only way to keep myself typing is to start with something eye-grabbing. This is actually about the state of Maine (with which I have family connections) and the results of their referendum on same-sex marriage.

1) Why a referendum at all? Since when do we put constitutional rights to a popular vote? The fact that we have done it, in California and Maine, begs the question. Holding a referendum (regardless of its outcome) presumes that we don’t consider marriage a constitutional right, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the marvelously-named Loving vs. Virginia case 40 years ago. Foo.

2) Does that mean that those who voted to repeal same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted?

3) Or does it mean that the supporters of same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted when they called their opponents bigots? Or that they were interfering with their opponents’ First Amendment rights by advocating boycotts and other non-violent demonstrations of opposition to the repealers? Conservatives seem to consider being labeled as bigots to be a fate worse than, say, Matthew Shepard’s death. Whatever happened to “sticks and stones”?

The word “bigot,” BTW, is believed to come from some Germanic sort of root meaning “by God.” There is a literal equivalent in Spanish, referring to little old ladies in black crepe who spend most of their time in churches: pordiosera. For more etymological information, see the Wikipedia entry.

Now that we’ve explicated the word as well as one can these days, let’s scrap it. It’s not useful for this discussion. Let’s, instead, use “prejudice” and “discrimination.” Mr. Wired draws a very useful distinction between them. “Prejudice” is what everybody has a bunch of, just by virtue of having been born and raised in a particular context. Most of them we don’t even notice most of the time. They’re as close to original sin as I can allow myself to believe in. But as a practical matter they’re morally neutral. It is useful to be aware of one’s own prejudices, because that enables us to avoid discrimination.

Discrimination is not morally neutral. It involves acting on one’s prejudices, to the detriment of the well-being of others. It’s a real sin. Not serving people in restaurants. Not letting them hold certain jobs. Beating them up. Hate crimes.

Very often, the way we become aware of our prejudices is by somehow associating their object with our children. Desegregating schools unveiled a lot of parental bigotry after the promulgation of Brown vs. Board of Education. White people who were willing to work with, or even for, African-Americans, or to vote for them, or to recognize the legal authority of people who had been elected mainly by the Black vote, found themselves drawing the line at the schoolhouse door.

The campaign against same-sex marriage in Maine apparently owes its success to the claim that schoolchildren would have to be taught that same-sex marriage was no different from the usual kind. So far as anybody can tell, that claim was utter hogwash, but, as other bloggers have already pointed out, it served as a proxy for the Bigotry That Dares Not Speak Its Name, opposition to allowing our children to be aware of otherwise normal people being gay. How we want to raise our children (as opposed to how we live our own lives) is often an expression of both our highest values and our lowest prejudices.

Many otherwise very decent opponents of same-sex marriage are perfectly okay with civil unions. As a practical matter, that keeps them mostly on the right side of the prejudice-discrimination line. Most same-sex couples will not suffer unduly from having civil unions rather than marriages, given proper legal drafting. Until we think about why these decent anti-same-sex-marriage opponents want to take that position. It’s really the same reason that classical and medieval authorities required prostitutes, and Jews, to wear distinctive dress. Not because Those People were so utterly different from The Rest of Us, but precisely because they weren’t. Without the yellow hat or the blond wig or the six-pointed star, they could easily be mistaken for, and treated like, Real People. We wouldn’t know whom to discriminate against.

When one of my colleagues tells me he frequents gay bars because he is “husband-hunting” (and I respond, as gently as possible, by telling him that bars are not usually great places to meet spouses), the very normality of this exchange puts any eavesdropping adolescent at the risk of concluding that gay people are just like the rest of us. For that matter, what happens when your kid’s high school class does a field trip to the local court and hears the judge, in the course of jury selection, ask a member of the panel, “Are you married or do you have a domestic partner?” (Yes, here in Cook County, they do that.) We can’t have that, can we?

Many sincere and religious people believe that homosexual behavior is a sin. Most of them also believe that adultery is a sin (one which is usually condemned in the same biblical paragraphs as homosexuality, and sentenced to the same punishment, by the way.) Many of them even believe that remarriage after divorce is a sin. But they somehow survive their children interacting with, or at least becoming very aware of, the public adulterers and remarried divorcés around them. So apparently their religiously-based discomfort with those classes of sinners does not get translated into discrimination, maybe not even into prejudice. One has to conclude that homosexuality is different for reasons that have nothing to do with biblical morality. The yuck factor, as some religious bloggers have termed it.

So, okay, I’m willing not to call same-sex-marriage opponents bigots if they’re willing to allow civil unions (or, for that matter, religious marriages) with all of the privileges that go with civil marriage in this society—so long as they don’t treat people in civil unions, and gay people in general, any differently than they treat public adulterers and remarried divorcés. Which means allowing their kids to interact with and be aware of and be taught in school by all, or none, of these public sinners.


Mean(s) Testing and Compassionate Conservatism

October 15, 2009

Most self-proclaimed conservatives who believe government has any legitimate role in alleviating poverty, believe that role must begin with means testing, that is, checking to make sure that any would-be recipient of government aid to the poor really is poor. They underline their case with horrifying references to “welfare queens” using food stamps to buy steak and lobster, and travelling to and from the welfare office in Cadillacs. The goal these compassionate conservatives claim to be aiming at is a reasonable one–let’s give scarce public resources only to the people who really need them. Even when public resources are more plentiful, they are still most effective when targeted to those most in need.

But the c.c.’s–who normally presume that all the consequences of any governmental program not aimed at killing the enemies of the people at home (police) or abroad (army) are unintended–seem to have lost their grip on this fundamental law as it applies to means testing. Means testing really does have unintended consequences. At least, one hopes they are unintended. (Oliver Stone probably thinks they are intended.)

First, the eligibility line for any means-tested program is always set at least a couple of notches below the income which would enable a person to purchase all of the goods and services supplied by such programs in the private sector. There is always a group of people in the middle, too poor for private health insurance but too rich for Medicaid, too poor to be able to afford a balanced diet on their own funds but too rich for food stamps, too poor to be able to afford the rent on a decent private-sector apartment large enough for the whole family but too rich for public housing, too poor to be able to afford a lawyer but too rich for Legal Aid. Naturally that group in the middle will direct their envy and anger, not upward at the legislative and regulatory bodies that set the eligibility standards, nor at the agencies that administer them, but at the people below them who do qualify. This too, we must presume, is unintended.

Second, the procedure for qualifying for such programs requires the applicant to supply humiliating and exhausting detail about his or her personal life, beginning of course with the public (or at least on-the-record) acknowledgment of being poor. Most of us would rather confess to having sex with an underage dead chicken than to poverty, these days. But the mere admission of poverty is never enough. Verification must be supplied: paycheck stubs, rent receipts, utility bills and so on. The official purpose of the ritual is to weed out ineligible applicants. But the effect is to weed out any of the eligible applicants who still retain any pride or still value their personal privacy. This mostly gets rid of applicants without dependents, since most of us will endure a lot more humiliation and intrusion to provide for our children and disabled or elderly relatives than for ourselves. Anyway, we know for a fact, and repeated studies have verified it, that nearly half of those eligible for governmental assistance to the poor either never apply for it, or drop out of the process in the very early stages. We have known it for well over 50 years. I’m with Oliver Stone on this one–we want it this way.

Third, once we have designated a program as being for “the poor” and no one else, no one else but the poor will have any interest in maintaining it, or administering it properly and effectively. Once a program has been labeled “for poor people only”, its days are numbered. Why should “we” pay for a program that benefits only “them”?

Most of us have lived with this situation so long that we respond almost reflexively, “But of course the people who need the programs can’t afford to pay for them–otherwise, why would they need them? And of course the people who pay for the programs don’t need them. The best we can do is appeal to their sense of generosity and charity. ” (We do that, of course, only after a concerted campaign to discredit those virtues.) But we literally cannot imagine any other way to distribute public benefits, except by putting the people who pay on one side of the Great Divide and the people who receive on the other, and making sure than never the twain shall meet.

Well, no, it’s not quite accurate to say we cannot imagine any other way. We have in our midst a program open to most citizens and residents of this great country regardless of their current resources, and paid for by almost all of us. It is the most popular government program in the history of this country. And it is currently under constant assault in a relentless effort to discredit, privatize, and ultimately destroy it precisely because, to most of us, until very recently, it was proof positive that government could do something useful in alleviating poverty without humiliating the beneficiaries of the program.

I am referring, of course, to Social Security. Until a decade ago, the closest thing to a means test for Social Security (or its younger brother, Medicare) was an earnings limit. Now, even that is long gone. And the compassionate conservatives–including even some “centrist” liberals–cannot stop fulminating at the thought that Bill Gates will someday be able to collect his $1,100.00 per month from the public treasury. Under current law, most of that $1,100.00 would actually be taxed away (although the value of Gates’ Medicare would not.) Most American senior citizens can live with that arrangement, because it spares them the necessity of confessing poverty and pleading for charity. But conservatives and “centrists” simply cannot swallow the idea of giving a public benefit to anyone without collecting the recipient’s dignity in return. Indeed, now that we have finally given up on the idea of privatizing Social Security, our main suggestion for “saving” it is to means-test it.

Most honest conservatives will come out and say that, regardless of where it comes from or what we call it, any aid to the poor from the non-poor is charity, and the poor should acknowledge that fact. Means-testing is one of the more effective ways of rubbing it in. Which might be acceptable, if we were willing to allow dignity to the recipients of our charity. If “poor” were not a four-letter word. If we did not, at heart, believe that all of us get what we deserve and deserve what we get. Or don’t get.

I prefer the Jewish tradition in its view of charity. To the extent that we have any resources, they come ultimately from the Holy One, Who makes all of us conduits for those resources. I like the approach of Maimonides, Writing in the 1200s in highly-urbanized Spain and Northern Africa, he is realistic, and perfectly willing to admit that there are phony beggars out there, people who claim needs they do not in fact have. The Holy One has allowed these fakers to exist, he tells us, to create a benefit of the doubt for people who refuse to give to beggars (Maimonides was realistic about those people, too.) If all the beggars out there were really destitute, he says, anyone who failed to give to one of them when s/he could afford to would be committing a grave sin. Since some of them are fakes, those who refuse to give are guilty only in proportion to the ratio of real beggars to phonies. Ultimately, he says, means-testing is the job of the Holy One.